Tuesday 13 May 2014
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Political and Human Rights (African Great Lakes)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
I am pleased that we are having this debate on the political and human rights situation in the African great lakes region. First, I want to say a big thank you to the all-party group on the African great lakes region, not just for its preparatory work for today’s debate, but for its work over a lot of years to draw attention to the situation facing people throughout the African great lakes. At one point it was the largest all-party group in the House. I do not know whether it still is, but it has always had a substantial membership.
My constituency includes a considerable diaspora community, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but there are also people who have sought asylum here from Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. I hear harrowing stories from them of the life they have left behind. Obviously I welcome them into my community, as well as the contribution they make to our society and the work they do in this country. The numbers of people seeking asylum is an issue and is testament to the problems that they are trying to escape from back at home.
I will discuss the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda; there is also obviously a relationship with the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Angola and Tanzania. We have to set this debate in its historical context, and to do that we have to think for a moment of the tragic history of the whole region, from the arrival of the first Europeans to the tragedy of the slave trade and all that went with that, and then the colonial occupation of the region, particularly by the Congo Free State in the case of the DRC, but also by Belgium, Britain and France. We must also consider the incredible wealth in minerals, rubber, timber and other natural resources that has been dragged out of the region and made an awful lot of people and an awful lot of companies all over the world very rich indeed.
Levels of brutality in the colonial world are almost unsurpassed by what happened in what is now the DRC. We should recall that the European powers sat around a table in Berlin in 1884 and calmly carved up the whole region with straight lines on the map to represent areas of European influence and control. King Leopold was given Congo personally. It was not even given to the Belgian state—that did not happen until some time later, in 1908. The huge personal wealth he gained and his obsession with dragging it out of that place is the stuff of legend. I urge everyone to read Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”, a salutary book that explains exactly the brutality associated with that time. Some heroic people stood up against it. One was E.D. Morel, a shipping clerk in Liverpool, who worked with others who were opposed to what was going on in the Congo and helped to expose it. Later, he became a Member of this House and I think he was the first Labour Foreign Minister, in the 1920s.
After the first world war, which we are commemorating this year, the victorious powers at Versailles changed a few names as German colonies became French or Belgian ones; nevertheless colonies they still were, and they were still administered. The independence movement in Africa took off in 1945 with the Pan African Congress held in Manchester. Independence was achieved first in Ghana and then in many other countries.
In the case of the Congo, independence came rapidly in 1960-61, when the Belgians basically threw in the towel, gave up and left very quickly. Patrice Lumumba became its first Prime Minister. He lasted only a very short time but is still a legendary figure, as he attempted to unite the country and make the change from colonial rule. The battle for control of the rest of the Congo after his death killed many people and resulted once again in a scramble for mineral wealth and the abuse of power and of human rights there. Tragically, that has gone on ever since, with extraordinary levels of human rights abuses and of death. I will come back to that in a moment.
As for neighbouring countries, Rwanda, as we debated last week in the House, went through the horrors of the genocide as the Tutsi and Hutu groups set about each other. Anyone who has visited the memorials in Kigali will realise the sheer scale and horror of that genocide. I have been to Rwanda a number of times, and have visited all the other countries in the region. Talking to schoolchildren in Rwanda about what they have been through, one realises that horror, and wonders what more could have been done to prevent it and can still be done to defend and protect human rights and democracy, which are the best defence against the excesses of those who seek to abuse human rights.
It is not just an issue for the DRC and Rwanda. In Uganda there has been horrific abuse of human rights on many occasions, particularly during Idi Amin’s reign. That abuse unfortunately still continues there, particularly in respect of gay people—I will come back to that matter in a moment. In Burundi, there is a similar story of the tragic loss of so much life.
I will speak on the DRC first, then move on to the other countries quickly to give colleagues time to speak. In the DRC the situation is really quite appalling. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirms that
“conflict in the DRC has resulted in a total of 2.9 million internally displaced people currently living in camps or with host families in the DRC, as well as extensive suffering through human rights abuses committed by armed groups, the DRC armed forces…and police. Over 60% of the total figure came from just two regions of eastern DRC: North and South Kivu. The persistence of a complex mosaic of violent conflicts has caused widespread death and displacement”.
It goes on to describe the numbers of refugees and the problems that they face.
I have visited refugee camps in Goma, and it is a frightening and depressing experience. On one occasion, along with the hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), I met a group of hundreds of women, all of whom had suffered rape and violence, and were all victims of that war. Nevertheless, they were trying to build on the strength of women together to oppose the use of rape as a weapon of war. I visited camps where mainly women and children were living, often in quite limited conditions. Now, I do not blame the UN, which was doing its best to provide food and shelter. Nevertheless, the situation was odd. This was a skilled group of people, all of whom were quite capable of growing enough food to feed themselves and their families in what is the most fertile place in the world, but who were being fed on rice and maize imported from the USA and were not allowed to grow any food in the camp because the UN did not want them to take up permanent residence there. That is one of many issues we have to face.
Behind that issue, of course, is the one with which I started—the mineral wealth that has come out of the Congo. There is clear evidence that mineral companies make a great deal of money out of the DRC’s minerals. Some of those, such as coltan and diamonds, find their way through Rwanda, and make a lot of people very rich. There is no wealth among the poorest people living on top of the world’s greatest mineral resources in one of the world’s most prolific forests. There is something deeply tragic and appalling about such poverty alongside such potential wealth. It is as though the tragedy of the 19th century has gone on for evermore.
My hon. Friend may be coming to this point, but does what he said about the mining industry not illustrate the absolute importance of transparency in the extractive industries, something that needs direct action by western Governments, including our own?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I absolutely agree. The DRC has signed up to the extractive industries agreement, but it is clear to me that the effectiveness of that agreement is strictly limited and we need something much tougher. Indeed, we must ask questions of those mineral companies based in this country and Switzerland who import a lot of this stuff and are clearly making a lot of money out of that poverty.
Does my hon. Friend note that the Catholic episcopal conference in Congo said that one of the best things that the international community could do is host a proper international conference on the extractive industries, asserting land and labour rights and addressing the false pretensions of those paramilitary groups who present themselves as somehow protecting those rights?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend raised that because I had an interesting meeting last night with a group of representatives, including Bishop Ambongo, Bishop Murekezi, Bishop Kambanda, Denise Malueki, Father Santedi and Consolate Baranyizigiye from Burundi. They represent the Church in the region and made a number of good demands, or hoped-for results, one of which is to bring together the Churches throughout the region. The second was, in the long term, to look for peace in the region with greater involvement of the international community in the UN in both respecting international accords and conventions and working to create a climate of confidence and co-operation at all levels in the Administration. They are on a visit to this country and will address a meeting upstairs in the House later today. They are very welcome, as are their efforts, and I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention
I want to draw attention to two other issues in respect of the Congo. The first is the need to understand the relationship with Rwanda, which is a relatively powerful and efficient country compared with the lack of governance in much of the DRC. Yet there is clear evidence of vast resources flowing into the conflict in the eastern DRC and an imbalance between the relative power and structure of the Congolese army compared with those of the rebels and the high level of suspicion of Rwandan involvement, which is hotly denied by the Rwandan Government but is an issue that we must address in relation to Rwanda because that conflict has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people through the consequences of that war.
There is also a renewed threat from and thirst for minerals in the region. The World Wide Fund for Nature sent an interesting briefing to us describing the problems facing the Virunga national park, which was the first national park to be established in Africa in 1925. It has extraordinary landscapes, high levels of biodiversity and is a world heritage site. It is also home to the internationally important Ramsar wetlands and to the only two populations in the world of critically endangered mountain gorillas as well as many other animals. All that is under threat as people eye up the possibility of exploiting oil and other resources in that national park. The chimera of short-term wealth from mineral and oil is attractive, but the reality is that sustainability of the forest and the planet depends not on destroying national parks, but protecting them. In the long run, there will be more wealth and better resources for people living in national parks of world importance than if they are allowed to be destroyed quickly for short-term mineral wealth. I hope the Minister will indicate Government support for that.
A question for the Home Office—the Minister is from the Foreign Office, but he may be able to help with this—is that I am deeply concerned about the safety of anyone who is returned to the DRC as an unsuccessful asylum applicant in this country. There is chaos at the airport in Kinshasa and elsewhere, and a considerable threat to the families of those who have sought asylum or returned having failed to gain it. There is a serious lack of co-ordinated governance and transparent democracy in the Congo. I have been there as an election observer, and the election I observed with my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) and others was relatively well run compared with later elections in the DRC. There are big issues about democracy, human rights and minerals in the DRC.
I spoke about the legacy of genocide in Rwanda and the horrors that go with that. One can fully appreciate people’s anger and the need for every young person in Rwanda to understand what happens when a society completely breaks down and hundreds of thousands of people are killed with the most appalling brutality, and the feeling of immediacy. However, it is right to draw attention to the excesses of the Rwandan Government and their treatment of political dissent, the number of opponents of the President who have disappeared and the number of journalists who have been arrested or prevented from reporting what is going on in that country. There can be no justification for the abuse of human rights because of the horrors of Rwandan history. Surely the lessons of history are that the best protection against evil and excess such as happened in Nazi Germany or towards mainly the Tutsi people in Rwanda is a strong democratic society where there is freedom of expression and rights of representation.
Likewise, across the border in Burundi, there are serious problems with the new law on journalists and the way in which they are allowed to report and express what is going on. We must again raise those matters. I was part of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Burundi some years ago when a number of the issues were discussed and raised.
The world is well aware of the laws that have been perpetrated in Uganda to make homosexuality a crime and the threat to those who have been caught allegedly committing acts of criminal activity—homosexual relations—who may face the death penalty as a result. Should we really have normal relations with the Ugandan Government while that is going on? Should we not be making much stronger representations and looking at the levels of human rights abuse that continue to take place in Uganda? The whole history of Uganda from Idi Amin onwards is one of terrible tragedy, with not just the anti-gay law but the behaviour of the Lord’s Resistance Army and excesses by the armed forces in trying to deal with that. Having met former child soldiers who were recruited into various militia forces in Uganda and other countries in the region, one must have some humanity and understanding.
My final point is that we are elected Members of Parliament and proud of that. Many concerns have been expressed by the IPU’s human rights committee about the treatment of Members of Parliament and other elected members who have become—how shall I put it?—unpopular with their Governments. The matter of Leonard Hitimana from Rwanda was brought to the IPU’s human rights committee. He disappeared in 2003 and it is believed that he was abducted by state forces.
There are a number of other cases, such as that of Hussein Radjabu in Burundi, who, likewise, apparently remains in jail as an elected parliamentarian. I do not believe that parliamentarians should be above the law or allowed to act with impunity, but it is important to recognise that one should not be arrested or imprisoned because of one’s political views—only for any criminal acts that may have taken place.
As we search for long-term peace in the region, we have to take up the issues of human rights and of conflict minerals and the profits that have been made from them. We should also become a force that tries to protect the environment, human rights and the populations of the area, rather than allowing the mineral companies of the world to do what the colonialists did in the 19th century, which was to destroy the pristine and beautiful environment for the short-term wealth that minerals can bring. We should look for something more sustainable in the future. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to debate the matter today and I look forward to the Minister’s response to my remarks.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing what is a very important debate, given the events that are likely to happen in terms of democratic processes in the area of Africa that we are discussing. I am not well known for my interest in such issues or for speaking out about them in debates, but having often met members of the Congolese community in the Tees Valley, I felt that it was my duty to make some of the points that they have made to me and to talk about related issues that I have been investigating for some time in a personal capacity.
I want to talk about three things to do with the Democratic Republic of Congo: first, the forthcoming elections in 2016; secondly, UK, EU and US investment in the DRC, in terms of conditionality; and thirdly, DRC returnees from the UK.
There have already been attempts, as there were in 2011, to revise article 220 of the constitution, which limits President Joseph Kabila’s mandate to no more than two terms of office. He has been in power since 2001, following the death of his predecessor, President Laurent Kabila. Joseph Kabila, however, was not elected to office until 2006 and he retained power in very dubious circumstances in 2011. Some—indeed, most—would argue that a tenure that has lasted since 2001 has already exhausted a two-term period of power. Be that as it may, article 220 of the DRC constitution restricts any incumbent to a maximum two terms. However, it is Kabila’s intention to overcome that obstacle in order to present his candidature again in the forthcoming election. Kabila also plans to initiate another change by proposing a government of coalition, indicating his desire to remain in place for the foreseeable future until there is the establishment of a democratically elected President.
Post the 2011 elections, there are obvious questions to ask—for example, about the house arrest, since 2011, of the opposing presidential candidate, Mr Tshisekedi. That situation needs to be taken far more seriously and questioned far more profoundly in the run-up to the 2016 elections, in terms of candidates’ freedom to campaign. It is well documented in the EU report and by others that Joseph Kabila named his supporters to the Supreme Court before the 2006 election and again before the 2011 election. The Supreme Court, or rather, the judiciary, does not work independently of the Executive—namely, Joseph Kabila.
It is also clear from the EU final report and the report by the UN human rights department, Kinshasa, that the police stand accused of human rights violations when violently repressing attempts by the civilian population to greet Etienne Tshisekedi on 26 November and before, during and after the elections. The final report by the EU mission in 2006 recommended measures that should have been put in place before the 2011 election.
Electoral fraud began long before observers arrived in the DRC. For there to be “huge irregularities”, the grounds to allow irregularities had to be in place during the registration process and during the naming of members of the Supreme Court, entailing a changing of the constitution six months prior to the election to allow one round of voting. It is clear from the EU final report that observers were not allowed to observe properly.
Recently, and more worryingly, an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson said in Geneva on 6 May this year, about the judgment that 14 officers of the FARDC, the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, were acquitted of charges of mass rape and murder in 2012, that
“the judiciary has not met the expectations of the numerous victims of rape who had fully participated in the trial…The outcome of the trial confirms shortcomings in the administration of justice in the DRC.”
He also said:
“The crimes perpetrated in Minova …were extremely serious and widespread”,
and that they were
“perpetrated in a systematic manner and with extreme violence”.
Yet on 22 March 2013 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated and promised:
“We are also working with DRC government to help consolidate peace in country through the Security sector accountability and police programme (SSAPR) managed by DFID…The UK will also use its G8 Presidency in 2013 to seek to address impunity for sexual violence in conflict and improve the response to these crimes”.
“This includes support to security sector reform, demobilisation of armed groups and a more effective military justice sector.”
It is clear that the judiciary under Kabila is hardly reformed in any way, shape or form, and the omens appear very poor regarding any form of democratic progression.
Secondly, on UK, EU and US investment in the DRC, the Department for International Development funded the electoral registration in the DRC prior to the 2011 election, to the tune of £40 million. However, as the Secretary of State for International Development said on 5 February:
“There was mismanagement and poor planning of voting operations, which strongly affected the credibility of the national electoral commission and the results of the 2011 elections.”—[Official Report, European Committee B, 5 February 2014; c. 7-8.]
That widely held and critical assessment needs thorough examination for 2016.
The United States is prepared to give the Democratic Republic of Congo $30 million in aid for stability and democracy building, but only if President Joseph Kabila agrees to step down at the end of his current term of office in 2016. Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry, on touring Africa, said that the DRC Government also need to schedule elections soon. The vote is tentatively set for 2016, although a firm date has still not been set.
In a private meeting, Senator Kerry said that he urged Kabila to follow Congo’s constitution in the upcoming elections, which would prohibit him from running for a third consecutive term as President. It is not clear whether Kabila agreed to that.
As Senator Kerry stated:
“It is important to the people to be able to know what the process is, to have confidence in that process…The sooner the process is announced, the sooner that the date is set, the sooner people have an ability to be able to participate. And we believe it ought to be done in keeping with the constitutional process of the country.”
The $30 million pledge would more than double the $12 million in assistance given to the Congo last year linked to elections and stability assistance. Some of the money could go to non-governmental organisations. Last year, the total US aid to the Congo was about $210 million.
UK support to the DRC is increasing to the tune of £250 million a year, which vastly outstrips the European development fund framework, which I think is just over €700 million over a six-year period. In short, the UK’s support to the DRC is rising massively in comparison with the EU’s and the USA’s, and with hardly any of the concerns uttered by the US State Department. The lack of conditionality in the aid programme to the DRC has been pointed out by a European Court of Auditors report released in October last year on efficiency of EU aid to the DRC.
The watchdog noted that
“the effectiveness of EU assistance for governance in the DRC is limited”,
“Risks have not been adequately addressed, programme objectives tend to be overly ambitious…and policy dialogue has not been exploited to its full potential and adequately coordinated with EU Member States”
in all areas.
The report stated that the EU needs to be
“more demanding of the Congolese authorities when monitoring compliance with the conditions agreed and the commitments made”,
and that the Commission should
“(a) strengthen its use of conditionality and policy dialogue. This will involve (i) setting clear, relevant, realistic and time-bound conditions, (ii) periodically assessing compliance with the agreed conditions, and (iii) responding firmly, proportionately and in a timely manner if the DRC government shows insufficient commitment to compliance, where appropriate by suspending or terminating the programme;
(b) urge the DRC government to adopt the necessary measures for improving the functioning of the thematic working groups, and monitor the implementation of those measures;
(c) take a more active leadership role towards EU Member States to encourage coordinated policy dialogue and increase EU leverage over the DRC government.”
Those conclusions not only should be heeded by the UK Government, but must be implemented in conjunction with other EU member states and the USA.
Thirdly and finally, I want to deal with the monitoring of Congolese asylum seekers returned to the DRC and contradictions in the “Country Policy Bulletin”. The report, entitled “Unsafe Return”, documents the post-return experience of 17 Congolese men and women who were forcibly removed to the DRC from the UK between 2006 and 2011. Eleven of those were clients of Justice First, a charity that operates in the Tees Valley. The report was written to provide evidence to the Government that the DRC is not a safe country to which to return asylum seekers and to request the Government to review their decision, in the “Country of Origin Information Report” for the DRC of 2009, that it was safe for them to return. No monitoring mechanism is in place to test the UK Border Agency hypothesis that it is safe for rejected asylum seekers to be returned to the DRC. Every effort has been made, as is documented in the report, to show that all the evidence is credible.
The report’s author visited the DRC in 2011 to verify the situation of the returnees still living there. At least six returnees had fled the country, and others were found to be still living in hiding, fearful of re-arrest and unable to live with their families because of threats. Those returned consistently reported being punished in the DRC, as they had spoken out in this country about having been ill treated and the lack of human rights in the DRC, thereby betraying their country and the President.
A Congolese immigration official was interviewed in 2011. He explained that when UK immigration passed on the names of those to be removed, the files in the possession of the immigration authorities were studied. If the asylum seeker was deemed to be a problem to the state, the secret services would be alerted and the asylum seeker imprisoned or worse.
