Delegated Legislation Committee
Draft Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) (amendment) Order 2017
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Mr David Hanson
† Barclay, Stephen (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
† Blunt, Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
† Burns, Sir Simon (Chelmsford) (Con)
† Davies, Chris (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)
† Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
† Flynn, Paul (Newport West) (Lab)
† Fuller, Richard (Bedford) (Con)
Hart, Simon (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Lewis, Mr Ivan (Bury South) (Lab)
† McCaig, Callum (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
† Mak, Mr Alan (Havant) (Con)
† Morton, Wendy (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)
† Murray, Ian (Edinburgh South) (Lab)
† Norman, Jesse (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
Siddiq, Tulip (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
† Whitehead, Dr Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Sean Kinsey, Joe Watt, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 22 March 2017
[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]
Draft Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) (Amendment) Order 2017
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) (Amendment) Order 2017.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, especially since you are not Geraint Davies, whose name I see on the form. In addition to thanking you, I thank all colleagues who have come at this early hour to assist us with this piece of legislation.
What about us?
If other Members wish to proclaim themselves keen as well, I welcome that.
In the Prime Minister’s first speech of her term in office, she acknowledged the hardships faced by poorer households in Britain—those hard-working families who, in her words
“can just about manage but worry about the costs of living”.
As part of the response to that dilemma, the Government are committed to helping households in fuel poverty or on lower incomes and those living in homes that are expensive to heat. The order is designed to move us further towards that goal.
Regarding the cost of living and the cost of heating people’s homes, I have one question, having briefly looked through the explanatory notes. I wonder whether these tighter regulations, while perhaps helping to save the planet, might increase the cost of installation or operation. Has the Department made any analysis of the effect that the order will have on installation?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I congratulate him on making it when my remarks have barely started, such is his eagerness. The Department of course scrutinises the cost of legislation, and the order is designed to allow a transition period precisely to set the suppliers up for the next supplier obligation, which will be introduced in 2018. That should allow time for any costs associated with the changes to be absorbed within the system.
The order will also make an important contribution to the Government’s clean growth plan and to reducing carbon emissions. We are making amendments to the existing Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) Order 2014, which covers the period from 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2017. The amendments extend the current scheme from 1 April 2017 to 30 September 2018 to enable reforms to be introduced while also allowing the industry time before further improvements are made through a new longer term scheme that will run from 2018 to 2022. Planning ahead to 2022—beyond the life of this Parliament—reflects announcements on funding made in the 2015 spending review. The longer term confirmation of funding is designed to give greater certainty to energy suppliers, installers, local authorities and other energy stakeholders.
The Government are facing up to the enormous energy challenges our country faces over the coming years. With the overhaul of the electricity market and continued investment in renewable technologies, we are making good progress towards ensuring that the UK’s energy is secure, low carbon and affordable. Improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s homes is central to that challenge and to reducing fuel poverty. The energy company obligation scheme helps occupants to keep warm, reduce their energy bills and protect their health and wellbeing by requiring energy suppliers to reduce carbon emissions and energy costs through installing energy efficiency measures in households across Great Britain. The supply chains involved in that endeavour also provide economic benefits across the country.
Since the introduction of the ECO in 2013, the scheme has proved to be a remarkably reliable and cost-effective means of upgrading our housing stock. Altogether, more than 2 million energy efficiency measures had been installed in more than 1.6 million homes by the end of December 2016, with around 1.2 million of those measures going to 900,000 low income and vulnerable households and households in deprived areas. That is a significant investment in addressing energy efficiency and fuel poverty. Thanks to the amendment order we are introducing today, we forecast more than half a million more insulation measures and around 45,000 more heating measures will be delivered through the ECO by 2018.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government made clear in a debate last Thursday and in other remarks that they would bring forward a consumer Green Paper and a response to the Competition and Markets Authority. A specific response on the issues he raises will be addressed in those documents.
The order will reduce the overall spend of the scheme from £860 million a year now to £640 million a year. That has been done to constrain the impact of Government policies on all consumer bills. In making the change we have also sought to ensure that the support offered by the ECO is focused more on those in more need.
In this and any future scheme, has any consideration been given to putting the burden on to the taxpayer as a whole, as that would be far more progressive and would go some way to reducing fuel poverty? As the Minister will know, those with lower incomes pay more on fuel bills and therefore a bigger share of the contribution to schemes that are meant to reduce fuel poverty.
The purpose of the proposal is to shift the scheme towards those in fuel poverty. It sits alongside the warm home discount scheme, which was also aimed at those people. The independent Hills review, which looked at supplier obligations a few years ago, concluded that the supplier obligation was the best means and most cost-effective way to reduce fuel poverty.
In introducing the order today, we are forecasting that more than half a million more installation measures and around 45,000 more heating measures will be delivered through the ECO by 2018. The changes implemented by the order were consulted on in summer 2016. The consultation received 236 formal responses that were broadly supportive of the proposals and the Government response was published at the end of January this year.
The order makes clear that we have increased the period of the obligation extension from 12 months in the consultation to 18 months. That is in response to the views of stakeholders and is designed to make the transition as smooth as possible. It will avoid costs associated with industry implementing changes within constrained timelines, and will allow lessons from the operation of the extended period to be fed into the design of the longer term scheme from 2018.
The separate carbon-saving community obligation element of the ECO, part of which currently delivers energy efficiency improvements in rural areas, will be brought to an end for reasons of simplification, but there will still be a safeguard guaranteeing a minimum level of rural delivery under the remaining carbon reduction obligation. The affordable warmth element of the scheme, which places the greatest focus on targeting low-income and fuel-poor households, is increased from 34% to 70% of the overall estimated spend. That means that the carbon emissions reduction obligation element, which allows delivery to any home for carbon-saving purposes, will be decreased to approximately 30% of the overall spend.
Changes are also being introduced to target better the affordable warmth obligation towards low-income and fuel-poor households. First, the use of income thresholds will be deployed to determine eligibility under affordable warmth; the process will be simple but will recognise differences in household size. Secondly, eligibility for the affordable warmth element has also been extended to allow the installation of particular measures to social housing occupants in the least efficient homes, that is those in an energy performance certificate band of E, F or G. Thirdly, a new voluntary provision will allow local authorities to use their local knowledge to determine eligible fuel-poor or vulnerable households for up to 10% of a supplier’s affordable warmth obligation. In particular, they will have opportunities to help people with health problems living in cold homes. Fourthly, mains gas boiler replacements delivered under affordable warmth have been limited to the equivalent of approximately 25,000 a year. Our analysis suggests that other measures, such as insulation and first-time central heating, are more beneficial and cost effective. We will also require a minimum level of the more expensive solid wall insulation, equivalent to 21,000 homes a year, to protect the development of that sector and improve some of the least efficient homes. A key focus of the changes made by the order is simplification to reduce administrative burdens and complexities associated with the scheme, which may allow more measures to be delivered within a given amount of supplier spend.
These are important changes to the existing ECO order. They will continue to drive large-scale investment in energy efficiency across the country. Support will be targeted more at those who need it most, those living in fuel poverty and those on lower incomes who are struggling with bills. The order will promote measures that reduce energy bills, and it will simplify scheme delivery and better target energy efficiency funding to vulnerable and low-income households. I commend the draft order to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the Minister for his Panglossian commentary on the measure. The Opposition do not want to stand in the way of these detailed regulations. I am sure the hon. Member for Lichfield, having looked in detail at the explanatory memorandum, will note—
Regrettably, the hon. Gentleman has not done his homework about my qualifications—I am not a chartered engineer—but he makes a valid and important point about the appendices. I draw his and the Committee’s attention to an earlier part of the explanatory memorandum, which enjoins us to pass this measure because:
“The 31st March 2017 is the latest that the instrument can be brought into force, as otherwise the period set for meeting all of the targets under the 2014 Order would come to an end on 31st March 2017 and a failure by any supplier to fully meet their targets by measures installed before that date would be a breach, which could lead to enforcement action by the Administrator.”
We are discussing this order a week before we are in breach of that order. The Government are to some extent trading on Her Majesty’s Opposition’s generosity of spirit and warm-heartedness. We are sailing very close to the wind in terms of the management of the measure. The Minister might wish to have a word with his business managers to ensure that nothing like this happens again. We really should not be discussing the measure so close to that date, as we would be in breach if there were any hiccups or halts in its progress through the House.
Although I said that we do not want to stand in the way of the regulations, I am not mollified about their overall thrust. We need to be clear that the regulations will represent a reduction on the reduction in the ambition of the ECO as far as energy efficiency measures are concerned, both for those in fuel poverty and for the climate change purposes of increasing energy efficiency in properties. They are an endorsement of the collapse of the energy efficiency measures going into all homes, and even with the change of emphasis toward the fuel-poor and those receiving measures under the carbon emissions reduction obligation, other parts of the ECO have in effect been removed.
The draft regulations represent a diminution of measures to assist with fuel poverty to such an extent that, even according to the explanatory memorandum, we will barely meet the Government’s own targets, reset from previous fuel poverty targets—people in fuel poverty living in properties not worse than EPC band E by 2020 was a substantial revision of previous targets. The Government are therefore almost failing to reach their own new target in the regulations, and they are certainly endorsing a substantial reduction in measures overall.
The reduction in measures is to such an extent that, were we to look over the past five years on a graph, we would see that the measures peaked in 2012, largely as a washover of the previous Labour Government’s obligations—the carbon emissions reduction target and the community energy saving programme—to be followed by a precipitous and cliff-like fall of 80% in energy efficiency and home improvement measures up to 2015. Today’s measures, as outlined by the Minister, represent a further reduction in the ECO from £860 million per annum under the previous obligation, which was itself a reduction in ambition from the original £1.2 billion, to £640 million a year. That is for the interim scheme, and I understand that is also to be the limit for the longer term scheme, if we ever get to consultations on that in the not-too-distant future.
Under the new regime, that will be the limit of ambition for all energy efficiency measures in homes. That was not quite as the Minister set out today in terms of the progress of the obligation. As hon. Members will recall, the cut in green obligations was imposed in response to the infamous “get rid of all the green ****” period that the previous Prime Minister oversaw. As it happens, ECO measures bore the brunt of those cuts, which is why we have less money available for the ECO now, not only for today’s interim scheme, but for the scheme after 2018, assuming it happens—I will make some comments on that in due course.
We are barely reaching fuel poverty targets. I welcome the important emphasis on fuel poverty in the measures—a substantial and welcome shift of fuel poverty-focused measures up from 30% to 70% of measures within the ECO as a whole—but I emphasise that that is within an overall reduction of the pot. The consequence of that is that the measures under the CERO part of the ECO scheme reduce substantially and carbon saving community obligation measures disappear entirely. The measures under CERO represent a reduction, in that smaller pot, from 34% to 30% of the total. That is very important in terms of the treatments of properties that might be available under ECO, in terms of the energy efficiency climate change targets.
Those targets are fairly stark. In the fourth carbon budget, which was adopted and accepted by the Government, the Committee on Climate Change considered that 2.2 million solid wall treatments by the early 2020s should be included in that, to make the contribution to energy efficiency climate change targets. Hon. Members may want to reflect on the targets that are in this measure today: 32,000 treatments envisaged in the 18 months up to 2018. If extrapolated, and even if that amount is maintained over the full period of the next ECO, when it succeeds the interim measure we are discussing this morning, that would mean we would fall short of the target, which was agreed by Government, by 1.8 million treatments. That is an astonishing shortfall. That is not a question of falling slightly short—it is effectively extinguishing any serious consideration of those targets over the period, which is potentially catastrophic for our ability to meet our obligations under the carbon budgets.
The Minister will be aware that there is feverish work going on at the moment in the basement of his Department looking at how a low carbon plan can be drawn up. It has repeatedly been put off and delayed. There are assurances that it will come out later this year. I understand that there are people in the Department at the moment with towels around their heads working out how on earth a low carbon plan can possibly meet the terms of the fourth carbon budget, in terms of what the Government are presently undertaking. The complete failure in this measure to get to grips with solid wall insulations is one area where those towels will have to be tied much more tightly around heads.
Does the Minister intend to review the figure and the mechanisms behind it when looking at the longer term ECO? As set out in the 2015 autumn statement, that is scheduled to take us on from 2018 to 2022. If he is not looking at reviewing those measures, what explanation might he offer for this abject failure to get to grips with solid wall insulation? Are there any other measures that he might be thinking about that could get us back on track as far as those treatments are concerned?
I would also like to ask the Minister about the very wise consultation response that came forward to him. I am sure the hon. Member for Lichfield will also be aware that there is a passage on the consultation at the back of the explanatory memorandum. It indicates that those people who were consulted thought that local authorities should be involved in identifying 20% or more placements for treatments, particularly as far as the fuel poverty element of ECO is concerned. That was an overwhelming endorsement in the consultation of the role of local authorities in identifying and assisting those treatments at local level. There was also an overwhelming endorsement by those obliged suppliers themselves, who have for a long time said how difficult it was to find people in those fuel poverty categories, in order to apply treatments, and the substantial additional burden of finance that often placed on them.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next paragraph. The explanatory statement mentions that this is a testing period. The whole of the obligation we are discussing is essentially a transitional testing period from the old ECO to the new ECO.
