House of Commons
Thursday 7 July 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That there be laid before this House an Account of the Contingencies Fund, 2015-16, showing–
(1) A Statement of Financial Position;
(2) A Statement of Cash Flows; and
(3) Notes to the Accounts; together with the Certificate and Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General thereon.—(Sarah Newton.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Farming Businesses: Resilience
1. What assistance the Government have given farming businesses to increase their resilience. 
We have put in place a range of measures to support our farmers and help build their resilience. Government investment in flood defence improvements will provide better protection for 1 million acres of agricultural land. We are investing in innovation, skills and capital items to boost the sector’s resilience, and we are working to introduce a dairy futures market to help farmers manage price volatility.
Volatility in global markets and weather conditions often dramatically affects farmers’ incomes year on year, sometimes by up to 30%. What steps are the Government taking to help farmers manage that risk?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and we have acted to deal with that problem. From April this year the Government extended tax averaging for farmers to five years, up from the previous two years, so that they can better offset good years against bad years. In addition, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a number of schemes, such as the time to pay scheme, which means that it shows forbearance to farmers who are suffering cash-flow difficulties.
Eleven years ago this morning, terrorist attacks were unleashed on our city. We pay our respects today.
As an environmentalist, someone who campaigned in the aftermath of the floods, and a lover of the great outdoors, I am proud to represent Labour as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Many farming businesses depend on trade with the EU. Following the outcome of the referendum, the resilience of farming will be keenly tested. What immediate steps has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that trade relations with EU partners will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future?
I welcome the hon. Lady and her colleagues to the Front Bench of this diverse Department, and I associate myself with her comments about the terrorist attacks.
Following the decision to leave the European Union, we are holding a number of meetings with officials to plan for our next steps on trade—indeed, we will have a meeting today to hold such discussions. It will be a matter for a new Prime Minister and the Cabinet that they put in place, but early thinking and planning work is going on across the Government.
I am concerned that resilience was not planned for by the Minister in advance of the EU referendum. Trade and regulations for our food and farming industry are linked to the EU more than in any other sector, yet the Government’s cuts to DEFRA up to 2020 will total a 57%—yes, 57%—reduction in its budget. In the light of that, will the Minister explain how his Department will have capacity to analyse the impact of the EU referendum, build resilience, and negotiate the way forward?
For the time being we remain in the European Union, and all existing arrangements continue. Only once we have concluded negotiations and left the European Union will we put future measures in place. On capacity in the civil service, some areas and some EU dossiers have a long-term horizon with which we will perhaps be less engaged and involved, and that will free up capacity for some of the planning work that we need for our own domestic policy.
I record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for providing us with a taste of Colchester yesterday. One of his constituency’s soft fruit farmers emphasised his concern about his resilience, and his dependence on EU migrant labour. Are plans in place to ensure that farmers are supported should migrant labour be reduced?
As my right hon. Friend will know, I have worked in the soft fruit industry, and I am familiar with the challenges that certain agricultural sectors face with seasonal labour. Ultimately, the decision that she refers to will be for a new Prime Minister, the Cabinet they choose, and the negotiations that they seek. In recent years we have had models such as seasonal agricultural worker schemes, and there are ways to ensure that the required labour is available.
I tabled five written questions in the past week asking what assessment had been made of the impact of Brexit on a range of DEFRA-related areas, from air pollution to waste, water, rural payments, fisheries, food standards and food safety. I got one answer back that basically said that everything remains in place and the negotiations are up to the future Prime Minister, which to me shows a shocking degree of complacency. DEFRA, almost more than any other Department, will be affected by Brexit, and I am not reassured by what I have heard this morning that that work has started.
I disagree with the hon. Lady. The Government put forward an assessment of the potential impacts of leaving the European Union, which was hotly debated during the referendum. Ultimately, the British public made an assessment of what they wanted to do, and the assessment is that they want to leave the EU. The job of the Government now is to implement that decision.
Endangered Species: Hunting Trophies
2. What steps the Government are taking to prevent hunting trophies from threatened or endangered species being imported to the UK. 
The Government are absolutely clear that we will not allow the import of trophies from critically endangered species when it is unsustainable—tigers, for example. We have also increased the protection and controls on six other species, ranging from elephants to polar bears. We remain absolutely committed to banning the import of lion trophies unless we have significant improvements in lion conservation.
I thank the Minister for that answer and the general thrust of it. Does he agree, however, that it is morally wrong to kill the most endangered species merely to put a trophy on the wall, and that it would make sense to look to ban more widely the importation of those trophies that come from the most endangered categories?
I agree absolutely. All hon. Members would agree strongly that, if a species is critically endangered, it is not suitable to be hunted, let alone put on a wall as a trophy. We will look closely at scientific evidence across the range of endangered species. It will be extremely relevant to focus on that, with September and October being the time for the CITES conference in Johannesburg.
Australia and France have both banned the use and import of lion products. What do they know that the Minister refuses to act upon?
We are looking closely at what Australia and France are doing. We have been working on a common EU-US position in order to change practices in Africa. It makes a huge difference that we do this together as 700 million people in the EU and the US rather than trying to do it individually.
Following the EU referendum vote, we have no idea how the EU action plan against wildlife trafficking will be implemented by the UK Government. Is the Minister in a position to provide any assurances to the House today?
As my colleague the Minister of State has pointed out, the details of our position in relation to Europe will have to be determined by a future Prime Minister, but we played a very active role in drafting that plan and pushing for its contents. The hon. Lady will see in what we are doing in Vietnam our commitment to that plan. I reassure her that, certainly as long as I am in this position, the UK’s position is absolutely unequivocal.
Rural Development Programmes
3. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on rural development programmes. 
6. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on rural development programmes. 
Until negotiations conclude and the UK leaves the EU, all existing arrangements remain in place, including rural development programmes across the UK. It will be for a new Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet to consider the future shape of rural development once the UK leaves the EU.
The Minister may recall that Scotland voted to remain in the EU in the referendum. Will he commit that nobody in Scotland who benefited from the Scottish rural development programme will lose out on funding?
As I have said, while we remain in the EU, all existing arrangements remain in place, including our current rural development programmes. Nothing changes until negotiations have been concluded and a new partnership with the EU is put in place.
Agriculture plays a major part in Scotland’s £14 billion food and drink industry. Following the uncertainty created by the EU referendum result, what reassurances can the Minister give today to ease the concerns that the result has caused among Scotland’s farming communities?
I can give farmers throughout the UK the reassurance that, for the time being, we remain in the EU, and all existing arrangements remain in place, including all existing support payments, until we leave the EU, and until a new type of partnership and a new domestic agriculture policy are put in place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the energy, enthusiasm and intelligence he brought to the leave campaign. Having met farmers in my constituency in Kettering before the vote, it was clear to me that the senior leadership of the National Farmers Union had signed up to “Project Fear” and was trying to scare farmers and rural dwellers into voting for remain. Now that the result has been decided—in Kettering, we voted overwhelmingly to leave—can we make sure that everyone involved in rural communities and farming talks up rural communities and farming, because we have a very bright future ahead of us?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. It is important, now the debate has concluded and the country has made its decision, that we move on and focus on next steps and the future. This week, I visited the Livestock Event and had meetings with many farmers. What I find interesting is that once we get past the initial shock—for some—of the decision, people engage with the detail of what might be possible in the future and become more excited about the potential for our future.
Does the Minister agree that leaving the European Union will provide us with a tremendous opportunity to develop a tailor-made package of measures designed to support and help UK farmers? In fact, there is nothing to stop us starting to work on putting that package together right now.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I can reassure him that while no decisions will be made until there is a new Prime Minister who has chosen a new Cabinet, the Department is working on options that might be presented to the new Prime Minister.
One claim from some leave campaigners was that Brexit would lower food prices. Now that Brexit is the decision the country has made, will the Minister tell us what options are available to deliver them?
Food prices are driven by a range of factors, most importantly energy prices, developments in weather around the world and exchange rates. Those are the key drivers of our food prices. I have always made clear that while food prices go up and down—they are down 7% over the past two years—they are driven by bigger events than EU membership.
Many farmers and landowners are about to sign higher-level stewardship contracts, but there is a dilemma for Natural England. Many are 10-year contracts and in these uncertain EU times they are being put on hold. Will the Minister give assurances that these precious pieces of environmental biodiversity will not be at risk and that something will happen to protect them?
My hon. Friend puts her finger on an important point, which is that there will be areas and elements where we need continuity. We are having discussions across Government about how to ensure we secure that continuity without prejudicing what a future Prime Minister might want to do.
Meirionnydd is the Sir Nawdd-Feature County at the Royal Welsh agricultural show this month and I hope Ministers will be able to attend. Will the Minister reassure the farmers of Meirionnydd and Wales by explaining what discussions he has had with colleagues in the Welsh Government regarding the funding of rural development and agricultural schemes in Wales?
I have regular discussions with my opposite numbers in the devolved Administrations. I hope I will be able to meet the new Welsh Administration when I next go to Council in Europe, which is in about two weeks’ time, and discuss these issues in more detail. I also hope to attend the Royal Welsh show this year.
I welcome the shadow Minister and her team to their place. Will the Minister confirm that his plans to ensure the fair allocation of the convergence uplift are on track? Will he tell us when Scottish farmers should expect to receive increased payments?
We have always had a commitment to review the allocation of common agricultural policy budgets—the so-called convergence uplift, as the hon. Gentleman refers to it—during 2016. I had a meeting and early discussions with NFU Scotland in January. Now that the Scottish elections are over and we have passed the referendum purdah, I would expect to be able to progress those discussions with the Scottish Government in the autumn.
Data: Public Availability
4. What progress her Department and its agencies have made on making data publicly available in the last 12 months. 
Last summer, I set a target for DEFRA of releasing 8,000 datasets. By this summer, I am delighted to say that we have achieved 11,000 datasets, which means that more than a third of Government data is DEFRA data. This is bringing real benefits to people, providing information about air quality, better flooding data and landscape data for farmers and architects.
As the Calder Valley assesses how to spend the much appreciated funding for flood defences, many community groups want to contribute to alleviating floods—doing things such as planting trees, building dams and upland management, to name but a few. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that information on all water flows held by the Environment Agency and Natural England will be made readily available to help community groups to decide where the schemes should be placed?
My hon. Friend has done a fantastic job in championing the Calder Valley. I want to ensure that all that information is available so that we can manage whole catchments, including the Calder, for flood defences. What happened over last year’s very difficult floods was that more information was made available to the public. For example, there were 19.5 million hits on our flood information service website. What I want to do is make even more information available to the public.
Does the Secretary of State keep data on how many scientists are working in agricultural technology and on how much money is spent on agricultural technology and research? Is she not worried that, with ChemChina taking over Syngenta and the amazing Jealott’s Hill research capacity, there is a real danger of our research space being eroded?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that our research base and our agri-tech are vitally important. That is the future of agriculture, with more precision farming and better use of data. I am determined to do all we can to protect and grow that. That is why we are investing £160 million in our agri-tech budget. Of course we need to plan even more for the future.
Has the Department made available up-to-date data on the effect of the temporary neonicotinoid ban on both agricultural production and the health of bees, especially honey bees? If not, when will that data be available?
We are looking at further research in this area. More research is due to be published and there are already many published pieces of research. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the decision on the use of neonicotinoids in the UK is made by the independent pesticides committee. It is made by Ministers, but we follow the scientific advice of that committee, whose minutes are fully published.
Regional Food and Drink
5. What recent steps the Great British Food Unit has taken to promote regional food and drink. 
7. What recent steps the Great British Food Unit has taken to promote regional food and drink. 
10. What progress her Department has made on promoting regional food and drink. 
We launched the Great British Food Unit in January to promote our fantastic British produce around the world. In April, I was in the US working to open the market for beef and lamb, as well as promoting fantastic British products such as the classic gin and tonic.
That sounds good, but for me it is a bit early for gin and tonic! Food and drink exports, not least the world-famous Cheshire cheese, are very important for the Cheshire economy. Given this country’s decision to leave the European Union, how important is the role of the Great British Food Unit in helping farmers in my constituency and indeed throughout the UK to get the necessary export markets?
In my opinion, it is never too early for a gin and tonic! I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Now that the British people have made the decision to leave the EU, the Great British Food Unit is even more important. We already have missions planned for the Gulf, China and Japan to open more markets for fantastic British food. I am going to increase the resources going into the Great British Food Unit to make sure that we turbo-charge our efforts to export more British food right around the world.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that Essex is home to some of the finest food, drink and countryside in the nation? What does she think is the link between food and tourism, and what more can be done to promote it?
We know that for a third of all visitors, food is a major factor in deciding where to visit. It is hugely important, which is why DEFRA is backing food tourism. We recently backed the “tour culinaire” to Yorkshire, which accompanied the cycle race and featured fantastic Yorkshire products such as liquorice. I would be delighted to discuss with my right hon. Friend how we could do something similar in Essex in respect of fantastic products such as Tiptree strawberry jam.
The Secretary of State will be delighted to learn that, since she visited Gloucester Services in February, it has been given both a sustainability award and the first Royal Institute of British Architects award ever given to a motorway services station. Famously, while she was there she enjoyed a Gloucester Old Spot sausage for breakfast. I hope that she will now confirm that, during our renegotiations with the European Union, she will seek to extend the protections given to Gloucester Old Spot meat, Single Gloucester cheese, and other great British foods.
I thank my hon. Friend for a very enjoyable visit to Gloucester Services. I am delighted that its chief executive, Sarah Dunning, has agreed to be one of our food pioneers, promoting Great British food around Britain and around the world. I look forward to talking to my hon. Friend about how we can protect these great products when they are not just a matter for the European Union, but are more widely known around the world.
I call Nick Smith.
Cheers, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] I am glad that the food unit is showing success. However, while the Secretary of State boasts about her support for British food, DEFRA headquarters sources almost half its food from overseas, and other Departments are falling even further behind. Why is DEFRA not ensuring that Departments back our great British food?
We absolutely are ensuring that Departments are backing British food. For example, more than 90% of the dairy products sourced by the Government come from the United Kingdom. There are, of course, some products, such as coffee, that we cannot yet produce in the UK, although now that we are able to produce our own aubergines, tomatoes and chillies, I am sure we are not far away from that.
One of the items on the Great British Food website is the promotion of the EU protected food name scheme. According to the site, 73 products in the United Kingdom are protected under the scheme. What will replace it once the UK Government have dragged us out of the European Union?
I think the number of protected food names has risen to 74, but the website may not have been updated.
This is an extremely important issue, and it is one of the issues on which we are working at the moment. However, I hope that we will develop a British protected food names status in the future.
Armagh apples, Comber potatoes, Irish whiskey and Lough Neagh eels are just some of the protected food names that we have in Northern Ireland. What discussions has the Great British Food Unit had with Food NI to help promote those great foods and drinks throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I was delighted to visit Belfast and the huge show there, and to taste some of those products for myself. They are truly outstanding, and I am working closely with the Northern Irish Minister on promoting them throughout the world. They were heavily represented on our recent trade mission to China, and we will certainly be doing more work on that in the future.
As a Member has just left the Chamber while exchanges on the question to which he contributed were ongoing, may I gently point out to the House that Members should stay in the Chamber until all the exchanges on their question, or the question to which they contributed, have been completed? It is quite an elementary courtesy.
8. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of recent badger culls. 
During 2015, badger control operations in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset were all successful in meeting their targets. According to the Chief Veterinary Officer’s advice, the results show that industry-led badger control can deliver the level of effectiveness that will enable us to be confident of achieving disease control benefits.
Badger culling in England costs about £7,000 per badger killed. In Wales, the badger vaccination programme costs about £700 per badger vaccinated. Lord Krebs, who is a renowned expert on the subject, has continually said that
“rolling out culling as a national policy to control TB in cattle is not really credible.”
Does the Minister accept that?
TB is costing the country £100 million a year, and that is why we have to act. The veterinary advice is clear—we cannot have a coherent strategy to eradicate TB without also tackling the disease in the wildlife population. Following advice from the World Health Organisation, the vaccination operations in Wales, as in England, have been suspended because there is a lack of vaccine.
Farmers: Support Payments
9. If the Government will underwrite basic payment scheme payments at current levels until the end of 2020. 
Until we leave the EU it will be business as usual; farmers will continue to receive support payments. We are developing options for future domestic policy. Ultimately this will be a decision for the new Prime Minister. I am working very closely with organisations such as the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association, and environmental groups, which will have a role to play in helping us develop these policies.
I am very pleased to hear that groups such as the NFU and the CLA are going to be involved in finding a way out of this mess. Can the Minister guarantee that the CAP subsidy up to 2020 will be underwritten not just for the basic payment scheme but for pillar 2 schemes—agri-environment schemes?
