Tuesday 4 July 2017
[David Hanson in the Chair]
Persecution of Christians: Role of UK Embassies
I beg to move,
That this House has considered persecution of Christians and the role of UK embassies.
Today is 4 July, independence day for the United States of America, which enshrined religious freedom as one of the most fundamental constitutional rights. Despite the fact that it is a celebration of victory over us British—every person in this room—it also celebrates the concept of freedom, which must always be celebrated and cherished. Today’s debate is about the right to religious freedom and how the House can best help achieve that.
Both at home and abroad, conflict along religious lines remains a consistent feature of human life and a considerable barrier to building stable societies. Although religion is not necessarily the driver of global conflict, conflict often manifests along religious lines, and those who suffer violence are often targeted because of their beliefs or because of the faith group with which they identify. Even when certain groups do not experience violence, they can often be discriminated against in terms of work, education, healthcare and in many other ways that can limit their chances of improving their lives.
Although there are many complex and interconnected factors that lead to violence within a state, there is a correlation between states with high levels of freedom of religion or belief violations and states considered to have had low levels of peace or high levels of terrorism—the correlation between the two is clear. The Pew Forum Research Centre assesses that out of the 16 countries with high hostilities towards religious groups, 11 have low or very low peace levels and nine have high or very high incidences of terrorism, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace global terrorism index. That makes them some of the most violent countries on the planet.
I am very pleased to have secured the first debate in Westminster Hall in this new Parliament; I am sure I will be back once or twice, but that is by the way. It is important to have this debate. I should have declared an interest at the beginning; I apologise for not having done so, Mr Hanson. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on international freedom of religion or belief and on Pakistan religious minorities, so the issue is very real for me. I thank Members for the turnout; there is a good balance here of Members from all parties.
A failure to recognise the role of religion and to promote freedom of belief will make much more difficult—if not impossible—the work of embassies and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and other Departments as they try to build more stable societies. The roles of the Minister and our Government are at the crux of the debate.
I will mention a few brief cases that outline the depth of persecution across the world. It is sometimes good to remind ourselves of what we have that other people do not. People do not take note of our car registrations and take pictures of us as we go to our churches on Sundays, but there are places in the world where that happens.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Before he goes on to itemise some aspects of persecution, does he agree that in addition to the various departmental responsibilities and the good work that has been done there, there are various non-governmental agencies such as Open Doors and other groups that have highlighted the topic he is discussing today? They are to be highly commended for so doing.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. In the Gallery today are people with a particular interest in this issue: Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, Premier Christian Radio, and people who highlight this issue across the world. We thank them for their work. As my hon. Friend said, their work is good as well.
The Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch, His Holiness Abune Antonios, aged 89, has spent more than 10 years under house arrest. His continued imprisonment coincides with an increased crackdown on Eritrean Christians by the Eritrean authorities, 122 of whom were reportedly rounded up and detained in May. Many of those detained have been subject to torture—by being kept in metal shipping containers without water and flogged, for example. In May, all members of the Kale Hiwot Church in Adiquala were detained, including 12 children. Children are seen as a threat by some Governments, even though they are young. They are young enough to understand the powerful words of the Bible, but at the same time Governments see them as a threat, which annoys me.
Russia’s Supreme Court in Moscow recently declared that the Jehovah’s Witness national headquarters in St Petersburg and all 395 local organisations were extremist. The court banned all their activity immediately and ordered their property to be seized by the state. That is the first time a court has ruled that a registered national centralised religious organisation is extremist and banned it.
So-called Islamic State has led attacks against Egyptians on the basis of their beliefs, heavily targeting Coptic Christians since the attack of June 2016, in which Father Raphael Moussa was shot dead in North Sinai. In December 2016, 29 people were killed in a bombing near Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral. On Palm Sunday 2017, 47 were killed in twin attacks on churches in Tanta and Alexandria, and in May at least 28 Coptic Christians were killed when their bus was targeted by ISIS. Hundreds were injured in those attacks.
In February 2017, ISIS released a video vowing to kill all Egyptian Christians. ISIS is a real threat to everyone in that area. The House and the Government need to express solidarity with Christians wherever they are in the world.
The case of the Coptic Christians highlights what this debate is focused on. It is difficult for people in Egypt to speak up publicly about the persecution, which puts responsibility on Government-to-Government relationships and the pressure that can be applied behind the scenes.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We both had an opportunity to visit Iraq and to understand the issue he has highlighted. As he rightly says, we must speak up on behalf of those who cannot be heard and who have no voice. Today in this Chamber, we will be their voice.
I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that the persecution of Christians is nothing new. Those who believe in the biblical truth of the gospel have always been persecuted. We do not have to go to other countries to see that; we see it in the British Isles, where street preachers and others are told to remove themselves from the streets. If we live in an age of equality, that should be rectified.
On the hon. Gentleman’s campaign for equality and freedom of expression and on the British Government’s advocating human rights abroad, should not the Government advocate the rights of homosexual men—for instance, those in Chechnya who are being tortured and killed because of their homosexuality—as well as the rights of Christians?
I agree. This debate is about the persecution of Christians, but I wholeheartedly support what he says. I have no issues with that.
Christians have lived in Iraq for two millennia, but are currently on the verge of extinction. Many have fled areas controlled by ISIS and other Islamic extremists. Overall, persecution in Iraq is characterised by impunity, the threat of attacks and second-class treatment by the authorities. The Christian population, which before 2003 numbered as many as 1.4 million, dwindled to 350,000 and is now estimated to be around 250,000.
As in Iraq, the Christian population in Syria has fallen dramatically in recent years, from 1.25 million in 2011 to approximately half a million. The situation in Syria is characterised by heavy persecution of all types of Christians in areas held by ISIS and other Islamic militants. In those areas, Christians are often given the ultimatum: convert to Islam or die.
Can you imagine, Mr Hanson? What would we in this House do, as Christians, if we were given that challenge? I would like to think we would stand firm in our beliefs. That has been the stark and cold reality for Christians in Syria, and they have fled from areas held by Islamic State and areas destroyed during the conflict.
I happily served with the hon. Gentleman on the Defence Committee. It is absolutely right that Britain should stand up for human rights and the right of expression of religion right the way across the world. Many from the various Christian denominations in our constituencies believe that, because of our historic and cultural heritage, we should play a particular role in standing up for Christians’ rights to exercise their freedom of belief or religion in various parts of the world. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
We are honoured to have the right hon. Gentleman here. He brings his years of wisdom and knowledge to the debate. His words are exactly what we need, and I thank him for them.
Turning back to China—in my Ulster Scots accent, some of the words and names will never sound like Chinese—Pastor Zhang Shaojie was sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud and for gathering a crowd to disturb public order. He was detained without formal documentation on November 2013, along with 20 other members of the Nanle county Christian church. Church members, lawyers and Christians visiting the family of the detained Protestant pastor were beaten, harassed and detained by hired thugs, police and Government agencies. In December 2013, there were significant questions about the fairness of his trial. Reports from the pastor’s daughter are that he is on the verge of death after suffering various forms of torture while serving his 12-year sentence.
In Burma, following hundreds—probably thousands—of allegations and the co-ordinated documentation by Rohingya groups of mass killings, mass rapes and the destruction of whole villages, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a team to interview Rohingya refugees who had recently fled to Bangladesh. Some 70,000 had fled. Based on more than 200 interviews, which is a substantial evidential base, OHCHR issued a damning flash report on February 3, complete with harrowing tales of the burning alive of elderly Rohingya men and the slitting of children’s throats— unspeakable wickedness. The UN estimates that Burmese authorities may have killed as many as 1,000 Rohingya men in recent violence alone.
The Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto declared that they would
“expand…global efforts to combat…violence against people because of their faith”.
In the recent Shrove Tuesday, Easter and Finsbury Park mosque attack statements, our Prime Minister said that we must take measures
“to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practice their beliefs openly and in peace and safety.”
With that in mind, I look to the Minister, with whom I spoke beforehand. I wish him well in his new position. I know that he knows the issues well, and I have no doubt that his response will be exactly what we in this Chamber want to hear. I am anticipating a good response; I believe and know from our conversations that that is how the Minister’s mind works and his heart thinks. I would be grateful if he clarified what the measures will be, and I offer the APPG’s assistance in taking them further. We are here to enable Government to take such things forward. We had a meeting last week in which we had the opportunity to hear from Government officials about how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and other bodies work together. In his intervention, the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) mentioned the Defence Committee. I think there is a role for that Committee on where we go and how we can collectively work together better.
At that excellent meeting with the Minister, it was important that the Members present stressed the need to take a cross-departmental approach and to explain to the British public why using taxpayer funds to tackle things such as the persecution of religious minorities abroad is important for security back home.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention, and for her contribution to the meeting we had with the Minister. I think all of us at that meeting were focused on how we could do better.
I come to what I hope the Minister and his Department will be able to do. Will he ensure that displaced communities in Iraq and Syria are able to return home safely? I think that would be an aspiration of us all, but how will that happen? I am ever mindful that the Minister has just taken up his role, but knowing his history and past comments, I am sure he will be able to respond.
In the light of the above cases, we ask Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that UK embassies are resourced to have a human rights focus incorporated in the work of the embassy and, specifically, to report and monitor on freedom of religion or belief. That is one issue we spoke about last week. In his response, the Minister indicated a willingness to make that happen; for it to happen, we look to the Minister for those resources. We need the people in those places to have the necessary training. If done properly, that will allow UK embassies to assess the appropriate time to intervene on issues of persecution, before they escalate too much, and will also allow embassies to assess the appropriate means of raising cases.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office toolkit on freedom of religion or belief has been sent to all FCO country desk officers and embassies to help in situations of persecution. The toolkit explains what to look out for in potential cases of persecution, providing a list of questions to check against. It provides guidelines on what can be done to ameliorate the situation. The toolkit outlines the methodology of response, but we ask the Government to ensure that embassies are asked what they are doing to use and implement the toolkit. It is all very well to have it in the armoury, but if it is not used or used incorrectly, we will fail to move forward in the way we should.
Embassies are due to take a lead in determining projects for the human rights and democracy fund. In his intervention, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) referred to human rights. The embassies have the opportunity to address that now, and we need to be using the toolkit regularly where it is possible, necessary and applicable. The hon. Gentleman is right, and I support that wholeheartedly. Considerable consultation should be taken up with civil society and faith-based actors on this matter. That is a way forward.
Ensuring that FCO and DFID partners and projects do not discriminate based on religion or belief is crucial. We need the mindset in the FCO, DFID, Defence—in Government policy singularly and collectively—to ensure that discrimination based on religion or belief does not take place. That means ensuring that the UK is not supporting any programme that provides humanitarian or other support to one group of people based on their beliefs, while withdrawing it from another.
When I first came to this House in 2010, there was a statement about the floods in Pakistan. I was aware from my own church, the Baptist church, that some of the people who were Baptists in Pakistan were not receiving the humanitarian aid that they should have received. It was discussed in our church the Sunday just before that, and it was coincidental that there was a statement. It was clear to me then that some of the authorities in Pakistan were withholding humanitarian aid from Christians. I want to see that stopped, and I believe the Minister will be able to respond on that.
In a world where nearly 85% of people globally adhere to a religion, if the FCO and DFID are to meet their commitments to promote peaceful, inclusive societies—that has to be the goal—they will need to engage with religious actors and communities, and support initiatives that build respect and trust between people of different faiths. The APPG on freedom of religious belief is there for those with Christian beliefs, with other beliefs and for those with no beliefs. We need to make sure that that is our focus. It is exactly such initiatives, led by local civil society groups, that embassies need to ensure are financially supported and provided with space to operate. Such programmes are crucial for breaking down tension between different religious groups, promoting understanding between people and reducing the drive and desire to persecute Christians and people of other beliefs.
We hear about what happens to the Baha’is in Iran and Iraq, to the Shi’ites in Pakistan and to those of other religions in Indonesia. We hear about what happens in the middle east—my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and I were talking before the debate about how Egyptian Coptic Christians are treated—and to those in Algeria, Morocco and many other places across the world, such as south and central America. In all those places, our focus has to be on having a society in which people understand, appreciate and accept that others may have a religion that is different from the one they hold to, and that they must have access to education, healthcare and support for their children, and the opportunity have a business.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that clampdowns on religious freedom often go hand in hand with an oppressive approach to free-thinking in general, and in particular to the press? I have worked a lot with the Bangladeshi community, and in Bangladesh there are a lot of problems with sectarianism, which goes hand in hand with a vicious clampdown on bloggers. Has work been done with advocates of a free press, in a similar way to what the hon. Gentleman is doing?
I wish the hon. Lady well in her new position, and I thank her for that intervention. We need to look at what the media’s role will be in the future. The media have a physical relationship with people and a critical job to do, and how it is done affects what happens in a country. We need a responsible, respected free press.
Engaging with human rights and faith-based organisations, religious actors and communities, and programmes of reconciliation will help to achieve the FCO and DFID’s goal of tackling the causes of insecurity, instability and conflict. There is a role for the media there.
I will conclude with this comment, because I am very conscious that all those who have made an effort to be here deserve to speak, and I look forward to hearing all their contributions. We cannot be responsible for the problems of the world, but evil triumphs when good people do nothing. I believe that, in this debate, we as Members of Parliament have a duty to convey our concerns directly to the Government and to ask for the help of the FCO, DFID and all the other Government bodies across the world. It is clear that we must use our influence to do something. We need to be the voice of the voiceless—those in the Public Gallery will understand that they are also a voice for the voiceless, as we are here. Our embassies and ambassadors have a role. I believe that, with respect to previous Ministers, this has not been fully utilised in the past, but it must be utilised now. How does the Minister think this will be done, and done soon? Every day that passes, there is a new case of persecution due to religious belief. Every case is one too many. Let us do today all that we can.
Order. As is self-evident, a number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate in this debate. The wind-up speeches will commence at 10.30 am and I intend to try to call everybody, so it will be very helpful if Members exercise self-restraint.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I will be mindful of your guidance and keep my remarks relatively short. It is a pleasure to be here at a 9.30 am Westminster Hall debate led by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am a former member of the Backbench Business Committee, and it is apt that he secured this debate, given the number of times he has appeared before us.
It is very sad that we have to have this type of debate. Today, we celebrate—or remember, as some might say— 4 July 1776, when the then American colonies looked to break away from a system of government that they thought did not give them their fundamental rights. Yet here we are more than 200 years later talking about many countries around the world where people still do not have the most fundamental right to come to God as they see Him and as they believe He is, and not to have sanctions imposed upon them merely because they disagree with the prevailing view in their local community or nation.
It is easy to think that we are just talking about Iraq and Syria, but Open Doors’ great work shows that the countries where it is worst to be a Christian are North Korea and Somalia, closely followed by Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. We know about Daesh’s appalling crimes, including its genocide in the middle east, yet the countries that are the most oppressive of their citizens’ political rights are just as oppressive of their religious rights. People’s freedom of choice in anything is a threat to the leadership of those countries. I hope the Government, through our embassies,will be active in tackling that mindset.
Anyone who is as strong in their faith as they claim they are has nothing to fear from anyone else’s beliefs. The fact that there are other faiths in this country does not affect my Christian faith. I am free to believe what I wish to believe, without feeling threatened by the fact that some other people believe something else. We need to promote that to ensure that other nations start to understand that this is not about our requiring them to convert or change their beliefs, but about giving people the fundamental right to choose what they believe and to approach God in their own way. That right, which seems literally God-given in this country, is sadly so precious in others.
On Friday my church, St Matthias in Torquay, will be hosting the south-west Open Doors evening of prayer. We will be reflecting on the fact that every Sunday we take for granted the ability to go to church without fear and without worrying if our employer will fire us or if the state will want to interview us about why we were there. We hope many other Christians will soon be able to enjoy that right.
I am delighted we have had the chance to debate this issue. Just standing here and bearing witness for those who are not able to express their faith as freely as we can is as important as any action we take. I hope they take inspiration from knowing that there is again a debate in this House about this issue. They do not walk alone; their Christian brothers and sisters in this House are standing side by side with them even as they go through their darkest time.
I am delighted that my first contribution is on this topic. Having been away for seven years, my knowledge will be somewhat dated, but hopefully the spirit and the faith I have always tried to demonstrate are still there.
I would like to say two things in my very short contribution. First, I have always seen it as the role of MPs to take up the position of minorities in various parts of the world that are being discriminated against, persecuted and even worse. Secondly, I was pleased to go with Christian Solidarity Worldwide on a number of visits. Pakistan and Nigeria were two of the main ones, but when I was previously in this House I was able to go to Geneva to make representations on behalf of a North Korean who had escaped from that regime. Likewise, I have demonstrated outside a few embassies, including the Eritrean and Burmese embassies, because of the way their countries have deliberately persecuted not just Christians but all manner of minorities. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said it is a tragedy in this day and age that we have to have such debates, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made that point eruditely.
My experience of embassies abroad comes from the country I was most concerned about, Sudan—now, of course, there is South Sudan as well as Sudan. Whenever we went on a visit there when I was the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan, my experience was that the embassy was very helpful. It flew us about and gave us an enormous amount of time. On the third visit, the ambassador, Sir William Patey, went beyond the call of duty. My only criticism of him is that he went on to become chairman of Swindon Town Football Club, who are our rivals—I am a former chairman of Forest Green Rovers—so he went on to do things that were not as good as those he had done as an ambassador.
It is vital for the role of the embassy team to do research, to make representations and, when it receives delegations, to ensure that those delegations can see what is happening, despite how difficult that is—at times in Sudan it was dangerous. It is the role of the embassies to ensure that that is carried out to the best of their ability. I had that experience in Sudan certainly. I do not know what it is like now, although I imagine it is even more difficult. To my mind, that is why we as parliamentarians have a role to play. When we make such visits, which are important, we must ensure that the embassies make our visits not so much seamless but as instrumental as possible in enabling us to obtain information that we can bring back to debate and on which, we hope, we can make some representations to our own Government.
Thank you, Mr Hanson, for calling me because I omitted to put in to speak last night, for which I apologise. It was an oversight, but one that I should not have committed.
An interesting cross-section of Members of Parliament is in attendance to support my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who, as chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, had the foresight to call for this debate. We welcome to the Chamber new Members who are showing their concern for the persecuted, and returning Members who we know through their faith will take a stand for the persecuted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) so eloquently put it, we are all here to show our solidarity, and that is the important point. Some Members may not even speak, but we are numerous and we wish the persecuted out there to know that.
I will focus briefly on the role of the Foreign Office and embassies. Thanks to the foresight of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford, we were lucky enough to have Lord Ahmad speak to the all-party group. He underlined the fact that freedom of religious belief is a priority for the Foreign Office, but in welcoming my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) to his new role as Minister for Asia and the Pacific, I want to inquisition him about what that means in practice.
We are delighted that the Foreign Office has reissued its toolkit and that there are guidelines for every embassy around the world about what they should be doing to make freedom of religious belief a priority. We want to be absolutely sure, however, that that book of guidelines does not sit on the shelf gathering dust. I urge the Minister to give us answers in the debate, if he can, so I am interested to know what percentage of the discretionary funds that embassies have to spend on local projects is in fact spent on projects to support the freedom of religious belief. I want to know whether, in practice, the Foreign Office thinks in such terms, when some countries—16 in particular, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford said—are seeing a rise in the persecution of Christians.
The background is one of increasing persecution of Christians in parts of the world where we are significant donors of aid. How recently has the Foreign Office had a systematic review of its human rights interventions to assist persecuted Christians? We may not get the answer in the debate, but perhaps it will be possible to give interested Members some hard evidence of freedom of religious belief being made a priority.
I will finish by focusing on a test case. On behalf of the Church of England, of which I am the Second Church Estates Commissioner, may I ask where the Foreign Office is taking bilateral decisive action? We are looking closely at a recent case that occurred on 10 June in Pakistan, which is the second largest recipient of our overseas aid. The Pakistani anti-terrorism court convicted Taimoor Raza of committing blasphemy on Facebook and he has been given the death penalty. It is the first time that someone has been charged under article 295C of Pakistan’s penal code, which makes blasphemy on social media an offence. I cannot help but contrast that with restrictions that are not in place in other parts of the world, including at home—not that I wish anyone to go that far, but I would like to see some better policing of social media.
The Church of England will be paying close attention to that case. The Bishop of Coventry has tabled a series of written questions to highlight it. I, too, have a request, although it may be one that needs to be left pending, because it needs time for a response—we would all like to see what, in practice, it means to make freedom of religious belief a priority.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing this extremely important debate before the House: the first debate of the Parliament in Westminster Hall—
Yes—the first of many, I am sure. I commend the hon. Gentleman on his 4 July tie, which has brought a great splash of colour to Westminster Hall. I must declare an interest in this important debate: I am a practising Christian and a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Christians in Parliament.
As we have heard, individuals are persecuted throughout the world for a variety of religious beliefs, not just for Christianity. It is important to stand up for freedom of religion everywhere in the world and for all religious beliefs, and to teach future generations tolerance of religious belief.
Only a few years ago, I enjoyed a family holiday in America—in Pennsylvania—and my children were able to meet Amish communities and to learn about other religions that we might not have much contact with in the UK. The message is that we must have religious tolerance and teach our children it from the word go. That is an important lesson to learn and it will set them up for the rest of their lives, as well as giving them such interesting learning experiences. We can cherish meeting those with different beliefs from around the world.
I want to speak briefly about the role of the Department for International Development. I was a member of the Select Committee on International Development in the previous Parliament and we were fortunate enough to visit Lebanon and Jordan to see the good work being done there. Our aid money is helping some of the most vulnerable refugees in the camps, and I very much appreciated that work. However, when preparing our report, we heard evidence to the Committee that Christians are often fearful of going to refugee camps—they fear persecution and being singled out. They hide their religious beliefs in the refugee camps, and some are so much in fear for their lives and of the potential danger that they will simply not go to the camps.
In countries where we are working with refugees, our work in the field and our aid are important, but we must also ensure that we reach out to marginalised groups, including the Christians whom we heard about in Committee. They might not otherwise figure in our work, so might not benefit from relocation programmes such as those of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I ask the Minister: what percentage of Christians will feature in those programmes and, wherever possible, will refugees from all religious backgrounds be included in our relocation work?
I have also heard from local churches in my constituency. At times Church groups can feel that their beliefs are marginalised in this country, too. It is extremely important for us to stand up and to say that all faiths have a place in society—their beliefs should never be marginalised. We are an open and multicultural society. It is also important that families with strong religious beliefs are able to access religious education where they feel that that would benefit their children.
