According to the OECD, the UK is now placed 28th out of 34 in its inequality league, as measured by the Gini coefficient. Of course that is not the only way in which to measure inequality, and some commentators

11 Feb 2014 : Column 811

who use a wider range of measures consider the UK’s inequalities to be even more stark. For example, Professor Dorling of Oxford university considers the UK to be the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, despite being one of the wealthiest. Those of us who aspire to live in a fairer, more equitable society will have been shocked by the research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in December, to which reference has been made. It showed not just that 13 million people in the UK are living in poverty, but, for the first time, that more than half of those people live in working families.

We used to hear the mantra that work is the route out of poverty. For people who are able to secure better-paid, full-time jobs that is undoubtedly true, but the reality of modern Britain is that now most poor people are working, but that work no longer guarantees a life above the breadline. About 5 million people in the UK are paid below what would be considered a living wage, and millions of working people find they have to depend on the benefits system to top up their income to adequate levels. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) made the point that the report published yesterday by the Living Wage Commission showed that 21% of the work force are being paid below a living wage, which is a 9% increase in the past 12 months. People cannot get out of low-paid work. One of the most important points in the report, which echoes comments made by the hon. Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), was that once people are in a low-paid job, it is extremely difficult for them to get out of it. Only 18% of those people manage to get out of minimum wage work in the course of their working lives; a decade later those people are still stuck in those jobs. So work is a route out of poverty only for those people who have well-paid jobs.

A number of hon. Members, the first being the Minister, mentioned food banks. We have seen a huge increase in their use over the past two years, which is a shocking development in a wealthy country. We know that that increase has been driven by changes to the benefits system, particularly by delays in benefits payments and the increased use of sanctions. It has also been driven by the rising cost of living. One thing that has shocked me most in my constituency is the number of working people who are now dependent on food aid parcels. Half a million people in the UK now depend on food aid, and instead of squabbling about whose fault it is and whose Government the levels rose most under, we should be trying to tackle the problem and ensure that people have enough to eat.

Ours is a mature democracy with a well-developed welfare state, but the tax and benefits system remains the main lever through which Governments mitigate poverty and inequality. The recent reforms of the past couple of years have been overwhelmingly regressive and have exacerbated hardship. The promise from the Chancellor in recent weeks that £60 billion of further cuts are on the way shows that there will be no respite for disadvantaged people in modern Britain. Of all the regressive measures we have seen in the past few years, perhaps the changes to housing benefit best illustrate both the willingness of the Government to squeeze the

11 Feb 2014 : Column 812

incomes of the poorest households and the London-centric drivers of policy making. The under-occupancy penalty, or the bedroom tax as it is better known, is punishing disadvantaged people in our society who live in social housing and need help with their rent. It is squeezing the incomes of those who are already most hard pressed financially and driving the most extreme forms of inequality. In Scotland, around 80% of those affected by the bedroom tax are also affected by disability, which highlights that link between poverty and disability. Disabled people are still disadvantaged in the workplace and often find it hard to make ends meet. The proportion of disabled people in the UK as a whole is slightly smaller than it is in Scotland, but it still represents two-thirds of the households affected by the bedroom tax.

We also have a structural mismatch between the available housing stock and the needs of tenants. Some 23% of the housing stock is one-bedroom accommodation, yet 60% of tenants need a one-bedroom house. Even if it was in anyone’s interest to play musical chairs with housing allocations, there are simply not enough one-bedroom homes to go round. Provision of one-bedroom lets in the private sector also falls well short of demand and, in any case, costs the public purse considerably more than renting from social landlords. As well as pushing low-income households into debt, the policy is costing more than it saves, and the Government’s persistence in pursuing the policy is foolhardy in the extreme.

I know that the Scottish Government have already made extensive efforts to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax by increasing the budget for discretionary housing payments to the legal limit. In answer to the strange and bizarre interventions by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), there are legal constraints on how much the Scottish Government can top up those payments.

Pamela Nash rose

Dr Whiteford: No, I will not waste time taking an intervention from the hon. Lady. Her earlier intervention was really quite unbecoming. There has been cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament—not just from the Labour party and the SNP but from the Liberal Democrats who are represented on the Government Benches—to increase the discretionary housing payments budget to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax. I therefore ask the Secretary of State, who is in his place, to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the matter so that when the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is in London on Thursday, she can meet the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to progress the issue further.

