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Westminster Hall

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 10 January 2023

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

Lifeboat Services: Search and Rescue

I am from Yorkshire, so I consider it oppressively hot in here; if people wish to remove their jackets, they are free to do so. I call Kevin Foster to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution of lifeboat services to search and rescue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful to my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for granting me this debate, and of course to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who did the legwork on the application to secure it.

It is worth giving some context at the debate’s start. Search and rescue provision in the UK is delivered through an amalgam of Government Departments, emergency services and various SAR charities and voluntary organisations. UK SAR is arranged through the UK SAR Strategic Committee, an interdepartmental body chaired by the Department for Transport, hence our being joined by a DFT Minister and his shadow. His Majesty’s Coastguard provides a response and co-ordination service for air and sea-based SAR in the UK. HM Coastguard has existed since 1822, and of course celebrated its bicentenary last year. The coastguard co-ordinates air and sea-based SAR through its nine operation centres around the UK. They are in Shetland, Aberdeen, Humber, Dover, Fareham, Falmouth, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Belfast and Stornoway. In addition, the London coastguard, which is co-located with the Port of London authority, looks after SAR on the River Thames. HM Coastguard has its national maritime operations centre in Fareham in Hampshire.

Lifeboats are not the only part of SAR at sea; many organisations, including the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, commercial vessels in the vicinity of an incident and HM Coastguard’s helicopters, play their part, but in this debate, I will focus on the lifeboat service. The classic image of the lifeboat service is one of heroism, and of its crews fighting through rough seas to save lives. The courage of those involved, and their commitment to saving those in peril on the sea, are the anchor that holds the crew together during a rescue mission while, in the words of the famous hymn,

“the breakers roar and the reef is near”.

No debate such as this should pass without mention of how that legendary bravery was demonstrated on 19 December 1981, when the Penlee lifeboat headed out into atrocious conditions to try to save the lives of eight people in peril. Tragically, all eight lifeboat crew were lost that night. It was the last time the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lost a whole crew in one incident—a record that I am sure we hope will stand for many years to come.

It is of course the RNLI that most people will think of when they hear a reference to lifeboats. It was founded as the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck in 1824. In 1854, it changed its name to what we know it as today. Its main base is in Poole, Dorset. It has 238 lifeboat stations, and an active fleet of 431 lifeboats, which range from large, all-weather lifeboats to smaller inshore vessels.

The impact of the RNLI’s work cannot be overestimated. Its operations have saved over 143,900 lives since 1824, and it is not just men who have been the heroes: Grace Darling became one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated heroines when, on 7 September 1838, she risked her life to rescue the stranded survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire. Today, around 95% of the RNLI team are volunteers; they are around 5,600 crew members, 3,700 shore crew, including station management, 82 lifeguards, and 23,000 fundraisers. The scale of the RNLI’s contribution to search and rescue is immense. In 2021 alone, there were 8,868 lifeboat launches, 84 of which were in at least force 8 conditions, and 1,022 crew assemblies—a total of 9,890 taskings. That resulted in 12,903 people being aided, and 296 lives being saved.

The RNLI’s work is about not just reacting when things go wrong, but reducing the need for search and rescue by educating and advising on dangers. RNLI water safety teams reached more than 27 million people in 2021 with essential messaging, undoubtedly saving more lives and keeping families together.

We should bear in mind that lifeboat services are not just about the RNLI—a subject that is close to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. In addition to the RNLI, a number of voluntary organisations provide independent lifeboats for the purpose of saving lives on the water. There are more than 50 independent lifeboat organisations around the UK, and independent lifeboats operate in coastal areas—for example, the Hope Cove lifeboat in south Devon—and on inland waters, rivers and lakes, while some organisations operate independent lifeboats alongside other search and rescue services, such as mud rescue. The majority of those independent lifeboats are equipped, maintained and operated in accordance with the rescue boat code.

Independent lifeboat organisations vary greatly in size, crew numbers, rescue numbers and types of rescue boat used. Crews range from the 12 crew members at Port William Inshore Rescue Service in Dumfries and Galloway to the around 260 crew members at Community Rescue Service, which operates across Northern Ireland; and call-outs range from the five call-outs in 2021 for the Sea Palling independent lifeboat in Norfolk to more than 120 for the Hamble lifeboat in Hampshire. The rescue boats involved range from small RIBs—rigid inflatable boats—to large all-weather lifeboats, which are comparable to the boats that many people associate with the RNLI.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and I thank him for doing so. He is making important points about independent lifeboats, but also about the support services. We have independent lifeboats at Freshwater, Sandown and Shanklin in the Isle of Wight, which do wonderful work, on top of the RNLI stations at Bembridge, Cowes and Yarmouth. Not only that, but our inshore lifeboat centre in East Cowes keeps half the nation’s fleet of RNLI boats in good condition. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to those services?

I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend list the amazing support that the Isle of Wight provides. It does not just save lives and help those in peril on the sea around the Island—as he knows, some of those waters famously present obstacles and risks to passing shipping, and it is worth paying tribute to the many Islanders over the years who have put their life at risk trying to save those in peril near the Island—but makes a wider contribution to the service. As he says, lifeboat services are not just about the team who go out on the boat; they are about the support network that enables the lifeboat teams to go out. It is great to be able to pay it the tribute that he just did.

Independent lifeboats are not a new invention, and the first independent lifeboat station was formed in Formby, Lancashire, in 1776. Although many independent lifeboat stations were RNLI stations when they were established, others have been set up in response to specific incidents. For example—I see colleagues from Northern Ireland in the Chamber—Foyle Search and Rescue was set up by local people in 1993 in response to the alarmingly high number of drownings in the River Foyle, 30 in 18 months. It has since adopted a role in suicide prevention and supporting families in the city more widely. That shows the diversity in the types of work that such organisations can take on, and the contribution that such services can make.

It is right that we remember the contribution that those organisations make, and how their work is supported by the National Independent Lifeboat Association, a new charity founded last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. All independent lifeboats in Great Britain and Northern Ireland were invited to join the association, and it has 30 members from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey.

During my preparations for the debate, it was made clear to me that the RNLI is proud of its independence and the fact that it can operate free from requirements of the type that Government funding would bring. I was advised of that in the knowledge that such debates can sometimes involve the subject of whether the service offered by the RNLI should be publicly funded, rather than our having the current funding arrangements, which are based on voluntary giving.

It might seem strange to some, but this service is not lobbying for Government funding. That position recalls the fact that, a decade ago, a former Prime Minister described his vision of creating a big society—a concept in which individuals come together to tackle an issue or make a difference, rather than the state setting up structures to intervene that might often be less effective or efficient. There are often debates about how that concept can be defined in real life, but in many ways lifeboat services reflect that idea, from the crews who volunteer their time to train, and who are ready to answer the call of duty, to fundraising teams in communities who raise the resources needed to support operations, to the many community members who do their bit by simply dropping a few coins into a collection box when they buy a pint, visit the local shop or walk past one of the many collection boxes across coastal communities. Also included are people who, when thinking about the legacy they want to leave, tell their solicitor to include the lifeboat service in their will. This shows how society comes together to help others in need, and to provide a unique service that we can all benefit from, but hope never to need.

Those who regularly hear me speak know that I will not miss an opportunity to highlight the work being done in south Devon, and I will start with the Torbay RNLI lifeboat station. It was established in Brixham in 1866 and has occupied the same premises since 1872. It was established after a fleet of merchant ships were caught in hurricane-strength winds in Torbay in January 1866, causing the loss of about 40 ships and nearly 100 lives. Today, the lifeboat station has 35 crew members, including those who are shore-based. The station operates two lifeboats that reflect the diversity of the rescues that the station may be called on to perform: a Severn class all-weather lifeboat and a D-class inshore lifeboat. The crew members are volunteers who mostly have day jobs.

In 2022, Torbay RNLI lifeboat station responded to 111 shouts. The station is supported by the Torbay Lifeboat Fundraisers, who work throughout the year to raise the funds needed to support the lifeboat. The group has over 200 volunteer members, and it organises a range of events and activities to raise money. I thank everyone in Torbay who supports them; the crew would not be ready to save lives without their contribution.

I pay tribute to the team at the National Coastwatch Institution in Torbay, who also play a part in search and rescue operations in south Devon. NCI watchkeepers, who are volunteers, provide eyes and ears along the coast, monitoring radio channels and providing a listening watch in poor visibility. When people get into trouble, NCI watchkeepers can alert His Majesty’s Coastguard and direct the appropriate rescue teams, including lifeboats, to the casualty. The NCI station at Torbay is one of over 50 such stations located around England and Wales. Located at Daddyhole plain, it is the first purpose-built NCI watch station. In January 2012, the station was given declared facility status, meaning that the station was not only fully operational, but fully recognised in search and rescue operations as having the same status as RNLI lifeboat stations. That shows the benefit of partnerships between organisations that save lives.

Lifeboats are as vital to search and rescue operations today as they were in the era when horses drew the boat to the launching point and the crew pulled on the oars against the high sea to reach a vessel in distress. Direct funding is not sought, but I am interested to learn from the Minister how he sees the future for our lifeboats, and on a couple of other points.

First, some independent lifeboats are not fully declared HM Coastguard rescue facilities, often because of the complex process that must be undertaken to become such a facility. Does the Minister see an opportunity to simplify the process, without compromising standards? Secondly, independent lifeboats are not represented on the UK SAR operators group, but hope to join the group later this year. Will he provide an update on that? Finally, how does he see the work of lifeboats and their contribution to search and rescue fitting into wider efforts to improve safety at sea?

The debate is a good opportunity to highlight the contribution of lifeboat services to UK search and rescue. As we speak, crews across the UK stand ready to answer the call to save those in peril; they are ready to face whatever dangers that may bring. They are some of the best of our nation, and I end with a simple message to them: thank you.

There appear to be eight people seeking to catch my eye. I want to get to the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.30 am, so there are 45 minutes to be divided by eight speakers. I will not introduce a formal time limit at this stage, but please could people be mindful of others, and stick to about five minutes? If necessary, I will introduce a time limit. I call Jamie Stone.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on a characteristically erudite and well-informed speech. I first want to mention the RNLI in my constituency. I have sailed out on the Thurso lifeboat—and did not sink it. The waters in the north of Scotland are treacherous, and subject to very strong tides, changeable winds and fog. My grandfather, alas, put his warship HMS Goldfinch on the rocks in 1915 in a very thick fog, and was not given command of a destroyer again. That proves how treacherous the waters are.

The work that the lifeboat crews undertake is varied. The hon. Member for Torbay touched on some of the big, dramatic stuff, but we have little stuff as well. For instance, in August the Wick lifeboat—the Wick station was put there in 1848—was called out to rescue a lady on a paddleboard. She had sailed out from the beach at Reiss, north of Wick, and, thank goodness, was rescued. It was a small rescue, but so important to the family, and to the people of Caithness.

More locally, we have the East Sutherland Rescue Association, which I have often spoken about to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). It is crewed by volunteers and is based at Dornoch in the Dornoch firth. It was founded in 1981 to cover a lack of facilities to rescue people, and it uses Dornoch or Embo beaches. It was called out not long ago to rescue some sheep off the village of Nigg, which got stranded as the tide rose. That might seem semi-laughable, but would a crofter or a farmer want to see their animals slowly drown? No, I do not think so. That shows how much the crews do for the local area.

I want to praise Lord Cadogan, who has given substantial amounts of money to the East Sutherland Rescue Association. He owns land in Sutherland and, out of the goodness of his heart, has seen to it that it is adequately financed and was able to build a new facility, so that it could maintain and launch its boats. I want to put that on the record in Hansard, because I am grateful to him, as is the whole community. I have touched on the treacherous waters of the north of Scotland, and the splendid work done by the RNLI and its volunteers, and how close it is to all our hearts. The hon. Member for Torbay thanked them, and I thank them, too. They do fantastic work.

Thinking ahead, as global warming carries on, and as the ice pack in the Arctic gets thinner and retreats, the north-east route from Europe, round the top of Norway and along the north coast of Russia, to markets in the far east, which we can use in the summer months, becomes more and more important. Scapa Flow is in the constituency of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). Before the first world war, Scapa Flow was set up as a natural anchorage for the grand fleet, so that it could defend the United Kingdom. I believe that there is scope for Scapa Flow to once again feature as a shelter anchorage for vessels about to undertake the long journey over the north of the continents of Europe and Asia.

My point is this: in future we will need lifeboat services just as much as we need them today. They are here for a very long time to come—here for keeps. Man can do many things, but man cannot alter the weather and or change dangerous circumstances, so this is a blatant plug. Lifeboat services have long done a great job. They are doing a great job now, and there is a great future for them. We must support them and back them to the hilt.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate, and I thank him for the opportunity to highlight the invaluable contribution of the volunteer crews of Conwy and Llandudno RNLI lifeboat stations in my constituency of Aberconwy.

We have become accustomed to seeing on the news images of lifeboat crews along the channel coast bringing asylum seekers and refugees safely ashore. Given that they volunteer their time to fulfil the RNLI’s mission of saving lives at sea, it is right that these crews are commended for their service and courage. However, as a supporter of the RNLI, I share the concern of the crew I have spoken to that the constant images from the channel overshadow the huge range of search and rescue call-outs or “shouts”, as they are known to the crews, with which lifeboat volunteers are tasked. These include rescuing paddleboarders and swimmers in distress, searching for divers, assisting broken-down vessels and undertaking lengthy searches, sometimes lasting days, for missing boats. Maintaining the operational capability to safely conduct the myriad requirements involves lengthy and intensive training, not just for the crews at sea but for the shore crews, whose service is indispensable to lifeboat operations.

The professionalism and commitment of our lifeboat crews was exemplified in January 2021, when the crews from Conwy and Llandudno joined the search for the Nicola Faith, a fishing vessel that was lost with all hands, and which had set sail from Conwy. For over 48 hours, the crew of Llandudno’s all-weather Shannon-class lifeboat, the Williams F Yates, searched hundreds of square miles, often in freezing conditions. The entire station was mobilised in support of the search, with boat crews swapping once the inevitable fatigue set in and the lifeboat needed to be refuelled ashore. The crewmen and women were nearly all volunteers, with many of them forgoing paid work. The whole community rallied in support, with members of the public bringing cakes and other refreshments to the station to keep up morale.

Tragically, the Nicola Faith could not be located, but the search for its crew demonstrated another key point: lifeboat stations are the focus of a team effort that involves communities, fundraising committees, shore crew, the boat crew and their families. The work of the shore crews, and the intense training they undertake, is often overlooked but it is indispensable to lifeboat operations. No lifeboat launch, whether of a D-class inshore lifeboat or an all-weather lifeboat, would be possible without a highly trained shore crew, often working in adverse conditions. When Shannon lifeboats are launched from a launch-and-recovery system, a team of between eight and 12 people is required to launch and recover the boat safely.

I want to recognise the enormous sense of pride that volunteers have in their commitment to saving lives at sea. In fact, just before Christmas, Conwy lifeboat station’s volunteer crew member Paddy Byrnes was recognised for 30 years of service. There are also four men—Keith Charlton, Nigel Forest, Robin Holden and David Roberts—who recently reached an impressive 40 years of service at Llandudno station, and four more are approaching this milestone. I would like to congratulate those crewmen and thank them for their decades of invaluable and selfless service—a tremendous achievement that should not go unnoticed.

As the hon. Member is congratulating his own local personnel, will he join me in congratulating the management team, the fundraisers and all those associated with the Portrush lifeboat station, which celebrates 100 years next year? In the same year, the RNLI will celebrate 200 years. This is an excellent achievement by many lifeboat associations across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and I completely endorse what he says. In fact, I would like to recognise the work of the fundraising committee chairman in my own constituency, who has persevered in the work, despite facing personal challenges.

Finally, it is vital that we extend our appreciation to the families of lifeboat crews. As mentioned, crew members can spend significant time away from their families when training and attending “shouts”. When their pagers sound on stormy nights—in the winter, in the dark—it is difficult to appreciate the apprehension felt by loved ones who remain ashore about the safety of the crew members at sea. Without the support of families and loved ones, lifeboat stations simply could not operate. To the families of the crews of Llandudno and Conwy lifeboat stations, thank you.

Thank you, Mr Davies, for chairing the debate and for giving me a chance to participate. I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for setting the scene so well, and hon. Members for contributing to the debate.

Lifeboats and their services are imperative for safety in coastal communities, which is the key issue for me. The hon. Member for Torbay represents a coastal area that is similar to my constituency of Strangford, and we follow each other in debates more often than not—either him before me or me before him. The neighbouring constituency of North Down also has coastal areas with lifeboats, and people rely on the local stations.

It is great to be here to give them the praise they truly deserve and to thank them for their work and efforts.

Thousands of people along the coastline of Northern Ireland depend on the services of the RNLI for their protection and safety. During the summer, thousands of families and young people partake in coastal sports such as sailing, surfing and pier jumping. I used to do that myself off Ballywalter harbour, although that is not a very wise thing to do—always ensure the tide is in or there is big trouble. In addition, people go out in canoes and boats to fish, including from the fishing village of Portavogie. There are caravan parks at Millisle and my home village of Ballywalter, where I was brought up. They lie very close to where I live on the edge of Strangford lough. I am aware of the sheer number of water sports undertaken in this area.

The RNLI charity provides a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. Across the entire UK, there are 238 lifeboat stations, 46 of them in Northern Ireland. There are also 240 lifeguard units on beaches, which gives an idea of the magnitude of the issue. I found this figure incredible: since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews have saved more than 142,700 lives. That is an enormous figure.

We are fortunate to have a lifeboat station in Portaferry in my constituency, and I visited the station just before the summer. Portaferry is one of seven RNLI lifeboat stations operating a lifeboat funded by viewers of the BBC TV programme “Blue Peter”. Some of us can cast our minds back to that, although others cannot go back that far. The station was established due to increased pleasure boating in Strangford lough, after Cloughey lifeboat station closed. Most recently, in November, the Portaferry lifeboat station came to the aid of two kayakers who got into difficulty near St Patrick’s rock in Strangford lough, and who faced weather conditions of wind force 8 to 10. Since the station opened in 1980, there have been 850 launches, rescuing 600 people and saving the lives of 100 people. That is just my lifeboat station in Portaferry. Thank you to all lifeboat crews, past and present, for their commitment.

Last year, I attended the parliamentary launch of the National Independent Lifeboat Association. I think the hon. Member for Torbay sponsored that event. It is important to pay thanks to those independent lifeguards and life-saving organisations who risk their lives in dangerous seas to help save others.

Does the hon. Gentleman, like me, welcome the representation provided by the National Independent Lifeboat Association for smaller lifeboat operators, which might otherwise be overlooked?