I echo the request made by the hon. Member for Strangford: a cross-departmental approach by the FCO, DFID and so on to this very important issue is much needed. We must highlight religious persecution wherever it happens right across the world, but we should also effectively resource our embassies to monitor and ensure freedom of religious beliefs, and advocate that freedom wherever we are in the world.
I welcome the Minister to his place and thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing this issue to the House once again.
It is about five years since we stood here and spoke about this issue for the first time in a debate about the persecution of Christians in the middle east. I am pleased that there have been positive developments since then. The FCO has recognised that this issue needs to be addressed. There has been religious literacy training for FCO staff, and the Department held an excellent one-day summit. Ministers now raise issues as they go around the world, and they come to debates. Lord Ahmad’s appointment is another indication that the FCO takes this issue increasingly seriously.
However, as colleagues have mentioned, DFID needs to do much more. The FCO has led on addressing this issue, but DFID is way behind the curve. I know from trips with the International Development Committee that, in many parts of the world, DFID staff share embassy sites with FCO staff. I believe that they could do much more to address the serious and deteriorating position across the world.
In its most recent review of religious freedom in 196 countries, Aid to the Church in Need clearly indicated that religious freedom has declined in 11 of the 23 worst offending countries and stated that in seven others,
“the problems were already so bad they could scarcely get any worse.”
The tragedy is that, of the 23 countries with the worst religious freedom in the world, which contain 4 billion people, no fewer than 17 receive UK aid.
DFID has promised to
“sustainably address the root causes of poverty and exclusion”,
but it will never do so unless it addresses religious freedom much more seriously. Lack of religious freedom is a root cause of poverty, displacement, violence and death across the world, including in many places where DFID operates. The 21st-century phenomenon of the rise of hyper-extremism is concerning. The hon. Member for Strangford referred to recent atrocities against Coptic Christians in Egypt. Hyper-extremism was illustrated graphically by a video released by IS in February 2017, in which it vowed to kill all Egyptian Christians. Hyper-extremism is a wrecking ball. It is primarily, but not exclusively, violent Islamic hyper-extremism. It is determined to do nothing less than eliminate all other beliefs, including moderate Muslim beliefs, and to develop a monoculture.
Of course, women suffer particularly from the elimination of religious diversity. That is why it is so important that we ask DFID to address religious freedom when it addresses sustainable development goal 16, which states:
“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
DFID needs to be much more proactive. It needs not just to stand alongside civil society and deal with individual cases but to take a lead globally and, in countries where we work, proactively prevent civil disturbances where the root is lack of religious freedom.
I am afraid that, as I have travelled the world with the Select Committee, I have found that that is not the case. In Nigeria, for example, I had to fight for someone from a leading Christian organisation to get round the table at a meeting with non-governmental organisations that DFID had organised. It seemed that there was an elephant in the room with regard to civil disturbances that DFID simply did not want to address: religious freedom. That must change.
I am delighted that you are here in Parliament, Mr Hanson, let alone chairing this debate. I welcome the debate, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) secured.
I hope Members will not mind if I refer a bit to the Bible, as I think I am the only former priest in the room. Chapter 19 of John’s Gospel states that when Jesus was on the cross, the soldiers decided that since the robe that he wore was seamless, they would cast lots for it rather than tear it apart.
The fundamental point that I want to make to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that human rights are a seamless garment: we cannot split the different elements that we try to stand up for—religious freedom, personal freedom, sexual freedom and, for that matter, the rights of women. In many of the societies that we are talking about, women are not allowed to go to school and be educated, to go on to university or to drive a car, and they are often treated terribly in their marriages. They are still effectively treated as a chattel, as they were in this country in the 19th century.
Although I fully endorse all the comments about how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID need to stand up to try to do what they can in relation to religious freedom all around the world, I differ slightly from the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) in that I do not want religious tolerance; I want religious respect. Tolerance always seems to me like putting up with people being different from me, whereas respect is far closer to the Christian gospel. I hope that the Foreign Office will take away the point that human rights are a seamless garment. We as a nation stand by human rights and the rule of law. That is a key part of what we offer to the international community.
If we simply focus on one element—freedom of religion—we undermine the historical truth of the Christian faith. In the Epistle of James, the answer to the question, “What is true religion?” is
“to visit widows and orphans in their affliction”.
That is fundamentally what our international aid budget is all about. If we try to say, “We won’t give you money if you don’t honour religious freedoms,” we fundamentally undermine what all the churches campaigned for in the run-up to the millennium: a set of goals to tackle poverty around the world. I am delighted that there is cross-party agreement that we should stick with the 0.7%, but that should be focused on alleviating poverty above all else, not on any other political goals.
As we have heard, it is right that our Government and Parliament stand up for the human rights of people of all faiths and people of no faith, but it is also right that, as a Christian country in which all are welcome, we debate this issue. There was quite properly an urgent question recently about the appalling treatment of homosexual people in Chechnya. It is right that, as Christians, we raise concerns about our Christian brothers and sisters around the world.
I do not think we have quite registered the scale of the problem and the fact that it is getting worse. The fact is that more Christians are being killed for their faith in more countries around the world than ever before, and the global persecution of Christians is getting worse, not better. Many Christians are being forced to leave their homes; displacement is a massive issue all around the world. That is extremely serious, too.
We have heard about the top five worst countries in the world—North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan—but it is concerning to note that the situation is getting worse, not better, in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. It is a grim picture, so it is right that the Foreign Office and DFID, and the whole Government, take this issue increasingly seriously. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister; it is excellent to see him in his place, and I know that he will take this issue seriously. I hope that he will go back to the Foreign Office and convey the strength of the concern expressed by Members across the House, and that that will be conveyed to our diplomatic staff, who do excellent work on our behalf around the world.
Talking of the work that they do, major trade negotiations are of course coming up, as part of the Brexit arrangements. As has been said, freedom of religion and belief contributes not only to countering extremism, but to encouraging economic development in the countries in question, and to making them prosperous, so that they can be markets with which we can trade well in the future. The Foreign Office will be looking for trade deals with countries such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey, in all of which there are issues of the kind we are discussing. I hope, therefore, that it will not be with a sense of embarrassment, or as an afterthought, that the issue of freedom of belief is mentioned in the negotiations. The evidence, as has been said, is that when it is properly dealt with, prosperity increases, here and around the world. Those things are not opposed to each other; they are all of a piece.
Similarly, one thing on which I think there would be absolute agreement across the House is that there should be equal access for everyone to the work of the Department for International Development. We would rightly be appalled if DFID aid were denied to homosexual people in certain parts of the world, so we should be equally appalled if it is denied to certain groups because of their faith—and if it is denied to Christians. I hope and believe that the Foreign Office and DFID hold to that line and enforce it, but I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister would respond to that point.
I want finally to mention a small practical point. I have the Open Doors World Watch List map up on my office wall in the House of Commons. It is a great little aide mémoire to remind us day by day how fortunate we are in the freedoms we have, and it would be a great thing for all the churches in our constituencies to have one, perhaps in the porch where people go in.
I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing forward this important debate. Freedom of religion—the freedom for people to worship their God, however they perceive him or her to be—should be an absolute right. If any society exercises censorship over which God its members may worship, prohibits a particular religion or compromises on freedom of religion, that is a threat to all that society’s freedoms.
The 300,000 Christians in North Korea are deemed to be enemies of the state, in a country where worship must be reserved exclusively for the nation’s leader. Christians face being tortured and executed. It is a society that looks like something straight out of a George Orwell novel. In Somalia, the state religion is Islam, and converting to Christianity or any other religion is illegal. Indeed, the Islamist group al-Shabaab has stated that it wants to rid Somalia of all Christians. Those suspected of following Christianity are killed on the spot. In Iraq there are 300,000 Christians, and there have been public execution-style killings of them by ISIS—some of which have been recorded for propaganda purposes. Saudi Arabia, with its 1.25 million Christians, punishes conversion to Christianity with death.
India also has a poor record on freedom of worship for its 59 million Christians, and so does Qatar, which has 900,000—not to mention Pakistan, whose 5.3 million Christians are often treated as second-class citizens. Christian women and children there are often the targets of sexual abuse, and blasphemy laws are abused to attack Christian churches; those churches are monitored and often attacked. Even in the Maldives converting to Christianity means forfeiting citizenship, and owning a Bible is punishable by death. I could go on with my examples, of course, but there is not time. The list is unfortunately far too long. What a world we live in.
I want to add my voice to the praise that has been directed today to the work of Open Doors. It has often visited Parliament to reveal its World Watch List of countries in which Christians face awful persecution. Sadly, it seems that the western media frequently under-report such persecution. The suspicion that I have heard expressed is that that is because of a fear of offending cultural sensibilities. I do not know whether that is true, but I certainly hope not, because there is no room for cultural sensitivities when it comes to basic human freedoms. Persecution and violence are wrong and unacceptable, and we must all have the courage to say so.
While democratic countries celebrate their freedoms we cannot turn away as minority groups abroad are bathed in violence and blood. The UK Government and specifically the Foreign and Commonwealth Office need to support the efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. We need to ensure that there is proper support for the work of Open Doors and other non-governmental organisations that work on the frontline to help Christians who are persecuted. We cannot afford to stand by. An attack on religious freedom is an attack on all freedoms and we in the west, particularly, who believe in those values and take them for granted must stand up for them wherever they are attacked.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I find myself in the familiar position of paying tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), not only for his leadership on this issue but for his diligence, once again, in Westminster Hall.
In the couple of minutes for which I intend to speak, I want to draw the Minister’s attention to one issue to do with religious freedom that has not yet been mentioned, but which is still a problem for those who face it. In the Open Doors World Watch List that comes out every year, the “usual suspects” are mentioned, and the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned some of them. However, I was surprised this year to see Colombia and Mexico included. I asked why it was, and it would seem that there is a problem with organised crime targeting religious groups—particularly church groups, and particularly in rural areas—and with the violence to which organised crime necessarily resorts to make its way, such as extortion.
Surely there is a role for the UK to help to develop civil society structures in those countries, to help with law enforcement to take on organised crime, in areas in which we have experience. For example, the hon. Member for Strangford and other Northern Ireland Members have been extremely supportive of the continuing peace process in Colombia, which has taken lawlessness out of some rural areas, and thus has, hopefully, helped the religious groups that have been affected. That was an earlier example of coalition-building by the DUP and others, which was successful in bringing peace to Colombia.
I ask the Minister not to take his eyes off the ball in relation to such criminal-based persecution of Christians. It is surely an easy hit for us to make, to improve the lives of those who want to worship in those countries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, for my first ever Westminster Hall debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate.
Although I am a new Member, I am not unfamiliar with the House, having been a researcher for my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). Often in my previous role, I would remark on how often the hon. Gentleman pops up in the Chamber, leading me to believe that he is the Member for Westminster Hall rather than for Strangford. However, in all seriousness I am grateful to him for allowing us this important opportunity for debate. He is a tenacious and diligent Member of Parliament and a credit to the people of Northern Ireland.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. I shall keep my remarks focused within the parameters of the motion, but I recognise that there is persecution of people of all religions—and, indeed, of those of no religion at all. In particular I should like to highlight the plight of the Ahmadiyya community, which faces intolerable oppression the world over. I commend the work of hon. Members in that regard, including that of the all-party group on the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the sterling work done to highlight the persecution of Christians. I have been familiar with the work of Open Doors since about 2009, when I came to faith. I should declare an interest, as I am a member of a Baptist church. The profile of Open Doors, at events such as Christians Linked Across the Nation, led me to look more closely at the persecution of men and women of faith. Of course Aid to the Church in Need has also done excellent work, and I regret that for reasons of time we cannot go into that so much.
Although we value freedom of worship and religion in this country, far too many places do not. The prayers of many in the Church have rightly focused on persecuted Christians who are being slaughtered at the hands of Daesh in Iraq. It is heartbreaking—sometimes, I confess, it is too easy to just turn off the TV—when we see the situation in Iraq: the sheer brutality of being a Christian in that region and, as has been said, its impact on women and children.
We know that Christian women in Baghdad and Basra have been forced to veil themselves in order to feel safe outside their homes and that greater pressure is being forced on Christians to observe Ramadan. More concerning is that Iran now exerts increasing influence within Iraq, and that Christian converts who previously followed Islam are said to be being monitored by the Iranian secret service. I will be grateful if the Minister responds to that particular point and clarifies whether it has been factored into discussions and considerations within the Foreign Office.
I have briefly touched on the situation in Iraq. The situation in North Korea also rightly garners a lot of attention and interest, but I will use a few moments to focus on a country of a lesser international profile, but which is still cause for grave concern: Tanzania, and particularly its coastal region of Zanzibar. At this juncture, I should declare an interest as the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Tanzania. I saw that the chair, the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), was here; I pay tribute to his work with the APPG.
With a population of almost 57 million, and a Christian population of more than 31 million, it is perhaps difficult to believe that Christians could be persecuted in Tanzania—particularly given that they make up the majority of the population. However, radical Islamic extremism in certain regions of the country, including Bukoba, is leading to immense hostility against Christians. Again, I will be grateful if the Minister will reference Her Majesty’s Government’s efforts to discuss the protection of Christianity and the upholding of freedom of religion with the Tanzanian authorities.
The purpose of the debate is to consider the role of embassies in foreign relations and in protecting Christians. It is perhaps no surprise that, before I sum up the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party, I will talk about Saudi Arabia. For reasons of not only geopolitics, but also, in my view, trade, Saudi Arabia remains one of Her Majesty’s Government’s closest allies. I continue to feel that Saudi Arabia’s inexcusable—I repeat, inexcusable—human rights record at home and abroad, including in Yemen, has far too often been overlooked by Her Majesty’s Government. Quite frankly, the British state is far too quick to lower its flags to half-mast on the deaths of Saudi monarchs. However, seldom does a day go by without the brutality of state-sponsored torture, human rights abuses and murder by the Saudi authorities; no flags are lowered to half-mast in those cases.
I am greatly encouraged to hear of more Christian converts in Saudi Arabia—a state that, even today, can punish by death anyone who leaves Islam. However, the fact remains that Saudi Arabia is still one of the most dangerous countries on earth in which to follow Christ; today in 2017, converting to another faith is punishable by death. Christians risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and, in some cases, torture.
Given that record, I have often wondered in recent months and years what exactly the UK is getting from its relationship with the Saudis—other than arms sales. It strikes me that we are not exerting much influence in Riyadh when it comes to promoting our values of freedom and human rights for those of all faiths and none. In Christianity, the Bible commands us to turn the other cheek. However, in too many cases, particularly in Saudi Arabia, it feels as though Her Majesty’s Government are turning not only the other cheek but, in some cases, a blind eye.
I will sum up some of the remarks from colleagues, who have contributed to an excellent debate. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke of the situations in Egypt and Nigeria. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was quite right to put on the record the situation in Chechnya. It is important that we consider that and that we do not forget it; it feels to me that it has fallen off the agenda a little bit, and he is right to bring it back up. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke of trade deals and the FCO’s work, and I touched on some of that in my remarks about Saudi Arabia.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) gave a very honest overview of a lot of the country profiles. I was particularly glad to hear her mention the situation in Pakistan, because Her Majesty’s Government have to hear that news. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) spoke of the situations in Colombia and Mexico, and it is concerning to see those countries coming on to that list of shame. I am grateful to him for bringing that to our attention.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) spoke about the work of his local church. As a new Member, it is important that I place on the record my thanks to my own church, which supported me as a candidate throughout the general election. I am particularly grateful to my pastor, Rev. Michael McCurry, for leading congregation and prayers during my election campaign.
It is good to see the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) back in the House and speaking so passionately about his work in Sudan. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) quite rightly talked of discretionary funds for local projects, and I hope the Foreign Office takes that forward. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke about working with children and teaching them about tolerance. That is important, and is something that, as the parents of a two-year-old, my spouse and I are now looking at. Having had him not baptised but dedicated, we are considering how we teach our son about the role of Christianity, of religion and of freedom of speech.
I want to make sure that there is plenty of time left for the Minister to respond to my points and those from other hon. Members. I also hope that drawing my remarks to a close early will afford the hon. Member for Strangford the final word on what has been an excellent debate. I simply conclude by thanking him for bringing the matter to the Chamber and thanking you, Mr Hanson, for your forbearance.
It is a pleasure as always to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. It is also a pleasure to sum up for the Opposition in the first Westminster Hall debate of the Session. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing the debate and for wearing that magnificent tie on what is American independence day. Despite the ruling that ties are no longer necessary for hon. Gentlemen in the Chamber, it would take away from the gaiety of the nation if he were not allowed to express himself in that way. I thank him.
The hon. Member for Strangford has brought a very important subject to this Chamber. He made the important point that worldwide discrimination against Christians includes not only violence but other forms of discrimination, including that relating to access to work, education and healthcare. We need to remember that discrimination is not necessarily overt and violent; it can be subtle and sometimes quite difficult to identify. In his introduction, he highlighted cases that we are sadly all too familiar with: the treatment of Christians in Eritrea; the declaration of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists in Moscow; the attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt by ISIS or Daesh—whichever term hon. Members prefer; persecution in Egypt, Syria and China; and the treatment of the Rohingya people Burma. The list goes on and on, and I am pleased that we are debating the issue and that so many Members from different parties are here to express concerns.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) identified the work done by Open Doors. We have already heard the list of the worst places in the world to be a Christian, which includes North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) highlighted the role of Members in representing minorities, and referenced his particular experience in Sudan. One of our jobs as MPs is to highlight and speak up for those people who cannot speak up for themselves. I hope the Minister will reference that in his closing comments. I was very pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) raise the issue of Taimoor Raza, who has been sentenced to death for the crime of blasphemy on Facebook. I have also written to the Minister on that issue—I am sure that I am not the only Member to do so—and the response I received was that the Government are urging Pakistan to honour its human rights obligations.
At the heart of all of this is the role of the FCO, DFID and our embassies as part of our diplomatic mission. We have to be diplomatic in the way that we deal with these things, which may be one reason why it sometimes feels as though progress is quite slow; our representatives—ambassadors and high commissioners stationed in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and North Korea—have to proceed with diplomacy, which can sometimes look like inaction. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and many other hon. Members talked about the role of DFID. She also highlighted the important issue of Christians being reluctant to go to refugee camps; they might get help in those camps but are concerned about being discriminated against. Again, I hope we will get a response from the Minister on that. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also mentioned the role of DFID and expressed her clear view that it could do much more.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made an important point about religious respect, not tolerance. I support that view. Tolerance implies that we are just putting up with things and not necessarily paying them due respect. We should use the word respect, rather than tolerance.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) highlighted the important fact that in seeking trade deals outside the EU following Brexit, human rights issues should be uppermost in any negotiations. Those discussions should always take place in any trade deals we try to strike with other countries.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) highlighted that the list of countries the world over where Christians are being persecuted is sadly far too long. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) mentioned the new aspect of organised crime that targets religious groups in places such as Colombia and Mexico, which I am sure will be addressed. We have to remember that religious freedom is a constitutional human right, and we in the UK must fight for it worldwide. It is absolutely right that we in the UK stand up for human rights and particularly Christianity. The right hon. Member for Meriden made the point that we must address this issue for our own security; that is really important.
We must not forget the NGOs. UK embassies should be given the resources they need to have a human rights function and to report on human rights issues. They should be given help with raising appropriate cases and implementing the toolkit. We must also ensure that the partners who we work with do not discriminate on the grounds of religious belief.
I would like to give the Minister a chance to answer the various points that have been raised, so I will finish with a quote from India’s most famous member of the Dalit caste, Dr Ambedkar, who renounced Hinduism to escape the caste system and converted to Buddhism. He said,
“where equality is denied, everything else may be taken to be denied.”
That sums up the issue of discrimination worldwide, on whatever basis. Christians worldwide who are discriminated against are being denied equality.
I thank the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) for giving me plenty of time to address the important issues that have been raised today.
First and foremost, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate. I am pleased to announce that his tie will be going into cold storage for the next 366 days, because next year is a leap year, but we look forward to seeing it in future. There is some relevance in his wearing that tie. Although many of us in the Chamber may feel that the ideals behind the United States of America are not as strong today as they have been at some point in the last 250 years, those ideals have been a fundamental approach towards freedoms that should be promoted across the globe. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his important work and his consistent and persistent commitment to the freedom of religion or belief, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the issue.
I hope that Opposition Members will allow me to quickly mention two former Members of the House who are not here because they lost their seats, David Burrowes and Caroline Ansell, who I think would have been here, playing an important part in this debate. We very much miss them, but I know that their commitment to Christianity means that they will play their part.
Like all hon. Members here today, I am appalled by the persecution suffered by countless millions of Christians across the world who seek only to practise their deeply held beliefs openly, in peace and safety. Here in the west, as has been rightly pointed out, those freedoms are all too often taken for granted. We need to utilise this opportunity, particularly on such a robust all-party basis, to make the case that has been referred to.
I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar). Here in the UK, we rightly recognise that we have a special responsibility for protecting and upholding the rights of Christian communities across the globe.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) is absolutely correct that Her Majesty’s Government should redouble their efforts to work on a cross-departmental basis. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) rightly pointed out that there has been improvement, but Members can rest assured that I regard it as an important priority to ensure ever closer work between DFID and the Foreign Office in this area and, indeed, a number of other areas where there should be closer co-ordination.
I welcome that. The Foreign Office and DFID work closely together, so will the Minister kindly assure us that he will refer his ministerial colleagues at DFID to the comments made by many Members in the Chamber today? DFID needs to follow the FCO’s lead in addressing the human rights issue of freedom of religion and belief in a much clearer, more comprehensive and structured manner than it has done to date.
I entirely understand that, and I will come on to the comments made by my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden about that issue. They can be assured that there is, in ministerial terms, rather more co-ordination now between the Foreign Office and DFID, given that two Ministers are double-hatted. That will assist particularly in parts of Africa and the middle east where there is a part to play. I also will ensure that in the most evident problem hotspots, we make clear to our embassies the expectations about what we need to work towards.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden asked how much is spent on freedom of religion projects. We shall, during this tax year, spend some £758,000 on such projects worldwide, including in Pakistan and Iraq. We also lobby Governments across the globe on a regular basis. She rightly pointed to the case of Taimoor Raza in Pakistan—which has already come across my desk in the two and a half weeks since I took on ministerial office—and the appalling death sentence that has been passed after his blasphemy conviction. The reality is that more often than not, or almost invariably, such a sentence is commuted to life imprisonment—bad though that is.
