Thursday 2 March 2017
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Support for the Bereaved
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Ninth Report of the Work and Pensions Committee of Session 2015-16, Support for the bereaved, HC 551, and the Government response, HC 230.
It is a pleasure to debate under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, not only because of past campaigns that we have joined in together, but because I know you can put aside partial affections and chair our debate properly, fully and impartially. The debate has been called to take note of the Work and Pensions Committee report on bereavement benefits; to give Members an opportunity, from their experiences in their constituencies, to bring the report up to date; and to invite the Minister to tell us, as I hope he will, how Government thinking has progressed. I know that this is not his brief so I, and I am sure all Members who participate in the debate, will be more than happy to have any detailed replies given to us in correspondence afterwards.
Debates such as this give me the opportunity to thank a number of people who are often not thanked. I only too willingly thank the Select Committee staff, on behalf of all the Committee members, for producing a whole series of reports that have tried to influence—and, indeed, are influencing—Government policy and beyond. I am naturally thankful that we have been able to call this debate, which gives us the opportunity to which I have referred. I stress that our Committee’s topics are all decided democratically by Committee members, so this one was not brought down from on high by the Clerks or—heaven forbid—just by me as Chairman.
Yesterday in this Chamber, we debated the nature of poverty in Merseyside. Today, we are debating how one aspect of that operates across the whole of our country. We are talking about how poverty can stab at the most vulnerable when they are at their most vulnerable. I have had examples in my constituency of families being unable to claim the ashes of a family member because they could not complete the payment of the funeral bill, and of bodies being frozen as families club together to try to get the sums that would satisfy the undertaker that a funeral could take place.
As I do, I asked Ed in my office what cases of this harrowing topic had been in this week. He reported on a constituent who lost her husband last September, having left work to care for him in the final year of his life. She had never claimed benefits until she left work, but a period of depression in her husband’s final few months led her to claim employment and support allowance. All her savings were used in those final months, and she has a mortgage to pay.
After my constituent’s husband died, she arranged for the most basic, low-cost funeral to take place. There was never any question of her thinking of having anything else or planning for anything else. She was not informed at any point about bereavement benefits or other sources of support, such as the social fund funeral payments. Even then, she could not afford the low-cost funeral, so her daughter stepped in to pay what she could, but £1,000 is still owed on the funeral bill. The social fund payments are about £700.
It is almost a year to the day since the Select Committee published our report on bereavement benefits, so this debate is opportune not just because of the constant ticking over of similar horror stories from constituents in all of our constituencies, but because, a year on, the Government have been given a real chance to take measure of the proposals we put to them. We were concerned about bereavement benefits and the reforms the Government are making to them, of which we are supportive, as well as social fund funeral payments, which have remained at £700 since they were last reset in 2003.
Before I put questions to the Minister, which is the basis of my contribution, the latest information we have on pauper funerals—although they have been renamed local authority funerals or public health funerals, everyone locally knows they are pauper funerals—shows that on average our local authorities pay £900 to cover them, yet the Department’s grant is of £700 social fund funeral payments, linked to those 2003 prices.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for stepping in at the last moment to respond to the debate for the Government. My questions to him are as follows. One of our recommendations was that the Government should negotiate a reasonable cost for a simple funeral with funeral directors, with the social fund funeral payment reflecting the cost of that total package. We do not think it an unreasonable request for the Government to spearhead those negotiations with the industry. Therefore, what progress have they made in negotiating to get funeral directors and the funeral industry to be much more open and transparent on a decent, average or simple funeral, or whatever euphemism we wish to use for the very minimum of funerals?
Secondly, we recommended that the Department introduce an eligibility checker for social fund funeral payments so that people would quickly know how to make a claim. The Department has said that that is not a road it wishes to go down, but my constituent—the live case I cited from this week that Ed in my office is dealing with—was given no advice about what might be available from either the social fund or, as importantly, bereavement benefits, which she could have claimed in addition to her ESA payments. Has any progress at all been made in giving legs to the idea of some simple tracker mechanism, so that people can quickly see what they are eligible for?
I stress again the important point—I know I do not have to do this for the Minister or for anyone else in the Chamber—that as soon as the phone is picked up to the funeral director, the clock starts ticking on what will be charged to the family. Often, it is quite a long way down the road before they realise the expenditure to which they are already committed and whether they would have faced that expenditure had they known what help—if any—was available.
A third recommendation was to take a leaf out of the Scottish Government’s book and see what could come from the Government conducting a cross- departmental review of burials, cremations and funerals. What information out there could we use to simplify this complicated world that families have to negotiate at a time when the vast majority of them are at their most vulnerable?
The Select Committee noted the lack of protection in the funeral market for bereaved customers, particularly for poor families in our constituencies. We heard evidence that funeral directors’ fees vary dramatically, and that many funeral directors are reluctant to display their funeral prices without it being shoehorned out of them. It is not good enough to have huge variations in the price of a basic funeral—of 200% or even 300% between providers in different areas and regions—and for there to be no way of getting that information to vulnerable families.
The Committee also made recommendations on bereavement benefits. We welcomed enormously the Government’s changes on that and thought they were absolutely the right moves. We made two recommendations in particular. The Government accepted one, which was that bereavement payments should not cease one year after the death of the person whose death triggered the eligibility, but should go on for at least 18 months. I very much welcome the Government’s decision to adopt that recommendation.
The Government said that they did not intend to make money from the reform, but that the package of reforms will save in the region of £100 million. Why is it then that they have not agreed to our second recommendation on bereavement benefits? Why have the Government not used some of those savings, which they said they never intended to make, to deliver an extension of bereavement benefits to people in similar situations to marriage, such as those in civil partnerships or who are cohabiting? That would make the benefit more broadly and, I would argue, more accurately reflect everyday life in our constituencies. People’s lives are not in old-fashioned, neat little boxes, but come differently. It is a pity that the Government have not used this once-in-a-generation reform of bereavement benefits to bring their eligibility on a par with how people live their lives today.
To conclude, I will again pile the questions on to the Minister. As I said at the beginning, given the circumstances under which he appears before us, we will be happy with written replies if the answers we want cannot be provided now. Do the Government have any plans to extend bereavement benefits to what the rest of us would call “families”, even though they do not fit the legal requirement of being married? What plans do the Government have to update the value of, and access to, social fund funeral payments? Are the Government satisfied that a pauper’s funeral—for people whose family cannot begin to bury them, who have been deserted or who have no one to bury them—now costs more than what the Government offer through social fund funeral payments? Is that acceptable, particularly when the reforms are making money?
After interviewing a range of funeral directors with the Select Committee, I do not underestimate for one moment the difficulty for the Government in trying to get agreement among funeral directors on what a simple or basic funeral could or should consist of, and what to charge for that around the country. I know that is an immensely difficult task. The Committee has powers of compulsion to bring people together. I know that the Government do not have to use such powers, but I do not underrate the difficulty of getting the industry to meet and to be transparent about their costs and about how, sadly, a number of them rip off our most vulnerable constituents when they are least likely to have the mental energy to fight back.
My final point to the Government is that our report made a strong plea for families to be able to know very quickly whether they are eligible for the social fund funeral payment and, equally importantly, what that payment will and will not cover. In those circumstances, every family wants the very best for the loved ones they are burying or cremating, but one cautionary note ought to be made: while families will strive for the best and will club together and do all sorts of things, they ought to be clear very early on what the social fund funeral payment pays for and what it does not.
I am grateful for the opportunity to present our bereavement report; it has given me the opportunity to update the Select Committee’s thinking and present it to the House. I also welcome other hon. Members, who clearly have a passion for what is happening in their constituency, and I welcome the Minister, who will reply and say where the Government’s thinking has got to.
I am delighted to take part in the debate. I would normally have been in the Chamber for the debate on International Women’s Day, but I am here to speak about widowed parent’s allowance on behalf of two of my constituents in particular. They are here today, and their voices need to be heard in debates such as this.
Theirs are the voices of women who never wanted to be in the position they are in and who never expected to claim widowed parent’s allowance—one is not, which I will come to. Tragedy struck their families in the most cruel and horrific way, and their partners were taken from them. The strength and courage they have shown in campaigning on the issue has inspired me as their MP, so I am proud to be here to talk about their experiences and why they should be heard, instead of taking part in the debate on International Women’s Day. There are so many challenges when it comes to inequality and we must fight them all. What is happening with widowed parent’s allowance feels to me like one of the most basic examples of that and of the unintended consequences of the Minister’s and the Government’s thinking. In reading into the record some of my constituents’ experiences, I hope the Minister will think again about some of the choices the Government have made and the devastating consequences they are likely to have.
I will talk first about Ros. Her husband sadly died in 2014. He had been ill for some time before that, so Ros had given up work to support her children as their father deteriorated. That is an horrific experience for anyone to deal with at a young age. To then have to deal with the financial consequences only compounded her family’s grief. Ros suddenly became a single parent to two children and found that widowed parent’s allowance was, as she described it to me, a lifeline. The work that she did, in the theatre, was not easy to combine with being a full-time carer for her young children, and she was struggling with the grief of losing her husband.
Ros has done the calculations for what the Government’s proposed changes in the scheme would have meant for her and her family. The Minister claims that this is not about making money, but is a fair change in the system. When I look at the figures and how Ros is affected, I do not think that that is the case. I think this is clearly a cut in the budget designed to save the Government money, but it is a short-term saving with a long-term loss.
Ros and her family would, under the new scheme, have lost out on more than £100,000 over the lifetime of her children. That money allows her to look after her children, keep her family and household going, be a mother to two children who are grieving for their father and start to put her family’s life back together again. When she looks at what the new scheme would mean, she points out that the new lump sum would probably have been taken up by the funeral costs straight away. That is not a more welcome situation.
The pressure of not having a consistent income and worrying about what would happen after 18 months would have consumed her. As she says, after six months she was still drowning in paperwork relating to the death of her husband and trying to cope with the impact on her children. Grieving does not stop at 18 months, so why should the support that we offer to families affected by this sort of tragedy?
As Ros points out, these payments are a recognition of the contribution her husband made to the system when he was alive, through his national insurance payments. Indeed, as she points out, that creates quirks; a friend who has four children gets £50 less a week than Ros because her husband was 10 years younger. If we accept the principle that these payments are based on what the partner has paid into the system, surely what matters is whether those payments have been made and whether the partner was part of that relationship.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) supports terminating the support at 18 months. I disagree with him. I do not understand why 18 months is an appropriate cut-off date.
I understand that. I hope to make the case that we should support families who are in grief. We should not ask them to take on poverty and possible debt on top of dealing with grief, and we should not put a time limit on grief in these sorts of cases. We are not talking about hundreds of thousands of families, but we are talking about families facing one of the most horrific, soul-destroying experiences one can have. I agree with my right hon. Friend about the need to update the way in which our welfare system works.
The second case I want to talk about is, I hope, familiar, because I have written to the Minister before about this lady. Joanna has two beautiful young girls. I am lucky enough to see their pictures on Facebook and feel as if I am watching them grow up vicariously. One of her daughters was born, sadly, after her partner suddenly died. Joanna had to fight to get her partner’s name, David, on to the baby’s birth certificate because they were not married. They were clearly in a loving relationship. They had been together for a long period and had chosen not to be married. That should surely be their choice. The state should not use that to penalise Joanna and her family yet, as far as I can see, over the past couple of years we have penalised Joanna in many different ways. She had to pay £1,500 for a DNA test to prove that this gentleman was the father of her daughter and to have his name on the birth certificate. She does not receive a penny in widowed parent’s allowance, despite her partner paying into the system, just as Ros’s partner did. They are no less a family because they do not have a piece of paper.
