16 Mar 2016 : Column 327WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 March 2016

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

UNHCR: Admission Pathways for Syrian Refugees

9.30 am

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UNHCR and pathways for admission of Syrian refugees.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Crausby. I am pleased to have secured this debate ahead of the high-level meeting on 30 March in Geneva, which was called for by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The purpose of that meeting is to secure pledges for increased opportunities for admission of Syrian refugees, and I want to urge the Government to play their full part in that process.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Syrian conflict. On this day five years ago, the Assad regime arrested dozens of Syrians who had defied a ban on demonstrations and had protested in Damascus. The Arab spring had reached Syria and so had half a decade of violence that precipitated the rise of Daesh. The sheer scale of the human cost of the conflict is almost beyond comprehension. More than a quarter of a million Syrians have been killed, the majority of whom have lost their lives at the hands of Assad. As a result of that violence, 4.8 million Syrians have fled their country seeking refuge elsewhere. A further 6.5 million are displaced within Syria, many living in absolutely desperate conditions.

The Syrian refugee crisis must be considered in the context of the wider global situation. It is often said that, with almost 20 million refugees worldwide, the world is currently facing the worst global refugee crisis since the second world war. The impact of that crisis, however, is distinctly un-global. Figures from the UNHCR show that 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries. That the responsibility for supporting refugees currently rests on a minority is evident when looking at where Syrian refugees are being supported. The vast majority are being hosted by countries in the region.

Turkey alone is home to 2.5 million Syrian refugees, with more people seeking to cross the border each day. Lebanon, a country half the size of Wales, is host to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, meaning that one in four of the population of Lebanon is Syrian. Our country should be humbled by the way in which Lebanon continues to welcome Syrian refugees, particularly given that the Lebanese also host 450,000 Palestinian refugees.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She talks about neighbouring countries, a number of which have been exceptionally generous with their land, people and resources in taking in refugees. Does she agree that the one stark exception to that has been Saudi Arabia— a considerably large country with a relatively small population—which has taken a grand total of no refugees?

16 Mar 2016 : Column 328WH

Caroline Lucas: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is shameful that a country with such a huge amount of resources locally is not taking its fair share of refugees. Elsewhere, in comparison, Jordan is hosting more than 600,000 Syrians, while Iraq and Egypt are supporting 245,000 and 118,000 refugees from the conflict respectively.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): As a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I have had the opportunity in the last few months to go to Jordan, which has an interesting system of integrating people. They are not in refugee camps; they are integrated into society. Jordan should be an example to the rest of the world of how to look after refugees.

Caroline Lucas: That sounds like an interesting model. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for interjecting that into the debate, and I would be interested to look at it in more detail.

The point is that, despite the continuing hospitality of those countries and the considerable financial support that has been provided by other countries—and, to be fair, that does include the UK—as the conflict has escalated and the number of people fleeing has increased, the living conditions for refugees have come under ever more pressure. As a result, as we know, some Syrians are seeking safety in Europe. About half of the 1.1 million people who put their lives in the hands of smugglers attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year were Syrian.

The high-level meeting on 30 March has been arranged at the request of Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, with the aim of securing pledges from countries around the world to create so-called pathways for admission—safe and legal routes—for Syrian refugees. The creation of those safe and legal routes for refugees to reach safety is a vital part of the response to the Syrian crisis. It is precisely the lack of such routes that forces refugees to risk their lives trying to reach Europe and that creates the demand for the unscrupulous people smugglers.

I believe that the answer categorically does not lie in attempts to contain the crisis in those countries that are already providing some kind of refuge to refugees, the vast majority of whom are Syrians. Yet, sadly, I would say that that is exactly what is being attempted through the proposed EU-Turkey deal. The apparent one in, one out element of that deal has been described by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles as being

“as Kafkaesque as it is legally and morally wrong”.

I agree with that assessment.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I agree with the hon. Lady about the design flaws that are baked into the EU-Turkey deal. Beyond that, does she share my concern that there is evidence from Human Rights Watch and other organisations that there has been a programme of returns from Turkey to Syria, so Turkey cannot be regarded as a safe place to be sending people back to?

Caroline Lucas: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The evidence he has cited underlines the real flaws and dangers to human life in that programme. That is what makes it morally right that the UK should take greater responsibility for those fleeing the Syrian conflict.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 329WH

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I am glad that the hon. Lady has given the UK Government some credit. Our aid contribution and our leadership should be admired to a great degree. The one thing she has not touched on—maybe she will do so later in her speech—is where she sees the medium term for Syria. Does she see it as being a united state—which I know is still the position of Her Majesty’s Government—or does she see it as being divided? In other words, does she see the displacement of huge numbers of Syrians as a medium to long-term phenomenon, or can it be solved more quickly, if the international community has the will and can provide safe havens within the country that we currently call Syria?

Caroline Lucas: Well, if anybody knew the answer to that question, they would be a very much wiser person than many of us here, and certainly very much wiser than I am. I would love to think that there is a solution in the shorter term. All countries need to redouble their efforts on the peace process. In reality, a solution is more likely in the medium term. I do not know whether that will be through splitting the country or keeping it coherent. I would certainly favour the latter, if it could be done in a safe way. Essentially, that decision needs to be made by the Syrian people. They need to make that decision in a democratic way, and we need to ensure that they are able to come to that kind of decision-making process in a safe and legal way.

Mark Field: It is important that we give some consideration to that. I accept that it is not our decision to make here in the UK: it will be a decision of the international community. To be brutally honest, if large numbers of Syrians are relocated—maybe hundreds of thousands, or millions—the danger is that they will tend to be the more educated people. It will be the very people who could make a real difference to Syria’s future who will essentially have no stake in it if they end up living in the United States, Canada or western Europe, yet they are the very people who would be needed to provide the backbone for a future sustainable Syria into the decades ahead.

Caroline Lucas: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but the priority right now—the overwhelming priority for all of us—must be ensuring that those people are kept safe so that they can go back, and I think the vast majority will want to go back: it is their home, where they have their roots, histories and cultures.

Seema Kennedy (South Ribble) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Lucas: Let me make a little more progress, if I may.

I have paid tribute to the Government regarding the finance, as the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) acknowledged, but I do want to make some criticism, I am afraid, of the numbers that the UK is taking responsibility for. The UK should be taking a greater responsibility for those fleeing the Syria conflict. Despite what some people would have us believe, the number of Syrians being protected by the UK is pitiful. Since the conflict began, just over 7,000 Syrians have either been granted asylum in the UK or have been resettled here under the vulnerable

16 Mar 2016 : Column 330WH

persons relocation scheme—that is 7,000 out of nearly 5 million Syrian refugees—which means that the UK has provided protection to just 0.15% of all those who have fled Syria due to the violence.

The UK’s response to the Syrian conflict should have been to provide routes for Syrians to reach safety, but what has actually happened is that the UK has taken active steps to prevent Syrians from claiming asylum here, with the success rate for visa applications plummeting and the introduction of new restrictions on transiting through the UK. The aim of those changes is clear. When the Government introduced new restrictions on Syrians transiting through the UK on their way to the US, they did so without the usual 21 days’ notice. The reason for that lack of notice, according to the statement of changes, was precisely to prevent the potential for a significant influx of Syrian citizens and nationals travelling to the UK during the notice period to claim asylum.

Claiming asylum is a right, and we should not be trying to prevent people from doing so. The UK Government are rightly praised for their leadership in providing humanitarian aid to countries affected by the Syrian conflict. This morning we are calling for that same level of leadership on providing sanctuary to refugees fleeing the violence.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She has been generous with her time. I represent the city of Sheffield, which was the country’s first city of sanctuary, making a positive statement that we welcome those fleeing persecution and war. That network has now spread across many towns and cities. Does she accept that the Government are out of sync with public opinion on this issue? Although there are genuine concerns about migration that need to be addressed, the public are in a different place on the refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war. We should be increasing the numbers currently settled under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Although the Prime Minister is right to focus on those on the frontline to avoid the necessity for them to make terrible journeys across Europe, we should also bear some responsibility for all those who have already made that journey.

Caroline Lucas: I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is a discrepancy between the compassion being shown by the British public and the way in which the Government have responded so far—they are underestimating people’s willingness to make room for more refugees in their homes and communities. I salute what Sheffield has done. I am happy to say that Brighton and Hove is also a city of sanctuary, which demonstrates the willingness and commitment of ordinary people to welcome people into their homes.

The meeting on 30 March offers an opportunity for Ministers to step up a gear. Among the pathways being called for by the UNHCR is an increase in the number of refugees being resettled, and the Government reluctantly agreed to settle 20,000 Syrian refugees via the vulnerable persons relocation scheme by the end of this Parliament. The Minister with responsibility for Syrian refugees should be congratulated on managing to secure the resettlement of 1,000 refugees through the programme by the end of 2015, but the current commitment is equal to each parliamentary constituency providing a

16 Mar 2016 : Column 331WH

home to just six Syrians each year. We can and must do better. Twenty-thousand refugees should just be a starting point. There has to be much more urgency: the crisis is happening now; people are risking their lives now; the need for safety is now.

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): There are an estimated 26,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. Although it is welcome that the Prime Minister has said that the UK will accept some of those children, it goes nowhere near what is needed. Will the hon. Lady join me in calling on the UK Government to be a responsible global citizen and proactively seek out refugee children in Europe with family connections in the UK so as to speed up the process of reunification?

Caroline Lucas: I agree with the hon. Lady that the problems of unaccompanied children are particularly urgent. If those children are offered status here, we must also make it possible for them to sponsor their parents, if they are later found, or other family members to come and join them. Right now, the UK is one of the few countries that do not let that happen.

Let me put the numbers in context. During the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Britain, to its credit, welcomed 20,000 Hungarian refugees over just one winter. We need a co-ordinated and increased resettlement programme that works in solidarity with EU member states and our global partners. Like the British Government, I agree that people should not be making dangerous journeys to get to the UK, but our agreement departs at that point. It is not enough to say that people should not be making such journeys; we must ensure that they do not need to make those journeys.

If the Government take on board and implement the UNHCR’s suggestions, we could provide legitimate and safe access to the UK across international borders. For example, the UNHCR is calling for the flexible use of refugee family reunion rules. The current rules mean that refugee families are kept apart. For example, the rules mean that a Syrian father granted asylum in the UK would be allowed to bring his wife and younger children, who may have previously been sleeping several families to a house in Lebanon, to join him, yet his eldest child, if she happens to be over 18, would not ordinarily be allowed to come. We are arbitrarily splitting up such families. Her parents would be faced with the choice of either leaving her behind or seeking to pay smugglers to bring her to the UK. She would be at huge risk in either scenario, and it simply makes no sense under any definition of compassion or humanitarianism to be deliberately splitting up families.

I saw that at our border with France just last week, when I visited the camps at Calais and Dunkirk with the wonderful Brighton-based Hummingbird Project. I would need another whole debate to discuss how deeply the British and French authorities have failed the refugees at those camps, but I note that one of the things that came over in all our discussions with the refugees is how many of them have relatives already here in the UK. I spoke to a 22-year-old man whose wife is a British citizen. He has been at the Calais camp for five months, and he cannot join her. Similarly, another young man had half his family, including his father and brother, living in Birmingham, but again he is stuck in the limbo

16 Mar 2016 : Column 332WH

of the camps. Under the Government’s current rules, neither can apply for family reunification. Instead, they face an indefinite period of trying to navigate the complexities of the British and French asylum systems, often without financial or legal support.

