As a result of the growing concern among the disabled, I and the organisations that I mentioned met London Midland in July. With me was the admirable

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Rebecca Swift, the RNIB’s regional director. The people we met from London Midland were perfectly decent individuals, but I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for saying that they were somewhat uncomprehending of their proposals’ consequences for the disabled. We asked whether the company had consulted. They replied, “We think we did.” We asked how. They said, and I kid thee not, “For example, we put up posters in the stations.” Our next question was, “Posters for the blind and partially sighted?”

We then asked, “Do you think you’re covered by the obligations in the law?” The London Midland people said, “Not sure. We’ll go away and write to you.” They wrote back and said, “We don’t think we are, but in future we will act as if we were and consult properly.” That was in accordance with what we had argued. The problem is that they now propose to go full steam ahead with their proposals; there has been no change. That is simply not good enough, which is why I have written to the Secretary of State asking whether he will intervene. I will say more about that in a moment.

Others have contributed to this important debate. Mencap, for example, has focused on National Express, a company I know very well. It is the biggest long-distance coach company and it is a reputable company. It is also a good employer and it is sensitive to the needs of the communities it serves. However, on 18 routes, the 30% of fares that are concessionary are now at risk because of the changes to the bus service operators grant. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), and the reply I got today said:

“All coach operators, including National Express, are free to continue to offer half-price concessionary travel to older and eligible disabled people on a commercial basis.”

That sounds like the legendary saying by Anatole France that the rich and the poor are both free to sleep under Paris bridges at night. National Express is not a charity; it is a good company, but if it is to continue to offer concessionary fares in a significant way, it will require continuing Government support.

What is so admirable about the initiative taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan is that she has ensured that the voice of the blind, the partially sighted and the disabled is properly heard in the debate. I know that the Minister understands some of the issues, and when he responds to what he has heard today I hope he says how the Government intend to proceed. Specifically, London Midland cannot be allowed to blunder on regardless if the disabled are the casualties of its actions. It has not consulted properly, but the organisations representing the disabled have, crucially, offered to work with it on a consultation. That is why I have requested a meeting with the Secretary of State that involves Jagz and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, the RNIB and Mencap. No fundamental decisions that impact seriously on public transport and, in turn, on the disabled should be taken unless the voice of the disabled has been properly heard.

3.18 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate and on the excellent way in which she introduced the subject for us. The background

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is that 60% of people with disabilities have no access to a car and are therefore totally reliant on public transport, whether bus, train, tube or taxi. For them, public transport is of even greater importance than for the rest of the population, and that fundamental point should underlie the debate.

In London, the treatment of passengers with disabilities is probably, although it does not always feel like it, rather better than it is in many other parts of the country. That is not an accident; it has happened because we have a regulated bus service and a unitary transport authority. It has also happened because of the hands-on approach taken by the former Greater London council and, for most of the period since their introduction, by the Greater London authority and the Mayor in pushing the whole disability agenda. The Mayor’s office also has a very effective advisory network that can ensure that it delivers on those issues. Under the previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, there was an ambitious programme to convert a large number of tube stations to disability access, for which he should be commended. That is the issue that I want to refer to in a local context.

There are 11 stations—Network Rail and underground— that serve my constituency. Of the Network Rail ones, on the North London line, Upper Holloway, Crouch Hill and Canonbury have proper disability access, with ramps and so on, and all are staffed at present. With the stations that are mixed London Underground and Network Rail, there is an utterly ridiculous situation. In the case of Highbury and Islington, for example, the London overground station has disability access—it has recently been refurbished to bring in the East London line—but the underground station does not, so it is impossible to get off an overground train and on to an underground train there, because there is not proper access to enable people to do so.

Finsbury Park is a very old, busy and crowded underground station, and Network Rail, the underground and buses converge there. After a lot of argument, Network Rail has agreed to put in a lift between street level and the mainline platforms, which are well above street level. At the same time, Transport for London has cancelled its plans to put in a lift to the underground platforms underneath. Thus we have a ludicrous situation in which someone in a wheelchair, arriving at Finsbury Park station by the overground, will be able to get from the mainline platforms to the street, but will not be able to get to the underground.

I use that station frequently and every day passengers carry people with wheelchairs, and carry buggies, up and down. The overcrowding and lack of accessibility, and the danger that goes with that, are ridiculous. I hope that the Minister will pass on to his friend the Mayor of London what I have to say to him: please think again about the cancellation of the conversion scheme for a large number of London stations. It is making the lives of many people a misery and something should be done about it. The conversion needs to happen much more widely, across the network.

At other stations there is no access for people with disabilities. Those include Archway, which was also the subject of a plan from Ken Livingstone. Three stations that were due to be converted have had their plans cancelled. Highbury and Islington is the other, and only one station—Tufnell Park—has accessibility to the tube, which is by means of a lift. The situation is ridiculous,

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but I do not plead that case just for my constituency. I am using it as an example that could be repeated across London; it is not exclusive to my area.

My second general point is about buses and accessibility. After a lot of campaigning, London buses have ramps, and drivers are supposed to stop in such a way that the ramp can be used, enabling wheelchair users to get on the bus. Many drivers are good, reasonable, responsible and decent, and they stop in the proper place, giving people time to get on. That is fine, but unfortunately some drivers do not do it. Buses are often crowded, so often people with a wheelchair have to wait for many buses to go by before they can get on. On a cold winter’s morning, it is no joke when a person in a wheelchair is stuck for a long time simply trying to get on a bus. Space is lacking, because it is taken up with buggies and other things, so while I obviously accept the point that awareness is needed, we need training to go with it.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will dwell on that point for a moment. He referred to gaps in his constituency, but in the past 15 or 20 years there has been movement on the issue of infrastructure across the UK. However, there appears still to be a gap in staff training and awareness of problems. Although there has been some progress on that in the past 10 years, more needs to be done, particularly as some people do not seem to be aware of the crucial issues that affect partially-sighted and disabled people.

Jeremy Corbyn: I absolutely accept that attitudes, awareness and training have improved, but we need only look at the building we are in to see that we still have very far to go in achieving proper accessibility. I realise that those things are not simple, but nevertheless they must be achieved.

Outside London, where the bus service is largely less regulated, facilities tend to be much worse, and we need a much tougher approach from central Government to ensure that bus companies do as they should, bus stops are appropriate, and buses are sufficiently regulated and regular to enable people to get around. It is no fun to be waiting in a wheelchair in the cold, unable to move around to get warm, as other people who are not in wheelchairs can.

As to Network Rail, the McNulty review stated:

“The Study recommends that the default position for all services on the GB rail network should be DOO”—

driver-only operations—

“with a second member of train crew only being provided where there is a commercial, technical or other imperative.”

How many times have we seen people trying to get on or off trains at remote or suburban stations at night, when there are no staff on the station or the train—only a driver, who cannot see everything or be everywhere? It is then a great struggle simply to get on or off a train. The McNulty proposal to go to a largely driver-only-operated service means that many suburban and rural services will have no member of staff on them, and in addition there will be unstaffed stations. That is obviously a huge deterrent to anyone who has special needs getting into the station and on to the train. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that he does not want that aspect of the McNulty proposals to be introduced.

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Additionally, it is often difficult for people, particularly those with sight difficulties, when there are no staff on the station and only ticket vending machines are used. The machines are often the wrong height or badly placed. Getting a ticket and getting on the train when there are no staff becomes a nightmare. It is unnecessary and wrong to have such arrangements; they are uncivilised and we should put a stop to them.

As many as 10,000 ticket staff across the country could lose their jobs between now and 2013 if McNulty is implemented. Those people are there to help, bring security and support people. Surely we need to give a lot of thought to that, and quickly. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan on obtaining the debate, and I hope that the Minister understands that the role of the Government is to regulate and to ensure that services are provided: because 60% of people with disabilities have no access to a car, public transport is the only option for them. Buses and trains must be accessible, stations must be staffed and the staff must be trained to assist people as necessary. That is the only right and proper thing to do.

3.28 pm

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): It is a privilege to be called to speak in the debate following so many excellent speeches that covered so much ground. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate and setting out the grounds for it so well. So much has been covered that those listening can benefit from a shorter speech by me. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] It is good to have support for that from colleagues.

