Wednesday 24 April 2013
[John Robertson in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Alistair Burt)
Good morning. I am pleased to open the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to welcome colleagues here to support this important debate. I thank everyone who signed the e-petition that helped to secure it and I am glad that we were able to do so so quickly after the e-petition hit the 100,000 signature threshold. I thank everyone who made that happen, including the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the Speaker, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).
Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and the practice of effectively interning detainees without due process are wrong, and worse, a foreign policy disaster for our important ally, the United States. However, I am not here today to try to solve the problems of Guantanamo Bay or make general criticisms of US foreign policy—those debates are for another time. I am leading the debate with the sole aim of understanding what more the British Government and the US authorities can do to make the release of Mr Shaker Aamer, my constituent, and his return back to his family in London—the clearly stated policy of the British Government—more likely.
The debate has been given greater urgency by reports of a new round of hunger strikes, which started on 6 February, and conflicting information about Mr Aamer’s health. His US lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have confirmed that Mr Aamer is one of at least 63 detainees involved in the hunger strike. From previous legal declarations made by Mr Stafford Smith following visits to his client in Guantanamo Bay, I understand that Shaker Aamer’s health was already poor and declining, even before the current round of hunger strikes began. Mr Aamer now fears that he will die in the camp, and his family and I, and many others, are extremely concerned for his physical and mental well-being. The US Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, James N. Miller, wrote to me on 26 February stating that Mr Aamer was in “good health”. The Minister wrote to me on 17 April telling me a US official had stated:
“Mr Aamer is in a stable condition”
“he is being offered medical treatment”.
Mr Aamer’s lawyers have a long-standing request that the Foreign Office persuades the US authorities to allow an independent doctor to visit Mr Aamer in Guantanamo. It was arranged at Britain’s request for Binyam Mohamed, a former detainee and British resident. Will the Minister consider reinforcing that request?
Further to that, recent reports of US troops in riot gear assaulting the minimum security wing of the facility with batons and rubber bullets are particularly troubling. Mr Aamer reports to his lawyer that he is being “assaulted”, as he puts it, by the so-called forcible cell extraction team when he asks for anything, including his medication. I am concerned, and Parliament should be concerned, about the apparent disconnect between the various reports from Guantanamo Bay and what the US authorities say to our Government. Will the Minister comment on that?
Many people here will be aware of the details of Mr Aamer’s case, but for those who are not, a bit of background might be helpful. Shaker Aamer is a 46-year-old Saudi national and a permanent resident of the UK. He had permission to live in the UK indefinitely, based on his marriage to a British national. Mr Aamer has been held by the US Government, without charge, in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for more than 11 years. He met his wife, Zinneera, in 1996 and started a family in London. His wife and four children, Johina, Michael, Saif and Faris—all of whom are British citizens—live in Battersea and are my constituents. His father-in-law, Mr Siddiqui, who started the e-petition, lives in Tooting, as do many of his supporters. The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) is in his place; he cannot speak because he is a Front Bencher, but I am grateful for his support for the debate and for the ongoing campaign to free Mr Aamer.
In the summer of 2001, Mr Aamer went with his wife to Afghanistan. Shortly after, coalition forces entered the country. He managed to get his wife and children safe passage out of Afghanistan and they eventually arrived home. He had to separate from his family to protect them because, like many other foreign nationals, particularly Arabs, Mr Aamer was picked up by Afghan warlords and sold to the American forces, who were apparently paying thousands of dollars in bounties for anyone suspected of being an enemy combatant. After a short time at the detention facility in Kabul, he was transferred to the US Bagram airbase and then to the US Kandahar base, before being rendered to Guantanamo. He arrived at Guantanamo Bay on 14 February 2002, the day his youngest child, Faris, the son he has never met, was born in London. The explanation of why he was in Afghanistan is, in my view, beside the point. I have never met Mr Aamer and have never taken a view on why he was there. The fact remains that he languishes in Guantanamo Bay and has been there for more than 11 years without a charge being brought against him associated with his time in Afghanistan or any other period.
Shaker Aamer is one of the last 166 detainees still held at the facility, out of a total of 779 brought there from around the world from January 2002 onwards. He is Detainee 239. He has been cleared for transfer on two separate occasions by the US Government: in June 2007, when the Bush Administration conceded they had no evidence against him; and again in 2009, following the review of detainees initiated by President Obama’s Executive Order 13492, called “Review and Disposition of Individuals Detained at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and Closure of Detention Facilities”. It was headed by Special Envoy Daniel Fried and was one of newly elected President Obama’s first executive orders. The transfer clearance document issue to Mr Aamer in November of 2009 was explicit:
“On January 22, 2009, the President of the United States ordered a new review of the status of each detainee at Guantanamo. As a result of that review, you”—
that is, Shaker Aamer—
“have been approved for transfer out of Guantanamo. The United States Government needs to make appropriate arrangements for your transfer and this will require negotiation with countries where you could be possibly transferred. We cannot at this time give you a specific time for your transfer. The United States Government intends to transfer you as soon as appropriate arrangements can be made.”
The meaning of the document is clear: he was allowed to go to “countries”—plural, which is important—and it should happen as “soon as appropriate arrangements” could be made. The US now apparently says he has only ever been cleared for transfer to Saudi Arabia. That is not Mr Aamer’s wish, not least because it would mean abandoning his family in London. Three years on, of course, he has not been transferred anywhere: Mr Aamer remains in Guantanamo Bay. Rupert Cornwell, in The Observer, summed up the situation well when he said that
“even George Orwell would have been pressed to conceive the plight”
of Shaker Aamer and other detainees in his situation,
“cleared for release, but denied freedom”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is on a subject on which she has campaigned hard. I apologise that I need to step out for a meeting, but I will return for the rest of the debate. Does she agree that this detention without trial is a stain on a democracy? To hold an individual for that period without bringing charges is not acceptable and is akin to the treatment in Soviet gulags, which the Americans criticised throughout the cold war.
I could not agree more; it is exactly that. It is one of the distinguishing lines that we should draw between our mature democracies and those we have criticised over many years. For many decades, the west criticised the gulags of the Soviet era, yet we seem to have replicated them.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate; she makes a compelling case. Can she shed any light on the change from what we thought was clearance to be freed to clearance to go only to Saudi Arabia? I have seen it reported in the press. Does she know how that change in, presumably, the US position occurred?
In short, no. That is one of the things I hope to tease out in the debate. The US did not specify any countries at the time, but clearly said “countries where appropriate arrangements can be made.” I shall go on to make the case that the UK is the most appropriate country with which those arrangements could be made.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate; she has done a good service here today. Perhaps the Minister will give a better answer, but does she know the British Government’s attitude to the change that has meant that the individual can go only to Saudi Arabia ?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. On the question of “Why Saudi Arabia?”, will she comment on the increasing speculation that Mr Aamer is cleared for only that country precisely because it would prevent him from speaking out against his abuse—abuse in which it looks very likely that the UK authorities might have been complicit?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention; I know she is going to make her own contribution later. I have come around to the view that that is one of the only credible explanations, and I will talk about it later.
After 11 years, it is clear that the US does not have sufficient evidence against Shaker Aamer to bring charges, because if it did, it surely would have done so by now, as it has for many other detainees. We are left, therefore, with the fundamental questions: Why is Shaker Aamer still being held, and what are the conditions under which he may return to the UK? I put those questions directly to Brigadier General Mark Martins, chief prosecutor of the US office of military commissions in Guantanamo, when he came to the House of Commons last September, and to Leon Panetta, the outgoing US Secretary of Defence, when he visited the House in January. The official reason they both gave for Mr Aamer’s continued detention was that he was being held under
“the law of war…intended to prevent his return to the battlefield for the duration of hostilities in which he was previously engaged.”
That concerns me for many reasons. First, there is no credible evidence that Mr Aamer was ever engaged in “hostilities”. Secondly, the duration period described is incredibly vague. When he responds, will the Minister say whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has an understanding of what that might mean? Does it mean for, for example, the duration of the US deployment to Afghanistan? Will it extend beyond the US troop draw-down from Afghanistan? That is important, because it might lead to an eventual release date.
In our country, even those convicted of very serious crimes know what sentence they must serve before they can be released, yet at this point Shaker Aamer has no such light at the end of the tunnel, even though other such difficult cases have been resolved. For example, the case of another British resident, Binyam Mohamed, who was often mentioned in the same breath as Mr Aamer, was also considered difficult and the US was initially reluctant to release him, but military charges against him were dropped and he was released to the UK in February 2009.
Although I have been encouraged on many occasions by Ministers’ repeated public declarations of official Government policy to return Mr Aamer to the UK, and by the frequency with which his case has been raised, Mr Aamer remains in Guantanamo. It is time, therefore, to explore other means of securing his release. That might, I suspect, involve increasing the pressure on the US Government, and pulling diplomatic levers that have not yet been considered. Diplomatically, how might the Government respond if another foreign Government were holding a British resident without charge? I know that Ministers have called for Mr Aamer’s release, but perhaps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should go further and consider making a public declaration, condemning his continued detention.
The US is one of Britain’s oldest and firmest friends. We are close allies and significant trading partners. Even if Ministers have to ruffle some diplomatic feathers to see Mr Aamer released, our relationship with the US would endure. Indeed, as I have said, releasing Mr Aamer to the UK would surely help President Obama to take another step towards fulfilling his now five-year-old pledge to close Guantanamo Bay.
There are a number of theories about why Mr Aamer remains detained. In The Mail on Sunday last week, David Rose suggested that Mr Aamer might have been present during the torture of another detainee who, I understand, later gave false information that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Clive Stafford Smith and others believe that the UK security services could be briefing against Mr Aamer through intelligence-sharing channels to keep him detained, perhaps to protect their reputation against accusations of complicity in torture. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sought assurances that UK security services are not responsible for, or contributing to, Mr Aamer’s ongoing detention? I realise that the content of any such discussions cannot be shared, but have they even taken place?
Another route, which was discussed in detail with the Foreign Secretary and Mr Aamer’s lawyers when we met in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year, is through the US’s National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2013. The NDAA regulates defence spending, including on Guantanamo Bay, and also regulates how and when detainees can be transferred or released. Before 2012, granting certifications for transfers was made all but impossible because of the demanding obligations placed on the Secretary of State for Defence and others—the bar was set very high. However, since January 2012, the NDAA has included a new waiver mechanism, which allows the Secretary of State for Defence to release prisoners if any risk associated with their release has been “substantially mitigated”—that is the key phrase used. In October 2012, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that the NDAA 2012 and its new waiver mechanism might make Mr Aamer’s release more likely, and he agreed to pursue the matter of securing a waiver with any new US Administration. Is the Minister able to comment on whether any progress towards identifying and addressing the obstacles has been made?
I add my congratulations to the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is asking all the right questions. Does she agree that it is the lack of transparency that is so damaging, and the sense that justice is being perpetually denied and delayed? Ultimately, that gives succour to the enemies of Britain and the US.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. It is the ultimate stain on democracy. A man should know why he is being deprived of his liberty and what he must do to win it back. That is how I come at it; that is one of the fundamental principles on which mature democracies base their thinking.
Will the Minister comment on whether some of the waiver steps have been satisfied, and what further steps we could take in Britain to satisfy the US authorities? One of the US’s concerns is the possible recidivism of released detainees, or, in the case of the many who did not commit an act of terrorism in the first place, whether their treatment in Guantanamo has inspired them to violence. Releases depend largely on whether the receiving country is trustworthy and able to demonstrate that it can significantly mitigate any risks of recidivism, and I strongly suggest that the UK is eminently trustworthy in that regard. After all, the US trusts us in a range of sensitive areas, for example shared intelligence and co-operation on joint military operations. Additionally, the NDAA requires the publication of a detailed report on incidences of recidivism and the countries in which they take place.
The UK has an exemplary record on reintegrating released detainees. To my knowledge, among all the Guantanamo detainees released to Britain, the sum total of recidivistic activity is a single speeding ticket. Indeed, I understand that the UK has the best record of any country to which a significant number of prisoners have been returned. The UK itself lives with a significant ongoing threat from international terrorism, and the fact that the UK Government are pressing for Mr Aamer’s return to this country is surely the clearest possible demonstration that they do not regard him as a risk, especially given that he is not a British citizen.
I congratulate the hon. Lady—on behalf, also, of my constituents—on raising the case today and on the detail with which she is going into the case. I want to highlight recent comments made by my constituents, which state that there is clearly no reason why Mr Aamer cannot be handed over to the UK authorities for them to carry out the investigation. The UK authorities are trusted by most people in this country, and my constituents feel that that would be the right step, and the very least that could be done to move the case forward.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and it is a question not only of trust but of track record, as I have laid out. It is not something that has to be taken on trust; it is something that the British authorities have demonstrated, time and again, they are capable of doing.
Perhaps there are other simpler steps that our Government could take to mitigate the risk in the eyes of the US authorities. As I have said, if Mr Aamer is apparently being held under “the law of war” to “prevent his return to the battlefield”, could the UK Government not seek assurances that he would not travel back to Afghanistan, or to any other prescribed country that the US considered a battlefield, to satisfy the concern? Could travel restrictions be placed on him? Indeed, I understand from his US lawyer that Mr Aamer has agreed voluntarily to accept any such travel restrictions, and even to report regularly to the police.
Here we have it: in simple terms, the President of the United States says that he wants to close Guantanamo Bay, and a trusted ally wants to bring that ambition one man closer to fruition. It must be possible for one of the world’s leading nations to explain to a trusted ally what is standing in the way of making that happen.
This might surprise some people, but I want to put on the record my thanks to the security services, which probably keep us safe every day in ways we will never know. However, if someone in the intelligence community is blocking Shaker Aamer’s release, and if mistakes have been made in the past, they will come out in the end because that is the nature of our free societies. But how much worse would it be if, when they did, they showed that a man was allowed slowly to die, to shield the institutions of our democracies from embarrassment and exposure? Our institutions are more robust than that.
We are here today discussing a political problem, but behind the politics and the diplomacy there is a family tragedy. On behalf of Mr Aamer’s wife, Zineera and his children, Johina, Michael, Saif and Faris, I call upon everyone of good will to work together to secure the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) on securing this debate. Shaker Aamer is not one of my constituents, but his case has been followed by many people over the years, as has what is happening in Guantanamo Bay. I will try not to repeat points already made by the hon. Lady, but I will deal with some other issues.
When there is an incident such as 11 September, one can understand that, to protect its citizens, the natural reaction of the state is to scoop up everyone, put them in prisons or detention camps, and then search for the evidence to prosecute them or do whatever needs to be done. In this case, it seems that for 11 years—that is a long time—someone has been kept in detention, with no charges brought against them and no trial carried out, which cannot be right.
The European convention on human rights says that in times of conflict, countries can derogate from certain articles, even from the right to a fair trial. Cases of people imprisoned for four to five years have gone to the European Court of Human Rights, which has said that such treatment is not unlawful because of the individual circumstances, but all those cases involved people who had actually been charged with an offence and were awaiting trial, although delays had occurred for whatever reasons. In this case, the person has not even been charged, which is the really important point.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the tone in which she is continuing this debate. She is making some powerful points. Does she not go to the heart of the question when she says that we understand that situations will always emerge that are in some way murky, but that an important part of the process is normalising relationships back to what they were? This case serves only to show how little we have advanced in the past 11 years.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we should try to normalise and humanise all such situations, and to resolve the conflict. At the end of the day, America is one of the greatest democracies in the world, under the rule of law, for which we admire it. The situation has been a big stain on its reputation internationally, and dealing with all this—resolving the issue of Guantanamo Bay and, of course, the case of Shaker Aamer—would help its reputation in the world. That would give it back its credibility and respect, which it is losing as it continues the Guantanamo Bay detentions, including of Shaker Aamer.
As I have said, there have been cases in the European Court of people who have been in custody for a long time, but no charge has been made in the case we are discussing. As a former prosecutor, I know that international criminal laws are so wide that if people have committed an offence—they do not actually have to have set off a bomb or to have shot someone, but all jurisdictions in the world have the concept of attempting to commit a crime, where people try but do not manage to complete the offence—they can be charged. However, that is not relevant to this case. There is also what is called aiding and abetting, which means that if people counsel, aid, procure, encourage or in any form or shape assist in the commission of an offence, they can be prosecuted. In virtually all jurisdictions, such people are treated as though they were the main participator—although sentences tend to vary—so individuals can be caught even under those provisions.
The fact that that has not happened in relation to Mr Shaker Aamer and others in Guantanamo Bay, who have still not been charged with anything and still languish in prison, is, legally, fundamentally wrong. Eleven years later, it cannot be right that people are being detained in custody apparently for eternity—there seems to be no foreseeable release.
I am grateful to our Government for making efforts to get Shaker Aamer released. The Foreign Secretary has said that he is anxious to get him back, so that we can repair some of the damage done to him. Britain has of course said that it will not charge him with any offence. That again shows that we cannot just have people in indefinite detention, perhaps for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case, he was there legitimately, teaching—as he has said—and, because of the bombing, he tried to leave the country where he was working, but was then detained.
Fundamentally, this all boils down to the fact that either someone is prosecuted or they are not. The American Government say that Shaker Aamer is an unlawful combatant and does not therefore come within the parameters of the ordinary criminal law. However, international conventions state that somebody cannot just be held for ever; they must be prosecuted or released.
In relation to the frequently used term “unlawful combatant”, a soldier serving a country in an armed conflict who is arrested by another country would be a “lawful combatant”, meaning that they might be treated as a prisoner of war, and only if they were not part of the armed services of a particular state but were involved in some kind of illicit fighting or wrongdoing would they be an unlawful combatant. Even so, they are entitled to rights, including to a proper trial by an independent tribunal.
Many international organisations have found that the trial system in American military courts has no transparency and contravenes all principles of natural justice and fairness of trial. I would therefore say that even a trial in the American military courts would be wrong, but even that has not happened. No legal process is being carried on. I know that that has been emphasised, but why this is happening is beyond understanding.
It has been suggested, certainly by his lawyer, that one reason Shaker Aamer has not been released is that he has stood up for his rights in prison. He certainly did so when he was arrested. There is also the fact that he is now on hunger strike. He has not seen his children or wife; in fact, one of his sons was born soon after he was detained and he has not even seen him.
I therefore ask the Minister what discussions there have been with the Americans about their having breached international laws, which is clearly happening in this case. I could stand here and give chapter and verse on all the cases, but I do not want to bore everybody stiff with the legal niceties. As someone who specialises in human rights law and is a former prosecutor, I can honestly say of this case and the law in this area that what is happening to Shaker Aamer is completely illegal, fundamentally flawed and against all principles of justice.
Before I sit down, I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who has campaigned vigorously about the case of Shaker Aamer in particular—as well, of course, about the issue of Guantanamo Bay generally—for several years. He raised it with the previous Lord Chancellor and other people, and has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of Shaker Aamer and his family. Unfortunately, as he is shadow Lord Chancellor, he is not able to participate in this debate today, although he is present in the Chamber, and has been here from the start of the debate. I want to thank him and pay tribute to him for his hard work over a number of years. I also want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Battersea for securing this debate.
The Minister is an honourable and good man, and the Foreign Secretary is of the same calibre as well. I urge them to carry on with the negotiations so that we can please have the return of Shaker Aamer, as his detention is a blot on the reputation of America for upholding freedom and rights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I pay tribute to my colleague, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has secured this debate today, for doing her utmost to represent Shaker and to press for his release. Many of my constituents in Brighton, Pavilion have been active in the campaign to bring Shaker home, and I want to pay tribute to them and to everybody who has kept the issue at the top of the agenda by standing opposite the House of Commons, come rain or shine, reminding people that this is a stain on all our reputations and that, until it is sorted out, we are not worthy of being called a democracy.
Shaker Aamer is the last British resident being held in Guantanamo Bay. He is a legal permanent resident of the UK and has a wife and four children living in London, all of whom are British citizens. He has never met his youngest son who was born on 14 February 2002—the day that he was transferred to Guantanamo. During his 11 years of detention, Shaker has been tortured by US agents by having his head repeatedly banged against a wall, and has witnessed the torture of another UK resident. He has spent more than 1,000 nights in a windowless isolation cell, and, when first detained, he was starved, kept awake for nine days in a row and chained into positions that made the slightest movement unbearable. Under those conditions, Shaker said he was delirious and confessed to whatever the Americans wanted just to make the torture stop.
