Tuesday 11 September 2012
[Hywel Williams in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swire.)
It is a privilege to open this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams.
This is an issue of human rights, justice and desperate humanitarian need, to which we must respond. It is also one that has caused considerable concern to many of my constituents in Leicester South in recent weeks. Indeed, we had a public meeting there on this issue just last Friday evening. I was pleased that there were representatives from all the major faiths in Leicester—Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim—which brings home the fact that this is a matter of human rights. While I have the opportunity, I want to thank Leicester’s Federation of Muslim Organisations and the Leicester Sikh Alliance, which have been doing a lot of work on this matter.
May I put on the record my gratitude for the opportunity to debate this matter in Parliament? Fairly or unfairly, there has been a perception—certainly, it was strongly expressed to me on Friday night in my constituency—that this humanitarian catastrophe has so far not received the attention that it deserves and that it has not received the exposure in the media that it demands. I commend the media outlets that have focused on it, particularly Channel 4, which produced a very moving report during the summer. I acknowledge and pay tribute to all the hon. Members here who have worked hard to raise awareness of the issue, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), as well as the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward). However, there is a perception that the issue is not being talked about enough.
I acknowledge the statement made during the summer by the Foreign Secretary:
“The UK remains committed to the people of Burma, and has never wavered in its calls for the granting of full human rights to all of its people, including the Rohingya.”
Notwithstanding that statement, I have to say that there is a perception that not enough is being done. I warmly welcome the Minister to his new posting in the Foreign Office, but I hope that this debate will afford him a chance to outline in detail the Government’s stance, taken in the strongest possible terms. I am sure that we are all looking forward to his response.
As the UN has stated, the Rohingya people are among the most persecuted on earth. They are a people who are denied citizenship and whose human rights have been abused. I am sure that hon. Members are familiar with the events during the summer, but I shall run through them quickly. This summer, deeply ugly sectarian violence broke out between the Buddhist Rakhine community and the Muslim Rohingya people. The trigger for the violence was the allegation in late May that three Muslim men had raped and killed a Buddhist woman. A provocative pamphlet, reporting the crime, was soon produced and circulated, and on 3 June a large mob attacked a bus and killed 10 Muslim passengers. Reports suggest that the local police stood by and watched the killing take place without intervening.
In a few days, deep religious hatred that had been simmering for decades erupted. Social media spread anti-Muslim propaganda and stoked the tensions, and further horrific sectarian violence and rioting quickly unfolded. According to various reports, mobs—from both communities—armed with swords, sticks, knives and iron rods, stormed villages on a spree of killing, burning homes and shops and desecrating places of worship. It is difficult to get an entirely accurate picture, because of the restrictions, but some estimates have suggested that hundreds have been killed and that 100,000 people have been displaced.
I want to make it entirely clear that we condemn the violence on both sides and against both communities—it is clear that the security forces have failed to provide security to both the sides in the conflict—but, overall, it seems that the Rohingya people have been the main victims. Almost all the Rohingya people in Sittwe were driven out of their homes as mobs burned down 10,000 houses, and as Human Rights Watch has reported, the police and other paramilitary forces opened fire on them with live ammunition as they tried to put out the flames and save their homes.
Reports suggest that, in the north of the state, security services have also been directly engaged in violence towards the Rohingya, with allegations of mass killings, mass arrests and looting. Days after the violence started, security forces targeting predominantly Muslim areas arrested many Rohingya men and boys who have not been heard of since.
The tensions were exacerbated by the suggestion, made by the President of Burma at the height of the crisis, about handing over the Rohingya community to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees until they could be settled in some third country. In response, the UN has called for an independent inquiry into the violence. Sadly, the Burmese Government have ignored such calls, but it would be churlish not at least to welcome the commission that they have set up to investigate the violence. However, for that commission to command international confidence, it must, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting has recently argued, have some UN or independent involvement and treat the Rohingya community fairly throughout its investigation. For example, there are already concerns that no one on the inquiry represents the Rohingya community.
More broadly, the Burmese Government must commit themselves to prosecuting those who are found guilty of horrific violence. Of course, the displaced Rohingya community must be allowed back into their homes, without fear of reprisals, and given the necessary support to rebuild their lives. Will the Minister outline what representations the FCO has made on those points?
As I said earlier, estimates suggest that up 100,000 people have been displaced, with many of those who fled the violence ending up in makeshift camps, where many of them do not have adequate shelter. It is estimated that 30,000 people are without access to clean drinking water and that the majority are without access to latrines.
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this debate. Has he heard, as I have, that one problem is that those who have fled from their home areas have not been able to cross into Bangladesh, which has made their position worse than it might have been had such an escape been possible?
My right hon. Friend quite rightly makes an incredibly important point, and I hope to touch on that later. I also hope that the Minister will say something about Bangladesh and its response to this crisis.
Malnutrition in the camps is a particular concern, with very high levels of severe acute malnutrition among children, especially those from the Rohingya community. It is clear that there is a desperate need for humanitarian assistance for both the Rohingya community and, indeed, the Rakhine community in the camps. However, the response has been hampered by restrictions on access, by threats and intimidation and by the arrest of some UN and aid agency staff. I would therefore be grateful to the Minister if he made a commitment to increase the diplomatic pressure on the Burmese regime to enable full humanitarian access to all the people of Rakhine, including the Rohingya community.
May I add my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate? Some of my constituents in Bedford will be pleased that parliamentarians are debating this issue.
The hon. Gentleman rightly draws our attention to the difference between the British Government’s representations and their requirements. As we are all encouraging Burma to move towards democracy, will he comment on—perhaps he is coming on to this—what the real requirements are for us as a Parliament and for the British Government in relation to putting to the Burmese Government what must be done for the Rohingya community if Burma is to achieve its full status in the democratic family of nations?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for how he put his question. I hope to touch on such issues in my speech, but this debate is a chance for the UK Government to take a stance in the strongest possible terms. I hope that they will continue to make representations, but I am also keen to hear from the Minister how much further they can go.
I would be grateful, too, for an update from the Minister on the amount of aid funding that has been made available for such humanitarian assistance. Will he tell us whether the Government have any plans to increase the humanitarian aid in the future? I appreciate that he comes from the Foreign Office rather than the Department for International Development, but if he could perhaps spell out the Government’s thinking on that, I am sure that we would all be grateful.
On the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), many of the Rohingya have sought help in neighbouring Bangladesh, yet that country has refused to allow them to cross the border. There are heartbreaking stories of boats containing men, women and children arriving in Bangladesh being pushed back into sea during the rough monsoon rains. Human Rights Watch says that about 1,300 Rohingya refugees have been pushed back into the sea. There is no estimate yet of how many of them have lost their lives.
In Bangladesh, some 30,000 Rohingya refugees have already lived for two decades in two of the world’s most squalid camps, with estimates that a further 40,000 live in informal camps. Again, the conditions in those camps are characterised by overcrowding, widespread malnutrition, especially among children, and the lack of clean water and sanitation. Many say that the conditions are among the worst in any refugee camp in the world.
Sadly, humanitarian agencies’ access has been restricted, with some even being expelled for fear that they will act as magnets for further refugees. At the public meeting in Leicester on Friday night, an aid worker told me how he had raised money for aid and medical supplies for the region, but was forbidden from delivering them when he arrived at Cox’s Bazar and was told to return home. Again, this is another desperate humanitarian situation.
In replying, will the Minister update us on the latest discussions that the UK Government have had with Bangladesh? In particular, will he tell us what pressure the Government are exerting on the country to demand immediate access for the non-governmental organisations to provide assistance to Rohingya refugees? What discussions has he had had with Indonesia, Thailand and other countries in the region to ensure the protection of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution?
At the heart of the conflict is the underlying issue of citizenship. The 1982 citizenship law recognises 135 national races in Burma, but excludes the Rohingya. Despite living in Burma for generations, the 800,000-strong Rohingya population’s right to citizenship was removed. The Burmese regime regularly describes the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and has forced travel restrictions on them. The Rohingya have been denied land and property rights and have even had marriage and reproduction restrictions imposed on them.
The horrific violence of the summer has brought the outrageous citizenship law into sharp focus. Surely now is the time for greater international pressure to be put on the Burmese Government to repeal that law and to replace it with a new settlement based on human rights, which recognises and respects the equal rights of all the Burmese people and is in accordance with international standards. In particular, a new settlement absolutely must comply with the universal declaration of human rights, which states:
“Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”.
The Minister will be aware that 31 international NGOs have called for a repeal of the citizenship law. I hope that in his response he will condemn that discriminatory law and detail what pressure the Foreign Office, along with its international counterparts, is putting on the Burmese regime to repeal it.
There are clearly human rights abuses and a humanitarian crisis in the region. Many people feel, perhaps unfairly, that the UK Government could take a stronger public stance. The Minister should use this opportunity today to reassure those who feel that the issue has been neglected. I hope that he will confirm that the UK Government’s policy is to continue to press the Burmese regime for immediate, unhindered access for humanitarian organisations to all affected areas.
I hope, too, that the Minister will confirm that the UK Government will do all that they can to ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered to the displaced and to those whose homes and property have been destroyed, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. That should be done without discrimination and on the basis of need.
The Foreign Secretary confirmed to Parliament last week that he has discussed these matters with Aung San Suu Kyi and opposition leaders. Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government will continue to have those discussions, particularly given Aung San Suu Kyi’s new role as the chair of the rule of law, peace and stability committee?
Will the Minister tell us what stance the UK will take at the UN General Assembly? Will he commit to ensuring that the wording in any forthcoming annual UN Assembly resolution references the violations of international law, recommends repeal of the 1982 citizenship law and strongly condemns the sectarian violence? In the event of there being no moves to repeal the citizenship law, to allow humanitarian access and to end the abuses of human rights, what would be the Government’s attitude to the President of Burma’s invitation to visit the UK?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am sure that the meeting that he had in Leicester is one that could be reproduced in cities throughout the United Kingdom. There is great anger and a sense of outrage in my Newport constituency about what is happening to the Rohingya people. Does he think that there will be any progress in influencing the Government in Malaysia, who have, as I understand it, taken in about 20,000 Rohingya people? The present regime in Burma is seeking more international approval than at any time in decades. Could we not use that opportunity to ensure that it introduces policies that are far more humane to their minorities?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments about Leicester. While I have the opportunity, I should tell him that he has featured prominently in the Leicester Mercury recently because of his biography of the late David Taylor, which we are all looking forward to reading. On his substantive point on Malaysia, I entirely agree with him and hope that the Minister will pick it up in his response.
This year should have been one of hope for Burma. We all know that 2011 has seen a degree of transition from military regime to civilian Government. I have no doubt that we all welcome the small tentative steps that Burma is taking to democracy and that we were all thrilled at the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, so it would be deeply wrong of us not to commend Burma for the progress that has been made. Equally, however, we should be in no doubt that, for Burma to become truly democratic, it must celebrate the diversity of its people, and that must include the Rohingya.
I thank the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) for initiating this debate. I know that it is customary to say that in such debates, but can it ever have been better deserved? There is a continuous need to remind people of that persecuted minority, the Rohingya, because news of it seldom reaches the national press. There is little international recognition of the atrocities that it faces. I am pleased that Burma and Bangladesh are part of this debate. I suspect that many people who know about the current situation only do so because of recent events in Burma, but, of course, it goes back much further than that. I also thank the local Rohingya community, Nijam and the Rohingya youth organisation in Burma for providing the information, some of which is pretty appalling.
I apologise to all Members here because I will have to leave this debate early to attend the Education Committee. I thank Mr Williams for calling me to speak early and, while it is not my customary practice, I will have to leave after my speech and so will not be here for the summing up. The Select Committee is discussing the GCSE issue, which is important across the country.
We are here because of the atrocities that took place in early June. No doubt we have all had those awful nightmares from which we wake up in a cold sweat and then we come out of the nightmare, but of course for many of the Rohingya living in Burma and indeed in Bangladesh there is no waking up; for them, every single day is a nightmare. What is worst of all is that there are pretty powerful allegations that the very people we rely on in these situations for protection—the security forces—are not only standing idly by but in many cases perpetrating some of the atrocities themselves.
We know that this situation does not just go back to 3 June and the murders on the bus. It goes back much further than that and it really stems from the view held by far too many people in Burma that the Rohingya are not true Burmese. The Rohingya in Burma were denied citizenship in 1982 and that stateless position has caused them not only problems in Burma itself but, of course, in Bangladesh, and it has resulted in a policy of—there is no other phrase to describe it—ethnic cleansing that has taken place over a long period of time. There is no other way of describing a deliberate policy of trying to rid a country of a group of people from within that country.
It has already been said that up to 100,000 people have been displaced. The worrying thing is that, although that situation has now provoked outrage, people knew about what was going on long before now. Brad Adams, the Asian director of Human Rights Watch, has said:
“If the atrocities in Arakan had happened before the government’s reform process started, the international reaction would have been swift and strong. But the international community appears to be blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change in Burma, signing new trade deals and lifting sanctions even while the abuses continue.”
People knew about what was happening in Burma long before 3 June and the west—the international community —did very little to deal with that situation.
I have known about the Rohingya from about three or four years ago, when some of those who were in registered Bangladeshi camps—of course, only a minority of the Rohingya in Bangladesh are in registered camps—and who were consequently part of the United Nations gateway programme came to Bradford. We were very happy to welcome them and they have settled in very well. Three cohorts—three groups—have now come to Bradford, and they have not only settled in very well but have been made to feel very welcome. However, their arrival has brought home to all of us in Bradford a problem that was happening thousands of miles away that many people were completely unaware of.
I wrote to the Foreign Secretary on 10 August following representations that I had received from my local Rohingya community and I was pleased to see him make a statement—I think that it was made on 13 August—outlining the Government’s position. However, we all know what the demands we ought to make should be. First, clear, effective and lawful steps need to be taken to prevent further violence in Burma. Secondly, as has already been mentioned, full and unhindered humanitarian access needs to be granted, because even the non-governmental organisations are being denied access to the Rohingya. We need access to all the areas that are affected. Thirdly, we need to ensure that members of the affected communities can safely return to their homes—and they are their homes. We need to support the restitution of their property, and reparations should be made to them for the damage that has been done. However, more than anything else we need a long-term solution to the problems that the Rohingya face and we need to recognise the human rights abuses that have been conducted against them for more than 30 years.
I have a final message. The hon. Member for Leicester South covered so many areas that he has enabled me to make a shorter speech than I had planned. However, the real reason that I am here in Westminster Hall today is not because of headlines in newspapers in June, July and August, but because of the situation that this persecuted group of people has faced for more than 30 years. And we should remember not only the 100,000 people who have been displaced in recent months but the 250,000 and more Rohingya who have been displaced as a consequence of the persecution in Burma during the past 30 years and who are living in atrocious conditions in the Bangladesh camps. We must not forget all those people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on securing the debate about this ongoing tragedy. As he said, we are here today to speak about an issue that many people in Britain may be unaware of but that deserves our attention—the treatment of the Rohingya communities in Burma and Bangladesh. It affects many thousands of people and it goes to the heart of our belief in ourselves in Britain as strong advocates of respect for human rights, who speak up for those who do not have a voice and support those in need.
Britain has a long history of being an advocate for change in Burma and, as colleagues have said, we have seen substantial progress in Burma in the past few years. Pro-democracy candidates such as Aung San Suu Kyi have been elected to Parliament. That is progress, even if there are still serious concerns about the validity of elections in which a quarter of seats are reserved for the military. As hon. Members know, hundreds of political prisoners have been released, media restrictions have been eased and the process of political reconciliation with many ethnic minorities has begun.
Those reforms have encouraged the international community, including our own country, to strengthen its ties with a country that was previously one of the most isolated in the world. That process has included the suspension of sanctions. However, the continuing suspension of sanctions must be conditional on how much progress is made in respect of human rights and the transition to democracy, which has been slow and difficult.
From a development perspective, Burma remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, with widespread poverty and a vulnerability to shocks or crises. Much of the population lack the means to meet their basic needs and deal with their major health problems. In addition, there remain concerns about the extent of the power that the military still exerts. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in prison and, of course, there is the continuing conflict with some ethnic minority communities.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South and the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) have already pointed out, civilians in provinces such as Kachin and Arakan talk about systematic human rights abuses, including forced labour and displacement, torture and extra-judicial killings. There are approximately 800,000 to 1 million Rohingya living in the province of Arakan, where many of them have lived for generations. However, they have faced a long history of marginalisation and discrimination. As my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman also said, that marginalisation and discrimination was made concrete in law in the form of the 1982 citizenship law, which rendered Rohingya in Burma non-citizens and virtually stateless.
When violence erupted between the Rohingya Muslim community and the Buddhist Rakhine community in June, both sides committed atrocious acts of violence and abuse. The Burmese Government interceded, but they did not simply put an end to the violence; instead, they helped perpetuate a cycle of sectarian and state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya.
As has been said, there are serious allegations against the Burmese Government forces—of killings, torture, rape, mass arrests and forced displacement—from both local people and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The UN special rapporteur on human rights visited the province of Arakan in August and reported seeing burned villages, which meant that many people had been left without homes or shelter. Estimates place the number of people who were displaced at around 100,000, the majority of whom were Rohingya. The conflict has left many people without homes to return to, or made them too scared even to return home.
According to some of the few aid agencies that have managed to see those people, those who have been displaced or have fled have often been forced into camps that are little better than prisons. The camps are in squalid places with little or no access to basic services such as health care, sanitation, food and education. However, instead of seeking peace and reconciliation, the Burmese Government have asked the UN for assistance in trying to remove all Rohingya from Burma and place them in third countries. If they are serious about reform, they should instead eliminate the discriminatory laws that validate that kind of violence.
The violence and persecution by the Burmese Government has forced many aid workers to flee and has made it difficult to deliver aid. Tens of thousands of people are in need of support, but getting to them is still difficult. So that the disaster does not worsen, the Burmese Government need to allow immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access, not just to the camps, but to all areas of Arakan state, where the violence has impacted on everyone’s lives, whether they be Muslim or Buddhist, Rohingya or Rakhine.
Alongside immediate access, there needs to be a truly independent and impartial inquiry—as has already been mentioned—to look closely at the human rights abuses, and punishment must be applied to the perpetrators. It must be an inquiry that can establish the truth and start the process of reconciliation, hopefully to avoid this happening again. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South mentioned, the British Government should continue to use all the public and private levers they have to ensure that that happens, and encourage our international partners to do the same. As we continue to strengthen our relationship with the Burmese Government, including through the suspension of sanctions, we must expect progress on reform, particularly regarding such human rights abuses and state-sponsored violence.
I want to turn to the situation in Bangladesh. Violence has been an all-too-common feature in the life of Rohingya communities in Burma, and in the ’80s and ’90s it forced hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh. Many ended up along Bangladesh’s border with Burma, where they have been stuck in camps for a long time. Since 1992, however, Bangladesh has refused to allow them to be registered as refugees, leaving them yet again without rights and support. All but 30,000 are denied refugee status, leaving 200,000 without access to refugee rights, or help such as food rations from the World Food Programme or health care and education provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Alongside that, the Government of Bangladesh have a policy of reducing the so-called attractiveness of the camps, refusing help to improve the squalid and overcrowded conditions. That is likely to cause a further humanitarian disaster, and it is in direct contravention of international law, which requires the Government to recognise the human rights of everyone within their borders. At the very least, that must mean allowing organisations such as the UN to provide basic humanitarian support. As the situation worsens, with reports that at least 1,300 Rohingya, including children, trying to flee the violence were turned back at the border, with many international organisations estimating that the numbers could be higher, we need to act immediately.