Bearing in mind that both those responding to the consultation and those obliged suppliers all thought that local authorities should have a much more substantial, economical and effective role in bringing forward people in fuel poverty who require treatments, why have the Government, even in this transitional period, limited that role to 10%? Is there a reason that the Government have decided it should be 10% for local authorities, when the evidence overwhelmingly points in the opposite direction? Do the Government not trust local authorities to identify those people, or do they believe that what the obliged companies are saying is not so, and that it is a walk in the park to find people in fuel poverty, so that the arrangements can proceed as before? If the Minister is not able to say anything today about that 10% figure, what is he going to do during the period of transition, pointed out by the hon. Member for Lichfield, to appraise whether local authorities can have a greater role? Can he assure me that when we are able to look at the detail of the later ECO, that will be reviewed and that the position of local authorities in deciding who gets treatment and how it can best be related to obliged suppliers can be established on a coherent basis?
I do not wish to detain the Committee further, but I do emphasise that the Opposition consider the measures to be woefully inadequate for those in fuel poverty and to address wider concerns about climate change. If we had the opportunity, we would fundamentally revise their scope and extent in order to make a proper impact on fuel poverty and the overwhelming imperative of getting energy efficiency under control in the context of concerns on climate change.
My apologies to colleagues for imposing on their time in wanting to make a contribution. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be invited to serve on the statutory instrument Committee, diverting me from my normal duties as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
This takes me back to the responsibilities I had 15 years ago when I was the shadow Minister for Energy. I am sad to say that the order we are considering this morning is exactly the consequence of failing to win the 2005 general election, as we would have had the opportunity to put in place the policy I had written when I was shadow Energy Minister. The order is exactly the consequence of the kind of micro-managing detail one gets into if there is no overarching energy policy designed to deliver environmental obligations.
I looked very closely at the whole issue of issuing trading certificates around the creation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and how that might work with the European Union scheme. That was the area of greatest difficulty, so I take this opportunity to say to the Minister that I very much hope he will examine the implications of Brexit for our returning to a proper trading certificates scheme around carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases being put into our atmosphere and around the wholesalers of all fuel, whether that is the transport sector, the domestic sector or the electricity generation sector. That could be a far more effective and economically efficient way of delivering the environmental obligations we have entered into by international agreement.
Until I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, I was minded to oppose the measure, but he has given me some encouragement that within the order is some reduction in the overall burden of detail that he criticised. However, from his work on micro-generation I know that we share views on how the provision of energy in our society can be considerably improved by such things as micro-generation. This order is not the place to put obligations on the energy companies to achieve certain social targets within a framework that means the overall delivery of our energy targets and environmental targets becomes economically inefficient. It points to the kind of policy failures outlined by the hon. Gentleman.
If we had an overall strategy that set the framework for the market in which we are going to operate for greenhouse gases we are going to put into the atmosphere, that framework should constrain the market, allowing the generation of electricity, heat and power in our homes and the consumption of fuel in our cars and the transport sector, but making everything subject to an overall environmental policy envelope. Measures such as this, which have an extraordinary level of detail and requirements on the energy companies and others to deliver the Government’s policy, are going to run into the kind of trouble that the order is trying to ameliorate in some cases, but will probably make worse in others with all the details, given the law of unintended consequences.
If one looks into the detail, the explanatory notes state, as the Minister said in his remarks:
“Additionally, the Carbon Saving Community Obligation (CSCO) and its rural sub-obligation are brought to an end, as the other two obligations, CERO and Affordable Warmth, are more cost effective at achieving carbon reductions and tackling fuel poverty respectively.”
The notes say that the measures are being delivered for reasons of simplification. When we have got to a place with energy policy where Ministers tend to know best, one begins to understand the difficulty that officials find in creating, implementing and overseeing schemes. Ministers want to make choices about how they are going to deliver the overall target.
When we get to that place, we get the kind of disaster we have seen with the scheme that has got the First Minister of Northern Ireland into so much trouble. We get into that mess where everyone was encouraged to get into the market of building solar panels, and then the subsidy was cut halfway through. People had built a business to take advantage of a Government subsidy. There is no relationship between the Government subsidy and the overall policy effort and objective—to cut carbon emissions—so we have found an extremely expensive way of delivering reductions in carbon emissions. It would be much more effective to have overall emissions trading certificates for the generation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which would drive coal-fired power stations out of business and create a proper relationship between the consumption of electricity by, say, electric cars and their overall impact on the generation of carbon emissions and global warming.
I hope that the Minister is looking fundamentally at the construction of our whole energy policy and whether it will achieve our policy objectives. There are some perfectly sound measures in the draft order on those objectives—relieving fuel poverty, getting better insulated homes and the rest—but is placing obligations on fuel suppliers and saying, “You’ve got to do this” really the right way to do things? If that is our policy objective, should we not, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said, put the responsibility on local authorities and be overt about what we are trying to do to take people out of fuel poverty directly as part of our social policy and benefits system? If we want to improve the quality of our housing stock, we should make that part of building regulations and give local authorities responsibility for addressing the housing stock in their areas.
We should not hide away our policy objective and its cost in an obligation on energy supply companies and try to do things at one remove, which would mean that we could not necessarily deliver that objective. If we hide away its cost and try to hide what is, in effect, taxation and benefit expenditure, we will find that an economically inefficient burden falls on the country, and I do not think that that would deliver the policy objective. Overall, that would mean that we could not really measure whether we were going to deliver the objectives we have signed up to or our global obligations to reduce carbon emissions and make a fair contribution to reducing the danger to our planet from global climate change.
I hope that those thoughts are of use to the Minister, who of course deserted the gang of Select Committee Chairs for the responsibility of ministerial office. He has an opportunity to make these decisions. I hope that he considers where our energy policy is and, given the years of micromanagement of our energy system and environmental objectives that he inherited, whether there is a better way of doing this than through these kinds of measures. One of the benefits of Brexit might just be that we are able to achieve our own carbon trading certificate scheme, which would mean that we could deliver our international obligations in an economically efficient way.
I thank both the hon. Member for Southampton, Test and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate for their useful and interesting speeches. First, I shall pick up my hon. Friend’s comments about the general picture, then return to the shadow Minister’s specific comments about the draft order.
There are many reasons to bemoan the Conservatives’ failure to win the 2005 general election, but my hon. Friend gives a cogent personal reason—our energy policy might well have been very different and, in some respects, improved. Nevertheless, I take issue with a couple of things that he said. I do not think there has been any hiding away of costs. Whatever we think of the policy design, the costs are pretty explicit and public, and have been extensively debated and consulted on, so I do not think they are hidden.
There are two points to make on that. First, the way to think about all these things is as part of a wider energy mix that is designed to solve the trilemma of security, affordability and decarbonisation. On the contribution of offshore wind, for example, it is true that there is some question as to its total cost when including intermittency. It is also true that, had it not been for the substantial Government investment in this area, we would not have the situation in which costs for this technology are falling faster and further than anyone would have anticipated.
On intermittency, I understand—and I put a question to the Minister’s colleague at Energy questions last week—that the Government are refusing to publish a report that they commissioned to look at that very thing. If there are questions on the cost of intermittency, publishing that report would greatly help us to have that debate in an informed manner. Will the Minister look at publishing the report by Frontier Economics on the full cost of electricity generation?
I am happy to look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. On the point I was making to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, we are not starting from the position he described. That position has the effect of disguising costs. The reason why we have carbon emissions issues is precisely because of the externalities built into previous models of industrial development. Those substantial costs were not included in the true cost of production of the goods and services concerned. It is simply untrue to suggest, even by implication—I am not suggesting my hon. Friend was suggesting this—that there had been some Elysium or status beforehand in which costs were explicit and are now not; there were costs before that were not explicit and there may be costs now that are not. From a Government standpoint, there is no hiding of costs as regards expenditure by either consumers or the Government.
Let me say a couple of other things. The overall energy market approach my hon. Friend describes was well outlined recently in a report by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, as he may know. It remains an important part of the accountability of Government that we respond to it and are aware of it as an alternative. However, it is worth saying that it would do nothing as such to alleviate the issues of fuel poverty that concern us today. In my judgment, it is not an answer to say that local authorities are somehow a go-to alternative. The truth is that the delivery of those and related measures by local authorities has historically been quite mixed.
On the setting the 10% figure, that was designed, based on the consultation, to allow for a period of experimentation during the transition period, precisely to assess whether that number could be raised in line with the suggestions that have been made. The number involved—even at 10% of £45 million—is not a trivial amount of supplier obligation. I think that is a reasonable and proper justification.
I will say a couple of things about the matters raised by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test. He asked why we were presenting the order so late. I share his concern about that. My preference would be for measures to be presented to Parliament as early as possible. The difficulty has been—in part, this refers to a couple of earlier points—last year’s changes in Government and knock-on effects, which have delayed the process. It is certainly not something that any Government would want to make a habit of, so I take the point.
I have a couple of comments to make in response to what the hon. Gentleman said about a reduction on a reduction: first, the number of homes in fuel poverty has continued to fall since 2010, and it is clear that the measures continue to have a powerful effect. It is also important to bear down on consumers’ bills. If the hon. Gentleman wants to introduce specific costed proposals for restoring the funding that he criticises the Government for reducing, it is incumbent on him to state by how much he would be prepared to put it up, and how much he would be prepared to burden taxpayers or consumers. In addition, we expect, by September 2018, to have met a target of 850,000 homes insulated. That leaves 150,000 by 2020, which is in line with the manifesto commitment made in 2015. The Government believe that they are on track.
As for the fourth carbon budget, the hon. Gentleman was talking about totals—and the challenge for the Government is to meet the fourth carbon budget in total. The support and advice that the Committee on Climate Change offers is always welcome and of interest to us, but the focus is on the total. The hon. Gentleman painted a beguiling picture of towels being tightened and retightened in the bowels of the Department; but I think it is fair to describe the process of aligning all the different carbon saving measures required to meet the budgets as complex and difficult. That is what the clean growth plan, which will be published in due course, will do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that tempting invitation, but I can say that “due course” will be due, and a matter of course; so the answer to his question is no.
As to whether there will be a review of the long-term effects of the ECO, we anticipate that there will be a consultation later this year—I can give the Committee some clarity on that—in line with thinking about what the further process will be after 2018-22. I have addressed the issue of the figure of 10% in relation to affordable warmth, which we have discussed.
Among other key elements worth picking out is the question of the proportion of fuel-poor homes in band E, or above, in England, which is expected to be about 92% by the end of the extension. That will be up from 88% three years ago. Again, that underlines the progress that has been made.
This has been an interesting and useful debate and I thank hon. Members for their speeches. As I said, the scheme has helped to deliver more than 2 million energy saving measures to more than 1.6 million households, including 1.2 million measures to 900,000 low-income and vulnerable consumers. At a time of rising energy bills, the Government think that it is right for support to be targeted to those most in need. At the same time, the amendments being made to the existing order should reduce the cost of the scheme to bill payers to about £25 a year from the current level of £34 to £35—and nearly £60 at the time of its launch in 2013.
With the amendment order the ECO is expected to provide 545,000 households with more energy saving measures. We will thereby give a balance of improvements and continuity to consumers and the energy efficiency industry for 18 months, before further change is made through a longer-term scheme, from 2018 to 2022.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) (Amendment) Order 2017.
Draft Prescribed Persons (Reports on Disclosures of Information) Regulations 2017
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Mrs Madeleine Moon
† Adams, Nigel (Selby and Ainsty) (Con)
† Barclay, Stephen (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Bardell, Hannah (Livingston) (SNP)
† Carmichael, Neil (Stroud) (Con)
† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)
† Doughty, Stephen (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
† Dromey, Jack (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)
Elliott, Julie (Sunderland Central) (Lab)
† Harrison, Trudy (Copeland) (Con)
† Huddleston, Nigel (Mid Worcestershire) (Con)
† James, Margot (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
† Jenrick, Robert (Newark) (Con)
† Lord, Jonathan (Woking) (Con)
† Malhotra, Seema (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
† Mitchell, Mr Andrew (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)
† Morton, Wendy (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)
Onn, Melanie (Great Grimsby) (Lab)
† Zahawi, Nadhim (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)
Katya Cassidy, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 22 March 2017
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
Draft Prescribed Persons (Reports on Disclosures of Information) Regulations 2017
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Prescribed Persons (Reports on Disclosures of Information) Regulations 2017.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon.
The draft regulations will ensure that relevant prescribed persons are transparent about the action that they take on whistleblowing disclosures. The Employment Rights Act 1996, as amended by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 and subsequent legislation, provides employment protection for workers who have blown the whistle. It protects them from detriment if they have made a protected disclosure when they reasonably believe that they have witnessed wrongdoing at work. To qualify for protection, a worker must make their disclosure to their employer, to the relevant prescribed person set out in the Public Interest Disclosure (Prescribed Persons) Order 2014, to the police or, in some circumstances, to the media. Disclosures can also be made to a legal adviser. If a worker decides to blow the whistle to a prescribed person rather than to their employer, they must choose the person or body from the prescribed persons list whose remit is relevant to the wrongdoing that they are disclosing.
The legislation is intended to build openness and trust in workplaces by ensuring that workers who hold their employers to account are treated fairly. Individuals should be able to report malpractice without fear of reprisal and employers should be prepared to work with them, particularly by means of effective internal procedures, to resolve any concerns that may arise.
