According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, women and girls in Yemen face entrenched gender inequalities that limit their access to basic services and livelihoods. The conflict has exacerbated

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the impact of those inequalities. By October 2015, an estimated 52% of internally displaced persons were female and 22% were girls. Displaced women often bear the burden of supporting their families despite challenges in accessing assistance, especially outside their communities. These challenges are even more acute for female-headed households, which assessments have found comprise over 30% of the displaced households in some areas: conflict and displacement; increased gender-based violence, especially sexual violence; domestic violence; early marriage; and trading sex to meet basic survival needs. Despite uneven reporting, recorded instances of gender-based violence show a clear upward trend since March. Overall, women are also more acutely affected by a decline in living conditions and service availability. Even before the recent conflict escalation, Yemen had the second-worst malnutrition and stunting levels globally, with half of all children malnourished and one in 10 dying before the age of five.

The United Kingdom cannot stand idly by. This is why it is not only morally right but essential that the UK has more than doubled its humanitarian funding to Yemen in the past year, with new funding announced last week bringing the annual total to £85 million. The new £10 million emergency support package announced by the International Development Secretary will provide much needed help for people affected by a conflict that has disrupted the delivery of essential food, fuel and medical supplies to those most in need, putting millions of lives at risk. This new aid, which will go to UN and NGO delivery partners on the ground, will include critical medical supplies and rehabilitation of health centres to improve the health of children in particular, with 320,000 children suffering severe malnutrition. It will include emergency food assistance and the protection of livestock to help people who are facing critical food shortages. Thermal blankets will keep displaced families warm during winter as 2.5 million people have been displaced by fighting. The aid also includes treatment for potentially fatal diseases, such as diarrhoea, cholera and malaria.

The UK can be proud of its humanitarian effort, but there is more to be done. I welcome the unity displayed today and the clear commitment from the Minister to ensure that further assistance is provided.

4.29 pm

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, which I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for organising, because Yemen is an important country to many of us.

Yemen is important to me personally because I studied my Arabic there some 20 years ago. Though I was not born in Khormaksar, as some of my hon. Friends were, and though I did not grow up overlooking Crater lake, as so many did, the country has marked itself on me. It has done so because it is a country of such wonderful contrasts. It is a very rich, green and beautiful land. It grows some of the world’s finest coffee, as well as khat, which, although banned in this country, is very popular in certain parts of the world. It is extraordinary in its richness. It is the place where the Arabic language was formalised and the domestication of the camel happened and therefore the place from which the colonisation of the deserts of Arabia and the rest of al-Jazeera al-Arabiya began.

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Yemen is, then, at the heart of Arabia, and that is one reason why the conflict matters so much. For the Saudis, it is not some minor adjunct to their territory or some neighbouring state they can ignore. It is a country with which they have such close relationships of blood and history that they cannot cut it off. Many tribes that now live happily in Saudi Arabia have cousins and links across the border. I remember as a soldier watching as convoys of donkeys crossed the Saudi border—forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for taking a slight diversion. They would load up donkeys with hay and take them on the route five or six times, and when the donkeys knew where they were going, they would remove the hay, take away the donkey driver and load them up with heroin, and the donkeys would follow the same route. And so these self-propelled donkey caravans of drugs would come straight out of Yemen.

The Saudis have a real and personal interest in Yemen, and we should recognise, therefore, that they are defending their own interests. I will not argue, however, that they are doing so in the most humane way; they are not. They are behaving in ways that frankly call into question the training they have received from some of the finest pilots and servicemen in the world. I would urge them, therefore, to remember the lessons and doctrines they learned at Shrivenham and Cranwell and to remember that civilians are not a target.

This is an extremely important moment for Saudi Arabia. It is just beginning again to assert its presence in the region, as it has the right to do, being an important country. It is also right to do so given the expansion of the Iranian empire into traditionally Arab areas, such as Iraq, the eastern seaboard of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the Iranian influence is growing. The Iranian encirclement of Saudi Arabia is certainly a threat. I welcome the fact, therefore, that the Saudis are reacting and that Britain is playing her role, as a good ally, in supporting her, but I urge them to think hard about how it conducts this campaign.

The campaign, in the heart of Arabia, is being played out perhaps not in our broadsheets, but in the broadsheets of the cafés of Cairo, Algiers and Baghdad. People are watching the leadership of Riyadh and its conduct, and they are thinking, “Are these the allies we want? Is this the example for Arabia and the post-Arab spring generation?” I ask the Saudi Government to think hard about the human rights and lives of the people they are affecting, not just in Yemen, but around the Arab world.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I suggest that the Front Benchers take eight minutes each.

4.33 pm

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and others on securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee on allowing us the time. It has been an important and timely debate, and we have heard some powerful and personal speeches, not least from the hon. Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and for Charnwood (Edward Argar), the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond). We have also heard useful contributions from the members of the International Development Committee, whose recent report and letter I strongly endorse. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to it.

