I have concerns that the FCA’s move to forsake the critical review into behaviour, pay and culture surrounding the UK’s banking sector will have a detrimental effect on consumer trust. Restoring consumer confidence in

1 Feb 2016 : Column 742

banking integrity is imperative in the aftermath of the financial crisis, where we saw consumer confidence drop. Statistics show some of the bad practices used before the 2008 crash are again being adopted in the banking sector. A recent study by the banking staff trade union Affinity surveyed staff at Lloyds Banking Group and TSB. It revealed that 55% believe that the banks are reverting to their old sales management techniques; 63% stated that the bank was more interested in the results they got and the objectives than in how they do our jobs; and 53% believe that the performance of TSB was just about sales. That is the view of the staff of those banks. Those statistics should be very worrying for all of us. They demonstrate the need for a robust review into banking culture.

A study conducted by KPMG showed that, between 2011 and 2014, Britain’s banks handed over 60% of their profits in fines and customer remediation, for a total of £38.7 billion. Those figures suggest that there should be no room for complacency or hesitation when it comes to reforming the City. Only in the past few days, a landmark legal pursuit has contested the banks’ £2 billion compensation scheme for inappropriate interest rate swaps. The hearing could have consequences for over 10,000 small and medium-sized enterprises that found themselves in the midst of the mis-selling scandal.

The appointment of Andrew Bailey as chief executive of the FCA raises legitimate questions about the FCA’s independence from the PRA and its dedication to consumer protection. Bailey must be subject to a full and proper confirmation hearing. Prior to his appointment with the FCA, Bailey was the deputy governor for Prudential Regulation and chief executive officer of the Prudential Regulation Authority, supervised by the Bank of England. As a conduct regulator, the FCA’s role is to protect consumers. Bailey’s appointment therefore raises questions about the FCA’s independence from the Prudential Regulatory Authority and its dedication to holding consumer protection at the heart of its aims and values.

In a speech to the Mansion House in June 2015, the Chancellor launched a “new settlement” with the banks, which was widely interpreted as a move away from the tougher measures put in place for the banks under Wheatley’s leadership. The Chancellor has suppressed the reverse burden of proof and slashed the bank levy. The developments lead to questions as to whether the FCA is on the wrong side of the Chancellor’s “new settlement”. The new chief executive of the FCA must be subject to a confirmation hearing, so his plans and views can be scrutinised in detail.

I am concerned that the FCA’s move to forsake the critical review into behaviour, pay and culture surrounding the UK banking sector will have a detrimental impact on consumer trust. The FCA must reinstate its long-awaited inquiry into banking culture. The appointment of Andrew Bailey as chief executive of the FCA raises legitimate questions about the independence of the FCA that must be addressed. Bailey must be subject to a full and proper confirmation hearing.

9.39 pm

Rebecca Long Bailey (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing such an important and

1 Feb 2016 : Column 743

topical debate, and I thank them for their excellent contributions. It is also a delight to debate opposite the Minister for the first time.

We have had some fantastic contributions from hon. Members. Transparency seems to be the key theme running through the debate. Members referred numerous times to Connaught and interest rate hedging products, and we heard some interesting case studies from the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), who shared his experiences of running his own insurance firm and how regulation affected his business. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) highlighted the positive things the FSA was doing—for example, in supporting innovation in “fintechs”—and said that, although there were failings that needed to be addressed, it was important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Operators in the finance sector, commentators, hon. Members and Members of the other place have recently expressed concern over the FSA’s ability to carry out its operational objectives—consumer protection, integrity and competition. Sadly, these concerns overshadow some of the fantastic work the FSA has carried out to date in the finance sector.

Many argue that the Chancellor’s Mansion House speech last year sent a clear message to the financial services sector that the UK was returning to business as usual. In outlining his new settlement for the finance industry, he stated that we must become

“the best place for European and global Bank HQs”.

That was widely interpreted by many in the finance industry to mean that there would be a softening of the FSA’s approach to banks. In fact, as an ode to the Prime Minister’s “hug a hoodie” period, which still tickles me when I think about it, I would suggest that many felt the Chancellor was entering his own love-in—the “hug a banker” period.