In 2013, the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills conducted a call for evidence on the framework of protections for whistleblowers. One of the points that was identified in the evidence submitted was that whistleblowers did not have confidence that their reports of wrongdoing were being properly investigated. They saw inconsistent handling of disclosures, no legal requirement to investigate a disclosure, and a lack of feedback from prescribed persons on the handling of their complaints. In short, they were concerned that nothing was being done as a result of their disclosures.
In response to those concerns, the then Government sought a way of increasing whistleblowers’ confidence that their disclosures were being investigated and followed up. They sought to increase transparency in the system so that prescribed persons could more effectively be held to account for the discharge of their responsibilities, while respecting the importance of treating disclosures in confidence. They introduced a power in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 to enable the Secretary of State to make regulations to require certain prescribed persons to report annually on whistleblowing disclosures; the draft regulations are laid under that power. Our approach aims, through greater transparency about how disclosures are handled, to increase confidence in the actions taken by prescribed persons. That in turn will improve consistency between different bodies in how they respond to disclosures.
Before I turn to the detail of the draft regulations, let me remind the Committee of the other improvements that have been made to the framework of protection for whistleblowers. We do not want any workers to fear retribution if they raise concerns about genuine wrongdoing in their workplaces. In recent years, guidance on the framework has been updated and improved, including practical guidance for whistleblowers on how to make disclosures while preserving their employment protections, and guidance for employers, including a non-statutory code of practice, which we will review this year. We have fulfilled our commitment to keep the prescribed persons list up to date with annual reviews. We now have guidance in place for prescribed persons, and we will update that guidance to reflect the new regulations.
The draft regulations will require most prescribed persons to report annually on a number of details. First, a prescribed person will need to report on the number of concerns that have been raised with the relevant body in that 12-month period and how many of them can be reasonably identified as qualifying disclosures. Secondly, they will need to provide general commentary on what types of action have been taken in response to whistleblowing disclosures, and how the information from whistleblowers has impacted on the prescribed body’s activity in the relevant sector. They will also need to report on the number of disclosures where no further action was taken.
The regulations require prescribed persons to publish their reports online so that they are available to all. I intend to have their reports collated and to lay them before the House. To minimise the burden on prescribed persons, the reports are not required to be separate documents. For example, they may be included in a wider annual report that a body already publishes routinely. The new measures will require prescribed persons to reflect upon what they do with whistleblowing disclosures, which we envisage will encourage a greater focus on the positive impact of whistleblowing in their respective sectors.
The regulations do not apply to hon. Members, although each of us is a prescribed person. It is right that our constituents do not invalidate their employment protection if they contact us about wrongdoing they have witnessed at work. However, we are in a different position from bodies with a regulatory responsibility in relation to a particular sector or type of wrongdoing. Likewise, the regulations do not apply to Ministers of the Crown.
The new duty on prescribed persons to report annually on whistleblowing disclosures is an important step towards transparency and confidence about the action they take when wrongdoing is reported to them. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. In an effort to ensure that we do not have to come back after the votes in the House, and in circumstances where we are not opposing the statutory instrument, I will be brief—unaccustomed as I am to that.
The starting principle is that of whistleblowing. It is absolutely right that those who work for an organisation and witness wrongdoing at first hand should be able so to do. What the Government have done is welcome in terms of the maintenance of the national register of those who have such obligations and laying down clearly what those—[Interruption.]
Order. The sitting is now suspended. We shall resume at 3.17 pm, unless people can get back here quicker.
I resume the sitting.
The obligations are very welcome. The only reservation we have is not so much what is in the SI but what is not in it—further measures on blacklisting. I feel this particularly acutely, having been on three blacklists myself and exposed two of them—the companies were then driven out of business. Sadly, because of the need to be brief, I cannot tell those stories, but on another occasion I will.
Question put and agreed to.
Draft Immigration Skills Charge Regulations 2017
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Mr Gary Streeter
† Allan, Lucy (Telford) (Con)
† Argar, Edward (Charnwood) (Con)
† Blackman, Kirsty (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
Bradshaw, Mr Ben (Exeter) (Lab)
† Double, Steve (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
† Dowden, Oliver (Hertsmere) (Con)
Farrelly, Paul (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab)
Godsiff, Mr Roger (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)
† Halfon, Robert (Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills)
† Heaton-Harris, Chris (Daventry) (Con)
† Johnson, Dr Caroline (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
† McLaughlin, Anne (Glasgow North East) (SNP)
† Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool South) (Lab)
† Menzies, Mark (Fylde) (Con)
Parish, Neil (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)
† Swayne, Sir Desmond (New Forest West) (Con)
† Turner, Karl (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)
Juliet Levy, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Ninth Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 22 March 2017
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
Draft Immigration Skills Charge Regulations 2017
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration Skills Charge Regulations 2017.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. The Immigration Act 2014, as amended by the Immigration Act 2016, provides the Secretary of State with the power to require certain employers who recruit skilled workers from outside the European economic area to pay an immigration skills charge. The regulations provide for the amount of the charge and the obligation to pay it.
The Government are committed to a strong skills system that can drive increases in productivity and improvements in social mobility, and help to make a success of Brexit. The immigration skills charge plays its part in that commitment by incentivising employers to invest in training and upskilling the resident workforce. It was first announced in May 2015. We then commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to advise on applying a skills charge to businesses recruiting workers from outside the European economic area. The MAC considered the charge as part of its review of the tier 2 skilled worker route and reported in January 2016. In its report, the MAC supported the introduction of the charge.
We announced the rate, scope, exemptions and introduction date of the charge in March 2016. We took into account the MAC’s recommendations—for example, on the rate—but we also responded to concerns raised in Parliament during the passage of the Immigration Bill and by employers by announcing a number of exemptions and a lower rate for charities and smaller employers.
The draft regulations implement the decisions taken last year. We believe that has given employers enough time to prepare for the introduction of the charge, subject to parliamentary consideration. Through the charge, we want to incentivise employers to think differently about their recruitment and skills decisions and the balance between their investment in UK skills and overseas recruitment.
As Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, I am committed to ensuring that people from all backgrounds can get a step up on the ladder of opportunity. We need to do more to support people into quality jobs and help them to gain the world-class skills that meet employers’ needs. The evidence is that the lack of investment in skills is damaging our productivity and economy. We are quite honest about the skills problem facing our nation. Employer investment in training has been declining for 20 years. UK workers undertake 20% less continuing vocational training, on average, than those in the EU. According to the latest available international comparison, the UK spends 55% less than Germany and just over 70% less than France per employee on vocational training. We are forecast to fall from 24th to 28th out of 33 OECD countries for intermediate skills by 2020.
Skilled migration has brought huge economic benefit to the UK. It has boosted our ability to compete in many global markets and helped to make us world leaders. There are many examples of good practice, but it seems that some employers would prefer to recruit skilled workers from overseas than invest in training UK workers. Use of the tier 2 visa route grew by 37% between 2010 and 2016. Our aim is to see UK workers with the right skills to fill those tier 2 roles. Through the immigration skills charge, we want to encourage employers to think differently about recruitment to those roles, which are mainly at graduate level and above, with a salary of more than £30,000.
As the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee acknowledged, most respondents to the MAC’s consultation were not in favour of a charge, but it is not surprising that those who will have to pay the charge do not welcome it. The MAC supported it. Made up of independent experts, the MAC made this decision as part of a comprehensive review of tier 2, having analysed different levels of charge and taking into account views from more than 250 written submissions and meetings with more than 200 public and private sector employers.
The MAC considered that a flat charge of £1,000 per worker per year would be large enough to have an impact on employer behaviour and would be the right level to incentivise employers to reduce their reliance on migrant workers. Where Government took a different line from the MAC, it was to protect the UK’s position as a centre of excellence for education and research and to support smaller employers. Regulation 3 therefore introduces a reduced rate of £364 per individual per year for small and charitable sponsors.
Regulation 4 provides for the exemptions. As the MAC recommended, sponsors of tier 2 intra-company transfer graduate trainees are exempt from paying the charge. The Government have also exempted specified PhD-level occupations, including higher education lecturers and researchers. In addition, those who switch from a tier 4 student visa to a tier 2 general visa to take up a graduate-level position in the UK are exempt. That was welcomed by the British Medical Association, because it will benefit doctors completing their foundation training. The exemptions are designed to protect employers’ ability to recruit the brightest and the best. For out-of-country applications for entry clearance, the regulation provides that the charge does not apply for leave of less than six months.
Regulation 5 provides that the sponsor must pay the charge up front. This is for a minimum of 12 months and then in six-monthly increments, rounded up. It will be calculated according to the length of employment that the sponsor enters on the certificate of sponsorship. Employers will pay the charge as part of the existing sponsorship process administered by the Home Office.
Regulation 6 provides that part or all of the charge may be refunded or waived.
Regulation 7 means that the charge will not be retrospective. Employers of individuals who are already in the UK on a tier 2 visa or who have been assigned a tier 2 certificate of sponsorship at the time the regulations come into force will not have to pay the charge. That will also be the case when such individuals apply to extend their stay or change job or employer.
Let me turn to how the funding raised will be used. Based on Home Office analysis of the use of the tier 2 route, it is estimated that the charge will raise £100 million in the first year. The Home Office will collect the charge and transfer it to the Consolidated Fund, less an amount to cover the costs of collecting the charge. The population percentages underlying the Barnett formula will be used by the Treasury to determine the split of funding between the Department for Education and each of the devolved Administrations. The income raised from the charge will be used to address skills gaps in the workforce. It will make a contribution to the Department’s skills budget, ensuring that we can continue to make a significant investment in developing the skills that the country needs.
The charge will raise income, but it is also designed to change employer behaviour, and that applies across all sectors. I recognise the concerns about the impact of the charge on health and education in particular, but the MAC was clear in its recommendations that the public sector should not be exempt from the charge. As an employer like any other, it should be incentivised to consider the UK labour market first. That is in line with Government policy. It is not sustainable to rely on recruiting overseas staff. We are committed to building home-grown skills, recruiting from the domestic labour market and investing in training. There are 52,000 students training to be nurses, and the first apprentice nurses could be in training from September 2017. Once the system is established, up to 1,000 apprentice nurses could join the NHS each year. There are 30,000 students training to be doctors. The Department for Education is investing more than £1.3 billion up to 2020 to attract new teachers into the profession.
We recognise that immigration has a role to play in the supply of workers where there are genuine skills shortages, but that should not come at the expense of investment in skills in our country. As Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, I am committed to ensuring that people from all backgrounds can get a step up on the ladder of opportunity. This charge is designed to incentivise employers to invest in training and upskill the resident workforce. It will also raise funding to support ongoing investment by the Government in skills programmes. I hope that the Committee will support the regulations.
Before I call Mr Marsden, I remind the Committee that this is not a general debate on immigration policy. The debate must be focused on the regulations before us.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. It is also only appropriate to congratulate the Minister on his birthday.
We support the broad principle of the regulations. We support everything that the Minister has said about the need to change behaviour and to skill up, and we support the analysis in the policy background in paragraphs 7.1 and 7.3 of the explanatory memorandum. The Minister is absolutely right to say that the skills gap has been a continuing problem, although it is not a new problem. Governments of all persuasions have not succeeded in addressing it for a period of 25 years, so it was not unreasonable that the Government should have embarked on this process in, presumably, 2014-15.
The Minister has gone through the details and done everything he is supposed to do. However, we want to ask some fairly probing questions this morning about the detail. The Minister knows that I often say the devil is in the detail, and there is a lot of detail in the explanatory memorandum on which the Committee will need some substantive answers. Of course, it is not just a question of detail, but a question of chronology.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us when the regulations were first mooted between the Home Office and the then Department. We know from the policy background in the document that the charge was announced by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, in May 2015. As the Minister has said, the MAC endorsed it in January 2016 and the charge is due to be introduced on 6 April 2017. In that period of time we have had Brexit, which alters the context of the regulations substantially.
The charge relates, of course, to the issue of migrant workers from non-EU countries and allows for the recruitment of skilled workers, to be specific, from outside the European economic area. The reality is that the implications of Brexit mean that the context in which the Government introduced the charges and the Migration Advisory Committee put forward its recommendations has utterly changed. That is not an argument for rejecting the regulations, but it is an argument for saying that we have to look substantially more closely at the impact that Brexit will have on our ability to have skilled workers who, by the time the charge has come fully into effect, may include skilled workers from the EU, of which we will no longer be a part. That is the context in which my comments will be made.
I will begin by picking up one or two points from the Minister’s speech. He used gentler language than I would when he talked about the Migration Advisory Committee, because I would say that it ignored the views of the majority of consultees. I take slight issue with the Minister. Perhaps neither of us is in a completely good position to make a thorough judgment because we were not there at the time and we were not looking at the context of the Migration Advisory Committee’s work, but I suspect that the concern of many of the stakeholders and employers was not simply about cost, although cost is obviously important. They might have had other concerns. Given the detail of what the regulations will require from employers or would-be sponsors, they might have had concerns about the sheer volume of quite complex regulatory procedures that they will have to comply with in this process.
If the Minister does not mind my saying so, there was some confusion in our Whips Office when we saw the explanatory memorandum today, because initially I was not going to be granted the privilege of addressing you, Mr Streeter, from 8.55 in the morning; that opportunity was due to go to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), the shadow Home Secretary. I am sorry that you do not have the shadow Home Secretary, Mr Streeter; you have got me.