Of the number who were traced, 15 were arrested at the airport, two were arrested after leaving the airport building and transferred to Kin Mazière prison, one was arrested after leaving the British embassy in Kinshasa, three were arrested at home, one was threatened with death in Tolérance Zéro by officers and four were threatened at the airport. Congolese human rights activists and a lawyer confirmed that detainees were not given access to lawyers during their imprisonment. Returnees reported the following ill treatment in prison. One was handcuffed, blindfolded and severely beaten. Six were severely beaten. Two were given electric shock treatment. Two of the men were sexually abused. Two of the women were raped. Two of the women received slaps and blows with hands and fists.
There is much more information in the report, which I am sure the Minister is aware of; I am happy to give him a copy if he requests one. It makes me very, very angry that people who sought asylum in our country from that regime were returned. I hope that the Minister takes on board the points that I have made and that he will get back to me as soon as possible with any response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration and on giving us all an opportunity to participate in the debate and to underline further some of the things that he spoke about very clearly in his presentation. It is always good for us in the House to be aware of things that are happening elsewhere in the world and to reflect that in Westminster Hall debates, but some of the information that we have as elected representatives comes through our own constituencies. That is one reason why I want to make a contribution to the debate today.
The great lakes region has been the site of more than a decade of unrest. The outflow of more than 2 million Rwandans in the wake of the 1994 genocide was an exodus of unprecedented size and swiftness. There was a debate in Parliament last week on that issue. It was raw for the Members, because some had had the opportunity to go to Rwanda and see how that country had suffered. The failure of the international community to respond effectively set in motion further cycles of conflict in the region, including the devastating war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has involved many other countries in Africa and has claimed the lives of more than 3 million people. I can tell people trying to visualise what that means that it is the whole of the population of Northern Ireland doubled. That gives some perspective. It gives an idea of the numbers who were murdered.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) referred to some of the issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Cases of police brutality against migrants have been catalogued. There have been cases involving Congolese soldiers. Some were charged with rape. Unfortunately, in that region, rape seems to be used as a weapon against women. The hon. Member for Islington North referred to that practice, and each and every one of us inside and outside this Chamber is deeply disturbed by it.
According to Mr Rupert Colville, 14 officers were acquitted. He added that the UN human rights workers on the ground were still carefully analysing the judgment, but said that in the light of what is known so far,
“the judiciary has not met the expectations of the numerous victims of rape who had fully participated in the trial.”
In the trial, women were asked for their statements and they made them. The trial that went ahead was for a mass rape that took place in 2012, but again no one has been made accountable for that. It seems that they have all been able to get away with it—or most of them have. Perhaps in his response the Minister can say whether there have been any discussions with the Democratic Republic of the Congo about the atrocities.
Elsewhere in the region, a decades-long conflict in northern Uganda has abated in intensity, but the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army has increased its activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the Central African Republic.
There is great concern—it is certainly a concern of mine and I believe that others are concerned as well—in relation to business. From the background notes that we have been given and from our own previous knowledge and discussions, we are aware that some western companies are very keen to push into the DRC and start drilling. We must be ever mindful of the human rights of the local people, their land ownership and their lives.
Let me quote from the notes. A recent report by Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel claimed that five mining deals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone were sold to western firms for $1.36 billion less than they were worth, short-changing the people of the Congo. I am not against big business—far from it—but I like to see fairness and transparency and what is right, and I am afraid that in this instance those are all sadly missing. It seems that some people and some companies—not all—wish to go ahead and override the opinions of local people.
It is important that we also put this point on the record. There is some indication that the world-renowned Virunga national park, home to the rare mountain gorillas, is involved. That is something that we are probably aware of from our own interests outside the Chamber. Again, some companies have said that they will not explore for oil, but one company, SOCO, has declared that it is quite happy to pursue any of the rights for oil in those hills. Other companies—Total, the French oil giant, and Britain’s Dominion Petroleum—have said that they will certainly not do that.
It is important, when we realise that things have been undervalued and the Congolese people let down, to remember the following. Some 7 million children in the DRC lack access to education. Some 2.4 million children are acutely malnourished. Malaria, cholera and measles are a major threat due to inadequate health care, water supplies and sanitation. Roads are a mess, and electricity is scarce and expensive. Some 6.3 million people require food support. That is what is happening in the Congo. Then we see some big businesses relentlessly pursuing dividends for their people.
The hon. Gentleman is making a first-class speech, if I may say so. What he says about the requirement for transparency is absolutely true, and the UK is currently signing up to the extractive industries transparency initiative. It is fair to say that many of these deals in the past have involved middlemen who take off huge amounts of money and subsequently sell on to extractive industry companies. Perhaps the key thing for us is to ensure that the companies based in the UK adhere to the standards that we would expect them to.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I say to the Minister that there is an indication that some British companies are being morally and financially correct, but other companies are not, and those companies need to be made accountable. I think that that is the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, and I fully endorse it.
As a whole, the region continues to host more than 1 million refugees and 10 million internally displaced persons. That is a vast number—10 million internally displaced persons. One major source of those conflicts has been disputes over group and national membership. Ethnic, racial and religious populations have been identified as illegitimate members of local communities and nations, and their exclusion has been used to legitimise individual persecution, ethnic violence, civil war and genocide. Targeted populations have been forcibly displaced from their homes, social networks and governmental protection, and they have been forced to seek refuge within their own countries and across borders.
If we look at specific countries in the region, it is clear that there is persecution against Christians. Mombasa in Kenya has been perceived as a place where there is freedom to preach and share Christianity, but some in that community have different intentions. Worthy News reported:
“Three people were injured after a mob of about 10 assailants attacked worshipers at a church in Bamburi, Mombasa last week, according to All Africa Global Media. The gang gained entry into the Bride of the Lamb International Ministries compound after they cut through an iron fence; after the assault, they fled to the adjacent Tower of Faith Church where they injured four others.
Bride of the Lamb International Ministries Chairman Michael Peter said that the attacks were intended to target the clergy.
‘This is not the first time our ministry has been attacked,’ said Peter. ‘Over the past few weeks we have had attacks on our churches across the country including our residence here.’
Peter said the ministry had reported the attacks numerous times to the Bamburi police station, but to date no action has been taken.”
That report describes attacks specifically on a religious minority group, namely Christians in Kenya. I will mention a couple of other countries as well, to highlight the problems that we face.
In Zanzibar, Tanzania, there was serious violence driven by—excuse my Northern Ireland accent—“Vugu vugu la uamsho”, the Revival Movement for the Preservation of Islam, which claimed to be wiping out all Christians from the Zanzibar archipelago, mainly Zanzibar Island. Churches were burnt, church property was looted and Christians, especially Church leaders, were threatened with death. The Zanzibar archipelago is the scene of serious hostilities against Christians, not only on the islands but on mainland Tanzania. Many of us would not imagine that there would be any problems in Tanzania, but there certainly are. We must highlight the problems during this debate, and I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of what our Government can do about them.
In Tanzania, there are strong Islamic militant groups that often persecute Christians heavily. On mainland Tanzania, the push for the further spread of Islam is less violent but equally persistent. Part of that push is happening through the constitutional review process and the strategic infiltration of main sectors of society. Such groups are putting people in society so that they can directly influence what happens and impact on those of a Christian faith. If the push for secession succeeds, the presence of the Church on Zanzibar and Pemba Island is likely to be reduced to nearly zero. That cannot be allowed to happen, and I hope that the Minister can give us some answers.
The frantic moves of Islamists in mainland Tanzania will continue. For the Church, that means that difficult times are likely to be ahead. Kenya and Tanzania are just two of the nations in the region in which Christians are experiencing increasing persecution. I recently spoke to a constituent who is a member of a local Church of Ireland congregation in Newtownards, one of the main towns in my constituency, who told me how the lives of two of their missionaries in Tanzania were being made more difficult every day. That is a contribution from some of those I represent, who are telling me what is happening on the ground.
The fact is that although many of the nations we are discussing are Christian on paper, the Government are not supporting those ideals or dealing with the persecution against Christians. There seems to be a somewhat lackadaisical attitude to the incidents that have occurred, and it is time that our Government asked the Governments in those countries to stand up against such actions. That is where we, in this Chamber, must come in. We must speak up for those in the region who are being persecuted, we must stand up for the two missionaries I have mentioned who are linked to that church in my constituency, and we must apply pressure to the Government to do what is right. That can be done in numerous ways, such as through embassies, through the fair distribution of international aid—I am aware of examples of international aid being directed away from Christian religious groups because of their beliefs—and by applying pressure at all levels to ensure that Governments realise that, although we seek to help them and their populations, we cannot and will not do so while closing our eyes to the plight of people whose only crime is to follow Jesus.
I support the hon. Member for Islington North in this debate, and I ask the Minister again what is being done to combat the problems and what the Government will pledge to do from this day forward. My constituents are deeply interested in the matter, and I know that I am not the only MP who has an interest in it. Let us use any influence that we wield for the good of the people in the great lakes region—and, indeed, throughout the world.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for the debate. I want to make four points. First, briefly, the Prime Minister in government has been keen to emphasise the Christian nature of the country and the Government. I had the opportunity, with the Bishop of Durham, other Church leaders and some parliamentarians, with the assistance of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to visit the great lakes last summer. We were hosted by local Church leaders in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
The role of the Church, post-conflict—and, more critically, post-border—in reconstruction is one that the Government, in their international development and foreign affairs work, must build on. I will come on to Burundi in my fourth point, but there and in Rwanda we see Church leaders, from different ethnic minorities in each country, working alongside communities that have been in conflict in different and tragic ways more or less ever since independence. Whether we wish it or not, a critical element of our role is to assist in bringing together the Churches to work on the problems in the region. There are a variety of Churches; the Catholic Church is hosting a meeting today, and the Church of England has got a particular role in relation to the problems we are discussing, which I hope that the Government will capitalise on. The Church of England—not least in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—has done an immense amount of work over many years to build links across the great lakes, not least in Burundi.
Secondly, I want to talk about the group that nobody seems to be dealing with, namely the Twa community. The Department for International Development, wrongly, does nothing about them; it has done nothing about them for many years, so that is a criticism not merely of any changes made by this Government, but of the continuing lack of priority given to the group. That community of former forest dwellers across the great lakes is small in number now. It was once great in number, but its members were murdered in greater numbers than anyone else under Belgian colonial rule; vast numbers of the Twa were murdered over the past century. Those who remain in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi are the most impoverished of the poor. They are the most disfranchised and the least represented. Having been removed from the forest for the benefits of nature conservation and western tourists—
—and business, they have incredible levels of inter-communal violence, particularly sexual violence and rape, and they are struggling to cope with life outside the forest.
It is not for me to come up with or even to suggest solutions, other than to say that without question, DFID ought to give proper priority to projects working with the Twa, not least those that develop youth leadership and potential community leadership. There is some exciting church-led work in that area, which is creating new leaders for the future. That is vital if the Twa are to continue to exist and not disappear in what I would describe, I think accurately, as an assisted genocide—a genocide assisted by the inaction of everyone, both inside and outside the country. We share some responsibility for that. With our proud history of international development, such projects ought to be the kind of thing we are good at. It is rather shameful that over the past decade we have done nothing about the Twa in those countries.
Thirdly, other Members have already raised the attempts by SOCO, a UK-based oil exploration company, to plunder the reserves in the Virunga national park. I would make two points. I do not wish to be trite, but it is a fact that there are more parliamentarians in Britain than mountain gorillas in the wild. If we balloted our constituents on which they would like to preserve for the future, I suspect that parliamentarians would lose out, and lose out heavily. We have a responsibility to future generations. It must be cost-effective to preserve wildlife. There may well be roles for the Twa to play in that, for their economic livelihoods. After all, they are removed from the forest to allow tourists to visit the mountain gorillas and bring in hard currency.
The point is more fundamental than that for human beings. The national parks in the great lakes region are the natural borders and boundaries that, more than anything else, will preserve nation states and restrict cross-border conflicts. The Akagera national park between Rwanda and Tanzania is being rebuilt. It has an horrendous history from the genocide, but, as well as having income-generating potential for the country, it serves as a natural brake on cross-border issues. The Volcans national park in the north-west corner of Rwanda, the Virunga and others serve a similar purpose. The preservation of such natural borders and the wildlife they contain is therefore ethically right and economically sensible for the long term—for tourism and livelihoods in 50, 100 or 150 years, not just the profits for SOCO or whatever in the next 10 or 20 years. Such preservation is critical to these countries’ competitive advantage, but also to minimising conflict now and in future. That should be seen as part of our foreign policy and international development work, and be given much higher strategic priority.
Fourthly and finally, I want to make a slightly longer point about Burundi, which is 178th out of the 187 countries assessed by the UN for poverty; it is not the poorest, but it is virtually the poorest country in the world. The UN says that Burundi is likely to achieve one out of the 18 millennium development goals. That is beyond the scale of most countries. For a post-conflict country with such a level of poverty to go without support from this country—here I will criticise this Government—is, whatever the reason, a mistake that must be reversed by whoever is in power after 2015. We must stop our lack of engagement with Burundi on international development.
I know that the Minister is a good man and a good Minister, in my experience. I do not normally give even the most modest praise to Tories, but he is a good man and has been, in my view, a good Minister. As he has been to Burundi, I would like to hear about his experience; perhaps he might like to give us his recommendations about how the Government should relate to that country, because it is applying for Commonwealth status. I hope that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association will engage with Burundi on not just a parliamentary but an official level, and on a more intense basis. We should be in there, assisting a country that is increasingly looking to the English language, to the Commonwealth—not least because of the trade links with east Africa—and to us. There is a lot that we can offer.
Many criticisms can rightly be levelled at Burundi. It is not exactly a pluralistic democracy of the highest calibre. Currently, there is not the freedom of media and non-governmental organisations that we would want and expect. However, Burundi has had the most successful repatriation of displaced people in recorded history. More than 1 million refugees have returned, without civil war breaking out, and reintegrated into one of the world’s poorest economies. Although there have been, and remain, issues of land disputes and so on, on balance the process has been incredibly successful compared with any other such mass movement of people back into a country after they had been driven out by civil war. Many second-generation Burundians were born in Tanzania but have returned to their historic roots, sometimes with elderly family, sometimes without. That has been handled extraordinarily well. We should praise them for that, but we should also be in there with them.
The people of Burundi have recovered from what was an almost hidden war, certainly in the western media, in which as many people were killed as in Rwanda, over a longer period and with some of the same ethnic conflict bases. If any of that had ever been reported by the western media, people in this country would have been jumping up and down. But it was a secret civil war in a country that no one had ever heard of and that very few people across the world and in Britain have heard of. Yet Burundi has come out of that conflict, so we should be there using our great expertise in pluralist democracy and in building up civil society and its institutions. We have expertise in how the Churches can contribute to that process, because they—not least the Church of England—already play a significant part in what is happening in Burundi, and I would say a positive one.
There are many reasons why modest investment by DFID and better engagement—including by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—would pay great dividends for us, for Burundi and for the great lakes region. I hope that the Minister will give some encouraging signs that this country will re-engage. If this Government do not, I want to put on the record for whoever is in power after 2015 the fact that this demand will not go away. We should re-engage, DFID should re-engage, and our diplomatic staff should be in Burundi, representing us and assisting the country.
I am delighted to contribute to this debate, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I do not want to cover the same points that other Members have articulated so well, but I would like to make a few observations.
It is good that we have had a debate focusing on human rights across the great lakes region as a whole rather than looking only at specific countries. When we look at the great lakes region, and hear from many of the people trying to grapple with the human rights issues and to build towards peace and reconciliation in a sustainable way right across the region, we have to be conscious of what John Hume—who is from my part of the world—used to talk about, which is the framework of the problem being the framework of the solution, and to emphasise that if we are to solve conflicts we need to look at the totality of relationships and affirm the primacy of rights. Whether we look at the great lakes region on a country-specific basis or at how the conflicts there enmesh and affect each other, we see the importance of those aspects. It is important that the hon. Member for Islington North has focused so heavily on the human rights dimension in the region.
There have been other debates on countries in this region, including the debate in the Chamber last week on Rwanda, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to. Sometimes there is an understandable inclination for people here to look at what is happening in particular countries, at what particular regimes have done and at the progress that has been made in various transitions, and basically ask, “Do people pass the good egg test?” If they do, it is felt that we should not raise too many of the other concerns that exist. We hear that sometimes in relation to Rwanda and some of the other countries in the region, where people are trying to encourage progress and to recognise, support and uphold some of the positive developments that have taken place. However, at times people seem more relaxed or even complacent about the serious human rights issues that exist in a number of different regimes.
It is also important to reflect, as we have done already in this debate, that we must listen not only to the political voices from these countries but to the voices of human rights activists, of disparate civil society and indeed of pastoral leadership, right across the churches in these different countries. Those pastoral leaders are basically saying that there are standards and networks that could be asserted and built up, and they are asking the international community and the diplomatic community to reinforce their efforts. They also try to give the international community and the diplomatic community a context. Earlier, I referred to the request that has come from the episcopal conference in the Congo for an international conference on the extractive industries, which could create a context for dealing with quite a number of the issues we have discussed, including on a cross-border basis, and doing so to a full regional standard that deals with land rights, labour rights and all the issues of governance, while also promoting a strong anti-corruption agenda.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) asked some questions about Burundi, and he talked about the progress that has taken place there. Of course, in Burundi there is a real danger of regression, which is why I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is regrettable that the Department for International Development took the decision about Burundi that it did some time ago, because it basically sent the signal that Burundi was in the “done” box and that everything there is okay, when it is quite clear that things in Burundi are teetering in a dangerous way. After her recent visit to Burundi, Samantha Power said:
“If you take a political crisis on the one hand and combine it with armaments on the other, those are precisely the ingredients for the kind of violence Burundi has managed to avoid now for a good few years”.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today was also in Burundi recently, and it would be interesting to hear him address that particular situation in the country.
Regarding Rwanda, the US State Department has at least moved now to being quite clear about its concern regarding the number of murders that have taken place of prominent Rwandan exiles, which appear to have been politically motivated. The US has also focused on human rights problems in the country, including the targeting of political opponents and human rights activists. There are questions to be asked about the rule of law, the security forces, the judiciary and the restrictions on civil liberties. At least it appears that some clarity is starting to emerge within the US Government in relation to some of these concerns. However, it is not clear that the same clarity is emerging within the UK Government.
In relation to Congo, I can understand that as we see the situation there changing, with the M23 receding, people now think that there is a more benign situation there. In the absence of the M23, however, what we are seeing in parts of eastern Congo is, of course, all sorts of disparate paramilitary elements breaking out there. At one level, those elements are too small to be of any real threat to the Kinshasa Government, but at another level they are visiting absolute havoc on the people in those areas. In terms of human rights concerns, those groups should be as big a concern to us as if we were talking about one single coherent paramilitary entity.
