This is about keeping things as local as possible. We know that 83p in every pound spent by local government procurers with local businesses will go back into the local economy. That in turn will stimulate the local economy and provide real employment opportunities

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there. It is a question of people stretching procurement as far as they can to get the biggest payback on what they are putting out there for goods and services.

SMEs are a major driving force of our economy and deserve their fair share of public sector procurement. Public sector bodies, including central Government, spend about £220 billion a year on goods and services. That indicates the complexity of the procurement. They procure everything from paperclips to chemicals—you name it. Government procurement is extremely complex.

Progress has been made in public sector procurement, and I will go on to highlight some of the advances made by the Government. I accept that steps have been taken and advances made. We have gone from almost a “catalogue” procurement process to what we see today—an approach that is more embracing of best practice and best value. I referred to a “catalogue” approach to procurement, which was simply taking something off the shelf and saying, “We have purchased from them for the last 10 years, so we’ll continue to purchase from them for the next 10.” That was not the best way to enable SMEs to get in on procurement by public bodies.

However, more could be done to improve the best-value approach. Not least is the fact that best value does not always mean the cheapest price, and what about people doing contract monitoring over the length of a contract to prove that they have a valued and performing supplier? We need to evidence contract monitoring if we are to make progress on procuring more locally and putting more into SMEs.

Public procurement is an underused tool when it comes to keeping trade as local as possible to local government and central Government spreading contracts around the country. It is essential that the Government take that on and spread the contracts as far and as wide as possible around the country. They should not simply look at a certain area where most of the spend takes place. If we are to regenerate areas, we can do so through Government procurement.

We also need to enhance contracts that we put out there by writing into the terms and conditions employment opportunities such as apprenticeships and therefore get more for the money we spend. More than half of SMEs believe that the process of tendering for Government contracts requires, as we have heard, more time and resources than their business can allow, making the tendering process too costly and time consuming.

We can take as an example what I have already highlighted—e-procurement. This is about going out and educating SMEs on what they need for e-procurement, and a common mistake is for them to fall into the same practice they used for tendering processes. As we have highlighted, broadband issues lead to difficulties when people are trying to download a tendering document, which takes a bit of time. It will bomb out at the last minute and, hey presto, they have missed out on the contract.

Sammy Wilson: The hon. Gentleman is making some thoughtful and worthwhile points, but does he not accept that the more we build into the contract and the procurement process not only price, but the qualitative issues he has talked about, as well as ongoing issues such as apprenticeships and employing the long-term unemployed, the more that adds to the complexity and

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the paperwork involved in the procurement process and to the monitoring of the contract? There is a balance to be struck between, on the one hand, taking the simple approach of looking at price only and, on the other, looking at quality, employment opportunities and all the other qualitative elements of a procurement exercise.

Mr McKenzie: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but if procurement does one thing, it should be to get the most for what is spent. Monitoring whether we get jobs, especially apprenticeships, out of procurement would not be too difficult. The local council in my area has done that for many contracts. Those contracts have been gratefully received, and we have been really successful in keeping our youth unemployment down to a low level using those contracts.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), there is a question of balance in those contracts. However, if contracts awarded by Belfast city council and others over the years have a clause about local employment, local people see that the council and other agencies are delivering something in their locality that is about not just a building or a project, but jobs. My hon. Friend is right to talk about balance, but it is important for local people to see a definite benefit from the public money being spent in their area.

Mr McKenzie: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point: this is about local people seeing real value for money and getting opportunities.

Many small businesses do not bid, because they feel unable to compete with the larger suppliers and to offer lower costs. There is also the issue of understanding contracts and not making them too complex. We should go out to small businesses to help them understand contracts and what is being looked for in the terms and conditions. The issue may not be solely the cost; it may be things such as the quality of the product, the lead team or the hubbing aspects of getting the product to someone at specific times. This is not entirely about the cost factor, and a range of terms and conditions might put smaller businesses off attempting to compete with larger organisations.

I want to mention three areas where I have seen improvement in the procurement process. In 2010, the Cabinet Office set up the efficiency and reform group to make sure that Departments work together. That consortium approach to procurement is wholly sensible. It is hard to believe that each service would have been going out to procure the same commodities on differing contracts, but that could have been taking place. The Government also set a goal of ensuring that 25% of spend went to SMEs, either directly or through the supply chain, although that was downgraded to an aspiration.

Secondly, in 2011, the Government appointed a Crown representative for SMEs, with the intention of helping to redesign and improve public procurement policy and processes to bridge the gap between the Government and small suppliers. The main aims were to understand the concerns of SME suppliers, which is essential, and

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to open up the Government procurement process more to them. Another aim was to put together a list of tips for SMEs bidding for Government contracts, although I am never too sure that the word “tips” sits well with a procurement process.

Finally, in 2012, the Government ran a pilot of the Solutions Exchange—an online tool to enable a two-way conversation between Government and SMEs, in the hope of creating better dialogue between them.

The hon. Member for South Antrim touched on the directives coming from the EU. A set of new procurement directives, including reforms that should help SMEs, was agreed in Europe last year. There is now a need to transpose them into UK law.

Let me refer to what the FSB says about the problems facing SMEs on procurement. It says that there are four main difficulties. Access to finance—getting those loans—is still a problem. Another problem is tax simplification; tax can be difficult and confusing for SMEs. A further difficulty, which we have heard about many times, is fuel duty; the cost of fuel is crippling many small businesses. The final problem is late payments. If a payment is not made on time, that can end a small business, especially a micro-business. We have recently heard in the news about the horrendous time scales for meeting payment terms, and those are having a detrimental effect on small businesses up and down the country.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. What is the Government’s position on the recent EU procurement directives? Will the terms and conditions in contracts be looked at with a view to including employment opportunities for young people—for example, by writing in apprenticeships? Will any person or business that has been engaged in blacklisting or in compiling blacklists of workers be excluded from bidding for Government contracts? Finally, when will the Government truly embrace e-procurement, get out there and assist SMEs as much as possible to understand and navigate the process?

Several hon. Members rose

Philip Davies (in the Chair): Order. Before we move to the next speaker, I should say that I intend to call the shadow Minister no later than 3.40 pm. I am sure that DUP colleagues can allocate the remaining 24 minutes between them fairly.

3.16 pm

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): It is an honour to speak under you, Mr Davies; I intend to speak for only about 23 minutes.

I welcome the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea). The circumstances that he has placed on the record are astonishing. They show that a small, creative company has been really screwed, quite frankly. That company deserves explanations and honesty. I hope the Minister, who I know will genuinely look into this, will be able to give the company some reassurance and support—if not today, then at some point after he has had the chance to examine these claims.

We are trying to rebalance our economy in Northern Ireland. We are trying to attract inward investment and more private sector work. That includes growing our indigenous companies and, in particular, encouraging

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small companies, which are the backbone of Northern Ireland—whether they are in the agri-food sector, the creative media sector, financial services or any other sector. We are trying to help those companies to grow by one or two people each year so that the economy can really rebalance itself.

Those things can be made difficult, however, if one source of job opportunities—Government contracts—is not made more readily available to local companies. There is a saying in Northern Ireland that if someone is not working for the Government, they are not actually working. That is because so many people are employed directly or indirectly in Government or departmental activities. That includes not only the obvious things, such as health and policing, but the less obvious things, such as the technical and financial sectors, where a lot of the work relates to Government activity and Government-associated activity. It is critical that local companies are not only given the opportunity to bid competitively for these opportunities, but are, as many Members have said, encouraged and actively supported in their bids.

Our job is made much harder whenever major companies in the private sector are threatened and have to take employment away. That means that more people are put on the unemployment heap, and they will then, more than likely, have to seek public sector-related employment. I have seen that in my constituency, with the announcement that almost 1,000 jobs will be lost between now and 2017. The tobacco manufacturing company JTI, formerly Gallaher, is being closed down because of Government over-regulation—the European directives on tobacco products and the Government’s gold-plating of those directives through the plain packaging legislation. That destroys employment and opportunities, and has a knock-on impact on the economy. It affects 900 people directly, and a further 200 indirectly. There is pressure on the economy from those policies.

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom made the ambitious statement that he wanted to make the UK the factory of the European Community. I welcome that statement and ambition, and the aspiration to attract employment here—not only private sector employment, but more Government work flowing to private sector companies. I have a challenge for the Government: to make sure that in attracting companies and making these islands into the factory of Europe, they do not forget about the little island off the coast, and do not forget about Ulster. I challenge them to include Northern Ireland in their ambition, and to make sure that jobs go there. It is easy to kick back and say, “Look, this is really a matter for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland or some other local devolved body to deal with.” That attitude is no longer good enough.

