Thursday 22 October 2015
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the conflict in Yemen.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and I am also very grateful to you, Mr Turner, for presiding over our proceedings today.
When I spoke last spoke on Yemen in Westminster Hall, in February, I said that I had never personally feared for Yemen’s future as I did then. Unfortunately, the crisis in the country is now even worse than could have been imagined a few months ago. I know that Members here today share my concern for this beautiful country, which is one step away from famine and a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale. Today, the all-party group on Yemen released its first ever report on the crisis, and I am extremely grateful to all those organisations that have been involved in preparing that report. I will lay out nine recommendations made in the report, which I believe are necessary and realistic measures that the UK Government can take in an effort to stop the crisis worsening. First, though, I will express what Yemen means to me.
I was born in Aden in Yemen, and left with my mother and sisters in 1965. I look back incredibly fondly on my time there. Yemen is an easy country to fall in love with—the people were so kind to my family when we lived there. I am not alone among MPs in having been born in Yemen. The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) was also born in Aden, and I am very pleased to see her here today. As an officer of the all-party group, she takes a strong interest in the future of the country, as does my sister, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz).
I have returned repeatedly to Yemen, including as chair of the all-party group. When I was last in the country, we were required to sleep under guard in a fortified pod in the embassy grounds; it was the first time that I have slept in the camp-bed of an ambassador. Of course, our embassy in Yemen is now closed and it does not look as though it will open again.
On 20 January this year, Houthi rebels abandoned an agreed political process. They launched an attack on Sana’a, stormed the presidential palace and forced out President Hadi. A coalition of Gulf states and other countries in the region, led by Saudi Arabia, responded to President Hadi’s request for intervention. The coalition began a campaign of air strikes against the Houthi rebels, to
“restore stability to Yemen by crippling the Houthis”
and to facilitate
“returning President…Hadi…back to power”.
The United States, the Arab League, Turkey, Canada, France and the United Kingdom approved of the campaign, following the Houthi rebels’ disregard for the legitimate political process. More than six months on, however, I believe that it is in the interests of all parties to agree to an immediate ceasefire and to end the bombing campaign.
Put simply, Yemen is now in ruins. The damage to the cities of Sana’a and Aden and to civilian infrastructure across Yemen is so significant that in August the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, said that after five months of war in Yemen, the destruction appeared similar to that in Syria after five years of conflict.
The figures on the current crisis are shocking. Aid organisations believe that more than 21 million Yemenis—80% of the population—are in need of food, water and medical aid. That makes Yemen the largest humanitarian crisis in the entire world. The Danish Refugee Council estimates that, as a direct result of the fighting, more than 4,628 people have died and 28,598 people have been injured. Of those killed, 573 were children. On average, 210 people have been killed every week since the end of March. By the end of today, another 30 people will have died. In addition, more than 1.4 million people in Yemen have been internally displaced, raising the risk of a refugee crisis. Before the conflict, there were already more than 600,000 refugees in the country from neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia. The damage to Yemen’s already limited infrastructure makes aid delivery difficult, and it will make post-conflict reconstruction an unimaginable struggle. As a result of the damage, at least 160 healthcare facilities have been closed down across Yemen. A lack of fuel has restricted the use of water pumps, which has left nearly 13 million Yemenis—50% of the population—struggling to find enough clean water to drink or to grow crops.
Despite this situation, Yemen has not received the same level of international, media or public attention as Syria has. The UK Government should ensure that the Yemen crisis is given a higher priority on the global agenda for the provision of emergency aid and the Department for International Development should continue to lead global efforts to provide emergency assistance to the population.
A critical factor in the crisis is the de facto blockade on imports. Saudi and Egyptian forces established a blockade to enforce an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels, as set out in UN Security Council resolution 2216, but the blanket inspection of all ships has brought deliveries of aid and commercial shipping to a grinding halt. Yemen relies on imports for 70% of its fuel requirements, 90% of its food and 100% of its medicine. The UK is in a position to work with the coalition to streamline this process, using a more targeted approach to get shipping flowing much more quickly.
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair today, Mr Turner. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question? If aid reaches somewhere such as Aden, are there not distribution streams to get that aid to where it is required outside the city—up-country, as it used to be called?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is not just about getting aid in, but making sure it gets to the people who need it, and we should work to ensure that the distribution network is effective. There is a number of aid organisations already in Yemen, and we should take their advice on how that should be done. Facilitating the flow of emergency aid would be in the interests of the coalition, because it would help to avoid a famine and economic disaster that the states neighbouring Yemen do not want on their doorstep. The United Kingdom should support the newly announced United Nations verification and identification mission established to ensure that deliveries by sea do not include shipments of arms, but which also speeds up the inspection process. That and a move to targeted inspections would allow vital relief to reach Yemen’s population.
As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) suggested, the delivery of aid within Yemen has also been plagued with problems, as aid workers have faced incredible danger. Since the crisis began, six Yemeni Red Crescent volunteers have been killed while carrying out humanitarian work. Aid offices have been looted and attacked, due to the absence of the rule of law. Organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières struggle to deliver aid across front lines, requiring consent from multiple groups on the ground to do so and facing significant delays and administrative burdens. The United Kingdom should work with both parties to ensure that processes are put into practice that will allow aid to be safely given to those who need it, and so that the distribution of aid throughout Yemen is predictable and unimpeded.
Emergency aid and a better flow of imports will be vital in the short term, but bringing both parties to the negotiating table should be the No. 1 priority of the international community. The UN’s special envoy, Ismail Ahmed, has previously brought the two sides together to agree on temporary ceasefires, but those have been short-lived. Two such ceasefires agreed between 12 and 17 March and 10 and 17 July were broken within hours, with each side blaming the other.
Four factors are blocking a political solution. Neither side has achieved a decisive military victory. There is only limited international pressure on the parties to resolve the conflict. There is a lack of trust between the parties. UN Security Council resolution 2216 has been a stumbling block to negotiations, as it is used by both parties to justify non-participation in peace talks. If resolution 2216 continues to be an impediment to a diplomatic solution, the Security Council should consider a new resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and the free flow of humanitarian supplies into and within Yemen.
We should not forget that in 2011 the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, now Lord Hague, and Minister of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), led the international community in resolving Yemen’s last political crisis. The former ambassador of Yemen, Abdullah al-Radhi, and the current ambassador, Dr Yassin Saeed Noman Ahmed, feel a strong bond with the UK, and the Yemeni Government value our friendship greatly. I agree with the vice chair of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who unfortunately could not join us today, about the long-term settlement needing to be agreed by the Yemenis themselves. We can bring them to the negotiating table, but both sides need to agree to long-term dialogue and restore the terms agreed in the national dialogue conference in January 2014 and the peace and national partnership agreement signed in September 2014.
My right hon. Friend is painting a bleak and depressing picture about Yemen and proposing some measures that he believes may lead to a better situation. Does he share the view of many commentators that this is in fact a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and that the solution lies with talking to those two countries as much as to the warring factions in Yemen?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The regional problems are playing out in Yemen. There is a view that it is a proxy war and that the only way to deal with the situation is to get people to the negotiating table. That is particularly important as we have started a new relationship with Iran. The Iranians should come to the table and help us, if they can.
More than six months into the coalition’s intervention, the conflict is at a critical moment. The Yemeni Foreign Minister, Riad Yassin, who earlier this year met the all-party group and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who I see in his place, initially described the intervention as a “short, sharp campaign”. However, the aerial campaign has been unable to remove the Houthis and the coalition has now escalated its efforts to a ground offensive. The diplomatic and military capital required to continue the conflict has likely gone far beyond what either the Houthis or the coalition would have deemed acceptable when the civil war began. We now stand on the precipice of a dramatic escalation to a messy ground war, which will cause even more harm to the population. The international community therefore has a small window to show that a diplomatic solution would be preferable for all parties. If the conflict is allowed to escalate, there will not be a country left to save.
We are nearing the end. As an arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom has a particular responsibility to take a visible role in bringing hostilities to an end. We need to act now. The UK has an opportunity to be an honest broker and to propose a scaling down of the conflict for humanitarian reasons, offering the coalition and Houthis a way out of further escalation and bloodshed. Amid the current fighting, 30 British citizens and 300 dependents of British citizens are still stranded in the country. The Yemeni diaspora, who are watching this debate and developments, will want to see that we are doing our best. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) have also raised the matter.
There is also the issue of the escalation of Daesh. As it sees the conflict continue, Daesh will try its best to try to get into Yemen and destabilise it further. There is ample evidence that it is already involved there.
Yemen has faced challenges before, but this crisis is the worst in living memory. We often talk of pulling Yemen back from the brink, but I fear the country is far past that stage now. We need a ceasefire now. This is not something we could do, but something we must do. Six months ago, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated:
“Yemen is collapsing before our eyes. We can’t stand by and watch.”
I fear that that is what we have done.
Here are my final questions to the Minister. Are we prepared to push all parties to the negotiating table and elevate the situation in Yemen to the highest diplomatic level? Are we prepared to put pressure on all parties to agree and commit to an immediate ceasefire? Are we prepared to work with international partners to go further in addressing the catastrophic humanitarian crisis and ensure millions of lives are not lost? Without a peaceful solution, and fast, the only future Yemen faces is economic collapse, anarchy, famine and mass refugee flows. We acted decisively before to save Yemen. Today I beg the House that we should do so once again.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate. I am speaking as a member not of the all-party group on Yemen but of the International Development Committee, which in the next few weeks will commence an inquiry into concerns relating to the people of Yemen. I am delighted that this debate has been brought forward before we commence that inquiry. Indeed, we will no doubt want to look carefully at the all-party group’s report, which is being published today.