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This is not the first time Yemen has been discussed on the Floor of the House recently. On 20 January, my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) asked the Prime Minister to explain why the use of UK built planes, with pilots who are trained by instructors from the UK, dropping bombs made in the UK and co-ordinated by the Saudis in the presence of UK military advisers does not add up to UK complicity in this conflict and potentially, therefore, in the war crimes allegedly being perpetrated. That is perhaps the single most important question arising from today’s debate. Others have expressed it in different ways, but I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answer. This also speaks to bigger issues that I shall explore briefly such as the humanitarian situation, the need for a peace process and the broader question of the use of weapons and the UK’s human rights record.

We have heard in moving detail about the humanitarian situation. Yemen has the highest number of people in humanitarian need of any country in the world right now, and the impact on children is particularly worrying. The right hon. Member for Leicester East spoke about the lifelong and generational consequences of denying children their education. Much of the humanitarian situation could be preventable, or at least be capable of being mitigated, even in the face of the conflict, because the threats of food insecurity and the challenges to infrastructure are as a result of coalition restrictions on shipping and the damage that has been done to infrastructure, severely limiting the ability of commercial deliveries such as food and medicines, stopping them from getting through.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) made the point that the Foreign Office advises against travel to the country, which starkly illustrates the humanitarian situation, yet the Home Office is trying to deport people back to it. It would be good to hear a response from the Minister on that. It is important to have a sustained return to pre-conflict levels of commercial supplies and humanitarian aid, and the establishment of UN mechanism to simplify and streamline that. It would be helpful to hear how the Government are supporting that at the UN. Allowing a humanitarian response is, of course, the first step to a peace process.

We heard from the hon. Member for Charnwood that peace must come from within the country. That is correct, but it needs to be supported by an international process. The right hon. Member for Leicester East was right to say that the bombing has to stop. Now is the time for a ceasefire—first to allow humanitarian access and then to provide time and space for negotiations. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was right to point to the geographical and geopolitical significance of Yemen and the real risk of violence spreading elsewhere.

Peace across the middle east is a complex and inter-related process. If we are going to build peace in Syria or anywhere else, we must have peace in Yemen, and the UK Government should not undermine their position and their credibility as peacemakers across the region by their links to this conflict. As I have said, that is one of the crucial issues. A major characteristic of the conflict has been the use of explosive weapons, especially

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in populated areas, intensive aerial bombardments and ground attacks, destroying not only military but civilian targets—and there is real concern that that is deliberate.

Yesterday, my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow Central and for East Renfrewshire met Yemeni human rights campaigners who told us of destruction and showed us horrific images of civilian death and destruction in the country. They rightly say that this is no way to restore the legitimacy of any Government, let alone by a foreign power such as Saudi Arabia. That reflects the findings of the UN report.

There is a bigger and more serious concern about the influence of the United Kingdom. Serious allegations have been made in a comprehensive legal opinion commissioned by Amnesty International, Saferworld, Professor Philippe Sands, QC and others in Matrix chambers, which concluded on the basis of the information available that the UK Government are acting in breach of their obligations arising under the UK consolidated criteria on arms exports, the EU common position on arms exports and the arms trade treaty by continuing to authorise the transfer of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia within the scope of those instruments.

Several times the Minister has asked to see the evidence and asks us to give him the evidence and information on which to launch an inquiry. If this legal opinion by some of the most respected human rights lawyers in the United Kingdom is not the basis on which the Government can act, what is? As we have heard, the Government of Belgium has suspended its arms trade, and why the UK Government cannot follow suit has yet to be made clear. As has been expressed, we hope that this will be high up on the agenda of the Committees on Arms Export Controls when it meets next week.

I want to leave time for Front Benchers, especially the Minister, to respond to the debate. This has been described as a forgotten conflict. I hope that today’s debate has helped to change that and that the Yemen conflict will not be forgotten. Serious questions are being asked of the Government about their humanitarian response, their role in the peace process and, above all, their possible complicity in military action by Saudi Arabia and thereby their connection to alleged war crimes. The Government now have a chance to respond on all those issues. They should heed the questions asked by Members and by many of our constituents. Let us hear some answers and see some action.

4.39 pm

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): Some of what was said by the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) slightly cut across some of the things that I was going to say, but I shall say them none the less.

Let me begin by thanking the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for securing the debate. We have heard some passionate arguments and some important facts and statistics, but, above all, we have heard that this is a conflict that will continue to have profound effects, not just on the region but on the rest of the world, unless peace can be secured. That is not to ignore the terrible desperation and the terrible death and destruction of the people of that country, including so many children.

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As for the Labour party’s position on the conflict, we recognise the legitimacy of President Hadi and the coalition. In particular, we note that the coalition’s action is backed by a United Nations resolution, and that Saudi Arabia has been attacked by Houthi rebels from northern Yemen. However, it is clear to us that both sides should be doing considerably more to reduce the humanitarian cost. Ultimately, as many Members have said this afternoon, peace talks are the only way to bring about an end to the conflict, and a negotiated settlement must be the priority for everyone.