The bankers’ Chancellor had finally got his mojo back, and what a mojo it was! A string of concessions was handed to the banks: changes to the bank levy that significantly benefited large international banks; watered-down proposals for implementing the ring fence between retail and investment banking; a time limit on claims relating to the mis-selling of payment protection insurance; and confirmation that banks would not be asked to hold significantly more capital.

In January, however, in a complete U-turn from the autumn statement and the “never had it so good” euphoria, the Chancellor warned us of the risks to the UK from the shaky global economy, citing a

“dangerous cocktail of new threats”

and highlighting the dangers of “creeping complacency”. He failed, however, to address his creeping return to business as usual in our finance sector and the FSA’s role in dealing with the same.

Several factors have brought us here. The first is the feeling that the FSA’s independence has been compromised and that its agenda is being set by political pressure from the Government. Such independence was called into question by a recent external review that said the FSA board’s powers

“with respect to making independent decisions”

were limited and that external interventions

“can have dramatic effects on the organisation”.

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This coincided with stories in the media that the Bank of England was directly involved in the highly criticised decision by the FSA to axe the review into the culture at some of the UK’s biggest banks.

Then there is the Chancellor’s influence over sacking or appointing chief executives to the FSA. [Hon. Members: “FCA!”] I mean the FCA. Martin Wheatley, who had been hired by the Chancellor as a tough guy, and a key figure in pursuing misconduct in the financial sector, was removed and replaced by Andrew Bailey. Many are concerned that the Chancellor’s new appointment, who is seen as more of a pragmatist, heralds a decisive shift towards greater leniency on the banking system.

I have no doubt that the new appointment seeks to be completely impervious to the Chancellor’s charms, but as one Treasury Select Committee member eloquently stated recently,

“there is a subliminal desire if you like, to please the masters by taking some of these decisions where the inference has been that potentially if you do not play ball you will lose your job.”

I turn now to transparency. I seek to highlight to the Minister a few examples of where achieving transparency has been a struggle. The conclusion of the FCA’s work on HSBC’s Swiss bank tax evasion and the decision not to take action led many FCA critics to ponder whether this had come as music to HSBC’s ears, given the bizarre coincidence that at the same it was considering whether it should relocate its headquarters outside London. Little detail was provided regarding the rationale for this decision and the FCA simply stated that such a major tax investigation was a matter for HMRC.

That highlighted two issues—transparency and the sharpness of the FCA’s teeth as a regulator. Those issues aside, I would welcome the Minister’s assurance that a thorough investigation will be carried out as a matter of urgency, that HSBC will pay the appropriate tax to the Treasury and that we will not see a repeat performance of last week’s Google tax debacle. Perhaps the incident will encourage the Minister to consider a U-turn on the Government’s proposed cuts to HMRC. If the FCA has no teeth in such situations, surely the Government must ensure that HMRC is adequately resourced—but I digress.

On the same theme of a lack of transparency, I must refer to the industry scandal surrounding the mis-selling of interest rate hedging products, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw today. The FCA rightly launched a full review, resulting in the publishing of a set of rules. What remains worrying is that the FCA had to be pushed by the Treasury Select Committee to publish the rules at all; and, even now, we await details of the methodology agreed with each bank so that we can be satisfied that all banks are in fact complying.

Similar calls for more FCA transparency surrounded the review of the collapsed Connaught Income Funds, as highlighted by the hon. Member for Aberconwy. Here, the FCA faced criticism from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who set up the all-party parliamentary group on the Connaught Income Fund, and who cited a “generally defensive approach” from the FCA and lack of “transparency”.

Then there is the highly criticised scrapping of the review into banking culture. The Treasury Select Committee recently found that there was no FCA board consultation

1 Feb 2016 : Column 745

on this issue. Even the Chairman was not privy to the decision. It is also important to note that no public statement was made regarding the decision—it was simply leaked. When pushed, the FCA commented that

“we decided that a traditional thematic review would not help us achieve our desired outcomes and we would therefore take forward our work on culture through other routes.”

