Wednesday 6 January 2016
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Child Prisoners and Detainees: Occupied Palestinian Territories
I beg to move,
That this House has considered child prisoners and detainees in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I wish you and everyone here a happy new year.
In June 2012, a delegation of leading British lawyers published a report on children held in Israeli military custody. That independent report was facilitated and funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, based on a number of undisputed facts, found that Israel was in breach of six of its legal obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child and two obligations under the fourth Geneva convention. The report also concluded that if allegations of abuse referred to the delegation were true, Israel would also be in breach of the absolute prohibition against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Eight months after the UK report was published, UNICEF released its own assessment of the military detention system for children. After reviewing the available evidence, including over 400 sworn affidavits from children detained in a system with a jurisdiction to prosecute 12-year-olds in military courts, UNICEF concluded that,
“the ill-treatment of children who come in contact with the military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized throughout the process, from the moment of arrest until the child’s prosecution and eventual conviction and sentencing”.
Following release of these damming reports into a system of martial law that is now in its 49th year, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that,
“it would study the conclusions and work to implement them through on-going cooperation with UNICEF”.
Similar statements were made following the release of the UK report and the issue has been subject to much discussion between our two Governments during the intervening three years.
As part of those ongoing discussions, British officials have raised a number of specific issues with their Israeli counterparts, including the use of painful plastic ties to restrain children, arresting children in the middle of the night in terrifying military raids, and the mandatory use of audiovisual recording of all interrogations. In response to these interventions, the Israeli military issued standard operating procedures for the use of restraints and introduced a pilot study to use summonses instead of night-time arrests. However, in February 2015, UNICEF issued an update to its original report and noted that allegations of
“alleged ill-treatment of children during arrest, transfer, interrogation and detention have not significantly decreased in 2013 and 2014”.
I visited the west bank with my hon. Friend in September 2015 with the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestinians, and we were briefed by Military Court Watch. Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the significant disparity between treatment of Palestinian and Israeli young people, including lack of legal representation and parental support, allegations of widespread abuse and having to sign confessions in Hebrew, among many others?
I share those concerns and will come to them. The disparity between the two legal systems includes, for example, a maximum period of detention without charge of 40 days for an Israeli child and 188 days for a Palestinian child.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this incredibly important debate. She is speaking eloquently in listing the human rights abuses in Israel and indicating that warm words to encourage Israel to act differently are not working. Does she agree that it is now time for action? For example, the UK could call for the suspension of the EU-Israel association agreement, which has a clause saying that if there are human rights abuses, there is a right to suspend the agreement. How can the agreement still be in place with that human rights clause when Israel completely ignores human rights concerns year after year?
I agree with the hon. Lady. That recommendation is superb and there are others.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, but does she accept that the context in which these situations occur is an organised campaign conducted by the Palestinian authorities of incitement, to try to provoke young Palestinians to carry out acts of violence towards other civilians, some of which result in death, including the death of young children?
I take on board my hon. Friend’s point. However, this debate is about the different treatment of Palestinian and Israeli children, and the breach of human rights and international law. I completely agree that if someone has committed a crime, they should be dealt with appropriately and with due process, but that is not what is happening at the moment.
On the specific point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) about human rights abuses and whether that should result in a breach of our relationship with Israel, did not UNICEF, which the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) quoted, highlight alleged human rights abuses of minors in the UK who were arrested during the 2011 London riots?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but I am talking specifically about detention of Palestinian children. If he wants to bring his point forward in another debate, I am sure that this Chamber will be equally packed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She will be aware that evidence from Military Court Watch suggests that 65% of children continue to report being arrested at night in what are described as terrifying raids by the military. Will she comment on that worrying fact?
It is disturbing. A pilot study looked at not doing night raids and issuing summonses instead, but the summonses were issued after midnight, which defeated the whole object.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this undoubtedly important debate. The context in which Israel operates on the west bank is obviously incredibly difficult and none of us would want to find ourselves in it. With that in mind, will she comment on the failure of the Palestinian Authority to work with the Israeli authorities on the west bank on alternatives to detention? She knows full well that they will not engage in such alternatives. I hope that she also knows full well that the difficulty of arresting people during the day instead of the night is that it has led to deaths and riots. The authorities are operating in a very difficult context.
There are two points and I will come to some conclusions. There is a role for the British Government to work with both sides, and I accept that there are failings on both sides. However, the reason for riots when children have been arrested during the day is largely the inhumane treatment of those children. I understand why a parent would be extremely upset if their child was detained. The very fact that the Israel Defence Forces go in at night shows how hostile their behaviour is.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the context is the illegal occupation since 1967? Does she also agree that one of the most egregious elements is the difference between the treatment of Israeli children in illegal settlements and Palestinian children? Israeli children are subject to the rule of law; Palestinian children are not.
That is the nub of this debate and I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend brought it forward. If there are no more interventions, I will make some headway.
UNICEF’s findings are corroborated by evidence collected by Military Court Watch, an organisation made up predominantly of lawyers working in the region, indicating that ill-treatment within the system still seems to be “widespread, systematic and institutionalized” as of last month. In spite of UK and UN intervention, the most recent evidence indicates that the majority of children continue to be arrested in terrifying night-time military raids. In the few cases when summonses are used, most are delivered by the military after midnight and much of the information is written in Hebrew.
Some 93% of children continue to be restrained with plastic ties, many painfully so, and the standard operating procedures are frequently ignored. Around 80% of children continue to be blindfolded or hooded, a practice that the UK and UNICEF reports said should be absolutely prohibited. Audiovisual recording of interrogations has been mandated only in non-security-related offences, which means that nearly 90% of cases involving children, including those accused of attending a demonstration, continue to take place without this practical safeguard.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the reports of physical abuse—consisting mainly of punching, kicking, position abuse and slapping, but in some cases also including more serious allegations, such as of being mauled by dogs and receiving electric shocks—are now higher in number than they were in 2013.
As for the scale of the problem, Military Court Watch estimates that since June 1967 about 95,000 Palestinian children have been detained by the Israeli military. Of those, 59,000 are likely to have been physically abused in one way or another. That abuse is truly disturbing and is on an industrial scale. Why is it that after so much effort, so little progress has been made? Is there something inherent in the situation in Palestine that prevents genuine change? When I visited Israel and Palestine in September 2015 as part of a cross-party Council for Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestinians delegation, it became apparent why little has changed during the three intervening years.
To understand the situation, one must think like an Israeli defence force soldier. Essentially, the Israeli military have but one mission in Palestine—to guarantee the protection of nearly 600,000 Israeli civilians living in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the west bank—an unenviable task for any military to be given. To achieve their mission, the military must engage in a strategy of mass intimidation and collective punishment of the Palestinian population, or risk the eviction of the settlers. That inevitably leads to fear, resentment and friction. [Interruption.]
Order. Somebody at the back of the room is taking photographs. That is not allowed.
Thank you, Mr Chope.
As I was saying, that inevitably leads to fear, resentment and friction, often resulting in the military detention of Palestinian civilians, including children, or, to put it another way, how else could 600,000 Israeli civilians safely go about their daily lives while residing in illegal settlements in occupied territory for nearly 50 years? It is no coincidence that the one thing that all detained children have in common is that they live at a friction point located within a few kilometres of an Israeli settlement or a road used by Israeli settlers. At those friction points, the military make their presence felt through night raids, violent incursions, suppression of demonstrations, arrests and roadblocks—a fact repeatedly confirmed by former Israeli soldiers in their testimonies to the group Breaking the Silence.
Does my hon. Friend really believe that the solution to this horrendous conflict between two peoples—the Israeli and the Palestinian people—can be found by encouraging individual child Palestinians to commit acts of violence against other human beings?
My personal view is that there have been atrocities on both sides, but my feeling is that the way to reach a solution is to treat all individuals, both children and adults, as humans and respectfully, and I do not believe that that is happening at the moment.
Another explanation as to why so little progress has been made during the past three years is that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs delegated the task of implementing UNICEF’s recommendations to Israel’s military prosecutor in the west bank, who is himself a resident of an illegal settlement. That fact alone raises serious questions as to whether the Israeli authorities have any genuine intention to bring about meaningful change in accordance with their international legal obligations.
As troubling as the lack of progress may be, another issue strikes closer to home, because it highlights a blatant disregard for the international legal order established after the second world war and accordingly has the potential to endanger us all. One recommendation in the UK and UNICEF reports was as follows:
“All Palestinian children detained under Israeli military law should be held in facilities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and not in Israel, which constitutes a breach of article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
Our own Government have confirmed that legal conclusion in writing. Sadly, the latest figures released by the Israel prison service, a Government body, indicate that since that recommendation was made, the percentage of Palestinian children being transferred to prison facilities inside Israel has actually gone up and now stands at 56%.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about British companies, such as G4S, that are operating prison facilities and illegally detaining Palestinian children in Israel, and about movements by the UK Government to stop local authorities divesting from companies that are committing atrocities in the occupied territories?
That is a very real concern, which I will shortly come on to.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Israeli authorities, if they are to make any attempt at democracy, should implement democratic laws in particular? These children, if they are guilty of wrongdoing, should be handed to civilian authorities and civilian courts.
That is the nub of the problem: the Israeli children are tried in civilian courts, but the Palestinian children are largely tried in military courts.
The allegation is that Israel is attempting, through various processes, to annex the west bank, but the imposition of civil Israeli law on the west bank would be an annexation of the west bank. It is a standard rule under UN provisions that an occupying force uses military laws and justice. Any attempt to implement the Israeli legal system would be an annexation of the west bank.
I have heard that argument before and I hope that I will deal with it in the forthcoming part of my speech.
In the case of adults, the percentage rises such that a staggering 86% are in Israeli prisons. That affects between 7,000 and 8,000 individuals annually. To make matters worse—if that were possible—the military authorities have now informed UNICEF that they have no intention of changing that policy. It is striking that of the 38 recommendations made by UNICEF, the one stating that Palestinian children from the west bank should be held in facilities located in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is the only recommendation that UNICEF declares has been “rejected” by the Israeli authorities.
There is an unfortunate UK link when it comes to those prisons, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) highlighted. As I am sure everyone here is aware, our own G4S is providing services to the prisons that hold Palestinian detainees following their unlawful transfer from the west bank, in violation of the convention. Those commercial contracts are set to continue until 2017, even though they have been officially held to be inconsistent with the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.
To understand why any of this matters, it is worth briefly considering the legal provisions that prohibit transfer, and why they were thought necessary in the first place. Article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention specifically prohibits the transfer of protected persons accused or convicted of offences from an occupied territory. It is unnecessary to consider whether the convention applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the status of Palestine as an occupied territory, as both those issues have been authoritatively determined by the UN Security Council in legally binding resolutions and that has been accepted by successive British Governments, putting the question beyond any sensible dispute.
The articles of the convention are accompanied by a commentary provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose role includes monitoring the compliance of warring parties with the convention. The commentary makes it clear that the prohibition on transferring protected persons from occupied territory, for whatever reason, stems from the experiences of the second world war, when, as we all know, mass transfers in Europe were commonplace. Determined to avoid a repetition of those experiences, the authors of the fourth Geneva convention voted unanimously in favour of prohibiting unlawful deportation or transfer.
“My hands were tied in front of me, so I kept reaching up to pull the blindfold off, but the soldiers kept pulling my hands down to stop me. I just wanted to go home to my dad.” That was a nine-year-old. Does my hon. Friend agree that if that behaviour happened in any of our constituencies, we would be outraged?
I think that the whole room gasped when my hon. Friend read that out. We would be outraged, and I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that that behaviour is happening on an industrial scale.
Will my hon. Friend give way for a factual point?
As I understand it, the age of legal responsibility in Israel and Palestine is 12. A nine-year-old could not be detained—they just could not. It does not happen.
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s incredulity, but unfortunately it does happen. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent out an incredibly highly regarded group of lawyers, who witnessed this and who spoke to people and to the judges. I agree that it should never happen, but unfortunately it does.
I will just go back a bit. Determined to avoid repeating those experiences, the authors of the fourth Geneva convention voted unanimously in favour of prohibiting unlawful deportation or transfer, including the transfer of detainees, and designated the practice a “grave breach” of the convention, requiring severe penal sanctions as a deterrent.
To appreciate how seriously the House views a grave breach of the convention, we need to look at the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, which provides that any person who
“commits, or aids, abets or procures the commission by any other person of a grave breach…is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 30 years”
if convicted. Similarly, the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court, to which the UK and Palestine are states parties, and the obligations of which have been incorporated into UK domestic law, lists:
“Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement”
of protected persons as a war crime requiring heavy sanctions.
In this debate, I am putting aside the fact that transfer makes it more difficult for Palestinian families from the west bank to visit loved ones held in detention facilities in Israel. The issue I am talking about is key, because it is a violation of the fourth Geneva convention. A violation of such magnitude and duration undermines the credibility of the international legal order and its institutions, and has adverse implications for the rule of law in the region and beyond. Either alleged war crimes must be investigated, without fear or favour, where they occur; or we must accept the risk that our inaction and our turning a blind eye may eventually destroy the international legal order that was established after the second world war. That would be an enormous tragedy, because it would mean that we had abandoned whatever lessons we had learned from that conflict. I suspect that we all agree that this nation has shed too much blood, sweat and tears to abandon those hard-won principles, which were entrusted to us by those who came before us, and of which we are temporary custodians.
The transfer of detainees en masse from occupied territory is a stand-alone issue, because it is a war crime. It is not contingent on the presence or absence of peace talks. It should not be contingent on one political view or another. After nearly half a century, it requires decisive action in accordance with our international legal obligations. The fourth Geneva convention makes it clear that the UK has a positive legal obligation to search for persons accused of committing grave breaches of the convention, regardless of their nationality, and to ensure that if such persons enter the UK, they are arrested and prosecuted with all speed. That is why I recommend that in order to begin to fulfil our legal obligations, we must establish and maintain a watch list of all known war crime suspects, whoever they may be. We should know, at all times, who is coming into this country, whether we need to be concerned and what action we are legally obliged to take. As a nation, we must send a strong message that we will no longer tolerate the commission of war crimes on such an industrial scale, and that we are a people who honour our commitments.
I would like the Minister to act on five points. I would like him to establish a watch list that includes the names of all who commit, aid, abet and procure the commission by another person of the unlawful transfer of protected persons—adults and children—from occupied territories to prisons in Israel. I want him to ensure that any individual on the watch list who attempts to enter the UK is detained for questioning and, if sufficient evidence is available, charged and prosecuted, subject to the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
I would like the Minister to continue to lobby the Israeli Government to cease the practice of unlawfully transferring protected persons—adults and children—from the occupied territory, and to relay the concerns of this House that that practice undermines international legal order. I would like him to continue to lobby the Israeli Government to implement all 40 recommendations included in the UK report, and to monitor whether any changes to military detention systems are translating into tangible improvements on the ground and resulting in a substantial reduction in the level of reported abuse.
Finally, what is the UK Government’s response to Israel’s reported decision to reject UNICEF recommendation 13, which was echoed in the UK lawyers’ report, and which states:
“In accordance with international law, all Palestinian children detained in the Israeli military detention system shall be held in facilities located in the occupied Palestinian territory”?
Several hon. Members
Order. As hon. Members can see, there are many more people standing than there will be time to accommodate, because we are going to start the wind-ups at 10.30 am. I therefore ask those who are fortunate enough to catch the Chair’s eye to exercise self-restraint, and I hope that an example will be set by Mr John Howell.
I shall be brief, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing the debate, and it is a great pleasure to follow her. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The context for the debate is the level of incitement against the state of Israel from the Palestinian territories. Both Israel and the Palestinians are legally bound to abstain from incitement and hostile propaganda in accordance with the Oslo agreement and the 2003 road map, which called on all Palestinian institutions to end incitement against Israel. The Palestinian Authority’s failure to deliver on its commitment to end incitement and hate education explicitly undermines the principles and conditions on which the peace process is built.
In that context, the level of continuing incitement from the Palestinian Authority is hard to believe. Considering the use of young people in the incitement process, it is quite amazing that the state of Israel has made the changes that it has to the process by which it deals with that serious matter. The majority of arrests, for example, occur during the day, and those that are conducted at night are done at that time to minimise the danger to Israelis and Palestinians, including Israel defence forces.
The interrogation procedure is carried out in Arabic, not in Hebrew, and statements are written in Arabic. Appeals can be made to the courts that have been set up to hear the cases, and all minors brought before the court during the investigation or thereafter are represented by lawyers of their choice, provided by them or by the Palestinian Authority.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the process being conducted in Arabic, but we do not have evidence of that because it is not being recorded. Will he comment on access to lawyers? The maximum period of detention without access to a lawyer is 48 hours for an Israeli child, but 90 days for a Palestinian child.
I believe that the hon. Lady is wrong about the evidence that interrogations are held in Arabic. I have the figure for investigations of which an audio or audio-visual recording was made. The number of cases in 2013 and 2014—the figures that I have—in which the investigating officer recorded the hearings is about the same, at about the 300 to 400 mark.
We are being unfairly selective against Israel, when we should focus our attention on the Saudi execution of minors. The point should also be made that the Palestinian Authority are responsible for human rights violations in the west bank, including the detention of journalists critical of the Palestinian Authority and the detention of peaceful demonstrators. In 2014—according to a Palestinian non-governmental organisation, so the figures are independent—some 2,500 Palestinian children in the west bank had been arrested by the Palestinian Authority. A number of those children were mistreated, and I will give some examples. One 15-year-old Palestinian was arrested on 24 April 2015 after a group of youths threw rocks at Palestinian Authority forces. He was beaten on his head, arm and foot with a rifle butt by a Palestinian Authority policeman.
If hon. Members want another example, in August 2015, a 14-year-old Palestinian suffered a broken arm and bruises when he was seriously beaten by a Palestinian Authority police officer who was breaking up a fight. Of the 81 Palestinian children whom the NGO had identified and provided legal aid to in 2014, almost half had suffered some form of physical violence at the hands of Palestinian police and security forces, so the argument here is not at all about just one side—that it is Israel that is the perpetrator of these attacks on children.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the biggest issues, of course, is incitement. Does he share my concern about the container of children’s dolls that was headed for the Palestinian territories? I have brought one with me today—although we are not allowed to use aids. Each doll is dressed up, has a rock in its hand and has messages saying, “Jerusalem is ours” and “We are coming for Jerusalem” on it. A child with a rock in its hand—how on earth are we ever going to get peace between these two peoples when children are incited from a young age into committing what are, quite often, very serious acts of violence that have resulted in death?
I agree with my hon. Friend. His example is a good example of the level of Palestinian incitement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the extent of Palestinian incitement of young people to take arms and violent action almost becomes an issue of child abuse?
I agree with that. It is a question of child abuse, and we need to direct attention to the Palestinian authorities for their handling of children.
Is not the nub of the problem the fact that there are two legal systems operating and they are not equalised? If a child happens to be Israeli, they are treated much more fairly than if they happen to be Palestinian. That is wrong and Israel should sort it.
No, the nub of this issue is that Palestinian incitement continues. As long as it does, we will not get peace in the area. We have to end the Palestinian incitement. I urge the Foreign Office to take action on that.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way; I will finish there.
I will speak briefly, although I must first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on an excellent speech and on securing the debate. The number of Members in attendance—I think there are almost 50—shows the importance that is given to this issue. I am sure that we will not do justice to the number of briefings we have received. I will only refer to one, which is from Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights. It goes beyond the many compelling individual cases that we have read about in those briefings and talks about the basic legal issues.
To return to the point I made in my intervention, paragraph 4 of that briefing says:
“There is an inextricable link between the systemic human rights violations of Palestinian children held in military detention and the overarching context of prolonged military occupation. The realisation of the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people is the optimum solution for the complete removal of ‘widespread, systematic and institutionalised’ violations against Palestinian children held in military detention.”
Now, some of my hon. Friends may think that that is rather stating the obvious, but given some of the comments today, I think it is worth putting on the record because some Members seem to be living in an Alice in Wonderland world. The speech that we have just heard is very illustrative of that point because, according to that, the blame for all that goes wrong in the occupied territories apparently lies with the Palestinian people. There is a very easy solution to that, which is to let the Palestinians govern themselves. Last year, this House voted to allow them to police themselves in that way and not to lead to this situation.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. I will speak for one or two minutes at most, hopefully setting a better example than the previous speaker in relation to the time limit.
I will simply make two points. The first is that the differential treatment between Israeli children in settlements—settlements that are illegal under international law, as this Government recognise—and Palestinian children is symptomatic of the apartheid regime that exists on the west bank and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israeli Government Ministers are quite open now that they want annexation—they refer to the area of the west bank as Judaea and Samaria. There is no longer any pretence, and Government Members—and, indeed, Opposition Members—who seek to defend the occupation are increasingly clutching at straws in doing so.
Finally I make a plea to the Minister. His Government have a poor record on human rights. His senior Foreign Office officials have said it is no longer a priority. We have seen what they are now saying about torture and the death penalty in relation to membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council. We have seen what has happened to the ministerial code. I urge the Minister—because he is a civilised man—to look at these issues and not just to come back with platitudes today, but to address them seriously and to address this issue, which clearly concerns a large number of hon. and right hon. Members. I urge him not just to go through the motions of protesting to the Israeli authorities, but to take some action and to be very clear that Britain, internationally, will not stand for this treatment of children.
Personally, I am someone who has huge respect for what Israel has achieved since its formation on 14 May 1948. Without doubt, modern Israel has been forged and inspired by what happened in the holocaust. Obviously, its foundation goes back far beyond that, but to my mind its inspiration is the fact that Jews from across the world have and can find a safe refuge there where they will never be persecuted.