It is also important to recognise that at times there appears to be impotence and indifference in relation to the Congolese Government as far as diplomatic interests are concerned. For example, going back to some of the issues that were raised earlier about Congo and the issue of conditionality of aid—the recent EU report was cited—a question arises: is there really any conditionality attached to aid in the Congo whatsoever? When he replies to the debate, can the Minister tell us whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or DFID have any set of requirements regarding any change that they want to see the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Government implement? We hear the language about efforts “on increased donor co-ordination”, but what does that mean? What are the standards that apply, and what is the purpose of and what are the targets for those so-called efforts, and where are they getting to? Is a clear message being given to the Government of the DRC and, if so, is that message being taken?
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Jason Stearns summed up what we know is the difficulty and the dilemma for the international community as it tries to have a positive influence in a situation such as that in Congo. He talked about the difficulty of
“the dueling imperatives of maintaining good relations with the government in Kinshasa and pushing back on issues of governance and human rights.”
He added that in those circumstances it was difficult to see the “political clout” being mustered that would
“coordinate policy, impose conditions on aid, and hold the Congolese government accountable.”
That is an authoritative observation and I hope that the Minister will assure us, when he responds to the debate, that there are some more positive aspects and that some more active good is being done by the international community, particularly by the UK Government.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to speak in a debate chaired by you.
I thank all Members who have participated in what has been—almost by definition—a wide-ranging debate concerning a hugely important but under-addressed issue. It is under-addressed not only in the House of Commons but in the UK as a whole.
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for his wide-ranging introduction to the historic context of this region, which is so important. We need to be involved with and to participate in the process of trying to achieve progress in the region, not only because we are of humankind but because we have a historic responsibility in the region, and we need to address the deficiencies of the past in order to make progress in the future.
The issues that have been raised during this debate include the importance of considering the fact that this region is one of the richest areas on the planet in terms of the extractive industries but the people who live in the region do not see the benefit of those industries. It is vital to put right at the top of the priority list the importance of good governance, because good governance is a precondition of being able to make progress in the region.
In certain areas of the region, such as Rwanda, we have seen progress on material wealth. Anyone here who has visited Rwanda will have seen the progress on infrastructure and the Government’s capacity to deliver to the people of Rwanda in practical terms.
We have also heard concerns today, including from my hon. Friend, that the Rwandan Government are not allowing the development of an effective Opposition within a pluralistic democracy in the way that we would like. That is a common concern. Last week I participated in a debate commemorating the genocide in Rwanda, and the progress that has been made in Rwanda is extraordinary, but one sometimes wishes that some of the language used by Rwandan politicians and those who speak for Rwanda was more measured when we hear of deaths occurring in other parts of the world. Now that Rwanda is in the Commonwealth, it has accepted the importance of a pluralistic democracy, which Members here would like to see. We would like the Rwandan Government to take that on board much more.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) spoke with great authority on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and he obviously did a great deal of work to prepare for this debate. Shortly after I took on the Africa brief, I visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo in November 2011 when the last elections occurred. I was struck by the people’s massive enthusiasm to vote in those elections. I was in Kinshasa, and the election I saw was in some difficulty because of the electorate’s intense passion to vote. We might be encouraging some of our electorate to take steps towards a polling station over the next few days, but in the Democratic Republic of the Congo no such exhortation was needed. The difficulty within the Democratic Republic of the Congo is that the elections delivered in 2011 are not widely accepted as credible, which has been a block to progress. As we progress towards 2016, what steps are being taken to ensure that belief in the system, which was not there in 2011, can be secured by 2016? In 2011 the electoral authority, CENI, was widely discredited, and it is important that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a Government in which it can believe by 2016.
We then heard about the conditionality of aid, which is another issue that kept cropping up. Good governance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is important because this has been a difficult period. I was in the country about a year ago when there were intense problems relating to eastern Congo and the activities of the M23. Some progress has been made since then, and I commend not only the UK Government but the Minister personally for his hard work. What is his current assessment of the progress of the development of governance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Now that there is less pressure and immediate violence in eastern Congo, what is the current position?
I am also interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland had to say about returning asylum seekers and his worrying accounts of the way they have been treated. I support what he said about investigating those cases and seeing what is actually being done to address the appalling conduct of the security forces, as it seems, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—if I may call him my hon. Friend—spoke eloquently about the importance of human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He also referred to the extractive industries and the importance of the churches in the region. On my first visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2011 I was privileged to leave Kinshasa, which in my experience is not the most attractive city on the planet, to go south to Bas-Congo to visit the region’s idyllic Salvation Army church. Every day, churches are carrying out intensive work on behalf of the region’s people. The churches have a positive role, which the UK Government recognise, but they need to recognise that role more often because people work extremely hard to carry matters forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) spoke eloquently about Burundi, for which I am glad. I think the Minister went there recently.
My hon. Friend set out Burundi’s position on the index, which concerns me deeply. There is a real issue with the UK’s engagement and development of relationships with smaller countries in Africa. Some of the decisions that we made before 2010 relating to withdrawal from smaller countries should be revisited. I have taken on board what he says. I have a particular interest in smaller countries in Africa that leads me in the same direction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has again brought his substantial experience of African issues to bear. He stressed that the primacy of rights is important and is linked to the essential question of governance. It is about the capacity of countries in the region to deliver rights for their citizens and good governance that improves lives. As we speak, there is a great deal of intense work in the region. I mentioned earlier the progress that has been made in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda through the peace, security and co-operation framework, which led to intense international activity. I commend Mary Robinson’s work in the region. I would like to hear about the UK Government’s position on what is happening there at present. What more needs to be done? What are the UK Government’s priorities?
The extractive industries are important, and we had an excellent suggestion for holding a conference to try to impose a structure to deliver better governance and to emphasise the obligations of international companies to work with Governments in the region to ensure that the people of the countries concerned benefit.
The Government have done excellent work on sexual violence, but worrying concerns have been raised about the acquittals of officers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What is the Government’s assessment of the effectiveness of the procedures that are in place to address sexual violence in the region? What steps are the Government taking in response to those concerns? Will the Minister also update us on efforts to integrate the preventing sexual violence in conflict imitative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and throughout the great lakes region?
This has been a wide-ranging debate on a massive topic for a massive region with huge problems. I thank all of the participants, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points raised by me and my colleagues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth. I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate and on the knowledgeable and detailed way in which he set out many of the challenges across the great lakes region. I know that he has a particular passion and interest in the important area of human rights, and that came over strongly in his contribution.
The hon. Gentleman neatly set out the challenges of the region. He highlighted the extensive suffering, both historic and, sadly, more recent, in the DRC and elsewhere in the region; the appalling atrocities, particularly those that relate to rape being used as a weapon of conflict; the significant challenges around the illicit use of extractives; the important issue of Virunga national park; and the challenge of the failed asylum seekers. He also mentioned Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. He packed a tremendous amount into his contribution.
If I may, I will try to respond specifically to the points that all Members made. It has been an excellent debate and all the contributions have been significant, powerful and articulate. That demonstrates the great knowledge that exists across the House in these important areas and our ongoing interest, as parliamentarians in the UK, in doing everything we can to improve the lives of those who live in the great lakes region.
It might be an obvious point to make, but we are talking about vast geographical areas, which create part of the challenge. The DRC alone is approximately the size of western Europe. That is why it is important that we continue with our development assistance to help lift people in the great lakes region out of poverty, and that we support the work of improving political and human rights situations on the ground.
The hon. Member for Islington North rightly raised the issue of conflict minerals. The OECD’s “Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas” includes specific guidance on gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum, all of which are used in consumer electronics. We encourage and expect UK businesses to respect all laws and the voluntary principles. The United Kingdom is chair of the voluntary principles on security and human rights, which are designed to guide companies in maintaining the safety and security of their operations in a framework that encourages respect for human rights. I am the Minister responsible and I am encouraging our team, as part of our chairmanship, to persuade more companies and more countries, both in the region and internationally, to participate in the voluntary principles.
It is important that the DRC should be committed to improving openness and the accountable management of resources. We encourage the DRC to pursue its EITI accreditation and believe that that is important. I met with President Kabila and Prime Minister Matata in February this year. During my visit to Kinshasa, I reiterated our view that it is important that the DRC retains its candidature status. That will ensure that the DRC and its people get full benefit from the mineral wealth of the country and maintain investor confidence. That idea is a main driver behind our Prime Minister’s G8 agenda of tax, trade and transparency, which could play an important role in ensuring a fair balance between the return on capital invested and people in the DRC benefiting significantly from the minerals in their country.
The hon. Members for Islington North, for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann) raised the issue of Virunga national park. I want all Members to understand that the UK continues to oppose oil exploration in Virunga national park. Many of the points that the hon. Gentlemen made were absolutely right. We urge the companies to act appropriately and the DRC Government to respect the international conventions to which it is already a signatory. We are committed to supporting UK companies in the great lakes. Investment needs to be responsible and sustainable. I reassure the hon. Gentlemen that I have lobbied in the DRC, making clear the UK Government’s position verbally and in writing.
The hon. Members for Islington North and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) rightly mentioned the issue of failed asylum seekers returning to the DRC. We need to acknowledge that the UK has a proud history of helping those who need to escape persecution to access the UK. Each application, however, is judged on its individual merits, and any decision to refuse asylum is made on the basis that it is safe for someone to return to their country of origin. All Members will be aware that the courts have ruled that failed asylum seekers who are returned to the DRC are not at risk of treatment contrary to article 3 of the European convention on human rights. I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland sent me the report to which he referred.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the importance of elections in the DRC. When I met President Kabila in February, I encouraged him to draw up a clear electoral timetable to cover the period from now until 2016. We continue to work closely with the DRC Government, the UN and international partners as those plans develop. Progress needs to be made on the outstanding recommendations of the EU election observation report to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We encourage the Congolese Government to implement those recommendations. To respond to the shadow Minister’s point, I should say that in November last year I met with the head of the Congolese electoral commission and encouraged the full implementation of the reforms. We offered our support on that.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that those conversations not only will take place, but have started already. When I was last in Goma, I met Martin Kobler and we discussed the security situation, the broader political situation and the role that Church groups and others can play in building security and stability.
There are several points that I want to make quickly in the time I have left. The first is on the donor co-ordination of development spending. DFID leads donor co-ordination in the DRC and is working closely with the Government, MONUSCO and other donors to ensure that our development assistance can best help the people in the region out of poverty. We have significant accountability mechanisms in place. The UK is one of the largest donors to the DRC. DFID supports inclusive institutions, the empowering of citizens and the holding of service providers to account. Support to the DRC is based on DFID’s partnership principles, of which hon. Members will be aware.
A number of Members touched on the appalling levels of sexual violence. Tackling that is a significant priority of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the preventing sexual violence initiative. We are holding a conference in June. I am delighted that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a signatory to that initiative and wants to be a key participant in the conference. I went to Goma with the Archbishop of Canterbury, where I visited some of the victims of these appalling events. I reiterate my thanks to faith groups and recognise the significant contribution they make and continue to make in tackling sexual violence and in building capacity and rehabilitation for those who have suffered sexual violence.
Our role is not just bilateral but multilateral, through important organisations such as the UN Human Rights Council. The hon. Member for Strangford rightly raised the persecution of Christians, and we share his concerns about the rising tide of violence against Christians in middle east Africa and the north of Africa. On Tanzania, there is an impressive record of peace and stability, although we are concerned about the violence that led to the death of the priest in Zanzibar, which he mentioned. Alongside our EU partners, we have urged that the highest levels of the authorities investigate that.
I want to touch on Burundi, which a number of Members raised as a particular concern, especially the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. We give aid to Burundi; we contribute 15% of EU funding and 30% of World Bank funding to the country. There will be significant sums of money in the next three or four-year period through the EU loan, and Burundi is targeted to get more than €400 million. We are, however, concerned about the country. That is one of the reasons why I visited. I was the first Foreign Office Minister to go to Burundi for many, many decades. I discussed some of the existing challenges with the President. We are committed to reducing poverty and supporting human rights and free, fair and credible elections while building the capacity of civil society, and there are concerns in Burundi about political tensions and the closure of political space.
In the time I have left, I want to reassure all hon. Members that the UK Government will keep the great lakes region at the forefront of our priorities, play our role bilaterally and through multilateral institutions and support the UN deployment in the eastern part of the DRC as well as the wider peace and security framework.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Howarth. I begin by welcoming the Mobile Homes Act 2013, which goes a long way towards rebalancing the rights of park home owners and site owners. Overwhelming evidence of appalling practices made it an imperative to introduce legislation to prevent unscrupulous site owners from blocking residents’ sales on the open market. It was also obvious that greater protection should be made available through enhanced local authority powers and reform of the licensing system. I have spoken at some length on such issues over the years, but I will just touch on them today.
I again congratulate my constituent Sonia McColl, a park home owner who set up the national park home owners’ justice campaign and who has fought tirelessly on park home issues, particularly sale blocking. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on successfully leading his private Member’s Bill on mobile homes through to enactment. Different parts of the 2013 Act are being implemented at different times, so it is difficult to make an early, overall judgment on the Act’s impact. What assessment has been made of the effectiveness of the Department for Communities and Local Government’s communication strategy to inform park home owners of their new rights and site owners of their new responsibilities? On one site, a notice has been erected stating that all sales must be carried out through the site owner’s office. How is the new legislation on sale blocking being monitored and enforced?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on all her work. Without her, much of this would not have happened. The Mobile Homes Act 2013 has already made an overnight difference, but a big issue that I have always campaigned about is the 10% charge payable to site owners. Will she say a little about that?
I thank the hon. Lady for her great support throughout our battle to secure legislation. I called this debate in the light of a huge new petition against the up-to 10% commission on the sale of park homes payable to site owners. Sonia McColl has collected signatures from some 30,000 park home residents from 956 parks across the United Kingdom and the petition will be presented to the Government in July. I have always accepted that there needs to be a reasonable return on capital to site owners, but I do not know in detail the justification for particular levels of commission. Given the strength of feeling from park home owners, it is right to put their views forward and to examine how their concerns about being overcharged for the level of service received might be addressed. The answer may lie in more transparency and accountability. Those who have signed the petition are calling for a proper debate on the fairness of the commission payment and they argue that previous inquiries into the charge have been biased and heavily reliant on information provided by park operators, rather than park home owners.
It is interesting to note that the maximum level of commission was reduced in 1983 from 15% to 10%. While there has been no change since then, the dissatisfaction of park home owners with this state of affairs has continued. The arguments for from the site owners and their representative bodies and the arguments against from park home owners and their associations remain much the same. Park home owners argue that as a site owner does nothing to earn the commission, they do not see why he or she should receive it. The argument is reinforced when occupiers highlight how they have increased the value of their homes by adding porches and other improvements at their own expense. Many park home owners claim that there has been little investment in their sites and that essential maintenance has not been carried out. Site owners say that the commission payment is part of the income, along with pitch fees and selling new mobile homes, that they have always expected to receive to make the businesses viable. They say that if the commission was reduced or abolished, they would either have to increase pitch fees accordingly to make up the difference or go out of business.
In March 2007, the Government published the responses to their consultation on the park home commission rate, which outlined options for a more transparent payment system for mobile homes. They concluded that the current level should be retained but that there should be more transparency on the payment within agreements between park home owners and site owners. An option to reduce the rate with no pitch fee increase was rejected, although it unsurprisingly received overwhelming support from park home owners.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. There seems to be a complex and opaque relationship between the pitch fee and the commission payment.
A third option, to scrap the commission on the sale of a park home for new agreements only without a limitation on a compensatory increase in pitch fees, received little support. If pitch fees increase further, I concede that there is a danger for residents on relatively low and often fixed incomes.
In 2012, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government carried out an inquiry into the park homes industry and undoubtedly contributed to the 2013 Act. It concluded that site owners should continue to receive up to 10% commission from the sale of a park home. However, as well as some oral evidence, it relied heavily on the 2007 conclusions and on an earlier paper from 2002 when reaching its own conclusion. It is misleading to say that we have evidence from as recently as 2012 on the issue.
I sat on the Communities and Local Government Committee and was part of that investigation. It is right that we concluded that any reduction in the 10% rate would lead to an increase in the pitch fees referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris). Given that, we need to reconsider the issue and to have another debate. I commend the idea of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on greater transparency, which should give home owners the confidence that money is being reinvested in site maintenance and upkeep.
I commend my hon. Friend and all members of the Communities and Local Government Committee, because the report was really useful and introduced elements into the 2013 Act that might not otherwise have been there.
Returning to site owners’ incomes, there are at least three elements, including the initial siting of the mobile home, the pitch fees and the commission payment. I have a scenario that outlines the siting of a new unit. Suppose that a site owner purchases a new unit for £60,000. Transport may cost £10,000 and they may have to spend a further £10,000 for connection to services and landscaping. The unit could sell for £160,000. I have no idea how realistic those figures are, but I am trying to illustrate the potential for a significant return. Suppose that the home is sold within a year, the commission clicks in. In another scenario, a park home owner could replace their home, meaning that they will be charged for connections to services and landscaping, which means more potential profit. It is therefore difficult to get into all the payments that are actually made by park home owners.
I must confess that I am totally confused about the respective purposes of the pitch fee and the commission payment, but they are clearly related, if the situation is such that if commission is reduced, pitch fees will have to go up. As ever, I consulted House of Commons Library briefings for clarification. The standard note on the 2013 Act states:
“The pitch fee is the sum paid to the site owner in return for permission to station a mobile home on the pitch and use the common areas of the site. The requirement to pay a pitch fee is an express term in the written agreement. Pitch fees are reviewable annually and can usually only be increased in line with RPI plus the cost of expenditure on improving (rather than maintaining) the site.”
In a recent letter, the Minister said that a commission is not an estate agency charge, but an important income strand for park home businesses, enabling them to ensure that sites are properly managed and maintained. He said that if the commission was reduced or abolished, there would need to be a compensatory increase in pitch fees to cover the shortfall in income. That is where I find it difficult to understand exactly what money is being used for what, and I can see where the questions come from park home owners.
On pitch fees, there should be available for inspection a transparent and audited set of published accounts. I have with me a file of cases from across the country. Residents have supplied evidence that owners of their sites are not properly managing or maintaining their parks, making it harder for residents to sell their homes. They have asked why site owners should receive the 10% commission if they are not supplying the services they are meant to. Park home owners argue that it is they who work hard to make improvements to their property, which helps the site owner market his business.
The 2013 Act will introduce some accountability, with an annual review of pitch fees; an opportunity for park home owners to challenge pitch fees on lack of maintenance or deterioration of the site; and a requirement for site owners to justify increases above the retail prices index. I would be interested to hear how the Minister envisages those provisions working; whether the historical position in which many park home owners find themselves can be addressed; and whether it would be possible to have a clear statement on the issues. I imagine that such a statement could not be made fully today, but if we could have something simple placed in the Library, it would be helpful for park home owners and Members of Parliament to see what the future holds, so that we can check whether anything else needs to be done. I fear that we will not pick up all the historical problems, but I hope that future purchasers will have clarity in their written agreements about all payments and will be clear on the annual reviews. Also, I still come back to this question: is it not reasonable to have audited published accounts on pitch fees and the expenditure out of that?
