Tuesday 13 March 2018
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
Diplomatic Service and Resources
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Diplomatic Service and resources.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful for and slightly awed by the array of right hon. and hon. Members present who have much more experience of this issue than I have. It is an extremely important one and I am very grateful to the Minister for being here. I hope that he will be able to address some of the points that I and others raise.
We exist at a time of the greatest turbulence and change. With Brexit, we have the resulting need to engage as never before with countries around the world. We see, never more than this week, challenges to the rules-based order. We see the rise of new powers, such as China, which is stamping its mark on the world politically, economically and militarily on a scale unimagined a few years ago. We also see the influence of political disrupters across western democracies. This is the time to challenge policy of several Governments and many decades that has led to a decline in our commitment to foreign engagement.
It has been a real privilege for me to travel as a Minister, as a trade envoy, as the leader of the UK’s delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and in other capacities, and to see at first hand the astounding professionalism of our diplomatic staff around the world. Numbers are not everything. Having a fluent Arabic-speaking middle east expert as our ambassador to Iraq with the President’s personal mobile number on his speed dial is of incalculable value. However, we have reached a critical moment in our ability to promote our interests abroad.
I had a conversation yesterday with Lord Waldegrave. He has spent time as a Minister in both the Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and he said, in a way that was somewhat light-hearted but nevertheless heartfelt, that in his impression there has been a multi-decadal battle between the Treasury and the FCO, which the Treasury has now won—a battle between the two great Departments of state that vie for influence with No. 10 and across Government. Two decades ago, it was deemed the right thing to hive off international development to a new Department. Part of that perhaps was a good thing at the time, but I have always felt that part of it was distaste for the concept that aid and influence could ever go together. For me, that has never been a problem: of course they can, and they should.
In some areas, the European Union was seen by some as the deliverer of our overseas influence.
My right hon. Friend talks about the Treasury and other Departments. Obviously, the Department for International Development has had successive incredible spending rounds. Does he agree that the military attaché network, which he and I have seen in places such as Africa, does a huge amount of good in terms of influence and building those relationships? Surely, in countries that are basically aid-dependent, DFID should be paying for that network.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Later in my speech, I will talk about defence attachés and how we can copy the way that other countries do that better.
I have travelled to parts of the world where the Union flag might exist in the corner of an island state’s flag but there is no Union flag flying over anything that could resemble a high commission, embassy or diplomatic mission. All aid to the Pacific region was delivered through the EU; I could not find one sign of recognition of the sacrifice that the UK taxpayer made to provide that much-needed aid—it all had the EU mark on it.
Well before 2010, embassies were being sold off. They were bricks and mortar whose value in terms of influence vastly outweighed their real estate value. Our missions abroad were reduced and our diplomatic service language school was closed. After 2010, some good things started to happen: the language school was reopened; embassies that had been closed were reopened. But what that really meant was that our diplomatic missions abroad were marginally broader, but shallower too. I was in Mali just as we reopened our embassy there. An excellent ambassador arrived and she took over with a staff of one locally recruited driver. According to the FCO figures, there are now three FCO personnel there.
This year, the Government will spend £2.15 billion on the winter fuel allowance—a welfare element that we all support—but that is more than the £2 billion we spend on our foreign affairs budget. Let us compare how France and Germany—two similar-sized countries, both in the EU—manage their diplomatic services abroad. France spends £4.2 billion on its diplomatic service—more than twice what we spend on ours. As a country, it has a clear view that in order to maintain its P5 status it will stay true to its spheres of influence. Our 30-year bout of post-colonial guilt syndrome in this country, which may well have abated now, never seemed to have a parallel in the French psyche. France maintains a very clear involvement and commitment to countries in north and west Africa in particular, but also across the middle east. It maintains a much more permanent presence in areas where it has a history of influence.
I am listening closely to what my right hon. Friend is saying. I believe that even some former French colonies are represented in the French Parliament, unlike here. At the end of the day, it is worth remembering that France has Francophonie; they look with envy at the Commonwealth, which is an organisation that they are unable to replicate. They rather wonder at it. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend will mention the Commonwealth in his speech.
I certainly will. Our commitment to the Commonwealth is at the forefront of our minds, with the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting about to take place. There are some very important Commonwealth countries that we owe more attention to. We must see this as a very important part of our foreign engagement in the years ahead. There has not been a more important time for the Commonwealth to exist, and for the Government to have a clear strategy of supporting it both economically and using all the soft-power influence we can, to ensure that this wide variety of economies and countries united by a set of values can be a key part of our foreign engagement in future.
I do not know how many diplomats France deploys in the Central African Republic, Niger or Senegal, but I bet it is many more than the two we have in Lusaka, the two we have in Gaborone or even the seven we have in Harare, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report and accounts.
My right hon. Friend mentions Zimbabwe; I was there recently and I noticed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID sit together in the same building. It is clear, when looking at it, what a remarkable success that is; they each act as a force multiplier to each other. It would be just as well if that was replicated the whole way across the foreign service.
I could not agree more. I saw a similar one-post operation in Addis Ababa, where our excellent ambassador, Susanna Moorehead, has forged a team that includes representatives of DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Trade into one cohesive force. They certainly punch above their weight, and they are able to influence things as a result. I particularly note what my right hon. Friend said about Zimbabwe. There has never been a more important time for us to engage there. If we allow ourselves to be optimistic, there is the chance that Zimbabwe will emerge from the tragedy of recent decades.
Will my right hon. Friend also consider the influence that small missions can have? For example, in the past seven years we have opened embassies in Abidjan, Juba and Antananarivo. Although they have only one FCO-employed official and some locally employed staff, they deliver huge influence and are very warmly received by the host country. Surely we should do that more in Africa and the Pacific.
I could not agree more. As I said, numbers are not everything. Diplomats’ ability to influence and to project Britain’s engagement abroad is of course down to the skill of individuals and their capacity to get that message across. The number of countries where we do not have anyone is missing from the list of personnel in the FCO’s annual report and accounts. We need to look at that.
I said that I would come back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) made about defence attachés. France deploys a cadre of highly professional defence attachés who are proficient in local languages and who develop their careers and are rewarded as resident experts in countries across the middle east and north and west Africa. They often attend local staff colleges. Their career involvement in the regions to which they are posted is considered a virtue. I, too, have met some outstanding defence attachés. I know that there has been a change in recent years to try to develop longer-term postings, and that we send people to staff colleges, for example. However, the French colonel I met who had a direct way in to the Minister of Defence in a particular country had that because he had been in that region for 15 years, was fluent in the language and had embedded himself in the politics of the region.
Developing my right hon. Friend’s theme, I too have experience of the outstanding work that defence attachés do in our NATO partner countries, such as the United States, and way beyond, in the Gulf and the far east. Their role extends further than military-to-military relationships; they also play a vital role in assisting commercial exploitation of defence capability and supporting British companies that seek to secure defence and security orders overseas.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The role of defence attachés in our defence manufacturing capability and our ability to market that important part of our economy is so important. I entirely support what he says.
France also has a truly impressive integrated soft power strategy. The opening of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi is a key indicator of that. Off the back of Government investment—not private investment, but cultural investment by the Government—flows influence that directly benefits France’s Exchequer. It is hard to compare like with like, but it is possible to argue that Germany spends about three times what we spend on its posts abroad. Even if we strip it down, it spends at least £4.6 billion, which is well over twice what we spend. We spend way more than Germany on development aid in Zambia, yet we employ about 11 people to deliver it, while Germany has around 150 people delivering its aid projects there. That is because we deliver our aid through a variety of organisations, including non-governmental organisations and international institutions such as the World Bank, whereas Germany uses a well-developed cadre of in-country experts in education, health, agriculture and other disciplines to implement its projects. At the end of the day, that means that German taxpayers get a better deal because German business is intrinsically linked to the soft power investment that its Government makes.
I am here not just to whinge, but to suggest a way forward. I want the Minister to reassure us. If he cannot, I want him to take on board the genuine concerns of people who have seen how our country operates abroad and believe that, impressive though that is, we need a dynamic shift in our ability to engage in the dangerous and highly competitive world in which we find ourselves. Can he assure us that every penny of official development assistance that can be used to develop a growing number of highly professional diplomats, defence attachés and other personnel is being used to maintain us as a relevant power in the coming decades? Can he convince me that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office understands Africa? Does he understand my concern, as someone who has travelled widely in Africa and was for some years our trade envoy in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, that our position as a favoured partner may be under threat?
In a few years’ time, a quarter of the world’s population will live in Africa. It is a continent of huge natural resources and has massive potential as a partner in trade and so many other areas, but it feels like Britain risks being left behind. China’s investments abroad are not altruistic. In many ways, what it is doing is good—I have seen new roads, electricity generation projects and vast business parks, including in Ethiopia, that are changing people’s lives and providing wealth and opportunities for female empowerment, among other things—but it has a massive benefit to China, too. There can be a similar benefit to Britain if we play to our strengths on a continent where we are still admired and where such things as our language and our time zone are distinct advantages.
The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs was in Paris the other day. We had an interesting discussion about how Britain and France can co-operate in Africa. There are countries where the former colonial power is not well regarded. We have been able to play an important role in places where France is the former colonial power—Mali, the Sahel and so on—in return for exactly the same co-operation where we are the former colonial power. Now that we are leaving the European Union, I wonder whether we need to be wise about how we manage our relations with our European allies.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Our trade envoy, Lord Risby, is doing great work in countries such as Algeria in promoting what we do. I have not heard this from him, but I imagine that he is able to have conversations that the French perhaps find it harder to have. On defence engagement, we are using the Lancaster House agreement to our benefit. We are assisting the French forces in Mali with lift—with helicopters and things like that. That partnership in the fight against terrorism—against organisations such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab—delivers influence and benefit in a variety of ways.
My final point is that Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office require political intelligence.
Perhaps I should have worded that better. They require intelligence about what is going on politically in those countries. They need to know who is on the rise in different parties, who the new influences are and who could be the next generation of leaders. Our diplomats provide that intelligence superbly, but Parliament should hold the Executive to account to ensure that we have enough of them and that we have them in the right places.
I argue that there should be a new strategy, even if we were not leaving the EU. However, Brexit brings a new urgency to our deliberations. It is not too late to see a paradigm shift in our strategy, but influence is hard won and easily lost. We need to understand that with influence comes jobs at home and stability abroad. That is something that even the Treasury should understand.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on putting the case forward so ably, as he always does when bringing issues to the House for consideration.
Many in the Chamber are Brexiteers; some are not, but we are moving forward none the less. It is well known that I am a Brexiteer for many reasons, including so that we can be a sovereign democratic nation, decide what the rule of law is and how it should be interpreted, and set our own foreign and domestic policies to sow into our economy, instead of upholding those of other countries who have nothing but contempt for us and everything we stand for. When I was looking into the debate and getting background information about it, that is what my heart was saying, but that was not enough. We needed to know that we could survive outside Europe—the figures needed to be found and the numbers crunched. They determined that, yes, we could survive, but more than that, we could thrive as a nation in our own right once again by becoming the global Britain that we have heard so much about. How do we do that? That is why this debate is important.
The first step is to enhance the links we have now, taking the complete focus off Europe while firming up our trade partnerships there, and exploring other relationships outside that. We need the diplomatic service and resources to make that happen.
Is it not the case that if industries such as food and drink, which has a deep presence in my constituency, are to make the most of post-Brexit export market opportunities, we need more than ever a well-resourced diplomatic service with a genuinely global reach?
I agree. Each of us in the Chamber can speak for our own food and drink sectors. I am pleased to have Portavogie prawns and Comber potatoes in my constituency, both of which are names in their own right across Europe, and we want to see them across the whole of the world. We will build on that trade to make that happen. A number of new gin distilleries are also starting up: two have done so in my constituency in the last year and a half, and the hon. Lady probably has those as well. The sector is growing, and we want to ensure that that continues.
But according to the Prime Minister yesterday, the biggest threat we face at the moment relates to Russia. We have been proud that, over the past few years, we have managed to go to European Council meetings and get the rest of the European Union to sign up to international sanctions against Russia. At the moment, the Prime Minister is speaking to Macron and, no doubt, Merkel and other leaders around Europe to try to get the whole of Europe signed up to a common position. That will be vital to us. It will be much more difficult for us to achieve that when in future we will not get to sit at the table when common security and defence policy is agreed. How does the hon. Gentleman think that will happen?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his “but.” It is always good to have his input. Let us be honest: we all see the common threat, which at this time is Russia, as the Prime Minister told us yesterday in the Chamber. It is across the fronts of all the papers and front-page news on the media today. Already, France, Germany and other European partners recognise the common threat of Russia. I am confident, as I hope he is, about how we can espy the common enemy, understand where the focus has to be and then move forward accordingly.
An oft-cited statistic on trade with the Commonwealth bears repeating: in 2015, UK exports of goods and services to the Commonwealth were worth some £47.4 billion, while imports were worth £45.5 billion. The right hon. Member for Newbury referred to the Commonwealth, and we cannot forget about it. It is important for us to have it in place.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in all walks of life and every organisation, there comes a time when reinvigoration and renewals is needed, and the diplomatic service is no different from any other? If we are moving away from the European Union, we need to be at the top of our game and, as has been mentioned, have proper staff in place to take us forward into the next century.
Yes, we do need to invigorate. It is like a marriage: every now and again we need to invigorate it. It is important that we do so at this level, and that we do it well.
Those statistics on Commonwealth exports and imports give us a good idea. It is clear that great work is being done, but there is massive potential for more to be done. We are looking at how we can advance that. The UK’s trade is heavily focused on a small number of the 51 Commonwealth countries: in 2015, Australia, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa accounted for 70% of UK exports to Commonwealth countries and 65% of imports from the Commonwealth. Those are massive figures, but we can build on that and do better.
How are trade links to be developed to deliver their full potential? A big key is through our Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Minister and the embassies. I know the Minister is committed to that at every level. Our teams in the embassies do a phenomenal job. I spoke recently in a debate highlighting the great work that the FCO did in bringing the body of one of my constituents home, and praise goes to the FCO for the marvellous work it does, but that case showed clearly that it could help so quickly and bring so much relief and peace to a grieving family because there was someone on the ground to sort it out. That was because we already have phenomenal staff in the embassies doing great work.
My hon. Friend has given one example from his constituency, but does he agree that we need to see more of what the diplomatic service does in many countries, which is work in alerting the United Kingdom Government of international security consequences and relief that can be offered in terms of Africa as well as the business of creating trade, which benefits both the recipient country and ourselves?
My hon. Friend is right. The work that the embassies do cannot and does not happen when we are busy bringing people from our embassies into our EU embassies. We cannot afford to continue to have our focus split in such a way by robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is necessary to have trading partnerships in place in Europe, but it is also necessary to have representation globally, outside of Europe. That is where our focus should and must be as of now, and particularly as of 31 March 2019.
The FCO feels the same way, which is why it has sold off part of the family silver in the form of the Bangkok embassy. I understand that prime real estate can be sold to help make the changes needed to evolve the FCO while maintaining a presence, but my fear has been succinctly put in the words of a Guardian article, which cited a former Minister saying:
“Yes, we can sell the family silver for a bit and, yes, we punch above our weight, but unless we are careful, we are about to step into the ring with people way above our weight and without any gloves.”
We must be careful about what we do—that is the gist of that article. I want to take this opportunity to impress upon Government and the Minister how essential it is that funding is given to allow the FCO to do what we ask it to do: to establish a presence, build on that presence, and ensure that the links and support on the ground are there. The right hon. Member for Newbury put down a clear marker for that in his introduction.
To take this matter to a constituency level—everything relates to back home in our constituencies—I am currently working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to attempt to circumnavigate the mounds of red tape that exist between differing nations such as China and ourselves.
A business in my constituency is ready with a product and raring to go in China, yet it is being held up by the wording on a veterinary certificate. It is immensely frustrating to see how people can introduce words to become obstacles to moving forward. We have been negotiating and working on this—I praise that Minister, who is going through the same frustration—and it is clear that in such situations our Departments need the help and guidance of the FCO.
In achieving for constituents and businesses in the UK, we achieve for ourselves. When a business in Ards thrives and takes on more staff, my local economy thrives. Because of the nature of tax, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs also thrives, and therefore on the national level we thrive as well. To do that we need staff on the ground in those countries to help departments, and we cannot have them all sent off to shore up embassies in Europe. We must send those staff where we will need them in the future. We must be able to work both inside and outside Europe, and to do that we must have the finance and staff in place. That is where we are at present.
The point of this motion, at least for me, and most certainly my take on it, is that for us to succeed globally we must be present and effective globally. That will not happen if we scale back globally to focus on Europe alone. Hopefully the Minister will confirm that we are branching out and developing our embassies across the world, taking up global opportunities and doing all the things referred to by my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). We should be helping people in other countries, but also trying to advance our export and import trade.
I understand that the Department is in a difficult position, but we need to play the long game, which I do not believe means pulling back in other nations. We must keep the gloves on and be prepared to fight for our global position, and not allow Europe to seem to be the be-all and end-all of our future aims and strategies—that is why we voted to leave the European Union. Let me be clear: I must not be misunderstood as saying that we should pull out of Europe—certainly not. Trade with Europe is important for our future, but so is global trade and we must find a way of doing both and doing them well. That will mean recruiting more and spending more now, as well as in the long term, and receiving more for all our benefits. I implore the Minister: sell no more family silver, and instead focus on polishing what we have and putting it to the best use possible.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on his excellent speech in opening this important and serious debate. I will not respond to what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he is also my friend—said, other than to remind him of famous lines written in worse days: “To hell with the future and God bless the past, and may God in his mercy look down on Belfast.” I think that to characterise the situation with the European Union in the way that he did is not sensible or helpful to his constituents.
I will commence my remarks by paying tribute to the Foreign Office and all those who work there. What it now achieves on its very, very limited budget is exceptional. Generally speaking, the standard of our people and our representation abroad is astonishingly good, as my right hon. Friend made clear. I hope the House will acknowledge that, and thank those staff and praise them for their efforts.
I strongly endorse the words of my hon. Friends the Members for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) and for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) about military attachés. When I was Minister of State for the Armed Forces I used to interview every military attaché personally, because I believe it is a significant and important position within an embassy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow said, military attachés are part of the golden currency and their role is far wider than just the military. In places such as the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and particularly in the middle east where the golden currency is relationships, those military attachés play a vital role that should be seen—as indeed it is—not as a sort of job at the end of a distinguished career, but as a job for someone very much on the way up. It is an important part of our diplomatic effort.
It seems yet another act of self-inflicted British mutilation that, at a time when the risks and problems abroad are ever increasing, and when through a very poor decision this country has decided to leave the European Union and make our way in a complex and difficult world alone, we should so ill resource our Foreign Office. We must put that right immediately. Contrary to what most of the tabloid press believe, this country is not a superpower, and it is inevitable that our influence—already sadly but quite clearly on the wane—will further decrease as the realities of the folly of our exit from the European Union become clear. A middle-ranking power, for that is what we are, must work very hard indeed to protect and further its interests. It must burnish and sustain its alliances, networks and friendships to keep them in good working order, and above all in good repair, ready for the day when we need them for the big stuff. Such a day is today, and the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister, and all those concerned will be doing all they can to bring our allies and friends alongside us in the very difficult task that we have over the next 24 hours when dealing with the Russians.
To continue that theme, if we are to have any credibility, and ultimately if we are to maintain our seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is it not ever more important to stamp what the United Kingdom stands for around the world, and redouble our commitment to NATO and other organisations?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. He was a distinguished and successful Foreign Office Minister, and he has seen all these things in action. He is completely right: we will have to redouble all our efforts, call in all our chips, and work very hard to retain our influence and position on the world stage. That is an incontestable fact.
Some people have suggested in recent months that after Brexit, instead of spending so much time on Brussels, we should spend more time on other European capitals. My feeling is exactly the opposite: to secure the foreign policy and security outcomes we want, will we not have to double our efforts in Brussels to ensure that we win arguments?