We are all in this together and must ensure that the national Government do as much to encourage employment and inward investment as the local, devolved Administration, who are tasked with doing the same. Northern Ireland is, of course, part of the United Kingdom and wants to play its full role in contributing to it, and delivering jobs. I would like the Minister, if he cannot tell us today, to report back to us with a specific, active strategy to attract employment for small and medium-sized enterprises and factories in Northern Ireland. That will help to rebalance the economy and

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ensure greater opportunities to bid for contracts—particularly Government contracts, when they come up—because more companies will be operating in Northern Ireland. Government contracts are a benefit to employment, and we want companies based in Northern Ireland to be entitled to bid, and to have the benefit of such contracts.

Both Members who have already spoken in the debate have mentioned broadband, which is critical in enabling viable bids to be made for some contracts. There are many companies at Woodside industrial park in Broughshane in my constituency; it has a local radio station, agri-food manufacturers, a fantastic company called Sunstart Bakery, which makes buns for Buckingham palace, and aeroplanes and international export businesses. Those companies deserve support, but they do not have adequate broadband, and have been campaigning for it for months. That would make the difference and allow the industrial park to continue to grow, and improve its effectiveness in fulfilling contracts. That is a key area for development.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim represents the area of Aldergrove, the international gateway into Northern Ireland. It services employment not only in his constituency but in mine, and in East Antrim. There are moves afoot to try to attract a business park to that location. What an opportunity that would be for all our constituencies—a thriving business park there, supported by Government contracts and readily marketed as an area where companies could be based, with international connectivity, just 45 or 50 minutes from mainland Britain. That would be a huge opportunity for employment.

Dr McCrea: Is it not interesting that a short distance from the international airport many companies find it difficult to get a proper broadband connection?

Ian Paisley: Broadband connectivity is a serious issue. The problem means that companies are deficient; some company directors send their staff home to work, because they have better broadband connectivity there than in an industrial park. That makes a mockery of the system, and the issue must be dealt with as part of a package of measures to enable the industrial parks to flow.

We are challenged by our neighbour on the island of Ireland; the Republic of Ireland has just this week announced that it intends to build a super-fast train link from Belfast to Dublin airport, so it can take business from our airports and connectivity. We must get ahead of the game. Our neighbour is entitled to compete with us, but we must beat it in the competition. We can show that we are better; we can show it a clean pair of heels. We need a kick-start, and making Government contracts readily available to Northern Ireland companies would provide one for that part of the economy. I welcome this debate for those reasons.

3.25 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on setting the scene, which he did clearly and specifically with reference to his own area. I thank other hon. Members for their speeches. It is a pleasure to see the Minister in his place—I look forward to his response—as well as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for

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Wigan (Lisa Nandy). Yesterday some of us, in discussion with her, mentioned that there were 100 days to the general election, but she said she was more interested in the next 91 days, because in 91 days’ time something more important for her will happen. We wish her well for when that occasion arrives—congratulations.

This debate is about a topic central to economic progress, on which opportunities to speak are much sought after. SMEs are an area of great importance for Northern Ireland for many reasons. We each have numerous SMEs in our constituencies, and in Strangford they are vital to job creation. There are four or five that began from a small kernel or seed and now employ about 200 people. They are of the utmost importance, because they have been proved to be vital to rebuilding and strengthening the economy in times of much economic uncertainty, such as the past five years. Not only that, but they form the centre of any financial strategy for progress with sustainable regional and national growth. For those reasons we should in all ways promote and encourage entrepreneurship in SMEs. My concerns have to do with funding—its availability, information about it, and the ability of anyone to apply for it.

Another concern stems from the multi-level governance dimension. In the coming months much responsibility will fall to local government, with the reform of the Northern Ireland council structure. Additionally, there are concerns about forthcoming EU directives and their implications for SMEs and Government contracts. A particular European issue recently has been changes to how EU directives will affect SMEs. Figures I have been given suggest that perhaps 150 to 200 SMEs have been forced to close as a result. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

I cannot emphasise enough how important SMEs are to Northern Ireland’s economy; I hope that that is shown by Northern Ireland’s European entrepreneurial region status for 2015, which has a focus on SMEs. I congratulate agencies such as Invest NI, local councils and all the SMEs that contributed to achieving that status. A lot of effort went into striving for it, and that effort delivered. I thank everyone who made it a reality. It shows that we are already charging forward in investing in our people, their creativity and their innovation, all three of which are important. What has been achieved is a recognition that we need to put support for such endeavours at the top of our agenda for stimulating sustainable growth and development.

For one thing, local businesses in Northern Ireland were responsible for 90% of the employment increase since 2011. That figure should not be ignored; it represents an astounding one in seven of the working population being employed because of an SME. Invest NI support for local businesses has created or promoted 1,783 jobs from April to the end of November, through targets to assist in SME expansion. Arlene Foster, the Minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and our friend and colleague in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has been active in that area, and has made it a priority. She is very photogenic and is regularly in the paper announcing the expansion of jobs. It is great when that happens on a regular basis in Northern Ireland.

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All that should be celebrated, but there is still a long way to go before SMEs gain the clout that they need to compete against larger competitors, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim suggested in his detailed and informative introduction. It is troubling that small businesses in Northern Ireland exported only 4.8% across the EU, while larger businesses exported 80%. There is clearly a gap in our efforts to assist smaller enterprises, which must be addressed with much haste, as my hon. Friend said.

Sammy Wilson: Although we are hearing about the downside to procurement and all the rest of it, there are encouraging signs in Northern Ireland. A small company that starts up in Northern Ireland will last 75% longer than a similar company anywhere else in the United Kingdom. We need to put out the message that start-ups are very successful and there is resilience.

Jim Shannon: We all value my hon. Friend’s knowledge of business life in Northern Ireland, and he makes a valuable contribution to the debate. Some 30,000 micro-businesses accounted for 89% of local companies. We must emphasise the need to look at the barriers that prevent the rise of SMEs, especially with regard to Government contracts, and address them coherently and fully. Steps have already been taken to look at the accessibility of funding, to simplify the application process and to remove the red tape of bureaucracy that bumps up the costs of application and development in public procurement.

I sometimes wonder how anyone ever gets through the early stages of a business. Years ago, there was less bureaucracy, but today we seem to be entangled with it at almost every level. On the ground, SMEs still find it difficult, costly and sometimes unfeasible to compete with larger competitors.

I congratulate the councils, Invest NI, South East Economic Development and other agencies. Financing their endeavours is only the first of many hurdles faced by SMEs, and it is vital to their success. To have that stage of the process so well accounted for by those valuable agencies is paramount. Through the assistance of such agencies, bank loans to SMEs totalled £408 million in the second quarter of 2014, which represents a rise of 29% on the previous quarter.

Although that work has been important and successful, there is still a lack of clarity about how to identify and access the many sources of available support. I would reject any process that further impeded the accessibility of money through more and more layers of bureaucracy. As of 1 April, Northern Ireland will downsize to a new system of 11 regional super-councils, through which we will do our best to simplify the process and walk SMEs through the steps of accessing Government contracts and funding.

The Northern Ireland Members present are all former Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) reminded me when we were preparing for the debate that the Northern Ireland Assembly insisted that Government contracts in Northern Ireland must include a 30-day payment scheme for those who had contracts, many of whom previously had to wait 90 days or longer for payment. It is absolutely ridiculous that small companies should have to wait so long. We can take some credit for moving forward that process in Northern Ireland.

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I welcome the fact that the UK Government have pushed forward in their goal of awarding 25% of Government contracts to SMEs. Entrepreneurship will drive our economy forward through innovation and creativity. Therefore, we really need to make the leap of innovation—of becoming a successful endeavour—an attractive idea, given the risks of setting up and upholding an SME.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) referred to broadband, which is a problem not only in his constituency but in all our constituencies. I gather from my constituents that he has had some success in banging together the heads of those responsible, and making sure that the DETI and the NIE get together and achieve success. In my constituency, we have a similar problem, and those involved in online businesses have been prevented from expanding their businesses by the lack of broadband. That seems ludicrous. I cannot understand how the problem can be so prevalent in this age of modernisation. It seems simple to me to make the connection within 100 yards of a business to help it to progress, but we find layers of bureaucracy, obstacles, obstructions and reasons for not doing so. We need to act on that system in good faith and make it better if at all possible.