It is well said that when sorrows come, they come not singly but in battalions; in the case of the Yemeni civilians, that takes on too literal a meaning. This debate is crucial in highlighting the concerns that many in this House and more widely in this country have about the suffering of the people of Yemen and the dire plight of millions there.
As we have rightly raised awareness of the damage caused by the civil war in Syria, so it is equally important to do so in regard to the suffering of tens of millions of Yemenis who are seeing their country so sadly and swiftly destroyed, bit by bit. Four thousand civilians are dead, 1.4 million people are displaced and 1.8 million children are at risk of malnutrition. A staggering 84% of Yemen’s population is in need of humanitarian aid. Bombing and artillery have further damaged infrastructure, including electricity and water supplies, leaving 20.9 million people in need of water, sanitation and hygiene support.
On food, 6.8 million people are facing a food security crisis, with a further 6 million facing a food security emergency. There has been a 150% increase in hospital admissions for malnutrition, and as many as 1.6 million children under the age of five could be suffering from acute malnutrition. On health, half of the country’s governorates are unable to provide out-patient healthcare due to shortages of medical supplies, medical staff and fuel to run generators. That has coincided with a substantial increase in the number of patients suffering from critical injuries and illnesses. Some 15 million people—more than 60% of the population—are in need of basic healthcare assistance. On education, 3,500 schools have closed due to insecurity. The list goes on.
I pay tribute to the humanitarian workers. The right hon. Member for Leicester East mentioned some, and I add to them those from Save the Children, who continue to serve in dangerous conditions.
I hope the Minister will agree that we need to look at doing more on aid for the people of Yemen. Currently, as I understand it, some £72 million has been deployed by DFID in Yemen. That is a substantial sum and we can rightly be proud of all the UK aid provided across the world. When the International Development Committee travels to different countries, it is always stated that the intelligent and effective way in which UK aid is used is second to none. However, when we compare the £1.1 billion that the Government are now spending in various ways to help refugees from Syria and the surrounding areas, we see that the £72 million being provided for the people of Yemen needs to be reviewed.
Does the Foreign Office Minister agree? I understand he is not a Minister at the Department for International Development and may therefore need to take these questions back, but does he agree that, in the light of the dire plight and suffering of Yemen’s people, there is great merit to more being expended through DFID to help relieve the suffering of these poor people of whom we in this House are now aware? We cannot say we do not know of their suffering.
I apologise, Mr Turner. I am new to the House.
I first want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing this debate. The situation in Yemen is a tragedy that must be addressed by the international community and, more importantly, by the British Government. There is an urgent need to review the alleged war crimes, to seek accountability and to alleviate the desperate humanitarian situation. More than 21 million people, including 9.9 million children, are in humanitarian need, making Yemen the country with the greatest number of people in humanitarian need in the world. As was recently stated by the International Red Cross,
“Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.”
The atrocities in Yemen are the result of a complex civil war that has also turned into a battleground for the regional superpowers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Evidence uncovered by Amnesty International suggests that both sides could be guilty of committing war crimes. Investigations into 21 airstrikes in Sa’da in the north of Yemen uncovered that some of these strikes appeared to be directly targeted at civilians. The strikes killed 241 civilians and injured more than 157. The number of known civilian casualties since the conflict escalated in March has risen to more than 8,000 people, including more than 2,000 people killed.
I want to use my speech to address the British Government’s role in this conflict. Britain has given tens of millions of pounds in aid this year to help alleviate the crisis, and yet, because of the British arms trade with Saudi Arabia, the Government are complicit in these killings. That fact will remain until they change their stance on the arms trade.
In 2014, £83 million worth of arms were authorised for export to Saudi Arabia. The Government are providing weapons to a country that indiscriminately targets civilians and are supporting a regime that uses its membership of the UN Human Rights Council to block an independent inquiry into its conduct in Yemen. Instead, the council adopted a resolution tabled by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Arab states involved in the conflict. It is in part thanks to our own nomination that Saudi Arabia is on the council. It is time to stop propping up a regime that abuses human rights inside and outside its borders. There is an urgent need for accountability.
I call on the Government to address their obligations as set out in the national arms export licensing criteria and articles 6 and 7 of the arms trade treaty and to send a clear and open message to Saudi Arabia that we do not condone its violence. The Government must condemn the violence and press for an independent inquiry into violations of humanitarian and human rights law by parties involved in the conflict.
I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. Saudi Arabia is supporting the legitimate Government of President Hadi, who is trying to restore order in the country. That legitimate Government are supported by the UN Security Council; it is a little worrying if the hon. Lady is suggesting that we should stop Saudi Arabia from supporting a legitimate Government, giving the Houthis free rein.
I am not saying we should stop such support. I am saying we need to look at what has happened thus far and have an independent inquiry.
Lastly, the paradox of aid and arms that is central to British involvement in Yemen cannot be ignored and the Government must act to change this.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Turner, and to have sat next to you yesterday in another debate in this very place? I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall today. Like him and his sister, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), I was born in Aden, so the cause is close to our hearts. I also thank the members of the charities that work tirelessly both here and in Yemen to raise awareness of this catastrophe. Without their persistence, I do not think we would be holding this debate today. They work in great danger, and I am sure the whole House would recognise their invaluable contribution and mourn the humanitarian workers who have lost their lives recently.
The International Red Cross has stated:
“The humanitarian toll is devastating. All aspects of life in the country have been affected and no family has remained untouched. The situation is critical.”
Save the Children has said:
“A staggering 21.1 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance, including 9.9 million children. The World Food Programme estimates that over half a million children are severely malnourished—one step away from famine.”
The long-term effects on children are going to be seen for generations.
The situation is becoming critical as the infrastructure is extensively damaged; my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has mentioned this already. Vital infrastructure, critical for aid delivery and post-war reconstruction, has been severely damaged, including ports, airports, bridges and roads. With no ceasefire, the crisis seems to deepen: 23% of health facilities have been damaged and 160 healthcare facilities closed down. Médecins sans Frontières has said that in the past five months it has had more surgical interventions than in any other country where it works. Poverty before the conflict was at 50%; it is now at 80% and urgent humanitarian assistance is needed. There are limited water resources and a lack of fuel. Some 1.8 million children are out of school and many schools have been damaged.
The Yemen crisis should be given a higher priority on the global agenda and made a priority in the provision of emergency aid. Unfortunately, aid ships are finding it difficult to unload or they have been turned away or blocked completely. The blockade is one of the biggest issues. It is devastating, as Yemen relies on imports. Before the crisis, it relied on imports for 70% of fuel requirements, 90% of food supplies and 100% of medical supplies. In total, 90% of its goods were imported; only 15% of goods are now entering.
None of the aid agencies is able to operate effectively without the blockade being lifted. We understand that that would be difficult because of the worry of arms being smuggled in, but there must be more focused and targeted methods of checking ships. The UK and international partners must continue to ask Saudi Arabia and the coalition to end the blockade and ensure that there is no further delay in the UN verification and inspection mechanism. Saudi Arabia must allow ships, including its own, to dock and provide much-needed food and goods.
It is absolutely right that Saudi Arabia is backing President Hadi, the head of the legitimate Government, against the Houthis, but negotiations are not currently going anywhere. Without a political solution, there can be no end to the humanitarian catastrophe. The fighting has not been decisive, so neither side will give significant concessions. Unlike the situation in Syria, Yemen has not been the subject of major public attention and large amounts of aid have not been donated. The international community—including Britain, with our close relationship with Saudi Arabia—needs to put more pressure on both sides to sustain a ceasefire.
UN Security Council resolution 2216, passed in April, is a stumbling block to a peaceful resolution, as it sets out conditions for the Houthis alone. There should be a new resolution that demands an immediate ceasefire, an end to the conflict, and an end to the prevention of the bringing in and distribution of humanitarian supplies. The UN special envoy has been working on a solution and the Houthis have indicated that they are willing to agree to a ceasefire. We now need to put pressure on the Saudi Government to come forward with meaningful negotiations and work with the UN special envoy, so that we can protect the country from further catastrophe.
We heard today from a Minister from Yemen. His words about the next generation were very apt. When he talked to them recently, they said: “What future? There is no hope.” Do they wait in their homes for death through indiscriminate bombing, or do they go out and fight? Who do they fight for? Yemen is a failing state, attracting not only al-Qaeda but now Daesh. The seeds of sectarianism are spreading. People are no longer sharing mosques, preferring to pray outside instead. The community used to be integrated, but now it is split.
In October, the Minister acknowledged:
“Yemen is at risk of suffering a prolonged conflict and descending into famine.”
As I said, it has already descended into famine. We must put pressure on all parties, particularly our friends in Saudi Arabia, to come to the table immediately, hold a ceasefire and come to an understanding, so that aid agencies can get into Yemen and start to save lives immediately.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Turner.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate on such a crucial issue. As he said, and as other Members have pointed out, the situation in Yemen is currently the worst it has been in living memory, with 80% of Yemenis needing humanitarian assistance and one in eight children under five at risk of malnutrition. As we have seen around the House today, there are historical links between the United Kingdom and Yemen, which are reflected among Members and historically by people such as Sir William Luce. Among a large number of charities working in Yemen in the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances are UNICEF, Saferworld, Save the Children and Beyond Borders Scotland.
