Tuesday 28 November 2017
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Dr Elsie Inglis and Women’s Contribution to World War One
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Dr Elsie Inglis and the contribution of women to World War One.
As always, it is a great pleasure to be in a debate with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocated time for this important debate in this important week for remembering Dr Elsie Inglis. She was a truly historic and remarkable woman—an Edinburgh woman, no less, and very proud of her roots. This week is the centenary of her death and of the state funeral that she was afforded, which will be re-enacted tomorrow.
Who was Dr Elsie Inglis? Born in India in 1864, she was the daughter of John Inglis, a chief commissioner in the Indian civil service. She studied medicine at Dr Sophia Jex-Blake’s then newly opened Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women and was one of the first women in Scotland to finish higher education, although she was not allowed to graduate. She went on to complete her training under Sir William Macewen at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
The now famous exhortation,
“My good lady, go home and sit still”,
was the response that Dr Elsie Inglis received when she asked the War Office whether female doctors and surgeons could serve in frontline hospitals in world war one. At that time and for many years to come, that was the attitude that women faced in making vital contributions to society.
Despite attempts to repress her efforts—and those of many other women—to contribute, Elsie did not, in the words of the exhortation, “sit still”. Instead, she persevered, setting up the Scottish women’s hospitals, which were all-female units that played a vital role with Britain’s allies, including the French, the Belgians and, particularly, the Serbs.
Elsie was 50 when war broke out and she defied British Government advice by setting up female-staffed field hospitals close to the frontlines. She travelled to France within three months of the outbreak of war, and the Abbaye de Royaumont hospital, containing some 200 beds, was in place by the end of 1914. That was followed by a second hospital, at Villers Cotterets, in 1917. Tens of thousands were helped by the hospitals she set up in France, Serbia, Ukraine and Romania, acting with the support of the French and Serbian Governments.
Prior to that, Elsie was a strong advocate of women’s rights and a leading member of the suffragette movement in Scotland, playing a notable role in the establishment of the Scottish women’s suffragette federation in 1906. She fought energetically against prejudice and for the social and political emancipation of women, and had already made a huge impact in Edinburgh by working in some of the poorest parts of the city with women and babies who were in desperate need of help. Selflessly, she often waived the fees of patients who could not afford to pay.
Politically, Elsie was a staunch campaigner for votes for women, and her involvement in the suffragette movement prompted her to raise money to send out to female doctors, nurses, orderlies and drivers on the frontline. She recorded many great achievements, including setting up 14 hospitals during the war—staffed by 1,500 Scottish women, all volunteers. Most notably, Elsie raised the equivalent of £53 million in today’s money to fund greatly needed medical care for those on the frontline. Her efforts reached across the waters on another level, attracting volunteers from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. As I am sure everyone would agree, that showed fierce independence and capability from women who were well ahead of their time.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate and on ensuring that it coincides with the anniversary. This type of discussion, debate and acknowledgement is significant, given the issues that he mentioned. For example, we must not only pay tribute to the many voluntary detachments of women in the first world war from all across the UK, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, but ensure that future generations never forget the contributions that they made.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. Commemorating the centenary is easy, but we need to ensure not only that the education and commemorations run right through society, in schools and workplaces, but that all four corners of the United Kingdom commemorate the contribution of women—and indeed, of everyone, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice in giving their lives.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that we need to learn lessons not necessarily only from the extraordinary contribution that women made during the great war and the social strides that they made in that time, but from what happened during the peace? It is certainly the case that many of the advances retreated in the immediate post-war era and into the 1920s, and in many ways women were set back to where they were in 1914. As we approach the centenary of the end of the great war, perhaps we need to give thought to what happened shortly thereafter.
Absolutely. As the hon. Gentleman said, we should commemorate not just the contribution that women made during the wars, but the contribution that they made subsequently. Indeed, in this very building, Emily Davison is commemorated downstairs for her contribution to the suffragette movement. I am very much of the view that if more women had been running the world, perhaps the great wars would never have happened.
I think the hon. Gentleman might have misunderstood my point. In the years following the great war, many advances that women had made and the position that they had established for themselves in society sadly took a step back. People such as Dr Inglis, who had become very prominent, were in fact told to take a back seat, particularly when the men came back from the war.
Absolutely. Women are still fighting the same battles today. The advancement that they made during the great war was almost forgotten, until the second world war, of course, when women again played a significant role. We need to remember their contribution not just during the war efforts, but in between. That is part of the story of the commemorations and the story we should tell of our recent history.
The women’s dedication to help thousands of badly injured men in dire conditions is commendable. In Serbia in particular, the typhus epidemic had gripped the country, and without those women many tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of lives would not have been saved. Serbia was home to the first Scottish women’s hospitals field unit in 1914. Despite the life-threatening conditions of the typhus epidemic, to which four staff from the Scottish women’s hospitals had lost their lives, Elsie went to serve in the hospital on the frontline. Sent out to look after 300 beds, Elsie and her team were in fact faced with 550 beds filled with injured and ill soldiers. With a dreadful lack of sanitation in the overcrowded hospitals, Elsie faced the Serbian officials and firmly refused to let the overcrowding endanger the lives of patients and nurses. A true heroine, she went from negotiating with Serbian officials to finding innovative ways to deal with the overflow patients at the hospital, without a second thought for her own safety. Her colleagues took the same approach.
Even after the beginning of the great retreat, in which Serbia was invaded by the Austrian army, Elsie and many of her volunteers refused to give up. Again, she defied demands from the British Government to return home. Despite finding out that she had cancer—I stress that she had cancer as well—she set up two more field hospitals. In 1915, she was captured and repatriated, but still did not rest until Serbian soldiers were guaranteed safe passage out of Serbia. Once this safe passage had been granted and the soldiers arrived in Newcastle, Elsie battled through the pain of her own illness to greet them. Sadly, she passed away on 26 November 1917.
It has been said that Dr Elsie Inglis
“made Florence Nightingale look like a part-time care assistant”.
Her fierce dedication to helping others leading up to the great war shows that Elsie really was a role model in her own right. I am pleased that my constituents in Edinburgh and people in the rest of Scotland have such an outstanding figure to look up to and aspire to. Elsie broke down barriers and proved time and again that women will always be an integral part of society. She continually praised the work carried out by her many volunteers, refusing to think of her effort as any greater than theirs. Elsie never asked them to do something that she would not be willing to do herself. She took part in the most menial tasks and always worked as part of the unit.
Elsie’s humbleness about the great things that she achieved is why I feel so strongly about remembering her legacy and giving her and other women who contributed to world war one the recognition and commendation they deserve. We should commemorate and celebrate her life and work.
On 29 November, 1917, Elsie Inglis was buried in Edinburgh following a state funeral at St Giles’ Cathedral, with the flags of Great Britain and Serbia placed on her coffin, the lilies of France around her, and the torn banners of Scotland’s history hanging over her head. She was later awarded high honours by France, Russia and Serbia. Indeed, in Serbia, Dr Inglis and her colleagues are regarded as heroes and saints, with 17 statues to her in Serbia alone.
The UK should properly recognise Dr Inglis and the other unacknowledged British heroines who set up the Scottish women’s hospitals during the first world war. To mark the centenary of her death, I am pleased that this year the City of Edinburgh Council has decided to name a street after her and that the Edinburgh Evening News is running a fundraising campaign to have a statue of Elsie erected in her beloved Edinburgh.
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals Trust, led by my constituent Ian McFarlane and his trustees, aims to work with the Serbian Government and the Edinburgh Evening News to get the funds to build this well-deserved and much-overdue monument. A private ceremony was held at her grave on Sunday to mark the centenary of her death. As a mark of her growing reputation, a commemoration will also take place at St Giles’ cathedral tomorrow, on the same day as her state funeral 100 years ago.
But what about the countless other women who poured compassion and dedication into saving lives during the great war? November 2017 also marks the centenary of the foundation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. The Royal Navy became the first of the three services officially to recruit women. Expansion of the wartime Navy led the Wrens to take on tasks that the Royal Navy had previously considered beyond women’s capabilities. Women’s contributions to the war effort went from strength to strength, and many Wrens were involved in planning naval operations, including the D-day landings in June 1944.
In December 1941, the Government passed the National Service Act 1941, which allowed the conscription of women into war work or the armed forces. In 1944, some 74,000 women were doing more than 200 different jobs. Of the courageous Wrens, 303 were killed on wartime service; we should pay tribute to them and all their efforts. On 7 July 1917, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps became the British Army’s first all-female unit. More than 57,000 women served from July 1917 to 1921, including 10,000 in France.
I would like to recognise in particular the contribution of two great Scottish women to the WAAC: Alexandra “Mona” Chalmers Watson and Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan. Mona was from a high-achieving Edinburgh family and was the first woman to graduate from Edinburgh University as a doctor. Helen, who studied botany at King’s College London, had deep family roots in Ayrshire and Aberdeen. As well as playing leading roles in the WAAC, they fought hard against the patriarchy to show that women must have a more equal place in society and in the world.
It is also 100 years since Passchendaele, one of the most notorious battles of the first world war, which the House commemorated last month. In just three and a half months of fighting, an estimated 550,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or lost. Around 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers went missing: 50,000 were buried without being identified, and 42,000 were never recovered from the fields of Flanders, which turned into an ocean of mud.
As well as paying tribute to those who lost their lives, I would like to recognise the contribution of Sister Kate Luard, who served as a nurse in the second Boer war as well as being head nurse at a casualty station on the western front. Sister Luard often described her work in letters from Passchendaele as “UBC”—“utter bloody chaos”. Despite the chaos, she persisted, saving countless lives. I am glad that her efforts were recognised; she was awarded the Royal Red Cross and bar. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to serve so close to the frontline under such enormous pressures, but her letters are a small insight into the passion and dedication that it must have taken to do so:
“The uproar is almost stupefying. They burst on two sides—streams of shrapnel which were quite hot when you picked them up. They came everywhere, through our canvas huts. Bursting shells are an ugly sight—black or yellow smoke and streams of jagged shells flying violently in all directions. It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again.”
More than 100,000 women joined Britain’s armed forces during the war. From ambulance driving to translating, women served Britain in a variety of ways; I will highlight a few more. Elizabeth Knocker and Mairi Chisholm set up their own first aid post close to the Belgian frontline at Pervyse in November 1914. Mary O’Connell Bianconi went to France in August 1917 as a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, where she worked as a driver in the St Omer ambulance convoy. After an air raid in July 1918, Molly and six of her driver colleagues drove their ambulances to pick up the wounded. Dame Katharine Furse joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment in 1909. On the outbreak of the first world war, she was chosen to be head of the first VAD unit to be sent to France. In 1917 she became the director of the newly formed Women’s Royal Naval Service.
We all know the immeasurable contribution women made back home—everything from working in munitions factories to building guns. I wish that I could identify by name each and every woman who made an enormous contribution to the great war. Unfortunately, time does not allow, but those unmentioned are by no means unnoticed. It is hard to imagine that women with such passion and hunger to help, and who spoke up when they were told to be quiet, could ever be forgotten. They most definitely helped to pave the way for future women to crack the glass ceiling.
Some important centenaries approach next year. To name a few, April 2018 will mark the formation of the Women’s Royal Air Force, an invaluable asset to the RAF in which around 32,000 women enrolled in its first two years. May 2018 marks the day that nine members of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps became the first British women to die on active military service when their trench was hit by a German bomb in Abbeville, France.
Many of the women whom I have mentioned saved lives through innovative thinking, putting the wellbeing of others above their own safety. They often worked under fire, in unthinkable conditions with little sleep and few resources. They offered a helping hand not because they wanted praise, but because they had valuable experience and skills to offer to those who were also putting their lives on the line for their country. I am extremely pleased to have had this opportunity to ensure that we continue to give them the recognition that they deserve, and I hope that their legacy will live on.
I will finish where I started by reading out what is on the gravestone of Dr Elsie Inglis, who is buried in Dean cemetery in Edinburgh:
“To the beloved and honoured memory of Elsie Maud Inglis. Born 1864, died on active service 1917. Surgeon, philanthropist, patriot, a leader of the movement for the political emancipation of women and founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for foreign service. Mors janua vitae”—
meaning “Death is the gateway to life”.
Order. There are six people seeking to catch my eye in this debate. I will call the Front Benchers from 10.30, so we have 45 minutes to divide between six people. Members can do their own arithmetic, but that is about seven to eight minutes each. I will not impose a time limit at this stage, but I hope that people will bear other contributors in mind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for securing this debate on an important part of our world war one history that at times is unfortunately overlooked. The contribution made by women in the great war, in particular Dr Elsie Inglis, should not be understated, and it is a pleasure to pay tribute to them today.
As the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, I am proud to draw Members’ attention to the role played by women of the borders at that challenging time, especially those who served alongside Elsie. While reading about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, I could only imagine the harrowing scenes that they saw. One of those women was Sarah Dempster Allan, born in 1889 in the small village of Sprouston near Kelso in my constituency. On the outbreak of war, Sarah joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and was posted to a chateau near Troyes, where she performed her duties in a canvas tent. I am sure that it felt a long way from the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, which she had left to join the cause.
Because their unit was housed in a portable tent, she was then moved to Salonika in Greece before moving on to Macedonia. Unfortunately, her time helping the Serbs was short-lived; she was forced to evacuate back to Greece, and return to the United Kingdom shortly after. Despite being born in 1889, Sarah lived well into the 20th century, dying at the age of 102. It is an honour to tell colleagues her story here today.
Of course, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals were only one way that women helped to win the war. Munitions factories, the civil service and agriculture would have been crippled by the flight of young men to fight on the frontlines had women not stepped forward to help the cause. Propaganda posters from the time give us a visual reminder of the huge need for women to do their bit for the war effort. There can be no question but that that call was answered; Elsie is proof of that. Even when the Government refused to help her, Dr Inglis and her team went above and beyond the call of duty by travelling the 2,000 miles to Serbia to help those in dire need.
That does not even come close to giving a full picture of the time. Many women, while taking on extra practical duties for the war effort at home or abroad, had to endure tremendous heartache and sorrow. Living in constant fear of bad news from the front about their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, uncles and cousins would have been an experience tantamount to torture, never mind living with the constant threat of invasion. We must not forget the many women who set up or joined branches of the women’s institute, women’s guild and “the rural”, many of which continue today, including in my constituency, as part of that important war effort. Turning surplus produce into vital rations for the frontline was as important a task as any other.
Without the contribution of women such as Elsie Inglis of Edinburgh or Sarah Allan of Kelso, our brave men on the frontline would have gone without bullets in their guns, uniforms on their backs and food in their rations; they would have been left for dead on the battlefield with their injuries unattended. Almost certainly, we would have lost the war, and we may not have been standing in this place today. As the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, put it:
“For this service to our common cause humanity owes them unbounded gratitude.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing this debate. It is timely given the important anniversaries of women’s role in our history that we are celebrating and commemorating.
The contributions made by women during the first world war have long been overlooked. As we commemorate the centenary of those events, it is important that the topic receives the respect and recognition it deserves. It is important to recognise that for too long, the role of women in history in general, and particularly in conflict, has been airbrushed out—largely by men. As the European continent and much of the world descended into war, many brave soldiers and sailors, including Plymouth lads, responded to the call; they were sent overseas to the trenches or to serve their country in the Royal Navy. They were not alone in their bravery: many of Plymouth’s women back home valiantly stepped in to fill the roles that had been left vacant and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South has described, took part in providing medical support.
As more men were sent to the front, women were able to move into roles that previously had not been open to them. In Plymouth, many women became the factory workers, railway guards, postwomen, tram drivers and police officers who kept Britain and Plymouth going during those dark years. That happened right across the country, not least in my area. Thanks to the support of superb local historian Chris Robinson, who writes about the role of women in Plymouth in the world wars, some of the stories of the sacrifices that women made can come to the fore.
One key role that women took up in world war one, which proved vital to our war effort, was the often dirty and dangerous work in our munitions factories. Women put their lives at risk, being exposed to poisonous chemicals and accidental explosions. In Plymouth, a technical school was established for women in that work, and within a year nearly 400 women had been trained there in how to create munitions and were busy working on production lines in Union Street, Prince Rock and Bull Point. Women carried out that important work, helping the allies in their endeavours to outgun the central powers. The great travesty is that women were thanked for that service by receiving less than half the wages of men doing similar work.
I pay tribute to the women of Glasgow who worked in the munitions factory. At the start of world war one, about 15,000 women were reckoned to work there; by the end, over 65,000 women were working there and playing a vital role in supporting the Army as they went forward. I place on record my tribute to those women of Glasgow.
There are many untold stories of women’s contributions to the war effort that need to be told across the country, including in Scotland.
A further way in which women contributed to the war effort came with the establishment of the women’s police service, which was set up by Margaret Damer Dawson in 1914. Damer Dawson had worked towards establishing a female presence in the police force for a number of years, but the war provided a new opportunity. The WPS was Britain’s first uniformed women’s police service, and within the first three months there were 50 recruits in Plymouth. That voluntary service of spirited women paved the way for the first official female police officers a few years later. One of the first to join up and serve in the WPS was Plymouth’s Nancy Astor, who is celebrating her own anniversary in two years’ time as the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat and who represented the seat that I now represent. She opened the door for more women to stand for election, and her service to our country started in the women’s police service in Plymouth.
I pay tribute to the people who have worked so hard over the last year to recognise the role of women in world war one, in particular the volunteers and staff from Plymouth City Council and Plymouth Museum who have expertly welcomed visitors and told stories of men and women’s services to our armed forces at the Commonwealth War Graves’ “Poppies: Wave” on Plymouth Hoe. That memorable and moving installation created a wave over our war memorial and is a fantastic example of how to use the ceramic poppies. It provided an opportunity for events and discussions about the people named on the war memorial, who were predominantly men, and the untold stories of women who contributed.
Earlier this year, shortly after being elected, I tabled a number of parliamentary questions about the role of women in public life and in particular about the number of statues that we have of women. As 50% of the population, it is right that 50% of the stories that are told are about women. I understand that the Department does not keep central statistics on the number of statues or pieces of public art dedicated to women from history, but given the anniversary of women getting the right to vote next year and the 100th anniversary of Nancy Astor’s election in 1919, now might be a good time to start, so we can begin to correct that and to tell the story of women’s role in public life.
When we commemorate the anniversary of the first world war, it is important to remember the brave men and women up and down the country who gave their service to our country, not only those who fought on the front or at sea, but those who fought on the home front as well. I hope that this debate concludes with the erection of the statue and the memorials that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South spoke about, and that it enables us to talk more profoundly and clearly about the role of women in world war one, which has been far too overlooked to date.
It is, as always, a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing this timely and important debate.
Dr Elsie Inglis made an enormous contribution to humanity. She set up hospitals that helped thousands of injured men, woman and children, combatants and civilians, who were caught up in the horror of world war one in Serbia. She battled to improve hygiene and cleanliness against typhus and other diseases. It is also beholden on us, however, to give credit to her political thinking and the women’s suffrage movement, in which she became involved in the 1890s to protest about the grossly inadequate medical facilities available to women at the time. That led directly to her founding the medical school for women.
We have heard Members speak eloquently about Dr Inglis, a woman who led in making a better world, but I will take this opportunity to discuss a colleague of hers, Bessie Dora Bowhill, another woman who organised and improved others’ lives. She was the daughter of a prosperous farmer in Berwickshire, then part of the constituency of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont). She was born on 12 April 1869 at Marygold in the parish of Bunkle and Preston.
May I correct the hon. Gentleman’s pronunciation of “Marygold”? I wish to ensure that the official record is accurate.
I am grateful for that intervention. Bessie’s parents retired to Dunbar, which was then part of the constituency of Berwickshire but is now part of East Lothian. Bessie embarked on a nursing career that took her not only all over Scotland, but on two major overseas adventures. She trained in Edinburgh in the 1890s and she was night superintendent at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary until May 1900, when the Boer war started. She enlisted in Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Service Reserve and was sent to the No. 13 Stationary hospital outside Durban in South Africa, where she served for the duration of the Boer war. On her return, she worked in hospitals in Falkirk, Dundee and again in Aberdeen before being appointed matron of Perth Royal Infirmary in 1909.
After the outbreak of world war one, she volunteered with Dr Elsie Inglis in the Scottish women’s hospital in Serbia, where she retained her senior position as matron of the unit and served until 1916. When she returned home, our local paper carried Bessie’s report of her ordeal, “Dunbar Nurse’s Experience in Serbia A Tale of Privation and Adventure”, in her own words, including the following account:
“At night the Prussian Guards simply walked into the town without any fuss whatever, and took it. Dr Inglis and her staff were told to prepare beds for 50 Germans, and next morning we received orders to leave the hospital to them. Only half-an-hour was given to us to get out, and all we were allowed to take was our beds and bedding.”
Bessie was awarded the British War Medal and the British Victory Medal for her work in Serbia. She was also awarded Serbia’s Cross of Mercy.
After that, Bessie slips from the historical record. Perhaps she was unable to carry on in nursing after what she witnessed in Serbia. I have found only two subsequent mentions of her: on 26 February 1916, the minutes of the Scottish Matrons Association record that its members agreed to send her a telegram to express their admiration for her heroism; and on 10 June 1916, she hosted tea at her nurses’ home. She died in York on 12 September 1930, aged 61.
I raise Bessie’s case today to highlight the enormous contributions made by women, which far too often go unnoticed and without thanks, but which have been crucial to shaping and deciding the future of us all, and often illuminate and focus the true meaning of moments in history. I think of the strength of the contribution made by women during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The roots of the strike go back to the aftermath of the devolution debacle in the 1970s. The Labour Government fell in 1979, when they were defeated by one vote in a vote of no confidence; Scottish National party Members were among those who voted against them. The result was the 1979 election and the victory of a Conservative Government under Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In 2014, in moving a motion in the Scottish Parliament on the miners’ strike, Iain Gray said:
“With so much at stake, it was no surprise, then, that when the dispute came, it was not just any strike... In East Lothian, the Labour club was turned over to the strikers as their headquarters and soup kitchen. The Co-operative was generous to those who were its members as well as its customers. The Royal Musselburgh Golf Club felled its trees for fuel and the council set up a hardship fund.
The wider labour movement mobilised too, in practical ways, collecting food and money to keep the miners—”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 20 March 2014; c. 29224.]
Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman a little latitude, but he seems to be straying from the title of the debate; the miners’ strike is quite some distance from Dr Elsie Inglis and the contribution of women to world war one. If he got back to the subject, I am sure we would all be grateful.
I accept your guidance from the Chair, Mr Davies; I merely wished to reiterate that the contribution made—often silently—by women during world war one and subsequently has often gone unheard in a history written by men.
Millicent Fawcett, an English suffrage organiser from Dr Inglis’ time, described the suffrage movement, in words that are still so apt today in the fight for justice and equality for all, as
“like a glacier; slow moving but unstoppable”.
We must remember and celebrate the bravery, intelligence and service of women such as Dr Elsie Inglis and Matron Bessie Bowhill, of women who supported the miners’ strike by setting up the soup kitchens, and of women today.
Dr Inglis, like Keir Hardie, supported the suffragettes; that is where the link with the miners may come in. Both opposed the war, but both were there to help out when the time came.