I certainly do. We have all said how much we appreciate that. The hon. Member for Torbay said that in his introduction. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) will recognise the independent ones in his contribution. I am thinking of the Foyle rescue team, about which we have spoken. We understand the commitment that those volunteers give. When I visited Portaferry before the summer, I was greatly impressed by their commitment and by the fact that they were there every time they were needed.

There are 46 independent lifeboat organisations that operate along the coastline and on inland waterways across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Those independent lifeboats are run primarily, if not entirely, by volunteers, and funded by local donations. The invaluable service they provide has saved the lives of so many and, in conjunction with the RNLI, they continue with those dedicated efforts day in and day out to save people. They are an asset to our communities. We would be completely lost without them, and many lives would sadly be lost as well. I am not the only who was moved by adverts on TV for RNLI showing a lady leave her house over Christmas to go and save people. We see how important these crews are when we recognise what they do.

To conclude, there are many ways in which we can support institutions such as the RNLI. It is possible to become a volunteer or a member, and even train to become assistance personnel. There are many things that people can do, including fundraising and donating money to ensure the RNLI staff have the best equipment available to fulfil their duties and be able to perform with the correct number of staff.

I sincerely thank the RNLI Portaferry team for all their dedication and work in my constituency. I also thank the lifeboat teams across Northern Ireland and the whole of the UK for the work they do, as our coastal communities would literally be lost without them. I live in a coastal community and understand what it means to have the RNLI, and I thank them very much.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing today’s important debate. The constituency that I represent, Moray, is proud and privileged to have both an RNLI facility at Buckie and an independent lifeboat support, the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation, at Findhorn. I shall touch on both in today’s debate.

Let me begin, as others have, by paying tribute to the remarkable work of our search and rescue services in Scotland. As others have said, across our British coastline, the RNLI and its army of volunteers have served our great nation since 1824. It is a charity that is close to my heart and the hearts of many of my constituents in Moray. Being mainly staffed by volunteers, the RNLI relies heavily on the good will of British people to fund its rescue services. Thanks to the efforts and generosity of people across the country, there are over 230 operational lifeboat stations, which respond on average to 24 call-outs every day. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that support has saved over 143,000 lives since the RNLI’s inception.

Does the hon. Member agree that one of the best ways we can demonstrate our support is, as he is doing, to maximise and highlight the issue, including in the local media, and to supply all independent and RNLI lifeboats with the best possible equipment for saving lives?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. There is a very good publicity system around the RNLI in Buckie. In fact, the sub-editor of the local paper is a member of the RNLI at Buckie, which always gets good front-page coverage in the Banffshire Advertiser and other papers. The point on equipment is well made, and the Minister will have heard it.

The coastal communities that I represent across Moray simply could not imagine not having the support of the brave men and women who dedicate their lives to rescuing those in peril at sea. The RNLI and our independent lifeboats across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom deserve our full support, and it is vital and fitting that we have a platform in Parliament today to give them that recognition.

The hon. Member’s constituency faces mine across the Moray firth, which is named after his constituency, but it really should be named after mine—but that is not the point. In an emergency, it is a fact that the lifeboats in the hon. Member’s constituency can, if necessary, go out in the Moray firth and help out the communities in my constituency. I highlight the inter- connected nature of the service all over Scotland and the United Kingdom.

I agree with almost everything the hon. Gentleman said, but calling it the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross firth, rather than the Moray firth, might be a bit long-winded for some—but his points are absolutely right.

Let me focus on Moray and Buckie. Lifeboats have been launching into the waters of the Moray firth from Buckie for over 145 years, and crews and volunteers there have rightly been honoured with numerous awards. I have mentioned the late, great Adam Robertson in this Chamber in the past. He was a Moray Council employee with whom I worked closely in my time as a Moray councillor, but he dedicated his voluntary work throughout his life to RNLI Buckie, and his family has continued that trend since his sad death. Most recently, Anne Scott, RNLI Buckie’s lifeboat operations manager, received a special award that recognised her 20 years of professional service. Anne retired from the RNLI in 2021, and immediately after retirement became a volunteer. That shows the dedication of those who support our lifeboat services. It is absolutely right that Anne was given that award. When Anne received the award, RNLI Buckie’s Davie Grant said:

“We call Anne the lady who launches”

because she “hits the big button” as the lifeboats speed out to save people. Pillars such as Anne and Adam demonstrate not only the timeless contribution of the RNLI to rescue services and the support given by those volunteers, but the overwhelming contribution of lifeboat services to our local coastal communities.

Let me quickly move on to independent lifeboat services. Last year, I was honoured and delighted to support my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) in his launch of the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which is a new charity that will assist the UK’s independent lifeboats in ensuring the preservation of life on the water. I am proud that one of its founding members is the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation, which is in my constituency. Based at Findhorn, it is, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, one of 46 established independent lifeboat services manned by unpaid volunteers, and does not receive any funding from the RNLI. First formed in July 2005, it is a proud recipient of the Queen’s award for voluntary service and does outstanding work from its base at Findhorn.

At the launch, MIRO’s chairman, John Low, said:

“We are a small organisation working locally with larger organisations, such as UK Coastguard, RNLI, police and fire services, to provide vital lifesaving services. It makes sense to join the new National Independent Lifeboat Association to collaborate and share practice with colleagues in similar small organisations around the country. We also hope that in the future there will be financial benefits such as accessing funding and services such as insurance and training.”

Those are important, which is why MIRO and others have joined the collaborative approach suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. It is right that we have the opportunity in Parliament today to highlight that and, as others have done, to thank both those in the RNLI and our independent lifeboat services for the amazing work they do, day in, day out.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted to take part in this debate for the second year in a row. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend and neighbour, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for securing this debate. We are of one heart and one mind when it comes to our coastline and making sure that we protect all those who are on the coastline or at sea, as well as supporting and promoting the important work that our UK search and rescue organisations do across the country.

I am always surprised that we call this a debate, because it is not really a debate. It is a moment for us to congratulate, recognise and thank those who put themselves in harm’s way to save others, to look after them and to promote the important work that, across the country, is often overlooked. I declare my interest, as I am the founder of the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which many Members have kindly mentioned.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work in setting up the charity. I wish to inform him that my own independent lifeboat association in Ferryside will be joining the organisation soon. I also take the opportunity to thank it for all the work they undertake in the Carmarthen bay area.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is particularly welcome news that his independent lifeboat is joining the organisation. As has been said, there are more than 50 independent lifeboat stations and 30 have joined the association. We would like it to be a full complement, so that every independent lifeboat station across the country has the recognition that it needs. Hon. Members across the Chamber have made a point about the important work of the RNLI. It is essential that we recognise the important apolitical nature of the RNLI and the fact that it does not ask for Government funding. The hundreds of RNLI lifeboat stations do fantastic work by raising their own money and through bequests, as well as by working with volunteers, who do an extraordinary job. The tales of their heroism are what make many of our coastal communities aware of the work of those lifeboat stations, which are part of the fabric of our community.

We are aware of the scale of UK search and rescue, which covers 2 million square miles of air, land and sea of and brings together multiple Government Departments. It brings together air ambulances, the National Coastwatch Institution, the RNLI and NILA. In my constituency, I am fortunate to have Torbay RNLI station, which is based in Brixham, Dart RNLI, which is in Dartmouth, and Salcombe RNLI which, unsurprisingly, is in Salcombe. The three stations cover more than 80 miles of coastline and have saved countless lives over the years.

The RNLI’s fantastic model has worked since 1824, saving an estimated 143,000 lives. Its work is unbelievably essential and, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said, it will only increase over the coming years. We need to ensure that that model is recognised, supported and promoted wherever we go. We also have to be extremely clear that volunteers often work day jobs as well and that their employers need to be thanked for allowing them to take on the work.

I came to the position of founder of NILA because I have an independent lifeboat station in my constituency, in Hope Cove. Far from trying to compete with the RNLI, it works in co-operation with it; they work together to help people in danger at sea. It became clear to me that many of the independent lifeboat stations were not getting the attention or awareness that other UK search and rescue organisations to which people were donating were attracting, and that we should try and do something to promote them.

The result was that we formed NILA by contacting the 50 independent lifeboat stations and having a conversation about how we could secure greater recognition for their work and ensure that we were not taking away any funding abilities from them. Each independent lifeboat station is still self-funded, but we are able to ensure that they have access to the rescue boat code, the Department for Transport, the Home Office if necessary, best practices, and training procedures; they can also buy equipment collectively if necessary.

The whole purpose was not to hurt or harm those services, but to make their operations easier. I am really pleased to say that, since we had the idea, we have managed to create it. We have had the association registered with the Charity Commission. It has been in regular conversations with the Department for Transport, which has given it recognition. It has a chairman, Neil Dalton, and a vice chairman, Sean McCarry. The secretary is Wayne Monks and the treasurer is David Harvey. Together, they are creating the management structure that is going to be able to deliver for the independent lifeboat stations, not just now, but in future years, and to protect those independent lifeboat stations that do such fantastic work.

I will explain what we are asking for and what we would like to hear from the Minister. The first thing we ask for, as has been mentioned, is recognition through the rescue boat code. We understand that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is going through the process of reviewing the rescue boat code, so we would like to ask whether it can engage with independent lifeboats to ensure that, when the rescue boat code is revamped and rewritten, that is done so in conjunction with independent lifeboats and that they are using it to make sure it is most effective.

Secondly, we would like some clarification over VAT relief and fuel duty. I know that there is guidance out there. It is not simple; it needs to be simplified for the RNLI and independent lifeboats. The third thing is official recognition for NILA. We are waiting—the application has gone in through UK search and rescue. I would be grateful for an update on how quickly that will happen. The fourth point—I have got two more points and then I will sit down—is about support for the campaign to promote independent lifeboats and raise public awareness. There is continued support from MCA for NILA to join UKSAR’s operators group. Lastly, I call for the reintroduction of the rescue boat grant fund, which is specifically for the independents. A £5 million fund was launched. It finished in 2020. That fund was essential in helping those independent lifeboats. It was not a huge amount of money, but it made all the difference to those independent lifeboat stations.

I will end with this. We are very lucky across our coastal communities and in our inshore areas. We owe those people a debt of gratitude and of thanks. I hope we can hold an annual event in Parliament to promote the work of the RNLI and NILA.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this terribly important debate.

One of the first things I did when I moved to my constituency of Clacton many years ago was to join the local lifeboat service at Walton-on-the-Naze as a volunteer. I had this theory—probably a mistaken one—that, as a keen yachtsman and a user of water all my life, it would be nice to see friends when I got into trouble.

There is no doubt in this Chamber that the contribution of the RNLI is great, and the people at Clacton and Walton-on-the-Naze lifeboat stations are an amazing bunch of people, who deserve all the support we can give them. However, sadly, a young man named Sujal Sahu lost his life in Clacton this summer when visiting my constituency. The RNLI was brilliant in its efforts and it must not be let down. The service in Walton-on-the-Naze, in my patch, is reducing at the moment; the boat is being changed. The resources are being spread out across the constituency, but the service needs further support to help prevent loss of life.

That brings me to my main point, which is about prevention. As an avid yachtsman—I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on water safety—it is abundantly clear that we must educate people on the dangers of water. There are two piers in my constituency: Clacton pier and Walton pier. Near these obstructions on the beach are sand scoops—areas where the tidal current rushes past faster. People who come to the coast and do not know about coastal dangers can walk into such areas and find themselves, on a wonderful, hot summer’s day, suddenly in a very dangerous situation indeed; the sand beneath their feet has gone, the tide is running, and if they do not know how to swim or how to behave in water, they are at incredible risk.

In the summer, I held a water safety event—I invited schools to the beach so that pupils could learn how to behave safely around potentially dangerous water—but the issue prevails all year round; we heard about the recent sad case in Solihull. If we truly wish to support those who get into danger around water, we must support water safety education.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing the debate, not least because it gives me the opportunity to wax lyrical about my constituency, and its proud record of supporting the search and rescue services. My constituency is right on the border with Titchfield, where the search and rescue HQ, which he mentioned earlier, is located. The helicopters take off from my very own Gosport constituency—at Daedalus, where the Maritime and Coastguard Agency does a lot of its training.

Today I will talk specifically about the wonderful Gosport and Fareham Inshore Rescue Service—an independent lifeboat and inshore rescue service that was founded in 1969, so has been around for a really long time. It is a declared facility to the UK coastguard, providing emergency lifeboat cover to the eastern Solent and Portsmouth harbour. Those who know the area will know that that is an incredibly busy stretch of water—certainly the busiest on the south coast, if not one of the busiest in the UK. There are Navy vessels coming out of Portsmouth, cruise ships and freighters coming out of Southampton, a significant number of yachts, personal water craft, dinghies, and a whole range of stand up paddle boarders and kite surfers; it is pretty crowded out there in the summer months. GAFIRS provides an essential service to civilian safety, and I simply cannot stress its value enough.

GAFIRS responded to 135 incidents in 2022, making the year its busiest in 12 years and third busiest in the last 29. In those 135 incidents, it assisted 171 people, eight of whom were “life at risk”, including marine emergencies and first aid assistance on shore. Of the incidents, 126 were HM Coastguard taskings.

GAFIRS is managed and delivered solely by a tremendous team of volunteers. We have heard all about the incredible volunteers that support the service and make it flourish. Our volunteers are of a variety of ages and come from a whole swathe of professions. They operate 24/7, 365 days a year. To put that in context, 61 of the coastguard incidents in 2022 were weekend duty day taskings, with the crew on standby at the station or afloat on patrol, but 65 were out-of-hour pager callouts—33 daytime, 14 evening and 18 night-time. Volunteers are giving their time, day and night, often at unsociable or typically non-working hours. Of course, it is a commitment not just by the volunteers, but by their families, who should not be forgotten, as they support these great sacrifices.

Like all the other independent lifeboat services, GAFIRS relies solely on donations and receives no Government funding at all, which is why I could be found in the sea on new year’s day, alongside hundreds of my constituents in fancy dress. I was not in fancy dress myself, but my youngest son was dressed as a 6-foot tall banana and could easily be seen from any drone; he is a shy, retiring soul! GAFIRS is remarkable and very well valued by local people, which is why people are prepared to go into the sea on new year’s day dressed in a variety of different costumes.

My hon. Friend speaks passionately about the work of the inshore volunteer lifeboat services. Does she agree that inland lifeboat services such as the Severn Area Rescue Association—which works incredibly hard at times of flooding along the River Severn, as far as Bewdley and Stourport—do just as good a job with just as many personal sacrifices in terms of time and effort as any others?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The water gives us so much enjoyment and pleasure but can be a dangerous place. There are challenges up and down the country, inland and at sea, that volunteers rise to every single day.

The response time of GAFIRS is incredible. For all 135 incidents, the average time from being alerted to being in attendance or standing down was just over 16 minutes. The volunteers are, quite simply, local heroes; lives would be lost without them. They do not only respond to a variety of incidents; my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) spoke about the importance of training people to understand the dangers, and our volunteers actively promote water safety. In 2022, they provided 29 sea safety education talks to 1,194 local children and 100 teachers and leaders.

Before I sit down, I want to take the opportunity to thank the National Coastwatch Institution, which operates out of Fort Blockhouse and Lee-on-the-Solent. It provides eyes along the coast and is an invaluable service to local people. I am extraordinarily proud to have it and GAFIRS in my community, and I want to put on the record my enormous thanks and gratitude to them for everything they do.

It is a privilege to take part in this debate, and our thanks are due to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for making that possible.

We all come to an awareness of volunteer lifeboat crews in different ways. In my case, it was as a schoolboy growing up in Swansea. I remember in the 1950s visiting the Mumbles lifeboat and noting its unusual name. It was called the William Gammon, and it was in later years that I learned the reason for that. It was named after a particularly heroic coxswain of a previous lifeboat—a man who had been awarded a bronze and a gold medal for incredibly brave rescues in 1941 and 1944, but lost his life, together with seven colleagues in his crew, in the great disaster of 23 April 1947, when a former Liberty ship, the SS Samtampa, broke up off Sker Point off the coast of south Wales.

I remember going to the reference library on a research project and looking at the South Wales Evening Post report of that disaster. The headline—I think I am right in rendering it—said: “One terrible tragedy after another in the channel”. It showed the upturned lifeboat and the wrecked ship. That image has never left me. It is a tradition of which everybody who volunteers to serve in lifeboats is all too aware.

In those days, one had to go back to the newspapers to try to relive the experiences and heroism of the lifeboat crews, but today we have modern media. If colleagues on both sides of the Chamber take away only one thought from my brief contribution, it should be this: I urge them to go online and have a look at a BBC documentary called “Cruel Sea”. They can find it on YouTube. It was made in 2006 to mark the 25th anniversary of another disaster—the loss of the Penlee lifeboat. It is a quite extraordinary piece of television; they will never forget it, and I advise them to have a box of Kleenex tissues by their side. I have seen it several times, and I always find it hard to maintain my composure.

The documentary is about the way in which that crew and its coxswain, the late Trevelyan Richards, went out to try to rescue eight people on a vessel, the Union Star, whose engines had failed and was drifting toward the rocks. It contains the actual recordings of the messages that went back from the Penlee lifeboat to the command station, which tried to communicate with the boat. At one point—this was watched by a helicopter crew who were powerless to intervene but saw everything—the crew had managed to get four of the eight people off the ship. The waves were 60 foot high. The Penlee lifeboat was lifted up and actually came down on the deck of the ship it was trying to save the crew from, before being washed off. The crew went back one last time to try to get the last four people, and at that point they were lost.

The thought that remains with me is the calmness of the voice of Trevelyan Richards in moments of extreme peril, right up to the point at which the radio goes silent and we just hear the command station calling, “Penlee lifeboat, Penlee lifeboat, come in.” Of course, it never could. It is an unforgettable programme. It is a great tradition that, to this day, comes down to independent lifeboats such as Solent Rescue, which operates from Lepe in my constituency, and to RNLI stations such as RNLI Calshot. It operates with a 112-foot tower at Calshot Spit, with the aid of the National Coastwatch Institution, spotting the people who get into difficulties in the Solent. Frankly, these are the finest people we will ever know. I do not think I can say anything further than that.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for bringing forward this important debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee, of which I am a former Member, along with you, Mr Davies, and the hon. Member for Torbay.

The hon. Member for Torbay started the debate extremely powerfully with a lot of good points. There will be a huge amount of consensus, which is unusual, particularly from the SNP in this place. I will detail that particularly when I get to the speech made by the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). The hon. Member for Torbay rightly said that search and rescue is carried out by a number of governmental and independent organisations and agencies. He also mentioned the Penlee lifeboat, which lost all eight of its crew in 1981. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) has just powerfully described that incident, and I will come to that when I sum up his contribution. The hon. Member for Torbay mentioned that there were nearly 10,000 taskings last year, and made an important point about preventive work through education and training. He rightly highlighted the excellent work of his own local lifeboat in Torbay.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was absolutely right to mention how treacherous the waters can be off the north-west coast of Scotland. He also made what may appear to be a lighter point about the sheep rescue and how important it would have been to the crofter—and no doubt to the sheep themselves. That put me in mind of another rescue; I think it was the Skye lifeboat that helped to refloat some stranded dolphins last summer. It is not just humans that the RNLI supports.

