Wednesday 23 March 2016
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political situation in Burma.
It is a privilege and an honour to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Owen.
Burma is a nation at a crossroads. It faces huge challenges, but there are many reasons to be optimistic. Recently, I was fortunate to go on a visit with Benedict Rogers from Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He is a fount of knowledge on Burma. As well as being a fantastic advocate for human rights and religious tolerance, Christian Solidarity Worldwide is an amazing source of information on that and other parts of the world.
I have a personal interest in Burma, because my father was born there. My grandfather was born in Mandalay. During world war two he served on the docks and took part in the scuttling so that the Japanese could not get in and use the docks or anything there. When I visited, I found out that when my father was a schoolboy aged 13, he was walking past the Secretariat on the day that General Aung San was assassinated. Imagine a 13-year-old boy seeing the chaos in the aftermath of that and not knowing quite what a pivotal moment that was in the country’s history.
In 1962, during the coup, my aunt was a tutor at Rangoon University when the student union was blown up, and she lost many of her friends and colleagues that day. She also lost her job. For the next two years she had to work unpaid at the generals’ behest, doing whatever they wanted, including going up and down the streets chanting to pretend that the generals had far more support than they actually did.
It was therefore an absolute privilege and honour for me to create another tiny chapter of my family’s history in 2016, at another pivotal moment in the country’s history. Following the 2015 elections, the Government are transitioning to what we hope will be a far more open, fairer and freer democracy. The visit was more than just a personal episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”; thanks to Ben, I was able to criss-cross the country and meet a number of people to talk about religious tolerance, human rights and ethnic conflicts. I also met a number of national and regional MPs.
I joined an international delegation in Naypyidaw, which included my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is in her place, and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), both of whom I know wanted to participate in the debate. Unfortunately, they have events elsewhere. The international delegation helped to train the new Burmese MPs, and one thing that was uncovered was that the first basic risk for the future is the capacity of the newly elected politicians. They have worked so hard and given up so much to be elected, but they need knowledge and direction to be effective at drafting and scrutinising legislation and to be able to challenge Ministers while still dealing with their constituency work to the best of their ability. We take that for granted here. When I was elected, I had support from experienced Clerks, staff, Doorkeepers and colleagues. I stepped into a mature system with people who could guide me smoothly on the way. The system in Burma was previously run by a military junta, so that barely exists in Naypyidaw. The opportunity to scrutinise is very new.
Mr Speaker has also been to Burma with Ben Rogers, and is a former chairman of the all-party group on democracy in Burma. He has already provided a lot of support and has promised more. Experienced British parliamentary Clerks are seconded over there, sharing our knowledge, and that is fantastic. Delegations of Burmese Clerks have visited here, too. Most people, when they look at my campaign to get to this place after two and a half years and a hard-fought election, say, “Paul, you worked very hard”, but I basically did a lot of simple things many times over a couple of years. I look at the Burmese MPs in awe. They have given up so much. My old sales manager used to liken commitment to an English breakfast. He said that the chicken that gave the egg was mildly interested, but the pig that gave the bacon was totally committed. What the Burmese MPs have given up is remarkable. They are eager and chomping at the bit, but it is important for them to focus. There is a huge weight of expectation, and that needs managing in the parliamentary and party structures.
Most Burmese people are tolerant, understanding and determined, but they know that they cannot change things overnight. With vision, determination and a framework, however, things can change. Aung San Suu Kyi is an incredible woman, but she cannot do everything on her own, and that is why the framework will be important. We need to enable MPs to find the right balance between their work for their country in getting the rule of law, legislation and changes in place, and their constituency work and family life. That is very difficult given the situation in Naypyidaw. The extraordinary parliamentary building that Members might have seen on the internet or television is something to behold. Even Ceausescu would be amazed by the extent of the building. Frankly, it is big enough to give MPs a desk and somewhere to do their constituency work. Not all the changes need a lot of money, which obviously Burma does not have a lot of at the moment.
The election observers I met while I was over there saw a number of cases of fraud, intimidation and threats of violence, so it was not a perfect election by any stretch of the imagination, but it was as good as could be expected, and I do not think anyone can be in doubt that it got the result that the vast majority of the country wanted to see. In that regard, it was a good result, and it was as free and as fair an election as we could expect. Will the Minister tell us what more parliamentarians and the Government can do to support politicians in Burma—we are obviously not going to be telling them what to do or how to run their country—as they transition to parliamentary democracy, which we take for granted in this country?
Members will have seen that the military has been undertaking considerable negotiations with Daw Suu on the presidency and the constitution. U Htin Kyaw, a close ally of Daw Suu, has now been appointed as President, which is to be welcomed, but the approval of the military’s choice for vice-president, Myint Swe, is difficult for many to swallow. He is a hard-liner. He was the military commander who supervised the crackdown on the saffron revolution in 2007, and he was a close confidant of Than Shwe. Ironically, Myint Swe’s son-in-law held Australian citizenship, which prevented him from taking up the vice-presidency in 2012 under the same rules that prevented Daw Suu from taking up the presidency, but the son-in-law has reportedly now renounced his citizenship. As first Vice-President, Myint Swe has a seat on the 11-member National Defence and Security Council and would serve as acting President should the presidency fall vacant for any reason. Although the transition is looking optimistic and there are many reasons to look forward to what is to come, threats and situations may arise that could bring Burma back to terrible dark times, as has happened in the past. We must err on the side of caution.
When visiting places outside of Naypyidaw, we have to look at what is going on with religious tolerance and ethnic conflict. I met a number of Muslim leaders and campaigners, including Khin Maung Myint, Wai Wai Nu and Al-Haj U Aye Lwin. The first two are Rohingya representatives. Wai Wai Nu is a phenomenally articulate 29-year-old. Her father was previously an MP, but he was not able to stand this time around because he no longer was a citizen of Burma due to the citizenship rules. Like many people I met, and despite being only 29, Wai Wai Nu had already served seven years in prison with her family, pretty well just because she was the daughter of a former MP and an activist. The people I met, albeit that they were a self-selecting community because of the human rights and religious tolerance aspect of my visit, had all been to prison, some for 14 years or 18 years. That was not extraordinary for the people I met, although those people were themselves extraordinary.
Wai Wai Nu told me that the Government’s policy towards the Rohingya in the past had led to hatred and discrimination among the community as a whole. However, despite the severity of the situation, more Burmese people are becoming more open, and misunderstandings about the Rohingya can and must be addressed. She considered that the 1982 citizenship law would need to be revised to amend the indigenous and national races list, or to grant citizenship to those whose parents were citizens before 1982.
For the internally displaced people in the area, especially women, the major problem is healthcare. They are not allowed to go to hospital freely; they need permission and have to pay bribes. Often, even when they are in hospital, they are treated inhumanely.
The source of much of the religious tension has been Ma Ba Tha, a politicised militant nationalist group of Buddhist monks who were supported by the previous Government. We hope that it will wither on the vine now that Daw Suu is in charge. One of the leaders, U Wirathu, a radical monk, has released a new trailer for an anti-Muslim video, and has promised to release the full video. There is a suggestion that the new chairman of Ma Ba Tha, Insein Sayadaw, may be more flexible, because he is a former political prisoner with a good understanding of politics.
However, we need to continue to hear the voices not only of the moderates but of people such as Cardinal Bo, Bishop Philip in Lashio and the Venerable Badata Seindita, also known by the extraordinary name of Asia Light, who is a Buddhist monk from Pyin Oo Lwin. He speaks out vociferously about the true meaning of Buddhism. Whenever I hear the words “militant Buddhism”, or “nationalist Buddhism”, I think that the words simply do not go together. The Burmese people are generally the most peaceful, tolerant, placid people, albeit very determined. They exude all the qualities that we would expect from a mainly Buddhist population, so it is extraordinary to see the extremes to which Ma Ba Tha will go to divide the population.
Christians have not been exempted from religious intolerance, either. They have not been allowed to build churches in certain areas, and they have been told that they cannot even worship in their own homes in certain situations.
I went to Lashio in northern Shan state to see the ethnic conflict. I think I am the first MP to have been up there. There are worrying developments in Kachin state, where drugs are rife. It is believed that a huge percentage of young people in northern Shan are addicted to drugs, as part of a deliberate policy by the military. Human trafficking into China is common, with little action taken. I met representatives from the Ta’ang community—a women’s organisation and the students and youth union. There are 1 million Ta’ang people in northern and southern Shan state. We discussed the conflict that has recently begun between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State. After the ceasefire agreement was concluded, the RCSS signed it and went around Shan state to explain it. However, when it entered TNLA-controlled territory, clashes between the two armed groups began.
There are allegations that the RCSS is trying to extend its territory, and also suggestions that the military may be stoking the conflict to create divisions. Although things in Naypyidaw are hopefully being sorted and opened up, Burma is a big country with a lot of ethnic states, each with its own values, conflicts and tensions. It is very difficult for someone in the centre to be able to get to grips with all that.
The rule of law was a phrase that kept coming up time and again from every politician I spoke to. We met solicitors and other advocates in relation to various legal cases, which I want to raise briefly. Niranjan Rasalingam, a British citizen, has been in prison for 14 months without charge. He was accused of a cashpoint scam along with two Indian nationals who were not even in the country at the time the crime was supposed to have been committed. Niranjan Rasalingam is a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who has taken up his case.
We also met the solicitor who is dealing with the case of the rape and murder of two Kachin schoolteachers on the night of 19 January 2015. Their bodies were found in a village 140 miles from Lashio. Investigators were able to reach the village only one month after the incident and were able to interview some villagers, but none of the 48 soldiers stationed nearby. We saw harrowing photos of the teachers’ dead and mutilated bodies. Their hands had been slashed to the bone, ostensibly with machetes, possibly by the military, to check that they were not playing dead. That is how brutal and savage such killings are. For that not to be investigated properly is an absolute scandal.
We met Robert San Aung, who is dealing with U Gambira, a former Buddhist monk who was a leader of the saffron revolution and an outspoken voice for religious freedom, who was arrested on his return to Burma for illegal entry. There are many other such cases. People have got six-month and nine-month prison sentences simply for sharing stories on Facebook, for instance. People talk about too many cases of the police abusing their power of arrest for the purposes of their own influence, and they talk about judicial corruption and constitutional abuse. Power needs to be exercised out in the villages and towns to open things up. We heard from a civil activist:
“Democracy has only reached the upper levels—the regional and township levels—but we need to reach the local level and elect local leaders.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He mentions democracy having reached the upper levels. Does he agree that it is absolutely essential that the Burmese people at ground level see the benefits of the transition, and that they need to see the assistance of the west in trying to deliver on-the-ground democracy and tolerance and respect for all?
The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point. Daw Suu is insistent that her MPs work in their constituencies to make sure they are seen to be working for the people who elected them. I know that the Department for International Development is doing a lot of work on democracy building. It is fantastic that Mr Speaker and many other Members here are helping directly, and it is vital that people on the ground see that work and see how it benefits them.
As I said earlier, it is not for us to tell the people of Burma how to run their country or their legal system. However, we are critical friends, and we should raise points where we can. Imagine if the boot were on the other foot. People complain about the possibility of President Obama telling us what we might do in the European Union referendum. Frankly, I am more interested in how Narendra Modi came over here, extended the hand of friendship and talked about partnerships and working together as equals. We will have such opportunities in Burma. There can be further work by DFID and by Parliament, and hopefully there will be opportunities for trade in the future. When I was over there, it was fantastic to see Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon visiting Yangon as part of a regional tour to talk about opportunities for transport infrastructure.
I am enjoying listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He is absolutely right about the rule of law. Unfortunately, Burma comes in the top or bottom quartile, depending on which way we look at it, of the most corrupt countries in the world. Although it is not up to the UK to tell Burma how to run itself, how does the hon. Gentleman think we can best help it get rid of corruption?
I would look to the example of places such as Bangladesh. It is not a perfect country by any stretch of the imagination, but look at how it has moved on from being a corrupt state. Opportunities for business are starting to open up there as people realise that the level of corruption is unsustainable. A lot of investment has been coming into Burma from China, but it is starting to realise that cheap is not always best and that, frankly, China has little regard for the country—it has regard for the dollar and the kyat. Burma is looking to the west for investment and knows that for that to happen it will have to open up and tackle corruption. Hopefully we can help.
I want to put on record my thanks to Andrew Patrick, our ambassador in Burma, Gavin McGillivray, the head of the Department for International Development over there, and Kevin Mackenzie from the British Council. I also thank the many different people I met who spoke so eloquently and articulately. It gives me such hope for the future to know that a new generation is coming through. The politicians in Burma—Daw Suu and her colleagues—have been elected with their own vision. I hope that we can support them, but we must also let them deliver their vision. We should see how we can help them and then get in there and support them as partners. We want to be able to trade and do geopolitical work in that really important part of south-east Asia. I am looking forward to a constructive debate and would welcome the Minister’s comments on the points I have raised.
Order. I remind Members that I shall call the three Front Benchers for the wind-ups at 10.30 am. The Minister might like to give Mr Scully a couple of minutes to sum up at the end, if possible. A number of Members have indicated that they would like to speak. If they keep their speeches to around six minutes, we can get everyone in. Another Member has asked to speak and will be joining us later.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing this important debate. I also pay tribute to the Minister, who I think is the longest-serving Minister with this brief, so it is great to see him here. He has done his job very well. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), has really taken Burma to her heart and turned up at all the relevant debates.
The recent trip to Burma by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam must have been incredibly emotional. He went with Ben Rogers from Christian Solidarity Worldwide; anyone who has read Ben’s book would be astounded at how he has managed to slip into and out of Burma for so long. At least now, under a new democracy, he is able to travel freely. His book is almost like a James Bond novel.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union held a very important meeting with a top-level group of former Ministers. I am sorry that I could not be a member of the UK delegation, which was led by the former Member for Sheffield Heeley, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and for Norwich North (Chloe Smith.
There are lots of phrases we can use to describe the situation there, but Burma is on the edge of a new era. For the first time in more than 50 years, a civilian President has been elected, and Daw Suu is now in the Burmese Cabinet. Think back and reflect on her incredible journey. She returned to Burma to look after her mother. Both her parents are now dead. She was separated from her young children. She could not say goodbye to her husband when he was dying. Now, because of some petty little rule, she cannot take her place as President, but she is there in the Cabinet, serving her country.
Hers was an incredible journey. All of us sitting here in a democracy know we are lucky when we think of the terrible things she had to face. She was under house detention and in jail, and there were threats to her life, but she had the incredible courage to stand in front of the military—almost like standing in front of the tanks. We saw pictures beamed across the world of her confronting the military with no fear whatever—I am not sure I could have done that. She has been on an incredible journey and has now turned her country into an overwhelming democracy.
Nevertheless, the military still have that 25% of seats: it is like someone having two arms and two legs, but one arm tied behind their back. That is why the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is right that we need to support Burma, with human rights and the rule of law at the heart of its democracy, but at the same time allow it to make mistakes and to move on and form a democracy in its own way, making its own compromises. We must be careful of how we raise the issues and ensure that we are helping Burma, as we have done throughout. I was delighted when the Burmese Government’s first move was to establish an Ethnic Affairs Ministry; the President said that that will be one of the most important things at the heart of their Government.
There also needs to be a truth and reconciliation forum. Whether or not it is something that our Government could help with, and whether or not it is done under the auspices of the United Nations or the EU, it is very important to do it. Perhaps the elders have a role to play. It seemed to work in South Africa, and I think Burma needs something similar to move on. Perhaps members of such a forum could include the heads of, or representatives from, all the religions. The Rohingya have to be part of it; they have to be able to tell their story. Another major issue is that of internally displaced people. Whether they are Rohingya or other people, we have to help them to go back to their villages. Many of them are still living in poverty. The non-governmental organisations have to have an opportunity to provide humanitarian aid to all those internally displaced people.
There has been a long-standing debate, with the Burma Campaign UK raising issues that sometimes many of us who are elected find difficult to raise. Its current campaign, to which I am a signatory—I encourage all Members to become signatories—is called “Standing with the women of Burma to end rape and sexual violence”. Some 110 high-profile women have already signed up to it, and it would be nice to see more signatories.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned the atrocity involving the two Baptist teachers in Kachin state. What of the grandmother, Ngwa Mi, who was sheltering in a church? They beat her and gang-raped her. She is now back in her village, but is understandably mentally unstable. How can someone ever deal with something like that? Will the Minister ensure that the UK Government direct their assistance to those women and give them help and support to rehabilitate them? They are survivors, and they are very strong. The former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was very active on Burma. A Burmese delegation came in 2014 and we met them at a brilliant round-table event set up by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It would be nice for some of that effort and initiative to be directed to help those women.
We have an important role to play as part of the international community. We cannot stand by and see atrocities happen; we cannot stand by and see the rule of law broken or human rights abused. This is a global issue. Wherever we see injustice, we have to raise it. International pressure is important. Rather than try to influence particular pieces of Burma’s legislation, will the Minister make representations that the 2008 constitution in Burma be amended so that the guarantee of impunity for military perpetrators is removed? We also have to keep up the international pressure to remove the rule that somebody cannot become President if they have children who were born outside the country.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and I were part of a Speaker’s delegation to that country, and we met some very brave women. I hope the Minister will make representations to ensure that women become an equal part of life in Burma. Whether it is in politics or through NGOs, their voices must be heard. The hon. Lady will remember the lovely children we saw going to school—that is where they should be—wearing backpacks with the United Nations logo stamped on the back. Hopefully, in years to come, we will ensure that they end up in school without needing that logo. We want those children to grow up not knowing hatred or judging people on the basis of their religion. They must have mercy and compassion for each other and use their talents for a new Burma.
Pope Francis has declared to all Christians that this year is an extraordinary jubilee of mercy. How fitting it would be for Burma to become the embodiment of equality, justice and peace.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this debate, which allows us, like the hon. Lady, to celebrate this opportunity, to express our hopes and to talk about how we can help that extraordinary country with its challenges.
I want to talk about the work that I was part of in February at the behest of the United Nations Development Programme and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in association with various Departments and UK Aid. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I were led by Meg Munn, a former Member. We were part of a multinational, cross-party group of MPs from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and elsewhere, which helped to train the newly elected MPs in Myanmar.
The challenge of working with a military quota in that Parliament has already been mentioned, but I want to offer some optimism based on what I saw of MPs of all parties. There is a wide range of parties, given the ethnic situation, but I hope that they will be willing and able to work with each other across those divides. It will be new for them, but, as has already been said, the situation in Myanmar is almost entirely new. Although it is the second Hluttaw, or Parliament, in official terms, this is the first opportunity they have had to work together constructively, and we wish them all luck with that. We helped them to develop the skills they need to do that. We chose the themes of scrutiny, accountability and representation, which are bread and butter to us—we are very grateful for that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said, we have the privilege to take our places in an established democracy. It is an entirely different situation in Myanmar. I was glad to help those MPs to develop the skills that they require to perform their work.
Our training took place over a week and was delivered to about 400 MPs—that is, most of the MPs in Myanmar. As anybody who has done professional training knows, it is hard to train 400 people in any context. We had a blend of plenary work and speeches on the chosen themes, and we used examples from the countries represented in the delegation. To echo what the hon. Member for Walsall South said, we did not try to tell them how to do it. Instead, we offered examples of how we have seen it done in our countries. We supplemented the plenary sessions with a workshop approach. Each international facilitator worked with about 40 Myanmar MPs, which allowed us to go into a level of detail that was inspiring to me and everyone else involved. I hope it was constructive and detailed enough to encourage the Myanmar MPs to begin to think about how to apply those techniques.
We went into detail on subjects such as how a parliamentary question should be put and how constituency matters should be run, which is a brand new concept for many of those MPs. There will be some logistical challenges, but we gave them some ideas about how they can structure that work. We drew heavily on resources that are typically found in Parliaments. It is important that this Parliament continues to provide that support. The Clerks have already been mentioned, and the Library service is sharing skills, techniques and resources in a way that I hope will allow that fledgling democracy to take root.
During that week, we received a warm welcome from the Myanmar people—from the MPs and from the translators and interpreters, who were passionately keen to see the project succeed. They were touched by the friendship of other countries. They are all involved in that project. I hope that people outside those parliamentary circles will be able to draw on that friendship and support in the knowledge that others are looking at Burma and wishing it well. I hope they will be able to draw on that in the years to come.
There is great diversity and strength among that group of MPs. I am sure it will be the foundation of a thriving democracy if they can apply those skills to the country’s many policy challenges. Among the group were men and women. There are some very impressive new women MPs, who knew what they had to contribute, and young MPs. As the chair of the all-party group on youth affairs, I was keen to share my thoughts with them about how they can inspire young democrats in their country.
I am grateful to have had the chance to put on the record my reflections on that work. I hope to help the cross-party spirit in this Chamber to do more in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this important debate. The last time we met in Westminster Hall, we were on different sides of the debate about the Government’s threshold for the tier 2 visas, but it is clear that there is a lot of consensus today. I pay tribute to the passion and commitment that he has brought to this issue, which was reflected in his speech.