It is utterly wrong that any human being should be condemned for their race or faith, but it still happens, as we all know. For Jews, the state of Israel is thus their ultimate sanctuary and insurance policy should they feel a need for it. We all understand that. Israel is also a real democracy, in a region where the majority popular writ is not greatly seen in many Governments. As such, Israel is a modern inspired state where what people think and want can be reflected in politics. Elections matter and reflect what the majority of people want to happen. Israel also has, and should have, respect for law and order. In democracies all citizens are equal before the law.
Previously, the hon. Gentleman indicated an issue that he felt was getting to the very nub of the problem. He is now discussing the history of the origin of the state of Israel. Does he agree with me that part of the nub of the problem is that in the middle east there is still a belief among some that peace will only come with the utter annihilation of the state of Israel?
Yes, I accept that point. Of course there is that belief among some people. It is wrong. It should not happen.
It is with a certain amount of bewilderment that I watch how Israeli law in practice differs from one individual to another in an area controlled by Israel, specifically the west bank. There is certainly not equality before the law for all who live there. Jewish settlers are treated very differently from Palestinians. It worries me that two kinds of law apply in the west bank, depending on race and nationality identity. If someone transgresses and they are a Jewish settler child, they are tried under civil law, but if they are a Palestinian minor, they automatically go before a military court, which has very different procedures and punishments.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I am sorry. I will not take any more interventions.
I understand and accept that legally applying civil law to Palestinians in the west bank would be tantamount to unlawful annexation of the area. I agree with that point but, when dealing with civilians, both civil and military laws should be equalised so that children—whether they are Jewish or Palestinian—are treated equally. At this point I pay tribute to Gerard Horton of Military Court Watch—a great lawyer.
According to the Israeli prison service, 407 Palestinian children aged 12 to 17 have been in military detention since 30 November 2015, which is a 33% increase on the previous month. The number of children in detention is now at its highest level since March 2009, and is 54% above the level that Foreign Office lawyers witnessed when they produced their report. Of course that is wrong. Who would not dispute circumstances in which children can be arrested at night, blindfolded and hooded? Who would dispute that lawyers should be present at every interrogation, that parents should be given the option to be present too, that all interrogations should be audio-visually recorded and, importantly, that no child should be transferred out of the west bank into Israel?
In the past, when I commanded British forces in Bosnia—I am sad to say this—I witnessed what were clearly crimes against humanity. Many people, including children, were arrested because of their race. They were ill-treated, detained and improperly locked away in totally inappropriate circumstances. It saddens me to make an analogy—I do so with huge hesitation because of my love for Israel and what it has achieved, and because of the Jewish historical experience—yet I am sorry to say that the way Palestinian children are dealt with in the west bank has some disturbing similarities with what I witnessed happening to children in the Balkans. To me it is utterly wrong that a democratic, enlightened, pro-western state such as Israel, with two different legal systems, clearly differentiates—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not give way.
No, I should not. It is my right.
This is a debate.
Okay, I give way. Let us hear it.
I find my hon. Friend’s comments frankly disgraceful in view of the murder of 10,000 people in Srebrenica simply because they were Muslim. To make that comparison is unworthy.
I am so sorry, but I disagree. I am not making a comparison with Srebrenica.
You just did.
No, I am not making a comparison with Srebrenica. I was there; you weren’t.
It is wrong for there to be differentiation between systems, and that is the whole point of this debate. Please, Israel, we want this to stop. What is happening is plainly against international law and practice. It must stop. If it does not, people such as me, who actually are big supporters of Israel, will lose the urge to be supporters. Please, Israel, sort this out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I personally thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for bringing this extremely important debate to the House today.
I will be brief because so many Members wish to speak, and I will address some specific issues relevant to my background understanding. First, psychological research shows that children, particularly young children, are prone to suggestibility when interrogated under pressure, which makes it more likely that confessions or evidence given in such circumstances will be unreliable if the child is not treated as a vulnerable witness and accordingly given full rights. Those rights would normally include the presence of a lawyer and an appropriate adult for support and, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) described, the video recording of interviews to ensure that children understand what they are asked, to ensure that the way in which it is asked is not leading or suggestive and to ensure that evidence is not gained through emotional pressure, perceived threat or actual threat. Trained interviewers who are skilled in interviewing minors should be involved. Those are only some of the many safeguards accorded to child witnesses in the UK, in line with our best practice guidance. As a psychologist, I feel that such guidance must be enacted across the world in any situation in which children are interviewed.
The lengthy detention of children in the circumstances described has an impact, particularly upon their psychological health, which is likely to be gravely affected, causing concern due to the increased risk of mental health problems.
As a psychologist, will the hon. Lady comment on the likely impact on children of the Palestinian Authority’s glorification of terrorists who have murdered Israelis, presenting them as role models? What is the likely impact on children of Palestinian schools using textbooks that glorify violence and of countless examples of hatred and anti-Semitism being promoted on children’s television programmes on official Palestinian Authority TV in the west bank?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have already spoken in other debates, including a debate on child soldiers, about children’s vulnerability to influence, which is a concern where children, in any context across the world, may be affected by influences that promote violence.
Lengthy detention is not something that we would advocate; treatment is the optimal response, because we are dealing with children. If we imagine our own children being detained for a lengthy period in another country where there may be limited access to family, and where they are living in fear and uncertainty for their future and with a lack of appropriate support, we would feel distraught, helpless and angered. Our children would likely be terrified. I therefore conclude by urging the Minister to take account of the best practice to protect vulnerable children, which we hold so dear in this country, and I urge him to ensure that representations are made to Governments across the world, including Israel, on the importance of such fundamental rights, children’s human rights and legal rights, in the context described.
I will be extremely brief. First, however, I commend the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate. She and I went on the same CAABU-organised visit to the west bank in September 2015. I declare that I am a board member of CAABU.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned context, which is all-important when considering the issues arising in this debate. The basic context is that Israel has been the occupying power in Palestine for almost the past half century. The fact that Israel is the occupying power brings certain responsibilities and duties. The question that has to be considered is whether Israel, as the occupying power in Palestine, is discharging those duties properly.
We have already heard about the two UNICEF reports, which concluded that Israel is in significant breach of its duties in Palestine. Those reports were supported by the report of United Kingdom jurists, which was funded and sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is therefore missing the point for hon. Members to suggest that there is fault on both sides. The significant point is whether there is a breach of law. If there is a breach of law on the part of Palestinian children, those Palestinian children should be dealt with in accordance with the law. The difficulty, of course, is that the legal system applied by the occupying authority in Palestine is a military legal system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned, Palestinian children who find themselves caught up in the military court process are treated differently from Israeli children who may have committed similar crimes. I do not wish to repeat arguments that have been advanced by other hon. Members.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because I am anxious that as many other hon. Members as possible should have an opportunity to speak.
The most troubling aspect of the matter is the breach of article 4 of the fourth Geneva convention, which clearly describes the transportation of people in occupied areas out of those areas as a war crime. There can be no doubt that war crimes are being committed by representatives of the Israeli authorities, which should be of extreme concern to everybody in this House and particularly Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth office. So I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister as to what action the FCO proposes to take.
I will conclude by saying that Israel is a country that attracts the admiration of—I would suggest—most hon. Members who are present here in Westminster Hall today. Israel frequently styles itself as the only democracy in the region. Frankly, the way that Israel is conducting itself is in a way that should bring shame to any self-respecting democracy, and even those of us who consider ourselves to be friends of Israel should point out, in a friendly manner, that that is a matter that the Israeli authorities themselves should also address.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this very important debate, and it is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
I will keep my speech very brief. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) referred to a doll. I would argue that people do not need dolls to promote hate and violence. What we have before us in Israel and Palestine is children between the ages of nine and 12 experiencing discrimination. I have children of my own who are aged eight and 11, but I cannot begin to imagine the trauma and the stamp on Palestinian children’s brains and hearts of hatred towards the Israeli military as they grow up and face discrimination, as well as the way they are tret in custody. So I would argue that we do not need props.
Only recently, Shin Bet told the Israeli Government that Abbas was not encouraging terror and was actually promoting peace. So, I disagree with my hon. Friends when they say that the Palestinians are promoting this kind of propaganda.
Will the hon. Member give way?
No, I will not, because I will not speak for long.
As a former chair of a mental health charity and having my own children, I really struggle to understand why the Israeli Government and the world are silent on dealing with the trauma that these Palestinian children are growing up with. Surely we know that hate breeds hate; laws aside, that is just common sense. There are children who are blindfolded and tortured. We have got evidence before us. How can my hon. Friends ignore that? How can anyone even present a counter-argument to it? We are talking about the basic humanitarian right of children, which we in this House have signed up to, and we must support these children with conviction. There should be no excuse for taking children aged nine away from their homes, detaining them and sending them to prison. That is absolutely unacceptable.
I note my hon. Friend’s comments that a child should not be detained, and I assume that she means in any circumstances. Suppose a child was involved in an act of violence that resulted in the deaths of other human beings. That is what has happened with young Palestinians throwing stones—people have been killed. In those circumstances, surely she thinks that there should be detention.
Order. I thought that the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) had finished her speech, but—
Can I just respond to that question, Chair?
I will allow the hon. Lady to respond, and then we will go on to the next speech.
I will respond very briefly. The fact is that the disproportionality of someone throwing a stone or a rock and being detained for it is not acceptable. That is the reality of what is happening with children.
Last February, four-year-old Adele Biton died after being critically injured by youths in a stone-throwing incident. I am just as worried as my hon. Friend is about the detention of children, but she should not minimise the crimes and violence that are taking place on the other side as well.
I will finish by clearly making the point that the Israeli Government have not provided any evidence of any child causing a death, or contributing to a death, using a stone. There is no evidence of that.
Thank you very much, Mr Chope, for calling me to speak and I will endeavour to be brief. I commend the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this debate. Obviously, it would have been great if we could have had more time for it.
I find it a sad coincidence that this is the week that unfortunately the UN human rights envoy to the Palestinian territories has resigned from his post because of lack of access to information. I urge the Minister to try to follow that up.
Many years ago during the first intifada, I reported on many matters in the region, including children who were detained by Israelis, some of whom had suffered injuries and others who had been killed. This debate is not about gunshot wounds, which unfortunately I had to report on a great deal, and it is not about mortality, which unfortunately I also had to report on many times. However, I am saddened by this debate, because every single recommendation in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office-funded report—all 40 of them—could have been written by me all those years ago during the first intifada. I did that reporting job in the hope that things would improve.
I applaud what my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, from his viewpoint as a witness, about how children should be treated. In the occupied territories, I met children who had been subject to many of the things that we have heard about today.
I fully support the UN convention on the rights of the child, and I urge the Minister to urge the Israeli Government to support it. I also fully support the Geneva convention, and again I urge the Minister to urge the Israeli Government to support it as well.
I was a witness for two years in the occupied territories, but I have also been a witness as an MP in my constituency of Twickenham, where I witnessed a child being arrested by my local police. I had a minor flashback to my time in the occupied territories when I realised how different the experience in Twickenham was. I actually applauded my borough commander after that shift, and told him how impressed I was by my local police, because they were both clear and kind to the child in explaining what was happening to them and who they could talk to. That child was not distressed, which was an absolute contrast to all the times that I witnessed children who had been detained and undergone other experiences in the occupied territories.
Therefore, I urge the Minister to please urge the Israeli Government to adhere to all the recommendations in the report, most importantly recommendation 40:
“There needs to be a comprehensive and independent monitoring system.”
I also urge him to urge the Israeli Government to work with senior people in the military in Israel, because I never, ever met a senior military person in Israel who wanted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of children. There are people in Israel who do not support bad treatment of children.
There should be no discrimination for children whether in Gaza, Bethlehem, west Jerusalem, or east Jerusalem: they should all be treated like the child in Twickenham.
I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this very important debate. As a former chairman of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, this issue is very close to my heart.
The treatment of child prisoners in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is deeply concerning, counterproductive and completely discriminatory. As has already been pointed out, currently in the west bank we see two laws: Israeli civilian law, which only applies to those with Israeli citizenship; and Israeli military law, which applies to the Palestinian population.
Since 2000, at least 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and prosecuted in Israeli military detention facilities, which are notoriously bad in their treatment of children. A UN report found that out of 208 affidavits that had been collected, 91% of those spoken to reported being painfully hand-tied and 82% reported physical abuse.
Does the hon. Member agree that the current situation and the current sustained level of child imprisonment evidences a judicial process in Israel that lacks all proportionality and requires international intervention to protect victims on both sides of this conflict?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point.
I am conscious of time, so I will turn quickly to the issue of parents and guardians not being able to accompany their children when they have to appear before court. Many such issues come up time and again, including how children cannot or do not have legal representation while they are detained. Military Court Watch reports that 73% of children detained said that they were simply not aware of their right to remain silent. What is also damning is that in 30% of cases, the prosecuted child was made to sign their plea in Hebrew.
Order. I am afraid we have already reached 10.30 am. We have to start the wind-up speeches; otherwise everyone will be squeezed out and it may not be possible for the proposer of the motion to respond, which is always desirable in a debate such as this.
The sheer number of people who have come to the debate and tried to speak shows the importance of this issue. I have to declare an interest, which many people are aware of, as I spent a considerable time in Gaza and Lebanon working as a surgeon. Like the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias), I experienced these things well over 20 years ago. I was working in Gaza when the Oslo agreement started, and look where we are 23 years on: absolutely nowhere. For many people living in Gaza or the west bank, things are worse. When I was out there in 2010, I was shocked by the sheer scale of settlements. Members have talked about how the context is incitement, but there is no requirement to incite the Palestinian children, because they are completely surrounded by the issue all the time. We are talking about huge towns and housing estates flowing over the hills. One only has to look at the map on the front of the briefing from the House of Commons Library to see how little territory within the west bank is under the control of the Palestinian Authority. It is by far the minority. The industrial annexation of the west bank is the underlying problem, and we have allowed the issue to go down the agenda.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will not, because I am trying to leave time for a wind-up speech at the end.
We have allowed ourselves not to try to solve the problem. We are talking about how children are treated. I totally accept the point that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) made; the Israelis must try these children in a military court—that is a requirement, otherwise they would be seen as annexing the west bank—but it is about the way that the children are treated. They are arrested by the military, held and interrogated and taken to a military court. There is no requirement for a military court to treat the children badly.
One point we have heard repeated today is about people not having access to legal representation or parents, but will the hon. Lady accept, because it is a fact, that the situation is the same in the domestic law in Israel on minors? Similarly, many of the standard operating procedures that apply in the west bank have been copied over from the domestic law in Israel. Also, in terms of Gaza, when the Israelis left we ended up with a police force that was throwing people off buildings.
That is why I will not be taking any more interventions. If the hon. Gentleman compared the domestic civilian law in Israel and the situation in the military courts, he would find that they are nothing like each other. We have the reports from the delegation in 2011, the report in 2012, UNICEF’s report in 2013 and the update in 2015, and things have not changed. She is sadly no longer in her place, but the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) talked about this. If we simply imagine a 12-year-old or a 14-year-old that we know going through this situation, whether they are in our family or are around us, what do we think it will produce? They are shaken awake to find two men with military weapons and they are dragged from their bed. They are blindfolded or hooded and their hands are tied behind their back. They are thrown on the floor of a military vehicle and driven for a couple of hours. They are then left with no food or drink and often no access to the toilet, and eventually their interrogation starts.
There is no audiovisual recording or evidence to show how the children were treated, but the affidavits collected by one charity after another, including B’Tselem, which is an Israeli non-governmental organisation, show that these children are being abused, threatened and frightened on an industrial scale, with more than two thirds of them being made to sign a confession in a language they do not understand. None of them reported having a parent with them. Only 97% reported not having a lawyer, so a whole 3% got access to a lawyer. The vast majority will meet their lawyer at the time of their first hearing. That leads to a high rate—it is in the nineties—of plea bargaining. They are told, “You have been held for three months. You will be held longer if you decide to contest this. Actually, that thing you signed is a confession.” They then end up in prison, miles away in Israel, with their parents unable to visit them for more than 45 minutes a month. Those parents have to get permission, which nowadays they are unlikely to get.
We have children who may be held for 18 months, without seeing a parent or family member, for throwing stones. What does Israel think that that produces? The child will have post-traumatic stress disorder. They will have missed schooling and will be suffering from all sorts of psychological problems, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). They will probably fail at school. They will not have work; work is hard enough to find in the west bank at the best of times. What we will have created is an angry young person who is ripe to be recruited to be violent and who hates Israel. That is not the solution to get peace.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will not. I need to conclude shortly. We need to get Israel back to the table and we need to get a peace process going. We need to realise what is happening in the west bank. It is simply being built over, and things boil over. If these children have committed crimes, they must be arrested and tried. The evidence must be brought, but it behoves Israel, even though it is through a military system, to ensure that it meets the terms of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which it signed in 1991, with the presentation of high-quality evidence taken from children who have been well-treated. At the moment we have the terrorisation and intimidation of children, confessions that cannot be trusted and children who will turn into the violent terrorists of the future. That is not in the interests of Israel or Israelis. It is not in the interests of Palestinians. We need to use our power not just to tut and to click our tongue, as was discussed last night in relation to what has happened in Saudi Arabia. The UK should stand up aggressively for human rights and not be a pushover.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Chope. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate and on her excellent opening speech. Since she has been a Member of this House, she has been a constant and tireless campaigner for children, no matter where they live. This debate has been well-attended and well-informed, and has reflected the strong opinions across the House. Many Members have visited the region and speak with experience. We have also benefited from the professional expertise of certain Members, with their backgrounds in psychology, mental health and medicine, and also as a professional soldier.
Before turning to the specific issue of children, I should, as others have, comment on the wider context of today’s debate and reiterate the Labour party’s commitment to support a negotiated two-state solution for the two peoples of Israel and Palestine. As has already been said, the situation in Israel and the west bank is bleak. There are no peace talks, and there is no immediate prospect of peace talks. We appear to be as far from a resolution to the conflict as at any point in the past 20 years, while the continued settlement building makes the prospect of a two-state solution even less likely.
Tensions are escalating on both sides, and sadly we have seen a number of terrorist attacks against both Palestinians and Israelis in recent weeks and months. As with any conflict, it is children who often suffer most. The international community has a particular obligation to children, as laid out in the UN convention on the rights of the child. Israel, as a signatory to that convention, is expected to uphold those rights. Furthermore, as an occupying power, Israel has obligations under the Geneva convention towards Palestinian child prisoners.
As we have heard today, there are numerous and highly concerning reports that the detention of children, some of whom are very young, breaches those obligations. That should concern us all not only because it amounts to abuse, but because we want a better future for Israel and Palestine, and today’s children are central to that hope. What we should be working towards and what the international community should be promoting is co-operation and dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli children, to enable a shared and peaceful future.
I could not agree more on trying to bring groups together. On a recent visit to Israel—I declare an interest—we met the MEET group, which brings Palestinian and Jewish children together. It is a fantastic organisation. However, the hon. Lady knows I was a schoolteacher. Would I have delivered the following to any of my lessons? This is from a grade 8 Palestinian textbook:
“Today’s Muslim countries need urgently Jihad and Jihad fighters in order to liberate the robbed land and to get rid of the robbing Jews”.
That is the context of a lot of the violence. Yes, we must hold Israel to account, but we must also hold the Palestinians to account for the abuse of children through the school system.
I want to come on to deal with the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. I think that every Member—[Interruption.]
Order. Up until now we have had mutual respect, and I think that should continue.
I think that every Member of this House would agree that the involvement of children in conflict is absolutely wrong. Before I go on to deal with some of the specific issues around the Israeli response to Palestinian child prisoners, I want to refer to the 2005 assertion from Amnesty International:
“Palestinian armed groups have repeatedly shown total disregard for the most fundamental human rights, notably the right to life, by deliberately targeting Israeli civilians and by using Palestinian children in armed attacks. Children are susceptible to recruitment by manipulation or may be driven to join armed groups for a variety of reasons, including a desire to avenge relatives or friends killed by the Israeli army.”
Moving on to the issue before us today—the treatment of child prisoners—in 2012 the Government convened a group of eminent lawyers with expertise in human rights and child welfare to investigate what was going on. I commend the Government for doing that and I commend all the lawyers involved, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Baroness Scotland. The report concluded that Israel’s treatment of Palestinian child prisoners amounted to a series of breaches of the rights of the child, including article 2 on discrimination and article 3 on the child’s best interests. More concerning still, the lawyers encountered significant evidence that Israel may be in breach of the general prohibition on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The following year, in March 2013, UNICEF released a report, “Children in Israeli Military Detention”, which prompted the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to express,
“its deepest concern about the reported practice of torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian children arrested, prosecuted and detained by the military and the police, and about the State party’s failure to end these practices in spite of repeated concerns expressed by treaty bodies, special procedures mandate holders and United Nations agencies”.
UNICEF made 38 recommendations to improve the treatment of child detainees. Many of these overlapped with the 40 recommendations from the UK legal delegation, which covered the five clear areas of arrest, interrogation, bail hearings, sentencing and the investigation of complaints. Those were all important recommendations. In response, there have been a few welcome military orders issued by the IDF, including military order 1711, which reduces the time a Palestinian child can be detained prior to appearing before a military court judge, and military order 1745, which requires interrogations to be conducted in a language the child can understand, and to be recorded. However, this order does not apply if a child is suspected of committing a security offence such as throwing stones, and that is of concern.