I have concerns about the EU directives and their implications for our ability to invest in our vital SMEs. I acknowledge that a range of positive measures has come from the EU, and not everything is negative. I know we have lots of problems with the EU, but there are positive aspects on a regional basis, such as the merging of funding into an accessible single portal, which includes the structural funds, with an emphasis on encouraging SMEs as a pivot of national economies. However, I am concerned about the upcoming enforcement of the EU public procurement directive. The directive states that

“for public contracts above a certain value, provisions should be drawn up coordinating national procurement procedures so as to ensure that those principles are given practical effect and public procurement is opened up to competition.”

I am concerned about the implications for local, regional and national SMEs, and about our obligations to protect SMEs on a national level, given that they have put so much back into our economy—not only in growth, but in lowering unemployment levels. What exactly will that mean for the distribution of Government contracts? Will the implementation of the directive create any obligations that will impinge on our goal of awarding 25% of Government contracts to SMEs?

I welcome any measures in the public procurement directive that aim to cut red tape and assist UK companies to make the most of the single market. I hope that the promised new regulations will benefit SMEs by encouraging buyers to break contracts into smaller lots and by reducing the cost of the bidding process. The European Commission claims that they may reduce that cost by as much as 60%. SMEs in my constituency and nationwide need reassurance that the process of obtaining Government contracts will not become more elaborate, confusing or inaccessible, and that their interests will not be compromised by the implementation of the directive. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim for giving us all a chance to contribute, and I look forward to the shadow Minister’s contribution and the Minister’s reply.

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3.37 pm

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) for initiating the debate. He was absolutely right to point out just what a force small and medium-sized business are across the country. There are 5 million of them, and they are what keeps our economy moving. He cited examples from his constituency, and I am sure that all hon. Members will have their own examples in mind. Taken together, SMEs are the single biggest employer in my constituency, and that situation is replicated in many towns, cities and rural areas throughout the country.

There is much more that we could do to support SMEs, which are one of the country’s greatest assets, and to unlock their talent, energy and commitment to their communities. I was interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman said about job creation in Northern Ireland over the past few years. It is fascinating to hear what small businesses manage to do despite all the problems and challenges that they face. Think what more they could do if we put in place more support and took away some of the barriers that they encounter.

We must acknowledge the extent to which SMEs have felt the squeeze in recent years, and the problems surrounding Government contracts, which are the focus of today’s debate, must be seen in that context. An economic policy that imposed huge front-loaded cuts on public services has undoubtedly had an impact on SMEs, because in many areas of the country—this picture is familiar to people in Wigan—that policy has created a toxic mix of unemployment, low wages and insecure jobs, which has stopped people spending money in small shops and businesses, thus costing those businesses trade and, in many cases, jobs. In a few instances, the situation has cost people their entire business, which was why I listened with interest to what the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said about the balance that must be struck between conditions on contracts and the need for simplicity. He is absolutely right to raise that point because there is a common picture throughout the country of contracts that contain unnecessary complexity that could be removed, with some concerted effort.

When we talk to SMEs, we often find that they are keen to use Government contracts as a force for social good, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) described when he spoke about apprenticeships and jobs, but they can need Government support to achieve that. The future jobs fund was a good example of a partnership involving public sector bodies at first, and later smaller employers that could not necessarily afford wage subsidies, but wanted to create opportunities. The programme had a significant effect on young people.

In my area, as is the case in many parts of the country, making the living wage a condition of contracts has been hugely helpful for many SMEs, partly because that means that they do not have to engage in a race to the bottom to undercut prices, because if the requirement to pay the living wage is clearly set out in a contract, such companies can compete without driving down the conditions of their work force. SMEs also benefit from that approach because if more people in towns such as mine are paid the living wage, it is more likely that they will have surplus income to spend in local shops and businesses, meaning that the cycle continues.

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It is right to recognise that the picture has been very difficult for many SMEs across the country. The huge front-loaded cuts to many local authorities, health services and other public sector bodies have meant that SMEs have lost contracts. Many small businesses that could borrow money easily from banks on a short-term, sustainable basis a few years ago are now struggling due to the loss of trade and contracts. Taken together, all those things have been problematic for this group of businesses.

Despite the cuts, and although central Government are not handing out large contracts or spending huge amounts on public services, and are unlikely to ramp up that spending any time soon, there is far more that they could do by using the range of tools at their disposal. That was why the hon. Member for South Antrim was right to focus on Government contracts and procurement, which are among central Government’s biggest tools for good. Central Government spend £40 billion a year on goods and services, about 10% of which goes directly to SMEs. Over time—I am not making a party political point because this has happened over a considerable period—a trend has developed for putting in place centralised contractual arrangements that, for various reasons, have tended to shut smaller organisations out of the process altogether. As a result, businesses that are closest to their communities, and that deliver services and do the good that hon. Members have talked about, have become subcontractors in a supply chain, if they are able to compete at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde said that he might need to get out more, and while I could not possibly comment on that, perhaps the same is true for the Government, because there is a regional and local picture to consider, too.

Sammy Wilson: Does the hon. Lady accept that, at a time of fiscal constraint, there is a need to get value for money from contracts? That sometimes means that contracts need to be centralised, but one way around that might be to encourage consortiums of small businesses to apply for larger contracts, because such contracts do not necessarily have to exclude small businesses. I sometimes wonder whether we have explored all options of how we ensure that we can have large contracts while still involving smaller firms in delivery.

Lisa Nandy: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was just about to address the difficulty that small and medium-sized companies face when bidding for public sector contracts. The hon. Member for South Antrim talked about the lengthy, expensive and unnecessarily complicated process, and the lack of support, so I will not rehearse those points to the Minister, although I am interested in his response to them.

One way in which we can ensure that small and medium-sized businesses are not shut out of the procurement process is by moving that process much closer to communities through the devolution agenda, with more commissioning at a regional level. In the past few years, local enterprise partnerships have been established in the place of the regional development agencies, which were very successful. In some areas, local enterprise partnerships still have to bed in, and we can do much more at the local, regional and national levels to make

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them work for local communities. I see this being played out at the local level, too, but when resources are scarce in local, national or regional government, there is a perceived tension between getting value for money and giving contracts to local providers or those that can offer over and above in relation to the social good. In reality, small and medium-sized companies are much more effective at delivering such contracts because they are rooted in their community, because they see the social impact of what they do and because they can have regard to a range of factors beyond just day-to-day profit making.

There is a good example of that, from which I hope the Government have learned. During the commissioning process for the Work programme, some smaller providers, including a number from the voluntary sector, pulled out because they felt that they could not make an impact through their contracts. We can see a good example of the problem of contracts being dominated by bigger companies, with smaller organisations acting as sub-primes, because St Mungo’s, the homelessness charity, pulled out because not one person was referred to it through the Work programme during the period of its contract. It is inconceivable to think that, had St Mungo’s been given the contract directly, it would have been unable to find people who were desperate to get into work and could have benefited from the intervention it could offer.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that such dominance by a small number of larger companies is not effective at any level—it is not good for the public or for SMEs. This is not just about SMEs getting what they deserve; it is about ensuring that we are delivering the best value for money in our communities and across the country.

In the time I have remaining, I will address the length of time it takes for payment to reach SMEs for the services that they provide. We hear the complaint that bigger companies are contracted and small companies have to act as sub-primes. The Government could do much more to act in instances when they have made a payment to a prime provider but that has not yet reached the smaller company at the bottom of the chain.

Sammy Wilson: A possible solution when there is a substantial number of subcontractors is the greater use of project bank accounts. Rather than money being paid to the main contractor, it goes into a project bank account to be drawn out as invoices come in. In Northern Ireland, a main contractor can be excluded from applying for public sector contracts for a specified period of time if there are complaints that it is clearly not abiding by the terms of a contract.

Lisa Nandy: I would welcome the Minister’s response to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

Although the Government’s record on prompt payment is better than that of the private sector, the National Audit Office found a few weeks ago that the figures are skewed by the Government making prompter payments to a few large suppliers. Astonishingly, it is virtually impossible to assess the record of the Cabinet Office and many other Departments because paper invoices are not dated when they arrive, which is a method commonly used by smaller organisations. Despite the

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Government’s rhetoric, the situation betrays a casual attitude to something that can be make or break for many small businesses. It would be helpful to know what the Minister has done in the past few weeks to address the situation. Were the Government to pay invoices within five calendar days rather than 30, the reduced interest cost to businesses could be worth up to £88 million, according to the NAO, and the reduced cost to the taxpayer could be up to £55 million. The NAO report called for strategic leadership from the Government and I hope the Minister agrees that it is important that the Cabinet Office leads on this by ensuring that its own suppliers are paid on time.