In her opening remarks, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said that Yemen was being bombed back into the dark ages. She also quoted the Red Cross as saying that this was a forgotten conflict, a phrase that many other Members repeated. My right hon. Friend—my good friend—the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) observed that the conflict was having an effect in the United Kingdom. He should know, because, as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, he will have seen much evidence that that is the case.

Keith Vaz: I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion to the Front Bench. I was very moved by the case that was raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). Bearing in mind what she said, does my hon. Friend agree that we should think very carefully about sending people back to Yemen when they have committed no criminal offences, but are here legitimately, and would be returning to a country in great conflict? Does he agree that the Home Office should look at that policy again?

Fabian Hamilton: If I had had a little more time, I would have responded to the main point that was made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who wondered how we could even consider sending vulnerable people who have been here—in the case of her constituent—for more than six years back to a conflict zone that we will not allow our own citizens to go anywhere near. That seems to me to be totally inhumane. I know that it is not strictly the Minister’s responsibility, but I hope that he will at least shed some light on whether the Government will reconsider the position of those vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers from Yemen, as well as that of the Syrians whom we are already taking in. I thank my right hon. Friend for making that important point.

Many Members have referred to the humanitarian crisis, and that is the issue that really upsets and depresses so many of us when we hear statistic after statistic about the effect of conflict and war on our fellow human beings. As would be expected, the Opposition are deeply concerned about it. A number of Members cited statistics showing that 14 million people currently rely on food aid, and that more than 2.3 million—four times the number of people who were displaced at the beginning of 2015—have fled their homes in Yemen in search of safety. Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross—whom I was privileged to meet, along with Members who are present today, when I was a member of the International Development Committee, as I was until last month—has said that the situation in Yemen is

“nothing short of catastrophic.”

That sentiment was echoed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East when he spoke about the humanitarian effects of the conflict.

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The hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) praised DFID’s efforts in Yemen but said that we needed a coalition of aid givers to ensure that sufficient aid was received. However, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) pointed out, aid cannot resolve the problem. The economy has to be rebuilt and that can happen only if there is peace. That peace agreement has to be negotiated.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said in his passionate contribution that Yemen was a catastrophe, with 21 million people in need of aid. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is no longer in his place, emphasised the effect that the conflict is having on children, as did many other hon. Members. The children in Yemen are in a worse position than the children in Syria at the moment. To echo something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said, Yemen is bleeding to death.

The Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), pointed out that terrible atrocities were being committed by both sides. He said that evidence had been given to the Committee that DFID’s humanitarian effort was being undermined. He also told the House that hugely respected non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had provided overwhelming evidence of human rights abuses.

Let me turn now to the role of Saudi Arabia. I want to mention cluster munitions, because widespread reports from NGOs state that such munitions have been used in this terrible conflict. The response to a written parliamentary question from the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), suggests that the Government might be conceding that that is true. The reply from the Foreign Secretary stated:

“We are aware of reports of the alleged abuse of cluster munitions by the coalition in Yemen and we have raised this with the Saudi Arabian authorities. The UK does not supply cluster munitions to any members of the coalition in Yemen. In line with our obligations under the Convention on Cluster Munitions we will continue to encourage Saudi Arabia, as a non-party to the Convention, to accede to it.”

I hope that the Minister will give us further information on that terrible situation.

The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North quoted Philippe Sands, and I should like to quote something equally relevant from his important opinion given on 11 December 2015. Philippe Sands is not only a professor of law but a Queen’s Counsel. In his concluding paragraph he said this of the UK’s trade in weapons with Saudi Arabia:

“In the current circumstances we can be clear in concluding what the UK is required to do to bring itself into full compliance with its legal obligations: it should halt with immediate effect all authorisations and transfers of relevant weapons and items to Saudi Arabia”—

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I have been struck by the recent words of the international president of Médecins sans Frontières, Joanne Liu, who said:

“Is this the new normal: an MSF hospital bombed every month?”

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We do not know that these are British munitions, but we do not know that they are not. Until we know the answer, should we not be stopping these arms sales completely?

Fabian Hamilton: Clearly there is a strong case to stop the arms sales immediately. I am pleased that the Chair of the International Development Committee and the Chairs of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee have now re-formed the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which we used to call CAEC. I served on it during three Parliaments, so I know how it works, and I believe that it could examine carefully how British munitions and arms are being used by Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, I believe that the sales should be stopped.

I shall give the House the complete quotation from Philippe Sands:

“In the current circumstances we can be clear in concluding what the UK is required to do to bring itself into full compliance with its legal obligations: it should halt with immediate effect all authorisations and transfers of relevant weapons and items to Saudi Arabia, pending proper and credible enquiries into the allegations of serious violations…that have arisen and that could arise in the future, as addressed in this opinion and the sources here referred to.”

In other words, those sales should stop immediately.

