(1 month, 2 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith). I shall start by responding to new clause 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and the hon. Gentleman. I am grateful to him for his constructive words and the way in which he has approached the debate.
The new clause would require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on the number of directors investigated and disqualified under the new provisions in the Bill every three months from the date that the Act is passed. I am grateful to hon. Members for the opportunity to confirm to the House that statistical reporting is routinely undertaken by the Insolvency Service. Regular three-monthly releases cover company insolvencies across the whole UK as well as individual insolvencies in England and Wales. The releases also contain underlying data and are published and available online to everybody.
As well as that, since the start of the pandemic, the Insolvency Service has been publishing experimental monthly releases of data concerning insolvency numbers. This was so that the statistics could act as an indicator of the impact of the pandemic on insolvencies. It may be of particular interest to hon. Members that the Insolvency Service also releases monthly updates about its enforcement activities. This information includes not only the number of companies wound up in the public interest, but the number of disqualification orders and undertakings broken down by the relevant section of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, under which they were sought. Going forward, these numbers will include any orders or undertakings obtained as a result of this new provision. The reports also include information on lengths of periods of disqualification. Furthermore, there is an annual report on the nature of the misconduct being alleged.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that a large amount of information is already provided that can be accessed easily through a quick online search and that future reports of enforcement outcomes will include any disqualifications made against former directors of dissolved companies. I would be grateful to him for withdrawing his new clause.
Let me just add one last point. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the new burdens on councils. I somewhat couched my answer the last time we spoke about it, so I just want to put on record that we will absolutely be meeting the new burdens cost, including the associated administrative and IT costs.
I will again be brief, because we set out our concerns on Second Reading and in Committee, I am aware that this might not be seen as the highlight of the parliamentary week by Members, and there is an important debate to follow.
As we said, we have always supported the Bill’s broad aims. We want to see support administered quickly for businesses that have been affected by covid and have missed out on business rates relief. We accept that ruling out material change of circumstances claims, but instead administering the bespoke £1.5 billion fund, will probably be the best way of doing so in the current circumstances. We also support the aims of clauses 2 and 3, which would close the legal loophole and give the Government the power to investigate and disqualify unscrupulous or unfit company directors.
I welcome the Government’s decision to extend the provisions of clause 1 to apply in Wales, which has been welcomed by colleagues in the Senedd. I also welcome the Government’s decision to ask local authorities, when it comes to administering the fund, to award relief against the liabilities of ratepayers for the current financial year—2021-22—as a way of getting around the restrictions on the business rates legislation so that they can effectively award it against the previous year. It is a technical solution to a technical problem caused by the timing of the funding, when it is eventually released. Local government colleagues assure me that they are happy with this.
Again, I emphasise the fact that we need to get this relief out to businesses as quickly as possible. The rates relief was announced in March and not a penny has yet been paid out. I do not think we need to wait for the end of the Bill proceedings to get indicative guidance to local authorities to design their schemes.
There are still concerns about the resourcing of the Valuation Office Agency and the Insolvency Service and how funds will be recouped and actions taken against unfit company directors. I hope that the Minister will take those concerns into further consideration.
Finally, I thank the Minister for his engagement with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on the Bill’s finer points. I thank his officials and the many, many representatives of the business community and local authority officers who have also engaged with us during the passage of the Bill.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about Companies House and its limitations. Does he share my concern that the UK Government just do not care enough about Companies House and the massive loopholes that they are leaving for people to be defrauded and company directors to get away scot-free with the wrong things that they are up to?
(3 months, 2 weeks ago)Public Bill Committees
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his powerful contribution; he is extremely well informed on these matters. I thank him also for his support and take into account his comments on the three-year limit. I am grateful for that.
The Government are certainly not pretending that the work stops here. However, the Bill is a positive step forward in the right direction and it is taking action. I will raise the points the hon. Gentleman has made today with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Extent, commencement and short title
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
(3 months, 3 weeks ago)Public Bill Committees
Q Let me follow up on that. Thank you for giving evidence. You laid out a broad landscape of institutions and organisations that you said were together allowing the crime to go on, on the scale that you believe it is. You went on to say that the regulation is not really built to cope with what is happening. As part of that systemic issue, what do you think the Insolvency Service is not doing as well as it should, and does it have the resources that it needs to perform its functions effectively?
Andrew Agathangelou: I will answer your question, but before I do I would like to elaborate on a small point that you made. I actually think that the regulatory framework has been built by Parliament to do what it is designed to do. The problem is not that it is not capable of doing it; it just does not do it. It is a bit like having a really fast car that is just not being driven fast by the driver. The problem is not the vehicle; it is who or what is controlling it. I just thought I would throw that in.
To respond to your question more specifically, again I am a plain-speaking person. The Transparency Task Force ran an event last Thursday, with the title “The Great Insolvency Scam”. I can provide the Committee with the recorded video testimony of that. The reason why we ran an event called “The Great Insolvency Scam” is that we see insolvency as a very dark and murky part of the world of business and commerce. We believe that there is a pile of evidence suggesting that the Insolvency Service has been weaponised. That is where the Insolvency Service is frankly abusing its very extensive powers.
The net result is that people sometimes have their homes or businesses taken away from them, as a consequence of engineered bankruptcies. It really is an horrific, dark area. It sometimes results in people self-harming, committing suicide and all the rest of it. I will now answer your question directly. Personally, the Insolvency Service is a can of worms. I will repeat that it is my personal opinion. I think the Insolvency Service, in part, is a can of worms that needs to be opened up and looked into. It needs to be properly regulated.
I have enormous concern about giving the Insolvency Service lots more money to carry out the additional work that is going to be necessary as a consequence of this Bill going through, if it does, without first ensuring that the service is fit for purpose. These are very strong views. I am not an extreme individual who has crazy ideas. I have just listened to and seen the testimony of people who have suffered as a consequence of the types of things I am talking about.
