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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21 July 2015

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Human Rights (Saudi Arabia)

9.30 am

Stewart McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights in Saudi Arabia.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I want to make it clear at the outset that I am Stewart Malcolm McDonald; to my right is my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), whose constituency and first name are entirely different. We are not to be confused.

At just 31 years old, Mr Raif Badawi is currently in a Saudi prison following a sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment, 1,000 lashes and a fine of over 1 million riyal. His “crime” is that he dared to speak out for secular liberalism and to question the authoritarian rule of his country. It is no crime at all. Raif Badawi’s case has captured the hearts and minds of people right across the world—not only because of the brutal and medieval sentence that has been bestowed on him, to which I will return, but because his writings represent the values of freedom and progress that inspire so many across the world.

Human progress takes great strides forward when our ability to think, write, argue and present our ideas in an open discourse is honoured. However, Mr Badawi is being made to fight that battle with his life. Throughout history, people have had to do the same—fight the forces that want to keep silent those of us who believe in liberal progress. Artists such as Salman Rushdie, who is a personal inspiration, thinkers such as Galileo, political leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, feminists such as Emmeline Pankhurst and gay rights activists such as Harvey Milk—all of them fought for liberal progress and free thinking in order to advance humankind. All of them did so in the face of severe hostility, the threat of imprisonment or sometimes even death.

Raif Badawi and his fearless writings on human rights will surely join those great names in our history books, but he cannot join them just yet: he is too young and still has too much to offer our world and the cause of progress. He also still has too much love to give to and receive from his family. Raif’s wife, Ensaf, and his three children, Terad, Najwa and Miriyam, do not deserve to be robbed of their husband and father. Each and every time I see the photograph of Raif and his three beautiful children, who are happily wrestling for their father’s love, I am haunted to my core. What must they think of their father? What must they think of their country—of the world they live in and their future place in it? I secured this debate not only to give Raif some hope that people in this country and across the world are working to ensure his freedom, but so that his children know that their daddy’s freedom matters to this House and to people across the world, and that we will not stop until they are reunited with him.

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The sentence that has been delivered is deliberately evil. Not content with a prison sentence and a fine that he could never hope to pay, the wicked Saudi regime had to go one further: 1,000 lashes to the back. Although the lashes have now been stopped, I want to illustrate the suffering endured by those who receive a lashing. Dr Juliet Cohen, head of doctors at Freedom from Torture, has said:

“When the cane strikes, the blood is forced from the tissues beneath... Damage to the small blood vessels and individual cells causes leakage of blood and tissue fluid into the skin and underlying tissue, increasing the tension in these areas… The more blows are inflicted on top of one another, the more chance of open wounds being caused. This is important because they are likely to be more painful and at risk of infection, which will cause further pain over a prolonged period as infection delays the wounds’ healing”.

The Saudi regime literally wants to whip Mr Badawi into obedience, believing that to discipline his mind, it is necessary to discipline his body. Although the involvement of doctors has halted the lashes for now, just consider the position a doctor is put in when assessing Mr Badawi’s wounds. The most fundamental guiding principle for any medical professional is that they shall not inflict harm. If a doctor were to declare that his wounds had sufficiently healed, they would do so in the knowledge that they would be sentencing him to another round of the most wicked punishment that he could endure—except he cannot endure it. Make no mistake: Raif Badawi has been served the slowest and most barbaric of death sentences.

More widely, Saudi Arabia is not known for its sympathy towards human rights of any sort or for its balanced approach to criminal justice. It does not matter whether someone is a liberal blogger, a human rights activist, a woman, a gay man or woman, or from a religious or ethnic minority. Last year alone, Saudi Arabia beheaded 90 people; this year, that figure had already been matched by the end of May. It is almost as though the regime has been caught off guard by the new kids on the block, Daesh, and is trying to show them who is top dog in the region when it comes to tyranny.

I want to compare our response to Raif Badawi’s case with our response to the death cult Daesh, which is making the headlines today. We have rightly condemned Daesh for the barbaric way in which it has swept across the middle east and how it has lured young people from this country and others to fight a fanatic’s war, something that has even touched my constituency, but—let us not beat around the bush—everything that Daesh has learned, it has learned from the barbaric regime of Saudi Arabia. The difference is that one group of fanatics has a state and the other has yet to be so successful.

If Daesh had a state to govern, do the Government really think that its forms of punishment would be any different from those being used in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today? Why do we show these people—these fanatics—such respect? Why do we lower our flags when their dictator dies? Why have we become so deferential, almost submissive, when it comes to publicly shaming them—something that the Government freely do with countries such as North Korea or Iran?

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): Does my hon. Friend think that the refusal to condemn the use of the death penalty might be something to do with the

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fact that, according to

The Economist

’s ranking, after China and Iran, only Iraq stands between Saudi Arabia in the United States in terms of executions?

Stewart McDonald: My hon. Friend makes my point for me. I was going to put it much more simply: the answer is money. While the Saudi Government value life so cheaply and lash their way to supreme authority over their people, our Government have no problem in doing serious amounts of commerce with them. Not only is Saudi Arabia our largest arms export market, bringing in billions of pounds to our Exchequer, but we co-operate on defence and—would you believe it, Mr Chope—on how it runs its prisons system. Is it any wonder that the Government suffer from such a lack of credibility on human rights in Saudi Arabia?

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sorry that I cannot stay for the rest of it; the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is about to meet. On the point about the prison system, it is surely a good thing that the Saudis are buying access to British standards and training to try to improve the very issues in the Saudi criminal justice system that the hon. Gentleman is discussing. That is surely something that we should be involved in.

Stewart McDonald: As a former prisons Minister, the hon. Gentleman is most experienced in these things. I would be willing to accept his point if I could see any concrete evidence at all that our involvement with the Saudi Arabian regime through its prison system was improving human rights. That is not to say that that is not happening, but where is the evidence? I do not see it. That is why the Government face a lack of credibility and a growing scepticism among organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International about whether anything meaningful and vociferous is being done.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I am not intervening simply to demonstrate that there is a McDonnell, as well as McDonalds, in the Chamber. I apologise that I cannot remain in the debate—bizarrely, I have a meeting with the current prisons Minister at 10 o’clock. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our Government’s co-operation with the Saudi Government, and the fact that they have not condemned the case but only expressed concern about it, are interpreted by the Saudis as Britain condoning their behaviour?

Stewart McDonald: It is almost as though the hon. Gentleman can see my speech. I am about to go on to that very point, which he made so well.

When the Government response to the case of Raif Badawi was raised in the House of Lords, Baroness Anelay asked her fellow peers

“to recognise that the actions of the Saudi Government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 June 2015; Vol. 762, c. 890.]

Will the Minister tell us exactly how the Baroness would know that? Did she, as Francis Wheen suggested in The Independent, commission Lord Ashcroft to conduct a poll of Mr Badawi’s Saudi compatriots to ask what they

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thought of the lashings and beheadings carried out by their Government? If the Minister were a Saudi national and had witnessed a flogging such as that which Mr Badawi and so many others have been through, how likely would he be to speak out against his own Government? I suggest that the Baroness needs to rethink her words rather urgently.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is referring somewhat tongue in cheek to Lord Ashcroft and polls that might have been conducted in Saudi Arabia. Does he agree that if any such poll were to be contemplated, the prospects for those carrying out the poll would be similar to those of the person he is describing in the debate?

Stewart McDonald: It would probably be the most undemocratic poll ever conducted. We can say a lot about polls in this country, but they are at least honest ones.

Mr Campbell: For the most part.

Stewart McDonald: For the most part, yes.

Last week, at Foreign Office questions, I asked the Minister about two specific points. I hate to say this, but I received an answer to neither, so I want to press the questions now. First, I asked whether the Minister would instruct the United Kingdom ambassador in Riyadh to request a visit to the prison in which Mr Badawi is being held so that we might get a report on his mental and physical state and on the conditions in which he is being held. Will the Minister undertake to give such an assurance?

Secondly, will the Minister state without equivocation—there is plenty of precedent for this, although funnily enough not in Saudi Arabia—that Mr Badawi should be set free? He is a prisoner of conscience and he should not be in prison. Surely the Government agree with that. If so, will the Minister please state that in his response?

Last week in the main Chamber, the Minister sought to give me some kind of reassurance: he said that the Saudi supreme court was reviewing the case. The Minister is a reasonable man, so I am sure he does not seriously expect me or the House to find any reassurance in the fact that the same justice system that put Mr Badawi where he is today is now marking its own homework to determine whether he should still be in prison. The Saudi justice system is not a normal justice system and the Saudi Government are not a normal Government—and we should stop treating them as such. The Minister might be willing to turn a blind eye, but he cannot expect us to ignore the crimes and brutal human rights abuses of which the Saudi regime is guilty.

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): As my hon. Friend is aware, Saudi Arabia sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council and hosted an international human rights conference that resolved to combat intolerance and violence based on religious belief, even though the country has one of the worst records of abuse in the world today. The number of executions has been rising and stands at a startling rate: 88 people were executed last year in Saudi Arabia. Surely that cannot continue.

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Stewart McDonald: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Saudi Arabian Government even sought to head the UN Human Rights Council. On the international stage, the Saudis are laughing at us and at human rights, so I hope to see some urgency from the Government. We must not become complacent, although I fear that that is exactly what the Government have become. Worse than that, coming back to the point made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), we need to ask ourselves at what point we start to look complicit because of our own weakness and ability to turn a blind eye.

We have seen no evidence whatever—none at all—that the Government are taking the case of Raif Badawi seriously or that they are raising the issue in the most vociferous and public fashion with the Saudi Government. Our Government are not doing anything that the public or I can see. Instead, we lower our flags to half mast when a dictator passes away. For some, that flag might fly proudly over this building as a symbol of unity and strength, but it is fast becoming a symbol of impotence and obedience to the wrong people.

9.46 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart McDonald) for proposing the motion and bringing the debate forward for consideration. I also look forward to the responses of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and of the Minister.

I will speak specifically about the persecution of Christians, to which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred a few minutes ago in an intervention. Many Members know that I have a great passion for the subject and a great wish to speak on behalf of our brothers and sisters, in this case in Saudi Arabia, who are subject to a mind-boggling level of religious persecution. In the background information for the debate, we were given some idea of other abuses as well, such as the number of people executed in the past year and, unbelievably, the fact that Saudi Arabia has employed yet more new executioners. That tells us a wee bit about where the regime is on human rights.

When most people think about Saudi Arabia, the image that comes to mind is of oil-rich sheikhs and beautiful buildings along with desert. As with most stereotypical images, however, there is a lot more than meets the eye. I will speak about the persecuted Church. The desert kingdom is defined by Wahabism, a purist and strict interpretation of Islam. I am the first to advocate freedom for people to practise their religion, as long as it is not harmful to society, but the worrying aspect in this case is that it is forbidden openly to practise other religions. To be a Christian in Saudi Arabia is to face persecution, limited freedom and liberties, and restrictions on what can be done. Apostasy—conversion to another religion—is punishable by death. The kingdom is also widely known to be a breeding ground for radical Islam, with allegations that Saudi funding is a major source of Sunni terrorism in the world.

Behind the idyllic interpretation of Saudi Arabia, therefore, is an underbelly or undercurrent of terrorism and the suppression of liberty and democratic process.

