Tuesday 24 January 2023
[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
Restoring Your Railway Fund
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Restoring Your Railway Fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. First, I thank my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to schedule this timely debate.
The name Dr Beeching evokes strong passions even 60 years after the publication of his first report, and the very fact that I do not have to mention the subject or the title of the report, simply his name, speaks to the special place our railways hold in the nation’s heart and the impact of the proposals that followed. No other mode of transport can evoke such passion or interest, and while more people use buses than trains, it is rare that anyone becomes as engaged in a discussion about a new No. 3 or No. 12 as they do in talking—at length—about the prospects of restoring a piece of track that last saw a train long before many of us were born.
We refer to the Beeching era, but Britain’s railways were contracting before Beeching arrived. For example, in Devon alone, the line to Princetown closed in 1958 and the line to Yealmpton closed to passengers as far back as 1947, but Beeching’s first report on reshaping Britain’s railways is, for many, the key moment. The report has seared his name into our national memory, and it defined an era for our railways. Of 18,000 miles of railway, Beeching recommended that 6,000 miles be closed and 2,363 station closures, both on lines set to close and on lines he proposed remain open.
There are lots of debates about whether different approaches could have been tried, not least reducing costs on lines rather than closing them, but those debates are for the rail historians. We know that today, across Britain, there are viable schemes ready to reconnect communities to our rail network. When people talk about what had been the signs of decline in a once-prosperous town, many local residents include in the list the words, “Then the station closed.” A rail service is often seen as a sign of literally being on track to better prospects. Hence the excitement when a long-lost service returns.
Ferryhill station in my constituency was removed in 1964 when I lived there, although there is still a freight line. The station is symptomatic of the area’s need to regenerate and redevelop. Does my hon. Friend agree that any consideration of whether a bid should succeed must be cognisant of the impact on the people of the area, not just the mathematics that go with it?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who is a strong champion for his constituents on the matter. Where once there was a station and now there is a space or an empty building, or just freight trains trundling past, people sense that they might have been left behind, so reopening stations, particularly in locations such as the one he mentioned, is one of the best signs that levelling up could offer to show that the agenda across Government is about giving communities back what they had in the past. We are not going to reintroduce steam trains, but we do want to give people a modern, functional service that points towards an aspiration for a better future.
With respect to such opportunities, the pledge in our 2019 manifesto, which forms the basis of the Government’s mandate, was explicit:
“To help communities across the country, we will restore many of the Beeching lines, reconnecting smaller towns such as Fleetwood and Willenhall that have suffered permanent disadvantage since they were removed from the rail network in the 1960s.”
In January 2020, colleagues across the House will have welcomed the Government translating that pledge into £500 million for the restoring your railway programme to deliver the manifesto commitment, which I know was firm when my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) was Prime Minister. I know the Minister will be keen to repeat it today.
I want to ensure that the commitment remains firm not because I am sentimental about the days when steam trains raced from London Waterloo to Tavistock, but because of what we see when lines reopen and communities reconnect. For example, the revitalisation of the line to Okehampton has brought full passenger services to the town for the first time in five decades. It was the first former line to reopen under the restoring your railway programme. In the same week that it celebrated its one-year anniversary in November, the Dartmoor line also saw its 250,00th journey—more than double the demand originally forecast.
Then there is the Scottish Borders railway, for which an original target was set of 650,000 passengers in the first year, but demand for the service exceeded expectations with almost 700,000 trips made in just the first six months of the line reopening. In short, new lines bring new trade to the railways and provide an attractive alternative to travel by car or coach. The Minister saw for himself the achievements at Okehampton and the excitement of the local community at having its train service back. We would simply not get that with a new road junction or a bus service.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on leading this important debate. In Cumbria we have been pushing for the reopening of the Penrith to Keswick line and of Gilsland station. My hon. Friend mentioned the Borders railway, which we want extended through Longtown in my constituency and down into Carlisle. Does he agree that opening up those projects not only connects people to physical places, but increases economic opportunities and access to education and empowers rural communities?
I could not put it better. Transport systems are not just about an academic exercise of connecting point A to point B, but about linking communities, providing opportunities and levelling up communities. Instead of looking back to a service that existed until the late 1960s, we should look forward to the opportunities. My hon. Friend is a very strong advocate for his constituents and I know he will push the Government on that scheme.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. It is a real pleasure to intervene on him, whom I see as a very dear friend. My constituency used to have a railway line, but now has no railway whatever. Does the hon. Member not agree that it makes no sense for any constituency to have less public transport at a time when we are encouraging people to ditch their cars and make changes to help the environment? It takes investment. If the Government are serious, the funding must also be serious.
The hon. Gentleman puts it well and reminds us that in the Beeching era many communities went from having train services to numerous destinations to literally having none. We have mentioned the example of the Scottish Borders railway. After the closure of the Waverley route, certain communities became some of the furthest away from the mainline network. Train services provide people with different choices and opportunities. It is safe to say that the people of Strangford can be reassured that if there is any prospect of getting a train service back to Strangford, the hon. Gentleman will regularly pursue it in this place until it happens.
I am conscious that there are many requests for new lines and stations across the country. In June, the Government published a restoring your railway fund programme update with details of all successful and unsuccessful bids. In total, the programme update listed 44 successful schemes, which are at different stages, and 23 schemes are being funded to develop a strategic outline business case—one of the earlier stages in considering a transport intervention. Thirteen schemes that had already developed a SOBC are being supported to develop further, and eight schemes are being delivered. Of those, the Dartmoor line between Okehampton and Exeter has already reopened.
The schemes stretch across the country, ranging from the Northumberland line reopening to the new Thanet Parkway station in Kent, plus St Clears station in Wales and the White Rose station in Yorkshire. As evidenced today, many other communities want to join them. Many communities who were not successful at first now hope to join them in future rounds.
In some areas the dreams of restoring a railway service will come up against the harsh realities of previous track beds having been lost or development having taken over where a line once cut through. What might in the early 1970s have been a relatively easy job of re-laying track will now mean cutting a new track bed through previously untouched countryside. I know from my brief time in the Department for Transport about the issues with restoring the key section of the Varsity line between Cambridge and Bedford, given the short-sighted decisions of past generations to build over the old track bed. The modern realities of development since the line closed mean a different realignment is needed. It is interesting to note that this is one railway that Dr Beeching proposed to keep open in his infamous report, with the mistake of closure being clear almost from the time it was implemented.
In many locations where enthusiasts or a local council have sought to preserve the dream that trains would one day come back down the track to them, reopening former lines can offer excellent value for money. We can also benefit from the quality of railway engineering in the Victorian era. The report on the former line from Bere Alston to Tavistock, more than 40 years after its closure, found that many of the key structures were in fairly good condition, despite not having been maintained for decades. Think of how each pound spent on the restoring your railway programme delivers popularity and inspiration for the local community. Then think how HS2 developers must dream of getting anywhere near that with the tens of billions being spent on that.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear me talk of the opportunity to do just that in my own constituency. The former Goodrington Sands station lies only a few hundred metres from the railhead that marks the end of the Network Rail track, and has done since the line from nearby Paignton station to Kingswear closed. It is not the derelict building that some hon. Members might now be picturing in their minds. Since 1972, it has operated successfully as part of the Dartmouth Steam Railway, with its platforms still in very good condition.
Goodrington station provides a great example, not just of preserving the past, but of an opportunity for the future. Given the Network Rail track nearby, it is possible to create a track route, entirely separate from the operations of the steam railway, to Goodrington from Paignton. That would allow a new platform to be created alongside the heritage station, with accessibility provided by stairs and a lift to the road bridge that passes over the site. Whereas parking is limited at Paignton, there are large car parks near Goodrington station, which are often only used in the summer peak season.
Those ingredients, alongside the presence of a large beach and leisure facilities around the former station, provide a tempting chance directly to reconnect communities nearby and facilitate a parkway-style access to the rail network. Despite the obvious attractions of that plan, plus support from the local community, the spirit of the Beeching era lived on in the coalition of Lib Dem and independent councillors currently running Torbay Council, who objected to the bid for restoring your railway funds. It was disappointing to note their opposition, and the way they assumed they could get an officer to write to MPs, simply demanding we withdraw a bid, as they had said no. As some will know, such ill-judged actions merely provoked not compliance but scorn from me, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and many local residents.
The restoring your railway programme is not just about reopening lines closed during the Beeching era. It is also providing entirely new stations, such as the one being built at Marsh Barton, which I passed on the train when I travelled up yesterday, and the very welcome Edginswell station in Torquay, where preparatory works are under way ahead of the main construction work starting later this year. Having asked many questions about that project of previous Rail Ministers, I welcome the new stations fund and the Torquay town deal supporting it: the first new station in Torbay since the war, delivered by a Conservative team.
I could be here a long time, listing individual schemes and opportunities for reopening, and I suspect we will hear quite a few more as the debate progresses. Yet the purpose of this debate is not just to put in a pitch for a local scheme, although this is a good opportunity for colleagues to ensure that the Minister has heard the exact benefits a scheme will bring for their local area. There are a few points it would be good for the Minister to respond to.
The first is the easiest: to confirm that the Government remain committed to the vision of reversing Beeching-era cuts, giving communities new train services, as set out in our 2019 manifesto, and the £500 million previously agreed. Secondly, what work will the Government do to support groups and MPs looking to bid where a local council retains the spirit of the Beeching era and decides to object, but the community is positive? Thirdly, what assessment of the value delivered with these projects will be used to capture the full impact for the community of being reconnected to the rail network?
As I said at the start, the fact that we can mention one man’s name 60 years after his report was published shows how the railway closures affected so many communities. For the first time in decades, many communities can now talk about railways as part of their future, not just something they reminisce about from the past. That is what the restoring your railway scheme is about. It is the ultimate prize from levelling up, and it is vital that the commitment shown to it by the Government’s 2019 manifesto continues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating the debate.
As an Opposition politician, I might not often be heard saying positive things about the Government or the governing party, but I want to say some warm words about the restoring your railway scheme, particularly as it has awarded £5 million towards the reopening of Cullompton railway station. The developments we have seen in Devon, including the reopening of the station at Okehampton, are excellent; I hope Cullompton will see the same railway renaissance as Okehampton has in the past couple of years.
I will set out why I think it will be beneficial to Devon to have a railway station at Cullompton and how that might also return some benefits to the Department for Work and Pensions. Cullompton railway station is one of 10 projects that received funding from the restoring your railway fund in 2020. The funding was delivered to Network Rail, which is developing a full business case for stations at Cullompton and Wellington. I know the Minister is aware of the initiative, not least because he kindly agreed at Transport questions last week to visit the site when he is next in the area. The Minister advised that I should work with people of all political colours in the local community on the programme, and he will be pleased to know that I am doing just that.
Cullompton had a railway station until 5 October 1964. The Beeching cuts, which we heard about from the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and which mothballed Cullompton and many other railway stations that day, are looked back on with great regret from a 2023 vantage point. I suggest that they were also regretted by the then Government, because just 10 days after the closure of Cullompton railway station and other stations in Devon, the Conservative party, which had been in power for 13 years, was defeated and nearby seats fell to the Liberal party. There is still time to reinforce the current Government’s success in rail at Cullompton.
Recently, the right hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) was fortunate that the Dartmoor line was the first line to be reopened under the restoring your railway scheme. The restoration, which was announced in January 2018 when the right hon. Gentleman was Financial Secretary to the Treasury, has some parallels with Cullompton. Okehampton and Cullompton are both within commuting distance of Exeter and both have slightly more than 10,000 people currently living in and around each town.
Cullompton has characteristics that will be attractive to some of the Rail Minister’s colleagues in Government. It is a town with a tight labour market and currently has vacancies across a range of sectors, including retail, manufacturing and social care. In Cullompton, fewer than two in 100 people are unemployed, in contrast to the neighbouring city of Exeter, where unemployment is greater than 3%. There are thousands of people in Exeter who are registered unemployed and looking for work who would be able to find jobs in Cullompton were they able to commute there. That could reduce the cost of benefit payments to the Department for Work and Pensions, and represent excellent value for the taxpayer.
While Cullompton is already regarded as a key town for commuters, plans are afoot for Culm Garden Village, which will expand Cullompton by more than 5,000 houses and perhaps an additional 12,000 residents. The Minister will be aware that the population of the west country has grown faster than the population of England, but that is not a patch on the growth rate we will see in Cullompton, which is having a deleterious effect on people’s health. We already have an air quality management area designation in the town of Cullompton; having a station in the heart of the town should serve to reduce traffic on the congested B3181.
The Minister is a real champion for railway restoration. As a Back-Bench MP, he battled successfully for Battle, specifically the refurbishment of its railway station. As the Minister, last year he came to Devon to celebrate the new Dartmoor line having its 250,000th user, as referred to by the hon. Member for Torbay, and said in his speech at the time that the restoration
“has undone 50 years of damage”.
He is very welcome to visit us at Cullompton station to see how little work would be required to restore the station to its former glory and to transform a very friendly part of Devon into an environmentally friendly one.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing the debate.
I want to talk about my Stourbridge Dasher. I invite the Minister to Stourbridge to see for himself how important it will be to the community. The Dasher will be transformative. It will run along an old passenger line and extend the branch line, and restore an important economic link. It is railway restoration at its very best. The Dasher would reinstate passenger services on a four-mile, freight-only branch line between Stourbridge Junction, and Round Oak and Brierley Hill, and the terminus at Brierley Hill would link it to the West Midlands Metro tramline extension, which is expected to open in 2025. This has never been more important, given that under the 2024 boundary changes Brierley Hill will come into the Stourbridge constituency. Of 1,500 people surveyed in my constituency, 87% were in favour of the Dasher and would make use of it.
The Dasher would bring huge benefits. It would link Stourbridge to the wider Black Country, opening passenger travel between some of the region’s most deprived areas. It would be good for areas such as Amblecote and Brierley Hill, with stations planned at Vicarage Road and Brettell Lane, and good for jobs by increasing the ease of travel, taking the burden off roads such as the A461, and sparing residents from frequent traffic jams. If delivered, this line and its stations would make a real contribution to reinvigorating the area.
Stourbridge already has the Stourbridge Shuttle, which is pretty impressive in itself. It connects the main line train station to the centre of Stourbridge town and runs every 10 minutes, seven days a week. It has an on-time train service reliability of 99.8% most of the time, which I am sure most present would agree is pretty impressive. Its operating costs are 50% cheaper than those of conventional railways, and it is eco-friendly, running on liquid petroleum fuel that is kinder to the air, which is a UK first. It is Europe’s smallest branch line—the journey time over the 0.8 miles is only three minutes—but while it might be small, its track record of delivery could be extended to the Dasher.
I thank Pre Metro Operations, which brought the potential of the Dasher to my attention. Pre Metro Operations has done a brilliant job of putting together a business case, through work done out of dedication and love of the branch line, and with innovative thinking. On Friday, I am going with the Pre Metro team to a site near Stourbridge for a demonstration of the potential Dasher. We all have those days and visits that we just cannot wait for, and this is one of them. I love trains anyway, but I cannot contain my excitement over being able to see the potential of my Dasher. I am serious—my constituents know that as well. I am genuinely excited about the future possibilities of making the Stourbridge Shuttle into a Dasher.
The project needs only £50,000 for an initial feasibility study to kick it off. I do not think that is too much to ask for.
My hon. Friend is doing such a good job of talking about her railways, she makes me want to travel on them immediately. For 20 years, MPs, councils and community champions have been campaigning similarly to reopen Stroudwater station on Bristol Road, Stonehouse. I was proud to be the MP who secured £50,000 to do the feasibility study, so I completely understand her passion and pitch. We are asking for the environmental, economic, business and tourism benefits not just for now, but for the future. From speaking to Great Western Railway, I understand that there is a lot of waiting before getting from Government an understanding of what the funding pot for railway investment will look like, given that the country’s finances are stretched at the moment. Does my hon. Friend agree that hearing about that investment early and having the Department for Transport work closely with individual bids on feasibility are incredibly valuable to all our communities?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I have been waiting some time for that £50,000. These are quick-win projects that do so much for communities. Getting that closer link with the Government, in particular on feasibility work, would save so much time further down the line, even if it were to prove that the project was not feasible. I thank her for that.
I finish as I started, by asking the Minister to come and visit our brilliant shuttle, to see for himself that it would be even better if we had the Stourbridge Dasher. I am sure the rewards to all will be hugely demonstratable, but none more so than the rewards to the community of opening up the superb branch line once again and seeing the Stourbridge Dasher, in all its magnificence, take to it. What is not to love?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this very important debate.
We have been very lucky in Stoke-on-Trent. We have managed to secure up to £40 million from the transforming cities fund, which will do remarkable work, and £31.7 million to improve local bus services, create new routes to better serve the community, and most importantly reduce the flat day fare by a third to £3.50. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) has been successful in getting the old railway restored at Meir station. But of course, Stoke-on-Trent always wants and deserves more. I am sure the Minister is aware of that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and I were delighted to secure £50,000 for the feasibility study for the Stoke to Leek line service, which we want to come back to life. I have had the pleasure of walking the line near Milton and Baddeley Green with Councillor Dave Evans and Councillor James Smith. There is an opportunity in our great city to better serve an area of deprivation that has sadly high obesity levels. There has been a jobs boom, but that area has poor connectivity to the Ceramic Valley enterprise zone sites. We can improve employability and create better opportunities to sell the employment sites in our great city.
We have in our city the fantastic City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College and Stoke-on-Trent College, which serve students from north Staffordshire, as well as Staffordshire University and Keele University. The line would serve as a huge hub, improving access to education, which is particularly important given that we need more people to take levels 3 and 4 qualifications. Sadly, we lag 8% behind the national average when it comes to the take-up of level 3.
Since 2015, 9,000 jobs have been created under the leadership of Councillor Abi Brown and her fantastic team at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. The railway line could also help to decongest our roads and improve our air quality. Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council—I also represent that area—have been tasked with solving that issue.
If we bring that train line back to life, it will save people getting around our city an average of 25 minutes at peak times. That is a huge benefit. More than a third of residents of the city do not have access to a motor vehicle and are heavily reliant on taxi services, because sadly the bus service is in need of improvement. It is important to make that case for local people, particularly those who live on the outskirts of our city. In Milton, Baddeley Green and Stockton Brook, people have to get off First Bus Potteries and get on to another bus near Endon and Brown Edge to get to Leek. I believe Leek, which has about 25,000 residents, is the largest town in the country not to be served by a railway station.
Nearby is the glorious Alton Towers. The Stoke to Leek line has the potential to go through it and connect to one of this country’s great tourist attractions. That would help build our long-term tourism strategy, which is to have more than just one-day visits. We are delighted to have these visitors; we had about 6 million before the covid pandemic, but sadly only 200,000 turned into overnight stays. This railway line, which would offer connectivity to Alton Towers and other tourist attractions around north Staffordshire, would incentivise people to stay overnight. That would build on the success of the Hilton building in Stoke-on-Trent city centre, and the Goods Yard site, which is under development thanks to the levelling up funding and will bring more hotel space.
We have the fantastic World of Wedgwood in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, but even better, of course, is Middleport Pottery, which has been proud to be the home of “The Great British Pottery Throw Down” in the past. Of course, we also have the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and the Gladstone Pottery Museum. That is why it is so important that we have the ability to boost our tourism, our education opportunities and our employability in our city, and to better connect our city to residents who do not have access to motor vehicles in the way that people in a more privileged position may traditionally have outside our great city. The line will also help to improve the air quality in our great city. That is so important, especially when a lot of the people who live in Stoke-on-Trent used to work in the pots and the pits and suffer with long-term health ailments because of the type of industry in which they worked for so many years.
I hope that the Government remain absolutely, fully committed to the restoring your railway fund. I hope to hear from the Chancellor in the spring statement—I will allow him to go to the autumn statement this year at the very latest—that he will commit to Stoke-on-Trent and Leek getting the Stoke to Leek line back once again.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate on a topic that he knows we very much share an interest in.
The restoring your railway fund is one of the best policies of this Conservative Government, and it should be a model for future public policy. The involvement of local Members of Parliament as sponsors, and other key local stakeholders, has been an excellent way of developing high-quality bids that democratically garner local support. Infrastructure projects can often be imposed and attract controversy, so this grassroots-up approach is far more desirable and more likely to deliver economic and social benefits.
As the Minister will know, the fund has provoked interest across the country, especially in north Staffordshire, which I will focus on. Poor transport connectivity in Stoke-on-Trent and wider north Staffordshire is a major barrier to employment, skills and general quality of life. A third of households in Stoke-on-Trent have no access to a car, yet people depend on car transport because, for many, public transport is non-existent, which severely holds back opportunities. The strategic road network through the city is operating at around 110% capacity and parts of the local road network are far worse, resulting in terrible journey reliability. Local bus operators now say that they are often unable to run reliable services due to the levels of congestion, and we have major air quality problems.