Transfers made to low-income households are the major tool through which our tax and benefits system compensates for the low-wage culture and, in a small way, mitigate the inequalities created by the structure of our labour market. Over the past two years, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) highlighted, changes to tax credits have created significant reductions in the incomes of families in low-paid work. Although some very low earners have been lifted out of tax, the gains have been more than cancelled out by cuts to tax credits and the freeze in the uprating of other benefits, which have fallen in real-terms value. That point was also made at length by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams).

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The Government’s own distributional analysis of their tax and benefit changes shows that the lower half of the income spectrum has paid the greatest price of austerity, while tax cuts at the very top end have allowed the gap to grow between the haves and the have-nots.

A number of Members have drawn our attention to the fact that women make up a disproportionate share of the low-paid work force. In an early intervention, the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) made the point that the Government have made tax adjustments of £14 billion, £11 billion of which have fallen on women. It is unfortunate that he was not able to stay to make a longer contribution, as I am sure that it would have been worth while.

Women are more likely to be in low-paid, part-time work. They are more likely to be working in insecure, temporary jobs, or on zero-hours contracts, and more likely to be working in jobs for which they are overqualified. More than 40 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970, women are still paid 12% less than men. When we look at who is poor in the UK, we find that women, especially women with children, are over-represented. When we look at who has been impacted most by the UK’s benefit reforms, we see women once again in the front line. That is largely because women take on the greater share of responsibility for child care and for looking after elderly relatives. Child benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit are all paid to the main carer of children, and when the changes were introduced, 83% of in-work families receiving those benefits had a woman payee.

The second half of the 20th century saw women enter the labour market in ever-greater numbers, to some extent masking the ever-widening gulf in wages by increasing overall household incomes. None the less, women are losing out heavily and as a society we lose out because women are not reaching their full potential. According to a recent report by the Resolution Foundation, two thirds of mothers find the cost of child care a barrier to working more. The UK labour market has some of the lowest participation rates by mothers of any OECD country. Some women make a choice not to work when their children are small and choose to take a break in their working life. Many, particularly those with more than one child, want to work part time, but most women find that their choices are financially constrained. There is clear evidence that many women who want to work full time or work more hours face barriers because they cannot afford child care. They cannot get work in the hours for which they are available, or they cannot get the kind of work for which they are qualified. We all know families in which a second earner has given up work because they cannot afford the cost of child care for pre-school children. That is particularly the case for people on low and average earnings, but I know men and women on graduate-level salaries who have given up work because child care for more than one child, plus commuting costs, adds up to working for free. That is bad for families in the longer term, but it also extremely bad for our economy.

Child care has been mentioned by a number of speakers, and in my view, a step change in child care would be the single most transformative policy that the UK Government could make in tackling inequality, because it would boost prosperity, improve work incentives for parents, empower women in the workplace, and would help to tackle child poverty. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark

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Durkan), in an important intervention, discussed the Child Poverty Act 2010, and the important gains that were won with cross-party support in the House in the previous Parliament. This week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report on child poverty in Scotland that showed that, although gains have been made, progress is under real threat because of the austerity measures introduced by the Government.

Child poverty in Scotland has fallen by twice as much as in England. Most reductions in poverty are attributable to improvements in employment rates, but it has been argued that the additional fall in child poverty in Scotland, where it is now 40% lower, is due to a shift to full working—both parents in the family are working, and at least one of them is full time. That has not been replicated across the UK. I have no doubt that that is partly due to the fact that in Scotland we have the best child-care package anywhere in these islands. We have to go significantly further if we are to compete with the best in Europe and have ambitions for the next generation. Otherwise, we face the threat of more and more children falling into child poverty.

The Scottish Government have made huge efforts to try to ensure that all our young people have opportunities. A point made early in the debate by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), which was not picked up very much, concerned the issue of skills, which are at the heart of how we increase prosperity and close the wage gap between high earners and lower earners. The Scottish Government have introduced the “Opportunities for All” programme, which means that every single school leaver has the offer of a positive destination to take up when they leave. We have record numbers of young people in apprenticeships. We also have record numbers of people completing apprenticeships. Some 92% of young people who complete an apprenticeship are in work six months later, with 79% of them in full-time work. Over 90% of our school leavers are now in positive destinations, and 89.5% of them are in work nine months later, or in education or training. That is the highest it has ever been, and it shows what can be done when we put our mind to it.