As I said, until we leave the EU those schemes will be in place, but when leaving takes place, after article 50 is triggered and the process is gone through, this will be a decision for the new Prime Minister. It is not a decision I can make at this stage.
It is not only important to keep the basic farm payment going but vital that we get it fixed, because the Rural Payments Agency is still having big problems. Lots of the payments to farmers have not been ratified and not properly made. What is actually happening with the Rural Payments Agency?
I can tell my hon. Friend that 99.6% of farmers have now received a payment. This year, for the first time, the system has had prepayment cheques to make sure that we did not overpay farmers and then end up having to claw back the money. That means that there will be a reconciliation period when we make the adjustments—that is taking place at the moment—so that farmers who had a problem in their application will receive the extra payment over the next few months. We are fully on track for payment on time next year.
11. What assessment she has made of recent trends in food prices. 
DEFRA monitors retail food prices through the consumer prices index. Year on year, food prices have continued to fall, with a 2.8% fall in the year to May 2016. We also monitor trends in household expenditure on food through the family food survey. Following a period of higher food price inflation, retail food prices have fallen by 7% since their peak in February 2014.
Last week I visited a very successful food supplier in my constituency that told me that it was already putting up its prices because of changes in the exchange rate hitting imports, and predicted food inflation of up to 8% within months, following the leave vote. Clearly there are real impacts now. How will the Minister respond to a spike in UK food prices, which is a crucial issue for consumers?
As I explained earlier, one of the factors that has an influence on food prices is exchange rates. A number of analysts have been saying that in fact the pound has been unsustainably high against the euro for some time, caused by concerns about the weaknesses of the eurozone, and that the correction we have seen was overdue anyway. Exchange rates go up and down, but the crucial thing is that we have a competitive food supply industry in this country.
12. What recent steps the Government have taken to work with industry to increase the number of apprenticeships in the food, farming and agri-technology sector. 
The Government are committed to trebling the number of apprentices in the food and farming sector by 2020. I am delighted that the Skills Minister has committed to the apprenticeship levy being used by major organisations such as supermarkets and food manufacturers through the food supply chain, so that they can help small and medium-sized enterprises and farmers to take on apprentices.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on bees, I got a tremendous buzz from welcoming apprentices of British bee farmers who are completing an innovative three-year programme in an industry with sales of over £100 million per year. What steps are the Government taking to encourage more honey providers to take on apprentices?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Honey is an important product for our country, generating over £100 million. As I have said, the apprenticeships that are created through the apprenticeship levy can be found throughout the food chain. DEFRA has its own beekeeper apprentice helping to maintain our hives at Noble House—DEFRA’s headquarters—where we produce our own Whitehall honey.
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. 
Two weeks ago, the British people voted to leave the European Union. I will be ensuring that food, farming and the environment have a strong voice in the exit negotiations and in establishing our new domestic policies. Until we leave the EU, it is business as usual for farmers and the environment, and I am meeting relevant organisations to assure them of that. DEFRA’s work continues: we will shortly be publishing the national flood resilience review; we will be continuing with our Great British Food campaign and our work to open up new markets; and we will be developing 14 local environment plans.
Following the devastating Boxing day floods last year, will my right hon. Friend tell me and my constituents what long-term plans are being put in place to protect low-lying villages in my constituency, such as Methley, Mickletown, Allerton Bywater and Woodlesford?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has been an assiduous advocate of his constituency, ensuring that towns and villages in his area are not adversely affected by flood defences upstream. We will be working on an overall plan for the River Aire catchment, through which we will manage the overall river flow instead of looking at individual places. That will form part of our national flood resilience review, which we will be announcing shortly.
The horticultural industry is particularly vulnerable following the leave vote due to the high proportion of EU seasonal workers in the sector. How will the Secretary of State ensure that our crops are harvested in this uncertain period by securing continued labour from the EU?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and welcome her to the Dispatch Box. She was a fantastic advocate for her constituents during the difficult flooding in York, and I look forward to working with her.
As for agricultural workers, my constituency is a great producer of salad vegetables and onions, and I fully understand the importance of EU workers to our agricultural industry. It will be one of the key things that DEFRA will work on, putting the case across Government to ensure that we continue to have that supply of workers.
It is evident from the Secretary of State’s responses that her Department did not make contingency plans for a leave vote, failing in its duty to protect not only one of our major industries, but those who work in it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that all EU citizens working in farming can remain in the UK, which the vote on yesterday’s Opposition day motion called for, and that she has already made representations to the Home Office?
It is absolutely clear that it is business as usual while we remain members of the EU and that those workers will continue to work in those areas. The reality is that I cannot make decisions for a future Prime Minister. That is the fundamental issue here and that is why my job over the coming months is to be a strong voice for farming and the environment in the overall negotiations.
T2. Following the floods in Carlisle, I am concerned that a group of leaseholders will not be able to get insurance under Flood Re. They consist of 68 long leaseholders with a management company as the freeholder with responsibility for insurance. That management company has not been able to obtain insurance so far. Will the Minister look into the issue and consider amending the legislation if necessary? 
In addition to welcoming the shadow Secretary of State to her position, may I also welcome my friend the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) to his position?
As for the flooding in Carlisle, my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) is a great champion of his constituency. If there is an individual leasehold property, it would be covered with affordable insurance under Flood Re. Unfortunately, when there is a larger number of properties, such as the more than 60 properties that the landlord has in this case, it would be classified as commercial insurance and would require a bespoke, tailored commercial insurance product from the insurance industry. I am happy to look at the individual case, and the British Insurance Brokers Association is also coming up with tailored products exactly to address such commercial risks.
I am grateful to the Minister for his erudite treatise.
T4. Scotland’s food and drink industry exports £725 million-worth of produce to the European Union. Given the disastrous Brexit vote, what impact does the Minister believe any restrictions on the seasonal workforce will have on the industry north of the border? 
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It shows why we are turbo-charging the work of the Great British Food Unit, to make sure that we open up new markets and get more of our products out into the world, as well as into the European Union. I am clear that agriculture and food has major export growth potential, which is why I am having a meeting today with the Business Secretary to talk about our trade negotiations and making sure that food is a key part of those.
T3. Our farms have some of the highest livestock welfare standards in the world, so how will that be recognised in upcoming trade negotiations? We will be doing our farmers a disservice if cheap imported food produced with very little regard for livestock welfare comes into the UK. 
My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be aware that we have a manifesto commitment to recognise animal welfare standards in our trade negotiations. That is particularly important in sectors such as poultry meat during Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership discussions, and I can assure him that we make these representations to the European Commission.
T8. The Government decided against using DEFRA funding to implement a clean air zone in Manchester. Greater Manchester is expected to miss our 2020 air quality targets, because of the high levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter caused by road transport. Will the Government look again at a scrappage scheme for older vehicles and at incentives to encourage the use of hybrid and electric cars? 
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. According to our projections, Greater Manchester will hit, by being below, the 40 mg target, which is why it has not been included in the mandatory clean air zones. We are shortly about to consult on those, but the legislation is in place for Greater Manchester to put in that clean air zone if it wishes to do so; I believe in devolution, and surely it is a matter for the local council if it wants to take that forward.
T5. The recent Environmental Audit Committee report on the important subject of soil highlighted that a significant proportion of our agricultural land will be become unproductive within a generation. Will the Minister therefore meet me to discuss the sustainable management of soils, so that emphasis is put on treating them as ecosystems, rather than as growing mediums? A monitoring scheme would really help. 
My hon. Friend correctly says that soils are not just for short-term production; they are incredibly important stores of organic matter. There is a lot that we can do, and are doing, on precision farming and shelter belts. Rothamsted Research is also doing work on this issue, but I would be delighted to meet her and to make sure that this is central to our 25-year plan.
More than half the population of England live within an hour of a national park, but many young people and their families struggle to get to them because rural bus services have been hit by devastating cuts and eye-watering fare rises. This is Catch the Bus week, so can the Secretary of State tell us what discussions she has had with the Transport Secretary about making our countryside accessible by public transport?
DEFRA takes that very seriously; we have a responsibility for rural affairs. We have very regular contact with the Department for Transport on this issue, and we supported it on developing community bus schemes. There is much more we can do. As the hon. Lady has pointed out, without communications connections, which buses are central to, rural areas will be disadvantaged.
T6. On 27 April, the Prime Minister confirmed to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) that the Government are working on a flood insurance plan for the many small and medium-sized businesses in flood-risk areas that are excluded from insurance cover. Will the Minister update the House on how those plans are going? 
My hon. Friend has been an extraordinary champion for his constituency—indeed, he had a late Christmas day celebration a couple of days ago. I saw at first hand with him the devastation for businesses in Calder Valley, ranging from furniture shops to carpentry manufacturers. The problem on commercial insurance is, of course, that different businesses have different attitudes towards interruption payments and excesses. However, that is being addressed through the BIBA process and, most importantly, through the investment in flood defences.
I fully understand the 2009 cut-off date for Flood Re, of which developers and local authorities should have been fully aware, but what more can the Minister do to make it legally binding to inform purchasers that they will not be eligible for Flood Re? What about properties that are downhill of new developments that have subsequently become more at risk as a result of developments built since 2009?
Fundamentally, the answer to these issues is to ensure that we have good flood defences and that we build resilience in housing, but it is absolutely correct to say that we need to ensure that transparency is part of that. Somebody buying a house needs to know that it is at flood risk so that they can make an intelligent decision—ideally, it would be not to buy that house.
T7. The excellent annual Trawden show takes place on Sunday 14 August. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Trawden and District Agricultural Society on organising the event, and does she agree that agriculture shows in communities play a key role in promoting agriculture to a wider audience? 
Agriculture shows are fantastic. I have been to a large number this year, culminating in the fantastic Norfolk show last week. I want to give my compliments to the Trawden show and wish it all the best for 14 August.
Literally thousands of EU nationals play an indispensable role in fish processing and agriculture businesses in my constituency, yet this week the Government have failed to give any reassurance that these people will be allowed to live and work here post-Brexit. Will the Secretary of State and her Ministers make every effort to use all their influence with the Home Secretary to provide some certainty at an early stage for these people and these businesses?
As I said in response to an earlier question, I agree that the EU workers are an important part of both the agriculture and fishing sectors, and we are working on this at the moment.
Finally and very briefly, Mark Menzies.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a very important visitor centre at Fairhaven lake in my constituency. The Ribble estuary, one of the most important estuaries anywhere in the UK, attracts about 270,000 birds per year. What are the Government doing to ensure that local children are engaging with the RSPB and gaining bird knowledge?
That is a fantastic result—270,000 birds. The Environment Agency and Natural England are working very closely with the RSPB in the Ribble estuary. Connecting children to nature is absolutely essential. If we are to protect nature for the future, people need to love it. The key is to ensure that children not only access nature, but understand it and respond to it.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We come now to questions to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), representing the Church Commissioners, and to the right hon. Member for South West Devon—[Interruption.] I mean the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter)—it is only a matter of time—representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Out-of-school Education Settings
1. What discussions the Church of England has had with the Government on plans to regulate out-of-school education settings. 
3. What discussions the Church of England has had with the Government on plans to regulate out-of-school education settings. 
Representatives of the Church of England have taken part in detailed consultations with the Government over the proposals to regulate out-of-school settings. I recently led a delegation of Back Benchers to a meeting at the Cabinet Office and we learned that this policy remains under review. I am hopeful that something will emerge that meets the key concerns that many of us have voiced.
What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Government regarding the new portionality and the current role of existing regulations, such as data barring service checks, in out-of-school settings?.
This is important because the Church of England provides 500,000 children with out-of-school education activities, which involves 80,000 volunteers. However, as hon. Members will know, anyone who works with children in out-of-school settings has to be subject to a careful check—the Disclosure and Barring Service check. There is no suggestion that our representations to Government in any way undermine our determination that children should be well protected, but we believe that they are in what the Church of England provides.
Religious organisations across Pendle, including Islamic education centres in Brierfield and Nelson, and the Barnoldswick Gospel Mission, which currently runs a Sunday school, have expressed concerns that the Government plans will be restrictive and prevent them from expanding their current educational work. In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with Government, has she received any further indications of a time scale for when these proposals may be brought forward?
I am as anxious as my hon. Friend to have a rapid outcome on this decision, but, until a new Prime Minister is in place, Ministers are saying clearly that the final decision cannot be made. We received an assurance from the Minister for Schools that the Government have no intention of seeking to regulate religion or to interfere in parents’ right to teach children about their faith and their heritage.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that any Church activities—Sunday schools, Brownies, or Boys or Girls Brigades, to name a few examples—must not be unduly affected by the Government’s plan for out-of-school regulation?
We impressed on Ministers that the kind of out-of-school activities that the Church provides, which the hon. Gentleman has just cited, are subject to rigorous checking processes within the Church. Indeed, we reminded Ministers that providing such out-of-school education in a domestic setting is governed by childminding regulations.
2. What recent steps have been taken by the Church of England to tackle human trafficking. 
The Bishop of Derby has been at the forefront of working to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery within the Church. I had the pleasure of serving with him on the pre-legislative scrutiny Joint Committee on the draft Modern Slavery Bill. He has set up and been part of the Santa Marta process to improve collaboration between Churches and police forces in the detection of instances of human trafficking.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. What plans does the Church have to roll out that scheme to the rest of England. With Gatwick in my constituency, I would certainly like to see that.
We all understand my hon. Friend’s concern because of his constituency’s location. The Church is building on the Bishop of Derby’s work and intends to launch the Clewer initiative against modern-day slavery in the autumn. It will be designed to combat modern-day slavery across England and provide parishes and dioceses with strategies to detect instances of modern-day slavery.
One of the most powerful ways to get any message across is from the personal testimony of victims. A lot of people are realising that human trafficking is hidden in local communities, so what efforts is the Church making to identify and encourage Christian victims of human trafficking to bear witness in their churches and communities?
When I served on the Joint Committee on the draft Modern Slavery Bill, the hidden nature of trafficking became apparent, and Churches can lift the lid on the prevalence of trafficking in the society in which we live. It is incumbent on us all to have our eyes and ears open and to ask questions when we suspect that someone may be being exploited as result of trafficking.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
4. If the Electoral Commission will make an assessment of the merits of requiring lead campaign groups in referendum campaigns to publish manifestos. 
Thank you for your earlier endorsement, Mr Speaker.
The Electoral Commission is collecting information to inform its statutory report on the EU referendum, and I will pass the hon. Lady’s suggestion to it for its consideration.
Rapidly after the referendum results, central claims on both sides evaporated—the extra spending for the NHS, the emergency punitive Budget, and the UK being the fifth largest economy—so surely, if we are ever to conduct referendums again in this country, should not the lead campaigns on both sides publish measurable claims in a manifesto, so that truth is not the casualty of the scramble for votes?
The Electoral Commission has no desire whatsoever—it certainly has no such power at the moment—to sit in judgment on the truthfulness of any claim made in any campaign. The hon. Lady’s idea that lead campaigns should produce manifestos is an interesting one that I will pass on to the commission for its consideration of the referendum overall.
May I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that the Electoral Commission does not waste its time carrying out such an assessment? Manifestos are for political parties and, by definition, a referendum is on a single issue.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, but the Electoral Commission will carry out an assessment of the conduct of the EU referendum, including a survey of people’s levels of satisfaction of several aspects of the referendum, and that will be produced in the report, which will be made available to hon. Members.
In advance of the Scottish independence referendum, the Government published “Scotland’s Future”—a comprehensive White Paper and blueprint for how the transition to independence would be managed. The complete lack of a coherent plan from the leave campaign and the chaos that has ensued has highlighted a huge disparity. What is the Government’s position on manifestos for referendums?
Certainly, prior to 9 September, I do not speak for the Government, and therefore it is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.
As my hon. Friend will know, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) pointed out, referendums are about settling a single question, not electing a Government on a manifesto. However, one thing that many people do want is facts. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be worth the Electoral Commission looking at whether a fact checker-style website could be a useful source of information, given the claims made in the Scottish and EU referendums?
It is important that the Electoral Commission remains independent in our political debates, and it has no desire whatever to sit in judgment on the truthfulness of any claim or counterclaim. It is important, however, that all sides are responsible in the claims they make, and there are various independent means of verifying claims, but that is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.
5. If the Church of England will make it its policy that bishops sitting in the House of Lords do not participate in debates or vote on legislation that relates to Scotland. 
I was slightly surprised by this question. I perfectly appreciate that the SNP is opposed to the House of Lords on ideological grounds, but I was unaware that it had adopted a narrow position on the Lords Spiritual. I expect the irony is not lost on the hon. Gentleman that he is exercising his right as a Member of this House representing a Scottish constituency to scrutinise the affairs of the Church of England—a scrutiny, I would add, that I welcome.
