All European countries need to be commended for the way in which they have singled out those from Syria in need of a fast-track service, which at the moment is being provided by the United Kingdom but not necessarily by other EU countries. When the Minister responds, I hope he will tell us more about what is happening on the

27 Jan 2016 : Column 158WH

deal made with Turkey. The European Union has pledged €3 billion to Turkey in order to ask it to provide better and greater assistance to those who have landed within its area.

Of course we need to do what we promised to do and take in the numbers that the Prime Minister mentioned. However, we also need to ensure that good allies such as Turkey and good members of the EU such as Greece are doing their bit to ensure that when Syrian refugees arrive in the EU, they are treated well. Indeed, if Turkey fulfils the promise it made to the leaders of the EU, it will be able to take EU funds and provide the kind of assistance that a number of hon. Members have said it should provide. The Minister will be aware that the way to solve the Syrian crisis is through the political situation in Syria. Unless we deal with that, and unless we have a stable Government in Syria, we will not see an end to a crisis that is clearly engulfing the European Union.

I have just three further points to make within your informal time limit, Mr Gray. The first is about the big and open offer made by a number of residents of the United Kingdom—including, I should say, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the Archbishop of Canterbury—to provide assistance and shelter for Syrian refugees who are coming over. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said that Mr Geldof—or Sir Bob, as he is now known—has offered sanctuary to some Syrian refugees. I cannot quite understand why the Government still have not acted on such offers from the British people.

In the Minister’s eloquent evidence to my Select Committee, he said that the Archbishop of Canterbury should, in effect, contact Lambeth Council if he had an offer of support. I can just imagine the archbishop on the phone to Lambeth Council, waiting to go through its automated system, finally getting through to some caseworker in the housing department and saying, “This is the Archbishop of Canterbury on the phone. The Minister for Syrian refugees has suggested I should ring and offer some of the rooms I have at Lambeth Palace. Could you tell me what to do?” I imagine the phone would probably be put down or the call transferred to another section of Lambeth Council—maybe the health department. We need something more concrete. Big offers have been made by the British people. Let us take those up.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I were present at the Home Affairs Committee’s session yesterday when we heard from G4S, one of the Government’s providers of asylum accommodation, which I know is different from what is provided for Syrian refugees. G4S said that the number of asylum seekers in this country for whom it has to find accommodation has gone up from 9,000 to 17,000 in the space of just three years.

The pressure on council housing, and indeed the private rented sector, is now enormous. It will be extremely difficult to find available housing for those who are coming over. We need to be very serious about the issue of housing, because we do not want Syrian refugees to be placed in the same position as some asylum seekers in Middlesbrough were. Our Select Committee looked at that very subject yesterday, because we have enormous concerns about how asylum seekers were being housed there.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 159WH

My final point relates to regular information. In the Minister’s celebrated appearance before our Committee, I asked him—he keeps reminding me of this—seven times to tell us how many Syrian refugees had arrived. He batted the question away like a great cricketer at the crease, faced by a number of fast-coming balls. He said he was not prepared to give a running commentary on the numbers who had come in and that we had to wait for the statistics that are published on a quarterly basis. He told everyone that except, of course, the Prime Minister, who decided not to wait till the publication of the quarterly statistics, but to tell the House of Commons first, in the last questions session before Christmas, to give us all a warm glow and a feeling of happiness that the Minister had reached his target. We think we should have regular information, and not just about the numbers who come in. We do not need to wait for the quarterly statistics, and we need to include information about inclusion, as the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said.

When the Ugandan Asians came to Leicester and enriched that city and places such as Watford, where the Minister comes from, and other constituencies represented by Members here, we were able to include them in the mainstream of our country’s activities. Some of the Syrian refugees will want to go back to Syria when the country is stable and returns to prosperity, there is no doubt about that. Some will want to stay and be part of our country and live here for the rest of their lives. It is important to include the diaspora—there are many people of Syrian origin who have lived in this country for many years—in a formal or informal resettlement board, because Whitehall does not know best about these issues.

Thirty years on from when the Ugandan Asians arrived in Leicester, they are now an integral part of this country—indeed, some have even been elected to the House of Commons—and they have shown themselves to be model citizens. Let us use that example of what Britain does best, provide asylum to those who need asylum and include those people in the mainstream of our public life.

3.1 pm

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on her speech, which was so comprehensive that what she said about the practical elements of resettlement does not need to be repeated. I will therefore take a wider view, although it will permeate through to the practicalities of providing the dignity that we all want to provide for those seeking refuge.

It is right that we are debating this issue on Holocaust Memorial Day, the theme of which is not to stand by when genocide is taking place. We have to say what it is: although we are responding to a humanitarian crisis, which is referred to as a migration crisis, we are also responding to genocide. It is important to say that, because the Yazidis and the Christians have been victims of genocide. It is important to say that—indeed, I call on the Government to say it properly and not to wait for international courts to say it—because there are

27 Jan 2016 : Column 160WH

implications of doing that, not least for resettlement. When we are resettling victims of genocide, calling it that will have a profound impact and a long-term effect, so we need to do that.

Part of what we are remembering today is those who did not stand by; those who stood up and took notice. The Minister knows about those individuals, families and communities all too well. They are very much part of his legacy and family history, and his motivation for the great work that he is doing is the heroes who did not stand by and who rallied individuals, families and communities. That led to refuge being found from the Nazis for thousands of individuals. That motivation must permeate all the way through what we are doing in our response.

I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister extended the relocation programme in September in response to cross-party calls, which had gone on for some time, to welcome more refugees. This is an issue of numbers—although politicians and the media can get stuck on that side of the issue, we do need to hold the Minister to account on the numbers, because of the pledge that was made. I welcome what the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, on which I am proud to serve, said about holding the Minister and the Government to account.

However, there is also the fundamental issue of human dignity. In many ways, I see the number of 20,000 as a minimum. We need to be ready to have that flexibility, and to respond to people’s vulnerability in this tragic situation. We need human dignity both in the assessment stage—the Minister is working hard to get the assessment right to ensure that the most vulnerable refugees can make their way into this country—and all the way down the line to when people are received into our constituencies.

Sadly, that contrasts with the reports that we examined yesterday of the painted doors that identified asylum seekers. We have no truck with that in the way that we do things—it is not the British way or the decent way. On the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, we were concerned that the company involved, G4S, said that it did not know about that because there had been no complaints from asylum seekers. That is not the right response. Such companies should respond properly and responsibly, as a matter of human dignity. They should not wait for some complaints process to be activated. We must ensure that we deal with the people seeking refuge with care and attention, based on human dignity, not on whether they are agitated.

I welcome the Government’s primary response of providing international aid of well over £1.1 billion. That is important, because it is tackling the issue as everyone in non-governmental organisations says we need to tackle it—at its root and by ensuring that we support the regions. The World Food Programme has made it clear that the lack of humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees and the barriers to securing legal access to livelihoods—my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) picked up on that point—are directly linked to the increase in flow of those fleeing to Europe. We must focus on that.

I welcome the leadership of the Secretary of State for International Development and her conference, “Supporting Syria and the Region”, which will take place shortly. It is important to identify particularly vulnerable groups—

27 Jan 2016 : Column 161WH

women, children and young people—and ensure that other countries step up to the plate and provide aid. I am concerned that religious minorities are not included in the invitation list and are not recognised, and they are some of the most vulnerable groups. When we are looking at who is the most vulnerable—I understand that the resettlement and relocation programme is based on that—we should ensure that we do not ignore some of the most vulnerable groups.

The Select Committee on International Development, which is chaired by my predecessor in my constituency, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), produced an excellent report. It identified, as NGOs have, that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, religious minorities and children are the most vulnerable and are discriminated against, whether in access to healthcare, in not being able to return to their country of origin, or particularly in not being able to go into camps.

Ninety per cent. of Syrian refugees are not from camps. As the Minister has said in response to questions from me and others, it is not just about having a programme of relocation from camps. Most of the most vulnerable refugees are outside the camps—indeed, the relocation programme includes relocating from outside camps. The problem is registration. Many people, particularly from religious communities—particularly Christians, it has to be said—will not go to the camps, because they fear double persecution there. They do not want to come out into the limelight. They seek refuge through churches and other communities and are dispersed. They are not being registered, and we need to recognise that they, among others, are the most vulnerable groups. We need to ensure that the relocation programme involves Christians as well.

We must also respond to the wider calls relating to unaccompanied minors. The Committee heard horrific statistics from an Italian parliamentarian yesterday—that 4,000 unaccompanied minors were lost in 2014, which has gone up to 6,000 now. They risk exploitation, and it is not just a Syrian issue. It involves young Eritreans who are being trafficked. We must tackle the issue well, given our leadership on modern slavery, and ensure that we do not stand by, whether as a Government, as parliamentarians or individually. I very much welcome us taking practical action through this debate.

3.8 pm

Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing a debate that will no doubt be followed closely by the many individuals and organisations around the UK who hold a relevant interest in this subject. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Lady, because I believe the debate today is an important opportunity for all Members to reflect on the process of resettling the Syrian refugees who will now be calling the UK home.

I also welcome the chance to discuss some of the measures being undertaken in my constituency of Inverclyde, and I hope we are able to share examples of best practice from all our local areas. I am aware that in some instances, there is a wide variation in the approach being taken to resettlement and we can improve the process by resolving the problems that have been identified as the first group of Syrian refugees are welcomed into our communities.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 162WH

I am pleased to put on record that due to the efforts of the Scottish Government and Inverclyde council the resettlement program in my constituency has been an overall success. Inverclyde council’s previous experience in participating in the Afghan resettlement scheme has been invaluable in taking forward the practicalities of the Syrian resettlement. In that programme, Afghans fleeing persecution, including former British Army interpreters, have found a new home in Inverclyde. One Afghan couple was so delighted that their most recent child had been born in Scotland that they insisted on giving it a Scottish name—it may be the first Scots-Afghan baby born in my constituency.

Inverclyde Council has made an initial commitment to support 10 Syrian families over the five-year life of the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Periodic reviews of the process will help to determine whether the council can make a further commitment to take more.

The first two families arrived in November 2015, and a third family arrived shortly afterwards. On arriving in Scotland, they were met at the airport by council staff and transported to Inverclyde, where they temporarily stayed in a hotel, before moving to permanent accommodation. Housing was provided by locally registered social landlords, and the three families now live within walking distance of each other. In placing the families in accommodation, the local authority felt that it was best to cluster them together, but not to concentrate them too much. That allows them to live within a comfortable distance of each other, but it also ensures that they can integrate more effectively with their neighbours.

Inverclyde Council has assisted the families by helping them to establish bank accounts and by registering them with local GPs and dental practices. I am pleased to report that, throughout the entire settlement process, there have been no major incidents or problems, and the Syrian families continue to settle into their new community.

Helen Whately: The hon. Gentleman is doing exactly what I had hoped: he is bringing up examples of how well things are working practically. He mentioned his council clustering people, but not putting them too close together, and that is exactly the kind of good practice I have heard about in other places. I thank him for bringing up that detail.

Ronnie Cowan: I thank the hon. Lady.

I am proud of the people of Inverclyde, who have shown such generosity in offering clothing, food, cash and their time to support their new neighbours.