Think of this Bill as the start of an ongoing process of reform. Please do not think of it as the end point. Please do not make the mistake of thinking that it is a “job done” situation. It really is not. There is so much to be looked at. I ask the Committee to do all it can, on behalf of the British public, to ensure that the Insolvency Service stops doing what it sometimes does.
Q I believe that all 650 MPs will have constituents who have been victims of the practice of phoenixing. I believe you made reference to law enforcement agencies, Action Fraud and the National Crime Agency. Could you tell us a bit more about how big the problem of phoenixing is—directors using legislation to dissolve companies to avoid liabilities and further investigation?
Andrew Agathangelou: I cannot answer your question directly, forgive me—I do not have that data and have not done that research. Let us think of it like this: roughly four or five years ago, a man called Roberto Saviano, an investigative journalist, became quite famous for a period because he did some investigative journalism on the mafia, and as a consequence of that investigative journalism, he now lives, I believe, under police guard 24 hours a day because he lifted the lid on a whole load of really bad, really heavy stuff.
I am mentioning Roberto Saviano because about five years ago, at something called the Hay Festival, he made the point that London is the heart of global financial corruption. That is a pretty powerful thing for somebody to say, especially if they have been investigating the mafia for years and years. You can google it and find it yourself. This is a very serious heavy-duty investigative journalist.
I mention that because it is reasonable to assume that a lot of that corruption involves entities and companies set up for special purposes. If the UK is the worst country in the world when it comes to global financial corruption—or if it is not the worst, let us say it is in the top quarter of really bad countries when it comes to financial and economic crime and corruption—it is reasonable to assume that the artful dodge of phoenixing is part of the modus operandi of the “community” that does this kind of stuff. I cannot give you any facts or figures, but a little deduction suggests that it is a massive problem.
I will make one further point, if I may. One of the reasons why it is a problem is Companies House. It is still shocking to me that, despite about nine years of Parliament having an interest in Companies House, finally getting its act together and asking even really basic questions about the people behind a new company that is being set up, Companies House has been allowed to carry on behaving in the nonchalant way that it does, with its casual, risky and dangerous way of granting companies the chance to come into existence when no proper due diligence has been done.
Similarly, in the pensions world, there was a period of about three years when Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was happy to authorise the setting up of new pension schemes with the lightest-touch due diligence you can imagine. Basically, people were allowed to go online, fill in a form and create a new pension scheme, which would then be the perfect vehicle for scammers to use. That has happened so much.
While I am on this little rant, allow me to stay there with one more point. When the pension freedoms legislation was being introduced, many people said, “Woah, woah, woah, woah, woah! Before you go allowing people to transfer their entire pension savings in a lump sum, why don’t we stop and think what the risks of this are? Why don’t we have a conversation about whether this might lead to some kind of fraudster’s paradise?” But no, pension freedoms legislation was rushed through, and now, many years later, even the regulators, such as the Financial Conduct Authority, are making the point that not enough thought was given to the risks associated with that kind of casual, fast policy-making.
So there we go. Companies House is effectively advertising to criminals, “Come and set up a company in the UK. Don’t worry, we’ll turn a blind eye to pretty much anything that happens because, frankly, we won’t know what you’re doing or what you’re about because we won’t bother asking you.” That is one example of these sorts of issues. The second example I have given you is in relation to HMRC, and it goes on.
I honestly think that if anybody was to do some kind of independent, objective, evidence-based evaluation or analysis of the work of City of London police, the Insolvency Service, Companies House and the financial regulators—that very long list that I mentioned—around how effective they are at preventing crime from happening in the UK, I am pretty sure that report would be rather scathing.
Q To expand on a few of those areas, starting with the three-year time limit to file a disqualification application, the Insolvency Service or the Secretary of State can already examine historic conduct, but they have three years to file the application for disqualification. Can you expand a bit on what you meant about the court process, which presumably comes afterwards?
Duncan Swift: What I was explaining about the timeline was that for the office holder—whether it be the Insolvency Service or the official receiver as liquidator, or the Insolvency Service coming in to pull together a picture of the company’s financial dealings and the director’s conduct in the course of those dealings—it takes time. In the first phase in particular, it can take two years to get a reasonably complete picture before one can be confident of putting forward an application to court, either for a recovery of assets or, I would have thought, the disqualification of a director in circumstances where that individual may well be using the proceeds of such activities to defend their position, as well as seeking to confuse it to defend against the likelihood of such claims being brought against them.
(3 months, 4 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
It is a pleasure to be called so early in a debate, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am not used to that happening frequently. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I have been involved in business rates as a businessperson for a long time, and I greatly sympathise with businesses that have been hit by coronavirus. We know there is a disproportionate impact on some sectors as compared with others, but I support the Government’s measures here and I will explain why. The Government have put a lot of support in—I think the Minister said it was £16 billion in business rates relief to certain sectors and at least another £10 billion in grants above that. There is £1.5 billion in the Bill for businesses that were not included in those schemes.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), who I think will speak next, is flawed. It shows a deep misunderstanding of how the business rates system works. Business rates are not about a business; they are about a property. All business rates are based on a property value. What she is trying to argue is that a business of a different business type, such as a nightclub, should be treated differently in terms of business rates from, for example, a retailer or a bank that might have traded successfully. Asking the Valuation Office Agency to value something on the basis of how a certain business has been hit by coronavirus would turn the business rates system completely upside down, at a time when that would not be particularly helpful.
I understand that more than 300,000 businesses potentially would have taken this route, some of which had not been hit by coronavirus. The amendment would create a huge opportunity—a bonanza—for the legal sector to look at this area and take these things to court. That would ultimately cost the taxpayer a lot of money on many occasions where the businesses concerned had not suffered from coronavirus.