I agree, and I would say further that we will have to ride every single horse in the park, not just the European horse. We no longer have a diplomatic network in the way that we used to, because our diplomatic network has been subordinated, in a perfectly sensible way, to working within the European Union. We will have to revitalise that, and indeed there is now a great rush to hire people or move them around, to ensure that the embassies are properly equipped. My father was for a time the British Ambassador in Paris. I was in the Army at that time, and I look back on those days, before we were members of the European Union, at the sheer scale of British diplomatic efforts to achieve what we set out to achieve, which was truly remarkable. We will have to replicate that right across Europe in order to retain our position.
I will continue if I may.
These relationships with allies, friends and networks do not just drop into our lap; they require continuous and ceaseless effort, and the most serious diplomatic work. Take the example of the last few months. With our allies we continue to be engaged in an active diplomatic and other campaign to counter Islamist extremism. We have also once again entered an era of deterrence in the face of threatening rhetoric and aggressive behaviour from Russia. While military deterrence must be properly integrated with political, economic, diplomatic and other hybrid deterrence measures, credible conventional military capability remains a vital part of a strategy designed to keep the peace. It also ranks, pari passu, with the diplomatic effort required to ensure the same thing. In an environment of uncertainty, it is essential that we stand with all our diplomatic, military and other assets, ready to reassure, and if necessary defend, our allies in a manner that will force any potential opponents to think twice. As I have said, that requires not just military assets, but most especially our diplomatic reach across the world.
On the news this morning one suggestion made by one of the experts in response to Russia’s actions was that we should withdraw from the World cup in Russia, and instead hold it here in England. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that that would be an impressive way of putting pressure on Russia to bring about change? It is perhaps a diplomatic way—well, it might be an undiplomatic way of doing it, but it is an important way.
I do not think that it is nearly serious enough for the kind of steps that the Government will need to take against Russia. Just to say a lot of dignitaries will not be sent to the World cup is nowhere near good enough. It is a pathetic response. We will need to do much better and be much tougher, so that it is understood across the full spectrum that the behaviour in question is something up with which we will not put.
It is not just a question of money, although that is vital, of course. It is also a question—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury made the point extremely well—of how we marry our hard power, which is sadly considerably diminished, to our exceptional soft power, and ensure that they both work closely together in achieving our diplomatic objectives. It is frankly far too casual and complacent a habit, into which this country falls at the slightest opportunity, to assume that that happens by magic. It is my view that our exceptional and truly remarkable soft power is not well or effectively co-ordinated with our other diplomacy. Indeed, there is a view in the Foreign Office that it should be left well alone to get on with it by itself. The issues of security, development, energy, climate change and all the rest of it have to be worked through in tandem with soft power, as well as with diplomacy, the military, development aid experts and everyone else involved, so that they work together and not in competition.
I want to return to a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has already enlarged on, and mention how extraordinarily impressed I was by our diplomatic mission in Harare—our excellent ambassador and her wonderful staff—and by the DFID staff, who are excellent. They are working together and acting as a force multiplier for the United Kingdom and for our objectives in Zimbabwe. We could not have been so successful in Zimbabwe with that extraordinary aid programme, which is brilliant, without everyone working together. It is a model for the rest of the diplomatic service. There are still places, in the lands of the ungodly, where that does not happen. It is unthinkable, to my mind, that the Foreign Secretary does not issue a fatwa to the effect that it will happen everywhere—and that right soon. It is a ridiculous waste of money and assets for the two to be accommodated separately. They should be accommodated together and work together for British interests.
I cannot believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister believes that it is sensible even to consider closing more diplomatic posts. Indeed, we must now be pretty much at the bare minimum of our representation. We need adequately to staff the smaller posts, so that we do not just have an ambassador and a locally engaged driver. It is all very well having locally engaged staff. They are marvellous and do a good job, and they are very loyal; but they are not, at the end of the day, Brits. We are after promoting our British way of life and our values. I again endorse the point that we must return constantly to making sure that people understand the values of this country as we make our sad way from the European Union. It is right that we re-establish our values as they are. That requires a good, decent diplomatic story.
I also reaffirm my unstinting support and admiration for the BBC World Service and congratulate everyone who works in that extraordinary organisation on the excellent job they do for this country. It would be a foolish short-term measure to reduce in any way the financial support to the BBC World Service, and I look to the Government to give me an assurance that that will not be the case. I endorse the views of the provost, or rather Lord Waldegrave—he is the provost of the school that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury went to—about the winner of the battle between the two great Departments of state, with respect to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. I always used to say—I hasten to say it was as a joke, because I actually got a letter from the Foreign Office stating that it did not work for the Russians—that the Treasury works for the Russians, given how successfully it has undermined our military effort. I wholly support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in the energetic and earnest campaign that he is rightly waging to increase our military spending to about 2.5% as a bare minimum.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned the BBC World Service. Does he agree that in many of the countries that he mentioned, where we need to have one family in one location, the role of the British Council is also extremely important and is a crucial way of building up our soft power, as is the role of the BBC World Service?
My hon. Friend has always been known for his natural exuberance. If he would pause for a second, he would hear the magisterial exposition that I am about to give of the British Council. Another balls-up by Bellingham.
To pre-empt my hon. Friend’s over-excitement, we have a priceless asset in the British Council. I again urge the Foreign Office to accept its vital importance. It is important that it should work extremely closely with the Foreign Office and in the general promotion of the British aim, and that the Government should continue to fund it, recognising the exceptional results that it achieves for Great Britain. I try always, when I am lucky enough to travel abroad, to call on the British Council. I cannot tell you, Mr Bailey, how much I admire the remarkable work done, in place after place where I have been, by the people who work for the British Council. It is extraordinary. They build profound relationships with people—for example, through the learning of English, which hopefully equips people to come here and study. It is part of a greater British effort, and important for that.
There is a compelling—indeed, unassailable—case for Britain to retain and develop its active diplomacy, which means it must be better resourced, and to provide the money needed to do the job properly. We are all struggling to retain a rules-based world, which is clearly in our best interests and which we have always promoted. We have, over the years, been its architect and great supporter, with our American allies and others. It is today a concept under considerable threat. Our country is truly at a crossroads. Our global influence is already coming under considerable pressure and it is essential for the further success, safety and security of this realm that our diplomacy is properly resourced, so that it can do the very good job that it currently does on a shoestring.
Thank you, Mr Bailey, for getting round to this knight, as Sir Lancelot may have said to Guinevere. I am delighted to join in this important debate this morning. I hope that it will not be the last we shall have on the subject.
I do not seek to replicate much of what my right hon. and hon. Friends have said. I just want to pick up on one or two issues, the first of which is our physical global imprint—our estate. I hope to go from here later to a lunch to congratulate James Stourton and Luke White, who have produced a magnificent book called “British Embassies: Their Diplomatic and Architectural History”. It is an extraordinarily good book on Britain’s overseas estate. Looking through it, it is possible to have one of two reactions—to giggle in bemused embarrassment at the awful post-colonial life that our embassies represent, or feel rather proud that we possess some of the finest properties, many of which, incidentally, were gifted to us by the then Heads of State of the host countries. That is something that other countries look on with envy.
In my four and a half years at the Foreign Office, I was pleased to open some rather small embassies that had been closed, in Asunción and in El Salvador, and a consulate in Recife, and so on. It was always a source of pride to be reopening embassies, however small, rather than going around closing them. I cannot think of a single example, in retrospect, about which we can say, “Gosh, weren’t we clever to sell X embassy: we are in much better accommodation now”—Madrid being one of the great disasters. I was rather involved in the Bangkok embassy site; the rationale for the sale was that it was inappropriately located and no longer fit for purpose, although, needless to say, we had just spent some huge amount of money on accommodation on that site. I note with horror what I have picked up on my various visits—that the Chancellery building in Paris, which will be well known to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), whose bedroom no doubt overlooked it for many happy years, is possibly going to be sold. What a ridiculous message it would send to Paris, at the heart of Europe, as we exit the European Union, to sell our Chancellery building on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
My right hon. Friend the Minister does an excellent job in the Foreign Office now. I do not know whether he sits on the body I sat on—the Foreign Office board, where many of these things are discussed. It strikes me, in my experience, that these things are never brought to the attention of Ministers. Perhaps they are brought to the Foreign Secretary, but on the whole they are decided by the permanent under-secretary and others—the mandarins within the Foreign Office. There is absolutely no doubt, to my way of thinking, that these are Treasury-led decisions. It is about saving money, not about looking at our global footprint and where we want to be represented.
In future, whenever there is any discussion, there is an oversight role here for the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which many hon. Members sit, to have a view on any proposed changes to the diplomatic estate globally, and not at the eleventh hour, when the decisions have effectively already been taken. I would like to see that change, and I would welcome the Minister’s view on that.
The Foreign Affairs Committee intends to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. If I can correct one thing, I do not think the Madrid decision was made on a Treasury basis. The old building was difficult to maintain and was listed under Spanish law and all the rest of it, but we did move to the wrong place. I opened it, as it happened—the highest embassy we have in the world, I think, because it is in the highest capital in Europe and on the 75th floor, or whatever. It is virtually inaccessible to lots of people and it was a terrible mistake for us to move there. My biggest concern—
I was in Panama just after we sold one of the few nice buildings in Panama City, on the main corniche, and moved the embassy residence to the suburbs. The ambassador said to me, almost with tears in his eyes, that he could have made a business case for the use of that building that would have allowed us to continue there. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such decisions are often taken with a short-term perspective, which results in a failure to understand not only the long-term business case, but the influence case?
My right hon. Friend is clearly right. I see that on 21 February, in a topical question, I asked that there be a moratorium on any asset disposals until such a review is complete. That question was answered with tremendous agreement by the Foreign Secretary. Let us have a moratorium until we decide what our global footprint will be, and let us have no more selling off of properties until the Foreign Affairs Committee has some formal oversight role.
Another thing I campaigned for, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex touched on briefly in describing his experiences in Zimbabwe, is what I called “one HMG”. I should be interested to hear an update from the Minister on that. Over the years, many different Government Departments have crept into some of these places and have other organisations in many capitals around the world; they include the Scotland Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Often, the ambassador does not have much control over some of these other organisations.
In some countries—I think Nepal was one—the head of the Department for International Development was a much more senior figure than our ambassador and would not kowtow to them. It is my view that, very simply, the individual who represents the British Government abroad is the ambassador, and everybody should work for the ambassador. There should be no discrepancy in employment, accommodation and so on, and where possible, all those other agencies should be brought under the British embassy or the British high commission and co-located on that estate.
That leads me to my next point: we are still shadow-boxing about the independence of DFID. Increasingly, as a lot of the Foreign Office is funded by overseas development money, that skews things and the lines are getting blurred. I wish at some point someone would have the bravery to say that DFID belongs back with the mother ship. We could have huge economies and savings, and greater alignment of British views and values overseas, by bringing it back to the mother ship. To anyone who says, “We can’t do that; all the non-governmental organisations will get too upset,” I say that I do not think the NGOs are in any position to do anything at the moment—at least some of them—and the stock rejoinder to them is, “Look, we stand by our pledge of 0.07% of GDP. That’s our answer. How we actually apply that is up to the Government, not the NGOs.”
We are about to see a major change to the European External Action Service, the force under Federica Mogherini. I always thought it to be pretty hit and miss around the world; it seemed to me very often that the head of the EEAS was always going off to the British embassy to find out the latest intelligence, but we paid a lot of money to the EEAS and a lot of our best people were employed there, on better terms than our own people locally. That is something we want to withdraw; I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on how many British people who currently work for the EEAS will be pulled back into the FCO and where they will be deployed.
Overall, it seems to me that a major piece of work needs to be done—a major realignment of what the UK is seeking to do abroad. That involves the World Service, the British Council and different Departments of State; it involves redefining what we mean by soft power as well as ensuring that that soft power is backed up by a sufficient military capability. It is pointless to have soft power unless we have decent armed forces which, if necessary, can support that soft power. That is a fundamental piece of work that needs to be done, and I am not convinced that it is being done cross-departmentally or that it is being done by Ministers. I believe a Cabinet Sub-Committee should be set up without further ado to bring together all these competing demands on the Exchequer, to articulate what we expect from our superb diplomatic service—the envy of the world—to ensure that it is given the tools to do the job, and to better co-ordinate all the different parts of the state to that end.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this debate. It is one that I seem to find myself in more and more often; I am sure the Minister is thinking, “Oh, not Docherty-Hughes again,” but I am also delighted to see the Minister in their place.
There seems to be a consistent narrative, when we debate the diplomatic service and resources, of concerns about investment from across the entire House. The right hon. Member was right that it is not just a numbers game. It is not just about numbers; they are not everything. Many of the right hon. and hon. Members here, who are far more learned and knowledgeable on these matters than I, will recognise that connectedness and relationships can also be critical in diplomacy and are equally important.
I have just returned from Washington DC with the Defence Committee, where I saw the work of the French diplomatic corps regarding some of the activities on Capitol Hill. Being a member of the European Union has not stopped them covering Capitol Hill like a rash and speaking vocally on behalf of the French Government. That is something that we have clearly forgotten about here in the UK. That is in the practical sense of their own diplomatic activity, but it is also about a recognition of how modern states engage; it is not just about the past, but about modern relationships under the international rule of law.
Clarity is also needed about how we strengthen our diplomatic networks without undermining further the institutional integrity and, importantly, the institutional memory of the FCO. While investment to create what I am led to believe will be 150 jobs to deal with the complexity of Brexit is welcome, we should have clarity that those new jobs do not undermine the capabilities of the FCO’s teams across Asia, Africa and even both of the Americas.
From my perspective, there are clear issues that the Government must consider in moving forward. First, we should recognise the relationships with our closest allies that support and enhance the rule of international law, which is critical if we are to move forward. Secondly, we should utilise diplomacy to enhance economic stability and discourage mercantilism, which undermines liberal democracy. Third—the Minister will no doubt know where I am going with this—we need to recognise the challenges that UK citizens face abroad if, for instance, they are arrested or held without charge. Many nations already have legislative frameworks under which their own diplomatic corps deal with this, but we do not. Consular support would offer clarity to our FCO teams, the families and Members. The Minister probably no doubt knows the example of my constituent, Jagtar Singh Johal, who continues to be held in India.
Fourthly, we should work with devolved Governments across the UK. For example, existing frameworks, such as the Scottish Government’s international framework, could be a useful tool in building those relationships we have in specific locations. We should recognise opportunities to strengthen the devolved Administrations’ offer, such as the work being undertaken by the Scottish Government with the Arctic Council and some of the Nordic states on the high north, where some would say we have key gaps, and also their hubs in Berlin and Paris. As I said to the Prime Minister yesterday after her statement, we should also challenge some of our closest allies, such as Spain—a NATO member—which allows the refuelling and supply of the Russian fleet. Those are the kind of diplomacy implements that we should take forward.
We should also recognise that, with reduced resources, relationships are critical. In Washington DC, I noticed representatives of another European Union country—one with a population of 3 million—covering Capitol Hill in the most extraordinary way, but without a huge embassy to go with it: Ireland. Its diaspora is so interconnected that it could teach us a thing or two.
I have been consistent on how we should deal with Russia. When I turned on Radio Scotland this morning, I have to admit that I thought that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) had suddenly become a Member for a Scottish constituency. However, I did not disagree with the majority of what they had to say. The challenges are clear, and they need to be rebuffed in a coherent and cohesive manner with our allies.
How are we supposed to cover the economic challenges that China poses while wanting to cover all the other bases? The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) wanted us to ride all those horses. Given that we are leaving the European Union, how will we meet that challenge? I understand where they were coming from: it is about how we use our economic challenge to ride the horses such as China, the political, military, economic challenges of Russia and some of the most extraordinary challenges coming out of the United States.
There are great links to be had in the Commonwealth, but there are also huge challenges in how we diplomatically face down challenges to the international rule of law, such as human rights for women, Christians and Muslims—people of all faiths—and the LGBTI community. How do we do that during the complexity of leaving the European Union? Having voted to remain myself, and representing what I would say is a working-class constituency that voted to remain within the European Union, I, and I think the majority of Scottish constituency MPs, have yet to be convinced about the Government’s approach to securing a more stable and peaceful future founded on sound diplomacy.
Finally, on an element of complexity in international law, will the Minister advise us how we will go forward in financing our diplomatic resources—people and those relationships—to make sure that we substantiate and add to the rule of international law and are not a detriment to it?
It is very nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this timely debate. He described the context in which we live at the moment as extremely turbulent, which is undoubtedly true, both in the short term, with our relations with Russia, and also with these big, strategic changes with the growth of China. I agree with him; I saw it 15 months ago in Lusophone Africa, where the Chinese are investing a great deal more than Portugal.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, everything is about context. In 1990, as a Treasury civil servant—we have heard about the divide between the Treasury and the Foreign Office; I am afraid to say that I was a Treasury civil servant—I was sent to Prague. It was obviously a very turbulent time. The Berlin wall had fallen and the Czechoslovak Government were extremely worried that they would face the sort of energy crisis that Ukraine has suffered from, because the Russians were ramping up the prices for the oil and gas that the Czechoslovaks were wholly dependent on.
I was sent to work for a few months in the Czechoslovak Prime Minister’s office. It was a very confused and chaotic time. Havel was in the Castle, but the rest of the Government contained communist members. The first thing I did was report to the head of mission. I went off, and I sat and waited, and the meeting was delayed and delayed. It took place an hour later. When I went in, he was incredibly stressed. I asked him what the matter was, and he said that his servants were on strike and he had been trying to sort it out.
I hope that the Foreign Office has moved on since 1990 in that respect, because it is extremely important that Foreign Office officials project Britain as we are now. I could not agree more with the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on Britain’s place in the world today. We are a middle-sized nation, not a superpower, and it is extremely important that we behave intelligently and appropriately. Fantasising about what we were and where we have been is distinctly unhelpful. He was also absolutely right that, in order to maximise our power and influence at the moment, we need to build relationships, whether with EU colleagues, in the United Nations or in NATO. We will never achieve anything except by collaborating with other countries.
The hon. Lady is making an impressive speech, but may I disagree with her on one tiny point? Although it is important that we do not think that we are what we were, we do have this absolutely wonderful architecture and a brilliant inheritance of vast experience all over the world, in good times and bad times. Our values and everything we stand for are built on rock-firm footings. It is now our job to see that that legacy is expressed in contemporary terms, which requires a much more aggressive approach.
I slightly disagree with the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames). I do not know whether my hon. Friend noticed, but Emmanuel Macron went to India the other day and said, notwithstanding our historic relationship with India, as part of the former empire and all the rest of it, that he intends France to be India’s prime access point to the European Union in the future. We have to be very careful about not relying on the past.
If we leave the European Union, we obviously cannot be the prime access point to the European Union. That stands to reason.
I will come to the soft power assets in a moment, but I just want to say something about the numbers. The Foreign Office budget reduction is slightly unclear. Is it 16%, 30% or 40% over the 10-year period? Whatever it is, it is quite a significant amount of resource. I realise that some of the Foreign Office budget has gone into the Department for International Trade and some into the Department for Exiting the European Union, but the smallest cut that one can glean from looking at the numbers is about 16%, which is none the less extremely large. It seems to me that it is difficult for the Government to project the global Britain role while at the same time reducing resources in the Foreign Office.
Turning to our soft power assets, we are all very proud of the World Service and pleased with the British Council, and we all think that the Commonwealth is a fantastic network. There is another soft power asset, which I think we should look at alongside those assets. I am talking about our universities and higher education. We have soft power assets in this country as well as overseas.
Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to applaud the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the Chevening scholarship programme and the Commonwealth programme? These are hugely important ways of promoting the United Kingdom domestically to an international audience.
Yes, and of course the English language is the root of much of this.
However, I disagree with what was said previously in this debate about overseas aid. The Labour Government set up the Department for International Development as a separate Department in order that we could be absolutely clear that the aid budget had aid objectives—sustainable development objectives—and we have now agreed, on a cross-party basis, on the 0.7% target. We believe that aid has been much more effective and much better because it has not been jumbled up with other policy objectives. In my opinion, the foreign policy benefits from a good aid programme are greater than can be achieved when people try to go along to the Development Assistance Committee and fiddle with the rules, saying, “Oh, couldn’t we please put the hurricane money for the Caribbean into the overseas aid programme?” No. The reason why we get credibility and support from those countries that are receiving our aid is the very high quality of the aid, so I would certainly not wish to pull those two things together again.