Despite the warm welcome offered by local residents and the range of services available from Inverclyde Council, however, challenges remain for the incoming Syrian families. Most notably, refugees may experience difficulties in seeking work, because of language difficulties or because their professional qualifications are not recognised in the UK. Furthermore, if refugees have been victims of torture, we must ensure that local authorities continue to have the necessary physical and mental health support services to enable them to settle and thrive.

I would like to turn briefly to the issue of asylum seeker dispersal areas. The UK Government have asked local authorities in Scotland whether they would like to become dispersal areas for incoming asylum seekers.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 163WH

That is pertinent to the debate, because many of those fleeing Syria will have to make a claim for asylum before possibly being granted refugee status in the UK. As one of the few local authorities with a declining population, Inverclyde would usually give serious consideration to becoming a dispersal area, because that would be an opportunity to bring a younger population into our community.

The UK Government are, however, making their request without a commitment to provide funding to cover the cost of the additional support services that would be required. A properly thought-out and fully funded package of funding would likely see a number of Scottish councils willing to become dispersal areas, but authorities will be reluctant to risk the success they have already achieved in resettling Syrian refugees by taking on the many challenges of becoming an asylum seeker dispersal area without the required funding support. I hope the UK Government will consider those concerns as they move ahead with plans to establish more asylum seeker dispersal areas in Scotland.

In closing, I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent for securing the debate. I hope we will continue this discussion outside the Chamber over the next five years. In doing so, we will ensure that the resettlement program continues to build on the successes we have already achieved.

3.13 pm

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing the debate.

In April 1939, a 10-year-old Jewish refugee from a small industrial town called Ostrava in what was then Czechoslovakia was put on a train by his mum and teenage sisters. He was the only member of his family allowed to leave, and it was the last time he would see the other members of his family, because they were murdered in the holocaust. He grew up to become the youngest grammar school headmaster in the country, and he was honoured with an MBE for his charitable work and his services to education. He adopted four children, of whom I am the second. I therefore know all about how Britain has welcomed refugees and about the benefits that they have brought to our communities and our country.

In January 1939, Kurt Flossman, a 14-year-old German refugee arrived at Dudley’s grammar school. His father had died in 1937, and he travelled all the way across Europe on his own. Students at the school clubbed together to raise the £50 a year in fees and expenses that he needed to go to their school, and local firms sponsored his clothes. Stories such as that show how Dudley has always worked to welcome those in need and to build a tolerant community.

Over the years, Dudley has welcomed refugees from all sorts of conflicts all around the world, including from Vietnam in the 1960s, and, later, from Uganda and Kosovo. No one can say that we are not doing our bit now in Dudley and the black country; in, fact there are as many asylum seekers in the black country as there are in the south-west, the south-east and the east of England put together. Although people in Dudley are

27 Jan 2016 : Column 164WH

proud of Britain’s history of providing a safe haven for the victims of fascism and persecution, it cannot be right that Dudley supports nearly half as many asylum seekers as the entire south-east.

Refugees are overwhelmingly concentrated in poor communities in the north and the midlands. Birmingham and Liverpool provide a home for 1,400 asylum seekers each, while Rochdale, Manchester and Bolton have more than 900 apiece.

Mike Kane: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case that draws on his own personal testimony. The problem with the resettlement programme thus far has been that it has involved a private sector contract with Serco, under which asylum seekers are flown into Manchester airport in my constituency, put up for a number of nights and then dispersed around the conurbation, going overwhelmingly to Bolton and Rochdale, in Greater Manchester, which has more asylum seekers than the whole of the south put together, and without any redress to any of the councils for the services that are affected. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must do better?

Ian Austin: My hon. Friend is completely right. The central point I want to make today is that, when the Government embark on their new programme, they must learn from the mistakes they made in the past when housing people who came to this country to seek asylum.

My hon. Friend mentioned Bolton and Rochdale. There are also 850 asylum seekers in Leicester, 800 in Nottingham and 750 in Middlesbrough. Bradford, Derby, Leeds, Newcastle, Oldham, Stockton, Wigan and Coventry each have 500 or 600.

Meanwhile, much wealthier, much posher communities in the south have turned their backs on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Local authorities represented by the Prime Minister, the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Communities and Local Government and seven other Cabinet Ministers have not opened their doors to a single asylum seeker. There are just 380 asylum seekers in all the seats covered by all the local authorities represented by all the Cabinet—fewer than in individual local authorities such as Sandwell or Wolverhampton. The local authorities of Swale and Maidstone, which are represented by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent, who called the debate, have housed just three asylum seekers between them. Watford has housed 15. Camden has housed 21. Islington houses just 34, while Hackney houses only 38, and Oxford houses just 12.

Dudley has pledged to step up and to house Syrian refugees coming to this country, but if the 20,000 Syrian refugees are housed around the country in the same way as those who currently seek asylum are, the north-west will have almost 5,000 and the west midlands will have almost 3,000, while the south-east, the south-west and the east of England will house just 1,200 between them.

I would therefore like the Minister to recognise that the impact of our response to this crisis should be spread much more evenly across the country. The hon. Lady said her local authority had pledged to take six asylum seekers, but if every local authority across the country was prepared to share the work equally, they would each take about 50 or 60 over the next five years.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 165WH

The way people have been dispersed and then concentrated in localised areas can put pressure on public services such as housing, schools and the NHS, which are already under great strain. That is also unfair on the refugees themselves, who are moved to communities without sufficient Government support and then left waiting for years for their applications to be processed. That is the result of what can only be described as a shambles in the Departments responsible.

In parts of the country such as London, these issues are balanced by the presence of wealthy migrants. It might come as a surprise to hon. Members taking part in the debate, however, to learn that we do not get many millionaire American bankers, German City traders or French hedge fund managers moving to areas such as the black country. Will the Minister therefore examine how the economic benefits that migration brings to some parts of Britain can be used to reduce the pressure elsewhere on schools, housing and other public services, and to improve local infrastructure and public services in places such as the black country? Could he also consider how unspent EU structural funds that the Government are not drawing down could be used in areas such as the black country that face the greatest pressures on public services, to employ the extra primary school teachers or GPs needed so that we can more easily accommodate people in need from around the world?

People in Dudley will rise to the challenge and play a full part in welcoming those fleeing persecution abroad, just as we have in the past; but it is about time people elsewhere did the same.

3.20 pm

Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this important debate. It has been four months since I wrote to the Prime Minister, along with many others, to urge him to respond to the escalating refugee crisis affecting mainland Europe. When he and his Government finally woke up, their response was modest and insufficient. By committing themselves to resettling only 20,000 Syrian refugees—a far smaller number than the EU, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, many in Parliament, the Scottish Government and the country demanded—the Government may have damaged our humanitarian reputation overseas.

The Government have rigidly stuck by that decision, but whereas their response was lethargic, our communities responded rather differently. I am immensely proud that my constituents welcomed the refugees with open arms. People in Paisley and Renfrewshire collected donations, opened shops, travelled to Calais and did anything and everything in their power to help those in need. The first refugees arrived in my constituency in November, landing at Glasgow airport. It may have been an all-too-typical cold and wet night, but the response that our new friends received would have shown them the warmth of Scotland —and the UK. Our new Syrian friends are living in local authority areas throughout Scotland and well over 3,000 individuals have signed up to help them resettle, through the “Scotland Welcomes Refugees” website.

My local town of Paisley has helped to resettle 50 refugees, and it appears that they have met the traditional warm welcome that I would expect from

27 Jan 2016 : Column 166WH

Paisley “buddies”. The

Sunday Herald

asked one of the new families whether they were happy in Paisley. They responded:

“It feels like we never left our families back in Syria because of the warm welcome we received in Scotland. We are among our families again.”

It should be noted that a lot of work has been done to ensure the smooth resettlement of our new Syrian neighbours. My office is part of a working group in Renfrewshire, which came together to ensure that the refugees’ arrival, introduction to, and integration with, Renfrewshire was as smooth as possible. That all-party and cross-sector group is attended by religious leaders, council officers, elected members from all levels of government and other important local stakeholders, and we have all worked to make sure that our new Paisley “buddies” settle into the area as smoothly as possible.

Renfrewshire has been opening its doors, but in turn our Syrian neighbours have opened theirs. They have been sharing Syrian food and culture with local people. They have appreciated the beauty of Scotland and we too appreciate their humility and hope. Despite all they have suffered, which is more than any of us can imagine, they look ahead to a new life, making plans—

Ian Austin: I was just flicking through the figures. It is fantastic to hear how well the Syrian refugees have been welcomed—absolutely brilliant, and I am delighted to hear it—but why has North Lanarkshire not housed a single section 95 asylum seeker over the past few years? The other local authority that the hon. Gentleman mentioned was Renfrewshire, which housed just two.

Gavin Newlands: That is not the subject of the debate today, but the hon. Gentleman is treading a well-worn path.

Mr Burrowes: There was a person in my constituency wanting to be accommodated under section 95 in Enfield, but he was unable to do that. He was directed to be housed not in Enfield but in Cardiff, in an area where the Government have a programme of section 95 support. Therefore he is being provided with support in the community, and voluntarily, in Enfield. Perhaps that will throw the figures given by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) into sharp relief. There is a need to ensure that there is shared responsibility; but, unfortunately, authorities that want to open their doors as has been suggested may not be able to, because of the particular section 95 programme.

Gavin Newlands: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

Ian Austin rose

Gavin Newlands: I feel I am getting between a relationship, here.

Ian Austin: I am very grateful. I just want to point out that a number of people currently housed and seeking asylum in Dudley, from local authorities in north London, were sent there by those local authorities, which are paying for their care but prefer housing them in cheaper accommodation in the midlands to looking after them in north London. Perhaps the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) should discuss that with the local authorities.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 167WH

Gavin Newlands: I think the hon. Gentleman has made his point. Obviously, that is not really the issue that is being debated today.

Overwhelmingly, the families who have come to Renfrewshire have met a warm response; however, there is still a small vocal section of the population who are not so welcoming. My local paper, the Paisley Daily Express, ran a story with the headline “Shame on You”, which highlighted, exposed and shamed locals who posted nasty and bigoted messages on social media. I salute my local paper for shooting down those bigots and racists, but the story is a reminder that there still exists a section of the population that we have not won over.

The Government have committed to resettling only 20,000 refugees, compared with Germany’s 800,000. That rather larger “bunch of migrants” is 4,000% more than the UK’s. The question we should now all be asking ourselves is “What’s next?” What do we do next to help those still caught up and affected by the crisis? First, we need to reassess whether accepting 20,000 Syrian refugees is the limit of our compassion, capability and capacity. I argued at the time that we should be doing more to help play our part in this crisis, and I support Citizens UK in its call for a target of 50,000 rather than 20,000. The families and children fleeing conflict never asked for war, and it is important that we do all that we can to help them. That is why I would echo the calls made by Melanie Ward of the International Rescue Committee, who said:

“It cannot be argued that accepting 4,000 Syrian refugees per year—or around six per parliamentary constituency—is our fair share of the millions who have fled Syria—this is more the case now than ever before”.

Mike Kane: To house 50,000 refugees requires massive local government resources; yet the Scottish National party Government in Edinburgh is cutting Glasgow’s budget—it is the mainstay of asylum seeker reception in Scotland—by £130 million a year. How can the hon. Gentleman justify calling for 50,000 refugees while the council’s budget is being cut by that much?