I would point out that legislation on English votes for English laws means that I, as a Member of this House, cannot vote on issues that pertain to England only. [Interruption.] No, I cannot—my vote is discounted. I would therefore ask the right hon. Lady to reconsider the position on the Lords Spiritual participating in proceedings on legislation that affects Scotland.
All Members of the other place are able to take part in proceedings on legislation put before Parliament, and bishops take that duty very seriously. They are independent, and they do not take the party Whip, so these things are up to each of them. At least two of them have family links to Scotland, which may give them a reason to have a closer interest. This may be the moment for me to come out in the Chamber as a half-Scot—my maiden name was Cormack, from the Clan Buchanan. I think that demonstrates the point that there are Members in all parties and in both Houses who have a great love for Scotland.
6. What steps the Church of England is taking to encourage the appointment of more women bishops. 
7. What plans the Church of England has to promote women in leadership positions. 
As the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has assiduously asked me this question on several occasions, I am delighted to be able to inform him that a further six women have been appointed as bishops: the diocesan Bishop of Newcastle, with a seat in another place, and five suffragan bishops—of Taunton, Aston, Sherborne, Repton and Dorking.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that excellent answer. As she mentioned, this is a bit of a campaign on my part. I want to fill the churches, and one of the ways we do that is by having more women bishops. However, how many are there out of the total number? What is the percentage? There are some very good women who have not been promoted yet.
This is a campaign the hon. Gentleman is well able to take some credit for, and I am sure my predecessor is too. Some 18 suffragan bishops have been appointed, eight of whom have been women, which is 45% of all appointments.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the new Bishop of Sherborne, Karen Gorham, to her place? Her first official engagement was a confirmation service in Lytchett Minster parish church, at which, I am proud to say, my son was one of the candidates. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that Karen Gorham’s appointment will encourage other women into leadership positions in the Church of England?
Yes, indeed, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his son’s confirmation. An increasing number of younger women have indeed entered the priesthood. Some 47% of the clergy ordained in 2015 were female, and 22% of the women ordained in 2015 were under 40.
I hope the whole House wishes to congratulate Tomlinson junior. That is now on the record.
8. What work the Church of England is undertaking to help improve the life chances of people in disadvantaged communities. 
The Church of England’s House of Bishops recently published a new discussion paper, “Thinking afresh about welfare”, which is intended to help discussion across the Church as it engages with the Government’s life chances agenda.
The Church of England and other denominations and faith groups have always led the way in helping our most vulnerable people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that faith groups and voluntary organisations are ideally placed to help the Government improve life chances for all, including the homeless, young people and people with disabilities?
Yes. The diocese of Truro is particularly committed to improving the life chances of children and young people living there, including on the Isles of Scilly. That is lived out principally through the schools, which are committed to building character and improving employment skills. However, I did just notice that there is a homeless breakfast initiative in Penzance, so these efforts are not confined to children, but also extend to adults.
Historic Churches: Toilet Provision
9. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the adequacy of toilet provision for visitors to historic churches. 
The Church Buildings Council has been promoting through its “Open and Sustainable Churches” initiative how parishes can adapt their buildings for wider community use. Most schemes for work in church buildings that the Church Buildings Council now see will include installing an accessible toilet if there is not one already present.
Let us hear the views of Mr Mann on the matter of toilets.
Mr Speaker, imagine that you came to visit the historic Scrooby church to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers, and, as a modern man, drank tea or coffee on the way, which people did not do when these historic churches were built. It would be easy to be caught short. Many of these great historic churches lack toilets. Should not a fund be created somewhere to allow visitors the comfort break that may be required, given that we live in a modern coffee and tea-drinking era?
The House is very expectant. We really want to hear this answer.
I am delighted to be able to say that the Church is making great progress with the provision of the facilities that the hon. Gentleman describes. Currently, 55% of the 31 listed Church of England churches in his constituency have installed new toilet and kitchen facilities.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 11 July—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Wales Bill.
Tuesday 12 July—Opposition day (5th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 13 July—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism, followed by general debate on the report of the Iraq inquiry (day 1).
Thursday 14 July—Conclusion of the general debate on the report of the Iraq inquiry.
Friday 15 July—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 18 July will be:
Monday 18 July—Debate on an e-petition relating to changes to the student loans agreement.
I thank the Leader of the House for that information. As the Speaker now processes majestically from the Chair to Speaker’s House, I wonder whether he has been issued with a parliamentary umbrella. Last week, I noticed two yellow buckets on the route to collect the rain, and today there is one white bucket. Will the Leader of the House tell us when we are going to get this palace into a habitable state? Can he also remind us which party promised to fix the roof while the sun was shining?
The House is grateful, as ever, to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). He is a rarity on the Government Back Benches as a man who is occasionally caught in possession of an intelligent thought, and who speaks real English—the language that the rest of us speak. This week, he gave us vital intelligence on the three remaining candidates for the leadership of the Tory party: one of them is “bloody difficult”; one does not expect to deliver on the extremely stupid things she has been saying; and one would declare war on at least three countries. We have a legitimate interest in this, because the winner of this race will also be the Prime Minister.
I suggest to the Conservatives that they perhaps repeat the great success that they had in Totnes, where they introduced the system of a primary vote in which everyone took part. It would be wonderful to have the chance to write-in a candidate such as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe. Happily, at his time of life, he has passed beyond the stages of ambition and vanity that afflict many in political life. If he is reluctant to return to the Dispatch Box because he is of a certain age, let me remind him of what I have discovered: the Dispatch Box is a vital support and a wonderful alternative to a Zimmer frame.
Two days next week are given to a matter of the highest importance. Chilcot concluded that the UK chose to join the war in Iraq before the peaceful options were exhausted. We must not let artifice, denial, spin, delusions and expensive barrister-created obfuscation mask the vital Chilcot truths. Chilcot concluded that Government, Opposition and three Select Committees of this House were wrong in 2003, and our decisions led to an avoidable war.
Our reputation as politicians fell to rock bottom during the expenses scandal, but since then it has fallen further and it is now subterranean. We need to recognise the whole truths of Chilcot. We should debate this next week in a very serious atmosphere. We did it; the decisions were taken in this House. I and many other Members were here at the time. Our mood should be one of humility, penitence and respect for all those who put their lives at risk at our command.
The dedication, professionalism and courage of our servicemen were as great and splendid as any in our entire proud military history. We want to express in those two days next week our profound gratitude to all who have given their lives and their service, and who have been maimed in body and mind by the experience of going to the wars, some of which—Kosovo and Sierra Leone—were magnificent achievements in the extension of peace and human rights around the world.
There is another group that we need to bear in mind next week. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the loved ones who were bereaved by the war. We saw yesterday that they were forced to revisit their grief with the added pain of the knowledge from Chilcot that their loved ones possibly died in vain. To them, Parliament should offer our heartfelt sympathy, our regrets and our apologies, because we know that the responsibility was ours. We should hope above all that the spirits of all who died as a result of our decisions may now rest in peace.
It is worth the whole House remembering that today is 7 July, and it is appropriate to remember the victims of the terrorist attacks that took place on this day in 2005. It is also appropriate to send our good wishes and commiserations to the Welsh football team. They have done this country proud and they have done Wales proud. They have exceeded all expectations, and I hope and believe that they will go on to great things at the World cup, when the time comes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on being here again. I was not entirely certain whether he would still be with us this week, because there have been so many changes in the Opposition. Not only is he still here, but he has another job; he is now also the shadow Welsh Secretary. I congratulate him on that appointment and on becoming one of the longest-serving members of the shadow Cabinet. I hope to see him here again next week.
On the Chilcot report, we all acknowledge that it is a substantial piece of work and all involved in its preparation deserve a lot of credit. It has taken a long time to come, and we have had lots of discussions in this place about when it would arrive, but I do not think that anybody could say that it is not an exhaustive piece of analysis that has set out for us all the rights and wrongs of what took place 10 years ago.
I know that the hon. Gentleman feels immensely strongly about this issue. He has been a consistent advocate for the point of view that he has just articulated, and I commend him for that. I hope that the fact that the Government have provided a two-day debate on this matter next week is a sign of how seriously we take it, and how seriously we take the need to understand the rights and wrongs of the decisions that were taken a decade ago. He is absolutely right to say that it is an appropriate moment for this House to pay tribute to our armed forces, to those who lost their lives, to those who were injured and to their families. In all circumstances we should recognise the enormous contribution that our armed forces make, the bravery of the people in them, and the bravery of their families.
The hon. Gentleman referred to fixing the roof while the sun is shining. A large programme is taking place to restore some of the Victorian roofing. The Committee looking at the restoration and renewal project is heading towards the completion of its work. Over the coming years, we will all have to work together to make sure that this building is made fit for this century. It is the heart of our democracy. He is right to identify that many things are currently wrong with it but we have a duty to sustain it as the heart of our democracy and protect it for future generations.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). I suspect that the Home Secretary will not be distressed by being likened to Margaret Thatcher. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for taking part in the Conservative leadership election, and for being able to express a view on who our next Prime Minister will be. To be honest, if I was on the Opposition Benches I would want to take part in our leadership contest as well, because try as it might, no matter how hard it struggles, the Labour party does not seem to be able to have one itself.
May we have a debate on flooding? It seems a long time since my constituency and many others were affected by the terrible floods over Christmas, but we should not forget the people affected just because it is now summer and the weather is better. Many people are still not back in their homes. Many of the flood defences required to make sure that that situation does not happen again have not been put in place. We could either have a debate or the Leader of the House could ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make a statement on the progress made in helping those affected and the work needed so that people do not have to suffer the same distress again.
My hon. Friend will be aware that I visited the Colne valley soon after the floods and am acutely aware of the impact that that period of heavy rain had on homes and businesses in and around West Yorkshire, as well as in other parts of the country. I know this matter is of great concern to the Secretary of State and will make sure that she is aware that these concerns have been raised again today. We clearly want to do the right thing for those affected by flooding. Since 2010 we have continued to spend money on flood defences and will continue to do so.
I also thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. He is absolutely correct that it is right and appropriate that we remember the victims of 7/7 today on the 11th anniversary of that appalling and dreadful act.
It is also right and proper that business next week is dominated by the Chilcot report. We are all grateful that the Leader of the House has listened to the many representations made on all sides of the House for that debate to be extended to two days. Although we are grateful for the debate, most of us are starting to think about what will happen beyond it and in particular what means are available to hold those responsible for the disaster to account. The only people who have thus far lost their jobs in this whole calamity are two BBC journalists. I am sure that the public are now appalled and sickened after listening to Tony Blair—his defiance of the report, his lack of contrition and his half-hearted meaningless apology, with no recognition of the scale of the disaster. Will the Leader of the House explain what means and methods we have to hold those responsible to account in this House?
Although we are having two days of debate on the last Labour Government’s era-defining disaster, we still have not had one on this Government’s one. In the two weeks since this country made the decision on the European Union there has been no Government-sponsored debate on the EU referendum or Brexit. It is almost a dereliction of duty. I do not know whether it is a case of denial from the Government or they genuinely do not have a clue, although I suspect it is a combination of the two.
This morning we have heard all sorts of rumours on social media about a decision on Trident. Will the Leader of the House now explain when we will have the vote on Trident rather than leaving it to rumour and hearsay?
Lastly, may we have a debate on the overthrow of elites, in political parties in particular? This morning I looked up the definition of coup. Apparently it is the sudden appropriation of leadership or power and its replacement by other elites within the state apparatus. Today there is almost a physical boundary on the Opposition Benches between the two sides of the Labour party—we can see the barrier there. The chicken coupers must be the most inept coupers ever: no strategy, no challenger, just spineless inertia, with the vain hope that their Front-Bench team will somehow just go. Let us have that debate and see whether they can learn from the hand of history.
On the Chilcot report, I reiterate that it is right and proper that we have a two-day debate. That is the job of this House. It is not for this House to consider whether there are specific measures that can be taken against individuals. That is a matter for the relevant authorities, and it is not for us as a Parliament to debate those matters. There will be plenty of opportunity for this House to express its opinions about the role played by individuals and organisations in that process and that decision making. Sir John Chilcot has provided for everyone in this House a detailed range of information that can be drawn on for that debate, and I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will play an active part in it.
On the EU referendum, the country has just had a four-month debate, and we have had a verdict from the United Kingdom. I know the hon. Gentleman still cannot get to grips with the fact that we are part of the United Kingdom together. I value being part of the United Kingdom Parliament with him. He adds something extra to this institution, and long may that continue. We have just had a very lengthy debate on the referendum. There are plenty of opportunities to debate this—virtually every day at oral questions and when the Prime Minister is here. We have had statements on the outcome of the referendum, we have had Opposition day debates, and we will be debating the matter for some months to come.
As I have been clear over the months, we will have a debate on the future of Trident, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when we are ready to announce the date for that, we will do so to this House.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the overthrow of elites. It is nice to find something on which we have a common view. Until he mentioned it, I had not spotted the completely empty row on the Labour Benches, but it is a bit surreal. It is as if the whole thing has turned upside down. [Interruption.] It is like “Alice Through the Looking Glass”—the Front Benchers have moved to the Back Bench, and the Back Benchers have moved to the Front Bench. Who would ever have imagined the Front-Bench team that we see there now? Never in our wildest imagination did we imagine that the Labour Opposition could find themselves in such a predicament. The hon. Gentleman is right—they cannot even organise their own coup or their own leadership contest. If they cannot do that, they are utterly unfit ever to run the country.
I rise on behalf of the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is attending the opening of a section of the A1M. Unfortunately, the A1M was built over a disused mine shaft and a 30-foot sinkhole has appeared, but don’t worry—officials are looking into it.
As a consequence of the two-day debate on the Chilcot report, a Back-Bench business day has been lost. On behalf of the Backbench Business Committee, may I ask the Leader of the House to confirm as soon as possible that 21 July, the last sitting day before we rise, will be allotted to the Backbench Business Committee so that we can publicise the pre-recess Adjournment debates?
I speak now on my own behalf. An excellent report was published this week by the Royal Commonwealth Society on introducing two-year visas for people from India. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on visa requirements for people from India and other countries outside the European Union so that we can grasp the opportunities to set and control our own borders?
On the earlier point, we will do everything we can to make sure that we provide information about allocated days in a timely way and that we make provision for the Backbench Business Committee, as is normal. My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that the Government felt that next week it is important to have the debate on the Chilcot report and to have that debate across a two-day period. I hope the Backbench Business Committee will understand that.
With regard to visas, I am sure that the Home Secretary will have noted the points that my hon. Friend makes. It is important now, given the decision that this country has taken to leave the European Union, that we maximise the opportunities that we have to forge free trade links around the world. It is encouraging that a number of our Commonwealth friends in particular have come forward and said that they believe that free trade arrangements between us and them will be beneficial for the future.
I thank the Government for producing a written statement on cremations and baby ashes, and I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice for her work on that issue. I also thank Action for Ashes, and my constituent, Tina Trowhill, and other families up and down the land who are involved with this matter. Will the Leader of the House have a word with the three Cabinet Ministers who wrote to Hull City Council to ask it to hold a local inquiry into baby ashes in the Hull area? The chief executive of the council wrote back to ask for clarification on the terms of reference, and whether any financial support was available to pay for the local inquiry. We have not yet received a response, and families want to get the matter under way as soon as possible.
This is a deeply sensitive issue, and I pay tribute to those families who have been brave enough to campaign for an improved situation, given the difficulties they have been through. I will certainly chase up that response for the hon. Lady, and try to ensure that it is sent as quickly as possible.
One thing that unites this House is the abhorrence of modern slavery. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, of which I am chairman, is working on a report on that issue. However, the funding we need is being held up by the Home Office, so we have not done it. The work done by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) has been superb over many years. In the absence of receiving that money, could we have a debate in Government time to discuss an issue that I know brings the House together, so that we can send a united voice across the world to say that we do not approve of modern slavery and that the entire House says that it must stop now?
Members across the House should be proud that this country passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and we have taken a lead on this issue. My hon. Friend’s work with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) in an area where there is no political difference and on which we are politically united is an example of this House at its best. We are often only seen by the public debating with each other in a lively way, but great work takes place across the House, and long may it continue.
In the light of Brexit, I asked all Departments what steps they are taking to ensure that their purchasing policies support British industry and agriculture. The reply, which was centrally generated by the Government although it came from a number of Departments, stated:
“The Department’s purchasing policies support the Government’s commitment to do all it can to ensure UK suppliers can compete effectively for public sector contracts, in line with our current international obligations and guidance issued by the Crown Commercial Service.”
That is a totally inadequate response to the situation we are facing. Clearly, the civil service still does not get it. May we have a debate to explore how we will back British industry, British agriculture and British workers?
The Government have given the right hon. Gentleman a legally accurate response to the current situation. When we have left the European Union, we will be freer to take decisions about procurement in the United Kingdom and the services, goods and products produced here. I am a great believer in doing everything we can to procure locally, but we are subject to procurement rules with which we must conform.