I am grateful for that intervention.
We must remember women such as Dr Inglis, but also women today who suffer under universal credit, zero-hours contracts and ill health, but fight for others before themselves. Whether through imaginative thinking, fighting typhoid or promoting cleanliness, they have always supported and served others before themselves. I hope that the battle will be won for women sooner rather than later.
It is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall debates. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on presenting his case so well. It is no surprise that we all wish to speak not only about Dr Elsie Inglis, but about women from our own parts of the country who did so much so many years ago. The debate gives us a timely opportunity to do so, almost 100 years to the day since Dr Inglis’ death.
Some may wonder what an Ulster Scotsman has to say about the contribution of Dr Inglis and women in general to the world war. It can be summed up very briefly: I have to give sincere thanks and honour the memory of a lady who was one of a generation of women who won the war on the home front, and whose memory should be honoured when we mention any victory in the war. It is good to have that on the record. A well known saying that I use often and that is certainly true in my case is that behind every good man is a better woman. Behind every victory in the world war was a woman at home, keeping the home fires burning, the cattle milked and the grain growing, caring for the children and continuing life.
This summer, I attended the Milwaukee Irish Fest, as I have done for the last six years; it is an honour as a Unionist to attend such an occasion. I was pleased to see Carol Walker of the Somme Association in Newtownards as a fellow speaker on the list. Her topic was the role of women in the first world war, and she has been kind enough to provide me with her notes on the topic. They are fascinating and give a small insight into the wealth of knowledge and experience that is available from a visit to the Somme Museum on the boundary of Newtownards in my constituency of Strangford. I encourage any visitor to my wonderful constituency to take the time to tour the museum and learn more about our vibrant history and the vital role that we played in the war.
Prior to the outbreak of the first world war, more than 800,000 women in Britain were in paid employment. The majority were in low-paid jobs—domestic service, agriculture or fireside industries such as sewing—and were paid 50% less than men doing the same job. That was a matter that clearly needed to be addressed and settled. In the 19th century, education reinforced the female role as that of a wife and mother, but women were increasingly beginning to make a significant impact on society as their legal and social status started gradually to improve.
By 1910, universities in Ireland were admitting women to all courses, and by 1914 education was much more open to women, but it was mainly the wealthy who could enjoy the benefit. Middle-class women tended to take “respectable” jobs, such as governess or teacher. Irish women had a long informal involvement in politics in the 19th century, with many participating in food riots and agrarian societies. The general progress being made by women throughout society allowed them to become more actively involved in the political issues of the day, such as home rule. Many thousands of Unionist women signed a declaration against home rule in 1912—indeed, more women signed than men.
I would like to talk about two ladies. One notable local political woman was Winifred Carney, a suffragist, trade unionist and Irish independence activist who was born in Bangor but moved to Falls Road in Belfast. She was in charge of the women’s section of the Irish Textile Workers Union, where she met James Connolly and became his personal secretary. Winnie was also a member of Cumann na mBan and was present at the General Post Office during the Easter rising of 1916. She probably had a “road to Damascus” experience, as she later married George McBride from Belfast, an Orangeman and a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Such is the history of our politics in Northern Ireland! George had served with the 36th Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme.
The overall lack of women’s involvement at the higher levels of pre-war politics resulted in ignorance of women’s issues. A major issue was the right to vote. On 4 August 1914, war broke out and changed the role of women. The first world war was a time of huge social change, particularly for women. It was the catalyst to speed up changes that were already happening. Some 80,000 women had volunteered for war service by 1918. Initially, they were not allowed to go to the front, but more than 25,000 women served there in different roles, including as nursing auxiliaries.
Jessie Getty from Newtownards, the main town in my constituency, joined the Ulster Volunteer Force nursing corps in 1913 and went on to enlist in a voluntary aid detachment on the outbreak of war. Jessie served at the military hospital in Wimereux during the first world war and, like so many others went on to marry a soldier whom she had nursed back to health.
During the war years, many women were prominent in supporting war charities such as the Red Cross and sailors’ charities. Buffets were regularly provided for returning soldiers by ladies at the railway stations and docks in Belfast. In the old town hall, they packed parcels and dispatched them fortnightly to Ulster prisoners of war. Clearly, women were very active; they may not have been at the front in large numbers, in battle or in nursing care, but at home they were very much holding the reins. Nurses worked long hours looking after wounded sailors and soldiers in the accommodation provided by the UVF hospitals; that is an enormous part of our history, too.
Many married women found that their husbands returned from the war with serious mental as well as physical injuries. Today, such issues are addressed more than in the past—in those days they were perhaps unknown. Many men were treated for the effects of neurasthenia, but for countless others no support was sought or provided. In those days we clearly did not have the level of care that we have at least the potential for today. Many were left to cope alone with flashbacks, night terrors and severe depression, and a great strain was put on family life and relationships.
The first world war was a watershed for women, especially in relation to new employment and enhanced voting opportunities. The work of the suffragettes and women’s contribution in war made it apparent that a change in the laws concerning elections was needed, but that was slow to happen. Overall, even though more women were becoming involved in trade unions, women were still employed on lower wages than men—often half the male rate. That is still a battle to be fought today, for some.
Time has beaten me, but I conclude by again highlighting why this Ulsterman is speaking on this topic: I recognise how thankful we must be to the thousands of women who helped to win the war, at home and on the frontlines alike. They must be remembered, and honoured, and that is what we all seek to do in the debate.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for securing what, for me, is a crucial debate.
I admit that before I heard about the campaign for the Elsie Inglis memorial in Edinburgh I knew little about her. As I heard more and was drawn in, I was astonished at the contribution she had made and moved by what she had done, not just for the many soldiers she saved or eased through the horrific suffering and death of the first world war, but for me and my generation. As has been mentioned, the centenary of that great war is coming up next year, but there is another centenary, that of the Representation of the People Act 1918, and Elsie Inglis was at the forefront of campaigning on both.
In Edinburgh, Elsie Inglis was one of eight women—the others being Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell—who campaigned for the right of women to practise medicine in the city. I wonder where we would be today without them. They led the way, and so many women have been able to follow and do so much. Elsie Inglis was a role model for the women of her time, but she is also a role model for us all today. Before the war, she had qualified as a physician and, appalled at the standard of care for other women, she was prompted to become a suffragist and to set up a maternity hospital in Edinburgh for poor women. The hospital, originally called The Hospice, became the Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh South and many others have detailed, Elsie Inglis’ achievements were huge, as were those of many other women in the great war, in world war two and in every conflict since. The contributions, suffering and achievements of those women have been vital to not just our modern wellbeing but our very survival as we are today.
The fact that these women have often been overlooked is at times the result of the women’s own modesty. Recently, at the funeral of a friend’s grandmother, I heard her story for the first time. She was to many people an ordinary, loving grandmother and mother, who had led a pretty standard Scottish life, but at the funeral I heard the remarkable moving story of a then young woman, who like many others had put her life on hold to join up and serve in the armed forces. She was a spotter for the RAF. That is an example of the contributions that so often have been overlooked. It is my generation who have benefited from many such achievements, who are able to stand here today and contribute to the wellbeing of our country. No opportunity to recognise those contributions should go unmarked.
Elsie Inglis is not just an example of the women who made a contribution to the great war; she is part of a glorious thread woven through British history of the contributions that women have made at home during war and at the front itself, and after war too. My mother, Nessie Jardine, appears on a monument in my home town to those who have died from asbestos-related conditions as a result of working in the shipyards on the Clyde and elsewhere in Scotland, which have played such a vital role in this country’s wellbeing. By honouring Elsie Inglis, we honour all such people, and this is an opportunity for which we should be grateful.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who has done us a great service in introducing the debate and drawing attention to the extraordinary story of Dr Elsie Inglis. I had not planned to contribute, but hearing the amazing story of Elsie reminded me of another formidable woman, and I want briefly to refer to her achievements.
Before I do that, however, I want to reflect on the fact that now, of course, world war one is a war of history not of memory and, for many, the conflict is characterised by the slaughter in the trenches on the frontline. It is incredibly important that we commemorate that aspect of the campaign, but this debate has provided a timely reminder of the extraordinary contribution made by women over that period in history and the process of social change that was unleashed by the conflict.
I was pleased to see the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) in the debate earlier. I have had the pleasure of supporting some of the work he has been doing in commemorating the centenary of the first world war, and during that process I have had the opportunity to look at many amazing and extraordinary stories of the contribution made by women throughout that period of our history, many in Yorkshire and in my constituency of Barnsley. But one woman particularly caught my attention and I want to tell her story.
This is the story of a woman called Mary Barbour; some hon. Members will know it. Mary lived in Glasgow, and politics meant as little to her as it does to some of the people most disillusioned with our politics today, but in 1914 something changed. Mary’s husband, David, went to fight on the frontline and she was left alone at home with their two young boys. With so many men away on the frontline, the city’s private landlords sensed an opportunity and cynically began hiking the rents of Mary and her neighbours, trying to make an easy profit out of people they thought could not fight back. But in Mary Barbour’s case, they messed with the wrong woman.
Working with friends, Mary organised a rent strike. Together, they led tenants into a protest that grew into one of 20,000 people and became known as Mrs Barbour’s Army. Together, they forced the Government to take immediate action to protect people from unfair rent increases—the first-ever rent protection legislation. Mrs Barbour did not even have a vote when the war broke out, but her experiences led her to become one of the first women to represent her city as an elected councillor—as it happens, Mr Davies, a Labour councillor. Mrs Barbour did not wait for someone to tell her she could make a difference; she just did it. She did not ask for anyone’s permission to say what she knew to be right; she just said it.
Mary Barbour—who, along with many other great women, stood up for this country—will be getting a statue in January, in Govan, Glasgow, where she came from. The statue also includes ordinary people—Mary Barbour’s Army—marching behind her. This is the first time there will be a statue of ordinary children and women, and it will soon be unveiled in Govan, Mary Barber’s home town.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) made a point about the importance of commemorating the stories of women, so I am delighted to hear that the formidable Mary Barbour will have her story formally marked with the erection of a statue in January.
In holding the debate today, we are shining an important light on some incredible and inspiring stories of women who were true pioneers. We are doing so in a way that recognises their memory and the fact that the struggle for equality is not a battle consigned to history, but one that is very much alive today.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Davies. I commend the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on bringing the debate forward today. I am particularly pleased to speak in it not only as a woman and an Edinburgh MP, but as someone who has long held an interest in the work of Dr Elsie Maud Inglis, one of Edinburgh’s finest adopted daughters.
Elsie pursued women’s equality not just through words, but through work. She campaigned for the vote and she took part in the war, even when she was rudely told not to. Elsie did not “know her place”—she wanted to make a better world for all women. Many folk in her home city of Edinburgh, where she lived, trained and worked for much of her life, still do not know who Dr Elsie Inglis really was, beyond the name of the old maternity hospital where so many Edinburghers, including my partner, were born.
As we have heard, awareness of Elsie Inglis’s work is growing, with a local campaign in the Edinburgh Evening News gathering steam and a long-standing and relentless campaign for greater recognition led by Alan Cumming and Ian McFarlane. There are a few plaques here and there that commemorate the tremendous work of the Scottish women’s hospitals, but notably there are many more in Serbia, as we have heard. All credit to Clydesdale bank for putting Elsie’s image on its £50 notes in 2009. However, it is hardly the heights that Winston Churchill predicted when he said:
“The record of their work, lit up by the fame of Dr Inglis, will shine in history.”
I am not going to go over all Elsie Inglis’s achievements—those have been ably covered by other Members—but suffice it to say that hers is an incredible story. The grit and passion this woman and her colleagues showed in standing up to the prevailing attitudes to women and driving their plans forward regardless remain an inspiration to us all. The challenges for women at that time make her story all the more astonishing. Elsie Inglis was not a nurturing angel in the role women were expected to adopt; we remember her for her surgeon’s skills, her leadership, her tenacity and her vision, and for the impact she made on so many lives and the principles by which she lived. Elsie may have had a relatively privileged background, but she chose to take on the screaming wealth and gender inequalities of society. She was a progressive before that term became fashionable.
As convenor of culture in Edinburgh, I supported another 100th anniversary back in 2009, when there was the recreation of the 1909 Gude Cause suffrage procession along Princes Street, which I believe Elsie played a part in organising. That was such a memorable day, when we sisters and a few brothers celebrated not just the efforts of those women in gaining the vote, but the changes we have seen in the 100 years since. The accompanying “Votes for Women” exhibition at the Museum of Edinburgh—it was curated by another woman passionate about the history of the suffrage movement in Scotland, the excellent and late Helen Clark—was hugely successful and was extended by popular demand month after month.
Finally, the role Elsie Inglis and her contemporaries played in carving a path for me and other women to get involved in politics and medicine and to help build a better society for our daughters and our sons began to be more widely recognised in Edinburgh. Elsie deserves a statue in Edinburgh, at least as much as the grand generals on horses, the visiting royals clad in tartan trews or that famous terrier in the graveyard. I hope we get one, and soon. If as many Edinburgh girls and women as could manage it gave just £1 each towards that project, we would reach the target very soon. That would be a lovely tribute from those of us who owe many of the freedoms we enjoy today to women like Elsie. However, it is even more important that her legacy is a living one, where we work to protect our NHS from privatisation, tackle poverty and inequality, and ensure that every child has the best possible start in life. I am sure Elsie would approve of the Scottish Government’s baby box policy. One of my favourite slogans from the 1909 march, which was recreated in song for the anniversary, is:
“Ye maunna tramp on the Scottish thistle”.
That mood still resonates now, and the UK Government would do well to mind it.
It is good to see at least one woman being celebrated in this Parliament, which has so often failed many, many women. I could refer to the unfairness dished out to the Women Against State Pension Inequality pensioners, or how universal credit disproportionately targets women. There is the horrifying rape clause, the continuing disparity in wages between men and women, and many more examples. Elsie Inglis was an utterly remarkable woman who did an enormous amount of good, but she was fortunate to have started from a position of some privilege. We should be levelling the playing field and giving every woman a chance—at least a chance—of a life lived to its full potential. I am certain she would agree with that. Her great-nephew, the Reverend Hugh Inglis Maddox, said recently:
“My great-aunt spent her life showing men that women could do anything.”
Let that be her legacy.
I welcome the commemorations for the 100th anniversary of Elsie Inglis’s death. At the weekend, I—alongside our Health Minister, Elsie’s descendants and Edinburgh’s Lord Provost—attended a beautiful memorial service in Dean cemetery, where Elsie lies. It is good to see Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon paying hearty tribute to this hero. I believe she is attending the ceremony in St Giles cathedral tomorrow. Here in London, the many roles of women in world war one are marked in a lovely, moving memorial at the Cenotaph, but among all the unsung heroes, Elsie’s is a name that deserves to be sung about—a story that deserves to be told.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing today’s debate. We have heard some wonderful contributions, starting with his own, followed by a speech from the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont). My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) made a good point about the statistics on the representation of women in public art; perhaps the Minister could reflect on that. Given what we have heard today, the representation of women in our public art is pitiful, and much needs to be done to rectify that, including collecting statistics. Indeed, another matter that the Minister could fruitfully give some thought to after the debate is the number of women artists represented in the Government’s art collection.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) reminded us of the role of women in the great war, but after being admonished by you, Mr Davies, he did not stray too far into the issues relating to the miners’ strike. I think the historical thread he was trying to draw out was understood by all concerned: women have made a huge contribution not only during national and international conflict, but during industrial conflict in this country.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) appropriately reminded us of the complexity of politics in Ireland at the time of the great war, embodied in the person he spoke about, Winnie Carney. That complexity is at last being much more openly acknowledged, as is the contribution that Irish men and women from all over Ireland made during the great war, prior to the Easter rising and the civil war that followed the great war. It is right that that should be much more openly acknowledged and debated in the UK and Ireland.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) said that the women are part of a “glorious thread woven through British history”, and I entirely endorse that remark, which sums up in a single phrase what we are discussing this morning. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) spoke about Mary Barbour, a huge figure in the “Red Clydeside” movement at the time of the great war and thereafter. Indeed, as well as the rent strike, she organised the women’s peace crusade. When discussing the great war we should also talk about the complexities and the controversy in relation to the way that that war broke out and was fought.
I am glad to be here on behalf of the Labour Front Bench and pleased to be able to contribute to this important debate during the period of the first world war centenary commemorations. As we have heard, the story of Dr Elsie Inglis is remarkable. Her work in setting up women’s medical units on the western front so soon after the outbreak of the war, and her later involvement in arranging women’s despatch units to attend to other areas of fighting, is an incredible story. As a result of her work, there were 14 Scottish women’s hospitals along the frontline, where almost 1,500 women served, often in atrocious conditions, serving an estimated 20,000 allied soldiers.
Today we have heard of Dr Inglis’ drive and her initiative and compassion, all of which led her to use her skills to help others. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South said that when she was told by the War Office to,
“go home and sit still”,
she turned to France for support to make her goal a reality. She also turned to the sisterhood and solidarity of the women’s suffrage organisations, which were crucial to her success, as they raised the equivalent of £53 million in today’s money in support of her cause. She is a fine example for us all to follow. Do not follow the Government’s advice at all times is one message I take from her example. We are grateful today for her service and her sacrifice, and indeed her belligerence, independence and stubbornness, which led her to carry on despite the opposition from her own Government. This month’s celebrations in Edinburgh are a fitting tribute to her work and I wish all the best for the service at St Giles’ Cathedral taking place tomorrow, which hon. Members have mentioned.
Earlier this year we had the opportunity to pay tribute in the Chamber to those who fought in Passchendaele. During that debate I was glad to be able to pay particular tribute, as a Member of Parliament representing a Welsh constituency, to the Welch Regiment, the South Wales Borderers and the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who all fought alongside each other in the 38th Division, and to the Welsh Guards who fought in the third battle of Ypres. In Wales we particularly remember the poignant death of the poet Ellis Evans, better known as Hedd Wyn, who was killed before he was able to claim his prize of the chair at the National Eisteddfod during the war; he was killed at Passchendaele. As ever, we remain in remembrance of their great sacrifice for the freedom and future of our country. In addition to paying tribute to the local forces as part of that debate, many Members talked of the brave work of women across the country, as well as from their particular constituencies, during the great war.
Across the UK women served at home and abroad to ensure the success of the allied forces. Many, like Dr Elsie Inglis, left for the western front to care for the wounded. In the munitions factories, as we have heard, many working-class women undertook hazardous manufacturing work. In fact, in the second world war, my father’s sister, my Auntie Mary, worked in the Currans munitions factory in Cardiff. In the first world war there were 11 munitions factories in Wales alone, and by the end of the war 80% of the workforce in those factories were women. It is a myth that women were not in paid work before the first world war. Many, like my own relatives, worked in service before getting married. Many of the women who worked in the munitions factories transferred their aprons working in service to work in overalls in the munitions factories. In that dangerous and dirty work, they found both a way to contribute to the war effort on the home front, and for many, for the first time, a way to earn a significant and stable independent income.
The percentage of women in paid work increased from 24% at the outset of the first world war to 37% by 1918. In 1917, 20,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army across the UK. In my constituency, the Green Farm became what is now the very large housing estate of Ely. That subject is quite topical in some ways, as the estate was part of the drive to build homes fit for heroes after the first world war. As a farm during the war, it was predominantly run by female farmhands. One of the workers, Agnes Greatorex, who left domestic service to work there, said:
“Every morning, we would get up at five o'clock and milk a hundred cows. We would then take the milk to Glan Ely Hospital,”
where many of the injured soldiers returning from the war were looked after. For many, such work was taken on in addition to the weight of domestic work. Although many men went to fight, women often became the breadwinner at home, bearing the brunt of the increased emotional and domestic labour of running a house and caring for a family. We should also remember that others served at home, but not in the armed forces. Like my grandfather, Edward Evans, they were not allowed to be conscripted in wartime because they worked in the coalmines, but they made their contribution serving at home. My grandmother, Gwellian Evans, worked in service and then domestically supported her husband.
Women such as Dr Elsie Inglis and Agnes Greatorex are a part our history, and we owe them a huge debt. I should also mention some prominent women from Wales. Gwendoline and Margaret Davies are better known as philanthropists in the arts, but they worked with the French Red Cross in canteens and organised convalescent hospitals and transit camps on the frontline. Annie Brewer, a military nurse from Newport, spent the war in France and won many medals for her courage. One citation applauded her
“coolness and total disregard of danger, lavishing her attention on men wounded under fire”.
That sums up some of the incredibly brave contribution made by women on the frontline during the war.
A poster during the first world war depicted a woman wearing overalls and said:
“On her their lives depend.”
Our tributes today make that same message abundantly clear. It is no coincidence that the centenary commemoration of women’s suffrage closely follows that of the first world war. As we know, the suffragettes largely suspended their organising during the war in order to concentrate on the war effort. In the end, the crucial contribution of women to the war helped change the perception of women in the UK, and in November 1918 women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote.
Given Dr Inglis’ commitment to women’s suffrage, it is particularly poignant that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South reminded us, she died a year before the passage of the Representation of the People Act. It is a great injustice that despite her historic sacrifice for our country, she never had the opportunity to cast a vote in an election to this place.
Before I close on the topic of women in the first world war, it is right to consider how these issues continue to play out today. Women’s work—their physical, professional and emotional labour—remains often underappreciated and underpaid. Of course, women play a vital frontline role in our armed forces today. We have come a long way since 1918, but it remains all too common that the contributions of women are underplayed, so I am pleased that this debate today has shone a spotlight on the accomplishments and sacrifices of so many historic women, from extraordinary actions to daily perseverance. I warmly welcome the WomensWork100 programme, which will launch in 2018 through the First World War Centenary Partnership. I thank all the organisations involved for their hard work throughout the commemoration period, in particular the Imperial War Museum.
Our armed forces communities continue to protect us, and I am proud of and humbled by the sacrifices they still make today. At home, the UK armed forces, supported by the entire armed forces community of families, reservists, veterans and cadets, continue to support responses to terrorist incidents and to protect our aerospace. Abroad, they are currently involved in more than 30 operations in 20 countries, from supporting the European Union and UN peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, to responding to the continuing threat posed by Daesh. As we take this time today to remember the contributions and sacrifices made during the first world war, we should also remember the sacrifices that have been made every year since then and are still being made by the brave men and women of the armed forces community. We should also redouble our efforts—all of us; men and women—to work for peace.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for introducing the debate. I know the subject is close to the hearts of many Members across the House, and that has been reflected in the nine moving and poignant speeches and the several interventions made this morning.
We have heard of the importance of Dr Inglis’s work and how it serves as one of many examples of the contributions of women to the war effort. This is a very important subject as we reflect on the first world war 100 years on. I pay tribute to my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has done so much, alongside other Members of the House, including the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), to commemorate the first world war. There has been a significant number of events, and those taking place in 2018 will be announced early in the new year.