As I have said in this Chamber before, it is important to recognise that north Staffordshire is one of the few parts of the country that were not only hit by the Beeching axe but by further reductions in rail services under the last Labour Government. Services to Barlaston and Wedgwood ceased as part of the west coast main line modernisation in 2004. Such was the short-sightedness of the last Labour Government that Etruria station was permanently closed in 2005, with the platforms completely removed in 2008, to shave but a few minutes off high-speed Pendolino services. Thankfully, times have changed and we now recognise the benefits of encouraging more people back on to our railways, but much needs to be done to restore much of our local connectivity.
The Conservative Government have been extremely supportive of improving local transport for Stoke-on-Trent. As we heard, we have secured £40 million through the transforming cities fund for local bus and rail improvements and £31 million through the bus service improvement plan, as well as funding towards our restoring your railways projects. The first of these to reopen—Meir station, which was closed in 1966—is now progressing to an advanced stage, having secured a further £1.7 million to develop the full business case and detailed delivery study. I was pleased to meet representatives from DfT, Network Rail and the city council just before Christmas, and it was great to hear how well our plans are progressing.
Reopening a station in Meir could have a transformative impact on the local community. Both wards in Meir are identified by the all-party parliamentary group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods as being in the top 225 most left-behind neighbourhoods in the entire country. A key problem in Meir is poor transport. More than 40% of households in Meir North do not have a car; public transport is non-existent in parts of the area, and Meir suffers from significant road congestion and air pollution. The lack of effective public transport in Meir is a major barrier to employment and skills opportunities and severely restricts quality of life. Reopening the station in Meir would make a huge difference to a part of the country where levelling up matters most, by opening up a wealth of skilled employment opportunities and massively enhancing access to local colleges and universities. If we secure the full backing of the Government, work could start on site in 2024, and our plans would be relatively easy and cheap to deliver.
Alongside that, I have been working closely with my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), to reopen the Stoke to Leek line. The project is not as advanced as the Meir project, but we were delighted to receive funding from Government that enabled us to submit our excellent strategic outline business case in November. The project would see not only the restoration of rail services to Leek for the first time since 1965, but the reopening of a number of stations throughout Stoke-on-Trent and the Moorlands, including one at Fenton Manor in my constituency. It would significantly help to level up opportunities and massively enhance access to work and skills, as well as tourism. The extremely poor local transport connectivity would be transformed, addressing significant road congestion and air pollution.
Currently, the fastest train journey from Stoke-on-Trent to London Euston takes around an hour and 24 minutes, which is quicker than travelling the 12 miles from Leek to Stoke station by public transport at peak times. That journey time would be improved with further HS2 services connecting us into London, but the benefits will be severely limited if we do not address our chronically poor local transport. Train services from Stoke to Leek would only take between 23 minutes and 25 minutes—around a third of the current peak-time journey times on public transport.
Reopening the line would make a huge difference to communities along the route, opening up major new employment opportunities and helping to deliver the economic growth our area needs, as well as taking vehicles off our roads. I strongly encourage the Minister and the Department to back the Stoke to Leek line moving to the next stage—a full business case and detailed delivery study.
The restoring your railway fund projects to reopen Meir Station and the Stoke to Leek line are taking place alongside the work being done by the West Midlands Rail Executive to look at reopening Trentham station, and the vision of Stoke-on-Trent City Council—led by the excellent Councillor Abi Brown—for a properly integrated light rail network for the Potteries, creating a properly integrated public transport network. I urge the Government to give us their full backing to ensure we can properly level up opportunities in Stoke-on-Trent and wider North Staffordshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate. Representing Darlington, the birthplace of the railways, I have been pleased to have many opportunities to raise railway-related issues in my time in this place. This includes campaigning to save Locomotion No. 1, getting our railway bridges painted, pushing for tactile paving at Darlington Bank Top station, leading the case for an overhaul of North Road station, stopping London North Eastern Railway from cutting services and calling for livestreaming to British Transport Police of onboard CCTV.
Darlington has a rich rail heritage—indeed, it is the starting point of the world’s railway story. As we approach the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington railway in 2025, there could be no better time than now to be having this debate. As we have already heard, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Beeching cuts, which saw the decimation of many of our railway lines, the impact of which we still feel today with the loss of connectivity it brought about.
Levelling up is about righting the wrongs of the past and reversing underinvestment in regions such as the north-east, which has been overlooked by Governments of all colours. I am proud that the transformation of Darlington’s wonderful Bank Top station—a cathedral of Victorian railway engineering—backed with £139 million of Government investment, is adding additional platform capacity and connectivity to our regions. The restoring your railway fund is a further way that the Government are levelling up, helping to unlock connectivity and restore long-lost connections with communities, for which, even after the passage of so much time, people have a great affinity.
I and many other north-east colleagues also are pushing for the Leamside line to be restored, which will do so much to unlock capacity on the east coast main line. Darlington connects to the Bishop line, and in turn connects to the Weardale line. Working with colleagues, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) and for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), and primarily our hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), strategic overview case funding for the Durham Dales line has been secured. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has also secured business case funding for feasibility of the Consett to Tyne line.
These projects to restore our railway links can help to deliver public transport that is fit for purpose, getting people to where employment opportunities are and opening up communities that are currently disconnected to new investment opportunities. Further, the lines would serve some of the areas of the north-east with the lowest rates of car ownership, where there is heavy reliance on public transport. It is not right that people are further disadvantaged by matters outside their control. Reopening the lines would go a long way towards ending this disadvantage and help to boost the local economy.
Finally, I want to mention North Road station in my constituency, which sits on the Bishop line. The station, on the original Stockton to Darlington railway line, has a number of problems, including the platform height and depth, inappropriate furniture and fencing, and the shameful waste of the use of the historic canopy for shelter. I firmly believe that we can do better, and I am pleased to be working with Network Rail, Northern, the Bishop line, Darlington Borough Council and Tees Valley Combined Authority to secure solutions and funding for those issues. That sits alongside the £35 million investment in Darlington’s flagship Railway Heritage Quarter, which adjoins North Road station. The preservation and improvement of the station is a hugely important project and would complement the work already being undertaken to showcase Darlington’s rich rail heritage.
In the north-east, all rails lead to Darlington. The restoration of the lines I have mentioned would be hugely beneficial for improving local connections and boosting business, employment, education and leisure opportunities for my constituents and residents across the north-east, and I am grateful to have been able to put these points on the record.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing the debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating it.
When I was first elected by the island as the Member of Parliament for Ynys Môn, some of the earliest contact I had was from constituents who were concerned about the fate of the disused Gaerwen to Amlwch railway line. That 17.5-mile line came about as a result of the Anglesey Central Railway Act 1863 and was operational by the late 1860s. It connected Amlwch in the north of Anglesey to the island’s market town of Llangefni, and joined the main line to Holyhead at Gaerwen.
Amlwch was once the second largest town in Wales, with a port and a mine at Parys mountain. When the railway opened, the copper and minerals mined there were transported off the island by rail, instead of by sea. However, after nearly 200 years, the line was closed to passengers as part of the Beeching cuts in 1964. It continued to service the needs of the Octel bromine plant in Amlwch until 1993, at which point it was closed, and it has since lain unused. Some parts of the line are largely intact today, and one can still find old stations next to the track. In other places, the track has been removed or is very overgrown.
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought on the line: a company called Anglesey Central Railway Ltd wants to revert the line to a railway and was awarded the lease to the line by Network Rail in April 2021, and a group called Lôn Las Môn wants to turn the line into a multi-use path for active travel. I believe that the line is a huge community asset that is currently untapped, and it should be put to a use that the community supports, be it rail or an active travel path.
To try to provide some clarity on the matter, in March 2021 I and Transport for Wales supported a bid to the restoring your railway ideas fund in the third and final round of funding. We were successful; ours was the only bid from Wales to receive funding in all three rounds. Transport for Wales was awarded £50,000, which was matched by an additional £50,000 from the Welsh Government, to produce a feasibility study on the future use of the line. The results of the study have now been submitted to the Department for Transport and are under consideration. The study found that re-establishing the line would cost £144 million for heavy rail or £93 million for light rail. An active travel path would clearly be deliverable at a lower cost.
Anglesey Central Railway has a team of volunteers progressing physical works and vegetation clearance. It is working towards the key milestone of a Transport and Works Act order—a TWAO—with a deadline of April 2023 set in its lease. It is likely that the deadline will be extended, particularly given the challenges and impact of the pandemic on its work. However, the anticipated costs of rail are significant, particularly in the context of the £500 million announced in 2020 for the restoring your railway fund.
Time will tell whether the Department for Transport considers that the project ticks the restoring your railway boxes of levelling up, reconnecting communities, providing socioeconomic and transport benefits, and being deliverable. The Minister has informed me that his decision will be made by the end of spring. My constituents are keen to know, and I am regularly contacted for updates. I reiterate my invitation to the Minister to visit Ynys Môn —if he brings his wellies, I can show him the disused line.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my fellow Devon MP and hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on bringing forward this important debate. I always appreciate the opportunity to talk about the challenges of rural transport.
In 1964, northern Devon lost the train line between Bideford and Barnstaple, although the tracks were not lifted until 20 years later. The area now boasts the fantastic Tarka trail for walkers and cyclists. While the trail is a great resource for local communities and visitors alike, the distances across rural areas and the changeable weather mean that it is not a practical commute for all but the most hardy and fit commuters.
Over the past few years, hundreds of homes have been built between Bideford and Barnstaple, with hundreds more planned. We absolutely need that housing, but it puts pressure on our infrastructure. In rural North Devon, our transport infrastructure is limited; for the 10-mile route between Bideford and Barnstaple, it essentially consists of the B3233 through Fremington or the single-carriageway A39. Without traffic, the journey should take 15 to 20 minutes by car or 29 minutes on the bus, but commuter traffic often pushes those times up to well over an hour, causing much frustration and clogging the roads on a daily basis. Bringing back a train connection between Bideford and Barnstaple would do much to prevent that congestion, and it would give communities affordable and environmentally friendly ways to reach Barnstaple and further afield by connecting the route all the way to Exeter.
I am fortunate that I have an active group that has put a significant amount of work into the possible rail line. Part of the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, the Tarka Rail Association is one of the longest-established community rail partnerships in the country. Since its formation in 1977, it has championed the interests of users of the Tarka line, its 12 stations and their communities between Exeter and Barnstaple. In 2021, the association formally adopted the ACE Rail campaign, named after the Atlantic Coast Express, which until 1964 came from London Waterloo to serve Barnstaple, with an onward portion to Bideford in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox).
ACE Rail now stands for the Atlantic Coast to Exeter railway, and the campaign seeks a transformational rail service linking northern Devon with the county capital by doubling the service frequency from hourly to half-hourly and increasing the speed of journeys to compete with cars, with an additional limited-stop express service connecting Exeter Central with Barnstaple in 50 minutes rather than the present 75 minutes. The difference that the development of the line would bring cannot be understated. While it would obviously lessen congestion, it would go further by connecting the area with opportunities that are currently out of reach. We already know that limited transport options limit rural productivity. If we support rural productivity and improve connections to these areas, we could add an estimated £43 billion to our economy.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking, I am keen that as many people as possible have access to spaces where they feel confident to travel actively. Due to the narrow nature of a few pinch points on the route, it would not be possible to maintain the Tarka trail as it is and to develop a new rail line. I am keen that, instead of sticking to the historical, mainly coastal route, we look at a different line that more directly links Barnstaple to Bideford.
Having previously submitted a bid for Combe Rail, which would have connected Barnstaple to Braunton—sadly, that bid did not move forward—I know that there is huge support in North Devon for expanding our rail network. That previous bid lacked a viable connection to the main Barnstaple station, but the Bideford connection would directly join the two largest towns in northern Devon and go on to Exeter. We need to find ways to ensure that rural Britain’s connectivity does not lag even further behind our more urban constituencies.
I hope that the Department considers reopening the restoring your railway fund to new bids. My North Devon constituency would benefit considerably from the route I mentioned. I hope that the Minister takes that ask seriously—he is also very welcome in North Devon, and I would always bring wellies—so that my community can reduce its reliance on cars and take advantage of the many benefits that the train line could bring.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship again, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate on the restoring your railway fund via the Backbench Business Committee. I commend all the hon. Members who have spoken so passionately on behalf of their constituents about exactly why their areas deserve funding for railway lines and how that would help to boost local economies and reinvigorate local communities.
The restoring your railway scheme has noble aims of connecting long-neglected towns and villages to the railways and investing in local infrastructure. Indeed, successful bids can deliver real opportunities for locals. However, the scheme’s execution, just like that of the so-called levelling-up funding across our nation, has been a competitive, chaotic and careless mess. Sadly, the reality of the scheme is that it barely scratches the surface. I commend the principle of expanding our network, but the fund fails to tackle the major issues that affect UK rail. It lacks vision, coherence and a long-term plan. The restoring your railway fund seems to be an apt metaphor for this Conservative Government.
The reality facing passengers is that train services are later, less frequent and more expensive than ever. Piecemeal extensions of lines and renovations of stations provide a select few with improved services, but without a comprehensive transport plan or vision, I fear that the projects will not reach their full potential. The Government are failing to deliver even this paltry offering. When £500 million was allocated to the scheme in January 2020, the then Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), stated that delivering it would ensure that, after the Beeching cuts,
“more than half a century of isolation is undone.”
However, just last week, the current rail Minister told the Transport Committee that we should manage our expectations, and noted that it is unlikely that the Government will be able to deliver most of the funding bids. Will the Minister clarify which schemes are at risk? The scheme looks like another perfect example of this Conservative Government over-promising and under-delivering.
Instead of slapdash spending and flashy competitions, our railways need a proper long-term strategy and leadership. We need proper investment. The Government’s strategy is equivalent to keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best. Perhaps that is their calling card, given their shambolic handling of the recent rail strikes. The future of our transport is too important to leave to chance. Under this Government, there is little comprehensive strategy. They have demonstrated that clearly with Great British Railways. Since its launch, we have been told that GBR will revitalise our railways, improve our services and advance our infrastructure, but what do we hear from the Government today? Absolutely nothing. After all this time, we have not even heard where the organisation might be based, and Ministers have admitted that there is no prospect of any GBR legislation in the transport Bill in this parliamentary Session.
What about HS2? What happened to the more than 60 promises made by Ministers on the delivery of the eastern leg? HS2 will not be delivered in full. What about delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail in full? How about an annual rolling programme of electrification of our railway lines? And where is the annual rail network enhancements pipeline?
To make matters worse, after 13 years of cuts, cuts, cuts, we are being promised even more cuts. Network Rail is being forced to make £4 billion of efficiencies in the next few years, and it has been reported that train operating companies expect to cut their budgets by over 10%. It does not take an industry expert to know what that will mean: fewer services, further increases in fares, and job cuts.
Our railways provide a unique opportunity to connect our nations and regions. With the right investment and vision, we can unleash the economic potential of our great towns and cities. I am sure that is a sentiment the new Rail Minister agrees with, so perhaps he could enlighten us about his long-term vision for tackling regional disparities across our railways and about whether he, unlike his predecessor, hopes to offer more than just short-sighted contests and managed decline.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate on the restoring your railway fund. Like me, he has a passionate interest in the future of our railways, and I pay tribute to him as my predecessor.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members will know that the £500 million restoring your railway fund was announced in January 2020, with the aim of delivering on our manifesto commitment of levelling up and beginning a process of reopening lines and stations in England and Wales that had previously been closed. This investment is being used to explore and deliver on how we reconnect communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education opportunities.
We have already seen that in action, as many hon. Members have mentioned—not least those who represent Devon. I was delighted to travel to Devon last November to help celebrate the first anniversary of the restoration of the Dartmoor line between Exeter and Okehampton. That was the very first reopening under the restoring your railway manifesto commitment. It was delivered on time and on budget, and I am pleased to say that the restored service has been hugely popular. Over 250,000 new journeys have been recorded on the Dartmoor line in its first year. I was heartened to meet members of the local community and to hear how the reinstated line has improved their lives and is boosting local businesses, college numbers and tourism.
Another restoring your railway scheme, which I plan to visit in the next month or so, is the Northumberland line. It received £34 million of funding in January 2021, which has enabled track to be upgraded for passenger services. Once open, the Northumberland line will reintroduce direct passenger trains between south-east Northumberland and the centre of Newcastle, improving access to jobs, leisure and learning, with services likely to start in 2024. The area has been identified as being in the top 10% of most deprived areas nationally, and it has the lowest rates of regional car ownership, with poor public transport options into Newcastle.
I thank the Minister for giving way. On the point about levelling up communities, will he ensure that projects such as Meir station, which has so much potential to level up communities, are considered favourably and that that ability to level up areas is considered in the assessment process, to ensure that levelling-up factors determine which projects get the go-ahead and move forward to full development?
I thank my hon. Friend for his point and for his work on the Transport Committee. I will indeed look at the issue in that regard. It is important that the business case has a good cost-benefit ratio, but it is not just the direct return on money that matters; following the reform of the Green Book rules, one also needs to consider—this is great news—what projects do for regeneration and decarbonisation, and these projects deliver on both fronts.
As hon. Members will appreciate, the restoring your railway fund is heavily over-subscribed. My Department received nearly 200 bids—200 excellent bids—to the ideas fund element of the programme alone. We also reviewed proposals whose business cases were already in their advanced stages, such as the Northumberland line and the Bristol to Portishead line, along with existing proposals to introduce a number of new stations under the new stations fund element.
On the points raised by the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), I gently remind him that eight schemes under the restoring your railway fund are being delivered; 13 are progressing past the strategic outline business case towards their full business case; and 23 projects have been taken through the ideas fund stage. So I did not recognise the part of his speech where he said that not much appeared to have been delivered. And one of my hon. Friends said, the beauty of this fund is that one gains the buy-in of the local community, local Members of Parliament lead things, and schemes are decided from the grassroots up, not from the top down, which I dare say would be more the line of thinking of the hon. Member for Slough.
I will not give way, because I have quite a lot to go through.
I appreciate that many hon. Members—particularly those who have sponsored individual proposals—will have received disappointing news along the way about their schemes not progressing under the restoring your railway programme, although hopefully with constructive and detailed feedback. I hope that the process has been helpful in allowing promoters of projects all over the country to develop their cases.
The hon. Member for Slough also mentioned my contribution to last week’s Transport Committee, which I was very pleased to attend. As I mentioned, we need to be mindful of the fact that it will not be possible for all schemes in the restoring your railway portfolio to progress to the next stage of development. The fact is that we do not have a limitless budget; indeed, although schemes may show promise at an early stage of their business case, some may not be able to cover their operational costs in the long term, and we should not add greater cost to the railways, given how stretched the finances are. When one looks at the schemes that are already being delivered or that are moving to the full business case, one gets quickly to £500 million halfway down the list, so I do want to manage expectations. At the same time, however, that demonstrates that we are getting on with things and spending the fund’s money. We should also be mindful of the wider context of the rail portfolio, where all projects face increasing costs for a variety of reasons, particularly inflation.
Hon. Members should know that I have asked my officials to carry out a review of all the schemes in the restoring your railway portfolio to prioritise the most viable projects for the next stage. That is particularly important in the light of the remaining budget we have available, so that we deliver the most we can under the challenging financial constraints we all have to live with. I emphasise that the process will be driven by data, expertise and careful consideration—that goes back to the third point my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay made, about how we will determine matters. I also assure hon. Members waiting to hear back about bids made to the second and third rounds of the ideas fund element of restoring your railway that those bids are being fully and fairly considered as part of the overall review process.
I want now to respond to the excellent points, cases and pitches that have been made this morning. First, with regard to my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), the Ferryhill project received further funding in June 2022. Sedgefield station is a possible additional stop between Ferryhill and Middlesbrough, and it is under consideration.
I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) for his kind words. As he noted, the Wellington and Cullompton project is progressing to a full business case, and a decision will be made once that has been finalised.
In her brilliant speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) made a pitch for Stourbridge and Round Oak, and it is hard—wellies or no wellies—to resist the points that she made. I know that the bid was not successful in the first ideas round stage, and I hope there has been feedback about what more can be done. I am happy to meet her to go through matters, and I really note—as should her constituents—the passionate pitch she has made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) referred to the Stonehouse Bristol Road station. The Department is reviewing strategic outline business case, and we will get back to her.
As ever, brilliant speeches were made by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), who made a great pitch for the Stoke-Leek line. That is an ideas fund 3 project, and the strategic outline business case is being reviewed by the Department. I know that my hon. Friends will keep on at me in that regard, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South should be assured that Meir station has been funded to full business case. That was announced in June 2022.
The Leamside project is championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson); it is also being talked about outside this place, and I was delighted to meet Members from across the north-east yesterday in that regard. My hon. Friend specifically mentioned the Darlington to Weardale project. That is also in ideas fund 3. We are reviewing the strategic outline business case, and I thank him for the passionate points he made to champion the project.
Every time there is a rail debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) is here making the case for her constituents. Despite the spelling of my first name, I will not try to pronounce the names of the projects, but I will tell her, more importantly, that the strategic outline business case, having gone through ideas fund 3, is being reviewed. I am already on my way to see her with regard to other projects, and I am sure I will bring the wellies and we will tramp through. To continue the welly references, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) is a real champion for transport and Combe rail. I know it was unsuccessful in the ideas fund, but I want to talk with her to find out what more we can do.