Whether west, east or sub-Saharan Africa, Commonwealth or non-Commonwealth, the world’s fastest growing economies are on that continent. May we have a debate about what more the Government can do to reach out to those growing economies?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we should all be pleased with the way that the African continent is developing. More and more people are being lifted out of poverty, and there is more economic development. We have historic ties with many of those countries, and we should seek to strengthen those ties in a variety of ways, including the development of free trade deals with them in the future.
May we have a debate or statement on justice for all war widows? An anomaly means that those whose partners died in service between 1973 and 2005 are not able to claim the war widows pension if they remarry. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) recently hosted a protest at which that issue was highlighted, and it is an important matter, especially in the week of the Chilcot report.
All hon. Members would want to support war widows. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point and I will ensure that his concerns are raised with the Ministry of Defence after business questions.
The European Union, including the United Kingdom, recognises a difference between the military and political wings of Hezbollah, but such a distinction does not appear to be recognised by the organisation itself. Therefore, in the light of the confusion about the legality of demonstrators displaying Hezbollah flags on the streets of London last Sunday, may we have a statement on the legality of displaying them and any flag associated with a proscribed terrorist organisation?
I agree with my hon. Friend that if an organisation is proscribed in the UK, it should not be allowed to publicise itself in the UK, whether through flags, placards or anything else. I will ensure that the Home Secretary is aware of the concerns he raises. If an organisation is illegal in the UK, it should not manifest itself in the UK.
For too long, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media have become more and more like the wild west, with people thinking they can post anything and say anything. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) has a private Member’s Bill, but we need the Government to take much more drastic action, because the problem is spilling out into the wider world, as has been said previously. May we have a statement or a debate in Government time about what they will do both to tackle Twitter, Facebook and other forums, and to clamp down on what is happening in the public realm?
This is an issue for Members on both sides of the House and I share the hon. Gentleman’s view, but it is not simply about Members of Parliament—it also affects people in society. I have a more straightforward view than his. It is very simple: if Members of the House or other people receive threats that they are going to be raped, murdered or whatever, the police should arrest the perpetrators and put them in court. That might send a message to those who carry out that kind of disgraceful behaviour that there are consequences. My message to our police is: if that happens, prosecute.
When it comes to sport, my constituency is best known for the game associated with the oval ball, but we have some great football teams, including Rugby Town juniors, who have just received a grant of £371,000 from Sport England towards a 3G astroturf pitch for use by their 700 or so members. The Leader of the House has praised the achievements of the Wales team, but may we have a debate on how investment in grassroots football of the type taking place in Rugby can inspire our national team at the highest level?
No English Member is in any doubt this week that we need a strong grassroots youth development system for the future. Having been outshone by the Welsh, we would like to get our own back at some point, but we definitely need new young players to come through. We know that from our strongest local, non-league and amateur clubs can come stars of the future. Let us hope some of them come from Rugby.
I thank the Leader of the House for his warm tribute to the achievements of the Welsh national football team. I tweeted last night that I will die a happy man, hopefully many years from now, having had the privilege of supporting that great Welsh national side.
Last month, the people of the UK took probably the most important political decision in my lifetime, and I turned 40 in April, yet over lunch yesterday, I had a discussion with Speaker Boothroyd, who informed me that the other place has had two days of debates on the implications of Brexit. When will the House have the opportunity to debate the implications? The fact that there is no plan to deal with what has happened in the last month is no reason to sweep it under the carpet.
I simply assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be plenty of opportunities in the coming months for us to debate these matters. We need to elect a new Prime Minister, complete the preparatory work, start negotiations and ensure that the House has every opportunity to debate those matters. I give him that absolute assurance.
I have one regret on the football front. As a Manchester United supporter, I just wish Gareth Bale would come home and join the reds.
The Kurdish peshmerga have very much been at the front line of the battle against Daesh in northern Iraq, and I am proud that the Government have supported them militarily, but may we have a debate on the medical support that is needed by injured fighters against Daesh, including our allies in the peshmerga and others?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We clearly need to do more than simply provide military support. A huge amount of humanitarian effort is going in to support those affected by the war, but I will ensure that the Secretary of State for International Development is aware of his concern so that it can be a focus.
We have reached the end of the track in terms of my constituents’ patience with one of the worst train operating companies in the world, Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs Thameslink and Southern lines that are currently masquerading as train services. In its latest attempt to reduce disruption on the Southern line, it is going to cancel up to 350 trains. That is simply unacceptable. It is causing people to lose their jobs, students to miss exams and untold stress. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Transport Secretary to come and give an urgent statement, and for goodness sake strip this company of this franchise and do so now?
May I say first of all that, as someone who also shares GTR routes, I am well aware of the issue? I have every sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has just said and I have constituents who share his anger. There is a debate on this matter in Westminster Hall next week. I have already spoken to the rail Minister, who is acutely aware of the issue. What is happening at the moment is simply unacceptable and has to be sorted out.
Parts of my constituency are being blighted by young men driving high-performance luxury vehicles, often at dangerously high speeds. There have been a series of accidents, near misses and hit-and-runs in recent months. As most of these vehicles are hired, usually for just a day at a time, local residents and Pendle Council are calling for action to prevent hire car companies from putting high performance supercars in the hands of young drivers. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on this issue?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am surprised the hire companies want to do that, because high-performance cars tend to be high-value cars and I presume they want to get them back intact afterwards. It is clearly a bizarre situation and I do not know why those businesses are taking the approach he describes. He should certainly put pressure on them locally, but I will make sure his concerns are drawn to the attention of the Transport Secretary.
Those of us who are regular, proper Back Benchers value business questions. I hope the Leader of the House will have a word with the other Front Benchers and bring it back to what it should be about: business questions. We had a Welsh shadow Leader of the House who could not even mention the Welsh team today, which I think he should have done, but business questions is for important future business. My constituents are deeply worried about the closure of the A&E at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. That is of prime importance. They are worried about the quality of management by GPs who become managers in clinical commissioning groups. Those are the sorts of things we want a debate on and we want it soon.
I am not sure whether to congratulate, or commiserate with the hon. Gentleman on the fact that he is still on the Back Benches. Only he will be able to tell us whether he has been offered a job as, for example, shadow Education Secretary. I know it has been a challenge to fill that post recently.
Well that is a bit of a snub, isn’t it? The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about his constituency. I have been a champion of A&E and maternity services in my constituency. Regular opportunities exist through Adjournment debates and Backbench Business debates to bring a Minister before the House. With his long experience, he knows how best to use those systems to get Ministers here and hold them to account.
The changing face of retail is having a major impact on the vibrancy of our town centres. We do not want a situation in which our provincial towns becoming derelict with more empty shop units. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on how the Government will support local authorities to regenerate provincial town centres?
The big thing we have done this year is to change business rates, which I hope will make a difference in places like Cleethorpes. My hon. Friend and I have walked up the main street in Cleethorpes on many occasions. It is a great town. It is a really important part of the community and the area he represents. I hope the changes we have made to business rates will help to strengthen the businesses in that high street. I also hope we get some good weather, so that Cleethorpes fills with tourists in the coming six weeks.
Last week, when I challenged the Leader of the House, he yet again defended the rights of the more than 800 unelected bureaucrats in the place next door. He has previously defended the voting system in this place yet this morning, with no sense of irony, he talks about making this place suitable for a modern democracy. Therefore, in the vein of a modern democracy, I will narrow it down a wee bit. Will he make a statement outlining why he thinks it is appropriate to have 26 Church of England bishops taking part in the legislative process, and why they are able to vote on legislation that affects Scotland?
The thing that puzzles me is that the Scottish National party has a substantial number of private Members’ Bills opportunities, having been in the top 10 in this year’s draw. Has there been a Bill to make any change whatever to the House of Lords? No.
On Tuesday evening, a Bath mum, Kerry Parkinson, was travelling home and was hit in the face after confronting a passenger who told their son to “Shut up, or we will send you to Istanbul with the other Muslims to join Isis.” I am sure that whole House will join me in condemning such disgusting racist views and in congratulating Kerry on standing up against hate. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Home Secretary to see what more can be done to tackle xenophobia in our society and look at staging further debates in the House?
That instance is absolutely shocking. We send all our good wishes to my hon. Friend’s constituent for what she has done. Let us be absolutely clear: the Muslim community plays a valuable role in our communities up and down the country. The Muslim community is full of people who have made a real difference to our society, and we should support them. The fact that there are a small number of people in the Islamic world who pursue an ideology of hate that we all stand up against should not in any way tarnish the good, hard-working decent Muslims of this country. We should abhor, tackle and prosecute insults and attacks against them.
Some 5% of students and 15% of staff at British universities come from other EU countries, along with £800 million a year in research grants. Our universities are deeply worried about the impact of Brexit on their future academic competitiveness, and in cities like Nottingham our universities play a vital role in the success of the local economy. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the Business Secretary makes an urgent statement on how he intends to protect our higher education sector in the negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU?
I will of course ensure that what the hon. Lady says is drawn to the attention of the Business Secretary. Let me make two points. First, particularly in science where these issues have been raised, the European science network, which is a partnership of academic institutions across Europe, includes countries such as Israel that are not part of the European Union in any way, shape or form. There is no reason why our universities cannot continue to play the part they do today in joint international research projects. Secondly, it is worth remembering that we pay a substantial amount of money into the European Union. In future, that money will not be paid, and there is no reason why we cannot continue to provide the money directly and cut out the middle man.
When we discuss Brexit, may we have the opportunity of conducting some sectional debates, so that we can look at how, now that the power exists for Parliament to vote through renationalising the rail industries, we could rejuvenate football as well—and not just the English football team? The Bosman ruling will be abolished, which will allow local football clubs in England and Scotland to rejuvenate themselves rather lose all their best players to the premier league.
The hon. Gentleman, of course, comes to the issue of Britain’s future outside the European Union from a different perspective from mine, but he highlights how, once we have left, we will be able to do in the future the things that we are constrained from doing now. On Bosman and English football, of course we want to see a new generation of bright young players coming through—and possibly from Rugby, as we heard earlier.
We learned yesterday about five walk-outs from five separate prisons in the last five months by prison officers who do not feel safe at work. There has been a 30% increase in serious assaults on staff this year. With so much else going on, it is easy to ignore that, but the Leader of House cannot ignore it because he largely caused the problem. Will he get the Justice Secretary, who should have more time on his hands after today, to come and make a statement about why we cannot get right something as fundamental as security and safety in our prisons and the protection of prisoners and prison staff from harm?
I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that the current structure of staffing in prisons was designed by the Prison Officers Association and the Prison Governors Association three years ago. What we implemented was their advice about how to proceed to staff our prisons.
Last week, Aberdeen City Council held a summit on the problems in the oil and gas industry. The Government managed to appear to appear via a 30-minute video link, but no Government Minister was sent. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) is currently chasing her leadership ambitions and might be doing so for the next couple of months, so can the Government give a commitment that somebody in government will, in view of the current rocky climate, give more than passing attention to the oil industry?
Absolutely. The oil industry is very important to us. I know that in recent months the Chancellor, in particular, has taken an active interest in how we can best ease the pressures on it, but when the oil price has fallen to such a degree, there are no easy solutions.
May we have an urgent statement on Care.data? The Government announced today that they were scrapping the scheme. We need to know how much it cost the public purse, and whether all our constituents’ information will be shredded.
I will ensure that the hon. Lady receives a response from the Department of Health.
The issue of forced organ harvesting in China has concerned us for some time. It involves people who have been jailed for campaigning for civil liberties, for being Christians and practising their religion, or for following the meditation practices of Falun Gong, which is a wonderful form of meditation whose values are truth, compassion and tolerance. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate, in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall, on the horrific, brutal surgical removal of vital organs from prisoners of conscience, and could we also debate the issue of organ tourism? People travel from the United Kingdom to China to receive those organs. I believe that a subject of such importance should be debated.
The hon. Gentleman has raised a very serious issue. He will be able to raise it directly with the Foreign Secretary during Foreign Office questions on Tuesday, but let me say to him now that, while we seek to engage with China and strengthen our partnerships with it, we always take opportunities to raise the question of human rights, and we want to see standards of human rights in China improve.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) asked about yesterday’s decision to scrap the Care.data scheme. Experts say that access to patient data is vital to better understanding of the causes of disease. It should be possible both to get data security right and to give researchers access to data. We really need to discuss this issue in the House.
I will ensure that the Health Secretary is aware of the concerns that have been raised. It is clearly important for us to protect individual data, as it always has been, but I will ask Ministers to give a proper response to both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz).
Several constituents have contacted me in the last month about ridiculous delays in assessments for employment and support allowance. Some have been waiting not for the 13 weeks for which they should be waiting, but for as long as eight or even 11 months. Given the importance of the issue to the lives of my constituents and their ability to feed themselves, may we have a debate in Government time about how long the process is taking and what is going wrong with the Department involved?
Fortunately, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be here on Monday for oral questions. I will alert him in advance, and if the hon. Lady wants to raise the issue in the House again, I will ask him to provide her with a proper response.
On this very poignant anniversary, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing gratitude to our incredible emergency services, who are simply the best in the world. However, I am alarmed to learn that cuts in our fire services now pose a real threat to public safety, and that, following the cutting of more than 7,000 firefighters since 2010, response times are at their longest for more than 20 years. May we have an urgent further debate on the issue?
Of course I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to our emergency services. Yes, there have been changes, and there have been improvements. One of the changes that is taking place at the moment is a move to bring fire services together with local police services under the umbrella of the police and crime commissioners, because we think that will achieve efficiencies, both operational and financial. Obviously I will ensure that the Department is aware of the hon. Lady’s concern, but she may choose to initiate an end-of-day Adjournment debate so that a Minister can deal with the issue directly.
Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating John Whitgift Academy on securing a People’s Postcode lottery grant so that it can lead and inspire young people through the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust’s On Track to Achieve programme? That will give an important boost to pupils and teachers in a school that was recently given an “inadequate” rating by Ofsted. May we have an urgent debate on the importance of sport and sport mentoring in schools?
Let me begin by paying tribute to the hon. Lady for what she did as shadow Leader of the House. We on these Benches are sorry to see her move back three rows, but I am sure that she will not be in that row forever—unless things carry on as they are. I also pay tribute to those in her constituency who are doing so much work for young people and sporting achievement, which makes such a difference to their development. The work she has described is enormously valuable.
Recent NHS figures show that 142 people per 100,000 in Manchester die prematurely from cardiovascular diseases. Someone is more likely to die prematurely from a heart attack or a stroke in Manchester than anywhere else in the country. May we have a debate on how to address high rates of cardiovascular disease in cities such as Manchester?
That is a very good example of why Manchester will benefit from having greater control over healthcare services in the area as a result of our devolution package. There are clearly particular problems that are found in some of our great cities, and devolution of responsibility to those cities will enable local solutions to be put in place that can make a difference.
This week, the European Commission announced that national Parliaments will be given the chance to vote on the comprehensive economic and trade agreement with Canada. Can the Leader of the House give any further detail on when Members of this place can expect to debate, scrutinise and vote on this important deal?
No, I cannot do that as yet. This is a long and convoluted process. I very much hope that in future we will be able to conclude trade agreements in a much quicker time frame, in a way that benefits our economy.
It has come to my attention that a private memo has been sent by the Department for Work and Pensions to the work capability assessment providers warning them not to direct claimants to appeal against decisions wrongfully made on their entitlements. It is clear as day that it is critical that benefit claimants can access appeal rights, and indeed claim their benefits, where they are so entitled. May we have a debate on this issue to ensure that these restrictive policies are not being enforced by the DWP?
I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman raises. The Secretary of State will be here for questions on Monday, and I suggest that he puts his point directly to Ministers at that session.
Is it possible for the Leader of the House to organise an urgent debate, in Government time, on prosecution policy? Over the past few weeks, we have seen a disgraceful rise in the number of race hate crime incidents, as we heard from the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett). It is quite right that we all abhor that, but do we not need to take a stand as a society and prosecute people who take part in such behaviour? It is not enough to be angry and to say that we abhor it; these people need to be brought before the courts and prosecuted, and that will help to stop it.
I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman. One of the most extraordinary things is that British Asians, who have had nothing whatever to do with the debates in recent weeks, should be singled out in this way. That is a sign of a streak of opinion in our society. I believe that we are as tolerant a society as any in the world, but we none the less have a core of people whose beliefs are disgraceful and whose actions are disgraceful, and when they act in the way that we have seen in recent weeks, there is absolutely no excuse for our police and our prosecuting authorities not to put them in court where they belong.
We now come to the Select Committee statement. Dr Julian Lewis will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Dr Julian Lewis to respond to those in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.