A 2014 UNICEF working group on grave violations against children gathered 208 statements from detained children and found that, among other things, 171 reported being subject to physical violence and 144 reported being subject to verbal abuse. Of the 38 recommendations made by UNICEF in March 2013, only five were deemed to have been addressed by March 2015, although 15 were partially addressed and 14 were under discussion. It is important to note that Israel has rejected only one recommendation outright. The British Government need to do much more to hold the Israeli Government to account in terms of what they are doing to meet the recommendations that have been made.
In a recent answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), it looked as though there was little tangible progress in implementing the recommendations that have been set out. Nor can I say there is much evidence that the Government are prioritising the issue. Although I welcome the efforts of our ambassador in Tel Aviv to raise the issue, I think Ministers can do far more. In conclusion—
Before she concludes, will the hon. Lady give way?
No; I need to complete my speech.
In conclusion, I hope the Minister will make it unambiguously clear today that the UK Government stand behind all 40 of the UK recommendations and will explain to the House how he intends to encourage Israel to do far more to implement the recommendations as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to see you chairing this important debate, Mr Chope. I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing what is a well-attended debate. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady: it is an important debate. I am sorry it is taking place here—no disrespect, Mr Chope—but such matters should be debated in the main Chamber and given more time. I am very sorry that colleagues were not able to get in; I will do my best to write to them. I apologise for not being able to answer everybody’s questions in the short time that I have. I want to allow time for the hon. Member for Rotherham to reply at the end. Forgive me again: I do not intend to take any interventions.
I want to pick up on a couple of points made by hon. Members before I respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Rotherham. First, my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) made the important point that we should not forget that Israel is a democracy in a very difficult neck of the woods. We encourage and support Israel to continue to support the democratic process. We are a friend of Israel and we work with the United States to ensure it maintains high standards and the rule of law. That is very important indeed. It is very easy when a country is under pressure, as we have found ourselves—Guantanamo Bay is an example—to allow standards to slip. So it is important that we are constructively critical but supportive of Israel in the challenges that it faces.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)—regrettably, she is not in her place—mentioned that the EU-Israel association agreement should be suspended if Israel does not live up to its human rights obligations. The agreement could be suspended, but it provides the framework for human rights and other issues to be debated. It provides an important forum for such things to be discussed, so we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we suspended it.
I have a huge respect for the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and how he keeps pressure on the Government in a variety of areas, including human rights. However, he is being a little disingenuous in saying that human rights is not a priority for the Government. Whatever has been said, I can assure him and all those here today that in all the countries in my portfolio—other Ministers would say the same—human rights, the rule of law, democracy, governance and freedom of speech are important matters. Where appropriate and in whichever country I visit, including Israel, where I will be going shortly, I will raise those issues.
I will not give way, but I would be delighted to have a cup of tea with the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issues in more detail.
The hon. Member for Rotherham made an important speech that was accurate in many respects. I welcome the initiatives and the thinking about how we can resolve matters. If she will allow me, I will give consideration to the five points that she raised and I will write to her. Again, I will be more than happy to sit down with her and discuss the issues as we take stock. A lot of the issues have legal parameters, as she will know.
The Government share Members’ concerns about the treatment of children, including Palestinian children, who are detained in Israel. Israel has a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that international standards are upheld. It is especially abhorrent to see child detainees suffering inhumane treatment, whether it is in Israel, the occupied territories, or anywhere else in the world. We are pleased that the Israeli Government have made progress on improvements, but we are pushing for further implementation of the required reforms.
Members from across the House have said that we need to put what we see in context. Co-operation is needed between the Palestinian authorities and Israel to deal with child prisoners. There is also the fundamental absence of a two-state solution, which is the cause of this problem. Members have mentioned the appalling use of children to commit acts of violence. The level of incitement is worrying, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) pointed out, but that should not prevent us from encouraging Israel, working with it and being critical of it on those points, as allies and friends are able to do.
As the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said, it has been a long time since Oslo, Madrid, Camp David, the Wye crossing opening and so forth. It is very frustrating indeed. I agree that we seem further from a solution at the moment. We need leadership. It is very sad that individual Palestinians, who are not prompted by an intifada but have no faith in their own leadership, are going out, killing Israelis and causing mayhem on the streets of Israel in the knowledge that they will be killed. They are not scared to die. We are in a very dangerous place, which is why we call on all sides to come together and look forward to resolve these matters.
This debate is not about the middle east peace process, much as we can wander into it, nor about the occupied territories, although I agree that those issues are related to what we are discussing, so I will focus my remarks on the specific points that have been made. As has been said, in 2012 the UK funded an independent report entitled “Children in Military Custody” by leading British lawyers. Since then, Ministers and the British ambassador in Tel Aviv have spoken and written to the Israeli Justice Minister, Attorney General and military advocate general to urge Israel to take action based on the report’s findings. In February 2013, UNICEF published a report entitled “Children in Israeli Military Detention” and a progress report later that year. Those reports and lobbying by the international community have had an impact. We will continue to make this issue a focus of our engagement with Israel, and we plan to fund a follow-up visit by the delegation in February 2016 to report on further progress.
The UNICEF progress report of October 2013 noted that Israel has taken important positive steps towards addressing the recommendations in the 2012 report by updating its existing standard operating procedures and policies on the arrest of minors. Those updates include changing the policy on methods of restraint and limiting the use of blindfolds to only when there is a security need. Israel has also increased the age of majority for Palestinian children. The Israeli military committed to conducting a pilot of using written summons, instead of night-time arrests, which has now been concluded.
We welcome the steps that have been taken to date, but we continue to call for further measures, including the mandatory use of audio-visual recording of interrogations, an investigation into continued reports of the use of single-hand ties and an end to solitary confinement for children. We also challenge Israel’s classification of diverse incidents—for example, stone throwing and participating in illegal demonstrations—as national, as opposed to criminal, offences. We also said that minors should consistently have access to lawyers before interrogation, and that they should have the right to have their parents present during their detention or interrogation.
We remain concerned about Israel’s extensive use of administrative detention, which, according to international law, should be used only when security makes it absolutely necessary, rather than as a routine practice. Administrative detention should also be used only as a preventive measure and not as a punitive one. We continue to call on Israeli authorities to comply with their obligations under international law and either charge or release detainees. We regularly raise that matter and other broader concerns about the treatment of Palestinian detainees of all ages with the Israeli authorities. We have done so at Foreign Minister, Attorney General and National Security Adviser levels.
Members also mentioned the recent violence in the west bank. We very much condemn what is going on there at the moment, and we remain extremely concerned about the terrorist incidents that have resulted in a number of deaths and multiple innocent civilians wounded. We are also concerned about the use of force by Israeli security personnel in response to protests and security incidents. The Foreign Secretary and I have publicly called on both sides to restore calm and improve the situation on the ground.
I am conscious of time, so let me conclude. This is obviously an emotive issue. That much is clear from Members’ valuable contributions. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham for enabling this debate to take place. I welcome the positive steps Israel has made in implementing some of the recommendations of the “Children in Military Custody” report, but the Government remain concerned about the treatment of Palestinian children detained in Israeli prisons. The UK has made repeated representations to Israel about the treatment of child detainees, and I assure Members that this issue will remain a focus for us. We are committed to this matter, and I will raise it when I visit Israel next month. We will remain engaged on it.
I welcome the Minister’s comments. The point of this debate is that we want children to be treated in a fair, just and legal manner, regardless of their race or the crime they committed. We want to ensure that international law is observed.
My hon. Friend will be aware that, as the US State Department noted, the Israeli military courts have a conviction rate of more than 99% for Palestinians. Does she share my concern that it is influenced by coercive interrogation and the lack of an Arabic translation of documents in interrogation?
I completely agree. Hon. Friends have made that point very well already.
The Minister, in reply to my hon. Friend, said that he wanted to reflect on the five points that she made. He also said that a follow-up delegation will go out in February. May I ask the Minister, through my hon. Friend, to indicate whether he thinks that there should be a full debate in the main Chamber on this issue after that? Clearly, there is a great deal of interest in this issue and a lot of people want to make points.
When I have my meeting with the Minister, I will push that very point.
Palestinian children have been subjected to such treatment for decades. Generation after generation grow up having experienced violence and trauma, and they harbour feelings of resentment, persistent anger, hatred and mistrust as a result. Does my hon. Friend agree that, unless those gross and offensive violations cease, the prospects for peace will continue to diminish?
Sadly, I agree. Everybody in this Chamber and in the country wants lasting peace. We should all be driving for a two-state solution.
I am delighted that the Minister has agreed to meet with me. I want to discuss with him how the UK can meet its legal and humanitarian obligations. I thank the Minister and Members in this Chamber for participating in this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered child prisoners and detainees in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Refugees in Calais
I beg to move,
That this House has considered assistance to refugees in Calais.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Chope, and to welcome the Minister to his place as he arrives. In the brief time available, I will first say a little about my involvement with the “jungle” camp in Calais and the circumstances there. I do not know whether the Minister has visited the camp—a nod would suffice.
I have not visited Calais, but I have visited many refugees and I have received extensive reports about the camp.
I am grateful. I hope that the Minister will find the time to visit, because I will not be able to do justice to the situation in the time available to me. Alongside Calais, there is also the issue of Dunkirk. I have several questions for the Minister, but if he is unable to answer them today, I am sure he will write to me.
Martin McTigue, a senior manager at the London ambulance service and a constituent of mine, contacted me in December and suggested that I visit the jungle camp with him, which I then did. Mr McTigue’s involvement came through Samad Billoo, who is involved in a charity called HANDS International. The charity was set up in Pakistan in 1979 to bring relief to villages there. It is a substantial charity in Pakistan, but its first venture outside Pakistan was to set up an immunisation clinic in the jungle camp in Calais. Sam also works for the London ambulance service, and I found quite a number of paramedics and others who work for the LAS out in the jungle camp providing not only immunisations—40% of the 6,000 or 7,000 people have been immunised against flu—but basic medical procedures. I met a great number of people and will not be able to pay tribute to them all, but I want to mention Abi Evans, another paramedic from the LAS, who has also devoted a lot of time. These individuals are giving up every weekend, and substantial parts of their week through leave, to go out to minister to the refugees in the jungle camp and the camp at Dunkirk.
I mention that background, which is interesting in itself, but it is a curious state of affairs when the relief of several thousand people situated 30 miles from the British coast on the land of our nearest neighbour, a prosperous and civilised country, is reliant on the skilful and diligent attentions of British volunteers. Whether they are medics bringing food aid or helping with shelter, clothing and other matters, these people are predominantly British. They are all volunteers. Some of them have expertise and some do not.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in a moment.
These people simply saw a humanitarian crisis and wanted to assist. However, that is the limit of the support that has been provided to the refugees so far. There is no support from major charities or from the UN, not because they do not want to be involved—Save the Children and Amnesty International have provided briefings for this debate and are very concerned about conditions at the jungle—but because the French Government have persistently refused to recognise the situation as a refugee issue and see it as a border control issue.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
In a moment.
The French Government will not allow major NGOs and humanitarian organisations into the camp, nor have they been providing any real assistance themselves. That is changing, but only following legal action by Médecins sans Frontières, which is present in the camp alongside Médecins du Monde. They had to take the French Government to court in order to get some response, but the Government there will not provide any permanent accommodation. Heated tents are now being constructed for 1,500 people—presumably women, children and the vulnerable—but that is the limit. I saw that part of the camp being built and it will clearly be better, but it is not complete and the winter may well be over before it is finished. That is an appalling way for a civilised country such as France to treat people in dire and desperate need.
I will now give way twice.
Many thanks to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I share many of the concerns that he has expressed in such detail. Does he agree that it is of the utmost importance that children in Calais have access to education? Even one lost day of schooling for a child refugee is a day too many.
Order. The hon. Gentleman must accept one intervention at a time.
I was trying to save time, Mr Chope, but it obviously had the opposite effect. I will come to the good point made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) later, but I will first give way to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald).
Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I am concerned that those who are supporting the refugees in the Calais are volunteers giving up their time. In my constituency, many volunteers have undertaken collections, raising more than £7,000 for the refugees, and provided a convoy of goods and food to Calais. Funds are now being raised for a trip to Dunkirk to provide more much-needed food and supplies. The situation is unacceptable.
My attempt at a multiple intervention was clearly an innovation too far, but I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. A lorry load of supplies, organised by Reverend Bob Mayo of the Church of St Stephen and St Thomas in Shepherd’s Bush, went out from my constituency before Christmas. Communities all over the country are assisting, if not directly by their own intervention, then by giving money and goods, which is to everybody’s credit.
During the day I spent at the camp on 21 December with HANDS International, I met many people. I am unable to do justice to everything I saw; suffice to say, however, that conditions are appalling and will get worse as the winter deepens and the weather deteriorates. Despite all the assistance on offer, the jungle camp is still in an old landfill site under a motorway bridge. There is asbestos lying around. It is waterlogged with mud everywhere. There are chemical plants on either side of it. There is a chronic spate of illnesses, ranging from respiratory problems and scabies to serious diseases such as tuberculosis. The medical and accommodation facilities, which may just be a combination of tents or some rudimentary wooden shelters, are simply unable to cope. I admire the resilience of both the volunteers and the refugees, but they are fighting a losing battle against establishing any quality of life. Of particular concern are the hundreds of unaccompanied children, some as young as 12 or 14, and the increasing number of families.
The people at the camp come from a variety of countries. Many are from Syria, but some come from Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Eritrea and Sudan. Many of them have stories of fleeing persecution. Many of them have their nearest relatives, outside of the countries from which they have fled, in the UK, which is essentially why they are there. It is also true that not all are seeking asylum in the UK. The French authorities have given the situation poor attention. Their involvement in the camp is limited to patrols by riot police, who occasionally fire tear gas into the camp. They do nothing to curb either the problems of violence within the camp, where a 15-year-old boy was stabbed to death before Christmas, or the protests by fascist elements of the National Front. It is a truly beleaguered and desperate situation.
Against that there is a huge amount of hope. There are churches, a theatre and—to take the point made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow—classes, including English classes and education for children. Shops and restaurants have also been set up, with extraordinary ingenuity in the circumstances, but all that cannot be a substitute for proper treatment. The Minister says that he has visited a number of refugee camps, as I have, but this is not a refugee camp with facilities able to maintain any basic standards of life; this is simply people camped out in the open in completely unsuitable conditions.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the conditions in the jungle camp near Calais, which I have also visited, with the Bishop of Dover. I was similarly shocked by the conditions, which were much worse than I have seen in the official camps for Syrian refugees in countries such as Turkey. The conditions in the jungle camp are absolutely shocking and simply unacceptable for animals, let alone for humans, and the migrants certainly felt that they were living like animals, which was leading them to have a great hatred for the UK, the country that they hoped to come to and came towards with great hope—instead, they are very angry. It is good news that the French Government are planning to improve facilities and to construct a new camp. The hon. Gentleman might well yet do so, but I ask the Minister to update us on the UK Government’s conversations with the French about improving conditions and on the part that we are playing. Will the Minister also address the concerns of my Kent constituents about the security implications of the new camp?
Order. I have indulged the hon. Lady, but normally interventions should be brief—they are interventions, rather than speeches.
I am glad that you indulged the hon. Lady, Mr Chope, because it was a good intervention and one with which I agree. I must speed up a bit, but I will pick up on one point: I am afraid that not much comfort can be given, because the pace of action by the French Government is so slow, whether deliberately or through bureaucracy.
I want to bring another matter to the Minister’s attention, although it might be a debate for another day. If conditions in Calais are atrocious, they are far worse in Dunkirk. I have not visited Dunkirk, but I have had a long report from there. We were told—this was reported in lurid terms in the UK press—that a new refugee camp was to be built, à la Sangatte, at Dunkirk by the French Government. Perhaps so, but it too is to have those heated tents, and everything is taking much longer than it should be. It might well be winter before it is ready.
Importantly, while the camp is being constructed at Dunkirk, no resources will be allowed in. Only this week I had a report from Mr McTigue to say that police were not letting in any tents, blankets, building materials or wood for fuel, which adds to the misery. There are no signs so far of a permanent camp. I therefore urge the Minister to visit not only Calais but Dunkirk, because the conditions at Dunkirk are truly appalling given the freezing conditions and the lack of shelter, water and toilets. Each day young children are having to sleep in those conditions, without even enough food being supplied. Of the first 100 people vaccinated by HANDS International at Dunkirk, 96 had scabies. Such conditions should not prevail anywhere, frankly, but certainly not in northern Europe.
In the few moments I have left, let me ask the questions that I want the Minister to answer. How much are the UK Government spending in and around Calais? I think that the answer is nothing to relieve the refugee situation, but some £18 million on razor wire fences to stop refugees getting to Eurostar or other ways of reaching the UK. How are the Government liaising with the French? What pressure are they putting on the French Government? I ask that because of a Home Office statement—I think about Dunkirk, although it might well apply to Calais—that said:
“We do not get involved in what is a French decision on what they do with a camp in their country.”
I am afraid that that rather Pontius Pilate attitude will simply not do.
What steps are the Government taking to allow the reuniting of families? As I said, a large number of the unaccompanied children and the families in the French camps are there because their nearest relatives are in the UK. At the moment, other than risking their lives and trying to get through the tunnel or over on lorries, there is no way for them to achieve reunion with their families. What are the Government doing to facilitate asylum claims to the UK? How are they co-operating—this might be a difficult issue for them at the moment—with the European Union?
The Minister will have seen the recent report of the Select Committee on International Development, which was excellent and clearly recommended that this country should take 3,000 refugee children from within Europe. I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to respond to that. I must also pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on such matters. She has visited the camps and heads the Labour party’s taskforce on refugee issues. She has called for a major new, co-ordinated humanitarian relief programme, including for Calais and Dunkirk; a proper series of assessments of who needs refugee support; and an increase in the number of people to whom this country is granting sanctuary.
The problems are severe and terrible, but we are still only talking about something perhaps in excess of 10,000 refugees in total; compared with the refugee crisis as a whole, the situation is not one that should be beyond the wit of Britain and France to resolve. I share the frustration of organisations such as Amnesty and Save the Children, which wish the Government to act or to act themselves, but at the moment they are prevented from doing so.
I ask the Minister to look at the terms of Dublin III and the UN convention on the rights of the child to see whether his Government are properly fulfilling their obligations under them. He might rely on Dublin III to say, “Britain has no responsibility,” but I urge him to acknowledge that we do have a responsibility—a humanitarian responsibility—in particular to the children in Calais and Dunkirk who have relatives in the UK, and to say how we may reunite them with their families.
I could say a lot more, but I will give the Minister time to respond. One of the many inspiring people I met in Calais was a man whom I will simply call Muhamad. He was a translator for UK forces in Afghanistan, but he did not qualify for the right to come to the UK, which some translators were given, because he was not still employed at the time—although his services to the UK forces were none the less for that. He is an inspiring figure in the camps and he helps to run the library and the education classes. He let me know through some of the people I met in Calais that a young friend of his called Masood was found dead in the back of a lorry at Dunkirk last week.
Any death of a child is a terrible tragedy, but in those circumstances I find it extraordinary—we are talking about people whom the Minister could get on a train and meet in an hour’s time. The reason why Masood wanted to come to the UK is because his nearest relative, his sister, was in the UK. However, the only way that he thought he could reach her and escape the terrible conditions in which he was living was to take the step that led to his untimely and tragic death. Those are the circumstances with which we are dealing. We cannot turn away and say that the situation is someone else’s responsibility. We have to play our part.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I apologise for my lateness, but a lot of people were leaving the previous debate and we had to wait outside.
I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for introducing the debate. No one could suggest that this is not an important subject. I have not visited Calais, but I have spoken at length about the conditions there to many of the people whom the hon. Gentleman has mentioned in his speech. For example, I have spoken to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who is in her place, and others as diverse as the Chief Rabbi and non-governmental organisations, so I feel familiar with this subject.
In the limited amount of time that we have, I would like to say that the Government are not standing idly by and doing nothing. The gist of one of the questions the hon. Gentleman asked really was, “Is it being left to the French on their own and what are the British Government doing?” My hon. Friend’s question also related to that. Therefore, rather than giving hon. Members a lecture about the migration crisis, which they are familiar with, given the limited time I will attempt to stick to the core subject.
A lot of what the UK is doing stems from work done together by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and her French counterpart, Monsieur Cazeneuve. As I am sure Members are aware, that led to a joint declaration. That was not just a political declaration; it set out a programme of achievements for the two Governments. It has led to significant improvements in security for example, which answers my hon. Friend’s question.
I understand that, from a security point of view—I will mention this before we skip on to the refugee side—the situation is very different from the middle of last year, with extensive fencing installed and infrared cameras on the way, so there are many different methods to detect people trying to get into this country. It is not perfect, but there has been a dramatic improvement. I want to ring-fence that security point, because while that is not the main purpose of the debate, the question was asked. I accept the worries that my hon. Friend’s constituents have, but a lot of work has been done on that and I could spend the whole 10 minutes talking about it.
On the core subject of what the joint agreement between the two countries has achieved, other than on security and the related subjects of challenging organised crime gangs, intelligence sharing and everything like that—I do not want to detract from the importance of that—I shall use the remaining time to talk about the refugee side of the agreement. What has actually happened? On the main effort—this answers the hon. Gentleman’s question about what money the UK Government are spending on refugees—I want to put on record that the efforts of the Department for International Development are predominantly in helping refugees in the areas around Syria. As people may be aware, in particular those who have read the International Development Committee’s report, which was ably referred to by the hon. Gentleman, we are spending £1.2 billion. Apart from the United States, we are the major provider of humanitarian resources in the areas adjacent to Syria, as I saw when I visited the region as the Minister for Syrian refugees.
