Tuesday 28 June 2016
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Human Rights in Iran
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in Iran.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am very pleased that this debate was selected. I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the alarming and deteriorating human rights situation in Iran, which has been overlooked recently. This is matter of great importance to many Members, and I am pleased that Members from all political parties in the United Kingdom are here this morning.
For the past two years, discussions about Iran have focused on the country’s clandestine nuclear programme and the international concern over its purpose. I regretted Her Majesty’s Government’s decision to decouple Iran’s human rights abuses and support for terrorism from the nuclear negotiations. I believe that that was a lost opportunity, and that doing so sent the wrong message to Iran.
Figures announced by Iran’s state media and verified by international non-governmental organisations reveal that more than 2,400 people, including many juveniles and women, have been executed in Iran under Rouhani’s three-year tenure. Last year alone there were 966 executions—the highest number in the past two decades. According to the UN special rapporteur for Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the number of executions was roughly double that of 2010, and 10 times that of 2005.
In July 2015, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s middle east and north Africa programme, Mr Said Boumedouha, said:
“Iran’s staggering execution toll…paints a sinister picture of the machinery of the state carrying out premeditated, judicially-sanctioned killings on a mass scale.”
Almost one year later, the Iranian authorities have maintained a horrifying execution rate that is nothing but state-sanctioned murder. There were 73 executions, including many public hangings, across Iranian cities in May. It is clear that no change can be expected; we should expect this horrific trend to continue.
Those figures show that Iran is not only the world’s No. 1 executioner per capita, but, according to a recent Amnesty International report, one of the few countries that continues to execute juvenile offenders, in blatant violation of the prohibition of the use of the death penalty against people under the age of 18 at the time of their supposed crime. Repressions of these contraventions are enforced by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its civic unit, the Basij force, with the active support and encouragement of the Rouhani Government. The law in Iran allows girls as young as nine to be executed for crimes or to be subjected to forced marriage to much older men. That is unacceptable by any international standard, and it is more worrying when one considers the barbaric punishments handed down by Iran’s judiciary. As Iran seeks greater integration with the international community, it is appropriate that we remember those harsh realities. Amnesty International said:
“The surge in executions reveals just how out of step Iran is with the rest of the world when it comes to the use of the death penalty—140 countries worldwide have now rejected its use in law or practice.”
Today, there are those who argue that those abuses are efforts by the hardliners in Iran who control the security organisations and the judiciary to undermine the moderate Rouhani’s reform-minded Government, who seek a more open relationship with the world. I reject that view. Such an assessment fails because it suggests that there are more powerful forces in Iran than the President, which, in turn, means that Rouhani’s position is merely symbolic and that he is thus incapable of initiating reforms. Most importantly, it ignores the fact that neither Rouhani nor his Government have ever publicly condemned and distanced themselves from executions and the use of public hanging. On the contrary, Rouhani has explicitly supported the use of the death penalty. In a speech in April 2004, he described executions as the enforcement of “God’s commandments” and
“laws of the parliament that belongs to the people.”
Those comments show that Rouhani’s views on executions and human rights abuses converge with those of the Supreme Leader and the judiciary. In addition, they expose the fact that there are no forces inside the current ruling theocracy that want to abolish the use of execution and arbitrary arrests. That comes as no surprise to many of us who recognise the real problems with Iran. One should remember that the notion of a moderate force emerging from within the regime is not a new phenomenon. That illusion emerged during the Khatami era in the late 1990s when a policy of appeasement with Tehran based on incentives and economic interests was proposed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. What he is saying is backed up by what happened to Mr Mousavi in the green revolution. Although he was no great reformer, there were glimmers of hope, and they have been dashed. I think that that gentleman is still under house arrest.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I pay tribute to the work that he undertakes on this important issue; he attends conferences in other parts of the country. He is correct to say that there have been people who were considered reformers, but whose efforts have been dashed and whose activities have been curtailed, and they have not been able to provide any kind of glimmer of hope. I will talk more about that later in my speech.
In the month after the nuclear deal, there was a wave of arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, union activists, dissidents, journalists and dual citizens on bogus national security changes, based on propaganda. I will highlight three cases in which the victims received long prison sentences and are under severe pressure by the Iranian authorities in prison. Mr Saleh Kohandel was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for supporting Iran’s democratic opposition, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran. His crime was to support a vision of a free and democratic Iran, where torture and capital punishment is abolished. In a letter from the prison in May, Mr Kohandel wrote:
“My only crime, in their view, are my political activities, and for this reason I have on many occasions been transferred to the Ward run by the Intelligence Ministry and spent months under torture in solitary confinement.”
Another case of grave concern is that of Mr Jafar Azimzadeh, a labour activist who has been on hunger strike for nearly two months in Evin prison. He has been protesting against his unjust imprisonment and the suppression of ordinary workers, including the non-payment of their salaries. Mr Azimzadeh’s life is at serious risk, as his condition is deteriorating every day. Just last month, the judiciary in Iran sentenced the human rights defender, Ms Narges Mohammadi, to 16 years in prison. According to reports, she has been detained and denied her medication—a necessary treatment—as a means of torture.
Those three political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are at risk of losing their lives in prison if the international community does not intervene to secure their release. In fact, their condition is so serious that a group of UN human rights experts, including the UN special rapporteur on Iran, recently denounced the denial of adequate medical treatment to political prisoners as unacceptable. They said:
“The condition of several prisoners of conscience with serious health problems has been exacerbated by their continued detention and by repeated refusals to allow their access to the medical facilities and treatment they so urgently require.”
The hon. Gentleman is making a very measured but highly compelling case. He is absolutely right to highlight the position of those who are, as he puts it, prisoners of conscience and political activists. For many in Iran, it is not necessary to challenge the state, other than to hold one’s own beliefs. I bring to his attention the position of the Baha’i community in Iran. In Golestan province, something in the region of 32 Baha’is have been arrested and sentenced collectively to 238 years’ imprisonment.
I am very grateful for that intervention. I did not intend to cover that issue, but I am aware of it. I have received representations from the Baha’i community about the repression and human rights abuses that they face in Iran. I am covering a lot of issues as it is, so I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman put that on the record.
Those politically motivated arrests occurred in parallel with a series of arrests of women and youths for mal-veiling, posting indecent photographs on social media, and inciting and encouraging others to commit breaches of public decency. Such examples demonstrate the arbitrary character of charges against ordinary citizens in Iran, regardless of faith, which, together with the high number of executions, has no other purpose but to intimidate and to create an atmosphere of fear in society.
In January, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who has had a great deal of interaction with Iran, spoke in Davos about that, the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, specifically, the effect on finance and resources of the lifting of sanctions:
“I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the IRGC or of other entities, some of which are labelled terrorists to some degree”.
The IRGC consists of the people who reinforce the law within the country, and many describe it as not only a revolutionary force but a direct arm of the state. That is of great concern, in particular given Rouhani’s remarks:
“The IRGC has always been a pioneer for solving the crises of the country. Today the IRGC is not only responsible for the country’s security, but also for the security of the countries that need Iran’s help, and it is courageously present in all those scenes”,
as I have described. Under the constitution, the IRGC and its various units are tasked with
“defending and exporting the Islamic Revolution”,
as defined by the ruling theocracy. Sadly, however, the IRGC is to be the main beneficiary of the billion dollars in sanctions relief promised to Tehran under last year’s nuclear deal.
On 8 May, in a speech to the members of the security forces, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed fright about social discontent and the possibility of popular uprisings in the country, calling for further repressive measures—just as the IRGC were to receive more funds from the Rouhani Government under the current budget.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to his work in representing the Iranian community in north London.
Many of us were encouraged to support the lifting of sanctions in order to see a thaw in the repression of the regime. Given the acceleration in the use of the death penalty, the continued persecution of women and minorities, and the crushing of the opposition, however, does my hon. Friend agree that we have been duped?
I am cautious about responding, because I believe that the Minister and the Government sought a solution with the best intentions. The Iranian Government did not comply with the agreement or take part in the negotiations in the same spirit, so I am reluctant to condemn the actions of my hon. Friend the Minister, who has worked hard on this—
I certainly agree with that sentiment. As we have seen in previous negotiations with Mr Rouhani, he did not approach them in the same fashion as our own Government did.
Khamenei described security as a “high priority” for his country, saying that it demanded serious supervision by officials of the security forces, through the
“sound mind, acts and morals of the staff.”
“providing social and moral security”
for the people. Given such realities, the Supreme Leader’s call for more repressive measures should alarm the British Government into reconsidering its policy towards Iran, especially on human rights. Many Iranian experts and human rights activists believe that the domestic repression is an integral part of the ruling theocracy and its ability to secure its grip on power. I and many of my colleagues in all parties in this House share that assessment.
All politics are local and when the regime carries out appalling atrocities such as public hangings and floggings on a systematic basis, it only alienates and angers the citizens. Surely every Iranian leader understands the benefits of stopping the executions and the boost that such a decision would have for their image globally. Yet the Iranian leaders refrain from such a constructive move and even step up the appalling atrocities, risking an outcry of international condemnation. Iranian leaders, including Rouhani, are shooting themselves in the foot—not because they like it, but because the survival of their theocratic system depends on those actions.
The simple conclusion is that the survival of the ruling theocracy puts Iran’s President and leaders in diametric opposition to the interests of millions of Iranians and, in particular, the two thirds of the population who are under 30, trying to overcome repression and dreaming of a free and open society. Our Government’s policy on Iran cannot ignore or underestimate those realities, as we have so far under previous Governments. To do so would have severe consequences for the Iranian people, the region and, by extension, our own interest in the region and the wider middle east.
I therefore welcome the Government’s serious concerns about Iran’s use of the death penalty, as highlighted in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s corporate report on Iran, published earlier this year. I am encouraged by the fact that the Government recognise that the human rights situation continues to be dire since Rouhani took office, and is worsening in many areas, which is in line with the findings of the United Nations special rapporteur on Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed.
I am also delighted that the Government decided to support the latest resolution on Iran in the UN General Assembly’s third committee, which criticised the systematic human rights violations in the country. In November last year, Baroness Anelay, in a statement following the resolution, said:
“Significant concerns remain about Iran’s clampdown on some of the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression, as well as the increasing number of executions.”
I have no doubt that the Government and the Minister will agree that the time for concrete and verifiable improvements in Iran, especially on human rights, is long overdue. We want to see such improvements achieved by the Iranian people, because they would be in our interest. On that issue, we are on the same page and, I suspect, many colleagues will concur with Baroness Anelay that it is time for words to be translated into actions. As such, the UK, given its permanent status on the UN Security Council and its strong voice at the UN Human Rights Council can and should take the lead on the international scene in order to secure the concrete actions called for by the FCO with regards to advancing and promoting human rights in Iran.
I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said, in particular on the lifting of sanctions. Is it not the case, however, that in reflecting the obsession with nuclear arms, we have lifted sanctions against providing funding for the IRGC while gaining nothing in return on human rights? The western world has been made to look very stupid. There is a fine irony in providing funds for the IRGC while criticising and contesting the legitimate claims of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and of the People’s Mujahedin Organisation of Iran, both of which are working towards democracy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work with regard to this cause. As I said, I regret the decision of our Government and of overseas Governments, including that of the United States, to decouple the issues of human rights abuses and Iran’s support for terrorism from the nuclear negotiations. I remain concerned in particular about the funding of the IRGC and, indeed, where such funding is then heading. Many of us are aware of IRGC funding activities in support of terrorism in countries such as Syria and Lebanon. That remains a huge concern for the overall peace and security of the middle east. I very much concur with my hon. Friend. I have to say that the present President of the United States was keen to gain a nuclear deal at any cost. I also agree with the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who said it would be better to have “no deal”, rather than “any deal”.
Another major concern for many Iranians and, in particular, for many of my constituents are the crimes committed against the residents of Camp Liberty—formerly Camp Ashraf—who have suffered seven deadly attacks. On 29 October 2015, Camp Liberty, north of Baghdad airport and the place of residence of Iranian refugees, was attacked by at least 80 missiles, launched by the Iranian regime’s agents. Twenty-four residents lost their lives, and a large section of the camp was destroyed. I am grateful to the Minister, and I wish to place my gratitude on the record: I contacted him after that outrage, and he reassured me that he would provide assistance wherever possible. Camp Liberty remains a great concern for many of my constituents, who have relatives and friends in the camp. The issue of the camp is tied to human rights abuses in Iran, and it is also an international tragedy. The international community should take more action.
In my conclusion, I would like to make the following recommendations to the Government—I look forward to hearing from the Minister on how we can help them to implement and promote policy recommendations. First, the UK should publicly name and shame those Iranian leaders who are known to be responsible for the ongoing atrocities and human rights abuses in Iran and impose punitive measures against those leaders and institutions, such as the IRGC and the Supreme Leader. Those people are committing and encouraging repressive policies.
Secondly, the UK should bring Iran’s appalling human rights dossier to the UN Security Council for a review so that Iranian leaders committing heinous atrocities can be prosecuted in international tribunals. That is particularly important, because that establishes justice for the millions of people who are victims of the regime’s repression in Iran and reminds the Iranian authorities that they cannot blatantly ignore the recommendations of the UN resolutions—their actions include banning the UN special rapporteur for Iran from visiting that country—without consequences.
Thirdly, the UK Government should make relations with Iran contingent on concrete and verifiable improvements on human rights in the country, including but not limited to an immediate halt of executions, torture and arbitrary arrests, and the release of all political prisoners. Fourthly, the safety and protection of Camp Liberty residents must be guaranteed until they all depart from Iraq, and there should be support for host countries—especially Albania—in making their relocation possible.
The message to the Iranian regime should be simple: the UK stands with the millions of Iranians who want their Government to act in a civilised manner, not to be a backward-striving theocracy that survives on repression, barbaric punishment and terrorism. I and many of my colleagues from both Houses of Parliament have on many occasions urged the Government to recognise and support Iranian dissidents and activists who are advocating a free and democratic Iran. Those individuals struggle against the current theocratic regime in Iran, despite enormous personal sacrifices and threats to their lives, to establish an Iran where capital punishment, torture and persecution are abolished and prohibited by law. I am grateful to those who have come to the Public Gallery to listen to the debate and who play an active part in that. I pay tribute to them.
Sir Edward, you have been—and I trust will be again—a distinguished member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, so you will know as I do that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran leader, Maryam Rajavi, has appeared at the Council of Europe on many occasions. At present, she is not allowed to meet here in London with FCO representatives. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be very helpful indeed if the FCO were to agree to meet Maryam Rajavi here in London, to hear what she has to say?
Sir Edward, you must think that this debate has been co-ordinated because some contributions from other Members have been on issues that I have not touched on but certainly agree with. I would welcome the FCO lifting the ban on Maryam Rajavi to enable her to come to this country, explain her position and illustrate what measures can be taken to promote peace and security in Iran.
In fact, I will go on to Maryam Rajavi’s 10-point plan and its benefits. As my hon. Friend said, Mrs Rajavi presented her plan at the Council of Europe in 2006, which is a time I am sure you will remember, Sir Edward. I would be surprised if any Member of this House or the other House could find any point that they would object to in that plan, which, most of all, includes supporting the commitment to abolish the death penalty, which we all agree with. It also supports complete gender equality in political and social rights and specifically a commitment to equal participation of women in political leadership. Any form of discrimination against women would be abolished and women would enjoy the right to choose their clothing freely. It also includes a modern legal system based on the principles of presumption of innocence, the right to defence and the right to be tried in a public court, the total independence of judges and the ending of cruel and degrading punishments.
Those are just three of the points in the 10-point plan and I will not test the patience of the House by going through them all, but I have no doubt that the Minister, and indeed the Government, want to see those values established and promoted in Iran and the wider middle east. Failure to put Iran’s human rights abuses and support for terrorism at the centre of our Iranian policy will only harm our interests in the region and destroy our reputation, simply because such a policy will project weakness and advance the terms dictated by the regime in Tehran. I hope that, following this debate on human rights, we will play our part in ensuring that we help and support the Iranian people to establish these democratic values and principles in their country sooner rather than later. I dare to say that such a policy that backs the Iranian people and their democratic aspirations will have strong support from both Houses, the Iranian people and the Iranian diaspora.
First, may I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on setting the scene comprehensively for us? As he rightly said, the interventions added to that. As Members would expect, I will speak about two particular groups, the Baha’is and Christians. The Minister will know my stance on these issues, but it is important that we make these points clear in this House.
Iran is the powerhouse and major player in the middle east. It is the leading power in the region, yet there is still systematic oppression of minorities, particularly the Baha’i community. Incitement to hatred has been one of the major tactics used to encourage violence against the Baha’is. The regime has attached extraordinary importance to the demonisation of the Baha’i and turning Iranians against their own compatriots.
The incitement occurs at the highest levels of the Government, including the direct participation of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The propaganda has become increasingly imaginative, weaving together a broad and often contradictory spectrum of inflammatory accusations in absurd combinations that attribute every conceivable evil to the Baha’is, including but not limited to espionage for Israel, promiscuity, armed rebellion, cult-like practices, opposition to the Government and animosity towards Islam.
An example of just how effective Government oppression has proved to be is the recent simple visit of Hashemi Rafsanjani’s daughter Ms Faezeh Hashemi to one of the seven Baha’i leaders, Ms Fariba Kamalabadi, who was on a five-day furlough. That visit generated controversy in Iran second to none. Such a simple, friendly gesture caused a high-ranking figure to describe friendly relations with Baha’is as treason against Islam and the revolution. He stated that
“consorting with Baha’is and friendship with them is against the teachings of Islam”.
We cannot and should not stand idly by and such comments happen anywhere in the world, let alone in such a powerful and influential state. We have members of the Baha’i community here today, and we want to make it clear to them that the House will speak as strongly as we can for them. For too long Iran has been let off the hook, but with a thaw in the heated relations with Iran, now is the time to precondition our relations with the state on the basis that it signs up to and implements values that the United Kingdom and the international community can accommodate.
Back on 21 April I asked the Leader of the House in business questions about the nuclear agreement with Iran, one condition of which was that human rights, including religious freedom, would be preserved and protected. It is clear that that has not been the case, and we will make that point in our contributions today. At that time we sought a statement or debate on the subject, and now we have a chance to have that debate. We look forward to the Minister’s response.
We need assurance that there will be religious freedom for all in Iran. Some 1,000 religious prisoners detained because of their faith or minority status are currently in prison in Iran on death row. The regime has gone as far as to appoint a death panel to expedite the implementation of death penalties for prisoners on death row, yet the world remains absolutely silent.
There are 475,000 Christians in Iran, which has a population of 80 million. Iran is No. 9 in the 2016 Open Doors world watchlist of the most oppressive regimes. Converting from Islam is punishable by death for men and life imprisonment for women. There are many people in the Public Gallery from Iran or who have Iranian history, with ancestors and family members out there, and we want to make the case for them on behalf of their and our brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ.
As I said, converting from Islam is punishable in Iran by death for men and life imprisonment for women. Those considered ethnic Christians, such as Armenians or Assyrians, are allowed to practise their faith among themselves, but ethnic Persians are defined as Muslim, and any Christian activity in the Persian language, Farsi, is illegal. Underground churches are increasingly monitored, which makes some people afraid to attend, and at least 108 Christians have been arrested in the past year. Interrogation methods in prison can be harsh and sexually abusive both to men and to women. Acid attacks on women are, at times, a weekly or daily occurrence. Such blatant, direct and indiscriminate attacks on Christians cannot go on. The UN resolution welcomed pledges by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on
“important human rights issues, particularly on eliminating discrimination against women and members of ethnic minorities, and on greater space for freedom of expression and opinion.”
However, we do not see that happening; indeed, we see the very opposite.
The alarmingly high frequency of use of the death penalty is often mentioned. Iran continues to execute minors, in violation of international conventions. It has also been noted that there have been juvenile executions for offences that are not considered the most serious crimes. There is clear and regular violation and discrimination against Baha’is, Christians and young people, so we cannot let things go on as they have.
The regime has at least 60 repressive institutions in the country, including several types of anti-riot agencies, several for torture and at least 12 others for filtering websites and controlling emails. Not only has the regime in Iran meddled in the affairs of Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, but it has even interfered with the BBC Persian TV service, which experienced deliberate interference from within Iran from the first day of the 2009 Iranian presidential election.
Iran’s abhorrent record and contempt for human rights are not just confined to its own state. It exports those things and attempts to implement them beyond its borders. The evil regime in Iran tries to inflict its poisonous ideas on other countries not too far away. Globally, commentary and discourse on the nuclear deal suggests that Iran is joining the civilized world. That was the hope, but the reality is different. The evidence clearly stacks up to suggest the exact opposite. Iran may be seeing an improvement in its relations with the West, but it is not through commitment to human rights or an improvement in the regime’s conduct. We must remember that it is a regime, not a Government or a beacon of democracy. It is a regime that is still, in this day and age, oppressing people within and outside its borders.
Despite the election of a so-called moderate as President, the reality is that the regime remains in charge. Our ally the United States of America lists Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, and Iran is a sworn enemy of Israel and has repeatedly and consistently ignored UN demands that it curtail the nuclear development needed to build weapons of mass destruction—lest we forget its capability in that regard. As the Prime Minister of our strong and indispensable ally Israel put it, the deal
“reduces the pressure on Iran without receiving anything tangible in return, and the Iranians who laughed all the way to the bank are themselves saying that this deal has saved them.”