Gavin Newlands: The Syrian refugees are obviously funded from central Government. The Scottish Government is funded by Westminster Government, so unfortunately—

Mike Kane: So it is everybody else’s fault.

Gavin Newlands: It is everybody else’s fault. The powers that are going to flow through the Scotland Bill are not yet there.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. I think the debate has lost some of its direction, format and balance. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might like to address himself to the topic we are debating.

Gavin Newlands: I will gladly go back to the topic in hand—thanks very much.

As well as reassessing the 20,000 target, the UK Government have to look at the funding of local authorities that are housing refugee families. I have spoken with the leader of Renfrewshire Council, who has confirmed that, although there is an indication that there may be funding allocated for years 2 to 5, that, and the level of

27 Jan 2016 : Column 168WH

any future funding, are still to be confirmed. Will the Minister give Renfrewshire Council that guarantee and, if so, let it know to what level the funding will be allocated?

Let us debate this issue but let us also follow up our debate with meaningful action. We have a proud humanitarian tradition in this country. However, with the UK now taking more formal and direct military intervention in Syria, we have an onus and responsibility to take more Syrian families, who are now fleeing not only Daesh and Assad but bombs dropped from American, Saudi, French, Australian, Turkish, Jordanian and British bombers. As we are now very much one of the push factors involved in the mass migration, we owe it to those in flight to offer refuge for a lot more than 20,000.

3.27 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on bringing this matter forward for debate. It is an important issue that cannot be ignored. Everyone has an opinion on it and it is nearly impossible to avoid it. The migrant crisis was one of the defining issues of 2015, because it affected everyone. Whether it is the negative consequences in Cologne or the success stories of relocated refugees settling into their new society, it is a major issue that will take some time to resolve. At the extremes in the UK are those who say we can take no more, and those who say, “Open the door wide.” Somewhere in between we must get a balance, and I think, in fairness, the Government have grasped that to an extent.

More than 13.5 million Syrians need help, of whom 6.5 million are internally displaced, and 4.2 million Syrians have fled abroad, mostly to neighbouring countries in the region. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) spoke of the plight of persecuted Christians, and 600,000 Christians have been displaced in Syria. They went all over the place. Many were given the ultimatum: convert or die. To continue to practise their religious beliefs, they had to leave. We cannot ignore those issues.

Many of those who fled were traumatised, as well, so it is about not just finding a new home but living with the horrors that they have experienced. The Minister has done extremely well, and the Prime Minister has given his commitment. The Government clearly have an objective of addressing the issues, and British DFID funding is very effective.

Syrian nationals were only the fourth largest group of asylum applicants in the year ending September 2015. We need to be careful about the migrant crisis, because it is clear that some illegal immigrants set on purely economic migration are capitalising on the plight of Syrian refugees. Figures from the UNHCR show that about 60% of migrants arriving in the bloc countries are now economic migrants. Slightly more than 10% of Syrians who have fled the conflict have sought protection in Europe, and some 681,700 asylum applications were made between April 2011 and October 2015. I am not a pro-European—you will know that, Mr Gray, as will other hon. Members—but the European Commission has given each resettled Syrian refugee some €6,000, and money can be drawn down. In reality, that figures that we have are only the tip of the iceberg, and thousands more people are making their way through Europe undocumented.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 169WH

Regardless of the approach we take, we need to ensure that refugees are processed correctly to give genuine refugees the dignity they deserve and to root out potential criminal elements or security threats, which have clearly happened. Northern Ireland has offered free English lessons, a move that is sure to help vulnerable people to settle and to integrate into their host society. Some 1,000 refugees crossed to Northern Ireland just last year. Those lessons will make life easier for everyone by helping refugees to integrate and offsetting any social or cultural tensions that may arise. They will cost some £20,000 a year and will be a long-term investment, ensuring translation services and covering other expenses associated with providing services to those who cannot speak English, to help integration into Ulster and Northern Irish society. Those who want to learn Ulster Scots can do so, but it is most important that they learn English. Some may want to learn Irish also. The lessons will apply only to refugees and not to economic migrants, a move that will ensure that only those in real need will benefit from lessons at a cost to the public purse. Illegal economic migrants cannot take advantage of the generosity being offered to refugees.

Many churches and charities have been involved, as hon. Members have said. Whenever there is a crisis, people come together and those who can help do help. Churches in Northern Ireland have risen to the challenge, as have charities.

Sweden and other countries have provided social instruction classes, particularly on how to treat women, because it is important to address such issues. Those classes have been successful in helping to educate refugees about how to behave appropriately in western society. We could learn from that innovative approach, which would go some way to improving integration and ensuring we do not have another Cologne.

We have all seen the distressing images of people drowning while desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean. One would have a heart of stone not to have been moved by some of things we have seen. However, the European Commission’s chief spokesman has admitted that the majority of people moving across Europe are in fact economic migrants. We need to ensure that only those in genuine need can avail themselves of services such as the English lessons in Northern Ireland, and that we discourage those who are not in such desperate need from making the perilous and often fatal journey to Europe.

We must address the migration issue in Syria—we cannot address it only here. We are reactive, but we need to be proactive in Syria. The issue will not go away, and as we start to welcome more and more refugees into the United Kingdom the innovative approaches in Northern Ireland that I have mentioned should be shared and discussed in Scotland and across the United Kingdom’s political institutions, to ensure that the resettling and integration of refugees is as efficient and smooth as possible.

Ian Austin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jim Shannon: I think you will want me to finish, Mr Gray, as many Members want to speak, but I give way to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin).

Ian Austin: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that British military action in Syria is confined to bombing oil fields, disrupting ISIS and helping to bring the

27 Jan 2016 : Column 170WH

conflict to a conclusion? It is unlikely to result in a wave of more refugees arriving on our shores, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) suggested a moment ago.

Jim Shannon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Obviously he has a particular point of view, and an important one, but when we need a global strategy, we must sometimes do deals with people we do not want to do deals with. We have to look at how best we can come together as a world—NATO, Europe as a whole and the countries bordering Syria—to ensure that some sort of stability is returned to it. If that happens, people can go home again, and I think that is where they really want to be.

3.34 pm

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for bringing this extremely important and timeous debate to the House. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in it as a member of the Select Committee on International Development, having been involved in the recent inquiry into the Syrian refugee crisis.

Feedback from Scotland, including from local authorities, is positive—400 refugees of the initial 1,000 have been settled in Scotland. There is still a long way to go, but we are certainly making excellent progress in that regard. I understand that Ministers are visiting refugees around Scotland as we speak. More work is needed to ensure that refugees do not feel isolated and that we have English classes that are appropriate and sufficient for their needs.

It is important that refugees’ needs are matched to local areas and that over the longer term, they can utilise any skills, qualifications and experience they may have. As the hon. Lady said, that process should be expedited and any healthcare and psychological support that may be required to help their adaptation should be provided.

Following on from the International Development Committee’s report, I echo the comment of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) that it is extremely important to ensure that the most vulnerable individuals are assessed and registered by UNHCR. They are not all able to reach camps, particularly those with disabilities or learning difficulties, those in rural areas, Christians and minority groups. Will the Minister ensure that data are disaggregated so that we can ensure that vulnerable groups across the board are fully included in the resettlement process?

I commend DFID and the Minister for their work on resettlement and in the camps. It is important to ensure, as DFID has tried to do, that children have access to education, safety and child protection, and that refugees have the opportunity to work. That is a task in progress.

However, humanitarian crisis funding is not sufficient for long-term planning, particularly when crises are protracted over many years. We must look at funding issues and ensure that needs are met in the long term. Will the Minister ensure in discussions with Turkey and other partners that stipulations on the provision of assistance are met, so that refugees have access to

27 Jan 2016 : Column 171WH

education, healthcare and employment, and that a scrutiny process is enacted and long-term outcome data are collected?

Reports by Save the Children estimate that 26,000 child refugees arrived in Europe without any family in 2015. Children on their own are extremely vulnerable, and figures reported by Italy indicate that of the 13,000 unaccompanied children who arrived through its borders in 2014, almost 4,000 have subsequently disappeared, with concerns that they may have fallen victim to people trafficking. A study from Belgium in 2008 revealed that unaccompanied refugee children and adolescents are five time more likely than accompanied refugee minors to demonstrate severe or very severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. That obviously has implications for their vulnerability and resettlement.

Save the Children has led calls for 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe to be resettled in the UK, in addition to the 20,000 already accepted. That amounts to five children per parliamentary constituency. In September 2015, the Prime Minister indicated that the Government will continue to discuss the proposal, but no decision has yet been made. I reiterate that unaccompanied child refugees are a particularly vulnerable group and need urgent help.

The recommendation of the International Development Committee was resettlement in the UK of 3,000 unaccompanied children, and that proposal is supported by the Scottish Government. However, that is the tip of the iceberg in Europe. I request that the Minister collaborate and speak with European partners to ensure that unaccompanied children are registered, that child protection issues are engaged with extremely quickly, that childcare workers and staff are employed and that children do not continue to go missing within Europe.

I thank the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent again. She spoke extensively and eloquently about the efforts that her local authority has made and about the emotional and practical requirements of refugees when they are resettled and local arrangements are made. She described her own profound experience of visiting refugee camps and the impact that has had on her understanding.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) discussed the importance of delivering on the pledge, raised important issues in relation to the EU and the wider context, and said that it is vital to address the political situation in Syria. Of course, we would all agree about that.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate discussed the issues of human dignity and vulnerability and reiterated points about minority groups, which I emphasise. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) spoke about local best practice initiatives and shared learning on resettlement in his area. The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) spoke eloquently about his own historical family situation and about the need for councils across the UK to engage equally in the process. That should also be addressed.

James Berry (Kingston and Surbiton) (Con): On that point, will the hon. Lady give way?

27 Jan 2016 : Column 172WH

Dr Cameron: Yes, indeed.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Lady should be concluding her remarks. I call Dr Cameron.

Dr Cameron: Thank you, Mr Gray.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) discussed what we gain from having refugees in the country. We should be proud of what we are doing, but we should continually ask what more we can do.

3.41 pm

Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I know that a number of—

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. I say to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that it is a normal courtesy for those who have taken part in the debate to remain present throughout the winding-up speeches. It is not considered courteous to leave the debate during the winding-up speeches, but if any hon. Member does so, he will find that he is not called in subsequent debates. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. [Interruption.] Order.

Keir Starmer: A number of hon. Members have asked specific questions of the Minister. Therefore, I will be brief so that he gets the chance to give answers to the questions that people want answered.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), not only on securing the debate but on the tone and content of her contribution at the start. I, too, have been to the camp in Calais. I went just three weeks ago. I went to Calais and to Dunkirk, and the conditions there are truly appalling. That is the case particularly at Dunkirk, which—for those hon. Members who have not been—is basically a forest in which there is a swamp. On the ground is mud, water, urine and everything else that one would expect to find mixed in when there are no toilets or running water. In the middle of that, on any piece of semi-firm soil, are pitched flimsy tents. I do not think that anybody could go in any capacity to those camps and not come back a changed person.