Many of the issues I was going to touch on have been discussed, so I would like instead to raise three issues that the Minister might want to address in his response or subsequently. First, the Omanis have not joined the coalition, so have been able to help diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the conflict. Perhaps there is a lesson there for other conflicts. What are the UK Government doing to help the Omani Government in their efforts, and more generally to try to find a diplomatic solution?
Secondly, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called for an independent and impartial mechanism to investigate any human rights violations that may have taken place. Does the Minister support that? What measures will the United Kingdom take to back that call?
Finally, the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) mentioned arms sales. The UK is obliged, under its own laws, the EU common position on arms exports and the UN arms trade treaty, to ensure that arms sales will not violate international humanitarian law. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam are concerned that weapons are being used in such violation. Will the Minister comment on those allegations?
I congratulate my friend, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), on securing this debate, and on his chairmanship of the all-party group on Yemen, which has produced an outstanding report, although I have not had the chance to read it properly as I have only just received a copy.
I hope Members do not mind, but, since I am, I think, the oldest Member present—looking around, I can see I am probably the oldest person in the room—I would like to give the historical perspective on Aden, because it is very important to British people. The south-eastern end of the Arabian peninsula was once crucial to the functioning of the British empire. A small settlement at Aden was occupied by Royal Marines in 1839 and became a bunkering port for passing ships. After the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, it became a vital staging post for ships going to and from India and the far east. When coal turned to oil as the main fuel for ships, the importance of Aden was reinforced, particularly as it was so close to the middle eastern oilfields. Unsurprisingly, BP built a large facility there.
As time passed, Aden and its hinterland became a formal part of the empire called the Aden Protectorate, but government of the interior in particular needed the consent and involvement of local tribes, which was no easy matter. By the 1950s, some tribes were in open rebellion against British authority, which led to a protracted insurrection. By 1967, the United Kingdom had had enough: Aden was given independence and our armed forces withdrew. It was renamed the People’s Republic of South Yemen—I am looking to the right hon. Member for Leicester East to confirm that that is correct.
The Yemen Arab Republic was to its north. In 1990, north and south joined to become Yemen.
My interest in Yemen comes from the fact that as a child I lived in Aden between 1954 and 1957. My father was a company commander with the 1st battalion the Aden Protectorate Levies, a branch of the RAF Regiment—I am wearing the RAF Regiment tie today as I am a member of the RAF Regiment officers’ dinner club. I am not the only Member who has close ties to Aden. The right hon. Member for Leicester East and his sister, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) were all born there. But I am too old to have been born in Aden; I was born in 1949, before we went there.
We would all like to revisit the place of our childhood, but that currently seems impossible. Since 1990, Yemen has gone from bad to worse. It is now such a dangerous place that it would be utterly foolhardy for British subjects to go there without protection. The situation is so bad that Sana’a, Yemen’s inland capital, has had to be abandoned and the country’s Administration, such as it is, must take place, when it can, from Aden. Yemen is now the poorest country in the middle east and an incredibly fragile state.
I do not propose to dwell long over Yemen’s recent history before 2011, because it is incredibly complicated, difficult and perhaps less prescient than what has happened since. Suffice it to say that in November 2011, after some 30 years in charge of what was essentially a military republic, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to hand over to his deputy, Vice President Mansur Hadi, which was apparently meant to avert immediate civil war. There was some international hope that Yemen might be on the road to some form of recovery, but that hope has come to nought. Too many of those with power in Yemen are plundering what oil revenues it has left, sending untaxed income abroad and deliberately resisting reforms that might restrict their ability to loot their country. We will argue about this, but the World Food Programme estimates that some 46% of the 10 million people living in Yemen do not have enough to eat. You don’t see fat people like me in Aden.
It is difficult to simplify what has become a truly impossible situation, but Yemen has essentially become a cockpit in which the branches of Islam are fighting tooth and nail. The Government of Yemen, under Sunni President Hadi, is now backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and the Gulf states, which are all quite strong allies of both the United States and the United Kingdom. The rebels, mainly from the northern Shi’a Houthi grouping and ex-Premier Ali Abdullah Saleh loyalists, are backed by Iran. It was the rebel Houthi group that forced the Government to flee from Sana’a to Aden in February. Yemen’s security forces have split loyalties, with some units backing President Hadi and others backing the Houthis and President Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has remained politically influential. President Hadi, who, as we discussed in a pre-meeting is actually living in Saudi Arabia, is also supported in the predominantly Sunni south of the country by militia known as Popular Resistance Committees and local tribesmen.
To complicate the situation further, so-called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, perhaps the most dangerous of all al-Qaeda factions, now has a firm foothold in Yemen. As a result, the United States has carried out several drone assaults against it. Both the Yemeni Government and the rebels are equally opposed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP has been pretty active, carrying out a series of indiscriminate attacks against both the Government and the Houthis—goodness me, what a situation. It is Kafkaesque in scale.
Just to make the situation even more enigmatic, the so-called Islamic State, which the right hon. Member for Leicester East, myself and others prefer to call Daesh because it is such a rude word in Arabic, has appeared on the scene, jostling to be more influential in the country. Daesh claims to have carried out a number of suicide attacks in Sana’a this year. After Houthi rebel forces attacked the Government’s southern de facto capital Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by President Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets. As I mentioned, Saudi Arabia is collaborating with the five Gulf Arab states, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan, with Somalia providing airspace. Some of these air strikes have clearly gone badly wrong and have killed innocent people, which is utterly tragic.
The world’s foremost international authority, the United Nations, is the obvious catalyst for action. In April 2015, the Security Council passed resolution 2216, as mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, calling for an immediate stoppage of fighting and for the Houthi rebels to withdraw from territory that they had taken. The resolution was passed unanimously. Four permanent members of the Security Council sanctioned it. Russia did not, abstaining and allowing it to go through. But what has actually happened since that decision by the world forum where everyone is supposed to go for top authority? Damn all. There has been no effect whatsoever on what is happening on the ground. Other agencies of the United Nations have tried to send experts into Yemen to report on human rights violations, but a draft Dutch resolution supporting just that has recently been withdrawn as it would have failed, and, astonishingly, Saudi Arabia, has been elected as the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
It would be marvellous if our debate could result in agreement on a way to gain some form of peace and security for the poor, wretched people of Yemen. However, the United Nations has been effectively ignored, the great powers do not want to get involved and the situation on the ground is getting increasingly complex and worse. Innocents are dying all the time. As matters stand in Yemen, I cannot think of an effective and decent way ahead with any chance of success. I hate the idea that we are impotent and apparently unable to do anything with all our power. In the end, I suppose that history will have to take care of it. One way or other, one of the factions will prevail, but who knows who that will be at the moment?
To date, Yemen has been an utter failure of international politics. We should do all that we can to try to correct that. In that respect, I am delighted that the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen has produced a report highlighting the crisis. If nothing else, this debate highlights the fact that Yemen is still a matter of real concern. We must not forget that.
I am pleased to be speaking in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. It is the first time I have had the opportunity to appear before you. The privilege is indeed mine.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for raising the very important topic of what is happening in Yemen and for making us aware of his strong family connections there, which were demonstrated by the passion with which he delivered his argument. His speech was engaging, informative and very instructive. Before summarising some of the points made in the speeches we have heard this afternoon, I should mention the interventions made by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who also gave a speech, and the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer).
The right hon. Member for Leicester East spoke of the need for an immediate ceasefire, describing the situation in Yemen as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. He said that it must be given a higher priority and that we should be putting a process in place to ensure that aid, including emergency aid, is swiftly given, and that there is a better flow of imports, including some of the aid items that are required. He spoke of the importance of bringing the parties to the table again, given the dramatic escalation, and of the international community having a very small window to show what they can do. He also mentioned the escalation in the conflict now due to the involvement of Daesh—I am grateful to him for referring to them as that, which is exactly what they are.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is a member of the International Development Committee. She spoke about the children, and it brings things home to think about the 1.8 million children who are at risk of malnutrition and the 20.9 million people who are in need of fresh water, sanitation and hygiene support. She spoke of the shortage of fuel and medical supplies and the medical staff needed to deliver the aid, and she said that 60% of the population need very basic healthcare. She also paid tribute to the humanitarian workers who continue to serve in the most difficult circumstances, and asked the Minister to address the fact that more needs to be done and whether he agreed that more should be expended through DFID to help these people.
We were then privileged to hear from the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who, like me, is a new Member. She spoke passionately about the need to review the war crimes that have allegedly taken place and about the 21 million people in humanitarian need—in fact, Yemen is the country with the greatest number of people in humanitarian need in the whole world. She used her speech to raise many issues that are clearly close to her heart, such as whether the UK Government are complicit in killings due to the part they play in the arms trade. She mentioned that it was perhaps time to stop propping up the regime, asked that the Government condemn all violence, and finally spoke of the paradox of aid and arms that cannot be ignored.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), who was also born in Yemen—
I choose to ignore that remark. She spoke of the long-term effect on children that would be seen for generations, which should be of tremendous concern to us all. She said that poverty was at 50% before the conflict and it is now at 80% and that the crisis in Yemen must be given a higher priority. She said that 90% of its goods were being imported previously and now only 15% are, which again demonstrates the difficulties that aid agencies are encountering. She expressed concern that negotiations are not going anywhere and about the lack of a political solution. She spoke of the Minister from Yemen who, I think, said, “What future? There is no hope.” She said that it was a failing state, attracting first al-Qaeda and now Daesh.
Given the situation that has been outlined by many speakers this afternoon and the great difficulty of aid arriving in Yemen, does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Home Office in this country wants to send one of my constituents back to that situation?