To get back to Calais and the French situation, the UK has supported significantly—I believe to the tune of €750,000—a French NGO that operates for the most vulnerable people around the jungle camp. That work has involved the construction of a day centre away from the camp and facilities to take the most vulnerable people away from that site. That is coming to fruition now. The steering committee behind that is made up of UK and French officials and others, and it hopes to target the most vulnerable people—children, women and those who have suffered particularly—and remove them from that spot. Therefore, while I cannot say that that is a financial priority for DFID—after all, France is a high-income country with adequate resources of its own—it is trying to target financial efforts on vulnerable people. I know that some people are sceptical about whether that will work, but the strategy is serious.
I accept that the French Government have primary responsibility—if it were on UK soil, it would be the British Government—but the French are failing on this. I ask the Minister to ensure that his Government take a proactive stance. They do so, rightly, on security measures in terms of co-operation and they should do so on humanitarian measures. By setting an example on both the conditions in the camp and the resolution for the individuals there, they may encourage the French Government to do what they should be doing.
In answer to the point about the French failing, I cannot speak in complete defence of the French Government because the conditions are as they are, but—as the hon. Gentleman may be aware—they have pledged that people will not sleep under canvas this winter: large amounts of heated container-type accommodation, similar to what I saw in Jordan, is currently being installed.
The strategy is based on reducing the number of people at the jungle camp. According to the most recent report, which I received yesterday, there are about 4,000 people currently in the camp and it is expected that significant numbers will leave as a result of beefing up the French asylum programme and moving them to other centres throughout France, away from the Calais area. My information is that significant numbers of African refugees are taking up that choice and being relocated voluntarily.
I would love to take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but there is a very small amount of time left. I will happily talk to him outside the Chamber if I may.
It is an important point that the hope is to halve the number in the camp. In terms of specialist accommodation for children and other people, it is significant that the number of vulnerable people is in the hundreds and expected to increase. Given the scale of the problem, one may argue that that is just a small part, but the British Government are pushing the French Government on that. The joint declaration is a programme of work that is being monitored all the time.
This is not quite as simple as it sounds. The UK is not saying, “We wash our hands of it—it is not our problem.” We accept that people are going to Calais because they believe that they want to come to the UK. We have officials there who explain to people what life in the UK is like and that, actually, a lot of the reasons why they thought they could or should come to the UK are not valid in reality.
The French Government are being pushed by us to beef up their asylum programme. To take up the final question the hon. Gentleman asked about the family reunion side for children in particular, of course if those children can, under guidance, claim asylum, they can then apply through our family reunion scheme to come to this country. I believe that such requests through the normal channels for those with family in the UK would be looked at favourably. However, they must have it explained to them how to become asylum seekers in France. The French policy is to make them become asylum seekers in France, because they then get a whole lot of benefits and things that they otherwise would not.
This is a complicated subject that must be seen in the context of what the UK is doing overall. We are not the only country: there are all the countries in Europe and others who are trying to deal with the refugee situation. However, I am proud of what the Government have done. That does not mean that we can say, “Calais is nothing to do with us,” because, as everyone knows, it is only 22 miles away from parts of Kent.
The British and French Governments are working together well. I hope that what the French Government have said about reducing the number of people under canvas will happen shortly. I also hope that the enhanced security will work and that our money, through the French NGO, will really help those most vulnerable people.
Question put and agreed to.
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I should apologise for being late: I have been reshuffling on my own and it took a little longer than planned. I call Derek Thomas to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered food security.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. This is my first Westminster Hall debate; I will try to follow all the correct procedures.
I requested this debate because the past year or so has been particularly difficult for most farms, big and small, and specifically those in the dairy sector. Since securing this debate, I have been encouraged by the fact that so many MPs share my concern about food security. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who has given me some insight into the difficulties faced by farmers in her constituency. She is unable to attend as she has Select Committee responsibilities.
Farming remains an important part of the economy. That is particularly true in my constituency, St Ives, which includes west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. I grew up among farms and live today at the bottom of a farm lane—do not get that wrong: I live in a house, but at the bottom of a farm lane—so I see first-hand the hard work that is put in and the challenges to which farmers are exposed, year in, year out. Living in a rural area such as west Cornwall brings home the contribution that farmers make and the vital role that they play. They preserve, maintain and protect our countryside, and create jobs not only in farming but in sectors such as food processing, engineering and tourism. Most importantly, they feed the nation.
Maintaining food security has long been a concern of mine. We must take it much more seriously. Conflict around the world affects food security, and population growth leaves more mouths to feed. Food security is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as
“when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
I recognise that imports are included in the calculation when food security is measured, but for the purpose of this debate I would like to concentrate our minds on the ability of British farmers to produce the lion’s share of the food we need and to ask what more can be done to ensure that they continue to feed our nation. That is important, because it would be unwise, and there would be moral implications, were we to assume that whatever we cannot produce for ourselves can simply be imported. As the world’s population grows, and taking into account growing unrest and conflict that threaten some regions’ ability to produce food, we should not assume that affordable imports will always be readily available. Indeed, we must not, because every tonne that we import is a tonne less that is available to other nations that might not have the ability to produce as we can.
As a parliamentary candidate of eight years and an MP of eight months, I have had ample opportunity to meet local farmers and gain an insight into their industry. I am grateful for the time that farmers have taken to explain their work to me. I have learned that the challenges are considerable and the solutions complex. Having seen how hard farmers work, I would never claim that their business has ever been easy or straightforward. Nevertheless, 2014-15 was a particularly difficult period for British farming. Farms have been more productive, largely as a result of investing heavily in technology and machinery, but farmers are having to work harder for their money and, in some cases, getting less for their product than 20 years ago. That is particularly true in the dairy industry.
Dairy prices hit the headlines last summer. The price of milk continues to fall, and the diary sector in Cornwall has a particular problem because of the limited markets available. Basically, there is Dairy Crest for cheese, Arla, which includes Rodda’s, and Trewithen. The latter two pay between 22p and 24p per litre.
Cauliflower growers have had a terrible winter—admittedly because of the warm weather. They tell me that they need to be paid 48p per head to have a future that they can invest in, but prices have been between 18p to 22p per cauliflower.
My hon. Friend mentioned the difficulties with dairy prices, which the House has been discussing for more than a decade. Will he join me in pressing the Minister for an update on the concrete steps that the Government are taking to support dairy prices?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. I first met him at a farming industry event at a conference many years ago—probably when I was first selected as a parliamentary candidate. I will certainly continue to press my hon. Friend the Minister on that matter.
Income figures for 2014-15 from throughout the UK show the harvest down by 9%, with a 24% drop in general cropping, a 25% drop in income for pig farmers, a 20% drop for poultry farmers and a 29% drop for mixed farms, so the situation is bleak. Basic business sense says that no one will invest in a business when they have no idea what the return will be from one month to the next, and no one can expect a business to survive if they are consistently paid less than the cost of production. Yet that is the daily reality for large parts of the British farming industry. They persevere when any other business would pack up and go home. We cannot afford for British farmers to pack up. We must not ignore the threat to British producers.
For many farmers, the price they are being paid does not cover the cost of production. If that continues, we will see farms disappear and less food produced—indeed, we already have. We need to create an environment in which farmers are consistently paid a fair price so that they have the confidence to invest in their businesses, employ the workers they need and produce food and drink to meet UK demand and beyond. Why is that so important? Because British farmers play such a vital role, as I said earlier. They protect, maintain and preserve our natural environment. They provide jobs in farming, processing, engineering and tourism—some 3.8 million jobs in food and farming alone. They contribute £10 billion to the UK economy. In rural Cornwall, it is primarily our farmers who keep our Methodist churches open. Most importantly, our farmers feed the nation.
It is difficult to establish exactly how much of the food and drink that the UK needs is produced by UK farmers. The widely accepted figure currently stands at around 62%, but a recent National Farmers Union report suggests that as things stand, taking into account predicted UK population growth, it will drop to just over 50% when my children reach retirement age. The UK does not want to be in a position where we rely on exports for nearly half the daily food and drink we need. It does not have to be like that.
It is widely acknowledged that there is an opportunity for the UK to import less indigenous fruit and vegetables. The UK supplied only 23% of the fruit and vegetables it needed in 2014, yet frustration exists in the industry and further afield with what appears to be an inability to tackle the issue and maximise the potential of our food industry for the future. The National Farmers Union has done some very useful work in that regard, which the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), reinforced in January 2014 when he said:
“By buying seasonal fruit and veg we can improve the nation’s health, help the environment and boost the economy…As British farmers and food producers, you know that we grow some of the best food in the world here, so why is 24% of the food eaten in the UK imported when it could be produced here? We have a top-class fruit and veg sector which produces everything from green beans to strawberries, yet we imported £8 billion of fruit and veg in 2012.”
It is in our interests to produce as much food as possible. If we want to ensure that good quality food continues to be available to us at a reasonable price, we must support our farmers.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. Is it not the case that we need to be absolutely clear with our food labelling? My local paper, the Yorkshire Post, has a “Clearly British” campaign to label food. Clear labelling will obviously help the whole process and help our hard-hit dairy industry at the same time.
I am glad my hon. Friend raised that point, which I will come on to. Clear labelling is a powerful tool for consumers, because they know exactly what they will get when they buy their produce.
The NFU’s recent “Back British Farming” campaign, carrying the slogan “Want great British food tomorrow? Buy great British food today”, makes it clear that the time for action is now. With a growing global population, there is every reason for us to produce more. We have the opportunity to grow because there is a huge international demand for food, and we want to be part of the solution.
Earlier I referred to complex challenges that require equally complex solutions. I am grateful to be speaking as a Back Bencher; I do not envy the position of my hon. Friend and colleague the Farming Minister, who is required to respond to this debate. However, there is some capital we can build on, which I believe is ripe for the taking—I hope Members will excuse the pun. If we get it right, it will help the British food industry no end.
UK farmers enjoy significant levels of good will from the British public. Recent research shows that 88% of the UK public think that farming is important to the economy and are concerned that we have a secure and safe domestic food supply. The British shopper wants to support the British producer. Over the recess—this takes me on to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy)—I wanted to see how easy it was for shoppers to support producers. I visited five supermarkets with two simple questions in mind: can I be sure that I am buying British produce, and can I be sure that the farmer is receiving a fair price?
To the credit of the Government, suppliers, retailers and, most importantly, consumers, the issue of labelling and country of origin has largely been resolved. Although legislation only requires the country of origin to be shown for products from outside the EU, we can often see the county of origin as well as the country of origin when buying fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat. It is clear that the industry has responded favourably to consumer demand. However, I did find some butter that simply stated it was produced in the UK, whereas all others stated they were produced using British milk in the UK. I also found some salmon that was labelled as being from “Scotland or Norway”, which I found curious, as I had not previously met a salmon with such an identity crisis.
Despite various claims on packaging, I left each of the five supermarkets unsure whether the farmer received a fair price. I am not suggesting that they did not, but I found the packaging confusing. What consumers need, as they seek to support British producers, is absolute confidence that the product is British and that the farmer is getting a fair price. Unless we can provide that assurance, consumers will not be able to fully support the British farming industry, especially if they are being asked to pay a little extra.
We have seen consumers demonstrate that they are willing to pay more for milk and dairy products once they have complete confidence that the product is British and the farmers are getting paid a fair price. If they do not have that, they will continue to buy cheap milk. No noble-minded British person wants to give more money than they must to the supermarket bosses, but they would to the farmer, because they value British farmers and are concerned about food security. The truth is that we do not necessarily need to pay more. If I had purchased a Cornish cauliflower before Christmas, I would have parted with £1, knowing full well that the grower was getting just 18p for the cauliflower. It is possible to pay a fair price to the grower without hiking supermarket prices on many of the goods that the UK produces.
The great advantage of being a Back-Bench MP is that I have the space and privilege to do some blue-sky thinking. My blue-sky thinking is this. With such solid support for our producers from British consumers, with increasing concern about future food security and in the light of the torrid time our farming industry is enduring, is this the time for the Government to establish a UK fair trade brand, giving the consumer a rock-solid guarantee that when they choose to buy British, British farmers will get a fair price for their products? We need to remove all confusion and empower consumers to support the British farming industry further.
My objective is clear: to support British farmers and producers by encouraging consumers to buy locally farmed and produced food and by enabling them to easily identify genuine domestic products that have rewarded the farmer fairly. I want to see a Government-backed initiative to deliver that objective.
To conclude, I would like to ask the Minister to address a few short questions—which I gave him in advance, to allow him time to prepare. [Laughter.]
How very generous.
Well, I have got to see the man on the train every week.
What can the Government do to give consumers confidence that when they buy British, British farmers are getting a fair price? What can the Government do to ensure that the public sector is playing its part and is buying as much British produce as it can to feed our children, our armed forces, our patients and others in its care? What can the Government do to support the NFU’s “Back British Farming” campaign to enable consumers to choose to buy great British food today, so that they can continue to buy great British food tomorrow?
We do not expect farmers to tolerate a price below the cost of production, but as consumers we quite often expect to pay half the price for a pint of milk than we would for a pint of bottled water. What can the Government do to quash the myth that milk is cheap to supply and should always be cheap to buy? What can the Government do to reassure consumers that buying British produce has the added benefit of supporting good welfare of livestock and achieving the highest standard of food hygiene and production? What can the Government do to create an environment in which British farmers are consistently paid a fair price, so that they can invest in the future of their farms, attract new blood into the industry and weather the storms, whether they are Russian, Chinese or just wet and warm? What can the Government do to help the nation to celebrate the great British food and drink industry and to provide food security strengthened by increased self-sufficiency?
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am sure we can avoid a time limit and get everyone in if Members observe a bit of discipline.
I am ever mindful of your guidance on time, Mr McCabe, and I will keep to it. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is nice to follow the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), whom I thank for bringing this very important debate to Westminster Hall. I declare an interest, first as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the sister organisation of the NFU, and secondly, as the chair of the all-party group for eggs, pigs and poultry.
It is only recently that food security has become a point of discussion again within the United Kingdom. Between the end of the second world war over half a century ago and the end of the last Labour Government, this was not even a talking point. It is sad to think that what we thought we had put to bed is now raising its head again in the 21st century, especially in an advanced country such as ours.
My constituency of Strangford is mostly rural-based, with certain urban concentrations in the towns of Comber, Newtownards and Ballynahinch. Down the Ards peninsula, in and around Ards, over towards Comber and further on towards Ballynahinch is some of the most exceptional land in Northern Ireland. We have the largest milk production in the mid-Down area in the whole of Northern Ireland, as well as excellent produce. We have some of the best beef cattle—I say that in all honesty, because we do—and a very active, strong Strangford co-operative for lamb. The pig industry has felt some pain over the years, with reduced staff and fewer people producing pigs, but some of the guys who are in it are massive, which has probably compensated for that. Down in Portaferry we have a 1,000-sow unit, which is quite large for Northern Ireland. We also have a very productive egg sector, and cereals and vegetables are produced there as well.
To whet the appetite, I could suggest nothing better to any Member in this Chamber than to start off their meal with vegetables from Killinchy. They could follow that up with the Comber spud—the name, “Comber potato”, is guaranteed and secured under EU legislation—and what would go better with Comber potatoes than a bit of Strangford lamb? And they could finish it off with a third course—not from my constituency, of course—of Armagh apples. There we have it: all three courses—two from my area and the third, unfortunately, we have to bring from Armagh. I say that a bit in jest, but it does illustrate clearly what we have.
In Northern Ireland, as 70% of the production line in Northern Ireland for agriculture is exported, we depend to a great extent upon the export industry and it is highly important to us. In my constituency we have Rich Sauces, which exports and has to do so. We have Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct. At Kiltonga we have Pritchitts, which takes its powdered milk all over the world—as far as the far east and down into south America, as well as across all of Europe and Africa. These are key factors for us in my constituency; we need to export to survive. Some 20,000 people are directly employed in agriculture and the agri-food sector is worth £1 billion per annum in Northern Ireland. It is a massive industry and its importance cannot be underlined enough.
With the instability across the world and the links between food production and climate change and extreme weather, we cannot take food security for granted. Even when we are enjoying food security across the nation, we should be taking steps to reduce waste. A proactive rather than reactive approach is what is needed to ensure that we prevent food security being affected by influences such as climate change.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already considered all aspects of UK food security in its reports and has highlighted that as a key issue. I understand that the Committee met yesterday with health officials to discuss this matter. If the Minister is in a position to do so, I would be keen for him to give us some idea of how those discussions went and what took place. The positive situation with regard to food security will not last unless the Government plan for the future and allow for future changes in UK weather and global demand for food.
“Buy British” is what the hon. Member for St Ives said. As a member of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I look upon myself very much as British. I want to be part of that “Buy British” campaign and I ask the Minister whether it is time, as I believe it is, to do joint initiatives for promoting the food that we produce in Northern Ireland collectively. In the past I have said the same thing to my Scottish colleagues on my right, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). We can sometimes do this better if we do it together. I am of course a great believer in doing it better together—[Interruption.] I am not sure whether these two men would agree we should do everything together, but I think we should, because I am very much committed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The NFU and the Ulster Farmers’ Union have also stated that.
I want to put this point in Hansard for the record. I understand that there have been some discussions with the farmers union about the need for a market-led, not production-led, strategy. I would like to hear the opinions of the Minister and shadow Minister on that. I think we need to be market-led, when the contract and business is there and then the production comes in behind that. However, we need to know perhaps how that works. Some discussions may have taken place with the NFU and I hope that the Minister is in a position to respond to that point.
Although the UK does not have the growing conditions to produce all types of produce, or some produce, as cheaply as other nations, we need to take the opportunity to import less non-indigenous fruit and vegetables. That will be good for the economy, reducing our already huge fruit and vegetable trade deficit, which amounted to some £7.8 billion in 2014. Again, perhaps the Minister has some ideas about how that can be addressed. We could, we should and we must do more.
I understand that the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board has been helping UK farmers to extend their growing seasons for cherries, strawberries and asparagus, and I hope that we can see a similar approach to improving our self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables.
The UK food security assessment from 2010 noted that UK food security depended on being able to source food from a variety of countries, and that that diversity of supply enhanced security by spreading risks, widening options and keeping prices competitive. One production farmer in the agri-food industry in my area told me one day that it is actually cheaper—I find this impossible to comprehend—to import some vegetables from south America to use in his salads in Northern Ireland. I do not understand how that works economically, but he tells me it is cheaper. We need also to have the checks, because we are very conscious of “farm to fork”, and we need to be able to track the movement of food so that its history is traceable, from where it is produced to where it ends up. We need to know whether there are any problems; we need food security. Where does food security come in when it comes to importing food from other countries? Ensuring that in addition to backing local producers, we have an array of different producers in different countries will ensure that food security is not too adversely affected by any extreme or unusual weather in the UK.
Just last year, we saw throughout the UK mass protests by dairy farmers over milk prices. We had farmers across Northern Ireland and farmers in my constituency suffering because of abusive monopolies driving prices below the costs of production. Although it is not a topic for this debate, we also have the EU bureaucracy and red tape that choke and strangle the farmer and make it very difficult for them to produce. Of course, everyone wants to pay less for things and milk is no exception, but should a debate like this ever come up again, we need to make sure that we are on the side of the everyday, normal, hard-working people in our food sector who produce the food and continue to give our great nation a comfortable and secure level of food security.
What discussions has the Minister had with the devolved Administration, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and in particular with the Minister responsible, on how we can have that food security across the whole United Kingdom and how can we promote our food much better?
UK food is, on the whole, the cheapest in the world after the United States and there are some positives to take from that. Inflation is as low as it can go. Food prices, along with fuel prices, have played their part in that and it is making life easier for many of our citizens. We cannot ignore that; it is important that people do not pay too much. Too many are still dependent on food banks, but we are moving in the right direction.
In conclusion, with the right support and long-term strategic thinking, we can ensure that the United Kingdom enjoys food security for generations to come, regardless of what the climate or global economy may throw at us. Only by taking a proactive approach and addressing concerns head-on, rather than reacting to preventable problems, can we ensure that our citizens are secure when it comes to their access to food. Thanks again to the hon. Member for St Ives for giving us the chance to speak on this issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this very important debate. When I was first elected 10 years ago, we set up the all-party group for dairy farmers, given the perilous conditions that they were facing in Shropshire—all the difficulties that they were facing with supermarkets and the prices that they were getting for their dairy products and milk. An extraordinary number of MPs—290—joined the all-party dairy group, which made it the largest all-party group in that Parliament, and we had a very good secretariat.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative at that time. Does he agree that we still need the good measures that were introduced in the last Parliament to help farmers to combat bovine TB with a roll-out of the badger cull, so that they do not face such hardship as in the past?
I agree with my hon. Friend and I will come to that.
It is worrying that, despite all the work that has taken place over the last 10 years, we are still receiving anecdotal evidence from farmers that they are under strain from prices. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives referred to the pressure on milk prices. I am keen to hear from the Minister—I have come here specially—how the Groceries Code Adjudicator is getting on. When we set up the all-party group, we spent a year preparing a report on the critical issues and the measures that needed to be implemented to help dairy farmers. We came up with two solutions. One was a groceries adjudicator to regulate and control the supermarkets and to make them realise they could not continue with their pernicious actions towards farmers and suppliers. We also called for a limited badger cull to control bovine tuberculosis.