Shaker has recently been subjected to a number of violent forced cell extractions, or FCEs, which have resulted in bruising and other injuries. Specifically, Shaker has been FCE-d while trying to pray and also in a manner that was excruciatingly painful as a result of a long-term back injury that he sustained during his treatment at Bagram air force base in Afghanistan.
Shaker has been subjected to sleep deprivation as a result of excessive noise made by the guards, but, as of the end of March, his official complaints have been ignored. In 2005, he was placed in isolation for 360 days for his role in organising a hunger strike after military police beat up a prisoner while he was praying. The prison rules permit isolation for only 30 days. Shaker has seen other prisoners treated in gratuitously violent ways, including being hospitalised and/or rendered unconscious as a result of FCEs. He also reports that a fellow prisoner has recently attempted suicide.
Shaker’s treatment and the existence of Guantanamo Bay is a clear reminder that some of the worst consequences of the war on terror remain with us today. It is worth repeating, because it remains so shocking, that Shaker has never been charged with any offence. The ongoing torture that is the hopelessness of indefinite detention has resulted in Shaker embarking on a desperate hunger strike that has lasted more than 70 days to date. Experts say that the possibility of death becomes an imminent risk after 40 days.
The impact of 11 years of detention and mistreatment and now this hunger strike has understandably taken its toll on Shaker’s health. Reprieve’s Clive Stafford Smith reported last year, after meeting Shaker, that his health is increasingly fragile; he has extreme kidney pain and serious asthma problems. There is a real chance that, unless he is released as a matter of urgency, Shaker will die in Guantanamo. That fact makes this debate more urgent than could possibly be imagined. Very rarely when we say that issues are a matter of life or death do we mean it quite so literally or quite so imminently as is the case this morning.
As hon. Members have heard, Shaker was officially cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo in June 2007 when a security assessment by the US Government acknowledged that it had no concrete evidence against him. He is also in possession of a US official document that states:
“On January 22 2009, the President of the United States ordered a new review of the status of each detainee in Guantanamo. As a result of that review you have been cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo…The US Government intends to transfer you as soon as possible…”
Shaker remains in detention despite that clearance, which is a complicated process involving multiple federal agencies, the fact that officials in the US Governments of both President Bush and President Obama have been aware for several years that there was never a case for him to answer, widespread international condemnation and a pledge by President Obama at the start of his term of office to close down Guantanamo. That is why we underline the question, “Why is Shaker still there?” That is the question to which I hope the Minister will supply some answers in his response.
Neither of the two clearances of 2007 or 2009 limited its application to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, no clearance has been geographically limited in that way in the past. However, according to Shaker’s lawyers, the US has told the Foreign Secretary that Shaker’s clearance is limited to release to Saudi Arabia. As the hon. Member for Battersea said, that makes no rational sense. Britain has the best record of all countries in taking prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Of the 14 people released to Britain, nine nationals and five residents, none has any involvement in extremism. By contrast, in Saudi Arabia, which has a vaunted rehabilitation programme, a larger number have committed subsequent acts.
That is what leads us to the uncomfortable conclusion that the only possible reason for sending Shaker to Saudi Arabia is to stop him speaking out about his abuse—abuse in which the UK authorities have been complicit. As was reported at the weekend in The Observer newspaper, Shaker is allegedly able to describe in detail how a UK intelligence agent was present while he was beaten. He also claims that a British operative was present while a US interrogator repeatedly smashed his head against a wall shortly before he was sent to Guantanamo. According to Shaker’s US lawyer, Britain’s intelligence agencies have also been defaming Shaker to the US, passing on false information and accusing him of extremism, which is also holding up his release. If he is right, Shaker is being deprived of his liberty on the basis of lies that he is unable to challenge, which is why he has begun defamation action against MI5 and MI6. Ironically, such action could be pushed into a secret court under the terms of the Justice and Security Bill, leaving him once again unable to confront his accusers or to challenge the evidence used by the Government against him.
The Metropolitan police has now opened three new investigations into UK intelligence collusion with torture and rendition, including Shaker Aamer’s case, and that is in addition to MI6’s role in the kidnapping of Libyan residents and their families in 2004 for which the Government have already paid out more than £2 million in compensation. Earlier this month, Scotland Yard detectives interviewed Shaker Aamer in Guantanamo, which is perhaps why the Government are so keen to force through their secret court hearings in national security cases through the Justice and Security Bill.
The US has repeatedly turned its back on international law, giving a green light to detention without trial and to the gross violations of human rights at Guantanamo and at prison facilities around the world. However, it is not enough to sit back and blame the US authorities when so many questions about the UK’s role remain unanswered, and when, despite welcome public statements from our Government about their commitment to securing his release, Shaker is still not free.
I hope the Minister can answer some of these questions today, including whether or not UK intelligence agencies have been passing false information to the US regarding Shaker, the result of which is his continued detention. Will the Government confirm whether such information that has been passed was marked “not for executive action”, by which I mean that it should not have been used for actions such as holding someone in prison, particularly in illegal indefinite detention such as at Guantanamo Bay? Have steps been taken to ensure that any information that was previously provided to the US should not be used against Shaker on pain of sanctions? What response has been given to each of the Government’s requests for Shaker’s return? Has the Secretary of State received letters that Shaker has sent to him directly, as he is concerned that they may not have cleared Guantanamo censorship? Have the Government raised with the US authorities any possible breach of international law by the Americans, and, critically, will the Minister assure us today that he can absolutely guarantee that we really can hold our heads high and say that the UK has not been complicit in the abuses that Shaker has suffered?
I will just make three simple statements.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and others who have assisted in securing this debate, but more importantly I thank Joy Hurcombe and the campaigners on this issue. I thank them for being outside Parliament year after year, in all weathers, and to be frank it has been a privilege for us to be able to stand alongside them each time; I and a number of hon. Members who are here today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), have stood with them. I just want to place that on the record—Joy and the other campaigners have been the conscience of this country throughout this campaign in support of Shaker Aamer’s family.
My second point has just been touched upon, but I just want to be very clear about why this situation has happened. The reality is that, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has just said, Shaker is a key witness in exposing the torture and rendition that were undertaken; it was not only undertaken by the US but this country’s intelligence services were complicit in it. I think that this detention is an attempt to ensure that that witness never appears in a court, because Shaker would be able to expose all of that, and he would do this country a service, whereby we might make some attempt to regain control of this country’s intelligence services, which I believe have been operating out of control for a considerable number of years.
Thirdly, what are the efforts that have taken place? My own view is that the efforts have been slight. I do not doubt that Ministers have raised this matter time and again with the US Government. I must say, as an aside, that I am deeply disappointed with Obama. I am deeply disappointed that he has not closed down Guantanamo; I am deeply disappointed that he seems to have put off closing it even further; and in his second term there is nothing for him to lose. He could actually close down Guantanamo and release Shaker immediately without any political cost at the end of the day.
Although I do not doubt the sincerity of Ministers, I am not sure about the scale of the efforts that have been made and their effectiveness. I also have to say that even if Ministers have been sincere and even if efforts have been made, the reality is that our own intelligence services have been undermining those efforts and representations throughout this period, and that issue should be part of the investigation that we now need to undertake. Reference has been made to the supply of information by intelligence services to the US that seems to have undermined the case that our own Ministers have made.
My view is that the Foreign Secretary should be summoning the American ambassador now, to say that this Government have had enough. We have had the conversations, year after year, and they have had no effect whatever. If that causes an international incident, I do not care any more. We are talking about someone whose life might be lost in the coming months. That is more significant than upsetting one of our supposed allies.
Secondly, I ask the Minister to go back to the Prime Minister and say that we now need—at least in the next week, if not in the next 24 hours—a telephone call from our Prime Minister to the US President to say that this matter is a key issue of concern for our Parliament and our Government, and that we insist upon the release of Shaker Aamer.
Let us leave the last words to Shaker himself. Let me just quote from his statement in The Observer:
“I hope that I do not die in this awful place. I want to hug my children and watch them as they grow. But if it is God’s will that I should die here, I want to die with dignity. I hope, if the worst comes to the worst, that my children will understand that I cared for the rights of those suffering around me almost as much as I care for them.”
That was his statement. Our job is to ensure that he does not die in custody, and the responsibility of our Government is to confront our own intelligence services and ensure that he does not die in custody. That is a basic responsibility that we have, and we cannot put it off any further. We cannot resort again to using mellowed words with the US Government. We need to be more direct and more forceful in that relationship.
First, I apologise for missing the first part of the contribution of the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). I commend her for securing this debate and I also commend the campaigners who have done such an incredible job for so long.
What we have in Guantanamo Bay is a legal black hole, where no law applies, no justice applies, and those who remain there must wonder if they have any future whatever. That goes on with the complicity of the United States and—because of our inability to gain the release of everyone else from Guantanamo Bay— the complicity of many other Governments around the world.
In the recently produced “Human Rights and Democracy: The 2012 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report”, there is—commendably—a section on Guantanamo Bay, in which the Government say:
“The Government maintains that the indefinite detention without trial of persons in Guantanamo Bay is unacceptable and that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay should be closed.”
The report goes on to say that the issue has been raised with
“the then US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta”
and that the Government will work with the USA to secure the release. I hope that, when he responds to the debate, the Minister can tell us what possible justification the US Government continue to offer for maintaining Guantanamo Bay despite the many protestations of President Obama before his election five years ago that the first thing he would do would be to close it down. There has been no problem whatever, as hon. Members have pointed out, with any of the British nationals who have been released from Guantanamo Bay, who, in fact, have made a commendable contribution to arguments for justice and for closing it down.
The treatment of Shaker Aamer is appalling by any standards. The stories he will be able to tell will frighten an awful lot of people, and they will show just how precious an independent legal system is and just how precious it is to be able to represent yourself and your case in court. He is stuck there, experiencing great difficulty and with no right of access to US justice. Indeed, if he was able to get into court at the present time I do not think that any British or European court would accept the case, because somebody who has been in detention for so long, who has been so badly treated and who has spent such a long period in solitary confinement could not possibly give any credible evidence. As a result, he would have to be released immediately.
I conclude by saying that our function as a Parliament in a democracy is to hold the Government to account, and it is the function of the Government to try to ensure that all British nationals and residents are able to enjoy freedom, democracy and access to justice. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate, he can tell us exactly what excuses the USA continues to offer for this travesty of justice that is still going on and this appalling detention that is continuing.
Thank you, Mr Robertson, for calling me to speak. As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I, too, join colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) on securing this debate on behalf of Shaker Aamer and his family. His case is a cause of great concern to MPs of all parties, as demonstrated by the turnout in Westminster Hall today and, of course, by the number of signatures—more than 117,000—on the e-petition site. I know that the hon. Lady has already done a great deal to push for Mr Aamer’s return to his family, who live in her constituency. As others have done, I also want to mention the role played by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). I know that it is very frustrating for him not to be able to speak in the debate today, given his previous work—during his time not only in the House, but as a human rights lawyer—on this and related issues. However, he is obviously with us in spirit, if in silence.
First, although I am sure that it does not need restating, I want to place on the record that Labour is completely opposed to Guantanamo Bay. We removed all British citizens and all but one British resident from Guantanamo Bay through our diplomatic efforts when we were in government. Indeed, we were the first country to ensure that all its citizens were removed from Guantanamo Bay. We are now left in a position whereby Mr Aamer is the sole remaining British resident there, and every effort should be made to end his detention without trial.
As we have heard, although Mr Aamer is a Saudi citizen he is a British resident, married to a British national and the father of four British citizens, the youngest of whom he has never had the chance to meet, as he was actually airlifted to Guantanamo Bay on the day that his youngest son was born.
I understand that the Minister is responding to this debate as his portfolio includes counter-terrorism. Although national security is, of course, a paramount concern for both the US and UK Governments, the continued existence of Guantanamo Bay is also a fundamental human rights issue, which, many have argued—indeed, it has been said by Members in Westminster Hall today—is more likely to have jeopardised than safeguarded American security.
After Mr Aamer’s arrest in November 2001 in Afghanistan, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay on 14 February 2002; as I said, that was the day that his youngest son was born. Mr Aamer’s legal representatives at Reprieve claim that his treatment at Bagram airfield, allegedly including sleep deprivation and physical abuse, led him to make a false confession, which has since been used to justify his detention without trial for more than 11 years. Mr Aamer denies all accusations of involvement with al-Qaeda, but has not had the opportunity to answer any of these charges in a trial.
These suggestions have been put forward by Mr Aamer and his lawyers. Obviously, there would be grave concerns if that were the case. We also know that defamation cases are going on in terms of other suggestions that have been made against him.
Mr Aamer not been charged; that has come out during the debate. Perhaps we could understand it if he were being held without charge just while investigations were proceeding, and there were reasons that could not be revealed to anyone for why he was being held without trial, but he has been cleared for release. That is what people find baffling. It is estimated that 86 of the remaining prisoners have been cleared for release. Mr Aamer was first cleared under the Bush presidency in 2007 and subsequently by President Obama’s Administration in 2009.
The fact that Guantanamo detainees are held indefinitely, without the right to a fair trial, is itself a serious affront to international human rights standards. Indeed, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned Guantanamo Bay, asserting:
“The continuing indefinite incarceration of many of the detainees amounts to arbitrary detention and is in clear breach of international law”.
She also referred to,
“the systematic abuse of individuals’ human rights”.
It is not only prisoners’ detention that is of such concern to human rights campaigners, but the reports of their treatment, which Mr Aamer’s lawyer has described as “gratuitous torture”. We have heard accounts of that.
Does my hon. Friend share the conclusion that many of us have reached: that this man continues to be detained, not because of any evidence against him, but because of the evidence that he can offer against the torture system that he has experienced, including the complicity of British intelligence services? Does she also appreciate that there is suspicion that the American authorities say they are getting one message from the political wing of the British Government, but getting very different, and damnable, messages from the intelligence wing of the British Government?
All hon. Members in this Chamber, with the exception perhaps of the Minister, can only speculate about the reasons why Mr Aamer has not been released. I hope that the Minister will tell us all that he can about the discussions that have taken place about the reasons given for his continued detention.
I do not think that the suggestion that Mr Aamer would be likely to be involved in terrorism activities, or would in any way be a danger to the public if he returned to Britain, holds water. As has been said, the other people who have returned to this country have not been involved in such activity. As far as I know, that has not been alleged.
As I said in my speech—I wonder whether the hon. Lady agrees—whatever might be revealed, it will always come out in the end, because in free societies it does. Our institutions are robust enough. Many hon. Members voted to go to war on what turned out to be a false precept under the last Government. It turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction, yet our democracy has survived. Our institutions might be bloodied, but they are unbowed. Does the hon. Lady agree that, whatever might come out, we will survive it and be better as a result?
I agree. The bottom line is that we are fundamentally opposed to any collusion or complicity in torture or mistreatment. It would be wrong if British or American forces were involved in any such activities. Mistreating somebody who might expose such activities in a world where we are upholding human rights law must be wrong. If such activities did occur, they need to be flushed out into the open.
Obviously, there is always the underlying security issue. The United States has the right to defend its citizens, and we have the right to defend ours, against the threat of terrorism. That sometimes means that things cannot always be as transparent—as open—as we would like them to be. However, if there is any suggestion that we are not upholding the international laws that we claim to hold dear, that is a serious matter and we cannot hide behind that.
As has been said, this debate is so urgent because Mr Aamer has now been on hunger strike for more than 70 days and experts warn that he is now beyond the point of
“irreversible cognitive impairment and psychological damage”.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned reports that he is suffering with arthritis, asthma, prostate and kidney problems and severe backache. It is said that he can no longer read and is dizzy, but is reluctant to call the guards when he falls because of their previous treatment of him. Worryingly, it is claimed he is being denied water or has to endure a forcible cell extraction first—we have heard about that already—and there are other reports of hunger strikers being given only dirty water. According to his lawyers, Mr Aamer’s knee and back braces have been taken away, as has the blanket that he needed for his rheumatism. Papers recently filed with US courts cited “deliberate indifference” to detainees’ medical needs. Even if there were valid reasons for continuing to hold Mr Aamer in Guantanamo Bay, I think that all hon. Members would agree that he ought to be treated with respect and in accordance with the normal processes that we would expect to apply to anybody held in a prison—and not to be subject to this kind of treatment.
This is not Mr Aamer’s first hunger strike. He allegedly initiated a strike in 2005, following which he was punished with solitary confinement for 360 days. I understand that the US authorities deny the claims that Mr Aamer has been held in solitary confinement for three years. Again, we are not in a position to know whether that is so.
It is understood that 84 Guantanamo detainees are on hunger strike and five are being treated in hospital. There were reports of clashes just over a week ago, when the guards allegedly tried to end the hunger strike. It is difficult to verify conflicting reports, but it has been said that 16 people are being force-fed, in breach of the 1975 World Medical Association declaration of Tokyo, the guidelines for physicians concerning torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in relation to detention and imprisonment.
It is on the record that the Government have repeatedly called on the Obama Administration to return Mr Aamer to the UK and that must remain the pressing goal, but will the Minister say what representations have been made regarding his treatment during his detention, and the conduct of the Guantanamo guards towards the other 165 detainees? Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sought information on how long and under what circumstances Mr Aamer has been held in solitary confinement? Given the grave concerns about Mr Aamer’s health, what discussions have the UK and US had on medical facilities at Guantanamo Bay; and will the FCO seek assurances that Mr Aamer is receiving the medical care he needs? What efforts have been made to ensure that Mr Aamer is, at the very least, able to speak to his lawyers?
Given the clear statements of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that the USA is in breach of international law, have the Government in recent months discussed the USA’s obligations under the international covenant on civil and political rights, or encouraged co-operation with UN special rapporteurs? Similarly, has the Minister raised the right to a fair trial or any objections to the military commission system?
It has been suggested that the latest hunger strike followed the reassignment of Dan Fried, President Obama’s special envoy, tasked with transferring prisoners and fulfilling the pledge to close Guantanamo Bay. Have the Government discussed the implications of that with the Obama Administration, and does the Minister still think there is the political will, within the White House at least, to eventually close the centre?
Congress and the National Defence Authorisation Act have been identified as the greater obstacles. Although the NDAA essentially precluded any transfers from Guantanamo Bay, when its provisions were renewed in 2012, I understand that a degree of flexibility was introduced for the Secretary of Defence, which the hon. Member for Battersea mentioned. Despite this, there were no releases last year. Can the Minister tell us more about the implications of the Act, as renewed in 2012, for Mr Aamer and the other detainees, and whether the Secretary of Defence is able to exercise such discretion? Have the Government raised this matter with the White House, the Department of Defence and representatives from Congress?
The question remains why, despite being cleared for release some six years ago, Mr Aamer remains in Guantamo Bay. Can the Minister say whether, in either 2007 or 2009, Mr Aamer’s release depended on any conditions being met? For example, was he cleared to return home to his family in Battersea? We have heard that he may only have been cleared to return to Saudi Arabia. If that is the case, does the Minister share our concern that somebody with indefinite leave to remain in this country, who has a family in the UK, is married to a British citizen, has four children who are British citizens, and has not been convicted of a crime, should be sent to Saudi Arabia, about whose human rights record we have grave concerns, and which he left when he was only 17 years old?
The US authorities may dispute some of the reports emanating from Guantanamo Bay, but it seems beyond doubt that the latest hunger strike, which is seemingly one of the most serious, is a sign of the increasing desperation of detainees and perhaps a fear that the remaining 166, out of the 779 who have been held there over the years, have been completely forgotten. Can the Minister assure us that the Foreign Office remains determined to secure the release of the last remaining British resident and, more generally, to press for the closure of Guantanamo Bay? Does he share our concern, which many Members have expressed in their speeches and interventions today, that its continued existence undermines the USA’s ability to promote human rights around the world and, given that the USA is such a close ally and friend of the UK, risks undermining our credibility on international human rights as well?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) for raising this issue and for her work in supporting Shaker Aamer’s family, which she has done consistently since she was elected. She has done all she can to raise his case, including through conversations with me at the Foreign Office.
I also acknowledge the work of the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), whom parliamentary convention prevents from speaking in the debate. He has been an advocate and a concerned Member of Parliament for other parts of the family. We fully appreciate his presence and the reasons why he cannot speak. I also thank colleagues who have made interventions and speeches during the debate.