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Open Doors UK, an organisation that speaks on behalf of Christian people throughout the world, has said that converts from Islam to Christianity risk being killed or abused by their own families. House churches are often raided by the religious police. Only back in September, our national newspapers were publishing stories about the Islamic police in Saudi Arabia storming a Christian prayer meeting, arresting the entire congregation, including women and children, and confiscating their Bibles.

Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP): This week a report published by The Week outlined 12 things that women in Saudi Arabia still cannot do, including going anywhere without a chaperone, driving a car, voting in elections and wearing clothes or make-up to show off their beauty—I could go on. I suspect that a number of female Members would contend those points and would be aghast if we could not all enjoy equality in this nation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation in Saudi Arabia is a travesty in this day and age?

Jim Shannon: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and will put on the record that it is not just hon. Ladies who are offended by that; hon. Gentlemen are equally offended, including me. The fact that women are second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia and suffer all the deprivations that they do annoys and angers me greatly. We are holding this debate on their behalf as well.

At the time of the raid on the Christian meeting that I mentioned, it was reported that it was the latest incident in a swingeing crackdown on minorities in Saudi Arabia by the country’s hard-line commission—wait for this one—for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice. Have we ever heard the like—the use of such words to describe the deprivation and restriction of religious liberty? The 28 Christians who were arrested were said to have been worshipping at the home of an Indian national in the eastern city Khafji when the police entered the building and took them into custody. They have not been seen or heard from since, and human rights groups are concerned about their whereabouts.

I know this is short notice for the Minister, but I ask him for a response on the case of those 28 Christians. I doubt it will be possible for him to give one today, but perhaps at a point in the future he will give the House some idea of what is happening to those people, who seem to have disappeared into the ether of Saudi Arabia, as their whereabouts are unknown.

Nina Shea, director of the Washington-based Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom, told foxnews.com:

“Saudi Arabia is continuing the religious cleansing that has always been its official policy…It is the only nation state in the world with the official policy of banning all churches. This is enforced even though there are over two million Christian foreign workers in that country. Those victimized are typically poor, from Asian and African countries with weak governments.”

If we want to sum the situation up, we can do so in five words—all in a day’s tyranny. That is the situation for Christian people, and in Saudi Arabia it is indeed all in a day’s tyranny.

Voice of the Persecuted has said that in March Saudi Arabia’s top Muslim cleric called for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian peninsula, after legislators next door in Kuwait moved to pass laws banning the construction of religious sites associated with Christianity.

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Arabic media have reported that, when speaking to a delegation in Kuwait, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah—my pronunciation of that was not bad going for an Ulster Scot—said the destruction of churches was absolutely necessary and is required by Islamic law. Where is the freedom and religious liberty for those practising Christianity?

Abdullah is considered to be the highest official of religious law in the Sunni Muslim kingdom. He also serves as the head of the supreme council of ulema, which is the council of Islamic scholars, and of the standing committee for scientific research and issuing of fatwas. According to Arabian Business, a news site, Osama al-Munawar, a Kuwaiti Member of Parliament, has announced a plan to submit a draft law calling for the removal of all churches in the country. Al-Munawar has since clarified that that law would apply only to new churches, and that old ones would be allowed to stay standing. If the churches are allowed to stay standing, give people the religious liberty to practise their religious beliefs.

These issues are very worrying when we consider how little it takes to break such strict laws. It seems clear that we must exert what influence we have with Saudi Arabia to ensure that those who want to practise Christianity can do so without fear. In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Glasgow South referred to contracts we have with Saudi Arabia; I will come to that in a few minutes, but it is important to note that given our business and economic contacts with Saudi Arabia we should have discussions and make efforts on behalf of Christian minorities.

Mr Gregory Campbell: Does my hon. Friend agree that in every context of commerce, including work by private businesses supported by our national Government, every opportunity should be taken to raise with the Government of Saudi Arabia matters such as the persecution of Christians and other minorities, and the persecution of women?

Jim Shannon: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. As the Minister and others who were Members in the previous Parliament will know, back in 2013 the Democratic Unionist party took the opportunity of one of our Opposition day debates to raise the issue of the religious persecution of Christians on the Floor of the House. As a result of that debate, we hoped that Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would use their influence wherever they could across the world when religious liberty, religious minorities and human rights were being abused by countries or by dictators. I wholeheartedly support what my hon. Friend said. We need our Government, and the Minister in particular, to take a more proactive stance.

Stewart McDonald: We hear all this talk about raising the issues at the senior levels of Government, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is perhaps time to take more action, and, like Sweden, to start ending memorandums of understanding, looking at an arms embargo and perhaps even looking at the withdrawal of ambassadors? I am not seeing any progress whatever.

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Jim Shannon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. We should consider the idea he has put forward, and the Minister will respond to his point. I noted from the Library’s background note for the debate that Sweden has taken that proactive stance and decided to stop arms sales. We have to consider all those steps. We want to be an economic ally of Saudi Arabia and trade with it—we cannot deny that—but we also want to influence what is happening there. If we are not having the sort of influence we wish to—at this point in time I do not see that we are—perhaps we need to look at other ways of having that influence.

The world deplores the scenario in North Korea, but we seem to tolerate the same scenario in Saudi Arabia with barely a mention. Mention North Korea and everyone’s hackles will rise; we should be equally angry about the persecution of Christians in Saudi Arabia. Reading a report from someone who had been out there opened my eyes. I will read from it to give Members an idea of what it is like to be a Christian there:

“Visiting persecuted Christians in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it’s the silence that strikes me most. British nurses hide crucifixes from view; Filipino nurses furtively read banned Christmas catalogues; Christian physicians whisper their weekend plans, referring to church services as ‘gatherings’ at diplomatic compounds;”—

because they have to try to hide what they are doing and when—

“Christian Pakistani matrons scheduling the nursing rota risk false accusations of blasphemy—charges which could result in death.”

That is everyday life in Saudi Arabia for Christian people.

I will quote something connected to the sense that we are looking the other way and leave the idea with Members as a thoughtful submission. It is attributed to the German Jewish essayist Kurt Tucholsky—I am doing well with the names today:

“A country is not only what it does—it is also what it tolerates.”

Let us think about those words very clearly. In Saudi Arabia there is no toleration for Christian minorities, for those with different views or for those who do not conform to its particular rules and regulations.

What are we tolerating in our relationship with Saudi Arabia? I have great respect for the Minister, but I must put this to him: how can we do better? How can we ensure that our nurses and teachers do not fear discussing church or asking for time off to worship their God in the way that He has ordained they should? What diplomatic pressure can be brought to bear to bring change? If the answer is that we have no leverage and can apply no pressure, we must ask ourselves why that is the case—that goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South both in his opening remarks and in his intervention.

There are more than 200 joint ventures between British and Saudi companies, worth $17.5 billion. Saudi Arabia is the United Kingdom’s primary trading partner in the middle east, and even our Prime Minister travelled to extend sympathy at the death of King Abdullah. I do not for a second say that he should not have done that, but I do ask, given the special relationship that we seem to have, what we are doing for the Christian people and other minorities. Have we no leverage despite that relationship? Some tough questions must be asked about

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whether we can do more to halt the persecution of Christians, and especially of British Christians, in Saudi Arabia.

10 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I apologise to the House, Mr Chope, for missing the first few minutes of this morning’s debate.

The case of Raif Badawi highlights just how bad the human rights situation is in Saudi Arabia, but it is not the only case. I hope that the Minister will be able to reply to some short, simple points. The UN Human Rights Council has expressed many concerns about human rights, the judicial process and the plight of individuals in Saudi Arabia. That does not appear on the surface to have affected the British Government’s relationship with Saudi Arabia very much. As far as I can work out, it has not led to the Government making many remarks to the Saudi Government to try to bring about change. We need to ask about the link between substantial sales of British arms to Saudi Arabia and our apparent inability to criticise the human rights record there. Will the Minister confirm what controls are applied to the export of arms, how many arms licences have been refused, and how many of the weapons or items of equipment sent to Saudi Arabia have been used for internal repression, to suppress demonstrations or to control prisons?

Saudi Arabia’s activities in Yemen are extremely well known, and it is not a secret that it has been occupying quite large parts of that country to restore the original Government to power. There are also disturbing reports that it has been using illegal cluster bombs during the bombardment of Yemen. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm whether that is so. If not, will the Foreign Office find out exactly what weapons that would be illegal under international law have been used by Saudi Arabia? The question of arms supplies has troubled both Germany and Sweden, which have at times either suspended or restricted arms supplies to Saudi Arabia because of human rights abuses, and because of their concern about what they would be used for; but apparently that question has not restricted the British Government very much.

The Foreign Office human rights and democracy report of 2014 said:

“Saudi Arabia continued to make incremental improvements on human rights in 2014, as the government carried on implementing its reform programme...but we continued to have concerns over the human rights situation, particularly in relation to the use of the death penalty, access to justice, women’s rights, and restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief. There was some progress in women’s rights and the death penalty, but significant institutional change in Saudi Arabia is needed to protect the human rights of its residents, especially with regards to the guardianship system and restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.”

In fact, the number of executions has gone up, not down, in the past two years. The report continues:

“There were significant changes in the justice sector. On 10 September, the Secretary of State for Justice…visited Saudi Arabia and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Saudi Arabian Minister of Justice…This should act as a mechanism for dialogue on human rights issues”.

We need to know from the Minister how many times meetings have been held with the Saudi Government, what has been achieved through that dialogue, and

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what improvements have resulted in the human rights record of Saudi Arabia as a result.

There are many disturbing reports, particularly about the plight of human rights defenders, who seem to have little protection in law. Often they are brutally silenced when they try to speak out about human rights abuses, particularly away from the big cities and in more remote parts of the country. The guardianship system for women means that women’s rights are extremely restricted all over the country, yet we carry on as though everything were normal with Saudi Arabia.

Angela Crawley: Government officials in Saudi Arabia have stated their blatant opposition to gay rights and have criticised human rights policies that guarantee freedoms and liberty. Recent police raids have evidently primarily targeted gay people, and several arrests have been made as part of the authorities’ latest crackdown on LGBT people. Does the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning that?

Jeremy Corbyn: Absolutely; I thank the hon. Lady for drawing the House’s attention to that. The abuse of all human rights in Saudi Arabia is very serious, but the treatment of lesbian and gay people there is particularly appalling. In the UN Human Rights Council, the UK routinely takes up issues of systemic discrimination in many countries all over the world, but there seems to be an unfortunate silence where Saudi Arabia is concerned, and I do not believe that that is the way to act.

Stewart McDonald: The hon. Gentleman is a long-serving Member of Parliament and no doubt over the years has been to many a protest outside the Saudi embassy. Off the top of his head, can he give an example of a meaningful public condemnation of the Saudi regime that has been made in the years in which he has been debating the issue in the House? Can he think of one, or perhaps two?

Jeremy Corbyn: Ministers have often said to me that they are concerned about human rights in Saudi Arabia. Usually the narrative from the Foreign Office is that constructive dialogue is making progress. It is not obvious to me what progress has been made in the matter, but that is what is often said. The Minister, I am sure, can speak for himself.

My last point is about migrant workers. There are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers all over the Gulf states. They are doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do. They run the economy; they run the oil industry; they clean people’s houses; they fix the roads; they run the railways. They run just about everything. The whole economy relies on them completely. Generally speaking they are poorly treated everywhere, but 300,000 have been deported from Saudi Arabia, and others who have protested in any way about their conditions of work have been summarily removed from the country. We ought to be aware that that is a systemic problem across the region.