It is with great dismay that we are having this debate and making such clear statements on behalf of Christians and Baha’is, and others who are oppressed in Iran. Our closest allies are worried; minorities in the region or anyone who dares to speak out live in fear; human rights are out the window; and power is all that the regime seems to have any regard for. We need to keep a much closer eye on Iran and put pressure on it. We need deals that are carried out, and we need to make sure that the commitment to human rights is carried out and that equality exists in Iran as it has not so far. We need to up the pressure on the regime for its inexcusable actions if we are we ever to be able to consider Iran a worthy partner within the international community.
I apologise to you, Sir Edward, and to the Minister and Shadow Minister, for the fact that I must attend a meeting of the Select Committee on Defence at a quarter past 10.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Edward. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this important debate on the desperate human rights situation in Iran. Like him, I have attended the annual gatherings in Paris sponsored by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. At those meetings there are always many opportunities to talk to Iranian exiles from around the world. Perhaps 100,000 people go to those gatherings whose families have direct experience of human rights violations. All too often they have been denied the opportunity to communicate with family at home in Iran, for fear of repercussions; and, indeed, we meet people who have experienced persecution themselves.
The central charge made by all those who have spoken so far, and which will no doubt be made by those who speak later, is that the Tehran Government have completely failed to live up to international obligations on the most basic human rights. In 2013 Hassan Rouhani was elected—a supposed reformer. I use that word loosely, as I do the word “election”, because it is worth remembering that candidates are filtered by the Guardian Council. That was also the story of the 2016 parliamentary elections. They are not free, democratic elections as we know them. Despite the election of a supposed reformer, the situation has continued to deteriorate. According to Amnesty, nearly 1,000 people were hanged in Iran in 2015, as we have heard. That is the highest number of executions per capita in the world, and it has led Amnesty to describe the rate of executions as
“a horrific image of the planned state killing machine”.
The UN special rapporteur on Iran recently announced the rate of hangings as the highest for 27 years, exceeded only by the period immediately after the 1979 election and the removal of the Pahlavi dynasty.
A matter of particular concern—although everything we have heard is a matter of concern—is the breaches of the convention on the rights of the child, which was ratified by the Iranian authorities in July 1994. Yes, that was a welcome step at the time, if it meant anything; yet since that ratification there have been 81 identified cases—there is a strong, and I think firm, suspicion of many more—of people under the age of 18 being put to death. I reiterate the point about how the situation is escalating: 24 of those juvenile murders have happened since Rouhani came to power, including the case of Alireza Tajiki, who was arrested at the age of 15 and sentenced to death in 2013 on the basis of confessions obtained by torture in the notorious Evin prison. It was notorious under the Shah, but my goodness it is notorious under the present regime as well. Mercifully, through the actions of NGOs such as Amnesty the execution was postponed 24 hours before Alireza Tajiki was due to be hanged. Another instance was the case of Mohammad Reza Haddadi, sentenced for crimes that, again, he committed at the age of 15. He has spent 12 years on death row, and his execution has been postponed six times.
In the spirit of the belief that freedom of religion is the birthright of all of us, of all faiths, wherever we live, it is wholly appropriate to talk about the Baha’i community. As we have heard just now from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) the regime has a propensity to demonise, through the Government-controlled propaganda machine, the peaceable Baha’i community. In 2015 alone there were some 4,200 articles in the state-run media against the Baha’i community—12 to 13 articles demonising them every day. The unjustifiable sentences of 20 years in Evin prison given to seven Baha’i leaders are now in their eighth years. Their only crime was to be members of the Baha’i faith.
Jobs and business licences are denied to the Baha’i community; members are denied Government jobs in the civil service, and jobs in teaching and law. They are denied any position of influence. The security unit of the public places supervision office—a chilling description —decrees that Baha’is
“may not be issued work permits in a wide range of businesses, including hotels and tourism, the food industry, jewellery, publishing, and those related to computers and the Internet.”
In other words, they are left to wither at the bottom of an economic heap in that community.
This has not been an orchestrated debate—far from it—but I would like to highlight the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Hendon. The imprisoned union activist Jafar Azimzadeh has been on hunger strike for nearly two months in Evin prison. His crime was that he wrote an open letter to the regime’s deputy Minister of Labour, expressing concerns about workers’ rights. We have heard about the families of the Iranian dissidents in Camp Liberty, such as the political prisoner Saleh Kohandel, languishing in jail because of support for loved ones in the camp. That is a day-to-day reality for Iranians. I have been involved in campaigns for human rights in Iran over the past 11 years, and one of the sadnesses has been the extent to which the media in this country are not mindful of the issues and do not publicise them. There was a flurry of publicity when the green revolution supposedly was happening, which I alluded to in my intervention, but the world media are too quiet on these issues. They need to be highlighted.
The violations will be condemned by everybody in this Chamber. Every year, the United Nations General Assembly adopts a resolution condemning Tehran’s human rights abuses and making recommendations for improvement. Every year, those recommendations are routinely ignored by Tehran. There has been talk—indeed, more than talk; there is practical evidence—of Iran being brought in from the cold, but I urge the Minister to continue his work. This is nothing new; he has a sound record on championing human rights around the world, but he must continue to ensure that human rights abuses are discussed in the international arena. They should be discussed, as we have heard, at the UN Secretary Council. Those found responsible for the ongoing atrocities—there is a long list—should be referred to the International Criminal Court, to face justice. Will this Government make improvements in our relationship with Iran contingent on the end of well-catalogued human rights abuses, religious intolerance, executions and torture?
Our approach to Iran should include an active and direct dialogue with opposition groups committed to democratic change and the most basic human rights that should be common to any civilised society. The debate has moved on. I hope the Foreign Office is mindful of that; it should be. When I first came to this House, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran was a proscribed organisation. The Foreign Office justified that proscription. That proscription was lifted. It has been lifted throughout the world. People understand that the PMOI and Madam Rajavi are fighters for democratic change. That is what she has said, and it is reinforced by the 10-point programme we have heard about.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that intervention. He is right. I have said in debates in the past that there is a grudging acceptance by the FCO that the proscription has been lifted. I deeply regret that there has been a reluctance from the Foreign Office to rise to the terms of that de-proscription. One way it could rise to that challenge would be, as we have heard, to allow President-elect Maryam Rajavi at least to come and talk to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was rather strange when a few years ago, a Committee room was booked in the name of the former Crown Prince of Iran, who came and talked to some of us. We listened to what he had to say about his democratic message, and yet Maryam Rajavi—who has a big mandate from many Iranian people in the country and in exile—has been denied that opportunity. I hope the Minister will reflect on what the hon. Member for Hendon and others have called for, with regard to a visit in the future.
Iran was once labelled “the great civilisation” by one of its former leaders. Closer analysis showed that it was not a particularly great civilisation in the years preceding 1979. If it was not a great civilisation then, my goodness, it is not a great civilisation now. Its people are denied the most basic human rights, and that must change. I think we will have the consensus of this Chamber on that, and I hope that that includes the Minister.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this important debate.
About three weeks ago, I led a debate here in Westminster Hall on human rights in Saudi Arabia. As I return to speak of the record of another middle eastern country, I am mindful that these past few weeks in British politics have not exactly been our finest moments. Present at that debate three weeks past was the late Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), who was a fierce human rights advocate. I have no doubt that she would have joined us today. She and her family are very much in my thoughts.
Practically all political discourse at the moment is consumed with the implications of the vote to leave the European Union. Our place in the world is shifting and is in a period of redefinition. It is important that we do not just spend the next two years navel-gazing. As the United Kingdom—or some of it—exits the EU, it must do so with a clear vision of where it stands in the world and what influence it will be able to exert on other countries, particularly in the middle east. Preparing for this debate was a welcome diversion from Brexit and offered some real perspective on what has otherwise been a rather introspective national discussion.
Whatever issues people have with some sections of our media, we are fortunate to have a free press. The Scottish National party has real concerns that freedom of the press remains heavily curtailed in Iran. As a country, Iran ranks the seventh most censored in the world. It is also ranked 173rd out of 180 countries on the world press freedom index. According to the UN special rapporteur’s 2016 report, as of January this year at least 47 journalists and internet users have been imprisoned in Iran. According to reports from Freedom House, journalists are routinely arrested and imprisoned for propaganda against the state and acting against the Islamic republic.
Article 9 of the universal declaration of human rights states:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”
However, that appears to be exactly what is happening in Iran to those who disagree with authorities. Differing opinions are silenced, with incarceration used as a gag. I will stop short of mentioning specific cases today, but I hope that the Minister will inform us of what recent representations have been made to Iran regarding freedom of press and those who find themselves imprisoned for their journalism.
The troubling nature of Iran’s repressive policing of the press forms part of our wider concerns relating to human rights in general in Iran. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are similarly inhibited. According to the October 2015 report of the UN special rapporteur on Iran,
“the judiciary continues to impose heavy prison sentences on individuals who peacefully exercise these rights.”
In a report earlier that year, the UN Secretary-General expressed concern at the shrinking space for human rights defenders, who continue to face harassment, intimidation, arrest and prosecution.
Freedoms are being oppressed not only on the streets but online. Amnesty International reports that the Iranian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has announced the second phase of intelligent filtering of websites deemed to have socially harmful consequences, and arrested and prosecuted those who used social media to express dissent. In June, a spokesperson for the judiciary said that the authorities had arrested five people for anti-revolutionary activities using social media and five others for acts against decency in cyberspace. Amnesty International also reported that three opposition leaders remained under house arrest without charge or trial, and that scores of prisoners of conscience continued to be detained or were serving prison sentences for peacefully exercising their human rights, including journalists, artists, writers, lawyers, trade unionists, students, activists for women’s and minority rights, human rights defenders and others.
According to the Amnesty International 2015-16 report, the Iranian Parliament had debated several draft laws that would further erode women’s rights, including a Bill to increase fertility rates and prevent population decline, which would block access to information about contraception and outlaw voluntary sterilisation. Even more worryingly, Amnesty reported that women and girls remained unprotected against sexual and other violence in Iran, including early and forced marriage.
The human rights situation in Iran continues to cause the Scottish National party deep concern. When our parliamentary delegation, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), visited last December, it raised the issue of human rights at every opportunity and in every ministerial meeting with Iranian authorities. I will leave it to the Minister to give us more information today about similar recent efforts from the Foreign Office.
Now that Iran has taken small steps to return to the international community, it must address and take firm action on those grave human rights issues. That will not happen overnight, but only with constant effort and mature engagement and dialogue.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this important debate. Many of us will have had this issue drawn to our attention in our constituencies, and I thank the many individual Christians, church groups and members of the Baha’i faith in my constituency for bringing their concerns to the fore. Of course, some of the tireless campaigners we run into almost on a weekly basis here in the House of Commons are in the Public Gallery listening to the debate. They continue to highlight the issues that concern them about the treatment of people in Iran.
I am not going to go over all the grievances that have been highlighted today. Suffice it to say that we have heard about the range of human rights abuses by the Iranian regime not just against minorities but against the majority of the population. We have heard about the abuses and restrictions on women, the restrictions placed on people who hold religious views that the regime does not agree with, and the actions that are taken against those people. They include everything from systematic discrimination in work, employment, education and even their social activities to the increased use of the death penalty, and those of us who live in a society as free as ours find the idea of the public mutilation of individuals who happen to have fallen foul of the regime incomprehensible.
I do not want to go through the details of individual cases, many of which have been drawn to my attention by constituents, or the catalogue of cases that have been well documented in this debate, but I want to raise some issues with the Minister. Given the number of times he has answered questions on the matter in the House of Commons and the responses that we as constituency representatives have received from him, I have absolutely no doubt that the Government are committed to dealing with this issue. However, I am not so sure that that commitment has not sometimes been held back by political reticence, because of the impact that it may have on other dealings that they wish to have with the Iranian regime.
I note the terms used so many times in answers that the Minister has given in the House. They are things like “We have made the strength of our opinion known,” “We have made strong representations,” “We have made clear to Iran,” and “We have repeatedly called on the Iranian Government”. All that is fine, but one thing we must learn from dealings with the Iranian regime is that the only time that it really began to engage was when it was being hurt by sanctions and by actions that had an impact on it.
I therefore have a number of things to say to the Minister. By all means make representations and highlight abuses, because official reports from the Foreign Office and so on have an impact, and of course raise these issues in the international bodies of which we are members. Despite what has been said about the Brexit debate and everything else, we still have influence in the world and it is right to use it, but that influence will be effective only if words are accompanied by actions, and I would like to see our Government doing a number of things.
First, as has been mentioned, the human rights abuses are well known and the people behind them have been identified. Surely we ought to make sure that those individuals are named, brought before the international court and dealt with. Whether they are dealt with in their absence or by being brought before the court, a clear message should go out to them: “You cannot hide behind the cloak of the regime. You as individuals will be held responsible, and we will have no reluctance, regardless of how important you are in the regime and how much influence you have, to make sure that you are dealt with for the way in which you have treated people within your own country.”
Secondly, we know that sanctions hurt and are important in stopping the Iranian regime not only carrying out abuses in its own country but spreading its malign influence to other countries. The lifting of sanctions has given the Iranian regime the ability to carry out activities in Syria and other parts of the middle east. We therefore ought to make it clear that despite the nuclear deal, there are other issues that concern us. Just as sanctions were imposed because of Iran’s dealings and actions on the procurement of nuclear weapons, sanctions can be used if human rights abuses are not stopped. That clear message must go out when we warn Iran against actions such as it is engaged in at present.
Finally, a clearer message needs to be sent out to the Iranian regime that our Government are prepared to have the closest possible relationships with the opposition groups that we believe have the capability to generate internal opposition to the Iranian regime. We should learn from experience that trying to change a regime without building good relationships with those who may replace it in future can leave a vacuum, which is sometimes dangerous. Such relationships would be another clear message to the Iranian Government that regardless of how annoying or embarrassing it is to them, we will be prepared to work with, deal with and encourage those who are opposed to them. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to those points.
It is an honour to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing it because the subject really needs to be explored.
A lot of us—particularly those of us in Scotland—were very positive when Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013, because he studied in Glasgow and we expected him to have a more balanced western approach. He pledged to improve human rights, and he probably contributed in that the nuclear deal was struck last year. Unfortunately, the human rights side has been bitterly disappointing and, if anything, things have got worse. As the hon. Member for Hendon mentioned, almost 1,000 people were executed last year, which suggests that the number is climbing, not decreasing. Two thirds of those executions were for drug offences, which—under international law—we would not consider to merit the death penalty.
I would particularly like to speak about the laws against women. If half the population are considered subhuman, as Ayatollah Khomeini defined women in 1979, there is no chance of having decent human rights for any other group. Women do not have equality. They are considered half the value of a man when it comes to inheritance and to giving witness. If a man murders a women, the victim’s family have to pay half the blood money. That is an incredible approach to women.
There are laws against women. If a women does not carry out her nuptial duties, her food, accommodation and money can be withheld. Her husband can stop her working and he can divorce her at will. It goes on and on. Thousands of women have been executed since 1979 and, as was touched on previously, Iran has no qualms about executing people under 18. A point that was not mentioned is that the legal age for executions is 15 for boys but just under nine for girls. That means that a girl approaching nine could be executed, so can be pushed into forced marriage. For boys, it is 15. It is appalling to allow the execution of anyone under 18—obviously, we believe that execution at all is ridiculous—but there is an imbalance.
As well as laws, there are day-to-day attacks on women. Wearing the hijab has been compulsory since 1979, and it is a daily removal of women’s choice. Family planning has not been funded since 2012 and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned earlier, there has been discussion of a law to forbid family planning, in order to increase the population.
In 2014, a law was passed to give impunity to vigilantes who attack women not considered to be wearing a suitable hijab. Shops, restaurants and taxis are advised to refuse those women service. It filters through women’s entire daily lives. They have no protection from domestic abuse or being battered by their husbands. When a women steps out in the street, she will be intimidated by the entire population. What chance do any smaller groups have?
I have challenged the Minister and the Government in the past on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, given that country’s behaviour—executing or mutilating people. We tend to admonish Saudi Arabia or express our discomfort and disquiet at such actions. We need much stronger action than that, particularly with Iran, or we will never get it to mould into or become a decent, balanced society as it comes to join the west. As part of stronger action, we must support the opposition and push for democracy in Iran.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, in a debate that is important, timely and takes us away from our own concerns about our future in the European Union to look at something that is, in many ways, much more profoundly important to millions of people suffering from such a brutal regime as that which exists in Iran today.
We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing the debate and I congratulate him on his opening speech. He reminded us that 2,400 people have been executed under President Rouhani’s regime since 2013, and that the numbers have doubled since 2010 and increased tenfold since 2005. That is an appalling record of state-sanctioned murder, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, makes Iran the world’s No. 1 executioner per capita. As Member after Member has pointed out, the record of execution of minors—people under 18, who we would regard as children under our legal and other legal systems in the west—is truly appalling and shocking.
Less than 10 years ago, I was privileged to meet Shirin Ebadi, the great Iranian Nobel laureate—a woman who stood up for her nation and who is an expert in not only legal systems, but the laws of her country, including sharia law. Indeed, she can out-argue many of the so-called sharia experts in her country on their own terms. Yet, because she is a woman, she was sacked in 1979, and she has been harassed many times by the regime for speaking her mind.
Shirin Ebadi told us—a group of MPs from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs—the story of a young courting couple, who were aged over 18 and were caught holding hands in a park. They were unmarried and not related, so they were arrested. A few days after the arrest of their daughter, the parents of the young woman received a call and a visit from the police, saying, “Please come to collect the body of your daughter. She has, in shame for what she has done, committed suicide.” In fact, as was discovered through the post mortem, she had been brutally attacked by the prison guards. She was thrown to the floor, hit her head and died of a brain haemorrhage.
The young woman’s parents engaged Shirin Ebadi, as an expert lawyer, to try to argue the case that their daughter had been inadvertently murdered while in custody. Through their grief, they had to endure their lawyer being accused of all sorts of crimes. The regime brought up an ancient case of Shirin Ebadi not defending a man—an Iranian citizen—who had been refused a degree by a university in the UK. That was dragged up, although it was completely irrelevant to the case. The justice that those parents deserved for the death of their child in custody—for the crime of holding hands with a boy in a park—was never resolved. No justice was ever given.
I tell hon. Members that story because it is an example of the appalling abuse of human rights that Iranian citizens have suffered since the 1979 revolution. Many of us who are old enough to remember that revolution remember the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran—Pahlavi—and the way he abused and brutalised the population simply for speaking out. But is the current regime any better? In many ways, it is far worse than a regime that was condemned the world over for its brutality.
Iranians are some of the best educated people in the world. Given what the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said about the treatment of women, it is an irony that women in Iran have some of the best higher education results in the world and some of the highest attendance rates and qualifications, yet they are treated as chattels and second-class citizens.
On my visits to Tehran and Isfahan, I came across many people who were dismissive and disdainful of the regime while living in fear of it, but also had a huge thirst for knowledge and education. To my amazement, they regularly listened to the BBC World Service even though that was perhaps illegal, and certainly frowned upon. Their knowledge of the English and French languages was gained from listening to the BBC World Service. Their thirst for talking to foreigners and people from the outside world was huge, as was their engagement. Iran could be a great ally of the rest of the world, and until recently it was one of the world’s most civilised countries—one of the world’s greatest nations—in terms of its culture, art, architecture and music. Iran is an extraordinary, uplifting and wonderful place, but it is spoiled by the appalling regime that its people have to endure.
Domestic oppression, as the hon. Member for Hendon said, is important for the ruling theocracy to keep Iran’s people under its thumb and to keep the Iranian revolution going. As he said, the UK needs to address human rights abuses in Iran. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) mentioned the lifting of sanctions, which has not delivered an improvement in human rights. We have done a great favour to the regime, but what do we receive in return?
I think it was the hon. Member for Hendon who suggested that we should prosecute the officials who have carried out such blatant human rights abuses, and the Labour party would certainly agree. Relations with Iran should be based on ending torture and executions. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is not able to be in his place, made a plea on behalf of Baha’is for us to have a closer eye on Iran and its equality and human rights records. He is a strong defender of religious freedom in other parts of the world, particularly where Christians and other minorities are persecuted for their beliefs, and long may he continue.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) made some important points. He told us, as we knew already, that elections in Iran are not free and democratic. Rouhani was not elected in a free and fair election because of the way that the candidates were filtered—certain individuals were prevented from standing because they do not stand up for the Iranian theocratic revolution. He said that breaches of the convention on the rights of the child have been legion. At least 81 children have been executed, which I hope the whole world will come together to decry. He said that freedom of religion is the birthright of all of us, but it clearly is not for the people of Iran. He asked whether the British Government will make our relationship with Iran contingent on an end to human rights abuses, as did the hon. Member for Hendon.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for her thoughts on my close friend and neighbour, Jo Cox, who fought so hard for an end to human rights abuses and for equality for women throughout the world. The hon. Lady told us that Iran has the world’s most censored press, and we hear many stories of journalists being arrested and, worse, tortured and imprisoned simply for publishing criticism of the regime. Without a free media there can be no free society. We are all deeply shocked by the heavy prison sentences given to human rights defenders.
The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made an excellent contribution. He said that he has no doubt that the British Government are committed to addressing the issue but that they are perhaps reticent about forging a strong new relationship with Iran in the hope that President Rouhani is somewhat more liberal than his predecessors, which has turned out not to be the case. The hon. Gentleman said that the regime has engaged only when it is hurt by sanctions. We should make it clear that individuals who perpetrate crimes against humanity will be prosecuted. Several speakers have said that we must ensure that those who have perpetrated such appalling human rights abuses are brought to justice under international law.