One thing that is not very clear in the Foreign Office annual report and accounts is how the money is spent. In particular, it is not clear how the conflict, stability and security fund, which is the share of the budget going from the aid Department to the Foreign Office, is spent. I think the Government should be extremely cautious about merging those two.
I also think we need to put a question mark over the switch from Africa, Latin America and Asia to the European Union. Perhaps the Foreign Office simply does not have enough resource, in which case Foreign Office Ministers need to go back to their colleagues in the Treasury and make the case, but it seems to Opposition Members that if we want to develop our relationships across the globe, we cannot be cutting our resource in those other parts of the world. I submit that the switch of 50 people to the European Union will probably be quite a short-sighted change.
The question is really whether global Britain is a slogan or a policy. As the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs said, there is a risk that it is becoming a slogan rather than a policy. If Ministers need to bid for more money, so be it. We do not see holding to the current limit as necessarily a hard line. We should be investing in our relationships across the globe.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for securing this vital debate on an issue of national importance. I pay tribute to his valuable work on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I know from experience the time-consuming but absorbing nature of its activity, albeit that, by its nature, it is rather unsung and, in theory at least, low profile.
I thank everyone who contributed during the debate; there were some excellent contributions. I shall endeavour to answer all the questions, as I have a little more time than I had anticipated. There are one or two more technical aspects on which I will write to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), if I am able to do so, subsequently.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury rightly talked about the need for a dramatic and dynamic shift of resource. He touched on our Africa strategy. As he will be aware, our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out, at her first G20 meeting in July 2017, a new long-term vision for our partnerships with Africa, centred on supporting African aspirations for economic growth, trade, job creation and investment. Ministers across Her Majesty’s Government have worked closely together to refresh our approach in order to deliver on that vision. We are clear—I reiterate the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury—that our substantial development spend in Africa needs to be directed more broadly towards the UK national interest, as well as supporting those in greatest need in Africa.
Let me touch on the point raised just now by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. I agree with her fundamentally, in that I think it is dangerous for us to look on aid as intermingled with other strands of British interest. We can take, for example, the deteriorating political situation in Cambodia at the moment. We have some important long-term aid programmes in Cambodia that deal with mine clearance and are designed to work for the most vulnerable in that country. The notion that we should hold the Cambodian Government of the day, however much we might disapprove of their work, to ransom in some form in that regard would be quite wrong. Indeed, I made it very clear in my meeting with the Cambodian ambassador only a few weeks ago that we would continue, on exactly the same terms, to fulfil our aid obligations.
However, I do believe that there is at least some mileage in the view that we need to look at this issue. I have sympathy with a number of my right hon. Friends, who talked in their contributions about the idea of DFID coming back into the Foreign Office. There is a sense in which there needs to be a broader focus. Particularly in the post-Brexit world that we will be living in, we need to focus all our energies in a one-Government situation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury talked about official development assistance, which was also raised by the Opposition spokesman. It is right to say that the Foreign Office is and will continue to be a large ODA-spending Department. The Department closely complements DFID’s efforts, and we are trying to deliver on the Government’s aid strategy commitments through our own programmes—in particular, the cross-Whitehall conflict, stability and security fund and the prosperity fund, for which I now have responsibility in the Foreign Office. That also involves grants to external organisations, and our global remit means that we are designing those to deliver a breadth of programming in support of our national security strategy that other Departments simply do not have the resource to do. I believe that programmes of that sort will very evidently begin to add value by responding quickly to specific or niche requirements in volatile environments. I am talking about pursuing higher-risk programmes where political sensitivities require a different approach, but also exploring and testing options before scaling up and unlocking larger interventions by others.
It is recognised that some of the ODA and non-ODA programmes will have to be blended together, in order to secure some of the best outcomes in the future. That applies not just to Africa, but to Asia and the Pacific—an issue close to my heart and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire). I accept that an unintended consequence will be that some aspects of our annual report will be rendered more opaque.
In many ways it would be a pleasure to have a much broader debate, along the lines that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) developed. I hope that we will be able to have further discussions both offline and on the Floor of the House in future. He is well aware that I have a significant amount of sympathy with much of what he said. We need to be realistic about where we are in the future. I will be honest: I gave considerable thought to whether I should be a Minister in this Government. I was, like him, passionately—on emotional and geopolitical grounds as much as anything else—keen that this country should stay in the European Union. Yes, in my heart of hearts, I do believe it was a mistake. However, we have to make it work. I think it is also important that people of my mind play their part within Government, rather than just beyond Government, not to frustrate that Brexit outcome, but to try and make it work as well as we can and to put that voice across.
I do not disagree with what the Minister has just said, but the key thing is how we ensure that we are able to secure the policy outcomes on defence, security and foreign affairs, in relation to places such as Russia, the middle east or Iran, after Brexit. I urge the Foreign Office to do a full review of our presence in Brussels itself, because it will need to become much more like a lobbying operation than it has ever been before.
I have a lot of sympathy with that view and I think there is little doubt that we will need to do that. I saw that when I attended the Foreign Affairs Council only last week, in the stead of the Foreign Secretary.
I will talk a bit about the British Council, because that was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex. I fully recognise the fantastic work of the British Council and its soft power potential post-Brexit. I have seen that with my own eyes in virtually all my overseas visits in Asia, and indeed even last week when I was in Paris. Funding for the British Council has increased over the spending period. There are issues, as I think my right hon. Friend is aware, about the signing off of accounts. We need to get those accounts ready, not just to impress the Treasury, but because I want to be able to make the most aggressive case for the importance of that soft power, and the British Council’s integral importance in that, when we leave the European Union, but that does require the British Council having its financial house in order. We are working closely with the Treasury to try to achieve that impact.
If I may, I will make some progress, as I am now running out of time, having tried to address a number of the issues.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon made strong points about the issues around estates. We have discussed this in the past, but I have to say that I think all of us regret the idea that the embassy building in Bangkok had to be sold off. One rather hopes that having lost Bangkok, it will be the last of such sales. As he is well aware, a considerable amount of that money is being reinvested in improving our estates across the world. I have to say, I have not heard in any way the issue he raised about the Paris Chancellery. As for the EEAS people being sent back by the FCO, I will try and write to him in some detail on that.
I believe that a well-directed, properly funded diplomatic service is vital to delivering the United Kingdom’s overseas objectives at such a crucial time. The world today is more complex, challenging and costly than at any point since the end of the cold war. At the same time, we are striving to deliver a positive, hopeful, optimistic and, I still hope, a successful exit from the EU, while simultaneously turning our vision of global Britain into reality by increasing further our already significant international reach and influence. It is no underestimate, however, to say today that the UK faces—I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex—its greatest diplomatic challenges in decades.
This Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that the diplomatic service receives the resources it needs to support a resilient and adaptable network, with sufficient capacity to respond decisively to fresh priorities and challenges. This includes exploiting the inevitable opportunities that will arise in a post-Brexit world.
We have some 274 posts in 169 different countries and territories. The FCO’s current overseas network provides a crucial platform from which the 30 other Government Departments and agencies are able to operate. Our diplomats cultivate the deep and nuanced relationships that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to, which provide critical political insight and access. This helps deliver all other aspects of Government policy around the globe. The diplomatic service must remain crucial to delivering that wide range of Government priority work, from counter-terrorism to cultural engagement, and from consular assistance to trade. I have a lot of sympathy with the direct point that was made about the importance of our ambassador or high commissioner being the leading light, irrespective of all the other aspects of the one platform set-up.
Historically, it has been impossible to deliver this at comparatively little investment. As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget this financial year is only £1.2 billion, which represents just 6% of the Government’s expenditure on a major overseas Department. Once cross-Whitehall funds and non-discretionary spending, such as UN subscriptions, are removed, the remaining FCO budget is about £860 million. Delivering diplomacy at a relatively reduced slice of public expenditure in recent years has also been made partially possible through our membership of the European Union. Within the EU we have been able, hitherto, to amplify our voice in a range of international institutions. By leveraging the European Union we have been able to gain influence in countries where we have had a limited presence, such as francophone countries in west Africa. However, as our relationship beyond the European Union evolves, we must all accept that resourcing of the diplomatic service will also need to evolve to ensure that Britain’s voice and influence is not diminished.
I have responsibility for the FCO’s economic diplomacy and I recognise that sector-wide specialism in areas such as technology—whether FinTech or cybersecurity—international energy strategy, pharmaceuticals, and climate change and green finance will enable us to maximise our global impact. This will require not just bilateral co-operation, but a redoubling of our multilateral relationships, whether with the UN, the OECD or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to name just a few.
If I may, I will make progress, because I am running out of time and I really do want to cover all the points.
Needless to say, when it comes to free trade agreements, the single most important deal that the UK shall strike in the years ahead is the one we are able to agree with the EU27. More investment in the diplomatic service is essential, so that it is able to deal with the increasingly complex challenges it faces, so I am pleased that this important task has already begun. Last September, the FCO received almost £6.5 million from the Treasury to help deliver its EU exit priority work. These funds were used to create over 150 new positions across London and the Europe network. I take on board the point raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about the importance of Brussels in that whole set-up. These diplomats are looking to work hard to deliver a new sanctions framework to transition the most crucial third-party agreements, to mitigate the risks of our EU exit for our overseas territories, for example, and to deepen bilateral relationships.
We recognise, however, that other countries are also investing heavily in their overseas networks, as my right hon. Friends have rightly observed. Germany is increasing its budget for its ministry for Foreign Affairs by a third, to some €5.2 billion over a three-year period. The French, the Dutch and the Turks are all investing substantially. Needless to say, in Asia, a part of the world for which I have responsibility, China, India and Japan are all doing likewise. If we are to maintain and increase our global outreach and influence, we need to ensure that the vision of a global Britain is more than just a mantra. I accept that for this, we must ensure that we provide the investment that is required. The FCO will evidently require reinforcements in Asia and the Pacific if the UK’s global and security goals are to be properly achieved.
I have been heartened by the reaction of my ministerial colleagues across Government, as they have been alive to that need, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to work closely with the Treasury to ensure that the diplomatic service is sufficiently resourced, not simply to deliver EU exit and global Britain, but to ensure that they are a success.
I will conclude, as I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury wants to speak briefly. I agree that if the UK is to continue to thrive and not simply survive, it is essential that we address the resource pressures of our diplomatic service. If we are to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the EU exit, I accept that we now need to consider where further investment is needed. I am pleased that we are debating this issue today. I hope that we will continue to debate it. I look forward to working closely with all of my colleagues here, who have this issue so passionately in their heart. Finally, the Government are committed to enabling Britain to have the diplomatic service it needs, as we work to realise our vision of a truly global Britain.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming here and giving such an honest and frank assessment. It was very impressive to hear. I hope he can convey a message back that many of us are looking, over the next few months, for a major setting out of a new strategy for these extraordinary times in which we live. That is going to require looking across the many issues that we have discussed. I am grateful for his reply to us today.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Pneumoconiosis: Support for Former Miners
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for former miners with pneumoconiosis.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the Minister for being here to respond to the debate and colleagues for their attendance.
It is a privilege to have secured my first Westminster Hall debate on a subject of interest to many of my constituents and many in former coalmining communities across the UK. Mansfield has a proud coalmining history, which ended very recently—just a few years ago—when the nearby Thoresby colliery closed. For decades, the community was built around the industry, and we still feel many of its effects.
I applied for this debate because, although coalminers’ pneumoconiosis is not a terribly widely known illness, it is prevalent within mining communities and should receive greater attention. I have been contacted by a number of constituents and unions about this issue, which I am keen to raise directly with Ministers. I am asking the Department for Work and Pensions to work with the Department of Health and Social Care to review the diagnostic tools that are used to assess miners for signs for pneumoconiosis.
Coalminers’ pneumoconiosis is an occupational lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust from coalmines. It is often known as “black lung” and it causes thousands of death each year worldwide. Inhaled coal dust progressively builds up in the lungs over long periods, leading to inflammation of the lungs, fibrosis and even necrosis. The most common symptoms of pneumoconiosis are coughing and shortness of breath. The risk is generally higher when people have been exposed to mineral dust in high concentrations and if they have been exposed to coal dust for long periods.
Coughing and shortness of breath can, of course, be symptoms of a wide range of illnesses, which is partly why pneumoconiosis is often overlooked by health professionals and others. Even when a former miner presents to their GP with those symptoms, it is not always picked up straightaway. Most miners would recognise that a cough is inherent—part of the territory of working in those conditions—and many would not consider it a symptom of anything more than their career underground. Many therefore do not come forward early enough, and this is where the problem lies. We need to do more to encourage this conversation.
Many former miners who present with such symptoms are simply referred as out-patients to their local hospitals for standard chest X-rays. They will have had these X-rays regularly throughout their time in the industry and most will have been told that they have a clean bill of health on that basis. The trouble is that traditional two-dimensional X-ray films often do not show enough detail to diagnose pneumoconiosis, especially when the patient is in the early stages of the disease. The tell-tale sign of the disease is nodules in the lungs, which can be as small as l mm or 2 mm in diameter. When using X-rays for diagnosis, it is usually possible to pick up on pneumoconiosis only at a later stage, when large masses of dense fibrosis have developed in the lungs. By that stage, there is usually a notable decrease in lung function—in effect, it is too late.
A successful diagnosis is also less likely because of the time that has passed since the pits closed. The doctor they see now, who examines the X-ray, is less likely to have specialist knowledge of the industry and related illnesses. They are also less likely to have seen this disease before, so are perhaps less likely to spot it.
For the best results and the quickest analysis, a CT scan is the most effective diagnostic tool. CT scans show the lungs in three dimensions, which provides far greater detail and allows for a more accurate diagnosis. For many of us, it is surprising to learn that there is not a regular screening programme in place for former coalminers to pick up cases of pneumoconiosis and other lung conditions. Many former miners received their last X-ray at work. When miners retire or are made redundant, their access to regular X-rays simply stops. Former miners then tend not to receive another until they present to their GP with symptoms such as breathing difficulties or a persistent cough. Many fear that they have cancer, and are given a CT scan only to find that it is in fact pneumoconiosis.
It is important to note that the latency period for pneumoconiosis is about 10 years, but can be as long as 15 to 20 years. The lack of regular screening once a miner leaves that environment and retires is clearly a problem. I am aware of several cases in my constituency of miners who received the all-clear for pneumoconiosis after getting old-fashioned X-rays at work, but were subsequently diagnosed with pneumoconiosis after CT scans revealed evidence of the disease.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. I have personal experience of lung disease in the family. Both of my grandfathers were miners, and some of their lung issues did not come to the fore until at least a decade after they left the pit. I want to emphasise the importance of what he says: we need to ensure that there is support throughout the process and throughout people’s lives.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a prime example of why it is important that assessment is ongoing and people who used to work down the mines have access to diagnosis and treatment throughout the rest of their lives.
A few years ago, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers decided to run a test case. The UDM paid for five former miners who had recently been made redundant to have CT scans. The men had all received recent occupational X-rays at the colliery, and each had received the all-clear from those scans, but when the five men went for CT scans, two were diagnosed with pneumoconiosis. Interestingly, two of the other three men were diagnosed with other health issues, which had previously been unseen in the X-rays. Four out of five had conditions that required a CT scan to get a diagnosis. Surely it is clear that former mineworkers are at high risk of many different respiratory health problems, and that a CT scan is the most effective tool for diagnosis.
At present, the reality is that without post-retirement screening for pneumoconiosis, and with standard guidance from the DWP and the Department of Health promoting X-rays for testing, many cases are not picked up until it is too late. It is a sad truth that pneumoconiosis is often noted in a patient’s file for the first time when they receive a diagnosis of lung cancer or other advanced respiratory illness. That is clearly unacceptable.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I just want to mention the compensation scheme. When people are deceased, if somebody other than the widow claims for compensation, it is incredibly onerous and expensive and there are many hurdles in the way. Does he agree that that process needs to be simplified and expensive hurdles scrapped?
I agree that it is important that people have access to the compensation that they rightly deserve, and that that should be as simple a process as possible. Key to that is diagnosing the condition in the first place. To get access to that compensation, they have to prove that they have the condition, which has to be diagnosed.
The issue of pneumoconiosis testing has been batted about between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and regional clinical commissioning groups for too long. Miners are rightly entitled to compensation and access to benefits as a result of work-related illnesses including pneumoconiosis. The compensation provides lump-sum payments to sufferers and their dependants. The Government have a duty to look after those who suffer from diseases caused by their working environment. Hard-working coalminers deserve their rightful compensation and disability benefits when their working environment has left them with an incurable illness. If individuals are not diagnosed at an early stage, they miss out on not only vital healthcare but the welfare support that they deserve.
To successfully claim compensation, miners must prove that they have pneumoconiosis. Again, this is where we run into issues. The DWP also relies on X-rays to provide evidence of pneumoconiosis for compensation claims. The compensation assessments are problematic. Former miners are frequently tested with digital X-rays, but even the newer technology struggles to pick up on the true condition of the lungs. Often the image is not clear enough to confidently diagnose pneumoconiosis. In such instances, if their claim is denied by the DWP, the miner will lodge an appeal. That takes considerable time and effort, and it will draw on DWP staff time and resources as applications are processed for a second time. In order to appeal the decision, miners may undergo further diagnostic testing, including the all-important CT scan, which is an additional expense and carries an additional exposure to radiation.
The argument against the use of CT scans usually focuses on two elements. One is the cost of the scans compared to that of X-rays, and the other is increased exposure to radiation. In reality, if coalminers with suspected pneumoconiosis do not receive a scan the first time, they are often exposed to repeated X-rays over a long period and then eventually a CT scan anyway—often when their condition has deteriorated. That is more time- consuming in the long run, ultimately costs more and can involve increased exposure to harmful radiation.
In this debate, I am asking not for a radical change to the testing programme for all lung-related compensation and disability claims, but simply an acknowledgment that former coalminers are at high risk of lung conditions and that the diagnosis of pneumoconiosis, particularly in the early stages, inevitably requires a CT scan rather than an X-ray. There is a clear argument that the Department should consider CT scans as the definitive gold standard for the investigation process in pneumoconiosis claims.
There is a real possibility that thousands of former mineworkers are living with pneumoconiosis, but have no idea that they have the disease. Their occupational X-rays may have showed nothing and, even if they raise health concerns with their GP years later, there is every possibility that they will again receive only an X-ray, which does not show enough detail to diagnose the condition.
The UDM is based in my constituency. I recently met Jeff Wood, the national president, and Ian Gill, the social insurance officer, who work on pneumoconiosis claims. They explained to me in great detail a number of cases that they have personally seen where miners suffered for years without an official diagnosis. It is easy to sit in Parliament and look at issues on paper, but it is important to remember that there are real people behind those studies, and real families who would benefit from a relatively small and easy policy change.
Any former miners who have had unnecessary delays in receiving their diagnosis should receive the compensation and benefits that they are entitled to. I ask the Minister to work with the Department of Health and Social Care to bring about change and to ensure that people who are entitled to support for pneumoconiosis can access it at the earliest opportunity.
There are several clear benefits to the DWP working with the Department of Health and Social Care to replace standard X-rays with CT scans. Earlier diagnosis for patients will allow them to make the necessary lifestyle changes to improve their overall health.
Of course, it is important that everyone involved is encouraged to talk to GPs and to the Government. I am sure that we can do more with that. I mention the UDM simply because it brought the issue to my attention.
We can achieve earlier access to compensation and benefit support from the DWP. There are potential cost savings for the NHS, because an initial CT scan will help to avoid repeated X-rays, GP appointments and out-patient visits, as well as helping the patient to be healthier and less reliant on those services. There will also be a reduction in the number of appeals to the DWP for compensation claims, because the evidence will be provided in the first instance, and a potential reduction in future disability claims, because sufferers will be able to take action sooner to improve their lung function and overall health before it deteriorates.
The DWP needs to take the lead on what is, of course, a work-related disease. In an ideal world, former mineworkers would be offered additional testing at their GP and local health clinics. We need national action because, once again, we face a postcode lottery in terms of the support offered to miners. Some areas fare considerably better than others.