As hon. Members have observed, Dr Inglis was a hugely inspirational woman. As one of the first female doctors in the UK, a pioneer of women in medicine and an ardent campaigner for votes for women, she is a remarkable figure in our history. The hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) spoke about the collection of data. I am open to representations on that matter, but it is important that many commemorations have been based on decisions made in different local authorities. It is about getting the right balance between spending money and allowing local campaigns to come to fruition in the right way. A large number of commemorations that have taken place over the last few years reflected inputs from local communities. Although I do not rule anything out, there are a number of communities across our history—perhaps even ethnic minorities—whose contributions have not been reflected. There is a judgment to be made on where we draw the line on that, but I note the sensible points that have been raised.
Through the upheaval of the first world war, Dr Inglis achieved international fame for the drive, dedication and compassion that were woven into her life, as well as her determination to do what she believed was right—refusing, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South said, to go home and sit still. She is an enduring inspirational role model for us all. Instead of sitting still, she turned her energies to establishing field hospitals for service overseas.
As has been mentioned, Serbia in particular was in dire need of doctors, and some 600 British women served there as volunteers during the war—in large part due to Dr Inglis’s pioneering work to raise awareness and funds for that cause. She arrived in Serbia in January 1915 with the Scottish women’s hospitals, and used her skill and tenacity to save lives and alleviate suffering in extremely harsh and hazardous circumstances. She demonstrated extraordinary leadership and great loyalty in refusing to abandon Serbian troops in the field, and was herself sent into German captivity with the wounded, rather than withdrawing when the opportunity arose.
I am delighted that the Scottish commemorations panel, ably led by Norman Drummond, is delivering a number of events to commemorate the work of Dr Inglis and her fellow members of the Scottish women’s hospitals movement. A wreath-laying ceremony took place on Sunday at the grave of Dr Inglis in Dean cemetery, Edinburgh, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned. Tomorrow, a commemorative service will take place in the presence of Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, timed to start 100 years to the minute from Dr Inglis’s funeral there.
As with all its previous events, the Scottish panel has produced an historical publication, available to members of the public on its website. The impact of Dr Inglis’s contribution reflects the sacrifice and courage of so many women—something that has been raised by hon. Members across the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) gave a moving and poignant account of the contribution made by individuals from his constituency. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport spoke about the work of Chris Robinson and the sacrifices made by those who worked with poisonous chemicals in Plymouth—a city that is close to my own heart, following my extensive attempt to get elected there several years ago.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) spoke of Bessie Bowhill and her enormous contribution. Such contributions were often under-reported; that theme has run across many of the individuals we have discussed. We did not really know about their contribution, and that is not right.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) spoke movingly about the many women who made such strong contributions and sacrifices in difficult circumstances, and about the premature death of her own mother—as with my father—through asbestos poisoning.
In 2015, the British residence in Belgrade, as was also mentioned in some very well-researched speeches, was named in Dr Inglis’s honour, as a reflection of her service in Serbia and the historical relationship between the UK and Serbia. She was also featured on stamps issued by the Serbian Mail in 2015, along with other British women of the Scottish women’s hospitals movement. Closer to home, I understand that the Edinburgh & Lothians Health Foundation has an annual Elsie Inglis staff development award, and there is a permanent memorial to her in St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Dr Inglis’s contribution also reminds us of the role played by other remarkable women who made history during the first world war, such as Gertrude Bell, who played an extraordinary role in the middle east; Edith Cavell, the nurse executed in 1915, who was commemorated in a series of events in October 2015; Flora Sandes, who also served in Serbia with the Serbian army; and Vera Brittain, the Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, who left a powerful account of her experiences and the reality of modern war. Those well known heroines are the most recognisable women of the first world war, but we should also remember the vital role played by many less well known, but no less inspiring, women—a theme of some of this morning’s speeches.
The range of organisations established during the war reflects the range of contributions made by women, and the strength of their desire to play their part. Although it is not possible in the remaining time to recount every organisation founded by, or for, women during the war, I will highlight some of the most prominent to give an idea of the scale and breadth of their contribution.
Under military control from the start of the war, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, and its part-time equivalent, the Territorial Force Nursing Service, were greatly expanded and served throughout the war on every front and in every campaign, often in the harshest conditions. Their professionalism and compassion feature in the recollections of many of those who experienced their care. They were supported by the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross—staffed by both men and women—which was tasked with nursing, the administration of hospitals and rest stations, clerical and transport duties, and, in response to new developments, air raid duties. Working in Royal Army Medical Corps hospitals from February 1915, they numbered more than 82,000 members by 1920.
Women also served in the Army, the Navy and the newly-founded Royal Air Force in a range of roles previously performed exclusively by men. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed in February 1917 and eventually numbered 57,000 volunteers. In recognition of that service, the corps was renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps in April 1918. The Women’s Royal Naval Service, universally known as the Wrens, was also formed in 1917, with 5,500 women serving by 1918 in a wide range of roles. On 10 October 1918, 19-year-old Josephine Carr from Cork became the first Wren to die on active service when RMS Leinster was torpedoed by a German U-boat.
The Women’s Royal Air Force was created as part of the newly-established RAF on 1 April 1918, and 9,000 women already serving alongside the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service volunteered to join. Many will remember Harry Patch, the last Tommy. However, the last surviving veteran of the first world war from any country is believed to be Florence Green, who served with the WRAF in the UK and died at the age of 110 in 2012. More than 100,000 women served in Britain’s armed forces during the war.
Other auxiliary forces assisted with the war effort at home. The Women’s Land Army, formed in February 1917, provided a dedicated agricultural workforce and went on to employ some 113,000 women as field workers, carters, milkers and ploughwomen. Indeed, by the end of the war women made up around one third of all agricultural labour. The first female police officers also served during the first world war. The women’s patrols were tasked with supervising women around factories and workers’ hostels, as well as patrolling railway stations and public spaces.
In addition, a huge number of auxiliary and volunteer organisations were established, which reflected the desire of women across the country to take part in the war and serve their country. The enthusiasm with which women joined the groups and the way they performed their roles played a large part in the decision to increase recruitment of women in the forces.
The Women’s Legion, which was formed in July 1915, eventually became the largest entirely voluntary body. Its volunteers were involved in many forms of work and the strength of response is often cited as a factor in influencing the Government to accept and organise female labour on a more formal basis.
Women began to contribute more than ever to Britain’s industrial output. Although women made up a substantial part of the industrial workforce before the war, largely in the textile industry, as the demand for shells and munitions increased, women were employed in the munitions industry in larger numbers. As has been mentioned a number of times in the debate, working long hours, in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, women helped to supply the troops with weapons, ammunition and equipment. By 1918, almost a million women were employed in some aspect of munitions work. Women also began working in much larger numbers in the transport industry. During the war, the number of women working on the railways rose from 9,000 to 50,000. Elsewhere, they worked as bus drivers, conductors, ticket collectors and porters.
I am very pleased to say that that huge range of activity will be reflected in “WomensWork100”, a programme led by the Imperial War Museums and the Centenary Partnership. An international programme of exhibitions, events, activities and digital resources will be launched in February 2018 and will recognise and celebrate the working lives of women during the first world war. Through the stories of those who joined the workforce and against the backdrop of the campaign for female suffrage, it will use the IWM’s Women’s Work Collection to explore the breadth of women’s roles.
The creation of that collection is closely linked with the establishment of the museum. Almost immediately after its creation in 1917, the museum formed a committee to source material to ensure that the role of women would be recorded. That material included items donated by Dr Inglis’s sisters, some of which are on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum North. It is particularly appropriate that next year Imperial War Museums will be sharing stories from the collection.
The Department for Communities and Local Government, which has responsibility for commemorating women’s suffrage, has plans for a project called “Inspirational Women: Speak Up”. It will enable schools across the country to research and present content about the contribution of women to society and will include women such as Dr Elsie Inglis and Sophia Duleep Singh, who served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, tending wounded Indian troops in Brighton.
Although the courage, self-sacrifice and determination of such women is inspiring, we should not lose sight of the loss and hardship endured by women during the war, as reflected in the speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). In a recent debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), it was noted that some 600 memorial plaques were issued to the families of women who died in the first world war in the service of their country. Each plaque represents a very personal and tragic story of loss and sacrifice.
Women’s suffrage is somewhat outside the scope of this debate, but the contribution of women to the national effort was rightly a significant factor in the passing of the Representation of the People Act in February 1918. Although I note the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire about what happened subsequently, I am sure that the IWM and DCLG programmes, as well as many other local and community projects, will reflect on that element of women’s experience during the war. The war galvanised women of all ages and social backgrounds to support the war effort and to reconsider their position in society. We should not lose sight of the ever-present contribution of women at home and to the family, maintaining some sense of normality, or looking after the children of those who had entered the workforce.
In those respects and many others, the contribution of women to all aspects of the first world war was hugely significant. I am conscious that the debate has only touched on the many fascinating and moving stories of many millions of our forebears. I am sure that tomorrow our thoughts will turn to Dr Inglis, but as we approach the final year of centenary commemorations, we will continue to recognise and remember the huge role played by women during the first world war and ensure that it is not forgotten.
I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their wonderful contributions and the moving stories they told from their personal experience. What we see from the debate—from Dr Elsie Inglis, Mary Barbour and Florence Green, whom the Minister mentioned; from Plymouth to Wales to Glasgow to Edinburgh, from Barnsley to Caithness to Northern Ireland and right across the country; from the RAF, the Army and the Royal Navy—is that the contribution that these dedicated, passionate and often modest women made to the war effort, and subsequently, without any regard to their own safety, shows that we owe them a great deal of respect and remembrance. Perhaps, if someone from the BBC is watching, they might want to change “Dad’s Army” to “Mum’s Army” and make a new comedy series about the contribution of women to the war effort.
We will see many centenaries this year and next in the run-up to the centenary of the end of the first world war. For everyone who made an effort, particularly for women, we will do two things: thank them for the service they gave this country and say that we will always remember them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Dr Elsie Inglis and the contribution of women to World War One.
Voter Registration: Nottingham North
I beg to move,
That this House has considered voter registration in Nottingham North constituency.
This is the first time I have served under your chairship, Mr Davies. I intend to take you on a journey to Aspley in my constituency via Athens. My topic is restricted to my constituency, but has wider applications to the rest of my city, and indeed to Shipley, Kingswood—the constituency represented by the Minister—and the rest of the country.
Our free and fair democracy is at the root of what makes us a special nation. We host the mother of all Parliaments, and in our participatory democracy we are treated all the same, whoever we are and wherever we come from. It is special, and it is to be cherished and, crucially, nurtured and developed. Democracy was established by the Athenians, but is frequently executed by people in Aspley. Democracy is strong only when it is truly participatory, which tells us something about voter turnout: if next to no one voted, the validity of the contest would be undermined. Voter participation ought to be of interest to us all, but this debate is about one specific part of participation: voter registration. Perhaps mercifully, discussions about turnout and extending the franchise will have to be left to another day.
I secured this debate to state publicly a belief of mine to see whether the Government share it. It is a simple but important statement: I believe strongly that the Government ought to prioritise the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register. That might sound like a broad statement, and it might sound uncontroversial or even facile, but it is none of those things. It is a crucial statement about our democracy, and if we accept it, I think it will act as a call to action. I will talk about some actions later, but first I want to talk about some of the challenges relating to voter registration that we face in my community and the reasons for the current situation; then I will move on to what we might do about it.
Let me start with the very basics. This is a discussion about voter registration in my constituency, Nottingham North. We know that we do not have a complete register of voters, but we do not know how incomplete it is. We do not know who or how many voters we are missing. To prepare for this debate—I have been putting in requests for many weeks, perhaps even months, since I was elected—I have been tabling questions to the Cabinet Office. The Minister may recognise them; others in the Chamber definitely will. I tabled one on 3 November to ask for the Cabinet Office’s estimates of how short we are on the electoral register in Nottingham North. I was given a holding reply on 15 November and heard back this morning—25 days later—with the answer I suspected I would get, which is that the Cabinet Office does not know. That lack of knowledge is not born out of disinterestedness or discourtesy, but it is a pretty good demonstration of where we are as a nation on this issue.
We do not know how many people are not registered; instead, we draw on global estimates. The House of Commons Library estimates that about 6 million people are missing from the register across the UK. On an even distribution, that would mean that more than 9,000 are missing in my constituency, but when it comes to those not on the register, distribution is not even. People from poorer backgrounds in a working-class community such as mine in the north and west of Nottingham are much less likely to register to vote, so it stands to reason that in my community the number of missing voters is much higher than 9,000. That is a significant proportion stacked against the 70,000 registered to vote at the latest update. That situation significantly weakens our democracy, so it is right that we are concerned about it.
It is hard to find out the current position. I drew on the resources of our excellent local authority in Nottingham. Every year, all electoral services teams in the country are required by law to conduct an annual canvass of every property in the electoral area to ensure—we are all keen on this—that the information on the register is complete, accurate and up-to-date, but that means that local authorities are forced to spend time and resources chasing households in which the number and identity of the residents have not changed. In Nottingham, the council sends a household enquiry form. If it is unreturned, it is followed by a further letter, and if that letter is not returned, by a visit from a canvasser. Only then can the council send an invitation to register, which again if it is not returned, is followed up by a second letter and by a canvasser after that.
That process does not strike me as very efficient. It is very challenging and it succeeds only 74% of the time in Nottingham, so it is both hard and not particularly effective. The council told me that the expense of printing and posting letters and training and paying staff is substantial, and that the administrative time it takes to process all of the responses is phenomenal. It is a real challenge. Despite all the effort that goes into it, since the introduction of individual electoral registration the Electoral Commission thinks that about 87% responded in 2017, as opposed to 93% in 2013. It is expensive, it is hard to do and it is not getting better.
An eminent individual I will name shortly said:
“Currently the annual canvass costs around £65 million to conduct every year—it is too high and we must take advantage of new and emerging technology to make the process more efficient where we can.”
As I say, those are not my words. The Minister may well recognise them, because they are his. I hope he shares my view that the annual canvass is too expensive. It does not produce fully accurate registers. It is time to make changes.
The solution that the Cabinet Office offers to local authorities is to use a phone and emails as a different way of contacting households. That is sensible, but I would like us to be much more ambitious, because the consequences are significant. We know that voter registration rates remain particularly low among young people and those who live in privately rented accommodation. About three quarters of 18 and 19-year-olds and 70% of 20 to 24-year-olds are registered, compared with 95% of the over 65s. There is a real imbalance.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on making such a powerful case. Does he agree that one of the issues we face in Nottingham is the under-registration of students? It is clear that, since the university no longer automatically registers students who live in halls, let alone all those who live in houses in multiple occupation in their second and third years, large numbers of young people have not been able to exercise their right to vote.
I share that view. Later, I will talk about block registration, which was a recommendation of an excellent report that I intend to draw on. For a long time, my hon. Friend and I have been out on doorsteps, carrying around our forms, desperately trying to get people to register when we meet those who have not. I think there might be a better way to do it.
The differences are even starker when we look at housing tenure. Only 63% of private renters are registered to vote—far from the 94% of those who own their own homes. Access to the ballot box ought to act as the ultimate leveller, but at the moment it does not.
Low registration can lead to a rush to register, which is the last thing that hard-pressed local authorities need. On the registration deadline before the EU referendum, the Government website crashed due to the number of people trying to register late, which led to the deadline having to be extended. I remember that that was very controversial. Similarly, people do not want to miss out, so although they may assume that they are already on the register, they may send in duplicate applications anyway. Electoral registration officers’ estimates of the proportion of duplicate applications ahead of the 2017 general election ranged from 30% of the total submitted in some areas to an incredible 70% in others. People who have registered and done the right thing are fine, but they do not know that and do not feel they can check, so they put their registration in again. That is not a sign of a healthy system. If the registration does not work, people get turned away from polling stations. At the 2015 general election, two thirds of polling stations turned away at least one person. Unsurprisingly, the most common reason for that is that they are not on the register. Again, that is not good for confidence in our democracy.
Finally—I have left this last for emphasis—all of us may have noticed the upcoming boundary changes. The electoral register has an even more crucial role in that process, because it forms the basis of our country’s electoral map. We are therefore in the process of setting new parliamentary boundaries that we know are based on flawed assumptions. We are trying to tackle imbalanced constituencies in a way that will only produce further imbalances. It is a fool’s errand. We need a really good register so we can set our boundaries properly.
What can we do about it? It will probably not be a revelation to anyone in the Chamber—especially if they have been following me on Twitter in the last 20 minutes—that I believe in automatic voter registration. I am not the only one who is enthusiastic about that idea. For several years, both the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators have been calling for automatic registration, as did the now-dissolved Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was chaired by my predecessor, Graham Allen. I promise hon. Members that there is not a gene in Nottingham North Members of Parliament that makes us interested in constitutional affairs. I am particularly interested in this one, but I cannot match the breadth of my predecessor’s interests. When I was preparing for this debate, I half-expected him to intervene at some point to clarify something. That has not happened yet, so I will carry on, on my own. His Committee, which he led with distinction, conducted the largest public consultation ever achieved by a Select Committee, and it recommended the introduction of automatic registration. The all-party group on democratic participation recommended it, and so did the Electoral Reform Society, Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote. The list goes on and on, but it is not just experts: according to the Electoral Commission, 59% of people support the idea of automatic registration, and it is even more popular among younger age groups, with two thirds of 18 to 34-year-olds voicing support.
Automatic voter registration would make two transformative yet simple changes to voter registration: first, eligible citizens who interact with government agencies would be registered to vote unless they decline; and, secondly, agencies could transfer voter registration information electronically to election officials. Those two changes would create a seamless process that is less error prone and more convenient for both voters and government officials. Such a policy would boost registration rates, clean up the rolls, make voting more convenient and reduce the potential for voter fraud, all the while lowering costs.
The end game is to achieve full participation in our democracy and, as I say, an accurate system is a better way to do that, but this is not simply a theoretical exercise, something I have dreamt up at home and asked Ministers to go on, on the back of my ideas—it is already happening. In the US, they are way ahead of us. In March 2015 the state of Oregon became the first to pass a breakthrough law to register automatically eligible citizens who have a driver’s licence, but with the choice to opt out. Registration has increased since the policy was implemented, and last November voter turnout in the state was the highest for decades, and one of the highest rates in the country. Since then nine other states have followed suit and 32 of the remaining 40 are considering similar legislation.
Automatic registration is not just about the registration rate, but about accuracy and saving money. Delaware estimated that it saved $200,000 in the first year alone of implementation. We could do that too. We should unleash the collective knowledge of the state—whether of the Departments for Work and Pensions and of Health, or the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency—to wire up a system that makes a complete and accurate register.
We could build in other areas, too. Bite The Ballot and Dr Toby James, with the all-party group on democratic participation, published an outstanding report with 25 recommendations to reform our voter registration system. Published more than a year and a half ago, it was welcomed by the Government and praised by the Minister as a publication that will
“go down in history as helping to evolve the UK’s electoral registration system”,
but so far only two of the recommendations have been implemented. Today I hope to hear about more, in particular the one on block registration in care homes and halls of residence. That recommendation could be introduced quickly.
We know there is emphasis on voter fraud. That played out during Cabinet Office questions last week, when there was plenty of discussion about voter fraud. Certainly, voter fraud is something that the Cabinet Office is interested in. It is a criminal offence and ought to be treated seriously—it is another way to undermine our democracy—but the evidence tells us that electoral fraud is exceptionally rare. In the past 20 years in Nottingham, exactly zero cases have resulted in people being prosecuted. In 2016 in the UK more broadly, of 260 cases of alleged electoral fraud, only two led to convictions, while 138 cases were dropped with no further action. Stand that against nearly 34 million people voting in the EU referendum and we are talking about fewer than one in 10 million people being convicted of that offence—stacked against 6 million missed off the register. Both issues are important, but I am arguing that one ought to have considerably greater emphasis placed on it by Ministers.
I hope that I have demonstrated the real challenges to registration in my constituency, the sterling efforts of our local authority, despite the considerable pressures on it and the weak hand it has been dealt, and outlined a better, evidence-based approach for Ministers to follow in the future. I am sure that the Minister will forgive me for drawing on his previous comments, and I look forward to hearing more from him.
Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful that you are presiding over this debate, because you too take a personal interest in electoral matters and I am sure you enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) as much as I did.
It is striking that although we sit on opposite sides of the political divide, I agree with much in the hon. Gentleman’s speech on electoral registration being a matter of social justice. I will touch on that later, but I am determined that, as a Government, we will look at the burning injustice for those people who are unable to access the ballot box for whatever reason. Next year, it will be 100 years since women got the right to vote, but now many people do not vote because they do not wish to—that is their freedom—although many people who want to vote will still be unable to do so. I will talk about what the Government have been doing and intend to do to improve access to registration and, therefore, to our elections.
The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to his predecessor Graham Allen. In July 2016, two days into my job as a Minister, I was here in Westminster Hall to respond to Mr Allen’s debate on the issue of a constitutional convention. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is following in the proud footsteps of his predecessor by taking up the matter of voter registration. It is incredibly important for that issue to be raised in the House and I thank him for securing the debate. As is evident from his recent parliamentary question to the Cabinet Office, which he mentioned, electoral registration is of interest to him, and I commend him for that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the issue of data. To consider what we do and do not know, at the moment we do not have the accurate data to be able to track movements of people within certain locations. I am passionate about changing the nature of the electoral registration conversation from focusing only on top-line national issues.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the “Missing Millions” report, which I commend for highlighting the number of people missing from the register, but what we do not know is who those missing millions are and whether they are all actually missing or have gone off and registered in a different location. I am absolutely determined for us in the Government to do the work on the much finer-grained detail to achieve a more accurate picture of where we need to focus our resources. I will talk about that in connection with our democratic engagement programme for the future.
We need to move away from the national conversations on voter registration and talk about democratic inclusion versus democratic exclusion and where the democratically excluded are. The hon. Gentleman mentioned certain target groups that had traditionally under-registered and were under-represented, such as home movers. He mentioned the Electoral Commission report that highlighted the number of renters who are not on the electoral register. For me, one of the most significant statistics is that only 28% of renters join the electoral register in their first year of moving into a property. We are looking at trying to tackle that churn.
I will have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman in his passion for automatic voter registration. I am equally passionate about the system of individual electoral registration, which is here to stay. More than £70 million has been invested in putting the system in place and in enabling the successful transition to individual electoral registration. At the core of that system is the conviction that individuals should own their own registration status. When it comes to our democracy, voting and registration, I am a passionate believer in voting being not only a right but a responsibility. Gone are the days of the old head-of-the-household system, in which one individual registered numerous others; now it is the right and responsibility of each and every individual to decide when and where they want to be registered.
Individual electoral registration has proved not only more responsive to the needs of electors, but a success in making the system more robust and in driving up the accuracy of the electoral registers. The Electoral Commission report on the 1 December 2016 registers provides the best and most recent full assessment of the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers across Great Britain.
The Minister may be wedded to individual registration, but will he not accept that there are some groups he needs to work much harder with? That might be those who have poor language skills or learning disabilities. They might want to register but find the process difficult. Will he commit to put in extra measures to ensure that those people who want to vote but find the existing process difficult can access it effectively?