In 2017, surely we should recognise those children’s need for the support that widowed parent’s allowance would provide to their family. That money would help not only to keep a roof above their head but to remove the pressure of debt, so that Joanna could be a mum to her two lovely daughters and start to put their lives back together following the sudden death of their father. It is those sorts of real issues and real people that our welfare system has to be able to work with. The cuts that the Government are making, particularly when it comes to widowed parent’s allowance, make no sense to me at all because they do not see the people behind these cases.
I have been lucky enough, through the organisation Widowed & Young, to see other examples that are similar to the stories of my two constituents, Ros and Joanna. Their cases are no less compelling. Will the Minister reconsider this 18-month bar and look again at the actual people behind the statistics by meeting them and hearing their stories, to understand the reality of being widowed at a young age and what impact that has on a family? Will the Minister ask again how we can do what we all want the welfare system to do—to support people and be a lifeline at a critical time, to help get these families back on their feet?
The changes that the Government are making, I fear, will not simply not help; they could actually make things worse for these families. They could bring debt, because the fear of what will happen will force people who are still grieving after a mere 18 months to make decisions that may be against the best interests of their family because they are short of cash.
As Ros said, this money has been a lifeline for her. She is one of the lucky ones because she qualified under the old scheme, but none of these people are lucky, because after all, they have lost a loved one. That is what we are trying to get at here. Ros, Joanna and all the women and men involved in this campaign deserve better from us. I hope that the Minister will at least commit today to meet them, to understand better the situation they will be in when these changes are introduced.
I want to begin by thanking the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) for securing this debate. I know, and very much appreciate the fact, that he has a long-standing interest in this issue.
It is quite easy for me to sum up today, because unfortunately we have not had many speakers. The reason I wanted to become involved in this debate is that I grew up the youngest of eight children, and my father died when I was a baby; I was nine months old. My mother was widowed with no support whatsoever. That was partly because her and my father had come over from Ireland in the 1950s, and she had no knowledge or awareness of the benefits system. Even if she had, she probably would have assumed it was not for people like her, because at that time the UK was not a place that was always very welcoming to immigrants—even Irish ones. She would no doubt have assumed that such a system excluded people like her.
I am not saying, “Woe is me!” When I was growing up, I had no idea that we were poor, and that is a huge testament to my mother. Everybody around me was poor, but because of that, nobody realised they were poor. It was not until I went to university in Glasgow and met different kinds of people from different backgrounds that I appreciated, in hindsight, the difficulties and the struggles that my mother had gone through and how very poor indeed we were, but I had no sense of it growing up.
Today, unfortunately, the world is much smaller, and when people are poor, they are profoundly aware of their poverty, even as children. Looking at this issue objectively, we can understand as human beings, even if we have not experienced the loss of a spouse, how frightening and how lonely that must be. We do not need to experience it to understand it. We do not even need to have children to imagine what it is like for the bereaved who have children.
We can appreciate how difficult and challenging it is for someone who has children and is bereaved, often suddenly and unexpectedly. Every single day, despite the awful event and the despair, terror, uncertainty and instability, they have to keep putting one foot in front of the other to make life as normal as possible for them and their children after such a tragic loss. That was set out for us in very human terms by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who told us about her constituents Ros and Joanna.
The hard-headed reality is that when such a loss occurs, the bills still come in. The rent or mortgage still has to be paid. When everything else in the family or household has been thrown into confusion and up- ended in the most profound way imaginable, especially in cases of sudden loss, financial stability—strangely enough, despite the grief—becomes more important than ever.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead pointed out that the Scottish Government have done much work to assist those most in need with regard to funeral costs, but that is really only the beginning, even though meeting those costs is a struggle for so many people. I wrote to the Secretary of State about my concerns over the proposed changes to payments for the bereaved. I am quite alarmed at the so-called streamlining of those benefits, because we know that that will hit families hardest. Disappointingly, the Secretary of State’s response has not allayed my concerns at all. In fact, the letter, detailed though it was, merely restated Government policy.
The fact is that those who are grieving need support, and unless that support is adequate, the social fallout could be quite significant. I would like the Minister to consider the consequences for children—the potential detrimental consequences for their emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as their educational outcomes. There is little point in trying to be penny wise and pound foolish. The bereaved need time, which varies from person to person, to emerge from the fog of bewilderment, shock and disbelief, as well as the pain of grief, that the loss of a loved one brings with it, and how much worse is that for children? With cash payments being limited to 18 months, grief has been given a sell-by date. If only grief were like that.
At such times, parents need to be around to support, listen to and help their children to make some sense of the irreplaceable loss that they have suffered. That is where bereaved parents want and ought to be—not stuck in the office or on the shop floor, having to put in extra hours to make up the income shortfall due to the death of their spouse, and hoping that friends and neighbours will step in.
Make no mistake: the new bereavement support payment regime will disproportionately affect women. Working-age women are more likely to claim bereavement allowance, with 70% of claimants in 2014 being female. Despite bereavement being one of the main causes of financial difficulty, according to research, that support is to be cut. That will directly affect thousands of people throughout the United Kingdom and 40 to 50 newly widowed parents in North Ayrshire in my constituency next year.
Those with children will be hardest hit by the changes, and some families could lose up to £12,000 a year. A working-age parent with children could lose even more—approximately £23,500 on average. Let us imagine the impact that such a financial loss will have on those suffering, and living with, grief. The Government insist that the changes are not about saving money, but the Department for Work and Pensions forecasts savings of £100 million a year because of them. If the changes are not about saving money, why not redistribute those savings to ensure that fewer families are worse off? Currently under the changes, 75% of families will be worse off.
Another concern is that the link between bereavement payments and inflation will be broken, despite the benefit being intended to support people with the additional costs of bereavement. That cannot happen if it gradually loses its value over time. I feel strongly about this issue and urge hon. Members present to sign my early-day motion 959, because it is important to express our alarm in whatever way we can.
Let us not forget—this was mentioned by the hon. Member for Walthamstow and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead—that unmarried, cohabiting couples are not recognised by the DWP, although 21% of couples with children are unmarried, according to the Office for National Statistics in 2016. Not to recognise cohabiting couples is short-sighted and illogical. Children will lose out financially because their parents decided, as they had every right to do, not to marry. There is a problem, because the state treats unmarried parents as a couple for other means-tested benefits or tax credits when both parents are alive. Perhaps the Government can explain why such relationships are dismissed when one of the cohabiting parents happens to die. I would be most interested to know why that distinction has been drawn in this case.
I will end by simply saying that bereavement support is not a benefit that anyone wants or expects to claim, but when these circumstances arise, it is necessary and extremely important. The savings that the Government expect to make are not worth the misery and the appalling sell-by date that they stamp on grief and cannot be worth the way they punish those in the throes of grief or the potential social fallout that they inflict on families and society. Of course I welcome the simplification of the system, but there are wider concerns, as the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady so eloquently pointed out. I urge the UK Government to look at this matter again and to listen to the concerns expressed by so many in this Chamber and so many more outside it. There is concern about the impact on grieving spouses and on families and concern about the lack of financial recognition for bereaved parents who chose not to marry. I urge the Government to listen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on securing this important debate. I also thank the people who have come down to Westminster today to make the case and, in particular, the Childhood Bereavement Network, Widowed & Young and the Good Grief Trust for the work that they do to raise awareness. They do so not for themselves, but for the people who come after them, so it is particularly worth while that they would do that.
My right hon. Friend made a very clear speech and asked specific questions. I hope that the Minister can respond to them all. My right hon. Friend spoke about the real hardship that people go through and described the shortfall between the average cost of a pauper’s funeral paid for by a local authority and the social fund funeral payments—a difference of £200.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) spoke with real passion on behalf of two of her constituents in particular. Ros had described receiving the widowed parent’s allowance as an absolute lifeline. My hon. Friend also talked about the injustice that Joanna had suffered; she spoke about the difficulty that Joanna had experienced in getting her deceased partner’s name on the birth certificate and the injustice of unmarried couples being treated differently from married couples.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) told her personal story and spoke compellingly about the human costs of what we are discussing. She also spoke about the illogicality of the Government’s position in not recognising people who cohabit in the same way as they do those who are married.
The Work and Pensions Committee report, published back in March 2016, raised a number of important issues and made considered recommendations. In June 2016, the Government responded to the report, with commitments to look at some of the recommendations more closely. Many months have passed since the Government responded, and six weeks ago we saw a written statement from the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery, in which the Government committed to laying regulations to introduce the bereavement support payment. It is therefore vital that we are having this debate today to clarify whether the Government have progressed that agenda and what exactly their plans are for the future.
The Work and Pensions Committee report raises a number of issues regarding social security support in the event of a bereavement that I would like to address. If I may, I shall use my contribution to focus on the adequacy of the social fund funeral payment, the new bereavement support benefit and the need for a strategy to improve the operation of the market.
First, the Select Committee rightly pointed to the increasing gap between the average cost of providing a simple funeral and the support available from the state to do so. The report “Cost of Dying 2014” by the insurer SunLife found that the average cost of a funeral now stands at £3,500. However, figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that the average award made through the social fund to help to meet the costs of a funeral during 2015-16 was £1,400.
The entitlements available through the social fund funeral payments include provision for meeting the full cost of some services, such as burial and cremation, with other expenses, such as funeral directors’ fees and the cost of a coffin, being met up to a capped limit of £700. The capped limit for funeral costs has been fixed at £700 since 2003, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead explained, and has therefore been significantly eroded by inflation over the more than 10 years since then.
With the average award now running at less than 40% of the average cost of a funeral, it is clear that the adequacy of the support provided by the social fund now requires urgent review if we are to act to reduce funeral poverty. That has been raised repeatedly in the exceptional campaigning by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who has courageously shared her own experience.
The Select Committee recommends that the Government revalue the assumptions that underpin the cap, which should then rise with inflation. That appears to be a very sensible approach and is in line with the usual practice in the wider social security system. The Government responded to that proposal by suggesting that they should not prescribe
“what a claimant should expect as part of a funeral”.
That is a deceptive answer and it does not address the issue directly. The point is that the cap is now insufficient for even the most basic of funerals. This is not a question of choice or expectation as the Government imply; it is about respect for those who have passed away through the provision of a simple ceremony and proper burial or cremation. Will the Minister agree to look again at the question of cost and indexation, given the overwhelming evidence of there being insufficient support?
There is, of course, the question of the operation of the market that underpins the adequacy of social security support to meet funeral costs. Sensibly, the Work and Pensions Committee suggested that the Government look at the issue through a cross-departmental review of the inflation of funeral costs. The Committee has also sent its evidence to the Competition and Markets Authority in the hope of pursuing that proposal. The Government suggested that they would “consider this recommendation” in the context of discussions they were already having with stakeholders. Will the Minister update us on whether a review will be brought forward? If the Government are now planning a belated review, perhaps they will state when it is scheduled and outline the terms of reference.
Clearly, one issue with the market for funerals is that people suffering a bereavement are often in a vulnerable position and can therefore find it more difficult to take the sort of steps necessary to take fully informed decisions, as they might under other circumstances. That is currently exacerbated by the Government’s numerous failures to provide clear and accessible information in that regard. The Committee made a number of recommendations, including an online eligibility checker, signposting to funeral homes accredited as part of a fair funerals scheme, clearer information on application forms and Government leaflets being distributed more widely. The Government seem strangely reticent about providing people suffering a bereavement with clear and helpful information about how to access funeral provision.
I was particularly shocked to see the Government’s claim that an online eligibility checker could only supplement a telephone or paper application and never act as an application in itself. Surely our Government, which placed so much emphasis on “digital by default”, must be technologically advanced enough to build a system under which an eligibility check can contribute to an online application? After all, that is possible in almost any other aspect of life. Can the Minister please clarify that?
I turn now to the bereavement support payment. In her written ministerial statement, the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery announced regulations providing for a single, new payment to replace bereavement payment, bereavement allowance and widowed parent’s allowance for those whose spouse or civil partner dies on or after 6 April this year. The Government argue that it will increase simplicity for those who are bereaved and seeking support. We do not support the reforms, which amount to a cut for bereaved children.