I will do my best to deal with as many of the questions that have been raised as possible. I would like to put some remarks on the record first and then to deal with some of the issues that have been raised in questions. I will not be able to deal with all the questions. Some refer to confidential discussions we have with the United States, which we cannot go into. Some deal with intelligence matters, which no Government discuss in public. I do not have the answers to one or two of the questions with me, including some of those asked by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I thought I might deal with her list of questions by writing to her and putting a copy of the letter in the Library so that other Members can see it. However, let me deal as best as I can with some of the issues that have been raised.
For absolute clarity, let me say that the Government’s consistent position is no different from that of our predecessor. It is the long-standing policy of the Government that we should seek the release and return of those UK nationals and former legal residents who have been held at Guantanamo Bay and, in so doing, assist the US Administration in their efforts to close the detention facility. There is no change in Government policy; our policy is to support efforts in the United States to close Guantanamo and to seek the return of UK residents and nationals—that now comes down to Mr Shaker Aamer.
As Members will be aware, Shaker Aamer was part of an exceptional request in 2007 by the then Foreign Secretary for the release and return of all former legal UK residents held in Guantanamo Bay. Securing the release and return of Mr Aamer, the last remaining former British legal resident, remains a high priority for the Government. It remains the Government’s understanding that Mr Aamer has only ever been cleared for transfer, and not release. The US authorities have not charged him with any crime, and nor do they intend to prosecute him. It is the Government’s belief that it is Mr Aamer’s wish to return to the United Kingdom to be reunited with his wife and family. We therefore continue to make it clear to the US that seeing Mr Aamer released and returned to the United Kingdom is a priority for us.
Mr Aamer’s case has been repeatedly raised by the Foreign and Defence Secretaries with their US counterparts. That level of engagement has been undertaken on the understanding that the US Secretaries of Defence and State, in consultation with the director of national intelligence, have the authority to affect Mr Aamer’s release and return. It is the Government’s intention to raise Mr Aamer’s case with new office holders as soon as is practical. In support of that ministerial level engagement, I raised Mr Aamer’s case with Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns just a week ago last Monday, at a face-to-face meeting in Washington. In addition, senior officials continue to discuss Mr Aamer’s case with their US counterparts.
Despite the high level of public and parliamentary interest in Mr Aamer’s case, it remains necessary for the Government to keep the details of diplomatic discussions with the United States Administration confidential. Any breach of their expectation of confidentiality would likely hinder UK efforts to secure Mr Aamer’s release and return. Confidentiality aside, we welcome the continued engagement of Members of the House who share our common vision to see Mr Aamer returned to his family in the United Kingdom. We remain committed to offering assistance to those parliamentarians who wish to raise his case directly with figures in the United States. We also welcome the degree of interest from the public and the signing of the petition, which led directly to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea raising this issue today.
I am sure the Minister is absolutely sincere in what he is trying to do. I appreciate what he says about confidentiality. A lot of constituents regularly raise this matter with me, and they cannot understand why, given the special relationship with the United States, it is not possible to get a more positive response. Is there anything further the Minister can say about the reasons he is being given by US officials?
Let me deal with that when I respond to the remarks and questions from the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on that subject. There is a limited amount I can say, because, ultimately, it is the United States that is holding Mr Aamer, not us. There is only so much we know about the reasons, but I will say a little more about that later.
I reiterate that the Government continue to support President Obama’s commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. We understand the requirement for detainee transfers and releases to satisfy US legislation. Previous legislation passed by the United States Congress—namely, the 2011 National Defence Authorisation Act—all but precluded transfers out of Guantanamo Bay. That legislation was renewed by the US Government for 2012 in largely the same terms, but it allowed for the US Secretary of Defence to exercise a waiver should stringent conditions be met.
Despite our best endeavours, Mr Aamer was not released in 2012. Indeed, no detainees were released from Guantanamo Bay in 2012. The National Defence Authorisation Act was renewed in January 2013. All Guantanamo Bay detainees cleared for transfer or release now require a waiver under the Act before they can be transferred or released from the detention facility, regardless of their destination country. The Government continue to work with US counterparts to consider the implications of the NDAA 2013 for Mr Aamer’s release. Notwithstanding that, any decision regarding Mr Aamer’s release ultimately remains in the hands of the United States Government. I will have a little more to say about that in a moment.
Let me deal briefly with welfare issues and then return to some of the questions colleagues raised in the debate. We continue to take concerns about Mr Aamer’s welfare very seriously. The US Department of Defence has confirmed to us that Mr Aamer is participating in the current hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay. Notwithstanding that, the US authorities have assured us that he is in a stable condition, that he is not in solitary confinement and that he is being offered medical treatment. In addition, the FCO has asked the US Department of Defence substantively to respond to specific allegations that have been made. We have no reason not to believe the welfare assurances we have been given by United States authorities. I should add that the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to Guantanamo detainees.
Has anybody from the Foreign Office actually visited Guantanamo Bay and seen for themselves the condition of Shaker Aamer? If they saw him, there would be independent evidence to say that he was fine and that he was being treated properly, and we would not worry so much. If it is being said he is being treated well, has any effort been made to go to see him? If not, has permission been refused?
The reason is that we cannot offer a non-British national, which is Mr Aamer’s status, consular assistance. Consular access and responsibilities are afforded to states only in respect of their nationals. Our consular policy towards non-British nationals is clear; we cannot help non-nationals, no matter how long they have lived in the UK, and regardless of their connections to the UK. However, although we are not able to visit him in Guantanamo Bay, we routinely inquire about Mr Aamer’s welfare, and we always follow up allegations of poor health, as a matter of priority. We are confident that the assurances that we receive from the US are accurate and credible, and have no reason to believe otherwise.
I appreciate that because Mr Aamer is not a British national he cannot technically or legally speaking be given consular assistance, but bearing in mind the fact that the British Government are making representations on his behalf for him to be released back here it would not be that difficult for someone independently to go and speak to him, and then come back and say, “He’s okay; the suggestion that he is being tortured or treated badly is all wrong.” That would shut people up if they are wrong in saying he has been treated badly. That is all. It is just common sense.
On the point about the ICRC, I suspect that the Minister will not be able to answer now, but will he, having inquired of the ICRC, write to me and other hon. Members to tell us when it last visited and whether there was a chance to meet Mr Aamer and make an assessment? If that was possible, could that be put on the record?
I can certainly do that, and am happy to write to my hon. Friend; but I want to make it clear that we take the allegations extremely seriously. We have asked the US Department of Defence to respond to specific allegations about treatment and we will continue to do so. As I say, we think independent access, through the facilities that are available, is important; but I will happily respond to my hon. Friend in due course.
I take the Minister’s point about the issues to do with mistreatment or otherwise, but does he agree that there is not really a precedent for holding someone, ostensibly as a prisoner of war, for 11 years? The only precedent that I can think of is the gulags after the second world war; that is not something that we would care to accept as a common practice.
Let me now deal with some of the questions that colleagues have raised in the debate, starting with why Mr Aamer is in Guantanamo Bay, which is the central question. I will say what I said before: he is not being held by the United Kingdom, so we do not have a reason why he is detained. In our view the detention is wrong and he should not be there. I make that very clear. The United States must satisfy itself that it has reasons.
It is genuinely very difficult to comment on why the United States might think that Mr Aamer is rightly in Guantanamo Bay. We have to discuss the detail with the US to seek to secure his release. That is sensitive, and we do not discuss intelligence matters. We have always held the view that indefinite detention without review or fair trial is unacceptable. We welcome the President’s continuing commitment to closing the detention facility and to maintaining a lawful, sustainable and principled regime for the handling of detainees there. Beyond our making it clear that we do not consider the detention of Mr Aamer to be right or correct, the United States plainly has a different point of view. The process of our arguing for Mr Aamer’s release is seeking to persuade the US; to a certain extent the parliamentary and public pressure in the United Kingdom adds to that sense of persuasion that the detention is not right or appropriate. That remains the Government’s view.
Will the Minister tell us exactly what the US Secretary for Defence says about why Mr Aamer is in Guantanamo Bay at all? What reason do the US offer for putting someone who was legally resident in this country in prison for so long, with no legal process?
Forgive me; that is one of the questions that I cannot answer in direct terms, because that forms part of the confidential discussions that we need to have with the United States in relation to this matter. A breach of its confidentiality in relation to it would damage the efforts that we are continuing to undertake in relation to Mr Aamer’s release. Although I fully understand the reason for asking the question, and the degree of frustration about my not being able to give a response, those are my reasons for not going into it. Plainly, there is an obvious difference of opinion.
The debate is becoming increasingly Kafkaesque; it is like a nightmare. Can the Minister at least tell us whether he knows why the US will not release Mr Aamer? It is one thing not being able to tell us; but can he tell us whether he knows why? Can he indicate his assessment of what the US tells him?
In all fairness, we are getting into the same sort of area. I do not make light of this. Plainly, I have a supposition about why the United States might want to retain Mr Aamer. It is inconsequential in terms of the United Kingdom’s position on his release from detention, and whether we think the detention is wrong. We do. It is clear we have a difference of opinion with the United States in relation to this; but going into the detail of what we think and what they think is part of the confidential discussion we need to have on his behalf, in order to seek his release. Going into that detail here is not something I can do, understandable though it would be to Parliament, as it is an intelligence matter, which a previous Government would understand well, and would deal with in exactly the same terms.
I understand that the Minister cannot tell us the details of the discussions that have been happening, but when he next has a chance to discuss the matter, can he raise something with the US authorities? Mr Aamer’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, has said that he has access to classified material from MI6, which he cannot share—a bit like the Minister— even with his client. However, he is able to give some information from the documents, and he can say that the British security services are actively misleading their US counterparts to ensure that he is never allowed to return to Britain; and that they have gone round bad-mouthing Mr Aamer and saying things that are simply false. Not only were they part of his abuse, but they falsified evidence against him.
I understand the point fully, and, again, the answer is partly the same that I would have given a moment ago, in terms of allegations made against British security forces and the like. However, I will say two things in response. I can say clearly that we are using, and will continue to use, our best endeavours to secure Shaker Aamer’s release. I am aware of the allegations that have been made, and want to make it clear that all parts of Government are pulling in the same direction, for Mr Shaker Aamer’s release.
Also, as to the Government’s response to allegations of wrongdoing in the past by British security services, and our attempts to open things up and to give compensation where things have been wrong, the Prime Minister has said explicitly that torture and rendition are not part of British security activity, whether or not they have been in the past. We have opened that up and offered compensation where things have been wrong. I think that the hon. Lady will appreciate that it is not in our interest, having gone so far in relation to other cases, to seek to do something contrary now. I give an assurance that all parts of the British Government system are pulling in the same direction, for the return of Mr Shaker Aamer.
I am grateful for that assurance about the activities of all parts of the UK Government. Can the Minister shed any light on the point that we discussed earlier about the reason for the change on the part of the US authorities from apparently clearing Mr Aamer for release, to clearing him only for release to Saudi Arabia?
As far as I am aware—I checked with officials during the debate—our understanding is that he has only ever been cleared for transfer. I am not aware that he has been cleared only for transfer to one place. [Interruption.] He has been cleared for transfer to Saudi Arabia; but it is our understanding that he has always been cleared for transfer to Saudi Arabia. That does not, of course, prevent the United Kingdom from seeking to get him returned to the United Kingdom. We believe Shaker Aamer should be returned here, to his family and everything else. Our understanding is that the United States has not changed its position and that it has always been the case—he is cleared for transfer to Saudi Arabia.
It is bizarre that the very people who could find themselves in the dock as a result of this witness’s evidence are preventing the Minister from telling us why that witness cannot be released. That is extraordinary.
The level of seriousness with which the American Government will treat this matter depends on the level at which it is raised by this Government. I fully accept that Ministers, including the Minister himself, have raised it consistently, but that means that the Prime Minister, at some stage, has to come into play. After this debate, will the Minister communicate to the Prime Minister that the House now feels it is time for him to intervene personally in the matter by using his relationship with Barack Obama?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and, of course, the Prime Minister will be made aware of the substance of this debate and the strength of feeling, which I know he understands. I cannot make a commitment on the Prime Minister’s behalf to raise particular issues, but I make it very clear that I think the debate should be read widely. Besides the United Kingdom, I hope the debate will influence opinion elsewhere. The matter has been raised with the US Secretary of State and Defence Secretary, and the reason for raising it at that level is, of course, that we believe they are the chief interlocutors who have responsibility under the Act and, ultimately, will need to respond to Congress. We will continue to use our best efforts to get the result we are seeking, but I fully take and understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I am quite sure that it will be further considered.
One or two questions have been asked about other issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea asked whether the FCO is considering the new provisions in the NDAA to identify obstacles and opportunities for Shaker Aamer’s release. She asked what progress has been made. The NDAA 2012 allows for the US Defence Secretary to exercise a waiver should stringent conditions be met. We have tried, as I have said, to use our best endeavour to ensure that that happens. We are continuing to work with counterparts to try to understand the implications of the NDAA 2013 for Mr Aamer’s release, but so far that has not been successful. We understand that no detainees were released last year. Ultimately, that remains in their hands, but we are continuing to press.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members asked for details on any guarantees or securities that we could give on our behalf in relation to Shaker Aamer’s return to the United Kingdom and any onward activity. I cannot give an answer to that, because, again, it clearly forms part of the confidential discussions we must have. I have to rely on previous intelligence assurances given to the House about our not being able to comment in detail on that.
This will be a brief intervention. Have the British Government reiterated the UK’s excellent track record on previous returners from Guantanamo? Stating that would seem to me to be entirely legitimate and not within the bounds of confidential intelligence discussions.
I can state that the subsequent activities and conduct of those who have been released from Guantanamo Bay to the United Kingdom and elsewhere is clearly one of the considerations that we would expect the United States Administration to take into account. My hon. Friend’s point is well made.
A question was also asked about the business of this law of war and how long it is likely to last. Again, we have had no indication from the United States about the length of time that that particular provision might cover. It is a matter for them, but, again, we have made it clear, as a number of colleagues have said, that it does not address the fundamental issues of detention without charge or trial that are at the heart and root of the matter.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion raised a number of serious issues in relation to letters from Shaker Aamer to the Foreign Secretary. I do not have those details at the moment, but she has a list of questions, and I will deal with them in the manner I suggested by putting a letter in the Library and writing directly to her.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised issues about the intelligence services, to which I have responded. If not in his terms, I have been able to answer them fully. We take the allegations very seriously. As I have said, the Government’s record of dealing with allegations against the intelligence services in the past has been, I believe, good. Our record of uncovering things that we believe to have been wrong in the past, from Bloody Sunday to Hillsborough, is also good. It is against the Government’s spirit to seek again to be complicit in anything that we believe to be wrong. I hope I have given a clear enough assurance on our views on the detention of Mr Shaker Aamer and our clear determination to have him returned.
The hon. Member for Islington North raised similar issues, and he particularly asked why Mr Aamer was detained. Again, I have given the best answer I can at this stage, but none the less, in relation to whatever reason the United States may have, the United Kingdom will continue to argue that his detention is wrong and that he should be returned.
That is a hypothetical question. As far as I am aware, we do not have anyone detained in the UK who is not going through what we believe to be the appropriate court processes, some of which are very difficult, as we have seen with Mr Abu Qatada. We can be challenged at any time. We do not have any comparable facility. Would we seek to respond? Yes, of course we would. We would respond to legitimate requests from another Government in relation to one of their residents. We would always put our own security first, and we are very clear about that. This is a big political issue in the United States, as we know. This is not just about the President and the Administration; it is about Congress, too.
I will conclude by saying something about that. There is no MP in this room who does not understand or sympathise with the people of the United States and their profound sense of shock after 9/11, in which, of course, a larger number of UK citizens lost their lives than in any other terrorist incident. Certainly, none of us opposes a state’s right to protect itself against terrorism. Parliament debates that regularly and agonises over how to legislate in a complex field to balance security with the very rights and freedoms that are at the heart of what our security is designed to protect. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion mentioned the Justice and Security Bill, which profoundly concerns those dilemmas and difficulties.
Over the years, we have all come to do our best to understand the complex interplay of motives of those who would cause us harm, and we have sought to defuse them with action directed against those actively engaged in planning or carrying out acts of terrorism, while also doing all we can to de-radicalise those who might be influenced by others or turned in the wrong direction by any action of the UK Government, however unfairly judged—if efforts to protect ourselves are deliberately misinterpreted so as to suggest that a section of the community is being targeted by the state in a manner that denies their rights or discriminates against them, for example. Against such a background in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom Government simply believe that the continued detention of Shaker Aamer is wrong without charge or trial, and we will continue to do all in our power to seek to return him to the United Kingdom.
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I secured the debate to highlight the importance of packaging materials in reducing food waste. I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), whom I am pleased to see in her place, introduced the Food Waste Bill last March. She began and has continued a campaign to ensure that food that is safe to use but not saleable by supermarkets and manufacturers is donated to charities. My remarks will consider a slightly different side of the debate on food waste, focusing on how food waste can be reduced, and particularly the role that packaging can play in achieving that objective.
Many of my remarks will be based on the Fresher for Longer campaign, launched a month or two ago by the Packaging Federation, to whose chief executive, Dick Searle, I pay tribute. That body worked in conjunction with the Kent Waste Partnership under its manager, Paul Vanston, and alongside WRAP UK, the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation. The campaign was launched on 5 March to show how packaging not only protects food from damage but can keep it fresher for longer in our homes, meaning that less food is wasted. The campaign has caught the public’s attention. On the day when it was launched, it trended at No. 1 on Twitter, beating the pop star Justin Bieber to top spot.
Why are the campaign and this debate so necessary? One key finding of research for the Love Food Hate Waste campaign was that only 13% of the public realise that packaging can play an important role in protecting food in the home. The campaign attempts to deal with some public perceptions.
To start with the extent of the problem, food waste represents a significant cost to all consumers. Throwing away food not used in time costs £6.7 billion a year, which is £270 a year to the average household or £5 a week, a significant sum at a time when many household budgets are stretched. Many families would rather not bear that burden, which is unnecessary in many cases. I hope to show how packaging can help reduce that cost, but to do so, we must change perceptions.
The Fresher for Longer campaign found that 61% of consumers believe that keeping fruit and vegetables in their original packaging makes them sweat and go off more quickly, when actually the opposite is true. In a 2011 article published in Food Science and Technology, Dr Paul Butler points out that only about 19% of food waste is unavoidable, consisting of things such as meat and fish bones, peelings, eggshells and banana skins, meaning that 81% of food waste is avoidable. Why is that proportion so high? Dr Butler concludes in his article that
“the core problem is that consumers have largely lost touch with food; what it is, where it comes from and how it is produced. They perceive that food is cheap and plentiful and can be wasted without any thought as to the consequences”.
There is concern that the average shopper does not know how to treat different foods. Should bananas be put in the fridge? The answer, of course, is no. Should cucumbers be taken out of polythene wrap? No. What should people do with cheese once they have opened it? They should put it back into a resealable pack. The lack of such knowledge is damaging the environment and, crucially, people’s pockets. The quantity thrown away amounts to 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink every year, which the campaign says is enough to fill Wembley stadium nine times over. Of that amount, 4.4 million tonnes would have been safe to eat. In addition, the food wasted produces 17 million tonnes of CO2, the amount produced by one fifth of all cars in the UK. It is a pretty substantial problem.
One of the most worrying statistics is that many people believe that the disposal of packaging is a problem bigger than or equal to food waste. A quick look at some statistics shows just how wrong that presumption is. The CO2 emissions from food thrown away are 166 million tonnes, while the CO2 emissions from the packaging amount to just 10.8 million tonnes. That is one fifteenth of the amount, a massive difference. The consequences of using packaging are not nearly as dangerous to the environment as those of food waste.
In 2008, the Advisory Committee on Packaging found that, of the total energy used in the food chain, approximately 50% is used in food production, 10% in transport to the shops and retailing, 30% is used by shoppers driving to the shops and storing and cooking food, and just 10% in making the packaging. The case gets stronger. The Love Food Hate Waste campaign points out that the impact on the environment of throwing away an apple is six times greater than that of the pack it comes in; for tomatoes, it is 30 times greater; for lettuce, it is 100 times greater.