I could not possibly comment.
That is just an illustration of how closely woven these regulations are with the perfectly reasonable policy objectives of the Home Office. However, I have to say, and I think this point is germane, that looking at the detail of the regulations, we can see that they will be a significant burden—administratively, apart from anything else. The Minister mentioned small employers and the regulations will be a particular burden on them, but I will talk about that a little more in a few moments.
The Minister said that enough time had been given for people to prepare for the introduction of the regulations. There is a great gift in Government for making an argument out of necessity and there is a little element of that here. It has taken two years to bring the regulations together. We can look at that either way: either we can say that they are the product of mature, concerned deliberation, or we can say that all the upheavals in the Conservative party and the Conservative Government over the last 12 months, including getting a new leader, a new Prime Minister, and having to deal with Brexit, may have had something to do with it.
Nevertheless, we are debating the regulations here today. We often forget this, but it is not unwise from time to time to prick the Government and officials on this point: we are debating here today something that will be implemented in 10 days’ time. That is one of the issues, especially with a particularly complex set of instruments such as these regulations. It would have been beneficial—I will say no more than that—for this House and indeed the other place, which debated the regulations yesterday, to have seen them two or three months earlier. Anyway, we are where we are.
I have some specific questions for the Minister about the explanatory memorandum. Paragraph 7.5 says that there is a large degree of uncertainty around the potential income raised by the charge. It then makes the point that a number of assumptions have been made in taking all the different factors into account.
The Minister will be relieved to know that I am not going to ask him for the statistical basis or analysis on which his officials prepared those estimates and assumptions. Having been a Parliamentary Private Secretary, I am well aware of the ways in which they will have done that: there will have been a pessimistic view and an optimistic view. Members can judge for themselves whether the £100 million represents the pessimistic view or the optimistic view.
I want to draw attention to the number of assumptions that have been made, which are dealt with subsequently in the regulations. That makes the argument for being very careful about unintended consequences arising as a result of the legislation, the principle of which, I repeat, we support. That is what paragraph 7.5 says.
Again, I draw Members’ attention to the detail—I will not go through it—in paragraphs 7.8 and 7.9, which spell out the complexities of these regulations for employers. There is the sponsor licence, the certificate, the sponsorship providing evidence, and so on. Behind those bland sentences is a raft of bureaucracy that many companies, particularly those having to fill gaps fairly rapidly, will struggle to deal with.
I notice in the explanatory memorandum that it will not be the Minister’s Department administering this process, but the Home Office. The Home Office, perfectly reasonably, will get a fee that is, from memory, 1% of the £100 million—if that is incorrect, the Minister can tell me. I know the ways of interdepartmental dealings in these matters. What guarantees can the Minister give us that his colleagues in the Home Office will not come calling for more money for their administrative processes if they prove to be far more laborious and time-consuming than these bland regulations suggest? If that were the case, the £100 million—the figure given as the potential benefit for the skills process—would rapidly begin to shrivel.
My second question for the Minister in that respect is how his Department plans to use the money that eventually comes to him after the top-slicing from the Home Office, whatever it may be, in the skills sector to do precisely the sort of thing he said, perfectly reasonably, that he wanted to do.
I want to emphasise again the issues around the consultation process. The memorandum says:
“The Government considered the Committee’s recommendations before announcing the rate and scope of the charge”.
That is civil service speak for largely ignoring it. The Minister was more candid; I have given my views on what the problems were. That is done and dusted, but what concerns me more is paragraph 8.4, which says:
“A full public consultation has not taken place.”
The Minister observed that, but it would be helpful if he outlined the reasons why a full public consultation has not taken place.
Specifically, in terms of both the public and private sectors’ response, it would be helpful to know what consultations took place with large, or indeed small, business organisations. What consultations were there with the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors or the sector skills councils for the groups that will be most affected, according to the table on page 6? In the context of what the Minister said about the issues for small business, was there consultation with the Federation of Small Businesses? The table at paragraph 10.4 on page 6 shows the five sectors that will account for the majority of sponsored skilled visa applications, according to the Home Office’s own immigration statistics from February 2017. It is striking that by far and away the largest of the top five categories listed is information and communication, with 23,358 sponsored skilled visa applications in the period that the Home Office assessed.
Everybody knows that we are going hell for leather—and perfectly reasonably so—to enter the digital age. The Digital Economy Bill has just concluded its passage through the House of Lords. Has any consideration been given to the potentially harmful impact on that process if things do not go quite as smoothly as the regulations suggest? Specifically, what consultations has the Minister’s Department had with colleagues in the Cabinet Office and what is now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—both of which would be adversely affected in the digital areas if the regulations did not produce what they said on the tin—and what was the response? If we simply go through the detail of what the Government have put forward in their explanatory memorandum, we see that various issues and problems are already looming.
The Minister and his colleagues have been very helpful, and I pay tribute to him for holding an information session last week. I was not able to attend, but my assistant was, and he provided very helpful information. However, I have a couple of questions about what was said. My understanding from the meeting and from the memorandum is that there are no plans to extend the charge for the European economic area, but I want to put my question again: what will happen if in the future EU citizens become necessarily eligible for tier 2 visas?
I have already mentioned the issue of how the Minister and his Department intend to spend the money, so I will not dwell on that again. The charge is about incentivising existing employers. In theory, if it is successful, at some point the skills charge will not be necessary. Has the Minister’s Department done any modelling or made any assessment of the nudge impact, which I think is perhaps the right way of describing what the Minister said the purpose of this was?
I have touched on the issue of statistics, which are extraordinarily important for Government to be able to make judgments not only about how to introduce a policy but about how to administer it. Sad to say, but the Government’s closure of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills last year, which routinely did analysis and collection of statistics, means that we no longer have a single body with a national overview of the skills gaps that the Minister referred to. I therefore want to ask—this is absolutely crucial for him to convince and persuade not only the Committee, but the majority of employers who will participate in the process—how his Department and his officials will identify the skills gaps and decide how much of the £100 million they will prioritise for which areas.
I have already mentioned Brexit and I will return to it in the context of the regulations at the end, but I also want to raise the implications they will have for the NHS and the healthcare sector. Again, the chart in paragraph 10.4 identifies human health and social work activities. I hope the Minister’s Home Office colleagues have made him aware of a letter sent by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing to the Home Secretary on Friday 10 March regarding the impact of the charge on the health and social care workforce. In that letter they asked the Home Secretary to exempt the NHS and the wider health and social care system from the charge.
The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing quoted two particular statistics that the Minister may or may not wish to challenge. They said that £3.5 million would be taken out of the NHS budget if the charge was applied to doctors who were granted tier 2 general visas from August 2014 to August 2015. They also made the point that if the charge had been applied to registered nurses, the health and social care system would have lost £655,000 in 2014-15, rising to £2.1 million in 2015-16. Of course, those are “What ifs?” and hypotheticals, but they nevertheless give some indication of why the BMA and the Royal College of Nursing are so concerned.
I do not want to quote at length from the detailed letter that the BMA and the Royal College of Nursing sent to the Home Secretary, but there are a couple of key points. The Minister talked about wanting to get moving on this, get skills coming in and get people trained, all of which I agree with. However, the chair of the BMA and the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing rightly reminded the Home Secretary and her officials of the gestation time of this process. They said:
“While the health secretary has outlined proposals to expand the supply of UK trained doctors to reduce the NHS’s reliance on doctors from overseas, the length of time taken to train a senior doctor will mean that the NHS will continue to be reliant upon doctors from the EU and overseas in the short to medium term to fill vacant posts.”
They also said:
“Checks and balances are already in place to ensure posts are first offered to UK and EU nationals through the resident labour market test. It is unfair therefore, to penalise health and social care employers for recruiting a doctor or a nurse on a tier 2 visa”.
I do not intend to go into the broader debate around health service training and skills, because that would be outwith the purposes of the regulations, but those comments certainly ought to send a message to the Minister and to Home Office officials and the Home Secretary, who will have to bear the responsibility. Although the Minister and his Department will benefit from this—I mean this in the nicest possible way—they are the bag carrier for the Home Office in this matter.
It is important to look at the practicals. It is not irrelevant to give a brief example from my own constituency. My local hospital, Blackpool Victoria hospital, in common with many other hospitals, is finding it extraordinarily difficult to recruit at the moment. It has just had to hire 80 medical staff from the Philippines. Some people might say, “Well, they should have been doing more to retrain, reskill and bring people on board,” but the reality of attracting staff to coastal or suburban places that have more challenges than university-led or city centre hospitals is significant. Given the town the Minister represents, I venture to say that he will know of those issues, in terms of the competition between small-town areas and city centres. Those are really important issues that will need to be taken into consideration in implementing these regulations.
My hon. Friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie, speaking for our party in the other place yesterday on these regulations, identified potential problems coming from science, technology, engineering and maths teachers not being exempt. Will the Minister look carefully at that and respond? I do not believe that his hon. Friend, the Minister responsible in the other place, gave a response, although I stand to be corrected.
In that debate my hon. Friend also suggested a sunset clause, whether formal or informal, for the regulations. I urge the Minister to look seriously at that. This is a bold initiative, but it is nevertheless full of a series of untested variables that could be even more prone than usual to the law of unintended consequences. The Government themselves have admitted, in paragraph 7.5, the complexity of the regulations. I am sure that officials will sometimes say, “A sunset clause is unnecessary.” They might say that in the context of the fact that we are told in paragraph 12.1 of the explanatory memorandum, which refers to monitoring and review:
“The Department for Education will keep the operation of the charge under review, with support from, amongst others, the Home Office. This will include reviewing the policy after 12 months’ operations.”
It is not clear to me whether that means reviewing the policy as a whole or in the context of the charges and tariffs that have been produced for it. I would be grateful for clarification on that matter from the Minister.
One of the reasons why we thought long and hard about whether we would not oppose these regulations is that we believe the regulations have to be monitored extremely carefully, for all the reasons I have described. If the Minister is not minded, or not able, to apply a sunset clause to them, we need at the very least to have an annual review brought to Parliament that says where there have been problems or where there is potential for tweaking the policy.
I repeat what I said at the beginning. We are in broad support of the process, which is a process and a set of suggestions that we considered as a party in opposition and discussed before the 2015 election, so it would not be right for us to oppose the regulations on this occasion. However, our abstention comes with a big caveat to the Minister to take note of all the things that I have said and that my noble Friend said in the other place yesterday. I give notice today that we, and my colleagues in the shadow Home Office team, will very vigilantly pursue the process and the implementation of the regulations. There is also a role for the Chairs of the Select Committee on Education and the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so I will be sending a copy of my remarks and those of my noble Friend in the other place to them too.
I have listened to what you said about not going off the subject, Mr Streeter. Given your patience with me in another place yesterday, you will be pleased to hear that I have taken my pen and scored out an awful lot of what I was planning to say.
I want to speak about our fundamental opposition to the regulations. My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North will have some more specific points and some questions. When we get back to the fundamentals of this, I would argue, mistaken proposal, it is clear that it is yet another policy driven simply by the Prime Minister’s unachievable aim of getting migration under 100,000. That ever-retreating mirage of a policy ambition is perhaps causing more misery on these islands than any other of the Government’s objectives, outside those of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Brexit Department.
Any economy that is to expand needs to fill skill shortages in the short term, as its businesses grow, even if it ensures that in the middle term local workers are given the opportunity to be trained. Nobody would argue with that intention. What these measures will do is to discourage skilled workers and tax-paying migrants from many of our closest friends and allies from contributing to the UK economy—a policy that, it is clear to me, will harm British business.
We should not be punishing companies that need to bring in skilled workers from elsewhere. Those workers will contribute to our tax base, as will the companies that sponsor them, and we should not be disincentivising that simply because some employers, as the Minister said, do not make the effort to train and find people from the UK.
In the short to medium term, all we are doing is encouraging further migration from the EU. That is something that I wholeheartedly approve of, but I do not think it was the intention of the drafters of the regulations. Companies will quite likely look to the continent to avoid paying the sponsoring fees, even as we stumble further forward into the shadows of Brexit. Whether those EU nationals will be the slightest bit interested in those overtures, given the insecurity they will face if they accept them, remains to be seen.
We share the concerns of the hon. Member for Blackpool South on the public sector, and in particular the health service. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North will come on to that.
The Government are simply pulling up the drawbridge, not only on EU workers but on non-EU workers. I expect and hope that Scotland will choose a different path, but there is no guarantee of that; we may be stuck with this. Even if Scotland chooses a different path, I want the rest of the UK to be able to make it independently, seeing as that is what people have chosen. However, it will not make it if it keeps putting up barriers to people who have the skills to grow the economy.
We oppose the charge, and I urge the Minister to think again and to think about what we have all had to say today. I wish him a happy birthday, but I am more likely to bake him a cake if he considers what we have said.
Before I call Kirsty Blackman, Caroline Johnson has a few words to say.
I wonder if someone could explain to me a few things about the regulations. Before I was elected in December, I was a consultant paediatrician—a doctor—working in the NHS. My understanding of tax is that it is there to either raise revenue or change behaviour. I welcome the broad principle of the charge, which is essentially, as I understand it, to incentivise employers to employ or upskill British workers, rather than taking the perhaps easier option of employing an already skilled person from abroad.
