Tuesday 5 November 2013
[Hywel Williams in the Chair]
Persecution of Christians (Middle East)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
It is a pleasure to speak on this topic under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. The number of Members in the Chamber testifies to the debate’s importance.
Article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. When citizens are prevented from enjoying that right, the social, political and cultural implications can be serious, as the debate will show. The loss of other human rights can swiftly follow. The debate is therefore important not only for Christians, but for all religious groups and minorities, and indeed for everyone seeking to live out the dictates of their conscience in worship, teaching, practice and observance, respectful of others’ right to do likewise, and under the protection of a state striving to achieve that positive vision under the rule of law. That is a far cry from the reality for many Christians in the middle east.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She is being characteristically generous in giving way. It is right that we should stand up to champion the cause of religious freedom across all religions and faiths, but is it not a stark fact of Christian persecution that 80% of all discrimination is against Christians?
My hon. Friend is quite right. Christianity is the most persecuted faith worldwide, so the problem exists not only in the middle east, but globally.
The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, in his outgoing interview with The Daily Telegraph, discussed the persecution of Christians in the middle east with the deepest concern of any current issue, saying that
“this is a human tragedy that is going almost unremarked… it is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing. We are seeing Christians in Syria in great danger; we are seeing the burning of Coptic churches in Egypt. There is a large Coptic population in Egypt, and for some years now it has been living in fear. Two years ago the last church in Afghanistan was destroyed, certainly closed. There are no churches left in Afghanistan. Between 500,000 and 1 million Christians have left Iraq. At the beginning of the 19th century, Christians represented 20% of the population of the Arab world, today 2%. This is a story that is crying out for a public voice”.
Let us be that voice today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning two of the numerous countries where Christians are suffering. I hope that the debate will highlight many more.
The recently produced evidence-based and measured report by Aid to the Church in Need, which is available in full at www.acnuk.org/persecution, shows that Christians in the middle east are subject to widespread and intense acts of violence motivated at least in part by religious hatred, and that violence and intimidation are now much more serious than in preceding years, and certainly since ACN’s last report in 2011.
The report catalogues a preponderance of anti-Christian violence, including attacks on Christian homes, churches and businesses, and the kidnapping of Christians for reasons connected with their faith; court cases, including those involving blasphemy allegations; key political developments affecting religious freedom, including new or amended constitutions, travel permits for clergy, Government statements, policies causing Christians difficulties; planning regulations, which similarly cause difficulties for church building projects; and Government attitudes towards Christian engagement in political debate and voting rights. Many social changes have resulted in restrictions and limitations on Christians’ access to employment, education and health care, and there is pressure to change religion on pain of death.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Many years ago, Christians in this country were burned at the stake because of their belief and their faith. It is estimated that 130 countries around the world persecute Christians. Every hour, a Christian is tortured and murdered somewhere in the world. Surely, in this day and age, something more can be done to protect people and their faith.
I absolutely agree. We should be crying out with the same abhorrence and horror that we feel about the terrible atrocities towards Jews on Kristallnacht and on other occasions in Germany during the second world war.
Analysing 30 countries, the ACN report indicated that in only four had the situation for Christians improved, and in three of those the improvement was only marginal. In six, there was no change, but that was only because the situation was so bad already. Persecution in the middle east region was the greatest concern of all.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. The report to which she refers does not cover numerous countries, including Malaysia, which is not in the middle east, but the situation there is of significant concern. Is she aware of the recent decision in Malaysia to ban Christians from using the word “Allah”, which has been used in Malay as a term for God for centuries? It has effectively outlawed the Bible, particularly in the Christian eastern states of Malaysia. Is she concerned about the wider ramifications in other parts of the world not covered by the report that she cites?
I am very concerned about that and the problem has global implications. I hope that, as a result, we will have many more debates in the House on the persecution of Christians in other regions of the world.
The ACN report discusses how, in virtually every country in and around the middle east region, Christians report suffering either high, high to extreme or extreme persecution. That includes Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. In virtually every one, the situation has worsened since ACN’s last report in 2011, except in Iraq, but only because the attacks in 2009-10 were so large in scale.
In this context, it is important to recognise that there is one state in the middle east with a proud record of allowing a large degree of religious freedom, irrespective of other elements of the problems that it faces within its borders: Israel. I hope that my hon. Friend will say a few words about how religious freedom, at least, is protected in Israel, not just for the 2% of its population who are Christian, but for the 16% who are Muslim.
My hon. Friend is quite right, which is why I did not include Israel in the list that I read out. The report does not include it among the areas of extreme persecution. I respect what is being done in Israel, although I must say that concerns are now being expressed in Palestine about increasing persecution there.
The report says:
“Christianity may yet remain the largest world religion, but its claims to universality—a truly global presence on all five continents—may soon be lost as it becomes the prime victim in the emergence of theocratic states where minority faith groups—most especially Christians—have no place, except perhaps as third-class citizens.”
I am sorry that I am unable to stay for the Minister’s reply. Is it not one of the most shocking features of the situation that a number of the countries on the list are ones with which our country has significant ties? Several are significant recipients of British aid, so we should have leverage in some of the heart-rending cases that my hon. Friend has mentioned.
That is absolutely right. I hope, if time permits, to come to that point, although I am most willing to take as many interventions as Members wish, because that demonstrates the interest in the subject.
The plight of Christians in Iran was highlighted by an all-party parliamentary group report on the persecution of Christians in Iran, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who chaired that inquiry. The situation has not improved since we produced that report. In September, Christian Solidarity Worldwide wrote to the Foreign Secretary to say that Iranian civil society has experienced intense repression, including the continuing detention of journalists, human rights defenders and political activists.
With regard to freedom of religion or belief, despite Christianity being recognised in the Iranian constitution, a campaign of arrests that initially targeted the house church movement has been extended to the Government-sanctioned Assemblies of God—the AOG denomination —with hundreds of Christians detained in raids in cities across the country, forcible closures of churches and convictions for ill-defined crimes. The Church that I attend here in this country is a member of the AOG denomination.
Martin Luther King said:
“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
In that regard, I want to put on the record my concern for Farshid Fathi, who has been in Evin prison in Tehran since December 2010. He is serving a six-year sentence simply for wanting to run a church, and he has a wife and two young children.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has mentioned that person. It is an outrage that citizens of countries such as the United States are being detained in prisons in Iran.
In October, CSW reported that four members of a Christian Church were sentenced to 80 lashes each for drinking communion wine during a communion service, contrary to rules against the drinking of alcohol. That effectively criticises and condemns the Christian sacrament of sharing the Lord’s supper, and criminalises it.
Open Doors states that, despite promising words
“from Iran’s newly elected President, Rouhani, the situation for Christians in the country has not improved.”
An Iranian lawyer, Attieh Fard, told a recent meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council:
“It is obvious that the Islamic government of Iran has taken actions to prevent access of both Christians and the public to Christian societies, to churches, to Christian literature and religion, despite the Christians’ constitutional, national and international rights.”
Anti-Christian repression in Saudi Arabia is more severe than anywhere in the region, although we hear precious little about it. Non-Muslim places of worship are forbidden, conversion from Islam is punishable by death and the small number of indigenous Christians who practise their faith in extreme secrecy risk raids and arrests.
I will discuss what is happening in Syria in a moment, and also what happened to the Christians in Iraq following the US-led invasion of 2003, when hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes following targeted attacks, many by Islamist militants.
I will indeed, time permitting. The suffering of the Copts in Egypt is a critical issue.
Christians in the middle east have suffered from a domino effect of violence that began in Iraq, spread to Syria and overshadows Egypt, leaving the survival of the Church in jeopardy. According to reports, Christians are leaving in droves, ending the presence of the Church in its ancient heartlands. We must remember that Paul’s conversion was on the road to Damascus. That is a key part of the Christian story and heritage. Such countries formerly had large Christian communities—Syria had more than 1.5 million, and a similar number in Iraq is now down to about 300,000—so those are tragic reductions in countries where there are large numbers of the faithful. Persecution is also happening in countries such as Yemen, where the faithful are few in number.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On the situation in Syria, one of the greatest tragedies is that it was that country that offered a haven to refugees, Christian and of other faiths, during the civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, and indeed during the war and civil war in Iraq, and yet, in Syria now, Christians and others are being persecuted.
That is absolutely right. Barnabas Aid reports that until 2011, Syria was one of the freest places to be a Christian in the middle east. It was a place of sanctuary for Christians escaping persecution in Iraq. Suddenly, all of that has changed. Christians made up a sizable minority—around 10% of the population—and were allowed to live out their faith without much hostility from Muslims around them. The Patriarch of Antioch, Gregorios III, said that it was often Christians who provided a bridge between disparate Muslim groups in the region. They had a collegiate approach towards living there. However, as clashes between Government forces and opposition fighters escalated into the brutal civil war that the country has experienced, Christians emerged as particular targets for rebels who assumed at times that Christians were Government supporters.
As Islamist bands have become some of the most prominent groups among rebel fighters, Christians are increasingly being targeted. We hear, for example, of one village where the parish priest has to collect $35,000 a month to pay rebel groups to protect the Christians from armed attacks. That is outrageous, but that is what is happening now.
Recent estimates put the number of Christians who have fled Syria at between 450,000 and 600,000—about a third of the Christian population before the atrocities began. Barnabas Aid estimates that about 600 have been martyred for their faith. For those who stay, the picture is bleak. The report that I mentioned states that entire populations of predominantly Christian villagers around Homs fled for their lives in 2012. In February this year, rebel fighters invaded al-Thawrah, seized Christian homes, confiscated possessions and threatened people with death because they did not comply with sharia law. On 27 May this year, rebel fighters massacred almost 40 men, women and children in the Christian village of Dweir on the outskirts of Homs. Some victims were tortured before being murdered.
The report’s authors told of meeting Syrian Christian refugees in Jordan, who had been told while they were in Syria:
“Don’t celebrate Easter or you will be killed like your Christ.”
On 17 August this year, the Christian area of Wadi al-Nasara, called the valley of the Christians, was attacked. Church buildings were targets. In January this year, church attacks were condemned as war crimes by Human Rights Watch. On 4 September, the historic Christian village of Maaloula—one of the few places in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken—was attacked. Rebels linked to al-Qaeda went into every Christian home and destroyed evidence of the inhabitants’ faith. At least seven were killed, and most of the village’s residents were forced to flee. Christians who fled said:
“Let history record that Maaloula is crying today.”
A growing trend is the use of rape as a weapon. In early 2013, a fatwa was issued, via YouTube, that called for the rape of women who were not Sunni Muslims. A tragic example is the horrendous ill-treatment of Mariam, a young Christian woman from al-Qusayr. She was forcibly married to a man who raped her on the same day. Later that day, he repudiated the marriage. The next day, another Islamist man did exactly the same. It continued day after day. For 15 days, 15 different men abused her in this way. Finally, when she was showing signs—unsurprisingly—of mental instability, they killed her. She was just 15 years old.
Christian Church leaders are being kidnapped and disappearing, including two senior bishops, Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulous Yazigi. I am informed that they are of the same seniority as the Bishops of Liverpool and of Manchester; if they had been kidnapped and had disappeared, and were possibly dead, there would be an international outcry. We should exhibit the same response.
For many years, Christians in Syria have formed a cohesive part of the community. At the launch of the report that I have referred to, the Patriarch of Antioch, head of one of the largest Christian Churches in the country, said movingly in this place:
“All Syrians are our brothers and sisters—we have no enemies—yet we are victims. We have not asked for weapons and I have told my parishioners, ‘don’t seek arms.’ We are a church of reconciliation and we are seen by many Muslims as the only one—let the rest of Europe hear that. Persecution is not in our history and we have a long history of collegiality in the region. Let us understand our role and mission—both the historic one and one going forward. But you cannot have a role if you are not present.”
In Egypt, we hear that despite the persecution they engender, Egyptian Christians have forgiven their persecutors and are not retaliating. Although it has experienced enormous hardship, the response of the Coptic community has been one of unprecedented non-retaliation. In some areas, they stand hand in hand with Muslims—I pay tribute to the Muslims standing with them—to protect their churches from further damage. Muslim families in lower Egypt have given blankets to Copts who have lost their homes.
Since the fall of the Islamist Government in Egypt, Christians have seen no improvement in their condition. On the contrary, they are suffering one of the worst periods of targeted violence against them in modern history. More than 140 attacks have been documented since the middle of August—a “reign of terror”, as it has been called by Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
As I have said, we bemoan to this day the persecution of the Jews in Germany, but in August 2013, The Times reported ransackings of homes, hospitals and schools similar to those that took place in 1938, when Jewish synagogues and buildings were ransacked and pillaged. It stated:
“Dozens of churches, homes and businesses have been set alight and looted in Egypt, forcing millions of Christians into hiding amid the worst bout of sectarian violence in the country’s modern history. Some Coptic Christian communities are being made to pay bribes as local Islamists exploit the turmoil by seeking to revive a seventh-century tax, called jizya, levied on non-Muslims.”
The morning after the terrible attacks in mid-August, Bishop Kyrillos William Samaan of Assuit told staff of Aid to the Church in Need that, during a spate of violence against Christians, nearly 80 churches and other centres were attacked in less than 48 hours. Fear of attack means that thousands of Christians are now too afraid to leave their homes. He said that in some villages, people were heard crying:
“Save us. We cannot go out of our houses.”
Joe Stork, the acting middle east director of Human Rights Watch, has reported that dozens of churches are in ruins, and that
“Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives.”
Only last week, a young Christian minister was kidnapped, tortured and killed when his family could not pay a ransom. How long can we remain apparently indifferent to regular reports of the abduction, forced conversion and marriage of Christian girls, and to the accompanying violence, rape, discrimination, beatings and abuse?
I accept that growing militant Islamism is not the only reason why Christians are being attacked—there is also political instability, poverty and desperation resulting from the displacement of refugees—but that issue nevertheless poses a real threat to other societies. As Barnabas Aid reported in mid-September,
“Western Muslims are going to fight alongside jihadists in Syria…returning home to become potential jihadists themselves. Western countries are not fully grappling with this problem.”
I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and highlighting the issues so eloquently and powerfully. She has mentioned several middle east countries, but may I raise the issue of Lebanon? The Syrian refugee crisis is affecting Jordan, Turkey, and particularly Lebanon, where there was a delicate balance between Shi’as, Sunnis and Christian groups. There is great concern that the mainly Sunni influx will result in a very big change in Lebanon’s demographics, with big effects for the Christian community in particular. Does she share my concern?
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. He is absolutely right that the massive influx into Lebanon is putting enormous pressure on medical services and institutions. One problem is that Christian refugees in many places in Syria are frightened to use official UN camps, because of fear of persecution and attacks even within the camps, and therefore have to seek aid elsewhere. In this debate, I want to call on the UN to look at what can be done to ensure that official places of refuge, such as UN camps, are secure and safe for Christians and, indeed, any other religious minorities suffering in the same way.
I turn to my requests to the Minister, who I am sure would not want me to conclude without making some. I appreciate the utter complexity of challenging the situation in the middle east, and that deep-seated sensitivities can be engendered by addressing the issue of religious persecution in general, and the persecution of Christians in particular. More than one person has commented to me that addressing the issue could be seen as promoting colonial or neo-colonial attitudes. I respectfully say that we really must get over that and find a way round it. It must not inhibit us from acting; millions of people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake here. Others have rightly remarked on the sheer complexity of such a daunting task, but I again say that we cannot leave the lives of those millions of people in the “too hard to do” box.
I recognise that substantial endeavours have already been made by Foreign Office Ministers and officials to address the challenges, for which I thank them. Those endeavours include the Foreign Office toolkit on freedom of religion or belief, the new conferences on equality taking place at Wilton Park, and the new equality and non-discrimination team in the Foreign Office human rights and democracy department.
I want to ask the following questions. What steps can the British Government take to help translate into positive action and support the grave concerns of millions of Christians around the world about the plight of their fellow believers in the middle east? What actions are the Government taking to call to account the Governments responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the persecution of Christians and, indeed, other religious minorities in the middle east? For example, what calls have been made on the Iranian authorities to ensure that President Rouhani fulfils his promise to release all political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, and to ensure that the nation’s new constitutional procedures do not contradict its international obligations, under the international covenant on civil and political rights, to guarantee the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief for all religious communities?
What action can be taken to urge protection of the Coptic community in Egypt, to help address the culture of hate speech and impunity in which attacks occur, and to ensure the emergence of a society in which all Egyptians can flourish, regardless of their religious or political affiliation? What actions are the Government taking to assist Governments who are grappling with an upsurge in violence by those responsible for atrocities against Christians and other minority religious groups in the middle east?
What action are the Government taking to assist the growing numbers of internally displaced people and refugees forced from their homes directly as a result of persecution? I recognise that the Department for International Development has allocated the generous sum of £500 million to support Syria—I believe that is one of the largest donations in the world—but as I said earlier, the particular problem of Christians who are struggling to get aid support because of their faith needs to be addressed.
What action are the Government taking to assist other Governments in rooting out religious discrimination against Christians in educational institutions, and where there is institutionalised anti-Christian bias in curriculums and cultural practices? Some fundamental organisations appear to be able to tap into significant financial resources. How can strategies be developed to reduce such access? Although I accept that the Minister is from the Foreign Office and not from DFID, many of the issues relate to the work of both Departments. I ask DFID to identify freedom of religion or belief as a new priority in its work, and to recognise that where article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights is breached, the impact on women, which is a priority for DFID and in the current review of the millennium development goals, can be particularly acute.
I call on DFID to recognise the contribution that promoting freedom of religion or belief can make in achieving other societal goals such as gender equality, a reduction in discrimination and social exclusion, the prevention of conflict and the promotion of regional stability; and the contribution that healthy civil society bodies, including faith groups, make in many cultures to help promote security and prosperity. It should also recognise that while religious freedom concerns are predominantly issues within individual states, they can and will escalate into larger national and international problems with significant global implications if they are not addressed, as we are seeing in the impact on Lebanon.
Countries with high levels of religious restrictions can be breeding grounds for terrorism and political instability, and that can result in large numbers of refugees fleeing violence. Will the Minister accept that religious freedom should be seen as a human rights concern and be prioritised in our foreign policy? I call on DFID to renew its “Faith Partnership Principles” document, which was referred to just last week in a meeting of the Select Committee on International Development, in a reply to a question that I raised with the Secretary of State for International Development. I have the utmost respect for the Secretary of State, and I genuinely mean that. She is doing a remarkable job with a very wide brief. On reading the document, I saw that it was written some years ago, and that it focuses more on the impact that faith groups have on delivering aid, and working with the Government to do that, than on addressing the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities as a human rights issue. As this debate shows, the time has come for that priority to be stated and defined.
Will the Minister consider all the recommendations in the recent report, “Article 18: An Orphaned Right”, published by the all-party parliamentary group on international religious freedom, of which I and several other Members in the Chamber are members? Will he also provide us with a written response to that report, which makes too many recommendations for me to enumerate here?