The point is about the material change of circumstance. It is about a permanent change. That is what the measure is there for: a permanent change, as the Minister said, such as a demolition or something that affected all the premises in a locality. This is not about general market conditions. Hopefully, coronavirus will be a temporary thing and the restrictions caused by it will in two or three weeks’ time be long gone. For that reason, I do not support the hon. Lady’s amendment, and I support the Government’s action in terms of a material change of circumstance and restricting the right to take an appeal forward.
Clause 2 concerns former directors of dissolved companies. I absolutely support closing that loophole, too. As the Minister said, often, one sees business owners who will use subterfuge to avoid, for example, the repayment of bounce back loans or the payment of suppliers. That is inappropriate. If there is a direct route to that through going straight to being a dissolved entity, it is absolutely right that we close that loophole.
I listened to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), and he made some very good points about resources for the Insolvency Service. I have worked with it quite a lot on various matters while I have been in this House and it is not the most proactive organisation around. It may be a lack of resources, but certainly there is no point having the regulations if we do not regulate such businesses, and we have to make sure that, if these measures are introduced, the Insolvency Services does hunt down the people who try to avoid their debts, including fraudulently. As I said in my intervention on the Minister, if these debts have been avoided fraudulently, those people should be prosecuted for fraud. As I said in my intervention on the Minister, if these debts have been avoided fraudulently, those people should be prosecuted for fraud. That is another area where we lack resources. The UK has a very poor record on hunting down fraud and financial crime. That is an area where we need to beef up our resources, which would have a huge payback, of course. Consider the relative amounts charged in financial sanctions in the US versus the UK: even accounting for the size of its economy, five to six times more money comes back into the US Treasury through its prosecution of fraud. There would be a big payback for our Treasury if we beefed up resources.
Let me touch briefly on one issue with the Insolvency Service that is not directly related to the Bill but reflects on certain points made by the shadow Minister. I have been trying to get the Insolvency Service to take action against a rogue set of business rates consultants called RVA, who go into unsuspecting small businesses that do not understand that small business rate relief, for example, is freely available; they just need to contact the council and it becomes applicable to their premises and business. They do not understand that, and RVA signs them up to a contract that basically takes 50% of the relief for up to 12 years, for writing one letter to the local authority. That is absolutely wrong. We should close that organisation down now. The Insolvency Service has promised to look at it, but not as proactively as it might.
I will make a wider point on the general issue of insolvency. As many people in this place know, I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking. For some time we have had real concerns about the insolvency profession generally, and its probably unhealthy links with some of the people it gets its work from, not least the high street banks. We are doing an inquiry into that alongside the legal firm Humphries Kerstetter. We are taking evidence now and will produce a report in early September on those conflicts of interest. We have seen lots of cases, including one quite recently with KPMG and HIG where both have been fined a significant amount in a draft judgment.
There are some unhealthy alliances here. We need to remove those conflicts of interest and, as the Government have said they will consider doing at some point, move towards an independent, ombudsman-style regulator for the insolvency profession. That does not exist now; it is pretty much self-regulation, which has been proven time and again not to work. I know that is not particularly a matter for today, but this was a good opportunity to get it on the record.
A snappy title it is not, but a very important Bill it is, for two very good reasons. I wish to recap by saying that this Government have supported the jobs and livelihoods of the people of this country to the tune of some £400 billion—£300 billion in the past year alone; the last time we exceeded 10% of GDP was in the financial crisis, and before then world war two, and we are still supporting businesses, as we are doing with this Bill. When we are trying to protect the jobs and livelihoods of so many people, there will inevitably be areas of difficulty, yet the Government have always tried to support as many people as possible. The £16 billion-worth of rates relief has been an absolute lifeline for countless businesses, including those that get in touch with me in my constituency and others all around the country. The Government are to be commended for that. Even when businesses are more difficult to support, the discretionary funds for local authorities to be able to target those businesses are also a lifeline, and therefore the £1.5 billon of additional support for businesses whose circumstances have perhaps changed during the pandemic is incredibly important and welcome.
I want to touch on an equally serious matter: we read that potentially 60% of the £46.5 billion that has been lent out through various Government schemes—lent, I might add—might be defaulted on and not repaid. When the Government are the guarantor, I certainly welcome the Treasury taking the necessary steps to mitigate that risk and the retrospective powers to curb that significant problem, putting the parameters in place to deal with directors who might dissolve a company, walk away from their responsibilities and then not just have an effect on many people, such as creditors who are equally trying to get back on their feet, but cheat the taxpayers, who must also get back on their feet. That money is so important for the re-emergence of our economy, and we absolutely have to ensure that our public services can get up again, so any power through legislation, with the legal process in there to mitigate that, is very welcome.
It is worth pointing out that we have to be mindful slightly of not being out of this pandemic, and therefore, in going after directors who default on their responsibilities —I was a director once, and I would never dream of defaulting—we need to be careful to enable businesses to resurge again. We have to make sure that approaches to recoup the money are done in the right way. I am happy that the Exchequer is being protected in this way. I think it is very sensible legislation. We know that when we create something retrospectively it is often because we have moved at speed to protect taxpayers in the first place. This is very welcome legislation, and I back it 100%.
I will not give way, but I will happily come back to the hon. Lady if I have not answered her question. I do want to get through a few areas.
Let me quickly turn to the disqualification of directors of dissolved companies. The issue of insolvency funding came up a few times. Clearly, we will be working with the Insolvency Service to ensure that it has the resources to do its job. It employs its finite resources to the maximum effect by prioritising cases in which there has been most harm to the public and the wider marketplace. Clearly, its resources are not limitless.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked about insolvencies. Actually, the number of insolvencies has been at a 40-year low over the past few months because, effectively, in many areas, the economy has been held in stasis. That is why it is so important that, having put £352 billion-worth of support into the economy, we now have 352 billion reasons why we have to get the next bit right—why we have to help shape the recovery through these mitigations. We need to make sure that we continue to flex and continue to extend the support. That is why furlough carries on until September and why we have ensured that the winding-up proceedings have been extended for another nine months as well, so that we can get conversations going with landlords and tenants. It is so, so important to continue these measures.