As well as making delivery of products effective, packaging can help prolong the life of our foods. Increasingly, food is produced at some distance from where it is consumed, so packaging is critical to ensuring that it survives the journey from production to consumption. Without packaging, fruit and vegetables would not be available out of season, and consumers would have to grow their own food or shop for it daily.
The Advisory Committee on Packaging draws attention to the fact that selling grapes in trays or bags has reduced in-store waste of grapes by 20%. In-store wastage of new potatoes decreased from 3% when sold loose to less than 1% after specially designed bags were introduced. An unwrapped cucumber loses moisture and becomes dull and unsaleable within three days. Just 1.5 grams of wrapping will keep it fresh for 14 days, which shows how much difference the smallest amount of packaging can make.
The Co-operative Group provides retail experience of the benefits of packaging cucumbers. It switched from wrapped to naked—their word, not mine—cucumbers in 2007, but says that
“we have now reintroduced plastic wrapping to cut food waste and ensure cucumbers look fresh. We expect that the move will save 56 tonnes of food waste a year”.
As the hon. Gentleman said, I introduced a Food Waste Bill a year ago, but he is discussing a new dimension of the issue. It is interesting to listen to him. He might be aware that phase 2 of the Courtauld commitment, which set targets for reducing food and packaging waste, is coming to an end. The target has been exceeded, although it was low in the first place. It seems to me from what he is saying that there is an argument for separating the targets for food waste and for packaging waste, and that it would be wrong to try to bundle up the two in one target. Does he agree?
That is a very sensible comment. I will argue later that packaging waste can be treated as a valuable resource. I have great sympathy with the hon. Lady’s remarks.
The environment and the consumer can benefit from packaging; extending the shelf life of our food is a significant way in which to reduce food waste. Using appropriate packaging can help in three ways: first, as I have already mentioned, through the protection of food in transit. The average household in the UK buys more than 4,000 items of food and other products every year; in the country as a whole, 25 million households buy more than 100 billion items, and more than 75% of those purchases are grocery products, mainly food and drink but also household detergents, paper products, cosmetics, etc. To meet that demand, a typical supermarket today carries considerably more than 50,000 product lines, compared with only 2,000 in the 1960s, so a much broader range of products needs to be distributed, often from much further afield. Those products have to survive the journey from farm or factory to the consumer in an undamaged and unspoilt condition; if food arrives damaged, that only serves to increase the amount of food wasted. Primary packaging protects products, while secondary packaging is the cardboard boxes and trays that are used to group the products together during distribution.
A second role of packaging is to prolong life, and the third is to inform consumers about the contents of the pack, which is fundamental to the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. The campaign website has hints and tips about how consumers can store products effectively. It even includes a section offering poems and rhymes as a different technique to remind consumers how to store food; I shall quote one about bread:
“Don’t get in a spin
it really is no teaser
clip half your bag in a bread bin
and the other half in the freezer.”
That is a good way to get a message across: bread can be preserved by putting half the loaf in the freezer, so that it can be used later.
In response to such ideas and demands, the packaging industry has produced a number of new types of pack. One way in which it has dealt with bread is through smaller packs; fridge packs allow baked beans to last longer once they are opened; and a great deal of packaging is now subdivided, sometimes almost into individual portions, so that the consumer can use some now and some later, which is common for salads and sliced meats. The packaging industry has made significant strides in reducing food waste. It has further innovated by introducing items such as zip locks on cheese packs or breathable fruit and vegetable bags.
The Fresher for Longer campaign, on its website, points out eight ways in which packaging can assist in reducing the amount of food that is thrown away. Some simple ones include: carrots, peppers and apples being best kept in the bag in which they were originally supplied, because such packaging is specifically designed to keep the product fresher for longer; resealable packs for cheese to prevent it drying out; and, during the production process, the air inside salad containers often being modified to enable the salad to remain fresher for longer in fridges by slowing down decomposition, giving customers a longer time in which to eat it.
Consumers can be informed not only through websites but through the packaging itself, which can play a vital role in advising and informing them how to handle their food. The nature of packaging enables producers to communicate with consumers. Some of the ways in which innovative food producers are taking advantage of that facility of packaging include: removing “display until” dates, so that the “best before” and, most importantly, “use by” dates are easier to see; giving flexibility for some products to be used after the date, for example, hard cheeses having a “best before” date rather than a “use by” date; highlighting on the front of the pack where to store food to keep it at its best, as many are doing, with most food packs having detailed storage advice; and moving away from guidance that tells consumers to “freeze on day of purchase” to “freeze before the use by date”, so that if food is purchased, kept in the fridge and not eaten, it can be frozen before the date in order to be used later. All such initiatives help reduce food waste and show that the food production and packaging industries are being proactive.
The packaging industry has also subscribed to the process of packaging optimisation, to make certain that less material is used in packaging. There have been substantial reductions in the amount of material used, for example in the production of a coke can or cardboard box. Packaging, therefore, has significantly less impact on the environment than many would have us believe. At the end of its life, packaging makes up less than 20% of household waste, amounting to less than 3% of materials going to landfill.
I hope that through today’s debate I have been able to provide an additional perspective to that of the hon. Member for Bristol East on the campaign to reduce food waste. I hope that I have been able to show how packaging is a vital component of, and not a hindrance to, the campaign, and how it provides valuable economic, social and environmental assistance to our society. I look forward to Minister’s response.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing it and on his continued work to inform policy makers and the House of important issues to do with food and packaging. He rightly emphasised the importance of the subject, not only from an environmental perspective but in terms of household expenditure. Household bills are squeezed at the moment, and we have the opportunity through a variety of different agencies to inform people better about where their food comes from and how to use it most economically; if we get things right, there could be many wins and virtuous circles. Retailers clearly have a major role to play; they have the relationship with the consumer that is best suited to informing people. Everyone, however, has a role, and I shall come on to talk about the Fresher for Longer campaign and how to continue the work achieved thus far.
The Government identified food waste as a priority stream for action in their waste review. Although UK annual household food waste has decreased since 2006 by 13%, which is more than 1.1 million tonnes, UK households still waste a total of £12 billion in food per year, which is about £50 a month for the average family; £6.7 billion of that total is due to food “not used in time”, which we think of as wasted by not being eaten when it could have been. The rest of that total is food waste that we think of as unavoidable, such as bones, teabags, banana skins and so forth, as described by my hon. Friend; there will always be some of that to be disposed of, and we should not try to escape the fact.
We all know that we ought to be wasting much less food, that food wasted means fewer pounds in our pocket, that the energy and water used to produce the food has been wasted, and that the transportation and packaging costs have been wasted. Not only that, but what happens to wasted food can have significant financial and environmental costs. Most people want to do something on a personal level about the situation and we are taking steps to help them to do so. The Government, by funding WRAP, is working with consumers to help them to save money and to reduce household food waste. Its Love Food Hate Waste campaign, which has been referred to, offers information and ideas on reducing food waste.
Consumers have benefited from innovations that we have encouraged the industry to make, such as resealable salad bags, as described by my hon. Friend, resealable baked bean jars, leftovers recipe ideas or smaller-sized loaves of bread to suit a smaller household. We clarified date labelling guidance in 2011 to make labels clearer so that people are more confident about what they mean and how long food is safe to eat. My hon. Friend made the very good point that we have been needlessly throwing away enormous amounts of food when it is perfectly safe to eat it. Retailers are doing good work with clearer advice about how to store food and consistent labelling. I welcome that and want to see more of it.
We are working with manufacturers and retailers to reduce food and packaging waste through the Courtauld commitment. In response to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the second phase of that commitment came to an end in December, as she knows. We are working with WRAP and its signatories to develop a third phase of the agreement which we hope to launch in the near future. WRAP has worked closely with the Courtauld commitment 2, and with the UK and devolved Governments to develop initial targets for the Courtauld commitment 3. The targets are still under consideration and will be announced when the commitment is launched. The grocery sector has made significant progress under the first two stages of Courtauld to reduce food packaging and supply chain waste in the UK. The third-phase targets will build on those achievements.
I thank the Minister for his response to my question. In the second phase the target was 5% and the industry managed to achieve 8.8%, which is better than the target, but is low compared with other countries. Norway has a target of 25% and the Dutch have a target of 20%. I urge him to try to set a more ambitious target in his discussion on the third phase.
The hon. Lady’s comment is justified. It is absolutely right that the House holds the Government and all those involved to account and make the target achievable but ambitious.
As with the Courtauld commitment, we are well on the way to reaching and exceeding targets on household food waste, but we are not leaving it there. I am pleased that the grocery sector has been as keen as we are to keep working in this area, and it makes sense for it to do so. We are working with the other UK Administrations—it is important that we do not operate in a Whitehall bubble—who are key to achieving our UK aims.
Last year, we launched a new voluntary agreement with the hospitality and food service sector to reduce food and packaging waste. That is the first of its kind in that sector. A huge amount of food and packaging is involved in the sector, and we have more than 141 signatories to that agreement, so that sector will be doing its bit.
I turn to the important points raised by my hon. Friend on the Fresher for Longer campaign which Love Food Hate Waste launched early this year. Like him, I applaud Dick Searle, the Kent Waste Partnership, WRAP and many other partners for their work. I am delighted that we trended more than Justin Bieber, but I suspect that that was short-lived and we must make sure we do better in the long run.
The Fresher for Longer campaign was developed by WRAP, as was the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, and funded by the Government in partnership with representatives from the food and packaging industries and local government. Packaging is often seen as the problem, but the campaign shows the important part that packaging can play in helping to reduce food waste and save consumers money. Throwing away food that is not used in time is costing the average household £50 a month. Only 13% of consumers realise that packaging can play an important role in protecting food in our homes. That is the reverse of the statistic that my hon. Friend rightly raised. We must do an enormous amount to ensure that we are improving on that.
As consumers, we can all pay attention to the storage information on food packaging, which will help us to store food at home so that it keeps fresher for longer. Keeping most fruit in the fridge in its packaging can keep it fresher for a week or more, but around 60% of us take fruit out of the packaging, and more than 70% of us do not store it in the fridge. Reclosing packs of cheese and sliced meats helps to stop them drying out in the fridge, but 13% of us apparently store such food unwrapped in the fridge, and there may be some changes in the Benyon household. If bread is stored in a fridge, it will go stale six times quicker than if it is properly stored elsewhere. As my hon. Friend rightly said, 81% of food waste is avoidable.
Retailers and food manufacturers can continue to improve their packaging and do more to tell consumers about the innovations they are already making on food labelling and packaging. That will raise awareness of the benefits and encourage consumers to make use of them. I will give an example. Marks & Spencer has reduced packaging by 25% over the last five years, but we must be mindful of continuing to protect the product to avoid it being unnecessarily wasted. I have an image of naked cucumbers in my head, and my hon. Friend made a good point about them. Marks & Spencer has introduced individually packaged meat and fish fillets within a larger bag to enable customers to use only the portions they need and to freeze the rest without exposing it to the atmosphere.
The Fresher for Longer campaign’s materials can be used by all retailers, brands and councils. That should stimulate further reductions in food waste and help consumers to make the most of the food they buy. The aim with packaging should always be to use the minimum level to protect the product from damage and to ensure that it maintains its quality during its shelf life. If a product is wasted due to not enough packaging, its disposal often has a greater environmental impact than the packaging itself, as my hon. Friend said.
Some great examples of innovative food packaging have led to a reduction in packaging material and its environmental impact, and increased the product’s shelf-life. I have given the example from Marks & Spencer, and other examples include vacuum-packed fresh meat and fish from Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and the Co-op where packaging has been reduced by up to 75% but produces an extra five days of life. It is also important to continue efforts to reduce the environmental impact of any new packaging by, for example, making it easier to recycle it and increasing recycling rates.
The message is that we need the right sort of packaging. The public perception, often among people who could most benefit, is sometimes that we need smarter packaging and easier-to-understand labelling but, as my hon. Friend said, it is most important that people understand where food comes from and how to use it most effectively. That will not only benefit the environment, but reduce household expenditure.
I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work closely with informed people such as him, the packaging industries, retailers and others to ensure that across the whole spectrum of food production, processing and retailing we get the problems as right as we can. It is not a job for Government alone, and cannot be driven from a Minister’s desk in Whitehall. There must be solid partnership working throughout the United Kingdom, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss it today, but it is very much work in progress.
Childhood Obesity and Diabetes
[Mr Philip Davies in the Chair]
Before I call Mr Keith Vaz, Members should be aware that although things are quiet at the moment, we have been advised that there is a possibility of lots of noise outside, due to the work being carried out to try and get the visitors’ entrance up and running. If the noise reaches an unacceptable level and people are struggling to hear, we can ask them to stop. Things are all quiet at the moment, but if that happens, please let me know and we can do something about it.
It is a huge pleasure for me both to serve under your chairmanship during this important debate, Mr Davies, and to raise the issue of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. In 2007, after a chance testing by my local GP, Professor Azhar Farooqi, who is now the clinical commissioning group lead in Leicester, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Before I discovered that I had diabetes, it was not really a subject that I was aware of. Since then, it has become my passion inside and outside Parliament.
I begin by paying tribute to the Minister, who has truly revitalised the debate on obesity and diabetes since becoming a Minister. I agree with what she said, in her interview with Total Politics this week, about the public health Minister’s job. I have deleted one or two words, but she said that
“this is not a soft…girly option, it is a…serious job”,
and she is absolutely right. That is why I am delighted to see, on the Opposition Front Bench, the shadow Minister for public health, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who entered the House with me in 1987.
I am also delighted to see so many other Members of Parliament who have either raised the issue of diabetes or have been involved in campaigns. There is the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who, like me, is a type 2 diabetes sufferer; the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), who has raised the matter many times in the House; and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), who was in the Chamber, but has popped out. There is also the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who is my next-door neighbour in Norman Shaw North, and last but not least, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), who is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on diabetes and who, for many years, has raised the issue with such passion.
Childhood obesity has become an important political issue. The NHS report, “Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet”, of February 2012, stated that in 2010, about 30% of boys and girls were classified as either overweight or obese. The study found that 17% of boys and 15% of girls were obese, which is an increase from 11% and 12% respectively in only 15 years. The factors that cause childhood obesity are a major part of the debate. A recent study by University college London found that 30% of the difference between the bodyweight of one child and another can be explained by their genes. However, genes alone cannot explain the rapidly increasing incidence of childhood obesity.
The ever-increasing numbers of overweight children must be addressed, or we will have a generation of obese children growing into obese adults. It will be a generation at risk from the associated dangers of being overweight, including having type 2 diabetes. Unless we do something about that trend now, the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes will overwhelm the NHS.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that whereas a generation ago, if a child was overweight, adults used to say, “They will grow out of it”, we cannot afford that type of complacency now?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I hope that by securing the debate and by hearing the contributions of hon. Members, we can get a pathway to try and show that complacency will actually help people to get diabetes. That is why I hope that hon. Members will join me today in a war on sugar, a fight against fat, and a battle against the bulge.
We must address three key areas. The first is the role of Government in facing the obesity epidemic head on. That is closely linked to the second key area, which is the role of food and drink manufacturers. The responsibility deal was a flagship of the previous Secretary of State for Health, who is currently Leader of the House. It was launched in March 2011, but I am sorry to say, it appears to have failed. Voluntary agreements with industry have made little impact. The headline pledge to cut 5 billion calories a day is simply incalculable, arbitrary and misleading.
The Department of Health, in response to a parliamentary question of mine, said:
“It is not possible to measure the exact contribution of business’ actions to changes in consumers’ calorie consumption.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 339W.]
By February 2013, 122 companies had signed up to one or more of the responsibility deal’s six pledges, but it is what happens afterwards that really matters. Those pledges, sadly, in my view—I am ready to be convinced otherwise when the Minister replies—have, at best, paid lip service to the Government’s aim of getting the nation to eat more healthily, drink less, be more active, and have healthier working lifestyles.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree not only that parents have a huge responsibility to feed their children appropriately and ensure that they get adequate exercise, but that schools have a huge responsibility to give children nutritious, non-fattening and not sweet foods—healthy foods—and through sports, encourage them to take the exercise that will make them healthy and set in train for their whole lives the habits of exercising and eating healthily? It is not only about parents, because schools should help too, as well as the industry that he is talking about.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I fear that she may have seen a copy of my speech, because she has mentioned the very issues that I intend to raise. All three areas are extremely important. It is not one area alone that can deal with the issue; it is a combination of all three factors.
The first factor is the manufacturers. Coca-Cola pledged to reformulate its best-selling drinks to reduce calorie content by at least 30%, but it has chosen not to reformulate its classic, full-fat Coca-Cola, the world’s most popular drink. A can of full-fat Coca-Cola has eight teaspoons of sugar. If the responsibility deal is to be truly believed, it has to be more robust. The pace of change among food and drink companies must be dramatically increased. The only alternative to the responsibility deal, in my view, is legislation.
Last year, I introduced a private Member’s Bill, the Diabetes Prevention (Soft Drinks) Bill, to reduce sugar content in soft drinks by 4% and to establish a programme of research by requiring manufacturers of soft drinks to reinvest part of their profits in diabetes research. In 2010, 14.5 billion litres of soft drinks were consumed in the United Kingdom. According to research by Professor Naveed Sattar of the university of Glasgow, the average person in the UK consumes between a fifth and a quarter of their daily calorie allowance through non-alcoholic drinks. Those are somewhat hidden calories. Professor Sattar said:
“This analysis confirms that many people are perhaps not aware of the high calorie levels in many commonly consumed drinks.”
The consumption of sweetened soft drinks clearly has a part to play in the increasing waistline of the nation.
Attempts to legislate on the issue have been rather unsuccessful. In September 2012, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, introduced a ban on super-size fizzy drinks to tackle the city’s obesity problem. The ban was overturned in the New York supreme court by a coalition of drinks companies and industry groups.
Legislation has not been limited to sugary drinks. In October 2011, the Danish Parliament passed a so-called fat tax on foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat. The tax was scrapped after concerns were raised about its adverse effect on the economy as increasing numbers of Danes crossed the border to purchase food in Germany. Clearly, that would be less easy if we did such a thing in England, because of the ability to go to Scotland and Wales.
The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire mentioned schools. She is absolutely right. The third key area is the role of schools in childhood obesity. Healthy eating in schools has been given a real boost by initiatives such as Jamie Oliver’s “Feed Me Better” campaign, which successfully attempted to transform lunch-time menus. However, many schools still have vending machines offering fizzy drinks and sugary snacks. We should issue an ultimatum: schools should remove all vending machines by 31 December this year. That would go some way towards addressing the problem of bad nutrition in schools.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I did not know that that was the case, but if it is, it should be put right. All teaching establishments should be treated on the same basis and should all get the same message from Government.
Let us consider the issue of where schools are situated and the ability of fast-food chains to mushroom around schools. Many children purchase fast food on their way home from school. For many, fast food is readily available. For example, in my constituency, there are 61 fast-food outlets within a 1-mile radius of Rushey Mead primary school. Positive action has been taken by some local authorities. Waltham Forest council, for example, banned fast-food outlets near schools in 2008. However, more must be done to address the issue. Since 1 April 2013 and the creation of health and wellbeing boards, the onus has surely been on local councils to consider sensible planning restrictions to tackle childhood obesity.
Schools need to do more to educate pupils about the benefits of eating a healthy diet. I commend the excellent report by Ella’s Kitchen, “Averting A Recipe For Disaster”, which urges the Department for Education to address poor nutrition for children by making cooking in schools compulsory and by giving free breakfasts to every child. We currently have an epidemic of childhood obesity, which in 20 years’ time will turn into an epidemic of type 2 diabetes.