British companies are heavily involved in service industries and oil exploration and exploitation in Saudi Arabia and other places. I am not saying that British companies are particularly exploiting migrant workers, but I do say that Britain should not turn a blind eye to what is happening to many vulnerable people across the region. What is happening in Qatar has at last got some publicity,

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because of the number of migrant workers who have died on construction sites. Things are not that different in every other country of the region.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that tough representations will be made to the Saudi Arabian Government, and that we will suspend arms supplies to Saudi Arabia if it is shown to be using weapons illegally in the Yemen. There is also the question of past weapons use in Bahrain. I hope he will say that we will demand rights for women, an end to the death penalty, and rights and justice for the migrant workers in the region. We cannot just say that because Saudi Arabia is oil-rich and has huge amounts of money with which to buy arms from us and from other places, human rights standards should be lower. We should say that human rights standards should be the same throughout the world. The declaration of human rights is, after all, a universal declaration, not a selective one. We should make that clear in our foreign policy relationships with Saudi Arabia.

10.8 am

Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart McDonald) on securing the debate; he has been a persistent and passionate agitator on the issue since his election, and remains so. He reminded us of the case of Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old Saudi Arabian writer and activist, who is married with three children. My hon. Friend detailed his trial, conviction, horrendous sentence and punishment for the crime described as “setting up a liberal website”. I should declare an interest as a member of Amnesty International, which has been campaigning on the issue.

Following Mr Badawi’s arrest, Amnesty designated him a prisoner of conscience,

“detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression”,

and noted:

“Even in Saudi Arabia where state repression is rife, it is beyond the pale to seek the death penalty for an activist whose only ‘crime’ was to enable social debate online”.

Numerous other campaign groups, such as Free Raif UK, English PEN and other well known human rights groups, also deserve credit for keeping Mr Badawi’s case in the public eye. Doing that retains pressure on the Saudi authorities and provides support for the friends and family of Raif Badawi, Waleed Abulkhair, who I think is Mr Badawi’s lawyer, and various others. By securing this debate, my hon. Friend has made a further contribution to that important task and provided the hope that he spoke about. Whether even more can come from the debate is down to the Government. I support my hon. Friend’s simple requests that the United Kingdom Government call for Mr Badawi’s release and seek permission to visit him in prison. So far, the UK Government have had too little to say publicly about this issue. We wait with interest to hear what the Minister will say today.

None of this is to say that we fail to recognise the difficulties and complexities involved in international diplomacy. Sometimes diplomacy behind closed doors

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can work—indeed, the suggestion so far from the UK Government is that their approach to Saudi Arabia is to pursue diplomacy behind closed doors. However, in this case, public silence is no longer an option; in reality, it never was.

Concern is not enough because, first of all, people see an inherent hypocrisy that is far too large to ignore. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) highlighted in her intervention, the double standards being applied cannot be tolerated. At the start of this year, in the wake of the horrific Charlie Hebdo attack, our Prime Minister walked with thousands of others along the streets of Paris to protest in support of freedom of expression. Among the marchers was the Saudi Arabian ambassador to France. Both France and the United Kingdom have a strong belief in freedom of expression, but the same cannot be said about Saudi Arabia. Just two days before that march, Raif Badawi had received the first 50 lashes for his so-called offence—an offence of expression.

Secondly and even more importantly, to citizens of this country looking in from the outside the process of diplomacy behind closed doors just does not appear to be working or achieving anything, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South pointed out. The softly-softly approach is seen as amounting to not very much at all. It is simply untrue to suggest that there has been a substantial improvement in human rights in Saudi Arabia through that approach, as my hon. Friend explained. This year, the country has already executed more than 100 people. That surpasses the total for last year.

The slow burn of British diplomacy might even appear to be encouraging an aura or attitude of impunity in the Saudi Government, nurturing the idea that they can get away with human rights abuses if they talk a good game on human rights. As my hon. Friend highlighted, Saudi Arabia is considering seeking the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Council next year, yet two months ago it advertised for eight new executioners, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out. Recently, it hosted a regional human rights meeting just three days before the supreme court upheld the sentence against Raif Badawi. When called out on its human rights record by the media, the Government of Saudi Arabia claim that it is

“one of the first States to promote and support human rights”

as if those words on their own are enough.

The case of Raif Badawi has proved to be a rallying point, casting light on problems that, as many hon. Members said, go much further than his own. He is a man whose bravery puts a human face on the statistics that we hear about the scale of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but those statistics and the other stories that we have heard today continue to provide grave cause for concern.

As the hon. Member for Strangford highlighted, the persecution of Christians is extremely concerning. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) set out, the situation for women is also terrible. The few rights that do exist in Saudi Arabia essentially do not extend to women—in fact, “human rights”, in so far as they exist in Saudi Arabia, really means men’s rights. My hon. Friend also highlighted the persecution of LGBT people in that country. The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) highlighted concerns regarding Saudi activities in Yemen and the exploitation of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.

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Worse even than the failure publicly to criticise and condemn has been the United Kingdom Government’s tendency almost to excuse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South highlighted, it was recently suggested in the House of Lords that the treatment of Raif Badawi largely meets with public approval in Saudi Arabia. That is an objectionable argument on so many levels. Not only should we, as hon. Members have said, take such assertions with a large pinch of salt; most significantly, we can never say that human rights abuses are all right and should be ignored if a majority in a particular country agrees with them.

We argue for a new approach, and in Europe, as we have heard today, there are glimmers of hope. The hon. Members for Strangford and for Islington North pointed out that Germany and Sweden have started to speak out, with Sweden withdrawing from a security and trade agreement with Riyadh, effectively blocking arms exports. Meanwhile, Germany has ended an export deal for Leopard tanks because of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and it warned that the sentence against Mr Badawi was damaging relations. We were just speaking of opinion polls, and opinion polls there show that the German public are against any form of trade with the Arab state, with a large majority against arms sales.

Stewart McDonald: My hon. Friend makes an important point about Sweden’s trade deals with Saudi Arabia being ended and Germany’s refusal to sell tanks to the Saudi regime. Does he share my concern that the United Kingdom Government have not so much as refused to sell a single bullet to the Saudi regime?

Stuart C. McDonald: I absolutely agree. In coming to a conclusion about what my hon. Friend has asked for today, I will say that we recognise the complexities of international diplomacy, but back-room bargaining is no longer enough—indeed, it never really was. At the very least, as my hon. Friend suggests, we require the UK Government to call for Mr Badawi’s release and to seek permission to visit him in prison. That is not much to ask. As the hon. Member for Islington North said, the United Kingdom Government need to rethink their approach to Saudi Arabia altogether. Our requests are modest, and we look forward to hearing what the Government have to say in response.

10.17 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart McDonald) on securing the debate. Understandably, he focused on the case of Raif Badawi, as did his Scottish National party colleague, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). Sometimes a case assumes totemic status in the human rights catalogue. We know that there are many horrific cases of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but sometimes it takes a case such as that of Raif Badawi to capture public attention and focus people’s minds, so it is right that the hon. Member for Glasgow South raised it.

We heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the persecution of Christians in Saudi Arabia. He has been a strong advocate for many years

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on the issue of freedom of religion and, in particular, the persecution of Christians, and he made a compelling contribution again today.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about a number of issues, which I will come on to, such as arms deals, the memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Justice, and migrant workers. However, it is important that as well as focusing on the specific issues that have been raised, we look at the wider questions about what it means for Saudi Arabia to be a Foreign Office country of concern on human rights grounds. It is important that Parliament regularly revisits the question of human rights in Saudi Arabia and questions the nature of our bilateral relationship, as it epitomises the inherent challenges and contradictions in the UK’s foreign policy and flags up some of the very difficult questions that we struggle with and have to reconcile.

We heard today some of the reasons why the Foreign Office regards Saudi Arabia as a human rights country of concern: the restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly; concerns about migrant workers; reports of torture being commonplace in prison; and the crackdown on dissent, including legislation equating criticism of the Government with terrorism. Those are not simply internal, domestic matters but questions of international law and universal principles of human rights.

On the specific case of Raif Badawi, which I will return to throughout my response, the hon. Member for Glasgow South eloquently summed up the position. It is very difficult to imagine not just Mr Badawi’s plight, but what his family, who are now in Canada, are going through. His arrest and conviction expose Saudi Arabia’s disregard for religious freedom and freedom of expression, and his sentence breaches the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which Saudi Arabia has ratified. I will refer to several such agreements during my speech, and we have to ask what it means for Saudi Arabia to have ratified them if we continue to see cases such as that of Raif Badawi.

Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. It is true that there has been a little progress. Women are expected to be allowed to vote in this year’s municipal elections for the first time, and 30 of the 140 seats in the Shura Council have been allocated to women. More employment opportunities have also been opened up to women. Those are, however, very small steps. Saudi Arabia still operates the guardianship system, and women are still very much subordinate to men. There is still a ban on women driving, for example. In December, two Women2Drive supporters were arrested and later charged with terrorism-related offences, for the crime of driving a car and being women.

The Government’s latest human rights and democracy report lauded Saudi Arabia for its participation in the preventing sexual violence initiative. It is true that there is a new law criminalising domestic violence in Saudi Arabia, but Amnesty International reports that women are still not adequately protected from sexual violence. Although it has not been raised today, we have discussed in the past the plight of the Saudi princesses, on which people seem to have fallen silent. Perhaps the Minister

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can update us on that. If that is what happens to women in the royal family in Saudi Arabia, what hope is there for ordinary women?

Hon. Members have highlighted the absence of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where the rights and wellbeing of minorities—not least Shi’a Muslims, as well as Christians and atheists—need to be protected. Apostasy is punishable by death and Saudi Arabia is one of the most prolific countries, behind only China and Iran, in the use of the death penalty. Last year, the number of executions increased significantly to 86. By June this year, however, Saudi Arabia had already surpassed last year’s total, and there have been more than 100 executions. As we have heard, the country has had to advertise to recruit eight more executioners for the public beheadings.

Stewart McDonald: Does the hon. Lady agree that given that Saudi Arabia is advertising for more executioners, no progress is being made on that front?

Kerry McCarthy: The statistics I have just quoted speak for themselves. As I said, the number of executions that have taken place this year has already exceeded last year’s total. Clearly, Saudi Arabia is not moving in the right direction on the death penalty. People have been sentenced to death for sorcery and adultery, and they have been executed for confessions allegedly obtained through torture. Juveniles have been executed, which is in clear violation of international law. In that brief summary of just some of the human rights concerns, I have covered five of the Foreign Office’s six human rights priorities: freedom of expression on the internet, torture prevention, women’s rights, freedom of religion or belief, and the abolition of the death penalty. The Foreign Office has never listed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights as one of its six priorities, although that should be a priority, not least because in countries such as Saudi Arabia homosexuality is punishable by death, as several colleagues have mentioned today.

The Foreign Office’s sixth thematic priority is business and human rights. We have heard very little of the Government’s business and human rights action plan since it was launched in 2013. The previous Foreign Secretary assured us:

“The promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy”.

By contrast, the Prime Minister spoke of his determination to place

“our commercial interests at the heart of our foreign policy.”