Of course, the camps include Syrians among other nationalities. That is not surprising. The figures have already been given. More than half of the pre-war population of Syria are in need of help—13.5 million of 22 million—6.6 million people are internally displaced and 4.3 million have fled abroad, so there are Syrians in Dunkirk, Calais and many other places across Europe. I saw there—in Dunkirk in particular—in the flimsy tents, settling down for the night, at 4.30 because there is no electricity and no lights and it was getting dark, children the same age as my own. I met individuals such as the Iraqi Kurd who showed me around. He explained that he had fled with his family because he was given an ultimatum by ISIS as it was coming into his town to join it or die. He ran for his life with such of his family as he could and is now in Dunkirk.

I acknowledge everything that the Minister has done in his brief so far. He will know just how important language is. I ask him, for that Iraqi Kurd and the others in the camps, whether he will distance himself from what I thought were disappointing comments from

27 Jan 2016 : Column 173WH

the Prime Minister this morning when he described people in those camps as “a bunch of migrants”. Some of the people in the camps will have been deeply disappointed and hurt to have been described in that way, because they hold our politicians—our leaders—in very high esteem.

May I touch on a couple of issues of process? In those camps and others across Europe, among the Syrians who have fled are individuals who are undoubtedly entitled, under the Dublin III arrangements, to be reunited with their families already in the UK, yet on the ground it is clear that that process is not working; it is not working in Calais or Dunkirk. I ask the Minister whether it is possible to have an urgent review of the Dublin III arrangements—the practical operation on the ground.

The voluntary resettlement programme was started, I think, in January 2014 and extended in September 2015 to the 20,000 Syrian refugees. That is welcome. On all sides, we should always say that it is welcome that that initiative has been taken by the Government; and the Government are right to ensure and insist that there are proper arrangements for those arriving, so that they can be housed, they have proper welfare, they have proper support and they have education. Given the various contributions made today, it may be time to review quite how and where people are located, but it is a very welcome initiative.

It was perhaps wrong to fix a cap in 2015 when we do not know what will happen during the next five years. I hope that the number can be revisited, because all the predictions are for a greater number of refugees next year even though we have already had a record year. We may need to come back to the 20,000 figure to see whether it needs to be revised.

I do ask the Minister and the Government—I have done so on a number of occasions—to give serious consideration to the question of unaccompanied children. There are 26,000 across Europe; 3,000 have been specifically identified by Save the Children and others. These are children on their own in Europe. Some may well have the right to be reunited with people in this country. It is probably unlikely to be their mother and father, but could be more distant family. This is Holocaust Memorial Day—a very important day when we consider children on their own in Europe. I ask the Government to look very seriously at the now very powerful case for taking some among that number of unaccompanied children.

I will turn now to two issues raised by other Members. When asylum seekers arrive in this country, whether from Syria or elsewhere, it is important that they are treated with dignity and respect. We have had, for the second week running, examples of treatment that has not been thought through and is deeply offensive to anybody with any experience of working with and for refugees. The red doors policy in Middlesbrough was raised in the House last week, and it was the wristbands in Cardiff this week. We need to appreciate several important points in those cases. Both examples have come to the attention of the House and been debated only because of the work of journalists. As I understand it, a Home Office inspection regime looks at the arrangements for asylum seekers to ensure the quality and so on of the accommodation and support that they are given. I called last week, and I call again now, for an urgent review of the arrangements to ensure that those sorts of crass arrangements are weeded out as fast as

27 Jan 2016 : Column 174WH

possible and to ensure that they were confined to Middlesbrough and Cardiff—in other words, to check that similar practices in other parts of the country will not come to the attention of the House in future weeks. Such a review is much needed.

I return to where I started. The steps that have been taken so far are welcome and should be supported on all sides, but it is time for the Government to look at whether we can go further in a number of material respects.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Refugees (Richard Harrington): As always, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing the debate and for her contribution. The Opposition, in all their forms—Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, the Scottish National party and everyone else—have been very helpful in everything that the Government have done on the Syrian resettlement programme. That does not mean that the Opposition have not been critical, but I think we all realise that we all have exactly the same intention.

However, ladies and gentlemen of the jury—if this were a jury, as in the former profession of the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) —I am a little bit off my normal form, owing to the shock of being complimented by the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). That stopped me concentrating for a moment.

Helen Whately: I want to reiterate something that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said, which I may have overlooked in my comments. During my research for the debate, I heard so many positive things about the Home Office and the Minister’s work. He certainly deserves the praise that he has received.

Richard Harrington: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. If I could receive such comments during the rest of my political career, I would be fortunate. We have very little time. With permission, I will attempt to answer most of the questions that have been asked, but if by chance I miss anything, I would be happy to discuss it privately with any Member of this House. Quite a few of the questions were grouped together, so I will try to summarise them.

There has been a bit of a misunderstanding about local authorities and the criteria for deciding where refugees should be settled. I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin)—we are both very interested in holocaust affairs and are involved in the Holocaust Educational Trust, of which I am a trustee—and we agree on most things. However, the list of people settled under the asylum programme is fundamentally different from the system that is used in the resettlement programme, and that is the reason for the confusion between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent. Local authorities have come forward to help in many areas, such as Ashford in Kent. I pay tribute to the leader of Ashford Borough Council, who passed around a video to other local authorities saying how welcome refugees are in Ashford. The council has resettled quite a lot of families.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 175WH

Ian Austin: Will the Minister give way?

Richard Harrington: I am sorry, but I really do not have time, because we have only got five minutes and I have got loads of things to say. Participation in the resettlement scheme is voluntary for local authorities. I would like to cover the finance point, because one of the very good contributions from the Scottish Members had a slight mistake in it. It is not just year 1 funding that has been arranged; there is a full programme for years 2 to 5. I am happy to go into detail in writing or to talk to hon. Members about it. Suffice it to say, within the time available, that most local authority leaders are quite satisfied with the funding, because years 2 to 5 are provided for.

As far as local authorities are concerned, the Government are conscious of the fact that settlement requires more than housing. That housing is provided predominantly by private landlords and paid for through local authorities, but with Government funds, deliberately so as not to interfere with the housing stock in those areas. In addition, each area is responsible for programmes to welcome people, introduce them to the local community and ensure that they register with doctors, schools and so on. I mention that because one of the faults of previous such programmes was that people were housed but forgotten about, and we are determined that that will not happen. Those are valid points to raise.

The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee made many erudite points, one of which was to ask what the Government were going to do about all the offers of spare rooms and shelter. He mentioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I was with this morning—

Keith Vaz: Oh.

Richard Harrington: Indeed, and your name was mentioned—not your name, Mr Gray, but the right hon. Gentleman’s. I apologise for not mentioning your name to the Archbishop, Mr Gray; I know that you know him very well.

On a serious point, we cannot take up the kind offers of spare rooms in people’s houses because we are not interested in providing temporary accommodation to refugees. Our programme is intended to settle people where they will live, if not permanently, for the foreseeable future. However, that does not mean that we are not using all those offers of help. I discussed the matter this morning with the Archbishop. He is, by the way, in touch with Lambeth Council, and I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Leicester East has such a low opinion of Labour councils and their housing departments that he thinks that he would not be treated properly.

Putting that to one side for the moment, we are considering lots of other things through community sponsorship so that those kind offers can be used. One example is mentoring people into jobs, which is being trialled in a scheme in Bradford at the moment. Another is twinning families with other families, who can help by taking them to job interviews and English language lessons, which we are encouraging. We are doing lots of community sponsorship things—I would be happy to go into them on another occasion, but I am conscious of the time—so the good will of those people is absolutely not being turned away.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 176WH

I will leave the right hon. Gentleman’s running commentary points for the moment, because there may be another occasion to discuss that. He said that it was very important that we include the diaspora of Syrians who already live here. I met all the groups during my first few weeks in office and I asked them to form one umbrella organisation, which they have done. I met some of them yesterday, and I will meet more of them tomorrow, to make sure that they are used in all the areas where they have people. A slight problem is that they are concentrated in certain areas and not present in many areas where refugees are going, but they are being very co-operative.

The point about religious minorities is particularly important, because there has been a general belief that our system of taking people from the UNHCR, using the vulnerability criteria, is all well and good, but that some people—particularly Christians, but also other minorities—have been left out. I am determined that that will not happen. There is one rule on which I think the Government have every right to be inflexible, and that is that people have to register with the UNHCR, because it is the only way in which we can work out the vulnerability points, such as health and all the other things that we deal with. However, I have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Bishop Patrick Lynch, whom I met last week, and every other body that we work with to give us evidence of places where there are pockets of people who are not registered. The Department for International Development is funding the UNHCR to provide outreach staff to register those people. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) that on meeting a Catholic bishop who came back from Jordan last week, I was told for the first time that there are green shoots, with more evidence of Christians registering. I want to make it clear that the Government have no policy of discriminating against Christians or anybody else, because what we are interested in is vulnerability.

As far as the contributions from Scottish Members are concerned—I am sorry to group them together, but there is not time to go through their individual contributions—I pay tribute to the way in which the Scottish Government, the Scottish local authorities and the Home Office have worked together. It is a very good model for democracy, because no one cares about who is in which party or about trying to score points off each other, and the end product has been extremely good. I cannot stress that enough, and I can say that because I have experienced it myself.

This is a very complex issue. A lot of people have mentioned the 3,000 children, and have said that 20,000 refugees is not enough. It is certainly true that hundreds of thousands could be picked out. I would like to stress two points in my remaining time. First, hon. and right hon. Members must remember that the 20,000 is a small part of our overall humanitarian policy. Most of our work is in the countries adjoining Syria, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and I think that this country can be proud of that work. One Member mentioned Germany. Germany has a lot of migrants, but compared with Germany, we do a lot of work on the ground on matters such as accommodation and health. It works both ways. There has been a lot of talk about the children, and all I can say in the few seconds I have left is that the Prime Minister is considering the situation, and I believe we

27 Jan 2016 : Column 177WH

can expect an announcement shortly. I am sorry that I cannot give any more information than that, but the points have been very well made.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 178WH

Small Businesses: Late Payments

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

4 pm

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered late payments to small businesses.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, for the first time in this Parliament.

One of the biggest drags on small and medium-sized businesses—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.10 pm

On resuming

Alok Sharma: As I was saying, one of the biggest drags on small and medium-sized businesses is the scourge of late payments. Timely cash inflow is the lifeblood of a small business. It is the difference between growth and stagnation, between profit and loss and, in some cases, between success and failure. There are some 5.4 million private sector businesses operating in this country, and more than 99% of them are small businesses, with 4.1 million consisting of just one person. The last thing someone in that position needs is the late payment of invoices by customers.

A recent survey by the Federation of Small Businesses concluded that central Government Departments and Government agencies tend to pay reasonably promptly, with more than 70% of invoices being paid early or on time. By contrast, more than 50% of invoices from SMEs to larger businesses are paid late. Research from Bacs Payment Schemes Ltd, published in February 2015, revealed that more than three quarters of UK businesses are being forced to wait at least a month beyond their agreed contract terms before getting paid. The Bacs research also found that SMEs bear the brunt of late payments. At the time, £41.5 billion was owed in late payments across the British economy. Some £9 billion was owed to larger corporates but a staggering £32 billion was owed to small and medium-sized businesses.