In conclusion, the Government could draw on the success of other countries. Labour would set up a small business administration that could work to mainstream and hardwire such activity in government. That would require a huge cultural change, but there are small things that the Government could do more quickly, such as taking action on late payments, to signal their intent to unlock one of this country’s biggest assets.

3.50 pm

The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Rob Wilson): I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) for securing this debate on such an important subject. I know that much of his concern is born from the experience of a constituency case, and it is absolutely right that he should speak up for small businesses in his constituency. I join him in congratulating all those wealth creators who take the risk of running their own businesses and, ultimately, pay for the public services that we all enjoy.

From the outset, this Government have fully recognised the vital role that small and medium-sized businesses have to play in helping us to achieve the best possible value for money when we buy goods and services. That was why we included in our initial programme for government an aspiration that by the end of this Parliament 25% of direct and indirect Government procurement of goods and services by value should go to SMEs.

That was a bold step considering that, under the previous Government, Departments had no idea how much they were spending on SMEs. After a lot of hard work, we found that it amounted to 6.5% of Government procurement of goods and services in 2009-10, or £3.1 billion. That was a shamefully low figure, given that 95.5% of private sector businesses in the UK are micro-firms—companies with fewer than 10 employees. However, those micro-businesses together accounted for 32% of private sector employment and 20% of private sector turnover.

We recognised that something had to be done to remove the barriers facing SMEs bidding for Government contracts, and we have gone a long way to removing those barriers. During the past four years, we have increased accessibility and transparency, identified and tackled poor procurement practice and provided practical assistance to help SMEs. We are now taking steps to extend those reforms further across the public sector.

In 2011, to increase accessibility, the Government established the Contracts Finder for central Government. That is a one-stop shop to enable suppliers to find procurement and subcontracting opportunities, tender documents and contracts online and free of charge. The Government have also committed, for the first time, to the publication of future contract opportunities to provide

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greater transparency about future public sector business, and to help suppliers to plan for and win more business.

Contract pipelines also enable the Government to secure deals that offer better value for the taxpayer by allowing for early negotiation with suppliers. The contract pipelines have developed from £40 billion of future spend in 2011 to more than £191 billion on 19 pipelines by December 2014. This information provides a view of major contracting opportunities through to 2020 and beyond, and it includes projected spend on High Speed 2 and the Thames tunnel, to give just two examples.

We have also appointed Stephen Allott as Crown representative for SMEs to be a

“strong voice at the top table”

for SMEs. He works across Government, and with SMEs and their trade associations, to get full value from SMEs and to increase the number of SMEs bidding for and winning Government contracts. We also set up the Cabinet Office SME panel to provide a regular forum for SMEs to raise the issues that concern them most and to hold our feet, as a Government, to the fire.

Sammy Wilson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Rob Wilson: I will continue for a little bit longer, if I may, because I have to get through a lot of questions to which I know the hon. Gentleman and others want answers.

To identify poor procurement practice, we have introduced a mystery shopper service. If a supplier encounters poor practice, such as an over-bureaucratic pre-qualification requirement or unreasonable selection criteria, they can blow the whistle and refer that to our mystery shopper service, which will raise it on their behalf with the contracting authority. We regularly publish the outcomes of mystery shopper investigations on the website. We have now received nearly 800 mystery shopper cases, with four out of five investigations resulting in a positive outcome.

In addition, the mystery shopper service has started proactively spot checking procurements by examining procurement documents online. We have instigated nearly 500 spot checks to look at a range of aspects of procurement, and have found issues in around 20% of the checks that we have conducted, including burdensome pre-qualification questionnaires.

Some 45 of those spot checks tested compliance with the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 and involved asking contracting authorities to set out how they considered the requirements of the Act in the pre-procurement stage of service contracts. The sort of evidence that we look for includes whether any consultation took place with the market, and with current and potential service users, and how the conclusions drawn from such consultation were used to shape the requirement. In total, 20% of the authorities examined were unable to provide sufficient evidence of compliance, so we have advised them to ensure they consider the Act in future.

We are particularly conscious of the burden of pre-qualification questionnaires, which are used to select suppliers to be invited to tender, and the pressure that they can place on SMEs. To address that situation, we have eliminated the use of PQQs in 15 out of 17 Departments for all central Government procurement under the EU threshold of approximately £100,000.

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The two Departments still using PQQs—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence—are doing so only for security reasons. For those procurements that still require a PQQ, we have introduced a much simpler standard set of questions, which reduces the burden on suppliers and levels the playing field in terms of financial risk and evidence of experience.

We recognise that being paid promptly is vital to enable SMEs to manage their cash flows and to reduce the amount of time wasted on chasing invoices. We are determined to help businesses to manage their cash flows and to transform the culture of late payment. In 2010, to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), the Government reiterated our policy of paying 80% of undisputed invoices within five days and ensuring that the prime contractors pay tier 2 suppliers within 30 days as a condition of contracting with Departments. We expect our suppliers to follow our example on prompt payment and to pay their subcontractors within the 30-day limit. When this does not happen, we encourage suppliers to report late payment to the mystery shopper service.

We know that we need to do more to improve performance across the public sector, however. We have made much progress in the past four years, but following recommendations by Lord Young of Graffham, we now intend to extend these reforms across the public sector to non-devolved bodies such as the NHS and local councils in England.

We intend to introduce measures in the next few weeks to ensure that 30-day payment terms flow down the public sector supply chains into all new contracts, which will ensure that smaller suppliers benefit from prompt payment. Contracts Finder will be extended to become a one-stop shop for public sector contract opportunities. We have fully redeveloped the original site to make it more user-friendly, including by creating a powerful search facility to make it easier to find and bid for work, and providing the ability to look up contracts by location and postcode. The site will function on multiple devices.

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I am conscious of the time, but I want to cover as many of the questions that were asked as possible. We heard about EU procurement rules being unwieldy, and we have negotiated a new procurement directive that will improve the chances of SMEs winning public contracts. Regulations to transpose that directive will be introduced very soon.

As for the EU procurement requirement, as part of this year’s new public contract legislation, there will be more open approaches for supplier procurement and a reaching out to more suppliers, including SMEs. The documentation required from SMEs is being reduced to make it easier for them to access opportunities. The UK engaged proactively in negotiations on a new directive on SMEs and EU markets.

I was asked about aggregating demand with regard to helping SMEs. Breaking large contracts into more manageable lots is key to ensuring that SMEs can compete for aggregated deals, and the new procurement regulations will require contracting authorities actively to consider that. The new public contracts regulations will apply across the whole public sector, apart from devolved bodies, and will include Lord Young’s recommendation to abolish PQQs. Under Lord Young’s reforms, we are requiring the public sector generally to advertise contracts on Contracts Finder. This includes an option to highlight any opportunity as applying to an SME.

The hon. Member for South Antrim talked about an individual company. The Highways Agency fully supports the use of Conemaster on its road networks. It has funded its use in road trials, as well as an analysis of its economic performance, which showed that Conemaster demonstrated a positive benefit-cost ratio of 2:1.

I think that is about as far as I will get on answering hon. Members’ questions, but I would like to say finally that we—

Philip Davies (in the Chair): Order.

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Human Rights in Mexico

4 pm

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to have secured the debate, which allows me to raise the issue of human rights in Mexico. I begin by saying that I do not claim any particular expertise in the matter—certainly not as much as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who chairs the all-party group on Mexico and will speak briefly later. I am also grateful to my constituent, James Graham, and to members of the local Amnesty group, who brought these concerns to my attention. That led to me requesting the debate.

In many parts of Mexico, insecurity and violence on both sides of the conflict have left communities unprotected and at risk. There are frequent reports of human rights abuses being committed by police and security forces, including enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention. Impunity for those crimes remains the norm. On the other hand, those who try to expose human rights abuses and support victims, such as human rights defenders and journalists, risk violent retribution. Women, indigenous peoples and migrants face discrimination and violence, but their chances of redress are slim. The justice system continues to fail victims, the accused and society. Those are just some of the human rights problems that people have to face in their daily lives.

In the short time available, I want to focus on three key areas: torture, the criminal justice system and the disappearances. Sadly, torture seems to be endemic on both sides of the law in Mexico. Indeed, it appears to be the preferred method of investigation for many police and military officers. It is reported that beatings, sexual abuse and fake asphyxiation are routinely used by the security forces to punish detainees or to extract confessions. One of the many victims of torture is Miriam Lopez. On 2 February 2011, she had just finished her school run when she was abducted by two men wearing balaclavas. She was taken to a military base near Tijuana in Mexico and held for seven days. She was beaten, raped three times, given electric shocks and nearly asphyxiated by her captors to get her to implicate herself and others in drug trafficking offences. She was eventually released without charge.