I am glad that we have had broad support for the measures. In terms of compensation, directors can obviously be held personally liable for debt, and where there are breaches, there is disqualification.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Let me just answer a couple of his points. He talked about corporate governance and audit reform. That is something that we will legislate on as soon as parliamentary time allows. He referenced a Minister saying that we would adhere to standards that we thought that we could get away with. No, that is absolutely not the case. I did not hear that comment, but I suspect what the Minister said and meant was that we are accountable to the electorate. When I heard about that comment, I thought about my own constituency where I know at least one High Court judge, an insolvency practitioner, lawyers, forensic accountants, civil servants—I have them in my own Department never mind my constituency—and journalists and, boy, will they hold me to account at the ballot box, in my local media and in the national media should it be appropriate to do so. That is that standard to which we expect to work as a Government. I am glad that he also mentioned phoenixing, because this will strengthen the phoenixing legislation as well.
I have noted the helpful contributions made by Members across the House, and I am looking forward to working with colleagues in Committee to make sure that we can get this really important legislation for both of these measures through. The scrutiny that has been provided today is, as always, greatly appreciated. I look forward to discussing this Bill with Members throughout its passage, and I commend it to the House.
(11 months, 1 week ago)Commons Chamber
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the shared prosperity fund will be a great opportunity for the whole United Kingdom to come together; for us to be doing work not dissimilar to the activities of the towns fund and the high streets fund, investing in skills, transport, technology and in place in a way we simply have not been able to do while those funds have been directed through the bureaucracy and regulation of the European Union. As we design the UK’s shared prosperity fund and bring it to fruition in the early part of next year, I will certainly be listening to my hon. Friend and his colleagues in Wales.
I think I have already answered that point: the accounting officer’s advice is not routinely published within Whitehall. That is a matter for the Department and the civil service more generally. However, it has been shared with the Public Accounts Committee, and I am pleased to see that at least one member of the Committee actually bothered to read it, unlike others present in the Chamber. It is a fair summary, and my permanent secretary has attested to that.
(2 years ago)Commons Chamber
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point, which I am happy to look into in more detail. In Oxford, as in so many other areas throughout the country, the rough sleeping initiative is reducing rough sleeping—it is down by 19% directly since 2017 and there has been a 32% reduction compared with where we would have been had it not been introduced—but I absolutely take seriously the points that have been raised from all parts of the Chamber.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that Dame Carol Black is absolutely the right person to lead the independent review of drugs policy. All these issues are being considered and I look forward to reading the recommendations.
(2 years, 9 months ago)Commons Chamber
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who made a powerful speech reflecting on her experiences in Rwanda. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) intends to speak about that later.
I have found being a Member of this place quite difficult over the past few weeks and months, given how incredibly divided we are and the volatile atmosphere, so it has been a refreshing change to see such consensus across the Chamber today, albeit for a debate on a very sad subject. If we conducted all our debates in such an atmosphere, we would probably be in a position that was a hell of a lot better. I particularly appreciated the thought-provoking speech made by the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). It is certainly something I will consider next Monday, when we return for what I expect will be another volatile week.
I think that we all agree that on this, the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration and death camps, it is more important than ever, particularly given the dwindling number of holocaust survivors, to take this opportunity to reflect not only on that awful atrocity, but on other genocides. That is why it is so important to place on the record our thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust for its work in all our constituencies. In Scotland, over 3,000 pupils and teachers have had the opportunity to benefit from the “Lessons from Auschwitz” project, and I know that a number of Members have had an opportunity to take part in that. Many years ago, when I was a researcher in this place, John Mason, one of my predecessors, visited Auschwitz, and I remember that we could tell how incredibly moved he had been. I think that anybody who has been to Auschwitz has had that experience.
I also want to stand up today and make sure that the Jewish community in Scotland know how safe they should feel in our country. There is no doubt that in this country the Jewish community have had to endure some utterly despicable behaviour, and hon. Members have placed some of that on the record today. A number of years ago I had the great fortune to attend the Garnethill synagogue in Glasgow, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss)—she and I both attended—and to look at some of the Jewish archives. It comes back to education, because it was only then that I began to learn about one of my predecessors, Myer Galpern, who was the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston from 1959 to 1979. In fact, he was a Deputy Speaker of the House from 1975 to 1979. Myer Galpern was not only the first Jewish Lord Provost of Glasgow, but the first Jewish provost in Scotland. I think that it is really important that I, as one of the youngest Members of the House, put that on the record today, to make sure that we never forget the contribution of the Jewish community, not just then but now, and that we embrace them and show them how much a part of our community they are.
I want, in my capacity as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on British Jews, to make some reference to current events, particularly in Hungary. I do not believe that the UK Government have done enough to confront the Hungarian Government about their state-sponsored antisemitism, as seen in the campaign against George Soros, for example. I also make a plea to the Minister to see that the UK Government do more to encourage other countries to promote the just and speedy restitution of property that was seized by the Nazis during the holocaust, much of which has still not been returned to the families of the original owners, despite promises to do so across Europe. I would be grateful if Her Majesty’s Government, through diplomatic channels, could convince other Governments to take action on that.
Let me say again what an honour it has been to be part of a debate where we treat each other with respect. Parliament is all the richer for that today. I am not normally a fan of this place, but Parliament can be very proud of how it has conducted itself today, and I think that sets a good example to our constituents.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) for introducing it and all the Members who have spoken.
I am proud to be a friend of Israel. I am proud to remember the Balfour declaration and the role that the British played, along with their allies, in returning some of Israel to her people after the second world war. In 1920, Britain assumed responsibility for Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. During the next two decades, more than 100,000 Jews entered their home country. I am proud of the part that this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—always better together—played in ensuring that the Jewish people could return to their homelands.