That hardly explains the position at all, but essentially these “other routes” refer to “self- regulation” underpinned by the FCA’s new conduct rules, which centre largely on a presumption that those at the top simply do all that is “reasonable” to ensure good governance.

As we heard in the earlier debate on the Bank of England and Financial Services Bill, the removal of a reverse burden of proof further diminishes any legal recourse that could be pursued. The Chair of the Treasury Select Committee has himself warned that much of the responsibility for implementation is left to banks. He stated that

“the spirit is willing at the top, but the flesh is weak…The board may will the change and culture, but not enough happens lower down.”

Now the FCA’s new direction on this issue deserves close examination, but unfortunately we do not have the time to debate this today. The point is that such a radical step change away from what the public believed would be a root-and-branch banking culture review should arguably not have happened without—at the very least—board approval and transparent consultation.

In conclusion, although I applaud much of the FCA’s work and many of its achievements to date, the issues raised today ring some very loud alarm bells. I hope that the Minister realises that the British public are still paying the price for a financial crisis that they did not cause and that they require an FCA that truly holds the banking system to account—an FCA that ensures that financial productivity does not come with an immoral price tag that ignores the principles of fairness and fair play on which British society is built.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments, and I hope she will confirm that my concerns will be addressed—otherwise, I am afraid that the so-called bankers’ Chancellor will be letting down the British public who bailed the banks out and sending out a clear signal of a return to “business as usual”.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin) rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. Before the Minister speaks, let me make it clear that I intend to call the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) at no later than 9.58.

9.48 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): I am left with very little time to cover such a wide-ranging debate. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing this debate.

I think we can all agree that it is important that in the Financial Conduct Authority we have an organisation to keep financial markets honest for our constituents and for markets, which play a crucial role in our economy.

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We all want financial services to be on the side of our constituents—the people who want to work hard, do the right thing and get on in life. It is therefore vital that financial services display and uphold the highest standards of behaviour and treat their customers fairly.

The House will no doubt be aware that most small business lending is not regulated. Obviously, when an independent regulator is involved, we need to ensure that the right people are doing the job. Last week the Chancellor announced a number of new appointments to the FCA board, including an excellent new chief executive. As the Chancellor said, Andrew Bailey was the outstanding candidate to be the next chief executive. He brings with him a wealth of experience of financial services regulation in the United Kingdom. He is simply the most respected, most experienced and most qualified person in the world to do the job. However, I want to put on record the Government’s gratitude to Tracey McDermott, the acting chief executive, for all her hard work over the past four months.

Last week we also appointed four new non-executive directors: Bradley Fried, Baroness Hogg, Ruth Kelly and Tom Wright. The new directors provide a balanced mix, on the gender front and in terms of their public and private sector experience and their experience of politics, as well as a wealth of knowledge of consumer issues and the financial services sector more generally, adding an invaluable independent challenge to the board. We believe that the new appointments will strengthen the organisation, and, by ensuring that it has the best possible leadership, will help the FCA to remain a strong, tough regulator that protects consumers and ensures that financial markets work for the benefit of the whole economy.

There are clearly still challenges ahead for the FCA, but it is worth remembering the positive steps that it has already taken. It is in the process of implementing the new senior managers and certification regime, which includes applying enforceable conduct rules to anyone who is involved in the financial services activity of a bank. It has introduced improved whistleblowing requirements, and a new remuneration code that will ensure that individuals are not rewarded for taking excessive risks. It has taken action to protect consumers, such as the regulation of consumer credit, which has included capping the cost of payday lending to protect consumers from unfair costs.

FCA regulation is already having a dramatic impact on the payday market. Indeed, the FCA found that the volume of payday loans had fallen by 35% in the first six months since it took over regulation in April 2014. There has been a new focus on competition in banking and other markets, such as excellent work on Fintech and the innovation hub. Last year the Treasury and the FCA jointly launched a financial advice market review, which is designed to make financial help more accessible and affordable for all our constituents. It is also worth highlighting the role of the Financial Ombudsman Service, to which Members may wish to refer their constituents when they have problems with financial services firms.