We need to have a debate about the issue that my right hon. Friend raised. She is quite right that Pakistan is the second largest recipient of aid from the UK Government through DFID. I have some sympathy with her view that we need to, in some diplomatic way at least, link the two. However, I also have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said. I would be very reluctant to withdraw from any ongoing aid or development projects on the basis that there were concerns here. We should openly try to suggest, in a cross-departmental way, that a number of Her Majesty’s Government’s priorities, particularly in relation to freedom of religion, need to be an integral part of any ongoing aid and development work. We are spending significant sums of money, but a number of projects could happen in various other parts of the globe.
I very much take on board what my right hon. Friend said, and she can rest assured that through diplomatic channels, in our work between London and Islamabad, we will ensure that the Pakistani Government are made well aware of what we regard as being not just our priorities but their responsibilities in relation to DFID expenditure.
I want to touch on the issues raised by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) about Colombia and Mexico and by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), whom I congratulate on his debut on the Front Bench, about Tanzania and the terrible plight of Zanzibar. I have to confess that I have no data to hand about issues of freedom of religion in those areas or the particular issue referred to of organised crime, but I will write to both hon. Members once I have been able to get more information from our embassies.
I am particularly concerned currently about the plight of Christians in Burma, Iraq and Syria, where the Christian population has fallen dramatically, from 1.25 million as recently as 2011 to approximately 500,000 today. I recall my parliamentary visit 14 years ago to Aleppo, Palmyra and Damascus in Syria. We drove for a mere half an hour from the centre of Damascus to visit some of the ancient Christian villages where St Paul proselytised some 1,900 years ago. I shudder to think what has become of those ancient Christian communities today.
The right to practise one’s religion peaceably—or, indeed, to follow no religion at all—is and must remain a fundamental entitlement, and the UK Government will continue energetically to defend and promote it. As a number of hon. Members pointed out, it is a sad indictment of our 21st-century world that we still have to defend that right, but we do have to, because, as we have learned, it is increasingly being violated.
In 2013, I spoke from the Back Benches in another debate, which I think was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, about the persecution of Christians. The fate of Christians and other religious communities in the middle east and the north Africa region is complex and often compounded by their minority status. In Syria, Assad’s actions have helped to fuel the worst sort of sectarian violence. Although at one point he was perhaps seen as someone who could stand up for minorities, the truth is that he has now shown himself incapable of maintaining control of his country or of effectively countering the threat from extremists. In so doing, he has put at risk communities including Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and all other minorities, as well as the interests and safety and security of the Sunni majority.
The UK Government remain determined to promote and defend human rights more generally. Failure to do so has an impact on Christian and other religious minorities. As the hon. Member for Rhondda powerfully reminded us, where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other basic rights are threatened too. It is in all our interests to promote religious freedoms and human rights more generally, so I welcome this opportunity to set out briefly what the Government are doing to promote freedom of religion or belief across the world.
Our activity is both multilateral, through institutions such as the United Nations and its Human Rights Council, and bilateral with individual countries. In the multilateral sphere, we strive to build and maintain consensus on this issue by lobbying other countries and supporting UN resolutions such as the one recently sponsored by the European Union. We also engage closely, through our extensive diplomatic network, with individual countries. We promote the right of freedom of religion or belief and we raise vigorously—if often, for obvious reasons, behind the scenes—individual cases of persecution.
In relation to Pakistan, which we have discussed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs continues to raise the rights of all Pakistani citizens, including religious minorities, and did so very robustly during his visit last November.
In relation to Iraq, we remain deeply concerned about the atrocities committed by Daesh or ISIS against individuals and religious communities, including Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others. We continue to engage closely, and with a specific cause in mind, with religious leaders both in the UK and in Baghdad and beyond. In the last financial year, we have provided £90 million of humanitarian assistance to Iraq alone. That takes our total commitment to £169.5 million since June 2014. A significant, ring-fenced element of that support will help to protect displaced religious minorities. I take to heart some of the criticisms by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, about the Government’s approach to religious minorities in the middle east, but it is the case, as has been pointed out in this debate, that an avowed policy of giving preferential assistance to any single religious group might make it more vulnerable to discrimination in some of the more ungoverned spaces of the world.
In Syria, Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and other minorities, as well as the Sunni majority, as I pointed out, have all been victims of Daesh atrocities. Ultimately, as I think we all know, the only way to stop that abuse is to defeat Daesh, and we continue to play a leading role in the 67-member global coalition in that regard.
The hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) were right to highlight the plight of the Coptic Christians in Egypt. They are a minority, but a very significant minority—some 8 million to 9 million out of an overall population of 90 million.
We have touched on Yemen and the treatment of the Baha’i community, and on the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, which the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out. Officials from our mission in Moscow attended the various court hearings there, and members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK noted that the presence on the ground of diplomats from the UK had a positive effect on how individuals were treated and how the process was undertaken. We shall continue to monitor that case particularly carefully.
More generally, our project work overseas is an important part of our effort to promote and protect religious freedoms. One project is helping to develop lesson plans for secondary school teachers in the middle east and north Africa. The aim is to teach children about religious tolerance, religious acceptance, and the absolute right to freedom of religion or belief. We strongly believe that teaching children in that way is a vital part of promoting tolerance and respect at grassroots level and of helping to build future resilience against extremism.
Yes. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but we are talking about a different debate, and I am sure that we will have plenty of debates on Saudi Arabia. It is also not within my responsibilities in the Foreign Office. I will therefore try to address the issues in writing and get my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East to do so.
Our staff in embassies across the globe are essential to the success of our work, and I hope that the debate today will help to redouble some of their efforts. It is important that we make clear the strength of feeling across the party political divide. We need to promote religious tolerance, human rights and religious rights, which are an integral part of our work. To support those staff, we provide training in religious literacy and have created a freedom of religion or belief toolkit, which was referred to earlier and provides useful information on addressing freedom of religion or belief.
In conclusion, I assure the hon. Members present of the Government’s and, moreover, my personal determination to continue supporting, defending and promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief. We will use our influence to promote that fundamental right across the world and to support Christian minorities, including in the middle east, through our engagement in multilateral institutions and with individual Governments and civil society.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today, but I hope that the House will indulge me if I single out my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Dockerill) for her first contribution in the House. My hon. Friend is also my very good friend, having worked in my private office, most recently as my chief of staff. She has worked with me for 11 years and learned about all the bad habits of politics from me, and I hope that learning from those mistakes will mean that she has a far more meteoric career in this place. It is a pleasure to be able to mention that.
I also take this opportunity to thank all hon. Members here. Their often unsung work is an important signal of the UK’s determination to stand up for religious freedoms and in particular for Christian communities in some of the most politically unstable and unpredictable corners of the globe.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members, both new Members and those who have been here for a while, for their significant and helpful contributions on an issue that is very important to all of us—it is why we are here. It is good that there has been comprehensive political representation, from all parties, in Westminster Hall today. That has ensured that we have highlighted the relevant issues.
I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) summed up, in her response to the debate, the feeling of us all in this Chamber. I found out that the shadow Minister for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), is a fellow Baptist, so there is more than just me in the House as a Baptist. It is always pleasing to see someone from a similar denomination in the House, and we wish him well in his new position.
The Minister, in his reply, summed up the things that we all want to see in place, and I thank him for that. He referred to his personal commitment to the issue, and I know that he is committed.
I will leave the last word to Matthew in chapter 5, verse 10:
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
High Court Judgment: Benefit Cap
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the High Court judgement on the benefit cap.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson.
On 22 June 2017, a ruling was made in response to a judicial review of the imposition of the benefit cap brought by four lone-parent families who had three children under the age of two. This was supported by Gingerbread, Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group, all of whom I thank for their briefings on the matter. The judgment was damning of this Tory Government. In my speech I intend to refer to Mr Justice Collins’s judgment and I absolutely commend it to anybody with any interest in this issue.
Mr Justice Collins was quite clear in his findings:
“Whether or not the defendant accepts my judgment, the evidence shows that the cap is capable of real damage to individuals such as the claimants. They are not workshy but find it, because of the care difficulties, impossible to comply with the work requirement. Most lone parents with children under two are not the sort of households the cap was intended to cover and, since they will depend on DHP, they will remain benefit households. Real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”
In response, the Department for Work and Pensions says that it intends to appeal the decision. I find that truly shocking and urge the Minister to reconsider, unless she supports misery being caused to no good purpose.
Back in the Government’s own assessment before the 2015 Welfare Reform and Work Bill, there was an acceptance that the policy of reducing the cap from £26,000 to £20,000, or £23,000 in London, would have a disproportionate impact on women. It even stated:
“Most of the single women affected are likely to be lone parents: this is because we expect the majority of households affected by the policy to have children.”
The Local Government Association says that this lower cap is being implemented without a full understanding of the impact of the original cap. I ask the Minister, what did they expect to happen? Mr Justice Collins found that the policy is unlawful and discriminates against female single parents.
The Supreme Court has said previously that the benefit cap breaches the UN convention on the rights of the child and that:
“It cannot possibly be in the best interests of the children affected by the cap to deprive them of the means to provide them with adequate food, clothing, warmth and housing, the basic necessities of life.”
Mr Justice Collins reiterates that point in his findings, stating in paragraph 40:
“the effect of the cap means that the children and their parents have restrictions on what can be provided by way of housing, food and other things that an average child should have available. Further, as the ministers have said, it may be necessary to try to move to cheaper accommodation to avoid the effect of the cap so that there will be an upheaval for the family. I have set out the evidence of the damage to both family and private life which the cap has produced and will continue to produce.”
They have not. The family test would appear to be something the Government have said in some grand papers and then not implemented at all.
According to the most recent DWP statistical release from May this year, 66,000 households were capped as of February, up from 46,000 in November 2016, because of the lower cap being applied. Some 74% of them were capped only because of the introduction of the lower cap levels, and 72% of capped households, or some 48,000, are single-parent families. Some 79% of single-parent capped households, or 38,000, have at least one child aged under five years old, including 15%, which is 7,200, with a child aged under one at February 2017. At February 2017, 83% of capped households, or 55,000, had between one and four children, and 10%, or 6,800, had five or more children. That is a very small number in that whole pool of people, but those are significant figures and each of them is hiding its own tale of misery.
I am not even convinced that this policy will save money as there are significant consequential costs: the cost of bad debt to councils and housing providers when the rent costs can no longer be met by the tenant—that single parent in a household—who has been capped; the cost of court proceedings to go through the process to evict that individual and to reinstate the property after eviction and bring it back on to the market; and the cost of temporary housing for that family once they have been evicted and have presented themselves to social workers as being in need of housing. The LGA estimates that the cost of temporary housing is £2 million per day—£2 million per day that we do not need to be spending because of people being evicted as a result of this cap.
There are also the costs to children’s services and mental health services due to the stress on families—the stress of not being able to pay the bills, of going into housing arrears, of eviction and homelessness and of all the other things such as maybe having to leave their homes and the support networks around them. There is the cost to the education of the children involved as they are forced to move schools. This is not just about the younger children, as their older siblings in the family might have to move schools and go to a different area away from family and support networks. All of those are costs, and we must bear them in mind.
Single-parent families of young children are forced by this Government into a no-win situation. They cannot earn enough via work because they cannot take on a job that will pay them enough to get out of the cap—they cannot take on more than the 16 hours that they need because they have childcare obligations to children under two. Some of the mothers involved in this case are breastfeeding. It is more difficult to go out and start work when someone has obligations to go back and feed their child, and we should not be forcing them to do so because, as we know, those early years with a child are extremely valuable. The families are also trapped because they cannot get enough support from the state. Sadly this leaves them with destitution, food banks and both physical and mental ill health. These are women who are doing their best and struggling to provide a better life for their children. We should be helping them, not cawing the legs from under them.
The Scottish Government’s independent adviser on poverty and inequality, Naomi Eisenstadt, said yesterday that
“life outcomes are largely determined by the wealth and social class of one’s parents at birth… it represents not just fundamental unfairness, but also significant waste of talent and opportunity for the economy and social cohesion of Scotland.”
I would argue that that applies more widely to the UK as well. By taking parents’ circumstances and punishing them—not allowing them the means that they need to feed their families—we are stunting the life chances of the children throughout their lives. We are punishing people for the circumstances they are in.
The UK Government will say, as they always do in these types of debates, that the best way out of poverty is work, and that those receiving benefits should face the same choices as those supporting themselves solely through work. If those phrases are on the Minister’s sheet today, I advise her to cross them out now. Mr Justice Collins stated:
“those observations are entirely irrelevant in relation to lone parents such as the claimants who find themselves in real difficulty in being able to enter work because of the need to care for a child under 2.”
The circumstances of the parents in this case are worth reading out in full, just in case those looking at Hansard or watching at home have not had the chance to read through some of the circumstances. The first claimant, “DA”, was
“homeless, living with her four-year-old son in a refuge in north London as a result of serious domestic violence from her husband, which led to her having to leave her council flat. She is due to give birth in mid-June. When living in the refuge, she was not subjected to the cap since it does not apply to those victims of violence who have to live in a refuge. It was submitted that she was not able to be a claimant since she was not a lone parent with a child under two and was living in a refuge. That objection has not been seriously maintained since she will become subject to the cap when she gives birth on leaving the refuge. Furthermore, I was informed that she has now been given emergency accommodation for those who are homeless which costs £247 per week. She has investigated the possibility of private accommodation but has found, as is confirmed by her solicitor who has made a statement based on her experience of dealing with many clients who are homeless or suffering the effects of the benefit cap or the bedroom tax, that very few private landlords are prepared to accept tenants who depend on housing benefit particularly if they are capped. As must be obvious, when she gives birth she will not be able to work particularly as she wishes to breastfeed. Furthermore, the council has refused to allow her to join its housing list since she came from outside its area as she was fleeing violence and does not have the necessary four year residence in the borough. She has been informed that when capped she will have £217 per week available for rent. She has mental and physical problems as does her son. She is anxious to work when she can.”
The other claimants are equally worthy cases and worthy of the attention of everyone in this House, but I would like to mention the last one, a parent who has four children:
“WBA has four children, aged 17, 14, 13, 7 and 14 months, the youngest also being a claimant. The youngest child was conceived following a rape by her husband: she has indeed been the victim of an abusive relationship over the years. She has since February 2017 been living in suitable accommodation, but the cap has resulted in a shortfall of £151.76 per week. She was able to obtain DHPs but only for short terms and with no promise that they would continue. On having been granted a DHP on 20 April 2017, the council wrote a letter dated the same day saying it had been cancelled. The way she has been treated has distressed her. She wishes to work when she can.”
I should mention another campaign that I am involved in, which is on the rape clause. This family will potentially lose the rights to child tax credit and universal credit unless the mother fills in the form to say that she has been raped. This is a family who are already under significant pressure. They deserve support, not further demonisation and stigmatisation.
The Government will talk about childcare. They will say that they are offering childcare to people, and that that is an important point. Actually, it is not an important or relevant point in this case. The money they are offering for nursery places is not for this specific group, the under-twos. The cost of nursery places, particularly for under-twos, can be prohibitive in a lot of cases. The childcare ratios for under-twos bear a higher cost, and some nursery providers will charge more for an under-two’s childcare place than for a three or four-year-old’s. Some nurseries do not deal with under-twos at all—they do not take babies.
There are issues of availability and flexibility as well as cost. If the parent goes out to work, they are essentially working to pay for the nursery place, not to bring extra money into the house. They cannot always rely on family, because they may have had to leave home and move to a cheaper part of the country so that they can afford housing—the Government have put them in that situation as well. They cannot rely on older family members, who might be WASPI women who have been forced back to work and cannot carry out childcare tasks as they might have before. This is not really a choice for a lot of these women.
The Government expect women to make the same choices regardless of their circumstances, but some of the women in the cases I mentioned do not have the choices that we would all like. They may not have a choice over their reproductive rights. They may have been raped. They may not want to have a termination. They may not have all the choices they would want. It is interesting that the benefits charity Turn2us, which runs a helpline, has reported an increase in inquiries about whether or not to proceed with a pregnancy, as a result of the benefit cap. That is absolutely appalling. The Government are forcing women into such choices.
The women in these cases did not become single parents by choice, but by circumstance. These things happen in life. We cannot always choose to end up how we set out in life. The benefits system should be a supportive safety net, not something that punishes women for their circumstances, particularly if they are facing domestic violence.
The chief executive of the Women’s Aid Federation, who gave evidence in the case, mentioned that because of the perverse nature of the system, there has been bed-blocking in refuges. Women are not subject to the cap while they remain in the refuge, but the second they leave it, they are. That creates unfairness in the system: there are women who cannot come into the refuge because other women literally cannot afford to leave, since they will lose so much money if they do. It is appalling that women are forced to make that choice. It also forces women into making the choice of leaving in the first place, because if they know that with the benefit cap and with the children they already have they cannot possibly afford to support themselves going into housing—possibly expensive private lets—they will stay, risking their own and their children’s safety. The Government should take heed of that, if nothing else.
It cannot be possible that any Minister listening to these cases could intend people to live in such circumstances. To be generous to the Government, is it not more likely that the ideology of austerity and of arbitrary caps is forcing people into them, through policy?
Absolutely. The entire policy and the way that people end up as a result of it need to be reviewed. It is causing genuine hardship to no good purpose, as the judge pointed out. We need to look at the whole policy in the round.
The Government will say that there is the discretionary housing payment. Yes, there is, but the savings from the benefit cap amount to £155 million, while the amount put towards the DHP by the Government is £37.1 million, so there is no way that the money can be made up in that way.
The Local Government Association has found that the
“cumulative impacts of welfare reform are contributing to a…housing affordability crisis.”
The Government have a huge part in that. There is a lack of rehousing options for women. Where can they move that is cheaper than where they are now? If they live in a city such as London, they would probably have to leave it altogether, which would mean leaving the family, school and other support networks they might have. There is a lack of social rented housing, particularly in some parts of England. A lot of it used to be local authority housing that has either been bought under right to buy or has gone to housing associations or other areas where there is less control over it. Not enough new housing has been built in its place, so there are fewer options for people. Private lets are extremely expensive. When private landlords see someone who they think will not be able to pay the bills in a few months’ time, they will not take them on. As the judgment states,
“the reality is that DHPs do involve short term payments and give those affected no peace of mind.”
May I say how grateful I am that the hon. Lady secured this debate? I would like to cite one extra figure: 3,270 children in Scotland have been affected by this cap. We have heard harrowing tales about individuals who have suffered because of it, and about the difficulty that the Government are placing them in: an ultimate Hobson’s choice that single parents, predominantly mums, have to make over their children. In Scotland, 3,270 individual children are being made subject to this cap. They are under 18, they do not vote, and their parents have to make the choice.
The judgment further notes that inquiries were made
“of local authorities about their practices in dealing with DHPs. Of the 235 who responded, none had ever made a permanent award nor had any agreed to make a payment before a tenancy commenced.”
So somebody who goes into a new tenancy cannot expect to get that payment, and neither can the landlord expect to receive it. It is not enough of an option. By their very nature, discretionary housing payments are discretionary—they are at the discretion of whoever the person applies to. They are also oversubscribed in many areas, because people know that they are their only option to try to top up an income that is dwindling as a result of Government policy.
The other problem with moving people to so-called cheaper areas around the UK is that those areas also tend to have higher rates of unemployment. People are not moving to areas where they are more likely to get work; they would get work in areas where rents are higher, because there is more demand for it there.
The issue of private landlords is particularly worrying. The judgment mentions evidence from the Residential Landlords Association and the National Landlords Association that
“private landlords are very reluctant to take on tenants who were capped and many would seek to evict such tenants.”
It is not even that people will not get a tenancy, but that they will be evicted from the tenancy they already have. That seems particularly cruel.
All these problems are avoidable. They are a result of Government policy, and there is a choice here for the Government. We are in a very different situation now from the one before the election. There is no longer a majority for austerity in this House. The Government have a choice. They do not have to waste further money on appealing the judgment. I understand that they have already wasted at least half a million pounds on other appeals relating to the bedroom tax and the carer’s allowance, but they should not waste more public funds appealing a case that has already been proven to be an injustice. They should put their hands up and say, “There is an injustice here, and we will put it right in the interests of the children who are affected.”
The Government have a choice. The Chancellor has stated that the British people are “weary” of austerity. I urge the Government to do something about it for these women, for their children and for families across the UK. If money can be found on the magical money tree for £1 billion to prop up the Government, it can be found for women and children across these islands.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing this important debate on the benefit cap High Court judgment.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to bring the issue to the House. As she knows, the Government are committed to building a country that works for everyone, and that means taking action to help and encourage people into work and away from a life of welfare dependency and to restore fairness between those who pay into the system and those who access it. We believe that those out of work should not receive more in benefits than many working families are able to earn. Before the cap, the Department for Work and Pensions disproportionately spent £10 million a year on just 300 families.
As the hon. Lady said, we introduced the benefit cap in 2013 at a national rate of £26,000 a year. Its aim was to encourage people to find work, and that is exactly what has happened. We did that on the principle that work not only pays, but brings self-esteem, better health, better happiness and improved self-confidence, as well as much more opportunity for social mobility for children in such households. The evaluation of the original cap shows that that is what has happened.
Capped households are 41% more likely to go into work than uncapped households, and 38% of those capped who were interviewed said that they were doing more to find work. The original cap met its aims, but the change was mainly felt in London and the south-east. To spread the work incentives across the country, we introduced a lower tiered cap in November last year. It aims to build on the original successes. The new tiered cap is set at £23,000 for couples and lone parents in Greater London and at £21,000 for other parts of the country. That is an equivalent salary of £29,000 in London or £25,000 in the rest of the UK. We know that four out of 10 households in London and in the rest of the UK earn less than those respective amounts. That system is fair to those who use it and to those who pay for it.
The cap levels continue to provide a clear incentive to work. Households are only required to work part-time hours to be exempt from the cap. Households that claim working tax credits are exempt from the cap if they work just 16 hours a week for lone parents or earn £520 a month on universal credit. However, we acknowledge that the move into work just is not appropriate for some people. That is why there is a range of exemptions for vulnerable groups, including households in receipt of most disability benefits, carer’s allowance, the equivalent universal credit carers element and the guardian’s allowance.
We were disappointed by the High Court judicial review decision, which challenged the application of the cap to lone parents with children under the age of two. The Court gave the Government the ability to appeal, and we will be appealing the decision, as we strongly believe that work is the best way for people to raise their living standards. We know that children whose parents work benefit from increased life chances. They are less likely to grow up in poverty. Evidence shows that one of the biggest drivers of child poverty is long-term worklessness and low earnings.