I declare an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The motivation for many of us to speak in this debate is our own faith and how we feel when we see wrongs that have to be righted and wrongs that have to be spoken about. This debate is one of those occasions.
We now have a part to play to secure the history of the Jewish people once again. In a world that seeks to whitewash and even begin to refute the evidence of a holocaust, it is more important than ever that we in this country take a stand about the true history of the Jews during the second world war.
I read an article by a writer who happened to be born into the Jewish faith regarding holocaust denial. He outlined how a friend’s 88-year-old Jewish grandfather travels the length and breadth of the country to talk in schools of his experience of the camps. Many Members have referred to similar people they have met. He ensures that the children he reaches have heard with their own ears the tales of the horror that happened when people refused to question evil and inhumanity. That gentleman is a hero, but he is one of the few survivors, and with them go the first-hand experiences.
Those stories need to be told. My fear is that when we lose the first-hand experiences, it becomes simply numbers on a page, and now it becomes a number that umpteen people on Facebook deny, without measures being taken by the administration. I was brought up to learn in history classes of Bloody Mary’s reign and her choice to kill by burning at the stake 300 Protestants. It is all very well to look at the historical context, but we must never lose compassion or thought for any of the families who lost loved ones in this horrific manner. The definition of compassion is feeling someone else’s pain in our heart. Every one of us here has felt others’ pain in our heart, and that is what we have tried to express.
Will the slaughter of 6 million human beings become a fact in a history lesson, or will it be a lesson that every generation learns regarding mankind’s ability to be completely and utterly full of evil and madness? We must not allow the massacre of Jews during the holocaust to become something in movies and history classes; it must be a living, breathing lesson embraced by every generation. We must ensure that the names of those who were murdered are spoken and that children are afforded the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, to see the wedding bands and shoes that reach beyond the grave. We must ensure that schools retain in-depth teaching of this terrible period of history and do not simply pay lip service to it.
We must ensure that we live in a United Kingdom where our British Jewish citizens feel able and happy to recount the stories handed down through generations. We must ensure that the representatives in this Parliament play their part and stamp out the antisemitism and misinformation that is not dissimilar to the propaganda that Goebbels was so proud of. We have a role to play in protecting not simply the history of the holocaust but its legacy: the promise from a horrified world that we will never let this take place again.
In my final minute, I want to mention the part that Strangford played, long before it was the constituency it is today. The Kindertransport children were transported from Germany to England and then on to other parts of the United Kingdom. Some of those children came to McGill’s farm in Millisle in my constituency. The farm and some of the buildings that the children were housed in are still there. Some of those people stayed and married, and there are generations of them there.
I will finish with a line I read in an article, which said:
“One thing we all share: none of us can trace our families back more than a couple of generations. The Holocaust, as I’ve come to think of it, is history’s loudest full-stop.”
It should not be allowed to be a full stop. It must be an ellipsis that indicates an unfinished thought. We cannot draw a line under the holocaust as something that was done and is over. We must ensure that we continue to think about and consider the holocaust—the history and, most importantly, the humanity of it all—and we must ensure that the generations that follow do the same. That is what this debate is all about.
(3 years, 4 months ago)Commons Chamber
I am deeply honoured to follow the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), whose passionate and fluent speech addressed so many of the questions that affect the way we are building our society today. Of course I will not agree with every one of her remedies, but the fact that she is bringing together a pluralist and multicultural society, and expressing that with such warmth and feeling, is a great credit not just to her and her party, but to the whole House and our whole nation. The voice that she expresses is clearly not just her own, but one of the British people more widely, and I am grateful that I have the opportunity to follow her.
We are talking today not about a foreign generation or distant people but about ourselves. It may seem odd for me, with my background, to say so strongly that the Windrush generation are my generation, but they are. Just as they migrated from other parts of the world, so did my family. My grandfather came from Austria in the 1920s. He was a refugee in so many ways—in that case from a collapsing state: the Austro-Hungarian empire—and he travelled and found sanctuary here. In many ways he could have been called an economic migrant because that is what he was, as were many of the Windrush generation. What he brought with him was the energy, enterprise, imagination and creativity that helped to build the structures that allowed us to win the wars. He was not alone, and he was not dramatic or unique in that in any way—except that he was my grandfather, of course. He was part of a much wider generation.
Today, in focusing on the Windrush generation, we focus predominantly on those who are of Caribbean origin, but that is where I would like to expand this conversation. This debate is not just about one people; it is about the whole of the United Kingdom, and our United Kingdom is just that—united—because it is united from peoples around the world. Whatever we may think of the legacy of empire, the richness that it has given these islands is quite remarkable. We have here, even in this city, hundreds of different nations represented. We have many different languages spoken, and like all the best investment schemes, diversity is the strongest form of success. Today, in this United Kingdom, we have the diversity that ensures the richness and depth of our success.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right, although one would be hard-pressed to say that Canada was not the legacy of empire. After all, the fact that there are so many Scots in Canada is a legacy of the English and French empires that stretched into Canada 200 or 300 years ago, but I appreciate the point he is making.
To come back to talking about the United Kingdom, when we look around the United Kingdom, if we focus solely on the Afro-Caribbean community, important though it is, we miss the wealth that we get from so many others. I would like to highlight some of the communities that are not normally touched on when we talk about the Windrush community, but are just as much a part of that generation. I want to talk about the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Indian communities. The subcontinent that for years—for generations—was seen as so remote brought with it, when it came to these islands, the heat, wealth and imagination of its people. It brought with it not only the spice that we now enjoy so much in our food, but the technology and imagination that its people have brought to all parts. If one looks today at Birmingham, one sees the imagination and creativity that is evident across that city. If one looks at some of those businesses that started from nothing and listens to some of the children and grandchildren of those migrants who came with £1 in their pocket, thinking that £1 might take them a little bit further than a week or two—only to realise that it would not even get them the train ticket to go to see their cousin who lived up country—one sees that the people who arrived here came with a drive and a determination that has really transformed not just us, but the world.
