Wednesday 8 June 2016
[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
Human Rights and Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights and the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Gillan.
Last week, BBC parliamentary correspondent Mark D’Arcy remarked that I have emerged as a regular Commons critic of the human rights record of Saudi Arabia. I cannot argue with that assertion, and I have no doubt that in securing this debate I will build upon that reputation.
I am certainly no stranger to Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers, and I put on the record my appreciation to the Middle East Minister, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for having met me privately on a number of occasions to discuss my concerns about specific human rights cases in Saudi Arabia.
I will use the latter part of my speech to discuss the situation in Yemen, but I will focus first on the domestic human rights record in Saudi. Last September, during a debate in this very room, I first spoke of the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a Saudi national. Ali was arrested at the age of 17 back in 2012, during the time of the Arab spring protests. After a trial that has been described as unfair by the United Nations special rapporteur, Christof Heyns, among many others, Ali was sentenced to a barbaric death by beheading and crucifixion. His final appeal, heard in secret and without his knowledge, was dismissed. In the nine months since that debate in Westminster Hall, Ali’s case has significantly risen in prominence, with many other politicians adding their voices to the chorus of international condemnation, and more than 1.5 million people from around the world have signed an online petition calling for Ali’s sentence to be commuted.
The UK Government have also raised Ali’s case, and the similar cases of Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, at the highest possible level with Saudi authorities, receiving assurances that the death sentences will not be carried out. However, those three young men remain in prison. Although they have seemingly been spared from their ultimate fate so far, their sentences have not been lifted and the threat of execution still hangs over them. I will continue to campaign for Ali, Dawood and Abdullah, and I wish to see them released from incarceration so that they can live their lives and build their futures. I commend the work of the organisations, in particular Reprieve, that are campaigning to secure the release of these young men.
I hope that the Minister who is here today will be able to indicate whether those cases have been raised again with Saudi authorities recently. Although it has been asserted on several occasions that the UK Government do not expect the three death sentences to be carried out, can he clarify whether the Government have officially asked the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to commute them?
Does the hon. Lady know whether, once a decision for execution is made, there are a few days, a few hours or a few weeks before it is carried out? Or do we just not know, and therefore the big problem might be that executions are carried out secretly before we even know that they have happened?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I believe that we do not know. I say that because at the beginning of this year 47 people were executed, and we did not know about those executions until after they had happened. I will talk more about those people later in my speech. I believe that the UK Government do not really have much clout when it comes to stopping death sentences being carried out.
Sadly, the cases I have mentioned are not isolated. There are countless similar cases, and each one points to a corrupt justice system that is being used as a tool for political oppression. Since the Arab spring, Saudi authorities have been purposely targeting civil rights activists and human rights defenders.
Issa al-Hamid, a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, has been sentenced to nine years in prison by the specialised criminal court in Riyadh. The charges against Issa relate to statements published online on a range of civil and human rights issues, such as the right to peaceful assembly. Freedom of speech is easily taken for granted in the United Kingdom, but it has not been afforded to Issa, nor to Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, another member of the association. The charges against Abdulaziz include communicating with foreign organisations, due to his passing information to Amnesty International for use in its reports. He now faces eight years in prison, and after his release he also faces an eight-year travel ban and will be forbidden from using social media. Clearly, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association is being targeted, as the Saudi authorities are determined to crush this movement.
All those things are being done to suppress any criticism of Saudi’s atrocious human rights record. I hope that the Minister will be able to inform me today of whether the Foreign Office has raised with the Saudi authorities the issue of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, and the apparent targeting and imprisonment of its members.
Similarly, the website known as “Free Saudi Liberals” has felt the wrath of the Saudi regime. The man behind the website, Raif Badawi, received 50 lashes in public, purely for exercising free speech. He still languishes in a prison cell, awaiting the remainder of his sentence, which is another 950 lashes. International outcry has so far led to Raif being spared that ordeal, which he would be unlikely to survive and which still looms large over him.
Raif’s punishment has been described as a “gratuitous, violent sentence” by the international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the UN’s Human Rights Council. Fearing for the safety of herself and her family, Raif’s wife Ensaf escaped to Canada with their three children, where she speaks out against the wide-scale oppression in her home country.
Ensaf’s voice is part of a growing international chorus that is extremely concerned at what is seemingly a worsening situation in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has executed almost 100 people this year alone, 47 of them on the same day at the start of the year. One of those 47 people was the uncle of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a well-known Muslim cleric. Last year, the equivalent of one person every two days was executed in Saudi. Sadly, that number seems likely to be surpassed this year. Saudi’s record is ruthlessly regressive.
The UK Government have stressed that, despite not renewing their strategy for the global abolition of the death penalty during this Parliament, there is no change in policy and they continue to work towards its global abolition. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me today when the UK last raised concerns with Saudi Arabia about the number of executions being carried out in the country, and at what level those concerns were raised. Also, in light of the escalation in the number of executions in Saudi and in other countries, do the Government intend to look again at their decision and produce a renewed strategy for the abolition of the death penalty? It is only right that we use our supposed position of influence to lobby Saudi towards having more responsible domestic policy.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful and cogent case. May I tell her, as somebody who has campaigned all over the world against the use of the death penalty, that statements by this country actually mean a tremendous amount, both to those who are campaigning on the ground for the abolition of the death penalty and to the countries that still have the death penalty? Those countries will see any shift by this country away from a strong position on abolition as a move in their direction.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his knowledge on the matter.
We should also take a tougher stance on Saudi’s foreign policy. As one of Saudi Arabia’s major trading partners—we sell billions of pounds of weapons to Saudi each year—the UK should be bolder in its approach.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Is she as concerned as I am about the recent report by the United Nations called “Children and Armed Conflict”, which set out the escalating position in Yemen, including the increasing number of casualties among children, for which responsibility is ascribed to the Saudi-led regime? Is that not something that our Government need to take extremely seriously?
Is the hon. Lady aware of the inquiry into the Yemen conflict by the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which have heard evidence from non-governmental organisations, the defence industry and Government? The report will be published before the summer recess. As she clearly states, there are serious concerns about violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Does she agree that the UK has international and domestic obligations on arms export controls and that we have to hold ourselves to the highest standards?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention and for his experience from the Committees. These things are important for the UK, and that is why we are here today. We should be an example to the rest of the world, and I would like to think that the Minister will take that on board.
I am sorry, but I would like to make some progress.
The Minister will no doubt contest that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is crucial in securing global and domestic security and that the intelligence we receive has helped to foil terror attacks. We cannot, however, continue to trade off our responsibilities like that. With a growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and mounting reports indicating that international humanitarian law has been seriously and repeatedly breached by all parties engaged in warfare in the country—including the Saudi-led coalition—the Government need to get their head out of the sand.
Yesterday morning, I attended a briefing kindly delivered by Amnesty International and heard both first and second-hand accounts of the use of cluster munitions in Yemen. Amnesty went on a fact-finding mission to Yemen last month and found evidence of UK-produced BL755 cluster munitions being dropped on farmland in the north of the country. It estimates that the munitions were dropped from the air in the last quarter of 2015 and provides a compelling case to back up that assertion. The Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre moved in to clear the cluster bombs from the farmland, but could not guarantee that it had been able to locate and remove all munitions. The de facto minefield means that the land is now unworkable, and the people who rely on working it have lost their means of providing.
YEMAC is not properly resourced to deal adequately with the problem. Rather than bombs being detonated in situ, they are being transported to a central facility in buckets of sand on trucks traversing uneven roads. Sadly, YEMAC recently lost three workers when a bomb exploded while being transported. The work that it carries out is crucial in helping to prevent deaths and injuries caused by munitions that are lying in wait in dangerous unexploded states. People will recall the fantastic work of Princess Diana in raising awareness of mines, leading to the success of the Ottawa mine ban treaty. Putting herself in danger in the process, she left behind a lasting legacy through her bold activism. If she were still here today, I have no doubt she would be a fierce advocate for the civilians suffering in the growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
In stark contrast, the UK goes to great lengths to ensure that the arms trade with Saudi Arabia continues unhampered. Back in 2014, when the Prime Minister could not convince the Saudis to agree to the financing for a multibillion-pound defence deal, Prince Charles was dispatched to the middle east to a festival supported by BAE Systems to perform a sword dance in traditional Saudi attire. The next day, Saudi Arabia and BAE announced that the deal had been finalised. Great effort is put into maintaining our relationship and arms trade with Saudi Arabia.
Less effort seems to be going into supporting such organisations as YEMAC. The training for its workers is outdated—most dates back to 1998. It does not have the means to carry out controlled explosions in situ. Its workers lack proper personal safety equipment and are routinely being put in greater danger than they should be. Perhaps the Minister would care to address that. Has the UK offered to supply any funding, equipment or training to YEMAC? If so, has it been delivered? If not, will an undertaking be made to look at that urgently, taking the matter forward as appropriate with colleagues in the Department for International Development?
The use of cluster munitions in Yemen is scandalous. The country already faces an almost incomprehensible humanitarian crisis. The country has the greatest level of humanitarian need in the world, with 80% of the population in need of assistance.
Yes, the issue is tied up with the fact that the Government do not want to take that many refugees. With a country such as Yemen, where there is a humanitarian crisis, it would certainly be to the benefit of the people and those suffering children to be brought into our country, away from ever more danger.
The creation of de facto minefields through the dropping of cluster bombs will only deepen the crisis. Yesterday, I joined Amnesty International and Members from all main parties to deliver a petition to 10 Downing Street. Thousands signed the petition, which calls for action on the use of cluster munitions in Yemen. Other Members will no doubt have received many lobbying emails from constituents on this matter, as I have—the public care greatly about this issue.
Just a fortnight ago in the main Chamber, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise responded to a topical question from the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). On the record, she stated that there is not yet evidence that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions. She added that the Government believe they have an assurance from Saudi Arabia that cluster munitions have not been used in the conflict, and that the Ministry of Defence was urgently investigating the allegations. Given the urgency of the matter, is the Minister in a position to give an update on the status of the MOD investigation? When is it expected to be completed, and will the findings be disclosed to Members?
Amnesty International has released photographs of the cluster munitions they claim to be of UK origin. In some of the photographs, serial numbers are visible on the bombs. Will the tracing of the transfer history of the bombs, based on the serial numbers, form part of any investigation? Why exactly are the UK Government so willing to accept assurances from Saudi Arabia without question? What specific evidence has Saudi Arabia provided to the UK or the international community to back up the veracity of the denials? What evidence is there that Saudi authorities are investigating breaches in international humanitarian law in Yemen?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. It is certainly timely. Is she aware of the outcome of the inquiry by the International Development Committee, which suggested that an independent investigation should be undertaken, rather than Saudi Arabia investigating itself?
Yes, it seems crazy for a country to investigate itself. An independent organisation should come in to investigate all those tied up in violations of this sort.
Have any of the UK ground personnel based in Saudi Arabia witnessed the transfer or loading of cluster bombs? Are any of them in possession of intelligence indicating that cluster munitions have been deployed by Saudi in Yemen? The United States has subsequently halted its cluster bomb deliveries to Saudi Arabia in light of those reports. Commenting on that freeze in trade, a senior US official cited reports that
“the Saudi-led coalition used cluster munitions in the armed conflict in Yemen…in areas in which civilians are alleged to have been present”,
as reason for that action.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful point. Does she agree that the failure to hold to account is leading to an “anything goes” attitude? The people who are really suffering are innocent civilians, many of whom are women and children.
I would like to make some progress.
A report from the UN panel of experts on Yemen published in January notes on page 37 that the military spokesman of Saudi Arabia, Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, has indicated that Saudi has used cluster munitions on or against armoured vehicles in Yemen. In light of the position taken by the US and the overt admission contained in the UN report, has the UK updated its policy of denial about the Saudi use of cluster bombs? Will the Government put pressure on the coalition to release details, including GPS data, of air strikes involving cluster munitions? The data would be invaluable to organisations such as YEMAC and would allow for the creation of cluster bomb minefield heat maps that could be used to prioritise and deliver a de-mining process.
Furthermore, what information do the Government hold in relation to the stockpiling of cluster munitions? Is there an understanding of what is currently held by other countries that have not yet ratified the convention on cluster munitions? What efforts are being made by the Government to encourage Saudi and other non-signatories to become parties to the convention?
I have mentioned the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and before I finish I would like to expand further.
No, I am sorry. I would like to make some progress and lots of Members want to take part in the debate today. I am sure they will give way to other Members.
I have mentioned the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. As I said, before I finish I want to expand further. Action on Armed Violence, a leading charity that charts the impact of explosive violence on civilians, estimates that 82% of those killed or injured by coalition air strikes in Yemen were civilians. A recent UN Security Council report on children and armed conflict documents a verified sixfold increase in the number of children killed and maimed in 2015 compared with the previous year, 60% of which are attributable to the Saudi-led coalition. The same report documents three verified incidents of coalition forces denying humanitarian access.
Save the Children, the largest international non-governmental organisation operating in Yemen, has issued grave concerns about the lack of an adequate Government response to credible allegations of international humanitarian and human rights law violations by all parties to the conflict in Yemen. This assertion is backed up through evidence collated and reported on by Campaign Against Arms Trade in its recent publication entitled, “A Shameful Relationship: UK Complicity in Saudi State Violence”.
No, I am sorry; I am not giving way.
The response to the humanitarian crisis by the Department for International Development has been welcome. However, it highlights the complete and total policy incoherence between Government Departments. UK foreign policy is contributing to the disaster, with resources subsequently being used to deal with the consequences. The most worrying report on the crisis is that of the United Nations panel of experts on Yemen. Its recent 259-page report makes very uncomfortable reading. It claims:
“The panel has observed that not a single humanitarian pause to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people has been fully observed by any Yemeni party or by the coalition.”
The special envoy brokered two separate humanitarian pauses, but within two hours of the announced start of the first pause, UN officials witnessed a coalition air strike in Sana’a. According to some press reports, fighting actually intensified during the second pause. The UN report worryingly contains very well documented evidence that the Saudi-led coalition is violating the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in a widespread and systematic manner.
The panel has documented that the coalition had conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, again in violation of international humanitarian law, including refugee camps, weddings, civilian buses, medical facilities, schools, mosques and markets, and essential civilian infrastructure. The targeting of seaports, an airport and arterial transit routes has seriously hampered efforts to deliver humanitarian aid in the country. In May, the coalition declared the entire city of Sa’dah a military target, and, soon after, it faced systematic indiscriminate attacks, including on hospitals and schools, by the coalition. The UN report also documents incidents whereby humanitarian assistance is denied: something it overtly says is constitutive of a war crime.
Last November, three trucks, on behalf of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organisation, were unable to reach their final destinations owing to insecurity and delays in receiving security clearances from the coalition. The panel also documented coalition air strikes on five storage facilities for holding food aid, and air strikes on an Oxfam warehouse storing equipment for a water project funded by the European Union. Annex 47 of the report lists classified totals of many documented international humanitarian law violations from the coalition, including 41 individual air strikes on residential areas and villages, eight attacks on schools, 22 attacks on hospitals and health facilities, and seven attacks on humanitarian organisations and NGOs.
The Prime Minister is on record in the Chamber on 27 January as saying he would look at the report. Has he followed through on this promise, and what assessment has been made of the report by the Foreign Office? Will the Government support the establishment of an international independent investigation into alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law by all parties engaged in conflict in Yemen? Have the UK Government ever suspended or revoked any arms export licence to Saudi Arabia? Finally, will the Government now, in the light of all this evidence, follow the examples set by Germany and Sweden and impose a ban on the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia while an investigation takes place?
A large number of people have indicated that they wish to speak, and people not on the list are also rising, so I will probably have to impose a time limit. I will start with Sir Alan Duncan and I ask Members to be as brief and as succinct as they possibly can.
I will impose my own time limit, Mrs Gillan, and chuck away my notes. First, I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for launching this debate. The issue is highly charged and it is important we discuss it. I declare an interest as chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council and I am the Government’s special envoy to Yemen. I have taken an interest in Yemen for 30 years. As a Minister for International Development, I tried to lift the significance of Yemen up the agenda of the National Security Council and in the House. I saw it as a country in serious danger that was at risk of becoming the Afghanistan of the Arabian peninsula. In that sense, one realises what a complicated issue this is.
I totally respect the passion—I refer to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) and my attempt to complete the sentence in the Chamber the other day—that surrounds this issue. Be assured that all of us in this House are against cluster munitions, which is why the Government have banned them since 1989. We condemn their use totally. Let us park that to one side for a moment.
I knew the right hon. Gentleman would have his chance to speak. As I said in my speech, YEMAC has photographic evidence of cluster munitions being used in Yemen and they are not from the 1980s. If he wants proof, I have the photographs and so does YEMAC.
If they are not from the 1980s, they are clearly not ours.
I want to try to set the context. We have two important duties in looking at this deeply important issue. We have to set the highest possible standards when we sell weapons and we have to monitor their subsequent use. We also have to understand the real dangers of the region and delve deeply into countries with which people are not wholly familiar. Yemen is probably one of the most complicated countries I have ever tried to get my head round. I have a deep understanding of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries, but anyone who thinks they understand Yemen does not. They only begin to understand when they realise how much they do not understand.
The thing about Yemen—the hon. Lady did not mention this at all—is that we are in conflict for a reason. The conflict started because a legitimate Government were displaced by highly armed Houthi rebels who had raided heavy weapons stores and used those weapons against the legitimate Government. They pushed them out of Sana’a and headed down towards Aden. The hon. Lady did not mention the human rights violations committed by the Houthis. They have rounded up teenagers, put them in rooms and blown them up.
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the evidence provided by Amnesty International? Is he suggesting for a second that Amnesty International does not understand what is going on in Yemen?
The hon. Lady gets too virulent in the way she puts things. I am not suggesting that Amnesty International does not understand; I am trying to explain the broad political and geopolitical context in which the conflict has arisen. That is not something we have heard in this debate so far—although we may—or that we heard in the main Chamber previously. There is a lot of Saudi bashing, but everyone needs to understand that a legitimate Government have been displaced. This is a coalition: for the first time ever, Arab countries are trying to address their own regional problems without western, co-operative joint intervention. We have been telling them for years to sort out their own problems, but as soon as they try to do so we round on them, as we are seeing in this debate.
Let me explain what is going on in Yemen. We are in the sixth week of some very crucial talks in Kuwait, during which there has been a cessation of hostilities. It has not held entirely—no cessation of hostilities ever does—but, broadly, it has happened. Remember where legitimacy lies: with the Government of Yemen, who have been forced out of the country into Saudi Arabia. The UN-sponsored talks are trying to get that legitimate Government back into Yemen.
Another point that has not yet been made is that, if we do not have the semblance of government in Yemen, we are going to have an enormous country, where there are more weapons than people, that is ungoverned. We know what happens in ungoverned space: the rise of terrorism, which affects the ungoverned country but also spreads elsewhere. Yemen is beneath Saudi Arabia and 350 Saudis have been killed inside Saudi Arabia in Houthi attacks over the southern border. That, too, has never been mentioned. If Yemen disintegrates even further, we are going to see the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS, going across the Bab El Mandeb into the horn of Africa—
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point on his side of the argument, but does that justify the targeting of civilians? Earlier, I said that all parties should be investigated for violations of humanitarian law. He makes a point about the rise in weapons, but the UK is contributing to that rise with the arms sale.
There are very different sorts of weapons. In Yemen, every teenager has a rifle on their shoulder. That is the sort of country we are dealing with. I question the hon. Lady’s bold assertion that there has been deliberate targeting of civilians. That is a very serious accusation.
No, I am not going to give way again. I am trying to say to the hon. Lady and her colleagues that they should appreciate the context in which the conflict has arisen.
Let me address something that the hon. Lady did touch on. If the peace talks are not successful and government is not restored to Yemen, we are going to see the most catastrophic combination of economic collapse and humanitarian need that we have seen in any country in our lifetime—even when compared with some parts of Syria. My plea to this House today and to Members present for this debate is that we must understand the dangers of adopting a “we hate Saudi Arabia” point of view.
The hon. Lady will have the chance to answer back. I am sure that Mrs Gillan will allow everyone who wants to speak to do so. The less time I take, the more chance there is for others to speak.
This issue must be seen in the broader context of regional collapse, regional danger, humanitarian need and complete and total economic collapse in Yemen. That is what we are looking at. It is the duty of us all to understand the realities of the world and to try to ensure that we contribute to the success of the peace talks that are under way in Kuwait. We must not jeopardise them in any way by taking a singular view that does not understand the broader context of how the future of Yemen needs to be pieced together in those talks.
There is a great deal of interest in this debate and some nine or 10 Members have indicated that they wish to speak, so I am terribly sorry but I have to impose a three-minute limit on speeches to try to get in as many colleagues as possible. I am sure the effort will be admirably led by Andy Slaughter.
Thank you very much, Mrs Gillan, for calling me. Given the time constraint, I shall limit myself to one matter and try to bring us back to the topic of the debate: human rights and Saudi Arabia. The front page of The Times today has the headline, “British police accused of helping Saudi torturers”. I should say that the story is based on research by the BBC’s Chris Vallance and a report broadcast on “The World at One” yesterday, and, admirable though the article is, I wish he had been credited. Mr Vallance is admirable because he has done far better than I have in getting information released under freedom of information rules on the College of Policing’s relationship with the Saudi justice system.
As Members will remember—I am pleased to see almost 30 of them present, because it shows the level of interest in the subject—this matter began with the Justice Secretary’s withdrawal from the Saudi prison contract last October. Will the Minister encourage some consistency among Government Departments in their relations to Saudi Arabia? I know consistency is difficult when there is an in or out Minister in almost every Department, but on this issue we should have some. In response to an urgent question I asked last October, the Justice Secretary said to me, quite rightly, that
“the whole focus of the Ministry of Justice will be on maintaining the rule of law, upholding human rights and making sure that our citizens are protected effectively with a justice system in which all can take pride and have confidence.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 182.]
However, within a couple of weeks of his saying that, the Foreign Secretary was in the Gulf saying that it was business as usual with Saudi Arabia.