Although the Government have responded to criticism from the Social Security Advisory Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee by extending the period in which the bereavement support payment can be accessed from 12 to 18 months, that is still much less than the period of eligibility available under the current system. We therefore have serious concerns about whether it is long enough. Analysis by the Childhood Bereavement Network, for example, suggests that 91% of widows will be supported for a shorter period under the bereavement support payment than under the current system. That really is not acceptable. The network also suggests that 75% of parents bereaved after April will be worse off in cash terms under the new system, some by as much as £17,000. A study by J. William Worden, which is considered the most robust longitudinal survey available, found that the availability and consistent, nurturing presence of the surviving parent was one of the strongest predictors of bereaved children’s emotional health and behaviour.
Under the current system, the median claim is between five and six years. What evidence have the Government drawn upon to find that 18 months is suddenly sufficient? Would it not be better for the length of potential provision to be extended to ensure the best possible outcome for the child in such a tragic and distressing situation? Is it not the case that the current system is more comprehensive in that regard? I await the Minister’s response to that point.
Parents who are not married or in a civil partnership are not eligible for the old widowed parent’s allowance or the new bereavement support payment, meaning that children lose out on support because of their parents’ marital status. We believe that that is unjust and a relic from a past society that, thankfully, we have progressed beyond. It is also the case that those with young children will be disproportionately affected, as they can currently claim for longer. That means that young children are being hit hardest by this cut in the tragic event of the death of a parent.
Finally, for some seemingly unjustifiable reason the Government have decided that bereavement support will not be uprated in line with inflation. That can only be a further way of saving money at the expense of the bereaved, just as we have seen with the social fund funeral payment that I described earlier. What possible justification can the Government have not to uprate this measure, as is standard practice across most of the social security system? This reform appears simply to cut support to those grieving the loss of a loved one; it is, in effect, an attack on those who are already suffering quite unimaginably. Will the Minister commit to publishing a regular, fully updated impact assessment of the changes being made or, better still, follow Labour’s lead and commit to scrapping this reform and establishing an independent review of the sufficiency of support for the bereaved?
To conclude, the Government’s inaction in supporting the bereaved has gone on for too long, and what little action there has been appears to be to those people’s detriment. So far, their action has amounted to a cut in the support on offer to the bereaved—a really horrendous attack that we stand against. I do not envy the Minister the task of trying to justify this so-called reform, so I urge him and the Government to think again about the plans.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) for securing this debate; it is not the first debate he has instigated that I have answered on behalf of the Government this week, but as usual the comments in his speech, together with those in the Select Committee report, were very serious and well-reasoned. I also thank the other speakers: the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy); the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), who spoke for the Opposition; and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who spoke on behalf of the Scottish National party. I would like to make it clear that I listened very carefully to everything that they said, and my remarks may be quite long as a result of that. If they feel that their questions have not been adequately answered, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said, I will be able to write to them.
I want to pass on the apologies of the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery. Ironically, she is not here today because she is attending a funeral. I have attended many meetings on this subject and agreed to step in for this debate. I thought I would make that clear just once; that is the reason why she is not here and I hope that hon. Members, together with the people in the Public Gallery, will accept that.
The Government are very aware—as any of us are as constituency MPs, or just as human beings with our own family and friends—that bereavement is a very difficult time. It is probably one of the toughest experiences we face. Many of these points have been responded to because the same issue was discussed here in Westminster Hall last September. It is perfectly correct that we return once more to this debate, which is about how Government can best support vulnerable people going through bereavement with the practical challenges it can create.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow specifically referred to two of her constituents. I will respond to the other points that she made, but I would certainly be very prepared to meet those two constituents, and I know that I can say on behalf of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery that she, too, would be prepared to meet them. We can arrange that as soon as possible after this meeting if the hon. Lady contacts us, or I will happily contact her office.
All of us have seen the vital support that funeral expenses payments provide; therefore I fully understand, personally as a constituency MP as well as on behalf of the Government, the importance of providing the right support at the right time. Since the debate last September, a lot of work has taken place on funeral payments and support for the bereaved. In responding to hon. Members’ points, I hope also to outline what we have been doing. I will mix responses to their points with a general response on the developments since then.
First, on funeral expenses payments, I wish to put on the record the support that my Department provides for vulnerable people at a difficult time. We make a significant contribution to the costs of a simple, respectful funeral for loved ones of applicants in receipt of qualifying income-related benefits. We meet the full, necessary costs of a burial or cremation, which we know can vary, including the purchase of a grave, necessary burial or cremation fees, the cost of any medical references or the removal of active implanted medical devices for cremations, reasonable costs if a body has to be moved for more than 50 miles and travel costs for the applicant to arrange and attend the funeral. In addition, as has been mentioned, we meet other costs up to a maximum of £700.
In 2015-16, nearly 29,000 funeral expenses payments awards were made—worth more than £40 million—in Great Britain. The average payment has increased by just under 40%—from £1,019 in 2003-04 to £1,410 in 2015-16—reflecting the rise in necessary costs, but not in discretionary costs. That is why in 2012 the Department made interest-free social fund budgeting loans available for funeral costs, in addition to the funeral expenses payments. Last year the average award for all budgeting loans was £418. It is important to emphasise that we made those payments available in 2012, and that they are interest-free. Those loans are crucial for supporting people at a difficult time by removing the need for bereaved families to turn to high-cost lenders and the worry of meeting a funeral director’s bill.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that we provide the most generous support for funeral expenses when we are compared with other European countries—we can still compare ourselves with them for the moment, but that is another debate. Providers of funeral services, including the church, funeral directors, local authorities and crematorium owners, all play a role in ensuring that funerals are accessible to everyone. The Government believe that when a family can take part or all the responsibility for the cost of funeral arrangements, they should. However, there are obviously times when state support is appropriate, and we know that we can do more. Having taken time to set out the facts of what we do, I will turn now to the issues that have been raised during the debate.
On costs and claims, when considering the level of support for other costs, a balance needs to be struck. We do not want the funeral expenses scheme to influence or inflate the prices charged by the funeral industry for a simple funeral, and it must not undermine personal and family responsibility for meeting funeral costs. We have to ensure that the system not only is fair to taxpayers but supports the most vulnerable people. We have been working closely with the funeral industry to discuss how it can improve the transparency of its information about costs and choices. That would help people to make more informed choices and encourage competition within the industry. We remain committed to listening to our stakeholders, as we have been, and to working together to find solutions that are in the interests of the most vulnerable.
For that reason, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery convened a ministerial round table earlier this year, with stakeholders such as the National Association of Funeral Directors, the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors, representatives from different faith groups and organisations representing bereaved people—in fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) was also present. A lot of topics that are relevant to issues raised today were covered, including transparency and the costs of funerals in the industry. The Under-Secretary of State asked stakeholders to share news and good practice about how they plan to be more open with their online pricing to support vulnerable claimants, and how they can support the rest of the industry to do the same.
We are carrying out a thorough review of the social fund expenses payments and have created a small working group of stakeholders to work with us to identify where regulation can be amended to help to address and tackle funeral poverty issues. We have also improved information about the scheme so that it is easier for people to understand whether they are eligible. That is available online with the application form, as well as through our dedicated bereavement service telephony line, which hon. Members have mentioned.
We know from research that people prefer to speak to someone on the phone when they have suffered a bereavement, instead of using online tools. We have therefore provided a specialist telephony service with staff who are fully trained to support people sensitively. The service has received positive feedback. It includes an eligibility checker, which has been mentioned—I will come on to that in a moment—and we are taking steps to ensure that claims are processed and that decisions can be made more quickly. Our recent improvements include reviewing all claims on the day that they are received to identify those requiring further evidence; and gathering further evidence by telephoning and texting applicants to speed up the process—[Interruption.]
Yes. Thank you, Mr Stringer. I was able to take a deep breath while the right hon. Member for Birkenhead attended to his electronic device.
Let me get back to the rising cost of funerals. We do not believe that the Government should be mandating or promoting a specific form of funeral provision for benefits claimants. Although my Department does not have responsibility for regulating the funeral industry, we are encouraging it to be more open and transparent in the way that I have explained, because people have to make informed decisions.
A number of low-cost alternative options are emerging in the funeral industry, such as direct cremations and municipal funeral arrangements offered by several local authorities. We recognise that those are not geographically widely available yet, and are not relevant to all religious and cultural practices. However, when it is appropriate, the industry should signpost people to direct cremations schemes and other low-cost alternatives so that bereaved people know they have the choice. We believe that improved pre-planning for funerals is just one way of helping individuals to focus on planning for a life event that is not always considered in advance.
Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Wirral West, discussed the £700 limit. We know that some people need help with short-term needs, such as funeral expenses. Our priority has been to ensure that the scheme meets the full necessary costs of a cremation or burial for such people. The average payments have increased year on year to meet the necessary costs in full. Although we have had to make difficult choices about welfare spending, we have protected the £700 limit for other funeral costs, and we have continued to give people a choice on how they can spend that money on funeral expenses. However, the majority of funeral cost claims exceed the £700 limit, which is why, as I explained, we make interest-free social fund budgeting loans for funeral costs in addition to the funeral expenses payment.
The online eligibility checker was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead—I think in his second question—and by other hon. Members. As I have explained, the dedicated bereavement service telephone line already offers an eligibility check and research shows that that has been well received by callers. We believe—I accept that hon. Members may feel differently—that an online checker could cause confusion. User research has identified that individuals would rather speak to an individual during these times—that is based on user research, not on cost. At these very difficult times—at one of the most traumatic times in their lives—they would rather speak to a well-trained human being than deal with a website.
We have been working closely with the bereavement service to ensure that the scripts and messaging are incorporated and updated for funeral expenses payments and to ensure that the staff can adequately offer support to a bereaved person or funeral provider when they access our services.
I hope it will satisfy the hon. Lady to know that I will. I apologise if I have been going into too much detail about other things, but it is important for hon. Members, and others throughout the country and here today, to understand generally what the Government are doing about these issues, in response to the Select Committee’s report. Please be patient with me; I will do my best to answer her questions. If not, I know that she will question me afterwards, but I hope that that will not be necessary.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead raised the issue of increasing awareness of the scheme. Information on the eligibility criteria is clearly presented and detailed on the gov.uk website and in the information accompanying a funeral payment application form. The current eligibility criteria ensure that the scheme is administered quickly without additional complex means testing and used solely for funeral expenses payment purposes.
We have received positive feedback from industry representatives on how helpful the bereavement service telephone line is in guiding callers through the application process and their eligibility, and on changes that we are introducing to the application form. We are discussing with third parties such as registrars and funeral directors how we can improve the way in which the Government engage with the bereaved to ensure that information is in the right place and in the right form.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what we were doing to negotiate a reasonable cost for a simple funeral with the funeral industry, as his Committee recommended in its report. We have been engaging with the industry and different lobbies, as I have explained, on how they can make costs more transparent, but we do not believe that the Government should mandate or promote a specific form of funeral provision for benefit claimants. We have encouraged the industry to be more open and transparent about its pricing structure so that individuals can make informed decisions and shop around.
We have engaged with stakeholders to build strong links so that we have the relevant expertise at hand for the first phase of the review, which will visit what parts of the social fund regulations can be amended to help address and tackle funeral poverty issues. We also continue to improve, review and monitor the application process. All that work is being done with the funeral industry and groups that advise bereaved people. In November last year, as I explained, we launched the shorter application form, and we are open to ideas about how we can review the system, in particular the application form for the social fund funeral expenses payment. It has been simplified as much as possible.
On support for child funerals and bereaved parents, I pay tribute to the efforts of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who is not here; I suspect, knowing her, that she is at the debate in the main Chamber. I speak to her regularly, and she put on record her views on the subject in an Adjournment debate, as I recall, on children’s funerals.