This is an important and timely debate. The National League for Democracy is preparing to take power in Burma on 1 April, following the elections last November. I will be brief, because other Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has joined us, want to speak. I want to reflect on a few issues that have already been mentioned: the opportunities following the election, the issues facing the Rohingya people and the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war, which the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) spoke about.
I, too, pay tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi. I remember as a youngster learning about the situation in Burma on “Newsround”. My parents had to explain the concept of house arrest to me. At the time, getting to hang around the house and not having to go to school seemed like quite a good idea. In reality, it is a very difficult situation. Aung San Suu Kyi lived with it for 15 years and remained a champion for justice and democracy throughout that time, so she deserves our respect and the tributes that have been paid to her.
In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was the first non-head of state to address Parliament in Westminster Hall. Mr Speaker, in his own lyrical way, described her as
“the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity”.
That is a good way of encapsulating the fact that peaceful protest can eventually make progress to where we are today, with an elected Parliament in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi herself as an elected Member, and a new President. That should be an inspiration to others fighting for democracy and freedom under repressive regimes elsewhere.
I pay tribute, too, to others who have fought for justice in Burma, not least the Burma Campaign, which provided useful background information for the debate. The Burma Campaign was supported by my former employers, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which has also provided support to the people of Burma. It is now providing support to refugee children in the border areas, with the Jesuit Refugee Service. Mention has been made of Cardinal Bo, and I am looking forward to meeting and hearing from him when he visits Parliament later this year, in May.
The elections are, of course, the beginning and not the end of the story. The newly elected Government now have to live up to the promise. There is a role for the military, which must respect the dismantlement of the junta and not seek to overrule the elected Government, ensuring a clear separation between the military and the state. A lot of the challenges, as we have heard, can be seen in the challenges facing the Rohingya community. The measure of a democracy is how well minorities are treated and respected, and the Rohingya people are a minority whose religion is not recognised, let alone their citizenship.
I attended an Adjournment debate led by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that highlighted the migration crisis—not something that is restricted to Europe, because there is a migration and refugee crisis in that part of Asia as well, of which the Rohingya community forms a substantial part. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has stated that human rights violations against the Rohingya meet, in its reckoning, the legal definitions of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In the Scottish National party, therefore, we support the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK in its call for action against hate speech and the extremists, the removal of restrictions on international aid in Rakhine state, the reform of the 1982 citizenship law, and a credible independent investigation, with international experts, into the charges of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and possible genocide.
Related to that is the broader need to tackle sexual and gender-based violence, especially the use of rape as a weapon. The continuing reports of increasing rape and sexual violence by the military are deeply concerning. Sexual violence seems to have been used as a weapon of the Burmese army for decades as part of its warfare against minority groups in the country. It has to be tackled.
I pay tribute to the campaign in which 110, or 111, women, including my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), made a declaration on International Women’s Day calling for an investigation into rape and sexual violence by the Burmese military; an end to the impunity with which it seems to be carried out; support for the victims; the inclusion of women at every political level in Burma, including the peace negotiations between the Burmese Government and the ethnic armed groups; and for Burma’s rape law to be brought into line with international human rights standards that outlaw rape in marriage.
As part of the UK Government’s preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, many countries around the world have signed up to that declaration to end rape and sexual violence in conflict. The declaration contains practical and political commitments to end impunity and promote accountability. We call on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to consider how that programme can be extended in Burma and to provide more support to the Government there to ensure that the PSVI principles make progress.
To allow time for others to speak, I will leave it at that. I echo the positive tone of optimism that we heard from the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and other speakers. Progress towards democracy is clearly being made in Burma, but it needs support. I hope that today’s debate demonstrates some of that support and that, when we hear from the Minister, he will demonstrate what support the UK Government will provide.
I join my colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on his eloquent speech and on his close and direct interest in Burma, which he has shown since he entered the House. That has been most welcome, especially by those of us who have had an interest for some years.
I welcome, too, the long-awaited democratic elections, which recently took place, and I join my colleagues in praising the bravery of millions of Burmese citizens who campaigned for decades, often at great personal cost, for liberty and democracy in their country.
I also join my colleagues in thanking the staff of this House who have been out to Burma, certainly since the visit of the Speaker’s delegation in 2013, which included me and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). We learnt, including directly from Aung San Suu Kyi, how much the Burmese wanted and invited help with such issues as library facilities and research resources. It is to be commended that some of our staff went there—at least one for well over a year, away from home and family—
Indeed, almost two years—to provide substantial help. I want to recognise that Mr Speaker has stayed true to his word, which he gave on that delegation, that we would provide help.
I am encouraged by the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on how much constructive help has been given to the MPs in Burma—again much needed. When we were there, they were quite surprised to hear that we went back to our constituencies every week. I remember providing a modest training session on Select Committees—again with the hon. Member for Walsall South—and people were surprised, because in this country Select Committees are not given the subject that they are to look into by the Government and, once they have looked into it, do not submit their report to the Government to be checked before it is published. I am encouraged that there has been a great deal of progress, so I commend my hon. Friend and the others involved.
As we are joyful, so we are cautious. Burma remains a nation in a delicate state. Hate speech, religious intolerance and the powerful remnant of the military still threaten to slow or prevent the next stage of Burma’s growth. As we speak, forces continue to destabilise and halt the hard-won progress to date. The delicate balance of joy and caution is summed up in the words of the moderate Cardinal Bo, who has already been mentioned in the debate. He is a greatly respected and long-standing champion of human rights in Burma. He said:
“My country is emerging from a long night of tears and sadness into a new dawn...But our young democracy is fragile, and human rights continue to be abused and violated.”
We rightly extend our support, therefore, to Aung San Suu Kyi and the new President, U Htin Kyaw, who face the challenge of nurturing the fragile democracy. Even as we speak, nationalists have been protesting against the appointment of Vice-President Henry Van Thio, because he is a Christian and a member of the Chin ethnic group. The ultra-nationalists find it an offence that a member of another religion and of a minority group should be in a position of such authority.
That is an important example to dwell on, because freedom of religion and belief has been under extreme pressure in recent decades in Burma. Minorities of all religions have suffered, as well as Buddhists, who stood up to the state-sponsored interpretations of Buddhism that we have heard about. So we celebrate the appointment of Henry Van Thio, and we hope that he will be a symbol of encouragement to many from the minorities in the country, who to date have been excluded from a voice in government.
Particularly persecuted, as we have heard, have been the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state. Previously, the regime promoted an ideology of hate that rejected the idea that Muslims could be fully Burmese, or that the Rohingya people had any right to live in the country. They were grievously targeted by military forces, and hundreds were killed and 140,000 reportedly displaced by violence in 2012. We need to ensure that they are given appropriate support and help.
Of comparable concern are the military offensives still being waged by the Burmese army against civilians in northern Shan and southern Kachin states. Gross violations of human rights have forced tens of thousands to flee, as we have heard. They either live as internally displaced persons, or IDPs, in dire conditions, or eke out a living as refugee migrants in other countries. In that context, I commend in particular the work of Baroness Cox from the other place and of her charity, HART, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust.
HART has done great work to assist oppressed people in Burma and to bring that oppression and the violations of human rights to the attention of the wider world. I will refer to some of Baroness Cox’s work in more detail. In Burma, HART works to provide lifelines among the Shan, Karen, Chin and Karenni peoples. Shan Women’s Action Network—SWAN—runs health, education and women’s empowerment programmes. HART works only with local people, and through its remarkable work it is transforming in particular women’s perceptions of their roles in their communities—as the hon. Member for Walsall South mentioned, that is much needed—and enabling them to become strong agents of change. I want to extend my best to HART for that vital work in strengthening civil society.
If the good people of Burma are to realise their potential, it is critical that civil society is strengthened and encouraged, particularly at a time when concerns are increasingly being expressed about the shrinking space for it across the globe. I ask the Minister to consider how civil society can be supported. I commend him on his sincere personal commitment to Burma over many years. I know that he is a Foreign Office Minister, but may I request again that DFID looks at how it can support small charitable organisations such as HART? It receives no support from DFID and yet it reaches right to the heart of the issue in Burma, helping women in their local communities to make a real difference. There is much more that I would like to say, but time prevents that.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing the debate and for giving such a personal, passionate and comprehensive speech, which really set the groundwork and showed the commitment of all of us across the House over many years to championing the cause of democracy in Burma. The path we are on is a good path. We can all take so much comfort that, at long last, there is a democratically elected Government. That brings great hope, but there are still such challenges.
As many will, I recall that, back on 21 June 2012—which interestingly was a Wednesday—Aung San Suu Kyi spoke just a few metres from this Chamber in Westminster Hall about her hopes that Burma would one day have Prime Minister’s questions like we have here, which would be more raucous and informal than is currently the fashion in Burma. Whether we really want her to have to face the full extent of Prime Minister’s questions, we look forward to the time when it is Aung San Suu Kyi at the dispatch box and she is free from the ridiculous constraints of the constitution and free to take up the formal leadership, for which obviously she already has a democratic mandate.
As has been mentioned, Daw Suu has also asked Britain to consider what it can do to help to build sound institutions needed to build a nascent parliamentary democracy. It is therefore welcome, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and others have said, that our Parliament has stepped up and will continue to step up and work alongside those institutions.
When I visited Burma two years ago, I was humbled by the democratic warriors who have fought long and hard and paid the cost—some lost their liberty and others lost their lives—for the democracy that we take for granted. Those people, who have walked the walk for so many years, asked me to speak to them about how to build their democratic engagement. Their appetite for democracy is insatiable, it is growing and growing and it cannot be put back in the bottle. We need to do all we can to support them.
In the brief time I have available, I want to draw attention to the fact that my visit took me to the border areas. Burma is wonderfully diverse, but my visit revealed that what happens in Naypyidaw and the decisions taken there—indeed the influence of the NLD and Daw Suu—do not reach the border areas that have been in conflict for so long. We therefore need to recognise that, while there has been such great democratic progress, for those areas of conflict, where there is still evidence of landmine explosions, rape of women, indiscriminate killing of people and forced displacement, there is still a long way to go. Certainly, given that the Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs are still directly under military authority and appointments are made by the commander in chief, we must do all we can to encourage change in that regard.
On 18 March in Geneva, the UN special rapporteur, Ms Yanghee Lee, highlighted the opportunities and hope, but also the challenges in relation to human rights. She properly drew attention to the fact that the new Government have
“an opportunity to break from the tragic status quo”.
She also recalled that 1 million Rohingya Muslims are deprived of basic fundamental rights and how progress needs to be made in removing restrictions on freedom of movement and in increasing support for groups working to build bridges between communities. We have heard about Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which is foremost in that work, but there are others and our country in particular, through DFID moneys and others, can help to support that.
I should highlight, as the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and others mentioned, sexual and gender-based violence. The PSVI initiative, championed by Lord Hague of Richmond, needs to continue. I would welcome him and others visiting again to see what progress needs to be made in that regard. There is hope and there are challenges, but we need to recognise that many in the IDP camps have been displaced for nearly three decades, so we need to see voluntary solutions for hundreds of thousands to be able to return. In the Kachin and northern Shan states, Christians have faced discrimination and persecution for many years. There are 4 million of them in those areas.
We need to recognise that the challenges also bring hope. There is an opportunity in Burma for progress in relation to respect for religious belief. It was welcome that at the UN a Catholic cardinal, a Buddhist monk and a Muslim activist stood together with one voice, saying, “We want a Burma that has equal rights for all, where all are protected without discrimination.” In the words of Cardinal Bo, who has been mentioned before:
“We have a chance—for the first time in my lifetime—of making progress towards reconciliation and freedom as a nation.”
Thank you, Mr Owen, for giving me the chance to speak in this debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Members for making time for me. Members know that this issue is very close to my heart—I have spoken about it before—and I wanted to be here earlier, but I was unavoidably detained.
For decades, successive regimes and Governments in Burma have pursued a twin-track policy of impoverishment and human rights violations to attempt to wipe out the Rohingya community from Arakan state, which right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about. Human Rights Watch has stated that human rights violations against the Rohingya meet the legal definition of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The humanitarian crisis started when the Rohingya fled to camps in 2012, and senior members of the nationalist Arakan National Party continue to whip up hatred against them.
I am conscious that I can say only so much in the short time available. Under the current constitution, the Ministries of Home Affairs, Defence and Border Affairs must be filled by army representatives. I want to put on the record some of my concerns. Managing high expectations and maintaining party discipline will be a major challenge for the NLD. There is also a risk that, if the NLD Government challenge military interests too directly, army hard-liners will try to destabilise them.
The Minister is always responsive and I look forward to his comments. We have to take note of the Buddhist nationalist movement known as Ma Ba Tha, in which Buddhist monks play a leading role. During 2015, that movement managed to pass four race and religion protection laws, which are seen by opponents as highly discriminatory against non-Buddhists. The 1982 citizenship law denies the Rohingya rights, including freedom of movement and access to health and education services. There is no way that these issues can be avoided, and it would be much better for the NLD Government to deal with them at the start of their period in government, when they have a new and strong mandate and strong party unity, and elections are years away.
Members have referred to ongoing conflict between the Burmese army and ethnic armed political groups and I have to put my concerns on the record as well. The Burmese army has used rape and sexual violence against women for decades as part of its warfare against ethnic minority groups in the country. That cannot go on unspoken about. It is possible for the new Government to initiate a domestic investigation into rape and sexual violence by the Burmese army, ensure that support is available to victims, include women in peace negotiations and politics overall, and repeal the laws, such as the rape law, that discriminate directly against women. Let us do something constructive and positive about those things.
Open Doors lists Burma as the 23rd worst country in the world for the persecution of Christians. If you will bear with me, Mr Owen, I will take two minutes to give an example. Amod is a Christian convert from the Rohingya tribe. He described the double discrimination that he faces as a Christian in Burma in this way:
“The Muslims in the village still wanted to kill me. One day, they came to do just that. They attacked me but some believers shielded me from harm. Another night, Muslims surrounded my home while I was sleeping and pelted stones on our roof.”
Amod is on the run. He is from the Rohingya tribe and converted to Christianity after 33 years as a Muslim. Christians from the Rohingya tribe are doubly disadvantaged. The country refuses to acknowledge Rohingyas, saying they are Bengali immigrants. Bangladesh, on the other hand, says they are indigenous to Myanmar. In addition, the Rohingya tribe rejects Christians who have converted from Islam.
Amod applied for permission to create a church for Rohingya believers, but was refused. After that he was hounded so much that he eventually took his family to Bangladesh, but his life was no easier there. So with seven Christian Rohingya households they fled to India, where they continued to be pursued from town to town. Amod maintains his witness and pastors the families, who are now scattered. I conclude with that, and I thank Members again for the opportunity to participate in the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your convenorship, Mr Owen. I commend the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing the debate, and for the deeply passionate and moving way in which, through his family’s experience, he brought the situation in Burma right into the Chamber. I commend the other speakers in the debate too; there has been a strong degree of consensus, and that is something that Burma’s new parliamentarians might want to pay attention to—that sometimes, when things really matter, even those whose views come from across the political spectrum and who come from a range of backgrounds and different parts of these islands can agree on the fundamentals. I think it was the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) who reminded us that, although we must respect the right of the people of Burma to settle their own future, there are issues on which there are no borders. Whether fundamental human rights are protected or abused is a question on which national borders do not exist. We have human rights because we are human. They can and must be respected equally for all 6 billion-plus of us who share this tiny corner of the solar system.
Other hon. Members have spoken powerfully about the apparent situation—incomprehensible to us—in which the constitution gives legal protection to mass rapists but does not recognise the victims even as citizens in their own country, and gives the army the right to take power any time it sees fit. The army has an absolute veto over any attempt to change the constitution and people’s rights depend on where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from, and their choice to worship whatever deity they believe in, or not to worship. We would all see those things as deeply troubling and a sign of a seriously backward society. However, we have to try to put ourselves into the mindset of those who are handing over power. From their point of view, Burma has been through a revolution in the past 10 years or so. They see themselves as having made huge concessions to the democracy movement, and we have to understand that, and recognise that from their point of view they are already reforming at a pace that some of their supporters would see as reckless. I cannot remember which hon. Member pointed it out, but some voices are being raised in Burma to say that it is unacceptable that someone from an ethnic minority should be allowed to become vice-president. Incidentally, trying to limit someone’s worthiness for public office on the basis of their ethnic origin is not nationalism, but racism, and we should not be afraid to describe and condemn it in those terms.
Rightly, much has been said about Aung San Suu Kyi, and there is something immensely inspirational about the fact that an army that is still effectively all-powerful has to change the rules to protect itself from a 70-year-old woman who does not carry a gun. It is an example that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has reminded us, is a shining light to all of us who believe in peaceful, democratic, lawful protest. Regardless of how powerful and well armed the forces of oppression might be, ultimately the voice of reason, reconciliation and peace will always come through. Perhaps, for those of us for whom this weekend holds particular significance, those thoughts are highly topical.
What do we want to happen next? We must continue to be a critical friend to the people of Burma and recognise that, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam pointed out, there is a generation of Members of Parliament in Burma who do not know what a Parliament is. They got elected, and had never seen what a Parliament was and how it was supposed to behave. I am not sure that I would use Prime Minister’s questions as an example of the best of the traditions to implement, but even as a severe critic of this place I think there are aspects of the way the House operates that provide a good example to Burma and elsewhere.
We must remember that probably there is no one serving in the police force in Burma who has ever known a time when the police force was there to protect people rather than oppress them; there is no one left in the Burmese army who knows what armies and soldiers are supposed to be for. That is another way in which we and others can help to set an example. I should be interested to hear from the Minister what is happening or being planned with a view to UK and other European police and military forces helping to demonstrate, to those reluctant to hand over the reins of power in Burma, that when the army returns to serving its correct purpose of protecting rather than oppressing citizens and the police go back to upholding the rule of law equally for everybody they are held in higher esteem. There is no doubt that although the army is deeply feared in Burma, while it is not particularly feared here, our soldiers are much more respected than I suspect most soldiers are in Burma. That is not because of the power of the weapons they use, but because of the restraint with which they do not use them, and because although there are sometimes incidents that cannot be defended, the military forces in the United Kingdom and most other parts of the developed world publicly condemn any abuse of power by their serving officers, and ensure that those are investigated and the culprits dealt with under the law.
It is impossible to finish my speech without referring to the appalling abuse by the Burmese army of the human rights of a generation of women and girls. There are no words that can describe the revulsion we feel at reports that a mother is forced to watch her 12-year-old daughter being gang raped by soldiers who are effectively immune from ever being held to account for their crimes. We have to make sure that those who will be in charge of the Burmese army in the near future fully understand that that kind of behaviour cannot be condoned or accepted.
Would the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that it is important that small charities working at grassroots level to support women in Burma, such as the one I mentioned, HART, should be supported in turn by DFID? We need DFID to look more widely at supporting small charities that make a difference on the ground.
I appreciate that that is a subject close to the hon. Lady’s heart. What I will say is that there are certainly occasions when organisations at arm’s length or independent from Government, which will not be seen to be interfering on behalf of another Government, are what is needed. Also, sometimes smaller organisations can be closer to the people they are trying to support. Whether their funding is best coming from DFID or elsewhere may not be for me to comment on.
I think it is important for the House to reiterate the point that wearing an army or police uniform does not give someone the right to abuse, rape or violently attack a girl or a lady. What we need, I respectfully say to the Minister, is to put that forward to the Burmese Government and ensure that they understand that it is morally and globally wrong, and they have got to stop it.
Absolutely; I do not think anyone in this House or in the other place along the corridor would disagree with a word of that. I would apply the same to Members of Parliament and those elected to high office; we should see ourselves as elected to positions of responsibility rather than positions of power or influence. That, again, may be an example that we will have to continue to present to colleagues who have been elected to serve in the Burmese Parliament.
As has been said, Burma is going into a period of enormous optimism. There will be setbacks and problems. It is not all going to happen peacefully and quietly. I hope that not only the Government but parliamentarians and the rest of civil society in the United Kingdom and elsewhere will offer a helping hand where possible, so that the next generation of Burmese police officers, parliamentarians and soldiers understand that they are there to protect the rights of a flourishing democracy, and not to oppress it.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this important debate? Members may wish to know that at my daughter’s secondary school, she is in Aung house. It is lovely to be able to explain to her and the other girls why their house is named after Aung San Suu Kyi.
I, too, have met Ben Rogers; I loved his book and read it during my Christmas break. It is clear from his book and from the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide that Burma is a difficult place geographically, because so much happens in villages and it is difficult to scrutinise things happening a long way away. That presents us with a real problem in tackling human rights issues. Although we are all well apprised of what is happening with the Rohingya people, what is happening to other minority groups is less well known. Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other groups can perhaps help us understand the fuller picture of what is happening in Burma.
It has been fabulous to hear such a great range of voices today, and to hear about the trip that colleagues undertook to discuss parliamentary business. The hon. Members for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke of the training courses they undertook with local parliamentarians in Burma-Myanmar and how exciting it was to hear about the experience of new MPs there. They also spoke about how we can take over all the knowledge about how we manage our constituencies here, which enriches the work of Burma’s Parliament.