Will the Minister make it clear whether Her Majesty’s Government will amend their policy on sanctions against Iran? Having been to that country and having seen how sanctions can hurt ordinary people, I have no desire to see such sanctions maintained or reinstituted, but we can institute smart sanctions, as they are called, against those individuals whom we hold responsible for abusing human rights. Will he specifically look at Iran’s leadership? That leadership is not just the President; there are many centres of power in Iran that contest with each other for supremacy. Will he look at all of them? We have not debated this issue this morning, but it is important because it relates to human rights abuses in Iran—are the Government concerned that, despite Iran’s signing of the non-proliferation treaty and the promises that the Iranian Government have made to the rest of the world and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran continues to try to weaponise uranium rather than use it to generate peaceful civil nuclear power, as it is obliged under the non-proliferation treaty?
Does the Minister believe that the UK and our European allies—if we still have any—can address the appalling and barbaric human rights abuses that we have discussed today? It seems to the Labour party that we need concerted action from not only the UK Government but from the rest of the world to show Iran that we are deeply concerned about the abuse of human rights and the barbaric executions and punishments handed out in the name of Iran’s faith, which many Muslims would reject. Finally, will the Minister update us on the status of the British embassy in Tehran. We have a chargé d’affaires, but are there plans to reinstitute an ambassador?
Thank you very much, Sir Edward. I apologise for any confusion caused by the late changes that we had to make to our intended speakers.
In the interest of brevity, I will not give a full summing- up speech. I commend the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing the debate, and particularly on making such positive suggestions about what we might do. It is easy to identify, criticise and condemn horrific human rights abuses in Iran, but much more difficult to come up with ideas that might start to make a difference, although perhaps not as quickly as we might like.
We should identify and target individuals who have clearly committed crimes against humanity, as the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said. We should also seek to maintain dialogue with anyone in a position of potential influence in Iran who we think is seeking to modernise and liberalise or can be persuaded to do so. I believe that President Rouhani is in the latter camp, but only just. His rhetoric to date has been encouraging, but his actions have been very discouraging. We need to keep up the diplomatic pressure, as well as the informal pressure that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned.
We must continue to remind ourselves of why we think we have the right and the responsibility to get involved at all. It is because we are talking about human rights—the rights of all humanity, regardless of where they live, who they are and what they do or do not believe. We have a responsibility to defend those rights wherever they are being abused, even in countries that spend billions of pounds buying weapons and arms from us and that might be developing the means to threaten us directly—some of the interventions in this debate were possibly pointing to that.
Simply because Iran no longer presents a direct nuclear threat to us, it does not mean that we can ignore the horrific abuses it continues to carry out against the rights of its citizens. Possibly the most chilling aspect of today’s debate has been the number of Members who have been able to speak about completely separate and barbaric abuses of the human rights of anyone who follows or converts to the wrong religion, who is born on the wrong side of the gender divide or who dares to express a political opinion. We would consider any one of those abuses to be an abomination in today’s society, yet they are all happening every day under the Iranian regime.
Finally, we must be careful about getting on too high a moral horse. Many of the human rights denials and violations in Iran that we are rightly condemning now were fairly common practice in these islands not so long ago. It is only 40 years since race and gender discrimination were made illegal, and neither have yet been abolished in our society. Women still cannot genuinely be regarded as being treated with full equality. In my lifetime, someone mentally incapable of understanding the impact of his actions has been executed for murder, and magazines have been prosecuted for blasphemously printing things thought by some Christians to be offensive. Within the lifetime of all of us here, it has been a criminal offence to have sexual relations with someone of the same gender. Although it is right for us to continue to condemn and keep pressure on the Iranian regime, we should do so from a point of view of humility, accepting that some things that we criticise in others were common practice in our own society within our own lifetime.
If anything, that should give us optimism that however bad things are in Iran just now, they can improve. Five years before the East German regime collapsed, I would never have believed that human rights would return to East Germany. There is optimism for Iran, and we should continue to work on it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this debate, to which important contributions have been made by Members of all parties. It is a sign of the times that we continue to debate these important matters while keeping in tune with what is happening on the ground in Iran.
As usual, there is not enough time to answer all the detailed questions that I have been asked, as I have only 10 minutes. That is always a frustration for a Minister. However, as I have said in the past, I promise to write to hon. Members with more details on specific questions if I cannot cover them right now.
A couple of hon. Members have enjoyed, or perhaps mocked, the wider picture after last week’s events. I want to make it clear that Britain’s place in the world is undiminished. We are arguably still recognised as the most effective soft power in the world due to our commitment to international aid and our global legacy, not least in the neck of the woods that we are discussing. Our relationship with the Commonwealth is deep, and we are fully committed to NATO. We are the largest military force in NATO, the fifth largest economy and a member of the G7 and the G20. I want to make it clear that our resolve to participate in the world and influence it for the better continues, despite what happened last week.
Whatever negotiations take place—my views on that are clear—we will continue to work with the European Union on matters such as security and Iran. There were two ways of describing the discussions on the nuclear deal, for example: P5+1—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, including Britain, plus Iran—or E3+3. That reflects the fact that countries want to come together to effect change, and not just because they are part of one club or another. Let me make it clear that Britain’s commitment on the international stage, not least in the middle east, continues.
We should reflect on the fact that Iran is a proud and long-standing country with influence in the region. Arguably, it sits at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the middle east, and it has been the location of successive civilisations. It was the stomping ground of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, with each civilisation learning from the next. Britain has its own relationship with Iran, developing from the great game and, more latterly, from the period after the first world war. We should remember the longevity of that relationship, as hon. Members have mentioned. There is a relationship to be had with the people of Persia—of Iran—that is different from the relationship with those in charge. That point is worth mentioning to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, who gave a powerful speech.
I see the nuclear deal as a generational opportunity to rebalance the relationship with Iran. It is up to us to decide whether to embrace that opportunity or say, “It’s business as usual. We do not trust the Iranians. We think they’re going to develop a nuclear weapon.” The problem has existed for decades, and this is an opportunity to re-engage with Iran. That is the fundamental point.
We are here to discuss human rights, and this debate has rightly painted a bleak picture of where things are in Iran. We will continue to work together, and I am aware that Iran will be listening to this debate.
The Minister mentions Iran listening. I urge him once again to ensure that the Iranian regime listens to the case of Mr Foroughi, a very old man detained on spurious charges, and that of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I know that he has made many representations, but I urge him to do so again.
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done to allow me to meet the family so that we can do what we can, as we do with other difficult consular cases, four of which we are currently very concerned about. The trouble is that they are cases of dual nationals, and Iran does not recognise the dual nationality. That does not prevent us from engaging, thankfully, because our embassy has now reopened. The Prime Minister has written on behalf of my hon. Friend’s constituents, and phone calls have been made. There is now a dialogue, which did not exist before the deal, that allows us to pursue such consular matters with a vigour that we could not before.
To focus again on the human rights situation, Iran continues to be of grave concern. Freedom of religion and belief, freedom of expression, women’s rights and the justice system all need improvement. As has been said, the number of executions—almost 1,000 in the past 18 months alone—is at a record high, despite President Rouhani’s pledge in 2013 to improve the rights and freedoms of Iranian citizens. Unfortunately, progress has been slow, and in some areas things have gone backwards, as has been articulated in this debate. The UK has consistently pressed Iran to improve its human rights record.
Hon. Members rightly asked what we are doing about the issue. We have designated more than 80 Iranians responsible for human rights violations under EU sanctions and helped establish the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, who was mentioned by several hon. Members. We have lobbied at the UN for the adoption of human rights resolutions on Iran. We regularly raise human rights in our dialogue with the country, with Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani. I assure hon. Members that they will also be a focus of our discussions with Iran when we reconvene at the UN General Assembly.
I believe that the approach is balanced. We need continued engagement with the Government of Iran, and developing our bilateral relationship is key to achieving change, but we do not lose sight of the fact that the proxy influence in Baghdad, Sana’a, Damascus, Beirut and Manama continues. That is not the direction of travel of a country that sees re-engaging with the international community as a worthy cause. We challenge it to recognise that if it wants to be seen as participating on the international stage, it must reconsider its involvement and interference in those countries.
Our embassy has been mentioned. It reopened last year and has facilitated visits not only by businesspeople but by the Foreign Secretary. That has enabled the development of stronger ties and candid conversations, whether about Camp Liberty or the Baha’i community. We can bring up such things far more regularly and have frank conversations, many of which are not necessarily always heard about or—I want to make this clear—mentioned in my written answers to questions.
Time is against me, so I will simply say in conclusion that the relationship with Iran, while not always easy, goes back a long way, but the nuclear deal provides a new opening. It is clear that Iran’s future security and prosperity are directly linked to its Government’s willingness to engage with the international community, but human rights are an essential part of that engagement. We acknowledge that progress will be slow, but it is progress worth pursuing. In step with international allies, we will continue to work with Iran to improve the human rights situation there. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon for securing this debate, and I hope that we will continue to discuss these matters in the House.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police Force
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Conduct of the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police Force.
I am very grateful to have a chance to raise this incredibly important issue. I am also very thankful to the Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims for allowing me to go on for slightly longer than usual; he has allowed me to talk at some length on this issue because, as I say, it is incredibly important.
There are some very sensitive questions to be asked about the most senior policeman in my neck of the woods and the matter of his appointment; they deserve to be put before Members for consideration. I would never bring such matters to the Chamber if they were not of genuine public concern.
May I say at the outset that I have not had the opportunity to meet our new chief constable, Mr Andy Marsh. Since he is the subject of fresh investigations of alleged misconduct, to which I will refer, he may prefer to keep it that way for the time being. However, I confess that I am so worried about this issue that I have intervened twice in the main Chamber of this House during business questions. In addition, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), approached me independently about this issue, as the Minister is aware.
A few days ago, believe it or not, I mysteriously received letters from the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner, both of them complaining about my parliamentary involvement and reporting me to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for doing my job. That was a new twist. They wanted me to apologise and to retract what I had said in the House. Was this a cack-handed attempt to intimidate me? I hope not; it is not their role to intimidate me and it is certainly not my role to be intimidated. I am sure that they would much rather that I shut up and leave them alone, but that is something I cannot do, will not do and should not do.
The integrity of the police service is vital. The public rightly expect the very highest standards of probity from all serving officers, and I am doing my job in making sure that those standards are upheld. What worries me is how and why the appointment of this chief constable was made in the first place. To answer such questions, I am afraid that it is necessary to return to some dreadful events that took place a few years ago at a specialist residential school for children with learning difficulties. Sir Edward, I hope you will bear with me.
The school was near Southampton and Mr Andy Marsh was the deputy chief constable of Hampshire at the time. His force launched an investigation into claims of sexual abuse. Shocking allegations were made by some former pupils; stories of the grooming and rape of vulnerable children emerged. Something rotten seems to have taken place at the Stanbridge Earls school. However, despite investigations being carried out by the local authority, Ofsted and the police, nobody was ever prosecuted. That was back in 2011.
Two years later, the story had not gone away; in fact, the number of allegations had increased and there were questions about how thoroughly the police had examined the case. By that time, Mr Marsh had been promoted. He was Hampshire’s chief constable and on his watch Operation Flamborough was launched to try to get to the bottom of matters. Had he done a proper job? Were there grounds for disciplinary action against any officers? The investigation lasted eight months, with inquiries in 10 different counties. More than 1,200 documents containing 20,000 pages were reviewed; 79 witness statements were taken; and 172 officer reports were submitted.
However, all that came to nothing. There was no disciplinary action and there were no prosecutions. At that time, Mr Marsh himself was under scrutiny. The rules for complaints against chief constables are different. A commissioner can deal with a matter internally or, if a complaint is considered to be serious, they can call in another police force to investigate.
Hampshire’s commissioner asked Essex police to do the digging. There were nine complaints against Mr Marsh, including failure to undertake a thorough investigation into sexual abuse of vulnerable pupils and failure to protect one vulnerable child in particular. It took almost a year to complete the inquiry and on 10 June 2014 Essex police announced that it had found “no grounds to justify” any allegations. Mr Marsh was formally cleared.
Was that the end of the story? I simply do not know. I am not a Hampshire MP; I can only read about this issue in Private Eye and elsewhere, just like anyone else. However, what is quite clear—because there were so many references to them on the internet—is that allegations went on being made, and I am afraid they are still being made. No doubt all chief constables make enemies from time to time, but this chief constable seems to have attracted some very determined foes.
I find it hard to understand why none of this seems to have rung any alarm bells whatever in the office of the police and crime commissioner for Avon and Somerset when she hired Mr Marsh. Of course, the “she” in question is Mrs Sue Mountstevens, and it might be helpful for this House and for the record if I provided a little background information on her. She used to be a big wheel in fast food, running one of Bristol’s best known family bakeries; Mountstevens made its name by churning out pasties. However, when Mrs Mountstevens inherited the business, she must have changed the recipe. The customers stopped coming, the shops were shut, 300 staff lost their jobs and a century of tradition went down the pan—probably along with the pasties.
However, Mrs Mountstevens wasn’t going to let a business disaster stand in her way. She joined the old police authority, did “good works” and founded a team of life coaches offering business advice. Here is an example of her advice from an interview she gave to that indispensable organ of record, The Grocer magazine:
“A great leader is someone who communicates extensively, is prepared to say what she feels when there’s a tough decision to be made and admits when things aren’t going too well!"
Down at the Portishead HQ of the Avon and Somerset police force, I suspect that they are chuckling about that comment.
Anyway, by the miracle of democracy “the Pasty Queen”, as she is known in Bristol, has held the job of police and crime commissioner since 2012. A dismally small number of people—only 14% of the electorate—bothered to vote the first time round, and the second time only 26% of the electorate turned out to mark a cross on the ballot paper. Of course, we all know that the election process for police and crime commissioners is about as thick and indigestible as the crust on a Mountstevens pasty. However, the end result of that process is that very few PCCs are in their job with genuine, widespread public support, and Mrs Mountstevens certainly does not have such support.
On her very first day in the job, Mrs Mountstevens told the old chief constable, Colin Port, that his services were no longer required—“goodbye”. Colin Port was gobsmacked. I would like to believe that she fired him for getting the police saddled with South West One, a joint venture company set up with IBM and two of Somerset’s councils, which was an absolute and total disaster. To put it crudely, it was half-baked; in fact, it was not even half-baked because it was never cooked. It cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds, saved nothing and, as I say, was a disaster.
I learned today that South West One lost so much money that eventually all the participants in it baled out, including Avon and Somerset police force. I am not sure that Mountstevens sacked Colin Port for any sensible reason; I have a horrible feeling that she might have done it out of pique, or because she had a headache, or because she just did not like him. Her management style gives everybody the heebie-jeebies, in particular her high-speed hire-and-fire policy.
Avon and Somerset is now on its third chief constable in three years, and that does not even include the deputies; including deputy chief constables, all together the force has had six chief constables or deputy chief constables in four years, with three chief constables and three acting constables. Whoever steps in to cover the gaps that exist, I think the office of chief constable is the ultimate poisoned chalice. It is hard to keep up with the musical chairs in the Portishead HQ; Colin Port was hardly out of the door before Nick Gargan was pushed in through it. The rules say that Mrs Mountstevens has the right to clunk chief constables in or replace them, and she did those things.
Mr Gargan was a totally different animal to Mr Port, being much more of a modernising, fast-track copper. He was young, clever and—believe it or not—had a love of opera. The old guard probably thought, “Allo, ‘Allo. He’s not one of us”, but he was the first choice of the Pasty Queen, possibly because he was the only serious candidate.
There is an increasing problem—chief constables do not seem to be falling over themselves to apply for the top jobs. Perhaps they think the pay is not worth it or that the responsibility is too onerous; perhaps they will not apply because they cannot be certain of being successful any more. Or perhaps they do not fancy working alongside a particular police and crime commissioner. Now, there is a thought.
Last year, the Chief Police Officers Staff Association carried out a survey of 25 forces. There were five chief constable vacancies, which attracted only 11 applications. Two of the vacancies had just a single candidate. I say to the Minister that that was not so much a recruitment process as a cosy shoo-in, and I know that he does not like that any more than I do. I am afraid the Home Affairs Committee has already highlighted this issue and I know that the Minister will probably want to address it when he replies to this debate.
Anyway, let us go back to Nick Gargan. He had been running the national Police Recruitment agency after a stint as No. 2 at Thames Valley police. He had never applied to be a chief constable before, but Mrs Mountstevens reeled him in. Gargan was hired to make changes. He favoured a direct entry scheme to allow non-officer staff to take up jobs at inspector or chief inspector level, thereby skipping the lower ranks. That was in line with Home Office thinking, but the Police Federation called it “half-baked”. Honestly, I am not inventing these baking references; they have actually been used by others.
As far as I am aware, Nick Gargan was well thought of by officers, but higher up the ladder there were people out to get him. He had served a mere 14 months when allegations of inappropriate behaviour began to emerge. In came the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate and he was suspended, but nobody gave any formal evidence against him; it was more of a whispering campaign. The investigation went on for a year and the verdict was that he had showed “flawed judgment”, which is hardly a sacking offence; if it was, there would not be any of us MPs left. By then, however, Mrs Mountstevens was getting twitchy. She set up a fresh inquiry, which took ages to decide that Mr Gargan was not guilty of any gross misconduct at all. He was rapped over the knuckles with eight written warnings and it was recommended that he return to work. I don’t think Mrs Mountstevens had a clue. She is not bright; she is, in fact, incredibly thick. She did not know how to react. She dithered, and the lynch mob got busy—not edifying in the police.
The Police Superintendents Association asked its members what they thought, and 24 out of 25 of them said that they had lost confidence in Mr Gargan, which unexpectedly provided Mrs Mountstevens—aha!—with the ammunition she needed. Funny that. Could it have been deliberately orchestrated? Perish the thought. After all, it is very unusual indeed—unprecedented in my experience—for a group of top officers to gang up in public and stab their chief in the back. The whole thing appears to have been arranged by Chief Superintendent Ian Wylie, who happens to be head of the standards, culture and ethics department of the Avon and Somerset constabulary. [Interruption.] I hear sirens—they are coming to get me. I do not know what ethical standards were being used when Ian Wylie’s letter to Mrs Mountstevens damning the chief constable was leaked, but I could hazard a guess—Wylie by name, wily by nature. That is dirty tricks at the lowest level.
And there was more. Out of the woodwork came three former chief constables, all parroting exactly the same criticism of the chief constable. Dave Shattock, Steve Pilkington and Colin Port wrote to Mrs Mountstevens saying that they thought it was impossible for Nick Gargan to return to work. The dithering baker was forced into a corner—not surprisingly. In desperation, she asked Tom Winsor, chief inspector of constabulary, what he thought. Surprise, surprise: Sir Thomas looked at all the letters and concluded that Mr Gargan had lost the confidence of his staff. Nick Gargan is no fool. There was now more mud flying than at Glastonbury, and it was all being chucked his way. He did quit, but what a dismal, appalling way to run a police force—backstabbing, innuendo and downright dishonesty.
Let us come back to Andy Marsh. Just before Christmas last year, Mr Marsh got Mr Gargan’s job. There were only two candidates: Mr Marsh, and the assistant chief constable, Gareth Morgan, who had been holding the fort since Nick Gargan had left. Remember, Mr Marsh had already been a chief constable, over at Hampshire, but he has always had a soft spot for Avon and Somerset where he started as a recruit and where he met his wife, Nikki. Sorry, I should paraphrase that. Mrs Marsh is also a senior member of the Avon and Somerset police force. Believe it or not, she is one of the assistant chief constables, and she uses her maiden name of Nikki Watson. Funnily enough, the Avon and Somerset constabulary website states:
“Andy is married with two daughters and enjoys fly fishing, running and rowing.”
Elsewhere, it states:
“Nikki is married and has two daughters.”
It does not put the two together. She was there when he came back. That is an unusual situation. It may be unique, but in no way can it be called ideal. Mrs Marsh will have to report to another deputy chief constable to avoid conflicts of interest. Once again, the pasty queen has bent over backwards to get the man she wanted. But has she bent too far?
Andy Marsh took up his new job in February. Three months later, he was back in the headlines because of another complaint against him. Mrs Mountstevens said she received a new complaint relating to Andy Marsh’s role in investigating the allegations of rape at Stanbridge Earls school in Hampshire. Her instinct was to clear it up quietly with Mr Marsh himself, but the complainant appealed and here we are again. The pasty queen has called in another police force to look over it again. Remember, last time it took a year to clear Mr Marsh’s name.
I am not happy with the situation. It was obvious that the accusations were likely to follow Mr Marsh. They may be vexatious; they may be legitimate. That is for the new inquiry to determine, but their hanging in the air does absolutely no good for the reputation and morale of the Avon and Somerset police force. The police and crime commissioner deserves to take the blame for another expensive fiasco and mistake. According to the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the cost of running her office is a fifth greater than that of running the old police authority. That is not surprising—she employs 19 people. How can a police and crime commissioner employ 19 people? What are they all doing? Stabbing the chief constable in the back?
I notice that my right hon. Friend the Minister’s Department is giving commissioners, including Mrs Mountstevens, new powers to oversee the fire and rescue service. I beg him not to do that, especially in Avon and Somerset. The Fire Brigades Union has called it a “half-baked idea”—I do not know what this is all coming from. Mrs Mountstevens is no Berry; I am not convinced that she could be trusted to run a police canteen. But the point here is simple. Mrs Mountstevens should suspend Chief Constable Mr Andy Marsh, as she did all the others, until the matter has been cleared up.