The criteria for refugee family reunion should be extended to allow refugees in the UK to be reunited with their parents, siblings, adult children, grandparents and other family members where there is a dependency relationship. The rules should also be expanded to allow British citizens, and those with indefinite leave to remain, to sponsor relatives abroad. We now have a crazy situation where someone who becomes naturalised, who becomes a British citizen, has fewer rights to access the rest of their family. That has been a concern in my constituency, where I have spoken to several Syrian refugees who no longer have the right to family reunification, as they have now become British citizens, yet who have family who remain in desperate situations.

While we are discussing family reunification, let me quickly address, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) did, the 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children. The UK is one of the very few EU countries that do not allow unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor their parents in order to be safely and finally reunited. The UK has opted out of EU directive 2003/86/EC, which allows unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor applications. I cannot see in whose interest that opt-out is operating. The Government need to rectify that as a matter of urgency. It is surely in the best interest of child refugees to be reunited with family members. I hope the Minister will specifically address that point.

Finally, the UK should also heed the UNHCR’s call to introduce humanitarian visas, following in the footsteps of Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Switzerland. The UK Government have never before implemented a humanitarian visa programme, but such a programme would allow Syrians and others with valid asylum claims to travel to the UK to claim asylum without having to take dangerous journeys to get here. On a wider point, the meeting on 30 March is one of a number of initiatives aimed at addressing the Syrian crisis, but we must not forget that it will also allow us to develop efficient and safe processes for any other large-scale movements of refugees. Oxfam has noted that 400 people have already died or gone missing trying to reach Europe this year.

Many refugees, including children, continue to be vulnerable as they embark on what can only be described as a march of misery through Europe. Unless European Governments offer refugees safe and legal routes to travel, we will continue to see the death toll rising and people left with little choice but to put their lives in the hands of smugglers and traffickers, which puts women and children at particular risk of exploitation, trafficking and abuse. We need to ensure that we are providing refugees with real solutions, rather than barriers. There is no simple, easy solution to this humanitarian crisis—there are no silver bullets—but we cannot continue to watch over a crisis of this magnitude without sharing a greater sense of responsibility.

Can the Minister assure us that the Government will take a strong leadership role at the meeting on 30 March? Will the Government ensure that we play our full part in providing safe and legal routes of access for refugees? I have outlined three particular demands. It is about

16 Mar 2016 : Column 333WH

giving refugee children the same right as adult refugees to be with their family; it is about widening the rules to allow adult refugees to be reunited with their parents, siblings and adult children in the UK; and it is about affording British citizens and those with indefinite leave to remain the right to bring to the UK their family members with international protection needs. The Government pride themselves on standing up for the family, but that has to be all families, not just some. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the three Front-Bench spokespersons at about 10.30 am. If Members can keep their contributions to around six or seven minutes, we should get everyone in.

9.49 am

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): Diolch yn fawr iawn Mr Cadeirydd; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this timely debate, given, of course, that the meeting she referred to is due to be held at the end of this month. I will speak briefly, because a number of people want to contribute to the debate.

As I am sure everyone in the Chamber would agree, the increasing number of refugees and migrants requires a global and high-level response. This is the most serious challenge of our time—it is a moral, practical and political challenge. It is deceptively simple in debate but it is immense in its implications for those millions of people who have been cast adrift.

First, I will mark my respect for Cefnogi Ffoaduriaid Meirionnydd Dwyfor, or Refugee Solidarity, which has urged me to draw attention to the situation whereby refugees with family members in the UK—that is, people who would be accepted on this side of the channel—are in no way enabled to travel from Calais. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion described many such incidents, which is the reality of many migrants’ experience. As I say, these are people who would be accepted if they were to arrive in these islands.

There is a grim irony in people having to take such risks to arrive in a country where asylum will be granted to them, but only if they run a dangerous gauntlet before arrival. The channel may be a convenient barrier, but it cannot be acceptable to condone quietly the risks associated with an illegitimate sea crossing by boat, container or tunnel as a matter of policy. We are fortunate to be an island, but that does not absolve us of moral responsibilities.

Secondly, I take this opportunity to draw attention to the ongoing plight of the Yazidi community in Syria. The world noticed them—briefly—two years ago, when Daesh attacked the region and city of Shingal. Over 60,000 Yazidis were stranded in a state of siege on the mountains as they attempted to flee. They had been given the option by Daesh of converting to Islam or the men would be killed and the women sold as chattel—as sex slaves. The Yazidis’ status as a minority is particularly

16 Mar 2016 : Column 334WH

vulnerable as they are not Muslims and in Daesh’s world view it is not considered rape to force Yazidi women to have sex.

In total, 35 mass graves have been identified in the Shingal region. It is believed that 3,100 Yazidis, mostly women and children, were kidnapped by Daesh in 2014. Some of those women will not return because they have been sold on again, sometimes to Saudi Arabia, or have borne children with Daesh fathers, but it is estimated that 2,000 could be rescued relatively easily by means of being “bought back”. I understand that the average cost of buying a woman her freedom is around $7,000.

Yazidi survivors such as Salwa Khalaf Rasho have recently travelled to London to tell their stories. Many of them have come from Germany, where the state of Baden-Württemberg is providing a two-year programme of therapy for the survivors of Daesh kidnapping and abuse. The community is seeking international support for redress to the atrocity—it verges on genocide— that they suffered in August 2014 and in the years since. Yazidi leaders and supporters have come to Britain with a list of 11 recommendations, which warrant an international response.

I understand that the 2012 recommendations by the United Nations High Commissioner included the need to do more to protect refugee and migrant women, and that members of the Council of Europe should sign and adopt its convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. I further note that the convention has been signed but not ratified by the UK.

Of course, I support the calls that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has made to the Government and I take this opportunity to request that the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees agrees to meet Salwa Khalaf Rasho to hear her story. Individual voices, particularly women’s voices, are drowned out in the cacophony of war. I urge him to play a part by at least listening to her experience.

9.54 am

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this debate.

I commend the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. As with other aid and relief organisations that are working in this most troubled region, the UNHCR has an incredibly difficult task. Its work is invaluable and I fear that the current crisis would be much worse if the UNHCR was not on the ground trying to co-ordinate the agencies’ relief efforts in very difficult circumstances.

One particular issue that is being a bit neglected within this humanitarian response is that of religion. I speak in my capacity as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. This conflict is one in which issues of religion are central, and religion is also central to how we deal with the crisis. There is evidence that suggests religious minorities may be avoiding the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. I do not undermine in any way the incredible efforts that those host countries have made in trying to protect the vulnerable, but it is the members of religious minorities who often do not find their way to the camps. Consequently, the camps

16 Mar 2016 : Column 335WH

may fail to house the full demographic of vulnerable Syrian refugees and therefore they may not truly represent the percentage of the vulnerable minorities in the wider population of Syria. We do not see in the camps a balance of the Syrian population similar to the one that existed in Syria before the crisis began.

It is hard to determine exactly why that is the case. It may be because of fear of persecution in the refugee camps, or that individuals do not wish to stop in the camps but wish to progress further, due to a fear that the persecution they faced in Syria will spread to other parts of the region. There is anecdotal evidence from those who are travelling towards Europe that that is one of the reasons why members of religious minorities do not want to go to the camps.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for raising the concerns that some religious groups, particularly Christians, have not entered the registration process with the UNHCR—the International Development Committee has also raised those concerns. I welcomed the Minister’s commitment at the last debate we had on this subject, when he said that efforts would be made to ensure that there was appropriate registration, so I look forward to hearing from him an update on the progress in that regard.

Mrs Spelman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I think a number of us have challenged a number of Ministers about this issue, asking, first, what is the cause of the under-registration of religious minorities in the camps and, secondly, how do we go out and find the people who are not in the camps? That is the exam question.

I am not in any way knocking what I think was an inspired decision by the Prime Minister to focus on the safe retrieval of people from refugee camps to deter people from making the very dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. That was a very good initiative, but it is not sufficient to deal with some of the most vulnerable refugees.

I call on the Government to work with their partners in the region to promote a strategy whereby we are not content to allow groups fleeing from persecution to slip through the net of the humanitarian effort. Aid must reach all groups, and we must not, even inadvertently, let one religious group be privileged over another.

Mark Field: I am not for one moment suggesting that we should go down the route that is prevalent in places such as Hungary or Poland, whereby we would look to give preferential treatment to Christians. However, my right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point about religion and the fact that religious minorities and Christian minorities in the region are perhaps being under-reported.

To be absolutely candid, I also think that a policy of helping refugees would get broader support—beyond central London, Brighton and Hove, and Sheffield—if the case was being made that there are significant numbers of fellow religionists, as well as others, who are being brought here. As I say, that is not to give preferential treatment to any group. None the less, it would be good if the British public were made well aware of the depth

16 Mar 2016 : Column 336WH

of this problem for Christian communities, some of whom have been in the region since the very birth of Christianity.

Mrs Spelman: My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. My very last remark before his intervention was to say that we must be careful that one religious group is not privileged over another.

Religious literacy is incredibly important in this discussion. In a moment, I will speak about another minority—a non-Christian minority, the Yazidis—as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) did before me.

In addition, it is crucial that we refrain from considering the refugee crisis just in terms of the immediate political response. Alongside considering the humanitarian action and the most effective way that it can be delivered, the Government must consider the long-term stability and prosperity of the middle east, and work hard to find the short to medium-term solution for Syria itself.

Freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. It is a fundamental right and one that is integral to the good functioning of any society. Evidence suggests that there is a correlation between freedom of religion or belief and security and economic prosperity. The freedom to practice one’s belief or religion in openness and safety is the hallmark of a society where there is understanding and tolerance between individuals and communities, and with that comes stability, community cohesion and an environment in which civil society, business and all other facets of a free society can flourish.

In conjunction with a number of other parliamentarians, I, too, met with the young Yazidi lady who came to Parliament yesterday. Her first-hand account was harrowing. As a female and a mother, I was concerned about the mental cost to this young woman of having to retell her story to us and other MPs over and over again. It is a disturbing story. She explained how she had been studying peacefully alongside other Arab groups in the city where she lived when suddenly her whole community was forced to flee into the mountains. She did not make it, however, and together with hundreds of women, she was turned back, kidnapped and taken by Daesh to Mosul, where she was sold into slavery and horrifically abused. She escaped only through chance. One member of the group had a mobile phone. In a brief moment of opportunity, she was able to give her father a call. He essentially paid the ransom to the people who smuggled her out of the country.

It is an appalling tale, and another 2,000 Yazidi women are still stuck in that position. They are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in the region, and they are not on any pathway out of it. Sadly, they are not on the pathway that we have already commended the Government for creating, and the exam question for the Government is: how do we reach the most vulnerable women? That is a most urgent question. As we stand here, those young women are being beaten, raped and abused. Some are taking their own lives because of the misery that they are having to endure.

That is a difficult question, and I do not underestimate that, but one suggestion has been made on finding a way to get them out. The German Government made a commitment to do that and saved 1,000 of those young

16 Mar 2016 : Column 337WH

women. We have to try to think collectively of a way to achieve that together with UNHCR. It has a number of recommendations, and I urge the Minister to take them back to the Government. We need to gain recognition at the UN level for the genocide that the Yazidis have suffered, so that the criminals eventually can be brought to the International Criminal Court for their war crimes. As a civilised nation, we should be willing to support that perfectly reasonable request. Finding ways to repatriate these families—ultimately, it is what remains of their families, as so many have died—is going to be crucial in the recovery of the victims of the terrible genocide of their community. There is no doubt that this is a crisis of extreme complexity—no one would wish to oversimplify it—but as a lack of freedom of religion or belief is part of the problem, it must also be seen and considered as part of the solution.