I wish to conclude by making two more points. First, I have three key questions that I would like to put to the Minister. As we have heard, there have long been serious and credible allegations of war crimes against both sides. Now that these reports have been corroborated by a UN report, the Opposition have called for the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia while that is being investigated. As we have heard, that has been backed by the Select Committee on International Development. Last week, the Minister said he was yet to read and study the UN report. He has now had the time to do that, so what does he make of it? Last week he promised to raise the report with the Saudis at the “highest level” this week, either at the counter-Daesh meeting or at the Syrian donors’ conference, which is taking place today. Has he had the chance to do so? Thirdly, the Government have consistently said that reports must be investigated. What would he consider to be an adequate investigation?

Finally, we have heard some remarkable speeches today, not just from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby and the hon. Members for Congleton, for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), all of whom I had the privilege of serving with on the International Development Committee until last month, but the hon. Members for Charnwood, for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for Glasgow Central for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and, of course the Yemenis in this House—those who were born in Yemen—the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East. I hope that the Government can take the hints, listen to what has been said this afternoon and play a vital role in securing a peace for the people of Yemen and the rest of the world.

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4.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): I have just under six minutes to answer this too short debate, and I cannot do justice to the quality and the detail of the questions and concerns that have been raised. As I have done in previous debates, I assure hon. Members that I will write to them to give them my best answer. This debate, short though it is—I join others in saying that we should have longer debates—has shown that there is interest, concern and expertise in this House.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for securing this important debate. As many hon. Members did, she started by talking about the humanitarian devastation in Yemen and said this was the forgotten war. I had the opportunity at the current conference on Syria to speak to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. I said, “Look at the support that Martin Kobler is given in Libya and that Staffan de Mistura is given in dealing with the Geneva talks, and compare that with the support given to Ismail Ahmed, the UN special envoy for Yemen. They are not on the same scale.” There is an acknowledgement that more needs to be done by the international community because of the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe taking place there.

The hon. Lady also mentioned concerns about oil and other assets needed to keep people alive getting into the country, as did others. She said that the UK is looking the other way, but, as we have heard in passionate speeches from Members on both sides of the House, Britain certainly is not looking the other way. We are one of the largest donors and supporters of the country. We are working to support the UN envoy and we are working towards a political solution. She touched on the 119 incidents mentioned by the UN report, and I intervened on her to qualify my own comments. The Opposition spokesman, whom I welcome to his place, asked me about that. I did raise the issue with the Saudi representatives at the Syria conference, and I also spoke to President Hadi on the phone today, raising the concerns about what is happening in Yemen. I also had the opportunity to speak to the UN envoy to raise the concerns about the scale and profile of what is happening. I am sorry that there has been a delay in the talks following the ceasefire that took place in December, and we are working hard to establish what needs to come first, before the ceasefire. I am referring to the confidence-building measures, which are the prelude to then making sure that the ceasefire can last.

My hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) gave a passionate speech, again calling this the forgotten war and talking about Yemen being a complex and ancient land. He also commended the role DFID is playing and our contributions there, and I concur with him on that.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) articulated his own experience of Yemen. Indeed, there are others in the House who have lived in or who were born in that country as well. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words of support. He touched on the wider concerns of extremism in the Arab peninsula, not least with al-Qaeda, which was responsible for a number of attacks on the mainland, and he made an important link between what is happening in the region and the security that we have in our own country as well, and that should not be forgotten.

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The day before yesterday, I met the culture Minister of Oman and raised some of those concerns with him. It was a private meeting, but it was very helpful to have such a frank conversation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) stepped back and looked at the wider regional picture. He reminded the House that, from a maritime perspective, Yemen is one of the seven global pinch points in the world. He also talked about the threat from other extremist organisations, such as Daesh, which recently killed the governor of Aden. Indeed, al-Qaeda runs the town of Mukalla, which is a port town on the southern coast. He also mentioned the effect of change by asking what would happen if the Administration in Saudi Arabia were changed. It is a liberal wing that is running that very conservative country. Of course we want change and modernisation, but it must be done at a workable pace.

Let me turn now to my friend, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), whom I have known for a couple of decades—we used to represent different student unions at university. It was a pleasure to stand in front of the International Development Committee, of which he is Chairman. I offer on record to meet him in private to talk about some of the detail, as I appreciate that he and his Committee members were a little frustrated in my not being able to answer all their questions. He talked about the city of Taiz. Sadly, President Hadi has confirmed that the city has again been cut off and that humanitarian aid cannot get in. The hon. Gentleman again raised the matter of the report of the UN expert panel. I can confirm that we are looking into its findings, but there is a UN process as well, which was pre-empted when the report was leaked. None the less, there is a process, and we will be following it and looking at the findings.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the formation of the Committees on Arms Export Control. It is absolutely fantastic. Why has it taken so long? It is an important aspect from a legislative perspective of holding the Executive to account. I am pleased to see that it is to be reformed. He also touched on the Human Rights Council resolution in October. There is a consensus there, and he will be aware of that. As much as any individual would want to push forward a particular line, we have

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to leave the room with what will actually work, and it was decided that the resolution would work. I should make it clear that the council then determined that it would provide assistance to Yemen’s national independent commission of inquiry, which will look into the details. It will then report back to the Human Rights Council. If it is felt that the inquiry is not independent enough, then that is the vehicle that can be used for that to be recognised, rather than having a general call for an independent inquiry.

