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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 10 November 2015

[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

British Council

9.30 am

David Warburton (Somerton and Frome) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the British Council.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. As co-chair, with Lord Bach, of the all-party parliamentary group on the British Council, I am pleased to have the opportunity for this debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for his efforts not only in securing the debate, but in supporting the APPG and the British Council as a whole.

In its founding articles, the British Council was charged with the mission,

“to make the life and thought of the British people more widely known abroad; and to promote a mutual interchange of ‘knowledge and ideas’ with other peoples.”

The phrasing of those aims seems all the more relevant today as the idea of mutual interchange is the crux of the opportunities and the challenges thrown up by globalisation.

The British Council’s work is sometimes seen as divided between English teaching and furthering British interests and influence, but the transmission of our language is in itself an exercise in extending our influence. Of course, George Steiner said that

“when a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it”.

Therefore, the work of nearly 9,000 British Council staff—most of them teachers—sprinkled around the globe in conveying our language should be recognised as being of enormous objective value. A language both shapes and reflects a world view, so at a time when both the Alliance Française and the Goethe-Institut have been expanded, it is vital that the huge contribution made by our British Council’s education work is properly appreciated and valued. The British Council’s educational reach is truly staggering and has a projected income of more than £800 million. However, though those educational services might be profitable, they are not only financially driven.

I hesitate to mention opinion polls, because hon. Members will have spotted one or two recent unreliable examples, but research by Ipsos MORI has shown that participation in educational or cultural relations with the UK vastly increases trust in the country and its people. In fact, participants in the British Council’s active citizens programme in Pakistan, in which more than 40,000 people have taken part, said that their perceived trust in the UK increased by a quarter—in so far as such things can be measured. Those same figures show that such increased confidence and trust is not extended to the British Government—sad though that might be—but is centred quite rightly on our people and our culture. That is why the British Council is so ideally equipped to enhance our standing abroad.

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Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): On that point, does my hon. Friend agree not only that the British Council is a great institution with a great history, but that it makes a valuable contribution to our country’s soft power capability? In fact, Joseph Nye cites the founding of the British Council in the 1930s as the originator of the concept of soft power. Does he agree that funding cuts by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office mean that there is a greater commercial burden on the British Council that risks eroding its credibility and integrity as it tries to become more commercial to make up for those cuts? Does he also agree that those cuts—I include the BBC World Service—are false economies, because money spent on our soft power capability can save on conflict and greater cost further down the line?

David Warburton: My hon. Friend reads my mind—obviously he has been looking ahead to what I am about to say. I entirely agree with all those points. Although soft power is a nebulous concept that is perhaps a little overused, I will touch on it shortly. It is crucial that the British Council’s budget is protected in the best possible way and that it does not become a commercial organisation.

I recently had the privilege of chairing an event in Parliament as part of the British Council’s Young Arab Voices programme. I am confident in saying that all the parliamentarians present were enormously impressed by those young people’s articulacy and breadth of knowledge. That programme instils and distils the idea that conflict resolution and decision making should and can be achieved through argument and reason rather than by force. Therefore, by creating alternative pathways for young people, by offering a platform and a voice for young Muslims and Arab leaders, for example, and by changing lives and life chances through sport and a variety of cultural activities, the British Council provides a special, and arguably unique, way to address our security and stability.

I mentioned mutual interchange of ideas, which is not only vital, but something that the British Council is ideally placed and equipped to take on in the UK’s interests. Perhaps soft power, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), might be considered a bit of a tired novelty, but it is particularly relevant to the debate. I am sure that all hon. Members were delighted by the result of the Soft Power 30 in which Joseph Nye ranked the UK as wielding more of that intangible but critical quality than any other nation on Earth. That is a tribute to the splendid vibrancy of British culture and to those who, like the British Council, work to share the benefits of that culture as widely as possible.

Hon. Members will recall how Nikola Tesla spoke of the ways in which science can annihilate distance. As the world becomes increasingly globalised, that idea possibly terrifies some, but it inspires others to forge links with people and communities whose concerns in the past may have been rather distant from their own.

In reality, few agencies or organisations are better placed or have the reputation or cultural memory to take on the task of forging such links in the interests of British culture and our long-term security. For example, a society that precludes half its population—women and girls—from accessing education or the wider economy

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is only half an economy. Therefore, with many western and British values perhaps facing something of an ideological challenge, the British Council’s work in providing education for 90,000 refugees in Lebanon, its progressive focus on the role of women and girls in transforming the societies of north Africa and its role in training Iraqi teachers, reaching more than 100,000 children, show how it can change the nebulous currency of soft power into solid, tangible results.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the British Council’s humanitarian work. Does he agree that that is particularly valuable in North Korea, where the English-teaching programme, which will reach about 400 teachers and 200 students this year, is one of the only ways in which there is meaningful contact with the outside world for many people in that repressed country? Should we not ensure that that work continues?

David Warburton: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; she makes a good point. By connecting with those countries and offering education and skills for growth through arts, culture, social enterprise and investment, the British Council is able to tease out prosperity and tap vast reservoirs of human potential. All that benefits not only the emerging economies, but the UK’s long-term national interest.

We all appreciate the imperatives of the financial situation that the country faces and the obvious need for a hard look at areas of Government spending, so it is hugely important to put the British Council’s work in its true—it is often hidden—perspective. It provides positive pathways for young people, giving them a stake in society, as we heard in the discussion at the Young Arab Voices event. It strengthens institutions, supports economic and social development, develops creativity and experience of the arts, builds relationships with the UK and enhances our influence and reputation. As I have said, its work increases trust in the UK and, whether face-to-face, or through exhibitions, digital communities, broadcasting or publication, it reaches some 600 million people. In total, the council represents outstanding value for money, and all its work will surely be recognised when decisions are taken on the next financial settlement.

Around two thirds of the British Council’s FCO funding forms part of the ring-fenced official development assistance budget, but the remaining third may well face a squeeze. It is therefore imperative that the ODA portion is structured in a way that compensates for any shortfall if we are to maintain the council’s successful record. As we approach the spending decisions to be taken over the coming weeks, I hope we will see undertakings to that end.

Finally, I must mention that, in the triennial review last year, the Government reaffirmed their commitment to cultural diplomacy, saying that the British Council’s

“strong brand, well established networks and committed staff”

meant it was uniquely well fitted to continue as

“the main official UK body for cultural diplomacy.”

All of us here today will be conscious of the three tenets of the British Council: security, prosperity and influence. By seeing those as working together, the full range of

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benefits that flow to the UK from the British Council’s work and the exceptional value that it provides globally become clear.

9.41 am

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) on securing this important debate.

I must declare an interest. I worked for many years at the British Council, with overseas postings in Brussels, St Petersburg and Sierra Leone. I will always remember my time at the council fondly and with a sense of pride. In Brussels, I saw how British skills and know-how could be deployed to support the transition of the former eastern bloc countries to democracy and the market economy, through the European Commission’s aid programmes. In St Petersburg, I was proud to be the director of an operation offering young Russians the opportunity to learn English and engage in a range of cultural and educational projects. In Sierra Leone, I was honoured to be a part of the huge impact of the council’s work in building the capacity of that country’s Government. It is for those reasons and more that I am such a firm believer in the organisation we are discussing today.

As hon. Members will know, the British Council is the world’s outstanding example of a successful soft power institution. It is the model that all other countries try to emulate when developing their soft power networks. It is respected, professional and diversified and we are fortunate to have such a positive face to present to the world. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has already mentioned, the council was founded to create

“a friendly knowledge and understanding between the people of the UK and the wider world”

and has been promoting the values of fairness, democracy, tolerance and dialogue across the world for decades. But the magic of the British Council is that it does not promote those values by way of megaphones or propaganda; rather, it operates through the mediums of exchange and long-term relationship building.

The council understands that communication at its best will be a two-way conversation between the UK and the rest of the world, with each side listening to and learning from the other. It is founded on the principle that the Brits do not have all the answers. It is a vehicle for building trust through honest and open dialogue, as opposed to banging the drum for Britain, which can be so counterproductive. At a time when we are more interconnected as a planet than ever before and trust is a rare commodity, the long-term trust and confidence-building work of the British Council has never been more important; its values are the ones we require if we are to minimise culture clash and the violence that can often result from it.

Through the British Council, we engage civil society in countries where the Governments are not always our closest allies. We propagate a love for our art and music around the world. We can build grassroots understanding of democratic practices, harness the power of sport to inspire and engage young people from all over the world, and promote ourselves as a top-rung tourist destination and trading partner. Through the council,

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we ensure that the propaganda our enemies disseminate about us is dismantled. Why then is the council facing such huge cuts, when we can all agree that its work is more important than ever?

This year, the council’s FCO grant was increased by £10 million, to reflect its effectiveness in delivering ODA.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): On the issue of spending and ODA, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the British Council’s valuable work is put in jeopardy by a reduction of more than 50%, looking back just five years, in terms of ODA spend and that that needs to be examined very closely in the forthcoming review?

Stephen Kinnock: I do. ODA has been given as a demonstration of the effectiveness of the council’s work in least developed countries. The major challenge the council faces is the reduction in the FCO grant, which has been eroded constantly over the years. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned, the fundamental problem is that that increases the council’s reliance on commercially generated funding. We all acknowledge and welcome the council’s ability to raise that type of funding, but the reduction in grant funding reduces its flexibility to operate wherever it needs to in this rapidly changing world. I absolutely agree that the reduction in the grant is having a negative impact on the council’s ability to deliver across the board.

Mr Baron: In addition, is not there another concern about the decrease in FCO funding? It will not simply be a case of having to make up the lost income—and with regard to commercial activities, that can be many times the factor of the income required, as a turnover of £100 million may just about produce a profit of £10 million, and the reduction from the FCO grant would be £50 million over five years. As the British Council becomes more commercial to make up the lost revenue, its integrity and credibility could also be threatened. Does the hon. Gentleman consider that a risk as well?

Stephen Kinnock: I do. Also, as I will go on to argue later, the council’s English language teaching and exam work is important, makes a big impact and is very lucrative, but it tends to be for the elites in the societies where the council is operating. It is the high end of English language learning and people pay top dollar for it. If we are saying that it is important that we engage with the disaffected, disfranchised youths who are potentially going to become a security risk for us, it is arguable that that section of society will not be able to pay for those English language courses. Looking at the council’s strategic objectives and values, it is important that its reach is wide and that it goes into sections of society that its English language teaching and exams administration simply cannot reach.

The grant represents just 16% of the British Council’s funding. The rest is earned, as we have been discussing, and those earnings are projected to increase. Despite that good news, all is not financially rosy at the council. The FCO grant was reduced to £154 million in 2014-15, down from £201 million in 2009-10, so despite the extra £10 million in ODA, cuts to projects are having to be made. The choice for the council is stark: either a

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managed decline in its scale and reach, or growing its self-generated income to continue its work. The council has been forced to choose the latter, but should it have to and do we want it to?

Of course, it is truly commendable that the council’s English teaching and exam management can generate enough income from those who can afford to pay to fund projects aimed at those who cannot. Work done administering exams, managing international contracts and fostering corporate partnerships is important, but the more money that is raised from commercial sources, the more the British Council’s core purpose becomes divorced from its soft power potential. My concern is also that language teaching and exams are expensive, and so tend to benefit elites. Grant-funded activity is far more likely to have a wider reach.