I was absolutely certain of it, as the right hon. Gentleman knows.
I confirm that we assign priority to applications received for children’s funerals and aim to process them without delay. We have listened to stakeholders’ concerns about the need to support bereaved parents of children, and we are currently considering how we can introduce a separate application form and system to help simplify the process in those tragic circumstances. We are keen to know how else to support individuals who require support for children’s funerals. The view of most funeral industry representatives at the round table that I mentioned was that the vast majority of funeral directors already waive fees or offer significant discounts for child funerals, although there are no industry-wide arrangements and there is no guidance in place. The National Association of Funeral Directors offered to do a survey of its members on current practice.
Moving on to bereavement support payments, I will respond to the points made by the right hon. Gentleman and others. As has been stated, both Houses of Parliament have approved, under the affirmative procedure, the Bereavement Support Payment Regulations 2017. The new bereavement support payment, which is due to be launched in April 2017, will replace three current bereavement benefits: the bereavement payment, bereavement allowance and widowed parent’s allowance.
Losing a spouse or civil partner is obviously tragic, and bereavement benefits provide vital support during this distressing time. Previous reforms have tended to be limited and made in response to specific pressures. No one had really considered how bereavement support fitted in with wider changes to the benefits system, and indeed to the social landscape as a whole. The aim is to provide targeted financial support at the time when it is needed most, without affecting access to additional forms of support that are available through other parts of the welfare system.
The Minister just said that the reforms are designed to provide targeted help when it is needed most. On what evidence has the concept of “most” been based, in his calculations? What does he define as a time when less help might be needed, as opposed to the most help? It would be helpful to understand the Government’s thinking.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I used the word “most” to refer to the most critical short-term time, which is what I was discussing, but I am prepared to accept her point, without getting into a competition about when “most” is most. It is all the time, and I am happy to say that, but that is not the context that I was referring to.
I hope the hon. Lady will agree that the old system could be unfair and complex, and could act as a trap preventing people from readjusting. Reform is essential to simplify and modernise the system. The history of bereavement benefits is rooted in the Widows’, Orphans’ and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act 1925. The way that people thought in those days was that most women were wholly dependent on their husband’s income. If a woman was widowed, her sole source of income would disappear completely, so it was considered necessary to provide a replacement income for her to survive.
Today, women as well as men actively participate in the workforce, and many households now benefit from dual careers and dual incomes. That is why we are modernising bereavement support into a simple, uniform and easy-to-understand benefit that better reflects society. We listened to the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee that there was merit in considering the length of the new bereavement support payment. For that reason, the bereavement support payment is now payable over 18 months.
The Government have said that this is not about saving money but about, as the Minister has said, rationalising the system, bringing it into the modern era and so on. However, the Work and Pensions Committee told us that the changes to bereavement support payments will save £100 million. If this is not about saving money, will that £100 million be reinvested in helping the 75% of people who will lose out under the new measures?
If the hon. Lady will be patient with me a little longer, I will mention the financial point that she has made. I am sure that she will intervene to castigate me if I do not.
The new bereavement support payment restores fairness to the system and focuses support during the 18-month period after a loved one dies, when people need it the most. I accept the view of the hon. Member for Walthamstow that “most” can mean a lot of things. If I said “when people need it” without “the most”, it would still mean the same thing. People need it in those 18 months. The support is not taxed and is subject to a disregard for income-related benefits. The idea is, hopefully, to help those on the lowest incomes. Those who are least well off will gain the most, as for the first time they will be able to receive payments of bereavement benefit in full alongside any other benefit entitlements.
In her case studies, the hon. Member for Walthamstow mentioned the duration of payment and interactions with universal credit. We do not believe that the period of payment could or should be equivalent to the period of grief following spousal bereavement. As I know from the experience of many people known to me, grief can go on for one’s whole life. The payment is not designed for that; it is designed to support people with the additional costs associated with bereavement, rather than providing an income replacement. That is probably the contradiction with the points that she made.
I thank the Minister for trying to clarify the Government’s thinking, but as he goes along, he is making rather a different case. He says that the changes needed to happen because women are now entering the workforce. The old system was taxed, so if he is concerned that women might have additional income, continuing the old system might deal with that challenge better.
The Minister talks as well about people needing it most, but surely he recognises that although the loss of a partner is emotionally difficult, the practical financial concerns are paramount here. Does he recognise that the picture that he is painting of the issues is slightly askew from the reality of what the issues are for these women?
Obviously I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s subjective point that I do not recognise the reality of the situation. We are not trying to replicate the period of grief with this benefit. As I have said, it is designed to support people with the additional cost associated with bereavement, rather than providing an income replacement. Her view, from what she has said, is that the support should be an alternative to the other income support systems.
Let me be absolutely clear: the support is predicated on the contributions that the partner will have paid into the national insurance system, just as they might get a pension from their partner. We are talking about fairness to the children so that they benefit from the contributions that their father made and about the impact on the family’s income. Actually, it is not about replacing income support; it is about the fact that the father has paid in a contribution that should be recognised to the children’s benefit.
What the hon. Lady talks about is not really what I am talking about, but I accept what she has said. I was actually talking about the bereavement support payment, which is a lump sum payment.
We believe that income-based benefits are more suited to providing longer-term assistance with everyday living costs. Unlike bereavement allowance and widowed parent’s allowance, bereavement support payment will be paid in addition to any other benefits the recipient is entitled to, thus ensuring that the least well off receive the extra cash in their pocket to help with those extra financial strains brought about by the unexpected loss of a spouse or civil partner of working age. Long-term ongoing income-related support will be provided through universal credit, which better targets support to those with the greatest need.
The regulations make no changes to conditionality, which has been mentioned. Like the bereavement benefits it replaces, the bereavement support payment sets no work-related conditions. Any obligation to participate in any work-related activity will come from claiming other benefits. That said, it is well known that long periods out of work can have a negative effect on an individual’s prospects of future employment. That is why the Government think it is important that people are encouraged to maintain, as much as they can, a link with the labour market.
Recipients of bereavement support payment who also receive universal credit will therefore be able to access Jobcentre Plus support on a voluntary basis from three months after bereavement. They will then not be subject to conditionality for a further three months. Those exemptions from conditionality will also apply after the death of a child or partner, even where there is no entitlement to the bereavement support payment. At the end of the six months, advisers will use their discretion to ensure individuals’ capability and requirements are taken into account. That is the best way of ensuring that the support we give is tailored to the individual.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead and others mentioned the extension of the bereavement support payment to cohabitees. That was discussed in detail during the passage of the Pensions Act 2014. Marriage and civil partnerships are legal arrangements that are associated with certain rights, including inheritance and recognition in the tax system. Extending eligibility to cohabitees would not only increase spend, but be complex to administer. Having to prove cohabitation could be a lengthy, complex process, which could cause distress at a time of bereavement.
Many critics have suggested that it is unfair that those who choose not to formalise their relationship are treated as a couple for income-related benefits, but not for contributory benefits. Income-related benefits serve a different purpose, however: they are for the ongoing day-to-day needs of a household, irrespective of whether the relationship is formal. When assessing entitlement to income-related benefit payments, the state rightly assumes that couples, whatever the legal status of their relationship, have joint outgoings and share resources such as earnings or other income.
The position with bereavement benefits is different, because they are contributory. The founding principle of the contributory benefit system is that all rights to inheritable benefits derive from another person’s contributions. That is based on the concept of legal marriage, which has extended to civil partnership in recent times. Unmarried or non-civil partnership couples will, of course, have access to a full range of income-related benefits and will benefit from the removal of conditionality requirements in exactly the same way as those in a legal marriage or civil partnership.
I was simply going to ask whether the Minister will clarify whether he considers children to be a joint outgoing. If he does, the contributions that a partner would make to a household would also be eligible. The idea that if people are not married, their relationship to those joint outgoings somehow stops at their death seems rather misplaced, does it not? I have certainly heard that children are expensive.
I can personally verify the latter part of the hon. Lady’s comments on the expense.
The new bereavement support payment restores fairness to the system and focuses support just on that 18-month period after a loved one dies, when it is most needed. It is not taxed and will be subject to a disregard for income-related benefits, helping those on the lowest incomes the most. Widowed parents will no longer lose their benefits if they decide to remarry or repartner. We do not believe that the period of payment could or should be equivalent to the recovery period following spousal bereavement. I am sure most people would agree that that is a totally different amount of time.
Unlike with the widowed parent’s allowance, claimants of the bereavement support payment will be entitled to receive all the other benefits at the same time. Disregarding bereavement support payment in the calculation of other benefits will ensure that the immediate additional costs of bereavement are met. Those requiring support will be able to obtain it from other areas of the welfare system, and I cannot stress that enough. Its purpose is better placed to provide longer-term, means-tested financial assistance.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead, the hon. Member for Walthamstow and other Members made a reasonably cynical, but well-made point about the changes to the bereavement benefit. They basically said that it was just an austerity measure, delivering savings of £100 million to the Treasury after two years. Over the first two years of the reform, we will actually spend an additional £45 million, but any savings, like in anything else in the public finances, will be for future Governments to reinvest as they choose. I therefore cannot undertake, as I have been asked, to ensure that savings are reinvested in this field.
It is important to emphasise for the record that nobody in receipt of the current bereavement benefit stands to lose out as a result of the reforms. Recipients of the current benefit will continue to receive it for the natural lifetime of their award. Furthermore, households with dependent children will receive higher payments in recognition of that fact. Analysis shows that more people stand to gain than to lose from the changes. That is particularly so for the least well off, because—I have made this point several times—bereavement support will be paid on top of any income-related benefits that the household receives.
The Government have been asked here and elsewhere to extend the duration to three years and make the BSP cost-neutral. If we did that, we would have to fund it by reducing other elements of the payments. There seems to be little rationale for reducing the monthly payments for parents to make extending the duration cost-neutral. It would reduce payments to a token amount, which would not meet the intention of dealing with the immediate costs relating to bereavement.
With the introduction of the bereavement support payment, short-term financial support will be provided based on six months of national insurance contributions. The amount and duration of the award will be clear from the outset, allowing people time to plan ahead. Those requiring further support will be able to obtain it from other areas of the welfare system that are better placed to provide longer-term, means-tested financial assistance.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran made a point on uprating. Any decisions on future changes will be taken as part of the annual process in the context of the wider public finances. I cannot say much more on that, other than that section 150 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 provides for the rate of BSP to be reviewed annually. The Government committed to review the bereavement support payment reform in the impact assessment of 2013, but we cannot do that until sufficient evidence is available to assess all aspects of the policy, including its effectiveness and the impact on different groups of claimants.
The hon. Lady also made a point about the consequences for children of bereavement support payments. She said that, as a result of the shorter duration of payments, 75% of new claimants with children will be worse off. No one in receipt of the current bereavement benefits stands to lose out as a result of these reforms. As I said, recipients of the current benefits will continue to receive them for the natural lifetime of their award. Furthermore, for those households where there are dependent children, a higher level of payments will be made in recognition of that fact.
In conclusion, let me reassure hon. Members that the Government are absolutely committed to supporting the bereaved and ensuring that individuals have the opportunity to access the funeral expenses payment scheme. Our priorities remain to improve the funeral expenses scheme, to raise awareness of the scheme and to ensure that we are doing what we can to offer a provision of support for vulnerable claimants.
I am grateful to have had this debate and thank those who have participated. I am also grateful to those who have not participated, but who are a very real part of the debate.
I leave the Minister with one thought. Despite his abilities and his charms, the Government are struggling with this brief. It is simply not good enough for him to say that the promise that the reform would be cost-neutral was made by a previous Government—it was made by a Conservative-dominated coalition Government.