Therein lies the dilemma. The current Foreign Secretary did not mention human rights at all when he was appointed, and it certainly seems that the commercial heart has had a much stronger beat at the centre of our foreign policy than the human rights heart. I do not deny that we need to attract inward investment and promote UK exports, but we cannot do so at the expense of basic human rights for people in countries such as Saudi Arabia, or by ignoring our international responsibilities. The Foreign Secretary has said that

“Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the UK”.—[Official Report, 9 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1040.]

We would, therefore, expect the Government to use that relationship with a strong ally to discuss their human rights priorities.

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Last year, UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia were worth £1.6 billion. Questions have rightly been asked about the inclusion of Saudi Arabia as a priority market for arms sales when it is also a human rights country of concern, but those are questions that Ministers have been unwilling or unable to address. Indeed, Defence Ministers recently told the House that they would not be reviewing the licences to Saudi Arabia, despite the UN’s warnings regarding the conflict in Yemen, about which they stated:

“The indiscriminate bombing of populated areas, with or without prior warning, is in contravention of international humanitarian law”.

I hope the Minister will be able to tell us whether he thinks the Government’s eagerness to sell arms to Saudi Arabia undermines any efforts to challenge the country’s human rights record or mutes discussion.

As several hon. Members have mentioned, there seems to be a significant reluctance on the part of the UK Government to speak out on human rights. The Government’s initial response to Raif Badawi’s conviction and flogging seemed rather timid, and the Prime Minister has been evasive when he has been asked about discussions on human rights with the Saudi authorities. I remember tabling a series of written questions some years ago, in which I asked about discussions. I kept being told that nothing was off the table and there was a broad range of discussion, which is what tends to happen whenever I ask what discussions the Prime Minister has had on human rights. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us a little more today.

The Minister will, no doubt, tell us that there is a difference between private and public diplomacy. I accept that public condemnation is not always the most effective, and I am not suggesting that it is always appropriate to divulge the details of private conversations with foreign dignitaries. I accept, too, the need to consider our national interest and Saudi Arabia’s strategic role in the region. There is, however, a difference between choosing the best approach and turning a blind eye to egregious human rights abuses.

The concern that the British Government has dodged questions of human rights was only reinforced by the comments made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), the chair of the all-party group on Saudi Arabia, during last year’s debate on this subject. He stated:

“British officials were petrified at the prospect that I might raise issues involving Christian rights in front of the King. They do not like British Members of Parliament raising such issues”.—[Official Report, 24 June 2015; Vol. 583, c. 9WH.]

There is a danger that if the UK is perceived to be inconsistent on human rights and to demand higher standards from some countries than others, it will undermine Ministers’ attempts to promote human rights in any country. We cannot be seen to have double standards when it comes to universal, inalienable principles of human rights. The international community cannot selectively grant impunity for human rights abuses. Countries such as Saudi Arabia cannot be allowed to hide behind their economic power and strategic importance while the international community criticises other countries more strongly.

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That is especially true when Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, a body that is supposed to be

“responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations”.

Saudi Arabia has failed to implement the recommendations that it accepted in its universal periodic reviews, however, and it has rejected the recommendation to ratify the international covenant on civil and political rights. As we have heard, the country has ratified other agreements but failed to implement them.

Jeremy Corbyn: The covenant that my hon. Friend has mentioned would also help to protect migrant workers, who, as I pointed out, are incredibly badly treated in Saudi Arabia. Does she agree that we should do more about migrant workers in that situation?

Kerry McCarthy: I absolutely agree. The situation in Qatar, which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, has shone a spotlight on the plight of migrant workers in the middle east. We should not assume that that is a problem only in Qatar; it is certainly an issue in countries such as Saudi Arabia, and it requires international action, particularly where British companies are involved.

There is limited space for civil society in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International is denied access, human rights defenders are prosecuted, and non-governmental organisations are required to register—something that few, if any, have managed to do. That all suggests an unwillingness to engage on human rights or to work with the international community, and it makes it all the more important for Saudi Arabia’s allies, such as the UK, to be frank with it. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us more about how the UK works with Saudi Arabia on the Human Rights Council.

The UK Government seek to work in partnership with the Saudi Government on some matters. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) mentioned the memorandum of understanding that the previous Justice Secretary has signed with his counterpart, and the Home Secretary did likewise earlier this year. Given the concerns that we have heard about the criminal justice system in Saudi Arabia—including the use of corporal punishment and amputations—I hope that the Minister will be able to advise us on the conditions attached to those MOUs and the progress that is being made.

Stewart McDonald: Does the hon. Lady support calls by Amnesty International for the British ambassador in Riyadh to visit Mr Badawi in prison to check on the conditions in which he is being held?

Kerry McCarthy: Yes, I certainly do. I am meeting Amnesty later this afternoon, as I do regularly. I hope that the Minister will help facilitate that.

We were told that the UK raised Raif Badawi’s case with the Saudi authorities at a senior level, but six months after his first 50 lashes and after three years’ detention, he remains in prison with the threat of 950 more lashes hanging over him. What assessment can the Minister give of the UK’s actual influence in this situation? King Abdullah was hailed by some as a reformer, but the slow pace of reform failed to prevent immense suffering and discrimination. Although the new king

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has taken positive steps, including small steps to protect religious minorities, little has changed so far in terms of basic rights and freedoms.

The UK must be prepared to discuss with Saudi Arabia the need for more fundamental reform if the kingdom is to meet its obligations to the people of Saudi Arabia and the international community. As I said, we recognise the need to work with Saudi Arabia and establish a strong relationship, but a bilateral relationship that turns a blind eye to human rights or silences a partner is inherently fragile.

I referred earlier to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s six thematic human rights priorities. I have heard reports that those six priorities have now been abandoned in favour of three vaguer work streams; I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to clarify that, but it is important. As I said, I would like to see the current priorities strengthened by the addition of LGBT rights. I am concerned that the abandonment of those six principles will mean less focus on human rights. It would be helpful if he could advise on that.

10.31 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): It is a pleasure to work under your experienced chairmanship, Mr Chope. I begin, as others have done, by congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart McDonald) on securing the debate. I will not try to say which names are which, but I was grateful for the clarification at the beginning.

I will say as a general remark that this debate has been informative and constructive. From a personal perspective, it is good to see new Members of Parliament from the Scottish National party come here with such a depth of knowledge and interest, and such a commitment to these issues. It is healthy and important to have them at such debates, along with those of the older generation who are regulars at them; I am only sorry that there are not more Members from my party to match them. However, I am pleased that we are here to place on record our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the important human rights aspect of that relationship.

It is worth placing in context where we stand. The UK and Saudi Arabia have a long history of friendship, understanding and co-operation. That relationship is rooted in defence, security, trade and investment, as hon. Members have mentioned. There are many bilateral challenges and opportunities, as has also been said, including Iraq and Syria, ISIL and Daesh and the changes taking place with the new Iranian nuclear deal. As the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) also mentioned, Yemen is also an issue.

It is important to remind ourselves that the people of Britain have strong bilateral links with Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia every year to perform the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages and to visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. I understand that 18,000 Britons completed the Hajj in 2014. The bilateral relationship is strong, which allows us to have frank conversations, often behind the scenes.

My speech has now been ruined by my scribbles in trying to answer all the questions that have been asked in this interesting debate. As I have done in the past, I

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will do my best to respond now, but if I do not, I will ensure that we scroll through


and write to hon. Members individually to give them more details about the important questions that they have asked.

Saudi Arabia and Britain are essential partners and good friends. As a long-time friend of Saudi Arabia, we are able to have honest and meaningful conversations with the Saudi Arabian Government about all issues, including human rights. To be frank, sometimes those conversations are difficult. We remain deeply concerned about Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty, restricted access to justice, the women’s rights situation and continued restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and religious freedom.

Margaret Ferrier: One issue that has not been mentioned is human trafficking, rates of which are extremely high in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is currently designated by the USA as a country of particular concern. The Saudi Arabian Government do not comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking and are not making significant efforts to do so; they have moved from tier 2 to tier 3 due to their lack of progress on anti-trafficking efforts, particularly their failure to protect victims and prosecute those guilty of involuntary servitude. Will the Minister look at that as well?

Mr Ellwood: I will certainly come to those matters if time permits.

The Government’s view is a matter of public record, and we continue to make our views known in public and in private through multilateral and bilateral channels. We use the UN universal periodic review process and the FCO’s annual human rights and democracy report, which has been mentioned several times, including by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), as well as our own diplomatic engagement with the Saudi Arabian authorities, to raise such concerns at all levels.

We can and do give tough messages, but we must recognise the crucial point that Saudi culture is deeply rooted in widely held conservative social values. We usually judge that our human rights concerns are best raised in private, and we will continue to work with the Saudi Arabian authorities and those in Saudi society advocating human rights reform, but we will continue to stand up for the full range of human rights. That is at the core of the strategy that we are discussing. Many—including, I think, the hon. Member for Glasgow South; I apologise if I misunderstood his tone—have advocated that we should somehow back away and not trade with that country because we should stand up for certain human rights issues. Forgive me if that is incorrect; if so, I will allow him to correct it. If we were to do so, would we give up an opportunity to have influence at the front line in favour of shouting from afar?

Jeremy Corbyn: The Minister mentioned the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review, which was very strict and raised many complaints about Saudi Arabia. What are the Government doing to monitor progress on that? Is the UN going to send any special rapporteurs to Saudi Arabia, and have the Saudi Arabian Government agreed to that process?

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Mr Ellwood: Again, that is a rather large section of my remarks, and I hope to come to it shortly, so I will continue to make progress.

Kerry McCarthy: On a more general point, the Minister says that representations are being made behind the scenes and that that is the best way to influence the Saudi regime. Can he point to instances in which he feels that British influence has actually made a difference to the Saudis’ record on human rights? What changes has he seen as a result of our representations?

Mr Ellwood: Again, I need to make some progress, and then I will answer those questions. It is important, if we have these debates, that we can see progress being made. We must be able to see movement forward. I will give some illustrations of that and of instances in which Britain is trying to assist in that progress.

Turning to some of the specific questions that have been asked, the hon. Member for Glasgow South asked about the lowering of the flag on the death of King Abdullah. I should make it clear that it is a long-standing convention to half-mast the Union flag on Government buildings following the death of any foreign monarch. That is the convention; it was not specifically to do with that particular case.

Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow South, spoke at length about the Raif Badawi case. I give the hon. Gentleman the same answer I gave in the main Chamber: the case is in the supreme court and is under review. We therefore cannot interfere with that process, in the same way that the Saudi authorities would not interfere with our process.

Stewart McDonald rose

Mr Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman raised two specific issues, so I shall just make a couple of points, which might answer the questions that he might be about to ask me yet again.

Raif Badawi has been found guilty of various charges. We strongly condemn the sentence passed, but we must honour the judicial process. Once that process has been completed, we can then take stock and comment on the process itself, but we must be careful not to interfere with it.

Stewart McDonald: rose

Mr Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman is keen to interject, so I will give way.

Stewart McDonald: I am grateful to the Minister. May I press upon him again, as I tried to do earlier, that it is not a normal justice system? He is asking me, and people across the world, to have confidence in the system that put Mr Badawi where he is now. Is the Minister seriously going to stand up with a straight face and ask us to do that? It is nothing short of a joke. It is the same justice system that bestowed upon Mr Badawi a prison sentence, a fine and 1,000 lashes. Minister, we can do better than this.