Following the withdrawal from that contract, I attempted, unsuccessfully, through parliamentary questions and FOI requests, to find out what the College of Policing’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was. Mr Vallance was successful in his FOI request and obtained a referral by the College of Policing to the International Police Assistance Board. It is a very candid application to supply sophisticated forensic aid to the Saudis. It warns that
“the skills being trained are used to identify individuals who later go on to be tortured or subjected to other human rights abuses”.
It also says that the application is motivated by
“achieving ‘value-added’ for the College through providing an income generating business opportunity”.
The sophisticated de-encryption techniques referred to would easily allow the Saudi security forces to trace down exactly the sort of young people we have heard about who are now on death row in Saudi Arabia.
Will the Minister explain what is going on with the assistance that the Government are giving to the Saudi regime? Do the Government intend to continue it, and will they publish the memorandum of understanding with the College of Policing so that we can see exactly what is happening?
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing the debate.
I shall be brief. Will the Minister give some analysis of our relationship with Saudi Arabia and how we might be influencing or moderating its attitude towards human rights?
My concern is this. We have a trading and diplomatic relationship, which necessarily means, I hope, that Ministers are engaged with the Saudis. I have experience not in this particular area, but in conflict areas in the middle east, so I appreciate that having an open door and the ability to influence or moderate behaviour is precious. I seek reassurance because of what has been said about human rights abuses, and because today thousands of people will be saying “#jesuisraif”—I hope that, in this country, Raif Badawi would never have been prosecuted or flogged for expressing his opinions online. I wish to be reassured that Ministers are constantly criticising public beheadings.
I declare an interest as a member of Amnesty International. Recently, we have been concerned about cluster bombs in the area, whether they were made in the 1980s or on the eve of when we signed the convention on cluster munitions. I wish to be reassured that Ministers are using the open door, even if it is open only very slightly, to address cluster munitions. Do we analyse where the stockpiles are? Are we helping to destroy them? If not, I fear that, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, the open door means that we may be complicit.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the breaches of international humanitarian law, which she referred to, make the relief effort more difficult and dangerous, and conflict with the very good work that the Department for International Development is doing in the area?
I very much appreciate my hon. Friend’s intervention. The UK should promote precision arms, which minimise civilian casualties. Are we complicit in causing more civilian casualties, especially given the humanitarian effort and the people who are clearing up?
I will not take up the extra time that my hon. Friend has kindly given me, but I seek reassurance. Are we complicit, or are we influencing with the open door? I worked elsewhere in the middle east, and I know that, when the negotiations end and the international observers go away, things happen that are beyond one’s imagination—they are so horrific. I am not advocating a closed door, but I need reassurance.
The Government regularly repeat the line,
“the UK operates one of the most rigorous and transparent export control regimes in the world”.
That may be true, but it is clearly not good enough. Since March 2015, no export licence applications to Saudi have been refused due to non-compliance with criterion 2 of the consolidated criteria, which refers to the respect of international humanitarian law in the country of final destination and the respect of IHL by it. Meanwhile, as hon. Members know, £2.8 billion of arms sales have gone to Saudi since the start of the Yemen conflict.
There is mounting evidence from a range of sources that the Saudis have committed international humanitarian law breaches, so either our Government are breaking their own law or their arms export controls are not working. I hope, therefore, that they will look positively at something that is happening in the House of Lords, where one of my colleagues is introducing a private Member’s Bill to create a register of arms brokers, which would enhance transparency and lead to a more rigorous implementation of UK transfer controls.
The evidence about international humanitarian law violations by the Saudis is mounting. During the air strikes on the al-Mazraq camp for internally displaced people, all structures hit, according to the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, were civilian infrastructure. That must constitute at the very least an indiscriminate attack, and at worst a direct attack on civilians. As hon. Members know, there were also air strikes against the Oxfam storage facility and a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital. Again, they must constitute indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
Reference was also made to Sa’ada and Ma’aran. In answer to a letter from me, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said that in Sa’ada all the strikes in the city
“could be linked to a plausible military target.”
Clearly, the UN Security Council experts who looked at it think differently. How could a hospital or school be a plausible military target? How high a bar is plausible? Although it is noteworthy that the Saudis leafleted those two cities—the whole of which, as we have heard, were designated military targets—how realistic was it for the citizens to get out? In his reply, the Under-Secretary of State referred to Sa’ada, but not to what happened in Ma’aran. What exactly has the analysis there revealed?
It is clearly difficult in the limited time I have to make all the points I want to make. Three Departments—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—have played a role in this sorry episode. I think that, once IHL violations are confirmed, a ministerial head is going to have to roll.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to Save the Children and Amnesty International for their most excellent work. I draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 138, which I lodged in relation to the UN annual report on children and armed conflict, which was mentioned earlier.
The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) talked about understanding geopolitics, but may I remind him that that is not the preserve of just the Conservative party? Nor have Conservative Members demonstrated by their actions in a number of international events that they have any great expertise in that. Mention was made of the realities of the world. Arguably, the influx of Scottish National party Members to the House of Commons has brought a number of realities of the world to the Chamber, which has only added to what we have been discussing.
This is not about whose side anyone is on in war. I cannot believe that anyone in this Chamber is in favour of armed conflict of any nature; we should not descend into a discussion about that. It is simply about whether we have knowledge, based on the evidence, that demonstrates that an investigation should take place.
I was pleased to be granted an urgent question last month, and I asked the MOD to make a statement on this pressing matter. We were told that UK weapons cannot have been used in this conflict because the Saudi Arabian military has told us so. What kind of investigation is that? We are asking a country to investigate itself. Let us bear in mind that that is the same Saudi Arabian Government whose human rights record is so bad that our own Ministry of Justice refused to do business with them.
There are a number of questions that need to be answered today, not least about the conflicting positions of different Government Departments. In Question Time, the Foreign Secretary stated that
“the Ministry of Defence is urgently investigating the allegations”—[Official Report, 24 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 395.]
Then, in response to my urgent question just 10 minutes later, the Minister for Defence Procurement, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), contradicted that statement by saying that the Government will simply be “seeking fresh assurances” from the Saudi Arabian Government.
It is clear that the UK Government will not conduct their own investigations into the issue. That was confirmed on the BBC World Service in an interview with an MOD official, who said:
“We are not launching an investigation”.
I have written to the Prime Minister to ask what the position is. Are we having an investigation, or are we not? I am waiting for a response from both the Ministry of Defence and the FCO on this matter. There is absolutely no doubt that the evidence suggests that this merits an investigation. I simply do not know what the Government are waiting for to justify that.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this debate. I will speak, as I always do, on the basis of my beliefs.
The UK has relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The Governments and Oppositions in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for those Governments. When we look at that, we get an idea of where we are. When we read about some of the things that Saudi Arabia does to Christians and other minorities, it is shocking to think that the UK is cosying up to that regime when convenient. I want to touch on some of those things.
Converting from Islam to another religion is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Despite that, the number of Christians from Muslim backgrounds is growing. In recent years, Christians have been executed by the Saudi authorities for leaving Islam, and some people have been handed over to relatives and vanished, never to be heard of again—leaving Islam is seen as a great source of shame to families and communities in that strongly Islamic nation. Given such serious persecution of Christians in Saudi Arabia, many feel they have no choice but to flee—more Saudi Christians are estimated to be outside the country than in it—but there are still Muslims in Saudi Arabia risking their lives to follow their Lord Jesus. Christians used to make up less than 0.1% of Saudi Arabia’s population, but now 4.4% identify as Christian. We have to look at issues for Christians in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is included on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom list of the nations committing the worst religious freedom violations, comparable with China, Burma, North Korea and Iran. Saudi Arabia is also 14th on the Open Doors list of countries with the worst cases of Christian persecution. Christians are forced to live out their faith in secret. For example, at the end of 2014, Islamist police in Saudi Arabia stormed a Christian prayer meeting and arrested the entire congregation, including women and children, and confiscated their Bibles. They disappeared into the system, although I now understand that they have been deported—they were deported for worshipping their Lord Jesus. That is an example of what happens in Saudi Arabia.
As I have said before, Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate blanket bombing of Yemen, the murder of innocents and the destruction of property rankle with me and many in this Chamber, which is why we are glad to have the debate. The UK alliance with Saudi Arabia in general, and arms sales to the regime in particular, constitute a threat to security, as Saudi Arabia’s aggressive and reckless behaviour in the region contributes to the dynamics of fuelling extremist violence in the middle east and worldwide.
Many have condemned Saudi Arabia, including the UN Secretary-General, Save the Children, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development. We are on the wrong side of humanity if we continue to cosy up to the brutal theocracy of Saudi Arabia, and we will be on the wrong side of history with regard to the region. I and many other hon. Members believe that we need to do the right thing and to make it clear to Saudi Arabia that things will have to change if we are to continue doing any business with it at all.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, Mrs Gillan. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for her determination to ensure that however hard the Government try, the issue will not go away until arms sales to the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia have been stopped.
It is sometimes said that politics is about compromise; I think it is much more important to say that politics is about knowing what is a compromise, and what should never be compromised—some things are absolute. It is all very well to talk about complex geopolitical, diplomatic and international reasons—whatever gobbledegook was used—but there are moral absolutes in this world and, if we lose sight of them, we are on a slippery slope from which there is no return.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, given the short time he has, and I welcome his philosophical stance. Does he agree that where there is Government, there is responsibility, and where there is responsibility, there can be blame? Where there are non-state actors, there is no such locus of responsibility, so it is easy for this House not to allocate blame. Does he agree that although it is essential that we have complete transparency in, and scrutiny of, how our arms are used, we must guard against falling into the moral luxury of blame, when we should be looking at how to stop the biggest source of human rights abuses, which is generally non-state actors?
I was not about to allocate blame, because I am not convinced it ever gets us anywhere. However, I question her assertion that where there is Government, there is always responsibility, because I can think of examples much closer to home than Saudi Arabia where Governments do not act with responsibility in every case.
The point that I was making is that there are moral absolutes in this life. If the killing of children is not a breach of an absolute moral requirement, I simply do not know what is. It is all very well to say that bad things are happening in Yemen, but those who listened to the excellent opening contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West will have heard her say time and time again that other people are committing acts of evil in Yemen as well as the Saudis, and they must be held to account as well. We are asking the Government to ensure that all those who are suspected of war crimes and of crimes against humanity are held to account.
If the killing of children is not an absolutely prohibited act in this world, what is? The Minister claimed last month, as he tried to sweep aside the death of children and other civilians, that bad things happen in war, but the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 93% of the casualties in Yemen are civilians. That is not collateral damage or a few unfortunate missiles that went astray: that is, at its very best, criminally reckless incompetence on the part of those delivering the bombs and, at worst and much more likely, deliberate targeting of civilians, using terrorisation of the population as a means of achieving political ends.
Regardless of the evils being committed by the opponents of the Saudi regime in Yemen—and they have committed evils—the use of child killing to achieve political aims is not something that any of us can ever even consider supporting, be it actively or passively, directly or simply standing by on the sidelines condoning things. It is horrifying that the response from the Government time and again is, “We don’t yet have conclusive evidence, so we will carrying on selling the weapons anyway”, or, “What evidence there is suggests that it’s not our weapons being used to kill the children; it’s someone else’s weapons.”
If I applied for a shotgun licence and there was credible evidence that I had used a knife to carry out violent attacks on children, I would not get that shotgun licence. Those responsible for issuing the licence would not say to me, “Go and investigate the allegations against yourself. As long as you can persuade us that any crimes committed have not been committed with that shotgun, we’ll allow you to keep the shotgun.” If the situation is as simple and as obvious as that in the case of awarding one licence for one gun, why do we choose to make it more complicated when we are awarding licences to supply weapons capable of annihilating entire streets at the press of a single button? Those arms sales are immoral and indefensible, and they must stop now.
I will keep my comments very short. I urge the supporters of the motion—which was moved very eloquently—to distinguish between weapons of concern. We must identify where such weapons are coming from, and we must talk about all weapons.
Let me give the House an example. In my constituency, the biggest employer by quite some way is BAE Systems. Over in Hull, it is also a huge employer. It is building the Eurofighter Typhoon for export to the Gulf, as well as the Hawk trainer aircraft. Were I to speak to my local trade unions today, they would be despondent at the thought that the training aircraft that their members are building could in any way be caught up in an arms export ban, because—to put it mildly—that would result in the closure of those factories. The United Kingdom cannot sustain advanced aircraft manufacturing on its own, even as part of the European coalition. Were it not for export orders, which are checked carefully in a rigorous process, tens of thousands of highly skilled men, women and apprentices would not be in their jobs. There would be economic devastation in large parts of north-west England.
The hon. Gentleman identifies the tension in the debate. I, too, have a major defence contractor in my constituency, General Dynamics. If there were some such ban, my constituency would lose 800 jobs. Does he agree that that is the crux of the tension in this debate?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I urge caution in language; it is easy to make generalisations and get swept up in what is clearly an important debate, but we risk losing tens upon tens of thousands of people’s livelihoods in this country, as well as apprenticeships and skills. If it were as simple a proposition as the weapons or aircraft in question not existing as the result of a ban, then that would make for an interesting debating point—
I will not give way, because I do not have much time—forgive me.
In the highly competitive global export market, our French and American colleagues—even before we get to the Russians, Chinese and so on—would be queuing up to replace us. We have to be abundantly clear that we do not sell lightly the means for a country to defend itself. Nor do we do so in a way that abdicates any responsibility, because we have an extremely robust export licensing programme in this country. [Interruption.] I will not give way, because I do not have time.
We have heard from two hon. Members the loose language of, “Let’s ban all arms exports regardless of how they are used”. They should go around and see the economic devastation that that language causes, including in Scottish constituencies—shame on you! They would cause hardship to many people, needlessly. That is not something that I could have on my conscience, but it is lucky that they can have it on theirs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Gillan. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing it and on her powerful and thought-provoking speech.
Human rights and arms deals may seem like strange bedfellows, but it is quite right that we should view them together. Just yesterday in this Chamber we debated the important work done by UN peacekeepers in seeking to instil peace and protect human rights in troubled countries. This morning we confront the reality that by continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, a country with a dreadful record on human rights domestically and on links to terrorism and extremism internationally, we are helping to sow the seeds of conflict and undermine human rights.
I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on reports today of UK police training the Saudi Arabian regime on high-tech detection that could be used to track down those who dissent from the regime. The Government must clarify their position on that.
Internally, Saudi Arabia imposes a harsh interpretation of sharia law on citizens and visitors, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While we rightly recoil at the beheadings and barbarity of Daesh, we appear to look the other way as public beheadings continue to take place in Saudi Arabia, with perhaps 100 already in the first five months of this year. By its actions, and given its status as the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia gives comfort to those who would spread such barbarity across the region—indeed, across the globe—in the name of religion, even though in no way do those actions ever represent Islam.
My hon. Friend spoke powerfully about young men languishing in Saudi jails under threat of death. As she explained, and as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) indicated, we simply do not have the clout either to get full information about those death sentences or to stop them. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) said, such sentences are imposed on grounds that cause us huge concerns about human rights and freedom of speech.
The targeting of anyone who raises civil rights concerns is a real concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West spoke powerfully about a number of cases, including that of Raif Badawi, and the broader impact on families in Saudi Arabia who live in fear or are forced to flee. Like her, I am keen to hear from the Minister how and when concerns from the UK about the death penalty in Saudi Arabia were last raised.
The hon. Lady will know that Ministers have said in the Chamber that the UK’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and arms sales to it are among the things that give the UK influence when it comes to talking about matters such as the death penalty. If it is quite clear that the House of Saud does not take the UK Government’s stance and communications seriously, why should the House of Commons?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point very well indeed. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) pointed out, the voices of people in this place speaking against the death penalty can be powerful. We should expect to hear that message clearly from the Government.
As we have heard many times in the House in recent months, there is widespread and legitimate concern about the actions of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West talked about information from Amnesty International that described cluster munition drops late last year and the indirect and direct dangers faced by those on the ground.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his somewhat surprising intervention. I think he fails to grasp the point of the debate. We are delighted to see legitimate Governments in place in countries across the world, but that does not mean that we support the indiscriminate actions of the Saudi Arabian regime. When I last raised Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen in the Chamber, it was against the backdrop of the UN panel’s report, which revealed widespread air strikes on populated areas and documented more than 100 coalition sorties that could have been in violation of international humanitarian law. Estimates at that time suggested that more than 8,000 people had been killed in Yemen in less than a year, at least 1,500 of them children. A number of hon. Members have mentioned that today. Reflecting on the information presented in that last debate, I was disappointed and a bit perplexed to read that the UN had removed Saudi Arabia from a blacklist of countries guilty of serious abuse of children’s rights, all the while confirming that many of the concerns highlighted in its panel’s report were justified.
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns. I understand that when discussing that the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the UN stated that
“the most up-to-date equipment in precision targeting”
is used. However, as we have heard so often in the House in recent months, some of the armaments used are almost certainly those sold to Saudi Arabia by the UK. Precision armaments would be far better used to bolster international efforts against Daesh than to destroy the civil infrastructure of Yemen.
Yemen was already a poor country by the standards of the region even before the Saudi-led campaign started. Now, even more of its people are dying from preventable diseases, apparently because high-precision weapons have decimated hospitals, medical supplies and infrastructure. With difficulties in distributing aid, its people face malnutrition, with a massive increase in acute malnutrition among children.
As Saudi Arabia pursues a conflict that appears to owe more to its fear of Iran than any legitimate interests in Yemen, it demonstrates the gap between the sophistication of its arms and the callous disregard it has for the people of Yemen. Children are used as pawns by both sides in the conflict. With millions out of school, another lost generation is more likely to fall prey to the call of the extremist. How can we conclude that Saudi Arabia, the most powerful force directly engaged in the conflict, is not abusing children’s rights?
The Saudi Arabian Government seem hellbent on exacerbating the desperate plight of the Yemeni people. There have been reports of serious violations of the laws of war by all sides, and Human Rights Watch has documented several apparently unlawful coalition air strikes. There are serious legal questions to be answered about the UK supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia in support of its military intervention and indiscriminate bombing campaign.
In recent months, we have noted the re-emergence of the practice of siege or blockade as a weapon of war. The Saudi-led coalition has been operating a de facto siege of the whole of Yemen, a country that relies almost entirely on imports for its food. More than 14 million Yemenis have been identified as food-insecure, but the aid effort is able to cope with only a fraction of that, leaving many Yemenis unable to tell where their next meal is coming from.
I was pleased to receive confirmation in a recent debate that the UK Government view the imposition of starvation and the deliberate destruction of the means of daily life for civilians as a matter for the International Criminal Court. If that is the case, perhaps the Minister will explain why we are still selling arms in large quantities to a country using that tactic against not a town or city but a whole country. The blockade must be stopped. Instead of selling arms, we should be providing support to ensure that supplies and humanitarian aid can be distributed to the Yemeni population.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that having a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia gives us an opportunity to ask questions directly and put pressure on the Government to address our concerns? We must do that thoughtfully, recognising the importance of stability over chaos in the region.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, but I wonder how long we will continue to put these points thoughtfully to the Saudi Arabian regime because it clearly has not worked so far. By continuing to arm the Saudi Arabians, the UK compromises its own standing and the legitimacy of its foreign policy. The Government must use their influence to change the dynamic. They must consider the terrible impact of the bombardment of populated areas with British-made bombs.
Whatever the justification for the Saudi determination to influence the presidency of Yemen, that cannot be at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of the Yemeni people. I say to the Minister there are no bad countries, only bad leaders. The Government have been willing to put the Yemeni people through what they have endured for the last year, but it seems that Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi falls into the category of bad leader. If he is successful in returning to power, it will be a hollow victory, and our Government need to think carefully about their actions in that regard. We need to come clean about the specific involvement of the UK military in arms sales training and logistics in relation to the military operations in Yemen, and we need to answer questions about international and humanitarian law in the case of that conflict.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing today’s debate. This is an important subject and a timely debate. Her opening remarks ranged widely over domestic and international human rights issues.
There is much to be said about Saudi Arabia’s domestic human rights record, but because of time constraints I will, as many other hon. Members have done, concentrate my remarks on Yemen. It is clear that human rights are not being upheld in the conflict there. A leaked report in January found “widespread and systematic” targeting of civilians in the Saudi-led strikes and identified 2,682 civilians killed in such strikes.
I am particularly concerned about the position of children, which was highlighted by the excellent report on Yemen by the Select Committee on International Development, released earlier this year, and by last week’s release of the UN Secretary-General’s 2016 report on children in conflict, which particularly focused on Yemen, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) mentioned in an intervention. The report found that children represent one third of civilian casualties in Yemen. According to UNICEF, child casualty rates have increased sevenfold from 2014. Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis are listed for the killing and maiming of children and attacks on schools and hospitals.
There is no doubt that the Houthis have committed egregious breaches of international law, which the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) referred to. I am aware of his background as the envoy to Yemen on behalf of the Government, and he obviously speaks with great knowledge of the area. However, the position of the Saudi-led coalition also poses particular problems for us in Britain. Saudi Arabia is a friend and ally and we should expect higher standards of our friends, particularly when we have sold them £2.8 billion-worth of arms since the start of their action in Yemen.
The groups listed in the report for grave violations against children include the Syrian, Sudanese, South Sudanese and Somali Governments, as well as ISIL/Daesh and Boko Haram. Although the Saudis appear to have got themselves removed from that list, their inclusion on it in the first place should cause the Government to think again. We would never sanction arms sales to any of the other groups or Governments on that list, or to the Houthi militia. So the question we must ask ourselves is why we are sanctioning arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Last year, the Justice Secretary took the decision that human rights standards in the Saudi justice system were so low that it could not be considered a proper partner for the British Government, and he withdrew the UK from the Saudi prisons contract. Today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) has mentioned, the front page of The Times refers to work being done through British police and forensic support. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), the shadow Home Secretary, has called for that contract to be ended, in the light of concerns about human rights abuses that have been raised. There is therefore a similar question for the Foreign Secretary to answer. Is a country that the UN listed, albeit temporarily, alongside Daesh a proper partner for the UK?
That is not just a moral question for the Foreign Office, but a legal one. Arms sales must not be sanctioned when
“there is a clear risk that they may be used in violation of International Humanitarian Law.”
It is the view of the Opposition, and has been since last year, that the evidence is sufficient to constitute a serious risk that UK-provided arms may be used in violations of international humanitarian law.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am going to carry on, because I want to give the Minister sufficient time to respond to everything that has been raised today.