I want to respond to two other points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. On what happens when local stakeholders do not support a bid, the beauty of these applications is that we want people to be able to crack on at pace. Obviously, it is challenging when one part of the stakeholder community is not willing to support a bid. That applies in particular if a planning authority is involved. I note the points made by my hon. Friend, who comes up with some brilliant ideas and suggestions. I hope his council will think again and join the local stakeholder community in supporting his bid.
My hon. Friend also asked me to recommit to the fund. I recommit to that fund; it is a brilliant scheme that allows MPs and community members to get involved and get back the railways they lost many years ago. I want to finish by congratulating him again—
I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind. I want to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, and I hope I have assured him and other hon. Members that we are taking a rigorous approach to assessing the projects. In terms of those being taken forward, I want to ensure that the projects that will deliver the greatest benefit for the community succeed.
This has been a welcome debate, although I do not think I should take the 22 minutes that are still available for what is supposed to be a short winding-up speech. I am particularly grateful for the Minister’s replies about the Government’s continuing commitment to the scheme overall and to the budget, particularly given some recent press speculation.
The railways seem to be in a different position today, compared with what we saw in the past. Given some of the comments made during the debate, I am sure the Minister has, like me, been reflecting on the fact that it is only 17 years ago that a Transport Secretary was saying that the railways
“can’t be in the business of carting fresh air around the country”.
That was widely interpreted as potentially heralding another round of Beeching-style cuts, whereby we would build a big new railway in the form of HS2 but shut down rural branch lines. It is great to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister the positivity and vision about the future of the railways, and that they really connect communities and are not just a transport scheme that sits in aspic.
I congratulate my hon. Friend again on securing the debate. Does he agree that programmes such as reopening the Penrith to Keswick line, reopening Gilsland station and extending the Borders railway through Longtown to Carlisle would feed into the west coast main line? Should not the Government take the two-pronged approach of restoring those links and holding Avanti West Coast to account for the unacceptable service on the west coast main line?
I am conscious that I could probably start a whole new debate by getting on to the subject of Avanti trains and their performance. However, I agree that the line brings a sense of Union connectivity; communities in the borders areas do not operate on the basis of the political dividing line between England and Scotland, but very much work together. Reopening the railway line my hon. Friend mentioned would be a great sign of that, and I know that he will continue to be a major champion of it.
We should reflect on the fact that there is the potential for a renaissance in our railways. It would have been easy today to focus on current disputes and not to look at the great future we have. We are seeing major investment and large-scale electrification on our rail network for the first time in decades. People can again look forward to a railway being part of their future, and not just something that their grandad or grandmother tells them about using in the past.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Restoring Your Railway Fund.
Nuclear Power: Dungeness
I beg to move,
That this House has considered nuclear power at Dungeness.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. It is also a pleasure to raise the future of nuclear power at Dungeness, which has been an important issue for me for my nearly 13 years in the House of Commons and for hundreds of my constituents.
Dungeness has had a footprint in the nuclear industry since the 1960s. The original Dungeness A power station was commissioned in the 1960s. It started its productive life in 1965, and then its decommissioning was started in 2005. That was followed by Dungeness B power station, which went into energy production in 1985 and has only recently come to the end of its operating life after an extension. It is now in defueling, following decommissioning. It is operated by EDF Energy.
The footprint of the nuclear industry in my constituency is believed to be about 1,000 people—people working on the further decommissioning of the A station and the operation and defueling of the B station. As the Minister knows, when energy production stops and defueling starts, nuclear power stations are not like any other business; we cannot just turn the lights off and shut the business down. In fact, the last quarter of the operating life of a nuclear power station is the process of defueling and decommissioning, so there will still be hundreds of jobs at Dungeness linked to the nuclear industry for some time to come.
The nuclear industry has become a very important part of the economic life of Romney Marsh in particular. Surveys that were done when the nuclear power stations were owned by British Energy showed that Dungeness was one of the most popular locations in the country in terms of community support for the nuclear industry and the power station. It has maintained a very active stakeholder community engagement group, which is linked to and works very closely with the operation of the power station.
When I was first elected to Parliament, one of the issues I raised in my maiden speech was the need to secure a long-term future for the nuclear capacity of Dungeness. It meets many important criteria for supplying energy in this country. South-east Kent—Dungeness peninsula is the most south-easterly point of the United Kingdom—is an area of high energy demand. Given the increase in housing numbers, industrial activity, business activity and new investment, that is only likely to grow, so the power station is located in a place where we need energy. Demand is growing, and the cost of supply from a power station such as Dungeness, which is only 70 miles or so from London, is much cheaper than it is from other locations on the grid. There are grid connections in Kent, particularly in Sellindge in my constituency, which also has energy connectors that link to France and the continent. There is capacity in the grid for supply, which is not the case in many other areas. Dungeness has therefore met many of the criteria that would make it incredibly suitable for future energy production.
When work was done in 2011 to look at new nuclear sites, Dungeness was not included on the siting list, but it was not explicitly excluded. The reason for its non-inclusion was that it was considered too constrained a site because of the very high level of environmental protection around the nuclear facility. Dungeness village and power station sit on a shingle peninsula, which is the second largest of its kind in the world—the biggest is Cape Canaveral, the home of NASA—so it is a very unusual feature. The ridges of shingle that have built up over many years of coastal erosion on the channel coast are specially protected. They were part of a specially protected area designation when we were a member of the EU, which is the highest level of environmental protection. That does not mean that we cannot do things there if there is an outstanding national interest to do so, but we normally have to have exhausted other options.
The size of the footprint of modern power stations such as Hinkley Point C or Sizewell C meant that the size of the land available at Dungeness where development might be possible was too constrained. Indeed, the energy companies that would be building those power stations said there were sites that were more suitable for that reason. However, it was not that flood risk might have been an issue. That is often mentioned because of the position of Dungeness and the need to constantly update and secure its flood defences because of the shingle banks that surround the site. That has never been the case and there was no objection from the Environment Agency to new nuclear at Dungeness. Indeed, the site at Dungeness needs to be protected for 100 years, whether there is energy production there or not, as part of its long-term decommissioning.
After the Fukushima disaster, Mike Weightman conducted a review of nuclear sites around the country, which considered that it would be wise to add another couple of metres to the shingle bund around the site for further protection and to future-proof the sea defences. That has been done, so it is, and remains, a secure site. The question is whether there is room at Dungeness for new nuclear.
When the 2011 site review was done, Dungeness, in addition to Bradwell, was placed on a list of two sites that were not taken forward, but on which the Department said it was open to an energy company coming forward with a proposal, which it would look at. When that work was done, the idea of small modular nuclear reactors as a serious source of new energy was not envisaged. The site review only really considered the type of very large reactors that we are seeing built at the moment and not the smaller ones. If that had been considered at the time and if that technology had been an option, there would have been more options at Dungeness.
There is land available—I would argue that there is actually land even available in the brownfield site for Dungeness A—where small modular reactors could be located. Just to give an idea of the advance in technology, one SMR would probably produce more electricity and energy than Dungeness A did in the 1960s. The idea of three or four SMRs at Dungeness, which could easily fit within land that was already disturbed during the operation and construction of the existing nuclear site—it does not have the highest level of designation—could easily be seen producing the type of power that Dungeness B has produced for many years.
As the Government consider the siting of new nuclear power stations and the site list update required for 2025, special consideration should be given to the future of nuclear power at Dungeness and, in particular, its suitability for SMR reactors. Officials at the Department, or the Minister himself, might say, “We could just roll over the existing nuclear site list and, of course, if others want to make the case for additional sites, they can do that.” I am sure the Minister’s door will always be open to that sort of persuasion. However, it sends a signal to the market if the Government have confidence to say that there may be certain sites within the nuclear estate that are suitable for large reactors and others that might only be suitable for SMRs; that, furthermore, there would be no objection in principle to certain areas of land within nuclear sites such as Dungeness being made available; and, to give certainty, that it would be possible to work within the environmental constraints on the wider Dungeness site if SMR development were limited to certain key areas. We believe that there are areas on the site where that would be possible. The industry needs to be given that certainty.
I regard the entire estate of nuclear sites in the UK, both civil and military, as national assets: sites for the future where, in particular, technologies such as SMRs can be deployed. There is overwhelming local support for that from the community that has benefited for many years from its association with the nuclear industry as well as from our local authorities. Kent County Council and Folkestone and Hythe District Council have published a joint statement today supporting my efforts in raising the issue in this debate. They are also willing to do anything they can to help secure the investment at Dungeness from a new SMR provider, such as Rolls-Royce, though there may be other companies as well.
In trying to give certainty to the nuclear industry on the siting of SMRs, it is also important that we look at the land available and who owns it. The land at Dungeness A is owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a public body. The land at Dungeness B is owned by the operator EDF Energy. When it finishes defueling, it will hand over the power station to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to commence the advanced decommissioning of Dungeness B. It will not necessarily hand over or be likely to hand over the entire landholding for Dungeness B. That raises an important issue for the future: if a provider, be it Rolls-Royce or another company, came along and said that it thought there was the possibility of having SMRs at Dungeness, but it required using land that is not owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority or by a combination of NDA land and land owned by EDF, could that make progress without the consent of the landowners?
The NDA is a public body, which makes the decision-making process slightly easier. Where land is owned by other energy companies, which may not wish to use it themselves, can the company effectively land-bank that land, or is there a process whereby it should receive a fair commercial compensation for its value and allow another company to progress with the site, even if EDF did not want to? I am not saying that that would necessarily be a barrier, but I do not think that we, as a country, would want to be in a situation where we can see the potential of nuclear energy to secure a clean supply of baseload energy and we can see nuclear sites, which are national assets, where SMRs are suitable, but the development and investment cannot take place because of disputes between the landowner and the company that wants to invest. I would hope that that is something that we can resolve.
I have some questions for the Minister on the future of nuclear power, and particularly on the potential for SMRs at Dungeness. Can he give us some certainty over the role of sites such as Dungeness as part of the site review list, and will consideration be given to having SMRs at Dungeness? Ideally, Dungeness will be included on a new site list agreed by the Government for 2025. Will the Minister and his officials agree to meet me and representatives of Folkestone and Hythe District Council, and of Kent County Council, to discuss what more can be done at the local level to support the process of securing Government support for the principle of having SMRs at Dungeness?
When I discussed the suitability of the site with the SMR delivery team at Rolls-Royce, they said that the SMRs are constructed to sit on a bed of shingle, and anyone who has been to Dungeness knows that one thing we do not lack is shingle. The Minister is more than welcome to come and join me for fish and chips at the Pilot Inn in Dungeness, and to look at the site for himself. He will see what an excellent location it is. The grid connections are there, the community support is there, and there is land available for this new technology. We just need to give a signal to the nuclear industry that this is a site that has Government support. Ultimately, it will be up to the nuclear industry to take that forward, but at least there are no artificial barriers in place that might restrict a business in doing so.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins—I think it is the first time I have had the privilege. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who, from his maiden speech onwards, has made it his business to champion the interests of the nuclear industry in Dungeness and, most importantly, his constituents who work there. It was interesting to hear that there are still 1,000 people working in nuclear in the area, given that Dungeness B ceased producing power in 2018, I think—nearly five years ago.
Dungeness has a proud place in the UK’s nuclear history, with two nuclear power stations. As my hon. Friend said, Dungeness A opened in 1965, providing 40 years of operation, and Dungeness B was the first advanced gas-cooled reactor to be constructed in the UK, generating enough low-carbon energy to meet the needs of every home in Kent for more than 50 years. The Government recognise the important role that nuclear energy has to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, in ensuring our energy security—if the last year has shown us anything, it is the importance we need to put on energy security in the decades ahead—and, as my hon. Friend set out so well, in providing highly skilled jobs that underpin a clean and prosperous economic future. That is why we published the British energy security strategy in April 2022, making a firm commitment to new nuclear. The strategy set out a stretching programme with an ambition to deploy up to 24 GW of nuclear power by 2050, which would represent, on current estimates, around 25% of projected electricity demand in the UK economy.
The Hinkley Point C power plant is at the forefront of our plans. Hinkley Point C will make a vital contribution to our energy security by generating 7% of Great Britain’s current electricity demand. Despite challenges, construction there continues at pace, and Hinkley Point C will provide an enormous boost to both the local and national economy, providing more than 25,000 new employment opportunities. As of October 2022, 1,000 apprentices had been trained during the construction phase of that project, showing on that site the economic impact that nuclear can have.
We need more new nuclear, beyond Hinkley Point C. That is why we took the crucial step to invest £700 million in Sizewell C. Following that investment, the Government have become a 50% shareholder in the project’s development, with EDF. That was an historic moment: making the first direct state backing of a nuclear project in this country in more than 30 years. It is our biggest step so far towards increasing our national energy independence, facilitating a further 3.2 GW of reliable electricity, which can power up to 6 million homes.
The benefits of that project include supporting about 10,000 jobs at the peak of construction, and plans to create 1,500 apprenticeships to help build the nuclear workforce of the future. That will be a tremendous boost to the UK, building on the progress made by Hinkley Point C. The aim is to replicate Hinkley Point C at Sizewell, with the benefits of repeating the same form of construction.
The British energy security strategy also announced the Government’s intention to set up a new flagship body, Great British Nuclear or GBN, which will be tasked with helping projects through the development process and developing a resilient pipeline of new-build projects to support the Government’s nuclear ambitions, which will interest my hon. Friend. The Government will make an announcement on the set up of GBN—in the not-too-distant future, I hope. GBN is being developed in close collaboration with industry, ensuring it has the capability and capacity to deliver the Government’s ambition.
We now come to where my hon. Friend has led me. He is correct that small modular reactors, or SMRs, as well as new gigawatt-scale projects, such as Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C, will be important in delivering our nuclear ambitions. I welcome the support and enthusiasm that my hon. Friend and the community he mentioned at Dungeness have shown for nuclear energy generally, and specifically for new nuclear technologies such as SMRs. Their smaller size and factory-based modular construction potentially allow for more flexible deployment options, as my hon. Friend set out, and reduced build and schedule risks, compared with large nuclear power stations. If Sizewell following Hinkley allows the benefits of replication, imagine having a factory producing four a year on a consistent basis.
SMRs could offer a potential route for the UK to enhance its capability in engineering and manufacturing, through innovation, advanced techniques and new facilities. They could bring significant regional and socioeconomic benefits, including the creation of high-value manufacturing and engineering jobs. We have been progressing the development of SMRs through the advanced nuclear fund, which includes a significant Government investment of up to £210 million to develop the Rolls-Royce SMR, and up to £170 million to support advanced modular reactor demonstrations, which is the next stage of development.
More widely, we are providing greater funding to support future nuclear development, which includes the £120 million future nuclear enabling fund to support new nuclear projects, including SMRs, and the £75 million nuclear fuel fund, as we seek to get ourselves and our allies off dependence on Russian uranium. To reflect the changing technological and policy landscape, and to support the transition to net zero, the Government will develop a new national policy statement—NPS—for nuclear energy infrastructure deployable after 2025. That will be subject to the usual process of public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny in due course.
Dungeness’s history, at the forefront of nuclear energy in the UK, means that there is a highly skilled workforce and a valuable community of nuclear experts in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We would welcome their views and input as part of that consultation in due course. In addition, we would welcome views from Kent County Council and Folkestone and Hythe District Council, which have previously been in touch with my Department, and share my hon. Friend’s commitment and enthusiasm for nuclear energy and the nuclear community at Dungeness. My hon. Friend asked if I would meet them, and I would be glad to do so. Given developments happening in the not-too-distant future, we should seek to make the timing of that most appropriate and useful. That might not be immediately, but I am happy to meet him and the councils.
As a first step towards designating the new nuclear NPS, the Government are developing an overall siting strategy for the long term, including advanced nuclear technology. In the light of the new developments and SMRs, we will be looking at a different approach.
In the work that the Government are setting out to do, will they consider that some sites might be suitable for some technologies but not all, and that therefore the site list will not just be a list of sites that would accept any format? Will they consider sites that may be suitable for some formats but not others?
My hon. Friend is right. If I have understood it correctly, previously this was very much predicated on modern gigawatt scale reactors only. That will not be the case now. Precisely how that will be done will be laid out in due course, but the brief will precisely be to look across the piece. That is what we need to do if we are to move to 24 GW. Under current Government policy, we are looking at a mix of gigawatt and, if the technology develops as we expect it to, SMRs; the siting will therefore need to reflect those realities.
Any nuclear project will continue to be subject to proper examination and development consent through the national planning policy framework. We welcome conversations with any stakeholders who are considering whether their assets might be suitable for the deployment of nuclear facilities. We are very much open to that conversation in the light of the changed siting requirements, and for the reasons we have discussed.
In conclusion, the Government are putting in place a wide range of measures to help achieve our nuclear ambitions and support the transition to net zero. We look forward to continuing to engage with all interested parties, including from the Dungeness community, as we develop the new policy framework for the siting of new nuclear projects. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe for securing this important debate and making a strong and early case—with the impeccable timing I expect from him—ahead of new siting policy and development. I look forward to continuing to engage with him on this important matter, and to meeting him and his local representatives in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
Lachin Corridor and Nagorno-Karabakh
I beg to move,
That this House has considered closure of the Lachin Corridor and the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am very pleased to see such a strong turnout for a subject that many of us have struggled to pronounce, let alone spell. I declare an interest: I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Armenia, and in April I took a delegation there at the invitation of the Armenian Parliament. I am glad that several of my fellow delegates are here to speak.
This is not a new subject for Westminster Hall, but it has certainly become a much more urgent one as a result of the clear breach of the terms of the tripartite ceasefire agreed between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on 9 November 2020. It was a breach by Azerbaijan after it invaded the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is now clearly intent on waging illegal, immoral and inhumane suffering on the Armenian population of this troubled corner of south-east Europe that borders Asia. That military conflict, and now humanitarian crisis, has gone largely unnoticed and unremarked on by the west—especially western media—and, regretfully, partly by our United Kingdom Government.
I will give some brief background to the long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which has always been an integral part of historic Armenia, and has a predominantly Armenian population. The conflict was largely supressed while those countries were part of the Soviet Union. In 1991, unprovoked, the Azerbaijanis launched war against Nagorno-Karabakh, with the help of Afghan mujaheddin, and Russian, Belarusian and Chechen mercenaries, and attempted ethnic cleansing by deporting more than 600,000 Armenians from the area.
After four years of conflict and 30,000 deaths, Armenia prevailed, and a Russia-brokered ceasefire was signed in 1994. After that followed 26 years of relative peace, helped by the oversight of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group, which ensured implementation of security measures. The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, has been routinely obstructed by the Azeris, and there have been numerous ceasefire violations, including the targeting of civilian infrastructure across the border into Nagorno-Karabakh and even into Armenian sovereign territory, and the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage.
Those violations culminated in 44 days of war between September and November 2020, when with assistance from Turkey, sophisticated battlefield drone technology from Israel, the assistance of mercenaries flown in from Syria and a blind eye turned by Russia, the Azeris invaded, terrorised and occupied large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving an effective island of Armenian-populated territory linked to Armenia only by a narrow strip of territory known as Lachin corridor. It is literally a lifeline—it is known as the road of life.
On 9 November 2020, a rather one-sided ceasefire was agreed with Russian mediation, and terms were imposed on Armenia, whereby Azerbaijan kept all the conquered parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the Armenian towns of Hadrut and Shushi. Those regions were subsequently cleansed of their Armenian populations. Disgracefully, at the end of that war, the Azerbaijan Government issued a set of commemorative postage stamps that showed Azerbaijanis in hazmat suits eradicating the rodents or pests, as they tried to put it, from Nagorno-Karabakh. That was a representation of the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population, very unsubtly portrayed on the postage stamps of that country.
The remainder of Nagorno-Karabakh was left isolated and surrounded on four sides by a deeply xenophobic state with a clear intent to eradicate or expel the population. A small detachment of 1,900 Russian peacekeepers, whose numbers may since have dwindled because of their attention being elsewhere, was deployed to maintain the ceasefire and patrol the 25 km Lachin corridor—the sole lifeline to Armenia for the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
To repeat, it was an express obligation under the trilateral agreement of 9 November 2020 that
“the Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee safe movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions along the Lachin corridor.”
It could not be clearer than that. But in the two years since the ceasefire agreement, there have been constant infringements by the Azeris—firing artillery across the line of contact and hitting civilian infrastructure, including nurseries. In the middle of September 2022, 300 soldiers were killed in an early flare-up of the conflict. They have still not handed over some of the prisoners of war from the original conflict. Indeed, in October 2022, Human Rights Watch reported on the extrajudicial killing of Armenian POWs by Azeri forces, and some alarming and distasteful footage has been posted on social media of decapitated Armenian soldiers and others. The Azeri forces routinely use loudspeakers across the border into Nagorno-Karabakh, warning people to leave or else come to harm. This is a constant war of attrition and intimidation of an Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh who have every right to live there and to live in peace, yet have been denied that by the Azerbaijani state.