For, I hope, very obvious reasons, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. In so doing, I think of my parents, who are no longer with us, of my brothers and sisters, and of so many aunts and uncles. I think of the life that we all lived in Dongola Road, Tottenham, in the 1970s and 1980s. I mention Dongola Road because at the top of the road lived another family, briefly. It was the family of our former colleague Paul Boateng. As I summon up those memories, I am so grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes)—my dear friend—for initiating the debate, and for giving Parliament a moment to reflect on a most exceptional generation.
Today I want to remember the contributions of the 492 West Indian immigrants who arrived at Tilbury docks on 21 June 1948, and the 524,000 Commonwealth-born people who followed them until 1971. My own father arrived in 1956, from Guyana, and my mother arrived in the late 1960s. It is important to remember, when we think of those families arriving here, that when they arrived they were very young. My father was only 24, and he was actually at the older end of the scale among those who were on the boats. He produced my older brother just two years later, in 1958. I reflect, now, on what it means to become a parent in one’s mid-20s, in a new and strange country, juggling work, schools and health visitors: all those new things. In paying tribute to these people, we should reflect on how challenging that must have been at times. I hope that we also think about the first-generation immigrants who still come to our country, of how they manage to get by, and of the circumstances in which we support them.
Today, of course, I also want to think about the thousands of nurses who came to Britain before 1971, to form the backbone of our national health service—women like my aunts, whom I watched working late nights and early shifts with incredible pride and dignity; women who toiled for all Britain’s sick and injured. I think of the thousands of transport workers who were recruited directly from Bridgetown and Kingston, and who for 70 years worked as bus and train drivers, and cleaners and wardens, in Britain’s stations and on Britain’s streets. And in thinking of those transport workers, I think of my own mother, who did her own stint at London Underground, and of many occasions meeting her at Camden Town tube station, where she was based. I think of course also of Lord Bill Morris, elected general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, the first black general secretary of a trade union in Britain, who found his home in the movement after arriving in 1954—a British trade unionist for all British workers. And I think of great writers who have shaped our nation: people such as Andrea Levy and Zadie Smith, who have given us such moving insights into British life. And I am not sure that I would be able to be a politician were it not for the tremendous work of the scholarly Stuart Hall and CLR James, defining leaders in British political thought, but also the work of those who have been a little more of the street and the frontline: I think of my predecessor Bernie Grant and Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose language and tone always chimed with me.
Today I think of the descendants of the Windrush generation, whose parents and grandparents were told that there was no space under the British flag for them and that there was “no black in the Union Jack.” We tend when we celebrate to look at the positive, and nothing is more positive than Jessica Ennis, Daley Thompson, Linford Christie, Kelly Holmes or Colin Jackson draped in the Union Jack. And as I say that, of course our hearts are with Sterling, Smalling and Danny Rose, who will step out on Monday in the 2018 World cup sporting white, red and the three lions on their shirts.
But while reflecting on this great contribution there must also be a moment to think about the uncomfortable truths—the tough and the hard times—and to think about the struggles of those communities. As I stand here as the Member for Tottenham in London, I want also, as has already been touched upon, to think about communities in St Paul’s in Bristol, Chapeltown in Leeds, Handsworth in Birmingham and Moss Side in Manchester, and historical black communities in Tiger Bay in Cardiff and of course in Liverpool. These people formed the fabric of British society and today we remember them and thank them.
But we also remember the troubles that led up to the Notting Hill riots, the Brixton riot and the Tottenham riots, in which PC Keith Blakelock lost his life. We think also of the great injustices that lie behind parts of the pain and the stain on this country: the stain of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and those young people who lost their lives in the New Cross house fire.
Those on board HMT Windrush were invited here as a result of a Britain crippled by war: a Britain facing chronic shortages of staff; a Britain with a dream of healthcare for all but no way of making that happen. It was a Britain whose hospitals were barely functioning, whose trains were barely running, whose streets were reeling from the destruction and devastation of German aeroplanes that bombed this country, a Britain in desperate need.
Britain called, and they came. It is important to recognise why they came to the mother country, as they called it. They came because they wanted to take part in building Britain’s future, but they also came because there was little future left for them in the Caribbean. Like in Britain after the second world war, the homes of those on board the Windrush and the many boats that came after it had also been destroyed by a foreign power—a foreign power had left much of the Caribbean in a sorry state. Unlike in Britain, however, the siege of those countries had lasted for 300 years. Three centuries of colonial rule had stripped the Caribbean of much of its wealth and resources, and left behind an unsustainable plantation economy. Under the British, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish and the Portuguese, the Caribbean region and Latin America and south America had become little more than a warehouse from which to extract profit.
In 1948, the societies that had once been made up of slaves and their owners were instead made up of rich planters and landless, low-wage labourers. People in the Caribbean had been emancipated from slavery in 1834, but they had achieved their emancipation in name only. Ten years before HMT Windrush arrived on British shores, labourers in Barbados were earning the equivalent of just £3.50 a day. Half the workforce worked in manufacturing and agriculture. Many were employed on sugar plantations and forced to work for extremely low wages. They worked in unbearable conditions, their children were suffering from malnutrition and they faced an influx of disease.
In Jamaica, searing unemployment ravaged society. Britain had closed sugar plantations in favour of cheaper labour elsewhere, and the consequences were devastating. Labour riots were commonplace as people became increasingly frustrated by the destitution that they faced. In Guyana, society was reeling from the Ruimveldt riots in the earlier part of the 20th century. Again, much of the economy was crippled, and people were working in bauxite mines and on sugar or rice plantations for very poor wages and in very poor conditions. People were rioting as a consequence. We cannot forget that Britain’s development was grounded in the underdevelopment of the Commonwealth. Britain’s industrial revolution relied on the deindustrialisation of India, and its profits were built on the exploitation of Caribbean plantations and on the backs of Egyptian cotton farmers and Barbadian sugar producers.