When we took those proposals to the then Secretary of State, David Miliband, we were laughed out of his office, being told that both were ridiculous and not feasible. I am pleased that under the Conservative Administration we have seen progress on them, but I am keen to hear from the Minister what additional powers he will give to the Groceries Code Adjudicator, how the adjudicator is getting on and what further needs to be done to ensure that supermarkets comply with the important proposals that we set out.
On bovine tuberculosis, which my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) mentioned, in 1997 we slaughtered 47 cows in Shropshire as a result of bovine TB. Last year, that figure was over 2,000. I have been with some of my dairy farmers—I have referred to this in previous speeches—on their farms after their entire herd has been taken away. One farmer and I sat together at his kitchen table and cried unashamedly together, such is the raw emotion of what happens to farmers and their families when herds are taken away for slaughter and such is the extraordinary pressure they face with finance and devastation of their herds after all the work to create them. It is important to take action to deal with bovine TB.
Interestingly, what is the biggest organisation in Shropshire? It is the Shropshire Wildlife Trust with 5,000 members. What is the trust’s symbol? The badger. Some people in the trust would like me hanged from the nearest lamp post—they would have difficulty as I am so tall at over 2 metres—because they believe it is appalling that any Member of Parliament could advocate a badger cull. It is a polarising issue and they feel strongly about the need to protect badgers.
I have sat on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, taken hundreds of hours of evidence from scientists and professors from around the world and heard how bovine TB has been eradicated in France and many other countries with a cull of badgers being part of that process. It is extremely important that it is considered. I would like the Minister today to give an update on the badger cull trials and, if they have been successful, to say, when they will be rolled out in other parts of the country and whether he will consider Shropshire as one of the next places for the cull to be implemented.
I am passionate about British exports and pay tribute to a colleague, Martin Oxley from UKTI. I have worked closely with him in exporting Shropshire dairy products to Poland. I want the Minister to be aware of the tremendous success of UKTI in exporting not just Shropshire dairy products, but many British dairy and agricultural products to Poland. It may be like selling coal to Newcastle because Poland is an agricultural country, but we must not forget how strong the British brand is. The international perception of animal husbandry and its excellent quality in this country, which is unsurpassed, and the quality of the British brand are why marketing attempts to sell British agricultural products abroad have been so successful.
I would like to hear from the Minister what is happening in UKTI to continue to prioritise British exports. I recently met Lord Maude, who has taken over the strategic management of UKTI. I would like it to have a dedicated team supporting the export of British agricultural products, and I would appreciate further updates from the Minister on collaboration between his office and UKTI.
I have asked the Secretary of State to visit Shropshire this year and she has promised to visit either the Shropshire show or the Minsterley show, which are our two main shows. The Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee came last year and went down extremely well. It is very important that farmers have the opportunity to meet politicians and the people at the head of DEFRA who make the decisions. I am still waiting to hear which show the Secretary of State will visit, but she has promised to visit Shropshire this year and I would be grateful if the Minister will pass that on to her and ensure that she—or indeed he himself—comes to one of the main agricultural shows in Shropshire this year.
If the remaining speakers take between six and seven minutes each, we will be able to accommodate everyone, including the Front Benchers, and give Mr Thomas a moment to reply.
I commend the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on bringing forward this debate. I agree with most of his comments and particularly liked his suggestion of a fair trade logo for UK produce. The title of the debate, “Food Security”, allows a wide-ranging debate and I may have a scattergun approach—I will see what I can do.
The World Health Organisation has defined food security as existing,
“when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”.
That definition means that food security will not exist until the wider world population has access to a sufficient and nutritious diet. That means an end to conflict, true implementation of the Paris COP 21 agreement, control of climate change, greater land reform, the ending of harmful deforestation, and more crops grown seasonally for domestic markets. I do not have any answers but we are a wee bit away from that utopia, so—like most of the previous speakers—I will concentrate on UK issues, including Scottish ones.
At present, just over half of the UK’s food is produced in the UK so greater consideration should be given to reliance on the wider EU single market against the benefits of greater self-sufficiency. The farmers’ unions would certainly like to see the latter, and it has come out in previous contributions. I agree with that philosophy.
We all accept that the UK will always import some produce; indeed, some of our favourite meals rely on imported ingredients. Imports can also help to provide better balance in diets overall, particularly in the winter months. However, nearly 20% of the food eaten in the UK comes from just four EU countries, and the UK supplies only 23% of the fruit and vegetables eaten here. I suggest that the upcoming EU referendum could provide a further risk to food security, and the Minister needs to make contingency plans with regard to the risk of a leave vote.
As we have heard, it makes sense for the UK not to import such quantities of indigenous fruit and vegetables, and that was flagged up in the EFRA Committee’s 2014 report on food security. If we are to maximise the amount of indigenous fruit and vegetables produced here, farming in this country must, first and foremost, be more profitable. This year, I have met Scottish farmers and heard first hand that farmers across all farming sectors have suffered, even where they have diversified. Measures must be put in place to encourage continued diversification so that the wider industry can survive and, I hope, produce greater amounts of indigenous fruit and vegetables for the domestic market.
Growing more produce in the UK for UK consumption clearly reduces our carbon footprint, which is a must in terms of wider climate change issues. As I have suggested, those pose a risk to food security around the world.
The continued promotion of domestically grown produce in supermarkets will clearly help when done in conjunction with wider country of origin labelling. I therefore welcome the Farming Minister’s recent comments that the Government will continue to pressure the European Commission on country of origin labelling for dairy products. The high percentage of country of origin labelling that is already undertaken voluntarily shows that it can be done and that it should not be too cost-prohibitive to do it more widely, and I would certainly like to see it introduced on an EU basis.
For some customers, budget considerations will, of necessity, override considerations of origin. However, there is no doubt that proper, true labelling would encourage people in this country to buy British or, in some cases, regional. I would also like to see the Scottish brand promoted.
I echo the call for a Government commitment to take up the EFRA Committee’s recommendation to extend the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. We cannot have another dairy farming crisis, and it would be good to see what the Government are doing about the issue with regard to the long term.
On the wider issue of farming sustainability, there are two clear issues for farming in general, and these particularly affect Scottish farmers: common agricultural policy payments and continued membership of the EU. CAP payments account for an average of 70% of Scottish farming profits. The Scottish Government have rightly identified that farming needs to be more profitable and sustainable, but the hard fact is that those payments are literally the difference between survival or otherwise.
Also on CAP payments, Scottish farmers feel they have missed out on the pillar one convergence uplift that was given. That amounts to €230 million, which should have been allocated to Scottish farmers up to 2020. If we have an EU exit, and the UK Government maintain the equivalent of CAP support for farmers, it is vital that we have a clear policy position from them.
I would go on, Mr McCabe, but I realise that I have to draw to a conclusion. We all agree that more support needs to be given to farmers, and I again applaud the hon. Member for St Ives for bringing the issue forward.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I am proud that we have quite strong Cornish representation here today, but we are also joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), so the debate is not entirely Cornish led.
I was part of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee when it did an in-depth study into food security. The report was published in June 2014, and I have a copy here—I would be happy to furnish my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives with one if he has not seen it. During the production of the report, we received 50 written submissions and undertook five oral sessions. We left the House to conduct visits, and I was pleased to welcome members of the Committee to the world cheese award-winning Cornish Cheese Company in my own constituency. The report was very timely, as is this debate. It is incredibly important that we have enough for the people of the UK to eat. We must look at the changing global demand for food as population increases, at the impact of weather changes on production and at the dangers of disease.
The world and UK populations are growing. With the world population likely to hit 8 billion in 20 years, even on the lower UN projection, and the UK population likely to hit 70 million over the same time span, we have to prepare for extra demand. It is simple: production must increase, or people will go hungry.
I do not need to say today that the weather in the UK is changing. As we have all seen on our television screens, many people have suffered over the festive season, and my thoughts are very much with them, given what they have had to endure. However, with flooded fields and destroyed crops, we need to take these issues into account in any future plans.
We do not have to go back to Ireland’s potato famine to see the dangers of disease. We can all remember the haddock—sorry, the havoc—that BSE caused and that TB is still causing today. We can also look abroad to new threats. Only this week, a 26-year-old woman died from a strain of bird flu, and another woman is reportedly in a serious condition, according to health authorities in southern China.
I am keen that we back our farmers and fishermen and assist them by coming forward with solutions. That includes backing British production and the important Red Tractor labelling scheme. It is important to know that the food we buy comes from a trusted source. All products that carry the Red Tractor mark meet responsible production standards and are traceable back to independently inspected farms. The mark is the easiest way for consumers to be sure of the provenance of the food they buy.
We must do what we can to protect our producers. We must take steps to ensure that our route to production is disease-free, and we must take steps at our borders to help to limit the possibility of disease entering this country.
We must recognise the importance of food production when we look at flood defences—a priority that seems, possibly, to have been overlooked in the past. We must also look at the regulatory framework that our food producers operate under, much of which comes from Europe. I want to work to ensure the best deal for farmers under the CAP.
I want, however, to limit the rest of my remarks to supporting those other food producers—our fishermen. Speaking as an individual, and not as the chairman of the all-party group on fisheries, I would like to raise my strong concerns over the common fisheries policy and the disappointing result for my fishermen in south-east Cornwall of the latest round of quota negotiations.
If we are to have food security in terms of our fishermen, we must now vastly reform the common fisheries policy or pull out altogether. That is why I said at the start of my remarks that this is indeed a timely debate. I believe in the importance of food security; for our fishermen, that means fundamental change in the way that the rules under which they operate are put in place. It is vital that the Prime Minister recognises that in his negotiations with Europe. If that does not happen, we should vote to leave the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for calling this important debate. As he said on his website,
“we take future food security seriously, given that we are an island nation”.
Food security is a subject that lends itself to a focus on agriculture, but—rather neatly, as I am following the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray)—I feel that as an island nation we should not forget in this debate the vital role played by our fisheries industry in providing food for Britain.
Fish is one of the healthiest sources of protein and a rare source of essential fatty acids, but fishing also sustains a significant industry, which employs thousands of people in coastal communities and at food processing sites across the country. To take perhaps a slightly different perspective from the hon. Member for South East Cornwall, people in the industry in my patch, Great Grimsby, tell me they are cautiously optimistic about the current state of the sector.
Not only does the fisheries industry feed people in Britain; fish exports are worth £1.6 billion a year to our economy. The industry has proved itself able to operate in a sustainable way. Fish stocks are up 400% in the last decade, allowing a welcome increase in quotas for 2016. This year fishermen will be able to catch 47% more haddock in the North sea, twice as much plaice from the channel and 20% more Celtic sea hake. While consumers have understandably been concerned about declining stocks in the past, people can now have their hake and eat it too. [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I know—but the hon. Member for South East Cornwall had a “havoc” and a “haddock”.
Many colleagues have rightly raised the challenges that agriculture and farmers face, but there are very few workers who have it tougher than fishermen. I would like us to regard them as the farmers of the sea. They can be out at work and away from their families for weeks at a time. The task itself is tough, dangerous and often not well paid. It is not surprising that it can be a tough sell to get young people to consider it for a career. The workforce are ageing, and there is a risk that the skills in the industry today will be lost. I have asked the Minister before, and I will ask him again, how the Government plan to address that. The industry needs a proper strategy to secure its long-term future.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the Seafish training authority does a lot of training for young fishermen, and in particular people who want to move into the industry? Perhaps she would like to contact Seafish to ensure that those courses are run in her constituency.
I believe that that was mentioned in the debate on fishing before the December break, and I feel that it needs to be expanded and heavily publicised, although the hon. Lady is certainly doing her part and assisting with that. I shall take her advice.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s predecessor, Austin Mitchell, who I knew well over 10 years as a Member of Parliament. He was a great advocate for fishermen and I would like her to take our tribute to him, if she is in touch with him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; I am sure that I will be able to tweet him. I believe he is in New Zealand, but he remains a strong advocate for the fishing industry and the fishermen of Grimsby and the surrounding areas. In particular, he played a strong role in ensuring that appropriate compensation was delivered to those fishermen when trawler owners were being given significant compensation but the people doing the work were not so lucky. I entirely concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).
What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department of Health, for instance, about promoting healthy British food such as seafood? As the Government look to tackle obesity and unhealthy eating, surely fish has a role to play as a nutritious, local and environmentally sustainable alternative to other foods. What are the Government doing to encourage supermarkets to act responsibly when sourcing and purchasing fish products? That should be a top priority in securing the sustainability of this major food source. Does the Minister believe that public procurement has a bigger role to play in supporting the industry, as the hon. Member for St Ives mentioned? Does he believe that the public sector, starting with Whitehall and the parliamentary estate, does enough to support the UK’s fishing industry?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my Cornish colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), on tabling this important debate. I agree wholeheartedly with everything that he and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) have said in the debate. In view of the time restraints, I will not repeat everything that has been said that I wholeheartedly agree with; I will pull out a few of the main points that I believe are worth reinforcing.
It is clear, and I am sure we all agree, that food security is increasingly becoming one of the most important issues that the country will face. As we have heard, the increasing population in our country and globally, the rapid growth of the middle classes in developing countries, and world security issues mean that food security for the UK will become very important. Climate change will also increasingly be a factor. I recently visited Kenya and saw for myself the impact that the changing climate is having on food production in that part of the world. When all those things are put together, it is clear that we will not be able to rely as certainly on food imported into the country as we have in recent decades.
That is why I believe it is important for us to do all we can as a country to become as self-sufficient as possible in food production. Various figures are bandied around, but I believe the most reliable is that we currently produce about 65% of the food we need. We need that figure to go up. It is unlikely ever to be 100%, and I am not sure we would ever want it to be, but we certainly need it to move nearer to that.
The food supply chain is a complex matter, but our farmers and, as other hon. Members have been saying, our fishermen are at its very foundation. We need to do all we can to support them. I should probably declare an interest at this point, by saying that I married a farmer’s daughter 30 years ago this year and that at the moment her father, my father-in-law, is still—in his mid-80s—to be found every day in the fields on his farm on the Isles of Scilly; and a great inspiration he is. Our farmers are facing some of the most challenging times that they have faced for many generations. We have already talked about the downward pressure on prices both from supermarkets in the UK and from global markets. The increasing costs and bureaucracy in farming are making it harder than ever for farms to remain viable and sustainable businesses. We need to understand those challenges and do everything we can to give support, and to address them.
Farming is viable in this country only because of the significant subsidies that farmers receive, but I think we need to be clear.
Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that there was nothing in the EU negotiation about reform of the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy?
Absolutely—I agree wholeheartedly. It is a point that I want to come on to. I am very disappointed that there is nothing in the renegotiation in our relationship with the EU on seeking to reform either the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy. I believe that they are things that need to be reformed, and that is one reason why I am quite likely to vote to leave the EU. We need to recover our own powers over those aspects for this country and not to be so reliant on the EU for them.
We also need to be clear that the subsidies paid to our farmers are, in effect, subsidising not farmers but British households. They are there to keep food prices down. We need to kill the myth that somehow farmers are subsidy junkies. They receive those subsidies only because of the downward pressure on prices. Virtually every farmer I know and speak to would say that they would rather have a fair and sustainable price for the food they produce than to be so reliant on subsidies.
In the recent crisis involving milk prices, we saw that the British consumer is willing to pay a bit more when they know that a product is local and the farmer will receive a fairer price for that product. That is particularly true in Cornwall. The Cornish brand for locally produced food is incredibly strong; there is a very strong feeling in Cornwall that people are willing to pay a bit more if they know that something is Cornish and that local farmers are getting a fairer price for it. The Government would do well to push that further. We have already talked about better labelling for locally produced food. The Red Tractor scheme has been mentioned. That is a very good label, but we need to do more to promote such schemes so that the British consumer can know for certain that they are buying local food.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives did not intend the debate to become dominated by the issue of TB, but we cannot avoid the subject. When I go out and speak to local farmers in my constituency and ask them, “What is your No. 1 concern that you would like the Government to do something about?”, the most common response is, “Address the issue of bovine TB.” I congratulate the Government on the steps they have already taken to address the issue, despite strong opposition, but I firmly believe that we need to allow those who live off the land to manage the countryside. They know best, and I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government to press ahead and do everything they can to rid our farms of that awful disease. I can assure him of my full support in any steps he takes to do that. We need to make no bones about it. Again, as we have heard, this is not about just saving a few badgers. Hundreds of cattle are slaughtered every week as a direct or indirect result of TB. We must address the impact that that is having on the sustainability of locally produced food.
To sum up, we need to do everything we can to support British farmers. I know that I do not have to twist the Minister’s arm to do that, but I encourage him to take the clear message back to Government that we want to see a very strong positive message from the Government about supporting British farmers and getting behind them in every way we can.
This feels like a visit to the Celtic Connections festival. We have the Irish, the Cornish and the Scots; we just need a few more Welsh. I do not know where—[Interruption.] Does Grimsby count? Not really!
Thank you, Mr McCabe, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate. He kicked it off superbly well by emphasising how important rural farmers are to the rural economy in many ways. It is not just about the food that they produce, but about the way they contribute to the land and the communities in which they live. The hon. Gentleman also outlined the severe pricing challenges, which has been a common theme throughout the debate.
I am acutely aware of the importance of labelling—not just the labelling of products but how they are sold in supermarkets. I wrote to the chief executive of Tesco about its selling of New Zealand products under a Scottish banner and received a fairly poor response, which I have had to follow up on. Supermarkets need to be clear in their practices when selling as well as in their labelling. There may well be salmon that have been to Scotland and Norway, but we need a lot more clarity than just lumping different geographical locations together.
I always enjoy having the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) here. I will not even try to compete with the number of products that he referenced from his constituency—he wins hands down.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). I will come on to the issue of the Groceries Code Adjudicator; I agree that it is important. Bovine TB is clearly a big issue down here, but less so north of the border. I agree that it should be at the forefront of our minds lest it spread and become an issue for other parts of the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) focused on the need for farming to be profitable. I will return to a couple of the themes that he raised.
It is always a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall with the hon. Members for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who fly the flag or rather sail the ship for the many fishermen around the country.
It is also a delight to see the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). Taking part in this debate also serves the purpose of making me more familiar with my many wonderful fellow MPs. He can now visit his father-in-law safe in the knowledge that he has referenced him in a debate in Parliament, so I congratulate him on that.
Has it convinced you of the need for the Union?
There are many unions, so it depends on which one the hon. Gentleman is referring to. I personally would prefer to stay in the European Union and I look forward to the Westminster Hall debate on Cornish independence as well.
Food security is vital. That is why food supply is classed as a critical national infrastructure sector and DEFRA assesses it annually. Of course, large elements of this area are devolved to Scotland, and last June the Scottish Government drew up their own agricultural discussion document, setting out a vision for Scottish agriculture, which includes contributing to global food security, with a particular focus on Malawi, where the Scottish Government have an involvement.
International interdependence is critical. More than half the food in the UK is home-grown and on the whole, as we heard, our prices are the lowest in the world after those in the US, but we still need to maintain strong supply chain links to other countries. There will always have to be imports, as the UK does not have the growing conditions to supply all the types of produce for which there is demand, but that also offers an opportunity in terms of the capabilities for exports.
I am particularly interested in branding—national or regional branding—for both food and drink. That is particularly important in Scotland, where the sector has promoted itself to great effect with its reputation for high-quality, distinctive and environmentally sustainable produce. We have just finished promoting our Year of Food and Drink and it has been a great success story. Turnover has risen by more than 24% since 2008 to more than £14 billion, and the industry is on target to reach next year the figure of £16.5 billion.
Before raising a couple of specific points on agriculture, I would like to mention fishing. When we talk about food security, it is easy to forget about fishing, yet it is a fantastic contributor to food security and the Scottish economy, with exports worth £600 million. Fishing takes a lot of pressure off land production. Of course it has to be sustainably managed, which presents some challenges, as we heard from the hon. Member for South East Cornwall, but when done well, it is a very profitable and successful source of food.
Let me now talk from a farming perspective. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun has already raised a couple of the old chestnuts that the Minister is very used to. However, it is worth emphasising again that the CAP is critical. I think that as Members of Parliament we have to be very careful with our language in this area, and I welcome the comments about getting away from the idea of subsidy. Our farmers need support. Most farmers in Scotland would be underwater financially if it were not for the CAP payments. As we go into a debate on the EU referendum, which has been mentioned several times, we have to be very careful on and clear about what an EU exit would mean for this industry. For farming in Scotland, without a comparable payment system, it would be a disaster.
The supply chain is well established, but I totally agree with the comments about the importance of addressing the inequalities in the supply chain. That affects all areas of farming, but in particular the dairy industry. It is of course important that we have reasonable prices, because lower income households are hit disproportionately hard by higher costs, but farmers have the right to a fair price for their quality product. We need to do more in terms of regulation in this area. I appreciate that it may not be a DEFRA area of responsibility, but it is clearly an area in which the Minister takes a keen interest.
The office of the Groceries Code Adjudicator was set up in 2013 to oversee this area, but the powers do not go far enough and she cannot respond adequately to the failures in the supply chain. The adjudicator can deal only with retailers with a turnover of more than £1 billion and with direct suppliers, and can act only if a complaint has been received. Those are things that need to be visited and addressed so that we can reduce the inequalities in that area. When I raised the matter with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she told me that she seeks an adjudicator that will operate across the EU, and better transparency in the European supply chain. Regardless of that, I am keen for efforts to be made and clarity to be achieved in this area as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun raised the convergence uplift, and I appreciate that I am something of a broken record on that subject. Slowly, elements of progress have been made on the timescale, but we need to push the Minister harder on the matter, and I look forward to future discussions with him. We have a meeting coming up at which I will seek clarity on the process and some timescales for achieving a resolution in this area, where we feel that Scottish farmers have been badly let down.