However, I do not understand why the charge will be applied to the medical profession. I will explain. Roughly 55,000 tier 2 visas were granted in 2015, of which 3,600-ish were for doctors. I do not understand how the charge can raise revenue. As I understand it, we are asking the NHS to pay a charge. That will not increase revenue to the Treasury, but will take money from the Treasury to the NHS to the Home Office and into the Consolidated Fund, then, via some Treasury calculations, either to the Department for Education or to the devolved Administrations. Doing that will not provide us with information because we already know to whom the tier 2 visas are being granted and which particular employers are requesting them.
Does the charge change behaviour instead? I do not understand how it will do that either. We have a national shortage of doctors. According to the House of Commons Library, there are 935 consultant vacancies—I suppose I am responsible for one—and 1,560 junior doctor vacancies. The Department of Health has done a lot to improve that, and I welcome the fact that 30,000 new medical students are in training. However, with a roughly five-year training programme, that means we will be getting 6,000 new doctors a year. It will be many years before we can be reliant on home-trained doctors rather than overseas recruitment.
Grantham A&E, which serves my constituency although it is just outside it, abruptly announced last August that it would be closing to patients overnight, owing to a shortage of middle-grade doctors—those who have already spent at least nine years in training to be a doctor. Trusts are being penalised for attempting to recruit doctors from overseas to fill those gaps, but they have no control over what they are being penalised for. Unlike other staff in the NHS who are specifically trained in-post, the number of doctors being trained is governed centrally by the Department of Health, not by trusts. The trusts have no control over the making of new doctors and are not able to recruit new, British staff to train to be doctors. They also cannot change the salary, because that is set nationally as well. Doctors who have perhaps left medicine to train abroad or to go into other professions cannot be enticed back with financial incentives, because trusts are only allowed to offer them a fixed salary.
I do not understand how the charge will change a trust’s behaviour, since a trust has no control over the training of doctors. Will the Minister explain how the tax, specifically as it applies to doctors working in the NHS, will either increase revenue or change behaviour and increase the number of British doctors available?
Thank you for calling me in this debate, Mr Streeter. I want to start by agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East. The measure is poorly thought out and it is ideological, which is the main reason for our opposition to it. I want to talk about various things that the Minister mentioned and agree with some of the things that the hon. Member for Blackpool South mentioned.
But first I want to briefly mention the hon. Member for Sleaford and—Hykeham?
Sorry. It is invaluable to have the hon. Lady’s experience in this place. She talks from a knowledgeable point of view about how long it takes to train doctors. I imagine it took her many years to train to become a consultant. The Government are missing the fact that it is not just the five years to become a junior doctor that we need to consider. Some people train for 15 or 20 years to get to the positions where we have the gaps. We cannot train such people overnight. The Government perhaps overlooked that issue when they introduced this measure.
The Minister mentioned the Migration Advisory Committee. I understand that that body was set up to make recommendations to Government, but the quality of the input is at issue here. The Government asked the Migration Advisory Committee to do a wide-ranging review of tier 2 with a view to recommending proposals that would substantially restrict inflows under that route. If it is asked to do that, it will give us things that restrict inflows under that route and not what is best for the economy and for the United Kingdom as a whole. It will give us what the Government asked it to do, so we cannot say that the proposal is impartial and has fully taken account of all the representations it received, because it was given a specific brief, which it has met. That was my first concern that needed to be made clear.
I have a few issues about the implementation and the document. As the hon. Member for Blackpool South mentioned, the Government did not undertake a full public consultation. They did not do an impact assessment. They have not been clear about how the money will be invested. We have had more clarity recently, with the Government predicting that it will be £100 million and saying that it will go to the Department for Education and that there will be Barnett consequentials, but that is not enough clarity. If employers are being asked to pay this tax, they need to be able to understand where the money is going and understand the benefits to the British economy of paying it. A tax is reasonable only if people can be convinced that they should pay it. The Government have failed to do that because of the lack of information they have provided.
I welcome that the explanatory memorandum states that there will be a review after one year of the amount of money that has been brought in, but there is no mention of a review of where the money is spent and the effects it has. Also not mentioned is the impact on employers and whether that will be taken into account in any review. Basically, the Government are committed to providing us with a headline, “This is the amount that we took in”, but no further information on the impact. If the Government are to justify this to the British public, it is important that they provide us with the information we need.
One thing that is not clear—I do not think it has been made clear to businesses—is whether there will be refunds. Let us say somebody is employed in the United Kingdom for one year and the company pays the upfront cost. What if they pitch up, they are here for a month and then they drop down dead or they toddle back off to the country that they came from because they decided it was too cold here? Will the Government give those companies a refund if they have not employed that person for a full year? That has not been clear in any of the information I have seen. I apologise if it has been made clear; I have not yet seen it. Certainly, a number of businesses do not understand the possible implications, so it has obviously not been discussed or publicised widely enough.
The points about the NHS have largely been covered by the hon. Member for Sleaford and—I will not attempt to say the second part of her constituency again—and by the hon. Member for Blackpool South. In saying that there has been plenty of time, the Minister does not recognise the fact that it takes a very long time to train people to fill some occupations. The hon. Member for Blackpool South mentioned the numbers that the BMA got in touch about and the particular cost of this measure to the NHS.
One thing that is not clear is how much of the money that is taken in will go towards infrastructure funding to support the training of doctors and nurses. For example, will the size of lecture theatres and the number of tutors who train doctors and nurses be increased? Why was that not done five or 10 years ago to ensure that we did not have the shortages we have today? Businesses and public service bodies that are asked to pay this money as of April will not have the opportunity to fill those gaps that they needed to fill five or 10 years ago, in terms of the teaching frameworks that we have.
There is a particular issue around very highly skilled occupations in which we have very few experts. We have had issues in my constituency with recruiting senior doctors who are experts in gender reassignment surgery, and gender reassignment generally, because there are so few of them across the world. Whatever we do today, we will still not have those people in post tomorrow or next week; it will take a long time to get those specialists. I do not think the Government have made enough allowances for the most specialised occupations.
If the Government had done this in a more sensible way, they would have looked at the shortage occupation list that is already in use and applied that, rather than coming up with a new list. That would have been a more sensible way to do this. We have previously argued against some of the things on the shortage occupation list, particularly because it does not take account of specific geographic issues and the lower salaries in Scotland.
The proposal poses a specific issue for the Scottish economy for a number of reasons. We have a high proportion of rural communities and communities that are relatively highly reliant on one industry or business that employs most of the people in a village, for example. Even though it employs most people in the village, there may only be 20 or 30 employees and it may still be a relatively small business that is not generating a huge amount of profit. Despite the lower costs for small businesses, they will still be expected to pay the charge.
It can be particularly hard to attract people in specialist occupations to the most remote areas of Scotland, where there is maybe not much access to services or a big supermarket. It is hard enough to attract those people anyway. If companies now have to pay extra money to attract them, that will be a real issue, particularly in the most rural areas where there is not a devolved settlement. I cannot imagine the Department for Education prioritising training in a small, rural community in the north of England in order to have one person filling one role. That would not be cost-effective for the Government, but this measure will cost such small businesses a huge amount of money.
I specifically raised those issues around rural communities. The other thing about Scotland is that our economy relies more heavily on small businesses than England’s, which is partly because of the rural nature of much of Scotland. From the information the Government have provided, I cannot tell the differential impact that the charge will have on small businesses; the Government have simply not provided that much information. They have provided information on how much money they think they will get in total, but there has been no breakdown of the impact on different sectors or communities. That highlights how poorly thought out this is.
The Scottish Government wrote to the UK Government and asked for information about the impact on Scotland but were not provided with it. If the UK Government intend to implement charges such as this across the whole of the United Kingdom, they need to be clear about the impact on Scotland and answer our request for information about that.
The last thing I want to touch on is something I have brought up in relation to immigration in a number of other settings, and I will continue to do so. The UK Government are setting out their stall—that it will be “global Britain”, trading across the world. I have previously raised the issue of trading with Commonwealth partners, given our massively high refusal rates of visitor visas for people coming from Nigeria or Pakistan, for example. If we want to have influence with those countries, have them look favourably upon us and sign free trade agreements with them, we need to be nicer to them than we currently are. There is a major issue with visitor visas.
This charge will be a major issue as well. If we are saying to people in other countries, “We would love you to sign a free trade deal that will allow us to export lots of stuff to your country—but by the way, we don’t want any of your people to come to our country,” that will be a real issue in the negotiation of free trade agreements. What I can see coming down the line is that once we have implemented the regulations, and once doctors being trained in India are less likely to be able to take up a post in the United Kingdom, that will affect our ability to strike decent, favourable deals for the UK.
I have spoken to Ministers before about soft power. Britain is not putting itself in a positive position on the world stage by the behaviour it is exhibiting on immigration. If we want to have better influence and the “global Britain” panacea being suggested to us by some of those who are most in favour of Brexit, we need to change the attitude of this Government.
We have had four sparkling contributions, with lots of questions. I return to the Minister to respond.
I thank all the shadow spokespeople and my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham—who I am delighted to see in her place, having won the by-election—for their thoughtful and considered questions. I will try to answer as many as possible.
I would like to make a wider point, following what the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said about our putting up the drawbridge. There is nothing of the sort. This is very much part of our genuine policy on skills reform, including the apprenticeship levy, the Sainsbury reforms and the £500 million announced in the Budget to support further education. All that is about building a skills and apprenticeships nation, because we have a huge skills deficit in our country.
The leader of the Labour party often criticises Conservatives for cutting corporation tax, which we have done in order to increase jobs and ensure that companies can invest in capital. We believe we have to share the burden of paying for skills with big business and big organisations and the hard-pressed taxpayer. That is the Conservative approach.
I am a huge believer in overseas development and overseas aid. I also believe in soft power. I have fantastic Filipino nurses in Harlow. However, every time we take someone from a poorer country and do not develop our own people’s skills, we are making that country poorer, not richer, because that doctor from India or the Philippines is lost to that country and is doing service here. We are not only not skilling our own population but causing damage to poorer countries that desperately need those skills. I believe in soft power, but this is about reforms to skills.
I am happy to apologise about the timing. As the hon. Member for Blackpool South kindly acknowledged, the measure was first announced in 2015 and was debated in Parliament in 2016. We wanted to bring it in earlier. It is genuinely the case that Brexit, the new Government and trying to get it right have meant a delay, for which we apologise. It has not been as ideal as it might have. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, there have been many external factors.
To be clear in terms of Brexit, this charge will be paid by UK employers who recruit skilled workers from outside the European Economic Area through the tier 2 general visa. There are no plans to apply a charge to employers when they recruit EU nationals. Primary legislation would need amending to extend the charge to workers from Europe and we have no plans to do that.
I am grateful to the Minister for his apology. I want to make it clear that I entirely exempt him from what were not criticisms but observations of the process. I appreciate that he had to use the words “no plans”, but will the Government categorically confirm that, if we withdraw from the EU without any trade agreement, the position will not affect the employment of EU nationals and that they will not be treated in the same way as those affected by this instrument?
First, the immigration skills charge is purely to do with those outside the European Economic Area and there are no plans to apply the charge to EU nationals. We would have to amend primary legislation. When we leave the EU, we will be able to take steps to control EU immigration, but the precise way that is to happen has not been determined. The immigration charge is purely to do with people from outside the European Economic Area and there are no plans to apply that to the EU. The Home Office Minister is in another debate today at the same time; otherwise, I am sure he would have been able to confirm that.
The hon. Gentleman referred to our sending a conflicting message about being open for business, a point that was also made by the other shadow spokeswomen. We remain open to attracting the brightest and best from overseas. As I set out in my opening remarks, the exemptions to the immigration skills charge show the commitment, supporting global knowledge and the exchange of skills. However, we must have the right skills domestically and we are way behind.
The vote to leave the EU demonstrated the importance of making the economy work for people of all backgrounds, in all areas of the country. The fact is that British individuals in our country are losing out because of the decisions of employers instead to recruit people, often from poorer countries. That is why we introduced the immigration skills charge.
The consultation was done by the Migration Advisory Committee. It undertook a thorough review and consulted widely. It issued a public call for evidence, receiving 251 written submissions and meeting representatives from 200-plus public and private sector employers. I will happily send a list of every single one to members of the Committee, if they would like—I do not have it on me today. Our job is to listen to the views of the Migration Advisory Committee and we followed its recommendations. There was a consultation, but it was done by that specific, respected body and the people on it.
In terms of the fee, the Department for Education is paying IT development costs of about £600,000 in 2016-17. That is not coming from the income raised from the charge. The small ongoing administration costs are approximately 1%. As I said in my opening remarks, the money is going into the Consolidated Fund, but it will be spent on skills. We are discussing with various people how that money should be spent. I would hope that it will sustain, for example, the institute of technology colleges and/or the lifelong learning and so on that we announced, but it will be spent on skills.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South asked about the stats and the closure of the UKCES. The reason I go on about the “Nightmare on Skills Street”, as I describe it, is because the Department and many other bodies collect a huge range of statistics about skills and apprenticeships and social disadvantage. The reason why we have the skills and apprenticeships priorities that we do—widespread, quality provision, social mobility and addressing our skills needs, particularly of women in STEM—is all the data and the analysis going on in the Department, with the Skills Funding Agency and many other organisations.