The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) made many better points than he made in the independence debate just weeks ago. I did not catch their names, but he made a good point about four volunteers who have served for 40 years with the lifeboat service. I add my thanks and gratitude. That makes the wider point that many who serve in the RNLI have done so for a long time, and that must be recognised. He also mentioned the Nicola Faith tragedy, in which three lives were sadly lost.

It would not be a Westminster Hall debate without the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He mentioned coastal activities, including sailing and surfing. The one I was interested in was pier jumping. He confessed that he partook in that activity himself. It is not clear whether that was last week or some time ago, so we are unsure whether his pier-jumping speedos have been retired. Now that I have loaded up that image, I will come to the hon. Member for Moray. It is very rare—in fact, probably unique—that I agree with every word that he said.

I should probably sit down at that, yes. I will not put that on my leaflets, obviously.

The hon. Member for Moray brought up the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which I very much support. That leads me on nicely to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). I thank him for his work in setting up that organisation. He was right to say that this debate is essentially a moment of consensus when we can thank all those who volunteer and put their lives at risk on our behalf to save those in distress at sea. He also made the point that they do it all by raising their own money. I add my thanks and gratitude to all those who fundraise for, and donate to, the RNLI, making possible all its excellent work, which we have all spoken about.

That brings me on to the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), who said he was a proud yachtsman and talked about how he shared water safety training with a local school. He, too, reiterated the vital importance of such training for youngsters in school at all ages. As he said, one only has to reflect on the tragedy in Solihull in recent weeks to realise that we must do more in that regard.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) spoke about the impact on the volunteers—the risk they take and the unsocial hours—but also about the impact on the families, which is something we do not always mention, so that was a very welcome point. She also mentioned her new year’s day dip. Rather her than me.

The last speaker, whose constituency I have forgotten—

Of course; I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reminder. He spoke about the Mumbles lifeboat. I visited Mumbles on a rugby tour over 20 years ago, when a number of us had to be rescued that night—albeit thankfully from the Mumbles mile and not, it must be said, at sea.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned—quite rightly and powerfully, as I said earlier—the Penlee disaster. We should all go online and watch “Cruel Sea”, the documentary he highlighted, which I was unaware of. I will certainly go away and look at it, and I thank him for telling us about it. Hopefully it is on iPlayer.

So it is there for all of us. In the spirit of consensus, I would like to pay particular tribute to lifeboat services in the south of England at this moment, amidst the record small boat crossings. I will not repeat all the statistics that the hon. Member for Torbay helpfully set out at the start, but the numbers are simply huge. Obviously, there are 238 lifeboat stations and 240 lifeguard units. As has been said, the RNLI was founded nearly 200 years ago, and in that time it has saved nearly 143,000 lives. In 2021, it saved 296 people. An average of 35 people are helped every day by RNLI crews.

I want to highlight a couple of people, if I may, who were decorated in the King’s new year’s honours list. An MBE was awarded to Dupre Strutt, a mechanic at the RNLI Kirkwall lifeboat station and a retired area lifesaving manager for Scotland. Dupre was part of the fabric of Kirkwall lifeboat station and had followed in his father’s footsteps, having grown up in the station. Since joining in 1983, Dupre has given 39 years of service to the RNLI, during which time he has been directly involved in over 300 rescues, saving over 60 lives.

Similarly, a volunteer mechanic and lifeboat operations manager at Kirkcudbright lifeboat station, William “John” Collins, has been awarded at a BEM for his dedication to the RNLI and the community in the town. He joined the station in 1991 as a mechanic, a role in which he continues to this day, alongside his duties as LOM. Outside of the RNLI, John is employed as the local school bus driver. During the pandemic, he extended that role to deliver essential food supplies around the area.

Of course, Scotland, with its long coastline and 790 islands, has a long tradition of life on the seas and, of course, facing the dangers that can be inherent in that, whether that is winter storms off the Atlantic, fishing boats in distress or leisure craft running into trouble, often with inexperienced people at the helm. Scotland is absolutely indebted to the RNLI, so if I may, and so that I do not miss any out, I will list the stations. They are, from the south-west: Portpatrick, Stranraer, Girvan, Troon, Largs—I will give the list to Hansard, so do not worry if I rush through it—Arran, Campbeltown, Tighnabruaich, Helensburgh, Islay, Oban, Tobermory, Mallaig, Barra, Kyle of Lochalsh, Portree, Leverburgh, Stornoway, Lochinver, Thurso, Wick, Longhope, Stromness, Kirkwall, Aith, Lerwick, Invergordon, Kessock, Buckie, Macduff, Fraserburgh, Peterhead, Aberdeen, Stonehaven, Montrose, Arbroath, Broughty Ferry, Anstruther, Kinghorn, Queensferry, North Berwick, Dunbar and Eyemouth—and I nearly mentioned Berwick-upon-Tweed, but that is only half-Scottish, so I shall leave it out.

We are also indebted to the independent and inshore rescue services, including at Dornoch, as well as the Glasgow Humane Society, Loch Lomond, Nith and the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation, which I am delighted the hon. Member for Moray mentioned. Obviously, a lot of assistance, or co-ordination, goes to the RNLI through the Coastguard Agency. The coastguard is also 200 years old.

I want to make one point as I conclude, although I do not want to stray too far from consensus. I want to talk about the channel, but briefly, as I appreciate that my speaking time is nearly up. Last year, a record 45,000 people succeeded in crossing the channel, and we know there have been tragedies and a huge number of rescues there. We have always called for and maintained that there should be a safe and legal route so that the coastguard and the RNLI are not put in the position of having each day to save lives in the busiest shipping lane in the world.

Some of the rhetoric deployed has been deplorable, and Nigel Farage compared the work of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and of the RNLI to

“a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs”.

On the back of that, the RNLI received the most donations in its history in response to a single event—more than £200,000.

We can all castigate such rhetoric, which is deployed by some, but I want to finish on a note of consensus. I say thank you to all who are involved in the RNLI and those who co-ordinate our search and rescue services. In particular, I pay tribute to all those who sadly lost their lives in attempting to rescue others on our behalf.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who represents a beautiful part of the world, for his excellent speech. My researcher indicated that 52 awards for gallantry have gone to the hon. Gentleman’s RNLI station alone.

I shall be following the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who advocated for the National Independent Lifeboat Association, and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), in that we are not really having a debate, because there is consensus. The only note of division I think I heard was in the intervention from the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). Perhaps we need a separate debate on what we call that firth; the name Inverness strait might help to sort this out. [Interruption.] I see I have caused complete division across the Chamber.

Next year, it will be 200 years since William Hillary’s vision of saving souls at sea became a reality, and on 19 December 2022 the Minister and I were at the Dispatch Box for the Second Reading of the Seafarers’ Wages Bill. Today, we have heard the story of the Penlee lifeboat disaster, which was eloquently told by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), and on 19 December, the 41st anniversary of the disaster, we were able to have recorded in Hansard our thanks to the crews who went out that night in 1981.

The RNLI was formed to save souls at sea and the institution’s priorities were

“the preservation of human life…assistance to vessels in distress…the preservation of vessels and property…the prevention of plunder and depredations in case of shipwreck…succour and support of those persons who may be rescued…the bestowing of suitable rewards on those who rescue the lives of others”.

I want the debate to recognise those people as well and to be an acknowledgement of those who risk their lives to save those in peril on the sea.

As shadow maritime Minister, I know only too well the sacrifices made by our seafarers, which we saw during the pandemic. However, professional seafarers are not the only people our lifeboats serve to protect. We have seen the small boats in the English channel, which, as has been mentioned, is the busiest shipping lane in the world. We have seen children, women, families and individuals being plucked from the seas by the RNLI and others, and we have heard testimony from those who are tasked by the coastguard to perform their rescue missions without prejudice and without judgment.

There is nobody who is illegal. If people are in peril on the sea, we rescue them—no ifs, no buts. I thank those people for their service and for their determination to save everyone and anyone who gets into difficulty around UK and Irish shores. This is such a vital lifesaving service—so selfless—that, as has been mentioned, it is almost unbelievable that the RNLI receives no money from Government and is funded primarily by donations.

My best man was rescued from a cliff by the RNLI, when he was a child and on holiday. We have been friends for 30 years, and he has fundraised for the RNLI all his life, even being in a landlocked constituency. Imagine how the course of my life might have changed, had that rescue gone wrong, so I, too, pay personal tribute to the RNLI.

As I was preparing this speech last night, I noticed that at 6 pm lifeboats were launched from Hartlepool and Ramsgate. At 9.40 pm there was an incident that led to Tynemouth launching a rescue mission, with another one launching from Falmouth at 11 pm. Remarkable bravery takes place every day and every night. Since 1824 the RNLI has saved almost 143,000 lives. I go back to the original mission statement of Sir William Hillary, when he conceived the idea of the RNLI. I should add that the use of the word “men” is of its time, and not reflective of the nature of the RNLI, who for generations have had women launching lifeboats and working alongside crew to ensure that boats could set sail efficiently and speedily. More recently, they have crewed the boats and acted as shore crew. Now, the RNLI has more than 300 women crew and a third of their lifeguards are female, preventing accidents before they happen with good safety advice and keen stewardship of the shore.

Sir William said that at the heart of this institution would be

“a large body of men…in constant readiness to risk their own lives for the preservation of those whom they have never known or seen, perhaps of another nation, merely because they are fellow creatures in extreme peril.”

Every lifeboat volunteer—whether they be a fundraiser, a coxswain or at the helm— exemplifies that mission statement, and I would like to thank them for their service and their contribution to search and rescue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The words just quoted by the Opposition Front-Bencher, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), were very moving. I thank him for his contribution, and all hon. Members for theirs; in particular, I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for bringing this debate to the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who has done so much work on this issue, which is extremely important. The debate highlights the role of our dedicated lifeboat services, which seek to rescue any persons in distress or difficulty around the coast of the United Kingdom.

It is good to reflect a little on the Penlee lifeboat disaster, which the Opposition Front-Bencher brought up, and which we both mentioned on the 41st anniversary of the death of those men, just a few weeks ago.

During these challenging times, it is extremely important that we continue to support our lifesaving services, and recognise their contribution to search and rescue across the United Kingdom search and rescue region. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes for his dedication to the subject, and for his sterling efforts over the last few years to establish an association for independent lifeboats—those that operate at sea and inland—across the United Kingdom. As a result of hon. Members’ actions, for the first time, our independent lifeboats have the opportunity to form an association, which will support their operations. The contribution of our voluntary search and rescue services is often not considered until they are called into action to save lives, so I am grateful to hon. Members for raising the subject today. The point made by several hon. Members, about whether this type of debate could take place regularly, was particularly interesting.

I thank all those who fundraise for and support these charitable organisations in the way that hon. Members have described. That fundraising is absolutely vital; millions of pounds are raised every year. We have heard stories from many hon. Members about the impact of the RNLI on their families or their own life. I pay tribute to my great-uncle, John Clough, who left his entire estate to the RNLI when he passed away a few years ago. I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to the volunteers in our maritime search and rescue services, who have continued to provide lifesaving operations, often in the most challenging of conditions. I especially thank our brave volunteers in independent lifeboats, as well as those who volunteer for the RNLI and His Majesty’s Coastguard, who risk their life to save others at sea and around our coastline. The UK has one of the best water safety records in the world in large part because of their personal commitment and skill. As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said, the need for search and rescue will always be there, and we need ensure search and rescue services are maintained. The conditions in which teams deploy are often challenging and potentially life-threatening, as hon. Members can imagine. I know all Members of the House will join me in thanking those who put themselves on the line.

Our volunteer lifeboat services have a long and proud history, spanning 200 years, of contributing to the safety of lives at sea, and their volunteer ethos is a cherished cornerstone of British society. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) made a fantastic speech highlighting the understated heroism of those who put themselves on the line. The United Kingdom is also proud to have approximately 40 independent lifeboats that continue to provide life-saving services around the clock; they support our emergency services and protect the environment.

In 2022, HM Coastguard was proud to celebrate its 200th anniversary with events across the country. Our 3,500 volunteer coastguard rescue officers are proud to maintain a tradition of voluntary life-saving services, and to continue their traditional role in local communities across the country, as we heard from many Members today. It has been great to hear from my hon. Friends the Members for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and for Moray (Douglas Ross), and from the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and many others about their local lifeboat services, or other lifeboat services that they wanted to recognise.

Our esteemed RNLI is recognised the world over for its service, and for its contribution to life saving and to search and rescue operations. However, as we have heard, we are fortunate to also have a large number of independent operators who are not part of the RNLI. Those operators provide vital life-saving services both at sea and in inland waters, as many hon. Members highlighted, and face significant challenges in maintaining their operations. Through the dedication and actions of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, the new National Independent Lifeboat Association has been formed. The NILA was formally launched at the emergency services show in September last year, and its intention is to support independent lifeboats and provide a cohesive voice for smaller organisations that continue to support search and rescue around the clock. I welcome the development, as do the Government, of the association; it will recognise the contribution of independent lifeboats, and provide ongoing support to charities—an important point mentioned by my hon. Friend.

I have not only the RNLI but two independent lifeboats in my beautiful constituency, one at Pett Level and one in Hastings. Does the Minister agree that independent lifeboats, along with the RNLI, provide an invaluable service to our local communities and save thousands of lives every year, and that it is important to highlight the challenges they face, including with funding, public awareness and long-term support?

I could not agree more. I will come on to some of the ways the Government are trying to help independent lifeboats.

The coastguard has been working alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes to support and guide the development of the NILA, to enable independent lifeboats to apply to be represented on the UK search and operators group. That would enable those small, dedicated charities to contribute to discussions on shaping the future of our maritime and rescue services, which is vital.

I mentioned the East Sutherland Rescue Association. Clearly, my constituency is in a part of the United Kingdom that is far away, which means we can feel a little bit left out, but the new body is a brilliant way of making such associations feel that they are part of a much bigger whole.

I quite agree. It was great to hear from the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr about how remote parts of the United Kingdom, such as Carmarthen Bay—although that is not as remote as parts of Caithness, where some of my family lived for many years—need to have a voice in a central organisation. The NILA is so important in bringing those voices together into a single voice, and recognising their broader contribution. I urge all independent lifeboat operators to join the association. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for his support for the association, which has increased recognition of the role and dedication of independent search and rescue operators.

Our independent lifeboats and lifeguards, who are not part of the RNLI, continue to provide support to search and rescue operators around the coast and on our inland rivers, lochs and lakes, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), for Torbay, for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage), and for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier). My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) made a particularly important point about water safety, and I thank him for his vital work on that. It is a major issue. Through the National Water Safety Forum and our partners, we reach millions of people a year with advertising and information campaigns. It is particularly important that we continue to do that as drowning is, sadly, still a major cause of death, especially among young people. The UK is proud to continue to support World Drowning Prevention Day, and to promote the selfless work of lifesavers across the UK and the world to prevent drowning and push further prevention strategies.

Our independent lifeboats are often not recognised, but they are run by dedicated volunteers and provide vital emergency services and lifesaving capability. They offer assistance to any person who may be in difficulty around our beautiful coast and countryside. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay made the important point that these charitable organisations rely on community organisation and voluntary support, which is at the core of a lot of what they offer. As mentioned, independent lifeboats operate across England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey, and are dedicated to the appropriate tasking authority, which may ask for assistance in life-critical operations. Independent lifeboats, in common with all our search and rescue operations, are responding to an increasing number of call-outs, particularly following the pandemic, because members of the public have been holidaying in the UK and taking part in more adventurous leisure activities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned, support from the Department is very much there, and I urge him to write to the Secretary of State inviting him to come and see some of the independent operators.

I turn to a couple of the questions that have been raised. On VAT, fuel duty and the rescue grant fund, I will happily write to the Treasury about this issue, and I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes to do so as well. My office will write to him when we have a response from the Treasury. It is an issue that I know hon. Members are keenly aware of, but we will require further support to get to where we want to be.

Regarding recognition of His Majesty’s Coastguard rescue facilities, independent lifeboats operating at sea and in a coastal environment are required to meet the standards laid down in the rescue boat code, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay mentioned, in order to meet the appropriate construction and safety standards. However, I am pleased that, following feedback from independent operators, the RNLI and key stakeholders, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is undertaking a review of the code to modernise and simplify the requirements, which will assist our dedicated volunteers in continuing to support search and rescue operations. The MCA hopes to complete the review of the code in the early part of this year.

A presentation was held on the membership of the UK SAR in October 2022. Now that the NILA is fully established, membership applications would be welcomed, although I cannot confirm anything at this stage, as hon. Members will be aware. In some cases, independent lifeboats offer specialist skills that would support rescue and prevention activities, both in our cities and in remote inland locations, as hon. Members mentioned. Those operators continue to provide lifesaving operations during these particularly difficult times, saving hundreds of lives annually. I ask the House to join me in thanking them for their continued support for search and rescue services across the length and breadth of the UK.

I am very proud to have responded to the debate on behalf of the Minister responsible for maritime search and rescue, and I hope to have the privilege of meeting some of our wonderful volunteers and dedicated teams, who continue to rise to the challenge of providing lifesaving services, whatever the circumstances and whoever needs them. I finish by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay for raising this important subject, and all hon. Members who have taken part in a very worthwhile debate highlighting the vital search and rescue services.

It has been a very welcome debate, and it has been great to hear so many contributions, and so many tributes paid to volunteers, who are the backbone of lifeboat services. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) and the Minister for their contributions, and it is a rare occasion when we see the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) completely agreeing with each other.

This has been a good chance to pay tribute to those working in lifeboat services and remember their heroism. As I said in my speech, in the words of that great hymn,

“when the breakers roar and the reef is near”,

the lifeboat services go in and do their duty.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the contribution of lifeboat services to search and rescue.

Sitting suspended.

Emergency Service Personnel: Posthumous Awards

I shall call Wendy Chamberlain to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. As is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the mover of the motion to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered posthumous awards for emergency service personnel.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is not controversial to want to recognise the members of our emergency services who have shown particular bravery or have died in the course of serving our communities. We have long-standing awards for gallantry, sacrifice and service for those who have given to our country and people in all sorts of ways. Indeed, several of our own were recognised in the recent new year’s honours list—not only Members from across the House but, most notably, the Clerk of the House, Dr John Benger, who was awarded the distinction of Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath for his services in this place and to democracy. Such service deserves recognition, and the recipients and their families are rightly proud.