The hon. Lady is clearly as passionate about this issue as I am—only last week, she asked a question during Cabinet Office questions. As a Government, we are absolutely determined to ensure that by the next general election in 2022 we will have made our elections the most accessible ever. Clearly, 100 years on from women getting the right to vote, there are still those who are unable to vote. We want to be able to change that. Looking at the whole process—the journey through our democracy—from registration through to turning up at the polling station, we need to do more.
We had a call for evidence, and 260 people have responded so far. In the spring, we will publish a report on actions the Government intend to take forward. I have already managed to make certain changes—for example, with the certificate for visual impairment—on data held at NHS level. Last year, there was a consultation. I wrote to the Health Minister to make the case that that data should be shared with local authorities and electoral registration officers, so that when a certificate exists for those who are blind or visually impaired, it should be possible to use it to contact people in the local authority area, perhaps with forms in Braille—although it is not frequently used nowadays, and it is important to keep up with the technology when it comes to access to elections—or large print. It is about establishing who the vulnerable people are who need the extra effort and attention.
Again, it is about data and about ensuring from an early position that we can act as a Government. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady that we need extra investment in those certain groups, but we also need knowledge of those under-registered groups. We have run a knowledge and capability review to try to understand people’s needs. Since becoming a Minister, I have been touring every area and region of the country to try to understand the needs of the most vulnerable.
When it comes to individual electoral registration, the completeness of the register is stable at around 85%, but its accuracy has now increased to 91%. There is more to do. I share the hon. Gentleman’s vision of having as complete and accurate a register as possible, although I perhaps disagree about the methods to achieve that. Since 2014, 30 million people have registered to vote using the IER system, and 75% of those did so online. During this year’s general election, nearly three quarters of the 2.9 million applications were made using the register to vote website. I am sure he will join me in welcoming the fact that electors across Nottingham have engaged with this new system, mirroring the trend we have seen nationally. Since 2014, 197,042 applications to register to vote have been submitted to Nottingham City Council—79,314 of those were from 16 to 24 year- olds—and 24,978 applications were submitted to Nottingham City Council ahead of the 2017 general election, from 18 April to 22 May.
The hon. Gentleman also touched on the issue of duplicate registrations, which the Association of Electoral Administrators has raised with me. In a way, that problem is part of the success of the register to vote website—the opportunity and flexibility that it gives to individuals to register—and the side effect is duplicate applications. At the 2017 general election, we added a page to the website that said that if people were already registered with their local authority they would still be on the register, which we believe screened about 5% of applications. However, as a Government we are determined to look at the issue. I am not convinced that a centralised database is necessarily the way forward, but we are continuing our work and we want to work closely with the AEA and the Electoral Commission on those barriers.
I addressed the AEA conference in Brighton earlier this year and I committed the Cabinet Office to holding an annual electoral summit, which will take place on 11 December, with representatives from the AEA and from the Electoral Commission, so that we can plan out the registration and democratic engagement strategies for several years. We are launching a democratic engagement programme, which will be published this side of Christmas. It is the first Government electoral engagement strategy and we are determined to ensure that, rather than focus on electoral events, when money is invested suddenly in the run-up to an election, we can plan across a five-year cycle where we need to focus our attention to help the most vulnerable people and to drive up the completeness and accuracy of the register. I will be delighted to share that work with the hon. Gentleman when it is published and to have a separate meeting to talk him through the Government’s plans.
As part of my tour, I visited the British Chinese Project in Nottingham, and I attended a round table with electoral service managers in Gedling. The hon. Gentleman is fortunate to have passionate electoral service managers in his local area who do good work. I learned a lot from my conversations with them, which I hope will be reflected in the strategy.
On the annual canvass, again, we do not disagree in principle. The annual canvass is a 20th century process—an analogue system in a digital age. We have already seen the modernisation of IER and the register to vote website, but the annual canvass process is in the past and it needs to catch up. It is a significant cost for local authorities, of between £60 million and £65 million. I am determined to try to enable permanent change to reform that system, but what does permanent change look like?
I am determined that we make measured and evaluated changes to the annual canvass that do not risk upsetting the existing system, so that when it comes to preserving the completeness and accuracy of the registers, we do not move simply from one system to another. That is why we established a pilot process. We had three pilot areas in 2016 and we have 24 across the UK in 2017. All the pilots are being evaluated by the Electoral Commission and that evaluation has to be published by the end of 2018, I think. I am determined that we go forward with permanent change to the annual canvass. The pilots so far have tried to give local authorities greater flexibility over the canvassing process.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the endless number of letters that can go back and forth, the paper that is wasted in that communication process and the canvass itself, which can cost £1 for every door knocked on. Legislation may require people to return to a particular address, on occasion up to nine times. Although the canvass procedures are in primary legislation and we are looking to make changes to that, we will shortly lay a statutory instrument that will aim to make further improvements to the registration process within the existing canvass, and which will be debated early next January. The hon. Gentleman might want to speak to Labour Whips or the Committee of Selection because we would be delighted to have him on the Committee to continue these discussions.
The statutory instrument will aim to make further improvements to the registration process by streamlining the deletions process and rationalising correspondence that electors receive in the registration process. The same statutory instrument will also seek to improve the anonymous registration system to ensure that it is accessible to those escaping domestic abuse who need to register in such a way.
The hon. Lady mentioned vulnerable groups; one of the vulnerable groups that I have been determined to help, particularly in view of next year’s 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, is those women who are survivors of domestic violence and who might be residing in refuges, who are unable to register to vote without risking their identity being revealed. They have to sign up to an anonymous registration system by going to either a director of social services or a chief constable of police. We will lower that attestation process to domestic refuge managers. There are 12,000 women in domestic violence refuges, but only about 2,300 women use the anonymous registration scheme. I hope that for the May elections we can demonstrate that change and give those women back their voice in the democratic process.
I passionately believe that voting is more than just a cross on a ballot paper. Voting is the end point: there is a process by which we need to re-engage communities, but there are some people who might not want to engage in the electoral registration process to begin with. How do we work with organisations such as the British Chinese Project, which I mentioned and which sees the low levels of literacy among first generation Chinese people, for instance? How do we engage people to make them understand that that registration process and having their say are equally important and vital for them to take part in our democracy?
I am determined to look at that, through reflecting on the democratic society. There are civil society organisations and groups that do a fantastic job helping to register vulnerable people. One of my first visits was to Birmingham, where I met Uprising—a charity that went around with tablets to help people to register to vote.
What can we do as a Government to try to engage those groups with the wider community and to try to provide them with opportunities? I have announced the first National Democracy Week, which will take place next year on the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act. When we think about our democracy, we think of Magna Carta and parliamentary sovereignty, and think of ours as being one of the oldest democracies in the world, but it is remarkable that it has been just 90 years since women got the equal right to vote.
In celebration of that moment, I want to set out a week’s programme, and the hon. Gentleman will be more than welcome to involve the people of Nottingham. I want to make sure that events take place across the country. How can we ensure that we look at the state of our democracy 90 years on from the Equal Franchise Act and what can we do over the next 10 years, to 2028, to ensure that we have as complete and accurate a register as possible?
There are other events taking place next year, including the suffrage celebrations, with £5 million set out for that. A key part of it will be investment in education and democratic participation. The week before last, I met the National Citizen Service to look at engagement models for young people.
I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that although we differ on the point of principle, it is a point of principle. I understand that hon. Members feel passionately about automatic electoral registration. I believe that individual electoral registration is here to stay, but in that context we are determined to ensure that we register as many people as possible. This is a social justice issue and we will publish our democratic engagement plan shortly.
Question put and agreed to.
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Rohingya crisis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I visited the Kutupalong refugee camp earlier this month, as part of a cross-party delegation to Bangladesh organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I thank both organisations for organising that visit, which gave me and others the opportunity to speak to non-governmental organisations working on the ground and to the Rohingya themselves about their most urgent needs, which they identified as food, shelter, education, clothes, water and sanitation. That is complemented by the UNHCR’s assessment that there is
“an urgent need for…more space for shelters and infrastructure…including water points, latrines, bathing areas, distribution points, child safe…spaces, safe spaces for women and girls”
and community centres.
Although stories about the crisis are familiar, my visit brought home the vastness of the camps. The UNHCR’s head of emergency planning told our group of parliamentarians that the camps needed to house the new refugees are the equivalent of a city larger than Manchester being established almost overnight, with no infrastructure, housing, water, sanitation or any of the tools needed for self-subsistence. The scale of the need is truly vast. The International Rescue Committee estimates that nearly 300,000 people need food security assistance and more than 400,000 people need healthcare. Only a fraction of the 453,000 Rohingya children at camps receive education. The young people we met were desperate for education—particularly higher education.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She alludes to the issues facing young people. Does she agree that, in addition to the horrendous conditions she outlines, the news that emerged yesterday that organised gangs are taking advantage of women—particularly vulnerable young women, but also older women—is another complicating factor? That needs to be resolved in addition to the humanitarian crisis.
The hon. Gentleman makes a really relevant point, which I will come to later.
The school that we visited was doing a valiant job of teaching children in shifts, but that is really a drop in the ocean. Much more education and schools are needed in the camps.
I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this important debate. It is of course incredibly important that we deal with the current acute situation, but does she recognise that, the current crisis aside, most Rohingya people are not actually recognised? They are not entitled to state education or healthcare, and many cannot even access employment. We need to address that.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point. I was coming to the lack of citizenship that underpins most of the problems that the Rohingya people face. They have suffered persecution in Myanmar for decades. The 1982 citizenship law denies them citizenship. They are deprived of the right to vote and unable to access higher education or travel freely. Their lack of official citizenship, which is underpinned by ethnic conflict, is at the root of all those problems. Even before this year, 212,000 Rohingyas had fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, but the latest wave of forced displacement is one of the largest population movements in living memory. More than 640,000 people fled Myanmar in the wake of the August attacks, and the camps are now estimated to be home to more than 836,000 Rohingyas.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Does she agree that a basic step towards resolving the terrible tragedy that she describes would be the repeal of the 1982 citizenship law?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. I will ask the Minister how we can apply international pressure, particularly on the military in Myanmar, to ensure that that is achieved.
The horrific violence over the summer in Rakhine state, in which more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed by the Burmese security forces and other militia groups, was described by the UN as
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Reading reports of mass executions, gang rapes, the burning of villages and the killing of children is harrowing, but it does not compare with hearing first-hand reports of violence from people in the camps. As if that violence were not enough, the Rohingya face horrific journeys when fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh. They must trek for days through the countryside in Rakhine state to reach the border crossing, which has been planted with landmines. Some have paid fisherman to take them across the Naf river in fishing boats, but many have drowned trying to make it across.
Despite the deal signed on 23 November between Myanmar and Bangladesh to return the Rohingya to Myanmar, there is understandably widespread aversion among the displaced Rohingya to returning to their home state at present.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the supposed agreement between the Bangladeshis and the Burmese about return is deeply problematic, given the state of camps in Rakhine and the way the Rohingya are being treated? I visited Burma twice. Our Government need to ensure that security arrangements are in place and that the Rohingyas’ protection is guaranteed before any such process takes place.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely pertinent point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way—she is being very generous with her time—and thank her for raising this topic. The repatriation deal requires that refugees produce a load of documentation, including names of family members, previous addresses, birth dates and a statement of voluntary return. Does she agree that, given the systematic denial of citizenship rights, that will be incredibly difficult for them?
I absolutely agree.
Human Rights Watch has provided evidence of at least 288 villages in northern Rakhine state being partly or completely burned since 25 August. The International Rescue Committee described the deal as “at best, premature,” noting that Rohingya refugees are still fleeing Rakhine state and arriving in Bangladesh. The IRC describes ongoing violent clearance of villages and mining of the border by the Myanmar military, and states that
“it is clear that the conditions for safe, voluntary and informed returns are not being met.”
The IRC also states that 81% of the Rohingyas it interviewed do not wish to return to Myanmar at present.
The UK Government and our representatives in the international community must do all they can to press all sides to ensure the safety, livelihoods and, crucially, citizenship rights of the Rohingya if they return. The Burmese Government also need to address the widespread and credible reports of horrific human rights violations in Myanmar, and to stop anti-Rohingya propaganda, which has spread across the country.
Amid the tragedy, the response by the Department for International Development and British NGOs in the camps should be commended. I am pleased that the UK has committed £47 million to meet urgent humanitarian needs in the camps, including £5 million to match the generous donations of the UK public to the Disasters Emergency Committee. The UK is the largest bilateral donor to the crisis and has given more than one third of the overall money donated by the international community. In addition, our existing work in the region means that, when the crisis hit, we were already in a position to provide lifesaving support. Without DFID’s existing networks, that aid would have taken longer to reach those in need.
British NGOs, including Oxfam, ActionAid, the Red Cross and Save the Children, are also doing an incredible job, alongside others, in very difficult conditions. Oxfam alone has reached more than 185,000 people, providing clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. I could give many examples of the amazing work being done by our NGOs in the camps, including setting up emergency health units and providing clothing and emergency kits for people arriving at the camp. We should also pay tribute to the international organisations such as UNHCR, the International Rescue Committee and Médecins sans Frontières, which have been vital in providing frontline support in the camps and have already saved thousands of lives.
The British public, too, have played a remarkable role with their donations. UK aid has provided emergency food for 174,000 people and lifesaving nutritional support to more than 60,000 children under five.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a great deal of that aid needs to be directed in particular toward women and children suffering violence?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will come to in a minute.
UK aid has provided safe drinking water and latrines to 138,000 people. It has also provided counselling and psychological support for over 10,000 women suffering from the traumas of war and sexual violence. I witnessed that service myself in the transit camps, where newly arrived refugees, traumatised by their experiences, have their medical and personal needs assessed before moving to the camp. That showed the difference international efforts are making on the ground, particularly the support being given to women and children. It was also heartening to see the generosity of so many of the ordinary people of Bangladesh, who though poor themselves have given a lot to the refugees and welcomed them into their country. Nevertheless, the UNHCR has estimated that there is a shortfall of £247 million in the funding needed from the international community to meet the needs in the camps.
Turning to the response from the international community, while Britain and France initially put forward a Security Council resolution on Myanmar in late October, China and Russia refused to co-operate, meaning that it is now only a statement passed by the Security Council and does not carry the weight of a resolution. The statement said that the Security Council
“strongly condemns the widespread violence that has taken place in Rakhine State, Myanmar,”
“further expresses grave concern over reports of human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State, including by the Myanmar security forces”.
It has therefore been up to individual Governments to take action to try to resolve the crisis. As a number of hon. Members in this room will know, much more work needs to be done to come to an international solution. Many critics noted with surprise that the Rohingya crisis was barely mentioned at the most recent summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which took place earlier in November. The UK and EU should be using our relationship with ASEAN to push it to make the crisis a higher priority for the whole region.
What should the UK Government’s priorities be? The UK Government must do all they can to ensure that any deal reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh to return the refugees ensures that return is safe, voluntary and informed. For as long as the Rohingyas are living in the camps, the UK and international community must have four urgent priorities. First, international aid is essential in ensuring that the Rohingyas’ basic needs are met and that camp life can improve. The donors’ meeting in February, where more aid is being requested, will be critical in that respect. Secondly, the camps need more space, so it is urgent that Bangladesh determines as soon as possible how that can be achieved. Thirdly, staff and volunteers from UNHCR and NGOs are doing an amazing job servicing the camps and supporting the Rohingyas. They do not seek recognition for their efforts, but their brilliant work in difficult circumstances should be acknowledged.
Fourthly, the underlying problem of the Rohingya is not only the violence and persecution they face in Myanmar, but their lack of citizenship. I will never forget the young man, aged 25, who we met at our first meeting at the camp. He had been born at the camp, as his parents had fled Myanmar in an earlier displacement. Despite facing huge challenges with regard to shelter and food, he told us the most important thing he wanted was citizenship, because then he could make his own way in the world. At present, that will not be easily achieved. The military in Myanmar have refused citizenship, and Bangladesh is reluctant to give permanent residency to so many people in a very poor area of a low-income country.
International pressure to solve the crisis is of the utmost urgency, and I would like to hear from the Minister what the Government are going to do to try to step up the amount of aid delivered not only by the UK Government but by other partners, and how they will press for a longer-term international solution to the problem.
Order. I will call Mr Philip Hollobone to speak next, but there is obviously considerable interest in the debate. As a result, in order to give sufficient time to the Front-Bench spokespersons of the Labour and Scottish National parties and the Government, I am cutting the time immediately to three minutes per speech.
It is an honour to serve under your distinguished chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and a huge pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on her excellent speech. I had the privilege of going on the same CPA visit to see the Rohingyas as the hon. Lady, and it seemed to me that two responses were required from Her Majesty’s Government, who are so ably represented here by my right hon. Friend the Minister.
The first is the diplomatic response to the grossest example of ethnic cleansing that one could come up with. It is ethnic cleansing, pure and simple, and must be 100% condemned through all diplomatic channels available to us. I appreciate the sensitivities of the nascent democracy in Burma, but we must make it clear that the generals are responsible for this ethnic cleansing and that the international community will not put up with it. When it comes to the potential return of Rohingya refugees, returning stateless people to remain stateless in their country of origin is not good enough. These people require their nationhood to be given to them.
The second response required from Her Majesty’s Government is humanitarian assistance. Britain has a good record of providing financial assistance directly to the camps, but more will obviously be required. We must stimulate further contributions from other countries, particularly Muslim countries, because we are dealing with a Muslim population and there are lots of rich Muslim countries in the world that, frankly, should be stepping up to the plate rather more.
On the CPA visit to the refugee camp, we had the privilege of meeting some truly inspirational aid workers from the UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee. It was a privilege to meet them and see the fantastic work that they do.
Reflecting on what my hon. Friend just said, it would be very dangerous for this to be seen as only a Muslim issue. It is a global humanitarian catastrophe, and while I accept what he says—that we want to see all nations contributing—to try to frame it in an ethnic way would be the wrong way forward.
The point I am making is absolutely right: yes, it is an international emergency, but the Rohingya are being expelled because they are Muslim. We must not ignore that fact. We also have to accept that there are very rich Muslim nations in the world that can step up to the plate. I do not think that the Minister and I disagree; help is great, wherever it comes from.
The international aid workers we met, many of whom have been international aid workers for a long time, told us that the Kutupalong camp, which we visited and which had more than 400,000 people in it, is the most congested refugee camp they have ever experienced. That is a huge problem because, as was certainly made clear to us, the outbreak of disease is a really big concern. When we asked what the solution is, they said they will simply have to create more, smaller camps in that part of Bangladesh, which will minimise the risk of a disease outbreak. If we can encourage the Bangladeshi Government to do that—they have been very generous—that would be good.
The aid workers made the point that we need to think about the medium term. There has been a rush of refugees into Bangladesh, but those people will not go back in a hurry and they will not go back in numbers, so we need to think five or 10 years ahead. The aid workers also told us that in absolutely no way should those people be returned to any unsafe situation, and that there must be an informed, safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return, or no return at all.
The Bangladeshis need to speed up the entry clearance process for refugee aid workers. Some of the pre-registration processes for refugee organisations are, frankly, taking too long; they can take six to 12 months. I am sure the Minister is on the case and will listen carefully to the debate.
The UK has a proud history of being courageous, compassionate and generous, and of leading the way on humanitarian rights in the international community. I am here to say that we must act to protect the Rohingya people.
Last week, I returned from the camps, where I was not just visiting but working as a doctor. I visited all the camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and also went to the checkpoints. I promised the people I met that I would tell their stories. People had to choose between returning to the fires and picking their three children who were burning alive, or picking the two children who were still alive and running with a shirt over their back, making the treacherous journey over the border into Bangladesh. I held those charred babies in my arms and made a promise to tell their story.
I say on the record, as I have all week, that this is not ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is not a crime in humanitarian law. This is genocide—the systematic dehumanisation of a population of people—and we have to call it out. We are proud to be British and all that stands for. Our standing in the world is to be applauded. The amount we give to humanitarian efforts is absolutely wonderful, but it is tantamount to putting a sticking plaster on a gunshot wound and allowing the shooter to roam free. We cannot be bystanders to this genocide.
I met an imam who managed to escape into the bushes as the military arrived in his village and started shooting everybody. He described, through his tears, all the men being mutilated and killed as their wives were forced to watch; women being dragged backwards by their hair and gang raped repeatedly as their children were forced to watch; and their children, as they ran away screaming, being dragged back and thrown into the fires. I know that that is hard to hear, but I promised I would tell their stories.
We cannot be bystanders to a genocide in which a group of people really believe that throwing living babies into fire is just. What does that say about what we will allow to happen in our world? What does it say about the world that we are raising our families in? I met a four-year-old girl—the same age as my eldest daughter—who was absolutely mute because of the injuries she had sustained and the journey she had made, without her parents, into Bangladesh. She was able to say only, “They killed them all,” before being unable to speak again.
We are a full member of the UN Security Council, we have leverage and we can make changes. We cannot stand by and let this happen. I am calling for an independent ministerial delegation to go to Myanmar, into the Rakhine province, and to call this what it is.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan). I, too, visited the camps, and like her I made that promise. It still feels as raw today as when I went there.
I will make a few points in the short time I have. I agree with the Minister that this is not only a Muslim problem; we were told of Hindus who had been expelled because they are Rohingya. The very fact that the Pope may have been advised—I would not wish to give His Holiness advice—not to use the word “Rohingya” is very wrong. All of us should be free to describe the Rohingya for who they are and what they are. Apparently, a delegation from Burma came over a year or so back at the invitation of the Bangladeshi Government. They went into the camps and said they did not see any Rohingya, only Bangladeshis. That is the problem.
If the Myanmar Government deny people who they are, sending them back there will make no difference. There is a cultural problem here—tacit agreement with the process that has happened. The local people in Myanmar are “not unhappy” that these people have been driven out in the most horrific manner. That needs to be addressed. Otherwise, sending the Rohingya back will only send them back into a scenario in which they are permanently under threat, despised and robbed of their rights. I put it very clearly on the record that we must not accept any pressure to not use the terminology of their race. They are Rohingya and should be respected as such, and the fundamental flaw in this is that Myanmar does not recognise that.
I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said about permits, and I, too, am concerned that valuable groups such as Islamic Relief UK and Restless Beings want to work in the camps but cannot get access. If this is a legitimate aid process, as much as help as possible should be accepted.
I am also concerned about the estimated 285,000 people outside the camps. The camps are one part of the problem, but there are also huge numbers of people lost in the system. I respect the hon. Member for Tooting saying that this is genocide. I am not sure whether it meets the criteria for that—it looked that way to me—but it is certainly at least ethnic cleansing, and we must not pussyfoot around calling it what it is.
When we talk only about numbers of people and moving them around, we are denying those people their identity and their human rights. Therefore, to me, if nothing else comes out of the debate, we must at least put Myanmar, its Government and its military on notice that the world has noted what they have done. Simply allowing people back in—Bangladesh is under pressure and I see why it wants that repatriation—does not forgive the crime that has happened. That crime needs to be examined and taken to the highest level, and if it is a crime against humanity, which it looks like to me, people should be held accountable and there should be trials. I would welcome that and be proud if my own Government led the calls for it to happen.