Of course, many of us take access to public transport for granted. When a train is delayed or we wait a bit for a bus, we all grumble about the inconvenience and how much more arduous the journey is. However, for many people, a delayed train is insignificant compared with the difficulties that they face every time they try to travel. If their bus in London is diverted, they may not simply be able to use the underground instead. If they are lucky enough to be in an underground station with full access for people with physical disabilities, they can travel to only 59 other stations out of the 270. Public transport should be just that—a transport service accessible by all members of the public, no matter what their need.

Disabled people in this country have the right not to be discriminated against or harassed in relation to the use of transport services. A right of access to transport for disabled people was first set out in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, before a broader right to access was enshrined in the Equality Act 2010. However, as many disabled people know only too well and tell me at constituency surgeries and on the streets, that right simply has not become a tangible reality. We desperately need to ensure that what we have put on the statute book is embedded in reality in all local services.

I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about the work that the Government have done, but there is much more to do. Just over 50% of bus stops in London are fully accessible. That represents a huge increase, but is still a very disappointing number, given what is needed. Almost every group that represents people with disabilities has highlighted the problems with the lack of proper transport provision. We have heard several times about Trailblazers. I have met representatives of several disability groups in Cambridge. They raise those problems regularly.

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However, we must not concentrate just on people with physical disabilities. There is an idea that someone who is disabled can only be someone in a wheelchair. The issues affecting people in wheelchairs are, of course, very important and have been discussed, but disabilities are not always obvious. I want to highlight some of the particular issues faced by people on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s syndrome. We have a number of such people in Cambridge, which is why I raise the issue. Roughly one child in 100 under the age of 18 has an autism spectrum disorder. The National Autistic Society recently produced a very good video, which I urge hon. Members to watch. It highlights what autistic people face when trying to use public transport. That is particularly hard for them because it is not obvious that they have any issues at all.

We need to consider the issue more broadly than just by thinking about how people get from A to B. We must consider how the problem with access to transport affects people’s overall well-being—their entire lives. If people are discouraged from travelling, what does that do to other areas of their lives? I am referring to their ability to meet people, form friendships, find work and pursue interests—to have all the life experiences that the rest of us take for granted. This is not just about transport; it is about everything else that happens.

Clearly, it is important to pick up a lot of the details. Many very small things could be fixed. That is why I highlighted the work on guide dog access done by Caroline Pidgeon in the London assembly. These are not hard things to do, but they are very important.

There is much still to do that requires a bit more. We need to ensure, for example, that all the Crossrail stations have proper toilet facilities. It is important to remember that something as simple as a toilet facility can represent a huge block for people who are disabled, whether because they are in a wheelchair or because they have one of the range of conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, that have a huge effect—

Mark Lazarowicz: This may be an obvious point, but toilets at stations should be open. The same goes for toilets on trains as well.

Dr Huppert: Indeed. We need not only to build such facilities, but to ensure that they are open, accessible and functional. That is a very important point. There are too many instances in which that is not the case. We have a particular issue in Cambridge, although it does not involve transport. A developer wants to move the disabled toilet up a few floors in a shopping area. Of course, that would make it very hard to get to.

I will not say too much about the concerns over the reductions in relation to discretionary fares. That issue has been highlighted, and I share the concerns expressed. However, as well as the detailed changes and the infrastructure changes, which are extremely important—

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I know that my hon. Friend is keen to proceed, but infrastructure is certainly a concern of the Chippenham Accessible Rail Transport group. The group and I have thrown our weight behind Network Rail’s attempts to bring disabled access to Chippenham railway station, but Brunel’s

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railway is considered a heritage asset. I hope that my hon. Friend and the Minister would agree that when the council consults heritage groups about changes to achieve decent disabled access on our public transport, we need those groups to get behind such proposals and work with the industry to make them a reality—they should not be allowed to become a block to progress.

Dr Huppert: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. From my role as co-chair of the Lib Dem transport group, I know that he campaigns very hard for his railways and I congratulate him on that. We have had a number of conversations on what is a real issue not just for his station, but for a number of others. There is a tendency for some heritage groups and people who work in that area to take the attitude that nothing must ever be changed, which is simply not what we want. Freezing all old buildings as they were in the ’70s is not always the right thing to do. The point of public transport is not to be a beautiful monument, but to enable people to travel, and travel easily. I hope that we see more movement, which is happening with much of the heritage sector, towards the idea that we need to come up with creative solutions that enable things to work, as well as, we hope, to look good and continue that heritage. That is a very important point, and there are a number of other points that one could talk about in relation to infrastructure.

As well as the piecemeal changes and infrastructure changes, which affect disabled people on a personal level, there is the issue of planning a long-distance journey. The sheer lack of information and the complexity involved in finding information make it very hard. If someone wants to travel between two places that they do not regularly travel between and that are a long way apart, rather than within a city, they have to check the accessibility of every service, or they risk taking a tube, a train and a bus and then finding that they cannot take the next bus. It is extremely hard to plan a long-distance journey. There is a huge need to ensure that there is linked-up availability of information, whether that is available online or in other ways—different people want to use different methods—so that people know that their entire route is accessible and they will not end up at the end of the line with the problems that have been identified.

This has been a very useful debate and it has been good to see mostly cross-party consensus on what we need to do. I look forward to the Minister explaining what we will be doing to deliver on the hopes and aspirations that we all have. In some ways, the issue is simple: we need to ensure that the transport service that we provide as a nation is fit for everyone. I look forward to hearing how that will be achieved.

3.36 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, particularly as this is my first time speaking from the Front Bench. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate. As ever, she spoke with great passion on behalf of those in society whose voices are too often unheard or ignored. She painted a very clear picture of the difficulties, indignities and anxieties that disabled people face in trying to travel on public transport and feel safe. It is

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clear from the number of people here today to listen to the debate and from the number of hon. Members from every part of the UK who have participated that there is a collective, cross-party will to tackle that inequality.

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) also spoke with passion, and this place is richer for his being here and speaking with the real understanding that comes from personal experience. Among the many issues that he raised, what struck me was the importance of changing attitudes. That is difficult and we cannot legislate for it, but I want to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing to ensure that staff are aware of and trained to respond to the needs of disabled passengers, so that they do not face the same bitter experiences that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) described, which he had heard about from his constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made important points about the practical steps that can be taken to improve accessibility and rightly pointed out that this is about not just buses, trams and trains, but airports and taxis. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) reminded us that 60% of disabled people have no access to a car and spelled out both the progress made and the challenges that remain here in London. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) rightly highlighted the needs of people with hidden disabilities, such as autism or learning difficulties.

We would all agree that good public transport is vital to disabled people and their families. It provides access to education, employment, health care, sports, leisure and volunteering opportunities. It enables disabled people to live independent lives. It helps to combat social isolation. Using public transport empowers disabled people, allowing them to develop self-confidence and skills.

The previous Labour Government made huge strides forward in improving public transport, including by making it more accessible for disabled people. However, there is clearly more to do. As we have heard today, disabled people still cannot access the services that many of us take for granted, but during the 13 years of Labour government the UK saw spending on rail that was almost two and a half times higher than we inherited. The creation of Network Rail brought significant modernisation of lines and stations, and a programme of replacing the ageing train fleet began, with 4,800 new accessible train carriages built since 1999.

Labour also significantly increased the support for local transport services, with investment more than doubling on our watch, including improvements here in London to buses and the tube, as we have already heard. Local bus services saw investment rise by almost 300%, and across the country bus fleets were modernised, often incorporating features to make them more accessible.

The Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998 and the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 2000 made a number of changes to make using public transport easier and safer for disabled people. The majority of buses now have handrails and wheelchair spaces. All new tram and train carriages must be accessible, and there is a requirement for audio-visual systems—vital improvements for disabled people, but benefiting everyone else, too.

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Parents with pushchairs find it easier to get on a bus because it has a low floor and a space for the pram. They no longer have to struggle to fold a buggy while holding a toddler and bags of shopping; I speak from experience. Visitors feel more confident in using the train and tram because there is a display showing where they are and what the final destination is. I cannot resist an example from my own city. It is reassuring to hear Wendy Smith, the voice of Nottingham’s tram, tell someone what the next stop is when it is dark outside or pouring with rain, or when the tram is crowded.