10.3 am

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this most important debate, which is timely given the meetings that are coming up at the end of the month. I hope that the debate, in its own small way, will help inform the Government’s thinking on their approach to the international discussions.

Like others, I commend the Government for the work they are doing in the region. They have shown commendable leadership, and I would like to see more countries follow that example. What pains me is that we seem to insist that that work is an alternative to helping people inside our own country. I see no reason why the two should be regarded as mutually exclusive. In fact, the efforts to bring people here and to offer them humanitarian, safe and legal routes to the United Kingdom would if anything strengthen the arguments that we must be making to other countries that they should be doing the same as us in the region.

The hon. Lady made reference to the countries in the region, particularly Lebanon, which has a long history of offering help and shelter to refugees. The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have been running for decades. In fact, when we go to the refugee camps in Lebanon or Gaza or elsewhere, we realise that to call them refugee camps is something of a misnomer. They are neighbourhoods and housing estates that are built with a permanency that is depressing to see.

Other countries—Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt—have all stood up to the plate, sometimes under very difficult circumstances. I certainly take the point about the failure of Saudi Arabia to contribute to the effort. Saudi Arabia is a country with which we have warmer relations than I sometimes feel comfortable with, if I can put it like that, but we should be taking advantage of that to make it contribute. The point is—this picks up on the last point made by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—that the situation is immensely complex, nuanced and difficult.

I was struck by the response from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion to the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) about what will happen in the medium term. We would all love to know that. The only thing that I can say with

16 Mar 2016 : Column 338WH

certainty is that, looking at how these sectarian conflicts have developed in other parts of the world, it will be at least 20 to 25 years before we see anything like stability in Syria. We should not think that it will be a problem this year and next year, and then we will be able to move on; we may have to deal with it for a generation.

The question of the EU-Turkey deal and how that develops causes me significant concern. The lack of leadership shown in reaching that deal is significant and severely disappointing. One in, one out is no basis on which to approach a subject as morally and politically challenging as this. The impression that it leaves is of a man trying to bale water out of a boat without first stopping it coming in. It makes me feel that we and the EU are engaging not because we necessarily care for the suffering of these people, but simply because we care more about the potential impact the issue will have on our own countries.

We have spoken a lot about leadership, and I place on record my appreciation for the leadership given by a number of people outside Parliament and in particular the Refugee Council, which does tremendous work every day. I think it may have significantly informed the speech of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, and there was little in her contribution that I disagreed with. In the time available, I place on record my continued support for the campaign being run by the Refugee Council, particularly in terms of the need to increase the numbers who can be resettled under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Twenty thousand over five years is not to be sneezed at, but it can only be seen as a start. If nothing else, it also needs to be front-loaded, because the crisis is in the here and now. Trying to guess where it will all need to go in five years’ time and limiting the options is unrealistic and unworthy.

We need to make it easier for Syrian refugees to be reunited with those of their family who are already in the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made reference to the perverse way in which the rules can often operate in that regard. Finally, and most significantly of all, we need the introduction of a humanitarian or asylum visa. As has already been pointed out, that would allow people to travel safely to a country to obtain access to the asylum system there. In the background note to the 30 March meeting, the UNHCR says that Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Switzerland have all introduced humanitarian visas to allow Syrian refugees to travel safely and legally. That is what we want here. We should not be forcing people to put their lives into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers. There are ways in which safe, legal and regulated routes can be ensured and help given to those who need it.

10.10 am

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, Mr Crausby. I welcome the Minister and his commitment and work in this area, and indeed his response to my parliamentary question to confirm his attendance on 30 March.

There is a widespread scheme that leads to the deliberate relocation of thousands of migrants and refugees. It involves thousands of adults and hundreds of children. The arrangements are made for relocation, and the promise is a home in the United Kingdom, where it is

16 Mar 2016 : Column 339WH

safe. Many will have a family relation in the United Kingdom. Europol informed the Home Affairs Committee that at least 90% use this particular scheme. It is not operated by the UNHCR, by the Government’s VPR scheme or by the European Union; it is run by people smugglers and it is exploited by traffickers. The people smugglers are the main beneficiaries of the flight and plight of individuals fleeing conflict and persecution. We in the international community who will meet under the auspices of the UNHCR on 30 March must do better.

Children are the most vulnerable. The independent anti-slavery commissioner told me that in the camps, such as those in Lebanon, they know about 80% of the unaccompanied children and 20% are effectively missing. As soon as they make that perilous journey into Europe, the stats switch to 20% known and 80% unknown—missing. In Europe we have perhaps 10,000 unaccompanied children who are missing, as Europol has said, and 5,000 are missing in Italy, despite the so-called hotspot for processing refugees, which is at risk of becoming a hotspot for trafficking. We must do better.

I saw a snapshot of the desperate situation facing these people when I visited Calais and Dunkirk a couple of weeks ago. It shamed and appalled me that on our European doorstep families were living in deplorable, inhumane conditions that were far worse than those I have seen in other camps, not least in the border areas of Kachin state in brutal Burma. We have a brutal situation on our doorstep in France. What I saw is repeated in Macedonia in the Idomeni camp, and it is even worse now with the bad weather.

Kurdish families from Iraq told me that they were smuggled by lorries via Turkey and that they paid to come to the UK. “Why the UK?”, I asked. “Because that’s where it is safe.” Such a view is only firmed up by French riot police, tear gas, rubber bullets and the like. The dispersal of people will lead to some going through a formal asylum process, which is welcome, in the new so-called reflection centres across France, but others go into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers, particularly when the last bus has already gone and the riot police are still doing their work. We simply must do better.

As Europe puts up its fences and borders, the migrants and refugees get more desperate, their journeys get more irregular, and their price for being smuggled goes up. Sadly, European countries are in a race to the bottom to be as unwelcoming as possible so that an application for asylum is not made in their country. It is sad that Denmark, for example, which has a proud history of providing refuge for Jewish people, is now trying to pass laws to seize refugees’ assets to pay for the costs of their refuge. Those who find their way to Calais or Dunkirk will try and hold out for the smugglers to get them into the UK before they eventually claim asylum. We really must do better than that.

So there is a market for refugees seeking sanctuary, but it is the smugglers and traffickers on the frontline who are the beneficiaries and who are doing the main trade. Rather than refugees or smugglers choosing their destination, host countries should have to do the choosing—we all need to step up—before they get to Europe. That is the point of the meeting on 30 March. We need safe and legal routes as the only legal game in the region, rather than the current game of either obstacle courses set by European Union countries or

16 Mar 2016 : Column 340WH

snakes and ladders, as it could be described, full of smuggler vipers and few ladders, which become a matter of life or death. Sadly, for many risking their lives trying to cross the Aegean, it is more like Russian roulette.

Therefore, I very much welcome the opportunity of the UNHCR meeting for countries to take the initiative and take it away from the people smugglers and traffickers.

Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab): From my experience, albeit dated, of working in the field as an aid worker, I found the UNHCR to be under-resourced and overstretched. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need the Government to make sure that the UNHRC, which we are asking to do an awful lot on behalf of this country, has the right resources to do the job?

Mr Burrowes: I agree. We will hear from the Minister directly on that. The international community has accepted a responsibility in relation to involvement in the conflicts that have contributed to the current situation. We must accept a financial responsibility. Our great leading role in international aid must also involve the proper resourcing of the UNHCR.

Responsible nations, including our own, need to set out clearly in advance their likely threshold for refugees and their safe and legal routes. I say that we must do better, but in many ways this country has. Our international aid is the second highest, and other European countries need to step up to the plate in that regard. The VPR scheme, which is welcome, has increased to 20,000, which I see as a minimum. It should still be based on vulnerability rather than an arbitrary number. Whether it is one that comes from a campaign group or from the Government’s response to campaigns, it should be based on vulnerability.

I welcome the Government’s commitment on 28 January to provide safety for unaccompanied minors—Save the Children has said it could involve thousands of children, whether in the region, in the camps or in Europe—and to increase family reunions. The Government have made that commitment and I look forward to further details on it. We have resettled 1,337 Syrians in the United Kingdom. That is welcome, and it is far more than the European Union has managed to do, despite their being committed to a relocation scheme. The Government should take credit for that, but they should also see that as the minimum. It is important to recognise that these relocations are taking place not only in camps, but around the region. I look forward to the Minister’s response in relation to how particularly vulnerable people, such as Christians and Yazidis, are getting the help and processing they need.

It is important to recognise that there are other safe and legal routes. The humanitarian visa approach from Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Switzerland has a role to play. It is also worth recognising organisations such as the Barnabas Fund and Operation Safe Havens, which are working with churches, not least in eastern Europe, to provide relocation for vulnerable Christians. We should look at how we can work to facilitate and support that, in other countries as well as in our own, where there are churches and communities willing to provide sponsorship and support.

Whether it is VPR, humanitarian visas, family reunion, or a combination of all three, it is important that we and other countries set out up front those safe legal routes and provide incentives to use them. We should

16 Mar 2016 : Column 341WH

give priority to the most vulnerable: the children, the unaccompanied, and groups such as the young women referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman).

As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned, we should also look at the criteria for refugee family reunion. We should look at extending the criteria and focus, in particular, on the dependency relationship—whatever the dependency relationship is, there needs to be an extension around it—as well as allowing children with refugee status in the United Kingdom to sponsor their parents to join them. The ability to reunite with family members must be a fundamental right of a refugee. As a matter of urgency, the Home Office needs to amend the rules for unaccompanied children so that they are in line with adults who are granted refugee status or humanitarian protection.

We must focus on vulnerability when providing refuge. That is where we need to go. Our Parliament should take a role in providing the appropriate authorisation for the threshold for safe and legal routes so that we can reduce the demand for smuggling and trafficking and increase our confidence in accepting refugees and providing managed integration.

10.19 am

Stuart Blair Donaldson (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this debate. She has spoken in detail about the excellent work of the UNHCR with regard to the resettlement of Syrian refugees and why the high-level meeting later this month on pathways to resettlement will be important for refocusing states on both the short-term humanitarian needs of refugees and their long-term integration. It is also important to recognise, as hon. Members have mentioned, the vital work that the UNHCR is doing on the ground in Syria, in utterly chaotic and hugely distressing circumstances. It is doing all it can in terrible conditions to ensure that victims of conflict have access to shelter, food and safety.

Family reunification will clearly be a prominent topic at the upcoming meeting. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, it is estimated that there are currently 26,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. Our response as a country must be to ask how much we can do to help, rather than how little can we get away with doing. That is why I am particularly proud that in Scotland, people, charities and government at every level are doing everything they can to make Syrian refugees feel as welcome as possible.

Scotland has so far taken at least 400 refugees, with half of Scotland’s local authorities having welcomed individuals and families to their areas. The first Syrian families offered asylum in the north-east of Scotland arrived on the first day of this month—10 families arrived, with more to follow this summer. My home local authority, Aberdeenshire Council, has committed to sheltering 50 families. It has been working with community groups, faith groups, credit unions, universities

16 Mar 2016 : Column 342WH

and colleges to ensure that these vulnerable people are able to transition and settle as smoothly as possible. The proudly international city of Aberdeen has committed to taking 5% of the 2,000 refugees coming to Scotland over the next five years.

To further support refugees coming to Scotland, a refugee taskforce, chaired by the Scottish Minister for Europe and International Development, is overseeing arrangements for their arrival. That includes taking care of their immediate practical needs, such as arranging for them to obtain biometric residence permits and to open bank accounts, along with dealing with longer term issues to facilitate integration, such as English language support. The Scottish Government have also recently announced amendments to existing legislation to enable Syrian refugees to benefit from student support in Scotland. I am proud that my former university, the University of Glasgow, along with other educational establishments in Scotland, is providing a variety of scholarships and fee waivers for Syrian refugees who come to Scotland.

Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable and we must ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect at every stage of the asylum process. I have outlined, briefly, how Scotland is a caring and compassionate country. We welcome people seeking refuge from war and persecution, and we recognise the importance of supporting them to rebuild their lives and integrate into our diverse communities.

Margaret Ferrier: As my hon. Friend said, it is hugely important that refugees are welcomed into the UK and helped to integrate into our society and culture. Will he join me in congratulating the Scottish Government and the Scottish Book Trust on donating children’s books and toys to refugee families throughout Scotland, and in congratulating any similar initiatives throughout the UK as a whole?

Stuart Blair Donaldson: I will. My hon. Friend is completely right. Many groups are doing fantastic work like that. Charities in Scotland have been overwhelmed with offers of support from the public. If my email inbox is anything to go by, thousands of people across Scotland have offered their time and friendship to men, women and children who are desperately in need of compassion and solidarity.

10.23 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this timely and important debate. What with Russia withdrawing her troops just yesterday, on the fifth anniversary of the first unrest in Syria, massive gains for the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland in Germany off the back of Angela Merkel’s asylum policy, and thousands of people still stranded at borders throughout Europe, it is most appropriate that we have the opportunity to discuss these issues today in Westminster Hall.

The Syrian refugee crisis was without doubt one of the defining issues of 2015, and it continues to dominate the news in 2016. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, it will dominate the agenda for the next 20-odd years, whether we like it

16 Mar 2016 : Column 343WH

or not. Even with the peace talks and the Russian withdrawal, the abhorrent Islamic State, al-Nusra and other jihadist groups have no regard for such a process and continue their genocidal campaigns. Just yesterday, the US House of Representatives voted to condemn ISIL’s campaign of genocide by 392 votes to zero. I think that sums up the feelings of many of us.

We need to find the best way of getting a peaceful resolution between the Syrian Government and opposition. However, although desirable, even that would not stabilise the region. If we want a peaceful solution, it has to be found in Syria. Peace must come from there, for the sake of the refugees. We have all seen the images of what ISIS do: they behead, rape, murder and pillage. It is not hard to understand why any human being would want to get as far away as possible from such abhorrent things. More than 14 million Syrians in the country are in need of help, 7 million of whom are internally displaced. Nearly 5 million have fled abroad, including the hundreds of thousands making their way across Europe. Six-hundred thousand Christians have left Syria because of the “convert or die” ultimatum they have been given. Christians are clearly an ethnic and religious minority that has been targeted by Daesh, and that concerns us greatly. It would be remiss of me not to come to this Chamber and make the plea for my Christian brothers and sisters in Syria.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion referred in her speech to Lebanon and Jordan, which, as I have said, I had the opportunity to visit as a member of the Defence Committee. With a few exceptions, Jordan has managed to integrate some 1.5 million refugees. Lebanon has taken in 1.2 million, on top of the Palestinians who are already in camps there. The pressure is on those countries, so we need an internal solution to come very clearly out of Syria.

The right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) mentioned the Yazidis in their speeches. All those who met the Yazidi woman yesterday could not fail to be physically and emotionally moved by the incredible stories we heard. Daesh kill all the men and young boys. They kill some of the children. They kidnap and imprison the ladies and young girls and use them as—there is no other way to say it—sexual slaves. They pass them around. We could not see any of the physical scars on the Yazidi woman who told her story yesterday, but we could feel the emotional scars.

I make a plea to the Minister. As those of us who sat through those stories yesterday will know, we need to do two things. The only people who helped the Yazidis when they were in trouble were the Kurds. They gave them physical help, food, medical help and aid, while we in the west—I say this of us all—did nothing. So, first, we need to ensure that the aid that goes into the Kurdish camps and areas under Kurdish control gets to the Yazidis. Turkey has to play its part in that as well. Secondly, as the right hon. Member for Meriden said, we need to follow the example set by Germany when it saved 1,000 Yazidi women.

In January the European Commission’s chief spokesman stated that some 60% of those arriving in the EU as part of the movement of people were indeed economic migrants. We have to recognise that some are economic

16 Mar 2016 : Column 344WH

migrants and some are genuine refugees. I want to put on the record that a leading NATO commander in Europe stated that more than 8,000 ISIL fighters are in the EU. We need to develop a system that can root out the potential criminal elements. If we do not, I am afraid that we have seen what can happen in today’s news about events in Brussels.

As serious as the concerns I have mentioned are, there are success stories. In Northern Ireland we have offered free English lessons to help vulnerable people. The Northern Ireland Assembly has set aside some £20,000 a year for that. In Sweden there are what are referred to as social instruction classes, which educate refugees and help them to understand better what is taking place. That might go some way towards improving integration and ensuring that we do not have another Cologne. It is important that we differentiate between economic migrants and asylum seekers.

We have to help as best we can. We have to look after the Christians and ethnic minorities. We have to look into settling the real problem in Syria, because that is where the solution is. There are examples of where the resettling and integration of refugees has taken place and been done really well, such as in Jordan. I pay tribute to the United Kingdom Government, who, through the Department for International Development and the Minister, have tried very hard to address these issues.

Immanuel Kant said:

“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”

Let us do our best to help those who need help.

10.30 am

Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Crausby, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this debate, to which there have been lots of excellent contributions. Like others, I was pleased to co-sponsor her early-day motion, the text of which powerfully explains the case for expanding safe, legal routes and makes a series of points about what we all agree is the greatest refugee crisis since the end of the second world war.

As the hon. Lady said, there is no silver bullet to this crisis, but key measures can make a significant difference. As other hon. Members said, it is beyond dispute that the UK Government have led the way in Europe in providing financial contributions to tackle the crisis in the region. They deserve credit for that, but it is regrettable that their leadership on funding is sometimes portrayed as a silver bullet, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, as though providing aid to the region means that we have done our bit and there is nothing more that the UK can and should do. Providing aid is simply not enough.

As the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) said, although the countries neighbouring Syria deserve great credit for their efforts in sheltering refugees, life for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria is incredibly difficult. That applies not only to religious minorities—a number of hon. Members spoke about the challenges they face. Ninety per cent of Syrians in those countries

16 Mar 2016 : Column 345WH

are outside UN camps. The UN reports that they are more vulnerable than ever and have to take increased risks to survive and resort to dangerous survival strategies, such as child labour, early marriage or sexual exploitation.

As Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said yesterday:

“A tragedy of this scale demands solidarity beyond funding. Put simply, we need more countries to share the load by taking a greater share of refugees from what has become the biggest displacement crisis of a generation.”

Solidarity beyond funding and sharing the load is precisely what the EDM tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion demands and what several hon. Members have spoken about today.

We have argued repeatedly that the UK should share the load by taking part in an EU relocation scheme, which would mean sharing the responsibility for refugees who have already made it to Europe fairly around the continent. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made a similar, if not identical, point. We stand by that call. The disaster that is unfolding in Greece as we speak illustrates exactly why it is absolutely essential. Greece needs solidarity from its European allies, and not in the form of unilateral border closures.

Those refugees have already had to make horrendous journeys. However, relocation saves many of them from horrendous journeys within Europe, including to the dreadful camps at Calais and Dunkirk, which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) spoke about. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) spoke powerfully on behalf of the children. Taking those two strands together, I want to dwell for a second on a recent decision of the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, which ordered the UK Government to allow a small group of teenagers who have family here but were suffering in those dreadful camps to enter the UK. The Government appealed the principle behind that decision so that they do not have to admit others in the same situation. Citizens UK estimates that only about 150 teenagers would benefit if the Government simply abided by the principle behind that decision. It is outrageous that the Government have not done that. Rather than spending money on legal fees, they could send out a team to find those 150 children. It will be useful to hear how the Minister justifies the Government’s position.

This debate is about how we can help as many people as possible to avoid making journeys, including into Europe, and provide safe, legal routes or pathways. Those pathways, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, are principally in the form of resettlement, or expanded family reunion or humanitarian visas.

We welcome the expansion of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme to accommodate 20,000 refugees during this Parliament. Good progress has been made, and I am always keen to praise the Minister for his work on ensuring that the scheme proceeds as smoothly as possible. The lives of the people resettled will be transformed, and they will not have to make hazardous journeys. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) gave examples of schemes that are helping to transform people’s lives.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 346WH

We share the concern, which was raised by a number of hon. Members, that 20,000 over five years is just not a fair share. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion remarked, it is pitiful. An Oxfam analysis shows that if just 10% of the refugees currently registered in the countries neighbouring Syria were resettled or offered other forms of admission to developed nations, the United Kingdom would receive about 24,000 refugees each year. The Government’s commitment is to less than a quarter of that. We will continue to push for the resettlement of greater numbers. That can be through alternative pathways, which I have referred to briefly.

We have heard a little about family reunion. Everybody would agree that those with family members in the UK will be determined to get to here, regardless of the route. As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, we have a choice: will we make them go through people smugglers or will we give them a safe, legal route?

The restrictive family reunion rules that the Government apply mean that even a 19-year-old young woman living alone in Lebanon or stranded in Turkey would not be able to apply to reunite with, for example, a father who had managed to make it to the United Kingdom. I think everybody would agree that that is not a sensible solution. Will the Government look again at how the family reunion rules have been applied during this crisis? That argument has been made forcefully by the Refugee Council, the Scottish Refugee Council, the Red Cross and so many others.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made some strong points about citizenship, which can reduce people’s family reunion rights, and about the lack of rights for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It will be interesting to hear the Minister respond to those points. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate spoke about humanitarian visas, which other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Switzerland have introduced. It would be good to hear whether the United Kingdom Government are interested in exploring that option.

We also need to look at what further steps can be taken to provide practical support for those who make family reunion applications, even under the currently restrictive scheme. When I speak to solicitors and non-governmental organisations that work for families here, they regularly speak of the impossible bureaucracy that those who approach UK embassies face, and the problems that families have here, such as a lack of basic support and the financial costs.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland both highlighted huge flaws in the proposed EU deal with Turkey. The refugee convention for Syrians is little applied in Turkey, and it does not apply at all to Eritreans. It is utterly bizarre that there can be a safe, legal route for some Syrian refugees only if other Syrian refugees take a completely unsafe, irregular route to Europe.

Just as the London conference aimed to deliver a step change in funding to tackle the crisis, the Geneva conference on 30 March is a pivotal opportunity to deliver a step change in the provision of safe, legal routes and pathways to safety. We ask the Government to show the leadership there that they did in London to ensure solidarity beyond funding.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 347WH

10.38 am

Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Crausby. I also thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for bringing this issue before Westminster Hall. She spoke powerfully in support of the motion, as did many other Members. I pay tribute to those who contributed to this debate. Not all debates in Westminster Hall are of high quality, but the contributions today really were—particularly the points about the plight of the Yazidi women. Like others, I hope the points made today will influence the approach the Minister takes in the meeting in two weeks’ time. That would be the best outcome of this debate.

The nature of the challenge is clear. Many hon. Members have already spoken of the figures, but it is worth reminding ourselves that 13.5 million Syrians are in need of help in-country, 6.6 million are internally displaced and 4.6 million or so have fled abroad. These are huge numbers and the UNHCR has made clear asks in response to them. Initially, it asked states to help 30,000 people to be relocated by the end of 2014. Then it asked for an additional 100,000 to be helped by the end of 2016, and in two weeks, the number is likely to go up, not down. Furthermore, to be clear, the UNHCR is asking for help with those individuals for whom there is no durable solution—those for whom voluntary repatriation and local integration are not possible: the most vulnerable, with nowhere else to go.