I was delighted to hear the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) about corruption. We have not really touched on that sufficiently in this debate, but perhaps there is a separate piece of work that we could undertake on it, because it is crucial. British businesses going into Burma in the coming years must be aware of the corruption problems in Burma and, indeed, other countries. Our approach to foreign policy must be balanced. It is important that we have trade at the centre of our foreign policy, but it is also crucial that we tackle difficult and entrenched issues such as corruption, human rights abuses and the repression of certain minority groups.
I appreciated hearing from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) about how difficulties with citizenship hold back Burmese members of Parliament from taking on their roles. I thank him for his speech. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the particular issues facing Christians and the testimonies of girls who have been abused in churches, which is a doubly awful situation. I have read such terrible stories myself, having been involved in the work of Burma Campaign UK to end rape and sexual violence.
It was good to hear the hon. Member for Congleton focus on the Shan women, who face particular issues that go right into the heart of their villages, and to hear the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) talk about the basics—the things that we take for granted that need to be worked towards in Burma. Indeed, the Parliament there has had the support of our Speaker for many years, and it is exciting to see the fruit of that coming to bear, with our own parliamentarians going abroad and making sense of the reality there.
I want to focus on Burma Campaign UK’s pledge to end rape and sexual violence. We have heard some stories, and we have read about the two Kachin teachers aged 20 and 21 who were raped in Kaunghka village, in northern Shan state. No one has yet been charged or put on trial for that crime. Originally, when the former Foreign Secretary, with the support of Ms Jolie, made a big push on sexual violence, it took quite a bit of pressure to get Burma on to the list of countries that were going to be focused on. I am pleased that we eventually got Burma on to that list back in 2012, but it is a country that sometimes suffers from not being in the limelight enough. That is why it is special that Members have taken such an interest in it. While many countries immediately came to mind, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it took quite a while to get Burma on to the list of countries that the then Foreign Secretary was going to focus on. I make a plea to the Minister today that he focuses on the role of women and girls, as we know from DFID’s important work over the years that educating women has a long-term effect.
The pledge to which many of us have signed up calls for an investigation into rape and sexual violence, particularly involving the military. We heard a good intervention on that from the hon. Member for Strangford. It also calls for an
“end to impunity for rape and other forms of sexual violence”
and “support for victims”. We could do a lot to provide such support, hopefully through the DFID budget—for example, helping those with post-traumatic stress disorder and providing counselling and confidence building, which we know are crucial for women who are survivors of sexual violence. The pledge supports the
“inclusion of women at every political level in Burma including the peace negotiations between the Burmese government and the ethnic armed political groups”,
between which there is tension. Finally, the pledge calls for Burmese law
“to be in line with international human rights standards to outlaw rape in marriage.”
Those are the five elements of the pledge that we have signed up to, and I look forward to the Minister confirming that he will redouble his efforts to put them at the top of the agenda when speaking to Burmese Ministers.
I emphasise the importance of a rounded foreign affairs policy. We would like to see a much more high-profile debate on human rights as well as trade. There is a triangle of national security, human rights and trade, and the last two sometimes tend to be less high-profile.
We have not debated press freedom enough today. It is difficult to put that on an agenda between Governments, because it is about freedom, but allowing press freedom is a crucial part of knowing what is happening in terms of human rights. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned the punishment that is meted out to people who use Facebook. Finally, if the Minister would be so kind, I would like him to mention the anti-corruption stream.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing the debate. I thank him for his personal insight, which always gives flavour to a debate, following his recent and, I think, first visit to the land of his forebears. Many Members of both Houses have close personal connections to, and a close interest in, Burma; he probably has the closest connection to Burma, in many ways. Many Members who have spoken this morning have been following developments in that country for many years, which has provided a good repository of knowledge and understanding in the House—perhaps more than of any other country. I welcome that, as it helps to better inform debate.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has also just returned, with a number of colleagues, from Naypyidaw. I was not quite sure what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam meant when he said that every Member of Parliament could have an office in Naypyidaw. Was he suggesting that when we come to refurbish this place, we should model it on Naypyidaw? I do not imagine he was. The chances of having a 20-lane highway while the Mayor of London is around, unless it is for cyclists, are rather small.
This debate comes at a remarkable time for Burma. Last Tuesday, President U Htin Kyaw became the first civilian head of a democratically elected Government there for more than 50 years. Next week, his National League for Democracy Government will finally take power. That is the culmination of a lifetime’s effort by many committed individuals and lobbyists who have worked tirelessly and courageously for democracy. More than 100 of the NLD MPs in the new Parliament have endured long spells in prison. Others who have supported the cause of democracy have not only paid with their freedom; some have paid with their lives.
Clearly, however, the person who has been central in this unfolding drama and in bringing Burma to this point is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has consistently shown courage, determination and dignity in the face of challenges that most of us would have found impossible to bear. It is regrettable that a flawed constitution has prevented her from becoming President. We are aware of rumours about what her role will be in the new Government. Such rumours are at present purely speculative until the Cabinet is officially named; we expect that announcement tomorrow.
Credit is also due to the outgoing Administration, who planned and initiated the reforms. Although there is clearly still a very long way to go, their efforts deserve to be recognised, particularly the peaceful and orderly conduct of the elections last November.
At the start of the reform process in 2011, it would have seemed impossibly ambitious to suggest that the political landscape in Burma, and the lives of millions of Burmese citizens, could change so dramatically in just a few years. I am proud of the important role that the United Kingdom has played in that. Through our policy of constructive engagement with the Burmese authorities, we have supported and encouraged positive change in many areas. We have sought to nurture Burma’s growing desire to return to the international community after years of isolation, repression and dictatorship. I very much welcome the moves by Mr Speaker, Clerks and Officers of the House and all the organisations that are helping the democracy-building process, which, as hon. Members have said, is much needed.
Some questioned our policy. Even six months ago, some Burma watchers predicted that the elections would not be allowed to happen, that they would be heavily rigged, or that the NLD would never be allowed to take power. Others dismissed our approach as the path of least resistance, but that, of course, was not the case at all. It has demanded time, effort and resources here in London, in Burma and throughout our diplomatic network, and I very much welcome and appreciate the nice, kind and appropriate comments that have been made about our ambassador and his team in Rangoon. It has required frank conversations in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, and I believe that our policy is now beginning to bear fruit.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) spoke about defence engagement. Our engagement with the Burmese military has quite properly come in for particular scrutiny and comment. Not all of it has been either particularly informed or positive, but given Burma’s history I can understand that. As I have repeatedly said, real and lasting change will only come through engaging the Tatmadaw as they move towards reform and through showing them how modern militaries should operate in a modern democratic state—not by criticising them and isolating them from afar, as we did for so many years previously. Under the NLD Government, the military will still hold a quarter of the seats in Parliament, as has been pointed out. They will continue to control three important Ministries and hold an effective veto on constitutional change, so it will remain vital to continue that engagement—indeed, to step it up—with the full agreement of the new Government.
Our work with the military will continue to focus on their role in a democratic system. We would welcome their participation in civilian-led educational courses, such as with the Royal College of Defence Studies. Our engagement will include vital education on the rule of law and human rights, and particularly on countering the recruitment and use of child soldiers and combating sexual violence in conflict. None of that will increase the combat capacity of the Burmese military.
In a written statement to the House, I said that the parliamentary elections represented
“a victory for the people of Burma.”—[Official Report, 20 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 25W.]
They were indeed an important victory, but they do not mark the end of Burma’s reform process. The work of transformation continues and will demand our support. That is why the Prime Minister has spoken to Daw Suu since the elections and offered whatever assistance she and her Government need as they set about tackling the many serious challenges that lie ahead—not least, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said, that of corruption.
Challenges remain, including consolidating the democratic transition, energising the peace process, reforming the justice and security sectors and managing the economy for the many, not the few. We are already engaging with the incoming Administration as they prepare for office. When the time comes, we will be ready to respond with practical assistance in support of their priorities.
One of the challenges facing the incoming Government will be tackling the issue of Rakhine and addressing the appalling situation of the Rohingya community there, which we have discussed an enormous number of times in the House. Although much of Burma has greatly benefited from the reform process, the same cannot be said of Rakhine’s Rohingya minority. Large numbers of Burmese turned out across the country in November to vote and to signal their desire for future democratic change. However, the Rohingya were disfranchised for the first time in a Burmese general election. That exclusion, in the face of international concern—led not least by the United Kingdom—is a stark symbol of the extent to which they have been stripped of the most basic human rights and freedoms. We do not underestimate the complexity and sensitivity of the Rohingya issue, but we are equally clear that the incoming Government must begin to address the immediate needs of the Rohingya: improved security, relaxation of the restrictions on movement and a pathway to citizenship.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about religious freedom, as he often does. As well as Rakhine, the new Government face a number of other deep-seated human rights issues: dealing with the remaining political prisoners, managing the recent increase in tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities and, as he pointed out, the growth of nationalist organisations such as Ma Ba Tha. It is also important that they engage in a wide-ranging programme of judicial and legislative reform. Incidentally, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) is meeting Cardinal Bo in May, and I hope to do the same.
The challenges remain significant, and we should not underestimate them. However, Aung San Suu Kyi has consistently championed the rule of law, and with more than 100 former political prisoners now National League for Democracy MPs, the new Government will want to take early action to tackle these issues. We will continue to provide support and encouragement across the human rights agenda. We will do so directly through technical advice, programmes and projects, as well as with international partners and through bodies such as the UN and the EU.
The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) talked about conflict-related sexual violence. We will continue to promote our efforts to tackle that following the visit that we supported last year of Angelina Jolie Pitt, the special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. When I was in Rangoon on 27 July last year, I was pleased to launch the international protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict, which is something we care very much about. The hon. Lady also talked about women playing a greater role in Burma—of course they should—and said that their voices should be heard. What better way to start than at the top, with Daw Suu, probably one of the greatest female icons that there has ever been?
The peace process will rightly be another priority for the incoming Government. Outgoing President Thein Sein and his Government can be commended for the progress that they oversaw, which culminated last October in the signing of the nationwide ceasefire agreement by eight ethnic armed groups. However, we are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge facing the Government in reinvigorating that process and achieving a lasting peace. Ensuring that the remaining groups sign up to the process and agree an enduring political settlement will require considerable energy and efforts early in the new Government’s term.
I am conscious that I should leave two minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, who secured and opened the debate. This is a moment when the United Kingdom can take stock of the situation in Burma. It is not going to be easy from now on. We have come through a very difficult period. The military retain their role, and the new Government are coming in and face many challenges. Managing expectations is going to be incredibly important. We have consistently supported the process and can take some credit for getting them to where they are, but our work has not stopped and now has to be redoubled in all areas.
I am most grateful to hon. Members across the House, because this is not an issue that divides us politically, and I urge them to maintain their vigilance and their support for a country that is in a very difficult period and process.
Thank you, Mr Owen. Frankly, I could have spoken for the full 90 minutes, so I thank all Members who have spoken—many of whom are long-standing campaigners for the country—for sparing you that prospect.
My visit was emotional, not just for my family but because when I was there I realised that in this transition, I can make a difference, and we, Parliament, can make a difference. That prospect is really exciting. I thank everybody very much for their contributions to the debate and I look forward to continuing support for Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the political situation in Burma.
Legal Guardianship and Missing People
I beg to move,
That this House has considered legal guardianship and missing people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I want to put on the record that all our prayers and thoughts across the House are with those affected by the horrific events in Brussels yesterday morning.
It must be devastating when a loved one goes missing without any explanation or reason. We can only imagine the trauma and turmoil that brings to their families and friends. It is the sort of life-changing event that can be truly understood only by those unfortunate enough to experience it first hand, like my constituent, Peter Lawrence, whose daughter, Claudia, went missing on her way to work in York way back in 2009.
The uncertainty of a loved one going missing for weeks, months or even years on end is in itself devastating, but the practical implications cause unnecessary stress and challenges to their families. At present, when someone goes missing there is no legal authority in place to support families in dealing with their loved one’s affairs. Ownership and control of their property is effectively left in limbo until they are found or declared presumed dead, which happens only after seven long years.
In its current form, the law dictates that a person is presumed alive until proven otherwise and they retain direct accountability for all their property and affairs as if they were not missing. There is no assumption that they have lost capacity to manage their estate. Clearly and sadly, this is not the case in reality. As it stands, the law has some very serious consequences when it comes to managing a missing person’s financial affairs. For example, families are left unable to make mortgage payments, risking repossession, and cannot cancel direct debits or ensure that creditors are paid.
If the missing person has dependents, this further complicates the matter and, as I am sure you can appreciate, Mr Owen, it is incredibly distressing to watch helplessly as the financial affairs of a friend or family member are ruined. That happens at a time of complete turmoil for the family. Understandably, third parties such as banks and other financial institutions require direct consent from their customers before they will act on their behalf. The fact that someone is missing clearly makes this impossible. We need greater clarity for families and third parties in managing these issues. I am pleased that this view is widely accepted by all parties and the Government.
Many people will be aware that last week marked the seventh anniversary of Claudia Lawrence’s disappearance, making this debate timely and an occasion to remember her and the thousands of other missing people in the UK. Claudia’s father, Peter Lawrence, has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of all families who suffer from having a mother, father, daughter or son go missing, and I think his work should be commended.
We still do not know what happened to Claudia, but Peter’s campaign to change the law to help families who find themselves in such an incredibly difficult situation is inspirational. He is in London again today, campaigning for the change. With the assistance of the Missing People charity, Peter played a key role in pressing the Government to consult on creating a new legal status of guardian of the property and affairs of missing people back in August 2014. I, with other Members of Parliament, interested groups and members of the public, contributed to the consultation.
Exactly a year ago, in March 2015, the Government published their response to the consultation. They expressed their strong support for this new legal status and committed to introducing primary legislation as soon as possible. That was welcomed by all at the time and was seen as a huge step forward in the campaign. None of us thought in March 2015 that we would be at the same point a year on. It is deeply disappointing that no significant progress has been made.
In January, I received a letter from Lord Faulks informing me that
“work is progressing on developing the draft legislation”.
That is all we have been told and we are not seeing any action.
Claudia Lawrence lived in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As the Member for York Central, I am pleased to see her father in the Chamber today. He has been a real campaigner for missing people.
Would it not be expedient, as the forthcoming Queen’s Speech is so imminent, to bring in legislation on guardianship? We would love to see that in the Queen’s Speech to bring relief to families in sorting out the financial and property affairs of missing people.
I agree entirely with my honourable neighbour, who is absolutely right. The debate is timely because we are six or eight weeks away from a Queen’s Speech, and that would be an ideal opportunity to see some progress on this important legislation.
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
It is simply not good enough that, a year after promising action as soon as possible, we still have nothing to show the families who desperately need our help. Families continue to be unable to protect their missing loved one’s finances and property. It is unacceptable that no action is forthcoming and I call on the Minister today to commit to a clear parliamentary timetable for introducing this Bill.
When Claudia went missing in 2009, Peter soon discovered that he was powerless to act on behalf of his daughter. He was defeated by needless obstacles at every turn. The creation of a new legal guardianship status would allow families to act in the best interests of the missing person and give third parties the legal assurance that they need to help to resolve ongoing issues that are currently constrained by contract and data protection. The consultation paper proposed a system that is overseen by the Office of the Public Guardian and administered by the courts. Clearly, that will require detailed legislation that will need proper scrutiny before the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue, which is very close to my heart. Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers fame disappeared and his sister, Rachel Elias, campaigned extensively for the Presumption of Death Act 2013, which was passed by the coalition Government. I am delighted to see Peter Lawrence, Claudia’s father, sitting here today, and I pay tribute to him for all the work he has done.
Has the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) studied the Australian model of the Guardianship and Management of Property Act 1991? The legislation allows for an application to be lodged to the guardianship and management of property tribunal of the magistrates court to have someone appointed a manager to the property of a missing person. Has he thought about whether that type of legislation could be implemented here in the UK?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the Australian model, and that should form part of the process that I hope the Minister will follow. For me, we must ensure that we see progress—and quick progress—on the measures now. We have had the consultation. We have cross-party support. We need action.
Families have been waiting for years for protection, and the unnecessary delay in implementing the legislation will only prevent yet more families from doing what is right for their loved ones’ estates. I accept that parliamentary time can be in short supply and that many important Bills are currently progressing through the House. However, the fact remains that the Government promised to act as soon as possible. A year on, they have failed to deliver on that promise.
I quote from the Government’s own response to the consultation last year, which stated,
“given the importance of this measure and the strong support from all sides, legislation will be brought forward as soon as possible in the new Parliament.”
The proposals also have the support of the Justice Committee and the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults.
According to figures from Missing People, currently 2,215 adults across the country have been missing for more than three months. It is expected that between 50 and 300 applications for guardianship for missing people would be made each year under the new legislation. However, discussing the crisis in numbers overlooks the important impact—that behind each and every person are families and friendship groups suffering from uncertainty and the sad realisation that they are powerless to act.
It is next to impossible for me to comprehend what Peter has been through for the past seven years, as well as other families right across the country, as has been highlighted in the debate. I hope that we can all agree that it is essential that we offer every assistance we can. Disappearance can affect any family at any time across the country. It could be my family. It could be the Minister’s family. Any family in this room could go through this at some point in their lives. We all have a duty to ensure that the families of missing people do not have to deal with the additional stress and worry of not being able to protect their loved one’s property.
A year has now passed since the Government committed to creating a new legal status of guardian of the property and affairs of missing persons, yet we are no further forward in the process. The Government must now commit to a clear parliamentary timetable for delivering the changes, to help those families at a time when their world has simply been turned upside down. There is, as has been expressed, strong cross-party support for the measures, so there are no excuses. I am resolute in my view and will continue to lobby the Minister and the Government until families such as Peter’s get the change that is so desperately needed.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. May I start by expressing, on behalf of the Government and, I am sure, the whole House, our condolences to the people of Belgium? It goes without saying that we stand shoulder to shoulder with them at this very difficult time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government on this important issue. It is a technical issue when it comes to how we respond and reform the system, but one of heartfelt agony for the families who have to endure the predicament that my hon. Friend expressed so eloquently.
With that in mind, I pay tribute to those who have done so much to put and keep the subject on the agenda. They include, in the House, the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, and the Justice Committee, which has called for reforms consistently in 2011 and 2012; and the charity Missing People, which has steadfastly campaigned on behalf of missing people and their families. I personally acknowledge the deep heartache of the many families involved, which lies beneath the technical details of the proposals that I will outline. It would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity to pay particular tribute to Peter Lawrence and his family, who are constituents of my hon. Friend. I know that Mr Lawrence is here today, and I extend that recognition and tribute to him and his family.
Claudia Lawrence has now been missing for seven years, and I am pained every time I see or read about the case. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for her family and, of course, for others in the same position. I know that my hon. Friend and Mr Lawrence will be disappointed that we have not legislated sooner. I acknowledge that. All I can say is that we will do everything we can to progress the proposals into legislation. I am inspired by the example that Mr Lawrence and my hon. Friend have set in that regard. It is important, and I give an undertaking, to keep the case of Claudia and the many others like her whom I have learned about—and the human toll of those cases—at the forefront of my mind as we take forward the technical legal proposals.
At present, as has been recognised, the common law rather pragmatically assumes that a person is alive until proven dead. It can therefore be slow to enable control of a person’s property and affairs to be given up to another person following an unexplained disappearance. The truth is that that gives us all a degree of protection, but it also means that when a person disappears with no explanation, their friends and family are left to face the practical difficulties of protecting the interests of the missing person and carrying on with their lives, on top of the deep emotional and personal shock and the challenge of coping without that person at the heart of their lives.
Those left behind may have access to funds, perhaps in a joint account that was previously controlled by the missing person. However, without the good will of third parties, the chances are that they will not have access to, or the ability to control, the missing person’s assets, whether in cash or in kind. They may find themselves effectively in a legal vacuum or void. In practical terms, that may mean being unable to adjust standing orders with a bank, or something as simple as that. It may mean being unable to ensure proper care for dependants, or it may create complications for businesses that have to get on with their daily and monthly work. Joint mortgages may be rendered, in practice, effectively unmanageable. Lots of basic daily things become increasingly difficult to keep a handle on and to keep control of in such a legal vacuum.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate. The Opposition wholeheartedly support the campaign by Mr Lawrence and Missing People. I have been through this myself. My uncle disappeared many years ago. He just walked out of our lives, and to this day we do not know what happened to him, which has made it very, very difficult to handle matters. This debate is close to my heart. I urge the Minister to proceed with the proposals as soon as possible and end the heartache.
I cannot imagine what you have been through, Mr Lawrence. My heartache pales into insignificance compared with yours.
I have known the Minister a long time, and he will focus on this like a laser beam. When I was campaigning for a presumption of death Act back in 2011, Missing People said that the law is like crazy paving—that was the best way of describing it. There is no certainty, and people are looking to the Government for some form of certainty. I look for that assurance today.
The hon. Gentleman has highlighted the problem with which we are grappling. I understand that people want to hear assurances today, and I will do my level best. Of course, we acknowledge people’s predicament, and we want to do everything we can to help the families of missing people address the administrative problems that can make life even more piercingly difficult at such a traumatic time. It is estimated that there are a significant number of cases of disappearance each year in which there are sufficiently serious problems to make the appointment of a guardian a worthwhile option to have on the legislative table, so to speak.