Overall, we need longer term thinking, and strong, durable, fair, safe and secure supply chain relationships. As the NFU has pointed out, those are key to success. Farmers in Scotland and the UK are the primary source of our food security, as well as being major economic contributors, hugely important sources of rural employment and guardians of our landscape. They support us, and we need to support them in return. Let us ensure our food security and sustainability by doing so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for introducing the debate, and I thank the many colleagues who intervened and made contributions. The hon. Gentleman raised important concerns about the dairy sector and spoke with real energy about supporting British producers. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) showed his usual deep rural knowledge, and suggested three courses of home-produced food for us; his serious point was about reducing food imports. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) raised important questions about the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, and sought visitors to his great county’s shows this summer. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) talked about the importance of consumers buying more fruit and veg. He spoke in support of country of origin labelling and, unsurprisingly, Scottish branding.
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) reminded us about the impact of climate change and flooding in recent weeks on people around the country, and she expressed strong support, as we would expect, for Cornish fishermen. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said that her fishing industry was optimistic, and she gave us the best pun of the afternoon when she suggested that we could have our hake and eat it. She was making an important point about public procurement and eating our great fish from this country.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) talked about the impact of climate change on food production in Kenya, and made a powerful point about how it is reducing the certainty of food imports from that country. He also spoke with real vigour in support of the red tractor label. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) gave a great round-up of the debate, and warned everybody about the loss of EU funding for farming across the country.
The Government’s chief scientific adviser said in 2013 that food security in the UK was dependent on two things: well-functioning markets and a vibrant farming and food industry. I celebrate every penny of the contribution that agriculture makes to this country, and the millions of jobs and the billions of pounds in exports that it creates. Against those factors, however, I see not a job well done, but a job that should be done better. I see farmers at the mercy of a supply chain where they hold none of the cards, gaps in research funding in areas that are vital to enable us to compete on a global scale, and a market where the food that we can and do grow is supplanted in the supermarket aisles and at the tills by billions of pounds worth of imports. All the while, the Government, who rejected a Labour plan that made food security a priority, have dragged their heels over an alternative.
The problem cannot be solved with quick fixes—although with the heavy cuts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I doubt that quick fixes will be possible anyway. Instead, we need to tackle the issue of food security properly. The difficulties that farmers have faced over farm-gate prices are one area in which real differences could be made. Despite the price boost to some producers, the average farm-gate price for milk is lower than it was in October 2014. Lamb prices are under pressure, and even wheat has fallen 9% since January last year.
Although organisations such as the NFU recognise that such problems are among the perils of farming, they put at massive risk the sort of investment that is needed for farmers to grow and thrive—that is, for the farmers and businesses that are lucky enough not to go under as a result of the price drops. Unfortunately, as has been said several times today, when policies have been suggested such as increasing the powers and scope of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to give producers more bargaining power, the Government have poured cold water on those ideas, because they would require legislation. Why is that too great a hurdle to clear, if such action would protect our food producers across the country?
I turn to the question of the food that fills our shelves. Like many colleagues, I have delighted in the range of foods from around the world that we can now buy in our supermarkets and shops. Of course, there always will be food imports, but why does the UK supply just 23% of its own fruit and vegetable needs? The £7.8 billion trade gap between exports and imports in that area is shocking. The Government will soon embark on their “Great British Food” campaign. Promoting our foods to be sold around the world is a good venture, and to be applauded, but can the Minister assure us that the campaign will include efforts to promote British fruit and veg on our shelves?
I note that the Department has made little headway with convincing Europe on country of origin labelling for the likes of dairy products. Instead, it has “encouraged” retailers in Britain to use the voluntary country-of-origin labelling scheme, even though 86% of shoppers want to buy more traceable food that has been produced on British farms—and in Scotland, too. Will the Minister ensure that the supermarkets play ball and give British producers a chance to stand out?
Although such measures can help to ensure well-functioning markets and a vibrant industry, food security is something that will play out over decades and centuries, not just over years. Climate change, which has come up a number of times this afternoon, and the rapidly increasing population of the UK and of the world may stretch, or even render obsolete, current farming methods.
We need a long-term strategy that ensures sustainable gains in economic growth while replenishing the natural environment over which we hold stewardship. Top agri-tech research will be required to meet that challenge, but both the Committee on Climate Change and our all-party group on science and technology in agriculture have noted Britain’s stagnation when it comes to research and development. In a global market in which other countries are surging ahead, the NFU predicts, as the hon. Member for St Ives has pointed out, that by 2080 we will be forced to import more than 50% of our food unless we do something now. We have finally had a commitment from the Government for a big investment in agri-tech support, but my question is simple: why, when organisations across the spectrum have called for it, has that taken so long? Valuable time has been wasted.
It would be remiss of me, in a debate on food security, to ignore the plight of the more than 1 million people who now use food banks in the UK. Food bank usage increased by 18% from 2013-14 to 2014-15. Any food security policy must be about not just producing more food but giving everyone in the UK access to safe, healthy and affordable food. The previous Labour Government knew how important food security was for the UK; in our “Food 2030” strategy, we reckoned that it was as important as energy security to the country’s wellbeing. That strategy would have been the start of a consumer-led, technological revolution, with the aim of producing more food in a sustainable manner with a smaller environmental footprint. Instead, 2010 saw this Government consign those plans to the scrapheap. I believe that they are playing catch-up to this day, and our food and farming industries have paid the price.
May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate? His constituency neighbours mine and I know that he champions the interests of farmers in his constituency. Indeed, we often jointly attend west Cornwall branch meetings of the National Farmers Union, and in the autumn I had the pleasure of speaking at a village called Madron in his constituency, which ran a series of events on the future of farming.
I worked in the farming industry for 10 years. I care deeply about the industry, and the Government value the role of agriculture and our food industry because it is the biggest industry in the country. Food manufacturing is our biggest manufacturing industry—bigger than the aerospace and automotive industries put together. It is worth about £100 billion a year throughout the supply chain and employs about one in eight people. That is why we made a manifesto commitment to put in place a 25-year food and farming plan, which is currently under development and will be published in the spring. It will look at how we attract new skills to the industry, how we use technology to improve productivity and use of resources, how we open new export markets, and how we develop risk management tools for the agricultural industry.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) pointed out, there is growing consumer interest in food provenance. People want to know where their food comes from. There is a growing interest in local sourcing and local brands, particularly in Cornwall where we have some strong local food brands. We are keen to develop that, so 2016 will be the year of great British food. Our Great British Food unit will champion those artisan food producers throughout the course of the year.
We are also doing a huge amount on exports. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) asked about that. At the end of last year, the Secretary of State went to China and was successful in opening new markets for British barley and for pigs’ trotters. In fact, we have been opening about 100 new markets a year over the past two or three years. Our food exports are now rising to £19 billion a year.
We have made some very good progress on exports, but I do not deny for a moment that farming is going through an incredibly tough and difficult time, due to a number of factors. The exchange rate of the pound against the euro is not favourable to farmers; the weakness of the euro has put pressure on all commodity prices for British farmers. Set against that, there has been a global oversupply in many areas and some key markets have been disrupted. In Europe, milk production has risen by about 10% due to very good weather and favourable conditions for production. That has had a downward pressure on prices and, as many hon. Members have said, many farmers are experiencing prices that are well below the cost of production.
There has been difficulty in other sectors such as pig production, where the market in Russia has been disrupted, exacerbating the problems. There has also been difficulty with lamb. New Zealand lamb has been finding it more difficult to get access to the Chinese market, so there has been a surplus of New Zealand lamb on the world market. Despite those short-term pressures, my message is that the long-term prospects for our farming industry remain good. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) said, there is a growing world population. It is set to reach about 9 billion by 2050 and many projections suggest a rise in demand for food of about 60%. That brings me to the issue of food security.
As the shadow Minister said, we are clear that there are two key elements to delivering food security in the world. One is that we must have open markets and the second is that we must have a vibrant, profitable and successful food production and supply system. The reason that self-sufficiency and food production alone is not enough to guarantee food security is that farming is always at the mercy of the weather. If there is a severe weather event in one part of the country, we need to be able to move food around the world, so open markets are crucial to ensuring food security.
Although our self-sufficiency is lower now, at about 64%, than it was at its peak in the late 1980s, we should recognise that then there was an incredibly distorting common agricultural policy. It was an era of grain mountains, butter mountains, wine lakes and so on. That had a distorting effect. Against historical standards, we are still producing far more of our food than we have done in the past. Indeed, in the 1930s just before the second world war, our food self-sufficiency was only about 30% to 35%, so things are not as bad as some would suggest. However, if the Government do what we want to do—produce more, sell more, export more and import less—over time I hope that our current self-sufficiency will improve.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives posed a number of questions. He raised the plight of cauliflower growers in Cornwall, many of whom are in my constituency. That situation is wholly driven by weather. The autumn has been warm and many of the varieties have come in simultaneously, which has caused particular problems. I agree with him about country of origin. The UK has been at the fore of arguing in the EU for mandatory country of origin labelling—successfully when it comes to beef, pork, poultry and other fresh meats. We have been arguing tenaciously for country of origin labelling to be mandatory on some dairy products. I have to say that the Commission is pushing back on that at the moment, but we will redouble our efforts to improve the voluntary code in that regard.
My hon. Friend also asked what supermarkets are doing. It is important to recognise that and to give credit where credit is due. For instance, Morrisons has its “Milk for Farmers” brand. Many people scoffed at that when it came out, but it has actually been very successful. It pays an extra 10p a litre to farmers and its sales have well exceeded expectations, which shows a consumer interest in helping British agriculture. The other thing is that many of the main supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, M&S and the Co-op all have aligned contracts with virtually all of their liquid milk suppliers. The farmers supplying some of those supermarkets with liquid milk in particular are still quite often getting somewhere in the region of 29p to 32p a litre. There is a wide spread of fortunes in the dairy industry currently and we should recognise that some supermarkets are supporting farming through aligned contracts. Tesco is experimenting with the idea of an aligned contract on cheese, although that is more difficult because it is more exposed to commodity markets. M&S has also experimented with aligned contracts in other sectors, such as lamb.
On the other questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, public sector procurement is an important issue. We set up the Bonfield report to set out a balanced scorecard so that more locally sourced food is bought by the public sector. He asked what we are doing to back British farming. We have our Great British Food campaign and we will be working with organisations such as the NFU. He is right to highlight the benefits of animal welfare that we have. In fact, World Animal Protection rates the UK as top in the whole world for farm animal welfare. When it comes to getting a fair price, we are doing things to try to improve risk management so that farmers can mitigate the price volatility that they experience.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the issues in Northern Ireland. There has been a particularly difficult situation with dairy in Northern Ireland and we have recognised that by arguing for an increased share of the support fund from the EU in November. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked about the Groceries Code Adjudicator. That will be reviewed later this year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We have now put in place the ability for it to levy fines of up to 1% of turnover. In fact, looking at the survey data, the number of complaints about supermarkets has gone down slightly and Christine Tacon reports that more buyers and more suppliers to supermarkets are using the code in the way that they should.
The hon. Members from the Scottish National party mentioned convergence uplift. I am meeting NFU Scotland later this week. I have committed to reviewing that once everybody is on an area-based payment system, and we will continue to do that. Finally, a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) and for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, made a very important point about fisheries. I completely agree with that, although I do not share the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall that it is all bad news. We have seen big uplifts for plaice, haddock and cod this year, which shows the benefit of sustainable fishing.
In conclusion, we have had a very good debate in which lots of interesting points were raised. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives on securing the debate.
Mr McCabe, thank you for chairing the debate so well. I thank all Members for contributing and I especially welcome the support of my Cornish colleagues. It has been good to hear such a wide range of issues covered and addressed. I thank the Minister, who is extraordinarily patient with me and my constant pestering regarding farmers and fishermen in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. He probably gets tired of that.
I welcome the Minister’s words and look forward to the publication of the 25-year food and drink strategy, but I ask that we step up our efforts to back British producers in any way that we possibly can. I am genuinely concerned for the future of many farms because there is considerable pressure on farmers to look at alternative uses for their agricultural land. There are only so many green fields that can be lost to house building and solar farms before we seriously compromise our ability to feed ourselves in the future. I hope the debate has served to empower the British consumer to support British products further and I hope that it is something that we continue to look at closely throughout this Parliament.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered food security.
Broadband Speeds: Northern Ireland
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered broadband speeds in Northern Ireland.
I welcome this opportunity to raise an issue that is incredibly pertinent to the constituents of all Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland. I am pleased that the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy is present to hear our views. I have received correspondence from a number of individuals, families and companies who are frustrated by the slow progress on this issue and its economic impact. I have also been in touch with business owners and individuals from my constituency who have detailed the impact that “not spots” and poor internet connectivity have had on them, on their children’s education and on driving economic growth and productivity.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting the issue of broadband and superfast broadband in Northern Ireland. It is obvious to me as an elected representative, and to all elected representatives in Northern Ireland, that better superfast broadband is essential for creating jobs and employment and for helping the economy to grow even further. Does she feel that the Minister needs to endorse that and to support our Minister in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course, I agree that faster broadband is critical to driving economic growth and fuelling productivity. I am anxious to hear the Minister’s response and how he is working with the Northern Ireland Executive and with BT and the other providers, because there is no doubt that the majority of people now expect reliable and accessible broadband as a matter of course, yet in rural constituencies such as mine and many others in Northern Ireland there are businesses, families and farmers who are denied the necessary internet access and speeds that are the norm in urban areas, which may be due to topographical reasons. The lack of adequate broadband in other rural communities across Northern Ireland and Britain has created a digital divide that will only be exacerbated without meaningful action from the Government.
Is the hon. Lady aware that Fermanagh and South Antrim have two schemes that are being pushed at the moment?
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
On 6 October 2015, I received an email from the Minister indicating that Northern Ireland received £11.6 million for phase 1 and/or phase 2 of the superfast broadband programme, but that would allow for only two thirds of premises in my constituency of South Down to have access to superfast broadband by 2017.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and for securing this debate. She may be aware that when I was on Belfast City Council we secured the second largest amount—£13.7 million—from the urban broadband super-connected cities scheme for Belfast. However, does she agree that there is still further work to be done by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to secure such a scheme for rural areas, which need it most?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. While the concentration of that money was clearly in city areas of Belfast and Derry, there is still a need to concentrate funds within rural areas, working in particular with the alternative technologies that are currently being promoted, because we all want to avail ourselves of those.
I will have another go. I just wonder whether the hon. Lady, who I thank for bringing this subject forward, is aware of the Avanti rural broadband schemes in Fermanagh and South Antrim, particularly in leisure centres. Would she support looking for private companies to come in, because there is a hint that Virgin might help us as well in the future?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. At this stage I will perhaps argue slightly against my political ideology and say that there is a need for increasing competition between private investors—[Interruption.] As Virgin and others have said, incentivising take-up has been proven to be a more effective driver of improved coverage of superfast broadband speeds.
Let me say to the Minister that many of my constituents in rural areas who have direct access to broadband have speeds of only 2 megabits per second, but there are other parts of my constituency—in much higher drumlin country and also in the mountainous areas of the Mournes—that do not have any access at all. That leaves people at a distinct disadvantage, whether they are families, business people or farmers. That issue needs to be addressed by working in partnership with other bodies, but the Government need to pay particular attention to it.
There was the voucher scheme, which many businesses in Northern Ireland availed themselves of. Sadly, around 12 October 2015 that funding ceased—because, I suppose, demand exceeded supply of resources—and many businesses found themselves without that resource and lacking the capacity to develop their broadband expertise and their business, and to fuel productivity and economic growth.
I believe that speeds of over 100 megabits per second are technically possible, but many of my constituents and those of my colleagues who are here today would be happy with speeds that just meet the Government’s own definition of superfast broadband, which is 24 megabits per second, and the EU level is defined as 30 megabits per second. There are homes and businesses throughout Northern Ireland that struggle to access a meagre 2 megabits per second. Effective and reliable access to broadband should not be a luxury. We would rightly not accept such a speed on the parliamentary estate, and nor should it should be acceptable for any of our constituents.
The recent Ofcom report of June 2015 highlighted that although 83% of small and medium-sized enterprises felt that their businesses were well catered for by the communications market, a significant number expressed concerns about broadband speeds and availability, quality of service, and choosing between providers.
Today I want concentrate on possible solutions, which the Minister might also wish to concentrate on. All of us have experienced the frustration of a delayed or broken broadband connection, yet for people who experience that frustration on a permanent basis it is a lot more than just a minor frustration. It becomes a serious impediment to everyday life, to social inclusion and, of course, to economic development. Thousands of people across Northern Ireland are being denied that connectivity, so I want to concentrate on the solutions. I have talked to Virgin Media, I talked this morning to the internet broadband group, which has many members and looks after that level of connectivity for them, and yesterday I also talked to Vodafone. They all have a collective vision that there needs to be a greater level of partnership between Government, the devolved Administrations and the community.
The Scottish Government have invested in research as part of their world-class Digital 2020 vision. Two such projects are the free-space optics project at Edinburgh University and the white space project at Strathclyde University. Does the hon. Lady agree that the UK Government must invest in research if we are to have any chance of providing the level of service that our constituencies deserve?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very helpful intervention. I agree that there needs to be more evidence-based research to highlight the areas that are not yet covered by good quality, high broadband speeds, particularly those areas that are so distant from the cabinets. There also needs to be an emphasis on bringing fibre to the premises. FTTP needs to be a part of digital infrastructure and needs to be investigated.
There is also a view that Openreach should be structurally separated from BT, as BT is the sole provider, to allow Openreach to invest in delivering an effective infrastructure for the whole telecommunications industry. Communication providers could then consider investing in an independent Openreach. Ofcom should look at that, and the Minister should also look at it, perhaps to refer it to the Competition and Markets Authority.
When the hon. Lady and I enjoyed each other’s company—I certainly enjoyed her company—in Downpatrick just before Christmas, I was mightily impressed by the way that the local council was providing a vast range of services online. Is there any evidence that there is a failure of take-up in those essential council services because of the lack of connectivity, particularly in the Mournes region?
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention and for his good visit to South Down on 5 December. He is right: businesses that are not near the cabinet and premises that are not served need much better levels of technology. It is our local economy and local services that lose out.
Another issue is that structural separation will take time, so there is a need to move quickly to open up BT Openreach and provide better access for competitors, including to the network infrastructure. For example, other countries in Europe have managed to do that through physical infrastructure access under the existing regulatory regime. Spain and Portugal are leading examples of that. There is also a need to investigate the research into the whole rural broadband scheme, which has not been terribly effective. Alternative technologies need to be investigated. I met the Internet Services Providers Association this morning. It has a broad umbrella membership, and people and companies within it are doing that work. We need to look at alternative technologies that are capable of delivering the superfast speeds that are already universally available elsewhere. Subsidising take-up would be a more efficient solution for remaining rural areas.
The Government should focus any intervention on stimulating demand by subsidising the up-front costs of satellite broadband take-up. I would like to see the re-introduction of the broadband voucher scheme, which businesses found useful. I thought it would have happened in the autumn statement, so perhaps the Minister can reflect on that issue. In a recent written answer, he stated that
“this Government is working closely with Ofcom to implement the broadband Universal Service Obligation by 2020, as recently announced by the Prime Minister.”
There is doubt and apprehension that that might not happen, because there is not that collaboration between the technologies. There is monopoly control by BT, and separation and structural reform needs to take place.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will conclude, because I think it is fair that the Minister has time to respond to the issues.
I hope that we do see that universal service obligation by 2020. To quote the Minister’s written answer:
“This will give people a legal right to request a broadband connection no matter where they live.”
It will enhance business and economic opportunities and drive the economic growth and job creation that we aspire to for all our citizens, as well as ensuring the social and economic development of all our peoples. I look forward to the consultation that the Minister will announce later this year, and I hope he can give us some information about that today.
There are two issues. In 2015, 77% of Northern Ireland premises had access to superfast broadband at speeds greater than 30 megabits, compared with the UK average of 83%. Suffice to say that my colleagues representing Northern Ireland constituencies are looking for a substantial improvement on that. Another interesting fact is that superfast coverage in Northern Ireland remained static from 2014 to 2015, while UK-wide it increased by 8%.
It is important that all the issues to do with technologies and increasing superfast broadband speeds are addressed. We need assurances that cable and fibre cable will be provided to premises and not solely to cabinets, because some find themselves at quite a distance, and speed reduces with distance from the cabinet. The bottom line is that we want to see our local economy and productivity grow. We want to see an enhancement of job creation. We do not want to see anyone left at a significant disadvantage. Obviously technologies—
Will the hon. Lady give way? She has until 16.42.
Thank you very much.
What is my response to that?
I remind the hon. Lady that we have an extra 12 minutes.