Against the scale of that challenge, the UK response has been slow, reluctant and limited. Just to remind ourselves, back in 2013 and 2014 the initial response of the UK was simply to provide aid to Syria’s neighbours, not to take any refugees ourselves. That was our starting position: assistance, but not receiving refugees.

Mrs Spelman: Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), who was an aid worker, is no longer present to support this point, but professional aid agencies will always say that in the first instance it is better to give aid in the region where the disaster has occurred, because people are then more likely to go back to their homes and to help to rebuild their country. I am sure that was the rationale that drove the Government’s initial response.

Keir Starmer: I accept that proposition—that has been the UNHCR position for many years—but I am now plotting the response to the UNHCR ask. It was asking specifically about individuals who cannot be dealt with locally—those who cannot be repatriated or locally integrated. I made that point before I came to the response, because it is only one thing to assist in-region, in the way the UNHCR has suggested; what we are discussing today is the response to the ask for countries to do something about those who cannot be dealt with in that way.

That was the initial response; early in 2014, the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement programme was set up, but it was limited and focused only on victims of sexual violence and torture. It was only extended in 2015—that was the next step—when the Government agreed to take 20,000 Syrians over five years, but none of them from Europe. There was another an extension

16 Mar 2016 : Column 348WH

earlier this year, in January, when the Government agreed to look more carefully at unaccompanied children, but again not from Europe.

That is why I say that the UK response has been slow, reluctant and limited. We have been around this block before. I know that the Minister will say, “Well, that shows we’re listening,” but when we look back, we see that the changes in response have usually been a reaction to pressure inside and outside this House on particular issues.

Mr Burrowes: I do not want to limit the Government’s commitment of 20 January. It was a commitment to unaccompanied children in the region in conflict zones, but also in Europe, to provide safety, whether in the camp areas or through resettlement in this country.

Keir Starmer: I looked carefully at what was said in January, and I have followed it up since. I think it is fair to say that at the moment no scheme or plan is in place for taking unaccompanied children from Europe. I hope that is the next development and, if it is, I would welcome it.

Having criticised the Government’s response for being too slow, too reluctant and too limited, may I add this? Two weeks ago, I was up in Glasgow, where I met Paul Morrison, who heads up the Syrian resettlement programme, and two of the Syrian families who have been relocated. The work going on in Glasgow under the resettlement scheme is first class. The Government are to be praised for the scheme as far as those who have been relocated here are concerned. It is well run, children have been integrated into schools, the families have been found doctors, they have proper support in the community and the people of Glasgow have been welcoming and supportive. Where the scheme is operating, it operates well, and I pay tribute to the Minister and those working with him for that.

Margaret Ferrier: Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern, however, about reports of substandard housing and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in Glasgow? Will he join me in urging the Home Office to commission an urgent, independent inquiry into that?

Keir Starmer: I am grateful for that intervention, which anticipates my next point. Of growing concern is the sense of that there is a two-tier system. Those who are being relocated under the voluntary Syrian resettlement programme are being treated well and properly, and I commend that. On the other hand, I have met unaccompanied children, again in Glasgow, who had made their own way to this country and surfaced in Scotland, and their experience was very different. Initially they really struggled to prove their age—one was even detained—and then to obtain housing.

On a separate visit, to Oldham, I met a 26-year-old Syrian woman architect who had made her own way to this country. Although she has refugee status, she was struggling to get support for housing, so this is one for the future for the Government. The scheme itself is working well, but there is a two-tier system, because the conditions that others coming here to seek asylum have to endure are very different. That is worthy of another debate in due course.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 349WH

March obviously offers an opportunity for the Government to go further. Of course the long-term solution is a reduction in the conflict in Syria—we must never lose sight of that. Today, we are debating what we do about the consequences of that conflict. In March, the Government can go further in four particular areas. First, there is growing pressure for us to take more than the 20,000 pledged so far. I agree with the comments about the Government being out of sync with the public mood on that. The public accept that we should be doing more for vulnerable refugees.

While we are on the subject of numbers, I also think it is wrong to have a fixed 20,000 over five years, because that does not allow flexibility for a changing situation. There is already a need to take more, and the position should be reviewed year on year, rather than committing to a five-year programme, which simply does not fit with the nature of a conflict such as that in Syria.

Secondly, it is time to move on the almost universal bar against anyone having reached Europe. The idea that if refugees reach Europe, they are a problem for Europe and we should not take them as refugees is wrong in principle. We must review that. There should not be a hard block on anyone who has reached Europe.

Thirdly, much more work is needed to reunite families. That has been touched on by a number of hon. Members in the debate. I, too, have been to Calais and to Dunkirk, and Dunkirk is even more distressing than Calais. The implementation of family reunification rules, even if theoretically available under international law, is simply not working on the ground. I have made the point before, and I will continue to make it. In Calais and Dunkirk I saw volunteers trying their level best to keep people alive, safe and well in trying conditions. By their own admission, they were unable to help with the reunification process, which is complicated and difficult, so it is not working on the ground and needs to be looked at again urgently.

The fourth area is of course unaccompanied children. In Calais, the volunteers have a sense of the number of unaccompanied children, but in Dunkirk the volunteers told me that they cannot even count them, because they do not have the resources to work out who the children are. Children there desperately need help. More work needs to be done on unaccompanied children in Europe.

Finally, there is the bigger picture, which is about safe and legal routes. I join with those saying that there is an exam question in relation to certain groups—the Yazidi women would be one. How do we provide safe and legal passage for very vulnerable people to find safety in Europe?

I hope that the Minister takes everything in the right spirit. The debate is intended to influence the position that he may take—it is a nudge, pull and influence situation. The Government have made moves; more would be very welcome.

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Refugees (Richard Harrington): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I commend the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on

16 Mar 2016 : Column 350WH

bringing about the debate and everyone on their contributions. I appreciate the compliments about what the Government have done, and I listened to every single item said about what more the Government should do.

Those hon. Members who know me will know that, since I took on this job last September, we have been trying carefully to listen to everybody. Clearly, there is not a person in the country, let alone in the House, who could not fail to be moved by the plight of Syrians, both those trapped in the appalling conditions there and those who have been forced to leave home. That is not just clichés and platitudes; that is so obvious. For those of us involved in politics, if that is not part of why we are involved, we should not be in it.

I am proud of what the Government have done. In the same spirit as the comments were made, which was not negative, I will criticise hon. Members’ comments that the Government have done all of this stuff reluctantly because we were forced to. I will say, as everyone would expect, that that is not the case. I also stress that this cannot be viewed in any way other than in the round. Hon. Members have said, “It is one thing giving money—fine, thank you very much and well done UK Government—but there is a lot more to it than that: it is what we do here.”

Hon. Members talk about camps, but comparatively few people are in camps. The point has been made that people are in everything from what I would describe as the top-end, which are basically large corrugated iron buildings, down to tents in fields and crammed into rooms in apartments and houses. They are registered with UNHCR, which is how we make our distinction rather than the accommodation.

It is not just a question of giving money and the UK has done a lot more than that. We see a number of British non-governmental organisations working there, and young people who in their civil service careers probably could have chosen a comfortable job sitting in Whitehall are there, living in very difficult situations and doing a great job. The commitment of the Government and of the British people is very much more than just the financial side.

The resettlement bit—the narrowest part of the programme—for the most vulnerable families is important and I would not underestimate it. It is important, but it must be viewed as just part of the whole programme. Local authorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been excellent. That is a good example of us working with the Scottish Government, the Home Office and Scottish local authorities—no one is playing political games. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) made a good point. His area is a good example, but so are Brighton, Sheffield and all of the other places. The Government have done a lot of work on the voluntary scheme to try to persuade local authorities, some of which do not have the experience of those places of taking refugees, to take them. Many communities are doing it for the first time.

I will try to make progress—I realise I have little time—and try to answer some of the specific questions raised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) talked about the Yazidis. In answer to the hon. Member for Dwyfor

16 Mar 2016 : Column 351WH

Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), I will be happy to meet with Salwa Khalaf Rasho—I hope she will excuse my pronunciation of the name and of the Welsh. However, I would like to put on record and make it clear that the UK has not done nothing about the Yazidis. Our aid has been reaching a lot of vulnerable women and girls across Iraq, including many Yazidis. For example, we funded the establishment of three centres in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that provide psychosocial and legal support for Yazidis and, through the Iraq humanitarian pooled fund, of which we are leaders, we are providing life-saving healthcare for women and children, child protection services and specialist support for those victims of Daesh terror. I will be happy to meet with Members to go into detail on that, but I did not want them to think that we were doing absolutely nothing. The Yazidi community are internally displaced people, so, unlike all the other refugees we are involved with, that work is not through UNHCR.

As far as the Christian and other minority communities are concerned, I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden that I have spoken to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Durham, the Catholic bishop and the Coptic bishop. We want examples. I have asked them and I will ask hon. Members to come to us with examples of communities that UNHCR cannot reach, because we will fund the UNHCR to go out to those people. I made that point to the Bishop of Durham last week. There is a lot of talk of stories that I am sure are valid, but we need to find those people. I would however like to say that Patrick Lynch, the representative of the Catholic community in this field, noted recently that there has been some improvement in the amount of registration of Christians in Jordan.

Mrs Spelman: Will the Minister give way?

Richard Harrington: I am very sorry but I cannot because I have a very short period and lots to say. I will be happy to discuss this at any time, as my right hon. Friend knows.

I will move on to points made about unaccompanied children. The Government made a statement through the Minister for Immigration on 28 January that we are considering how best to provide protection for them. We have asked UNHCR for a comprehensive report on that. As far as UNHCR is concerned, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), who is not in his place, said that, from his experience it was under-resourced. We are making it our business to ensure that it is not under-resourced for this project—I hope that things have moved on since his time. We have had roundtables with the Refugee Council and others, but we cannot have a knee-jerk reaction on these children. As hon. Members

16 Mar 2016 : Column 352WH

have mentioned, UNHCR’s main policy is to resettle unaccompanied children in the region with greater families, because it feels that that is better for them.

The Government are providing further resources to the European Asylum Support Office at border hotspots to help to identify and register children at risk when they first come into the EU. Kevin Hyland, the Children’s Commissioner, is going on behalf of the Home Secretary to investigate the position.

Caroline Lucas: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Richard Harrington: I am so sorry but I cannot. I have only two minutes to go and I have things I would like to cover. Again, I am very happy to discuss that on any other occasion.

On the children in France who have been spoken about, there have been many representations to the Government to expand the family reunification scheme. Children can be resettled here under family reunification in different ways. The UNHCR vulnerability criteria, which are one of the seven parts of the Syrian resettlement scheme, are one such way.

The Dublin convention allows for children to be given asylum. The example of France was given, and we are shortening the time between children getting advice on and applying for asylum and coming here under family reunification. I was advised by officials yesterday that that is down to four weeks—four weeks from registering in France, with proof of family reunion, they can come here. Things are happening on that.

I accept that many valid points were made and the Government are always looking at ways of improving the situation. What we cannot do is provide a vehicle for the people smugglers and traffickers to get children as far as France, then into this country as unaccompanied children and then produce parents. The people who produce those children are ruthless, and the refugees are vulnerable and desperate. I am sure hon. Members will agree that we cannot allow children to be used as a way of getting families here when we do have good schemes in place to get families over here.

Community sponsorship has been mentioned and we are finalising the details of that. The Government are focused on providing a wide response. We know that there are people who cannot be supported sufficiently in the region and it is those vulnerable people whom we are bringing to the UK.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the UNHCR and pathways for admission of Syrian refugees.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 353WH

EU Referendum: Northern Ireland

11 am

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on Northern Ireland.