Today’s debate shows exactly why Scotland needs the full fiscal levers of a normal country to tackle inequality, why Wales needs the power to grow its economy and improve the prospects of its people, and why it is in the interests of the whole UK not to bury its head in the sand any longer but take responsibility for the failures of the past and respond to the needs of our citizens in the next generation. The motion calls for a commission to investigate the impact of welfare and spending cuts on poverty and inequality, which reflects the wishes of the House expressed on 13 January. Importantly, it goes further, because we cannot really tackle poverty, particularly the kind of poverty that we have in the UK, unless we understand inequality and take steps to tackle its long-term drivers. That is why I fully support the motion, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House who have listened carefully to the debate will join us in the Lobby. The motion would allow us to address the shortcomings of the past, and I hope that all Members will join us in building a fairer and more equal society.

6.49 pm

Stephen Crabb: With the leave of the House, I start by thanking the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) for summarising the debate in her usual

11 Feb 2014 : Column 815

intelligent way, and all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in this wide-ranging and interesting debate on subjects of huge importance to Members on both sides of the House—fairness and inequality.

I will meet head on some of the criticism that has been levelled at the Government by saying that no Government Member is painting a rosy picture about the challenges that many households and families still face. None of us is complacent about the issues that we have been debating. As the country is still recovering from the economic trauma that it was subjected to between 2008 and 2010, much progress remains to be made in seeing wages increase, seeing the emerging economic recovery spread to all parts of the country, and ensuring that people from all walks of life in all parts of the UK can share in that emerging economic recovery.

We are not painting a rosy picture about that recovery, but neither do we subscribe to the view that has been put consistently today by Opposition Members that the growth is somehow not real; that it is somehow patchy and fuelled by London and the south-east and what is happening in the housing market. If they take time to look at what the statistics tell them, they will see that the emerging recovery is broadly balanced across all the sectors of the economy—manufacturing, construction, tourism, services and exports. Progress must still be made to ensure that the recovery reaches all parts of the UK, but just as three years ago they were deficit deniers, as we come to the end of this Parliament they have become growth deniers. They deny that the growth and the recovery are taking place.

This evening I will be urging hon. Members to reject the motion, because at its heart is the biggest risk of all to the emerging economic recovery, which is a return to the failed economics of more spending, more borrowing and more debt. Just as so many Government Members this afternoon have asked where the equity is in saddling our children and grandchildren with yet more debt, the fair, compassionate, progressive thing to do is to meet that challenge head on and see the deficit come down.

In the minutes that remain I will refer to a number of the speeches made by hon. Members. I pay tribute to the opening speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who spoke with typical passion and made a plea for fairness. However I take issue with his description of Wales as a colonial economy. I absolutely reject that term. Wales is not a colonial economy. The economy of Wales is highly integrated with the rest of the United Kingdom. One reason why support for separatism is so low in the Principality is that real people out there understand how integrated the Welsh economy is with the rest of the United Kingdom. They reject the separatism of Plaid Cymru and the Opposition.

We had a long and interesting speech from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). He started by introducing the philosophical challenge of what to do with a box of chocolates among children. I disagreed with a lot of his economic analysis, but I strongly agreed with him when he said that behind all the economic statistics that we are talking about are real lives. Members on both sides of the House should not lose sight of the fact that when we talk about record

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numbers of people returning to work and unemployment falling in our constituencies, those are real lives. People are making their way back into the jobs market, upping their skills and getting new confidence, which will make a powerful difference in our communities.

The hon. Gentleman also made an important point about the decline of social mobility. I put on record that both his nation of Scotland and mine of Wales at one time were beacons of social mobility. There was a time in Wales and Scotland when increasingly it did not matter who one’s mum and dad were, what street one grew up in or what jobs one’s parents did. There was a progressive trend of social mobility. We have gone into reverse on that, and that is one of the great tragedies of what has happened in the economy in recent decades.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) made what I think was the speech of the day. He spoke with expertise and experience about small businesses being the engines of job creation, not only in Wales but across the UK. Members on both sides of the House should pay tribute to him for the work he has done, particularly on interest rate swaps and on challenging the banks on the way in which they have treated small businesses in recent years. He spoke powerfully and passionately about the ethical and moral underpinning of our welfare reforms and what we are trying to achieve. It is not just about deficit reduction, and it is not about attacking the poor or anything so absurd; it is about seeing lives changed and communities that were blighted by worklessness unlock their potential so that they can increasingly share in the emerging economic growth.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) drew on his expertise on fuel poverty and energy markets. I promise to write to him, or to ensure that one of my ministerial colleagues does, on the specific point he raised. He mentioned pensioner poverty, as did other Members, so let us remind ourselves of the figures. In 2011-12, 1.6 million pensioners were in relative poverty, which is close to the lowest rate recorded. Pensioners are less likely to be in relative low income than the population as a whole. The Government want all pensioners to have a decent and secure income in retirement.