No, but it will be 1690 again some time. In my constituency, Excel in Newtownards has increased its business online and has sales across the world. It could do even more and employ more people if superfast broadband was available. The incentive to getting it in is that it would create more jobs and more lift within the economy. That can happen in Northern Ireland if the right things are done.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which relates to the points I have been making throughout this debate. We need superfast broadband, higher speeds and better connection. Working with all those in the industry and allowing that structural reform to take place will enhance our local industrial base and the availability of educational opportunities to many of our students. It will also ensure that our rural populations, particularly those in mountainous regions, will not feel disadvantaged in any way. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I will feel free to intervene on him.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. This is the second debate I have replied to today. The first was at 2.15 this morning on the future of S4C. I was debating the issue with my colleagues and other Members from Wales. Yesterday, I was in this Chamber with my colleagues from England debating the importance of regional theatre. I know that that subject is close to your heart, Sir David, as a Member representing one of the cultural capitals of England in Southend. This afternoon, it is a pleasure to be with my colleagues from Northern Ireland, including the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who is an honorary Member for Northern Ireland, given his passion for the area. I am a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland. It was a pleasure to go to Derry/Londonderry when it was the first UK capital of culture. When it won that bid and took it forward, getting good broadband for Derry/Londonderry and the support of BT were important. It is a pleasure to visit Belfast and see the fantastic Titanic quarter, the home of “Game of Thrones” and the fantastic, burgeoning creative industries sector in that fair city.
Will the Minister tell us what the Government are going to do about obtaining better superfast broadband speeds?
I certainly will. Like an ageing router, I am gearing up to move at speed towards the substance of the debate. The point I was trying to make was to praise my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland for bringing such passion and expertise to a subject that is important not only for their constituents, but for constituents across the United Kingdom.
To begin at the beginning, we work closely with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which is in charge of the broadband roll-out. In the devolved nations, the devolved Governments take ownership of the broadband roll-out scheme, and we work closely with them to ensure that it is under way. Northern Ireland was ahead of the game at the beginning of the process, thanks to European funding, and had more fibre than most of the UK. It remains a very connected nation. Ofcom’s recent “Connected Nations” report said that overall coverage is around 77% and that the availability of superfast broadband to rural homes had increased, too.
The current Northern Ireland project will add 24,000 superfast premises by March this year, and by 2017, a total of 38,000 premises will have been connected, thanks to our programme. Thanks to the £11 million of Government funding, we expect that Northern Ireland should have 87% of premises receiving superfast coverage by the end of 2017, which compares favourably with elsewhere. Small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland, for example, have the highest coverage of all the four nations for superfast broadband, according to Ofcom, the independent regulator. Also, I was pleased that Ofcom showed that the average download speeds for broadband in Northern Ireland increased from 50 megabits—already pretty substantial—to 56 megabits a second from 2014 to 2015, so we are definitely on an upward curve.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who clearly knows her subject extremely well, covered various other important issues to do with broadband in Northern Ireland. She mentioned, for example, the scheme that we put in place to support small and medium-sized enterprises: our broadband voucher scheme. I am pleased to say that almost 2,500 businesses in Northern Ireland took advantage of that scheme. There has been cross-party support for the scheme, which has been a success. We will keep an open mind about whether it was right to reintroduce the scheme at a later date, but at the time it was time-limited. We wanted to get businesses to sign up to the scheme within a certain period of time, and I am afraid we had a deadline. However, I was pleased that more than 50,000 businesses in the UK took advantage of the scheme.
Importantly, wi-fi in public buildings was part of the scheme. In Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, 163 public buildings now benefit from wi-fi, but we need to go further. I have never made any secret of the fact that I hope that by the end of this Parliament we will have achieved 100% broadband coverage for the UK, and we need to do this in a variety of ways. First, we have our universal service commitment: everyone should have access to speeds of at least 2 megabits. We are doing this by allowing people who have speeds below 2 megabits to connect to satellite, and we will pay for them to be connected. That scheme is managed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, so if any of the hon. Lady’s constituents do not have access to broadband speeds of at least 2 megabits, they can now apply for a voucher and be connected to satellite. That is our universal service commitment.
We have also put in place some trial pilots and a satellite scheme as part of the pilot in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, where some 300 premises have benefited from that trial scheme, which is designed to show us the costs of getting to the very hardest to reach premises—what we call the last 5%—and how we can get to them in the most cost-effective way. Northern Ireland has also benefited from the mobile infrastructure programme, and we are putting masts in “not spots” where there is no mobile coverage. Two of those masts are already live and another seven are being built.
The Minister mentioned the mobile trialling project, which I understand was placed in South Antrim and in Fermanagh. Can he indicate whether that scheme is likely to be extended to other parts of Northern Ireland? He has indicated that there is a high level of speed in Belfast and in Derry, but I am concerned primarily about the rural areas that cannot access the speeds that are necessary for economic growth.
If the hon. Lady is talking about mobile coverage, we have concluded the mobile infrastructure programme. At the moment there are no plans to build more masts, but, again, I will keep an open mind about that, because I am aware that some communities have not benefited from the scheme and would like to, and I will continue to keep that under review. It is worth reminding hon. Members that we have, in conjunction with the mobile operators, changed the terms of their licences, so that all four mobile operators are now committed to reaching 90% geographic coverage for 4G by the end of 2017. The distinction between premises coverage, which should be about 98%, and geographic coverage is important because there are many areas with very few premises, but that are large geographic areas, and we hope that the 90% commitment will see far wider 4G coverage for people in rural areas, and also for those of us who as passengers might use our mobile phone while being driven. Of course, we would not dream of doing that while we were driving ourselves. That is a very important point.
Going further into the future, the hon. Lady mentioned two or three issues that are important when we look at digital broadband roll-out over the next few years. The first is the potential break-up of Openreach, about which there is a lively discussion in this House and outside. The hon. Lady may be aware that Ofcom is conducting a digital communications review, and it is due to report towards the end of February, when it will make clear what it regards as the appropriate way forward for Openreach. We will wait to see what the independent regulator concludes in that respect.
I have already mentioned our universal service commitment, but the hon. Lady also talked about the universal service obligation, which is a different thing. We will introduce legislation to ensure that anyone who does not have fast broadband can require a provider to provide them with speeds of at least 10 megabits, which is twice what the European directive requires. We intend to introduce that legislation over the next two years, so that by 2020 everyone should be able to apply for fast broadband, if they do not already have it, through our other various initiatives.
The hon. Lady rightly talked about fibre to the premises, which is, to a certain extent, the holy grail of superfast broadband. I was lucky enough to visit TalkTalk, which was conducting a trial in York, at the end of last year. It is delivering 1 gig to the premises. However, it is important to remember two things: first, it is very expensive to deliver fibre to the premises, and secondly, it is pointless to deliver fibre to the premises for people who do not necessarily want it. In the small tech world that I tend to inhabit, almost everyone I converse with thinks that everyone in the country wants 1 gig. Actually, most people want 10 or 20 megabits so that they can run a home office or a business from home, or take part in various consumer activities that they and perhaps the rest of their family want to take part in. Those are the sorts of speeds we want to give everyone in the country.
To reiterate, first of all, I welcome this debate. I think the hon. Lady is right to highlight the problems and issues faced in her constituency and in Northern Ireland as a whole, and I welcome the contribution of other hon. Members. As I have said, we have an £11 million roll-out of the broadband programme. We will get to 87% of Northern Ireland by the end of 2017.
The Minister made reference, as I did, to fibre to the premises. He indicated that that was the Government’s holy grail: the top-level aspiration. Currently, less than 1% of the UK has fibre to the premises. Although I understand that it is costly, it could be one way of ensuring that those hard-to-reach rural communities could have access, so what plans do the Government have, working with the technological companies, to ensure that that is part of the pathway to a universal service obligation?
As I was saying, fibre to the premises is very expensive and is not necessarily what the consumer wants at this moment in time, but we will certainly see individual companies over the next 10 years starting to introduce it more and more. It is worth reminding the hon. Lady that the technology that BT is already beginning to trial should see, for example, existing fibre to the cabinet solutions providing speeds 10 times faster than they currently do. So we could see people in her constituency, currently receiving 30 megabits, receiving speeds of some 300 megabits in a couple of years’ time and at very little cost. We intend to go forward with the universal service commitment, then the universal service obligation, as well as trialling alternative technologies. However, the hon. Lady is right to hold us to account. I would like to continue to work with her and her colleagues in improving broadband in Northern Ireland.
Healthcare: Yarl’s Wood
I beg to move,
That this House has considered healthcare in Yarl’s Wood.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue today. Access to healthcare is a human right that is not adequately offered to the women of Yarl’s Wood. I formerly worked as a practice manager in the NHS, so I have seen for myself the importance of delivering good quality healthcare to communities, including providing access to consultation rooms where people are treated with respect and dignity. That is particularly important for detainees, who often have to undergo intimate examinations to document past torture.
Across immigration detention centres, there have been six High Court findings of inhumane and degrading treatment and nine deaths in custody in the past three years. According to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, the situation in Yarl’s Wood has worsened since G4S took over the contract for providing healthcare in September 2014. I want first to highlight the poor standard of healthcare provided, and secondly, to draw attention to the limitations that have recently been placed on independent doctors who are trying to work in Yarl’s Wood.
My demands to the Minister are as follows. First, the Government must lift the restrictions on access to Yarl’s Wood for independent doctors. The restrictions were put in place in October 2015, in contravention of detention rules. Secondly, they must ensure that legal rooms are refurbished, as has been done in other detention centres, to make up the extra space that Yarl’s Wood management says is necessary to accommodate independent medical visits. Thirdly, they must ensure that rule 35 is properly used. Rule 35 processes are meant to protect people from detention when they have been tortured, traumatised or are extremely vulnerable in other ways. I share the British Medical Association’s view that rule 35 reports should be written only by clinicians with relevant medical experience or appropriate training in identifying, documenting and reporting the physical and psychological signs of torture. Lastly, the Government must end the detention of pregnant women and those who are detained under the Mental Health Act 1983.
I want to start by highlighting the pervasive lack of confidence in the healthcare system. The detention services operating standards stipulate:
“All detainees must have available to them the same range and quality of services as the general public receives from the National Health Service.”
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this excellent debate to Westminster Hall. Will she comment briefly on the recent debate in the Commons about the lack of a proper sentence, for want of a better word, which makes the question of healthcare even more important? If an individual does not know how long they will be in Yarl’s Wood, their healthcare issues will be even more intense and difficult to cope with.
My hon. Friend highlights an important point. I know from first-hand experience that if women do not know how long they will be detained, it has an impact on their mental health. I want the Government to take that fact very seriously. I will discuss it later in my speech. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue.
In 2014, the report “Detained” by Women for Refugee Women found that 62% of those surveyed described healthcare in detention as “bad” or “very bad”. In its latest report, “I am Human”, 17 out of 38 interviewees raised the issue of healthcare without being prompted. The urgent need to review healthcare was also voiced by HMIP. In its most recent report on its unannounced inspection, which was published in May 2015, it stated that healthcare in detention centres has declined severely. One of the two concerns it identified is healthcare, which needs to be improved. The second is that staffing levels are too low to meet the needs of the population, which links to healthcare. The report shows that staff do not have the time to build meaningful connections with detainees, and no counselling is available. It states:
“Detainees’ perceptions of health care were overwhelmingly negative. Their main concerns included poor access to prescribed medication, a poor overall standard of care, a poor attitude from health care staff, a corrosive culture of disbelief, and a lack of support with emotional and mental health needs.”
The Care Quality Commission issued three requirement notices following the inspection.
In November last year, I went inside Yarl’s Wood to meet women who had been detained. The two women I met were victims of trafficking; one was pregnant. Pregnant women are a particularly vulnerable group in detention. I call on the Government to review urgently their policy of detaining pregnant women in exceptional circumstances. In 2014, just nine of the 99 pregnant women who were detained in Yarl’s Wood were removed from the UK. The removal of pregnant women is rarely medically safe, due to potential pregnancy complications and increased levels of severe malaria on arrival.
The human reality has never been so clear to me as when I went inside the detention centre. I know that the Minister has already visited Yarl’s Wood, but I encourage him to do so again, if possible, on a healthcare visit.
On the point about the unsuitability of detention for pregnant women and the statistic that the hon. Lady cited, there were 99 pregnant women in detention, but, as we understand it, there are now only two. I am sure she will join me in urging the Minister to ensure that no pregnant women are kept in detention, but the numbers have come down.
The right hon. Lady makes a valuable point. I agree that pregnant women should not be detained at all.
Meeting women in Yarl’s Wood allowed me to hear the concerns that they do not have the power to voice to the outside world by themselves. I am here today as their voice. This debate is for them. They told me, unprompted, that the worst thing about Yarl’s Wood is the healthcare. The women I met were depressed and exasperated by healthcare, but they were trying their best to stay positive about being released. They told me that the culture of disbelief in detention centres extends to healthcare staff as well, who are reluctant to take their illnesses seriously, and they assume that the staff are pretending to help with their asylum case. That feeling is compounded by the complaints process. Whereas the majority of complaints receive comprehensive replies, usually on time, healthcare complaints in the months prior to the HMIP inspection had either not been responded to or were extremely late.
I want to highlight how damaging such healthcare systems are for detainees who are victims of torture and those who have mental health issues. Unsurprisingly, those groups are often intertwined. They represent a significant proportion of those in detention. According to Medical Justice, 50% of those held in detention are asylum seekers or have sought asylum at some point in the immigration process. More than 80% of those surveyed by Women for Refugee Women for “I am Human” stated that they had experienced gender-related persecution, and 30% had been on suicide watch at some point during their detention. During the previous HMIP inspection, 49% said that they had problems of feeling depressed or suicidal on arrival, compared with 39% at the last inspection. Despite those needs, there is no counselling. Only 68% of staff said to HMIP that they received adequate training in safeguarding adults, and only one said that they were aware of the national referral mechanism for victims of trafficking.
Rule 35 is in place to protect the most vulnerable and ensure that they are not unsuitably detained, but it is failing in Yarl’s Wood. The most recent HMIP report states:
“Yarl’s Wood is failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held. These are issues that need to be addressed at a policy and strategic management level.”
The report reiterates demands that rule 35 processes are appropriately followed. It states that Yarl’s Wood’s rule 35 reports were among the worst HMIP had seen. This included an exceptionally poorly handled rule 35 case in which a woman who had been raped was not considered to have met the criteria for torture even though she had clear symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Thanks to HMIP and independent organisations, the Government are aware of such concerns.
However, at the same time that the Government and Serco have announced reviews of operations at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, access to healthcare is limited. In October 2015, Yarl’s Wood informed Medical Justice that rooms in healthcare would be available only during a short lunch break on weekdays, severely restricting access for independent doctors, most of whom work in the NHS during the week and visit detainees on weekends. Such doctors therefore now have to visit detainees in inappropriate rooms with large windows and without examination facilities. That is wholly unsuitable. External medical assessments are most frequently carried out in order to assess whether someone has medical evidence of torture, which needs to be documented for their asylum case. If the doctor does not have a room where they can offer the woman the dignity of being able to undress and not feel threatened, how can that work?
Returning to the “I Am Human” report mentioned by the hon. Lady, these women are already feeling quite vulnerable. If they are pregnant, they will feel doubly vulnerable. If they have access to medical treatment, but with a male member of staff, that is another issue. Perhaps we need some information on the male to female staff ratio. These women are already vulnerable and they are being managed by male members of staff.
The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. As she eloquently said, the woman may have experienced trauma at the hands of men and then may have to sit and talk to a man and undress in front of him, which could double or triple the impact of what they have been through. It would be wonderful if the Minister could provide some data on the ratio of male to female members of staff.
Furthermore, medical appointments often take several hours, much longer than the newly restricted one-hour lunch-break slot. Thorough medical assessments are vital in light of the poor quality of healthcare and are instrumental in helping to identify the most vulnerable detainees. Medical Justice wrote to Yarl’s Wood in October 2015 about the matter and was told it was down to the Home Office. It subsequently wrote to the Home Office and has received no reply. I hope this debate will bring forward a proactive response.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. Does she agree that comprehensive trauma assessments for women necessitate a lengthy process over several sessions over a period of time, because people generally find it difficult to open up and discuss intimate details in a one-off consultation?
The hon. Lady makes a valuable point, and she knows from experience how much time it takes to be able to extract information when someone has been tortured. A one-hour slot is inadequate.
I want the Government to think about the harmful nature of detention as a policy, so I reiterate my requests that the Government lift restrictions on visiting times for independent doctors and refurbish legal rooms so that they can accommodate medical consultations in a dignified and professional manner; that they ensure that rule 35 is properly used to fulfil its function as a safeguarding mechanism for the most vulnerable; and that they end the detention of pregnant women and those detained under the Mental Health Act.
I hope that the Government will respond to my specific demands. I will say pre-emptively that while I welcome their efforts to address the matter through the Shaw review, its scope is limited. By not addressing detention as a policy, particularly for asylum seekers, it fails to deal with the root of many of the healthcare issues at Yarl’s Wood: detention exacerbates existing mental health issues, particularly for vulnerable victims of torture, and has a lasting impact on their wellbeing. It is important that the Government consider the long-term impact of detention on the mental health of ex-detainees when reviewing their policy, especially given that the latest figures collected by HMIP show that the number of women released into the community is more than double the number of women deported. Women who had been previously detained in Yarl’s Wood have told me of the devastating impact it has had on their mental health.
The Government must act now to improve a healthcare situation that has been severely criticised by women inside Yarl’s Wood, ex-detainees, and independent organisations. I particularly hope that my first demand regarding independent visits can be accommodated as a matter of urgency.
Order. The debate must finish at 5.39 pm and I will be calling Front-Bench spokespeople at 5.19 pm, so speeches will have to be brief.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this important debate. As a longer standing Member of the House, I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have tried so hard to shine a light on the difficulties. I want to mention in particular Sarah Teather, the former Member for Brent Central, who chaired a detention inquiry, on the panel of which I sat, to take evidence from those who had gone through the detention system in this country.
I think the public will be quite surprised by some of the facts that come out of this debate. Each year, some 2,000 asylum-seeking women are locked up in Yarl’s Wood. The majority of them are survivors of sexual violence and rape. Up to 93% of the women detained at Yarl’s Wood claim to have suffered sexual violence of some form, so these are the most vulnerable women that we can think of in circumstances that are far from ideal. Being locked up in detention exacerbates physical and mental health problems, so it is even more important that the health provision should be to a high standard.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should never forget that those who are detained have neither been accused nor convicted of any offence? It is therefore particularly important that they are afforded the high-quality healthcare to which those who have been convicted of no crime are entitled.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I just do not think that the bulk of people in our society have any idea that the UK is the only country in Europe with no time limit on immigration detention and that one can be detained for an indeterminate period without charge. Most people in British society would think that impossible, but we are the only country in Europe that currently does it. My hon. Friend is right that people who are detained indefinitely without charge should not be denied the healthcare they need. That is one of the key reasons why securing this debate was so important.
The detention inquiry that took place in the last Parliament made six important recommendations to Government, one of which I want to reiterate:
“Decisions to detain should be very rare and detention should be for the shortest possible time and only to effect removal.”
Those recommendations were made to the coalition Government and I sincerely hope that the present Government’s Minister will be able to say in his response what the Home Office is doing about those recommendations and the ones being made today.
We have heard about the types of health problems that women suffer from, but I will highlight the high percentage of suffering associated with sexual violence and the plight of pregnant women. Women for Refugee Women, an organisation already referred to, collected evidence from detainees in Yarl’s Wood and, frankly, as a mother it makes my hair stand on end. For example, a woman recently detained while pregnant said that she had only one hospital appointment while in Yarl’s Wood, which was for a scan at 20 weeks—as hon. Members know, that is late for a first scan. Even then she was escorted by officers who brought the lady to her appointment 40 minutes late. How anxious and frustrated she must have felt—even when she was brought to the necessary scan, she was not presented in time and was not able to speak to the midwife after the scan because no time was left. As a woman who has been through pregnancy, I would expect such basic healthcare provisions for people.
On the issue of pregnant women, the contrast is between the treatment available to women in my constituency at an award-winning midwifery unit and what women in detention get. Pregnant women in detention cannot even request access to a midwife—surely that has to be discussed further.
I could not agree more and that is why we are laying it on with a trowel today.
A further example from Women for Women Refugees distressed me greatly when I heard about it, just as the hon. Member for Edmonton was distressed by describing what women in detention have to go through. One woman had to wait three and a half hours for an ambulance while she was bleeding from a miscarriage. I suffered from multiple miscarriages and they can be a matter of life and death. If our constituents knew that a 999 call for someone suffering a miscarriage had taken three and a half hours to be responded to, they would soon be writing to the Secretary of State for Health.
We are at this debate to emphasise to the Government the urgency required to address the situation. What is it that deters the Home Office from taking a different approach to detention? In other countries, pregnant women or any of the people whom we would detain are detained in the community and kept at large there. Is the Home Office worried about the cost? I doubt it, because our system seems to be both expensive and unnecessary—holding someone in detention costs almost £40,000 a year and some of the detainees are held for a very long period. Community programmes are consistently found to be significantly cheaper. International evidence also demonstrates that such alternatives to detention support high levels of compliance. Perhaps the Home Office is worried about the risk of absconding? The Home Office is evaluating the UK’s new family returns process, which makes minimal use of detention, and the evidence is that there has been no rise in absconding since the introduction of the new community-orientated process.
I urge the Minister, when he responds to the debate, to address such urgent matters of basic rights. We should expect all UK citizens and guests in our country to be able to rely on such rights and on an emergency service and proper healthcare to a standard that we would all expect to be available when needed. As far as possible, we should move away from how so many women are being treated.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) for securing the debate. For me, as for her and for the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), this is a powerfully emotive subject. It is a debate about pride and shame.
I am proud to be the Member for Walthamstow. When I was elected, the then Member for Blackburn told me that there were two divides in the House: between left and right; and between those who have to deal with the UK Border Agency and those who do not. That was a pretty accurate description.