I want to respond to some of the issues that the hon. Lady raised. The latest labour market statistics show that we continue to have a record number of people in work. In April, nearly 32 million people were in work. Evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty. There are also record numbers of lone parents in employment. It is not easy. In life, very few people choose to be a lone parent, as I know. I never made the choice to be one, yet I was a working lone parent, making the same difficult decisions that lone parents, particularly mothers, have to make every single day.
An evaluation of the previous benefit cap showed that it changed attitudes and behaviours. One in five of all capped households went to work after a year, compared with just 11% of similar uncapped households previously. Importantly, capped lone parents were 51% more likely to be in work after a year as compared with similar uncapped lone-parent households. Those surveyed said that the new employment had brought financial rewards —some felt better off and able to afford extra treats for their children—and other rewards in health, happiness and self-esteem.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) talked about the family test, but he is mistaken about what it is. He has a far too pessimistic view. It is not a tick-box exercise, but a way of assessing the impact of a policy on a whole range of family measures. It is not in children’s best interests to live in workless households. Children’s life chances and opportunities can be significantly damaged by living in households where no one has worked for years and where parents do not consider work as an option.
Let us face it: we are only requiring people to work for 16 hours a week. Children in households where no parent or carer is in work are much more likely to show challenging behaviour by age five. Parental worklessness has been shown to be significantly associated with poorer academic attainment and greater behavioural problems in children aged seven. Growing up in a workless household is associated with a higher risk of being not in education, employment or training in late adolescence.
The Minister is talking about the importance of ensuring that we do not have households with worklessness, but part of the problem is that the Government have done very little to tackle pay inequality. They are bringing forward a living wage that does not support under-25s. Nothing the Minister is saying reassures me that the Government are making any attempt to tackle pay inequality, particularly for under-25s. This Government will be actively discriminating against them with their false living wage.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is just wrong. Some 1.3 million people on the lowest incomes have been taken out of income tax altogether since 2015. In April 2017, we increased the national living wage to £7.50. That will directly benefit 12 million workers this year. A full-time worker on the national living wage will see their annual pay increase by more than £500.
One issue raised was that the benefit cap is forcing people to move. Our evaluation of the original cap found that very few households moved house. Where they have moved, the vast majority have moved locally.
I am particularly concerned about the arguments that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central made in respect of vulnerable women. Before doing this job, I was the Minister for Women and Equalities, and the violence against women and girls agenda is close to my heart. That is why I am delighted that the Government have committed more than £100 million to tackling violence against women and girls. Such violence is absolutely unforgivable in any circumstances.
We recognise that some groups, such as pregnant women, new mothers and victims of domestic violence, find it harder to adapt to benefit caps. That is why we have explicitly stated in the guidance that direct housing payments should provide targeted help to women within 11 weeks of an expected birth and to households with children under nine months. Women who need safe accommodation, such as sanctuary houses, are prioritised. Housing benefit can be paid for both the home a victim has fled and the refuge or other temporary accommodation for up to 52 weeks. That 52-week limit is to avoid the blocking issue that the hon. Lady specified. It is also disregarded from the benefit cap.
In regard to Scotland, 7,300 households have been capped since the benefit cap was introduced. Of those, more than half are no longer capped, with 21% moving into work. The cap is having a positive impact. We can always find negative and distressing stories; when those happen, the hon. Lady is more than welcome to bring them to my desk and to my attention, but we have to look at the vast majority of people who have been assisted by the cap.
Both the cap and the policy limiting entitlement to the child element of tax credits were subject to detailed impact analysis throughout their development. We know that children whose parents work have improved life chances and are less likely to grow up in poverty. Parents receiving universal credit can get help with up to 85% of their eligible childcare costs. That is not just for children over the age of two or three; there is no minimum child age requirement for claiming costs through working tax credits or universal credit.
Our new childcare offer is backed by unprecedented levels of investment. Spending on childcare will increase to £6 billion by 2020. I was the Minister for early years education, and we are spending more than any previous Government on early years education and support for childcare. Finally, the flexible support fund can be used to help those working fewer than 16 hours a week with childcare costs for a child of any age, when those costs would otherwise present a barrier to work.
Lowering the cap emphasises the message that it is not fair for someone on benefits to receive more than many people in work. The hon. Lady may say that I should cross through those lines in my speech, but they are the most important. Even when claimants remain capped, they are better off from any work they are able to do. In some cases, a relatively small amount of work can be sufficient to mitigate the effects of the cap. For those impacted by the cap, we have made discretionary housing payments available to people who may need extra help.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Kurdistan Region in Iraq
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Kurdistan region in Iraq.
Mr Davies, it is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I begin by declaring an interest. I travelled to Kurdistan in November 2016 as a guest of the Kurdistan Regional Government and I am now chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq.
It is three years since the last debate here on the Kurdistan region, and everything has fundamentally changed in that time. The Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), earned much respect in his first stint as the Middle East Minister, and his wisdom, experience and expertise, not least with the Kurds, will be major assets in his second stint.
I have visited Kurdistan twice with the all-party group, which has done much in its 10 years of service to improve and increase understanding of Kurdistani issues. I use the term “Kurdistani” because Kurdistan contains non-Kurds as well; however, I refer only to the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I will start by testing key points and end with the measures that I believe require our Government’s help.
My basic points are that Iraqi federalism has sadly failed and cannot be revived, because the Shi’a majority has no appetite for federalism or minority rights. The Kurds voluntarily re-joined Iraq in 2003, on the basis of western and Iraqi promises that Iraq would be federal and democratic. This exercise of their right to self-determination did not expire on its first use. They cannot be forced into subordination by leaders in Baghdad. In effect, Iraq has severed itself from Kurdistan—it pays no budget contributions and does not help Arabs sheltering there—but recent co-operation between their separate militaries have been very successful indeed.
The Kurds have rejected the option of making a unilateral declaration of independence and wisely seek a reset of relations with Iraq, which could be much stronger without the constant internal disputes between Baghdad and Irbil. Sectarianism and centralisation caused the rise of Daesh and could do so again. A yes vote in September’s independence referendum in the Kurdistan region will lead to negotiations. The west should help, not least over the disputed territories, and the UK should send observers to the region during the referendum. In any case, the west should continue to nurture relations with the Kurds, as they are a beacon of moderation and pluralism and support for western values.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I absolutely agree. I will return to the peshmerga and the fight against Daesh later, but we owe the Kurds a huge debt of gratitude for what they are doing on a daily basis, including as we are here today.
I will briefly give some history. The treaty of Lausanne in 1923 led to the Turks formally ceding all earlier claims on Syria and Iraq and, along with the treaty of Ankara, settled the boundaries of the two nations. The earlier post-world war one discussions about a Kurdish state being formed after the break-up of the Ottoman empire, which had been nominally supported by the British, including Sir Winston Churchill, were absent from the treaty of Lausanne.
The Kurds have a long history of suffering second-class citizenship, and in the late 1980s they experienced genocide at the hands of Saddam Hussein—a genocide that was formally recognised by this House in 2013. From 1991 onwards, Sir John Major’s no-fly zone and safe haven protected the Iraqi Kurds from further attack by Saddam Hussein, and Tony Blair and George Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein was welcomed by the Kurds as a liberation. Indeed, on my visits to the region I have personally been thanked for the British contribution to the liberation of Iraq.
The Kurds re-joined Iraq in 2003 and they have tried to make that arrangement work. They brokered a federal constitution, which was agreed by 80% of people in the Iraqi referendum in 2005. It enshrined a binational country of equals and, for instance, agreed a mechanism for resolving the status of the disputed territories. The deadline for that resolution was supposed to have been 2007, but it has still not been carried out. The end to federalism was demonstrated in February 2014 by Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki, who unconstitutionally cut all federal budget transfers to Kurdistan.
In June 2014, Daesh captured Mosul, took a third of the country and seized sophisticated American military kit, including lots of vehicles and heavy weapons. A Kurdistani offer of help before the attack was spurned. Maliki failed in the most vital duty of any leader, which is to uphold the security of the state and protect its people. So the Kurds suddenly acquired a 650-mile border with Daesh and there was an overnight influx of Iraqi Arabs from Mosul, who increased the population by a third, straining all public services to breaking point. Daesh attacked Kurdistan in August 2014 and came within 20 miles of the capital, Irbil, which was only saved by immediate American air strikes and other assistance.
Then, a massive slump in the price of oil exposed the inefficient nature of the Kurdistani economy—massive state employment, little productivity, a miniscule private sector and an almost complete reliance on energy revenues, which now came through independent exports via Turkey. The Kurds faced a perfect storm of crises and came through, not unscathed but in one piece. This highlights their great resilience.
The story of how the Kurds eventually united with the Iraqi army against Daesh is instructive. When I visited the Kirkuk frontline in November 2015, I was told that there was no co-ordination, or indeed any communication, between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army. A year later, with western support the two forces concluded a deal to continue to drive Daesh out of Mosul, and I saw for myself the result of that deal last November, both on the road to Mosul and inside Mosul. This unprecedented military partnership came despite the historic bad blood and bad feeling between the Kurds and the Iraqis, which largely exist because of the Iraqi army’s chemical weapons attacks on hundreds of villages and the extermination of nearly 200,000 people in the 1980s.
I will not focus on the moral reasons for airing arguments for Kurdish independence; instead, I will address the strategic gains for the west. Once Daesh is defeated in Mosul and later in Raqqa, the key question is how to prevent any such force re-emerging and how to undermine the ideological and political appeal of such “vile fascism”, as the KRG’s High Representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir, has put it.
We have to understand why many Sunnis came to believe that Daesh was less awful than Baghdad. Many could not accept the loss of the privileges they had enjoyed under Saddam. Thanks to the Kurds, however, Sunnis joined power-sharing Governments in Baghdad, and their militias and tribes helped to defeat the al-Qaeda insurgency in 2007-08.
However, the immediate consequence of the disastrous American decision to withdraw all its forces, a decision favoured by Maliki, was that Maliki brutally repressed Sunni civil rights protests. Sunnis had seen how badly Shi’a politicians had treated the Kurds and concluded that they themselves could face worse.
The central task now is to eradicate the drivers of Sunni radicalism and protect minorities, who have suffered rape, murder and dispossession by Sunni neighbours, as well as facing the massive cost of reconstruction and the need for a “Marshall plan of the mind” to tackle the deep traumas of those who were raped in their thousands and saw their menfolk slaughtered. The Kurdistanis also need devolved governance.
Already, we see that the old centralising is in contention; and it would be odd—bizarre, even—if the status of Kurdistan was not part of the conversation after Daesh. There are those who say that this is the wrong time, citing internal division in Kurdistan, the starkest symbol of which is the paralysis of its Parliament. I hope that the continuing negotiations, which have involved our diplomats, will resolve the dispute. As candid friends, we must continue to put pressure on the Kurds, so that their Parliament sits again and there is a functioning democracy as quickly as possible.
The state of the economy is another reason why some people say that now is the wrong time for the Kurds to consider, ask for and seek their own independence. However, I take the point made by the Kurdistani leader and former Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, that
“if we wait for all the problems to be resolved, we will have to wait forever”.
I commend the reforms of Prime Minister Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Talabani: aligning revenues with state spending and introducing better forms of identification of the work force, to eliminate double-jobbing and ghost workers. They have much further to go, but statehood could end excuses for neglecting reform and allow access to development funds that are conditional on such reform.
The Kurds reckon that old foes are weaker or amenable to a potential independence deal, agreed with Baghdad. Turkey, Kurdistan’s major trading partner, could see Kurdistan as a major source of secure energy supplies, an interlocutor with the Kurds in Turkey, and a buffer between Turkey, Sunnis and Shi’as. Iran, of course, is resolutely opposed, but it is, thankfully, under intense pressure from America and the Gulf states and has absolutely no right to veto Kurdish independence. Arab-Iraqis adore Kurdistan, as Shimal Habib—the beloved north—thanks to the holidays they have there, enjoying the temperate climate and the hospitality. But Bagdad has refused to treat the Kurdish region fairly or with any good will. As for the bilateral relationship, the Kurds see us as a partner of choice, and the APPG supports a bigger British footprint in Kurdistan.
There are three specific issues I would like the Minister to address in his remarks. The first is the peshmerga. The gallant, brave, wonderful peshmerga are fighting Daesh on the ground, and that helps to secure our own security, freedoms and way of life. One of my most moving visits was when I went to see wounded peshmerga soldiers in Irbil. Many seriously injured soldiers are beyond the capacity of the medical facilities and the health system there, and I have asked two Prime Minister’s questions urging the British Government to supply a small number of beds at Queen Elizabeth hospital Birmingham because, as I am sure we agree, we owe the peshmerga a huge debt of honour and gratitude.
The second matter is visas. The visa application system is a vexed issue and the rejection rate has increased from 55% to 66%. We need up-to-date figures, and I ask the Minister to help with that. Entry clearance officers have perhaps three minutes to examine an application, and any small query means a no. One application was rejected due to a small discrepancy over claimed income, even though exchange rates had moved in the intervening days. Such issues are not clarified because we no longer interview and our diplomats and Ministers can no longer intervene to assert a national interest. We should, of course, police and secure our borders, but we must, looking forward to a post-Brexit world, encourage people to do business and holiday here, and not make it excessively difficult for them to do so.
Thirdly, on bilateral relations, the KRG’s Prime Minister visited the UK in May 2014, and we established a joint committee, which was obviously then overtaken by events. When will the committee begin to function or a new committee be set up? I urge the Government to invite the Prime Minister or the new President of Kurdistan to meet our Prime Minister.
Today’s debate coincides with independence day in the United States. The Kurdish people will decide in their referendum in September whether they, too, want to be an independent state.
What I am saying is that the moods have shifted. I am not saying it would be welcomed, but I hope that, looking towards perhaps more co-operation and trade, we might get a better response than we had anticipated.
We can be optimistic and helpful in whatever discussions and negotiations follow on from the referendum, but whatever the people decide, the UK and the KRG have a lot in common, and our special relationship must be nurtured and developed.
Order. It might help new colleagues if I just let everyone know the format. I plan to give the Scottish National party spokesman, the shadow Minister and the Minister 10 minutes each at the end of the debate, so I will want to get to them just before 3.30 pm in order to allow the proposer of the motion to wind up for a couple of minutes at the end. I say that so that people can realise what timescales we are working to.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate, on his excellent and passionate speech and on being elected chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq.
Unlike many Members here, I have not yet visited the Kurdistan region, but I have attended many all-party group meetings with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s High Representative, Karwan Jamal Tahir, and others, to gain insight into the region. I, too, would like to thank the peshmerga for their bravery in resisting so-called Islamic State, and I am relieved that Mosul is near to full liberation from a ghastly organisation whose brutality is beyond reasonable comprehension.
Through the all-party group I have heard disturbing direct testimony about girls who were enslaved and raped multiple times but managed to escape. Sadly, I am sure that their psychological traumas will last forever, but at the very least they can be treated. I understand there is just one university department of clinical psychology in Kurdistan. I fear that the department will be overwhelmed by the anguish that will become ever clearer and more in need of urgent attention over the coming weeks. Therefore, I appeal to the Government to play any role they can in increasing the number of clinical psychologists in Iraq and Kurdistan. Those young women—those victims—deserve nothing less than being able to look forward to a future when they can at least manage their traumas, and so manage their lives.
We know that there are more than 1 million internally displaced persons—IDPs—currently accommodated in the Kurdistan region, as well as more than 200,000 Syrian refugees. Resettlement is limited because of poor security and the lack of basic services. However, the Catholic Church, working in the region, has played a significant role in helping IDPs and refugees since the beginning of the crisis. The diocese of Irbil currently supports about 70,000 people with accommodation, subsistence, education and employment. Many of those people are from religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, has welcomed the Government’s recent decision to extend the vulnerable person resettlement scheme to non-Syrian refugees in the region. I hope that the Minister can say what support the Government plan to provide, during this Parliament, for Churches and religious communities that are helping IDPs and refugees in Kurdistan.
I join colleagues in supporting the right of the Kurds to express their self-determination through the referendum in September. I commend the Kurdistan leadership’s decision to ask the people for a mandate to negotiate full independence and new relations with Iraq. I also understand the position of the British Government, as set out by the Foreign Secretary, who visited Kurdistan in January 2015 as the then Mayor of London. He visited British troops training the peshmerga and was even pictured alongside one of them with an AK47. He wrote that he had previously met
“a dynamic and forward-looking young politician”—
“the prime minister of the fledgling state of Kurdistan.”
He further stated:
“Then we should help because we have a moral duty to that part of the world. It was the British who took the decision in the early Twenties to ignore the obvious ethnic divisions, and not to create a Kurdistan”,
which he described as
“one of the few bright spots in the Middle East.”
I accept that such solidarity and the right hon. Gentleman’s recent statement as Foreign Secretary are not incompatible, but I also recognise that the referendum will proceed. We will see whether the long negotiations achieve independence or a firm guarantee of equality in a new Iraq. It is not for me to say what is best for the Kurds, but I suggest that the UK and its diplomats use their experience and expertise to facilitate progress.
I want to highlight how the struggle of the Kurds has captured the hearts and minds of many ordinary British people who are practising their own version of diplomacy, and I am proud to speak about an example from the north-east. The Newcastle Gateshead Medical Volunteers have held charity fundraising events in both Gateshead and Newcastle. Its founder, Kurdistan-born Professor Deiary Kader, mobilises health professionals from the north-east to visit Kurdistan two or three times a year, to provide free orthopaedic care. He and his colleagues are literally putting Kurds back on their own two feet through many free hip and knee operations, which are beyond the capacity of the health system there, or for which people would have to wait many years. The charity undertakes formal educational events to raise the standard of surgical care, as well as providing blankets and winter clothing to the Yazidi refugee camps in Duhok. The charity is also building a connection between Kurdistani doctors and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon, to transfer war-injured casualties to the committee’s war-wounded trauma reconstruction centre there.
Although I have yet to visit Kurdistan, I am an enthusiastic advocate of deep and broad links with our friends in the Kurdistan region, which is inclined to friendship with us and describes us as a partner of choice. The Minister has travelled to Kurdistan in his former official capacity and on an all-party group delegation. He was prepared to put aside Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefings to meet the passionate pleas of many Members here when the Commons discussed and agreed to formally recognise the genocide by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds. I hope his wisdom will enable him to understand that the Iraqi Kurds have a special place in British hearts and do his best to help ensure their freedom, equality and justice.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) and, in particular, my genuine hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who introduced this debate and knows a huge amount about the region. Without sounding too sycophantic, I could not be more pleased to have my right hon. Friend the Minister back in his rightful position as the Minister for the Middle East.
I have been privileged to join all-party group delegations to Kurdistan—I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—five times since becoming an MP. Kurdistan has its problems, but it successfully has the essential ingredients for a flourishing society. It is an extraordinary place run by a progressive Muslim Kurdish Government dedicated to improving property rights, boosting private enterprise and encouraging inward investment. Unusually for that part of the world, the Kurdistan Government have determined that the rule of law must prevail. There are the beginnings of a vibrant civil society. I have met the trade unions several times on my visits, and I wish them well in developing sharp elbows to ensure that working people get a fair slice of the cake, although I would not recommend they follow the example of Len McCluskey and others. I have spoken to women’s organisations that have put domestic violence on the agenda and helped reduce the incidence of female genital mutilation. I salute the religious pluralism, and commend Prime Minister Barzani who said:
“What differentiates [us] from most of the countries around us is religious and ethnic tolerance. Accepting and defending each other’s rights strengthens the principle of humanity in this country, particularly in difficult times.”
It is astonishing to see religions from all over the region—Turkmen, Christians and others—literally fleeing to Kurdistan, because they know that it is the one place where they will receive protection.
I note that the KRG has appointed an official in charge of Jewish affairs. Jews once made up 17% of the population in Slemani before they were expelled in the bad old days, and there is a large Kurdish Jewish community in Israel. I remember driving past a Jewish area synagogue that was being preserved. Not many other nations in the middle east would preserve synagogues; they are usually knocking them down or demolishing them. I was very pleased when President Barzani told me that if Iraq recognised Israel, there would be a consulate-general in Irbil the next day. The relationship with Israel could be a major asset for both countries in future. Just imagine, Mr Davies, a progressive Muslim nation building relations with Israel, working together to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would set an example across the middle east.
There is one place, however, that I will never visit again: the Red House in Slemani. It was a horrific Ba’athist torture centre where thousands were murdered, tortured and raped. It is now a museum. More than anything, it shows the devastating inhumanity of Saddam’s regime. I remember going into a room inside the prison that was called the “party room”. In that room, women were raped by the guards and the subsequent foetuses were thrown into furnaces, in echoes of the holocaust. I remember going into the rooms of the prison, which were bugged. That was not for the prisoners, but to bug the guards in case they were giving anything to the prisoners, which has echoes of Stalin and Nazism. When we visited the Red House the second time, I refused to go in; I just sat outside.
The visits encouraged me to lead the Kurdistan Genocide Task Force, which united the KRG in the UK with MPs, academics and legal practitioners. In 2013 it helped persuade the Commons to formally recognise the Anfal genocide. We wanted to encourage the UK Government to do the same, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister will remember very well, the Government did not agree on the grounds that the decision should be legal and not political. I suspect we will still disagree, but I ask him to rethink. I give my real thanks to him for agreeing that the British Government should formally mark Anfal Day every April. I passionately believe that given the suffering of the people of Kurdistan, it is vital that we recognise the genocide, because it was the demonisation, marginalisation and annihilation of the Kurdish people.
Some people at the time asked why we focused on the past, but the history of genocide remains relevant to the Kurdistan story. Let us remember that they lost nearly 200,000 people, most notoriously in the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in 1988. Let us also remember that Saddam bombed the area before he used chemical weapons, so that the windows of all the Kurdish people’s houses were broken. That meant that when the chemical weapons were dropped, the people could not protect themselves by shutting themselves in their houses and shutting their doors and windows. More than 4,000 villages were razed to the ground. That was the beginning of forcible urbanisation, which makes it difficult nowadays to persuade people to leave the cities and make their money from agriculture. It could be a major source of income and help Kurdistan diversify away from a reliance on oil.