Research by the National Association of Park Home Residents in November 2013 revealed that monthly pitch fees in 1,075 parks varied from £40 to £382. It seems generally accepted that the average fee is about £150 a month. For someone living on the basic state pension, while the pension is being increased by the consumer prices index, fees are being increased by the RPI. One can see how there are concerns out there.
Park home owners continually identify extra costs that creep in one way or another. Many park home owners referred to people who own flats or other dwellings, who pay a maintenance or service charge and a leasehold charge, but do not generally have to pay another 10%, on top of an estate agent’s fee, when they sell. That is where I feel published accounts would help. Park home owners pointed to providers such as McCarthy and Stone and looked at the many services provided in private sheltered accommodation. I think that there is a pretty good idea in those situations of what someone is paying for and what they are getting.
Park operators have argued that they cannot remain in business without the 10% commission charge. Yet our petitioners have pointed out that it would be foolish for a business to rely on an income that is unpredictable. It is difficult to predict how many new homes will be purchased, or used homes resold, in a year.
Many residents reported feeling trapped in their homes and unable to sell. Due to park rules, many sites are only for people of retirement age. The need to move into a nursing home or some other form of residential care is a real possibility. Having to give the park operator such a high percentage from the sale of their home reduces the amount the seller has to put towards their care.
There are other considerations. The Government acknowledge that the park homes sector plays an important role in the provision of low-cost housing for the elderly and that it frees up under-occupied homes that are much needed as we face a housing crisis. However, with pitch fees, other overheads and the 10% commission, many residents worry that the costs of owning a park home are becoming unviable. The issue of the 10% commission charge is undoubtedly a matter of concern.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on putting her points across so eloquently. It is important, after what was probably the biggest change to the sector in many years, that we review it from time to time.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the legislation was based on proper and full research and consultation, with the Select Committee report and the consultation conducted by the Department for Communities and Local Government? The new licensing arrangements provide an opportunity for additional accountability, so does she agree that we should let the legislation bed down before reviewing it in, say, two to three years, as indeed the legislation provides for?
Yes, there is an important element of reviewing what is in place or is about to come in in the near future, but not all of that is entirely understood by park home owners. We need a clear statement of what is happening now and what will happen in the future, and we need to try to untangle the pitch fee and the commission to be clear what items we are talking about. For example, is the commission just for contingencies, or just for improvements? I find the issue confusing, and I do not think we have bottomed that out yet. I agree that we cannot make any big moves until we have reviewed the legislation properly, but I think we can move forward by getting more transparency.
Not surprisingly, the petition calls for a reduction in the commission rate. Petitioners are also interested in looking at whether we should consider the difference in value between the purchase and selling prices of the unit when a commission is applied. That might be quite complex if there is deterioration on the unit, but obviously, that is food for thought.
We need a full and frank debate on the issue. We need transparency on what the various payments are being used for, and we need to ensure that there is no further exploitation of park home owners. Exploitation is still going on regarding some of the utility charging. It should all be out in the open, but I am sure that we can all come forward with examples.
I apologise for my discourtesy in arriving late for the debate. As my hon. Friend knows, through the work we have done with the all-party group and the many debates in this Parliament, exploitation is the key point. I agree with her point on pitch fees, about where they go, what they are for and transparency, and she knows I do. However, the point is that the fee is effectively a charge, tax or levy on one group of home owners that would not be and is not accepted for any other form of property ownership. Once again, park home owners are put in a lesser category compared with everyone else we represent. That is the point.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support throughout the campaign. That is a valid point.
We must not just sit back. It is great that we have the legislation, but we need a continuous full and frank debate on the issue. As I said, we need transparency, and equally we need to ensure that the industry is viable and that responsible site owners have a viable business model.
We ought to praise good practice instead of just focusing, as we have to do, on some bad practice. We should praise and look at some good sites and find sites where residents are satisfied. That would be a good approach, and then we can make comparisons.
We have achieved a lot in ending the injustices that were being suffered, but we cannot be complacent until all park home owners are treated fairly. I ask the Minister to be prepared to look deeper into the matter to ensure that we get the right balance for site owners and park home owners.
There will be a lobby, organised by my constituent, at 4 pm on 2 July in Committee Room 10. I very much hope that the Minister will attend simply to set out what is going to happen with the existing legislation as far as pitch fees are concerned. Today, I hope, is the start of a constructive debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing a debate on this important issue, on which I have also received significant correspondence over the years as an MP. She has campaigned tirelessly for better protection for park home owners, and she was instrumental in securing the passage of the Mobile Homes Act 2013, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). She asked a couple of specific questions, which I will answer shortly.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, the 2013 Act was the biggest shake-up in park home legislation for 30 years, and the Government were pleased to be able to support it during its passage through both Houses. It marks our commitment to ensuring that park home owners are protected and their rights are respected. One such right is the right to sell a park home without undue interference from the site owner. There was significant evidence that the site operator’s role in approving the purchaser had been abused by a number of unscrupulous individuals to block sales. The 2013 Act removed that opportunity by abolishing the site operator’s right to approve the person to whom a home should or could be sold. Provided that a person meets the relevant site rules, the sale can usually go ahead without the site owner being involved in the process until the purchaser notifies them that the sale has been completed and the pitch agreement has been assigned.
The new system for buying and selling has been in place since last May. It is much fairer than the old system and reduces the opportunity for abuse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, it now needs to bed in. To answer the specific point about a review, a body such as the Select Committee might, after a sensible period, want to explore the progress of the Act.
We have put in place safeguards to ensure that the site owner receives the commission. Most importantly, however, they cannot demand it before the home is bought and the pitch agreement is assigned. That means the buyer, not the seller, is responsible for paying the commission. However, it is not payable until following completion, when the site owner provides the buyer, who is now the new home owner, with their bank details. If the new owner does not pay the commission, they will be in breach of the pitch agreement and at risk of losing their home. The maximum commission payable is 10% of the price paid for the home. Thus, when purchasing the home, the buyer pays 90% to the seller and retains 10% to pay as commission to the site operator.
I realise that some home owners object to the commission on the sale of a home. Some will feel aggrieved that they have to give up 10% of the purchase price, which is paid to the site owner, when they may believe they get little or nothing in return. Sometimes they see this charge as some kind of estate agent’s charge, despite the fact that the site owner is no longer involved in the sale process. However unfair home owners feel the commission is, the fact that it is payable should not come as a surprise. It is implied in the terms of the pitch agreement, and people should be aware that it is payable on the sale when they purchase the home.
The maximum rate of commission is 10%, having been reduced from 15% by the Conservative Government in 1983. Commission is a legitimate income stream for park home owners, and there is no evidence that the payment leads to profiteering. That was the finding of the independent report commissioned by the previous Government in 2002. The other income strands are from selling homes and from pitch fees. Income from selling homes is necessarily limited because it requires the availability of new pitches or site development. Changes in pitch fees are regulated, and they are linked to inflation and certain other costs that the operator incurs in running the site.
I will come to that shortly.
There is limited time, but let me add that there was a further review in 2006. The then Government suggested that the commission be reduced to 7.5%. Following significant consultation, they decided there was no case for change, and they maintained the status quo. In spring 2012, the Select Committee did significant work on the operation of park homes and came up with a powerful and significant report, which obviously influenced the 2013 Act.
On the specific issues that have come out of the debate, the Government have spent a significant time shaping our answers to parliamentary questions so that we can give really full answers to the absolutely pertinent questions that Members have asked about the progress that has been made. I am quite prepared to put another document in the Library to provide some clarity and so that any Member who has not asked questions can have access to it. However, we have spent a significant period reviewing our answers to make sure we pick up the issues that have been raised.
In answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), I should say that we have worked with trade bodies to make sure we disseminate information, and I hope good councils will also proactively contact local park owners to transmit it. However, this issue has been so significant and has had such a media presence—indeed, it has had significant coverage from Members on both sides of the House—that no site owner could legitimately say that they did not know about the change. In fact, if they failed to comply with the rules in the legislation, it would be a criminal act, and the council could pursue them.
To conclude, the Government do not see a need to review the 10% commission at this time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, it is appropriate, after a period, to reflect on what has happened. However, home owners are in a completely different position from the one they were in before the 2013 Act, and significant safety barriers have been put in place to stop unscrupulous individuals from pursuing home owners’ moneys. It is important that we have clarity and transparency on fees. The ability of councils to go on to a site to pursue malpractice or inappropriate maintenance is some safeguard and some comfort for individuals. I hope colleagues will continue to push the issue and to seek to make sure that greater protections are in place. At this time, however, we do not seek to review the commission on park homes.
Human Rights (North Korea)
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, as you are one of the few Members of Parliament to have visited North Korea.
North Korea is arguably the world’s most closed nation, with the worst human rights record. Looking through all 30 articles of the universal declaration of human rights, it is difficult to identify any of them that have been implemented and respected in North Korea. Almost all are severely repressed or denied. Indeed, the former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea has described the country as “sui generis”—in a category of its own.
For those reasons, debates such as this are long overdue. For too long—more than 60 years—what amounts to the world’s worst human rights crisis has also been its most overlooked. Why has the appalling inhumanity in North Korea not generated the same headlines or provoked the same mass public outrage as apartheid in South Africa? I hope that young people in our universities and elsewhere will take the issue to heart, as they did apartheid. When I was at the university of Oxford the week before last, I talked to students about it, and I encourage colleagues to do the same when they visit universities and colleges.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this enormously important debate. What he wishes is actually starting to happen. Students from Oxford have come to see me, and one important point that they made is that if we could get the BBC World Service to broadcast to Korea in Korean, its reputation for impartiality would be an enormous force for good.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I will say more about the BBC World Service and broadcasting in general in North Korea later in my remarks. I welcome his support and intervention.
On 17 February this year, the UN commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea published its report, concluding that North Korea’s brutal regime is committing a wide range of crimes against humanity, arising from
“policies established at the highest level of State”.
Such crimes against humanity include,
“extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation”.
That is a pretty appalling list.
Among the reported abuses, the inquiry found that pregnant women are starved, while their babies are fed rats and snakes. More than 100,000 people—I think the Government estimate up to 200,000 people—are in gulags, which have existed for more than 60 years. There is systematic torture; everyone is forced to inform on each other; entire communities are denied adequate food; and the bodies of the dead are burned and then used for fertiliser.
When pregnant North Korean women are forced to return to North Korea from China—a serious issue in itself—they are subjected to forced abortions if it is suspected that the father of the child is Chinese. If the baby is born, it is killed. Widespread forced abortion and infanticide for purely racial reasons are just two of the brutal regime’s many barbaric acts.
The UN’s 400-page report, based on many hours of extensive first-hand testimony from victims and witnesses, details what it describes as “unspeakable atrocities”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate, which matters to all our constituents. Many of mine came to see me to raise the issue.
The North Korean delegation to the UN has said that it will examine 185 of the 268 human rights recommendations handed to it by the member states of the UN Human Rights Council. Does my hon. Friend believe, based on what has happened in the past, that North Korea will take the recommendations seriously? If not, what pressure does he think the UN and the British Government should bring to bear on the North Korean Government?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend’s constituents are engaging with him on the issue. As I will say in a little while, we could press the UN to take the matter to the International Criminal Court, which would be one positive step that could come out of the UN commission of inquiry. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we must not let the report just gather dust on the shelf.
The UN report concludes that,
“the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
The chairman of the commission of inquiry, Mr Justice Michael Kirby, has compared the situation in North Korea to the holocaust, and, as he says, that is no exaggeration.
The inquiry has made a variety of recommendations, but most particularly, it calls, as I have just said, for a case to be referred to the ICC. I welcome the Government’s support for the inquiry’s recommendations; their efforts at the Human Rights Council in March, when a UN resolution endorsed the commission of inquiry’s findings and recommendations; and the recent briefing at the UN Security Council in the form of an Arria formula meeting. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what steps the United Kingdom is considering taking in future; what role the UK will play in continuing to lead international efforts to ensure that the commission of inquiry’s report is turned into a plan of action and does not sit on a shelf; and specifically what steps the Security Council can take to seek a referral to the ICC or another appropriate mechanism for justice and accountability.
Today, the Conservative party human rights commission released its report, entitled, “Unparalleled and Unspeakable: North Korea’s Crimes against Humanity”. I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for her leadership of that inquiry and her tireless campaigning on the issue. I will leave it to her, if she should be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr Streeter, to focus on the findings and recommendations of her report in detail, but I commend the report to the House and hope that the Minister will study it carefully.
Momentum is beginning to grow in other ways as well. The outstanding work of the all-party group on North Korea—if any colleagues present are not members, I encourage them to join—under the chairmanship of Lord Alton of Liverpool, has kept the issue on the agenda in Parliament for the past decade. The work of advocacy organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International; campaigns by groups such as Open Doors and Release International; and the efforts of the international coalition to stop crimes against humanity in North Korea, have helped bring about the attention that is finally being given by the UN to North Korea’s human rights crisis. New organisations, such as the recently launched North Korea Campaign UK and the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, will help to bring the situation to a new level of public awareness and campaigning.
All those are vital steps to shine a light on the darkest corner of the world and to place North Korea’s human rights crisis where it belongs: at the centre of the international agenda. However, much, much more is needed.
Breaking the information blockade that surrounds North Korea is key to bringing about change, as has already been mentioned. I welcome the steps already undertaken by the UK to promote academic and cultural exchanges and scholarships for North Koreans to study abroad. I also welcome the activities of others, including distribution of information into North Korea via USB sticks, DVDs and other portable devices, and—crucially—radio broadcasts.
As Professor Andrei Lankov argues in his book, “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”:
“In order to initiate changes in North Korea, it is necessary to put North Korea’s rulers under pressure from its people and the lower echelons of the elite. Only North Koreans themselves can change North Korea…The only long-term solution, therefore, is to increase pressure for a regime transformation, and the major way to achieve this is to increase North Koreans’ awareness of the outside world. If North Koreans can learn about the existence of attractive and available alternatives to their regimented and impoverished existence, the almost unavoidable result will be the growth of dissatisfaction toward the current administration. This will create domestic pressure for change, and the North Korean government will discover that its legitimacy is waning even among a considerable part of the elite.”
Every tool available should be used to break the information blockade, but there is one that is not currently being used: the BBC World Service. A sustained campaign has developed over the past year or two for the establishment of a BBC Korean-language radio service to broadcast to the Korean peninsula, north and south. An excellent report by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, called “An Unmet Need: a Proposal for the BBC to Broadcast a World Service in the Korean Language”, was published in December 2013. The report notes:
“In spite of restrictive media policies, severe punishments and radio jamming operations, changes to the global media environment are gradually impacting media consumption within the DPRK”—
that is, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, although of course it is a state that is neither democratic nor run for its people. The report goes on:
“Today, a surprisingly large percentage of North Koreans can access media devices that are capable of receiving foreign media”.
Intermedia reports that almost half of North Korea’s radio listeners are able to access illegal radios and over a quarter have actively listened to foreign radio broadcasts.
The remit of the BBC Trust sets out as a specific purpose for the World Service that it should
“enable individuals to participate in the global debate on significant international issues.”
A BBC strategy document, “Delivering Creative Future in Global News”, makes it a priority for the World Service to access
“a number of information-poor language markets with a clear need for independent information”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has touched on an interesting point about the BBC World Service. I believe that one reason why the Foreign Office is reluctant to ask the BBC to broadcast a Korean service is that it underestimates the number of North Koreans who could receive it, but if it looks at the figures, there is a much stronger case than it believes for asking the BBC to broadcast to North Korea.
My hon. Friend is right and I agree with him—the evidence available to us shows that despite the restrictions and the regime’s best efforts to stop them, more and more people in North Korea are managing to listen to such broadcasts.
Recently, Stephen Bosworth, the former US ambassador to the Republic of Korea and former US special representative for North Korea policy, said:
“I would like to lend my support to the effort to bring the BBC World Service to North Korea. I believe the interests of the people of North Korea and the rest of the world are best served by opening North Korea to information from the outside. The BBC World Service could clearly play an important role in that process.”
The all-party group on North Korea, the Conservative party human rights commission and the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, among others, have addressed many of the questions put forward by the BBC and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, particularly on cost-effectiveness, commercial opportunities, availability of shortwave radios in North Korea and availability of transmitters to broadcast. Has the Minister had an opportunity to read “An Unmet Need”, to assess the information provided by various groups in response to BBC and Foreign Office concerns and to review the Government’s position?
Last night, I was e-mailed by one of Radio Free Asia’s correspondents in Washington, and gave a radio interview over the telephone with that station. Given that today’s debate is in the British Parliament, it is a little ironic that perhaps the only broadcast into North Korea to be mentioned today will be one from an American-run radio station, and not a British radio communication.
There are many other concerns; I will briefly highlight some, in the hope that other Members might elaborate on them during the debate. First, there are the severe violations of freedom of religion or belief in North Korea, and particularly the extreme persecution of Christians. There is China’s policy of forced repatriation of North Korean refugees, which returns them to a dire fate and is in breach of international law. Further, there are the desperate humanitarian needs of the people of North Korea and the question of whether the United Kingdom could and should be providing aid. There are also concerns about possible breaches of existing sanctions and the need for more targeted sanctions to prevent the export of North Korean resources produced by forced labour in political prison camps and slave labour in the mining sector, as well as the trade in blood minerals.
Finally, there is a need to develop a much better understanding of how the brutal regime in North Korea works by engaging regularly with North Korean defectors, of whom there are several hundred in the United Kingdom. Last week, one prominent defector, Jang Jin-sung, addressed the all-party group ahead of the launch of his new book, “Dear Leader”. He provided a detailed insight into the centrality of the regime’s rather Orwellian- sounding Organisation and Guidance Department, or OGD. Understanding the key power structures in the North Korean regime is essential if we are to use our levers of influence in the most effective way.
In 2010, The Times published an editorial, headlined “Slave State”, which stated:
“The condition of the people of North Korea ranks among the great tragedies of the past century. The despotism that consigns them to that state is one of its greatest crimes.”
The UN inquiry and the courage of an increasing number of North Korean exiles and international NGOs are at long last beginning to shine a light on those crimes and awaken the conscience of the world. In this House, we have a responsibility to do all we can to ensure that the light shines brighter, the darkness is exposed and the appalling suffering of the North Korean people is brought to an end.
It is a pleasure to make a contribution to this debate. I commend the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for his introductory remarks, which set the scene clearly. I also commend the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), in anticipation of her speech; I know she will make a vast contribution.