Order. Seven Members have said that they wish to speak. I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers at 10.40 am, so I appeal to Members to keep their remarks brief and to the point, and to restrain themselves in interventions, if they can.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on bringing this important matter to the Chamber and on allowing us all to have a chance to have a say in the debate. Christian persecution is an important issue. Although I always have my constituency in my heart, I believe that I must stand up for those who are persecuted throughout the world—in this case, Christians in the middle east. In the debate pack for this debate, it says that
“the global war on Christians remains the greatest story never told of the early 21st century.”
I, too, believe that to be the truth. Just as one did not have to be Jewish in the 1970s to care about dissident Jews in the Soviet Union, or to be black to be outraged by the apartheid regime in South Africa, one does not have to be a Christian today to see that the defence of persecuted Christians should be a towering priority.
I was pleased to meet Baroness Warsi and other Members last week and to read the interesting report prepared by the APPG on international religious freedom. Of great interest was the fact that 75% of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of Government restriction on freedom of belief, and that became evident during the so-called Arab spring. Some 100,000 Christians will be killed in a year—one every hour—and 2 million will be persecuted. Such statistics put the matter into perspective. With our current economic issues, it is clear that many people are concerned with their own difficulties. None the less, I have been overwhelmed by the amount of people who regularly contact my offices to ask me to do all I can to use my position to bring about an end to Christian persecution. The stories that are relayed to me are shocking in their intensity.
A century ago, about 20% of the population in north Africa and the middle east were Christian, according to Open Doors, but that figure has now dropped to just 4% of the population, which is due to persecution. The percentage drop does not indicate how many of those people were murdered or forcibly or even voluntarily displaced, but it does indicate that there may be no Christian presence left in the middle east in my son’s lifetime—or even in my own lifetime. To those who might question what role we have to play in that international story, I say that it is a very important one. It is my role and that of the House to support Christians who are persecuted and targeted merely because of their choice of worship. The hon. Member for Congleton has given evidence of other parts of the world where persecution is rife. As the debate is specifically on the middle east, I will keep my comments entirely on that region.
A quick glance online at Christian Persecution Info will reveal many headlines and stories. In Iran, we learn that 80 lashes were given for the taking of communion wine. It is unbelievable that such a small thing in reality—it is important to Christians because of the importance of holy communion—can bring about such persecution. We also learn that the violations of the rights of Christians, most notably converts from Islam to evangelical Protestant groups, continue unabated. A UN report in October said:
“Authorities continue to compel licensed Protestant churches to restrict Persian-speaking and Muslim-born Iranians from participating in services and raids and forced closures of house churches are ongoing. More than 300 Christians have been arrested since 2010 and dozens of church leaders and active community members have reportedly been convicted of national security crimes in connection with church activities, such as organizing prayer groups…and attending Christian seminars abroad.”
In Egypt, a man, woman and young children who were all Christian were killed at a drive-by shooting at a wedding. In Saudi Arabia, there has been a call for the destruction of all churches on the Arabian peninsula. According to Jihad Watch, a Kuwaiti parliamentarian presented a Bill that would ban the construction of any new non-Islamic religious buildings in the emirate. However, the call in Saudi Arabia went further than that. It insisted that all existing churches be demolished, as Islam is the only religion permitted on the peninsula. The ruling is based on the hadith of Mohammed, who said:
“There shall not be two religions on the peninsula of the Arabs.”
Again, that is a very insidious and very specific persecution of Christians.
The village of Maaloula, a symbol of Syrian Christian tradition where Aramaic is still spoken, is now a ghost town. The bodies of Christians lie along the roads of that small village north of Damascus after it was invaded by Islamist insurgents last month.
The list goes on and on. There will be no Christians left in the middle east if we continue at such a rate. That fear is based not on percentages, but on the fact that there are literally millions of people who live in fear every day.
I will conclude now, because I am conscious that other Members want to contribute to the debate. I plead with the Minister, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development to do all they can to help stop the persecution in the middle east and to ensure that support filters down to the downtrodden Christian families who suffer every day to enjoy the freedom that we take for granted in this place. I stand with my friend and colleague, the hon. Member for Congleton, and ask the Minister to take action today and use the influence of this House, democratically and politically, to stop ethnic cleansing from taking place in the middle east. We cannot allow it to go on simply because it is a difficult area with intense problems.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate.
Why are we particularly focusing on Christian persecution? The reason has already been given, but it is worth emphasising. I am sure, Mr Williams, that you would like me to focus particularly on the middle east, but the reality is that in a disturbing total of 139 nations Christians face persecution, which is extraordinary.
We have already heard various statistics, but it is worth reminding ourselves of one statistic from the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, which has worked out that 11 Christians are killed around the world every hour, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith. And increasing numbers of Christians are being killed in the middle east, which is why it is right to focus on the region.
Is this a debate just for Christians? There are a number of Christians here, including members of Christians in Parliament, the all-party group, but there are other Members who are here who are not Christians, and quite rightly so. It is right that we should recently have heard the words of Pope Francis when addressing the general audience. He said:
“When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent, or is it as if a member of my own family is suffering?”
Christians very much feel that members of their family—brothers and sisters—are suffering and they need to speak up about it, but they are members of all our family who are suffering, and anyone who is concerned about freedom of religion feels that; it is not the exclusive preserve of Christians but is felt by anyone who cares about a good society and wants to stand up for common freedoms, and the desire for freedom of religion is very much a common concern. We will hear today from other Members who do not share the Christian faith with us but very much share that same passion and desire for freedom of religion. It is quite right that we are all united across the House and across the faiths on this issue.
The term “Christian persecution” is sometimes bandied about carelessly. In this country, we can talk about Christian persecution, but let us just remind ourselves that if there is Christian persecution in this country then at worst its victim is likely to be sued, but in the middle east the victim will be killed. That is the stark reality that we are facing and that is why we are focusing today on Christian persecution in the middle east.
As I say, Christian persecution is a reality in the middle east, but I will particularly focus on Iran. As has been mentioned, Christians in Parliament, the all-party group, produced a report last year on the persecution of Christians in Iran, but now sadly we need to produce an update on how such persecution has been extended. Hassan Rouhani has been elected and religious freedom in Iran formed part of his campaign pledges. He said in his election campaign:
“All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice”.
We have to challenge that and ask how there has been justice for Christians in Iran, even in the time that he has been President. What he was doing in making that remark was effectively referring to the Iranian constitution, article 23 of which states:
“The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”
That principle has been overridden by sharia law, which has taken precedence on this issue. However, the basic constitutional work in Iran, and indeed the pre-revolution heritage of Iran, was about having sympathy with religious minorities and the Iranian people here in Britain hang their head in shame at what is happening in their country now in the name of Iran and its current regime, and that has continued under the watch of Rouhani; the situation in Iran for all religious minorities, but particularly for Christians, has continued to deteriorate.
Just at the end of last month, two Christians in Iran were lashed for drinking communion wine; they were punished simply for partaking in a sacrament that has obviously been practised for centuries, since the time of Jesus. Two other Christians in Iran are now awaiting the same punishment for drinking communion wine. In Iran, Christians continue to be arrested, detained and interrogated, before harsh sentences are handed down on erroneous, trumped-up and political charges, on the basis of protecting security, and those sentences are upheld on appeal.
Our all-party group’s report on Iran particularly highlighted the concerns that exist for the house church movement, the members of which have suffered appalling persecution. In addition, there is now visible persecution of people in churches, including of people in Orthodox churches. Also, the Catholic Church in Tehran has been pressured by the Iranian authorities into barring Persian-speaking Iranians. Why is that? No doubt, it is because the regime presumes that such people are from a Muslim background and it wants to suppress any profession of Christian faith by them. Previously, such treatment has been limited to Protestant Churches, but now it is being extended across the board.
We have had the September session at the UN General Assembly, and perhaps we are seeing a thawing of relations with Iran. Eighty prisoners of conscience were released from Iranian prisons. So can we sit down and say, “All is good now in Iran”? We have to recognise that two of the Christian women released were near the end of their sentence. Also, when Iran says that it is trying to be good and says, “Yes, we are going to release all prisoners of conscience,” we must look at the individuals concerned. Mr Williams, I hope that you and the Hansard writers will forgive me, but I need to put on the record the names of the 16 Christians who are serving time in jail in Iran whom we know of and who can be named. They are Maryam Zagaran, Farshid Fathi, who has already been mentioned, Farhad Sabokrooh, Shahnaz Jaynaz, Nasser Zamen-Dezfuli, Davoud Alijani, Mostafa Bordbar, Mojtaba Hossein, Mohammad-Beza Partoei, Homayoun Shokouhi, Vahid Hakkani, Ebrahim Firouzi, Saeed Abedini, Shahin Lahooti, Alireza Seyyedian and Behnam Irani. Forgive my pronunciation of their names, but the point is that these people need to be released if Rouhani is to make good on the promises that he made.
I wish to give others an opportunity to speak, Mr Williams, but we must recognise that despite the suffering that these Christians experience, they deal with it with incredible grace, humility and fortitude. Farshid Fathi recently wrote:
“How can I complain about my suffering when my brothers and sisters are paying a high price for their faith all over the world? How can I complain?”
Today, we can complain on their behalf. In fact, we can properly take the words of the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, and I will finish by quoting him. We have already heard that Israel is very much set apart from concerns about freedom of religion, by contrast to the countries that neighbour it. In 2011, Fouad Twal said:
“Does anybody hear our cry? How many atrocities must we endure before somebody, somewhere, comes to our aid?”
The opportunity for the Minister today is to respond to this debate and to show that the Government take these atrocities seriously and will complain and ensure that the relations between Iran and the UK are thawed. Human rights and the freedom of religion are central to restoring diplomatic relations with Iran, and Iran must respond to our recommendations. We must ensure that we use all the channels that we can to stand up for persecuted Christians in Iran.
I also welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing it and on her consistent attention to this pressing and important topic.
We have already heard the statistic, which I think comes from the International Society for Human Rights, that 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Like others, I shall use my brief contribution to refer to the persecution of Christians in Iran, drawing on a visit that I made last year to Turkey, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr Benton). While we were there we briefly met the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who was in the country. My hon. Friend and I were guests of Elam Ministries, a UK-based charity that supports Iranian Christians. Our visit contributed evidence to the Christians in Parliament report, which has been referred to and was published last October, and which was put together by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate.
Iran has a population of 74 million. We do not know how many of those people are Christians, but it seems clear that the number of Christians in Iran is increasing, perhaps quite quickly. Some estimates put the number as high as 1.5 million, or 2% of the population. The regime in Iran has certainly retaliated against the growth of Christianity with a concerted propaganda campaign. It is strictly forbidden for Christians to talk with others about what they believe in, and Churches that reach out to non-members have had leaders executed and members imprisoned and tortured. Congregations live under the constant threat of arrest and violent interrogation.
The situation has not always been like that, though. We were told that, after the Islamic revolution in 1979, the regime was, on the whole, tolerant of Christianity and of other minority religions—those religions are protected under the Iranian constitution—but things changed rapidly for the worse, as the evidence gathered for last year’s Christians in Parliament report showed. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has also noted since the beginning of 2012 an increase of harassment, arrest, trial and imprisonment of converts to Christianity in cities across Iran.
The renewed wave of repression has affected both the house church movement and approved denominations. There are tight restrictions on officially recognised Churches. We were told that, with few exceptions, churches can no longer hold services in Farsi—the first language—and that services are not allowed on Friday, which is the official day off. That means that going to church is likely to involve taking time off work and possibly giving up half a day’s pay. Those who attend services are closely monitored. Churches must submit lists of members, with their identity card numbers, so that churchgoers can be easily traced. Recognised Churches find it increasingly hard to obtain permission for maintenance work on their buildings.
While in Turkey, my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle and I were told that the harshness of the Iranian regime contrasts starkly to the warmth and tolerance of the Iranian people. Iranians are proud of their rich history of poetry and literature. Despite the persecution, the Church in Iran is growing rapidly. The Iranian Christians whom we met in Turkey made the point to us that the regime’s propaganda against Christians is widely disbelieved. That was demonstrated dramatically when we spoke to some remarkable Christians we met, who had gone to Turkey for safety.
One of our destinations was Kayseri—a big, modern Turkish city of about 1 million people, with an ancient fortress at its centre. We visited an Iranian church there, one of quite a large number of churches made up of Iranian exiles that meet in Turkey. This one meets in a modest flat at the top of a low-rise block above shops. We met there a man who, with his wife, was imprisoned on a charge of
“action against the security of the nation”,
which can carry a six-year sentence. He was in prison for three months, which included a month in solitary confinement. It was a grim experience. For a while, he was in a cell with 10 others, including a journalist, an academic and other professionals. They shared minimal facilities between them.
Many of the Christians we met knew Pastor Farshid Fathi, whom we have heard about in the debate. I, too, pay tribute to him. A critic of the Iranian Government—a political critic—Mehdi Khazali, who shared a cell with Farshid last year, spoke of him in an interview:
“Farshid was a polite young man with a warm smile always on his face. All prisoners in ward 350 remember nothing but kindness from him. He had an exemplary behaviour. We never saw him lose his temper. He was a kind person.”
He is serving a six-year sentence, which began in December 2010.
We met many people who had suffered in Iran for their faith. Some had suffered terribly, but had not given up. Instead, they appeared to be even more determined to tell their fellow countrymen what they believed. One church in Istanbul, which offers copies of the New Testament to visiting Iranians—admittedly, it is quite a small church—told us that it had recently had to stop its evangelism because it could not fit any more people into the building.
I welcome the high priority that has been assigned by the Government, among their foreign policy concerns, to freedom of religion or belief. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the work that he did as a Foreign Office Minister, and I hope that this Minister can reassure us that that priority will be maintained.
I hope that Ministers making overseas visits will continue to make a point of meeting religious minorities, like some of those I met in Turkey. A Minister visiting a country such as Iran or the others that we have heard about is in a privileged position, and such visits to religious minorities in those countries are a source of huge encouragement for groups that are being persecuted. At the same time, they can help to draw much-needed attention to the injustice that so many people are suffering.
There are perhaps grounds for optimism in Iran: we have not yet seen much change, but at least some of the right words have been said. I hope that the Minister might be able to encourage us with the prospect that some of those words will indeed be fulfilled and that in the months ahead there will be change for the better for Christians in Iran.
And when the wise men were departed,
“behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.”
Joseph would not be very wise today to move from the west bank of Palestine to Egypt, because in August this year, there were targeted attacks on at least 100 Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, as well as Christian homes and businesses; and in September, large mobs carrying machetes and guns attacked properties, including the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery. It was forced to close for prayers in August for the first time in 1,600 years.
I do not intend to repeat anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) excellently said in opening the debate. The freedom of religion is an important human right set out in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. In the few moments available to me, I want to say some of the things that I think that Ministers should be doing.
The Foreign Office should consider appointing a special envoy for freedom of religion and belief to co-ordinate the UK’s diplomatic efforts in this field, in partnership with the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Today’s debate has highlighted that this is now an issue of such seriousness that it needs to rise up the list of Government priorities. I hope that we can see a re-establishment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office freedom of religion panel, to bring together on a regular basis human rights and religious freedom organisations and representatives of religious communities. That panel could inform and advise the Foreign Office on violations of, and methods of promoting, religious freedom, and on ensuring that freedom of religion and belief was part of bilateral and multilateral discussions with relevant Governments on a regular basis.
I appreciate that the Foreign Office often has a difficult task. It wants to promote trade with countries such as Malaysia, but what we heard earlier about the prejudice and discrimination against Christians in Malaysia is appalling for a Commonwealth country that has regular trade with the UK. We want to be reassured by Ministers that these issues are raised regularly.
It is also important to continue to exert diplomatic pressure on Governments of nations in which religious freedom is violated, and to consider imposing targeted sanctions on key individuals or Governments responsible for serious widespread and systematic violations of religious freedom. I very much agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier): many of the countries that we are talking about are countries to which the UK gives significant amounts of bilateral aid. Pakistan is the largest recipient of UK bilateral aid. I do not think it unreasonable that, in discussions about what bilateral aid we give to countries, we consider this issue and ensure that those countries will give religious freedom to everyone, including Christians.
Lastly, it is important to continue to oppose robustly efforts at the UN to introduce religious defamation measures; we must work to build a coalition of support for the campaign to reject religious defamation laws, and work generally to promote religious freedom.
In January 1945, my mother, who was too young even to attend school, joined millions of other ethnic Germans who were fleeing westwards from Breslau as the red army advanced. My forefathers had lived in that region for at least nine generations, as far as I am aware. That forced repatriation—a process that might now be called ethnic cleansing—of my mother’s family and millions of other civilian groups would in future be inextricably linked with their ethnicity, which was largely overlooked at the time in the euphoria that swept across Europe at the end of the second world war. Of course, my mother’s generation never returned.
We are now witnessing another wave of largely unnoticed civilian displacement in the middle east, with hundreds of thousands of Christians being forced to flee as they are banished from their often 2,000-year-old homelands in today’s remarkable surge in Arabian people power.
Others have talked about Iran and Egypt, so I hope that I will be forgiven for saying a few words on the Syrian situation. Global media attention has moved from Egypt and Libya to Syria, and is focusing on the crimes of the Assad Government and the mission to neutralise his chemical weapons, but innocent people on all sides are enduring awful hardship, death and torture. Civil war does not discriminate between young and old.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said in her superb contribution, there are more than 2 million Syrian followers of Christ whose lineage goes back literally 2,000 years to St Paul’s proselytising in the first century AD. For those people, these are incredibly desperate times. The unspeakable truth is that a sizeable Christian community in war-torn Syria is now at a greater threat of being ethnically cleansed from its ancestral home than it has been for generations. That threat is often posed by self-styled freedom fighters who have been fêted by the western press. Those fighters—increasingly rent-a-mob jihadists with no real stake in the affairs of Damascus—do not see those in the enclaves of Christians as genial neighbours whom they have lived beside for centuries. I am afraid that the sad truth is that religious minorities often find their most assured protection under dictatorships, and often it pays not to rock the status quo, but that should not be a convenient excuse for destroying ancient churches and holding populations to ransom.
I know others also want to speak, so I will end my comments, but we should all recognise that there are major issues. The plight of Christians across the world is all too often overlooked. We have rightly focused today on the middle east. The problems are going on, hour by hour, before our very eyes, and I am interested to hear what the Government will do, in practical terms.
We are thinking this morning about those people in the middle east and across the world who will wake up today to the reality of the persecution of their faith. It may be that their children are barred from school, or that they have no hope of securing a job for which they are eminently qualified, simply because they have a faith that they refuse to renounce—which may mean unlawful imprisonment, torture or even death. We have experienced that in this country in the past—the trials were conducted just a few yards from here—but we have learned that that is no way to run a country or build a society.