The Government have steadfastly rejected the view I have set out, and the evidence that supports it. They make two claims in support of Saudi Arabia: first, that the Saudi-led coalition’s actions are not in breach of international law, and secondly, that Saudi Arabia has a proper process in place to investigate alleged breaches. Indeed, the Government rely on the second argument to assert the first. I have consistently challenged the Government to explain why they believe Saudi Arabia is in the best position to conduct an investigation, and I have never had a proper response from any Minister. I challenge the Minister again today to explain why he believes that the best course of action is for Saudi Arabia to conduct the investigation itself, and how that can be seen to be thorough, impartial and transparent. What assurances have the British Government received that that will be the case? Are the British Government providing any practical support and assistance to the Saudis in their investigation?
I want to challenge the Government on that point: that the evidence against the Saudi-led coalition is insufficient to constitute a risk that British weapons could be involved in breaches of international law. That is the case the Government have been making to the International Development Committee and to the Committees on Arms Export Controls. However, it is not a convincing case, as has been pointed out in an excellent letter from the director of Human Rights Watch UK to the Foreign Secretary. That comprehensively dismantles the Government’s case. I do not want to read out long extracts, but I ask the Minister to look at that letter again.
It is certainly the view of the Opposition that the available evidence meets the test to suspend arms sales until the Committees on Arms Export Controls have completed their hearings. That position has for some time been consistently expressed by me, the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), and the Leader of the Opposition. It is time now, in the light of all the evidence cited in the debate, for the Government to concede that the evidence simply does not support their position. I call on the Minister to be brave and bold, and show some courage—the same courage that the Justice Secretary showed in standing up to Saudi Arabia over the prisons contract. That would certainly be a case of putting British values into action.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing today’s debate and on the passion with which she put her case. I apologise to her for missing the first few seconds of her remarks. I also want to express the regret of the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for not being able to speak here today. He is actually travelling on middle east business today.
I will try to focus my remarks on answers to the many points that came up during the debate. I am deeply conscious that in the limited time available I am almost certainly going to give incomplete replies, and that I may be unable to touch on some points at all. I was disappointed when the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) questioned the case for Saudi Arabia even to be considered a fit and proper partner for the United Kingdom. That would certainly be a major departure from the position taken by previous Labour Governments, including the one in which she served in the years before 2010. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is a very different culture, with different political traditions from those of the United Kingdom or other western democracies. However, we need to bear it in mind that it plays an increasingly important part in securing regional stability.
It is important that the big regional players should be at the heart of discussions about finding solutions to regional challenges. The Saudis have been and remain at the forefront of international efforts to defeat Daesh. Saudi was one of the first countries to participate in air strikes in Syria, and it is fully engaged in the fight to cut off Daesh’s access to finance, through its co-chairmanship of the counter-ISIL finance working group. In relation to Syria, Saudi Arabia has played a leading role in bringing together the Syrian opposition—a key element of finding a solution to the conflict. I want to say a few words about Yemen in due course, but I want to turn to the questions that were raised about some other human rights topics.
The Government remain committed to advancing the global abolition of the death penalty. That means opposing it in every circumstance, in every country. We encourage Saudi Arabia certainly to abolish the death penalty, as we do with every other country that has the death penalty on its statute book. We also encourage Saudi Arabia, so long as it has the death penalty within its law, to uphold minimum international standards, such as ensuring that sentencing is in line with article 6 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. Among other things, that means the death penalty should not be applied to minors and should only be applied to the most serious crimes.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Saudi Arabia last week in the course of a tour of the Gulf region, and he took that opportunity to raise with senior Saudi counterparts our concerns about human rights issues in the generic sense and a number of individual cases that I will come to in a moment. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West asked about a number of cases. On that of Mr Ashraf Fayadh, our understanding is that the Saudi Arabian courts have overturned the death sentence passed upon him, although he remains in detention. We continue to follow that and similar cases closely.
During his visit on 29 May, the Foreign Secretary raised the case of Ali al-Nimr and the two others who were juveniles when they committed the crimes of which they were subsequently convicted. Our expectation is that Ali al-Nimr and the two others will not be executed, but we will of course continue to raise those cases with the Saudi authorities. The hon. Lady asked about Raif Badawi. We remain very concerned about that case. We continue to express that concern at both official and ministerial levels to the Saudis. Our understanding is that the case is still under consideration in the Saudi supreme court, but we do not expect further lashes to be administered.
A number of hon. Members asked questions about the alleged use of cluster munitions by Saudi forces in Yemen. The situation as regards the United Kingdom is this: we have not supplied cluster weapons of any kind to Saudi Arabia since the 1980s. The United Kingdom signed the convention on cluster munitions in 2008 and ratified it in May 2010. Since 2008, we have not supplied, maintained or supported those weapons anywhere in the world.
No, I am not going to give way.
The Government take the allegations that have been made about Yemen very seriously. We are seeking clarification from the Saudi-led coalition about those allegations, and in line with our obligations under the convention on cluster munitions, we have always made it clear to the Saudis that we cannot support the use of cluster munitions in any circumstances. We continue to encourage Saudi Arabia as a non-party to the convention to accede to it. Accession to the convention will then oblige Saudi Arabia, as it obliged the United Kingdom when we ratified the convention, to take steps to not only identify but dispose safely of any stocks of cluster munitions that it may have, either on its own territory or anywhere else within its jurisdiction.
Much of this debate has focused upon Yemen. I should say, in response to the questions about the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre, that we are supporting United Nations Development Programme-led efforts to rebuild the capacity of Yemen’s national de-mining institutions, including YEMAC. That is part of our wider humanitarian help to Yemen. We are contributing just over £1 million to that work in 2016 from the cross- departmental programme expenditure within Whitehall.
On the Yemen situation more broadly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) set out the overall geopolitical position with both succinctness and skill. The fact is that the Saudi-led coalition is present in Yemen at the invitation of the legitimate Government of that country. I do not think we can simply wash our hands and say, “We wish they weren’t there, but we don’t want to express any view about the Houthis, the fate of Yemen or the wider region.”
No, I am not giving way. In fairness, the hon. Lady intervened many times during the course of the debate. I have little time available, and I think her hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, wants some time to reply to the debate at the end of our proceedings.
The coalition is there at the invitation of the legitimate Government. Saudi Arabia, whatever criticisms we make of it, is actively helping the United Nations supervision of humanitarian assistance in Yemen, and my understanding is that Saudi Arabia is also the largest single bilateral donor to the humanitarian relief taking place in Yemen. Those things, too, need to be weighed in any overall judgment we make about the activities of the coalition within Yemen.
In respect of the allegations about breaches of international humanitarian law, the Ministry of Defence makes assessments of how the Saudis are acting and whether the coalition is observing international human rights obligations. The MOD assessment is that the Saudi-led coalition is not targeting civilians; that Saudi processes and procedures have been put in place to ensure respect for the principles of international humanitarian law; and that the Saudis both have been and continue to be genuinely committed to compliance with international humanitarian law.
That is the overall frame within which we move on to judge some of the particular and detailed allegations that have been made. I do not want for one moment to dismiss the importance of such allegations. It is important that any allegation is properly and rigorously investigated.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, said when he gave evidence to the recent investigation of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), we press the Saudis to carry out such investigations and to do so with all possible speed. It is the responsibility of any country, where allegations are made against its military, to take action to investigate those allegations. That is what we do and what we did when allegations were made against our forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It is what we expected of the United States when comparable allegations were made.
It is important that Saudi Arabia, in the first instance, conducts thorough and conclusive investigations into incidents where it is alleged that international humanitarian law has been breached. Saudi Arabia did conduct such an investigation following the October Médecins sans Frontières incident in Sa’ada, and the results of that investigation led to a number of important steps being taken by the Saudis to avoid any such incident happening again. There were changes to procedures. I do not say we need to be uncritical of Saudi Arabia, but we need to bear it in mind that it showed, in respect of that significant incident, that it was willing to look at where things had gone wrong and to take steps to improve matters for the future.
I will write to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) about the points he made on the Home Office and the story in The Times today. That is clearly a matter the Home Office leads on. The Government’s judgment remains that a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia helps us to keep this country both prosperous and safe. It is in working with Saudi Arabia that we can encourage the changes we would like to see in that country.
Fire Service: Flooding and Statutory Duties
I beg to move,
That this House has considered flooding and statutory duties of the fire service.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding this morning, Mrs Gillan, and I am glad to see the Minister taking his place. It is only appropriate that two former firefighters are contributing to the debate.
Let me start with a couple of points on the general history of the fire and rescue service—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mrs Gillan.
As I was saying, I will start with a couple of points on the history of the fire and rescue service. The great fire of London was in 1666, which was the beginning of insurance fire brigades and voluntary pumps being deployed in London. The fire of 1834 destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster and led to the creation of a London county council and of a London fire brigade, which this year is enjoying its 150th anniversary, which I know the Minister is celebrating—happy birthday to the London fire brigade. Statutory duties have evolved over the centuries in which fire brigades themselves have been evolving.
I thank the House of Commons Library and Pat Strickland for briefing paper No. 07605, “Should Fire and Rescue Services have a statutory duty to deal with flooding?” Before I quote from that, I want to make reference not only to the increasing incidents of flooding, but to their severity and regularity. A role that the fire and rescue service used to tackle once in a blue moon is now a core activity for many brigades. A Fire Brigades Union document details the extent of the new demand, stating:
“Firefighters responded magnificently to the winter 2013-14 floods, the largest deployment by the fire and rescue services since Second World War. Across the UK over the entire three months…firefighters responded to nearly seven thousand incidents”,
“effected a large number of rescues…almost two thousand across the UK.”
A briefing note from the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service said that on Boxing day 2015 it deployed two thirds of its available resources on flood response.
I cannot imagine that the Minister will be in denial either that floods are on the rise or that the fire and rescue service is doing more of this type of work than ever before. There is certainly no room for him to deny that we have seen a significant reduction in the numbers of firefighters in the fire and rescue service since 2010.
It is not just the fire services that are putting the information out there. The Met Office has said that we are in the middle of one of the most
“exceptional periods of winter rainfall in at least 248 years.”
Is it not very clear that we need a fully resourced fire service, backed up by a statutory duty?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which I will reinforce in a moment.
Lancaster University states:
“The London Fire Brigade is only able to respond to less than half of calls within its six minute target following the closure of 10 stations. The closures coupled with the loss of over 552 firefighters and 14 engines in central London were made in 2014 as part of Government cutbacks of £29m.”
Greater Manchester fire and rescue service has seen a 25% cut since 2010. Its briefing says that in 2009-10, it had 1,598 front-line firefighter posts. By 2019-20, it will have 1,026—a loss of 572 firefighter posts, a reduction of 35%.
The Fire Brigades Union’s 2015 floods report outlines the depth of the cuts. It says that 6,740 positions were lost between 2011 and 2015. The same report lists the number of flood incidents and rescues: in December 2015 alone, there were 2,589 incidents and 2,808 rescues. Flooding is on the increase, as my hon. Friend outlined. We only have to look to France and Germany last week, or at London and the flash floods yesterday.
In the general election campaign of 2010, the Prime Minister spoke at Carlisle fire station and promised to protect front-line public services, but between 2011 and 2015, Cumbria lost one in eight firefighters. Five fire stations were earmarked for closure in Cumbria before the flooding in December last year, and in February this year, the local council cited the floods as a key reason to keep the stations operational.
The question is whether a statutory duty is needed. The Commons Library briefing paper and the Fire Brigades Union briefing refer to the existing legislation. On the law in England and Wales, both documents say that part 2 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 sets out the statutory core functions of fire and rescue authorities. Those are statutory duties to provide for fire safety, firefighting, and rescuing people and protecting them from harm in the event of road traffic accidents. The Library briefing paper states:
“Section 9 gives the Secretary of State the power to give FRAs functions relating to other emergencies, including outside the FRA’s area. This is an order-making power. Primary legislation would not be necessary.”
The Fire Brigades Union has outlined its position:
“The FBU has serious concerns about the resources available to the fire and rescue service to ensure resilience against flooding…These include the number of firefighters, boats and equipment available… There are issues of staffing, technology and resilience in fire control rooms… The FBU believes a statutory duty on the fire and rescue service in England and Wales, along with investment in the service, provides the best guarantee of resilience to flooding going forward”.
It explained why it has that belief:
“A statutory duty would add significantly to fire and rescue service resilience when faced with flooding. Such a duty would…Underscore the need to resource fire and rescue services specifically for flooding…Assist with strategic planning, not only between fire and rescue services and local resilience forums”—
it should be “fora”—
“but also between different fire and rescue services across England…Ensure firefighters play a full part in the temporary construction of flood defences, as they do in Sweden…Help ensure fire and rescue services have sufficient, professionally trained firefighters available to tackle flood emergencies…Ensure sufficient boats of the right quality are available…Help ensure sufficiently trained and equipped boat teams are available …Ensure sufficient control staff are available to”
handle calls and to make
“resources available to communities during the clear up, ensuring premises are secure to hazardous substances testing and clear up”.
The fire service could also have a strategic role in flood prevention and the protection of homes; that was missing in the recent floods. I add that the cuts coming to the fire service will have a serious impact on its ability to respond to floods, as we saw in York in 2015.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. She saw exactly the nature of flooding in York when it affected her constituency in recent years.
The Minister may very well ask why, when I was Fire Minister in 2006—[Interruption.] He kindly forewarned me that he would remind me that I was the Fire Minister in 2006. It was generous of him, and I think the criticism is absolutely fair, but I will come on to why I think times have changed in just a minute. Department for Communities and Local Government figures underscoring the increase in the threat show that in 2007—a year after I was Fire Minister—there were 14,000 flooding calls, in 2011-12 there were 16,000, and in 2013-14 there were 18,000. I believe that demonstrates a pattern.
Even Age Concern—or Age UK, as it is now called—has weighed in. Suzanne Foster wrote to me:
“I wanted to send you a copy of a report published by Age UK on ‘Older people and power loss, floods and storms’”,
which she said could be found online and was attached to her email. The first recommendation was:
“Join up essential services better”.
The result of the inquiry into the 2007 floods was clear. On the Pitt review, the Commons Library briefing paper states:
“The issue of a statutory duty was raised in the 2008 report of the Pitt Review into the 2007 floods. The Review took the view that a statutory duty would be beneficial”.
The text of the review states:
“The Review believes that clarifying and communicating the role of each of these bodies would improve the response to flooding. However, we are concerned that the systems, structures and protocols developed to support national coordination of multi-agency flood rescue assets remain ad-hoc. We believe that the Fire and Rescue Service should take on a leading role in this area, based on a fully funded capability. This will be most effective if supported by a statutory duty”.
Following on from that examination and text, it made recommendation 39:
“The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty.”
My constituency was affected by the floods on Boxing day, and we asked many questions following the floods about giving the fire service a statutory duty. The Government’s response seemed to be that the fire service would turn up anyway. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is some complacency on the Government’s part in refusing to make flood rescue a statutory duty?
I will come to that, but in defence of the Government, I would say not that they are complacent, but that they trust the fire service to turn up. What many of us are saying—we have done so in this Chamber and when discussing various Bills relating to police and crime commissioners, which I will come to—is that they should do more than just trust them. They should fund them and give them statutory responsibility for planning, continuity, mitigation and resilience. I will return to that in a moment. The case for a statutory duty on the fire and rescue service is not less than it was in 2008. In fact, the reverse is true, as the pressures are growing, with more and more flood calls, fewer staff, less equipment and more closed fire stations.
As a former firefighter and Fire Brigades Union member and official, the Minister knows that after the second world war, in the ‘50s and ’60s, the union argued to the Government and local government that fire personnel in stations could be used more productively on fire prevention than on cleaning fire stations, polishing the brass and washing out the toilets. I am not denigrating those jobs, which are very important. The disastrous fires of the late ’60s led to the Fire Precautions Act 1971, when the Government suddenly realised that they needed a skilled workforce of about 20,000 people to police and enforce the new safety rules. That is what has changed the British fire service in the last 100 years. Ultimately, safer buildings and fewer people smoking have led to there being many fewer fires, deaths and serious injuries. Perversely, that has led to the huge cuts of the past six years.
The fire and rescue service is the victim of its own success in reducing fires, saving lives and preventing injuries, but at the same time it is evolving into new roles—not just flood response, but medical and social care. The Government are transferring the control of fire and rescue service to police and crime commissioners. The Minister knows that I and many colleagues believe that fire and ambulance services are a better fit, and that link is happening almost despite the Government. Some county brigades in England are reporting that they are attending more medical calls than fire calls.
The London fire brigade and the London ambulance service have just begun a four-borough pilot of first responding and co-responding to specific emergency medical calls to save more lives in London. In the north-west, the fire and rescue service has joint working pilots on social care schemes. The service continues to evolve, as it has over time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) asked about a new statutory duty on flooding, but the Government’s answer has always been that the fire service has attended, so there is no need for one. Fire brigades were attending fires for centuries, but a statutory duty was felt necessary in that case, although it was in only 1938 that it arrived, under the Fire Brigades Act 1938. That Act required every county borough council to make provision for
“the extinction of fires and the protection of life and property in the case of fire.”
Why was a statutory duty needed? Because the situation, service and society were evolving, and something different was needed. There was a recognition that circumstances had changed. The fire service had been providing fire protection for centuries, but a statutory duty was introduced only in 1947. I have also mentioned the Fire Precautions Act 1971.
The fire service has been rescuing people from road traffic crashes for decades, but it was felt that a statutory duty was needed, and the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 was introduced. Along with charities umbrella-ed by Fire Aid, we are deploying that expertise across the world, because we are among the leaders in rescuing victims in road traffic crashes, and we are proud of that.
In contrast, the Library briefing outlines the law in Scotland, stating:
“There is a power in the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 to make orders giving the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service additional functions. A Scottish SI (the Fire (Additional Function) (Scotland) Order 2005/342), creates a duty to make provision for the purpose of… rescuing people trapped, or likely to become trapped, by water…protecting them from serious harm, in the event of serious flooding in its area.
This duty was conferred on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service when this was created in April 2013.”
The briefing then refers to the law in Northern Ireland, stating:
“In Northern Ireland a very similar provision came into force in January 2012.”
The Library is saying that parts of the United Kingdom already have a statutory duty on flooding. Finally, as I have said, section 9 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 gives the Secretary of State power to give the fire and rescue authority functions relating to other emergencies. That is an order-making power, so primary legislation would not be necessary to create a statutory duty to deal with flooding. It works in Scotland; it works in Northern Ireland; so why not in England and Wales? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Gillan. I have lots of conversations with the former Fire Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), because we are good friends and have the same feelings for the fire service, so at the start I should pay tribute to what the fire service did during the flooding over the Christmas and new year period, which was exemplary. I had the privilege of meeting many of the front-line firefighters and other emergency services that took part in that work.
Perhaps I should nudge the former Fire Minister, who does a lot of work with Fire Aid, to declare his interest in it. It does exemplary work and I know he champions it, but he did not mention that during his comments.
May I say at the outset that we are looking for the fire service, working with the other emergency services, to deliver the best possible rescue facilities and prevention work? I do not disagree with many of the points that have been made. I agree that I do not need primary legislation, although some of my civil servants may disagree slightly. I come back to the discussion that took place in 2008, when the Pitt review specifically referred to the role being underpinned “as necessary” by a statutory requirement. That was put before the Government of the day. I rarely do party politics, as most people know, but that was not this Administration or the coalition Administration, but a Labour Administration. Following the Pitt review and following the floods, they did not go ahead with that, but said that the fire service working with the other emergency services could do very well. I think the situation is similar today. The fire service has evolved tremendously.
I may give way in a moment. Time will be difficult.
The fire service continues to evolve and not every fire service will come under police and crime commissioners. Around five PCCs are looking into this, but other PCCs and clinical commissioning groups are considering whether the ambulance service could be included. My views on this are pretty well known. I think the blue light emergency services must work much more closely together than now. I am chuffed that in London we have co-responding, but that is just the start. In Hampshire, there are qualified paramedics who are firemen. I apologise to the ladies, I mean firefighters. When I was in the job, there were only firemen.
It is important to see where the job is going. Yes, we are going to more flooding. We have always gone to flooding, I went to flooding and the London fire service went to a flood yesterday. None of the national resilience back-up was used yesterday. I asked the question before coming here today.
I am a former member of the Fire Brigades Union. I met the leadership and it put similar arguments to me. I will keep the matter under review. I will not comment too much on the numbers, not least because in other parts of the country we have seen firefighter numbers drop, but there has been a different way of delivering the service, including retained firefighters. London still has this policy, which I thought was an anomaly when I was in Essex—it will not allow retained firefighters on to its ground even if in their day job they are fully qualified firemen. I have never understood that and it is something that must be addressed as we evolve. I know that the union is trying to protect jobs, but in retrospect it is probably not doing that.
Lancashire has developed a completely different model. The union there wanted to protect jobs and to keep stations open. There was a risk of them closing so it went to the eight-eight day model, so that they were manned during the day with back-up crews during the evening. That is a completely different model. That is why local decision making is vital.
I am not denying that there are fewer firefighters, but there are dramatically fewer turn-outs. Fire prevention work started during our time in the job. I remember vividly arguing that firemen should go into homes to help to install smoke detectors. The situation has dramatically changed but there are still too many deaths and there is a lot more work to do.
It is often said that there are far fewer fire incidents, but that varies from region to region, as I am sure the Minister is aware. The fact is that there are more and more flooding incidents in this country than ever before. Does that not mean we should be looking at the recommendations of the Pitt review in 2008 and give the fire and rescue service a statutory duty on flood and resilience?
I will try to make my point a bit stronger. Respectfully, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, and the reason is that I cannot find an instance in which the fire service is not doing what it would do if there were a statutory duty. In fact, I have real concerns that, if we put in statutory powers, fire services would have kit—and crews—sitting there, at huge expense, and the likelihood of it being used regularly would be completely different from what it would be in Cumbria, York and other parts of the country.