It is always good to come along to debates such as this, because we can remember those in other parts of the world who do not have the freedom that we have in this country. North Korea is certainly a country where freedom is in very short supply and life is cheap. Human rights in North Korea simply do not exist: freedom of association, of worship, of movement and even of thought are all denied. Everything in North Korea is controlled and monitored, and life is not at all the same there as it is in our country. Often in my office we make jokes about dictators, but when we think about the dictator in North Korea we are increasingly aware of how blessed we are to live where we live and have the freedom that we have.
As Jong-un was educated in the west there was a brief hope that he would bring a more modern approach to running North Korea, but that hope has been dashed. A US intelligence assessment published in The Wall Street Journal depicted Jong-un as
“a volatile youth with a sadistic streak who may be even more unpredictable than his late father”.
We thought his late father was bad, but when we look at the suffering now it is manifestly even worse. When we discuss North Korea we have an opportunity to remember those who do not have human rights or even the very basics for life—we must be mindful of those people.
In North Korea now, there is to be no modernisation of thought, but simply of warfare, and with the dictator firmly established there are to be no kind of human rights. It is home to the world’s fifth largest army, of 1.2 million soldiers and 8.3 million reservists, and there is a monopoly of state-run media—TV, radio, and the press—that indoctrinates the population with the party’s propaganda. We know of the existence of 14 concentration camps, some of which hold as many as 50,000 prisoners. Some of those people do not even know the crime for which they have been imprisoned, but others know exactly why they are there—it is because of their faith and the fact that they want to tell others of that faith.
The precise number of Christians in North Korea is unknown, but it is estimated that there could be as many as 100,000 or more. Before the communists came to power, numbers were higher but during the Korean war of 1950-53 many fled to South Korea or were martyred in North Korea. Those who remain are forced to hide their faith or face terrible consequences. That is why it is important to make our point today on behalf of those in North Korea.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate. This is about our third discussion in recent months about North Korea and, more broadly, human rights. I would have thought that one of the ways in which the United Nations could exert pressure is through China, which has a big influence on North Korea.
Does the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) agree that the images and films of prisoners in North Korea and how they are tortured put us in mind of Bosnia when the Muslims were being persecuted? It amazes me that there is not the same publicity and momentum—I am not talking about invading North Korea—that the west exercised at the time of the Bosnian conflict. That seems to be absent in this case. I wonder why. It is very strange.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is hard to understand what is happening in North Korea. We have seen films about the worst happenings in Germany and the atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda, which we discussed earlier today, and many other parts of the world, but nothing in the world adds up to what happens in North Korea. That is curious.
I attended an eye-opening event with Hae Woo—given my Northern Irish accent, I am not sure whether my pronunciation is correct; we would say “hay” as a matter of terminology back home, but this is someone’s name. The lady’s name was Hae Woo and she made a valuable contribution. We all had the opportunity to hear her testimony about what it is like to live in North Korea and how important it is to have the freedom she now has in South Korea. She has told the rest of the world.
I was interested in what the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said about the Radio Free Asia programme. I did a couple of interviews on it. I am not sure how my Northern Ireland accent went down in North Korea. I am sure it was challenging for most of them; it is a challenge for people here.
Hae Woo spoke candidly about her horrific experience in a North Korean concentration camp. I spoke to some of the staff in my office and gave them some of the books we had been given on the day. They were illuminating, but hard to read. They told the lady’s story, as well as that of thousands of others who had been beaten, tortured and abused. Those people had had their possessions taken, their children removed and their homes ransacked, all because they had a page from the Bible and were suspected of meeting other Christians.
Sometimes it is hard to understand, given how blessed we are here, what it is like for someone to have no job, no house, no clothes, no family and to be thrown into prison when no one knows where they are and they have no friends. That is reality for those in North Korea.
The hon. Gentleman reminds me of that day. What I also found chilling was that some people in the state apparatus masqueraded as Christians in the hope of entrapping others, almost as agents provocateurs. They took people off to camps because of their faith. I am sure he agrees that that requires greater international pressure.
I think it does. I will come to China later in my speech because I think something can be done. We need participation, encouragement and help from China to make that happen.
My parliamentary aide works with children at Elim church in Newtownards and told them the story of the lady from North Korea. When she said that mums and dads were taken away, the children were amazed. They asked what could be done; that is what we are all asking today, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire made clear. What can Parliament do? One child asked what we could do to help and take care of them, and that is what we are asking the Minister today.
We are fortunate in that the Minister has a clear interest in the matter. We know that from experience and our discussions with him, and we look forward to hearing what hope he can give us as Members of Parliament that we in turn can give our constituents. We have all been inundated with e-mails and correspondence, and we reflect that opinion in the Chamber in the best way we can. North Korea is closed off to the western world and our influence is almost non-existent, but there must be something that the greatest democracy in the world can do. If so, what are we doing to exert influence and to make a difference?
I turn to China. The harsh regime and grinding poverty have forced thousands of North Koreans to try to escape to China. It is estimated that as many as 350,000 North Koreans are in China as illegal immigrants. The Chinese authorities stubbornly uphold their policy of repatriating defectors found in their territory, even though repatriated North Koreans face notoriously harsh treatment and often death. The North Korean authorities allegedly pay Chinese informants to denounce defectors, so defectors in China are forced into hiding and often into the clutches of ruthless individuals who trap them into forced labour or sex work. Can we help these people? We have a duty to try. Can we ensure that aid comes their way to help them start a new life in which they can have their faith and freedom? Can we use our ties and links with China, with whom we have a semblance of a relationship, to make a difference?
I cannot help but think of those Christians in the world who cherish their Bible and see it as their guide, and my mind goes to tales of people in North Korea who shred and burn their Bible after they have memorised it so that they can treasure it in their hearts. A reminder of that is a film, “The Book of Eli”, which I saw the other week; it is similar at the end, when a blind person memorises the Bible.
Some people in North Korea have the memory of the scriptures from Genesis to Revelations. It shocks me that in the modern world some people do not have a Bible, and do not have the opportunity to read it, to worship and to enjoy freedom, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said. Like the child at Elim church in Newtownards who asked whether we can take care of those people, I ask the Minister, “Can we?” We have a responsibility to do so and we must use every avenue to make it happen for those Christians in North Korea who are suffering severe persecution.
One of the many remarkable meetings that the all-party parliamentary group on North Korea has had with refugees and asylum seekers from that country took place last week, when Mr Jang Jin-sung came to speak to us. He is a former North Korean poet laureate and a counter-intelligence official so his knowledge of the hierarchy of North Korean society gave us an unparalleled insight. He told us that the world never really sees the true North Korea because although there is individualised cult worship of the dear leader, real political power lies with the Organisation and Guidance Department of the Korea Workers’ party. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned that and I commend him on bringing forward this debate.
The OGD apparently controls all chains of command within North Korea, but very few people who have left North Korea are aware of that; of the 26,000 or so who have left, perhaps only a handful have an insight into what we were told last week. There is, of course, no Parliament in North Korea. All laws are prepared by the OGD for signature by the leader. It gives all orders for the military, appoints all high-ranking officials, operates the prison camps, co-ordinates extensive surveillance and even appoints the leader’s own bodyguards. We were informed that at the end of his life, the former leader, Kim Jong-il, was effectively living under house arrest controlled by those very bodyguards. That startling revelation demonstrated to us the frailty of the apparent power of the regime and of this failed state.
Mr Jang told us, in his own words, that the regime is “ruined inside” and that there is effectively a divide in North Korean society between the governing classes and the market classes. We have known for some time that the governing classes will make sure that they and the military are well fed and provided for. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that the rest of the population simply have to fend for themselves. He told us that provision for what are called the market classes has effectively been abandoned by the governing bodies.
Mr Jang confirmed that the market classes can only survive through black-market dealing, and he spoke of the governing classes having “lost control of the market”, saying that there is a façade of power, but the daily currency of survival in North Korea has been converted from loyalty to the dear leader to money. The North Korean regime does all it can to control its people, but it cannot even control the price of an egg. He also told us that no one in the North Korean elite believes that the regime will last for ever. For us, that is good news. That day cannot come soon enough.
Mr Jang encouraged those of us outside North Korea to stop focusing on the regime and to look at what he called the “wedge of hope” within the country. I took the phrase to mean that if the North Korean people in numbers are now beginning to use their individual initiative to survive independently of Government provision through the use of the black market, often using goods illicitly imported from outside the DPRK, surely there is hope that those same people, given information and inspiration from the outside world, could begin individually to appreciate, ultimately understand and finally act on the fact that there is a different and more humane way for a society to live than that offered by their own Government.
Our role surely has to be to increase the size and impact of the wedge of hope in the people’s hearts. One day, change will surely come within North Korea. Kingdoms rise and fall; no despotic regime ultimately endures. Our role and our challenge, bearing in mind the deplorable suffering of the North Korean people, is to do what we can, however slight it may seem, to increase that wedge of hope, so that change comes sooner rather than later—for one day, one month, one year, surely it will come.
I think it is very important that our Government and other Governments in the international community press China to alter its approach towards North Korea—in particular, its treatment of asylum seekers. It is appalling that asylum seekers, when they are found in China, are sent back to North Korea for torture, and, in many cases, certain death. It is appalling that women who are sent back, if they are found to be pregnant or are even carrying a babe in their arms, will have to see that child sacrificed. That must change.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her fine speech. Does hope not also come from communication and from hearing and knowing what is out there? Will she join me in urging—it is not necessarily a matter for the Minister—the BBC World Service to establish a Korean radio service broadcast in English to the Korean peninsulas, both north and south, so that they can hear much more about the hope out there?
I certainly will, and I hope to mention that later in my speech, given time.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked what we can do. Well, one thing we can do is speak out in this place, as we are doing today. The very first time I spoke out about North Korea in this Chamber, I was amazed to receive correspondence from Korea. It came from people who knew or were related to people in North Korea—from those living in South Korea who said, “Keep speaking out. We are hearing you here.” Given the increased use of technology to smuggle information into North Korea, through USB sticks and other means of communication, what is now even more encouraging is that our debates in this place can—and I believe, will—reach the hearts, minds and ears of people in North Korea, and they will be encouraged and strengthened to speak and take action. That is one thing we can do.
If people in North Korea are listening to any of these words, it is important that they understand that if regime change comes, they would not be abandoned by other countries. In fact, they would be helped by other countries and could see a manifestly better material life through help from many supportive nations and supportive peoples across the world.
That is exactly the point that I want to come to now. It is clear—I have heard this not only from Mr Jang last week, but from others—that although the regime in North Korea, the North Korean elite, perceive that their state is failing, they simply do not know another way. They do not know the solution to their difficulties. They cannot find a way through to feed their people. They cannot understand, because they have never known it or experienced it, what it means to live in a form of democracy, the like of which we know and must communicate to them in different ways.
Several ways to increase the wedge of hope are outlined in the report published today by the Conservative party human rights commission. I have just passed a copy to the Minister, so I do not expect him to be able to respond in detail to that in the debate, but it is called “Unparalleled and Unspeakable: North Korea’s Crimes Against Humanity”. I encourage Members to read it.
Clearly, I cannot refer to all the report’s recommendations today, but I want to put on the record my thanks to the commission’s deputy chairman, Ben Rogers, for his sterling assistance in the production of the report and for so much of the work that he has done over many years to highlight the human rights atrocities in North Korea.
I believe that we can be encouraged by what has happened in Burma, because that same man, Ben Rogers, worked assiduously for many years to highlight the difficulties that people in Burma suffered, and we have recently seen what has happened in that country. Just a few years ago, many of us might not have hoped for the changes that are occurring there. We must maintain the same degree of hope for the people in North Korea.
I do, and in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question that I referred to earlier, one way we can also provide support is through some of the organisations that go into North Korea; many of them are Christian organisations, such as Open Doors or Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The commission heard from Amnesty International, in a witness session, that support for them by means of food aid will get through to people in North Korea. There are means of reaching North Koreans and those organisations are providing tremendous strength and support for people in North Korea as they travel about and provide aid and information.
I turn back to the commission’s report. It was not its intention to repeat in detail evidence of the human rights violations, because they were already extremely well documented in the UN commission’s report, published earlier this year, by Mr Justice Kirby. As the Conservative party human rights commission’s report states:
“Instead, this brief report aims to serve as a policy document for the Conservative Party, summarising the scale of the challenge”
faced by the international community
“and then focusing on possible ways forward for the United Kingdom in helping to lead the international community’s effort to end the climate of impunity in North Korea, enhance mechanisms for accountability and justice, break the regime’s information blockade, and bring an end to more than half a century of horrific suffering endured by the North Korean people.”
Breaking that information blockade is, as my colleagues have mentioned, one way in which we can provide support. Mr Jang said, interestingly, that,
“this is not just a humane thing it is also a pragmatic thing to do”.
The commission urges the UK Government to continue their efforts while pursuing a critical engagement in the DPRK on questions of human rights on every level. We are also pressing them to continue to invest in academic and cultural exchanges, such as sponsoring the British Council’s English teaching in North Korea. Many escapees have told us they benefited directly from that. Although the British Council has only four people teaching there, it has taught hundreds of North Koreans over the years. In many cases, that has been extremely helpful when people have sought to move on.
Similarly, the report encourages increased investment in developing the skills and education of North Korean refugees in the UK. The country will need leaders who can go back to it when change happens; it will need men and women of courage, insight and vision who have experienced life in a free nation. I think, for example, of one young refugee, Timothy, who has done a little work experience in my office. He grew up in North Korea, but he was orphaned. From the ages of about eight to 14, he virtually lived on the streets. He then managed to escape to China, but unfortunately he was caught, repatriated and tortured. He managed to escape again, and he finally reached this country. He is now studying politics at Salford university.
We need to take care of such people. The UK has about 600 North Korean refugees—the largest diaspora in the world, outside South Korea. We really should increase engagement with them and draw on their knowledge and experience. We could then send communications from them into North Korea, using some of the technology we have these days—smuggled USB sticks, DVDs and other portable devices. Such things can also be used to send over films, newspaper articles and reports from the human rights organisations I mentioned, and information can also be brought back. If we can work more closely with the North Korean diaspora here, we can find another way of breaking the information blockade.
My hon. Friend is making a typically insightful speech. However, the concern most people have when thinking of North Korea is about the lack of hope. Individuals in the regime may be inclined to distance themselves in some way from the leader, but there is a fear of the risks associated with doing anything differently. My hon. Friend speaks positively about the wedge of hope and the things we can do to support the diaspora in this country, but what can we do to support those who are inclined to resist the pressure to conform to the leader’s direction?
I entirely agree that lives are lived in permanent fear. Even before they can read or write, children are taught to fear and worship the regime—that is a terrible mixture in people’s mindset. However, sending information will gradually free their minds. I accept that that is an extremely slow process, but if we do not try, how will these things happen? That is my question. If we do not do these things, people will never know the truth. However, we cannot say we do not know the truth, because the 400-page report from Mr Justice Kirby has told the world of the horrors of this regime, and we must act—we must take what steps we can to address the situation.
I turn now to the many calls made in this debate, and in several others, for the BBC to broadcast into North Korea and, indeed, South Korea. Again, I ask the BBC to consider the issue. A large percentage of North Koreans can now access media devices capable of receiving foreign media, and DVD players, televisions and radios are smuggled into the country. Under the remit of the BBC Trust, one specific purpose of the BBC World Service is to enable
“individuals to participate in the global debate on significant international issues.”
Under the BBC strategy “Delivering Creative Future in Global News”, a priority for the World Service is to access
“a number of information-poor language markets with a clear need for independent information”.
The World Service operating agreement also prioritises audiences
“which have the least access to news”.
Surely, nowhere qualifies more under that criterion than North Korea.
The two objections we have had from the BBC are, first, that
“an insignificant percentage of the population”
would be reached, but that can be discounted. In 2005, 18% of people had listened to a foreign radio. In 2009, the Asia Foundation collated information suggesting that 20% were listening to one. In 2012, InterMedia found that nearly half the respondents from a North Korean defector community owned radios and that,
“many radio listeners…modify fixed-dial radios in order to receive unsanctioned channels.”
The second concern raised about the BBC broadcasting into North Korea was that South Korean regulations would prevent broadcasting from South Korea. However, Voice of America broadcasts its Korean language service from a transmitter in South Korea, and there are other options involving transmitters elsewhere in Asia. Therefore, the commission—this is one of our strongest recommendations—urges the Government and the BBC to reconsider the issue and to invest in establishing a BBC Korean service and in training exiled North Koreans as reporters and producers, as well as to take on other staff positions in such a service.
Absolutely. It is incumbent on them to do that. I will close now—you have been extremely indulgent, Mr Streeter—by saying that if the BBC persists in being unwilling to broadcast into Korea, a solution will be found elsewhere. The option of another organisation broadcasting into Korea is being actively discussed. That would involve an independent radio station broadcasting from the UK into the DPRK.
It would be to the BBC’s shame if it did not take a role in righting the injustices experienced by the North Korean people—the injustices experienced by this generation, which are comparable only to the holocaust experienced by our forebears’ generation—and if it did not rise to the challenge that we are putting before it.
I am grateful to have caught your eye in this important debate, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). I also pay sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who clearly showed her passion for this subject in the way she spoke about it. With the Conservative party human rights commission, she has produced a comprehensive report. I participated in some of the hearings, and I congratulate her on the report. I have read every word of it, and it would repay any Member of the House to read from it.
I want to concentrate on human rights in North Korea. Before I do, however, I want to put on record that North Korea is one of the world’s putative nuclear states. It carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013. Whenever my right hon. Friend the Minister has dealings with any of the five powers in the six-party talks, I would urge him to see whether we can get the talks back on track. In my recent discussions with the Chinese—I was in Beijing last week and met Foreign Office Ministers at Minister of State level—it was clear that they, too, do not want a rogue nuclear state on their doorstep. There is, therefore, good cause to hope that China, which has the most influence of any country on the DPRK, can put some pressure on it to at least prevent it from becoming a nuclear power and deploying ever longer range ballistic missiles, potentially carrying nuclear warheads.
The UN commission of inquiry has been widely quoted today; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton quoted widely from it. One of the most telling quotes from it was from Mr Justice Kirby, the retired and very respected Australian judge who wrote it. Let me quote just one sentence of what he said:
“The gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
That is a pretty damning indictment, if ever there was one, of the inhuman treatment that the country metes out. The ordinary citizens of North Korea are sentenced to a slow death, because they do not have enough food. Their life expectancy is probably not beyond their thirties. If they go into one of the camps—and there are between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners—they face a quick death sentence, because they are starved there, and work harder; but it is not only that. The appalling thing about North Korea is that if someone commits a crime it is often not only that person, but their children and their children’s children, who are imprisoned. That often applies to those poor people who try to escape the misery across the Chinese border. They are sent back, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has said, to appalling conditions in the prison camps. They are routinely tortured and forced to have abortions. People’s babies are routinely slaughtered in front of them and the other inmates of the camp. The regime is truly inhuman.