The late payment difficulties for SMEs are further compounded by the additional costs that have to be borne by businesses as a result of late payments, which average around £700 a month per SME, including staff costs for chasing late invoices. That equates to a total cost to small businesses across the year of more than £8 billion. The Minister is working incredibly hard on this, and the Government are committed to cutting £10 billion of red tape over the course of this Parliament. Can colleagues imagine what would happen if we also managed to eradicate £8 billion of late payment costs from SMEs? It would provide exactly the sort of boost to jobs, productivity and economic growth that the Government want to encourage.

Smaller companies have told the FSB about the very real costs of late payments: reduced profitability; lateness in paying their own suppliers; difficulties in paying staff; lateness in paying Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and all the negative consequences of that action; and, ultimately, lost contracts. There is also the very real risk of insolvency.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Turnover and sales are the predominant drivers for a small businessman, but does my hon. Friend agree that cash flow is a big

27 Jan 2016 : Column 179WH

problem and that the smaller the business, the bigger the problem it is? Consequently, when large companies withhold payment, a small business often cannot implement any early payment schemes because the large company can just go to somebody else and another small business will take the hit for them.

Alok Sharma: The adage that cash is king matters most to the smallest businesses, so my hon. Friend is right that cash flow is vital for a small business, as it is for larger businesses. The sum total of all this is that the very real risk of insolvency sometimes results from late payments. A poll of 1,000 business owners carried out in August 2015 by the electronic invoicing network Tungsten showed that more than 20% of businesses faced with unpaid invoices were having a brush with insolvency, and some of them, sadly, were having more than a brush.

The complaints that have come in to me from the Thames valley area as a result of my work with the FSB are wide-ranging and come from a range of industry sectors. I hear that large companies apply pressure in all sorts of different ways. Pressure is being applied to accept 90 to 180-day payment plans, fees are being charged to remain an approved supplier, and all sorts of complicated processes for submitting invoices have to be followed. Sometimes, payment is simply delayed with no reasonable excuse whatsoever.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Many SMEs in my constituency have expressed exactly the same concerns and fears. Does he agree that SMEs are effectively at the mercy of larger companies and that their survival depends on these cash payments being paid, and being paid quickly?

Alok Sharma: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and I will address the culture of late payments within big businesses, which is sadly prevalent in the UK but is perhaps not always the case in other jurisdictions.

I will quote some of the businesses with which I have been in contact. A machined plastic parts supplier that has been doing business for 50 years without any problems suddenly found that a large company it had been dealing with demanded payment of a non-negotiable fee to a third party to remain on an approved supplier list. The supplier said that it had reported the situation to the large company’s

“own ethics team who seem to think it is normal business practice and I have had it confirmed that we will be de-listed if we do not pay.”

An SME with 10 people and a turnover of less than £2 million that supplies goods and services to large telecommunications companies in the UK and Ireland contacted me:

“I could write a book on the various hoops we have to jump through”.

The examples provided by the SME include self-imposed cash arrangements by large companies and pressure to accept long payment terms.

A direct supplier to a local authority contacted me. It has had that contract for a long time, but it was suddenly told that it had to procure work through a particular procurement portal. The supplier told me:

“It was free to register (ignoring the not-insignificant effort in doing so), but the portal company then informed us that ‘a 5% fee...will be deducted from your agreed rate for each work opportunity you secure via the portal’”.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 180WH

That is a 5% mandatory fee being put on a small business, which is completely unacceptable. The owner of the business went on to tell me in conversation:

“In our opinion as a small business unable to fight the process, this amounts to supplier bullying.”

I have had businesses in the construction sector contact me. One said:

“Our industry (construction) is full of poor payment practices despite the Construction Act.”

Finally, a service provider that supports pharma and medical device companies across Europe wrote:

“We have experienced very late payments with UK based companies only, either by paying after 90 days…or after starting legal proceedings. In contrast working for a German based company we do get our invoices settled usually within 2 weeks.”

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made a point about corporate culture. As we have heard, these problems are cross-sector and do not relate to just one part of British industry. Having run a business in Germany myself, I can tell the House from personal experience that German corporates are generally pretty good at paying on time. In Britain, some large businesses have developed a culture of late payment over the years. Squeezing small suppliers has been considered normal business practice, and hang the negative consequences for the supplier. The risk of late payment in Britain is considered to be higher than in many other European nations, according to the latest European payment index, and it is clearly not an acceptable way of carrying on.

In the past few days, colleagues will have seen the outcome of the Tesco discussions. To be fair, Tesco contacted me before this debate and told me:

“Smaller suppliers with spend from us under £100,000 a year, will move to 14 day payment terms.”

That is a win for the adjudicator, for small businesses and, ultimately, for Tesco and British business in addressing the culture of large companies in doing business with small suppliers.

What are the Government doing? I am sure the Minister will talk about the measures to address late payments that have been implemented, or are planned to be implemented, but I will highlight a few areas on which I would be interested in getting feedback either now or in writing, if the answers are not readily available.

The first is the strengthening of the prompt payment code, which clearly has happened because of Government encouragement. It is a real success and a badge of honour for businesses. Also, thanks to the input from the Government, not only has the number of companies signing up to the code increased but the code has been strengthened so that 30-day payment terms are now considered standard and 60-day payment terms a maximum.

One of the suggestions made to me by the FSB is that the Government should commit to making sure that any supplier that supplies to Government should sign up to the code; being a signatory should be an absolute requirement before a company starts to supply any Government body or agency. I would be very interested in hearing the Minister’s views on that suggestion.

The second point is with regard to the EU directive relating to late payments. Of course, that directive was originally based on pre-existing UK law and it requires that businesses pay their suppliers within 60 days or

27 Jan 2016 : Column 181WH

face interest payments on money owed. However, the UK implementation of the directive allows businesses to agree longer terms

“provided it is not unfair to the creditor.”

For a small business, even 90 days is a very long time to wait to get paid. Given that the prompt payment code suggests that 60 days be considered a maximum period for payment, will the Minister consider amending the legislation to ensure that 60 days is considered the mandatory maximum period for paying suppliers?

Thirdly, I welcome the requirement from April this year for large and listed companies to publish their payment practices twice a year. Can the Minister confirm whether this piece of secondary legislation is on track and what the definition of a “large company” is? Is it one that has more than 250 employees? That is certainly the European definition of a large company.

My fourth and final point relates to the Government’s plans to establish a small business commissioner, who will help to solve complaints from small businesses about late payments. I hope that the Minister will agree that the commissioner needs to be an individual who commands respect across the business community. Perhaps it could be a former chief executive officer of a large business. I would not go so far as to say that we should get a poacher turned into a gamekeeper, but I think she will know what I mean. I know that we will have the Second Reading debate of the Enterprise Bill in the coming days, but hopefully she can provide a bit of commentary on the role of the commissioner. I welcome the creation of the commissioner; they will help SMEs, but only if they are seen to have some real teeth. If they come to be seen simply as a postbox for complaints, I am afraid they will lose the confidence of SMEs and will not command the respect of large businesses.

The FSB wants the scope and remit of the commissioner to be broadened to consider complaints about poor payment practices in the public sector as well, which I understand is not currently the role that has been prescribed for it. The FSB is also rather keen that the commissioner should have the power to make referrals to the Competition and Markets Authority. Both these suggestions are worthy of serious consideration. I would be interested to know the Minister and the Government’s view of them, if not today then perhaps in the Second Reading debate.

As I have said, there are more than 5 million small businesses in the UK. I do not think anyone expects that the commissioner will set up a huge administrative bureaucracy, mechanically processing complaints, so there needs to be a holistic approach for dealing with complaints. What I would like to see is the commissioner establishing a public register or website, loosely based on those that review holiday destinations, on which SMEs could enter verified complaints about late payments or poor supplier policies practiced by their customers.

Once SMEs start coming forward with issues, many of which will be recurring in terms of their scope and the identity of offending large companies, that will enable the commissioner to spot patterns of poor behaviour within different sectors. The commissioner should certainly have the power to bring CEOs from big companies around a table to ensure that they act collectively to end poor practices. I think we would find that if we were able to tackle 20% of the problems that are identified, that would solve 80% of the problems related to late payments.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 182WH

Eradicating late payments will provide a boost to jobs, growth and productivity, and I am absolutely convinced that greater transparency will help to eliminate what I regard as a corporate disease.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister to respond, I remind Members that the debate was suspended for 10 minutes, so it will now finish at 4.40 pm.

4.24 pm

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing this debate on an important topic. We know that late payment is one of the biggest complaints that small businesses have. They rightly complain about what are effectively two types of late payment. One is when they supply services or goods to people, and as part of the terms and conditions of the contract they find themselves almost over a barrel. They do not want to turn away business or fall out with an important customer, so they sign up to terms and conditions that in a modern age are, frankly, unacceptable.

Of course, someone can take action against anybody who breaks the terms of a contract. They can go to court, but for obvious reasons there is a reluctance to go to court. It costs money, and it could also sour the relationship between the two parties, which would not be good for the smaller business. It is important to put on the record that, for our purposes, when we refer to a small business we are referring to any business that employs fewer than 250 people. That ranges from a very small business, or even a microbusiness that employs between one and five people, to companies with much bigger turnovers that employ up to 250 people. The small business sector is huge and, as we know, it is absolutely the engine of our economy.

The second type of complaint comes from businesses that have signed up to being paid within a certain period, only to find that term or condition of the contract is broken. As I have explained, they feel reluctant to go to law, but there is a remedy available to them.

As I say, there are two types of complainants: those who find themselves signing up to onerous terms and conditions in the first place, and those who, having signed up to a contract that may on paper include good terms regarding when payment will be made, nevertheless find that the company’s practice is to breach those terms. They do not really want to go to law. I accept, and the Government absolutely recognise, the case that my hon. Friend makes that the situation we find ourselves in is unacceptable. Things have been getting better, but we know there is more to be done.

It is important that I put on the record my thanks to the Groceries Code Adjudicator for what happened yesterday, which in many ways was astonishing. What Tesco was doing was a scandal, but it was a great day for smaller businesses, which found themselves having a champion who did not pull her punches in criticising and exposing Tesco. After a year-long investigation, she made it very clear what Tesco had done, which was a flagrant breach of the groceries code.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 183WH

As we know, since last April the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which was set up by the last Conservative-led Government, has had the power to impose fines of up to 1% of turnover. That is serious money for any business, but especially for big businesses. So credit where credit is due; yesterday was a good day for smaller businesses, and full credit to the adjudicator and to the last Government for doing all of that.

I will deal with a few important points, then I will come to my hon. Friend’s asks in a minute. The small business commissioner, which will be set up by the Enterprise Bill, will have a specific role of considering the problem of late payment. The commissioner might want to look at other things as well, but primarily he or she will look specifically at that problem.

We know that people can go to law if there is a breach of contract. The small business commissioner will look at the practices that lead to unfair terms and conditions and at those that mean people breach terms and conditions and make late payments. What I am looking for in the commissioner is somebody who will take up the complaints of much smaller businesses, which invariably reflect trends in what bigger companies are doing.