The past is never far from the surface. Just a few months after the Commons recognised Halabja and Anfal, the Syrian Ba’athist regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta. It is no coincidence that that was done by a Ba’athist party. In 2014, ISIL attacked Iraq and later Kurdistan. I am sure I have no need to persuade the Minister that ISIL undertook a genocide against the Yazidis and the Christians. I would welcome his update on the measures the UK is taking to help preserve evidence to mount criminal prosecutions. I remember being in Kurdistan and being warned by Kurdistan Ministers that, “In some months, we will have al-Qaeda in Mosul.” I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), was at that meeting. They called it al-Qaeda, not ISIL, but they said that that would happen. All the awful things they predicted would happen tragically did happen.
The genocide against the Kurds ended when they rose up against Saddam in 1991 and evicted him from most of Kurdistan under our armed protection. For that the Kurds will always thank the then British Prime Minister, John Major, and British public opinion, which was appalled at the sight of so many people dying in the freezing mountains which had, in the old Kurdish saying, been their only friends. It is a privilege to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who was so involved at that time.
Whenever one thinks of the Iraq war, the thing we must always thank Tony Blair for is the fact that but for the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan nation would likely still face an existential threat. Saddam has gone. Leaders that followed may not have been like him, but their actions did much to break the hope of federalism. That is why the Kurds are now seeking their sovereignty. I worry, however, that the mentality that allowed thousands of soldiers to conduct genocide is still obvious in the condescending and high-handed manner in which the Kurds are treated by Baghdad. I am also concerned about the attitude of the Shi’a militia towards the Kurds.
I have much sympathy with the Kurds’ desire for independence so that they can always protect themselves. I certainly believe they have the right to exercise self-determination by holding a referendum in September. I have signed the early-day motion stating that, and would be willing to observe the referendum. I understand that the Government’s position is to ask them to be proactive in seeking to facilitate the negotiations that will follow a successful referendum result, so that the Kurds and Arabs currently in Iraq can negotiate a more productive relationship. The UK must do everything possible to support this remarkable nation, which is at the vanguard of the fight against ISIS and for democracy, rule of law and a free economy in Iraq and the middle east.
It is truly an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I declare an interest: I have travelled to the region as the guest of the Regional Government of Kurdistan. I was invited to visit as part of a cross-party group of fact-finding parliamentarians. Aware that the conflict in the region is one of the biggest issues facing our world, I was very keen to go, and having spent a number of years volunteering in London with victims of torture—some from the region—I jumped at the chance to find out more.
On arriving in Irbil, I was shocked by the progressive and sophisticated surroundings. I was expecting a war zone, but the city could be mistaken for Dubai in its high-rise ambition and elegance. Sadly, war was not very far away. Half an hour’s ride out of the city, we were in a Syrian refugee camp near the border with the Kurdistan region.
Chatting to families, surrounded by playful children, I heard so many stories of pain and suffering: loved ones missing believed dead, people injured by mines, children made orphans by war. Most of those I spoke to had been there for more than three years, with no guarantee of when they would return home. They were weary and exhausted; all they wanted was to be reunited with their families and get back to their homes.
Kurdistan is host to not just refugees from Syria, but 1.5 million people displaced by war from other parts of Iraq. Although refugees have special status in international law and are cared for by the UN, internally displaced people are the responsibility of the host Government. Sadly, Baghdad seems to be doing little to help and leaves the task to Kurdistan, which is already suffering an economic tsunami, thanks to a dramatic fall in oil prices, the hostility of Baghdad, which has cut its budget since 2014, and Kurdistan’s own dysfunctional economy, which needs massive reform.
As the Kurds and Iraqis move to liberate Mosul from the brutality of the self-styled Islamic State, more displaced people are heading into Kurdistan—the population has expanded by a third, which is the equivalent of the population of Birmingham moving to Scotland. Understandably, there are electricity and water shortages, and schools and hospitals are overwhelmed.
Travelling to the frontline in Mosul to talk to peshmerga fighters and Iraqi special forces, we saw clearly the sacrifices made by those men and women. Over the border, in Mosul province, we visited the Christian village of Bartella, which had been seized by the Iraqis after a brief firefight. ISIS did not have time to destroy houses or set booby traps, but many houses were pockmarked by bullets, while some were entirely destroyed by airstrikes. Later, visiting a local hospital, we saw soldiers suffering life-changing injuries. I was humbled to witness a female peshmerga fighter passing away. We and the rest of the world owe them so much.
Another poignant visit was to a camp that is home to Yazidis, who practise a pre-Islamic and pre-Christian religion. Many have been murdered as apostates, sold into sexual slavery between one IS emir and another across Iraq or Syria, or killed because they were deemed too old to sell. Women survivors saw their men slaughtered before their eyes and their babies killed for fun. Of the 5,000 Yazidi women abducted as spoils of war, 2,000 have escaped, but they must still endure daily nightmares and flashbacks, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) alluded to.
At the SEED project, which operates from a schoolhouse building, assiduous professionals were working carefully to help victims overcome such traumas. A couple of therapists had studied clinical psychology at Koya University, but that is the only such course in the whole of Kurdistan: the country is in desperate need of people who understand post-traumatic stress. It must be our priority, and the Government’s, to offer that support, alongside physical reconstruction and the political reform the country so desperately needs.
Another way to heal psychological wounds can be through culture, which can be a force for rebellion and resistance, as well as for rebuilding empathy and tolerance in communities. The Kurds’ love of poetry and music attest to that. The legendary Iranian-Kurdish folk singer Mazhar Khaleghi, who now runs the Kurdish Heritage Institute in Sulaymaniyah, says:
“We have lost our lands and we’re probably never going to get them back. But we have to fight to save what is left of our culture. If we lose that, we have lost everything.”
As 150,000 peshmerga fighters push back against IS, Khaleghi’s team of a dozen ethnomusicologists, anthropologists and historians are fighting to preserve the Kurdish identity.
Kurdistan is an exceptionally beautiful country and I was privileged to meet a number of film makers and producers, who were anxious to use the beautiful location to create greater creative links with the rest of the world. I was shown around a disused cigarette factory by a local producer who had some of the finance in place to create a film studio to rival Shepperton or Pinewood. Nearby Turkey has a vibrant film industry and I am sure the same could be true of Kurdistan. It is younger film makers such as Syrian-Kurdish director Lauand Omar, making films such as “Curse Of Mesopotamia”—a low budget horror that can be screened anywhere in the world—who are leading the way.
We can help by supporting Kurdistan’s ambition for inward investment, domestic production and private-sector employment within the Kurdistan region and working with the UK film industry to secure an efficient unified film industry organisation, merging the cinema directorates within the KRG. Kurdistan has huge potential to be a film-making centre in the middle east, bringing economic, social and cultural benefits to the region and its people. I hope there are people listening to this debate who could make that happen.
To visit Iraqi-Kurdistan was an absolutely fascinating opportunity. Yes, there are grave challenges in that part of the world—but where terror has done untold damage, a rose is growing through the cracks in the cement. Beauty and creativity is growing. I think we can all agree that that is testament to the Kurdish people. Over the coming years, they will look to us for support, and sometimes guidance. I hope that, in years to come, such support will be more forthcoming from our Government.
It is a privilege and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. From the outset, I declare a significant interest in the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As I have so often said in my parliamentary contributions since being elected for the first time in 2010, I am very proud to be the first British Member of Parliament of Kurdish descent. I therefore feel, perhaps more strongly than most, that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have an inalienable right to self-determination, as do all peoples. That is why it is my belief that September’s referendum should be welcomed by our Government, without the need for the Minister to express a desire or opinion for or against independence.
There are many who say that Kurdistan could not survive as an independent state, that it is not ready for such an important vote, or that now is not the time for it. Whatever the outcome of September’s vote, I believe Kurdistan can and will prosper.
Although the most recent delays to holding September’s long-awaited and long-overdue referendum are understandable given the conflict in the region, I cannot help but draw attention to the deficiencies of previous Iraqi Governments in helping to facilitate the vote. In so doing, I am sympathetic to arguments that claim previous Iraqi Governments have effectively contributed to the mood for separation in Iraqi Kurdistan. The so-called Iraqi Barnett formula works in the opposite way to ours. I say that slightly in jest: since 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan has been almost totally cut off in terms of central Government funding. The region questioning its independence is shouldering a greater financial burden than other regions of the country, rather than the other way round.
In 2005 Iraq approved its new federalist constitution, with 79% in favour and 21% against. However, significant parts of the constitution are, sadly, yet to be implemented by Baghdad, denying regional Governments the autonomy for which an overwhelming majority of Iraqis had voted. Perhaps the most significant part of the constitution for Iraqi Kurdistan that is yet to be implemented is article 140. It has long been the expectation that the disputed Kurdish regions within particular governorates would be dealt with as Kirkuk was: they would have a referendum on whether they should become part of the Kurdistan Regional Government or remain within the greater Iraq. Article 140 makes it imperative that significant and sufficient measures to reverse Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation process in the disputed regions are undertaken so that the referendum is seen to be fair.
Thousands of Kurds returned following the events of 2003, and those regions are now under the control of the KRG after it claimed them from Daesh, but a formal referendum has not taken place. We now face a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence while the status of the disputed regions remains unresolved.
President Barzani has confirmed that residents of the disputed regions, which Baghdad still considers not to be part of Iraqi Kurdistan, will be allowed to partake in September’s referendum. My fear, however, is that whatever the outcome of September’s vote, without the prior resolution of the regions’ statuses, Baghdad or Irbil will use the treatment or inclusion of those regions as a means to negate the result or make the referendum illegitimate. If it is a no to independence, Irbil may say that the result would have been different had disenfranchised Kurds been formally reunified with Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the referendum. If it is a yes, Baghdad may say that the result would have been different had the disputed regions not been included in the plebiscite as, they would argue, should have been the case all along.
I realise that I may be painting a rather bleak picture of a post-referendum Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite the concerns I have raised, I am still on balance far more optimistic than pessimistic. Although we may see a minor war of words between Irbil and Baghdad in the wake of September’s result, whatever it is I think the wider and longer-term result will be greater stability in the whole region. We will almost certainly see greater devolution to the KRG as a result of the vote: either total devolution in the case of independence or more devolution in order to placate the unsuccessful side in the case of a no vote. It is this devolution, the autonomy and power to control its own economic affairs, to manage its public services and to raise its own army, that has made Iraqi Kurdistan such a powerful force for regional stability.
The peshmerga have enjoyed immense success in combating Daesh-Isil, as many of my colleagues have mentioned, and in bringing stable and lasting liberation to large parts of Iraq and the adjoining parts of Syria. They have played an instrumental role in the liberation of Sinjar, and are continuing to do so as we speak on the eastern front in the battle to liberate Mosul. The leaders of western forces, our great military leaders, are all too ready to praise the peshmerga as the most effective military operators in the region. It is precisely their status as a regional army that has led to their effectiveness. I see a clear causal link between greater devolution to Irbil and the liberation and eventual political stability of Kurdistan and the country of Iraq as a whole. For that reason, I welcome the prospect of any further devolution, whatever the degree.
I would also like to make reference to the very strong relationship that the KRG has with Turkey—another critically important power in the conflict taking place in Iraq and Syria and one on which regional stability also depends. I further welcome more devolution to Irbil in the hope of closer and more unified co-operation with Turkey in the campaign against Daesh.
My overall point is that rather than seeing a fully independent or more powerful Kurdistan as indicative of an increasingly divided and chaotic Iraq, one should see it as an opportunity to bring greater stability to the region. I urge the Government, represented here so ably by the Minister, whom I thank for giving up his time, to look closely at the opportunities that an Iraqi Kurdistan with more devolved power could bring.
I know from conversations with leading politicians in the KRG, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, that the Iraqi Kurds would never resort to any violence of any kind against the Iraqi Government to make their case for more control over their own affairs. The KRG, and indeed the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, see Baghdad as their closest and most important strategic ally. My message to my Government is this: let us learn the lessons from our invasion of Iraq in 2003; let us recognise that we may have won the war but we certainly did not win the peace; and let us be open-minded about the role we can now play in restoring stability to Iraq by being positive about a more autonomous Kurdistan, whatever path it chooses for itself in September.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak, Mr Davies. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for securing this important and timely debate, which is testament to his long-standing interest in Kurdistan.
I will be brief and restrict myself to two main points. First, Iraqi Kurdistan is and should continue to be an important strategic ally of the United Kingdom. I have had the privilege of making several visits to the Kurdistan region of Iraq—most recently in June 2014 when I visited Kirkuk, where I was very pleased to meet, among many others, members of that city’s Christian community. They were extremely relieved that the peshmerga had prevented Daesh from capturing the city because, for the Christians, that would have meant certain death.
At that time, Daesh were sweeping across Iraq. The Iraqi national army had collapsed and had abandoned Mosul, leaving a great deal of equipment behind when they fled south. The Kurdish peshmerga were a bastion against Daesh and managed to contain the tide of that murderous death cult. I am glad that the British Government recognised that.
We should acknowledge that since August 2014 the UK has supported the peshmerga with significant material and other support, such as training for peshmerga fighters, counter-IED detectors, heavy machine guns, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Most importantly, there has been the support of Typhoon and Reaper strikes and air reconnaissance. We should be very proud of that support. Does the Minister think we should build on that and support the peshmerga further?
We in the United Kingdom have helped the Kurdistan Regional Government defend not only themselves but the interests of Iraq as a whole and also our interests. Their position is now a strong one and the impending liberation of Mosul is a testament to the sacrifices that they and their allies have made. It is the current disposition in Iraq today that leads to my second point.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene; I am enjoying his speech. On the military support we have given the peshmerga, some have said it has been inadequate and some have said we could do a bit more, but, importantly, there has been a shortage of body armour, helmets and respirators. Does he agree that we have a responsibility to make sure not only that they are properly equipped and armed, but that they have access to medical care and treatment as well?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The issue is not only about arming, but about protecting and providing facilities.
We are still living with the legacy of the unintended consequences of the 2003 liberation of Iraq and the end of Saddam’s tyranny. One of the most important unintended consequences is the fact that Iran is strategically dominant: the presence of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias across Iraq indicates a new-found political dominance of the Shi’a crescent by Iran. When Mosul falls, an Iran-controlled land corridor will link the Islamic Republic to its ally Hezbollah on the Mediterranean. That is likely to have increasingly serious regional implications. We must plan accordingly, with our allies.
Furthermore, today the viability of the state of Iraq is called into question, as it has been on a number of occasions since 2003. I want to be clear that I hope that the state of Iraq as a federal state is indeed still viable. However, the Kurdish hold on Kirkuk, the impending referendum, which hon. Members have mentioned, and the likely antipathy, when Mosul is liberated, from among the Sunni population towards the Baghdad Government, are factors that will shape the future of Iraq and they are beyond our control.
My experience as a soldier in Iraq has taught me that British direct involvement in its politics rarely meets with success. However, we are doing what we must continue to do and what we do best: engaging in full-throttle defence diplomacy to help the Kurds to defend their interests, and ours at the same time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for his speech. His knowledge of and passion for the Kurdistan area came through strongly, and his work for the all-party group is impressive.
The imminent recapture of Mosul from Daesh control by Iraqi security forces is a welcome development, and it will bring multiple complex challenges. The transition from offensive combat operations to a post-conflict stabilisation phase—notably the performance of constabulary police—has not always been well handled by the Iraqi Government forces. Above all, it is critical that there should be no repeat of the stories and allegations that emerged, for example, from the recapture of Fallujah when Iraqi Government forces were accused of reprisals against suspected Daesh fighters and the civilian population alike. Of equal importance are humanitarian aid, stabilisation and the restoration of functioning state institutions. As things stand, there are 820,000 Iraqis currently displaced from Mosul and the surrounding areas since military operations to retake the city began in October 2016. Their needs must become an immediate priority.
Although it is not part of Kurdistan proper, Mosul’s position within the disputed territories of northern Iraq, its multi-ethnic demography and its overall importance for the economy and governance of northern Iraq make it imperative that the authorities in Baghdad and Irbil should collaborate effectively in the aftermath of its recapture. We urge the UK and the other members of the international coalition to exert their influence to make sure that the collaboration works. I believe that yesterday the Foreign Secretary met Iraqi Foreign Minister Jaafari, and we expect to hear how that message might be communicated to him at a later time.
As many hon. Members have said, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have the right to decide their own future, and we urge all parties to work together to ensure that Kurdish self-determination is supported. My hon. Friends and I support the right to self-determination for all, provided it is expressed through peaceful democratic processes. We welcome the fact that the Government in Irbil intend to pursue their legitimate aspirations by means of a popular vote, but we would stress the importance of dialogue with Baghdad and with all regional actors to ensure that it passes off peacefully and contributes to regional stability.
I was taken by an article by President Barzani who, writing in The Washington Post, made a compelling case for Kurdistan to be an independent country. He wrote:
“On Sept. 25, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan will decide in a binding referendum if they want independence or to remain part of Iraq. The vote will resolve a conflict as old as the Iraqi state itself between the aspirations of the Kurdish people and a government in Baghdad that has long treated Kurds as less than full citizens of the country.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s exercise of its right to self-determination threatens no one and may make a volatile region more stable. It will not alter the borders of any neighboring state and, if done right, will make for a much stronger relationship between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds. We are determined to do everything possible to accommodate Iraqi concerns in the likely event that the vote is for independence.”
The President argues that Kurdistan’s case for independence is compelling and he points out that 100 years ago, in the peace negotiations that followed world war one, the Kurds were promised their own state. Instead they were divided against their will, and their lands were carved up among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. The newly-established state of Iraq was supposed to be an equal partnership between Arabs and Kurds, but that hopeful dream gave way to a grim reality. All Iraqi Governments suppressed the Kurds, and the resulting atrocities culminated in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein used poison gas extensively on Kurdish towns and villages, levelled more than 5,000 Kurdish villages and deported Kurds to the south, where they were murdered and buried in mass graves; 182,000 Iraqi Kurds—nearly 5% of the population—including members of the President’s family, perished in that period.
The article continues:
“With the overthrow of Hussein’s Baath regime, the Kurds worked hard to build a new Iraq, including drafting a constitution that guaranteed Kurdistan’s autonomy and protected the rights of all Iraqis. Fourteen years later, Baghdad has failed to implement key provisions of that constitution, and we have good reason to believe that it never will. This failure of the political system is also responsible for the drastic deterioration of relations between Sunnis and Shiites that led to the rise of the Islamic State, with disastrous consequences for all Iraqis, including the Kurds.”
The President notes that the principal argument that is made for Iraqi unity is that a single Iraq is better able to protect its citizens, but that that claim is not supported by evidence and experience. When the Islamic State attacked Kurdistan in 2014, using advanced US weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army in Mosul, the Iraqi Government refused to give Kurdistan its constitutionally mandated share of the federal budget, and it certainly did not provide soldiers—known as the peshmerga, as other hon. Members have noted—with weapons. As an independent country, Kurdistan would have been able to finance and equip its own troops and to bring the fight to a much swifter conclusion.
The article states:
“The war on the Islamic State since then provides a model for how Kurds and Arabs might cooperate in the future. In the battle to drive the Islamic State from Iraq, the peshmerga and the Iraqi army have been in an alliance of equals. Each army has its own chain of command. The peshmerga’s joint operations with the Iraqi military support each other in ways that never occurred in an Iraq where Baghdad sought to dominate and control Kurdistan. Regardless of the referendum, we will continue our close cooperation with Iraqi and Western forces until the final victory over the Islamic State.”
That statement tells us a lot about how Kurdistan would be a stabilising force in the region, should it be able to move to independent status and not have to rely on Baghdad for its orders.
The President argues that an independent Kurdistan could have a much stronger relationship with Baghdad and would be a great neighbour, co-operating against terrorism and sharing resources, including water, petroleum and many kinds of infrastructure, in ways that would benefit both countries:
“Without the sanctions that Iraq has applied to our imports and exports, we could jointly develop our human and natural resources in a common market to the benefit of both Kurdistan and Iraq.
While the results of the referendum will bind future Kurdistan governments, the timing and modalities of our independence will be subject to negotiation with Baghdad and consultation with our neighbors and the wider international community.”
That is not the view of an aggressive state trying to have things all its own way. There is room for negotiation, and I am sure that the way the President has phrased his article means that his approach would be very peaceful and reasonable.
The article goes on to say:
“In our negotiations with Baghdad, we will be practical. The issue of what territory joins Kurdistan will be the most contentious issue in the separation. Despite a Dec. 31, 2007, deadline, the Iraqi government refused to implement a key constitutional provision…that would have the people of the disputed areas decide their future democratically. Nearly ten years later, we propose to give them that opportunity.”
That is a fantastic step in the right direction.
“We wish to incorporate into Kurdistan only those territories where the people overwhelmingly want to be part of Kurdistan as expressed in a free vote. The last thing we want is a long-lasting territorial dispute with Iraq that could poison our future relations.”
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) talked about Kurdistan’s culture and diversity, which it values. It is home to Christians, Yazidis, Turks, Shabaks and Arabs, all of whose separate identities are recognised by its laws. Since 2003, many Iraqi Christians have moved to Kurdistan to escape the violence and persecution elsewhere in Iraq. Since Islamic State seized part of Iraq in 2014, Kurdistan has also provided support for more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, with only minimal help from Baghdad and the international community.
I appreciate the input from the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who talked about having a vibrant civil society within a progressive Muslim nation. He referred to the disgraceful Red House—I was not aware of it, and I think most Members would look on it with disgust.
The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) talked about having respect for the peshmerga, which has support in the north-east. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen talked about the people of Birmingham all moving to Scotland—I am not sure that is a very good idea at the moment, although they would be very welcome—which indicates the scale of what has happened in that country.
Finally, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) said that the people of Kurdistan have the inalienable right to decide their own future. I hope that the Minister will confirm the Government’s position, and that they will reconsider their attitude to Kurdistan and the referendum that is about to take place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), the chair of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, on securing the debate. He has taken over a very important position in a group that has had a profound effect on this Parliament over the 10 years of its existence. I was involved in the group in its early days, and I was privileged to travel under its auspices to Irbil on two separate occasions. It helped to inform me and ensured that Labour Members—many of my colleagues also visited—are well informed about Kurdistan and what it has to offer the world.
Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have many Kurdish constituents—now naturalised British citizens—who bring with them the history of their nation and region. They are mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan, but some are from Syria, Turkey and, of course, Iran. In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said that Kurdistan cannot be subjugated, and he talked of a resetting of relationships with Baghdad—not through a universal declaration of independence, like former Rhodesia, but through the referendum that will take place on 25 September. He urged the United Kingdom to send official observers to the region for the referendum.