In early 2011, during the visit of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to the UK, my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party and I raised directly with her the plight of Rohingya refugees in her country. It is incredibly disappointing that the position of the Government of Bangladesh has not changed. Bangladesh benefited from the generosity of its neighbours during the 1971 war of independence, when hundreds of thousands of people—potentially more—were made refugees. I call on the Government of Bangladesh to reconsider the issue, and I hope that the Minister will put pressure on them to act humanely and step up to their responsibilities.
The international community should follow the lead of the US Government in shining a light on the decisions that the Government of Bangladesh make and pushing for them to live up to their moral and legal responsibilities. As the largest bilateral donor to Bangladesh, it is crucial that the UK Government apply further pressure on the Government of Bangladesh to fulfil their responsibilities to the Rohingya communities that have sought refuge in that country.
The level of violence in Arakan state has fallen, but there remains a serious humanitarian crisis that needs urgent attention if we are to stem the cycle of violence and killing. We have a chance right now, while there are opportunities in Burma, to help encourage the kinds of changes that are needed to see the process of reform and reconciliation in Burma flourish. That is essential if we are to ensure the protection not just of the Rohingya community in Burma, but of the many other communities that still face oppression and discrimination. The UK is building strong links with the Government of Burma, but we must use those links to put pressure on the Government to respect human rights and to ensure that they are serious about the issues, particularly when lives are being lost and violence is being perpetrated, and that the state genuinely is not taking sides but acting as a neutral, honest broker. The British Government must publicly hold the Government of Burma to account for how they relate to the sanctions, and we must work with our international partners to exert pressure in requiring, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South said, an independent inquiry into what has happened in Arakan state.
This is an important time for Burma to show the world that it is serious about human rights and democracy. The situation in Arakan state, and the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in particular, highlights that there is much further to go. As a country that cares about continued developments and wants to see progress in Burma, it is vital that we act as a critical friend who will support the Government to make that transition but will be firm about the need to respect the rights of minorities and those who continue to suffer at the hands of perpetrators of violence and hate. We will hold the Government to account, and I call on the Minister to exert pressure on the Government to act now.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Six Members are seeking to catch my eye. I hope to start the winding-up speeches at 10.30 am, so I ask Members to keep their remarks to the point so that all voices can be heard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on securing the debate. I will confine my remarks to just three areas, because previous speakers have covered the ground so thoroughly.
Violent conflict between communities, such as we have seen in Arakan state, is a disaster for all concerned, and especially so when the communities include some of the poorest people, who have no means of recovering from the loss of property or livelihood, let alone the harm to, and loss of life in, their families. However, it is particularly hard to bear circumstances in which Government authorities are seen to be either indifferent to the suffering, or to be making it worse, as in this case. Whatever else a Government do or do not do for their people, they must treat them fairly and without discrimination. There are clear reports of arbitrary violence, including rape, looting and torture, by police and security forces. It is also clear that Rohingya who have been displaced are, as a result of their ethnicity, not receiving assistance. That has to stop, and the Burmese Government must allow full access to humanitarian agencies and independent observers.
We are not trying to excuse anyone—everyone who commits violence is at fault here—but behind the conflict lies the pernicious effect of the 1982 citizenship law, under which the Rohingya, who are Muslim, are denied citizenship, even though the land has been their home for generations. Not only that but, as previous speakers have said, the President recently asked the UN for help in resettling the Rohingya in other countries, which is in clear contradiction of the universal declaration on human rights.
In the 21st century, it cannot be the case that a country refuses to recognise as citizens people who have lived there for generations. I urge the UK Government and the European Union to continue making it clear to the Burmese Government that reviewing, reforming or repealing the law is essential to ensuring that there is no discrimination.
Bangladesh, too, as the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) made clear, needs to provide under international law a safe sanctuary to people who flee persecution and violence in Burma. Indeed, the international community needs to support Bangladesh in doing so and to support all who are displaced. I welcome the work of the Department for International Development on that.
Finally, it is not only the Rohingya in Burma who are suffering as a result of their ethnicity and religion, although, perhaps because of the citizenship law, they have suffered the most. The Christian Chin minority and others have also been under great pressure for decades. State-supported persecution because of people’s religious views, lack of religious views or ethnicity must be confronted wherever it occurs. As a country, we must speak out whenever that happens, whether in a state that is predominantly Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or of no religion.
I applaud the UK Government’s strong stance, the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the United Kingdom’s effort at the United Nations. I welcome DFID’s constant work in Burma over many years, both under the previous Government and the current Government. Working with the poorest people is especially important, whether they suffered the cyclone in 2010, displacement today or, in the east of the country, the real threat that malaria resistant to artemisinin, which is the only effective treatment, could spread unless it is countered on the Burmese-Thai border. That is why DFID’s work in Burma is so important, irrespective of the current policies of the Burmese Government. DFID is there to help the world’s poorest people.
How much pressure should the UK Government place on Burma? The Prime Minister has invited the President of Burma to the UK. As the previous Minister of State, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), wrote in a letter to a colleague of mine in the European Parliament on 10 August, a visit will be
“a valuable opportunity to continue the Prime Minister’s dialogue with the President and to stress the need to resolve the many issues outstanding.”
There have been calls for the invitation to be withdrawn, which I understand, but I believe that, perhaps with the conditions that have already been mentioned, a visit would provide an opportunity to raise very publicly and very strongly the plight of the Rohingya and others in Burma.
As the hon. Member for Leicester South so eloquently put it, this year should have been a year of hope for Burma. Indeed, there have been many welcome moves towards democracy. Above all, given the UK’s history in Burma, we should support those moves, but we cannot simply stand by and ignore what is happening. I urge the Minister to make it clear in the strongest possible terms that the UK Government expect the Burmese Government to take action to protect the Rohingya and other communities in Burma whom they are currently failing to protect.
I have been informed that we may start the winding-up speeches at 10.40 am, so there is slightly more time, but I appeal to hon. Members to be to the point.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I promise to be brief, because I realise that other Members want to speak.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on securing this important debate. Many of my constituents, from all backgrounds and all faiths, have been in touch to highlight their concerns about what is happening to the Rohingya community, which they have seen on their screens.
We are recognising a tragedy taking place on the other side of the world in which innocent families are losing their lives. Given today’s significance, we should all put on record our thoughts and prayers for the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 or in other tragedies across the world.
My constituents, and people across the world, will be shocked by the images of death and destruction in Burma. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Human Rights Watch, for example, has highlighted concerns that the Burmese authorities in many cases stood by and watched, and in some cases took part, as the tragedies occurred. It is incumbent on the UK Government and the international community to tell the Burmese authorities that they must fulfil their international obligations and, more importantly, their basic human rights obligations to every single one of their citizens.
We had the pleasure of having Aung San Suu Kyi here, which was a great day for us and a great beacon of hope for anyone who believes in freedom and democracy. Democracy is not only about being able to vote or stand as a candidate; with democracy comes responsibilities such as access to justice, recognition of fairness and equality for all—and, hopefully, opportunity for all. Sadly, that is not the case for the Rohingya community in Burma, who are denied citizenship and must get permission to marry, have children or leave their local villages. That situation is not acceptable in the 21st century in any country, and it is incumbent on us to condemn those actions.
The circumstances and responsibilities of neighbouring countries are also interesting. Bangladesh has many challenges from poverty and budgetary and cost constraints, but it also has an obligation to the international community. We support the Bangladeshi Government and their work to fight poverty and lack of opportunity in Bangladesh, and we must help them through this difficult period and, hopefully, ensure that they fulfil their international obligations.
I recently wrote to the Bangladeshi high commissioner, who kindly responded by saying that his Government are doing all they can to support the 25,000 Rohingya refugees in various camps across the country. He assured me that Bangladesh will fulfil its obligations under the UN charter and has repeatedly raised the issue in regional and religious forums across the world.
The one sad thing is that the high commissioner’s response shows that there is still work to be done. He concluded by saying that he thinks there is a Burma-only problem that can be solved only by the Burmese themselves. He said that the Rohingya population in Bangladesh causes drug dealing, arms dealing, murder and looting. He labelled the Rohingya an economic and social burden. There is still some work to be done to ensure that Bangladesh fulfils its obligations.
I welcome the Minister, for whom I have a few closing questions. What discussions has he had with representatives of the Department for International Development on ongoing humanitarian support for the Rohingya community? What discussions has he had with the Burmese authorities on the commission that has been set up to investigate the recent violence against the Rohingya community? What discussions has he had with the Bangladeshi authorities? What steps are being taken, alongside other international partners, to raise this important issue at the UN Security Council? What action can be taken from there?
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I look forward to the debate you will be leading later, although I doubt whether I will be able to take part.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who has done a great service by enabling the House to show itself in its finest tradition by speaking up for a minority in a distant part of the world that finds itself greatly persecuted and its human rights violated. I also thank hon. Members who, through other parliamentary processes such as parliamentary questions, have enabled Ministers to put on record their approach to this problem.
I was not aware of the extent of the issue until recently, but, unfortunately, the pattern with the Rohingya in Burma can be seen across the world. Minorities often find themselves isolated in their own country. Where a minority has a different ethnicity, sometimes visibly so, from the majority, where a minority follows a different religion or religious practices from the majority or where a minority has a different language from the majority, the majority, feeling under pressure, often exhibits frustration that manifests through oppression and violence against the minority, even though the minority might not be the cause of the problems perceived by the majority.
Through hon. Members’ efforts, Ministers have put on record the approaches that they have made to the Burmese and Bangladeshi Governments. Although those overtures are on record, what have been the Governments’ responses? To reinforce the questions asked by other hon. Members, how can the United Nations best use its influence to enable peace and reconciliation in that part of the world? What can be done about the refugee status of the Rohingya in Bangladesh? Can the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development do anything more to support those people in difficult circumstances?
The Rohingya community has historically and effectively been made stateless by the actions of the Burmese and Bangladeshi Governments. They are now being persecuted without redress, save for the efforts of the United Kingdom Government and international agencies such as the United Nations. I congratulate the Minister on his new position and urge him to use it to make the most of the channels available to the Government to resolve the problem.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak, Mr Williams. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) for securing this extremely important and timely debate. The issue has been raised with me, as I am sure that it has been raised with other hon. Members, by a number of my constituents, and it is increasingly and rightly moving up the international agenda.
The intolerance shown by the Burmese state towards the Rohingya community is completely and utterly unacceptable. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, we must do all that we can to urge the Government to put more pressure on the Burmese Government to terminate the persecution of the Rohingya people. The atrocities are appalling, as my hon. Friends have outlined. The Burmese Government must be held to account for how they are treating the Muslim people. Injustice is being done to the Rohingya people. As has been outlined, the 1982 citizenship law is completely unacceptable. The security services in Burma are not only failing to intervene but are acting against the Rohingya people. There is a complete failure to protect those citizens of Burma.
Turning to the situation in Bangladesh, I urge the Government of Bangladesh to treat the refugees with much more compassion and to allow the United Nations to intervene in the refugee situation to see precisely what is going on. The Minister might wish to consider this important point. As Bangladesh approaches a general election, tensions are arising between the Awami League, which is currently in power, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. If we are not careful, the Rohingya people will become a political football in Bangladesh. That should raise concerns for us. Perhaps we could urge the Bangladesh Government to reduce the tensions between those two main political parties involving the Rohingya people.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on securing this debate. The treatment of the Rohingya people in Burma has raised concerns among many of my constituents. As someone who spent time in Bangladesh last summer, helping to teach English in a rural school, I have been in contact with numerous non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh, particularly Islamic Relief, which is incredibly keen to help the Rohingya. Will the hon. Gentleman say more about what he thinks we can do to support NGOs such as Islamic Relief in helping those people?
It is right and proper that both the FCO and DFID play a part in working with NGOs in Bangladesh to provide the assistance and support that many Rohingya people who reside in Bangladesh are, sadly, missing.
I have two final points to make. First, we must urge all political parties in Bangladesh to unite in helping the Rohingya. I also urge our Government to press all Governments in the region to provide justice for the Rohingya people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on bringing this issue to the House. It takes a crisis to bring such matters to everyone’s attention, as he said.
I have spoken in the House on many occasions about the persecution of ethnic groups, particularly Christians. I remind Members that a small Christian minority in the area has also been persecuted over the years. Perhaps the Minister will give us some indication about that when he responds. I congratulate him on his elevation. Two years in Northern Ireland maketh a man, and here he is in a new job.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on highlighting the suffering of the Rohingya people as well as drawing attention to the ongoing persecution of Christian minorities. Later today, at the all-party parliamentary group on Burma, I will be chairing a presentation by the Chin Human Rights Organisation of its report, “Threats to our existence: persecution of ethnic Chin Christians in Burma”, which highlights the fact that that ongoing persecution has not got the attention that it deserves.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and agree wholeheartedly that the issues must be highlighted. I am conscious of the need for religious liberty for Christians, as well as for Muslims or Buddhists. That opportunity should be available to all, but in many cases it is not.
The 2012 state riots highlighted the ongoing conflicts between ethnic groups in Rakhine state in Myanmar. At the same time, they show that the UN and our Government have a role to play in the crisis. What contact has the Minister had with the UN? Have the British Government applied pressure through the European Union on behalf of the Burmese people?
The Myanmar authorities report that the violence between ethnic groups has left 78 people dead, 87 injured and thousands of homes destroyed. Other figures indicate that as many as 650 people could be dead. Whatever the figures are, the issue is that cruel and vicious ethnic violence is taking place, and we must see what our Government can do to help to end it. We have a responsibility on the world stage.
A state of emergency has been declared. In July 2012, the Myanmar Government asserted that the Rohingya minority group, classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh, is not included among its more than 130 ethnic races and has no claim to Myanmar citizenship, which is why the Rohingya do not receive the protection that they should. Has the Minister had discussions on the matter? If so, what assurances can we give to the Rohingya people about their citizenship and the protection that they should receive but clearly are not receiving?
The Rohingya have been displaced and are living in camps. Political leaders are working to expel them from the country. Burma’s President, Thein Sein, has attempted to hand over the group to the UN refugee agency. Have our Government had any contact with the UN about the issue? Bangladesh, already home to an estimated Rohingya refugee population of 300,000, has turned away more migrants. It has sealed its 200 km border with Myanmar, as it is unable to cope with the strain of more refugees. What humanitarian aid have the British Government given, either on their own or with the EU or UN? Clearly, a crisis is unfolding very quickly and many people are under pressure.
In conclusion, it is clear that these problems must be addressed and that this cannot be done by Government officials washing their hands of a sector of their people. I have stood in support of many ethnic groups that are persecuted because of their religion, skin colour, culture or history. I urge the Minister to respond to the ethnic human rights crisis and to see what we can do to help.
I will heed your advice to be mindful of the time, Mr Williams, and I will be brief.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) for securing the debate. His excellent speech put the issue in its proper context and acknowledged the perception that it has perhaps not received the attention it deserves. The situation is extremely important to a number of my constituents, some of whom brought it to my attention when I recently attended Eid celebrations. I was impressed by the passion and awareness of the young people who told me the extremely sad story of the Rohingya minority in Burma. Denied their citizenship and basic rights, they face a sectarian feud that has already left many dead and many more homeless.
The reported response of the Burmese security forces is extremely troubling. There have been reports of police and soldiers standing by and watching as violence unfolds. In some cases, there have been reports of them actually antagonising the situation by participating in the violence directly, and that has often been followed by arbitrary arrests of Rohingya Muslim men. This has revived the worrying association between the Burmese state and summary detentions at a time when most observers have welcomed the fall in politically motivated arrests.
There is a concern that the recent progress in Burma may tempt the international community to downplay the situation. That would be a mistake, and I think we all sincerely hope that that will not happen. There is no doubt that this is an important time for developments in Burma, but we must be very clear with the Burmese Government. If they really want to become a fully accepted member of the international community, their response to human rights abuses must be completely unambiguous. The protection of basic human rights is fundamental to any democratic country, and it would be tragic if this situation were to undermine the progress of a country that otherwise appears to be moving in the right direction. A stable, democratically elected Government in Burma who respect basic civil liberties and defend all of their citizens, regardless of ethnicity, will not just be good for all the people of Burma, but the wider region too.
I hope the Burmese Government will act promptly to bring an end to these atrocities and to put right the injustices that Rohingya Muslims have suffered for many years. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to do what they can to help secure that.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Mr Williams.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on securing the debate. I, too, have been contacted by constituents who are concerned, particularly by what they saw on the Channel 4 programme about the plight of the Rohingya community. Everyone who has spoken today has done an excellent job in conveying to the Chamber some of the problems faced by the community and some of the human rights abuses being committed against it. I welcome the Minister to his new role. I suspect that we will be spending quite a lot of time in Westminster Hall together in such debates in the coming months.
I was fortunate to visit Burma in July, with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, to see the progress that has undoubtedly been made by the regime, and to discuss the need for continuing reforms if Burma is to be a true democracy where political freedoms and human rights are respected, where the rule of law is firmly established, and where communities are not torn apart by conflict. It is important to note how far Burma has come in a very short space of time. There was a feeling of optimism from everyone I spoke to, particularly when I met Aung San Suu Kyi and other newly elected MPs who had won by-elections earlier this year. There is a sense that the genie is out of the bottle and that there will be no return to the former repression, but obviously there is a very long way to go and further progress to be made.
The problems faced by ethnic minority communities were a key issue we discussed. I think I am right in saying that approximately 43% of the population in Burma comes from a minority community. Conflicts in some states, such as Kachin, Karen and, of course, Rakhine, are a graphic reminder that there is still a long way to go in Burma.
I wish to give as much time as possible for the Minister’s winding-up speech so that other hon. Members have the chance to intervene, so I will not go through the problems faced by the Rohingya community again. As hon. Members have said, villages have been destroyed by fire, and we have heard about rapes and the brutal murders of children. The World Food Programme estimates that 90,000 people have been displaced by the violence. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South said that up to 100,000 had been displaced. There is clearly a humanitarian crisis and I hope the Minister will tell us what steps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are taking to ensure that victims are receiving the humanitarian assistance they clearly need, what access there is to the camps, and how much aid the British Government are prepared to contribute.
Much of the blame for the violence against the Rohingya community has been attributed to other ethnic groups within Rakhine, but disturbing evidence suggests that the Burmese border security force, army and police are also involved and culpable. Human Rights Watch has condemned the authorities for standing by and watching, indifferent to what is going on. Amnesty International reports that
“Hundreds of mostly men and boys have been detained, with nearly all held incommunicado, and some subject to ill-treatment.”
It describes the arrests as “arbitrary and discriminatory”. Worryingly, it seems that political prisoner numbers are once again on the rise.
As part of the package of reform in Burma, we have seen the release of political prisoners and a relaxation of press censorship. In Rakhine, however, a different picture seems to be emerging. During my visit the plight of the Rohingya was raised at virtually every meeting, but there is a lack of support for the community across the board. Although we talk about this as being a Muslim issue—certainly the British Muslim community has done a lot to bring it to people’s attention—we were told that it was an issue of what was deemed to be illegal immigration, and not that the Rohingya community is a Muslim community. I am sure that that would be disputed by many within the Rohingya community, but it comes down to the basic issue of what country they belong to and their disputed legal status in Burma.
I had a positive and informative discussion with representatives of the Rohingya community. One question I posed to them was whether they would qualify for protection under the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. They have not passed that hurdle yet, and it is debatable whether they would. Some would say that the 1982 citizenship law was passed by the military government specifically to exclude the Rohingya population from Burmese citizenship.