We must recognise that, if the British Council is to remain an important wing of British diplomacy, public funding must remain an important element of its financial base. That is crucial for accountability and flexibility, and to supporting the council’s activities in fragile, unstable states, where it is harder for the council to raise the private funds to enable it to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with future leaders. It is an important fact that one in five world leaders studied in the UK; we are talking about a brand that we can, and do, export, but without public funding, it stops being linked to Britain as a country and becomes just another product.

ODA money is specifically for British Council work in areas that are of key interest from a security and stability perspective. Those areas are current flashpoints, and the money is crucially needed. In Tunisia, for example, a fledgling democracy is trying to embody all the original hopes of the Arab spring, but more of the foreign jihadists in Iraq and Syria originate there than in any other country. The British Council runs debating clubs across Tunisia—a programme that it wants to grow tenfold and that successfully engages young people at risk of radicalisation. For Tunisia, whose economy relies so much on tourism, the good publicity afforded by successful British Council projects feeds into confidence that the country can move on and rebuild after recent horrors.

ODA funding also goes towards co-operation work with countries such as China and India, where engaging with societies that are growing increasingly prosperous is an investment in our future.

The debate is about how best to build trust between Britain and the rest of the world, and nobody does that better than the British Council. More ODA money would maintain its public funding and consolidate its position as a respected arm of British diplomacy. The Government’s spending review is coming up, and my colleagues and I urge the Minister to communicate that request in the strongest terms to the Chancellor.

During his Grant Park acceptance speech in 2008, Barack Obama famously stated that the true strength of a nation is demonstrated

“not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals”.

I urge the Minister to take note and to ensure that the outstanding nature of the work done by the British Council is adequately reflected in the comprehensive spending review.

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9.52 am

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. It is also a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). At a time when we are seeing an awful lot of hard power on display in the middle east, it is excellent that we are having this debate about the role and virtue of soft power. As he said, soft power often lasts longer.

I pay tribute to the staff of the British Council. Before I entered this place, I was a practising historian, and I would sell my wares around the world. When I met British Council staff, whether in Dubai, Macedonia or Singapore, they were, to a man and a woman, incredibly professional and committed. They were great public servants, and they presented the best of British, often in quite constrained circumstances.

Those people did not necessarily have easy relationships with our embassies. There were sometimes tensions between the inevitable creativity and dissent that the British Council rightly sought to generate—in a helpful manner—and the sometimes narrow policy constraints of Her Majesty’s Government. Where embassies and the British Council had good working relationships, they could achieve a great deal, but where the embassy—not in a controlling manner—did not regard the British Council as part of a partnership for Britain, not nearly as much was achieved as we might have hoped.

In the past 10 to 15 years, the British Council has been a really successful part of a post-imperial, post-colonial reimagining of the meaning of Great Britain. It is hard to overplay that work, particularly in parts of the world where we have a colonial past. The British Council’s work in shaping the reputation, image and meaning of modern Britain for new audiences has been quite profound. Nowhere is that truer than in our relationships with India, as we will see next week when we welcome India’s Prime Minister to the UK.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): This week.

Tristram Hunt: Things happen so fast these days. We are all looking forward to the remarkable events that will take place in Wembley, and I hope the Minister will be assisting with them. We have a very complicated and long relationship with India, and although many young Indians have a relative lack of interest in the colonial past, they have a great interest in, and passion for, Britain and the meaning of Britain. The British Council has helped to shape some of the debate on that.

Colleagues have rightly made the case for funding and support for the British Council. Its work is profound and important. When I visited its offices, however, I got a sense that the demands of English language teaching and the business model that that involves sometimes overwhelmed the broader functions of those offices. Clearly, we need those offices to be income generators, but we should not lose sight of the British Council’s broader functions and purpose.

I would be delighted to see more money going to the British Council and a return to its previous funding. I have no problem with more of those resources coming from the Department for International Development. It is no secret in Whitehall that DFID cannot get the stuff

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out of the door quick enough, although it does not always go in the most effective directions. The British Council, however, is incredibly effective.

Stephen Kinnock: As my hon. Friend will know, one of the council’s important functions is to manage programmes such as Erasmus, as well as English language teaching assistants going out to other countries, particularly those in the European Union. Does he agree that Britain’s membership of the European Union is an important aspect of the backdrop to the British Council’s work in demonstrating that the United Kingdom is an engaged international partner that, in particular, gives opportunities to young people in other European countries?

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In a sense, the British Council serves two purposes: promoting an understanding of modern Britain in modern Europe; and providing young people with extraordinary opportunities to learn other languages on the European continent and to see themselves as part of a broader European culture. It is one of the sadnesses of recent years that we have seen the decline of linguistic abilities in our schools, and the British Council is working to counter that.

There are broader trends that pose a risk to the British Council’s work. First, as my hon. Friend said, we have a great tradition of world-class universities in this country and an extraordinary history of people from around the world coming here to take part in higher education. It is crazy that we include those people in the migration figures. That is an example of the dark hand of the Home Office holding Britain back from achieving what it needs and wants to do. We should welcome those young people, who will build up relationships with the British Council and build cultural relationships in the future.

Britain’s cultural footprint is something that we all celebrate. A very good series by Dominic Sandbrook about Britain’s modern cultural power is on the television at the moment. I am afraid that the Government’s education reforms are undermining that. Yesterday I was at a very good school: Burntwood school in south London, which won the Stirling prize for architecture. I was told that as a result of reforms, it is beginning to strip away art, music, drama and photography, so a different Department is progressively undermining the things that we celebrate as elements of Britain’s reach in the world. If a debate such as this happens in 20 or 30 years, will Members be celebrating British cultural achievements to the same extent and will they be able to celebrate British cultural reach in relation to young people’s opportunities in state as well as private education? If we are to feed the British Council and support its work in the future, we should not turn our eyes from our education system.

I am taking part in the debate to support the work of the British Council and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. He has put his neck on the line, and his future career will depend on achieving real-terms increases to the British Council’s budget—we will watch with interest how he achieves that. As ever, I am sure that he will have the full backing of the Labour party.

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10.1 am

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I was not going to speak in the debate, but given that there is a little time available, I shall contribute briefly—I am grateful for the opportunity. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) on securing this important debate, which is timely, given the advent of the spending review at the end of the month.

I think that all those who have spoken in the debate accept that the British Council is a valuable institution. It does great and sterling work in encouraging co-operation and improving communication, and it makes a great contribution to Britain’s soft power capability. I mentioned earlier that Joseph Nye cited the British Council as the original forerunner of the concept of soft power when it was formed in 1934. The concept has moved on, obviously, and we now talk about smart power as well as soft power, but it is important to bring the discussion back to soft power. Although the term is somewhat abused, the concept is perhaps more relevant today, in this uncertain world, than it has been for a long time. Joseph Nye defined it as

“the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment”.

We are not alone in recognising the importance of soft power. Many other countries, including some—without wishing to name names—whose credibility is far less than ours in this context, if only because they are not democracies, are realising that soft power is an increasingly important part of an effective, full-spectrum response to the threats that they face. We would do well to learn from that in the UK. We have been through a decade, if not 12 years, when we have seen examples of hard power not providing the solutions that the Government hoped for, including our interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan post-2006, when we allowed the mission to morph into one of nation building, and Libya. Another is our positioning on Syria, where initially the objective was to support the rebels, although we have now realised that that is where the greater threat lies, so we have rightly turned on them—or elements of them, such as ISIL, al-Nusra and al-Qaeda.

We should realise by now that hard power solutions are not always what we hope they will be. That should remind us of the importance of soft power in this increasingly complex and uncertain world, yet we are cutting funding to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is in turn cutting funding for its various activities, including its support of the British Council. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State may disagree with me about one or two aspects of our hard power interventions, but I think that he and I can agree—he may not be able to do so publicly—that we should not cut funding to the FCO in these times. If anything, we should increase its funding, at a time of increasing uncertainty, because we need our eyes and ears on the ground. We need our expertise in foreign policy issues generally to be properly funded as that can save additional costs and prevent mistakes further down the line.

I rail against further cuts to the British Council. We have heard about funding being cut from £201 million to, I think, £154 million. Okay, there has been a £10 million increase since, but that is still a substantial cut of something like £40 million to a budget of £200 million

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in the past five years. The British Council has been left in a difficult situation because it must either scale back its activities, which cannot be good for many people around the world, or the UK, when it comes to soft power capability, or become more commercial. A sum of £40 million may not sound a lot in today’s world where figures of billions are bandied around, but to generate that £40 million, assuming a profit margin of 10%, the British Council will really have to gear up its commercial activity.

Although there are early indications that the British Council is coping, there is a risk that as it tries to become more commercial and enterprising—I accept that there is always room for improvement in such areas—its activity will begin to feed back against it, in the sense that its commercial activities will begin to erode its credibility and integrity. A great part of its strength is its quasi-independent approach, but if it is becoming more commercial, the danger is that that will be eroded in many respects. Will the Minister address that fundamental point? This concern is shared by not only me and other hon. Members, but many people within the British Council, as well as outsiders and experts.

Stephen Kinnock: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the effect on the reputation of the British Council and the United Kingdom is an important aspect of the discussion of financing? Is there a risk of a negative reputational effect if the British Council starts to be perceived as a money-making machine in the economies where it works, rather than an organisation concerned with building mutually beneficial partnerships?

Mr Baron: I tend to agree, but there is a balance. In defence of what happened previously, I would say that when the funding was £200 million, there were always commercial activities in the British Council, especially through the teaching of English overseas, for which its reputation is second to none. I agree, but I am trying to get across the point that as the British Council must increasingly gear up, in a commercial sense, to make good sizeable funding cuts—something like 20% in the past five years—there is a risk of losing sight of the balance. I ask the Minister of State to consider that and give us his response, because I, like the other Members in the Chamber, worry about the integrity and credibility of the British Council. That needs to be addressed, and it is a concern that has been expressed by those at the top table of the British Council itself.

I am conscious of time, but I will quickly move to another aspect of the funding that worries me. This might be partly the fault of the five-year political cycle, but we lose sight of the longer term when it comes to these sorts of funding issues. I suggest to the Minister that although these short-term cuts might meet a financial envelope set over a relatively small timeframe, there is a real danger that by making them now, we are creating false economies. The very nature of the British Council’s work means that we are talking about intangible benefits: the improvement of communication; fostering good relations with future world leaders when it comes to the UK; and increasing communication and education links. The benefit of all those intangibles cannot, in all honesty, be quantified, but we know they exist and can become more valuable in times of crisis. These short-term cuts could create false economies over the longer term.

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Most generations that have preceded us believed that they lived in a safe and stable environment, certainly compared with their predecessors, but if history teaches us one thing, it is that this is an increasingly uncertain world, with variables that need to be catered for and anticipated as far as possible. The value of soft power in helping us to meet and address those uncertainties will increase as time passes, yet what is this country doing? It is cutting funding to its soft power capabilities, and not only the British Council. Although one accepts that funding for the BBC World Service has been transferred to the licence fee, there is still pressure on it, so that is another aspect of our soft power that is having to tighten its belt.

I argue that the FCO itself should be better funded and should not have to face the current cuts. We need a properly sighted foreign policy apparatus with the expertise to face increasing challenges, yet what are we doing? We are making further cuts to that as well. As long as I am a Member of this place, I will continue—unpopular though it may be for certain Front Benchers—to make the case for increased funding for the FCO, in the hope that one day someone will listen. To be better sighted and to have the in-house expertise to ensure that we do not make the sorts of mistake we have made over the past 10 or 12 years in our foreign policy interventions, for example, is a saving that is well worth making. Such an approach would lead to considerable savings further down the line that would far exceed the short-term savings we are achieving by having to cut the FCO budget.