In 2005, the Department for Transport began trials of on-board audio and visual passenger information systems, with a view to amending the 2000 regulations to make such equipment mandatory if the trials prove successful. We need to ensure that that research progresses, and I ask the Minister to set out clearly what his Department is doing to extend such provision across the bus network. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan said, under the 1998 regulations, all trams and trains must be fully accessible by 1 January 2020. What is the Department doing to ensure that train companies meet that deadline?

Unfortunately, the progress achieved under Labour is now under threat as a result of this Government’s reckless deficit reduction plans. We recognise that transport spending needs to be reduced, even though that means making difficult and unpopular decisions, but the Government are going too far and too fast, with serious consequences. Funding for local transport will be reduced by 26% by 2015—over a quarter of the budget gone. With ring-fencing removed and local authorities under pressure, transport spending could even be lower. Worryingly, the Financial Times reported today that Campaign for Better Transport has uncovered the fact that English regions have already lost more than 1,000 bus services—over a fifth of all those supported by local authority funding. Funding for the concessionary fare scheme has already been cut by £223 million, and the bus service operators’ grant will be cut by £254 million by 2013.

Overall, the Government are taking away half a billion pounds from local transport funding, causing unaffordable fare rises and the closure of routes, which will hit everyone in our communities. Disabled people, who are often on low incomes and especially reliant on public transport, will be hit even harder. The scheme that provides half-price coach travel will be wiped out a stroke at the end of this month, putting long-distance travel out of reach for many pensioners and disabled people, and threatening some routes.

In many areas, school transport, which is particularly important for disabled children and young people, is being cut or removed, hitting family budgets and excluding disabled youngsters from after-school activities such as sports, drama and music. That comes on top of the removal of education maintenance allowance and a threefold hike in tuition fees. No wonder so many young people feel that they are being priced out of opportunity.

Quite rightly, many hon. Members have focused on the need for physical changes to public transport vehicles to make them more accessible to disabled people, but such changes will simply be irrelevant if the services that people need are not running, or if disabled people cannot afford to travel on them. Families up and down the country, including those of the disabled, face a

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cost-of-living crisis. Household bills are going up as a result of rising prices, wages are stagnant for those in work and many people face unemployment, including nearly 1 million young people, as today’s figures show. They have to rely on benefits, which are not keeping pace with inflation. How on earth will they cope with the 28% increase in rail fares planned for the next three years?

Disabled people face the additional worry that scrapping disability living allowance and replacing it with the personal independence payment might mean that they lose the help that they have been receiving with the extra costs of mobility. That fear is particularly acute for disabled people in residential care, including young people living in residential schools and colleges. As it stands, the Welfare Reform Bill will remove the mobility component of PIP from those young people, even though there is no evidence of the double funding that the Government claim. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about their internal review of those proposals? Will he update us on their progress?

Disabled people already face barriers to their inclusion and participation in society. The Government should be on their side, breaking down those barriers, not building them even higher. How will the Minister do that? What assessment has his Department made of the impact on disabled people’s access to public transport, particularly that of young disabled people, of his 26% local transport funding cut? Will his Government’s decision to increase rail fares by 3% above inflation for the next three years have a disproportionate impact on disabled people? If so, how will he militate against it? Has he assessed how the loss of ticket-office staff will affect disabled passengers and what are his conclusions?

As the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee goes up in smoke as part of the bonfire of the quangos, how will the Minister ensure that disabled people, including young disabled people, are properly consulted on decisions that can have a profound impact on their lives? As we have heard today, disabled access to public transport is an issue in constituencies across the country. He needs to explain why disabled people are being asked to bear the brunt of his Department’s spending cuts.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): As always, it is a pleasure and honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. May I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), not only for the work that she has done today, but for her career at the Children’s Society and Centrepoint? She has been a stalwart of the disability lobby for many years, and I am sure that she will be here for many years to come.

It was a pleasure listening to the debate. It is a shame that some colleagues have not stayed. There is a problem with this Chamber sometimes; people say their bit and then disappear, which I think is wrong, no matter which side of the House they are from. The debate was going well until the brand new shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), stood up. I welcome her to her post. Perhaps in future

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she will listen to the debate a little bit more, rather than read a prepared speech, which was a party political rant. The issue is not party political, and we had agreed before the debate started that the previous Government had done brilliantly when they were in power. Previous Governments have tried hard. We were left with a difficult economic situation. One of reasons why the previous Government had not done more was that it was difficult and expensive to do so. If we all admitted that, we would get a proper debate in the future.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Wigan. I am not the Minister responsible for the portfolio; I do roads and shipping. The Minister responsible is away on other ministerial business, and in my response I will not be able to answer directly many questions that have been raised by hon. Members today. Each individual will be written to by the Minister responsible and the officials.

Lisa Nandy: I am grateful to the Minister for stepping in at short notice to cover his colleague’s brief. Will he take a request back to his colleague to meet me and a small number of representatives from some of the campaigns that I have mentioned to put to his colleague directly some of our concerns and proposals? I am concerned that the issue could get lost as part of a wider Government agenda.

Mike Penning: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One of the things in the many notes that were being passed back and forth here was that that would take place and that I would put my colleague on the spot, because the hon. Lady asked for a working group. Yes, we will have a working group while other proposals go forward. That is certainly important.

In my constituency—we are all constituency MPs at heart—I have raised such issues to my own station, where the lift is out of operation. The station is managed by London Midland. I have had detailed and quite strong conversations before I became a Minister, and certainly since.

There is often no sense as to why certain things happen. A profoundly deaf and blind constituent of mine had long been campaigning for a suitable bus for a disabled person to stop in my town centre, and it is there and has happened, which is great. However, the stop is next to a river and the railings have been taken down. Probably no one would believe that, but imagine someone who is blind, like my constituent, getting off the bus where the railings have been taken away and there is a river. Although it is not deep, we know what the problems would be. What was the logic of that? Where were the brain cells when that decision was made? Who knows what engineer decided to do that, but, as a constituency MP, I shall find out.

The points that have been raised today cross a spectrum of disabilities. Very often we talk about those who are wheelchair bound. The problem is that there are a plethora of different types of wheelchair. A lovely young man called Jack asked if he could do his work experience with me in the House of Commons—this story relates to what the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said about the state of the Palace and its lack of accessibility. I said yes to the work experience and a risk assessment and an access assessment were carried out. The answer was then no, because they could not

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accommodate the size of Jack’s wheelchair. Well, in the end we did. It was a long-drawn-out route around the Palace, as I was in Norman Shaw at the time, but we did it. So often, we are told why we cannot do something instead of how we can do something.

Jack and one of my closest friends who sustained some of the worst injuries in the London bombings and survived spoke to me about the matter. They said, “Don’t keep wrapping us up in cotton wool. We’ll tell you how we can do things. We’ll tell you how we can get there, rather than you telling us.” That is why working groups and the different lobby groups are so important.

Interestingly, when it comes to access into buildings, I was told that we should ask disabled people how much access they need because we are paying through the nose—Jack’s words not mine—for the works. A whole industry has grown up around access into buildings for disabled people. Actually, the whole matter could be dealt with much more simply and easily.

Why on earth would they want to put the toilets two floors up in Cambridge? I know exactly where the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) is talking about because my daughter is studying at the Anglia Ruskin college in Cambridge and has a Saturday job in the place mentioned. The question that we must ask, as constituency MPs and Ministers, is why. Tell me the reason why that has happened and why we are in that position? As I mentioned earlier, I will pass on any question that I cannot answer this afternoon to my colleague who will then respond in writing.

All front-line rail staff are supposed to be trained, but will it make any difference if they do not have the will, inclination or empathy to help? One thing that we can all do is to say to young people, “Let us be your voice.” That is what we are here for. They do not want to fill in survey forms; they have had enough of that. I say, “Just give us a little whisper and tell us on what train or on what bus a member of staff was rude to you or did not do what they should have done.” It is amazing, colleagues, what a letter or a size 10 boot from an MP can do to energise employers to look at what their staff are doing.

Dr Huppert: When the Minister argues that we should offer to be the voice of some of these people, I assume that he would also support the various parliament-type organisations that enable disabled people to be their own voices and to represent themselves much more strongly.

Mike Penning: Such organisations do a fantastic job, but we need to ensure that there is access to this place. The all-party parliamentary groups, of which my hon. Friend is a member—I was chairman of several all party groups when I was a Back Bencher—are about access. They are not just talking shops. They are there to say that people have the right to come forward.