Russia: Implications for UK Defence and Security
Select Committee on Defence
Select Committee statement
I am grateful for this opportunity to lay before the House the Defence Committee’s new report entitled, “Russia: Implications for UK defence and security”, which has been produced on the eve of the Warsaw NATO summit and which highlights the need for that major event to focus on defence and deterrence, but also on dialogue.
I am extremely grateful to all the members of the Defence Committee for their contributions to the genesis of this report. We held four oral evidence sessions and received 18 pieces of written evidence. A delegation from the Committee, ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), visited Moscow, where they attempted to engage with the Russian authorities. Because of the current state of relations, Russian Government authorities were reluctant to engage, but the delegation acquired much other useful information on that visit.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine have undermined the post-cold war assumption of a stable Europe in which the military threat to NATO is low. The north Atlantic alliance must therefore restore its defences, review its deterrence and reopen its dialogue with the Russian authorities. The fact that NATO and the UK were taken by surprise by the interventions in Ukraine shows a failure to comprehend President Putin’s determination to maintain a sphere of influence beyond Russia’s own borders and to do so by force if necessary. His stance directly contradicts the rules-based international order that western democracies seek to promote.
Russia has become increasingly active not only in conventional warfare, but in unconventional methods, often deniable, which are designed to fall below the threshold that would trigger NATO’s article 5 guarantee—the undertaking to consider an armed attack against one NATO member state as an attack against them all. The creation of the very high readiness joint taskforce—VJTF—among NATO member states and the enhanced forward presence on NATO’s contested eastern flank are steps in the right direction, but our report warns that the VJTF was formed only recently and that its capacity to deploy the necessary forces within the required timeframe is as yet unproven.
The report’s recommendations include the following. First, the MOD should recognise the extent of Russian remilitarisation and respond to it robustly. Secondly, it should review the effectiveness of current deterrence policy against nuclear, conventional and hybrid or multidimensional warfare. Thirdly, NATO should determine whether the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty is in need of repair or replacement in the light of allegations that Russia has breached its provisions. Fourthly, a timetable should be set out for the Trident Successor submarine debate and the decision in Parliament “without further delay”—indeed, that debate should be held before the summer recess. Fifthly, the renewal of EU-wide sanctions against Russia should be encouraged and possibly extended to a larger group among the Kremlin leadership. Sixthly, it should be accepted that
“it is perfectly possible to confront and constrain an adversary in a region where our interests clash, whilst cooperating with him, to some degree, in a region where they coincide.”
We regard the threat posed by Daesh, al-Qaeda and other international terrorists as a relevant example of the latter: the convergence, to a considerable extent, of NATO and Russian interests. I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), assenting to that proposition.
The Committee believes that Russian cyber-attacks across Europe and territorial seizures in Georgia and Ukraine may not be isolated actions and may be symptomatic of a wider ambition to restore Moscow’s global influence. However, because Russia is a global power, there remain opportunities for co-operation if we can but grasp them. Yet with relations at what the Russian ambassador to London has described as an “all time low”, our report concludes that the UK must urgently boost its cadre of Russian specialists. We must restore and maintain a high level of expertise for the foreseeable future. Given the current climate, the defence attaché’s office in Moscow, for example, must be properly staffed by the end of the year.
Since the end of the cold war, Russia has not been a UK priority and our expertise in this field has withered on the vine. The UK needs a vastly strengthened body of experts who can help provide an effective response to the challenges Russia now poses. We cannot hope to understand Russia without a forthright dialogue, and in the current conditions of mistrust we run the risk of blundering into conflicts that may be preventable through better communication. The cold war was characterised not only by military confrontation, but by the then Soviet Union’s promotion of Marxism-Leninism, with its formidable appeal to impressionable minds inside the Kremlin’s targeted countries. No such totalitarian doctrine applies to present-day Russia, which, for all its nationalist and expansionist tendencies, is itself under threat from revolutionary Islamism, the brutal successor to the equally brutal Nazi and communist creeds which blighted so much of the 20th century. Therein lies the basis for potential co-operation, provided that our dialogue with Russia is from a position of strength, based on sound defences and credible deterrence.
May I say that it is a privilege to serve on the Defence Committee, which is so ably chaired by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)? I hope he will agree that one thing that is clear from our report is a lack of dialogue and understanding between our colleagues in Russia and ourselves, in terms of not only language, but shared history. Does he agree that, in the light of the upcoming NATO summit, we need to review that as part of our wider engagement with Russia, including how it perceives the threat from NATO, too?
Yes, indeed, and I thank the hon. Lady for that. She is a tremendously supportive member of the Committee; this is her first parliamentary term, but she has made a great start. I re-emphasise what I said about the importance of dialogue with Russia. The fact remains that different societies develop at different stages and go through different phases in their attitude to their relationships with the rest of the world. One mistake that the west clearly made after the downfall of communism was to evoke a degree of triumphalism at a time when magnanimity would have been more appropriate. Those in the west make a terrible mistake if they fail to recognise that Russia is and always has been a great power, and what we have to do is reach out the hand of friendship, while trying to discourage those aspects of the Russian tradition that seek to dominate lands beyond its own borders. Russia is a pretty large landmass and one would hope that the Russians could make a success of running their own country without feeling the need to impose their will on their neighbours.
Potential Russian expansionism must be deterred by NATO with a fist of steel—there is no question about that, as we cannot let them do it—but one encased in a velvet glove. At the moment, we do not understand Russia and what it is doing. We must find better ways of understanding the Russians and talking to them about it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one area where we simply do not know what they are doing is in the high north—in the Arctic? Russia is, without question, expanding its military capabilities up there and we do not quite know why. Does he agree that that was one area the report was not able to look into, and is there not room for further work on that?
I agree with every word my hon. Friend has said. Our report drops a very broad hint that the Arctic—the high north—deserves special attention, and I strongly suspect that if and when the Committee takes a decision to give it that special attention, my hon. Friend, who has led the way, with his all-party group for polar regions, in alerting the country to the significance of this area, will be playing a very prominent part indeed.
First, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman and his fellow Committee members for a comprehensive and thorough report on this important area of the UK’s and Europe’s defence and security. I note that this inquiry did not have time to consider the implications of Brexit in full. However, given that the Putin regime’s tactics are often geared towards destabilising Europe as a whole, does he agree that it is vital for the UK to ensure, particularly at the upcoming Warsaw summit, that Brexit does not undermine the political cohesion of NATO? I am going to assume that the answer to that is yes. As such, has the Committee given any preliminary thoughts as to how this might come about?
I welcome the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) to his new responsibilities. May I say a personal message of appreciation for his past service in the Territorial Army, which included a spell of active service in Afghanistan? I hold the members of the armed forces, particularly those who have seen active service in dangerous parts of the world, in the highest respect. I am sure that we will all listen with very great attention to his contributions.
In relation to the implications of Brexit, I do not think that I am giving up any trade secrets when I say that that has been discussed as one of the major strands of the forthcoming work of the Committee. It is certainly the case that there should be no need for anyone to feel that security arrangements have been undermined in any way if only because of the almost complete overlap between the membership of the EU and the membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. I am quite certain that the structures of NATO will be perfectly capable of carrying forward the security relationships without any form of distortion by any other organisation that might have been tempted to duplicate them. NATO will indeed be one of the principal forums for ensuring that the communications that are so important between the United Kingdom and our friends and allies on the continent will be able to proceed absolutely uninterruptedly as a result of the change that will take place.
May I also welcome the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) to his new role, and say that we served in the same reserve infantry unit, although, unlike me, he saw active service during his time there?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Committee on a heavyweight report. Clearly, we will be responding to it, and we will look carefully at each of the recommendations. It is above my pay grade to give a date for the Trident debate, but we will be looking carefully at it. May I congratulate the Committee on the very careful balance that it has struck between stressing the real and growing dangers from the Soviet Union—sorry, that was a Freudian slip; I meant from Russia—and stressing the political situation that exists now as compared with the old Soviet Union? I am talking about the lack of ideology now, and the fact that that may provide us with some constructive opportunities, particularly as we share a horrid threat from Daesh.
I am very grateful to the Minister for his encouraging remarks. He is spot on when he says that we must take a balanced view with regard to Russia. If we look back over the history of Anglo-Russian relations throughout the 20th century, we will see that they are terrible switchback rides of periods of great hostility and then close alliance and then great hostility once again. It is a pity—I will put it no more strongly than that—that we cannot order our affairs to see that, in reality, there are prospects for co-operation between developed powers that vastly outweigh any sectional advantage that might be sought by one of them trying to steal a march on the other. I understand the reasons why Russia feels affronted by its treatment after the end of the cold war, but that is no excuse for ripping up the international rule book and trampling on the rights of its neighbours.
May I commend the Chairman and the members of his Committee for producing an excellent report in the run-up to the NATO summit later this week? I entirely agree with the need for more dialogue and co-operation through the NATO-Russia Council and by other means, and also with the Committee’s recommendation about recognising the Russian threat and the need to respond to it robustly. In that context, does the Chairman of the Committee share my concern about the recent remarks by the German Foreign Minister who described the recent 10-day NATO exercise in Poland as “warmongering” and “counterproductive” to regional security? Is there not a need for the member states of NATO to stand together and send a united clear message to Putin that we will not be divided? More work needs to be done by our own Government and other like-minded Governments to ensure that everybody recognises the need to stand united, otherwise Putin will exploit the differences.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. This is why some of us—I speak more personally in this respect—have been worried about the creation of a separate defence identity in Europe outside the NATO arena. What he says is entirely right: NATO is the forum in which our security concerns should be aired with our European friends, neighbours and allies. We should try to arrive at a unified perceptions of the situation and articulate them appropriately.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Committee on producing an excellent and timely report? Does he agree that we have seen recently that President Putin has been able to exploit our weaknesses, that he does so ruthlessly and that he has been able to act with impunity? As chairman of the all-party Ukraine group, I am particularly conscious of his flouting of the Budapest memorandum of 1996, and he has done that with complete impunity. He respects strength, so it is absolutely right that NATO is reinforcing its position in the Baltic states. That is a demonstration of strength and resolve on the part of NATO. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is capabilities, not intentions, that count? Intentions can change overnight; capabilities cannot. Particularly today, given the complexity of modern defence technology, we cannot produce aircraft, tanks and ships overnight. Therefore, NATO’s upcoming meeting should focus on delivering the extra spending to deliver the capabilities.
I strongly applaud my right hon. Friend’s argument about dialogue. I had a meeting with the Russian ambassador here in London, and I said, “We have a common interest. Our common interest is that we are both facing Islamic fundamentalism, and that is where we need to co-operate.” Will my right hon. Friend therefore share with the House how he thinks we can not only show that we have absolute determination and resolve in resisting Putin’s advances but engage with him and his Government? Where else might we do so apart from on the mutual threat that we face from Islamic fundamentalism?
What a cornucopia of questions, but all of them typically sound and well directed, given my hon. Friend’s distinguished record in the field of defence and security. I believe that there is nothing new about the dilemma of how we gauge our relations with the Russians. I remember in my years as a researcher coming across a paper by the joint intelligence sub-committee—it was then a sub-committee of the chiefs of staff—called “Relations with the Russians”, which was written in 1945, and it said then exactly what we are saying today: “They respect you if you stand up to them, if you show you’re strong, but if you engage with them as well. They do not respect you if you give signs of weakness.”
I believe that there is a shared threat, but there are potential threats that Russia is beginning to show, once again, towards its most immediate neighbours, and that is why it is important that there is a NATO military presence in the most vulnerable front-line states, particularly the Baltic states and Poland. Russia must be left in no doubt that NATO membership means that article 5 applies, and article 5 means that there should be no question of Russia thinking that it can pick off any weaker or more exposed NATO member state and that the other NATO countries will not come to its aid. That is why, conversely, we must be careful not to extend NATO membership or article 5 guarantees to countries where it is simply not realistic to believe that NATO would go to war to defend them.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We are quite a lot over time now, so I am going to ask for very short, very quick questions, but also very short, very quick answers.
We spent most of yesterday discussing the political and military miscalculation and misadventure in Iraq. We hope a debate on Trident looms large, but the report emphasises the need to consider the cost-effectiveness, desirability and affordability of the Successor programme. In the light of Brexit and the financial uncertainty it might bring, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there are many approaches and non-nuclear deterrents we could introduce to create stability with Russia, but that Trident skews every single defence budget to unacceptable levels? Its extension could lead to a financial miscalculation and to a military misadventure that would make Iraq look like a bit of a walk in the park.
Bearing in mind your instruction to be concise, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will just share with the House what the hon. Gentleman said to me when he first joined the Committee. He said, “Julian, you and I are never going to agree about the nuclear deterrent, but I am sure we can co-operate to mutual advantage on many other defence issues,” and he has been as good as his word. I respect his concerns and his doubts about the Trident Successor programme, and I am sure that the sooner we have the debate, the sooner we will be able to engage in the arguments.
I commend the right hon. Gentleman on his chairmanship and leadership of the Defence Committee. When I think of Russia, I think of the saying, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick”—in other words, we have to have dialogue, but we also have to be able to respond. One of the concerns I and the Committee have is about the National Guard, which comes under the direct control of the President—in other words, he can use it to combat terrorism and organised crime but also to control protests. Does the Chairman share the concern I and many others have that President Putin is no longer prepared to tolerate any opposition whatever? Do we also need to look at the ability of NATO and the British Army to respond quickly? Russia can respond within 24 hours or 48 hours, but we seem to take at least another three days. It is critical that we can engage with Russia on those two issues at every level to make sure we protect our people.
The hon. Gentleman makes an enormous and extremely valuable contribution to the work of the Committee, and I agree with him: the announcement of the creation of this new National Guard, which can muster hundreds of thousands of troops, according to some reports, but which, interestingly enough, also includes special forces, is a cause for concern. As it is directly responsible to the President, one can only wonder whether it has something to do with shoring up his position domestically, as well as with exerting power beyond Russia’s borders. The report says—I mentioned this in my statement—that the creation of the very high readiness joint taskforce is a step in the right direction, but the numbers that can be generated at short notice by the Russian armed forces seem to be substantially in excess of what NATO could generate now or in the immediate future, and we need to be able to do better in the medium and long terms.
I welcome the report, but I do get concerned when I hear Russia being spoken of in a certain fashion in the House and, critically, when we do not speak of the communities in Russia, who have to live with the daily experience of the Russian state.
It is now clear that the Russian Federation views the United Kingdom’s global strength as profoundly weakened not only by the issues raised in the Committee’s report, but by Brexit. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the lack of investigation by the Committee into the consequences of Brexit was an oversight and only gives succour to the idea in the Kremlin that the United Kingdom does not have a Scooby what it is doing when it comes to working with like-minded European nations to deal with the profound threats posed by the Russian Federation?
What a pleasure it is, after all those very supportive questions, to be able to say that I utterly disagree with the question that has just been asked. When did Brexit occur? It was a matter of days ago, but the Committee is to be coruscated and condemned because it has not already carried out a full-scale investigation of the consequences of something that the hon. Gentleman was hoping would never happen. Some of us hoped that it would happen, although I must say that a majority on the Committee hoped that it would not. The hon. Gentleman can be perfectly sure that the consequences of Brexit feature high up on our future programme of work. Indeed, I am surprised only that he thinks we should have carried out the research into the consequences of Brexit before we even knew that it was going to take place.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the increasing number of cases where the internet, social media and mobile phone technology are used to bully, harass, intimidate and humiliate individuals including children and vulnerable adults; calls on the Government to ensure that clear legislation is in place that recognises the true impact and nature of online abuse, as distinct to offline abuse; and further calls on the Government to put in place appropriate legal and criminal sanctions, police training, guidance to the CPS and education for young people relating to such abuse.
Without digital connectivity and an online world, our lives would be poorer. The reason for this debate today is that our responsibility as elected representatives is clear: the internet needs to be a force for good, not for ill. I believe we all have a clear duty to come together and demand of the Government that they do more to address the problems of online abuse in all its forms. More than three quarters of our constituents use the internet almost every day, and more than half use their mobile phones to access it. Half of all crimes committed in this country have a digital component, and the police are overwhelmed by its scale and diversity, particularly the nature and impact of online abuse.
Rightly, the focus of the Government in the past has primarily been on online abuse that involves child abuse images, and I applaud the Prime Minister for his clear and personal resolve to outlaw that abhorrent crime. However, online abuse is much more than that, for both children and adults, and includes homophobic, transphobic, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate crime, and image-based sexual abuse, to name but a few. Too often, those forms of online abuse and others continue to go unchallenged, because reporting mechanisms are unreliable or obscure, because the law was designed for an analogue age, and because the police are not properly trained to identify online abuse and then collect the evidence to make a case stick. We have to reject all forms of online abuse and show zero-tolerance through our legal systems, our police force and the things that we teach our children in schools.