In Mansfield, we are lucky that the unions offer support to former miners. There are also other areas of the country where former miners receive brilliant help and support. In Rotherham, the BreathingSpace community service helps people with a wide range of respiratory conditions. It provides a number of health services but, importantly, also helps individuals and families to access welfare and benefits advice. That is an example of unified working across departments, with benefits advice available in a healthcare setting. As ever, the most successful programmes are those that offer a joined-up approach.
I urge the DWP to support that joined-up approach. Ideally, the DWP and the Department of Health and Social Care will agree that a CT scan is the most effective way to diagnose pneumoconiosis. I ask the Minister to commit to a review into whether her Department’s assessments for pneumoconiosis compensation can use CT scans as the default diagnostic tool. I hope the DWP will work with the Department of Health and Social Care to make that happen. It is a relatively simple change, which should not be too hard to implement but could make a real difference to thousands of former mineworkers and their families.
I understand that the UDM recently met my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) when she was a Minister at the DWP, and she expressed sympathy with its campaign. I hope the new Minister will also be inclined to give the issue the immediate attention it deserves.
It is appalling that former miners are suffering unnecessarily and missing out on the compensation and access to benefits that they deserve. There is a postcode lottery and inconsistent access to CT scans. A national system led by the DWP in co-operation with the Department of Health and Social Care could deliver more effective testing and better results. That could help to cut costs, reduce waiting times and most importantly, provide the best support to individuals at the earliest opportunity.
This is not an abstract discussion. The disease affects large numbers of former miners, including people in my constituency, daily, and their families suffer too. It is a progressive disease, but if sufferers are diagnosed at an early stage, they can receive care and support quickly, and access the compensation and benefits that they deserve. We must not let our former coalminers down.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this important debate. In his short time in the House, he has proven to be an extremely effective constituency MP. I also acknowledge the contribution of his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), who has focused continually on pneumoconiosis and its impact on former miners in his constituency. I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) in the Chamber, and I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield said, pneumoconiosis is a serious disease that is common—too common—among former miners. It is a sad legacy of their exposure to dust, particularly coal dust, while working in the mines. I reassure him that the Government are committed to supporting former miners who have developed pneumoconiosis. Through the industrial injuries scheme, we spend £900 million a year on weekly benefits to support around 300,000 people for injuries arising from industrial accidents or from specific occupationally caused diseases..
In addition, lump sum payments are available through the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. In 2016-17, more than 3,000 people received payments under the scheme totalling almost £42 million. Last month, I was pleased to demonstrate our ongoing commitment to that support by proposing measures to increase the value of lump sum awards by 3% from April. The coal industry pneumoconiosis compensation scheme—sometimes referred to as the coal workers pneumoconiosis scheme—is also available and has received 91,000 claims from mineworkers and their families since it was set up.
The hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) raised the issue of processing applications. I would be pleased to receive details of her concerns, because the devil is always in the detail. By reviewing those constituency cases, I can consider what more we can do to improve the process. We want to ensure that people get the compensation that they richly deserve and are entitled to.
I acknowledge the suffering of individuals with the disease. Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, which arises from the inhalation of coal dust, is one of the most commonly occurring types of pneumoconiosis. Thankfully, many ex-miners with pneumoconiosis will have the simple type, which may not be associated with any disabling effects.
If miners continued to work underground and inhale coal dust, however, they have a higher risk of developing severe disabling effects from progressive massive fibrosis, which affects lung function and causes coughs, wheezing and shortness of breath. That is why working miners are regularly screened by X-ray to identify simple pneumoconiosis early and to remove the person from further dust exposure to prevent progressive massive fibrosis.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and UDM members met my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), to discuss a screening programme for ex-miners using CT scanning or chest X-rays to detect pneumoconiosis. At the end of last year, I consulted with national experts and the deputy chief medical officer on all the issues raised at that meeting.
Importantly, there is a big difference between carrying out medical tests on a person with symptoms and carrying out tests on a healthy person. The symptomatic person needs to know what is wrong with them to get an accurate diagnosis so they can receive the right treatment. A healthy person undergoing a screening test believes that they are healthy, and would continue to do so, facing no risks from health interventions. Because a screening programme risks harming people’s health, we demand a high level of evidence to ensure that any screening does no harm and is of genuine overall benefit to people. We have looked at all the evidence, and the view was clearly expressed by medical experts that introducing a screening process in the UK would not meet those evidential thresholds and would not be beneficial. When pneumoconiosis is identified, often no treatment is required, and when it is severe, no specific treatment is available. There is no health benefit to identifying pneumoconiosis at an early stage once a miner has left mining.
The advice that I have been given is that the potential harms from screening for pneumoconiosis by X-ray or CT scans vastly outweigh any gains. However, I am mindful of the information that has been shared in this debate, so I think it is important that I set up a follow-up meeting to explore the matter further with my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield and for Sherwood, with the Department of Health and Social Care, and with the national health service. Other hon. Members will be welcome to come along, because I am sure they want to know that we are leaving no stone unturned and doing the best we can for former miners.
I am aware that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council—an independent scientific advisory body that looks at how industrial injuries disablement benefit is administered and provides advice to the Department for Work and Pensions—has discussed the use of CT scans for diagnosing pneumoconiosis, including the risks of increased radiation exposure. However, in the light of the issues raised in this debate, I will approach the council anew and ask it to reconsider the use of CT scans and give me further advice, which I will be happy to share with hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield rightly spoke about raising awareness among former miners, who too often do not come forward because they assume that having coughs and colds is just part of being a miner or former miner. There is much more that we can do to raise awareness among former miners and their families and communities, and to encourage them to come forward and speak to a GP. Much work has been done in the last couple of years on improving the care pathways, and a lot more information and training has been given to GPs, so former miners who come forward now will experience a much better quality of care and a rapid assessment, either by X-ray or by CT scan, of whether they have pneumoconiosis.
I am very grateful to hon. Members present, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, for raising the issue. I assure them that the Government will continue to support former miners who have pneumoconiosis—not just financially, through all the schemes I have described, but by really looking at their diagnosis and health needs.
Very helpfully and constructively, the Minister says that she is planning a meeting with hon. Members. Would she be content for the National Union of Mineworkers, which is based in my constituency, to be represented at that meeting? The NUM would have a constructive contribution to make to the process.
Of course. I am happy to work with anyone who makes a constructive contribution to ensuring that former miners are aware of the risks to their health and seek help at the earliest possible stage. We need to support them in getting not only diagnosis and treatment, but compensation, which we are proudly giving to people who suffer in this way. We must remember that miners contracted pneumoconiosis while making a vital contribution to the growth and prosperity of this country. It is only right that they receive our support when they need it most.
Question put and agreed to.
Victims of Crime: Rights
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the rights of victims of crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Main.
When I applied for this debate, little did I know how timely it would be. On Friday night, both our car and our garage were broken into. Nothing was stolen, but the damage to our property and knowing that we are vulnerable to criminals are concerns, and I redoubled my resolve to get better rights for the victims of crime.
Last week, in advance of this debate, I surveyed constituents on their experiences and two of the respondents spoke about the lack of support they had also experienced after being victims of theft from their cars. I also had much more concerning examples, where people were victims of serious incidents and there were serious gaps in provision. One constituent who had been at the Manchester Arena for the Ariana Grande concert when the tragic bombing occurred wrote to me, saying:
“Whilst I appreciate thousands were affected by this event, receiving mental health support since then has been hard work. It has taken 9 months for my daughter and I to receive any kind of support due to long waiting lists, lack of funding etc. I was never advised to contact victim support but was advised to contact survivors assistance network based in Warrington. I am in groups on Facebook and yammer where hundreds say the same thing. Those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder have been ignored unless they had physical injuries.”
The hon. Gentleman is now touching on the key point. Does he agree that very often victims of crime pay a double penalty—the penalty of the financial loss, from the effect of the crime itself; and then the emotional stress resulting from what has happened?
I do, and that is doubly so when there is an event as serious as the Manchester bombing. After that incident, the Government committed to support the victims, but nearly a year later some families are still not receiving the support they need.
When I undertook the survey, a range of crimes were reported to me and often the victims did not feel that they had received sufficient support after crimes ranging from muggings to violent assault to rape. This debate is very much needed, to address the inconsistencies in the system, and I am sure that many hon. Members will also share the experiences of their constituents.
A group in society that is particularly vulnerable to crime is older people. I am grateful to Age UK for releasing a report last week on fraud relating to older people. The report found that more than two fifths—43%—of older people, which is almost 5 million people, believe they have been targeted by scammers. Only a minority of fraud victims report their experience. Among people aged 65-plus, nearly two thirds—64%—of those targeted by fraudsters did not report it to an official body such as Action Fraud, the police, a bank or a local authority. About a third of those targeted confided in friends or family, but more than a fifth admitted they did not tell anyone at all, because they felt too embarrassed. And for the minority of older people who do report fraud, support is inconsistent across the country.
Age UK has won funding from City Bridge Trust to pilot a new scam prevention and victim support service. Working in partnership with Action Fraud, a number of local Age UK groups in London will raise awareness of scams among older people and their friends and family; they will give one-to-one support to older people who are vulnerable and at risk of scams, empowering them to feel safer and more confident; and they will provide specialist one-to-one support sessions for older victims, helping them to address the financial, health and social impacts of fraud.
This is a great initiative. However, should not such support be available across the country for every older person who needs it, funded by the Government, and using proceeds of crime moneys if the Government cannot pay for it out of general taxation? Our criminal justice system must ensure that it has the rights of victims of crime at its heart.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which is very timely. He is talking about the changing nature of crime, so does he agree that the Minister should be considering reviewing the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, so that its guidelines reflect the changing nature of crime?
That is a very good point, well made, and I hope that the Minister will address it in his remarks.
As I was saying, our criminal justice system must ensure that it has the rights of victims of crime at its heart. When it fails to do so, it not only affects the direct victims themselves but risks undermining wider public trust in our justice system.
The most significant reform in this regard was arguably the introduction of the victims code by the last Labour Government, which came into force in 2006. The victims code sets out the rights and entitlements of victims, making it the single most important document for victims of crime in England and Wales. It outlines clearly and precisely the level of entitlement that victims can expect from each criminal justice agency they encounter, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. For example, the code specifies that victims are entitled to be kept informed of developments in their case within set time limits, and that victims must be informed of any sentence handed down to the offender and what it means.
Victim Support has found evidence to suggest that there is a routine failure to uphold the victims code. The lack of compliance could be due to the victims code not being legally enforceable, or the absence of a mechanism to hold agencies to account except in individual cases, or the lack of an independent body to monitor implementation. Current monitoring arrangements rely on statutory agencies self-assessing their compliance, based on criteria determined by the agencies themselves. Effectively, these agencies are self-regulating.
There are new setbacks for victims of crime on the horizon, with the announcement that the Government plan to sell off more than 100 courts for not much more than the average UK house price. That decision piles yet more pressure on the remaining courts and risks hearings being further delayed and rescheduled, which can have a distressing impact on victims and witnesses and creates a justice system that is less accessible for people.
The Victims’ Commissioner has within their remit a duty to
“keep under review the operation of the Code of Practice”.
The current Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, has conducted a number of reviews of the code, looking at issues such as the victim personal statement, children’s entitlements and the complaints system. A number of other agencies have also looked at compliance with the victims code in some form, including the CPS, which undertook a victim and witness satisfaction survey in 2015 and plans to repeat the research, and the criminal justice inspectorates.
The hon. Gentleman has brought a very important issue to Westminster Hall this afternoon. I am particularly concerned about the effect of the problems in the disclosure system of the CPS and other agencies for victims. I have had considerable problems with child sexual exploitation in my constituency. Those victims are particularly vulnerable. Is that something that he is also worried about?
I am very glad that the hon. Lady has raised this issue. It is not something that I have personally had experience of, but I am sure that her points are really well made and I hope that the Minister addresses them in his remarks.
Finally, victims’ organisations such as Victim Support have also looked at compliance with the code by means of research that has examined different issues, including the timeliness of victim contact. However, all these reviews have been piecemeal, looking at certain aspects of the code but not at the code’s operation as a whole. There is a gap in the system, and an effective monitoring and enforcement mechanism would enable the Government to ensure that the victims code is implemented throughout the system, as well as identifying both good practice and areas for improvement.
Last year, Victim Support published research undertaken with almost 400 victims, which highlighted the failings inherent in the system. These failings include the fact that 52% of victims surveyed were not offered the chance to make a victim personal statement; that 46% of victims surveyed had not received a written acknowledgment of the crime from the police; and that 19% had not been referred to support services. So, nearly one in five of the people who responded were not even referred to support services. As things stand, too many people are being failed by the system, so things need to change.
What do victims of crime need from the Government? Victims must always feel that the justice system is on their side. When a member of the public comes forward to report a crime or to give evidence in court, they must be treated fairly and with compassion. When all is said and done, we must do our utmost to ensure that victims receive the justice they deserve.
What is needed is a victims’ law, which the 2015 Conservative party manifesto pledged to introduce; the Minister will find that pledge on page 59. In the 2015 Queen’s Speech, the Government announced:
“Measures will be brought forward to increase the rights of victims of crime.”—[Official Report, 27 May 2015; Vol. 596, c. 31.]
In 2016, the EU victims’ directive forced the Government to enhance support for victims of crime by broadening the definition of “victim”. Previously, for example, victims of drink-driving did not receive support under the victims code, and not all victims of crime were entitled to a written acknowledgment from the police.
In 2017, the Conservative manifesto again contained a commitment to enshrine victims’ entitlements in law. However, aside from a recent and welcome announcement that there will be consultation on new legislation to support victims of domestic abuse, there appears to have been little action by the Government to bring forward their victims’ law commitment. I want to see victims’ support at the heart of the criminal justice system and historic wrongs put right.
A victims’ law would seek to guarantee victims a minimum standard of service, including placing victims’ right to review on a statutory footing, not only for the CPS but for the police, too. It must be made easier to hold justice organisations to account if we are to maintain confidence in the criminal justice system. I therefore ask the Minister to introduce proposals for a victims’ law that fulfils the historic commitment.
Thank you for calling me so early, Mrs Main. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on securing this debate on such a major issue. I will explore how victims are heard and the penalties for offenders, and how they relate to the changing nature of crime and to people actually realising that they are victims, which is a particular issue for some of my constituents.
I have always been a fan of more restorative justice. St Martin’s church in Barton in my constituency was attacked by vandals who were just over the age of criminal responsibility. A restorative path was chosen, as it was felt that the two individuals coming to the church, meeting the vicar and hearing from the churchwarden about the effect of what they had done would have a far greater impact on them than a police officer bluntly giving them a caution, or their potentially going before a youth court. The church continues to engage with the two young men and their families, trying to make them see clearly that the church is part of the community and the impact on those who were damaged.
On a wider scale, the offender management team in Torbay tries to use more restorative justice, particularly for lower-level offending that would not attract significant terms of imprisonment. Genuine restorative justice can be more effective than a blunt fine, which might disappear into a court or be added to a list of other fines being paid off via earnings or welfare benefits attachments; it can be something that might stick in someone’s memory.
It has been interesting talking to the local police in Torbay about an emerging trend, whereby people—mostly older men—with assets are targeted by ruthless individuals who look to exploit them by forming a relationship with them, even a sexual one, with the purpose of getting at their bank balance and draining their assets. When it is happening, many of these people do not realise they are victims; some might not even see it after the person unsurprisingly disappears, when the money starts to run out or when other members of the family start to get involved. How do we get people to understand the nature of being a victim today? Some people do not see it, and some fail to understand what their assets are worth—some who are starting to suffer dementia will not realise that the price of something 30 or 40 years ago is not its value today.
The courts should certainly consider it an aggravating factor if someone is vulnerable. However, it is a difficult line to draw for people who have not yet been diagnosed or been deemed to have lack of capacity—those who are still able to manage themselves and their finances in day-to-day life. They might have started to lose track of exactly what they are worth, or they might not have been as wealthy in their younger days but have now had a retirement golden handshake or have bought a house or another asset that is worth far more than they realise. I agree that the courts should certainly consider that as an aggravating factor, because this is almost the ultimate breach of trust: someone professing love and affection, targeting the fact that someone is vulnerable and lonely.
For me, this is also about victims coming forward. I am pleased to see some of the efforts being made regarding domestic abuse, including the Bill that is to be introduced. I will not give their name, because it is not appropriate, but someone I am very close to was a victim of domestic abuse for more than 30 years. For most of that period, they did not realise that they were a victim; they thought that that was what most marriages were like—husbands beat their wives. It was only when others started to guess what was going on that they realised that they were a victim of very serious offences. The offender has now passed away.
I am conscious that other colleagues would like to speak, so I will conclude by saying that I welcome this debate. It is important that victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system and are the ones who matter; they are not just a statement of evidence or part of a case. Justice has to be seen to be done, not just according to the law but according to the victims as well.
I am sure all Members will recognise the feeling I am about to describe, although perhaps with a different landmark in mind: when I travel home after a long week here, I see the Humber bridge and know that that means home—I am nearly there; it is not far to go. Home should be the place where we feel the safest, where we feel secure, but sadly, for many of my constituents and many others around the country, crime and antisocial behaviour are hitting them right in the heart of their lives—in their home. I will use my speech today to raise my constituents’ concerns about antisocial behaviour. Sometimes it is dismissed as not really a big deal, but in reality it affects the lives of many people.
My constituency is a wonderful place to live and grow up in, but sadly many areas are now blighted by antisocial behaviour. In the Hessle part of the constituency, I hear many reports of children creating lots of difficulties—for example, running in front of buses and making them do emergency stops with the passengers still on them, upsetting people in the street, throwing dog dirt through pub doors, damaging car park fences, standing on signs, climbing on to walls and generally making people feel unsafe and unhappy in what is a wonderful community and place to live. An elderly lady told me that as she was walking down the street, groups of young people passing on their bikes shouted abuse at her; she is now worried about what might happen when she goes out to do her shopping.
Sadly, that is not the only area of my constituency where there are problems. I have been contacted by residents of the Great Thornton Street flats, an inner-city tower block, who are being subjected to hate crime. Some of them are having their scarves pulled off their heads. They are witnessing drug abuse and violence and even finding human faeces in the corners outside their homes. The situation is no better in Bean Street, where there is much public drug taking and antisocial behaviour. I have been told that on more than one occasion a nearby park has attracted drinkers and drug users shooting up in broad daylight.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, Mrs Main. My hon. Friend refers to hate crime and I wondered whether she was aware that some of us Muslim Members of Parliament have been victims of a hate crime on the parliamentary estate today and yesterday. I could not be here at 2.30 pm because I was dealing with the aftermath of a suspicious package intended for me, which was opened by one of my staff.
My hon. Friend talks about crime at home. Does she not agree that thousands of British people abroad who are victims of crime need a better support system? My constituent Susan Sutovic—
Yes, I would support that. I am so sorry to hear about the incident that my hon. Friend mentions and I sincerely hope that she and her staff are okay. It is sad to hear about the increasing amount of hate crime.
I am trying to arrange residents meetings with the police on the issues in Hessle, Bean Street and Great Thornton Street. Previously, we had success when there were problems with an awful lot of street drinkers in Spring Bank. We removed the bench where they were sitting and there have been 46 move-ons for people drinking when they should not be and creating antisocial behaviour problems. The police have been fantastic, but my fear is that all we are doing by going in with this intensive support from the police and the community is relocating the problem around the city. We never deal with the root cause of the problem or provide a long-term solution; we just move it to another place. Yes, the work on Spring Bank has been successful, but now we have a problem on Bean Street and Great Thornton Street.
Some people dismiss antisocial behaviour. While it may be a different category of crime from some of the others we are discussing, it has a massive effect on people’s lives. It is sad, because often those most in need of help are those least able to seek it. Crime and antisocial behaviour affect people of all incomes and backgrounds, but it seems that the poorest and most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. Sad to say, I do not see the situation changing; because of the cuts to the police service, dealing with the problem will only get much harder.
One of the easiest ways to help victims of crime is to stop crime and antisocial behaviour happening in the first place. A long-term solution needs investment in education, community support and youth provision. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) talk about the use of restorative justice. Instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach, it looks at the individuals and the best method to stop them reoffending. More things like that should be happening, especially for younger people committing crimes. I hope that the whole House will therefore join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) as we push to make youth provision statutory, which would force all councils to establish youth provision.