When he reports back to his colleague at a departmental meeting, I plead with him to say that this brief is in some ways easier than others that the Government have. We all assumed that the Government were committed to introducing this reform at nil cost. We have heard about how it does not meet needs. I ask the Minister to say that the Government do not wish to present this harsh face to the public; that they have up to £100 million to spend in this area; and that they did not wish to make these changes to save money, but to bring the benefit up to date. I ask that he and his colleagues at some date soon report how that £100 million will be spent, so that the needs of the two heroines that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) raised can be met. We are not asking the Minister to conjure up new money or to take money away from somewhere else. We are just saying that we agree. By all means, let us modernise this benefit, but let us do it in a way that spends the full budget and in a way that meets need most.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Ninth Report of the Work and Pensions Committee of Session 2015-16, Support for the bereaved, HC 551, and the Government response, HC 230.
Torture and the Treatment of Asylum Claims
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK policy on torture and the treatment of asylum claims.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time for this important debate. I also thank the co-sponsors of this debate, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). I am appreciative of the cross-party support for this debate. This debate on the UK’s policy on torture and the treatment of asylum claims is particularly important and critical right now.
Only last weekend we heard from the Home Secretary and from Max Hill, QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, that the current terror threat is severe. As we are all aware, that will probably continue for some time. My concern about our current level of terror is that there may be a concomitant rise in the idea that torture has a place and a use in our society. That came about, as people know, in January when the President of the United States was heard to comment on what is a deliberate near-drowning technique, also known as waterboarding. He declared his personal views, but used the phrase “fight fire with fire” and entertained the idea that torture can work.
I was therefore grateful that the Prime Minister very shortly and quickly afterwards stated that
“we do not sanction torture and do not get involved in it.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 291.]
That is a clear statement from this country and its Government. The next day, the Leader of the House also made a clear statement about the Government’s position, when he said the Government were “resolutely opposed to torture”. Again, it is important right now that the Government are clear and frequently reiterate that. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity today to reiterate our very clear position.
We are leading the way on standards against torture, but our standards can be higher. That means being against torture and all cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments and punishments.
I agree absolutely with what the hon. Lady says. Does she agree with me, however, that there have been occasions in the not-so-distant past when we have allowed our standards to slip? The Government could demonstrate their bona fides for future intentions by taking a more open and transparent approach in settling cases such as the Belhaj and Boudchar case.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention. I am aware of Supreme Court cases, but I do not want to mention specific cases today because I want to find as much common ground as possible with the Government, and I do not want to presume judgment of any particular cases, but I absolutely agree that the present statements by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House do not match our historical cases. That is why it is important today to be absolutely sure of where our standard is. I absolutely agree that in the past we have not lived up to our standards.
In view of the current global situation, I still believe we are the leaders, whether we choose to be or not. We absolutely need transparency about the past. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am looking closely at the court cases. However, we must recognise that today we are not only the place to be against torture, but the place that can diagnose torture. People can get the best treatment for torture and can be rehabilitated to return to the community as fully participant members of society. That is the ultimate aim, and I do believe we lead on that.
Is there not a further test for us as a country? Not only should we have the higher standard in terms of rejecting torture and having the best treatment, as the hon. Lady said, but when an asylum seeker comes to this country and alleges torture, it is our duty to take that case particularly seriously. Is the hon. Lady aware of concerns that people from Sri Lanka who have applied for asylum, alleging torture, have perhaps not had their cases inspected as rigorously as they might?
Again, I will not comment on individual cases. In my constituency of Twickenham in south-west London, I have come across the Tamil community. I have worked abroad in many countries, so I am aware of countries that have particular cases. I want the people of Sri Lanka who seek asylum to get the gold standard level of investigation and, if they seek asylum here, the best rehabilitation. I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman.
Historically, we have been at the forefront. After the second world war, we were a signatory to the universal declaration of human rights, which includes article 5 against torture. We signed up to the European convention on human rights, which led to our Human Rights Act 1998. We are also a signatory to the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which the UK ratified in 1988. I thank the Library for pointing out that in our common law we also have what is pertinent from section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. On torture offences, we state:
“It is immaterial whether the pain or suffering is physical or mental and whether it is caused by an act or omission.”
We have signed the European and UN declarations, but our case law also sets a high standard. I said that historically we have done well. The late Lord Bingham mentioned that 300 years ago the English Bill of Rights stated that punishment that is cruel and unusual should not be inflicted. So our history goes back more than 300 years and has been at the forefront.
However, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has said, our past has not always been adequate and may not be the standard we should attain now. Although the Prime Minister has said we do not sanction torture and do not get involved in it, I want the Minister to be clear today that we do not sanction complicity and are not involved in it. I want the Minister to say, “We do not sanction rendition and do not get involved in it”—I use the present tense because I do not want to influence the ongoing court cases.
Whether we like it or not, we lead globally against torture. That is important, because about a month ago I met a diplomat from another country and I talked about a torture case that is known to Amnesty International. When I mentioned the torture of sleep deprivation, I was corrected and told, “This is not torture. This is mistreatment.” Then I realised that although our law sets us against such treatment, whether physical or mental, or act or omission, we need to make it clear to other countries that we are absolutely and wholly against using such things as prolonged sleep deprivation, degrading treatment—the case I have referred to involved a fellow doctor in prison being made to eat his own faeces, while another prisoner was stripped naked and asked to crawl on all fours—and mental torture, such as when someone’s relative is executed or subjected to a mock execution in front of them. We must recognise such things as torture and not say that there are sub-levels of torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. We oppose it utterly and will lead in that field. I want the Minister to be clear about that.
Historically, we have done well at recognising and treating severe cases of mental and physical trauma. More than 100 years ago, we became specialists at treating soldiers who were victims of shellshock or who had been buried alive. Our medical specialists became adept at treatment and rehabilitation, and enabling people to be full members of the community. We led in that field. The late Helen Bamber was also a leader, with regard to knowledge of and respect for people who suffered torture, and their treatment and rehabilitation. There was a centre in Denmark, and Helen Bamber made our country one of the leaders in the field. Today we have specialist organisations, such as Freedom from Torture, which specialise in recognising the signs of torture, rehabilitating people who have experienced it and enabling them to be full members of the community. We have many success stories on which to build.
I therefore regret that although the Government have made clear statements against torture, which show the lead we are giving, they can and need to do better with respect to handling asylum cases involving evidence of torture. The Minister and the Secretary of State will be aware of the report “Proving Torture”, released in November, which contained a small number of clear instances where the decision to reject an asylum application, accompanied by a medico-legal report, was overturned by a higher tribunal because, worryingly, of the mishandling of specialist medical evidence. I understand that the Home Office may have done its own sample study. I am sure I have the Minister’s attention, as such instances are a waste of taxpayers’ money; however, the worrying thing is the additional distress caused to people seeking asylum who have been tortured, whether physically or mentally.
Whether the Minister refers to the clear cases presented by Freedom from Torture, or the cases that I believe have been looked into by the Home Office, he will recognise that there is a problem in the system, and that every caseworker needs some training on cases where torture may be involved. It is perhaps somewhat akin to the situation of general practitioners: they are not specialists, but they need knowledge of every specialty to be able to give adequate treatment and make a referral.
I shall cover my hon. Friend’s points in more detail when I sum up, but I wanted to point out that just because an appeal or further legal process can overturn the original decision, it does not necessarily mean that that decision was made wrongly on the basis of the facts. It may be that new facts come to light, and the decision can be based on better available information.
I appreciate what the Minister says, but I have seen a handful of cases—confidentially, without the names—and, without being a specialist myself, have talked to one of the doctors involved with the charity. From the small number I have seen, the decisions have been overturned not because of extra evidence, but because the evidence presented to the first caseworker was not handled adequately. On appeal, the information given was found to give sufficient grounds for granting asylum. It is not my field, but I have some relevant background and have had some experience in different countries of the simple treatment of people returning to a community having been tortured, so I have a great deal of respect for the specialty. I cannot believe that without training a non-medical caseworker would be able to understand the medico-legal report with respect to the need for asylum. In the 21st century, a specialist is needed to diagnose the invisible mental scars.
I gave an example earlier of the torture of one prisoner of conscience. For me, even saying the words “mock execution of a family member” upsets me. However, if the Home Office is talking about using specialist caseworkers, it must watch out that the specialists do not become hardened by having to hear and read such material day in, day out. Again, there is a similarity to what happens in therapeutic counselling, in which I do have a background. There are models in other fields and professions. It is mandatory for therapeutic counsellors to have regular supervision to check their bias and their own mental health. I do not believe that the Home Office is giving sufficient weight to the needs of the Home Office caseworkers. The great thing is that we have the expertise. Freedom from Torture, a UK-based organisation, is one of the global leaders in the field. The training programme has already been agreed by the Home Office, but just not rolled out for all caseworkers.
I support what the hon. Lady is saying, and it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response. According to the Freedom from Torture report for this debate, in many of the torture-related asylum cases it examined, where a refusal was overturned on appeal, the immigration judge specifically referred to the strength and high quality of the medical evidence. That suggests that the hon. Lady is right and that if the Home Office asylum caseworker had handled the case better, there would have been no need to go to appeal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and hope that Freedom from Torture and all the staff involved have heard his words. Again, I believe that we are leading. The specialty is a difficult one, so we should be proud that excellence has been attained in it. Asylum seekers should have confidence in our system. However, to refer back to the cases that I saw, without the names, it is depressing when a caseworker questions expertise on that level, with respect to understanding how distressed someone might be as a result of a particular mental torture. I would not question a specialist in that way if I were not in the field. The hon. Gentleman’s point was well made.
Better training is needed for all caseworkers. I am sure that the Minister is aware that many asylum cases do not initially present with evidence of torture, especially if the scars are invisible. It would be advantageous for the Home Office if training were rolled out for everyone. If it wants a specialist unit, it must be very careful about how to protect the members of staff from fatigue and maintain excellence. It takes time to do those small samples, and where the Home Office and Freedom from Torture did some, I believe that the quality assurance and the audit for these cases is lacking.
I fear that in the 21st century the number of cases is not going to decrease, so the Home Office needs to up its game. We have a 300-year history of being leaders on this issue. Right now there is a vacuum in the world for setting the standard. We have to fill that vacuum, because we are able to, and we have shown that historically. We should be transparent when we let ourselves down—it is not just letting down the people who have suffered; it is letting down the United Kingdom. I want the Government and the Minister to reaffirm our position as heading the world in standing against torture and all cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments.
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespersons at 4 o’clock, if not earlier. Other speakers should bear that in mind when making their contributions. I remind Members that the principle of parliamentary privilege does not prevail over the requirements of the sub judice rules if they are referring to current court cases. I ask them to take that very seriously in their remarks.
I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate on a hugely important topic. I commend the way in which the hon. Member for Twickenham introduced it.
I have the privilege of representing a significant number of residents who were born in Sri Lanka. Over the years, a number of them, particularly those from the Tamil community, have contacted my office or visited my advice surgery for help with their claims for asylum. A number of them have alleged that they have been victims of torture in Sri Lanka. Freedom from Torture has informed me that Sri Lanka remains its top country both for those receiving therapy and for medico-legal reports on torture in custody. That reflects a trend that it has seen over several years. How we treat the asylum cases of people from Sri Lanka who make allegations of torture is surely one of the key tests for how the Minister and the Home Office more generally handle asylum cases involving torture.
In its 2016 annual report, Amnesty International stated:
“Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees—including sexual violence—continued to be reported and impunity persisted for earlier cases.”
That is in relation to Sri Lanka.
“Suspicious deaths in police custody continued to be reported. Detainees died of injuries consistent with torture and other ill-treatment, including beatings or asphyxiation. Police claimed suspects committed suicide or in one case drowned while trying to escape.”
That is a 2016 Amnesty International report describing the situation in Sri Lanka.