10.13 am

Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) for securing the debate. I was not intending to speak, but I want to make two brief points arising from my personal experiences with part of the British Council.

As other Members have done, I praise the staff of the British Council, who helped me in my former life, before coming to this House, to take a British business—Christie’s—out to China. They enabled us to negotiate with the Shanghai Government and to win the first licence for a British auction house to hold a stand-alone auction in China. That, perhaps, has led me to take a different view from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) about the tangible benefits of the British Council for British businesses operating in the wider education and cultural sector on a daily basis.

It is primarily not UK Trade & Investment or British business councils such as those in China or India but the British Council to which businesses such as Christie’s, or education providers and great universities such as those near my own constituency in Nottingham, turn to for expert advisers and ambassadors when trying to forge links, whether cultural or commercial ones. Those links have tangible benefits for the British economy—in many cases, important commercial benefits—and, of course, are the drivers of soft power in new economies such as China in particular, where Britain’s brand is as much dependent on Christie’s, “Sherlock” or “Downton Abbey” as it is on education opportunities. We have to

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appreciate the role of the British Council. I hope the Treasury will appreciate that it is providing not only intangible benefits in economies and countries around the world but very tangible ones as well. I hope the Minister will take that up in his negotiations.

The need for a new commercial focus at the British Council requires new skills for its employees, who are not simply providing education opportunities and intangible benefits but negotiating links between British universities and universities in the field, sometimes involving multimillion-pound—and, indeed, bigger—contracts. With the help of the British Council, my own local university in Nottingham has founded one of the UK’s only stand-alone universities in Ningbo in China. It is not a joint venture with a Chinese university, but an independent university—a model that others around the world have sought to follow, which the Chinese Government have in fact prevented because it has been so successful. That is a huge benefit, both financially and in terms of education opportunities, to a UK university. Those are important factors that I hope the Treasury will take into account.

Through my experience at Christie’s, I have seen that there are enormous opportunities internationally for the British cultural sector—the arts and museums—particularly in emerging markets such as China. More museums are being created in China today than anywhere in the history of the world. There are 400 museums looking for new collections; all the auction houses and art dealers around the world are keen to get involved in that, for obvious reasons. The British Council is, again, crucial to that. Primarily commercial organisations but also our own museums, which are strapped for cash with reducing budgets, are turning to the British Council for help. There are huge tangible benefits that make the British Council essential.

Having spoken to my noble Friend Lord Maude, who is now at the helm of UK Trade & Investment, I know he is very conscious that one crucial element of his work in the education and cultural sphere is, in fact, in the hands of the British Council. Funding for the British Council and upskilling its staff, which costs money, is therefore crucial. British Council staff are paid less in general than those who work in the Foreign Office or UK Trade & Investment; if we want the highest-skilled and, particularly, the most commercially-minded employees, we need to pay them.

My second point is perhaps a contrarian one, given other points made today. Despite the fact that our soft power is extremely strong in the world today, I do not think the UK Government give sufficient priority to cultural diplomacy. Some of the UK’s greatest cultural ambassadors, such as Neil MacGregor, the outgoing director of the British Museum, say that the Foreign Office could and should give more priority to cultural diplomacy, particularly in comparison with some of our neighbours, who have systems such as cultural attachés in our embassies and people acting as principal ambassadors, forging powerful links. We see that in the British Council. For example, Carma Elliot, the head of the British Council in China, is arguably—I mean no disrespect—better connected than our ambassador, having spent an entire working lifetime operating in China and forging links at every level, whether those are cultural, political or commercial.

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Greater investment in the British Council and in particular giving it greater priority within the Foreign Office are important. I have recently been involved in a campaign to create a greater role for the UK in protecting sites at risk in Syria and Iraq—on which we have made great strides, as I hope will be reflected in the Chancellor’s statement in a few weeks’ time. At an important summit that we held a few weeks ago at Lancaster House, the British Government committed £3 million to a cultural protection fund to support the brave men and women operating in the field through the British Council.

The British Council was integral to the success of that work; it was really the only point of contact in the British Government that those of us campaigning on it could go and see. The Foreign Office, at times, struggled to give us a contact and there was nobody else—neither the Department for International Development nor the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—to be the glue at the heart of our cultural diplomacy. It was the British Council that could take that forward and work with us to reach a point where, ultimately, the British Government will be the world leader in an important element of cultural diplomacy in the world today.

10.20 am

Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP): The temptation is to rise to my feet and proclaim the work of the British Council to be a jolly good show—to some surprise in this room, perhaps. Amid the hurly-burly of politics, we sometimes forget to acknowledge the very good work done by many people and organisations, and it is well worth our while taking the time to note that and congratulate them. I therefore very much welcome the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) on securing it. I am very pleased to be able to contribute to it under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz.

The British Council represents the kind of international intervention that most of us can support. As we have heard, it exists to create a better understanding between the people of the UK and the wider world—and, it is probably safe to contend, among peoples generally. Much of the comment around the work of the council is concerned with the projection of the UK’s soft power and the contribution that that makes to security. I have to admit to some feelings of unease with that phrase but, as an Australian, I can see how it is infinitely preferable to the form of power that the UK used to project around the world. The talking, listening and engaging of the British Council is very impressive, too; as I understand it, it reaches more than half a billion people every year.

The British Council is clearly a success and its reach continues to extend. It is to be hoped that the ethos of the council remains intact and keeps driving in the right direction. Even as it has had to rely more and more heavily on raising funds, it needs to keep going. Given how successfully it has managed that balancing act so far, we can have a fair degree of confidence that any failure will certainly not be for want of trying.

As has been said throughout the debate, we live in an age when funding cannot always be certain. I join other voices here in asking the Minister to say whether the Government are keeping an eye on how the British Council is doing in that respect, and whether there is a

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contingency plan to step in with support should it become apparent, at any stage, that the council is facing difficulties.

We should support the British Council’s work around the world and ensure, as far as possible, that its positive engagement with other nations and peoples continues. We should not only consider it a gift to the world, but look on the development of that understanding and co-operation as a gift to our children and to future generations. If we can make peace and discussion the more normal state of affairs, we will have done them a great service.

I turn to the comments made by colleagues. First, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome spoke of the benefits of a mutual interchange of knowledge, saying it is the crux not only of opportunity but of the challenges thrown up by international situations. That was an important point. Importantly, he also paid tribute to the more than 9,000 staff sprinkled around the world, as he put it; their commitment and ability cannot be praised highly enough. He pointed out that given that the Goethe-Institut and Alliance Française are expanding, it is only appropriate that we further recognise the good work of the British Council and the importance that the council is supported properly by Government and does not become a purely commercial organisation, which is a theme that other speakers returned to. He spoke of its progressive focus on women and girls, which is a subject close to my heart, and of its forging relationships with the world’s young people. He also spoke of its ability to turn the nebulous concept of soft power into tangible results.

The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) spoke of his work with the British Council, his firm consequent commitment to its benefits and the importance of exchange and long-term relationship building. He did not speak of the British Council, however, as banging the drum for Britain, which, as he said, could be viewed counterproductively. He said that it propagates a love of art, music and sport throughout the world—again, subjects close to my heart—and asked why we are thinking about cuts to it when its work is needed more than ever before.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that any reduction in grant funding reduces the flexibility of the council in delivering those very important parts of its work around the world. Continuing the theme from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, he warned that a commercial edge threatens the integrity of the British Council’s reputation. He pointed out that the grant is only 16% of the British Council’s income; I certainly agree about the importance of the perception of Government support to an organisation of this sort’s reputation. Grant-funded activity is far more likely to have a wide reach.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) spoke of his view that a re-imagining of the UK has taken place over the last 15 years. In particular, he mentioned the development of the important relationship with India and the British Council’s role in shaping the debate over its relationship.

Tristram Hunt: The hon. Lady is making a beautiful speech. I want to commend her on this celebration of a British identity. Will she expand on that? Do she and her party regard the British Council, which celebrates

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the notion of the UK and its culture and identity around the world, as inimical to what her and her party wish to achieve?

Deidre Brock: The Scottish Government do a lot of work with the British Council; in fact, I have done some work myself in my role as convenor for culture and leisure in Edinburgh council. The tenets that the British Council supports are security, prosperity and influence, and of course we also support those. I also think that such a soft power approach to dealing with other countries that are in difficulty is absolutely the right way to go. Our own Minister for external affairs is very active in that role himself. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Scottish Government support that approach from wherever it comes.

The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) spoke about the ability, as he quoted,

“to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment”,

which I thought was an interesting point. He said that other countries around the world are learning from the British Council’s approach that soft power, such as it is, offers a better opportunity for the sort of change that they are looking to effect in their relationships with other countries. He warned, therefore, of cutting funding, first, to the FCO, as its work saves additional costs further down the line, and similarly to the British Council. He pointed out that a great part of the council’s strength is a quasi-independent approach and that a commercial approach could, as has been mentioned, erode that. He mentioned a 20% cut over five years and the short-sightedness of creating false economies over the longer term, despite the difficulty of quantifying intangible benefits.

I particularly enjoyed the points made by the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick)—as I said, I have a background in culture and sport—who praised the British Council staff for their work, particularly in assisting his business in liaising, for example, with the Chinese authorities in the past. He spoke of the very tangible benefits that the council brings to business, cultural, educational and social organisations in forming important links across the world. I also very much liked his point about cultural diplomacy and how important it is to raise that as a priority.

Finally, the message rings out very clearly from the speakers here today that we mess with the successful formula of the British Council at our peril. I look forward very much to the Minister’s contribution.

10.28 pm

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) on securing this debate on the excellent work of the British Council and the continuing importance of its global exchange of knowledge. We know that the strength of the council lies in its reach and the diversity of the programme that it offers, with over 20 million direct engagements with people from more than 100 different countries.

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My first experience of the British Council was in 1996, when I met some teachers teaching in Nanjing; I was also teaching English at the time. It was great fun to go out with them after a day of teaching 30 undergraduates the same lesson 10 times in a row; it was also fabulous to see the soft power going out from the UK and the relationships develop. The benefits go both ways: our young people gain, particularly when they are involved in the work of the British Council abroad, and it makes them better citizens as well.

I had the privilege of joining parliamentary colleagues as part of a delegation of new Members, hosted by the British Council, on a visit to Pakistan in the summer. It was an excellent trip. We had an opportunity to talk not only about the importance of Arsenal football club when it came to running around with girls on the pitch, but about serious issues—particularly the terrible loss of life because of the war on terror, as it is known, and its impact. We were at an incredibly touching musical performance by some children whose teachers had been in Peshawar when the terrible assault occurred. The terrorist who performed that dreadful murder was recorded as saying that he had finished killing all the teachers and students and asking whom he should kill next. That was a turning point in that dreadful conflict because the Government realised they had to redouble their efforts to tackle terrorism.

Throughout that period and following the dreadful loss of life, the British Council was with Pakistanis. Up to 50,000 civilians have died and there has been a post-traumatic impact on young people from not just that dreadful assault, but so many more that we do not hear about in our press because they happen all too regularly. When such experiences occur, the British Council is present daily to deal with the effects of conflict. As we approach Armistice Day tomorrow, we must think about how to contribute to create a world that is peaceful and where prosperity and stability are given a chance. I cannot praise more highly the British Council’s work in moving us towards that.