Some think democracy is the answer. As we have seen in Egypt, democracy may be a necessary condition for the long-term maintenance of human rights, but it is in no way a sufficient condition. Democracy without the rule of law becomes but the tyranny of the majority, and democracy without the rule of law based on universal human rights can be even worse. When we urge countries to embrace democracy and then question why it all goes wrong and many minorities find themselves in a worse position than under an autocrat, let us remember that the rule of law, underpinned by the universal rights and responsibilities of individuals and their enforcement, is a precondition for democracy. We must never forget that in the rush for universal suffrage and majority rule.
The Governments of middle-eastern countries that deliberately persecute Christians and those of other non-Islamic faiths are, by keeping down or driving out Christians, doing their countries a great disservice. Just look at the example of the UK. When my Huguenot ancestors were driven out of France after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, they fled to the low countries, to Germany and to England, and they took their skills with them. Courtauld brought textile manufacturing to this country, and hence, eventually, the industrial revolution. Some estimate that the expulsion of the Protestant Huguenots from France set that country back 100 years, and advanced those countries that welcomed them by a generation or two.
Each wave of immigrants welcomed by our country has brought enterprise and skills as they integrated. Where Christian citizens are driven away or kept down, it is a huge loss to that country, its people and its future, and the same is true for the UK. Let us recognise one of the reasons why Christians are persecuted. They are seen as representative of something alien—a western culture based on individualism and materialism, rather than the collective good of love for one’s neighbour. That, of course, is a travesty of the gospel, but it is understandable that outsiders think that when they see some of the products of western so-called civilisation.
Finally, we must show that religious and political freedom does not necessarily mean a descent into materialism, loss of family and spiritual poverty, which is a challenge to us. It is something we can do as a society, and as Christians, while at all times supporting our persecuted brothers and sisters and urging their countries to change heart.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who called for a public voice on this issue. She has been the instigator of that public voice this morning, and we are grateful to her for securing this opportunity.
Like other hon. Members, I want to talk about Iran. According to Open Doors, a charity that supports Christians living under some of the most repressive regimes in the world, Iran is ranked eighth on the world watch list, and there are 450,000 Christians there. I hope that that figure is wrong, and that what the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said is true—that the figure is growing, despite the huge challenges of living in a country in which Christians are routinely detained for no reason other than the fact that they hold different beliefs from those of the country’s leaders. Christians are not allowed to express their faith openly, whether through the written or spoken word. Indeed, it is illegal to publish the Bible in Farsi, which means that Christians are forbidden from worshipping in their own language.
A couple of weeks ago, my church celebrated Bible Sunday; in Wales, we were celebrating the translation of the Bible into Welsh. I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to have to practise religion in a foreign language. That brings home the Bible verse in which the apostle Peter calls on his readers to
“live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.”
That is particularly apposite. Christian men and women in Iran are treated as foreigners in their own land, particularly converts from Islam, who are considered more than simply foreigners or second-class citizens; they are considered traitors and are routinely sentenced to death or face trumped-up charges for converting. It is no small wonder that so many have been forced to flee Iran. One of the greatest exoduses of people across the modern world has been people fleeing Iran.
The Iranian regime has long sought viciously to repress anyone who espouses views different from its own, whether those views come from political opponents or the Baha’i community, which has been ferociously persecuted. Mr Ataollah Rezvani was shot in the back of the head, and his body was abandoned by a railway near Bandar Abbas, in August simply for being a member of the Baha’i community. Such persecution has led our Government to condemn Iran’s human rights reputation as “appalling” and to note that Iran’s treatment of religious minorities is “shocking.” We have heard that 80% of acts of religious discrimination across the world are directed at Christians. This has been a thorough debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton for securing it.
Finally, I dedicate my brief remarks to Maryam Zargaran, who was arrested on 15 July and is still languishing in Evin prison for activities and propaganda against the Iranian regime, for creating unrest and for establishing church houses.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her superb speech. I associate myself with her remarks, and particularly her questions to the Minister.
I will keep my comments to two specific issues. First, we have heard a lot about the persecution of Christians in Syria. On Friday three Syrians, who have been given leave to remain in the United Kingdom, visited my surgery. It was moving to see three Syrians—a Christian, a Druze and a Sunni—sitting together and expressing bafflement about the way in which the religiously tolerant country they had known now posed a risk to their families. The three of them were grateful for the way in which the British Government dealt with their applications for leave to remain, but their key concern was for their families. Two of them still have significant close family members in Syria, and the third has seen family members killed in attacks. The question that they asked, which I am asking the Minister today, is whether we can have clarity on the Government’s willingness or otherwise to support Syrians who have moved to this country and whose families are still at great risk in Syria. We need an acknowledgement of that issue. The investment and contribution we are making, in terms of humanitarian aid, is most welcome, but it is important that we remain an open door for people fleeing for their lives.
The other issue I want to touch on was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who shares a Huguenot ancestry with me. He said that it was to a country’s detriment to persecute its religious minorities. The example I would give, which numerous Members have mentioned, is Israel—a country in the middle east that is often vilified, not least in this place. When it comes to religious freedom, however, it is important to highlight the difference between the way in which Israel and neighbouring countries behave towards their religious minorities.
The key point is that the Christian population in Israel has increased a thousandfold since the country was established. Christians serve in the Supreme Court, the Knesset and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they are contributing to a stronger country. The situation of Christians in Israel can be contrasted with that of Christians in the west bank, where the Christian population has fallen quite dramatically. In 1948, about 15% of Palestinians identified themselves as Christian; today, that figure has fallen to about 2%. In many ways, the strongest, most economically prosperous country in the middle east is also the most welcoming of religious minorities. When we discuss this issue, it is important to place on record the fact that there is, in the middle east, a country that shows us how things can be done differently, and that is leading to a more prosperous situation for all the citizens of that country, regardless of their religion.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to speak before you, Mr Williams. We have the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) to thank for the fact that we are having this hugely important debate. I am sorry hon. Members’ speeches were truncated, but everyone made valuable contributions, and if I am quick enough, I hope to highlight particular points from them.
As we all know, this is an extraordinary time in the middle east. The persecution of Christians there has moved up the political agenda; as the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said, it has, if anything, become even more important. That is because of the extraordinary state of flux that exists in the political world of the middle east as we speak.
In the past three years, since the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, the Arab uprisings have occurred. The stability that existed—in a sense, it was the stability of the graveyard or the stability of oppression—under the various dictators in the region has ended. That has led to an extraordinary period of uncertainty, with many in the middle east pursuing the noble and difficult cause of establishing constitutions. In Tunisia, President Marzouki is involved in the process, in alliance with an Islamic party, which is in government. Fundamental constitutions are being put together right across the region. We must not, in any sense, underestimate the scale of that political task.
We have heard reference to the universal declaration of human rights, which is central to our debate. This discussion is not just about Christianity—that is one aspect—but we are also talking about individual rights and freedom of religion. The irony is that many of the countries that we have referred to—Egypt, Iran and Syria—were signatories to the universal declaration of human rights in 1948. I would like the Minister to confirm that he will remind the Governments of those countries that they voluntarily undertook to commit to the obligations under the declaration, and we want them to adhere to them at this important time.
The Government have done much positive work in the past two to three years in the febrile, complex political situation that has followed the Arab uprising. We commend them on the work they have done on the Arab Partnership, and I have visited countries across the region—from Egypt to Tunisia to Iraq—where difficult political situations are being helped by DFID’s excellent work on the ground to build support for the difficult process of constitution and politics building. That is a long-term process, and I can tell the Minister that the Labour party are certainly committed to it over a long period. This country has a long constitutional history, and we know from what happened in 17th-century England that the process following a revolution and a change of Government is difficult. In the historical context, it is early days indeed in the middle east.
We know from our postbags, and I certainly know from faith groups and churches in Wrexham, that there is profound concern about the position of Christians in the middle east. We have heard from a number of speakers about the position of Christians across the world generally, but the difficult political situation in the middle east means that Christians’ position as a minority, albeit a long-standing and long-established minority, is a particular threat. At this time, we must hold fast to the principles that underpin the United Nations and democracy.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) mentioned Israel, and it is no coincidence that that country, with its tolerance for religious minorities, is a democracy. For that reason, we need to commit to supporting the progress of democracy in the region, even though, as recent events in Egypt, for example, have shown, that is a difficult course, which often leads us to take one step forward and two steps back, making the political situation difficult to manage.
In Egypt, the situation of Coptic Christians has been extremely difficult in the past few months. There have been dreadful individual events, with masked gunmen attacking Coptic Christian churches. In one particularly dreadful instance, four people, including an eight-year-old girl, were killed at a wedding. Those are the circumstances Christians face in the middle east.
At this time, through our contact with the middle east, we need to provide a consistent voice against the oppression of minorities. I stress that it should be consistent, because it is easy in some respects to criticise countries with which we do not have strong political relations—for example, Iran. The criticism of Iran that we have heard in the debate is fully justified, because individual rights there must be respected—it one of the signatories to the UN declaration. However, we must also criticise countries in the region with which we have good relations and strong commercial bonds. We need to ensure that our voice is heard loud and clear on individual rights and the oppression of Christian minorities in those countries. If we are not consistent in our approach with Governments, our voice is diminished. One criticism that I hear in the middle east is that our Government—I do not particularly mean this Government, because this approach has been consistent across Governments over many years—are quick to criticise our enemies, but slow to criticise our friends when they misbehave.
We need a consistent and principled approach, working from the principles set out in the declaration of human rights, which so many of the countries in question have signed. I assure the Minister that the Opposition will support the Government position, if they speak candidly with a clear voice to countries that oppress religious or political minorities in the middle east. We see our role as supporting the Government when they speak candidly for the idea that Governments should respect human rights. For as long as that is their approach, that is what we will do.
I thank—and we should all thank—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for bringing such an important issue to the House in such a timely manner. In her three and a half years in the House, she has consistently worked hard to champion oppressed Christians. Many members of the all-party group on religious freedom or belief are present, and I pay tribute to all those who speak up against such oppression. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) said that not everyone present in the Chamber is a Christian, and I looked around for humanists or others, but I think probably most of those here are Christian in one way or another; certainly they support religious freedom.
The Government believe that people of all religious faiths or none should be deeply concerned about this issue, which touches on the fundamental human right of the freedom to choose what to believe, how to practise one’s faith and whether to change one’s belief. Such a right should be a precious part of any society. That is why the Government utterly condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their faith or belief. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton asked me to ask the Department for International Development to recognise freedom of religion as a priority, and I shall pass her request on to the Secretary of State, about whom she rightly made some extremely nice points.
I should mention the work done by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as a member of the high-level panel advising on the post-2015 millennium development goals. An excellent report has been produced, recognising rights and freedoms as a crucial part of the development debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton will also recognise the work done by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, on the initiative on the prevention of sexual violence, which more than 134 countries have now signed up to and which addresses some of the issues my hon. Friend discussed in relation to rape.
I shall certainly take my hon. Friend’s point on board.
The Government base their position on article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his or her religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Promoting human rights, including religious freedom, is an important part of British foreign policy. Ministers and officials at our embassies and high commissions regularly raise concerns with host Governments about violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. I shall ensure that our ambassador to the Vatican does that. For example, when they met at the UN General Assembly on 23 September, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary urged his Egyptian counterpart to ensure that Egypt’s new constitution would include a protection for the rights of minorities. We also regularly meet leaders of religious communities and civil society organisations from around the world, with a view to understanding their concerns better. We actively work with them to promote a universal commitment to religious freedom and to promote tolerance and understanding for, between and within all faiths, in line with article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights.
I hope that the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who urged Ministers to engage, will support the Prime Minister’s trip to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in the next few weeks. He will be the first western leader to go to the north of the country to engage with the minority Tamil community. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that that is the right way to proceed, despite the alternative view taken by the Front Bench in his party, that the UK should not attend.
We continue to work with the international community to combat religious intolerance and protect human rights. In September, at the UN General Assembly, my noble Friend Baroness Warsi convened a group of Foreign Ministers and officials from international organisations for the second in a series of meetings to discuss international efforts to fight violence in the name of religion and to promote freedom of religion and belief for all. We intend that to be a continuing initiative to build up greater political will to tackle the issue in the countries where it matters most.
Some right hon. and hon. Members who spoke were tempted to go slightly further afield than the middle east in their remarks, but I shall confine my remarks to the middle east. Some interesting points were made about the middle east as the birthplace of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, which makes the religious persecution there all the more poignant. My hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) mentioned Israel and Palestine. It is true that less than 2% of the population of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is Christian today, compared with 22% at the end of the British mandate in 1948. I heard what my hon. Friends said, but we continue to be concerned about access to holy sites for all, including Christians and Muslims. On the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy raised about the Syrians who came to his constituency surgery, if he would like to write to me, I shall respond and lay out our policy on asylum seekers.
The period since 2011 has indeed been a difficult one for various religious communities across the region. Many are suffering and, tragically, there is a risk in some countries of the disappearance of religious communities that have existed there peacefully for centuries. As right hon. and hon. Members—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate—have said, the great majority of communities that are suffering are Christian. It is right to continue to highlight that, but also to be concerned with all persecuted minorities. We want freedom of religion or belief for all: a universal human right.
The effects of the crisis in Syria are particularly on our minds. Life in Syria for Christians and other minorities continues to be extremely difficult. We have serious concerns about rising sectarian tension and believe that President Assad is deliberately attempting to stir up such tensions in his efforts to hold on to power. Non-Alawite minorities, including Christian communities, are in a vulnerable position, not only because of the relatively small size of their communities and their geographic dispersal, but because they are neither Sunni, like the majority of the opposition, nor Alawite, like the core of the regime. The largest Christian communities in the country were in Aleppo and Homs, where some of the most intense clashes between the regime and the opposition have happened. We are working hard, with the moderate Syrian National Coalition, to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict and to support the building of a Syria that respects the rights of all its citizens, whatever their race, religion or lack of religion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is right to point out that we have provided more than £500 million of humanitarian aid—the largest ever UK response to a single crisis. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced that her Department would support UNICEF’s Syrian children appeal by matching public donations pound for pound. We also support a number of projects designed to increase dialogue and reduce tensions between different communities to promote minority rights, including almost £520,000 to train Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Druze, Armenian and Kurdish community and religious leaders. We have also provided support to create a network of peace-building committees in Syria by training and providing guidance and mentorship to nearly 500 activists.
On 16 October, the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for human rights policy, Baroness Warsi, met Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius III, and they discussed the Geneva II process to establish peace negotiations, the plight of Christians in Syria and the humanitarian crisis affecting Syria and the region. The Minister underlined our commitment to speaking up on behalf of all those who are targeted for their religion or belief. We have made it clear that those responsible for human rights violations and abuses should be held to account. We believe that the International Criminal Court will have a role to play, and I confirm that we have condemned the kidnapping of the bishops and called for their release, as my hon. Friend asked.
In Egypt, the Coptic Church continues to experience many challenges. For example, we have just marked the second anniversary of the Maspero massacre, in which 28 Christians taking part in a demonstration were killed. Following the military intervention to remove Mohammad Morsi on 3 July this year, there has also been a rise in the number of violent sectarian attacks. Churches, homes, businesses and individuals have been attacked. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has publicly condemned the attacks and urged that there should be inclusive political dialogue. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), condemned the killing of four guests at a Coptic Christian wedding as recently as 20 October.
We are also concerned about the situation for religious minorities in other countries of the region. In Iran, the Baha’i are subject to mounting pressure. We are concerned by state efforts—
Renewable Energy (Peterborough)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Williams, and to have the opportunity to speak up on behalf of my constituents on such an important and topical issue of public policy.
I welcome the Minister. He is doing an excellent job, although my endorsement will not necessarily help his career. I have known him for more than 25 years, and I look forward to his considered response.
I am here to express serious concern about the July 2012 proposal of Peterborough city council and its energy company proxy, Blue Sky Peterborough, to build a solar and wind energy park on 900 acres of prime agricultural land to the east of the city, in the Newborough and the Eye and Thorney wards. I will not unduly focus on planning issues, not least because the first of the three detailed planning applications by the applicant for the Morris fen project is subject to an article 25 call-in process under the auspices of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I will, however, focus on the efficacy and financial viability of the project; the lack of proper consultation; governance issues, which reveal major flaws in scrutiny, oversight and democratic accountability; conflicts of interest; lack of openness and proper financial modelling; environmental concerns; and food security.
I will make it clear that I have sought to avoid conflict with the city council, which happens to be Conservative controlled, by facilitating an alternative, brownfield renewable energy strategy, but the city council’s lack of willingness to take it forward expeditiously or with any seriousness, while reiterating its absolute commitment to its original flawed, deeply damaging and unpopular plans, leaves me with no option but to bring the matter to the attention of Ministers and the House.
The Peterborough energy park will be the largest such scheme in Europe. In all, it will mean the construction of 500,000 glass panels on 900 acres of land—the size of 700 football pitches—some of it the most fertile in England. The land is owned by the city council and has been set aside for generations for cultivation of arable crops, such as sugar beet, potatoes and wheat, by tenant farmers, originally those returning as veterans from the second world war. The nine tenant farmers and their families, such as John and Denise Harris, who have been good and loyal tenants for 35 years, are to be turfed off the land, with the legal minimum compensation, to make way for a project that, like the great wall of China, will be visible from space.
The first tranche of three—at Morris fen, 49 MW of solar and wind—was submitted by the city council as applicant to the local planning authority, Peterborough city council, on 19 December 2012. It is now subject to the call-in process, as confirmed in a letter from the planning Minister on 14 June this year. It comprises 144,060 solar panels on metal frames, the erection of a substation compound and of 23 inverter buildings, and other related development on the land. Morris fen is one of only three applications; the others are at America farm, for 8 MW of solar, and Newborough farm, 27 MW of solar and wind.
Using 900 acres of such fertile soil means stopping food production equivalent to bread for 7,000 families or potatoes for 9,000 families each year. The National Farmers Union has consistently opposed the project as
“a large commercial scheme with no apparent benefit for local farmers”.
The November edition of British Farmer & Grower quoted the president of the NFU, Peter Kendall:
“Natural disasters, global food price spikes, and John Beddington’s Foresight Report have seen global summits focusing on food security with an intensity not seen since the Second World War. Food production and the value of the wholefood industry to the national economy has really started to land with policy makers across Government. This makes plans to cover 900 acres of grade 1 and 2 land outside Peterborough with solar panels crazy.”
The council claims that its proposals for wind and solar energy will generate a profit of about £31 million over the next 25 years, but they will require an investment by taxpayers—mainly—of £331 million via the Public Works Loan Board and from cash subsidies offered to producers of green energy. In one of a number of examples of sleight of hand, the council has deliberately disaggregated each of the planning applications so that they do not fall foul of legislative powers vested by Parliament in the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to determine whether they can proceed. Nevertheless, to all intents and purposes they are one huge renewable energy project.
Peterborough city council is out of step with Government policy, in respect not only of the national planning policy framework, especially paragraph 112 and paragraph 28 on agriculture diversification, and of the recent statement issued by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on local planning and renewable energy projects and recovery appeals, but of, specifically, the strong line taken by the Minster just last month.