That should be a matter of grave concern, not least after hearing much of the evidence we have heard today from people with real experience. Those who were born in Yemen are well aware of what is happening in the conflict. The very last thing we should be doing is sending people back when we know the situation in the destination country and what they will face when they get there. I hope that the Minister has listened to my hon. Friend and may address, hopefully in his closing remarks, the concerns of her constituent.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), who reflected on the historical links the UK has with Yemen and also, rightly, paid tribute to the charities working there in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They include UNICEF, Saferworld, Save the Children and Beyond Borders Scotland. Summing up, he succinctly posed three sharp questions, given the points that had already been made. He asked what the UK Government are going to do to help the Yemeni Government. He then asked whether the Minister supports the UN High Commissioner’s call for an investigation into any human rights violations. Finally, he said that arms deals should not violate international law and mentioned allegations made in that respect, before asking whether the Minister was able to offer any comment.
We heard last from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who gave us a historical tour, speaking about the opening of the Suez canal and the Aden protectorate and its eventual independence. That subject is very close to my heart, and I am grateful to him for bringing that up—the topic of independence is always key to what we talk about. He spoke of Sana’a and how the situation was so bad that it had to be abandoned by the Government in Yemen, which is now the poorest country in the middle east. He talked us through the presidencies to date and detailed all those involved in the conflict. Finally, he spoke in very strong terms about so-called Islamic State, which he referred to as Daesh, as did the right hon. Member for Leicester East. We have been campaigning very strongly for that, and I hope that he will continue joining me and my colleagues in the SNP, and indeed many across the House, in asking the Government to please refer to Daesh as that in the House.
This has been an interesting and impassioned debate that brings home the urgent need to be doing much more in Yemen. All the speakers said that time seems to be running out fast, so we should not waste time in trying to come to solution on how to move forward. My view is that we need an urgent round table meeting, led by the United Nations, to deal with the civilian casualties and the humanitarian situation and to consider how the international community can more fully uphold its absolute responsibility to address the war’s toll on civilians in Yemen. Finally, on a more long-term basis, all efforts must be made at the forthcoming talks in Geneva at the end of this month under the sponsorship of the United Nations, urging the parties to try to make the peace negotiations a success. There is clearly no time left, and the children and those involved need our help as soon as we can offer it.
May I say what a pleasure it is to be here for my first debate with you in the Chair, Mr Turner? I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing the debate and bringing the situation in Yemen to our attention. Many of us across the House have spoken on this issue in the past, including the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) and my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). It is an important issue.
My own research has brought to light what Mr Adam Baron of the European Council on Foreign Relations said—that in the end, all Yemenis will be the victims of such a protracted war and that
“The truth…is that no one is winning this war. And while all parties involved in Yemen seem far from reaching their goals, there is one clear loser: the Yemeni people.”
That sentiment has been strongly reflected in our debate this afternoon, focusing on the humanitarian aspects of the situation and joining with the UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who said in March this year that Yemen was being brought to the edge of civil war. I believe that even since March, the situation has deteriorated.
We know from various groups that are active in Yemen—where they can get into Yemen, if the ports are not blocked—that there are big problems of food poverty and a real risk of massive malnutrition. There are problems with access to clean water and the availability of crucial medicines, but that is not all; we are also aware of the lack of the rule of law, which of course leads to risks in particular of violence against women, as well as of other crimes going undetected. I wish to mention in particular the assault on Taiz, where the number of people in critical need of safe drinking water surpassed 3.3 million in September to October, according to World Health Organisation reports. UNICEF has said:
“If there isn’t the humanitarian support to the country, in six months or a year’s time, you will get a major humanitarian crisis”.
That point has been covered very well during the debate, so I will now press the Minister for his response on some important matters.
First, will the Minister comment on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) about the need for an independent assessment of the situation, in particular in relation to the coalition and the bombing campaign? Will he assure hon. Members that we are doing everything possible both to call for a ceasefire and to support everyone involved to get round the table and seek that ceasefire? Secondly—I know this is a concern for all citizens—will he give an assurance that armaments produced in the UK are not being used in the conflict to bring harm to civilians, women and children in Yemen?
Through treaties, UN declarations and work across the globe, we have come miles in the past 20 years on the issue of child soldiers. We know that once children are involved in conflict, it leads to conflict for generations. Will the Minister give us an assurance that he and his Department are doing all they can, with others, to stop the use of child soldiers in Yemen?
Will the Minister update us on other conversations that may be happening and that he is able to make public today? What pressure is he bringing to bear on the various parties involved in the conflict? We know that, because of our history with regard to Yemen—that has been eloquently described in today’s debate—Britain has a lot of influence. How is that influence being used for a positive solution, which many people are pushing us for? The Prime Minister said that he lent his “firm political support” to airstrikes earlier this year. Does that remain the case? Do the Government feel that this action is still effective or that it is worsening the situation? There are no real winners in this situation, so will the Minister tell us what support we are providing, as a nation, in relation to this conflict?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making her maiden Front-Bench speech. It would be good to have her support on British citizens who are still in Yemen and cannot come out, for whatever reason. Other Governments—the Indian Government, for example—have sent in aircraft to take their citizens out, but at the moment British citizens have to go to Somalia and on occasion through Djibouti to get back to the UK. Does she agree that if British citizens want to return, it is important that they are helped to do so as quickly as possible?
I do indeed. I also support the point made by other Members about resolving asylum cases in the UK; it seems perverse that we could be returning people to the Yemen in the current climate. Will the Minister cover those issues in his remarks?
To sum up, we are asking that the Government work much more energetically towards immediate negotiations without preconditions, following our support on paper for UN Security Council resolution 2216. Secondly, we ask for clarification on how much support the Government are able to give the UN special envoy—their support seems a little cool at the moment. Thirdly, will the Minister give us evidence of his activity and achievements, as well as those of his Department, in behind-the-scenes discussions? We need much more of a push on that. There needs to be an end to the recruitment and fielding of child soldiers, given the long-term implications of using children as soldiers in conflicts. I conclude by reminding Members that at this point we must not think too much about our strategic situation—although that does sometimes get lost—but about those people to whom we have a duty as human beings. We know that no one is winning this war, so we must reach out, unlock the humanitarian aid waiting at the ports, and do as much as we can to end this terrible conflict.
This has been a constructive and profitable debate for the House. I join others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) who, not just today but in previous debates has shown, quite rightly, a determination to test the Government on what we are doing and to express his concern about the devastation taking place, from a humanitarian perspective, and about what more the international community should be doing to look for peace in the Yemen. He mentioned the all-party group on Yemen, which I congratulate on its work.
As with previous debates of this nature, I shall do my best to answer as many questions as possible. I have more papers here than time will allow me to go through, but, as previously, I will write to hon. Members with details. My team and I will go through Hansard so that I can provide detailed answers to the questions that have been asked.
The right hon. Gentleman went through the history of the important relationship Britain has had with Yemen, explaining the context for that strong relationship, and why there is therefore is an expectation that we should do more. The relationship goes back to 1839, when Aden became a protectorate. There was the regional influence of the Ottoman empire in the north, followed by the Yemen Arab Republic, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. All that history is linked with the opening of the Suez canal. Britain has a hugely important long-term relationship with this neck of the woods. It was a stepping stone on the way to India, and the port of Aden was used as a calling station when the Suez canal opened. We know the area well and there is an expectation that Britain should play its part in leading the international community in working towards solutions.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East spoke of the huge suffering caused by the advance of the Houthi, who have signed a number of documents, not least the critical national partnership for peace, signed in September 2014. They then decided to ignore that document, leading to them pushing from the north-west of the country, all the way through the capital towards the port of Aden, causing humanitarian suffering on the huge scale we have heard about today.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Iran’s role. I met the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister yesterday, when I raised this very subject, including the importance of Iranian restraint, and support for a ceasefire and for the work of the UN envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, which a number of hon. Members mentioned. All countries need to work for stabilisation and for the implementation of humanitarian support to prevent a catastrophe on a scale that would dwarf what we are seeing in Syria at the moment, as hon. Members have said.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned in an intervention the importance of support for Britons who may still be in Yemen. We obviously stand ready to support anybody who is willing to get out of the country; we have been saying that for four years. Anybody who is still there is likely to be of dual nationality and is probably determined to stay. We absolutely stand ready to support any British national who chooses to remain in the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is a member of the International Development Committee, brings a huge amount of experience to the debate. She highlighted the food security crisis and issues of malnutrition in the country, as well as the number of schools that have been closed, which is another important aspect. The problem is that when eventually the guns fall silent, we are then denying the country the educated people who are needed to be the next generation of doctors, engineers, civil servants and so on to take the country forward. That is a tragic situation.
My hon. Friend also underlined the importance of DFID funding. Stephen O’Brien, who is the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator, and a former Member of this House, said at a meeting I chaired at the United Nations that it is a question not of a lack of funding coming forward—countries are very willing to provide donations—but of restrictions on certain places that are denying humanitarian aid from getting into the country. I have stressed to not only the Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran but also to Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and President Hadi, to whom I speak on an almost weekly basis, that Hodeidah, the red sea port on the west of the country, needs to be opened as soon as possible. It is simply not logistically possible to get aid through the port of Aden up to the rest of the country if we are going to keep these people alive. As hon. Members have said, we are one step away from famine.
I am glad the Minister mentioned Mr O’Brien, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. Mr O’Brien has also said that airstrikes and shelling have been
“in clear contravention of international humanitarian law”.