The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) seemed a little confused and uncertain about what is happening to income inequality, so let us put on the record what the statistics show: income inequality is falling under this Government, having reached record levels under the previous Labour Government. I very much agree with his comment that young people are not only our future—they are more important than that—but our today. That is why we are making efforts to see youth unemployment fall, just as unemployment is falling right across the country. We take seriously the opportunities facing our young people and are in no way complacent about the challenges that today’s generation of young people will face. However, let me remind Opposition Members that if we are serious about the kind of future young people will face, we absolutely must reject the terms of the motion, which calls for a return to more borrowing, more spending, more deficit and more debt.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) made a characteristically entertaining speech in which he made some extremely important points about business being the generator of growth and the creator

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of jobs in the economy. He used the analogy of a rising tide carrying all boats, but it is business and private sector growth that makes that tide rise. We absolutely agree.

The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) drew on her expertise in health inequality and made a characteristically well-judged speech. I just remind her that in the nations of Wales and Scotland, which we have focused on today, many of the policy levers that relate to health inequality—housing, health and education, for example—lie with the devolved Governments. I encourage her to look at what is happening in Wales. If she studies that in detail, she might have some serious and difficult questions for her Labour colleagues in Cardiff.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) made an excellent speech reinforcing the point that if we are serious about fairness, we must take seriously the issue of what kind of future our young people and their children will face. That is why we remain absolutely committed to reducing the deficit and restoring stability, discipline and order to our national finances.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) spoke about zero-hours contracts, which she clearly regards as a negative thing. The number of zero-hours contracts in the economy was the same in 2013 as it was in 2000, so the idea that there has been some kind of explosion in the number is just not correct. If she really regards them as such a bad thing, she should speak to her colleagues running Carmarthenshire—

Pete Wishart claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question accordingly put.

The House divided:

Ayes 11, Noes 287.

Division No. 209]


6.59 pm


Corbyn, Jeremy

Durkan, Mark

Edwards, Jonathan

Hosie, Stewart

Lucas, Caroline

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

McDonnell, John

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, Angus

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr Elfyn Llwyd


Pete Wishart


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Norman

Baldry, rh Sir Tony

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Bebb, Guto

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Sir Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burt, rh Alistair

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Chishti, Rehman

Clappison, Mr James

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, rh Mr Edward

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Ellis, Michael

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Farron, Tim

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fullbrook, Lorraine

Fuller, Richard

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gilbert, Stephen

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hague, rh Mr William

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Sir Nick

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunter, Mark

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kennedy, rh Mr Charles

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Sir Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lamb, Norman

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Laws, rh Mr David

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leech, Mr John

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Sir Edward

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Lloyd, Stephen

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Sir Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Karl

McCrea, Dr William

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Patrick

Metcalfe, Stephen

Milton, Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, David

Mowat, David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, rh Mr Stephen

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Ottaway, rh Sir Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Paisley, Ian

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Phillips, Stephen

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Sir John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reid, Mr Alan

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Shelbrooke, Alec

Simmonds, Mark

Simpson, David

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, rh Nicholas

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Stunell, rh Sir Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Syms, Mr Robert

Tapsell, rh Sir Peter

Teather, Sarah

Thornton, Mike

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Walter, Mr Robert

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Dame Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Sammy

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Tellers for the Noes:

Harriett Baldwin


Gavin Barwell

Question accordingly negatived.

11 Feb 2014 : Column 818

11 Feb 2014 : Column 819

11 Feb 2014 : Column 820

Business without Debate

Delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Community Infrastructure Levy

That the draft Community Infrastructure Levy (Amendment) Regulations 2014, which were laid before this House on 20 January, be approved.—(John Penrose.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Public Bodies

That the draft Public Bodies (Abolition of the National Consumer Council and Transfer of the Office of Fair Trading’s Functions in relation to Estate Agent etc) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 5 December 2013, be approved.—(John Penrose.)

The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 12 February (Standing Order No. 41A).

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

The County Court

That the draft County Court Jurisdiction Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 18 December 2013, be approved.—(John Penrose.)

Question agreed to.