The Government are as keen as those who are present tonight to resolve the matters that have been raised by a range of Members. We heard from not only my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, but from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), the hon.

1 Feb 2016 : Column 747

Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg), the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson), my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), as well as the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey).

A number of points have been raised, and I shall deal with them in turn. The issue of the banking culture review was raised by the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. The first time I personally heard about the FCA’s decision to discontinue the review was when the story broke in the media on new year’s eve. We have made it abundantly clear to the House that no Treasury Minister or official was involved in the FCA’s decision, and the FCA has made it clear that it did not inform the Treasury before the decision was made public.

Kirsten Oswald: Will the Minister give way?

Harriett Baldwin: I would love to, but I do not have time.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Harriett Baldwin: No, because the hon. Gentleman was not even present for the debate.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, the hon. Member for Ceredigion, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth also mentioned interest rate hedging products and businesses that were suffering as a result of interest rates that were lower than expected. The Government have made it clear from the beginning that mis-selling of financial products is unacceptable, and that businesses affected by it should be compensated. The FCA has established a redress scheme for small businesses that were mis-sold interest rate hedging products to ensure that eligible businesses are compensated. So far the scheme has paid out on 18,000 cases, and more than £2 billion has been paid in redress, including £464 million to deal with consequential losses.[Official Report, 4 February 2016, Vol. 605, c. 8MC.]

As we have heard tonight, there are still some cases outstanding. As at year end, these include 700 cases in which full refunds have yet to be accepted. Businesses that are considered larger and more sophisticated are not covered by the redress scheme, but they can of course take advantage of the first-class brains in our legal profession. The FCA considers that there is merit in holding a review of how the scheme has worked when these legal cases have been concluded.

The question of Connaught was raised by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire and my hon. Friend the Member for

1 Feb 2016 : Column 748

South Suffolk. The Government and the FCA understand the serious financial difficulty and distress that this issue has caused to many investors. As hon. Members might be aware, the FCA published an update to investors on its website this week on Connaught Income Fund, series 1. The update highlights that a settlement agreement has been reached between the liquidators of the fund and Capita Financial Managers Ltd. The FCA has asked the liquidators of the fund to distribute the settlement sum to investors as soon as possible. The investigation that the FCA is pursuing will continue independently of the settlement.

The Global Restructuring Group was mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove. Let me reassure the House that I expect to see the conclusions of the FCA’s investigation into this matter in the first quarter of the year. On the point made by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest on Treasury Select Committee scrutiny of FCA appointments, we have agreed that the Committee will be able to carry out a pre-commencement hearing before the new CEO starts at the FCA.

A number of questions have been raised about FCA independence. The FCA is of course operationally independent of the Government. We appoint the chief executive and the board, and the FCA’s objectives and duties were voted into statute during the last Parliament. I firmly believe in the independence of the FCA. It is vital that consumers and firms know that regulatory decisions are being taken in an objective and impartial way. Contrary to what the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire seems to think, I have met the acting chief executive of the FCA and her predecessor from time to time. I regret the fact that the hon. Lady has formed a different impression.

The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles raised the question of operational matters. I am afraid that she cannot have this both ways. If she wants the Treasury to interfere in operational decisions at the FCA, she is asking for something that completely contradicts the spirit of independent regulation that I have supported this evening. No one is denying that the FCA has a tough job ahead. That is why it is essential that it is well prepared, well staffed and well equipped to do that job, and that it has the best leadership possible. I am confident that the FCA has the right mandate and team.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, I believe that today’s motion is neither well founded nor well timed, given that a new chief executive and a new team are in place. I strongly urge hon. Members to ignore the motion before us tonight.