Time is against me. I have so many other comments to make and answers to provide. As I have said, I will write to Members with my response to this debate. I can say that this Government take what is happening in Yemen very seriously. I personally have devoted an awful lot of time trying to remain at the forefront so that I have some influence. I recognise the concern that this House has over the human rights issues, and I will take them away with me. I am grateful that we have had this opportunity to debate these matters. I certainly hope that, the next time we do so, we are not limited to a 90-minute debate.

4.59 pm

Kirsten Oswald: I thank everyone who has taken the time to come here and speak today. It is very heartening to see such a high turnout on a Thursday afternoon, which reflects, I think, the importance of the subject. There have been some very impassioned speeches, some of which reflected a great knowledge of Yemen. However, we are talking about a forgotten war, and I hope that our debate has had a positive impact in that regard.

I reiterate my calls for the UK Government to consider very carefully our position in relation to the arms that we sell and the training that we offer to Saudi Arabia. Humanitarian aid, access, and the need for a consistent and coherent peace process are key to providing the stability that Yemen and that whole area of the world need in order for it to move forward for the benefit of the people of Yemen and for the wider benefit of the global community.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the conflict in Yemen.

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Delay Repay Scheme: Rail Commuters

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

5 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I thank the Rail Minister for being here to respond to this debate. I am going to speak about many painful personal experiences of delays on the trains; the Minister can share some of those with us as well, as I am sure that she has also had experiences of train delays. Like her, no doubt, I have received a huge quantity of emails, letters, Facebook messages and tweets from various constituents unsatisfied or very unhappy with the services currently provided by Southern and Thameslink, the two major train operating companies that run in my area.

The companies are currently providing a completely unacceptable standard of service. As the Rail Minister knows, they are consistently among the three lowest-scoring train operating companies in the national rail passenger survey carried out by the watchdog Transport Focus; it covers issues such as overall satisfaction, value for money, punctuality and reliability.

Delays and cancellations are often announced at the last minute, and overcrowded trains and bad customer service are a daily occurrence for suburban London commuters. We now have to add to the list of excuses the wrong kind of sunlight—a novel one for me. In the past, I have heard the excuse of a pheasant having been stuck in the shoe of a train brake; that was another novel explanation for a train delay. Combine those problems that passengers face with yearly rail fare hikes, and we see that there is a lot of pressure on commuters, who have not only to pay for the shambolic service but to suffer lost time and increased stress.

The passenger compensation schemes are not fair and are largely unknown to passengers, which means that the train companies are getting away with a shocking service. How bad are things? The public performance measure gives the percentage of trains that arrived at their final destination within five minutes of their scheduled arrival time. Five years ago, over a period of one month in 2010-11, more than 1,000 Thameslink trains were delayed. Move on five years and the figure is 5,000 trains. In 2010-11, more than 2,000 Southern trains were delayed in one month; five years later, the figure is more than 8,000. I accept that part of that will simply be down to the fact that train companies are running more services, but to see train performance going down rather than improving over five years is a cause for concern.

The Minister knows about the current compensation schemes. The old-fashioned passenger charter is being phased out. Most train operating companies now operate the newer Delay Repay scheme, which is included in all the new franchise contracts. The scheme works in different ways for different train operating companies, but broadly speaking the one operated by Govia is representative. Passengers delayed by 30 minutes or more are entitled to 50% compensation of the single-fare price, which goes up to 100% for delays of 60 minutes or more. Compensation usually takes the form of rail vouchers to be collected from the relevant operator’s ticket office, but it can be paid out in cash if requested by the passenger—that is also not widely publicised.

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What are the problems with the scheme? First, the compensation threshold is too high. For many suburban commuters the typical journey will be 30 to 45 minutes, so receiving compensation after a delay of 30 minutes, with full compensation for a delay of over 60 minutes, is an insult because that often means that the delay has to be the same length as, or longer than, the actual journey.

There is also a complete lack of standardisation. The only common element of Delay Repay schemes across the train operating companies is the 30-minute threshold for compensation—everything else differs. The circumstances in which compensation can be paid vary; some compensation schemes include the weather and planned engineering works, whereas others exclude them, so there is no clarity about what passengers will get.

The ways to claim compensation also differ from one train operating company to another, with compensation sometimes paid as vouchers and sometimes as cash. The preferred method—at least some train operating companies are moving towards this, and the sooner the better—would be for companies automatically to compensate passengers through their Oyster cards, smartcards and contactless cards or through the other electronic means that passengers use to pay for tickets.