11 Feb 2014 : Column 821

Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)

7.13 pm

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): May I share with the House the fact that this month marks the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, which is also known as the mountainous Karabakh republic? Many people know very little about the political situation in the south Caucasus, but I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and the noble Lady, Baroness Cox in the other House, for frequently raising the subject. My purpose in raising it in this Adjournment debate is that the Minsk process has sought to resolve the conflict since the ceasefire 20 years ago, but now appears to be stalled, if not frozen. I seek tonight to try to apply the gentlest of nudges to the three Minsk co-chairs, to see if we cannot make progress.

It is difficult to understand and almost impossible to appreciate the full extent and horror of the war that raged between February 1988 and May 1994 in Nagorno-Karabakh. One has to go back many centuries if one wants to discover its origin, but, for the sake of brevity, Mr Speaker, and to avoid testing your patience and indulgence, I shall refer to a couple of simple and basic facts. In that war—and it was a war; it was not a regional conflict, a local conflagration or skirmish—on one side was an Azerbaijani army of 42,000 people, of whom 11,000 died, and on the Armenian side was an army of 20,000, of whom 6,000 died. There were Afghan mujaheddin and Chechen volunteers fighting on the side of the Azeris, and Armenian volunteers and people from the diaspora fighting on the other side. It was an extraordinarily bloody war, and I think that, because there was UK-British involvement in the early days of the creation of the boundaries of these republics, we have a duty to do what we can to nudge the matter forward.

After the Russian revolution in 1917, the three south Caucasian republics, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, together formed a trans-Caucasian federation, which sadly did not last long, collapsing after three months. British troops occupied a great deal of the south Caucasus, particularly Baku in Azerbaijan, in 1919, pending the Paris peace conference—a period in which we were rightly involved in the area. However, the Soviet army invaded and set up something called the Kavburo—the Caucasus bureau—which at the time voted 4:3 in favour of the area we know as the mountainous Karabakh republic or Nagorno-Karabakh being allocated to Armenia.

You will know, Mr Speaker, as will many in this House, that the dividing line between the two communities is very deep and very ancient. Armenia has been a Christian country since 301 AD; the vast majority of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh are Christian, and the majority of the population of Azerbaijan Muslim. There has been a degree of tension, which has spilled over into bloody ethnic conflict.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Churches had to register in Azerbaijan by 1 January 2010. Any house churches active after that date were raided by police and

11 Feb 2014 : Column 822

state authorities, with church leaders arrested and sent to jail. Should not our Government make representations to the Azerbaijan Government to stop the persecution of Christians and actions against the churches?

Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman’s record on addressing the persecution of Christians is second to none, and I hope that his words reverberate and are heard beyond this Chamber.

After the Caucasus bureau voted for Nagorno-Karabakh being allocated to Armenia, there was an intervention by the Communist party leader in Azerbaijan, Nariman Narimanov, who reversed that decision. He was guided in this by the people’s commissar for nationalities—better known to us as Joseph Stalin.

Things came to a head in 1985, when Gorbachev was elected in the Soviet Union. In the ensuing feeling of perestroika—the slight lifting of the yoke—there were demonstrations in Yerevan and Baku, which were very much about determination of what was then called an enclave between the two countries. In February 1988, there were skirmishes near Askeran in Artsakh, on the Stepanakert-Agdam road. Then there was what is still—rightly—called the pogram in Sumgait, in which many Armenians were killed in the most horrendous circumstances. There were riots for three days and then the Soviet Army intervened. As if that were not enough, in December 1988 there was an enormous earthquake, which killed 25,000 people in what was then called Leninakan and is now Gyumri.

That period saw increasing tension along the borders, including in January 1990 an air and rail blockade by the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, another pogrom, and finally Gorbachev declaring a state of emergency. There was fighting throughout the Azeri cities, and then, in spring 1991, Operation Ring, in which Ayas Mutalibov—the Azerbaijani leader, who was seen at the time as one of the new wave of non-communist leaders that included Yeltsin, who had just been elected in Russia, and Levon Ter-Petrossian in Armenia—launched a military offensive against Armenians in the Shahumyan area, with a view to ethnically cleansing the area. That is when the diaspora, personified in some ways by Monte Melkonian, who was one of the great leaders, realised that it had to support ethnic Armenians in their homeland.

Gorbachev resigned in December 1991. That allowed the old Soviet Union to collapse in the south Caucasus region. Azerbaijan voted to rescind the autonomous oblast status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians did the same and declared independence on 6 January 1992.