Let me turn to the public sector and the health service, which were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and the Opposition spokesman. We need to put this into context. The number of doctors, nurses and teachers recruited through a tier 2 visa route—the thing we are talking about today—is low. The MAC’s report found that 3,600 certificates of sponsorship were used for doctors and 2,600 for nurses for the year ending August 2015. In terms of teachers, the same report showed that 164 certificates of sponsorship were used for science teachers and 10 for teachers of Mandarin in 2015. Let me put that in context. The use of tier 2 visas is relatively low in terms of the whole number.
For two reasons. First, we are trying to change behaviours and develop—[Interruption.] If I am given a chance, I will set out all the things we are doing to invest in skills in the NHS. The second reason is to raise funds to invest in skills. We want to change behaviours and we want to raise funds. We want to share the burden of paying for the cost of skills across the United Kingdom and not put all of the burden on the hard-pressed taxpayer but share it fairly.
Would it not be quite useful not just to invest in training new doctors and nurses, but to treat existing NHS staff a little better so that they want to stay in the NHS? For example, there might a nursing shortage because the Government stopped nursing bursaries. In Scotland, nursing bursaries still exist, plus there is an additional fund for those facing extra hardship. The result is that, while applications to train as a nurse in England and Wales have dropped, they have gone up by 50% in Scotland.
Order. Interventions should be brief.
I have some important news for the hon. Lady. We are investing a huge amount, and we will have a new nursing degree apprenticeship. That is not a bursary; apprentices will earn while they learn, get the skills on the apprenticeship and get the qualifications they need. Health Education England is forecasting that more than 11,000 additional doctors will be available by 2020 and more than 40,000 additional nurses will be available by 2020. We are investing in frontline staff and we are ensuring that even with this charge the NHS and elsewhere have the skills that they need. I do not know whether your Government are going to introduce a nursing degree apprenticeship, but if they were, I strongly recommend that.
Order. Just to let the Minister know, my Government are not going to introduce any such change.
I beg your pardon, Mr Streeter. I meant to say “her Government”.
The number of teachers using the tier 2 route is relatively low; the overall volume of teachers recruited through the tier 2 route has fallen markedly from almost 1,500 in 2009 to under 900 in 2015. Through our STEM programme, the Department for Education will recruit up to 2,500 additional maths and physics teachers and provide subject knowledge and training in maths and physics to 15,000 non-specialist serving teachers. The DFE is investing £1.3 billion up to 2020 in new teachers, and schools could also benefit from the small and charitable sponsors reduced rate of £364, as well as from the exemption if individuals switch from the tier 4 student route to the tier 2 general route.
Putting teachers on the shortage occupation list is not a green light for overseas recruitment. The MAC report notes that, as I have said, the number of teachers being recruited through tier 2 is relatively low.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South asked about a review of the policy, and we have committed to conduct one after a year. Its scope is yet to be agreed, but I am happy to discuss that with him and take his advice on how it should be conducted. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East asked about the impact of spending on skills, and we will continue to monitor, review and evaluate the skills programme. She also asked about the payment, and I referred earlier to the sum of £1,000 and £364 for small organisations. The amount payable is calculated according to the length of employment that the sponsor enters on the certificate of sponsorship, and that is for a minimum of 12 months, followed by six-monthly increments rounded up. The important thing to note—I hope this pleases my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykenham—is that this charge is not retrospective, so none of the nurses who are no doubt doing a brilliant job in the hospital mentioned by the hon. Member for Blackpool South will be affected.
I think that I have answered most of the questions, and I thank everyone for contributing to an interesting debate. We have introduced the regulations as part of our general reforms to create a ladder of opportunity for millions of people in our country to get the skills they need. We will have a productive UK economy. The Treasury has had many discussions with the devolved Governments and we have kept our colleagues in the devolved Administrations informed at every stage. The Treasury has had continuing discussions about how the funding will be distributed; the hon. Member for Glasgow North East will know that it will be based on the Barnett formula.
I am glad that at least there has been broad agreement with my senior shadow about the principle, if not questions about the detail. With the immigration skills charge we will raise important funds for skills and change behaviours right across our country.
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration Skills Charge Regulations 2017.
Schengen and EU-Turkey Co-operation on Migration
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Ian Paisley
† Costa, Alberto (South Leicestershire) (Con)
† Dakin, Nic (Scunthorpe) (Lab)
† Davies, Byron (Gower) (Con)
† Foster, Kevin (Torbay) (Con)
† Goodwill, Mr Robert (Minister for Immigration)
† Grady, Patrick (Glasgow North) (SNP)
† Griffiths, Andrew (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton North) (Lab)
† Huq, Dr Rupa (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab)
† Mackinlay, Craig (South Thanet) (Con)
† McDonald, Stuart C. (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)
Shah, Naz (Bradford West) (Lab)
Kenneth Fox, Leoni Kurt, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
European Committee B
Wednesday 22 March 2017
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Schengen and EU-Turkey Co-operation on Migration
It may be helpful if I remind Members of the procedure in European Committees. Proceedings must conclude no later than two and a half hours after we begin. First, I will call a member of the European Scrutiny Committee to make a brief statement about why it decided to refer the documents before us for debate. I will then call the Minister to make a statement. That will be followed by questions for up to an hour, although I have some discretion to extend that, if appropriate, if Members have the appetite for it, and if the Minister is in good form. The Committee will then debate the Government motion, and I will put the question on the motion when debate, or the time available, is exhausted, whichever comes first.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Just over a year ago, in January 2016, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, declared that the EU was facing “an existential challenge”. Unprecedented pressures on parts of the EU’s external borders, large-scale secondary movements of irregular migrants within the Schengen area and a heightened sense of threat following the terrorist attacks in Paris had, he suggested, exposed
“a clear delivery deficit on many fronts”.
He gave the EU two months, until March 2016,
“to get things under control”
“grave consequences such as the collapse of Schengen.”
The survival of the Schengen area was not guaranteed. An increasing number of member states had lost confidence in the EU’s ability to forge a collective response and had resorted to unilateral action, including the reintroduction of internal border controls. Recognising the gravity of the situation, the European Scrutiny Committee recommended that a Commission communication that set out the challenges facing the Schengen area at the beginning of 2016 be debated on the Floor of the House. In the following months, it included further documents on the EU’s response to the migration and refugee crisis and the heightened terrorist threat. That response included measures to strengthen the EU’s external borders, a co-ordinated EU approach to the reintroduction of temporary internal border controls, and concerted efforts to prevent the secondary movement of irregular migrants from Greece by closing the western Balkans route. At the height of the migrant flows in 2015, more razor wire criss-crossed Europe than at any time since the cold war.
The deal reached with Turkey in March 2016 has had the greatest impact in easing migratory pressures within the Schengen area. It has also provoked the greatest controversy. Since the deal came into effect last April, there has been a significant drop in the numbers arriving in the Greek islands, but the pace of returns to Turkey—a key element of the deal—has been far slower than anticipated. There is serious overcrowding in the migration hotspots established in Greece. Conditions are reported to be desperate. The central premise of the deal is that it must be implemented in line with EU and international law, but non-governmental organisations, those operating on the ground, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—the UN Refugee Agency—and the Red Cross are all concerned that this has not been fulfilled.
It seems perverse to be debating the future of the Schengen area and the EU-Turkey deal 14 months after we made our initial debate recommendation, given all that has happened in the intervening period, not least the UK’s decision to the leave the EU, yet within or outside the EU, the UK will continue to be affected by EU policies on asylum and migration, as the camps in Calais, Dunkirk and other places have vividly demonstrated.
As the Minister is aware, the European Scrutiny Committee has repeatedly expressed concern about the delay in scheduling today’s debate. Given that delay and the risk that the information contained in the documents would be stale, we offered to rescind our debate recommendation in return for a general debate on future co-operation between the EU and the UK on migration. The Government have not taken up our offer.
The EU has staked much on the sustainability of the EU-Turkey deal. Renewed migratory flows on the scale seen in 2015 would risk further fragmentation of the Schengen area and erosion of trust among member states. That was clearly seen in the recent Hungarian referendum. Few can doubt the fragility of the deal, its dependence on mutual good will and co-operation and its susceptibility to political events, and a regular flow of EU cash seems to underpin any ongoing good will. Even at its inception, Donald Tusk acknowledged that it was
“not perfect…We did everything we could to ensure that the agreement respects human dignity but I am conscious of the fact that everything depends on how it will be implemented. The deal with Turkey and closing the Western Balkans route raise doubts of an ethical nature, and also legal, as in the case of Turkey. I share some of these doubts”.
The Government motion offers no insight into how co-operation with EU partners is likely to change once the UK leaves the EU and how significant any changes are likely to be in practice. We ask the Minister to explain what, in the words of the motion,
“continuing to work alongside EU partners as part of a comprehensive approach to global migration issues”
will mean when the UK is no longer a member of the EU. How will it affect future co-operation with EU member states and Turkey in tackling the migration and refugee crisis?
Turning to the documents themselves, does the Minister share the ethical and legal doubts voiced by Donald Tusk last April, which have been echoed by many international agencies and non-governmental organisations operating on the ground? Can he assure us that the EU-Turkey deal is being implemented in full accordance with EU and international law? Do the Government consider Turkey to be a safe country for Syrians and other nationalities returned there from Greece, who are in need of international protection? What mechanisms are in place to ensure that individuals returned to Turkey are given appropriate protection? Finally, in the light of current tensions in bilateral relations between some member states and Turkey, is the EU-Turkey deal sustainable, and what are the likely implications for the UK if it were to collapse? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and to an informed and lively debate.
Thank you very much. Before I call the Minister, I remind Committee members that during his statement interventions will not be permitted. After the Minister has made his statement, he will take questions, and I will be open to supplementaries.
Thank you, Mr Paisley. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am pleased to inform you that I am indeed in good form today.
I thank the European Scrutiny Committee for bringing this motion to the House. I understand its concerns about the delay in scheduling this debate. This process plays an important role in the scrutiny of the Government’s approach to the EU’s efforts on immigration and we must do better to enable that role to be fulfilled. I very much understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet. Indeed, on an earlier occasion, I apologised for some of the tardiness in scheduling these debates, and we have now made up a lot of the lost ground. Debates on the Floor of the House are usually a matter for the usual channels, but there has been increasing pressure on the main Chamber, particularly given the debate on article 50 and other debates and measures flowing from the result of the referendum.
We are here to examine aspects of the European Union’s response to the migration crisis, which saw unprecedented numbers of refugees and economic migrants leave their region of origin and move northwards through Turkey into Greece and the western Balkans in the second half of 2015. That was an unprecedented movement of people on a scale not seen since the second world war, often with the most awful consequences for those seeking to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. The scale of the movement presented an unparalleled challenge for the EU, both in terms of the humanitarian response and in respect of the functioning of the external Schengen area. As well as addressing the immediate implications of that movement, the EU also had to find a medium to long-term approach to address illegal migration and regional push factors.
The UK has always been clear about the long-established principle that claims for asylum should be made in the first safe country. The EU’s extensive upstream work with source countries is designed to reduce push factors and enable the return of those who have no need for protection.
UK work to resettle Syrian refugees runs alongside EU schemes to provide legal routes into and across the EU for those who are most in need of international protection. In 2016, for example, 5,181 people were resettled to the UK under our Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, the gateway programme and the mandate scheme. The UK has played a leading role in developing a comprehensive approach to what is now regarded as a global migration issue. I will address several aspects of the EU’s response to the crisis, beginning with the EU-Turkey deal.
As the Committee is aware, in March 2016, the European Council agreed a set of action points with Turkey, known as the EU-Turkey statement. That agreement includes the return to Turkey of all illegal migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands; the resettlement of one Syrian in the EU for every Syrian returned to Turkey; measures to prevent the opening up of new sea or land routes for illegal migration from Turkey into the EU; and joint work to improve the humanitarian conditions for Syrians inside Turkey, with €3 billion allocated to the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. Turkey has also introduced legislation allowing Syrians and non-Syrian refugees to work, and it is providing schooling for over 500,000 Syrian children.
The UK is committed to supporting the implementation of the agreement, which plays an important role in managing illegal migration flows and preventing people from being exploited by organised criminals, risking their lives in attempting to cross the Aegean. Alongside work in Greece and the western Balkans, it has also contributed to a 98% drop in illegal crossings in the Aegean, saving lives at sea. That is an average daily arrival of 43 people, compared with 1,700 people a day in the month before the agreement.
The UK is playing a leading role in supporting Greece and Turkey on implementing the deal. In May 2016, we announced a package of UK support to Greece consisting of up to 75 expert staff, including staff to interview arriving migrants, act as interpreters and support co-ordination through the European Commission team in Athens. The first UK staff arrived in Greece in May and the pledge was fulfilled in January 2017. In November 2016, we offered an additional package of up to 40 expert staff over the winter period to support the admissibility process and ease congestion on the islands. All staff who were part of that additional offer have now been committed, with the remaining deployments scheduled to begin this month.
As well as staff based in Greece, two Border Force vessels have been providing vital search and rescue support in both the Mediterranean and the Aegean since May 2015, rescuing over 12,000 migrants. We have deployed two cutters, supporting the Hellenic coastguard and Frontex’s Operation Poseidon in the Aegean.