Does the Minister share that view?
I have not seen that particular quote. I spoke to Mr O’Brien at length, and I know there are many reports on that. I will, of course, refer to it. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), who I very much welcome to her place, also raised that issue. If there is any evidence, it needs to come forward.
The conduct of war is always a difficult thing. As a former soldier—there are others here who have served—I know that in operational environments, we need to ensure that the rules of engagement are adhered to as much as possible. If there are human rights violations, they must absolutely be looked into, but I am not aware of any such evidence at the moment. We need to be careful about hearsay. If NGOs have evidence, they must bring it forward.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) does not seem to be in her place, so I will address other Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) brings a huge amount of value and knowledge to the debate. She spoke of the damage to ports. Unfortunately, the cranes in Hodeidah have also been destroyed, so even when the city is liberated, there will be a delay in getting support.
Yemen is hugely reliant. It is a very poor country and does not have the wealth of oil, gas and hydrocarbons that other Gulf nations do. We have called for and continue to call for a ceasefire. That was discussed at the meeting I chaired in New York. We are seeking to bring parties together in the next few weeks and get them back around the table. We have got to this point in the past but have never managed to secure the actual ceasefire document itself, but Britain is certainly calling for that important document to be signed.
I think that I have answered the point from the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) on human rights violations. He also mentioned history and gave the example of Sir William Luce, one of the many governors of Aden, who played a significant role in running that particular protectorate.
The description that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) gave of Britain’s involvement in the region was a tour de force. He is another person who, by birth—
Not by birth—firmly stated. My hon. Friend referred to the role of the Royal Marines and the military. He also touched on something that others have elaborated on: the expansion of Daesh or ISIL in these pockets. Extremism in any form looks for vacuums of governance, and that is what we are seeing in Yemen. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda has been established in Yemen for an awfully long time. The plans for the Charlie Hebdo attack, for example, originated in Yemen. It is a hotbed of extremism.
The relationship between the two is very complex indeed. There are places where they team up together, where there are local ceasefires and where they have a localised objective and work together, but in principle, they are competitors. I do not want to wander down this avenue too much, but al-Qaeda is seeking to exert change in western understanding of and influence in the middle east, whereas Daesh is trying to create a caliphate and its own space within the middle east. They have different philosophies completely but are both very active in Yemen; that is the trouble.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham also spoke about the Houthis, and I hope he does not mind my correcting him—he called them Shi’as. It is important to distinguish between the Zaydis and the Twelvers—the Iranian Shi’as. They are different forms of Islam.
I always want to listen to my hon. Friend; he speaks volumes.
It is a delight to see the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) in her place. She has a lot of knowledge of middle eastern matters. She spoke of the Daesh threat, which I have covered, and what more work DFID can do in this area. I will pass that on to the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne). She also touched on the conduct of war and the importance of watching out for alleged war crimes.
I will cover another basic issue that was raised: the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. Nations have a right to defend themselves. They also have a right to join in coalitions and, if invited, to participate and to protect another country. President Hadi has made that request. The coalition has been formed. Had that not happened, the Houthis would have flushed out any legitimate Government support, all the way down to the port of Aden. We must keep a careful watch on the conduct of war, but we have the right to sell arms. We have one of the most robust arms sales policies and one of the most transparent export programmes in the world.
I can confirm that they probably have been used. We sell arms to Saudi Arabia. They are using weapons systems that we sell. The more pertinent question is: are they being used responsibly? That is the more important question. We need to ensure they are used in a responsible manner.
No, it is not. I will make it very clear: the coalition that has been formed is legitimate. The legal basis for military intervention follows President Hadi’s request to the United Nations Security Council and, indeed, the Gulf Co-operation Council, in support of UN Security Council resolution 2216, for
“all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter Houthi aggression”.
Therefore, the concept and principle of using warfare in such a manner is legitimate; the real issue, widely put by everyone, is about making sure that any arms are used according to the Geneva conventions. That is what we need to ensure and to find out. If there is evidence to suggest otherwise, we will look at things. As we have discussed in the main Chamber in the case of Israel, we review export licences if evidence is given to us to suggest that equipment has not been used as agreed.
I thank the Minister for the way in which he has engaged with the all-party group. He has been very willing to meet us and to discuss these matters.
May I take him back to something he said earlier? The crucial point of the APG report is the need for a ceasefire. The Minister has said that the Government are working on that at the UN, but when can it come before the Security Council? I know that Ministers have been urging a ceasefire in private, but we need a public statement and a resolution before the UN. When can that happen?
I am happy to call for that publicly, but all our efforts are being conducted through the UN envoy. The same applies in Libya, where we are working with Bernardino Leon, the UN envoy there. We have staff working with Ismail Cheikh; I speak to him to offer our support; and individuals have been seconded to his office to assist him. He has conducted a number of meetings, bringing the Houthis together with representatives of President Hadi, to map out the details. Those meetings will reconvene in the very near future—that is where the ceasefire will be mapped out.
Absolutely. We do want a ceasefire now. I am sorry if there was any confusion about that. I made that clear in the discussions in New York as well. Until we have the ceasefire, we will not be able to get the humanitarian logistics into the country without the people involved being harmed or under threat. I am happy to underline that, but that is all being led by the UN envoy. The only way that a ceasefire will come about is not through a UN Security Council resolution, as has been said, although that would be an indication of where we want to go, but through the parties themselves signing up to it.
A number of excellent points have been made, but on facilitating the ceasefire, my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) and I asked about any help from or co-operation with the Government of Oman, who are playing a role in bringing together the parties at the moment. Will the Minister comment on that?
Yes, indeed. Given Oman’s important relationships within the middle east—the hon. Gentleman must be aware of how Oman fits in with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and so on—it is playing a pivotal role, with perhaps more going on behind the scenes than public perception would suggest. Oman is very much involved in what is happening.
I will now turn to some of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, the Labour spokesperson. I am not sure whether she is standing in for someone today—nevertheless, she is very welcome. Going back to the conduct of the war, she called for an independent assessment and for a ceasefire, which I can confirm.
The hon. Lady touched on a difficult subject that we debated in the Westminster Hall Chamber only last week: child soldiers. The use of child soldiers is absolutely appalling—the whole House can condemn that. UN figures suggest that more than 80% of the use of child soldiers in Yemen is by the Houthis, but we condemn such use by anyone at all. We have taken various measures and led on measures at the UN to prevent that from happening. She also talked about the British influence and what we can do in Yemen. I have articulated several things, but we can concur on support for the UN envoy.
The UK remains a key partner of Yemen, in particular since the start of its political transition back in 2011. The existing situation is of grave concern to us all, so I welcome the opportunity today to debate the matter.
I was not sure that I would have the time to speak in the debate, so I had not prepared anything, and that was why I did not speak.
Given the situation described in the APG report, will the Minister share that report with his colleagues in the Home Office, because the approach that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is taking is in complete contrast with that of decision makers in the Home Office? They want to send people who have been in this country since 2009 back to a war zone, which is not acceptable. If it is not acceptable for Glaswegians to go to Yemen, it is not acceptable for our adopted Glaswegians who have been here since 2009 either.
I will certainly share the report with the Home Office. There are already robust processes in place, but I will certainly pass it on to the Home Office and we will ask that Department to reply directly to the APG.
Before the end of 2014, Yemen had been making steady progress on the initiative brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council in 2011. That initiative had committed all parties to a national dialogue conference, a new constitution and national elections. The national dialogue conference agreed a vision for Yemen that formed the basis for the new constitution, of which we saw the first draft in January. Regrettably, as hon. Members know, since September last year the Houthis, with support from forces loyal to former President Saleh, have taken matters into their own hands, staging a takeover of the legitimate Government of President Hadi and of key state institutions, putting the whole transition into jeopardy.
The Houthi and Saleh groups’ use of military means to achieve their political aims is not only unacceptable, but a clear violation of the 1994 constitution and the principles of the Gulf Co-operation Council initiative. What is more, those groups have forced Yemen’s legitimate Government out of the country, repeatedly attacked Saudi Arabia’s borders throughout the year and seized territory and heavy weapons throughout Yemen. They are holding thousands of political activists in prison and they have prevented access to humanitarian aid, showing a blatant disregard for the safety of civilians.
With conflict risks becoming prolonged, we are already witnessing catastrophic human consequences, as we have heard in the debate today. Suffering has reached unprecedented levels, with more than 21 million Yemenis or 80% of the population in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In fact, UNICEF warned recently that in al-Hudaydah governorate alone, 96,000 children are starving and at risk of death. Without immediate and decisive action to end the conflict and the humanitarian crisis, Yemen may face a famine by the end of the year.
[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
The UN Security Council has been clear in its condemnation of the actions by Houthi and pro-Saleh forces, but it is the responsibility of all parties to the conflict to ensure access for humanitarian aid. That is why we continue to call on the Yemeni authorities to grant access to all Yemeni ports for commercial and humanitarian shipping. We welcome the agreement to establish a UN verification inspection mechanism, as mentioned by a couple of hon. Members, but we urge its speedy implementation to remove clearance procedures for humanitarian shipments. Many ships are stuck out in the Red sea, unable to get into port.
The risk that groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIL in Yemen will benefit from the continuing instability is another disastrous potential consequence of the conflict. That threat was most recently demonstrated by ISIL in Yemen with its co-ordinated multiple attacks in Aden on 6 October, which claimed the lives of 15 people and injured many more. The British Government condemn such attacks unequivocally. Countering the terrorist threat remains our top priority.