I do not think that anyone else has gone into any detail about that law. It categorises people into three groups. Full citizens are those who belong to one of the eight specified national races, or whose ancestors settled before the British occupation in 1823. Obviously, the Rohingya do not come into that category. Associate citizens who applied before the 1982 Act came into effect qualify under the previous 1948 law. For the most part, the Rohingya would not meet that criterion either. Finally, naturalised citizens are required to provide conclusive evidence that they or their parents’ residency in Burma predates independence in 1948. Some of the Rohingya community I met have generations who go back that far, but a lot more have arrived more recently. Those who have at least one parent qualifying under one of those categories can become naturalised citizens if they are at least 18 years old and speak one of the national languages. That does not include the dialect spoken by the Rohingya, so even if they manage to prove that they meet one of those other categories, the language criterion excludes them. That means that the Rohingya are, in effect, left stateless or classed as resident foreigners without any legal status. Many of them have little formal documentation, so even if their roots in Burma go back pre-1948, it will be difficult for them to prove that.
Human Rights Watch, in its report, “The Government Could Have Stopped This”, suggests that many of those who had any paperwork would have lost it in the fires earlier this summer. That organisation has received reports from some Rohingya that the authorities confiscated their ID. Clearly, the Rohingya people are in a Catch-22 situation now. There is no way that they can prove that they meet the citizenship requirements under the current law. They are, in effect, stateless; they cannot prove that they have the right to be citizens of any other country. I will mention Bangladesh in a moment.
Will the Minister say what discussions there have been with the Burmese Government regarding the 1982 law and, given that Rohingya children born in Burma are denied citizenship of any nation, what representations have been made regarding article 7 of the convention on the rights of the child?
Historically, the Burmese Government were, perhaps, more sympathetic towards citizenship rights in relation to the Rohingya. The first President of Burma said that the
“Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to the indigenous races of Burma. If they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as an indigenous races.”
In the past there has been a more understanding attitude towards the Rohingya. It is important that we get that on the record.
That shows clearly why the 1982 Act was such a backward step: by establishing the principle that there are eight national races, it went back on what the then President said. Review and reform of the 1982 Act is crucial to dealing with the Rohingya’s situation.
The establishment by the President of a commission to investigate the violence in Rakhine state was welcomed by the Foreign Office Minister, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who does not cover Burma, but deals with human rights issues—or did at the time. He issued a statement welcoming the announcement, emphasising that it was crucial for the commission to be impartial and inclusive. Will the Minister say what involvement the Foreign Office has had in the commission’s work? Have any direct representations been made to the commission? Has the Foreign Office been involved in assessing the commission’s progress to date?
Several hon. Members mentioned Bangladesh, which is important, because Burma cannot resolve the situation alone and it is not Burma’s sole responsibility to resolve it. The Rohingya’s treatment by Bangladeshi authorities is also a serious cause for concern. It is difficult to verify numbers, but we have seen videos of packed boats being turned away by Bangladesh. It is estimated that more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees have managed to cross the border into Bangladesh, but the Government there officially recognise only 29,000 of those as refugees.
It is worrying that Bangladesh has now stopped three aid agencies—Médecins Sans Frontières, Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid—from providing aid, claiming that Rohingya are in Bangladesh illegally. They are going backwards and forwards across the border and are regarded as illegal immigrants in both cases. What contact has there been between the UK and Bangladesh regarding the principle of non-refoulement and humanitarian access? Has the Minister tried to encourage a dialogue between the Bangladesh and Burmese authorities? That is what is needed at the moment to deal with the immediate humanitarian crisis, because the refugees have nowhere to go.
Burma should be praised for the steps that it has taken towards democracy, but it still has a long way to go. The progress is fragile and grave human rights violations remain, including but not limited to the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities. The President must prove that his Government are committed to addressing those violations and the UK must demonstrate, when the Burmese President visits this country, that all due representations are made and that this matter is flagged on the political agenda. I am sure that the Minister wants to update us on all those issues in his response.
Mr Williams, I am grateful for serving under your chairmanship in my first outing for the Foreign Office. Like other hon. Members, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) for requesting this debate and for his providing me with the opportunity, at an early stage, to give the first Government speech on this important issue for many years.
I recognise the important role that this Parliament continues to play in supporting both human rights and democracy in Burma. Many of my colleagues have worked tirelessly for many years to ensure that the international spotlight remains firmly focused on events in Burma.
I agree with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), who said that this debate shows Parliament at its best in seeking to protect minorities in far-flung parts of the world. The discrimination faced by the Rohingya people has long been an issue of serious concern for the Government.
The hon. Member for Leicester South said that he did not think that what was going on with the Rohingya was well enough known and that it was not getting enough worldwide publicity. I agree. However, the UK has been and will continue to be one of the most active, vocal members of the international community in raising concerns about the plight of the Rohingya community. We have, for many years, continually sought to raise the profile of this issue with the international community and to raise our concerns directly with the Governments of Burma and Bangladesh.
Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary met a range of ethnic groups, including Rohingya representatives, during their respective visits to Burma in April and January this year. Their visits, in the wake of the visit by the then Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), in November 2011, were the first by a western Head of State for many decades and the first by a British Foreign Secretary since 1955, and show the importance that this Government attach to that part of the world. Their meetings with Rohingya representatives demonstrate how seriously the concerns of the Rohingya, particularly, are viewed by this Government.
During his visit, the Foreign Secretary also raised with the Burmese Government the specific issues facing the Rohingya. More recently, the troubling inter-communal violence in Rakhine state has once again brought these issues to the attention of the world. We have seen violence perpetrated by both Rohingya and Rakhine ethnic groups. Our assessment is that this is less about religious differences and more the latest manifestation of decades-long inter-communal tensions between the communities, which highlights once again the need to find a long-term solution to the issues facing the Rohingya, as the UK has been urging for many years.
We reacted quickly to the recent outbreak of violence—as hon. Members have acknowledged—issuing a statement on 10 June that called for all parties to act with restraint and urged the authorities and community leaders to open discussions to end the violence and protect all members of the local population. We called on President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to work with the communities affected to resolve the situation rapidly in a peaceful and constructive manner. Following this statement and subsequent ministerial statements, we welcomed the Burmese Government’s decision to establish an independent investigative commission to probe the violence. For the commission to be credible, it needs to be as inclusive as possible, as hon. Members have said, involving those from all the affected communities, including the Rohingya. Our embassy is in close contact with members of that commission and continues to make that point.
Since the violence in Rakhine state, this Government have been active in renewing our calls for a lasting solution to address the plight of the Rohingya. We have repeatedly called for the Burmese Government to ensure unrestricted humanitarian access across Rahkine, including areas that were receiving aid before the recent outbreak of violence. It is also crucial to address reports of arbitrary detentions and mistreatment of detainees and to find a long-term solution that resolves the issue of the citizenship of the Rohingya. We continue to raise these issues with senior members of the Burmese Government, including with the President and the Burmese ambassador.
The Foreign Secretary raised the issues concerning those fleeing the violence to Bangladesh—another point made by the hon. Member for Leicester South in his opening remarks—in a recent meeting with Prime Minister Hasina of Bangladesh. The then Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, also raised the matter in a meeting with Prime Minister Hasina in August. We and our European Union partners have lobbied the Government of Bangladesh to allow humanitarian assistance in Cox’s Bazar, which is home to many thousands of displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh, to continue.
We also highlighted our concerns with international partners and urged greater EU collective action. The United Kingdom continues to raise the situation in Burma at the UN Security Council. At our request, we have had three separate briefings in the past eight months from Mr Vijay Nambiar, the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on Burma. We also strongly supported a UN Human Rights Council resolution on Burma this year, which included an extension to the mandate of the UN’s special rapporteur for Burma, Mr Tomas Quintana, who visited Rakhine state recently.
A number of Members asked what we would do if there were no improvement in the present situation. We are absolutely clear that we will support further easing of EU sanctions only once there has been further progress against the benchmarks for political progress that we want to see met, including the release of all political prisoners, an end to ethnic conflict and further credible steps towards reconciliation with Burma’s ethnic groupings.
We will encourage the Association of South East Asian Nations and its member states to play an active role in supporting Burma’s Government to resolve the situation, in particular those countries that have experience of resolving ethnic tensions. I was asked about the involvement of or discussions with Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, and we are in regular contact with those ASEAN states about the issue, and in particular with those with Rohingya populations, such as Malaysia. We are calling on such ASEAN states to play a helpful and moderating role in their neighbour’s finding a lasting solution, drawing on their own experiences of democratic transition and of resolving conflict between ethnic groups. Interestingly, various Burmese representatives have had discussions, I believe, with some in Northern Ireland—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is here to talk about the lessons that can be learned from conflict resolution there.
We are also providing substantial development assistance to all communities throughout Rakhine state in respect of livelihoods, health and educational programmes. Additionally, the UN has launched an appeal for $32.5 million to address urgent needs over the next six months. As well as the development assistance that we are already providing, any further future contribution that we make to that appeal will focus on ensuring that such programmes do not entrench segregation, but instead focus on restoring services in villages, rather than in camps, so that communities can return to their homes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for his comments and for his tribute to the work of the Department for International Development. We are already the largest bilateral aid donor to Burma: we have been giving £187 million over four years, with programmes focused on health care, governance, public finance management, livelihoods, strengthening the work of Parliament and civil society and helping the process of ethnic reconciliation.
We welcome the Government’s efforts to reach out to ethnic groups and their success in signing ceasefires with 10 of the 11 main groups. We have certainly not forgotten the plight of such groups, who continue to suffer as a result of the 60-year conflict with the Government. We also recognise, however, that the ceasefires are fragile and simply a first step, albeit an important one. The UK is devoting considerable resource and expertise to supporting that process and to ensuring that those ceasefires are now followed by genuine political dialogue and national reconciliation, which is what we all hope to see. In that context, we welcome Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s appointment as chair of the parliamentary committee on the rule of law, peace and stability, which we hope will allow her to play an active role in helping to address the issue.
In answer to the shadow Minister’s question about the citizenship law, which was also mentioned by other hon. Members, we have specifically raised the 1982 citizenship law with the Government of Burma. As we have done for many years, we will continue to make it clear to the Burmese Government that the citizenship of the Rohingya people must be dealt with. We are working to ensure that the issues facing the Rohingya are reflected in the resolution on Burma at the UN General Assembly due in November—as we have done, in all fairness, previously.
We remain deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict in Kachin state. We urge all sides involved to renew their efforts to reach a lasting solution and we call on all parties to cease hostilities. We have provided more than £2 million of humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of more than 28,000 people affected by the conflict in Kachin.
The United Kingdom welcomes the significant progress in Burma in the past 18 months. We pay tribute to the bold steps taken by the President and by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We are committed to supporting them both as they continue together on the path to genuine reform and transformative change in Burma.
In that context, I welcome the Westminster Foundation for Democracy visit to Burma, which the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), went on—she is ahead of me in that respect. Other Members also went, not least my hon. Friends the Members for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and for St Ives (Andrew George), and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). That is interesting because four political parties were represented in that group, which is a good demonstration of how parties can work together and an extremely good example to the Burmese of how differences can be buried for the sake of national interest and democratic progress. I welcome that move very much, and it was a good first step in a wider programme of UK support to the Burmese Government.
I also welcome the setting up of the all-party parliamentary group again—I think it was in abeyance for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who is no longer in his place, is chairing a meeting this afternoon, I think he said. The more people who are engaged, in both Houses of Parliament and all the political parties, in supporting what we are trying to achieve in Burma is manifestly a good thing.
I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne)—who has just appeared mysteriously, no doubt to claim all the credit for British action in Burma and for this excellent speech. I am glad, however, of the issue’s now falling firmly within my bailiwick.
Much remains to be done and progress is not guaranteed. We will not let up in our calls for all remaining political prisoners to be released, for an end to ethnic conflict and for the human rights of all Burma’s people to be respected. The best way to achieve our vision of a democratic Burma that enshrines freedom and human rights for all is to engage with the parties in Burma to help embed reform and to encourage further meaningful progress towards the peaceful democratic governance that we all hope for and aspire to.
I appreciate the spirit in which this morning’s debate has been conducted. I am sure that what we have said in the Chamber will be read by those who follow such matters closely, not least I hope by the Government of Burma, who will see that this country is absolutely united on achieving reconciliation between the Government and the ethnic groups of that country, in particular with respect to the Rohingya people who need to be treated in a fairer manner quickly.
Thank you for allowing me to open the debate, Mr Williams, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate an important topic that, sadly, I have become all too familiar with since entering Parliament. I, and all MPs no doubt, often meet the victims of domestic abuse, in constituency surgeries or other settings, and also regularly meet those who work with the victims. The topic is one of immense sensitivity, which throws up a range of different and difficult issues that make tackling domestic abuse extremely challenging, in specific cases and overall.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee), who had hoped to lead this debate and must take credit for securing it. Both of them will be following it with interest, and I pay tribute to their work on this important issue. I also pay tribute to the huge number of people, especially volunteers, from around the country who devote time and much more to be there for the victims of domestic violence. Their work is commendable beyond words, and I want to put on the record how highly we appreciate their work and that we recognise it in Parliament.
I hope that the debate will provide an opportunity for hon. Members to express their concerns about areas where not all is being done to protect the victims of domestic abuse. The Government are concerned about such violence and are already offering a huge amount of support. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate.
Domestic violence is close to my heart, because I have seen at first hand how it tears families, communities and people apart. Those who have followed my short career in Parliament will know about the Justice for Jane campaign, which has been successful in changing the law better to protect women and men who may be the victims of domestic abuse.
On 28 June 2011, I introduced a Bill to change bail laws, following the murder of Jane Clough, a nurse who lived in Barrowford in my constituency. She was murdered by her abusive partner, Jonathan Vass, for having the courage to speak to the police about the repeated rape and other abuse to which he subjected her. He had been released on bail by a judge, against the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, when he tracked Jane down and killed her, stabbing her 71 times and then slitting her throat as she lay bleeding on the ground.
My Bail (Amendment) Bill would have conferred on the prosecution a right of appeal against controversial judicial decisions to grant bail—a right that did not exist at the time. In October 2011, almost a year ago and following a hard-fought campaign, the Government agreed to support the Bill, and this year they introduced amendments to achieve its aim to protect the victims of domestic violence in future.
The provisions of my private Member’s Bill are, thankfully, now law. That was a huge achievement for Jane’s parents, John and Penny Clough, and all those involved in the Justice for Jane campaign. The courage shown by John and Penny in the face of such a terrible loss has been incredible. I raise the case to demonstrate one of the barriers, thankfully now removed, that existed for victims of domestic violence when they tried to protect themselves. I hope that this debate will shine a light on other barriers faced by victims and how the Government and we in Parliament can help them to overcome them.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is opening such an important debate this morning, and I echo his recognition and acknowledgement of Jane Clough’s family’s fight to improve the law. Does he agree that it is shocking that as many as 20-plus incidents of domestic violence may occur before a victim has the courage and confidence to report it? Does he also agree that there is real urgency for action to address that?
I agree totally with the hon. Lady. Lancashire probation service told me only yesterday that it estimates that an average of 35 incidents of domestic violence occur before a victim contacts anyone—the police or another agency—for help.
East Lancashire has considerable support for victims of domestic violence, and I have had the benefit of visiting some of the centres that offer advice and support to victims. Pendle women’s refuge has been open for 25 years. It is run by Pendle borough council, and extended its facilities six years ago. Sixty families have been accommodated at the refuge in the past year, but there were 178 applications in the same period, with many cases involving problems such as substance misuse and severe mental health issues. Despite the problem of resources, refuge staff try to accommodate as many families as possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that we need more centres such as the Family Justice Centre in Croydon, which was the first of its kind in Europe? It provides housing, benefit, doctor and welfare services, and everything that a victim needs to ensure that they can carry on their lives, as well as enabling them to obtain justice. Does he agree that we need more such centres, where victims can access all the services from one point instead of from multiple agencies?
That is a fantastic example of provision in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I thank him for making that point. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will raise good examples from their constituencies that can be replicated throughout the country to help victims, wherever they live.
The Pendle domestic violence initiative is a community project that offers a service to people who have experienced domestic violence, as well as to front-line workers and others who may need help. Bilingual support, free counselling and work in schools are particularly valuable. Sadly, the initiative experienced a 45% increase in referrals for support services compared with the previous year, again underlining the scale of the problem.
Included in that initiative is the Lookout programme, a service aimed at young people affected by domestic abuse and run through local schools. Tragically, the programme is aware of more than 70 cases of children under 11 whom it cannot help. However, it has been able to help around 100 young people affected by a range of complex issues every year.
In addition, Pendle women’s centre opened in February. It serves as an information centre, with high expectations that it will soon deliver education and health programmes. Its services are directed at all women aged 18 and over, and it has been set up with the involvement of the Pendle domestic violence initiative, Pendle housing needs team, Housing Pendle, Help Direct and the NHS.
Pendle women’s centre has links to Styal prison. I understand that that relationship is unique, despite the proven link between women in prison and the victims of domestic violence. According to figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform, about half the women in prison report having experienced violence at home and one third of them report sexual abuse. Equally worrying is the fact that, according to the Youth Justice Board, 40% of girls in custody report suffering violence at home and one in three of them report having been sexually abused. With that in mind, I welcome Pendle women’s centre’s link with the prison service and wonder whether that can be encouraged elsewhere to promote links between prisons, the probation service and support centres in our communities.
I also pay tribute to the Big Lottery Fund, which has put more than £3.7 million into projects that support the victims of domestic violence in the north-west in the past three years. More than £1 million of that has gone directly to Lancashire, so local support in my area has been fantastic.
On national issues, the Government are looking at a range of innovative ideas to improve the situation, and I welcome that. Hon. Members will be aware that in March 2011 the Government published a policy paper, “Call to end violence against women and girls: action plan”. An update on progress towards the recommendations in that action plan would be helpful, especially on attempts at early intervention.
I should be grateful to the Minister if he provided an update on two recent consultations: on the proposals to change the definition of domestic abuse so that it includes coercive control and incorporates victims under the age of 18, as well as the ongoing consultation on Clare’s law. Alongside those consultations, there have been trials of both the domestic violence disclosure scheme and domestic violence protection orders. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes was especially keen to raise DVPOs today.
Another important move will be the criminalisation of forced marriage—something I have raised several times on the Floor of the House and very much welcome. I also welcome reports in July that domestic violence conviction rates are at their highest ever, with the overall number of prosecutions for violence against women up to 91,000.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the police need to be more proactive when they are called to a scene where neighbours say that domestic violence is taking place? When the police ask women whether they want them to do something, they may say no. I know about that personally, because it happened to a family member who kept saying that she was fine, but she clearly was not fine because neighbours were regularly calling the police and they did not insist on helping her.
My hon. Friend makes a vital point. The key issue with domestic violence is under-reporting. As was mentioned before, many women are subjected to repeated abuse—time and again—before they finally speak to the police or any other agency to seek help. We therefore need to ensure that we deal with under-reporting.
Having previously, before coming to Parliament, been a barrister, for both the prosecution and defence, I know that under-reporting is an issue. It was often the case in court that, on the day of the trial, the victim would say that they did not want to go ahead, but under the good provisions in the legislation that we have now, even if a victim does not want to go ahead, the trial can still go ahead, with their witness statements being read. Does my hon. Friend agree that those are excellent provisions?