Then the war started, and it was a war. There was a complete imbalance between the two armies. Together, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia had 170 tanks and 360 armoured personnel carriers, but no fighter aircraft. The Azeris had 300 tanks, the same number of APCs and, crucially, 170 fighter aircraft. They were helicopter gunships—the old Mil Mi-24s that were left over from the Russian retreat. Throughout this sad and sorry story, almost all the weapons, armaments, ordnance and artillery pieces were left by the retreating Russians. It was like there was a vast warehouse of weaponry throughout the south Caucasus—an enormous bonfire waiting for the spark.

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There were appalling scenes throughout the war. There were accusations of atrocities on both sides, many of which have been investigated. In May 1992, the war took a crucial turn when the Armenians captured the headland or redoubt of the Azerbaijan army in the area that most people now know as Shushi, but which at that time was called Shusha. At that time, much of the fighting was being done by Chechens, who were fighting for jihad. Their leader, Shamil Basayev, referred to the soldiers of the so-called Dashnak battalion, which is also known as the Dashnaktsutyun or the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, as the only people who had ever defeated him.

I could describe the war further, but that is not really the point of this debate. Towards the end of the war, in January 1994, even by the horrific standards of modern warfare, things had got to an almost unbearably painful phase. Azerbaijan extended the call-up to boys of 16. The war entered what objective, independent observers call the “human wave” phase. Andrei Sakharov, who is often quoted in this Chamber, said at the time:

“For Azerbaijan the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death”.

The peace process started. In 1994, it was recognised that it was, in effect, a frozen conflict. The Minsk group, with its three co-chairs, who are currently Igor Popov from the Russian Federation, Jacques Faure from France and James Warlick of the USA, is working as hard as it can to move matters forward. I hope and believe that it is doing so with the support, knowledge and understanding of Her Majesty’s Government. The co-chairs visited Baku and Yerevan just this month.

However, matters along the line of contact are not good. Twenty soldiers were killed along the ceasefire line in 2013, despite the existence of the ceasefire. There were nearly 200 ceasefire violations between 2 and 8 February of this year. Often, the violations involve people firing across the border, including snipers, but there are also more violent incidents. The line of contact is porous and is coming under increased pressure.

People will be asking themselves the question, as I would be if I were listening to this debate, “What can we do?” Every Member of Parliament is inundated by letters saying, “Please put pressure on country X or nation Y and do something about it.” What can we do in this case? I think that we have a crucial role to play. There is not a massive amount of trade between the United Kingdom and Armenia. Fewer than 10 UK firms are active in Armenia. We gave Armenia £882,000 in aid last year. I pay credit to our remarkable joint ambassadors in Yerevan, Kathy Leach and Jonathan Aves, who work extraordinarily hard to progress British trade interests in the area. However, we could do much more. By contrast, Azerbaijan was given £1,335,000 in aid over the same period, and we have very close trade links. The United Kingdom is actually the 15th largest trade partner of Azerbaijan, and the major role of BP in oil extraction, refining and marketing cannot be underestimated.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Azerbaijan. Our trading links go much further than that, and indeed, we are by far the biggest investor in

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Azerbaijan through BP and other companies in that sector. The country is increasingly important to the British economy, and I hope he will reflect that in his comments.

Stephen Pound: I am grateful, and I place on record my appreciation for the hon. Gentleman and the work he is undertaking in that area. To show how important that link is, when President Ilham Aliyev made critical comments fairly recently—I think it was on 17 October 2012—in connection with British Petroleum’s output from the Azeri–Chirag–Guneshli field, our ambassador to Azerbaijan, Peter Bateman, said:

“I shall be calling on BP in London next week to find out what more, if anything, we can do to help”.

That shows a remarkable degree of association with the British Government, and of involvement at a very high level. Indeed, the FCO was vital in negotiating what was widely called the “contract of the century”, which was signed in Azerbaijan in 1994. Co-operation was so close that when we first posted ambassadorial staff to the Republic of Azerbaijan they were located in BP’s offices in Baku. The relationship continues and prospers. In fact, the Foreign Secretary attended the signing ceremony for the final investment decision on the Shah Deniz 2 project in Baku.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary told me in response to a parliamentary question that he raised human rights issues on that visit. Does my hon. Friend know, and will he press the Minister on whether the Foreign Secretary also raised the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh?