9.58 pm

Guto Bebb: On behalf of myself, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), I have to say that I think we were rumbled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). The purpose of having this debate on the Floor of the House was to highlight the very real concerns of hon. Members from all parties and from all parts of the United Kingdom about the way in which the Financial Conduct Authority is performing its duties in relation to far too many issues. People have real concerns about the interest rate swaps issue, about the way in which the Connaught

1 Feb 2016 : Column 749

scheme has been dealt with, and about the decision not to move ahead with the banking review, which was part and parcel of the need to deal with the banking culture. By bringing this debate to the Chamber, we have certainly made it clear that the FCA is living on borrowed time.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said that the debate was premature, and he is potentially correct. However, I hope that in any future debates on this subject, he will support taking further action. He talked about the danger of passing a motion that would subsequently be ignored by the Government, and that highlights some real concerns about the way in which we deal with Back-Bench business. The Backbench Business Committee was a big and important development in the last Parliament, and it is a shame that passing a motion might result in this House not being taken seriously in relation to an important motion such as this. The House should reflect on the fact that we heard 13 Back-Bench speeches but only two were mildly supportive of how the FCA is operating. There is an important message in that point: the FCA does need to reform. Although we all hope that the new chief executive will be a fresh brush within the FCA, he should be aware that he has a lot of work to do to rebuild confidence in the regulator, as it—

10.1 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

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

1 Feb 2016 : Column 750

Senior Courts of England and Wales

That the draft Civil Proceedings, Family Proceedings and Upper Tribunal Fees (Amendment) Order 2016, which was laid before this House on 17 December 2015, be approved.—(Kris Hopkins.)

Question agreed to.


Mr Speaker: With the leave of the House, we will take motions 7 to 12 together. The proposition is to be moved by no less a figure, who should not be walked past as he undertakes his official business, than the Chairman of the Committee of Selection.


Business, Innovation and Skills

That Jo Stevens be discharged from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and Jonathan Reynolds be added.


That Kate Hollern and Kate Osamor be discharged from the Education Committee and Catherine McKinnell and Stephen Timms be added.

Northern Ireland

That Mr David Anderson be discharged from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and Tom Blenkinsop be added.


That Helen Goodman and Holly Lynch be members of the Procedure Committee.

Welsh Affairs

That Christina Rees be discharged from the Welsh Affairs Committee and Stephen Kinnock be added.

Work and Pensions

That Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck be discharged from the Work and Pensions Committee and Neil Coyle be added.—(Bill Wiggin, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

1 Feb 2016 : Column 751

Deaths of Journalists: Conflict Zones

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

10.1 pm

Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): Marie Colvin was a The Sunday Times journalist killed in Syria in 2012, while reporting from the siege of Homs. She passionately believed that through her work she could be the voice of all those experiencing conflict, from whatever perspective. During the latter part of her life, her determination to be that voice had a physical manifestation: an eye patch, the result of injuries sustained in Sri Lanka, where she was hit by shrapnel as she tried to cross the front line.

Following her death, the columnist Peter Oborne wrote:

“Society urgently requires men and women with courage, passion and integrity to discover the facts that those in authority want to suppress.”

Marie Colvin herself said:

“In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and Twitter, we are on constant call wherever we are. But war reporting is still essentially the same—someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you.”

The relationship between Members of this House and the fourth estate—our friends up in the Press Gallery—is complicated, but although much of modern-day politics could often be described as a conflict zone, we do not daily put our lives on the line in our place of work. When a member of our armed forces is killed in a conflict zone, the Prime Minister rightly takes a moment at the beginning of Prime Minister’s questions to remind the nation of the sacrifice that that brave serviceman or woman has made. But with the notable exception of people such as Marie Colvin, we do not hear anywhere near as much about the sacrifices made by a large number of professional and citizen journalists every year in the name of newsgathering.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, which I want to thank on the record for its assistance in preparation for this debate, has recorded that 98 journalists were killed last year. It has been definitively confirmed that 71 of them were murdered in direct reprisal for their work; were killed in crossfire during combat situations; or were killed while carrying out a dangerous assignment, such as covering a street protest.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I sought the hon. Lady’s permission last week to intervene. Statistics from the International Federation of Journalists show that 2,297 journalists and media professionals were killed in the past quarter of a century. That is an enormous number. They were standing up for the freedom of speech that we take for granted in this country. Does she agree that the United Kingdom and other liberal democracies should be promoting free speech and liberty across the globe, through the media and through journalism?