I know that the former Fire Minister understands this: if we say to the fire service, “You have a statutory duty,” it will put the kit in place. In many places, they have that kit. It would really worry me if we had lots of kit sitting around in areas where we know the risk is very minimal. I will keep the situation under review, but I am confident as to where we are. I am meeting in particular the metropolitan chief fire officers later today to discuss the issue, so I am not in any way saying that I will never look at it. I will keep it under review, but at present our position is like that of the Government in 2008. I accept that there are more flooding situations, but in terms of manning levels, we are going out to fewer calls, even though we are doing different sorts of calls. I remember going to flooding incidents quite extensively when I was in the job in the 1980s.
The Minister talks as though the flood rescue equipment is in a silo and cannot be used outside the area. In my constituency of Heywood and Middleton, we have a water rescue unit, and it was out in Cumbria during the Cumbrian floods. It does not just sit tight and gather dust.
No, and that is the point I would make: that is a mutual aid piece of kit that is used, and mutual aid is becoming more and more important. I will come on to national resilience in a second. If we put in a statutory requirement, the neighbouring service, which went and helped brilliantly well, would have to have that there as well. That is what happens in the fire service if we make things statutory. I am confident about where we are, but I will continue to talk to the chiefs.
There are areas where I think we could move. I am thinking of the high-velocity pumps—they were never there when I was in the job, and I pay tribute to the previous Labour Administration who brought in that national asset—and where they sit. For instance, Sussex is about to take one of those pumps as part of its assets, which it will share in a mutual aid situation. I know the fire service listens to everything that the Fire and Police Minister says: I am looking to see whether we can develop that better around the country so that those assets sit where the risks would be, rather than it coming to, perhaps, a Cobra situation and us saying, “We will deploy,” which has a cost implication, or people requesting the deployment. I am talking about improving things in predictability terms. For instance, after we had the floods over Christmas and the new year, there was a prediction that we would have another such situation, and of course the question then is: do we pre-deploy or do we not pre-deploy? Those assets should be sitting out there. I think that they should be sitting out there as an asset of the services, within reason, and we are going to look to see how we can do that.
When we are looking at who decides what should be in place and in which area, the experts are the people on the front line, the people who are putting the local plans together, and an awful lot will be learned from what happened during the flooding. For instance, when I was in Lancashire, one of the crew, who had been up to their waists in floodwater for most of the day, said to me, “With all due respect, sir, we couldn’t use the radios because of the risk with the water. We couldn’t drive our appliances into areas where we saw the Army driving their appliances, because our vehicles frankly couldn’t take that,” and several vehicles were damaged because of floodwater.
It is not just the firefighters who are calling for a statutory duty; it is also the chief officers in flood areas such as North Yorkshire. That is based on evidence as a result of the floods in 2015. They believe that a statutory duty would help them with preventive work as well as, obviously, dealing with flooding situations. They are saying that it is an imperative, so will the Minister listen to those chiefs?
I do listen to the chiefs. They are firefighters as well, interestingly enough. I am sure that they would like to be classed as firefighters, not separate from firefighters—we may make a few enemies with some chief firefighters, but that is semantics. I do listen to the chiefs, and other chiefs in other parts of the country are not saying the same thing. What we need to do is ensure that we have the assets in the right place. To go back to the point about Lancashire, one of the crews said to me, “We did not have a flotation platform, so we were using salvage sheets and ladders,” which I trained with all those years ago; people would think we had moved on from there. I understand that that service is now looking at deploying that piece of kit. It does not take up a huge amount of space. It uses compressed air.
We have to look very carefully at this matter, and the brigadiers’ report on how the resilience worked during the flooding is crucial as well. We had a situation in which the Army could get in, because it was using what I still call 4-tonne trucks, but when we tried to follow them with fire appliances, many of them broke down and were severely damaged. That had a lot to do with the air intake and with positioning. People would think that in the 21st century we would have learned how to deal with those situations, but actually that is what we were learning. We also know that the cars of crews who came in and parked in one particular fire station were destroyed by flooding. We therefore need to look very carefully at the resilience that is there, and that is one reason why I am looking very carefully at the pumps.
The point I want to make is that we can change the title and say, “You should do this and you should do that,” but we have to ask whether the services are doing that first and whether that is the best utilisation of what we are asking them to do. There are some chiefs who take the view referred to, and the FBU has been running a very long campaign on this matter; it goes way back to when the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was the Fire Minister. However, I am of the same opinion as the 2008 Minister: if necessary, we could do this, but at present—
I am glad that the Minister has at least said that he will keep the situation under review. The best argument he has is that a statutory duty would force all 40-odd fire brigades in England and Wales to buy the equipment when some of them may well not need it—but then a number of us have been advocating fewer fire authorities for a considerable time. It would be much better to have regional structures and fewer chief fire officers and fewer fire and rescue authorities. That streamlining would be better. The key point here is that whether it is because of climate change or just weather patterns changing, floods are on the up; they are increasing exponentially. We need the equipment and resources to deal with that, and people think that a statutory duty is the only way to get the Government to focus on ensuring that those resources are available.
I agree that the fire service is top-heavy in administration terms, which is why I am looking at PCCs who want to take over that administration and limit those costs, so that we have more money for the frontline; I am sure that we would all agree with that. Perhaps it is a question for another debate, on the number of fire and rescue services. That is a really emotive subject, because a local community relate, they tell me, to their fire service.
I go back to the decision that was made in 2008. Devolved Assemblies will make their decisions on their priorities in their way. I have no evidence whatever that creating a statutory duty would enable our firefighters to do their job in regard to flood rescue and prevention any differently from how they do it now. However, I have said that I will keep an open mind. It is not a uniform view across the myriad fire and rescue services in this country that this should be statutory. The union has a view, and in most cases I agree with many of the things that the union says. I would do: I was a branch secretary for a short time. But on this issue, I do not agree, and the leadership know that I do not, so it will not come as a big surprise to them. This is really personal to me. I am sure the former Fire Minister will appreciate that if I thought that in any way, shape or form, this would do what it says on the tin, I would do it. I have real misgivings that actually there would be ongoing costs that would be disproportionate to what we were trying to do.
It has been very useful to discuss this issue this morning. I can probably look forward to further debates with the former Fire Minister and I am pleased to be giving him a few seconds now to respond.
Hesitation robbed me of another three seconds, but I am grateful to the Minister for this brief opportunity. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for turning up to support the debate. The Minister knows that there are Government Members who have a similar view. It is reassuring that he is prepared to keep this matter under review. Many of us, right across the country, are very worried about the level of cuts, because obviously if we have cuts and cuts and cuts, we get to a point at which the situation is too dangerous and then the Government start reinvesting. We are drawing attention to the fact that at the moment the cuts are in, if not beyond, that territory, and flooding is one of the additional pressures that the service is having to deal with. Because it is on the increase, we hope that the Minister will look at it seriously and ensure that the brigades affected get the resources that they need.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust
[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered governance of Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am grateful for the opportunity to open this important debate on the governance of Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, a subject that has been the cause of mounting public concern over recent months. It has risen up the agenda as more information has come to light. It is right that we, as Members of Parliament, now have the chance to address it and to air our constituents’ concerns. For some, that is not a concern of just a few months’ standing, but a story that goes back many years.
For a number of patients under the care of Southern Health and, particularly, for the families and friends of those who have sadly died, this has been a long-running and painful saga. We will not resolve it for them today but we can ensure that the issues they care about are properly aired in public and are brought to wider attention. I pay tribute to those relatives and campaigners, some of whom have come to Westminster today. I was glad to be able to meet with them earlier and to hear from them in person before the debate. I also thank the Minister for sparing the time to join us and to hear their experiences. With the permission of the relatives, I will refer to some of their stories during my remarks and other colleagues may also want to do so, where appropriate.
As well as having a connection to the subject as a constituency MP, I have taken an interest in the wider issues through my role on the all-party parliamentary group on Hampshire and Isle of Wight, on which I lead on health issues. The area covered by Southern Health goes wider than Hampshire, of course, and we have invited colleagues from elsewhere to our meetings when the subject has been under discussion.
Since last autumn, we have had a series of meetings with representatives of Southern Health, most notably with Katrina Percy, its chief executive, and other senior directors. Those meetings have allowed us to put robust questions to them and to hear their side of the story. Although I cannot claim to have been wholly satisfied by the answers we have received, I thank Ms Percy and her team for engaging with us on our concerns. Just yesterday, we had a very useful meeting with the new interim chairman of the trust, Tim Smart, and I extend our thanks to him.
On behalf of many other MPs from Hampshire, I commend my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the tenacity with which she has led on the issue on our behalf. She mentioned the appointment of a new chair. Does she feel that, under the new leadership, we will see more assurance from the Care Quality Commission that Southern Health has actually understood what changes are needed for the future? Some CQC reports we have read suggest that the problems that have been raised have not been addressed in a swift manner. Does my hon. Friend share my concern or does she think we will see progress?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s point and I thank her for her work and for standing up for her constituents who have been affected by the issue. We have met with members of the CQC and with NHS Improvement, and we put those points to them directly. I share her concern, particularly on behalf of families and relatives, who would like swifter action in future. However, I am grateful to those organisations for keeping us informed and for taking the time to ensure that MPs are briefed of their actions and plans.
The facts of the issue are well known to many of those here today and to those watching beyond Westminster. However, in opening the debate, it is important for me to recount the broad sequence of events and key facts to help those who may not be familiar with them and because they deserve to be put on the record as the backdrop to the rest of the debate. Let us begin at the beginning.
The tragic starting point of the story was the death of Connor Sparrowhawk. Connor, who had autism, a learning disability and epilepsy, was 18 when he was admitted to Slade House in Oxford in March 2013. The facility was a learning disability short-term assessment and treatment unit run by Southern Health, which had taken it over from the previous provider, Ridgeway, in November the previous year.
On 4 July 2013, Connor was found submerged and unconscious in a bath at the centre. Staff tried to resuscitate him and an ambulance took him to John Radcliffe hospital but, sadly, he died the same day. The initial post mortem examination concluded that Connor drowned as the result of an epileptic seizure. Southern Health carried out a serious incident requiring investigation report and an initial management assessment, and commissioned an independent consultancy to undertake an internal investigation. That investigation concluded that Connor’s death was preventable and stated:
“The failure of staff at the unit to respond to and appropriately profile and risk assess CS’ epilepsy led to a series of poor decisions around his care…The level of observations in place at bath time was unsafe and failed to safeguard CS.”
Following the publication of that first investigation report in February 2014, Oxfordshire Safeguarding Adults Board and NHS England had ongoing concerns about the quality and safety of learning disability services provided by Southern Health in Oxfordshire, and the improvements that needed to be made. They therefore commissioned a further report in June 2014, which was charged with looking at whether the way in which learning disability services were commissioned or managed contributed to Connor’s preventable death.
The new report was published in October last year and contained a number of criticisms. It stated that there had been warnings about the standard of care in facilities including Slade House, and criticised the management processes following the transfer of services to Southern Health. It found that
“for Southern Health to only rely on its normal reporting mechanisms without addressing the…warning and ensuring that information from local managers was accurate was a serious failure.”
It also found that
“the trust did not evaluate or address the known concerns about the quality of local leadership”,
“An over reliance on a ‘business as usual’ approach to this acquisition was not appropriate.”
The report concluded:
“Southern Health should have ensured that any deterioration in the quality of services could be identified quickly and by processes that Southern Health had confidence in.”
That was the first serious criticism of the overall management of the services.
My hon. Friend described a catalogue of disasters. From the conversations she has had, what confidence does she have that the situation has been put right? I represent an Oxfordshire constituency. Can we have confidence in doing business with Southern Health?
From speaking to families, relatives and patients, it is clear that they are struggling to have confidence in the services provided by Southern Health. The very reason that the debate it happening is so that we can air those concerns and, hopefully, find a pathway to restoring public trust. That is clearly the challenge facing the organisation.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I also thank the Minister for the help that he is giving us across Hampshire and in the Southern Health area, and for taking the issue seriously.
Families feel concerned about their vulnerable loved ones. Despite changes in care plans and promises when things have gone wrong, families are not seeing changes. In fact, they feel that, in very vulnerable situations, it is sometimes better to be at home than in the so-called care of Southern Health. That has come up in constituency surgeries. I, like other hon. Members, feel that this debate and other investigations into Southern Health should get to the bottom of that.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the problems communicated to her by families, which echo and reflect the precise concerns about which the families sitting in the Public Gallery feel strongly. They emphasise that this is not an isolated issue. This is something that we all need to take seriously.
The Mazars report is the next chapter in this story. At the request of Connor’s family, NHS England commissioned an independent report into the deaths of people with learning disabilities or mental health problems while under Southern Health’s care. The report reviewed the deaths of people in receipt of care from mental health and learning disability services in the trust between April 2011 and March 2015. The report sought to establish the extent of unexpected deaths in those services and to identify issues that needed further investigation.
The report was published in December 2015, and its main findings included, first, that many investigations into deaths were of “poor quality” and took too long to complete. Secondly:
“There was a lack of leadership, focus and sufficient time spent in the Trust on carefully reporting and investigating…deaths”.
Thirdly, there was a lack of family involvement in investigations after a death and, fourthly, opportunities for the trust to learn and improve were missed.
Of the 1,454 deaths recorded at the trust during the period under investigation, 722 were categorised by the trust as unexpected. Of those, the review looked at 540 and found that only 272 unexpected deaths received a significant investigation. The report did not specify how many investigations there should have been, but it drew attention to the limited number of deaths that were investigated in different categories. The trust has questioned the use of some of those figures, but the picture painted overall was one of inconsistent standards for investigations, raising the worrying prospect that an unspecified number of deaths may not have been investigated properly. The question of whether there may have been other preventable deaths like that of Connor Sparrowhawk could not be definitively answered, which has led to a great deal of concern among the trust’s patients and something of a breakdown in confidence. Understandably, people want to know that they or their loved ones will be safe in the care of Southern Health. Those whose relatives have died while under the trust’s care need reassurance that the investigations were properly conducted and that the deaths were not also the result of avoidable errors.
My constituent Richard West is one of those relatives. His son, David, died in 2013, and he has been seeking answers from the trust ever since. At times, the handling of his case has been very poor indeed. Mr West, a former detective and policeman, says that he was ignored and was even told by a representative of the trust that the deaths of patients in its care were “like an airline losing baggage.” I know from speaking to other families that others have experienced similarly insensitive treatment.
The Mazars report contained serious and specific criticisms of the trust and its management. In particular, it levelled criticism at the board itself for the failures. It found that
“there has been a lack of leadership, focus and sufficient time spent on reporting and investigating unexpected deaths of Mental Health and Learning Disability service users at all levels of the Trust including at the Trust Board.”
I applaud the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on her excellent speech. In just about any other organisation, such a searing indictment of the board and, by implication, its executives would have resulted in their resigning. Is she surprised that they did not simply stand down and accept responsibility, as they should have?
There is a lot of pressure from the public, patients and families for people to step down, and the resignation of the chairman of the board is a reflection of the seriousness with which Southern Health takes this issue.
The report continued:
“Due to a lack of strategic focus relating to mortality and to the relatively small numbers of deaths in comparison with total reported safety incidents this has resulted in deaths having little prominence at Board level… There are a number of facets to this poor leadership…: a failure to consistently improve the quality of investigations and of the subsequent reports; a lack of Board challenge to the systems and processes around the investigation of deaths…; a lack of a consistent corporate focus on death reflected in Board reports which are inconsistent over time and which centre only on a small part of the available data; an ad hoc and inadequate approach to involving families and carers in investigations; a lack of focus on deaths amongst the health and social care services caring for people with a Learning Disability; limited information presented at Board and sub-committee level relating to deaths in these groups…; and a lack of attention to key performance indicators…indicating considerable delays in completing…investigations.”
The report also found:
“There was no effective systematic management and oversight in reporting deaths and the investigations that follow… The Trust could not demonstrate a comprehensive, systematic approach to learning from deaths”.
In what I consider one of its most damning findings, the Mazars report also found evidence of repeated warnings being ignored:
“Despite the Board being informed on a number of occasions, including in representation from Coroners, that the quality of the…reporting…and standard of investigation was inadequate no effective action was taken to improve investigations”.
The report also stated:
“Despite the Trust having comprehensive data relating to deaths of its service users it has failed to use it effectively to understand mortality and issues relating to deaths of its Mental Health or Learning Disability service users.”
By any measure, those criticisms were immensely serious and required a robust response.
Following the report’s publication, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health expressed his determination to learn the lessons of the report and set out a number of measures to address the issues raised, including a focused inspection by the Care Quality Commission looking in particular at the trust’s approach to the investigation of deaths. As part of that inspection, the CQC was asked to assess the trust’s progress on implementing the action plan required by NHS Improvement and on making the improvements required by its last inspection, published in February 2015. Separately, the CQC was also asked to undertake a wider review of the investigation of deaths in a sample of all types of NHS trusts in different parts of the country. That is particularly important because we need to know whether the problems and failings at Southern Health are exceptional outliers or whether there is a similar problem in other parts of the country.
The trust accepted the findings of the Mazars report and apologised unreservedly for the failings identified. NHS Improvement set out in January 2016 its plans to provide assistance to the trust to ensure that it delivers on plans to implement the agreed improvements, which include the appointment of a new improvement director and the taking of advice from independent experts. All those measures were agreed by the trust’s management, and in January we had a letter from the chief executive officer setting that out.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She is outlining that there is an improvement plan, that the board has agreed and that NHS Improvement is helping, but one thing that seems to be frustrating people, particularly in my constituency, is the lack of a hard date on which we can judge that the corner has been turned. Does she agree that it would be sensible for NHS Improvement, or the board itself, to set some kind of deadline by which a judgment can be made? Otherwise, improvement is purely on the never-never and we will never know publicly whether the trust has got to where it needs to be.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and on her articulate explanation of the issues involved and the tragedies that have befallen a number of patients.
Clearly there has been a failing of clinical governance in the trust on a massive scale. However, I wonder whether my hon. Friend will reflect on two points. First, it is very difficult to deliver improvements in quality in a resource-poor environment, notwithstanding the clinical governance issues, and we know that child and adolescent mental health services and learning disability services have been chronically underfunded for many years nationally.
Secondly, people with learning disabilities often have complex physical healthcare needs as well as mental healthcare needs, and improved staff training needs to be put in place nationally. That needs to be properly resourced and funded if we are to make a meaningful difference and get things right for people in the future.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s observation. There is a challenge here. This is unfamiliar territory for the NHS, and funding will be necessary to support any new attempt to make progress following debates such as this one.
Inspectors from the Care Quality Commission visited Southern Health as part of the planned inspection during January of this year. Following that inspection, the CQC announced on 6 April that it had issued a warning notice to Southern Health, telling the trust that it must make significant improvements to protect patients at risk of harm while in the care of its mental health and learning disability services. The announcement stated that the notice required the trust to improve its governance arrangements to ensure that there was robust investigation and learning from incidents and deaths, to reduce further risks to patients.
The team of inspectors also checked on improvements that had been required in some of the trust’s mental health and learning disability services following previous inspections. They found that the trust had failed to mitigate significant risks posed by some of the physical environments from which it delivered mental health and learning disability services.
On the wider issue of reporting deaths, the inspectors found that the trust did not operate effective governance arrangements to ensure robust investigation of incidents, including deaths; did not adequately ensure that it learned from incidents, so as to reduce future risk to patients; and did not effectively respond to concerns about safety that had been raised by patients, their carers and staff, or to concerns raised by trust staff about their ability to carry out their roles effectively.
All those findings, and the serious step of issuing a warning notice, reinforce the most serious of the Mazars findings. Dr Paul Lelliott, the CQC’s deputy chief inspector of hospitals and lead for mental health, was quoted as saying that the services provided by Southern Health required “significant improvement”. He said:
“We found longstanding risks to patients, arising from the physical environment, that had not been dealt with effectively. The Trust’s internal governance arrangements to learn from serious incidents or investigations were not good enough, meaning that opportunities to minimise further risks to patients were lost.
It is only now, following our latest inspection and in response to the warning notice, that the Trust has taken action and has identified further action that it will take to improve safety at Kingsley ward, Melbury Lodge in Hampshire and Evenlode in Oxfordshire. The Trust must also continue to make improvements to its governance arrangements for reporting, monitoring, investigating and learning from incidents and deaths. CQC will be monitoring this Trust very closely and will return to check on improvements and progress in the near future.”
The CQC published the full report of its January 2016 inspection at the end of April 2016. It confirmed the concerns that had been raised in the warning notice and gave further details of specific issues. The chairman of Southern Health’s board, Mike Petter, resigned the day before the report was published.
On the same day that the CQC published its warning notice, NHS Improvement issued a statement announcing that it was seeking further powers to intervene in the trust’s governance, to ensure that the trust complies with the improvements required of it. NHS Improvement said that it intended to insert an additional condition into the trust’s licence to supply NHS services, which would allow NHS Improvement to make management changes at the trust if progress was not made on addressing the concerns that had been raised.
The additional condition was imposed on 14 April, and the statutory notice contained severe criticism of the trust and its leadership. It stated that undertakings that the trust gave in April 2014 that it would comply with enforcement notices relating to breaches of its governance conditions were yet to be delivered in full. It notes that additional undertakings were made by the trust in January 2016 in response to the Mazars report and summarises the CQC’s findings from its inspection in January, saying that the warning notice had identified “longstanding risks to patients” that had not been addressed. It then said:
“In the light of these matters, and the other available evidence, Monitor”—
that is, NHS Improvement—
“is satisfied that the Board is failing to secure compliance with the Licensee’s licence conditions and failing properly to take steps to reduce the risk of non-compliance. In those circumstances, Monitor is satisfied that the governance of the Licensee is such that the Licensee is failing and will fail to comply with the conditions of its licence.”
On that basis, NHS Improvement, or Monitor, has imposed a new condition to Southern Health’s licence, requiring that it
“has in place sufficient and effective board, management and clinical leadership capacity and capability, as well as appropriate governance systems and processes, to enable it to”
address the failures in governance
“and comply with any enforcement undertakings, or discretionary requirements, imposed by Monitor in relation to these issues.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me for a second time.