The variety of ways in which compensation is paid, and the different schemes in operation, are clearly a source of confusion for staff as well. Which? is doing a lot of good work on this issue, and when its researchers looked into it at stations, 37% of them were given no information, or only part of the information they needed, about how long a delay needed to be before a refund was due. If even the staff in the station do not understand how or when compensation is payable, what chance do commuters have?

Compensation schemes are badly publicised, and it is hard to claim. A 2013 survey by Transport Focus, the independent watchdog, found that 88% of those eligible for compensation did not claim. A 2014 survey by the rail regulator showed that 67% of respondents knew not very much, or nothing, about their rights to compensation. A Which? survey revealed that only 36% of passengers remembered being informed of their rights after their last delay.

That points to a significant problem with train operating companies’ passenger information policies. It implies an unwillingness on the part of companies to make claiming compensation as easy as possible for their customers. On many occasions I have called on companies to make sure that, for every train that is delayed, where passengers would be entitled to compensation, that should be announced on the train. Preferably, as passengers get off the train, there should be members of staff handing out leaflets so that everyone knows they are eligible and everyone is certain how they can claim. Indeed, now that there are electronic displays on trains, they could also be triggered to ensure that passengers know.

The procedures for claiming compensation vary, and passengers can use different forms. Some companies offer email claims with a photo of the ticket. Others require an original ticket to be sent in—an option that I have used.

As to the forms of compensation, rail vouchers are the standard form, but train operating companies fail to advertise the fact that cash compensation is available on request, as per condition 42(d) of the national rail conditions

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of carriage. The Which? survey I referred to carried out an anonymous investigation at 102 stations, revealing that 63% of the time during the investigation people were not told they could receive compensation in an alternative form to vouchers, even after staff were prompted—perhaps to encourage them to remember that that was the case.

The fact that vouchers need to be picked up from ticket offices is another hurdle, and it means that passengers cannot necessarily get the best fares, given that online tickets booked in advance are often the cheapest.

There is currently a lack of enforcement. There is no ombudsman for rail companies, and that makes it very difficult to hold the train operating companies to account. Transport Focus, the independent watchdog, has no powers to make TOCs pay a refund. I am not alone in expressing concern about these issues. A super-complaint has been presented to the Office of Rail and Road outlining evidence of the consumer detriment in this market and inaction by train companies in making customers aware of their rights, with unnecessary complexities and barriers within the system. We expect the ORR to respond to that complaint by mid-March. I hope the Minister will say what she expects to come out of that and what action she might expect to take.

What is my proposal? Perhaps surprisingly, it will not necessarily encounter the degree of resistance, certainly from some of the train operating companies, that one might expect, as I understand that some are willing to entertain it. I propose that the delay threshold should be reduced such that commuters are entitled to compensation after 15 minutes of delay, when they would get 50% compensation, and after 30 minutes, when they would get 100% compensation. Rather than 30 and 60 minutes, the thresholds would be 15 and 30 minutes. Season ticket holders’ rights to compensation would have to be adapted accordingly.

What other things need to happen? As I have said, much better publicity is needed about the existing Delay Repay scheme, even if the scheme is not improved in the way that I suggest. I recently signed up to the email notifications that Southern and Thameslink give when there is disruption on their services. I do not know whether there has been a case of a train falling foul of the current 30-minute delay threshold since I have been receiving those emails—presumably not only I but many other passengers will now be receiving them—but I hope that if that happens in future they will make it very clear that people are entitled to claim compensation and include a link and an explanation about how they can do so. As I said, we need electronic announcements on trains. We need staff at stations handing out information. We need a degree of standardisation so that commuters, many of whom use different train operating companies, understand that there is a simple, standard process that they can follow, with the same claims procedure in every case. That would also help staff, who will often move from working for one train company to another. If they do not understand how the system works at the moment, then at least if there was only one system in place, there would be a better chance of their doing so.

Given the volume of rail complaints, we need to establish an ombudsman with real teeth to impose sanctions on the train operating companies. It was suggested to me in an email—I have no clear view on this at the moment, so I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view—that

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we should allow nominee companies, which are now active in the field of claiming compensation for airlines, to operate in the rail market as well, to get economies of scale and help passengers with associated charges. Perhaps if that happened, more passengers would claim, but we would not want to get lots of phone calls from them saying, “Have you had a train delay? Would you please call this number?” which would be very frustrating.

What are the advantages of my proposals? First, there is no doubt that a scheme where compensation kicked in at 15 minutes and 30 minutes on any train service anywhere would put more pressure on the train companies. If they knew they were going to get financial pain from running trains late or not having enough drivers, which is the usual excuse in the Southern area, they would make sure that they had more drivers, and so on. It would put more pressure on them to improve their performance. As I said, better advertising of the scheme would ensure that far more passengers were able to take advantage of the compensation. Although that would not necessarily reduce their stress levels on delayed trains, at least it would give them a little bit more money in their pockets through part-compensation for the very poor services.