It is for us to determine what sort of society we live in, not faceless corporate organisations, often many thousands of miles away. We cannot sit by and simply allow online abuse, in all its forms, to become an accepted norm in our society. With the blurring of the online and offline worlds, it is very easy to see how that might end. What is allowed to become an accepted form of online abuse could simply spill over into face-to-face life.
Like every other Member of this House, I believe in freedom of speech, but that freedom of speech has never been an unqualified right. Freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. At present, we are not ensuring that people who are expressing themselves online understand that fact.
The facts show the direction of travel. Today, one in four young people say they have been targeted with online hate because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability or transgender identity. Three quarters say that that has had a chilling effect on how they then used the internet in the future for their free exchange of ideas. Teachers have reported a 40% increase in cybercrime in the past five years, with the perpetrators openly finding new ways to abuse their victims by skirting around the law. Parents have found it almost impossible to get rid of “baiting out” footage on YouTube, making the lives of many teenagers unbearable.
I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing this vital issue to the House for consideration. There will not be one MP who has not had a constituent—especially young people—approach them about this very issue. I commend the right hon. Lady for making the point about young people being trolled in the digital world. It impacts not just upon that young person’s personality and how they respond, but in some cases in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom it has led to suicide. Is it not time for legislation that responds to this, so that we can put those trolls behind bars, where they should be?
I know from our conversations that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in the matter. He is right to say that the law is not protecting many young people who feel vulnerable, and that has led them, in some tragic cases, to take their own lives. We have to take this issue far more seriously and make sure that our laws are robust.
We have to deal with some very unpleasant truths, particularly the growth of peer-to-peer trading of sexual images. That is going unchecked in many cases, for fear of criminalising teenagers, but we know that about one in 10 of those cases could well involve an adult. That leaves young people at real risk of sexual exploitation, while the police find it difficult to know how to cope.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that one of the greatest concerns is the under-reporting by young people of these issues? Often, we and the police see only the tip of the iceberg. It is important that we look at the cultural issues.
That is a very good point about under-reporting. Even when those crimes are reported, the police might find it almost impossible to know how to tackle them. That might be because the law is inadequate, but it might also be because their training is inadequate.
I was recently given some evidence by “Good Morning Britain” of a freedom of information request that it made, which uncovered the fact that one in six crimes reported under revenge pornography laws involves children under the age of 18. That is not revenge pornography; that is child abuse. It is potentially misattributed in that way by the police. That leads, exactly as the hon. Lady said, to the under-reporting of one of the most appalling crimes in existence.
I welcome the work that the right hon. Lady has done on this subject. She and I are both involved in the Reclaim the Internet campaign to bring together the police, social media and organisations and individuals across the country to tackle online abuse. I agree that there are big questions for the law and for policing, particularly when it comes to protecting young people. Does she agree that much stronger responsibility is needed from everyone, including other organisations, individuals and social media platforms? Does she welcome the work that Stonewall and Facebook have been doing to tackle online bullying, LGBT discrimination and homophobia, and that they are launching a new online guide tomorrow?
I thank the right hon. Lady for highlighting the work that is going on. I pay tribute to Reclaim the Internet, the cross-party campaign that she started to make sure that we can come together and find a solution to one of the biggest that the country faces. Online abuse, as she rightly says, does not simply affect one group of people. It goes across society, and it is wrecking the lives of adults, too. The Government must be applauded for being one of the first in the world to recognise online image-based sexual abuse in their revenge pornography laws. The Leader of the House, when he was Lord Chancellor, was instrumental in putting those laws into place.
That action has been vindicated, because there have been more than 3,000 calls to the revenge pornography helpline since the laws were enacted—laws that I was told were not needed because there was adequate law in place already. There were 1,000 reported incidents in just six months last year. There is much more to do to make the laws effective and to enable the police to prosecute effectively, but I think it shows that the Government are open to persuasion on the matter, and I hope it demonstrates an open-mindedness for the future. Now is the time for a very clear strategy to tackle these problems. Every person in the country, regardless of their age, should have an expectation that that they will be able to use social media platforms and mobile technology without being subject to criminal abuse.
The online world is part of everybody’s lives. The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who is sitting on the Front Bench, has a deep interest in and knowledge of these issues. I know the personal work that he has done behind the scenes to try to press forward on many of these issues, and he should be commended for that. I know that the proposals in the Digital Economy Bill on stopping under-age access to pornography will have been subject to a great deal of attention from him. Those proposals are very welcome, but reinforce, I feel, the piecemeal approach to the problem. Experts have already made it clear that children will be, frankly, more than well equipped to get around most barriers put up to stop them getting access to pornography.
The approach in the Bill may well help in stopping younger children inadvertently coming across pornography—an issue I know the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has highlighted in recent research—but if the Government’s policy is to be effective, it must be part of a much broader and clearer strategic plan, including mandatory sex and relationship education in all state-funded schools to give children the opportunity to understand how to make the right choices for them and put any pornography they may see into the proper perspective in their lives.
I join others in commending the right hon. Lady on securing this debate. She mentioned a multifaceted approach. When I hear about cases in my constituency, one issue that concerns me is the irresponsibility—if we can call it that—of some parents, who give media and digital platform devices to their kids at a very young age and then leave them to it. Surely we need to do more to educate parents about their responsibilities and how they can teach their children to manage such devices responsibly.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We find it easy to talk about putting responsibilities on schools to teach, but he is right that it starts with all of us as parents. If we give our children these devices—including gaming devices, as there are clear problems there with regard to the grooming of children—we have to take responsibility for ensuring that they are knowledgeable about the risks and can start to make informed choices from what, as he says, can be a very early age. That can be easily reinforced at school. In the past I have been very open about the fact that I felt that sex and relationship education should be determined by schools, but as we move into the online world the very real dangers and problems encountered by children have changed my view on the need to make that education compulsory.
Some of the best and brightest people work on the online world. It is an incredibly creative industry, and the response to the problems of child abuse images shows that, if we are clear about our terms of engagement, when pressure is applied the industry can react quite swiftly. This debate enables Parliament to send a clear message to the industry, social media and the online world that enough is enough; our constituents deserve better and we will fight—as the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) says with her campaign—to reclaim the internet for them.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Backbench Business Committee for recognising the importance of this debate and allowing me and my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) to co-sponsor it. I also thank the myriad organisations that have worked with us to prepare for the debate: Durham University, Professor Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics, Stonewall, Galop, the NSPCC, Victim Support, the Internet Watch Foundation—the list goes on, because so many organisations have a deep concern about the direction of travel.
Social media platforms and internet providers are facilitators. Like many other organisations in our country, they provide a service, whereby they are able to gather our personal details to sell them for advertising opportunities. It can be quite astonishing to view a pair of shoes on one website and then see them pop up on another website two hours later in an entirely different context. I really take my hat off to the people who are able to do that. It is a sophisticated industry with sensitive and well developed ways of gathering information, selling sales opportunities and so making successful businesses. Today, I call for some of that incredible talent and expertise to be focused on stopping online abuse.
There are four issues that need to be addressed. First, we need to make sure that we have laws that are fit for purpose. I pay tribute to the work done by Durham University, particularly by Professor Clare McGlynn, and Holly Dustin. We need to clarify what constitutes online abuse. We need better and clearer harassment laws that can be effectively applied online. We need an image-based sexual abuse law that clearly makes illegal all forms of image-based sexual abuse shared in a non-consensual manner. We need to end complete anonymity in the UK, and we need to insist that platforms have a legal duty to be able to identify the people who use their products in our country.
Secondly, we need to make it clear to those platforms and providers that they have to abide by a common standard for reporting mechanisms. They should provide accurate and transparent figures on the cases of reported abuse. When they are developing products, that needs to be done in a way that builds out abuse in the future, rather than building it in at the starting point.
Thirdly, we must be clear to online providers in our country that if they fail to take sensible measures to reduce online abuse, we as a Parliament will consider putting in place a levy to cover the costs of policing that are incurred purely as a result of online abuse crimes. That has been done in other areas—for example, the payments that are made by football teams for the policing of football stadiums. This is not a new idea, but it might concentrate minds when it comes to online abuse in the future.
Last but by no means least, we need to see a change in culture. Consent, respect and dignity should be at the heart of compulsorily delivered sex and relationship education in all our schools. Beyond that, campaigns should be run to make sure that people understand their own responsibilities to act sensibly and within the law while using the internet. That will be driven greatly by removing the veil of anonymity which currently cloaks so many inputs into social media.
Where there is a will, there is a way. I know that the Minister will want to show the House today that there is a clear will on the part of Government. More than four years ago the Prime Minister made it clear that there was no tolerance for child abuse online. At that point the industry had said that it could do little about it. Now, there is a clear strategy and clear protocols, and images are removed swiftly. With a worrying increase in online hate crime, perhaps even spilling out into the offline world already, we need to act swiftly. We need to make sure that cyberbullying and the newly formed concept of online baiting are shown short shrift.
Now is the time to act, and I call on the Minister to show us that he has an understanding of the need for a clear strategy to tackle online abuse in its totality. In the Digital Economy Bill which he published this week, he has just the legislative vehicle he needs to make any changes that such a strategy might call for. My hon. Friend is a good man. He knows that the online world needs a clear message from this House. I hope he listens intently to the debate today and takes back to his Department and to the industry the message that now is the time for change.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. If everybody takes about eight minutes and no longer, I will not have to impose a time limit and everybody will get in.
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. She has done a great deal in her role as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, and before that on the problem of the online abuse that is increasingly experienced by women. I commend her particularly for her work on the revenge porn legislation.
We know that online abuse takes various forms—cruel comments and messages, the sharing of photos without consent, being sent unwanted images, or threats of sexual or physical violence. Although there is a range of forms of online abuse, one thing is clear: online abuse is happening consistently across all social media platforms, and more needs to be done to stop it.
I am very pleased to be supporting, along with other Members, the Reclaim the Internet campaign of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). It demands change so that voices are not silenced by misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia or any other form of intimidation online. I understand that the campaign was launched last year, but it will have its first big event on Monday 18 July, bringing together anti-bullying campaigners, groups that focus on online protection and members of the industry to see what steps can be taken to stop abusive behaviour. I hope that all Members get behind this campaign.
Online abuse affects many people and groups in society, but it seems that women are subject to particular vitriol online, and I want to focus my comments on women. Online abuse of women contains frequent use of threats of sexual violence and derogatory comments about women’s appearance and bodies. Women are the major victims of revenge porn, where explicit photos or videos are shared without consent, and those individuals who perpetrate online abuse seem to take even greater pleasure in shouting down women who speak out against it. We must address this.
I am sure that many of my fellow female Members from across the House are, unfortunately, all too familiar with this kind of online abuse. The anonymity and distance that people think social media gives them enables them to say things online that I hope they would never say face to face, but this online abuse must be tackled so that it does not prevent women from wanting to get involved in public life.
When it comes to young people and online abuse, it is young women who are disproportionately affected. A study by the Pew Research Centre in the United States found that 25% of women aged 18 to 24 had been targeted with online sexual harassment and 26% of women had been stalked online—that is one in four women. It is appalling. It needs to be made clear that this kind of behaviour is as unacceptable online as it is offline. The study also found that men are more likely than women to report online abuse, so there is some disconnect, whereby women do not feel able to report the abuse, or maybe feel that it is not even a reportable crime. We must address the issue of enabling women to take their complaints to the police.
The hon. Lady is right to identify the need to get more women to come forward and actively complain. Does she agree that one thing that could make a real difference is giving anonymity to the victims of revenge porn? That would bring more people forward to make complaints, which could lead to prosecutions.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point, and we in this House need to look at it in more detail.
This issue affects younger women, and particularly young women who are still at school. One way in which online abuse was first brought to my attention was by head teachers in my constituency who came to see me to tell me how much of a problem online abuse is in school. They asked me to raise the issue in Parliament to see what could be done to help head teachers and others in schools to tackle it.
I am also a member of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, a branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and we have looked in great detail at the issue of violence against women, in particular the rise of online abuse as a form of violence against women. This is becoming such a significant element of the experience of women in public life that we made it one of the key themes of our international conference in 2015. We heard from groups, such as Internet Watch Foundation, that outlined the difficulty of tackling the prolific online abuse of women, along with legal professionals who pointed out that the current legislation is simply not where it needs to be to address this issue. The conference identified online abuse as a global phenomenon, and we now want to work with partners in other countries to get the best legislation possible. That work is ongoing.
I wish to praise my own constabulary in Durham and our Chief Constable Mike Barton, who has been at the forefront of speaking out on this issue from the policing perspective and has highlighted how long the police spend dealing with online incidents. He has talked about the need to clarify legislation to make it much easier for the police to deal with complaints about online abuse and to know how to tackle the problem and when to categorise incidents as criminal. We have to make sure that our police are equipped to deal with the ever-changing nature of crime and the new world of online harassment. In particular, we need to make sure that they have the necessary resources and training. At the moment, only about 7,500 out of 100,000 police officers in England and Wales have been trained.
I welcome the Government’s moves in this area, and I know that the Minister will be listening today, but we need to make sure that our laws reflect our increasingly technological society. I again pay tribute to the work being done at Durham University to outline to legislators how we need to consolidate and update existing legislation and then adopt a clear strategy on how it is implemented and enforced. Only when we do that will we—I hope—get the culture change that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke stressed and that we need if we are to stop all forms of online abuse.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for giving us the opportunity to talk about this issue. Like many others, I suspect, I came to it as a result of a few incidents being reported in my constituency. I thought I was on the brink of uncovering a fairly limited, isolated and occasional problem, but on looking more deeply into the subject, I quickly discovered that it was a huge issue affecting vast numbers of people, young and old, and not just in my own patch of west Wales but across the UK.
The extent of the problem is well illustrated by information from Victim Support, which has worked with more than 12,000 children in schools over the last three years. It tells us that 56% of those kids were identified as victims of online crime—a staggering and worrying statistic; that 41% reported persistent and targeted bullying online from their peers; and that a third reported being sent non-requested online pornography. That is probably a significant underestimation of the problem, because, as we know, many people might be fearful of reporting abuse or might not know how or where to go to make a complaint.
I do not want to repeat my right hon. Friend’s contribution word for word, but this problem does not just impact on young people and their families. We are talking about racism, gender issues, homophobia, anti-Semitic abuse, disability issues and prejudice and intimidation, including in respect of religion, shape, style, sexual orientation and, in some cases, people’s everyday beliefs. YouGov recently surveyed just over 2,000 adults: 81% reported bullying as commonplace in school; 56% reported it as commonplace at work; and 64% believed it was widespread throughout society. I wonder what the contrast would have been had YouGov undertaken that survey five or 10 years ago.
Online abuse knows no boundaries: it affects the old, the young, the vulnerable, and it can, these days, be worryingly anonymous. It was described to me the other day as being like a persistent headache from which one simply cannot escape—there is no safe place or private little haven where one can escape the impact of the online bully. It can lead to reputational damage, financial loss, job loss, mental health issues, relationship breakdown, isolation and even, in the worst cases, suicide.
As we have discovered, part of the problem is that no one knows exactly how big the issue is. This is what we are trying understand. With over 30 pieces of legislation covering a variety of crimes, it is difficult to get a clear picture. The closest we got were statistics, courtesy of the Library, on the number of prosecutions under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. In 2004, 143 people were cautioned, proceeded against and found guilty under this section. In 2014, that had risen to 1,209, and that represented an 18% increase on 2013. One figure on which we can rely, therefore, is the dramatic increase in the number of prosecutions under that one single piece—out of 30 pieces—of legislation.
There is a concern about consistent terminology. We seem unable to define clearly exactly what online abuse is. We all have our own private views, but there seems to be some misunderstanding within the law over exactly what “online abuse” means. Without that definition, there can be inconsistencies in the application of the law and in the assistance people get from those charged with protecting us from online abuse. We welcome the Crown Prosecution Service interim revised guidelines, but, as I will come to, there remains a question about whether they go far enough.
I am a little concerned that the Government earlier this year said that they
“did not intend to introduce specific additional legislation to address online harassment and internet trolling”.
The reason they gave was that they did not want young people to be unnecessarily criminalised. That is an entirely justifiable position, but it demonstrates a narrow awareness of the true scale of the problem and does not take into account the many other target groups of people who find themselves victims of this problem. Previously in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), referring to the 30 laws, went so far as to say:
“It is imperative that these laws are rigorously enforced.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2016; Vol. 612, c. 327.]
We will have to address that issue with those charged with enforcement.
How does this harassment take place? As we have heard, it is abusive messages online, texts and emails, social media, digital photos used to embarrass the victim, account hacking, sexual grooming, extortion, blackmail and anything else these people can think of. The national stalking helpline, which has been referred to already, has statistics showing that most abusive behaviour is now digital rather than offline. As we become more dependent on online activity, so children and adults find themselves in a world in which there is no escape from this kind of activity.