In an article in the Korea Times the other day Kim Mikyoung said that
“the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is one of the poorest nations, yet one of the proudest; it is one of the most sanctioned states, yet one of the most defiant; it is one of the weakest, yet one of the most resilient.”
Its people are incredibly resilient, considering the treatment that the state metes out to its poor citizens. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, the little known Organization and Guidance Department for the Workers Party of Korea is responsible for many aspects of ordinary Koreans’ lives—the prison camps and the re-education that happens in them, the “dear leader’s” guard and the watching of that guard to see who adulates the leader. Such is a state where the citizens spy on each other.
The recommendations of the UN commission are comprehensive and should be implemented in full, including by taking the report to the UN Security Council and referring the DPRK to the International Criminal Court. Along with the report of the commission of inquiry, the report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton produced a number of excellent findings, and I encourage everyone to read it.
I put a question to my hon. Friend the Minister during the urgent question debate obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton on 16 December.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before the break, I was about to draw attention to the Minister, because in response to a question that I put to him in the debate on 16 December 2013 on the urgent question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, he said:
“It is important that whenever we see a chink of light, we try to widen it to expose to the people of North Korea that there is a better world out there.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 482.]
I entirely agree. The report prepared by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has shone a strong light on North Korea, and we must continue to try to change the situation there. The leadership are aware of the current attention. They know that we are on their case. We must now use the report to show the people that there is a better world out there. Knowledge is power. People need knowledge so that they, and we, have the power to change things.
On the “knowledge is power” point, does my hon. Friend share my concern that apparently the number of defectors getting out of North Korea has dropped by some 40% since Kim Jong-un became leader? He has increased the number of troops on the Korean-Chinese border, as have the Chinese on the other side, because they understand that knowledge getting out is harmful to them.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is clear that the new, younger leader, Kim Jong-un, is more unpredictable than his predecessors. He is more ruthless. He is stationing more troops on the border to prevent people from getting out. Unfortunately another factor in the figure that my hon. Friend has just given the House is the hardening attitude of the Chinese towards sending people back, which is completely inhuman. We need to say to the Chinese that it is not acceptable.
We have certain tools that allow us to shine this light on the regime, and I would like to discuss briefly three of them. The World Service has been mentioned several times in the debate, and figures have been given for the number of people who could potentially receive it in the DPRK. I have no way of knowing whether those figures are true—perhaps the Minister has reliable figures—but as I said in the debate on the urgent question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, I do not think that the Government can leave the matter completely to the BBC.
As my hon. Friend’s report makes clear on page 19,
“another argument used by the Government is that the BBC is independent and the Government cannot ‘interfere’ or make a decision on this. Yet under the new 2014 Operating Licence for the BBC World Service, the Foreign Secretary retains his decision-making authority over where, why, how and to whom the World Service is broadcast. The Foreign Office is required to agree to the objectives and priorities of the World Service, and thus can influence where, why and to whom to broadcast. Furthermore, in a letter to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee in February 2013, the Foreign Secretary states: ‘I…provide final agreement to any BBC proposal to open a new service.’”
The current operating licence for the BBC World Service, the new 2014 operating licence, a BBC Trust paper in June 2013 and the Foreign Secretary’s own words confirm that any new language service must be agreed between the BBC Trust and the Foreign Secretary. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister not to stand aside and say that that is a matter for the BBC, because I do not believe that it is. I believe that the Foreign Secretary could intervene, and I hope that my right hon. Friend has heard enough pleas this afternoon to convince him to ask his boss, the Foreign Secretary, to do so.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that it is important that the Government take note of the increasing number of Members of Parliament who are calling for that and expressing concern about the human rights atrocities in North Korea? The considerable number of Members in this debate has reflected that, and others regularly join our all-party group. No less than 34 Members came to an open-doors meeting recently, many prompted by cards from their constituents, and 68 have signed early-day motion 1184, which calls on the Government to consider every possible mechanism for accountability for the human rights atrocities in North Korea. Surely that should include consideration of the BBC broadcasting into the country.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. A number of known voices in Parliament have made the case for North Korea for a long time, including Lord Alton, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has referred. I have visited South Korea and looked across the demilitarised zone into North Korea, where I had my photograph taken. The ambassador said, “There you are; you will now be on the files of the North Korean authorities for evermore, and they will know who you are.” That is the sort of regime that we are dealing with. Those of us who have been campaigning on the matter for a long time—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton referred to Ben Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who has done superb work on this subject—are beginning to find a wider camaraderie with people in both Houses of Parliament who want to campaign on this horrendous issue.
I pay tribute to the fantastic speeches that we have heard today. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred to the number of people who have signed early-day motions. I am not able to sign early-day motions, but I have been urged by a number of constituents to come here and express my concerns and theirs about human rights in North Korea. Will my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) pay tribute to the many Church groups that have campaigned on the matter, which have encouraged MPs to attend debates such as this and encouraged engagement in the issue?
There is no doubt about it; the increased interest by a number of Members of Parliament, which has been emphasised by the strong attendance at today’s debate, is in no small part attributable to the work that the Churches are doing. I have already referred to Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the work that it has done.
The second tool that we have in our armoury is the British Council, which my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has referred to. The British Council had an excellent programme of training English teachers, but unfortunately when Kim Jong-un and his regime threatened the Foreign Office with the closure of our embassy last year, it had to stop its activities. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister could, in his summing up, say something about the British Council and tell us if and when it is likely to be able to resume its activities.
The third tool in our locker is Kaesong. When I stood on the demilitarised zone and looked through the telescope into North Korea, I could see the industrial zone of Kaesong quite clearly. Working in the Kaesong industrial complex is one of the very few activities where both North Korean and South Korean workers can get together. The factories manufacture things that are needed in the south. The North Koreans who work there receive much-needed hard currency from the south, but, more than that, they are able to interact with South Koreans and encounter their ideas about what is going on in South Korea and the rest of the world. The hope is that they will spread those ideas by word of mouth into the rest of North Korea. That is an important tool in our armoury.
Another important tool in our armoury is the fact that there are an increasing number of electronic devices such as radios and mobile phones. Villages on either side of a valley that were previously unable to communicate with each other suddenly find that through the odd one or two people who have mobile phones, they can communicate with each other. That combined with the internet will probably bring down the regime more quickly than almost anything else.
Finally, in the very few minutes that I have left, I would like to say a word or two about China. As I said, I was in China last week with quite senior members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although they are not prepared at the moment to intervene in condemning the DPRK for its human rights record, it is quite clear that they do not want to see it becoming a nuclear state.
One of the things that China could do today, which would not be a big thing for them but would be a big thing for North Koreans, would be to give North Koreans who leave their country safe passage through China. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be a massive step forward?
I agree with my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I think that is a very valid point. We made the point to the Chinese that when people had gone to all the difficulties of escaping across the border—by golly, it is difficult, particularly with the number of soldiers now deployed on the rivers along which people escape in winter when they ice over—it is particularly unfortunate that China return those people to the DPRK where they face certain torture and probable death, as well as forced abortions and infanticide. We must continue to discuss those matters with China.
I end where I began. We are talking about one of the most terrible regimes in the world, which commits some of the worst human rights atrocities in the world. It starves its people, and it commits against them all sorts of crimes against humanity, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has said. That is completely unacceptable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has demonstrated, increasing numbers of parliamentarians in both Houses of Parliament are paying attention to the issue, and I expect yet more to do so. Let us all work, wherever we can and in our individual ways, to shine a light on this dreadful situation in the hope that we can bring about an improvement in the standard of living and quality of life for the people of North Korea.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing the debate. It is difficult to know where to begin talking about the horrors and atrocities in North Korea; as the hon. Gentleman said, the country is certainly in a category of its own. Although we can all unite in condemning the horrors in the country, we are, in fact, trying to identify ways to do something about the situation. I am sure that I am not alone in sometimes feeling a sense of impotence. There is only so much work that can be done in identifying the horrors, and the next step is to see what action can be taken.
We are in a stronger position than previously following the report of the UN commission of inquiry and the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution. I joined organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in supporting calls for the inquiry, not only on a personal level but on behalf of the Labour Front-Bench team, and I welcomed Foreign Office support for international action last year.
I thank the hon. Lady for what she is doing. Does she agree that now that the UN commission of inquiry has been received, and it is so devastating, we should press for it to be forwarded to the UN Security Council and call on the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court?
I also congratulate the hon. Lady because she has done a huge amount of work on the matter through the all-party group on North Korea, and she made a powerful speech a moment ago. I will come to her point in a moment; that is one of the steps that should be considered.
The DPRK rejected the commission of inquiry and refused to grant access, but the commission still provided invaluable evidence of life inside the country and in the prison camps, as we have heard. I pay tribute to the members of the inquiry, its secretariat and the witnesses and experts that it heard from. We should reflect especially on the bravery required from the victims who shared their experience with the inquiry. There were 80 witnesses and experts who testified publicly, while 240 people gave confidential interviews. The commission rightly emphasised the duty to protect their safety and the need for member states to provide additional protection measures where necessary. It is imperative that such efforts continue.
The report, as we have heard, provides a comprehensive account of the complete absence of human rights in North Korea. The illustrations submitted to the inquiry provide a graphic impression of the unimaginable torture meted out in the prison camps. The conclusion that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed by the DPRK, constituting crimes against humanity, demonstrates the clear need for the international community to respond.
Chillingly, the commission warns:
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
As we heard, the violations include an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association. The commission highlighted how the spread of Christianity is considered a particularly serious threat, underlining why the work of organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Open Doors is so important.
The report details how the North Korean state is an all-encompassing indoctrination machine; how state surveillance permeates the private lives of all citizens; how people are punished for watching and listening to foreign broadcasts; and the pervasive state-sponsored discrimination under the songbun system. The gross violations of the right to food and its manipulation as a means of control mean that North Korean citizens are being left to starve. The commission warned that it was particularly concerned about the long-term effects of ongoing chronic malnutrition among children.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly as I had to attend a Committee during the earlier part of the debate but still wanted to put my concern on the record. She mentioned the control of information. Does that not indicate the importance of taking steps to ensure that people in North Korea have more access to what is happening in the outside world? We must make sure that they have a true picture of what is going on in their country and elsewhere. That also highlights the importance of debates such as this that keep the British public’s attention on the issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, debates such as this are important because if we speak out, our voices do get heard, despite the restrictions in North Korea. I would also echo the points made about the BBC World Service, although I am not going to dwell on that because those points were made comprehensively.
I do not wish to depress the House even more, but does my hon. Friend agree that things are actually getting worse by the day? We now have a situation in which Satan is devouring his children. The regime is slaughtering its own, and there has never been a time when it has been more vital that we promulgate these facts, as we heard at the meeting of the all-party group last week. Who would have thought that matters could get worse? But they have and continue to do so. That is why debates such as this are so vital.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. I just mentioned the food situation in North Korea—how do we influence a regime that does not seem to care whether its people starve? What sort of leverage do we have when the issue is not just the repression of people’s freedom of expression and religion and their right to challenge the regime, but the fact that North Korea’s leaders seem perfectly happy to sit back and let their people starve? Things have indeed become much worse. I will come to how, as a matter of absolute priority, we must look at what we can do to try to change the situation.
We also heard from the report about how discrimination against women and girls has resulted in their becoming increasingly vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution. The punishments associated with transgressions are severe and arbitrary, including summary executions, most notably that of Kim Jong-un’s uncle in December last year.
The prison camps are indicative of the North Korean state’s complete rejection of basic human rights and international law. We hear about people being disappeared because of their connection with the Republic of Korea or Christian Churches—they are taken off to political prison camps. It was, I suppose, a small sign that things were not quite as bad as they have been that the commission found that guilt by association is now less frequent, although that is more than compensated for by some of the other atrocities that occur. Nevertheless, although some relatives are still at risk, the commission found that guilt by association is not quite as prevalent as it was previously.
To use the commission’s words, “unspeakable atrocities” are being committed in the camps, including
“deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide.”
It estimates that hundreds of thousands of people have died in the camps over the past 50 years, and that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are currently detained in four camps and being subjected to horrifying treatment.
The report leaves us in no doubt that action from the wider international community is imperative. As the commission stated,
“The fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a State Member of the United Nations, has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community.”
It went on to stress:
“The international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has manifestly failed to do so.”
We know that that will continue.
The commission’s report must ensure not only that the world’s attention is on the plight of the people of North Korea, but that urgent action is taken. As has already been mentioned, action from China is key because it is one of the few countries that has some leverage on the situation. As the commission stated,
“China pursues a rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating”
North Korean citizens who have managed to flee their country, despite their being refugees in need of, and entitled to, international protection.
China not only fails to respect the principle of non-refoulement; the commission suggests that, in some cases, Chinese officials inform their North Korean counterparts about those they have apprehended. According to the commission, those repatriated are systematically subjected to
“persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases, sexual violence, including during invasive body searches.”
As we have heard, repatriated pregnant women are subjected to forced abortions, while babies born to returned women are often killed. The risk of refoulement, and their fate in North Korea, prevents defectors who manage to get to China from registering their children’s birth in China, denying them access to health services and education. It is estimated that there are 20,000 children born to DPRK women in China. In failing such defectors, China is failing in its international responsibilities, so it is imperative that the international community challenges it.
I entirely agree. China provides some humanitarian assistance to North Korea; one would therefore hope that it had some leverage over the Government there and could persuade them to change their ways.
The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned the fact that one action that could be considered is referral to the International Criminal Court and the adoption of targeted sanctions. Resolution 25/25, passed by the UN Human Rights Council in March, was a welcome first step in taking the report forward, in particular by extending the mandate of the special rapporteur and requesting increased support, including establishing a field-based structure to strengthen monitoring and improve engagement with all states.
However, it was disappointing that 11 countries at the Human Rights Council abstained on the resolution vote, while six—Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, Venezuela, Vietnam and China—voted against it. There is more general concern about the composition of the Human Rights Council. The UK is on the council, but many member states have, shall we say, rather poor human rights records. There is concern about such countries’ failure to respect the special procedure or country-specific mandate holders. It would help if the Minister set out more about what he thinks the Human Rights Council can actually achieve—beyond mere condemnation of the DPRK regime—and how that can be done.
Following the recent universal periodic review, it has been reported that North Korea has actually agreed to consider 185 of the 268 recommendations. However, it has rejected some of them outright, including that it should co-operate with the ICC, end guilt by association, implement the commission’s recommendations, close the prison camps and abolish the songbun system. Critically, the Human Rights Council resolution recommended that the General Assembly submit the report to the Security Council for further action. The Human Rights Council called for the consideration of a referral
“to the appropriate international criminal justice mechanism”,
which would presumably be the ICC. On top of that, it called for consideration of the
“scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity”.
Will the Minister update us on the Government’s discussions with Security Council members about formally putting the DPRK on the agenda? What sanctions does he think could possibly be effective in targeting the DPRK leadership? Bearing in mind Russia’s and China’s position on the Security Council, what are the prospects and time scales for action and any referral to the ICC?
Now that the commission has reported and the Human Rights Council has passed its resolution, it is crucial that we maintain the momentum and keep the spotlight and pressure on North Korea, to try to secure the co-operation of partners in key positions of influence. It would be so much easier to say that solutions are more easily at hand in other countries, where the UK operates more leverage and where we know that we can, perhaps, achieve more good in a shorter time, but to turn our back on what is happening in DPRK, just because it is a difficult case and the solutions do not immediately present themselves, would be morally wrong. We simply should not contemplate that.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she has been generous in giving way.
The approximately 600 people from the North Korean diaspora in this country have not been mentioned so far. Could we not harness them and perhaps ask the BBC to ask them to help with some editorial work on programmes broadcast into Korea? They would surely want to help their families still left in the country.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. What always has to be weighed up is whether such a move would make life easier or worse for the people in the country. People in the country know how dreadful the situation is there. People from the diaspora community here would, obviously, need to highlight that to win over international opinion, ensuring that this matter is firmly on the political agenda. I am not so sure, although I have only just heard the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, what the impact would be of such footage being displayed in North Korea. There is a particular danger of measures being taken against people’s relatives who are still in the country. We have to be slightly worried about that.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the North Korean embassy is in my borough of Ealing. I have tried to work with some of the North Korean diaspora in west London, to mount some sort of protest so that people can hear an alternative voice. I have to say to her that they are terrified. The crime of guilt by association throughout the family is so corrosive that, sadly and tragically, they will not dare to raise their heads above the parapet.
My hon. Friend obviously speaks from experience, having talked to the diaspora about this point.
I conclude with the words of the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, who has warned that in looking at what was happening in the DPRK,
“insufficient attention was being paid to the kind of horrific and sustained human rights violations”
that were going on there. Her conclusion was that
“there can no longer be any excuses”
for ignoring that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to his work, and that of the all-party group on North Korea, in raising the profile of human rights issues in DPRK and seeking to give North Koreans, wherever they are, a voice. I also thank the Conservative party human rights commission for the report it released earlier today, called “Unparalleled and Unspeakable”, which makes harrowing reading. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), as I have done before, on her work in this respect.
I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to Church groups, non-governmental organisations and fellow parliamentarians for continuing to raise this issue and shining some light, as I have said before, on this dark, dark place.
The issue of human rights in North Korea has occupied a great deal of my time. I discussed it only yesterday with our ambassador to Pyongyang, who will also meet the all-party group next week. As I have said before to this House, and in two written ministerial statements in February and March respectively, I believe that the situation in North Korea is without equal in its scale and brutality. No one who has read Lord Alton’s book, “Building Bridges”, can fail to be moved by the suffering of North Korea’s people, or to recognise the urgent need to end this suffering.
Of course, the Government also have wider objectives in DPRK. We remain deeply concerned about the development of nuclear and ballistic missile programmes pursued in wilful disregard of UN Security Council resolutions. The DPRK’s behaviour poses a threat to regional stability and to the global non-proliferation regime, and its willingness to sell conventional arms to anyone who will pay fuels conflict around the world. Nevertheless, we have not allowed this to distract us from challenging the DPRK on its human rights record.
The UK played an active role in supporting the commission of inquiry, hosting a visit that allowed DPRK refugees in the UK to provide evidence to it. I myself met Justice Kirby on that visit. It is deeply regrettable that he has been subjected to personal abuse from the regime in Pyongyang. Following the commission’s report in February, I issued a statement welcoming the spotlight it shone on appalling human rights violations and called upon the DPRK Government to address them urgently.
We worked with the EU, Japan and others to ensure that the UN Human Rights Council adopted a strong resolution, recommending that the commission’s report be forwarded to the UN Security Council for consideration of appropriate action, including referral to an appropriate international justice mechanism. I have made it clear that, ultimately, the UK sees the International Criminal Court as the most appropriate option for this.