I agree again with my hon. Friend that that is a very welcome step forward and undoubtedly one reason why conviction rates are improving. I have heard something similar from a friend of mine who is a barrister and has talked to me about how we can improve the legal system to help the victims of domestic violence further.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is no wonder that there is under-reporting, because with any other crime, we do not see the victim having to continue to live with the perpetrator and to let them have contact with their children and all the other things in which people are involved together? Does he agree that one of the most important things is that the perpetrator is removed from the home without the victim being expected to move and that there is enforcement to keep the perpetrator away?
I thank the hon. Lady for that incredibly important point. The Government are doing an awful lot of work to ensure that the abuser is now made homeless, rather than the victim, because for so many years in domestic violence cases, reporting the abuse led directly to homelessness for the victim. That was the immediate consequence, and it was a huge issue associated with domestic violence that needed to be addressed.
Another concern is the uneven service around the country. As I have explained, in my area, voluntary agencies and Government agencies are working together to provide a very good service. In the north-west as a whole, we are very well supported. As a parliamentary answer in July informed the House, the north-west will have 12 Government-funded independent sexual violence advisers—ISVAs—from next year. However, London will have only eight and the north-east only six. That seems like an imbalance.
Back in January 2009, a report from the campaign group End Violence Against Women found that one in four local authorities in Britain had no specialised support services for women who had suffered violence. I hope that the Minister can provide us with an update on improved access throughout the country. Perhaps the new police and crime commissioners will want to deal with those regional imbalances when they get into office.
There is also a concern that the services available can focus solely on the woman as the direct victim of domestic abuse and often fail to take into consideration the impact on other members of the family, especially children. Research by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children estimates that 14% of children under the age of 18 will have been exposed to domestic violence in the UK and cites research studies that estimate that, in 30% to 60% of domestic violence cases, the abusive partner also abuses children in the family. Where domestic violence is present, rates of child abuse and neglect are up to 15 times higher than the national average.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that members of the wider family are affected. Does he share my concern that one consequence of local authority funding cuts is that work with the perpetrators of domestic violence is increasingly coming under pressure and programmes are being closed? Does he agree that, as much as we work with the victim and the victim’s immediate family, we need to focus attention on preventing such violence from happening in the first place?
We definitely do. That is a valid point. One reason why I am talking in particular about the effect on children is that many of the children who see domestic violence at home and for whom that becomes almost a normal daily routine will go on to abuse their children or become violent themselves. We therefore need to consider the wider societal impacts of domestic violence in the home.
A report published in July by the Centre for Social Justice if anything paints an even worse picture than the NSPCC. The CSJ claims that 25% of children in the UK witness domestic violence. It emphasises the psychological damage caused to children and the cycle of abuse, as generations repeat that parental behaviour. It points out that almost two thirds of child witnesses of domestic abuse show more emotional or behavioural problems than the average child. The damage can extend to post-traumatic stress disorder and, less predictably, can even affect IQ levels. The CSJ claims that, on average, children with experience of domestic abuse are 7.25 points lower than others. One of the report’s authors, Dr Samantha Callan, summed it up by saying:
“The impact on children of being a witness of domestic abuse is underplayed even though they are more likely to fail at school, develop anti-social behaviour and go on to harm their own children.”
The report made several recommendations to improve children’s outcomes in domestic abuse cases, including therapeutic provision for children in schools, proactive help for children who have witnessed abuse—instead of the reactive approach of waiting for signs of mental health problems—and better training for social workers.
We have not mentioned the violence that happens within teenage relationships. Again, according to a recent NSPCC report, 25% of girls and 18% of boys report experiencing some form of physical violence from a partner, 11% of girls and 4% of boys report severe physical violence and 72% of girls and 51% of boys report some form of emotional violence from their partner.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the increase in domestic violence among teenagers is of great concern and that the Government need to take that issue much more seriously? Given the cuts in local authority funding, which are having an impact on voluntary organisations and local services, I ask the Minister, whom I welcome to his new role, to look into the issue. It is vital that we provide sensitive and appropriate support to the very young who are facing domestic violence. They are often not noticed, and the agencies are not sensitised in dealing with those issues.
I agree with the hon. Lady on that point. The key, though, rather than the funding of services, is looking at the definition of domestic abuse and redefining it to include younger people, because quite often they are completely missing from the Government strategies designed to deal with this problem.
With regard to adult women who are subjected to domestic abuse, Jo Wood, MBE, who runs the rape and sexual abuse centre for women in Merseyside and has worked closely with Jane Clough’s parents since Jane’s tragic murder, makes the point that domestic abuse and violence come in many forms and do not affect a certain type of person. As Jo puts it,
“so much of domestic violence is hidden. There is still a perception that it only happens to certain types of women—but domestic violence is no respecter of class and some of the hardest to reach groups of women are those not naturally engaged with other services—they are more often victims of the type of domestic violence that does not leave bruises but can kill just as effectively in other ways.”
One of the main challenges thrown up by all this is to engage all the services that may be the first to come across domestic violence in looking out for and knowing how to deal with the problem when they see it. There is no guarantee that the first number that a victim calls will be 999, so it may well not be a police officer who is the first person to come across the abuse. As a Member of Parliament, I am sometimes the first port of call—for example, in forced marriage cases. There are many opportunities for people to break the silence around domestic abuse, but we all need to be ready and to understand the challenges when it is us as MPs, or doctors or teachers, who are the first port of call.
I do not want to take up much more time, but I think that it is important to bear in mind the impact of domestic violence on homelessness, as the current campaign by St Mungo’s, “Rebuilding Shattered Lives”, reminds us. For very many victims of abuse, including children experiencing sexual abuse at home, homelessness is their immediate solution. In Pendle, we have the Calico Partnership, run by Calico Housing—a so-called floating support service that provides support to vulnerable people, including the victims of domestic violence, who are not at a particular address.
On a final note of concern, although any debate about domestic violence will inevitably focus on women, who make up the majority of victims of domestic abuse, it is essential to note that men are often victims, too. They are victims of 10% of forced marriages in the UK and make up a quarter of the victims of domestic abuse. I therefore welcome the Home Office fund, launched late last year, to support male victims of domestic and sexual violence. I hope that we hear more about supporting men.
To sum up, it might be helpful to remember and spell out the scale of the problem that we are talking about today. The latest statistics from the British crime survey show that, every year in the UK, more than 1 million women suffer domestic abuse, more than 300,000 are sexually assaulted and 60,000 are raped. According to the survey, through the course of their lives, 27% of women and 17% of men had experienced domestic abuse from a current or former partner after the age of 16. That is equivalent to 4.3 million women and 2.7 million men—a total of 7 million direct victims of domestic violence in the UK today.
As is widely quoted, two people are killed by their current or former partner each week in England and Wales. One of those was my constituent, Jane Clough, who paid the ultimate price for speaking out against her abuser. Clearly, domestic abuse and violence is a huge problem in Britain today. The voluntary sector is doing all that it can in places like Pendle and elsewhere. The Government are clearly also willing to do as much as they can to help to bring extra support to the victims of domestic violence. I welcome the opportunity to open the debate and thank the Minister in advance for his contribution on how the Government plan to support the victims of domestic violence in the UK.
I am pleased to speak in the debate. As we have already heard, domestic violence is unlike any other crime. Home is where we are supposed to be safe. If we are mugged in the street, are in a car crash or are robbed at work, we go home, but for victims of domestic violence, home is where they are most unsafe. A common theme for perpetrators of violence is that it is the victim’s fault—“If only you were a better wife, mother, lover, cook, cleaner, this would not happen to you.” Women end up harmed not only physically, but psychologically, with their confidence at rock bottom and trust gone.
As has been said, it often takes many attempts for a woman finally to leave her partner. They may leave and go back, and leave and go back, which can be extremely frustrating for those trying to support people going through that process. We must recognise the difficulty; they are leaving someone who has been a fundamental part of their life, whom they loved—or still love—and who may be the father or mother of their children. When they finally take that step, the most important aspect is to ensure that they stay safe and build a new life. Many women have to move many miles away from their home and from all their networks of friends and family.
Bolton is lucky to have two fantastic domestic violence projects. One is the Fortalice refuge, which not only provides a roof, but counselling, support, education projects and play and youth work for the children. Children are of course themselves traumatised. They have had to leave their home, friends, family and possibly pets, and will also have been witnesses to domestic violence. Whether or not they have actually seen the mum or dad being hit, if they are in the house, they will know very well that something is going on—they hear the screams and see the bruises the next morning. Such children need support. Fortalice can provide play and youth workers who support the children and do therapeutic work to help them through their trauma.
The completeness of the project, with counselling, education and support for children, is at risk from funding cuts. It is also at risk due to the possibility of the services being retendered, with cheaper providers having to be used, and due to the universal credit and housing benefit changes, which will mean that the refuges are less viable.
My hon. Friend mentioned retendering services. Does she agree that a concern of the specialist providers is that generic providers, which can perhaps provide the services more cheaply, are increasingly coming into the market, but they do not have the same experience and sensitivity that is so important for protecting victims of domestic abuse?
I absolutely agree. It is important that experts work with people who are experiencing domestic violence, whether they be men or women. I agree with the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) that there is not enough support or refuges for male victims of domestic violence. We need experts who are extremely aware of what happens to victims of domestic violence and who have the skills to work with such people to build their confidence and help them through the traumas they have experienced. Just another housing provider coming in will mean that such holistic services will not be the same, and we risk that happening.
Bolton does not have any spaces for male victims of domestic violence. We have only hostels for them to go to, where they will often be with people who are drug or alcohol users. It is not an environment where they can feel safe, build confidence and access support. We clearly need to do more work that area.
Another project in Bolton is Paws for Kids—a misnomer in many ways, because everybody thinks that it is an animal charity, and part of it is. It started as a rescue service for the pets of women experiencing domestic violence. Many women will not leave their homes because they are frightened for the animals that they would leave behind. Pets cannot be taken into refuges. Paws for Kids started by providing a pet fostering service, and it has developed. It now has independent domestic violence advisers and a safe haven project. A woman goes into a refuge, gets support and is then re-housed, but, as I said earlier, she will often be re-housed in an area where she has no contacts whatsoever—no friends and no family. It is one of the riskiest times for a woman to return to a violent partner, and the Paws for Kids safe haven project provides support, friendship and activities for women to settle back into the community.
Paws for Kids is at risk. It gets funding from various streams, but its main funding is disappearing. In the past it had money from the Department of Health, the Home Office and the local authority, but it is at risk of losing its IDVAs next April. One of its IDVAs works particularly with ethnic minority women in Bolton. That post currently has no funding whatsoever. We know that women have been hard hit by the Government’s actions, and no more so than in the field of domestic violence. We need to ensure that funding is coming through to support such projects.
I spoke to representatives from Paws for Kids this morning. They said. “If you’re going to say anything, please talk to MPs about the need for a joined-up approach and support across the piece.” Paws for Kids is working with vets to get them to pass on information to women or report problems. Often, a dog that is a repeat returner to the vet is being abused. Perpetrators of domestic violence use pets as weapons—in fact, they use all sorts of things as weapons. We need the joined-up approach. It is not enough to have just a refuge, a safe haven or a pet fostering service; it is about how we join up services to ensure that women and men are supported through their whole journey.
I will be interested to hear what the Minister says about how he will ensure that there is funding going forward for all such services, so that victims of domestic violence are not doubly disadvantaged, not only by being victims, but by being unable to get the support they badly need.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate on an important issue. I am pleased that the Conservative Members in the Chamber are all male, which shows that domestic violence is no longer seen as just a women’s issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) on his speech. He talked a lot about the case of Jane Clough, who met her death in a hospital car park in my constituency. I watched my hon. Friend’s campaign, and saw what he achieved for Jane’s parents, with admiration.
I want to try to keep my remarks brief. I have been heartened, in a way, by much of what has been said in the debate, because I want to focus on children, and perhaps to question the terminology of domestic violence. I think it is true to say that the law, the statutory authorities, the third sector and charities, the media and even many politicians are still liable to fall into the trap of seeing domestic violence as violence between two adults who are intimate, and nothing else. That does a grave disservice to the problem. That said, there is a policy dilemma: whatever issue we want to deal with, the moment we try to broaden the scope we reduce the impact of what we are doing. I do not feel that domestic violence in which husbands attack wives, or partners attack partners, has been adequately tackled yet. So it is with a degree of trepidation that I suggest that we need to expand our remit to the wider issue of family violence.
Why do I say that? I was struck by a phrase in the NSPCC report that was mentioned earlier: the impact of domestic violence on children had been looked at, but solely in terms of the impact on the non-aggressor parent, and not in terms of the child as a victim. I thought that omission was curious. It might not have been intentional. I am sure that elsewhere in NSPCC documentation there is a ream of information about children as victims of domestic violence, but I thought that, in that one instance, there was a lack of insight into the nature of domestic violence for children.
There is always a danger that Westminster Hall debates become a recycling of statistics, and I try to avoid that; but a report that came out in March from the charity 4Children caught my eye. It cited the figure of 1 million children affected by domestic violence. That eye-catching figure got 4Children the front page of The Independent, but the charity drilled down slightly deeper into what needed to be done. I listened carefully to the points made by the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) about local authority cuts and their impact. What 4Children had to say, and what the Government are doing, provide a useful insight into that. I strongly welcome the fact that the Prime Minister himself has made a commitment to greater intervention in the 120,000 so-called troubled families, not least because 80% of them have at some point contacted the police or the NHS about domestic violence. In relation to my earlier comments about problems of definition, it is interesting to note that, in a quarter of those 80% of families, the domestic violence was not between two adults in an intimate relationship. I think that that is proof that when we discuss domestic violence we are really discussing family violence—violence within the home.
One of the things that the hon. Gentleman’s argument misses is the fact that domestic violence is not class-based at all. It happens in all classes. It does not matter whether someone is rich or poor. A perpetrator can be a millionaire or a pauper. Just focusing on troubled families means missing all the other people, of whatever class, gender or ethnicity, who do not feature in that group. Not long ago there was a murder in my area where the victim was from an affluent background, and had not come to anyone’s attention, because what was happening was hidden within four walls.
I might just about accept what the hon. Lady says, but I regret the overtone of class rhetoric that she allowed to creep into her comment. Blackpool North and Cleveleys is an area with a high degree of social deprivation, and the vast bulk of the issues that I encounter on the doorstep are a function of poverty. I accept that domestic violence happens across the classes, and across all divides; but where, in my constituency, it is really a problem that holds back children’s achievement in school, it is a function of poverty. That is why the Prime Minister’s attempts to deal with the troubled families issue should be welcomed and not dismissed as an exercise in class politics.
Perhaps I may explain a little more clearly why the issue is of interest. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston made the point about refuges having to retender; however, I suggest that local authorities should take a broader view and consider the outputs of refuge centres and, as 4Children suggests adopt a payment-by-results approach to reducing family violence. That is in its policy document.
One of the problems for refuges, in achieving that, is that often they work with women for very short periods. Women may spend only days in the refuge. It is important that we should not rush down the route of a payment-by-results model, which might put the emergence of provision under even further financial pressure.
I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for not making myself clear. I suggest that the payment-by-results model is perhaps more appropriate for reducing violence in troubled families. As to refuges in general, she made the point about the high quality of certain independent refuges, and the experience they bring. I have seen that myself at the refuge in Blackpool. That can be demonstrated through outcomes and outputs, rather than just inputs.
I do not want to misrepresent the hon. Gentleman, will he say more about the metrics he would use to judge a payment-by-results culture for reducing family violence? Would it be fewer punches or black eyes? Will he be clearer about what he means? It is worrying to some of us, who might misinterpret him. What does he suggest would be an acceptable way of dealing with domestic violence?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me an opportunity to make my thinking clear. Going by what I see of troubled families, including in constituency surgeries, and what I learn from talking to police, what I am thinking about relates to a reduction in—or the absence of—reports of family violence passed up through the network of social workers, police and schools, or whatever, about the families they work with. I think that that is a perfectly valid metric to apply in that situation. It can be measured, and I see no reason why one would not want to do it. It does not necessarily guarantee that everything will be rosy for ever and a day, but it is intended to show whether interventions are successful. We must take a broader view.
If the hon. Lady does not mind, I have given way a few times now, and want to conclude. I am sure she will be able to make her points at another time.
A report has been published today, for example, from the Children’s Commissioner for England, about the impact that exposure to problem drinking has on younger children. I have seen in my constituency that the educational achievement of young carers is held back, because they must deal with parents with addiction problems that may lead to some form of family violence. The problems are broad, widespread and complex in the way they interconnect. I accept the point that it is not easy to come up with a metric that will reflect the reality, but, equally, it is possible to measure what interventions achieve. It is possible to assess, on some level, what is being achieved.
I urge the Government to look again at the 2005 Home Office definition of domestic violence, which excludes so much of what happens in the family. In April, a case in my constituency received some media coverage. A mother and her partner were locking a 10-year-old boy in a coal bunker, for no reason than their own lust for cruelty. When he was finally released and they were charged, he said he was happy, if only because he was now able to own a toothbrush for the first time—at the age of 10.
There is a reality to what is occurring that means that we must take a more intelligent approach, which seeks to measure the impact of what we are doing to rectify the situation. The issue is not about the Government throwing yet more money at a problem they can identify, but about ensuring that the money we throw has an impact. It is not about sustaining services that are not achieving their goals, but about achieving change for the people whom we represent and the people who are suffering from these problems. Measures can be taken.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Bolton West. I am quite ashamed to live in a country where we have more refuges for pets than for victims of domestic violence. Until that is changed, I want our focus to be on expanding provision for adults first.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) on securing this timely and intensely important debate. It is very much to his credit that he has brought the attention of the House to the matter. I also congratulate the right hon. Gentleman the Minister—
Forgive me. Many of us consider that the hon. Gentleman is always right and never less than honourable. I congratulate him on his translation into his present position.
To be completely up front, I come from a generation that had the worst possible attitude towards domestic violence. My generation condoned domestic violence. I remember as a boy the number of women who walked into doors every Saturday night, the number of women who appeared in church on Sunday with a chiffon scarf around their neck, hiding finger marks, and the number of children who blanched every time someone lifted a hand. Very little was done about it.
Fortunately, we have moved on from that. It is no longer acceptable to pretend that domestic violence is not a problem. I would like to give particular credit, from my part of the world—west London—to Southall Black Sisters, which has been in existence now for more than 30 years. Many people will have known Hannana Siddiqui for her work on the Kiranjit Ahluwalia case. In that case, not only was the issue of ultimate violence—murder in the family—addressed, but the whole problem within particular communities. It became intensely difficult, and a number of well-meaning liberals such as myself stood back, thinking that we had no right to intrude into such matters. Those days have gone.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point that certain domestic violence offences take place in certain communities, does he agree that one particular aspect is honour-based violence? There are more than 2,800 incidents a year. We now need a multi-agency approach to ensure that we get rid of that horrific practice.
There are few expressions I loathe and despise more than the use of the word “honour” in that context. There is nothing honourable about slaughtering, attacking, murdering, torturing, brutalising and beating women. To somehow imply that there is a shroud of ethnicity that can be spread across the issue and it then becomes acceptable—I know that that is not the hon. Gentleman’s view, and I know that he is far, far better than that—and to use the word that he used in that context frankly sticks in my throat.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a huge problem in certain societies, and they are not all of one faith, colour, race or nationality. In my own ethnicity, believe you me, we would want to talk to some west London Irish families about their attitudes towards women. We do not have a great deal to be massively proud of. That issue has to be confronted, and it is being confronted. We need the resources to confront and intervene.