We cannot forget that those on board the Windrush came to Britain filled with the promise of the British motherland, yet this was the same Britain that had promised away all their riches and resources. It was the same Britain that has never faced justice for the crime of slavery, and that stole 12 million people from their homes in the dead of night and carted them like cattle across the ocean and into slavery. This had never before been seen in the world. Britain was still paying off its debts to slave owners in 2015, but it has never paid reparations to those who are the descendants of slaves.
This is the same Britain that, sadly, has recently failed the Windrush generation. It had failed them previously, and it has failed them again today. Many of the Windrush generation have once again been made destitute by the British state. They have had their rights stripped from them, and they have been thrust into despair and desperation. The injustices that the victims face today have a long history, and it is a history that Britain must never forget. I do not say that to evoke guilt. This is not really about guilt. If you do not know where you are from, you do not know where you are going. If you just teach your young people the very best bits of history and do not examine the tougher bits, as the modern nations of Germany and Japan have had to do, you will make the same mistakes over and over.
I am so proud to be a parliamentarian in this great nation, and it is the privilege of my life to speak in this Chamber, but I worry that the “great” in Great Britain is too often predicated on an inability to examine the truths of parts of Britain’s past. The heart of that past is colonial, and as we think about the Windrush generation we do not just think about the fact that they landed in 1948; we think about the umbilical cord between Britain and these people, because they were brought from Africa. The surname I have is not the surname of my ancestors; neither is Diane Abbott’s and neither is Dawn Butler’s. Those surnames were given to us by our slave masters. The language that we speak is a language we learned, because our ancestors lost their language and their culture. That is at the heart of the Caribbean tradition. It is an area of tremendous hybridity. In the Caribbean—I might say the same of Latin America—there is a meeting of the world’s people that is best explained by the carnival of Trinidad or the reggae of Jamaica. That is the area that I know.
Many of the Windrush generation have once again been left destitute in recent times. The injustices that the victims face today have a history that we must remember. The story began in the 1700s and today, most painfully, we have been forced back across the Atlantic by the British Government in unlawful deportations justified by the “hostile environment.” That environment told Windrush citizens that they have no right to the British public services to which so many of them had dedicated their lives and to which their ancestors had contributed. The nurses who toiled in our hospitals, the train drivers, and the other public sector workers upon whom Britain relied were told that their contributions were null and void, and that they should leave this country immediately. Seventy years on, the Government thanked the Windrush generation for their service to this country by throwing them into detention centres and deporting them.
Those victims have still not seen justice, and the Government’s response to the crisis continues to be inadequate. Why is there still no hardship fund for the Windrush victims? Why are innocent British citizens who have been made homeless and jobless by the Home Office being forced to wait months for compensation? People have been pushed into rent arrears and debt by the Home Office, but they still have no financial support. Why are they still being punished for the failures of the British state? Why have 32 of the 63 Windrush citizens unlawfully deported as a result of the Government’s hostile environment policy been refused their right to return to Britain? Why has the Home Secretary decreed that they should be exiled abroad instead of facing British justice in British courts as British citizens?
Why has my constituent Oliver Hutchinson, who arrived from Jamaica in 1970, still not seen justice? He is a citizen by right, but for all of his life he has lived in fear of immigration enforcement and has been unable to get a job, access benefits or even have a stable home. He was arrested recently at a routine appointment with the Home Office on a bench warrant that was 20 years old.
Why has the Windrush taskforce, which has been specially appointed to support victims of the scandal, delayed its response time? Why are hundreds of victims who have contacted the taskforce regarding their citizenship still waiting for an appointment at the Home Office?
Above all, today I think of the victims of this crisis, victims who are still facing desperate uncertainty, and the Government’s subsequent response. I think of Oliver Hutchinson; of Balvin Marshall, a British citizen made homeless and jobless by the hostile environment; of Rosario Wilson, whose grandfather arrived in Britain in the 1950s and who has spent thousands of pounds trying to prove his citizenship; and of my 27 constituents with ongoing cases and the thousands of other Commonwealth-born Britons who live in fear and uncertainty.
I say to the Secretary of State, who has said of those Windrush citizens with criminal records who have been sent back to the Caribbean that he has no intention of bringing them back, that that is unacceptable. It is unacceptable because they are British citizens first. This country has had no such debate on the deportation of criminals. This country stopped deporting criminals to parts of the Australian Commonwealth in 1868. How can it be that, with no debate and no discussion, it has been deemed acceptable once again to deport British citizens, even if they have a criminal record, back to the Commonwealth?
Can I say how badly this has gone down in the broader Commonwealth and how sad and embarrassing it was that we had this discussion and this debate during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting? This is not what the Commonwealth expects of the mother country. It has been a very painful episode indeed.
As we commemorate this epic contribution and we think of the joys and the heroes, I thank God for people like Trevor McDonald and Moira Stuart entering my household on Dongola Road and lifting the spirits of my family and my cousins over so many weeks, months and years. As we think about all those great sons and daughters of this great region, let us also think of what further contribution we can give to these people, people who—I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will allow me to say this—in some ways contain a little fragility because of that slave history.
There was no reparation for those slaves, and the Caribbean nations have been united in wanting to put the issue of reparations back on the table at the United Nations as they think of their futures. Why do they do that? It is because, as they celebrate so many years since independence—Guyana celebrated 52 years of independence just a few weeks ago—and they look forward to the future, they think about the economies they inherited and they think about all they have achieved but, frankly, there is a sense in which they were abandoned. It is important that this country hears and listen to those calls for support, particularly against a backdrop of the Government making it clear that they wish to enter into trade negotiations with those countries once again. Let us consider: what do reparations look like for those Caribbean nations? How do we make that work? What dialogue do we as a country need to have with those people?