These are not trivial fly-by-night allegations; they are serious. We cannot pretend that they have not been made. We cannot pretend that they are not current. Why the chief constable is still there is beyond me. I think one reason may be that if he goes it is his missus who takes over—that could make the breakfast table interesting in the Marsh household. I suspect also that Mrs Mountstevens has once again lost her nerve. She does not know what to do. Like I said, she is not bright—I am being generous.
We need a clear understanding of the roles of the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable. In Avon and Somerset the roles are blurred. Avon and Somerset is becoming a police farce, not a police force. I know there are limitations to what the Minister can say—I understand and agree with that, because of the ongoing investigation—but I know that he has heard my words and I am grateful that he has said he will meet me and talk to me about the matter. We need to come to an understanding of the future roles of these people, because unless we do I strongly believe that people in my constituency and across the Avon and Somerset police force area will lose their faith in the police. They need faith in the police. They need trust in the police. The coppers on the ground are damned good. They do a good job. The role of policemen has not changed in 100 years. They are still vital to law and order, to the safekeeping of people and to looking after the wellbeing of my constituents and those of the other Somerset and Avon constituencies. This is a mockery of all. I ask the Minister: please, give my thoughts a fair wind and see what we can do to change the situation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. At this stage of a speech I normally say, “I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the debate to the Chamber”. Although it is right and proper that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) has done that today, I am enormously restricted in what I can say, as he mentioned. He made a far-ranging speech but I am here, really, to talk about the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police force. I will touch, however, on some of my hon. Friend’s points.
Police and crime commissioners—PCCs—are elected, whether on a 1% or a 100% turnout. The public have the right to decide whether to vote for them, vote for someone else, or not vote at all. Naturally, in the early days people did not know what they were voting for, but the turnout has since gone up substantially, in particular when the elections have been alongside local government elections. The next PCC election should be concurrent with a general election—but nothing is perfect in this place, so we do not really know, what with the events taking place around us as we speak. I hope that this Parliament stays for the full term; the PCC election turnout will then be completely different.
What we have done is to place powers—administrative not operational—with an elected person, who is responsible for their community, and it is for them to decide how much they spend. The public can then see the exact details. The process is not opaque; it is very open. That openness is the reason my hon. Friend has been able to comment in the way he has about how many staff there are and how much is being spent.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is an ongoing inquiry. There is a process in place for that, and it is not for a Policing Minister to interfere in or influence that in any way. The allegations are serious and it is important that they are investigated fully.
I saw some of the commentary about my hon. Friend’s previous comments on the Floor of the House. This place has privilege, and it is for my hon. Friend to decide the language he uses and what he says in his speeches. In that way, we have the freedom to represent our constituents in the way we feel we should.
The ongoing investigation means that there is uncertainty and I fully accept my hon. Friend’s concerns. I also fully accept that, as in the other 43 forces that I am responsible for, the boys and girls on the beat in his area do a fantastic job, day in, day out. It is, as he alluded to in his comments, deeply unsettling that the force has had so many chief constables over a short period of time, but sometimes there are good reasons for that. I will not go into that: it is very much for the PCC and the local community. However, I know what it is like. My hon. Friend and I have both served in Her Majesty’s armed forces. If a soldier does not know who their colonel is from one day to the next, it is very difficult to get that feeling of unity running through the system.
My hon. Friend also commented on the number of people applying for chief constable jobs, and the situation is difficult. South Yorkshire is going through a difficult time and is also advertising for a new chief constable. It is an enormously onerous task to be chief constable of a force. In many parts of the country, the political and management skills are as important as the understanding of day-to-day policing, because of how they have to deal with things—I would not have wanted to take on that task. We have opened the job up, however. There are people for and against the direct entry scheme, but it will open up opportunities for people to come through the ranks in so many parts of the police force. The old saying when we were in the Army was, “Dead man’s shoes”, but that cannot happen now. We need to ensure that people can aspire to and dream of being chief constables, if that is what they want to do. They may want to go into other specialist areas, but it is crucial that we open things up.
The Policing and Crime Bill has passed through this House and will fairly soon have its Second Reading in the other place. It gives powers to PCCs to put forward to the Home Secretary a business plan to take on the administration of the fire service. I have to declare an interest: I wrote a paper some 30 years ago saying that the emergency services must work more closely together and there is no argument about that. The debate we had in Committee was whether it should be a councillor seconded on to a committee and paid a bit of extra money or someone directly elected to do that role. I freely admit that one size will not fit all. If an agreement cannot be reached locally and a PCC or a metro mayor wants to put forward a business plan to the Home Secretary and me—I am the first ever Minister to have responsibility for policing and fire—we would look at that. One size truly will not fit all.
May I use the Avon and Somerset force area as an example for clarification? Our fire brigade, as the Minister is well aware, comes under Devon and Somerset fire service. We have an elected mayor in Bristol. The rest of Somerset is not covered. If the metropolitan mayor of Bristol put forward a case to take over the fire brigade, given that we are slightly skewed, that has merit because of devolution. The Minister is well aware of how we are looking at joining things closer together with devolution in Somerset and Devon, but that does not include Bristol or what we call north Somerset, which covers the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), and a bit of Bristol. How would that devolution work? That is of some interest, I think.
I said a moment ago that one size does not fit all, and my hon. Friend raises a classic example of that. In certain parts of the country, it is a very simple procedure: there is a fire authority and a police authority—now the PCC—and they can mesh very closely. If that was the situation across the country, I would have a very simple job in looking at all the business plans and coming to some conclusions, but that of course is not the case. Amalgamations of fire services were taking place right up until the responsibility was transferred from the Department for Communities and Local Government into my portfolio.
It is best not to use Avon and Somerset as the only example. Looking at some of the other models that are being talked about—I freely admit that I do not have the business plans on my desk—chief fire officers from some parts of the country have approached me and said, “Our fire brigade is too small. We do not want to be regionalised. We have seen some of the problems that have occurred with the ambulance service being regionalised, but we would be a better administrative functional body if we were a larger fire service. Does that prevent us from being amalgamated? What if a metro mayor takes over?” There is a little feeling of, “If we grow in size, perhaps that will prevent us being amalgamated with the police.”
Other areas are looking at whether they can take over the emergency ambulance service, as well as fire and the police. The ambulance service is commissioned by clinical commissioning groups; the money does not come directly from central Government. I have other areas—Merseyside is probably one of the obvious examples when we look at the introduction of metro mayors—where the boundary goes slightly into another area. For instance, the Merseyside boundary goes into Cheshire. What we have said all along is that that is not a game-stopper and that we would work across Government to come to sensible conclusions about the best way to deliver services and emergency services where they are needed.
There is no simple answer to my hon. Friend’s points. During consideration of the Bill, we said that it is vital not to look at things in terms of silos or buildings. Using the analogy of a church, it is about a group of people coming together, and not necessarily a building. We always look at churches as buildings. The London fire service looks at fire stations and headquarters, and it is similar with the police service. I have been pushing hard, as we move from a difficult austerity situation, for us to continue to look at how we spend on capital assets. The police services and fire services around the country have extensive assets, and the situation in Avon and Somerset is no different. I have been saying, “If we are going to have a different kind of policing, why could the police station for that community not be based in the local fire station?” It is difficult to put a fire appliance inside a police station, because a 10-tonne truck does not fit so well in the foyer, but it is very easy to do it the other way around and put a police car in a fire station. We have seen that in Hampshire and Lincolnshire and other parts of the country.
That was a very long answer to a simple intervention, but in short we rule nothing out and we have an open mind. We would prefer to have things agreed locally under devolution and localism, but we are pragmatic enough to realise within the Department that that will not happen every time, so sometimes difficult decisions will have to be made by the Home Secretary with some advice from me.
On the specific points to do with the future and the chief constable’s investigations, that is frankly not within my remit, and rightly so. We do not live in that sort of society, thank goodness. The PCC was duly elected. Should my hon. Friend feel that the PCC is not doing her job correctly and has brought the force into disrepute, there are mechanisms in place. PCCs are not exempt from disciplinary action. That mechanism clearly has not been triggered yet, and whether it is has nothing to do with me.
Even though I am not skilful enough to have used some of the language and links to the bakery industry that my hon. Friend used, one thing that is important to me as a parliamentarian is that colleagues from across the House have confidence that they can express their concerns on behalf of the public without the worry that they will lose privilege. Parliamentary privilege is important. So many times in the House, I have heard people say, “If I was not a Member of Parliament and I was not in this Chamber, I would not be allowed to say that, even though I passionately believe it is true, mostly because I could not prove it in law or in fact.” That principle keeps this democracy sound.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and encourage him to continue expressing his concerns. There is a process in place. It is clearly not for the Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims to interfere in that, but I stress that it would be useful and sensible—it might be a difficult meeting—for my hon. Friend to take up the PCC’s offer to meet with her and the chief constable, because at the end of the day they are responsible for wellbeing in the constituency.
Question put and agreed to.
Independent Advocates for Trafficked Children
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered independent advocates for trafficked children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
I was proud to contribute to the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Although I wanted it to include specialist guardians for trafficked children, I was glad to support section 48, which provides for independent advocates to be available to promote the best interests of those children, advocating for them and accompanying them through the many confusing official processes that they encounter. Section 48 benefited from a series of improvements as it passed through Parliament, and the Minister and the Government are to be commended for listening to the concerns and suggestions of Members and responding with positive changes to strengthen the role of advocates.
Let us just stop to think for a moment about the lives of children who have been brought to this country by exploitative criminal traffickers. They are lonely in a bewildering foreign country where they do not speak the language. The person who brought them here may have sexually exploited them or tried to get them involved in criminal activity to recoup the cost of their horrible and terrifying journey. They may be told that if they do not collaborate their families will suffer. They feel scared and abandoned. Some 982 children were identified as having probably been trafficked last year, and we know that there are more who will never come to the attention of the authorities. That is why Kevin Hyland, Britain’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, has said that
“it is essential to ensure child advocates are put in place as soon as possible.”
However, a year later, section 48 remains dormant on the statute book. More than a year since the Act was passed, and three months after the Minister promised we would be presented with new proposals, vulnerable trafficked children are still without the specialist support that the Act intended to provide. The delay in establishing the scheme is particularly disappointing in the light of the positive evaluation of the trial schemes produced for the Government by the University of Bedfordshire and published in December, which concluded that
“evidence from the trial suggests that advocates added value to existing provision, to the satisfaction of the children and most stakeholders. The ICTA service”—
—the Independent Child Trafficking Advocates service—
“appears to be important in ensuring clarity, coherence and continuity for the child, working across other services responsible for the child, over time and across contexts…This evaluation’s main conclusion is that the specialist ICTA service has been successful as measured in relation to several beneficial outcomes for trafficked children.”
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her fantastic work with the all-party group on human trafficking. During my time on the group, there was an issue with consistency in how police services throughout the United Kingdom deal with trafficked children. Has that improved with time or are there still the same difficulties?
I do not think we have evidence about consistency, to be honest, but a comprehensive advocacy service would give us that evidence and could also improve consistency. The advocates were able to help children to orient themselves and navigate complex services; to keep trafficked children safely visible to all authorities—we know that is a problem in some areas—to build relationships of trust with the children and with other professionals; to speak up for children where necessary; to maintain momentum in the progress of their cases, including planning for their future; and to improve the quality of decision making in those cases. The children in the trials who had an advocate felt more secure and supported than those who did not. In the words of the report,
“when an advocate was involved in their life, the children had a sense of being cared for in a ‘tight knit’ manner. For the comparator group children, a steady impression emerged of more ‘loose weave’ relationships with intermittent contact with social workers”.
As one child put it:
“I can call my social worker and then she tells me OK but I’m busy or something. But if I call [the advocate] then she can make things happen.”
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Lady on her very good work with the all-party parliamentary group. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation. The right hon. Lady makes a good case. Does she agree that a close relationship with the advocate often allows the child to feel more comfortable and confident and therefore less likely to take instructions from the trafficker and more likely to trust the local authority?
Every human being needs that person they trust and who they know will stand up for them at every point. For so many of these children, initially that person is the one who brought them to this country, often to exploit them. The great thing about creating an independent advocates scheme is that it gives the children that person.
In February 2015, when the Modern Slavery Bill was on Report in the other place, the Home Office Minister Lord Bates said:
“The success of the trial will be measured by assessing the impact of advocates on the quality of decision-making in relation to the child trafficking victims’ needs by key professionals—for example, social workers, immigration officials and police officers—the child trafficking victims’ well-being; their understanding, experience and satisfaction of the immigration, social care and criminal justice system; and their perceptions of practitioners.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 February 2015; Vol. 759, c. 1668-69.]
If that is the test, there is no doubt that the pilot was a success.
The evaluation report also recognises significant value in having the advocate role operate independently of local authorities and other agencies that provide services to the children, which enabled advocates to play a co-ordinating role, thereby keeping momentum in a child’s case, and to encourage coherence in how they were treated. It also gave the advocate a 360-degree view of the child, their life and their circumstances, which helped them to provide more informed and comprehensive support. One professional stakeholder described the benefit of the holistic nature of the advocate’s role thus:
“The independent CTA [child trafficking advocate] that I have met had a cross cutting knowledge of the NRM, criminal and immigration proceedings that other professionals working with the child (social services and support workers) openly told me they did not. She made sure that his interests in all…areas were proactively pursued, by remaining in contact with all other relevant professionals working with the child. I thought she was excellent in tying these areas together.”
That connects with the point that the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) made about those children needing their trusted person. I worry that the Government’s unpublished anxieties about the shortcomings of the pilot risk our losing some of those special qualities in whatever is the next iteration of the scheme.
The trials showed that advocates can raise awareness of sexual exploitation, help to address poor legal services provided to a child, and challenge when children are placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, where other residents might exploit them, rather than with experienced foster families. They help children to access education and support with many everyday needs such as getting transport passes, opening bank accounts and going to after-school clubs. Sadly, those benefits were overlooked by the Government’s response to the trials, which stated that
“the impact of the independent child trafficking advocates…appears to be equivocal”—
a statement so contradictory to the conclusion of the evaluation report that it is honestly difficult to see on what basis it was made.
One sticking point was the failure of advocates to prevent children from going missing from care. Sadly, the Government seem to have a mistaken interpretation of the evaluation’s findings on that account. The fact is that seven of the 15 children who went missing from the advocacy group did so before an advocate was appointed; an accurate reflection of the figures would therefore be to say that, of the 27 children who were permanently missing at the end of the trial, only eight had an advocate in place. The failure of the Government so far to acknowledge that is concerning. I know that preventing children from going missing and protecting them from further exploitation must be a priority, and I welcome the Government’s concern.
On that important point, does the right hon. Lady agree that children go missing for myriad reasons, including the quality of accommodation, the relationship with the trafficker and the level of English? Although the going missing factor is extremely important, it is probably an unrealistic measure of the trial’s success.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Thank you very much, Mr Streeter. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald talked about the complex factors that lead to children going missing. As Professor Ravi Kohli, who led the evaluation team, told a joint meeting of the all-party groups on human trafficking and modern slavery and on runaway and missing children and adults, the circumstances in which a trafficked child goes missing from care are complex. Many factors may be involved and may need to be addressed to provide a solution. An advocate can help to mitigate those factors by raising awareness of the risks among other professionals, pressing for the provision of safer accommodation and building strong relationships with the child, but other action is also needed. As the evaluation report said, the circumstances in which children go missing require further investigation to ensure that we put in place the most appropriate measures to prevent that from happening.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On that issue, the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults has done work on children who go missing from care and is concerned that a proper risk assessment should be made of what happens to such children and the risks that they may be opened to when they go missing. That relies on the child disclosing what has happened to them. Children will not disclose information unless they trust the person they are giving that information to. The trusted person is key. Does she think that one way forward on this issue might be to look at how we can get more trusted people for children who go missing—they go missing for all sorts of reasons—and possibly developing some kind of voluntary scheme?
My hon. Friend, who chairs the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, really understands this issue. I believe that children who have lost contact with families can benefit from such an advocacy scheme too. In a way, the Home Office has been more determined to provide support for isolated children than has the Department for Education, which should play a leading role in this area. Local authorities face diminishing resources and increased demand, and cannot adequately support British children who go missing or the unaccompanied Syrian refugee children who will come here. We know from international and indeed Scottish evidence that such children benefit from independent guardianship and that they are at risk of exploitation and trafficking.
My hon. Friend’s proposal that we find ways of giving all children a special person may help to make more children resilient to the risks that they face of going missing, being exploited and so on. Although it is beyond the scope of the debate, I hope that in the future we could extend an independent child advocate scheme beyond trafficked children to lone migrant children and children who have gone missing from their families and so on, because every child needs their person who will help to make them safer. There is no magic bullet, but having a person can make a lot of difference.
On my hon. Friend’s question about risk assessment, we know that the risk of going missing is much higher among some groups of trafficked children than others. For example, Vietnamese children trafficked to this country to work as gardeners in cannabis farms are at an almost automatic risk of disappearing. So a robust risk assessment is needed as soon as a child is identified as a victim of trafficking and we need an accelerated programme to connect high risk children to an advocate.
The evaluation illustrates cases where advocates were the only people who enabled a child who had gone missing to be brought back into contact with the authorities responsible for them. There were significant delays in children being referred to the advocacy service by local authorities—a delay of three days or longer in almost 70% of cases. In comparison, once the advocacy service received the referral, 84% of children had an advocate within one day and all within two days. This finding raises important questions about the referral process and—this is key—the level of commitment from local authority staff members to the advocacy provision. That is one of the reasons why I think the Minister must implement section 48 of the Act now so that local authorities have legal duties in relation to advocates.
The evaluation tells us:
“There were many difficulties associated with advocacy work where speaking up for a child required nimble and diplomatic manoeuvring, rather than being able to draw on a legal authority to contribute”
to meetings about the child’s case.
The evaluation identified challenges faced by advocates, and I am glad the Minister intends to look at those and seek to address them in future incarnations of the scheme. However, I do not believe it is necessary to conduct further trials to do so. The Government originally promised to implement the scheme after the trial. The Minister knows that inadequate co-operation from some public authorities, exacerbated by a lack of legal authority, can be resolved only by commencing section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which specifically requires public authorities to recognise and pay due regard to the advocates’ functions and provide them with access to the necessary information about a child’s case. Without bringing section 48 into force, the degree to which public bodies will pay attention to advocates will remain variable, and we will never be able to measure the full potential benefit of the scheme because this depends on statutory recognition, which trials can never give.
In their response to the evaluation report, the Government stated that they would bring proposals about the way forward to Parliament in March. Three months later, the proposals are unpublished, yet since the trials ended nine months ago, vulnerable trafficked children across the country have been left without vital support. Barnardo’s, which delivered the trial advocacy scheme for the Home Office, has continued to provide support to children who entered the trial because it is convinced of its value, but this is to rely on charities once again to step in and cover what should be a statutory responsibility. It is now of the utmost urgency that plans are put in place to make this support available on a wide basis.
Earlier this month, various charities wrote to The Guardian newspaper calling on the Government to act urgently to make independent advocates available to all trafficked children. The charities know, from their work with children, that the delay means many vulnerable children will lack vital support and will be at risk of cruel exploitation. I trust that the Minister will today set out in full the Government’s intentions. I urge her not to proceed with further unnecessary trials, but instead to commence section 48, which provides the best opportunity for acting on the recommendations of the evaluation report and for addressing the challenges it identified, not least that of a lack of legal authority that led to poor collaboration by some local authorities. We must act with urgency to make this provision available and I urge the Minister not to sacrifice the good for the sake of the best, which is what her present course of action risks.
Statutory services can be evaluated and improved when in operation; they often are. As understanding grows about trafficking and the nature of the challenges and risks that children face, there will inevitably be aspects of the advocacy scheme that will need to develop in response. However, the trials have provided sufficient information for the establishment of a permanent country-wide scheme and I hope, although I do not expect, the Minister will put one in place as soon as possible. If she prefers to press ahead with further trials before enacting section 48, I would ask her to heed the advice of the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner to make every effort to avoid unnecessary delays that would result in beginning again from scratch.
If further trials are to be entered into, they must add to the information and knowledge gained from the first stage of the trials and not be an entirely separate process.
I hope that at a minimum the Minister will confirm today that any new trials and evaluation process will include continued monitoring of the situation and outcomes for the children who participated in the first phase. This will mean we can comprehensively assess the impact of the advocacy provision, particularly in the areas of operation where processes can be lengthy, such as the legal cases that did not reach a conclusion during the first trial period.
I also ask the Minister to build into any future trials the possibility for section 48 to be commenced before the end if interim reports are positive. Doing so would enable very needy children around the country to benefit from this important assistance as soon as possible. I know that the Minister is determined to eliminate trafficking and to protect and support its victims, but the delays that we are experiencing are leaving vulnerable children at sea in a bewildering ocean of statutory agencies, coping with a foreign language and unfamiliar processes, as well as in many cases recovering from trauma and exploitation without the support that Parliament, the European Union and the United Nations have all decided they need. Trafficked and separated asylum-seeking children in Scotland have benefited from similar services for several years and will soon do so on a statutory basis. Northern Ireland is also moving forward on this. However, here in England and Wales, where we have responsibility for the majority of trafficked children, we are lagging behind.