I will finish where I started by asking the Minister whether she will support my call for Delay Repay to kick in at 15 and 30 minutes.

5.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for securing this debate. Some people say that I seem to have drawn the short straw by having to participate in Adjournment debates on successive Thursdays, but I am always happy and keen to talk about the railways and what this Government are doing to try to improve them.

I agree with many points made by the right hon. Gentleman, including the fact that the compensation system is not working as well as it should and his comments about performance issues. Indeed, I chair a taskforce comprising the operators, Network Rail, Transport Focus and anyone who might be able to help us drive up performance in this crucial region.

May I crave your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, and put on the record my personal thanks to the Network Rail team that has managed to fix the Corbridge landslip, which had completely disconnected the vital east-west line between Newcastle and Carlisle? The team has moved 35,000 tonnes of soil, the line is open and trains will run from next week. That is proof that the orange army really can deliver, and I want to make sure that that happens in the right hon. Gentleman’s region as well.

It might be helpful if I set out some of the improvements that are already happening. Delay Repay is a universal, standardised offer of compensation that has been adopted by 80% of rail companies. That addresses the right hon. Gentleman’s point about variability in what people are entitled to. As he has said, under Delay Repay passengers can claim 50% of a single fare for delays of 30 to 59 minutes; 100% of a single fare for delays of more than 60%; and 100% of a return fare for delays of more than two hours. Ten operators use the scheme and it is being introduced nationally, along with franchising.

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Interestingly, the scheme is among the most generous compensation schemes for rail passengers in Europe. I know that sometimes it does not feel like that, particularly if there are persistent delays, but there are countries that do almost nothing for customers who are delayed.

Tom Brake: Will the Minister reflect on the fact that the compensation scheme can afford to be generous because so few passengers actually claim compensation?

Claire Perry: The right hon. Gentleman anticipates a very important point—on which I also agree with him—that I will come on to address.

It is not enough to rest on saying that a general scheme is in place and being rolled out. The right hon. Gentleman raised two main, vital issues. First, he asked what passengers can do if there are shorter delays. I have had a look at journey times from his constituency. The average journey time for constituents of his travelling from Wallington to London Victoria is about 38 minutes, and for those travelling from Carshalton and Mitcham Junction it is 25 to 29 minutes. Clearly, it would be a bad day if the delay lasted as long as the journey time. That is why the Chancellor made it absolutely clear in the autumn statement that we will introduce a compensation level starting at 15 minutes. I want to do that quickly. We are, of course, working through the numbers. I cannot yet say what percentages will be paid and when, but the right hon. Gentleman can have an absolute assurance that in the near future a compensation scheme will be introduced right across the Delay Repay franchises, including the Govia Thameslink Railway: the clock will start ticking, quite rightly, at 15 minutes. That is absolutely appropriate.

Improvements were made to the scheme last year. The right hon. Gentleman is right to ask what other industry pays us in travel vouchers. We need to pay people in their own currency, to demonstrate respect for the time they have lost. Three main changes were made to the GTR compensation scheme last year, to the benefit of his constituents. First, when calculating compensation, it used to be assumed that a season ticket holder travelled every single day of the year. Now, holiday entitlement has been included in that. The net result of all those calculations is that if annual season ticket holders claim compensation, they will get £3.70 per journey instead of £3.30, which is a 12% increase in the compensation level. If they experience a 60-minute delay, which would be unlikely, and, indeed, catastrophic, the compensation will be substantially more—an additional 10%.

The second change that the right hon. Gentleman rightly focused on is that the industry now pays compensation in cash, not in vouchers. He will share my disappointment that that is not widespread knowledge, certainly among staff. I will talk a little bit about my expectations of the ORR super-complaint in a moment.

The third change is, I think, the most important. People do not have time to faff about to claim compensation. These are busy people, trying to get to work and home to their lives and families. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the introduction of automatic compensation. It is already happening. Certain operators offer automatic compensation if passengers buy a ticket online, so it can be linked to a specific

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journey. Others, including GTR, are linking automatic compensation payments to the use of a smart card, which has been rolled out for season tickets.

C2C, which, like GTR, has benefited from the south-east flexible ticketing programme—the Government’s great investment in smart ticketing in the south-east—will, from this month, provide automatic compensation of 3p per minute for every minute’s delay after two minutes. If someone is sitting on that train, even if they are only delayed for five minutes, their time is worth something. That is exactly the sort of scheme that works well for constituents such as those represented by the right hon. Gentleman, who take shorter journeys and for whom those persistent minutes of delay are very annoying. That is something that we are monitoring and we would like to see it rolled out, particularly across the metro franchises.

The right hon. Gentleman raised an important point: it is completely unacceptable that all these measures are being put in place but, as Passenger Focus found, only 12% of passengers claim the compensation to which they are entitled. That is made doubly annoying by the fact that train companies receive compensation from Network Rail and from each other if delays are created—the so-called section 8 compensation payments. Money is flowing into those train companies, and it should be flowing out to all passengers who are entitled to compensation.