Mr Ellwood: The case has returned to the supreme court, which reflects the fact that the leadership has taken stock of international opinion and what people have said. The punishment has stopped and is under review. Until that process moves forward, it would be

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incorrect to comment on another country’s judicial process. That would be interfering, in the same way that the Saudi authorities would be interfering in our processes if they commented on them.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the ambassador should request to visit Raif Badawi. We will not advocate that; again, it would inappropriate. Raif Badawi is not a British citizen as such. Once the sentence is upheld, we can obviously look at making contact, but it is not appropriate for our ambassador. That would, again, be seen as interfering with the process. A non-governmental organisation would be in a better position to make that judgment, rather than another country’s ambassador going in to see a citizen to whom the ambassador has no direct connection.

Stewart McDonald: Given what the Minister has said, will he ask the Saudi Government if it would be possible for Amnesty International to visit Mr Badawi in prison?

Mr Ellwood: Absolutely; we can certainly put that forward. I would be delighted to make that request.

Religious tolerance and the situation of Christian and other minority religions have been raised in the debate. The British Government strongly support the right to freedom of religion or belief, which is restricted in Saudi Arabia. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is aware, our views on the subject are well known. We must recognise that the restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Saudi Arabia reflect widely held conservative social values in Saudi society. The key to increasing freedom is to focus on tolerance. We must work with Saudi Arabia to identify areas in which different faiths can work together, foster trust and build slowly in more challenging areas.

Jim Shannon: I referred in my speech to the 28 Christians who were arrested. Men, women and children have disappeared into the ether of Saudi Arabian society and into the prison system. I know that the Minister is unable to respond today, and I respect that, but could he respond directly to me, and perhaps to other hon. Members present in the Chamber?

Mr Ellwood: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done in this area. He has raised such issues with regard to a number of arenas, not only Saudi Arabia. I do not have the information he seeks at hand, but I will certainly write to him with more details, if I may.

The hon. Member for Islington North raised the important issue of migrant rights. He also touched on Qatar, which I visited recently. I will not digress now, but I will write to him on that point; we have seen progress, in which Britain has been very much involved.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the amnesty for foreign workers to regularise their status in Saudi Arabia came into affect in 2013. It led to many people—1.5 million, I think—leaving the country. The Saudi Government have now agreed updated bilateral arrangements with a number of labour-supplying countries for legalised workers to remain in Saudi Arabia. We also expect to see more accurate labour records, and recent legal reforms will improve the basic rights of migrant employees. Legislation requires workers to be

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paid at least monthly and have access to their own identity documents, and domestic workers to have at least nine hours’ rest per day and one day off per week. We welcome any improvement in the legal position of migrant workers. Those are steps in the right direction, but clearly there is more work to be done.

The hon. Member for Bristol East raised the question of the imprisoned princesses. I will write to her with more details, but we have received no further reports since King Salman’s accession to the throne in January.

Export licences are another an important subject, given the closeness we have to Saudi Arabia. I make it absolutely clear that we have a robust mechanism in the UK. All exports of arms and controlled military goods are assessed on a case by case basis against the consolidated EU exporting licensing criteria. Concerns about excessive use of force and arbitrary arrest by police and security forces are considered extremely carefully.

In answer to the question about what progress has actually been made, I put my hand up and say that of course serious barriers remain and we want to see a huge amount of progress. The Saudi Arabian Government have confirmed that women will now be able to stand and vote for the first time in municipal elections, which will take place in December 2015. There are already women on the Shura Council, and we understand that 80 women will be standing, across 285 municipalities. There is obviously a long way to go, and we continue to engage with the Saudi authorities, but that is an example of real progress.

Saudi Arabia has also ratified the convention against torture, but, as has been articulated today, allegations of torture continue to be heard, particularly from political activists. We are pressing to work together to implement the requirements of international obligations, particularly human rights conventions. The Saudi Government have recently allowed the quasi-independent body the National Society for Human Rights free access to all prisons and prisoners to assess claims of torture and abuse. That needs to be placed in its context, which includes Raif Badawi.

The Saudi Ministry of Justice continues to implement an ambitious $1.6 billion reform programme. More than $1.2 billion has been spent on new courthouses, technology and judicial training. Special courts in family, commercial and labour law are planned. The appeal court and new supreme court have increased access to justice, and a new arbitration department has been formed to reduce the number of trial cases. Nevertheless, the legal system continues to suffer long delays in bringing defendants to court, and delays due to the lack of codification of case law. We have raised our concerns about that, and there are signs that trials are becoming more transparent, with the media and diplomatic community being given access to some trials. We also expect people to be brought to trial more quickly as the number of judges increases.

We have a strong and important relationship with a key ally in the region. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for this thought-provoking debate. I apologise for the fact that I have not been able to go into all the details in the answers that I have given today, but I will certainly write to colleagues with a more informative response.

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I wish to make it clear that human rights are at the heart of UK foreign policy. Asthe Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has stated:

“It is in the UK’s national interest to help our international partners promote, protect and enjoy human rights; and to find effective ways to tackle violations wherever they occur.”

We have concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, which we will continue to raise, but we also recognise that progress has been made. Clearly, more needs to be done. Our friendship with Saudi Arabia affords frank and open dialogue, and we continue to use our close relationship to ensure that the incremental process we are seeing is only the beginning.

10.50 am

Stewart McDonald: I have found this debate both helpful and depressing at the same time.

I will begin by being charitable to the Minister by welcoming his remarks on requesting a visit to the prison by Amnesty International or another NGO, and I look forward to hearing when that request will be formally made to the Saudi Government. I press him to request that visit as a matter of urgency.

I thank other hon. Members for their contributions, in particular the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who speaks with great authority on these matters, and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who I am sure has not been mixed up with me in the Hansard record of this debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who made a most helpful contribution to the debate.

I began by being charitable to the Minister. He was helpful on the prison visit issue. We did not hear whether he believes Mr Badawi should be set free. What we heard was that he does not believe that it would be

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appropriate to intervene, given that the case is up for review by the Saudi supreme court. I have to say that I cannot find the news anywhere in the public domain that the case is supposed to be up for review by the supreme court. I cannot see any evidence of that, so perhaps he could furnish us with it. However, even if the supreme court is conducting a review, I still have no confidence in it. It is the same supreme court that has already reviewed the case, and it is the same justice system that has already lashed Mr Badawi’s back 50 times.

There were a number of contributions to the debate about human rights abuses more widely. In particular, the hon. Member for Strangford made an excellent speech on the plight of Christians in Saudi Arabia. When Britain wants to be a leader in human rights and freedom across the world, I wonder why we are so subservient to what is probably the biggest human rights abuser in the middle east. Indeed, it seems that not a brass penny is spared when it comes to developing the relationship of defence, security, trade and investment that the Minister mentioned. We also often hear that Saudi Arabia is a key strategic partner in combating terrorism, but when will we look at the victims of Saudi terrorism in Saudi Arabia, who themselves are Saudi Arabian nationals?

I fear that we have made little progress this morning. There is much more that needs to be extracted from the Government on what they will do, not only about the case of Raif Badawi but about much, much more.

I will end by saying that Raif Badawi visited my home city of Glasgow. That makes him a son of Glasgow, and so long as he is held Glasgow will not rest until he is set free.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered human rights in Saudi Arabia.

10.53 am

Sitting suspended.

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Légion d’Honneur (UK Normandy Veterans)

11 am

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the administration of the award of the Légion d’Honneur to UK Normandy veterans.

It is a great pleasure to bring this subject before the House. It did not come as a complete surprise to me that this admirable scheme, in which the French Government have offered to award surviving veterans—not only from D-day, but from the subsequent campaigns to free France from Nazi occupation—has run into a little administrative difficulty. I hope that the Minister will give us a hopeful sign that the glitches and delays that have temporarily marred a brilliant scheme and a wonderfully generous gesture by the French Government can soon be overcome.

It was some years ago that some Normandy veterans had the opportunity to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur. I have in mind a remarkable gentleman, Bill Price, who will be 101 this Friday. He joined the Territorial Army in 1938 and served throughout world war two. On D-day, he was manning an anti-aircraft gun aboard a ship at Sword beach. He was given his award under a different scheme a few years ago, but it was in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings, that the Government of France made it clear that all surviving veterans of the landings, and of the subsequent campaigns to give France back her freedom, would be honoured in this way.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Does that apply to people in the Office of Strategic Services and to American forces? Does it apply to Canadian forces?

Dr Lewis: My understanding is that it does indeed apply to nationals of other countries, too. I suspect that there has been a bit of underestimation on the part of the French authorities, bearing in mind that most of the people involved would be in their 90s—the authorities probably underestimated the strength and resilience of the sort of people who stormed ashore on D-day and battled their way through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The fact that we are dealing with some particularly formidable individuals means that there may be rather more nonagenarians left to claim the award than had originally been anticipated.

To its credit, when the Ministry of Defence prepared the application form for these awards, it did so in a straightforward, simple way: it is a single sheet of paper that asks for certain basic details and for a short paragraph justifying the reason for the award. However, some 3,000 applications have been submitted from the United Kingdom alone, and that is where problems have arisen.

The indication that all might not be well came in a letter from the Defence Minister in the upper House, Lord Astor of Hever, who stated in The Times on 19 November 2014:

“The MoD is undertaking administrative work on each application before forwarding it to the French embassy. Extra staff have been allocated in order to process most applications by the end of the year. We would have preferred to have completed this work more quickly but we must respect the terms under which the French confer this award.”

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Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. As the Member of Parliament for Strangford in Northern Ireland, I am obviously keen for those from Northern Ireland to be recognised. Sometimes those who served are unassuming, although never shy; they may not necessarily wish to register. Have efforts been made to chase up all those people who might otherwise miss out? Many people in the Republic of Ireland, although of a different religious persuasion and tradition, served in uniform in the second world war. What efforts have been made to ensure that they are also included?

Dr Lewis: The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I definitely think that it is up to the individual to make the application, wherever they may now be residing. The Normandy Veterans Association, which was recently formally wound up, had membership lists, where records existed. However, there is no way of getting a comprehensive list because tens of thousands of people would qualify if they were still with us today. What has happened, therefore, is that the authorities—particularly the Ministry of Defence—have been doing a very good job of making the application process perfectly straightforward and the scheme well known, so that people know how to apply. There are no complaints about that.

Bob Stewart: I thank my very good friend for giving way. There is a problem with the special forces, with which I have quite a lot of dealings. It is that the Jedburgh teams of the Special Operations Executive, and 1 SAS, in particular—I have met a couple of them—are quite under the cover and remain under the cover. I have been encouraging them to come forward and get their names in, but there are still problems and people are still coming out of the woodwork. The Jedburgh teams, the SOE, 1 SAS and other special forces must be encouraged as well.

Dr Lewis: These people, who went behind the lines in advance of everyone else, are the bravest of the brave. They also take their obligations of confidentiality most seriously.

Bob Stewart: Very seriously.

Dr Lewis: I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend agrees. Those special forces members should really put this aside now; they are in their 90s, after all. We can say to them, “It’s okay, fellas! Come forward and get the public acclamation that you deserve.” Of course, I am sure that privately they know how much their brilliant, courageous activities are appreciated.

A spate of reports over the intervening months has suggested that there have been hold-ups and delays. A report in The Times in November 2014 stated:

“The MoD and French Embassy in London said there had been ceremonies held in London for the award. Both said the level of interest had been higher than anticipated.”