It is marvellous to see the level of consensus in the Chamber on the importance of the British Council’s work and the creative power of education, language learning and the creative sphere. The hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) referred to Christie’s, whose work in the cultural sphere is important. We do not talk about such things enough here, but the creative industries contribute much more to the economy than we think. We should praise them and think about how to help to build them up, not just here but abroad.

I want to talk briefly about the excellent work with women. The British Council has a vein running through it: a commitment to women’s equality. As this week the world marks Equal Pay Day, which raises the continuing persistence of gender inequality in the workplace, we should reflect on the British Council’s work to support women through key skills training. That is an essential first step in addressing the problem and helping other social groups to be fully included within the economy.

The Springboard programme’s work is a great example. It is a leading UK-based women’s development programme designed by women for women. The British Council is drawing on its close relationship with the Arab world where it has been working for more than 30 years, having adapted the programme to the Arab culture and translated it into Arabic to help women release their

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potential and achieve success in both their personal and professional lives. The British Council built capacity in Arabic-speaking countries and certified more than 100 professional women as licensed trainers qualified to run its Springboard programme within its organisations. Those of us with an interest in development know that if we educate women, we educate the next generation, which is why the work is so crucial.

I want to draw attention to yesterday’s screaming headline in The Guardian—it is unlike The Guardian to have a screaming headline—

“UK losing clout overseas, warn top diplomats”.

In the same fortnight, we saw question marks about the School of Oriental and African Studies, of which I am an alumna; there were suggestions that some of the courses in those precious languages are so expensive to teach that it is not certain whether they can continue to be taught. Once such things have gone, they have gone, so we must work together to maintain that fragile network. The commitment to language learning and teaching, the creative industries, media, sport and culture is a great way of communicating with one another.

On realpolitik and as we move towards the Chancellor’s autumn statement, will the Minister bear in mind the context of any proposed cut: the deteriorating situation in Israel, Gaza and the west bank; the eruption in the middle east and Europe of the largest global refugee crisis since the second world war; an uncertain and unstable future for many north African states emerging from the “Arab spring”; and a worrying trend of radicalisation that is drawing in UK nationals and citizens from across the world? We must ensure that we continue to provide the necessary funding to the British Council as a clear investment in the UK’s foreign and security policy. It also has a responsibility to ensure that it continues to deliver and expand programmes that deal with those social groups and communities most at risk from modern security threats.

The Hammamet conference, launched in 2011, is one such programme that is leading the way in building relationships through engaging political leaders and civil society organisations in a practical and mutually beneficial series of workshops and plenary sessions.

I look forward to the Minister’s assurances that we need not have a debate such as this. We know that the Foreign Office and the Chancellor will do the right thing and invest in this important area of work abroad.

10.36 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) on securing this debate, and I am grateful for the contributions of all those present. The quality of debate today has been considerably higher than it sometimes is in this Chamber. That reflects the fact that people have come to this debate with knowledge and a genuine interest in the subject—we cannot say that about all debates—but there is an inherent danger in debates when there is virtual consensus on both sides of the House.

This debate underlines the fact that the British Council and its value remains as true today as it was in 1940-41, the year it received its royal charter and when its annual report stated that the council’s aim was

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“to create overseas a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of this country”

and our foreign policy, something that is as valuable in times of peace as in times of war. When that was written, the battle of Britain was raging over our skies and the blitz of our nation’s cities was beginning. Even at that most critical moment, we knew the value of cultural relations and the role the British Council could play in our long-term security and prosperity.

Today, as ISIL’s destructive and intolerant influence spreads across Syria and as Russia continues to undermine the principles of international law and the sovereignty of its neighbours, the British Council, its values and the values it exports are needed perhaps more than ever. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sir Vernon Ellis, who steps down as chairman next year, for his valuable work. I welcome the efforts of Sir CiaránDevane, the new chief executive, whom I have met on a number of occasions, and his desire to align more closely the council’s purpose with our objectives: to make Britain safer; to build prosperity; and to expand the UK’s influence overseas.

It is sometimes difficult to communicate the nature of the British Council’s work because its impact on foreign policy in fulfilling its purpose, sometimes goes unsung, so it is worth reminding the House of some of its key programmes. In promoting the English language internationally, the British Council administered 3 million English language exams in the academic year 2013-14. During the same period, it taught 388,000 people in nearly 50 countries and reached an additional 132 million viewers, listeners and readers through print and digital products. Why is that important? It is because the world has a huge appetite to learn English. Almost 1.75 billion people already speak some English, and the United Kingdom publishes more books per capita than any other country. It is arguably our greatest asset—soft power or otherwise.

The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) mentioned the number of people, including world leaders, who had studied in the United Kingdom. I am sure that if he had had time, he would also have mentioned the main Government scholarship programmes: the Marshall scholarship programme, one of the most prestigious programmes around, which currently has 31 scholars; the Commonwealth scholarship programme—two hon. Members who have spoken this morning have a strong Commonwealth heritage—which now has more than 900 students studying here in any one year; and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s flagship programme, the Chevening scholarship programme, which we have tripled to more than 1,800 students studying here this year.

All the work that I have described has a direct impact on some of our key foreign policy priorities. The British Council has maintained its public teaching operation in Kiev through the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The council is now scaling up its work with an additional investment of more than £1 million in each of the next two financial years, which will deliver an English for universities programme, helping to transform the ability of 12 leading Ukrainian universities to teach in English and operate internationally. The council’s work is building important links with the people of Ukraine and mutual trust in a country at the very top of our agenda and at a time when they will value our support most.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome, whom I congratulate on being one of the architects of the debate, mentioned Young Arab Voices. That programme works, as he knows, in six countries in north Africa and the middle east—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Jordan—reaching more than 100,000 people in 2013 and a further 75 million through broadcast media such as BBC World Service Arabic. Through training and development of skills such as listening and debate, the programme helps young people to learn from others—to connect to their local communities through discussions on the issues that matter most to them, from unemployment and education to the media and women’s rights. I hope that hon. Members in this Chamber agree with me on the fundamental importance of building a stable future in north Africa and the middle east. By creating a space in which meaningful debate can take place without conflict, this work will, I hope, make a valuable contribution.

Looking ahead, next year, to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Shakespeare Lives—[Laughter]—will be a major programme of events and activities, aiming to reach more than half a billion people worldwide. The anniversary is arguably the most significant soft power opportunity for the UK in recent times. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) guffawed when I said “Shakespeare Lives”. Perhaps he is one of those people who thinks either that Shakespeare never wrote anything or that Shakespeare never lived at all, but I hope that he will take part in the activities, which he is well qualified to do.

Tristram Hunt: My colleagues and I were just reflecting on having a celebration called “Shakespeare Lives” on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Mr Swire: Well, I had to check the title because at one point I thought it was “Shakespeare Lives”—life plural—which could have meant something completely different, but I have no doubt that we all look forward to that great celebration. It is arguably the most significant soft power opportunity for the UK since the Olympics. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome and others talked about the British Council and cultural diplomacy. I will return to that in a minute. The British Council is working with the GREAT campaign, British theatres, museums, artists and many others to put on an unprecedented programme of global activity that will include brand-new productions of Shakespeare’s plays, film adaptations, art exhibitions, public readings and educational resources for schools and English language learners of all ages.

The British Council must undertake all this activity in a rapidly changing world. This Government are determined to play a leading role in global affairs and we will continue to influence the international agenda. Our status as an international leader in soft power—something close to my hon. Friend’s heart—is incredibly important. Therefore, the British Council will play a fundamental role in ensuring the UK’s place at the top table.

Incidentally, I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) who talked about the importance of science diplomacy.

Mr Baron indicated dissent.

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Mr Swire: If my hon. Friend did not, I apologise; I thought that he had mentioned science. I would just like to point to the work in the Foreign Office of Professor Robin Grimes and his team on scientific diplomacy. We have a new fund called the Newton fund, which is providing £75 million a year for five years; that is £375 million in total. We have 15 partner countries, including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa, and so far £190 million of business wins and £250 million of leveraged funding have been delivered. Further work is being done to combat global issues such as dementia and antimicrobial resistance. Scientific diplomacy—forging links with others around the world—is another key part of soft power.

As hon. Members may know, the British Council went through a triennial review, published last year, which found the following:

“With its longstanding worldwide presence the British Council makes a significant contribution to the UK international profile…Its role is more relevant than ever: the potential return to the UK globally is enormous in terms of ‘soft power’, reputation and prosperity.”

The review also found that activity was not always well aligned with other bodies representing British interests overseas, and concluded that transparency, accountability and clarity of purpose should be improved.

I am pleased to say that the British Council has responded well to the review’s conclusions, taking action to ensure that those issues are addressed. The council is currently moving to a new operating model, so that its finances and commercial operations will be more transparent and accountable to the Government, Parliament and the British taxpayer. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is already chairing a new committee that aligns the Government’s priorities with the British Council’s activities overseas and, as I mentioned, the British Council has rearticulated its purpose in a way that aligns itself more directly with our international objectives to make Britain safer, to build prosperity and to increase British influence overseas.

Later this month, the Government will publish the initial results of their spending review and strategic defence and security review, which to a large extent will determine how we will meet the challenges of the future and adapt to this changing world. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who is now not in his place, and others commented on this. I confirm that we are working with the Treasury to help ensure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Council continue to be funded in a manner that reflects our global ambition.

I will not be tempted to travel into the trap carefully laid by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay when he spoke so convincingly about the importance of having a Foreign and Commonwealth Office that punches above its weight. He will not hear me dissent from that as an aspiration, although I will not go into the funding implications of it. I will say that, during the past five to six years, within an extraordinarily tight spending envelope, the Foreign Office has been able to increase our international footprint around the world. I myself have opened up a number of new posts, not least an embassy in Asunción in Paraguay, an embassy in El Salvador, most recently a consulate in Belo Horizonte in Brazil, offices in China and so on. I think the Foreign Office is spread wide and punching

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well above its weight already, but he and others will look with close interest at our fate after the Chancellor’s autumn statement, and rightly so.

Mr Baron: I assure my right hon. Friend that no trap was intended, but I will leave him to muse on that. I suggest to him that footprint is one thing, but expertise and knowledge can be quite another. Where the FCO has been caught wanting—for example, during Russia’s annexation of Crimea it had no in-house expertise covering that area so it had to pull in other experts, and it had to pull in middle east experts during the Arab spring—it has been about expertise.

I want to bring my right hon. Friend back to the British Council. When it comes to funding, does he accept that many more cost savings could be made further down the line by avoiding conflict, by being better sighted and by influencing through soft power than will be achieved by the cuts that are being made to the budget? Does he agree, therefore, that we should adopt a much longer-term view of funding for our soft power capabilities, including the FCO and the British Council? Many would argue that the short-term savings are simply false economies, given the greater cost savings that could follow further down the line.

Mr Swire: I entirely concur with my hon. Friend’s views about the importance of soft power, or preventive power, and I argue that the United Kingdom is doing well in that respect. I do not share his nervousness about the increased commercial activities of the British Council. In fact, I would argue that the threat from the commercial activities of the British Council has been real. Our concern is that in some ways, particularly in the provision of English language teaching and exams, it can freeze out the private sector. That is why I am pleased that the British Council has introduced a new independent complaints process run by Verita, which will help it better to hear and understand stakeholder concerns, including the concerns of the English language teaching and education sector, and take steps to address them.