Those of us in the delegation I mentioned met refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. We went down to the border town of Goris. Many came across from Nagorno-Karabakh to meet us, because we were not allowed to go into Nagorno-Karabakh. They gave us their first-hand testimonies of the appalling oppression that they had been suffering, and of course things have got so much worse since the blockade of the Lachin corridor.
On 12 December 2022, the Azeri Ministry of Ecology made a statement that suggested that natural resources were being illegally mined in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it asked Russian peacekeepers to monitor the situation. Before that could happen, a group of so-called environmentalists from Azerbaijan bypassed Russian checkpoints and set up tents on the main road, thereby blocking the Lachin corridor.
In fact, many of those “environmental protesters” have been identified as members of the Azeri military with Government backing. They are posing as civilians. Some of them are members of the Grey Wolves, an extreme fascist group. They have been brought in by the Azeri state, and their transportation and stay are paid for by the Azeri Government. The Human Rights Defender of Armenia report lists and gives photographs of many of the characters who have been identified as those so-called environmental protesters. The report shows that they are clearly
“representatives of Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations, which are directly and exclusively financed by the Azerbaijani government, or the Heydar Aliyev Foundation headed by the first vice president and first lady of Azerbaijan. Furthermore, evidence has been registered that representatives of the Azerbaijani special services are also amongst the alleged ‘environmental activists’ who are currently blocking the only lifeline”
I could mention a list of names—it will drive Hansard berserk—to give some examples. Telman Qasimov’s personal page on his social media network shows that he is
“military with strong anti-Armenian views for many years, who, according to some sources, is an officer of the military special intelligence service.”
There is a photograph of him protesting. Fuad Salahov,
“an officer of the special purpose unit of the Ground Forces of Azerbaijan, is one of the organizers of the action.”
Ruhiyye Memmedova is
“President of the Public Union ‘Support to the Elderly and Single Persons’; the NGO operates with the funding of the ‘Heydar Aliyev Fund’”.
Samir Adigozelli is
“Director of the ‘Center for Socio-Political Processes and International Studies’; funded by the Government of Azerbaijan”.
I could go on. There are photographs of all those people protesting. They are not environmentally conscious civilian protesters. They are put there, paid for and supported by the Azeri state and Government, and they should stop pretending otherwise. In effect, they are agents of the Azeri Government who are blocking the Lachin corridor. Together with the Russians, they refuse to do anything about it. Videos of the Azeri protesters posted by Azerbaijan show them side by side with Russian troops watching football matches while supposedly protesting as well. The Russians are not even turning a blind eye to this; they are in full sight of it. What an extraordinary contrast there is with protesters in Moscow, who only have to hold up a blank sheet of paper anywhere near a Russian police officer or soldier to be bundled off. But blocking a lifeline by pretending to be a protester is perfectly all right, as long as it is in the Lachin corridor.
The Azeri Government have orchestrated all of this activity, with the supposed Russian “peacekeepers” turning a blind eye. Only Russian and Azeri vehicles are allowed to pass through the Lachin corridor. As a result, 120,000 Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, including children, elderly people and disabled people, are effectively under siege. The blockade and isolation of many thousands of people has created a dire humanitarian situation and an existential threat for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The humanitarian crisis there is worsening with each passing day. Amid brutal winter conditions, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are being deprived of vital supplies of medicine, food and fuel from the outside world; the provision of healthcare and social services has been obstructed, causing human suffering and life-threatening situations; the shortage of food and other essential goods is becoming increasingly noticeable, because every day more than 400 tonnes of supplies remain undelivered; and the danger of malnutrition is becoming more palpable. In total, 41 nurseries and 20 schools have already had to close, with thousands of children being deprived of their right to education.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, first for giving way and secondly for securing this important debate. Given the unfolding humanitarian crisis, which is due to the closure of the Lachin corridor, does he share the belief that a United Nations or OCSE fact-finding mission should be established to assess the humanitarian situation on the ground?
I completely agree. If the Azeris are so intent on putting up this façade that there is a genuine environmental protest and nothing is amiss, why would they not want to allow independent investigators, backed by the UN or whoever, to go and ascertain that? They do not and they will not—that is the problem.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his campaigning over the years on this important issue. He mentioned the United Nations, but might there not also be a role for the OSCE or indeed for the European Union in this context? The situation requires urgent international action. Even though we are obviously focused on Ukraine, we should not ignore this struggle.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I completely support all his suggestions; in fact, such suggestions have been taken up by a declaration in the European Parliament, which I will come on to. Of course I welcome the comments of a fellow officer of the APPG for Armenia, who has also been a long-term campaigner on Armenian interests.
Moreover, this blockade deprives the people of Nagorno-Karabakh of their right to free movement. At least 1,100 citizens have been left stranded along the blocked highway for the past week, unable to return to their homes. Children have been separated from their families; 270 children had to find temporary shelter across Armenia while their parents and other relatives remain in Nagorno-Karabakh. And this is all happening at the coldest time of year—quite deliberately.
So what did the Azeris do? They cut the gas pipeline on several occasions. On 10 January, the sole high-voltage power line from Armenia was damaged and the Armenians were not allowed by the Azeris to go in and fix it. On 12 January, internet access was damaged. This process is incremental; trying to starve out and terrorise out the population. It is completely deliberate and calculated intimidation.
Only the Azeris and the Russians continue to refer to the militants blocking the Lachin corridor as independent environmentalists, but according to the authoritative global freedom scores of Freedom House, the international organisation, Azerbaijan comes ninth out of a hundred nations for its restrictions on and oppression of its population, which puts it on a part with China, Belarus and Crimea.
No Azeri civilian is allowed to enter the region normally without the official Government permit, so the demonstrators can only be there with the permission of the Azeri Government. The Azeri authorities are contradicting themselves by claiming that there is no blockade yet arguing that the blockade will only be lifted if their demands are met.
Nagorno-Karabakh has offered to allow UN environmental agencies full access to the mining activity, in order to show that it is being carried on quite normally, although the blockading of a lifeline would not be justified even if it was not being carried on quite normally. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has refused to engage.
So, 43 days on, it is clear that this blockade is deliberately fabricated and controlled by the Azerbaijan Government. It is part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate the 120,000 Armenian population; to starve them out, freeze them out, drive them into poverty and sickness, as part of the Azeris’ disgraceful ethnic cleansing campaign, while the rest of the world looks on, and all eyes are, of course, on Ukraine.
Modern treaty-based international humanitarian law prohibits deliberate starvation and impediment of humanitarian relief, regardless of conflict classification, and Azerbaijan is in gross violation of those basic international norms. The UN report on the Yugoslav war defines ethnic cleansing as
“rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area”.
It constitutes a crime against humanity and meets the criteria under the genocide convention, including creating unbearable conditions for a group singled out in this case due to its ethnicity, and aiming to inflict harm and achieve displacement from their homeland. Those actions include subjecting the entire population to psychological terror; cutting essential supplies, such as gas, electricity and the internet; prohibiting the free movement of people, goods and medical supplies; and gradually starving the population.
All those criteria apply in this case. They are attempting genocide, if not ethnic cleansing. Azerbaijan has a state policy of hatred towards Armenians. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination singled out Azerbaijan in August 2022 for its discriminatory policies against Armenians. The blockade is a deliberate attack, an inhumane tactic exercised by the Azeri state under various leadership. Azerbaijan has form. The current blockade is the second one in the history of Nagorno-Karabakh. The first siege was carried out in 1991-92.
Armenia is in a quite parlous position. It is weakened greatly by the previous war inflicted on it by Azerbaijan. It is facing the military force of the Azeris, backed by their cousins in Turkey, with sophisticated kit from Israel. They have a Russian military base on Armenian soil. They dare not offend the Russians, because they need the Russians to be peacekeepers, though that clearly is not happening. They are between a rock and a hard place.
Why does this matter? Apart from being a moral issue that we should take an interest in, it has big implications for the geopolitics of this important but unstable region, with Turkey, Russia and Iran to the south all flexing their muscles with neo-imperial territorial ambitions. Armenia and its next-door neighbour Georgia sit in the middle of it. The people of Armenia have been persecuted for more than 100 years, and I presented a Bill to the House recognising the Armenian genocide. The west has a duty to step in and play at least honest broker, but preferably peacekeeper and security guarantor, in the absence of Russia doing anything of the sort.
In December 2022, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling on Azerbaijan to unblock the Lachin corridor, but that was derailed by the Russians. What can, or should, we in the United Kingdom do? The Minister cannot be here today, but I am delighted that his colleague from the Foreign Office will respond. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), said that blocking the Lachin corridor and disrupting gas supplies in the winter risked severe humanitarian consequences. He called on the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to respect their ceasefire commitments and negotiate a lasting peace settlement.
More recently, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon responded to a written question from Lord Alton on the subject:
“The UK Government continues to monitor the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and on the Armenian-Azerbaijan border. The UK Government has repeatedly urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani Governments to thoroughly investigate all allegations of war crimes and other atrocities in recent years. It is essential that allegations of mistreatment, abuse and summary killings are urgently fully investigated by the appropriate authorities.”
That is all very well but it has achieved nothing. The ceasefire breaches, the attempts at genocide, the aggression have all been pretty one-sided. Just telling the two parties involved to be nice to each other, as I fear is too often the case from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, has achieved nothing.
I recognise the good work that the UK has done in providing some humanitarian aid in the past, as well as in financing the clearance of mines laid in previous civil wars. However, the EU Parliament—to give it its due—passed a resolution last week calling on the Azerbaijanis to open the Lachin corridor immediately and to continue to refrain from blocking transport, energy ties and communications between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. It accused Azerbaijan of violating international obligations according to the tripartite ceasefire, and it underlined the need for a comprehensive peace agreement, which must guarantee the rights and security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population. It also called for a fact-finding mission, which we certainly would support. The French Senate has also said some quite punchy things, and American Senators have as well, yet all we have done is say the Azerbaijanis and Armenians need to be nice to each other.
The Government really need to come off the fence. A clear perpetrator is abusing the human rights of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and has continually intimidated the peace-loving people of Armenia, who just want to live safely and in peace. We need to be more forceful and proactive, and to come down on the right side. I urge the Government to use their leverage to facilitate the immediate opening of the Lachin corridor, to sanction the members of the Azerbaijani elite who are responsible for the humanitarian crisis, to deter Azeris from committing further atrocities with impunity in the future, to send immediate humanitarian aid to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, to demand that Russian forces stop blocking access for international aid agencies, to support the people of Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination in order to save them from ethnic cleansing, to join the EU Parliament and other allies in threatening sanctions, and to agree to be part of the UN, OSCE or European fact-finding mission.
This cannot go on. Every day that the conflict is allowed to continue, more innocent children, families and Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh will lose their lives, their jobs and their livelihoods—all because of a blatant breach of a ceasefire as part of a blatant campaign of intimidation waged against the Armenian people by Azerbaijan. We need to call it out for what it is, and the Government need to do that now.
Order. The debate can last until 4 o’clock. Eight Members are seeking to contribute, and I want to get everybody in. We will start off with a time limit of four and a half minutes without interventions, so that we stand a fair chance. The recommended time limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for His Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Tim Loughton will have two or three minutes at the end to sum up the debate.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the opportunity to take part in today’s timely debate on the increasingly desperate humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has now entered its 44th day. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on leading the debate and on his excellent speech. He is a hard act to follow, but I will do my best in four and a half minutes. I thank him for the attention he has drawn to the plight of the population in Artsakh, where people are under siege and cannot travel. They are cut off from food, medical and other vital supplies and are still enduring energy blackouts in the depths of a harsh winter.
I join the hon. Member in condemning the blockade by Azerbaijan and asking the UK Government to do all they can to help with their diplomatic levers. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh have the right to live freely and independently, and it would be good to hear from the Minister what measures, apart from strongly worded statements, the Government are willing to take in order to work with others to end the blockade and resolve the issues by diplomatic and peaceful means.
I declare an interest as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Armenia and a member of the delegation that went to Yerevan last year, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As part of that delegation, as the hon. Member mentioned, we met and listened to refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, which I know will have had an impact on us all. It certainly had an impact on me and was a real reminder of the human cost of the decades-long pattern of hostility and conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
As the hon. Member said, this small and landlocked region has been disputed for decades, with animosity regularly boiling over since the early 1990s, and a descent into full-scale violence and hundreds of deaths in September 2020. The trilateral ceasefire agreed later that year now feels incredibly fragile, with the lifeline guaranteed by the agreement now violated.
The current blockade of the corridor—the only passage between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia—by Azerbaijan from 12 December has severed the only lifeline that the Artsakh Armenians have to the outside world. That is 120,000 Armenians now encircled and isolated. It is claimed that the road blockade has been initiated by environmental activists, but most feel that its intended effect is to isolate the population from Armenia.
As the hon. Member said, the blockade is an escalation of the cutting off of the gas supply during a freezing winter last year—a move that was repeated last month and will impact on some 80% of the population whose homes are supplied with gas. That is in the depths of winter, with temperatures dropping below minus 5° yesterday. Schools and nurseries have been forced to close and hospitals are struggling to operate.
The blockade has left families separated and most patients unable to travel for treatment in Yerevan. There is a shortage of medical supplies and no hot running water. As UNICEF has highlighted, children in the region are especially impacted, with parental separation and a lack of access to vital services. All this comes after 30 years in which the Lachin corridor has been open and functioning despite bitter tensions—but not now. The timing of the power blackouts, coupled with the blockade, feels designed to cause the greatest amount of human suffering possible during the winter months, to force a desired political outcome.
Like other Members, I am keen to hear from the Minister what role the Government will play by joining other countries in their condemnation. Of course, it is important that the persecution and terrorisation of the Armenian Christian population is met with united international condemnation, but it is also important that the UK Government use their leverage as a close diplomatic trading partner of Azerbaijan.
I am keen to hear about the release of Armenian prisoners of war and civilian hostages, and the Government’s view on that. Also, it would be good to know what discussions the Government have had about working with other countries on the logistics of an airlift and whether the Government are supportive of the EU’s joint motion on the blockade, which was made last Wednesday, and to understand the Government’s position in respect of the Caucasus.
Finally, it was a real privilege to be part of the delegation to Armenia last year. Coming from Wales, it is hard not to feel an affinity with another small, proud and mountainous country of 3 million people. Links between Wales and Armenia are long established, and the Armenian genocide memorial at the Temple of Peace in Cardiff was the first of its kind in the UK.
It has been a pleasure to meet members of the Armenian community in south Wales, who feel a strong connection with their ancestral home. Speaking to Armenians and the Armenian diaspora, it is hard not to be struck by their deep longing for peace—a burning desire informed by tragic history. It is understandable, then, that the Armenian people are more alert than most to where intolerance and violence can lead unless a light is shone upon it while there is still time. This is such a moment and the international community has a duty to do all it can now to work towards peace.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for bringing this incredibly important debate to Westminster Hall.
I recently met the Armenian ambassador, Varuzhan Nersesyan. He gave me a snapshot of what is going on in the region and it is horrific, so I am fully aware of how at risk and vulnerable Armenia is in the face of Azeri—and potentially Russian—aggression. This afternoon, I will update his excellency on the support from this place for Armenia.
The Soviet Union created the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region within Azerbaijan in 1924, when more than 94% of the region’s population was Armenian. If recent events have proved anything, it is that Russia is failing to uphold its role as guarantor of Armenian security, and we may as well ask why. Since 12 December, Azerbaijan has moved to block the Lachin corridor—the sole land route, 6 km long, connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. As the west failed to prevent the Taliban from retaking Afghanistan, I imagine Armenian eyes turning to Russia and wondering how it will prevent further Azeri aggression, and whether this will be the latest pretext for Russia to enter the sovereign land of others.
Following the six-week war of 2020, Russia sent in its army to act as peacekeepers. I am sure that no irony is lost on any Members present that those peacekeepers are now overseeing the peace fading, and that Nagorno-Karabakh is edging dangerously close to yet another conflict. Although Russia may not be the actual aggressor, regional instability presents a great chance for it to advance a plan that has been, nakedly, two decades in the making: rebuilding the geography of the old Soviet empire.
Azerbaijan must consider how the world now watches it and its friends. The president of Azerbaijan spoke about the Lachin corridor blockade that is causing such humanitarian suffering, saying that the action will continue until the demands of Baku are met. He said:
“Whoever doesn’t want to become our citizens can leave, the road is open. They can go by the cars of the Russian peacekeepers, by buses, no one will impede them.”
Does that not smack of an Israeli-Palestinian sort of answer? Are we not talking about a Berlin corridor or something like that? Threatening people with a Russian convoy will surely prompt an unwanted reaction.
As we have seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere, weakness is provocative. The west must support stabilisation in the region to prevent Russia from becoming the parental figure it seeks to be. We must support nations such as Armenia to maintain their place in the region or else, step by step, an expanding empire will be upon us all. The Lachin corridor must be opened. People are suffering and dying. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for bringing it forward. The issue is not new to him or to Westminster Hall, and it is a pleasure to be here to give him my support and to call for action.
The Armenian Christian community is close to my heart. I try to find time to speak about the plight of that community, which is often deserving of much more attention. Recent events in the region serve only to highlight that dire need. There is clearly a human rights catastrophe waiting to unfold, and the need for international intervention is clear. It must happen immediately. An estimated 120,000 Armenian Christians reside in the landlocked Nagorno-Karabakh region. They are currently enduring an economic blockade. Gas supplies were cut off and they are living with food shortages and limited access to medical aid. Armenian Christians are on the verge of suffering a humanitarian emergency.
It will be of grave concern to us that more than 20 organisations, including Christian Solidarity International, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust and Genocide Watch, say that the blockade is designed to, in the words of the genocide convention, deliberately inflict “conditions of life calculated” to bring about the end of a
“national, ethnical, racial or religious group”
in whole or in part. Such groups warn that the current Azerbaijani aggression against Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh is consistent with a history of ethnic and religious cleansing of Armenian Christian communities in the region.
As chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, I am speaking up for those Christians who are clearly being targeted. We know that there have been cases against Azerbaijan in the International Court of Justice for the destruction and vandalism of cultural and religious sites. Another chapter in this targeting of ethnic and religious groups is on the verge of unfolding as we speak today and in future. More must be done to stop this tragedy.
Last week, I spoke about the importance of addressing the situation in Afghanistan and not losing our zeal in the face of the crisis in Ukraine. The same concerns extend to Armenia and the Lachin corridor. The precarious and desperate situations in other countries should not be overshadowed by the horrific war in Ukraine. As a nation and as an international community, we must improve in order to care effectively for more than one group of suffering people at a time.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. As usual, he will encapsulate very well the feelings of those who have spoken already and who will speak later in the debate. I look to him for some guidance and support for the Christian Armenians who are suffering greatly. What can be done urgently? We can make a start on a resolution by ensuring the presence of international monitoring and peacekeeping troops in the region to help to restore balance to the weakened Armenians in the face of Azerbaijani self-interest. The Russia-brokered ceasefire, which helped to re-establish the safe corridor, is no longer working, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham emphasised. The reopening of the Lachin corridor is a key priority if a humanitarian crisis is to be avoided, as is the re-establishment of effective peacekeeping forces in the region.
What assessment has been made of the role of the Russian peacekeepers? It is almost a contradiction in terms to have a Russian peacekeeper; they really have no idea what peace is. What possibility is there of sending international peacekeepers to the region? It is alarming that the Azerbaijanis, claiming to be environmental activists, can bypass the Russian checkpoints and then go on to block the Lachin corridor. Have any representations been made to Azerbaijan in the light of the recent decision to start importing gas from Russia at a time when Europe stands united in cutting ties with it?
The ceasefire in the region is falling far short of a lasting peace. There are 120,000 people—Christian Armenians—at risk of a humanitarian emergency, as gas, food and medicine remain at low levels in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan must pursue dialogue and consultation to address those concerns, with the support of the international community if necessary, so that people’s needs are met. Let us not ignore that small Christian group’s human rights and its persecution. The civilians in that region—the Armenians—deserve better.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this timely debate. I want not to repeat what other Members have said—I agree with all the speeches that have been made so far—but to contribute because I have actually been to Nagorno-Karabakh. I travelled there about 10 years ago to see the situation on the ground following the conflicts. Sadly, there has been a repetition of conflict over many years in that part of the world, with Azeri aggression towards Nagorno-Karabakh.
I visited Nagorno-Karabakh and saw the democratically elected Government there and the efforts to rebuild the country following the previous conflicts. As a result of that fact-finding mission—it was not about expressing support for one side or the other—I am now sanctioned by Azerbaijan, as are a large number of colleagues in this House and other Parliaments who have had the temerity to go to Nagorno-Karabakh. I went with Baroness Cox, who is known as “Artsakh’s angel”, having visited Nagorno-Karabakh, I think, 100 times.
I was the UK Government’s representative in Yerevan in 2015 at the ceremony to mark the centenary of the genocide. I share the regret of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that the genocide is not formally recognised by the UK Government, but it most certainly was a genocide. It was only right that we should have representation. The matters we are debating are, to some extent, rooted in the genocide of 100 years ago, because there has been constant hostility and hatred for the Armenian population from Turkey and, more latterly, Azerbaijan. There is no doubt that there is evidence that what is taking place now is an attempt at further ethnic cleansing, and possibly even meets the definition of genocide.