It is apposite to recapitulate the Minister’s letter to hon. Members of 14 October. Commenting on the developing policy outlined in the Department’s solar roadmap document, he stated:
“I want the focus of growth to be firmly on domestic and commercial roof space and brownfield sites… Inappropriately sited solar PV especially in the countryside is something that I take extremely seriously and am determined to crack down on… Our new Solar Roadmap makes it very clear that new solar installations need to be sensitively placed and… proposals… give proper weight to environmental considerations such as landscape and visual impact, heritage and local amenity, and provide opportunities for local communities to influence decisions that affect them.”
In July, in a similar Westminster Hall debate to this one, but on solar arrays, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), the Minister said:
“We simply must not—and will not—allow prime agricultural land to be taken out of active food production.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 163WH.]
Furthermore, I welcome the Minister’s strong commitment, in the letter that I mentioned, to eliminate subsidy for solar energy altogether by 2018. No wonder, therefore, that the main industry body, the British Photovoltaic Association, recently felt compelled to publish a “guidance document” encouraging development on brownfield land.
The sheer scale of the Peterborough project is of itself a major issue, but the lack of proper consultation, the paucity of proper financial data and conflicts of interest, as well as possibly dubious and ethically questionable conduct by senior officers of Peterborough city council, make it a wider issue of democracy and accountability and of openness and transparency.
The financial details of the project, other than a generic and speculative outline business case, have never been published; nor have they been audited, analysed or stress tested by any independent entity. Since summer 2012, the cabinet and full council have been asked to commit substantial amounts of public money on the basis of trust in the judgment of one officer, in effect, who, incidentally, has refused point blank to accede to requests by elected city councillors to release details of financial projections below the outline business case level—more of him later.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. As his constituency neighbour, I endorse his case on the visual impact and the short-termism on food security. Does he agree, as a fellow member of the Public Accounts Committee, that there is real concern about our inability to see the proposed commercial case, which does not look like value for money for the taxpayer, thereby compounding the other issues that he is rightly highlighting?
My hon. Friend has a strong record on campaigning on inappropriate renewable energy projects in his constituency. He is absolutely right that this is a wider issue of democracy and governance in local government and of the ability of elected representatives, let alone the public, to see apposite and crucial financial data so as to make an informed choice.
Thus far, on a project that does not have planning permission, is likely to have its detailed planning applications called in for determination by the Bristol inspectorate and to face a judicial review, does not have a proper funding stream and is based on a renewables obligation programme regime, which may be amended substantially, the city council has spent more than £1.8 million of taxpayers’ money. Details of that expenditure and most other project information have been obtained only through the Freedom of Information Act.
Even senior council officers have described last year’s public consultation as inadequate. Expenditure on consultation has been less than £10,000, or 5.6% of total spend, and in particular the treatment of the farmers has been shoddy and high handed. In contrast, more than £440,000 has been spent on planning fees; £125,000 on financial modelling advice from Deloitte; £150,000 on legal fees, mainly to City lawyers Pinsent Masons; and an astonishing £951,000—almost twice the original budget—for technical consultants AECOM. Industry experts have stated privately that they have never seen such inflated expenditure for work on which there has been so little demonstrable progress.
A number of serious questions arise about conflict of interest. Not only is the city council both the applicant and the local planning authority, but councillors who sit and sat on the planning and environmental protection committee and determined the Morris fen application on 17 June 2013 voted to support the full energy park plans at a full council meeting on 5 December 2012. I suggest that that clearly shows evidence of pre-determination.
The city council leader, who has faced consistent criticism from a number of quarters as a result of his well-documented financial interests in green energy companies, has constantly raised the issue of the energy park plans being a simple matter of how the city council is to raise the money to fill the gap from diminishing central Government grants, but this is not, nor should it be, a planning matter. Nor should deadlines relating to the city council’s ability to benefit from feed-in tariff subsidies be material considerations.
Furthermore, not only has the council’s head of resources been appointed, at public expense and in city council time, as managing director of a new arm’s-length company, Blue Sky Peterborough Ltd—the new energy services company, or ESCO, which is allegedly dormant—but council tax payers have not been given details of the company’s board, its contractual arrangements and other core activities. Despite refusing to release financial costings on the basis that they are “commercially confidential”, he regularly challenges the media, city councillors and campaigners, most recently at the council’s rural scrutiny commission meeting on 16 September, to contest his figures.
Such secrecy and lack of transparency are deeply worrying, as is the fact that, until a few months ago, the head of resources, who holds a dual role as a section 151 officer under the Local Government Act 1972 and chief executive officer of Blue Sky Peterborough, was married to the city council’s monitoring officer, giving rise to an apparent and alleged conflict of interest. Requests to the city council’s chief executive for definitive determination of the matter have not been forthcoming.
The city council has seconded senior officers and specialists, such as ecologists, from the planning department to the energy park project to assist AECOM. At the beginning of the year, it was revealed to be pressurising planning officers to curtail statutory consultation by three weeks and to accelerate publication of the planning report, which, when it came to committee in June, predictably recommended approval, despite contravening evolving Government planning policy.
It is no surprise that the council was in such a hurry. By missing the 1 April deadline for the reduction from two renewables obligation certificates per megawatt to 1.6 ROCs and using only the indicative financial modelling published by the city council, which is £38 per ROC plus 3% inflation, it might have cumulatively forfeited about £33.3 million over the lifetime of the anticipated project, more than its basic profit level.
Surely the question is, how robust are the existing financial proposals? Of the 22 key input figures that the council proposed in the outline business case, which the cabinet discussed at least twice, nine are described as “indicative”, six as “contingent” and seven are not described at all. The business case is not Treasury Green Book compliant, and there has been no formal options appraisal and no sensitivity analysis. It is certainly far from the full business case to be expected of a project of this scale.
In addition, there is no contingency fund, and no funds have been set aside for community benefit investment, a compensation scheme or diminishing power generation over time due to age performance degradation over the project’s time scale—a phenomenon that the Renewable Energy Foundation identified with wind projects. If those factors are included in the financial model, the project will make a loss over 25 years.
The project has stalled, not merely as a result of the Secretary of State’s article 25 direction, but because the local planning authority was forced to undertake an archaeological survey of the site following strong, if belated, written representations by English Heritage just before determination of the Morris fen application in June. Just two weeks ago, the subsequent excavation yielded the discovery of Roman and Saxon artefacts, the value of which is yet to be fully determined and verified by independent sources such as Professor Francis Pryor of Cambridge university, who, in 1982, discovered the world famous Flag fen site near to the project’s location, which turned out to be one of the most notable bronze age settlements ever discovered in Europe.
I have never resiled from an open-minded commitment to alternative renewable energy sources and to developing appropriately sited sources, not least because on current projections Peterborough city council will have a gap between income and outgoings of as much as £18.6 million on a revenue budget of £399 million by 2017-18, due particularly to reductions in baseline funding. It is incumbent on the city council fully to justify its actions and to be accountable for them, but it is helpful to allow the authority to concede it has erred and to pursue other renewable energy projects for community benefit on brownfield sites. That is what local city and parish councillors, the local NFU, campaign organisations such Newborough landscape protection group, and I have sought to do since June.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Department’s guidelines must be clarified to take on board the points that he is articulating so well today, particularly the gaming of the planning system to qualify, often in haste, for feed-in tariffs, and the way that is incentivising developments in the wrong areas, as well as compromising food security by building on areas with archaeological and other community and farming benefits, as opposed to brownfield sites? Would he like the guidance to be strengthened to incentivise the right developments?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is important that the Government’s evolving planning policy takes account of cumulative impact as well as the importance of agricultural diversification. He makes the significant point that this is work in progress and that we must ensure that the planning policy adopted by local authorities is appropriate, particularly to national policy.
We have sought to work with Empower Community, with which the Minister is familiar, to build consensus and community engagement and to transfer the experience of other local authorities, such as York city council and Swindon borough council, in developing an area-wide renewable energy programme focused on residential and non-residential roofs, public sector buildings, schools, warehouses and other industrial brownfield sites.
Five months on, we have yet to see real political leadership and commitment from the council to pursue that avenue in a convincing and sustainable way. It remains wedded to plan A, with all its flaws, guesswork, subterfuge, speculation, sleight of hand and, above all, risk to taxpayers and value for money. I am never one to take conspiracies as a given in politics and government, but too many people have remarked that the Peterborough model of renewable energy is to set up an arm’s- length company to broker a short to medium-term power purchase agreement, transfer agricultural land to commercial use and then, with a change in the subsidies regime, realise the capital asset by selling the land on for property speculation, making a few people, most of whom do not live in Peterborough, very wealthy.
It disappoints me that I have to take issue with my party colleagues in local government, but some of them have failed in their duty properly to scrutinise this disastrous gamble. My first priority is always my constituents in the rural wards east of the city of Peterborough, enmeshed in a deeply troubling process over which, in the past 18 months, they have often felt helpless, ignored and impotent. Today, I have sought to give them a voice and to pose important questions about democracy, accountability and integrity, and about the use of taxpayers’ money. After all, if we cannot challenge those in authority, ask difficult questions and hold the powerful to account, why bother serving in Parliament? My challenge to Peterborough city council is to reconsider its position, seek genuine consensus and collaboration on new and viable renewable energy plans, and scrap the project at the earliest opportunity. I hope that the Minister will encourage it in that necessary and timely endeavour.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing the debate. As he reminded me, we are rather old hon. Friends; it really is 25 years—sadly, I think it might be creeping towards 30, which surely must be a mistake.
My hon. Friend has spoken out incredibly powerfully today, and I have received loud and clear the message that he has brought here on behalf of his constituents in Peterborough. That should not be a surprise; he is known throughout the House as a champion for his constituents and for being an extraordinary advocate for the hard-working people of Peterborough. I want him to know that we take his comments extremely seriously.
First, however, let me say that I am a fan of solar, and that I am a champion of the technology. As my hon. Friend said, I am strongly committed to rolling out solar across the UK and to driving down its cost, not only to eliminate the need for subsidy, but to make it cheaper. In the past three years, the cost of a set of solar panels on a household roof has typically fallen from something like £15,000 to £5,000—that, I think, is how much IKEA are selling them for—making them much more accessible for a lot of people, and making them a sensible solution for, potentially, millions of people who are struggling with high energy bills and are likely to do so in future.
Likewise, for many businesses, solar makes a huge amount of sense. I am not only talking about small arrays. I was in Crewe last month at the Bentley factory, which was built in the 1930s and helped to build the Spitfires that fought the battle of Britain. On the roof of that building, there is a 5 MW array of solar panels, which was fantastic to see. It was absolutely in the right place, and it was pumping out electricity and helping that important British manufacturer, just as solar panels are helping about half a million homes that have them on their roofs. We want to see a really exciting, ambitious roll-out as the costs come down, so that it becomes more affordable. This is not only about solar panels on rooftops and in commercial and industrial spaces; there are occasions when they make sense on brownfield sites. In Cornwall, there is an excellent tin mine where a fairly large array has been set up. That works, and is working well with the community. In Leicestershire, at Wymeswold, a former air base, another large array works well and has local support.
I have to say to my hon. Friend that when I hear of monster projects that could turn a popular, intuitive and increasingly affordable technology into something that is unpopular and inappropriate, I become very worried indeed. I am aware that when other renewable technologies have been perceived as having been put in inappropriate places on an inappropriate scale, the tide of public opinion has, in certain areas, turned away from renewables and the wider environmental question. Invariably, that has alienated many people who are not naturally enemies of the environment. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) has fought many battles along those lines.
I want to say very clearly that yes, I am a champion of renewable energy, but we must make sure—as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said, and as I wrote to him and other colleagues recently—that solar photovoltaic sites are appropriately situated, and that we give proper weight to local environmental considerations, particularly those pertaining to landscape and the visual impact, which are rightly important to local people. We must also make sure that we give due consideration to heritage areas, but people do not have to live on Stonehenge, or even in an area of outstanding natural beauty, to value their local landscape and the visual amenity.
If we are to roll out energy on a community scale, we absolutely need to take communities with us. It stands to reason that if we want a proliferation of local energy schemes, we need to work with local people on them. As I think my hon. Friend will understand, I cannot speak to many of the specifics of the application that he mentioned, but I am very concerned when I hear of large projects that attempt to roll over local opinion, thereby turning the tide against a technology with huge potential.
Many points that my hon. Friend made relate directly to decisions on planning that are, of course, primarily within the purview of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough will raise his detailed concerns with the Secretary of State, given his policy lead on planning issues. However, I would be grateful if my hon. Friend copied me in, so that we are clearly sighted on these issues. I am always concerned when such issues arise, and it is important that we continue to monitor the proliferation of solar sites. I am absolutely determined to get this right.
My hon. Friend alluded to our solar strategy, of which we are very proud. It is very ambitious, but we have not fired it and walked away; we will continue to watch and ensure that planners locally get the message. It is not a case of saying, “We’ve said our piece. We are going to wash our hands and walk away.” I will continue to look very closely to ensure that the strategy, as anticipated here at Westminster, and my vision for solar is what happens on the ground. We are reliant on planners on the ground to deliver and pay heed to the clear, explicit advice both in the solar strategy and from our friends at the Department for Communities and Local Government, and to listen to local communities.
My hon. Friend should look at the much tougher renewables planning guidance that was published in July by DCLG. As I said in my solar strategy, the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities.
I very much welcome the tone and the substance of the Minister’s remarks about taking the community with us. Will he look at the weighting as part of the feed-in tariff for schemes in rural areas, as opposed to on brownfield sites, particularly—I see my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) in her place—in relation to food security and rural communities?
I will certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s point. Obviously, larger schemes would be unable to claim the feed-in tariff, because the feed-in tariff currently has a 5 MW limit, and we are proposing to raise that for community schemes to 10 MW. That is not an insubstantial size for solar, but any scheme that covered hundreds of acres would be likely to draw on the renewables obligation for larger schemes.
[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I am pleased to have secured the debate, and I look forward to contributions from my hon. Friends, as well as some answers from the Minister, whom I congratulate on his new position.
The bedroom tax was introduced on 1 April this year. The policy was designed to make more efficient use of our country’s social housing stock by identifying people who were under-occupying their homes. Social sector tenants with one spare room face a deduction of 14% in their housing benefit. Those who are under-occupying by two rooms face a 25% deduction.
The Government told us that this measure would tackle overcrowding, encourage efficient use of social housing and save the taxpayer, by 2015, £930 million, but the reality is that this tax penalises some of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in our society, while failing to achieve any of its aims. Instead, we are seeing rising poverty, soaring rent arrears, streets filled with vacant properties, rising homelessness and worrying trends in our housing supply.
Local authorities face ever-increasing numbers of tenants who are unable to keep up with their rent payments, with that number set to rise even further in the future. That is the money that local authorities rely on to be able to build new homes and maintain their housing stock. The irony, of course, is that new homes are exactly what is needed to tackle overcrowding and create a working housing market; but under this Government, we have seen the lowest number of housing completions since the 1920s. That situation will not change as long as the bedroom tax is in place, rent arrears continue to pile up and local authorities are constrained in building new homes.
The scale of the injustice resulting from the bedroom tax is appalling. The tax affects an estimated 600,000 people, 96% of whom have no smaller home to go to, and as a result the average family is losing £720 a year. In my constituency of South Shields, 1,440 households are affected, with only 387 properties becoming available for them to move into between April and September this year. Some of those properties are only for people qualifying for sheltered accommodation, so the reality is that many households have fewer homes to bid for. The average amount that will be charged is just under £9 a week for a household deemed to be under-occupying by one bedroom and just under £15 a week for those under-occupying by two, yet South Tyneside Homes estimates that the true value of a spare room is just under £5, as reflected in the differences in the rents that tenants would pay. The bedroom tax, then, grossly overvalues the price of a spare room and is overcharging tenants. This is at the same time as we have a cost-of-living crisis, with food, energy and water prices surging.
The chief executive of Citizens Advice said:
“As long as this dire lack of housing options exists then the Government can’t reasonably tell people they have a choice about downsizing to a smaller home.”
But they do keep saying that, and she is correct: the numbers simply do not add up. Some 180,000 households were deemed to be under-occupying two-bedroom homes, yet only 85,000 one-bedroom homes became available during the whole of 2012.
What makes matters worse is that the constituents I have spoken to do not actually have a spare room. What they have is a room for their carers, their elderly or disabled relatives, their children, foster children or potential adopted children. Others find it difficult to downsize their home when their circumstances change—for example, following a bereavement or when their children leave home.
I appreciate that housing per se is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland and the Executive have yet to agree the Welfare Reform Bill, but there is an issue, which the hon. Lady has mentioned, as regards downsizing. I am sure that the situation is the same across all regions. There is a massive shortage of one-bedroom houses. In Northern Ireland, it would take at least a 10-year building programme to achieve the one-bedroom housing that is required. That puts the Executive in Northern Ireland in a great dilemma, and I am sure that the situation is much the same in all regions.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. I will come on to the point that he raises.
I have never met anyone who is selfishly holding on to an extra bedroom just because they want to. It is no wonder that the local authority covering my constituency has seen a rise of more than 50% in homelessness under this Government and, between April and July of this year, has seen more than 500 tenants hand back their keys. The total financial impact of that handback is £600,000. That money could have been spent on bringing 60 of the homes in our area up to a decent standard or on building eight new homes. My local authority is not alone. Many other local authorities are having to use their housing revenue account moneys to pay for the tax. Those are moneys that they would have otherwise used to build and improve their homes.
Not only local authorities are struggling because of the tax; 26 leading housing associations have seen their credit ratings downgraded as investors become anxious about the impact of the bedroom tax. That leaves housing associations unable to plan for the future or for current housing demand and to build homes to meet that demand. That compounds what is already a dire situation for house building under this Government, who slashed the affordable homes budget in their first year in office and are planning a further round of cuts for 2015-16. Meanwhile, property developers sit on land that could be used for new builds.
The bedroom tax not only stifles construction; it also wastes many of the homes that we already have. Larger properties are now lying empty across the country, ignored by tenants who fear that they will not be able to afford them if their circumstances change. We are already seeing streets with scores of empty properties. The number of such properties is likely to rise and rise, while the former residents are becoming homeless or moving to the expensive private sector—moves that will increase the housing benefit bill further, and further stretch public finances.
In the light of that comment—I have to say that that is not a problem that we experience in Edinburgh—was my hon. Friend surprised that the response from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), to the question of three-bedroom houses perhaps being hard to let was that they should be subdivided in some way? That betrays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of those houses, because the cost of turning them into, say, two houses would far exceed the savings.
I was not aware of that response. I thank my hon. Friend for letting me know that information. I am very surprised by that.
The National Housing Federation estimates that a family under-occupying a two-bedroom home who move into a one-bedroom flat in the private rented sector will claim an average of £1,500 in housing benefit, despite living in a smaller property. Just last month, the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged that the bedroom tax is leaving some families facing
“dilemmas which need to be addressed”.