Furthering British interests overall, the British Council has agreed with UK Trade & Investment a new business opportunity development process to help British companies to enter difficult markets. I was particularly pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) about his experiences with Christie’s, for whom he worked previously, and the assistance provided by the British Council in Shanghai. That seems to me precisely the sort of work that the British Council should do.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s comments about British cultural diplomacy. I had the honour of working alongside Neil MacGregor for many years in a previous incarnation, and I saw him again the other night at the “Days of the Dead” event at the British Museum. I am delighted that, when he stands down from his role at the British Museum, he will take up an advisory role in Berlin and in India. That is eminently sensible, because although he would hate to be called one of our great icons, he is in danger of becoming one of the most valuable of the British objects that influence the world. He would hate me to say that, so I hope that he does not read the debate.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work to promote the salvaging of overseas cultural centres and places. This is not new. I refer him to the 2005 Conservative cultural manifesto, of which I was the author, in which we planned to create a fund, if we won the election, to do exactly the sort of thing that he has been doing. When one looks around the world and sees what has being going on in places such as Palmyra, it is clear that the need for such work has never been greater. There is a greater role for British cultural diplomacy.

Britain remains a leader on the world stage, with the networks that are necessary to promote our interests—despite all the pressures on those networks—to protect our people and values, to tackle complex and ever-changing threats, and, to use the words of the British Council’s 1940 report, to maintain our ability to

“create overseas a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of this country”.

There can, surely, be no safer or more prosperous world for the British people than one that sees Britain as a friend and understands our values. On that subject, I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, who suggested that he would be taking part in the Wembley event for Prime Minister Modi, along with some 60,000 or 70,000 others—including, probably, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who is the Minister for the next debate. We look forward to that visit.

It was interesting to hear what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central said about a new generation of young Indians who come to the table without so much knowledge, or perhaps even baggage, about our colonial history, but who are interested in what modern Britain has to offer, our values and our culture—particularly our music, our fashion and our literature. That is hugely exciting, and it is why we have increased our diplomatic presence in India. The work of the British Council somewhere like that is a key priority, because I do not think we should just assume that a modern generation of Indians feels anything like the same link to this country as did their fathers and their grandfathers. It is abundantly clear that we have to work at it.

To conclude, I cannot put it better than the report of last year’s exacting triennial review process, which stated that the British Council was a

“valuable national asset and should be retained as the main official UK body for cultural diplomacy”.

The debate has benefited from the knowledge brought by the likes of the hon. Member for Aberavon, who worked for the British Council. It is something of a family business for him, and, as a Conservative, I am keen on family businesses. He may be as well, depending on which wing of the contemporary Labour party he sits. Other hon. Members who have touched on the work of the British Council see its long-term importance in the promotion of British soft power.

The Government are hugely proud of what the British Council does, and we want to continue to work with it under Sir Ciarán and whoever succeeds the chairman. I believe that Sir Ciarán is an ideal new chief executive to take the council forward. It is important to work with the council as it creates lasting friendships overseas and builds an appreciation of the United Kingdom—what it is, what it stands for and what it can offer—and as it

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helps to challenge some of the warped and hideous ideologies that are creeping up in this extraordinarily dangerous world. Ultimately, we must help the council to promote the values that we all hold dear.

10.57 am

David Warburton: There is not much time left, but I want to thank you, Ms Vaz, for your chairmanship of the debate. I thank all hon. Members for their fascinating contributions and the Minister for his encouraging response. I will not go through the contributions in detail, because the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) has given us a great summation of people’s views, but I will say that I enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Aberavon talk about his experiences, which, like those of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), were very interesting. I support the concern raised by the hon. Member for Aberavon about funding, which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay. Funding is the key point here, and I am sure that the Minister will go back to the Department and pass on the things that have been said.

It is clear that the British Council’s founding aim of encouraging friendly knowledge and understanding between the people of the UK and the wider world continues to grow. I hope that the debate has emphasised that that work has a powerful effect on the UK and its international standing, influence and global reach. It increases our prosperity and the prosperity of others, and it makes them and us safer. Those are noble aims indeed. Long may they continue and long may they be supported.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the British Council.

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Court Closure (Buxton)

10.59 am

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of court closure in Buxton.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I think this is the first time that I have spoken while you have been in the Chair.

I have called this debate on the closure of the court in Buxton, which is in my constituency of High Peak. The proposal is part of a recently concluded consultation on the future of many courthouses across the country. Let me be clear from the outset that I understand the need to look at the situation of courts and to investigate the possibility of rationalising the service. However, there are serious flaws in the rationale that has been applied to Buxton, as is the case for other parts of the country, which was highlighted recently in this Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) in relation to courts in his constituency. My concern today, however, is about my constituency and its court.

First, I will provide some context to the debate. High Peak is a large area covering more than 200 square miles, and the two main towns, Buxton and Glossop, are 15 miles apart. There are many smaller towns and villages in between and around those two towns. The constituency sits in the east midlands, yet much of it faces the north-west, particularly Greater Manchester, for many of its services. Leisure, employment and news are all predominantly accessed from the north-west. Part of the constituency, Hope Valley, faces Sheffield for all of its services. There is very little traction with the east midlands. Similarly, public transport links feed into Greater Manchester and Sheffield, and I will come to that issue later.

Despite High Peak’s proximity to those two great cities of the northern powerhouse, Manchester and Sheffield, we should be in no doubt that it is very much a rural constituency. It therefore faces lots of problems that are common to many such areas across the country, particularly access to and ease of travel. Not that long ago, High Peak was served by two courts—one in Buxton and one in Glossop. The Glossop court was then closed, so there is now only one court serving the whole of this large constituency.

The Minister is aware of my views on the consultation—I have aired them before in this room and the main Chamber—but I wish briefly to reiterate one or two points. I have been involved in public service for more than 15 years, first as a councillor and then as a Member of this House. During that time, I have read many consultations on a variety of subjects. They have varied in their quality and scope, but I can honestly say that I do not think I have seen one so riddled with errors and mistakes as the one relating to this court. I shall run through some of the glaring errors.

The consultation’s biggest error was that it said that there was no public lift in the courthouse, but it is patently obvious that there is. I am absolutely baffled about how such a fundamental mistake could be made. I assume that the author of the consultation did not visit the court because a lift is not an easy thing to miss —it is pretty obvious. I concede that an acknowledgement was sent out about that error, but only after several

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people protested in response to the consultation. The circulation of the acknowledgement—I was going to say “apology”, but I do not think that that is the right word—of the mistake is still open to question, however, as some people did not receive clarification about the lift.

The consultation claimed that the building was not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, ironically citing the lack of a lift—we have dealt with that issue—but the building is fully compliant with disability legislation under the Equality Act 2010. It also claimed that the consulting rooms were poor. Those were rebuilt five years ago and have had panic strips installed. There are three consulting rooms, of which two have been redecorated recently, and those three rooms are for two courts. I have visited those rooms and they seem perfectly fine to me, so I struggle to understand what allows them to be termed “poor”. Interestingly, if I look at some of the offices in the Palace of Westminster, including mine and perhaps that of my researcher, William Crook, those consulting rooms stand up very well in comparison.

The consultation claims that segregation is not possible. However, in 2010, the waiting areas were reconfigured to create a separate entrance and waiting room, thereby segregating witnesses and defendants. The consultation writers choose, creatively, to state that vulnerable witnesses have to use a waiting room across the road. The ability for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence via a video link without even having to enter the courtroom is an invaluable asset to Buxton court, not a liability. When vulnerable witnesses attend court, probably for the first time, and have to give evidence, the experience can be traumatic. It is a great reassurance for those witnesses to know that they do not have to go into the same court as the defendant by whom they feel threatened. It seems somewhat bizarre for the consultation to make such comments about a lack of segregation and then to cite segregation, where that exists, as evidence against the court.

The consultation claims that the court is utilised to 27% of its capacity, but I cannot reconcile that figure with what I see. I have never seen it justified anywhere. I am told that the justices’ clerk for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire has publicly admitted that the figure is wrong. Despite requests from the magistrates—I know they have put requests in—for a justification for and breakdown of that figure, such information is yet to be seen. It appears that the figure of 27% was almost plucked out of the ether. I have spoken to lots of people about this. I am told that the delivery director for the Courts Service has said that, in the case of Buxton, the utilisation and travel figures, which are two key facts in the consultation, act “as a guide only”.

Even if we assume that the figure of 27% can be justified—at this stage it has not been, and I wait for it to be—it is worth noting that a shortage of legal advisers available to the court in Buxton is often the reason for its restricted use. There are no legal advisers on Monday at all in Buxton court—none can be found—so we immediately lose 20% of the working week. However, the Minister should not take that as an indication of a lack of demand, because there is a demand for Buxton court.

There is currently a lead-in time of about 14 weeks before a court listing comes to trial. Effectively, there is therefore a 14-week waiting list for a case to come to

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trial in Buxton. Again, that situation is created by a shortage of legal advisers to support the magistrates. For any consultation to cite lack of use for any service when there is a 14-week waiting list is completely nonsensical. Those are just a few issues in the consultation, although I could go on about it for longer.

I recently had a meeting at the court with representatives of the Courts Service and two local magistrates, Michael Hilton and Pam Ashton. Officials were still unwilling to hold their hands up and admit that there were mistakes in the consultation document, or even to make a concession that the contents were in any way wrong, other than regarding the mistake about the lift. I would not even call the comments about the lift a full and frank apology—they were almost a begrudging admission. The officials refused to acknowledge all the rest of the facts. They even stood in the consulting rooms, which seemed fine to me, but they just did not seem to like them.

I do not want to dwell on the consultation document, as I have had my say on that here and in the main Chamber some weeks ago, so I shall move on to the actual issue. The court in Buxton provides a valuable service to the whole of High Peak, not just Buxton. The subject of this debate is “court closure in Buxton”, but this is not a Buxton issue; it is a High Peak issue. The suggestion that the court should close is wrong and the case for that has not been made. Furthermore, should the case be made—that is a very big “should”—the proposal that the usage should be moved to Chesterfield borders on ludicrous.

As I have outlined, the court serves the large area of High Peak. There are reasonable public transport links between some of the towns and villages, but such transport is by no means universal. The loss of the Glossop court some years ago made life very difficult for my constituents in Glossop and the north of the constituency, but they manage. Anecdotally, I think that about two thirds of the work that goes through the court in Buxton is from the Glossop area, so closing the court in Buxton will add further burdens to the people of Glossop, as well as having an impact on those nearer to Buxton.

The idea that the work should be moved to Chesterfield will be ridiculous to anyone who has studied carefully the geography of High Peak, which would have been apparent to the author of this lamentable piece of work if they had paid proper care and attention. Chesterfield might look nice and convenient on a map or in a road atlas, but I assure the Minister that it certainly is not. For most people in High Peak, public transport routes to Chesterfield are limited to say the least. I know the area intimately—I was born in the area and have always lived there—so I know every road in and out of both Chesterfield and High Peak, but I decided that I should not rely on my anecdotal knowledge from a mere 53 years of residency. Yesterday, therefore, I went on the Traveline website and found out that to be in Chesterfield for a 9 am appointment using public transport, someone travelling from Glossop would have to get a bus at 6.30 am, with two train journeys on top of that. I am using Glossop as an example because it is the biggest and most populous town in High Peak, and because, anecdotally, about two thirds of the court’s work comes from that area. However, there are many other towns and villages in High Peak, including New Mills, Whaley

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Bridge, Chapel-en-le-Frith and, indeed, Buxton itself, and getting to Chesterfield from any of those places borders on the impractical.