We took a similarly strong position in New York last month, when the commission gave an informal briefing to UN Security Council members—the first time members of the Security Council have ever considered DPRK human rights—although both China and Russia were notable for their absence. Again, we took a tough line at the DPRK’s universal periodic review on 1 May, using our role as a member of the troika to counter any exaggeration of DPRK engagement with the review’s recommendations.
We will continue to keep the spotlight on North Korea: when the DPRK special rapporteur, Marzuki Darusman, presents his report to the Human Rights Council in June; when Ministers meet at the UN General Assembly in September; and through a tough UN General Assembly resolution in the autumn.
With an UNGA resolution behind us, we could work with like-minded partners to gather the nine votes necessary to put DPRK human rights on the Security Council’s agenda, but we are realistic about the prospects for holding individuals to account before an international justice mechanism, at least in the short term, because the DPRK is not a signatory to the Rome statute and a referral to the International Criminal Court requires a UN Security Council resolution, as would the creation of an ad hoc tribunal. We expect both would be blocked by China and Russia. However, that does not mean that we should give up. We will continue to work to change the position of those members of the international community—and there are too many of them—who will not condemn the DPRK’s human rights record. The DPRK’s response to the commission of inquiry’s report shows it is sensitive to international criticism, so we will ensure there is no let-up. We all have a part to play in that.
We will also pursue another of the commission’s recommendations, endorsed by the Human Rights Council, which is the creation of a new body to continue the commission’s work of documenting human rights violations, so that when conditions allow for criminal investigations, as they surely will, there will be up-to-date, credible evidence for prosecutors.
Alongside our efforts to ensure that DPRK human rights remain high on the international agenda, the UK will continue to use our policy of critical engagement to raise our concerns directly with the North Korean authorities. Critical engagement means robust exchanges that leave our DPRK contacts in no doubt about our views, not least about their appalling human rights violations. It means raising specific cases, like the 33 people reportedly sentenced to death for alleged contact with Kim Jong-uk, a South Korean national who entered the DPRK for missionary purposes and has been convicted on charges of espionage. It means reminding the DPRK that, in the modern world, even it cannot keep its misdeeds hidden and that, if the rest of the world really is wrong about its political prison camps—its gulags—it has the means to disprove the claims by providing access to independent observers. Those we speak to may be able to do no more than repeat standard lines, but what we say is repeated up the chain to those with real power. We are expanding our engagement, but we are doing so cautiously, not least because we do not want to give the impression of rewarding the DPRK when there is nothing to reward.
For example, we took an important step earlier this year when we accredited a non-resident defence attaché to Pyongyang and gave the DPRK attaché in Moscow similar status. That process is opening up new opportunities for engagement with a different part of the DPRK system, opaque though that system may be. We have also provided training to improve DPRK officials’ understanding of international economic standards. Also, through our contacts with NGOs, the all-party group on North Korea and DPRK refugees, we are ready to consider how we can support others who want to engage directly with the DPRK.
Critical engagement means finding ways to inform DPRK citizens, especially officials and others with influence, about the UK and its values, so that they recognise the benefits of working with the outside world rather than remaining isolated. This is a policy aimed at long-term, incremental change. We are honest enough to acknowledge that nothing the UK says or does will lead to any improvement in the immediate future.
However, we have a responsibility to use our embassy in Pyongyang to do the things that many of our partners cannot do, so as to exploit what the US special envoy for human rights in the DPRK, Ambassador Bob King, described to me in a meeting we had in London last week as our “advantage”, and to take forward the commission of inquiry’s recommendation that states and civil society organisations foster opportunities for dialogue and contact in areas such as culture, good governance and economic development.
For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) said, through the British Council and educational immersion programmes, we have provided thousands of North Koreans with their first access to a foreigner and an understanding of British culture and values. Sustained engagement by the UK and other European countries, and by NGOs, has resulted in modest improvements in the treatment of disabled people, with a particular boost being given by the participation for the first time of a DPRK athlete in the Paralympic games when they were held in London in 2012. I met that athlete myself.
Several Members from all parties have again raised—quite rightly—the introduction of a BBC World Service Korean-language programme, which would be a further way for us to inform DPRK citizens about the outside world. As hon. Members know, and must accept, the BBC World Service is operationally, managerially and editorially independent. Nevertheless, we kept in close contact with it during its review last year, which we believe to have been a thorough consideration of all the options. Although the World Service board concluded that it was not currently possible to offer a meaningful and cost-effective Korean-language service, it has undertaken to keep that decision under review. We have passed on to the BBC the report from the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, “An Unmet Need”. We understand that the BBC will complete its response to the report in the next few weeks. We will continue to engage with the BBC and bring to its attention any changes in circumstances that might affect its assessment of the viability of a Korean-language service. As hon. Members have already said, the Foreign Secretary has to agree to new BBC World Service programmes. However, it is rightly and properly for the BBC itself to make proposals to him in the first instance. That may just sound like a sequencing issue, but it is an important distinction and one that Members must respect.
Many other issues were raised in the debate, but alas, in my remaining minute I do not have time to address them. Let me conclude by reiterating the Government’s desire, which is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, to see concrete progress on alleviating the appalling human rights situation in North Korea, on ending the climate of impunity and on bringing those responsible to account. I would just say that—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Streeter.
I am delighted to have secured this debate today on a vital issue for my constituents. As I will discuss shortly, the proposed allocation of safeguarded land by the local authority in my area is causing profound concern among many of my constituents.
Despite the transformative impact that it has on the nation’s countryside, the term “safeguarded land” appears only three times in the national planning policy framework; all three references are in paragraph 85. This somewhat confusing phrase is first used when the boundaries of a green belt are defined. Local planning authorities should
“where necessary, identify in their plans areas of ‘safeguarded land’ between the urban area and the Green Belt, in order to meet longer-term development needs stretching well beyond the plan period”.
Crucially, the NPPF states that local authorities should safeguard land only “where necessary”. Therefore, it is clearly not a requirement that land should be safeguarded for development, despite some local authorities being convinced otherwise.
I myself could not make that point any better than the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), did in a previous Westminster Hall debate. He said that,
“there is nothing in the Localism Act 2011, in the NPPF or in any aspect of Government planning policy that requires someone to plan beyond 15 years. So, anybody who is suggesting that there is any requirement to safeguard land or wrap it up in wrapping paper and ribbons for the future development between 2030 and 2050 is getting it wrong. There is no reason for it and my hon. Friend can knock that suggestion straight back to wherever it came from.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 193WH.]
I can entirely appreciate the rationale behind allowing local authorities the option—I stress the word “option”—to “safeguard land”. However, I am deeply concerned that this policy is being abused by certain local authorities in an effort to undermine the permanence of the green belt, which, as we all know, underpins this country’s entire planning system.
In order to illustrate that point, I will refer to a specific example of what is currently happening in my constituency. The City of York council is now just over a year into the process of formulating and adopting a local plan. When the council announced its initial proposals this time last year, I was contacted by hundreds of constituents who were horrified at the sheer scale of the development being proposed, and at the amount of green-belt land that would be lost for ever as a result. The initial draft of the local plan proposed 22,000 new homes during the 15-year life of the plan, including 16,000 new homes on approximately 1,400 acres of what is currently York’s established green belt. Not content with fundamentally altering the nature of York, which is a historic cathedral city, the council proposed to encircle the city with up to 40 wind farms and 80 pitches for Travellers and show people, all of which would be constructed on the green belt.
For good measure, the council then decided to safeguard a further 1,000 acres of green-belt land for future development. In the past few weeks, it has moved to the next stage of adopting its local plan and it has published a “Further Sites” document that contains proposals for new developments and revised boundaries. While the council’s revisions have resulted in recommendations to decrease some of the existing safeguarded allocations, the new safeguarded sites mean that the council is proposing a net increase of 162 acres of safeguarded land, which is land taken out of the green belt. That flies in the face of opposition from the rural communities surrounding York in my constituency which, quite frankly, are being ignored.
Some may wonder why that is of such concern to many of my constituents, given that safeguarded land is not intended for development in the immediate future. Indeed, paragraph 85 of the national planning policy framework states that local authorities should
“make clear that the safeguarded land is not allocated for development at the present time.”
My concern, however, is that once land has been removed from the green belt, it is effectively lost, gone for ever as development is practically guaranteed to occur on the site at some point in future. Although local authorities are encouraged to make it clear that safeguarded land is not currently available for development, I fear that, sadly, some weak-willed local authorities may sacrifice the long-term interests of local residents for short-term gain by permitting development ahead of schedule.
Again, there is an example in my constituency. I need only point to one of the council’s most recent proposals that is causing anxiety among constituents in the village of Earswick. In the new proposal for a 220-acre block of safeguarded land to the east of the village, which would see the village triple in size, the council recommends:
“To include this site as safeguarded land within the Local Plan. This reflects concerns over access and the creation of a sustainable neighbourhood.”
That seems innocent, but the local plan goes on to state:
“If these concerns can be overcome part of this land could potentially be considered as an allocation for years 1-15 of the Plan.”
The proposal has only just been announced, and already the council is trying to work out how it can develop the land ahead of schedule. It is inexplicable how, if there are already concerns on sustainability and access, the site can be proposed for long-term future development, let alone for construction within the 15-year plan period.
The crux of the problem is contained in paragraph 85 of the national planning policy framework:
“Planning permission for the permanent development of safeguarded land should only be granted following a Local Plan review which proposes the development”.
My understanding is that, once adopted, a local plan must be reviewed every five years. Such reviews provide local authorities with endless opportunities to revise existing site boundaries, propose safeguarded land for development and allocate further land for future expansion.
In short, promises to local residents can easily be broken. The five-year local plan review also effectively removes the local authority’s need to safeguard land in the first place. Why should local authorities plan for development beyond the 15-year life of the plan when there is no means of accurately identifying the community’s needs that far in the future? After all, local plans are supposed to be supported by a robust evidence base. I fail to see how cast-iron evidence detailing the housing and employment needs in 20 to 30 years’ time can be achieved. A far more appropriate course of action is to continue reassessing the housing requirements of our local communities throughout the plan’s life and address additional need as and when it arises. That pragmatic and common-sense alternative avoids the risk of unnecessarily concreting over thousands of acres of green-belt land.
I call on City of York council to remove the completely pointless allocations of safeguarded land from its draft local plan before it progresses any further. I strongly believe that my constituents should not be forced to live under the shadow of these needless development proposals on their doorstep. It is only right and proper that the council should reflect on the concern it has caused in so many communities on the outskirts of York.
If it is the case that safeguarded land is not a requirement for any local authority, the Government should be doing more to communicate that message to local authorities. There clearly remains some confusion about the nature of safeguarded land, what it is for and what its position within the local plan process should be. If we are to achieve a coherent and joined-up series of local plans across the country that promotes sustainable development while protecting green-belt land, there must be absolutely no confusion about what is required in the plans.
My hon. Friend is doing an excellent job of highlighting the concerns in his local area, where the Labour-run City of York council is using the neighbourhood plan possibly to build on green-belt land. Does he agree that it may be a good idea to name and shame councils nationally by publishing what they are doing with their plans and highlighting the councils that are putting green-belt land at risk?
I thank my hon. Friend for his timely intervention. He is right that this is of such public importance that there is no harm in putting such information into the public domain. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. For anything such as this, having more information out there means that people can make informed decisions. That is part of the problem with safeguarded land, because people do not fully understand it. The confusion means that people are not participating in the consultation process of my local authority in York.
I, too, thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of safeguarded land. In my area, Labour-run Kirklees council has provisional open land, and our local plan is probably two years from completion. I have communities in Upperthong, Meltham, Linthwaite, Netherthong and Lindley whose local wishes are being steamrollered by housing developments in areas that, to all intents and purposes, are green belt. I agree with the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore). Does my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) agree that councils need to provide more detail on where their local plans are and to use more accurate designations so that things such as safeguarded land and provisional open land are either green-belt or development land? Such land is currently between the two.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who I know is a sturdy campaigner in his constituency. As I said earlier, it is about having clear definitions so that the public at large are aware of what local authorities propose. Different local authorities propose different things in their local plans. My local authority in York proposes something that I think is fundamentally wrong for our great city. We need to ensure that there is clarity in the process so that everyone can make an informed choice and decision and take part in this important public consultation period as local authorities put together their local plans for the next 15 years.
The Minister may recall that in a debate I secured on York’s green belt this time last year, I called on the Government to reconsider the terminology used for safeguarded land due to the confusion it causes. When the council’s local plan was first announced, many of my constituents were wrongly under the impression that these massive blocks of land were safeguarded from development, rather than safeguarded for development. The problem clearly still exists in many parts of my constituency, where the reality of the proposals has yet to sink in fully. Although I will continue to do my best to ensure that no one is under any illusion as to what “safeguarded land” really is and what City of York council intends to do with it, I urge the Government to review the terminology to prevent such confusion limiting community involvement in challenging unsustainable development proposals.
If we truly want our local communities to have a greater say on planning and development policies as part of the Government’s wider commitment to localism, we must ensure that our constituents are equipped with the information they need to take on that role, rather than isolating them from the process by using unhelpful jargon. My understanding is that, before the introduction of the national planning policy framework, safeguarded land was known as reserved land, which is a much more appropriate name. I hope the Minister will reconsider the terminology.
Finally, I will reflect on the Opposition’s deeply flawed planning policy and what it might mean for our countryside if they were ever to put that policy into practice. My fear is that the Labour-run City of York council’s draft local plan and its emphasis on construction at the expense of any other considerations, such as the green belt and sustainability—perfectly illustrated by the vast amount of safeguarded land put aside in that plan—is a clear indication of what is to come nationally if Labour is elected to power in 2015. I was absolutely aghast to learn that York council has signed up our historic cathedral city to be one of Labour’s “right to grow” cities. We can be in little doubt that under a Labour Government the beautiful countryside surrounding York will be swallowed up by unrestricted development, and the legitimate concerns and protests of the surrounding communities will, I fear, be cast aside. I have no qualms in saying that localism, which has been one of the Government’s defining principles and has provided the inspiration behind an incredibly successful programme of reforms, is under great threat.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these important issues on safeguarded land in local plans on behalf of my constituents. I reiterate my calls for the withdrawal of safeguarded allocations from York’s draft plan and for a more pragmatic approach to long-term development in York. I also call on the Government to do all they can to ensure that all local authorities are fully aware that safeguarded land is not a requirement under the NPPF. At the same time, I would be pleased to hear the Minister comment on whether the Government will reconsider the terminology used for safeguarded land. That terminology is so important, and it is misleading.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I fear that we might be interrupted by the Division bell, so I will try to address the points raised so quickly that we might sneak in under the wire, although I am not entirely confident that I can achieve that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate on a matter of intense importance to his constituents. He has raised the matter with me in debates such as this, in the Division Lobby, in the cafeterias, in the Tea Room and on every opportunity he has had. I have absolutely no doubt of the importance of the matter to his constituents or of his desire to represent them fully in the process of producing an acceptable local plan for York. If I may—I hope he will understand—I will not make any reference to the York plan or the particular issues relating to York, because it would be improper for me to do so. I hope that by talking about the general policy issues, it might be possible for him to take some comfort and some information for the benefit of his communities.
The green belt and the protection of green-belt land are of enormous importance to the Government. That is why the national planning policy framework has repeated in very clear terms the very high levels of protection that apply to green-belt land. I can state clearly that there has never been a time when the protections of green-belt land have been clearer or more explicit in national policy than now.
I want to ask the Minister about the best and most versatile agricultural land being specifically singled out for extra protection. We have a big issue in Bristol with the plans to tarmac over grade 1 agricultural land. Is it not important that we protect the best soil for growing food, rather than use it for other purposes? It simply cannot be replaced elsewhere.
The hon. Lady has singled out another category of land where the preservation of current use is given great priority—the highest quality agricultural land. The national planning policy framework is clear that, to the extent that greenfield land has to be allocated for development—unfortunately, some does—less high quality agricultural land should be preferred and that grade 1 agricultural land, which is the highest quality, should be preserved for agriculture where at all possible.
To return to green-belt protections, the national planning policy framework is clear on the importance of those protections, the permanence of green-belt land and its role in preserving the openness of the countryside and in preventing settlements from merging.
I want to reiterate what the Minister is saying about the green belt for my constituency of Kingswood. Before the 2010 general election, there were several applications to build on green-belt land. Since 2010, there has not been a single application to build on the green belt in Kingswood. It is clear that the NPPF is working well. I would, however, like the Minister’s comments on the possibility of a future Government’s “right to grow” policy, which would be disastrous for our local area. It would be the greatest threat to the green belt in 30 years if Bristol was allowed to ride roughshod over the wishes of south Gloucestershire residents.
This Government’s policy is clear: we want to achieve locally arrived at, co-operative solutions to difficult problems, rather than having top-down Government imposition of solutions or one authority being able to ride roughshod over another. Everyone in our communities has a right to a voice, but that does not mean that any of us can entirely abdicate responsibility for difficult decisions, such as fulfilling the housing needs of future generations. We all deserve to have our voices heard and we all deserve to be part of that solution. We are keen to ensure that, so far as possible, the future development needs of our country are met without threatening the protection of the green belt, of grade 1 agricultural land and of our most beautiful countryside with other designations.
That said, it has always been the case—there is no change in this—that local authorities can revise their green-belt boundaries through a local plan process involving intense consultation with local people. There are a number of communities around the country that are doing just that. It is painful and difficult, and it is right that it happens through an intensely transparent, open and democratic process that takes into account all the opinions expressed by all the different communities affected.
When it does that exercise, the local authority has to pass a very high test: it has to be able to demonstrate that exceptional circumstances justify taking a particular site out of the green belt or redrawing a green-belt boundary, perhaps to swap land currently in the green belt for land that is not, but is of greater environmental importance. Those are the kinds of arguments that local authorities need to bring forward and the kinds of evidence they need to provide to satisfy a planning inspector that any such proposal is reasonable. I do not criticise any council that is going down that road, because it is right that it, as the duly elected local authority, should be able to. The local authority must, however, go openly and transparently into that process with evidence and after a great deal of consultation.
I turn to the particular issue of safeguarded land. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer that it is an often misunderstood concept. I have to confess that for several months at the beginning of my time in this post, I, too, was somewhat confused about whether it was “safeguarded for” or “safeguarded from”. He makes a good point about the terminology being—it is not deliberate—rather baffling to people. “Safeguarded” seems to suggest protection, rather than an allocation for future development needs.