I hope to hear today when the Minister plans to commence section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act to make independent child trafficking advocates available for every trafficked child in England and Wales, because vulnerable trafficked children across the country—more than 1,000 kids—have been left without this support. We urgently need to make such support available on a wider basis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who has been an advocate of this issue for many years. This important issue is vital to children, so I do not intend to be political in my contribution today. I intend to enhance the debate and contribute some of the thoughts from Scotland. I want to make it clear that this issue affects vulnerable children and young people.
The issue is fundamentally important because children are at immediate risk of further harm and exploitation. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children highlights several reasons why children are recruited, moved or transported. These include benefit fraud; forced marriage; domestic servitude such as cleaning, childcare or cooking; forced labour in factories or agriculture; and criminal activity such as pickpocketing, begging, transporting drugs, working in cannabis farms, selling pirated DVDs and petty bag theft. In this range of small, medium and large crimes, children are exploited. They have no advocate to make a case for them and the exploitation that they suffer on a daily basis is absolutely the reason why we must have this debate today.
Trafficked children experience multiple forms of abuse and neglect, including physical, sexual and emotional violence, which is often used to control trafficked children. We are therefore today giving a voice to those children who have been silenced in this process through the absence of the necessary advocacy that is vital to their needs. The right hon. Member for Slough has done a great deal of work on this issue already through her work on the all-party parliamentary group, and I commend her for that.
As the right hon. Lady has highlighted, the National Crime Agency has already identified 982 cases of child trafficking in 2015, as I am sure the Minister is well aware. That is an increase of 46% from 2014. We could on the one hand link this to the refugee crisis, but that would be too crude. The simple fact is that we know this issue is escalating and ultimately we know that we must respond to it. That picture of child trafficking should surely be enough to convince the Minister that victims are desperately in need of independent advocates—people whose role it is to understand what is going on and to represent and support children believed to be the victims of trafficking. That gives those vulnerable children a voice through the care, immigration and criminal justice systems. We understand all too well that, even for adults, those are bureaucratic and lengthy processes and not something that any child should ever have to contend with.
The need for those vital services has already been recognised by Parliament in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 in a section that received widespread cross-party support, so I am sure I am not telling the Minister anything that she does not already know. That led to the child trafficking advocates pilot project, which is provided by Barnardo’s and funded by the Home Office. However, following an independent evaluation of the pilot scheme, the Government have not acted to make independent child trafficking advocates available across England and Wales. That must be done to ensure that young people and children receive the support that they vitally need. I support the calls from various charities, including Barnardo’s, Christian Aid, UNICEF and many others, which were outlined in a letter to The Guardian.
The EU directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings highlights the necessity for England and Wales to extend the pilot, which is especially important now. I do not want to labour the current situation around the EU referendum, but we must ultimately accept that we continue to have a responsibility and that these measures to ensure independent advocates for unaccompanied victims of trafficking have come on the back of an EU directive. The failure to appoint an independent guardian with sufficient legal powers means that the UK is currently non-compliant with the EU directive. Again, I do not say that to be political. I say it simply to state the case: measures to stop trafficking cannot be allowed to fail or fall short of international standards. It is therefore important that the Minister ensures that future revisions of the scheme will adhere to international best practice and guidelines. I urge the Government to commence section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and establish a permanent independent advocacy provision as soon as possible.
Turning to Scotland, on which I like to think I have something to contribute, I highlight the work that has been done in Scotland as one model that could be followed by England and Wales. The Scottish Government have made a solid commitment to make provision for independent child trafficking guardians for eligible children. That is part of a wider project to make Scotland a hostile place to trafficking, where it is very clear that child trafficking is not welcome, and to better identify and support potential and confirmed victims. As a result, needless to say, Scotland’s provisions outstrip England and Wales at this time, but that does not mean that England and Wales cannot catch up, and I urge them to do so.
New legislation introduced by the Scottish Government last year—the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015—will protect those subjected to these terrible crimes while punishing those who commit them. The maximum penalty for trafficking was increased from 14 years, as it is in England and Wales, to life imprisonment—a statement of how seriously Scotland takes this.
The Modern Slavery Act, when it was introduced and commenced in July last year, increased the maximum sentence to life imprisonment for all trafficking offences.
I thank the Minister for that intervention. I should have added “as it is in England and Wales” after “life imprisonment”, just to be absolutely clear. Scotland has sent out a message that trafficking will not be tolerated under any circumstances and I urge the UK to do that also. That legislation also underpins the need for independent advocates. It places a duty to ensure protections by making independent child trafficking guardians available and requiring statutory referrals to be made by people who are in a position to do so. Scotland’s law enforcement agencies therefore have greater powers to bring those responsible to justice.
I mentioned previously how abhorrent child trafficking is and I think we all share that thought. That approach must be considered for application across the UK to end those practices. I am sure the Minister shares our collective concerns. She has proven always to be reasoned and thorough in her responses, so I therefore simply urge her not to delay further on section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act and to establish a permanent independent advocate without further delay. Lastly, to echo the beautiful words of the right hon. Member for Slough, “every child needs their person”.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for setting the scene. We have all said this about her, but we mean it: she has certainly been an advocate for this issue, and it is a pleasure to follow her and add some comments. I will speak about Northern Ireland, including the Northern Ireland legislation that she referred to.
Parliament expressed its view clearly in passing section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The Government even accepted Members’ criticisms and amended the Bill to make the provision a duty rather than an enabling power, yet they are now choosing to interpret that section as if it were an invitation and not an instruction. That concerns me, and hopefully the Minister will respond to that point. Like the Northern Ireland Assembly, I believe that there is more than enough evidence and best practice available upon which a statutory national service can be based. That evidence comes from a variety of countries, from international organisations, and, closer to home, from Scotland, as the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said. Consequently, Northern Ireland’s statutory independent guardian service is already in development, as has been mentioned, under section 21 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.
The Government, however, had a different opinion and felt that they needed to carry out their own trials to establish whether advocates provide a material benefit and add value to the care provided for children over and above existing services. That is perhaps not surprising in the light of their long-held view that existing children’s services were sufficient to support trafficked children, which I note they continued to profess immediately following the 2013 publication of the Government-funded “Still at risk” report from the Refugee Council and the Children’s Society. That report highlighted the insufficiencies and recommended a new advocate-like role to address them.
I therefore commend the coalition Government for deciding first to establish trials, and then to include child trafficking advocates in the Modern Slavery Act— some good stuff has been done. After the successful completion of the first trials, the Government can now be in no doubt about the beneficial impact of independent advocates, which the right hon. Member for Slough so clearly set out. I simply reiterate that the evaluation report makes clear that
“advocates added value to existing provision, to the satisfaction of the children and most stakeholders.”
It seems to me that the trials entirely fulfilled their purpose. They tested a system, demonstrated that the fundamental provision in question produced clear beneficial outcomes on many different fronts and highlighted areas for improvement in a full-scale implementation. Those improvements can and should be integrated into the new statutory scheme. Conducting further trials would be an unnecessary waste of time and resources. There has already been a delay of six months since the evaluation report was published, and longer since the trials ended. We can only expect further delays as procurement protocols, recruitment processes and other preparatory work, presumably including the setting up of a new evaluation mechanism, are carried out to establish further trials.
Many of the findings of the evaluation report were flagged up early in the interim report. They led to key amendments to section 48, including those relating to the legal powers of advocates and the duty of other public authorities to have due regard to advocates’ role.
Mindful of those considerations, I argue that rather than entertaining further delays through more trials, the time has come for the Minister to take action and to bring section 48 into force. I very much hope that she will confirm in her response, which I look forward to, that that is now the Government’s intention. It cannot be anything less.
If, however, the Minister insists on the expense and delay of yet further trials, I ask her, with respect, to explain how she envisages new trials addressing the gap in authority. How will the Government evaluate the effectiveness of advocates in engaging with local authorities and relevant agencies, given that the trials do not actually trial what is proposed? They deny advocates the statutory status that is central to their being able to deliver their function. It is difficult to see what mechanisms could be used in trials to require local authorities and relevant agencies to give due regard to the advocate’s role and responsibilities that would have a similar weight to a statutory duty. Sadly, the consequences of the delay will be that many vulnerable children across England and Wales have to go without much-needed assistance.
Scotland has of course been leading the way in the UK for some time, and I am pleased to say that Northern Ireland will shortly be joining Scotland in providing statutory independent guardians for both trafficked and separated migrant children. We are pleased to be part of that process, as the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East said, and to follow the clear direction that Scotland has taken. It is a matter of great regret that trafficked children in England and Wales will not have the same access to support as those in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
When the lives of vulnerable children are at stake, it is imperative that we act with urgency, and we need urgency in the Minister’s response today. Does she really want it to be said that the worst place to be a trafficked child in the UK is in England and Wales, because the statutory rights and protections are weaker? I certainly hope not. I urge her to unblock the logjam that is holding up the commencement of section 48 and to act swiftly to enable every trafficked child in England and Wales to have an independent child trafficking advocate as soon as is humanly possible. I also ask her to address how she will ensure that separated migrant children in England and Wales will not be at a disadvantage compared with children in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who will have access to independent guardians.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter, and it is important that the issues involved are stressed. I believe that England and Wales should follow Northern Ireland and Scotland’s examples, and I say in all honesty that it would be remiss of the Minister not to give a clear direction on that today. I look forward to her response, as well as that of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. This is clearly an important and emotive issue—I do not think anything rallies the human spirit quite like looking after children, whether they be our own children or trafficked children, and particularly vulnerable children who need our help.
The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made a vivid and skilled contribution. She clearly has a great deal of knowledge of the issue, and I pay tribute to her for securing the debate and for the work that she has done on the all-party group, which I have learned a lot about in the last couple of days having read up on the subject. I commend you for that very good and sincere work. You provided vivid summaries of the experiences of the trial and put into context how it benefited children.
What came out of your speech was that trust is the central plank of why an advocate is so essential. The role of the advocate creates trust in the system by integrating children into society and giving them hope, and it creates trust in the advocates themselves. The alternative is further overburdening an already overburdened social work department with extra responsibilities, which it clearly would not have the resources to meet. I was interested to hear you talk about the positive feedback from the trials that have already taken—
Apologies, Mr Streeter. I was commending the right hon. Member for Slough because I was interested to hear about the positive feedback from the trials that she spoke of. That prompts a question, which I hope the Minister can help us with later: why on earth were they pulled, and why has section 48 not been invoked since that happened? I would be grateful to hear some answers to that. It is telling that, as she said, Barnardo’s has continued its advocacy policy since the conclusion of the trials. That organisation is dedicated solely to looking after vulnerable children, so if it sees the benefits of advocates, we should all sit up and take note.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made a point that I would like to echo: this is not about politics. This is not about us in Scotland, Northern Ireland, or any jurisdiction telling another jurisdiction that we are doing a better job. We simply care about the kids, wherever they are; whether they are in Scotland, England, the European Union or the wider world, we want vulnerable children to be protected. It is not to score political points that we say that Scotland is perhaps more advanced in what it is doing; it is to provide a constructive comparison so that we can all look after the children in question. My hon. Friend provided an excellent summary of the position in Scotland, which I am sure the Minister has taken note of.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a powerful point about the need to invoke section 48 immediately. He made the important point that the criterion upon which we should assess the trials is material benefit to children. From what I have heard today and read in preparation for this debate, it strikes me that the trials did have that benefit. If we keep that principle at the forefront of our mind when assessing what happened in the trials, hopefully it will lead us to invoke section 48 so that, frankly, we can get on with it.
I did not think my speech would be complete without hearing from the children themselves. I have a testimony from a child in Scotland who has been through the system there. She says of her advocate:
“I was happy, she was so nice, so nice about everything, we go to different appointments together.”
She said her guardian really
“calmed me down when I was upset. After the appointment she and I would meet and talk together about what happened, and she advised me. She was more than a worker for me, because she was someone I could talk to.”
She said her social worker was very nice, but she had only met her
“for 3 hours in 9 months. We are like strangers when we talk together. But with my Guardian, I talk to her”.
She says that she trusts her guardian and that
“she puts me at…ease”.
She feels as if she can now live her life.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time, Mr Streeter. I would like to add to the compliments that have been given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for securing this debate, for the campaigning work that she has been doing tirelessly and vigorously around this one issue and for the work that she has done on modern slavery and on the APPG on human trafficking and modern day slavery. That is not just to bolster my right hon. Friend’s ego, but because I really hope the Minister takes seriously the weight of her experience and the weight of support from colleagues across the House when she called for this debate.
The scale of human trafficking in the UK and the implications for the victims are far beyond most people’s comprehension. As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said, last year 982 children were recorded as being victims of trafficking by the UK Human Trafficking Centre’s national referral mechanism, but it is accepted—and the Centre accepts—that that is a massive underrepresentation of the true extent of the problem. The Government’s own estimate puts the total number of people in slavery in the UK at around 13,000, with approximately 3,000 of those thought to be under the age of 18.
Trafficked children are some of our country’s most vulnerable children, often suffering years of abuse and exploitation. Those children are at significantly greater risk of harm. That remains true, to our great shame, even after they are in the care of the state. In its 2013 report, the Centre for Social Justice estimated that 60% of trafficked children in local authority care go missing, and that those who go missing are often highly likely to be returned to exploitation. Often children are so terrified and brainwashed by their trafficker that they will leave at the first possible opportunity and return to that abuser. Trafficked children are the responsibility of us all, yet their suffering is often overlooked and misunderstood, even by the professionals who work most closely with them. It is for this reason that these children need someone independent by their side and on their side as they navigate their way through the immigration, social care and justice systems.
Section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 sets out provisions for trafficked children to be assigned an independent child trafficking advocate. Their role is to represent and support the child, promote the child’s wellbeing, assist in obtaining advice and representation and hold public authorities to account; their sole aim is to support that vulnerable child. As we have heard, a system of independent child trafficking advocates was piloted in 23 local authorities in England from September 2014 and into 2015. The independent evaluation, conducted by the University of Bedfordshire, found that the trial was successful and the service helped to keep children “safely visible”. Most importantly, the children themselves overwhelmingly found the role of their advocate positive in their lives and described them as “reliable and trustworthy”.
Children’s charities such as ECPAT—I thank it for all the help that it has given me on this issue—and Barnardo’s, all the UK’s children’s commissioners, the British Association of Social Workers, and many more have been campaigning for legal guardianship or advocacy for trafficked children for many years. It is a concept that is recognised and valued internationally. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its recent examination of the UK’s implementation of its recommendations, once again urged the UK to adopt:
“Statutory independent guardians for all unaccompanied and separated children”.
Further, both the Northern Irish and the Scottish Governments, as we have heard, have included independent guardians in their new trafficking legislation. Both countries have accepted, without delay, the need for such a system, and are currently drafting regulations to create their own statutory systems, but this Government cannot even keep to their own deadline of March this year to make a simple decision on the future of the scheme.
In the meantime, hundreds, if not thousands, of trafficked children have been denied their right to independent advocacy. The provision for independent child trafficking advocates in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was the only substantial, dedicated part of the legislation for children, yet it is the only part to not be enacted. Adult victims of trafficking in the UK receive a specialist response from trained organisations used to working with victims, but that is not the case for children who end up in the care system, often supported by social workers and others who may have had no training whatever on trafficking.
Without independent advocates, some of the most vulnerable children in our country, including British children trafficked internally for sexual exploitation, must face the complexities and bureaucracies of our care, justice and immigration systems alone. The pilot was criticised and the evaluation found a complex picture of children going missing, but the Government used this as an excuse for why the trial was not immediately continued and expanded.
Children going missing is a complex issue and not something that can be solved with one simple solution. To expect that advocates could stop children going missing is simplistic and misleading, and is actually not the main focus of the job. There are multiple factors that can lead to a child going missing: being brainwashed to return to their traffickers; inappropriate or unsafe placements; failure to apprehend traffickers; the criminalisation of children who have been exploited; and different agencies failing to communicate. It is, of course, hoped that having independent advocates will help to decrease those issues and, in turn, help to reduce a child’s likelihood of going missing, but we must remember that not all trafficked children go missing.
Of the children in the trial that did go missing and had an advocate, more than half had not actually met their advocate due to delays in referrals to Barnardo’s by the local authorities. In fact, only 19% of all referrals to Barnardo’s by local authorities were on time. Will the Government commit to investigating the causes of the extensive delays in referring children to the advocacy service?
Under the Modern Slavery Act, since November 2015, public authorities have had a duty to notify the Secretary of State if they come across a potential victim of trafficking. How many such reports have been made, in particular for children, and what is being done to ensure that front-line practitioners know they have this new duty? Furthermore, will the Government address the issue of visibility of advocates in their relevant local authorities, immigration channels, local safeguarding boards and the criminal justice process, as highlighted in the evaluation?
It is simply not acceptable, or fair, that children who have been exploited are given such a poor service. The scale of trafficking and abuse in Rotherham highlighted the inability of public authorities to deal with exploitation cases, which left thousands of children disbelieved, disengaged and vulnerable to further exploitation. A system that has been independently shown to benefit these children, to build trust and to increase their visibility to services is not a luxury, but a necessity, if we wish to tackle modern slavery and child exploitation.
Will the Minister clarify how the Government plan to eradicate modern slavery and be “world leading” in their response to trafficking, when they are delaying a scheme that is known to benefit and protect children and is already established in many European countries? I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and ask whether the Minister thinks it is acceptable that children who have been trafficked in Scotland or Northern Ireland will be guaranteed better provision and support than those in England and Wales. Will the Government now act immediately to establish a national scheme of independent child advocates based on the model that was independently evaluated as a success? The Minster has it within her gift to simply tweak, test and modify elements of the scheme throughout its delivery. It is immoral that the Government are procrastinating on the issue and denying trafficked children their right to independent advocacy and the chance to a better, safer future.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I believe that it is not the first occasion, but I hope it is not the last. I welcome the opportunity for the House to focus on what we all agree is a most challenging and important topic, and for me to set out clearly the Government’s position.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing the debate and on her contribution to this country’s leading work on modern slavery and human trafficking. Through her position as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern day slavery and on the Modern Slavery Bill Committee, she has contributed more than many other people and deserves great credit. There are other Members, both here and in the other place, who have also devoted themselves to promoting the issue of child victims of trafficking and making their lives better. I have been grateful for and impressed by the individual and collective achievements on the issue.
Let me be clear from the outset: supporting trafficked children remains a key priority for the Government. I appreciate how many hon. Members are impatient for progress—so am I. We are talking about a vulnerable group of children, who deserve the utmost support and protection. We must ensure that our response is the right one to best support trafficked children. I value the conversations that I have had with many Members who are here today, with those in the other place and with other key stakeholders including Barnardo’s, to which I pay tribute for its work on the trial, ECPAT, UNICEF and the independent anti-slavery commissioner. We have discussed the critical issues and developed better solutions, and I am particularly grateful for all the frankness and honest insights.
The right hon. Member for Slough and others have referred to the delay. It is not a delay to procrastinate; it is about getting it right. She mentioned the Government’s commitment to report in March. I had hoped that we could fulfil that commitment but, when her all-party group and others voiced significant concerns, I did not want to make an announcement that we would need to go back on. I wanted to work with her and other stakeholders to ensure that we got it right.
I do not intend to go into the details of the trial but I want to address a few points regarding its effectiveness. I have listened carefully today and in earlier discussions, and although many good things came from the trial, I cannot agree that it was an unequivocal, resounding success. The outcomes were equivocal. The trial showed some benefits—the children felt listened to and other professionals reported that the advocates were able to co-ordinate different agencies effectively—but in other areas, there were severe limitations.
The evaluation raised a number of operational issues that required further work, including the process for referring children to advocates; the high incidence of missing children, which I will come to shortly; the fact that advocates did not have the legal powers that had been invested in them by the Modern Slavery Act; and the fact that, in some areas, the service was not visible to many agencies.
The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) expressed concern about whether the country was compliant with the EU directive. We are already fully compliant with the EU directive and the Council of Europe convention. Existing provisions ensure that the relevant statutory agencies meet the international obligations. With the trials, we are looking to do additional work to support trafficked children over and above those obligations.
I have to disagree that children going missing is just something that will happen. We should not see that as acceptable. I understand that there is a problem, and I have a round-table discussion on missing children later this week. I am determined that we make the police response and other responses to missing children part and parcel of everyday work. Those are the children who are trafficked. They are the adults who have mental health problems and find themselves locked up in police cells when they should not be. They are the children who are sexually exploited. We cannot stand by and say that it is acceptable that children go missing. A child’s safety and welfare must be the overriding consideration of any child in the care of the Government, where we are acting as their parent.
I have not heard anyone suggest today that it is somehow acceptable that children are going missing. What people find unacceptable is that the enforcement and implementation of section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act is missing. There seems to be dereliction in the name of perfection. The fact that the pilot showed a need for improvement does not disprove the need for the provisions of section 48.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has made the point that I wanted to make, which is that no one in this Chamber today has said that it is acceptable that children are going missing. No one has said that the Government are wrong to focus on the needs of missing children. I and other Members have said that the advocacy scheme on its own was never going to be able to prevent children from going missing. The fact that some children went missing should therefore not be used as a reason for delaying the implementation of the advocacy scheme. It might be used as a reason for taking additional steps, such as the risk assessment to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) referred, to help prevent children from being added to the large number who go missing.
I apologise to the right hon. Lady if she thinks I implied that anyone in this room had said that it is acceptable that children are going missing—I withdraw any suggestion that that was the case. However, the fact remains that just as many children who had an advocate in the pilot went missing as other children, if not more. I take the point that that might be because they had not met their advocate, so we have to get it right and ensure that children do meet their advocate.