I stress again to the Minister and his officials that just because the court is in Buxton, they should not think of it as serving only Buxton; it serves the whole of High Peak—all 208 square miles of it. I believe that the court should stay in Buxton, but whatever court is used has to be accessible from all corners of the constituency, not just a small area. It is a fact that more than 70% of the population of High Peak—I think the figure is 73%, so this is almost three quarters of the population—will be more than two hours away from the suggested replacement in Chesterfield by public transport.

I have read many submissions and spoken to a lot of people about this. Buxton Civic Association made many good points in its submission, but the key line in it states that the proposal is not exactly

“access to justice for all”.

That is absolutely right.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): As always, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the implications for rural communities. There are not only concerns in Derbyshire about having to travel from Glossop or Buxton to Chesterfield, because we have similar concerns in east Cheshire about having to travel from Macclesfield over to Crewe. Does he agree that it is vital for the Minister to consider the implications of added travel costs? When such things are considered, the cost savings, if any, of the proposed closure of the courts in Buxton and Macclesfield will be much lower.

Andrew Bingham: My hon. Friend and neighbour makes a good point. I will address the costs in a while, but he is right that moving the courts to different areas will increase expenditure.

I have talked about travelling to Chesterfield from High Peak using public transport, but that is not the easiest of journeys for car owners. The clue is in my constituency’s name. High Peak is high, which means that we probably have some of the worst winters in England, although I would not challenge our friends from north of the border because they have it worse than we do. The road from High Peak to Chesterfield, the A623, is probably one of the country’s highest roads. I have travelled it many, many times, and in the winter it is often closed or passable only with care—it does get the weather. The road will add another barrier to getting to court not only for defendants, but for magistrates and witnesses.

Due to the problems of getting to Chesterfield, there may be the further problem of an increased number of defendants failing to present themselves at the appointed time, which will lead to the issuing of arrest warrants and increased costs. We must also consider the effect on officials who are required to attend court, be they police officers, officers from the council, who often have to attend court for various matters, or any other official. At present, they can attend the court in Buxton as part of their working day, as Buxton town hall is opposite the courthouse and the police station is within walking distance. Officials can attend a court hearing and be back behind their desk or, in the case of police officers,

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back on the beat, very quickly. We all want to see policemen out on the beat, but there will be implications for that if they have to drive to and from court all day. A journey to Chesterfield for an official from High Peak would effectively remove them from their post for at least half a day and frankly, in many cases, for a full day. As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) said, the increased expenses incurred will erode the financial benefits of the proposal, if there are any.

On the subject of costs, let us talk about savings. The consultation claims that the annual operating costs of the courthouse in Buxton are £89,000, which I assume is the savings figure. I ask the Minister to consider such figures carefully because, of that £89,000, £43,000 are the magistrates’ expenses. I am sure that everyone in the Chamber will join me in thanking all those who serve as magistrates. They do it for no remuneration and for little thanks, and we should all be grateful for their valuable work. Magistrates are rightly entitled to claim for their expenses, and they will retain that right wherever they sit. Moving the court to Chesterfield will serve only to increase the expenses of those sitting on the High Peak bench, which chips away at the savings.

If the running costs of the courthouse in Buxton are £89,000, of which £43,000 are magistrates’ expenses, we are looking at a £46,000 saving. If magistrates’ expenses were to increase by 20%, which is reasonable given the increased distance to Chesterfield in terms of both time and mileage, that would reduce the saving by a further £8,000, so we would be down to £38,000. That does not even begin to account for the extra costs incurred by witnesses. In short, I do not see how there will be any significant financial benefit, if any, from closing the courthouse in Buxton.

Another concern we should consider is that the extra travel will prove prohibitive, meaning that we will start to lose our local magistrates, whose local knowledge and background helps them to discharge their important duty. At a time when we all seek to get people involved in public service, we are putting a barrier in the way of people from High Peak who might think, “I would like to do something for the community by being a magistrate.” Faced with having to travel to Chesterfield several times each week or month, they might think, “Actually, I’m not sure I want to do that.” However, they might wish to take up such a role if the courthouse was in Buxton.

If the consultation had suggested moving the court to Stockport, I could have seen the logic, as transport links to the north-west and Greater Manchester are better from almost all parts of High Peak. It is easier to get to and from Greater Manchester for all those who are likely to use the court. I am sorry to say that the real work has not been done. A thorough and proper investigation as part of the consultation would have shown that to be the case, and the reality of the situation would have become apparent. I think that the regional and county boundaries have been allowed to get in the way of common sense. The proposal has been made after looking at the boundaries on a map; no one has considered the unique situation and geography of High Peak. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield will probably concur that it is a lot easier to get to Stockport from not only my constituency, but his.

I have known the Minister for many years, and he is an honourable and reasonable man.

David Rutley: Hear, hear.

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Andrew Bingham: That was only one “Hear, hear,” but I would say “Hear, hear” myself if I could.

The Minister has been very fair and open with me about the proposals. I thank him for the time that he has taken to speak to me, but I am afraid that he has been badly let down by his officials. He has been presented with a consultation document that is so flawed, erroneous and inaccurate that it is driving him towards a decision that appears to be straightforward, but is anything but. I hesitate to use the phrase “stich up”, because those are the words of tabloid newspapers, but this consultation appears to have been written to fit an outcome and the Minister is being driven down that road.

I could have gone into the consultation in greater detail, and I could have detailed all the combinations of journeys to Chesterfield from all the towns and villages in my constituency. I could have taken apart the financial aspects of the proposal even further, but I have already demonstrated that the savings are increasingly coming down and will dwindle to zero. Given the errors everywhere else in the consultation, if the Minister’s officials had bothered to get a breakdown of the usage figures, I am sure that they would be similarly incorrect and that I could very easily dispute them, too.

I want to give the Minister ample time to respond. I will meet him later this month, but I hope that he will take on board some of the points that I have raised today. I conclude by saying that I would like the court at Buxton to be retained. There is a case for it, and very good reasons support that view. I repeat that those are not just my assertions, or those of High Peak magistrates; they are those of the local council, which has considered the proposal and come out against it, of local people and of court users. I speak on their behalf, and I trust that the Minister will take my comments on board. They are factual and accurate, and they are the voice of the people of High Peak.

11.20 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I believe it is the first time that I have done so. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) on securing this debate. As he said, we have known each other for many years, and I have always known him to be a diligent and conscientious Member of Parliament. His response to the consultation does him enormous credit, and his constituents should be proud of him. He spoke in the main Chamber when we had a debate there, and he and I have spoken about this issue on several occasions, as well as corresponding. He secured this debate, and there is a meeting to follow. His constituents cannot fault him for his sterling work in representing them.

My hon. Friend referred to a number of inaccuracies, and was unhappy with the apology given. I unreservedly and sincerely apologise for the inaccuracies in the consultation, and I add that whenever such inaccuracies have been brought to our attention, we have sought to clarify them as quickly as possible. I have before me a letter, which is dated 30 July and was sent to a number of people, from Lucy Garrod, the midlands delivery director. She refers to the absence of a lift and the travel times used as a guide, and specifies how the utilisation figures were calculated, simply saying that there were 248 sitting days every year and the calculations were made on the basis of five-hour days.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), who generously said, “Hear, hear” during the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, made a very good contribution, referring to travel times and costs. We envisage a modern 21st-century court structure in which people do not travel as much as they do now. I will come to that a little later.

Notwithstanding the inaccuracies, which we have sought to clarify as quickly as possible, I believe that there is merit in including these two courts for consideration in the consultation. The world outside the courts is changing rapidly. When we speak of access to the courts, we must acknowledge how the 21st century is progressing. People expect to be able to transact their business online, quickly and efficiently, at a time that suits them, and modern technology allows them to do so. Cheques and paper forms have been replaced by contactless payment cards and smart apps, while shopping for almost anything can be done from the comfort of one’s home. It is such technology that gives us an opportunity to invest in our courts and modernise them to meet the present and future requirements of court users and improve the delivery of justice.

Such improvement cannot be secured without difficult decisions. We must recognise that one third of our courts are used at less than half their capacity. As we have been told, the utilisation of Buxton magistrates and county court in the last financial year was approximately 27%, and operating costs were approximately £88,000, excluding staff and judicial costs. When such utilisation figures incur such costs, we must ask in the interests of the taxpayer whether we are using that money effectively.

We must also appreciate that the way in which the public access our courts is changing rapidly. Access to justice need not happen only by attendance at a conventional court building. For example, we are exploring whether there are opportunities to hold hearings in local buildings, which would help just as effectively to maintain a local presence for justice. There is already proven technology in my hon. Friend’s constituency: a video conference facility is available at Buxton citizens advice bureau, and the police already give evidence via live links to courts in the west midlands. The citizens advice bureau with the video conferencing facility is just across the road from the court, but it could just as well be five, 10 or indeed 25 miles away. Through that facility, the courts can be accessed.

Our reform programme must also be considered in the wider context of our plans to transform how courts and tribunals operate and deliver services to the public. As my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary has said, the reform of the Courts and Tribunals Service offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern, user-focused and efficient service.

Many people encounter our justice system when they are at their most vulnerable, when they are a victim or a witness in a criminal case, or as an individual, business or family trying to resolve a dispute. We must ensure that we make better use of technology to provide easier access to a more responsive system, with swifter processes and more proportionate services. Front-line staff work incredibly hard to provide a high-quality service to the public. However, they and our customers are often poorly served by the infrastructure supporting the administration of a system in desperate need of improvement.

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Of course we must respect our traditions, and we must ensure that there is a place for the most serious cases in the courts in the traditional way. However, progress towards a more proportionate approach to court attendance would eliminate wasted time and enhance confidence in the administration of justice. We have a duty to offer more convenient and less intimidating ways for citizens to interact with the justice system while maintaining the court’s authority for serious cases.

Andrew Bingham: I am sure that the Minister will come to this in his closing remarks, but he mentioned convenience. Will he address the issue that I raised about the potential of going to Stockport instead of Chesterfield? As I said, Chesterfield is completely and totally inconvenient. If the Government are to pursue that path, which I believe is wrong, will he at least give me some indication that despite the regional and county boundary, Stockport will be given serious consideration as an alternative?

Mr Vara: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I can tell him that we are crossing borders and boundaries wherever necessary. He has made a powerful case for Stockport as an alternative. My officials are at hand, and I will personally see to it after this debate that they seriously consider that option.

I am mindful of the time restriction. I will round up by saying that we propose a reform programme fit for the 21st century. It is our intention that modern technology should make it unnecessary for many people who currently go to court to do that. That includes lawyers, who at present can find themselves hanging around at court for hours to have a 10-minute hearing before a judge. We envisage two sets of lawyers booking a 10-minute slot with a judge, who can then have a video conference or a telephone conference.

The world has moved on, and we must move on with it. The Lord Chancellor and I face difficult decisions. Many people have responded to the consultation. Generally speaking, the consultation has had more than 2,000 replies from members of the public and the legal fraternity. It will not be easy to take decisions, but I assure my hon. Friend that all his contributions, including the comments that he has made in this debate, will be considered seriously when we come to those decisions. I congratulate him again on securing this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Houses of Parliament (Family-friendliness)

[Fabian Hamilton in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the family-friendliness of Parliament.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton, and I thank all the hon. Members who have come to Westminster Hall today; it is a pleasure to see people from all parties here. In particular, I thank the Deputy Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, for attending. Although only one of those women is my hon. Friend, I have experienced sorority from both, and have felt them both urging me and other women forward in this place, and I wish to state very clearly that this issue is not a party political one.