It is a requirement of rail employers to ensure that their front-line staff have the right sort of training.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for giving way; he has been generous with his time. I am interested in his point about writing letters. If I forward a letter to him from Disability Action in Islington concerning the cancellation of the step-free access programme to the London underground, I am sure that he will be

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straight on the phone to Boris Johnson who will make sure that these programmes are reinstated. Have I got a deal there? Is that okay?

Mike Penning: I will do a deal with the hon. Gentleman. If he writes to me, I will pass on his letter to the Minister responsible who will then be in contact with Boris. I am trying to think of the station that has had the lift installed.

Jeremy Corbyn: Green Park.

Mike Penning: That is right. The lift cost £25 million. One issue that has been raised is the age of our network. I do not know whether that applies to our buses. Actually, the situation in London has dramatically improved because all buses have disabled access now. Although we have more modern trains, our stations and platforms are a massive issue for all constituency MPs.

Jack Dromey: I thank the Minister for his constructive response to the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan for a wider discussion to take place and the establishment of a working group. That is welcome indeed. May I just ask him about the specific issue of the changes being proposed by London Midland? Given that the proposals are now on the Secretary of State’s desk, will he facilitate a meeting with the RNIB, Mencap and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign because it is important that their voices are heard before a final decision is made?

Mike Penning: The point that I was going to get to is the urgency of some issues, including the one that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned. It is the Minister of State who is responsible for that issue. I will put a note on her desk tomorrow asking if that meeting can take place. I am not responsible any further than that, but I will do what I say and anyone who knows me will say that that is the case.

I thank the hon. Member for Wigan, who is relatively new in the House, for giving the Minister a list of the questions that she wants answered; it is ever so helpful. Notes are flying back and forth and I must have 20 notes sitting on my desk here. Clearly, I will not be able to answer all of them in the four minutes that I have left and I am not going to try. I do not wish to have a pop at the hon. Member for Nottingham South. I remember sitting in the same seat as a shadow Health Minister for almost exactly the same amount of time that she has been in the House. It is an honour and a privilege to be in this place whether in government or in opposition. Sometimes it may seem difficult, especially when one thinks of the huge number of civil servants backing the Minister and writing his speeches for him. However, I must say that I have not read the speech that they wrote for me. Well, I read it last night and did not like it. They will get used to me; I am just that way.

Let me stress again that all the points that have been raised are about tone and about people’s rights. I know that we are not allowed to indicate who is in the Public Gallery in Westminster Hall, but we are privileged that people have come here, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, to express their rights and to say, “Why am I getting a bum deal compared with other people?”—I do not know how Hansard will work that one out, but

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there we are. The situation is fundamentally wrong, but it is not easy to resolve. I hate the word “targets” but we have targets for 2020, which the companies will have to meet. In the hon. Member for Wigan’s constituency, there will be a franchise change in 2013. I am conscious of her question, and the Minister responsible will respond to it. I also need to know what rail operator she refers to. Perhaps she can write to me and let me know. We got rid of guards vans in 2004. If that was a comment, it might have been sarcastic, but it was also manifestly incorrect. There are no guards vans to travel in.

The rail companies operate a taxi service—I do not like it because it is a cop-out for them—and the people to whom the hon. Lady referred should have been offered a taxi for the short distance that we are talking about. Instead of one person waiting to be shuttled to their destination, which is an appalling situation to be in, common sense should have prevailed and a taxi should have been ordered to take all four people to their destination. If the hon. Lady can write to me and tell me the name of the company, it would help. People are out there checking up on these companies. It is a huge rail and bus network, but there are people out there checking out what is going on and whether promises, commitments and franchise agreements are being met.

Instead of being typically British and just putting up with things because that is the way we are, we should perhaps be more like the German transport people whom I met earlier today. They would not put up with this because they have a completely different attitude. They expect a service and they tell people in no uncertain terms where they should be. Let us speak up on behalf of our constituents. Constituents need to complain to their MPs and their MPs should tell us. If that happens, perhaps we can have a service for the 21st century that everyone deserves.

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Violence against Women and Girls

4 pm

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Thank you very much, Mr Robertson, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

Although I am delighted to have secured this debate on the prevention of violence against women and girls, I wish that it was unnecessary. However, the facts and figures on gendered violence remain so alarming that it is clear that, as a society, we are still failing to approach the problem with anything like the urgency or seriousness that it deserves. Currently, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner and every year 60,000 women are raped. Sexual harassment in schools, communities and workplaces is routine, and an estimated 6,500 girls in the UK are at risk of female genital mutilation.

According to the British crime survey, in Brighton and Hove—where my Brighton, Pavilion constituency is located—around 25,000 women are likely to experience repeat domestic violence as adults. Last year, 277 women sought housing advice and 102 homeless applications were made—[Interruption.]

John Robertson (in the Chair): Order. Could we have silence at the back, please? Thank you.

Caroline Lucas: As I was saying, 102 homeless applications were made due to domestic violence. Nearly 11,000 women experience physical and emotional violence; more than 2,700 women experience sexual assault; and more than 6,600 women were the focus of stalking. Those are big figures, but behind each number is a real life that has been hugely damaged by this experience. Moreover, 44% of the 264 young people assessed by the youth offending service in Brighton and Hove in 2009 had been abused—that is nearly half—and 42% had experienced domestic violence at home.

I therefore welcome the fact that, in its call to end violence against women and girls, the Home Office has recognised the need for a targeted approach to tackle the ongoing scandal of violence against and abuse of women and girls. The Government’s strategy purports to put prevention at its heart, yet I fear that that objective risks being undermined by a lack of joined-up thinking and the policies of other Government Departments.

Furthermore, as the domestic violence team at Brighton and Hove city council has told me, in the Government’s strategy, there is no allocated funding for prevention of and early intervention for violence against women. All the money is still being allocated to crisis work, with only limited attention being given to addressing the cause of the problem—in other words, perpetrators’ behaviour. In Brighton and Hove, since 2004, the city has been working specifically with perpetrators to address their abuse and I am proud that it was the first programme to be accredited nationally by Respect. The local authority has committed to maintaining the programme, but due to demand it is not able to accommodate all the referrals. It finds it very difficult to turn away people who want to join the programme, because it is so concerned about the risks that people face if help is not available.

That work needs to be properly funded. It should not be made dependent on sympathetic council administrations, or put at risk because of central Government spending

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cuts. Brighton and Hove, whose intelligent commissioning on domestic violence is recognised as good practice, has a local commitment to developing a strategy on violence against women and girls, with work already under way to deliver that strategy. However, not many local areas have the same kind of co-ordinated approach and I want the Government to consider making it an obligation that all local authorities must fulfil.

As well as the historical focus on tackling the aftermath of violence, such as bringing perpetrators to court, we must ensure that preventing violence in the first place is much more of a priority across Government. Let us take, for example, work with young people in schools. The importance of that work is underlined by the findings of an NSPCC study, which revealed that almost half—43%—of teenage girls believe that it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards a female partner. One in two boys and one in three girls believe that there are some circumstances in which it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.

Young people in Britain not only have an alarmingly tolerant attitude to violence against women but many of them are exposed daily to the results of our failure to confront such attitudes head-on. For example, a YouGov poll for the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that a third of girls are subjected to unwanted sexual contact at school, with sexual harassment being routine. In addition, the NSPCC found that 33% of girls between 13 and 17 who are in an intimate partner relationship have experienced some sort of sexual partner violence. Although there has been an increased focus on other forms of bullying, many schools fail to recognise that unwanted sexual contact, sexual harassment and sexual name-calling are also specific forms of abuse that girls suffer routinely.

Girls from ethnic minority backgrounds may face additional risks. The Home Affairs Committee recently reported that schools are failing to respond to girls who are at risk of forced marriage and may even be putting female students in greater danger. We will wait and see whether forcing someone into a marriage becomes an offence in its own right, as the Prime Minister has indicated that it should be. I hope very much that he will introduce legislation on that issue.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): The hon. Lady made an important point about early intervention and prevention, particularly in relation to girls. Does she agree that we must do a lot more in schools and that we must talk to our girls about self-empowerment, self-esteem, gender equality and empowerment? Does she agree that we need to do much more in those areas?