I fully appreciate that the scheme is not the silver bullet to resolve the issue of children going missing, but I am determined to ensure that we find a way to make a difference using advocates, who should be there to help prevent young people from going missing. We must stop children maintaining contact with their traffickers, as I suspect some probably have. It is important that we find a way to get this right. I take the point that we should not let perfection get in the way, but that is simply not what is happening.
There were other equivocal issues in the trial. Some children never met their advocate—some went missing before meeting them and some did not meet them full stop—and others did so only infrequently. There was limited evidence of advocates having an impact by assisting children in navigating and getting a better outcome from the immigration or criminal justice systems; in accessing the right health and education services; or even in getting better referrals to, and receiving improved outcomes from, the national referral mechanism. The fact that not all children who were trafficked and had an advocate went into the national referral mechanism raises concerns.
The evaluation highlighted that, in a number of areas to which the Minister is referring, the timeline of immigration administration, for example, did not fit the timeline of the evaluation process, so it was not possible for some of those points to be concluded. I have not heard any reason for not implementing section 48. She wants to improve the scheme, but how will continuing without the legislative back-up of section 48 enable the scheme to improve? I do not understand that.
I hope the right hon. Lady will forgive me, but I have a little more progress to make.
I welcome the comments from all hon. Members on the comparison with Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it is important that we reflect on the relative scale and complexities of the problem in England and Wales, where we need to work with many different social services, legal systems and police forces. I assure Members that we have taken on board all the learning from the Scottish Guardianship Service, but the circumstances and the models are different. The service in Scotland is only for children for whom no one has taken parental responsibility, and in such circumstances children in England and Wales will receive support from a social worker and, if there are care proceedings, a children’s guardian. We have kept wider criteria for receiving an advocate in the Modern Slavery Act. We have carefully considered what has been done in Scotland, and we have taken much learning from the schemes in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it is important that we reflect on the differences between the legal systems.
A number of serious questions raised in the model testing tell us that, although the model shows great promise, it is not universally effective. I am convinced that independent advocacy has an important and central role to play in supporting children, but as the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner has told me in correspondence, further work is needed to get the model fit for purpose. He remains concerned about the lack of evidence from the trial. Although advocates can clearly play a crucial role, we need to consider the whole package, which is centred on each child’s individual needs. This is simply too important to get wrong. We need to ensure that all child victims of modern slavery are properly identified and supported.
Turning to what I intend to do, I am pleased to announce a full package of measures that, collectively, will improve the support we offer to child victims of trafficking. I make it clear so that no one is in any doubt that I am fully committed to commencing section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act and to the full national roll-out across England and Wales of independent advocates for all trafficked children. To support that, following the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner’s advice, I also propose two interim measures to improve advocacy now and to prepare for the implementation of the new system as soon as possible.
First, I propose to introduce independent child trafficking advocates at three early adopter sites. The competition for providing those sites will be launched this summer. The sites will enable us to refine the model that was previously tested, including by increasing the speed of referral and the number of people and organisations that can make such referrals; testing the use of quasi-legal powers by advocates and the impact that that will have on their effectiveness and their relationships with statutory agencies; and training and recruiting advocates with specialist skills, such as in certain languages or in dealing with particular forms of abuse, so that they can give more targeted support.
Secondly, in collaboration with the Department for Education, the Home Office will commission a training programme for existing independent advocates, who are statutorily provided to all looked-after children. The training will improve their awareness and understanding of the specific needs of trafficked children and how to support them. But that is not enough. I am also determined to address the other concerns raised in both the trial and the feedback from right hon. and hon. Members.
I am therefore pleased to announce that this year the Home Office will establish and launch a new child trafficking protection fund, with up to £3 million of Government funding initially available over the next three years. The fund will be targeted at addressing two key issues where advocacy alone appears to be insufficient and where alternative and additional approaches are needed. The first aim is to reduce the number of children who go missing or who have contact with traffickers. The second is to support children from high-priority states, from which we continually see high numbers of children trafficked to the UK. I want to explore how we can best meet the needs of such children and disrupt the traffickers who target them. We all agree that a culturally targeted approach is likely to be effective and, having listened to stakeholders, we have decided to launch the fund to promote innovation from stakeholders in all sectors who work with trafficked children and know how best to meet their needs. Critically, such discrete funding could support bespoke local and innovative strategies.
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
That may be one of the detailed points on which I will have to get back to the hon. Lady. I will talk about some of the other points at this stage, but maybe I will write to her with the specifics.
I want to address the concerns raised about accommodation. We are doing two things about that. First, as the Immigration Minister announced earlier this year, we are taking forward plans to review local authority support for non-European economic are migrant children who have been trafficked. The review will help improve our understanding of specialist local authority provisions for that group as we implement the Modern Slavery Act.
Additionally, the Department for Education is rolling out training for foster carers and support workers that will equip them to understand better the complexities facing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have been trafficked, and to gain their trust to prevent them from running away from safe placements. We are already piloting a new way of delivering the national referral mechanism. The pilot is testing new models of identifying victims, processing cases and making effective decisions. It will help ensure that all victims, including children, can access the support that they need. To underpin all that work, we are developing new statutory guidance on identifying and supporting potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking, on which we intend to consult later this year. It includes specific guidance on how best to support child victims of modern slavery.
Looking more widely, many services that trafficked children receive will be the same as for all children, although tailored to them individually. That is particularly true for children in need or looked-after children. Although only part of our approach, incorporating provision for all trafficked children into what is already there, not increasing their isolation, is the way forward. Setting trafficked children apart runs the risk, among other things, of reinforcing their sense of isolation and further increasing their vulnerabilities.
I appreciate that many hon. Members, like me, may be frustrated that establishing independent child trafficking advocates will take some time, as we need to find and train them, and that they may have concerns about how child victims will be better supported in the short term. That is why I have put forward a range of shorter and longer-term proposals and addressed areas where advocacy does not appear to be the only or best solution. We need to get it right. We must strike the right balance between requirements in secondary legislation, statutory guidance and a provider contract, and I need to engage further with right hon. and hon. Members and others to determine how best to do that, including informally via the modern slavery strategy implementation group, with key voluntary and statutory partners and, of course, via a public consultation exercise, followed in due course by the necessary parliamentary processes.
That will happen in step with a public procurement exercise to seek a provider for the national service. We will monitor outcomes for children who have an advocate in the early adopter sites, and look at whether children are generally being helped across a range of key areas including safety, wellbeing, health, education and criminal justice. We will use the learning from the early adopter sites to refine the model for independent child trafficking advocates, which will then be rolled out across England and Wales.
One issue that Kevin Hyland and I have both raised is whether the further assessment can build on the learning from the original pilot. Can the Minister assure the House that she will continue to draw on the information from the first round of pilots, so that we do not waste all that work but use it to inform what she is doing?
The right hon. Lady makes an important point and is absolutely right. We need to take what we have already learned, look at early adopter sites and trial new and refined ways of working as we roll out the national process.
The point is that we want to do this right. We will start the process for a national roll-out without delay by ensuring that we have early adopter sites, so that we can trial what we know is successful from the first trial as well as new and different ways of looking at the situation. Although it will take time, I assure all hon. Members that I am determined to move as quickly as possible towards achieving those steps, and in the meantime to implement the immediate improvements that I have outlined. I ask for the continued support of all during that process and stress again that we must get it right for the sake of trafficked children.
I reiterate my commitment to providing an independent advocate to all children who have been trafficked within or into England and Wales, and to getting the arrangements for independent advocates right. The most important thing is to support and protect all trafficked children and ensure that the role of advocates is fully effective. We cannot rush it and risk relying on a sticking-plaster approach on the assumption that we think we have the answer. We must implement fully a considered, holistic and proven solution that meets the needs of trafficked children, who are already vulnerable and may, tragically, be subject to future harm, including from their trafficker, even after coming into the protection system.
I thank the right hon. Member for Slough once again for raising this important issue—I know that she will continue to raise it, and I look forward to that—and for giving me the opportunity to set out the Government’s work. I look forward to our continued dialogue and meetings on this complex issue. I will write to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on her specific points, and I assure all Members that I will reflect most carefully on their considered comments and helpful suggestions.
I thank everybody who has contributed to this debate. It is clear how seriously people from all parts of the House take our duty to protect vulnerable children. I am still worried that the Minister risks making the perfect the enemy of the good. In her concluding remarks, I did not hear a commitment to offer the sites that she calls early adopter sites the backing of section 48, which is the legal power that advocates need in order to be listened to properly by local authorities. It would be helpful to know—
I hope that that means that section 48 will be in place, even if the Minister does it in a way that enables it to be rolled out in places. It is quite clear that without it, local authorities will treat advocates as just the guy from Barnardo’s, which is just not good enough and does not protect children.
The other thing that I did not hear is a response to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) about risk assessment. I think I heard a bit of a response when the Minister said that it is not in the interests of trafficked children to put them in a “trafficked children only” box. I felt that that might be a way of resisting proposals to assess, for example, Vietnamese gardeners as being at acute risk of disappearing.
As well as the work that the Minister has described, it is essential to establish a national system of risk assessment that is available to local authorities to protect the children who are at most risk of disappearing. Even if advocates on their own are not sufficient protection, we know that certain groups of children are at particularly acute risk. Designing a scheme that recognises the acuteness of risk to particular groups of children would therefore be sensible, and it would be likely to reduce the incidence of children from those particular groups disappearing.
Good, except that “shortly” in the Minister’s life and my life is “longly” in the life of a 14-year-old. That is the problem that we face. It is not that we believe the Government do not want to do this, or that they have locked the issue in a cupboard and are ignoring it; that is not my accusation. I have a deep concern about the delays that we have faced since we introduced the Act. The Minister, the Home Secretary and many other Ministers have said how wonderful the Act is. It is important legislation, but only if it exists in reality on the ground everywhere. That is necessary if we are to protect children.
I heard the Minister’s perfectly reasonable answer about how the civil service does things, how we are going to run the competition for early adopter sites and so on. I realise that this is not a quick process, but I worry that we are in for more months of delay and that there will be more children who do not have the person they need. It is important that the Minister quickly ensures that section 48 is in place, and that she considers what is at risk of being missed out of the process. The risk is that in trying to design a system that is perfect, we will leave too many children without a person they trust, who can help them to negotiate the ghastly bureaucracy that they will face.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered independent advocates for trafficked children.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the current situation in Bangladesh.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, and I thank the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), for attending this very important debate.
Let me briefly set out why we are having this debate and explain what I hope to cover in the time available to me. The current situation in Bangladesh has some relationship to the war for independence in 1971, but it is also very much the result of the seriously flawed general election on 5 January 2014. That election was flawed because the Awami League Government were manipulating the results. They refused to consider the creation of a caretaker Government and they put obstacles in the way of the opposition parties; indeed, they made it impossible for the opposition to take part satisfactorily. That is why the opposition rightly and understandably boycotted that election. As we now creep towards the next general election, we see that the same Awami League Government have become increasingly concerned that they will not win it through legitimate means.
In debating the current situation in Bangladesh, I will talk about, first, the consequences of that flawed general election; secondly, what has been happening recently, particularly some of the atrocities that have taken place; thirdly, what we should anticipate happening next in Bangladesh; fourthly, why all this is relevant to the United Kingdom; and finally, what I hope the Government might consider doing in the near future.
There is irrefutable evidence that democracy has now broken down in Bangladesh. I was in the country just a few weeks ago and I spoke with trustworthy non-governmental organisations. I learned that ballot boxes were now being stuffed with ballot papers for the ruling party in advance of local elections taking place; that opposition candidates were not appearing on the ballot paper when they should have been; that opposition candidates were being “persuaded” not to stand or campaign; and that there are also concerns about the politicisation of the electoral commission in Bangladesh. Added to those issues is the restraint on freedom of expression and the pressure being put on the free press.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, is my hon. Friend aware of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the fact that it is having its annual conference in September, with 200-plus nations gathering in Dhaka, Bangladesh? Can the Minister do anything to assure UK parliamentarians who may wish to attend that conference? If we want to meet secular or atheistic bloggers, can we have some assurances on freedom of association? I am not too sure about that, in light of the terrible recent murders that have shocked the world. The fact that my hon. Friend was talking about the opposition and what may happen next reminded me of that point, which I wanted to make him aware of.
I am aware of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference that will take place in Bangladesh. It is a good forum for British parliamentarians and other parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth. It will allow them to be in Bangladesh and express some of the same concerns as my hon. Friend. The point I was making relates in particular to the press. The murder, torture and harassment of journalists is well known. Many are fleeing to Britain and seeking asylum here because of the threats and attacks.
I completely agree that politics runs passionately high in the country, but it is getting unbearable. Some of the points that I will touch on show that things are moving towards a serious situation of civil unrest, and that needs to be addressed. Tensions are perhaps more heightened than when the hon. Gentleman was in the country.
I met Oli Ullah Numan, who came to the UK for the very reasons I described. He was a journalist who wrote disparagingly about the current Government. He soon started feeling that his life was under threat. Talking to him in Rochdale, I could see the stress and fear that his experience had caused him. Most upsetting for him was not that he was now separated from his wife and children, but that he feared for their lives because they remained in the country. Reporters Without Borders rates Bangladesh at 144th out of 180 countries on its world press freedom index and talks about how journalists there have to be very careful about criticising the Government or religion.
If all that was not bad enough, on 4 May, the Bangladesh Government announced the setting up of a media monitoring centre. They are also taking steps to bring social media under similar forms of regulation to those for print and television. Indeed, the draft Digital Security Act provides for sentences of life imprisonment for anyone spreading negative propaganda about the 1971 war of independence or Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s father. The Act also provides for the sentencing of anybody who deliberately defames someone or hurts their religious sentiment via digital media to two years in prison, replicating existing provisions in law. Another draft law, the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act, makes similar provisions.
All that is restricting a free press and attempting to quash any criticism of the Government. In addition, we are now seeing attacks on secular bloggers. In 2015, four were murdered: a gentleman called Roy in February, Rahman Babu in March, Bijoy Das in May and Chakrabarti in August. While al-Qaeda takes responsibility for some of the attacks, a group called Ansarullah Bangla Team also takes some responsibility. It has published a hit list that includes UK-based bloggers. On 6 April, a law student and blogger was murdered by a group linked to al-Qaeda. The Awami League Home Office Minister’s response was simply to tell bloggers to be careful what they wrote about. On 23 April, a university professor was hacked to death and Daesh claimed responsibility. On 25 April, two people were hacked to death, including the editor of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender magazine, and again an al-Qaeda affiliate took responsibility. Then, on 30 April, a Hindu man was murdered and Daesh claimed responsibility. Those from the tiny Shi’a Muslim minority have also become prominent targets, with processions and their mosques facing attack. Last month, an elderly Buddhist monk was hacked to death. Religious minorities, writers, bloggers and publishers have continued to be attacked and murdered, and that has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Bangladesh.
The breakdown in law and order continues with the gross violation of human rights. Amnesty International regularly reports on what it calls enforced disappearances, and it clearly holds the security forces responsible. It talks of officers in plain clothes arresting dozens of people but then denying any knowledge of their whereabouts. A survey of national newspapers conducted by the human rights organisation, Ain o Salish Kendra, indicated the enforced disappearance of at least 43 individuals, including two women, between January and September 2015. Of the 43, six were later found dead, four were released after their abduction and five were found in police custody. The fate and whereabouts of the other 28 is unknown. Human Rights Watch has also criticised the authorities’ use of excessive force, which includes the extra-judicial killings of opposition supporters. In particular, the Rapid Action Battalion is singled out as being involved in the extra-judicial killings and disappearances. Mass arrests are taking place, with experts stating that they are aimed not so much at Islamic extremists or terrorists but more at political opponents.
If all that were not bad enough, the justice system is seen as biased and is being used to silence the Government’s political opponents, not least through what is called the International Crimes Tribunal. The tribunal has been condemned by the United Nations because it does not meet international standards. It is clearly politicised and is being used not to serve justice for crimes against humanity during the 1971 war of independence but to provide political results. That is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that both Jamaat-e-Islami and Bangladesh National party leaders have faced the death penalty following flawed trials at the tribunal.
Besides that, allegations are regularly made by the current Government against political opponents, tying them down in legal battles and constraining them through threats of police action and prison. As we steadily move towards the next general election in Bangladesh, the Government appear to be making more allegations, particularly against those political opponents who are particularly popular. Attempts are being made to use the judicial process to thwart the electoral chances of opponents such as Tarique Rahman and Khaleda Zia. It is as though the Awami League is trying to choose its opponents for the next general election. Indeed, the next general election could well be more corrupt and fraudulent than the last. We are observing Bangladesh collapse into chaos. As a consequence, we are also seeing a rise in Islamist extremism. The erosion of civic space, the demolition of democracy and the reduction of human rights are all causing a void that is being filled by fundamentalists.
Unhelpfully, the Bangladesh Government often deny that Daesh has a presence in the country and have criticised foreign intelligence agencies and independent commentators who have suggested otherwise. Such a “head in the sand” mentality helps nobody, but neither does the mentality of Bangladesh’s high commissioner to Britain, who recently went on the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme and claimed, to the astonishment and disbelief of the presenter and audience, that some of the extremist murders are being committed by the Bangladesh Nationalist party. That can be bettered only by Bangladesh’s Minister of Home Affairs, who recently blamed Israel for some of the attacks. Let me be clear: it helps nobody to deny that there is a problem with extremism in Bangladesh, but it is deeply corrosive and haunting to play party politics with Islamist terrorism, as the high commissioner did.
Britain and Bangladesh have very strong ties. We trade heavily with each other. We rely heavily on the Bangladesh garment industry. We have the largest Bangladeshi diaspora in Europe. We enjoy the cultural experience that Bangladeshis bring to Britain—indeed, we rely heavily on Bangladeshi chefs to cook our national dish, chicken tikka masala. Bangladesh relies on aid from Britain, and on the remittances that are still being sent home. We share space and understanding within that great institution, the Commonwealth. I have grave concerns for the people of Bangladesh. The problems seem to be escalating. Human rights abuses are increasing dramatically. State violence is becoming extreme. I am worried that the country is steadily slipping towards civil unrest and, potentially, civil war, which is why I suggest that our Government take further action.
What more does the Minister think can be done? I accept that the Foreign Office has recently designated Bangladesh a human rights priority country, but more pressure needs to be applied. What more can the British Government do to press Sheikh Hasina’s regime to start holding free and fair elections and to move towards a free and fair general election? Do the Government believe that some of our aid budget for Bangladesh is going into institutions, such as the Election Commission Bangladesh, that are clearly politicised and favour one party over another? If so, what should be done? Does the Minister have any concerns that weapons or equipment from the UK may be used by the security forces to suppress political activists, restrain political liberty and reduce freedom of expression? Does the Minister agree that it is now appropriate to consider sanctions against Bangladesh? Perhaps we should at least refuse entry to the UK for those in Bangladesh who are clearly responsible for some of the abuses we are discussing.
I know that there will always remain a very strong bond between Britain and Bangladesh. Indeed, our relationship allows us to be critical friends. The time has now come for the British Government to be a little more critical and a little less friendly to the current Bangladesh regime.
I shall call any other Members who wish to participate, but I should indicate to them that there are only around three to four minutes before I call the Minister to respond to the mover of the motion, who will wind up the debate at the end. If more than one Member wishes to speak, they should understand that if they are to be fair, there is limited time for them to make a representation. I call Rupa Huq.
Sir Alan, it was my intention only to make an intervention about the bloggers and the fact that the Charter of the Commonwealth, by which the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association abides, ensures the fundamental freedom of association. I am particularly interested to hear from the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government are making representations to the Government in Bangladesh to ensure that fundamental right when the conference takes place in September.
As you have given me the floor, Sir Alan, I would like to echo some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) about the Bangladeshi diaspora. I am one of three Members of Parliament of Bangladeshi origin in this House. My hon. Friend painted a rather depressing portrait. I believe it was George Harrison who wrote a song about Bangladesh being a terrible mess. Some of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend seem to give weight to that opinion, although it was expressed only in popular song. It is a country that has been monitored on many fronts: democracy, human rights and freedom of association. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s speech.
Of course the hon. Lady is a senior politician in this place and she knows the rules. Debates in Westminster Hall operate under strict timetables. The mover of the motion has indicated that he wants the Minister to reply to the questions he posed. If any time is left, it can be granted to other Members, but we now have to move on because we are approaching the witching hour, when the Minister has to be called.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this important debate and commend the consistent commitment he has shown to Bangladesh, both as a member of the all-party group on Bangladesh and as an MP representing British nationals of Bangladeshi heritage. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for her contribution. As the Minister with responsibility for bilateral relations with Bangladesh and for the Commonwealth, I will try to address as many of the points raised as I can in the time available.
As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh is strong. That relationship is enhanced, and British society as a whole is enriched, by the diaspora community. As a close friend of Bangladesh and fellow members of the Commonwealth, we care deeply about what happens there, both now and in future. We want Bangladesh to develop into an economically successful country that maintains its Bengali tradition of respect and tolerance for people of all faiths and backgrounds.
In June last year, the House debated Bangladesh against a backdrop of political unrest, the brutal murders of bloggers, and allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Since then, there have been more attacks against minority groups and those who hold views counter to traditional values and beliefs. Responsibility for many of the attacks has been claimed by Daesh, or by groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. As has been pointed out, there has also been pressure on opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist party, and on dissenting voices in the media and civil society.