This is not a dilemma—it is a crisis happening on his Government’s watch.
I visited Ms Ashley Pollard, one of my constituents, at home. She faces one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s so-called dilemmas. She lives alone in a two-bedroom flat. She has mobility difficulties and, as a result, needs to be in a wheelchair almost every moment of the day. Her mother is her carer and stays in her extra bedroom most week nights. Her mother is also in employment, so she is not entitled to carer’s allowance.
Ashley is unable to avoid paying the bedroom tax and has requested a move to a one-bedroom ground-floor property, but there is none for her to go to. She wants to move but cannot; wants to pay her bills but is struggling to do so; and needs to have the continued care from her mother. Sadly, Ashley is not alone. It is estimated that more than 400,000 disabled people are expected to suffer what the Deputy Prime Minister calls a dilemma. Can the Minister, in his response, suggest what Ms Pollard should do?
At a time when the disabled are already being hit hard by cuts to public services and reduced benefits, they now have to worry about losing their homes as well—homes that, once they have been forced out, will lie empty. Those homes have been adapted to fit tenants’ needs in line with their disability. If they move, their new home will need to be adapted, while their own home will remain empty.
Another disabled constituent of mine lives in an adapted property that cost the local authority in excess of £10,000 to adapt. The property has two bedrooms, so she is subject to the bedroom tax. Unsurprisingly, there are no alternative, one-bedroom properties in our area to meet her needs. She is therefore stuck paying the tax, unable to obtain discretionary housing payment, and she is struggling.
What do the Government suggest is an efficient use of housing in that situation? Should my local authority adapt a new property for my constituent at the cost of a further £10,000 and leave her current home empty? Far from encouraging the better use of social housing, in that case, the bedroom tax leads to a nonsensical outcome.
My hon. Friend will be interested to hear about a constituent of mine, whose home also has had adaptations to account for the equipment needed for their disability. That accommodation can be offered only to older people over the age of 40. If my constituent is to vacate the accommodation, there is no way that a family with young children can move into it. It is a further waste of public money.
My hon. Friend is of course correct. It will be far easier to leave people in the homes that have been adapted to meet their needs.
In a survey of the 51 largest of its associations, the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations, found that more than half of those who were affected by the tax could not pay their rent in April or June. For many of those people, that was the first time that they had ever fallen behind with their rent.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely strong speech. There are also concerns in Wales. Community Housing Cymru, which represents social housing providers, has made a similar point: 87% of their members have seen an increase in arrears, which has not been seen elsewhere. That is matched by the experience of my council, which has seen a £200,000 increase in arrears on the same period last year. The issue is affecting councils and housing providers across the country.
I want to add to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). Nottingham City Homes, our arm’s-length management organisation, has seen an increase in arrears directly as a result of the bedroom tax of £260,000 since April. We expect the amount to be about £500,000 this year—money that could and should have been spent on refurbishing homes or building new homes.
I will address that issue in my next point. My local citizens advice bureau is receiving more than 33 inquiries every week related to the bedroom tax.
One case study identified a young lady who had never been in rent arrears. As a result of the bedroom tax, she has only 84p per day to live on—to buy food, clothes and toiletries. That is an absolute scandal. Her story resonates with what food banks and homelessness charities in my constituency have told me. They feel that the increase in demand for their services is directly linked to the bedroom tax.
At the same time as the crisis was looming, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was quoted in our local newspaper, the Shields Gazette, saying:
“When 13,101 households are stuck on a waiting list for social housing in south Tyneside, there’s a big problem that needs addressing… it can’t be right that many households across the north-east are living in an overcrowded home. There’s nothing fair about making families wait and wait for a house that is big enough, while other households on benefits are allowed to live in homes that are too big for their needs, at no extra cost.”
The Secretary of State helpfully advised that my constituents may
“decide to take up work, or work a few more hours to cover the difference”
“move to more appropriately-sized accommodation or take in a lodger.”
I would like to take this opportunity to invite him to South Shields to deliver that advice personally to my constituents.
A number of pensioners have told me in my surgery that they are living in three or four-bedroom houses and are subject to the bedroom tax, but cannot downsize. The shift that we want to see is three and four-bedroom houses becoming available, but in my constituency they are now hard to let.
Just out of curiosity, has the hon. Lady received any reply from the Secretary of State to her invitation to visit South Shields? In my own constituency in north-west Wales, we have seen no sign at all of Ministers or of anyone conducting research before the change came into force. I will certainly refer to that in my speech, if I am lucky enough to be called.
This is the first time I have invited the Secretary of State to South Shields, so we will see—watch this space.
Many of my constituents who are desperate for employment or are stuck on zero-hour contracts sincerely want to move to a smaller property, but they simply have no homes to go to. The Government’s policy is hindering the ability of councils and housing associations to build homes for them to move to, so they will not be able to act on the Secretary of State’s advice.
As with so many things this Government do, the disdain with which they treat people in social housing shows how far removed they are from the reality of what is happening in towns such as mine. Opposition Members have put a raft of questions to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretaries of State and the previous Housing Minister regarding the unfairness of this cruel tax and the implications for our housing supply. It is becoming depressingly clear that, from this Government’s point of view, my right hon. and hon. Friends do not need an answer and that the effects of the tax on struggling households and housing supply are not their concern. Their only interest is in appearing tough on those they call scroungers.
Thankfully, the Labour party has an answer. We are committed to repealing this awful tax. We are committed to building 1 million new homes over the next Parliament—200,000 homes a year and a raft of employment opportunities in construction. We are committed to stopping landowners holding on to undeveloped land, so that the housing market will suit the needs of the many, not the few.
The bedroom tax has been a complete failure. It has not reduced overcrowding.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising this important issue. If the situation is as bad as she paints it on the mainland, it is even worse in Northern Ireland, because we have the highest proportion of individuals under-occupying compared with other regions of the United Kingdom. We are the worst hit.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that, until the measure is repealed—I hope it will be repealed soon—it would at least be preferable to build in greater flexibility to the current exemptions, so that people would not be forced to pay the tax if there was no suitable alternative accommodation? Something should be done in the meantime, until we get rid of this wretched measure.
The hon. Lady referred to building 200,000 houses every year. Housing is a devolved issue. Has she signed up her colleagues in Cardiff to a total for Wales, which I think would be about 11,000 houses a year? Scotland’s Scottish National party Government will probably build 17,000 new houses a year. Will she be able to deliver?
I will leave that question for the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), to answer.
The bedroom tax has not encouraged efficient use of social housing. It has certainly not saved the taxpayer the projected £470 million this year. It has increased homelessness and poverty, led to streets being filled with vacant social housing and cost more than it saved. Taking that and the human cost of the policy into account, the tax is one of the cruellest and most ineffective policies ever to come from any Government.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech highlighting the appalling human consequences of the policy. She has just put her finger on the truth at the centre of it. It is not about encouraging people to downsize; it is purely about saving money. That £470 million saving will not arise if people act as the Government say they want them to act. It is because people do not have the opportunity to downsize that the Government are making savings. This is a cruel policy based on a fraudulent premise.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making a fantastic speech on this important issue. The Government admitted last week that they had wildly exaggerated the cost savings involved in the bedroom tax. Does that not show us what is really behind the policy? It is not about saving money; it is about a vicious attack on vulnerable people—400,000 out of 600,000 of them are disabled—who cannot speak up for themselves.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who has stolen some of my closing comments.
I was interested to hear that the Department for Work and Pensions has commissioned an independent review of the bedroom tax to analyse the impact on vulnerable individuals, foster carers and those caring for disabled children. However, why was the impact assessment not completed before the introduction of the tax? That is yet another example of ideology affecting policy and of this Government’s “let’s do away with facts and research” approach.
I also question why the policy’s impact on the housing market was not foreseen. The National Audit Office reported that the Government’s headline savings figure did not take into account the full range of impacts that the bedroom tax would have. Now that we have had time to assess the policy’s impact on rent arrears, we know that the NAO was correct. I hope that the Minister will say what discussions his Department has had with the Department for Work and Pensions about the effect of the policy on housing supply and why he believes the impact assessment falls so far short of reality.
Whatever the Government’s excuses, for my constituents in South Shields and thousands of others across the country, they will be scant consolation. Although an average of £12 a week may not seem like much to this Government, it is a lot of money to the rest of us who are paying the price. My constituents need a Government who listen to their concerns and who commit to overturning this cruel tax and addressing our housing shortage. What they need is a Labour Government.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), who secured this important debate. The bedroom tax was primarily a savings measure. It was then dressed up, in some debates, as a way of tackling affordable housing shortages by making better use of property. However, as my hon. Friend clearly demonstrated in her opening speech, we warned from the outset—those of us who served on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee back in 2011 pointed this out at the time—that the savings would be less than estimated.
If the policy were genuinely about supply, it would have been sensible to start by understanding local housing markets and developing policies appropriate to local areas. As colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, have described, in some cases, the bedroom tax is making larger houses unlettable. I must say that that is not a problem in my city, where more than 900 households have been given the second-highest priority banding because they need two extra bedrooms, and about 350 households have the same priority level because they are homeless and need three-bedroom housing. More than 1,200 families in the area need large homes, and there simply are not many. They do not exist. It is not that single people or couples in my constituency are rattling around in big homes that they do not need; the properties just do not exist.
As for those who might want to downsize, this week, 22 one-bedroom properties are available to let across all the housing associations and councils in the whole city of Edinburgh. That is not just in my constituency; it is across the whole city, which comprises five constituencies. Of those properties, three are sheltered—they are for older people, who are by definition not affected by the bedroom tax—so they would not be available to those affected by the bedroom tax. This is not an unusually dry week for housing supply; it is typical of all weeks. I check the availability regularly.
Has my hon. Friend analysed what types of houses the available one-bedroom properties are? If Edinburgh is anything like my constituency, I suspect that they will not be in areas to which people looking to downsize would move in any case. Very often they are for the young homeless, or those prepared to live at the top of a tower block.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing the intervention. Does she agree that many current housing allocation policies came out of the recommendations in the Scarman report, and that a move back to pre-Scarman policies not only makes no financial sense, but is potentially dangerous?
That is helpful. It reminds us of the many ways in which we are going backwards.
In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, I mentioned a DWP Minister’s suggestion that if councils were struggling with three-bedroom houses that they could not let, they should have anticipated the problem and taken steps to divide those houses. I was fantasising slightly about how that would work. Let us take a typical three up, two down property in England; in Scotland, we are more likely to be talking about a tenement flat. What exactly would be involved in dividing it? First, either the tenants would somehow have to use the same door and stairs, or the council would have to create a separate entrance, which would cost money. One of the upstairs rooms would have to be converted into some form of kitchen, which would cost money. That leaves the downstairs, which would have a kitchen, but not a bathroom. Where would the bathroom go, or at least a toilet? A bathroom extension? Remember there are only two rooms and a kitchen downstairs, so building a bathroom would not be easy, unless it were built outside, and an extension costs money. Then I thought, “I know what the Minister must have had in mind: a portaloo in the back garden.” That would take us right back to the days when people had outside toilets, but it might help get the house divided up. It would involve not only huge additional cost but a style of living that I hope most of us would think inappropriate. That shows how little thought was given in practical reality.
It is the same with the idea that everybody could take in lodgers. That does not take into consideration the nature of many of the properties in which people live, and the difficulties involved.
Does my hon. Friend not also accept that that would be a particularly unwelcome suggestion to women fleeing domestic abuse and violence, for example? The idea that they might have to take in a stranger as a lodger after experiences that may have absolutely traumatised them is particularly inimical. That is exactly the situation faced by one of my constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Many people would find the concept of taking in a lodger extremely difficult, particularly given the nature of many properties. I visited a constituent whose kitchen was off the living room, and whose bedrooms were not particularly big. When someone has a lodger, they are sharing a house. They are not taking in a lodger who has a self-contained annexe of the house; they are taking someone into the bosom of their household. The 60-year-old woman in question felt that that was not somewhere she needed to be in her life.
I am totally perplexed by the Government’s advice to take in a lodger, which was given from day one of the bedroom tax. Some 400,000 of the 600,000 people affected by the bedroom tax are disabled. Would disabled people want to bring in a stranger, just so they could afford to pay the rent?
The reality is that people are not taking on lodgers. The rhetoric on lodgers has quietened down, presumably because the impracticality of that idea has revealed itself. If the measure was about making better use of property, it was not the best way of going about that. It would be far better to encourage people to move in some circumstances, but that is neither a quick nor an easy process. It has to be planned for, and that comes back to looking at the nature of the local housing market and how those moves can be dealt with.
Older tenants in larger homes might want to downsize—if they are over retirement age, they will not be affected by the bedroom tax—but the bedroom tax will not whip them into wanting to move. Over the years, I have had many constituents say to me, “Yes, I would move. The stairs are getting too much for me. The garden is getting too much for me”, but they want control over where they go, and want to keep some of the things they like about their present home. Often that means the area, and that does not necessarily only go for those who live in what is perceived as a “good area”. Their area is where they have their social circle, and their family might not be too far away. There will be many reciprocal family arrangements, whether that is daughters helping mothers, or mothers helping their grown-up children with child care and picking kids up from school. All those sorts of things cannot be done if they are moved to the other end of town. Okay, they are fussy, but they are fussy because they want the move to be one that will last them the rest of their lives. They do not want to rush into something that is unsuitable.
All authorities might want to build new build housing that is geared to older people. If authorities do their homework properly, they will know in advance that that will release larger houses. The homework, however, has to be done, and investment is needed. If the investment is not there, it becomes very difficult. New build numbers are dropping, not only in England and Wales, which the Minister is concerned with, but in Scotland, too. In the whole of Scotland, new starts have dropped from the high point in 2007-08 of 6,214 to just 2,781 in 2012-13. That is a substantial drop. We want to have new build available to help people move around, but it is just not there.
There are many things that we should be looking at. We should be considering building new homes. Councils might want to consider—I have suggested this to my local council—buying some properties at comparable prices. They should not pay more for a property than it would cost to build, but that would help deal with some of the biggest chronic housing shortages. When homeless families, even those with children, are waiting in temporary accommodation for up to a year to get anything, we have a crisis, not just a slight shortage.
There is a further win-win in all this, which perhaps brings us back to the stated purpose of the bedroom tax. If more affordable housing is built, we can reduce the total housing benefit spend. It is true that the spend has gone up in recent years—the Government are not wrong to point that out—but their predictions and forecasts for the next few years are that the spend will continue to rise until at least 2016-17, when it will reach £23.38 billion.
Indeed. I have some figures, although they take us only to 2010-11. In 2000-01, the spend on private rented sector housing benefit was £3.6 billion. By 2010-11, that had risen to £8.9 billion, and it has risen again since then. The number of recipients of housing benefit rose under this Government by 326,597 people or households between May 2010 and February 2013. More than twice as many of those—some 218,209—were in the private rented sector than were in council and housing association housing. All the time that the Government have been in power, wringing their hands about the rising housing benefit bill and saying that measures such as the bedroom tax are the way to tackle it, the number of recipients has gone up, and the amount of money we are spending has gone up.
We are not tackling the issue from the right end. If we had a proper housing investment programme for affordable housing, that would bring down the housing benefit bill. That is what we should be aiming to do. It would give many individuals a real incentive and help in getting back to work, because having people in expensive private sector rented accommodation, whether it is temporary, permanent or semi-permanent, is a disincentive to employment.
I have a constituent who has been living in a private sector property that was provided to him when he was homeless, because we do not have enough council and housing association homes. His rent payments are £815 a month, which probably does not sound much in London terms, although it is high in Edinburgh terms. When he was working, he still had to pay half of that rent from his earnings. In the end, he gave up his job, partly because of the financial pressures that he was then under. If he had a council or housing association rented property, he could have afforded much more easily to get back into work. There are all sorts of reasons why housing investment is a win-win-win. It is a win because we would get the houses; because we would begin to reduce the total housing benefit bill; and because we would be doing something serious—not just haranguing people about getting back to work, but putting in place practical measures—to help people get back to work.
We need to look at the fact that the bedroom tax has done the opposite of that. It has created a situation where both councils and housing associations are anxious about the loss of income. It matters to all tenants, because all tenants are being impacted on, not just those affected by the bedroom tax. I made that point to a Government Minister recently, and pointed out that even pensioners and tenants who are not on housing benefit are being affected by the bedroom tax. The response I got—they had half-heard the question—was, “But pensioners are not affected.” That was not my point. My point was that if the landlord, be it the council or the housing association, has less income coming in, that will affect all the other tenants, because that organisation will have only a few choices. It could cut back on its modernisation programme, and that would affect pensioners who have been waiting for many years, as many of my constituents have, for their kitchens and bathrooms to be modernised. They would have to wait even more years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that our social landlords are not only facing extra arrears, but having to put in extra resources to deal with having to chase people for arrears? Nottingham City Homes told me that it has already had to spend an extra £300,000 on staff and resources to deal with the extra demands on the rent arrears team. Is it not a concern that the extra spending on such things is not going on other tenants and their homes?
Yes, indeed. Landlords will have quite limited choices. If they are not going to do anything about their modernisation programme, they will certainly be looking at their new build programme or at raising rents, which, again, affects all tenants. It is not true to say therefore that these issues affect only those who are directly affected by the bedroom tax.
If the bedroom tax means that less income is coming in and that there is less ability to start and fund new build programmes, it will not increase supply; it will do precisely the opposite of what Ministers have tried to claim that they want it to do. We really need to move away from this approach and to realise that it is not working. We have not only the arrears, but a whole administrative apparatus to help people who have run into arrears and to process discretionary housing payments and appeals for discretionary housing payments, which may have to be reprocessed every year or six months. That involves a cost that people did not have to meet before.
The glib answer is that discretionary housing payments are the solution, but they reduce savings, which is yet another reason for thinking this whole thing has been a bit pointless. Furthermore, people who have, by definition, been means-tested are now being given a further means test—that is what this comes down to—on their already low income to see whether they qualify for discretionary housing payments. The forms ask them about their expenditure and about whether they have Sky television or whether they smoke.
Things such as disability living allowance, which is specifically given to meet the costs of disability and illness are being taken into account in declaring that people can afford to pay the bedroom tax. People were never given DLA to pay their rent, and if they are using it to do so because they have been deemed to have enough income to meet the gap between their rent and the housing benefit that they receive, they are not spending their DLA on their disability. Having a second tier of means tests is quite unacceptable. I talked about outside toilets, and we are back in the 1930s again with this issue; we are back with the means-test officer telling people that they really did not need the sideboard or the record player they had had for some years, because they were too poor.
Or we have the Minister, Lord Freud, telling split-up families that the kids should share a sofa bed—that is the type of perversity being suggested by Ministers, and that is the means-testing culture that we are getting into. That is a sad message for a Minister to send out.
I thank my hon. Friend.