The coalition Government consulted on the proposals to create a status of guardianship, and the response was published shortly before the 2015 general election. I reassure all Members that the Government are committed to pursuing the measure and getting it into law.
I am grateful to the Minister. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this important debate. I understand that some 2,500 people could be helped by the proposals. I pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Lawrence—Mrs Lawrence is a constituent of mine. They have kept hope alive for Claudia and they hope to help thousands of other people, and today they are hoping for a clear timetable. I know it is a question of finding time, but it is now time to make time for Claudia’s law.
My hon. Friend has been a steadfast campaigner for this reform, and it is because of efforts such as his and those of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer that I believe we will be able to make progress.
I have mentioned the Government response to the consultation proposals, and the Government are committed to pursuing the measure. It is not, however, solely about creating a new status in law. We also need to be sure that, when the new system is introduced, there is a judicial and supervisory structure to support it. Putting someone in control of another person’s property is a significant and sensitive legal step that is not to be taken lightly. I am sure there is acknowledgment on both sides of the House that we need to get the detail of the proposals right, accurate and tailored in the right way to protect the interests of those directly affected—the families, first and foremost—and to preserve the integrity of the law as a whole. We need a framework in which the interests of the missing person, the families left behind and the third parties who deal with them are correctly calibrated and balanced.
It is wrong to say that progress has not been made. We are making progress, and I will briefly outline some of the key features of the proposed scheme on which we are actively working. First, guardians would be required to act in the best interests of the missing person. In that respect, there would be fiduciary-style duties. Secondly, guardians would be supervised by the Office of the Public Guardian and required to file accounts in much the same way as a deputy appointed under the Mental Capacity Act 2005.
Thirdly, guardians would be appointed by a court on application by a person with a sufficient interest. That is important, because the appointment may be general, in which case the guardian would be able to do what the missing person could have done—they would effectively have a free hand, for want of a better technical term—or it could be limited in certain respects. It is right to have those options on the table.
Fourthly, anyone should be able to apply for appointment as a guardian, provided that he or she has a sufficient interest, which obviously would need to be carefully defined. We are looking carefully at that. We would also need to make sure that their interests did not conflict with those of the missing person. I suspect that we would envisage close family members, or professionals such as a solicitor or an accountant with the requisite familial support, being able to apply.
Fifthly, we envisage that a person should have been missing for a period of, say, at least 90 days before such an application could be made. I am interested in other thoughts on that, but we think 90 days is probably a broadly reasonable period. Finally, the appointment of a guardian should be for a period of up to four years, with the possibility of applying for an extension of another four years. That is a significant period but, ultimately, it would be a temporary provision.
There is obviously a lot of technical detail buttressing the bones of the proposals, and we will need to define in further detail the scope of the guardian’s responsibility, the imposition of appropriate duties on him or her, and the appropriate court procedures for the appointment of the guardian and for redress if the guardian’s conduct falls short of the required standards. There will need to be an adequate supervisory regime over the whole structure, capable of commanding public confidence as well as the confidence and buy-in of the families affected.
As has already been mentioned, there are precedents for such a status and model in legislation in other countries, including in Canada and Australia. Ireland is also currently considering legislation in this field, and we are carefully considering the different models on offer. Obviously, we want to tailor the proposals to ensure that we have the right regime for the legal system, the particular nature of the problems and the administrative aspects in this country. Our development and drafting work is not yet complete, but we are working to complete it as soon as practicable. Given the details that I have talked about, it is important to get it right. We are consulting parliamentary counsel, and we would not go down to that level of detail unless we were serious. I hope that gives some reassurance to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and particularly to the campaigners and the Lawrence family.
We understand the importance of completing the legislation and getting it right, and it is worth saying that guardianship status is not the only measure that we are proposing to help those affected by the disappearance of an individual who is close to them. The Government are also reviewing the missing children and adults strategy, which was originally published in 2011. We are engaging with stakeholders, including Missing People, to update the guidance on cases of children and adults who go missing. That updated strategy will be published later this year and will include measures to help prevent people from going missing in the first place and to improve the response of all the relevant agencies.
Although I am sorry to disappoint anyone here today, I cannot give a specific date that is firmly etched in stone for introducing the legislation. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and the whole House will recognise that the Government are committed to delivering the reform and are actively working to that end. It is vital to get the reform right, given that it creates a legal power over another’s assets. We are committed to proceeding as swiftly as we can, never forgetting for a moment the scope that it offers to ease, if only by a modest degree, the pain and suffering endured by the families who have lost loved ones.
Question put and agreed to.
National Minimum Wage: Care Sector
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government policy on enforcement of the national minimum wage in the care sector.
I am delighted that you are in the Chair, Mr Rosindell, and that so many colleagues are here to speak about this issue.
I am pleased to have secured this debate, although I am disappointed that it is still needed, because we had a debate on this very issue, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), back in November 2014, during which it was acknowledged that we had a real problem. That was acknowledged by all sides, including by the Minister at that time, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), because in March that year the National Audit Office had estimated that up to 220,000 home care workers in England were being illegally paid below the national minimum wage. Eighteen months on, we still have the same problem.
We could talk forever about numbers, and I am sure that a number of colleagues will cite statistics, but I think the human stories explain what the issue is really about.
I worked in the sector as a home help and represented home care workers. Does my hon. Friend agree that the human stories are quite tragic? What home carers end up having to do is subsidise their employers, who do not pay them travel time. A good employer will see the value of their staff, and pay them correctly and appropriately.
My hon. Friend has talked about the delay and the lack of action since the previous debate. Is not one of the reasons for that the fact that, when investigations are launched into these matters, they take an inordinately long time?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, arising from our last debate, six investigations were commissioned. I asked a parliamentary question about those investigations. They were launched in February 2015 and have yet to report. That is clearly a disgrace.
I was talking about the human stories in my constituency. I know of two local women who work for a care company that uses GPS technology to monitor when they arrive for and leave appointments. They told me their stories. The company monitors the time that they spend travelling; to be accurate, it monitors the distances that they are travelling, but it does not pay them for that time. Incidentally, the company also rips them off on the cost of travelling; it pays them 12p a mile for using their own cars, when Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs assumes for its calculations that 45p a mile is a reasonable benchmark.
One of the women, Sharon, told me that it was not unusual for her to be out of the house at 6.15 in the morning and not return until 11 o’clock at night. She gets a break, but she is only paid for seven hours’ work, which is the time she is actually at appointments. Never mind how long it has taken her to get to an appointment or to travel between appointments. Consequently, a so-called “hourly” rate of £7.52 means that, according to Melanie, who works alongside Sharon:
“A 15-minute visit is worth £1.88”.
These women have even been refused payment for the time they have spent waiting for ambulances to arrive for people in their care. Why do they put up with that abuse? As Sharon told me:
“You get in a bit of a trap, because I actually do love the work.”
We should be ashamed that tens of thousands of people like Melanie and Sharon across the country, who look after our most vulnerable, are treated in that way simply because they care.
It also makes a mockery of our national minimum wage legislation. Let us be clear that it is a criminal offence knowingly not to pay the national minimum wage. However, the situation has not improved since we last debated this issue. In fact, there are signs—
I do indeed and I pay tribute to those councils that are now changing their rules, so that when they commission they require workers’ travel time to be paid. Hopefully, more councils will follow their example.
I am disappointed that the Government seem to be taking this issue even less seriously than when we last debated it. Last summer, HMRC launched a new national minimum wage campaign that allows employers who have not been paying it to escape punishment. That is shocking. But it is simple: offending employers can declare details of arrears owed to their employees. They then “self-correct” and, with a cursory follow-up by HMRC, that is it—no more HMRC sniffing around and examining their practices. I do not know of many crimes where the offender escapes punishment entirely if they come forward. As I say, it makes a mockery of the increases in penalties for non-payment of the national minimum wage that were introduced under the coalition Government.
According to the Low Pay Commission, between 2011 and 2015, £1.75 million was recovered in arrears for 8,698 workers, which amounts to an average of £201 per worker. The shameful thing, however, is that that is just a drop in the ocean. The Resolution Foundation, which the Minister will know is chaired by one of his former colleagues, a former Conservative Minister, estimates that 160,000 care workers are collectively cheated of £130 million each year. The Resolution Foundation estimates that the average amount of arrears owed to care workers is more than £815, which is four times the rate at which HMRC is recovering the money.
The real scandal is that it does not have to be like this. The Government have the power to act, but they appear to lack the will to do so. Therefore, let me set out some proposals and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on them.
For a start, the Government are far too reliant on self-reporting. The use of zero-hours contracts is rife in this sector; for example, both Sharon and Melanie, to whom I referred earlier, are on such a contract. So who is going to rock the boat when there is so little job security? Following up on every call made to the helpline is all well and good, but what are the Government doing to help those vulnerable care workers who do not dare to make such a call?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on raising this important issue. Regarding self-reporting, does he agree that the biggest single reason that employees are reluctant to do that is fear of dismissal and, if they are not dismissed, fear that there will be a cut in their hours?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I think he is right. It is the fear experienced by workers in this sector that is driving unreporting. The Government need to do something about that.
Establishing a formal public protocol to handle third-party whistleblowing would be a step forward. Currently, for example, when a union makes a complaint on someone’s behalf, it receives no feedback as to what is happening with that, and that is no way to facilitate reporting.
We also need proactive investigation into a sector in which we know abuse is rife. Following pressure from Labour that was led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East, the coalition Government began an investigation into six of the largest care providers, but that was over a year ago. What have they found out? Have affected workers been compensated? What is happening? I hope that the Minister will give some answers, because effective investigations will help to change the culture. Where HMRC investigations uncover non-compliance, why does it not then look at the whole workforce? The chances of co-workers being on the same terms and conditions and suffering from the same abuse is high, but HMRC does not follow through.
I have made a number of suggestions about how the Government might act—I will not speak for too long, because a number of colleagues want to contribute to this debate—but I want to focus on a single demand, which I emphasise would not involve the Government in significant cost, but would be transformative. It is a course of action that has been recommended by the Low Pay Commission and Unison, and it is simply to require employers of hourly paid staff to state clearly the hours they have been paid for on their payslips. We have heard how companies such as the one employing Melanie and Sharon have sophisticated technology to track exactly what their employees are doing. They already monitor the time spent at appointments and travelling for work. The proposal would be easy for companies to do and would introduce a level of transparency that would change those companies’ culture. It would also give workers the information through which they could challenge companies and utilise the helpline. Section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 already makes provision for such regulation. Will the Minister work with me and his team to bring about that simple change?
All of us here know that there is a bigger fundamental problem with the chronic underfunding of the sector. Private providers are threatening to leave the market and not-for-profit providers are telling me that they cannot sustain the level of care that they want and rightly seek to provide. Vulnerable people, the elderly, those with learning difficulties and family members fearing for the life of their relative as they wait for an ambulance are all suffering as a result. That is before the national minimum wage increases to what the Government have laughingly called the national living wage. We all agree that is overdue. It is inadequate, but it is nevertheless a small step in the right direction.
We all know that the recently announced council tax social care precept is nowhere near enough to plug the funding gap, so we should be deeply concerned by the wider crisis in social care, and not only in its own right, but because of the impact it will have on the national health service. Notwithstanding that and the desperate need to address the funding shortfall, the labour market enforcement measures that I have mentioned are necessary and will be a step forward, and I hope the Minister will engage with me in taking those up.
I advise the House that a number of Members wish to speak. There is only limited time, so I urge Members to be brief and to keep their contributions to no more than three or four minutes each. I hope that then everyone will be able to speak.
I will try to be as quick and as brief as I can, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate and on his powerful speech, which compellingly made the case for urgent Government action in this vital area. I fully support the case being made by Unison and the Low Pay Commission to use section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act to require employers to provide workers with a statement showing compliance with the national minimum wage.
As my hon. Friend said, the present situation is scandalous. There has been some improvement in some places since we, the unions and those with a concern for the social care sector mobilised pressure, but it has been not nearly enough and a lot more needs to be done. The example of Oxfordshire County Council shows that we are not making an unreasonable demand. The council, which is Conservative-independent controlled, has recently commissioned a new home care service that will come into effect on 1 May. As part of that, the council will require providers to give a breakdown of their prices; to demonstrate the hourly rate that will be paid for care workers at or above the national living wage from 1 April; to include travel time and the hourly rate paid to care workers; to pay care workers for travel expenses, as they should; and to adopt an open-book accounting method. That will enable the council to understand whether the national living wage is being paid to care workers. If the provider does not comply, it can be suspended. That is the sort of practice we need to see everywhere.
As my hon. Friend said, it is vital that that practice goes along with other measures to raise the status, training and overall remuneration of this vital group of workers. I will give a local example of just how important it is that we get it right across the country. Because of the problems of delayed discharge from hospitals, which are as bad if not worse in Oxfordshire than just about anywhere else, the local hospital trust commissioned 150 places in intermediate care and private care homes so that people could be moved on from hospitals, which are not the best place for those people to be. It is also the most expensive place for them to be. Initially, that reduced the problem of delayed discharge, but then it got worse again because the intermediate care providers could not discharge those people to their homes because of the insufficiency of domiciliary care support. As a result, the hospital trust will shortly be recruiting 50 domiciliary care workers to try to address that problem. They will be paid for out of the hospital’s budget, rather than from the local authority social care budget, which is stressed and under pressure.
We are talking about workers who are vital to crucial health and social care services. I do not believe that Government Members—it is a pity that there are not more Members on the Government Benches taking an interest in this vital issue—want social care workers to be exploited or treated badly. Instead, because of their rhetoric against red tape and regulation and their antipathy sometimes towards trade union campaigns, I think they do not understand how vulnerable these workers are, or the pressure under which they work.
I appeal to the Government to think again and to see how the measure is essential for the dignity and proper reward of vital workers and for recruitment and retention in this vital sector, as well as how essential it is in ensuring that the people whom they are caring for receive the standards of care to which they are entitled. The Government must act now and, using section 12 of the 1998 Act, bring some consistently higher standards to this vital sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, I think for the first time. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this debate on an extremely important issue. Before I begin, I declare an interest in that my brother works in the social care sector—he started a new role on Monday—although he is not directly affected by the issues we are discussing this afternoon.
Social care is such an important feature of our society and social workers are integral to the care of people in need and those at risk. Despite that, too many social workers have suffered at the hands of unscrupulous employers—employers who have continued to flout the law and who simply do not pay the full national minimum wage. While HMRC maintains the operational enforcement of the national minimum wage, in my 10 months as a Member of Parliament I have yet to see either a coherent or sensible approach.
I will draw Members’ attention to two cases that I have seen since my election last May and contrast them with each other. The first concerns a care company in the black country. None of its care workers is paid for their travel time or when calls run over. The hourly rate therefore fell well below the national minimum wage over a substantial timeframe, but the HMRC investigation has been ongoing for nearly four years. To date, it has resulted in a notice of underpayment for only one of the employees who filed a complaint, even though the same principle applies to all the care workers.
My constituent, Debra, complained about not being paid the minimum wage in November 2012. It took 30 months before she managed to force HMRC to issue the care company with a notice of underpayment. She was forced to complain to the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and my predecessor, Chris Kelly. HMRC wrote to her in February 2013 to say that it was looking at all the care workers’ records, and wrote again following Debra’s complaint to the Secretary of State in June 2014 that the other care workers were also owed arrears for non-payment of the minimum wage. Nevertheless, HMRC then issued the notice only for her, as if she was the only worker who had not been paid the national minimum wage.
HMRC’s continuous delays have been shocking, and they have been ongoing since Debra’s complaint at the end of 2012. HMRC has also been looking at the cases of two other constituents of mine, Alison and Michelle, since at least March 2015, yet we do not seem to be any further forward than we were at this time last year. HMRC continues with what seem to be unnecessary delays and excuses—according to my case notes they appear to be the very same excuses given to Debra.
None of the care workers at the firm were paid for their travel time between calls or if calls ran over the allotted times. The company’s own paperwork—the rotas and pay slips—clearly show that they did not pay their care workers for what we would understand to be necessary working time. All the care workers were on the same terms and conditions, so the same position applies equally to all the workers.
Despite HMRC writing to Debra that it had “all workers’ records” dating back to February 2014, in a recent telephone call HMRC asked whether my constituents would be prepared to go to an employment tribunal and be cross-examined. That does not seem appropriate given the objectively verified facts. HMRC has not even calculated the arrears that the women appear to be owed. The same tactic had been used previously with Debra. HMRC does not have to mention any employment tribunal; its job is to get the evidence, calculate the arrears and issue a notice of underpayment. Only after the notice is issued can the employer force a tribunal, and an employer has only 28 days to do so following the issuing of such a notice by HMRC. Indeed, until a notice is issued the care company has absolutely nothing to appeal against.
There is clearly something very wrong indeed with how HMRC enforces compliance with the national minimum wage in the care sector. As I said, it has been investigating this care company for nearly four years, yet despite finding that not only Debra but the other care workers are owed minimum wage arrears, it has still issued only the one notice.
That case should be contrasted with HMRC’s response to another case, although it goes slightly beyond the narrow confines of the debate. At a manufacturer in my constituency, a genuine clerical error led to the underpayment of four pieceworkers out of a workforce of 240. Over three years, the underpayment totalled just under £600, or 0.005% of the total wage bill. It was clearly a genuine oversight that had not been identified in five external audits.
Despite the fact that that manufacturing company co-operated fully with HMRC—indeed, as soon as it was made aware of the underpayments, it repaid them, along with the penalty, on the next available working day—its response seems to have been very different from what happened with the care company. The manufacturer has been named and shamed and now has to deal with the resulting implications while trying to negotiate a contract with high-street retailers.
HMRC’s response has been very inconsistent. In my experience, it is focusing its energy on what might be seen as the easy cases—companies that are genuinely trying to do the right thing but may have made a mistake —while it does very little effectively to enforce the national minimum wage for companies such as the care company I highlighted, which have consistently obstructed and obfuscated and shown total disregard for HMRC and for their legal requirement to pay the national minimum wage. That has to change.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ask HMRC urgently to review its general approach to the enforcement of the national minimum wage. I will also write privately with the details of the two cases to which I referred to ask him to speak to HMRC about what is going on and how we can have a more consistent and equitable approach to ensure that all employers pay the national minimum wage.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this important debate.
My hon. Friends and I are proud that it was a Labour Government who, in the teeth of opposition, legislated for a national minimum wage. That national minimum wage is a right, not an optional privilege. At the moment, anything between 160,000 and 220,000 home care workers are still likely to be paid less than the legal minimum, collectively losing out on nearly £130 million a year, as my hon. Friend said—an average of £815 per worker. That is nothing less than a national scandal, not only because a significant minority of home care workers are being exploited—let us remember that they are low-paid and mostly women, that a growing number of them are migrants, and that they find it very hard to organise collectively because of the irregular and fragmented nature of their work—but because underpayment of the minimum wage on such a scale has a direct impact on the quality and dignity of the care provided to the older and disabled people who rely on that care.
As we have heard, there is a variety of reasons for underpayment of the national minimum wage in the care sector, ranging from hourly rates that are simply below the appropriate minimum wage rate to deductions from pay for unpaid training or business expenses. However, the most ubiquitous reason, in my experience, is that care workers are increasingly paid only for contact time. To be clear, that does not include all the time that many care workers actually spend with each client.
I worked for the Resolution Foundation before I was elected and I did a lot of work on this subject. I spoke to hundreds of home care workers from throughout the country about their experiences. I found that “call clipping” —where home care workers leave earlier than they might want to, to ensure that they are not working for free—does happen, but most stay for far longer than their contracted time. For many of the people being cared for, the care workers are the only people they see for hours at a time, perhaps for the whole day. Home care workers enjoy and value the work they do and they often stay for far longer than they need to, but the added insult for them is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, they are often not even paid for that contact time.
Absolutely—I think that happens quite frequently. The way they are disciplined relates to a point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central. Increasingly, they have to clock in and out, and sophisticated technology is used to monitor the time they are with a client. Yet, on their timesheets and payslips—I have seen many of them and they are incredibly confusing—their employers cannot give them the clear detail of how much they are being paid and whether they are being paid the minimum wage. The law in this area is very clear, and yet we still have hundreds of thousands of workers denied the legal minimum to which they are entitled. So why is that happening? At its root, as my hon. Friend said, is the lack of a sustainable funding settlement for social care, which is the result of successive Governments not doing enough, and we know the 2% precept will do little to address that.
Going forward in the medium term, we need to address the funding gap, which is growing on a yearly basis. Local authorities need to do more to ensure they commission care in such a way as to protect those who deliver it, and the independent care providers who employ the home care workers need to do everything possible to ensure that they meet their statutory obligations. There are good examples in the field, but unfortunately far too many do not meet their obligations. None of that should stand in the way of doing what we and the Government can to end non-compliance in this sector.