Peaceful, credible elections are the true mark of a mature functioning democracy, and all political parties share a responsibility for delivering them. The UK will continue to engage constructively with all parties in Bangladesh, and with international partners, to work towards that end. It is generally recognised that a shrinking of space for democratic challenge and debate can push some towards extremist alternatives. I am deeply concerned that the recent appalling spate of murders is becoming an all-too-common occurrence. The Prime Minister discussed our concerns with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, on 27 May in Tokyo, highlighting the fact that extremist attacks risk undermining stability in Bangladesh. I also raised those concerns with the Bangladeshi high commissioner on 24 May, and our high commissioner in Dhaka regularly discusses these issues in meetings with the Bangladeshi Government.
I welcome the commitment by the Government of Bangladesh to bring those responsible for recent extremist attacks to justice. We have also made it clear, in public and in private, that justice must be done in a manner that fully respects the international human rights standards that Bangladesh has signed up to and which, as a member of both the Commonwealth and the UN Human Rights Council, it has pledged to uphold.
Mass arrests and suspicious “crossfire” deaths at the hands of the police undermine confidence in the judicial system. Investigations must be conducted transparently and impartially, irrespective of the identity of the victim or the alleged perpetrator. Anyone arrested should be treated in full accordance with due process and Bangladeshi law. It is also important to explore the root causes of the attacks involving international links.
We urge Bangladesh, as a vibrant, modern and rapidly growing democracy, to protect and promote freedom of expression as one of its core values. Prime Minister Hasina has repeatedly extolled the secular, tolerant nature of Bangladesh. Her Government must be unequivocal about protecting the rights of all citizens, including those who express different views or lead different lifestyles. The victims themselves should not be blamed.
As recent events in the United Kingdom, France, the US and elsewhere sadly show, Bangladesh is not alone in having to face the scourge of extremist violence. All countries must stand together to combat extremism and terrorism. This is not a challenge to be faced in isolation. We can and will do more to engage with the Government of Bangladesh on areas of shared concern, such as counter-terrorism, counter-extremism and the promotion of human rights for all. At the same time, our development programme—still one of our largest—continues to address some of the root causes, including poverty and economic marginalisation.
The threat of terrorism and extremism affects us all. It should not be faced alone, and it is incumbent on us all to work together to promote tolerance and acceptance. The protection of human rights is a core value of the UK and of the Commonwealth. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton asked about the CPA meeting later in the year in Bangladesh, and I urge the new secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland, to visit Bangladesh as soon as she can in order to assess the situation for herself. We will continue to encourage the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, to deliver on her commitments to tackle terrorism, to protect human rights and to do so in a way that is compliant with the rule of law and due process, which is in both our interests. Bangladesh has a long-term vision to be a peaceful, prosperous and developed nation; the UK shares that aspiration and wants to be a friend of a vibrant, stable and economically successful Bangladesh.
I again thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for the opportunity to debate the issues, and I thank all other hon. Members for their contributions.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions and interventions, and I thank the Minister for his response to the issues that I have raised. Without doubt, we all want to see solutions to the problems that are obviously occurring in Bangladesh, and I am pleased to hear that the Prime Minister spoke to Sheikh Hasina as recently as last month.
I still have some concerns. We are fast approaching CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which will be held in London in a year or two. I hope that more progress will be made in Bangladesh before we get to that stage. Finally, we are left with three questions that the Minister still needs to answer: first, is any British aid being used in a partisan way; secondly, is there use of any weapons or equipment to suppress political opposition; and, thirdly, at what stage would Britain consider sanctions against Bangladesh, if the situation does not improve?
May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, when he goes over his deliberations in Hansard tomorrow, that he might take the view expressed by Ms Huq and contact the CPA to warn it that this matter came up in the course of his debate? He could ask the CPA to ensure that all precautions are taken in the event of the conference taking place.
Question put and agreed to.
Alcohol Consumption Guidelines
I beg to move,
That this House has considered guidelines on alcohol consumption.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I am delighted to have secured this topical and timely debate following the conclusion of the public consultation on the proposed new guidelines on alcohol consumption. Given the scale of public interest and levels of public and industry concern about this important issue, I am pleased to see so many colleagues here this afternoon from across the House to support the debate.
I want to be clear from the outset. I recognise the necessity for sensible and effective guidelines to help consumers—our constituents—to make better informed decisions about the amount of alcohol they consume. Ministers were right to ask the chief medical officer to carry out a review of the guidelines, and it is important that the guidance reflects the most up-to-date scientific evidence that is available across the world and that that is properly communicated to consumers.
I declare an interest as a member of the all-party beer group—unashamedly, given that 30 million adults across the UK drink beer each year and 15 million of us visit the pub each week. But I also know that this issue is a matter of concern for anyone who enjoys a drink and wants to drink responsibly.
We have made great strides in this country in promoting responsible enjoyment of alcohol through a partnership approach with industry. That achieves much more than a draconian approach to taxation or heavy-handed regulation. As a Conservative, I want to treat adults as adults and let them have the freedom to make informed choices about how they live, what they eat and drink and how they enjoy their lives. As a responsible Conservative, I also know that industry has a role to play in promoting responsibility through advertising campaigns, voluntary labelling initiatives and provision of consumer information. We have achieved a great deal, successfully reducing alcohol harm for more than 15 years.
The Office for National Statistics confirms that binge drinking has fallen by 25% since 2007. According to Public Health England, alcohol-related and alcohol-specific deaths have fallen since 2008 by 7% and 4% respectively. The Office for National Statistics confirms that alcohol-related violent crime has fallen by 40% since 2007. The number of children drinking alcohol has fallen by more than 50% since 2003 and is currently at the lowest rate on record. According to Public Health England, under-18 hospital admissions due to alcohol have fallen by 41% in the past six years.
The statistics that my hon. Friend has produced are absolutely fascinating. Of course, in the popular press, the one place that is singled out for its continuation of the old culture of drinking is the Palace of Westminster. Does he have a view on what role we should play in setting an example and does he agree that over the past few years the Houses of Parliament have been behaving absolutely immaculately?
I commend my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he recognise that we have to be wary of some of the statistics on alcohol-related admissions and alcohol-related morbidity and mortality data? Often, data on admissions to mental health hospitals are poorly collected. Indeed, now that public health services are divorced from the NHS and run by local authorities in England, we must be careful in assuming there is a downward trend. In fact, there is still a real problem with the overlap between mental health conditions and alcoholism.
I am grateful for that intervention. I accept that we have to be very careful on that issue.
We should not be complacent. It is essential that public health advice keeps pace with advances in scientific understanding. Crucially, the communication of any guidance from the state must be seen to be above reproach and carry the confidence of industry and the public alike. However, I felt this debate was needed because I and several other hon. Members are concerned that the process by which the chief medical officer reaches their conclusion is flawed and has, in some ways, been hijacked by a group of campaigners with a clear anti-alcohol, total abstinence agenda.
Views are strongly held on this subject, which divides scientific opinion and the medical community. I recognise that that puts the CMO in a difficult position in making judgments about risk and in communicating sensible guidelines to consumers. We are bombarded with health advice from all quarters in this 24-hour social media age, and it is vital that anything published in an official capacity as advice from the Government’s chief medical officer is properly scrutinised and beyond reproach. I argue that the process that has been adopted, the clear conflicts of interest of the panel of so-called experts deployed to deliberate on these matters and the biased presentation of the findings have left a crisis of confidence in the new CMO guidelines among consumers, the media and industry. The Minister needs to address that in her response to the public consultation.
Let me deal with those points in turn. First, on the process adopted to undertake this review, the Department of Health guidance for expert group members states clearly:
“It is important to avoid any impression that expert group members are being influenced or appearing to be influenced by their private interests in the exercise of their public duties. All members therefore must declare any personal or business interests relevant to the work of the expert groups which may or may not be perceived by a reasonable member of the public to influence their judgment.”
Members of the guidelines development group set up to advise the CMO have been active policy advocates during the time in which the guidelines have been developed. Thanks to the investigative journalism of Sean O’Neill, chief reporter at The Times, it has come to light that an academic who played a key role in drawing up the controversial new safe drinking limits, Professor Gerard Hastings, did not even declare his links to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a registered charity that receives most of its income from the Alliance House Foundation, which states that its aim is spreading the principle of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks. That is not quite putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank, but it is not far off.
Policy advocates such as Professor Hastings have taken strident campaigning positions. Many have a temperance or total abstinence axe to grind. They are clearly not neutral or, I argue, objective in their assessment of the costs and benefits of alcohol consumption. Indeed, the chief medical officer for England, when giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on the proposed new alcohol guidelines, admitted that the experts
“found remarkably little evidence about the impact of guidelines, but we did not do them to have direct impact so much as to inform people and provide the basis for those conversations and for any campaigns that, for instance, Public Health England and others might run in the future.”
One member of the behavioural expert group, Dr Theresa Marteau, writing in the British Medical Journal, went further and stated that the new guidelines are
“unlikely to have a direct impact on drinking…but they may shift public discourse on alcohol and the policies that can reduce our consumption.”
Minutes from the guidelines development group meeting of 8 April 2015 state:
“It would be important to bear in mind that, while guidelines might have limited influence on behaviour, they could be influential as a basis for Government policies”.
There we have it. Never mind what consumers think about being told by the chief medical officer to think of cancer every time they hold a glass of wine or pour a can of beer, or that, as someone drinking a pint of beer a day, they are drinking more than they should. The not so well hidden agenda of the temperance activists is to influence Government policy to drive down alcohol consumption across the board. Wales has a strong Methodist and temperance tradition, which I respect, but I take issue with organisations such as the Institute of Alcohol Studies, which is funded directly by the temperance movement, helping to produce biased reports that are then given undue influence over the Government’s alcohol policy.
Having raised my concerns with the process adopted in undertaking the review, which I believe may have prejudiced the outcome and has certainly rendered the process lacking in credibility with consumers and the industry, I turn to the presentation of the review’s findings and, in particular, to the assertion that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, the lowering of the recommended weekly levels for men in line with those for women, and the communication of risk. I believe that that assertion is at the heart of the flawed nature of the proposed guidelines and it is, in some respects, clearly deliberate on the part of campaigners. If the Government accept that there is no safe level of consumption, it becomes much easier to argue for more restrictions on alcohol availability,
I agree with the points the hon. Gentleman is making, specifically and generally. Does he agree that, not just on these guidelines but right across the board, Governments of all political colours have made a mistake in involving campaign groups and pretending that they are scientific experts? It is not just on alcohol, but in all sorts of other areas.
I could not have put it better myself. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.
As I said, it becomes much easier to argue for more restrictions on alcohol availability, higher taxation of all alcohol regardless of strength, and more alarmist public health advertising to frighten people away from drinking. I am not a medic, but I have been around long enough to understand the old adages of “a little bit of what you fancy does you good” and “all things in moderation”—including international science. Indeed, looking into this further, I have discovered decades of evidence that shows the protective effects of low, moderate drinking.
I am not quite clear on the hon. Lady’s point. I genuinely believe that this is a kind of social engineering, which I totally disagree with. A recent survey commissioned by the Campaign for Real Ale showed that a majority of GPs disagreed with the new advice and believes that drinking alcohol in moderation can be part of a healthy lifestyle.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As a GP, I can confirm the current lack of faith in the validity of the guidelines. Many feel, for instance, that the social benefits of moderate alcohol intake have not been given sufficient weight. Does he agree that, if they are to be observed, it is vital that guidelines are trusted?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the alcohol guidelines as social engineering, when they are actually designed to bear down on the health harms from alcohol consumption. How can he call it social engineering when the Government are trying to ensure that our fellow citizens are healthier and live longer?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman resumes, it pains me to do so but I have to point out that it is not in order for the Front Bench spokesperson to participate in questioning. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will get time to sum up for the Opposition at the end.
I am grateful for that guidance, Sir Alan. The proposed new guidelines do not reflect the full international evidence base on alcohol and health, and actively downplay decades of epidemiological evidence that shows the protective effects of low to moderate drinking against cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cognitive—
If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I really need to move on.
To quote a no less august body than the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States:
“More than 100 prospective studies show an inverse association between moderate drinking and risk of heart attack, ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes. The effect is fairly consistent, corresponding to a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction in risk.”
The US Government’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism supports that position.
One crucial point is not scientific, but about responsibility. I am a proud Conservative. Therefore, like most sensible people, I believe that, by and large, people can make their own decisions about their lives. I am not advocating that people go out and smoke 100 cigarettes, drink heavily, eat mountains of butter or consume mounds of sugar. However, if people want to enjoy the company of their friends with a fine pint of British beer that has been brewed using British ingredients following a fine art that has been honed carefully over our history, who are we to stop them? The medical advice I have listed remains clear indeed.
Curtis Ellison is professor of medicine and public health at Boston University School of Medicine, and director of the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research. He says:
“Statements suggesting abstinence is better than light drinking in terms of health and mortality are erroneous and do not reflect current scientific literature, with well-conducted studies showing that mortality is lower for light-to-moderate drinkers than for lifetime abstainers.”
As a nation, we have always believed in the fundamental good sense of the British people and, although my confidence was shaken by last week’s events, we have allowed people to decide what is best for their own lives. The pub is a crucial part of the social and cultural fabric of the UK. There are few things that are as crucial a part of our identity and history as the casual, relaxed pub culture that Britain has enjoyed over hundreds of years. Indeed, the importance of the pub—casual and social drinking—to people’s mental and physical wellbeing is marked.
The Oxford University and CAMRA-instigated report, “Friends on Tap” acknowledges the benefits of pubs to wellbeing. By telling people there is no safe level of drinking, we could be denying millions the positive social effects of going to the pub and the positive effects on the community. The results from the pub surveys suggest that people who go to small community pubs have more close friends and feel that their communities are better integrated. Indeed, small community pubs are now vital in supporting community services.
Pub is The Hub has supported many pubs across the length and breadth of the UK to stay open, become community owned and offer vital services. The services on offer include internet lessons and provisions, restaurants, post offices and shops. The pubs have been transformed into a social hub and are providing services that are vital to communities’ very survival. I fear that alarmist advice threatens not only pubs but the threads with which our communities are weaved together.
To further support my case, the findings of Oxford University suggest that pubs in general, and local community pubs in particular, may have unseen social benefits. Pubs provide us with a venue in which we can serendipitously meet new and, in many cases, like-minded people. They offer an opportunity to broaden our network of acquaintances, which has advantages. There is a potential to translate acquaintances into new friendships and to widen our contact with a greater diversity of cultural groups by bringing us into contact with people from other walks of life and other cultures, whom one might never otherwise meet.
Pubs allow us to engage in conversation with, and get to know better, other members of our local communities. By extension, they allow us to mix, meet a wider range of community members, and interact with a greater diversity of social classes and cultures than would otherwise be the case if our social world was confined to work and home.
Closer to home and on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, Dr Richard Harding was a member of the Government’s 1995 inter-departmental working group on sensible drinking. In written evidence submitted to the Science and Technology Committee in 2012, he outlined the changes in available evidence since 1995, including the strengthening of the evidence base around the range of health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. He said that the key findings are:
“Clear evidence that the frequency of drinking is as important as, or even more important than, the amount of alcohol consumed. All epidemiological studies show that the more frequent drinkers, including daily drinkers, have lower risks for many diseases than do individuals reporting less frequent drinking… Firmer evidence for the protective effect of moderate alcohol consumption for coronary heart disease, as well as further clarification of the mechanisms for the protective effect…Evidence for an approximately 30% reduction in risk for type 2 diabetes for moderate drinkers…Evidence that moderate drinkers have less osteoporosis and a lower risk of fractures in the elderly compared to abstainers…Evidence that light to moderate drinking is associated with a significantly reduced risk of dementia in older people…Increasing evidence that moderate drinking should be considered as an important constituent of a ‘healthy lifestyle’”.
Dr Alexander Jones of the University College London Institute of Cardiovascular Science says:
“There have been a couple of studies which showed that if they were randomised to either just eating a Mediterranean diet or eating a Mediterranean diet and drinking a glass of red wine a night, that those who drank a glass of red wine a night had better cardiac function over time.”
That international consensus is rejected at a stroke by the CMO’s proposed new guidelines in favour of a “no safe limits” narrative. The statement of no safe levels sends out confusing and contradictory messages to consumers and will serve only to generate public mistrust in the health service.
David Shaw, senior researcher at the Institute for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Basel says that
“the ‘no amount is safe’ message undermines the new recommended limit for men and the retention of the limit for women. Why should people attempt to adhere to the new limits rather than the old ones if they are also being told that the new recommended levels are not safe? Giving such a mixed message further increases the likelihood that the guidelines will not be taken seriously.”
Dr Augusto Di Castelnuovo, professor of statistics and epidemiology at the Institute for Cancer Research in Italy says:
“The new recommendation that there is no ‘safe’ alcohol limit is misleading: low to moderate consumption up to one-two units a day in women, up to two-three in men of any type of alcohol—with the possible exception of spirits—significantly reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderate drinking is associated with a modest excess risk of oral and pharyngeal, oesoph”—
I will forget that word—
“and breast cancers. But the balance between these two different effects is in favour of drinking in moderation.”
As well as concerns about the language of “no safe level”, considerable concern has been expressed about the communication to consumers of the level of risk associated with alcohol consumption. It is really important that we put risks in context so that consumers can make informed choices.
Ignorance of the international evidence has been heavily criticised by the Royal Statistical Society. In the key points in its response to the consultation, it states:
“We are concerned that, in their recent communications about alcohol guidelines, the Department of Health did not properly reflect the statistical evidence provided to the Expert Guideline Group, and this could lead to both a loss of reputation and reduced public trust in future health guidance…We are concerned that scepticism concerning the guideline process might apply to future pronouncements concerning arguably much greater health risks associated with inactivity, poor diet and obesity that, unlike alcohol consumption, are increasing problems. Once public trust has been lost, it is extremely difficult to win back, and you will have lost a key tool in managing future behavioural change.”
Those key points are on not just alcohol consumption but how we will view future medical advice from the Department of Health. The public must have confidence in our great institutions and be of the belief that they are serious and sober in their analysis while also realistic about people’s life choices and lifestyles.
We have worked so hard as a nation, with industry and Government working hand in hand to reduce serious problem drinking. Do not misunderstand me: I know there is some way to go on this matter and I am fully supportive of the efforts to curb problem drinking and tackle its health effects, but we must not remove industry from this process and we cannot let serious medical advice be tainted by alarmist and prescriptive guidelines that threaten to undermine the whole process we have embarked on.
Let me turn to the new CMO 14-unit weekly prescription for men and women, which would effectively make 2.5 million more of our male constituents problem drinkers overnight, classed as increasing risk from low risk by virtue of the fact that they might drink more than one pint a night in the pub. Immediately following this announcement, we saw The Guardian’s front page article asserting that as we now have in excess of 10.5 million people “drinking harmfully”, further regulatory interventions were needed. That was backed up by members of the Guidelines Development Group, including the chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies. Job done—they moved the goalposts and scored straight away. But the established international precedent in 30 countries worldwide is that men and women are set different guidelines reflecting differences in alcohol metabolism due to body size and weight as well as the lower body water content and higher body fat content of women. Aside from the UK, there are only five other countries that recommend the same guidelines for men and women: Australia, the Netherlands, Albania, Guyana and Grenada.
Dr Erik Skovenborg from the Scandinavian Medical Alcohol Board and board member at the European Foundation for Alcohol Research said:
“I am surprised to see the same limits for weekly alcohol consumption for men and women, in spite of the well-established greater susceptibility of women. The danger is that the new guidelines will give women the false impression they are on a par with men in their ability to tolerate alcohol.”
The CMO told the Science and Technology Committee that the guidelines were primarily informed by new evidence on alcohol and cancer:
“the science has moved on...we know a lot more about the impact of alcohol on the development of cancer and on the risk of cancer”,
yet guidelines for women have remained the same, while guidelines for men have been reduced based on modelling of acute harms such as accidents and injuries. I simply cannot concur that that is sound medical advice on a number of levels.
Those of us who favour a partnership approach to these matters are very concerned that this triple lock—of proceeding with the language of “no safe level” in the face of international evidence to the contrary, of promoting the notion that men and women have equal tolerance levels to alcohol and of Britain needing to have the most stringent alcohol guidelines in the world, despite the positive recent developments in tackling alcohol harm—is a triple whammy that threatens to undermine the significant recent progress we have made, with industry and Government working together to tackle alcohol harm.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I had about 20 seconds left when the Division bell rang, so I will bring my speech to a close by saying that a triple whammy threatens to undermine the significant recent progress made by the industry and the Government working together to address alcohol harm. The triple whammy also threatens to do significant harm to our communities. We cannot afford to threaten the key bonds and relationships that tie many local communities, particularly rural ones, together.
I fear that this advice will take us down a dangerous path. As we have heard, the advice is not medically sound, and it is certainly not in the best interests of these vital community assets. I call on the Minister to act. Unless she rejects the “no safe level” narrative, the new alcohol guidelines will lack credibility, carry no authority with consumers and potentially cause the industry to rethink its voluntary commitments, all of which will be retrograde steps. I am sure that that is not her intention, as she has worked tirelessly on this issue.