My speech will be very short because everybody will more or less say the same thing that I will. I was one of the delegates who went to Myanmar as part of the CPA group. I also went into that camp, and what I saw has left a mark on me. I am a nurse and have seen many things, but that is the worst of people’s humanity I have ever seen. How people can treat others like that is beyond me.
All we are asking is for this to be recognised as what it is: the dehumanisation of people going to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a very poor country—what are we expecting it to do? It cannot cope with what is happening. We have been told that by December, which is only a couple of days away, 1 million people from Myanmar will be on its borders. We have to do something. I am here to support my colleagues across parties in saying to the Minister that we have to do something. Please listen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I want to say from the outset that there is a court in The Hague where the people who have been perpetrating these murderous activities will end up, and it is for this Parliament and this Government to work internationally to make sure that they are brought to justice.
By coincidence, my researcher worked in what was then Burma, long before the new golden leadership, when the generals were in charge. There is nothing new about what has been going on there. Colleagues who went to the camps saw people born there not 10 years ago or 15 years ago, but in excess of 25 years ago. It is a crying shame that the camps are still in that condition. The longevity of the camps is very important. I had the honour and privilege of visiting our troops in South Sudan—another place in the world where we should all be ashamed of what is going on—and the camps there had fresh water, sanitation and some longevity, so that when the rains came, the people there were protected.
At the same time, we need to think of the people of Bangladesh. These camps are on the side of the river, on some of the most fertile land that these people, who are subsistence farmers, have. That land has been taken away from them for generations now, and more will be taken away. The right sort of compensation needs to be directed to them, through either our aid budget or the international community.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because I want everybody to be able to speak. That is very important.
I am very worried that we might be encouraging people to go back to Myanmar with the so-called deal between Bangladesh and the Myanmar Government. People are being asked up to give up really quite personal details that could be easily used against them when they return to this place—I am conscious of not talking about a country, because it is not a country. These people have no rights. It is illegal under international law to make someone have no citizenship at all, yet that is exactly what has happened there for generation after generation.
My view, which may be different from colleagues’ views, is that we must not be part of any deal that encourages people to go back to watch their daughters being raped—they are not of my daughters’ age, of 26 or 27; girls of 11, 10 or younger are being raped—and their sons castrated in front of them. That is what is going on. That is the sort of thing that, if we are not careful, we will condone.
There is no change in the country. The generals are still in control, and they feel they can do this to these people because nothing will happen to them. We must make sure that something does happen to them and that they go to the international court in The Hague, so that we protect these people.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing the debate.
It is imperative that we all make the effort to continue raising the plight of the Rohingyan people—those displaced and those still living in Myanmar—who face the continued threat of persecution and violence. That includes a woman having her unborn baby cut out from her and killed, babies snatched from their mothers and thrown into fires and burned alive, children beaten to death with shovels, children forced to watch as family members are tortured, raped and killed and mass rape of girls as young as five.
If we stop to contemplate those atrocities even for a moment, we can be in no doubt that what has taken place is ethnic cleansing and genocide. The US and the UN have both said that. The British Government are yet to recognise it. I have said it before and I will say it again: 640,000 people have been deliberately driven from their homes, with many killed or tortured. I fear that the international community is failing these people, who are stateless within their own country and do not have the necessary level of aid and support as refugees.
The thing I want to focus on and that I am deeply concerned about, like my colleagues, is the Rohingyan refugees’ potential return to Myanmar. A proposed return without secured political and human rights may create a perception of progress while in reality abandoning the Rohingya people to a life of normalised terror. With the current situation and the animosity, this is no time to be talking about simply returning the Rohingya to Myanmar. If return is on the table, what exactly are they returning to? Without rights and acceptance, what difference will it make? How can we expect people to return when they are dehumanised and persecuted daily?
It is far too early to be returning people to uncertainty. Early surveys indicate that only 10% would wish to return at this point anyway. The 1951 UN refugee convention is absolutely clear about the forced return of refugees and the conditions of safe return that would be required. That is an absolute principle within international law, and any forcible repatriation must be rejected by the entire international community.
Last time I spoke on this subject, I pleaded with the Government to look seriously at more targeted sanctions against the Burmese military and to convince the Burmese military—not just the leadership—to accept what is going on and change the status quo. So far, all we have done within Europe and the UN is to stop our military training and deny visas to military personnel. That is simply not enough.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK Government should look at the business interests of the Burmese generals who have been prosecuting these acts of violence and terror and sanction them? Will the Minister address that point today?
I absolutely agree. I said it previously, but it must be reiterated: unless we sanction the military and carry out these investigations, we are not telling the world that we are serious about this issue.
The Myanmar military and leadership need to understand that actions have consequences and repercussions, and that we as an international community will not stand by and allow this to continue. They need to understand that Great Britain and those who have spoken today have been heard and listened to and that these people’s stories are reaching our shores. They are the stories of tears that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) spoke about, of women who are homeless and of children who will know no certainty for years to come and have no future. They have come out of the chip pan and into the fire, and they are still burning—literally. This is not something we can accept or stand by and watch. We must be doing more.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this important debate on the most serious humanitarian crisis facing the world today.
On visiting the camps with the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh in September, I witnessed some of the most horrific scenes imaginable. I know that several hon. Members across the Chamber have also visited. We saw makeshift camps as far as the eye can see and poor sanitation, and it is mostly women and children there, because husbands have been killed. We saw women fleeing with their children—largely daughters—because their houses had been burned, walking for five days with just the clothes on their back, clutching their children. In every case, when we spoke to people, it was the Myanmar military that had conducted those atrocities and horrific attacks.
I have to say, I am immensely proud of the role that the United Kingdom has played in terms of aid. We visited the Kutupalong camp and a camp right on the border with Myanmar—so close that we could see the smoke over the border—and were shown images of landmines and heard horrific tales. I was really proud to see the Union flag from the British people and that aid was going there. I think we are the largest bilateral donor, having given some £47 million. I was pleased to see the Secretary of State for International Development there this weekend, committing a further £12 million. I am pleased that we are playing our part, but that is only half of this issue. We have to provide the aid, but the second half is the diplomatic efforts.
I am also proud of what Bangladesh has done. It has a population of 160 million, and Sheikh Hasina has welcomed these people and said, “If we can feed 160 million, we can feed another 500,000 Rohingya.” That is an incredibly noble thing to do, and I applaud the Bangladeshi Government. However, I draw the line at the deal with Myanmar, because I have serious concerns about sending people back to a state—Rakhine state—in which they are not welcome, are persecuted and will have all sorts of untold violence inflicted upon them.
On our visit, we saw people with nothing, as I am sure other hon. Members did. There is no way they would have the documentation necessary. Even if there were some sort of rules about documentation, the majority of people will not fulfil those criteria.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Stateless people will not have rights or protections, which is a serious concern. All the refugees we spoke to in the camps said they wanted to go back to Rakhine province, but only when it was safe and their security was guaranteed. Before we talk about, endorse, sanction or support any deals between the Myanmar Government and Bangladesh, it is important that security and protection is guaranteed and that we see the humanitarian charities and NGOs in there to protect those people’s rights.
Several hon. Members have talked about what the UK is doing. I am proud of what the Minister has done so far. There is always more that we can do, but we need to talk about tangible measures that the British Government can take. As we know, measures at the UN have been blocked by both China and Russia. China is key. I met the Foreign Secretary only last week. We have to put pressure on China, which has a border with Myanmar, because it also has concerns about humanitarian crises in Myanmar spreading and refugees potentially entering into China. We have to stress the point that China is key, and diplomatic efforts should be directed that way.
I am conscious of the time, so I will conclude. I know the Minister is as passionate about solving the issue as the rest of us. I implore him to do as much as he can to help to resolve it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) for securing this important debate. It is good to see so many colleagues here, particularly from the CPA delegation, of which I was a member a couple of weeks ago. I have a substantial British Bangladeshi diaspora in my constituency. As the Rohingya crisis has developed at such speed and at such scale during the past couple of months, I have received lots of representations and a lot of concern has been expressed about what was going on, so I felt privileged to take part in the delegation to go and see for myself what was happening. I wanted to understand the nature of the crisis and also the role that the Bangladeshi Government and their people have played in the humanitarian effort, but most importantly what I, we and the Government can and should do in terms of humanitarian support and political international solutions.
I want to reiterate the praise that we have heard today for the Bangladeshi Government, for the Bangladeshi host families in Cox’s Bazar, the NGOs and the generous fund-raising efforts of the British public. On that last point, I want to mention my local councillor, Ali Ahmed and the Bangladesh Association Cardiff, who so far have raised £30,000 for the international relief effort.
What I saw and what I heard directly at the Kutupalong camp will stay with me for a very long time. I saw a mass of humanity, literally as far as the horizon, and that was not the entire camp; it was only a small proportion. There was no space, no water and no sanitation. People were picking up shelter packs. I do not know where they were going to walk to so as to erect these pieces of tarpaulin and bamboo shoots to make some sort of shelter. There was literally no space. As we approach the cyclone season, I really worry that if a cyclone hits that camp, we will see the destruction and death of hundreds of thousands of people.
I have three questions for the Minister. I want to thank him for a frank discussion at the all-party group on Bangladesh last week. I know he visited Myanmar last week. What representations were made and to whom? Can he tell us a little more about the response that he got? What can he tell us about the agreement between Burma and Bangladesh on the return of the Rohingya to Burma, which disturbs me and obviously several other Members greatly? Finally, to take up the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester about China, what diplomatic efforts are being made with the Chinese, who clearly have significant leverage to make the Burmese regime deal with the situation in some way? So far they have done nothing and have been complicit in what I agree has been genocide.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this debate and giving us all a chance to participate. I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on freedom of religious belief, which speaks out for the right of everybody to hold their own religion and belief and to practise that. The case of the Rohingyas is one that I have spoken on numerous times in this place. Indeed, the last time we had a debate here in Westminster Hall, I spoke on them specifically, along with others. Like others, I am not afraid to stand and speak up. I do what I can to raise awareness and possibly help to bring about a change in the horrendous situation.
On Thursday 23 November, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement to repatriate the Rohingya refugees. Ever mindful that the monsoon season is on the way, the Bangladeshi Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that a joint working group would be set up within these three weeks to manage the process, and the return of the refugees would start within two months. Human rights groups have raised several concerns about the agreement, and I must agree with their concerns. The first is that the military generals could still obstruct the process, and it is unclear where the Rohingya will be resettled, given that many villages have been razed.
Let us be clear about the scale of the crisis: 624,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since the Burmese military launched its ethnic cleansing and its genocidal, brutal, bloody, murder of innocents. The sheer volume of refugees indicates that fleeting statements cannot be made with no plan in place. These people need assurances that they can return home—indeed, that there is a place for them to return to. They need to know that they are back for good and welcome for good, and that they need not be concerned about having to uproot their lives and their children in the near future. Without a guarantee of citizenship, the Rohingya will be vulnerable to the same discrimination and violence that they have experienced for decades. That is not acceptable. They need their guarantee of citizenship.
China has indicated a wish to try to do something. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel, but there is not enough light to make the path home safe, and more needs to be done. I thank the Minister for all the hard work that he does. I know he is very compassionate and has a personal interest in this matter. I look to him to provide an update of what steps we are taking to help this nation of people who are so desperately in need of international aid and support. We must do something right now.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) for securing this important debate and for bringing our attention to her visit to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. If we watch the TV and follow these stories, it is bad enough. My hon. Friend should be thanked for her efforts in bringing the reality that she has experienced at first hand to this House.
The UN refugee agency said that what it is doing was like establishing a city the size of Manchester overnight, but one with no infrastructure, housing, water, sanitation or tools for survival. However, that is better than the alternative. We have all heard the most horrific stories of brutality. It is difficult to comprehend the suffering. The Prime Minister has called the Rohingya crisis heartbreaking and has pledged to deepen partnerships with Asian countries in a move to combat such problems. The Foreign Secretary is looking for more analysis. That is not enough. The massacre of the Rohingya is genocide. We cannot keep denying the truth against the weight of evidence, and we cannot keep talking about how shocking the human suffering is without acting.
The UK is well placed to influence stakeholders in Myanmar and across the region, and at the United Nations. Last week, Burma and Bangladesh signed an agreement to repatriate refugees, although Burma gave no details of how many would be allowed to return home. Repatriations are expected to begin in the next month or two, but the Myanmar Government’s continued denial of a well-evidenced campaign of ethnic cleansing is astonishing.
Can we really believe that the Rohingyas’ home, or what is left of it, is safe to return to? Repatriations must not happen prematurely and without assurances that there is a genuine solution in place. I ask the Government to do everything in their power to bring about lasting peace and to ensure that no Rohingya will be returned to a place where they will not be safe. It should be recognised that the people of Bangladesh have opened their borders and their hearts to people in desperate need. If Bangladesh is to deliver a progressive refugee policy under such strain, the international community must step up its support. It is right that we continue to talk about the atrocities, but we also need to see proper recognition of the scale of the issue from the international community, and we need action to stop the horror.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this timely debate and bringing further attention to such an important issue. I also echo many of the comments that have been made in the debate today. It is utterly heartbreaking to read and hear reports about the devastation in Rakhine state and of the desperate situation that many are facing in Bangladesh. We have a responsibility to speak out against those atrocities and do all we can to stop them, and having listened to colleagues from across the House speak in this debate today, it is clear that that is something on which we all agree.
More than half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August, and more than 340,000 of those are children, many travelling unaccompanied. That is the largest displacement of people in a short period since the Rwandan genocide. Two hundred and eighty-four Rohingya villages have been torched; tens of thousands of people have been victims of gender-based violence, including rape and sexual assault; thousands more people have been violently attacked, and many of those have tragically lost their lives. We must be prepared to call this what it is: a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
I commend the steps that the Government have taken so far in an effort to tackle this crisis. Unfortunately, however, as we all know, in reality that action is not enough. We have been speaking for long enough, and the situation continues to worsen. I call on the Government to lead the way in organising an immediate co-ordinated and effective international response to the crisis, and to urge the other members of the United Nations Security Council to come together and use their collective power to help this persecuted minority. The Burmese Government must be held to account, and the war crimes that have been committed by the Burmese military must be investigated in an international court. The Rohingya people need justice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this important debate. Many of my constituents have been, and remain, extremely concerned about the situation in Rakhine state. It was the subject of the first wide-scale correspondence campaign that I received as a Member of Parliament, and it remains one of the biggest. Like me, my constituents were appalled about the extreme violence inflicted on the Rohingya in Rakhine state, which has been going on for years.
It is difficult to imagine the scale of the exodus: more than 600,000 people have crossed into Bangladesh since the end of August. No wonder UN officials described the situation as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. Will the Minister confirm whether our Government have officially classified the situation as such? More to the point, has it been classified as a genocide? That is what I feel it actually is.
Yes, we have made it clear that it is ethnic cleansing. The question of whether it is genocide is a legal issue and not something that Governments can decide. There has to be a legal process through the international community. The ethnic cleansing point has been made—I have made it on the Floor of the House, and my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development have also made it very clear that this seems like a case of ethnic cleansing.
I thank the Minister for his response, but he will be the first to acknowledge that that does not mean that these events have been classified as a crime against humanity. Hopefully we will pursue the Myanmar Government on that.
It is to the credit of Bangladesh and other nations that they have attempted to accommodate and assist the Rohingya refugees. While a repatriation agreement has been made, help and resources to deal with the humanitarian crisis are still urgently needed. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that more than 820,000 Rohingya need urgent support to survive—food, water and medicine. The UN and international aid agencies must be allowed to reach displaced families, and the Foreign Office must maintain pressure on the Burmese authorities to ensure that humanitarian aid gets to Rohingya communities.
This is a human rights crisis as well as a humanitarian crisis, and concerns about rising levels of intolerance in Myanmar remain. I spoke previously in Parliament about the enormous respect that was accorded to the de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, by this country during her own struggle for democracy—she of all people should respect the rights of all, especially minorities. It is therefore understandable that human rights groups remain concerned over the repatriation agreement signed last week. Because the Rohingya are not regarded as Burmese citizens by the military, there remains a distinct and serious concern that the generals could still obstruct the repatriation. Kofi Annan’s Rakhine commission recommended that the Rohingya be granted citizenship and freedom of movement. Mr Annan stated:
“This is a critical step for Rakhines and Muslims alike. Only in this way can they break out of the hostility that leads to the violence and despair that has blighted their lives for so long.”
Without citizenship, the Rohingya may still be vulnerable to the discrimination and violence that has been ongoing for decades.
I hope that our Government will take a global lead in finding long-term solutions to achieve lasting peace once violence has ceased and humanitarian access has been put in place, and that they will work with the authorities on the implementation of Kofi Annan’s Rakhine commission recommendations. Before I sit down, let me record the enormous gratitude and respect that I and no doubt all hon. Members feel towards the aid workers and organisations, including the superb humanitarian charity, Khalsa Aid, whose founder, Ravi Singh, lives in my constituency. We are in their debt as they undertake such efforts in circumstances that we can hardly imagine.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this debate and on her leadership role as a senior member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I thank her for her great kindness and support for me and all other members of the delegation who visited the camp in Kutupalong. It was a lifetime experience—certainly the worst sight that I have ever seen in my life, and I have visited many refugee camps over the years.
There is a feeling of desperation and impotence when we see the scale of this problem—when we look, human being to human being, at a young child carrying an even younger child who is hopelessly paralysed, and when we imagine the depth of suffering of people who have gone through the worst experiences that life has to offer. We cannot see ourselves as having any facile solution to this issue; it is not easy. There is no future in Bangladesh for a million people. We cannot allow the camp to continue, let alone grow, yet that is one of the alternatives. Another alternative—all alternatives are unpalatable—is for people to return to Myanmar. Can that be done? I believe that we should not dismiss it, but we have seen in the eyes of people in the refugee camp their fear about going back. Who could not understand that?
I believe we have a record with our services of brilliant work in creating, defending and protecting peace. That work has been going on for decades. If people do go back, and that is the only practical solution to this crisis, we must guarantee support and be generous enough to provide resources in great quantities, so as to solve this enormous series of tragedies.
What sticks in the mind is not just the individuals, but standing on a high point in the camp and looking out over hills into the distance, and as far as the eye can see, it is all refugee camps. All that many of the refugees have is a piece of tarpaulin and a stick to protect themselves. The horrors are there. This country deserves great credit for the aid that we have given, but despite all the heroic, herculean tasks that we have performed, it is inadequate—pitiful—given the scale of the problem. There is not enough food. The water is contaminated. There is no serious police service there. The dangers of fire and of disease breaking out are ever present.
Although the status quo is intolerable and offends humanity, we must look with intelligence and care towards practical solutions. I am afraid that means considering the return of the Rohingyas, if they wish to return and if we can provide adequate protection for them—
Order. I must call the first Opposition spokesperson, Hannah Bardell.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Please excuse my voice; the cold has reached Livingston, but I will do my best to get through my speech and be heard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing the debate and on a really powerful speech. We were able to hear from all those in the Chamber who have visited Myanmar and seen at first hand the tragedy that is unfolding. It struck me during the hon. Lady’s speech that some of the things being denied to the Rohingya people—food, education, sanitation, water and citizenship—are the very basic needs of human beings, and that we should be and are joining together proudly to stand against what is and appears to be genocide. I appreciate the Minister’s point about the legal language in relation to that and the definitions, but I urge him to look for every avenue possible, to use the utmost imagination and every channel available to him and the Government, to stand up to the regime on behalf of the Rohingya people.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that His Holiness the Pope made a speech in Burma today, yet still could not bring himself to mention the word “Rohingya”? It is not just our Government but the whole world that needs to do more.
Although the hon. Lady and I are in different parties, I agree with her words and sentiments, because language is very important in these situations. However, although our words and our support are very important, we will be judged on our actions. I think that this place is at its best when we are in agreement, and we are in agreement today across all parties and, indeed, all Governments. The Scottish Government pledged in September £120,000 from their humanitarian emergency fund for the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for the Rohingya people.
We have seen images of what is unfolding and heard the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) talk about going to the area as a doctor to use her skills to provide support. We are very fortunate that people come to this place with professional skills that they can then use in their role as parliamentarians. I cannot imagine what that is like; I have not been myself, but those who have visited have spoken powerfully about their experiences at first hand. I commend the hon. Lady for the work that she did in her own time to support those who are suffering so terribly.
The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) spoke about military sanctions and what the Government can do to crack down in that regard. Watching the news recently, we have seen the reporter Alex Crawford, who managed to gain access to a camp. As the world rolls on and Brexit rolls on, some of these stories, some of these issues, fall away into the background. Sadly, we often see only through the lens of our media what is happening, and it is a huge challenge for them to report on it. Some of the experiences captured in the images—of people’s houses being burned and so on—are some of the worst experiences that human beings can possibly have. It is just devastating, so we must pull together and look at all the options available to us.
The return of people to their state will be hugely challenging, but I ask the Minister what practically we can do when we are talking about timescales of five or 10 years. That seems truly incredible. In a world and in countries of plenty such as ours, can we not find solutions and shorten that time? These are such long timescales for people living in such terribly tragic situations.
I know that there are huge challenges in looking to resettle people, which has been considered. I think that Canada has been looking at resettlement options, but are there avenues for the countries in the United Kingdom to give more support in that regard? I would be very interested to hear from the Minister on that front. I know that many other people wish to speak, and my voice is failing me, but I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, and I again call on the Government to do everything they possibly can to support the Rohingya people.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this very important and timely debate. I thank her not just for making her speech, but for taking the time to go to Bangladesh to see the situation of the Rohingya people. I also thank, for giving their time and bringing back their testimony, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith), the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) and my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn). Their words have been heard today in the House. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) and for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for their excellent speeches.
The humanitarian situation, as the Minister knows better than I do, is extremely serious. He will have heard the many terrible stories about sexual violence. We therefore want to know that the Foreign Office is continuing the excellent initiative of the previous Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in deploying the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict team. I suggest to the Minister that perhaps that needs more resources than it has at the moment.
I am hugely concerned about the unaccompanied children now in the camps. Does the hon. Lady share my concern that those children, living in the dreadful conditions that we have heard about today, are ripe for exploitation by people traffickers? We need to be in there, ensuring that that is not happening.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The risks to the people in the camps, whether of disease or violence, are very significant. The British people have done a great thing in mobilising a lot of resources, and the Government have responded well to that.
I welcome the acknowledgement by the United Nations and the United States Government that this is a case of ethnic cleansing. I am pleased that the Minister has moved on from saying that it looks like ethnic cleansing to saying that it is ethnic cleansing. Clearly we need to look into the legal situation. That means we must have people going into the camps and to Myanmar to find out about the situation. I am talking about qualified, legal experts from the UN. As many hon. Members have said, on both sides of the Chamber, it is extremely important that the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes are brought to justice, and the first step is securing the evidence. The Myanmar military continue to deny their responsibility and to deny access, and that must be one of the things that we now make a priority.
Everyone in the Chamber recognises the fantastic generosity of the Bangladeshi people. Notwithstanding that, there are clearly a lot of questions about the proposal to repatriate people from Bangladesh to Myanmar. These are people; they are not cattle to be shunted backwards and forwards across the border. We need to make that absolutely clear. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the conditions in northern Rakhine state are not suitable at the moment for “safe and sustainable returns”.