The real aim is to change the culture. My hon. Friend said that the problem stems from a culture that is unacceptable in this day and age, and I want the small business commissioner to change that culture. He was right to ask for the commissioner to have some teeth, but then they would turn into a very different creature and we would have to go down the route of having someone whose role was quasi-judicial. In any event, people can take to court a claim for breach of contract, and we will be wildly encouraging mediation. That will be another role of the small business commissioner. We do not want to create a quasi-judicial role, because we would be beginning to get into quango land. I want someone who has respect and authority, so that when a phone call is made the bigger companies do not flinch but pick up the phone. It is about banging heads together and changing the culture.

Alok Sharma: I agree with the Minister, of course; we certainly do not want another quango. That would not help anyone, particularly small businesses. Does she agree that whoever is appointed to the role has to be a serious and hugely respected business figure? They have to be respected by small and large businesses, because it is the office and their individual personality that will help to drive things and get large businesses around a table when heads need to be banged together.

Anna Soubry: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. The person we appoint will be critical in achieving what we want. We want someone with gravitas, so that when a telephone call goes to a chief executive, that chief executive does not hesitate to say, “This is a call I have to take. This is someone I have to listen to.” When I spoke to the Australian equivalent, what struck me was that when he has that conversation with a chief executive and tells them, “Did you know what your finance team are now saying has to be in the terms and conditions for small businesses?”, invariably the chief executive says, “I had no idea what was going on. That is absolutely unacceptable,

27 Jan 2016 : Column 184WH

and that is not how we do business.” It is fair to say that the new chief executive of Tesco, for example, was clear yesterday that it will no longer treat smaller businesses in that dreadful way. I welcome the change in policy so that very small suppliers will be paid within 14 days, but we must be clear that they supply only about £150,000 of goods to Tesco. They are very small contracts, and I look forward to Tesco extending its new-found policies to all its suppliers across the piece.

The small business commissioner will be expected to have a website. I want it to be a series of portals that will show small businesses where they can go for advice, especially on mediation. I am not sure about the idea of turning it into a sort of TripAdvisor. I always get a little nervous about people being able to post things, which would require a lot of regulation to ensure that no one was saying anything defamatory. I want to make it absolutely clear that the small business commissioner will produce an annual report, in which they will be expected to name and shame all those who are not doing the right thing by small businesses, especially in relation to prompt payment. What happened with Tesco yesterday was so important because it was all across the media, and damage to a business’s reputation is hugely important and hugely powerful.

Alok Sharma: The Minister is being generous with her time. I hear what she is saying about the potential risks of a TripAdvisor-type website, although such websites of course operate already, so I am sure that it is possible to construct something that might work. Whatever mechanism is used, we need to ensure that there is a way of getting complaints in and processed in a timely and fast way. I reiterate that the last thing we want is a quango, and I know she does not want that either.

Anna Soubry: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Speed is of the essence. We have reduced the maximum size of company that can make a complaint. The limit will be around the 50-employee mark, because we anticipate that there will be a lot of complaints. Those companies will be symptomatic of a way of doing things in particularly large businesses and of culture. We think that we are aiming in the right direction to get the sort of results that we want.

We introduced new reporting requirements in 2015 for the UK’s largest companies to report on their payment practices and performance, including invoices paid beyond agreed terms. I want to make it clear that those reports will be published in a central digital location, which sounds pretty ghastly, but most importantly it will do the trick. It will bring in the oxygen of publicity, which invariably cleanses things and makes them better. I am going to say something slightly controversial and be very blunt.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): Surely not.

Anna Soubry: I know. It is not like me, and my officials are now having huge palpitations, but it says on my brief:

“Government is leading by example by paying its suppliers fairly and promptly.”

I wonder whether we really are. Shall we be truly honest about this? My hon. Friend gave an example of a local authority that is not doing that, and I have examples of

27 Jan 2016 : Column 185WH

local authorities that are not doing that. I have an example that was brought to me—I will not go into the detail of it now, but I will be taking it up in a serious way.

We all know that we have to be careful. We can make great headline statements, but when we drill down into the reality—most of us, certainly on the Government Benches, live in the real world—what sounds like a good headline is not borne out in practice. I have seen evidence that by the time something that looks like a Government contract has come through the first subcontractor, the next subcontractor and the next one, the payment terms are something in the region of 120 days, and I am concerned about that. That is not a fault of Government, because we have been clear about what we expect, but the danger with over-regulation is that there is always a way around it. The most important thing is changing the culture and policing it. People will be very clever in looking for the loopholes and different ways of doing things, but we have to ensure that we find them, track them down, expose them and ensure that those sorts of practices cease. I will be keen to take that up so that we practice what we preach.

Alok Sharma: The Minister is always at her best when she is being controversial. She raises the issue of how the public sector deals with small businesses, so can I come back to one point? Will she at least have another look at whether the small business commissioner should cover Government quasi-public bodies as well as private sector companies?

Anna Soubry: I absolutely do not have a problem with looking at that. I place on record, however, that I am looking at that now. I will not bore Members with all the details, but someone who is not a constituent came to see me. He runs an excellent small business called Caunton Engineering. By bad fortune for some of the contractors, he happens to chair the relevant committee

27 Jan 2016 : Column 186WH

for his sector. I am taking the issue seriously, and we will look into it to ensure that we are doing the right thing.

The last Government made huge strides forward with the prompt payment code and the publications that bigger companies have to make. The directive that my hon. Friend mentioned is wishy-washy. Am I going to say that we should change it? Actually, I do not want to over-regulate. I would much rather that we changed the culture rather than put strictures on small business, but he makes a good point. I will look at all the points he has raised, and I congratulate him on bringing the matter to our attention.

I feel proud: the Conservative party is undoubtedly the party of small business. We get it. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) is here, and he runs a small business, no doubt extremely well. We know the area and we understand it. What we now have to do is this: I ask all Members to bring me their examples, and I will not hesitate to take them up with bigger companies and be the champion of small businesses, to ensure that we deliver in the way that we want and encourage small businesses.

Alok Sharma: Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry: Yes—my hon. Friend can have the last word.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): There are 10 seconds left.

Alok Sharma: I am really pleased that the Minister has thrown out that challenge to Members. Will she commit to sit down with me over the coming weeks—

Anna Soubry: Yes—

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. There is plenty of time to sit down with the hon. Gentleman.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

27 Jan 2016 : Column 187WH

Iraq Historic Allegations Team

4.40 pm

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Iraq Historic Allegations Team.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Because of time factors, if the Member who secured the debate takes 10 minutes, all the seven Back Benchers, including Mr Stewart, who have indicated that they want to speak will have four minutes before I bring in the Scottish National party and Labour party spokespersons for five minutes each, and the Minister will have 10 minutes to respond.

Richard Benyon: Thank you, Mr Owen, for overseeing our proceedings today. I am grateful to the Minister for being in her place and to so many colleagues for showing so much interest in this important matter.

I have a view of our armed forces that is similar to my view of other public services. Just as with the NHS and the police, I revere the people who work for those services for being the best at what they do and for showing exceptional courage and professionalism. I also accept that the armed forces, like other public servants, sometimes fail. In wanting them to remain the best armed forces in the world, I want there to be a proper sanctioned system, clearly understood by all ranks, to act as a deterrent against those who might break the rules of law. Here I admit a prejudice. As somebody who has served on operations and saw men under my command have their self-control tested to the extreme, I constantly wonder how young men, often with little education, can show such intelligent restraint at times of great provocation. I am only talking about Northern Ireland.

This year sees the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf war. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women have seen more combat in the quarter century since than in any period since the Korean war. To mark it, Help for Heroes, in conjunction with King’s College London, has produced an in-depth report that shows that roughly between 60,000 and 70,000 regular veterans and around 20,000 reservists will need our support in the coming years as they face the effects of combat. Those are the people I will talk about today and they should be our absolute priority.

I secured this debate because something has happened to some of our veterans in recent years that I think needs the urgent attention of Government. Some call it “lawfare”. It is having a profound effect on the morale of our armed forces and on how we will be able to fight wars in the future.

Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the security of this Chamber, it is difficult to second-guess the decision-making processes in the theatre of war, where the environment is entirely different?

Richard Benyon: My hon. Friend is right, and I would add that when decisions are taken through judicial process, with the benefit of hindsight, sometimes more than a decade later, it is very hard to try and put oneself in the position of those who are taking the difficult action.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 188WH

Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree with one of my constituents who explained in an email that the present wars are not the same as wars in the past, where it was obvious who the enemy was and certain standards were adhered to on both sides? We are working in very difficult times at the moment.

Richard Benyon: Most of the asymmetric conflicts that we have fought in recent years are extremely difficult. We are fighting an enemy who does not sign up to the Geneva convention and the basic rules of war. I will make suggestions for the Minister that I think might address those concerns. My hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) co-wrote a landmark report last year called, “Clearing the Fog of Law”. I recommend it to hon. Members. In it he makes some recommendations that are intellectually researched and will go a long way to address the problem that we discuss today. I am also grateful for any contribution to the debate from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) whose understanding of these issues within the machinery of Government is second to none.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who has asked me to say he is sorry he cannot be here as he is in hospital, wrote a powerful article last week in which he described an action in which a sniper shot and killed an insurgent who was about to fire an RPG-7 round towards troops. The shot was made from 1,200 metres—an act of skill that is hard to imagine. However, in absolutist terms, it could be that this fatality was illegal as the sniper did not issue a verbal warning. To give such a warning in a language that an assailant can understand over that distance is clearly a ridiculous concept, even before you try to second-guess the thoughts racing through the sniper’s mind as he balanced the rules of engagement with the safety of his mates. I think he did the right thing. Now we are led to believe that he is being investigated because a firm of lawyers—sitting, no doubt, in the comfort of offices in London or Birmingham—have realised that there is money to be made here. The lawyers have tracked down the deceased’s family, who have no doubt been told of the riches available on a no win, no fee basis or possibly from legal aid. This has to stop.

The Iraq Historic Allegations Team was being set up in the last days of the previous Labour Government. It was put into operation by the coalition Government for a perfectly respectable reason, and no doubt also to offset some of the threats from international judicial processes, to tackle alleged crimes in that conflict.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. I was an opponent of the International Criminal Court Bill that was proposed by the Labour Government and would have subjected our soldiers to the International Criminal Court. I said at the time that

“we must foresee the possibility of the court saying that this country has been unwilling to take action although we believe that it would be inappropriate for our national courts to do so. In such circumstances we must provide maximum protection to our troops.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 1 May 2001; c. 247-48.]

27 Jan 2016 : Column 189WH

Is it not the case that the Government introduced this because it feared that otherwise our troops would have been taken to the International Criminal Court?

Richard Benyon: I find it depressing that we are talking about this so long after my right hon. Friend made those remarks. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister what advice she has received about the need for the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Perhaps the debate will be able to draw out some of the reasoning for it.

As we know, IHAT was set up in 2010 by the then Minister, Sir Nick Harvey, who in a written statement said that he expected it to complete its work within two years. In July 2014, the Secretary of State recognised that IHAT’s work was not going to be completed by the end of 2016. He approved additional funding of £24 million to cover the period from the end of 2016 to the end of 2019, which increased the level of funding of IHAT to £57.2 million. I want us to think of 2019 in relation to when some of the instances it is investigating actually took place.