In 2012, Human Rights Watch published a report about allegations of torture and other ill-treatment in Sri Lanka. It documented a number of cases of refused asylum seekers who were returned from this country to Sri Lanka to face ill-treatment and persecution. Indeed, the family member of a constituent of mine was returned to Sri Lanka, where he was subjected to torture.
The context underlines the point that it is vital that any claim for asylum must be assessed fairly and thoroughly, given that the stakes are so high. I pay tribute to those who work for the Home Office on asylum cases—it is far from a glamorous job, but it is hugely important to this country—and maintain the integrity of our borders and this country’s reputation as a place that takes allegations of torture seriously. We want to continue to be a place where those who have been tortured and have applied for asylum are taken particularly seriously. Thankfully, there has been some political progress and improvement in human rights in Sri Lanka since that 2012 report, but it is not yet enough.
I want to ask the Minister a number of questions about the way asylum claims are processed. The Freedom from Torture report that I referred to when I intervened on the hon. Member for Twickenham certainly fits with the experiences of some of my constituents. At the crux of any claim for asylum is an assessment of the claimant’s credibility. To be granted refugee status, asylum claimants need to show that there is a “reasonable degree of likelihood” that they will face persecution if they return to their country of origin. That is significantly lower than the standard of proof in criminal cases. Evidence of past persecution, and particularly of torture, is likely to be a strong indicator of the risk of future persecution, but asylum seekers are unlikely to be able to gather documentary evidence methodically as they flee, so medico-legal reports are among the most persuasive evidence available for the assessment of their claims. However, I have seen cases in which the evidence of a medical expert has been dismissed or questioned by a caseworker who has little or no clinical expertise. I have also seen cases in which one part of the claimant’s story is not believed, and is used to argue that their whole claim should be dismissed as incredible. The injuries documented by a medical expert are explained away as having occurred some other way.
Freedom from Torture described five ways in which medical experts work, which are not always considered properly by asylum caseworkers. It is concerning that caseworkers currently receive only a very short, one-hour slot in their induction training on handling medical evidence of torture. That clearly is not enough, given the problems in decision making that Freedom from Torture identified and that others in the House are aware of. Will the Minister respond to the first recommendation in the Freedom from Torture report and explain why the full-day training module that has been developed has not yet been rolled out for asylum caseworkers? Will he confirm that it will be rolled out as soon as possible?
Getting the decision right first time is clearly better for the claimant and is surely better for the taxpayer, too, as it spares the expense of a costly appeal. Crucially, it allows the claimant to get on with their life. Will the Minister give his view on whether the changes to legal aid in the previous Parliament have affected asylum seekers’ access to the legal advice that they might need to obtain a proper medico-legal report?
About 10 years ago, a pilot scheme was set up to try to improve the quality of asylum decision making. It involved closer collaboration between asylum caseworkers and legal representatives at an early stage in the process to ensure that a decision is make after all the facts of the case have been considered. I understand that it was followed up by the early legal advice project under the coalition Government. Will the Minister give his view on why those measures were not pursued further and whether that type of approach may be beneficial when considering asylum claims involving an allegation of torture?
Next week is International Women’s Day and so I want to ask the Minister for his views on how claims involving allegations of rape and sexual violence are considered. Does more need to be done to protect some of the most vulnerable asylum claimants, in particular in light of a number of disturbing revelations from Yarl’s Wood detention centre in recent years?
Furthermore, it is well known that anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder are triggered by distressing or frightening events of the sort that the hon. Member for Twickenham outlined, and that they can cause problems with concentration and memory, which may well affect sufferers’ ability to present their case properly in an asylum interview, in particular as they are asked to relive and relay those traumatic experiences. Is that proper consideration in the asylum decision-making process? Does more need to be done to give adequate training to decision makers?
Finally, on human rights abuses and torture in Sri Lanka specifically, I ask the Minister to take this away to colleagues at the Foreign Office. At the height of the conflict in Sri Lanka, Britain led the way in Europe on the removal of Sri Lanka from the GSP plus trading arrangements under the generalised system of preferences. GSP plus is granted only to countries in the developing world that have made significant progress on human rights. The European Commission’s removal of GSP plus from Sri Lanka signalled Europe’s concern, very much including Britain’s, about reported human rights abuses and, notably, the use of torture.
Last year Sri Lanka applied to access the GSP plus scheme again. Earlier this year the European Commission found that in its view Sri Lanka now met the criteria. As I said earlier, there has been some progress in addressing human rights concerns in Sri Lanka, in particular following the election of President Sirisena, but significant concern remains that human rights abuses including torture are ongoing in parts of the country and that, in particular, there will be no independent international involvement in the judicial process to examine allegations of such abuses and torture that have already taken place, especially at the end of the 2009 conflict.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and indeed the Foreign Office’s most recent human rights report all state that concerns about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka remain. I will be grateful if the Minister gives his view of what support for Sri Lanka’s re-entry to the GSP plus scheme says about Britain’s commitment to tackle torture throughout the world, in particular at a time when others, notably our friends across the Atlantic, seem to be stepping back from their leadership on the issue.
I am grateful, Mr Bailey, that you have found time for me to make a brief contribution to this important debate. I very much welcomed the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias), who spoke eloquently on many of the matters that I might otherwise have covered.
In the United Kingdom it is not new for us to be talking about torture. In fact, we have been talking about torture in this House for much of the past 1,000 years—although we were ordering much of it for an awfully long time, too. Various people including, most famously, Guido Fawkes were taken from inquisitions to appear before politicians, often in the Star Chamber, and ended up being tortured in places such as the Tower. We have long experience of torture in this country.
From bitter experience, however, we know that torture does not work—people get the answer they want, or think they want, rather than the answer they need. That is why sensible countries, ones that realise that the rule of law is about discovering the truth and not about exacting punishment, do not practise torture. I am proud that our country set the model on that through two Acts: the Bill of Rights; and the Treason Act 1708, which included Scotland—I say that for the benefit of the Members representing Scotland, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) of the Scottish National party and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) from those various islands of our wonderful country.
Those fundamental Acts set out what we now think of as a universal right under the United Nations or European conventions, which is the right not to be tortured. Unlike other rights, that right is completely unqualified: there is no situation in which torture is possible; there is no situation in which a country may derogate from that right; and there is no situation in which torture is ever tolerable. Even the right to life, we admit, is not absolute. If it were, the intervention to prevent people dying would be absurd, or a battle to protect our nation’s interest would be impossible. Torture is not like that; torture is an absolute, and it is so because it violates the very principles of a free and democratic society. It violates absolutely the integrity of the individual. It violates totally the right to life and the principles that have grown up in various ways from Judaeo-Christian and Islamic tradition. That is why it is so utterly abhorrent to us.
I am glad that we are holding this debate because it allows us to reinforce those views of torture and, I am sure, for the Minister to reinforce them on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, and to remind ourselves why they matter. Those views are not simply about carrying a banner of principle for us to wave at others in some sort of virtue-signalling way. That is not what they are about. Our views of torture are about protecting ourselves. The reason why we do not torture is not only a moral but a selfish one. We do not torture because it is wrong to do so, and because it leaves us more vulnerable and not better protected. Torture would leave us more exposed and in greater danger. That is why we do not do it.
The debate today is focused on asylum; that is not only about people coming to us but about stopping people needing to come to us. It is about nations with whom we very often and in many ways have good relations, whether in trade, culturally or historically—we often have very good relations with countries that practise torture. Part of our duty as a responsible, free and democratic state is to help our partners and, yes, even our friends to understand that torture is wrong, not only for moral reasons but because it is bad for them. Torture promotes violence, instability and the very unrest that many countries are seeking to prevent.
I will leave it there, except to pay tribute to some organisations, such as those that the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) mentioned when talking about the forms of torture that often are not recognised or are overlooked. I also pay tribute to an organisation that has done a lot to promote human rights—that is not to say that I agree with every one of the cases it has brought, because I certainly do not. The AIRE Centre—Advice on Individual Rights in Europe—did an awful lot of work with some of the new accession states to the European Union and with some of the states newly freed from Soviet tyranny to help them understand what rights are, why they matter and, in that context, why torture is always wrong. There are such organisations out there, and I very much welcome the work of Her Majesty’s Government to support them. I am glad to see cross-party support in the debate on such an important issue that is fundamental to our democracy and our freedom.
I, too, express my gratitude to the members of the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us the time to debate this subject. I commend the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) for her leadership in securing the debate. I note that, in a minor way, the pronunciation of the constituency of the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) risks becoming, for some people, an instrument of torture in itself.
The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) posed some very relevant and pointed questions to the Minister regarding the training of caseworkers in the Home Office. I will not repeat them, but they were pertinent and ones with which I would very much wish to associate myself.
Like others, I place on the record my appreciation for the many non-governmental and campaign organisations that work in this field. Freedom from Torture was mentioned, and I was present in November at the launch of its most recent piece of work, “Proving Torture”. I have been associated with Reprieve for many years and have campaigned with Amnesty International in different parts of the world over the years, principally on the abolition of the death penalty but also on human rights concerns more widely.
Whenever I have been in other parts of the world, it has struck me that however much we may beat ourselves up about our past misdeeds, foreign policy failings and other things, we are still seen, by and large, as a force for good in the world. That goes to the point that the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) made about the counterproductive nature of torture. It also touches on the point made by the hon. Member for Twickenham that we are a world leader in this area, and it is more important now than ever that we maintain that position.
At Foreign Office questions some time ago, I asked the Foreign Secretary whether he had raised the possibility of sharing intelligence with the Trump Administration in the event that they reverted to the use of torture, such as waterboarding or, as the President said during the campaign, something
“a hell of a lot worse”.
In the House, the Foreign Secretary said that that was an operational matter that he would not comment on —I think it is more a matter of policy myself—but in later correspondence he returned to the quote that the hon. Member for Twickenham offered us from the Prime Minister, who said that
“we do not sanction torture and do not get involved in it. That will continue to be our position.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 291.]
Those sentences should be on the desk of every Home Office and Foreign Office Minister. I would like to hear a more express statement about the possibility of sharing intelligence with any country in the world that uses torture, both because of our leadership position and because we must atone for some of our quite recent failings in this area.
The right hon. Gentleman heard me speak, I hope very clearly, about my views. I merely caution that we should use slightly more modified language than, “We share no intelligence with anyone who uses torture.” That would exclude so many people with whom we need a relationship built on trust. In many ways, our intelligence services, rather than NGOs or diplomats, are some of the best people to preach the message of freedom from torture.
That is a fair point. I put it in those terms—I know the hon. Gentleman’s background—because we have some damage to repair.
I am mindful of your strictures about the sub judice rule, Mr Bailey. We now have the final Supreme Court judgment in respect of the Government’s preliminary points in the Belhaj and Boudchar case, which I referred to earlier. I will not talk about the substance of that case, because that would clearly be inappropriate and I would be ruled out of order, but it is a matter of public record that the Government so far have spent £750,000 pursuing those unsuccessful preliminary points. The case will presumably go through the courts to whatever conclusion is reached, but it is worth reflecting that we have got this far at the cost of £750,000 but we are just back at the starting line, and a lot more could still be spent on that case. The plaintiffs have offered to settle for £3—£1 each from the Government, the former Foreign Secretary and Sir Mark Allen, whose involvement in the case is fairly well documented.
The al-Saadi case, which was very similar, was settled out of court without any requirement for the case to be taken. More significantly, Belhaj and Boudchar want an apology as well as their £3. No apology was made in the al-Saadi case, but it cost the British taxpayer some £2.2 million. That is why it is important that as we enter a new phase of international relations with a new Administration in the White House, rightly or wrongly, we should have concerns about their approach to torture and put out there the highest possible standards. We should not forget—the Crown Prosecution Service has already said this—that Sir Mark Allen sought political authority for his actions in the al-Saadi and Belhaj cases, so it is difficult for us as a country to deny any knowledge or complicity in them.