The same report quoted Margaret Dickinson, a lady of 92:

“I was all ready to go to London…Then I got a letter saying that the weather was too bad. They said they thought it would be too bad for a lot of people. I was taken aback. The weather was not that bad.”

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All I can say is that it is just as well that the people organising that ceremony, who were put off by a minor inconvenience such as a rainy day, were not in charge of organising the Normandy landings. Before anyone intervenes, I should say that I know that the invasion was postponed by 24 hours because of bad weather, but I do not think the problem in London was quite on the same scale—and it did not justify postponing that ceremony.

I know that colleagues wish to contribute, so in the time remaining I shall mention a few individuals, to give the House a sense of the people we are dealing with and why it is so important that the French authorities, having made this wonderful gesture with the support of the British authorities, do not now turn a good news story into a catalogue of disappointment.

From my family’s own circle of friends, I know of Sergeant Peter Carne, Royal Engineers, who landed on Juno beach on 8 June 1944. He was primarily tasked with constructing Bailey bridges to enable vehicles to break out of the beachhead. Peter will be 93 in two days’ time. As it happens, he is in very good health; indeed, he often gives talks about the landings and would relish coming to London or even going to France for an investiture. He sent his form electronically to the MOD on 9 February this year. So far, he has had no receipt and the MOD apparently cannot confirm whether it has passed the form on to the French.

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): Cannot people such as the brave gentleman to whom the right hon. Gentleman is referring get some kind of reassurance that the system is working? Many people in the situation we are discussing will be reluctant to chase things up because of their character—they might feel that they are being a nuisance. If there was some kind of confirmation for them that things will be progressed, that would be terribly helpful.

Dr Lewis: The hon. Lady makes an important point. As will emerge from my other examples, people have for the most part had confirmation, but the fact that some have not is a cause for concern. I thank her for that helpful intervention.

Retired Royal Marine Stephen Roche, who is Peter’s son-in-law, has contacted the French embassy several times. He has been promised a reply, but none has ever come. I will give a few more cases from the recently closed New Forest branch No. 70 of the Normandy Veterans Association. I am particularly obliged to Roy Tamplin, who at the grand age of 91 has meticulously prepared many of the personal details that follow. Roy’s own contribution was as a lance corporal in the Royal Air Force. He began as part of the ground crew in the network of New Forest airfields, preparing the aircraft to cover the initial landings. On 17 June, he and his comrades were shipped by landing craft to Gold beach, from where they moved to a forward airfield near Caen to act as a staging post for the Hampshire-based squadrons. Roy survived all that, and campaigns in Belgium and Holland too. His application was made in August 2014 and acknowledged by the MOD on 15 December 2014. It was confirmed that the application had been sent to the French Government, but nothing more has been heard for more than six months.

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Another RAF veteran is former Warrant Officer George Heaton, who is also 91. George was an air gunner in a Halifax bomber. D-day began just a little early for him when he was shot down on the night of 3/4 June while attacking targets in the Normandy region. Rescued by the French resistance, George evaded capture and eventually made it home. His application on 1 August 2014 was not confirmed as having been sent to the French until 19 March this year, more than seven months after the application was made.

I turn to the Senior Service. Able Seaman Sidney Slatter, 91, served on the battleship Ramillies on D-day itself, bombarding shore batteries and other targets in the vicinity of Bénouville with 15-inch shells, as well as tank formations later on. Sidney’s form was sent in August last year and was confirmed as processed and sent on by the MOD in December—since then, not a word. Sadly, Sidney’s wife died earlier this week, so she will not be seeing his award.

Veteran Ted Kingswell was an infantryman who landed on 6 June and went on to fight at Nijmegen in Operation Market Garden. Ted is now confined to a care home, but is known to have applied and received an MOD acknowledgement. Two days after Ted fought his way ashore, Rifleman Fred Newman landed on Gold beach. He took part in the long, hard slog through France and into the heart of Germany. Fred is now 93 and has a letter dated 15 December last year confirming that his application had been forwarded to the French. That was seven long months ago.

Then there are the artillerymen, such as Staff Sergeant William Chick, who fought in Normandy and later at Arnhem. Gunner Ivor Hopkins was at Caen, Falaise and later in Holland and Germany. The one I know best is the baby of the team, at only 90 years old. Gunner Tony Mott was recommended for an award at the time for his exploits, but nothing happened. It would be a pity if he were disappointed for a second time in relation to the Légion d’Honneur. Tony served with the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery and was a 19-year-old motorcycle dispatch rider when he came ashore at Arromanches towards the end of June. A few weeks later, he and his sergeant went out under shellfire to repair breaks in the cable to D battery. Sent to battery headquarters with a report, Tony was stopped by a civilian in great distress—many civilians had been wounded by German shellfire. As soon as he had delivered the message, he alerted the local doctor. That enabled help to be got to save the lives of those injured civilians; all the telephone lines had been knocked out, so otherwise they would have received no medical help. Tony’s form was sent on 3 July 2014. It was acknowledged in August or September 2014, but further queries on his place and date of birth were made as recently as March 2015. He is still waiting to know whether his award will be made.

Finally, I have been asked by the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), who cannot be here today, to raise the case of one of his constituents. Mr Geoffrey Noble applied for his medal in June 2014 and has still heard nothing. Despite my hon. Friend’s writing to the Ministry of Defence and the French embassy several times on Mr Noble’s behalf, he is still waiting to hear. My hon. Friend’s office tells me:

“Mr Noble is not a well gentleman, is very frail and suffers, amongst other things, from heart failure. He is anxious as he knows that the medal is not awarded posthumously.”

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With that in mind, can the cases involving particularly frail individuals be given priority? If they can, how do we let the Ministry know of the urgency of those cases?

I know that others wish to speak, so I will close with a final comment. Given his exemplary record of service in the armed forces, the Minister is ideally placed, if anyone is, to ensure that the scheme works and that these people—not superheroes, but ordinary people doing extraordinary things in highly dangerous circumstances—reap the belated benefit of a generous gesture by the French authorities. Let us now ensure that heads are knocked together and that the process is sped up in time for these 90-year-olds to receive the award—one that they so richly deserve and for which they have been encouraged to apply.

11.17 am

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing the debate and thoroughly endorse all his comments. My attention was brought to this issue by my constituent, Ken Bright, whom I met a few weeks ago with his wife, Bunnie. He is a sprightly 92-year-old and another great D-day veteran. Ken and Bunnie are ever so keen that the medal be passed on to their 14 great-grandchildren. Sadly, many of his colleagues are no longer with us and one of his comrades from Cambridge died just a few weeks ago. The urgency is absolutely clear. I appreciate that hard-pressed civil servants are doing all they can, but I urge the Minister to do everything he can to ensure that the issue is resolved speedily.

11.18 am

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing this debate. He is right to bring to the House’s attention the individual cases that he mentioned. If I may do something similar, I will mention a constituent of mine by the name of Ronald Perry. He lives in Wilmington. His son contacted me about his application, which was submitted some four months ago. I had the honour of meeting Mr Perry and discussing some of his activities in Normandy during the second world war. He was a member of the 7th Battalion the Parachute Regiment. He landed with 649 of his colleagues on D-day and took part in the fighting there over the subsequent months. Remarkably, of the 650 men who landed as part of that regiment, only 96 came back without being injured, being captured or losing their life. That says something about the huge sacrifice that took place on the beaches of Normandy, and in the subsequent battles, and about the debt we owe those people.

I briefly pay tribute to the French Government for bestowing these honours on our war heroes. I ask the Minister to look at Ronald Perry’s case to see whether his application can be expedited so that he can get the recognition that he so thoroughly deserves.

11.20 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mark Lancaster): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing this debate and, of course, on his election as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. As we

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have heard this morning, he and other hon. Members are rightly passionate about this subject, as indeed are veterans and their families. Those who fought so valiantly to help free France from the grip of fascist tyranny, those who put their life on the line, deserve to be honoured, and this morning I hope to be able to offer them the reassurance that they seek.

It is fair to start by acknowledging President Hollande’s decision last year, 70 years on from the great D-day battles on the beaches of Normandy, to award the Légion d’Honneur to all living veterans of the campaign to liberate France, which began on 6 June 1944. The Légion d’Honneur is the highest state honour that France can bestow, and it remains an extremely generous gesture. Since then, as we have heard, there has been a series of regrettable delays. My intention this morning is not to apportion blame, but simply to try to ensure that we move forward positively and constructively so that these awards can be presented as soon as possible. There are two principal reasons for the delays, and it is right that I should explain them because veterans will want to know why.

The first reason is unexpected demand. Based on the numbers who expressed an interest in attending the anniversary events in Normandy, it was estimated that only a few hundred people would apply. A single MOD official was therefore assigned to deal with the applications. In the event, as we have heard, more than 3,000 applications were received, and more are coming in all the time. I am truly delighted that such large numbers of UK D-day veterans have come forward to accept this prestigious honour, yet the response was far greater than anyone on either side of the channel predicted. In the autumn of 2014, we increased the number of people working on the scheme, which meant that, by the end of 2014, more than 2,500 applications had been processed and sent to the French authorities for a final decision on the award, but those UK applications alone accounted for a larger total than the French authorities would expect to deal with for all categories of the Légion in any single year under normal circumstances. We must also keep in mind that those are just the UK applications. To answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) directly, the United States, Canada and other allied nations have also been applying. It is easy to see how such an overwhelming volume of work seriously stretched the resources of the French authorities.

The second reason for the delays is sheer complexity. After all, not everyone who served in world war two is entitled to a Légion d’Honneur. The award is not comparable to a campaign medal, which can be handed out relatively quickly; it is an honour, and our nearest comparison is the OBE. There is a defined legal process to be followed, and each individual case must be cleared in accordance with the appropriate procedures laid down in French law.

Bob Stewart: My intervention will be very short. Does Her Majesty the Queen recognise that the Légion d’Honneur is one of the medals that can follow on from presumably British campaign medals and be worn on the chest with pride?

Mark Lancaster: Absolutely, and of course the regulations for wearing the Légion d’Honneur without Her Majesty’s permission apply only to serving soldiers, so no permission will be required for these veterans.

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Once received, the French rightly and legally have a duty to ensure that each nomination receives an appropriate level of scrutiny. I am most grateful to the French authorities for the sensitive way in which they have ensured that the most pressing cases are handled first, such as those of veterans who are about to become centenarians or who are seriously ill—more of that in a moment. None the less, the process takes time. There is an additional complicating factor because, sadly, some veterans passed away after applying. In that regard, the French approach to honours parallels that of the UK. Awards are not made posthumously, hence the urgency, unless the recipient dies between the approval of their individual award and the date of its presentation.

Delays might be understandable for the reasons I have outlined, but I make it clear that that does not make them acceptable, especially not to the families and veterans concerned. One can entirely understand the hurt and upset caused to those still awaiting an outcome, but we are determined to remedy the situation. Our defence and diplomatic staff in London and Paris, alongside their French counterparts, have improved the assurance process for checking bona fides, thereby speeding up applications. To assist the Légion authorities further, we are resubmitting all cases in which awards have not already been made at an agreed rate of 100 a week to avoid over-taxing the system. We hope that those cases will be approved within about three weeks. We fully expect that process to result in a regular flow of awards. Although it will take some time to clear the backlog, we hope to reassure all applicants that the majority of veterans should receive honours this year.

Having spoken to veterans and read the large volume of correspondence received by my Department on this issue, I am under no illusion about the stress and frustration caused by the delays, but we are trying to put right what was wrong.