IHAT employs 145 people and is still recruiting. The job specs actually say that contracts are initially short term, but are likely to be extended for significantly longer. The IHAT website gives 2019 as the likely date when it will complete its work. If it was exposing systematic and institutionalised war crimes, I would at least understand why such persistence was a good idea, and feel that the cost to the British taxpayer was justified. Estimates in the press say it costs £5 million a year, but other estimates vary. A look at IHAT’s website shows that 18 investigations have been completed, one of which has resulted in measures being taken against somebody, and a £3,000 fine being awarded. Of the others, 15 cases have been dropped and two cases have been passed to other authorities, but no action has been forthcoming.

By June last year, following a huge increase in IHAT’s caseload, the diagnosis was even worse. It is not necessary to be a mathematician to appreciate that, at this rate, the task of investigating allegations arising from the activities of British armed forces in Iraq will never be fully completed. The Ministry of Defence guide describes what has happened to the 59 allegations of unlawful killing that IHAT has reviewed up to this month: 34 cases have been closed, or are in the process of being closed, with no further disciplinary action; seven are currently subject to further limited, focused lines of inquiry; and 17 are under investigation. Only one of those cases was referred to the Director of Prosecutions, who directed that there should be no prosecution. So, on the face of it, that is not a great record.

At this stage, I want to make it clear that I do not blame the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. It no doubt has worthy detectives sifting the evidence, but after 10 years it is finding two things: evidential trails have run cold; and it is being inundated with claims, many spurious and many the result of the malign actions of lawyers, who see this is a Klondike-style fee-fest or, perhaps, as a way to get at the system that conducted what they believe to be an unjust war. If anyone doubts my last remark, I suggest looking at the interview on YouTube given by Mr Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers to that great beacon of impartiality, Russia Today.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 190WH

IHAT’s caseload now involves just over 1,500 alleged victims, 1,235 of whom are victims of ill treatment and 280 of unlawful killing. Given that backlog, the burden will hang over the heads of many of our veterans for many more months and probably years. That is utterly intolerable.

All that falls into the concept of what “Clearing the Fog of Law” calls “legal imperialism”. The worst case of such a culture are the allegations that culminated in the al-Sweady inquiry. The allegations surround actions taken during what became known as the battle for Danny Boy, a brutal attack on a checkpoint of that name resulting in a fierce firefight. British troops showed exceptional courage and resolve, and a number were decorated for bravery. The inquiry that followed cost £31 million; the fees were about £5 million. Some mistreatment was discovered, but the allegations of torture, mutilation and murder were baseless and the product, according to the judge, of “deliberate and calculated lies”.

The Government and many others have accused the two firms promoting the cases, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day, of attempting “to traduce” the reputations of the Army units concerned. We have heard that the alleged actions of one of the law firms, Leigh Day, have resulted in referral to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I hear that Public Interest Lawyers might also be referred to that body.

We could all take up lots of time venting our collective spleen at the behaviour of firms that trawl places such as Basra trying to convince people of the great riches in proving that they were victims of bad behaviour. We could take up much more time asking the shadow Defence Secretary, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), why she and the Labour party thought it right to accept donations or donations in kind from those firms.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech. Does it not speak legions that virtually no Labour Member is attending the debate today? What does that show about Labour’s position on the military?

Richard Benyon: I share my hon. Friend’s feelings. Rather than spend the time talking about our views of those lawyers, however, which would be self-indulgent, I want to get to the bottom of this concept of legal imperialism.

I am glad that since I requested the debate the Prime Minister has announced that he has asked the National Security Council to produce a comprehensive plan to stamp out the industry. He is looking at banning no win, no fee schemes; he is speeding up the planned legal aid residency test; and he is strengthening penalties against firms that abuse the system, possibly even including suing those who have been found deliberately to withhold facts that could prove the innocence of the servicemen or women concerned.

That is all good stuff, but I want to press the Minister for more information on the timescale for the reforms. I suggest that they can only be seen as work in progress. May I respectfully suggest that the Minister add to the Prime Minister’s wish list the suggestions made in the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling?

27 Jan 2016 : Column 191WH

In order to draw a line under the situation, for recent and future conflicts the Prime Minister should consider these powerful recommendations. The Government should derogate from the European convention on human rights in respect of future overseas armed conflicts, using the mechanism of article 15 of the convention. The Government should revive the armed forces’ Crown immunity from actions in tort during all future “warlike operations” overseas by ministerial Order under the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987. The Government should take the lead—this is important—in supporting efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to strengthen the Geneva conventions on the conditions of modern warfare, which addresses the point made in an early intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani). The Government should make an authoritative pronouncement of state policy, declaring the primacy of the Geneva conventions in governing the conduct of British forces on the battlefield.

Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) (UUP): I am grateful that we are having this debate. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that alongside the conflicts of the past we need to concentrate on the past in Northern Ireland as well? We should also look at a proactive media presence so that we are in front when defending our servicemen, rather than waiting for every case to get to the papers.

Richard Benyon: The hon. Gentleman is right. I support the plea by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) that incidents such as that of the arrest of Lance Corporal J of the Paras under caution should cease. Society wants a line drawn under such things. We seem to have moved too far towards favouring the actions of our enemies and we do not seem mindful enough of those to whom we owe a great debt.

The recommendations I have just outlined are clearly set out in the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling. It makes it clear that we are not only talking about alleged victims of war crimes, excessive violence in combat or the mistreatment of prisoners. The definition of “lawfare” extends to the ability of the courts to judge the actions of commanders—decisions often taken in the heat of battle and then judged years later by people for whom such circumstances are alien and with the mantle of hindsight.

I go back to my own experience. I got to know well a 19-year-old soldier who, in a tense situation, shot and killed someone contrary to the so-called “yellow card” rules for opening fire. He was convicted for murder. The case has haunted me for 34 years. My worry is that the legal imperialism we have seen in recent years and the existence of organisations such as IHAT will put a dangerous caution in the minds of the sniper of the future. Rather than taking a life to save many, caution prompted by a fear of legal implications might, to quote my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex,

“put a splint around his trigger finger”.

The analogy extends into every area of war, involving everyone from the most junior soldier just out of training to the most gnarled veteran of a quarter century of expeditionary warfare. The Apache pilot, the mortar platoon commander and the frontline rifleman all need to be governed by the rule of law—but which law? That

27 Jan 2016 : Column 192WH

is the matter that the Minister and the Government must tackle with haste. However despicable we might think the actions of certain lawyers are, they are only responding to circumstances created by Governments past and present. My argument is that the rules we have created put our servicemen and women in greater danger in future. That cannot be right.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Given the length of the last speech, the remaining speakers have three minutes each.

4.57 pm

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for such an excellent speech and for bringing the subject to the Westminster Hall Chamber. I will now gabble through my speech in two minutes and 51 seconds.

As a former soldier, I welcome the opportunity to put on the record how deeply disturbing I find the relentless pursuit of our servicemen and women by unscrupulous and opportunistic lawyers. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to clamp down on the abuse, but I wish he would go further. I understand, however, that shutting investigations down would create an even more legalistic nightmare.

We all acknowledge that if and when atrocities are committed, or are alleged to have been committed, they need to be investigated. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team was established for that purpose in a genuine attempt to right historic wrongs and to deliver effective criminal investigation of allegations of murder, abuse and torture. In the case of Baha Mousa, for example, it worked.

One of the problems of the investigations now is the time that they are taking. Over the past five years, only a small number of the 1,500 cases have been looked at, and then only after nearly £60 million was given to IHAT to look into the allegations. Will the Minister comment on that when she sums up?

Another problem is that hundreds of the cases were fed to IHAT by only two legal firms, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day.

Nusrat Ghani: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Richard Drax: I really do not have time, so I will fire on, if I may.

The perception is that left-leaning lawyers are intent on undermining one of the pillars of the establishment—namely, the armed forces. Given the opportunity, they are jumping to the task with relish. Unbelievably, it is alleged that middlemen touting for clients in Iraq received referral fees, which are prohibited, thus inviting fabrication and fantasy, which was never the intention. Those self-serving and unscrupulous firms have wrapped themselves in the banner of human rights, creating a compensation industry funded by the taxpayer.

Although I am delighted to learn that the gravy train is now coming off the rails, with both firms facing the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Leigh Day now referred to the solicitors disciplinary tribunal, the damage has been done and remains in the huge backlog of cases. For example, one British soldier could now in turn face investigations by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team and the International Criminal Court at the Hague;

27 Jan 2016 : Column 193WH

civil claims for compensation in the High Court; and finally an inquest by the Iraq fatality investigations—you couldn’t make it up!

Our soldiers are left feeling persecuted and betrayed. Those still serving are demoralised and people thinking of serving may think again. How on earth will we prosecute a war in the future if at every turn our servicemen and women fear being investigated for doing their duty, which, let us not forget, is to kill the enemy?

5 pm

Douglas Chapman (Dunfermline and West Fife) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, especially in this debate, which has aroused so much interest around the country and goes to the heart of so much in UK politics at the moment. I thank the hon. and gallant Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for bringing the debate to the House.

There is no doubt that the personnel of our armed forces do their job with a minimum of fuss, operating in conditions that most civilians would find intolerable, usually to a remarkable standard, because of which they are worthy of our praise and we must take time to understand specific circumstances. However, just as those men and women are the pride of their communities, we can be proud of our record on human rights, rooted in historic documents such as Magna Carta and, in Scotland, the Declaration of Arbroath.

In this debate, we should remark on the fact that IHAT is something of a classic British fudge. The idea that we should allow the UK to uphold its commitment to human rights, while protecting those who have given so much from unnecessary legal intrusion, has instead become an underfunded, sub-prime body that has lost the confidence of many it purports to help. It is also unfortunate that this necessary debate has been somewhat hijacked by those who seem to be obsessed by promoting an anti-European agenda.

In my work in the Select Committee on Defence, on which I serve with the hon. Member for Newbury and others here today, it has been made clear to me that we have the most professional, dedicated and capable armed forces in the world. They are men and women who hold themselves to the highest standards both at home and abroad. I am sure we agree that they are experienced personnel and professionals who can account for and justify their decisions on the battlefield. That does not mean, however, that there is not room for improvement in their practices.

The three services are a result of steady evolution, adaptation and best practice. It must be noted that a strong commitment to human rights has played a vital part in that evolution. We must agree, however, that the allegations brought forward are serious. The very reputation of our armed forces—indeed, the reputation of the UK and its commitment to human rights—relies on proper adherence to procedures and the rule of law.

On the other side is the ridiculous list of cases brought forward that contain false or exaggerated allegations that exploit the fundamental character of the justice system. Soldiers who have served with distinction and valour in the Iraqi conflict should not be unnecessarily hounded. Many in my party are clear that those who abuse the system must be dealt with severely.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 194WH

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order.

5.3 pm

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for his kind words and for calling for the debate. I will try to reduce my speech in so far as I can, but these matters did concern me in my working life for many years. I was in charge of the MOD’s litigation team in Treasury Solicitor’s Department when the claims started flooding in in 2010. We faced a tsunami of litigation. I am not going to talk about individual cases, but I will give some recommendations from my experience.