Freedom from Torture’s “Proving Torture” report contains several highly concerning statistics from the sample of cases that it examined, and I will remind the House of some of those. Some 76% of the cases that Freedom from Torture studied in preparing that report eventually resulted in successful appeals. I take the Minister’s point that new information is sometimes provided on appeal that was not there in the first instance. Appeals may succeed for any number of reasons, but the fact that 76% of cases resulted in asylum being granted on appeal should concern Home Office Ministers. I suspect that if a judge sitting in a sheriff court in Scotland or perhaps a Crown court in England had 76% of his or her cases overturned on appeal, the Lord Chancellor would look carefully at the way that judge went about his or her business.
There is more context in that report to support my contention that the 76% figure is concerning. In 74% of the cases examined by Freedom from Torture, asylum caseworkers substituted their own opinion for that of clinicians, and in 30% of cases, asylum caseworkers disputed or queried clinicians’ qualifications or expertise. Those things should cause concern. They give context for the 76% of successful appeals that I referred to and relate to the points raised by the hon. Member for Harrow West.
The hon. Member for Twickenham was absolutely right to say that the Home Office has a duty of care towards people who do such enormously difficult and taxing work, from which significant political pressure is never far away and which is done in the professional context of an occasionally toxic debate. I worked as a public prosecutor for some years a long time ago. No one was supposed to work for more than six to 12 months at the very most on cases involving the sexual abuse of children, because they were such difficult and taxing cases, and the people who were involved in that sort of work ended up being burnt out. For that reason, I suspect that rotation among caseworkers who do asylum work should be taken a bit more seriously than it appears to be.
I am mindful of your strictures about time, Mr Bailey, so although I could probably say a great deal more about this subject, I shall conclude my remarks and allow others to take part.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I extend my appreciation to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias), who, along with other Members, was responsible for securing this important debate. I thank everyone who has taken part in it.
I should begin by stating my party’s position. The Scottish National party believes that asylum seekers and refugees must be treated humanely, fairly and with dignity, and that their rights must be upheld at every stage of the asylum process. Indeed, Freedom from Torture has welcomed the SNP’s efforts to put pressure on the UK Government to influence immigration and asylum policy to protect survivors of torture across the whole of the UK. We will continue to use our position in Westminster to influence policy areas across the whole of the UK.
Asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable groups in society. Having fled their home countries, often they will have left all of their possessions behind. They may have been subjected to torture or witnessed their loved ones being killed, or sometimes both. Often, their health and wellbeing will be seriously affected. The findings of the recent Freedom from Torture report “Proving Torture” make for tough reading. The organisation’s expert clinicians provide in-depth evidence, in line with international standards, documenting torture scars and psychological trauma as part of a torture survivor’s asylum claim.
Bureaucracy and poor decision making mean that torture survivors can be wrongly refused asylum and experience months—often years—of disbelief and uncertainty. When a survivor of torture is wrongly refused asylum, they experience unimaginable distress. For many people, it is life or death. They know that when the wrong decision is made, they could be forced to return to their torturers. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) mentioned that, after being denied asylum, some of the Sri Lankans who have been returned have faced ill treatment, abuse or worse back in Sri Lanka. Legal appeals are harrowing for these people and, as has been mentioned, let us not forget that they are costly to UK taxpayers.
The precise number of torture survivors seeking protection in the UK is unknown. The Home Office does not collect statistics on the number of asylum claims involving torture allegations. A recent study suggests that 27% of adult forced migrants living in high-income countries such as the UK are survivors of torture. Perhaps when the Minister responds he could expand on why those statistics are not routinely collected. I am very concerned that our system is letting down extremely vulnerable individuals.
What survivors of torture need is safety and access to rehabilitation. That cannot even begin until a sound decision is made on their claim, yet the report found that survivors seeking asylum in the UK can find it almost impossible to prove to the Home Office that they were tortured.
As we have heard, many of the report’s findings focus on the role that caseworkers play. I take on board what was mentioned by the hon. Member for Twickenham and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) that caseworkers should not become hardened to the stories of asylum seekers; indeed their physical and mental health should be monitored regularly.
There appear to be so many failures when cases are assessed, with some of the charges being levelled including: failure to apply the correct standard of proof for asylum claims; caseworkers replacing the expert opinion of a clinician with their own; and taking the wrong approach to medical evidence when assessing the credibility of the asylum claim. That will likely come as no surprise, unfortunately, to any Member who has dealt with an asylum case. There certainly seem to be failings in how asylum seekers are dealt with. I appreciate that there are some fantastic people working for the Home Office, dealing with incredibly difficult histories and vulnerable people. From my experience, however, there certainly seem to be occasions when the process is lacking in fairness and dignity. At the core of the problem seems to be bad practice. I certainly hope that the Minister will seriously address that when responding.
The chief executive of Freedom from Torture has said:
“Most of the bad practice revealed in our research clearly contravenes Home Office policy guidance for asylum caseworkers on the correct treatment of medical evidence of torture. The Home Office has an excellent training programme to help caseworkers implement this policy correctly but has never rolled it out.”
Home Office employees should be adequately resourced to carry out their duties in a humane manner and training should be the cornerstone of that. That training is crucial if guidance is to be appropriately followed.
In a joint letter to the immigration and border policy directorate, signatories from several organisations including Medical Justice, Liberty, the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group and Women for Refugee Women expressed concern that, in their experience, Home Office caseworkers do not regularly or properly apply the full rigour of guidance in relation to the “very exceptional circumstances” for detention of vulnerable individuals. Those detained individuals are being failed by the system.
The SNP shares the Scottish Refugee Council’s concerns about short-term holding facilities
“which have consistently received poor inspection reports by HM inspectorate of prisons and have been deemed unsafe for women.”
Perhaps the Minister in response would care to address that point and the application of guidance in that regard.
The SNP believes that the Home Office also needs to drop its proposals on the definition of torture for asylum seekers, which further erode safeguards for torture survivors, and institute a process that properly protects vulnerable detainees. The fact that the most recent change in the Home Office rules on definition of torture in December was rejected by the courts after 21 days is yet another example of the Government’s disregard for the treatment of asylum seekers in their pursuit of toxic policies toward refugees.
It is utterly shameful that that was introduced despite mounting criticism of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention, including in the Shaw report, which the Government have yet to respond to. The direction of travel is particularly worrying; the detention of vulnerable people used to happen only in very exceptional circumstances, but now there is guidance that the Home Office should seek to balance risk of harm in detention against the individual’s immigration factors. Again, the principles of fairness and dignity appear to have been all but discarded.
In summary, I would appreciate it if the Minister could address the following. Why are statistics on the number of asylum claims involving torture allegations not available? Will the Home Office commit to rectifying that? An investigation needs to happen on the allegations of bad practice among Home Office caseworkers. Will he also address the reasons why the training programme has not been rolled out and the Home Office’s intentions in that regard, and the issues with applying guidance on detention of vulnerable individuals?
As the hon. Member for Harrow West stated, the UK takes allegations of torture seriously. It would be good if the Minister would consult with his Foreign Office colleagues on torture happening around the globe and ask them to use their influence positively to try to change the thinking of some of the worst perpetrators of torture throughout the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) on the persuasive case she made at the start and on bringing the subject to the House today. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on their speeches, too.
As we have seen in the debate, all political parties are united in their complete rejection of torture and mistreatment. Torture is illegal and it is internationally banned. When allegations are made, it is vital that they are fully investigated and that the public have confidence in the process and its outcome. In this Parliament we have seen the pressure mounted by the British Parliament contribute to Shaker Aamer’s release. It is therefore vital that, while we preach that there is no place for torture or mistreatment of detainees abroad, that applies at home to people on British soil. We have moral and legal obligations to asylum seekers. In order to stop torture from happening around the world, it is crucial that Britain sets an example as a country that respects and upholds its human rights commitments.
While the Opposition have a proud record of standing up for the rights of everyone, there are certain slightly worrying developments in the current Government that make their commitment to human rights look a bit more questionable. When the permanent secretary to the Foreign Office appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee, he said that human rights were
“not one of our top priorities.”
That is quite a frightening statement; ethics should be on the Foreign Office’s map. I think that he was attacked by the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) for making that statement. Britain’s voice in the world is a reflection not only of our economic prowess but of the moral leadership that we demonstrate on human rights. If they are no longer a top priority, we cannot lecture the rest of the world about the rule of law and freedoms and rights that every human being is entitled to.
I am relieved and pleased that the contract between the Ministry of Justice and Saudi Arabia to build a prison was cancelled in the end. I understand that the then Foreign Secretary, who is now the Chancellor, accused the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) of being naive on that matter, which gives the impression that perhaps some Government Members do not want to prioritise human rights, which, by extension, include subjects such as torture.
I was very happy with the cross-party support at the November presentation of the “Proving Torture” report. I give credit to the Queen’s Counsels from the hon. Lady’s party, who were arm in arm with similar Members from my party. I believe that this has cross-party support from both Back-Bench and Front-Bench Members.
I do not doubt the hon. Lady’s commitment to human rights, given everything she has said on them in the Chamber. The Home Secretary is due to visit Saudi Arabia later this month; it will be interesting to see if she will use that opportunity to challenge one of our “closest allies” on some of the less palatable aspects of its record on human rights and torture. At a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister to condemn President Trump’s comments on torture. He has supported things like hooding, which is sensory deprivation, stress positioning and waterboarding, which the hon. Lady mentioned. President Trump seems to have a gung-ho attitude to those and does not equate them with torture. I would like to hear stronger statements from our Prime Minister condemning those comments.
I have limited time and the hon. Gentleman spoke at length earlier; I will be happy to speak to him afterwards. I think any special relationship should also be friendly. We can be a critical friend to countries and point these things out; maybe not holding their hand but holding them to account in some way. We are debating the UK asylum system and not any of these other people, so I will get back to that.
We all seem to have seen the same figures from Freedom from Torture’s “Proving Torture” report. Other Members have made those points very graphically. We have to consider the moral dimension to this, as well as our legal obligations; we are talking about protection for the most vulnerable in our society. The statistic just quoted was that 27% of adult forced migrants living in high-income countries have survived torture in their country of origin, yet we continually hear stories of their humiliating treatment when they seek to prove it. The standard of proof seems to be very high, and it is often confusing when they have to prove what happened to them. It is a chicken and egg situation. There is little other than medical evidence to prove their torture, but it is nigh on impossible after the fact to prove that it was torture, even when extensive medical evidence is presented; we hear that medical evidence is often disregarded, mistreated, misinterpreted or ignored by the Home Office. It would be good to hear the Minister clarify how that can be tightened up.
Hon. Members also quoted the fact that 76% of such cases that are unsuccessful are overturned on appeal, which is alarmingly high when compared to just 30% of standard asylum cases and indicates a serious problem in the Home Office’s handling of asylum claims. As the hon. Member for Twickenham pointed out, that requires correction by a judge in a specialist immigration tribunal, which comes at considerable cost to the public purse—UK taxpayers.
Not only is it International Women’s Day next week but apparently March is also International Women’s Month, so it is worth pointing out that rape is shockingly not recognised as torture for women asylum seekers. I think that will come as a surprise to many hon. Members. Women remain particularly vulnerable to deportation. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West referred to legal aid for asylum cases; I know that that is probably another debate for another day, but I flag it up as it is connected to this debate. I have also had constituents from Sri Lanka pressing me. There was a debate in this place last week that I was unable to attend, but I am glad that my hon. Friend expressed his concern about the Sri Lankan Government’s torture record and that we should treat asylum seekers from that country with the respect that they deserve.
I wanted to be brief, but while I am here I will flag up my concern that we may be led out of the European Court of Human Rights; I believe that the plan has been shelved for this Parliament, but it could still happen. It is a live policy.