I commit to my hon. Friend that we will go away and look at the simple question of the terminology and whether there could be better wording. When the national planning policy framework is reviewed, whether we can better clarify that wording will be on the agenda. The concept of safeguarded land as land that is reserved, as he put it, for the possibility of future development needs beyond the life of the plan being laid out has a good justification in some cases. It has a good justification for the following reason: if future development needs are likely to require further difficult choices about some sites in the green belt, it is better to be clear that certain sites might some day have to have their status reviewed, than to have the entire green belt under some abstract possible future threat.
The reason behind the safeguarding terminology is the idea that by clarifying where the future might lead it is made clear that there are some permanently protected places. In some sense, therefore, more reassurance is gained than uncertainty created about what is being protected for ever.
My hon. Friend is completely right, however, that safeguarding is not a requirement for every local authority with green-belt land. It is something that it can choose to do, but only if necessary. If the plan that it puts forward has provisions to meet housing needs in full and if other sites are available for potential future development beyond the life of the plan, it may well be that safeguarding land is unnecessary. He has asked me before, and I have been happy to confirm, that while we want all communities to embrace growth, a vaulting ambition is not a sufficient justification for threatening protected land. Need is an important factor and can be a contributor to the exceptional circumstances that might justify some potential revision of a site’s protected status. Ambition and the desire to grow faster than one’s neighbours or perhaps to build a small empire is not a sufficient justification for putting protections at risk. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is only if it is necessary that an authority should consider the possibility of designating some safeguarded land.
Given that local authorities must act carefully and with evidence; that safeguarding is not mandatory and authorities should use it only if necessary; that we are happy to examine the terminology to clarify that such land is not safeguarded for ever and is reserved because of an evidence base for potential future need; and that the rest of the green belt is not subject to such possibilities, I hope that my hon. Friend will have something to take back to his constituents.
GP Services (Tower Hamlets)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Streeter. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for affording me the opportunity to hold this debate, to the Minister for being here to listen and respond and to my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for taking an interest and supporting the debate.
My remarks are designed to defend Tower Hamlets GP services. I am a great admirer of all that they have achieved, especially over the past 15 years. I called for this debate for three reasons. The first is to find out more about the nature of the problem facing GP services in Tower Hamlets. The second is to determine whether the Government accept that there is a problem. The third is, hopefully, to identify a solution.
The picture is confused and many aspects must be considered, but the real concern is that primary care budgets are being cut, and not only in Tower Hamlets. In response to my written question about average annual changes to GP income in Tower Hamlets, the Minister stated that there would be
“a decrease of £184,000 spread across 21 GMS practices.”—[Official Report, 6 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 126W.]
However, The Guardian has reported that the Jubilee Street practice alone
“will be down £77,263 by the end of 2014-15”
and that it had “already lost £30,000 QOF”—quality and outcomes framework—
“income last year and will lose its £219,508 a year MPIG allocation incrementally over the next seven years—the accumulated loss due to MPIG alone amounting to over £903,000.”
The figures do not add up.
As well as the Jubilee Street surgery, four other practices in Tower Hamlets are reported to be part of the 98 surgeries facing closure, but we do not know where they are. Will the Minister commit to publish a list of those surgeries and to place that list in the House of Commons Library?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking the Minister that question and look forward to his response.
The Jubilee Street and St Katharine Docks practices are the two main affected surgeries in my constituency. They are professional, efficient and well-loved and respected by patients. Jubilee Street says that if its proposals to solve the dilemma are not addressed and no agreement is reached, it will have to give notice of closure by October this year.
Today, I accompanied my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), my colleagues in the shadow health team, on a visit to Jubilee Street to see first hand the problem. At the same time, we launched Labour’s NHS pledge on GP appointments within 48 hours, which I am sure the Minister has noted. What is causing the problem? I will be grateful for the Minister’s views. Is it the shift from deprivation indices to age in the new allocation funding formula from 2012? Is it the elimination of a percentage of the QOF indicators? Is it the seven-year phase out of the minimum income practice guarantee?
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I had just asked the Minister three questions relating to what he thinks might be causing the problems confronting our GP practices. The fourth is whether it is because of the range of different contracts negotiated over the past decade, awarding different levels of funding for numbers of patients to different practices; and the fifth is whether it is because there is a shift of funding away from primary care, and, if so, where the money is going. Some 90% of NHS contact with patients is through primary care, but it receives less than 10% of the NHS spend, a point I will come back to later.
I would also be grateful if the Minister indicated who makes the decisions. Practices, in discussion with the local clinical commissioning group and NHS England, have been unable to identify exactly who determines the funding levels. Obviously, it is NHS England that implements ministerial policy, which is why I have an outstanding request to speak to the Minister responsible, who I understand is the noble Earl Howe. I have briefly mentioned that request to the Minister, who kindly said that he would pass on the message and reinforce the request that we have made directly to his office. I would like to have that meeting, and would be accompanied by clinicians and practice managers from Tower Hamlets to put the case.
Tower Hamlets primary care has much to be proud of in the past 15 years; at one point it was the fastest improving primary care trust in the UK. Practices such as Jubilee Street have cupboards full of awards. When I was first elected in 1997, complaints about NHS services and GP practices were numerous and regular, but they disappeared due to the investment by the Labour Government over many years and the dedication and professionalism of clinicians and staff in primary and secondary care.
My own GP practice in Ettrick street on the Aberfeldy estate in E14 is a great example of that first-class service and improvement; I thought that I had better mention it, because if the staff there knew that I was complimenting other practices but left out Dr Phillip Bennett-Richards, Dr Sarah Pitkanen and their colleagues, they would be mightily disappointed.
The local worry is that all that is about to change. Not only have Labour stalwarts such as London assembly member John Biggs—our mayoral candidate—and Councillor Rachael Saunders been on the issue, but local Conservative councillors have been expressing concerns, so the issue is not party political in that sense. I attended a meeting last week at the Mile End hospital with nearly 100 people and many GPs in attendance. I have had numerous e-mails from constituents concerned about what is going on, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has, too. There are petitions with hundreds and hundreds of signatures springing up all over Tower Hamlets.
All that is against the background of increased pressure. The British Medical Association has said:
“It is estimated that 340 million consultations are undertaken every year. This is up 40 million since 2008.”
As I mentioned, it also said:
“Over 90% of all contacts with the NHS occur in general practice.”
The then-chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Dr Clare Gerada, called for
“an urgent increase in general practice’s share of the NHS budget from 9% to 10% so that 10,000 more GPs could be hired, in order to make GPs’ work loads sustainable.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in a borough such as Tower Hamlets, with high levels of health inequalities, the fact that people cannot get GP appointments for days on end is scandalous? It will devastate people’s lives further and actually cost more, particularly by putting pressure on accident and emergency services while we are having an A and E crisis.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that the Minister also agrees that if we can treat people in general practice and prevent them from going to A and E, that is a much more efficient use of NHS resources. Her point is valid.
The House of Commons Library has produced for me a table of data on GP funding, which
“shows a shift on the share of funding for general practice from 10% in 2005-06 to 8.3% in 2012-13. The real terms change in spending over the past three years shows a fall of £432 million”.
At the same time, there has been an equivalent
“annual percentage decrease of 2.1% per year”
in GPs’ salaries through the same period.
So there we have it. There has been a 40 million increase in appointments but cuts in the share of the NHS budget; a significant real-terms fall in salaries; huge variation in funding at local level; and crises affecting many local practices in my constituency—some looking at closure, which would be a disaster for some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
I want not just to return to the Jubilee Street practice but to take the issue wider. The NHS deputy head of primary care for north central and east London, Rylla Baker, recently wrote:
“The situation has, unfortunately, developed further and we met with the Jubilee street practice earlier this week. Although the situation with the loss of MPIG”—
the minimum practice income guarantee—
“is, for most practices manageable, when the practices take into account other changes in funding that impact on them, the cumulative impact is significantly greater and practices such as Jubilee Street have said that if there is no mitigation against the loss the practice will not be viable… I have copied in Neil Roberts, Head of Primary Care for North Central and East London and Jane Milligan from the CCG as discussions are ongoing about the best way forward. It is also relevant to point out that this is an issue that is not limited to Tower Hamlets.”
We are hearing of numbers of practices in Hackney and Newham, two other impoverished boroughs, that are facing similar problems.
The Royal College of General Practitioners has said:
“In total, the phasing out of a key NHS funding stream called the Minimum Practice Income Guarantee…could affect a total 1,700 practices with the care of 12.2 m patients potentially under serious threat.”
I know that the Minister is deputising for his colleague Earl Howe—that is why I would like a face-to-face meeting with Earl Howe, or indeed with the Secretary of State—but I am keen to hear his response to the points I have raised. I am sure he has some information and data for us.
In Tower Hamlets, we have some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the United Kingdom. There is the lowest life expectancy, on average, of anywhere in the UK. It is estimated that between 10% and 12% of residents are not registered on GP lists. Now, this crisis is coming to a head. I look forward to the Minister’s response, but I look forward more to a proper meeting with Earl Howe or with the Secretary of State, and I look forward most to arriving at a solution for the patients, the staff and the clinicians, so that we can protect and continue to provide first-class primary care services in Tower Hamlets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, for what I believe is now the third time, and to respond to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) not only on securing the debate but on his advocacy on behalf of local patients. We have discussed that before during meetings in my office in the Department on other issues. I am sure that my noble Friend Earl Howe will be happy to meet him, and I extend that invitation on my noble Friend’s behalf.
I apologise for intervening so early, but I do not remember having any meetings with the Minister in his office on any subject. I would not want to mislead the House, or for people to think that we had held meetings in which I had not raised this issue.
A congregation of MPs from London came to see me and I believed that the hon. Gentleman had been there, but I am obviously mistaken. I apologise for that mistake, but I can recall similar conversations in the past during meetings with other MPs from other parts of the country, in which we talked about not just GP services but other local health care services of a similar nature. During those meetings there was advocacy of similar strength to that which we have heard today.
Indeed, a previous debate in Westminster Hall, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), focused on the impact of the minimum practice income guarantee changes on more rural practices in his constituency. The topic has come to the fore for many hon. Members, who I know will wish to discuss it further with the relevant Minister. I therefore want to put on record a formal invitation to come and see my noble Friend Earl Howe to discuss the subject further at some point after this debate.
It may be helpful if I outline why the minimum practice income guarantee was set up in the first place and why it is important to change the payment structure for general practice. The minimum practice income guarantee is a top-up payment to some general medical services—GMS—practices. It was introduced as part of the 2004 GP contract to smooth transition to what were then new funding arrangements, so it is now 10 years out of date. Last year, we announced that the minimum practice income guarantee will start to be phased out from April 2014. We consider minimum practice income guarantee payments to be inequitable because under the system, two surgeries in the same area serving similar populations may be paid different amounts of money per registered patient.
The MPIG will be phased out over a seven-year period, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse will know. We are phasing it out to make sure that there is more equity between what different practices in comparable areas receive per patient, and that funding follows the patient more accurately, rather than the practice. I am sure we can all sign up to that in principle. The payments will be phased out gradually with the overall intention that the funding for GP practices will be properly matched to the number of patients they serve and the health needs of the local population.
The money released by phasing out the MPIG will be reinvested in the basic payments made to all general medical services practices. Those payments are based on numbers of patients and key determinants of practice work load such as patients’ ages and health needs—deprivation is of course a driver of patients’ health needs. We are committed to making sure that patients have access to high-quality GP services wherever they live and ensuring that in the same geographical area similar practices receive effectively the same amount of funding for each patient they look after.
It is also worth highlighting the overall impact for practices, both in the country more generally and in London in particular. NHS England has undertaken analysis regarding the withdrawal of the MPIG. Inevitably, a small number of practices will lose funding, and NHS England has considered the very small number of significant outlier practices for which alternative arrangements may need to be made to ensure appropriate services are maintained for local people.
We appreciate that this is a matter of concern for some practices, including some in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency that he has mentioned today. That is why we have decided to use the next seven years to implement the changes to the MPIG, introducing them gradually through a phased transition to a new funding arrangement, rather than taking a big bang approach. Phasing the changes in over that seven-year period will allow the minority of practices that lose funding to adjust more gradually to the reduction in payments.
As the hon. Gentleman highlighted in his remarks, the changes cannot be seen in isolation but should be looked at together with the changes to the quality and outcomes framework payments for GP practices; those changes need to be set alongside the global sum paid to GMS practices. When all those factors are put together, I understand that practices in London with a GMS contract, of which there are 721, will see an overall funding increase of £731,000 resulting from the net effect of all the changes. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to outline that in detail ahead of his meeting with my noble Friend Earl Howe.
When we have that meeting with Lord Howe, it would be useful if NHS England could provide the Minister and his officials with an accurate breakdown of figures for the practices in Tower Hamlets. Given the order of deprivation, the chronic ailments and conditions, the age profiles of very elderly and very young people, and the language problems, even NHS England, as I quoted, is saying that the combination of changes to the minimum practice income guarantee and the quality and outcomes framework reductions is creating specific difficulties in Tower Hamlets that are not generally replicated across the rest of London.
I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman after the debate to outline the more general points, and I am sure that we can ensure that more specific details are available for him to discuss in his meeting with my noble Friend Earl Howe. NHS England has made it clear that it has been looking carefully at how it can support the practices that are most affected, through its area teams, and I am sure that it will be happy to continue a dialogue with local practices and with the hon. Gentleman to work out how further local support could be given if some practices are struggling as a result of the changes. That offer has been made to those practices that have already been identified as most affected, but NHS England is continually reviewing the matter as a pathway process for phasing in the changes.
NHS England has also suggested that those practices with very small lists, which may be particularly affected, could collaborate through federating, networking or merging with other practices nearby to provide more cost-effective services. It also suggested that it would be possible to identify other ways in which practices might improve cost efficiency, such as reviewing staffing structures and other commissioning or contracting options—for example, how some patient care services are offered in the area by collaboration. Sometimes, back office costs and inefficiencies can be reduced to free up more money for patient care. We must remember that, on the whole, GP practices are small businesses in their own right. We expect NHS England to work with GPs to support best practice and technology, and to encourage general practices to collaborate and work together, and it is happy to do so. It is expected that general practices will do what they can to help themselves, and that NHS England will work with them to facilitate that for them as small business owners.
I recognise that there is some logic in the Minister’s suggestion about smaller practices. The Jubilee Street practice has 13,000 patients. It is a big practice and is multi-handed with clinicians and staffing, and is considered to be extremely efficiently run.
Indeed. I will talk in more detail about Tower Hamlets, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that it has a long history of collaboration, efficiently run practices and good working between GPs and other community health services to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society and to address specific issues of health care and equality. The hon. Gentleman outlined that in his speech and local GPs should be proud of what they have done and their work and efforts in many cases to help deliver greater efficiencies. Nevertheless, the offer is there from NHS England to engage with area teams to see what more support can be provided. It is keen to ensure that if particular practices believe they are disadvantaged, the teams will do what they can to work with the practices to mitigate that.
It is worth talking briefly about the changes in the quality and outcomes framework. In addition to the minimum practice income guarantee from April this year, we have also made changes to QOF and reduced it by more than a third to free up space and time for GPs to provide more proactive and personalised care for their patients, particularly the frail elderly. One of the great frustrations that we are all aware of—medical staff, health care staff and particularly GPs—has been the amount of bureaucracy that GPs are sometimes required to undertake, which has got in the way of their being able to deliver front-line patient care and spend time with patients. The changes to QOF were welcomed by the British Medical Association and GPs because they will help reduce the bureaucratic burden and allow GPs to spend more time with patients and focus more on personalised care and more vulnerable patient groups. I think we all believe that to be a good thing and a great achievement from those GP contract negotiations.
As part of the QOF changes, we have retired indicators when they were either duplicating other incentives in the health care system, or were of low clinical value and use—for example, if they were just process measures rather than measures linked directly to patient care. We are ensuring that the payment system is strongly linked to delivering better care and improving care for patients rather than to process measures. That has sometimes been a criticism of QOF payments in the past, not least by GPs. Removal of these indicators will help to reduce bureaucracy, unnecessary patient testing and unnecessary frequency of patient recall and recording.
The money released from the changes to QOF will be reinvested in the basic payments made to all general medical services practices, to which I alluded earlier. The global sum will be reinvested through the GP contract and I understand that practices in London with a general medical services contract will overall be net beneficiaries to the tune of roughly £700,000. We welcome that, and I will give the exact figures in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that what I have said in this debate is an accurate reflection of the situation.
I turn to Tower Hamlets and will address some of the concerns that have been raised in the debate today. We understand that some practices have particular concerns about the changes to the minimum practice income guarantee and to QOF funding. I assure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that the Government and NHS England are committed to ensuring that good, high quality primary care for local people, such as his constituents, is a priority. I understand that despite being one of the most deprived boroughs in London, Tower Hamlets has developed some outstanding general practices often as a result of the hard work and dedication of the GPs who want to address health care needs, to look after vulnerable people in society, and to ensure that the health care inequalities that we have discussed are properly addressed. His local GPs and all health care staff delivering care on the ground should be proud of that.
As the hon. Gentleman outlined, Tower Hamlets is top in the country for blood pressure and cholesterol control for patients with diabetes, resulting in reduced complications of diabetes and reduced admissions for heart attacks. It is also top in London for MMR vaccination and for flu vaccination for the over 65s. That is an example of how, even in one of the most deprived areas with some of the greatest health care needs, local GPs, local primary care and local community care are delivering very good results for patients. It is also one of the 14 national pioneers for integrated care, a programme in which primary care will play an increasingly important role. We want to keep people out of hospital and it is vital that they are supported in their own homes and communities. Integrating primary care with community care and effective adult social services care from the local authority will be key in delivering that.
I understand that NHS England’s area team has set up a task and finish group to look at the support that might be offered to practices with membership drawn from local medical committees and the London office of the clinical commissioning group’s chief officers and the local area primary care commissioning team. I understand that NHS England’s area team in London has been in regular contact with individual practices in Tower Hamlets to offer them ongoing support regarding these changes. I am sure that after this debate, that important input and dialogue will intensify to recognise some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.
We also recognise some of the challenges facing small practices in delivering the increasingly wide range of primary care services as more services move from hospital settings into the community. All health services, hospital trusts, community and mental health care providers, as well as GPs, are facing the challenge of meeting increasing demand with small increases in funding. That demand is coming from an ageing population with increasing levels of long-term conditions as well as the costs of new drugs, and patients’ expectations. Those issues are faced throughout the health service, but they are acute in Tower Hamlets. Local GPs recognise the need for flexibility in the way in which future services are provided and we need to support practices to work together to demonstrate how best to use their resources for the benefit of all their patients.
We have announced that NHS England is supporting practices as they phase in the changes to the minimum practice income guarantee and to QOF payments. There is an offer to meet my noble Friend Lord Howe and I know that NHS England will continue to do what it can to support local practices in Tower Hamlets.
Again, I put on the record my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and to the local GPs who deliver some of the best health care outcomes in England for the patients they look after.
Question put and agreed to.