4.2 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.12 pm

On resuming—

Cathy Jamieson: Before the Division, I was speaking about the situation of Miriam Lopez and the treatment she received. When she was eventually released without charge, she was brave enough to file a formal complaint, but four years have passed and none of her torturers has been brought to justice. Sadly, her ordeal is not unique.

Between 2003 and 2013, there was a 600% rise in the number of torture cases reported to the National Human Rights Commission. Another torture victim, Claudia Medina, told Amnesty that on 7 August 2012 navy marines broke into her home, tied her hands, blindfolded her and took her to the local naval base where she was tortured using electric shocks, sexually assaulted, beaten,

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kicked and left tied to a chair in scorching afternoon heat. The following day she was again blindfolded and transferred to the federal Attorney-General’s office where she was interrogated and pressured into signing a statement that she was not allowed to read. Later that day, the authorities presented Claudia and the other detainees to the media, claiming that they were dangerous criminals. She was later released on bail. She reported her treatment, prompting a federal judge to request an investigation. Over two years later, no investigation has taken place.

Federal courts dealt with 123 prosecutions for torture between 2005 and 2013, but only seven resulted in convictions under federal law. On paper, Mexico has adhered to the highest international standards in its examination of alleged torture claims, but in reality forensic examinations tend to be poor, late, re-traumatising and biased. For example, detainees should be medically examined following arrest, but many say that that does not happen and that no questions are asked about injuries. The initial examinations that take place are often held in the presence of people who may themselves have been implicated in torture. The medical professionals involved are military officials or employees of the offices of the Attorney-General or of the prison system. Photographs to document injuries are almost never taken, so the potential for torture or other ill treatment to go unrecorded within the system is clear.

I hope the Minister will respond on those two particular cases and tell us whether an investigation to secure justice for Miriam and Claudia is any nearer.

Many arrests are made without evidence or warrants, with suspects allegedly caught red-handed. In many cases, people are arrested without there being any direct connection to a crime or crime scene, due to anonymous tip-offs or because their name has been given by a torture victim. All too often, those arrested are from poor and marginalised communities. They have little access to effective legal support; of course, the less support they have, the more likely it is that they could be tortured.

The victims, their relatives and activists defending their human rights often face threats and intimidation, deterring many from lodging formal complaints. Key safeguards in Mexican law such as the right to a defence from the moment of detention are not upheld. Amnesty has interviewed victims of torture who allege that they were refused access to a lawyer until they had signed a statement. Between 2008 and 2013, 8,500 people in Mexico were held in 80-day pre-charge detention under the arraigo system. Of those, only 3.2% were convicted.

Mexico is also plagued by frequent abductions. Last November, the disappearance of 43 students once again bought the country unwelcome notoriety. In Mexico itself, thousands of people took to the streets to demand an urgent search and justice for the missing students, who were training to become primary school teachers in rural communities. They came from a largely indigenous area with high levels of depravation, discrimination, marginalisation and lack of access to basic services. They were politically active, and many were involved in demonstrations over rural teachers, education policy and other issues.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The disappearance of the 43 students caused worldwide outrage. They were killed, their bodies burned and their remains wrapped

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in bags and thrown in a river. At the time, it was indicated that a level of corruption and links to a drugs cartel ran through from the police to the judges and even the mayor of Iguala. Does the hon. Lady feel that if we are to tackle the human rights abuses in Mexico the dirty officials have to be removed?

Cathy Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In very recent developments within the past day or so, the parents of the students have refused to accept a claim from Mexico’s Attorney-General that the students are dead and have demanded that the search continue. Amnesty believes that the Attorney-General of Mexico has failed properly to investigate allegations of complicity by the armed forces and others in authority. Local police operating in collusion with criminal gangs are thought to be responsible for many of the disappearances, as well as the separate killing of three students and three bystanders.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the local mayor, who is suspected of involvement and was also the subject of separate allegations, from a first-hand victim, of direct participation in violence and murder, which were not investigated. The Mexican Government have to tackle the collusion between the authorities and organised crime. Otherwise, there can be no justice.

The 43 students form part of more than 23,000 cases of people who are missing or have disappeared and whose whereabouts remain unknown. In 2012, the National Human Rights Commission said it was investigating more than 2,000 cases of reported disappearances. Thousands of unidentified bodies lie in mortuaries across the country or have been exhumed from mass graves. The Mexican Government must demonstrate that they are prepared to take serious and urgent action on torture, murder and abduction. That means making it clear that officials can no longer ignore human rights abuses and that anyone implicated in them, directly or indirectly, must be prosecuted. Victims must have access to truth and justice.

I have a few points to put to the Minister. I hope he will agree that the UK Government have a moral obligation to act in the face of torture, abduction and systemic persecution. I hope, too, that he will agree to call for urgent action to stop the use of torture and terror, end the culture of impunity and improve the justice system in Mexico.

Among the issues that I hope the UK will raise with the Mexican authorities are immediate investigation of all allegations of torture and other ill treatment; immediate and proper medical examination of detainees; immediate access to legal counsel for all detainees and enabling them to meet with their families; holding detainees only in recognised detention facilities; abolition of pre-charge arraigo detention; suspected torturers all being held to account, regardless of rank; and reparations to people who have been subjected to torture. With 2015 being the year of the UK in Mexico and of Mexico in the UK, an upcoming visit of the Mexican President also provides an opportunity to raise such issues. We are a key ally of Mexico, so I hope that UK Ministers will harness their diplomatic leverage and urge the Mexican authorities to make human rights a political priority.

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Specifically, how will the UK Government use the Mexican President’s state visit to the United Kingdom in March to press for accountability on human rights violations in Mexico? How will the UK Government use the opportunity of the year of the UK in Mexico and of Mexico in the UK to secure tangible progress on human rights? Given the worsening human rights situation in Mexico, will the UK Government include Mexico among the “countries of concern” in the annual Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report?

4.21 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) on securing this important debate. I am grateful to her and to the Minister for giving me a few minutes to say something.

I am chair of the all-party group on Mexico and vice-chair of the all-party human rights group. I have led a delegation of the Inter-Parliamentary Union to Mexico and visited the country on many occasions—most recently, last November. Furthermore, the all-party human rights group has convened a series of round-table meetings in which we involve Foreign Office officials, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Mexican embassy and the Mexican community in London, and we interact on human rights issues. We are trying to be positive and to make progress, and I hope that the Minister will tell us that this year of relations with Mexico will provide not simply a jamboree for trade and investment, but a serious look at the endemic, systemic human rights problems that exist in Mexico.

Since 2006, 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico in the supposed war on drugs. The number of people missing is difficult to quantify exactly, but is somewhere around 23,000, according to Amnesty, although many independent human rights groups in Mexico put the figure much higher than that. The disappearance of the 43 students at Ayotzinapa in Guerrero state was shocking because it was so brazen; it was shocking because they were taken off a bus and disappeared. The more the investigation goes on, the worse it gets. Every time the investigators look, they find another unmarked grave. Who is in those unmarked graves? Unaccompanied migrants from Guatemala trying to flee to the USA to gain a sustainable living, who have been killed by gangs, often in collusion with the local police. The police are, in turn, in collusion with local officials.

The sense of anger in Mexico is palpable. I was there in November, only a short time after the disappearances, and although I have been to Mexico many times, I have never seen so many people on the streets, so angry and so determined that there should be real political and judicial change. The President is under real pressure.

Among the problems in Mexico are the facts that there are 2,000 different police forces that do not talk to each other and 31 governors who do not talk to each other; disappearances are endemic in many states; and there is a close relationship between some of the politicians in some of those states with the gangs and the disappearances. There is also a problem with the virtual impunity of the armed forces. I hope that the Minister will address those issues in his response today and raise them in discussion with President Pena Nieto during the state visit at the beginning of March.

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If there is to be a change in Mexico, it will, in part, be as a result of pressure from outside. I have some sympathy with Mexico, in that guns come south from the unregulated gun trade in Texas and other US states, while drugs produced in Colombia and other places come north. Mexico is therefore a bit of a transit place for all of that, so the issues must be dealt with in part from a wider perspective. I hope we will be able to put on some real pressure for improvements.