As my hon. Friend said, the conflict dates back to the formation of Armenia and Azerbaijan following the break-up of the Soviet Union, and there have been several wars since that time. I lead the UK delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and my colleague on the Parliamentary Assembly who represents Azerbaijan wrote to us to say that the Lachin road is being used for unlawful military activities and the trafficking of minerals and other wealth from the formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan to Armenia and elsewhere. That is strongly disputed. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the so-called environmental activists who have blockaded the road bear a striking resemblance to representatives of the Azeri Government. They are not just Greenpeace activists; this is a co-ordinated action and it has created a humanitarian crisis.
I do not wish to repeat what has already been said; I will say only that the world’s attention at the moment is rightly focused on what is happening in Ukraine. It is perhaps for that reason that Azerbaijan felt that now was a good moment—when attention was distracted elsewhere —to once again mount an assault. We are rightly aware of the pressure on Ukrainian citizens as a result of the winter and the Russian attempts to destroy their energy supplies. In Kyiv it is currently about minus 3°, and in Stepanakert it is almost exactly the same. The people in Nagorno-Karabakh are suffering in exactly the same way, without electricity and heat, as a result of the blockade. It is a humanitarian crisis; the international community and the Russian so-called peacekeeping force need to do more.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, if there is a suggestion that this is an environmental movement and there is no impediment to civilians moving from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, or for supplies to enter, why can we not have an international mission to establish the facts on the ground and unblock the road so that the people there—who are currently suffering desperately—can get the relief they need? I look forward to the Minister’s reply, but I hope the British Government will step up the pressure, if nothing else, to relieve the terrible suffering that is taking place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on bringing this issue to the attention of the House; it is important that we discuss it this afternoon. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are particularly concerned about friends and family in Nagorno-Karabakh, and they are frankly appalled at the lack of action on this front.
The blockade of the Lachin corridor is the latest stage in the ongoing hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The corridor is both a trade route and a link between many families who are split between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. When the blockade was started in December by the so-called “environmentalists”, described by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham in some detail, it severely limited trade as well as access to essential goods, medicine and foods.
While gas and electricity were being cut off, leaving people in Nagorno-Karabakh without heating and the means to power, there were also those outside who were stranded. In fact, there have been reports of up to 1,000 people who have ended up stranded outside their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh and have no way of getting back, including a number of school groups on field trips. Individually, these actions can cause chaos, but if we add in the freezing winter conditions that we hear about, they have left a situation that is rife for a humanitarian crisis.
I am pleased that the UK Government have spoken out on the issue and are focusing on restoring freedom of movement along the Lachin corridor, raising the issue at the OSCE and the UN Security Council. Those were both positive steps, but while the Government appear to be in dialogue with their Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts, I am disappointed at the detail we are hearing from them. I recently submitted a number of written questions regarding an action plan on this issue and what we should be doing on the Lachin corridor. I did receive responses, but there was a lack of detail; they lacked the teeth required to deal with this.
The UK has a significant trade relationship with Azerbaijan. The President of Azerbaijan has declared that the UK is Azerbaijan’s “largest investor” and strategic partner. Trade between the UK and Azerbaijan last year was over £1 billion, which gives us some leverage. It is not clear from the answers I received, or indeed from what we have heard so far, how humanitarian issues factor into any trade relations, so we need some detail from the Government on that. How can we on the one hand denounce the actions that lead to a humanitarian crisis, while on the other hand seek to increase trade with the very same state?
The UK must support both a lifting of the blockade and a lasting peace in the region. To realise that ambition, there must be engagement with both the Azerbaijani Government and the Armenian Government to reach solutions, but the UK has trade leverage with which we can help to resolve the conflict. We should be looking at sanctions and international monitoring of the situation, including supporting a humanitarian airlift mission to get supplies into Nagorno-Karabakh. Ultimately, we need the blockade lifted. Over 100,000 people are suffering greatly at the moment, and they seem to have been forgotten, so I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In particular, I have the honour of being the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Azerbaijan, so I hope I will be able to address some of the incorrect assertions that have been made during this afternoon’s lengthy debate.
First, we should remember that this conflict began in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet empire. In that context, a three-year war effectively took place, which ended with a ceasefire brokered in 1994 by the OSCE Minsk group. That directly leads to the current problems, because the reality is that it was recognised that the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan, but administered by an Armenian-backed regime. That, of course, led to frequent skirmishes along the line of control over an extended period of time. One of the things that has not been mentioned in this debate is the 1.5 million Azeris who were displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh and ended up having to find alternative accommodation further into Azerbaijan. I have had the pleasure of visiting Azerbaijan on many occasions and have met many of those refugees, who still live in camps and just desire to go home, but have been denied that by the Armenians. Once again, we must remember that there are two sides to this dispute.
The war that took place in 2020 ended with a Russian-backed ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, under the terms of that agreement—we should remember what those terms were—Azerbaijan regained control over a substantial amount of territory, and Russian peacekeeping forces were deployed along the line of contact and, indeed, the land corridor of the Lachin pass that links Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Over the past two years, there have been frequent clashes along that line of control; we should understand that this is not an isolated incident. Those clashes have led to more than 300 deaths along the line of control, including many civilians on both sides of the conflict, so this is not a simple thing where we can wave a magic wand and put things right.
What we do know is that the Azerbaijan Government have a direct concern about what is going on in the mines of Nagorno-Karabakh. The position of the environmental protesters has been mentioned; it should be remembered that the Armenians refused access to those mines to inspectors who could have checked what was actually going on. That led directly to those environmental protests taking place. There is irrefutable evidence that gold and other precious metals are being exploited and transported from Karabakh to Armenia, in flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement.
We should understand that there is a clear dispute about what the position of the pass is. That corridor is only supposed to be used for humanitarian purposes; however, Armenia and the Armenian-backed forces continue to use the corridor for illegal purposes, such as the transfer of landmines that have been put on to Azerbaijani territory and have killed civilians and members of the military.
I, too, refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My hon. Friend is quite correct that there have been several deaths in the area, but will he join me in congratulating the British Government for providing more than £1 million towards de-mining in the area to allow people from both sides of the conflict to come back and repopulate the area in which they had previously resided?
Clearly, we want to see landmines removed and the unnecessary deaths they cause ended. The landmines that have been transported have caused 276 Azerbaijani nationals, including 35 civilians, to be killed or seriously wounded. There is an issue around what is being used and the so-called blockade that is taking place. The reality is that Red Cross and Russian peacekeeping vehicles are permitted to go along the road; indeed, vital humanitarian aid is permitted along that corridor. We should be quite clear about that.
A key issue is how Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian oligarch of Armenian origin, has been parachuted into Karabakh, apparently by Russia, and given a ministerial role. We need to understand that this is someone who is sanctioned as part of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, and it is believed that Russia is thereby trying to reinforce its capability in terms of its war effort. His companies have been well used and well involved in the whole process of expanding the military presence in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh.
I will raise one final issue. Armenia has refused to co-operate with discussions on a proper, long-term peace deal with Russia and Azerbaijan. That demonstrates that Armenia has no interest in actually seeing a long-term settlement and peaceful co-operation between the two countries. Can my hon. Friend the Minister encourage a peacekeeping and a peaceful settlement for the two countries?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for this important debate. I am afraid my time has been shortened by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), and there are a few things I wish to refute. Last year, I, too, had the opportunity to visit Armenia and go to the area of Goris. I heard first hand from the refugees from those recent conflicts about some of the brutality and horrors, which were painful to hear.
As a member of the International Development Committee, I participated in a recent report on atrocity prevention. One thing I learned is the importance of language and how rhetoric plays a role in creating the conditions for crimes against humanity. After all, words are deeds. For years, Azerbaijan and its allies have used hate speech against Armenians. Indeed, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, proudly admitted that a generation of Azerbaijanis had been brought up to deeply despise Armenians, and he has negated the existence of Armenia as a nation, stating:
“Armenia is not even a colony, it is not even worthy of being a servant.”
We must see the current blockade in the context of those attitudes. The President of Azerbaijan has also said: “Whoever doesn’t want to become our citizens can leave, the road is open. They can go by the cars of the Russian peacekeepers, by buses, no one will impede them.” That is a transparent attempt to pressure the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to forcefully displace themselves from their ancestral homeland. It could be strongly argued that the present blockade is designed to deliberately inflict conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, in whole or in part. As a result, more than a dozen non-governmental organisations, including Genocide Watch, have issued a warning that all the conditions for ethnic cleansing are now in place.
The Minister has mentioned in writing that
“The UK Government has seen no evidence that ethnic cleansing is taking place or that the conflict is religiously motivated.”
Is that still the case? Why is the Minister ignoring the calls by international organisations warning about ethnic cleansing and genocide? Is it not the FCDO’s stated intention to be
“a force for good in the world”?
So where is it?
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute commented:
“Genocide happens in the dark. If we are able to shine a light in the region then oftentimes we can proactively prevent the worst outcomes.”
Given their influence in Azerbaijan, the UK Government have a significant role to play in shining a light on what is happening and bringing an end to the blockade. The comments from Ambassador James Kariuki at the UN Security Council last month were somewhat encouraging, but the lack of action since and the continuation of the blockade remain extremely worrying.
Reports have suggested that, since the UN Security Council meeting, UK diplomats have been actively engaged in ensuring that a Security Council resolution, drafted by France, that condemned the blockade was not brought forward and approved. Will the Minister confirm whether that is an accurate portrayal of events? Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Brussels, Vaqif Sadıqov, tweeted:
“Today France lost another battle to Azerbaijan in UN Security Council in a failed attempt to push biased pro-Armenian UNSC statement on Lachin…Words of gratitude go to Albania, Russia, UAE & UK! A great job of AZ diplomats!”
If the UK did not have a part to play in that, why was that inaccurate account allowed to be published? Will the Minister address that with the Azerbaijani ambassador to ensure that a correction is issued?
Finally, I am sure that everyone in this Chamber will agree that, given Russia’s ongoing invasion in Ukraine, it would be unthinkable that any UK Government would support human rights in Ukraine yet work in parallel with Russia to deny the condemnation of continuing violations in Nagorno-Karabakh. Human rights are universal, and we cannot pick and choose when to stand up for them depending on the identities of perpetrators or those who abuse them. Being a strategic partner of Azerbaijan should be a reason for the UK Government to assist in bringing the blockade to an end, not an excuse for timidity and tolerance.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate. I was not able to make the delegation last year, because I had covid, but I know that it was ably facilitated by my constituent Annette Moskofian. I hope there will be another one soon that I can join.
The hon. Gentleman set out the background very clearly. Since 12 December, the Lachin corridor—the “only lifeline”, as he called it, between Nagorno-Karabakh and the outside world—has been blocked. We have heard about the faux eco protesters; we know that they are not the Greta Thunberg types. It seems that Azerbaijan is emboldened by Russia’s woes elsewhere. In some senses, the blockade was foreseeable. It is the latest episode in a decades-long conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with Russia and Turkey involved as well.
I want to concentrate on the human suffering. Ealing Central and Acton is very Armenian in many ways. We have the Hayashen cultural centre in Acton, and the Navasartian Centre, a cultural hub, in Ealing. Between them, they provide advice and all sorts of things. It was at the Christmas party at Hayashen on 16 December—four days into the blockade—that I was presented with a petition with 120 names. I want to talk about some of their demands. It is not just the road that is blocked; food, fuel and medical supplies are unable to get through to the majority-Armenian population—they are not an ethnic minority, remember. We know that the gas pipe was cut off between 13 and 16 December. These are vulnerable people—children, the sick and the elderly—and it is a cold winter, as we have heard. At the other end of the Lachin corridor, over 1,000 people, lots of them children, are stranded in Armenia and unable to get home the other way. That is exacerbating a desperate situation. A lady from Ealing whose whole family are in Nagorno-Karabakh emailed me:
“They do not have electricity, they have only few hours of electricity supply per day, and gas is also cut…Azerbaijani authorities do not want Armenian people to communicate with the outside world, so television and internet are periodically disconnected. The situation in villages and small towns is even worse than in capital…They have run out of essential supplies of food and medicine”.
Throughout our diaspora communities, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned, there is real concern about the consequences of the blockade and the complete inaction of Russia, which we know has its own woes—the Ukrainian war has well outlived the 44-day war of 2020—and the Azerbaijani authorities. The ceasefire of 2020, which was always a bit fragile and unsatisfactory, is now in tatters. We have also heard that the European Parliament has adopted a resolution on the humanitarian consequences.
There were four demands in the petition: first, to condemn and call for the end of the blockade of the Lachin corridor; secondly, the permanent and unconditional reopening of the Lachin corridor, as well as Stepanakert airport; thirdly, to airlift emergency provisions of food, winter clothing and medical supplies directly from UK; and fourthly, to replace Russian peacekeepers with OSCE international peacekeepers—I speak as member of the OSCE parliamentary assembly—under a UN mandate.
The Armenians are a resilient people. We know that they have had repeated invasions and persecutions. I have also spoken about how what happened in 1915-16 should be recognised as a genocide. I do not want to get into inflammatory talk of ethnic cleansing now, but the cry of the self-determinists is “Kets’ts’e azat Arts’akhy”—“Long live free Artsakh.” We should not let their words be in vain—something has to give for this to be sorted.
I think I have used up all my time. The Armenian people are not only resilient; they sure know how to party. The Christmas celebrations with Santa and the dancing at Easter are annual fixtures and highlights of my year.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this important debate, and for the manner in which he presented the case. He used a phrase that summed up the whole situation perfectly, given its clarity and its historical background, when he said that it was “illegal, immoral and inhumane”. I echo those comments.
This debate has helped to shine a light on a truly horrific humanitarian catastrophe, which, despite unfolding before our eyes, has gone largely unnoticed and unreported in the UK. It is therefore not surprising that there has also been a lack of effective action to resolve the crisis.
All too often, we describe business that is debated in this place as important, but the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh—or Artsakh, as the Armenians call it—as a result of the blocking of the Lachin corridor for the last six weeks truly is. If the closure of this corridor is allowed to continue without challenge, it will lead to nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe. It is good that we have heard an informed debate, including contributions from several Members who have direct knowledge of the area—something that I cannot profess to bring to the table. In preparing, I gained an interesting insight into how little people knew prior to this debate, and I hope we have managed to address some of that ignorance in the community.
The Lachin corridor is the only road transport link between Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which has a 95% ethnic Armenian population. That 120,000-strong population is suffering as food and medical supplies cannot get through. These are the basic necessities of life; it is not luxuries we are talking about. We have been very well warned that all the conditions for ethnic cleansing are now in place by a group of more than a dozen non-governmental organisations, including Genocide Watch. As we have heard from several Members, there is form in that regard in the region. I highlight to Members a quote from President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, who said,
“Yerevan is our historical land and we Azerbaijanis must return to these historical lands”.
That is a statement that puts a shiver through any self-respecting person’s mind when we think about how that could be achieved.
Russian peacekeepers are supposed to be keeping the corridor open. As we have heard, however, it has been blocked since 12 December by self-proclaimed environmental activists from Azerbaijan, who claim to be protesting illegal mining. The counterclaim is that Azerbaijan is creating a false narrative as a pretext to ethnically cleanse the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham thoroughly exposed the so-called protesters as agents of the Azerbaijani state and highlighted the collusion of the Russian peacekeeping forces. As we have heard, only Russian and Azerbaijani vehicles can pass.
During the height of winter, on the 13 December, Azerbaijan cut off gas supplies, with the Azerbaijani state-owned gas firm claiming that the disruption was due to bad weather, and that repairs were ongoing. The supply was reinstated on 16 December, although, as we have heard, there has also been disruption to both electricity and internet services. The area, which is a disputed territory, is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, although it is mostly governed by the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh.
Regardless of where our sympathies lie, the Azerbaijanis’ actions mean that they are not only abandoning long-established international laws and norms, but reneging on the commitment that they made in the trilateral statement on 9 November 2020, which states that
“the Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee safe movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions along the Lachin Corridor”.
That is clearly not happening. The effect of the blockade is that fuel, medicines and basic goods are running low. Price controls and rationing have had to be introduced, and schools have been forced to close. The restrictions on freedom of movement along the corridor are causing significant distress among the residents, with over 1,000 people, including children, stranded in Armenia and unable to get home.
I would like to hear from the Minister more information on what steps, if any, the UK Government are taking to help de-escalate tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and to help to support the reopening of the Lachin corridor in Nagorno-Karabakh. The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, is on the record as saying that the United Kingdom is Azerbaijan’s largest investor and strategic partner, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for helping to quantify the extent of that support—£1 billion of trade. It is therefore imperative that the Government use their significant influence on Azerbaijan and follow the examples of their allies in demanding the immediate unblocking of the Lachin corridor to prevent the unfolding of a human tragedy.
I call on the UK Government to convene with other international partners and work together to come up with a plan to exert pressure in order to find a sustainable, peaceful solution. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) regarding the lack of action, and the action that has been taken since the UN Security Council met, needs to be addressed. I reiterate his point, and let us see what the Minister has to say about the UK’s involvement. It is vital that the situation is unblocked to avert another violent war, as well as a humanitarian disaster, and I back calls for the UK Government to support an independent fact-finding mission to the Lachin corridor in order to support and promote justice and accountability for the victims in the coming months.
I seek assurances that the FCDO is working with donor agencies on the ground, including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It is absolutely essential that there is no repeat of the cutting off of gas supplies in the coming weeks and months, as it is still the winter period. The UK Government must fulfil their atrocity prevention responsibilities by working with the UN Security Council to require an immediate lifting of Azerbaijan’s blockade, and we should look seriously at attempts to launch a humanitarian airlift.
On the issue of sanctions, effective pressure must be brought to bear. It cannot be in the interests of the UK or the wider world to have a weakened Armenia, which may well be the only true democracy in the region. More must be done.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing the debate at such a critical moment for Nagorno-Karabakh and the Caucasus more broadly, and I thank all Members for their contributions.
It is a past interest of mine, but I used to work for the OSCE parliamentary assembly in a past life and was an assistant to the special rapporteur on Nagorno-Karabakh at the time, the Swedish MP Göran Lennmarker. That was some years ago, in a more peaceful time, and it is deeply concerning to see recent events. Indeed, the official Opposition are deeply concerned about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and the people who are besieged and cut off because of the blockade of the Lachin corridor, which we think must end. This is a humanitarian crisis and undoubtedly worthy of the House’s time. It is an area on which I hope the Minister and the Government will focus intently if we are to avoid further catastrophe for civilians both in Nagorno-Karabakh and in the region as a whole.
In my role as Labour’s shadow Europe Minister, I have met the Azerbaijani and Armenian ambassadors and members of the communities on a number of occasions. Obviously, I am keen to engage with all sides. It is clear to us that unless a peaceful resolution is found, civilians in the region face further perils. That has to start with the ending of the blockade and the preservation of Armenia’s territorial integrity.
As has been said, 120,000 people are trapped beyond the blockade, without access to medical supplies, food and other supplies. On 13 December, gas supplies were cut off and have been intermittently disrupted since. On 9 January, the only high-voltage power supply in the region with electricity was damaged. On 12 January, access to telecommunications and the internet connection was cut. We have heard repeatedly from Members from across the House that the corridor is the only link between Armenia and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the transport of people and goods through it are critical to the wellbeing of all residents who live there. It is a literal lifeline for them.
As we have heard, territorial changes that took place last summer following the recent outbreak of conflict led to the land around the corridor being transferred to Azerbaijan, making the passage even more vulnerable and critical to the enclave and its residents. We have all heard the reports of more than 1,000 civilians being stranded along the blocked highway, unable to return, and of the 270 children who had to find shelter in Armenia while their relatives remained in Artsakh.
Despite the resumption of gas supplies, fuel, medicine and basic goods are now reported to be running low, and local authorities have had to impose price controls and rationing. There is a real risk of malnutrition and other health consequences for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. The provision of healthcare and social services has been obstructed. Following the closure of 41 nurseries and 20 schools, children are being denied their elemental right to education.
Patients with cancer are missing vital treatment, and those with diabetes are without medicine. The situation is especially challenging for those with disabilities and those living in residential institutions. The International Disability Alliance and the European Disability Forum have called on all parties to fulfil their obligations to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and Security Council resolution 2475, and they have called for an immediate unblocking of the Lachin corridor. I am sure they have the full support of Members who have spoken in the debate; they certainly have the support of the official Opposition.
No population should have to live in such conditions. The onus is on international institutions and the international community, with the backing of the United Kingdom and our allies, to do the right thing. It has been said many times in this debate that the blockade contravenes what was agreed in the 2020 trilateral ceasefire. It was agreed that all transport and communication links would be restored and unblocked.