Sadly, there are those who have equally served their country and made sacrifices but who are not being recognised as they should. That is why I am here, and I am pleased to see so many other Members here for this short debate. Before I turn to the broader issue of a posthumous award for emergency service personnel, let me set out how I became involved in the issue, and the facts of a particular case in which an individual’s bravery and sacrifice have not been recognised, and a family has suffered a loss that they feel has been forgotten.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing the issue forward; the fact that we are all here to support her indicates that our thoughts are the same as hers. Does she agree that a posthumous award not only rightly honours the dead, but is a small token of our respect and gratitude, which can be understood by a grieving family who long to know that the memory of their loved one will continue in the annals of history? This House must send the message that the sacrifice of our emergency service personnel is valued enough to facilitate that very honour.

Absolutely. No award or recognition can ever replace a loved one, but if we can go some way to making a family feel that the loss has been recognised, it is important that we do.

I have mentioned my police service and experience in this place on a number of occasions. My father—also a police officer—was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s testimonial on parchment for his central role in the rescue of a man from drowning in the James Watt Dock in Greenock in November 1983. I vividly remember being sent to school with the newspaper cuttings, and then being asked whether I knew what a “PC” was and being unable to answer. Early in my service, a colleague and I attended reports of a domestic dispute, and we were both assaulted when we attempted to deal with the situation. We both received the chief constable’s commendation. I mention those things not to receive praise, but to emphasise that accepting a degree of threat to one’s physical safety is simply a fact of life for police officers. Why else are officers issued with defensive equipment daily? When officers and staff are judged to have gone beyond what is reasonably expected of them in the line of duty, they are regularly recognised at force level and beyond.

It is almost a year since I was approached by the Lanarkshire Police Historical Society about its campaign for recognition for the late Constable George Taylor. I have no links with Constable Taylor or his family.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate, and for referring to the case of Police Constable George Taylor, which relates to my constituency. I also highlight the case of Detective Sergeant Ross Hunt. The two cases are horrific, and although the families’ grief will never subside, official recognition would go some way to ensuring that the officers’ sacrifice is remembered. Does she agree that the five-year time limit on posthumous honours and awards is arbitrary, and that an exception would be welcome and appropriate in this case?

The hon. Lady is thinking of exactly the points that I will raise. I am grateful to her and the Lanarkshire Police Historical Society. I knew the chair of the society from my service at the Scottish Police College, so although I have no links to Constable Taylor or his family, nor have I ever spoken to them, my police service meant that I was keen to support the work. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans), who is present, is also a former police officer, and we have discussed this case.

The late Constable Taylor died on 30 November 1976—just over 46 years ago—and I want briefly to outline the facts relating to his death. On the evening of 30 November, two patients, Robert Mone and Thomas McCulloch, escaped from the state psychiatric hospital in Carstairs, and in doing so they assaulted and killed a nurse and another patient. Shortly afterwards, a passer-by was travelling in his car on a nearby road when he saw a man lying on the road and another signalling for him to stop. He slowed down and saw that the man was wearing a nurse’s cap and assumed that he worked at the hospital. The man asked for a lift, but the driver saw that a police van was approaching and insisted that it was a matter for the police.

Having arrived at the scene and having been told what had taken place, Constable Taylor, who was in the passenger seat of the police van, went to the man lying on the road to see whether he was injured. Suddenly and without provocation, he was attacked. A contemporary account of what then took place says:

“A man was swinging a long-handled axe at Constable Taylor’s head, and he, baton in hand, struggled with his assailant.”

At this point, Constable Gillies, who had been driving the police van and only got out when it was clear that something was wrong, was struck on the back of his head by a baton and turned to exchange blows, before running again towards Constable Taylor. He was once more assaulted and pushed aside. His attacker was running towards Constable Taylor, who was still engaged in a violent struggle with the axe-wielding combatant. The two men struck at Constable Taylor, as Constable Gillies called for assistance on his personal radio, without response. He then struck out at both men who were attacking his colleague, but to no avail. After attempting once more to make contact by personal radio, Constable Gillies ran to the police van and put out a brief call before being attacked by Mone, who ran towards him, swinging a knife in his hand.

Despite the brave efforts of both officers, the men escaped in the police van and were later captured near Carlisle. Constable Taylor died before he could reach hospital for medical care, leaving behind a young family. In the words of the then chief constable of Strathclyde police, Patrick Hamill,

“Constable Taylor displayed exceptional gallantry and courage in attempting to overpower these two dangerous, violent and armed men. His bravery and determination are in the highest traditions of the Police Service.”

I want to place on the record my agreement with his remarks, and I urge the Minister to do the same.

I commend the hon. Lady on securing this long-overdue, important debate to recognise the sacrifice of PC George Taylor, who was brutally murdered and has not been formally recognised for his gallantry. I offer my full support in ensuring that the situation is rectified. Does she agree that the situation is disgraceful, and an insult to the memory of the officers who gave their lives, and to other brave emergency service workers who keep us safe? Does she also agree, without detracting in any way from the bravery and courage of Constable Taylor and others, that such a retrospective award should be extended to other emergency workers, including WPC Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot in the back and brutally murdered on 17 April 1984 while policing a political demonstration outside the Libyan embassy—an act for which no one has ever been prosecuted?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He and I know all too well the sacrifices that police officers make every day. He has pre-empted some of the remarks I was going to make to the Minister. This is a very regrettable oversight, and I hope that the Minister is in a position to look at the matter. I know about the work he is doing with regard to Yvonne Fletcher, and I am grateful to him for that.

I thank the hon. Lady for organising this Westminster Hall debate. As a Nottinghamshire MP, I thought it was really important to mention that 20 years ago this week, PC Ged Walker was killed in the line of duty in Bulwell in Nottinghamshire. He was attempting to remove the keys from a taxi when the stolen vehicle dragged him to his death. He was survived by his wife, who is my constituent in Broxtowe, and their two children. He is a shining example of why an award, such as a medal, should exist. He and all police officers put their life on the line every day that they go to work. Does she agree that officers such as PC Walker, who lost their life in tragic circumstances, protecting their community, must be recognised?

Absolutely; that is why I am here. The fact that so many Members are here for this very short debate shows the strength of feeling about the need to make sure that those officers are recognised.

As we are hearing, a number of very brave constituents have died in the line of duty, and we are here to support the hon. Lady’s call to commemorate them with these posthumous awards—the Elizabeth medal—on behalf of their families. PC Nicola Hughes was murdered in Manchester 10 years ago, alongside PC Fiona Bone. Nicola’s dad, Bryn, is one of my constituents. I raised this point at Prime Minister’s questions just before Christmas, so there is a lot of strength of feeling here. Please keep going with the campaign, and let us give them the awards that would recompense and support their families.

I certainly remember the visceral emotion I felt on hearing about the murders of PC Hughes and PC Bone. It is really important that we do not let those memories be forgotten, and that we give their families some degree of comfort.

I took the time to recount the events of 1976 because Constable Taylor’s courage was never properly acknowledged. The description of the attack, and Chief Constable Hamill’s assessment of George Taylor’s bravery, are taken from a letter that he wrote to the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Bruce Millan, recommending that Taylor be recognised by the late Queen for his bravery.

Three of the police officers who were involved in the ultimate arrest of McCulloch and Mone were given awards. I have a copy of the London Gazette from August 1978, which details the award of the Queen’s gallantry medal to the officers from Cumbria constabulary who were involved. No such recognition was provided to Constable Taylor, who died while bravely trying to stop the attack and escape of those two armed and dangerous criminals.

It has never been made clear why George Taylor’s courage was overlooked. The best guess of people who have been engaged in the campaign longer than I have is that it was simply a mistake. We know that mistakes happen; I am sure that they happen with typed and written letters and paper records, given the electronic issues that we have today. That is not to blame long-retired civil servants or Bruce Millan, now deceased, who was a well-respected and effective politician, but mistakes happen. When it was a mistake on the part of the Government, they cannot hide behind an arbitrary and absolute rule of awards having to be made within five years; sadly, that is what the UK Government said today.

The hon. Lady is giving a very powerful speech. As she recognised, the number of Members here shows that she has brought forward such an important issue. Does she agree that the very least we can do when people have given the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty is to recognise them with an award?

Absolutely; we need to do that. There are two issues here. We want to talk about the Elizabeth medal—I know that that is why many Members are here—but I want to talk particularly about Constable Taylor. The UK Government’s response to the campaign is that he cannot be recognised in the way that the Cumbrian officers were because the attempt to have him recognised took place more than five years ago. When the Government do that, they are saying that the officer murdered while trying to effect an arrest cannot have the same recognition as the officers who later apprehended the offenders.

It is not like Constable Taylor’s family decided decades after the fact that his bravery should have qualified him; indeed, his commanding officer explicitly recommended him for an award within six months of his death. If a decision was made explicitly ruling out Constable Taylor—although I fail to understand how that would be the case—and setting out reasons for that choice, the family have not had that communicated to them. It is as if that recommendation was simply lost. Without any clarity or explanation from the Government, we cannot know why he was overlooked, and his family will continue to struggle to find peace.

There has been a long-standing campaign by his family and the Lanarkshire Police Historical Society to right this wrong, and I believe that this is the first time it has been explicitly addressed in this place. There is momentum behind the campaign to finally recognise his bravery. The Scottish Police Federation and the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents support it, and it was debated at Holyrood last April in a Backbench debate brought by a Conservative MSP representing Central Scotland. I understand that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice wrote to the Government following that debate highlighting the Scottish Government’s support.

It is in the Minister’s power to right this wrong. This is clearly uncontroversial, and I hope that anybody who has heard these circumstances today will ensure cross-party support. I hope that he will use his time to agree to do so, or at least pledge to disclose why the award was not made at the time, and meet with the Taylor family to discuss the next steps.

As exemplified today, Constable Taylor is not—and will not be—the only police officer or member of the emergency services to die in the course of service. There are many others and many other families—we have heard about some of them here—with ongoing campaigns for justice, which is why I am here with other Members to call on the Government to institute a new award for the emergency services.

As the Minister knows, there is a precedent for this. The Elizabeth Cross was launched in 2009, and it is granted to the next of kin of armed forces personnel killed in operations or as a result of terrorism as a mark of national recognition for their loss. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) put it so well: we cannot replace the individual, but we can at least give their families some comfort.

Awards are not simple and straightforward, because the honours system is pretty opaque. It is part of the royal prerogative to determine honours and awards, but the Prime Minister advises on such matters, so it is entirely within the Prime Minister’s and Government’s purview to discuss and put forward the recommendations endorsed not only by Members in this place but by professional bodies across the country for such a new award.

The hon. Lady is giving a powerful speech and we all stand with her in the specific circumstances of PC Taylor, which she has shared today, and supporting the campaign. More broadly, I spent a night shift on Boxing day evening with West Yorkshire police officers—we have lost too many officers from that force. They are asked to attend harrowing situations, and when we are with them we feel their vulnerability. So often the officers are there on their own, and there is no such thing as a routine call in policing—circumstances can change in an instant. I very much believe that the Minister will understand, given his previous contributions in this area, the sacrifices that we ask police officers and their families to make day after day. The medal would be one step towards understanding the contributions that they make, the risks that they take, and what we owe to the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.

I was a police officer, my father was a police officer, as was my husband, and both my stepchildren are serving police officers, so I know very well from conversations round the dinner table what they experience. I know what has changed and much of what has not changed since I served. The danger that we ask our police officers and other emergency services personnel to face in protecting the public has never changed.

The hon. Lady referenced my colleague Graham Simpson who led the debate about PC Taylor in the Scottish Parliament, and there is a strong consensus in the Chamber today. On the point she makes about the current pressures, I declare an interest as the husband of a serving police officer. Does she agree with me that ultimately we do not want to issue any of the medals because we want to protect our police officers and those in our emergency services? A way of doing that would be to ensure that assaults on police officers lead to fines or imprisonment. All too often when there is a series of charges, particularly in Scotland, we see that the assaults on police officers are the first to be dropped, but they are the most important and should be progressed through the criminal system.

I remember when police assault was an aggravation to an offence. Dropping that aspect is the complete opposite of what the aggravation to an offence was intended to do. We absolutely do not want people to be in circumstances where they are placed in danger, but we know that accidents happen. I remember a colleague who was killed on a night shift when putting traffic cones out after a road accident, so those kinds of things also happen, as well as the more violent circumstances that many of us have talked about today.

It is always a tragedy when people who serve our communities die: firefighters rescuing children from buildings who do not make it home to see their own families; ambulance workers who rush to relatives for medical care but get attacked and abused by the people they want to help; and the police officers, as I have emphasised at length today, who keep our communities safe, but in doing so sacrifice themselves. I understand that the Government will carry out a review of the honours system this year. There is overwhelming support for the new honour, and I urge the Minister to take the opportunity to pledge Government support for it. There have been mistakes and they ought to be righted. Today we have the opportunity to make sure they are not made again. I hope the Minister will agree to review Constable Taylor’s case and ensure that the creation of the Elizabeth Cross is included in the Government’s honours review.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Davies. I pay a heartfelt tribute to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this debate today. She knows that the topic is close to my heart. The families of those involved will be watching this debate and I very much want to speak to them to outline our approach. The first thing I would say, having been through the journey recently with nuclear test veterans, is that it is historically a very complicated process, and it is not within the gift of Government to give the medals out. It is within the gift of the palace and it is the palace’s decision. Of course, the Government can do the background work and prioritise in a way that sees the results that we would support. That is certainly what I will be doing now.

In the last two or three years, we have seen the best of our public servants in particularly difficult circumstances, and I want to pay tribute to the work of our emergency service personnel over that period. They have been on the frontline of some extraordinary circumstances. Hon. Members will be acutely aware of the dangers faced by all public servants, and Members of our own House have been targeted simply because of the work they do. We also remember police officers, including PC Keith Palmer, who died only yards from here in 2017 defending this place from a terrorist attack, and George Taylor, Ross Hunt and those who have been remembered today. I remember very clearly the killings referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry). I also want to highlight people such as Bryn Hughes, the father of Nicola, who has spoken about recognition for emergency service workers, and Lissie Harper, who, after her husband PC Andrew Harper was killed in 2019, campaigned for Harper’s law, calling for a mandatory life sentence for criminals whose actions resulted in the death of an emergency service worker.

I recognise that the campaign has been going on for some time, much like nuclear test veterans and other campaign groups. Things have changed over the last couple of months around the difficult technicalities of working out who should be eligible for this sort of award. Yesterday, we held a meeting on this, as would be expected, and it is now a Government priority to get this resolved this year. I want to get this sorted out and I want to do everything we can. Recognition of the sort being talked about is extremely important.

There are two different aspects here: one is gallantry and the other is those who lose their lives. Clearly, in the military, we have been through this process and as the hon. Member for North East Fife mentioned, in 2009, the Elizabeth Cross came into being. I think she recognises, as many will, the sacrifices that our public sector workers face. There should be no difference, as there is no difference in the pain of the loss in defending the public and the institutions such as this place and others. I am determined to make sure that their sacrifice is recognised in the appropriate way.

When it comes to gallantry, I understand the frustrations, particularly in the George Taylor case. Awards of gallantry, in my experience, are complex, often divisive and difficult to understand at times. The frustrating thing is the lack of transparency, so I will commit to go away and look at that particular case. I will write to the hon. Lady with exactly what has gone on and the decisions that have been made. Clearly, I do not make decisions around gallantry and all the rest of it, but I think transparency is important in this space and I will go away and write to her with details of that specific case. I am more than happy to see her or the family in private to go through and explain what has happened. I am not going to promise things I cannot deliver, but transparency is important. It is important to the family as well.

It is worth putting on record that the circumstances that the hon. Lady related in her powerful contribution are extraordinary. I can completely understand the way the family feels and I can understand the way the police community feels in the perceived disparity of awards. I am more than happy to increase transparency in that place, and have a frank discussion about what has gone on there, so that everybody understands what has happened and we can see the art of the possible.

As the hon. Member for North East Fife is aware, the honours system is a matter for the Crown. The boards and so on set up to go through that are complex. I have just navigated them for another group of veterans who have been through that system. I want the hon. Member and the family to take away from this that in my view this has gone on too long. An incredibly important part of public service is to recognise those who act above and beyond their line of duty and, in particular, those who lose their lives—as well as the families affected—in defence of the freedoms and privileges we enjoy in this place day after day.

I am determined that we will resolve that matter. It is now a Government priority, and I am personally determined to get it sorted out for the hon. Member for North East Fife and, more importantly, for the families and those who have lost loved ones in defence of the society and freedoms we enjoy today.

I want to pay tribute to everyone who has contributed today. We can all recall those who have served in our constituencies, whether they have lost their lives or not, and their incredible bravery, particularly that of the police, ambulance and emergency services but others as well, in administering the civil structures of this land, without which nothing of what we do here would exist. It is important to recognise their contribution and that of their families. Such jobs are often an all-in occupation, and the families live that as well. The hon. Lady knows that. We need to do more to recognise them, and I will personally grip that and look to advance it. I will write to her about this case and am more than happy to have a transparent conversation, within the art of the possible and what can be done.

I will take this forward and hope that this year, with a bit of drive and energy, we can bring the campaign to a conclusion with which we are all happy. There are no two ways of saying it: losing a loved one in the line of duty can never be rectified, whether in police uniform or in the military. It is incredibly important to recognise the sacrifice and the lives of those who serve. I am determined that we will do everything we can to resolve that matter in the near future. I assure the hon. Member for North East Fife that this is now a Government priority and I will meet her to take this further.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

House of Lords Reform

[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered reform of the House of Lords.

Happy new year, Sir Gary. Before I was elected to this place, I was opposed to the House of Lords. Indeed, in 2005 I proposed a motion to the Scottish National party conference that confirmed the party’s position that no SNP member would take a seat in the House of Lords. However, after being here and seeing the role that the House of Lords plays in scrutinising and revising legislation, how it holds the Government to account, and the expertise and experience that its Members bring to the parliamentary process, I am now really opposed to the House of Lords. When I say that, I mean no disrespect to any individual member of the House of Lords—and I know that some peers are paying extremely close attention to this debate.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has noted that there is a peer present: Baron Foulkes, who was elected to the Scottish Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that if Baron Foulkes, who is unelected, wants to have anything to do with legislation, he should perhaps seek election, rather than sitting in the Public Gallery and no doubt tweeting throughout the debate?

I will leave my hon. Friend’s comments on the record. However, it is possible for people to be elected to the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, our former colleague, Winnie Ewing, has the distinction of having been elected to the Scottish Parliament, the House of Commons and the European Parliament; I think that she is the only person ever to sit in all three of those legislatures. I do not know whether a seat in the House of Lords was then offered to her, but if it was she certainly never took it.

However, this debate is not about individual Members of the House of Lords. Many of them have immensely valuable skills and experience that sometimes are not found or replicated in the Commons. Nevertheless, there must be better, more imaginative and more innovative ways of using such experience for the public good than simply appointing people to the legislature for the rest of their lives and just letting them get on with it.