I have a few guidelines for Members before we continue. We have overrun quite a bit, and we are now scheduled to conclude at 6.27 pm. It is normal practice to give a couple of minutes to the mover at the end to wind up, with the Minister getting 10 minutes and the two Opposition spokespeople five minutes each, which takes us to 6 o’clock. We do not have much time left for Back Benchers, but there is sufficient time for Members to get their message across.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies) on securing this debate. I am conscious of the shortness of time, but I will try to bring some balance to the debate. I have great respect for the Minister, but we have to consider the guidelines. The guidelines are based on the recommendations of the advisory group, which asked the Sheffield alcohol research group to publish a report, and they are very clear: men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week and, if they drink as much as 14 units, it should be spread evenly over three or four days. The Royal College of Nursing, Cancer Research UK and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence support the guidelines. There is a clear link between alcohol and cancer. Those are the medical facts on which the Minister will respond.
The Campaign for Real Ale has raised many concerns, and it alleges that there is overwhelming evidence that moderate alcohol consumption can be part of a healthy lifestyle. The hon. Gentleman made that point clearly in his introduction. It is about balance and people knowing their limits. He also mentioned promoting social wellbeing, and for many people modest alcohol consumption in pubs enables us to build friendships and create a sense of community.
The industry was thought to be dying, with literally dozens of pubs closing each week, but pubs have now become vital community facilities that bring local people together. Pubs have increasingly diversified to provide much-needed services such as village shops, post offices and even housing for defibrillators. We have seen a beer revolution, and there is no constituency anywhere in the United Kingdom that does not have its own local beers and local gins. Alcohol sales are worth some £40 billion, which does not factor in the associated income from activities and events involving alcohol. Wines and spirits directly and indirectly support 512,000 jobs, 69% of which are directly dependent on the industry’s stability and success.
The issue of problem drinking has to be addressed. The industry points to the fact that most people in this country are moderate drinkers. Research shows that 60% of alcohol sales are made either to those who are risking their health or to harmful drinkers who are doing themselves potentially lethal damage. More than 1 million hospital admissions a year are related to alcohol—double the number 10 years ago.
The UK has an alcohol problem, but as with many policy areas, striking a balance, while incredibly difficult, is essential. We cannot harm those who want to enjoy a drink—not to the point that they end up in A&E—but at the same time it is right to warn people of the perils of excessive drinking. The solution lies in education from as early an age as possible. We still have teen drinking; despite existing education and awareness campaigns, the reality is that teen drinking continues. People need to be made aware why they need to watch what they drink, rather than simply being told to do so.
I will conclude, because I am very conscious that other Members want to speak. Recommendations seem to be continually ignored by all age groups, which is regrettable. To see real change—the change we want—there needs to be more awareness, and that awareness needs to be created in a positive manner, so that drinkers manage their own intake because they want to and not because they are being coerced into doing so.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, and to address the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies). They are hugely important issues and he got into the detail of them.
I am also pleased to take part in a debate with the Minister, because she has worked really constructively with the industry during her time in office. The work that she has done in lowering the alcohol by volume in drinks, as a result of working closely with the industry, has taken a billion units out of consumption. That shows that constructive working can have a huge impact on the nation’s health and the nation’s drinking habits.
I should declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on beer, and colleagues should see my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am also the patron of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in my constituency. I want to see a healthy drinks industry and a healthy population, and those two things are not mutually exclusive.
In Government, we used to have something called “the nudge unit”, to try to persuade people and help them to make the right choices. However, we are seeing “Project Fear” in this approach and we saw in the referendum that that approach simply does not work. At a stroke, we have made 2.5 million people problem drinkers. Let me tell the tale of my auntie, Irene. She died at the age of 88. Before she died, she used to enjoy a bottle of Mackeson Stout every evening. According to these guidelines, she was a problem drinker. That is what we have done. These guidelines are so against the grain of the way that people live their lives that we risk people ignoring them and ignoring other advice, and going on regardless, so that the guidelines become absolutely pointless.
For instance, Sir Alan, you will be surprised to know that according to these guidelines the Minister can drink exactly the same amount of alcohol as my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles). I have never been drinking with the Minister, but that does not seem to make any sense at all. Size, and the way in which men and women absorb alcohol at different rates—none of that is being taken into consideration.
It is interesting that in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) the Minister said that, although we have specific guidelines on calorie intake for men and for women—that guidance is differentiated—we do not have them for the intake of alcohol. That just shows that there is absolutely no sense in the way this guidance is being proposed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower referred to the concerns that exist about the way this report was drawn up and about the organisations that took part in the research, including those involved in the temperance movement. I am also concerned that in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Minister wrote that
“The National Institute for Health Research has awarded funding to The University of Sheffield… to evaluate the new drinking guidelines.”
That is a case of people marking their own homework, and we should all be very concerned about that. There are real concerns about the rigour with which this information has been compiled and we risk people turning off and not taking any notice, which could damage the health of the nation.
I realise that other Members wish to speak and that time is pressing. I appreciate the efforts that the Minister has made to work with the drinks industry, but this guidance came as a bolt from the blue. The industry knew nothing about it. There was no consultation. Nobody from the alcohol industry was involved in peer-reviewing the evidence, so I hope that we will reconsider. I realise that it is an independent report, but I urge the Minister to reconsider the validity of the evidence, because it just does not stack up.
I will be as brief as possible, Sir Alan. I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies) for securing this debate. The main point that I want to make is that this entire debate must be viewed in the context that we across the United Kingdom have a problematic relationship with alcohol. We know that the new guidelines will not automatically change how people drink or their relationship with alcohol, but if they do anything at all to raise awareness of the risk of harm and the newly discovered and developing link between cancer and alcohol intake, I for one think that that is a good thing.
In the Scottish Government, we are considering minimum pricing for alcohol as one tool in a whole host of tools to redefine our relationship with alcohol, but to call a revision of the guidelines for consumption “social engineering” is a step too far. I do not think that over-the-top comments are helpful in this debate. I speak as somebody who has a great affection for a glass of wine at the end of the evening. We all want the same thing; we want people to enjoy moderate, healthy drinking. We do not want to demonise alcohol. Most people do not have a problematic relationship with alcohol, but we cannot ignore the fact that it is a blight on too many families and communities. If we can raise awareness of risk and harm and educate the public, not dictate to them, so that they can make informed choices, I genuinely cannot understand why anybody would have a problem with that. I will conclude my remarks on that note.
We as Members should question the credibility of alcohol advice, but our primary role is surely to consider the wisdom and effectiveness of such guidance from a public policy viewpoint. The guidelines fail to acknowledge the decades of research demonstrating that moderate alcohol consumption is compatible with a healthy lifestyle. Multiple studies since the 1970s show that light to moderate alcohol drinkers have a lower mortality rate than non-drinkers or heavy drinkers. When plotted on a graph, the relationship between moderate consumption and total mortality appears as a J-shaped curve, demonstrating the benefits of light to moderate alcohol consumption compared with both abstinence and heavy drinking.
I would not presume to argue with the chief medical officer’s opinion that any alcohol is damaging, but I do not believe that as a matter of public policy, an abstinence approach is either wise or effective. We recognise that recommending abstinence is a counterproductive policy in tackling teenage pregnancies, yet we are asked to imagine that saying that there is no safe amount of alcohol is an effective way of tackling alcohol abuse. The previous unit limit might have been an arbitrary figure, but it was a realistic target for most people and helped reinforce the message that alcohol needs to be kept to light and moderate levels. The guidelines threaten that.
As well as significant evidence about physical health, there is growing evidence about the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption in a safe and social environment for mental health. In particular, a recent study commissioned by the Campaign for Real Ale from Oxford University found that people who regularly visit a community-type pub tend to have more close friends on whom they can call for support, and that they are happier, healthier and more trusting of others. A moderate amount of alcohol improves wellbeing and some social skills, just as it has been shown to improve other cognitive abilities and health.
Any future guidance must, of course, be cautious, but it should also recognise the protective effects of moderate alcohol consumption. I also advocate withdrawing the advice that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption so that we can concentrate on the social and medical benefits of limiting alcohol consumption to moderate levels.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies) on securing it.
This debate has highlighted the fact that statistics can be used to prove just about anything. It is important that people out there have confidence in the statistics and the guidance that they are given, and I am concerned that the Royal Statistical Society seems to have a bit of a worry about the guidance that has been put forward—particularly on the issue to do with intake for women and men. There is evidence to suggest that women’s and men’s bodies absorb alcohol slightly differently, and that really ought to be acknowledged so that each individual gets the best advice possible.
The hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) talked about the differences between people. My brother is 6 feet 4 inches and his girlfriend is about 5 feet 2 inches, and there are obviously stark differences between them. Having said that, unless people are going to have a personalised alcohol prescription, it is quite difficult to be specific. We have to have general guidelines that give people an idea of what they can expect. People have to know their limits, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. He also said that 60% of alcohol sales are to problem drinkers, which is an issue that we have had in Glasgow and the west of Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, alcohol consumption significantly blights families.
Organisations such as the Glasgow Council on Alcohol, through their community work, seek to get people talking about the impact that alcohol has on communities. As the Glasgow Centre for Population Health has found, inequality has a significant effect. In Glasgow, the most deprived communities have five times more of a problem with alcohol than the least deprived communities.
Alcohol guidelines are not just about pubs, as the hon. Member for Gower seemed to be suggesting. I very much support the real ale industry, and CAMRA does really good work and has transformed the way people look at alcohol—they go for quality rather than quantity in some cases—but the fact remains that many people, particularly in deprived communities, are not going to a nice, cosy real ale pub; they are going to the local shop on the high street and buying large volumes of alcohol, which will do them significant damage.
I agree with much of what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she share my concern about telling people that alcohol can cause them to misjudge risky situations, cause accidents and cause them to lose self-control, and giving them advice about drinking alcohol before going up a ladder? That is not the kind of advice about alcohol that people expect, and the risk is that the general public will have no confidence in the guidelines.
We need to be aware of the impact of alcohol generally. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke earlier about alcohol in the House of Commons, which is still a concern for me. I was at an event earlier celebrating tennis—a nice, healthy activity—and there was booze. I could get a drink at lunchtime. I do not think that is acceptable. The House of Commons should consider whether it is appropriate for people to have a drink with their lunch at events that take place during a working day. I am not convinced that it is.
The Scottish Government have a framework for action on alcohol. We pursued the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012, which, due to the alcohol industry, has been bogged down in a legal dispute. Importantly, it is about trying to cut down the number of people buying large volumes of alcohol. We are trying to change that behaviour and get people to think about how their drinking is affecting their health.
Evidence that organisations such as the Glasgow Centre for Population Health have looked at suggests that we need a change in attitude. There are people who are damaging their health severely every day. This is not about an auntie who drinks a wee drink before she goes to bed or anything like that. It is about people who are drinking more than they should and drinking in unhealthy ways, which has an impact on their health and their ability to go about their business safely.
I saw a study from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health a few years ago that suggested that, in the most deprived areas of Glasgow, people who drink quite a lot end up in hospital more than people who drink an equivalent amount in better-off areas, because their lifestyles and the things around them do not keep them safe. Someone in a well-off area might be having a bottle of wine every night, whereas someone in a poorer area having something else is far more likely to come to harm. There are serious considerations not only about public health but about how we think about alcohol in general, and about the guidelines that are put in place to get people to think about how much they are drinking and what they can do to reduce their intake, be healthy and happy and have a good role in their families and communities.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies) on securing this very important debate. The most important thing to stress is that this is not a moral issue—hon. Members have talked about abstinence and so on—nor is it about pubs, many of which are reinventing themselves by serving food and providing craft beer. I welcome the social haven provided by pubs. This is about the health of the nation, and it is interesting that Members have skirted around the health issues. That is why we have guidelines; it is not because the chief medical officer wants to stop people having fun. At the end of the day, any Government must have care and concern for the health of the population, and particularly of young people.
Let us spell it out: alcohol is one of the most well established causes of cancer. It increases the risk of mouth, throat, voice box, food pipe, breast, liver and bowel cancers. It astonishes me that Members who I suspect know those things are still standing in this Chamber criticising Government attempts to bear down on alcohol consumption.
This is about not just the scientifically proven contribution of alcohol consumption to ill health, but its contribution to social disorder. In 2014, the University of Bath estimated that the annual cost of binge drinking was about £4.6 billion. That includes A&E attendances, road accidents, alcohol-related arrests and the number of policemen involved. If someone goes into any A&E department almost anywhere in England or Scotland on a Saturday night, they will see disproportionate numbers of people who are there because of alcohol abuse. It astonishes me that hon. Members show no concern about the billions that that is costing our health service, or about the life chances and quality of life of people who engage in binge drinking. Of course, the abuse of alcohol is also very closely related to domestic violence. If Members are not concerned about the link to cancer and ill health, or about what alcohol is costing our health service, or about social disorder or domestic violence, I wonder what it will take.
Can the hon. Lady tell me of just one sentence today in which any Member has said that they are not concerned about the effects on health, or about domestic violence or alcoholism? This is a ridiculous speech—I realise that she is new in her position, but I suggest that in future she does a little more research before she comes to the Chamber.
I have to advise the hon. Gentleman that I was a spokesperson on public health for three years for the Labour party. Not only did I do research on the health issues around alcohol, but I visited other countries—notably Scandinavian countries—to see what they had done. My point is that if hon. Members are willing to come here without spelling out the issues that I am describing, it must suggest to anybody listening to or reading the debate that they put them below the interests of the pub trade.
Does the hon. Lady agree that as well as health issues, social disorder and domestic violence, there is a huge impact on the economy from lost productivity and work days caused by people phoning in sick because they had too much to drink the night before?
I thank the hon. Lady for that. We can only look at the guidelines in the context of the social harm of alcohol abuse, and the guidelines are designed to bear down on alcohol abuse. It is too early to say how effective they are, but the principle of the Government acting to bear down on the social harms and costs of alcohol abuse must be correct. Like some other Members, I have visited hospital wards that have to deal with people whose health has been ruined by binge drinking. If hon. Members had seen what I have seen—
I am afraid I have to complete my remarks. If some hon. Members really understood the social harms and costs to the nation of alcohol abuse, they could not have made the speeches they made this afternoon.
I welcome the guidelines. It will take time to decide whether they are exactly right and what their effects are, but we need a holistic strategy on alcohol abuse. When I was public health spokesperson for my party, I believed in a minimum price for alcohol. There is more that we can do on classroom-based education, but I have no doubt that the thinking behind the alcohol guidelines is correct. I also have no doubt that as Members of Parliament with a responsibility to our communities, we should do everything we can to bear down on problem drinking.
I thank colleagues for bearing with our rather interrupted debate. I am fairly confident that I will not have time to discuss all the issues in my response, but as some colleagues are aware, my door is always open, and I have a proposal towards the end of my speech for how we might continue the discussion.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies) on securing this debate and on opening it so authoritatively. We are all aware of the impact of alcohol misuse, which was well summed up by the shadow Minister, who is knowledgeable about that. She reminded us of some of the pressure it puts on our vital public services. It is right that we give this issue our attention.
I know that people have asked why we need new guidelines when alcohol consumption is falling. My hon. Friend, in introducing the debate, talked about some of the areas in which we have had welcome improvements in the statistics. The majority of people drink alcohol in an entirely responsible way. In 2014, 59%—just over 25 million adults—drank within the new guidelines, so it is important to stress that quite a lot of people drink that amount or less at the moment.
As a Government who believe in informed and empowered consumers, we have a responsibility to provide clear information to help people make informed choices about their drinking. The guidelines are not about preventing those who want to enjoy a drink from doing so. Goodness knows, as a passionate remainer, I can certainly say that guidelines of all sorts have been suspended in my household for the past week or so. This is about ensuring that people get common-sense advice and practical information, and some of that will be about things like taking days off from drinking. There is an appetite for that; we know that from the research we have done with people.
The new low-risk drinking guidelines are the means by which the four UK chief medical officers, working together, provide the public with the latest and most up-to-date information about the health risks of different levels and patterns of drinking. Let me clarify at the outset, in case I run out of time, what the guidelines are not. Nobody has said that more than 14 units is considered harmful or problem drinking. It is just not recommended as low risk. To be clear, there is no public policy on abstinence. The guidelines are not about the rate at which alcohol affects men and women in terms of intoxication, but how it affects their long-term health.
I will come on to deal with some of the issues, but I will also make a suggestion for how we take this discussion forward. The issue outlined was about the extent to which alcohol affects people. The second part of the consultation, to which a response has not yet been published—I will come on to talk about that—is about how we express and communicate the new guidelines. That is slightly different from the science that sits behind them. I want to try to pull those two things apart. Clearly we have a job of communication to do, because we want to be helpful to the public.
Perhaps it would be useful to remind Members how we arrived at this review. It was not Ministers who asked the chief medical officers to do it but Parliament. The previous guidelines came out in 1995, and in 2012 the Science and Technology Committee recommended that they should be reviewed because they had not been for so long. It is fair to say that there are a lot of places around the world where such guidelines have not been looked at for a long time, so the evidence base is not as up to date as it could be. There was a lot of parliamentary interest, especially in the previous Parliament, in guidelines—for example, in the harmonisation of the pregnancy guidelines when we had debates about foetal alcohol syndrome.
At the request of the four UK chief medical officers, three independent groups of experts have met since 2013 to look at both the scientific and the behavioural evidence of the health effects of alcohol. Those groups were made up of international experts in the field of epidemiology, public health, liver disease, behavioural science, science communications and evidence-based alcohol policy. None of those people were members of the temperance movement.
To ensure that the guidelines are as practical as possible, after their publication the Government held a public consultation to gather views on their clarity, expression and usefulness. I should clarify something that is important: the Royal Statistical Society supported the evidence review and the conclusions. It was very specific in its challenge about how the Department of Health presented it in the launch. That is exactly why there was then a consultation about how we express and discuss the guidelines. To be clear, though, the RSS did not question the evidence review or its conclusions.
As part of the consultation process, Public Health England has undertaken market research to test understanding and acceptance of the guidelines—just the points that colleagues have asked about. Overall, the results were positive, showing that the language was understood and accepted and the tone appropriately informational. That is the tone we are trying to achieve: informational, not hectoring or nannying. The expert group has now reviewed the consultation responses and market research and has put its final recommendations to the four CMOs for their consideration. We intend to publish the final guidelines and the Government response to the consultation as soon as possible.
We of course recognise that industry has a key role in communicating the new information to consumers, particularly through labelling. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) for his remarks. As he knows, as a Back Bencher in the previous Parliament I was an active member of the all-party groups on pubs and beer. I had the honour of being the guest judge of the pale ale category at the Battersea beer festival on more than one occasion. To declare an interest, I am a member of the Campaign for Real Ale. I could not agree more that a well-run pub or bar can be a great way to help people to drink responsibly while maintaining social contact.
Nevertheless, the industry needs to enable those who want to moderate what they drink to do so. It has done some really good work on that. The work with the industry in the previous Parliament on alcohol units was very useful. I always have a further challenge for the industry. One thing we can do to reduce the number of units people consume and to develop that wider choice is to put more emphasis on lower-alcohol products. When I have spoken to them, I have always been very honest with industry spokesmen that greater promotion of lower-alcohol drinks can help people to get into healthier habits. Simple switches can help. I want to put on the record that just by swapping from a pint of beer or lager at 6% strength to a pint at 4% strength, people could cut their units by a third—that is, they could take out 1.1 units. They could still enjoy their pint but cut their alcohol intake by a third.
The chief medical officer had a successful meeting with the Portman Group yesterday, confirming willingness on both sides to continue to work constructively together and to deliver benefits to the public and good information to our constituents. There are reasons for optimism in some of the alcohol statistics, but the shadow Minister is right that there are some significant and often highly concentrated problems. We need to give people the best and most up-to-date advice. We recognise that it is not for the Government to tell adults what to do in their private lives, but we do have a role in enabling the public to make informed decisions about their health based on up-to-date guidelines and the best science.
I am grateful to the chief medical officer, who has confirmed that she is happy to hold a parliamentary drop-in briefing for colleagues to discuss the matter further. It simply is not possible to pick up many of the detailed points that have been made on the various international studies in the time available. For the record, the review scrutinised all the available high-quality evidence and covered the findings of 63 systematic reviews from the evidence worldwide. It was a major undertaking. I think it would be useful for colleagues to be able to come along and discuss some of the studies that have been cited. Some of them are in different countries and some, it must be said, are based on different situations in terms of the nature of the national health service and the health support in those countries. I do not have time to go into that factor, but it is relevant for some of the comparative remarks that were made.
I hope I have reassured colleagues that we want to move forward in a sensible way. We want to give people the best information and we want to communicate it with clarity. Change will not happen overnight, but we want to raise awareness of the health risks, particularly around some of the links, such as between breast cancer and alcohol. We have a vastly better understanding of that than we did in 1995, and that has come through in recent years. It is important that we reflect that and continue to communicate it. I hope we can move forward constructively from here. I will set up the meeting that I offered. I sense from the Chamber that there is an interest in having further constructive dialogue. I leave a couple of minutes to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower to close the debate.
This has been an interesting debate. I am most grateful to everyone who has taken part. I particularly thank the Minister for her remarks at the end. I just want to mention one thing, which relates to a point that the shadow Minister made. I spent 32 years as a senior Metropolitan police officer, and choosing to blame alcohol for just about everything is quite ridiculous. The issue is about personal responsibility, and the debate is about encouraging moderate and responsible drinking. That is what we are here to discuss. The points have been well made, and I am grateful to everybody, but particularly grateful to the Minister for responding and to you, Sir Alan, for your chairmanship.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).