Caroline Lucas: I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, not least because I know that she has a great deal of expertise in this area, and of course I absolutely agree with what she says. It is also interesting that young women themselves tell us that they want things to change. Around 52% of young women who were polled said that ending domestic violence against women and children is the issue that they care most about. That is according to research carried out by Girlguiding UK in conjunction with the Fawcett Society, the British Youth Council and Populus.

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All over the UK, women’s organisations are doing innovative work with these young people, often with only minimal resources. For example, Rise, a charity based in Brighton and Hove, delivers a personal, social, health and economic preventive education programme on healthy relationships to schools across the city. It is also currently working to integrate the Women’s Aid “Expect Respect” programme into work that is currently taking place in primary schools. Rise also delivers “Break for Change”, a groundbreaking group for young people who are aggressive in their relationships. That group is for the young people’s carers, too. The Home Office itself is currently running a campaign called, “This is abuse”, which is aimed at tackling teenage relationship abuse.

However, work to prevent violence against women and girls cannot be left to occasional campaigns or women’s organisations working in partnership with good schools where they can. It must be an absolutely integral part of education and policy that is delivered in every single school.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Department for Education is dragging its feet on this issue. The commitment to teaching sexual consent in personal, social and health education is welcome, but it needs to go much further and include all forms of violence against women, including teenage relationship abuse, forced marriage, FGM and sexual exploitation. It should also be linked to work on gender equality and work that challenges gender stereotypes.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I just wanted to draw on some of the experience that I have gained from the Education Committee. As I understand it, only three hours of teacher training time is dedicated to behaviour and discipline in schools throughout a two or three-year degree course. There is very little hope that we can even start to explore the issues affecting young women who face violence and give them any sort of strategy if the teachers have absolutely no awareness of behaviour and behaviour training. There needs to be a concerted effort from the Minister’s Department to work with the DFE to deal with that problem.

Caroline Lucas: I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I did not know that particular piece of information and it makes me even more alarmed than I was when I first stood up to speak. It shows that this is part of a much bigger issue, which is about ensuring that our teachers are properly equipped to pass on that vital training.

It is interesting that Education Ministers have signalled that they want these issues to remain outside the statutory curriculum, running the risk that many young women and men will never be exposed to education designed to reduce gendered violence. Cuts to specialist local-level posts, such as domestic violence co-ordinators and teenage pregnancy co-ordinators, risk exacerbating the problem even further.

In its report, “A Different World is Possible”, the End Violence Against Women Coalition recommends a “whole school approach”, with heads taking a lead, teachers been trained on the issues and all students receiving comprehensive sex and relationships education on consent, equality and respect. That is already a top priority in Brighton and Hove—it builds on work by a number of the agencies that I mentioned earlier. The local authority’s strategy states:

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“Evidence shows that to be effective in domestic violence prevention work, addressing the issue in PSHE and SRE lessons or in assemblies has limited impact and value, if the messages promoted are not supported by other initiatives and the broader ethos of the school.”

I therefore ask the Minister to call on her colleagues at the Department for Education to clearly identify one single Education Minister to lead on preventing violence against women and girls. I also ask her to tell us what contribution she has made to the Department for Education’s internal review on PSHE, and whether she has argued the case for sexual consent and all forms of violence against women to be a compulsory part of the curriculum.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister hosted a summit on tackling the commercialisation and sexualisation of children and announced a range of policies, many of which I warmly welcome. However, amid the messages about consumer and parent power, there was an element missing: empowering young people themselves to be media literate and to cope with the bombardment of often inappropriate images. Although I recognise that the measures announced will go some way towards cutting down on the images that young people are exposed to—outside schools, for example—we can safely say that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Like any parent, I absolutely understand the desire to protect our children, and one of the best ways of doing so is through specific education that allows young people to be more in control of their sexualisation, rather than being dictated to by the media or by advertising. There is no plan as yet, however, specifically to address that in schools.

Earlier, I noted that central Government cuts might undermine efforts being made to tackle violence against women and girls, and I am particularly concerned about cuts to legal aid. Informing women of their legal rights and giving them access to legal representation is one way of empowering them and of trying to protect them against violence. It can give them the information they need to stand up to their abuser. There are serious risk implications, therefore, for women who cannot access legal aid. By reducing women’s ability to access legal aid, the Ministry of Justice risks damaging work at the Home Office on preventing violence against women and girls, and I would love to know whether the Minister shares my concerns about that.

I also wonder whether the Minister is dismayed by the Home Secretary’s proposal to change the eligibility requirements under paragraph 289A—the domestic violence rule—of the immigration rules. That would mean that all applicants under the domestic rule must be free of unspent criminal convictions. That actively undermines the Government’s commitment to eliminate violence against women. Will the Minister contribute to the UK Border Agency consultation, and remind the Home Secretary about the coalition Government’s obligations and commitment to protect all women from domestic violence?

The Equality Trust points out that 24% of women in Britain are worried about rape and that all kinds of violence are more common in more unequal societies. It stands to reason that preventing violence against women and girls is closely linked to tackling inequality and

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other social injustices. As just one example of what happens if we fail to do that, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, tells me that more than a third of girls in the youth justice system have experienced abuse and a quarter have witnessed violence at home. Of the more than 4,000 women currently serving a prison sentence, more than half report having suffered domestic violence and one in three have experienced sexual abuse. For the vast majority of those very vulnerable women, prison is not the answer, and that is why both I and the Howard League for Penal Reform support community solutions for non-violent women offenders. I am keen, therefore, to see the Government’s target interventions to ensure the prevention of violence against women and girls address intersections of gender with other social inequalities.

I stress that the Government’s work on preventing violence against women and girls needs to encompass an international perspective. Here, too, we see evidence of a lack of leadership and concerns about co-ordination. There are now a number of very welcome Government strategies that reference international violence against women and girls, so oversight of all the different processes is vital and, for maximum impact, the different strategies and policies across Government should be coherent and mutually reinforcing.

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Is it not important to bring the international communities into this—the women and girls of different nationalities with different cultural backgrounds? The Prime Minister will be attending a conference in a couple of weeks’ time at which he should raise that point, so that we can get the international communities behind us.

Caroline Lucas: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s important intervention.

At the highest level, a member of the National Security Council should have explicit responsibility for women, peace and security, to ensure that gender perspectives are taken into account in all discussions. Despite some references in the “Building Stability Overseas Strategy” document and in the UK national action plan for the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, violence against women and girls is still not fully recognised as either a foreign policy priority or a security matter. It is not recognised as both a cause and a consequence of conflict. When violent conflict occurs, violence against women and girls is not seen as a priority matter.

The UK Government must take a leadership role internationally, to ensure that preventing violence against women and girls stays on the international agenda. Globally, about one in three women or girls have been beaten or sexually abused in their lifetime, and 75% of the civilians killed in war are women and children, so I am keen to hear from the Minister what has been achieved, or what has changed in our approach to violence against women as a foreign policy issue, since she was appointed to the role of overseas champion about a year ago.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and on her excellent and comprehensive speech. I agree that the international effort that we must

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be part of, and lead, is important, but it is vital that we lead by example. Yesterday in the Chamber, concern was expressed about the woefully low level of prosecutions for human trafficking, which affects many women and young girls, and about our country’s reluctance to take the lead on issuing a guardianship programme that would help us to secure those prosecutions. Does she have any thoughts about that?

Caroline Lucas: The hon. Member is absolutely right to point to the guardianship programme as a concrete measure that we could take to show exactly that kind of international leadership. That would make a huge difference to some of the most vulnerable people coming into our communities. I very much support the proposal, and the work that she has been doing on it.

I was talking about the Minister’s role as the overseas champion, and I wonder if she can tell us what her priorities for that role will be over the coming year. Can she confirm whether she has a budget with which to carry out her responsibilities?

I am mindful that I have asked the Minister a number of questions, so I will wind up now. Making our schools safer for girls, enabling young men to challenge their peers, changing attitudes that blame women for violence and ensuring that the equalities team’s work is underscored by the policies of other Departments are all things that would make a genuine difference to the lives of women and girls here in Britain and around the world. The old adage that prevention is better than cure may well be familiar, but in this case it rings particularly true.

4.18 pm

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this debate. The matter is a most important and serious one, both in this country and internationally, and I want to assure the hon. Lady that despite the very difficult times we are in, the Government are absolutely committed to nothing less than ending all forms of violence against women and girls. I, too, wish that it was not necessary to have such debates, but the statistics in this country are truly terrible, and across the world they are far worse. The issue is sometimes hidden, so there is a fear and a danger that it will be marginalised when priorities compete. However, as the first page of the action plan says,

“VAWG services should not be the easy cut”

for local councils.