Even the majority of peers themselves think that the current arrangements are unsuitable and unsustainable. The Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House published a series of recommendations in 2017 aimed at reducing and stabilising the composition of the House of Lords, but under recent Prime Ministers the House of Lords has become even more bloated. Famously, the National People’s Congress of China is the only legislative Chamber in the world that has more members than the House of Lords.

That is one of those amusing anecdotes that some of us like to tell guests when we show them around this place. Another one is that Lesotho is one of the two countries in the Commonwealth where hereditary chieftains retain the right to make law, the other being the United Kingdom. Another is that Iran is one of only two countries in the world where religious clerics sit as of right in the legislature, the other being—again—the United Kingdom. Those statements are not just anecdotes; they are anachronisms. They are not really amusing; they are absurd. Sometimes, when we show guests, particularly those from developing countries, the opulence of the Lords Chamber, words begin to fail us. How do we adequately describe what the Lords actually is, how it is composed and why it functions in the way it does in what is supposed to be a 21st-century democracy?

Sometimes, visiting delegations—perhaps under the auspices of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union or the Westminster Foundation for Democracy—come to Westminster from countries in Africa, Latin America or eastern Europe. They meet parliamentarians such as ourselves around antique tables and oak-panelled walls and they talk about good governance, democratic accountability and anti-corruption practices. Although such learning and sharing among parliamentarians is always valuable, many eyebrows are raised if in discussions it happens to come up that one in 10 Conservative peers have donated more than £100,000 to the Conservative party, and that in the past seven years every former Conservative party treasurer has given at least £3 million to the party, and almost all of them have been offered a peerage. There seems to be an uncanny connection between donating vast sums of money to the Government, or indeed to some of the official Opposition parties, and the chances of being offered a seat for life in the House of Lords.

I am glad that my hon. Friend is making that strong and powerful point. We have some gall to lecture the developing world about good governance arrangements, when we are prepared to stuff a political institution full of people who are little more than donors, cronies and political place-people, in order to ensure their place in what I would not call our democracy, but our legislature, just for the fact that they have some money to give to political parties. Does he agree?

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. As he and I have said, the connection is quite uncanny. Of course, no one is levelling specific accusations, but that connection is out in the open. It is a simple fact; it is simply numbers. In conjunction with Brunel University, openDemocracy calculated that the odds of so many major Tory donors in the UK population all ending up in the House of Lords are the equivalent of entering the national lottery 12 times in a row and winning the jackpot every time. That is quite astonishing.

As we know, there are limits on the collective ability of the Lords to veto or overrule the elected House. However, as my hon. Friend alluded to, the rights available to individual peers are very similar to ours in the House of Commons. They can put written and oral questions to Ministers. They can vote on and seek to amend legislation during a three-stage process that parallels that in the Commons. Incidentally, that means they can also bump into Ministers privately when they are in the voting Lobbies, which is supposed to be one of the great advantages of in-person voting.

Peers can introduce their own private Members’ Bills. They can sign up to inter-parliamentary bodies such as the CPA and the IPU, and they can join all-party parliamentary groups. There is, rightly, a lot of scrutiny at the moment of the operation of all-party parliamentary groups, but I wonder how many colleagues present have had to leave early or arrive late at an APPG meeting that they were interested in because they have had to deal with urgent constituency casework, or get to the Chamber for an urgent question or a statement relating to their constituency. Meanwhile, colleagues from the Lords at such meetings are content to run on and opine about the topic under discussion, whatever that happens to be, and build their connections with stakeholders and the secretariats of those meetings, whoever they happen to be.

In return for all that, peers are entitled to claim £332 for every day they attend the House, tax free. Sometimes it is pointed out that over an average of 150 sitting days a year, that works out at slightly less than the salary of a Member of the House of Commons after tax. However, in the Lords it is guaranteed for life. Members of Parliament are, without doubt, very well remunerated compared with most of our constituents. However, our constituents can, quite rightly, choose to stop that remuneration and elect a different representative in our place every time an election comes round.

Would my hon. Friend put on record the fact that the tax-free allowance that Members of the House of Lords are given is based on a system of them just coming and clocking in? We saw with Lord Hanningfield that they can literally be on the Estate for five minutes, then beaver off and get on with the other jobs that they have.

It comes back to the point about accountability. Members of Parliament who behave in such a way would be taken to task, first by their Whips, secondly by the local party members, and finally by the electorate.

Since the end of the second world war, 65 countries have gained their independence from the United Kingdom. Although many have based the design and practices of their legislatures on might be called a Westminster model, I am not sure whether any of them have chosen to replicate a wholly unelected, appointed, partially hereditary Chamber where members serve for life. Even in Lesotho, with its hereditary chieftains, appointed members of the Senate serve a five-year term. Its Senate has 33 members, not over 800.

SNP manifestos in 2015, 2017 and 2019 called for the abolition of the House of Lords. When Scotland becomes the 66th country to achieve independence from the United Kingdom, there will be an opportunity to consider how the enactment of legislation, scrutiny of the Executive and representation of the population can be most effectively —and perhaps innovatively—achieved.

There have been proposals for an upper Chamber of some kind, perhaps based on the model of the Irish Seanad. There have been calls for an increase in the number of MSPs, both under current devolution and indeed under independence. There are more radical ideas for pre-legislative scrutiny and a greater use of citizens’ assemblies and other forms of direct democracy that could feed into the main legislature.

However, nobody, as far as I am aware, has suggested that when Scotland becomes independent, or when any other country has a good hard look at its constitution, it would be a good idea to have a wholly appointed second Chamber. The idea is just incomprehensible and incompatible with a modern democracy.

This has always been a quandary for me: what does an independent Scotland do with existing peers who have Scottish titles or who are from a Scottish part of the world? It struck me that, just to show generosity and good spirit, perhaps we could donate all the Scottish lords to the rest of the United Kingdom as a parting gift? Does my hon. Friend think that is a good idea?

During the independence referendum campaign my hon. Friend was probably so busy making the case for independence in the House of Commons and in his constituency that he missed the fact that the peers dwelled on that issue for some considerable time and that it was a matter of great concern to them. They came to the conclusion that because they had been appointed for life and were peers of the United Kingdom, the fact that they once lived or served—or even continue to live—in Scotland was irrelevant and they would all be safe in their place. After that they appeared to lose interest in the question of independence.

I am sure it is a relief to many people paying attention to the debate. Anyway, that information was meant to be just for background and context, but it turns out that simply by describing the absurdity of the current system the case for reform of the Lords starts to speak for itself. My point today is not so much about what kind of reform of the House of Lords is necessary or what should replace it were it to be completely abolished, but about why reform has not happened or is not happening and the ongoing failure—indeed, the impossibility—of any kind of meaningful reform. There seem to be two main reasons for that.

First, it is not in the interests of the governing party at Westminster or the Prime Minister—any Prime Minister—to weaken the immense power of patronage that the ability to make appointments to the Lords represents. Secondly, it is simply not possible to reform the Lords in any meaningful way without reforming the Commons, and that would mean not just procedural reform but electoral reform, followed by a review of the entire structure of the UK’s constitution. That would never be in the interests of any incumbent party of government.

Members may be aware that there have been some significant interventions on the issue of Lords reform in recent months, and these have, intentionally or otherwise, conceded both of those points. The Lord Speaker addressed the issue of Lords reform in the Hansard Society’s 75th anniversary lecture just before Christmas. His proposed framework was thoughtful and pragmatic, and it is easy to agree with several of the key principles he outlined about why reform was needed and what it could start to look like. He made a key point that the more radical the change to the composition of the Lords, the more radical would be the change to the role of the House, even if there were no explicit changes in its powers. However, to me it then follows that there would inevitably also be a change in its relationship with the Commons, and the Commons would want to find new ways, quite rightly, to assert its democratic mandate.

The Lord Speaker diplomatically regretted the decision of recent Prime Ministers not to show restraint in making new appointments, and remarked that the House of Lords has increased from 778 members in June 2019 to 828 today, with more to come. Those figures show just how irresistible the power of patronage is to many Prime Ministers. Other than various absolute monarchs and dictators, who else in the world has the power to confer a job for life on any person of their choosing? That is a power that rests with the UK’s Prime Minister, exercisable over wavering Back-Bench rebels, potential advisers who need to be enticed away from the private sector and, it seems by more than mathematical coincidence, over many wealthy party donors.

The Lord Speaker also pointed out that a change of Government could easily lead to a further surge in membership of the Lords in order to reflect the changed balance of power in the Commons. That shows, once again, that it is impossible to speak of meaningful reforms of the Lords in isolation, and not consider the effect that reform would have on the UK’s wider political system.

These points are raised in the other recent major intervention on the issue, the recommendations published by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, after he modestly accepted a commission from the Leader of the Opposition to produce a report on the future of the United Kingdom.

Yes, what an achievement!

Incidentally, it is a bit odd that this debate is not being led by a Member of the official Opposition. People would think the report would have inspired a rush of applications from Labour Members eager to share their thoughts on constitutional reform and the role of the House of Lords, but in reality, barely a month after its publication, the status of that report is not clear.

Media coverage at the time suggested that it would form the basis of Labour’s next manifesto, which would mean the next election would become a de facto referendum on the constitution. A vote for the Labour party would be a vote to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an assembly of nations and regions, for further regional devolution throughout England and for reform of the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru, never mind that they were established by a Labour Government after popular referendums, or that previous extensions to their powers came as a result of cross-party commissions, including representatives from those institutions. Now it seems a Labour Government elected on 40% of the UK-wide vote will claim a mandate for sweeping constitutional reform.

Would it not be a simple way for Labour to show commitment to true House of Lords reform if it just stopped making appointments to it? A better gesture might be to even remove a few of them now and again, including the ones who do not turn up. Maybe that is a suggestion that my hon. Friend could make to our friends on the Labour Benches.

There are a number of Members, including the spokesperson for the official Opposition, present, so they will have heard that. They will have also read the repeated reports of the Lord Speaker’s Commission. The irony is that the House of Lords is more keen on reform than the Government are.

I do not wish to burst my hon. Friend’s bubble on Labour party commitments, but is he aware that since 1910 the Labour party has made manifesto commitments to abolish the House of Lords? Given that it has not happened in 110 years, how seriously can we trust the report by Gordon Brown?

That is the point; the pattern continues. We keep talking about but never actually implementing any meaningful or wholesale reform. The report does at least recognise that we cannot tackle one part of the system without tackling all of it. For all the fuss and media fanfare, it will just sit on the shelf and gather dust, as my hon. Friend suggests. Reform of the Lords and of the wider constitution becomes a second-order or a second-term issue, and the Executive can get on quietly putting to use the accumulated powers that they enjoy under the status quo.

That probably helps to explain, at least in part, the current Government’s position. They have said in various contexts that reform of the Lords is “not a priority”, despite the Conservative manifesto saying that the role of the House of Lords should be “looked at”. But now, even the modest suggestion of a cap on numbers, endorsed, as I have said, by the House of Lords itself, is too radical. The Minister who is in his place told me on 8 December at Cabinet Office questions:

“The Government do not have a view on the upper limit of the House of Lords.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2022; Vol. 724, c. 510.]

So there we go. It is quite remarkable—to infinity and beyond, the House of Lords filled with Tory donors, cronies and time servers. I have maybe saved the Minister his entire summing-up because the position appears to be that constitutional perfection in the UK has been achieved, and nothing needs to change again. Indeed, his colleague, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, seems to have said that he does not believe there should be any further devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament, either—now or in the future. Fortunately, it is not up to them to decide.

Those of us who support independence for Scotland are often accused of obsessing about the constitution. We are told that we should focus on the priorities of our constituents—the cost of living crisis, improving public services. I agree—

The Minister might be interested to hear this, then. I certainly do agree that those are the key priorities for people, families, businesses and communities in Glasgow North and beyond, but to really address those priorities, we need to address the fundamental systems underneath. One way of putting it would be to say:

“While many of our immediate economic problems can be fixed by pursuing better policies, by stopping the race to the bottom in our economy, Britain needs change that runs much deeper—giving the people of Britain more power and control over our lives and the decisions that matter to us. Changing not just who governs us, but how we are governed, will address a system of government that the British people perceive is broken.”

Those are not my words. Those are the words of Gordon Brown in the introduction to his report on the UK’s future. They make the case that constitutional change is needed if we are to drive radical, social and economic change. The difficulty for the Labour party, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has said, is that it has been promising that for 113 years, and for 13 of those years, starting in 1997, it had a chance to change it.

At the end of those 13 years, there was a certain amount of devolution across the UK, but there was still a first-past-the-post system that stoked division rather than built consensus, and a system that allowed an individual Prime Minister to appoint whoever they wanted to a seat in Parliament—and there were 92 legislators who still had a seat in Parliament because of who their parents were.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, which is a topic of great interest to me, because I have I have introduced a Bill that is scheduled for debate next Friday. Its purpose is to end the scandal whereby eight seats in the upper House are effectively reserved for men only. I urge the hon. Gentleman to put his support behind my Bill next Friday.

I would be very happy to support the hon. Lady’s Bill, and I commend her on her work with the international institutions that I mentioned earlier.

I would also be happy to come back to Westminster Hall and debate how we can reform the private Member’s Bill system, because the chance of many of those Bills getting through is another aspect of Westminster democracy that many of my constituents find incredibly frustrating.

That takes us back to the point that real change to how we in Scotland are governed cannot, and will not, come through gradual, grudging and piecemeal change at Westminster. Frankly, it is independence for Scotland that is most likely finally to force the rest of the UK to look at and reform its constitution, including the role and composition of the House of Lords. For those of us from Scotland, that will perhaps be the topic of some fascinating future inter-parliamentary roundtable, while the democratically elected and accountable Parliament and Government of an independent Scotland gets on with building a fairer, greener and healthier society in what will be the early days of a better nation.

I was going to invite those who wish to speak to bob, but you have done so. If you have not bobbed, I assume you do not wish to be called.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I come to this debate somewhat prepared and somewhat remembering my A-level classes, where we had to debate the idea of House of Lords reform. As I stand here now, a few years on from my A-levels, and think about the merits of the House of Lords, I fear that the wolves are circling.

When SNP Members turn up to a Westminster Hall debate and promise to improve the constitution of the United Kingdom, I feel they are somewhat acting like pandas: they want to eat, shoot and leave our constitution. I worry about that and about the damage the proposals from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) might cause. In his typically erudite way, he came up with a whole host of reasons for some of the mistakes and problems that can be seen in the House of Lords. Of course, we can see mistakes and problems in the House of Commons, and we should not be outright opposed to some reforms or changes. However, what the hon. Gentleman typically forgot to do was to talk about some of the positive aspects of the House of Lords and the important work it does, or about many of the occasions on which the SNP has been led to support the House of Lords when it has checked the Government on important pieces of legislation.

I will start with a few points of rebuttal, since I do believe this is like an A-level debate.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, supporting something and agreeing with a decision are two very different things. Just because, on occasion—particularly during Brexit—the SNP has agreed with decisions that the House of Lords has made, that does not mean that we support it or have ever said that we support it.

I was not suggesting for a second that the SNP had done so. I was more making the point that, although I hope Scotland always remains part of the Union of the United Kingdom, if the SNP wants to not be part of it, perhaps it should not be making comments on this topic.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North made a point about opulence and tradition—that he was not so in favour of it and that he is lost for words when he stands in the House of Lords. I, too, am lost for words when I stand in the House of Lords—because of the sheer magnificence, the history and the tradition. No nation was ever weakened by a love of tradition; in fact, a nation can be strengthened and improved by it. We can use tradition to our advantage.

When we talk about that tradition and that opulence, we can also talk about the important pieces of legislation that start in the House of Lords and make huge differences to people across the land, not because those in the Lords have necessarily been elected by the people, but because they bring with them a specific understanding and knowledge of sectors that would never normally put individuals into the public eye to make pieces of legislation.

An interesting consideration about an elected second Chamber is how it would retain its huge expertise across so many industries, which is very important to legislative scrutiny. Does the hon. Member have any thoughts on how that could be done effectively?

I worry about that, because one thing we may find common cause and agreement on is that being in public life is becoming increasingly hard for us all—both Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords. It is difficult, and it is unfortunate that we are so often in the glare of the public eye, with all of the trials and tribulations that come with that. I would not want to see the House of Lords elected, because I do not think we would achieve that aim of encouraging specialists to be part of it. I will develop those points later in my remarks.

I have to say that Baron Mangnall has a ring to it that we could all get behind. The hon. Member spoke about some of the wonderful specialists in the House of Lords. Could he develop his point a little more by talking about the specialisms of, say, Baroness Michelle Mone?

If I may, the hon. Member’s colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow North, started off by saying that he was not going to be specific about individuals, and I do not think it is right that we are specific about individuals. However, if there is an individual who has done extremely well in business as a woman in the 21st century, I think it is important to note that. But I might also point out that the House of Lords has been a welcoming home to refugees, in the form of Baroness Helic, who fled the war in Bosnia. It also has extraordinary scientists, such as Lord Winston. These extraordinary people make an extraordinary contribution, and they are not the minority—they are the majority.

In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Glasgow North pointed out only a few small issues, rather than the vast majority of positive things that go on throughout the House of Lords. He made the point about cronies in the Lords; the House of Lords is still conditioned to the standards that Parliament sets, and it is still compliant with the rules that we too must follow. It is important to remember that it is not some lawless upper Chamber in which people can do what they want. It is set to the same procedures and scrutiny that we must follow. I do not think we should put that aside.

I have a few points to make. First, the House of Lords serves as an important check and balance. I notice that not a single SNP Member was at yesterday’s debate on the Procurement Bill, apart from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), who was on the Front Bench. Dry, difficult and sometimes dull as procurement might be, it is a perfect example of how a Bill can be introduced in the House of Lords, shaped by fantastic expertise from across the Chamber and then brought to the House of Commons, where it passes its Second Reading, not with great confrontation and difficulty, but with acceptance that it is a good piece of legislation that will make a huge difference.

I would be interested to know whether the hon. Member thinks that the Government will undo some of the amendments the Lords put in and that the Bill will end up looking more like it did when the Government introduced it—rather than retaining what those experts in the House of Lords did to it?

It is perfectly acceptable to say that there will be scrutiny and change, as there always is, but that is not to say that the job has not been well done by Members of the House of Lords. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Aberdeen North may laugh about that, but that is exactly the point of the process. We want to be able to make use of that expertise in the House of Commons, and we want our legislative agenda to be scrutinised in the House of Lords. That is the way the system works.

Those important checks and balances have meant that pieces of legislation that have been passed on the fly—I have felt that, in some cases, they have perhaps been passed too quickly—have been checked and sent back by the House of Lords. When it comes to international development, which I am deeply concerned about, the House of Lords has been extremely effective in that regard. That is something that those on the Labour Front Bench might agree with me on.