To be clear, I therefore very much welcome the crucial role of the Saudi-led coalition in reversing the military advance of the Houthis and the forces loyal to former President Saleh. That has helped to create the conditions for the legitimate Yemeni Government to return to the country under Vice-President Bahah.
I will write to hon. Members if I have not covered any other points. The area remains one of critical concern and includes huge suffering for the Yemeni people caught up in those horrific events. The position of the British Government is clear: a ceasefire and an inclusive political solution is the only way in which to achieve long-term peace and stability. The UK stands with the international community in supporting fully UN efforts to achieve dialogue and to deal with the dire humanitarian situation.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Fire Safety: School Buildings
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fire safety measures in school buildings.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject. I promise not to start to beat my hon. Friend the Minister up immediately, but as with so many of these debates, it is about such a simple straightforward issue that I am puzzled as to why it has not been dealt with over the last couple of decades.
At the heart of it all, the House either does or does not think that having sprinkler systems will help to save people’s lives. That, to me, is the issue. I would have thought, looking at all the evidence, that the House has clearly come to the conclusion that it would be good common sense for all schools to have sprinkler systems fitted.
I have the highest regard for the Minister, but I simply do not understand this situation. Given that the Government have the power to give money for new schools to be built, surely it should not take Einstein to come up with a plan whereby people cannot tender for such a contract unless a sprinkler system will be part of the new build project. This is quite a simple matter. I have correspondence from our noble Friend Lord Nash on the issue, and it is wonderful that all sorts of consultations will take place, but I have to say to this Minister that I will not shut up until I get the straightforward answer that, in the future, contracts will be awarded only to builders who insist that sprinkler systems will be installed.
I have the great pleasure of being the chairman of the all-party fire safety rescue group; I was also the chairman in the previous Parliament. I am looking at my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) for a reason that will become obvious. When I had the privilege of becoming the Member of Parliament for Basildon, three particular incidents made me admire the wonderful work that our fire service does. On two occasions, our local fire service was attending incidents in which small children died. The emotional effect that that has on our firefighters is beyond most of us to understand. One of the incidents was, sadly, in Long Riding, which I think is still in the area represented by my hon. Friend. A gentleman who ran a Chinese takeaway restaurant came in to find that his wife, who had mental health problems, had smothered their five children. That has nothing to do with fire, but it was the fire service that attended.
In the second tragic case, in what used to be Barstable school, a number of children got locked in a shed in the grounds. They must have been playing with matches and, as a result, a fire took place and they lost their lives. That was a funeral I will never forget attending at St Martin’s church, as my hon. Friend is only too well aware.
Then this was the irony of all ironies. I cannot remember which election it was that I was canvassing in; it must have been the 1987 one. I was canvassing in Nethermayne, the rural part of the constituency, and I knocked on a door. A rather dishevelled gentleman came to the door. He seemed to be not entirely with it; I will put it like that. We went to the property next door. Unbeknown to me, he was carrying a bowl of paraffin and the next minute—we were standing talking to the neighbour—he went up in flames. That was the first funeral that I attended after that election. I went into a state of shock and I saw how our firefighters dealt with the situation. Unfortunately, in those days I used to drag along one or two of my children to canvass with me. I never did that again. I know that this is not the Minister’s brief, but we all have great regard for the work that our firefighters do and I have first-hand experience of the way they deal with the tragedy of children being killed.
I thank the Fire Sector Federation, the Chief Fire Officers’ Association, Zurich Municipal insurance and the National Fire Sprinkler Network for providing me with the evidence and information on school fires that I have drawn on for my contribution to the debate.
I remind the House that yesterday was National Burn Awareness Day. When I first became a Member of Parliament, we never had these specific days. We never wore ribbons, but that changed once the AIDS movement adopted the red ribbon and now every day of the week is a national day. If I had had the opportunity at Prime Minister’s questions, National Burn Awareness Day was the thing that I would have raised. Unfortunately, it got no media coverage, which is a great shame. It was for that reason that the all-party group put in for this debate.
I praise the work of the Children’s Burns Trust. I know that next February there will be a National Sprinkler Awareness Day, which I hope we will be able to get more of a profile for than we seem to have done thus far. I would like to assure the Children’s Burns Trust that although their day yesterday went by without great attention, many Members will continue to raise these issues, on which we feel very strongly.
I, along with many members of the group here today, am very frustrated that this issue, which is very simple—I cannot see a cost to the Government—has not been dealt with. I cannot yet blame the present Government, or can I? No, I will not; it is a little too soon. However, I just do not understand why the issue was not dealt with under the coalition Government, which obviously my party was a supporter of and led, or the previous Labour Government. I am sure that this Minister will have the answer as to why we have not taken action.
Many members of the all-party group were very surprised to hear that since 2010 there has been a decline in the number of new schools and academies being installed with automatic sprinkler systems. That is crazy. How on earth could there be a decline? But there has been. The reason why we were so surprised was that in 2007, when our noble Friend Lord Howard of Lympne was serving as an MP, he raised a similar issue. In his constituency, on 13 September 2006, Lympne primary school tragically suffered a fire. It started as a consequence of an electrical fault above the staffroom at the start of the day. The chief fire officer responsible for leading the efforts of the fire services to extinguish the fire said at the time:
“If the school had been fitted with a properly designed and installed sprinkler system the fire may have been controlled if not extinguished in its early stages”.
Instead, the school was completely destroyed—thankfully, no lives were lost—as a consequence of no such system being in place.
Why, over all these years, have successive Governments failed to put in place even a framework or a strategy—whatever the buzzword is that the civil servants in the Department for Education use? Why have we done nothing to make sure that such a tragedy never happens again? My hon. Friend the Minister may respond that the tragedy in 2006 was an isolated incident, and some may ask why we should waste valuable public money on infrequent events. Well, how can we put a price on one life? That is the simple point I wish to make. There is evidence to suggest that this was not an isolated incident, and our children’s safety and security should be ensured, irrespective of the cost.
Refurbishing or rebuilding schools following a severe fire can be very expensive. The most recent statistics I have, provided by Zurich Municipal, show that £58 million was spent on school rebuilds following fires in 2009. The last year for which the Department for Communities and Local Government has cost figures is 2004— 11 years ago, which is crazy—when there were 1,229 fires, which were estimated to have cost about £52 million. Why we do not have more up-to-date figures, I do not understand.
I am an Essex Member—we look over the River Thames at Kent—but I am going to praise Kent County Council. Following the fire at Lympne primary school, it was a welcome relief when the council confirmed that the rebuild would include the installation of a fire sprinkler system. However, why must we be reactive? We, as legislators, should attempt to pre-empt such incidents. Now that the Government, which I support, have a majority, they cannot blame things that go wrong on the Liberal party. I want them to do something positive and good with their majority. I want us to be proactive, rather than reactive.
Although there were no fatalities as a result of the fire at Lympne, and there have been no fatalities across England as a result of school fires, we cannot just sit back on our laurels and be complacent—a tragedy could happen. It is within the Government’s gift to make sure we never have a tragic incident, by insisting that, when contracts are signed and schools are built, a sprinkler system is installed.
The issue is not party political. My goodness, we have representatives here from the Scottish National party, the Conservatives and the Labour party—with only eight Members, it is probably a bit difficult for the Liberals to service all our proceedings, but I know they very much agree with the point I am making.
What is frustrating is that, since 2007, when the former Member for Folkestone and Hythe brought this issue to the attention of the House, the situation has got worse. From April 2007 to May 2010, an estimated 70% of the schools and academies built had automatic fire sprinklers installed—there was room for improvement, but we were basically on the right track. However, since May 2010, the figure has plummeted to 35%—it has been halved. That is absolutely unacceptable. Some 65% of new builds are without fire sprinkler systems. That is incredibly disappointing, given the commitment that successive Governments have made to improve the situation.
In a recent statement, the Secretary of State for Education, for whom I genuinely have the highest regard, said that, in line with departmental guidance, the relevant specification does not make the fitting of sprinklers mandatory, but it does suggest instances where their installation could be beneficial. Well, I say to the Government, “Let’s make it mandatory!” It is no good us complacently saying that it is not mandatory at the moment—let us do something about this. A proposal to make the fitting of sprinklers mandatory could be taken through the House immediately, and all political parties would agree with it. My right hon. Friend’s statement was some way from the cross-party commitment we had in 2007.
I referred earlier to the cost benefit of mandatory installation, which cannot be ignored—as a Conservative, I am sympathetic about the challenges the Exchequer faces. However, when it comes to fire safety, the costs are not merely financial, and we must look at the long-term implications of the mandatory installation of fire sprinklers across the country. Of course, schools are not only attended by our children, but rented out to all sorts of organisations to increase revenue.
I contacted the local authority that serves my constituency to find out how many schools there have sprinkler systems installed. It sent me an email saying that schools in Southend do not have to itemise whether they have sprinkler systems—it therefore has no information about the issue. Well, I say, “Come on, local authority!” There are not that many schools in Southend; someone could phone them up and ask the chairmen of the governing bodies whether they have a sprinkler system. To me, the local authority’s response is absolutely pathetic. If local authorities throughout the country are giving other Members similar responses, shame on them. The chief executive of my authority should say, “We can do far better than that.”