A variety of things could be done. To give them credit, some of the steps that the Government have taken have been welcome. For example, fines have increased to 100% of underpayments owed to each worker, up to a maximum of £20,000, and they are set to rise again in April. But the scale of the problem and the small solutions that the Government have proposed are clearly not having the impact that they need to, so more could be done. We could have the six investigations report in a timely manner, and we could do more to name and shame employers. Only 13 small social care providers have been named and shamed so far using the powers introduced in 2014.
We could do more to end the over-reliance on self-reporting and ensure that low levels of arrears are recovered. When an abuse is found, we could investigate the whole workforce at that provider, which currently does not happen. However, even if we did all that, we would still be back here next year or the year after talking about what more needs to be done. The Government must seriously consider amending section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 so that we deal with the problem by proactively forcing employers, putting the onus on them to prove that they are paying their workers the minimum wage to which they are entitled rather than the other way round.
The sector employs 1.5 million people and has the potential to grow by another million in the next decade alone. If our country is to have the care service that it needs and that disabled people need, the Government need to do more—and quickly—in terms of recruiting and retaining staff who care about their job and of ensuring that those workers are not exploited.
I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this really important debate.
I looked around the room a moment or two ago and I think I qualify as the oldest person here, so this debate has a particular resonance for me. I am over 60—I will be 67 on 5 May—and I have a vested interest, so I should declare it right away. I am also very glad that, if I do require care at home, I will probably have care at home in Scotland. I do not say that everything in Scotland is perfect or that things could not happen there as well, but in the debate on securing the national minimum wage for the women—it is mainly women—who care at all sorts of levels and for paid home care workers, we are going too cheap for them; we should be looking for the living wage of £8.20 an hour. That requires political will, which I find sadly lacking in this Government. The Scottish Government have that will; they have a Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training.
We need to pay the people who look after the most vulnerable people in our society a decent wage. If we pay a fair wage, we get fair work. I was a local councillor and I am conscious of the fact that a lot of women were very much underpaid and strived for years to get equal pay with male counterparts. It is still happening in Scotland. As I said, we are not a utopian society, but the Scottish Government have committed to paying the living wage and to giving enough money to local authorities to pay the living wage to people who take part in the health and care partnership. I cannot understand why that cannot be done here in England as well. It requires political will, which is sadly lacking.
Also required is the political will of the Government to hound, harass and do whatever they can via HMRC or any other agency to ensure that employers pay the minimum that is required in this country, and they should be encouraged to pay far more. I do not want to be in a position where—I will personalise it—someone is being paid to care for me and they cut short the time that I require and am entitled to, to rush off and help someone else. It is a sad reflection on society that we treat the most vulnerable in an almost callous way. We should look at it from the other point of view: would you want your parent, mother, sister or brother to be subjected to work from someone who is grossly undervalued and underpaid?
We need to change the entire context of care for the elderly and disabled across the United Kingdom. If we do not, we are building up a time bomb for ourselves and for those we care for most.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I will keep my comments brief. The notion of a kindly small care home no longer exists. The person who lives in your town or village, down your street or in your community, who cycles around and gives care to those who need it, no longer exists. The small companies that we used to know so well and recognise in our communities simply cannot compete with the large corporations.
I came across Mears when I worked with Unison. I speculate that companies such as Mears provide a multitude of public services alongside their own private interests. They can bid at incredibly low levels on a per hour basis. With the downward pressure on local authorities and the amount that they can afford to pay, such corporations are winning the contracts. There is a huge gap between the corporations at the highest level and the domiciliary care that is offered to people both in their homes and in residential care. We must not forget that what is offered is the most intimate and personal care.
The corporations continually try to minimise their costs to such an extent that it falls on staff to subsidise their employment, whether that is through travel time, as has already been mentioned, or the purchase of uniforms, which happens frequently as well. I also know that many care staff have taken to buying biscuits or small treats for the clients they serve because their company had previously provided that as an option, which was something nice for the residents in the afternoon. Such things are now being taken away as margins are squeezed and companies have to answer to their shareholders much more than they have to answer to the people who receive the care or deliver it.
Simple things that mean so much to residents are being taken away. Individuals who give so much of their time and their love to their clients are being put in an impossible position in trying to create a less clinical environment. It is absolutely right to say that the people who work in the sector are mainly women, increasingly migrant workers. Why are the women who do those jobs put at the bottom of the pile when it comes to reward? Is it because there is still that traditional view that it is women continuing their household work in the wider community? If that is the only reason why it is so poorly valued, the Government must address that immediately.
Also, the large companies often do not engage positively with trade unions that wish to raise important issues perfectly legitimately and through the appropriate channels. Those workers deserve proper, full and easy access to independent support through a union, and the employers should take proactive steps to encourage their staff to become members, and support that by recognising the trade unions. Too often, trade unions must fight those corporations to achieve recognition. They cannot even get across the threshold of care homes.
I have worked alongside care workers who dared to put their heads above the parapet and who were representatives for the other workers. It did not do their careers any favours. They have been subjected to spurious disciplinary proceedings, and had their shifts reduced—they have limited-hours and sometimes zero-hours contracts. They are punished by having their hours reduced so that they do not take home as much money as they should, merely because they have tried to represent their members properly. They have been threatened with having the police called should they dare to gather outside the company’s property, which is a shameful way to treat staff who are only trying to improve the working conditions of the people who deliver the care.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate with you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate and on the excellent way in which he opened it.
I want to talk about what I describe as the funding crisis in social care. Many providers are struggling to provide good-quality care—even if they want to, as they should—against the backdrop of years of cuts to local authority budgets for adult social care. The increased costs associated with the national minimum wage and the so-called national living wage are going to place providers under additional financial pressure, and that is of great concern. The Local Government Association has estimated that introducing the so-called national living wage from April will cost at least £330 million for home care and residential care providers. There was no additional funding for that in the Budget. There is a risk that too many providers will become financially non-viable. We do not want care providers to cut staff numbers even more, threatening the quality of care.
The social care precept is not the answer to finding enough funding for what is a Government policy change. My local authority, Salford City Council, needs £2.7 million to pay for the minimum wage increases in our local care sector, but the council can only raise £1.6 million from the social care precept. The Government are not providing funding for their own wage policy. In my area, the people of Salford are finding the money, from their council tax. I am sure that there will be agreement in the Chamber that care workers should be paid the national minimum wage. Care work is a demanding job that requires skilled workers who are compassionate and who provide empathy and good-quality care. It is completely unacceptable that a job that historically has been undervalued is still being exploited today, and that those workers are not being paid the basic wage.
I give credit to Unison for its work interviewing care workers and finding out in detail the constraints on them, such as having to rush between calls and reduce the amount of time spent with individuals who are socially isolated. We are concerned about social isolation among older people, and the fact that there is no time to care. Staff sometimes work from 7 am until very late in the evening, but they have dead time that they do not get paid for; and they do not get paid for travel time. The Cavendish review highlighted the impact of non-payment for travel time on care provision:
“Some low paid Home Care Assistants and support workers will…keep going as long as they feel they are still giving good care. But the advent of zero hours contracts, fee cuts and no payment for travel time”
is really to blame because it
“is making it financially prohibitive for some domiciliary care workers to struggle on.”
The Government agreed that the statutory guidance should require councils to include payment for travel time in provider contracts, but that guidance is clearly not being complied with. There are even examples, in an excellent Unison study, of a home care worker being given 20 minutes to visit an old lady of 102, to help her shower and get dressed, make food, tidy her kitchen, give her medication and put her bins out. That is not enough time to give safe and dignified care. Tackling non-compliance should be a priority. The Government must consider the impact of their policies and act on the chronic underfunding of the care sector that I outlined.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central made a number of suggestions about how to improve national minimum wage compliance. We must have monitoring of the commissioning practices of councils; it should be a priority. Employers and commissioners could also publish, or provide employees with, a statement that they comply with the national minimum wage, increasing transparency. As he said, we must improve the protocol for supporting whistleblowers who bravely tell the story of what is happening. It is only when care staff are valued and paid adequately that service users will receive the good-quality, compassionate care they need. As he said, we should be ashamed that we trade on the good will and commitment of our home care workers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for obtaining the debate. I will try to be brief.
The Labour party recognised the issue with the social care system prior to the last general election. In our 2015 manifesto we promised to end 15-minute visits and introduce year of care budgets, to incentivise better care in the home. We promised to recruit 5,000 new home care workers—an entirely new arm of the NHS—to help to care for those with the greatest needs at home. We promised to tackle workforce exploitation in the care sector, and to ban the use of zero-hours contracts where regular hours were being worked, improving the working lives of carers. However, that was not to be.
Figures show that up to 220,000 home care workers are illegally paid less than the minimum wage. Investigations by HMRC between 2011 and 2015 found that 41% of care providers were guilty of non-compliance. As has been mentioned, the Resolution Foundation has calculated that care workers are collectively cheated of £130 million a year.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
One major way in which care workers are denied the national minimum wage, which has been referred to throughout this debate, is for the care providers to refuse to pay for travel time between calls. I had never heard of the practice, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central described, of care workers being paid a miserly 12p per hour for travel time. That, to me, sounds more like a cycling rate.
The law states that workers must be paid at least the national minimum wage for travel that is a part of their work and not incidental to it. If someone’s work consists of assignments carried out at different places between which they are obliged to travel, the time they take to do so is regarded in law as work time and must be paid accordingly. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence stated that care providers should ensure that workers have time to do their job without being rushed and without compromising the dignity and wellbeing of the person who uses the services. Not paying for travel time makes that impossible.
The BBC recently reported on a group of home care workers who are Unison members, who are owed up to £2,500 each as a consequence of being paid less than the national minimum wage—again, because they were not paid for travel time. In a recent case, which was settled out of court, a worker was paid £1,250 in compensation for non-payment of travel time.
Furthermore, in summer 2015, HMRC launched a new national minimum wage campaign, which allows employers who have not been paying their workers the national minimum wage to escape punishment. Employers who are guilty of non-compliance can now just notify HMRC of their transgression, declare that they have paid their workers any money owed, and agree to obey the law in future.
That all contradicts the Prime Minister’s August 2015 claim that
“the message is clear: underpay your staff, and you will pay the price.”
Such employers are not paying the price. We need a major change in policy if the Government are serious about stamping out that deep-rooted practice and protecting the legal rights of home care workers. The Government should make regulations, as provided for under section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, requiring employers to provide their workers with a statement demonstrating compliance with the national minimum wage. The exploitation of care workers must stop; we must ensure that they get the pay to which they are entitled.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this important debate.
The care industry and, in particular, its workforce play a vital role in our society. The UK has a care sector that is ever growing, which is essential with an ageing population. It is important to ensure that, as people age, they can still live in their own homes for as long as possible. That will not only allow people to enjoy the comforts of home as they spend more time there, but will help to reduce the pressure on the NHS, which we all understand would help enormously.
Where it is not possible for people to remain in their homes, they should be provided with the best care possible in a care home facility that meets the high standards we can expect in our society. To ensure that people are given the opportunity to remain in their home as they get older, the work of home care workers, who care for the elderly and disabled in their own homes, is vital. That is why it is so shocking that so many home care workers are routinely paid less than the national minimum wage. The absence of the most nominal of payments is condemning huge numbers of home care staff to the contemporary phenomenon of in-work poverty, as well as significantly undermining care standards across the industry.
The direct effect of underpayment is that care workers are plunged into poverty, leading to much higher rates of staff turnover, with a subsequent negative impact on care standards. Too many experienced or skilled care workers are being forced out of the industry simply because they cannot afford to stay. That is unacceptable.
Due to the lack of time, I will move swiftly on and cite an example from my constituency. The Government’s lack of concern about care workers not being paid the national minimum wage is in stark contrast to the efforts of the Unison branch at Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council. The union has worked closely with the local authority to ensure that social care has remained a priority, reaffirming that care workers feel appreciated and, most importantly, that they are not being taken for granted.
The care sector in Neath Port Talbot, as in many other places, is a mixed economy, whereby the local authority directly provides around £11 million of services, and commissions about £32 million more from third-party providers from the private and voluntary sectors. Council staff are already paid at the national living wage rate, so in-house services act as a pacemaker for pay and conditions in the local care economy—that is to be commended. Were those in-house services not to exist—so with the absence of a pacemaker—we would be in danger of seeing a race to the bottom on pay and conditions, as third-party providers sought to maximise profit by decreasing resources.
A mixed economy works because the local authority uses its influence responsibly, as a quasi-monopoly purchaser of services, to ensure that workforce contracts do not cause detriment to local communities. A good and topical example is the recent decision by members of Neath Port Talbot Council to meet in full the national living wage for staff employed in private sector residential care homes, from which the council purchases a significant amount of residential care. Neath Port Talbot Council is one of the few local authorities in the UK that has decided to afford the national living wage from the outset—it might even be unique. It is important to point out, however, that the council has not simply gifted the money to residential care providers; it pays to ensure that its high-quality standards are met. If third- party providers fall below the standards, funds are withdrawn.
To conclude, perhaps that model will be adopted by the Government. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the proposal.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this important debate.
As has been spelt out in the Budget debates over the past few days, the Tory Government’s stated goal is to make work pay, so I will spend a few moments examining their record, given that we are considering the 1.5 million care workers who day in, day out, do noble work caring for our elderly and disabled population.
A March 2014 National Audit Office report found that an astonishing 220,000 home care workers are paid less than the national minimum wage. The main reason that so many care workers fail to receive the national minimum wage is that, despite resounding court judgments declaring this practice illegal, hundreds of thousands of workers are still not paid for the time they spend travelling between visits. They are, disturbingly, only paid for the time that they spend with their clients. That would be unacceptable in any other line of work, but, quite wrongly, it is still common practice in the care industry. As a matter of decency, care companies should meet the amount that Parliament has legislated for as the minimum that workers should receive in their pay packet. Each and every worker should not fear that, at the end of the working week, their employer has short-changed them. The national minimum wage is simply not happening in our care industry, and that is a national scandal.
The Tory Government need to step up and take action to ensure fairness in our care sector. Thankfully, under the national minimum wage legislation brought in under a Labour Government, the Tory Government have inherited the necessary powers to take much needed and long-overdue action. To be specific, under section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act, care providers as employers can be required to supply a written statement to each care worker, in which they should clearly set out the amount that the worker is being paid, the hours worked, and how that means that the employer is not short-changing them. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to commit to exploring the potential for introducing regulations under section 12.
At present, the work of many hundreds of thousands of care workers simply does not pay. They are still not guaranteed a national minimum wage. They are simply being short-changed, and that scandal must not continue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this debate.
In September 2015, I made representations to the Minister on behalf of a social care organisation in my constituency, North London Homecare and Support, which was concerned about its financial capability to accommodate the increase in the national living wage. The Minister, in his response, informed me that the Government were working with the social care sector to consider the overall cost of social care and funding for local government, and that the result would be announced in the spending review. In spite of commitments about further funding, however, the social care sector is still not receiving adequate investment.
According to Local Government Association estimates, the social care precept will raise £372 million, which stands far short of the £2 billion figure suggested by the Government. The majority of that will be used to cover the cost of the transition to the new national living wage. In addition, although the better care fund is expected to deliver around £1.5 billion by 2019-20, the gap in social care funding is expected to reach £3.5 billion by the end of the Parliament in 2020.
With an ageing population and an NHS under increasing pressure, it is clear that we need the social care sector.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate. One of the tricks that the Government have pulled is to shove the responsibility for social care on to local authorities. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but what the Government have not done is give them the resources to do it—they have given them about 2%. Three or four years down the road, we will reach a point when the Government come back and want to cap the local authorities, because they are spending too much—that is what the Government will say. We have had all that before. The other thing we should bear in mind is that at the moment local government is badly funded, to say the least.
I could not agree more. Those points are alarming and worry us all, and that is why we have all come to speak in the debate.
Only a thriving social care sector that is valued and respected will be able to give our NHS the support it needs to provide integrated healthcare solutions. The Minister and the Government must accept their responsibility to support social care through the transition to the national living wage and beyond to 2020. Sustainable, long-term investment is desperately needed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare my 20 years of trade union activity for the Glasgow city branch of Unison before my election to Parliament.
There are far too many instances of care home providers who provide services for a profit ignoring or disregarding their legal responsibilities to their staff. It is particularly insidious that those who are paid the least and provide some of the most vital services needed by our society, which we will need more and more as our demographics shift, are being denied even the most basic protections by their employers. In two recent cases, MiHomecare settled a national minimum wage pay claim with one employee for £1,250 and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), in south Wales Unison colleagues secured backdated wages for 100 workers amounting to up to £2,500 each after it failed to pay workers for time travelling between clients.
A leaked document from MiHomecare sets out exactly how much workers are being short-changed by. Its internal analysis in the wake of an HMRC investigation into its employment practices revealed that 44 workers could have been out of pocket by as much as £2,000 a year each. A Resolution Foundation report estimated that as many as 160,000 care workers are receiving less than the minimum wage simply on the basis of non-payment for travelling time, to say nothing of the myriad other changes to their salary. That amounts to more than £300 million and, as a sum being withheld from some of the poorest workers in the country, I find that breathtaking.
The closure of HMRC offices across the country concerns me greatly. HMRC’s enforcement work is invaluable in taking to task the criminality that sadly some employers believe is justified. The centralisation of services and cutting of jobs will inevitably give the green light to more employers to think that they can flout the law and get away with it.
As a former Unison activist and comrade, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done in the sector? To come back to legality, is it not an absolute shame that many home carers will not be able to seek legal redress because of employment tribunal fees? It is unions such as Unison that enable carers to take cases to employment tribunals, because they pay the fees.
I agree with my Unison comrade and friend. One barrier to getting back-payments in this sector in particular is that the fees charged are often greater than the wages claimed for. I thank her for making that point.
If the green light is to be given to more employers, they will take that. In Scotland, with only two offices—in Glasgow and Edinburgh—to be retained under the proposals, it is simply not credible to suggest that, despite best efforts, HMRC’s minimum wage enforcement can continue at the same level. Given that the workforce in the care sector is female-dominated, it seems that a double whammy is created. We as a society pay women less overall and, even when a legal floor is put in place to stop wages falling below a certain level, many women are victims of their employers’ criminality and earn even less. There can be no place in a civilised society for the law-breaking that appears to be happening in areas of the care sector. A civilised Government should do all they can to stamp out that insidious practice.
Other Members have set the scene. As usual I enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). He rightly said that the sector looks after the most vulnerable. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) indicated her personal experience and the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) was correct when he said that it is not unreasonable to demand that the national minimum wage is paid.
I am not aware of that either, but it is an important point. Bad employers will try such methods. I am concerned to hear about companies that are trying to get around paying the living wage by taking premium payments off staff. That is another important point that this Parliament will need to address.
Mixed messages are coming from the Government in this regard. Ruby McGregor-Smith, the leader of a home care company that the BBC had revealed was not paying its home care workers the national minimum wage, was recently elevated to the House of Lords. In August 2015, the Prime Minister commented to The Times:
“So to unscrupulous employers who think they can get labour on the cheap, the message is clear: underpay your staff, and you will pay the price.”
Also in the summer of 2015, HMRC launched a national minimum wage campaign that allows employers that have not been paying the national minimum wage to escape punishment. The Government have been saying to companies that HMRC
“will not undertake an enquiry or investigation on your National Minimum Wage records”.
That is a mixed message.
That leaves an over-reliance on workers making complaints to HMRC. As has been revealed during this debate, many care workers fear reporting their employers because reprisals can include dismissal or having their hours cut. As was stated earlier, many home care workers are on zero-hours contracts.
Action needs to be taken. I hope that the Government will give a commitment that where a company is non-compliant, HMRC will extend its investigation to cover that company’s whole workforce. HMRC should publish results regularly, carry out assurance checks in the sector and allow third-party reporting. We have heard from many Members who have spoken so far about the vital role that the trade union movement is playing in the sector. HMRC should maintain records of the number of employees who contact it through the helpline, and there should be a formal protocol for HMRC to ensure that no action is taken against whistleblowers.
Minimum wage rates exist to protect working people and their wages, with a legal floor that stops wages going below a certain level. The insidious practice of not paying the national minimum wage must end, but it can end only if the Government are willing to ensure that compliance with minimum wage rates is monitored rigorously.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate. I am pleased that so many of my colleagues have come to put forward cases; it is just a pity that there were so few on the Government Benches to listen to the human stories put forward by the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood).
I would like to start by paying tribute to care workers. They allowed my mum to live in her home at the end of her life, and that gave me the confidence to work here and her the confidence to stay at home. I have to say that in many instances they have the patience of saints. We rely on these people to look after our loved ones, and yet, as we have heard, so many are routinely and illegally still paid less than the minimum wage. I too would like to thank Unison for its briefing and its long campaign to support workers through all means, including legal action.
As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) said, we all have an interest in this debate, either sooner or later. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) that investigations by HMRC of care providers found that 41% were guilty of non-compliance between 2011 and 2015. The Resolution Foundation calculated that care workers are collectively cheated out of £130 million per year due to below-minimum-wage payments. The effect on care workers and those they care for is immeasurable. It plunges care workers into poverty, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees). It leads to high staff turnover and therefore a lack of continuity of care, which is so valued by the person being cared for. The care worker is not just a paid employee or a carer; they become a friend.