Hon. Members have spoken about the problems of putting together documentation. It is also vital, if this is to be done in the right way, that it is voluntary repatriation and that people are not forced, with the fear of yet more violence, back across the border. Obviously that means that the UN and the international community need to put resources in to facilitate that situation, probably on both sides of the border, because at the moment the situation is clearly not safe.
The fundamental issue, of course, is that the Rohingya people are not equal under the law in Myanmar and their citizenship is not recognised. Like the hon. Member for St Albans, I think it is regrettable that the Pope was advised that he would inflame the situation if he said that these were Rohingya people. It is basic to people’s identity that they determine that identity themselves and everybody else acknowledges it. I am pleased that Ministers have been calling on the Myanmar Government to implement the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, because only those will give us a sustainable solution and secure the legal status of the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, which has the highest number of stateless people anywhere in the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) spoke about the importance of changing the 1982 citizenship law. That is obviously a crucial part of building a new, safe situation and returning the law in that country to international norms.
Great Britain has an important role to play here. We have an historic involvement with these countries and we have shown our generosity by giving aid, but we have also been the pen-holder at the United Nations in the diplomacy through which the Government have been trying to secure an international consensus on the need for change. If it helps the Minister, I will say on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition that China and Russia should be supporting the British Government’s diplomatic efforts, because it is clear that the UN cannot move on substantively without their agreement. I think that they need to acknowledge their international responsibilities.
Getting the Myanmar Government to acknowledge the rights of the Rohingya people will require a change to the Myanmar constitution. That means it must go through their Parliament with 75% of the vote. That is only going to happen if they feel that they need to do this. We can help them to understand that they do need to do it. This is where the issue of sanctions comes in. I ask the Minister to consider a few further points on sanctions, in line with the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). Will the Government join the United States in considering targeted sanctions? Will the Government confirm whether it supports a UN-mandated global arms embargo against Myanmar, comprehensive visa restrictions against the military and their families and associates, and, significantly, halting investment in business with companies owned by the Myanmar military?
This is an extremely difficult situation. I know that the Minister is committed to tackling it as well as is possible. He has been in the region twice. I just want to assure him of our support in facilitating a resolution to this crisis, in both the short and the long term.
Thank you, Mr Paisley, for calling me to speak. Having visited Burma last week, for the second time in seven weeks, I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the heartbreakingly appalling situation facing the Rohingya people of Rakhine state and the active work of the UK Government to address it in both Burma and Bangladesh, and in the UN and the international community.
I thank all colleagues for their powerful contributions and testimony, particularly the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods). They should rest assured that their words will be heard not just across the road in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but around the globe, as we make the case about what is happening. I am well aware that in Burma people actively listen to what is happening in the UK Parliament, so these are words that will be listened to far afield.
Since military operations began in Rakhine state on 25 August, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh. Many have given heart-wrenching accounts, which I know many have heard, about the human rights abuses, including unspeakable sexual violence, which has been suffered or witnessed in Rakhine. Up to 1,000 people are still crossing that border each and every day. This is a movement of people on a colossal scale, with few parallels in recent times. I accept the point, made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), that this issue with the Rohingya goes back to the formation of the Burmese state, but the sheer scale of it over the past three months has been remarkable.
I pay tribute again to the Government of Bangladesh for the support they have offered the Rohingya. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to open the border and allow the refugees to enter has without doubt saved countless lives. Last Thursday, as has been pointed out, Bangladesh and Burma signed a memorandum of understanding on the return of refugees to Rakhine. We understand that a joint working group will be set up within three weeks, with the aim of commencing the processing of returns within two months.
I want to touch on the UK Government’s position, because I know that there are concerns across the House. We will press for quick progress on the implementation of this bilateral agreement, but we will be absolutely clear that any returns must be safe, voluntary and dignified, and there must be appropriate international oversight. In my view, which I think is shared by many Members here, it is too early even to talk about voluntary returns at this stage. The Rohingya have rightly addressed legitimate concerns about their personal security. The severe restrictions that Amnesty International has described persist. Access to livelihood and humanitarian aid remains insufficient. That was evident to me from the other side of the border when, on my first visit to Burma, I went to a camp in Sittwe that had been set up in 2012, during one of the more recent times of strife.
It is not a life for the people living in that camp; it is barely a subsistence living. They are able to live and eat, they have healthcare and UK aid is able to provide fairly significantly, but it is not a life that anyone can recognise. It was heartbreaking to chat to Rohingya people there who had had businesses and professions, and who were left in limbo for five years, and potentially for many years to come. That option is not satisfactory. It would get people across the border, but the notion of setting up similar sorts of camps for the future for many years to come has to be a non-starter.
The Minister just said that the working group and implementation would start within two months, and that any scheme must be “safe, voluntary and dignified,” but then I think he said that clearly people are not going to return voluntarily. Will he clarify that point?
I am making the point that we want to see people return. I will move on to the important point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) a moment ago. Although the Government are not directly criticising the agreement, our position is that we should be telling both Governments that substantial progress on the ground will be necessary, as well as proper engagement with both ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya—if needed—if any Rohingya are to return. We want to see the momentum on this issue. The reason for that—I think it was alluded to earlier—is that if the Rohingya do not return, ruthlessly the Burmese military will have got their way; they will have got what they wanted. That is why, although I accept that we should not dream of forcing Rohingya to return, nor should we do this with such swiftness that they are not secure on the ground.
Equally—this is the slight concern I have with the contribution from the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), who spoke for the Scottish National party—even to talk about resettlement at this stage plays into the hands of the Burmese military, and I think it is something we should avoid. I understand that she is doing it for the best of humanitarian motives, but realistically at the moment we must try to insist that the Rohingya return to their rightful homeland.
Perhaps the Minister will allude to this shortly, but will there be an international presence? Will we be pushing for an independent security presence to protect them, because otherwise we are expecting the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing to be the ones managing this process?
Absolutely. We will. I am also wary of the idea of having a long-term presence there, rather like what has happened in the middle east where one has an unsustainable position for the longer term, but in the short term we need to have an independent international presence to police this matter.
The UK Government have concluded that the inexcusable violence perpetrated on the Rohingya by the Burmese military and ethnic Rakhine militia appears to be ethnic cleansing—or is ethnic cleansing. The UK has been leading the international response diplomatically, politically and in terms of humanitarian support.
Will the Minister give way?
If the hon. Lady will excuse me, I am wary that I am running out of time and I want to touch on sanctions and other issues that have been raised.
On 6 November we proposed, and secured with unanimous support, the first UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma in a decade. With this the Security Council made clear its expectations of the Burmese authorities: no further excessive military force; immediate UN humanitarian access; mechanisms to allow voluntary return; and an investigation into human rights violations, including allegations of sexual violence.
Elsewhere in the UN, we are co-sponsoring a UN General Assembly resolution on the human rights situation in Burma. I note the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) about the importance of China in this situation. Please rest assured that a huge amount of work is going on at the UN to try to bring China on board. I think it would be wrong to overstate China’s leverage on these matters, and there are issues on the Chinese-Burmese border that are nothing to do with the Rohingya, but hon. Members are correct that China has an important role to play. The resolution we are proposing has received the support of 135 member states at the Third Committee. The strong international support for this resolution and the Security Council’s presidential statement send a powerful signal to the Burmese authorities about the military’s conduct and the lasting damage it will do to their international reputation.
May I touch on sanctions, which the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) mentioned? We impose our sanctions through the EU, but we must secure the consensus of all member states. At the October EU Foreign Affairs Council, the Foreign Secretary secured agreement to consider additional measures if the situation did not improve. Evidently, it has not. If the Burmese authorities do not heed the call of the 6 November UNSC presidential statement, we will be returning to EU partners to press for agreement on further measures, which could include targeted sanctions along the lines that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow referred to. But we would want to be clear about what impact they were having on the military’s conduct, as indeed would our EU partners. I pledge to the House that we will be giving very serious consideration to trying to work out the appropriateness of such sanctions, including to try to discover whether there is any property or companies owned by the Burmese military.
I attended the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers meeting in Naypyidaw last Monday and Tuesday and had meetings with the Minister of Defence, Sein Win, the Deputy Foreign Minister, Kyaw Tin, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s chief of staff, Kyaw Tint Swe. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) will, I hope, be pleased to learn that I did not pussyfoot about. I referred on each occasion to “Rohingya” and got a lecture for my pains in doing so, but we will continue to do so on that basis.
I very much appreciate the Minister giving way. Although I acknowledge that the geopolitics of the region might make it difficult for our Government to speak out against Myanmar, and I appreciate that he was there last week at the same time I was, does he not agree that we stood by and blinked while the Rwandan genocide happened and, given the nature of the crimes against humanity that are currently being committed, while we play around with semantics we risk being bystanders to yet another genocide?
The hon. Lady will be aware that I think of this a great deal. I am very much aware, as we should all be in the international community, that we are faced with a set of problems, and one could argue that they are not dissimilar to what happened in Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Srebrenica, and at various other times. The international community needs to be able to come together, but it needs to do that in a united way, and the only way to do that is through the United Nations, which is why we continue to work tirelessly in that regard.
Any long-term resolution needs to address the issue of citizenship in Burma, as has been said. The report of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State remains central to this, and I welcome Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent establishment of an international advisory board, including Lord Darzi and other respected international political figures, to ensure its implementation. She has publicly committed to implementing the commission’s recommendations, which include reviewing the controversial 1982 citizenship law and making progress on citizenship through the existing legal framework.
The main current impetus continues to be the urgent humanitarian needs of the Rohingya refugees. The UK is the single largest bilateral donor to the crisis. We have now contributed £59 million, as has been stated, and we are making a material difference. We are providing food for over 170,000 people, 140,000 people with safe water and sanitation, and emergency nutritional support to more than 60,000 vulnerable children under the age of five. On 23 October I represented the UK at an UN-organised pledging conference in Geneva, where through our leadership we were able to get more money. But the reality is that, as has been pointed out, that will take us through only to February, when we will need to go through that process again. More will be needed from us and others, and we will sustain the international leadership role on the humanitarian response to ensure that it happens.
I want to touch on sexual violence. I have already mentioned the horrifying accounts provided by some Rohingya refugees about sexual and gender-based violence. Earlier this month the UN’s special representative on sexual violence visited Bangladesh and heard consistent and harrowing reports of the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls, both in the past on the Burmese side of the border and now in the Bangladeshi camps. That clearly needs to stop. The extremely serious conclusions have meant that the UK Government have deployed two civilian experts to Bangladesh. We will obviously review that and whether to increase it to look at the current levels of investigation and documentation of these abhorrent crimes. They will provide us with advice on where the UK can continue to support this vital work. We are committed to ensuring that there is full support for victims and witnesses of these crimes. We need to have accountability, and we are determined that those who have committed human rights violations will be brought properly to account.
I want to thank everyone here for all that they have said. Please rest assured that my door remains open, as the Minister with responsibility in this area. Please feel free to get in touch at any stage if you are able to pass on either more evidence or the strength of the views of many of your constituents. I know that the hon. Member for City of Durham will want to say a few words, so I will sum up.
The UK Government will do our best to maintain a full range of humanitarian, political and diplomatic efforts, leading the international community’s response to this ongoing catastrophe and pressing Burma to meet urgently the expectations set out in the UN Security Council’s presidential statement. I know that diplomacy has a bad name sometimes, and it is something we have to be very determined to try to work together on. Please be assured that we are doing as much as we can. I wish that we could do more. I wish that this situation could be resolved. I wish that there was more goodwill in that part of the world. The Foreign Office will remain steadfastly determined to ensure, as far as we can, the safe return of the Rohingya people, to ensure access for humanitarian aid and to hold to account those who are responsible for these harrowing crimes.
I want to start by thanking Members from all parties for their powerful and moving contributions this afternoon. Those of us who visited the camps made a commitment to the Rohingya people that we would not just walk away from what we had seen, and that when we came back we would raise the situation that they face and ask for two things: that the humanitarian aid would continue and be stepped up so that their conditions in the camps are made more tolerable; and that we use our role as MPs to put pressure on our own Government and the international community to come to an agreement with Myanmar and solve this problem for the longer term, so that they would be given safe return to Myanmar, that that would be overseen by the international community and, critically, that they would be given citizenship, because that is what they need in the longer term to be able to lead their lives. I thank the Minister for his comments, and we will continue to work with him.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Charitable Fundraising Websites
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered charitable fundraising websites and associated charges.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Britain is a nation of givers. More than 160,000 charities are registered in England and Wales, and, thanks to the generosity of the British public, last year they raised almost £10 billion in donations. We all immensely value their role in our communities and public services, and I know that Members will join me in thanking them for the tremendous part they play in providing support for vulnerable and local community groups.
Charities contribute to every walk of life, such as medical research, animal welfare and local hospices, to name but a few. However, larger organisations such as Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and Oxfam—those with incomes of more than £5 million —make up only 1% of registered charities, and 40% of charities have an income of less than £10,000 a year. Those charities tend to be embedded in our communities, often engaging with local causes.
I know that my hon. Friend will raise some interesting points, but will she also join me in recognising that today is Giving Tuesday? That provides a good opportunity for us all to celebrate the work across the country of the small charities that she refers to, as well as local, national and international charities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is right to point out that Giving Tuesday is our opportunity to celebrate the volunteers who work in our communities to raise money for charities.
Charities rely largely on donors and Government grants for their income. Over the past decade, donating to charities online has become a well established practice. Websites such as BT MyDonate, Virgin Money Giving and JustGiving, which is the largest site, have become the go-to places to donate to charities. Such platforms allow donors to search for their preferred charity and donate money using their smartphones, computers and other electronic devices. In a few clicks, donors can register their debit or credit card, choose their charitable cause and donate.
Last year, websites, social media and apps accounted for more than £2.4 billion in donations, representing 26%, or one in four, of all donations made in the United Kingdom. That figure will only increase as charities adapt to the evolving technological landscape. People like using online platforms because they provide a hassle-free way to present a fundraising case, and they allow individual donors to set up their own mini fundraising campaigns for causes close to their heart. Indeed, many hon. Members may have used the sites to raise money for charities in their own constituencies, perhaps by running the London or Manchester marathons, or by climbing Kilimanjaro—if they are very athletic and adventurous.
Rather than using traditional means of donation, such as cheques or bank transfers, young donors in particular find it far more convenient to donate to charities through online platforms. If we look at the spread of donations across age, we see that last year 58% of donors who contributed online were aged between 16 and 44. Many charities also find using third-party sites more convenient. They provide a huge bonus by attracting funds from friends and family who fundraise on a smaller scale for large charities, such as for the hugely successful Motor Neurone Disease Association ice bucket challenge some years ago.
However, the ability to raise funds generally comes at a cost. Most online giving platforms charge charities an administration or transaction fee for processing each donation. Those typically range from zero to £2 per donation and can make a significant difference to the overall amount that a charity receives, especially if the total comes from many small donations that are all subject to a fee. There are also set-up or monthly rental charges that charities pay for a presence on fundraising websites.
Most fundraising platforms are not-for-profit organisations, although a few sites are run for profit. JustGiving is run for profit. Charities, depending on their size, are required to pay a monthly subscription fee to JustGiving of up to £39, plus VAT, and are charged a 5% fee on the amount raised. The fee is taken from the gift aid received, if eligible, or is deducted from the total if no gift aid can be claimed. Virgin Money Giving is a non-profit company. Charities registering with it are required to pay a one-off set-up fee of £150 and it takes a 2% fee on donations, but all the gift aid is received by the charity.
I declare an interest as a Greater Manchester Member of Parliament, because one online fundraiser, the Wonderful Organisation, is located in Manchester. Wonderful.org is the only site in the UK not to charge any fees. Its core belief is that charities should receive 100% of donations from their fundraising efforts, including gift aid. It is a non-profit organisation run by volunteers and funded entirely by corporate sponsorship from philanthropic businesses, which guarantees that charities, fundraisers and sponsors pay nothing and that the charity or good cause gets all the benefits in full.
As hon. Members may have gathered, the landscape for charities and giving sites is confusing. Transparency is therefore a fundamental issue facing the sector. A recent survey revealed that almost 80% of the people who use the largest run-for-profit platform are unaware that it is a for-profit business. To put that into context, when we register for a bank account or credit card, we understand that institutions have a legal responsibility to explain to customers certain charges and fees that they may be obligated to pay. With large sums being donated and handled, transparency is important.
It is apparent that when people donate online many are unaware of the fees and charges. The sector is telling me that users are simply not aware or do not know. For example, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, Karolina Hanusova created a fundraising page on JustGiving. Through her fantastic efforts, she raised more than £400,000 for the survivors and victims of the fire, but £25,000 of the total was taken in processing fees. Karolina was surprised to find that such a significant amount was deducted from the total raised.
Karolina’s case is not uncommon. Immediately following the Manchester Arena bombing in May, the Manchester Evening News began an appeal, raising £2.5 million through the JustGiving website, but that was subject to deductions of £100,000 in fees. Time and again, I have come across users who registered with fundraising websites but were not aware of such substantial charges being taken from the donated funds. Users need to be aware of the costs and fees so that they can make an informed choice, just as we would expect with any other financial body. The payment process needs to be clear from start to finish.
Public trust in charities is critical and has become a key question over recent years following various crises and media coverage of the sector. Worryingly, this year’s Charities Aid Foundation report revealed that only 50% of the population—half, that is—believe that charities are trustworthy. Clearly, that has to be taken seriously by the sector, and I believe that the sector is now doing that.
I understand that the Charity Commission and the Fundraising Regulator recently met 14 major UK giving platforms to discuss these issues and to agree principles collectively to increase public understanding and transparency. Online fundraising platforms have agreed to provide information to the Fundraising Regulator about their complaints process, and to work with the regulators and the Government to explore how their transparency on fees and charges can be improved.
I am pleased that registration with the Fundraising Regulator is now open to third-party fundraisers, offering platforms an opportunity to demonstrate a public commitment to meeting the highest standards for fundraising. I urge the Government to encourage platforms that have not yet registered to consider doing so and signing up to the code of practice.
However, the Fundraising Regulator is a self-regulating body with no formal powers, so I further ask the Minister, what powers can be granted to the regulator to give it some teeth in dealing with platforms that do not adhere to the code of conduct? All charities must submit their accounts or annual returns to the Charity Commission, and those are available to view on the commission’s website. One benefit of compulsory charity registration is increased transparency across the sector. Perhaps the Fundraising Regulator could replicate that best practice. I suggest that to move towards that aim and promote best practice and transparency, online platforms should also be encouraged to submit their accounts to the commission or Fundraising Regulator.
Anecdotally, many people assume that fundraising platforms are themselves charities. They are not. They are more akin to agents or intermediaries. Although I am of the opinion that not-for-profit platforms are a better fit for the charitable sector, they too have operating costs that are ultimately borne by charities. Card-processing fees are the principal culprit. All charities must pay transaction fees on receipt of donations from PayPal, credit cards and major banks.
I have met representatives of Wonderful.org, whose running costs are covered by corporate sponsors. That is a great initiative. Will the Minister highlight what steps the Government are taking to encourage large corporations and banks to engage with the charitable sector on this issue? For instance, they might provide assistance by exempting card charges and processing fees. After all, corporate responsibility is at the core of many banking companies’ charitable activities, and that would be one way to engage with charities that clearly matter to the general public.
I would like to mention gift aid. Some platforms use a part of taxpayers’ gift aid—a scheme enabling charities to reclaim tax on donations—to cover their costs. Gift aid is a significant cog in the charitable sector. It increases the value of donations to charities by allowing them to reclaim basic rate tax on donations as long as the donor pays tax. Charities can take the donation and reclaim the basic rate of tax from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
Since the introduction of gift aid in 1990, more than £13 billion in relief has been paid to UK charities. The commitment of this and previous Governments to supporting and expanding gift aid has been a tremendous boost to charitable fundraising—currently, it allows charities to claim an extra £25 for every £100 donated—but although some sites automatically pass on the full amount, others do not. In my opinion, the gift aid reclaimed should benefit the relevant charity, rather than being used to pay an intermediary cost.
I believe that the way forward must be ensuring, with guidance from the Fundraising Regulator and the Charity Commission, that online fundraising platforms are transparent and clear from the outset. I am encouraged by the action that has been taken to update the regulator’s code of practice, but I seek further assurance that the Government will take on board fundraisers’ concerns to make the process as transparent as it needs to be and get more people giving with confidence to our wonderful charities and good causes.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) for bringing such a topical and important issue to our attention.
We should celebrate the fact that we are a generous nation. As my hon. Friend said, Charities Aid Foundation research indicates that the British public donated about £10 billion to charity in 2016, making the UK the most generous nation in Europe and one of the most generous in the world. Today is Giving Tuesday, the global day of giving that encourages people to volunteer, donate to charity and spread the word about doing good stuff. Last year, 4.5 million people in the UK gave their time or money to charity on Giving Tuesday, and for the second year running the campaign broke the world record for the most money donated online in 24 hours.
Many people need to be asked before they give, so charities have to invest some of their money in fundraising in order to raise funds to undertake their important work. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, every £1 that a charity invests in fundraising raises an average of £4 in return. Fundraising, when done well, also means that charities can develop positive relationships with their supporters.
Recent years have seen the emergence and rapid growth of online fundraising platforms as a new and convenient way for people to donate to charity or other causes. Huge sums are raised for charity through online fundraising platforms. The largest, JustGiving, has helped people to raise more than £3 billion for good causes since 2001. We need only look at the incredible public generosity and use of online fundraising platforms following recent tragic events such as the Grenfell tower fire and the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester to gauge the popularity of that form of fundraising. However, fundraising must be undertaken responsibly by all if public trust is to be maintained.
Sadly, in 2015, charity fundraising came into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, risking public trust and confidence in charity. Two years on, the charity sector has taken responsibility and embraced change. It set up a new independent and effective self-regulatory body, the Fundraising Regulator, which has worked with fundraisers and charities to strengthen and enforce the code of practice. It has implemented the Fundraising Preference Service, enabling members of the public to easily put a stop to unwanted fundraising requests. Charities and their trustees have embraced higher standards. They are monitoring and overseeing their fundraising activities much more closely, and are strengthening their data protection policies and practices.
My hon. Friend asked whether we could give the Fundraising Regulator more teeth. The regulator regulates the fundraising community by consent. Working with the sector, it has taken major steps to strengthen the regulation of fundraising and ensure that the public are protected from poor practices. Where there is deliberate abuse or unlawful activity, it is for the Fundraising Regulator to report to the relevant statutory regulators—for example, the Charity Commission, the Information Commissioner or the Financial Conduct Authority, and in appropriate cases the police—and encourage them to use their statutory powers. We think that effective self-regulation rather than Government intervention can deliver on the public’s expectations.
As my hon. Friend also mentioned, recent online fundraising has shed light on the need for improved standards of transparency and accountability for online fundraising platforms. The issues include a lack of transparency about website fees and charges, the potential for online fraudulent activity, and the need for the public to have access to good advice about online giving. We need to ensure that high standards and best practice are shared and followed across all online fundraising platforms. That is why, earlier this year, I asked the Fundraising Regulator and the Charity Commission to work with the online fundraising platforms to address public concerns and promote high standards and good practice.