The House of Commons Library, which is fantastic—I regard it as the fountain of all truth—told me that such information is not collected centrally and that local authorities are not obliged to collect it, although I do not know why that is. Well, authorities might not be obliged to do that, but I think they should. I praise Kent County Council for collecting data after the fire at Lympne primary school. Between 2001 and 2003, there were 125 recorded fires in Kent. By 2011 to 2013, the figure had plummeted to 41—a fall of approximately 66%. There were only seven school building fires in 2013. That is seven too many, but at least there was a fall. Kent is therefore doing much better than other areas. Those figures show that, through local co-operation and a sensible policy, the number of fires can be significantly reduced.
I call on the Government to recognise the benefits of taking an approach like that of Kent County Council and the Kent and Medway Towns fire authority. I and the other members of the all-party group would also like to have a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister to discuss the issue in more detail.
In his letter, Lord Nash told me that a consultation on the Government’s version of “Building Bulletin 100”, entitled “Design for fire safety in schools”, will begin towards the end of the year. Well, we can have all the consultations in the world, but it is just like the rubbish about obesity that has been going on this week, with Jamie Oliver turning up at the House of Commons—it is as if obesity has just been invented. Ten years ago, when I was on the Health Committee, I had the idea of having an inquiry into obesity. If all our recommendations had been followed then, we would not have to have all this business about a sugar tax, a fat tax and all the rest of it now. The longer I am a Member of Parliament, the less I hear anything original. My frustration is that hon. Members make good suggestions, but nothing whatever is done about them. If Parliament is worth anything, it is up to hon. Members to hold the Executive to account, so that good ideas are acted on.
In March 2007, a commitment was made by the then Minister, the former Member for South Dorset, Jim Knight—now Lord Knight of Weymouth—that all new schools and academies that were built would be expected to have automatic sprinklers installed, except for a few low-risk schools. I do not quite know how we define low-risk schools, but that was a great commitment and of course the Government had three years to run at that time. Figures show that only 35% of new schools are fitted with sprinklers. I hope that the present Government will use the impetus of a fresh election victory to do something about that.
We have the power to ensure that fewer fires occur in schools across the country; that would mean fewer people in harm’s way, fewer costs for refurbishment or rebuilding, and fewer worries for the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond positively to the point on which I have managed to speak for 20 minutes. It is a simple one: the contracts for all new-build projects for schools should be required to include the fitting of a sprinkler system.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on his impassioned argument. The sprinkler campaign has a doughty champion in him.
It is ironic that I am to speak about fire today, when the top news headline in my constituency is about the Eastbourne pier fire. Many hon. Members may have seen some of the coverage—indeed, it was so dramatic and gripping that it went across the globe. Even the Prime Minister and Chancellor came down to talk to people in the town, such was the shock and trauma of seeing that beautiful and iconic building consumed by flames. It was a powerful visual example of how hungry, dangerous and destructive fire can be. On that occasion it was only the heroic efforts of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, working in conjunction with the fire service, attacking the fire from the sea, that saved much of the pier. Had there been sprinklers, the story might have been different, and we might have saved the building, which is conspicuous by its absence now, its position marked only by a boardwalk.
Last week the main headline in town was an arson attack on a primary school. Again, it is fortunate that there was no loss of life. It happened in the dead of night, and the following morning the community, children, parents and teachers woke to find that the school had been consumed, with 50% of the school buildings destroyed. The school has had a quite challenging journey and very recently came through a successful Ofsted inspection. Its entire focus has been on improving and enhancing the quality of the learning and outcomes for the young children there. Now the head teacher’s everyday life in school is taken up with meetings with insurance brokers, risk assessors, insurance adjusters and building contractors. The teachers, although they are hugely ingenious and massively resourceful, will be sorely pressed to do full justice to the children’s learning. Some are back on the school campus; others have been shipped out to another local primary school, which has opened its doors so that learning can continue. The point I want to make is that there has been massive disruption, which was not limited to the occasion of the fire. It will continue for months to come.
I am not new to schools, having qualified as a head teacher a few years ago, but I am new to the sprinkler debate, for want of a better term. I am very aware of demands on school budgets and on county councils for everything they have to provide. I am just beginning to understand some of the wider issues to do with the installation of sprinklers and the other measures. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West will be horrified to learn that of my county’s 190 schools, five have sprinkler systems. However, in the past five years there have been just three incidents—all very random and none causing destruction of property or life. It is a shame that safety seems to be driven only by casualties or fatalities, but, sadly, that seems to be the case.
I am still finding my form in the debate, but I have asked the county council for a full report on the state of play in school fire safety, and I have a question for my hon. Friend the Minister. I want to understand why sprinkler provision in schools is mandatory in Scotland and Wales, but not in England.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today on the important issue of fire safety in schools. I thank the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for securing the debate. As he said, yesterday was national burn awareness day and it is fitting that that should be followed by this debate.
Hon. Members may not be aware of the 2004 overhaul of fire safety laws for public buildings in Scotland. It followed the tragedy at Rosepark nursing home in Lanarkshire, where 14 elderly residents died when a fire broke out in a linen cupboard. A fatal accident inquiry found that the deaths could have been avoided and that the lack of sprinklers could have been a contributory factor. A key finding of the inquiry was that although a fitted sprinkler system would not have extinguished the fire, it would probably have rendered conditions in all areas tenable for at least an hour. It is regrettable that such a tragic incident should ever occur, but it is impossible to say how many lives have been saved by the robust building regulation legislation that has followed. In 2010, the regulations were amended to include schools in the statutory list of buildings that must be fitted with automatic fire suppression systems. The extension of the legislation in Scotland is incredibly welcome.
One need only think of the Glasgow School of Art for another example of the sheer destructive power of fire. Large portions of the iconic buildings were gutted by a major fire in May last year. News of the fire spread fast, much like the fire itself, and in very little time tens of thousands of people were glued to live coverage of flames engulfing the building, which had quickly become an inferno. It was a shocking reminder of the raw, elemental power of fire. Fortunately, and remarkably, the incident claimed no casualties, although there was extensive and irreversible damage. Unable to contain the fast-spreading flames, staff sounded an evacuation of the building. An intended fire-suppression system for the building had not yet been completed. It is clear that that would significantly have slowed the progress of that fast-spreading blaze.
In Scotland and Wales, sprinklers in schools are now standard; yet only 1,400 of the 30,000 schools in Britain are fitted with them—less than 5%. Most of the 1,400 are schools in Scotland and Wales. It is a pretty shocking disparity, but I am here today to urge action rather than to criticise. Something that is the norm in the devolved Administrations can become a target in England and a benchmark to strive for. The approach at the moment often seems to be to look at cost versus benefit, but what price can be placed on the lives and safety of children? As a mother, I know parents want peace of mind when they send their children to school in the morning. The safety of children should be paramount and we should not wait for a major accident involving loss of life before the Government will act.
The proactive approach taken in Scotland and Wales should be emulated in England. The current situation whereby 65% of new schools are not fitted with sprinklers is not acceptable to me, and I am sure that it is not acceptable to the parents who send their children to those schools every morning. If there were greater public awareness of the fact that only one in three new schools built in England possesses automatic fire suppression systems, I think that there would be an outcry from parents. The current situation is something of a safety lottery, and it falls below what any reasonable Government should strive for. Although there has not been significant loss of life in a school fire in Britain, chief fire officers have identified some near misses. We simply cannot adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
Cost cannot be a prohibitive factor either. In fact, in the long term, fitting sprinklers can save money. In the unfortunate event of a fire, sprinklers can significantly impede the progress of flames, so rebuilding is likely not to take as long as it would otherwise and the extra costs incurred for temporary measures will not be as great. Commercial insurers recognise the value of sprinkler systems in schools and provide lower insurance premiums to schools that have them. It is estimated that the cost of installing automatic sprinkler protection can be recouped in 10 to 12 years, so over the lifetime of a school building, the fitting of a fire suppression system can be cost-effective. Short-term cuts should not cloud our long-term thinking: fire suppression should be viewed as an asset to schools, because it can protect lives in addition to bringing down running costs.
I would like the Minister to take on board and respond to the points I have made. I would like to know what regulation, if any, Her Majesty’s Government are currently considering for fire suppression systems in schools. I echo the sentiments that others have expressed during this debate and I ask that a Minister from the Department for Education attend a meeting of the all-party group on fire safety rescue. Finally, I would like to ask the Minister whether the Department will consider keeping records of new schools built with and without automatic fire suppression protection.
It might be convenient for Members to know that there is a possibility that several Divisions will be called in the main Chamber at 4 o’clock. I thought that our two Front Benchers, who are now going to wind up the debate, might like to bear that in mind.
Thank you, Mrs Gillan. I am sure that we will both bear that in mind. It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
The redoubtable hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said that he would not shut up on the subject that we are debating and that he was puzzled that the solutions to the problem, which are so simple, have not been seized by the Government. He is nothing if not consistent. In February 2014, he remarked in a debate on the subject that
“since the programme of introducing sprinklers into new school buildings, there has been a marked reduction in school fire losses—something I am sure we all welcome and wish to continue. Recently, however, there has been a decrease in the number of new schools built with sprinkler protection”—
a point he made again very well—
“and that is not good enough.”
He used similar language today. He continued:
“It gives the impression that protecting our children’s education from fire damage is no longer a top priority. I am absolutely certain that the Government whom I support”—
he reminded us today of his support for the Government—
“would not want to give that impression. Alternatives are being sought, because sprinklers are no longer considered to be mandatory, and developers are avoiding them to save money in the short term. That, however,”
he said, with precision and aplomb,
“is foolish in the longer term, and playing with our children’s future is simply not acceptable.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 6 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 170WH.]
He has done an excellent job of reminding us of all those points.