I have some questions. Do we know the scale of the problem? It seems not. How many people are too afraid to report it? We do not know, except we know there are thousands. How many people do not know how to report it or who to report it to? We do not know that either, other than that it is probably plenty. Are schools equipped to spot the signs, and should the responsibility lie exclusively with schools? I do not think we know that either. Are the police trained? Do they have the resources? Are they serious about dealing with reports? We do not know. Are existing laws satisfactorily enforced? It appears from the Minister that there are further enforcement issues to address.
Do the social media platforms take their responsibilities seriously enough? As mentioned earlier, organisations such as Facebook and Twitter have done a great deal to improve the situation and take the problem seriously, but back when most communication was through printed newspapers—some of us will remember those days—if anyone had written a letter to an editor in the old days when that was possible, containing some of the stuff it now appears perfectly reasonable to put on Facebook or Twitter, there would have been no question of it seeing the light of day; it would have been torn up and chucked in the bin. Now, however, some of those platforms are facilitating some pretty disgusting material, and sort of saying, “Well, it’s up to the victim to complain to the police if they wish.” I am not sure that social media platforms, good work though they have done, are yet in a position that can be called fully responsible.
It is good that the CPS has acknowledged concerns, but bad that the Government do not feel obliged to do anything further at this stage. It is good that such a wide collection of charities, organisations and groups have helped us and are bringing the issue to public attention, and that His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge is behind the taskforce on the prevention of cyberbullying. As he put it, we need to stand up to bullies, not stand by.
I am worried that we live in a world where the kind of language, tone, and incidents we read about are becoming so widespread and common that they are almost becoming normal. If they become normal, what hope can we have for children and vulnerable adults who live in that kind of cyber-world? For that reason, I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke thought it appropriate to bring the issue to the attention of the House today.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this important debate.
This is a serious and growing problem for all in modern society, and it spans all age groups and demographics. Research commissioned by Demos found that in three weeks, 10,000 tweets were sent from UK accounts that aggressively attacked someone for being a “slut” or a “whore”. Revenge Porn Helpline received 4,000 calls in the last year, with cases affecting children as young as 11 years old being reported. According to the NASUWT, the largest teaching union in the UK, more than half of teachers also report receiving online abuse.
In February this year, the UK Safer Internet Centre published a study that found that of the 13 to 18-year-olds surveyed, 24% had been targeted owing to their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, or transgender identity. One in 25 said that they were singled out for abuse all or most of the time. Although such abuse has spanned all of society, teenagers with disabilities, and those from African, Caribbean, Asian, middle eastern and other minority ethnic groups were more likely to encounter cyber-bullying. Parliament and Governments across the UK have a responsibility to face up to that issue and take appropriate action to prevent and address it.
In Scotland, our First Minister has been vocal in condemning this issue, and the Scottish Government have provided full funding for Respectme, Scotland’s anti-bullying service, which is managed by the Scottish Association for Mental Health. That vital service works with adults who are involved in the lives of children and young people, to give them the practical skills and confidence to deal with children who are bullied and those who bully others. It is important that those of us in public life provide leadership on this issue, and Members will agree that no one should have to accept online abuse, and that those who have been subject to it should report it to the police. They must not suffer in silence or alone.
I want to use my personal experience of this issue to encourage the public to stand up to online abuse, and I ask those in public life to show stronger leadership in the conduct of our public debates. When I decided to stand for Parliament, I did so because I wanted to make a positive difference to the lives of people in my constituency and across the country. I did so in full knowledge that by standing up for what I believe, I would hold myself open to challenge from those who do not share my political beliefs. A robust, honest, political debate about our views and deeds is a vital part of any democracy, and we should embrace it. As we saw from the report published by Sir John Chilcot yesterday, an absence of critical debate in Parliament, Government, and our democratic system can have disastrous consequences. I therefore came here with the full knowledge and expectation that my words and actions would be held up to public scrutiny, and that is right.
What has sometimes taken my breath away, shocked my family, and reduced me to tears, is the vitriolic, hateful, and sometimes criminal levels of personal abuse that I and colleagues across the House have faced. I have received hateful handwritten letters that contained sexual slurs, phone calls to my office threatening violence towards me or my staff, and racist emails stating what people want to do to people like me who are Muslim. Although such communications are all too common, they are not an everyday experience, and I am grateful—as we should all be—to the police at Westminster, in Scotland, and across the UK, for their work to help and support those who fall victim to these crimes, and to investigate the perpetrators. The police provide a sympathetic level of support to victims, no matter what their background or circumstances, and it is important to encourage people to report such abuse at every stage.
I know that I am not alone in my determination to make myself open and available to those to whom I am accountable, and in the 21st century that means being active on social media. I agree with Scotland’s First Minster, who recently said that thanks to the positive power of Twitter and Facebook we can now communicate directly with our constituents about the work we are doing on their behalf, and hear their views without a filter or barrier between us. However, the great tragedy of that new technology has been the advancement in online bullying, abuse and threats, and that horrific experience is not confined to those of us who sit in this Chamber. Let me say directly to all those watching from outside Parliament who have been victims of online abuse, that all of us here today are standing right beside you. We know how it feels because we understand the pain you have been through, and we will do our best to address this horrendous issue.
In the past 14 months, I have been called a Nazi, received messages that called for me to be shot as a traitor, and read in tears as strangers attacked my father who passed away two years ago. Recently I spoke to the Sunday Mail newspaper, and I am grateful for the article it published, which included some of the dreadful things that have been said to me, none of which are worthy of being repeated because of the status and stature of this Chamber. However, my husband sees those messages, my children read this garbage, and my staff are required to wade through this sickening filth each day to get to the important information they need to do their jobs.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful point. Does she agree that all victims, including politicians, should be given all the help and support that they need and deserve to move on with their life and careers, and to bring the perpetrators to justice?
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady, and this abuse is difficult for anyone who faces it. There is an anticipation and expectation that we must be strong, but perhaps we are not and some people have more strength than others. Support mechanisms must exist, and we must help people to move on. No matter who is the victim, such abuse is disgusting and vile, which is why I support the honourable aims and objectives of the Reclaim the Internet campaign. I congratulate all those who have been involved in setting that up across the Chamber and beyond on seizing the initiative.
We must examine the role of the police and prosecutors, and be clear about when threats and harassment become crimes. Social media and publishing platforms must accept this serious issue, and take steps to address it. We are entitled to expect more from Facebook and Twitter in their handling of these issues. We must consider how best to provide support for victims and how to take on the trolls, and we must empower and educate our young people about these issues and how to address them.
Individual Members of Parliament are not responsible for the specific content of tweets or Facebook posts by others, but we are responsible for setting the tone of the national debate. I believe we are at a vital point in our politics. We have recently made, and will continue to make, significant and defining decisions about the type of country and society we want to be. We can embrace the politics of hope, or the politics of hate, and it is our role as elected representatives to show leadership and conduct ourselves in a way that defines the political debate. To those who may be watching this debate and dealing out abuse on the internet, perhaps even as we speak, I say this: you are the cowards, but we will stand up for the brave.
Tragically, online abuse has become part of all our lives. I have been subject to it, although I am not a member of a minority religion or race. Like many hon. Members I have received online abuse. Nothing has really hurt or affected me terribly, but on one occasion I simply posted some comments about boy racers who were causing antisocial behaviour. Within about an hour I was being abused from all round the globe, by boy racers who had obviously noticed a deficit in my sex life, and who were offering a wide range of suggestions to improve it, some of which would have ended in certain death. I had to take the post down—not because I was personally offended or concerned, but because I simply could not monitor it to ensure that that level of foul and abusive language was not left on my Facebook page for people to see. It is becoming clear to me from my mailbox how much online and internet abuse is affecting my residents—it is growing all the time, and includes women and children who face stalking online from ex-partners.
I have noticed within the past two years an enormous improvement in the police response. Whereas two years ago I found that the police suggested to women that they should simply come off Facebook or stop being online, they now more often have a more appropriate response—they now recognise that, in the modern age, people should be as safe online as they are when they walk down the street—but we have some way to go. I am pleased that, today, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has recognised Essex police and the work of my excellent chief constable, and rated them as effective and reliable in their treatment of vulnerable victims.
It is incredibly important that we get the legislation right—the Minister is listening. Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh of Essex police has said, as has been pointed out, that the police deal with 30 different pieces of legislation that simply do not work for victims. The legislation is either out of date or does not go far enough and the police need to be properly prepared and trained to deal with the magnitude of cases of online abuse. Our role must be to future-proof the recently announced Digital Economy Bill, so that we are not permanently playing catch-up. The digital economy is growing more sophisticated all the time, and its pace of change outstrips that of all kinds of other technologies.
On a wider point about our culture, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), we see the vile comments underneath stories in local or even national newspapers, and foul comments on Twitter, and in the past week, post-Brexit, we have seen an appalling upsurge in racial comments, all of which are vile and rightly should be prosecuted. Another shocking thing in the wake of Brexit is that nice, normally liberal-minded people—people who would profess to be progressives—also think it is reasonable to abuse 17 million of their fellow countrymen, including 73% of my constituents, as being clearly stupid or racist. It is no less illiberal or intolerant to think that all people of a certain race are of one set of opinions or one viewpoint. In our culture, people—seriously liberal, intelligent and educated people—think they can say those things online. They turn into keyboard warriors and say things that they would never dream of saying face to face to an individual.
We have a responsibility to deal with that abuse in our culture. If that is acceptable and if it is seen day by day, no wonder women do not come forward and they take attacks for granted; no wonder children think it is all right to be abused and attacked online; and no wonder the perpetrators and genuine criminals feel emboldened and that their behaviour is normal. I would say to everyone who goes online that they should post nothing that they would not write if they are not prepared to give their full name and address. It is a cultural issue, and legislation alone will never tackle it unless we take personal responsibility for changing our culture in this country.
It is a cliché to say that the internet has changed the world we live in, but it is a cliché because it is true. It is not possible to list the changes the internet has brought about because, over the past quarter of a century, it has simply become all pervasive. It has now reached the stage where, with smartphones, we carry it around in our pockets.
I know I am labouring a very obvious truth, but it is important in the debate to take a moment to reflect on just how central the internet has become to our daily lives. For my generation, the internet is a technical marvel, but for young people growing up today, the internet and the things that happen online are just another normal, everyday part of their world. That is why it is so important to have this debate. We cannot stand by and watch the sort of abuse and harassment that a small minority of internet users inflict on the rest of us become normalised. It is not too much of a wild prediction to say that the internet, social media and smartphones are here to stay, so it is vital that we do all we can to combat and prevent the abhorrent misuse of what are, when all is said and done, powerful tools for communicating thoughts and ideas.
Does my hon. Friend believe the Government should consider the additional costs incurred as a result of the bullying, trolling and abuse that people experience online? A few years ago in my area, there was a 25% increase in referrals to child and adolescent mental health services, so abuse clearly has a bigger societal impact, and a financial one.
I agree with my hon. Friend that that must be considered.
The sheer scale of the problem is daunting. As public figures, I am sure that many if not all hon. Members have been on the receiving end. To give just a few statistics, a Greater London Authority report suggests that only 9% of online hate crimes were investigated nationwide. Back in 2014, the charity Beat Bullying reported that a third of young people have experienced bullying online, including one in five eight to eleven-year-olds, while one in 13 was subjected to relentless abuse over a period of weeks, months or even years. Last year, the Revenge Porn Helpline received nearly 4,000 calls.
Similarly, the nature of the problem means there are no quick fixes. The anonymity that the internet allows means that users can choose to ignore the normal social conventions on what it is acceptable and not acceptable to say to someone, safe behind the mask of a fake username. Facebook did not create misogyny, nor did Twitter invent racism. People who use those and other online platforms to vent their hatred and abuse hold those views in the real world, and are simply taking advantage of the anonymity of cyberspace.
As much as we might like to pass a law that does away with intolerance, we cannot, but that is not to say that we are helpless, either as a Parliament or as a society. We might be unable to flick a legislative switch, but there are steps we can take to start tackling the problem of online abuse, including in respect of online platforms, for instance. Over the past few years, Facebook, Twitter and Google have begun engaging with their users and made it easier to report and counter online abuse. They are to be commended for that, but there are serious concerns that none of those companies is fully transparent about the measures it is taking internally to get to grips with the problem of people using its site for abuse. Twitter, for instance, claims that it employs more than 100 staff to deal with reported abuse, who presumably cover the entire network of 320 million users. Likewise, Facebook says it has several hundred people monitoring reported abuse. That sounds impressive, but we should remember that the site has 1.6 billion users.
On what we can do as lawmakers, there are practical responses that Ministers should consider. First and foremost, we need legislation that clearly defines online abuse—that is called for in the motion—and that consolidates our existing laws. According to Digital-Trust, more than 30 pieces of legislation are currently used to tackle online crimes including, of all things, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. As much as we thank Viscount Palmerston, it is time we ended our piecemeal approach and provided the public with confidence and the police with the clarity they need to bring to book those who commit offences online.
The fragmented nature of the law means that the criminal justice system is often unsure whether an offence has been committed, and is thus not able to provide victims with the service and protection they expect and deserve. A consolidation of the legislation can be of value only if it includes a clear and consistent definition of exactly what constitutes online abuse. Our current mish-mash approach means that many malicious and abusive communications, which any reasonable person would judge to be unacceptable, often do not reach the legal threshold and so complaints against them cannot be progressed. A clearer definition would go a long way to eliminating this problem, and would build public trust that those in breach of the law can be held accountable.
It is obvious that the police are under incredible pressure trying to deal with even the small proportion of online abuse reported to them. It is estimated that half of all crimes reported to the police have some digital element, and they expect this to rise to 70% in the next five years. However, just 7.5% of officers in England and Wales are trained to investigate digital crime. The scale of the problem is such that all police officers need to be in a position to tackle online abuse: to know how to investigate it and secure evidence. A consolidation of legislation must be backed up by a corresponding overhaul of enforcement if we are to make any headway, and that means not only a review of the training given to officers but a serious rethink about approaches to police recruitment. I appreciate the strain on police budgets, but unless we dramatically expand our police’s ability to clamp down on online crime, we will be stuck trying to apply 20th-century methods to 21st-century problems.
It is encouraging that online safety is now part of the national curriculum. We cannot underestimate the importance of education in dealing with online abuse. As much as we expect our children to learn the difference between right and wrong in the real world, and expect them to get along with one another at school, so we must press home, and press home early, that the same standards should apply online. Clearly, there is no magic bullet for dealing with online abuse, but that does not mean the Government should shy away from confronting it. It will take a broad strategy, worked out across Departments and implemented with service providers, charities and many others. Such plans are not cobbled together overnight, but I press the Minister to take today’s debate as a starting point. If we have shown anything, it is that there is a strong desire for action across the House and beyond. I sincerely hope the Government will be bold in their response to a problem that we simply cannot allow to fester.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this important debate.
This is an issue of utmost importance to me, made all the more personal after a high profile case of revenge porn, which grabbed national headlines, involving a perpetrator and victims from my home town and constituency back in April. In the wake of that case, lessons have been learned locally. I am very pleased to say that the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable are reviewing awareness training for those on the frontline to improve the experience of victims, secure greater justice for them, and to better reflect how serious and how damaging online abuse is. We need that change in culture so that online abuse is recognised as real world, causing as it does emotional, psychological and physical damage. A freedom of information inquiry by the BBC found that in over 1,000 cases, 11% of offenders were charged and 7% received a caution.
I would like to share a victim’s plea to us. Her perpetrator was one of the 7%.
“This is an open letter to those who have the power to lobby for change. This is my story.
The perpetrator was my manager. We stayed in contact long after I left my job, remaining friendly acquaintances via social media. It wasn’t until April this year that I discovered a message on my social media alerting me to a website that contained my images. This website allowed individuals from all over the world to upload and view pictures of unsuspecting victims, many of them children, and using those images as fodder for torture fantasies. My page, which had been created in October 2015, revealed my full name, my personal Facebook account, a picture of my toddler daughter. Alongside these images, there were captions and incitements such as ‘would love to beat her’, ‘she deserves to be gang raped’, and urging people to find me, make contact and show me what I ‘deserve’.
I felt demeaned, exposed, utterly humiliated and embarrassed. Someone out there held all the power. I wasn’t even in control of my own image any more. I needed to take back control, so I put on my investigator hat and after many, many hours of trawling I thought I had found the perpetrator. Initially, I felt relief and I contacted the police the next morning believing I had caught a criminal red-handed. The police operator told me that there was ‘nothing they could do’ as it was not a police matter, it was a Facebook issue. I was advised just to block him, as he obviously wasn’t my friend. I hung up the phone feeling bitterly let down and confused. I was told I wouldn’t be getting a crime number, as my case ‘isn’t a real crime’ and more of a civil matter, and perhaps I should seek legal advice. That legal advice told me that the definitions of the new law regarding revenge porn and its phrasing meant that my case wouldn’t be suitable.