One parent of a child who has been involved in some of the antisocial behaviour contacted me, asking for my help. She said, “Where can my child go? What services are out there? What support can I have?” When family support services have been cut, when youth provision has been cut, and when those families are not getting the support they need when they need it, we cannot be surprised when we see an increase in antisocial behaviour. I am sorry to say that schools are facing the same cuts as well. Perhaps they cannot give as much support as they used to. From the inquiry we are doing in the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) will know about the increased number of children going into alternative provision and being moved on. We need to look at the problem holistically.
Even with more action taken to prevent crime, we still need to protect and promote the rights of victims of crime and ensure that there are minimum standards a victim can expect once they report a crime or antisocial behaviour. Those standards should include a single point of contact and a single complaints system where someone can go if they want to make a complaint. One of my constituents’ main complaints is that they want the phone answered quickly when they ring 101. Too many people hang up because they are waiting 20 minutes to get through. They get so fed up that the crimes are never accurately recorded.
We need to ensure better communication with victims about the outcome of their cases. A lot of people say, “What happened? I reported this and nothing happened.” We look into it, and actually something did happen, but no one thought to tell the victims about it. We need a more powerful Victims’ Commissioner to ensure that victims can make their voices heard. For too long, victims of crime have been left without a voice. By listening to those proposals and acting proactively to prevent crime and promote victims’ rights, the Government have a chance to end the merry-go-round of constantly shifting crime hotspots.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I will do my best to be naturally short. [Laughter.] I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on securing this debate on an important subject.
I will start where the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) began, which is how victims are treated once a crime has been committed. Constituents in Chislehurst have suffered a spate of residential burglaries. The burglaries are professional, planned and committed with an extraordinary degree of chutzpah. In some cases, the burglars have returned to the same road on more than one occasion within a couple of weeks. The burglaries are of a serious kind: occupants of houses have been threatened—in some cases, they have been young children, and in others, they have been elderly people. The police have many pressures and it is not always possible to find much evidence at the scene. In the case of those professional burglaries, the people have escaped, but there are forensics to be done.
It is important that all police forces recognise that dealing with the victims of crime and investigating crime are not purely transactional processes. A proper duty of care for victims is important. A domestic burglary is peculiarly intrusive and a violation of people’s homes and lives. The hon. Lady fairly made a point about proper points of contact and proper updates and information, which are critical. It is important that a degree of urgency is applied to offences of this kind, even in a large police force such as the Met. There is resource within the budget. I know there are pressures, but priority should be given to dealing with those sorts of issues and keeping people informed.
I want to talk about the operation of the criminal justice system as it impacts victims. The Justice Select Committee, which I have the honour to chair, has looked at that in a number of areas. I start with the point that was made by the hon. Member for Leeds North West about delays in the court process, which are a problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is a fellow member of the Select Committee, referred to that in the context of disclosure problems causing delays and adjournments, which puts great stress on victims who have come to court or readied themselves to give evidence. It is important that we work—I know the Government recognise this—with the judiciary at all levels, from the professional judiciary to the magistracy, and with the Crown Prosecution Service, because many delays arise from failure to meet the proper protocols on disclosure by prosecutors. We need to ensure that we take a whole-system approach so that such delays are reduced to a minimum.
The experience of victims giving evidence needs to be made as palatable as possible. Any witness has to expect to be properly cross-examined, and any defendant has the right to have the case against them tested, but there are parameters in which that must be done decently and without undue pressure. The Government have recognised that in the cross-examination of victims of domestic abuse. It is important that we build upon the work already done on the pre-recorded cross-examination of witnesses and the use of video links. We must ensure that the video links work, which sadly is not always the case in every court. We therefore have to ensure that the court estate and technology are up to speed. That is an important thing we need to do now.
I am glad to see the Minister in his place. I know he is very engaged with these matters, and I recently wrote to him about the position of training and mentoring for registered intermediaries. Court intermediaries provide communication support for vulnerable witnesses—many of them are victims, but there may be other vulnerable witnesses, too. There appears to have been a significant reduction in the period of training they undergo. Can the Minister offer some explanation, either now or subsequently, as to why that has happened? I accept there are pressures, but can he give us an assurance that he will ensure that the level of service provided to vulnerable people assisting in the court process to try to deliver justice is not diminished? I am sure he will be aware that the Victims’ Commissioner’s research indicates poor overall management in the governance of intermediaries and a lack of funding. They perform an important role, and I hope the issue can be taken much more seriously.
I will briefly move on to restorative justice and the victims’ law, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Leeds North West. One of the proposals that the Select Committee made was that any victims’ law should include a right not just to information about restorative justice, as is the case at the moment, but a right of access to it. Provision is extremely patchy across the country. Some police and crime commissioners—I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) in his place; he did a great deal as the police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester—engage in that, but others do not. It is important that the Government perhaps do more to enforce a proper minimum standard. There is always scope for local variation to meet local needs, but a basic standard must be adhered to in all cases. If we are going to have a right, it is important that we have a means of enforcing it and some remedy if it is not actually delivered. That was reported on at some length in our Committee’s report of September 2016, which was debated in Westminster Hall in January 2017. The Government indicated that they were taking steps; we welcomed those, and urge them to do more, as more needs to be done. I hope that the Minister can confirm that work is continuing on this matter, and that the Government remain committed to a victims’ law. Can he give us some sense of when we are likely to see more proposals on that?
Finally, it is important and topical for us to consider the role of victims when Parole Board decisions are made. I will not say anything about any particular case that is sub judice, but we must examine this issue. The point about communication is hugely important. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) talked about restorative justice in that context. We have to have a whole-system approach. It is not just about when the person is sentenced and dealt with.
That is absolutely right. That is a most important matter. The chair of the Parole Board himself, Professor Nick Hardwick, to whom I pay tribute for his openness with us, recognises that the current rules are not as he would wish them to be. They sometimes make it hard for the Parole Board to be as transparent as it would like to be, for the benefit of either the victim or the general public. On the face of it, that is a difficult distinction to justify in some cases, so I hope that in due course the Government will look at that. It indicates to me a need for a much more holistic approach to how we look at victims throughout both the investigatory process and the criminal justice process.
I commend the hon. Member for Leeds North West for securing the debate, and look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate. I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) for presenting the case, and for giving us all more time than there might have been to speak on the matter. I am also conscious that you have indicated the timescale to which we all have to try to adhere, Mrs Main.
The issue of victims is incredibly sensitive and needs to be handled with care. There are many victims of physical, emotional and sexual assault who have been re-traumatised—I have said this before, in questions to the Minister in the Chamber—through the handling of their case. Many victims will not come forward, as they feel as if they are on trial themselves, and are not supported. I recently read an article on abortion by a baroness in Ireland. Although this is not the debate in which to bring up the abortion issue, I felt it was significant that she lost her baby as she was caught up in an IRA bombing. She describes herself and her child as victims, and remains traumatised to this day. Time has not healed that wound; she feels the pain of loss to this day, and will do so beyond. This is how we need to consider victims: not that something once happened to them, but that their life was irrevocably changed, and that that change has become part of their day-to-day life. They need care and help to go over that, and to deal with the aftermath.
We have a duty to victims to ensure that they are heard and supported. That was what was agreed when we passed the legislation, and voted to help to make victims feel secure and to create a system whereby crimes could be prosecuted, and victims could feel safe and able to feed into the process. Although the spirit of the current legislation agrees with that, there is no enforcement process. I ask the Minister how we move from guidelines and perceived support to enforcement.
It is little wonder that Baroness Newlove’s report in January 2015, “A Review of Complaints and Resolution for Victims of Crime”, found not very satisfactory results—that is how it was reported. It surveyed the experiences of some 200 victims and found that almost 75% were unhappy with the response they received. More than 50% found the relevant agency’s complaints process difficult to use. Have we moved on from that? Is the process easier? Is it more relevant?
A second review, “The Silenced Victim: A Review of the Victim Personal Statement”, was published in November 2015. It found inconsistencies in approach, with six out of 10 victims not recalling being offered the chance to make a victim personal statement. That also illustrates the things that we need to be addressing. I look to the Minister to see whether he can address those issues and give us the responses that we wish to hear.
To me, this says that what we set out to achieve through the legislation is not being achieved. We therefore need to make changes. First, we need to stop it being no more than a guideline or a suggestion, and ensure that it is enforceable and as much a duty in the prosecution of a case as any other aspect, such as evidence gathering.
The hon. Gentleman talked about there not always being an audit trail. Does he agree with me that when victims of crime are abroad, such as my constituent Susan Sutovic, whose son died in mysterious circumstances in 2004 in Serbia, there needs to be some sort of diplomatic and legal framework to help those victims?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention; I agree with her. It is important that we have a framework in place. Hopefully the Minister, who I know is taking notes on the debate, will give us some response on how he sees that changing.
The care of the victim must be paramount and be seen as part and parcel of the justice system. I agree with the options presented in the Victim Support manifesto. There should be a single complaints system for victims of crime, a more powerful Victims’ Commissioner, and better communication with victims about the outcomes of their case—how often that falls down. Court compensation should be paid immediately and not linger on for months or sometimes years. Trained intermediaries should be available for all child witnesses—I know a lot of Members in the Chamber feel as strongly as I do about that. No child should be obliged to enter a court building to give evidence. There should be pre-trial therapy for all victims of sexual crimes, and a national strategy for victims with mental health issues. Like others, I feel strongly on behalf of children about how their cases are handled. Again, I look to the Minister to see what help he can give us.
It is essential that these foundations, which are not currently in place, are in place for victims. The end goal is justice for the crime and for the victim. The crime has to have the right sentence, but the victim must also feel part of the process and feel that they are not being put upon by the court system. I hate to hear of crimes that could not be prosecuted as the key witness is frightened to come forward. Knowing that a system is in place to support victims is a key component in the prosecution of crimes. Again, I look to the Minister for a response on that.
I will conclude, as I am conscious of the time I agreed with you beforehand, Mrs Main. I again thank the hon. Member for Leeds North West for introducing the debate. I thank Baroness Newlove for her hard work in making a difference to the lives and experiences of victims. It is now in the hands of the Government—and perhaps the Minister in this case—to bring forward the promised changes. I for one will be eagerly awaiting the legislation that is to be introduced.
Thank you, Mrs Main, for allowing me to speak in this important debate. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) has given us the opportunity to talk about the rights of victims and some of the difficulties that they have in getting their voices heard.
I particularly want to talk about the victims of child exploitation, following revelations in newspapers over the weekend in my constituency. These victims have more difficulties than most in getting heard, and in identifying that they are indeed victims, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) identified. Child sexual exploitation is not just any crime. It affects whole communities up and down the country; it is not just Telford. It is a crime about fear, manipulation, coercion, shame, control, and sometimes blame. All too often, the victims are ignored. They are victims who do not have a voice, and for whom very few people will stand up and speak. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for the amazing work that she has done in this field over so many years. She has given a voice to victims, and has set a precedent for us to follow in this House.
These young girls are too often white and working-class, and have multiple vulnerabilities. That is why the perpetrators are targeting them, and why they are so often miscast as bringing it on themselves, as indulging in risky behaviour, as being promiscuous and as somehow being to blame for what is happening to them. In their own minds, they often internalise the sense that they are somehow at fault.
When a 13 or 14-year-old girl is befriended by a 35-year-old man who gives her affection and cigarettes, tops up her phone, and tells her that she is beautiful and that he loves her, sometimes she feels affection for him. She does not realise that when he asks her to share a sexual image of herself, that will lead to something worse—something that she will not want to do. The coercion begins when he says, “If you don’t have sex with me”—or, “If you don’t have sex with my friend”—“I’m going to out you as promiscuous,” or as a “sket”, as they say in Telford. That is when it becomes a crime, but at that point, a 13 or 14-year-old does not know that what is happening is rape and child sexual exploitation. If she goes to the police, what does she say? She does not say, “I am a victim of statutory rape.” She says, “I’m being harassed by this person. He’s threatened to take a picture and put it on Facebook. He’s threatened to tell my mum that I’m a prostitute.”
Too often, victims of such terrible crimes do not articulate what is happening to them, so we have to be incredibly sensitive with them. Too often, they are not heard because of their vulnerabilities. I worry that a difficult family background or drugs and alcohol or mental health issues at home mean that victims are thought of as troublemakers and just a bit too difficult. Perhaps that is why these crimes were not identified for so long. Had the girls been from a different background and able to articulate more clearly what was happening to them, or able to identify that it was a crime, perhaps we would not have the cases that we see in Telford, Rotherham and Oxford.
I want to get on the record how incredible the hon. Lady has been for those women and girls. She is giving them a voice and empowering them to be heard. I am honoured to be here listening to her speech. I am sorry this is not an appropriate intervention, but it needed to be said.
I thank the hon. Lady for her encouragement and the inspiration that she provides to me and others in speaking out on this matter.
Interestingly, each child sexual exploitation case bears some resemblance to others. They all start in the same way and progress in the same way, from something that seems quite acceptable, tame or innocent into something horrific: trading young girls for sex for money. They are traded and handed around with the threat of violence to them or their families, or the threat of exposure and shame that I talked about earlier. The victims need to know that they have not done anything wrong. They need to know that they are victims, and that a crime has been committed against them. That is why I am asking for an independent investigation into what has gone wrong in Telford. I first made the request in 2016, when there were revelations about what had happened. That request was turned down by the local authorities in Telford, who felt that there was no need at that time.
Further revelations have come to light. Nothing in the interim has changed my mind that an independent investigation will give victims a sense that they are being listened to. It will also give them answers as to why the situation went on for so long and why no action was taken. How did it happen? Why are our young girls being traded for sex in what has become a routine way? Whether it is from takeaways, taxis or betting shops, it is happening in our streets.
By not addressing what went wrong, victims are left feeling that in some sense they were at fault. It ignores what happened and perpetuates the silence. We have to break that silence and say it is okay to talk about this, and that it will not bring shame on Oxford, Telford or Rotherham or on their families. They are the victims and they need to be heard, listened to and given the protection that they need and deserve. Being questioned and questioned is an ordeal, and sometimes they feel they are not believed, but we must believe those young people and give them a sense that they will be listened to. There should not be opposition to finding out the facts and what went wrong.
There is a national inquiry into child sexual exploitation led by Professor Jay. That inquiry will not get to the bottom of why these things happened or give answers to my constituents in Telford. I urge the Minister, or anybody listening, to please put pressure on the authorities. It is for the good of our community and the victims and their families, because the families are victims too. They feel they failed their children and let them down. They suffer because their child has experienced terrible things. We must not allow these crimes to be minimised. They are not trivial. I am not talking about a girl with a 35-year-old boyfriend; I am talking about someone who is abused, exploited and sold for sex. We should not shy away from that and bury our heads in the sand.
I will draw to a close, but while the Minister is here I want to quickly mention the early release from prison of Mubarak Ali, a ringleader in Telford. He had been sentenced to 22 years—14 years in custody and eight years on licence—and he was released only five years after the trial. That caused a lot of shock, fear and anxiety among the people brave enough to come forward to give evidence, and the victim contact scheme let them down. More work must be done to ensure that victims are kept informed and can feed into the process and have the opportunity to be heard. We must listen and hear the voices of those children.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) for securing this really important debate. We have heard many important contributions. Like the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), I have had to live through the aftermath of child sexual exploitation in my area. She is absolutely right in everything she says. We must never blame the victims. We must stand up and speak out for victims of criminal behaviour. I encourage her to continue to demand that there is proper insight. In the end, all local agencies must demonstrate that they have genuinely, not formulaically, learnt lessons. They must demonstrate a different way of working that makes it more likely that we ask questions when a 14-year-old has a 35-year-old boyfriend.
I will make a few brief points, Mrs Main, because I know you are anxious to bring in the Front-Bench speakers at—
I will not take long, in that case. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) are really important. Antisocial behaviour matters. Actually, it kills in the worst situations, and even if we are not talking about those extremes it certainly makes people’s lives miserable. It destroys the quality of people’s lives and we must take that seriously. She is right. Obviously, this can be a political point, but the Government must take it on board that it has become much more difficult now for our police to investigate things that fall off the radar, which they simply ought not. It is an important issue to raise.
Like the hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster), I am a big supporter of restorative justice. I regret that I was not in the House in 2016 to speak on the Select Committee report, but I was aware of its conclusions. Restorative justice fundamentally delivers to victims the sense that their needs are being taken seriously. That is as important in prosecutions as when there is a decision not to take a case forward, which can sometimes be appropriate.
I think of the case of a woman who was a very strong advocate. Other hon. Members might have heard her speak. Her house was burgled and a new camera was taken. Sadly, her daughter was killed in a car crash weeks later and the last remaining photographs of her daughter were lost with the camera. She never saw the photographs but she was prepared to work with the perpetrator, who went to prison. That was important for at least giving her a sense of easement, although you can never reconcile yourself to the loss of a child. It also meant that that long-term burglar effectively ceased his former habit, so it worked in more than one way, but—there is always a “but”—training is absolutely important. We cannot see the process as something to be delivered on the streets, with no training. There must be supervision to ensure that standards are maintained. Importantly, there must be victim volition. The process cannot be forced on a victim, or denied to a victim who is not aware that they could demand it. I support the call for a statutory framework, and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West argued for that.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is back in the House after a brief gap. I hope he will take part in further debates. Given what he has said, does he agree on the importance of the point made in the Justice Committee report, that restorative justice must always be victim-led—the victim’s choice at all times—and that there must be proper professional support right the way through? It is important that victims be given full information about what is available in their area, and that something genuinely meaningful should be in place—not simply a leaflet.
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman—let me say my hon. Friend for the sake of this debate—is right on both counts. The second point is fundamental in bringing about the first, because if victims do not have confidence in the process it withers. It is not just victims, in fact, because the community must have confidence, through the victims, that the decisions are not arbitrary, and will deliver something to victims and do something more generally to change behaviour. In the end, the process is about helping victims and changing perpetrators’ behaviour.
Perhaps I may now touch on the rather more aggressive side of what, sadly, happens to victims. Sometimes victims are treated horrendously within the processes. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to these points. Many years ago, I dealt with a grieving family whose son had been stabbed to death at a party. The charge was murder and the case took many months, as such cases do, to come to court. Eventually, on the day of the trial, the family were told that the murder charge could not be sustained, because the prosecuting barrister had said he could not deliver it on the available evidence. No other charge of manslaughter or lesser offences had been brought, and that meant that the two perpetrators went scot-free. The family were left devastated.
That was a long time ago and I would be happy if I could say that those were the bad old days and that things have moved on. However, they have not. Victims still sometimes find that the failure of the prosecution service to examine information in time, or the failure of the courts to process cases, means they face a long journey between becoming a victim and their case coming to court, only to find that when it gets to court they are left frustrated and dissatisfied.
The hon. Gentleman is highlighting important issues to do with the CPS and the rights of victims. Does he agree that one thing that undermines victims of crime is the Crown’s inability to appeal against sentences that are simply too lenient? That can happen only in a very few cases at the moment, and victims of crime feel powerless under the current system to ensure that the appropriate sentence is imposed on an offender.
I have a lot of sympathy with that point. The procedure could not be used in every case, but perhaps society should recognise the need to use it more widely than happens now. Sometimes the courts do get things wrong.
I do not want to go into too much detail about the next case I shall mention. A young woman was effectively kidnapped from a bar, and it was believed that she had been raped. She had certainly been sexually assaulted. She faced months of adjournments and new trial dates. In the end, the case came to court more than two and a half years from the original event. The perpetrator had been charged with rape and the prosecution counsel determined only at a late stage that it was not possible, on the evidence, to sustain that charge. Because no other charges had been laid—not kidnap or sexual assault, which are pretty serious charges—the perpetrator walked free, as in my other example. That is human incompetence, and for the victim it was outrageous. I have spoken to her, and had she known what would happen she would never have consented to the case’s going forward.
Those are cases of human error, but such human error is systemic within the present system. Prosecuting barristers often do not come to the cases until late in the process. We must do something about that. We must begin to put victims first in the criminal justice system, rather than treating them as an afterthought. We are not at that point yet.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on securing the debate today and on setting out so well many of the issues within the justice system. It has been an excellent debate, with a huge degree of consensus across the Chamber about the need to improve victims’ rights on a number of fronts, for a number of reasons. I wholeheartedly agree with the concern that many colleagues have raised about the victim contact scheme. That problem needs to be addressed as a priority.