Let me clarify for the hon. Gentleman. I agree that there is nothing honourable about the vile act. One uses the term “honour” because that is how it is used and labelled at the moment. If he wants to change the terminology and ask the Minister to ensure that we do so, I will push for that with him. I agree completely that there is no honour in that disgraceful act. It was used only because it is the term that is applied throughout the country.
May I say categorically, on the record, that I have immense respect for the hon. Gentleman? I have enjoyed many conversations with him, and I am grateful that he has joined us in the House. I certainly did not, at any stage, mean to imply any criticism; we are as one here. We look to the Minister’s febrile mind to come up with an alternative wording, in the sure and certain knowledge that he is the person who can achieve that.
My hon. Friend said that he thought that we were now in more enlightened times. I do not know whether he has seen the statistics from a Department of Health survey that say that 43% of teenage girls believe that it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards his partner, and that one in two boys and one in three girls believe that there are some circumstances in which it is okay to hit a woman or to force her to have sex. We have not moved greatly from those unenlightened times. Perhaps the only difference is that there were few resources to support women who were fleeing domestic violence. Sadly, we seem to be going back to the time when there were fewer resources to support women. Fundamentally, attitudes such as how men view women and how women view themselves regarding domestic violence have not changed.
Dr Pangloss has never been my role model on such occasions. I do not see that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. Believe you me, I am more than well aware of the fact that we have not remotely resolved the problem, but there has been an attitudinal change in society to a slight degree; it is not sufficient, but it is there. It is simply not acceptable nowadays to perpetrate the sort of behaviour that was the norm when I was in my 20s in west London.
Some 30 years ago, Erin Pizzey started the Chiswick women’s refuge. I remember going there on Christmas eve year after year with toys that we had collected for the children. It was explained that Pizzey, who was sometimes robust in her attitudes and was impatient—for sound reasons—would always insist on having no man within less than 20 feet of the building. We would therefore leave our sacks of toys 20 feet from Kew bridge for people to come out to collect. That was an improvement.
For me, as someone who has represented my area for 30 years, the biggest issue that we need to address today is not the existence of the problem, which is undeniable, or the need for early, positive and preventive intervention—I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) and the Minister will accept that, and we will return to that issue in a minute—but one particular aspect of the horrific nightmare of domestic violence: housing.
At the moment, I posit that every one of us is regularly confronted in our surgeries by victims of the foulest domestic violence who look to be re-housed as a solution to their problem. It is somehow felt that if they could move to another place or property, the problem would be solved. In London, that simply is not possible for two reasons. First, in my borough, there are 23,000 people on the waiting list. Secondly, my constituency is minute geographically. Someone could move from one side to the other and still be within a half-hour walk. If someone moves to other accommodation, do the children get uprooted and sent to a new school? Do they go anonymously to that school? Do people change their general practitioner, their sons’ football classes and their daughters’ dance classes? Do all those things have to change overnight? It simply is not possible.
That is why when people say—I have heard some say this—that domestic violence is exaggerated as a mechanism for accelerated movement through the housing transfer list, I find it intensely and immensely offensive. I also find it utterly unrealistic. In all honesty, there is no surplus of housing in the urban environment waiting for people to move into. I speak as someone who has spent many years working for a housing association in west London. One of my jobs was to facilitate such overnight—sometimes middle-of-a-Sunday-afternoon—transfers. Until the day I die, I will never forget the piles of school paintings, drawings and textbooks that were left behind by children whose mother never thought that they would go to that school again, because they moved on to another school in another part of west London, thinking that that would solve the problem. Did it solve the problem? Sadly, it did not, because the abusive partner saw such a move as a challenge, lay in wait outside each primary school, eventually located the mother and the problem started all over again.
There is one ray of sunshine. There is an organisation called the Place to Be, which some hon. Members may be aware of, that operates principally in primary schools. In my part of the world—west London—it provides a quiet place for children to talk to a skilled, trained mentor, who can actually talk through the problems that they face. Children will put a little note in a box, just like the bullying boxes that many schools have nowadays. More than anything else, we have found that little notes appear that say, “Please ask my Mummy’s boyfriend to stop hitting her”, and those are the mild ones. We see that over and over again.
The solution is not the refuge or the move, or somehow to seek to resolve the issue geographically, by transferring across the city. It is not somehow to blame the victim and say that the victim has to move; we have to look for preventive interventions for perpetrators and for early signposting. Unfortunately, like many in this room, I have had to speak to abusers. We have to do so; we cannot refuse to see them, although we might find that difficult and have to hold our noses. I have often been struck by the frustration evidenced by them—the low self-value and self-worth, and the failure to achieve anything in life. Very often, such people are like the father in the famous story in James Joyce’s “Dubliners”, who comes home and beats up his children because he has failed at work, does not have enough money and has failed in everything he does, and there is the agony of that boy who says:
“Don’t beat me, pa!... I’ll say a Hail Mary for you.”
It is very often like that—the frustration boils out from the parent who comes home, where the nearest person to hand is the child, the wife, the partner or the spouse.
We have to identify such violence early on, because I think that we can save some of those people. Yes, it is paramount that we save the victims and it is crucial that we save the collateral victims—the children and the people around them—but, in some cases, we also have to consider intervening on the person causing the problem. That may sound heretical, and it is much easier for people to switch off their minds and read the Daily Mail, or to demonise this great tattooed chav underclass who come home and bat their wives around, but there is much more to the problem than that. They make up a range of victims in their own different ways. I carry no candle for the abuser, but I recognise that intervention has to be across the piece.
Inevitably, everything that we do in politics in this place today is about resources and priorities. Nye Bevan was so right so many years ago when he said that the language of socialism is a language of priorities: we are in that world now. However, this priority has to be given full support and strength, because if we cannot provide preventive intervention and early identification, the problems that come over the hill will frankly be so vast that they will dwarf any demand or draw-down on the public purse now. I appreciate that such an argument may be made about many issues, but in the case of domestic violence, the argument makes itself.
Not only is there the corrosive, damaging and very often lethal impact on the victims and their immediate family, but, as has already been mentioned—I think by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard)—such violence becomes a learned practice. I have seen children in the playground of a primary school hit girls, emulating their father’s or their mother’s boyfriend’s behaviour, which is a learned behaviour. I have seen young boys, at the age of six or seven, hit young girls, because they have seen such behaviour and they think that it is acceptable. That is a cost on society that we cannot afford.
I am sorry to cut off my hon. Friend in mid flow. There is clearly an issue of resources around local services, policing and such forms of intervention, but we should also ensure that the Government have a holistic approach to the economic impact on women of some of the changes to benefits, pensions and tax credits, which mean that women will not have as much financial freedom as they previously had; of the cuts to local councils, which have pressures on their budgets but will not, I hope, inevitably look at cutting services for domestic violence, although that is a risk; and of the legal aid changes that will impact on women’s ability to have the confidence to go forward and break out of the cycle of fear in which they live. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should have an holistic approach to all those changes?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes not just a telling, but an extremely positive point. The draft universal credit regulations will be laid before the House in the next few weeks—I think that they are due when we return after the conference recess—so we are quickly approaching a crucial debate, in which we will have to discuss such matters for precisely the reason that he gave.
Many people do not seem to realise what will happen, say in the case of a woman who flees her violent male partner, if the male partner is named as the recipient of the benefit. What happens if the woman has to go to the abuser, who may still have her blood staining his knuckles, and ask him to sign the benefit over to her as a favour? Will he say that he is more than happy to co-operate and collaborate with her? No. One of the joys of child benefit—one of the most important things about it, and one of the greatest arguments for it—was that it was paid directly and solely to the woman, which is a principle that we seem to be losing.
What I have seen of the draft universal credit regulations fills me with dread, because I can see a fiscal servitude—the shackles of sterling—being locked on to women so that they cannot escape or break free, because of the complicated mechanisms that they are held in simply so that they can provide themselves with the basics, such as food and drink. Nowadays, we more and more see people turning to the charitable sector for the provision of the most basic of basics that, frankly, the state should provide.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about where power and resources lie in households, and about how a woman may be severely disadvantaged not only through the impact of domestic violence, but through what she then finds she has entitlements or access to. I have a case in my constituency in which the male in the household changed the tenancy agreement on the house, so that the woman did not realise, until she had to flee, that she had no access to that home under the arrangements he had set up. Does my hon. Friend agree that there must be a much more holistic approach to ensuring equal access to resources in the household, not just access to the important services that have to be available in a timely fashion when somebody becomes the victim of domestic violence?
In her short time in this House, my hon. Friend, whom I am proud to say is my respected neighbour, has earned an enviable reputation for coming up with exactly the right expression to illuminate a problem, and she has again done that extremely well. I entirely agree with her point, but I will go slightly further. I do not think that we can resolve the problem by identifying funding streams within the family; that could stop the problem getting worse, but would not actually stop it.
[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said that he did not want the debate to become a list of statistics being trotted round the course and, as in all things, I respect him for that. When it comes to statistics, however, it is worth drawing the House’s attention to the fact that 31% of local authority funding for the domestic violence and sexual abuse sector was cut between 2010-11 and 2011-12, which is a reduction from £7.8 million to £5.4 million in—I assume—England and Wales. That figure is massive, and I would say that that huge amount is cost-ineffective.
We have heard the word “holistic” used two or three times. Let us take that approach not because it is somehow a fiscally mature and sensible way of operating but because it could save lives. We cannot tolerate a situation in which young lives can be blighted and the lives of adults destroyed. We cannot see the destruction of the future of our country because of a lack of funding, financial support and early intervention.
I again congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle on securing this debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to a slightly different way of addressing this issue for the sake of present and future generations.
I welcome you, Mr Leigh, to the Chair. I echo everyone’s words of support for the work that the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has done both in bringing this debate to the Chamber and in introducing Jane’s law. I had cause to reflect on that law myself as I had a case in my constituency of a woman whose partner had repeatedly attacked and assaulted her. The partner is still out on bail, awaiting sentencing. Having brought in that law, we must ensure that it is used to protect witnesses. As all Members know, there are some cases that keep one up at night and that one worries about and that case was certainly one of them. I spoke to the victim on a regular basis as I worked to get her rehoused and moved away from the area and from immediate harm. I was conscious that Jane’s law would have made a difference in her case.
I also welcome the work that the hon. Gentleman has done today in setting out the challenges that we face in addressing domestic violence. There is, I think, a consensus across the House that this matter needs to be a priority, not just for our criminal justice system but for our public services as a whole because of the impact that it has on so many families across our country.
May I welcome the new Minister to his role and put on record my thanks to his predecessor? We did not always see eye to eye, but I was certainly grateful for his assistance in the work that we were doing both in Walthamstow and nationally. I hope that we can help the new Minister by filling his inbox with some suggestions and proposals that he can take to his colleagues to make good on that premise of addressing domestic violence in our communities. All of us recognise that it is a very different type of crime to deal with. More than any other criminalised behaviour in our society, it involves the most repeat victimisation. Intimate violence, as it tends to get called, requires a different approach from our criminal justice and social care services. The failure of all of our services to address the matter is reflected in the high numbers of serious case reviews that involve domestic violence and in the numbers of homicides that involve domestic violence.
Many Members here have already mentioned the statistics. I am mindful of what the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said about statistics, but it is worth recognising the scale of the challenge. It is about not just the numbers of people, predominantly women, who are killed through their relationship with their partners, but the impact on other services. In West Yorkshire alone, 10,000 calls to the 999 service were related to domestic violence. That is 20% of the total number of emergency calls that were dealt with over six months.
One of the first things that must concern the new Minister is the need to get the right data. If we are honest, we do not yet have the consistency of data that is required to understand the scale of the problem and the impact that it has. In particular, I am talking about the way in which police forces flag up intimate violence. They need consistency in capturing the data so that they can see not just repeat offenders but repeat victims. That is a huge challenge. Some police forces are proactive about such issues, but others are less so.
The police force is not the only place in which the issue of data has to be addressed. It is across a whole range of public services. In that sense, the movement towards a single definition by the Association of Chief Police Officers is welcome, but it needs to be shared across services, and people must be trained to understand what they are trying to capture, so that we can truly understand the impact of this crime.
Although nearly 750,000 cases are recorded by the police, only 100,000 ever proceed to prosecution. What is happening to those other 600,000 cases? What are we doing to address some of the causes and to understand what happens next? My first call to the Minister is for him to make that commitment about data. We need to ensure that both the public and voluntary sectors have the data necessary for us to understand the level of domestic violence that exists in our society.
I have a second call for the Minister, and we have heard many Members, especially on the Opposition Benches, making this case and I pay tribute to them. Indeed it is always a unique experience to be in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) is speaking, because he brings such passion and genuine emotion to the case. We also heard my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) talk about the changes in our benefit system and what impact that might have on victims of domestic violence.
When we talk about this crime, we are talking predominantly about women, but I pay tribute to those in the Chamber today who have recognised that men are the victims of domestic violence as well. The concept of financial control is key to enabling people to leave abusive relationships. In the changes that the Government are making to the benefit system, there is a real danger that the ability to make that choice to leave will be restricted.
Hon. Members have already talked about universal credit. In particular, they have talked about how it will be nominated to a single person in a household, and how some 300,000 households will be affected. The decision about who gets that money will be critical to the choice about how money is spent. Child benefit is crucial to many women because it makes them financially independent. Universal credit will go much further in aggregating people’s incomes and therefore the ability of people within relationships to make choices about how money is spent. May I press the Minister to look again at this issue, and to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the decision to nominate a single person? Can he look at what more can be done to stop this measure from being a source of financial control? If a single person is to be nominated will he ensure that it is the main carer within a family? We do not want to see women stuck in abusive relationships because they are not able to leave them.
I hope that the Minister is pressing his colleagues in the DWP about the way in which universal credit will be paid and the impact it could have on refuges. About 40% of the women who go into refuges tend to be dual housing benefit claimants. They can claim the money on the property they might have fled and also on the cost of staying in a refuge. Under the new provisions, such a measure will come under the benefit cap. It is not difficult to see how a woman might find herself unable to keep up a private property, and so a secured tenancy, which at some point she may wish to return to with her family once the issue about abuse has been resolved or her abuser is in prison, and to pay for a stay in a refuge, let alone pay for the food that her children need or transport costs under the cap as currently constructed. There is a real concern that it will be the cost of staying in a refuge that will fall under that system.
Refuges are a unique form of supported housing for families. First, they are about not just the individual on the claim but the dependants as well. Secondly, there are no waiting lists for refuges. Already 230 women a day are turned away from refuges in this country because we do not have enough places, so there is not that ability to plan ahead for the need that will be required. Every person who turns up at a refuge is in crisis. A refuge provides only short-stay accommodation. Under the new system, the problem will be not only that the dual housing benefit claimant may find themselves not able to pay for a refuge place but that the payment is paid to the client rather than the landlord. We can see refuges having to chase women, who are being moved around the country, for payment for their place. The work that has been done by several refuges already suggests that almost 60% of their income could be affected, which could be crucial to their future survival.
We need to do more to ensure that we have refuges. If the Minister takes away one message from this debate today it is that Opposition Members are desperately concerned that the changes through universal credit may have severe unintended consequences on the refuge movement in the UK. We may see more refuges closing and more women unable to move out of their properties. That is before we even get into the difficulties that women then face when they are in refuges and receiving support.
I am sure that the Minister is well versed in some of the debates about legal aid. Given that 230 women a week need legal aid assistance to escape an abusive partner and given the relationship that exists between being in a refuge and being entitled to legal aid, the changes could have severe unintended consequences. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North pointed out that the universal credit guidelines will come before Parliament shortly. Let me extend a hand across the House to say that we will work with the Minister to try to change those requirements, so that we can ensure that women who are fleeing from violence are not hampered by the way in which universal credit is administered.
When it comes to money, however, we are not just talking about financial freedom. Again, Labour Members have already spoken very strongly about the cuts to funding and the impact that they are having. We know that, although local authority budgets were cut by 27% on average, those organisations working with victims of domestic violence have experienced a disproportionate cut of 31%. Moreover, that figure masks a further difficulty, because many of those organisations are small organisations that operate on a shoestring; they work on very small budgets. However, we know that those organisations receiving funding of less than £20,000 a year have actually experienced, on average, a 70% cut in their funding and many of them have now disappeared. That is in comparison with those organisations receiving funding of more than £100,000 a year, which have done better.
Those cuts are also filtering through the system. Once again, I urge the Minister to make strong representations to his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, given that we have already seen 23 specialist domestic violence courts being closed during the past year. That is despite the fact that we know the difference those specialist courts make in tackling the issue that I mentioned earlier—the number of domestic violence cases that are brought to charge. Indeed, given that only 58% of those 100,000 cases are successfully prosecuted, we need to ensure that we have a court system that understands the issues that we are dealing with and that is able to work with the victims that we are all talking about. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) has now left Westminster Hall, but he ably raised that issue about the court system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to get to a point where we will see a step change in the number of successful prosecutions of domestic violence? It cannot be right that we have such a low rate for successful prosecutions. Surely we need to look at shifting the way that we balance evidence to be in favour of those who are victims rather than adopting the default position, which seems to be taking the view that there is not enough evidence, or, “We cannot prosecute, because it’s his word against hers”? We need to say, “Let’s hunt for the truth and let’s start to see a step change”, and there should be no complacency in wanting to see a much better outcome through the justice system.
I absolutely agree with my colleague and, if anything, that is the second message that I hope the Minister takes away from our comments today—there needs to be a step change in how we as a society address domestic violence. Clearly, we are not getting it right at this point in time. The changes in relation to universal credit that I briefly mentioned earlier are just a microcosm—the tip of the iceberg—of the way that we need to think differently about how we deal with victims of domestic violence.
My hon. Friend was talking about the fundraising element earlier. Does she recognise that what is happening in small projects is that those people who are supposed to be working with victims of domestic violence are having to spend some of their time, or quite often a lot of their time, in fundraising, which makes no sense? Also, one of the things that is happening because of the cuts that are being made to other services is that often the people dealing with domestic violence are dealing with more complex cases because drug and alcohol teams are being cut and other support systems are also going. All of those problems are landing in the lap of the domestic violence workers, because the other support services are not around.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although I think that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys might want to reflect on what he was saying about payment by results in terms of dealing with violence itself, there is an understanding that the complexity of the consequences of domestic violence on families means that the complexity of dealing with these issues extends far beyond our criminal justice system. Again, that is why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston has already said, we need a step change in how we address domestic violence, because it is not just about our criminal justice system.
The third issue that I would love to put into the Minister’s inbox is about the role of multi-agency risk assessment conferences, or MARACs. At present, they only deal with the most severe 10% of examples of domestic violence. Again, having had personal experience as an MP, as I am sure other Members have also had, of trying to get support for victims of domestic violence, I know that the frustration about the presumption that there needs to be an escalation before there is action and intervention is all too real, whether it involves dealing with housing services, social care or indeed schools. It is very clear at present that our system is designed to deal only with the tip of the iceberg that I referred to before, and yet it is often the case that if we were able to intervene earlier, be more proactive and join up services around the individual, we might not only prevent violence but save a family and prevent the consequences arising from violence.