Changes have been proposed in the legal system, where British involvement and representation have introduced the idea of adversarial justice, rather than the Napoleonic form of magisterial justice. That is a step forward. However, there is also a need to listen more carefully to independent human rights groups in Mexico, rather than just to the Mexican Government and the Mexican human rights commission. In my experience, the independent human rights groups have much more of a finger on the button. They are prepared to prosecute cases, to take them to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and to bring about real change.

Mexico is a country of the most amazing history, contrasts and diversity, but it is also a place of great sadness. I conclude with this thought. One weekend, my wife and I were in Cuernavaca—a beautiful city not so far from Mexico City. As we arrived, we heard that 12 bodies had been suspended from a bridge and that the heads had been left by the side of the road. That was some kind of signal to somebody; that is the degree of human rights abuses, fear and threats in Mexico.

As a friend of Mexico, we should use our relationship with it to put on all the pressure we can for genuine human rights dialogue. We should also call Mexico to account when it comes to the UN Human Rights Council in March, so that the universal periodic review recommendations it said it was accepting are actually implemented and so that people in Mexico can develop their justice and human rights in their country.

4.27 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) on securing a debate on this important issue. It is timely, given the approaching state visit by the President of Mexico.

This would hardly be a debate on Latin American matters without the contribution of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), whom I have heard speak on these themes on other occasions in the House. No one in the House, whatever political party they represent, has any doubt about his long-standing, principled commitment to human rights in that part of the world.

It is important to commend the excellent work done by the all-party groups on Mexico and on human rights, as well as the initiative they showed in organising two recent round-table discussions on human rights in Mexico. They secured the participation of not only Members of both Houses, but the Mexican embassy to the United Kingdom and Amnesty International. The fact that not only non-governmental organisations that had been critical of the state of human rights in Mexico, but representatives of the Mexican Government were able to take part is a good indication of the way in which we should continue discussions on these subjects.

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The hon. Lady mentioned the cases of Miriam Lopez and Claudia Medina. We are aware of those cases, which have been widely reported. I will ask the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), who has ministerial responsibility for Latin America, to write to her and other Members present with more detail about those particular cases.

The disappearances and killings in Iguala and Tlatlaya have, understandably, prompted significant international concern. In many ways, they have come to symbolise the concerns felt about human rights and impunity in Mexico. As the hon. Member for Islington North acknowledged, we all need to recognise the genuine and serious security challenges that Mexico faces. We have been among the countries closely monitoring the recent tragic events and the Mexican Government’s response, and I will say a little more later about some of the initiatives that we have taken here and through our embassy in Mexico City.

The Mexican Government continue to express their commitment to human rights and have a good track record of engaging with the United Nations and other international human rights bodies. I know that Members who went to the all-party group round-table on 3 December last year welcomed the presence of Mexico’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Juan Manuel Gomez-Robledo, and his confirmation that the Mexican Government had agreed that the Inter-American Commission On Human Rights should create an interdisciplinary group of independent experts to examine his Government’s response to and investigation into the particular case of Iguala.

Jim Shannon: In my earlier intervention, I specifically mentioned the 43 students who went missing. Have our Government had any discussions with the Mexican Government on the disappearance of the 43 students and the corruption that let that happen? In response to my intervention, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) mentioned that the families have, as yet, no knowledge of where their loved ones are. Have we had any correspondence or discussion with the Mexican Government? If we have, what has come back?

Mr Lidington: In particular through our embassy in Mexico City, but also in our contacts through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Mexican embassy in the United Kingdom and with Mexican visitors to the country, we certainly express our deepest concerns about those cases, the disappearances and the subsequent discovery of hidden graves in Iguala.

The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, raised the Tlatlaya and Iguala cases in high-level political talks in Mexico in November last year. We very much support the declared intention of the Mexican authorities to carry out an exhaustive investigation to try to find the missing students and to bring justice for the victims and their families. As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said, in the past few days there have been reports that the students are dead, but the families are challenging that. It is important that a thorough investigation is carried out so that the families, whatever the outcome, feel that everything possible has been done to find out what happened to their children.

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The Mexican Government’s plan to address insecurity, announced in November 2014, included a series of reforms to the police service. As the hon. Lady said in her opening speech, the police have been the focus of quite a lot of the critical commentary on Mexico’s human rights record. The proposal is that Mexico’s 1,800 municipal police forces be replaced with 32 state- level forces and that a specific law on torture and enforced disappearances should be enacted. The Mexican Government have also committed themselves to new legislation allowing for the dissolution of local governments infiltrated by organised crime. Clearly it is not only that declaration and plan, welcome though they are, that are important, but action to see that plan implemented.

Cathy Jamieson: That information is helpful and welcome, but does the Minister agree that simply making those structural changes will not necessarily have the required effect, unless those new police forces have a different culture and different training? Does he have any information on who will assist in trying to make that happen?

Mr Lidington: I completely agree. Wherever one looks in the world, changes to the structure and the organisation of institutions are important. We should not deride that sort of reform, but those sorts of administrative changes need to embody cultural change, too. That is a lesson I am well aware of from my ministerial work with Governments in parts of central and eastern Europe—I am thinking of some of the Balkan countries, in particular. Changes to an organisation’s structure are necessary to trigger cultural reform of the type the hon. Lady described.

We stand ready to support the Mexican Government in their efforts to strengthen processes and mechanisms so that those responsible for human rights abuses are brought to justice. In recent years, the FCO’s human rights work in Mexico has focused on tackling impunity in particular as a way of improving human rights across the country.

The hon. Lady asked how we propose to deal with the question of human rights in the context of the forthcoming state visit. We are keen to help Mexico to strengthen its capacity to uphold its human rights obligations—it is party to all those international conventions that proscribe torture and other abuses of human rights—as well as to tackle its security challenges. We see the state visit as an opportunity to strengthen our bilateral relationship. That, in turn, will allow for continued full and frank conversations, including about human rights.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for giving way; I know he has only a couple of minutes left. During the discussions, will he raise the impunity of the armed forces in relation to the decision taken by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on one of the cases there and whether the belief is that the new law in Mexico meets the requirements of that court?

Mr Lidington: I will make sure that that idea is drawn to the attention of both the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, and the Foreign Secretary.

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The war on drugs featured as a case study in last year’s FCO human rights report, and the issue of Mexico and impunity will feature in this year’s report.

During 2013-14, our embassy in Mexico City helped to fund an initiative called Citizens in Support of Human Rights—or CADHAC, to use the Spanish acronym—to support efforts to strengthen criminal prosecution and judicial processes in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, where the majority of enforced disappearances are alleged to have happened. We believe that as a result of that project, the legal framework to address enforced disappearances has been strengthened and access to justice improved, but we are continuing efforts to build and strengthen links with human rights organisations in Mexico and to secure funding for similar grass-roots projects now and for the future.

In the coming months, we will be supporting a project to strengthen the judicial system in the state of Chiapas, and in the future we particularly hope to support charities and NGOs working to tackle enforced disappearances. We believe that regular constructive dialogue with Mexico will bring the best results for human rights defenders and victims of human rights abuses and violations.

The UK enjoys a strong bilateral relationship with Mexico that allows for full and frank conversation. We have well established co-operation on such matters as climate change, transparency, non-proliferation and international development. The 2015 year of the UK and Mexico and the state visit of President Pena Nieto in early March will provide further scope for such constructive engagement. One of the messages that we raise in our discussions with Mexican Ministers and officials is that greater respect for human rights and the rule of law and improved security will lead to a better environment for business and investment. The two should not be seen as in any way in opposition. Respect for the rule of law gives confidence to business in terms of trade and investment commitments in the future.

It is right that the international community, including the United Kingdom, should respond vigorously to allegations of human rights violations in Iguala and elsewhere. We recognise the human rights challenges that Mexico faces, and through constructive dialogue as part of a positive, bilateral relationship, we stand ready to support the Mexican Government in their efforts to deliver on their international human rights commitments and ensure that those responsible for human rights abuses are brought to justice and held accountable.

Jeremy Corbyn: I want to make one last point to the Minister. Will he assure the House that the embassy will be fully staffed in Mexico City—I pay tribute to the staff there; I have met them many times and they are always extremely helpful—to ensure that there is a good, strong and effective human rights and legal affairs team there that can take part both in European monitoring as well as UN monitoring of what is going on in Mexico? We all need to take part to improve the human rights and life chances of many people in Mexico.

Mr Lidington: Our ambassador and his team see human rights as a very important part of their responsibilities, but again I shall make sure that that strong message from the House this afternoon is conveyed both to him and to the officials to whom he reports.