The UK is also involved in operations against organised immigration crime across Greece, the eastern Mediterranean and the western Balkans region. A joint investigation by the UK’s organised immigration crime taskforce, Project Invigor, and the organised crime unit of the Hellenic police, with support from Europol, has successfully dismantled a major organised immigration crime group operating in Greece. That operation led to the arrests of those suspected of being members of a criminal network who were smuggling illegal migrants via Turkey, Greece, by vessel to Italy and on to Europe.
The UK has committed €328 million to the €3 billion that the EU is providing towards supporting refugees in Turkey. That is part of the UK’s total £2.3 billion commitment towards the events in Syria and the region—our largest ever humanitarian response to a single crisis. We have also committed £100 million of humanitarian support, including over £30 million to Greece, to help alleviate the Mediterranean migration crisis. We believe that the agreement with Turkey is in line with international law and can be built on, and we hope that it will continue in the medium to long term.
Turning to Schengen, I will touch briefly on the situation at the external border and the issue of internal borders. The European Commission has drawn up a road map called “Back to Schengen”, which sets out its commitment to strengthening the Schengen area and ensuring that it continues to function following the challenges of the last two years. The road map calls on Greece to work with its EU and international partners to control its maritime borders better and to build an effective domestic checking and asylum processing system, including the use of so-called border hotspots. It also calls for EU reforms to strengthen its systems for the medium to long term.
In relation to the external border, the EU has reviewed its procedures and reformed the procedures for systematic Schengen checks. The new procedures have been agreed and should enter into force in early April. They mean that Schengen states should carry out systematic checks on all persons, including those enjoying the right of free movement under EU law, when they cross the external border. That will include checks against Schengen databases as well as against EU databases on lost and stolen documents. Through such procedures, states will be able to verify who is travelling through all external borders—air, sea and land borders—at both entry and exit. That is an important step towards increasing the security and integrity of the Schengen area. It will also help to identify correctly people travelling with false ID, who might go on to apply for asylum or attempt to overstay or undertake secondary illegal movements.
In relation to the external border, the EU has now established the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, previously known as Frontex. The new border and coast guard has an extended remit, and participating member states are creating a rapid reaction pool of 1,500 border guards and equipment to enable rapid response teams to act quickly to address sudden route changes and increased flows. That should be operational by the end of May 2017.
Let me move on to the issue of internal borders. In the light of security concerns pending the reforms to the external borders, five countries—Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Norway—have raised their internal borders. That is due to last until 12 May this year and was agreed pending full implementation of the recast Frontex rapid reaction pool, implementation of the systematic checks, and progress on work in Greece. However, there is also continuing work with external border member states, such as Bulgaria, and in the western Balkans, with an eye on developments in Turkey. The Commission hopes that most of the critical measures needed to strengthen the EU’s external borders from within the EU will be in place this year.
I must be clear that the UK will continue to be at the forefront of international efforts to address the migration crisis and support a comprehensive approach. The Government also remain committed to working, as a constructive and positive partner, with our European and international partners to implement the EU-Turkey deal. It is firmly in the UK’s interest and that of refugees that migration into Europe is controlled and that borders are secure. Aside from any negotiations flowing from the vote on 23 June and the triggering of article 50, we will continue to engage fully in this process as part of the EU and international response to the appalling events in Syria and their humanitarian consequences.
Hon. Members have until 10 am to ask the Minister questions. I remind them that questions should be brief. I will allow supplementary questions; just catch my eye, please, if you wish to ask a question.
I apologise for being slightly late to the Committee, Mr Paisley. My questions for the Minister revolve around two main questions: is the agreement a good idea, given the human rights abuses by Turkey, and will it stick? I will outline those a little further.
Can the Minister offer anything further in the way of concrete reassurance that Turkey’s treatment of refugees within its territory will be brought up to good standards? If not, will he agree with me that unless those standards can be put in place in Turkey, it is very far from a satisfactory solution for EU Governments or agencies to deport individuals back there? There are many relevant human rights reports on the issue, including from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
UK taxpayers’ money is going to support refugees in Turkey, as well as to shore up current EU policy in Greece, so it would be good to know that that is being spent in a way that works to bring the Turkish system closer to internationally agreed standards. Will the Minister explain how UK funding has supported that? Will he put pressure on, or encourage EU foreign affairs institutions to put pressure on, the Turkish authorities to establish a more secure status for the millions of Syrian refugees in limbo in Turkey at the moment?
Dr Huq, I will allow you to come back with further questions.
The hon. Lady asks a very reasonable question: is it safe to return people to Turkey? As we have heard, Turkey ably hosts more than 3 million refugees, and we believe that it offers sufficient protection, in both its law and its practice, to return migrants from Greece under the EU-Turkey agreement. Turkey has modernised its legal framework for the protection of refugees, and we have been monitoring the situation closely since the attempted coup. To date, there has not been any evidence of deterioration in the conditions of, or protections available to, refugees. The UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, is monitoring the situation.
As I said, the United Kingdom has committed €328 million to the €3 billion facility for refugees in Turkey, in addition to the contribution via the EU budget to assist Turkey in hosting those refugees. We continue to work with Turkey and other international partners to address the needs of refugees there.
There are concerns that this agreement represents a shift in refugee policy; there have been reports on the subject by Human Rights Watch, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and the European ombudsman. I am encouraged to hear that there will be regular monitoring, because the ombudsman has said that there need to be impact assessments as part of an ongoing process. Does the Minister recognise that some of the fundamental rights that protect people within the international system are at risk of being watered down by this unusual policy shift? What representations have we made at European level to seek assurances on those protections?
I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that one of the fundamental principles of a refugee system is that one must claim asylum in the first safe country. For the majority of those fleeing Syria, Turkey is that first safe country, and Turkey understands its responsibilities in that regard. A number of the people in Turkey who are seeking to come to Europe are not refugees from Syria; some of them are economic migrants from countries further afield, as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan. When those people make a claim, it needs to be considered under the rules that are in place.
The Turkey deal is saving lives every day. Not having that deal in place would be playing into the hands of the people smugglers. We would once again see the carnage of people making that hazardous sea journey across the Aegean, and those heart-rending pictures of small children being cradled in the arms of rescuers on beaches. That is something we do not wish to return to. The Turkey deal delivers on that, and means people can be accommodated in Turkey in the refugee camps there. Indeed, the vast majority of the Syrian refugees that I met in Jordan when I was visiting the refugee camps did not want to come to Europe; they wanted to go back and carry on their lives in the country that they loved. I believe that this deal is a great way of delivering on all those objectives.
Specifically, does the Minister support the European ombudsman’s claim that, in light of EU institutions’ concerns about human rights, there should be regular reviews of the impact of the agreement on the human rights of the 3 million refugees he talked about?
International law refers to adequate protection, and that is neither defined by, nor required to be equivalent to the standards met by, individual EU member states. We have been monitoring the situation closely since the attempted coup, and there has not been any evidence of deterioration in the protections available to, or conditions of, refugees. In the UNHCR’s opinion, which I believe we should give a great amount of credibility to, that would be a matter for the agency to respond to, although we note that there is no published opinion from the UNHCR that Turkey is not a safe third country, and the high commissioner has frequently praised Turkey for its role in hosting Syrians.
This is my final question for the moment. It is a cause for concern, given the many problems that the deal presents, that it appears to be forming a model for other agreements between refugee-origin or refugee-transit countries, and states within Europe. The “Joint Way Forward on migration issues between Afghanistan and the EU” of last October clearly draws on the precedent set by the documents before us. Does the Minister intend to support the incorporation of a similar approach into future agreements on refugee policy, whether at the EU or national level?
I could not really comment on any future deals until the details of those deals were known. However, if a similar deal with a north African state was possible, it could prevent large numbers of people who are currently doing so from putting their lives at risk. In some cases, they are being forced at gunpoint on to vessels that are clearly not seaworthy. A similar deal throughout the Mediterranean would, I am sure, be welcomed by the international community.
The deal is saving lives and ensuring that people are being cared for. Let us not forget that those who can afford to pay the people smugglers are by definition not the most vulnerable; they have that resource. Our schemes, particularly the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement programme, delivers for those whom the UNHCR selects as being the most vulnerable, rather than those who can afford to pay the people smugglers.
The EU-Turkey deal continues to represent a critical opportunity to manage migratory flows effectively, to tackle people smugglers and to prevent people from making perilous crossings. The deal has, along with other measures, resulted in a substantial reduction in the number of migrants arriving in Greece since it was agreed. Flows across the Aegean during the last four months of 2016 were only 2% of what they were during the same period the year before. That is a testament to the effect of the joint working under way.
I have three short questions for the Minister—
Take them one at a time.
Sure. First, to go back to what the hon. Member for South Thanet said, this is perhaps the second time that I have been to a European Committee in which we have been talking about fundamental issues and documents that are a year out of date. Is there an explanation for why that has happened? May we have an assurance for the future that when such documents are published, we will be able to debate them quickly, preferably on the Floor of the House?
I did make a solemn undertaking, when called before the European Scrutiny Committee to account for myself, that we would work off the backlog, and we have made considerable progress in doing that. I have to say, however, that this is a very good point in time at which to review the operation of the Turkey deal and what is happening in the Schengen area. In the coming months, a number of critical decisions will need to be made by the European Union, not least because this is a two-way deal. There were suggestions that visa restrictions could be eased for Turks wishing to come to the European Union, and there is the issue of more progress on Turkey’s wishes to become a member. It is therefore a good time to have the debate and to review the measures, albeit that we are not a member of the Schengen area.
May I press the Minister, secondly, on the lawfulness of the EU-Turkey agreement? We need to be clear what we are talking about, which is the European Union saying, “We are not going to consider the substantive claim for asylum that you have made. We are going to say that it is inadmissible and return you to a country that does not fully implement the Geneva convention, on the basis that you have travelled from there.” Peter Sutherland, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative for international migration, suggested that the deal was illegal. Did the Government seek legal advice? How have they come to the conclusion that it is lawful to say, “You can have your asylum claim processed in Turkey”?
I repeat the point that the “first safe country” principle is well accepted and has been for many years. Turkey, as a safe country, is one in which people may claim asylum. It offers sufficient protection in law and in practice to returnees. We are confident that all returns will take place in full accordance with EU and international law. Every quarter, the European Commission carries out a review that considers human rights. There have been five to date, the most recent one published in early March.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I will return to that issue in a moment, but finally, may I press him on what he said about using the deal as a model for other deals, perhaps with north African countries? I cannot for a minute think that he is suggesting that he would implement a similar deal with Libya, under which people claiming asylum in Europe would be told that we would not consider their claim, but it would instead be considered and processed in Libya, which clearly has no implementation of the Geneva refugee convention.
The point I was making was that no deal is on the table, but certainly Libya can never be considered a country to which it is safe to return people. In any case, there are serious problems with organised criminals and people traffickers operating in Libya. The lack of rule of law in Libya is also of great concern to the international community. As I said, no deal is on the table, and no model can be delivered, but overall, the Turkey deal has saved lives and resulted in people smugglers’ business being curtailed. We can certainly learn lessons from it, if we look at similar types of deal in future.
Little-championed countries such as Jordan and Lebanon have played key roles by doing their bit, particularly for Syrian refugees, and both the UK Government and the EU in general should thank them for what they are doing in this crisis. Turkey has taken 3 million Syrian refugees, but what sorts of numbers have the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Oman taken? I think I know the answer: few or none. Given their cultural, historical and religious links and their geographical closeness, it seems somewhat bizarre that those countries in the middle east, which have huge migrant workforces, often from Asia, have not stepped up to the plate among the international community to do their bit to relieve the suffering of the Syrians. Does the Minister know what representations the EU or the UK Government have made to encourage those countries to step up to the plate?
I certainly echo my hon. Friend’s admiration of the work done not only in Turkey but in Lebanon and Jordan. Those countries are facing the full brunt of this dreadful refugee crisis. I visited the camps in Jordan last year. I also heard about the terrible conditions experienced by people in the berm—the area of land between Syria and Jordan where, because of security concerns, people are not able to move freely into the safer and more secure area in the camps. I was proud to see the work done by both the EU in general and the UK to put in clean water and sanitation and provide accommodation. Indeed, private companies around the European Union have also provided assistance.
We must bear in mind that a number of refugees in Jordan live in normal accommodation, sometimes with friends and family. I pay tribute to the King of Jordan for the leadership that he has shown in enabling Jordan to be a safe haven for so many people. I am proud of the work we are doing in conjunction with the Jordanians, the Turks and the Lebanese to ensure that support can be given to people in those camps.
My hon. Friend mentioned the UAE and other countries. I think he answered his own question. Certainly, we will continue to try to ensure that we get a truly international response. I draw attention to countries such as Canada, which carried out a massive airlift of 25,000 refugees from Jordan in a very short time, and Australia, which has a number of schemes in place, including community sponsorship schemes. Indeed, we are learning from how such schemes operate, particularly in Canada, and I am pleased that an increasing number of communities—both faith-based groups and others—are participating in those schemes and making Syrian refugees welcome in our communities. We are giving refugees the support that we can, which includes support with education and English language skills from professionals, and communities are supporting people and making them welcome.