The Fundraising Regulator and the Charity Commission convened a summit with 14 of the largest online fundraising platforms in September. The aim was to agree collectively on principles to increase public understanding and transparency about the different forms of online donating, in order to secure public trust and confidence. I am pleased to report a positive response from the online fundraising platforms and a number of commitments from their meeting with the regulators. They have confirmed their commitment to transparency on fees and charges and have agreed to work with the Charity Commission and Fundraising Regulator to explore how that can be improved. They have also agreed to disseminate clear and consistent public advice about the choices available for donating. They will review their resilience to fraud and help the regulators to review the code of fundraising practice with the aim of expanding the standards for online fundraising.
On fees and charges, we need to recognise that there is a range of commercial and not-for-profit organisations that operate as online fundraising platforms. In addition to the debit and credit card transaction fees that apply in all cases, there are significant costs to be covered in providing the service. That is the case for online fundraising platforms and for traditional methods. In some cases, those costs or a proportion of them are subsidised by associated businesses as part of their social responsibility programmes, reducing the proportion of fees that comes out of individual donors’ gifts. In other cases, fees are taken from the donation or any gift aid on the donation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle asked about gift aid and the fees that are taken from the total value of the donation plus gift aid. That is the case regardless of whether the platform says that the fees are taken from the body of the donation or from the gift aid that is paid on top of it. Platforms also take responsibility for processing gift aid claims on a charity’s behalf, including any associated reporting and audit requirements. As always, we continue to have discussions with those involved. It is important that in all cases any charges and fees are reasonable and transparent, so that donors can make an informed choice. I welcome the decision that some fundraising platforms took to waive or reduce their fees, or to make a donation, in relation to fundraising for disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the terror attacks earlier this year.
My hon. Friend asked whether we could put pressure on the industry to reduce debit and credit transaction fees. I assure her that UK card processing fees of generally between 1% and 2% compare favourably with the payment processing fees charged in other countries, which are usually higher—significantly so in some cases. I am fairly certain that members of the industry will be watching this debate and they are welcome to discuss what they can do to help support charities’ fundraising efforts with me and my colleagues.
The Charity Commission and Fundraising Regulator will continue to work with the online fundraising platforms and will keep me updated on progress. They sent me a letter yesterday that outlined current progress, which I am happy to share with my hon. Friend. Those platforms provide an important service that is popular with the public and raises significant sums for charity. They have shown that they are willing and committed to work with the regulators and the Government to respond to public concerns and to strengthen standards and transparency. I welcome that, and I hope that other hon. Members do too.
Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, particularly on Giving Tuesday. I am willing to continue the conversation outside this Chamber.
Question put and agreed to.
Rural Economy of Wales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the rural economy in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful for the opportunity to have a debate on a topic that is of great importance to the people of Ceredigion, whom I serve, and a subject that is close to my heart.
An economic strategy that facilitates growth in rural and urban Wales and forges stronger links between them is sorely needed if we are to avoid building a geographically unbalanced Welsh economy. I hope that we can debate the ways in which the current approach fails rural Wales and how those failings can be addressed. The rural economy is resilient and there is potential for greater development that should not be left unrealised. At the very least, I hope to persuade hon. Members that securing a prosperous future for the Welsh rural economy is not a cause that should be championed only by those fortunate enough to represent rural constituencies; it should be a priority for us all. As such, it is good to see right hon. and hon. Members from urban as well as rural constituencies here, and I look forward to their contributions.
The development of the rural economy should form a key part of an economic strategy for Wales if we are to avoid a national economy unhelpfully concentrated in a few areas or in one corner of the country. We need look no further than the UK economy to understand the consequences of an unbalanced approach to economic development. Page 218 of the “Industrial Strategy” White Paper illustrates all too clearly how focusing attention and investment on urban centres has meant that the productivity of rural areas is consistently below the UK average, in stark and rather depressing contrast to that of larger towns and cities. I am sure that we will hear a great deal in this debate about the supposed successes of the UK’s current economic approach, but who benefits from the status quo? If that approach gives rise to such grotesque regional inequality, can it truly be considered a success? It is not over-ambitious, let alone idealistic, to believe that the prospects for individuals living in the countryside should be just as promising as those for individuals living in cities.
Although I am not surprised, I am concerned that the development of the rural economy is not high on the UK Chancellor’s list of priorities. Last week’s Budget offered no sign of imminent change in the UK’s approach to rural development, and even less promise for the rural economy in Wales. Indeed, one is left to infer from the few policies on offer that the Government’s intentions for the rural economy, at least in England, amount to little more than improving existing connections between the countryside and the cities to ensure that the prosperity of the economic engines and powerhouses trickles to the rural periphery that little bit faster. Yet again, I fear we have a Budget that serves the south-east of England rather well, at the expense of the rest of the UK.
Buried deep in the Budget, however, there was a cautious and no doubt carefully worded announcement about a growth deal for mid-Wales. It does not overwhelm me with confidence, nor am I over-enamoured of the thought of delineating new economic areas without considering whether there are sufficient cultural, economic and social links to justify those new lines on the map. Nevertheless, I appreciate that the growth deal for mid-Wales—or perhaps the Welsh midlands—could be a real opportunity to deliver for some of those rural communities that have suffered chronic under-investment and neglect by successive Governments. It is also a chance to diversify the base of the rural economy to ensure that, just like the economic success stories of the cities, the economy of rural Wales is rooted in a rich mixture of sectors and industries.
Agriculture, the food and drink industry and tourism are at the heart of the present rural economy, as I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members will explain in more detail. A growth deal for rural Wales would need to safeguard those foundations, but it could also enable us to build a more mixed economy on them, and in so doing secure a more prosperous future for rural areas. It is therefore important to stress that if a growth deal is produced for mid Wales, it cannot mindlessly replicate the model used for city deals. The Government must do more than merely pay lip-service to the idea; they should work with the Welsh Government to engage with stakeholders and forge a bespoke package that focuses on addressing the unique challenges and opportunities facing the rural economy.
One fundamental problem that could be addressed by a worthwhile growth deal is the poor connectivity in many rural areas of Wales. Broadband, or rather the lack of it, is by far the most prevalent issue raised by my constituents in Ceredigion, which is among the 10 worst constituencies for broadband speeds—an affliction that also plagues the Minister’s constituency. Wales has the perceived benefit of being able to receive investment from the Welsh Government and the UK Government, but thus far both have failed to outline how broadband will be delivered to some of the most rural parts of the country.
Recently, the UK Government invested significant sums to improve broadband infrastructure in three of the four UK nations, but unfortunately not Wales. They managed to find £20 million extra for ultrafast broadband in Northern Ireland. For the time being, I am confident that residents in Ceredigion would happily settle for superfast broadband. The UK Government also managed to find £10 million for full-fibre broadband in six trial areas across England and Scotland, but what about rural Wales?
According to Ministers, the decision on where to invest that money was based on how likely they believed the investment was to stimulate economic growth. Rural Wales should not be written off as an area that has no potential, that would not be successful even if it had effective digital infrastructure, or that is simply not worth it. Why should shared office spaces and other opportunities afforded to start-ups and small businesses be poorer in rural areas? Why should essential utilities such as adequate broadband and mobile infrastructure be dismissed as luxuries for those who live in the countryside? If we are to make Ceredigion and other rural areas of Wales more practical places for businesses to locate and expand, and if we are to ensure that communities can fully benefit from the opportunities afforded by better digital connectivity, investing in broadband and mobile infrastructure is crucial.
Why stop there? A potential growth deal for the Welsh midlands—sorry, for mid-Wales—could also include an ambitious package of investment in transport infrastructure. Reopening the railway line between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen would help to reconnect north and south Wales. Installing a network of electric vehicle charging points would allow rural Wales to make the most of advances in electric cars. As well as improving connectivity, such investment by the UK and Welsh Governments would send a clear signal to budding entrepreneurs and start-ups that the countryside is open for business. It would be a strong statement of intent and confidence.
I am not alone in thinking that rural Wales is worth such an investment. Ceredigion has almost 9,000 microbusinesses, which account for up to 94% of all businesses in the constituency. They sustain the local economy and make up our communities, yet they are penalised by poor all-round connectivity. Improving that connectivity is key to supporting and sustaining those entrepreneurial, innovative and hugely important businesses while opening the door to new enterprises.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak, but it would be remiss of me not to speak briefly about the need to secure the current foundations of the rural economy, or about how a potential growth deal could help to steady nerves in what is proving to be a most uncertain time. Food and drink manufacturing contributes £1.5 billion to the Welsh economy, supports more than 22,000 jobs and generates more than £330 million in exports. It sits at the heart of the food and drink supply chain that generates a total of £4.5 billion for the economy and supports more than 240,000 jobs across Wales. Agriculture in Ceredigion directly employs more than 6,000 people. Some £40.8 million is spent on goods and services purchased by farmers, which in turn sustains additional spending of £96.9 million.
Although they are seldom associated with the rural economy, the teaching and research conducted in our universities also make a vital contribution: on Ceredigion’s economy alone, they have an annual economic impact worth approximately £250 million. The uncertainty surrounding Brexit is throwing our higher education sector into uncertainty. Clarifying future funding and visa arrangements would go a long way towards addressing that.
The hon. Gentleman will know that sheep and beef farming are critical parts of the economy, not just in his constituency but in north Wales. Does he agree that the Minister should give an assurance that those products will eventually be tariff-free post-Brexit? If they are not, we will face potential loss of business and therefore loss of income to the rural economy.
I agree that an assurance that beef and lamb exports will not be subject to tariffs or non-tariff barriers post-Brexit would go a long way towards securing the future of agricultural industry and would settle a lot of nerves across the country.
It is imperative that any growth deal for mid-Wales takes account of the significant burden that leaving the EU places on such sectors. The UK Government’s steadfast pursuit of severing all ties with the single market risks undermining the rural economy. We should strive to build a more mixed rural economy, but we must also secure its foundations. I was therefore glad to learn that my Plaid Cymru colleagues in the Welsh Assembly have helped to safeguard the future of Welsh agriculture by securing £6 million of funding for a grant scheme to help young entrants to establish themselves in agriculture. With Brexit negotiations stumbling at every possible hurdle, such funding cannot come quickly enough. The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) alludes to the effect of Brexit on tariffs; it looks increasingly likely that any meaningful beneficial relationship with the single market and customs union will be abandoned.
I am deeply concerned that Welsh agriculture will be sacrificed in EU negotiations. We will have to compete with markets with far lower food hygiene and animal welfare standards, while losing unrestricted access to our main export market. Welsh farmers will be hardest hit by the double whammy of cheap imports and new regulatory barriers. A staggering 90% of Welsh food and drink produce, produced mainly in rural areas such as mine, is exported easily, directly and freely to the European Union. Do the Government expect farmers simply to replace 90% of their customers overnight? We desperately need certainty and clarity.
The damaging impact of Brexit uncertainty on the whole rural economy should not be underestimated. The National Farmers Union’s farm confidence survey in April showed that 20% of farmers are likely to reduce investment as a result. Without clarity on trading relationships or the support payments that make up to 80% of farm incomes in Wales, it is hardly surprising that many are postponing further investment in their businesses. That should alarm us all, because for every £1 invested in the farming industry, more than £7.40 is put back into the local economy. Our communities simply cannot afford to lose such investment. Without it, the future of the rural economy looks very bleak indeed.
Tourism is a £2.8 billion Welsh industry that employs 4,000 people in Ceredigion and contributes £70 million to gross value added. It often goes hand in hand with agriculture and is an important contributor to the rural economy. Plaid Cymru has proposed a 15% reduction in VAT for the tourism and hospitality sector, which would generate an estimated 5,500 additional jobs and an economic boost of £166 million. Our proposal is not innovative or pioneering thinking, but simply common sense. It would stimulate investment, create jobs, increase consumer spending and help to ensure that Wales’s visitor economy continues to thrive. Even the UK Government think it is a good idea: the Chancellor announced a review of tourism VAT in his Budget, although of course it applied only to Northern Ireland. If it is good enough for Northern Ireland, why is it not good enough for us? Could it not be included as part of a growth deal package for the Welsh midlands—sorry, mid-Wales? At the very least, it should offer resources to support organisations such as Mynyddoedd Cambria that work to forge closer links between the old market towns of the Elenydd—the Cambrian mountains—and ensure that coastal and inland areas benefit from tourism.
It is deeply frustrating that the potential of the Welsh rural economy was not adequately pursued in last week’s Budget, but a growth deal could be the first step towards correcting that mistake. Offering the support and investment required to sustain today’s rural economy will be crucial, but just as important is the opportunity to change how the rural economy is understood, recast how rural development is pursued, and rejuvenate our aspirations for such development. Such new thinking is already being explored by colleagues of mine, including a former Member of this House. The economic region of Arfor aims to develop west Wales into a more cohesive and connected entity. There is no reason why a growth deal for the Welsh midlands—or mid-Wales—could not support and work in conjunction with such an economic area.
I have already mentioned the importance of the agriculture, food and tourism sectors to today’s rural economy. Let us make the most of the opportunity presented by the growth deal to redefine the rural economy of tomorrow. If done properly, such a deal could begin to address the issues plaguing today’s industries and could implement the conditions necessary to facilitate a more versatile future for the rural economy. It could concentrate on improving connectivity and offering greater support to higher education institutions so that they can build on their expertise and cement themselves as centres for the technologies of the future.
After all, why should rural Wales not be at the forefront of biotechnology and research? It could be the centre of cutting-edge knowledge, tackling global issues such as food security. Aberystwyth University’s institute of biological, environmental and rural sciences is already an internationally renowned research and teaching centre for biotechnology and environment studies. It is leading the work to address some of the most pressing issues facing the agricultural sector, and it has already received support from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council for its Aberystwyth innovation and enterprise campus. Just imagine the potential benefits of further investment in our other universities in rural Wales! Such investment could serve as the foundation of a bigger Welsh biotechnology industry, shaping the future of food and farming for generations and increasing the breadth of highly skilled and highly paid careers available in rural Wales. That is just one example that is open to the rural economy if we wish to explore it.
I am in no doubt that the Welsh and UK Governments desperately need to reconsider their approach to economic development and to refocus attention on the rural economy, to ensure that it forms an integral part of any economic strategy for Wales and that it is more than a simple afterthought, an also-ran, a non-essential addition to the real work of developing our cities and urban areas.
People should have a realistic hope of being able to pursue a career, and of being able to afford to settle down and lead a prosperous life in any part of Wales. I hope the Minister accepts the points I have raised in the spirit in which they are offered. The possibilities for a mixed and advanced rural economy in Wales are endless, provided that the potential is unlocked with the right investment and the right growth deal for the Welsh midlands—or mid-Wales.
Order. The debate is due to finish at 5.30 pm, which means that, under the rules of the House, I need to call the first of the Front-Bench spokesmen at seven minutes past 5. There are guideline limits of five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, with three minutes for Mr Lake to sum up at the end. Three Members are seeking to catch my eye, which means that there will be a time limit of eight minutes for each of them.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Congratulations are very much in order for the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), the Member for the Welsh midlands—I like the sound of that. I am not sure what the comparative term would be for Members from north Wales; I think we will stick to north Wales. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) said, “Scotland”. We will stick to north Wales—we have better weather, I think.
I am conscious of the importance of the subject of the debate. My own constituency includes many rural communities. I will not be able to name them all, which risks offending people, but in its 240 square miles are the villages in the Ceiriog valley, Minera, Llangollen, Corwen, Cynnwyd, Glyndyfrdwy, Carrog, Llandrillo, many of the Maelor villages and many other areas the main industry of which may not be farming but which involves a considerable amount of agriculture. I was interested to hear from the National Farmers Union Cymru that about 60,000 people in Wales are employed full or part-time in Welsh agriculture. That is a staggering number, especially when one considers the ramifications for other industries in those areas.
I do not always quote the Countryside Alliance, but I would like to do so today. [Interruption.] I am glad that the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) agrees with me. The points that the Countryside Alliance has made on the issue are superb. It notes, for instance, that Wales exported £12.3 billion-worth of goods outside the UK in 2015, of which 67% went to the European Union. It makes the point that it is vital that the UK Government seek to maintain tariff-free access to EU markets for food and agricultural produce. It notes also that if the UK Government do not establish a new trade agreement with the EU before leaving and do not adopt World Trade Organisation terms, the £12 billion-worth of food and agricultural produce that the UK exports to the EU each year will face the prospect of high tariffs, which would be damaging to UK producers, including those in Wales, and to EU consumers. That shows that the future of the Welsh rural economy is inextricably linked to what happens in, and how the UK Government and others deal with, the Brexit negotiations.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn made the point well about beef and lamb exports. We also need to note that farmers in Wales must never become a bargaining chip. If the UK Government—in their trade deals with large meat-exporting countries, such as New Zealand, Australia, Brazil and the USA—do not listen to our farming industry, that will be devastating for our rural economies. I know that the Minister has always, in himself, made positive noises about our relations with the EU, and I make the point to him that where there is a transfer of powers post-Brexit in areas that are currently devolved, it is vital that those powers are devolved to the Welsh Government.
One spark of light after Brexit—if it ever happens—might be what happens with the common agricultural policy, or CAP. The NFU, in what I think is the reverse of spin, made the point that although Wales has only 4.7% of the UK population it has 9% of the UK CAP allowances. I do not think that that was meant to be spin; I think it was meant to show how important the rural economy is to Wales. If we are to look at a new CAP that will apply Wales-wide and UK-wide, we need to reshape it in a way that makes it less interested in supporting the likes of the Duke of Westminster and more interested in supporting the Welsh hill farmer—for the many, not the few, and for small family farms.
Tourism, of course, is vital to any discussion on the Welsh economy, and I was delighted that the “Under the Arches” festival at Pontcysyllte aqueduct in my constituency won a prestigious north Wales tourism award. There is so much in my area that is connected with tourism, such as the Llangollen railway extending, as it will fairly soon, into the middle of Corwen; the Dee Valley area of outstanding natural beauty; and much that is developing in the Ceiriog valley and in many other places. Will the Minister support our plans locally for the vital adaptation of Ruabon station so that there can be better disability access? I am sure he would wish to support those efforts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that worthwhile step would best be made in conjunction with the introduction of a half-hourly service between Chester and Shrewsbury, along one of the most beautiful railway lines in the United Kingdom, so that more people from the west midlands and the north-west of England, as well as from the rest of the country, could see just how good it is?
That is a wonderful idea.
I would also like to mention the Welsh Government’s rural development programme. It has been innovative, with support for food, timber and other businesses, as well as farm business grants and even a micro small business fund. Many companies in my constituency, and other areas, have benefited, and I welcome the diversity of projects it provides.
Is it not the case that the Labour Government’s economic policy for rural Wales has been a complete and utter failure? Does the hon. Lady agree with Baroness Morgan, who also serves in the Assembly, that there needs to be a dedicated economic plan for rural areas in Wales, and that that indicates that the Welsh Government have failed?
The hon. Gentleman always puts it so well in his own way, does he not? The points my good colleague Baroness Morgan made referred to the need for development programmes in specific areas. In the same way as we speak of the north Wales deal, I think she was thinking of something dedicated specifically to certain parts of west Wales. I think that the hon. Gentleman is being a bit mischievous in referring to our elected Government in Wales as a failure.
On the Welsh Government’s budget for the forthcoming year, I very much welcome the extra support on homelessness in the £340 million for the building of 20,000 affordable homes. We need to recognise that homelessness is not just an urban problem. I also welcome the courageous decision to suspend the right to buy on council houses. That was not an easy decision, and it was not uncontroversial in its day, but it made the point. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) might agree with me a little more on this point: if we are serious about tai, gwaith, iaith—houses, jobs, language—as a driver in rural Wales, we must look at that sort of policy.
I will say a quick word on rural areas in Wales, Welsh-speaking areas and planning laws. I very much support the Welsh Labour Government’s policy—it is supported by others, too—for 1 million Welsh speakers in Wales. That is an important policy, and consensus on it is vital.
I sometimes think we are a little reticent in Wales when it comes to planning issues. In some cases, that is simply because of our history as a nation, and that is a mistake. In Cornwall, Cumbria and other parts of the UK, people are prepared to look thoughtfully at issues connected with second homes and affordability. As we look at the rural economy and parts of Welsh-speaking Wales, we should not be frightened of doing that.
Finally, one has to say something about broadband. I am delighted to have been able to work with other representatives in making Gwynfryn, Llandrillo and a few other places a bit more connected. I welcome the Superfast Cymru project, but we have more to do to ensure that that is connected in every part of Wales.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing this significant debate. As the youngest Welsh MP—I do not know whether he likes me reminding him of that fact—it is evident that he has already played an inspiring role in representing his constituency and his country.
Considering the interest in this debate and the comments that have already been made, I will be as brief as possible and confine my remarks to one key issue: addressing the need to counterbalance the dynamics in Wales between the east and the west. There is a cognitive block in viewing the geography of Wales in terms of north and south, and that in turn blocks our growth as a nation. Undoubtedly there are some unifying factors among north Walians—the gogs, as we call ourselves—and our compatriots in the south. For example, the gogs will always call milk “llefrith”, and the south will wrongly insist on having borrowed the word from Latin and so call it “llaeth”. We do enjoy these differences, but let us never forget that the language unites us along a north-south axis, while our historic infrastructure and economic convention would have us looking east-west all the time.
Wales’s cities and large towns generally lie in the east, but in the west, rural Wales is made up of villages and market towns. The public sector, agriculture and tourism are the pillars of the economy in those communities. None the less, it is in those rural villages and towns that we find the highest concentration of Welsh speakers, and I am proud to represent Dwyfor Meirionnydd, the constituency with the highest proportion of Welsh speakers anywhere in the world. Sadly, in my constituency and other rural Welsh constituencies, we also find some of the lowest wages in Europe. As already noted by other Members, the economies of the region—the public sector, agriculture and tourism—are teetering on the brink of crisis. We cherish all those economies, but they are all vulnerable.
With massive outflows of young productive people, EU funding at risk and a Westminster Government hunkered down in the south-east and, frankly, focused solely on the needs and interests of that region, rural Wales faces unprecedented challenges. This re-formulation or resetting of how our nation of Wales could be perceived is best summed up by the work of my colleague Adam Price AM. He is sitting in the Public Gallery, and I welcome him. His concept of Arfor would see a new socioeconomic map drawn for Wales along a more appropriate boundary, acknowledging the east-west norm, but also looking at the issue from an alternative and counter-balancing north-south axis. That would not only allow investment to be more appropriately targeted to suit areas in the east and west, but foster greater north-south integration. That simple re-imagining or re-perceiving could not only save economies and communities, but safeguard our language and those rare communities where Welsh is not a minority language and is used by the majority. That is important to our perception of the use of the language. Bringing these majority Welsh speaking areas together to offer real opportunities for young Welsh speakers will give our language the environment in which it can thrive into the future.
To finish, I will give three examples looking at how Arfor could energise the economy of the west of Wales and Wales as a whole. First, we could transform tourism jobs from being a gap-year filler to offering the living wage and a long-term career. As a first step, we could set up a tourism academy linking business to universities and further education colleges to ensure we have the skills and expertise we need—skills made in Wales, for the needs of Wales, for the salaries of Wales and that stay with us.