The incidence of diabetes is truly alarming. Sometimes we repeat these statistics so often that they lose their impact, but I have to repeat them again today. There are an estimated 3 million people in the UK with the condition, and a further 850,000 are thought to have the condition but are not aware of it. The complications from poorly managed and poorly treated diabetes are shocking. It is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and lower-limb amputations. Each week, there are 100 diabetes-related amputations; and each year, 24,000 people die earlier than expected due to complications from the condition. Not only are the health risks extreme, but the cost to the NHS is enormous. It is astonishing. The NHS spends roughly £9.8 billion a year and 10% of its budget treating the condition and its associated complications.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about amputations. My father had his leg amputated because of diabetic complications, but his problem was that he never stuck to his diet. People must be given more help to understand the complications that they can and probably will incur if they do not take the prognosis seriously and control their diet, because if they do not do so, they will have those long-term problems.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I do not want to steal lines from the Minister’s speech, but when she recently addressed a forum on diabetes, that was exactly what she said: diet is extremely important. We are all busy people and when we walk into the Tea Room for our cup of tea, we are faced with Club biscuits, Jaffa Cakes, Victoria sponges—plural—and all kinds of other things that entice us, so even if I go in saying that I must have a banana or an apple, I end up, as the hon. Member for Strangford has seen, picking up a Club biscuit. The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire is absolutely right: diet is crucial. That is why I wish the newly appointed diabetes tsar, Dr Jonathan Valabhji, the best of luck in dealing with those figures.
How do we cope with this situation? There are practical steps that health care providers, local authorities and the general public can take, but the key is prevention. The new NHS health checks will offer those aged between 40 and 74 a check to assess their risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and diabetes. If only I had had that check when I was 40, I would have discovered six years earlier that I had diabetes. However, new research revealed by the university of Leicester on Friday suggests that the checks could detect at least 158,000 new cases of diabetes or kidney disease, but they are not being taken up. I pay tribute to the work of Professor Kamlesh Khunti of Leicester university, who was behind the research that revealed the number of cases that could be discovered. The health check has enormous potential to find those in the early stages of diabetes or even with symptoms of pre-diabetes.
I apologise, Mr Davies, for what may become something of a love-in. I will probably pinch some of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I pay tribute to the great work that he has done. Does he agree that great work has been done in Leicester with the health checks that are being rolled out there? The approach is forward-thinking. Anyone who registers with a doctor and is in the right age group automatically gets a health check. The work is also being driven by the excellent charity with which the right hon. Gentleman is associated. Does he agree that real, positive work is being done in Leicester from which the rest of the country can learn?
Absolutely. I thank the Minister for her kind words. I know that she has to pass Leicester in order to get to London and I know that she has made a number of visits to the city; she was there recently. I thank her for the compliment that she has paid to Leicester and to Silver Star. The Government must not miss this opportunity to set targets for GPs, because it is only through setting targets that we can secure real change.
Another avenue that could be explored is the role of pharmacies in testing for diabetes. According to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, there are more than 10,000 community pharmacies in the UK. I believe that those pharmacies are under-utilised. My mother, before she died, had absolute faith in her local pharmacist. Of course she listened to her doctor and she got her prescription. On occasion, she would listen to her son and her daughters. However, the person she really respected was the pharmacist, and because pharmacies are on the high street, they are available to local people, so they can get their tests. The benefits of testing for diabetes in pharmacies are twofold. Bringing testing into the community because the pharmacies are there means that hundreds of thousands of people who have not been diagnosed with the condition can discover whether or not they have it and, more importantly, it would reduce the pressure on already over-burdened GPs.
Finally, I want to talk about the new landscape of health care and its role in tackling diabetes. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 offers an unparalleled opportunity to revolutionise diabetes care and prevention. I warmly welcome the introduction of health and wellbeing boards, which will put local councils firmly in the driving seat to address public health. I have always believed that local authorities have a role in providing those services. Importantly, the boards will be able to work with charities, such as Diabetes UK, which have done outstanding work over many years and provided so much help to so many people. The first thing I did when I discovered I had diabetes was become a member of Diabetes UK. I receive constant updates about what I should do and a little loyalty card, which I have not used yet, but it has the telephone number.
It would be remiss of me not to bring up Silver Star, which the Minister mentioned and with which I am privileged to be associated. It targets at-risk communities. Indeed, having been established in Leicester, sent buses to Mumbai and Goa, and supported charitable work in Yemen, the charity opened its first London diabetes centre in Edgware only two weeks ago with the help of Mr Speaker, in the place he was born—not quite the hospital, because Edgware general is down the road. He was born in Edgware however, and it was great to have him back to open the new unit.
The charity has sought—this takes us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire—to deal with issues relating to children and sport; the importance of diet; and the role of parents and professionals. On Friday, the charity and I will unveil the winners of a painting competition held by Silver Star in association with Leicester City football club. All the school children of Leicester were asked to paint a picture showing the importance of a healthy lifestyle. I thank the football club’s chairman, Mr Raksriaksorn, and his son Top for naming the charity as one of their charities of the year and for working with it to ensure that children realise the importance of sport. I hope that on Friday not only will the winner of the competition be announced, but Leicester City football club will at last get into the play-offs where we belong, as it is one of the last games of the season.
The health clock on diabetes has reached 11.59 pm. We need either to toughen the responsibility deal or to pass legislation. Schools need to take immediate action to remove vending machines that sell sugary drinks. We need local councils to give fewer planning permissions for fast-food outlets near schools, or, better still, no planning permissions. We need a radically different approach to ensure that everyone at risk is tested for diabetes. If we do not do so, the NHS will be overwhelmed and it will not only affect our generation, but our children’s generation. That is why we must act now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, for the first time. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this important debate.
I would like to highlight the clear distinction between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The vast majority of children with diabetes have type 1, which is not preventable and needs daily treatment with insulin. That is not to say that diet is not important; some believe that one can put off presenting with type 1 by adopting a very sensible diet and exercise regime, but that is not proven. The fact is that there is not a lot that most people can do to stop it happening, myself—a type 1 diabetic—included. It is going to happen; it is a question of when.
The vast majority of people with diabetes have type 2, which is explicitly linked to lifestyle. Other risk factors include ethnicity and family history. Type 2 usually manifests later in life, but lifestyle in a person’s early years has a considerable bearing on later risk. Just to confuse the situation, rather worryingly, we now see cases of children developing type 2 diabetes, with about 500 cases diagnosed in the UK to date. It is therefore extremely worrying to hear that a quarter of children entering reception classes are overweight or obese—the proportion rising to one third at age 11.
How significant a public health disaster obesity is likely to become cannot be overstated. On current trends, it is estimated that direct costs to the NHS will be £10 billion a year by 2050 and the wider social costs will be many times that once issues such as early incapacity, lack of productivity and so on are factored in. An obese man is five times more likely to develop diabetes than a healthy man. Obese women are 13 times more likely to develop it than their healthy counterparts. Diabetes is one of the more costly long-term conditions for the NHS to deal with, so higher levels of obesity will clearly lead to greater problems for the NHS, and I am not sure anyone has yet figured out how to address the human and financial costs.
I am happy to welcome the work that the Government have undertaken so far on diabetes and wider public health issues. We have made significant progress in identifying where the problems are and what is causing them, and the national diabetes audits have been a great help in that regard. For all its controversies, the Health and Social Care Act 2012 should allow health care professionals to integrate what they do with local authorities, public health services, schools and so on—whether it happens in practice has yet to be seen.
The overarching problems are clear: a more sedentary lifestyle, and, in childhood, the attraction of TV and video games; the lack of structured sport and exercise—especially in schools—and an increased perception among parents of the heightened dangers of playing outside. Coupled with those is an increasingly unhealthy diet, exacerbated by excessively sugary, salty and fatty foods. A difficulty arises when we consider how to tackle what is at root a cultural problem. France, for example, experiences the same commercial challenges, with the availability of unhealthy food and the growth of electronic entertainment, but has only half the UK’s rate of childhood obesity. A lot of voices call for quick, and sometimes superficial, Government interventions, such as banning or regulating sugary cereals, a tax on particularly unhealthy products and so on. Such policies might have some value as part of a wider strategy, but on their own they will not effect the cultural shift we need.
We need to improve the ability of consumers, especially parents, to make informed decisions about what food to buy and prepare. To me, that implies a two-pronged approach, with better food labelling at the point of sale—whether at a supermarket, restaurant or even fast-food outlet—and better education, particularly in schools, both playing a role. We need to look at promoting alternatives to sugar, especially in soft drinks, which contribute a great deal to childhood obesity.
I spoke at a diabetes conference yesterday. A concern that came up, which has been coming up for years, is that previous strategies to improve outcomes have often failed due to silo working or a lack of integration between services. In Torbay at least, the health care system has recognised the serious problems that causes and has integrated primary and social care services, which gives it a head start when tackling public health issues. We now need that principle extended to the policies and services that impact on child health, specifically obesity. In Whitehall, there has always been a chasm between the Department of Health and the Department for Education, and it needs bridging at national and local levels. We would do well to recognise that prevention works best the earlier it starts.
Statistics show that children are already in trouble before they get to school, so there is a role for early- years services as well. Whether we like it or not, public services are driven by financial imperatives and we will need to address the problems at the funding level, by giving schools, GPs and all the other interested parties a shared duty to tackle public health issues and rewarding those that show innovation in their curriculums. Change4Life is a good start. It rightly highlights that strategies and solutions are best designed and delivered at a local level.
I conclude by praising the right hon. Member for Leicester East for securing the debate and for the work he does. I also thank the other hon. Members here today who are tireless campaigners in the field, and the Minister for her fresh approach to the subject. Any strategy we use must bring local stakeholders together. Whatever we do, it needs to be more ambitious than what we are doing.
It is a pleasure, Mr Davies, to serve under your chairmanship. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing this important and timely debate. Across the UK, childhood obesity is soaring and, with it, diabetes. We need to deal with childhood obesity sensitively and robustly, and we must not make the mistake of thinking that one solution will fit all children. Obesity in childhood is a complicated condition and can have many different causes. Childhood obesity often persists into adult life, and adults who are obese as children have a higher risk of diseases associated with obesity, particularly type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and, yes, even cancer.
The UK has one of the highest levels of childhood obesity among developed countries. I will take a moment to discuss what has been happening in Scotland, because we share that problem. In fact, it is probably multiplied. In common with most of the developed world, Scotland is experiencing an obesity epidemic, and the west of Scotland heads up all the wrong health leagues in Europe. Scotland has one of the highest levels of obesity among OECD countries. Only the USA and Mexico have higher levels. Recent figures show that 26% of adults in Scotland are obese and 65% are overweight. For children, the corresponding rates are 15% and 31%.
Worryingly, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes is increasing rapidly in Scotland, as well as across the UK, with the largest part of the increase likely to be due to poor diet and low levels of physical activity, resulting in increased levels of obesity. Our diet in Scotland was a response to a life spent in the heavy industries, but it is totally unsuitable for a career spent in front of a computer screen. Activity levels are far too low to burn off our daily calorie intake. To give children the best start in life, early-life interventions need to begin before and during pregnancy, continue through infancy into early years settings, such as nurseries and childminders, and carry on into primary school.
In my constituency of Inverclyde, we have had to take steps to address the growing problem. Many years ago, we started to educate children and parents about healthy eating. In primary schools, our classes are in competition to see who the healthiest eaters are and which are the most active classes in their school. Our schools have sports co-ordinators, who introduce and encourage kids to participate in a wide variety of sports. It is not only that—our schools link up with local sports clubs to encourage kids to continue to be active after school and at weekends.
As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East, we continue to have vending machines in our schools, but in Inverclyde we have put healthy foods in them. Fizzy drinks are no longer available in our schools; the only thing that can be bought from vending machines is water. Granted, it is difficult to get companies to participate in that, but our schools have been encouraged to do it off their own bat, if need be. Fast food and mobile vans have been banned from within a one-mile radius of our schools, so that if a child—especially those in secondary schools—wishes to partake in fast food outlets, at least they have to walk a distance to get there and back.
The early years offer the best opportunity to put in place healthy behaviours around food and physical activity, which will hopefully be sustained into adulthood. Central to that is the involvement of families. Encouragement must start within families to adopt a healthy lifestyle and eat healthier foods. Today, 15 out of every 100 primary school children in Scotland aged between four and a half and five and a half are dangerously overweight. Diabetes is a serious condition that causes heart disease, stroke, amputations, kidney failure and blindness, and more deaths than breast and prostate cancer combined.
Almost a quarter of a million people in Scotland have diabetes. New statistics in the annual Scottish diabetes survey show that the number of people with the condition has continued to increase alarmingly by about 10,000 a year. The majority of those people will have type 2 diabetes, a form of the disease that can be caused by an unhealthy lifestyle and can be so easily prevented. Across all four nations in the UK, we have seen a huge rise in childhood obesity.
We know that losing weight is about more than just altering your diet, but people are different. There are burners and storers. Storers find it difficult to lose weight, but love food—and love the wrong food—and do not take to exercise too keenly. Those additional factors lead to their heading in the wrong direction with their weight, and that can subsequently lead to diabetes. Let us not assume, however, that all is well with the thin people whom we meet, because poor diet can cause problems. We clearly need an approach that combines diet, exercise, the education of children—and, crucially, the education of parents—and psychological support. We need to increase physical activity at primary school and carry that on into secondary school. We need to encourage leisure activities for children to get them involved in sports and away from their computers and TV screens.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, while all the things he said are important, it is also important that children take an intelligent interest in what they are eating? In that respect, Martha, the young woman in Scotland who photographed and blogged about her school lunch, is an example of a young person who is engaged in food quality.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I will give her an example. During my time in local government, I took the opportunity of taking a few school meals with the kids. Was the message getting across? Yes, because they told the teacher that I had only two pieces of fruit and had not taken my five pieces of fruit. The message gets across if it is emphasised time and again.
As I said, we need to increase physical activity at primary school and carry that on into secondary school. The competition for young people’s leisure time has never been greater. Many prefer to play a sport on the Wii than try it for real. The issue is not only with the young, but with the elderly. A unique group called the Globetrotters has recently been set up in my area. It encourages the elderly to be more active and its members have, in their actions—their steps are counted and their trips are mapped out— walked to the moon and are on their way back. “Walking to the moon and back” is the group’s most ambitious trip to date. The Globetrotters is a fantastic example of what can be done from a perspective of physical exercise not needing to be that challenging.
The food industry, as we have heard, needs to take responsibility for the fizzy drinks and sweet foods targeted at children. Healthy eating patterns, as we know, are formed in childhood and taken into adulthood, and new research has warned that suffering obesity as a child may take a bigger toll on health in adulthood than was previously thought. If we do not put in place a varied approach to tackling obesity, a major and irreversible time bomb will be ticking away at our children’s and our nation’s health. Obesity will cost the NHS billions. Obesity-related illnesses already cost the NHS an estimated £5.1 billion a year. If we are to get to grips with it, we need to do a lot more together, starting right now, before the problem becomes worse and the NHS can no longer cope.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who introduced the debate, for his characteristic generosity in congratulating all the other Members present; that is very much a feature of his style.
Let me start with the assumption that an obese child is an abnormality in some sense or other. It is not normal in nature for children to be obese; what is rather more normal is for people, as they get older, to find it difficult to stop being obese. If we think of portraits of obesity in literature, we think of Billy Bunter in the ’40s. Then, obesity was seen, in a very naive way, as a consequence of childhood greed, because it was a rare and not well-understood phenomenon. An earlier example is the plump lad in Dickens—I think he was called the fat boy—who was actually a thyroid victim. However, such children were unusual enough in those days to be pointed out; they were not at all a standard thing. Now, as all of us have recorded, the phenomenon of obese children is no longer a rarity in an advanced society.
Last week, the Minister and I attended an event organised by the all-party group on obesity, although I do not think she was aware I was there. A very earnest man told us we need to be careful about every extra Mars bar we eat every day; otherwise, we would increase our weight exponentially and eventually end up with serious problems. He was particularly horrid about egg custards and the like. Although what he said was probably broadly correct, I could not help thinking that it was not really sensible for any of us constantly to calculate exactly how much we had eaten, whether we had eaten too much or too little and by how much. I was slightly reassured by some research that came out after that event, which said, as the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) has just done, that there is more to this issue than meets the eye. If people become plump, it is not just a question of over-supply; it is sometimes to do with their glands and their endocrinology—whether they are burners or storers.
I recognise that this is a complex problem, but the fact of the matter is that the nations that have an obesity problem, as many advanced nations do, always have three principal characteristics: a relatively unlimited supply of food, easy access to that food—in other words, it does not have to be cooked or prepared in a long, elaborate way and can simply be grabbed—and a sedentary lifestyle. I do not see any of those changing any time soon. All three are probably necessary before nations have an obesity problem, and all three are, in many respects, here to stay.
I am therefore a little sceptical about claims that there is an easy solution to this problem. While other Members were speaking, I wrote down some of the solutions that were advocated, and every one can be faulted in some way. School dinners were mentioned. I used to be a teacher, and I used to see children walk past pictures of big, rosy apples, lettuces and things like that, before going straight for the pizza and chips. I was sometimes aware of how futile and ineffectual healthy eating programmes can be. The reality is that school dinners—many of us have experienced them—have never been notably healthy or low in calories, because it is assumed that children need lots of energy to get through the day. Working hard on school dinners and children’s choices is not, therefore, necessarily an easy solution.
A tax on fattening food was mentioned, and I am sure you would not warm to one at all, Mr Davies. The reality is that most food, if we eat enough of it, is fattening, with the possible exception of lettuce and something else, which requires more calories to eat it than we get from it—[Hon. Members: “Celery.”]
On education, the British public are not particularly lacking in knowledge about the things that make them fat and the things that are likely to have a less adverse effect. They are probably not quite as acutely aware as they should be about the calories in individual things. One of the easier ways of addressing some of the problems we have with alcohol is reminding people what the calorie intake from a glass of wine or a pint of beer actually is. However, that is not an automatic or a simple solution either.
Changes in family lifestyle were mentioned. Parental responsibility is important, but, at the same time, people’s lifestyles will be under increasing pressure in many ways—there is no evidence they will be under less pressure.
I am listening with interest to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I will respond to some of it in my remarks. He does not think the general public are ignorant of what food contains or the calorific value of food. However, people are often shocked to find that there is sugar in things such as baked beans and tomato ketchup; they often do not know how much sugar and fat there is in processed food. People who want to do right by their child will feed them these so-called breakfast cereal bars, but they do not understand how much sugar and fat there is in them.
There are benefits to the approach I outlined, although the people who are most acutely aware of the calorific content and the quality of their food are those who are already halfway to solving the problem. However, many people do not get even to that first base, and that is where public health messages have an impact.
Does my hon. Friend not think there would be an enormous benefit in having a simple traffic-light system so that parents buying children food understand that red means danger? Similarly, people queuing up at a fast-food restaurant will know which items on the menu contain the most sugar.
I hope hon. Members do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that the bits of the jigsaw cannot be put together and cannot ultimately constitute a perfectly satisfactory solution. I am saying that every one of the solutions so far advocated must come with a caveat, because it is not likely to be the magic bullet that will transform things. There is no magic bullet, and I will return to that theme when I conclude.
On sport, it is unquestionably the case that one reason why children acquire the extra pounds is that they move around far less than they ever did. When I was at school, the dinners were intensely fattening, but children moved far more, so the obesity problem was not that marked. One issue, however, is that if the problem starts early, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) suggested, and the child is already overweight, he or she will be more reluctant to engage in sport and likely to look for excuses to avoid sport, so offering them a wider menu of sporting opportunities, by itself, will not help.
Pressure on producers and the responsibility deal were mentioned, and a lot can be achieved through such measures. The Minister will confirm that we have, almost without noticing, reduced the amount of salt in our food by agreement with the producers, and nobody has really minded. Clearly, similar results can be achieved by agreement with sugar producers, and there is no reason why that should not happen. Again, however, people tend to deceive themselves. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of people who sit there with a beefburger and chips, but who have a diet coke by their side. The assumption is that if they drink the diet coke, the effect of the chips and the beefburger will somehow be negligible.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East mentioned the issue of access. Access to fast food is one of the principal reasons why society has the difficulties it does. When we go to railway stations or other places where we are in a hurry to buy things to take on our journey, it is noticeable that we are presented with larger snacks than we would want, such as grab bags and extra-large chocolate bars. There is no explanation for that, other than that the producers are being blatantly irresponsible and trying to shift more of their product.
I must make a confession that may shock many Members present. As a student, I once worked as an ice cream salesman, driving an ice cream van. Our strategy was always to turn up at schools around lunch time, although my ice cream was of such low grade that the children would walk past my van. Instead, they would go to the Mr Whippy van, even if it got there later, so our strategy did not entirely work. However, Members can see that having food near lots of ravenous children is attractive to commercial interests, even if it is irresponsible of them to pursue such a strategy.