We must never forget the personal picture and the difficulties involved. One constituent is a cancer patient, although he is, fortunately, recovering. He has a two-bedroom house—nothing terribly big—and his three children come to him every weekend. One suffers from autism, which creates difficulties if the children have to share a room. My constituent wrote to the Prime Minister asking what he should do, and the Prime Minister said, “Apply for a discretionary housing payment.” Well, my constituent has, of course, applied for a discretionary housing payment, and he has been refused. He appealed, and he has been refused. I am not quite sure what he is expected to do next, other than to fall into rent arrears, which is what is happening. He is worrying about that, which probably is not helping his recovery. Alternatively, he could move, which will make it virtually impossible for him to have his boys to stay, which cannot be right.
I hope that we all agree that we want to increase the housing supply and particularly the affordable housing supply, so we have to agree that the bedroom tax is simply the wrong way to do that. It starts at the wrong end, and it is not resolving the problem, for all the reasons that have been given. If we really want to improve housing supply, we have to do two big things. One, obviously, is to invest in it, and the other is to allow local areas to decide on the appropriate way to address their problems. There will be differences; I have described how different my city is from some places in the north-east of England, which face quite different issues. We therefore need to allow local knowledge and local planning to come into play, but that is not happening with the policy that is being imposed.
Order. Time is moving on, and a large number of Members wish to speak. I intend to call the Front Benchers at 3.40 pm. If Members can be respectful and keep their speeches to five minutes, I will be able to call everyone who wants to speak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this important debate.
The stated aim of the under-occupancy penalty, to give it the Government’s preferred name, was to free up larger accommodation, and to cut the housing benefit bill by moving people into smaller properties. Well, the policy has not released larger accommodation; nor will it save the housing benefit it set out to save. Instead it will, as we have heard, drive people into the private rented sector and add to costs. Just where are local authorities and housing associations to find the smaller accommodation? The truth is that it could take years to place people in smaller homes, and that is assuming that no one’s circumstances change.
In Scotland, the UK Government’s changes to housing benefit have had a significant impact on claimants. The people affected by the changes are those with specially adapted homes to reflect their health conditions; separated parents, who potentially face losing access to their children; and tenants who are struggling to find alternative smaller accommodation, despite being willing to move.
All the under-occupancy charge has done in my constituency is bring people to the verge of crisis. Many are building up arrears, trying somehow to cope using discretionary housing payments, while others are desperately trying to find smaller accommodation. All that worry and panic is despite the best efforts of the housing associations and the council in Inverclyde. Advice agencies are also working together to reassure and help people. I recognise the assistance given by the Scottish Government to alleviate the cost of this penalty, although more could always be done.
The panic and fear instilled in our most vulnerable people is evidenced by Citizens Advice Scotland, which advised on almost 20,000 new housing benefit issues in 2012-13. That is about 75 per working day—an 11% increase on the previous year. However, there was a 40% increase in April 2013 compared with April 2012. Those increases can all be explained by the introduction of the new under-occupancy rules. In the first week after the start of the bedroom tax, 700 affected tenants approached Citizens Advice Scotland for advice. That is not to mention the numbers of worried, concerned and frightened people who visited my surgeries—and yes, I concede that many were exempt.
Another concern about the housing supply relates to adapted homes. If people who have adapted their homes to cater for their disability by installing step-in showers or wet rooms decide to move rather than incur the penalty, they will need to reinstall these adaptations in their new home, at significant cost. Surely it cannot be seen as an effective way of spending time and resources to move people out of homes that meet their needs into new homes that do not, and that must subsequently be adapted. It is a crazy situation, and the cost is getting out of control. It is short-sighted, and an unbelievable waste, as it costs the taxpayer more money, never mind the upheaval for the individuals concerned.
The vast majority of those affected in my constituency will be moving from two-bedroom to one-bedroom accommodation, if they can. That is being replicated throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK. Of the 105,000 households in Scotland affected by the under-occupancy penalty, an estimated 83,000 include an adult with a recognised disability. The proposed changes will therefore have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities. Many of those tenants have severe health conditions and face reductions in income that could affect their health. Adapted housing will be affected. Estimates show that some 16,000 households have some form of aid or adaptation already in place. I acknowledge that the UK Government have increased the fund for discretionary housing payments, but the funding is still far below the level of payments that will be lost by claimants.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point about the eight out of 10 households in which a disabled person lives that are affected by the bedroom tax in Scotland. Does he accept that if people are to move to one-bedroom properties, those will almost certainly be in the private sector, where it will be even harder to get the kind of adaptations that disabled people often need in their homes?
Absolutely. I fully accept that. I noted earlier in my speech that the changes are pushing people to find accommodation in the private sector, with all the additional costs involved.
Research by the National Housing Federation found that if the additional funding were to be distributed equally among every affected claimant of disability living allowance, they would each receive just £2.51 per week, compared with the average £11-a-week loss in housing benefit in Scotland. The pressure to find smaller homes and flats has become immense. In Inverclyde, there is a huge lack of one-bedroom accommodation. I ask the Minister: what are my constituents to do? Many will fall into arrears. Housing associations warned the Government from the start that the under-occupancy penalty would not work, and that families would face financial hardship and struggle to make ends meet.
On the point about arrears, does my hon. Friend agree that it is nonsensical that many housing associations will not move people who are in arrears into new accommodation? They will not give them new tenancy agreements until their arrears are cleared. That is one more perverse—indeed, Kafkaesque—consequence of the policy.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Housing associations need flexibility to ensure that no one falls into arrears, or into the eviction bracket.
Housing associations warned also that there would not be the house building that would be required for people to avoid the penalty. That is certainly true not only in Scotland but across the country. People cannot move to smaller homes to avoid the bedroom tax because there are not enough smaller properties. In Inverclyde, I could count on one hand the streets, outwith the private sector, that offer single-bedroom accommodation.
I ask again what my constituents are to do about the policy. There are now rent arrears, evictions, financial distress, and difficulty in finding alternative or adapted accommodation. That all shows that there is a lack of appropriate housing and house building throughout the country while we have the dreadful bedroom tax.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing the debate. We shall, of course, have a further opportunity to deal with the issue next week, and I look forward to that.
I am glad to see the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) to my left. I hope that he will soon leap up to defend the Government’s policy. I am also glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), because Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party and the Green party called a debate on the issue in March. I am glad that the Labour party is joining us in opposing a cruel and pernicious charge.
The aim of the under-occupancy penalty is, allegedly, to free up the logjam in available housing. That is a laudable long-term aim, and people should clearly move to make way for younger people with families.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He mentioned my name; I supported the Government’s proposal because I wanted young families to be given the opportunity to have better housing. As to the discretionary housing payment, my authority has been allocated £512,000, as opposed to £60,000 last year. It will not spend it, and will have to send it back to Government unless something is done. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the DWP inquiry should include the use of discretionary payments by local authorities?
That is a good point, to which I intended to refer later. I recently tabled several questions to the Government about the use of discretionary payments, what planning had gone into them, and what amounts were to be available this year and next year. The answers were clearly wanting.
The aim of the charges—freeing up the logjam in the availability of three-bedroom houses for younger people—is laudable in the long term. However, one of my fundamental objections is that the Government are using tenants as a battering ram to free up that logjam. Tenants are carrying the burden of the charge and will have to find alternative accommodation, when there is none available. That is pernicious, and destructive of communities. That is one reason, indeed, for my opposition to the charge.
That is an excellent point. The need has in some ways been artificially generated, and that is not a sensible basis for housing policy, even if people are able to move. However, some hon. Members will have read in The Independent today that 96% of people are unable to move home.
I tabled a question to the Secretary of State, asking
“what estimate he has made of the number of people in Wales who will move house as a result of the social housing under-occupancy penalty.”
The answer was quite revealing:
“The Department is not able to reliably estimate the number of people in Wales who will move house as a result of the Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy due to the small sample sizes involved.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 95W.]
That reveals a great deal, including the fact that the Government do not expect huge numbers of people to move. They expect, I understand, to make substantial savings on housing benefit. That is the reality, and the answer is something of a give-away.
Earlier in the year, I asked the Government what research they had undertaken into the private sector, and private market elasticity—the sector’s ability to respond to an increased demand for one-bedroom places. I was told that no such research had been undertaken before the measures were brought in. There would apparently be research in 2015, and reports would be published in 2016. That will be, of course, more than two and a half years after the charge was brought in—two and a half years of suffering by people who can scarcely afford to lose 12% or 25% of their benefit.
We have heard that particular groups are affected, such as disabled people, who have a legitimate need for extra space. I have constituents who have been charged extra. One such gentleman said, “I shall certainly move from my house, which has been adapted—there is a new bathroom at the back, and a stair lift—and move to a smaller place. The council can then put in a new stair lift, and a new bathroom at the back; and then I will move again.” It is folly. There are single parents without care who will take children for a day or so at the weekend, who will lose out.
More fundamentally, there is an effect on estates. We talk a lot about social life degenerating, and about things not being as good as they used to be. By the way, I was brought up on a council house estate. It was a stable area, with a mix of people from working-class and upper working-class backgrounds and those who were almost middle class, who had been there for a long time. They were the sort of people who had seen their children move on, but still lived in three-bedroom houses, and who provide for such estates the anchor and stability that we think are so important; yet the Government want them to move on. I understand that the technical term is “forced decanting”, which is very bad.
In the short time available to me, I want to point out that we might be left with a further supply of houses that are hard to let, not because they are in difficult areas or do not have basic facilities, but because they have three bedrooms. If the policy actually succeeds, that will be a potential waste of resources.
I end by referring briefly to funding for hardship. My local authority has a group—it brings in people from Shelter, the Department for Work and Pensions and Members of Parliament—to administer such funding. It has added substantially to that fund, with the result that the number of people in arrears is fairly small, and I hope that we will have no evictions. I would like to hear the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), who will speak for the Labour party, pledge that the Labour Government in Wales will have a “no evictions” policy. Local authorities and housing associations are doing their best; it is time for other people to step up to the plate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this most important debate and on her fantastic speech.
A senior officer from one of my social housing providers has said:
“It is as if the Government was following a blueprint of how to ruin social housing within 5 short years.”
Let me give the background to why she said that. Since April, Bolton at Home has had arrears of £200,000. Many people are only partially paying their rent, and 9% of those in debt have arrears of more than £600. Bolton at Home is about to take 25 cases to court because of arrears due solely to the bedroom tax. Wigan and Leigh Housing has arrears of £650,000 and the number of people in debt has nearly doubled to 11,500, so it has revised its income rate to 96% of the amount it should get.
There are knock-on effects on costs. Providers now have to deal with an increased number of calls to the call centre and to employ more people to collect rents. There are increasing court costs, and many other costs besides. All providers are finding it harder to let three-bedroom houses, and have had to increase the number of void days on which they do not collect rent, which again costs them dear.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), has told social housing providers to knock down three-bedroom houses and build something suitable. I would question her reasoning in the first place, but where are they supposed to find the money to alter houses or to build new ones when they are losing so much money because of the policy?
If the policy is so successful, why have the Government recently increased the discretionary housing payment pot by millions? Welcome though that is, it demonstrates how the policy is just not working. It is ill thought out, and in areas such as mine the majority of the housing stock is three-bedroom, so it will do nothing to alleviate overcrowding. It hinders the building of new homes and simply places people in abject poverty.
Behind housing providers’ problems are real-life difficulties for real people. Most of us would think that people with two children would be suitably housed in a three-bedroom house, but sadly not this Government. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Education clearly agrees with me, because he thinks that every pupil should have a bedroom in which to do their homework. He should speak to colleagues in other Departments who think it entirely appropriate for a 15-year-old studying for their GCSEs to share their bedroom with a crying toddler, or for children to have their education disrupted when their parents are forced to move home—not once, but several times—when they or their siblings reach a milestone age at which the family’s accommodation is deemed unsuitable.
My hon. Friend is describing a common circumstance, certainly from the stories I hear from my constituents. Does she agree that the cumulative impact—the stresses caused by high energy prices, the bedroom tax and all these things coming together, particularly for disabled and vulnerable people—is causing pain and distress to many of our constituents?
My hon. Friend’s intervention leads me nicely to a study by York university and the Northern Housing Consortium, “Real Life Reform”, which states:
“Households are surviving on restricted budgets and struggling to get by. 65% have less than £10 per week to live on following rent and essentials such as food and bills. 37% have nothing left each week. Households are intending to cut back spending on food and fuel. 25% spend less than £20 per week on food. Eight out of ten households are already in debt and 83% are worried about getting into more debt. Over half of those in debt doubt they’ll ever be able to clear these debts… Households are reporting increases in levels of stress and depression. 88% of households are worried welfare changes will impact on their health and wellbeing. Parents report they are going without to protect their children’s health.”
That is a story of absolute misery.
I want to tell a story about two of my constituents, whom I will call Mr and Mrs Smith to protect their identity. Mrs Smith came to see me at my surgery because she was absolutely desperate. She came with her mother, but actually looked older than her mother because of the worry and stress she was going through. Her husband is desperately ill, having had a double lung transplant. Sadly, he is unlikely to survive. He needs apparatus to help him to breathe, so there is no way she can share a bedroom with him. The box room is full of oxygen tanks, and the fire brigade has said that no one can sleep in a room with oxygen tanks, because of the risks.
Mr Smith sleeps in one room, Mrs Smith sleeps in another—she cannot sleep with him because of the apparatus and the noise it makes—and oxygen tanks and other equipment occupy the box room, but they are deemed to be under-occupied by two rooms. That is absolute nonsense. They cannot get discretionary housing payments, because he gets disability living allowance, which just enables them to get about and to lead as normal a life as possible, bringing them up to other people’s income. The DLA is taken into account, which puts them over the rate at which they would qualify. Does the Minister think it right that DLA is taken into account? If not, will he do something to change that?
I will finish with a quote from another of my housing providers:
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a policy applied retrospectively. We are used to managing change, but not when the goalposts are moved overnight.”
The policy is cruel and heartless. It will not achieve the savings predicted by the Government. It will not allow the building of new homes and it is causing untold misery. I wish the Government would rethink: do as the Labour party says and abandon this cruel, heartless tax now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this incredibly important debate and on her outstanding contribution. Many passionate speeches have been made by my hon. Friends, but there is a notable absence of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, and we have not yet heard a single speech from Government Members. I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment. This is, I am sure, the first of many occasions on which we shall debate housing.
The truth is that there is a chronic shortage of homes in our country, and we are building fewer than half the number we need to keep up with demand. Not only is the bedroom tax cruel and unfair, but it is exacerbating the housing crisis that we face. The Government are in denial not only about the effect of the bedroom tax, but about the scale of the housing crisis. Two weeks ago, in his first media appearance, the Minister, who has responsibility for housing, denied on “Channel 4 News” that there is a housing crisis, yet the very next day, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who has responsibility for planning, said in Westminster Hall that there is a housing crisis and that it is particularly intense in some parts of the country, including pockets of Yorkshire, which is where the Minister’s constituency is. People often say that Departments work in silos, but it is quite incredible to have a division of opinion within one Department—the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The chronic housing shortage is clear for all to see and the Government are presiding over the lowest level of house building since the 1920s. As soon as they took office, they cut the affordable homes budget by 60%. Home ownership is falling and private rents are soaring. Five million people are on the waiting list for social housing, and homelessness and rough sleeping have both risen by more than a third since the general election. The reality is that the bedroom tax is making the housing crisis worse, not better.
The Government continue to maintain that the bedroom tax is about tackling overcrowding, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) has said, the tax is not about making the best use of the social housing stock; it is about saving money, and it is questionable whether it will do that. Indeed, it is making the poorest people across our country even poorer and costing an average family £720 a year. On the same day that the tax came into force, every millionaire in the country got an average tax cut of more than a hundred grand.
Two-thirds of those hit by the bedroom tax are disabled. Some 220,000 are families with children, and many tenants want to move but simply cannot find a suitable property to move to. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) said that in her constituency much of the housing stock is three-bedroom properties, which is the case in other parts of the country, including my own constituency.
The bedroom tax is also hitting housing supply. As many of my hon. Friends have underlined, local authorities are suffering. Areas such as Wolverhampton, Nottingham and elsewhere have to put money into helplines to ensure that people are not left without housing. The tax is also having an impact on affordable housing budgets, particularly for housing associations. A survey by the National Housing Federation found that a quarter of households affected have fallen behind in their rent for the first time ever. Such arrears have major consequences for house building, too, and they are jeopardising the ability of housing associations to borrow, plan for the future and, ultimately, build more homes.
I have a number of questions to which I would like the Minister to respond. In particular, what assessment has his Department made of the rent arrears for councils and housing associations and of the impact that those arrears are having on their ability to build the affordable homes that we so desperately need? How many homes are standing empty across the country because of this failed policy, and how many councils have received permission from the Minister’s Department to draw money from the housing revenue account to protect the most vulnerable? I understand why they want to protect the most vulnerable from the impact of the policy, but, as several of my hon. Friends have said, that is having an impact on the money that they are able to spend on repairs and new homes.
The bedroom tax is cruel and unfair, and it simply is not working. The Labour party has pledged to scrap it. Far from tackling overcrowding, the bedroom tax is exacerbating the biggest housing crisis in a generation—a housing crisis that the new Minister says does not exist. We beg to differ. Perhaps the Government want to forget that they are presiding over the lowest level of house building since the 1920s.
The Labour party is determined to get a grip on the issue. The bedroom tax is having a negative impact not only on the poorest in our society, but on the number of houses being built.
I am nearly out of time.
We want to get Britain building again and have pledged that, by the end of the next Parliament, we will double house building. Something radical needs to change in this Government’s policy. They need to get a grip not only on the implications of the bedroom tax for the most vulnerable and poorest people in our country, but on its impact on housing supply. I hope that they also get a grip on the housing crisis that is affecting families in my constituency and across the country.
What a pleasure and privilege it is, Mrs Riordan, to serve for the first time under the chairmanship of a fellow Yorkshire MP. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this important debate and on the passion with which she delivered it. We may not agree on some of the points, but I know how sincerely she presented her case, and I appreciate that.
The hon. Lady raised two constituency issues relating to Ashley, who is disabled. If she will write to me about them, I will attempt to give her a formal and proper response, rather than just having a discussion across the Chamber. She talked about the 1 million new houses that the Labour party proposes to build. I presume that the money will come out of bankers’ bonuses at some point. I realise that after some 13 years in government and the many decades since Macmillan was in power, we have never actually hit the figure of 240,000 houses. I am not sure how Labour will pay for them. Perhaps we have a common aspiration to deliver that number of houses during the period when we are in government.
Will the Minister admit that, in terms of completions, the Government have done a very poor job? Since the Government came to power, housing completions have been at their lowest since the 1920s—only 107,000 properties in 2010-11. That is simply not good enough. In our period in office, in 2007-08, we hit 170,000 properties, and we have said that we will aim to build more than 200,000 a year by 2020. That is a realistic objective.