I want to mention the speech by the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who highlighted the case of a friend who was the victim of domestic abuse for many years without realising it. Sadly, that situation is repeated often, the length and breadth of the country, and I look forward to the Government’s bringing forward a domestic abuse Bill shortly. That will be discussed at the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on the white ribbon campaign at 4.45, later this afternoon.
No one ever imagines that they will be a victim of crime, and if, sadly, it happens, many will be unsure of the process involved, beyond phoning the police, and unsure of what their rights are as a victim. It will obviously be a traumatic experience, and not only is it important that we have an effective set of rights for victims of crime, but it is vital that those rights be clearly and sensitively communicated in the aftermath of crime. As the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), who is no longer in his place, said, too often victims are punished twice.
A recent Supreme Court ruling highlighted the way in which the system might fail victims. It stated that a police force breached the human rights of victims by failing to investigate complaints properly. That ruling has serious implications for the rights of victims. If police fail to investigate a serious violent crime effectively in the future, they could be sued under the Human Rights Act 1998.
High-profile recent cases have raised immediate concerns about victims’ rights. However, there has been concern for some time that victims may not be receiving the full breadth of support to which they should be entitled. As we have heard, in England and Wales the Victims’ Commissioner has highlighted problems with the complaints system, and inconsistency about allowing victims the right to make a victim personal statement. As the hon. Member for Leeds North West mentioned, Victim Support has also called for a new, clearly enforceable victims’ law, setting out eight proposals to strengthen the rights of victims. They include creating a single complaints system for victims, introducing a more powerful Victims’ Commissioner, providing greater protection and support to children who experience crime, and improving communication with victims about the outcomes of their case. I hope that, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West asked, the Minister will provide an update on the Government’s thinking on a victims’ law.
The rights of victims are currently set out in the code of practice for victims of crime and there is an explanation of what they should expect from the various bodies within the criminal justice system. Despite the fact that that charter is on the statute book, it seems that not all victims are being afforded those key entitlements. Failure to comply with the code of practice does not in itself make a person liable to criminal or civil proceedings. The Scottish Government take the protection and support of victims of crime seriously. The Scottish National party has long recognised the need to provide the right information and, crucially, the right support to those affected by crime. That plays a key part in a modern justice system that is fair, accessible, and efficient for everyone.
The Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 introduced various measures to protect and enhance the rights of victims, and it focused on providing direct assistance and information to those who experience a crime. It included new rights for victims to access information about their case, and the publication of standards of services by justice organisations. The victims code for Scotland sets out the rights and entitlements that someone can expect. Those rights are statutory, and the code sets out the minimum standard of service that someone should expect, and explains how they will be treated by criminal justice organisations. The Scottish Government recently published “Guidance for the Delivery of Restorative Justice in Scotland”, which outlines the process that allows victims the opportunity to communicate the impact of crime on their lives, in the hope that they will regain some control.
We are debating the rights of victims but—with apologies, Mrs Main—there is one issue we have not mentioned: Brexit. Currently, the UK Government have signed up to the 2012 EU directive that deals with rights, support for and protection of victims of crime. The directive aims to ensure that a consistent level of legal and emotional support is offered to victims, helping them to be fully involved in criminal justice proceedings. Thus far, the Government have failed to provide assurances that those common standards of legal and practical support will continue post-Brexit, but the UK can act unilaterally and ensure that those rights continue. We do not want a diminution of standards in the protection offered to victims in England, Wales, or anywhere else in the UK. Will the Minister confirm whether the UK will continue to participate in the 2012 directive, or make arrangements to ensure that those rights continue?
Victims’ rights should be placed at the heart of any justice system that works for all, but we must do more to support them. The Government have a duty to ensure that victims are provided with the maximum level of support and help during that traumatic period. The various legal jurisdictions in the UK can be rightly proud of their judicial history—indeed, much of the legal world looks up to our systems. However, there are warning signs in England and Wales. A modern justice system relies on being fair and accessible to all, and that includes supporting victims, so that they can play their full part in the pursuit of justice. The UK Government must step up to the mark to ensure that they get it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Main, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on securing this debate. We have heard the varying experiences of victims of crime discussed from many different angles, but if I had to single out one contribution, I would say that the remarkable speech by the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) should not go unnoted.
All the speakers focused on one point: too often, victims are still the forgotten voice in the criminal justice system. We are rightly proud of checks and balances in our legal system that prevent innocent people from being convicted, but for the victim it can often feel as if their rights are an afterthought compared with the rights of the perpetrator. No victim of serious crime should ever feel that they are battling to be believed, yet that is still the experience of far too many people who have the courage to come forward. Victims often talk about feeling like an afterthought; they are not kept informed of key decisions about the case, or they are not given a sufficient explanation for why a case is not being taken forward. If they manage to get their case to court, the distress does not stop; instead, victims can face a repeat of the original trauma. They may be forced to face the perpetrator in court, and in some instances they are even cross-examined by them, reliving every detail of the crime. Victims do not want their rights to be put above those of the accused; they simply want fairness. Despite progress, our system is still re-victimising the vulnerable, and deterring victims from coming forward and seeking justice.
Now for the politics. The 2015 Conservative manifesto adopted the recommendations of Labour’s victims’ taskforce, and promised victims that a Conservative Government would deliver
“a new Victims’ Law that will enshrine key rights for victims”
That was three years ago. In the 2015 Queen’s Speech, the Government again promised to introduce legislation,
“putting the key entitlements of the Victims’ Code in primary legislation.”
Victims waited, but no legislation came. Twelve months later, in the next Queen’s Speech, there was no mention of a victims’ law—apparently that was no longer a priority for Government. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) tabled an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill and sought to put the key elements of the victims code in law. Ministers blocked those amendments, promising instead to produce their own strategy for victims “within 12 months”. Well, it has now been 12 months, so last month I asked the Minister where the strategy was, and I was told that it would come “after Easter”. We now hear that it could be more like summer before any recommendations are published.
Victims have waited long enough. As other hon. Friends have asked, where is the victims’ law that was promised by the Conservative Government in 2015? Why has it taken three years? Victims who have been let down time and again by the system feel that they are being let down again by this delay.
In office, the Labour Government introduced the victims code, setting out for the first time the rights of victims within our criminal justice system. It is now time to provide that code with legal teeth. Labour is fully committed to introducing a stand-alone victims’ law that would put the key elements of the victims code into primary legislation. Will the Minister confirm the Government’s intentions? Are they still committed to introducing a stand-alone piece of legislation—a victims’ law? Without power to enforce the victims code in law, it is left to the police, prosecutors, courts, and parole boards to monitor how well they comply with the code.
The Government do not collect data on the experiences of victims in the criminal justice system, or on how the code is being implemented. Last month I asked the Minister how many breaches of the victims code there had been in the last four years, and I was told that that is not monitored. I asked how long it takes for victims to receive the compensation they have been awarded—Victim Support estimates that some £17.5 million in compensation was not paid within one year of a compensation order being made—and again I was told that the Government do not monitor that. I asked how many victims of domestic violence have been cross-examined in court by the perpetrator, and again the Minister responded that the Government do not hold such information. Ministers say that victims’ rights are a priority for them, but how can that be if the Government do not even know whether the victims code is being enforced?
Victim Support can provide some of the answers. It surveyed almost 400 victims and found that asking the criminal justice system to mark its own homework when upholding the victims code leads to victims being let down at each stage of the process. The research found that six in 10 victims surveyed did not receive their rights under the code. Does the Minister agree that it is time that that was effectively monitored and upheld? We cannot simply rely on victims being aware of their rights under the code. Does the Minister agree with the Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, who recently said:
“Why should victims always have to be fighting their corner? That’s why we need a victims’ law.”?
Time and time again victims speak of the importance of having their voice heard in the process, being able to address the court directly and to contribute to parole board decisions, but fewer than half of all eligible victims have opted in to the victim contact scheme that ensures that victims are kept up to date on their case and allows them to make statements before sentencing and parole. Presumably, many victims do not even know that such a scheme exists. More than half of victims surveyed by Victim Support were not offered the chance to make a victim personal statement.
The failure to inform the victims of John Worboys about the decision to release him on parole is the most recent and serious example of the way that victims’ views are neglected and ignored by our criminal justice system. It took a public outcry and the tenacity of the victims themselves to ensure that they were contacted for consultation on the terms of his release.
Thank you, Mrs Main; I will do that.
Another key pillar of the victims code is the right to review a decision by the police or Crown Prosecution Service, such as a decision not to prosecute. I asked the Government what proportion of qualifying victims go as far as requesting a review of a decision, and I was told it happens in less than 2% of cases. Either 98% of victims are happy with decisions taken by police and prosecutors, or they are simply unaware of or unable to access that right. Last year the Government blocked Labour attempts to enshrine the right to a review in law, and to make it legally enforceable and monitored. Will the Minister confirm whether the long-awaited victims strategy will seek finally to place that right in law?
This issue does not matter only for victims. The experience of reporting a crime and going through the court process is actively deterring many people from coming forward or pursuing their case, and that is particularly serious for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Victims of sexual or domestic violence still lack the confidence to report an attack. They fear the ordeal that they might face in the courtroom, including coming face to face with their abuser and being forced to relive every detail of the ordeal in front of the courts, often cross-examined as if they were the one on trial. We therefore welcome the recent announcement of a consultation on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill and the Government’s consideration of extending to victims of domestic abuse special provisions, such as separate entrances and exits, screens and video links, which are currently available to victims of sexual violence. It is critical, however, that that is not only for the criminal courts; they must also be available in the family courts.
Last year, we uncovered figures showing that, since the Government’s cuts to legal aid, the number of victims of domestic violence representing themselves against their abusers in the family courts has more than doubled. Victims are facing the prospect not only of having to represent themselves, but of being cross-examined by their abuser in court. Women’s Aid has found that more than half of the domestic abuse victims it surveyed had no access to special measures and more than a third were verbally or physically abused by their former partner in the family courts. Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s plans to extend special court provisions to victims of domestic abuse will extend to the family courts as well?
I will end with a quote from Claire Waxman, the new London Victims’ Commissioner appointed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan. She summed up her own experience of the criminal justice system, saying:
“I naively believed the system was there to help victims, instead it compounds their trauma. It placed the rights of my stalker above my rights to be protected”.
Such stories are all too familiar. It is time that the Government fulfilled their promise and gave us a victims’ law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. It has been a pleasure to hear all the contributions this afternoon, especially that of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan). I hope I can go some way to answer all the questions, including the battery of questions that the shadow Minister just posed. If I do not answer the questions appropriately, hon. Members will get correspondence following the debate.
I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) for securing this debate on the rights of victims of crime. It is particularly timely given the recent focus on such matters in a number of high-profile cases. I know through my own personal experience of meeting victims of crime, speaking with support organisations and meeting many of the hon. Members present, exactly how important such rights are in the lives of victims. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to discuss them with you today.
Victims’ rights are now a fundamental part of our justice system, and ensuring that victims receive the rights they are entitled to is a priority for this Government. That is essential if we are to enable victims to cope with and recover from crime. We must also continue to drive improvement in the broader experience of victims, which involves ensuring that criminal justice agencies provide victims with a service appropriate to their needs and respectful of them as individuals. That also requires focus on the wider performance of agencies. Victims want cases to be well managed and dealt with swiftly. Beyond the criminal justice agencies, it is important that victim support services are in a position to offer victims the sorts of support they may need to aid their long-term recovery.
Turning to the current framework of victims’ rights, we look first to the statutory victims code, which does two fundamentally important things. First, it sets out for victims exactly what they are entitled to receive from the criminal justice system. Secondly, it makes clear to the criminal justice agencies the services that they are expected to provide.
The Government want to make sure that the entitlements in the code keep pace with the changing needs of victims. After publicly consulting on the proposed changes, we revised the victims code in 2015. The revised code transposes part of the EU victims directive, which lays down the minimum standards of support that member states must provide to victims of crime.
The 2015 revision of the code broadened the definition of a victim so that victims of all criminal offences are entitled to receive support and information under the code. It also required relevant agencies outside the core criminal justice system that provide services to victims of crime to apply the victims code. Most crimes are dealt with by the police and Crown Prosecution Service, but there are other organisations with powers to investigate and prosecute. Finally, the revision entitled all victims who report a crime to receive a written acknowledgment, stating the basic elements of the criminal offence concerned.
As important as the code is, it will only deliver for victims if criminal justice agencies give effect to it on the ground. Victims’ rights must be a practical reality within the justice system, rather than just words on a page. This Government are committed to ensuring that the rights of victims are delivered throughout the criminal justice process. We have done that by improving the practical support on offer for vulnerable and intimidated victims of crime, such as protective screens in court and a video link, to ensure they are able to give their best evidence and to reduce the anxiety caused. We want to help victims provide evidence in a way that will prevent retraumatisation.
We are also determined to make the process of attending court less daunting for victims. We have established model waiting rooms at five sites in England and Wales, and are using them, and the results of a detailed audit of facilities for victims in all criminal courts, to provide the template for nationwide improvements.
More widely, we have radically transformed the way support services are delivered to victims to ensure that they reflect the needs of victims in local areas. Following consultation, the Government empowered police and crime commissioners to deliver services tailored to the needs of victims in their areas. We are allocating about £68 million to police and crime commissioners this year to provide emotional and practical support services for victims of crime.
Our enduring commitment to victims has seen the wider victim support services budget increase significantly, from around £50 million in 2012-13 to around £96 million in the current financial year. The direct benefit to victims of our support can be seen in the services now available for victims of sexual violence. Since 2010, central Government funding has enabled 15 new rape support centres to open. There are now 89 centres that the Government support directly. The centres provide counselling, support and advocacy to help victims—men and women, boys and girls—recover, as far as possible, from the effect of those terrible crimes. As part of the violence against women and girls 2020 strategy, we have made a commitment to maintain funding for rape support services at 2016-17 levels for the remainder of the spending review period.
We also know that when someone is the victim of, or bereaved by, the most traumatic crimes, they will need support from enhanced services. This year, we are providing just over £3 million to support families bereaved by murder or manslaughter. The Government have also provided specific funding to meet the needs of the victims of large-scale crimes, as we did following last year’s appalling attacks in Manchester and London.
Victims also have the right to apply for compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme if they are victims of violent crime. I sympathise deeply with anyone who has been caused injury by such a crime and we are determined to make sure that every victim gets the compensation to which they are entitled. To that end, in 2016-17, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which administers the scheme independently of Government, paid out around £143 million in compensation to victims of violent crime.
Despite all that has been achieved in recent years, we must never stop endeavouring to deliver support to victims more effectively. The challenge is ongoing—the needs of victims change over time, and crime itself evolves. As well as considering the development of victims’ entitlements, we need to ensure that agencies deliver those entitlements that are already in place. That is why we are exploring ways to strengthen victims’ rights through the victims strategy, which we will publish by the summer of 2018. It will consider how compliance with the entitlements in the victims code might be improved and better monitored.
We are also examining how criminal justice agencies responsible for delivery of entitlements might be better held to account. We are currently considering the legislative and non-legislative routes to delivering effective compliance for victims, and we are engaging widely as we develop the strategy, to make certain that the needs of victims are properly considered. As part of that work, we are exploring how victim support services can better reflect the changing nature of crime. Although the crime survey of England and Wales shows considerable falls in overall estimated crime, police recorded crime for violence against the person offences has increased 20%. For sexual offences, it has increased by 23%. Those figures give a valuable insight into the changing case load of the police. It is important that the services we provide reflect those changes, in order that the police are best able to help victims to cope and recover. We must keep the whole criminal justice process in mind, end to end. The issues raised in the Worboys case highlight that point. In the light of those issues, the Justice Secretary has ordered a review of parole processes, transparency and engagement with victims. A crucial part of that involves considering how we can better support and empower victims going through parole processes. We will bring forward proposals in that area shortly.
We are also looking to address the needs of victims who have to engage with other parts of the justice system. We accept that the family and civil courts can learn valuable lessons from the progress that has been made in criminal justice. We are working closely with senior judges and relevant agencies to consider how best to improve support and protections in other parts of the system. As recently as November 2017, new court rules were introduced requiring family courts to consider whether someone involved in proceedings is vulnerable, and if so, take steps to enable them to participate or give evidence.
Just last week, on International Women’s Day, the Government launched a consultation on domestic abuse. We want to hear people’s experiences to ensure that the system reflects victims’ needs. We hope to hear from a wide range of stakeholders, including survivors of domestic abuse and the organisations that support them. The consultation will shape our response to this terrible crime, which affects some 2 million victims each year. In addition to introducing a domestic violence and abuse Bill, we want to ensure a comprehensive response that not only involves all parts of Government, but builds on charities’ expertise. That is one reason why we have committed to invest a further £20 million in frontline groups.
We heard from a number of colleagues this afternoon, including my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), and the Opposition spokespeople, the hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero). There were also interventions from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq).
The hon. Member for Leeds North West mentioned the victims of terrorism. The unit sits with the Home Office, but the funding sits with us—the complexity of the Government is always somewhat beyond me. The Government are committed to ensuring that victims of recent terrorist attacks receive the help and support they need. This year, we are providing £3.1 million for the homicide service, which supports those bereaved by murder or manslaughter, including terrorist attacks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay mentioned restorative justice, in which I am a strong believer. One of the reasons I am going to Brighton on Thursday afternoon is to support the work of the Restorative Justice Council. He also mentioned domestic abuse. As I said, dealing with domestic abuse is a key priority for the Government. I am very pleased about that and am proud to be playing my small part in it, not least because I have had a number of patients in the past who suffered from that dreadful crime.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle talked about victims of antisocial behaviour. I suspect that that issue blights every single constituency in the country. She also mentioned some awful cases of hate crime. I share her abhorrence of such crimes.
I am flattered that the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, has joined us. He always makes fantastic contributions based on his deep knowledge of the area. He mentioned a series of issues—in particular the registered intermediaries scheme, which actually sits with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer). It is a vital part of supporting vulnerable victims and witnesses when they give evidence. We are currently recruiting more intermediaries, improving the training available to them and working closely with the police and prosecutors to ensure that witnesses are matched to an intermediary as swiftly as possible.
My hon. Friend also spoke about courts. He is aware of section 28 and our pre-trial evidence measures for vulnerable victims who do not want to go through the court process. He also mentioned restorative justice and the need for a victims’ law. I hope I have assured him and others, including the hon. Member for Ashfield, about the victims’ law. There is no backtracking from our commitment. My understanding is that we will have some form of legislative underpinning of the victims code. The detail is yet to be fully worked through, but it will be in the strategy that will be published by the summer.
The hon. Member for Strangford spoke passionately—particularly about victims of terrorism. He always speaks well in such debates, sadly drawing on his recent experience of the troubles. He should be listened to carefully.
My hon. Friend the Member for Telford made a memorable speech. I think child sexual abuse is the worst of all crimes. Her sterling work and her obvious passion in that area is to be commended. In my nine-year tenure in university, one of my theses—I think it was in about 1992—was on the psychology of the child sex offender. I remember that in 1992 I was sceptical about the academic literature’s claims about the incidence of physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children in our society. Sadly, it turned out to be more accurate than I could ever have imagined. The independent inquiry on child sex abuse is now encountering the scale of the problem. The Government recognise that the inquiry is going to take a long time. If there are incidents where we can intervene to try to prevent sexual exploitation, we should. It is notable that two women made speeches on that issue, and the hon. Member for Rotherham made an intervention. Having strong women in this space is a good thing. We must empower women in the communities where sexual exploitation is taking place. If those women see strong women in action, they will step forward and offer the leadership that is desperately required.
The hon. Member for Rochdale is well-known to have deep experience of criminal justice, and I respect him for that. He mentioned restorative justice. I agree with him about the importance of high-quality training, which is why I am supporting the Restorative Justice Council’s work as much as possible. He mentioned the failure of prosecution, which sits outside my brief, but his comments were well made.
Finally—I have managed to get to the end in the required time—I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North West for organising the debate and all hon. Members for their outstanding contributions. I hope we can work across the House and beyond as we continue our efforts to support the victims of crime.