One of the frustrations that I think we have all had throughout this sorry saga has been about the lack of any sense of personal responsibility or line management for particular risks. A thought occurs to me. Can my hon. Friend say who at NHS Improvement will take the decision about whether the trust should be given its licence? I ask that because I have a sense that unless we know who that person is, we will not be able properly to take a view about whether their judgment is right. If the decision disappears into a bureaucratic organisation, it may well never emerge in a timely fashion. Does she have an idea of who is responsible? If she does not, perhaps the Minister could let us know what the processes are regarding the taking of the decision and who finally gets to sign on the dotted line that everything is all right, or not.
I agree that there is a real risk, as my hon. Friend says so eloquently, of this issue falling into a bureaucratic abyss. It is absolutely vital that we have clear processes and that the identities of the responsible people and professionals are clear, so that there is a clear line of accountability for users and indeed for MPs.
Following the resignation of Mike Petter as chairman of Southern Health, NHS Improvement exercised its power to intervene to appoint his replacement, Tim Smart, who is now acting as interim chairman. The notice directing the trust to appoint him stated:
“These matters demonstrate that the Licensee”—
that is, Southern Health—
“does not have in place sufficient or effective board management and clinical leadership capacity and capability, as well as appropriate governance systems and processes as required by additional licence conditions. Monitor is therefore satisfied that the Licensee is breaching the additional licence condition.”
Time and again, in report after report, Southern Health has been criticised for its failures of management and leadership, and the effects that those failures have had on the care that it provides. That is why I called for this debate that focuses on the governance of the trust. We all accept that, sadly, tragic failures in care will inevitably occur from time to time, and those at the top of an organisation cannot be held responsible for every incident on the frontline.
Equally, we must pay tribute to the dedicated staff of Southern Health for the excellent care that they give day in, day out for the majority of the time. We cannot and should not tar all of them with the same brush because of the failures of others. However, when clear and systematic problems have been identified, we are entitled to ask that lessons be learned. For me, the most shocking part of the sequence of events that I have just recounted is that right up until this year—indeed, even in the last couple of months—inspectors have stated that necessary changes that have been flagged up as needing action have not been implemented.
When NHS Improvement said in its enforcement notices that the trust was failing in its obligations under its licence and did not have effective border capacity and capability, it used the present tense. That was in April. Since then, Tim Smart has been installed as chairman, and I repeat my thanks to him for meeting my parliamentary colleagues and me yesterday in Westminster. He has been conducting an initial review of governance, and I was pleased to hear that he expects to make some announcements on his findings and proposals within the next month. I am sure I speak for many when I say that we will be looking for some far-reaching changes to recognise the gravity of the situation.
That brings me on to the issue of personnel. I have been asked repeatedly whether I am calling for the resignation of Southern’s executives, and in particular that of Katrina Percy, the chief executive. I have resisted doing so because, as the Minister has said in the House, politicians and Ministers demanding that heads must roll can often cause more problems than they solve. I repeat my thanks to Ms Percy and her team for coming to meet my colleagues and me on a number of occasions to answer our questions. However, I will now say publicly what I told her at our last meeting: I find it difficult to have confidence that she has properly acknowledged the scale of the problems under her leadership or how difficult it will be for patients and families to have their faith in the organisation restored without a visible sign of a fresh start.
Resignations are a matter for individuals, and Katrina Percy has said that she believes her responsibility is to provide stability by remaining in post. I understand that position, but the sheer weight of criticism of the trust’s leadership over a prolonged period while she has been chief executive would lead many to a different conclusion. The fact that NHS Improvement has now taken the power to direct changes at board level if it considers them necessary sends its own message.
It has been my perception that there has been a sort of bunker mentality. Perhaps people are just burying their heads, going through the process and hoping it will go away. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is perhaps a little sense of that pervading Southern Health from the top?
My hon. Friend is insightful in her observation, although I do not think it takes a genius to point it out. The catalogue of criticisms and failings is not new to anyone. I can understand the frustration and anger of families and patients when they feel that no substantive and material action is being taken.
A mechanism is now in place, and I hope the new chairman and the regulators from NHS Improvement will listen to what I and others say today and consider how they can best act to restore confidence in the trust. I thank my parliamentary colleagues for showing an interest, for speaking up for their constituents and for taking the time to voice their legitimate concerns, both directly to the professionals involved and in this debate.
Before I conclude, I again pay tribute to the families and campaigners who have pursued the issue and shared their experiences with us. In particular, the courage and resilience of Sara Ryan, Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother, has been an inspiration as she has continued to demand answers and ensure that the lessons of her son’s death are learned. Since the issue first began to attract significant coverage, more people have come forward with their own stories and added to the demands for action to be taken. They want to know that their concerns are being heard and that the Government and the NHS are serious about resolving the problems. I have heard them, and so has the Minister. I hope that he will be able to give them some of the reassurance they seek in his reply. I look forward to hearing from colleagues from all parts of the House.
Order. Before I call the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), I should say that four hon. and right hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak. I intend to call the shadow Minister at 3.35 pm and the Minister at quarter to 4 to give the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) a chance to wind up at the end. On that note, I hope Members will have self-restraint.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing this vital debate and on her work with the all-party group on Hampshire and Isle of Wight. Everything that has come out or been dragged out since the tragically avoidable death of Connor Sparrowhawk, “Laughing Boy”, has highlighted the severe failings of Southern Health and the wider questions they raise about the treatment of learning-disabled people in the NHS. The facts that have emerged are awful beyond belief and are a shocking indictment of the leadership of the Southern Health trust and the appalling neglect of the most basic care needs and human rights of learning-disabled people.
As the hon. Lady said, we all owe enormous thanks to the courage and determination of Connor’s mother, Sara Ryan, and her family, as well as the other families of those who have died and suffered. Without them, there was a real risk that the hideous truth of neglect at Southern Health might not have been fully exposed. Connor’s family and other families have been let down so badly and shamefully by Southern Health, which did not share information that the family had a right to. The family were treated as the enemy at Connor’s inquest and did not even receive an apology until Southern Health was directly pressed to give one. Even today, as Sara went for mediation with Southern Health on her human rights case, it had not released background papers, as it was supposed to have done.
The Mazars report happened only because of the determination and persistence of Connor’s family. As we have heard, the failings it exposed were shocking beyond belief and have been confirmed by the CQC reports. It is important to remember some of the hideous statistics that the hon. Lady quoted; we should remember that each one is a human life. Of 10,306 deaths, 722 were categorised as unexpected, of which only 272, or 37%, were investigated as a critical incident. A lower proportion—30%—of deaths in adult mental services were investigated. Appallingly, less than 1% of deaths in learning disability services were investigated. Liaison with families was appalling, with 64% of investigations not involving the family.
I will quote what the My Life, My Choice charity from my constituency said in a letter yesterday to the new chair of Southern Health. It is a charity of learning-disabled people, for learning-disabled people. This is how things look from the perspective of people with learning disabilities. It said:
“You suggested that the Mazars report was not very important, or not true. We think it is a very important report. Our members are very worried about people with learning disabilities dying, and their deaths not being properly looked into. We know from Connor’s case that the truth is not always told, so investigations need to happen. Our members are scared because people with learning disabilities do not get the same standard of healthcare as everybody else. The Mazars report told us that if we die, our deaths will not be taken seriously.”
Someone has to take responsibility for what happened. To the families and to the public, it is unbelievable that the chief executive and medical director of Southern Health are still in post. We all understand that due process has to be followed, but nearly three years on from Connor’s death, we must ask: how long will it take before those responsible are properly held to account? That is important not just to atone for a wrong; it is crucial because of the signal it sends to others responsible for the care of learning-disabled and other vulnerable patients. It is crucial in re-establishing public confidence that those leading the provision of care are responsible and are held responsible for their actions.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to this debate. With Sara Ryan I met the Secretary of State, and I have talked and corresponded with the Minister. I know that they too are both concerned to see matters put right at the trust, and to apply the lessons more generally in the healthcare system.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. His point that no one, no matter how vulnerable, should feel fear when they go into our health services is something that should give us all pause for thought in this Chamber. But it is not only about accountability in this case; it is also about making sure that those who are watching us as we go through the process know that an independent, verifiable process will be put in place so that nothing like this can ever happen again, not only at Southern Health but throughout our mental health services.
I very much agree with the hon. Lady, my neighbour and friend, on that important point. I look forward to the Minister’s response as to what the independent oversight will be to ensure security in future.
It will be helpful if the Minister can update us on progress in relation both to the Southern Health trust and to wider concerns in the NHS, and if he can say when he expects the CQC to publish its opinion on the trust’s response to its warning notice, with the possibility of enforcement action being taken. Will he also say when he expects the Government to be in a position to make a definitive statement on the action they will take on the conclusion of the Care Quality Commission’s wider investigation into deaths throughout the NHS? It is an enormously important issue to get right.
We all have to learn from these appalling events. We have to apply the lessons and put in place procedures and the culture so that learning-disabled people and others receive the care, treatment and respect that they deserve, and so that they can be confident that they will get that. An NHS that truly fulfils its duty of care, in which Southern Health so lamentably failed, is the only thing that can come close to a fitting memorial for Connor Sparrowhawk.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) has done the House a service by bringing this debate to the Floor. The measure of cross-party support that she has achieved is evidenced by the powerful speech of the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith).
I hesitated to contribute to this debate because I have not been involved in the cause of the current crisis, which is about the deaths of patients being insufficiently explained. However, I have a history with Southern Health. I explained in the course of an urgent question, which the present Minister responded to on 6 May, that back in 2011 and 2012 my dealings with the trust were, in 19 years in Parliament, the only constituency issue that caused me genuinely to suffer sleepless nights. It was a question not about the way in which people were treated as inpatients in Southern Health establishments, but about a determination by the trust, in concert with a number of other trusts in other parts of the country using similarly questionable techniques, to follow what appeared to be a trend, if not a fashion, to close a significant proportion—35%—of the existing inpatient acute mental health beds.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) said in her intervention that she detected something of a “bunker mentality”. She is absolutely right. The mentality that I detected at that time was a culture of stubbornness and denial about whatever it was that Southern Health wanted to do, irrespective of what other people might wish it to do. The issue at the time hinged upon something that ought to have been straightforward: namely, what was the necessary number of acute inpatient beds to retain. I raised that subject in two debates. Although I have not yet had the chance to meet Tim Smart, the new chairman of the trust, of whom I hear good reports, I hope he will take the opportunity to look up the two debates. One was on 10 November 2011 and, most importantly, the second one was on 18 April 2012. I had information from within the trust that the bed occupancy rates were high. In fact, the bed occupancy rates on average were between 91.9% and 96.7% when I was surveying the data. So it made it rather hard to argue that one could safely close two out of the six acute inpatient units, thus reducing the number of available acute inpatient beds from a total of 165 to only 107.
Part of the reason for the reduction was given quite frankly as a cost saving. It was proposed to save £4.4 million; £2.9 million out of that total would be absolute savings and the remaining £1.5 million would be invested in something called “hospital at home”. The group that we set up in the New Forest, which continues to meet regularly—usually three or four times a year—is called Support our Mental Health Services. It has found no evidence whatever that there has been any significant increase in the amount of support or the quality or quantity of support that people get at home.
Given that, at the time, with 165 beds 53% of patients were detained and just under half the total were people who opted to go into an acute bed if they suffered some dreadful breakdown, I predicted that the figure for those detained would rise proportionately to about 82%. When I made these remarks in public, Katrina Percy took objection to them and sent a letter to Ministers, councillors and Hampshire MPs denouncing my comments as “unfounded”, “scaremongering” and with “no place in the 21st century” because I had pointed out that if someone suffered a severe breakdown, perhaps their best chance of getting a bed if they needed one under the Southern Health regime would be to cause as much mayhem as possible. But it remains a fact that today, as I understand it from sources within the trust, some 80% of the remaining beds are occupied by people who have been sectioned or detained, and that means that the opportunity for getting a bed if you need one, other than if you are sectioned, is correspondingly reduced.
The difficulty that I had at the time in trying to save the beds was that the trust’s clinical director, Dr Lesley Stevens, was determined to go on repeating figures over and over again that there were between 20 and 30 beds vacant at any one time. There were not. Exceptionally, in a short period—if I remember correctly around Christmas time—there was a figure of that sort, but even by the time she was continuing to put that bogus figure forward, that temporary departure from the norm of high bed occupancy had already been left behind and we were back to business as usual with pressure on bed numbers. Eventually, even a proposal that instead of closing both units at once the trust should close just one of the two units scheduled for closure, and see how that panned out, was rejected.
As you can imagine, Mr Hanson, the relationship between me and the trust was pretty much at rock bottom after all the controversy, but both sides decided we had better try to make the best of what was now a fait accompli. Katrina Percy, for her part, promised—and I believe she kept the promise—that no patient whom the trust judged to be really in need of a bed would be denied one, even if one had to be bought in from the private sector. In return I volunteered never to criticise the trust if it bought in such beds; and I never have, because it is most important that it should give beds to those who need them, and that it should not be deterred because of a politician saying “I told you so; look, you are now having to buy in private beds.”
To bring the story up to date, and conclude: there was a double tragedy. The individual tragedy was the death of a young man called James Barton. He was taken on by the trust and became the director of mental health and learning disabilities. That was in about 2014, and in my opinion James was a total breath of fresh air. He reached out to us, and said, “I know we have had all these troubles in the past; I want to build a new relationship”—and he did. In the course of a number of times when James came to liaise with and participate in our group he confided to me that he believed that the bed cutting had gone too far, and he was experimenting with different configurations, in the hope that bringing perhaps about 15 or 18 beds back into the system—approaching approximately half of what had been lost—might get things back into balance. Tragically, in February 2015 James was suddenly found dead at the age of 36, from an unexplained medical condition. That was a huge personal loss to people such as myself, who knew him only slightly. I can only imagine the catastrophic loss it was to his nearest and dearest.
It was also a tragedy from the point of view of people who need acute beds, in my opinion. Although James’s successor, Mark Morgan, has maintained the contact and is a very pleasant person to deal with, the message that I am getting back from Southern Health now is exactly what it was: “Well, we were having to buy in these beds, but we are not having to do it now, and we seem to be back in balance. We don’t need any extra beds.” Incidentally, one of the two units that were closed was at Woodhaven hospital and was only eight years old. I had performed the opening ceremony. The Winsor ward in Woodhaven hospital remains empty to this day.
I have had families coming to see me—particularly the families of people aged 19 or in their early 20s—for whom beds and in-patient availability are the biggest issue. The treatment at home is working, but they need more sustained treatment, and the closure of bed spaces is having a profound effect on the development of those young people.
Furthermore, the beds at Woodhaven were state of the art, with en suite facilities—which is terribly important if someone has to be an in-patient in such circumstances. Many of the remaining beds do not have those facilities. That ward has been standing empty for several years now. I believe a change of culture is needed in the trust. Certainly there is no difference of opinion between us on the point that it is desirable if possible for people to avoid going into a mental health unit as an in-patient. However, to have the confidence to be treated in the community they must know that there will be in-patient beds for the occasions when they need extra support. I hope that that lesson from the past will be borne in mind in future restructuring of the trust. I called the trust’s culture one of stubborness and denial. That may lie in the minds of individuals, rather than in its structure, but that is a matter for people other than me to decide.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing this important debate, and I join her in paying tribute to the families, friends and campaigners who have followed this cause since the very beginning of the tragic chronology that she outlined. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has just given a very eloquent speech. I propose to take the House through a short episode involving a constituent of mine, David Hinks.
However, I should start by noting that the issue is of cross-party interest—the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) is here—and that it crosses the geographic boundaries of Hampshire and Oxfordshire, and other areas covered by Southern Health’s geographic remit. I pay tribute to the Minister for taking the issue so seriously and look forward to welcoming him to Havant tomorrow to talk about mental health issues. I know that he takes the issue seriously, and I look forward to his response.
David Hinks was 30 years old, and he lived in Bedhampton in Havant. He worked as a ticket inspector for South West Trains, and he had a history of mental illness, which included no fewer than five suicide attempts. However, despite that mental health history, he was never admitted to a psychiatric ward. He was offered only antidepressants and group therapy sessions, which fell well short of the treatment and support that he needed. In 2015, he was arrested by the police on suspicion of assaulting his wife. However, despite that quite drastic step, Southern Health again took no immediate action, and sent someone round to his house to check on him in December 2015 a few days after he had committed suicide.
That is just one of the many tragic cases presided over by Southern Health in recent years. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has recounted many others. There has been great public interest in the issue in the Havant constituency, particularly around the time of the Mazars report and the recommendations for action by the CQC. I call on the Minister to do all he can to ask NHS Improvement to recommend improvements in the procedures of Southern Health—particularly in relation to risk reporting procedures, staff training and safeguarding procedures. All MPs have among their constituents some of the most vulnerable members of society, and we rely on institutions such as Southern Health to take good care of them in their time of need. I hope that David Hinks’s death will not have been in vain. Improvements must come and lessons must be learned. I know that the Minister will take Mr Hinks’s case as seriously as the others that he has heard about.
I join others in welcoming Tim Smart as the new interim chair of Southern Health, and I thank him for his engagement, as I do Katrina Percy, who is based in my constituency. The issue is one of substantial public concern throughout the area covered by Southern Health. I hope that the debate will be a catalyst for those who are working hard to change the culture and improve the service, and I look forward to further reports to the House.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing this important debate, and on her heartfelt contribution. She made some excellent points, which I am sure the Minister will be keen to address. It is impossible not to be moved by the catalogue of tragedy that has unfolded at Southern Health foundation trust. This afternoon we have heard the distressing and tragic cases of the most vulnerable people in the country—people with learning disabilities or mental health conditions.
The trust has an enormous responsibility. In my role as shadow Cabinet Minister for mental health I see many trusts across the country, and I am struck by the trust’s size, and the fact that it is responsible for more than 40,000 patients. That is significant in the context of this afternoon’s debate.
We have remembered the lives that have been cut short. We have heard about Connor Sparrowhawk, “Laughing Boy”, who was tragically left to drown in a bath—the same bath in which another patient died in 2006; Angela Smith, who took her own life; David Hinks, who we heard about from the hon. Member for Havant (Mr Mak); and David West, who died in the care of Southern Health. Like too many families, David’s father Richard was repeatedly dismissed when he persistently raised his concerns, and he was treated very badly after the death of his son.
I believe that we are here today only because of the resilience shown by these families, their friends and campaigners. I make special mention of Sara Ryan, Connor Sparrowhawk’s mum, who sadly cannot be with us today but who I am sure will be looking closely at Hansard after this debate. Despite the horrendous way they have been treated after the death of their loved ones, and the barriers—not least financial—that they have faced in their quest for justice, they have never given up in their campaign to reveal the truth.
Only this morning I was at a trade union conference, where I heard from Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. She talked of the struggle that she and the other families of the 96 went through to access justice. I am reminded of the parallels, because she has very publicly challenged why publicly funded organisations can spend significant sums of money on legal fees for inquests, but the families are, in Margaret’s words, left to “beg and borrow”. I have previously asked the Government how much the NHS is spending on legal representations at inquests, to try to shed light on this particularly significant matter. The Minister was not able to give me a reply, but in the context of this debate I urge him to try again. It is particularly relevant and pertinent that we should know how much is being spent while families throughout the country, and particularly in the cases we are speaking about this afternoon, are having to spend enormous sums of money just to access justice on behalf of their loved ones who have passed away.
It should not be left to families alone to have to fight for the answers. Too many people have been denied decent care and systematically let down by the very organisation that was charged with their wellbeing. We have heard about hundreds of unexpected deaths that occurred at Southern Health between April 2011 and March 2015, most of which were not considered to require an investigation. We know that, over the past five years, 10 patients who had been detained for the safety of themselves or others jumped off the roof of a hospital run by the trust. Access to a roof was still permitted to people at risk of suicide.
We have also heard about the reports on Southern Health that have demanded changes and improvements to patient safety—improvements and changes that, by and large, the trust has failed to implement over far too many years. I believe it is a story of chronic management failure. Most astonishingly of all, it is a story of a chief executive who remains in post despite this litany of failures on her watch over a number of years. I cannot imagine a chief executive in any comparable organisation who would still be in post with such a record. I take a different view from the hon. Member for Fareham and the Minister: I do not say this lightly, but I do not believe that Katrina Percy should still be in post. Does the Minister have confidence in the chief executive of Southern Health foundation trust?
Like other Members, I welcome the appointment of Mr Tim Smart as the new chair of the trust, following the previous chair’s resignation. We know that he has recently launched a new appraisal of the capabilities of those involved in the governance of Southern Health, and that is not before time. I understand that he has met some of the victims’ families, and I hope that marks the start of an ongoing and meaningful dialogue, not a one-off encounter. Mr Smart has an incredibly difficult job to do to rebuild faith in the trust and to ensure that governance arrangements are robust and sustainable. Most importantly, he must move swiftly, after months of sclerosis, to ensure that patients are not at risk and that no more preventable deaths can ever be allowed to occur.
When the Secretary of State responded to the urgent question on Southern Health from the Labour shadow Secretary of State last December, he rightly said that, more than anything, people want to know that the NHS learns from such tragedies. But the most recent CQC report shows that Southern Health has not learned from these tragedies. The Secretary of State also said:
“Nor should we pretend that this is a result of the wrong culture at just one NHS trust. There is an urgent need to improve the investigation of, and learning from, the estimated 200 avoidable deaths we have every week across the system.” —[Official Report, 10 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 1141.]
We know that the case of Southern Health is not unique. In my role as shadow Cabinet Minister for mental health, I receive many pieces of correspondence from people right across the country. I was contacted only recently by Richard Evans, father of Hannah, who took her own life while in the care of the NHS.
Hannah had a very long-standing history of complex mental illness. The conclusion of the inquest was that Hannah had died by hanging. The jury’s narrative verdict listed nine serious failings that contributed to her death, describing her treatment as “limited... inadequate...and insufficient.” The coroner further submitted a regulation 28 report in which he included the full jury narrative, stating that it
“revealed a serious breakdown of care in relation to Hannah”,
an individual with
“exceptionally complex needs who represented a very high risk of suicide.”
One of the most serious failings was that Hannah was able to get hold of an electrical cable, which she later used to take her own life.
Hannah’s tragic case shows that failures of care are not the preserve only of Southern Health; they take place in other parts of the NHS and in other parts of the country. We have also heard of at least three deaths this year of young people in the care of Priory Group hospitals. I am in regular communication with Inquest, a charity that works with those bereaved by a death in custody or detention, which sends me details of case after tragic case from across the country.