All those solutions have merit, but most of them have limitations. It is tempting simply to say there are a lot of issues—I have said as much myself—and that we have to press all the buttons to get the effect we want. I am quite happy to go along with that, I would like us to concentrate on what works and on what there is clear evidence to support; that is what I think needs to happen. One serious problem that concerns me, and which has been mentioned, is tokenism. I have seen tokenism in action; I have seen schools go through the motions of telling the children a bit about food and sticking up the appropriate pictures, but nothing really changes, so the phenomenon persists because it has not been properly addressed. There is irrevocably an element of personal and family responsibility. We cannot take that out of the equation. However, the most successful methods of making it easier for people to make the right choices must be evidenced, supported, endorsed and spread. We should not put into practice a mechanism that might or might not work.
A concern that results indirectly from concentration on the problem in question is the increasing incidence among children of not diabetes but eating disorders. However we pursue the agenda, we must do so in a way that makes it less likely that increasing numbers of children will, because of a legitimate concentration on their health and weight, become obsessed with their body shape and develop problems with eating behaviour that they would not have if they grew up naturally and in a satisfactory way.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I have several things in common with the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), not least that we support the same football team. I have done so since 1969, and I hope we shall be in the premier league next year. The second thing is that we are type 2 diabetics, as a result of our lifestyle—from about the same time, as I became a diabetic some five years ago.
I acknowledge that I am a diabetic because of the lifestyle I had. Hon. Members may know the experience of being offered a well man check by the doctor, who always says there is good news and bad news; we say, “Tell me the bad news first.” The doctor five years ago told me, “The bad news is you are diabetic. The good news is you can manage it if you really want to.” That was the thrust of it. He said “You can ignore this, and shortly you will be on tablets, and then on injections.” He was not scaremongering, but just wanted me to know exactly what the condition meant. He said, “Your diabetes will not kill you, but what will kill you will be all the things that come from it: your blood pressure and heart, or amputations and stress levels.” I know fine rightly that I became a diabetic because of my lifestyle five years ago. The fact is I love Chinese food; five days a week I had a sweet and sour pork and two bottles of Coke. It never changed—I like it, and so that was what happened. As well as that there was all the stress of the job—previously I was an Assembly Member in Northern Ireland, and a councillor. I love long hours, and they do not bother me at all—and that probably applies to every other hon. Member; the hours were not an issue, but the stress is.
Clearly I had to make changes. Looking back into my ancestry, no one—not my mother, father or grandparents—had diabetes. I was the first in my family, so the cause was clearly my lifestyle. I make that point because of the question of heredity and the hope that I would not pass on my difficulties to my children or my wee granddaughter, four-year-old Katie-Lee. The question is how to instil in children and grandchildren the necessary control, so that they eat the right food, in the right way. I was on diet control in January, and am now on two Metformin tablets in the morning, and two at night; there is nothing graceful about growing old. We may need tablets to keep us going, and probably most of us in the Chamber are of that ilk. The question for me is what I can do as a grandfather, and as an MP, to protect my granddaughter and children, and everyone else, from becoming diabetic.
The UK has the fifth highest rate in the world for type 1 diabetes in children. That can lead to serious health problems such as blindness and strokes, to name but two. Some 24.5 children in every 100,000 aged 14 and under are diagnosed with the condition every year in the UK. Statistics are real to those of us who are focused on the disease and how to deal with it. The UK’s rate is about twice as high as the rate in Spain, which is 13 in every 100,000, and in France, which is 12.2 in every 100,000. The league table covers only 88 countries where the rate of incidence of type 1 diabetes is recorded. There are around 1,038 children under the age of 17 living with type 1 diabetes in Northern Ireland, and almost one in four of those reached diabetic ketoacidosis before a diagnosis was made. DKA can develop quickly and occurs when a lack of insulin upsets the body’s normal chemical balance and causes it to produce poisonous chemicals known as ketones. If undetected, those ketones can result in serious illness, coma and death. We all know people who have come through that, and I am aware of people who have succumbed to diabetes.
The number of people living with types 1 and 2 diabetes has increased by 33% in Northern Ireland during the last five years; that is the largest increase in the United Kingdom, compared with 25% in England, 20% in Wales and 18% in Scotland. The total number of adults with diabetes—those aged 17 and over—registered with GPs in our small part of the UK is just shy of 76,000, and 1,038 young people under 17 are known to have type 1 diabetes, which is another significant rise. Prevalence in the Northern Ireland population is now more than 4%. Some 10,000 people have diabetes without having been diagnosed with the condition. It is scary stuff, when we realise what is happening in our region. I had occasion to speak about that with the right hon. Member for Leicester East before the debate.
Through my colleague, the Northern Ireland Health Minister, I encouraged the purchase of insulin pumps for type 1 diabetics, which was done last year; we have also encouraged the provision of training for family members, guardians and health staff in the use of the pumps. When a Minister is committed to the issue, things can happen.
I have every confidence in the Minister who is present for the debate. In my short time here I have witnessed her contribution in her role, and her commitment to change and to taking hard decisions. I do not agree with everything that she does, but I admire her commitment to the job, and many things that she has done have not gone unnoticed.
Approximately 90% of the 3.7 million people in the UK diagnosed with diabetes have type 2. I have brought that issue to the attention of the Northern Ireland Health Minister, as I am very aware of the ticking time bomb that diabetes is, and the key initiatives in operation in Northern Ireland. He is clearly doing a great job, including setting aside funding to employ additional diabetes staff—specialists, nurses, dieticians and podiatrists: all help that a diabetic needs, but perhaps not enough. All the hon. Members who have spoken have done so with honesty; if we put all the ideas together in a big pot, perhaps we will find a way forward. We need to instil good eating habits in children that will not lead to diabetes later in life.
Rates of obesity—because that is the twin thrust of the debate—tend to rise with increasing disadvantage across developed countries, particularly among women. In 2006 in Northern Ireland, 18% of children aged between two and 15 years were reported to be obese. In 2008-09, the child health system reported that 5.3% of primary 1 children surveyed were obese. The hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) said that when we were young, many years ago, for someone to be of a certain size was unusual. It is not any more. In the survey I mentioned, 22.5% of the children were described as overweight or obese. That is a massive number.
We need to educate parents on what they are teaching their children through their lunches and dinners. Some schools in my area implemented a healthy snack policy, where twice a week children were not allowed to bring in crisps or chocolate, but had to bring in fruit or a healthy option. That is fantastic, and it is good that it happens, but some parents pointed out how much more expensive it was. We should consider how to make healthy food more affordable for young families in the present economic difficulties.
Many parents have made me aware of that. There is a key role for supermarkets and how they do things. When we go to the supermarket—let us be honest—we can always find a multipack of crisps or chocolate. By the way, there is nothing wrong with that as long as it is done, like anything in this world, in moderation. Children love a treat, and why should they not have one if it does them no harm?
Unfortunately, it is more difficult to find a multipack of fruit juice, or bags of fruit on offer or sliced up. It is much handier for parents to pick up a bag of crisps for their child’s break than to take the time to cut up fruit when they cannot afford to buy the pre-cut fruit that they want. I believe that we need to change that by encouraging supermarkets to put regular offers on healthy options, and perhaps by looking at tax incentives to make such options a realistic lifestyle choice, and not just a fad to go for for a wee while.
One of the community groups in my area, the East End residents association, has put on a cooking class for its ladies group, which showed them how to cook healthily for the family in a quick and cheap way. Women of all ages learned how they could cook on a budget, but still provide a healthy and satisfying meal. That is also key, and I suggest that funding might be set aside for community groups and churches to put on such classes, which could make real lifestyle changes to entire households.
Unfortunately, at the moment there are few homes that can afford to have only one parent in work, with the mother at home cooking and cleaning—that now has to be fitted around another job—but we must educate people and teach them that short cuts can be made so that healthy meals and snacks for families are still provided. Will the Minister kindly address that and explain what can be done to educate and help those who simply do not know how to do the best for their families? A surprising number of families cannot do so, so we should try to achieve that if we can.
In conclusion, it is clear that something needs to be done. If there is one message from every speaker, it is that we all agree that something needs to be done; the question is how best to deliver that. Many children and adults will not be able to live a healthy life because of something that they could have made small changes to prevent. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East on bringing this matter to the Chamber. Many more hon. Members would like to make a contribution, but I can say one thing—every one of us, as elected representatives, has constituents for whom this issue is key. We look forward to hearing the response from the Minister, as well as the speech from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott).
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this important debate on childhood obesity and diabetes. We know the parameters of the problem: on current trends in childhood obesity, more than half of British children will be obese or overweight by 2020. A particular concern of mine, as the representative of an inner-city constituency, is that children in the poorest decile are more than twice as likely to be obese compared with those in a more affluent or middle-class decile. It is curious that, generations ago, obesity was a challenge faced by the well-off. We now live in a society, both here and in north America, where obesity is often a disease of poverty. I will return to that point.
We also know that diabetes is the No. 1 health threat in the UK, where 3.7 million people live with the disease, and as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has told us, care processes and outcomes for children with diabetes in England and Wales remain significantly worse than those for adults, which is what makes this debate so important. Thinking on the issue has changed. When I was a child, people said of a child who was a bit chubby, “Oh, they’ll grow out of it.” It was not seen as anything to worry about. We now know that overweight children become overweight adults, with all the associated health problems.
As always, the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) made an interesting speech, but he said a few things that perhaps need amplification. He seemed to say that it was inevitable that there would be a problem of obesity in advanced societies. I was in Finland last week, and Scandinavian countries—Finland, Sweden, Denmark—do not have our problems with obesity. That is for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that Governments have taken the issue seriously and made what were sometimes hard decisions to try to change public health outcomes.
The hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that school dinners are not necessarily part of the solution. I believe that, certainly for primary school age children, being exposed to a range of healthy foods and having healthy school dinners makes a difference to outcomes for diet. I also believe that it is worth educating school children about diet. There has been a complete turnaround of public attitudes to smoking over the past 30 years. Many things contributed to that, including Government action, but it was also due to the role of education and public heath campaigns. I believe that, in the medium term, we can do that for healthy eating and diet issues.
We therefore know the parameters of the problem and that, as has been said, it cannot be fully accounted for by genetics; it is due to a mix of a more sedentary lifestyle and the consumption of far too many calories through the eating of more fatty, salty and sugary products. We should note, however, that one reason why people eat more fatty, salty, sugary and processed foods than they did when we were children is that they are marketed aggressively at families and children. I want to talk about pester power. If a child sees endless advertisements for Ronald McDonald, the parents, even if they know better, find themselves under great pressure when they are out to purchase foods that they know in their hearts are probably not the best for their children. An occasional treat is one thing, but the problem relates to when such foods are not just an occasional treat, but have become the mainstay of a child’s diet.
Government Members have talked about parental responsibility. I believe in that, but we must bear it in mind that childhood obesity and related conditions, such as diabetes, are issues not just for the child and their family, but for us as a wider society that is concerned about the health and well-being of all our people. To be blunt, there is also the cost of childhood obesity and of diabetes, hypertension and all the related conditions. I think that fully 20% of the NHS drugs budget currently goes on drugs for diabetes. It is all very well to talk about parental responsibility, and about the nanny state as opposed to the Pontius Pilate state, but I think that the state owes its people a philosophical responsibility, and we certainly owe the taxpayer a practical responsibility to do something about the financial consequences of the growing wave of childhood obesity and diabetes.
I want to take the shadow Minister back to her remarks about marketing. I genuinely accept much of what she said, but there is this phenomenon: firms such as Waitrose tell us that it spends a lot of time promoting healthy options, presumably to customers who can afford to shop there, but nevertheless records that people buy more convenience food from it. The fact that we go for convenience food is not just a direct result of marketing.
The hon. Gentleman has to understand that the problem is multifaceted and needs multifaceted solutions, one of which is more parental responsibility. The role of supermarkets, and what and how they market, is part of the problem. I live in east London, which is very varied demographically, and I can go half a mile to one supermarket that largely serves working class people—at the front and centre it has unhealthy foods—and half a mile in the other direction to Waitrose, which has fruit and wine. Supermarkets are part of the issue.
Hon. Members may remember the case last year of what The Sun newspaper described as the fattest girl in the UK. She became so obese that the back wall of her house had to be knocked down, and she had to be taken out of the house with a crane and taken to hospital. The point about her is that she had been obese all along, but had been sent to a health farm in America and had lost a considerable amount of weight. She and her mother were reported as saying that the day she came back after several months in the US on a healthy diet, her mother somehow did not have any healthy food in and sent out for fish and chips. With some obese children, it is almost an issue of co-dependency. If we are to work effectively with childhood obesity, we have to work with the family—whatever that family unit constitutes. Will the Minister tell us what action her Department is taking on marketing and promotions, and how it intends to encourage the reformulation of food products, because we need to reduce the high salt and sugar content of breakfast cereals and other items that are marketed at children online?
On the role of local authorities, we should—and I have said this more than once—move public health to local authorities. There are challenges to such a move, but also great opportunities. Potentially, it could mean an end to silo working, because in an ideal world, the education, environmental and leisure services departments work alongside public health professionals to achieve better public health outcomes. We must not forget that for every pound that is spent on things that affect our health, only 10%, I think, is spent by the NHS. The rest is spent by housing and leisure departments. Moving public health to local authorities represents a tremendous opportunity to deal with diabetes and obesity-related issues.
This has been a friendly debate, and people have fallen over themselves to be nice to each other, but let me perhaps insert a slightly cautious note. The great Professor Terence Stephenson, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said this in relation to responsibility deals:
“The food industry cannot be relied upon to help lead the policy response to obesity. This is not a criticism of the food industry. It would be extraordinary if an industry with a duty to make profits for shareholders should act against its mission to push products and sell as much of them as possible. Asking the food industry to solve the problem is counter-intuitive; you would not put Dracula in charge of a blood bank.”
Of course it is fine to co-operate with industry, but industry must know that the Government are serious and that, in end they will legislate if it does not co-operate. Responsibility deals are fine in principle, but if industry thinks that it is all carrot and no stick, we will not get the results that we all want.
That is my exact point. Of course we want co-operation with industry, but there must be teeth—sanctions or at least the possibility of legislation—and, above all, there must be a timetable.
When it comes to childhood obesity, the most important thing is early intervention. Medical evidence shows that overweight children have, in proportional terms, gained most of that weight before they start school, so what we do in the very early years is absolutely key. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government plan to take action on training health professionals in weight management in accordance with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines as well as emphasising the importance of parenting style and parents’ lifestyle when children’s weight is considered? Interesting research shows us that 70% of boys who have overweight fathers are overweight themselves, and 90% of girls who have overweight mothers are also overweight, which is why we stress the importance of early intervention and working with the family in an holistic way. We are talking about not any one measure but holistic working. Will the Minister tell us whether she is working with her colleagues in the Department for Education on these matters? In particular, is she following the example of Finland, where there is a high uptake of healthy free school meals, which means that children are getting accustomed to what is a proper balanced meal?
Furthermore, will the Minister tell us what she will do about the situation in academies and free schools, because they are exempt from the nutritional standards that apply to other schools? They can have machines selling fizzy drinks. Is the Minister looking at planning legislation and making public health a criteria in planning, which would make it much simpler to ban fast food shops around schools?
We appreciate the energy and enthusiasm of this Minister, but, partly because of the reliance on responsibility deals, not everyone is swept away with what the Government are doing around health, nutrition and obesity. A few months ago, Jamie Oliver said:
“This whole strategy is just worthless, regurgitated, patronising rubbish.”
Does the Minister agree that firmer and more comprehensive proposals are needed to encourage active travel and make the built environment more accessible for young pedestrians and cyclists, and that we need to take action on junk food advertising and promotions of such foods in stores?
Finally, the Public Accounts Committee report into the management of diabetes services in the NHS recently highlighted the need for action from central Government on reducing the rising numbers developing type 2 diabetes. It said:
“The Department of Health and Public Health England should set out the steps they will take to minimise the growth in numbers through well-resourced public health campaigns and action on the risk factors for diabetes”.
I understand that campaigners such as Diabetes UK have expressed their disappointment that the Government have rejected that proposal. Will the Minister tell us today why the Government chose to reject such sound recommendations made by a highly respected Committee of this House? Does she not agree that the rejection of the Committee’s recommendation might lead some observers to think that the Government will listen only to the food industry on obesity?
It is clear to me, and to all those who have campaigned for years on these issues, that self-regulation and voluntary targets alone will not work. Diabetes UK, the royal colleges and others are all coming together to call for a more robust approach to the regulation of the food and drink industry. However the Government appear a little reluctant about such a move.
Once again, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East on securing this important debate. I do not believe that there is any one measure that can impact on the matter of childhood obesity and diabetes. I have touched on some of the practical issues, but there are many others, such as culture and ideas of parenting. There is a generation of young women whose notions of parenting are limited. They hear advertisers say, “Give your child this healthy bar and that makes you a good mother,” and they do not have the information to think beyond that. Diabetes is the No. 1 public health issue facing us now, and childhood obesity gives a premonition of even worse public health problems to come. I wait with interest to hear what the Minister has to say about the points that I and some of my colleagues have raised in this interesting debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate and pay tribute to him for all the work that he has done over the years on the issue of diabetes and the subsequent work that flows from that in relation to obesity. It has been a pleasure to have his Silver Star van come in to my constituency, and I know that it has gone into many other constituencies as well.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the work of his charity not just in this country but in India. It was a great pleasure earlier this year to go to India for the first ever Anglo-Indian conference on diabetes. Unfortunately, there is a higher prevalence of diabetes in the south Asian community. It is one of the subjects that I will touch on in what will inevitably be a short speech, notwithstanding the fact that this is a large topic.
If I do not answer all the questions that have been raised in the debate today, I will reply to hon. Members in writing. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must wage a war on sugar, fight fat and that we must all engage in the battle of the bulge. In relation to Ella’s Kitchen, I have seen its excellent report and have asked to meet the group. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the role that pharmacies can play. I pay full credit to Boots, which is already beginning to do that work, and to Diabetes UK—it is a great charity—which is the chosen charity of Tesco.
I want to talk about the great work that Silver Star and Diabetes UK have done with Boots testing people for diabetes, weighing and measuring them and finding out their blood sugar levels. Following that, we want to ensure that there are then referrals to dieticians, nurses and even GPs where that is necessary. We want to make sure that it all flows and works together.
I pay full tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), who chairs the all-party group on diabetes. I will not repeat all the statistics that he gave. He rightly made the point about the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes; type 2 diabetes has a clear link to being overweight or obese, and I pay tribute to all the fine work that he has done.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) made a fine point about vending machines in schools. I completely take the point, if I may say so, that he made about academies. I have already spoken to the Secretary of State for Education on that issue. He knows my views on it, but equally I understand why he wants to ensure that our academies are free from—if I can put it this way—central control. Nevertheless, I have made that very valid point.
The hon. Gentleman made a compelling comparison between our statistics on diabetes and our statistics on cancer. We do not flinch—none of us—from talking about how we can prevent cancer. We do not flinch from talking about the fact that cancer is something that kills many people. Of course, many people live with cancer and there are great success stories. Obesity, as everyone attending this debate knows, is effectively a killer. If we were absolutely honest about it, if obesity were a disease, Governments of whatever political colour would have taken action many, many years ago to tackle the growing problem—no pun intended—of obesity and being overweight, notably in our children.
I could use up most of the remainder of my speech effectively debating with my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh). Having listened to the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), there is a great danger of this “love-in” extending to my shadow as it were, because I absolutely agree with many of the things that she said in response to my hon. Friend. However, we need to take these points away.
Let us talk about something that did not exist when I was young—the concept of snacking. I was positively told not to eat between meals. If we now look in the real world at how young people live and at what they feel is acceptable, it includes going into the many coffee shops that exist. I have no problem with coffee shops, but young people go in and have a large coffee—not a small one, and we could talk endlessly about portion control; I absolutely get that point and think that it is valid—which has syrup in it. It might have marshmallows on top, and then perhaps another little dollop of cream, because it is just a snack, a treat or elevenses. “And by the way”, they say, “I think I’ll have one of those very nice muffins.” They do not know how many calories that is. I absolutely agree that they do not understand that, and there was a great outbreak of nodding at the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport. That is why I absolutely congratulate all those places that have put up on their boards the number of calories in different foods.