I thank all hon. Members who took part in the debate. There were many notable contributions. The hon. Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) all spoke about restorative justice. I thank the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst for asking for a statutory right to access restorative justice. That is hugely important, and I fully support that call. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) supported my call for a new victims’ law. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) asked for statutory youth provision. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) supported that proposal and is leading the fight for it.
I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), who raised the issue of child sexual exploitation. She bravely raised publicly the particular issues in Telford. I support her call for an independent investigation inquiry into Telford. She is surely on the side of the righteous in taking that issue forward. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), made some excellent points.
The need for a victims’ law is irrefutable. I was disappointed by the Minister’s response. He talked about physical measures, such as protective screens and video links, and £68 million of additional funding. They are welcome but not sufficient. We continually talk about a victims’ law but do not enact it, although it has been in two manifestos and the Queen’s Speech. Now is the time to move forward and set out the legislative underpinning we need for a victims’ law.
I was disappointed that the Minister did not seem to listen to the issues I raised about my constituent who, nine months since the Manchester bombing, still has not had support. The Minister suggested that that was perhaps partly due to the fact that the issue fell between the stools of two Departments. I hope those Departments get together to ensure that victims are supported.
I thank the Minister. I surely will write to him on behalf of my constituent.
Let us move forward. Let us work together to try to get a victims’ law on the statute book.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the rights of victims of crime.
British Nationals Imprisoned Abroad
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered British nationals imprisoned abroad.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In late January, I attended an event organised by the Redress Trust, the international human rights and anti-torture non-governmental organisation, and the all-party parliamentary human rights group to launch Redress’s new report, “Beyond Discretion: The Protection of British Nationals Abroad”. The report uses the NGO’s experience of working with British torture survivors and their families over the past 25 years when trying to get the help of the UK Government.
Under international law, through the Vienna convention on consular relations, to which the UK is a party, all states have a right to intervene on behalf of nationals abroad to ensure that their fundamental rights are respected. It is important to recognise that that is not the same as interfering in cases. Among other protections, the VCCR allows for the freedom of communication between consular officials and a detained person, as well as freedom of access to the detained through consular visits.
Every year, nearly 6,000 British nationals are arrested or detained abroad. Of those, more than 100 tell the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they have been tortured or ill treated while abroad. In 2016, the latest year for which data is available, the FCO delivered assistance to 118 British nationals who alleged that they had been tortured. The total number who have been tortured is of course likely to be higher, as some might not be able to report such violations, or have the chance to. One such case is that of Jagtar Singh Johal.
In October 2017, Jagtar travelled to India to marry his fiancée. On 4 November, while out shopping, he was seized by plain-clothes officers, hooded and abducted. Following a brief court hearing, he was held incommunicado by Indian police for nine days at an undisclosed location, and he was denied all access to lawyers, British consular staff and family members. On 10 November, Jagtar was secretly presented in court while his lawyer and British consular staff were, outrageously, left outside the courtroom waiting to be called. They were informed along with the media only after he had been presented before the court and had left the courtroom. Subsequently, witnesses reported that Jagtar had great difficulty standing or walking and had to be assisted by the police officers escorting him in and out of the courtroom, supporting Jagtar’s claim of severe torture.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for bringing this short debate to the House. Is not the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London a prime opportunity for the Government to tackle the Indian Government head-on about the claims of torture of my constituent, Jagtar Singh Johal, while he was in early detention in India?
Absolutely. That is a question I shall be posing to the Minister in my speech.
On 14 November, in the courtroom when Jagtar first met his lawyer, briefly, he made allegations of severe torture between 5 and 9 November. That included leg separation and electric shocks to his ears, nipples and genitals. He has told lawyers that police also forced him to sign blank pieces of paper, believed to be for the purpose of forging confessions.
On 16 November, after much lobbying, British consular staff were eventually able to meet Jagtar, some 12 days after his abduction, torture and interrogation, but two senior police officers remained in the interrogation room to prevent a private conversation. The experienced consular officer present assessed Jagtar and concluded that he was prevented from fully opening up about his mistreatment or to show signs of torture, and he was declared vulnerable. To date, unacceptably, the Indian authorities have prevented Jagtar from having private access to British consular staff. Will the Minister please offer some explanation as to why the Indian authorities have done that? What actions has the FCO taken in the past 130 days to address such an unacceptable state of affairs?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. I have been asked by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) to intervene on behalf of her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran for almost two years. We all know the story, which is clear, and she has been separated from her husband Richard, who lives in West Hampstead, and her daughter Gabriella, who lives with Nazanin’s parents in Tehran. That case should never be forgotten. It is important to renew our efforts to free her and bring her home—and to bring all the other people home as well.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention on behalf of Nazanin, whose case has been in the public arena for some time. Her husband is present in the Public Gallery for this debate. I shall also touch on her case, which is also extremely important.
On 21 November, in response to a parliamentary question by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), the then FCO Minister, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), described Jagtar’s treatment as “unconstitutional” and warned of “extreme action” against the Indian authorities. For a large part of his detention, Jagtar has been in police as opposed to judicial custody. In police custody, apart from the severe-degree torture, he has been abused and mistreated. Sleep deprivation techniques, constant verbal abuse, solitary confinement, use of handcuffs 24 hours a day, and misinformation about his family and the British authorities have been used to exploit and demoralise Jagtar mentally.
In December 2017, Redress called on the UN special rapporteur on torture to intervene in Jagtar’s case, and on the Indian Government to ensure that he is protected from further torture. Redress also called for Jagtar to be provided with an immediate independent medical examination—which he has been denied, despite repeated requests by his lawyer—and for the allegations of torture to be investigated according to international law. The next hearing for such a medical will be held sometime in March, almost four months after the alleged torture took place. Again, will the Minister please update us on the steps taken to secure an independent medical examination and any necessary medical treatment following the allegations of torture?
I think the hon. Lady touched on this briefly, and might be about to do so in more detail, but does she agree with me and with Redress that if the Government provided a higher level of consular assistance, as well as some consistency and clarity about the circumstances in which they will provide it, that would help in the cases not only of those such as Nazanin and Jagtar, but those seriously injured abroad, which is another significant issue? For example, my constituent Robbie Hughes suffered a serious attack while abroad.
We are signed up to the VCCR so, as the right hon. Gentleman was absolutely correct to say, we need to ensure that we use our position in the light of that to raise similar issues for injured individuals.
Jagtar’s case is extremely serious, but it has become farcical and a trial by media. He has been brought to court more than 30 times over the past four months, and he has been taken in and out of judicial and police custody. He is now being held in judicial custody until 3 April. I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has expressed concerns in writing that confidential police investigation videos of Jagtar, taken when he was under duress, have inappropriately been released to Indian TV stations by the Indian authorities. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office complained to the Indian authorities about Jagtar facing trial by media, which means that, if charged, he would never get a fair trial?
The British High Commission has never been able to meet Jagtar in private. Requests for private access to him have been repeatedly denied. I will go into more detail about the importance of private visits by consular officials in cases such as Jagtar’s. The VCCR states that nationals should be “free to communicate” and have access to consular officers. In cases of torture, often the authorities will be present in the room or will find other ways of monitoring and controlling interactions between consular officers and the individual. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which conducts prison visits throughout the world to ensure humane treatment, recognises that private interviews are the only way to make it possible to hear an individual’s point of view. In addition, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has called on states to
“insist on unrestricted consular access to its nationals who are in detention abroad, with facility for unmonitored meetings and, if required…appropriate medical expertise”.
In short, private visits are essential to ensure the safety of victims of torture.
Consular assistance is an important humanitarian safeguard and provides a crucial link with the outside world. Sometimes it is the only link. The UK has said that it is a priority to meet Jagtar in private, but it is unacceptable that after 130 days it has not been able to do so. As I conclude my remarks about Jagtar, I ask the Minister whether the Foreign Secretary will meet Jagtar’s family, who are concerned about the priority being given to this case.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that the Foreign Secretary meet the family. I have had many constituents contact me about this case. They are deeply concerned, because many of them visit India and they want to make sure that the proper protections are available. It would be appropriate for the Government to give higher priority to this case.
As my hon. Friend suggests, lots of individuals have approached many Members, from all parts of the House, stating that they are very concerned about visiting India, given what has happened in Jagtar Singh Johal’s case. I therefore ask the Minister whether the Prime Minister will raise Jagtar’s case with Narendra Modi when she meets him next month in London, given that she spoke to the BBC and showed interest in Jagtar’s case within days of his abduction and torture.
On a broader level, I would like the Minister to give an update on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Once again, Nazanin has had no access to consular services. She was placed in solitary confinement for eight and a half months in a cell measuring just 1.5 by 2 square metres and has been subjected to maximum psychological pressure, with the intention of demoralising her and putting her in a completely powerless situation. She has faced prosecution for the charges levelled against her in a secret and unfair trial. Her treatment has had a severe impact on her mental and physical health. As hopes for her release were dashed over Christmas, what action are the UK Government taking to ensure that she is protected from any further torture and ill treatment, and that she is released as soon as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. On the point about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, does she agree that we need to review the support given to dual nationals to ensure that we offer them protection when travelling to hostile states?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point about dual nationals and making sure that they have the rights they are entitled to. In Nazanin’s case, she should have had access to British consular services.
Finally, I would like to raise the case of Andy Tsege, a British national who has been arbitrarily detained in Ethiopia since 2014, when he was kidnapped and rendered to Ethiopia on the command of the Ethiopian Government, as part of a brutal crackdown on political opponents and civil rights activists. After being kidnapped, Andy was held in secret detention in solitary confinement for more than a year. He has been paraded on Ethiopian TV looking ill and gaunt. Andy is held under a sentence of death that was handed down in absentia while he was living in London, in a trial that was lacking basic elements of due process. He has no contact with his family in London, despite promises from the Foreign Secretary over a year ago to facilitate a family visit, and he is not receiving appropriate medical care.
These three individuals represent just a fraction of the number of British nationals imprisoned abroad. Although I do not call for the Government of this country to interfere in the internal affairs of another sovereign state, or proclaim that due process should not be followed, we cannot sit idly by while British citizens are deprived of some of the most basic rights that we hold dear. An integral part of being a responsible member of the global community is to conduct oneself in accordance with international rules and norms, none more so than the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, which states that human rights should be protected by the rule of law. The Government are obliged to ensure that all British citizens are subject to this protection, and I call on them to use every legitimate means to ensure that no British citizen should have to suffer such unlawful and inhumane treatment.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) for securing this very important debate.
According to data released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, more than 5,000 British nationals were detained overseas in 2016. However, keeping in mind the time constraints, I will be unable to talk about cases such as the very high-profile case of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I note that Mr Ratcliffe and his mother are present in the Public Gallery as part of their long-standing fight for justice. Instead, I will focus on the case of Mr Jagtar Singh Johal, a British resident of Dunbartonshire who was arrested in November 2017 while on holiday in the Punjab in India, and who has been imprisoned since then without any charge. As we have heard today, Mr Johal has undergone experiences that gravely concern many colleagues in this House; that is proved by the number of Members of Parliament from all parties who are in attendance.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of the concerns that we all have about Jagtar Singh Johal; I have had 68 emails from constituents—I have three gurdwaras in my constituency—and there is wider concern among people who wish to travel to India about how they will be treated when they go.
Order. If a Member wishes to speak in a half-hour debate, it is the convention of the House that they must have the permission of the Minister who is responding. I am advised that that permission has not been given. There may have been some confusion in this process. I encourage the Member to shorten his remarks, because I am aware that the Minister has a detailed reply to give to the House.
I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your clarification. However, I would like to point out that I contacted the relevant individuals of the House authorities to make sure that I had permission to speak. I thank the Minister for allowing me to speak.
It is important that the British Parliament should defend the rights of all our fellow citizens, wherever they are in the world, to have the benefit of due process under law, whatever they might be suspected or accused of. This is particularly true where allegations of torture have been made by the detainee.
Mr Johal’s legal representative called for an independent medical report to ascertain his client’s claims of torture, but that request has been denied. Although consular services have been provided to Mr Johal by the British Deputy High Commissioner in Chandigarh, allegedly all visits have been supervised by the Indian prison authorities and none has been held in private. That example highlights the continued failures by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in handling Mr Johal’s case and raising the important issues of his welfare with the relevant authorities. The UK Government’s failure to condemn the series of abuses has left all British citizens travelling abroad vulnerable. I implore the Minister to act now and press for further access to Mr Johal so he can receive the necessary support that he is entitled to as a British citizen.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on securing this important debate, ably supported by the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). The Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), had hoped to take part in this debate as she is the Minister with departmental responsibility for this area, but at this very moment she is appearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.
I will set out some general consular policy before moving on to the detention policy and the individual cases raised. I also undertake to write to hon. Members with more details where that is appropriate. The Government are proud to uphold a long tradition of offering British nationals a comprehensive, responsive consular service. Consular assistance is central to our work at the FCO. This support is not a right, I hasten to add, nor is it an obligation. Contrary to a common misconception, the Government do not have a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad. When things go wrong, our consular staff endeavour to give advice and practical support to British nationals overseas and their families in the UK, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. We aim to provide support and guidance tailored to the specific context of each case. As would be expected, our staff provide professional, non-judgmental, polite and helpful support where possible.
The volume, variety and complexity of the cases we deal with is staggering. In the last financial year alone our staff overseas dealt with approximately 5,000 detentions, 3,600 deaths and nearly 3,500 hospital cases. Naturally, our support is not without certain reasonable limitations. Rightly, the FCO expects and advises individuals to take sensible steps before they travel.
I will not, because I have very little time to make the speech I want to make.
UK nationals travelling abroad should ensure that they have sufficient travel insurance and read the FCO’s travel advice so that they can make informed decisions about the obvious risks in certain parts of the world. We offer help appropriate to the circumstances of each case. Our overseas staff assess individuals’ vulnerability and needs based on who they are, where they are and the situation they face. Dual nationality was mentioned; I will endeavour to ensure that there is a review of precisely what impact that has and revert to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston.
We work particularly hard to support those who are most in need of our help, and we intervene on behalf of families if British nationals are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards or there are unreasonable delays in procedures compared with the way nationals of the country concerned are treated. We are not, however, in a position to take decisions on people’s behalf, nor are we able to do everything that might be asked of us. As a matter of policy, we do not pay outstanding bills, including legal fees, as we are not funded to provide such financial assistance, nor does the FCO seek preferential treatment for British nationals. That means we do not and must not interfere in civil or criminal court proceedings, as was pointed out. It is right that we respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we expect foreign nationals to respect our laws and legal processes when they are here in the UK.
We have a clear policy that dictates how we engage in detention cases. We typically become aware of such cases when the British national involved agrees that the host Government may notify us of their detention. We then make contact or visit, where possible, within 24 hours. That did happen in the Johal case: as was alluded to, there was simply a delay in British authorities’ being made aware of his detention.
There are some 2,000 Britons in detention at any one time, the greatest number—approximately 400—in the United States of America. Our priority is always the welfare of UK nationals: to ensure that they receive food, water and medical treatment as required, and that they have access to legal advice. I know personally from dealing with the notorious cases of the Chennai Six and the group that was recently detained in Cambodia just how important that is.
The number of consular visits depends on the context of a particular case. Some have described those visits as a lifeline, and they may be the only visits a British national in detention abroad receives. Our assistance does not stop there. If a British national tells us they have been mistreated or tortured, our consular staff will, with their permission, do their best to raise concerns with the authorities and seek an investigation. To strengthen our support, we often work with partner organisations, of which the charity Prisoners Abroad is one example. Prisoners Abroad supports detainees and their families and helps to facilitate contact. If there is no family, it can help find detainees a pen-pal or send them books to read or study. It can also help with prisoners’ resettlement in the UK after release.
The death penalty exacerbates the anxiety for all those involved in consular cases where a British national is at risk of receiving or is in receipt of a capital sentence. Working to abolish the death penalty remains a key priority of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is an important part of our day-to-day work and that of all our diplomatic missions in countries that still carry out the death penalty. Our message to them is clear: we believe the death penalty to be unjust, outdated and ineffective, and it risks fuelling extremism. There are currently 15 British nationals on death row around the world. Irrespective of the reason for their conviction, we do all we can to ensure that the death penalty is commuted and is not carried out. As with all countries that retain the death penalty, we hope that the Government of India establish a moratorium on executions, in line with the global trend towards the abolition of capital punishment.
Let me turn to some of the specifics of Mr Johal’s case. Only this morning, his tenacious and hard- working constituency MP, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who is here, was able to speak to our high commissioner in India, Sir Dominic Asquith. I was asked directly why consular officials have not been given private consular access. That is a matter of great frustration. We frequently requested private consular access when Mr Johal was first detained, but as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston will know, he has since been moved to the Nabha prison—a maximum security jail where, for security reasons, private visits are not permitted. I will write to Members who raised the issue of CHOGM, particularly the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire.
I will try to ensure that that is done. The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that these things rightly often have to be done on a private basis rather than through megaphone diplomacy.
Mr Johal’s case is well known to me and to senior colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our staff have been working hard to provide assistance to Mr Johal and his family in the UK ever since his arrest in India in November 2017. I have met Mr Johal’s brother twice in the past six months, along with the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. Since Mr Johal’s arrest, consular staff have visited him fortnightly. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Indian counterpart about his case in November, and I raised it with the Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs on 11 January. Furthermore, various officials in our high commission have continued to raise concerns at the highest level. As Members pointed out, there are major concerns. Our high commissioner spoke to the Indian Foreign Secretary as recently as 7 March, and the basis of that conversation was relayed to the hon. Gentleman this morning.
I assure the House that we shall continue to raise this case at senior levels with the Indian authorities until the serious allegations raised by Mr Johal have been properly investigated. I recognise that this is a desperately difficult and distressing time for Mr Johal, his family and many in the UK Sikh community. I assure all hon. Members that his case remains a priority for me personally, and we shall continue to raise it with the Indian authorities as necessary.
Let me touch briefly on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I recognise that her husband is here today. We shall continue to approach that case in the way that we judge is most likely to secure the outcome that we all want—in other words, her release. I hope the House will understand that I am not in a position to provide a running commentary on each and every development in Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, save that I believe there needs to be a review of what happens in relation to dual nationals. I am not convinced that anything untoward necessarily happened here, but we need to try to review that issue.
I am unaware of the facts of the case of Mr Tsege, the British national in an Ethiopian jail to whom the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston referred, so I hope she will forgive me if I say I will write to her with full details of the issues she raised.
Understandably, much of this debate has related to Mr Johal. It is important to put on the record that India, as a partner in the Commonwealth and in many other ways, has a strong democratic framework that is designed to guarantee human rights. However, it also faces numerous challenges relating to its size and development, and when it comes to enforcing fundamental rights enshrined in its constitution and wider law, not least given the power of its states. Members are absolutely right to raise concerns about human rights in India in this forum and, as I said, I am happy for them to do so via correspondence. Because we share those real concerns, the UK Government are working alongside the Indian Government to build capacity and share expertise on the promotion and protection of human rights. I hope Members will understand that that is sometimes best done quietly and privately rather than through public pronouncements.
In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston once again for her contribution.
I take this opportunity to thank the families and friends of British nationals detained overseas for working with us to support their loved ones through the most distressing situations. I also thank our consular officers, who at times work under great stress, for the support they provide British nationals during their most difficult times. The support by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for British nationals in difficulty abroad is and will continue to be an absolute priority.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution to society of social workers.
It is an honour to serve under you, Mr Hollobone, and a real pleasure for me to call this debate in Westminster Hall. I would like to record for Hansard that the room is heaving and that the Public Gallery is packed, with standing room only. Alas, I cannot, because there is an important debate on statutory instruments on the Floor of the House. A number of colleagues from both sides of the House would have wanted to be here, were that not happening.
This subject has been close to my heart for the better part of a decade. I came across the extraordinary work that social workers do on first coming to work in Parliament, about a decade ago. I confess that until then I had been largely sheltered from the world in which they work, and indeed from the people they help. In the intervening 10 years I have never ceased to be amazed by their extraordinary passion, professionalism, stamina and commitment to helping people in some of the most difficult situations in which any citizens in our country find themselves. In the words of one social worker I was speaking to the other day, it is “a bloody hard job, but it’s bloody rewarding.”