I think that many Members who are here in Westminster Hall today have put on record the need to look again at how we understand where domestic violence is taking place. I absolutely agreed with the hon. Member for Pendle when he talked about violence among young people. I am very mindful that one of the priorities for the Youth Justice Board this year is child-parent abuse and recognising that, particularly within a gang context, there is a lot of evidence about how young men are abusive towards their parents. But that is seen as an issue for social care and not necessarily as a criminal justice issue, and so those mothers themselves are affected.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West also talked about the cultural changes that we have to address, given that one in two boys and one in three girls think that it is okay to hit a woman and in some circumstances force her to have sex. Clearly, these are complex issues that extend far beyond the remit of the police and our criminal justice system. Therefore, the police and our criminal justice system need partners in the voluntary sector and in the health and social care sector, which is why common definitions are the starting point of the conversations between those bodies.
Above all, however, we need to recognise the benefit of joining up those services and in ensuring that we have that step change in what we do that has been mentioned. Many of us will make the case for tackling domestic violence, having dealt with domestic violence cases in our constituencies, but I want to ensure that the Minister is aware of the economic benefit of getting this issue right and of why we on the Labour Benches are part of the “One Billion and Rising” campaign, which is a campaign to tackle violence against women and girls, not only in the UK but internationally.
The contribution of women to Britain’s economy is huge, but it is held back by the fact that women live in an unequal society in which violence too often scars the lives of women and their families. We know the cost to our public services of failing to get domestic violence services right. That is why when we talk about cuts to services at a local level, we need to set them against a cost-benefit analysis of getting this issue right. Also, we need to consider the women who are not able to contribute to our society because they live in fear.
I want to work with the Minister to make tackling domestic violence a priority in the months and years ahead, and I hope that he will address the points that my hon. Friends and I have made today about universal credit, the way that MARACs work and prevention of domestic violence, because when all of us leave Westminster Hall today and go back and look at our casework we will be all too alive to the fact that we still have a challenge to face.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh, and it is a privilege to make my first contribution in the House in my capacity as a Minister in the Home Office on this hugely emotional and important subject, which rightly interests hon. Members from all parties.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), not only for giving us the opportunity to discuss domestic violence but for the detailed and passionate way that he has raised the issue in his campaigning and for his track record of taking action against it. I am more than happy to recognise the substantial contributions to the debate that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), by the hon. Members for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), and of course by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who is the Opposition spokesperson.
I welcome the opportunity to update the House on what the Government are doing to support victims of domestic violence, because I must say, in a spirit of bipartisanship, that substantial progress is being made on many fronts. That progress is not solely due to this Government’s efforts; I recognise the efforts that Ministers from all political parties have made during a number of years. Nevertheless, it is right that we should fully understand the considerable efforts that are being made to try to address a lot of the concerns that have been raised in this debate.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle for his campaign to amend the bail laws, so that victims of domestic violence have a right of appeal against bail decisions set by judges. He referred to that campaign in his opening speech. Of course, before his campaign and the changes that the Government have made, that was not the case. However, the Government accepted that there was a need to change the law, and he will know that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has brought about that change. I am sure that all Members will recognise that that is a substantial benefit for the victims of domestic violence who find themselves in those circumstances, and it is much to the credit of my hon. Friend that he provided the political momentum for that change to be made.
I want to provide a context to my speech. Many hon. Members will already know that, in the past year alone, there were more than 1 million female victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales. Therefore, around two women every minute, or more than 25 women during my short speech this afternoon, will be the victims of domestic abuse. It is deplorable that more than a quarter of women will experience such abuse during their lifetimes. As has been touched upon by other hon. Members, it is a tragedy that so few of those women feel able to report that abuse to the authorities or that, if they do feel able, it takes many repeat circumstances of their being abused before they can take that step and go to the authorities.
The domestic violence statistics are shocking on their own; but in addition, more than 300,000 women have been sexually abused in the past year, and in the same period the Government’s forced marriage unit has provided advice or support on forced marriage in 1,468 cases.
The Government’s ambition is to end violence against women and girls. That is why, soon after coming to office, we set out a new strategy, followed by a supporting action plan in March 2011, which translated our overarching vision into specific cross-departmental actions. The actions were most recently refreshed in March 2012, importantly reaffirming our key themes of prevention, improved partnership working, justice outcomes and risk reduction, and the provision of good-quality services.
Work on these themes has been supported by the Government’s provision of nearly £40 million of stable funding up to 2015 for this discrete area, including for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services, rape support centres, the national domestic violence helplines and the stalking helpline services, which have not been touched upon in the debate but are relevant here. For example, we have provided funding for multi-agency risk assessment conference—MARAC—co-ordinator posts and independent domestic violence adviser—IDVA—posts, which research suggests have produced a real impact for high-risk domestic violence victims. We have also granted funding towards 144 IDVA posts in the 2012-13 financial year, as well as providing funding for training. We now have MARACs in more than 250 areas across England and Wales and have granted MARAC funding towards 54 posts for the 2012-13 financial year. I realise that that information is perhaps a bit rich in statistics, but it is important that when the programmes are put in place the House is aware of them.
Meanwhile, other Departments have also demonstrated their commitment to tackling violence against women and girls. For example, the Department of Health launched a short film for the NHS Choices website in August 2012. It covers what female genital mutilation is, the range of long-lasting damage that it can cause, the legal obligation to safeguard children and where to go for help if anyone is worried or affected. There is, therefore, a broad body of work taking place, not just in the Home Office. The Foreign Office, where I previously served as a Minister, has done work on forced marriage, which relates mainly, but not exclusively, to girls. The girls are British nationals, but the forced marriages often take place in other countries.
On the role of local commissioners in tackling domestic violence, the Government feel strongly that the procurement and commissioning of services is rightly a matter for local authorities. Although the Government have made clear our belief that local authorities should attach importance to the sector, each council has some discretion about how it prioritises spending.
We are taking steps across the board to strengthen the provisions available for tackling domestic violence and supporting the victims, and I think that it will help if I use the remainder of my speech to talk about some of the initiatives. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle mentioned Clare’s law, and I am happy to update him on that. Following the consultation published by the Home Secretary, we have launched the domestic violence disclosure scheme, which is being piloted in four police forces across England and Wales. The pilots in Wiltshire and Gwent were launched in July, and those in Nottinghamshire and Greater Manchester started at the beginning of last week. The pilots form part of our efforts to tackle domestic violence by looking at new ways of protecting victims and putting tools in place to help and support them. The Government believe that disclosing information about the perpetrators of domestic violence will help to protect and support victims. Very early feedback on the pilots provisionally indicates that there are 24 live applications, and five disclosures have already been made to potential victims. The pilots will run until September 2013, and we will then decide whether to roll out the scheme nationally.
The Government were pleased to hear that Greater Manchester police, along with West Mercia and Wiltshire police force areas, will continue to use domestic violence protection orders until the Home Office evaluation completes next summer. Anecdotal feedback from the domestic violence protection order pilot indicates that women, and victims generally, welcome the protection, as it allows them the breathing space that they need to consider their options.
On 8 June, following a detailed consultation on forced marriage and having listened carefully to all views on the abhorrent practice, Members will recall that the Prime Minister announced that the Government will make forcing someone to marry a criminal offence for the first time. In doing so, we are sending out a clear message that the brutal practice is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the UK. We are aware, however, that legislation alone is not enough and will remain focused on prevention and on increasing support and protection for victims.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle asked about the proposals to change the definition of domestic violence. Our consultation, on whether the current cross-Government definition should be widened, closed on 30 March 2012. We sought views on whether the current definition should remain or be amended to include coercive control and extended to 16 and 17-year-olds or to everyone under the age of 18. We are considering the consultation responses and an announcement will be made shortly.
According to the latest figures, 21 men and 93 women were killed by a partner or ex-partner in 2010-11. For cases in which domestic violence results in the death of the victim, the Government have established domestic homicide reviews on a statutory basis under section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. Local areas are, importantly, required to undertake a multi-agency review following a domestic homicide, to identify the lessons that can be learned, with a view to preventing future homicides and violence. I appreciate that that is in the most extreme cases only, but the point was made in the debate about trying to co-ordinate different Government agencies. The provision also allows the Secretary of State, in particular cases, to direct that a specified reluctant person or body establish or participate in a review. Furthermore, the Government made a commitment in the refreshed violence against women and girls action plan, published in March 2012, to develop
“a training package for chairpersons of Domestic Homicide Reviews”,
and that will be extended later this year across England and Wales.
Contributors to the debate have made the point that, although the majority of victims of domestic violence are women, there are, of course, male victims as well. Domestic violence is one of those forms of violence that affect men, and many men are reluctant, perhaps in some cases for different reasons from women, to admit that they are victims. The Government take the issue seriously, and we support the Men’s Advice Line, which is for all men who experience violence from a current or ex-partner, and Broken Rainbow, which provides advice to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people affected by domestic violence. In 2011-12, we have allocated funding to the tune of £100,000 for a male victims and sexual violence fund, to support services that focus on male victims of sexual and domestic violence, and we have assigned a further £125,000 for continued support in 2012-13.
Time is short, so before I conclude, I want to thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. I am more than happy to take on board the points made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow about the need to ensure that all features of Government contribute to what we are trying to achieve.
We have talked about universal credit, and there is a concern that is shared across the House. Will the Minister commit to going back to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and challenging them on the point about dual housing benefit and benefit being paid to the tenant for refuges, so that we can ensure that the refuge movement does not suffer further financial difficulties?
I have seen that the refuges in my constituency are extremely successful, and I certainly want to ensure that they continue to do their work unimpeded, so if we can take action to ensure that outcome, I will certainly do my best to achieve it.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Leigh. I welcome the Minister to her position and I hope she finds her time in government interesting. I have no doubt that the experience will be challenging, and I hope she is a progressive influence on coalition policy in this area.
I am delighted to have secured this debate. I hope the Minister will leave wanting to make changes to the Government’s proposals on whistleblowing law contained in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which is going through the House. I hope she will want to consider that area of law in detail. I appreciate the matter is complex, and I am pleased that she will consider it so early in her ministerial career.
I have worked with Public Concern at Work, which has a strong track record on this issue and was influential in the period leading up to the introduction of the legislation, and I thank it for supporting me in the lead-up to this debate and for providing briefings.
The provisions that currently protect whistleblowers are contained in the landmark Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 introduced by the previous Labour Government. The Act was introduced after many decades of campaigning by many people, both inside this place and outside, from both sides of the political divide. At the time, the Act put the United Kingdom at the forefront of corporate governance legislation. Whistleblowing is often our only way to find out what is going on inside corporations and institutions.
In health and social care there is no doubt that the Act has saved lives. The lack of transparency in organisations in this country is a major problem. There is a culture of people not feeling that they can speak out about serious wrongdoings and problems.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I recently represented the medical director of Medway Maritime hospital in a bullying case before the Care Quality Commission under its whistleblowing procedure. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Bill’s proposals will still allow NHS staff to whistleblow where they think it appropriate?
I will address the position in the NHS later in my speech, but the hon. Gentleman is right that whistleblowing legislation has been important, particularly in the NHS. My concern, as I will illustrate, is that some cases will be more difficult to bring if the proposals are enacted, even though many people may still be able to rely on the legislation.
Many who campaigned for the legislation in the early days, and organisations such as the Trades Union Congress that are directly involved in litigating on behalf of whistleblowers, are concerned that the Government’s proposals will water down the protections afforded to whistleblowers and will make it more difficult for those who should be able to rely on the legislation’s protection.
As the hon. Gentleman may know, much of the case law that has developed since the original Act has made it more difficult for people to rely on the whistleblowing legislation. My contention is that the Government’s proposals will be a further step in the wrong direction. When the whistleblowing legislation was introduced, it was intended to be accessible, clear and predictable with as much certainty as possible for those accessing the justice system. The Government’s proposals, by placing on the individual the burden of deciding whether a disclosure is in the public interest, will undermine those principles.
I do not suggest that there is no need to consider the law on whistleblowing. There has been no post-legislative scrutiny of the 1998 Act, and after a decade many issues have been raised that need to be addressed. I contend that the Government’s proposals will make the position more difficult.
Over the years, several cases have shown that the current legislation does not protect those who suffer detriment or reprisal at the hands of co-workers. There is also confusion about disclosure of information and allegations. There is no protection for people who are wrongly identified as whistleblowers, and there is no protection at the pre-employment stage, which needs to be rectified to avoid issues such as blacklisting. Blacklisting, of course, is a big issue for many trade unionists in this country.
The Government have no proposals to address those problems. Particularly in the health sector, recent case law and media stories have highlighted the difficulties that general practitioners, students, nurses, doctors, volunteers, non-executive directors and prospective job applicants have in relying on the legislation. Therefore, the definition of “worker” needs to be widened to include those groups, as well as priests, foster carers and no doubt many others.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this Westminster Hall debate.
I have been involved in a case over the past two years on behalf of one of my constituents who is a whistleblower. Through my engagement with him and the bodies that are supposed to give protection, I have noticed that, when it comes to big business, the whistleblower is often pushed to the side. The Government are considering legislative changes, so does the hon. Lady feel that it is necessary for the Government to put in place support both to ensure that whistleblowers can provide information and to protect the general public? All this is about protecting the general public in big business, health and wherever else.
Many Members will have been involved as constituency MPs in trying to assist constituents who are whistleblowers or are thinking about whistleblowing.
A recent YouGov survey showed that only 26% of the work force are aware of the legislation. In many parts of society, there is little awareness that whistleblowing is legitimate and lawful in certain circumstances, as set out in the legislation.
The hon. Lady will be aware, as many people both inside and outside this Chamber are aware, that whistleblowing often has a detrimental effect on a whistleblower’s livelihood and job. Many of the people I have spoken to, both constituents and others, have told me that they have lost their job and are fighting to regain it, the cost implication of which means, in many cases, that they have no money left.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point that shows the need for whistleblowing legislation and for strengthening existing legislation.
Dame Janet Smith in the Shipman inquiry stated that good faith is a barrier to whistleblowers, which is borne out by recent reports from the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, which may be reporting in October, and the Leveson inquiry. The Government say they are introducing a public interest test to overcome a legal loophole whereby individuals are able to raise concerns about their own personal employment contracts. The loophole arose as the result of the case of Parkins v. Sodexho. The Government propose to address it with a public interest disclosure test that will have implications far beyond the type demonstrated in that case.
Indeed, it is far from clear that the proposed new wording would have helped in the Parkins case. It is clear, however, that the Government’s proposals will mean that all applicants will have to meet the additional hurdle of a public interest test that does not apply currently. That hurdle may discourage some from making disclosures that are in the public interest. We ask the Minister to address that in her response.
We also ask the Minister to address the issue of gagging clauses. The provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 ensure that no one can be prevented from making a public disclosure and that any attempt to prevent it, for example in a compromise agreement or settlement agreement, is void. However, gagging clauses seem to be used in the public sector, particularly in the national health service, to prevent individuals from talking about policy concerns. She may be aware of the recent press coverage surrounding the former chief executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals, where there was said to be a super-gag on discussing patient safety, along with a severance deal that I am told was worth more than £500,000. Will she consider the suggestion that lawyers advising on settlements should be required to confirm that they have explained to their client the anti-gagging provisions in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998?
As I have outlined, I believe that the Government need to consider the issue, but not in the piecemeal way suggested in the legislation. Organisations such as Public Concern at Work are calling for a thorough review of the operation of all aspects of the legislation, along with a full consultation involving all those with an interest, whether they come from business, trade unions or other organisations. Whistleblowing legislation needs to be strengthened, and I hope that the Minister, in her new position, is willing to take on that challenge.
In the short time available, I ask the Minister to address the following points. Given that a number of changes have been necessary as a result of the legislation’s operation, does she accept that the time is now right for a thorough review? Is she willing to proceed with that? How will the Government take into account the findings of the Mid Staffordshire and Leveson public inquiries into whistleblowing? Will the Government ensure that vicarious liability exists within the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 so that workers can rely on the legislation? How will the Government deal with the problem highlighted by Public Concern at Work and others relating to the definition of “worker in health care”? I believe that Ministers in the Department of Health are very aware of those concerns.
If the Government proceed with their proposals as currently drafted in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, will they produce guidance on what is and is not in the public interest? There are concerns that the legislation will produce a huge amount of litigation as well as a great deal of confusion for those seeking to rely on it. What will the Government do to promote the provisions of the 1998 Act, given the low level of public awareness and the fact that many cases have made it more difficult to rely on whistleblowing legislation? I appreciate that this is a complex area of law and the Minister is new to her post, but I hope that she will respond as fully as possible.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh, particularly as this is my first of no doubt many Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this important debate. She has a strong track record of campaigning, particularly for workers’ rights. I know that that was her background in professional life before coming to the House, and she has continued it in an excellent manner while she has been here. We entered Parliament together, and it is a delight to respond to her on this occasion. I thank her for her kind congratulations and good wishes to me in my new role. I hope that we will be able to engage constructively, as I know that she has a significant contribution to make in this area of her expertise.
It is nice that my first Adjournment debate has allowed me to look into whistleblowing in more detail. As the hon. Lady mentioned, it is a complex and specific area of law. I will do my best to answer her questions, but if there are any outstanding issues, I will be more than happy to write to her and engage with her in future. No doubt there will be further debate on Report of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which will return to the House of Commons in due course.
Whistleblowing is an important issue. It is important to recognise why the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 was passed in the first place. From a range of disasters, incidents and other cases, such as the dreadful events on Piper Alpha, it became clear that there was not enough protection for people who blew the whistle to raise concerns about health and safety issues or other matters of public interest, and that that situation needed to be put right so that people would have the ability and confidence to speak out in such circumstances without fear of losing their jobs or other detriment.
It is fair to say it was a landmark piece of legislation, introduced by the Labour Government, to whom credit is due. However, it is also important to note and remember that it attracted cross-party support as well, because Members throughout the House recognised that change was needed. The Act meant that for the first time, employees raising genuine concerns about wrongdoing in the workplace were protected. This Government strongly support the protection that the Act gives whistleblowers, and we agree that it is incredibly important that employees feel able to speak up about workplace issues affecting the public interest.
In responding, I will say a little about the change to the Act proposed in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. It aims to fix a specific issue that has arisen as a result of the judgment in the case of Parkins v. Sodexho Ltd 2002, whose effect was to widen the scope of the Act beyond what was originally intended, leading the legislation to be used opportunistically in some cases to address matters of purely private interest. There is wide agreement that the effect of Parkins v. Sodexho must be addressed, and I recognise that the hon. Lady understands that it is a problem that needs rectifying. There are slightly differing views about how that should be done, and it is right that those should be debated and scrutinised thoroughly in the House.
The relevant clause of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill was debated in Committee on 3 July. During that debate, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) set out in detail the reasons for the Government’s approach. I do not intend to repeat all his arguments, but we believe that the Government’s approach of inserting a public interest test is the only way of fully closing the loophole created by Parkins v. Sodexho while avoiding the possible unintended consequences of alternative approaches.
In preparing for this debate, I looked at some of the figures demonstrating the scale of the issue. In the first year after PIDA was passed, 157 protections were applied for. As one might expect with a new piece of legislation, that number increased as awareness increased, to 400 or 500 in 2002. Since the ruling, it has expanded rapidly, so that in 2011-12, about 2,500 applications were made under PIDA.
There are different ways of interpreting those figures. One is that there is lots of whistleblowing and it is a wonderful success of the Act, but I think that it is understood that application for protection is often being added on in employment cases. Most cases do not even come to tribunal, as the majority are settled in other ways. Of the 2,500 in the last year we have figures for, more than 900 ended up in a conciliated settlement through ACAS and more than 600 were withdrawn or privately settled. There is, therefore, concern about it being used in an opportunistic fashion in some cases. I think that that is recognised, and so we need to deal with it.