The hon. Gentleman keeps talking about checks and balances. Can he talk further about how many cheques have been donated to political parties by people who happen to sit in the House of Lords?

The vast majority of Members of the House of Lords are not people who have donated cheques, but people who have done extraordinary things in society. If the hon. Gentleman would like to go back and look at those numbers, I would be happy to do battle with him—the numbers are in my favour here. The vast majority of Members of the House of Lords need to be applauded, not ridiculed and pursued for being cronies and for not serving their country. They serve their country just as much as we do.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech supporting the work done in the other place, but surely he would agree that there is a need for incremental reform? Surely he cannot support the fact that an eighth of the seats in the other place are reserved for men only? Will he, too, support my Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill?

I am used to being a constant rebel to the Government, so I am not entirely sure whether I am allowed to support anything, but I agree in principle with what my hon. Friend is doing. If primogeniture is going to be used, why should it not include women being able to take on titles? However, that perhaps goes over my head and is there for the constitutional experts.

The important point, which should not be overlooked, is that a vast number of Ministers who work in the House of Lords do so not for the extra salary, but because they are interested in the subject. That is something to be supported and encouraged. We need to note more often that Members on both sides of the House of Lords—including on the Cross Benches—work incredibly hard, and not for huge renumeration. They often work far longer hours than those in the House of Commons. It is important to say that we support this system. We can look at minor reforms to improve it and to ensure that Ministers who serve the Crown do so under their own hard work—not with the remuneration of the State.

I have made my points regarding the checks and balances, the value of the scrutiny of the Lords and the hard work that Ministers and peers put in, but it is also worth looking at the composition of the House of Lords. I have mentioned people such as Baroness Helic, whom I know as a friend and whom I have worked for, and I have followed individuals such as Lord Winston. Too often, we are scared to stand up to public opinion, but in the House of Lords we have a body of people who are governed not necessarily by public opinion but by the expertise and knowledge they bring to that place. They can discuss the issues not because they have read a briefing paper that morning or been briefed by a group, but because they have real-life, world experience. They have the expertise to be able to tease out the legislation that needs to be passed. That is something to be grateful for and to be cherished. It improves our legislation and the system we have in this country.

It is easy for individuals, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North did in his opening remarks, to talk about things such as China and to make an anecdotal point I have made on a number of occasions. In fact, I have often made the joke that when a young Member is introduced to the House of Lords they usually get a cheer when they run up the stairs, because they are so young. Perhaps it is rather unfair to say that, but I would make this point: yes, we can change the numbers in the House of Lords—maybe that could be up for discussion in the future, but that is up to the Government—but we need to ensure that we retain that expertise.

I will use an international example, as that is what the hon. Member for Glasgow North did. The Cabinet of the United States Government is not made up of elected individuals. They are appointed, albeit not for life—I accept that point—and they wield huge power, so let us not say that we are out of kilter with the rest of the world. We have a body of people who check themselves and who are required to have parliamentary scrutiny and the rigours of debate. This arrangement does work in other countries in certain systems. That is the important point, not the comparison to China or Lesotho, which the hon. Gentleman made. We should look at where this works and where we might be able to improve things.

I have taken far too long already, but there is another important point to make. There is value here. Improvements can always be made in both Houses. We should all be aware of that. I fear the day when we are unable to ensure that experts can go into the House of Lords, because they fear the rigours that we all have to deal with as elected Members. It is not easy being a Member of Parliament—we all know that. I do not think people would be readily able to stand up in the House of Lords and say, “I’ll go for election and the scrutiny and difficulties that come with that from the British public.” It is deeply troubling and unfortunate that so many people are persecuted and subjected to such appalling things on social media.

We must continue to use the House of Lords as a check and balance, a place of expertise, a place where we can celebrate the hard work of our Ministers and a place to which we can attract some of the most extraordinary people from around the world. It is typically generous of this country that we take migrants and end up putting them into the House of Lords. That has happened, and I think we should celebrate it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing the debate. As a democrat, it is one that I welcome. I believe that those who are responsible for our laws should have democratic legitimacy. If they do not, our politics, which already struggles to hold the confidence of many members of the public, will continue to ebb away. Of course, it is not entirely correct that no Member of the Lords has a democratic mandate. Last year, there were half a dozen by-elections to replace hereditary peers. As we know, it is a very selective electorate, with only other hereditary peers able to vote. The last election saw a grand total of 37 votes cast. I suggest that anyone who believes that that should be the limit of our ambitions for democracy in the House of Lords should aim a little higher.

As has been reflected on, many Members of the House of Lords do make excellent contributions, but some are, sadly, a little less assiduous. We know that an average of only between a half and two thirds of the Members of the upper House actually attend, and many Members have not spoken or voted in a considerable time.

The House of Lords currently has a huge number of peers—over 800. Does the hon. Member agree that reducing that number could be one aspect of initial reform, along with looking at ways to increase the diversity of the membership of the other House, as the Chair of the Treasury Committee, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), said.

I believe that it was Government policy not so long ago to reduce the membership of the Lords. I am not sure that that has been kept on track—like many Government policies.

Many Members do not speak or attend at all, but they appear to be able to do so without any accountability. That is an affront to democracy and an insult to the public.

When we talk about the House of Lords, one thing I find amusing is the concept of working peers. We do not talk about “working refuse collectors” or “working brain surgeons”. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be some sort of threshold, at least in the beginning, such that if a peer has not spoken or voted, they automatically lose their place in the House of Lords, by virtue of not being a working peer?

That is an interesting suggestion. I would suggest that lords in that position should do the honourable thing and resign. We have spoken about the Government wanting to have minimum service levels; indeed, they want to sack nurses and teachers who do not keep to those. Perhaps they should apply the same standards to Members of the Lords.

I am certainly not claiming that there are no valuable elements of the current House of Lords. As we have heard, there are many extremely talented Members who demonstrate high levels of integrity, expertise and independence. However, we make a huge mistake in assuming that the second Chamber is naturally imbued with those characteristics because of the way that Members are appointed. As we have heard, there is a growing tendency for those with the biggest cheque books to be offered a seat at the table. That is not democracy; that is not the way a modern country should operate. I see no reason why those who have a place because of their skills, experience or abilities would not have a good chance of continuing to serve if they put themselves forward for election by the public. Ultimately, for all the positive qualities that those particular Members show, their contribution is fatally undermined by the lack of democratic legitimacy.

We essentially say to the public, “We trust you to decide on our future relationship with Europe. We trust you to elect Members of Parliament, councillors, police and crime commissioners, and Mayors. But we do not think we can trust you to elect the upper Chamber of Parliament.” I have no truck—we have already picked up on this—with those who are recent converts to the merits of the House of Lords just because, on a particular occasion, it voted in a particular way that suited their political views. That does not negate the overall democratic deficit that, in its current form, it represents. Let us not allow the day-to-day decisions, and the painfully slow incremental process that we have seen, to cloud the bigger picture: the House of Lords belongs to a bygone era of privilege, establishment and a closed political world, when we are, I hope, becoming a more open society.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) made a fundamental point: if we reform the House of Lords, we effectively reform the House of Commons. My hon. Friend is suggesting direct democracy for the House of Lords. Does he agree that that would necessarily diminish the powers of the House of Commons? It would put another House in opposition to our House, which would be a bad thing.

That is not necessarily the case, and that is not where the argument need take us. That kind of argument is often put forward by people who want to stifle change and reform.

I cannot believe that anyone would think that the current arrangements are satisfactory. We have, in effect, a halfway house between the medieval institution the Lords once was and the modern democracy that we, or certainly I, hope to see. When the number of hereditary peers was reduced in 1999, Baroness Jay described the Lords as a “transitional House”. It is clearly an anomaly that we have certain people entering there by different routes, and it is time that that was ended.

I will have two bites of the cherry. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the House of Lords being a place of privilege, but the vast majority of people are not appointed from a background of privilege; they are appointed from a background of expertise and specialism in their subjects. He references the 92, but they are not the vast majority of the House of Lords.

That is 92 too many, in my opinion. I do not believe that having a place in our legislature by reason of birth has any place in our modern democracy.

As has been picked up on already, the recent report from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown sets out the case for reform very well; it contains serious proposals for what a modern, democratic second Chamber could look like, which could be implemented without us necessarily having to change the way we in this House work. Some of the big messages in that report about the loss of trust in our democratic institutions are ones that we should all be concerned about. The fact that more than 50% of adults believe it does not matter who they vote for and that nothing will change, and that more than 60% of people believe that Britain has a ruling class that will always rule the country, should ring huge alarm bells for single one of us who cares about democracy in this country.

My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. I would like to pursue the point. If a second Chamber were elected after the House of Commons had been elected, how would conflict between the two Houses be resolved if they had two contrary mandates? I agree that the current House of Lords is not justifiable, and I believe in its abolition, but I do not think we should set up an alternative democratic base to the House of Commons.

I refer my hon. Friend to the recommendations set out in the Brown report, which outline the limitations on a second Chamber’s ability to reject legislation. The suggestion is for it to have a defined constitutional role and this will cover when it is able to reject issues. Those are matters for further discussion, but nations around the world manage to have democratically elected second Chambers without creating chaos. I believe that is something we should aim for.

Coming back to the figures, we should take very seriously the fact that so many people have so little faith and trust in us representing them. Democracy is fragile and should not be taken for granted. We ignore those findings at our peril. We have to make our politics more open and accountable to the people we serve. An appointed body cannot have a future in that respect.

I will finish on this point. There are always pressing priorities, but we need to look at the bigger picture and at how the world is radically different from just a decade ago. We cannot allow our institutions to remain static forever. We must listen to what the public are telling us.

I am just finishing. The public want change and a political process that they feel a part of and that is not geographically weighted towards London and the south-east, as the second Chamber is at the moment. They want people with a mandate from the whole nation, and a body that is not just invitation only. They want accountability and representation. In short, they want democracy. Reform of the House of Lords is unfinished business, and it is about time we had a Government who intend to see that through to its conclusion.

I would like to begin by posing a scenario. We go to the public and we say to them, “We have a good idea for constitutional reform. Let us double the number of Members of Parliament.” How do colleagues feel that would go down? Not very well, I think. Suppose we then said, “Let us double the number of Members of Parliament, but elect half of them at one time, and half of them at another time.” How would that work in practice?

Alternatively, we could say, “Let us elect them all at the same time, but sit them in two Houses.” In which case, they rubber-stamp each other. Finally, we would say, “Let us elect one group under one electoral system and the other group under a different electoral system, but one will clearly be subordinate to the other, even though they are both democratically elected.” I wish anybody luck in trying to resolve the arguments and the deadlock resulting from that.

May I add one further option? There would be 59 fewer Members of Parliament if Scotland becomes independent, and then the remaining guys could do what they want with their own constitution.

If we were having a debate about Scottish independence, I would be happy to engage with that. Our Scottish colleagues have quite rightly chosen to participate in the UK national constitutional debate, and that is what we are considering this afternoon. I have a firm view that if the House of Lords had to go, it would be far better to have a single elected Chamber, rather than two elected Chambers that would perpetually be either deadlocking or rubber-stamping each other.

I agree with the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Does he agree that there is a fallacy in the comparison with other countries that have two different systems and an upper House? They rely on a written constitution and the courts interpreting it. That fallacy is deep within the Brown report—somehow, constitutionally, we will limit one House when we do not have a written constitution. Is that not a nonsense?

The hon. Gentleman is an independent thinker on his party’s Benches. Not for the first time, I find myself in total agreement with him. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said that the system of two elected Houses works well in other democracies. I am not sure that the citizens of the United States would entirely endorse that opinion, great though their democracy is.

Forgive me, but I would like to develop my argument a little more. I promise that I will then give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is always courteous. I am an abolisher of the House of Lords, but the UK is a complex democracy and some sort of revising Chamber would be required to take care of all its specific demands. The right hon. Gentleman and, I think, the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) were here when Robin Cook proposed a series of reforms. I think we voted 11 times on a number of proposals, and none of them went through because of the very arguments made by the right hon. Gentleman. We cannot have competition with the House of Commons, but surely abolishing the House of Lords would not mean that we were left with nothing. There must be something we can think of to go in its place.

I remember that series of votes, because I voted against every one of those propositions. I was absolutely convinced that all of them would have changed matters for the worse.

Having said that, I agree with the hon. Gentleman as far as saying that there surely must be ways in which reforms can be made to the existing, non-elected upper House. I am sure that many thoughtful Members of that House agree with that proposition, not least the noble Lord Cormack and Lord Norton of Louth. They run an effective campaign for an effective second Chamber that is constantly looking at ways in which the existing upper House can be successfully improved.

After a promising start, having given a nod or two to the expertise of many Members of the upper House and to the quality of their debate, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), to whom we are all grateful for introducing the debate, fell into the traditional trap of complaining mainly about what the House of Lords is rather than what the House of Lords does, and does very well. In the short time that I wish to take up, I will give an illustration of that—if my technology will allow me.

I have a confession. I have been a Member of Parliament for over 25 years, and in all that time I, as an individual legislator, have managed to change only one piece of legislation, and that was because of the most unusual occasion of a free vote in the lower House. However, in a six-year period in the latter part of the 1980s—before I became a Member of Parliament—I was able, with the essential help of Members of the House of Lords, to change no fewer than four pieces of legislation. For the record, one was to require postal ballots for trade union elections, which was incorporated in the Trade Union Act 1984 and the Employment Act 1988. The second was to outlaw political indoctrination in schools, which was incorporated in the Education Act 1986 and carried forward in the Education Act 1996. The third was a measure prohibiting local councils from publishing politically partisan material on the rates, and that was incorporated in section 27 of the Local Government Act 1988. Fourthly, a more strict definition of the concept of due impartiality in coverage of politically contentious issues on television and radio was incorporated in the Broadcasting Act 1990.

I imagine that SNP Members in particular are sitting in horror at the prospect of all those legislative changes having gone through, but whether or not we agree with the particular changes, the fact is that they were possible only because the unelected House has a very limited whipping system. If a Member persuades thoughtful and independently minded Members of the upper House of the wisdom of a proposed amendment to a piece of legislation going through the parliamentary process and convinces them to back that amendment, there is every prospect that the upper House will insert it in the legislation, and it will remain there when it returns to the lower House, thereby forcing the Government to consider it seriously.

I mentioned the issue of postal ballots in trade union elections, which are now accepted by all. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) tabled an amendment on that issue in the lower House, it got nowhere. It was voted down—not on its merits but because of the whipping system. The vast majority of Members who voted on it probably did not have much idea of what his amendment contained. They did what they were told. In the upper House, if I could convince people that something was sensible and they voted it through into the legislation, I found that it had a better than 50% chance of remaining in that legislation when it went back to the lower Chamber.

There are, of course, undeserving people sitting in the House of Lords, but there are also many people who chose not to become professional politicians. They chose to stay in their own professions and to rise to the top of them. They became top academics, lawyers and people in the field of, for example, medicine or any other profession or trade. I am not in any way being disrespectful to the abilities of those of us who chose to become full-time, or more or less full-time, Members of the House of Commons, but when we made that decision we gave up our ability to maintain and develop our level of expertise such as it was before we took that career path.

Having an unelected second Chamber, even though some people may be put there for the wrong reasons, should nevertheless not blind us to the fact that many people who have great intellect, knowledge and expertise can bring those talents to bear on legislation as it goes through and improve it. It is precisely because they are not elected that they can never seek to usurp the powers of the House of Commons, but always be rightly subordinate to us in this House while we benefit from the value added that they bring to the process.

I appreciate you taking the time to chair this debate so excellently, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing this debate. When I was first elected to the House of Commons, I was made the SNP spokesperson on the House of Lords. It is the easiest job an SNP politician can do, because when they do something, we say, “Abolish them,” and when they do something else, we say, “Abolish them,” again. There is just one line you need to know. That is why this debate has been interesting. It has been a thoughtful debate with lots of issues and concerns raised about the House of Lords. Some Members have talked about how great they think the House of Lords is, but we have also discussed a number of different issues.

I will focus briefly on the issue of constitutional obsession. We all have a constitutional obsession. Indeed, hon. Members would not be here if they did not think that things that were not working needed to be changed. It is not just about improving a single constituent’s life by writing to an energy company to complain about a wrong bill. We can improve all of our constituents’ lives by changing the system. That is what all of us are here to do. We are all here to talk and think about the constitution and the changes we want to make to it and to the systems and the ways in which we operate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North is correct that Governments of any type, in any country, have less impetus to deliver change than anyone else. Governments are appointed by whatever system they work within. That means that the system works for them: it has put them there and entrenched their power. Why would they want to lessen their future chances of getting that power?

That point is neatly summed up by the fact that one in 10 Conservative peers have donated more than £100,000 to the party. I do not know which came first: did they donate money and then happen to become a peer, or did they become a peer and then happen to donate money? I do not know the order in which it works, but surely that is a symbiotic, beneficial relationship for both groups of people. It is great for the Conservative party that it can get so much in donations, and it is great for peers that they can get £332 a day, as well as the power and prestige that comes with being a Member of the House of Lords as a result of their relationships, patronage and appointment for life.

I will now talk specifically about how the House of Lords works and operates, and what it looks like. The most recent figures I could find in the Library are from 2019 and show that the average age of Members of the House of Commons is 51. That is not as young as it should be and does not reflect the general population or even the general voting population. However, the average age of Members of the House of Lords is 71. The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) may be interested to know that he is younger than the youngest peer in the House of Lords. Although he and I are relatively young Members of Parliament, we are far from being the youngest MPs these days.

As a 71-year-old Member of the lower House, I will not take offence at the hon. Lady’s ageism. I will just point out, however, that if people get to the top of their professions before they get seats in the House of Lords, where they can apply their expertise, they will tend to be older rather than younger.

My issue is not with the actions of individuals at certain ages or with the fact that there are many 71-year-olds who could run rings around significant numbers of us younger ones—I absolutely agree that that is the case. My issue is that it does not represent the population. We are supposed to have a representative democracy but it fails to be so because its membership does not look like the rest of the population.

I will take a moment to tackle another thing that the hon. Member for Totnes said. Some 57% of Members of the House of Lords went to private schools, which is ridiculously high.

It is going down, yes, but much more slowly than if we had an elected Chamber where Members were not appointed for life. Some 6% of Members of the House of Lords are from a minority ethnic background, whereas 13% of people in the UK are from such a background. Because the unelected Chamber is over 800 people large, every person appointed to the House of Lords over a period of years would need to be from a minority ethnic background in order for the membership to look like the population. The unrepresentative nature of the House of Lords is a problem that cannot be fixed easily or quickly because of the fact that people in that House are appointed for life.