Stephen Pound: Like many Members, I was in the Chamber for the debate that my hon. Friend initiated on that issue, but I think, with respect, that the Minister may be a more appropriate person to respond. I am not entirely privy to every detail of the negotiations and discussions, but I certainly recall the debate on this important issue.

There are some signs of movement. Just this week, the United States ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, issued a statement to say that the United States is being even more active in resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict than in the past. He said:

“I can understand the frustration of the Azerbaijani people about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We are committed to trying to bring about resolution. It is a good thing that presidents met in November.”

There is some movement. This week, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group have spoken of their hope for moving forward on this issue, particularly because of the additional truce that was agreed before the winter games in Sochi.

Human rights issues in Azerbaijan are probably not the subject of this debate, but I am looking to get some movement to allow some peace to return to a deeply troubled part of the world. This may be commonplace and obvious, and it may almost be otiose for me to say it, but it is one of the great tragedies that some of the most beautiful parts of the world are the places that are most troubled. One thinks of parts of central Africa, East Timor, and so many countries of great heart-stopping beauty. Anyone who has been to Nagorno-Karabakh—as I know many Members of the House have—will never

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forget those great sweeping, soaring mountains, those deep, eye-stretching valleys, and the churches going back nearly 2,000 years, with distinctive Armenian crosses everywhere one looks. We need to do something to bring back that peace.

In addition, we are approaching the anniversary of the great Armenian genocide of 1915. If ever there was a time when this House could look to Armenia with support, friendship and solidarity, it is as we approach this anniversary. The Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) is not in the Chamber, but I notified him that I was likely to mention his name. Every time we have discussed the Armenian genocide and the current situation, he has chosen to use comments such as “the so-called genocide” and say how he disapproves of any democratic opposition in Azerbaijan. He never misses an opportunity to defend President Aliyev. That is a shame, because I would have thought that if there is one thing the House can agree on it is that a genocide of the most horrendous proportions did take place in Anatolia, Van and what was then called western Armenia. The 1915 genocide was the third genocide and was particularly horrendous. Would it not be a good thing if we were to lend our support, put our shoulder to the wheel, and try to move Minsk forward in time for the commemorations of this appalling genocide?

Some would say, “Can we not put this matter behind us?” I am not Armenian and I am not Azeri. I do not have a drop of blood of either of those nations in my veins. However, I cannot help but note that even though much of what we talked about this evening appears to be in the past, it is a past that still resonates.

Many people will know the situation that occurred on 18 February 2004. Extraordinarily, soldiers from Azerbaijan and Armenia were present at a NATO partnership for peace activity in Budapest. One Azerbaijani soldier, Ramil Safarov, decided to buy an axe and take the head off an Armenian soldier, Gurgen Markarian. This happened in Hungary in 2004. This is not ancient history; this is recent history. At the time, the Azerbaijan human rights commissioner said that Safarov must become an example of patriotism for Azerbaijani youth and the National Democratic party awarded him the man of the year award in 2005. When the Hungarians released Ramil Safarov, he returned to Azerbaijan to be promoted to the rank of major. He received eight years back pay and was given accommodation. It is that raw and it is that recent. My point is that these emotions simply cannot be allowed to fester. When we have a feeling of animosity between two peoples that leads to a fellow soldier on a NATO joint exercise decapitating another soldier, that is something intensely felt and we must be able to somehow push that forward and improve the situation.

The British Government cannot demand action, but what we can do is to show our concern. I know the Minister and respect him, as do most in the House. We have an opportunity to put down a marker: to say it was an awful, bloody and terrible war, but that it finished 20 years ago. Let us finally end this awful conflict, and allow two nations to emerge into the sunshine to live in peace. Then we can talk about human rights, but at least let us talk without the sound of gunfire, without the smell of cordite and without the chill anticipation of death.

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7.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mark Simmonds): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on securing the debate and on the extremely articulate, comprehensive and passionate way in which he set out his case. He combined a detailed understanding of the history with an extreme passion for trying to find a satisfactory lasting resolution to this long-standing conflict in the south Caucasus region. He, and all Members of this House, will be extremely concerned with the lack of progress in resolving this conflict. This is not just an issue for Members of this House, but for many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, as well as those people living in the south Caucasus region.

The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight the fact that the conflict dates back to before world war one. Its causes are very deep-rooted. The conflict that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh as the Soviet Union disintegrated created not only the problems to which he alluded but hundreds of thousands of refugees. For many of those refugees, the situation either has not improved or has improved little since then. The conflict continues to hamper development in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and cause further instability in the already troubled region of the south Caucasus.