So how do providers get away with that? It is by not paying for travel time, which encourages call-clipping—leaving a few minutes early to minimise time spent working for free. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), many care workers do not do that because they care about the people they are working for. Effectively, they are subsidising our care system.
We heard about how the combination of cuts to council funding and the rise in the minimum wage will increase the problem. The funding is simply insufficient for social care, both now and in the future, as was so eloquently put by my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who have long campaigned on the issue, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) for their work on it.
Pressure from my colleagues led to the Government ordering HMRC to carry out an investigation into the six largest care providers. Care providers are businesses, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who spoke passionately about the large corporations and some of their actions, which are less than compassionate. Despite the Government ordering HMRC to carry out that investigation in February 2015, it has still not been completed. Why is that? When will it be complete?
Just a handful of small care providers—13—have been named and shamed since BIS commenced this policy in 2014. Of those 13 providers, eight were identified as owing arrears to just one care worker. How can that be if care workers are working under the same terms and conditions? Is HMRC extending its investigation to other care workers within the companies? If not, why not? We have heard that that is partly due to the process; HMRC recovers arrears only for the worker who contacted it, and employers are allowed to self-correct and pay back the other workers with minimal oversight. Effectively, they are shamed as bad employers that are not to be trusted, but are then trusted to do the right thing by the employees who they cheated in the first place.
The assurance process on this is minimal. It relies on workers knowing how much they are owed, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) rightly highlighted, many care workers are not currently provided with a proper breakdown of all their working time. HMRC also consistently identified a very low level of arrears, with an average of £201 per worker. Should HMRC not be made to carry out assurance checks, publish the results and talk to a wider range of people about this, including the trade unions?
Some may ask why people do not report these abuses. As we have heard, there are low levels of awareness among workers that they should be paid for travel time, as well as a fear of losing jobs, of cuts in hours and of tribunal fees, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) highlighted.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. As was pointed out earlier in the debate, a high proportion of these workers are migrant workers. With the awful rhetoric directed at them from some sections of our society and political parties, do not those workers feel additionally vulnerable and scared about reporting such things?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Many workers in this sector are already exploited, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby. They are women. They are migrant workers. They are people who do not traditionally complain. Another issue is the length of time before the judgment in tribunal cases. In 2014-15, it was on average 74 weeks before a judgment was reached.
Does the Minister feel that a voluntary statement of a national minimum wage is sufficient? In view of the widespread non-compliance, should the national minimum wage not be compulsory in this sector? As we have heard, many care workers do not know the hours they are paid for. Does he agree that we must go beyond the Low Pay Commission’s suggestion of simply having a review, and that there should be a requirement for payslips of hourly paid staff to clearly state the hours for which they are paid?
Details on the number of care workers who contact the pay and work rights helpline should be collected, as they were previously. That is vital, because it gives a sense of the levels of awareness about non-payment and the willingness to complain.
Councils’ commissioning processes should be monitored as to whether they are insisting that providers pay the minimum wage. Councils also need support to carry out spot inspections of providers’ payroll records, which should be clear, and they should carry out regular, anonymous staff surveys, in conjunction with trade unions, to identify any risks of non-payment.
We rely on care workers to look after the most vulnerable, and yet we are allowing them to be exploited and underpaid. They work in one of the most demanding sectors, caring for our loved ones, and they deserve to be looked after by all available means without further delay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on bringing this debate to the House. It has been a very helpful opportunity to focus attention on this important area, and it gives me a chance, on behalf of the Government, to make clear our commitment to ensuring that this issue is properly dealt with. I know he is a robust champion of workers in the care sector, and I want to praise him for his work in representing them here today.
I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and others who have taken such an interest in this issue. Opposition Members may be surprised to hear me single out and congratulate Unison and the Resolution Foundation, which have done really good work on behalf of workers in the sector by shining a light on the complex issues and some of the completely unacceptable practices that have gone on for too long.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to our nation’s 1.5 million care workers, who, as hon. Members have said, work tirelessly to provide invaluable support to some of our most vulnerable citizens. Without their support in caring for the frail, the disabled and the elderly, we simply would not be able to cope as a society with the pressures of an ageing population. Hon. Members are right that we must ensure care workers are treated fairly by their employers and receive the money to which they are legally entitled—and that is a priority area for the Government, for this Minister and for the Minister for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who leads on this within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Perhaps I could take this moment to make it clear, lest anybody watching the debate is in any doubt, that this generation of Conservatives in government strongly supports the national minimum wage. We are very proud that we have gone further and introduced the national living wage, as well as increasing penalties from £5,000 per employer to £20,000 per employee, which last year saw one investigation lead to a fine of half a million pounds.
We have also increased the budget for compliance by 50% since 2010 and strengthened the naming and shaming provisions. Let me send the strong signal that we will not tolerate non-compliance with the national minimum wage. It applies across all sectors, and the nature of the work that these care workers do, in a fragmented, challenging and geographically difficult sector, is no excuse for non-compliance.
I want to make it clear that any employer who treats the Government’s commitment to this space with contempt needs to be very careful. I am very disappointed to see that the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s request for Mike Ashley from Sports Direct to come and give evidence has not been responded to. Let me take this opportunity to say that contempt for this area of law is not acceptable, and to welcome the recent court case in which Caroline Barlow successfully prosecuted MiHomecare. It led to the court ruling that she and, by implication, others should have been properly paid. I welcome that, and the signal should go out very clearly to businesses, councils and all those who employ the low-paid that they have to abide by their duties under the law.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Most Members here would agree with the Minister about Mike Ashley, I am sure, and would applaud the Chair of the BIS Committee and the Speaker for the way in which they are handling the situation.
The key point I want to make is this: although it is good that the Minister is proud of the Government’s policy on the minimum wage, does he not think that the Government should have funded that? Is not the key problem the one that I outlined: the 2% precept will only raise £1.6 billion, but my local council will need £2.7 billion just to deal with these pressures? We cannot get to a position in which those in the care sector can pay the minimum wage unless there is funding for it, and that is the Government’s responsibility.
I will come on to the funding of social care, which is a major issue that we all face as a society and will require some pretty deep thinking over the years ahead. I will also describe the extra money that the Government have put in. Although there is never enough money, we have made this priority very clear.
It may help if I review how we got to be where we are today. In 1999, the national minimum wage came in. It was the first time that legislation had been introduced in the UK to ensure a minimum level of pay for virtually all workers. Its aim is to help as many low-paid workers as possible, end extreme low pay and ensure a level playing field for employers. We are absolutely clear that anyone who is entitled to be paid the national minimum wage or, from 1 April, the national living wage must receive it.
I will continue, if I may—I am under a tight time limit. The enforcement of the minimum wage is therefore essential to its success and we are committed to cracking down in every sector across the economy on employers who break the minimum wage law. Our approach is simple: through effective national minimum wage enforcement, we are able to support workers and businesses by deterring employers from underpaying their workers and removing the unfair competitive advantage that underpayment could bring.
I will deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s points, with which I have a lot of sympathy, if I am given time to crack on.
Hon. Members have rightly raised the issue of non-compliance with the minimum wage in this sector. I want first to set out the measures that we are putting in place now and that we have put in place already, before touching on some things that we may go on to do in due course. HMRC responds to every complaint made by workers through the ACAS helpline. When a third party reports suspected non-compliance, HMRC evaluates the report and investigates the employer when there are grounds to do so.
Since HMRC began enforcing the minimum wage in ’99, it has identified more than £65 million in arrears. Between April and November 2015, HMRC took action against 557 businesses, clawing back over £8 million for 46,000 workers who had been illegally underpaid. That is already the largest amount of arrears identified in any single year since the national minimum wage was introduced and is possible as a result of the increased investment and extra measures we have put in place to support enforcement.
We are going further. The Prime Minister has committed to a package of measures that are currently being implemented that will build on Government action to date and strengthen the enforcement of the national minimum and living wage. First, we are increasing the enforcement budget from April 2016, demonstrating our ongoing commitment to ensuring that the hardest-working and lowest-paid people receive the pay that they are entitled to. HMRC will also continue to promote compliance with the law and respond when employers have got things wrong.
Secondly, the Government are further increasing the penalties that employers will have to pay when they break the law. From 1 April, the calculation will increase further, to 200% of the arrears that an employer owes. By increasing the penalties for underpayment of the national minimum wage, we intend that employers who would otherwise be tempted to underpay comply with the law and that working people receive the money they are legally due.
Furthermore, under changes being implemented through the Immigration Bill, we are creating a statutory director of labour market enforcement, who will set out a single set of priorities for the enforcement bodies across the spectrum of non-compliance. That should ensure a targeted approach that addresses problems and best helps victims.
Under the Immigration Bill, we are also creating a new type of enforcement order. That labour market enforcement undertaking will be supported by a criminal offence for non-compliance. We want to tackle employers who deliberately, persistently and brazenly commit breaches of labour law and fail to take remedial action. That cannot always be done satisfactorily through the repeated use of existing penalties or offences, which may lead to the continued exploitation of workers.
Perhaps I can come back to the hon. Lady on specific cases—I do not have them to hand. I just want to talk about what we are doing to deal with the issues that have been raised, but she makes an interesting point.
In the care sector, we have a particularly high incidence of workers who have not been paid the national minimum wage in the right way. Other sectors are hairdressing and retail, and there is some dispute about where the worst practice exists, but the care sector clearly has a major historical problem. That is in part attributable to the fact that many of the more complex rules on calculating working time are prevalent in the sector—for example, the calculation of travel and sleeping time. On those points, although I am sure that Members will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual cases, I want to restate the Government’s position: when workers are performing work under their contracts, they must be paid the minimum wage.
It is also worth noting that there is no perfect measure of non-compliance within the sector, and there is a possibility that current estimates of non-compliance overestimate work time and underestimate pay, because the information is reported by workers themselves. That is why we are continuing to work with the Low Pay Commission, the Office for National Statistics and others in order to improve our estimates and better understand the scale of the problem.
On the point that was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and others, the Low Pay Commission’s proposals on transparency merit serious consideration, and we are looking at those and a number of its other recommendations. We are determined to continue to drive forward and send the very clearest signal to companies and employers that we are becoming less tolerant of non-compliance, and we want them to recognise that.
None the less, increasing compliance with the minimum wage in the sector remains a top priority for us and we are taking a number of steps to promote compliance and take stronger action against those who break the law. First, HMRC continues to focus on tackling non-compliance, but that activity is no longer reliant on worker complaints and instead targets employers with the highest risk of non-compliance, based on a range of intelligence and information. HMRC can now analyse information from, for example, other Departments, trade union representatives and the Low Pay Commission, and the evidence indicates that this targeted approach in the care sector is working. From April 2013 to January 2016, HMRC opened 443 cases in the social care sector and closed 308 of those. Of the 308 closed cases, underpayment of the national minimum wage was found in 32% of investigations—for total arrears of £442,000 to 3,000 workers, with penalties issued for a total value of £100,000.
Members have also raised the important issue of affordability within the sector, given the introduction of the national living wage. That pay rise for the lowest paid could be seen to be a threat in terms of increasing non-compliance. That is partly why we are taking steps to signal strongly our commitment to clamp down on it.
With an ageing society, social care funding is a major strategic issue for the country and this Government. We are engaging closely with all the relevant stakeholders on that issue to ensure that councils recognise the need to increase the price that they pay for care in order to cover costs and to reflect rising costs and, not least, the national living wage. That is partly why we are giving local authorities access to an extra £3.5 billion of new support for social care by 2020, to be included in the better care fund. Councils will also be able to introduce a new social care precept, allowing them to increase council tax by 2% above the existing threshold. Taken together, the new precept and the additional better care fund contribution mean local government has access to the extra funding that it will need to increase social care spending in real terms by the end of this Parliament.
I thank the Minister for giving way again, but there is a two-year gap. There is nothing from the better care fund this year, only £100 million next year, and—as I said in giving the example from my local authority—the 2% social care precept only covers about half of what is needed. Nationally as well as locally, that is the problem and that is why the Local Government Association asked the Government to bring forward £700 million.
I understand. These things are never straightforward or simple. As the right hon. Member for Oxford East pointed out, a lot of creativity is required from councils and the healthcare sector. There is best practice across the country to ensure that health and care are better integrated. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Opposition Members to shake their heads as if this were an easy problem to solve. It is a problem we inherited from the last Government. I am trying to be reasonable in setting out our commitment to deal with it, but it should be remembered that we inherited the problem from the Members who are shaking their heads and suggesting that it is easily solved. I hope that the measures I have set out provide reassurance that we are taking the matter seriously.
Perhaps I may conclude by framing the central elements of the package that we are putting in place. We have toughened up the sanctions and made it easier to name and shame. We have now named 490 employers, raised over £1 million in penalties and recovered over £30 million in unpaid arrears. We are now running at a 94% rate of naming since our revisions to the code in 2013.
Several hon. Members made the point about four-year delays, including my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). I think that that is completely unacceptable. Although we are seeing progress in the speed and rate at which investigations are being pursued, I will talk to the Minister for Skills to make sure the very strongest signal is sent to HMRC saying that we cannot tolerate such delays.
As I have signalled, we are seriously interested in looking at the Low Pay Commission’s recommendation on payslip transparency. It is important that employers are held to account and that employees, particularly when it comes to individual elements of time, can see clearly what time they are being paid for.
I want to highlight the fact that the advice available for employees is free and confidential and that we have introduced important measures to ensure that, when HMRC has information from a third party to carry out an investigation, it keeps the complainant’s identity confidential and that that should trigger a whole workforce investigation.
I also want to highlight the fact that HMRC offers a free service to any employee who believes they are not being reimbursed properly. HMRC also has powers to enforce the reimbursement of expenses. That gives me the chance to highlight the fact that all expenses properly incurred by care workers in the course of doing their duty, often in a sector that requires them to travel extensively across large areas, should be, must be and the Government expect will be, properly reimbursed.
I hope that that helps to set out the Government’s real commitment to tackling the issue. I again thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central on raising it and giving me the opportunity on behalf of the Government to set out how strongly we support cracking down on non-compliance.
I congratulate you, Mr Hollobone, on the seamless and unnoticed way in which you assumed the Chair.
I thank all Members for their contributions, which are too numerous to cover in a couple of minutes. They have illuminated the scale of and damage caused by the problem. It is ironic that a sector that is supposed to be about care shows so little duty of care to its employees. To illustrate the cross-party concern, I cite the words of the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) that something is very wrong indeed with national minimum wage enforcement in the care sector and that has to change.
I thank the Minister for the constructive way in which he has engaged with the debate and the issues that we have raised. I do not think he covered all the points that a number of us raised. I will write to him and I hope he will have an opportunity to get back to me on those.
I want to follow through on the Minister’s suggestion that the Government may take up the issue raised by the Low Pay Commission and Unison and to ask him to indicate—he can do so simply by nodding—that he is willing to meet me, the commission and Unison to discuss how we can move forward with implementation of transparency on payslips.
Registration of Births
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the registration of births of children of deceased people.
I am conscious that our debate may be interrupted at any moment by the sound of the Division Bell. I will start, but I presume that the sitting will be suspended for 15 minutes.
I called for this debate following a number of cases that had come to my attention. I want to make a simple request to the Government about freedom. Since I became an MP in 2010, we have had many debates about equality, and many of us were proud to support legislation to enable same-sex marriage, but many equality battles remain, and this is one. It is about bringing legislation on the registration of births into the 21st century.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I was saying before we were interrupted by high-speed rail, this debate is about equality and freedom, because the law on equality is ultimately about the freedom for people to live their life as they wish. The freedoms we are talking about today are freedoms held in one of the most tragic circumstances possible: a mother losing a loved one just as she is bringing a new life into this world. Today I will talk about the way in which, perhaps inadvertently, our legislation discriminates against people in those circumstances.
The freedom that my hon. Friend is referring to exists in Germany and Switzerland, both of which have the sensible rule that parental information is taken when the baby is first introduced to the midwife and maternity system and the father acknowledges paternity. The legal situation is clarified at that point, rather than at the point of the baby’s birth.
My hon. Friend, like me, has such cases in her constituency, hence her concern to get the law right. The legislation does not make sense in the 21st century, and our concern is that it inadvertently discriminates against women. It makes a value judgment about the mothers in question and therefore enshrines an outdated attitude towards women in the process.
I have some examples, and I am grateful that one of the people tragically affected is here with us today. My constituent, Joana, is a young mum from Walthamstow, and she already had one child with her partner, David, when he tragically had a stroke shortly before the birth of their second child, Eira. Having his role in Eira’s life recorded was therefore an important part of the grieving process for the family, and doubly important for Eira because it gives her the same rights to David as her sister. Joana has described to me the dehumanising process of trying to get David’s role in Eira’s life recorded on the birth certificate. She described turning up at the register office only to find that the registrar had no idea what to do, and she then found out that she had to go to court to prove that David was the father. She had been in a long-term relationship with this man. She shared a mortgage with him, and he had been at the National Childbirth Trust classes. He had been an integral part of the preparations for the birth of their second child. They were clearly in a committed relationship, but alas, the law includes no ability to recognise that and does not give the registrar the ability to record David’s part in Eira’s life, because of the simple fact that Joana and David were not married.
Joana is not alone. Penny’s partner Nathan sadly died two weeks after their son was born. Their son was conceived using IVF, so Nathan was clearly the father. Again, purely because Nathan and Penny had chosen not to marry, they were not able to record Nathan’s role in their son’s life on the birth certificate. Penny told us:
“Babies don’t come from wedding rings.”
There is also Rebecca, who already had a child with Mark before he tragically died in a paragliding accident when Rebecca was just 17 weeks pregnant.
All three women faced the same scenario in which their word, and even the basic evidence they could provide for the long-standing, committed relationships they were in with the fathers of their children, was not enough, so they had to go to court. They faced a court fee of £365 and possible further fees for DNA tests to prove that their partner was indeed the father. In fact, in Joana’s case, David’s father had to come to court. They had to take DNA not just from Eira but from her sister and from a family member to prove that most basic relationship, which was obvious to the outside world.
The situation was very different for Kate, who also lost her partner in tragic circumstances shortly before the birth of their son. Three weeks before he passed away they married in a hospital intensive care unit. The £27 licence meant that not only was she able to register her child’s father with no further questions asked—even though, just as in the cases of Joana, Penny and Rebecca, he was not present at the registration process—but she was entitled to a bereavement allowance of £2,000 and an ongoing widowed parent’s allowance of £510 a month.
There is a simple question at the heart of this matter. I wanted the debate because as a society we have not yet considered these issues, even though they affect how people live today. In securing the debate, the first thing I wanted to do was put this matter on the Minister’s list of things to resolve. The situation still exists only because nobody has really looked at it in the 21st century. Why do we treat Kate differently from Penny, Rebecca and Joana?
I pay tribute to the organisation Widowed & Young, which has been helping equally all four of the women I mentioned. It recognised the iniquities in the existing system. When those women’s partners were alive, all four couples were treated equally with regard to taxation. It is only in death that we see the inequality in people’s treatment. By having that marriage licence, Kate did not have to go through the indignity of having to try to prove her child’s paternity in the way the other three did.
The Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 is truly from another time. I say for the avoidance of doubt that I think everyone understands that because legal rights come with parenthood, there must be a process for registering children. That process must withstand scrutiny and nobody, either male or female, should be registered if they are not a parent. But the Act is designed to protect fathers from having an illegitimate child registered. I would caution that the term “illegitimate” in itself speaks volumes of the 1950s, not the 21st century in which we live.
The existing law requires the courts to verify parentage when the parents are not married, as if marriage in and of itself verifies the truthfulness of what a woman says. There is, though, already a process in place for a birth certificate to be amended to add a name. We already recognise that it is right for a registrar to have the discretion to amend a certificate in certain circumstances—they can use their professional judgment and respond to the person in front of them—without requiring people to go to court, which can cost families thousands of pounds at the most tragic of times.
We do not, though, have the ability to correct an absence. There is no way to allow a registrar to look at the evidence that Joana could have so easily presented, at the time, of the sincere and committed relationship she was in with David, and to act accordingly. At the most difficult and sensitive time for a family, the law stands firm. It does not see the lives that people had, but simply makes the judgment that they were not married. We must change that. Turning up with a father is in itself no guarantee that he is the father, just as turning up without him does not mean that he can be verified by DNA testing alone.
Will the Minister consider ending the inequality and making sure that this part of the law does not judge those who choose not to marry, just as we seek to support those who do choose to marry? In not giving registrars the same power to correct an absence as to make an addition, we persist with the inequality of saying that some women will lie and that marriage is what makes them truthful. Why treat women who choose not to marry as somehow untrustworthy? Why not enable registrars to seek evidence, act and use their professional judgment? We are seeking a small change in the law, but it would be a big injustice for the families if we did not drag the legislation into the 21st century.
I appreciate that this might be the first time the Minister has considered the matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) pointed out, there are different processes in place in other countries. We want the Government to commit to looking at how they can make a change happen, and to recognise that this is an injustice that needs resolution. It is now too late for Joana—she has managed to record David’s role in Eira’s life through other means—but we know that many more families out there are suffering the same experience and hope the Government will act accordingly.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on securing this important debate on such a vital issue.