The Minister must address these questions in his response. I asked him this in an urgent question last month, and I ask again: does he have full confidence in the governance arrangements at Southern Health? If so, what evidence does he have to support his view? If not, what is he going to do to change, reinforce and strengthen governance arrangements at Southern Health? Is he content with the pace of change at the trust and the degree to which the trust’s board has implemented the recommendations made to it over recent months? What steps has he taken to ensure that similar situations cannot arise in other NHS trusts? What steps will he take to ensure that when a family loses a loved one, they are not left to fight and pay for justice on their own?
On that last point, I hope the Minister can go into some detail, because if any good can come from this sorry and tragic tale, it is that new systems are put in place to ensure that no other families are put through the sorrow and grief that the families of the victims of Southern Health have been put through, and that when deaths occur, they receive full independent investigations. Appallingly, such investigations have happened only on a few occasions.
We all understand that the NHS is a vast, complex institution. It deals with 1 million patients every 36 hours and employs more than 1 million people. Of course human error and tragic mistakes cannot always be prevented, but the lesson of Southern Health is that sometimes things go beyond human error. They can escalate to catastrophic levels of systemic failure, preventable deaths and cover-ups; they can descend into a culture of denial and secrecy; and they can end up at the opposite end of the spectrum of decency and compassion that characterises so much of our national health service and the caring professionals who work for it. That is why we call for a full public inquiry into preventable deaths in the NHS, so that light can be shone, families can grieve, and justice can be done. The victims and their families deserve nothing less.
It should not be left to individual families to have to fight and fund their own efforts to achieve justice. The British public, as the owners and funders of our national health service, need to be reassured that every part of it is working to its highest standards, with the best quality of care, particularly for some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) for securing this important debate on the governance of the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. I also thank all Members who have spoken, by way of either significant speeches or interventions. The number of colleagues from the area who are involved—from across the House—gives an indication of how seriously we all take this issue. I urge the trust’s representatives to read the report of this debate extremely carefully, so that they absorb everything said by my hon. Friend and all those who have spoken in support.
May I begin by once again apologising to all the patients and families who have been affected by the failure of the trust to provide safe care for its patients? I met Sara Ryan yesterday when I visited the National Forum of People with Learning Disabilities. I had an opportunity to have a conversation with her, and I met more parents and families today before the start of this sitting. Nothing that an official can write on a piece of paper can adequately describe what it is like to meet and talk to families who have been involved in the sort of things that we are talking about here. This is not the first time I have had such meetings: I have had them since coming into post a year ago. It is impossible to convey simply and straightforwardly all that people feel.
What worries me most—I have said this to families in private and I say it again here—is that I hear the same things again and again. I hear about the frustration and concern about the time taken to get anything done when it has been agreed that something should be done, about the time taken to get any answers about what might be done in the first place, and about the defensiveness in the attitude of the institution being dealt with—my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) described it as a bunker mentality. I do not know whether it is a reflection of a professional attitude—because clinicians and others see things every day—but it is genuinely upsetting to hear people who have lost their loved ones talk about the lack of simple sympathy from those who deal with them. I have heard from enough people in enough different parts of the country to know that what I am hearing is not a one-off.
I also get distressed when I hear through the system that people can be difficult. People have every reason to be difficult, but that is not an acceptable way of describing people who are concerned and upset.
Because this point is made in place after place, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) knows well, by many different types of people, I am not sure that the system’s response deals adequately with some of the individual issues that have arisen over the past year—I will come to that later. I say to the parents and families involved that their individual contact, when they get the opportunity, with Members of Parliament and Ministers is not time wasted. It is easy to say that people will feel that only when they see something done, but the contact has a profound impact on officials and Ministers alike.
The first duty of any care provider is to keep its patients safe. The reports of inaction, bordering on complacency, set out in the recent Care Quality Commission report were truly shocking. I responded to an urgent question on the safety of care and services at the trust on 3 May, and I welcome the opportunity provided by today’s debate to update the House on the actions taken in response, several of which pick up on issues raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and others.
As hon. Members are aware, NHS England commissioned a review by Mazars in November 2014 of deaths of people with a learning disability or mental health problem in contact with the trust between April 2011 and March 2015, in response to serious concerns surrounding the avoidable death of Connor Sparrowhawk. On publication of the report in December 2015, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health asked the Care Quality Commission to carry out a focused inspection of the trust to review its governance arrangements and its approach to investigating and learning from incidents, as well as its progress in responding to Monitor’s action plan.
On 12 January, Monitor announced further regulatory action in response to the Mazars report, including the appointment of an improvement director for the trust. The CQC inspection took place in January 2016 and led to a warning notice and an announcement of further regulatory action by NHS Improvement, which were both published on 6 April 2016. On 5 May, following the resignation of the trust’s chair, Mike Petter, NHS Improvement required the trust to appoint Tim Smart as the new interim chair. Those actions were in response to the persistent failure of the trust’s senior management to address the environmental and governance risks identified by CQC as far back as October 2014.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and others asked about what has been happening. The issue is split into looking at what has happened and—to use that terribly clichéd phrase—what lessons can be learned, and what is happening now and what confidence people can have in the future. That is vitally important.
I have sought assurances from NHS Improvement and CQC that the regulators are now able to oversee a rapid programme of remedial action by the trust, and I understand that the following measures are now in place. First, at monthly progress review meetings, NHS Improvement challenges the trust’s death and incident reporting action plan and its progress. Secondly, at the request of NHS Improvement, the death and incident reporting action plan is currently subject to external scrutiny. Thirdly, Alan Yates, the improvement director, is acting as a direct link from the trust to NHS Improvement, providing support and constructive challenge to the trust’s board in its oversight of the implementation of the action plan and providing assurance to NHS Improvement and other stakeholders about the trust’s approach.
On the work being done to bring the governance question to a swift conclusion, and in answer to the hon. Lady’s question about pace, the interim chair has already overseen improvements to clinical governance and the trust’s response to the CQC warning notice and NHSI licensing conditions. In parallel, he has commissioned an external review of the capability of the board, which extends to executive and non-executive directors and will inform a decision on leadership by 6 July. That will give the chair, whom I met a couple of days ago, the opportunity to review current capabilities with a view to the future. It is important that he has done that.
Tim Smart has also been in discussion with clinical commissioning groups and other trusts across the local health economy about the provision of services in accordance with the NHS five year forward view, and what that might mean for Southern Health. The transfer of the learning disability service in Oxford to Oxford Health will have been completed by the middle of October.
I spoke to Tim yesterday, and I am absolutely clear that he is right to insist on the highest standards of governance, with leadership concentrating on the real business of the trust—patients and their care. We have an imminent deadline, processes are in place and I am confident that a better Southern Health will emerge, but my confidence counts for very little. It is important that I am able to say that to colleagues with confidence, but the real confidence Southern Health has to gain is that of its patients and families and those who are involved. Having met some of them today, I know that that is a difficult hurdle to overcome, but it is the most important one. A description of processes and what people such as me are doing is not sufficient.
It is necessary that I have said what I have said to colleagues, and that I put on the record that I am confident that NHS Improvement’s review process and its ability to make management and executive changes—which will be carried out by Tim Smart, a newly appointed, experienced chair—is a good response to what has happened. The right person is in place with the power and ability to make the necessary decisions, but any confidence in them will come from the quality of the actions taken as a consequence of the powers invested in the chair and NHS Improvement. Unless actions that have the confidence of people are seen to be taken, something will be lacking. It is important that the chair’s judgment is relied on at this stage, and that I am able to reassure colleagues that the way in which NHS Improvement is working with the chair, and the powers that it and CQC have, are appropriate at the present time, but we must see what happens next.
The Minister opened by expressing his frustration that, since taking his post, he has been hearing about similar failings again and again. Of course, it is not just us in this place who hear about those failings, but the public and patients too. Every time they do, they lose confidence in the ability of the health service and the Government to address those failings. What in the steps that the Minister and Southern Health are proposing will break that mould? What will be different about the response this time? How will our response to this crisis restore the confidence of our most vulnerable constituents?
I will address that a little later, if I may, but I will come to it.
I should also answer the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on the chain of accountability for NHS Improvement, and on who makes the decisions there. The decisions are made by Jim Mackey, who leads NHS Improvement. He is a direct appointment of the Secretary of State, so the Secretary of State invests his confidence in Mr Mackey, who makes the decisions on the work of NHS Improvement.
I will now turn to some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham and others. First, on the position of Katrina Percy, I need to be clear: Ministers have no authority to intervene in such matters, and nor would it be right for them to do so. I have been assured by Jim Mackey, the chief executive of NHS Improvement, that agreed processes are in place to review the performance of the senior leadership team and to make any changes that are in the best interests of patients. A Minister has to leave that there, and is not able to express any further view. That there is confidence in decisions taken is clearly of huge importance to Members in the Chamber, as they have expressed, and to others. A process is in place to decide that, and it will be decided by the chair.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern that inspectors have pointed to repeated failure by the trust to close out necessary improvement actions until the beginning of the year. NHS Improvement has asked the improvement director to ensure that the trust does not treat actions as complete until sufficient robust evidence supports that claim. The repeated failure to complete actions is one of the things that I will come on to in answer to my hon. Friend’s questions. When people are told what to do by a serious regulator, why do they not just do it? Why do they not do it in Southern Health, but do it in other places? What is the point of accountability and what is the process whereby in other parts of public service something is demanded by a regulator—say, in the acute part of the NHS—and something therefore happens, but something does not happen if dealing with those with mental health or learning disability issues?
Yesterday, Mr Smart told me that his initial view on exactly this point was that the senior executive team had a focus on dealing with Southern Health’s public relations issues, and not really on the care and quality in what was being delivered. That, simply, was why there was no change.
My hon. Friend makes her own point about a conversation I was not part of. I am sure people will read what she has to say.
As I have already set out, a clear and robust process is being taken forward by the interim chair to review the capability of the board and to take any necessary action. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has called for far-reaching changes. I ask that we await the conclusions of the review and look for the right balance to be struck between continuity and stability to ensure that the trust is able to deliver what it has promised. Wholesale change could introduce further delays to making progress on such work.
Recent media reports have suggested that the trust might be split up. I repeat that the priority now is to ensure safe and effective care in the present and in the future for the population served by Southern Health. NHS Improvement is working with the trust to explore all available options.
Members have also asked why the trust has not been prosecuted for historic safety breaches. I am aware of the allegations of historic health and safety breaches made by a former health and safety advisor to the trust, who has also briefed CQC about such concerns. I share the concerns of all those who are asking why it has taken so long to get a grip on the issues. CQC did indeed identify safety concerns back in October 2014 and has provided an assessment of safety in its most recent report. However, it is unforgivable that patients have continued to be exposed to unnecessary risk while the trust has dragged its feet in resolving the problems.
I understand that CQC has now reviewed evidence gathered during the most recent inspections and additional information obtained from the trust and other public bodies, including the Health and Safety Executive. CQC’s review has identified further lines of inquiry, which it plans to complete as quickly as possible in order to inform a decision on prosecution one way or the other.
Is it not the case that following the gathering of that further evidence and, indeed, of other leaked reports of what Southern Health knew at an earlier stage, which had not previously been apparent, the police are now reviewing the case for prosecution?
Genuinely, I am unaware of that. The police may review evidence at any time. If CQC has certain evidence that it wishes to take to the police for prosecution, that is a matter for it. I understand the processes that people would want to go through. It is important for me to offer reassurance that those processes are in place, and that things that for too long have been swept under the carpet are open for examination, which I understand to be the case.
Let me deal with the question of a public inquiry. Ministers face many calls for inquiries, and it is important for public inquiries to be considered only where other available investigatory mechanisms would not be sufficient. Public inquiries are rare events. I argue that the processes now being followed by NHS Improvement and CQC are the best way to put right the safety and governance issues at Southern Health. That does not rule out the dissemination of wider learning from this case through NHS Improvement or, where appropriate, the holding to account of individuals via professional regulation or normal performance management routes.
It is right and proper that we should ask such questions. We can perhaps examine whether the system would have responded in the same way had the trust been an acute trust, as I mentioned earlier. I am passionate about improving the care and outcomes for people with mental illness or learning disabilities by ensuring that all aspects of healthcare for people, whatever the issue that has brought them into the care of the NHS and others, are given equal priority with physical health. That must include regulation.
Let me now deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood). As I have indicated, what I have observed over the past year has worried me. That is to say, there seems to be greater tolerance of when things go wrong in mental health than in acute services. We need to ask ourselves why it has taken so long to resolve those difficulties and to reach the regulatory decisions that are now starting to take effect.
I will therefore be looking at the matter with NHS Improvement, to consider both the effectiveness and the timeliness of regulatory interventions in mental health and learning disability services. I am keen to bring independent leadership into that work, alongside NHS Improvement. A task-and-report group will do a piece of work specifically on that.
Let me name the other places that have upset me during the course of the year. In Hull, there has been a problem with in-patient beds and an inability on the part of the NHS to make decisions about it for more than three years. There was the case of Matthew Garnett, the young man with autism in the wrong place; I could not get information on him for weeks, because of the failure of the NHS to provide what I needed. There are the problems in Tottenham with new mental health facilities, similar to what happened in York, at Bootham Park—how that was closed, and the inability of people to handle it correctly. That is a whole series of cases in which I think things could have been done better. The response has not been good enough. An inquiry into one thing is not sufficient, and the processes are in place to deal with that. Looking at the whole range of why such things happen is really important, and that work is now underway.
No, I cannot, because my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has to have her two minutes.
A further review of the investigation of deaths is being done. It was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, but it will not be completed until the end of the year, when the Department will give its response. This has been a hugely important debate, but it is not the end of the matter. It is a staging post, and people will be able to see things following it. I commend my hon. Friend for raising it.
Thank you for your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hanson. I am also grateful to the Minister for the time he spent meeting families and relatives today. I am confident that he understands the gravity of the problem, and that is reflected in his time, dedication and personal commitment to improving mental health throughout the country. I also acknowledge his apology, which will not change anything, but—I hope—might provide some solace.
The debate is for those we have lost, those let down by the professionals, those for whom help came too late and was too little, families and relatives: more widely, it is for all those with mental illness and learning disabilities. A nation is only as humane as its treatment of its most vulnerable. We here in the Chamber have a special duty to those who depend on healthcare and support. I hope that the debate marks the beginning of a journey towards more justice and compassion.
I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their contribution to the issue and to the debate this afternoon.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered governance of Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust.
Visitor Visas: Sub-Saharan Africa
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered visas for visitors from sub-Saharan Africa.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The word “visa” for a document that permits a visitor entry to or exit from a foreign country is believed to be derived from the Latin “charta visa”, meaning a verified paper or a paper that has been seen. Sadly, for too many people from sub-Saharan Africa, UK visitor visas are documents that are not seen, because of the massive logistical barriers that stand in the way of applying for them and the opaque and often apparently arbitrary decision-making process for their granting.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise those concerns directly with the Minister, and I am grateful to him for making time to meet me and a representative from the Scotland Malawi Partnership yesterday to discuss some of them in advance. The issues will not be new to him or his Department, because they have been raised repeatedly in recent years both by MPs and in the House of Lords through questions and debates and through the channels of the all-party parliamentary group on Africa, of which I am secretary. However, I believe that this is the first occasion since the 2015 election on which time has been made available for a debate on the issue. The timing is opportune, because despite parliamentarians’ best efforts in recent years, it seems that little has been done to resolve the many challenges facing visa applicants in sub-Saharan Africa, and reports of major frustrations and disappointments with the system appear to be on the increase.
The debate is about visas for visitors from sub-Saharan Africa, but I want to look particularly at experiences in Malawi, as that is the country with which I have the most familiarity. The Scotland Malawi Partnership has helpfully provided a detailed briefing. I declare something of an interest: until the election, I worked for the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which is a member of the Scotland Malawi Partnership, and was vice-chair of the Network of International Development Organisations in Scotland, which shares several members with the SMP.
I understand that Malawians are expected to pay for visas to visit the UK by credit card, which very few of them have. Does my hon. Friend agree that alternative payment methods should be accepted so that Malawians do not face an often insurmountable barrier?
Yes, exactly. I will touch on some of those issues, and I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, who represents Blantyre in Scotland, which was the hometown of David Livingstone and is commemorated in Blantyre, the commercial capital of Malawi. The situation she describes is a problem not just in Malawi. The all-party group on Africa’s experience is that the situation in Malawi is symptomatic of challenges experienced across the region. It is a region where, as my hon. Friend alluded to, very small proportions of the population have access to electricity, let alone the internet, yet prospective visitors to the UK are expected to apply online for a visa. It is a region where public transport as we know it in the UK is practically non-existent, yet people are sometimes required to travel hundreds of miles to a visa application centre—sometimes on numerous occasions to progress the same application. It is a region where trade is mostly conducted in cash, yet payment for a visa can only be made online by credit card.
Those points on their own should be enough to give the Government pause for thought and cause them to ask whether their visa application system is genuinely fit for purpose in the region. Those are often only the first hurdles that applicants face, and they are sometimes high enough to prevent an application from being made in the first place. The Scotland Malawi Partnership reports that many of its member organisations—those are often churches, schools or small community groups—that consider the possibility of bringing partners to Scotland and the UK for a visit simply give up at their first browse of the visa application requirements. I understand from the SMP that NHS Lothian, NHS Tayside, Kingussie High School and Aberdeen presbytery have all recently had to cancel visits because of visa complications. They all have their own powerful stories to tell, which I am sure we could make known to the Minister.
This weekend, my wife is holding a fundraiser in Stafford, the aim of which is to provide funds for medical students at the Kilimanjaro Christian medical centre. Two medical students from Tanzania were invited on our behalf some time ago, but they are not able to come, precisely because of the bureaucratic hurdles. All that they wanted to do was attend, visit, give their stories and go back.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing work on international development. I suspect that many local charities that want to bring visitors over encounter exactly those hurdles.
Before coming back to the challenges of the process and the concerns about it, I want to deal briefly with why it is important that people from countries such as Malawi should be allowed to visit the UK. I stress that the debate is about visitor visas. The debate on immigration, asylum and settlement is aired often enough in this Chamber and elsewhere. However, the issues are perhaps connected, because there is a strong sense among those who go through the visa application process that the system is based above all on a concern that people who arrive on a visitor visa may abscond or refuse to return to their country of origin.
I plan to table written questions after the debate to establish what figures the Government hold on the rate of absconding or non-returning, especially among holders of short-term sponsored visitor visas, to see whether that concern is real or imagined. There will undoubtedly be individual chancers who make it to the UK on visitor visas and never quite make it home, although frankly, in my time in Malawi I met plenty of UK and European travellers who ended up on the beach at Lake Malawi and never quite made it home, because they were quite happy to spend their days in the travel lodges or set up their own. There is reciprocity there, but on the whole, people who come here for a short time—especially those who are sponsored or invited by charities and community organisations—come for a specific purpose and are supported and accompanied throughout their visit, often from the moment they arrive at the airport to the moment they are dropped off there at the end.
Visits for school or cultural exchanges, or for speaking or campaigning tours, are designed to have a lasting impact beyond the visitor’s short presence. A school exchange might promote better global citizenship among young people or provide an invaluable training opportunity for teachers from both countries. Visiting artists or musicians might help to inspire new kinds of creativity and collaboration or provide some social focus for the legitimately established diaspora community here in the UK.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I would simply like to put it on record, as a member of the International Development Committee, that it has been invaluable to be able to hear what witnesses have to say, see them, look into their eyes and ask questions prior to making important recommendations and decisions that may affect many people. Although immigration control is important, we have to apply care and common sense in such situations.
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady, and I was going to make exactly that point. A speaking tour that gives witness to the impacts of poverty or the success of projects that help to overcome poverty may help to change Government policy and improve the lives of even more people. Ironically, speakers on such a tour might find themselves running up against the Government’s anti-advocacy clause, but that is perhaps a debate for another day. It is not just ironic but a key concern of mine that visas are denied to, or barriers are put in the way of, visitors who could help to transform our understanding of poverty in global campaigns against injustice. Last year my former organisation, SCIAF, wanted to bring visitors over from Malawi to help to promote its Lent fundraising and awareness campaign—a campaign supported by the Department for International Development’s UK Aid Match scheme—but the first visa application was denied.
One of the first events that I helped to facilitate in Parliament after the election was a major seminar organised by ActionAid to launch its “Fearless” campaign against violence against women. The UK Government have repeatedly and rightly spoken out against all forms of violence and discrimination against women, yet a visa was denied—not once but twice—to Tiwonge Gondwe, a women’s rights campaigner from Rumphi district in Malawi. In response, she said:
“Women in Malawi face violence every day. I experienced violence but now I work as a volunteer to campaign for women and to help realise my children’s rights. I wanted to come to the UK to build international support for women’s rights, but because I’m a volunteer I was told I did not earn enough money. That does not make sense.”
In such situations, disappointment and frustration is felt by not just the individuals but the sponsoring organisations. Long-established, credible organisations, often with worldwide presence and public support, can feel that judgment is being passed on their bona fides when visa applications that they support are rejected. I ask the Minister to consider as a result of the debate what further or different consideration can be given to visa applications that are supported or sponsored by established, credible and suitably registered UK charities, businesses or other institutions.
Visa barriers or refusals not only damage the relationship between the individual and the sponsoring organisation but send a signal about the kind of welcome this country and the Government want to offer. That signal often contradicts the message that the UK is open for business, and that we welcome tourists and visitors who can contribute to our economy, culture and society. They can also send a message that one arm of Government does not know what the other arm is doing, and they undermine the civil society links that the UN has identified as crucial to the achievement of the sustainable development goals. Indeed, I understand from the Scotland Malawi Partnership that there have recently been instances when even applications sponsored by the British Council have run into difficulties.