The hon. Gentleman and others also alluded to the bravery of the peshmerga. When we see their operations, the work they have been doing, their fighting and the bravery they have exhibited, we cannot but admire them. He also mentioned the issue of the unfair assessment of visas for Kurdish people—especially those injured in war—who hope to come to the United Kingdom. I hope the Minister will address that issue in his winding-up speech. The hon. Gentleman also said that the United Kingdom and the Kurdistan Regional Government have a lot in common. That is something that struck me when I was there on my two visits.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) said she was delighted by the liberation of Mosul, and appealed to the Government to provide clinical psychologists and psychiatrists to help with the trauma of Daesh’s rape victims in the city. I hope the Minister will tell us a little more about that.
The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—I hope he does not mind my addressing him as my right hon. Friend—with whom I visited the region in 2011, I think it was, talked about the thriving civil society, the religious pluralism, the tolerance and the defence of each other’s rights, which he, I and many other Members found on our visits to Kurdistan. He said something that I was not aware of: Jews once made up 17% of the city of Sulaymaniyah. It would be nice to see Jewish people returning to that city and other parts of Kurdistan. Like the hon. Gentleman, I remember being told that if Iraq recognised the state of Israel today, tomorrow we would have a consulate in Irbil—such is the Kurdish people’s admiration for the Jewish people.
We were told at the time that the Anfal brought the Kurdish people closer to the suffering that the Jewish people underwent during the second world war with the holocaust. They understood what that meant, because they had suffered a genocide themselves. My right hon. Friend ably led the Kurdistan genocide taskforce in 2013, which resulted in the United Kingdom Parliament’s recognition of the Anfal genocide. I recall speaking at that conference myself. We heard from a young man—he is still a young man—who as a child witnessed the genocide in Halabja. He was there hiding in a basement, watching his family, friends and neighbours dying from the poison gas attack. It is one of the most moving things I have ever heard since my election to this House 20 years ago. It was absolutely extraordinary—I hope we never have to hear such testimony again. That is another reason why the people of Kurdistan deserve and need our support.
My dear hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), who has done so much good work since her election to this House in the by-election nearly a year ago, talked about the 1.5 million people internally displaced by war in Kurdistan, and said that the Kurdistan Regional Government receive very little help from the Government of Iraq. The fall in oil prices has affected the Kurdish economy, as many hon. Members said. She said that we must try to offer post-traumatic stress counselling to those who have been affected.
My hon. Friend also made an important point about something that those of us who have been to the region also noticed very strongly, especially in comparison with other countries in the same region: the Kurdish people’s very strong culture. I remember visiting a school in Sulaymaniyah and watching young people dancing the most joyous dance to the most extraordinary music in the most wonderful costumes—something that would not go amiss in one of the films she mentioned. Why not? Kurdistan bills Sulaymaniyah and its other cities as a hub for film-making in the region. Turkey has a vibrant film industry, as she rightly pointed out, so why not Kurdistan too? It would be lovely to see that. It is a most extraordinary culture.
The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who, as he pointed out, is the first British MP of Kurdish descent, talked about the referendum. He said that since 2014 Kurdistan has been almost completely cut off from central Government funding in Iraq. He rightly mentioned the problems relating to holding the referendum, but he was optimistic that there will be greater stability in the region, not the reverse. I certainly agree.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who is welcome in this debate—I welcome him to the House—is a former director of the Conservative Middle East Council, and therefore has considerable knowledge of the region. He was also an Army officer and fought in Iraq. He brought his wisdom and experience to us. He said, very importantly, that the viability of the state of Iraq has already been called into question. He mentioned the political significance of Iran’s Shi’a dominance in the region, against which Kurdistan is a bulwark. He also said—I definitely agree with him, having voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2003—that UK interference in Iraq has not been entirely successful.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the United Kingdom’s role in Iraq and interference. Does he agree with me about what happened post-2006? The Government of Mr Maliki came in with the backing of the Shi’a blocking vote and conducted the persecution in Anbar province. The United Kingdom Government should have disassociated themselves much earlier from support of the Maliki Government, rather than doing so many years later. That persecution of the Sunnis led to the havoc we see in Iraq now.
That is entirely why I voted against this country’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. Yes, it resulted in the deposing of the dictator Saddam Hussein, but it also resulted in some of the appalling things to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.
As we have heard, the Kurdish minority in Iraq numbers more than 6 million, which is about 20% of the population of Iraq. Mutual suspicion and acrimony between Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous Government have led to the Kurdish Regional Government’s announcing the independence referendum that is to take place on 25 September. No outside Governments are in favour of the referendum, which it is widely believed will create more instability in the region. I beg to differ.
The UK Government assist the Government of Iraqi Kurdistan in fighting ISIS and helping with refugees, for which we are all profoundly grateful. Iraqi Kurdistan and its army, the peshmerga, have been very beneficial and helpful, and extremely brave in fighting ISIS in Iraq over the past three years. A January 2015 report of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee—the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon was a member of the Committee at the time—stated:
“It is for the Iraqi people to decide their future, but it appears to us that a looser federal model, permitting greater self-governance by its diverse mosaic of communities, offers best hope for Iraq remaining united and sovereign. Highly centralised rule under a ‘strongman’ in Baghdad will never work.”
I certainly agree.
Iraq’s neighbours—Turkey, Iran and Syria—all oppose secession, fearing that separatism will spread to their own ethnic Kurdish populations. We can understand that, but none the less should all believe in the right of peoples to self-determination. European Union Foreign Ministers have acknowledged the right to nationalist aspirations for Iraqi Kurdistan, but cautioned against “unilateral steps” that threaten the unified state of Iraq. The United Nations will not involve itself in debates concerning independence, and the only country that seems to be warming to the idea of independence is the state of Israel.
Human Rights Watch estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed or disappeared during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaigns between 1987 and 1989, with 2,000 villages destroyed by Saddam’s regime by 1993. So, finally, I want to state the Labour party’s position on the referendum. We believe, as I am sure all in the House do, in the right of self-determination for peoples living under oppression. The Kurdistan Regional Government, it could be argued, are not a group of people living under oppression, but they are in an invidious and difficult position and have been for many years, especially in the light of that history.
The Labour party will recognise the result of the referendum if we are convinced that it is conducted openly and honestly, and freely and fairly—that, of course, will require international observers—and if the borders of Kurdistan are agreed and recognised internationally. Perhaps the Minister will comment on whether the United Kingdom Government, of whom he is a well-respected Minister, would consider doing the same in such circumstances.
In common with everyone else, it is a great pleasure for me to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank you for relaxing the jacket rule, which is welcome and much appreciated by a number of us.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate and on his recent election as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I will return to some of his remarks, but he set his case out ably and firmly, as I had had no doubt that he would, and I listened extremely carefully.
A number of colleagues have made some kind remarks about my return to this ministerial role, which are genuinely appreciated. Although I needed no reminder, having this as a first debate has reminded me of the pain and complexities of a region that I have come to know well, because I have many friends there. The debate illustrates how the politics of the region are rarely simple and how a Government have to tread with great care, because all words have consequences. Appropriately, our Government will treat the situation with extreme care, for we recognise—as the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) set out—that what any particular region may do in the middle east has ramifications, and Kurdistan is no exception.
I, too, must make a declaration of interest. As has been referred to, not only did I visit Irbil and the Kurdish region as a Minister, but I visited it as a member of the all-party group. I enjoyed and appreciated both visits very much indeed. I thank my courteous hosts, who told me a great deal about the region. The respect that I have for the civilian Government and for what they were achieving in Irbil, as well as my respect for the extraordinary performance of the peshmerga and all those who have defended our freedoms through their actions, have left a deep impression. Those who are responsible for the Kurdish region know that those are my feelings strongly. It was also nice to be reminded of John Major and his work. He is well thought of for his work to protect people in the region at a crucial time.
I am grateful for the contributions of hon. Members and will do my best to respond to a number of the points made, although I am mindful of how difficult that is in a short time. I could spend five minutes on each and every point made by colleagues during the course of their remarks, but I cannot do so. There will be other opportunities, however—again, only so much can be said in public and on the record, and many things can be discussed in different forums. I tried to do that when I was in this role previously, and I certainly intend to do so again, because colleagues’ interest in the area is profound. Accordingly, appreciation of as many of the complexities that the United Kingdom Government have to deal with as possible is of benefit to Parliament as a whole: Parliament speaks with great wisdom and knowledge on such matters.
The debate has come at an historic moment for Iraq and its people, with the battle to liberate Mosul approaching its conclusion. Iraq’s security forces have shown immense courage, suffered significant losses and demonstrated strong capability in a long and complex operation against a ruthless enemy with no regard for human life. The contribution of Kurdish forces to that process has been remarkable. Even though the fighting is not yet over, Iraq is entering another even more critical phase.
I am grateful to the Minister for paying tribute to the Kurdish forces in their fight against Daesh. Does he share my concern about some of the actions of the Turkish air force, which has targeted Kurdish forces in north Iraq and Syria? What more can the British Government do to bring influence to bear on Turkey, which after all is a NATO ally?
It is indeed. The hon. Gentleman’s remarks again require the House to be aware of the complexities of the region, the different forces operating there, the reactions of different states in the area to such forces and whether everyone is working to the same agenda. I cannot comment specifically on the matter he raises, but I am well aware of the difficulties and of some actions of forces that may be interpreted in more than one manner. However, I take his point.
Once the liberation of Mosul is complete and the fighting is over, the peace must be won. Military success has to be consolidated through building a more stable, inclusive and prosperous country. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) reminded us that the consequences of recapturing a city or an area can be harsh, and the world will be watching to ensure that that is not the case in Mosul. Some of the reprisals visited upon people in the past only laid the foundations of more anger and conflict, but I am sure that the forces in Mosul who are responsible to the coalition understand that well.
Enabling and encouraging Iraq to achieve the goal of a more stable, inclusive and prosperous country is one of this Government’s fundamental objectives. It is certainly true, as several colleagues mentioned, that the failure to include the Sunni community in the future of Iraq was fundamental to the emergence of what became Daesh and the concerns that have been raised since; it is absolutely vital to ensure that it is included in the future. Supporting a more stable, inclusive and prosperous country includes supporting a strong and successful Kurdistan region within a unified Iraq.
The Kurdish people, the Kurdistan Regional Government and their security forces have been pivotal to the military campaign to defeat Daesh. They have been generous providers of humanitarian support, and they will be instrumental to the effort to secure peace. They are a critical partner of the UK and the global coalition, but also a close friend and key ally of the UK.
As part of the global coalition against Daesh, the United Kingdom Government are providing practical support to the Republic of Iraq and its Kurdistan region in their shared fight against Daesh. Alongside the training we provide to the Iraqi security forces, around 150 UK military personnel are based in the Kurdish region to provide the peshmerga with military training, which the Foreign Secretary has seen at close quarters, as is well known. We have trained nearly 8,500 Kurdish peshmerga in light infantry skills, counter-improvised explosive device techniques and military medicine. We have supplied military equipment, including heavy machine guns and ammunition, and delivered military equipment on behalf of our coalition partners. We also give strategic advice to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.
I echo the welcome that has already been given to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). Many Government colleagues have benefited greatly from his expertise in this area and his selfless generosity in sharing it. That it is now available to the House as a whole is a good thing for us all, and I welcome that. He mentioned further equipping the peshmerga. I remind the House that, as he knows, all UK military assistance is direct and provided through Centcom, the central command of the military coalition, which assesses the needs of the peshmerga, but colleagues have in the past returned from the area and provided advice about what might be necessary on the ground at a particular time, and that has been taken through by the British Government. I assure him that he will always be listened to with great care.
I pay tribute to the brilliant work that the Minister did before at the Foreign Office, and I am sure that he will do so again. I have huge admiration for what the peshmerga do, but one of my constituents went to the Kurdistan region of his own free will to fight with the peshmerga against Daesh. Does the Minister agree that that kind of action is completely unacceptable, as is that of those individuals who fight with Daesh? There should be stringent measures for people who want to offer their assistance; they should do so through appropriate channels rather than by taking actions of their own will.
My hon. Friend makes his point well. The United Kingdom provides support to those who are imperilled by Daesh and those who fight it through legitimate means. The British military is involved in a coalition—that job is being done. Much though people may feel inspired to go out to the region, the United Kingdom Government does not support that, as we are engaged in other ways.
Although I recognise, accept and agree with the Minister’s position on British nationals going to fight for the peshmerga, does he agree that there is no moral equivalent between people who go to fight with Daesh and people who volunteer to serve with the peshmerga?
Absolutely. There is no moral equivalent whatever, and I was not making that point; I was merely making the point that the United Kingdom Government are supporting those who are countering the most evil force, and that is the right way to do it. We counsel caution to those who wish to do it any other way.
In addition to the military support that I mentioned, the UK Government have provided £169.5 million in life-saving humanitarian aid to Iraq since June 2014, which has helped to support internally displaced people across Iraq, including those hosted in the Kurdistan region.
The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) mentioned the women who have been captured and used by Daesh forces. I absolutely take her point about support from clinical psychologists; I will make inquiries about that. Yet another previous role of mine was Minister for mental health, so I am aware of the importance of that work and I will look to see what may be available. I am the United Kingdom’s commissioner for the International Commission on Missing Persons, and at a recent meeting in Stockholm I met a Yazidi woman who had escaped but whose mother and sister were still being held captive. As was mentioned, providing evidence for what may well turn out to be war crimes is of significant importance. Gathering evidence and, in time, using that evidence is as important as ensuring that those who are lost are recovered and missing no longer.
Let me turn to the specific questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked. I will look at the specific item that he mentioned about medical assistance. Such assistance is not disaggregated, so I will look at what specifically goes to the Kurdish region. I take his point about visas, which are a constant issue in the middle east. I will discuss that with the Home Office, which is responsible for visas. We will welcome Kurdish officials meeting the Prime Minister in due course. The Prime Minister has not yet met Prime Minister Abadi, which should come first, but I take my hon. Friend’s point carefully.
I must mention the referendum before I give my hon. Friend the chance to wrap up. We understand the aspirations of the Kurdish people and will continue to support them politically, culturally and economically within Iraq, but we also believe that a referendum on independence risks detracting from the more urgent priorities of defeating Daesh, stabilising liberated areas and addressing the long-term political, social and economic issues that led to Daesh’s rise. That is why we maintain that any referendum or political process towards independence must be agreed with the Government of Iraq in Baghdad and that unilateral moves towards independence would not be in the interests of the Kurdistan region, Iraq or wider regional stability. Our position is shared by many of our key allies. My sense is that those responsible in the Kurdish region understand that well, and we expect this matter to proceed with due care, recognising the sensitivities of disputed areas as well as other parts of Iraq.
Thank you for your chairmanship of this debate, Mr Davies. I am hugely grateful to every colleague who came along to support it; there have been some very good interventions and great speeches.
The debate has, to a large degree, demonstrated and reinforced the British Parliament’s support, affection and understanding of the Iraqi Kurdish people. I want again to put my thanks and appreciation on the record with respect to the peshmerga. The Minister referred to this, but I remind him that although training, equipment and war-fighting capabilities are important, those things have a cost and we must be mindful of the medical care and support that some of the peshmerga are not getting. Whatever the Kurdish people decide in the referendum in September, the British Government need to get fully behind them and continue to develop our relationships on security, trade, business and democracy.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Kurdistan region in Iraq.
Renewable Energy Generation: Island Communities
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for renewable energy generation in island communities.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and I am pleased to welcome the Minister to his new role. He is one in a fairly long line of Energy Ministers during my tenure in the House—I am not entirely sure how many I have seen—but he brings with him a reputation for being a diligent and effective Minister, and I wish him well in his time in the Department. It is the convention on these occasions to say how pleased we are to have secured the debate. Although I will keep my tie on, I will break with convention by saying that I am not particularly pleased; I have been around this course for the past 15 years and I am immensely frustrated that debates of this sort are still necessary.
I think it will be helpful for those who might be watching our proceedings from elsewhere to be quite clear not only what the debate is about but what it is not about. It is not about individual projects that may be under consideration; there are a number in my constituency, including in Orkney and with Viking Energy in Shetland. To say that we need a strategy to unlock the potential of renewable energy generation is not to say that any individual project in itself is right or should go ahead, nor is it to be confused with the consultation currently being undertaken by Ofgem on replacing Shetland’s power station with a 278 km, 600 MW high-voltage direct current cable. That is exciting some comment at the moment, but it is a proposal of which I remain to be convinced; having been around this course for many years, I do not regard it as quite so difficult or challenging for that particular project to get a cable on the seabed.
The debate is about how Government and the forces of government can unlock the potential for renewable energy generation that we all know is there within our island communities. A study commissioned jointly by the then Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Scottish Government in 2013—the “Scottish Islands Renewable Project”—estimated that the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland could between them supply up to 5% of Britain’s total electricity demand by 2030. That is a quite significant prize and it is within our grasp. However, it is something that we already know will only happen if we can get everybody working together.
In that connection, I welcome the intervention this morning from Councillor Donald Crichton, chair of the Sustainable Development Committee in the Western Isles Council, calling for cross-party consensus building on this. As he said, the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment at last month’s general election to
“support the development of wind projects in the remote islands of Scotland, where they will directly benefit local communities”
is an important and welcome step. Similarly, I also place on the record my appreciation of the efforts of Lord Dunlop of Helensburgh, who, in his time as a junior Minister in the Scotland Office and before, did a lot to push this particular issue.
That manifesto commitment was welcome, and I am pleased that it has survived the cull of so many other commitments from that unfortunate document. However, we are looking to the Minister for some outline of what the commitment will actually mean in practical terms. If you will forgive me, Sir David, there is quite a history here, and it is important that we remind ourselves of some of it. A lot of the issues that underpin this history come from the fact that Ofgem—for reasons that are understandable in relation to non-renewable technologies—has for some time adhered to a system of locational charging. For renewable projects, far from the centres of populations and the ultimate points of consumption, that does not necessarily make the same sense, so we have looked for different ways around that over the years.
Back in the days of the late Malcolm Wicks, we tried the idea of a cap on transmission charges. That was brought in by him and the then Labour Government, and was then extended by Chris Huhne when he was Secretary of State for Energy, but that in itself did not provide the solution we had hoped for. We then moved on to the new contracts for difference regime, and within that it was suggested that we could have a dedicated islands strike price. Unfortunately, at the point that that was being submitted to the European Commission for state aid approval, it was felt that it could be delayed by the islands element, so it was removed for later submission. It was resubmitted at a later stage and went through the pre-approval application process, which concluded some time around the end of 2015.
In the meantime, we had a general election, and the Conservative Government that came in in 2015 had a manifesto commitment to have a moratorium on onshore wind developments. The point at which the Government decided to go ahead with the CfD auction round that we are currently part of, without any provision for the islands, sticks in my memory for two reasons. First, it was the morning after the American people had elected President Trump, and secondly, I remember very clearly taking the call from the Secretary of State on my mobile phone while I was going through Edinburgh airport. However, a consultation period followed, which should have ended in the early part of this year and to which we I think we still await the Government’s formal response.
I remind the House of that history at this point because it is germane to the debate. Although the commitment in the Conservative party’s manifesto from last month is new, the issue is not—it has been within the machinery of government for some considerable time. Although we hope that that commitment will be given the green light, it is far from the case that the work needs to start from scratch. What is now needed is the degree of political commitment to implement the commitment and to tell us exactly what it means, because time is not in plentiful supply.
If provision for the islands of Scotland is to be included in the next round of CfD auctions, we are looking at something that has to go through the machinery of government and possibly even the state aid consent procedures in order to be in place by the end of next year, so there is a need for some degree of urgency in the approach to this. When the industry hears from the Minister later, it will be looking for a degree of clarity. We are not looking for the blueprint on everything that is meant by the manifesto commitment, but we want to hear some sort of outline or framework through which this can be turned into a reality.
What are we looking at here? Are we revisiting the idea of an islands strike price, or are we looking at something that might, somehow or another, find a mechanism for including onshore island generation with offshore wind? I do not know just how doable that would be, or how workable it would be from the point of view of the industry, but those are some of the ideas that have been floated. Alternatively, does the Department have some new mechanism that is going to be brought forward?
In any event, when in all those processes will the work start in order to obtain state aid approvals? I understand that the Government will proceed on the basis that, regardless of what happens with Brexit, state aid regulation compliance remains a feature of our regulatory landscape for the foreseeable future. Is it the Government’s aspiration that any projects that would be brought forward under this new scheme would be eligible for the next round of CfD auctions? If that is the case, will the Minister at this stage consult within Government to get a commitment that the next auction round will not go ahead unless and until this scheme is in place and island-based projects are able to compete?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene in the limited time he has. Will he explain to the House whether there is any other route to market for island wind if there is no access to the next round of CfD funding?
The answer to that depends on what we mean by “route to market”. There are other ways in which the energy generated can be used, and a lot of innovative work is being done in relation to non-distributing technologies such as the use of hydrogen, but for all intents and purposes, for the projects being considered at the moment across the country, there really is not. Those in the industry will have a view on that, and if they bring forward something we are not currently considering, I think we will all be in the market for hearing it.
Finally and most obviously, we will want to hear in fairly early course exactly what is meant by the expression “community benefit”, which has been around the renewables debate for as long as I can remember and has meant different things to different people in different places at different times. If it is to form part of policy, a clearer definition will be necessary.
I appreciate the opportunity to intervene. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a significant motivating factor for accelerating the development of renewable technology has to be reducing household energy bills as part of the community benefit? Those bills are often higher in island communities such as the Isles of Scilly in my constituency, owing to the inaccessibility.
We are fresh from an election, and there are lots of new Members here. The usual procedure in a short half-hour debate is that there should be prior discussions with the person whose debate it is as to whether they are prepared to take interventions. Of course, there is nothing to stop any Member intervening on the Minister’s speech.
I am grateful for that timely reminder, Sir David—although it has driven from my mind the question that the hon. Gentleman asked. Perhaps I could write to him about it in the fullness of time. It was about driving down price, which is one of the important opportunities of a more diverse and flexible market structure than the one we have. The issues faced by my constituents are not dissimilar to those facing the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in the Isles of Scilly.
We want to hear a bit from the Minister today about something beyond the situation regarding wind generation. We would like to see a willingness from the Minister, his Department and the Government to engage with the renewables industry beyond the onshore, or even offshore, wind sector. The United Kingdom already has a pipeline of wave and tidal stream projects that could be some of the most significant and forward-leaning projects to be found anywhere in the world. The estimates we have seen are in the region of £76 billion-worth of development by 2050. It is a significant global market for which we are doing the initial heavy lifting at this point. I have seen in my constituency, and especially in Orkney over the years, how the industry has pulled itself up inch by inch, but in recent years it has been pushed backwards by a lack of dedicated support for wave and tidal projects. I hope that the Minister, in his time in the Department, will have some proper regard for that.