I have raised concerns directly with Ministers over recent weeks, including in parliamentary questions. On 12 December, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Azerbaijani ambassador, and I understand that a range of issues were covered. Will the Minister confirm what conversations have been had since then, and with which parties? Do the UK Government propose to play a positive role in unblocking the blockade and brokering a lasting peace? We simply cannot return to the violence of 2020, when more than 6,500 people lost their lives and civilian lives were shattered. Nor should civilians in the region have to continue living under the shadow of perpetual instability and conflict. We favour fully working with our European and regional partners to secure a return to dialogue more broadly and a peaceful settlement facilitated by, for example, the OSCE Minsk Group. Of course, that has to start with removing this blockade, which is a complete impediment to progress.
From responses to parliamentary questions and the contributions that have been made today, it appears that the Government’s strategy is to watch and wait. It is apparent that, without the UK and others providing a diplomatic impetus to seek peace, violence, discord, instability and humanitarian catastrophe will remain. The Government do not seem to be operating with the same urgency as other Governments around Europe, the United States and others. I have been looking through the list of Governments who have spoken out on this issue in recent weeks. I hope the Minister will assure us that this is a very important issue for his colleague the Minister for Europe, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), and others across Government, including the Foreign Secretary.
We all know who will benefit if peace eludes the Caucasus—President Putin and Russia. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) asked what assessment had been made of so-called peacekeeping efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the corridor. I understand from a response to a parliamentary question that the Government have not assessed the adequacy or effectiveness of Russia’s so-called peacekeeping forces. Frankly, I hope the Minister can explain what our strategy in the region is and what is our assessment. We need to understand Russia’s intentions and role across the region—in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and of course in relation to this situation.
Hon. Members have made a number of comments. We have heard about the Russian base in Armenia, and we heard the allegations made by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s comments on them. There have also been serious allegations about matters in Azerbaijan. I have had serious concerns raised with me—I hope the Minister can comment on them—about Azerbaijan bringing in gas from Russia in recent weeks. Of course, it exports gas to the rest of Europe. Given the key role that our own oil and gas industry plays in Azerbaijan, I would like the Minister to give us some more detail on that.
No, but I say for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit that I have raised the issue directly with the Azerbaijani ambassador. I understand that the Azerbaijani Government engage in a so-called gas swap with Russia every year. That is deeply concerning given the matters in Ukraine at the moment and the need to wean Europe off oil and gas. If Azerbaijan is taking in gas and exporting it, I hope the Government are looking at that.
Nagorno-Karabakh, although it may seem remote to many, contains women, men and children who will be at risk if efforts to find peace and end the blockade fail. We have heard from many human rights groups—they have been referred to during the debate—about extra-judicial killings, torture and abuse of prisoners of war. I hope the Minister will give his assessment and tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that such crimes are not committed with impunity.
I understand that the EU is planning to establish an observer mission with the goal of permanently ending the conflict. Those plans were formally adopted by a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers. Obviously, we are outside the EU, but I hope that the Foreign Office and Ministers are working closely with our allies there and, indeed, in the United States to play a role in any measures of that sort. I understand that the United States Secretary of State had meetings with the Armenian Foreign Minister last week. Will the Minister say a little about what discussions we have had with the United States and other allies? Will he also say what conversations there have been with Turkey, which is a key NATO ally and a key partner of the United Kingdom, and comment on our assessment of its role in this situation and in the region more broadly?
It has been reported that the ICRC has been given access to the enclave and has transferred people who were seriously unwell to Yerevan, but can the Minister give us an up-to-date assessment of how much humanitarian relief and how many emergency medical evacuations are passing through the corridor? Is the UK contributing to any humanitarian operations there?
Can the Minister say when the Government will set out a wider regional strategy for the Caucasus that spans diplomacy, aid and trade but also, crucially, atrocity prevention and human rights? It has been mentioned a number of times during the debate that language matters. It is important that the Minister listens to the comments by the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for East Worthing and Shoreham, particularly as we are in a week when we recognise the terrible impact of the holocaust, with all of us committing to preventing atrocities and ensuring that they never happen again. Will the Minister also say what is being done through not only the OSCE but the Council of Europe and forums such as the European Political Community—a new forum that the UK is taking part in—to find solutions to end the conflict and ensure that civilians are protected? What role does he see the UK playing in that?
In conclusion, Russia has shown clearly that it is no guarantor of regional security. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh deserve far better. The blockade must be ended. The UK must play a key role, and we will continue to work with Ministers on the issue. I thank all colleagues for their insights and contributions.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate and focusing attention on the closure of the Lachin corridor. I have known him for many years —in fact, we were at school together—and he is a good friend. More importantly in the context of this debate, he is a well-respected colleague and a hard-working chair of the Armenia all-party parliamentary group. He is also the esteemed chair of the archaeology APPG, but that is a different subject for a different day—we are not going to go there.
The Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), would have been delighted to take part in this debate, but he is travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond to the many important and informed contributions that have been made, and I will endeavour to do so.
I particularly welcome the comments by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), drawing on his experiences with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He raised important questions about Russia, in particular. I will come on to some of his points. I cannot give him exact details on some of the medical evacuations but will ensure that the Minister for Europe writes to him on that. We have a good relationship, and he knows that we will get back to him on that point.
The shadow Minister raised important issues around what the US Secretary of State, Secretary Blinken, is saying about the conflict. He is pushing Azerbaijan to redouble its efforts to secure a lasting peace agreement with Armenia, and to reopen the Lachin corridor to avoid a humanitarian crisis. I underline that the UK firmly supports both those asks. I will explain a little more once we get into the background of this issue.
My colleagues know that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is deeply complex; I do not think that anybody would say otherwise. We have heard both sides of the debate today. Over the last 30 years, the Armenian and Azerbaijani people have continued to suffer due to the conflict, which has been the backdrop to regional relations in that time. As hon. Members will understand, such territorial disputes are rarely easily solved. That is why the UK Government, following the 2020 conflict that claimed the lives of thousands of service personnel, has engaged extensively with both Governments. In January 2021, the then Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), was the first western politician to visit Armenia and Azerbaijan following the 2020 conflict. She spoke regularly with both Foreign Ministers after the conflict to urge peace, and her successors have done the same.
I assure Members that the UK Government’s policy and position towards tensions between those two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh remain unchanged: this conflict cannot be solved by military means. Peaceful negotiations are the only way forward. As was set out in this debate, and as hon. Members know well, the Lachin corridor is a narrow strip of land that provides a lifeline for the people living in Nagorno-Karabakh, enabling food and goods to enter from Armenia. Since 13 December, it has been closed by Azerbaijani demonstrators, who are preventing not only food and goods from moving freely, but in some cases the individuals who live there. The 2020 ceasefire statement agreed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia places responsibilities on both countries. All parties should act in good faith and for the benefit of the civilians of Nagorno-Karabakh. That includes enabling the unimpeded use of the Lachin corridor. Territorial disputes should never harm civilians.
The current Minister for Europe issued a statement making that point on 13 December. He discussed the situation in detail with the Armenian Foreign Minister on 18 January, including the humanitarian support that the UK has provided. On 20 December, the UK permanent representative at the United Nations Security Council called for the immediate reopening of the corridor. That message was echoed by our permanent representative to the OSCE on 17 January. To be clear, the United Kingdom was one of few countries that directly called on the Azerbaijani Government to ensure the unimpeded movement of humanitarian aid and civilians. I repeat that message today: it is imperative that the Azerbaijani Government help to reopen the corridor. Further harm to the civilian populations of the region, who have endured decades of conflict, should be prevented as a clear priority. The UK ambassador to Azerbaijan has also engaged extensively with the Azerbaijani Government since 13 December, stressing the importance of reopening the corridor.
The Minister for Europe plans to speak again to the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov in coming weeks, to once again call for the immediate reopening of the corridor for humanitarian goods and civilians. Our message is simple: the Lachin corridor must reopen. We call on Azerbaijan to do that. Substantive peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan are needed to resolve this and other matters, and they must continue in earnest, as they are the only means of bringing a lasting peace to the region.
I assure Members that the UK Government continue to support international efforts, including those led by the EU and the OSCE, to secure peace and stability in the region. Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain extremely fraught. In our engagements with the Governments’ representatives, we encourage them to make full use of all channels of mediation, and to pursue constructive dialogue to settle all outstanding matters.
The long-standing position of the UK Government remains that military intervention, inflammatory rhetoric—mentioned by the hon. member for Dundee West (Chris Law)—and indefensible actions, such as restricting the free movement of civilians, are in neither Government’s interests and will not secure stability and peace in the region.
A number of Members raised important concerns about the humanitarian situation, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) rightly highlighted the amazing work of Baroness Cox. The humanitarian situation is a concern for the Government. UK officials have been in frequent contact with humanitarian organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières and the HALO Trust, to further our understanding of the situation on the ground, and of the most urgent needs of the civilians in the region. We will continue to work with non-governmental organisations on the ground.
The United Kingdom has not been a passive actor. We have not just watched the situation. We have engaged extensively and have acted. The Start Fund, which is administered by the Start Network, a UK charity made up of multiple NGOs, to which the UK is a major donor, has allocated £350,000 to support those affected by the closure of the corridor. Officials continue to monitor the situation and, through their extensive engagements with humanitarian actors, keep under review the need for further humanitarian assistance.
We also recognise the need to show respect to different faiths. Perhaps that is the point that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) wanted me to make, because he and I know how important that issue is, along with many other issues. We were having conversations before about how important faith is in many of these issues.
We will continue to respond to the situation on the ground in a co-ordinated way. If it is okay with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, in the remaining minutes, I will endeavour to answer more questions. The Foreign Office remains in discussion with humanitarian agencies. We will work with those trusted partners, but at the moment there are no plans for an airlift of food or other supplies to the airport—a point raised by the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden).
Lots of points were made about prisoners of war and their return, and the remains of the deceased, sadly. Both are equally important, and we continue to stress the importance of returning all prisoners of war as a clear priority for both sides. We heard strong contributions from the hon. Members for Dundee West, and for Ealing Central and Acton, on the risk of genocide. The UK Government take their commitments under the genocide convention very seriously. Where there is evidence that the threshold has been met, we will take appropriate action, for sure.
Others questioned what happened at the UN Security Council. To be clear, the UN did not block the UN Security Council statement on the closure of the Lachin corridor. We were working in good faith to find a way to accommodate a statement that would be acceptable to all members of the Security Council.
Some have called for sanctions to be brought in. We are aware of the human rights challenges and concerns that have been raised today, although it is not appropriate for us to discuss any future sanctions; that goes for other places as well. Others have talked about Russia; we know that Russia cannot be relied on or trusted. Its actions in Ukraine clearly demonstrate that. That is why it is vital that Armenia and Azerbaijan engage in constructive dialogue to settle their outstanding issues. The EU has brought forward a civilian mission; we will continue to work with the EU and other partners to move that forward.
Other concerns have been raised, which we will take forward, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I hope that I have reassured them that we are on the case and are working towards resolving the conflict.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
MOTs: Increased Particulate Matter Testing
I beg to move,
That this House has considered increased particulate matter testing during MOTs.
I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Air pollution is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. As we speak, in this place and beyond, people are being poisoned by filthy, unsafe air. Indeed, today the Mayor of London issued a high air pollution alert across the capital.
A diesel particulate filter, or DPF, captures and stores dangerous emissions. It can be found at the back of a diesel exhaust system and can reduce emissions from a vehicle by around 80%. In some instances, a faulty DPF is responsible for the same amount of pollution as a three-lane, 360-mile traffic jam. That is the distance between my constituency of Huddersfield and Land’s End in Cornwall. That truly terrifying fact must spur us on to identify and remove dangerous faulty filters. I emphasise that just one faulty filter in one car can spread that amount of poison.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has been quite insistent and persistent in highlighting this issue. He said that a faulty DPF on a single vehicle can cause the same amount of pollution as a 360-mile traffic jam. Does he agree that while we are putting fresh restrictions on business and manufacturing, there is a simple and effective way of cutting emissions? If so, will he put forward his ideas?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and he is absolutely right; I will address his point during my remarks.
Increased particulate matter testing during the MOT would ensure that we identified faulty DPFs that are not picked in the current testing regime. I am pleased to see, from the Government’s open consultation on the MOT, which was published last week, that the Government want to adopt particulate number testing.
As chair of the Westminster Commission for Road Air Quality, I have been campaigning on this issue for a long time, and it looks as though we are making some progress at last. If the Government are looking for a legislative vehicle, my Motor Vehicle Tests (Diesel Particulate Filters) Bill is due for Second Reading on 24 March. I am very happy to share it, and all credit for it, with the Minister.
Before I speak more about changes that we can make to the MOT, it is worth dwelling on the life-changing harmful effects of air pollution, which my Bill would help to mitigate. It is estimated that up to 36,000 people die prematurely each year from the effects of air pollution in our country. The total cost to the NHS and social care will be £1.5 billion by 2025 and £5.1 billion by 2035.
The hon. Gentleman is making a really important point. He will know that today would have been the birthday of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the child who tragically died aged nine, and who was the first person in this country to have air pollution as the cause of death on her death certificate. He will also know that I am trying to pass a Bill on clean air. Does he agree that the Government’s targets for PM2.5 are utterly unambitious, and that they ought to adopt the target that the World Health Organisation put forward in 2021 of 5 mg per cubic metre?
I was in a statutory instrument Committee with the hon. Lady only yesterday. I can assure her that we have the same intention for the Government, and I totally agree that the Government’s ambition—and the ambition of all of us—has to be raised.
The total cost to the NHS and social care of this plague of dirty, filthy air will be extreme. The cost of inaction is fatal to people up and down our country and the services that they rely on. Reducing particulate matter in the atmosphere must be a public health priority. Particulate matter is made up of tiny, invisible solids and liquids that can permeate our bodies. It has a harmful impact on human health, and mainly comes from vehicles, plant equipment and industry.
Mr Hollobone, you are too young to remember the 1950s and the smog. People took action about smog because they could see it and smell it. It was everywhere, and it was disgusting. This is even more poisonous, but it is invisible. That is why the issue is so important.
Two of the key measures are PM2.5 and PM10—in other words, bits of matter that are smaller than 2.5 or 10 micrometres in diameter. I am sorry that this is a bit technical, but the danger of such small matter is that it can enter our bloodstream, which causes irreversible damage to our respiratory system and our other organs. That was the case for those 36,000 individuals in the UK this year—and every year—whose premature deaths are attributed to air pollution. It has also been known to contribute to asthma and a variety of breathing difficulties.
Many of us have the privilege of hearing astoundingly good visiting speakers in this place. Sir Stephen Holgate addressed a group of us who care about air pollution. I remember sitting up when he said that not only do these dreadful things happen to pregnant women, children and the elderly, but these impurities in the air accelerate the ageing process. That galvanised me into keen interest. Air pollution has life-changing consequences for everyone, from children to the elderly. The Australian Government have found that elderly adults are more likely to be affected by unclean air. It can cause strokes, heart disease and lung disease.
Air pollution harms people in every community in the country, including us, right here on the parliamentary estate. Since June, I have been recording air pollution in Parliament with a handheld air quality monitor and a large state-of-the-art device in my office on the fifth floor of Portcullis House. Air pollution on the parliamentary estate is consistently above the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit. The average level of PM2.5 on the estate was 5.3 micrograms per cubic centimetre. That is above the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit of 5.
More worryingly, there were significant spikes; the highest ever reading came in at 8.65 micrograms per cubic centimetre and, during the summer heat, there was a 14-day period when average daily levels of PM2.5 remained at 5.3 or above. That is remarkable. In my office, nitrogen dioxide levels were, on average, four times above the WHO guidelines. In the entire monitoring period, nitrogen dioxide was never at a safe level. [Interruption.] Excuse me for two seconds, Mr Hollobone. I have a very dry mouth due to a medical condition, so your patience is much appreciated.
Much of the blame for air pollution on the estate and across the country lies with vehicles and the pollution that they pump out, often because of faulty diesel particulate filters. However, there are chinks of daylight and good news, as the country moves slowly in the right direction. In 2014 and 2018, MOT tests became marginally more rigorous to ensure the proper working of these filters. However, we still have progress to make on this issue. The debate is topical, as the Department for Transport released its consultation last week. I am glad the Government have recognised the need for further progress in emissions testing, and that they understand that particulate number testing is the right thing to do. Governments across Europe have successfully implemented these tests: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium have all adopted the higher standards.
The Dutch are making great progress, using a very sensitive particulate technology, set at 250,000 particles per cubic centimetre, which is much tougher. We have 10 times as many vehicles with problems with particulates than in the Netherlands. Considering that the UK has more than 10 times more diesel vehicles on the road than the Dutch, it is plain to see that we would make significant progress if we followed our European partners.
Lastly, I ask the Minister to share any data his Department has prepared on the cost of introducing the testing. We know that there will be an expense, and that testing centres and garages will have to bear it. However, the equipment is now not that expensive and it is getting cheaper. We also know that there will be an individual cost to cover a more rigorous MOT. We believe in that investment, whether it comes from the Government with direct support or grants, or from the vast vehicle manufacturers across Europe that could contribute.
The studies I have seen demonstrate that fit-for-purpose monitoring is available and affordable. Additionally, making the test stricter will result in more failed vehicles, which will be a problem. However, in that transition we will see real change. We will take old and more polluting vehicles off the roads for good, and replace them with electric, and even hydrogen, vehicles, which will be much healthier for all of us. As we wait for the next steps of the MOT consultation, I urge the Minister to follow through on his Department’s ambitions.
Particulate matter testing in the MOT would make an enormous difference in the fight to reduce air pollution. In our new year reception for the Westminster commission, it was an honour to hear from Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) just mentioned, whose daughter Ella was the first person in the UK to have air pollution registered as their cause of death. Today would have been Ella’s 19th birthday, and I am honoured that we have had the opportunity to remember her.
As a father and grandfather, I find it impossible not to be moved by Ella’s story—a young child whose life was taken far too early. Sadly, Ella is not the only one; there are many more children like her who are currently at risk from the toxic fumes engulfing our urban centres. It is for people like Ella that the Government must follow through on their proposal to tackle the filthy air that is so poisonous and harmful. I spoke last week in Harrogate with a professor of chemistry from York University, who said that if we want to know where people are breathing in the worst, most poisonous air, we must look at the poorest areas of our country.
Air pollution is an invisible, insidious, silent killer, and we have a unique opportunity now to make a small change that would make a great difference. I say to the Minister and other colleagues, let us take this step together and move closer to achieving a goal, which we could share across the House: that our children, grandchildren, friends, family and loved ones are united in their desire for the inalienable right to breathe clean air.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing a debate on such an important topic, which affects not only the owners of diesel vehicles but all of us affected by air pollutants from vehicles. He has been a staunch advocate of action to tackle these problems in his role as chairman of the Westminster Commission for Road Air Quality. We know each other well from his work on road safety. It is great to see him again pressing an important cause, which I know he cares deeply about, especially on what would have been Ella’s 19th birthday.
The hon. Member has eloquently explained the reasons that action is needed, especially to deal with the harmful substances called particulates, which have been linked to a number of serious health problems. Diesel engines have historically had higher emissions of nitrous oxides and particulate matter. In urban areas with large amounts of slow-moving traffic, that can result in an increased risk of harm for residents, including of respiratory illness. He was right to point out that it is often the most densely populated and poorest areas that suffer the most.
In the long term, we are committed to moving from vehicles based on internal combustion engines to zero-emission vehicles. The sale of new petrol and diesel cars will end by 2030. However, that does not mean that petrol and diesel cars will be off our roads immediately. In fact, they will still be on our roads for a considerable period, so we need to tackle pollution from such vehicles.
Considerable progress has been made. Since 2013, all new diesel vehicles have had to meet limits on the number of particulates emitted from their exhausts. That has resulted in diesel particulate filters, or DPFs, being fitted as standard. The effectiveness of DPFs is shown by their impact on emissions. As the hon. Member mentioned, removing a diesel particulate filter from a vehicle’s exhaust can increase harmful pollutants by up to 1,000 times. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) echoed that point.
Since 2014, MOT tests have included a check that diesel filters are in place and functioning. However, the Government recognise that the MOT test is not effective in measuring particulate emissions and in checking that DPFs are in place. The smoke opacity test, which is part of the MOT test, measures only the density of smoke and not the level of particulates. It is often difficult to check visually whether a DPF is in place because of its positioning within a vehicle’s exhaust system. We have made it clear in our current MOT consultation that we are committed to implementing more effective testing of particulate emissions from diesel vehicles in order to identify and deal with those that have excessive emissions.
There has been substantial progress in developing particulate number testing. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned, some European countries have already introduced it, and some are doing it to much more effective standards than ourselves. In the UK, the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency has been trialling the use of particulate number testing machines, mainly on heavy goods vehicles but on some light goods vehicles as well. Those pilots have provided us with a better understanding of how changes could be implemented to introduce PN testing and to ensure that particulate filters are present and working.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield raised the important issue of cost. With the potential cost of these changes falling on our network of 23,500 MOT garages, many of which are small local businesses, we want to ensure the measures are effective and proportionate, and will help to tackle the issue. The typical cost of a particulate number testing device is currently between £3,500 and £6,100. However, after discussion with equipment manufacturers, we believe the cost may well drop substantially as demand increases off the back of any Government decision to implement the device in an MOT test.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We would certainly welcome any private sector investment, particularly from large businesses, to help ease the cost for some of our garages, which are often either small or owner-run businesses in constituencies up and down the country.