Since I have chosen to bring this subject to the public’s attention, I have had mixed reactions to the whole episode. I have had random strangers come up to me in the street and start talking to me about it, which I do still find embarrassing. I have had people talk to me about it at parties, where I should be enjoying myself. I have had customers ask me where they recognise me from, then give me a sympathetic, pitying look when I confirm from where. Overall, I have been treated like a victim by everyone apart from the law.
Perpetrators surely need to fear that their online actions will have real consequences. My photos are still online. I am sick of being a victim. What I ask is that, with your help, never again will I and others be made to feel insignificant when reporting an online abuse crime.”
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing the debate. We have already heard many striking and distressing personal accounts today and I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell).
As we have heard, there has been a frightening increase in online abuse, digital crime and hate crime. Many Members have been affected, as have numberless people outside this House. Children, too, have been affected. The national police lead said last November that 50% of all reported crime now has an online component. It is evident that the law has not kept up with criminal activity. Online platform providers are, at best, slow to address abuse. They should be far more effective and rigorous in holding both abusers and themselves to account.
For all those reasons, in March this year I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on this very issue, drafted by Harry Fletcher of the Digital-Trust. There are over 30 statutes passed over many decades that cover online abuse crime. My Bill would place responsibility on the Government to consolidate them all. Many online activities may or may not be against the law—the Bill would clarify that. For example, it would be an offence to install a webcam on a person without their permission or without legitimate reason. In addition, it would be illegal to repeatedly locate, listen to or watch a person without legitimate purpose. The Bill would restrict the sale of spyware to persons over 16 only. It would also be wrong for a person to take multiple images of a person, unless it was in the public interest to do so, without that person’s permission and where the intent was not legitimate—we have heard about a number of such cases today. The Bill would make the law stronger on abusive content. Again, police officers are uncertain about what is and is not a crime, and they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of abuse they see. We have also heard about inconsistencies of approach by the police. The Bill would make it clear that it is an offence to post images online where the intention is to humiliate or abuse the victim. It would also create an offence to post any message that is discriminatory or would incite abusive activity. All those new offences would, if put into action, carry on conviction a sentence of up to 12 months’ custody.
Any new powers for the police or the Crown Prosecution Service would, of course, have limited impact without changes to culture and training. The police must take online abuse and hate crime seriously. The Bill would therefore place a responsibility on the Secretary of State for Education to ensure that all establishments include sessions that warn children and students of the risks of online services. We know that this is happening in our schools and that it is an ongoing issue. Tokenistic approaches to the curriculum will not be sufficient. The Home Office would be tasked with ensuring that the police are trained and that they record complaints of digital hate crimes and abuse.
Finally, the Bill would place duties on providers of online services to adhere to codes of professional standards, to publish safety impact assessments and to co-operate fully with the police in any ongoing investigation. The relevant Ministers should ensure that the best quality standards are followed across the industry.
I am sure that we all have a number of case studies that we could discuss. Someone who contacted me wishes to remain anonymous, so I shall respect that, but I very much wanted to raise his case because it involves Facebook. The gentleman in question is a teacher. Before I was fortunate enough to arrive in this place about a year ago, I was also a teacher. I was very much aware of how vulnerable teachers are to comments from pupils and others and also, given the importance of child protection, how that vulnerability can be used against teachers and how little protection they have.
This gentleman contacted me earlier this week to express his frustration at Facebook. Despite having no Facebook account himself, pupils had stolen images from his websites and used them to create a false Facebook page in his name. This page then attracted other pupils at the school. At one stage, the headteacher, who not unusually had little understanding or experience of Facebook, suspected the teacher of deliberately attracting pupils. If the pupils had not finally admitted to creating the false page, the teacher could easily have lost his job. He was effectively unable to prove that he was not responsible for the page.
In this instance, the victim stated that the police could only advise him to contact Facebook, but in his experience Facebook was unhelpful—here I am summarising the magnitude of the problems he had with it. First, the teacher had to get the password details from the pupils before the page could be taken down. Secondly and importantly, in raising questions about data protection, it became apparent that the teacher had to apply to the Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland, because that is where Facebook’s international office is based. All law, except that of the United States and Canada, has to be handled through that data protection commissioner. It seems that Facebook has broad expectations of users’ behaviour, but is unwilling to take much responsibility, if any, as a platform for that behaviour. There is a worrying lack of procedures to take down false sites, with the onus entirely on the victims to prove their identity. Facebook and other sites need to be held to account for the nature of the services they provide to users, and for whether those services incorporate proper care for both customers and the public at large.
It is not good enough for Twitter to tell me how to hide myself away and block messages from certain people—I had one of these messages when I last looked at Twitter about 20 minutes ago. I want those people and Twitter held to account if there are unacceptable messages on my Twitter account. Finally, I believe that the nature of how social media providers fulfil their duty of care to private individuals requires far fuller parliamentary scrutiny, and I await the Minister’s response.
I add my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing it. I am sure that many Members of all parties will, like me, have met in their surgeries the victims of online abuse—or, more often than not, their parents, who come to us seeking some form of redress or often just some ongoing safety for their children. It is interesting to note that organisations such as the Girl Guides with their annual girls’ attitude survey have ascertained that cyberbullying is in the top three concerns of girls between the ages of 15 and 20. It is growing in its significance and impact on its victims.
Abuse is abuse, wherever and however it happens. Just because it is online does not make it any less awful, but it does make it significantly harder to identify perpetrators and bring them to justice. It is simply not good enough to shrug one’s shoulders and dismiss the internet as some sort of wild west—ungovernable and devoid of social norms and the laws of the physical world. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said, we must bring an end to anonymity.
We must remember that many of the victims are children. I vividly recall my daughter’s transition from primary to secondary school, now some years ago, when her headteacher got parents together to talk about the perils of Facebook. At that time, social media was growing in popularity, but was still relatively small. There was not the multitude of platforms that there are today. The phrase the headteacher used will always stick with me—that, frankly, in her view children were losing the ability to empathise. They were making their unpleasant comments online from their smartphone, and unlike in the playground, they could not see the reaction in someone’s eyes. People are not learning about the hurt caused, but simply banging out a message that can have a terrible impact. The ability to understand and comprehend the hurt that has been caused is disappearing.
It is not just children who are losing the ability to empathise. People often say the most dreadful things online, which they would never repeat in person or even on the telephone. If I receive an abusive email, I sometimes find that the best tactic is to phone up the person. Suddenly, they turn into the most polite and delightful constituent that I could ever encounter.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we could take that slightly further? I have knocked on the doors of people who have been particularly abusive, and they crumble.
My hon. Friend is slightly braver than I am. She earlier used the phrase “keyboard warriors” who we find are incredibly brave in the sanctuary of their own homes, but much more timid in the real world. When online trolls are arrested and we see their pictures in the newspapers, I always think how terribly inadequate they look. The monsters they have made of themselves in people’s minds are often not borne out in real life. They simply do not understand the terror that they can cause.
I have had my own experience and vividly remember a Facebook message from someone purporting to be a woman, hiding behind the photograph of a dead lady whose death had been covered in the newspaper. I was sent the most terrible message, threatening me with rape, torture and, ultimately, death. The greatest lesson I learned from that is that it can take many months to wheedle identities out of Facebook. Facebook appears to have become the bogeyman of this debate, but I think deservedly so. When we find the actual identities, it brings a sense of relief, because they are an identifiable person, albeit not necessarily someone who lives anywhere nearby. Such messages can still be absolutely terrifying however.
Newspapers are not allowed to print libels or defamatory or slanderous comments that somebody else makes. Why can that not apply to social media platforms too?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it should apply to social media platforms, and we as individuals should be able to take action against them much more quickly and effectively. As I said, it is as if the internet has become a wild west. Companies are often registered in the Republic of Ireland and it is difficult from here to get the redress that we want.
Sadly, in this place, we have come to expect the trolling, the bile often spat in the dead of night, sometimes even from professional people, who we might have hoped would value their own reputations and know better. We know that the bar is set higher for Members of Parliament: we are in the public eye and we have to expect a bit of knockabout, as it were. Actually, though, it has gone a great deal further than that.
I pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) to reclaim the internet. If someone sends me something pernicious, one of my favourite tactics, inspired by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who is not in her place today, is to reply with a picture of a kitten. I presume I will now get trolled for that. We have to reclaim the internet; we have to be bold enough to stand up for ourselves and try to engender a bit of humour and kindness. That is a key point: there is no kindness on the internet, but when did it become okay to play the man and not the ball?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke advanced some very cogent and sensible arguments. I know that Ministers have worked hard with some of the leading companies in trying to find practical solutions to the problems of reporting and identifying perpetrators. As we have heard, there are laws relating to harassment and grooming, but there are real anxieties about how victims can report crimes easily and ensure that their voices are heard.
Does my hon. Friend think that we should look to countries such as Australia and New Zealand, which have established websites to facilitate reporting? Indeed, there is a risk that their ways of tackling the problem are leaving the United Kingdom behind.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must not be left behind; we must find better methods of reporting, particularly where children are concerned. Let me reinforce my right hon. Friend’s earlier plea. There need to be safe spaces for children, and mechanisms that enable young people to know who they can turn to. A critical part of that can take place in schools, through personal, social, health and economic education and, in particular, sexual relationships education.
Young people need to learn about consent. They need to learn what is okay in a relationship and what is not, and they also need to be able to turn to responsible adults who can ensure that they are adequately safeguarded and protected. We want them to be confident in themselves, and to know who they can turn to in a crisis. That is one of the reasons why I am so keen on compulsory PSHE and SRE. We need young people to be able to recognise what constitutes an abusive relationship, we need people whom they know they can tell, and we need teachers who are equipped to deal with these subjects. We know that they are not easy subjects to teach, so they should be made statutory, and teachers should be trained so that they themselves will be confident in their ability to deliver excellent quality in this respect.
My right hon. Friend described the blurring of offline and online worlds. We desperately need to plot a path towards ensuring that our children are much more secure and protected.
I, too, thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for initiating the debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee. I think it very important for us to raise these issues. I have been shocked by some of the examples that have been given today, but I am afraid I am going to add to them.
Online abuse is not a technological problem; it is a social problem that just happens to be powered by technology. I will not deny that social media can be a force for good, disseminating information and allowing people to share jokes or simply keep in contact with friends and relatives. As has already been pointed out, we, as MPs, are encouraged to be as accessible as possible—to be out there with websites and our Facebook and Twitter pages, staying connected to our constituents and keeping them as well informed as possible—but more and more, especially in the case of female MPs, our “out-thereness” makes us a target for online abuse. Indeed, most prominent women in any field will have stories of vile comments posted to or about them, usually by anonymous sources. When it is allowed to rampage unchecked and unmoderated, social media becomes much more accurately titled “unsocial media”.
There is, of course, the “free speech” argument, which unfortunately appears to many people to be the divine right to say whatever is on one’s mind without any regard for the consequences. With free speech, however, comes the responsibility to deal with the consequences of one’s words. What concerns me, particularly in the case of Twitter and Facebook, is the apparent lack of a coherent policy on what constitutes “online abuse”. Let me give a few examples.
Twitter policy states:
“We do not tolerate behaviour that crosses the line into abuse, including behaviour that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.”
With that in mind, when I received a threat on Twitter during the referendum debate—
“We’ll see what you say when an immigrant rapes you or one of your kids”—
I reported it to Twitter, using its online pro forma. Surely this racist, violent and targeted abuse crossed the line into behaviour that harasses and intimidates, which Twitter policy claims to be against. But no; the response that I received from Twitter was
“it’s not currently violating the Twitter rules”.
The killers of Lee Rigby, who was from Middleton in my constituency, posted explicitly on Facebook what they were planning, yet that was never picked up and investigated. I recently reported a vile and misogynistic comment made about another female MP on Facebook. It read—and I quote selectively—
“She looks like”
“mutant and should be burnt at the stake”.
That comment, with its foul language and its violent categorisation of women as “witches” who need to be disposed of, received the following comment from Facebook:
“We’ve reviewed the comment you reported for promoting graphic violence and found that it doesn’t violate our community standards.”
The reply continued:
“Please let us know if you see anything else that concerns you. We want to keep Facebook safe and welcoming for everyone.”
Well, if that is Facebook’s idea of a safe and welcoming environment, I would not like to see what it considers to be a no-go area.
Seriously—and I am being 100% serious—the responsible thing for Twitter and Facebook to do is to use algorithms to identify hate speech. Words such as “Islamophobe”, “murder” and “rape” could then be picked up, and the accounts in question could be investigated. It is totally irresponsible of social media platforms to allow unchecked and unregulated discourse. That would not happen in any other walk of life.
Twitter and Facebook appear to rely solely on reports by users of abuse and hate speech. They place the responsibility entirely on the user, and even then the pro-forma reporting procedure is often too simplistic to allow the actual problems and concerns to be accurately conveyed. Yes, the police can be notified, but we are all aware of the diminution in police numbers that has taken place under this Government and the previous coalition. I call on the Government to make funds available for training, and to increase police numbers in order to deal with online abuse. I was interested by my right hon. Friend’s suggestion that social media platforms should be asked to provide a levy to pay for those measures.
I have concentrated on abuse directed at female politicians, although I accept that online abuse takes many other forms and that many other groups are targeted, because this does seem to be a gender issue. Abuse is directed more towards female politicians than towards our male counterparts, and studies have shown that, in the United Kingdom, 82% of the abuse that is recorded comes from male sources. Social networks could take a strong and meaningful stance against harassment simply by applying the standards that we already apply in our public and professional lives. Wishing rape or other violence on women, or using derogatory slurs, would be unacceptable in most workplaces or communities, and those who engaged in such vitriol would be reprimanded or asked to leave. Why should that not be the response in our online lives?
Let us never forget that words carry weight, and that language has a consequence. Once it has been said, it cannot be unsaid. Whether it be uttered face to face or typed from behind a social media avatar, there is no hiding from meaning, and we should confront now the ever-spreading plague of misogyny, abuse and threats online.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and to the Backbench Business Committee. My right hon. Friend is a great champion of causes such as this, and I think that the passion that is being expressed in every speech shows how important the issue is.
Twenty-one years ago, I sat with a wise and, I now realise, very farsighted friend, and we talked about a new phenomenon called the internet. All that I knew about it was that the scientists at university used it to send messages to each other, but he said that we would live through a revolution as great and thrilling as that wrought by the proliferation of newsprint in the 17th century, which would lead to a new way of communicating— indeed, a complete shift in social discourse—and so it has proved. I have returned to that conversation many times over the past two decades, and never more so than in preparing for this debate. We, as legislators, are print children, on the whole, but we need to draft laws for our digital children.
I would like to quote from Lord Toulson’s dissenting judgment in the case of PJS v. News Group Newspapers. I am sure that hon. Members know of that case. It involves a celebrity couple who were trying to stop the publication of their identities in print form, even though their names were widely quoted on the internet. Lord Toulson said:
“The court must live in the world as it is and not as it would like it to be”
“the court needs to be very cautious about granting an injunction preventing publication of what is widely known, if it is not to lose public respect for the law by giving the appearance of being out of touch with reality.”
I am not passing comment on the rights or wrongs of that particular case, but making the point that we, as legislators, must adapt to the new lives, and threats, that face all of us today.
Online abuse is crime. It is not banter, it is not teasing, and it is not fair exercise of free speech. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) spoke very powerfully. Indeed, many hon. Members—females, although I am glad now to see some men in the Chamber—have talked about their own experiences. I pay tribute to them, as I do to the victim statement that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell). Online abuse, in and of itself, is a crime in terms of the effects that it has on its victims: anxiety, depression, and changes in everyday behaviour resulting in people staying at home and not being able to go to their jobs. Sometimes it leads to suicide. Crucially, online abuse is a gateway to real-world stalking, physical and sexual abuse, and even murder. Digital-Trust has highlighted the murders of Angela Hoyt, Ildiko Dohany, Lorna Smith and Sofyen Belamouadden, all of which began in the virtual world. Like many hon. Members, I am sure, every time I meet teachers they report online abuse as one of the factors in the growth of mental health problems in the young over the past decade.
In terms of crime prevention and reduction, there need to be constant changes to environmental and societal attitudes which run in parallel with, or sometimes slightly behind, changes in the law. Many hon. Members have said that there needs to be cultural change as well as legislative change, but looking back on social changes over the past half century, often we in this place are the leaders and society follows us.
I am very grateful for the strength of feeling expressed across the House. I have introduced a private Member’s Bill, to be debated in March, to address malicious communications on social media. I would be delighted