Nusrat Ghani: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: the numbers are vast in the past 50 years or so. I hope that the Minister will respond on that, and I will ask him to do so towards the end of my speech. The International Federation of Journalists puts the number even higher than the CPJ, saying that at least 112 were killed last year.

1 Feb 2016 : Column 752

Professional journalists in conflict zones, such as those working for the BBC and Sky, are fortunate to have extensive support from their employers. Employees of those organisations undergo hostile environment training in preparation for travelling to conflict zones to check that they are adequately prepared for the dangers that they will face.

Recently, a member of staff working for a major British media outlet in the middle east was approached by a man who verbally abused him, accusing him of being a traitor and a collaborator. His companions intervened, but another eight people arrived on the scene carrying batons and knives. The journalist ran away and took refuge in a nearby shop. However, two of his companions were heavily beaten up and received hospital treatment from the injuries they sustained.

The incident was reported by the staff member to the high risk team, which subsequently deployed a security adviser to the country to conduct a security review for that individual, and put additional security measures in place to support the staff. However, increasingly, our news comes not just from professional journalists, whose names, faces and employers we recognise, but from stringers and citizen journalists. Stringers are unattached freelance journalists and citizen journalists are members of the public—independent voices.

The ability of citizen journalists to share stories has an effect on professional journalists. The pressure to go deeper into conflict zones is greater. One of the defining features of a war reporter these days is that they are embedded in the conflict. Today, they are on the frontline, or in enemy territory.

Increasingly, we understand that many of the world’s conflicts today are conflicts of narrative. In the middle east, Daesh wants to control what the conflict looks like. It wants a monopoly over stories and images. More than ever, the narrative is what people are fighting over. Daesh wants to recruit with images, and the reality disseminated by journalists challenges that propaganda. Any citizen journalist can break the propaganda machine. Anyone with a phone is an opponent.

Daesh sees journalists as spies. It sees them as western actors who seek to disrupt the Daesh narrative by reporting on its weaknesses and failures, and that makes them a target. The philosopher Walter Benjamin said:

“History is written by the victors.”

That remains true, but the victors, and the course of the fight, are now a consequence of what is written, and that is even more the case now than it was in Benjamin’s time. That makes it even more important that we protect and honour those journalists, whether professional or citizen.

The BBC’s Lyse Doucet said last year:

“We often say that journalists are no longer on the frontline. But we are the frontline...We are targeted in a way we never have been before... now journalists are seen as bounty and as having propaganda value.”

Journalists in conflict zones are not ordinary members of the public. They tell the stories that allow us to understand what is truly going on in the confusion and propaganda of warfare, and they carry out a vital public service.

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate her on securing this very important debate. Does she agree that

1 Feb 2016 : Column 753

the pace of news in the modern age means that we can no longer wait for dispatches to be informed about what is going on in conflict zones? Journalists are best positioned to give us this real-time accurate information of what is really going on.

Nusrat Ghani: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Conflict is changing incredibly quickly. Lots of chaotic terrorism acts are happening all over the world, and, quite often, we rely on journalists to be our eyes and ears on the ground.

My discussions with journalists and their employers in recent days have highlighted what I consider to be a gap in the service provided by the Foreign Office to those taking risks to bring truth and to hold people to account. Will the Foreign Office consider making it the policy of British embassies and consuls abroad to hold a register of journalists working in conflict zones within the relevant country at any one time? At the moment this process is ad hoc. On registration, the embassy would and should provide a security briefing on the situation in that country or the neighbouring country if it is in conflict, increasing the ability of journalists to protect themselves, and their employer’s ability to ensure that they are acting according to legitimate and expert advice.

The role of foreign Governments in the protection of journalists is an important one. Will the Minister outline what expectations the Foreign Office currently has of foreign Governments to do everything they can to protect journalists who are British, or working for British-based media outlets, and to challenge them to extend that protection to their own local journalists? Will he consider making it a requirement for negotiations with foreign Governments, especially when embarking on diplomatic relations with emerging democracies, that the protection of journalists is an issue on the table?