I am glad to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Crausby, and pleased to see the Minister in his place. I am grateful to have this opportunity to highlight in brief the effect that the UK’s leaving the EU would have on Northern Ireland. I believe that all of Britain and Northern Ireland benefit from being part of the EU, but there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland that require thorough consideration before the vote in June. To put it simply, Northern Ireland uniquely benefits from our membership of the EU, and would be uniquely hurt by leaving.

The most obvious issue, for which there is no parallel in Britain, is the land border that we share with the south of Ireland. Anyone who lives in a border county will know for themselves that talk of a hard border in Ireland is not an abstract, scary story, but a living memory. I was reminded of that last week when I attended the launch of the Irish4Europe campaign in London. It is a campaign group set up to encourage Irish people living in Britain to engage with the referendum. During the questions and answers, someone told us about growing up in Quigley’s Point in Donegal, and an attempt to smuggle 4 lb of Northern Irish butter into Donegal. It was foiled by the honesty of his grandmother, who when asked by the guard whether there was anything to declare lifted her coat off the back seat and revealed the 4 lb of butter. We laughed but the story is less funny in the light of an official report from the Cabinet Office that says:

“Northern Ireland would be confronted with difficult issues about the relationship with Ireland. Outside the EU’s Customs Union, it would be necessary to impose customs checks on the movement of goods across the border.”

To be clear, that warning comes not from me or my party but directly from the Cabinet Office. The same report says:

“Questions would also need to be answered about the Common Travel Area which covers the movement of people.”

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She will understand that I come from a different point of view. The Stormont Public Accounts Committee recently concluded that Brexit would have little effect or impact on the Northern Ireland economy. Secondly, the hon. Lady will know that the fishing industry in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel is clear that it wants a viable fishing industry free from EU red tape, the quota system, days at sea and EU legislation. They want to be able to fish the seas round their area—

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. Mr Shannon, interventions should he short.

Jim Shannon: I just ask the hon. Lady whether she accepts that.

Ms Ritchie: Needless to say, I do not accept that proposition—for a simple reason. I understand and appreciate people in the fishing industry because I

16 Mar 2016 : Column 354WH

represent fishermen from two of those ports, but I also understand that it would be possible to argue better for reform of the common fisheries policy by continued membership of the EU. There are people in the fishing industry, and senior people particularly, who have told me that fishermen have asked public representatives to be particularly cautious. Many of the regulations about discards and the landing ban originated in London, in Whitehall, and not in Brussels. People must be careful about that point.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Ritchie: I will, and then I want to make progress.

Tom Blenkinsop: The hon. Lady is making excellent progress in her prosecution of the argument for remaining in the European Union. Upstairs, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is conducting an investigation of Brexit. We have just heard from the Ulster Farmers Union about why, for them, the case for Brexit has not been made. Its members have worries about the potential for 40% of their trade to the continental European beef and dairy market to be damaged by a Brexit scenario.

Ms Ritchie: That was a very helpful intervention, and that story has been articulated to me by farmers, and the farming community and its representatives, including the Ulster Farmers Union. They are concerned about the free movement of products, produce and people across the island of Ireland. The north’s greatest export market is the south of Ireland. It is also here in Britain, and the wider common market of the 27 countries. We all know how long it takes for an export certification to be processed. It can take several years. Just look what has happened in China. We are still awaiting a certificate in respect of Taiwan. As for the export of poultry products to China, that has not yet been resolved. The nonsense being perpetrated by the no campaign should stop, because it is scaremongering to farmers, farming communities, and particularly those whom I represent.

To go back to the Cabinet Office report, I stress that it does not say that either the British or Irish Government would want to impose custom points. It simply says that it would become necessary. It highlights how, outside the European Union, managing the border could quickly fall outside either Government’s control. No matter what the wishes of the two Governments were, the border would become a victim of differing policies between the Common Market and the exited UK.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): My hon. Friend touches on an important point, because borderism would become inevitable. We are not free of it at the minute, even within the current EU context, as wedding car businesses in my constituency can testify. Once those pressures or issues arise, border controls and border differences are emphasised, and that has an impact on trade.

Ms Ritchie: I thank my hon. Friend for a helpful and informed intervention. His constituency has a clear border with County Donegal, and he articulates a particular fear: our concern that customs posts will immediately be put up, and will carry with them a major impediment to and restrictions on trade and people’s betterment. Far from improving control of our borders, leaving the

16 Mar 2016 : Column 355WH

EU would make it harder for the UK to manage the only land border that it has with the Common Market. That is a risk that we cannot afford to take.

We must remember that the south of Ireland is by far the north’s biggest export market. The latest regional trade statistics produced by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, released at the beginning of the month, show that a third of all exports from the north went to the south of Ireland, at a value of more than £2 billion. In the decades before the European Union made an open border possible, the hard border prevented north-south trade developing naturally, to the detriment of all communities in the north. By helping to open up the border, the European Union has enabled businesses to begin building a mature all-island economy that benefits and enriches everyone in the region.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining what is obviously a timely debate. She talked about reform being necessary, and I have heard her and her colleagues mention that before. Does she agree that, whatever negotiations the Prime Minister has done, and whatever reforms have been agreed, the deal will be that we have got what we have got and will have to accept it, with all its problems and faults, or else leave? She cannot have her cake and eat it—talking about reform after the debate has concluded and the referendum has been held.

Ms Ritchie: The Social Democratic and Labour party and I strongly believe that we should remain in the European Union. If Britain were to exit, it would cause immense economic, social and political damage to Northern Ireland. Our political and peace processes were modelled on the European Union, when countries came together in a post-conflict situation. The European Union is good for political, economic and social cohesion. Already, we have had reforms to the common fisheries policy through regionalisation. There is nothing to prevent further discussions from taking place within the European Union, to enable even better deals on that specific issue.

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. In the past two years, the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has received £635 million in EU funding, mainly due to single farm payments. Given the huge contribution of agriculture to the Northern Ireland economy, does she agree that that should be fully addressed by the Government before asking people to vote in the upcoming referendum?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. That is what farmers have been saying to me consistently. They want to remain within the European Union because there is certainty with the direct payments that they currently receive. There is absolutely no certainty in an exit about the type, form and nature of the moneys that those farmers would receive, because the UK is currently going down the road of austerity and cuts—we will probably hear about that later, in the Budget. I do not want to see the farmers whom I represent in South Down, nor those of my colleagues, subjected to such cuts.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab) rose

16 Mar 2016 : Column 356WH

Ms Ritchie: I will take one final intervention.

Stephen Pound: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Before she moved on to agriculture, she was talking about the political process. Does she agree that the cross-community support for peace won, and the role of the EU in the peace process in Northern Ireland, were essential in, and continue in subsequent programmes to be an essential component of, the peace process? The European Union has been positive for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. All the moneys that have come out of the peace programme have brought people together, right across communities; they helped to build that peace and political process and that delicate, intricate network of relationships.

The same has happened with the Interreg programme. I look at those cross-border programmes. I look at what has happened up in the north-west, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), with district councils along the border there between Derry and Donegal; down between Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan; and also in my own area—the east border region—with the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my own constituency, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, with Louth and Monagahan. Those relationships have borne money for many types of cross-border project and have allowed people to grow together in mutual understanding, through the benefit of the European Union. I wish others who think differently would stop being naysayers in this debate.

Much has been said about the impact on farm subsidies. It is an area where our economy is hugely reliant on our ability to export to and work with the south. Farming makes up a bigger proportion of our economy in Northern Ireland than it does in England, Scotland or Wales, and our smaller population means that we have no other option but to export. That means Northern Irish farmers are especially reliant on access to EU markets, including the south, and farmers in Northern Ireland receive more than £230 million a year in support from the European Union.

The Ulster Farmers Union has made it clear—it has probably already said so this morning in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—that that support has been vital in keeping our sector sustainable through tough times. I am certain that £230 million a year is more support than we would ever be able to secure from the British Government, should we vote to leave the EU. My certainty on that comes from the years that I and my colleagues before me have spent fighting for the interests of farmers in South Down and other constituencies.

Both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Cabinet Office have made it clear that there are no serious contingency plans in place for how support for farmers would be replaced should we leave the EU. Every penny would have to be fought for, in competition with all of Scotland, England and Wales. For others to suggest the contrary is totally spurious. No matter what they claim, the only way we can be certain that the support for farmers will continue is to vote to remain this June. Of course, we have already heard some politicians promise that their good relations

16 Mar 2016 : Column 357WH

with the British Government will enable them to secure even more support for Northern Ireland should we leave the EU. I ask those politicians: where have you been for the past five years, as we have seen cut after cut to services in Northern Ireland?

The damage to agriculture will come not only from the loss of subsidies, but from the instability and confusion that transitioning away from the common agricultural policy would cause. One need only look at the massive problems caused for farmers by the ongoing delays in getting payments out in the basic payment scheme. Delays in the payment of European support have pushed many farmers into debt and hugely undermined the sector. Imagine how much greater damage would be caused by the wholesale loss of European support. In contrast to the instability and uncertainty we would face outside the EU, if we work with our neighbours in the south and with the greater Common Market—to which we can export our products, and which could be fractured if there was an exit—we can build an outward-looking, sustainable agricultural sector.

I would like to conclude with a few words on the founding purpose of the European Union and what it means to us in the north. The European Union was founded to bring peace to a continent that had been torn apart by war and conflict, and to enshrine respect for human rights throughout the continent. The duty to build a lasting peace may seem far removed in the UK-wide debate, where the memories and sacrifices of the second world war grow more distant by the year, but it is something that we in Northern Ireland understand all too well. For us in Northern Ireland, the EU’s principles of co-operation, integration and reconciliation are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.

The EU has been a practical as well as a symbolic partner for us. We should not take for granted the money that comes to us when we look at the peace programme and at the funding from Interreg. Our membership of the European Union also helps to guarantee the human rights protections that made the Good Friday agreement possible. Those protections have since been further embedded, post-Lisbon, through the EU charter of fundamental rights, made binding on all member states since 2009. I therefore regret the decision of the British Government to scrap the Human Rights Act.

The EU might not be perfect, and we do not claim it is. We want more democracy, more accountability and more engagement, but voting leave will not get us any of that. Ultimately, voting leave would send a message to the world that we are more interested in looking inward than engaging with our neighbours. It would send a message that we have lost faith in building a better Europe and a better Northern Ireland within an island of Ireland. That would be a disaster for us. I still believe that dialogue, openness and integration are the only means to a better society, both in Northern Ireland and throughout Europe. Those, for me, are the principles of the European Union. That is why I will be voting to remain this June and why my party and I will be encouraging others to do the same—not out of fear, but out of hope and anticipation for the future that we can build together.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 358WH

11.18 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Ben Wallace): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on securing this important debate. We can probably all agree that this will be a once-in-a-lifetime referendum. I certainly welcome the chance for the people of the United Kingdom hopefully to reaffirm their commitment to this country being a member of the European Union. I have always supported our membership, and the Government’s efforts and the reforms we have achieved mean that we can make a strong case for remaining within the European Union.

Since the general election last May, the Government have pursued an agenda of reform and re-negotiation to deliver change in our relationship with the European Union. Following months of negotiations, we ended up with a new settlement that gives the UK a special status within the EU, as well as setting the EU as a whole on the path to long-term reform. We have protected the UK’s rights as a country within the single market but outside the eurozone to keep our economy and financial system secure and to protect UK businesses from unfair discrimination.