Let me say that Labour presided over a period of massive boom, yet it still managed to secure fewer affordable houses by the end of that period—420,000 houses. I appreciate the aspiration, but now I want to make some further comments and respond to the Members who have spoken.
The hon. Members for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) talked about arrears. That is a matter that we are watching and we are keen to understand the consequences of the new system. A review will be published next spring that will help us in that regard.
The hon. Members for Edinburgh East jested about portaloos and outside toilets. In the lead-up to the 2010 general election, I visited a house with an outside toilet. They are not a fantasy, or even an issue to jest about; they exist. Some of the housing stock out there is appalling, which leads me to the meat of my speech.
The hon. Lady is right. The house that I was talking about was in the private sector. In my period in local government, the housing stock in my city was absolutely appalling. The then Government rightly wanted to intervene, but the then Labour-led council refused to support such intervention. The idea that—[Interruption.] I want to conclude this section and move on to the rest of my speech. It is being suggested that we had a utopian social housing model before 2010 and then somehow we made a transition to an uncaring world, where no one cares about social housing. Let me tell Members that my parents were brought up in a council house. I lived in a council house and I care about those individuals. I want to talk about—[Interruption.] I will continue, because we do not have much time.
I will make one final point on the interventions and the comments that were made. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) talked about Mr and Mrs Smith, and I understand why she talked about people in that anonymous way. Again, I say to her that if there is anything I can do to respond to the concerns of those individuals, I will do so. I would be grateful if she wrote to me, and I would seek to get an appropriate response.
I refer back to a point that the Minister made earlier when he referred to research into the charge, to understand what has happened. Will he concede that the usual progress of social policy is that there is research first, then planning, then implementation and then a review? That is the usual way that it is done.
There was a significant amount of research into the whole issue of welfare reform, which was debated at length, so I do not think that anyone came to this view without understanding the issue. However, we can only evaluate a process after it has been in place.
No, I will carry on, because I want to make some progress.
I will just pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East, who said that I had said that there was no crisis. Just to provide some clarification and so that this myth does not continue, I will say that I was asked about a housing bubble in London and whether or not there was a crisis, and there is not. I actually used the backing of the Governor of the Bank of England, who says there is no housing bubble, and that was what I was specifically referring to. Also, the Chancellor has put in place the means to intervene on any of the measures that we have in place, through the Financial Policy Committee; if a bubble was emerging, he could intervene at that point.
An issue that has come out in the debate is the comparison between, “We’ve said it’s about saving money,” and, “You’re saying now it’s about supply.” There is a need to save money. We inherited a bill that had doubled to some £24 billion by the time we came to power, and it was important that we addressed it because we ended up with a deficit where we were spending—in fact, despite a reduction of a third, we are still paying £120 million a day in interest and we have a responsibility to address that.
I am sorry, but I will not give way.
Despite the fact that we have this huge deficit, we wanted to ensure that the burden that was placed on this sector was as small as possible. In fact, it is 0.3% of the deficit reduction strategy that was put in place.
Answering the question about supply, the Government have already delivered 334,000 houses; we have made a commitment of £20 billion to deliver 170,000 houses before the end of this financial spending period; and we have made further commitments of £23 billion to deliver another 165,000 affordable houses. So I am afraid that the idea that money is not being raised or that councils or housing associations do not have the ability to deliver affordable housing is false. Despite the limited resources that are available, the Government have been absolutely committed to delivering affordable housing, and we will continue to deliver it.
Rather than talking about imaginary numbers of a billion houses over the next period, let me say that Labour clearly failed to deliver in a time of boom. For a period of 13 years—it was 11 years of boom— Labour failed to hit the target that it was talking about. And it has not said how it would fund its plan to address this issue.
On the ground out there at the moment, there is real growth in supply. The construction industry is running at a six-year high; the construction sector has said that it has had a higher expansion in the past six months than it has had for some time; and most of that construction growth is from housing. So the supply issue is being addressed by Britain getting out and building, and we have resourced that.
The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply has said that we are experiencing the highest rate of building for a decade and that housing supply is now at its highest since the end of the unsustainable housing boom of 2008. As I said, some 334,000 houses have been built.
On what figures does the Minister base the statement that he has just made, because even if we look at starts and completions, it simply cannot be the case that this Government have done better than the previous Government? We built more than 2 million homes and 500,000 of them were affordable. He keeps talking about 300,000 houses, but that is over three years. That is an abysmal record, and he needs to face up to it.
First, I made the point that Labour was building in a period of boom and still managed to reduce the number of affordable houses by 420,000 and that, in a very difficult period, we have grown the number of affordable houses and we have delivered them. We said that we would deliver 170,000 houses on the basis of a public and private investment of £19.5 billion. We have already delivered 84,000 houses, and as I said before, we intend to go up to 2018 with a further investment of £23 billion, which will deliver another 160,000 affordable houses.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is so generous. I wish to make a genuine inquiry. Will he congratulate the Labour Government in Cardiff on their success in house building, and even possibly the Scottish National party Government in Edinburgh as well?
The Minister may not be aware that the Scottish Government have taken on a very ambitious programme of house building in Scotland that far exceeds anything that went before in the devolution era. However, the private sector housing that is coming on stream is significantly more expensive than the housing that people are currently living in, so I do not believe that the policy that we are discussing today is saving any money. I hope that he will be able to say categorically today that it is saving housing benefit costs.
No, I will not give way. In fact, I will give way in a second or two, but not just at the moment.
I reiterate that we recognise that this is about reducing the burden on the Government and the amount of debt that we have in place. It is important that we do that. We cannot continue to subsidise a million spare rooms. It is important that people out there—the taxpayers out there—understand that everybody is absolutely making a contribution to this process.
I feel extremely uncomfortable that people are turning around and saying that this is an uncaring and—[Interruption.] What I can say is that I know my commitment to addressing the number of houses that we have out there and to ensuring people out there have access to affordable housing.
In any transition from one state to another, we need to take responsibility to ensure that there are sufficient resources to make that transition happen. That is why, despite the difficult financial circumstances that we find ourselves in, we have invested some £405 million, including £25 million of discretionary payments to disabled people, to make that transition right.
With the process that we have gone through, what is important is that we understand the issues involved—I particularly want to understand the issues about arrears—and make sure that we are building the supply of houses and continuing to grow it. When the opportunity comes to understand further, when the interim report is published in April next year, I hope that we will be able to address many of the issues that Members have raised in Westminster Hall today.
NHS Funding (North-East and Teesside)
This is an important opportunity to discuss concerns that my north-east colleagues and I have. I hope that the Minister takes our points on board, and takes the necessary steps to rectify the issues in the region’s health service.
I will discuss four topics this afternoon. The first is the funding provided by central Government to the region’s accident and emergency departments, particularly in the south Tees area. The second is the funding of the North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust, and the rising use and cost of private ambulances. The third is the ongoing Monitor investigations into the two foundation trusts—the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust—that serve my constituents. Finally, I will seek reassurance from the Minister on future funding allocations to north-east clinical commissioning groups.
Over the past 18 months, the accident and emergency department at James Cook university hospital, which serves my constituency, has come under particular pressure. In the run-up to winter last year, there were problems with handover times; ambulances and paramedics waited up to two and a half hours to admit patients, despite the national target time being 15 minutes. I raised that last year with the Secretary of State for Health, who agreed that the situation was completely unacceptable, and I raised it with the Minister on 13 February 2013 in a Westminster Hall debate on A and E provision in the north-east. In addition to the issues that I raised with the Secretary of State, it has become evident that the James Cook hospital’s A and E department struggled to manage with the pressure caused by winter.
In January and February 2013, the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust failed to meet its target of seeing 95% of A and E patients within four hours. With James Cook hospital so clearly overstretched, I admit that I was surprised to discover in September 2013 that the Secretary of State decided not to award it, or any hospital trust in the north-east, funding to alleviate the pressure on A and E departments. It is beyond belief that, of the £250 million awarded by the Secretary of State between 53 trusts, not a penny will reach the north-east, particularly as we live in a region that suffers from some of England’s harshest winter weather and has some of the harshest local government cuts in the country. I hope that the Minister reconsiders that allocation, or at the very least clarifies why the Secretary of State made such a seemingly absurd and regionally disparate decision.
Recurrently, over many weeks, I have received expressions of concern from constituents about the increasing use of private ambulances in response to 999 calls in my constituency. I corresponded with the North East Ambulance Service on two such incidents, and its reply made it clear that central Government funding cuts are eroding that blue-light service:
“Each year we have discussions with our commissioners on the forecast number of incidents in the forthcoming year. The outcome of these discussions for 2013-14 were that commissioners felt it necessary to set our income on activity for the next 12 months at a level less than we were forecasting… So for 2013-14, we have been contracted to respond to 376,000 incidents, although we are forecasting activity at an estimated 415,000. This means that any incidents above 376,000 will be funded on a one-off basis rather than as recurrent annual income. These arrangements do not allow us to enhance our own workforce plan because the money for the additional activity will not be available next year to fund the extra salaries, overheads and vehicles we need to meet the extra demand.”
Yes, the police, and particularly the police and crime commissioner for Cleveland, have raised that with me in private meetings on first responder calls. They have funding worries about what will happen if such practices continually recur.
The NEAS letter shows that there will be more cuts, more private ambulances and possibly a less responsive service. It is not me saying that, but the chief operating officer of the North East Ambulance Service. The figures are stark. In 2008-09, 865 call-outs were attended by private ambulances in our region, costing £86,000. In 2009-10, some 1,816 call-outs were attended by private ambulances, costing £151,000. In 2010-11, however, 6,429 call-outs were attended by private ambulances, costing £477,000, which is a huge jump. In 2011-12, there were 9,000 call-outs attended by private ambulances, costing £639,000. In 2012-13, 13,524 call-outs were attended by private ambulances, costing £754,000. So since 2010, there has been a fivefold increase in private ambulance costs in the north-east, with the funds going to private contract firms. It is obvious that from 2010 onwards, there has been an explosion of private ambulance usage by the trust, costing a huge amount of taxpayers’ funds. The chief executive states:
“These arrangements do not allow us to enhance our own workforce plan because the money for the additional activity will not be available next year to fund the extra salaries, overheads and vehicles we need to meet the extra demand.”
A third issue of particular concern to my constituents is that both the NHS trusts that serve them—the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust—have found themselves under investigation by Monitor in the past 12 months. Since May 2010, the South Tees trust has failed on seven occasions to meet its referral-to-treatment target, most recently between March and August. That has resulted in the Monitor investigation, because the trust has failed to ensure that 90% of patients commence treatment within 18 weeks of referral. Furthermore, there has been an increase in reported “never” events at the trust, and an increase in the incidence of clostridium difficile.
Despite the seriousness of those issues, Health Ministers have taken no action. My constituents would at the very least expect Ministers to have had conversations with Monitor and the trust on the issue, and on what support the Department of Health can provide, yet the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), confirmed to me in a written answer that
“No such discussions have taken place with Ministers.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 83W.]
Will the Minister please assure me that he will closely monitor the situation and have discussions with both Monitor and the South Tees trust on how the Department can provide support, including additional funding if necessary?
My final point is on allocations to the north-east’s clinical commissioning groups.
A recent working paper issued by NHS England on allocation and indicative target allocation outlines proposals that will reduce per-capita funding for CCGs across the north-east. People in Sunderland will each face a £146 cut, people in south Tyneside a £124 cut, people in Gateshead a £104 cut, and people in my constituency a £60 cut.
Is it not perverse that deprivation and health inequality indicators are not part of the overall calculation, as regards the funding allocation for the north-east? That will potentially result in the north-east losing up to £230 million of NHS funding per annum.
Yes, the cumulative effect of all the funding allocations in different areas is very worrying. If those allocations are all reduced, my genuine worry for my constituents, and for constituents across the north-east, is that all the hard work and financial effort in Teesside in the past 15 years to reduce cardiac risk, bad outcomes for cancer, and other problems will be undermined, and we will not build on the momentum gathered over the past 15 years.
Is that not all the more outrageous because a former Health Minister, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), gave a clear assurance at Health Question Time on the Floor of the House that the importance of the deprivation part of the calculation would not be downgraded? We asked for a clear assurance, and we were given a clear assurance. That assurance is not compatible with the current consultation.
I compliment my hon. Friend on securing such a timely and important debate. I completely agree that one of the most worrying aspects is the potential changes to the funding of clinical commissioning groups. Easington would lose £62 a head. Does he agree that that could be seen as political gerrymandering, with the poorest areas deprived of funding and the wealthiest, such as east Hampshire, getting increases of as much as £164 a head? The areas with the best health outcomes will get the biggest increases in resources.
My hon. Friend has mentioned that in Health questions and in the Select Committee on Health, of which he is a doughty member who provides a lot of input. Someone from a poorer socio-economic background has a lower likelihood of reaching the age at which they would receive more funds under the allocation—it would probably never happen. This becomes a self-defeating, vicious circle of a lack of investment in people who might need it the most.
As I was saying, the proposals in a recent working paper issued by NHS England on the allocation and the indicative target allocation would have led to a per capita reduction in funding for CCGs throughout the north-east, and my constituents would have lost out. Meanwhile, CCGs in the south would have had a per capita increase; for example, those covered by Coastal West Sussex CCG would each gain £115, those in Hailsham £136, and those covered by South Eastern Hampshire CCG £164. That is clearly not a one-nation NHS. I received ministerial assurances that that formula was not ultimately used for 2013-14, but a response to a parliamentary question that I asked confirmed that
“No proposals or decisions regarding allocations for 2014-15 have yet been made.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 76W.]
The hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), who is in the Chamber, told the Evening Gazette on 23 October that it was indeed “right” that NHS England was considering reducing health funding for his constituents and the north-east, but—
The hon. Gentleman has either misread or misremembered, or perhaps the Evening Gazette did not give a full account of my comments. What I said was right was having an independent funding body that makes decisions based on a formula that is consulted on, and it is right that age should be a factor. That does not mean that deprivation should not be a factor. I recognise and welcome the debate, and the effort that hon. Members in all parties are making to put the case that deprivation has an impact on health outcomes and should be considered as part of the funding formula. I recognise, however, the independence of NHS England, and I support it being an independent body. Does he recognise its independence?
I recognise the health outcomes and needs of my local constituents; as their representative, I will voice those views and needs vociferously. I take on board, however, the hon. Gentleman’s comments and his desire to see deprivation recognised in the allocation of funds. On the future allocation for CCGs, I hope that he will advocate to the Minister on behalf of those of his constituents who share the same socio-economic background as me, in the way that we Labour Members do. I take his intervention in favour of those funds in a spirit of common north-eastern friendship.
Will the Minister assure us that he will urge NHS England to consider deprivation and regional health inequalities when determining funding formulae? Furthermore, will he guarantee that any funding formula used to determine allocations in 2014-15 will not leave the north-east comparatively worse off, and will not widen the north-south health divide? I thank the Minister for his time, and I hope that he will be able to provide the clarifications and assurances that my colleagues and I have sought this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Riordan.
A lot of political smoke has been blown across the Chamber today by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop). I have a lot of time for him personally, and he came to see me earlier in the year to express some legitimate concerns about the performance of his local trust. On the basis of our meetings, I hope to reassure him that there has been considerable progress locally in his area.
More broadly, it is worth setting the record straight on some of the points made today. We have had discussion about the ambulance service, which I will come to, and we have talked about winter pressures, which I will address. First, however, on the funding formula, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) was right to point out that it is set independently of the Government. Before we handed independent formula setting to NHS England, the Government made it clear that deprivation is a factor and it is taken into account in the current arrangements. There is a 10% weighting for deprivation in the funding formula, which as a Government we ensured was preserved in the formula. Under the new arrangements, there is more political independence in setting the funding formula.
Not at the moment. The independent Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation, or ACRA, as hon. Members have mentioned in the debate, historically has advised that the funding formula should be readjusted to take into account demographics and the increased health care needs of older populations in other parts of the country. The Government, however, in the past chose to maintain support for deprivation as a factor in health care funding, but the decision is now not one for the Government. It is now for NHS England to listen to the independent advice, but I would find it strange were there a sudden change in the funding formula that did not factor in deprivation, as done in the past.
It is important to set the record straight. The decision is not political; in the past, the Government preserved a weighting for deprivation, but now the decision will be taken separately by NHS England. Its decision will be made on the basis of clinical need, although of course deprivation will be a factor.
I asked the Minister’s predecessor for a clear assurance that he would not downgrade the importance of economic deprivation in his resource allocation formula. The Minister’s predecessor, once he had consulted the Secretary of State at Health questions, then said:
“Yes, I can give that assurance.”—[Official Report, 12 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 167.]
It is impossible to misunderstand what was being said. What weight can we put on that now?
My predecessor was in place when setting the resource allocation was in the Government’s gift. As the then Minister made it clear, a weighting in the formula for deprivation would be preserved—he stood by his word and that weighting was preserved. NHS England, not the Government, now sets the funding formula—to avoid political interference—and those in NHS England, in conversation, have made it clear that they also value a weighting apportioned to deprivation.
No, I will not give way. I have said things clearly for the record, without any political smoke.
As a Government, when we had control of the funding formula, we clearly put in a weighting for deprivation and for some of the poorest communities. I am proud that we did so, but it is now for an independent body to look at the case and at the independent advice that it has been given. I would find it extraordinary, however, if it were not to factor deprivation into its decision making, although there are other factors that it will want to put into the equation, such as the fact that older people are the greatest users of health care, so places with lots of older people also need to be recognised. A number of factors will be taken into consideration, and deprivation will be one of them. I have been reassuring about that, and I will not allow the Labour party or any hon. Member to make mischief with something that the Government have stood by.
No, I will not give way any more. I have clarified the point considerably, and the hon. Gentleman would do well to listen. I will not allow the Labour party to make political mischief, when my party has made it clear that we value the deprivation weighting. In fact, if we look at the public health allocations to every local authority, they have been generous. As I hope to reassure hon. Members, we can see that the health care funding allocations to the north-east have also increased under this Government, so the assertion that funding to the north-east is being reduced is clearly not the case.
The Government have increased the NHS budget, which the shadow Secretary of State described as “irresponsible”. At the same time, the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government have cut the budget by more than 8%; in England, however, we have ensured that we have increased the health care budget in real terms. In the north-east specifically, CCGs have received an above-real-terms increase in funding for 2013-14 of 2.3%, compared with the primary care trusts’ funding for the equivalent set of services last year. Opposition Members should be pleased about increases in funding for the north-east, because if the Opposition spokesman were Secretary of State at the moment, he would have considered that irresponsible.
The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that had the Government followed the advice of the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation in the past, we would potentially have cut the budget for the north-east. I can reassure him that we maintained the resource allocation budget, and the north-east has received an increase in real terms. Those are the facts. He may want to create political smoke, but there is none. We preserved and increased funding to the north-east for patients in Opposition Members’ constituencies and in those of my hon. Friends.