The issue of attacking the House of Lords because of what it is rather than what it does has been raised. That is the opposite argument to the one we hear from the Labour party, which suggests that we should not attack the current constitutional arrangement because of what it is—that we should not attack the current constitutional arrangement. The Labour party says that just because the Conservatives are in power, that does not mean that the constitutional arrangement for the devolution settlement is less than perfect, and that once we have a Labour Government it will be grand and everything will be significantly better than it currently is. I am not going to buy that. I am going to attack things for what they do and what they are. It is completely reasonable for us to have issues with the actions of the House of Lords or of the Government in the House of Commons, and with the way that those institutions are set up and run. I see no contradiction in making criticisms of both those things and am quite comfortable doing so.

I do not think that anybody here believes—I really hope they do not—that the current constitutional settlement and the way the House of Lords currently works and interacts with the House of Commons is 100% perfect. I do not think that anybody is willing to defend the current system as absolutely the best possible system we could have. I do not think that is the case, because the system is indefensible. We have a massive House in the other place, and one of the things that frustrates me most about the House of Lords is the fact that it can originate legislation. It is a checking and balancing system; how dare they originate legislation? Lords are unelected. It is done for reasons of timetabling. That is completely shocking if it is to continue to be an unelected Chamber.

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North having secured this debate and allowed me to have a bit of a rant about the House of Lords and my criticisms of it. Obviously, the way to resolve this—I am quite happy to eat, shoot and leave—is for us to leave the United Kingdom and leave youse to it. In the meantime, while we are members of this United Kingdom, although currently against our will, we would like to improve it. We would like to try to make it better, and to do that we need to abolish the House of Lords.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate. I often say that a debate is timely, but this debate really is: we are at a crux of time in our country when we are looking at who we want to serve us. There is a real crisis of trust in our democratic institutions, so it is only right that we talk about this issue.

I am proud to be given this opportunity to speak about Labour’s plans to make our Parliament fit for the 21st century. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for his contribution and I agree with him. I speak as a democrat, proud to be part of a democracy but shocked to be part of only half a democracy at many times. There is a democratic deficit in an unelected Chamber belonging to a bygone era that undermines the value of the expertise that has been rightly pointed out by many Members in the debate. Change is needed.

I cannot continue without paying tribute to our tireless Labour peers. Time and again, they have stood up against the Government’s worst excesses, whether that is by blocking attempts to strip refugees of their rights and dignity in the Nationality and Borders Bill or by inflicting a record 14 defeats on the Government’s anti-protest clauses in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Many lords are expert and hardworking, and deserve the respect of us all on the Opposition Benches.

In the past year the House of Lords has considered 5,244 changes to 100 Bills. Members in the House of Lords raised concerns, pressed the Government for action, questioned decisions with debates, asked daily oral questions and tabled urgent questions, in more than 3,350 hours of business. We are not saying that the House of Lords does not do a lot of hard work or that lords are not, often, experts in their field; we are saying that the Lords could be far better with a democratic mandate.

The time has come for change. We need a Lords that is properly accountable, where the expertise is strengthened by that democratic mandate, and that is up to the task of rebuilding the whole of Britain after 13 years of Conservative failure. The next Labour Government will scrap the House of Lords and replace it with a new second Chamber that truly represents people across the UK.

May I ask for a bit of clarification? Is the hon. Lady saying that the Labour party is wholly committed to a wholly elected Chamber of the House of Lords? If she is, does that mean there will be a referendum, as has been promised on previous occasions when Labour policy has suggested large constitutional change?

I do not think the hon. Member is alone in having questions about our policy, which is to have a conversation with the British people to decide what the future policies would be. I am not going to be outlining all the dotted i’s and crossed t’s of Labour party policy, because that would be wrong. We need to have further conversation about the result of our conversations. Later in my speech, I will go into what will underpin that.

The SNP has used this debate about the second Chamber for game playing, to undermine the strength of the Union, and has denied Scottish people a voice in the second Chamber by boycotting it—by just leaving it alone. It has no interest in making Westminster or devolution work. Labour will work with the Scottish people to give Scotland and other parts of the UK an even greater say in UK-wide legislation through a new second Chamber. Under a Labour Government, a second Chamber that is more representative will give Scottish people more of a mandate to deliver for Scotland and undo the damage caused by the SNP and the Conservatives.

There are three reasons why we need reform, the first of which is trust. Trust in Westminster is at an all-time low, and in many ways who can blame the public? Never before has the privilege of power been used and abused for personal gain so much and so frequently. The mantra of “It’s one rule for them and another for us” is said far too frequently; people should not feel like that about their elected bodies, and the Lords is a prime example.

Take the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). He recommended 87 new life peerages, but two of those people have not made maiden speeches, even though one was appointed in September 2019 and the other in July 2020. His brazen attempt to subvert democracy by rewarding donors, lackeys and friends makes him the latest in a long line of Conservative Prime Ministers who have gamed the system by installing a conveyor belt of their cronies into the House of Lords, undermining it as a result. Instead of rewarding Conservative donors, we should be rebuilding trust in politics.

I do not know, but we are talking about the system. It should not be the patronage of the Prime Minister that gets to recommend those who vote on our behalf; the people should decide who is going to make those decisions. That is the point I will be making, whichever party the Prime Minister comes from.

In the past seven years, every former Conservative party treasurer bar one has been offered a seat in the Lords, and 22 of the party’s biggest donors have been made lords since 2010. We cannot keep on sheepishly asking for the trust of the people: we need to show how things will be different. Reforming the second Chamber has to be part of that.

The second reason is democracy. Devolution was a major achievement of the last Labour Government, and the next Labour Government are committed to continuing that proud democratising tradition. We have shown that we will put our money where our mouth is when elected. We must go further than the devolution that has already taken place, which includes making the second Chamber of our Parliament fit for the 21st century. It must be more democratic and accountable, and therefore effective, and must accurately represent the people of our diverse regions and nations across the United Kingdom.

We need reform that retains expertise, yes, but the right expertise from throughout the country, not just expertise in knowing the right people. Consecutive Conservative Prime Ministers have ridden roughshod over the system of appointing people to the House of Lords. If things continue as they are, there will not be many experts left; instead, the House of Lords will be packed to the rafters with those who owe their place to favours and dodgy dealings rather than talent and expertise. For too many, a peerage is a fancy title or an Instagram photo opportunity, which undermines the work done by so many hard-working peers.

Hansard tells us all we need to know. There are 41 Members in the House of Lords who have only made one contribution since the beginning of the 1992-93 Session—one contribution in 30 years—yet those Members can claim more than £300 a day for attending and can vote on any issue, changing the lives of people up and down the country. They are not accountable; there is no check or balance. Those Members do not have to look into people’s eyes and be accountable for what they have done, how many times they have attended, what they have said and what they have voted on.

I think the hon. Lady mentioned 41 lords; could she help me with something, because it is important to be accurate? Of those 41, how many have claimed allowances, how many have actually voted and how many have attended the Chamber at any point? How many of them actually have parliamentary passes? I ask because we need to be clear about this matter; otherwise, someone can start setting a narrative that is not accurate about the important work that is done in the Lords.

The fact is that they have the right to come and vote if they want to, the right to attend and the right to take the money for their daily attendance, no matter what happens. It is just a job for life. They have the notoriety and the title, which gives them some credibility, yet they are not doing the work that should accompany their position. They should be accountable. If they are not attending, not taking the money and not voting, they should do the right thing and resign their positions.

YouGov polling from August last year shows that the public have had enough. Only 6% of British people favoured a House of Lords that is mostly appointed, whereas 48% supported a House of Lords that is mostly elected. Our plans are not just democracy for democracy’s sake, though, even though that would be reason enough. That brings me to the third reason for why reforms are vital. We cannot fix the economy without fixing our institutions and we cannot bring about the social change that we need in this country without fixing our institutions. They are fundamental to our decision making. Inclusive growth must go hand in hand with inclusive governance. A second Chamber packed with the mates of former Conservative Prime Ministers, all of whom have given up on the levelling-up agenda as far as I can see, will not deliver equal growth and opportunity for all nations and regions.

Labour will consult members of the public from throughout the UK to determine the exact size and make-up of the new second Chamber. We launched the commission on the UK’s future, which was chaired by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and involved people from throughout the country, including people from academia, local government, the legal profession and trade unions. As a result, we have articulated three clear principles that will underlie our vision of reform. First, Members of any new Chamber should be elected by voters rather than being appointed by politicians; secondly, it should be truly representative of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom and play an important role in safeguarding the devolution settlement; and thirdly, it must remain a second and secondary Chamber and continue to have a role complementary to the work of the Commons. It will not replace the Commons.

We have to earn back trust. That will happen only with a Labour Government. Only Labour has the ideas and the credibility to fix our politics as well as our economy, and we are the only party that sees the intrinsic connection between the two and that will make the change that is needed.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Sir Gary.

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this very interesting debate. I often think that we do not spend enough time in the Commons debating our constitution in the broadest sense, although I know that the hon. Gentleman is more interested in the constitution in a narrower sense. If a party is a single-issue party, it is important for it to adhere to that single issue; otherwise, what is it? Nevertheless, it is genuinely interesting to hear what the SNP thinks about the House of Lords because, notwithstanding the fact that the party has a shadow Minister for the House of Lords, as I discovered today, we do not often hear its views on such broader constitutional issues.

That said, it is atheists musing on the divine, in that, like some sort of mystic panda, the SNP intends, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) put it in his truly excellent speech, to “eat, shoot and leave”. Were SNP Members proposing long-standing major constitutional reform with the intention of living in that new constitutional structure, I would probably have slightly more time for their arguments, but alas it is not to be. We heard today a range of complaints and grievances about the House of Lords without any alternative proposal other than that there should be an independent Scotland. The SNP is entitled to hold that view, just as it is entitled not to engage with the House of Lords by having SNP Members of it.

I cannot help but think that after the 2014 referendum which, as the SNP acknowledged at the time, was a vote for a generation, it was somewhat churlish of the SNP not to join the current House of Lords, even if it disagreed with the structure and wished to see it reformed. That would have been a way of representing Scottish views in the United Kingdom, which people in that country voted to remain part of. Because the Union continues, I am proud to say, I encourage the SNP to rethink its position of—I was about to say “abstinence”, but that is the wrong word entirely—abstaining, or staying out of, the House of Lords.

Much as I disagree with the SNP’s views, I think that the Lords Chamber would be richer for the presence of SNP Members. I would like to see more people from more parts of the United Kingdom represented there. Would that it were not so, but a lot of people vote for the SNP, and it would be good if there were SNP expertise in the House of Lords to seek to influence legislation that would have a bearing on people in Scotland. But that is a decision for the SNP. I did not come into the House of Commons to give advice to the SNP.

My own experience of the House of Lords is rather different from that of the hon. Member for Glasgow North, who is grudgingly prepared to acknowledge that maybe one or two Lords have some expertise and something to say. As a Back Bencher and as a Minister, I have attended a large number of debates in the Lords, and I am always struck by how well informed they are and their courteous nature. It is acknowledged that people on the other side of the argument are worthy of respect, even if one disagrees with their views. I have also been struck by the fact that in that forum there is a great deal of highly positive soft diplomacy on legislation. As a Minister I have seen that. You hear and absorb the views of learned folk in the upper House and you start to wonder how and whether they should be reflected in policy.

When I was first elected to the Commons, I had a conversation with—I hope he does not mind my mentioning his name—Lord Young of Cookham. I asked how he was getting on as a Minister in the Lords and he said, “Well, it is a bit of a change from being a Minister in the Commons. In the Commons you get your briefing pack from your officials, you stand up and you can feel fairly confident that you’re on firm ground. When you stand up at the Dispatch Box in the Lords, five former Secretaries of State, three former heads of the civil service and a whole bunch of expertise from the wider world are all waiting to hold you to account.” That is a level of scrutiny of which we should be proud and that we should think twice about before seeking to remove. This is a good-natured debate, but we cannot just chuck away the life experience and professional experience of people we all know are making a positive contribution to legislation in our country.

The Minister is making a good case for a culture change in the House of Commons. There should be more listening to experts. When we consider the Procurement Bill, will he and his colleagues listen to the words of those giving evidence? Will he listen to their expertise and consider making changes? Or will the Bill come out with no amendment that any expert has put forward other than in the House of Lords?

We have already listened very closely to arguments made in the Lords, and we have already started to make policy improvements based on some of their recommendations. That does not mean that the Government will agree to all of the amendments that the Lords have made. The important thing is the debate, because iron sharpens iron. We can pretend that we will get similar expertise—as the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), said—from a democratically elected second House, but that simply is not true, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made clear.

There are a great many people in the Lords with huge experience, perhaps towards the end of their careers, who will not want to stand for democratic election. They will not want to put themselves through that and on the doorstep, and I have sympathy with them. I understand. It would be terribly sad if we lost those people from our legislature and if we did not have their expertise. Also, alongside that expertise, there is space for people in our legislature who are of no party affiliation. I know that the hon. Member for Glasgow North has a passionate, political viewpoint. He is a passionate member of his political party, but not everyone in the country is; not everyone in the world is. There are a great many sensible, intelligent people who have a lot to give our democracy, but who do not wish to stand for election under the flag of a particular party. If we were to move to a system of proportional representation, they would have to. There would be no independence in the Commons or the Lords. That, too, would make our Houses poorer and, I think, weaker.

The Government accept, as I think everybody here accepts, that our constitution evolves. It has been in a constant state of evolution for centuries. We are alive to the fact that we will always need to consider changes. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and the Opposition spokesperson spoke in favour of radical reform. Were a future Government to undertake that radical reform, it would bring major risks with it. There would not just be the loss of expertise, but a conflict of mandates, as described by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who is no longer in his place. It is very easy to brush that aside and pretend that we will deal with it later or that it does not matter. I can guarantee that in the event that we had a fully elected upper House, it would start to use its mandate against the mandate of the Commons from day one, and voters would not know how long the mandate in one House would last over the other. We would very likely find ourselves in a constant cycle of elections, rather than being in a position where one party or a coalition of parties could be elected for a term and deliver based on their mandate. Those are all risks that we as parliamentarians must be alive to and aware of.

I have greatly enjoyed the debate today. It is important that from time to time we engage in debate on these major issues.

The Minister said the constitution evolves. As a bare minimum, do the Government agree with the findings of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House of Lords, which said in 2017 that there should be a cap on the total number and efforts to reduce from the current number?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave him just before Christmas. If people do not turn up, they do not get paid. If people turn up and are involved, why not have their expertise? The Government depend on a majority in the Commons on an elected mandate. If there are more people in the upper Chamber who are capable of bringing decent scrutiny to bear on Government legislation, I have no problem with that. As I was saying, I think it is very good that we get to debate these issues, but it is also important that we do not come at debates such as these pretending that there is a perfect system out there—that we pretend that what we are doing here is laughable, and that, in other countries, they have got it absolutely right. What I do know is that, in this country, we have a fine set-up in which there is one House with a democratically elected mandate, and another House whose job it is to scrutinise and which can advise, refine and, if necessary, delay. It is a system that I think has served us well, and I believe can serve us well in the future. That said, the Government are aware that there is always room for evolution and improvement.

Thank you, Mr Streeter. I would just say to the Minister that I prefer to think that we are on the side of the divine, musing on the behaviour of the atheists, and I will not take any lessons on being a single-issue party, given that the Conservatives all got elected on the three-word slogan of “Get Brexit done”.

I thank the Minister, the Opposition spokesperson—the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson)—and my colleague from the SNP Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), for their contributions. I also thank the hon. Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), and my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), for all of their contributions.

It has been a thoughtful and useful debate, and I want to reiterate that none of what any of us have said —I think—has meant any disrespect to any individual Member of the House of Lords. I think we can all recognise, as the Labour Front Bench did, the significant contribution that many of them make.

As SNP MPs, many of us do not want to be here—we want Scotland to become an independent country. There are actually many Members of the House of Lords who do not want to be there either; they want to see it reformed in such a way that it will probably cost them their positions. But I think that makes my point, which I was trying to get across to the Minister in my intervention. When the Lords themselves support reform, yet such a simple measure and straightforward framework as the proposals in the Lord Speaker’s Committee cannot get enacted, and the Government do not just ignore it but actively work against the recommendations in it, then my point is proved; reform might be a nice idea, but it simply ain’t going to happen. That means that the answer for people in Scotland who do want constitutional change to drive economic and social change—which is what the Labour party’s position is—is that the route for them is going to be independence.

Question put and agreed to. 

Resolved,

That this House has considered reform of the House of Lords.

Unaccompanied Minors Seeking Asylum

If Angela Crawley is ready to go, it is a delight to call her to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. Just to remind Members, there is not an opportunity in a 30-minute debate for the Member in charge to wind up. That is our convention.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered unaccompanied minors seeking asylum.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I am grateful for the opportunity to lead today’s debate on an urgent and sadly all too familiar issue. Last month, 30 miles out at sea, at 3 am, in freezing conditions, four migrants died after a small boat capsized in the English channel. That is not a new story, sadly—it happens too often—but one of the dead was just a teenager. That news never gets any easier to hear or digest.

In that same tragedy, eight children were among those who were successfully rescued by the coastguard. The Mirror reported that one 12-year-old survivor was escaping Afghanistan after his whole family had been killed by the Taliban. None of us can imagine the horrors that drive people to get on boats or take perilous journeys to cross the channel, yet those horrors are experienced by innocent children every day.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arrive alone, afraid, and have no idea where to start. Unfortunately, this Government are fixated on criminalising and discrediting desperate people who have come to the UK to seek a new life. Vulnerable children and young people are having their rights and protections stripped, and that is the wrong approach. Our duty must be to give them a warm welcome, a fresh start and the protection and hope that they so desperately need when they arrive to seek refuge in the UK.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward this debate. It is an absolutely super subject, but a very worrying one as well. Does she agree that all young people, no matter their backgrounds, deserve a healthy, stable upbringing that gives them the same chance to succeed in later life? Most of these minors will be helpless. Does the hon. Lady feel like we could do better to fulfil our duty of care by not only providing food and clothing, but ensuring that they have a chance of a future life with an education and a stable home?

I absolutely agree. I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, as always. He is correct. We have a duty not only as a country and a nation, but as humans, to acknowledge that these children are not the criminal gangs or the ones facilitating the process of getting to the UK. They are simply the innocent bystanders of a process that they themselves may not have chosen.

Far too often, children have been incorrectly declared as adults. An immigration officer will make an age judgment based on demeanour or appearance. If they are judged to be an adult, they are not sent for an age assessment. Rather, they are given a date of birth and sent to live in shared rooms with adults. In 2021, a specialist programme run by the Refugee Council worked with 233 young people over 12 months. The Home Office had initially determined them to be “certainly” adults, when in fact, only 14 of them were adults. That means that 219 of those children were denied the rights and protections of a child, and were exposed to further exploitation, trafficking and violence as a result of that determination. Those 219 children were counting on us to take care of them.