Our new settlement confirms that the regulatory burden on businesses, and particularly small businesses, will be reduced and there will be a new focus on extending the single market to bring down the remaining barriers to trade within the EU. We have secured agreement that the treaties will be changed in future, so that the UK is carved out of ever closer union, and we have established a mechanism for decision making to return from Brussels to the UK. We have secured new powers to tackle the abuse of free movement and to reduce the unnatural draw of our benefits system in order to meet our aim of reducing immigration by creating fairer rules, while protecting our open economy. Our new settlement resets the balance in our relationship with the EU. It reinforces the clear economic and security benefits of EU membership, while making it clear that we cannot be required to take part in any further political integration.

The UK is stronger, safer and better off in the EU. It is better off, because Northern Ireland and its businesses need access to 500 million consumers to which they can sell their goods; consumers who can afford to buy our goods and who can trade their business or supply our businesses in Northern Ireland. It is better off because being part of the European Union puts us in pole position to negotiate free trade agreements around the world with other large trading blocs and other large economies.

I am probably one of the few people in this House who took part in the negotiations for the UK-US defence trade co-operation treaty back in 2006—it is an individual treaty between the UK and the US—which involved very long graft. Ask anyone in aerospace what actual concessions we got from the United States and they will say it was a bare minimum. I was also part of the EU-US trade treaty negotiations in the early part of the previous Government, when I worked for the then Lord Chancellor. It was clear at that stage that the United States was only interested in a free trade agreement with the European Union. That is where the game is;

16 Mar 2016 : Column 359WH

that is where free trade agreements are made. We are therefore better off being part of the EU, so that we can collectively negotiate at that position.

Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP): Does the Minister agree that the EU is about not just economic union, but social union? It is a Union that has delivered many valuable social and employment protections across Europe for its members.

Mr Wallace: The EU is a whole range of things, but I think that at its heart it is about trade. The freedom to trade is the greatest driver of reform and of other people’s freedoms and rights across the world. Originally, the concept of the European Union, or its predecessors, revolved around trade. I believe that for Northern Ireland businesses, access to regulation-free, tariff-free trade with its neighbour in the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere in Europe is absolutely one of the benefits and is at the heart of why we should remain members of the European Union.

Jim Shannon: When the Prime Minister went to secure concessions from the European Union, he was unable to secure anything for the fishing industry or the agricultural sector directly. Remembering that we put some £19.7 billion into the EU and receive £15 billion in return, we are better off out of the Union; the fishermen will have control of their industry, as will the farmers, and the extra £4 billion that we will have can be used directly for those sectors.

Mr Wallace: I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and nor do many in the Ulster Farmers Union whom I have met to discuss the issue. In this modern world our farmers need access to markets and access to consumers. One reason why farmers in the Republic have a higher milk price is the efforts of the Irish Government to forge new export markets for their milk products. That is not about leaving the European Union; it is about helping our farmers, whether in England or Northern Ireland, to access new markets and new consumers. We have to remember that the consumers have to be able to afford the products. It is all very well trying to push products outside the European Union, but how many people in the rest of the world will be able to afford European products? There are a few in developing countries, but the idea that our farmers will get easier access to markets if we leave the European Union is just pie in the sky.

Mark Durkan: We have heard a number of interventions this morning, and clearly some people seem to believe that if the UK leaves the EU suddenly all the money that the UK sends into Europe will make its way to Northern Ireland instead, for the benefit of farmers and fishermen there. Does the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State share the belief that there is a crock of gold for Northern Ireland at the end of the Brexit rainbow?

Mr Wallace: We are all grown-ups, I hope, in this House. We all know the pressures that every Department across Whitehall gets on an annual basis from Treasury Ministers and other Ministers alike. Our farmers, with their direct payments from Europe, are often in a position to resist pressures from other Whitehall Departments.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 360WH

Take the idea, for example, that we would have let previous Labour Secretaries of State responsible for agriculture to get hold of that money en route to farmers. How long would it have lasted? This Government will continue to support our farmers, but I cannot guarantee that that would happen if Members from other parties in this House got into government.

The Government believe that being a member of the European Union makes us safer. Co-operation on security is at the heart of a successful security policy. We all remember the days of wrangling with Irish courts about deportation and bringing people back to the United Kingdom for trial. Not so long ago I recalled someone under licence, and they will be brought back under a European arrest warrant. It was straightforward. There is no more of the long wrangling that often saw people walk free. The co-operation that we have around the table in Europe on security issues creates trust, and at the heart of a good security policy is trust. I believe that remaining part of the European Union will allow us to develop that trust and build on it, and I also believe that we will be stronger. We are part of the European Union, and we are part of NATO, the G8 and the G20. All those organisations—all those unions and groupings—allow the United Kingdom to amplify its voice across the world stage. They allow us not to stand alone on many issues, which is very important.

The hon. Member for South Down mentioned the border. It is a fact that if we vote to leave the European Union, we will be outside the customs union. If we are outside it, the EU will require the remaining member states to make sure that there are safeguards to protect that customs union. That will inevitably be some form of barrier to trade, to small and large businesses in Northern Ireland. I met some small businesses in north Belfast only a few days ago. They effortlessly trade and grow their business across the border, and they effortlessly make sure that they have new markets in the Republic of Ireland. I do not think that the whole border will be shut if we leave, but I certainly believe that there will be extra barriers to trade that we do not need or that are unhelpful.

I will make a final point. People will hear the debate about guaranteeing our borders and sovereignty. It is obviously true that within the European Union we have arrangements with regard to our borders, but let us not forget that we are members of the UN. We have obligations under a succession of treaties—the 1951 Geneva convention relating to the status of refugees, the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees, the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, the 1984 UN convention against torture, which prevents us from deporting people to countries where torture or harsh punishment exist, and the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child. All that means that were we to leave the European Union, we would still be obliged to take into this country a huge range of people under our UN obligations. That is an example of where our sovereignty does not 100% lie. Are we saying that we will then leave the UN? Is that the next thing—“Stop the world, we want to get off”?

We should remember that were we to leave the European Union, our borders would not be as easy for trade as we may like, and they would not be as open to the hundreds of thousands of tourists that come to Northern Ireland every year. Our borders would also not be so easy for

16 Mar 2016 : Column 361WH

our air flights to and from Northern Ireland, so that people can arrive in the south, travel up through for tourism and fly out of Northern Ireland. All that is incredibly important to remember.

I have to say to the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) that I am a Unionist. Many of the reasons for belonging to the United Kingdom are the same as the reasons for belonging to the European Union. I do not say that the reasons are all the same, but the freedom to trade, the shared culture and the removal of barriers are things that, in my heart, make me a Unionist. I do not understand the Democratic Unionist party’s view that by putting in a new border we will somehow guarantee ourselves all those investments and good trade practices that are important, and also the ability to be stronger in Europe, rather than weaker on the outside.

Ms Ritchie: Does the Minister agree that there has been so much financial benefit in terms of tourism, economic development and investment, and that we must not imperil those by an exit?

Mr Wallace rose—

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order.

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

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 362WH

Govia Thameslink and Network Rail

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the performance of Govia Thameslink Railway and Network Rail.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for saying that my heart sinks as I look around the Chamber. That is not an indictment on any hon. Member, but I have a horrible sense of déjà vu that here we are again to address an issue that causes such misery to so many of our constituents. Having said that, it is a pleasure to see the Minister in her place. I know that she is on the side of passengers and that she is acutely aware of the issues that will be aired in this debate. I am aware of her personal initiatives in trying to sort out the problems and the high priority and she and her Department attach to their resolution.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s hard work and the entreaties from many MPs, we still seem incapable of securing the service for which our constituents pay so much, and which they have every right to expect. Many colleagues wish to contribute to the debate, so I will not run through every email I have received from my constituents on the subject—that would take some time—but I hope you will allow me to mention just a few, Mr Hollobone.

A 23-year-old female constituent was left stranded with no money when the last train to Horsham terminated unannounced at Three Bridges. Another constituent has calculated that if his train service continues for the rest of the year as it has to date this year, he will have spent the equivalent of an entire working week on or waiting for delayed trains. Another constituent wrote—I assume with tongue in cheek—that he no longer minds the late running of his usual train on the grounds that earlier trains are routinely so late that he can always catch one of those.

My constituents’ correspondence is supported by hard numbers. Average performance targets across the country are for 89.3% of trains to arrive within five minutes of schedule. I appreciate that the southern region is complex. It has 180 million passengers and the trains go into London Bridge station, which is in the midst of a complex and welcome redevelopment, but that was presumably baked into the woefully low target of 80.2% that it set itself in February 2015. Alas, that low baseline has been consistently missed.

A public performance measure of 83% back in the third quarter of 2010 fell to 76% in the third quarter of last year. Across the national rail network, there is a two-thirds probability of a train arriving within a minute of the scheduled time. For Govia Thameslink Railway that falls to one in two, but for my constituents recently it has been as low as 30% and currently under 40% of trains arrive as scheduled.

For my constituents using the Brighton main line from Balcombe, which in 2014 was the worst service in the country, with one service arriving late every day during the year, there has been nothing like a sufficient improvement. Perhaps the Minister will comment on

16 Mar 2016 : Column 363WH

the practicalities. We hear a lot about 24 trains a day running through Thameslink and to the north, which is a wonderful aspiration, but if these practices continue, I do not know how practical it will be to achieve that.

Many constituents believe that trains are cancelled to meet punctuality targets. I do not know whether that is true, but it is shocking that over the past year one in 20 of all Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern trains were either 30 minutes late or cancelled. It is a regular refrain for all of us to hear about constituents stranded or left with long waits to complete their journey home. I will return to that theme, but I note that passenger satisfaction with how delays are handled was the worst in the country when measured last autumn.

I have tracked specific action points set out by the operators and Network Rail to improve the service since May 2015 and identified 40 individual points. In discussions with the operators and Network Rail, it seems that 31 have been achieved and a further five are in progress and getting there. It is bewildering that, despite a 90% success rate, there has apparently been so little impact on customer experience on the ground. I know that 84 drivers were recruited for Southern and 38 for Thameslink in 2015. I know that 286 drivers are to be recruited across GTR in 2016 and that 251 are currently in training. I know that the class 700 is coming in, which I am sure will be a great success. I know that engineering work continues on the line and that London Bridge station is being rebuilt, at a cost of £6 billion, which is all good news. What I do not know, and what none of us knows, is when all this positive activity will ever improve the service that our constituents experience.

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that despite the great efforts of the company and Network Rail to carry out improvements—we all know how complex they are—there remains a real industrial relations problem? In some depots, the standards of modern manpower management are not nearly good enough. Does my hon. Friend also agree that the company needs to confront these issues and deal with them? If very highly paid drivers will not act in the interests of passengers, that is another reason why the company needs to get its act together?

Jeremy Quin: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He raises an interesting point. I am not in the habit of blaming staff for the failings of management, but we need to know where the problems lie. I have quoted statistics about how many drivers are coming in and how many are going through training. I appreciate that the class 700 requires drivers to be taken out for more training and so on, but ultimately our constituents do not mind how many drivers there are. They mind about being able to get home. If the contracts mean that they cannot have a reliable service throughout the Christmas period and at other peak travelling times, that is a problem for our constituents.

It is not for the Chamber or the Minister to micromanage what the companies should be doing, but we need answers that work. The thrust of my point is that we hear so much about improvements and I believe that they are being made, but we do not see the evidence on the ground and the service continues to be far too poor.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 364WH

My constituents have a sense of wonderment in a couple of directions. They wonder what can have possessed the train companies to think that now is a good time to close ticket offices outside peak times. The ticket machines at Horsham station are slow, difficult to navigate and do not contain the range of tickets that can be purchased over the counter. In the words of one constituent:

“As a Southern customer I receive a large number of delay repay vouchers. These cannot be used in the machines.”