I will not give way again.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland is being very disingenuous in the points that he is making, and I have put the record straight: health care funding has increased under the present Government. If I give way again, perhaps he will explain why the shadow Secretary of State said it would be irresponsible to increase the health care budget in real terms. We all think that would be irresponsible in the current environment.
I turn to local services in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. When we discussed the matter earlier this year, he raised specific concerns about Guisborough, East Cleveland and Redcar hospitals. He did not put on the record the fact that matters have improved considerably since that meeting with me and local commissioners. Guisborough urgent care centre is open from 9 to 5 on Mondays to Fridays and from 8 to 8 at weekends. East Cleveland urgent care centre is open from 9 to 5 on Mondays to Fridays and from 8 to 8 at weekends, and Redcar urgent care centre is open 24/7. There are currently no vacancies for clinical staff that affect opening hours, which have been aligned to match service and patient need. The centres will continue to evaluate the situation.
It is worth highlighting that three additional nurses were recruited to support the urgent care centres in June 2013, and they are now at full complement, apart from one vacant clinical lead post to which the trust is continuing to try to recruit. It is looking at better ways to manage staffing. In response to concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman, there are now fully functioning urgent care centres. There is a 24/7 service in Redcar and additional staff working at those centres. That is good progress and it is disingenuous of him to suggest otherwise.
I thank the Minister for giving way during a response to a speech I made in February, although I deliberately did not mention those points because they were not part of what I wanted to talk about today. The Minister says that South Tees NHS trust is successful, so why is it under investigation by Monitor?
The hon. Gentleman has raised issues of health care funding, and I am making the point that there has been considerable investment in local health care services, the very services that he said earlier this year had received no investment. He is also raising urgent care services and other services at his local hospital trust. I am reassuring him that considerable investment has been made locally, and it is worth highlighting the fact that further investment has been made. He is incredibly disingenuous to stand here and run down his local health service when considerable steps have been made to improve patient care services. For his benefit, I will outline a few more improvements that have been made, so that they are firmly on the record.
I will not give way because the hon. Gentleman should listen to the answers to some of his questions and realise that his local health care services are improving thanks to the Government’s increased investment in the health service—[Interruption.] Hon. Members have been incredibly political in everything they have said today, and I am putting answers on the record. If the hon. Gentleman does not want to hear them, he should not have raised the debate.
The latest data for 27 October 2013 show that South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s performance against the 95% standard for A and E waits is 96.8%. Over the last 23 weeks, it has met the national 95% target for A and E four-hour waits. The local trust is performing very well in treating patients in a timely way when they arrive at A and E. That is contrary to the points that the hon. Gentleman was trying to make.
At James Cook university hospital, the acute admissions unit is adjacent to the A and E department, so enabling the trust better to manage the flow of patients and to ease pressure on A and E. The trust has recruited two additional consultants and six additional junior doctors to the acute medicine departments, so easing pressure on the A and E department. Considerable investment is being made, and additional nursing staff have been recruited to support 50 more acute hospital beds that will be in place this winter. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that there is a lot of investment locally, with more beds, more staff and better care. It is a pity that he could not acknowledge that in his speech. I am putting it on the record, so that his constituents are aware of it.
The Secretary of State announced an additional £250 million to relieve pressure on A and E, but none of it was allocated to any of the hospitals in the constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends here.
On the incidence of ill health in deprived areas, half of the people presenting to hospitals suffering from hepatitis C, which is completely treatable and curable, come from the poorest 20% and three quarters come from the poorest 40%. Is it not right that additional resources are provided to those poorest areas to tackle such diseases?
Indeed, but it is not curable as the hon. Gentleman stated. He should get his facts right before making statements in the Chamber. It is not curable, but it is treatable and the best treatment is prevention, which is why we have given a considerable amount of money to local authorities to take on the public health responsibility and to ensure that local authorities are in the right place to look at primary prevention of transmissible sexual diseases. He will be aware that hepatitis C is sometimes transmitted via the sexual route. The Government have put us in a better place to deal with sexual health issues and to tackle them in future.
There has been talk about ambulances, and it is worth highlighting that the most recent data, for September 2013, show that the North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust is meeting the category A8 red 1 measure 80.6% of the time and the A8 red 2 measure 80.8% of the time against an operational standard of 75%. The ambulance service is doing marvellously well in the north-east. It is meeting category B19 with a performance of 97.7% against an operational standard of 95%. That is a good performance in the north-east by anyone’s standard. The ambulance service is performing very well. Other ambulance services that may receive more generous funding are struggling, sometimes due to mismanagement, particularly in my part of the country in eastern England.
It is very difficult for the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland to make any case for lack of funding or other problems with his ambulance service when health care funding for the north-east is going up under this Government and the ambulance service is performing well according to national performance indicators. Those are the facts, and if he did not want them on the record, he should not have raised the debate.
It is more in sorrow than anger that I make those points. When the hon. Gentleman and I had a constructive meeting earlier this year to discuss local health care services, there was not the political smoke or the chorus backing him that there has been in this debate. Genuine issues were raised about his local health care service, and he and I, with local commissioners, worked to put improvements in place. As a result of that meeting, there are more staff, more winter beds and more investment in his local trust. The local community hospitals that he was so concerned about are in a much better place.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will come back to me if further issues arise, but his part of the country is much better placed than many others to deal with the pressures of winter. He should be proud of that, and I hope he will take the opportunity after this debate to champion his local NHS and the good work at local level by front-line staff who are delivering improvements. I hope he will take that opportunity and that we will not have to come back here and listen to him running down his local health services.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I welcome the Minister to his place, and thank him very much for the interest that he has shown in this subject ever since he took up his post.
I start by putting on record my interest in the Maldives. Before coming to this place, I was a political consultant with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The Maldives was just one of the places that I visited, but it is very close to my heart. Before 2008, a dictatorship was in place there. It was a country that lived without democracy, and where people were in prison for their political views. There was widespread brutality and many innocent people, including many young men and women, were in prison because they dared to suggest democracy.
I first visited in 2008 to help the Maldivian Democratic party run a campaign akin to those that we run and take for granted here in Britain. I joined my colleague James McGrath, who has recently been elected to the Australian Senate. We went to help, and it was very humbling when we arrived to see the hope and dedication that that party has—and still has, despite everything that has been thrown at its members over many years. They are, without a doubt, some of the most courageous people that I have ever met.
The MDP is led by Mohamed Nasheed, who is known as Anni. He is the same age as me, but it is almost unbelievable how much he has suffered over the years. He is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. He is a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, who has spent great periods of his life in jail and has been beaten and tortured, but who does not give up on his dream of fair and free elections. He is a man of great principle and he is a great leader.
During those elections in 2008, I travelled with Anni to many islands, taught the MDP about running elections and met so many people who had extraordinary stories to tell. Dreams do come true: Anni and the MDP won that election with 54% of the vote. Democracy had won the day, and Anni, the former prisoner, was the first ever democratically elected leader in the Maldives. I returned to Redditch the day before the elections and could not believe that he won so comprehensively, by such a large margin. I received a text from the editor of the local newspaper, who said:
“So many thoughts about the families that have suffered over the last 30 years. My eyes are swelling with tears every now and then. It is over Karen. It is really over. We can live in a country free from fear. People are crying thank you so much.”
However, it was not over—not by a long way. In fact, it was just starting.
Anni had promised to reform his country, and he spent the next three years doing just that. He provided better health care, reformed transport and looked after the elderly, which was everything that he had promised to do, but it was not enough. When the old President left office, he left Anni with some of his most favoured judges. He left a constitutional time bomb for Anni, and on 7 February 2012, it went off.
I woke to the shocking news that Anni had resigned, that the vice-president had taken over, and that it was all above board. For those of us who knew Anni, that could not be right. To this day, I believe that there was a coup in the Maldives, and that Anni Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint. There were riots all over Male, many of my friends were beaten and tortured, and there were dreadful breaches of human rights.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the matter to the Chamber for consideration. In terms of human rights, is she aware that every person, no matter what their religious background, has to be a Muslim in the Maldives? They cannot be an evangelical Protestant or a Roman Catholic—that is not allowed. Does she feel that the human rights of Christians are violated there?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but most people in the Maldives are happy to be Muslims and want to be Muslims. They are quite relaxed about that. Actually, one thing that I was accused of when I was there was trying to convert people to Christianity, which I obviously was not trying to do.
I met Mohamed here in London in 2012 to see what I could do to help. One of the conclusions of that meeting was that there had to be free and fair elections, and that reform was needed. He also met the Minister’s predecessor, who was briefed on events.
In October 2012, I was shocked and saddened to see Anni being arrested again and taken away by many men in riot gear. Those who know Anni know what a gentle, calm and charismatic man he is, and to see him taken by boat to some wretched island prison was disgraceful. To many, this man was their great hope and their democratically elected President. Anni was dragged through the courts, but thankfully was allowed to stand for election this September.
That brings us nearly up to date. Anni did everything that was asked of him, waited patiently until elections arrived, campaigned in a fair manner and secured 45.45% of the vote. That was higher than he achieved in the first round of elections in 2008. Was that enough? No, of course not. The failed politician and wealthy businessman, Qasim Ibrahim, had his colleagues in the Supreme Court annul the elections, which had been called free and fair by the Commonwealth and the EU.
I commend my hon. Friend on all the work that she has done to further the cause of democracy in the Maldives. She touched on the Commonwealth, which suspended the Maldives in 2012 for its democracy and human rights violations. Does she hope that this issue will be high on the agenda at the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka?
I hope that the Maldives will be very high on the agenda at the Commonwealth conference, and I look forward to the Prime Minister being able to put his case at that meeting.
However, we are where we are today. Elections were held that were cited as free and fair. Two of my colleagues, one of whom is here today, were there representing the Foreign Office. Strange, isn’t it? What happened smacks to me of a child who cannot win a board game, so they tip over the board. We are here today hoping, I suppose, that elections will take place on the newly scheduled date of 9 November.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Is she as astonished as I am that members of the Maldivian Supreme Court, who are making legal decisions on the conduct and process of the presidential elections in the Maldives, do not have any legal qualifications or legal training? That, in itself, is not conducive to elections and decisions that are seen as fair, open, transparent, and in the name of the people.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I totally agree with her. When the elections are finally over, I think that the Commonwealth and the rest of the world need to look at helping the Maldives with its constitutional arrangements to ensure that it can move on in a way that is free and fair.
Let us hope, however, that the elections take place on Saturday, and that we get a clear winner—somebody with 50% or more of the votes—or at least that we manage to get to the second round. A resolution was passed by Parliament stating that if there is no winner on the 9th, the Speaker of the Parliament will head the Government as interim President until a President can be democratically elected. I welcome that measure and hope that we will at last see President Waheed leave his unelected post. I also hope that on 16 November, the second round will provide the Maldives with a democratically elected President who can get on with the job. However, I have just heard, in the past hour, that the Progressive party of Maldives and the Jumhooree party are still refusing to sign the votes of registry, thereby putting this week’s elections once again in jeopardy.
I know that the Minister and the Foreign Secretary have taken a great interest in the Maldives, as did the Minister’s predecessor, but time is running out. As Charles Tannock MEP said in the European Parliament recently,
“The people of the Maldives deserve better than this. They must have their voices heard and their decisions respected.”
Time is running out for the Maldives. The international community and the Commonwealth must be ready to step in and stand up for their newest democracy. I urge the Minister to put whatever pressure he can on the Commonwealth and the rest of the world to ensure that the elections go ahead on Saturday and the run-off the week after. I also urge him to look very carefully at the reason why the Supreme Court annulled the elections, claiming that there were dead voters and made-up names on the register. At least one of those so-called dead people has, I understand, written to the Minister. Indeed, of the 13 who were supposed to be dead, seven have now been found living.
We must be ready to stand up and be counted if necessary. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister called Anni Nasheed his new best friend. Let us not let our friends down here today. As usual, I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) for securing the debate. I believe that it is her second debate on the Maldives, her first one being in November 2012. I am particularly grateful to her for her continued interest in the Maldives and her tireless support for democratic reform there.
I want to speak very explicitly and clearly, because I want to leave no one, particularly anyone in the Maldives who is listening to what I am saying or who will receive a report of it later, in doubt. I want it to be crystal clear where the Government stand on the current situation.
On the problems and the need to support democratic reform in the Maldives, that is a desire very much shared by the Government, who consider the Maldives to be a long-standing friend and international ally, but we are, as my hon. Friend is, deeply dismayed by the delays in the democratic process. Democracy in the country has been a recent and welcome development. The first multi-party presidential elections were held—my hon. Friend alluded to them—only in 2008. We must recognise that the people and the electoral process of the Maldives have come a long way in that time.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of religious freedom as part of democracy and human rights in the Maldives, and he is absolutely right that the Maldivian constitution stipulates that a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives. We believe that that provision is a violation of article 48 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which was ratified by the Maldives in September 2006. We have raised our concerns about that with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, have urged them to promote religious tolerance and have supported that through funding projects to promote moderate Islam.
Let me revert to the democratic process and the democratisation of the Maldives. The evidence is that more than 85%—how many of us would like to be able to cite that figure for our own constituencies?—of the electorate voted in the presidential elections on 7 September this year, demonstrating their strong commitment to the democratic process. Polls were judged by international and domestic observers to have been fair, free and credible. As the Maldives Elections Commission stated, the election was described by observers as
“one of the most peaceful and best”
that they had seen. That certainly remains our view.
However, it is clear that in recent weeks the commitment demonstrated by the Maldivian people has not been respected by some politicians, whose various manoeuvres, including calls for military intervention, have sought to frustrate and impede the democratic process.
Following what appeared to be a weakly substantiated legal challenge from an unsuccessful presidential candidate, the Maldives Supreme Court voted to annul the election results and ordered a restart of the process. Regrettably, the controversy does not end there. On 19 October, the scheduled re-run was cancelled at the last moment, and the Maldives police service intervened to ensure that the vote could not take place. The cancellation came as a result of the refusal of two candidates to sign the electoral register—one of the 16 onerous conditions imposed by the Supreme Court. That condition in effect allows any one candidate to veto the elections, raising the possibility, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch says, of further delays.
However, such interference has not gone unnoticed. On 30 October, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said in a statement:
“I am alarmed that the Supreme Court of the Maldives is interfering excessively in the presidential elections, and in so doing is subverting the democratic process and violating the right of Maldivians to freely elect their representatives.”
The statement also rightly noted:
“Judges should act in accordance with the principles of impartiality, propriety, equality and due diligence”.
Navi Pillay also expressed concerns about the reports of intimidation, noting that the Supreme Court had threatened to charge both lawyers and media with contempt of court for challenging the Court’s decisions. Local non-governmental organisations, including Transparency Maldives, have been subject to inappropriate and unwarranted threats of investigation and dissolution. Such attempts to silence dissent must be condemned. Threats against staff at the Elections Commission and Human Rights Commission must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible brought to justice. The current Government and those responsible for the impasse should understand that their domestic actions are not isolated from the scrutiny of the international community.
I raised the troubling situation in the Maldives with my counterparts at the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting in New York in September. After all, building, supporting and strengthening democratic rights, freedoms and institutions are values fundamental to the Commonwealth. In fact, such is our concern at the Maldives’ disregard for those values that it prompts the question—if the elections do not proceed as scheduled—of whether it is appropriate for the Maldives to be represented at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo.
In addition to what has been done by the UK and the Commonwealth, statements of concern have been issued by, among others, India, the US, the EU, the UN and those with business interests vital to the Maldivian economy, such as Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group. It is clear that further delays to the elections, and related instability and human rights concerns, will further damage both the Maldives’ international reputation and their economy.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch noted, the Maldives’ constitution makes it clear that a new President should be elected by 11 November. With less than a week to go, there are justifiable worries that that deadline will not be met and the Maldives will be plunged into uncharted constitutional waters. The Maldives Parliament—the Majlis—has passed a resolution for the Speaker to act as an interim President if required. We hope that that workable solution can be agreed between the parties.
I stress again that the British Government have taken a robust stance on this issue and continue to contribute to international efforts to ensure that the vote takes place. That is no less than the Maldivian people deserve. The United Kingdom has provided capacity-building support for the Maldives Elections Commission; funded observer education through the United Nations Development Programme; and provided election observers, including Members of this House and the other place.
So many of our colleagues have gone backwards and forwards like yo-yos to the Maldives in the past few weeks that I am not sure that anyone has the appetite to go again. I have been discussing observers with the secretary-general of the Commonwealth—I shall say something about that in a minute—but I see from the reaction of certain hon. Friends that they are dying to go back to the Maldives, hopefully for the final time for this election.
As I was saying, we have funded observer education through the UN Development Programme; provided election observers, including Members of this House—some of whom wish to go again—and the other place; and encouraged the EU to provide election experts to keep a close eye on proceedings. We also strongly support the Commonwealth’s continued commitment to observing elections and the engagement of the Commonwealth’s special envoy to the Maldives, Sir Don McKinnon.
Our high commissioner to Colombo, who is also accredited to the Maldives, has been in close contact with key figures. He and his staff have visited the Maldives several times in the past two months. He will be there again this week with the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, the Commonwealth special envoy to the Maldives, and his American and Indian counterparts. I have spoken to the Commonwealth secretary-general a number of times, and I shall visit the Maldives on 17 November, when I fully expect to be able to pay my respects to the new, democratically elected president.
We are frustrated and concerned, but not without hope. There are practical actions that can be taken without delay. The voter registers are due to be signed by candidates today. I am alarmed by what my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch has just told me, but a commitment to do that will help to ensure that the elections can take place.
We will be somewhere near the impasse that I was so concerned about. We will continue to apply whatever pressure we can, and all the different agencies and countries involved, which I have just mentioned, will continue to do that.
I was about to answer the questions raised earlier by the hon. Member for West Lancashire. I know that she is a vice-chair of the all-party group and has visited the islands. Regarding the capacity of the judiciary, we welcome the visit of the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. Her statement urged the Maldivian Government to address a number of challenges hampering the functioning of the judicial system in the Maldives, such as training, education and transparency. Progress in that area is vital, as the special rapporteur suggested, to strengthen the independence of the judiciary in the Maldives.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch that, in the coming days—despite the news we have just heard, which I think is unconfirmed at the moment—the Government will, together with the Commonwealth, the UN, the EU and international partners, continue to follow developments in the Maldives closely and to make our views known.
As the Foreign Secretary said last month, further challenges to prevent elections from taking place would undermine democracy in the Maldives. The Maldivian people deserve the opportunity to choose their president in accordance with their constitutional rights.
Once again, I thank my hon. Friend and other hon. Members for their continued interest in the subject. I urge them to continue to support the people of the Maldives and the democratic process there in whatever way they can. It is imperative that the rescheduled elections go ahead as planned. Anything short of that will be unacceptable. I say again to those people listening in the Maldives: the world is watching closely and it wants democratic elections, a democratically elected president and no further impediment to that to be created artificially by anyone in that country, which deserves so much better.
Question put and agreed to.