I will come back to some of the practical difficulties. The Minister yesterday received a copy of the Scotland Malawi Partnership briefing on the issue, which outlines 10 areas of concern about the visa application process. I will not go through all of them, but I will highlight a couple of key themes. A major one is the lack of clarity about how to apply and what to include, with the online application system being a particular barrier. I understand that when SMP representatives visited the visa application centre in Lilongwe earlier this year, they were told that the centre was not allowed to give information or advice about what to include in an application, but only to encourage applicants to look online.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I wanted to come on to the practical difficulties that are being faced by people applying for visas from sub-Saharan African countries. The first, as I said, is the lack of clarity about how to apply and what to include, and the particular barriers faced by people trying to apply online. The advice to the Scotland Malawi Partnership was to look online to see the guidance for filling in an application. When its representatives asked whether they could have a look online, the staff at the visa application centre said, “Well, we’re sorry, but you can’t, because our internet connection has gone down.” If the visa application centre cannot get a reliable internet connection, how is an applicant who might live many hundreds of miles away in a rural area supposed to get online?
The Government regularly report approval rates of between 80% and 85% for visa applications. As I touched on earlier, I doubt that takes into account applications that are started but never completed due to the challenges and complexity of the system, but I suspect that it does include applications that are granted very close to, or on, the day of planned travel. Those visas are then impossible to use or can be used only after the costly rearrangement of plans.
The Government might respond by saying that people should not book travel until a visa is granted, but first, that stands in contrast to the Government’s claim that there is a smooth, reliable turnaround system. Secondly, the effect of that would be either very costly last-minute purchases of flights or incredibly long lead-in times for what are often voluntary or fast-moving organisations trying to arrange a visitor’s programme here in the UK. We heard an example of charities’ efforts from the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) earlier.
Perhaps the biggest concern expressed by stakeholders, which has also been reflected in the work of the Africa all-party group, is the outsourcing of the visa processing function to private companies. With many of the Government’s procurement contracts, it appears that they go to the lowest bidder rather than to who can offer the best service. The hub-and-spoke model of local application centres and regional decision making hubs exacerbates that concern. Indeed, in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, the visa application process for a prospective visitor who lives in, say, Pretoria—in the same city as the visa processing centre and in a country much higher up the UN development index—is undoubtedly vastly different from that of someone such as Tiwonge Gondwe in Malawi, who lives 500 miles from her capital city and the visa application centre.
Of course, the process is happening in countries where the UK has a well established network of embassies, consulates and high commissions. It is unclear why having an additional network of visa applications centres represents best value for money. I hear reports that when visas are delayed or refused, appeals to the high commission can have little or no impact. Will the Minister confirm whether staff at the high commission, or the high commissioner, have the authority to issue or authorise visas in urgent or emergency cases?
It may be increasingly difficult for visitors from sub-Saharan Africa to obtain visas for the UK, but I was pleased to hear recently that a licence had been granted for the import of one of Malawi’s other famous products: Malawi gin. I hope that when it comes to organising formal launch events for the product in the UK, it will be possible for not only the product, but the people who make it, to arrive here safely. I will endeavour to secure a sample for the Minister; perhaps while he is enjoying an MGT—a Malawi gin and tonic—as many of us who have been expats in Malawi have, he can reflect on some of the points I have raised.
For clarity, what steps is the Minister taking to keep the efficiency and effectiveness of the visa application process under review? Is he prepared to receive evidence and case studies from the Scotland Malawi Partnership and others demonstrating their concerns and the patterns of failure in the system, and is he prepared to act on them? What reassurance can he give us about the consideration that he can give to visa applications that are sponsored and funded by credible UK-based organisations, such as charities, schools, churches, universities and businesses? What discussion is he prepared to have with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the role that high commissions, embassies and consulates can play in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the process?
I am grateful to the Minister for his willingness to engage on this issue. He has answered questions in the House, he has attended meetings with the all-party group, he gave up time to meet me yesterday and he is responding to the debate today. I hope that we can continue the dialogue and see some resolutions to the concerns. I hope that he will take my comments in the constructive spirit in which they are intended, and that through such dialogue and partnership we can continue to strengthen the links between Scotland, the UK, Malawi and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Zikomo kwambiri.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate, and I certainly underline to him a commitment to continue to engage. The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would be prepared to consider further representations on individual parables, or examples from the discussions that he and I have had with representatives of the Scotland Malawi Partnership. I will certainly reflect on those. It may be appropriate for me to write to him on the representations that he has made to me separately, on further consideration of some of the facts that have been asserted and some of the experiences that have been described. I certainly give him that clear commitment at the outset.
I recognise that the UK is a major donor to Africa. Scotland obviously has very strong ties to Africa and to Malawi in particular through the Scotland Malawi Partnership, which has been rightly referenced during this debate. That is something to celebrate and I recognise the continued focus to which the hon. Gentleman and other Members will wish to draw attention.
I underline that the UK is welcoming record numbers of visitors. In the year to June 2015, 9 million non-European economic area visitors came to the UK—an increase of 0.5 million when compared with the previous year. We also issued 1.9 million visit visas in the year to March 2016—an increase of 2% when compared with the previous year.
Let me respond to some of the themes that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. Visas are an effective tool for the UK in helping to reduce illegal migration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. They are an important part of the UK’s immigration system, which is fair to legitimate migrants and tough on those who flout the rules. However, I know that, for some, obtaining a visit visa for the UK can seem to be an inconvenience or to put up hurdles or obstacles. That is why the UK has invested heavily to ensure that applying for a UK visa is as straightforward as we can make it. We have upgraded our entire network of visa application centres to increase capacity. We have made our processes less bureaucratic, we ensure fast turnaround times and we offer appointments out of working hours. We have extended our five to seven-day priority service, which is now in nearly 200 countries, including 23 locations in Africa. We have also taken steps such as introducing a passport pass-back service in some locations so that customers can retain their passport while their UK visa application is being processed.
Our super-priority 24-hour visa service is building on the popularity of the five to seven-day service. It has been introduced in Pretoria and Johannesburg in South Africa and we are rolling it out to Nigeria. We judge that all those changes are working to provide greater flexibility and choice. We know that they have been welcomed by many travellers and tour operators. Ninety-nine per cent. of all visit visas are processed globally within the customer service standard of 15 days, with 85% of people who applied for a visa in the year to March 2016 being successful.
Visas, of course, play an important part in facilitating travel to the UK to maintain connections between Africa and the UK, for all the reasons highlighted by the hon. Gentleman, including debate and exchange. They underpin so many of the factors to which he drew attention. In Africa, most decisions are made significantly faster than the 15-day standard; for example, the average is 5.1 days in South Africa, 8.1 days in Cameroon and 7.9 days in Malawi.
I understand that the hon Gentleman is concerned that visas for some anti-poverty campaigners to come to the UK to speak of their experiences, including from sub-Saharan Africa, have been refused. I cannot comment on individual cases, but visitors must satisfy Home Office rules and requirements. I will dwell on this a little because I appreciate that that was one of the central points of his contribution. Some people have suggested that individuals with modest economic circumstances are precluded from being granted a visa, even if a genuine sponsor in the UK is meeting the cost of the visit. I will say in straightforward terms that all visa applications from anywhere in the world are considered on their individual merits against the immigration rules. Applicants should provide evidence to show that they meet those requirements. Visitors to the UK must show that they can be adequately accommodated and supported during their stay and can meet the cost of their onward journey. That is important to ensure that only genuine visitors come to our country and to protect our system.
There is flexibility within the rules for visitors to be maintained and accommodated by friends or relatives and also now for a professional organisation to do so. Entry clearance officers will take into account all information provided by applicants and their sponsors when making decisions on visa applications. They can make inquiries directly with sponsors where necessary. I underline the importance of providing all relevant information and details when making an application because entry clearance officers in essence have to make that decision based on the evidence provided to them. If there is some way to work with parliamentarians to underline such requirements and the information that would be looked at positively—again, we have to consider each application on its merits—that is a dialogue and a discussion I am prepared to continue with not just the hon. Gentleman but others from all-party parliamentary groups and Select Committees. Let us see whether we can help to provide further information. It is certainly not our intention to try to trip people up. It is about looking at these matters appropriately and fairly.
In the year to March 2016, 75% of all applications from sub-Saharan African nationals were granted. UK Visas and Immigration for the Africa region, which is responsible for delivering visa services across sub-Saharan Africa, offers, we believe, good customer service, with a modern and efficient visa service that received customer service excellence accreditation in both 2015 and 2016. All applicants now apply and pay online, which provides a streamlined process, and they can make appointments to submit their documents and biometrics at one of our visa application centres, of which there are 30 in sub-Saharan Africa.
I will dwell a little on some of the cost issues. Again, we believe that the UK visa offer is competitive. It costs £87, is valid for six months and is multiple entry. A Schengen short-stay visa costs around £60, is valid for three months and is single entry. We work hard to ensure that our hub-and-spoke model helps to ensure that visa applications are processed consistently. Consistency in decision making is important and was one of the factors that led us to the hub network. That is important to deliver high standards across the network. It does not represent a deterioration of service for those applicants whose documents are sent to UKVI from the country in which they reside.
I understand the difficulties for applicants in countries without application points and we do our best to mitigate disruption, including through an on-demand mobile application service. We have user pay visa application centres in nine countries in Africa where there are low volumes of applications. We seek to strike a balance in having a network of visa application centres that make things more accessible, particularly when low volumes might not support a full visa service. I know that, for example, the number of visas issued in Malawi was around 1,600 last year and remained fairly stable between 2015 and quarter one of 2016. It is about how to have a sustainable network that is able to meet the needs and provide some accessibility in that way.
I am grateful for the Minister’s constructive tone, but 1,600 applications in Malawi is two or three a day, so why not provide an in-house service within the consular system? Given that the system is remote and online, is there any scope for sponsoring organisations to help with applications remotely from the UK, where we have better internet connections?
On the relationship between UK Visas and Immigration and high commissioners, only decision makers who are entry clearance staff can issue visas. However, we have established arrangements for handling urgent compassionate cases when there are logistical barriers to issuing a visa in time for travel. UKVI works closely with colleagues from other Departments to ensure that our visa service in a given country is appropriate to the local situation and that UK interests in a particular country are given appropriate weight. We obviously have an ongoing dialogue with colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the visa service.
How payment is made was a factor that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) highlighted. When we look at global visa services worldwide—not just from the UK, but from Schengen countries and others—they are moving to digital by default. There are issues of credit card availability for some, so it is open to others to provide their credit card to facilitate payment. It does not have to be made by the individual, but we continue to focus on how to deliver digital by default and ensure that that is understood and recognised.
I want to respond to some of the other points that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. As I said, I am always content to receive representations about the Home Office’s policies and processes and in that spirit I confirm that I am happy to receive evidence and case studies from the Scotland Malawi Partnership. In the context of some of the issues in relation to Malawi, I recognise and appreciate the close connections there. We believe we have a very good visa service in Malawi. The visa application centre in Lilongwe is open five days a week and applicants can provide their biometrics. Again, on the issue of biometrics, we have that network of visa application centres. That is becoming the default for most countries in providing visa services, and we offer the priority visa service that I highlighted, with a five-to-seven day turnaround time for applicants. On customer service standards in Malawi, 97% of Malawian visitor visa applications, including for business visitors, were resolved in line with the 15-day service standard in 2015. There was an average processing time of just 7.9 days for all non-settlement visa applications.
We are keen that the UK should continue to attract business and leisure travellers, who will help our economy to grow further, so in April 2015 we simplified the immigration system for people visiting the UK by streamlining the routes, reducing their number from 15 to four, and by creating more flexibility for visitors to do a wider range of activities. For instance, a visitor with a standard visit visa is allowed to come to the UK for a holiday, take part in a sporting event, attend meetings and visit family, instead of having to apply for separate visas for each of those relevant requirements. That has been favourably received, and certainly we continue to reflect on the visa offering, in terms of both policy and the customer service standards that are adhered to.
I very much welcome the opportunity of this debate and the manner in which the hon. Member for Glasgow North approached it, and I very much appreciated the meeting that we held with the Scotland Malawi Partnership. I look forward to continuing the discussion and certainly I will respond to him formally in relation to a number of the more detailed examples and points that he set out. I hope that that may provide a further opportunity to underline our commitment to those standards and to ensuring that the UK sends a very clear message that it is open for business and open for attracting visitors to come to this country and enjoy everything that we have to offer.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered visas for visitors from sub-Saharan Africa.
Age Discrimination: National Living Wage
I beg to move,
That this House has considered age discrimination and the national living wage.
May I say how delighted I am that you are chairing this debate, Mr Davies?
One of the biggest challenges facing this Government has been the persistence of low-paid work, and I welcome any and all measures to address that, including the national living wage. However, young workers under the age of 25 rightly feel a sense of injustice at having been left out of the pay rise. As of last month, many workers under 25 will have discovered that their pay package is substantially less than that of their older colleagues. About 6 million young people aged 18 to 24 in the UK could be affected. I sought this debate to provide an opportunity to examine the inequality underpinning that decision and to ask the Government to plan for an extension of the national living wage to under-25s.
As it stands, those between the ages of 21 and 24 are currently paid 50p less than the living wage per hour. That is predicted to rise to a difference of £1.21 per hour by October 2020. The margin is greater again for those between 18 and 21, who are paid £1.90 less an hour. It has been estimated that under-25s on the minimum wage will earn just over £11,000 less than an older colleague over the next five years.
We all welcome the recent rise in youth employment. It is up by 94,000 as stated by a Treasury Minister in the main Chamber yesterday. However, this debate is about the value of work. The Resolution Foundation suggests that wages have fallen significantly for young people in recent years, with incomes for 22 to 29-year-olds falling by 12.5% between 2009 and 2014, so I am asking the Government to use the living wage as a means to put that right.
I am sure that the Minister will accept that comments made by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General have rubbed salt in the wounds of young workers, who were already demoralised at being left behind in relation to the living wage. When he outlined at the Conservative party conference the Government’s rationale for taking the decision, he said:
“It was an active choice not to cover the under 25s.”
“Anybody who has employed people knows that younger people, especially in their first jobs, are not as productive, on average.”
What a kick in the teeth for the next generation. We know that young people are often the ones asked to work the longer shifts, lift the heavier packages and work the antisocial hours. I know that from personal experience. When I graduated from university, I started working for a business in my home town dealing with sales both overseas and across the UK. My boss was a good man, but as one of the few employees who at the time was young, unmarried and without children, I was regularly asked to travel at short notice and work out of hours, at evenings and weekends.
Young people are regularly asked to work harder and longer hours because of their youth and are often keen to oblige through a desire to prove themselves and to move up the ladder, but sometimes they feel that they have little choice. Sometimes their circumstances mean that it is easier for their employers to ask them to work the more antisocial shifts rather than older members of staff, who might have commitments at home, so when the Government say that young people are not as productive, how are the Government measuring productivity? What does an underproductive young employee look like? Shockingly, when I asked the Government in a written question for their figures to back up their claims that young workers are unproductive, I was told that they have absolutely no evidence to prove that. In his answer, the Minister told me that
“there are no official statistics estimating the productivity of workers by their age.”
So we know that the Government cannot provide evidence for that claim.
I accept that those embarking on a new role often require training and support from their employers and perhaps represent initially a reduced return on the investment for an employer. However, that could be said of any employee, of any age, taking on a new role or returning to the workplace. I ask the Government to avoid making generalisations that single out the under-25s, and I will give an example of how unjust that could be in practice.
Let us imagine a young person who takes their A-levels at 18 and goes either into training in the workplace or directly into employment. They could potentially be in a job for six years before being entitled to the living wage, but a new employee could start in the same role, sit at the next desk and be paid the living wage, at 50p more an hour, with six years’ less experience, simply because they are over 25.
Alternatively, a young person might study hard at school and decide to pursue an academic route, going to university. Research undertaken by Which? indicates that a typical student on a three-year course outside London might expect to graduate with about £35,000 to £40,000 of student loan debt. Most students on a three-year course graduate at the age of 21. The Office for National Statistics has identified that about 47% of graduates are employed in non-graduate roles, a trend that has steadily increased since the 2009 recession. So a young graduate, who has done all the right things by working hard and getting a degree, is saddled with up to £40,000 of debt as a result, has only a 53% chance of securing a graduate job and is not even entitled to the new living wage. Up and down the country there are countless examples of young people who give it their all and are a huge asset to their firms, yet now face the demoralising prospect of unequal pay.
Having raised this issue in the debate on implementation of the living wage in the main Chamber in April and having asked for a debate on this issue in business questions, I can say that it feels as though the Government have sought hastily to move away from the comments by the Cabinet Office Minister about falling short on productivity and are instead arguing that the ability to pay the under-25s less will incentivise firms to hire young workers. Indeed, when I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on this issue, he replied:
“I…think it is important to do everything that we can to incentivise employers to take on young people.”—[Official Report, 28 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 1564.]
Tackling youth unemployment is a goal that I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House support, but organisations including the Federation of Small Businesses have pointed out that the Government’s approach could see employers wandering into legally precarious territory. Any employer that actively seeks to recruit under-25s to cut wage costs will almost certainly fall foul of age discrimination legislation. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on a number of grounds, referred to as protected characteristics, with section 5 of the Act recognising that age is one of those characteristics. It is direct discrimination if, because of a protected characteristic, one person is treated less favourably than another. The House of Commons Library has confirmed that to recruit workers on the basis of their age would constitute direct age discrimination.
As someone who is under 25, I can say that everybody who is elected in this room is paid on the same basis. Therefore, I find it completely unjustifiable that the same principle does not apply to the outside world. Does the hon. Lady agree that this is yet another example of the Conservative Government’s attitude that there should be one rule for us and another for people outwith this Parliament?
Hon. Members might remember that in the living wage implementation debates, I highlighted that, at times, William Pitt the Younger makes us all feel like underachievers, as he was Prime Minister at such a young age. There are great examples of young people doing well in this place, as well as out in the real world.
Firms interviewing for a role are legally required to choose the best candidate for a position, regardless of age. The employer is forbidden from acting on the financial incentive to hire the younger applicant so how, exactly, do the Government anticipate the incentive will work in practice? In its evidence to the Low Pay Commission, the Federation of Small Businesses said
“our survey data suggests that some businesses may focus their recruitment on the under 25s. However by doing this they run the risk of potentially breaching age discrimination legislation, which should lead many employers to re-evaluate this stance.”
It can only be described as shambolic when the FSB feels compelled to advise its members to avoid acting on those very incentives.
I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the Government’s intention around the 25-year-olds threshold as a financial incentive and if he could respond to the advice of the FSB. If, as a result of the Equality Act 2010, the under-25s threshold is not permitted to serve any purpose in boosting youth employment rates, why have a lower rate at all?
Thankfully, many companies recognise the contributions made by under-25s and are opting to pay them more than the minimum wage. Nestlé employs up to 1,000 people in my constituency and was accredited by the Living Wage Foundation in June 2014 as the first mainstream manufacturer in the UK to become a living wage employer, paying at least £8.25 an hour from the age of 18.
Nestlé’s senior public affairs manager told me that, as part of its European youth employment initiative, Nestlé decided to go above and beyond the basic requirements of becoming an accredited employer, extending its living wage commitment to apply to graduates, interns and those on its fast-start school leaver programme. It said:
“As a major employer in Halifax and across the UK, we know this is the right thing to do. Not only does it benefit our people but also the communities they live and work in.”
Nestlé has joined 2,575 living wage employers up and down the country to recognise that, regardless of age, young people are hard workers. The company knows that it is important to maintain morale in the workforce, and that young workers deserve respect. The Living Wage Foundation is explicit in outlining that the living wage should apply to everyone over the age of 18.
I anticipate that the Minister will most likely point out the difference between the Living Wage Foundation’s living wage, adopted by Nestlé, and the Government’s living wage, and he would be absolutely right. However, the Government did not decide to call their increase in the minimum wage a living wage by accident. Therefore, I am asking the Government to consider adopting the Living Wage Foundation’s principle that fair pay for fair work starts at 18, in the same way that it has adopted its name.
Given that there are several examples of best practice, such as Nestlé, which has independently recognised the benefits of an equitable pay scheme, why have the Government taken the decision to set the bar lower than the standard that many of our more responsible employers are already attaining? In his 2015 Budget, the Chancellor announced that, with the living wage, he wanted to move towards a higher wage and lower welfare country. However, although the living wage has delivered a benefit to thousands, under-25s are the exception. With this Government benchmark, we risk undermining the good work of trailblazers who are going above and beyond in the market place, with the potential to suppress wages for the under-25s.
In April, when the living wage was introduced, The Guardian ran a story about Anthony, who is 23 and works in a London warehouse. He was quoted as saying:
“I was already getting £7.20 an hour … I’m now on £6.70. It’s been cut just because I’m 23 and not 25…I’m getting less for doing the same job…I feel so worthless.”
I think we can all agree that that is shocking and I do not believe that the Government intended for wages to be cut in any way, but that is not to deny that that is the very real danger in sending out the message that it is okay to pay young workers less for no reason other than their age.
I am, of course, willing to accept that minimum wage rates must be set at a rate that firms are able to support, but previous rises in minimum wage rates for young people have not had an adverse effect on employment. Indeed, that was the case when 21-year-olds covered by the youth development rate were moved on to the adult minimum wage in 2010. That is the perfect case study for measuring the effects of a large increase in wages of a certain age group; in that case, it was a rise of 22.8%. The Low Pay Commission has reviewed that case, saying:
“Looking specifically at 21 year olds, there was an absence of negative employment effects in 2011; on the contrary their employment rates, which had been falling, stabilised until the end of 2011”.
When giving evidence to the Low Pay Commission earlier this year, the TUC voiced its opposition to a lower rate for under-25s, saying:
“We strongly oppose a separate rate for 21-24 year olds. The key point here is that while it is true they have higher unemployment and lower pay, their rate of improvement in employment is impressive and faster than for 25-29 year olds. Their rate of labour market improvement shows they can bear increases in line with the National Living wage.”
The TUC was keen to point out that, by setting the threshold at 25, the Government had adopted the highest threshold for being paid the standard adult rate in the developed world, matched only by Greece. Hon. Members might be interested to hear that Japan, Canada, Turkey and Spain start the adult rate at 16, while France, Ireland, Germany and New Zealand pay the full adult rate from 18. Even in America, there is no age threshold apart from the option to pay workers under the age of 20 a lower rate for their first few months of employment. Only the UK and Greece have set the threshold at 25. If the policy worked, surely we would see it reflected across the developed world, but that is not the case.