In preparing for the debate, I wondered what the controversy was in requiring that the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 had to include a public interest test, because there is a basic logic to that—it does what it says on the tin. When it was originally drafted, it was almost taken for granted that, because of the title of the Bill, it would be used for cases that were genuinely in the public interest. I am convinced it is within the original spirit of the Act that the person making the application for its protection should reasonably believe they are raising an issue in the public interest, so we are just trying to prevent the tactical, opportunistic use of PIDA by those who claim that protection to raise purely personal issues.
I congratulate the Minister on her promotion and wish her well in her new job. I am sure that she will be aware of a new organisation that has been set up in the past month, perhaps just outside the legislative consultation process in which we are now involved, on behalf of whistleblowers who have got together to promote their cases. Does the Minister intend to contact that organisation to get its input into the process, so that the voice of whistleblowers is heard fully?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and kind words, and for his contribution to my knowledge on this matter. I have not come across that new organisation which has only been in existence for a month, but my approach is to welcome any organisation or individual that wishes to ensure that its concerns are heard. I would be happy to read a submission from that organisation if he is able to pass on its contact details after the debate.
The hon. Lady mentioned concerns about the burden of proof, which she felt would be unhelpful to individuals. Clearly, it will be up to the tribunal to decide whether that test is met. I do not think that having to bring something in the public interest is a hurdle that will stop people bringing cases forward. It will promote consistency in the legislation and underlines the principle that the 1998 Act, with the right and proper extra protections it offers, is concerned with a public rather than a private interest. In the autumn statement, we announced we would fix that specific issue, and it will be done through the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.
The hon. Lady raised a wide range of issues. There are no current plans to review the legislation more widely as the Act is generally operating well and as intended, but I will reflect on the matters she has raised in such a thoughtful manner.
The Government provide guidance on making protected disclosures, and the hon. Lady asked about how it would be promoted. Of course, in light of the proposed change under the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill we will consider whether the guidance needs to be revised at all. I understand the genuine concern relating to the survey that suggests that many people are entirely unaware of the protection. It is worth putting on the record the Government’s thanks for the excellent efforts made by Public Concern at Work in promoting the 1998 Act and bringing it to the attention of more workers. It is important that it is widely understood.
The hon. Lady asked a specific question about whether lawyers will inform their clients. They have a general duty to advise a client on any aspect of the law that is relevant to the situation, as she will know from her professional life, and that includes advising on public interest disclosure rights. That does not need to be set down in legislation, but is a duty that any legal professional would fall under.
Turning to other issues that were raised, there has been a suggestion from Public Concern at Work that the Government should copy the vicarious liability provisions of the Equality Act 2010. Aspects of the 2010 Act are currently under review, particularly in relation to vicarious liability. While that is ongoing, further changes to PIDA would be premature. I am also aware of the concern about the judgment in the Fecitt case, in particular. An employee who blows the whistle could be subject to inappropriate bullying behaviour by other members of the work force, and the concern about the ruling was that employers would perhaps not have a responsibility to do something about that. The ruling was specific, however, and took the view that in that case the NHS had taken reasonable steps. Therefore, I would not necessarily assume that there is a guarantee that employers never need to do anything. The judgment is perhaps not as crystal clear as some would like, but clearly an employer that does not do enough to prevent an employee being victimised by other employees could themselves be liable for their failure to act if it can be shown that the employee has made a protected disclosure, so there is perhaps some reassurance about those concerns.
There is another potential remedy in the law. An employer could be vicariously liable under other legislation, such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, depending on the circumstances of the individual case. It is also possible that an employee who had experienced that could argue that the employer had acted to destroy the relationship of mutual trust and confidence, and thereby bring a claim for constructive dismissal.
On the Shipman inquiry and the good faith test, we do not see its purpose as being interchangeable with the public interest test. The good faith test prevents an individual from making a disclosure for a malicious purpose; for example, to deliberately cause commercial damage to their employer. The public interest test deals separately with the fact that the disclosure must be of public, rather than private interest. The good faith requirement is not intended to operate as an additional barrier to genuine whistleblowers.
The hon. Lady raised the Leveson and Mid Staffordshire inquiries. They are large inquiries in their own right and deal with a wide array of different issues, much wider than the specific provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure Act. The Department of Health has published its response to the Mid Staffordshire inquiry and is continuing to promote whistleblowing in the NHS.
On the categories and definitions of “worker”, we are already in dialogue with stakeholders and the Department of Health about the categories of worker that are covered. It is important that individuals who should be included are not inadvertently excluded from the scope of the Act. I hope the hon. Lady will be reassured that those discussions are ongoing with a genuine desire to ensure that people are properly covered.
The hon. Lady asked for a more thorough, wide-ranging review of the Act in its entirety. At the moment, there is not necessarily a case for that, but, as I said, I will reflect on the points that she has made. There are various issues, and it is important to ensure that they are all considered on an ongoing basis.
I particularly raised concerns about the way that the NHS operates in its use of gagging clauses. Will the Minister discuss that with the Department of Health? There is a great deal of public concern that information it would be helpful to have in the public domain is not being put there because of individuals’ fear of victimisation.
I will certainly undertake to bring that issue to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of Health. I share the hon. Lady’s concerns and will come back to her on them. We need to ensure that the protections in the Act are being properly applied, so I will look at the issue. On the whole, we believe that the Public Interest Disclosure Act continues to work well. The change we are making in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will provide clarity for individuals and employers. It will maintain protection for genuine whistleblowers and prevent misuse of the legislation. We remain convinced that it is the best way to ensure that the Act maintains its purpose, effectiveness and credibility.
Diabetes (Care in Schools)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I thank Mr Speaker for selecting this important debate on type 1 diabetes in schools. I congratulate the Minister on his promotion in the reshuffle.
I was inspired to request this debate after being contacted by a family with two boys who both suffer from type 1 diabetes and require multiple finger-prick blood tests and insulin injections daily, just as Rufus the bear, who also has type 1 diabetes, needs help. They have experienced many problems in organising the management of their children’s care in school, particularly for the youngest who is still in primary school, a cheerful child who was diagnosed early at the age of two, but is not yet completely stable, even though he is now 10. He loves sports and wants, as anybody would, to be treated just the same as any other child of the same age. Type 1 is not his lifestyle choice; it is a problem with his immune system, causing it to turn on itself and destroy the cells in his pancreas that produce the insulin that we all need to live. If his blood sugar is not kept at a stable level, this increases the risk of long-term complications, such as kidney disease, blindness, stroke and nerve damage.
There are an estimated 29,000 children with type 1 diabetes, who are usually diagnosed between 10 and 14, but the incidence of type 1 in children under five is increasing by 5% year on year. The UK has the highest number of children with diagnosed diabetes in Europe, but the lowest number of children attaining good diabetes control.
Living with type 1 diabetes has a profound impact on children and their families: there are no days off and even a few hours of trying to forget can be dangerous. Living with this complex, chronic condition is at times unbearable for many parents. Many children with type 1 diabetes will struggle to keep their condition under control. It is important to manage food, insulin and the amount of physical activity that a child does. We encourage children to do at least 60 minutes’ physical activity a day, but this can cause complications in children with type 1 diabetes. The way that these factors are managed directly affects a child’s attendance and performance at school.
A survey by Diabetes UK showed that three in five schools do not have a policy on advising staff how to give medication.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate.
This week in Northern Ireland, a group of parents felt unable to send their type 1 diabetic children to school, as they were not convinced that staff were fully trained in how to deal with a crisis. Does the hon. Lady feel that better co-ordination is needed between schools, those dealing with health and parents, so that everyone understands what is needed at school?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that I intend to deal with later.
I should like to raise a number of concerns relating to one young boy that also relate to the thousands of families in the UK who have children with type 1 diabetes and are struggling with inconsistent care provided at schools. Every parent of a child with diabetes has the right to know when leaving children at school that the appropriate care systems will be in place to allow that child to have the same access as others to high-quality education, care and support, without exclusion from activities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am glad that she has moved on to the support of young people suffering from diabetes, because it is not just about the practical elements of care and management of the condition. Too many young people feel a stigma attached to their suffering from a condition that they have no say over and cannot control. Does she agree that emotional support is almost as critical as the practical and physical medical support?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Young children and those in their teens hate to be different and need such support to ensure that they do not feel that they are different. Parents also need support, because it is difficult if they are not completely confident, when leaving a vulnerable child at school, that the school is in full control of care and what is going on with the child.
It is important that all school staff have a good awareness of type 1 diabetes and know what to do in an emergency, for example, a hypoglycaemic episode. Sadly, this is not so and there are huge discrepancies across England in the quality of care provided to children at school. It is a postcode lottery.
While working alongside my constituent to ensure that the required care is put in place for the boy in question, the Essex protocol was brought to my attention. The Essex protocol is a set of guidelines produced with parents and partners by Essex county council to ensure that school staff are supported and given the right equipment to support pupils with diabetes. These guidelines are invaluable when it comes to protecting the safety of a child and, of course, parents’ peace of mind.
If a school in Essex is insured through the council and has followed the protocol guidelines, they are fully covered by the school’s insurers. Leeds, Birmingham and Exeter also have appropriate guidelines. The guidelines should be of the same standard and applied throughout the UK, because at the moment there is huge variation in the quality of care that a child receives in their school. The very existence of this variation raises serious questions about the confidence that can be placed in those who have the duty of care for the child throughout the school day.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. My constituent, Darcy Evans, who suffers from type 1 diabetes is fortunate to have an excellent school nurse in her school, but is concerned that other children should have the same access. What does my hon. Friend think could be done to even out, to a higher standard, the quality of care across schools and to ensure that it is not only teachers who are informed, but even pupils, because the reaction of fellow pupils is also important?
I will mention care that can help children, and creating a level playing field throughout the country, because it is important that all children are treated equally.
The parent of a child in Derby is concerned that he is not being taken seriously by the head teacher of the school. That is inexcusable. Three parties must each take responsibility of the care of a child with diabetes: the parents, the school and the medical specialists at the hospital. It is also clear that the needs of each child will vary, and therefore their care must be viewed individually for it to be planned effectively. With this in mind, the individual health care plans suggested by the Essex protocol are a proactive and sensible method of ensuring that the care of a child is taken into account when they are at home and at school.
Sensible planning will save lives. Such planning will give the parent the opportunity to say, for example, that under no circumstances should their child be allowed to walk alone when feeling unwell or to go up and down stairs, because if a hypoglycaemic attack occurs and a child becomes unconscious, falling down stone steps in some older schools can be a matter of life or death.
I would like all pupils with type 1 diabetes to have individual health care plans. It is important for all parties involved with care of a child to keep a copy of the plan and understand what it means. No policy like this should simply be read once, then put on a shelf and ignored. The Essex protocol suggests that the head teacher nominate at least two members of staff who are willing and able to undertake further training to enable the school to meet the health care needs of a child. I agree with that, but would like to go further.
Even if members of staff at a school are nominated and given full training, it is unlikely that either of these members of staff will be with the child at all times, which means that, should a child become unwell, another child may need to leave the classroom to fetch the specially trained staff member, using up valuable minutes. Should one of the trained members of staff be on annual leave and the other absent due to sickness, once again, the pupil could be left in a vulnerable position. Therefore, in addition to the two staff being trained, as suggested by the Essex protocol, I want them to come back and train all the other members of staff in each primary school, whether teachers, teaching assistants or admin staff. Pupils, too, should be educated about what diabetes can mean and that it is not something that the children have chosen to do if they go hypo from time to time. In a secondary school, each department should have one trained member of staff. A nurse in every school would be ideal, but I recognise that that has a huge cost implication. It would be useful, however, if nurses could come in and retrain the staff periodically, so that they are always up to date.
In all schools it is important that all teachers, including temporary and supply teachers, understand the basic needs of children with diabetes, so that there is no chance of children being denied access to a snack or medication. That does happen, when they might be told, “No, you can’t eat, because you’re not allowed to eat in the classroom.” The Essex protocol recommends that for a diabetic emergency all school staff should have an awareness of diabetes and be able to offer practical assistance to the child during such an emergency. I completely agree with that idea, and parents up and down the country do, too. I ask the Minister to look into enforcing the requirement in schools all over the country, possibly using the skills of charities such as JDRF which provides free education packs for all schools to support pupils, parents and staff throughout the UK, and into providing bears, so that the young children are not frightened of testing because the bear has to do it as well. It is important for the Government to set out the exact responsibility for the provision and funding for such training, so that all schools know exactly where they are.
I have become concerned because the parents in the case to which I referred have had to go to great lengths to argue for trained adult support for their child in school. That is simply not right. Sadly, my research into the topic has revealed that, while the Government recommend that schools and their employees should have policies in place for the management of pupils’ medicines and their medical needs, the school staff have no actual legal duty to provide medical support, administer medication or supervise a pupil taking it. As far as I can see, that means ultimately that schools do not have to take responsibility for children with diabetes, in spite of having such children in their care each and every day.
Naturally, if a school is not receptive to the needs of the child, as in the case I referred to, parents will be worried continuously when sending their children to school. With that in mind, I refer to the Equality Act 2010, which places a duty on schools to make reasonable adjustments. Unfortunately, it is all too common that children who suffer from diabetes and other health conditions are excluded from school trips, physical education lessons and social events because of care concerns. They must be given equal access to the enrichment programmes that schools can provide, and those children should be able to enjoy school life to the full, with the necessary support provided, in particular because we do not want to stigmatise children with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
Parents must of course take responsibility for their children, and review and update their individual health care plan as appropriate, but it is equally important that schools also take responsibility when they have children with health conditions such as type 1 diabetes in their care. I want the Government to be absolutely clear when it comes to clarity of responsibility, and to set out the duties of schools and of local authorities so that we can ensure a continuous quality of care for all children with diabetes and stamp out the current postcode lottery. The Government need to address an issue that applies to thousands and thousands of families with young children throughout the UK. I urge the new Minister to take that on board and to talk with his counterparts in government to ensure that we have a coherent policy for all children with type 1 diabetes or any other chronic illness.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing this extremely important debate. I welcome her constructive and well informed speech, as well as the not insignificant contribution of Rufus the bear, which unfortunately might not otherwise have gone down in the Hansard history.
I, too, have spoken in the past on children’s health conditions, and I understand and am very much aware of the challenges that affected children might have to face in school and outside it if they have a chronic condition such as diabetes, which affects one in 550 school-age children. We are not talking about an insignificant number of children. My hon. Friend also alluded to my being reasonably new to the great machinations of the Department for Education, but I shall endeavour to do my best to address all the points that she made. On anything I am not able to address today, I shall make every effort to fulfil my duty by engaging in correspondence with her, to ensure that she has all the answers for which she has posed questions.
I am acutely aware and conscious of the often draining impact on parents of a child with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Day to day, they have to manage the condition, which is lifelong. It is important to recognise the huge contribution of parents to ensuring that their children have as happy and as normal a childhood as possible.
Without doubt, it is vital that children with diabetes are able lead the same full and active life as children without diabetes—there should be no discrimination, and the Equality Act 2010 makes it absolutely clear that that applies within schools. With proper support, children with diabetes should be able to participate fully in school life and to enjoy their time there along with their friends, not feeling left out in the way that my hon. Friend has described in some cases. For that reason, it is right to encourage schools to do all that they can to support pupils with medical needs, including diabetes.
Teachers have to consider many conditions when looking at the provision and support for children in school. Fortunately, there are many examples of schools excelling in doing precisely that. We expect schools, employers, staff, parents and local health services to work together in the interests of such children—very much as hon. Members have been encouraging them to do in today’s debate—to ensure that they are not disadvantaged at school. The 26,500 children affected by type 1 diabetes in the UK is a significant number, so the issue is of real importance to the families and teachers directly involved with those children’s lives.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, by necessity children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes must learn quickly how to manage their condition themselves: how to monitor their blood sugar; how to choose meals in the school dining room with an appropriate carbohydrate content; what precautions to take when they exercise and play sports; and how to manage their insulin infusions or to do their own injections, which they might have to do as many as four times a day. I have certainly seen that in my constituency, when visiting schools and learning about some of the conditions that children have to live with day to day and how responsibly many children are in facing up to the challenge.
Such a task is challenging for children or young people, and we cannot expect them to do it on their own, without the proper support. They need that support, and without it in place, it is all too easy for the children to be distracted from their learning and from feeling safe and happy at school—quite apart from the stigma that can be associated with the condition, as mentioned by hon. Members. It is also important that children with diabetes are not excluded from school trips or PE lessons due to a lack of understanding of the condition by their school. If that happens, the word must go out that that is not only unacceptable but ultimately discriminatory.
The first priority for any family with a diabetic child is to ensure that school staff and fellow pupils understand the condition and, in particular, what to look for should the child suffer low blood sugar or even a hypo. Safety must be the No. 1 priority. That is particularly important for the newly diagnosed and for very young children, who may find it more difficult to help themselves. The key to success is common sense.
Parents, staff and health professionals should work together, sharing information and agreeing responsibilities that reflect the personal requirements of the individual child. It is important that staff work together to ensure that, in every situation and at all times, someone at the school has the training and understanding of what is required if an episode occurs or an injection is required. They should ensure that protocols are agreed and followed and that the specific needs of individual pupils are fully addressed and accommodated. Access to medicine and appropriate snacks should always be allowed.
It is crucial for children with diabetes to control their condition well, because the long-term complications may be life-threatening, as my hon. Friend said—not to mention the massive cost to the health service of complications. Adequate support at school can affect a young person’s confidence in taking control of their condition at that vital early stage. It is also important that teachers are sensitive to the bullying that may result when a child lacks confidence or feels different because of their condition. I have come across that in my constituency.
Long-term medical conditions can impact negatively on academic attainment and pupils’ psychological well-being. That should provide a strong incentive for teachers when considering how to support pupils with diabetes. If they want to do what they are there to do—to get pupils to learn and to fulfil their academic potential—supporting them and helping them to control their diabetes is an important step in achieving that.
The good news is that there are many examples of effective practice throughout the education system. The vast majority of schools adequately manage pupils’ medical needs, and it is right that we trust them to do that and to make relationships work at local level. However, I am aware—this has been articulated further today—that some parents believe that schools do not do enough to help them and their children. Some employers—schools and local authorities—feel that they bear a significant risk if something goes wrong. Some staff, particularly support staff, feel that they are left to deal with children with inadequate or insufficient training, or are asked to carry out procedures they are not comfortable with. That remains a problem even today, but such feelings should be unnecessary and may lead to distress for the child concerned, their family and the school.
We want relevant school staff to be competent in managing pupils’ health needs and to feel confident in doing so. Schools should ensure that staff understand the school’s responsibilities, have appropriate training and can access continuing support, which includes receiving advice from juvenile diabetes specialist nurses in local health services when they are present.
It is clear that the effective management of long-term conditions helps children to improve their academic attainment and enables children with additional health needs to be included in the wider life of the school. That is extremely important. Teachers have a responsibility to ensure that pupils with diabetes can fulfil their educational potential, and it is in everyone’s interest to learn about diabetes, how to manage emergencies and how to support pupils with diabetes. In many ways, that goes beyond the education system, and there is a much wider debate to be had about pupils’ understanding of what diabetes is and how it manifests itself not just in adults, but in children. If people are more aware of that, there may be greater potential for local collaboration to be more effective.
The Government have made it clear that they want to give schools maximum freedom to use their own professional judgment and to decide their own priorities. As my hon. Friend said, there is no legal duty on teaching staff to provide medical support, to administer medication or to supervise a pupil taking medication. There are no plans at this stage to change that. It is for individual schools to make decisions about the managing medicine policies and protocols, but they are funded to provide continuing professional development and training for staff, and it is their responsibility to ensure that such needs are met for children with diabetes.