The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington is right that it is a surprise to people—even to supposedly intelligent, grown-up people such as ourselves—when they find out the calorific content of foods that we see and perceive as treats and snacks. Equally, I want to make it clear that we should never demonise any food. There is nothing wrong with chips, or burgers; what is important is that it is all good food in moderation.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his very kind words, and I will only say this in relation to the team he supports: come on Nottingham Forest. Moving on to more serious matters, I thank him and other hon. Members for raising the profile of diabetes and accordingly raising the issue of obesity. It is a difficult subject, because when we start to talk about people’s weight, they take it personally, and rightly and understandably so. There are many people who say, “Well, it’s not the role of Government to tell people what they should or shouldn’t eat”. They are absolutely right; it is not my role to tell people what they should or should not eat. However, it is the role of the Government, as stewards of the NHS, to make sure that the NHS budget is spent as responsibly and sensibly as possible. We know that obesity costs, not just in human terms but in NHS terms; it costs billions of pounds.
It costs in human terms as well, and many of us who see children who are overweight or obese are upset and concerned about that, because we know that many of those children will not only suffer from health issues—that is one of the things that I learned when I went to see a project in Rotherham, and I will discuss that project in a moment—but will be bullied. Many of them are unhappy that they cannot, as they perceive it, join in the sport or physical activity enjoyed by their friends. There is a real human cost to overweightness and obesity.
I will not repeat the many facts and figures that have quite properly been given in this debate. However, 1.3 million children are obese, which is one in six children. According to the national child measurement programme, which is the programme in England whereby we measure 1 million children—so, if I may say so, we know what we are talking about—4.1% of boys and 2.9% of girls are morbidly obese. That is serious stuff; 17,400 children are morbidly obese.
As has been identified, there is a clear link between obesity prevalence and deprivation. That is why this is a health and equalities issue; not just because citizens from south Asian backgrounds and indeed, I believe, from Afro-Caribbean and African backgrounds have a higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes. We know that 12.3% of reception children who are overweight or obese are from the most deprived backgrounds, as opposed to 6.8% who are from the least deprived backgrounds. I do not know why, but we cannot use the word “poor” anymore. By year 6, 24.3% of overweight and obese children are from the most deprived backgrounds, compared with 13.7% from the least deprived backgrounds.
I perhaps used the wrong language some months ago when I talked about the responsibility that falls upon us all as individuals, because we all take responsibility for our own health and, most importantly, for the health of our children. I was talking to the Food and Drink Federation about the responsibility that I believe it, too, bears, for reasons that I will not go into in too much detail. However, I put forward the fact that those who are overweight and obese as children are more likely to come from the most deprived backgrounds. There was much criticism, misreporting and all the rest of it, and, if I may say so, some political cheap shots were aimed at me. However, I hope that those facts speak loudly, and I also hope that everybody takes this away: the reason why I feel this way with such a passion is that if someone comes from a poor, deprived background, they have enough problems as a child, and enough bad things going against them to prevent them from having a great start in life, without the burden of being overweight or obese.
The Minister referred to fat children being bullied. Does she agree that being fat as a child can be the beginning of a downward spiral? They feel fat and ungainly; they are unwilling to take their clothes off for PE, particularly girls, so they take less and less exercise, so they get even fatter. It is a downward spiral.
Yes, I agree, and I also think that there is no doubt that there is a link between being overweight or obesity and mental health. Which comes first, I do not know, but it is certainly all connected.
The call for action on obesity set out the steps that we are taking to help people to make healthy choices. That is what we aim to do: provide people with the education and knowledge they need, then ensure that they have the opportunities and options to make healthy choices. We have the national child measurement programme; we have change for life. The hon. Member for Strangford may like to know that 1 million families have joined change for life, and 684,000 people have downloaded the “Be food smart” application.
There is much more that we can do, and obesity in children is one of my absolute top priorities. I want to know why we have stopped weighing pregnant women. It seems absolutely bonkers. I am looking at the advice that we give to new mothers on how to feed their babies, and I am also looking at the role of health visitors, midwives and our great NHS workers. As I have said, in Rotherham there is a wonderful project, which anyone who has an interest in this subject really needs to go and see, because one of the things that is happening there is that everything is integrated. The project has been up and running for three to four years, and the NHS, dieticians, GPs, nurses and health visitors all work with schools, teachers and the local authority—in many ways, it is driven by the local authority. It is a wonderful experience, where the project workers do not demonise food, but look with kindness and care at the causes of problems. They help people, not only with their diet through the information that they provide, but by helping them to exercise.
I have completely run out of time. In no way have I completed my speech, and I apologise profusely for that. However, I pay credit and tribute to everybody who has signed up for the responsibility deal. There is much more that we can do; I completely accept that. Nevertheless, I would say that the labelling on packaging is something that we are particularly proud of. We are getting a standardised system that will enable people to make healthy choices and take responsibility. I could talk about schools and the great work that they are doing, but that will have to be the subject of a letter.
It is an honour to meet under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
William Francis McGreanery, or Billy McGreanery as he was known, was a 41-year-old man who was shot dead by a Grenadier Guard, a member of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, in Derry city in the early hours of the morning of Wednesday 15 September 1971. He worked in a well-known sports shop in the town and quite possibly sold me the first pair of football boots that were actually bought for me, as opposed to being hand-me-downs from brothers. He was a quiet, settled, well-engaged man; I know that from many people who were friends and acquaintances of his.
The location of his shooting is variously described as the junction of Eastway, Lonemoor road and Westland street in Derry. Visitors to the city might say that that junction is where Creggan meets the Bogside. The soldier who shot him was in a sangar at what was known, in the Army’s terms, as Bligh’s lane army base. In effect, these sangars and other makeshift army occupations were in the curtilage of the Essex factory, as it was then known, in the lower Creggan.
There were disturbances over prolonged periods of 14 September in the vicinity of that army base. The Army records, which have emerged as part of the Historical Enquiries Team inquiry into Billy McGreanery’s death, show that not only was stone throwing and what, in some cases, were described as riots reported, but there were also some shooting attacks on that army base. One soldier, Sergeant Martin Carroll, a member of 45 Medium Regiment Royal Artillery, was killed by a sniper. He died later from the injuries he received that day. Another soldier, Sergeant James Black, also of the Royal Artillery, was injured that day as well. I set out that record because I know that if I only focus on what happened in the early hours of 15 September, people might say that I am giving a partial account of the events and the overall circumstances of that time.
When Billy McGreanery was shot dead in the early hours of Wednesday 15 September, there were no disturbances pertaining at that time. Indeed, he and a number of friends were walking in the area and had to detour to negotiate a new barricade that had been established and move on. When Billy McGreanery and friends stood at this junction, he then fell to a gunshot from the army sangar at Bligh’s lane. He was taken to Altnagelvin hospital. Army records show that an ambulance was called at 0043 hours, but the Altnagelvin records show that he was admitted, having been transported in a van, at 0045 hours. Billy McGreanery died from his wounds on the operating table in Altnagelvin hospital.
The soldier who shot him, who was later named as soldier A in the context of the inquest and various other investigations, maintains that he shot a man who was pointing a rifle at his sangar. The other civilians present at the time, of course, completely disputed that and gave their accounts in the subsequent investigation conducted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force in Northern Ireland at that time. However, the RUC did not question either soldier A or the other soldier who was with him, soldier B, because in those days the arrangement was that soldiers were only interviewed by the Royal Military Police, not by the RUC. So the RMP special investigation branch interviewed the two soldiers and took the account that a gunman was shot. Of course, that became the account that was briefed to the media and Government spokespersons at the time. Of course, Billy McGreanery, a man who lost his life, was branded as a gunman. That has aggrieved his family for many years: not just that he was robbed of his life, but that he was also robbed of his innocent name by the subsequent smearing by the Army version of accounts, which became the received verdict as far as Government and others were concerned.
Mr McGreanery was a single man who had no descendants, but his nephew, Billy, and his niece, Marjorie Roddy, have fought a long campaign, with excellent support from the Pat Finucane Centre, to try to have the facts and circumstances of his death properly established and his innocence rightly declared. We have seen this, similarly, with other families, whether the Bloody Sunday families in my constituency or the Hillsborough families in Liverpool, all trying to ensure that the good names of their loved ones are properly restored.
In that context, the family were glad to receive, in June 2010, the report of the Historical Enquiries Team into the death. This was actually the second time that the HET had looked at the death. The first report was a superficial, poor job that immediately was rebuked and essentially withdrawn. The second report by the HET clearly showed that Billy
“was not involved with any paramilitary organisation, he was not carrying a firearm of any description, and he posed no threat to the soldiers at the observation post.”
That is a quote from the HET report, which showed that it had reflected on the discrepancies in the investigation at the time, with the Royal Military Police questioning the soldiers and the RUC questioning the civilians.
It should be said, and clearly understood, that at the time the local RUC chief superintendent, Frank Lagan, recommended on 8 November 1971 that the soldier be prosecuted for murder. That opinion was endorsed at RUC headquarters. However, that prosecution never took place. It should be put on the record at this stage that, at that time, conversations were going on between representatives of the Ministry of Defence and the then Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, Basil Kelly. In papers discovered in Government archives at Kew by the Pat Finucane Centre is a minute signed by J. M. Parkin, head of C2 at MOD, who refers to his conversation with the Attorney-General:
“The Attorney-General told me that he had before him recommendations from the police that a soldier should be tried for manslaughter arising out of the death of Mrs Sarah Worthington in Belfast and that another should be tried for the murder of a man named McGreanery in Londonderry. His provisional view was that no action was called for in the Belfast case and that manslaughter at most would be appropriate in the Londonderry incident. Indeed, he felt that the latter probably called for no charge at all. He promised to advise us if he felt that action in either case was called for. I have no doubt that the Attorney General is doing all within his power to protect the security forces against criminal proceedings in respect of actions on duty. He must, however, preserve an impartial approach and is worried about the possibility of private criminal proceedings should he fail to act in cases where inactivity could hardly be justified. Given his delicate position this is understandable. I am however satisfied that there is no need to remind him of the danger to morale inherent in prosecutions of soldiers or policemen.”
On 23 December the Chief Constable received a note from the Crown solicitor confirming that there would be no charges in relation to the case.
Of course, the ruling—the policy—of the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland that soldiers should not be prosecuted for murder, or for anything carried out in the course of their duty, came in December 1971, only weeks before January 1972, which, of course, is when Bloody Sunday took place. Many of us believe that, had that material been available for the Saville inquiry to test and cross-examine, the Saville report might not have been as light as it was in its wider observations on MOD responsibility and wider command and policy interests on the day.
The family are well satisfied that the HET report given to them confirms their uncle’s innocence and completely trashes the version on which the Army relied. They then wanted a proper, due apology, as all other families in a similar situation would want. What they received from the MOD was a letter in July 2011 from General Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of the General Staff:
“Dear Mrs Roddy and Mr McGreanery,
Thank you for agreeing that the Historical Enquiries Team could share with us their report of last year into the death of your uncle, William, in 1971, so as to allow me to consider properly your request for an official apology. In the light of what it says it is clear to me that such an apology is right and proper.
The report sets out the circumstances surrounding the death of your Uncle and the subsequent investigation. It is evident that the soldier who shot him was mistaken in his belief that he had a weapon and this error, tragically, resulted in the death of an innocent man. I have no doubt that, despite the passage of time, you and your family are still grieving over this loss. I would like to express my sorrow and regret for his death which, in the years since it occurred, has deprived you of an Uncle’s support and affection.
I do not believe that anything I can say will ease the sorrow you feel for what has happened, but I hope that this apology, and the findings of the Historical Enquiries Team, will be of some comfort to you.”
That was of some comfort to the family. However, they thought that the natural course was that the apology would be explicitly endorsed and vocalised on the Government’s behalf, so the family subsequently wrote to both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
On the family’s behalf, the Pat Finucane Centre received a rather bizarre letter from the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who is currently the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
“Thank you for your letter of 20 July 2012 regarding the case of Mr William McGreanery. You originally wrote to me and the Defence Secretary in February last year and following receipt of the report by the Historical Enquiries Team, General Sir Peter Wall, Chief of the General Staff at the Ministry of Defence provided an official apology to Mrs Roddy and Mr McGreanery on 14 July 2011.
Please let me explain briefly the process involved when a letter, such as yours of February 2011, is received by more than one Government department. The Department with the lead responsibility will respond on behalf of the Government and if, as in this case, the response includes an official apology then this is on behalf of the Government. One of the key aspects of this type of communication is that it is private. If any individual wishes to make it public, as I understand Mrs Roddy and Mr McGreanery did, that is their right; however the Government will not do so. It is for this reason that such private Ministerial correspondence is not placed in any official parliamentary records.
I am pleased that the report from the Historical Enquiries Team and the subsequent apology has provided some closure to the family of Mr McGreanery and I hope that my confirmation that the apology was officially on behalf of the Government is also of some comfort to them. I know that the grief and sorrow of losing someone close, particularly in such circumstances, does not diminish.”
The main reason why we have had to call an Adjournment debate today is to ensure that we give the Government, in the form of the Minister, an opportunity to vocalise that apology on the parliamentary record, just as other families have received apologies on the parliamentary record.
I hope that the Minister, in addressing those points, will consider whether the MOD is reviewing the policy of simply issuing apologies to families by letter from someone of rank in the MOD—and they seem to be of lower and lower rank now—and the Government treating them as private communications. That does not seem to be a satisfactory process. There will be more such cases.
Indeed, since I secured this debate I have been contacted by a family who lost a loved one to shots fired by the Parachute Regiment on the Shankill road in September 1972. The family of Richie McKinney, too, have always contested the Army version of events—that the soldiers fired at two gunmen—and they are quite clear that their loved one was an innocent man, not a gunman. They want to know that, when they receive their HET report, they will not have to go around begging, busking and petitioning MPs and other people so that they can get a proper apology on the record in parliamentary terms. I suggest that the Minister ask the MOD to consider that, when families receive HET reports in future and when apologies are issued on the basis of those HET reports, they should be marked by a written ministerial statement recording that fact.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has called this debate to raise issues with my Department’s response to the HET on the tragic death of William McGreanery.
As the hon. Gentleman has just stated, the HET was set up as an independent team within the Police Service of Northern Ireland to help bring closure to all families who lost relations and friends during the troubles and to bring some measure of resolution to the past. My Department strongly supports the work of the HET and fully co-operates with its requests for information and liaison with witnesses. When HET reports have been made available to us, following permission from the family of the deceased, we have found them to be as detailed and comprehensive accounts as are now possible considering the passage of time.
I will not go over all the ground that the hon. Gentleman has just covered, but it is important to remember the facts, which are that Mr McGreanery died on 15 September 1971, 41 and a half years ago. The HET report states that there had been a number of shootings in Londonderry in the days and nights leading up to Mr McGreanery’s death. Barricades had been erected, nail bombs and petrol bombs had been thrown, and rioting had broken out.
During the afternoon before Mr McGreanery’s death, as the hon. Gentleman rightly stated, Sergeant Carroll was shot and killed in Londonderry by a terrorist sniper. He was actually shot and killed in Eastway gardens, just by the Bligh’s lane observation post, which he had just left. There is no doubt about that.
The HET report goes on to say that, some eight hours later, at midnight on 14/15 September, Mr McGreanery and others were walking around Londonderry and approached the same Army observation post. The group moved forward and a single shot was fired by a soldier. Mr McGreanery was wounded and later died in hospital. I do not think the facts are in contention.
The soldier who opened fire said that he thought Mr McGreanery was aiming a rifle at the observation post, and he made a split-second decision to open fire. I think we can all now accept that that was an error. That is what the HET report states, and I understand that the young soldier involved—he was young at the time—has stated that he thinks it was an error, too. He regrets the shooting, given what he has now discovered.
The pathologist who carried out the post-mortem said that Mr McGreanery’s wounds had been caused by the bullet passing through his raised forearm, through his chest and exiting his back:
“the forearm must have been flexed at the elbow and held up in front of the chest”.
No one knows why his arm was in that position. The HET does not believe he was pointing a rifle at the time. Forensic swabs show that he had not fired a weapon, and I think we accept that he did not have a weapon.
The local RUC commander at the time believed, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the soldier had acted unlawfully. A file was sent to the chief Crown prosecutor recommending that the soldier be tried for murder. That was passed to the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, but he took a different view, believing that the soldier was acting in the course of his duty and that it was difficult to see how the element of malice, “express or implied,” necessary to constitute murder could be inferred from his actions. He thought that the soldier could have been negligent but that consideration would have to be given to whether the negligence was “reckless” and amounted to manslaughter. In the event, no action was taken against the soldier.
When the MOD received a request from the family of Mr McGreanery for an apology for his death, my Department asked for a copy of the HET report into his death so that the request could be properly considered. That is relevant to what the hon. Gentleman said. It is up to the family to give us the report; we do not get to see it. Similarly, when the Chief of the General Staff wrote to the family, that was private correspondence as far as we were concerned. It is up to the family to reveal it. However, I will come to that later.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is only right, if we are asked to apologise for the actions that led to somebody’s death, that we should be able to see the results. We do not see them until we get the HET report. When we received the report, we read it carefully and came to the conclusion that, in such circumstances, an apology was appropriate, because it was clear that the soldier involved was mistaken when he thought that Mr McGreanery posed such a serious threat that it was necessary to open fire. That is absolutely accepted.
Having carefully considered the circumstances of the death, the Chief of the General Staff—he is the head of the Army, which is not a lowly rank, as the hon. Gentleman implied—wrote to the family with an apology on 14 July 2011. In those cases in which the Ministry of Defence has apologised for a death—there have been five, not including apologies made by the Prime Minister in person for the Bloody Sunday killings—the practice has been either for the Chief of the General Staff or a Minister to write, and the apology is given by either, on behalf of the Government as a whole.
I understand that Mr McGreanery’s family has accepted the apology but wanted one on behalf of the Government, recorded in parliamentary records. On behalf of the Government, I am happy to repeat that apology. As for the request that it be made publicly, as I have explained, it is normally left to the family to decide whether they wish to publicise it. Some will wish to do so, but some will not. As a result of these proceedings, the apology given to Mr McGreanery’s family is now on the parliamentary record. As we know that that is the family’s wish, I am happy that it should be so.
I am also aware of press reports—the hon. Gentleman referred to them—about recently released historical documents that have been interpreted as suggesting that at the time of Mr McGreanery’s death, there was a deliberate policy of not prosecuting soldiers for deaths that occurred while they were on duty, and that there was some cosy relationship with the Attorney-General at the time to facilitate that. It is not and never was up to the MOD to decide whether soldiers should face criminal charges as a result of opening fire in the course of their duties.
It is, however, important that those contemplating such decisions are provided with information relevant to the incident under consideration. The fact that the Attorney-General of the day was prepared to consider representations from the Army about murder cases is surely entirely reasonable. I am not a lawyer, I am glad to say, but it seems entirely sensible that he would want to see as much information as he could to enable him to consider properly the public interest surrounding those cases, just as we have the well-established Shawcross exercise, in which ministerial views are sought on the public interest before a decision is made on prosecution in appropriate cases.
Although I know that the hon. Gentleman feels that this was some sort of cosy stitch-up—I think I have got that right—it is different from some agreement or policy that the military had a veto on prosecutions of soldiers, which would have been illegal and for which there is no evidence.
I did not use those particular words, although I can see why they would spring to the Minister’s mind and the minds of many people. He referred to the Shawcross exercise, in which Ministers speak to the Attorney-General. This was an officer of the MOD. The minute of the meeting is supplemented by a diary entry, which goes into more detail about the exchange between the Attorney-General and the MOD representative and appears to establish a working presumption at the time that any killing by a soldier acting in the course of duty would not result in a murder charge. That happened in the crucial weeks before Bloody Sunday.
I am not in a position either to negate or agree with the hon. Gentleman. If I may say so, there is a difference between those who act in good faith in the course of duty and those who might have acted in bad faith. I think that we can agree about that. The question is malice. As far as I am aware, there is certainly no policy that nobody should be prosecuted. As the hon. Gentleman will know, I spent many years in the Army, and I know of many cases in which people were prosecuted, including cases in Northern Ireland in which people who had behaved maliciously were rightly prosecuted for murder. I agree with that, and I think that the MOD of the time would have agreed with it as well.