We hope that a big increase in demand would see that supply increase and costs decrease. At current prices, introducing PN testing would cost approximately £100 million to the sector but, as I said, if it was rolled out nationally we could see that figure substantially reduce. I agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield that it would be great to see some innovation from some large car manufacturers in this space.
I missed mentioning the name of that fine chemist from the University of York: Professor Al Lewis. I did not mention his name, but he is the one who has been measuring the levels of pollution so scientifically and said, “If you want to know where it is most polluted, it is where the poorest people live.”
It is always wise that we parliamentarians realise that we stand on the shoulders of our researchers—or, in my case, my civil servants—and those who do so much externally to provide us with the background for these debates and the policies we push for. It is great to hear the hon. Gentleman paying tribute to those who work in research.
We are seeking views on particulate number testing in the consultation on MOT reforms, which we published last week. I hope the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and others will take part and feed into that interesting and important consultation. The case for introducing PN testing is clear; we now need the evidence to understand how and when we should make this change, and its impact.
We all have the same aim in reducing harmful emissions from road vehicles, including from diesel-powered cars. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, this is an invisible poison that we need to tackle. We are taking the matter seriously, and we encourage all those with an interest to respond to the consultation and help to provide the evidence we need to make further progress in reducing diesel emissions in the near future.
Question put and agreed to.
Apprenticeships: Government Support
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government support for apprenticeships.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Parents always want the best for their children, and parents across south Bristol are no different. Like families the length and breadth of the country, we want our children to succeed and have opportunities to thrive. We want kids to have the best possible start in life because we know that when that happens, their life chances for the years to follow are transformed for the better.
Under this Government, young people are being let down. A lack of investment in capital and social terms is not only harming opportunities for them, but blocking a vital pipeline that helps power everything from the NHS to business and research and development. The Government’s approach to apprenticeships is a case study in the very real damage that can be caused by Government inaction and indifference.
During my time in the NHS, I became convinced that to grow and develop our NHS, we needed to secure new ways of bringing talent and skill into the workforce. We need to use every route open to us and freshly chart some new ones to ensure that those who want to start a career in the NHS are not just able to find one, but actively encouraged to do so in a way that best suits them.
I represent communities in south Bristol that include thousands of young people with talent, ideas and passion, but many are among the least likely in the country to go to university. They need pathways that can lead them to a secure job and a rewarding career, just as our institutions and industry desperately need the skills and capabilities young people bring to the workforce. Apprenticeships can and should be an equally attractive option for those who seek a career but choose not to pursue a university degree.
The hon. Lady rightly says that young people often find the choice between an apprenticeship and a university degree challenging and compelling. Does she agree that a greater promotion of level 3 advanced apprenticeships could be a good compromise, because they lead to good qualifications in their own right or to a degree apprenticeship?
I agree that degree apprenticeships are a good thing. I am more concerned about levels 2 and 3 in my constituency, but I recently spoke to graduates at the University of Exeter about health and care. I was very proud to go down there before Christmas and promote some of the great work that the university is doing on that programme. I am certainly in favour of that, but I am concerned about levels 2 and 3.
In the health and social care sectors, we need to confront the scope and scale of the challenges faced by the NHS. Five years ago, as a fairly new MP, I said that if the Government want to increase the NHS workforce, nursing apprenticeships must be a major line for new recruits.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the value of apprenticeships to the NHS. I asked the Government a question about how much was unspent from the NHS apprenticeship levy fund and I was told that that data is not held. Undoubtedly, millions and millions of pounds are sat unspent in NHS funds and are being sent back to the Treasury because of the lack of a functioning apprenticeship programme.
That is a subject worthy of a debate on its own. I spoke to one of the Minister’s predecessors, who was a nurse at one point, about that very problem. It is a thorny issue, but it is surmountable. We now have 130,000 vacancies. It is woeful and shameful, but this is preventable, as it is for sectors beyond the NHS. For example, if we are serious about tackling the climate crisis with high-skilled green jobs, we must cultivate the talents and skills of everyone to reach net zero. We cannot rely on those with a degree; we need more people. We need our education system to work for everyone and give people the options and pathways that work for them. Right now, it does not.
Apprenticeships give people things they need for a career in a way that no other path of study does. All of us are here today because we agree with the fundamental premise that they are flexible, agile, rooted in the real world and earned by experience. Each year, I am proud to run my own annual apprenticeships fair. A bit of a plug: my South Bristol Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair will take place next month at the South Bristol Skills Academy, which helps people in the area to match their ambitions and experiences with the needs of local businesses.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate and for plugging her skills fair. I want to say a big thank you: diolch yn fawr. I held Anglesey skills day here in Westminster and businesses from all over Anglesey, including Babcock, Holyhead Marine and Mona Lifting, came to support it, and there were lots of apprentices from across the island. Does she agree that apprenticeships can be a key way of giving our young people the life skills with which to succeed?
I do. The fairs are uplifting experiences, and I am sorry that I missed the hon. Lady’s fair. Young people and businesses are so passionate about them, and I look forward to my seventh next year. It will bring together those businesses, particularly small businesses, that are desperately seeking new workers. In a prosperous city such as Bristol, it should not be so hard to match the desire and needs of businesses with the ambitions of local people. The Government need to get a grip and develop a proper plan to make apprenticeships work.
I know that the Minister has championed apprenticeships from his very first speech in Parliament, and that he is as passionate about the subject as I am. He was kind enough to visit my Bristol South constituency in 2019. I take him at his word that he wants to see more apprenticeships made available to more people, but he is the eighth person to be the responsible Minister in the last 12 years. The brief that has been merged, renamed, repackaged and passed around, I think, 13 times in the same period. His Government simply have not done enough over the last 12 years; the lack of focus has been matched only by the lack of funding. Despite what we in this room think, apprenticeships are the perennial afterthought. They are passed around in ministerial red boxes like a game of educational pass the parcel. I know that the Minister is happy to be left holding the prize, but that cannot of itself make up for the neglect that the sector has suffered under successive Governments for more than a decade. I am glad that he is in his place for the debate, but he knows that the Government need to do more. As he will have heard in his time as Chair of the Education Committee, employers report increasing skills shortages and decreasing numbers of young people leaving education with the skills businesses need. The Government have no plan to address that.
For all the Chancellor’s talk of skills, it is clear that under the Conservative Government there has been a marked decline in apprenticeship starts over the last 10 years. As a result, there will be thousands of young people whose talent has been squandered. I see that in my own constituency: 1,250 people started an apprenticeship in Bristol South in 2011, but by 2019-20, that figure had dropped by 40%. It is not just in south Bristol. Before the pandemic, apprenticeship starts were down 28% across the country for under-19s, and £330 million of unspent levy was sent back to the Treasury. Only one in five of the promised 100,000 new apprenticeships were delivered. According to Department for Education figures for the 2021-22 academic year, apprenticeship starts are down again by 4.8% compared with 2018-19, and the number successfully completing their apprenticeships has plummeted by 31.5%. Something is clearly very wrong.
Answers from the Minister’s own Department show that the number of young people not in education, employment or training is also going up. This is a pattern of failure over a period of time, and after 12 years the Government are clearly to blame. That is not a surprise to the Minister; he is aware of all the problems and challenges from the evidence given to the Select Committee. He has also heard the cries from businesses about the apprenticeship levy. Smaller businesses say that the new system has
“added to the barriers, complexity and cost of recruiting and training staff.”
Larger businesses report that,
“the inflexibility of the system has made it difficult to spend their levy funds…leaving less money available to pay for the training people need.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) said, that is also writ large in the health service. As well intentioned as the levy is—we are all very keen to support it and make it work—it is clearly now broken. There are too few apprenticeships available and too few small businesses, which are the basis of my constituency, participating. Crucially, there are nowhere near enough level 2 or level 3 apprenticeships on offer.
I appreciate the work that has been done to improve the flexibility of the transfer system, which is a point that I raised with the then Minister in 2021. However, the numbers speak for themselves, and we should be terrified by what they are telling us. Some 12 months before the levy came into operation, 564,800 learners started an apprenticeship. A year later, that number had fallen by over 200,000. In the last academic year, the start rate was even lower. The figures are shameful. Some 200,000 potentially life-changing opportunities for young people—each one a real person with a real contribution to make— no longer exist. They are the people we see at apprenticeship fairs and the families we talk to in our surgeries. The story is even grimmer when we drill down and see 100,000 young people dropping out of courses each year.
The evidence shows that a growing proportion of apprenticeships are now being undertaken by older people, with businesses using their levy funds to train staff who are already qualified or established in their careers. That may be good, but it is not what the levy was designed for and does not help a young person to get that vital first foot on the employment ladder. It is not just young people who face difficulty as a result of the decisions of the Government. When the Minister was Chair of the Education Committee, it pointed out that:
“More needs to be done to support adult learners with special educational needs and disabilities”.
Again, I could not agree more.
The Minister will know that supported internships and apprenticeships are a crucial piece of the puzzle when helping learners with SEND to access work, but, to quote the Education Committee,
“these opportunities are limited, and support funding is insufficient.”
What did the Government plan to do about the crisis affecting apprenticeships? They set a target to have 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 in the 2015 Queen’s Speech—my first Queen’s Speech as a Member of Parliament. However, we know that apprenticeship starts have declined by over 40% since 2010. As with so many of the Government’s targets, I am not sure that that will ever be met.
The Government’s decision to put aside apprenticeships in the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 suggests that they have all but given up on apprenticeships, and it tells me that the Government have a woeful lack of ambition for our children and young people. It was a missed opportunity for a Government who have consistently failed to match the rhetoric with action. I know that the Minister is an advocate of degree apprenticeships, which combine paid work with part-time study—we also heard about that from the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak)—and I was proud to talk to students in Exeter recently. I was deeply impressed by their tenacity and ambition. The Education Committee highlighted that degree apprenticeships are crucial for boosting productivity and widening access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I am listening intently to the hon. Lady’s structured analysis of the current situation, although I do not agree with all of it. I want to highlight the example of EnergyAce, a business in my constituency. It is a family firm that designs and manufactures innovative products that help firms use smaller amounts of electricity. Young people in that business are going to the University of Central Lancashire to do degree apprenticeships, to increase the productivity of the business and to upskill small and medium-sized enterprises, which we know are vital for growth in the economy. They were particularly grateful for the opening up of opportunities to upskill their workforce. They are still relatively young—you and I, Mr Hollobone, would probably think they are quite young people. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is really important that, while we make sure there are quality places in apprenticeships, we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater on degree apprenticeships and the contribution they have to make to growth in the SME sector?
I agree that degree apprenticeships have their place, but that is not what the levy was for. As I have heard regularly in the debates I have attended in the seven years for which I have been in this place, our concern is for the small and medium-sized enterprises in our constituencies that are finding the subject really difficult to navigate. My constituents, who are among the least likely in the country to go to university, need level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships to help them up the ladder—I am particularly keen on the ladder. I do not want to throw any babies out with any bathwater—I am not sure where the bathwater and the baby come into the debate—but we cannot lose one for the sight of another, and a Government who were ambitious for apprenticeships would be able to do both. The implementation of lower-level apprenticeships has just been too slow. In my constituency, they are often for people who have been let down by the education system and who need to reach the first rung on the ladder.
We have had some other things that I have tried to support, such as the kickstart campaign—I do not know what has happened to that—and I am looking forward to seeing the results of the fire it up campaign. The Minister will know that I try to support all schemes, regardless of party politics. I want whatever works, and I will try to make anything work. We need to turn the tide on the catalogue of failures that have become so synonymous with the Government’s strategies for apprenticeships. I am not overly confident, but I am hopeful that we can do something better. I am obviously more hopeful about the next Labour Government, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield will outline our approach.
We cannot level up without skilling up. Transforming the failed apprenticeship levy and creating what we have called a growth and skills levy will give businesses the flexibility they need to train their workforce and create opportunities that will drive growth across every region of our country and in every sector of our economy. I am sure my hon. Friend would not mind if the Government stole that idea—they can crack on with that if they would like to. We want to unlock Britain’s potential, and people need a solid foundation in education and a chance to succeed to do that.
Having security at work and investing in apprenticeships and training opportunities enables people who want the chance to reskill, all of which will help people into high-quality jobs. What we talk about as a green prosperity plan—again, pinch it—will create a million good jobs in industries and businesses in all parts of the country, underpinned by new apprenticeships in the technology sector that will be vital in meeting our net zero commitments. That is the new building in my constituency that the Minister came to see. That is what we want to be looking at: the jobs of the future.
It is clear that the potential for improving our apprenticeship system in the UK is huge. I continue to hope that is the case. I hope that through the debate, apprenticeships are given the prominence they deserve and the help they need, and I hope the Minister will use his time to confirm that even as the eighth Minister at the tail end of a Government fast running out of ideas and time, he will ensure a proper focus on skills and apprenticeships within the Government to ensure our country and our economy have the skills for the future.
Can the Minister outline the immediate actions he and his officials will take to drastically improve the quality of apprenticeships and curb that terrible drop-out rate? I sincerely wish to hear how the long-awaited review of the levy is going and what actions the Government will take. I am sure he will agree, as the former Chair of the Select Committee, that more funding is needed for supported apprenticeships and special educational needs and disabilities. Perhaps he can use his appearance today to surprise us all. Given his personal support for degree apprenticeships, can he outline what the Government will do to ensure faster implementation of the programme? Finally, it would make me very happy if the Minister were to announce, here and now, the use of apprenticeships to increase the NHS workforce.
The legacy of the Government is not good. Amidst the wreckage, good ideas remain and with good people like the Minister, who have a genuine belief in the transformative nature of apprenticeships, I hope we can move forward so that no other young person has their future scuppered for, frankly, no good reason.
The debate can last until 5.30 pm. There are seven Members standing, six of whom have had the courtesy to inform the Chair that they wish to speak. To get everybody in, there will be a time limit of three and a half minutes with no interventions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on securing this important debate.
I am proud to stand here as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships. I am even prouder to stand here and say that I am the employer of not one, but two fantastic apprentices in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Jess is about to sit her exams—only next month. I will not wish her the best of luck because I always believe that if someone does the hard work, they will pass the test. She has certainly done the work, so I am sure the test will go through. Then Mya will start with me on 1 February. Jess was 17 years old and Mya is 18 years old. This is a fantastic opportunity for young people to get that important level 3 qualification when they did not feel college was the right option and wanted to earn and learn.
I cannot agree more with the hon. Member for Bristol South on the point about the fact that although degree apprenticeships are important, we also need that ladder of opportunity—I know the Minister was keen on that phrase when I served with him on the Education Select Committee—and we need to offer those level 2 and 3 opportunities, particularly in areas of deprivation where there are people who may not have a formal qualification. In Stoke-on-Trent North, 12% of my workforce do not have any qualifications at all, which is 8% higher than the national average. Level 2 is the first rung on that ladder.
We should do everything we can to accelerate all the way up degree apprenticeships, but we have to build people’s confidence and self-esteem and build people up with the skills to go through the courses at the different stages so they are equipped and ready. It is a bit like when I was in teaching, with the grandmother effect: it is all very well making sure we are supportive and help in every way we can, but if we undermine that process, that could be a problem.
In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke we have had 13,240 apprenticeships start up since May 2020. I want to congratulate Stoke-on-Trent College for its fantastic work. I partner with the college when it comes to my apprentices. It will also deliver T-levels from the start of this year, alongside the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College, which was an early up-taker of the digital T-levels that began in 2020, with 55 students to date.
Ultimately, there are things that need to happen. We have seen that drop in level 2 take-up, which some recent reports suggest is at 60%—the last was from March 2021. We need to address and work with our local colleges on that. I am delighted that we will see Ofsted inspecting training providers and holding them accountable for the quality of training. EDSK said that the lack of quality training throughout their apprenticeship forces out half of those who drop out. We need to make sure that employers are being held accountable for their work.
When I see £3.3 billion in the levy pot being returned to Treasury, it does not half make me shudder. That £3.3 billion could be invested not just in young people but in older people as well, and not only in upskilling the current workforce, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) pointed out, but in making sure young people get that opportunity too.
We need much more flexibility with the levy pot. I am not asking to simply open it up, but for us to allow employers to use a small percentage of it to invest in mileage, training or administrative staff to undertake what can be a bureaucratic process, and for an amount to be ringfenced specifically for young people. Apprenticeships are the best way to level up our great country, and I hope to see how the Government will develop them to make that happen.
I asked permission, Mr Hollobone, in order to allow my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) the chance to speak.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on leading the debate. Not long ago, I spoke in this Chamber in a Backbench Business debate on labour skills and shortages to highlight the importance of a sustainable and efficient apprenticeship programme for young people across the UK, so I am in full support of having more Government funding for apprenticeships, as the hon. Lady mentioned. I believe apprentices should be valued for their work, along with being paid equally and fairly.
It is always encouraging to see young people wanting to take up a skill, whether in mechanics, plumbing, the food industry or electrics. They are willing to devote their time, despite not receiving a great wage, to advance their skills and learn in combination with courses at technical college, such as the one in Newtownards, which is well used.
I certainly do agree. My hon. Friend and I both have colleges in our constituencies that do marvellous work, and we want to commend them. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. This Minister understands the issues very well and brings a wealth of willingness into his answers.
A constituent, who was recently in my office with his grandfather, took up an apprenticeship with a motor parts company. He was due to be paid by the employer to attend college one day a week, but he was never paid for that day. He has now been told by the Labour Relations Agency that he has no basis to claim that money back as he left the company more than three months ago. My constituent was unaware of that as it was not in his contract and, to this day, has not received the money he was owed for his one day a week at the technical college. What sort of employer would take that money off him? It is a clear example of young people doing their best to learn a trade and adapt to the world of work, but not getting their fair chance.
UKHospitality got in touch with me about those issues ahead of the debate. It states that reconsidering the working of the apprenticeship levy would help to ease the staffing crisis, benefiting employers, employees and the wider community. I support apprenticeships as a means of recruitment, retention and boosting productivity. It is important to acknowledge that some young people do not see university or further education as a way to advance themselves, but they do see the skills that could be learned through an apprenticeship. I sit on the board of governors for Glastry College. Some students come through who will never be educational achievers; they were always going to be guys who could do apprenticeships, boys who could get their hands dirty and make things happen. We have to look after them. The debate is about that and the hon. Member for Bristol South deserves great credit for bringing it forward, as I am sure many hon. Members will say.
In conclusion, such people would rather learn a trade and dive straight into the world of work and our education system should encourage that. I know the Minister agrees, as he has always said that in response my questions. Schools should offer pupils more support on the options they have, and that should start with us in Parliament giving our schools the funding and opportunities to do that.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on securing this particularly important debate. The Government have invested, and continue to invest, a lot of money in apprenticeships, as is clear from the increase in funding to £2.7 billion until 2024-25. It is also clear that the demand for apprenticeships has increased, with an 8.6% rise.
I am here to make the case for land-based colleges and land-based apprenticeships. I am afraid that, in the wider debate, they are not always prioritised. We know that full well in West Dorset, where I have Kingston Maurward College, one of the best land-based colleges in the country. It serves very well not only West Dorset but Dorset more widely. While there has been an increase in funding overall, I am afraid that is not quite happening for land-based colleges in the way I would like it to.
For example, the stockperson apprenticeship for those who look after animals—particularly cattle—was previously funded at £10,000 per apprentice per annum. It was removed by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and replaced by the general farm worker apprenticeship, but funded at half the price—£5,000. It does not take a genius to work out that that is pushing finances into a very difficult place, especially when 20% of the £5,000 is reserved until the scheme is completed. That has meant that, in the last couple of weeks, Kingston Maurward College has terminated the apprenticeship. Frankly, that has been devastating to the farming community in my constituency and the surrounding area.
I am conscious of the limited time I have to speak, but I hope the Minister will take the point away and hear loud and clear that land-based colleges are important—even more so given the need to produce food here and to achieve sustainability. It is not acceptable that we have seen a whole course of apprenticeships close. I hope the Minister will see what else he can do. As it stands, it is not just this past year that has finished; the course has been terminated. It is my absolute mission to return that course to Kingston Maurward College, and I hope that the Minister will support me in doing so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for bringing this debate alive with such passion and insight. I am especially pleased to speak because this subject is close to my heart, as I know it is for Members across the Chamber, regardless of our political affiliations. Way back in the past, I was a careers adviser and a Connexions manager, and this was something I always drove forward in the communities I worked in, to ensure that young people made an impartial and realistic careers decision about the plethora of things available to them.
Sadly, I fear that there is still a stigma about apprenticeships, and it is our job collectively to tackle that, whether under this Government or those of tomorrow. There has been an over-emphasis on academia and university for a considerable number of years, and under successive Governments—I will not just pin the blame on the current Government. That has meant lost opportunities for young people, and it has certainly reduced the skills base in our country, our communities and our economy.