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Kirsten Oswald: Will the Department consider advising veterans of when their case will be resubmitted in order to assure them that there will be progress on this important honour?

Mark Lancaster: We have already received many submissions, and we are now processing 100 applications a week. We have flexibility within the system to fast-track applications where we feel that there is a particular need. Of course, the whole cohort of veterans who are receiving this award are, by definition, elderly and potentially infirm, but we accept that some applications are more urgent than others. I encourage anyone—either veterans themselves or hon. Members—who feels that a particular case should be fast-tracked to contact the MOD. I will read out the email address, which I am sure will magically appear in Hansard: [email protected] Fear not, that address will be in Hansard. If people contact us directly to suggest an application that needs to be fast-tracked, I will ensure that the Department does just that, because I recognise that time is of the essence.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East kindly highlighted, I have a particular interest in this subject, and I am determined to assure hon. Members that I will keep a very close watch on the process and do all I can to ensure a speedy resolution by working closely with our French colleagues. We are determined that those who have given their all for their country receive the honour that they are rightfully due.

Question put and agreed to.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended.

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Severn Bridges (Tolls)

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered tolls on the Severn bridges.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate probably the No. 1 issue on which constituents approach me. Obviously I am not alone in that, as the monster turnout here on the afternoon of the last day before summer recess shows. We have Members from Llanelli all the way across the M4 corridor to Monmouth, from Northern Ireland, and even the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry). That shows how keenly the issue is felt across south Wales and in other places. I hope that other Members’ contributions will only strengthen the case for lowering the Severn tolls when the Severn river crossings concession comes to an end.

I should be clear from the outset that we pay the absolute highest tolls in the UK on the Severn bridges. With the concession coming to an end in a few years’ time, there is real strength of feeling about the need to reduce the charge to a maintenance-only toll, as recommended by the Welsh Affairs Committee’s excellent reports in the previous Parliament. There was cross-party agreement on the Committee that we could get down to a maintenance-only toll of around £1.50. I commend the Committee’s work over the years under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies)—we have looked at the issue in much detail and done a lot of work on it.

There is now a real need for clarity from the Government on the profits, operating costs and so on, and on where we are going in future. We urgently require some kind of strategy for the bridges, because we have only just over two years to go until they return to public ownership. We need to know the Government’s intentions for the future of the bridges. We must have clarity about what discussions the Government are having and what the direction of travel is. I hope that this debate will help us to flesh out those issues a little.

The Government have done incredibly well out of the bridges over the years. I will say a bit more about that later, but people really feel that they have been paying through the nose over the past few years. We need to redress the balance for the future. I know the Minister will argue that the Government are doing something to reduce the tolls—they announced in the comprehensive spending review that they were going to take the VAT off the tolls—but they are doing the absolute minimum. They know that they will have to take VAT off the tolls when the bridges come into public ownership; any Government would have had to do that. They are taking some measures on reducing the costs for cars and vans, but any Government would have had to do that as well. I want to see them go much further.

Along with other Members present, I have spoken in many debates on this issue over the 10 years I have been in the House. I think there have been eight Secretaries of State for Transport over that time, and numerous Transport Ministers. At this point, the Government cannot ignore

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the need to offer some light at the end of the tunnel for my constituents. Part of the reason why I have called for this debate early in the new Parliament is that, with the Government’s plans for English votes for English laws, who knows where Welsh MPs might be and what say we might have in future negotiations?

Three of the four legs of the Severn bridges are in England, with the other falling in my constituency, Newport East. Control of the Severn bridges and tolling rests falls completely within the remit of the Department for Transport. Aside from the assurances given in last week’s debate on English votes for English laws, I hope that the Government can reassure us today that Welsh MPs will have an equal voice on Severn bridge tolls, not least because the tolls are paid going into Wales and the impact is felt most keenly by Welsh commuters and businesses.

As I said, we have the highest tolls in the UK on the Severn bridges—[Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) is demolishing the Chamber. Since the second bridge opened in 1996, the tolls have increased 19 times because of the inflexibility of the concession, which I will come to later. We are now paying £6.50 for a car, £13.10 for a van and £19.60 for coaches and lorries. By comparison, the undiscounted price of a single journey for a car at the Dartford crossing is £2.50, and for the Mersey tunnels it is £1.70. The Humber bridge currently has undiscounted tolls of £1.50 for cars, £4 for medium-sized vehicles and £12 for heavy goods vehicles.

Campaign groups, motorists and businesses have called for the Government to step in and help, but their calls have fallen on deaf ears. There is, however, an example of where the Government have listened to local concerns in the past and stepped in to help: the Humber bridge. In 2011, the Government reduced the debt on the bridge by £150 million, which halved the toll for cars to £1.50. On the Government’s own estimates, the accumulated deficit on the Severn bridges will be £88 million in 2018. Why will the Government not step in for a smaller amount?

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I wholeheartedly support the case that my hon. Friend is making, as well as the recommendations made by the Welsh Affairs Committee, on which I also sat.

It is not only the disparity in the tolls that is so shocking; there is also the disparity in technologies. We have not seen the introduction of free-flow technology or contactless payment. Those of us who use the tolls regularly know, as do businesses, that a wait in the queue often lasts ages. It is only recently that credit card payments were introduced. Does my hon. Friend agree that the disparities in technologies are also causing problems for businesses and customers in south Wales?

Jessica Morden: I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly. As I remember, it took a joke on “Gavin & Stacey” and the approach of the Ryder cup for things to get to where they are now. It was like pulling teeth trying to get the decision taken to accept card payments. I will come back to that point, but I agree that we need to consider free-flow technology, which would help the congestion in the run-up to the plazas.

Over the years, various Ministers have argued in their responses to debates like this that the impact of the tolls on the Welsh economy is not clear, but we know from

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the Welsh Government’s 2011 report that the total cost to businesses and consumers, once VAT is taken into account, is in excess of £80 million a year. Furthermore, they came to the tentative conclusion that removing the tolls could boost the Welsh economy to the tune of around £107 million.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and on talking about the Welsh economy as a whole. When the Federation of Small Businesses undertook a significant inquiry, “The Severn Bridge: Taking its toll on the Economy?”, it did not restrict its work to the economy in south Wales, but looked further west to Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and parts of my constituency, Ceredigion. Will the hon. Lady emphasise the effect of the tolls on the whole economy?

Jessica Morden: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Although the effects are probably felt most keenly in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Monmouth, the knock-on effect along the M4 corridor and beyond, and up towards places such as Ceredigion, is immense, particularly for businesses using that route.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I agree with her point about the effect on businesses, which was also well made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), but there is also an effect on commuters. One issue faced by people in south-east Wales, including in my constituency, is that if they need to commute to work in Bristol, the tolls are effectively a weekly tax that must be taken into account. That can often act as a disincentive to people taking such jobs.

Jessica Morden: My hon. Friend is quite right. People in many communities in my constituency, particularly those with low and medium incomes, find it difficult to absorb that cost. Access to jobs in Bristol for which people might like to apply is limited by their having to pay what amounts to an extra tax.

The Welsh Government’s report is clear, and, having spoken to small and larger businesses locally, so am I: the tolls have a big impact.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): In Northern Ireland, we do not have any toll roads or bridges—I thank the Lord for that—but that is because of their potential impact. Has the hon. Lady considered the effect of reducing the tolls on tourism, which is an important issue in Northern Ireland, and obviously for the hon. Lady as well?

Jessica Morden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Various sectors, particularly transport but also tourism, are impacted by the tolls. Evidence from tourism businesses in the west suggests that the tolls make it more difficult to attract visitors from the south-west of England, for example. The charge also acts as a psychological barrier, as people have to pay to enter Wales.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Support for my hon. Friend’s argument is strong and broad and comes not only from the Welsh Government, small and medium-sized businesses and the CBI in Wales, but from Welsh

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local government. A letter sent to the Prime Minister by the leader of Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council only a few months ago also made the case strongly, which is indicative of the wider view of Welsh local government.

Jessica Morden: I agree wholeheartedly. There is probably now a case for a broader campaign to make such points, encompassing local government, business, chambers of commerce and so on.

Owens logistics, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) but has a main depot in Newport, is a haulage company that has long campaigned for a reduction in the tolls, on which it spends half a million pounds a year. That money just comes off the bottom line. It is an extra cost that the business has to pay that it cannot pass on to its customers. Owens has been quite open with me that it is thinking long and hard about its business decisions, because if it transferred parts of its operation across the bridge, it would avoid the tolls. That is the sort of decision that businesses in our area are making, which is precisely why we need clarity from the Government about further toll reductions.

The South Wales chamber of commerce told me about the impact that the tolls have on the tourism sector and the logistics industry. As I said, if logistics companies choose to pass the cost on to the customer, it adds to the cost of goods produced in Wales, making them less competitive, or increases the costs for businesses buying goods from England. The chamber of commerce also said that its colleagues in Business West say that it is picking up the fact that businesses are choosing to locate on the English side of the bridge due to the tolls.

Small businesses are also affected. I received an email this morning from a business that rents out marquees and employs 38 people. The cost of the tolls to the business over the summer is an extra £1,000, making it difficult for it to compete with companies on the English side of the bridges.

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she agree that the policy for the bridges and their tolls is a classic example of a false economy? The tolls may well create revenue, but a huge amount of additional economic activity is being lost. This disincentive to cross-border trade and activity deprives the Exchequer of much-needed tax revenues through corporation tax, business rates and additional economic activity. If the tolls were presented as a classic example of a false economy, we may get some more traction with the Government.

Jessica Morden: I thank my hon. Friend for his well-made point. The Welsh Government certainly agree that lowering the tolls would help to stimulate the Welsh economy.

Other hon. Members mentioned commuters earlier. In my constituency, many people in Magor, Rogiet, Caldicot, Undy and so on commute over to Bristol for work every day. It is a strong commuter area and the tolls’ effect is keenly felt, particularly by those who are looking for work in Bristol but cannot absorb the toll cost. Over the years, I have met people facing a bill as part of the Child Support Agency process, for example, who have said to me, “I work for this distribution

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company in Bristol, but once I have absorbed the bridge costs, I am on fairly low pay. How am I going to survive?” People’s employment opportunities are being limited. The only concession available on the Severn bridges is the TAG system, which allows four free journeys out of 22 in a month. Taking bank holidays and annual leave into account, that is not much of a bargain. We could do a lot more on that.

Some 12,500 people commute to England from Newport and Monmouthshire. Many of them use the bridges, which restricts their access to jobs and acts as an extra tax. My plea to the Minister today is for a consultation. We are just two years away from decisions being made, so I ask the Department for Transport to give bridge users, businesses and hon. Members a say in how we move forward and help our constituents by getting the tolls down. There is not long to go, so it is high time that we had that conversation. Successive UK Governments have failed—the Welsh Government have done the same—to undertake studies into the bridges’ economic impacts. It is time that we asked the Department for Transport to collect further evidence so that everyone can have an input.

Moving on to the thorny issue of bridge finances, having lived with the Severn bridges in the capacity of an MP for many years I can say that the finances are as clear as mud. Getting clarity is terribly difficult, so I ask the Minister for some figures today so that we can have an informed debate going forward. The concession was established by the Severn Bridges Act 1992, which, in retrospect, was clearly far too restrictive. It allowed the company to whack up the tolls every year, with no one being able to have a say and the Government arguing that they have little flexibility to step in and reduce tolls without incurring taxpayer liability. However, as I said earlier, they did step in in the case of the Humber tolls.