I do not know how much more loud or clear we in central Government could have made our message. Even in this climate, we are ring-fencing £28 million for VAWG services and £10 million from the Ministry of Justice for rape crisis support centres. We are funding independent domestic violence adviser posts, including one in the hon. Lady’s home patch in Brighton and Hove. We are also funding Rise. Where we can provide funding, we are, although circumstances are difficult. We have done so expressly to send the message that violence against women is a priority and should not be vulnerable to cuts from local authorities, although we know that that is happening. Local areas are best placed to make local decisions, but we have tried and are trying to say to councils—I hope that they read today’s Hansard—“Do not cut these vital services.”

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Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con) rose—

Tessa Munt rose—

Mr Virendra Sharma rose—

Lynne Featherstone: I will give way to the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl McCartney) and the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), but briefly, because I want to answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion.

Karl McCartney: I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion on securing this debate and on how she delivered her speech. Is the Minister aware that of every three victims of partner abuse, two are female and one male? Is she concerned that successive Governments have placed all domestic abuse policy under an overarching violence against women and girls strategy? It means that men suffering domestic or sexual abuse are second-class victims. Effectively, it is an example of institutional sexism. Does she believe that domestic abuse must be—

John Robertson (in the Chair): Order. Generally, one question at a time.

Lynne Featherstone: I assure the hon. Gentleman that men are part of our strategy and funding. I will take a quick intervention from the hon. Member for Wells, but I want to answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion.

Tessa Munt: The problem is particularly acute in rural areas where there are serious stresses. I am in contact with the Farm Crisis Network, which is aware that people in isolated situations also face domestic violence, and there is practically no possibility that they can get to a rape crisis centre, which might be 25 miles away. Does the Minister have any thoughts on that?

Lynne Featherstone: I thank the hon. Lady for making that point.

I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion that prevention, which is one of the four key planks of our strategy, is extremely important. I assure her that my Department and I will bring as much pressure to bear as possible in discussions for the Department for Education to get a shift on with its consultation on personal, social and health education, which just finished and will be published in November. We regard it as vital, although we do not necessarily regard it as vital that it be statutory. We await the results of the consultation. I agree that young people’s attitudes and behaviour are vital, and that teachers need training in order to intervene successfully.

Mr Virendra Sharma rose—

Lynne Featherstone: I am not taking any more interventions.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion mentioned the teenage relationship abuse campaign. It is one area on which we are spending money. The NSPCC research that she discussed is shocking. The abuse that teenagers seem to accept as normal—they think that it is okay to be treated like that—is the most frightening aspect. I do

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not know whether she has seen the films from the abuse campaign, but they are incredibly powerful and successful. The site has received more than 75,000 visits. It is not just about the film and the campaign; the purpose is to signpost young people towards help.

Mr Sharma: Will the Minister give way?

Lynne Featherstone: I will not. I am keen to answer the hon. Lady’s points, as it is her debate.

The hon. Lady asked me about my role of international champion in tackling violence against women and girls. The other half of that is policy coherence across Whitehall; it is in the job title. I assure her that when I came into the post in December, the first thing that I did was engage across Whitehall. Clearly, I will not be effective on my own in tackling worldwide violence against women and girls, unless I find a multiplier for the work that I am doing. I have done so, and have developed numerous messages on women and on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Travelling Ministers have agreed to take those messages to international meetings and raise them wherever they go. The issue at the moment is finding out who is going where and when, but it is an important step. I reassure the hon. Lady that I have nothing but support from the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development. They are absolutely committed to the human rights agenda, and I argue that equal rights are human rights.

Caroline Lucas: While we are on the role of the overseas champion, will the Minister clarify whether she has a budget for any part of that work?

Lynne Featherstone: I do, and a little bit of help, although not as much as I would like. I have been to India and Nepal. I am working at three levels on such trips. I cannot go gallivanting across the world; I have a limited budget, and it is a matter of where I can get maximum traction on the issue. For example, in India, I met with the India Women’s Press Corps, which carried messages about gender-based violence across India and into every publication. I am trying to maximise bang for buck. I am meeting at the ministerial and permanent secretary level as well as in civil society. I am also visiting projects involving women in rural villages. I am going to Brussels on Tuesday to carry some of those issues forward, including LGBT issues. My eyes are on

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Afghanistan at the moment, as well as on the Arab spring, which I want to be a feminist summer, as I am sure the hon. Lady does.

The hon. Lady asked about immigration changes. No one with a minor conviction has been or will ever be denied their stay in this country, but neither do the Government think that it is right for different rules to apply if there is a conviction. On legal aid, we are keeping legal aid for victims in private family law cases where domestic violence is a feature, and we have not sought to change the accepted definition of domestic violence. We are including all forms of domestic violence, physical and mental, in legal aid criteria.

The hon. Lady mentioned forced marriage, which has been in the news recently. The Prime Minister has made it a priority, and we will consult on whether it should become a criminal offence in its own right. I am keen that we take evidence, for example from the women involved in the 257 forced marriage protection orders taken out under civil orders. We should ask those women whether they would have come forward had forced marriage been a criminal offence. In my view, the only reason not to make it an offence is that doing so might prohibit people from coming forward, which would undermine the benefits of sending a message that it is serious enough to be criminal.

I cite the issue of female genital mutilation, which is a criminal offence. The Opposition ask me every time we have oral questions whether there have been any prosecutions. There have not, either under the Labour Government or during the year and a half that we have been in government, because it is difficult to get evidence and make people come forward. I am keen that whatever we do should promote the best result in dealing with forced marriage. We know that there is great pressure, and the law may well change. The Prime Minister has announced that we will criminalise breaches of civil orders in the interim while we consult on the matter. However, I am not keen on messages; I am keen on getting it right. That is more important.

We as a Government have moved forward proactively. We have introduced domestic homicide reviews and pilots on domestic violence protection orders. If they prove successful, we will roll them out. We have extended the Sojourner project and will find a long-term solution. We are fast-tracking asylum applications for those in refuges who, due to their asylum status, have no recourse to public funds. I hope that hon. Members agree that we are on the right path to making society a better and safer place where women and girls do not have to live in fear of violence or lack support when they need it. These are tough times, but we are doing our very best.

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Commonwealth Partners (Resources and Co-operation)

4.30 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. The subject of this debate is sharing resources and co-operation with Commonwealth partners, which I feel passionate about. I do not think that, in recent years, this country has necessarily put the sort of emphasis that we should have on our relationship with our Commonwealth partners, so I would like a response from the Minister.

It is important to recognise what the Commonwealth is and the important role that it plays around the world, especially in our own country. It is made up of 54 sovereign nations and contains 31% of the global population—about 2 billion people—more than half of whom are 25 or under, so the Commonwealth and its population really are the future. It contains the world’s largest, smallest, richest and poorest countries, and its members span six continents and oceans, from Africa, Asia, the Americas and, of course, Europe. There are 44 Commonwealth countries in the G77, which will be an increasingly important body, and five in the G20—Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Nineteen of the 39 African Union members are from the Commonwealth. Similarly, 10 nations in the Pacific Islands Forum are Commonwealth nations. Indeed, even two countries in the European Union—Malta and ourselves—are members of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is also a massive trade body, with $3 trillion of trade taking place within it each year. We hear a lot about our trading relationship within Europe, but considering the fact that the Commonwealth includes economies such as India’s, it is clear that the possibilities for trade growth within the Commonwealth are massive.

Commonwealth countries comprise a third of the destinations for our exports. When both trading partners are Commonwealth members, the value of trade is likely to be a third to half more than when one or both are non-Commonwealth. Indeed, five of the top 10 countries in which to do business are Commonwealth countries. As a body, the Commonwealth might be rooted in history, but its best potential lies in the future.

Don McKinnon, a former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, has said:

“One of the standard misconceptions about the Commonwealth is that it is merely a ‘relic of the Empire’... The truth is that the Commonwealth is a unique organization, which provides an international forum where each member country can have its voice heard and increase its weight in world affairs. It is a family of nations, whose members share not only a common identity, but common values and a common sense of purpose.”

I would argue that it also shares a common future.