We need a proper ring-fenced pot for wave and tidal power. A pot of that sort could be transformative. It would not need to be particularly significant in size, but for it to be guaranteed would make a massive difference to those involved in the development of these technologies and would give a very positive signal to those who are looking at bringing their projects to this country to develop them and to put devices in the water at places such as the European Marine Energy Centre in Stromness. I know the Minister has not yet visited that centre, but I strongly encourage him to do so in the earliest possible course, because there he would see for himself the potential that is being thwarted by the inclusion of wave and tidal projects within the pot for emerging or less established technologies, where they are competing with offshore wind.
To give an illustration of what is involved here, the offshore wind sector currently has 5,100 MW of installed capacity, with a further 4,500 MW under construction. The marine renewables industry, by comparison, has 10 MW of installed capacity. In that context, it is pretty straightforward and easy to see which is the genuinely less established technology that requires the support found in the title of the pot.
To bring down the costs is not rocket science. We have been here before and seen it with other low-carbon industries. We have to get the devices into the water. We see what happens to them there, learn the lessons, innovate, improve and repeat. That work is still being done by those who demonstrate a commitment to marine renewables.
We have a burgeoning supply chain. We have investment from local councils in Orkney, which I would be happy to show the Minister. As I indicated to him this morning, we have a sector that is desperate to re-engage with him and his Department. I hope that in the time he has in this position—which I hope is both long and productive—he will engage with the sector, because the opportunities that it brings to the future development and the industrial strategy to which the Government still lay claim are significant indeed.
Sir David, it is as ever a great pleasure to serve under your constituency—under your chairmanship; I am sure your constituents feel the same about your activities on constituency days. In my first Westminster Hall debate, you were a mere Mr Amess. I am delighted you are here.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)—I remember when he was my right hon. Friend—is a gentleman in the true sense. The way he has conducted the debate, on a subject in which he has a lot of interest and expertise, and the way he speaks up for renewable energy generation in island communities, is truly commendable. As he is fully aware, he has me at a little disadvantage, as I have been in the job for precisely three weeks. I am not yet the expert he is, but I would like to make it clear to him and other Members that I have listened carefully to every word and intend to set out the Government’s position in what I hope he will accept is the right way at this stage.
We know that the islands have long been a hotbed for innovations in renewable energy generation. The Burgar Hill wind turbine site in Orkney, for example, hosted some of the most innovative experimental turbines in the ’80s and early ’90s. As has been said, the European Marine Energy Centre, which is also located on Orkney in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, has since its creation more than 10 years ago maintained its position as the world’s leading wave and tidal stream testing facility. The fact that it has hosted the prototypes for almost all the world’s leading devices, including the Atlantis turbines deployed in the Pentland Firth last summer, is a testament to its premier global status.
I also understand that the grid infrastructure necessary to support the proposed wind farms on the remote islands of Scotland could, if built, act as a springboard for further development of our wave and tidal sector and give this emerging industry a further boost towards commercialisation, helping to maintain the UK’s leading position in these technologies. The challenge for the wave and tidal sector will be to innovate and to reduce its costs sufficiently that it can compete with other renewable technologies. Those costs have fallen significantly during the past few years, and we fully expect that downward trajectory to continue. This is now a very competitive market, and developers will need to respond to that challenge; the sector can no longer take high subsidies for granted.
As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy visited the Western Isles this year to learn about this issue at first hand. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) kindly hosted the Secretary of State’s visit, and I shall take this opportunity to thank him again for what my right hon. Friend described as a productive and informative trip. I know that it will not help or please the right hon. Gentleman unless some action is taken, as he has pointed out to me.
The issues are clear, and we know what the gains are. I shall go through the issues in no particular order. The first is ensuring healthy competition to support the best projects and get the best value for the consumer, while recognising that it may take a certain volume of projects to justify building the all-important new island-to-mainland links. I am aware that those are a vital piece of the overall picture, with their own timeframes and set of complex decisions, so there are really two areas of decision.
The second issue, as the Secretary of State made clear, is ensuring that local communities, which have been enthusiastic about this industry, receive appropriate benefits for hosting these projects.
Excuse me, Sir David, if I do not quite get some of the etiquette right.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for what he has said about the importance of the popularity of tidal and other energy-efficient projects. It is right to say that islanders can play an important role, but does he agree that energy policies should take into account other policies such as regard for the landscape? Wind turbines were very unpopular with many of my constituents, because of the damage that they did to the landscape in areas of outstanding natural beauty, but solar panels are more popular. Should wave and tidal power take off, there would be, again, an aesthetic element as well. It is wonderful to have these things, but that should not be at the expense of a tourism economy in a place such as the Isle of Wight.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Time does not permit me to answer in full, but I would be happy to meet and discuss this subject with him on behalf of his constituents.
Thirdly, we have to define what is meant by “island wind projects” in a legal context, and that is being done; we are working through the issues. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is very aware of that matter.
Last but not least, we need to give clarity to the developers of island projects while being fair to developers of other projects elsewhere and to consumers across the UK.
This issue is also very dear to my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), who has been unavoidably delayed while travelling here today. He is very concerned, as I am. Given the promises made in the Tory manifesto and by Tory candidates at the general election, when will the Government act to introduce an island CfD? The lack of a CfD and the locational pricing model are severely hampering the industry on the islands, and this is a vital sector that we need to survive.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are aware of that issue and we are fully on it. I am happy to meet him if he would like to discuss it separately, but I have only five minutes left now and I do not want to break into the time for the key points that I need to raise.
There is a range of options for overcoming the issues that I have outlined, and I hope that by taking a pragmatic approach we can do so quickly. We need to understand the costs of the projects and the impacts on consumers’ bills. My officials have begun the process of updating the evidence base to set an appropriate strike price—the maximum that these projects could get paid for each unit of electricity that they produce. We must not forget that any additional costs that arise as a result of awarding support contracts are ultimately paid by households and businesses in their electricity bills.
Our approach to supporting new renewables, of competitive auctions with limits on the maximum price that we will allow, ensures that we support only the more cost-effective projects. That approach is not new but has been applied very successfully to other technologies, such as offshore wind. The industry is confident that the renewables support auction currently under way, whose outcome is expected in the coming months, should lead to a significant further drop in price. Whatever approach we take will need to work in this context of quite rapid price changes, and we want to see the outcome of our current auction before making decisions regarding the remote Scottish islands.
We have been through very clearly the importance of local support. Not everyone in the islands will support the development of the wind farms, but I am told that the majority of residents do. I understand that a poll of 1,000 Isle of Lewis adults commissioned by Lewis Wind Power found that seven in 10 supported having wind farms on their island. That is encouraging, but such support should not be taken for granted. It needs to be rewarded in the way that has been discussed—through community benefit funds and other systems. The Scottish Government have informed my officials that all the developers on the islands have committed to pay at least £5,000 per megawatt of capacity per year into such funds for the lifetime of a wind farm. That means that the Viking wind farm on Shetland, for example, could provide up to £1.85 million every year to the community. That money could be used for all sorts of projects: schools, local support groups, scout groups—the list is endless. Developers are also offering communities the opportunity to own a stake in projects, which is something that the UK and Scottish Governments are keen to see more of. Beyond direct income, we should also acknowledge the other benefits that these projects could bring. For example, jobs will be created not just during construction but throughout the lifetime of the projects.
Wind energy can play an important role for the country as a whole in producing the electricity we all need to support the running of our economy and our daily lives and in helping to reduce the harmful emissions associated with our energy systems. We all appreciate the commitment that island communities will have to make to ensure that we have access to long-term clean power. That is why it is absolutely right that they should benefit from hosting the projects.
We recognise that there are different ways of delivering the benefits, but of course it is important that any commitments that developers make are real and go beyond warm words. The Scottish Government are considering this issue closely, and I very much welcome that work. I look forward to meeting the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and a group of developers, which we discussed outside the Chamber. That is a very good idea, which I am keen to progress as soon as possible.
I hope that my response today, in the short time that I have had, provides some reassurance to Members, as well as to the constituents we all represent, that the Government will support the development of onshore wind projects in the remote islands of Scotland, where they will directly benefit local communities.
Another very good point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is that we are not starting from scratch. We know that, and I do not mean just the manifesto commitment, but everything that went before.
I understood the Minister to say earlier that the Government would not come forward with firm proposals until after the conclusion of the current round of contract for difference auctions. Is that indeed the case? May I ask him to take that away and consider whether it is really necessary? At the very least, given the pressures of time on us here, we should have everything ready to go once we reach that point.
I am very prepared to consider that point as the right hon. Gentleman has asked me to do. I hope that hon. Members will bear with us as I and my officials tackle the issues that I have outlined. I hope to come back very shortly with a decision. I say “very shortly” because I want that on the record and because of the respect in which I hold the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. In the meantime, I will shortly be meeting the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar to discuss these issues further, and I would be happy to meet any other Members of this House.
Question put and agreed to.
Safety of Riders and Horses on Rural Roads
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the safety of riders and horses on rural roads.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to open this important debate; a number of colleagues have been very active on this issue and would also like to have secured it. I will welcome interventions and speeches later. I congratulate the new Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), on his appointment and welcome him to his first Westminster Hall debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on his role. Welcome.
First, I have two confessions to make. I am not a horse rider; I have been on a horse twice in my life. The second occasion was because my wife is a horse rider: when we were courting, I was not really getting the opportunity to spend as much time with her as I intended, so I went horse riding with her. There was only the one attempt, and I eventually won the argument and we married. The earlier occasion was when I was younger, and I cannot really recall that experience.
My second confession is perhaps more serious. I am one of the Members in this place who has had to take a speed awareness course—I was caught speeding in Bristol some years ago. During that course, I was made aware of what damage a moving vehicle can do to vulnerable road users: children, motorcyclists, cyclists, and horses and riders. I welcomed that opportunity and wake-up call about why it is so important to keep to the speeds that are set out for us. So when a constituent, Debbie Smith—she is here this afternoon; welcome, Debbie—came to me wanting to raise the issue of the safety of horses and riders in west Cornwall, I had an open door and was ready to listen and do everything I could to support her campaign and the campaign of many of her friends who ride horses.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that one of the problems is that most drivers are unaware that they should not pass horses any faster than 15 miles per hour? They are often just guided by the speed limit, thinking that it is okay. Would he commend the work of the British Horse Society, which has advocated raising greater awareness of the speed at which one should pass a horse?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention; she is absolutely right, and I was pleased to meet the BHS today to discuss its concerns. A lot of the work, including this debate, that we have been doing over the past couple of years with Debbie Smith, the British Horse Society and many others is about raising awareness of how we should use our roads and consider others’ safety, and pressing on the Government that we believe that there is more they can do to take part in this cause.
For many years, Debbie Smith has been working with others to campaign on behalf of horse riders for safer rural roads. Her most recent petition about passing wide and slow, calling for stronger legal protections for riders on our roads, has reached almost 110,000—maybe now it is 110,000—signatures on the change.org site. I first met Debbie in November 2015 and required little persuasion to join her cause to make our roads safer for horses and their riders. Our initial encounter led to a meeting in February 2016 with the former roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and civil servants from the Department for Transport. We discussed the need for a concerted effort by the Department to make our roads safer. Since then there has been a horse-riding awareness day—earlier this year, in which 15 different locations in the UK took part—and 110,000 signatures on the petition, as I said.
Horse riders make up a significant group of vulnerable road users, but despite there being 2.7 million across the UK, they often find themselves as the forgotten demographic—an afterthought in the minds of drivers and unacceptably low down many politicians’ priority lists. It is for this reason that the British Horse Society launched the horse accidents website in November 2010. Since that launch, 2,510 reports of road incidents involving horses, including near misses and collisions, have been logged by the BHS. That is but the tip of the iceberg. Most significantly, since the launch 222 horses and 38 riders have been killed. This problem is not in decline. In the past year there has been a 29% increase in the number of road incidents involving a horse reported to the British Horse Society.
My hon. Friend is making a very sound case. In fact, it is shocking. I am very nervous of horses, so I go incredibly slowly whenever I am near them because I am afraid of the damage that they might do to me, but does he agree that on the whole many people who drive cars just think of a horse as a horse and forget that they are individuals and that one has to be even more careful if it is a young and nervous horse? The 15 mph and distance from the horse are crucial.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I live in west Cornwall, where most of the roads are very narrow and horses and riders enjoy their valuable and important pursuit. It is absolutely right that we raise awareness and help drivers to understand that horses are living beings—they have brains. Something that they see, but we in the car behind perhaps cannot, may well cause them to get spooked. We need to make drivers aware of the risk not only to the horse and the rider, but to them and their vehicle. That might gain their attention. Statistics such as those should cause alarm.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important topic forward for debate today. As somebody who has ridden all my life, I understand the problems out there with road safety and horses. My wife—just like his wife and the Minister’s wife—rides, so this is a very important matter. My hon. Friend mentioned the British Horse Society, so will he join me in congratulating it on the “Dead? Or Dead Slow?” campaign? It won the Driver Education Campaign of the Year, awarded by the Driving Instructors Association, in 2016.
Certainly. I am glad to do that and work with whoever across this House and the various organisations to raise awareness about the dangers on our roads. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him very much.
Yesterday, this debate was subject to a House of Commons digital debate: the first of this Parliament—and, I am told, without question the busiest of this Parliament, although there has been only one. The debate reached a total of 119,288 Facebook accounts, with almost 1,500 contributors. Obviously, I did not respond to every single one. Among the many excellent suggestions and sincere concerns expressed, the contributors articulated a strong belief among the horse riding and horse driving community that their safety has become a low priority.
The sentiment that all too often tragedy is not followed by justice is underpinned by high profile cases such as that of Mark Evans and his horse Wil. Mr Evans was a funeral director who also ran a horse-drawn carriage service. Years spent building up his business were undone in 2016 when a car ploughed into a funeral procession, leaving one horse dead and the family of the deceased devastated. The incident has left Mr Evans physically and mentally unable to work and in a position where he may have to give up his home due to loss of income. That is just one example of how lives are affected and why this debate is so important.
Cases such as these, repeated up and down the country, are far from inevitable. In fact, 80% of recorded incidents were caused by vehicles passing too close or too fast for a horse. We are debating an issue that is eminently preventable.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing an intervention. Has he made any assessment of the type of accidents that occur—between those that may be a result of ignorance or neglect and those that are a result of people who, for some reason, take leave of their senses when in the vicinity of horses and become almost temporary class warriors, getting annoyed and driving up close to horses? Is there any assessment or statistic that he can bring to our attention?
I will not cite any statistics, but in the debate yesterday many people raised that very point. There is a perception that people on horses are not necessarily welcome on the road. We need to understand and address that. My personal belief is that nearly everyone is a taxpayer, so we all contribute in some way to the maintenance of our roads; everybody has a right to outdoor activity, however they choose to do it. It is important that we break down any attitude or prejudice, because it is the safety of lives—whether of horses, riders or drivers—that should be of paramount importance. I thank my hon. Friend for a good intervention.
Several factors contribute to the situation. The first is the attitude and behaviour of drivers. Drivers often have good intentions when passing horses, but may be unaware of what speed or at what distance they should pass the horse; of how quickly a horse can move; of the fact that a horse is a flight animal; of how it may react to a moving vehicle; or of how much damage it can do to a vehicle, notwithstanding the injuries it may receive.
The second factor, which my wife regularly raises with me, is the relative powerlessness experienced by riders on rural roads. The Highway Code stresses the importance of riders taking basic precautions to ensure that they take into their own hands as much responsibility for their own safety as possible. Campaigns such as “Pass Wide and Slow” do an excellent job of encouraging riders to wear high-vis jackets, avoid riding in poor visibility and use technologies such as hat cameras. The British Horse Society has a riding and road safety qualification to enable riders to upskill and better navigate today’s roads.
Despite such campaigns, riders are often at the mercy of the poor judgment of other road users. Hand gestures to drivers, save those made in moments of intense frustration, are rarely understood and seldom acknowledged. CCTV from hat cameras is not routinely followed up by police, which makes it difficult for riders to hold other road users to account. Increased usage of electric cars poses a new threat to riders that must now be considered; silent vehicles have already been the cause of several near misses.
Finally, the speed limit on many rural roads is too high. Many of the country lanes in my constituency are little more than adopted unmarked tracks, but they retain a speed limit of 60 mph—just 10 mph less than a motorway. The vulnerability of riders and the increase in road incidents involving horses on rural single-lane carriageways are symptomatic of a wider problem.
The Department for Transport has stated that around two thirds of UK road deaths take place on country roads. It issued guidance in 2013 that stated that local authorities should take the presence of vulnerable road users—including people walking, cycling or riding horses—fully into account, along with the concerns of local residents, when setting local speed limits. Despite this, inadequate consideration is being given to using the lower limit on high-risk rural roads. In effect, this has created legal havens for reckless driving. One participant in the digital debate yesterday told me how a driver rounded a bend at 45 mph on a very narrow road, striking and killing her horse, but police were unwilling to prosecute because the speed limit was 60 mph.
Campaigners have repeatedly stressed their sense of frustration that drivers who fail to exercise due care when encountering riders on the road, and in some cases exhibit a total disregard for the safety of both horse and rider, are rarely reprimanded by the police. I recently spoke to a solicitor who specialises in seeking compensation for clients injured in accidents that involve horses. She expressed surprise that many of the cases that she undertakes in civil court are not pursued as criminal cases, despite the submission of strong evidence—including headcam footage—of possible criminal behaviour. We need to consider how we can help police to make use of existing powers to pursue drivers who do not act with due care and attention when in the vicinity of riders.
I shall draw to a close with three recommendations for the Minister. I propose that we continue the discussions we had a year ago with the then roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, to develop a national “THINK! horse” campaign. Although many of the incidents that I have talked about today were not malicious, that does not make their consequences any less devastating. Some 80% of these accidents are avoidable because drivers are travelling too fast or too close to horses. I ask the Department for Transport to think carefully about expanding its existing work and running a sustained marketing campaign to promote safety measures for riders and horses on rural roads. It could borrow from the successful model employed by the “THINK! bike” campaign.
My hon. Friend is making a really passionate and constructive speech and is reaching his peroration. Does he agree that this issue does not affect exclusively rural roads? Constituents of mine in semi-rural parts of Cheltenham such as Charlton Kings have written to me; they are equally affected and should not be forgotten either.
I thank my hon. Friend for that good intervention. I am sure he will have the opportunity to raise the matter with the Department. My concern particularly relates to rural roads, because narrow unmarked roads present a particular hazard to horse riders, but I take his point; I hope the Minister has heard it and will respond.
I ask the Department for Transport to borrow from the successful model employed by the “THINK! bike” campaign and focus on inspiring empathy between road users, as well as raising awareness of steps that both parties can take to avoid collisions. A greater emphasis on good driving practice around horses might be considered for driving lessons and tests. The Government might also think about possible measures to strengthen the rights of riders to control their immediate environment through the use of hand signals.
My second recommendation is that we empower the police to ensure that they can make use of their powers to pursue drivers who do not act with due care and attention in the vicinity of riders. We must establish common national police practice for recording and dealing with road incidents that involve horses. We should also increase the use of section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002 to act as a viable deterrent.
Although some incidents may not meet the threshold for prosecution, that does not mean that there are not serious concerns about the standard of driving that is often shown in headcam CCTV footage. Officers should automatically consider the use of section 59, which enables them to warn a motorist that any repetition of similar driving within 12 months may result in the seizure of their vehicle and in recovery charges. The Government might also consider encouraging a standard online system to enable incidents and video recordings to be submitted for retention, action and feedback. Some police forces, including Greater Manchester and North Yorkshire, have already implemented such systems; I know that they are willing to share good practice with other forces.
Finally, we need to reduce speed limits. The Government must consider what action is needed to reduce the speed on rural single-lane carriageways. Guidance is issued by the Department for Transport but is under-utilised by local authorities; rural roads are consequently exploited as rat runs. Will the Government consider whether a 40 mph speed limit is more suitable for high-risk rural roads, particularly those that are unmarked? I urge the Minister to consider stronger measures to protect our most vulnerable road users, not least those in the riding community.
Wind-ups will start at 5.15 pm. There will be no contribution from the Scottish National party group on this occasion, so it will be for the Government and the Opposition to split the time between them. Mr Speaker has said firmly that interventions and speeches can be made only by Members who have been present from the start of the debate.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on setting the scene so well for us. I regularly deal with this issue in my constituency, where a lot of people are interested in horses. There is nothing like the grace and poise of a horse, and many people in my constituency enjoy riding. To be truthful, I am not someone who knows much about horses, but I do have a particular interest in horse-and-carriage and driving competitions. I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward.
I hail from a constituency that is a combination of rural and urban areas, which is why I often boast—quite rightly so, if I may say so myself—about having it all in Strangford. The constituency is not just beautiful; it has all these other things as well. Just a few miles from my home is the picturesque village of Carrowdore, in which it is not uncommon to see horses and traps and carriages trotting down the main street. We see them all the time. People who live in the area know to slow down, as the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) said, and go at a certain speed. They learn to live with all those on the road. The horses are used to having cars in front or behind and have learned to take their time. More importantly, cars stay back and drive slowly by, giving them a wide berth, so there is a way when people have an understanding of the area they live in.
I want to turn to why this issue is compounded in my area. On occasion, I have had the opportunity of judging the concours d’elégance class—picking a horse and carriage that I like; one that is pleasing to the eye—at the game fair and other events in Ballynahinch, Carrowdore and elsewhere. I believe those events add character to a village and give so much enjoyment to so many people. However, all it takes is one uninformed or inconsiderate person to turn what is a delightful sight into a horror scene, and unfortunately that is the reason for this debate, as the hon. Member for St Ives has outlined.
Those who hail from the countryside know how to drive around horses. They know to take their time, they know to drop their speed to 15 mph and they know to drive very slowly. However, we are increasingly seeing new build houses, bringing what are affectionately known as “blow-ins” into the area. For those who do not know what a blow-in is, it is someone who does not have a third-generation grandparent buried in the local cemetery. I am 58 and I am looked upon as a blow-in in my constituency, which might give hon. Members a perspective on blow-ins.