As we know from previous Welsh Affairs Committee inquiries, the company has done very well over the years. In oral evidence given to the Committee in 2013, we heard that the costs of the bridges for Severn River Crossing plc were some £50 million, including depreciation at £38 million and operational costs of £13 million. That £50 million compares with an annual turnover of £81 million. Will the Minister confirm the latest position and update those figures? Having a clear idea of the company’s operational costs and profits would be helpful.

The Government also do pretty well out of the bridges. They receive significant tax receipts from VAT and from the removal of the industrial buildings allowance, which was a tax relief that Severn River Crossing plc used to benefit from. From the answer to a recent parliamentary question, we found out that Severn River Crossing plc paid £154.2 million in VAT to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs between 2003 and 2014. However, we have been unable to get a specific figure from the Government on how much they have benefited from the removal of the IBA. Will the Minister commit today to providing that figure? Will the Government be straight about how much they have benefited?

I also hope that the Government will remedy as early as possible the situation whereby they and the company are protected from financial pain but my constituents and other users of the crossings are not. Users always end up paying, while the company is always protected. When the industrial building allowance was withdrawn, the company was allowed to extend its tolling mandate to compensate for that. The same was true of the VAT

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increase implemented by the coalition Government. In the spirit of fairness, I wonder whether the Government could reduce the tolling mandate given that the Chancellor has announced further reductions in corporation tax, which will further benefit Severn River Crossing plc. The first corporation tax cut will be in 2017-18, before public ownership. How will we ensure that taxpayers do not lose out when the company gets yet another tax reduction?

The main point on which my constituents would like an answer is about VAT. Given that the Government have benefited from the tax income—VAT of £154 million—why are they still arguing for tolling to continue after 2018 at a level high enough to recoup an £88 million debt? Clearly, the Government have done extremely well out of the bridges, so is it not time to pay people back a little by reducing the toll?

I want to allow others to speak, although hon. Members have already raised a lot of issues to do with the bridges. It would be incredibly helpful to know when the concession will end, because that has been a moveable feast—it was 2016, then 2017 and is now 2018. Will the Minister update us on when the Government expect the concession to end and the bridges to come back into public ownership, and on the maintenance of the bridges? A previous Minister said in reply to a similar debate to this that he would keep an eye on what he was inheriting. Will the Minister tell us a little more about what the Government expect to inherit when the bridges come back into public ownership?

May we have a discussion about free-flow technology? In various oral evidence sessions of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the company used to argue that the technology to differentiate between cars and vans was not available. Given that the Government are moving to reduce the cost for vans, surely implementing such technology will be easier. I want a maintenance-only toll, but I also want the Government to add into the mix a re-examination of what concessions might be given locally.

Wayne David: Will my hon. Friend express a view on the suggestion that control of the bridges should pass to the Welsh Government in 2018?

Jessica Morden: My honest answer is that I do not care who runs the Severn bridges, as long as the tolls come down. If the tolls were reduced to a maintenance-only rate, I would not care who was running them.

Among the concessions suggested by business are those for off-peak travel, or free travel for hauliers during off-peak times.

Finally, a more than strong suspicion locally among constituents and businesses, and certainly among hon. Members, is that the Government treat the Severn bridges as a bit of a cash cow. I do not want to see that in two or more years’ time, when the bridges return to public control. Will the Minister promise to engage with hon. Members, businesses, commuters and our constituents, to find practical solutions to all the problems and lower the cost considerably for my constituents?

2.53 pm

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate. I associate myself with every

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single comment that she and others made, with the possible exception of the one about whether we should hand control of the bridges over to the Welsh Assembly—I will keep out of that one for now. The Government should realise that Members of all parties from constituencies throughout south Wales agree on this and that we do not consider the existing situation to be fair. We are looking for more than has so far been on offer.

In fairness, the second Severn crossing has been a huge boost to the local economy. The tolling regime was well publicised, so the tolls going up by slightly more than inflation each year should not have come as a surprise to anyone, including the press, because it was all agreed at the time. However, it was also agreed that, once the original cost of building the Severn second crossing and the debt taken on from the first crossing were paid off, the bridges would revert to public ownership. The implication was that the tolls would then end. Now, however, that is not going to happen.

The hon. Lady talked about the impact on the economy. Welsh Assembly Government reports show that the tolls cost the economy of south Wales £107 million a year in lost business, which I can well believe, and there are other impacts. Companies that rely on transport to and from Wales will be put off investing in Wales—I am not in the least bit surprised to hear that anecdote from one of the haulage companies. There is an impact on tourism, which is vital to my constituency, and on people who are on low wages. They have to pay £6.50 a day simply to travel to and from their place of work—although they will all, I hope, receive a pay boost as a result of the Budget. The tolls are a big dent in people’s wage packets.

For the record, I welcome the Government’s announcement that the bridges will come back into public ownership. I do not often call for the nationalisation of industry, but in this case, given that it will lead to a big cut in tolls for constituents, I am all for it—I am a pragmatic man. The Government could do better, however, and I want to go back to the financial issues that the hon. Member for Newport East raised.

The Government say that they received an unexpected cost of £88 million for maintenance of the first crossing, and that is the case. In response, I suggest that all around the country, pieces of infrastructure have had unexpected amounts of money spent on them. I had a quick look on my phone now, and some kind of garden bridge in London will get a £30 million boost from the Treasury as the result of a miscalculation of how much it would cost and how much could be raised from the private sector. That is only one example. I am sure that, if I had the time, I could find dozens from all over the country. For the Treasury, £88 million is not a vast sum of money, but it is a vast sum for the users of the Severn bridges if they are expected to pay it back.

Be that as it may, I want to take the argument a bit further. As the hon. Lady pointed out, when the bridge was built it was assumed that VAT would not be payable. There was then some sort of court case, or the European Parliament was involved, and it was decided that, because the bridges were run by a privately operated company, VAT was payable. As a result, the Government began to charge VAT and received a windfall. We do not have the

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exact figure, but I have heard various ones, including £120 million, as well as higher figures. In fairness to all users of the bridge, the Minister should first find out exactly how much extra money the Treasury has received as a result of the European decision asking the Government to levy VAT. As the hon. Lady pointed out, it is perfectly reasonable to ask for that information.

With the industrial buildings allowance, again various figures have been floated. I have seen £20 million and £24 million, so presumably the exact figure is of that order. If we take the lower two estimates—only £120 million from VAT and £20 million from industrial buildings—that is still £140 million, which is a lot more than the £88 million that the Government are asking to have back. It is no good the Government’s saying, “Oh well, these things are not hypothecated and it could have gone somewhere else”, because we know all that. The reality is that the Treasury has received a windfall way in excess of the £88 million being asked of the users of the Severn bridge. If my figures are incorrect, I am happy to stand corrected, but I think that we are roughly right.

Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Newport East correctly said, the revenue drawn in is way in excess of the maintenance costs. I know that those costs are significant, because we visited the bridge ourselves. It is an incredible structure. I had not realised that it is constantly moving and that a whole team of people keep the thing safely upright. The managing director told me that it cost more to keep the bridge upright and to maintain it than it does to maintain a large chunk of the motorway network of south-west England—fascinating stuff. Again, total revenue brought in by the tolls is way in excess of the maintenance costs, and we calculated that a toll of about one third of the existing level would be more than enough to pay them. Again, if we as a Committee are incorrect in that calculation, please tell us that we are wrong. I have been using that figure for the past two to three years, and nobody has yet gainsaid it, so I assume that it is roughly right. If that is the case, although we welcome the fact that the Government will bring the bridge back into public ownership and remove the VAT, I speak for many from all parties when I say that that is simply not enough and we would like a much more generous offer from the Government. Wales, the people of south Wales and the users of the bridge in England and Wales have been treated unfairly, all the more so if one compares the situation of the Severn bridge with what is happening to bridges across the rest of the United Kingdom.

With all due respect to the Minister, the questions asked by the hon. Member for Newport East about the revenue that is coming in, the maintenance costs of the bridge, the amount of VAT that the Government received unexpectedly and the level of industrial buildings allowance are perfectly reasonable. If we do not get answers to them, it is unlikely that anyone will accept as fair any future settlement for the Severn bridge.

3 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on raising such an important subject in a timely manner. The beginning of a new Government and Parliament is the right time to look at what we can expect in the next couple of years.

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Owens Transport is based in my constituency, but it has depots in Newport East and Aberavon, as well as in other parts of the country. It competes not only with companies that go to and from Wales, but with England-based companies that go to other parts of England or to the continent, and with companies that come over from the continent and take business in the UK. We are talking about an international, cut-throat business. If companies have to pay an additional cost to come back to their home base in Wales, they are at a distinct disadvantage, and £500,000 a year is no small amount of money.

Following the concession that has been given to vans, companies such as Owens Transport are disappointed that absolutely nothing has been done for hauliers. Several suggestions have been made over the years, such as off-peak concessions, but nothing has been done to help hauliers. The company is anxious to have a timetable for what will happen when the concession finally ends. If the Minister cannot give us this information today, we would like a timescale for when he will be able to tell us. When the concession ends, will he confirm that VAT will definitely come off? Can he confirm exactly what moneys are still “owed” to the Treasury? As the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) succinctly said, it is questionable whether anything is owing when the scheme has been a cash cow for the Treasury in past years. How do the Government intend to recoup the moneys? In other words, will there be a timescale during which the money would be paid back? We have heard various suggestions for how that might work, involving dates from 2017 to 2023. When will we be able to move to a maintenance-only tariff? We would like some form of consultation to take place. Now would be a good time for the Minister to try to set out a full timescale for exactly what will happen and when.

Stephen Doughty: I could not agree with my hon. Friend more about the importance of a timescale. Business requires investment certainty and clear timetables. That is true not only for existing businesses but for businesses that we are trying to attract to Wales. Given the news that we have heard during the past week about possible delays in the electrification of the south Wales main line, is it not crucial for the Government to set out a clear timetable for the road network and for electrification, so that businesses have the certainty they need to invest and grow?

Nia Griffith: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I would have made myself, about certainty for businesses, particularly those that have to plan a long way ahead. Many businesses that invest in south Wales involve the transport of heavy materials, so they use haulage companies.

We need as much detail as possible. If the Minister cannot give us that today, I would appreciate it if he told us when he can give us a timetable for all the different parts of the process: the consultation, the ending of the concession, what will happen then, how long it will happen for and what he intends to do about moving to a tariff that reflects only maintenance charges.

We are so determined to move to a maintenance-only charge because it already seems unfair to pay even for the maintenance of the crossings when we do not have a pay-as-you-go system for any other roads, with one or

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two small exceptions in the UK. To make one road into a pay-as-you-go system when none of the others is seems totally unfair. It would be absolutely monstrous for it to become a cash cow, because that would be a tax raised on one small group of people, which would be totally out of kilter with any other form of taxation.

I would be interested if the Minister gave any indication of whether the Government intend to keep the matter as a UK Government responsibility, or whether he intends to open the discussion about whether it might be devolved. We really want to open a dialogue with the Minister and get as many answers as possible. We want a very clear timetable to be set out so that we all know where we are, and so that our businesses and industry know where they are and can make the necessary investment decisions. That investment would come to Wales much more readily than it will if businesses see no end to the “continual taxation” on the bridges.