Can we also think about our heritage in this country? In the last few years we have seen the birth of the Black Cultural Archives, based in south London; the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool; and organisations such as the Stephen Lawrence Centre and the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. Many of these organisations are struggling today. Frankly, they are struggling for a handout from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. What they should have got was a proper endowment, from which they could derive interest, that bought them security so that they could continue to make a contribution to this country. As we think about those landing cards that were destroyed, let us redouble our efforts on behalf of organisations such as the Black Cultural Archives.
Finally, let me say that we are having this debate against probably the most depressing backdrop possible, having seen the murder of 78 young lives here in the city of London. May I say most gently that there is something that connects these murders at this time with the sorts of crime that we see also in African-American societies and, sadly, in parts of the Caribbean, particularly in Trinidad and in Jamaica. That story is a story of dislocation. It is the story of a lack of fatherhood and role models, and it is a story that begins with those plantations. If you take a black man and you say to him that you can move him across the country to another plantation and strip him from his family, so that he does not own himself or his relationship with his wife or with his children, you create a phenomenon that is very real in those communities: the phenomenon of the babymother, where it is not my wife or my husband, but my babymother or my babyfather. That legacy lives on in our communities. It is a community that has been way too accustomed to violence. This is the dislocation of not seeing those role models in front of you and never hearing your history, and this is about how that affects generations years and years later. We are a community of tremendous resilience, but we cannot all be resilient. So in thinking also of that more painful legacy, let us think about the renewed support that this country needs to give.
The hon. Gentleman is making the extremely important point that, of course, racism is sadly not dead in our society; in fact, it is not dead in any society in the world. It is a blight on the minds of humans who seek to divide rather than to unite, and it is a great tragedy that we as humans have not been able to overcome it. Is there not, though, a moment of pride—the hon. Gentleman speaks of it quite rightly—that ScotRail did not react as its predecessors may have done in the ’30s, but saw what had happened for the sin and the wrong that it was? Is it not also right that although the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) spoke so passionately, truly and rightly about the horrors, immorality and wrongs of slavery, we should also be proud that for all the sins and errors that this country committed in allowing slavery and ever tolerating it, it was this country—this House—that abolished slavery for the first time?
I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I am hugely appreciative of the fact that he has put on the record the link between Scotland and the Caribbean region. I took a DNA test not so long ago and it turns out that I, too, am a Scot. I am very well aware of my connections to the Blair family, and so potentially a former Prime Minister, and also to the Laing family, and so potentially a Madam Deputy Speaker.
The last point that the hon. Gentleman made is, in a sense, the most profound. It is about not where we come from, but the shared identity that we enjoy when we are here. The Windrush generation in particular were deeply patriotic, and remain so. These were people who were actually proud of Britain’s history. Of course, they understood that it was a mixed history, but they were proud of it. As the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) knows very well, I chair the British Caribbean Association and I have formed close friendships with those people—people who called their children Milton, Nelson and so on. How many white British people have ever done that? That was a measure of their patriotism.
I think the hon. Gentleman needs to be clear that the people I described earlier—those patriots who called their children Milton, Winston, Gladstone and so on—take a very similar view of illegal migration, because they took the trouble to come here on an entirely proper basis. Outrage is felt by people in this House and others on behalf of the Windrush generation because they were legal migrants who should never have been treated in that way. They are Britons in the same way that all the rest of us are. We should not assume for a moment—I know you would not, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will not either—that those people do not take a robust view on illegal migration and understand the need for controls on migration as a whole.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate and giving us the chance to reflect on the enormous contribution of the Windrush generation. I also want to pay tribute to my colleague in the other place, Baroness Benjamin. She is a member of the Windrush generation who has been a leading voice in both Parliament and the community.
The treatment of the Windrush generation is a stain on our society, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes said. Our hearts reach out to those who have been subjected to terrible injustice and who have been separated from family, refused the right to return home, denied healthcare or lost a job as a result of serious failings of the Home Office. There is no question but that these people deserve to be called British citizens and to be British citizens, and to question their identity and legitimacy was callous.
I believe that there is a much deeper malaise at the heart of the Windrush scandal, which is due to this country’s current uneasy relationship with immigration and a Tory Government who have gone all out on the “hostile environment”. Interestingly, however, the Government got it completely wrong in what they believed would be the popular response of our non-immigrant communities to such concerns. When the public heard about the plight of the Windrush generation, their immediate response was one of compassion and outrage. This is the tolerant and open Britain we live in, that we need to foster and that we need to protect.
Today, people across the country are sincerely and deeply mourning the 72 people who lost their lives in the Grenfell tragedy, many of whom were not born in this country. People respond to individuals as soon as they make a connection with them. It is the dehumanisation of immigration that has made this subject so toxic.
I am proud to stand at this Dispatch Box and bear witness to the Windrush generation. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on her excellent speech, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) on their good speeches.
Nearly everyone in the Chamber this afternoon has seen the evocative newsreel footage of the men and women from the Caribbean who sailed to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948. Who were those people? I ask the House for a moment to put themselves in the shoes of those men and women. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham pointed out, they were young. Many of them may have looked a little older than they were, but that was because they were all wearing their Sunday best—the hats, the bonnets, the tailored suits, and the frocks—and they came to Britain so full of hope and enthusiasm. As many Members have said this afternoon, they genuinely thought that they were coming to the mother country.
Nowadays there is a narrative around migrants that claims that they do not understand or appreciate British culture, but I am glad to tell the House that no group of migrants was more enthusiastically British than the Windrush generation. Historically, the people of the Caribbean venerated the British royal family. They saw them as their protection from cruel local colonialists.
At one and the same time, the Windrush generation were both anti-colonialist but deeply respectful of a range of British institutions, including royalty. It may surprise some Government Members, but if someone meets a West Indian who was educated in the West Indies between the war and asks them to recite some poetry, they will promptly and with enthusiasm recite a piece of Keats or Shelley. That was the nature of the education.