Take that as you will. Another writes:

“why are Southern’s machine’s so difficult. I struggle with the complex menu navigation”.

That constituent professionally trains people in how to navigate complex software.

Too often, passengers realise that they have accidentally paid more than necessary for fares on the machines, but I suspect that more often they pay too much but are not aware of it.

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about tickets, and perhaps he will forgive me if I am pre-empting him. A major problem on Southern’s Uckfield line is that there has never been a ticket office open anyway. We can rely only on the machines. Would it not be much more sensible, rather than of having complex ticketing that no one can get the right ticket from, to have electronic ticketing so that people get the right ticket according to the journey they have made and, more importantly, are refunded when companies run their trains so late, so that they do not need to have a voucher or to put paper into the machine?

Jeremy Quin: It is always a pleasure to be pre-empted by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). He raises a valuable point that I hope the Minister will respond to, particularly in the context of delay repay. There must be a simpler way in this modern age for people to get their money back for journeys for which they bought a service but did not receive it. I am sure my hon. Friend is well ahead of me with the technical means for dealing with such things. There must be better ways of delivering that service.

I speak for a number of hon. Members here when asking those responsible for ticket offices to think again long and hard before proceeding with these closures, which I believe should not take place. In particular, I ask them, in the current environment of huge uncertainty faced by passengers and a poor service, how on earth reducing customer interface can possibly be in the interests of either passengers or the companies.

I will mention another sense of wonderment shared by my constituents. They look at the performance of our operators and Network Rail. They experience at first hand the chaos of what is the first step in a number of improvements that need to be made to the lines. They all too often stand cheek by jowl with other passengers on trains going through the deepest cutting anywhere in western Europe on their way to London. And they ask themselves in what parallel universe anyone could believe that the public infrastructure laid out in the 19th century to serve rural towns and commuters could possibly support Gatwick airport were it to double in size with a new runway to take the same number of passengers as Heathrow and a far greater number of workers forced to commute from far afield to service the new facility. In

16 Mar 2016 : Column 365WH

fairness, I do not expect the Minister to respond to that point today, but I raise it to share with the Government the frustrations felt by my constituents. If anyone imagines that the existing infrastructure could cope with a minimum of an extra 90,000 passenger journeys a day, that shows a complete failure to understand the sheer inadequacy of the current service.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. With regard to Gatwick airport, he is absolutely right that the existing rail infrastructure can barely cope as it is, let alone were there to be an additional runway. Although I welcome the more than £50 million-worth of investment in upgrading the Gatwick station, in terms of line capacity Gatwick has not offered any assistance, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that means Gatwick is absolutely the wrong choice for runway expansion in London and the south-east.

Jeremy Quin: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. He is absolutely right. If one looks at a possible alternative to Gatwick, one sees four or five main railway lines, Crossrail coming in and a potential spur to High Speed 2, as well as the tube network, faster journey times into London and a large number of would-be employees who are looking for employment absolutely on their doorstep, but we will not dwell on that; we will dwell on the subject at hand. I raised it purely because of the frustration that many of our constituents feel that their problems cannot be being taken seriously if people are seriously considering that they can throw all these extra passengers on to the same line.

I know that the Minister has put a huge personal investment of time and energy into sorting out the problems in this area. She has referred in the past to the massive productivity gain that could be gleaned were the problem to be solved, and she is absolutely right. We heard more in the Budget speech today about the productivity gains that could be had from transport. This is the basic work that needs to be put together to get real productivity gains for our economy. I know that the Minister is aware of that and of the human misery that entails from the problems on this line. May I offer three comments by way of conclusion?

First, we are all far too familiar with long and complex lists of the factors that need to be got right to improve the service. I have no doubt that those are provided in genuine good faith by committed managers, but they are simply inadequate for either solving the issues or reassuring passengers. Can we please hear less about the inputs and more about committed outputs that are deliverable and can be delivered on time? As part of that, I would like to see Network Rail, which seems a very distant organisation—according to the statistics, it is probably responsible for 57% of the delays on my line—far more customer-focused in the way it approaches its problems, and anything that the Minister can do to bring it closer to the reality of what its service entails would be welcome.

Secondly, I know that the Minister is a great advocate of more efficient, simpler and more generous refunds through delay repay, as so eloquently said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling. I would very much like to hear anything more that she can share

16 Mar 2016 : Column 366WH

with us on that. It is a way of concentrating the minds of the train companies, as well as providing what are only the just deserts for passengers who have been affected.

My last comment relates to the structure of the service. I do not believe that nationalisation or stripping commercial firms of franchises is a panacea. However, this is by far the largest and most complex task to get right in the network. I hope that if the Minister decides that its sheer scale and complexity requires the attention of smaller and more nimble spheres of operation, she will not be afraid to start that process.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. Unlike some Thameslink services, this debate has started on time and will finish on time. I am determined that everyone should be able to speak, so I will impose from the first Back-Bench speech a time limit of five minutes. If hon. Members are sparing with interventions, everyone should have that amount of time. Very generously, the Scottish National party spokesman and the Labour spokesman have said that they do not need to take their full allocation. I know that the Minister will want to use any extra time at the end to answer points. I hope to start calling the Front Benchers at 3.34 pm, and then Mr Quin gets another three minutes at the end to sum up the debate.

2.45 pm

Joan Ryan (Enfield North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this timely debate. We are discussing Govia and the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will not be too surprised to learn that many of the problems they face on the Southern railway are shared by commuters using the Great Northern routes in Enfield. It is quite an indictment of Govia that across the franchise, in both the south-east and the north of London and beyond, the service is totally unacceptable.

The stations that Govia serves in Enfield, on the Hertford loop, are Crews Hill, Gordon Hill and Enfield Chase. According to the rail regulator, there were 180,000 entries and exits at Crews Hill last year. There were 1.3 million entries and exits at Gordon Hill and 1.4 million at Enfield Chase. Those stations experienced a 9% and 5% increase in usage respectively between 2013-14 and 2014-15. With such a significant rise in numbers in the course of one year, the need for a reliable service becomes ever more important, and indeed that is exactly what Govia told us we could expect and it would provide.

In 2014, when the Department for Transport awarded Govia the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise, David Brown, chief executive of the Go-Ahead Group, which is the lead partner behind the Govia venture, said that the

“bid for the franchise was focused on improving customers’ experience”.

Well, if my mailbag and my own difficulties as I travel on the line day in, day out during the week are anything to go by, the performance is completely inadequate. I am almost wary of going on to the train platform. I do not know about the hon. Member for Horsham, but I could run an advice surgery on the train service while I am waiting for the train.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 367WH

Trains run consistently late. On Monday 14 March, only half of Great Northern trains arrived at their destination at their scheduled time, with almost 20% arriving more than five minutes late. That is a little better than the experience of Southern, but by no means acceptable. Yesterday, four out of every 10 trains did not arrive when they were supposed to. Today, Enfield commuters had to travel into London by other forms of transport because of delays and train faults affecting services from Enfield Chase. They were not impressed by the lack of information provided by Govia. Sadly, that is typical of its distinct lack of customer service. Constituents have regularly reported trains running through stations and not stopping as scheduled, causing headaches for passengers who then have to travel further, and often via other means, to get home. And there are far too many instances of three-carriage trains being used, even in peak hours. Packing commuters into carriages with very little room to stand, let alone sit, is certainly not an example of the improved customer experience that they were promised.

I have also been approached by constituents who have raised concerns about Govia’s consultation on ticket office closures, which will affect Gordon Hill and Enfield Chase as much as the commuters on Southern. The consultation was poorly advertised, with little publicity about the proposals at the stations concerned. The residents who contacted me about the matter found out about the consultation not from Govia, but from leaflets handed out by those campaigning against the measure. Govia needs to be absolutely clear with passengers about what its plans might mean. Will commuters still be able to arrange season ticket sales, railcards, photocards, advanced discount fares and refunds at a station without a ticket office? How many job losses in Enfield and elsewhere will result if ticket office closures go ahead as planned?

I understand that National Rail is responsible for almost 60% of delays on Govia, but Govia is therefore responsible for four in 10 delayed trains. I would suggest that to serve the commuters in my constituency and elsewhere properly, and to give them the fair deal that they deserve, Govia Thameslink Railway really needs to get its act together as fast as possible.

2.50 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) for securing the debate and agree with him that this really is déjà vu all over again. For all of us here, the issue is one of the single biggest annoyances in our constituencies at the moment. I get daily emails with progress or lack-of-progress reports from constituents, tweets and other social media. I have taken to having a “Trainwatch” section on my website, where I post, three times a day, the performance or lack-of-performance charts from Govia Thameslink Railway, which are usually a mass of red and yellow showing lateness.

On Monday, I visited the Three Bridges operation centre, so that I could see at first hand how it was dealing with all the problems. It is a very impressive facility where Network Rail works alongside Southern rail. I was taken around by the chief executive, Charles Haughton, and I am grateful to him for the time he took to show me around. However, it is very clear that GTR is still nowhere like on top of the problems.

16 Mar 2016 : Column 368WH

We were shown charts that were not just red, but pink, which is when it is in complete meltdown. The very morning that I was there, the whole signalling structure was outed for some 10 minutes, causing absolute chaos.

I then travelled in the cab with the chief executive up to London Victoria. Again, it was good to see at first hand some of the challenges faced by GTR. Fortunately, the train arrived into Victoria only 10 minutes late. I recognise the problems and challenges of the infrastructure going back to the 1930s, and we heard all about that at the heated meeting with the management and the Minister back on 18 January. We recognise that the responsibility for the problems is something like a 60:40 split, with Network Rail responsible for 60%. However, on the day I visited, it was quite clear that there were problems that were Southern rail’s own making.

I got an email just that morning from a constituent saying that they had just been told that the 7.31 am from Shoreham had been cancelled. At 7.35 am, they saw it shoot through Shoreham station. Later in the day, I found out that, in fact, the train had not been cancelled. There was a problem with the train crew at source. Southern had then chosen to shoot through some stations to try to make up that time, so, effectively, it had lied to consumers. It is no wonder that our constituents are getting cynical about the reasons for some of the delays. I said to GTR that it needs to be honest with passengers. Passengers will understand when major structural problems cause delays, but they need to be told the truth. If trains are to shoot through stations, passengers need to be given good warning of that and told exactly the reason why.

Some of the charts that I have posted on my website are quite appalling. One day, only 51 of 114 Gatwick Express trains actually arrived on time, and 30 were more than 30 minutes late or cancelled. Only two thirds of trains on the Brighton main line arrived on time that day. For people coming into Gatwick and getting on to the Gatwick Express, this is the “Welcome to Britain” sign, and that sort of inconvenience and hassle does not give a good impression of the services in this country.

I praise the social media that GTR is using to try to communicate more, but it needs to be much more transparent about the problems. The issue is having an impact on students in my constituency, who are arriving late at lessons as trains are overshooting their stops. Commuters are saying that they are going to move back to London.

In such a backdrop, the ticket office closures add insult to injury, with closures of the majority of 84 station ticket offices across the south-east. In Shoreham and Lancing, the ticket offices will close. At Worthing, it will be there for peak time only. The closures are supposedly based on a survey of ticket office usage. Nobody knows when that survey happened or how many people were involved. In fact, in Shoreham, the ticket office has been closed on many occasions because of staff illness. That information is not available for the three-week-only consultation that is closing this week. There will then be a week for Transport Focus to decide what recommendation to make but, in any case, it has no veto over GTR’s intentions.