The British Government have rightly identified Bangladesh and Pakistan as critical countries in the region and we have partnered with them as a result. Yet in Bangladesh, for example, bloggers are killed by al-Qaeda and others because of what they write. Last year, over 40% of journalists killed in Bangladesh were killed by Islamic extremists because they just disagreed with the words that were written.

In Pakistan in 2006, it is documented that the Government prepared a list of 33 columnists, writers and reporters in the English and Urdu print media and tried to neutralise the “negativism” of these writers by making them “soft and friendly”, and one could interpret that as going a bit beyond a friendly chat. I have more up-to-date testimonies, but the journalists concerned were reluctant for me to raise that on the Floor of the House today. Will the Foreign Office consider making it a requirement that countries that we are partnered with show clear intent to protect the rights of journalists, both professional and citizen? We must not flinch from exporting our proud British values of freedom of the media and of expression.

I will finish by talking about Ruqia Hassan, a citizen journalist in Syria who used her Facebook page to describe the atrocities of daily life in Raqqa, until she went silent in July last year. It has been reported that her last words were:

“I’m in Raqqa and I received death threats, and when Isis [arrests] me and kills me it’s ok because they will cut my head and I have dignity it’s better than I live in humiliation with Isis.”

1 Feb 2016 : Column 754

It has been speculated that her Facebook page was kept open for months so that other citizen journalists could be lured in and so that they too, in turn, could be silenced.

Naji Jerf, a 38-year-old activist who reported for the website “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”, was also murdered late last year following his final work, “Islamic State in Aleppo”, which exposed human rights violations in the city. His murderers disagreed with him that anyone should hear about those violations. I believe he is the fourth person from “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” to have been murdered so far.

Individuals such as these are part of conflict, and through our consumption of news we are complicit in their participation, but they take the risks. We must honour their bravery, and their pride in what they were, and still are, doing, by highlighting their contribution not only to our understanding of what is going on in conflict zones, but also their contribution to ending conflict by shedding light on it, and we must do all we can to defend their right to do what they do, and protect them as they go about it.

10.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (James Duddridge): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) for highlighting the dangers faced by journalists. She brings a wealth of experience as a campaigner on health and education issues from her time working in conflict zones, and it has been demonstrated today that the House is all the richer because of the knowledge that she brings.

We often disagree with what journalists say about us, but we must defend their freedom to say it. Without journalists in conflict zones, and, indeed, domestically, we risk the deterioration of our society and of the essential checks and balances that hold our societies and democracies together.

I begin by reflecting on the specific issue of the deaths of journalists in conflict zones, and also by paying tribute to journalists such as Marie Colvin, who was a fine example of someone who chooses to put themselves in harm’s way to reveal and report the truth. This is essential for the work of journalism, and I also commend Marie Colvin for her advocacy for other journalists.

It is of course true that journalists have often displayed exceptional bravery in reporting from war zones, all too frequently paying for their vocation with their lives. However, my hon. Friend is right to highlight a chilling trend of journalists increasingly being seen as the enemy—being, as she put it, on the frontline. This is nowhere more evident than under the barbaric repression of Daesh and other extremist groups. Last year 28 journalists were killed by these groups. As execution has become an almost inevitable consequence of capture, journalists have been increasingly constrained as to where they can stay safely. Yet the reality of life under Daesh has continued to get out, as citizen journalists have filled the space with their own reports of repression and depravity. Now these stringers—citizen journalists—like the professional reporters who went before them, are being seen as the enemy. The cycle goes on.