The answers are staring us in the face, in the form of the models that some of our European neighbours, including Germany and Austria, have employed over a considerable number of years. I am pleased to say that some of that learning has been implemented by both the current Government and past Governments. I welcome level 3, level 4 and level 5 advanced apprenticeships, and giving working class children and young people the opportunity not to come out of university with an incredible amount of debt but to get real, skilled apprenticeships in industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South said, where there is a significant weakness is with level 2 apprenticeships. As the Minister knows, there is a huge underspend of close to £2 billion from the levy. The levy is a very good idea in principle, but that money should be focused on level 2 provision.
For some time now, employers have been calling out for some flexibility with the levy. The Government have moved slightly forward in that area, but nowhere near enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), Labour’s Front-Bench representative in this debate, has proposed a levy that is about apprenticeships and skills. The Minister should steal that idea—it is a good idea and it would be a sensible thing to do. That levy would drive forward opportunities for young people, particularly those from low-income backgrounds who may not actually want to go to university—there has been far too much emphasis on that—and it would be good for those young people, for our communities and for our economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on securing this important debate.
Apprenticeships are a vital part of building our skills base, and they are a success, bringing huge benefits to industry and to people completing their education. Some 860 people in my constituency of Meon Valley started an apprenticeship last year, and I have met many of them in my work with businesses of all sizes. I have always been impressed by their drive and commitment, and I want more young people to access that career route. We are fortunate to have great employers in and around my constituency taking on apprentices, such as Safran Helicopter Engines and BAE Systems, and recruiters such as Alderwood and Gattaca that are working hard to help employers plug their skills gaps. Those gaps are real, and I hear about them from employers of all sizes.
My big concern is to ensure that the apprenticeship levy is spent in the right way, and that smaller companies can benefit. We want businesses to see training and apprenticeships as an investment, not a cost. The cumulative underspend in levy funding since 2019 is over £2 billion. That is mostly made up of some very big numbers from previous years; last year, the underspend was around £11 million. However, I know from talking to small and medium-sized enterprises that those companies are not aware of how the apprenticeship levy can help them—yet it is those smaller companies that are having to work hardest to recruit skilled staff.
As we get close to spending the entire budget, we will need to make sure that we are prioritising the right kinds of apprenticeships. It is fine to use levy funding to support higher-level qualifications such as masters of business administration at Cranfield University, but young people starting out in industry also need good access to opportunities to learn key skills. I am pleased by the Government’s support for apprenticeships through initiatives such as the DFE’s unit for future skills, which has started to analyse and share data on skills gaps and opportunities. What gets measured gets done, so I hope that leads to a big boost in the number of apprenticeships.
In particular, I hope that support for science, technology, engineering and maths careers will be boosted by a new university technical college in the Solent region. I know that the DFE is looking at that, with a bid from UTC Portsmouth for a new UTC in Southampton. Many students in Meon Valley are looking for a UTC place, and it is the excellence of the UTC in Portsmouth and its partnership with industry that drives that demand. We need more of that kind of capacity for young people, to open up careers for them and fill the gaps in skills. At present, 50% of leavers from UTC Portsmouth go on to apprenticeships, so we need to expand that model. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we are going to expand the apprenticeship programme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for securing the debate. I want to use it as an opportunity to champion and sing the praises of people who have been involved in delivering apprenticeships in my constituency. As others have said, for too long, young people felt that the only way into a high-paying, high-skilled job was to get an academic qualification. We have been able to change that message, and I hear from constituents that they now understand the issue better.
Thanks to the collective efforts of all those involved, some of whom I will mention, more than 12,000 people in Crewe and Nantwich have begun an apprenticeship since 2010. I want particularly to pick up and pay tribute to some of the comments that have been made about the importance of UTCs, because the ladder of skills really should start pre-apprenticeships. Having a technical college in my constituency means that young people learn from early on that hands-on, technical qualifications are a route forward that builds into an apprenticeship. I am delighted that the UTC has expanded recently. I am always encouraging young people in the area, who perhaps do not want to make the change because it is mid-year and mid-way through their secondary school time, to do so, because I know from speaking to young people who go to the UTC what a great change it is for them, and it builds towards apprenticeships for them.
Another important provider locally is South Cheshire College, which I am pleased to say was recently awarded Institute of Technology status, with additional funding, which will enhance its role. I am delighted that I have an apprentice in my office—I know that other Members do too—who comes from South Cheshire College. The college has a whole variety of apprenticeships, which support young people and employers in the local area. There are some really fantastic employers delivering apprenticeships locally, including Bentley, which is not only a sponsor of the UTC but has its own apprenticeships. I have had the pleasure of meeting it, at first virtually during lockdown. Hearing individuals’ stories makes us realise that it can be just a momentary thing that gets them on track for an apprenticeship. I remember one young girl in particular talking about just seeing a poster about apprenticeships in the library at school, which got her thinking about doing one. The apprentices at Alstom will soon be working on the bogies for HS2; that contract has been awarded in Crewe. They are another fantastic example of the opportunities that apprenticeships can bring to people.
Like other Members, I have been told by some employers about difficulties with flexibility on apprenticeships. If anyone is well placed to take forward the feedback that we have heard today, it is the Minister, who we all know has a long track record of supporting apprenticeships.
I will finish by highlighting a few fantastic ambassadors for apprenticeships. These are the finalists for apprentice of the year in the South Cheshire Chamber of Commerce business awards: Connor Smith from South Cheshire College; Mia Jennings from Everybody Health & Leisure; Matilda Turner from Mental Health Charter; Kathryn Bennett from Mid Cheshire Hospitals; Adam Simcock from WR Partners; and, last but not least, the winner of the category, Joshua Hallam, who was an apprentice with Amplo Group. All those individuals are fantastic ambassadors for what one can get out of life by choosing an apprenticeship. I encourage as many people as possible to think about that as a way forward for them and their family members.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for securing this debate on apprenticeships, although she will not mind me saying that she paints a picture that I do not entirely recognise. It is a great pleasure to be here with two colleagues—one of whom is the Minister—who employ their own apprentices, as I do. It will be interesting to hear from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), how many Labour MPs employ their own apprentices. As he knows so well from the tennis court, there is a difference between talking a good game and playing one.
Let me pay tribute to the 14,000 apprentices who have started or completed—most have completed—an apprenticeship in Gloucester since 2010. That is a run rate almost three times the pace of the previous Labour Government, and it reflects new apprenticeships at places such as the cathedral’s masons’ shop, Punchline magazine, the Robinswood golf club, Hazlewoods accountants, GCHQ and many other employers, who frankly never had the opportunity to take apprentices before 2010, since when the scope has been hugely widened. In addition, our NHS acute hospitals trust has taken on almost 100 nursing associates for higher apprenticeships since nursing associate qualifications were introduced by this Government.
As I have hinted, apprenticeships are not an abstract affair for me. I asked the Government to increase their new commitment to additional apprenticeships in May 2010, before making my maiden speech—those were the first words I spoke in Parliament. I hired my first apprentice later that year, and I have done so every year since. I pay tribute to all of them: my first, Laura Pearsall—now Brooker—became the youngest ever Gloucester City Council councillor at 21; Aisha has become a team leader in the Home Office; Katie works with our mental health trust; and others work with a charity and the county council. My current apprentice, Mia, is South West Apprentice Ambassador Network apprentice ambassador of the year. All have done great work for our city and my constituents in Gloucester, while getting a level 3 in business admin—precisely the issue that the hon. Member for Bristol South is focused on. In the run-up to National Apprenticeship Week, I commend the opportunity to colleagues on both sides of the House.
I have a few quick suggestions for the Minister, with whom I have worked on apprenticeships for almost 13 years. Schools need to invite back more alumni who are apprentices to give their current pupils an idea of what apprenticeships are all about. There are some really good general training providers, such as Gloucestershire College, and great specialist providers, such as Gloucestershire Engineering Training. We MPs need to work with all of them and to persuade smaller companies that apprenticeships are not a bureaucratic affair but an investment, as others have rightly pointed out.
The apprenticeship levy has been much discussed today. It works for many, but not for all. There are some specialist courses that have not been structured as apprenticeships; for example, spectacle-makers’ qualifications have been, but those for construction and timber merchants have not yet been. There is also a real demand for cyber apprenticeships, but a shortage of teachers. Will the Government consider working more closely with the National Cyber Security Centre on how we can find more people to teach artificial intelligence and cyber apprenticeships?
As we come, at the end of this year, to the conversion of the first ever department store in Britain—a former Debenhams—into the University of Gloucestershire’s new city campus, will my right hon. Friend the Minister consider coming to Gloucester in early 2024 to visit our nursing associate higher apprentices?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
As others have done, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on securing this debate. It is obviously on an issue that is of tremendous importance to a lot of us, and with National Apprenticeship Week approaching in early February, the timing could not be better.
Labour believes that apprenticeships are the gold standard in skills development, and we would seek to increase both the number and the quality of apprenticeship opportunities under a future Labour Government, as well as promoting apprenticeships to students, workers, parents and employers
I always say that the greatest advocates for apprenticeship opportunities are apprentices themselves. When I meet them, they often say how grateful they are for their opportunity and how glad they are that they have taken the apprenticeship path. However, I also often reflect, as other hon. Members have already done today, on how little apprenticeships seem to be talked about in schools, so it is important that we make sure everyone knows that these opportunities are there.
In the last year, I have visited outstanding independent providers, such as Remit Training in Derby, where I saw its superb automotive academy, and I have also seen the construction academy at Skills People Group in Rotherham. In addition, I have been pleased to see excellent provision at further education colleges.
As many other Members have said, apprenticeships are vital for social mobility and are genuinely transformative. We recognise the important role that apprentices play and want to see more young people having the opportunity to take an apprenticeship.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South spoke about the importance of public sector apprenticeships. As I said a minute ago, there is far too little focus on a strategic opportunity that exists, particularly within our health sector but across the public sector, to expand the usage of the apprenticeship levy within that sector. She also spoke about how difficult it is for local businesses to become involved in offering apprenticeships. I am told by some of the apprenticeship providers that as much as 50% of their budget is spent not on teaching the apprenticeship but on administering it, which is a crazy system.
Many Government Members are keen to suggest that colleagues in Europe are overly bureaucratic. Let me tell them that there is not a single bureaucrat in Brussels who could have imagined the barriers that have been placed in front of apprenticeships here.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South also reflected on the fact that the Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for whom my hon. Friend and I both have great respect—is the eighth different Skills Minister in the past 13 years. Indeed, he is the fourth that I have the privilege of shadowing in the three short years that I have been in my current role. My hon. Friend also spoke powerfully about the fact that too much of the apprenticeship levy is being spent at levels 6 and 7, which is a theme I will return to.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about young people who do not see university as being for them, and he is absolutely right in that regard. However, it is important that we do not see apprenticeships as a second-class option. Apprenticeships are a great opportunity for straight-A students as well as for those who have other talents. Although he is absolutely right that we should always promote that alternative to university, it is very important that we do not see it as a second-rate option.
The hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) referred the Government’s involvement in apprenticeships and the fact that the number of people doing apprenticeships is lower than it was before the introduction of the levy. He also spoke powerfully about the bureaucratic barriers to land-based apprenticeships and the importance of them in his constituency.
I do not think I quite said that there was a decrease in the demand for apprenticeships or the actual apprenticeships taking place. I just want to correct the hon. Gentleman on that point. Funding for land-based apprenticeships had reduced to the extent to which the schemes were no longer viable.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. He has corrected me on what he said, but it is none the less the case that fewer apprenticeships are now being provided across the board than before the introduction of the levy. Whether he said it or not, it was none the less factually correct.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) reflected, as he has done previously, on his own history as a careers adviser. He knows the importance of independent face-to-face careers guidance, which is one reason why the Labour party has made that such a priority. Other Members reflected on the fact that businesses and other apprenticeship suppliers are unable to get into schools. That is why, during the passage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, we were keen to see the Baker clause introduced in another place. That would have meant that each student had three opportunities to see the alternatives to going to school sixth form. We think that independent careers guidance will play a really important role in that.
The hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) said that many small businesses cannot access the levy. She is absolutely right. When the apprenticeship levy was introduced, an increased fund came in from the levy payers, but at the same time the Government massively reduced the amount they spent on apprenticeships. The result was that those that do not pay the levy are shut out. The Government are now allowing major businesses that pay the levy to donate some of their levy funds to their suppliers and others on a charitable basis, but it needs to be much more strategic than that.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) spoke about the importance of pre-apprenticeship vocational opportunities. He is absolutely right. Labour will look to push the skills and growth levy towards traineeship and pre-apprenticeship opportunities, and allow businesses to use their levy in that way.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) was characteristically optimistic. He dismissed the fact that there are fewer apprenticeships than before. He said he has met employers who speak positively about apprenticeship opportunities, and he is absolutely right. He said that many employers never had the opportunity to offer apprenticeships before, but the reality is that the funding for apprenticeships was there. The Government have a different way of approaching it. We think there are many failings with that, and we are not alone on that. He also asked about how many Labour MPs employ apprentices. I do, and I am informed that my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale does too, but I am afraid I have not done an audit beyond that. He spoke about the importance of businesses and suppliers getting into schools.
Okay. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification.
Britain is not alone in having a skills or apprenticeship levy, but the way we handle it is quite unique. As a result, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of entry-level apprenticeship opportunities. Research by the London Progression Collaboration shows that since 2014-15, entry-level apprenticeships have fallen by 72%, and the fall in apprenticeships for under-19s has been as much as 59%, depriving many of those at greatest risk of falling into poverty from the opportunity at the beginning of their careers to get an apprenticeship.
The latest figures show that £3.3 billion in levy funds have been returned to the Treasury in the last three years. It is not only a scandal, but a huge act of collective self-harm. It is no wonder that the CIPD said:
“Apprenticeship Levy has failed on every measure and will undermine investment in skills and economic recovery without significant reform”.
I meet so many small business owners who would be keen to take on an apprentice, but are put off by the lack of available support and the bureaucracy.
There is a stark contrast between this Government’s approach and the approach of the Labour Government in Wales. My colleagues in Wales have led the way in creating apprenticeship opportunities, ringfencing an additional £18 million of funding to be invested in apprenticeships in the coming financial year. In a recent report, the renowned think-tank EDSK argued for the need to expand the traineeship programme to promote the supply of entry-level opportunities and clear progression routes into genuinely high-quality apprenticeships. After the Government’s recent announcements, which set out that they are seeking to reduce the number of traineeships —I have spoken today to an employer who told me that they will have to abandon traineeships because of the Government’s current change—
I was just coming to the crescendo, Mr Hollobone. As I say, those from small towns or villages are less likely to find apprenticeships available. Those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to be able to access an apprenticeship.
In conclusion, a Labour Government will take a fresh approach. We will ensure that all funds allocated for skills are spent on skills and that apprenticeships are promoted to all and recognised as outstanding opportunities for young people, with more SMEs supported to offer them and more colleges equipped to teach them.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) who spoke thoughtfully. I obviously do not agree with everything she said, and I will set out why in my remarks, but I was pleased when in my last iteration—I do not know if she was including me as one of the eight Ministers from when I was last in this post—I went with her to the City of Bristol College’s South Bristol Skills Academy. It was a wonderful visit. She is a true champion of apprenticeships and I pay tribute to her. I was glad to hear that this debate was taking place.
The hon. Member set out a bleak picture, which I do not think was fair. We have had over 5 million apprentices since 2010. We know that 92% of those who complete their apprenticeships go on to a job or further training. The amount of apprenticeship starts increased by 8.6% last year. Of course, it did go down during the covid years and she talked very importantly about level 2 and 3. Of all starts in 2021-22, 70% were at level 2 and 3.
She also asked about social justice. She will know that we offer a £1,000 bursary for care leavers. If employers with fewer than 50 employees employ a young person, they get £1,000 and we pay all the training costs. We pay 95% of the training costs of all small businesses anyway.
She talked about healthcare apprentices. There are 65 standards in health and 20 in nursing. There is now a complete apprentice pathway from entry to postgraduate and advanced clinical practice in nursing. There are 82 health and science apprenticeship standards and we are working very closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to try to improve those. It is always difficult when different professions measure qualifications in different ways, but I am proud that we have nursing degree apprentices. I am proud that we have policing degree apprentices.
On her point about degree apprentices, I disagree with her a little, because they are my two favourite words in the English language. We saw an increase of 47,000 degree apprenticeships last year—I think over 140,000 since they were introduced in 2014-15. I think that they answer a lot of problems. They deal with the loan problem for disadvantaged students, they mean students can earn while they learn and they build the prestige of skills, which is incredibly important. She mentioned the University of Exeter, which was my old university. One of the proudest things I have ever done as an MP was go to back to that university, which is in the Russell Group, and speak at its degree apprenticeships ceremony. I am very glad that she went there.
I will briefly respond to some of my colleagues who have spoken today. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) always speaks passionately about this subject. To be clear on the levy funding, of course there have been underspends in the past, but in 2021-22, 99.6% of the levy budget was spent. That point is important because it was raised by a number of other hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also spoke passionately about the subject. He talked about careers. He will know that we strengthened the Baker clause. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), also talked about that. I fought for it as a Back Bencher and as Chair of the Education Committee. Students will now have six encounters—two a year—with key apprentice organisations. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) also spoke about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) spoke about land-based colleges. I am a passionate supporter of land colleges. I went to one in my area near Enfield a few years ago, and I hope to go to many more in my job. I know he wants me to visit his land college, and I would be delighted to. I will consider the things he said, but I have already asked officials to look at the issue. I know he was trying to get in at Education questions earlier. Can he leave it with me to try to get officials to work with the college to deal with some of the funding issues?
The Minister will recognise that in constituencies such as mine in Suffolk, one in seven jobs are linked to the land economy, agriculture, food and drink or the supply chain. Apprenticeships linked to the land economy are particularly important. Although we have seen an uplift more generally in Suffolk in the number of apprenticeships available, that has not been the case for the land economy. I have raised that with his predecessors in similar debates. They promised they would go away and look at it, and nothing has really happened. I would be grateful if the Minister wrote to us at some point to outline what steps he is trying to take to bring about that step change in apprenticeship opportunities in the land economy.
I was talking about land colleges with officials earlier in the week. I am also of the view that they have an important part in green skills, net zero and all those areas. I promise to go back and work with officials on land colleges to find out the situation across the country, not just in Dorset or in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I will come back to him. I cannot promise policy solutions straight away, but I will do my best to take it back and deal with it. I hope that my hon. Friend is satisfied with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), with his new, much deserved honour, talked about digital skills and cyber-warfare. There are huge amounts going on with that, and huge amounts of new standards. The new institutes of technology are being rolled out around the country. There will be 21 institutes all together; there are 12 already. We are investing £290 million. Many of them will deal with the kind of digital skills that he was talking about.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale talked about the levy underspend. I repeat that we spent 99.6% of our levy. He is also passionate about careers—I am completely with him on that—and we have talked about that previously in the House. To my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, I repeat that 70% of apprentices in the past year were level 2 and level 3. She knows that I am supportive of UTCs. They are the responsibility of Baroness Barran, but I will do all that I can to support them. My hon. Friend talked about STEM; I think there are over 300 STEM apprentice standards.
I think that I have answered most of my colleagues. My passion is improving quality, which is incredibly important. We moved from frameworks to standards to ensure that an apprenticeship was a proper profession and was recognised by employers. We created an employer-led system, which is working. Ofsted will inspect every single provider by 2025. We have also asked every apprentice provider to register as an apprenticeship training providers. We now have much more intervention with employers, providers and apprentices, whom we support all the way through to ensure that we increase quality.
On careers, I mentioned the Baker clause, but we also have a scheme called apprenticeship support and knowledge in schools and colleges—the ASK programme. That has gone to 685,000 students last year, and it is supported by £3.2 million of funding. We are trying to do everything possible. Transforming careers in our country will be the thing that increases starts. I am doing a lot of work in the Department on how we do careers. I mentioned the 92% of apprentices who go into work or further training.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) on all his award winners. We are also making the levy more flexible, with flexi-job apprenticeships. We are spending a separate £8 million on degree apprenticeships, and I mentioned disadvantage. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South on her apprentice fair. I have my apprentice fair in Harlow on Friday, and I hope that every Member here and across the House takes part in National Apprentice Week so that we can ensure that every young person and adult has a chance of climb the apprentice skills ladder of opportunity.
It has been an enjoyable debate. As ever, we learn so much from each other’s constituencies: about the variety of land-based apprenticeships, which I do not have many of, about towns and cities, and about Northern Ireland. There were helpful comments about training providers, which we did not get a chance to talk to, getting rid of stigma and so on, all of which I agree with.
In painting my picture, I got all my statistics from the Department for Education’s website, the Library and so on. That is the picture, and we need to own it before we try to improve it. I want properly resourced and well-managed apprenticeships. I see them as a silver bullet that does not simply resolve the practical problems but makes a lasting, positive difference to apprentices and the places in which they work. That is what we want to see. I need the Government to do better, and I hope that some of the contributions to today’s debate will start us on that journey. I wish everyone good luck with their apprenticeship fairs; everyone needs to come to mine in Bristol South in February.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government support for apprenticeships.