Some may believe that we should hold a fresh investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr McGreanery’s death. Whether that happens is a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which would need to consider whether there was any new evidence in the case. If that were to happen, my Department would co-operate with such investigations. Just as importantly, we would stand by our obligation to support fully the soldier who, in this case, found himself having to account for actions that took place in the course of his duties some 40 years ago.
To take the Minister back to the point about how such cases are handled in future—there will be more—he referred to the fact that the Historical Enquiries Team does not share the reports with the MOD; it is up to the family to do so. If the family share a report and receive an apology, and if they ask for that apology to be in the parliamentary record, will the MOD make it future policy to do so by way of a written ministerial statement?
I do not say that there will necessarily be a written ministerial statement. If the family wishes it to be published, we will happily facilitate that, as it is the right thing to do.
This was a tragedy. It was highly regrettable. Even 41 and a half years later, I can see that. A young soldier —I suspect very frightened—behaved in error, but we do not think with malice, and it was certainly not thought so at the time. It was highly regrettable, and I repeat the apology on behalf of the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I cannot help thinking that it is somehow appropriate that you should be chairing this debate. I begin by declaring myself a lifelong fan of the BBC and its programmes. It has some of the most brilliant and creative people in the world. I could go through a lengthy list of the world-class programmes that I and many others have enjoyed over the years. It is the same with news and current affairs. The BBC has many talented, thoughtful and—let us not forget—brave journalists.
As an aside, one BBC news journalist recently said to me that they should try to infiltrate a totalitarian regime that has just built a new monument to its vanity. He was not talking about North Korea; he was talking about BBC management. I want to be clear that what I have to say is not about the people who staff the BBC; it is specifically about the people who run the BBC at corporate level and how the trust and the executive work, or do not work. I have rarely encountered such poor management at any level in any organisation, which is why I argue that the role of the BBC Trust is so crucial.
When he first became chairman of the BBC Trust in 2011, Lord Patten said that he regarded the BBC as “a moral force” in this country. I agree, to the extent that the BBC plays an enormously significant cultural role and, with its high ideals, it should seek to be a model for the rest of the public sector. More recently, when addressing a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC, Lord Patten declared that he did not want the period leading up to the BBC licence fee settlement in 2016 to be
“bogged down by nerdy arguments about governance”.
I requested this debate because I respectfully disagree with Lord Patten that the governance of the BBC is a second-order issue, of interest only to nerds. The BBC’s reputation has taken a number of severe hits over the past year, including for its over-lavish pay and perks for its swelled ranks of management, the tax arrangements of its employees, the spectacularly botched “Newsnight” investigation into child abuse allegations in north Wales and, perhaps above all, its response to mounting evidence of decades of sexual abuse and paedophilia by its long-time former employee, the late Jimmy Savile. I understand that further dreadful news about the waste of licence fee payers’ money is forthcoming in the not too distant future.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I share his enthusiasm for the BBC and its importance. Will he add to his list of criticisms, or to his questions at any rate, that the trust ought to look at the practice used in the recent visit to North Korea, because it appeared to put at risk the integrity of academic visits to North Korea and similar countries not only by the LSE but by other universities.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that important point. I understand that the father of one of the young people has written to all members of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport outlining his concerns. It was a significant breach of trust by the BBC. Many questions remain that need to be looked into.
Each of the issues that I have listed would on its own have presented painful difficulties for the BBC, but the management’s inept response to Savile and “Newsnight”, which was defensive, secretive, cynical and in some cases downright murky, made life even worse for the corporation and its staff. The damage to audience and public trust in the BBC was compounded by the woeful lack of active leadership by the BBC Trust, which is meant to be the guardian of the interests of licence fee payers. When it should have been leading the way in getting to the truth and in holding the BBC’s management to account, the trust seems to have interpreted its role as being to defend aggressively the management and to do the minimum necessary to fend off pressure, and wait for the storm to pass.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which he is leading the debate on this important subject. Does he agree that the BBC Trust should be driving much greater transparency within the BBC to drive better efficiencies and value for money for the licence fee payer? He might well recall a ten-minute rule Bill, in which I sought to force the BBC to publish every invoice in excess of £500. This morning, strangely, the chairman of the BBC Trust felt that to do so would undermine some of the special arrangements and deals with providers of BBC services. Does my hon. Friend agree that, should the BBC publish every invoice in excess of £500, it would be far more open to competition for its contracts, driving down their price and providing more value for money for the licence fee payer?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for leading the way in holding the BBC to account, in particular for its expenditure. If local authorities and Departments can account for everything over £500, there is absolutely no reason why the BBC should not do exactly the same.
Last autumn, the BBC instead suffered a severe loss of public trust and its problems were allowed to spiral out of control. While public trust in the BBC appears to have recovered somewhat in the months since, that is surely a reflection of the depth of the good will towards Auntie among the British public, and it should not be a cause for complacency. Unless the BBC has high standards of governance, with active leadership and oversight by its governing body, the chances are that it will be hit by more scandals, and that the cumulative effect on its reputation could be disastrous.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on leading on such matters. As chairman of the all-party BBC group, I take an interest in the governance of the BBC. He mentioned the vile antics of Jimmy Savile, which affected several public sector organisations. The BBC, to its credit, set up two reviews to look at the effect on its organisation. It would be unfair to accuse the BBC of being the only organisation to be affected by Savile’s antics, and it has done more than some other public sector organisations affected by his behaviour.
I was going to come on to that point but, as my hon. Friend has made it, I agree that the BBC was not the only organisation affected by Jimmy Savile; there were problems in the NHS, Broadmoor and other places. The BBC reacted, but only when it was under enormous pressure to do so; it was dragged kicking and screaming to the point at which it would undertake reviews. I was in contact with the BBC from the very start, and I can tell the Chamber as a fact that it did not want to indulge in any form of review at that time. It got there in the end, but it should have got there much earlier, which is one of the main criticisms of the management at the time.
We need the BBC Trust to ensure that the BBC is open and transparent, accountable to the public and responsible in its use of public money. So far, in the post-Savile and McAlpine era, the signs are not encouraging. I want to focus on three matters of concern.
First, given the widespread public anger in recent years about lavish spending at the BBC, it is unacceptable that the BBC continues to refuse to publish the costs of the Pollard review and related post-Savile inquiries. According to some estimates, they may add up to more than the Leveson inquiry, which was a public inquiry on a vastly larger scale that lasted for almost a year rather than a couple of months at best. However, what is really inexplicable is that the BBC Trust has refused to challenge the corporation’s management to publish that information. I understand that Lord Laird wrote to Lord Patten last month seeking confirmation of how much the Pollard review will cost and that Lord Patten refused to provide or even find out the information. When Lord Laird wrote a further letter, Lord Patten did not respond, and has not yet done so as far as I know. Why should licence fee payers remain in the dark about the amount of money spent in their name?
More seriously, the Pollard report was full of holes from the day it was published. Lord Patten was keen to jump on the fact that the Pollard report exonerated the BBC management on the most serious charge, that of suppressing a “Newsnight” investigation into Savile to protect the corporate interests of the BBC, but the evidence compiled by Pollard does not in any way justify a clean bill of health. There is still no explanation of why deputy news chief Steve Mitchell took the “Newsnight” Savile investigation off the managed risk list of potentially controversial stories in November 2011, before it was quietly dropped by the then editor. Pollard, with no power to question witnesses under oath, completely failed to get a proper account of the conversations between the deputy head of news and the editor of “Newsnight” before what we are told was the editor’s personal decision to axe the Savile exposé. Pollard was particularly scathing about Mitchell’s convenient multiple lapses of memory during the inquiry, as well as several other aspects of Mitchell’s conduct, yet neither Mitchell nor anyone else at the BBC has been fired as a result of one of the most damaging failures in its history.
However, the most important unresolved issue, and the one that the BBC needs to learn lessons from, is whether—and if so, why—the BBC’s most senior management chose to ignore the multiple warnings they received about Savile. Let us not forget that Savile was probably the country’s most prolific paedophile ever discovered, and yet he worked seemingly unfettered at the BBC for decades. The BBC is not the only culprit, but it is astounding to think that the BBC’s culture, systems and management could have allowed that to happen, despite the wreckage caused to the lives of so many young people. It is still rather sickening to reflect on. The BBC would have emerged with far greater credit had it confronted the mounting allegations against Savile head-on. Instead, it kept them quiet for as long as it possibly could, before finally being publicly confronted and indeed engulfed by the truth. Years of rottenness tumbled into full view of the public.
The issue goes right to the top of the BBC at the time. In particular, the Pollard report concluded that it had no reason to disbelieve the story of then director-general Mark Thompson that he knew nothing about the sexual abuse allegations against Savile or about the nature of the “Newsnight” investigation until after he left the BBC. That is frankly implausible. The BBC’s former head of news and current head of radio, Helen Boaden, told the Pollard inquiry in a legal letter that she had informed Mark Thompson in December 2011 about the nature of the allegations against Savile. Shockingly, the evidence of the BBC’s then most senior female executive on the issue was given zero weight and was not even mentioned in the Pollard report. Instead, we were asked to believe that when Mark Thompson was sufficiently worried to call the head of BBC News to discuss the “Newsnight” investigation into Savile, he somehow, miraculously, never gained any indication of what the investigation was about.
Thompson maintains his denials of knowing anything about the Savile allegation, despite the fact that they were drawn to his office’s attention on at least 10 other occasions before he left the BBC in 2012. He even authorised the threat of a libel action to The Sunday Times. Leaders should be accountable for their own performance and for that of their organisations. It is not in the interests of the BBC or any other public sector organisation for a culture to emerge in which leaders may turn a blind eye to problems and evade their responsibilities with impunity.
I hope that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport will make good its promise to call Helen Boaden and Mark Thompson before it to clear the matter up once and for all. MPs should not have to deal with such issues. Frankly, an active BBC Trust and an active chairman would have made it their business to get to the bottom of the matter without delay. Instead, having spent millions of pounds of public money on inquiries, Lord Patten and the trust seem content to pass lingering questions about failures in the BBC’s management into the hands of its executive. At the very least, that shows an amazing lack of curiosity by Lord Patten to get at the truth.
The BBC Trust’s chief response to the Savile and McAlpine scandals seems to have been to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on getting rid of its previous choice of director-general, almost via constructive dismissal, and then parachuting in another one with no open competition or advertisement. The new director-general in turn has parachuted several cronies into lavishly paid top jobs with no open appointment process. Instead of making appointments at the top of the BBC more open and more meritocratic, they are now, ironically, less open than the procedures at the Bank of England. That is completely and utterly unacceptable.
Of course, I wish Lord Hall all the best in his difficult work, but the manner of his appointment, overseen by the BBC Trust, marks a step backwards, not forwards. As I understand it, the perception among BBC journalists is that the changes at the BBC since Savile, which was a gross failure of management, have entirely suited the management rather than the staff.
I have been less than impressed by the performance of the BBC’s other regulator, Ofcom. After the glaring flaws in the “Newsnight” report on child sex abuse allegations in north Wales became immediately obvious, I wrote to Ofcom asking it to investigate potentially serious breaches of the broadcasting code, and a related incident involving some fairly crass behaviour on ITV’s “This Morning” programme. Ofcom replied in November 2012 announcing that it had opened an investigation into both programmes. Nearly six months later, we are none the wiser as to its conclusions or even the state of its investigation. Again, instead of effective regulation and oversight, it looks as though Ofcom is happy for that issue to remain in the long grass.
I will conclude by asking a number of questions of the Minister. Does he agree with Lord Patten that governance is somehow a second-order issue? Does he think it is important that the BBC Trust is active, and a proactive guardian of licence fee payers’ interests? What assessment have the Government made of the current BBC Trust’s performance during the Savile and McAlpine scandals and more broadly? Does it have his full confidence? Does he agree with the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) that the BBC Trust has
“not yet been a strong enough or assertive enough voice on behalf of the licence-fee payer”?
Above all, there are two key questions for the Government to consider. In the long term, is the trusteeship model right for oversight and regulation of the BBC? More immediately, given the reputational damage the BBC has suffered over the past year, does the Minister have confidence in the current trustees and are they the right people to lead the BBC into the next licence fee settlement and beyond?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the worrying pattern, which we have seen since the death of Savile, of something that has been happening for many years—20 or 30 years—is typical of the wrong approach that such matters are too secret to get out?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Something has clearly been wrong and damaging about the culture and practices in the BBC over a long period. It just so happens that Savile’s death and what he got up to has cast a light on something that many people did not understand or know about. We must take action now that we know what happened and what was wrong in the BBC. I hope that the BBC and the trust will learn from that.
My final question for the Minister is: does he think that there are enough people with media and broadcasting experience in the current BBC Trust? I have been and remain at heart a huge fan of the BBC, but as it enters the brave new world of online and mobile communications, surely it is important to ensure that the corporation is properly managed.
It is an honour and a privilege to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) for calling this debate. I sit between two of the BBC’s strongest advocates in Parliament. I echo my hon. Friend’s opening remarks that the BBC is a fantastic institution, but that does not mean that it is above reproach or criticism.
With your indulgence, Mr Davies, I will dwell on my hon. Friend’s work in this area. He has positioned himself as a critical friend of the BBC. He is keen to look at where it has made errors, and keen to make constructive proposals to improve its governance. I would expect nothing less from him. I got to know him when he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), but his reputation preceded him as having made the highest number of runs for South Moreton cricket club in my constituency, a record that stood for something like 30 years.
At the risk of repeating myself, the BBC is a globally recognised and admired institution. It is a hugely respected brand around the world. The previous UN Secretary- General, Kofi Annan, described the BBC World Service as
“perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world this century.”
BBC programmes are sold all round the world, whether the programmes themselves or the format. It is important to keep that in mind during this debate.
The second point I want to make in setting the context and before turning to the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised is that one reason for the BBC’s success is its independence. Although we have our criticisms of it, no one in the House would want it to become subject to political control, which is why many processes are being put in place to ensure that politicians do not interfere, but perversely that produces an element of frustration when things go wrong and it is difficult to influence decisions when people in this House perceive them to be going wrong.
The BBC is independent, but that does not mean that it is not accountable for its actions. Because of the unique way it is funded and owned, the BBC must be accountable. It must be accountable to licence fee payers, and that is why this debate is so important. The BBC Trust represents licence fee payers’ interests, and holds the BBC’s executive to account.
Let us remind ourselves of the trust’s duties. They are enshrined in the charter, and explicitly include representing licence fee payers, ensuring the independence of the BBC, and assessing the views of licence fee payers. We believe that those principles, alongside the others set out in the charter and agreement, provide a strong framework for the trust to ensure accountability to licence fee payers.
Parliament should also have an overview of a public institution as important as the BBC, so it goes without saying that it has the right to ask questions and to hold debates—never more so, perhaps, than following the recent events that my hon. Friend referred to. It is clear, following those events, that the BBC Trust must rebuild not only the public’s trust in the BBC, but trust in the BBC Trust itself. I welcome the steps that are being taken to achieve that.
I welcome the appointment of a new director-general of the BBC, Tony Hall, and I use this opportunity to thank Tim Davie—now the chief executive officer of BBC Worldwide—for his role as acting director-general of the BBC. When Tim Davie took on that acting role, he was very conscious of the need to engage not only with politicians and the licence fee payer, but with the people who worked at the BBC. We should not forget, as my hon. Friend made clear, that the criticisms surrounding the BBC in recent weeks and months are not directed at the vast majority of people who do a fantastic job for the BBC, and the impact on their morale was significant.
There is still work to do, and I assure my hon. Friend that no one is complacent. We need to see through the remaining BBC inquiries. Let us not forget that we have yet to conclude the Dame Janet Smith review, which has contacted 450 people, and has had 275 telephone conversations and 80 face-to-face meetings with witnesses. The BBC is also carrying out two internal reviews on respect at work and on child protection and whistleblowing procedures. Both are expected to report to the BBC Trust shortly.
We have had the Pollard review, and my hon. Friend raised points about the cost of that. As I understand it, the cost is £2.2 million, which has been publicly stated, and in May, the BBC will provide a breakdown of how and where that money was spent. It is also the case that apart from redactions required to avoid legal action, if I can put it that way, all the evidence that was supplied to the Pollard review has been published. I am sure that people will still have their views on the review’s conclusions, but those are the facts as they stand.
My hon. Friend raised a number of other issues. In terms of the BBC Trust’s role as the guardian of the licence fee revenue, its strategic functions include setting the strategic direction of the BBC and assessing the performance of BBC services. BBC Trust oversight of the BBC, however, does not extend to interference in editorial decision making and involvement in operational management. It is the regulator of the BBC, but it does not run the BBC on a day-to-day basis.
My hon. Friend discussed value for money, which is important. Let us not forget that one of the first decisions of this Government was to freeze the licence fee until the end of the charter. It was a good decision, not only to provide value for the licence fee payer, but to force the BBC to address some of the costs that it could remove from its organisation. It has done that through the “Delivering Quality First” strategy, which has made savings of £700 million. It has reduced the amounts paid to senior managers, as well as the number of senior managers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) mentioned the issue of publishing invoices. As I understand it, the BBC is trying to make progress on that point. Last year, the previous director-general, Mark Thompson said that the BBC would release details of spending by category, which will provide a coherent and transparent picture of expenditure. However, the BBC believes that publishing individual invoices would cause commercial difficulties. Let us not forget that the BBC deals with a range of commercial partners that might not wish to see the commercial terms of their relationship with the BBC published. I can tell, just by making that brief remark, that I have provoked my hon. Friend into making an intervention.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for the way in which he is responding to the debate. Does he recall that the same defence was used by local authorities about their contractual organisations? The world has not fallen in since they have published all their invoices.
That intervention was carefully staged for two reasons. First, it allows me to congratulate my hon. Friend on his magnificent performance at the marathon on Sunday. Secondly, I take his point and I was going to say that the debate will continue, and it is right that colleagues in the House raise those issues and press the BBC on them. I do not necessarily believe that the matter is closed, but the time for our debate is running short, and I want to address the specific questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East asked.
I do not believe that Lord Patten thinks that governance is somehow a second-order issue. He is an experienced, former politician, who can sometimes have a particular turn of phrase, but I have no doubt at all that he took on the job with serious intent. He intends to run the BBC Trust—and has done so—in a serious manner, but I think that he wants to make sure, as we run up to charter review, that we focus on important issues.
It is an important point to make that we are gearing up for charter review. The BBC’s charter runs out at the end of 2016. The previous Government conducted a long, three-year process of charter review. Whether that is necessary in this instant, again, is a matter for contemplation and debate. What is important about the charter review is that those important issues can now be subject to part of a formal procedure. I am certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East, who has made himself a strong voice in Parliament, putting forward issues of reform for the BBC, will play an important role. I, and the Government, want the charter review to be a public process, engaging as many people as possible.
The trust has acted as a guardian of licence fee payers’ interests. That is central to its very being. The trust’s oversight, as I said earlier, does not extend to interference in editorial decision making, but that does not mean, concerning recent events, that we cannot acknowledge that lessons need to be learnt, not only from the events themselves, but, as we made clear at the time, from the pace at which they were addressed. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made it clear that she felt the trust could have acted quicker with the initial inquiries. It is also now clear—the Secretary of State again made it clear—that she felt that once the trust had understood the seriousness of the issues that it was facing, it began to handle the process well.
My hon. Friend asked whether the trusteeship model is the right one for oversight and regulation of the BBC. We are content with the model at the moment, but there is no doubt at all that people will have views as we undertake charter review.
The Government are open to hearing the views of all stakeholders who have expertise and an interest in the BBC and its future. It seems a matter of common sense that people will offer up improvements or even potential models. We do not want to change the BBC Trust model, but we want to have an open debate about issues to do with the BBC as we move towards charter review. It is important to say that we are not excluding any specific issue.
Finally, I have full confidence in the chairman of the BBC Trust and in the existing trustees. Again, by and large, they are appointed by an independent process, but the process for appointing trustees is open and transparent, which is important. The BBC has been through a tortuous period in the past few months. My hon. Friend has responded in an entirely appropriate way, by holding it to account, by asking pertinent questions, and most importantly, by offering constructive proposals for reform. The Government are always open to ideas, and a process will get under way in terms of charter review.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).