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Rail Services (Blackpool North)

4.40 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is fortuitous to be called to speak in this debate now, given the timely change that is happening for rail in Lancashire, and the number of rumours flowing in local papers and on the internet. I am grateful for the opportunity. I agonised a little over what subject to propose for the debate: should it be about rail services from or to Blackpool North? Blackpool is a holiday resort so we want people to come to it, but I would not want to deny my constituents the chance to travel from the station at some point. So, I covered both. I have a lot to get through, so I will be as brief as I can.

Blackpool North is no tiny rural stopping point. It is the eighth largest station on the northern rail network. Its size needs to be set against the 66% increase in passenger numbers in the whole northern franchise in the past decade. However, there has recently been an immense amount of negative coverage in the local press about Blackpool North rail services. Real concerns have been raised, and it is worth quoting the council’s recent submission to the franchise consultation:

“Government and Network Rail’s continued commitment to national rail investment in an austere period is welcome”.

I endorse those sentiments—all our comments should be placed in that context—but a handful of people passionately believe that the Government are seeking in some way to downgrade services to Blackpool North. If that is so, they have found an expensive way to go about it. However, I would welcome a stern rebuttal from the Minister, explaining why that is not what is happening.

We have a lot of good news to trumpet. We have just restored the direct rail service to London Euston with Virgin. It is not ideal timing. At 5.25 in the morning even I am not at my best—believe it or not—and the 4.30 pm return journey from Euston means that many things that people might want to do during the day cannot be done, but it is better than nothing. However, my real concern is that it should not be just a short-term wonder that will disappear when the franchise process is over and Virgin feels secure and can stop it again. I would welcome some reassurance on that point.

We need to make sure that when electrification is complete we upgrade the rolling stock in line with that new capability. Electrification is the second piece of good news. The line between Preston and Blackpool will be significantly enhanced, but the consultation in early 2014 suggested it would all be done by March 2017. I would welcome clarification, because there has been a lot of argument locally about what the precise timings are. Are they still as they were in the original consultation or has there been slippage? If so, is that related to finance—the money made available by the Government in the next control period—or has it more to do with the change in the sequencing of the different electrification projects, because of changes at Euxton junction station box, which I think lies at the heart of it?

There are queries about rolling stock. As the Minister knows, we have an excellent service from Blackpool North to Manchester airport, using class 170 units. However, they have a crucial flaw for a route connecting a holiday resort and an airport—there ain’t much luggage

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space on them. People struggle to cram their suitcases on and children hang off the sides—not quite; that would be a rail safety issue. However, it is incredibly overcrowded, and that needs to change.

I suppose I should welcome the fact that we are to have larger trains with more seats—800,000 per annum, in fact. That must be a good thing, but the cost of solving that capacity problem will be that we shall be using older carriages. The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) regards the trains in question as less comfortable, and they may well be for someone whose bottom is sitting on them, but I commuted for many years from Layton to Salford Crescent on those services, and nothing is less comfortable than a standing journey all the way to Manchester. This is an improvement, but I hope the Minister can see that it is a case of one step forward and perhaps one step back. We have not made enough progress on improving that rolling stock.

Another annoyance is that the carriages that we thought we were getting appear to be heading down to leafy Oxfordshire, to the Chiltern line. That has caused a little bit of local resentment, and I could not possibly comment on why that might be.

The next concern, which the Minister is no doubt sick to death of hearing about, is the Pacers—the buses on wheels. They are absolutely appalling; no one disagrees about that. I welcome the fact that they will be refurbished, but that is not quite enough to put a smile on my face, because I am concerned that within the new franchising process there will be some sort of pay-off—better rolling stock, but fewer stopping services. That would affect another station in my constituency, Layton, where I used to embark for my commuting, because it has seen an increase in passenger numbers in the past year alone of 11.5%. If the cost of getting better carriages on the Blackpool North line is fewer stopping services, Layton will suffer, and Layton is a major commuting point, so I would like the Minister to take account of that concern.

I am glad that the Government recognise that Pacers have had their day. I just wish that we had slightly better alignment over when we actually get round to replacing them, so that it could be done a little more quickly. This goes to the nub of rolling stock policy. I regard it as the equivalent of quadratic equations in terms of rail policy. Despite years of trying, I have never got my head around either of them. I spent a good few years on the Select Committee on Transport and I struggled to work out how rolling stock procurement in this country functioned. I failed: whenever I thought I had got it, another little quirk crept in. It is a very frustrating process, and everyone looks at everyone else in it. We seem to be spending an awful lot of money enhancing the network—that is very welcome—but I am talking about improvements in routings, in the track and in the capability of the track. At the same time, we are not investing at the same pace in the rolling stock that can operate on it. That was a clear finding in the most recent Transport Committee report. In my view, the two have to go together.

Rolling stock leasing companies appear bereft of the ability or unwilling to state how they will improve rolling stock provision. No one seems willing to grasp the levers, pull them and make the upgrades happen. What we seem to get is the leftovers from down south,

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which are cascaded northwards. I would far rather have a clearer view of when improved rolling stock will come, even if it is a few more years into the future.

My next concern relates to how Northern and TransPennine Express will interact as two separate franchises. There is a suggestion that some of the Blackpool North services will be folded into the Northern franchise. That causes a degree of local concern. People are also looking rather enviously, for a change, over at Cleethorpes. We normally look down on Cleethorpes as a lesser seaside resort, but people in Cleethorpes have achieved a great deal, because they have managed to save their TransPennine Express franchise, and good for them—well done to the Member of Parliament there—but if Cleethorpes can have that, why cannot Blackpool North?

We are quite keen on our TransPennine Express franchise and want to keep its services, too. What impact would that have on our routes to York and the relatively new route to Huddersfield, all of which are important for getting tourists into town at the height of the summer season? I would far rather be making the case for new routes and services from Blackpool North than fighting to retain and justify what we already have.

The new announcement that TransPennine Express will use some Northern rolling stock on Blackpool North services in the coming weeks as part of the cascade process makes me concerned that the decision has already been made and set in stone and therefore will not be changed. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that in particular.

However, I really want to focus on today’s little bombshell in my inbox, which is the suggestion that in some way we will now see fewer services to Liverpool Lime Street. They will reduce from four an hour to three an hour and terminate at Preston. Anyone who has had the misfortune to terminate at Preston and have to transfer to a Blackpool service knows that that is not a pleasant experience. There are better things to do close to midnight than trudge over that dreadful station bridge while carrying luggage. It is simply not good enough.

In addition, two of the most popular originating stations for travellers to Blackpool North are Liverpool Lime Street and Wigan North Western, both of which will be affected by the proposed change. I want to know what new services can be included for Blackpool North; it should not just be a case of trying to retain the old ones. I would be grateful for clarity from the Minister on the latest rumour.

There are things to welcome. The northern hub has excited me ever since I first heard about it because it is an opportunity to transform rail services across the north. The language of the northern powerhouse and the possibility of HS3 signify great things for the future, but we also have the here and now to worry about. I welcome devolution in the form of Rail North, which is a good step. Part of me regrets the lost four years after we abolished “The Northern Way”, which was rapidly heading in that direction. After abolishing it, we stepped back for four years before reinventing the wheel and calling it Rail North. There has been a lost opportunity, but Rail North is a real chance. I share the Select Committee’s concern that smaller authorities such as Blackpool might feel a bit left out in the formation of

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Rail North. Are they hearing all the information that they need to hear? The report contains some concerning suggestions.

I stress the importance to the resort of services to Scotland and the Pennine towns, especially in south Yorkshire, to which we have poor links. That relates to open access, which is one of my hobby horses. The Government have not done enough on open access. I am glad that the Competition and Markets Authority will try to put a bomb under the Office of Rail Regulation to allow for more open access, which can only be a good thing.

Open access will benefit places such as Blackpool North. When we have our Glasgow week, I want loads of services bringing people down from Glasgow, but I do not want those services every week of the year. There is capacity on that stretch of the west coast main line, and such services could be incorporated and would be attractive. It needs to be much easier for people to take that step, invest in the services, and be innovative and creative in growing the passenger base. Good connectivity within the northern hub cannot rely only on people changing trains at Manchester Piccadilly, however smooth and swift that may be. We need more services that go across the northern part of the Pennine routes so that people do not have to go through Manchester Piccadilly. It is important for the Government to dwell on that.

The Minister might have noted last week’s Centre for Cities report comparing different city regions. Blackpool did not come out well. I think a few statistical quirks lay behind that, but the sum total was that some 14,000 jobs have been lost since 2004. However, I am pleased to say that private sector job growth in my constituency has been stark since 2010, so it is going in the right direction in my local area. It is easy to link that to other areas of the north such as Halifax, Hartlepool and Sunderland, which have all seen private sector growth and general job growth over that decade.