It goes without saying that finding a lasting solution will be vital in alleviating the suffering still felt in the region. I am extremely grateful for the work being done by the hon. Gentleman and other Members of both Houses to raise awareness of that tragic conflict. Of course, it does not need to be said that we are not much further on than we were 20 years ago, and we are almost at that 20th anniversary.

The hon. Gentleman used the phrase “a frozen conflict”. Let me gently say that I think that that is misleading. As he rightly pointed out, fighting continues to this day. The UK is concerned by the ongoing breach of the ceasefire along the line of contact as well as along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. There were reports of increasing numbers of ceasefire violations in January and early February, as he rightly mentioned. We were pleased that the Presidents of both countries committed to a truce during the winter Olympics. While fighting continues, there is always a danger of escalation, whether that is deliberate or not, and we urge both sides to exercise restraint and avoid provocation.

The UK strongly supports the work of the co-chairs of the Minsk group-led peace process and I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. We also recognise the frustration that he rightly articulated about the fact that progress has been slow and that it feels as though we are no closer to a resolution than we were 20 years ago. However, at last year’s G8 summit in Lough Erne the three co-chairs primarily made the point that it was for the Armenian and Azerbaijani Governments to take ownership of the peace process. It is their conflict and they must take responsibility to resolve it. Of course, the co-chairs work hard to facilitate progress and we and the international community stand ready to provide further support when the time is right.

The UK is concerned that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is creating a situation in which a peace agreement would be acceptable to their populations. A generation of people from both countries now exists

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that has had no contact with anyone from the other country. That is all the more regrettable given that throughout much of the region’s history the two communities resided peacefully alongside each other, as they still do in neighbouring Georgia. Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in isolation goes against that trend and we need collectively to address that.

The perceptions that many citizens of both countries have of their close neighbour are now founded on negative stereotypes and aggressive rhetoric. Neither Government have done enough to counter that image and, at times, they have actively encouraged those perceptions. The longer the conflict continues and the longer both Governments shy from preparing their populations for peace, the greater the loss of life will be for both sides and the more difficult it will be to find a lasting solution to the conflict. The UK Government do not underestimate the fact that finding peace will involve difficult decisions and compromises. Despite the difficulties, we are committed to doing everything we can to foster efforts to find a resolution to the conflict.

We continue to encourage Azerbaijan and Armenia to follow the Madrid principles, to exercise restraint, to avoid provocation and to redouble efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement based on the principles of refraining from the threat or use of force, territorial integrity and the people’s right to self-determination.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) rightly mentioned the Foreign Secretary’s discussions, and I can assure her, the hon. Member for Ealing North and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has a particular passion for the plight of Christians everywhere in the world, that the Foreign Secretary raised the importance of human rights and Nagorno-Karabakh when he met President Aliyev. He also raised those issues with Armenian Foreign Minister Nalbandian last May. We regularly speak and raise these important issues with representatives of both Governments at all levels.

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The UK has invested more than £1.5 million over the last three years funding projects that attempt to break down walls and develop an understanding between the communities affected by the conflict. However, the leaders of both sides must play their part, and we consistently urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to work with the Minsk group to reduce tensions and create an environment conducive to a peaceful, long-lasting settlement. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), the Prime Minister’s special trade envoy to Azerbaijan, was right that a peaceful solution will be beneficial, in economic and trade terms, to Azerbaijan, Armenia and the whole of the south Caucasus. We feel that is a way for the UK to play a significant part in engagement and reducing tensions, and we specifically encouraged the meeting of the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, which happened last November, after almost two years, and we hope that further meetings between them will take place soon.

These two countries occupy a pivotal geographical position just east of the EU and are an important part of the EU’s wider neighbourhood, and the EU works with them through the Eastern Partnership. Both have huge potential, vibrant, dynamic populations and geostrategic locations, situated, as they are, between Europe and Asia, with Russia to the north and the Gulf states to the south. The south Caucasus can be a crossroads for trade, transport and energy, linking China, central Asia, the Caspian sea, Turkey, Europe and the middle east. Given that potential, it is hugely disappointing that this conflict remains unresolved, not least as we approach the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire agreement this May. The UK, as a friend of both countries, will continue to support all efforts to resolve this protracted conflict. These efforts are crucial to helping both countries and the broader south Caucasus region reap the substantial rewards and benefits that lasting peace and stability will bring.

Question put and agreed to.

7.42 pm

House adjourned.