The hon. Gentleman was ably supported by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), who spoke of the desperate energy, power and awfulness of a fire, and gave several examples from her constituency. She reminded us, with reference to the fire in her constituency, of the disruption that a fire causes to young people’s learning, and how it forces a head teacher to focus on things such as dealing with insurance agents and contractors while somehow maintaining the continuity of learning. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who speaks on behalf of the Scottish National party, captured that well when she said that “fitting sprinklers can save money” and that to do so in the first place can be, essentially, a stitch in time to save nine.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West pointed out that we should not have a “safety lottery”. Sadly, as the hon. Member for Southend West has pointed out, we are closer to being in that situation than we have been in the past. In 2007, cross-party agreement in favour of installing sprinklers in schools was strong, and there was a significant increase in the number of sprinkler systems installed in schools through Building Schools for the Future. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was a 70% achievement level; that might not be good enough, but it is better than what has happened since 2010. That is why it is important to focus on what can be done to get the show back on the road.
Regarding the blaze at Shinewater primary school in Eastbourne, which has been mentioned, the chairman of East Sussex fire authority said:
“Sprinklers can significantly help reduce death and injury from fire, reduce risk for firefighters, protect property and heritage and reduce the effects of arson. The greatest impact of installing fire sprinklers is likely to occur in schools, residential care homes, premises housing highly vulnerable residents and certain large commercial properties.”
That is a fire professional’s view, and it concurs with the views of hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. Sadly, every week in the United Kingdom, 20 schools are damaged or destroyed by fire, often as a result of fires that are started deliberately. The number of major school fires has been rising, and that creates significant cost. All the research demonstrates that fitting sprinklers can virtually eliminate fire deaths and injuries. As someone who, at one point in my past, was involved in planning to build a new college, I know that the cost of sprinkler systems can make anyone in that position take a deep breath, so it is important to look at the longer-term benefit.
For that reason, I hope that the Minister, in responding to this effective debate, will focus on the questions that have been asked and give us some assurance that lessons will be learned. Will he review the lessons to be learned from what has happened since 2010? There seems to have been an improvement in performance between 2007 and 2010, but it did not continue after 2010. If a review is not already in place, will he look to establish one so that we can learn from those lessons? Will he ensure that proper consideration is given to installing sprinklers in new build schools? We note that that is mandatory in Scotland and Wales, and the arguments on that matter have been strongly made. Proper and full consideration, which involves the local fire authorities, needs to be given to that. Will the Minister ensure that local authorities collect information on which schools in their area have sprinkler systems, so that that intelligence can help to drive policy? On that note, and noting your earlier encouragement, Mrs Gillan, I will sit down.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon.—and redoubtable, it appears— Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing this important debate, and pay tribute to his passion for the subject and his long-standing commitment to these issues through the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue, in the Chamber and outside, more generally. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for her passionate contribution to the debate based on some real and tragic experiences that she has encountered in her constituency. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for her powerful exposition of the case for sprinklers in schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West was right to start the debate by paying tribute to our firefighters and to praise the work of the Children’s Burns Trust. He is also right to highlight the importance of the highest standards of fire safety in schools. Keeping pupils safe is the most fundamental responsibility of the education system. It is therefore vital that, where possible, we prevent fires from starting and spreading, and ensure that schools are able to evacuate pupils swiftly when necessary. Fire safety is also important to avoid the disruption and distress caused by fires, and to protect the significant investment, over many years, in the school estate—a point that my hon. Friend also made. Implementing measures to minimise the damage caused by fires to school buildings is therefore an important priority.
The context to the debate is a very welcome reduction in the number of fires in schools over the past 15 years. In 2001, there were 1,300 fires in schools. By 2014, the number had fallen by more than half to just 600. The tireless work of campaigners including my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, alongside preventive efforts from schools and fire services, has no doubt made a significant contribution to the improvement. Indeed, there have been no fatal casualties caused by fire in schools from 2000 to 2014, which is the most recent year for which we have data. Securing further reductions in the number of fires, and in their impact when they do occur, remains a priority for the Department for Education.
Newly constructed school buildings, as well as extensions and major refurbishments of existing blocks, must comply with part B (Fire safety) of the Building Regulations 2010. The Department applies the regulations to schools in more detail through “Building Bulletin 100”, which sets rigorous standards to ensure that works make sufficient provision for the health and safety of their occupants. The design must include adequate means of escape, firefighting equipment, automatic detection systems and fire signage provisions. The construction materials used must be fire-resistant. Suitable fire doors to contain the spread of any fire must be used throughout the building. A written fire safety management plan is required to be produced as part of the documents to be provided to the school before the occupation of the school building.
The Department plans to consult on a revised “Building Bulletin 100” in 2016, which will incorporate revisions to relevant regulations. In addition, all school buildings, including those already built, must comply with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which requires all schools to be maintained to ensure adequate fire resistance and resistance to the spread of flames. There should be adequate fire precautions in place to allow the safe escape of occupants in case of fire. The order also requires them to conduct regular termly drills, so that pupils and staff can evacuate the school quickly in the case of fire. The school’s fire safety systems require regular maintenance and testing, with the activities recorded in the school fire safety logbook by the responsible person in the school.
Schools are required to implement measures to ensure that pupils or staff with sensory or mobility impairments are kept safe. “Building Bulletin 102” sets the relevant standards in those circumstances. People with visual and hearing impairments, for instance, need a choice of visual, audible, or voice announcement systems. Suitable additional visual alarms should be provided in areas where a person may be alone, such as toilets. When a disabled person cannot make their own way out of the building, it is the responsibility of management to ensure their safe escape, and personal emergency egress plans—PEEPs—will need to be developed in consultation with them. Escape plans should be posted throughout the building.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West made a compelling argument for the inclusion of sprinkler systems in all new buildings. He knows that these are not required under the current building regulations or the Department’s building bulletin standards, which set out measures for the purposes of health and safety, not for the protection of property. The value of sprinklers is in limiting the damage to buildings caused by fires. They are less useful in protecting the occupants of buildings, because they are no substitute for well-functioning alarms, sufficient evacuation routes and effective emergency procedures. Sprinklers are activated only by intense, direct heat. The sprinkler must reach 68°C before being activated—I believe that happens by wax melting in the mechanism—by which point the temperature of other parts of the room will be significantly higher. They are therefore not an immediate fire suppression system, and they are not activated by smoke, which is the most significant cause of injury and deaths from fires. The building regulations and building bulletin therefore include provision for the use of sprinklers and other fire suppression systems where the risk justifies their use, rather than a blanket requirement that they must be included in all new schools.
The number of deliberate cases of arson in schools has fallen from 746 in 2004 to five in 2012-13 and one in 2013-14. There has been a significant drop in the numbers of fires started deliberately in schools but, as my hon. Friends the Members for Southend West and for Eastbourne would say, one is one too many.
In circumstances where there is a significantly higher risk of fire—perhaps because of local problems with arson, for example—a local authority may reach the view that it is appropriate to include sprinkler systems in a new or refurbished school building for a maintained school. In such circumstances, the Department is prepared to include sprinklers in the specification for a school built under the priority schools building programme, but would expect the local authority to meet the additional cost of installing them. If, following a risk assessment, an academy being rebuilt through the priority schools building programme were deemed to require sprinklers, the Department would meet that cost.
This approach represents a careful balancing of the risk of fire damage to school buildings with the significant cost of installing sprinklers. Including sprinklers in new school buildings would add between 2% and 6% to the cost of works. This year alone, we are spending £2 billion on new school buildings, so that would therefore represent an extra cost of between £40 million and £120 million. If we were to go even further, adding sprinklers to a major school refurbishment project would typically add about 10% to the cost.
The Department’s assessment is that the additional spending would significantly outweigh any relatively modest saving from preventing some damage to school buildings. That is especially the case as we continue to prioritise work to prevent school fires. We therefore hope that the overall number of fires declines even further in future years. I am, however, very happy to arrange a meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West and other members of the all-party parliamentary group, either with me or with Lord Nash, the Minister with direct responsibility for this policy area, so that we can further discuss the details of the case my hon. Friend is making for installing sprinklers in all schools.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue today. I hope that he is fully assured that the Government continue to prioritise work on fire prevention, even if I am not in a position to go as far as he would hope in committing the Department to install fire sprinklers in new buildings. I am confident that our other work—to promote prevention, to enforce rigorous building standards, and to require schools to have effective evacuation plans—will continue to keep pupils safe and minimise the damage and disruption caused by fire.
I thank all colleagues for their contributions to this debate. I welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), and I completely empathise with her about Eastbourne pier. Southend pier has had three fires. It is still standing, but the fires have set us back. I know how local residents feel, and she is right to bring the tragedy of this recent fire to the House’s attention. The statistic she shared of there being only three or five sprinklers is shocking.
I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on behalf of the Scottish National party. Scotland was robbed in the rugby match on Sunday. She is right to draw on the excellent achievement of schools in Scotland compared with the rest of the country. She highlighted the savings that have been made. We must not be churlish about the arrival of these 56 Scottish nationalist Members; we can learn some good things from them. She has brought some excellent points to the House’s attention today.
I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). I know that the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) agrees with him on the points he has shared with us. I listened carefully to the Minister, and I accept all his points on the reduction in the number of fires in our schools—I particularly accept his points about arson—but I repeat that no contract should be awarded for new build projects unless sprinklers are fitted. He says that the Department reckons there would be a 10% increase in costs, but I simply do not accept that. No doubt we will debate those and other matters in our meeting.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fire safety measures in school buildings.