Looking back to the introduction of the national minimum wage, John Major told his party in 1996 that the minimum wage should be opposed as it would
“price job-seekers out of the market”
and was a policy to “destroy jobs”. I urge the Government to avoid making the same arguments in the current debate because, just three years after Major gave that speech, the Conservatives embraced the minimum wage after it had so clearly boosted wages without harming employment.
There is support for extending the living wage. In a recent poll by Survation, 66% of voters stated that they believe the new higher rate should also be given to workers under 25. There was support from across the political spectrum, with 55% of Tories and 74% of Labour supporters in favour. Even 69% of UK Independence party voters supported extending the living wage.
In conclusion, nearly 6 million young people could be affected by the lower wage rates and it is an absolute outrage that they have been told they are not worth £7.20 an hour, with unevidenced claims about poor productivity combined with arguments about low pay incentives that could see employers who act on them being open to legal challenge.
We would all like to see youth unemployment improve, but debt and low wages are not a sustainable solution. The Government’s adoption of a higher minimum wage is welcome but, unless under-25s are included, that flagship policy will have a great unfairness at its heart. Once again, the Government are on the wrong side of the equal pay for equal work debate. That has to change and I will work with young people and colleagues from across the country to ask the Government to rethink their unjust and unworkable decision, and extend the living wage to under-25s.
It is great to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this important debate, which is significant to many young people across these islands.
It is my gran’s birthday today. She has seen many forms of discrimination removed during her 96 years on the planet, on race, religion and sexuality. There has been so much progress, particularly for women, but there remains a persistent issue of inequality, endorsed by the state, when it comes to age. The differing rates of the minimum wage reflect a situation whereby young people are actively discriminated against because of their age.
In the Scottish National party, the equalisation of the minimum wage has been our policy for many years. While I was convener of the SNP’s youth wing, Young Scots for Independence, a resolution was moved at the SNP conference in 2006. It stated:
“Conference notes that the minimum wage is pegged at different levels dependent on age. Conference believes the current system to be grossly unfair and discriminatory and resolves, in an independent Scotland, to equalise the minimum wage levels.”
Much to my regret, we have not managed to achieve that independent Scotland yet. Nor have we achieved devolution of employment law so that the Scottish Parliament might make that change for itself. I still believe, though, that there is no justification for this grossly unfair and discriminatory practice. YSI renewed the fight on that issue at conference in 2013, giving the SNP’s backing to the Scottish Youth Parliament’s excellent “One Fair Wage” campaign.
I wish to dispel a few myths on the reasons behind the staggering of the minimum wage rate. The Low Pay Commission said in its 2013 report that
“we do not want the level of the minimum wage to jeopardise their”—
“employment or training opportunities.”
I just do not buy that. Young people have a range of options in front of them: work, study, apprenticeships. All that the staggering of the minimum wage ensures is that, whichever choice young people take up, whether it is employment on its own or in support of their studies, they are not legally entitled to the same wage as an older colleague in the same job. That is patently unfair.
Apprentices are faced with a rate of only £3.30 an hour. In many places that would not even cover their bus fare to get to the job, which is an absolute scandal. Do the Government believe that apprentices do not need to eat and do not have bills to pay? That rate compounds existing disparities. Analysis in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills research paper on the evaluation of apprenticeships shows that apprentices are far more likely to come from a lower socioeconomic background. If the Government actually believe that work and training are means of getting out of poverty, apprentices should be much better supported than the current national minimum wage rates suggest. Decent employers offer comparable rates to their apprentices, but they are not legally obliged to do so.
Going further, under-25s have no discount on their bills, on their purchases in shops or on their rent. There must be recognition that an equal day’s work deserves an equal day’s pay. Those in the 16 to 17-year-old bracket at £3.87 an hour may well do the same work as someone in the 18 to 20 bracket at £5.30 an hour or someone aged 21 to 24 earning £6.70 an hour. None of them is entitled to the holy grail of the pretend living wage at £7.20 an hour, and of course none of them is a true living wage, as determined by the Living Wage Foundation, of £8.25 an hour. Research by the Scottish Parliament’s information centre shows that workers under the age of 18 will earn roughly £6,500 a year less than someone over 25. It further highlights that 18 to 20-year-olds will find themselves £3,705 worse off and apprentices will be £7,605 worse off than workers aged 25 or over.
The Government hide behind the myth that the staggering of the minimum wage reflects young people’s lack of experience. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury made that assertion again yesterday:
“For younger workers, the priority is to secure work and gain experience.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2016; Vol. 611, c. 1016.]
Again, that does not stack up. How can it possibly be fair that, by the letter of the law, a young person could start a job at 16 and work there for eight full years to gain the entitlement that a 25-year-old would have walking in on their first day? It is not about experience at all; it is about age discrimination sanctioned by the state.
I mentioned in a previous debate on the living wage on 18 April that I have a constituent who feels that she was dismissed due to being an older worker in a bar. She was on a zero-hours contract and was phoned on the day of her shift to be told that her services were no longer required. That coincided with the introduction of the new higher rate of the minimum wage. My constituent cannot prove it, but it smells very fishy. The response I received yesterday from the Minister for Skills was absolutely woeful. There is no action, and no changes are being made.
As the hon. Member for Halifax said, the staggering of the minimum wage rate gives unscrupulous employers perverse incentives to choose to hire younger workers, perhaps in industries such as catering, cleaning and retail that have a relatively high turnover of staff. Those workers are being exploited, too. Employers can dodge their obligations and try to manipulate the system to save cash, as younger, less experienced workers are less likely to bring a case successfully to an employment tribunal, even if they can pay the fees in the first place. Such employers are likely to get away with it.
The SNP is calling on the UK Government to raise the minimum wage for young people and apprentices or, if they will not do so, to give that power to the Scottish Government to do it for themselves. As part of the SNP’s commitment to fair work, we passionately believe that the living wage should be paid as widely as possible, including to apprentices and young workers. The Scottish Government have done a huge amount of work to persuade businesses in Scotland to take it up. We now have a very high success rate of employers paying the living wage to their employees. We fully support the living wage campaign, and we recognise that the living wage can make a real difference to the people of Scotland. Our Government are a fully accredited living wage employer, which sends out a hugely important signal that the UK Government should also take up.
If we had control over employment law in Scotland, I am certain that we would improve the pay of people in our nation, including those who happen to be under 25. My gran waited a long time to see discrimination broken down; I hope my daughter does not have to wait very long.
I have plenty of thoughts, and I am glad to share them. It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate. I enjoyed the setting of the scene by the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. It is also a pleasure to be one of two males who will contribute.
It is hard to argue with the principle, ideal and intent of the national living wage. We want everyone in our country to have a life free from poverty and a job that compensates them properly for their labour, which is the purpose of the national minimum wage. In Northern Ireland we have some of the highest levels of poverty in the whole United Kingdom, so the minimum wage is an important issue for us.
We are a nation of shopkeepers, and I am descended from a family of shopkeepers. Margaret Thatcher said that we were a nation of shopkeepers—I am not sure whether we are as much as we used to be, but we still have a lot of shopkeepers. As the hon. Lady said, we are debating the principle of rewarding those who put in the graft by getting up to go to work and work hard for their family, but we would not be having this debate if there were not outstanding issues with the minimum wage changes.
We have all heard that small businesses across the country are worried that they will have to pick up costs that they cannot afford and, as a result, may have to lay off workers, who are not just employees but friends and family. That is an important issue. While seeking to improve the wages of people in the 18 to 25 bracket, we have to ensure that the businesses that employ them are able to pay those wages—it is important that we achieve that.
My constituency office—other Members will say the same—has been visited by many 18-year-olds who are setting up home together. That is good, and we want to encourage them, so we help them as best we can with housing. We hope that their wages will be enough for rent, food, heat and enjoying some time together as a young couple starting off. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said that an 18-year-old could be doing the same job as a 25-year-old to the same level of expertise and ability but receive a lesser wage, which is grossly unfair.
Evidence from the Association of Convenience Stores shows that it is extremely concerned about the prospect of the national living wage reaching 60% of median earnings, which is currently projected to be £9 an hour. Retailers report that that is likely to change their staffing structures and affect store profitability. Some 25% of shop owners work more than 70 hours a week, and 20% do not take any annual leave. The May 2013 “voice of local shops” survey indicated that a majority of independent retailers, some 55%, believe that they earn less than the national minimum wage when taking into account the hours they work. Shop owners might not be earning the wage they need, but they do it because they have done it all their life and they want to create some employment for those around them. There are other reasons for doing it as well.
The Chancellor has taken that into account and has offset various business costs such as corporation tax and national insurance. The Government are cutting the burden of business rates by some £6.7 billion over the next five years. Provided that that does not affect tax receipts, it is a most welcome move that will help business owners across the country by freeing them of some of the shackles and obstacles that ambitious and striving small and medium-sized enterprises face in their quest to succeed and expand. The national living wage will hopefully not have the impact that SMEs once feared, but only time will tell. We will see how that works.
It is easy to jump to the assumption that there may be a form of discrimination, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said. Many of us feel that there might be discrimination, and in some cases there may well be blatant discrimination. It is about getting fairness so that people get a wage that reflects their labour and the sweat on their brow. That is what I am keen to see. There are mortgages or rent to pay, as well as childcare costs, family expenses and possibly pension savings, because now when people get a job they are often entered into a pension scheme almost straight away; indeed, people are encouraged to join pension schemes, by the Government among others. It is also important to have a pound or two set back for a rainy day. The hon. Lady referred to her grandmother. My grandmother and my mother are the same in this regard; they always had a pound or two set back for a rainy day, or the “what if?” category. When something goes wrong, it is good to be prepared for it.
Those are just a few of the costs that people have to factor in after being paid as they get older. Before the national living wage, people on the old-style minimum wage also factored those things in. It is true that there are some 21 to 24-year-olds who have all those expenses and more, which why it is important and welcome that the Low Pay Commission will continue to monitor, evaluate and review pay conditions for younger workers when it makes recommendations for future changes to the national living wage. I am keen to hear the Minister’s response to the debate, particularly on how he sees the Government monitoring, evaluating and reviewing those conditions. If those conditions are not right, what will happen?
The fact that changes to the national living wage are possible shows that there is room for movement. I believe that the Government have created some flexibility for the changing, adaptation and correction of the national living wage; the Minister will confirm whether that is the case or not. I hope that what is on the table now will not be, by any means, the end goal. There have to be some possibilities for movement, to secure better conditions for those on the minimum wage.
It is important that we do not disadvantage anyone financially in all of this activity, but at the same time we cannot disadvantage those who need the wage increase the most and those who are trying to get on in their life. Let us encourage our young people. That is why we are here; that is why we are MPs. We want to encourage our constituents, and our young people in particular. There needs to be careful monitoring of how the national living wage plays out in reality for those in the lower pay brackets, to ensure that no one is being disadvantaged by the structures.
I conclude by saying that close monitoring of the situation should allow for appropriate adjustments to be made. It is imperative that it continues in the future and that all essential amendments are made in a timely fashion, to ensure that the national living wage is the success that the Government, the hon. Member for Halifax and the rest of us here today want it to be.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I have only prepared a short speech, so I might give the Front-Bench spokespersons a bit longer to speak. However, I am sure that we are all eager to hear what the Minister has to say.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important debate. It is about a subject that I know she has done a lot of work on, and I commend her for that. This is a really important issue and I agree with her that fair pay for fair work should start at the age of 18. The arbitrary cut-off point of 25 makes no sense; 25 is not the age of consent. There is no reason why this Government should have picked on people under 25. Not for the first time, I find myself standing up in this place and asking, “What have this Government got against young people?”
This Government seem to be intent on attacking young people across the country by putting barriers in their way. They come in the form of educational barriers—the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance—the depletion of local youth services, the increase in tuition fees, the transformation of maintenance grants for students into maintenance loans, which puts those students into more debt, the refusal to address zero-hours contracts and the failure on housing, with the lowest house building figure since the 1920s. In all these ways, this Government discriminate against younger people and now they seem to be using pay in the workforce as another way of undermining our young people.
We welcome the Government’s national living wage, although I prefer to refer to it as the new national minimum wage. The real national living wage would be considerably higher and set independently by the University of Loughborough, which is something we should all be moving towards—a rate of pay that people can actually afford to live on and that is independently assessed. I welcome the pay rise, but I am profoundly concerned that the Government are undervaluing the skills and talents of people under 25, leaving many young people across the country in a perilous position by excluding them from the full living wage.
The legislation fails to address the finding of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in 2015 that younger people face the
“worst economic prospects for generations”.
The commission stated:
“Younger people suffered the greatest drop in income and employment compared to older age groups and now face greater barriers to achieving economic independence and success”
than they did five years ago. The same report indicated that there was a decline in both earnings and full-time employment among younger workers, despite their being more likely to be better qualified than previous generations. We must harness and encourage the talent of young people, not discourage it.
One of the Government’s flagship polices to drive young talent was to deliver 200,000 new apprenticeships and to introduce an apprenticeship levy. However, the CBI has questioned the implementation of that policy, asking “for more clarity” and arguing that apprenticeships will only “help a small minority” of businesses. Also, apprenticeships need to be extended from traditional industrial sectors to meet the growing demands in social care, the tourism and leisure industry, and the digital and creative sectors.
Those 16 to 19-year-olds who are not in full-time education are at greater risk of being in poverty than any other category of people who are eligible to work. Even when 16 to 19-year-olds are in full employment, the cuts in benefits and the rise in zero-hours contracts have meant they face a daily struggle, making it increasingly difficult for them to get on and make a start in life by, for example, getting on to the housing ladder.
Home ownership among young people is below 50% and figures from the Office for National Statistics show that more young people aged between 20 and 34 are now living with their parents than was the case 20 years ago. The prevalence of zero-hours contracts is higher among young people than among other age groups, with 37% of those employed on zero-hours contracts aged between 16 and 24.
Austerity is a political choice and people under 25 should not pay such an unfair price—in the form of low wages and poverty—because of the policies of this Conservative Government. It is scandalous that the Government feel that they can discriminate against under-25s. Age discrimination is illegal under the Equality Act 2010 unless “objective justification” can be demonstrated, and saying that lack of experience justifies this age discrimination is not satisfactory.
In 2013, the Prime Minister proclaimed that young people have “low aspirations” and that his Government would
“get them to think that they can get all the way to the top.”
The Chancellor has claimed that the Government put “the next generation first”. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor speak great words, but they are really empty words that ring hollow, to my ears and to those of young people in this country, whose lives we are discussing today.
This Government have put young people last: last in opportunity; last in funding; last in jobs; and last in pay. We must not condemn younger people to become a lost generation and we must bring the national living wage age-exclusion to an end.
As always, Mr Davies, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who truly has been a champion on this issue, and there is no doubt that we share the same interest in addressing it.
I have made this point before, but I will make it again to echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady. She said that this is not a national living wage and, in fact, the Government are showing audacity in using the words “living wage”, because it is not. The accredited Living Wage Foundation has already made that clear—it is a national minimum wage. There has been a welcome increase, but it is simply not good enough that there is discrimination against an entire generation of young people.
I will speak from my own experience. I stayed on at school when I was 16, but I had to get a part-time job because I was from a single-parent family and the only way that I could continue my studies was to work part-time. I worked twice as hard, for twice as long, for the same amount of money as some of my colleagues, and that is the exact same position that many young people are faced with 13 years on. That is absolutely ludicrous and I honestly do not know how the Government can defend that policy at all.
I will take this opportunity to highlight some of the comments made by my hon. Friends and by other hon. Members today. The hon. Member for Halifax said that there is absolutely no proof that young people are not as productive as older people and I am pleased to hear that the Government have no statistics to that effect, because I am absolutely certain that it is not the case. I hope that the Minister, when he gets to his feet, will confirm that the idea that young people are not as productive is a complete falsehood.
The Government do not want to be on the wrong side of equal pay for equal work, so it is about time they got on the right side of history. To cover the points made incredibly well by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss)—I have also held that same convenorship role in the SNP youth wing, for my sins—it is essential that we dispel some of the myths around young people taking more time to train and it being harder to get them up to speed with their colleagues. There are some incredibly hard-working young people across the country, and this Government fail to recognise that through their policies. When will they reconsider this policy? Age discrimination sanctioned by the state should never be legitimised.
I asked some of my constituents how they felt about things. Being under 25, were they excited by the new national minimum wage? Were they excited to be discriminated upon by their own Government? While Hailey is not under 25, she said that they were discussing it in college, and she was shocked to hear that a girl in her class, who was under 18 but over 16, was getting less than £5 an hour for the same job on the same hours. In fact, Hailey said, the girl was working more hours to get the same money. Will the Minister respond to Hailey? Ali said that it is despicable that companies—and, I would add, the Government—would allow people to get away with paying someone less because of their age. She said:
“That’s age discrimination. I thought that was illegal—it’s certainly immoral.”
I hope the Minister will respond to those points, which were made so well by Hailey and Ali.
The figure of £7.20 an hour, which the Government have set as their new minimum wage—if people wish to call it a living wage, carry on, but it is not—does not reflect the fact that the Living Wage Foundation has stated that £8.25 an hour for those living outside London would be more reflective of a real living wage. For those living within London, the real living wage would look more like £9.40, which is a far cry from £7.20. Forgive me if I am being presumptuous, but the Minister has perhaps been away from the labour market for some time, so he has not been subject to a minimum wage. I am not necessarily so far away from the labour market. I do not remember receiving a minimum wage, and £7.20 is a far cry from any sort of living wage. It fails to take account of the fact that many people under 25 have families, children and homes to provide for. All it assumes is that every young person has the luxury of deep-lined pockets and a family on whom they can rely. I do not think that is the case, and I am pretty sure that many young people, who are absolutely crucial and are working every hour God sends to make money, would not be happy to hear that the Government genuinely think their labour is worth less than some of their colleagues. I look forward to the Minister responding to each of those points.
We should consider the further aspects of age discrimination, which could take the shape of younger workers being employed in preference to their older counterparts—I am sure that the Government do not want to encourage that—as a cost migration strategy. I respect the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Many employers will have difficulty balancing the books due to the new minimum wage, but the reality is that the pressures on small and medium-sized businesses will continue. I am sure that the Government, because they take business so seriously, will do all they can to support small and medium-sized enterprises to deliver a real living wage, instead of creating a further disparity between young people and their voters, who they perhaps prefer.
The ultimate question is this: when will the Government put young people first, instead of simply prioritising businesses, their own agendas, bankers or whatever else they seem to think is their priority? Young people are our future. They are our labour force and our economy—when will the Government start looking out for them?
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this important debate. She absolutely hit the nail on the head when she said this policy is a kick in the teeth for young people. That comment was certainly well received by the Chair.
The Government are sending a worrying message about the generations by pitching them against each other. They are leaving an open goal. They are saying to young workers, “You are not as valuable as older workers.” During the debate we have heard some worrying examples of employers trying to circumvent the fundamental purpose of the increase in the minimum wage by deliberately hiring under-25s. What we have not heard, and I hope the Minister will rectify this, is an indication of a clear strategy from his Government as to how they will ensure that the so-called national living wage is not used by a small number of unscrupulous employers to manage out staff aged 25 or over or to change terms and conditions in a way that would fly in the face of provisions enshrined under the Equality Act.
As part of the shadow Equalities team, I must say that it does not come as a huge surprise that the Government have once again failed to consider equality. We have a Prime Minister who has referred to equality impact assessments as “pointless reports” and “bureaucratic nonsense” and who refuses to conduct a cumulative impact assessment of Government policies on women since 2010. In lieu of that, the Labour Equalities team commissioned research from the House of Commons Library that showed that, as of the Chancellor’s last Budget, 86% of the net savings to the Treasury through tax and benefit changes since 2010 have come out of the pockets of women. The Government appear to talk the talk on equality, but they fail to put in place the fundamental work to ensure that, advertently or otherwise, certain groups in our society do not end up the losers as a result of Government policy.
The Government could have worked in collaboration with key partners such as the Living Wage Foundation or the University of Loughborough to help to pilot the higher rate minimum wage before it went live, but instead it was rushed through so that the Chancellor could score a political hit at the Budget with a shiny new policy. The Government have self-appropriated the term “living wage” to mean their age-restricted minimum wage. That is what it really is, as it is based on median earnings, while the Living Wage Foundation rate is calculated according to the cost of living. That cost of living is the same for young workers as it is for older workers. I have never met a landlord who is willing to rent out a property for less money to someone who is under 25, or a baker who is willing to sell a loaf of bread for less because the person wanting to eat it is under 25. It costs us all the same to live.
We have seen the Government pinch and misappropriate a term to describe a policy pushed through without any proper equality safeguards. Some of the key questions posed during the debate must be answered. What safeguards are in place to ensure that employers cannot manipulate the terms and conditions of their staff to make them worse off as a result of the new higher national minimum wage? What strategy is in place to ensure that workers under 25 are not exploited and that the provisions of the Equality Act are not breached? Will companies be named and shamed? Will there be financial penalties? The Government must put their declarations of being a party of equality into action and demonstrate they are serious about that by answering those basic questions and ensuring that safeguards are in place for young people and all employees in the workplace. Of course, all that could have been thought through much earlier, had the policy not been rushed in the first place.
Young people deserve a better deal than the one they are getting from this Government. What message are the Government sending to young people with wages low, maintenance grants for the poorest students cut and voter registration rules cynically changed to lock young people out of democracy? The number of young people owning their own home is at its lowest level since records began. University tuition fees have trebled. It seems very much that the Government are not on the side of young people, and I fear that the consequences will be severe.
Even the former Tory MP David Willetts, who now heads the independent Resolution Foundation, has said that the Government are creating a “country for older generations”, in which pensioners benefit from constantly rising incomes while the young, their families and children—under-25s can have a family and children—are battling constantly rising prices and falling incomes. He said:
“The social contract is a contract between the generations and in Britain it is being broken.”
The Government must not leave the next generation out in the cold and take them for granted. It seems that the policy of a minimum wage only properly kicking in at 25 has been dreamt up with an idea of young people who perhaps go through higher education and do some internships while living at home with their parents. The reality for many young people is that they are an adult at 18, leaving home and standing on their own two feet. I call on the Government to integrate equality into their thinking right across their policy, so that all groups in society are treated equally.