I have said that I will press on without interventions on this occasion. The ECHR is one of the most effective torture prevention tools in history, and it was drafted by British lawyers, including Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, then a Conservative Member of Parliament. Having our own, unilateral British bill of rights seems to send the signal to countries with questionable human rights records, such as Russia and Turkey, that international human rights obligations can be shirked or are an optional extra. It also undermines the Government’s foreign policy objective of championing a rules-based international system.
I know that the Minister has received a lot of questions from other hon. Members, but I have one for him. I think the systematic decision-making errors that we keep hearing about in these cases are a matter of quality control and auditing. Will the Minister reaffirm the UK’s position as a champion for the absolute ban on torture? I am optimistic that he will. Will he also implement immediate measures to improve decision making in asylum claims made by survivors of torture to address those weaknesses?
We live in tumultuous times of turmoil and turbulence, when the only predictable thing is unpredictability. The UK has a proud history of standing up for human rights and taking care of people in need, and it has never been more important to reaffirm that commitment and make sure that it works in practice.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) for raising these important matters. It is a subject that she rightly says is a global issue, and one which, aside from the academic and clinical debates, has profound human consequences for individual survivors of torture. I am proud to share this Chamber with all colleagues who have spoken today, although I take exception to the use of the word “toxic” by the Scottish National party spokesperson when describing the Government’s policy; I certainly do not recognise that.
I will restate the Government’s position: torture is one of the most abhorrent violations of human rights and human dignity, and we unreservedly condemn its use as a matter of fundamental principle. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have made that point quite recently. The United Kingdom Government will continue to raise concerns about such flagrant abuses of human rights with relevant foreign Governments at every opportunity. I commend the work of organisations that support survivors of torture, and I believe our policy on handling asylum claims based on torture provides effective protection to those who need it.
All asylum claims lodged in the United Kingdom, including those involving claims of past torture, are carefully considered on their individual merits. Decision makers are fully aware of the importance of making the right decision and the consequences of refusing those who need protection. I assure hon. Members that such decisions are not taken without full consideration. Our published policy on considering asylum claims in which torture is raised and, in particular, when medical evidence is also provided is very clear and requires decision makers to approach such cases with sensitivity, to allow reasonable time for medical evidence relevant to the decision to be provided, and to carefully consider such evidence to reach an informed decision.
In an area such as this, one can never be satisfied, because that sounds like complacency. Indeed, staff development and training is something we constantly have under review. Some of the points made in this debate show that we do not always get it right. Tribute was paid, I think by the hon. Gentleman himself, to the staff who do this work. It is often a thankless task, and they do it with a degree of professionalism that we can all admire.
The Minister will be aware that I referenced a full-day training module that was rolled out to some asylum caseworkers, but not all, when the last asylum policy instruction was issued in 2014. Will he now instruct the relevant civil servant to ensure that all asylum caseworkers benefit from that full-day training module?
I absolutely agree that it is important that staff get the relevant training. It is also important that staff with the most experience are directed to the cases where their experience can be most brought to bear. I will continue to engage with officials to ensure we are doing that as well as we can. I take this very seriously indeed.
When considering asylum claims made in the UK, it is absolutely right that we offer protection to those who face torture on return to their country. However, that does not mean that all survivors of past torture will automatically qualify for protection. An individual needs to show there is a real risk of serious harm or persecution on return to their country. In some cases, the situation in a country can become normalised and change. We welcome it when conflict finishes or particular situations are resolved in countries around the world.
I appreciate concerns about decision quality and how we consider medical evidence in practice, which was highlighted in the Freedom from Torture report published last year. However, I would point out that the sample of cases in that report represents less than 1% of all asylum decisions made last year, and some of the cases used are nearly three years old. That does not mean that I do not take those individual cases very seriously. I must stress that Home Office officials are committed to approaching cases involving allegations of torture with the utmost sensitivity.
My officials have also recently met Freedom from Torture representatives. While we believe the findings in the report are not representative of the wider asylum system, we are nevertheless taking steps to further improve the decision-making process. That will include forming a specialised team who will review and sign off all cases where a medical report is provided. We are also reviewing the training programme delivered to new decision makers. I can assure Members that we are committed to getting decisions right the first time and to working with expert organisations such as Freedom from Torture to ensure that survivors of torture get the support they need.
I am pleased to hear about the engagement with Freedom from Torture, and I encourage the Minister to consider that. I think that Freedom from Torture acknowledged when it launched the report that it was a small sample of cases. Its finding that 76% of asylum cases involving torture were granted on appeal is something that the Minister’s Department should be able to confirm or contradict. Is he able to do so?
I will see what stats we have on that. I am aware that where there are judicial reviews against us in such cases, we win virtually every one—I think the last figures I saw showed that we have lost 45 cases out of 18,000. It is not always the case that cases brought to us are successful.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned medical reports from specialists. We do not restrict who can provide a medical report for the purposes of submitting evidence in support of an asylum claim. There are accepted international legal standards, as set out in the Istanbul protocol, “Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”, which applies to the documentation of torture. We believe it is appropriate that, as a minimum, those guidelines are followed in preparing reports.
All asylum decision makers receive extensive training on how to consider asylum claims. That includes vicarious trauma training for caseworkers, to guard against hardening. We are well aware of how people can become—dare I say—used to hearing stories such as these, which is really worrying. As previously highlighted, we are committed to continuous improvement.
Let me be clear: torture has no place anywhere in the world, and we must do all we can to stamp it out. The UK Government consistently raise concerns about the use of torture, enforced disappearances and alleged police abuses, and will continue to do so. I am sure Members will be aware that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), regularly raises human rights concerns in his dealings with overseas Governments and officials.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham raised the position of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s position is clear: the UK stands firmly against the use of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. In no circumstances would we consider approving a request from a foreign Government to conduct an extraordinary rendition through the UK or one of our overseas territories.
That question is probably better directed to the Foreign Office. I know that the situation is much improved in Sri Lanka, which we welcome, but the hon. Gentleman might have evidence that he wishes to make available to Foreign Office Ministers, so that they are aware of it. I am not fully briefed on the situation in Sri Lanka. I know things are improving, which is good news, but from the points he has made, we know there is still some way to go.
We must support those in need of protection to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. That is the fastest route to safety. International obligations under the refugee convention do not require us to consider claims made outside the UK, but we continue to support refugees in-region through our substantial aid contributions and resettlement schemes.
I will say a few words about the background of our “adults at risk” policy. The adults at risk in immigration detention policy came into force on 12 September and was accompanied by detailed caseworker guidance, following the laying of statutory guidance in Parliament. The policy is based on balancing the risk of considerations against immigration factors and on detaining vulnerable individuals only when the immigration factors outweigh the immigration considerations in any given case. It is part of the Government’s response to Stephen Shaw’s review of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention.
Measures put in place under the Immigration Act 2016, along with a new policy on adults at risk in detention and other improvements to casework processes, represent a comprehensive package of safeguards for all vulnerable detainees in the immigration system, including pregnant women. Those measures have been developed in response to Stephen Shaw’s independent review of detainee welfare. Indeed, I have made a point of visiting some of our immigration removal centres to see the conditions there. I am well aware that many people associate detention with the torture they have had inflicted upon them, and therefore there is a concern that people will see detention as bringing back the terrible experiences they have had.
Certainly. We get a number of requests. I know there has also been some discussion with the Home Affairs Committee, and we are particularly keen to prioritise that visit if we can, because it is important that the Committee sees that as part of its work. However, I will look at that request and see what we can do to accelerate it.
I want to make it absolutely clear that where people are detained, it is for the minimum time possible. The dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance. I would like to leave a few minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham to sum up, so I will make a final comment. We are clear that the claims of those who seek asylum in the UK will be carefully considered by well-trained and conscientious decision makers, who are expected to take into account all available evidence to reach an informed decision.
I would like to repeat the question I asked earlier about the number of asylum claims involving torture allegations. There is no log of that at the moment. Will the Minister give a clear guarantee that he will look at that and put in place a log, so that we know how many asylum claims involve torture allegations?
Interestingly, I have asked the same question myself, and the answer is not quite as simple as it may seem, because in some cases multiple reasons are given for an asylum claim, and in other cases in which asylum has been refused on one ground, a new ground has then been put forward. Sometimes the figures are not quite as easily come to as perhaps we would like. I will certainly see what I can do, but I have been asking the same question myself and have been told, “It isn’t as simple, Minister, as you would like to think.” There are often quite complex cases involving a number of different reasons that may have been submitted at different times during the legal process.
I sense that the Minister is perhaps trying to get to his peroration, but if I may, I shall take advantage of the time remaining. In the course of my remarks, I referred to the Belhaj case. I am mindful of all the strictures on that, but does the Minister agree that it is in the national interest now, given the judgment of the Supreme Court, that we have an early resolution of it?
I am always very cautious about commenting on specific cases. The right hon. Gentleman is smiling, probably because he is getting the answer that he expected, but he has certainly raised the issue, and it is particularly important that we ensure that all the legal processes that we are involved in are conducted in the best interests of the taxpayer and the best interests of those who are vulnerable and need our support.
We are clear, as we make these informed decisions, that those who would face torture if returned will be granted protection here in the UK. I believe that our current policy delivers on these important goals: it supports those genuinely in need of protection in the UK because they are at risk of torture if returned, and it is absolutely consistent with our international obligations.
I thank everyone who has taken part for such a wide-ranging discussion. I appreciate every single contribution.
I express particular thanks to the Minister for his sensitivity and clarity. I note that, on behalf of the Government, he unreservedly condemns the use of torture. I am very grateful to him for being clear about not using even British overseas territories for rendition. I am sure that we will get equally clear statements from the Government about complicity.
The Minister said that the published policy was clear. I hope that he will take back to the Department the information from all hon. Members present that we feel that, in practice, it is lacking. That is a cross-party message. I applaud the fact that the Minister will continue to engage with officials and that he is concerned about the quality of decision making. I reiterate what was said by other hon. Members and, in particular, the point made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) that we need an audit. We need quality assurance in the Department, and an audit.
I appreciate the Minister’s clarity and I urge the Home Office to do a proper audit of asylum claims in which torture is involved or suspected. I am glad that the Minister acknowledges the issue of case hardening, but a strategy needs to be in place. There was mention of claims made outside the UK. The point is that we can be a global leader. We might be able to send our experts and, hopefully, Home Office caseworkers; if they improve their expertise, we can then also guide other countries.
I pay credit to the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), who expressed concern for constituents with a background in Sri Lanka, which is still of exceptional concern. Unfortunately, I do not believe that we have heard today that the full day’s training has been rolled out; that does not appear to be the case.
I appreciate the words of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I absolutely agree that the right to be free from the experience of torture is an unqualified right; indeed, it is an inalienable, non-derogable right. The point was very well made that we realise in this country that torture actually makes us more vulnerable.
I do not know how serious the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) was, but I think it was a good point that on every desk in the Home Office and Foreign Office should be the words: “We do not sanction torture and are not involved in it”. I agree with him on that. He raised a very important point about the ethics of, and clarity about, sharing intelligence with countries that practise torture. I think that shows that we need more time for this debate—I am sure that the Backbench Business Committee will take note of that today. Again, we need auditing; we need statistics.
As the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) said, Foreign Office statements should be clear. I do have some disagreements with the hon. Lady. I do not believe that we should be lecturing the rest of the world; I believe we should be engaging with them and leading. I have really valued the cross-party tone of the debate and I value the Minister’s sensitivity. I am sorry, because I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, but on these policy matters, I do not believe that we will be successful, as a House of Commons, by trying to exacerbate any divisions. Apart from that contribution, I think we have power in this debate.
My final point is to show how the UK leads in this world where torture exists. We beat torture by rehabilitating people and making them full members of our community. I pay respect to those in the Public Gallery. You will not be able to know which one of those people has been tortured, because they are a full member of, and contributing valuably to, our community.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK policy on torture and the treatment of asylum claims.