We are here because of the tragic death of the hon. Lady’s constituent, David. At the outset, I pay tribute to him, to his partner, Joana, and to all the other women she mentioned—Penny, Rebecca and Kate. Joana and the others have shown incredible bravery in utterly devastating circumstances. I was deeply moved when I read Joana’s account of her family’s experience. I acknowledge the courage and determination she has shown by speaking out publicly on this issue. It cannot have been easy for her.
The hon. Lady makes a compelling case for addressing the issue at hand, which is the lengthy and complex process that Joana had to undertake to put the name of her baby’s father on her birth certificate after he tragically and unexpectedly died before the child was born. Of course, nothing can undo the devastation of these terrible circumstances, but recognising a deceased father on a birth certificate is an important step in honouring their memory.
I understand utterly the sense of frustration when the system appears to make things very difficult. It has been very valuable to listen to the points that the hon. Lady has made today, all of which I have taken on board. I hope that I can explain how the law operates and why, and how the law, the courts and the registration process provide for the recognition of fathers in such tragic circumstances, but I will also consider all the suggestions that the hon. Lady has made.
Moving away from the specific details of this case, I will lay out the general position on parentage. The two key principles in English law in this regard are the “presumption of legitimacy”, which assumes that a child born to a married woman is the child of her husband, and genetic fatherhood, whereby evidence can be used where necessary to prove paternity.
The law presumes that a married man is the father of his wife’s child, so his registration as the child’s father is automatic. The law does not give the same recognition to unmarried fathers, because currently there is not any legal framework that presumes their paternity. In ordinary circumstances, an unmarried father will consent to his registration as the father of the child and usually he will attend the registration of the child’s birth with the mother, but the registrar can also recognise the father’s entitlement to be registered if he has a parental responsibility agreement, a parental responsibility order or another suitable form of court order. However, where that is not possible, in tragic cases such as that of Joana, the law provides an alternative way for a deceased father to be recognised as a child’s father, and then to be recognised through the birth registration process.
The Family Law Act 1986 allows a court to make a declaration of parentage, and anyone can apply for a declaration to the High Court or the family court, and the final order of the court will be a declaration that a person named in the application was the parent of the child. The Registrar General is then responsible for authorising the re-registration of the birth to include the name of the deceased father, under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. This process should not be lengthy or expensive, but unfortunately that does not appear to have been the experience of the hon. Lady’s constituent.
The hon. Lady rightly points out the necessary provision to prevent birth registration from naming someone falsely as a child’s father, because obviously a birth certificate could potentially be used to support a false claim for something such as nationality or the right to inherit property. Consequently, it is really important that a birth certificate generates a high level of confidence in the information that it contains.
However, a key intention of the provisions for family proceedings was to try to make the process simpler, so that people would not need legal representation, which should keep the costs down. The application form for a declaration of parentage explains all the information that is required and contains directions that enable the application to be completed successfully. However, in light of the experiences I have heard about today, I am very happy to look at the information available to people registering births and to consult with the General Register Office to see whether this process needs to be improved to make the position clearer for applicants, especially those unfortunate enough to have experienced the death of a partner shortly before the birth of a child.
In addition, I know that one of my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office is already looking at the registration process for marriage and I am more than happy to have a conversation with him to request that the registration of births is also covered. I will particularly ask that international examples are looked at to see whether they can be taken into consideration.
I thank the Minister for her comments. Nobody is suggesting that we do not need a robust process for registering births. However, what troubles me particularly in this instance is the difference between a registrar taking on that role and seeking a court intervention. She and I may differ on whether the cost of the court fees is excessive, but the principle that the court has to be involved at all is the challenge, especially when we allow registrars to amend a birth certificate. It is registering a name in the first place that is the challenge when the father is deceased and the parents are not married.
Will the Minister commit to examining why we presume a registrar can exercise their professional judgment to amend a registration when perhaps even married people might not have given the whole truth at the point of registering a birth, but, when it comes to adding the name of a person who cannot be there for a very reasonable reason—because they have passed away—we deny the registrar’s professional expertise? The simple resolution would be to extend the use of that professional expertise to both instances, rather than saying that only the courts can add a name, but that a registrar can amend a name.
Yes, as I have said, I will consider that, and also discuss it with my counterpart in the Home Office, who is already considering registrations of marriages, to see whether that scrutiny can be extended to registration of births as well, particularly in cases of this kind. I would like, in conclusion, to express my sympathy to Joana, who had such a terrible experience following the loss of her partner, and to her daughters, on the loss of their dad.
For clarity, may we have a timetable for the scrutiny of marriage licences, and for consideration of extending the registrars’ powers to add a name? Now that we have opened up the matter in debate, we know that several families are in the same position, and they would welcome clarity about when they will get answers.
Yes, that consideration is happening in the Home Office. As the hon. Lady will know, I am a Minister in the Ministry of Justice so I do not know the timetable, but I am more than happy to get back to her with that information as soon as I have it.
Question put and agreed to.
Hong Kong: Sino-British Joint Declaration
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Hong Kong and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Today is exactly the right moment for the House to consider this important issue. The debate is prompted by the most recent six-monthly report from the Foreign Office on Hong Kong, the 38th in a series of reports written every six months on the implementation of the 1984 joint declaration. One thing that I have been proud to introduce to the House since I became chairman of the all-party group on China is the fact that our group debates the reports and brings them to the House for debate, so that they are not just written, filed and forgotten. Every six months, members who are interested have the chance to discuss the reports and to express to the people of Hong Kong the objective British view on the maintenance of the joint declaration.
Today’s debate clashes, alas, with a number of other events in the House, as is often the way, and a large number of Members who said that they wanted to come and participate have unfortunately been unable to do so. However, I would not want anyone watching or listening to the debate, or reading the Hansard record later, to be confused by that and to think that there is little interest in the joint declaration or in the present and future of Hong Kong. It is a territory of huge significance to us and to China—and most importantly, of course, to its residents. It is therefore right that we should go through the exercise of reviewing what has happened, what changes there have been and whether they are broadly positive or negative.
The latest six-monthly report, which came out on 11 February, is, as so often with Foreign Office documents, a model of precision. It covers a wide range of subjects and is often as interesting for what it does not say as what it does say. I want to highlight first the overall themes of the report, secondly the areas of concern that it highlights, and thirdly the wider issue of the rule of law. The report deals with that final point in some detail, and it is what we should concern ourselves with today.
First, I want to talk about the overall tone of the report. It concludes that during the second half of 2015, the programme of one country, two systems, which the joint declaration committed itself to,
“has, in very many areas, continued to function well”,
but that there are specific grounds for serious concern, which
“revolve…around the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Joint Declaration, including academic freedom and the freedom of the press.”
The overall theme that the constitutional arrangement of one country, two systems has served Hong Kong well is repeated in the Foreign Secretary’s foreword to the report. He says that the constitutional arrangement continued to function well during the reporting period, but that there are areas of concern where we should reinforce the responsibilities on both our countries set out in the joint declaration. I will come back to the Foreign Secretary’s specific remarks on the case of Lee Po, a British citizen.
At this stage, I simply highlight the comments with which the Foreign Secretary finishes the foreword, which relate to the wider constitutional issue. He observes:
“The UK Government judges that constitutional reform will help, not hinder, the Hong Kong SAR Government…A more democratic and accountable system of government would help strengthen those rights and freedoms which have come under increasing pressure over the past two years…We encourage all parties to play their part in rebuilding constructive dialogue”.
That has to be right, because it is in our interests and those of China, Hong Kong and the wider world that Hong Kong continues to thrive and be the success that it has been in the almost 20 years since handover in 1997.
I come on to the areas of concern that have been highlighted during and since the second half of last year. I will first focus on the broader attitude to the rule of law and the separation of powers. I note from the report that on 12 September, the Central Government Liaison Office director, Zhang Xiaoming, argued in a speech
“that the existence of the executive, legislature and judiciary did not mean the separation of powers could be applied to Hong Kong in its entirety…he described the Chief Executive’s special legal position as ‘transcending’ the executive, legislature and judiciary.”
That statement is incompatible with the fundamental freedoms guaranteed under the one country, two systems philosophy that underpins the joint declaration. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that speech by Zhang Xiaoming, which in many ways appeared to suggest that the Chief Executive can control the executive, legislature and judiciary with overweening powers.
The Chinese response to the six-monthly report again accused Her Majesty’s Government of interfering in Hong Kong affairs. That has always been a difficult and sensitive area, and we have to address it with a sensitivity that recognises that the sovereignty of Hong Kong lies entirely with the People’s Republic of China. As the Government have been accused of interfering in Hong Kong affairs, I think it is worth recapping the importance of British interest in Hong Kong. That is partly a commercial interest, as has often been noted, with more than 630 UK companies based in Hong Kong and UK investment there conservatively valued at about £35 billion, which makes up just over a third of the total UK investment in Asia.
However, our interest in Hong Kong is not simply the interest of a mercantile nation. It stretches much wider, starting with the human involvement—the fact that 3.7 million British passport holders live in Hong Kong—and continuing with the strong education links. The UK was the top overseas English-speaking study destination for Hong Kong higher education students in 2014-15, the last date for which we have complete data, and that has been the case for a long time.
British companies based in Hong Kong are not there simply to do business with Hong Kong itself, although that is often important. They often have headquarters in Hong Kong but use it as a gateway into China. Some 126 UK companies have regional headquarters and 220 have regional offices there. It has been a frustration of mine for many years that it is impossible to quantify accurately British trade with and investment in China, precisely because so much of it is routed through Hong Kong and therefore appears in the trade statistics as being of Hong Kong origin. The total two-way goods trade between the UK and mainland China, routed through Hong Kong, as far as we can estimate it, was valued at just over £5 billion at the last count in 2014-15.
Our stake in Hong Kong is wide. It starts with a very large number of British citizens—British passport holders and British overseas passport holders. It continues through education and an important trading and business relationship, which is important not just to us and to Hong Kong, but to China. The success of the British business relationship in Hong Kong underpins the fact that the freedoms established through the joint declaration are still there. They are succeeding, and they provide the core of the reasons why British firms enjoy doing business with Hong Kong. Were that ever to be damaged, it would not only be British trade and investment that would suffer from the change in Hong Kong’s reputation; investment and trade with a wide range of other countries, which underpins Hong Kong’s success, would also suffer. That investment and trade is critical to China as proof of the success of the joint declaration and the handover of Hong Kong, and of the fact that one country, two systems can thrive and offers precedents for its diplomacy in other parts of the world.
On the accusation of interference in Hong Kong affairs, I suggest that the rule of law—the absolute conviction that the judiciary in Hong Kong is independent, will make independent decisions and will not favour businesses of one type over others, other than through the process of a legal case—is absolutely essential to the success of Hong Kong and, ultimately, to the success of China itself. I hope the Minister will comment on that. It is therefore no surprise that when President Xi Jinping ascended to the chairmanship of the Chinese Communist party, his opening speech highlighted both the challenge of the dangers of corruption, and the opportunity to strengthen the rule of law in China. He said that he was committed to that, and that it was at the heart of his mission in the leadership of that great country.
It would be curious to hold this debate and discuss the six-monthly report on Hong Kong without making reference to what the Foreign Secretary described as
“a serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration”,
“undermines the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ which assures Hong Kong residents of the protection of the Hong Kong legal system.”
I refer, of course, to the unexplained disappearance of five individuals associated with a Hong Kong bookstore and, in particular, the disappearance of Mr Lee Po from Hong Kong to mainland China.
None of us in this House has access to the true facts behind that curious situation, other than what we have read in the newspapers, what the Foreign Secretary said in a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister and the subsequent statements from the Foreign Office and the Chinese Government. An interview with Mr Lee Po, of which I have seen a translation, was shown on Chinese television. It suggests that he no longer wishes to be a British citizen and has renounced his citizenship—although clearly not in accordance with the rules for doing so.
Today is an opportunity for the Minister to brief the House on the latest situation and on whether he believes that the disappearance of Mr Lee Po, who has now reappeared in Guangdong, constitutes a serious breach of the joint declaration. What reaction has there been in discussions between the Foreign Secretary and the Chinese ambassador, my friend Mr Liu Xiaoming, here in London, and in other meetings in China and Hong Kong? Will he clarify the situation and explain how it will be resolved? Ultimately, it is about whether the freedoms that have been guaranteed are for real, and about the perception of whether China is adhering to those freedoms in Hong Kong. It is about whether this is a one-off incident that will not recur or the beginning of a seriously disturbing trend.
The most poignant thing, in a way, is how the people of Hong Kong have reacted to that issue. I received an email only an hour or so ago from a young resident of London who is a student here but is from Hong Kong. She expressed her own particular concerns. The long and the short of her email is that she has serious concerns about the future of Hong Kong and feels that the freedoms guaranteed under the joint declaration are being eroded. She wrote:
“As a Hong Kong citizen, I am concerned about the future of Hong Kong. And maybe you have heard…that the freedom and democracy in Hong Kong is deteriorating under the rule of Chinese government.”
She says that personally, she thinks that China
“have been violating the Joint Declaration and never kept their promises.”
That expression of concern is by no means unusual. There have been other letters and emails from Hong Kong citizens, resident either here in London or in Hong Kong itself. They are the future of Hong Kong. It is the young people who, with their energies, resources and commitment, will determine whether Hong Kong continues to thrive as one of the greatest examples in the modern world of a free marketplace enjoying growth and opportunity for all of its people, or whether their concerns will lead to a rather different situation—a sad, continual decline in Hong Kong’s importance. None of us wants to see that.
I am conscious that at least a couple of other Members wish to speak, so I will move on from the individual case of Mr Lee Po and touch briefly on the wider issue of the rule of law.
The rule of law in China, one of the two main driving points of Mr Xi Jinping’s leadership, has now been raised in other contexts as well as that of Hong Kong. I refer in particular to issues in the South China sea, where last October an arbitral tribunal under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea ruled that it had jurisdiction to consider the Philippines’ claim in its maritime dispute with China. I believe there will be a ruling from the tribunal soon; the Minister might want to comment on that. If there is, the reactions of all those involved will be important. Whatever the decision is, we will get a clear idea of the reactions of the Philippines, China and the United Kingdom. That will be a symbolic signpost of whether China is going to take forward the rule of law not just in the People’s Republic itself, but in a wider context and in how she engages with the world at large. China is one of the great nations of our time; of that there can be no doubt. Her aspirations and ambitions are considerable, and many of them are hugely positive things that can lead to the development of better standards of living in parts of the world, as she has enjoyed herself through the reforms of the past 35 years.
However, there are also dangers in China’s ambitions, particularly in the South China sea, where there is a risk of rising tensions over rival claims. China and other nations are strengthening their military capabilities and increasingly having clashes that could spiral out of control. We have seen another of those clashes in the past few days, this time on the edge of Borneo, or Kalimantan, involving the Indonesian Government. I believe the Indonesian Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries intends to launch a legal case against China. From Britain’s point of view, the escalation of such disagreements and China’s recent large-scale reclamation activity—it has even sited missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels—pose a serious risk of escalations that could cause greater problems. The United Kingdom would not wish to see that at all.
Will the Minister comment on the rule of law outside China’s own sovereignty and on her relationships with other nations in the South China sea? Will he also comment on how we in Britain—particularly the Government—can play a constructive role in helping with the peaceful settlement of all claims in line with international law? “In line with international law” is the part that matters.
The Minister commented recently that how China responds will be seen as a signal of its commitment to the rules-based international system. My friends in the Chinese embassy and the Chinese Government will not necessarily welcome this, but I believe that over the next five, 10, 20 years, the way in which China engages with the world, and whether it adopts rules-based international law as the starting point for its engagement with the wider world and its commercial and cultural advantages, will be the measure by which the world judges its advancement into being one of the handful of greatest nations.
In summary, today we have reviewed the most recent six-monthly report on Hong Kong, which confirms that in many ways the joint declaration continues, and that many, if not most, of the freedoms set out in it are in good shape and are being endorsed and carried out by all parties. There are, however, serious concerns to do with the rule of law, brought alive most vividly by the possible abduction of a British citizen from Hong Kong to China. The exercise of the rule of law in a wider, international context may indicate further problems with China’s adherence to a rules-based system. The House is absolutely entitled to discuss that, not least because of this country’s significant investment in and commitment to the future of Hong Kong.
China is our friend; we are in a partnership with it in a large number of fields. I am proud to be the chairman of such a large all-party group on China, with almost 400 members—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. You are correct, I was still on my feet, but I was moving swiftly to the climax of my contribution.
I was highlighting the huge steps that the People’s Republic of China has made in so many ways. Today, its partnership with us extends across a wide variety of sectors, areas and countries throughout the world. One example of a field in which China’s advances are important, particularly to British business, is intellectual property rights, which are now better protected in China than in many other countries in the world, not least because it has an interest in intellectual property rights for its own significant intellectual property.
We all want to be reassured that, as China engages in a partnership with us that extends into areas previously considered sensitive by many countries—for instance, nuclear power—the rule of law, sticking to agreements and standing by what has been signed and agreed to will be a cornerstone of the People’s Republic now and in future. I hope that the Minister will touch on that reassurance, and that he will address the concerns about a specific breach of the joint declaration—the first, let it be said, since the handover in 1997—and about China’s engagement with the rule of law as it applies internationally.
I am grateful for your forbearance, Mr Hollobone. I hope that Members from other parties will express their views on the latest Foreign Office report and on the importance of keeping to the freedoms and rights established under the one country, two systems philosophy, and that the Minister will shed light on his latest understanding of events.
The debate can now run to 6.14 pm. The recommended Front-Bencher speaking limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Those are recommendations. In addition, one prominent Back Bencher has caught my eye—I call Jim Shannon.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to be able to speak on this issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on setting a good scene and one that I agree with—I suspect that we will have consensus.
I was just saying to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), that it is Groundhog Day this afternoon, with almost the same players—perhaps fewer in number—and the Minister in his place as well. I do not say this lightly, but the Minister was most responsive in the Burma debate this morning. I appreciated his comments; I think we all did. The shadow Minister, too, made a valuable contribution to that debate. It was good to have consensus.
Here we are now, all back to look at a different subject, and one that is close to my heart. Why is it close to my heart? Some of my constituents came to stay in Northern Ireland from Hong Kong. They did not go home again, but have contacts through relatives and families and business connections even today, so I thought I should make a contribution. I was not sure whether I could fit in with the timing, but we have made sure that I could do so.
Although Hong Kong was handed over almost two decades ago, tensions and Chinese intrusion remain rife. The hon. Member for Gloucester outlined that and I think other Members will do the same. The issue is more about finding solutions, co-operating better, having a better understanding of each other and how to move forward before 2047. Despite the handover, there will always be a paternal connection between us here in the home nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the citizens of Hong Kong and the British expats who are living out there, some of whom we know and some of whom we have direct contact with.
We have a tremendous sense of shared history and a shared way of life. In many ways, the Britishness we have here is still apparent in Hong Kong. Those characteristics and personality traits are real. We have a remarkably similar system and our aspiration and drive have helped Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, in stark contrast with the socialist system in the People’s Republic of China. The issue is how we retain that for the next number of years and how we make sure that Hong Kong can develop as we want it to develop, with our relationship remaining the same, and China understanding the line in the sand that it cannot go over.
The Sino-British joint declaration paved the way for Hong Kong’s bid to be recognised as a sovereign entity by the United Nations in 2047 as part of the unchanged status for five decades from 1997. That was agreed to by all parties and it is worrying to see continuous Chinese intrusion into Hong Kong’s affairs and the consequent tensions and unease.
Over the years, we in Northern Ireland have built up strong relations with the People’s Republic of China. We see things that we can work together on. That is how it should be. We have business contacts, economic contacts, educational contacts and student exchanges. Other Members will probably confirm that that is happening in other UK regions, but in Northern Ireland our Minister and the Department of Enterprise, Training and Investment have strengthened those relations and we want that to continue.
Hong Kong was supposed to have a democratic Government and an independent constitution, but instead we have seen mass protests and, in response to that, disturbingly expansive infringements of civil liberties. Last year, as part of the all-party armed forces group, I attended the Royal College of Defence Studies. The people there were in their third and final year of the course. A Hong Kong police chief was involved and he told me—it was a year ago, of course—that there were 3,000-plus protests on the streets of Hong Kong every year and that they were always peaceful. I wish we could say that the last years have been peaceful, but they have not been. There have been clear infringements of civil liberties. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Gloucester referred to the bookkeeper and shop owner who was arrested and we must be mindful of the breach of his civil liberties, his rights and his physical liberty, which China has ignored.
The protests had some undesirable elements, as every mass protest does, but the protestors must be commended because for a movement with such numbers and such spread the discipline was fantastic and the resulting pressure on Beijing can only be a good thing. We have had perhaps more than our share of protests on the streets in Northern Ireland—I sometimes took part—and they had the potential to get out of control, but the protests in Hong Kong have only been good.