I am pleased that many refugees who come here quickly assimilate. Their children, in particular, perform very well in school. I predicted some time ago that it is only a matter of time before we get our first Syrian entrepreneur millionaire, in the same way that the Ugandan Asians made such a success of their arrival in the UK.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 15429/15, a Commission Communication: Eighth biannual report on the functioning of the Schengen area 1 May-10 December 2015, European Union Document No. 15397/15, a Proposal for a Regulation amending Regulation No. 562/2006 (EC), also known as the Schengen Borders Code, as regards the reinforcement of checks against relevant databases at external borders, European Union Document No. 6798/16 and Addendum, a Commission Communication: Back to Schengen – A Roadmap, European Union Document No. 5985/16, a Council Implementing Decision setting out a Recommendation on addressing the serious deficiencies identified in the 2015 evaluation of the application of the Schengen acquis in the field of management of external borders by Greece, European Union Document No. 7183/16, a Commission Communication: Next operational steps in EU-Turkey cooperation in the field of migration, European Union Document No. 8175/16 and Addendum, a Commission Communication: First Report on the progress made in the implementation of the EU Turkey Statement; and supports the Government in continuing to work alongside EU partners as part of a comprehensive approach to global migration issues.—(Mr Goodwill.)
I want to expand on some of the human rights reports that I referred to in my questions, and then I have a small conclusion. I am encouraged by some of the things that the Minister said, but there still seem to be concerns about this quite controversial deal. We are talking about the treatment of refugees in Turkey, in particular. If the EU, with explicit UK support, is going to send large numbers of needy people back to Turkey, we need to know that their rights and welfare will be protected there.
In its report, “A Blueprint for Despair”, which was published last month, Amnesty International stated:
“Asylum-seekers should not be sent back to a country that is, currently at least, unable to guarantee access to an adequate protection status and adequate living conditions. The EU can legitimately seek to assist Turkey to meet these conditions, but it is callous in the extreme, and a straight-forward violation of international law, to construct an entire migration policy around the pretence that this is currently the case.”
We are comforting ourselves about what will happen, but we should seek proper assurances.
Sending vulnerable people back to Turkey is a concern, and not simply because of its terrible record on human rights in general; there have been mass arrests, widespread political imprisonment and an insecure environment for religious and cultural minorities in the past year. As a former academic, the one day two weeks ago when, I think, 80 university professors were put in prison overnight shocked me. In addition to the human rights abuses, Turkey remains a very poor country. Many Syrian refugees have had to wait up to six months to register for temporary protection under Turkey’s laws. Human Rights Watch has also highlighted the severe lack of education, employment and health care provision for refugees, noting that it leaves them disempowered, impoverished and vulnerable to exploitation by those who would take advantage of them. All those rights should be protected for refugees under the 1951 UN convention, which the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East referred to. It says that under those rights, refugees should have
“the same treatment as is accorded to nationals”.
Unfortunately, Syrians in Turkey have been systematically denied full asylum status, which is offered to Europeans under Turkish law. Instead, Syrian refugees have had patchy protections that offer little stability, limited support and few opportunities for anything like a normal life.
Even the European Commission’s communiqué of 16 March, “Next operational steps in EU-Turkey cooperation in the field of migration”, has found the EU-Turkey agreement wanting, in regard to Greece in particular. There is a sense from NGOs that rather than us providing safe routes to where there are sufficient resources in Europe, it seems slightly expedient for us to classify Turkey as a safe third country. We need to guard against washing our hands of responsibility for accurate assessments of asylum claims.
Finally, the approach of the EU-Turkey agreement is part of the bigger picture of the Government’s response to refugee issues. Concerned Members of the House, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), have raised questions about the plight of refugees, the Dubs scheme being closed down and family reunification. We inevitably hear in response—and the Minister has said this today—that refugees are funded from the region. However, it feels as though there is rather miserly support for refugees who have already travelled to Europe. We do not want to provide any sort of incentive to people traffickers.
I said at the beginning that I would ask whether the scheme will stick. That issue is worth raising. Given that diplomatic relations between the EU and Turkey are not at their highest peak, how long does the Minister give the agreement? It has been cobbled together, but how long will it last?
I was going to thank the hon. Lady for her comments, but I cannot listen to her description of the UK’s response as miserly. We are the second biggest donor to the region—£2.3 billion—and are second only to the United States in helping people in those refugee camps. We are at the forefront of helping the Greeks and doing work in Italy. Indeed, our scheme for bringing Syrian refugees directly from the camps—the most vulnerable, as selected by the UNHCR—is something we can be very proud of. We made a commitment to take in 20,000 refugees by the end of the decade, and we will certainly deliver on that.
The hon. Lady also talked about our response compared with that of the rest of Europe. The European Commission report on EU resettlement schemes, published on 20 July 2015, said that under the 1:1 mechanism with Turkey, resettlement under national schemes may count towards those totals. As of 7 February, the UK and Norway have resettled the largest number of migrants. As the UK met our pledge of 2,200 last year, our statistics do not increase. However, the Commission acknowledges that we have surpassed that pledge, and that our numbers continue to increase under national resettlement schemes. In comparison, Norway pledged to resettle 3,500, but had resettled 2,924 by 7 February. Other member states’ resettlement figures are: 1,501 in Austria; 1,088 in France; 1,213 in Germany; and 1,000 in the Netherlands, which meets their pledge. Member states that have not resettled any migrants under the EU scheme include Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, so I will not accept any criticism from the hon. Lady, who describes what the UK is doing as miserly. I am proud of what we are doing, and she does nobody any favours by describing it in that way.
She talked about the speed of registration of migrants. Syrian nationals are returned to Turkey by plane under the EU-Turkey deal, before being transferred to the refugee camp in Düziçi for swift pre-registration. They have a right to settle freely in the province of their choice, or to remain in the refugee camp. Non-Syrian nationals are returned to Turkey by boat and are transferred to a removal centre in Kirklareli, where they are informed about their rights, which include the possibility of applying for protected status in Turkey. EU authorities and UK Home Office officials have visited the centre and verified that the processing complies with the required standards. In 2016, the UK funded a conflict, security and stability fund project to strengthen Turkey’s asylum system, with specific regard to returnees.
Turkey’s co-operation with the EU and NATO has led to a dramatic reduction in arrivals in Greece from Turkey. The EU Commission published its fifth report on the progress and the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement on 2 March. That report demonstrates that the statement continues to produce tangible results, despite the difficult circumstances; there is an average daily arrival of 43 people, compared with 1,700 per day in the month before the statement. While there is still a human tragedy, the number of those reported dead or missing at sea has also fallen to a total of 70—it is still 70 too many—since the EU-Turkey statement was implemented, compared with 1,700 in the same period in 2015-16.
Under the EU-Turkey action plan on migration, Turkey has committed to enhancing the fight against and the dismantling of criminal networks involved in the smuggling of migrants, notably by increasing operational co-operation among Turkish law enforcement authorities, and between them and their counterparts in EU member states and agencies. Turkish authorities say they have apprehended almost 1,000 facilitators of human trafficking in 2016, although that figure has yet to be confirmed.
During her visit to Turkey on 28 January, the Prime Minister paid tribute to Turkey’s extraordinary generosity in ably hosting more than 3 million refugees from Syria and elsewhere. Turkey now hosts more refugees than any other country in the world. Turkey made a commitment at the London Syria conference to educating all Syrian children by the end of the 2017 school year, in June. Turkey has enrolled 500,000 Syrian children in schools in Turkey—that figure is from the Turkish Ministry of National Education and UNICEF—which is a significant process; however, 330,000 Syrian children remain outside education.
I followed the debate with great interest, and thank those who have contributed.
May I say, first, that I have always supported much of what the Government have done in their support for refugees in the region and their resettlement programme? However, I have always had considerable disagreement with the Government’s approach to how we treat those who have arrived in Europe. Having said that, I accept that there are significant parts of the EU-Turkey deal that are good, for example the co-operation to tackle people smuggling, which the Minister has spoken about, which has undoubtedly reduced the number of deaths of people trying to cross the sea.
Secondly, we have particular concerns about the removal of people who have claimed asylum in EU countries. They have been told not that we have considered their asylum claim and found it unsuccessful in law, but simply that we have decided it is inadmissible, and that they should go to Turkey and have their claim considered there. From our point of view, that was putting the cart before the horse because, at the time the EU agreement was reached, there was not even in place any protection for non-Syrians, as I will allude to in a minute. There was a temporary procedure in place for Syrians. We think the deal was premature.
I will speak briefly about two of the documents that highlight that the EU itself was very much aware of the controversy around this deal. First, document no. 7183/16: “Next operational steps in EU-turkey co-operation in the field of migration”, was a pivotal change in the EU approach, having previously adopted an approach of processing asylum applicants on the merits of the claim and then relocating them around Europe. That was abandoned and instead here we have the new “temporary and extraordinary measures” as the documents describe them, whereby all claims are to be rejected on grounds of inadmissibility on the basis that they would be adequately considered in Turkey.
The aims of the scheme are laudable but the means are wrong. This was a premature and possibly illegal approach. Even the documents themselves accept that it was a controversial approach. The documents set out that there would have to be changes to Turkish legislation. That included renewing temporary protection status for Syrians and putting in place what is referred to as protection equivalent to the Geneva convention for non-Syrians.
In short, the EU recognised that people’s claims under the refugee convention were going to be declared inadmissible and that a person would have to go and pursue their asylum claim in a country that did not even fully implement that convention. Meanwhile, Greek hotspots were no longer to be designed for quick reception and processing of claims. Instead they were to become, in essence, large detention facilities before people were returned.
The documents also rightly accepted that new routes to Europe might develop, and indeed many expert groups have since confirmed that once one dangerous route has been cut off, others have simply opened up. Our view is that the best answer would be for the EU to continue with its original approach but with a much more comprehensive offer of safe and legal routes.
The first report on progress is document no. 8175/16 and Addendum: “First Report on the progress made in the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement”. I note that we now have a fourth report on progress and implementation. Even the first report confirmed some of the concerns that I have just set out. We learn that Turkey signed a letter assuring that returned Syrians would be granted temporary protection. That is not refugee status. With regard to non-Syrians, it simply said that discussions are ongoing.
The Minister has assured us today, and I welcome the fact, that subsequently the Turkish Government did implement a scheme for non-Syrian asylum seekers being returned. Surely that should have been a precondition of any agreement. The horse had bolted by the time that assurance was given.
We also learn in that document just how badly placed Turkey was to process all those claims. It notes that it still needs to reduce a backlog of 140,000 pending asylum applications, while ensuring that decisions on new asylum requests are registered within a reasonable time and taken within the deadlines prescribed by law. It says Turkey still has to take
“necessary steps to grant all refugees legal access to the labour market”.
At that time only Syrians were allowed to do that. It also urges that remaining benchmarks in relation to the protection of fundamental rights should be fulfilled. Even very basic fundamentals were not in place at the time of the agreement. Hence, the report had to urge for the protection of vulnerable groups, such as child protection, women’s health and education and emergencies. There was still a need to establish a transfer system to cover basic needs of the most vulnerable refugees to cover food and shelter, which is described as “an emergency social safety net”.
Thirdly, even protection of incoming services such as delivery of non-food items and immediate support such as tents and mattresses still had to be put into place. The report concluded:
“Further efforts are required by Turkey to make sure that those who need international protection receive the support they require.”
Our view quite simply is that all of that should have been done before this agreement was signed and people who had claimed asylum would have been returned to that country.
I have already alluded to the comments by Peter Sutherland about the questionable legality of this process. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton also alluded to reports by Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders who have commented on the devastating human consequences of this strategy on the lives and health of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants trapped on the Greek islands and in the Balkans.
Just last week, The Telegraph reminded us about the effect on those who are stranded in Europe, reporting that a year after the controversial deal between the EU and Turkey blocked the flow of asylum seekers in Europe, tens of thousands are stuck in camps, suffering from rising levels of trauma and depression.
In summary, there are huge question marks about the legality of the EU-Turkey deal, particularly given that it was signed before all these huge issues were addressed, and we have not heard enough about what will happen to people who are trapped in Europe because of the closure of these routes.
Although I understand some of the criticisms about how some aid is being delivered, we live in extraordinary times. I repeat my admiration for the way that Turkey stepped up to the mark. Mr Paisley, you would not permit us to go into a long debate about internal political matters in Turkey—that is for another day and possibly another place—but I believe that the way that it has worked with the international community is very credible.
Any delay in implementing the Turkey deal would have meant more dead bodies being washed up on the beaches on those islands. It is easy to read out criticisms from non-governmental organisations, but we need to deal with the situation on the ground. The human rights abuses in that region are being made by Daesh and Assad and his cronies. The dreadful situation unfolding in Syria is what is causing the refugee crisis. The countries on the frontline, particularly Turkey, are discharging their international responsibilities, and I am pleased that we are working so closely with them.
There are existing schemes in Europe: the Dublin process is still in operation for asylum seekers who claimed asylum in an EU country who have family connections here in the UK, and we can ensure that that process works. Indeed, the larger number of the children who came to the UK following the clearance of the Calais camp came under the Dublin process, not the Dubs process.
It is the Government’s position that we should continue to support our EU partners in work to strengthen and deliver an EU external border that can withstand the extreme pressures we saw in 2015 whenever and wherever they occur, with the ultimate aim of preventing that from happening again. We will also continue to engage with near-neighbours and third countries to ensure that those in need of international protection get that protection—ideally in their region of origin—illegal migration is controlled and we deter abuse and prevent long-distance movements that endanger lives.
Question put and agreed to.