According to Reporters Without Borders, 110 journalists were killed last year and many more were injured, captured or imprisoned. It is right that this Government

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and Members of this House put on record our admiration for those who are willing to risk everything in pursuit of reporting the truth. My hon. Friend urges me, as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), to pick a number of those affected. I shall resist the temptation. I have seen many numbers in reports from the UN, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Reporters Without Borders, but they cover different regions and different periods and largely report deaths, rather than those injured or otherwise affected. One death is one too many, so rather than putting an exact number on it, we should say just that—one death is too many. The actual number is certainly much larger and the problem is increasing, not diminishing.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently about the importance of a free press, and highlighted that, in many parts of the world, the media are restricted in their ability to challenge authority, promote new ways of thinking or root out corruption. Media freedom is vital. Without a free press, corruption goes unchecked, individuals cannot flourish and economies are constrained. This Government make that point to all our international partners, regardless of where they are around the world.

I applaud the work of many organisations dedicated to promoting media freedom and to supporting and protecting journalists. The OSCE does vital, courageous work, including promoting the free media internationally. I pay particular tribute to Dunja Mijatovic for her remarkable work on press freedom. The UK is working closely with that organisation to find a suitable successor. It must find someone of equivalent stature, given the dangers and pressures faced by journalists—pressures that we know, sadly, will increase.

Last year this Government worked with UN Security Council partners to put the issue further into the international spotlight. Resolution 2222 sets out very clearly the obligations of member states to protect journalists and to punish those who threaten or kill them. During that debate our representative at the UN, Matthew Rycroft, highlighted the risks that journalists face. In his remarks he recognised, as did my hon. Friend, the changing shape of journalism in the digital age, and the role played by stringers, citizen journalists and bloggers. That debate was another opportunity to draw attention to the appalling impunity that often accompanies crimes against journalists.

The UN has reported that worldwide over 90% of the killings of journalists go unpunished. That is a shocking statistic. Governments have the primary responsibility to protect journalists. When other Governments fail to live up to this responsibility, the UK will continue to make our concerns known to them through our normal dialogue and regular bilateral relationships, raising these issues at the highest level of Government both bilaterally and in multilateral forums.

We are also prepared to raise these issues in countries where we have good relationships. For example, I recently did so with a good development partner in Rwanda that has a troubled relationship with the media—a less open relationship than we would hope to see. Last week I was

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in South Sudan, where I made a point of speaking at some length on local radio, which reached over 75% of South Sudan, where the newspapers would not reach and where they would be more constrained in their reporting.

We are frequently reminded that journalists do not have to be in a conflict zone or a repressive state to be in danger. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden mentioned Bangladesh, where we have seen the same struggle for the right to freedom of expression as we have seen in conflict zones. In the past three years, five bloggers have been murdered for openly stating their atheist views. Islamic extremists have drawn up hit lists and incited violence and murder, and when added to the targeted killings, such actions create a chilling effect, making it harder for anyone to express their personal views.

My hon. Friend talked of what more we could do through embassies and high commissions. As part of the daily routine, one would certainly expect high commissioners and their staff to engage with journalists. I was quite surprised to find out that the last Labour Government instituted a more comprehensive basis for registering British citizens in-country. I intuitively thought that that would be very successful, relying heavily on the internet and making it easy to register people. Actually, the evidence was that it was not particularly successful, and I do not think there is a good formula for registering everybody in-country, whether journalists or not. In many ways, though, journalists are for obvious reasons better known to our embassies than other people passing through a country. However, I am more than happy to speak to my hon. Friend if she has any ideas on how we can act more effectively.

Just over a year ago, eight journalists from Charlie Hebdo were murdered in their offices in central Paris, in an attack that also claimed four other lives. It was a stark and horrific reminder of the risks that journalists face in the normal course of their jobs. Yet, the public response in Paris, as in many parts of the world, was testament to the importance that citizens around the world give to media freedoms.

In protecting journalists, therefore, we are not seeking to defend what they say, but, crucially, their right to say it. Freedom of expression should be protected, respected and cherished, because it is fundamental to a healthy democracy to encourage debate and to promote free and innovative thinking. As opinion formers, information sources and challengers of received wisdom, journalists play a crucial role. Whether they are bringing news from war zones or elsewhere, the Government will stand up for their right to operate freely and safely. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will agree with that sentiment, and that we should thank journalists from the bottom of our hearts for their continued good works.

Question put and agreed to.

10.22 pm

House adjourned.