The Commonwealth has shifting focuses—from foreign affairs, particularly the promotion of democracy and human rights, to science and technology, and the role of women, which has been its focus this year—and it plays a vital role in education. I know from my former profession as a teacher that Commonwealth teachers and students are involved in strong education programmes and links. It is to be regretted, however, that Commonwealth citizens who come to this country are forced to pay fees to study in UK universities that European Union citizens do not.

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We get all that from the Commonwealth for just 20p per citizen a year, as opposed to the £54 a year it costs us to be a member of the European Union. I promise to move on from the EU, but there has been a perception in recent years—this was certainly the perception in many of our Commonwealth partner nations—that when we joined the EU, we in some ways turned our back on the Commonwealth. I pay tribute to the Government, particularly the Foreign Secretary, who in recent months has made it clear that the Commonwealth is very much a part, and an increasingly important one, of our foreign policy as we progress. That should not be viewed as an EU-versus-Commonwealth argument, but it is clear that, when we entered the EU, there was a perception that in some way we left behind the Commonwealth. I have my own view on the EU, but we need not get into that today.

The Commonwealth has a huge role to play in aid and development overseas. Although that is not strictly part of the Minister’s portfolio, it is important that we refresh ourselves with some of the relevant statistics. India provides about £7 million a year to 19 African members. Indeed, Australia has recently increased its commitment to Commonwealth countries in Africa, which is something to which the UK Government are also committed.

I mentioned trade briefly in my introductory remarks. The Commonwealth is an incredibly important player in trade internationally. It is important that we as a Government demonstrate that, while our trading relationship with the EU is important, there are huge opportunities available to us in the Commonwealth, which is, in itself, collectively responsible for more than 20% of world trade, about 20% of investment, and approximately 20% of the world’s gross domestic product. Between them, Commonwealth nations imported some $2.3 trillion-worth of goods and exported $2.1 trillion-worth in 2008 alone. We should promote intra-Commonwealth trade and ensure that the Commonwealth plays a key role in new international markets, particularly considering the emergence of economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America. India will be an economic and democratic powerhouse. It is in the Commonwealth, so we have links and relationships, and could be making so much more of them.

Turning to the Minister’s responsibilities, the greatest potential for growth might lie in foreign policy and the Commonwealth’s soft power. I hope to hear from him what the UK’s vision is for the Commonwealth and any common foreign policy aims. I suppose that the advantage of a common foreign policy agenda in the Commonwealth is that that does not come through diktat, as might be true of other organisations. It is about coming together and sharing broad aims and principles, and working towards them. Moreover, there is no infringement on any nation’s sovereignty.

I and many others have said that the Commonwealth embodies the diversity of race, ethnicity, religion, political institutions and liberalism that characterises the reality of globalisation. Opportunities are available. By working together, we could have a major impact on international affairs and developmental issues in particular, which is something to which the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting reaffirmed its commitment.

I want to press the Minister on the Government’s vision for the future of the Commonwealth. I have mentioned sharing resources. Discussions have taken

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place between other Commonwealth countries—perhaps we have been involved in some of them—about this country’s massive network of overseas missions and foreign embassies. The UK alone has, I think, more than 300 foreign missions. Canada, which is a country with which I am acquainted, has more than 260. That massive international Commonwealth network offers us huge potential, particularly at a time of fiscal restraint, when we are making tough decisions about our overseas missions. In this country, we do not necessarily always get the sense of the importance of the Commonwealth that we get when we visit other Commonwealth countries. A Canadian passport states, as clear as day, that if the passport holder needs help overseas they should head to a Canadian embassy or, if none exists, to a British embassy. There is the potential for us to share some of our resources for foreign missions with like-minded nations that are also making tough fiscal decisions.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend and near geographical neighbour on the subject of his debate. He has touched on a few Commonwealth issues that have chimed with me. For example, he just mentioned passports. Through my role with the Sir Keith Park memorial campaign, I am aware that many people from New Zealand, South Africa and other countries that are part of the Commonwealth and that helped us during the second world war—such countries feel an affinity to our nation—think that the changes made to visa rules in recent years under the previous Labour Government have not treated them very well. Obviously, I hope he agrees that it is time to put back what they have given us over the years and to treat them in the way that fellow Commonwealth members should be treated.

Andrew Percy: I thank my hon. Friend and next-door-but-one or two neighbour—anyway, he is a fellow Lincolnshire Member—for that intervention.

When I return to the United Kingdom, I am offended that people are pushed along through the European Union channel. Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Germans and French people are able to walk through those channels, but our own brethren from Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries are made to feel very much like foreigners. Of course, Commonwealth citizens are not foreigners when they come to this country, nor are we foreigners when we visit Commonwealth countries. That is not something I was going to raise with the Minister, but it is a good point that I hope will be heard by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and as my hon. Friend says, it is about time that we treated those fellow Commonwealth citizens with dignity and respect. We should at least put them on an equal footing with other citizens.

Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. We have mentioned the point about passport control. Is it not also right that, with the Queen’s forthcoming diamond jubilee, this is the perfect opportunity for us to reassert our relationship with Commonwealth countries, particularly in terms of economic resources and co-operation?

Andrew Percy: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The diamond jubilee next year is an absolutely fantastic opportunity for us to show that.

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The Commonwealth is rooted in history, but it is also about the future. Let us consider the statistics on the percentage of the world’s population, particularly young people, and on international trade, investment and where those emerging markets are. Let us park what is happening in the eurozone and the collapse of European economies and look to where the future is. The future is in those markets and in those regions of the world where the Commonwealth has links, both historical and actual, that no other organisation or international body has, with the possible exception of the United Nations, although that is variable. There is a chance for the Government to restate their absolute commitment to the Commonwealth.

In the two or three minutes remaining, I shall put my questions to the Minister. I apologise for not being able to send him my questions in advance, but I ended up putting this information together at a late stage because of various clashes. What is the Government’s vision for the Commonwealth? What progress has been made on the Foreign Secretary’s 2010 statement that the FCO would

“lead a co-ordinated cross Whitehall approach to help the Commonwealth achieve its potential and which underlines the United Kingdom’s commitment to this unique global organisation”?

I would like to get a sense from the Government of what areas of policy co-operation they feel could best help to promote the values of the Commonwealth and those elements of economic development and trade that are so important. Given the fiscal pressures on the United Kingdom and other countries, has the FCO yet considered sharing foreign missions and other resources internationally with our Commonwealth partners? The research paper “UK Defence and Security Policy: A New Approach?”, published in January, contains the following Government quote:

“We want to strengthen the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting democratic values and development”.

We would all agree with that and I hope to hear the Minister’s view on achieving it.

As my hon. Friends said in their interventions, there is the potential for the Commonwealth to move forward and be one of the most important bodies internationally during the next few decades, particularly given the development taking place there. While bearing in mind the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe, its transatlantic relationships and so on, we need to ensure that at the heart of policy making is a commitment to working to improve and further develop Commonwealth relationships. The previous Government did not seem to pay much attention to the Commonwealth—the fact that no Opposition Members are here perhaps suggests that that is still the case—but this Government think differently. I hope that the Minister will take on board some of my points. I look forward to his response.

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) on securing the opportunity to discuss this issue and pay tribute to him for his excellent speech. I will do my best to answer the questions that he posed. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Jessica Lee) and for Lincoln (Karl McCartney)

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for their interventions. The debate has shown that there is a great deal of support and interest in the Commonwealth in Parliament.

It is important to note that enduring historical links form the basis of the strong bonds that join Commonwealth countries together and that, even though those historical links have roots in the 19th century, they form one of the platforms that is most suited to the world of the 21st century. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole pointed out, the UK has upgraded its relationship with the Commonwealth substantially. Under this Government, we now have a Minister for the Commonwealth, who has firmly put the “C” back into the FCO. I thank my hon. Friend for the praise that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary; he feels equally strongly about the matter.

We are working with member states to help the organisation to realise its full potential to become a stronger force for promoting democratic values, development and prosperity, and trade. Before I comment on the specific issues raised, let me put the Government’s relations with the Commonwealth into context. We look to the Commonwealth as a key multilateral organisation, a ready-made network and an ideal platform for future co-operation in a rapidly changing global landscape. As the Prime Minister has said, Britain’s active membership of the Commonwealth is at the heart of our foreign policy. It is in the UK’s interests to be part of a strengthened Commonwealth, as it has a membership that includes many of the fastest growing and most technologically advanced economies in the world.