Secondly, we could have a community bank for west Wales. As commercial banks disappear from our high streets—even ATMs in rural areas are under threat—rural people are left without basic services. A new model of community banking could fill the gaps.
Finally, we need the conventional and digital infrastructure that will truly transform west Wales. Let us consider reopening the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen rail line and the digital infrastructure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion spoke about so eloquently. We need swiftly to move people, bits and the knowledge economy across Wales to move into the future.
Rural Wales has been the cauldron of Welsh culture and remains the heartland of our language and its traditions. Let it be the pair dadeni—the cauldron of rebirth. Economically, it faces its greatest challenge in modern history, yet I am confident, despite everything and everyone—er gwaetha pawb a phopeth—that we need only to be given the tools to build our own future.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on the tone he set in opening the debate. I pay tribute to him and his predecessor Mark Williams, who for many years adopted the same tone of consensus in Wales. He brought people together to speak as Welsh MPs in the House of Commons.
I congratulate the NFU on providing a concise brief, much of which the hon. Gentleman referred to, and I make no apologies in echoing some of the statistics that it provided. Indeed, farming unions have been helpful to Members over many years, and I pay tribute to the work they do not just for their members, but for the communities of rural Wales. They play a very positive role in the social fabric of Wales, and I thank them for that.
I will concentrate my contribution on a matter that has been affecting my constituents for a long time, but in particular since 2010: the over-centralisation of many of the UK Government’s services, away from rural and semi-rural areas to the towns and cities of Wales and the UK. I will also touch on food and drink and the importance of agriculture, tourism and connectivity.
The Welsh food and drink industry is hugely important, as the hon. Gentleman said, to the whole economy of urban and rural Wales. The backbone of the food industry is Welsh agriculture. As has been said, it is a progressive, outward-looking industry that exports much of its produce across the European Union—some 90% of it is freely traded across the EU. A third of the lamb that the United Kingdom exports is Welsh lamb, which is without a doubt the finest lamb in the UK. It is hugely important, and we need to pay tribute to our agriculture industry and our farmers and offer them help and support.
I know the Minister listens carefully to what is said and represents our views to Government as a Minister in the Wales Office. He talks about securing EU funding to 2020, but I challenge him to go further than that. Our farming industry needs safeguarding post-Brexit. The money we receive from the common agricultural policy needs to be ring-fenced. If the funding is done through the Barnett formula, we will lose out. That is the challenge for the Government. When they talk about agriculture and rural Wales, they need to safeguard the monies we receive now. Alternatively, the Minister can tell us exactly how he will replenish that money.
I beg the hon. Gentleman to bring to bear what influence he can on the Welsh Government to get them to commit to maintaining the same level of income for farmers when that money is transferred from Westminster under the devolved processes, whatever they may be.
That is the point I was making: it should not just go through the Barnett formula, because we would lose out by getting only a certain percentage. We need like-for-like funding, because when the European Union negotiates the amount, it looks at need in a way that is fairer to rural communities.
Connectivity is also important. In north-west Wales, and indeed in Ceredigion on the west coast of Wales, we suffer from a double whammy in being not just rural communities, but peripheral communities. Often a Cardiff or London-centric view predominates in the United Kingdom, so we have to fight harder for services and the connectivity that we deserve. I consider north-west Wales to be the heart of the British Isles. I do not see it as peripheral; it is only peripheral to someone looking up towards it from down south. It is the heart of the British Isles, because to our west is the island of Ireland and Northern Ireland, to our north is Scotland, and to our east is England. We are the heart of the British Isles, and need to start speaking with that confidence.
When there are roll-outs of programmes such as 5G, which we heard about in the Budget, it should be started and test-piloted in difficult rural areas, not just in the large towns and cities of the United Kingdom. That is the challenge for the Wales Office in the UK Government. Swansea deserves its connectivity, but so too does rural Wales. If the Government are serious about spreading wealth across the United Kingdom, they need to pilot projects in rural and peripheral areas.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the technology already exists? It is available in the Alps, in Norway, and in the highlands of Scotland. The technology is, to some extent, proven. What is actually required, as I am sure the Minister will confirm, is political will.
The hon. Gentleman has asked me a question and answered it in the way that I would have: it does require political will. Each time the Government trial something, I ask them to go not for the easy towns and cities, but for rural and peripheral areas.
Tourism is hugely important. It is the fastest-growing industry in the United Kingdom and in the world, and we have some of the best brands in Wales. Many visitors to Wales come for our coastline, our national parks, our areas of outstanding natural beauty, and the tranquillity, which is best seen on the Isle of Anglesey—the heart of the British Isles. In my opinion, Anglesey is very much the jewel in the crown of Welsh tourism. There are, however, serious challenges in rural Wales. If we are to develop a 21st-century economy, we need 21st-century tools to do the job. As I said, in the digital age we do have better connectivity in broadband and mobile, but it is still behind many parts of the UK. We should address that problem, and the Ministers from the Wales Office need to fight for it.
I commend the roll-out package that was put together in partnership between the UK Government, the Welsh Government, the EU and BT. I hope that the EU money can be replenished in some way in the future, because that package has worked in many places. I have been working with BT, the Welsh Government, and indeed the Ministers in the Wales Office, including the Minister here today, who has listened to what I and other Members have been saying.
When I talk about rural Wales, I talk about inter- dependency with urban Wales as well, which is very important. My main point is about the centralisation of UK Government services. We have seen court closures over many years, which not only result in denial of local access to justice but damage to local economies. Many of the local economies created by solicitors’ offices and the extra boost given to the economy by the areas around the courts are lost for good. Many personnel move from those areas to where the courts move to. We have seen HMRC, for example, moving its offices from the west to the east, to central Wales, down to Cardiff. That does not help rural economies in north and north- west Wales.
I am afraid this is an irresistible opportunity to talk about the Government’s appalling proposal to shift HMRC from Wrexham in north Wales, my constituency, which has many rural areas, to Cardiff’s city centre. Is that not exactly the opposite of what we should be doing?
Yes, it is. The Government talk, as many Governments do, about decentralisation and devolution of services, but they act in the opposite way, pulling out services from rural areas. Those rural areas have very competent people, with the skill sets to do those jobs for many years. The services are being moved just to save the Government money, and in the long run communities are getting left behind.
My final point has nothing to do with the Government, although the Government need to take some responsibility. We need to get proper banking policy in this country. When high street banks close in rural areas and in small and larger towns, it rips the heart out of those communities. Local government, the Welsh Government and the UK taxpayer are paying for those communities, yet banks just walk away. We know what banks have done to our global economy; we see the recession across the world and in this country. Those banks have responsibilities, but we need to plug those gaps, because often buildings are left empty, jobs are lost and the local high street suffers.
Rural Wales needs a strong voice and, with Welsh MPs across the parties, we have one. We also need a Government here in the UK that are listening and putting devolution into practice, with real delivery of jobs and services in our rural communities, so that rural and urban Wales can compete on a level playing field with the rest of the United Kingdom. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion for giving me the opportunity to say that, because I want to stand up in future and say how much better things are in Wales because rural and urban areas have worked together to create the best place to live, work and visit in the whole of the United Kingdom.
We now come to the first of the Opposition Front-Bench speeches. The guideline limit for both the Scottish National party and the Labour party Front Benchers is five minutes.
Tapadh leibh, a Cathraiche. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing this timely debate. He is a passionate campaigner and champion for the people of Wales in this House. In the less than half a year that he has been here, he has done an enormous amount to hold both of Wales’s Governments to account, and I have no doubt he will continue to do so in the coming months and years.
The focus on the future of our rural economy is timely, because we stand at a fork in the road, given our Brexit negotiations. The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, which was rejected in all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities, will have potentially catastrophic consequences for rural communities across these islands—not least in Wales, which has benefited enormously from EU funding. Indeed, in some cases, it is the only money that has come into Wales in recent years. The current negotiating position taken by Her Majesty’s Government is deeply flawed, isolationist and wrong-headed. I will outline one or two areas in which I feel a change in tone and position could help soften the forthcoming Brexit blow to our economy. I will also outline a couple of ideas from a domestic policy perspective that would deal with some of the challenges facing our Welsh colleagues.
First, I will add a bit of context to the scene so eloquently set out by the hon. Gentleman. Given that time is at a premium, and I am conscious that I am something of an intruder on this debate, 1 will focus solely on food and drink. Quite rightly, food and drink is a priority economic sector in Wales, with 170,000 people contributing to gross sales of £17.3 billion. Much like Scotland, Wales is staring into the abyss as we look over the cliff edge of a hard Brexit, to which we have been driven by the Back Benchers of the Conservative party. Although Wales as a whole narrowly voted to leave the EU, it is worth noting that not all areas did. Ceredigion, for example, which is mainly rural, voted 54.6% to remain, and Gwynedd, with a large agricultural industry, voted 58.9% to stay in the EU. If the Minister is serious about being Wales’s voice in Whitehall, and not Whitehall’s voice in Wales, he should immediately commit to joining the Welsh and Scottish Governments in calling for our membership of the single market and customs union to be maintained.
On trade, it is abundantly clear that access to the single market is essential for our agriculture sector. No one wants to see prime Welsh lamb, or any other fresh produce for that matter, stuck on a lorry, in a queue, waiting for customs clearance. I very much echo what the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) said. I will not get into the battle about whose lamb is better—I think I might lose that one. As it stands, what will happen is that lamb will be stuck in a queue on a lorry.
On labour, it is vital that our sectors retain the ability to recruit staff from across the European Union. That is why free movement of people must be protected, which can easily be achieved by remaining in the single market. Scotland and Wales’s problem has never been immigration; it has been emigration. Just as in Scotland, Wales needs to build a strong rural economy that will encourage young people to stay, and not exacerbate the brain-drain problem outlined by the hon. Member for Ceredigion.
We need action on a domestic front from the Conservative Government in London as well as the Labour Government in Cardiff. It is important that we ensure that the right infrastructure is in place to support the rural economy. That means action to improve broadband provision, and investment in mobile coverage and drastically improving the rail network. To give an example, in Scotland every year we provide more than £1 billion for public transport and other sustainable options. I know from personal experience of visiting and holidaying in Wales—I spent some time in the summer of 2016 in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) in north Wales and I echo what he says about connectivity—that the rail network is particularly poor and could do with upgrading. The hon. Member for Ceredigion has already outlined why and how that can be done, including a rail link between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.
Before I conclude, I want to say a word about how we support the most vulnerable and those on low incomes in our rural communities. With respect, my advice is perhaps aimed more at colleagues on the Labour benches, who would do well to take a leaf out of the SNP Scottish Government’s book and axe the bedroom tax and the public sector pay cap, which affects people in rural communities. Delivering for the many, not the few, cannot just be a soundbite. It needs to be backed up with action, because with devolved power comes devolved responsibility, and there is a moral responsibility on the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff to act here too.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to indicate how he is going to lift the public sector pay cap, I am happy to give way.
I think the hon. Gentleman will find the bedroom tax is not devolved in Wales.
My understanding is that the Welsh Government have spent something like 0.44% of what the SNP Government have spent on discretionary housing payments. I am happy to give way again if the right hon. Gentleman wants to correct that. I see he does not want to.
Wales cannot be stuck between an isolationist Government in Westminster and a lethargic Government in Wales. I very much commend the hon. Member for Ceredigion for bringing this matter to the House.
Let me first congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake). To have a debate this late in the day and to have 10 Welsh MPs here shows the importance of the subject; to have five of them from north Wales and five of them Labour shows the importance of the debate to north Wales.
It is vital that we carefully consider how rural Wales can respond to increasing digitisation, the global economy and the challenges of leaving the European Union in a time of austerity. The Welsh Labour Government are committed to the success of their rural communities and have rolled out several initiatives to that end, but law makers in Cardiff have had their hands tied. The most recent Welsh Government budget, published in October, has been developed against a backdrop of unprecedented cuts and ongoing austerity.
In the referendum, the people of Wales did not give carte blanche to this Government to leave the single market or the customs union, or to make Wales and people in rural Wales poorer. Access to the single market and customs union membership, whether permanently or in a transitional period before long-term arrangements can be made, is necessary to provide the economic activity and jobs on which a sustainable future for rural Wales can be built. That is true of the UK generally, but especially in Wales where our economy has depended on EU funds for so many years. That investment is really appreciated in Wales, particularly by farmers and the farming community.
As has already been quoted, 67% of Welsh exports went to the EU. The corresponding figure for all food and live animal exports was 83%; for meat exports, it was 93%. Agricultural goods generally carry higher import tariffs than other commodities, and if this Government fail to secure tariff-free trade post-Brexit, the effects will devastate the Welsh agricultural sector overnight.
Brexit also raises challenges for Wales in the way of European subsidies and structural funds. The Minister will be aware—I have mentioned this time and again—that I helped to secure European structural funds for his county of Conwy and for my county of Denbighshire.
The Minister should know that history. It is a huge amount of money for the whole of Wales—€320 million per year in direct subsidies from the common agricultural policy, with a further €355 million to support rural development.
I ask the Minister, as I have asked him before, to make sure that we have extra funding beyond 2020. Our urban and rural communities have been supported by extra funds from Europe over the past 17 years. We want to be treated as well by Westminster as we have been by Brussels. We have had a big dollop of jam—a big dollop of funding—for Wales. We do not want it taken away and for the jam to be spread thinly across the whole of the UK. We need that funding and the Minister must do his job and make sure that we get it.
On productivity and broadband, thanks to the efforts of the Welsh Labour Government, unemployment in rural Wales in 2016 decreased roughly in line with the Welsh average of 4% and productivity continues to increase. However, productivity in rural communities still lags behind the Welsh average. The Welsh Government recognise that and are helping boost productivity with the “Superfast Cymru” project, rolling out superfast broadband across the country. In an increasingly digital economy, the effects of high-speed internet are really needed in our rural communities. Sadly, Wales’s biggest export has been our young people. There has been a brain drain out of Wales for decades. Superfast broadband offers a chance to stop and reverse that. People want to live in rural communities, especially when they are bringing up families. To do that, they need access to superfast broadband to make sure that they can conduct their digital businesses from areas such as rural Wales.
I just want to touch on the north Wales and the mid-Wales growth funds. I ask the Minister to ensure that the funding allocated to those projects is as great as the funding allocated to city deals in England and Wales.
If the Minister concludes his remarks no later than 5.27 pm, that will allow Mr Lake time to sum up the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I also join in the congratulations for the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on what was a very constructive speech and the tributes to his predecessor, who was also always constructive in this Chamber.
We have had a wide-ranging and constructive debate. It is a pleasure to be able to highlight some of the success stories and some of the work that needs to be done. The hon. Gentleman highlighted the need for a mid-Wales growth deal, although he was not particularly generous in his support for the comments made by the Chancellor in the Budget. I think it is a major step forward.
Since 2015, we have had a city deal for Cardiff and the 10 local authorities surrounding Cardiff and we have had a regional deal for Swansea—not just for Swansea, but for Swansea and the region surrounding Swansea, including Carmarthenshire, Neath, Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire. We are working on a growth deal for north Wales; I had the privilege yesterday to be at the acceptance of the bid from north Wales. I was joined at the session by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). It was a constructive session and there was engagement across the political spectrum. We had leaders of local authorities in north Wales of all political colours. We had a Plaid leader in the session, a Plaid member who was also a leader but not currently a Plaid leader. I am not quite sure what is going on in my own county of Conwy, but we do have a good leader, who was there, and we also had leaders from other north Wales counties, who were of a Labour party persuasion.
I want to say on the record what I have said to the Minister privately—that he should involve Welsh MPs from north Wales in the growth deal. Yes, let us have bottom up and get the bid, but we have a mandate from the communities as well.
I am absolutely delighted to welcome that comment. It was great to see the hon. Member for Wrexham there. In addition, I am engaging with north Wales MPs and there will be a roundtable session in Gwydyr House with the bid authors and north Wales MPs in due course.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) made a very important point in highlighting the fact that growth deals are bottom up. The key thing is that the proposals from north Wales were coming in from local authorities representing the whole of north Wales. Our responsibility down here in Westminster—the responsibility of the UK Government—and the responsibly of the Welsh Government is to work constructively with the partners in north Wales.
This is the template for an approach for mid-Wales. One of the key things I am aware of as a UK Government Minister representing Wales is the importance of ensuring that we do not forget mid-Wales. One of the key things that we highlighted in the Budget is that, although of course we need to deliver a growth deal for north Wales—after all, in the context of this debate, a significant part of north Wales can undoubtedly be described as rural—we also need to deliver for mid-Wales. I want to be able to stand up and say categorically that we will have delivered growth deals for every single local authority in Wales. We have already delivered for 14 local authorities in south Wales. We are working with the six in north Wales, and we are opening the door to a deal in mid-Wales.
We passionately believe that such deals should come from the bottom up. That is why, in the discussions with the leader of Gwynedd County Council and the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, and in the discussions that Lord Bourne, my fellow Minister in the Wales Office, had yesterday with the chief executive of Ceredigion Council and the vice-chancellor of Aberystwyth University, we were very clear that we do not think that the mid-Wales deal has to be confined to Powys and Ceredigion.
I am sure the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) is aware of examples in Scotland of counties involved in more than one growth deal. We are keen to ensure that if the proposers from mid-Wales say that they want involvement from south Gwynedd—Meirionnydd, for example—Dyffryn Teifi in Carmarthenshire or even north Pembrokeshire, that is something we can look at, because we want to work to deliver the growth deals that are needed in every part of Wales. If people are telling us that the way to do that is to expand or to work as two counties in mid-Wales, we will listen. I am pleased to say in the spirit of co-operation that, over the past few years, the relationship with the Welsh Government Minister for the economy has been extremely constructive.
One thing that has been highlighted in this debate is that we have an east-west issue in relation to economic development. I would argue—perhaps some Opposition Members would agree—that there was perhaps too much emphasis in the early years of devolution on strengthening ties within Wales, which was perfectly understandable. When a new institution is being created for Wales, there needs to be a coherence to Wales. But we also need to recognise the economic realities, including the links between Newport and Bristol, and the cross-border links in north-east Wales. We need to ensure we have a strong Welsh economy that is able to work with our partners in other parts of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn said that Wales is not a peripheral region. I could not agree more. The north Wales growth deal can link to the northern powerhouse and the success stories that are Manchester and Leeds, and a sector deal for the nuclear industry could make a huge difference not just for north-west Wales, but for the entirety of the north Wales economy and the north-west of England economy. That shows clearly that we are not a peripheral region and that we have a huge contribution to make.
I want to touch quickly on the involvement of universities. The hon. Member for Ceredigion was absolutely right to highlight the importance of universities for economic development. He is fortunate to represent not one but two universities in his constituency. The contribution of Glyndwr University and Bangor University to the north Wales growth deal is an example of what can be done. I was pleased that Lord Bourne met the vice-chancellor of Aberystwyth yesterday, because universities will have a crucial role in any mid-Wales growth deal. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to highlight the importance of the university and further education sector in developing growth deals.
I am aware that time is short, so I will highlight some other issues that were raised in debate. Concerns were raised about broadband connectivity. Listening to the hon. Gentleman, I could be forgiven for thinking that I was listening to his predecessor. Broadband connectivity in Ceredigion is indeed a very serious issue, as it is in many parts of rural Wales, although there are some areas where that is not the case. For example, the connectivity in Aberdaron on the Llŷn peninsular, which is much better than the connectivity in the majority of my constituency, is an example of what can be done. Rural Wales can be served if there is a desire to serve rural Wales, but we need some honesty in this Chamber. For broadband connectivity to be supplied across Wales, there has to be a partnership between the private sector, the Welsh Government and the UK Government.
Back in September, I announced the £56 million of addition spending to be made available through the claw-back on the contract with BT, but it is disappointing that that figure was lower than the 11% secured for Wales in 2011 because take-up in Wales had been lower. There has been a lack of transparency in Wales about why and how the priorities for rolling out broadband were set. It is unacceptable that Ceredigion—an area with two universities, which can make such a contribution to our rural economy—has been so ill-served by the way the Welsh Government have rolled out the contract. We can rectify the situation, and we need to do so, but that can be done only if we work together.
I expected that the agricultural sector would be more of a key part of this debate. We understand the importance of the agricultural sector for Ceredigion and most of rural Wales, including Powys. The Government have gone a long way in trying to reassure the sector. First, we guaranteed that the funding will be in place until 2020. We also said that there will be comparable funding until 2022. I hear what the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) is saying about getting guarantees post-2022, but a funding guarantee until after 2022 would be a longer period of certainty than we would have had if we had decided to remain within the European Union. The farming community appreciates that guarantee.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn made an important point, which I am happy to accept, about the importance of ensuring that our share of future agricultural funding is based on the historical trend, rather than a Barnett-based system. The Wales Office and Ministers representing Wales in the Wales Office will be making that case, but we have to do so with sensitivity because we cannot say to the Welsh Government, “This is a chunk of money for you, but you must spend it on this specific area.” If we did that, we would be accused of a power grab.
Will the Minister give way?
I am afraid I cannot take an intervention from the hon. Lady because I am coming to the end of my speech.
This has been a constructive debate and the Wales Office is more than delighted to continue it with hon. Members. Our door is always open. The way we are working in north Wales and the way we have worked with the city deals in south Wales show what can be done when we work together on a cross-party, cross-governmental basis. I want to be part of a success story in mid-Wales to follow on from the success story in north Wales.
Thank you for chairing this debate, Mr Hollobone. It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank all Members of Parliament—particularly the 10 Welsh Members of Parliament—who attended. That reflects the importance of the rural economy for Members of Parliament from Wales.
I outlined some of the problems facing the future of the rural economy, and we have had a broad discussion about them. We have covered issues relating to what our relationship with the European Union means for our trading arrangements and the future of rural development payments. We also outlined some of the possibilities and opportunities for the rural economy in Wales.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) set out the problem of centralisation and the need for decentralisation. It would send a very strong signal if the UK and Welsh Governments were able to decentralise a lot more of their institutions to rural areas. I am fortunate in Ceredigion to have a Welsh Government building in Aberystwyth, but perhaps there is more we could do to implement that.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has highlighted that point. Is he as disappointed as me that the Minister did not refer to that? The Government have responsibility for it, and by keeping agencies open they would help local economies.
I agree. The Government, and the public sector more broadly, can play a very important role in investing and locating agencies in more rural areas. That would send a signal—a vote of confidence in rural areas—to the private sector that the countryside is open for business, as I said earlier.
I am conscious that time is getting the better of me. We have an opportunity with the growth deal in particular to work on a cross-party basis. This debate has been constructive, which can only be a good thing. We have an opportunity not only to safeguard the current rural economy, but to lay the foundations of the rural economy of tomorrow. Making better use of our higher education institutions and improving connectivity would be a great way to start. Just like decentralising some of the Government agencies, getting the growth deal right would send a clear signal to the outside world—to businesses and entrepreneurs—that the countryside is open for business, and that they should locate our businesses with us. Diolch.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the rural economy in Wales.