First, IHAT was the least bad option available. The civil courts are not the place for criminal investigations to take place. Some of the claims made were very serious and needed to be investigated. IHAT is independent but secure. It is staffed by excellent officers who can investigate criminal allegations. Unlike the Baha Mousa inquiry, for example, they can refer cases to the Service Prosecuting Authority. Given where we are at the moment, IHAT should be encouraged to press on, but we should find new ways to deal with such issues in any future conflict.

Secondly, lawyers should not act without real clients with whom they are in touch and from whom they can take instructions. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] If, for example, offers of settlement are made, it is essential that a lawyer can get in touch with their client immediately; anything less makes litigation impossible.

Thirdly, access by IHAT officers to the Iraqi complainant should have been provided with speed, but it was not. I can see no explanation for that at all. There is no need, nor is it usual in police investigations, for those who complain of a crime to be represented by a lawyer from the other side of the world.

Fourthly, our disclosure rules should not be used to pervert the course of litigation and push the Ministry of Defence into a position where it feels it cannot defend itself or its soldiers. Fifthly, I support scrutiny of whether legal aid should be available to non-UK nationals bringing action against the Government. That money, in my view, would be much better spent on rebuilding Iraq than on lawyers based in the UK.

Sixthly, I think the UK should derogate from the European convention on human rights—I am certainly no anti-European—whenever we deploy soldiers abroad. The authors of the convention, who were writing at a time when the horror of the holocaust and the battlefield was still fresh, intended international humanitarian law to apply to soldiers. International humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict is robust law, designed for that very purpose; the ECHR is not.

In conclusion, we are not dealing in the main with the fog of the battlefield, but rather with the confusion of detention and interrogation. In Iraq, solders were detaining men who minutes before might have been shooting at them or killing their friends or who were believed to have had information that might have helped us to prevent further attacks on our troops. They were usually not in custody suites, offices or cells, and time for gathering information was perilously short. It was hot—

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 195WH

5.6 pm

Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View) (Con): I do not want to repeat much of what has been said already, but as everyone knows the situation has got completely out of hand. It is beyond parody, because what we find ourselves in is not the product of any of the individuals now charged with sorting this out. Throughout the rest of the world, there is not another country whose legislators or political representatives are putting its servicemen and women through anything remotely similar. Every day, those same legislators use the freedom of speech and freedom of will that so many have fought so hard to defend. Indeed, we are the only first-world country that seems to take such a passive and reactive approach to anything to do with veterans’ affairs.

That we find ourselves in this situation is astonishing, baffling, embarrassing and wrong. That we can take a battlefield and all that goes into it—train hard, work hard and be the best we can possibly be to ensure success—and then have our homework marked by those whose love of this country does not wander far beyond their own bank balance is simply beyond me. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] We cannot withdraw from IHAT now—I accept that. That we are here is ridiculous, but here we are and we must, as ever, fight our way out.

What is really going on in this investigation? Our soldiers have retired police officers who have answered the noble call of exciting new opportunities and above market rates of pay turning up at their door with a letter summoning them to court, with no warning. Yes, they have access to a lawyer afterwards from the MOD, but they got no warning from the Government they represented that this—a Government inquiry—is turning up. That is not good enough.

No one has a problem with scrutiny. Our professionalism is what separates us from the rest. We work so hard to imbue moral courage in our men and women, along with mental strength and resilience, precisely to get decisions right in warfare. The truth is that, by and large, we do that and, when they do not, someone speaks up and it is dealt with, without fear or favour, for we are the British Army and we are embarked on a relentless pursuit of excellence.

I do not know how many times I must say this in this place, but I will keep going until my time here is done. We have a duty to look after these people and this is not how to do it. I urge the Government to follow the Prime Minister’s lead and do everything they can to protect our men and women: be proactive; warn them of what is coming; calm them; and support their families. The time for letting veterans fend for themselves and seek out a charitable shoulder for support is over. It ends in this Parliament. These people are the best of us—the true patriots; the warrior generation. We owe these men and women. Let us not let them down.

5.9 pm

Mr Alan Mak (Havant) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer).

We ask our armed forces to serve us abroad, so that we can be safe at home. I represent a constituency with a proud military tradition, particularly in the naval

27 Jan 2016 : Column 196WH

sphere. I hear and see at first hand the service and sacrifice of our armed forces, and therefore my constituents and I share what the Prime Minister described as the “deep concern” that Iraq war veterans could face the threat of prosecution due to fabricated or unjustified claims.

Although we expect our armed forces to adhere to the rule of law and the rules of engagement, we should commit to ensuring that we protect them from those who irresponsibly abuse the process of law. I therefore very much welcome the commitment from the Secretary of State for Defence to clamp down on bad practices. I also support the Prime Minister’s action. Asking the National Security Council to produce a clear, detailed plan of how we can stop our troops facing this torment is positive news.

I hope the Minister will confirm that the National Security Council’s work is proceeding well. Several of the proposed steps are especially welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to the imposition of strict time limits for the lodging of claims, to residency requirements, to the prevention of no win, no fee deals and to the reviewing of legal aid provision to certain firms that have been implicated in the al-Sweady deal. Those are all very welcome.

The unjustified claims against British troops are harmful for at least three reasons. Operationally, such claims harm morale. They affect recruitment and damage the operational effectiveness of our troops at a time when we are relying on them more than ever. From a financial perspective, every false claim that IHAT and the Government respond to, investigate and defend diverts spending from the frontline at an important time in our country’s activities. Politically, such claims threaten to unjustifiably undermine the outstanding work of our armed forces in the eyes of the public, even when those claims are later found to be unfounded. The al-Sweady inquiry, which reported last year, is a case in point.

Time is short. In closing, I hope that all hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to not only our armed forces but the many charities that champion and care for our veterans when they come home, from Combat Stress and SSAFA to the Royal British Legion. Their approach stands in stark contrast with those who pursue our veterans, rather than protecting and caring for them.

Finally, I congratulate again my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury on securing this timely debate on an important issue. I welcome the Government’s commitment to positive action and look forward to hearing from the Minister. I am confident that when she gets to her feet, she will reassure us that this Government are very much on the side of our brave armed forces personnel, who serve us abroad and protect us at home.

5.12 pm

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): It is very difficult for any civilian to sit in judgment of a soldier. I have no experience of the unique and extraordinary pressures under which they operate, nor the snap life and death decisions they are forced to make. Too many people in the legal profession lack the wisdom or the humility to take that view and hound our veterans with self-righteous enthusiasm.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 197WH

Just this week, the BBC announced that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team has dropped nearly 60 cases of alleged unlawful killing—cases that have cast a shadow over the lives of innocent veterans. As we know, in 2014 the al-Sweady inquiry found that previous allegations against British troops in Iraq were “deliberate and calculated lies” intended to smear our military at a cost of £31 million, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) said. As a result, Leigh Day, one of the law firms involved, faces a full disciplinary tribunal from the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The Prime Minister has threatened to sue that company to recover the millions of pounds it has claimed in costs, and I hope he will find support from across the House for that measure. He has also outlined a broader crackdown on so-called tank chasers, including reforms to legal aid, to no win, no fee arrangements and to the civil courts regime.

Clearcut, conventional wars against uniformed enemies are increasingly a thing of the past. Today’s foes increasingly know no rules of war, yet just as the old conventions of conflict are breaking down, we are handing our opponents unprecedented opportunities to attack our troops in the courts. Even though it is right we hold our armed forces to high standards, such self-flagellation is completely ridiculous.

Such challenges are not confined to the middle east. Veterans of the campaign against IRA terrorism in Northern Ireland face their very own historical inquisition. Meanwhile, the terrorists they were fighting—men and women who deliberately targeted civilians and murdered several Members of this House—are shielded by an amnesty. I understand that it is important to hold our armed forces to account, but this country has one of the most disciplined, effective and professional armies in the world, and we should be proud of it.

Unless we trust our troops and give them the leeway they need to make hard decisions in extraordinary circumstances, we will find it increasingly difficult to wage war at all. Troops on the battlefield will hesitate to act, for fear of years of harassment and potential prosecution. Potential recruits will see the reward for serving and seek careers elsewhere.

War is, and will always be, a messy and brutal business. Rules designed for civilian life are inadequate for its challenges, and we shall only end up crippling the armed forces if we make perfection the enemy of good in upholding the conduct of conflict. Cases against our forces should be considered and advanced by an uninterested party, not by lawyers looking to maximise profit.

5.15 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I congratulate my good friend, the hon. and gallant Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), on securing the debate.

Just over 400 soldiers have contacted me. Most of them I have never met; some I knew from my service. I want to represent them in the short time I have, and I want two thoughts to be brought to the attention of the House. The first is that those soldiers feel they are being chased down by unscrupulous lawyers who do not give a damn about their wellbeing, some of whom seem to imply the soldiers are guilty before that is proven.

The soldiers feel extremely irritated that the Ministry of Defence seems to have set up an organisation to join with those lawyers to chase the soldiers down. I use the

27 Jan 2016 : Column 198WH

word “seem” because the soldiers do not understand why that is happening. We can spend all the time we like explaining and saying, “It’s because we’ve got to investigate things. We’ve got to do it properly, otherwise you’ll go to the International Criminal Court,” but our men and women in uniform do not accept that, so this is a communication problem.

My second thought is this. I have given evidence with my soldiers in Northern Ireland on murder charges and in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Our soldiers, our men, our women, our sailors, our airmen and our airwomen loathe doing that. They are frightened by having to appear in court in front of slippery-tongued lawyers who have a much better gift of the gab than they do. They feel they will slip up, and that terrifies them. Often, their thought is, “I’d much prefer to be on the frontline, under fire, than in this poxy court where no one seems to be on my side.”

The problem we have is trying to tell our servicemen and servicewomen that this is actually for their own benefit. I had to tell two soldiers, after they had been in a firefight, that they were being charged with murder in Ireland. They did not believe it was possible. I explained that the reason was to take them to court to prove they had acted under the law, so that they could never be prosecuted again.

I speak, I admit, with some emotion on behalf of our men and women, and I tell you this: we should listen to them and communicate better.

5.18 pm

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on bringing forward this important debate, and I also congratulate my hon. Friends who have taken part in it. The debate demonstrates the strength of feeling in the House that our armed forces are not being well served by the campaign of what is known as lawfare, rather than warfare.

Our armed forces go and fight and do their best in the most difficult of circumstances. A number of my hon. and gallant Friends have been out in theatre. I have been to Afghanistan six times, so I know what it is like. I fear that by putting our armed forces into harm’s way in this fashion, we are undermining their morale and thereby threatening the war-fighting capability of the next generation of those who will be called upon to serve their country. I believe we are doing them a disservice.

The Prime Minister is absolutely right to express his concern about this matter. The Government need to do more; we owe it to the 120,000 troops who have served in Iraq in Her Majesty’s armed forces. We cannot have a situation where men and women go out to fight in the most appalling of circumstances, dealing with an enemy that they sometimes cannot distinguish from the civilian population. They do their level best and then come back—many of them suffering injuries and some of them traumatised—and may have to wait years before finding out that they might face prosecution from their own fellow civilians. That cannot be right.

I have constituents in Aldershot, the home of the British Army, who served with distinction in Northern Ireland. They still, 43 years on from Londonderry in 1972, face the possibility of prosecution. That is not right. It is not in the interests of natural justice that our men and women who serve our country should be treated in that fashion.