Southern and GTR have a “reasonable endeavours” clause in their franchise about making announcements. We are determined that they should meet that, and one of the measures I am looking at is whether to get all the train companies to publish their numbers for compensation claims so that we can see, relative to the number of passengers they are carrying, which ones are doing well. As the right hon. Gentleman says, making announcements is not rocket science. Indeed, some companies do so, particularly on their Twitter feeds, where they say: “This is a delayed train, and you are entitled to claim compensation. Here’s how you do it.” By the way, rather than having people muck about with bits of paper, the claim forms now can generally be downloaded or completed online. In fact, GTR has an app that enables passengers to submit their delay claims straight from their mobiles.

The right hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about nominee companies and airlines. Such companies exist in the rail sector. I do not know whether I am supposed to say this, but companies such as Delay Repay Sniper will do all the work and take all the hassle out of the process. I want people to get the compensation that they are entitled to. I mentioned the smart card, on which GTR will offer an automatic refund by 2017. We will not stop here; we will keep pushing for better compensation.

The right hon. Gentleman made a suggestion about announcements on trains. The new fleet of class 700 trains that will start running on the franchise this year have lots of onboard information, and it is perfectly reasonable to have an electronic message that states, “You are entitled to compensation if you are on this train.” Those are all good suggestions.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned performance. In an ideal world, compensation would be zero, because the trains would all get there on time. I am sure that we all want that. There might be an element of apples and pears in the statistics that he cited about historical cancellations, because the franchise was re-let in a very different form two years ago. It is now the biggest in the

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country, with about 20% of Britain’s passenger journeys, and that may have something to do with the big increase in the cancellation numbers.

I would be the first to say that the performance level is not good enough. I have pulled out the performance statistics. They show that about four out of five trains on the Southern metro service, which serves the right hon. Gentleman’s lines, arrive on time according to the public performance measure, which is about 77%. I am interested in trains arriving at the right time, for which the figure is 51%, and that is substantially better than what it was last year.

The point that so many people have collectively missed is that the impact of a crowded train of 1,000 people arriving late on the British economy is very substantial in terms of the productivity of that train load of passengers. My view is that performance on that very crowded part of the rail system should be driven up and made substantially better, because the aggregate level of human misery created by delays is higher and the hit to the productivity of the British economy caused by delaying millions of people is also higher.

I have therefore challenged the entire group of people operating that part of the railway, from the head of Network Rail downwards, to drive it back on to a high-performance route by the end of 2018. By then, the London Bridge works will be substantially complete; we will have the new class 700 fleet, which will offer so much relief in terms of better trains and increased capacity; and we will largely be through the Thameslink programme, which has created disruption for so many people. We must stay focused on how we can deliver a high-performance railway at that time. However, it is not enough to wait until then. I have made it absolutely clear to the operators and Network Rail that performance needs to improve now, so that although people can claim compensation, they will not necessarily need to do so because their trains will be on time.

Tom Brake: Will the Minister clarify one point? She said that at some point in the future—perhaps she will speculate on when—compensation might kick in after 15 minutes. Given that only 80% of TOCs have currently signed up to Delay Repay, does she expect 100% of them to sign up to that new, enhanced system for 15-minute delays?

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Claire Perry: The current intention is to put Delay Repay in the franchising commitments. Delay Repay may cover 80% of the TOCs, but the vast majority of passengers are covered by it.

I want to say a few words about the ORR super-complaint. It is absolutely right that something that is clearly not working for consumers is picked up by Which? —a great organisation—and I have met Which? to discuss the super-complaint. My expectation of what will come out of it is that there will be a clearer understanding of who is ultimately responsible for sanctioning companies that do not pay compensation. Companies do pay compensation: there is very little evidence that they do not pay customers who are entitled to it, but the process is tortuous and much more difficult than it should be. We absolutely expect that, through a combination of the ORR, the Department for Transport and normal consumer measures, the situation will improve.

Compensation will continue to improve, and pressure will be applied to ensure it is paid to those who need it. We are absolutely committed to driving up performance on this vital part of Britain’s railways. However, I want to say a final word about the cost of rail fares, which the right hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned. In fact, a season ticket from Carshalton costs £1,676 a year, not including a travelcard. That is only £6.45 a journey, which is not necessarily a huge amount, but people need to feel that that is money well spent and that they will have a reliable journey for that amount.

By the way, that is why we have frozen rail fares at RPI plus zero for the duration of this Parliament, which is the first time that has happened in many years. While the disruption is going on, we do not want rail fares to outstrip wage inflation, as has happened for the past few years. For the first time in a decade, wages are rising quite a lot faster than rail fares.

Fundamentally, we are making a record level of investment in the railways, but unless passengers see and feel the benefits, both in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and right across the country, that investment is not delivering. We are determined to make sure it delivers.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

House adjourned.