We are here to discuss the family-friendliness of the Houses of Parliament. I wrote and amended this speech last night. Because of the Scotland Bill debate, I once again failed to ring to wish my children goodnight before bed or to check in with my husband, who was ill yesterday. As I typed this speech at 11.29 pm and the chimes of Big Ben began, the importance of this debate seemed incredibly acute.

I am not the first person to raise this issue; there have been champions, male and female, from all parties. As I seem to do every single day, I must give credit to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). I credit her work over the years in changing Government policy, party policy and this place for the reason that I am standing here today. However, Mr Speaker has also been a champion, and I have just been hearing of other champions, including male champions from the Government Benches. In the spirit of full cross-party support, I must mention that it was a Liberal Democrat MP, the former hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, who was the first MP to carry her baby through the voting Lobby. Every week now, I see Members with their children walking through the Lobbies, and guess what? Nobody dies. That change is absolutely a credit to her.

People have been campaigning on this issue for a very long time—I think that today we will hear about some people who campaigned on it before I was even born—and progress has definitely been made. We have come a long way from the bad old days of the 1970s. For me, that is best symbolised by the example of what was Bellamy’s Bar. Once, it was no doubt smoke-filled and gin-fuelled; I say that, although I have no experience of it myself. It sounds like quite good fun. Now, however, it has been turned into a nursery, so hurrah for progress. However, we still have an incredibly long way to go before this place is a proper family-friendly environment.

Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con) rose—

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD) rose—

Jess Phillips: In the spirit of gender solidarity, I will give way to the right hon. Lady.

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Mrs Miller: I thank the hon. Lady, who is a fellow member of the Women and Equalities Committee, for giving way and I commend her for securing this debate. I applaud her focus on a family-friendly Parliament, but should she not also consider a people-friendly Parliament? I want to see a Parliament that is representative of the country that we live in, so does she share my concern that the number of MPs who are from different ethnic, religious and social backgrounds, and the number of disabled people in Parliament, is not as high as it should be?

Jess Phillips: I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. I could not agree more. The two issues are potentially distinct but have an enormous crossover, and much of what I will go on to say today is about how there are so many barriers to so many different people coming into this place that Parliament is not a particularly healthy working environment for anybody: people with families and people without families; older Members and younger Members. An awful lot goes on in that place that acts as a huge barrier to people working here.

Tom Brake: First, the hon. Lady is right to say that things have moved on slightly. When my daughter was born 18 years ago, during Divisions I had to leave her in the Lib Dem Whips Office with members of staff in their early 20s who did not have the foggiest idea of what they were supposed to do with a six-month-old. Things have improved slightly since then.

I apologise for not being able to stay for the duration of this debate, but I would like to take this opportunity to say how appalled I was by the abuse that the hon. Lady received recently. However, the point of my intervention is to say that I sit on the House of Commons Commission and clearly there is work under way, with which she will be familiar, which Sarah Childs is doing in relation to a gender-sensitive Parliament. I will make sure that, on Monday, when the Commission meets, this debate is taken into account, to see if there are issues that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have raised that the Commission should examine.

Jess Phillips: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support in regard to my own experiences during the last few weeks of what it is like to be a woman in this place. I also thank him and the other members of the Commission for its continued work, and for offering to take back to it anything that is discussed here today. I very much hope that this debate and any debates on this subject become part of the bigger picture of the Commission’s work.

I will now say why this issue is so important, before going on to talk about some of the specific problems and some of the possible ways to address them. I am not trying to present any one possible solution as a silver bullet that will make us a family-friendly place. I am contributing to a debate that has been going on for decades and that I am sure will continue in the future.

Next spring is particularly important. As has been highlighted, Professor Sarah Childs will be publishing her final report on delivering a gender-sensitive Parliament, and there will be a parliamentary debate on the implementation of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, which reported in 2010. That seems to me to be an excellent

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opportunity to debate this issue, and to build cross-party consensus to achieve real change. I stress again that we will get such changes only when we work hard together and not combatively, so that everyone in this place feels that they have been involved in this process.

First, why is having a family-friendly Parliament so important? I am not sure if I have made it particularly clear yet—I can be a bit shy about it—but I am a feminist and this is a feminist issue. However, that should not make anyone think that it is an issue that affects only women. It directly affects all people in Parliament who have families, and it indirectly affects every single person up and down the country. Parliament not being family-friendly affects MPs and parliamentary staff immediately and directly, but it also has a wider effect and impact in terms of representation.

On Saturday night, I was having a chat with my husband, who is and has always been the primary carer of our children, and a friend of ours, who is a single mum. We mulled over some of the ideas about how to make this place a more family-friendly parliament. Very quickly, they turned to the idea that, “Well, you knew what the job was going to be like. You don’t expect family-friendly oil rigs. It is just the nature of the job.” That is a fair point and one that I am sure will be expressed to me in the below-the-line comment sections of any newspaper that chooses to report this debate.

However, Parliament is fundamentally different. Yes, there are many jobs that are still not that family-friendly. It is the nature of jobs with a predominantly male workforce—something, of course, that we should challenge. However, it is not the job of oil rigs to reflect society; it is not the job of oil rigs to push for laws and regulations to improve families’ lives; and the world does not look at the people who work on oil rigs for an example of what our culture should be. But it is the job of Parliament to do those things.

My friend concluded our discussion on Saturday by saying that, as a single mother and sole provider for a young child, for her to be a Member of Parliament is virtually impossible. That statement alone should highlight the fact that we still have such a long way to go before this place truly represents the world outside.

The immediate impact is easy to see. Think of the large number of MPs who are mothers who stood down at the last election. Often, debate on this issue has mainly focused on female MPs, which is quite understandable, as the current situation is a huge contributor to the under-representation of women in Parliament. However, all too often we do not recognise that it does not affect just women MPs. It affects all MPs with care-giving responsibilities, and not just MPs who are parents. It affects those of us who have sick relatives, including husbands who have been unwell or ageing parents who we have to look after. All those factors should be considered in the round.

Male and female parliamentarians with young children or dependent family members undoubtedly need extra help, but they are only part of the story. The issue does not affect only MPs. Every MP has staff, as does Parliament itself. There are thousands of people who protect the building, work in the kitchens, sort the mail and do the research in the Library—there are even people who write down every word we say. Those people keep this place going. If it were all left to MPs to do, I am fairly certain that the place would grind to a halt in just a few days, if not hours.

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Problems with the availability and affordability of childcare, parental leave, unpredictability, and unsocial hours affect everyone in this place who has family responsibilities. When a Parliament is structured in such a way as to make balancing work and family difficult, it excludes people with families, and the wider effects of not being family-friendly are hugely troubling. The best people are put off applying, and we want the best people shaping the laws and opposing and supporting the process. Ultimately, that is what is best for the country, but someone with family responsibilities would definitely think twice about working here.

I come from working in a women’s refuge where all the staff were women and most of the service users were women and children, and I often joke that when I first walked into Portcullis House it seemed to me as though it were staffed entirely by young men called Will, Tom or Ben. I am sure that the huge workforce of young men is absolutely brilliant, but we must be more reflective of society. In my old job, we used to joke that we could employ a full-time obstetrician such was the pregnancy rate among our staff, but here weeks will go by without anyone seeing a pregnant woman walking around the estate. This is about our wanting the best people, and if we want fair competition and to attract the best, we should remove the barriers that prevent those exact people from applying to be Members and to work in this place.

In many ways, normal workplaces are much more family-friendly than Parliament. We have an awful lot of catching up to do. If at some point in the future we go beyond our current work practices, that will be good. We should be leading the way and setting an example. Not being family-friendly sends the wrong message to the country. We are a highly visible workplace—I feel like waving at the cameras now. The only jobs in which there are more cameras and microphones are those on chat shows. So what we do here matters. We should be a beacon of a proper 21st-century family-friendly workplace.

While we are thinking about scrutiny—the eyes and ears of the world on us—no one could fail to notice when glancing up at the benches in the Press Gallery that women are grossly under-represented in the press lobby, and I will wager—I do not have any empirical research—that mothers are even more so. I remember introducing the previous leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), to the press pack on the day when he talked about how he was going to change the Labour party’s rules and make it so that more people could be involved, so that we could reach out and, essentially, reflect society a bit better. After he spoke, the press lobby grilled him and grilled him: “Do you really think that your party, or any party, or Westminster, is particularly reflective?” After he had walked out of the room, I sat in front of the press lobby—I was not a Member of Parliament then, just a woman called in to introduce the leader of her party—and I chastised them. There was not a single woman among them—these opinion formers, the people who tell others what happens in this place—and they dared to have a go at him about not being representative. The way in which this place is run undoubtedly changes what gets reported here—how the world sees us—and we cannot go on like this.

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While we continue with the status quo and push back at any challenge, we are guilty of huge hypocrisy. I have spent all morning with the members of the Women and Equalities Committee discussing, for example, the barriers employers put before women who are pregnant, and thinking about the best strategies for reducing the gender pay gap caused by women having children. But how can we lecture others when our House is not in order? If we look around at this place, with its fancy history and ancient carvings—and the rather glam curtains in this room—we can see that are in a huge glass house. Yet we are chucking stones. We should sort ourselves out so that I and the other members of the Women and Equalities Committee have a leg to stand and do not look like fools when we make recommendations. What business do we have asking big business and big employers to do something we are simply not willing to do ourselves?

Almost everyone in this place, I think, gets this. There are still a few dinosaurs in Parliament, gradually hardening into fossils, but most people in here want this. So, what is standing in the way? What are some of the aspects of Parliament’s dominant culture that hold us back, and what can we do about them?

The week before last, my children ran around these halls and in the canteen. There was a notable singing—or rather screaming—competition between my youngest son and the little boy of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). It was half-term and, for some reason, the recess in the House does not marry with that occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has raised the good—and seemingly obvious—idea of making recesses coincide with school half-terms. That idea has been proposed by men and women from all parties, and it is an idea whose time has come.

Several hon. Members rose

Jess Phillips: I will give way first to the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) and then to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray).

Sir Simon Burns (Chelmsford) (Con): Will the hon. Lady accept that apart from the October half-term, the progress we have made means that most recesses dovetail with the state holidays and half-terms, except for Scottish MPs?

Jess Phillips: I absolutely agree. Progress has definitely been made. The October half-term is somewhat of an anomaly. I imagine that the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts was going to make that exact point about Scotland, as I will go on to do.

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP): The right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) did, in fact, steal my thunder in that the recess dates do not follow the Scottish school holidays, almost at all. That is important not just from a family-friendly point of view but from a representation point of view, and there needs to be some cognisance of that from the House authorities and the Leader of the House. They need to consider whether there can be some movement—a week here and there—that would allow us to perform our duties both as parents and as representative MPs.

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Jess Phillips: I very much welcome those interventions—they both stole my thunder. I will come on to talk about how our holidays have definitely moved more in line with the UK’s school holidays, except where Scotland is concerned.

Going back to the idea of moving the October recess, I am aware of the well-rehearsed arguments about how that would make it too soon after the conference recess, but I simply bat that back and ask, “Why do we have a three-week conference recess?” This might be a scandalous idea, but why do we not have our conferences a bit earlier or, God forbid, hold them, as the Scottish National party does, on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday so that they do not get in the way of parliamentary business? We could then consider moving our holidays around to fit everyone in this place.