The Home Office refuses to document how often that happens, how many children are judged incorrectly to be adults or what happens to them. There is no process to track such a decision. If there is any dubiety in that decision, there is no pathway to ensure that those individuals are protected and safeguarded until a definitive determination can be made. It is fair to say that even the determinations that are made are questionable at times. I therefore ask the Minister to be more transparent about frontline decision making. Will he commit to publishing statistics on age-disputed children who are initially treated as adults? Will he outline a pathway for those individuals to ensure that they are protected and safeguarded within the system, as they should be?

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 gives the Home Office powers to conduct medical age assessments. However, the British Association of Social Workers has stated that there is no known scientific method that can precisely determine age. Pushing scientific methods upon age-disputed young people is incredibly insensitive. It ignores the trauma they have been through and the atrocities they have seen.

Those who are wrongly declared as adults will not be able to avoid deportation to Rwanda under this Government’s cruel plans. That is a terrifying prospect for children and young people. I am disappointed in the UK Government. A place that was supposed to be their second chance and a place of safety is only adding to their stress and anxiety. I therefore ask the Minister: when will the report from the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee on specific scientific methods for age assessment be made available? Will learning from the national age assessment board pilots be shared, given their frontline role in rectifying the Home Office’s mistakes? We need to ensure that these processes are transparent and that we can scrutinise them appropriately.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are being abandoned by the Home Office and placed in hotels that are desperately unfit for anyone to live in, but particularly children, who are forced to live alongside adults, further exposing them to potential harms. The Home Office has set out its intentions to speed up the process by which unaccompanied children are transferred from temporary hotels to long-term care, but it is simply not enough. Again, that process is not transparent. It only normalises the use of hotels that are unfit accommodation for anyone, but particularly for children who should be nowhere near them.

Every Child Protected Against Trafficking says that housing children in hotels is unlawful, dangerous and contrary to the UK’s child welfare legislation. In October last year, more than 220 unaccompanied children went missing from hotels. Had those children been in the care of authorities, they would have been protected. I ask the Minister again, what is the pathway and how do we ensure that no child who is placed in any form of accommodation can go missing without someone being directly accountable and responsible?

Unaccompanied children are alone, scared and vulnerable. Many have left behind their families not knowing how they are; they deserve to have their families join them in safety. The Home Office’s position on altering family reunification rights for children is nothing short of ridiculous. This Government believe that allowing children and young people to sponsor their families would incentivise parents to send their children on dangerous journeys to the UK. Whether that is the case or not, I do not believe it is a decision any parent would make outside of the most desperate of circumstances.

Turning briefly to the point on family reunification, the Home Office’s minimum income requirement means that UK citizens and settled persons currently have to earn £18,600 before they can sponsor a spouse or partner to join them—more, if children are involved. That means that a substantial percentage of the population who do not earn that sum cannot live with their family and have to leave the country. Many thousands of families have been split apart since its introduction almost a decade ago, and many more have been affected by the rules that will also apply to European economic area family members.

Rather than reduce the level of income, or abandon the policy altogether as I have argued for repeatedly, reports have emerged over Christmas that the Home Office is thinking of increasing it further, splitting more families apart. The fact is that many families in the UK right now may struggle to meet those requirements in the current circumstances. To place that requirement arbitrarily on families only serves to ensure that further families will not receive reunification. It is not a reason to keep families apart. That they make those perilous journeys only highlights the grave circumstances that children flee from.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 brought in a ham-fisted policy with deferential treatment for refugees seeking family reunion based on the way they entered the UK. Those who arrived outside of one of the ever-dwindling safe and legal routes need to meet higher tests and additional requirements before being able to reunite with their family members. Organisations such as Families Together are calling for this discriminatory policy to be scrapped.

I close my contribution by apologising to the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, who come to this country seeking safe harbour—because it is simply not the case. I apologise to the thousands of children who have come here and potentially been lost in a system with no traceability, because this Government refuse to acknowledge that they are in fact children. I am sorry that I could not cover more in this debate, but their voices and stories should not be ignored just because of where they came from. The fact is that they are children, and they should be treated as such. The harm and neglect that they are facing after seeking refuge in the UK can only be blamed on this Government, and the heartless Home Office polices that they exhibit.

I do not wish to hammer home the point any more than I already have, but it is simply unimaginable to me that we have, just recently, 219 children who we cannot account for, and many more who we have incorrectly administered as adults. What will the Minister do to correct that? It simply cannot continue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing this very important debate. I represent the coastal community of Clacton in Essex; we have the second-longest coastline in England. It is a very beautiful coastline with many sandy beaches. Essex has many points of entry. It has two freeports. It was in Essex where we had the horrific loss of life, when 39 people being trafficked were accidentally asphyxiated in the back of a container—Members might remember that horror. I am a yachtsman, and I know how treacherous our waters can be.

Children from the likes of Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan must have a quick, legal and safe route of asylum to our country. Quite frankly, some of the stories I read about children chill my blood. As we on the coast in Essex know, illegal crossings are inviting disaster, though for victims of modern-day slavery, the crossing might well be the best part of it. But we cannot be emotional here; we have to be calm, and to think this through, as the evil traffickers do. They know that if they tell people to claim to be under 18, those people will mostly be subject to our care system, as opposed to the justice system. They know that councils struggle to deal with complex cases, so people absconding from care to get to their sinister destination is certainly not unheard of.

The only solution is to negotiate with our French neighbours. We have British boots in control rooms in France, which is a welcome development, but we can negotiate further and get British boots on the ground in France. We can finance that. With every boat that lands here, we are telling those overseas that their dangerous business model can work, and telling those waiting here for their product that their evil business model is still viable. However, the point of my speech is to highlight that, for areas such as Essex, stopping small boats is not enough. Human misery can be and is traded in large vessels, heavy goods vehicles and so on, as I mentioned earlier. I urge the Minister to apply the same focus that we have on small boats to other modes of travel, which can be equally lethal, and to get boots on the ground in France for the sake of these children.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing the debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) for his contribution. This is clearly an important subject, and I hope that in the time available I can respond to the points raised by both hon. Members.

It is important to underline that the UK has a proud record of providing protection and sanctuary to people who need it in accordance with our international obligations. Between 2015 and September of last year, we offered a place to almost 450,000 men, women and children who sought safety via safe and legal entry routes. They include people from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as the family members of refugees. Last year, we offered more entry route opportunities than in any single year since the end of the second world war. Over the same period, the UK offered protection in the form of refugee status, humanitarian protection and alternative forms of leave via asylum applications to over 90,000 people, including dependants.

It is important to recognise the wider background to these matters. The Home Secretary and I have been very clear, repeatedly, about the challenges that we face as a country, some of which have been referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton. We should be under no illusion about the fact that the UK’s asylum system has been under immense strain and mounting pressure for several years, owing to the very large numbers of people crossing the channel illegally—principally, but not solely, in small boats. Last year, over 45,000 people arrived in clandestine boats. The journeys are facilitated by ruthless criminal gangs who are interested only in profiting from human misery. The tragic loss of life in the channel last month, to which the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East referred, was the worst possible reminder of the dangers of the crossings, and underlines once more why it is so critical that we destroy the business model of the people smugglers.

That is why deterrence will be suffused through everything that we do as a Government, and why I disagree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of our policy with regard to Rwanda. There is nothing compassionate about perpetuating a trade in people that risks the lives of thousands of individuals, including children, every year. That evil trade must be stopped, and we are taking concerted action to do so on a number of fronts, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out at the end of last year. That action includes deeper co-operation with our key partners, such as the French, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton set out.

If just one child is incorrectly defined as an adult because of this Government’s abhorrent policy—the Minister calls it a deterrence policy—on preventing criminal gangs, is that not one child too many who will fall through the cracks and be in further danger?

I will come on in a moment to answer the hon. Lady’s questions about age verification, but I disagree that sending individuals to Rwanda, which has now been declared a safe country by the courts, is a policy that is uncompassionate or cruel. Quite the opposite is true.

We live in an age of mass migration. Millions of people wish to come to the United Kingdom. If we do nothing to deter people from coming to the UK, which I think is the position that the hon. Lady and her party suggest taking, we will find not 45,000 people crossing the channel, but hundreds of thousands of people doing so in the years and decades ahead. We have to respond to this issue as a country, as many other countries around the world are doing.

From the conversations that the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and I have had with our European and international partners, it is clear that every developed country in the world is thinking carefully about how they can put in place procedures and policies that will prevent mass migration and deter individuals from making dangerous crossings or damaging their national sovereignty. Other European countries are looking to the work we are doing on Rwanda. We may see other European countries copy that policy and make agreements with third parties in the years ahead.

The Minister almost answered my point in his last sentence. In 2020, I believe there were some 90 million displaced people across the globe on the move. That figure will have increased. Other countries will be facing the same problems that we face, and they will all have different models. Are we looking at different models?

We are looking at all models; I hope that hon. Members can see from the plans set out by the Prime Minister that this will be a campaign on several fronts. We are looking at every viable route in order to deter people from coming to the UK, to process applications as swiftly as possible, and to find better forms of accommodation when they are here. I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency has been on the sharp end of the situation regarding accommodation. Of course, we are talking to our international partners around the world, who are all grappling with the same challenge.

We are not an international outlier. The policies that we are enacting are those that are being enacted or considered by most other developed countries. The Prime Minister, through his recent conversations with President Macron, and the Home Secretary, through the Calais Group of northern European states, are working intensively and constructively with our partners to find common ways forward. The treaties that we are bound by, such as the refugee convention, were created for a different era, in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, prior to this period in which tens if not hundreds of millions of individuals are looking to travel around the world. It is in that context that we need to sharpen the deterrent we have as a country to make sure that we are not providing an easier route than our European neighbours, and are not a more compelling destination than our nearest neighbours, for those shopping for asylum or, particularly, for economic migrants.

I will answer the questions the hon. Lady has brought to my attention. The first point is about how we house individuals. It is important to say—I mean no disrespect to the hon. Lady, but this point needs to be made—that Scotland is bearing a lighter burden than other parts of the United Kingdom when it comes to refugees generally, and to those who are crossing the channel in small boats in particular. The same appears to be true with respect to children.

I will in a moment. I know the hon. Lady feels passionately about ensuring that individuals are housed decently and compassionately, so the best thing that she and her colleagues could do is go to Scotland and speak to the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities, and encourage them to adopt better policies, so that Scotland takes a fair and equitable number of those crossing the channel.

Before I give way, I want to give the statistics. The Scottish Government have nine hotels supporting asylum seekers, and five hotels supporting the Afghan cohort in the UK, which represents just 1.6% of the combined asylum and Afghan hotel population across the whole of the United Kingdom. There are small cities in England, such as Stoke-on-Trent, that have more hotels housing asylum seekers than the whole of Scotland. That is not fair and equitable. If the Scottish Government and members of the SNP want to play a full part in these debates and discussions, the best thing they could do is ensure that they played a greater part in this.

The Minister should be mindful when quoting statistics. It is somewhat misleading to suggest that, because Scotland is using fewer hotels, it is not adequately playing its part. Most local authorities in Scotland have more than stepped up to the plate. The use of selective statistics is very misleading and not great practice. Let us be honest: are not most hotels not suitable accommodation, temporary or otherwise, for individuals? It is therefore misleading to suggest that Scotland is not playing its part. There are many other ways in which we accommodate asylum seekers. [Interruption.]

Order. There is a Division in the House. Can the Minister finish in 30 seconds? I suspect not. If not, we will have to come back.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

Future of Postal Services

Before I call Tahir Ali to move the motion, there is obviously a cast of thousands here. It is a one-hour debate, and the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople will speak for five minutes and the Minister for 10 minutes. When Tahir has sat down, I will let you know what your life expectancy will be, but it will be about two minutes, so you should prepare for that. I might give you one minute more, Jeremy, but for most of you it will be two minutes.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of postal services.

It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I refer you to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a proud member of the Communication Workers Union and an employee of Royal Mail.

The question of the future of postal services has been thrown into stark relief in recent times. The pandemic meant that many were confined to their homes, reliant on deliveries to meet their basic needs. It became clear to everyone that postal workers were key to the economy and to the regular functioning of our society. For many during lockdown, the relief provided by our postal services was vital in maintaining wellbeing and keeping families and communities safe.

During the pandemic, the volume of parcels delivered grew by a staggering 50%, with a total of 4.2 billion parcels delivered in the year 2020-21. Royal Mail saw its parcel volumes increase by 30%, with a total of 1.7 billion parcels delivered, which means 40% of the total number of parcels delivered in the UK were delivered by Royal Mail.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. While Royal Mail may have some challenges, it is important to recognise what it does well, which includes parcel delivery. With Evri, formerly known as Hermes, parcels are stolen, lost or delayed at huge cost to customers and businesses alike. Does the hon. Member agree that companies such as Evri should be held to account for their failings?

I agree with the hon. Member’s comments and I hope to cover that specific issue later in my speech. The longer interventions are, the less time other Members will get.

All Royal Mail deliveries were achieved in a way that satisfied most service users. Some 83% of residential customers said they were satisfied with Royal Mail’s service, while 79% of small and medium-sized enterprises said they were satisfied. That was all the result of hard work and sacrifice by Royal Mail staff, who increased the revenues of Royal Mail by a huge 40%, generating healthy profits of £758 million for the company in 2021.

However, £576 million of those profits were promptly paid out to shareholders, with the chief executive officer of Royal Mail, Simon Thompson, paying himself a massive bonus of £140,000. Let us pause for a minute and think about what that £570 million could have done if it had come into the Treasury. It could have contributed hugely towards money to pay nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. He mentioned the chief executive officer of Royal Mail, Simon Thompson. Does my hon. Friend agree that if Royal Mail is to be sorted out for the future, which the CWU was trying to do, Simon Thompson has no place as chief executive officer?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Where a chief executive does not have the interest of the workforce at heart, they need to consider their position.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, based on his 30 years’ experience working as a postie. As he said, if half the money given to shareholders was given to the actual workers, there would be no need for this dispute or strike. Does he agree that CWU members deserve a pay rise and that the company can afford it?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; that is a very pertinent point. I stressed that £576 million, which she also referred to. This is not about affordability; this is about picking a fight with the workforce, who have put themselves at risk to make sure that we were safe and secure, and received our deliveries throughout the pandemic.

As noted, my hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree, following on from the previous points, that there can be no long-term sustainable future for our postal services while Royal Mail is paying millions to shareholders from its announced profit of £758 million, while at the same time cutting pay and condition for postal workers?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Services in his region are delivered through Leeds mail centre, among others, which is one of the biggest in the region that he serves, yet many employees are now resorting to food banks to feed their families. In this day and age, it is absolutely shocking that a Royal Mail employee should be resorting to food banks.

I will make a bit of progress before I give way, otherwise interventions are going to take over.

Staff were given a derisory pay offer, and faced an assault on working conditions and threats to cut up to 10,000 permanent jobs and replace them with self-employed drivers and agency workers. It has been left to the Communication Workers Union to challenge this attempt to restructure Royal Mail as a gig economy-style company and protect the interests of permanent members of staff. The recent industrial action, led by the CWU, reflects the anger and exasperation of employees, who have had enough of being overlooked and underrated. After several days of walkouts, 91.24% of workers voted in favour of continuing the strike action into the new year. If management continue to refuse to negotiate in good faith and reach a deal with workers, disruption could continue.

However, I know that staff at Royal Mail do not want to be in this situation. They do not want to be on strike, but they feel as though their hand has been forced. I know this because I spent my working life at Royal Mail—my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) almost gave my age away there; I did not think I was even 30 years old—and I know the values and principles that motivate all who work there. I have experienced at first hand the dedication and professionalism of Royal Mail staff, and I know that they put the needs of service users and communities at the very centre of their efforts.

When Royal Mail made a record £758 million profit last year, surely it can invest in its staff to continue to deliver on the universal service obligation that it promised its customers?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which has been echoed in previous interventions. We will be calling on the Minister to go back to the Royal Mail board and stress the need to resolve this issue, because it is not one of affordability.

Royal Mail has, through thick and thin, managed to provide a truly excellent and universal service. Despite the shambolic privatisation of Royal Mail, the ethos of those working within it is still one of public service. Royal Mail was founded on the principle of universal service, and its staff still stand by that principle today. However, the current leadership of Royal Mail seems to be moving the company further and further away from its public service ethos, and seeking to emulate multinationals such as Amazon, DPD and DHL, where bogus self-employment is rife and pay and working conditions are abysmal.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is making a fantastic speech. Does he agree that if Royal Mail cannot operate without driving down workers’ pay and cutting jobs because its first priority is clearly always its shareholders, it has failed in its stated aim to provide the public service that it is meant to? Does he agree that that is an argument for taking Royal Mail back into public ownership? In my view and the view of the overwhelming majority of the public, that is where it belongs.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I could not agree more.

I have highlighted a glimpse of the bleak future that the management at Royal Mail want: poorer pay, poorer conditions, overworked staff, a zero-hour workforce and a service that is neither universal nor satisfactory to the customer. That has been seen in the steady erosion of the universal service obligation, along with the recent announcement that Royal Mail will be split into two entities and potentially sold off to the asset-stripping company Vesa Equity Investment, which is currently its largest shareholder.

It is evident from this that Royal Mail profiteering is becoming the name of the game. The billions in revenue generated by Royal Mail staff are eaten up by shareholders and management, who pay themselves huge bonuses while staff struggle to make ends meet. Instead of being reinvested to truly modernise and improve Royal Mail, this revenue is being used to pay off shareholders.

It is clear to me, therefore, that there are two possible futures for Royal Mail: one as a universal public service provided with compassion and dedication by employees who are valued and respected; and the other just as a delivery company, to be pumped for profit and asset-stripped, at the expense of service users and with workers’ pay and conditions eroded. What does all of this signal for the future of postal services in the UK?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is making an excellent speech. Is it not, even in commercial terms, an incredibly short-term prospect? Fundamentally, the current management of Royal Mail are trashing the business and will therefore end up, even on their own terms, with a much-weakened company, which unfortunately may then have to be nationalised because it is failing. The service that it is providing is so bad that people are moving away from it. That really is a national crisis that requires Government intervention.

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend, who is a neighbouring MP from my region. This will turn Royal Mail into a badly performing company. CEOs and management move on, but it is the employees who stay and have to pick up the pieces.

I believe that the present circumstances offer us two possible paths forward: one ensuring that Royal Mail continues to offer an exemplary public service to all in the UK, with the profits of expanding operations going into decent pay and conditions for staff, as well as improvements to the service overall; and another in which Royal Mail is stripped of its public service ethos and reorganised to generate maximum profits for shareholders, while the service loses out to private competition. I believe that the choice is an obvious one. Royal Mail should be considered a public service, and therefore it should be owned and governed as one. I believe that Royal Mail should be renationalised.