It is good to see more people moving into the area—let us be honest—and breathing life into the local economy, filling the schools and enjoying the peace of living in the countryside, but this is about knowing how to live effectively alongside horses, or horses and carriages, on the road. With that influx has come people who perhaps do not fully appreciate how easy it is to upset the delicate balance of an area. That is in no way to be interpreted as placing blame on city folk. That is not what this is about—I am lucky that I am a country boy; I have lived in the country all my life, so this comes to me first hand. I am only highlighting the fact that everyone needs to be aware of the dangers of passing horses and riders.
The British Horse Society has found that in the last five years, since the launch of its horse accidents website, about 2,000 road incidents involving horses have been reported to the charity. I presume that they were all reported to the police as well—if they were not, they should have been. Of those incidents, 36 caused rider deaths and 181 resulted in a horse dying from their injuries or being put to sleep—the hon. Gentleman referred to that at the beginning of his contribution. Some 75% of accidents happened because a vehicle passed a horse without allowing enough space. It is just about understanding life in the countryside and how to pass safely; it does not take a great capacity to do so. More than a quarter of respondents said that they had also had to deal with driver road rage during the incident, which further compounds the issue and adds to the frustration of the horse owner and those of us who perhaps have a better understanding of the countryside and how overtaking should be done.
The majority of these incidents happened on a minor road, in a rural area. The incidents that I am aware of happened in the countryside: nearly half the horses involved—
I will be very mindful of that. I am sorry, Sir David. I should have realised that.
It should be noted that only 10 such accidents were reported in Northern Ireland, but anyone who has loved a horse will know that that is 10 too many. I believe that more information must be available UK-wide to help to prevent such accidents.
To conclude, we need signage on the road that adequately describes what should happen. There is undoubtedly room for all on rural roads—indeed, there is a need for all—but we must share the roads, and be wise and sensible in our approach. This information needs to get through to those who perhaps do not understand it yet. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I would like to put on the record my thanks to the good people of South East Cornwall, who have ensured that I could do that and speak here today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution. I want to thank my constituent Audrey Cole, a retired police officer and a highly experienced equestrian who was sadly injured while riding last week, although not in a road traffic accident collision.
Horses and their riders are an integral part of rural life. I spend many days going round my constituency, hearing the familiar sound of the clip-clop, clip-clop of horses’ hooves on the roads and seeing riders on the byways of the countryside in my constituency. We are all aware that our roads are increasingly busy and congested, and rural areas are no different. In addition, constituencies such as mine have problems that can be exacerbated by the otherwise very welcome influx of holidaymakers. Some of them are inexperienced in rural road conditions, and that inexperience, when combined with local agricultural traffic and the fact that not all local people drive in a responsible way, can present real challenges to horses and their riders.
More awareness and education are definitely needed, as other Members have said, and perhaps the driving test should be refined to ensure greater emphasis on rural road conditions and on horse rider and driver activity. Also, I understand from the British Horse Society that there is currently no safety requirement for any equestrian-related road accident to be recorded unless there is human injury that requires hospital treatment directly from the scene of the accident. I would be grateful if the Minister could consider these issues when he responds to the debate.
However, improving the safety of rural roads is not just about improving driving and encouraging responsible behaviour by those on four wheels, two wheels or two legs. Many responsible horse owners do the sensible thing of providing early road training for their horses at home before ever venturing out with them on to public roads, learning to pass a stationary vehicle, bicycle or dog walker. Another great help for any horse doing road hacking is to go out for the first few times in the company of a more experienced animal that is used to the sights and sounds of public roads. For many riders, this is a matter of good common sense and good practice.
I know that every rider is encouraged through their respective sporting organisation to respect an unwritten code of conduct as far as courtesy to other road users is concerned. Sadly, it has been reported to me that the actions of a small minority of riders do not reflect those good standards of behaviour. I understand that there is a rider road safety test that the Pony Club and other riding clubs have offered in the past, but it is not compulsory. Perhaps we could consider introducing suitable incentives to encourage people to take up such courses. For example, horse insurers could be encouraged to offer a discounted rate to those who hold such a safety certificate.
Finally, I encourage the Minister to work closely with all stakeholders, including road user groups and the British Horse Society, to enhance safety for riders, horses, drivers and pedestrians. There is much good practice that can be built on, to improve driver awareness and education, and to ensure more efficient road preparation training for horses, including greater use of common sense and courtesy by people in the first instance.
Sir David, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and thank him for securing and introducing this very important debate. Horses are very important to me: horses brought my wife and me together, many years ago, and I have ridden many, many times. I therefore know that horses, as well as being very big and powerful, are very nervous and volatile, and consequently very unpredictable. That is a big part of this debate.
I also have an interest in the debate as I used to be the chairman of the all-party group for the horse and currently serve as the joint chairman of the all-party racing and bloodstock industries group, and I draw the House’s attention to my entry in that respect in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is very important that we understand that there are very many horses in this country.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) that this is not just a rural issue. There are many horses in London, for example, as well as in Cheltenham. I am very fortunate that the Cheltenham racecourse falls within my constituency, not his—nevertheless, he is very supportive indeed. My point is that there are very many horses around our towns and cities and, in particular, around our country roads.
I want to pick up on one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives: speed on rural roads. I myself have been involved in a car accident because someone was driving down a narrow country lane so fast they could not stop—I had stopped and they ran into me. If it had been a horse in that position, there could have been a serious accident. Only some four weeks ago, during the general election campaign, I was called away from campaigning to another similar accident down a very narrow lane, where someone was again going so fast they could not stop. I do not know whether the car they hit was a write-off, but it certainly looked that way. I do not know what the speed limit for that country lane technically was, but, as has been suggested, surely the important thing is that people drive according to the road conditions rather than any arbitrary speed limit. I urge the Minister to consider that serious issue and to review the situation.
I know we are tight for time, but my hon. Friend has really sparked my attention. I, too, suffered an accident, in a rural lane in Taunton Deane. The driver had just passed his test and was going at at least 65 miles an hour. I had stopped, because I had seen the lights, and he crashed into me. I could have died; a horse would have had no chance. I wonder what my hon. Friend thinks about the earlier suggestion of a 40-mph speed limit for some of these rural roads, not just because of the horses but for the safety of other drivers.
I am grateful for that intervention. Even 40 miles an hour on the wrong kind of road could be too quick. This goes back to what my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) said about education being very important, in connection with horses but also with driving safely according to the road conditions. It is often not possible to go faster than 10 or 15 miles an hour on a very narrow country lane to remain safe, so education is crucial.
My final point is that in order perhaps to take horses off roads that might be dangerous we could do with reviewing the rules on bridleways. It might be that many existing footpaths could be made dual use, and function as bridleways as well. That would help to ease the problem.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as I know time is tight. Precisely on bridleways, close to urban settings there is a terrible dearth of them and they do not connect up. I think it is the fact that they are seen as multi-purpose—for pedestrians, cyclists and even motorised transport as well as horses—that leads to great reluctance on the part of landowners to extend any sort of bridlepath network. Might we appeal to the Minister to consider a new designation for off-road safe riding for equestrians?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend’s remarks. I will not take up any more of the House’s time except to stress that horses are part of our countryside and our country. We only have to look at the startling statistics that have been cited to realise that we really must do something about the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this brilliant debate on what is an important issue for rural areas and also, now, for towns.
One reason why I wanted to speak in the debate was to have the opportunity to thank my constituent Christine Brindle, who invited me to her stables in Hadleigh in July 2016 to meet her and her fellow campaigners. She is part of the “Pass Wide and Slow” campaign group. I was brought up in London but moved to South Suffolk in 2011 and am a keen cyclist. What I have observed is that the key word is simply “respect”. Someone living in the countryside comes to respect equestrian road users and know that they should slow down and pass wide and slow. The question is: what happens when someone—either from the communities or from outside—does not show that respect and drives aggressively or carelessly? What measures can we take to make a difference?
Several measures have been suggested, including with regard to speeding. A particular concern is about anticipation, because my constituency, like many others, has bendy rural roads, and drivers have to anticipate more what is ahead of them. If they come sharply round a bend and there is someone there with a horse, they have to react far more quickly. This is about sensible driving, but speeding is also an issue. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether there are any ways in which we can affect the law. I know this is not optimal timing for changes to legislation, but it would be good to know if we could make any changes, which I think would have support, to enforce the idea that drivers should be considerate in the presence of vulnerable users, including horses. However, I think this is a public messaging issue in particular. We all know about the very good “THINK! bike” campaign, which has promoted the idea of taking motorcyclists into account and checking for them in our side mirror; we should have a similar campaign—it has been referred to as “THINK! horse”—for equestrian road users.
I want also to mention driverless vehicles. We have had driverless horses for many centuries, but driverless cars will bring their own issues. Members might be aware that Volvo has an issue with kangaroos. The company has recently reported that its driverless cars, initially tested to detect and avoid moose in Sweden, have struggled with marsupials. I am no expert, but I think it is because they bounce rather than approach steadily. This is a serious point, because we want to lead the world in the industrial field of driverless automotive: I hope that in developing large-animal detection systems in driverless cars companies will be cognisant of all road users.
My final point is that this is a predominantly rural issue. I have a predominantly rural constituency. We live in an age when people in the countryside sometimes feel ignored, and on this issue we could show that we have a transport policy for the whole country that takes into account and is fair to all users, in particular those on horseback and those riding with horses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I very much thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing the debate and look forward to working with him on many issues that affect his islands and the Isle of Wight. I was fascinated to hear my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) talking about kangaroos. I think it will be some time yet before we start riding them but that will be an issue when we come to it.
On the Isle of Wight, we have the highest percentage of horses per acre in Britain and our riding stables are an important part of island life and of our economy. I share the concerns about the dangers of riders and cars colliding on busy roads. On the Isle of Wight, we have been fortunate enough to have a new contract to resurface all our roads so we will soon have some of the best roads in England, if not Europe. However, riders have expressed concerns that the new road surfaces will, at least for the first few months, be slippery and not all horses can have studs fitted, so I look forward to talking to Island Roads about what more we can do. Although I am generally impressed by the consideration that islanders in my part of the world have for riders when they pass them, there are complaints from a small minority of drivers that horses should not be on busy roads. However, riders clearly do not want to share roads; they do so only when there is no other choice.
So what do we do? In my part of the world I will raise with our council the issue of what can be done to improve the conditions of some bridleways, to encourage their use by not only riders but cyclists, who are also vulnerable users. I think there could be a role for the ferries in reminding people coming to the island that we have a lot of very small lanes, like west Cornwall, and to remind people of distances and to be considerate of more vulnerable road users.
More generally, I wonder whether more could be done to encourage minimum distances. We have heard about the excellent campaign from the British Horse Society and others, but can minimum distances be stipulated, apart from in emergencies? Can they be in the driving test? Can it be brought home to people in towns and villages that there needs to be a minimum distance between cars and horses, cars and cyclists and cars and motorbikes? I say that partly out of self-interest: while a car is very dangerous to a horse, a horse is reasonably dangerous to a car if it kicks or spooks. Thoughtfulness and consideration should be our bywords.
I share the concerns about single-lane roads. I live one and a half miles down a single-track lane. On my patch, someone going round a corner at more than 15 mph will have a problem if something is coming at more than 20 mph from the other direction. I share that lane with lots of horses, because it is a popular route for them and lots of other lovely members of the animal kingdom. I wonder whether the answer is to have what have become known as quiet roads, where drivers do not have priority, but pedestrians and cyclists and riders do. We have one or two quiet roads on the island. There is a cost to them, but they could be in part an answer to national speed limits, which make driving very fast on single-track roads legal, but extremely foolish.
To sum up, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned his national campaign ideas, with which I fully agree, but I stress that more might be done with the driving test to reinforce minimum safe distances.
It is a pleasure to make my first contribution as a shadow Transport Minister under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing this debate today, which has focused on the significant issue of safety for vulnerable road users, whether they have two legs or four legs, or are on a bicycle or perhaps even a unicycle. It is important that all road users feel safe and are not put at undue risk.
The subject of today’s debate is horses and their riders, and it is vital that that matter receive attention in this place, because there have been more than 2,500 incidents involving horses over the past seven years, of which 222 resulted in the death of the horse and 38 resulted in the death of the rider. In the past year alone, almost 40% of riders were subject to road rage or abuse, with 81% of incidents occurring because the driver did not allow enough room between their vehicle and the horse. One out of every five such incidents resulted in the vehicle colliding with the horse. Clearly the Government need to address that pressing issue.
The British Horse Society reports that since its “Dead? Or Dead Slow?” campaign launched in 2016, reports of road incidents have creased by 29%. That proves that safety campaigns on their own are not enough. The Government must do more to protect riders and their horses. In a Westminster Hall debate in the last Parliament on road traffic accident prevention, the Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), stated that he did “recognise the problem” for horse riders, yet no concrete policy has materialised. While I do not doubt the Government’s sincerity on road safety, their record has been a disappointment in recent years. They failed on their 2015 manifesto commitment to reduce casualties year on year, and their manifesto in the recent general election only mentioned road safety in passing.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have a keen interest in this issue as an Opposition Member who has a constituency that includes a lot of rural areas. Indeed, my constituent Susan Armitage has raised the issue with me on a great number of occasions. It obviously affects the whole country, although the demographics of constituencies represented by Opposition Members might be considered to be more urban than rural.
By contrast with the Government’s manifesto, ours stated very clearly:
“Labour will reset the UK’s road safety vision and ambitiously strive for a transport network with zero deaths, reintroducing road-safety targets”.
We implore the Minister to follow our lead and reintroduce the targets that were brought in under the last Labour Government. I have no doubt that those targets successfully reduced the number of those killed or seriously injured by about a third. During a Westminster Hall debate on road traffic law enforcement in the previous Parliament, the Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, stated that while other countries might wish to have road safety targets, his belief was that we did not need them. However, road safety targets focus minds and attention, and the Opposition simply do not see the reason or logic behind the Government’s persistent refusal to bring them back. When we support international targets at the United Nations and European level, why do we still reject them for our own country?
The Government have also overlooked the significance of road safety figures with their failure to release the 2016 national road safety statistics on time. The release has been pushed back to the end of September this year. As a consequence of the delay, casualty figures for the first quarter of 2017, previously scheduled for release in August 2017, will now not be published. The next quarterly update is expected in October, covering the period from January to June 2017.
If the Minister is determined to disregard road safety targets and figures, perhaps he can provide us with some assurances that the Government are progressing with other policy ideas. He may be aware of the petition mentioned earlier that has gathered more than 100,000 signatures on Change.org. It calls for a law to be introduced that would require road users to pass a horse with at least two metres’ distance and to slow to a maximum speed of 15 mph, as well as ensuring that all road users abide by horse riders’ hand signals. Have the Government considered any of those proposals? If not, what other policies can the Minister lay out today to safeguard riders and horses on rural roads?
We must see some action from the Government on rider and horse safety and the safety of road users in general. Opposition Members are determined to keep pressure on the Government until we see a return to the progress made under the last Labour Administration. It must be stressed again: inaction risks lives. The Labour party wants to reduce risk on our transport network to zero. The Government should be prepared to show the same ambition and act accordingly.
Thank you, Sir David. It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship. If I may, I will start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this very important debate on the safety of riders and horses on rural roads, a debate that has been dignified by some terrific contributions, albeit generally from one side of the House.
It is an honour to respond in my first Westminster Hall debate as the Minister with responsibility for roads and road safety. I do so as a rural MP who is extremely familiar with the issues from first-hand and constituency experience. I would also like to congratulate my hon. Friend on the e-debate, or online debate, that he has so successfully promoted. It has obviously proved to be an interesting and useful way to develop ideas, to share understanding and to promote awareness of these issues. I could not end the opening section of my remarks without congratulating the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on taking her position on the Opposition Front Bench. It is testimony to her colleagues’ belief in her skills and abilities that none of them has seen fit or found it necessary to attend the debate themselves.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives said, this is a very important issue, but that is not merely because horses and equestrianism have an important role in local communities across the whole of the United Kingdom; nor is it because of the huge benefits of health and leisure and the sheer joy that come from riding. If I may, I will quote a somewhat unusual source in this area, Ronald Reagan, who once said that no problem does not look better from the saddle of a horse. I think that many people in the Chamber would share that view.
This debate is important because of the impact of accidents and fatalities in horse-related incidents on human lives. We need all road users to feel, and to be, safe on our roads. This country has a very strong safety record overall on roads—indeed, our roads are among the safest in the world—but we must not and will not be complacent in any sense.
It is important to flag up that there were 1,730 reported road deaths in 2015, which is the most recent year for which data are available. While this represents a 45% reduction compared with a decade ago, it still represents many wasted lives and shattered families.
A question has been raised by implication in this debate about numbers and statistics. I want to put that front and centre of the discussion, before I go on to talk about some of the ways in which we are trying to improve the situation. According to police statistics, there were no recorded incidents of horse rider fatalities during 2015. There were, however, 17 serious casualties and 77 slight casualties. Those numbers had fallen by something like a third over the previous 15 years. I recognise that these numbers do not by any means tally with the numbers reported to the British Horse Society or, indeed, the numbers quoted by colleagues here today. I start by saying that I absolutely welcome the potential for co-operation between the BHS and our own statisticians in the Department for Transport. I offer them for the purposes of establishing a set of accepted, worthwhile statistics from which we can all calibrate and understand the problem.
However one thinks of the number, it represents only a fraction of total casualties on our roads, but each one of those is enormously distressing to those involved. The Government remain very keen to support the safety and wellbeing on our roads of riders and horses alike.
I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, in his indefatigable way, had a meeting in February 2016 with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), to discuss these issues. Following that, the Department, through the “THINK! road safety” campaign, worked directly with the British Horse Society to support its own “Dead Slow” campaign, to encourage car drivers to pass horses safely. The Department was able to reinforce the BHS campaign by developing a short film that is being promoted as a public information film on UK TV stations. I have encouraged the society to tweet that tomorrow, and I would encourage all Members to re-tweet that, as I will, as a small demonstration of the importance of these issues and the personal care and attention that we feel for them.
The Department has also invested in promoting the film on YouTube and other social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. Leaflets and posters to support the campaign further reminded motorists of the need to be patient when they encounter horses on the road and supplemented the advice already given in the Highway Code.
The leaflets and posters are available free of charge from the THINK! online shop and are often used by riding groups to support local campaigns. Road safety officers around the country have also been encouraged to feature the campaign locally. To some extent, therefore, there is already a national campaign, in embryo at least, but I have no doubt more can done. Officials in my Department have worked with the BHS on its “Ride Safe” book, which is endorsed with the THINK! logo. There is a great deal of co-operation already.
I am aware of requests, and we have discussed them today, that the Government prescribe speed limits and minimum distances when drivers are passing horses. There are different concerns here. One is that it would be difficult to enforce and impractical in some circumstances, where roads are very narrow. Road speed limits are in many cases local matters and are locally configured. Judging from Herefordshire, frankly, there is a serious issue, which is the extraordinary slowness with which local authorities bring in changes to speed limits. That is something that my Department can properly look at, but it is important to be aware that even bringing in speed limits—the same is true for national speed limits—may not necessarily be safe in all circumstances. We do not want to make our roads less safe by producing a one-size-fits-all solution, but we do need to improve local take-up and local impact.
It is important to note that where people are reckless around horses, there are already laws in place that make them liable for prosecution. The offences include driving dangerously, driving without due care and attention, and driving without reasonable consideration for other road users, as set out in rule 144 of The Highway Code. However, I recognise that there may be other steps that we can take. One that has just been suggested is the idea that we can supplement The Highway Code with further material such as images of horses to promote a greater understanding of their presence on the road.
The Department’s focus has been to raise awareness of the issues and to provide advice to all road users. Last autumn we ran a “Country Roads” campaign, which encouraged drivers to anticipate the hazards—anticipation has been raised by colleagues across the House today—and reduce their speed into bends. Some 59% of all road fatalities occur on country roads, and the number of people killed on country roads is nearly 10 times higher than on motorways. We have already heard about sharp bends, hidden dips, blind summits and concealed entrances—all of which can conceal potential hazards, leaving drivers little time to react if they are driving too quickly.
As well as targeted campaigns, the Department also endeavours to protect vulnerable road users through other channels. The driving theory test contains questions about how drivers should interact with vulnerable road users, including horse riders. The hazard perception test uses on-road video clips shown from a driver’s perspective. Learner drivers are required to successfully identify developing hazards. The current test includes a number of clips where horse riders are the hazard to be identified, either directly or indirectly. The clips are refreshed and updated periodically, and the move to computer-generated imagery may mean that we are able to incorporate situations that would otherwise be too difficult to film.
In relation to the driving test, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has recently concluded a two-year trial, which aims to make the practical driving test much more reflective of a real-life driving journey, and a revised test will be in place from December. Changes include increasing the duration of the independent driving section from 10 to 20 minutes, and following directions from a satnav instead of an examiner. One of the aims of the changes, which I am sure colleagues will welcome, is to open up test routes and make sure that candidates can be assessed effectively in more natural or higher-risk situations, including driving on national speed limit roads.
Rules for all road users are set out in The Highway Code. As well as advice specific to horse riders, there are rules and advice for other road users when passing horse riders and horse-drawn vehicles.
Wider efforts are also in place to improve road safety. Many things combine to create safe and responsible roads users. As has been noted, young and novice drivers are at the highest risk of being involved in a road collision. That is why the Department has recently invested £2 million in the design phase of a research programme to identify the best technological and behavioural interventions for learner and novice drivers, and has awarded funding via the Innovation Challenge Fund to develop new hazard perception training.
I could dwell on changes that have been made to increase penalties for mobile phone use and many other initiatives, but let me just say in closing that I think the debate has been dignified by a large number of important and interesting changes. One I would like to touch on is the importance of effective policing. This can be done at several levels, and I would encourage all colleagues to raise the issue with their police and crime commissioners locally. I am delighted that the national roads lead for policing is Anthony Bangham, chief constable of West Mercia, my own police authority, and also a very near neighbour of mine in Herefordshire. I assure the House that I will be raising the issues personally with him.
I close by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives on securing this debate and by reassuring him of the Department’s commitment to improving road safety for all users, including our most vulnerable.
I thank the Minister for his response. We know our communities are working together. That includes groups such as the Pass Wide and Slow campaign and the British Horse Society, but also cycling and motorcycling groups. They are bring forward sensible recommendations and ideas, and I look forward to seeing how the Government can increase their participation and do the right thing for vulnerable road users, including horses and their riders.
I note that the shadow Minister attempted to make this a party political issue. Having spoken to the Minister, I know that he wants to work with everyone who cares about the issue to do the right thing for rural roads. I thank all Members who have participated and contributed, because together we can bring about a safer environment for all who use our rural roads.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the safety of riders and horses on rural roads.