What connects those three towns? They all have good, competitive open-access arrangements alongside the franchise alternatives, which is driving the market to the benefit of passengers. It is also good for the local economy and for jobs growth. I would like the Government to be more ambitious for open access in the north because it can deliver on economic growth.

My final point is slightly obtuse, but it is important none the less for many of my constituents. When I was standing waiting for the train down to Euston one Monday morning, staff from two rail companies approached me with very serious concerns about staff safety on trains going in and out of Blackpool North. The period of risk for staff, and indeed for passengers, on those trains is elongated compared with many other towns because of the nature of our entertainment industry. Throwing out times can be at any hour of the day or night, and many who leave the nightclubs at 3 am will get on the first train in the morning from Blackpool North. There is concern about the inadequate number of British Transport police on the right trains at the right time when staff are at greatest risk.

I wrote to British Transport police on 9 October, and I have not heard a dicky-bird since, which is deeply disappointing. I still have constituents who are being put at risk and who would love to see more British Transport police on the platforms, particularly on bank holiday weekends, but also on Friday and Saturday

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nights throughout the year. The key early morning trains, including the first train of the day, may well be the most risky for staff. The Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers agrees with me—I do not usually pray the RMT in aid, but on this occasion we are in agreement—and I would welcome the Minister putting some pressure on British Transport police to look into that situation.

In my 15 minutes—I have just made it by 10 seconds—I have given the Minister an awful lot to reply to. I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

4.55 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this vital debate on train services to and from Blackpool North station. He has spoken eloquently about the opportunities and investment that Government plans for rail in the north of England have brought to the vital seaside resort of Blackpool and the rest of the region. I thank him for his words of support for the overall direction of the investment plan and hope that I will be able to address all of his points in the minutes left to me.

It is an exciting time for rail passengers in the north of England. My hon. Friend represents a beautiful constituency with an amazing huge, vaulted station, built in Victorian times to deal with the millions of people who travelled by rail to take their holidays in Blackpool. Frankly, like the rest of the country, his part of the world has suffered from years of under-investment in the rail network and in rolling stock, as he rightly pointed out. That is why I am so pleased that it is this Government who have set out plans to spend an unprecedented £38 billion on the rail network over the next five years—the biggest investment since Victorian times.

There will soon be two new rail franchise lets in my hon. Friend’s region, Northern and TransPennine Express. Shamefully, under the previous Government those franchises were let on a zero-growth, zero-investment basis. On my watch, they will be let absolutely on the basis that there will be more growth and investment to benefit passengers who travel to and from Blackpool North and right across the region. That is because the economy of the north is vital to the prosperity of this country, from the huge cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield to industrial and freight hubs such as Hull and cultural and tourist centres such as Blackpool. It is vital that we keep investing.

We will also continue to invest in the most significant rail modernisation programme for generations. As my hon. Friend mentioned, that includes the northern hub programme and the electrification of routes in the north-west, including the recently announced confirmation of electrification of the Windermere branch and the north TransPennine line between Manchester and York.

My hon. Friend asked about the timing of that electrification. I can confirm that the electrification from Preston to Blackpool is planned for early 2017, within this capital period. As he knows, the programme is complicated and the work has not been undertaken

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before, so it is absolutely right that sequencing is carried out. However, I can confirm that those are the current dates for the work.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has also set out his vision of a northern powerhouse, bringing together the cities of the north of England so that they can take on the world. That is why we are looking at electrification right across the region, as well as options for how we can create high-speed rail services in the north of England, plans dubbed “HS3”. That is how we are building a long-term economic plan for this vital region and the country as a whole.

As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we do not want to talk only about jam tomorrow; we want to talk about steps to improve and enhance services for his constituents now. Like him, I was delighted to welcome the launch of the Virgin Trains west coast direct service. It had not happened for the previous 11 years. I am told the service is well used—I know both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) have taken it. It came about as a result of the Government’s negotiations with the operator of the new direct award franchise on the west coast.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys asked whether the service would continue. That is an operational matter, but based on current traffic numbers and what the service’s bosses say, I cannot imagine that it would not be common sense to keep it running. It means that people from his constituency can get down to London on weekday mornings in time for a 9 o’clock meeting, albeit with a very early start. I know that Virgin worked hard with the Department to find a way to provide those services. Also, let us not forget the direct services to Shrewsbury that were secured at the same time.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about crowding on services from Blackpool and the implications of the transfer of the class 170 trains from TPE down to the leafy Chilterns. As he knows, that decision is a commercial one made by the private sector rolling stock operator, but it was vital that the Department worked with operators and the leasing company to make sure that current services could be maintained on the franchise.

My hon. Friend will know that some of the trains now running on his lines, the class 156 trains, are older. However, they look reasonable—I have looked at them—and will provide a significant increase in capacity on those vital lines, with about 2,500 more seats a day being provided from Blackpool to Manchester Airport station via Bolton. That is, of course, a relatively short-term solution until electrification continues across the whole network. I take his point about luggage capacity, which is very important for people travelling to and from airports and to Blackpool North. I hope that he will report back to me that people can get on with their cases, given that a little more space is being provided.

I believe that the solution is a decent one. It works, and it has an impact on crowding on the line. The new franchise, which will be let on the basis of new investment in the north, is the perfect time to take a look at the rolling stock solution for the region in the long term. The Pacers, as everyone from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, have served their time. There are other opportunities, particularly for electrified trains.

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Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing the debate. He is a true advocate for rail transport on behalf of his constituents. When it comes to investment, I urge the Minister to look at Kirkham and Wesham station, where there is no disabled access lift. If we are improving services, we must improve them for disabled people, too, to ensure that they can access the trains from that busy station.

Claire Perry: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that vital point, and we will certainly look at that as part of the overall franchise specification. You and I have had many conversations about the Pacers, Mr Davies. I have seen them for myself and travelled on them, and I believe that passengers’ concerns are entirely justified.

Bidders on the Northern franchise will be expected to include plans to phase out the outdated Pacer trains. The exact details are being considered and will be contained in the invitation to tender, which is expected to be published shortly. The new franchise is the right time to set out the growth aspiration for routes right across the north, including those in my hon. Friends’ constituencies, and I am looking forward to making those announcements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred to the potential for services from Blackpool North to Manchester airport to be remapped, so that they would all fall under one franchise. The thinking behind the proposal was that it would allow the entire electric fleet to be managed by Northern, which might provide a more efficient solution for rail services. The consultation, published last year, included a specific question on that, and we have listened carefully to the responses.

No final decision has been taken, contrary to what my hon. Friend may have heard. We have had a number of representations. To be absolutely clear, I expect there to be no decline in service quality, regardless of any route mapping. It would not be acceptable to remap for operational efficiencies and expect passengers to suffer a downgraded service quality. That will not happen on my watch.

I wanted to reply to a couple of the other points that my hon. Friend raised. One point was about Blackpool’s voice within Rail North, and how loudly Blackpool

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could shout in that forum. I know that Blackpool stands up and punches above its weight in many other areas, so it would be entirely appropriate for the voice of Blackpool and the entire county to be heard. The intention of Rail North is to get closer to rail users so that decisions are made not by my very effective officials, but at a local level for the benefit of local people. I hope that Blackpool will have a strong voice in that process.

My hon. Friend raised a worrying concern about staff safety. I commend, as I am sure he does, the staff on the trains on dealing with circumstances that sound difficult. I will certainly raise that point directly with the head of the British Transport police, Paul Crowther. I will ask for a response to my hon. Friend’s letter and what can be done to improve staff safety.

My hon. Friend also asked about open access. I share his view on that, and we have many conversations about it in the Department, because I, too, see the benefits that it can bring. Of course, there are always challenges when we are looking at the overall package and letting franchises based on the revenue that might be available. I will not go any further than that, for fear of upsetting my officials.

In conclusion, I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have been reassured that the Government are passionate about the improvement required to rail services in the north of England, particularly in his constituency. The Government are listening to the needs of passengers. I have said before, and I will say again, that the railway is not simply a series of metal boxes on wheels being shunted around; it is about moving people around, to and from their holidays, jobs and families. It is vital that their needs are put at the heart of our decisions.

We are making investments in the region in tracks and rolling stock. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend in the next Parliament, should we both be lucky enough to be returned, about the impact that that is making on the vital economic performance of the area that I know he is proud to represent, and which he represents so assiduously.

Question put and agreed to.

5.5 pm

Sitting adjourned.