In solidarity with my Scottish colleagues, I must raise the issue of the Scottish education system. As has been outlined, its holidays—all the half-terms and the summer break—run completely out of kilter with the recesses in this place. I am not certain, but I think that Christmas might be at the same time in Scotland—it is a fairly national thing. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) told me that the overlap between the recess here and the Scottish school holidays is only two weeks, which will allow him only the same fortnight each year to go on holiday with his family. He will therefore miss the same annual events each year in his constituency, which will affect his ability to represent his constituents. That seems completely unfair, given that my summer recess falls exactly in line with my children’s summer holidays. The hon. Gentleman asked me to raise with the Deputy Leader of the House the possibility of a three-week overlap, at the very least, for his family, and for other Scottish Members with children. That is a reasonable request, so it would be crass of me not to make it; this is, after all, the UK Parliament.

There will be push and pull between parents whose children live in London and the surrounding areas and those whose children live elsewhere. I would prefer longer hours in Parliament and to be at home in my constituency for more days of the week, but I know that that would not work for everyone. I was warned by people who have been in this place for much longer than me that if I ever wanted to see my children, I should move them to London, but my kids’ school, their friends and their life are in Birmingham. I could not expect my dad or my parents-in-law to up sticks to help me with the childcare as they do now. We should not want or need to encourage people to live in London, because that would make this place even more divorced from the lives of most of those whom we are here to serve.

Neil Gray: Perhaps the hon. Lady will reflect on the fact that Members of the Scottish Parliament do not feel the need to move their families to Edinburgh, despite having to travel great distances, because that Parliament’s Chamber and parliamentary week are structured to ensure that things are more family-friendly. Perhaps we could learn something from that.

Jess Phillips: I spend an awful lot of time in this place, particularly with the Women and Equalities Committee, learning that there are many areas on which we could learn from Scotland and how it runs things. There are many, many things about how the Scottish

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Parliament is run, such as how the Members vote—the Divisions are held in a completely different way—that seem to be much more family-friendly. I encourage any commission that is taking place and the Deputy Leader of the House to consider how we might be able to mirror some of the existing models in Scotland. Scotland, much like Sweden, is some sort of panacea of all the good things that happen in people’s lives.

Tom Brake: I hope that I am not stealing the hon. Lady’s thunder, as she might be about to come on to this, but has she considered the idea of job sharing for MPs as a way of ensuring better representation of women, for instance, and people with disabilities?

Jess Phillips: It is something that I have considered, and I was going to ask the Deputy Leader of the House what she thought of the idea. I am not entirely sure how it would work. I feel that if I were to job share, I would still end up doing exactly the same as I do now, which incidentally was what happened to me when I worked part time—I was paid for three days a week and worked for five. I therefore have some concerns about the idea. Constituents will want their MP regardless of whether it is their day. I know that Professor Childs has been looking into that, and it should be part of the debate.

When looking at a gender-sensitive Parliament, as opposed to a family-friendly Parliament, there is certainly an argument for considering the idea of job shares for those with Government positions. That would allow people with children—this largely affects women, I suppose—to take up positions in government from which they might otherwise be barred. While there might be an argument for that, I cannot see how job sharing for MPs would work, although I am willing to be proven wrong.

Work on timetabling would be a far less complicated way of making things a little easier. Why do we not find out about future business further in advance? Things have definitely improved in terms of hours, as I am sure we will hear from people who have been Members for a while. If we knew further in advance that we would have to be in Westminster or to stay late, it would make it easier to combine work and family responsibilities. It would make it easier to organise childcare in advance and would stop me constantly making promises to my sons that I often cannot keep when it comes to the day.

What does the Deputy Leader of the House think of giving us more warning in the business statement of future business, albeit recognising that issues can emerge that we cannot predict? Does she think that MPs or Ministers should be allowed to job share? What models could be considered around proper systems of parental leave, maternity leave, paternity leave and carers leave for everyone who works in Parliament, including Members, and what are the Government’s proposals?

The all-party group on women in Parliament produced a report last year that asked the House to reconsider the age at which children are allowed in the Lobbies. I think that some Members might be breaking that rule already, but does the Deputy Leader of the House agree the age should be raised from one year to cover all pre-school children—those aged from nought to four? Childcare costs are recorded and published as individual MP’s expenses, while disability allowances are aggregated, but that effectively disincentivises MPs from claiming

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for childcare costs, as they will have higher expenses claims than other MPs. What does she think about changing the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority system to deal with that?

Mrs Miller: The hon. Lady refers to IPSA. Does she feel that there is any room for a family impact assessment of some of the IPSA rules, especially regarding how children over 18 are not treated as part of the family? Does she have any comments on that?

Jess Phillips: There needs to be an overarching look at what IPSA provides and how it reports in respect of families. The right hon. Lady mentions dependents over 18, and while my children are much smaller, I remember how long I was dependent on my parents. We must always be careful in Parliament about making a rule for us that does not reflect the rules we make for those outside. Thinking about IPSA, I suppose this goes back to my point about how the press lobby often reflects some of the issues around this place not being a family-friendly environment.

I often hear of those MPs who are lauded for having lower expenses. My leader is a good example of that, but the truth behind the headline is that those MPs who live outside London, who have dependents and who claim the top-up for dependent children will always be seen to be claiming more, even though in my case that is only so that I can afford a place for my children to sleep when they are with me in London. The headline of “Greedy MP” will never tell that story. As has been suggested, I sometimes wonder whether this relates to how women are treated in the media. The idea of a greedy woman or a woman being away from her children is delicious to the media, and some of the ways in which IPSA reports on childcare costs and our expenses exacerbates the situation for women MPs.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House think that women should be allowed to breastfeed in the Chamber and in Committees? I realise that that would be ridiculously controversial, but I can tell Members from years of experience that putting off breastfeeding a baby makes you feel like you are going to die or explode at any minute. I can totally sympathise with colleagues with new born babies who sometimes need to do that quickly and suddenly.

How can we send out the message that we are family-friendly? The possibility of family days has been raised, when people in Parliament would be encouraged to bring their children to this place and we could discuss issues specifically affecting families inside and outside Parliament. We must be seen to be more like the people outside for them to trust us again. Would the Deputy Leader of the House encourage that idea?

Having a crèche is a lifesaver for many parents who work in Parliament. What does the Deputy Leader of the House think about keeping it open later on nights when officials, security staff, MPs and their staff, Clerks and others have to stay later? I am always wary when I have a deadline to pick my children up from childcare. We must be careful that we do not have one rule for in here and one rule for out there, but until the rules in here look like normal working practice out there, I think that we could get away with having the crèche open later.

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Those are just some of the ideas I would like the Deputy Leader of the House to consider, and I look forward to hearing other Members’ ideas. My hero of the week is the Canadian Prime Minister who, when asked last week why he had appointed a 50% female Cabinet, said simply, “Because it’s 2015.” As a mum of two young children, a Member of Parliament and a resident of a different bit of the UK, I say that it is 2015, so let us get on with this.

Several hon. Members rose

Fabian Hamilton (in the Chair): Order. Before we continue the debate, I need to say that because of the number of Members who have indicated that they wish to speak, I am imposing, with the authority of the Chairman of Ways and Means, a five-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches. I remind Members that for each of the first two interventions accepted during a speech, the clock will be stopped, with one minute added to the time remaining for the Member who gave way. A third or subsequent intervention will count against the time limit. The clocks on the wall will display the time remaining to a Member.

3 pm

Sir Simon Burns (Chelmsford) (Con): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this important debate.

I will be brief. I am depressed to think that I came to this place when the hon. Lady was in her first year at primary school. The plus, though, is the strides that have been made in this place since then. When I first came here and through into the ’90s—I had two young children—the House of Commons sat from 2.30 in the afternoon, Monday to Thursday. On Monday to Wednesday, we were lucky if we finished at midnight; more often than not, it was 1.30, sometimes 3 o’clock, and very occasionally each Session we would go through the night.

Those were not family-friendly hours at all. Since then, due to work done by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), John Major and others, as the hon. Lady mentioned, we have improved the situation, but more needs to be done. I personally would like Mondays to start at 11.30 am, like Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I know the argument is that Members of Parliament have to come down to London, but they could get up a little earlier or possibly come the night before, although that might be anti-family-friendly as well if they are not moving up and down with their families.

Neil Gray: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we were more efficient in how we dealt with business in the House, perhaps we could get through the week quicker? That would allow us to sit on fewer occasions, be in our constituencies as representatives more often and also carry out our duties as parents.

Sir Simon Burns: I could make a snide comment about the Scottish National party stopping its habit of forcing Divisions in the House of Commons, which might be more efficient, but I will resist that cheap jibe. What I will say is no, I do not agree, because we have a

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job of work to do. We sit 34 or 35 a weeks a year. We have the weekends—Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays if we are so minded—plus about 16, 18, 20 weeks a year to work in our constituencies. There is a job for us to do here. When the House of Commons is sitting, we should maximise the time and do that job rather than constantly whittling away the amount of time we work here. The less time we worked here, the less ability we would have to hold the Executive—the Government—to account, and that would be a big mistake.

We need to look more at the recesses, which have improved dramatically, as have the hours. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley made a point about programme motions. To start with, I was not in favour of those, but they do give a clarity and a consistency to our debates so that we know more about what is happening when, and we make our speeches and judgments on the basis of that. We need to look at all that. Of course, Scotland has a problem with regard to its schools’ summer holidays. We could see whether we could fine-tune when we go into recess in July to accommodate Scottish Members of Parliament. That would be perfectly reasonable.

I am very pleased to see the change in the composition of the House of Commons. Again, in the 1980s, both the Labour and Conservative parties were predominantly white, male and middle class. The situation has now improved beyond all recognition, partly through the efforts of Tony Blair as well as of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, with the A-list from 2005 to 2010. What we have seen is far more women in this place, which is absolutely right, although we need more; far more people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, which is right because that reflects what goes on in this country; and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) said, people with disabilities. We have got to be a representative Parliament.

Mrs Miller: Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the overwhelming majority of Members are still white males?

Sir Simon Burns: I would not agree that an overwhelming majority are. I certainly think that a significant minority are female and non-white, and not all white male MPs are middle class. There is a range of backgrounds, funnily enough, in both parties. Everyone stereotypes the Labour party as the party of the working classes and the Tory party as the party of the middle and upper classes, but that is not true if one looks. There are a lot of differentiations both ways. There is even—one immediately comes to mind—an honourable public schoolboy who used to be a member of the shadow Cabinet until the recent leadership election, which shows how some barriers have broken down.

A slightly more controversial subject is the question of breastfeeding. We have to be careful that, in pushing for a more realistic approach, we do not give the tabloid press the opportunity to ridicule us. I may be old-fashioned, but I share the view of the last but one Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker Boothroyd, who, when asked on a point of order by a Labour MP for Swindon, Julia Drown, whether it would be possible to breastfeed in the House of Commons Chamber, said that when she saw her checkout girl at Tesco’s breastfeeding, she would allow it. [Interruption.] Sorry?

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Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I was merely making the point that one cannot scan items and breastfeed at the same time.

Sir Simon Burns: The hon. Lady is absolutely correct, but I think the point behind Speaker Boothroyd’s comment was right: there is an appropriate time and place for breastfeeding. I am simply offering a word of caution; we do not want this issue to degenerate and the merits of the case to be undermined because we are ridiculed for what is proposed.

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Simon Burns: No, because I do not have much time—I am not sure how much time I have got.

Fabian Hamilton (in the Chair): Order. I call Dr Rupa Huq.