Suspicion is the key feeling among those in Hong Kong. The Sino-British joint declaration paved the way for Hong Kong to be recognised as a sovereign entity, but instead, we see over-coercive tactics employed by Hong Kong’s law enforcement officials, while the Chinese mainland authorities pull the puppet strings. We have to express some concern at that and ask China to draw back and keep to the law on the Sino-British joint declaration.
Publishers disappearing is not my idea of advancement; it never can be. In relative terms, there are far greater sins in the world, but that is not what we signed up for or agreed to. We, the British, are pulling our weight when it comes to the future of Hong Kong. The Minister, I am sure, will confirm that. It is time for Beijing to get a reality check and realise that the resolve and determination of the Hong Kong people is one that it cannot beat or break.
In 1993, China’s chief negotiator on Hong Kong, Lu Ping, had the following to say:
“The method of universal suffrage should be reported to China’s Parliament for the record, whereas the central government’s agreement is not necessary. How Hong Kong develops its democracy is completely within the sphere of the autonomy of Hong Kong. The central government will not interfere.”
Those are the words he used in 1993, but here we are in 2016. Given the experiences in 2015, things are not exactly as he envisaged. Indeed, they have changed.
What has changed? We are 20 years into the declaration’s 50-year period. Surely Beijing should be moving forward and away from its shameful authoritarian past, not moving backward and seeking to impose its undemocratic and oppressive regime upon what is clearly an independent and notably different people. Let us recognise, as I am sure we will, the independence of the people of Hong Kong, their characteristics, their personalities and their culture.
Under the Chinese Government’s one China, two systems principle, Hong Kong and Macau should continue to possess their own Governments, multi-party legislatures, legal systems, police forces, monetary systems, customs territory, immigration policies, national sports teams, official languages, postal systems and academic and educational systems. They should have all those things, but do they? Is China adhering to the law on that?
To conclude, China is committed in law to affording at least this 50-year period of autonomy to Hong Kong, but I believe that it is reneging on some of its commitments. We need to pressure China at home and abroad to give the Hong Kong people the dignity of self-determination. It is our duty in this House to speak out for those who need help, as the hon. Gentleman said, as other Members will say in this House and as the shadow Minister will say. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As I rise, I see on the green screens that the House is moving to Third Reading of the Scotland Bill; much as that tempts me to reflect upon the end of empire and last remaining colonial outposts, I shall contain the contents of my speech to the UK’s relationship with Hong Kong. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate and recognise his deep and long-standing commitment to this issue. He has considerably greater experience than me, and I will not speak with anything like the authority he has today.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said we are having a bit of a re-run of the cast of characters who were here this morning for the Burma debate. Front-Bench Members and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman and the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary will have heard me reflect on how I grew up hearing about the struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and the fate of Hong Kong being a very live issue throughout the early days of my life. I do not quite remember the agreement itself being signed, but I definitely remember the deadline coming into force. It seemed like an incredibly long period in the future—some dim, far-off time in 1997—but of course more time has passed since then than between the declaration being signed and the handover taking place. It was remarkable that that agreement was made and the handover was secured with a reasonable and peaceful transition. Now a system for monitoring the success of that agreement exists in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s regular reports.
I want to touch briefly on three key themes: the importance of co-operation and mutual respect between the two parties to the declaration; the grounds on which engagement ought to take place, which are particularly with respect to human rights and the rule of law; and the message we want to put across when we are engaging, which is that human rights and equality in society are a fundamental part of achieving greater equality and economic growth, particularly in China. The ongoing commitment to work together to achieve the principles of the Sino-British declaration in a way that benefits all parties is vital and the scrutiny process is important in that.
We have heard a lot about the report’s detail, which is important to recognise, particularly when looking at the continuing progress made towards universal suffrage, but we must recognise that there is always more to do. I echo the concerns expressed about the disappearance of the individuals associated with the book store and in particular the situation that faces Mr Lee Po. Like the other Members, I hope we will hear an update from the Minister.
One of the guiding principles for engagement with China has to be around human rights and the rule of law. Last year, the First Minister of Scotland visited China and emphasised that upholding and respecting human rights in conjunction with economic growth is a twin track towards empowering people and lifting them out of poverty. Undoubtedly our countries can learn a lot from each other. We know that China is a key exporter that contributes more than £100 million a year to the Scottish economy through tourism, but economic growth and equality must be two sides of the same coin, so I stress the importance of people working together to tackle poverty and further the cause of women’s rights and equality in particular as well as human rights more broadly.
When the First Minister visited China, she made a point of raising human rights and stressing equality. I hope the UK Government will be prepared to follow that lead. Questions have been asked about whether the opportunities when the Chancellor visited China in September and when the Chinese President met with the Prime Minister here in October were fully utilised to stress the human rights agenda and the actions we discussed today. The situation in Hong Kong is a key manifestation of that. Many such concerns have been expressed by the Foreign Affairs Committee over the years, particularly when the hon. Member for Gloucester has been involved. I hope that the UK Government will continue to stress their commitment to human rights and work for the promotion of democracy in Hong Kong and across the whole of China.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. Indeed, I recognise his record of being critical of China as regards Hong Kong and his recent intervention in the House on the case of Mr Lee Po, shortly after his disappearance.
When we balance the relationship with China, our great partner, we must recognise the importance of putting on record what we hold dear about human rights, equality and freedom. That is not always easy, but it is important to uphold. I am sure that hon. Members recognise the continued importance of Hong Kong to the UK. Our shared history, the development of economic ties and the fact that more than 3 million British citizens are currently resident in Hong Kong mean that the UK will continue to have a very special relationship with this special administrative region. With more than 600 UK businesses registered there, an export market worth £8.6 billion and a UK investment stake of more than £33 billion, the signs are clear that trade is healthy.
I will focus on two specific areas, both relating to the key issue of stability. The one country, two systems framework is crucial in underpinning confidence in Hong Kong—in the place of Hong Kong, which we all love. We all want reassurance that there is a robust and structured judicial framework and that the rule of law is upheld. The hon. Member for Gloucester is right to describe the importance of the rule of law as defined by the independence of the judiciary. He is also right to praise China for its robust approach to addressing corruption in the wider piece—not just in Hong Kong but in the wider country—and the zealousness with which corruption is being addressed demonstrates that there is an ability to uphold the rule of law where necessary. The rule of law can therefore be upheld in Hong Kong; it just takes political will to make that happen.
The joint declaration is crucial in upholding understanding and confidence in Hong Kong. We all know that many perceive Hong Kong as the gateway to the broader Chinese market and to China culturally, and it is perceived as a place where corporate structures can grow within a familiar system. The dynamic in Hong Kong and the Legislative Council is changing, and we have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that there is a sense that whereas protest was peaceful several years ago, in the past few years it has started to become less peaceful. There is more use of police and certain tactics that are not welcome in controlling crowds, which is the sort of tone that needs to be underlined in this debate.
Equally, what we are seeing happen at constitutional level and in debates in the Legislative Council—the filibustering, the discussions, the lack of harmony—are all things that, in a sense, change the temperature in Hong Kong. They are the sorts of things that, as a partner of Hong Kong, we need to underline and draw to China’s attention. I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of the current situation in Hong Kong on constitutional reform, on the peacefulness or non-peacefulness of demonstrations and on how young people feel. The hon. Member for Gloucester was right to read out an email from a young person, and I have been approached both by British-born Chinese and by Hong Kong students who are studying here. They are concerned about their future in Hong Kong, and they want to enjoy in Hong Kong the kinds of freedoms that we enjoy here.
Upholding the one country, two systems principle goes beyond ensuring commercial interests. Members are right to mention the debate we had this morning, in which I talked about our triangle of aims in foreign affairs. The triangle has three parts: first, economy and trade; secondly, security—I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the South China sea issue, because we do not speak about that as much as perhaps our partners would like—and thirdly, human rights. We cannot just have to ourselves the freedoms and rights that we enjoy here; we must hold them up abroad, too.
Upholding the one country, two systems principle goes beyond just ensuring commercial interests; it is about that triangular approach. I think particularly of our great collaborations on the rule of law. We share best practice in our legal teams with Hong Kong, and so on. The hon. Gentleman mentioned IP, but there are a number of other areas where there is so much to be shared, enjoyed and built on, and I worry that the human rights side could be slightly staining what our other excellent endeavours might achieve. We must ensure that we bring human rights and cases such as that of Lee Po to the fore so that we can all move at the same pace on the three elements of my triangle.
The hon. Lady is making a number of good points, as one would expect from someone who has been engaged on this issue for a long time. Does she agree that it is important that we offer constrictive criticism as friends in a partnership between two nations, and that we highlight what more China can do to win friends and, above all, trust as she goes increasingly global? The idea behind one country, two systems and the 50-year period of the joint declaration was that by the end of that period the systems in Hong Kong and China would be so similar that there would be no need for one country, two systems any longer. Does she think that things are heading in that direction at the moment and that the systems are getting more similar, or is there a risk, in the worst case scenario, of the two systems moving further apart?
Indeed, and that is where we need a balance. In China, they talk a lot about harmony and balance, and that is what we have to do. We must ensure that all our work streams come together at the same time. When we work on legal relations, technological advances, business and education—our wonderful collaboration between universities—we must not forget who we are. We are determined to promote human rights, equality and so on, and so we must bring all of those work streams together, including the important one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—peace. We must maintain peaceful, open dialogue.
To digress slightly—I will be very brief, because I know the Minister wants to get away—[Interruption.] He is so busy. The tone in the all-party China group when Mr Liu was present recently was excellent. We had a very open discussion about best practice on anti-corruption and on a number of work streams to do with local business in various constituencies. We also had a robust discussion about a recent delegation to Hong Kong, and we raised our concerns about Mr Lee Po and other cases, and about the steel situation. I felt that it was a perfect meeting. Members of Parliament were able to discuss openly what we feel, and we had a wonderful conversation and dialogue. From my tiny knowledge of China—I lived there, but one never knows everything—I felt that we made progress in our dialogue. It is important to emphasise that.
In our meetings with China we must continue to be energetic in raising matters such as the cases of Mr Lee Po and Cheung Jiping and not shy from them. We must remember that Mr Po is a British citizen. Information and press freedom are crucial to democracies, so it is important that they are front and centre of our discussions. I will be grateful if the Minister can update Members on what further action he will take to investigate the nature of Mr Po’s recent public communication and whether it was genuine or made under duress.
We all want a stable Hong Kong. I remember stepping off an aeroplane there in 1974 and smelling the tropics and feeling the warmth. All of us who have been there, lived there and love that place want it to be stable. We want freedom, human rights, genuine democracy and all of those wonderful things to be kept going, and we want to maintain those international friendships. We do not want a closed Hong Kong whose young people are unhappy about their future. The joint declaration must be meaningful, and stability must allow economic life to flourish. We must also support freedom of expression, the rule of law and a peaceful future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate and pay, once again, tribute to his valuable work through his chairmanship of the all-party group on China, as well as to his deep personal interest in Hong Kong. I agree with his opening remarks in which he drew attention to all those who are following the debate outside this place. The rather thin attendance in no way reflects the level of continuing interest in Hong Kong, in the UK and in Parliament. It is purely the result of the timing of the debate being shifted, and of other competing demands on Members’ time.
To the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), I would say that this Minister is not at all in a hurry to get off. He is at the disposal of Members, although limited by time. I am anxious only to get on with the debate, to address some of the extremely important and interesting points raised by hon. Members this afternoon.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us, Hong Kong remains of great importance to the United Kingdom. There are more than 295,000 British citizens and 3.4 million British national overseas citizens living in the city. In 2015 approximately 530,000 visitors from the UK went to Hong Kong. Our bilateral trade continues to be one of the foundation stones of our partnership. UK investment in Hong Kong, conservatively valued at £33 billion, makes up about 35% of total British investment in Asia. I was slightly intrigued to hear the comparison that the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) sought to make in a rather roundabout way between Scotland and Hong Kong and England and Hong Kong. I would just point out that I believe the Scottish Government would do well to study the free market approach of the special administrative region in running a very successful financial enterprise. I have no doubt that even the First Minister, in her visit to Hong Kong last year, might have noticed the difference in the comparative financial positions of Scotland and Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is the regional headquarters for 126 British companies and, incidentally, some of the leading ones have a distinguished and strong Scottish heritage. Some 630 British companies operate in the city, reflecting its pivotal role as an international gateway to mainland China and as a global financial centre. Hong Kong also, as has been pointed out, has a key role in our wider bilateral relationship with China, where we are supporting economic growth and the rule of law.
The Government’s relationship with the Hong Kong SAR Government is also strong. I most recently visited Hong Kong in July and discussed a full range of UK-Hong Kong bilateral issues with the Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung, the Financial Secretary John Tsang and the Secretary for Housing and Transport, Anthony Cheung. I also saw legislators and investors, and met Fred Lam, the new chief executive of the airport authority, to explore opportunities for British companies in the third runway expansion of Hong Kong international airport. In October we welcomed CY Leung to London for his first official visit as Chief Executive. Both I and the Foreign Secretary discussed with him the importance of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and of preserving the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Sino-British joint declaration.
The United Kingdom strongly believes that it is those rights and freedoms that underpin Hong Kong’s continuing success. The joint declaration agreed the peaceful return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty under one country, two systems, and was one of the great successes of United Kingdom-China diplomacy. Some 31 years after its signature, our commitment to ensuring the faithful implementation of the joint declaration, and the protection of the rights and freedoms it guarantees, is as strong as ever.
It is in that context that the Government remain so concerned about the disappearance from Hong Kong of British citizen Lee Po and others associated with the Mighty Current publishing house. The Foreign Secretary made it clear on 11 February in his six-monthly report to the House that
“our current information indicates that Mr Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong SAR law.”
That constitutes a serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong. The United Kingdom and 11 other countries signed a US-led statement at the UN Human Rights Council on 10 March that made it clear that the disappearance of the Hong Kong booksellers was
“violation of the high degree of autonomy promised Hong Kong under its Basic Law”.
We have raised the case of Mr Lee with the Chinese and Hong Kong special administrative region Government at the highest level. I raised the case with the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom on 22 January, and I made clear the need for the Chinese authorities to return Mr Lee to Hong Kong immediately. The Foreign Secretary raised the case with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on 5 January and in London on 4 February, and the Prime Minister raised the case with the Chinese ambassador on 8 February.
More recently, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer visited Beijing on 25 and 26 February, he raised the case with the chairman of China’s Politics and Law Commission, Meng Jianzhu. I understand that the delegation from the all-party group on China, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), visited Hong Kong from 25 to 29 January and also raised the case with the Hong Kong special administrative region Government.
As we make clear in the six-monthly report,
“we have called, in our contacts with the Chinese government at the highest level, for Mr Lee's immediate return to Hong Kong. Moreover, we urge the Chinese and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Governments to reassure the people of Hong Kong that law enforcement in the Hong Kong SAR is exclusively the responsibility of the Hong Kong authorities, and that the fundamental rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents will continue to be fully protected, and respected by all, in accordance with the Joint Declaration and Basic Law.”
The debate has been focused on Hong Kong, but if Mr Po is now in China, will the Minister elucidate how the UK Government will use their influence when it is a question of mainland China rather than Hong Kong? There is perhaps more familiarity with how the judicial process works in the latter.
We believe that if Mr Lee Po is to face any kind of trial, that should be in Hong Kong. That is agreed by the SAR as well. I shall continue, but the hon. Lady may want to come back to me if I do not fully answer her question. I raised Mr Lee Po’s case on 16 March at an “Advancing the Rule of Law in China” seminar organised by the Great Britain-China Centre, where I made it clear that
“the rule of law has been fundamental to Hong Kong's continued economic success”.
On the issue of citizenship, I stress that Mr Lee remains a British citizen with the right of abode in the United Kingdom. Despite the formal requests that we continue to make, we have not been granted consular access. Let me be clear that the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments have been left in no doubt as to the importance we attach to this case. We call again for the immediate return of Mr Lee to Hong Kong.
I have rehearsed the high-level contacts and representations we have had with the Government in Beijing, not least those involving the Prime Minister, the ambassador and the Chancellor when he was in Beijing. We have raised the case at every level and will continue to do so until such a time as Mr Lee is returned to Hong Kong.
Several Members mentioned the South China sea. We support the Philippines’ right to peaceful arbitration. I stress that we take no view on the underlying sovereignty issues, although we do believe in a rules-based international system and the freedom and movement, and we do expect all others to abide by whatever ruling comes out of UNCLOSS through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea settlement. We are concerned about the risk that some of the large-scale land reclamation in the South China sea could pose to maritime freedom of navigation and to the area’s stability.
The six-monthly report makes it clear that, while the implementation of one country, two systems has served Hong Kong well in the vast majority of cases, there are specific grounds for serious concern in some other areas, such as academic freedom and the freedom of the press. As the six-monthly report states,
“it is essential for continued confidence in ‘One Country, Two Systems’ both in Hong Kong and internationally, that Hong Kong continues to enjoy, and is seen to enjoy, the high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law and guaranteed in international law by the Joint Declaration.”
I was asked specifically by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester about the comments that Zhang Xiaoming, the head of the Central Government Liaison Office, made in a speech. I welcome the comment by Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma, whom I have met, on judicial independence. He reiterated article 25 of the Basic Law, which states:
“All Hong Kong residents shall be equal before the law.”
At the recent National People’s Congress annual session in Beijing, the Chinese Government reiterated their commitment to one country, two systems, and I welcome that.
Continuing the theme, my hon. Friend also raised the issue of an independent judiciary. Our assessment is that, while there have been specific challenges, on the whole the rule of law continues to function and the judiciary continues to be independent. We are confident in Hong Kong’s legal and judicial system, which has been and will remain an essential foundation for Hong Kong’s success.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green properly raised the issue of constitutional reforms, which we were all involved in, one way or another, in the past year or so. I remind the House that in the last Westminster Hall debate on Hong Kong, which was in October 2014, we discussed that very issue. It remains a crucial issue, both to meet the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong and to ensure effective governance. As the six-monthly report makes clear:
“The UK Government judges that constitutional reform will help, not hinder, the Hong Kong SAR Government to deliver. A more democratic and accountable system of government would help strengthen those rights and freedoms which have come under increasing pressure over the past two years…We encourage all parties to play their part in rebuilding constructive dialogue to pave the way for the resumption of the process at the earliest opportunity.”
The Minister is explaining things well, and I thank him for that. We need to have continual economic contact, but within that, how can we persuade? The shadow Minister said that we do not see much evidence of how we can move the process forward for that British citizen to be returned. I am keen to have the economic contact. The Minister mentioned the airport. It is built with stone from my constituency, from Carryduff—believe it or not, that is what has been used. There are strong economic contacts between Hong Kong and my constituency and the whole of the United Kingdom. We want that to continue, but we want liberty and human rights to be enforced as well.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I never think these issues are binary and that it is either human rights or trade. Through trade, rules and an international rules-based system, human rights very often benefit, too. It is not about putting one of those to one side. We are very strong on human rights, which is why we produce a six-monthly report—it is not universally popular—and will continue to do so under our obligations in the Sino-British joint declaration and, further, under the Basic Law.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the protesters in Hong Kong. As we have said before, it is essential that Hong Kong’s fundamental rights and freedoms, including of assembly and demonstration and as guaranteed by the joint declaration, continue to be respected. Demonstrators should express views peacefully and in accordance with the law. Incidentally, I seem to remember saying that during my enjoyable two years as a Northern Ireland Minister, despite not coming across the hon. Gentleman at any particular demonstration during my time there.
All legal, of course.
The links between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong of course remain strong. Ours is a relationship that is not only based on history but is innovative, forward-looking and dynamic, with excellent prospects for the future. We continue to build on that. In that spirit, the Foreign Secretary hopes to visit Hong Kong in the near future.
Where we identify challenges, such as the case of Mr Lee and the other booksellers, this Government will continue to raise them with the authorities at the highest level in Hong Kong and in Beijing. It is important to address these concerns and thus ensure that the principle of one country, two systems is maintained, together with the sanctity of the rights, freedoms and values that it upholds.
I am once again indebted and grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester for giving me the opportunity to state the Government’s position on this important issue. He is a champion of Sino-British relations. Some may not always agree with the principled stance he takes, but he is absolutely right that, if we are to understand each other better, to learn to respect each other more, and to be partners in international trade and in underpinning the things that matter to us in terms of rights and responsibilities, we need to have these free and frank exchanges. I know that when he speaks he has the best interests of the people of the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and China at heart. So I thank him again for all his continuing work in furthering the relationship, and I am grateful to hon. Members this afternoon for adding to what has been an interesting debate.
You are kind to give me that chance, Mr Hollobone.
I will simply record my thanks to those who have contributed to the debate today, and to those who have given their apologies for being unable to join us but whose voices have been heard, I think, through comments made by those who have contributed. We have reached a high degree of consensus on the importance of the issues discussed and above all on the importance of the rule of law. I thank the Minister for his remarks, perhaps particularly those at the end about the importance of this in our ongoing, wider partnership, which now stretches to many countries.
Mr Hollobone, thank you for chairing what has been an extremely helpful debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Hong Kong and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.