I am also proud to be a member of the Set Her Free campaign and to work with Women for Refugee Women—some of those women live in my community and I have been proud to campaign with them about Yarl’s Wood. Set Her Free is above all about giving voice, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton did so eloquently, to those women detained at Yarl’s Wood now and whose voices we cannot hear unless others speak out for them. We are here today to speak out for those 2,000 women, the majority of whom we know to be the victims of rape and sexual torture and of persecution in their own countries. Yet when they come to our shores, this is how we treat them.
The healthcare problems are only the pinnacle of the injustice that Yarl’s Wood represents in our community. Many of the detainees have mental as well as physical healthcare problems: one in five has tried to kill themselves and 40% of them self-harm. Those figures come from the valiant work done by Women for Refugee Women to hold us to account for the existence of Yarl’s Wood. That work was cruelly disbelieved by the Home Office, so the report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons showing a tripling in the number of women self-harming in Yarl’s Wood should be testament to the work done by Women for Refugee Women to uncover just what the truth is about such a place in our society here in Britain in 2016.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate and excellent speech. Will she join me in underlining that when there is no statutory limit on the period of detention those mental health issues such as the self-harming become worse?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that, because she brings me to exactly what shames me. I feel shame about what is happening today in our country. I am ashamed that the UK is the only European country with no limit on detention, which absolutely compounds the mental health distress felt by many of those in Yarl’s Wood. I am ashamed that the HMIP report also reveals that male members of staff are supervising women on suicide watch—as Women for Refugee Women warned us was happening. What does that mean in layman’s terms? Vulnerable women are being watched as they sleep or as they use the lavatory. How is that happening in our country, on our shores?
I am also ashamed that all of that is futile, because two thirds of the women whom we lock up in Yarl’s Wood are then set free and, as Members have talked about, 90% of the pregnant women are set free. What is the point of putting them through that torture? I am ashamed, because it is not even value for money. As the right hon. Member for Meriden pointed out, it costs us £40,000 a year to hold those women in detention. We could find much cheaper, much more humane and much more dignified ways in which to manage our asylum system.
Above all, I am ashamed that we do not hear the voices of those women. I therefore want to read directly from their testament. The right hon. Member for Meriden cited a case, but I will read from the account of a woman who was not pregnant. The best way in which to guarantee the healthcare of women in Yarl’s Wood is to close the place down altogether. Let me read this out:
“When I came to England I was destitute, I was homeless. I went to Croydon to the Home Office to explain my situation. Before I could say anything, the lady said to me, you are lying. I said, God knows if I am lying…Then they took me to a room. Nobody told me they were taking me to detention. A lady said to me, they are taking you to another immigration office. They put me in handcuffs. I did not know what was going on. Since I was born I had never left my country before. They put me in the van and took me to Yarl’s Wood. They searched me. I wasn’t able to ask what was going on, because I was too scared of them. Nobody told me what was going on. They said, you are in fast track, but I didn’t know what that was.
While I was in detention, I was seriously sick, I was dying. My body collapsed. There were times when I could not walk. They took me to healthcare, they said you must eat, but I couldn’t eat the food. I was skinny, I was dying.”
This is 2016. We have had such debates for a number of years. It is not cost-effective, moral or effective in the modern world to have somewhere such as Yarl’s Wood in Britain. It should shame us all that it is happening on our shores. I ask the Minister, please, set her free.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate hugely my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), because she has given those women a voice which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said, is being denied them.
At the moment a great deal of attention is rightly being given to those who are crossing borders to seek safety. It is important that we focus our attention on those who reach the UK and seek our protection, and that we ensure they are treated with dignity and humanity. Every year, around 2,000 asylum-seeking women are locked up at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Most are survivors of rape, sexual violence or torture. Because of their experiences in their countries of origin, those women are clearly vulnerable and many have serious physical and mental health problems. However, in spite of that, when they come to the UK for sanctuary they are locked up in detention, where they are re-traumatised, and the physical and mental health care available to them is wholly inadequate.
The chief inspector of prisons has called Yarl’s Wood a “place of national concern”. He found in his most recent inspection report that, of all the areas in the centre,
“healthcare had declined most severely”.
His report also pointed to the lack of gender-sensitive health practices in Yarl’s Wood. For instance, women who had newly arrived at the centre were expected to speak to male nurses as part of the health screening process and women who were placed on constant supervision, deemed to be so mentally distressed that they might kill themselves, were being watched by male staff in spite of their previous experiences of abuse and victimisation.
When Maimuna Jawo, who was detained in Yarl’s Wood prison, gave evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention, she said:
“Anybody who is on suicide watch has sexual harassment in Yarl’s Wood, because those male guards, they sit there watching you at night, sleeping and being naked.”
The Home Office has promised that a new policy will be put in place to ensure that women are watched only by female guards, but while the proportion of female staff at Yarl’s Wood remains under 50% there are serious questions about whether such a policy will ever become practice.
There are also real concerns about the treatment of pregnant women in detention, as hon. Members have said. Research by Medical Justice found that pregnant women miss antenatal appointments and some do not have any scans while detained. The poor care provided to those women is particularly troubling when we consider that, as has been said, for most of them detention serves absolutely no purpose.
I want to highlight one important point: staff from Yarl’s Wood were actually prosecuted for offences against detainees. It is important to place that on the record.
I am grateful that the right hon. Lady placed that on the record. It turns my stomach that we are in this situation. Ninety of the 99 pregnant women detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2014 were released back into the community to continue with their cases, so they were locked up and re-traumatised for no reason at all. One of the pregnant women who the charity Women for Refugee Women is in touch with, a survivor of trafficking, was recently released back into the community after being detained for almost two months, even though Home Office guidance says that pregnant women should be detained only if their removal is imminent.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady’s excellent speech, but do we not have to be a tiny bit careful about making the point that people are sometimes released into the community and then continue normally? It happens in the criminal system that people who are remanded in custody subsequently have their trial and are acquitted, but that does not necessarily mean that, in all cases, there is not a public policy reason for such action. I understand her argument, but I wonder whether that is the strongest point.
I will come on to strengthen my point in a moment. It is welcome news that the Home Office has committed to consult on its policy of detaining pregnant women and I hope that it will engage with a wide range of stakeholders, including women who have been in detention while pregnant, to make sure that the process is meaningful. Standards of healthcare in Yarl’s Wood need to improve as a matter of real urgency, but we must not lose sight of the fact that locking up women who have come to the UK to seek our protection is harmful by its nature. However much healthcare services are improved, detention causes mental health trauma and exacerbates physical problems.
These women do not need to be in Yarl’s Wood in the first place. Their claims could be dealt with much more effectively in the community. In fact, two thirds of asylum-seeking women are released from Yarl’s Wood to do just that. The Home Office’s own evidence on the new family returns process found no rise in absconding among families seeking asylum since children stopped being detained at Yarl’s Wood. We can and should learn from that.
Minister, locking up women seeking asylum is expensive, unnecessary and unjust. It is time that the practice is swiftly brought to an end.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on her heartfelt, moving speech. I want to thank her for crying—I am not the only one who does that in this place. She said that she wanted to be the voice for women detained in Yarl’s Wood and she has been that incredibly well today. Her demonstration of how deeply she feels will matter to them when they watch the debate.
If the UK Government need more evidence of the desperate human consequences of unlimited incarceration of vulnerable people, the shameful reports of inadequate healthcare as well as the dire treatment of female detainees in Yarl’s Wood should be telling enough for them to abandon their inhumane policies. I appeal to the Minister, who I know has a humane side to him—sometimes a very humane side—to do something now. We are waiting on the outcome of reports, but we already have significant reports, so we should not wait for more of them before we do anything.
Yarl’s Wood is a prison for people who have committed no crime, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) pointed out, where diabolical health and safety standards threaten the lives of innocent people, many of whom have already been victims of torture and trauma. Evidence of the degrading, inhumane consequences of indefinite detention shows the vital need for time-limited detention as a matter of urgency. The Scottish National party has long supported that. The UK Government are fundamentally failing to protect some of the most vulnerable women seeking refuge.
Yarl’s Wood fails to meet the most basic standards of health and safety for detainees and is a “place of national concern”. Those are not my words, but those of the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick. I sincerely hope that the Government will listen to that and do something as a matter of urgency.
I want to return to something that the hon. Member for Edmonton talked about. Last year, 90 of the 99 pregnant women detained were later released and not deported. I think it was the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and the hon. Member for—[Interruption.] She and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy)—I do that in every debate—asked, if 90 of those women were later allowed to go to homes in the UK, what were they doing there in the first place? The hon. Member for Bishop’s Stortford—
Good try—Meriden. [Laughter.]
The constituency names do not come up on the Annunciator in Westminster Hall. In an equally moving speech, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) noted that in 2015 there were—I think she said—only two pregnant women in Yarl’s Wood. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether that is because the Government are now politically opposed to the detention of pregnant women and whether we can expect that number to go down rather than up.
I also pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for speaking movingly about how deeply she feels about the situation, and in particular for mentioning her experience of miscarriage. That is not an easy thing to do, but she recognised her duty to do that to highlight the problems faced by other women.
I share the shame that the hon. Member for Walthamstow mentioned she feels. She did something important: she spoke in this place the words of women currently in detention. The hon. Member for Rotherham—I know where she represents—has been a true champion of those seeking asylum. She rightly questioned why 90 pregnant women were at Yarl’s Wood in the first place if they were released.
The SNP has long called for an end to the unlimited detention—imprisonment, in fact—of migrants. It recently advocated that a 28-day maximum time limit be written into the Immigration Bill, based on evidence that being locked up for any longer would be catastrophic for the detainees’ health. An unlimited period of detention not only causes damage to health, but is a fundamentally unnecessary and expensive exercise.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who is our immigration spokesperson, asked a parliamentary question in September about the cost per capita of detaining someone in one of these centres. The reply from the Home Office was that last year the average cost to hold an individual in detention was £91 per day. I would argue, as others have, that that money could be better spent elsewhere. The Home Office has also said that the UK detains immigrants only as a last resort, but in 2013 it detained just over 30,000. Germany detained just over 4,000, Belgium just over 6,000 and Sweden almost 3,000. During that time, Germany received four times as many asylum applications as the UK, and I do not think anyone would accuse Germany of being a soft touch. We are the only EU country to have no time limit on detention.
Many of the women detained at Yarl’s Wood have backgrounds that include trafficking and torture, as well as physical and mental abuse. A young woman who fled persecution in Uganda on account of her sexuality talked about the lack of support for those with mental health problems and how the lack of appropriate healthcare in the detention centre led to suicidal thoughts. I understand that some counselling services were withdrawn last year; will the Minister give us an update on that? Surely that was a mistake and those services will be reinstated, because if anywhere needs it, it is that place. We must address the failures not only in Yarl’s Wood but in the immigration system as a whole. We cannot put up with a prison-like system, not only because of the financial consequences, but because of the devastating human cost, which is simply not just.
I pay tribute to a choir that came to this place from Manchester at Christmas. In fact, they might have sung in this Chamber. They are called WAST—Women Asylum Seekers Together—and it was incredibly moving to witness them just before Christmas. All the women had been in detention and were now out, but the damage that had been done to them, by not only the detention but whatever had happened in their past, was visible.
I conclude by repeating something I have said on more than one occasion in this place. I know that we no longer detain children, but I am going to use the words of a 10-year-old boy who I knew extremely well. He was in Yarl’s Wood with his mother and could stand it no longer, and said to her, “Mummy, please can we just die? Please, dying would be better than this. Let us die.” That child was 10 years old. It does not matter what age someone is; if we are doing something to people that makes them feel like they want to die, we have to do something about it. We cannot keep waiting for report after report after report. Listen to the reports that have come out already and take action as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) for securing this debate and for her powerful and insightful comments. I am grateful for all the powerful and insightful comments that have been made this afternoon. It is a shame there are not more men in the room. This is a question not of women’s issues but of human rights, and it is notable that there are not as many male Members present as there should be—this is not a party political point—both to contribute and to hear the contributions that have been made.
Of course, immigration rules have to be enforced and, in exceptional circumstances, detention is necessary, but it must always be humane and done to the highest standards, and there must always be safeguards. The point has already been made that, in relation to this particular type of detention, where there has been no conviction—no wrongdoing—it is particularly important that the detention service’s operating standards are kept to, and that the same range and quality of healthcare services is provided in detention centres as is available on the NHS. That point was made early in the debate, and it is central to this issue, because it is manifestly not the case in Yarl’s Wood.
There is clear evidence of repeated failures in relation to the rule 35 reports, in relation to the treatment and detention of pregnant women and the mentally ill, and in the provision of adequate healthcare more generally. Such repeated failings, and the reports on them, bring into question whether Yarl’s Wood is still fit for purpose. That is the central question. But, instead of taking action, the Government repeatedly refer us back to reports that are due out, such as the Shaw review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. That review is important, but it has been with the Minister for some time now—I think it was completed in the autumn—so, in the light of the concerns that have been raised on many occasions and again in this debate, will he tell us when it will be published so that we can see its findings?
The rule 35 reports are central to the provision of care, welfare and healthcare in Yarl’s Wood. They are intended to be a report of any case where continued detention is likely to injure the detainee’s health, so they are central. They are sent, or are supposed to be sent, to the Home Secretary, who must consider and respond to them. As has already been mentioned, the quality of the rule 35 reports in Yarl’s Wood, these central reports that are supposed to flag up cases so that something can be done about them, is appalling.
Although part of it has already been read out, it is worth giving in full the quote from the 2015 report by the chief inspector of prisons, which said that the rule 35 reports
“were among the worst we have seen. All were handwritten and many were difficult to read, lacked detail and were perfunctory. Some responses were dismissive.”
That shows a manifest failing of a flagging system that is supposed to start the process and alert the Home Office to concerns so that something can be done. How can the rule 35 reports examined in the 2015 report be among the worst that have ever been seen?
It is clear that the Home Office’s response to these reports has also been inadequate on occasion. A recent example is the case of a Sudanese refugee that went to the High Court. In that case, the medical practitioner at Yarl’s Wood had filed a rule 35 report, which gave details of previous injuries caused by beatings with metal rods, knife wounds and even a gunshot. Despite the evidence of torture, the Home Secretary said that there were exceptional circumstances justifying detention. The High Court disagreed, finding that the woman had been wrongfully detained and calling the case “truly disgraceful”. What is the point of the rule 35 procedure if adequate responses are not made in every case?
A further problem that has already been touched on is the detention of pregnant women and the mentally ill. It may be that the number is coming down, but it is a very serious issue. There have been far too many in the past, and any detention of anyone who is pregnant requires exceptional justification. There is no evidence that those exceptional circumstances are made out in so many of these cases. As the director of midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives, Louise Silverton, has said:
“Some pregnant women have reported receiving inadequate healthcare, which clearly puts their unborn baby at risk as well.”
The law is designed to protect pregnant women and those with other vulnerabilities from being detained. It is not being applied properly, it has not been applied properly in the past, and that now raises the question of whether, if it cannot be applied properly, it should be applied at all. There are other provisions in relation to vulnerable individuals.
I am aware of the time, but I want to mention one other issue, which I think has already been raised: the investigations into the deaths in custody that have occurred in the past few years. In particular, there have been reports of the death of a 40-year-old female detainee in March last year in which it has been said that the detainee was denied medical assistance. I know that there has been an investigation, so could the Minister give us an update on that and tell us when we can see its findings? That might tell us so much more about the provision of healthcare in Yarl’s Wood.
To conclude, it is not acceptable to wait for yet more evidence and yet more reports before something is done about the appalling situation in Yarl’s Wood. Now is the time for action. Frankly, if the rules cannot be applied properly in Yarl’s Wood and adequate medical provision cannot be made to safeguard the health and welfare of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, the question is whether Yarl’s Wood is fit for purpose.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) at the outset on securing this debate and on her contribution? I know that she feels strongly about this subject and has been committed to it over a period of time and since she has been in the House. I know how deeply she feels about these issues, as her contribution showed. I am genuinely grateful for the manner in which she has approached this debate.
As the hon. Lady indicated, one of the first things I did following the general election and my reappointment as the Immigration Minister was to visit Yarl’s Wood, recognising a number of the issues raised about the centre, and I specifically visited the healthcare centre at that time. I can certainly assure her and other Members of our focus on this issue and, indeed, the importance that the Home Secretary and I attach to the dignity and welfare of those in detention. That is of the utmost importance, and we take those responsibilities extremely seriously. I hope to talk about some of the generalities of the policy, to focus on Yarl’s Wood specifically and to address rule 35 access to independent medical examinations, as well as some of the other points flagged up, in the time available to me.
Our policy is that vulnerable people should not normally be detained under immigration powers. Our processes are designed generally to prevent vulnerable individuals from being detained unless there are very exceptional circumstances and, when vulnerability emerges after the point of initial detention, we aim to act quickly and appropriately.
Reference has been made to the Shaw review. Indeed, the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) highlighted it in his contribution. The Home Secretary commissioned Stephen Shaw to carry out an independent review of welfare in detention—that is, in immigration removal centres, in short-term holding facilities and for detainees under escort. The review considered many of the issues discussed in today’s debate. Mr Shaw was asked to look at current systems and policies, including those in place for identifying vulnerability, managing both the mental and physical health of detainees, providing welfare support, preventing self-harm and self-inflicted death, assessing risk, managing food and fluid refusal, and safeguarding. We have received Mr Shaw’s report and, as I indicated on Report of the Immigration Bill, it is our intention to publish both the report and our response to it before Committee consideration of the Bill in the House of Lords. That remains our intention.
Will the Minister give way?
I was just about to address the detention issues raised by the hon. Lady, as well as those raised by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) referred to fast track in her contribution. I underline that I made the decision to suspend detained fast track—in other words, where an asylum case is being considered—because I was not satisfied with the safeguarding provisions around vulnerability. I will reintroduce it only when I am satisfied that appropriate processes and procedures are in place to ensure its safe reintroduction.
Will the Minister confirm whether, when the Government respond to the Shaw report, there will be clarity as to whether they consider women who are victims of rape and sexual torture—that is, two thirds of the residents of Yarl’s Wood—to be vulnerable in and of themselves, and therefore inappropriate for detention?
I will be careful not to pre-empt the Government’s response, but the hon. Lady will not have long to wait for the Shaw report. I recognise the importance attached to it. Indeed, the Home Secretary commissioned the report because of the importance we attach to it. My comments today will be based on the position as it stands, but the Government will have more to say on these issues shortly.
I speak as the MP for the constituency where Dungavel is based, and also as a psychologist. When I visited that centre, it struck me that another issue of vulnerability for individuals who have suffered abuse and trauma is being detained alongside foreign national offenders who may be violent or sexual offenders. Will the Minister comment on how such risks are assessed, particularly given that it was pointed out to me that prison records do not always follow foreign national offenders into the units?
I assure the hon. Lady that risk assessment takes place. There is sometimes a mix of different people within an immigration removal centre: some of them will be foreign national offenders, and others will be there as a consequence of the removal process. It is worth underlining that we are talking about immigration removal centres. The primary purpose is the removal of people from this country, but there will be public protection issues, and risk assessment is clearly a core part of the operation of any immigration removal centre.
I am conscious that I now have four minutes left to respond to the various points made, so I will try to make as much haste as I can. Several Members mentioned indefinite detention. It is not possible to detain under immigration powers indefinitely. There are significant, long-standing and, we believe, appropriate protections against the arbitrary use of administrative detention by the state in this country.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and other Members that we are carefully considering alternative options to detention. Our published policy is clear that alternatives to detention should be used wherever possible. As I indicated on Report of the Immigration Bill, we are considering the overall issues of the detention estate more broadly and are examining alternatives as part of that ongoing work. Members referred to the family removals process.
I will make some progress, as I now have three minutes remaining.
On the specific complaints issues raised, our detention centre rules are designed to ensure that female detainees’ rights, dignity and privacy are upheld. Should we receive complaints that contractors are breaching those rules, I assure hon. Members that such cases will be investigated fully and firmly.
On the issue of female members of staff and the availability of care and support, nurses are available 24/7 in Yarl’s Wood but, as in the community, they will not always be female. Detainees have the right to request to be seen by a female doctor or nurse, which will be arranged wherever possible. Midwives from Bedford Hospital NHS Trust visit the centre once a week, and the frequency and length of attendance is determined by demand.
The hon. Member for Edmonton mentioned independent medical examinations. Detention centre rules require that a registered medical practitioner selected by or on behalf of a detainee is given reasonable facilities for examining detainees. IRC suppliers rightly take requests very seriously and seek to accommodate them in accordance with the rules, but I am aware that some groups have made representations and expressed concerns. We are examining those closely and considering this issue carefully. I assure the hon. Lady that I recognise that issue, and we are examining how best to address it.
The Home Office will be revising the template form that IRC doctors are required to use when completing rule 35 reports, in order to make it clearer what information the Home Office requires of doctors when they complete such reports. We have consulted on the proposed changes with the relevant stakeholders. The intention is to make the forms easier for doctors to use, thereby improving the content of rule 35 reports. That is an important aspect, in order to ensure we act on those reports and consider them appropriately.
On the CQC report, an action plan is very much in place, and I have had discussions with NHS England about that. It is being worked through, and we take these issues very seriously.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edmonton for the constructive discussion today. I confirm the importance we attach to this issue and, if I may, I will seek to write to her on the other issues that time has unfortunately prevented me from addressing.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).