It is right that schools should take responsibility for managing their own approach to medicines, and guidance is available to support them. We encourage local authorities and schools to adopt the guidance in the booklet, “Managing Medicines in Schools and Early Years Settings”, which was produced in 2005. Appropriately, it provides joint guidance from the Department for Education and Department of Health, and it explains the roles and responsibilities for administering medicines on school premises. The guidance aims to ensure that children with medical needs are effectively supported, and work is ongoing as we speak to review and update the guidance to make it fit and proper for the future. It also contains a template for a health care plan, which my hon. Friend discussed. There is no excuse for schools not putting such plans in place.
Schools can also make use of the excellent resources created by the Medical Conditions at School Partnership, of which Diabetes UK is an active and important member. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that its website holds specialist advice about pupils with type 1 diabetes to help schools and school health care professionals to support such pupils. There are also resources for holding diabetes awareness sessions that can be used by schools to inform and train staff in a format that is accurate, reliable, easy to use and well presented. Similarly, it is right to say that Diabetes UK has excellent online resources for schools to use.
My hon. Friend alluded to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which launched a resource pack in September 2008. During the last school year, 2011-12, it sent packs to more than 2,000 primary schools. I believe that it is in the process this month of sending out similar packs to secondary schools. There is plenty of information, advice and guidance out there for schools to take on board.
On that specific point, I have spoken to JDRF and I intend to send packs to every primary and secondary school in my constituency, so that they will have no excuse for not knowing about the situation.
I suspect that that is music to the ears, and I commend my hon. Friend for taking that course of action. Perhaps other hon. Members should consider following suit, because there is clearly not only a need, but an appetite for that to be followed through across the education sector. I commend my hon. Friend for leading by example.
I do not believe that it is the task of central Government to provide specialist medical advice for schools. It is for the excellent third sector organisations, such as Diabetes UK and JDRF, which employ highly skilled medical practitioners and work closely with their members, to support and advise them on specific issues.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Essex protocol, which provides an excellent template for all local authorities and schools to use, or to adapt, to meet local circumstances. She cited inconsistent services and a postcode lottery of care in schools, and it goes without saying that that is totally unacceptable. I highly commend the protocol to those schools and local authorities that may be reviewing their own practices and are seeking a tried and tested model as a basis for improving their care of pupils with type 1 diabetes. I trust that many more schools will take it on.
I am pleased to report that from April 2012 paediatric diabetes services will attract a best-practice tariff payment of £3,189 per patient per year for every child or young person under 19 who attends a paediatric diabetes clinic, provided certain strict criteria are met. The best-practice tariff includes a requirement for 24-hour support and advice to be available to patients and their families. To ensure that the child receives the best care that they can offer, that will include additional contacts by the diabetes specialist team for check-ups, telephone contacts, school visits, e-mails, troubleshooting, advice, support and so on. Eight contacts per year are recommended as a minimum. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that that is a new and significant incentive for local health services to provide additional support for young diabetic children.
The coalition Government place a sharp focus on robust standards across the education system and the highest quality of teaching, and rightly so. But if children are to enjoy and progress at school, it is vital that schools provide a secure and happy environment where they can focus on learning, and for children with diabetes that includes oversight of their well-being and safety. Parents also need, and should always have, the assurance that their child’s school provides a secure environment.
We all agree that we need to help pupils with diabetes to grow in confidence, independence and well-being. I do not support further Government intervention or legislation, which would be heavy-handed and unnecessary, but I believe that every child or young person with diabetes should have an individualised, evidence-based care plan with agreed review dates. All schools should aim to have those in place, and the Essex protocol is a good starting point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. If I have not covered any matters in this short debate, I will endeavour to write to her, so that she has answers to all her questions.
UK and Welsh Governments (Finance)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I welcome the new Minister at the Wales Office to his place. His role recently has perforce been one surrounded by a deep silence. I consulted the online Hansard and apparently his last contribution was in the Christmas Adjournment debate of 2010—some time ago. Many hon. Members, not least from Wales, will be looking forward to that silence being broken. I am glad of this early opportunity to question him on a crucial issue for Wales and I am determined to allow him plenty of time to answer. I am sure that hon. Members who are here today and take an interest in the issue will understand that, as this is a short debate, I will take only a few interventions.
My purpose in applying for the debate could not be simpler. I want to know what is going on. I want to hear evidence of progress towards fair funding for Wales. Neither I nor the people of Wales can wait until the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s misguided policies are conclusively proved to be a failure for funding for Wales to be reformed. This is not a back-burner issue. There is and has been for a very long time a pressing case for reform. It would be worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the people of Wales and would provide part of the springboard—part of the power—that we need to bring Wales out of this deepest of recessions.
The previous Secretary of State for Wales set up a twin-track approach to deal with developing constitutional issues. On the one hand, we have the Silk commission, which has two parts, the first primarily considering taxation issues and the second examining the wider devolution settlement. A great deal of effort was put in to ensure that the commission has cross-party support and cross-party membership. Participants are drawn from the Tory party, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and Plaid Cymru. It also has independent members. Plaid Cymru is represented by that fearsome Paxman baiter, Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym. To my mind, he should be stirring things up in another place, but I will not pursue that line of thought now. With the Silk commission, meetings are advertised, communiqués are posted and consultation takes place. According to its website, the report on part I of its work will be out this autumn and the report on part II in 2013, although the former Secretary of State announced that that might be delayed until 2014. We shall see.
On the other hand, there are bilateral discussions between the Welsh and the UK Governments to discuss financial matters. Participants in those discussions are drawn from the Tory party, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party, so not all parties in Wales are involved—Plaid Cymru is not involved. I well understand that they are Government-to-Government discussions. I am no more paranoid than any other MP; this is not a case of paranoia or lack of understanding on my part. The point is that, unlike the Silk commission, those discussions are simply not open to all and not transparent.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on gaining this debate and the Under-Secretary on his appointment. My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. We have the two processes of the bilateral discussions between the Governments and the Silk commission. My understanding is that the commissioners have some contact in terms of how those discussions between the two Governments are proceeding, but surely it is very difficult for them to put together a comprehensive package unless the cloak of secrecy surrounding the intergovernmental discussions is lifted.
My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point. The question was asked of me in preparation for this debate whether one set of discussions needed to be concluded before the other set of discussions could be concluded. Do we not need to wait until the questions about responsibility are decided before we decide what the financial settlement is? My hon. Friend makes a very good point. What I am looking for in this debate is some answers from the Minister, who perhaps can enlighten us. My understanding is that, with the intergovernmental discussions, no communiqués are issued. Ministerial statements have lacked detail. Freedom of information requests have been refused or severely curtailed. Written questions have produced stonewalling answers. There is little information in the public domain and there is no schedule for reporting as there is with the Silk commission.
Therefore, as I said, my aim in today’s debate is simply to obtain some information on who is involved in the meetings, what is happening, what progress they have made, when they will conclude and how they will be reported. The debate is an opportunity for the Government and, indirectly, their interlocutor in Wales to report back to the Welsh people in their favourite forum—Parliament here in London—so here is an open goal for the new Minister.
Let me set out the headings of the matters that I would like the Minister to address. The primary aim of the discussions, as I understand them, is to consider the conclusions reached by the Holtham commission about the block funding grant for Wales—the so-called and now much-criticised Barnett formula. I say “now much-criticised”, as the Barnett formula had no stauncher defenders than members of the previous Administration, who repeatedly referred to it as
“a good deal for Wales”—
that is, until they were no longer in government. Then it was all awful.
The Holtham commission, as we well know, found that the Barnett formula was “not fit for purpose”. There was agreement with that in a variety of other reports issued at the same time from the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the Calman commission and in discourse between political parties and the various parts of Welsh civil society. That is because Barnett is unrelated to the relative needs of each of the devolved Administrations. Instead, it depends on the spending decisions made by individual Departments in England, so the amount of money spent in Wales depends on the amount spent in England. More than that, the formula is intended to converge with the English average, irrespective of whether that helps the people of Wales. That was the initial intention at least—a converging formula.
The amount of money that we get is decided not according to our needs, but according to the formula; and the gap between the amount of money that we need and the amount available is growing. The Holtham commission estimated, conservatively, that there was a gap of about £400 million between the amount of funding that Wales receives and its relative needs. However, those figures are now several years out of date, as well as being based on spending estimates rather than the final budget. More recent estimates by our colleague, Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym, suggest that the difference in 2010-11 could have been as high as £680 million, not £400 million.
My worry, therefore, as far as the discussions are concerned, is that if we accept the much-touted suggestion of a Barnett floor to prevent further convergence, we will lock ourselves into the existing inequality. The Barnett floor might actually become a Barnett ceiling. The question for us today and for the people of Wales is at what level that might be set. Would it be at 112% of need, 113% or 114%, as Holtham suggested? The answers to those questions are crucial.
Members of all parties are concerned about the operation of the Barnett formula. I have always taken the view that we cannot deal with the situation in Wales without dealing with the situation in Scotland, because there is a huge overpayment to Scotland. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the only way of resolving the issue is to deal with Scotland and Wales at the same time?
I will give a plain answer to a plain question: the Barnett formula should be reformed and we should do whatever it takes to reform it. My concern, as a Welsh MP, is the effect on Wales, and the effect on Wales is very damaging. That is the point. That is why I want answers from the Minister.
Time is catching up with me, so I will press on. We would also like the Minister to report on the housing revenue account subsidy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) has brought up repeatedly. According to a freedom of information request, though they may not realise it, council house tenants in Wales have donated more than £1 billion to the Treasury since devolution began. This year, the estimate is that £73 million will be returned. There is no such scheme in Scotland or Northern Ireland—it never existed—and the scheme in England, which had major changes made to it anyway about 10 years ago, has been scrapped. In answer to a written question, the former Secretary of State confirmed that it would be part of the bilateral discussions, so, I again ask the Minister, what is happening or—to coin a phrase—what’s occurring?
The role of the Welsh Government and their borrowing powers is the third issue on which I want to question the Minister. That was supposed to be part of the bilateral discussions, and the Silk commission is examining it as well. The Welsh Government have limited borrowing powers. The right to borrow to invest would make a significant difference. I know that what I am going to say will not find favour on the Government side of the Chamber: if we were to follow Keynesian principles for public sector investment, when the private sector would not do so, borrowing powers could be hugely significant for the Welsh Government. They could make investment decisions for themselves.
Does it not seem odd to people outside this place that the Welsh Government do not have borrowing powers, but local authorities do? The next strand of government down has such powers, but not the national strand in Wales. We, in Plaid Cymru, believe that significant borrowing powers should be devolved to the Welsh Government. Borrowing limits should be based on an assessment of sustainability and affordability—two principles that I am sure will find favour with the Minister. We are not advocating a spending spree. The Welsh Government should be entitled to set an annual borrowing limit for themselves, which they consider affordable. We also believe that the Welsh Government should be free to issue bonds or obtain commercial funding, as well as use the services of the Treasury’s Debt Management Office. That would enable the Welsh Government to decide which borrowing mechanism best suited their requirements. What progress can the Minister report?
As part of the Holtham discussion on borrowing powers, it was recommended that the Welsh Government have unfettered access to end-year flexibility funds—the money left over at the end of the year. It was a matter of great disappointment to, I am sure, all Welsh MPs—well, nearly all—that an unspent £386 million voted to the Welsh Government by Parliament was clawed back by the new Government in 2010. A huge amount of money disappeared down the M4, again. Previous end-year flexibility reserves were invested in projects such as the strategic capital investment framework. The money has been well used. By removing that £386 million of end-year flexibility, the UK Government in effect removed a significant sum of money from the poorest part of the British state. It would have been useful for job creation, keeping people in work and a host of priorities that all Members share.
There we are. I look to the Minister for answers. There is a new Cabinet, and a chance for a new openness and new dialogue with the people of Wales, or possibly not—let us see.
I thank the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for his kind comments about my appointment. I am sorry, or perhaps glad, that he missed my rather embattled response to a debate on unemployment in north-east England when I stood in for a Minister recently. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the near total silence in which I have been working as a Government Whip over the past two years or so. I pay tribute to him. He and I served together on the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in the previous Parliament. I always appreciated the intelligent and sensitive approach that he brought to all the issues we looked at, which he has again demonstrated in the manner he has approached the topic today.
We have an opportunity before us to provide a timely update to Members on the progress of the intergovernmental talks on funding reform. In July last year, the Secretary of State for Wales informed the House in a ministerial statement of the Government’s plans to establish the Commission on Devolution in Wales—now commonly known as the Silk commission. It was established in October 2011, fulfilling a commitment in our programme for government to establish a process for the National Assembly similar to the Calman commission.
As hon. Members from Wales know, the commission is looking at the case for devolving fiscal powers to the Assembly and the Welsh Government, to improve the financial accountability of the devolved institutions in Wales. The Government will consider the commission’s recommendations carefully when it publishes its part 1 report in, I hope, late autumn.
The Secretary of State’s July statement also made clear the Government’s commitment to consider all aspects of the Holtham commission’s reports and to continue discussions with the Welsh Government on Holtham’s funding reform proposals for Wales. The talks will also cover the operation of the Welsh Government’s existing borrowing powers. The aim of the intergovernmental talks has been to explore and test the conclusions reached in the Holtham report in respect of Welsh funding, to look at what the trends in funding have been and are likely to be, and to consider the extent to which there has been convergence between the Welsh block grant and relative funding in England. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the difficult issue of convergence, which has been at the heart of what the two Governments have been discussing.
The talks have also explored previous studies carried out on Welsh needs. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) talked about a cloak of secrecy; there has been no cloak of secrecy around the talks. They have been conducted on exactly the normal basis that one would expect intergovernmental talks to be conducted on. They have been going on for about 12 months and have been conducted in a positive way. The two Governments have worked closely and collaboratively as the talks have progressed. As one would expect, they have involved the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Wales. Together, they have had a productive and positive dialogue with Welsh Government Ministers, and, in particular, the Welsh Minister for Finance. Those meetings between Ministers have been supported by meetings between officials. Officials from the Welsh Government have met on an almost monthly basis with officials from the Wales Office to carry forward the discussions, analyse the evidence and determine the funding trends.
I am pleased to tell the hon. Member for Arfon and the House that the talks are now reaching a conclusion. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that, although the talks are in their final stages, I am not able today to give a detailed statement as to what the outcome will be. I am confident that we will be in a position to make an announcement in the near future on the outcome. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is made positive and optimistic by my confidence, and that he will recognise that the outcome will benefit Wales, and be good for Wales and the United Kingdom as a whole.
I appreciate that the Minister does not want to disclose the outcome of the discussions. We understand that we are most likely to see the introduction of a Barnett floor. My hon. Friend talked about that floor being based on the Holtham estimates, which go back four or five years. The key question we want answered is whether there has been any reassessment of those estimates in terms of coming to a conclusion on the Barnett floor. If there has not been, and the situation has worsened—and we believe it has—that floor would end up becoming a Barnett ceiling. That outcome would be disastrous. To be perfectly honest, given the record of the Finance Minister in the Welsh Government, we are concerned that Treasury Ministers will be running rings round her.
Tempted though I might be to be drawn into discussing what might be in the final statement, I will not do so. On what the Holtham report said about the financial position of Wales, the hon. Gentleman mentioned his party’s belief. There are a lot of beliefs about the position. Big assumptions are made in the report about Wales’s funding situation. Not all of those beliefs and assumptions are shared by the UK Government.
Over the past 12 months the two Governments have together been exploring the issues in detail. The hon. Member for Arfon went into a little detail about the Barnett formula, and its weakness. I caution him about claiming that the current system always delivers an unfair outcome for Wales. The spending settlement for Wales in the 2010 spending review was fair in a difficult economic climate. It represented a 7.5% reduction in the Welsh Government’s resource budget—an average cut of less than 2% a year. We recognise that there are challenges in that, but it is significantly less than the 3% a year cut that the Welsh Government had previously planned for. In addition, the Government have provided almost an additional £500 million since the spending review for the Welsh Government to use in any way they want.
In our programme for government we recognised the concerns expressed by the Holtham commission, but our priority was and is to stabilise the public finances. Plaid Cymru’s perspective may differ from the Government’s, in not recognising the necessity of the UK fiscal framework, but that is the context in which we are operating. Reform of the Barnett formula cannot take place in the current environment. It should be borne in mind that comprehensive reform, as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) so eloquently said, would have huge implications not just for Wales but for all parts of the United Kingdom. That is why the intergovernmental talks between the UK and Welsh Governments have not looked at replacing the Barnett formula, or at the pros and cons of alternative systems.
Will the Minister explain something to me? The economic forecast given to us in 2010 does not seem to be holding up. We seem to be in a no-growth situation. Is there therefore a case for revising the view of when the Barnett formula should be reconsidered, given that we now face perhaps another five years of double-dip recession?
I have yet to see any economist forecasting five years of double-dip recession. I always enjoy listening to the hon. Lady, but given the zero progress that her party’s Government made on the issues, I am not sure we should take guidance from her on this subject.
I do not wish to torture the Minister with Keynesian quotes; but Keynes did say:
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
What do the Government do if the facts have changed?
There are established processes in place, through the comprehensive spending review, for looking at all those issues. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take me at my word when I say there is a genuine commitment among the new team in the Wales Office, and our colleagues in the Treasury, to work with Ministers in the Welsh Government to explore those issues in depth, and ensure that Wales gets the fairest possible outcome.
The hon. Member for Arfon raised some other financial matters. Progress has been made on the issue of the housing revenue account, about which the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr spoke so powerfully in, I think, November 2010. The Government are working with the Welsh Government on how the HRA in Wales can be abolished, in line with the approach taken in England. We agree that any reform of the HRA subsidy system would need to be fiscally neutral, as it was in England. I know that Plaid Cymru Members have strong feelings about the current system, but Ministers here and in Cardiff agree that it is not unfair to Wales. However, they are considering ways to improve it. Discussions are continuing, and we are currently awaiting clarification from the Welsh Government to proposals that they made in August. I emphasise, again, that we are operating within the framework of the UK fiscal system, and need to bear in mind the consequences to other parts of the system of change affecting Wales.
Hon. Members should be aware that the former system of end-year flexibility has now been replaced with a new budget exchange system. In designing that system, the Government worked closely with the Welsh Government and have implemented a system that provides increased flexibility for the devolved Administrations to manage their own underspends. The Welsh Government have signed up to that approach, as indeed have the other devolved Administrations. I want to make one point about underspends. Generally it is not good to have many of them. Administrations should plan prudently as well as spend prudently, and if they do that, and carry out their spending plans efficiently, there should not really be any case for large underspends at the end of the year.
I hope that I have dealt with all the points that the hon. Gentlemen raised. I look forward to hearing the outcome of the talks.
I welcome the Minister to his position—to both of them, in fact. He is a remarkable person, as he is able to spend so much time both as a senior Whip and a Wales Office Minister.
I want to ask him about the future, and how he sees the work of the Silk commission progressing to part II. Will he talk about the future constitutional relationships? Will there be dialogue with the commission on the West Lothian question, for example?
Part II of the Silk commission goes way beyond the subject that we are debating, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It looks at wider devolution in Wales, and the potential for devolving other powers. Part I, which has more of a bearing on what we are discussing, looks at potential fiscal devolution; so, tempted again as I might be, I am not going down that path.
We have got plenty of time.
I know we have plenty of time, but I am still not going to talk about that issue when we are debating funding issues.
Question put and agreed to.