The Commonwealth already contributes significantly to international affairs, brokering agreements between African neighbours and calming tensions in fragile states during contested elections. It also provides a forum for smaller nations who may feel that their voices are lost in larger multilateral structures. I particularly point out the Commonwealth’s role in providing election monitors. So far this year, it has done so in Nigeria, Zambia and, indeed, will do so in the forthcoming elections in Cameroon. Commonwealth observers have been very much part of different observer and monitoring teams in those countries. They are respected and are acceptable to host countries. The Commonwealth is made up not just of the Governments of its member states, but of a multitude of non-governmental and civil society organisations and networks, which contribute, as the secretary-general of the organisation said,

“to the great global good”.

Turning to the issues discussed today, we enjoy a long history of mutual support among Commonwealth countries. On the consular side, which my hon. Friend mentioned, during the Libya crisis, in the space of a few days, the UK evacuated more than 800 UK nationals and more than 1,000 other nationals from more than 50 countries, many of which were Commonwealth countries.

During normal times, Commonwealth nationals in difficulty in non-Commonwealth countries where they do not have any diplomatic or consular representation of their own may turn to any other Commonwealth embassy for consular assistance. So where a Commonwealth national does not have representation in a non-Commonwealth country, our embassies may provide first response assistance. Once British consular staff have provided initial assistance by contacting someone

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who is detained or hospitalised, they will look to hand over responsibility to the individual’s nearest embassy to provide support. With some countries, notably Australia, those informal arrangements bring significant benefits to British nationals, particularly in the Pacific region where Australia’s diplomatic network is extensive.

When a country has been suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth, we may still be able to provide consular assistance to its citizens. That is particularly so if the suspension was not aimed at ordinary citizens of the country. I refer particularly to Zimbabwe, which left the Commonwealth before it was suspended, where our dispute was not with the country’s citizens, but with the people running the country.

Let me make it clear that the UK can take no responsibility for other Commonwealth citizens in Commonwealth countries. In those circumstances, unrepresented Commonwealth citizens can turn to the host Commonwealth Government for assistance. We would expect the Commonwealth country concerned to make other arrangements if the host Government do not accept their responsibility towards unrepresented Commonwealth nationals.

On visas, under an unwritten convention agreed at a previous Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, UK visa issuing posts in non-Commonwealth countries issue visas on behalf of Commonwealth countries. That is obviously good news. The convention does not apply where a Commonwealth country either has a visa issuing mission established in that country, or has special arrangements. Commonwealth partners for whom the UK issues visas vary from post to post and that reflects demand. For example, India is one of the biggest beneficiaries of that service, with more than 100 UK posts issuing visas on its behalf.

I take on board what my hon. Friend said about immigration controls and ports of entry. In some ways, it irks all of us that we do not even have a UK channel coming into our own country; it is an EU channel. People have asked me whether it would be better to have a channel for citizens of countries where the Queen is head of state, which would include the overseas territories, the realms and a number of Commonwealth countries. That is not just in the hands of the Foreign Office, but my hon. Friend has made his point, and we will take it on board and look at it.

Our embassies and our representation abroad are very important. I will just correct my hon. Friend on one point. We have 192 missions around the world. I wish we did have the number that he gave. The Government have extended the network—in fact, we have opened new embassies; the previous Government closed embassies—in Africa in particular. We are reopening our embassy in Madagascar. We are reopening our embassy in Abidjan. We will reopen our embassy in Somalia as soon as the security situation allows, and we have opened a new embassy in Juba, in South Sudan, a country that has applied for membership of the Commonwealth. We are reinforcing a number of our missions in African countries that are Commonwealth countries. I am sure that my hon. Friend approves of that.

In seeking to manage the Foreign and Commonwealth Office overseas estate and to deliver the best possible value for money, the Government always consider whether there is a sound business case for co-location. That

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might be as part of a drive towards closer working relations between the FCO and other Government Departments that are represented overseas—for example, operating from the same platform and sharing common services. We already look at co-locating with other countries’ representations, including those from various Commonwealth countries. In every case, our approach is the same: to ensure that we achieve the best possible combination of operational capability, value for money, and the safety and security of those working for the British Government overseas.

I assure my hon. Friend that very often we look to Commonwealth countries to form such a partnership. We are building partnerships with our Commonwealth partners on this issue where it makes sense for us to do so. For example, our high commission in Bamako is co-located with the Canadian representation, and we also sub-let space to the Canadians in Baghdad. We allow New Zealand to share our embassy facilities in Kabul. We are actively exploring other opportunities that may make a sound business case and offer value for money for Her Majesty’s Government.

The UK also shares embassy facilities with non-Commonwealth partners where it meets our requirements. Some of these partnerships include co-locating embassies with other countries. For example, when I was in Tanzania, I went to Dar es Salaam, where our high commission sub-lets space to the Dutch and the Germans. That makes sense, and there is absolutely no reason at all, where we build a new high commission or new embassy, not to sub-let space to our Commonwealth friends. In fact, I can think of one African country where we are looking at a new build and are actively discussing that option with a number of our key Commonwealth partners. I assure my hon. Friend that we are very much on the case.

I would like to say something about the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and hope that this part of the speech will also answer some of the questions posed by my hon. Friend. I would like to conclude by informing the House of the UK’s aims for the CHOGM in Perth later this month. At this meeting, Heads will have a chance to consider the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group, to examine the findings of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group review, and to discuss some of the complex global challenges that we all face. I pay tribute to the work done by the EPG. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) serves on that group in a very distinguished capacity. The group’s report is excellent and I commend it to my hon. Friend.

The EPG’s recommendations, and those set out in the CMAG review, answer some of the points that my hon. Friend mentioned with regard to his vision of a common Commonwealth foreign policy. I do not think that we will go quite as far as he would like to go, but there are a number of suggestions in those two reports that would certainly please him and which we can regard as very positive. The EPG report also contains important recommendations on modernisation and we strongly support that part of its work. Its emphasis on democracy, development and good governance in the Commonwealth will help to strengthen the organisation and focus its work on those core values, particularly

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where it can really make a difference. It offers an important opportunity to shape the future role of the Commonwealth, a role that will have more impact on our networked world.

We want a strengthened Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group that protects our values, but also offers encouragement to those facing challenges to democratic development. The Commonwealth is ideally placed to tackle the global issues facing us today, not least in the current economic downturn. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the membership includes many of the great markets of today and tomorrow. The middle class in the Commonwealth has expanded by nearly 1 billion in the past 20 years, and over $3 trillion worth of trade happens every year in the Commonwealth. Its importance in the world trading community is huge; it is vital to the recovery that western economies are going to make, largely through an export-led drive. We want the Commonwealth to lift the prosperity of all its members through increased free and fair trade. More democracy means greater confidence in investment conditions and in creating the environment for business to flourish, leading to more jobs and greater prosperity.

As I said in my speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society last month, the Commonwealth can also play a helpful role in tackling climate change. The diversity of our economies means that we hold a wide pool of solutions, from governance structures to policies. A united position on climate change at CHOGM would send a strong signal to the international community ahead of the UN climate conference in Durban in November.

On the drive to secure a binding world deal on climate change, most of the countries at the ambitious end of the spectrum are Commonwealth countries. COP 17 in Durban is the African Conference of the Parties. I have been impressed by the extent to which a number of key Commonwealth partners have really engaged with this agenda, not just looking to support the UK’s ambitions for a binding global treaty, but looking at some other areas of crucial importance such as mitigation and adaptation, the forestry agenda and the crucial boost we need to give to renewable technology and renewable transmission. As we push hard the agenda of low carbon and high growth, that has a resonance in a lot of Commonwealth countries. They see that they can bypass the stage from early development, miss out on some of the polluting, high-emitting technologies that we have in the west and go straight to the more environmentally friendly green technologies, not just for their power solutions but for many of their other requirements. That is an exciting agenda and we have the support of those countries.

In conclusion, the UK Government are committed to reinvigorating the Commonwealth. We want to strengthen it as a focus for development, democracy and prosperity. My hon. Friend said that he was going to put the “C” back into the FCO. This is work in progress, but we are absolutely determined to keep up the pressure. I am grateful to him, because it is knowledge and expertise from parliamentarians such as him that will help us with that agenda.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.