I have been lucky in my career because I have had the opportunity to visit about 50 local authorities in the past 10 years, and everywhere I have gone I have seen great innovation and determination to help improve the lives of the most unfortunate.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I have dealt with social workers for a number of years and I agree that often they are undervalued and that when something goes wrong, they carry the blame. We often wonder why they do it, given the circumstances they find themselves in, with particularly difficult families, to say the least. They also see many things such as child abuse and pensioner abuse, for which they are on the frontline. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that society should do more to show that we value their contribution?
I completely agree; the hon. Gentleman makes his point powerfully. I have come to see social workers as the fifth emergency service, although I got in trouble for saying that many years ago—I got an angry letter from the coastguard—so I have ceased to say that. Social workers are one of our emergency services, but unlike the others, the majority of people never come into contact with them, and most people do not even know someone who has. It is therefore easy for misconceptions to grow about their role in society, the job they do and the way in which they do it. Part of the importance of this debate is to recognise the true nature of their job.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I know he has a deep interest in and a real passion for social work, and children’s services in particular. Has he seen Unison’s briefing for the debate? It tells us that half of social workers feel that their case load is over the limit, and they blame staff shortages for that. Also, 60% say that Government cuts affect their ability to best support vulnerable people, and most work for free for 10 hours a week. Does he agree not only that we need to train and recruit more social workers into the system, but that we need the cash to support and pay them, and that we should reward them individually with a good pay rise?
I was grateful to Unison and the British Association of Social Workers for the briefings they sent me in advance of the debate. I understand that the survey reported in the Unison briefing represents some challenges for the profession and its working environment. I will always be found looking to Government to provide more resources for vulnerable people. I would say on behalf of the Government—although I am sure the Minister can defend the Government perfectly well without me—that, according to the Library, since 2014-15 the money that has gone into children’s social work has gone up by 2% in real terms. We can always look for more, but I am glad that it is moving in the right direction.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I had not intended to be here but I found myself with a little extra time, so I am glad to contribute. As he rightly said, many people do not come into contact with social workers, but I grew up with a mother who was a social worker in Muirhouse in Edinburgh—some may know it as the area on which the film “Trainspotting” was based—during the heroin explosion and HIV crisis in the ’80s. She went on to be a social work manager and lecture at university. So, I grew up with a great sense of social justice and the very difficult but ultimately rewarding job that social workers do. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should have a national day to recognise social workers—unless we already have one that I am not aware of?
On that point, I do not think we have a social worker day, but, as patron of the Social Worker of the Year awards, I inform the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) that this coming Thursday there will be a reception on the Terrace for all the winners, and she is more than welcome to come along, meet them and pay her tribute in person.
Unbeknown to us, national social worker day is later this week—what we have achieved in the debate already! Most of my remarks will be confined to children’s social work as it is the area that I know best. That is in no way to denigrate the extraordinary work that adult social workers do. Indeed, on Friday I was with some of the adult social workers in Essex, who were absolutely impressive in their determination to make things better for local people. They were full of new ideas—they have developed an interesting new programme to support newly qualified social workers, which had seen recruitment increase substantially—and I am pleased to know that vulnerable adults and elderly people in my constituency can rely on them.
As I said, I came to this subject relatively recently in my career, and I did so by accident. I had started out working on education, and through good fortune and strange circumstances I ended up working for my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has graced us with his presence. That was back in 2008, and at that time social workers were in particularly difficult circumstances. Their public reputation had taken a hammering following the Victoria Climbié case and soon after I started that job the awful case of Peter Connelly—Baby P—broke in the newspapers. Very unfairly, for a while social workers alone took the blame for the mistakes made in those cases. It was symptomatic of a society and a news environment that did not understand child protection in the round and was searching for the easiest scapegoats.
By the time I joined my hon. Friend—my then boss—he had already written what turned out to be a seminal paper, called “No More Blame Game,” which sought to set aside the myths that had grown up in the public imagination and to give social workers the respect, training, resources and professional autonomy they needed to do their job properly. It was my great pleasure to work alongside him and at the Department for Education in those next few years to see that programme bear fruit. The most substantial part of it was the Munro review of child protection, which was launched in 2010 and reported in 2011. It intended to put a renewed focus on frontline social work—not on national statutory guidance or defensive systems designed to protect organisations from reputational damage, but on the frontline experience of the children being helped by a professional social work body.
Very much so. Part of the work that was pioneered by a number of local authorities and pushed by central Government around 2010 was a multi-agency approach. It is now very common in local authorities to see experienced social workers in an office alongside representatives from the local police force, local mental health services and a range of local agencies, so they can have those professional conversations and should not get tied up in a bureaucratic process where people push a difficult case off their desk into somebody else’s hands and hope it goes away.
Indeed. Instead of building a system that could, at its worst extent, be one of professional buck-passing, we have seen the development of collaborative working in the truest sense. Where that has happened, we know that vulnerable children and families are most likely to be getting the support they need.
During the course of our work in those days, we came across a number of obstinate problems that were holding professional social workers back. Anybody working in social work at the time will remember the integrated children’s system, ICS, which was an extremely well-intentioned central Government computer system, designed to capture data and help social workers to analyse it. The only problem was that it had not been designed in consultation with social workers; it had been designed by IT folk with other interests.
I remember—I shall never forget—sitting in an office with about 20 social workers one day and hearing with complete incredulity that it took them eight hours to fill out the form for one visit. The visit with a child and a family might have lasted 45 minutes, but it took eight hours to do the paperwork for it. The enormous burden that that placed on the social work community was incapacitating. We met social workers who were taking time off work in order to do their work. They were taking holiday so that they could get the time to fulfil their paperwork as the system required them to.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the necessity of consulting with professional social workers. Another area that the National Association of Social Workers talks about is the current adoptions system and the acceleration to get children adopted as quickly as possible. The NASW has some real concerns that the system, because it is accelerated, might not be looking after the best interests of the children. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that we need to listen more to social workers, particularly their concerns about adoption and the system currently in place, so that we can ensure that children get the best outcome?
The Munro review of child protection emphasised very strongly the need for a systems learning model. That means that everyone who is involved in the child protection system and in looking after vulnerable children must be able to voice their concerns and opinions and have a fair hearing. It is only by listening to different people operating in different parts of the system that we can get the most effective working of that system. For a long time, certainly on the ground in many local authorities, social workers felt that their opinions were not being heard by senior management, that senior management—particularly some directors of children’s services way back in the day—were entirely unconnected to the vulnerable population they were supposed to be serving.
We saw children’s services departments that were almost solely focused on education and saw the vulnerable children as an add-on—a small part of their business. We also met directors of children’s services who took the time to go out and go bowling with all their children in foster care, to hear their views. We have to remember that children themselves are part of the system, and it is through hearing their voices, and their views of the services and support they and their parents are receiving, that we can make the improvements that are so necessary.
We often talk, quite rightly, about a child-centred, or child and family-centred, system, but often, with those most vulnerable families, the only way of getting to that centre is to have professional social workers or teachers working alongside them in schools. More recently, since the Munro review reported in 2011, some fantastic additional changes have been brought in by the Department for Education.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. We should pay a little bit of tribute to the previous Minister, Mr Timpson, the former Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who lost his seat. About four or five years ago I did a lot of work with him, because he was looking at the issues not only at local authority but at regional level. He did a lot of good work because he understood the problem, and I was very impressed by him. We should give him a little bit of credit here.
Absolutely; Edward Timpson was an excellent Children’s Minister. He had a lot of respect in the sector, and rightly so. He came from a family that had first-hand experience of fostering, and he brought a huge wealth of real-life experience to his role. It is good to hear that he was respected on both sides of the House.
One of the things brought in at DFE after 2010, as I was saying, was the innovation programme, which again gave local social workers, local authorities and people working on the ground with children and families the opportunity to come up with new ideas and bid for Government money in order to prove their model. It is good to see that fund rolling on; I think only last year the Government committed a further £36 million to the initiative, which has been warmly welcomed by local authorities and social workers across the country.
At the moment the Department is putting into practice the contents of its strategy paper, “Putting Children First”—an enormous programme of social worker development, from recruitment all the way through to ensuring that more experienced social workers are up to speed with the latest techniques and theories, and that the social work community is talking to itself and learning from itself. It is a really valuable programme, which will help to upgrade the profession in the most constructive and productive way possible.
Things are tough in some local authorities; I spend enough time talking to people in children’s services to know that that is true. I also know that, even where things are financially tight, there is still great appetite for innovation and people are finding new ways of working and of helping children and families. I was talking to some social workers on Friday who had found that, simply by putting in a new package of support for newly qualified social workers, they were getting more young recruits through the door and building a vibrant, young, energetic team.
I have also been lucky enough to see how the Government’s great troubled families programme has been integrated into the main body of social work practice in some outstanding local authorities, where we have seen the development of a continuum of care, going from children’s centres open to all at one end, all the way through to the most severe child protection cases, with the troubled families programme helping those in the middle. That is the group I will talk about as I bring my remarks to a close.
One group that has been neglected in public discourse until this point is children in need—children who are not fully in care but on the edge of care; who are on social services’ radar but who do not receive all the services that somebody who is fostered or has been adopted might. It is a large group: there are about 400,000 children in need at any one time, and during the course of a year about 750,000 children are in need. Their outcomes are terrible, and are often worse than those we see for the looked-after population, as we might expect, because these are the children who are left at home in disrupted, complex families, whereas their contemporaries who have been taken into care will have, if they are lucky, the stability of long-term fostering or an adoptive placement and will see their outcomes improve.
It is extremely important that we turn our attention to that group. I believe that, as a result of our bringing our social work profession into the 21st century and helping it to develop, social workers will have the skills, the appetite and the determination to help those people. I am delighted that the Department for Education is undertaking a review of the outcomes of children in need, as we announced in the Conservative party’s general election manifesto last year.
The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case for working with even more children, but that actually requires more people as well. I know he is impressed by the increase in money that the Government are putting in, and local authorities are also raising more, through council tax. However, does he agree that, in order to achieve the things that he wants, we need in the system more social workers with smaller workloads?
I certainly see the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. The point I was making, which is not completely dissimilar, is that the troubled families programme brings with it a large budget. I have been pleased to observe over the past few years that the proportion of families on the troubled families programme with a child in need has risen and risen, as more local authorities take that budget and apply it to those families who need it most. We have a much more responsive and particular system now than a few years ago.
We all aspire to having the most professional, best informed, most inspired and inspiration social workers anywhere in the world. I believe that we are heading in that direction, but it is not something that can be achieved overnight and it is not something that can be taken for granted. However, I am sure we all agree that, without the contribution that England’s social workers make to vulnerable children and families, the world would be a considerably worse place.
I am obliged to call the first of the Front-Bench spokespeople at 5.7 pm. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party spokesperson, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s official Opposition’s spokesperson and 10 minutes for the Minister. I will invite the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) to sum up the debate after the Minister has concluded his remarks. Until 5.7 pm, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has the Floor.
I had not intended to speak, but such has been the eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) that I feel impelled to complement his wise words. I first declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I repeat my interest as a patron of the Social Worker of the Year awards, as is the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck).
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on what is an unfashionable subject that we hear little of in this place—that has been a problem for many years. Not only was he well-schooled when he arrived here 10 years ago, but his experience then included, as he has mentioned, his time working as an essential part of the Munro review, before moving on to Barnardo’s and then becoming the deputy Children’s Commissioner. He has vast experience, which he has already brought to bear in his short time in this place. I am glad that he has done so again today.
My hon. Friend mentioned social workers as the fifth emergency service. We used to refer to them as the fourth emergency service—we do not want to downplay them. Their difference from the other emergency services is that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Too often, they are subject to tabloid newspaper headlines that complain if they have the temerity to step in and take a child into care, particularly if the child is from a middle-class family who one would not expect to face action. They are damned if they do not step in early enough and take a child into care who subsequently becomes a Baby P, a Victoria Climbié or one of the many other high-profile cases, which are just the tip of the iceberg.
I am sure the Minister sees this now, but in my previous role as Children’s Minister, the most depressing start to the week was going through an audit of the new cases of severe child abuse and child fatalities that had come in during the previous week and what progress they had made in the courts or whatever. I am afraid that the cases we saw in the headlines were just a fraction of what was going on, day in, day out. I think the situation is better, but there are still, and always will be, people who do terrible things to vulnerable children. Too often, it is only social workers who stand between those people and the welfare—indeed, the lives—of those children.
I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned “No More Blame Game”, which was a really important piece of work back in 2007, before the whole Baby P issue blew up. It was all about trusting social workers, rather than just pointing the finger of blame, as I am afraid had been the default position of too many people in positions of responsibility. Time and again, I found myself reminding people, during media interviews and elsewhere, that it was not the social worker who killed that child. It was the parents, carers or others close to that child who actually did the damage. The social workers desperately tried to avoid that.
The job of the social worker is to try to detect early where a child is vulnerable and to try to make a judgment about an appropriate intervention. It is not a science. That is why one of my big mantras regarding social workers was that I wanted to give them the power and the confidence to make a mistake. There had been numerous child protection Bills since the Victoria Climbié case, and all were exceedingly well-intentioned, but their net result was to add to the rulebook—to add more regulations. By 2010, the “Working Together” manual ran to something like 760 pages.
Unison revealed that social workers were spending more than 80% of their time in front of computers filling in process forms, rather than spending time face-to-face with those children. The net result was that they were constantly ticking boxes to comply with the rules, rather than using their gut instinct, their judgment and their training and professionalism to say, “Something isn’t quite right here. I’m going to step in and do something.” Occasionally, they will be wrong—as I say, it is not a science—but usually the decent social workers, as the vast majority are, will be right to do so. However, they lacked the confidence to step in because it was all about following the rulebook and ticking the boxes. That was a huge problem with the profession that caused them to lose confidence in doing the professional job that we wanted them to do.
Our review back in 2007 was an important start in saying that we need to trust social workers. We first flagged up the need to have a chief social worker to give the whole profession gravitas—a public face; somebody who was trusted—and to make sure that social worker training was integrated with other training as well. Some of the best safeguarding I have seen is when a social worker is sat next to a GP, who is sat next to a teacher, who is sat next to a police officer, in the same room, being taught from the same manual. Hot-desking is now often the favoured way forward in children’s centres and other multi-agency safeguarding hubs, which is absolutely right.
The Munro review was important. It was the first Department for Education review launched by the new Government in 2010. It was nothing to do with education; it was actually all about child protection and social work, which was not a fashionable subject in those days. The Munro review—Eileen Munro’s work was outstanding and respected, I think on all sides politically, and certainly throughout the profession—was all about how we peeled back some of the rules that were standing in the way of allowing social workers to get on with their job and use their professionalism and instincts to make the right judgments. It was a really important review.
My hon. Friend referred to children in need. It has been estimated that the cost of child neglect each and every year in this country is some £15 billion. That is £15 billion for not getting things right. Just think what we could achieve if a fraction of that were spent on prevention and ensuring that neglect became a thing of the past, or certainly a much more minority occupation. The Munro report was therefore very important.
The rewriting of the “Working Together” document, which was slimmed down from more than 750 pages to below 100, was also very important, because it set out the basic principles and then said to the social worker, “That is what you need to achieve. Now go out and do it. Use your professional talents to decide how you execute it in individual cases and, above all, spend time snooping around. Go into people’s homes. See people face to face. Eyeball those whom you suspect may be up to no good. Speak to the children—get the child’s voice and the child’s view on this.” That was so important.
It is also important that politicians and civil servants should have experience of that. I spent a year back in 2011 being a social worker in Stockport. I was going out on cases with real social workers—and gosh, they took me to some of their most challenging cases to see it like it is. My hon. Friend mentioned the former director of children’s services in Harrow, one of the most outstanding directors of children’s services that we had, who each week would take a group of children in the care of Harrow Borough out bowling and engage with them and hear from them exactly what was going on. In the Department for Education, we set up four panels of children: one of foster-children, one of children in residential homes, one of recent care leavers and one of children who had been adopted. They came along and told us, without the carers, managers and officials there, what was actually going on. That is where I learnt some of my best information, as I did by going out with social workers on patrol, without directors and managers—their bosses. That is very important. I think and hope that in that time we re-established some of the credentials and confidence in social workers.
Alas, there is still a lot to do. Money has been protected for child safeguarding, but clearly, financial pressures are considerable at the moment. The number of children coming into the care system has continued to rise. That may be a good thing. I do not know whether we are taking too many or too few children into care. What I am concerned about is that we are taking the right children into care, at the right time, and looking after them properly once they are in the care of the state.
I have a friend who has a leading role on a safeguarding board. She tells me that the workload has increased, particularly as there have been more case reviews and, because more children have been dying, there have had to be specific inquiries. The work is tremendously resource-intensive. Is the hon. Gentleman convinced that there are sufficient resources for people to do that work effectively?
It is a question of priorities and of intervening at the appropriate time; that is why I was a big fan of the early intervention fund, which was set up in the Department for Education. However, getting things wrong is the most costly outcome of the lot, and previously an awful lot of money was being wasted on the system and constraining social workers, rather than letting them get on with their job. The consequence was huge vacancy rates, too many locums filling the places and a lack of continuity, and the cost was that much more. The most costly thing of all was when things went really wrong, as they did with Baby P, Victoria Climbié and the other high-profile cases. The cost of putting that right was considerable, so it is a false economy not to be doing the things to which we have referred.
The all-party parliamentary group for children, which I have the privilege to co-chair, produced a report on the state of children’s social care last year, and we are doing an update on that. What it showed, above everything, was huge disparities between outcomes and experiences in different parts of the country. For example, a child in Blackpool has a 166-in-10,000 chance of being in the care system, while an equivalent child in Richmond in London has only a 30-in-10,000 chance. Richmond and Blackpool are very different places, but are they so different that more children get taken into care? We found huge differentials around the country on a whole range of thresholds, and we desperately need to learn from that. We need to learn from social workers why those different experiences and outcomes are happening.
At the end of the day, I found that those of our failing children’s services departments—we have a large number in special measures at the moment—that were turned around most effectively were not those with some new structure, process, trust or whatever imposed on them, but those where an inspirational leader, director of children’s services, went in and trusted his or her staff. And ultimately, many of the successful, recovering children’s services authorities came through with the majority of the social workers they had started with.
I remember that one director of children’s services who gave evidence to our inquiry said that he went into the county, got his social workers together and said to them, “Name all your cases.” When it got up to about 15 or 16, they could not remember the others, so he said, “Well, that’s probably about the case load you should have, isn’t it?” and that was what he put into effect. It is now one of the best-performing—I will not name it—children’s services departments in the country and is spreading that good practice to other counties and authorities around the country.
It is not rocket science, but it would be much more difficult without the dedicated social workers whom we have in this country. We do not value them enough—I think we value them more than we did—which is why it is essential, when we have opportunities such as this, that we say thank you to social workers for the outstanding job they do despite all the challenges they face every day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) for securing the debate and for his summary of the subject. I agree with him that we have to learn from people with experience of care, and that is happening in Scotland. The Who Cares? Scotland “1000 Voices” manifesto is about a pledge to listen to 1,000 young people with direct experience of care. That is very welcome.
As we have heard, social workers play a vital role in our society by standing up for the most vulnerable children and adults and ensuring that they are safeguarded from harm or supported to live independently. The work falls into the remit of a number of Departments—Education, Health, employment, social security and potentially others such as the Home Office and Justice—and it can often be multi-agency. Similarly, social workers work in a variety of settings, supporting individuals, families and groups within the community and working in homes, schools, hospitals or the premises of various public and voluntary organisations.
Social workers frequently work unsocial hours, and in making a positive difference to other people’s lives find themselves under considerable pressure and strain. Figures supplied by Unison highlighted the fact that 80% of its social worker members experienced
“emotional distress during the day”
and almost half felt “over the limit” with the volume of cases for which they were responsible. There can be no doubt that the role is challenging at the best of times, and of course if something does go seriously wrong, it can attract a huge volume of negative media coverage, significantly adding to workers’ stress levels.
Last year, Scotland’s Social Work Services Strategic Forum found that the public actually have a more positive view of social services than social service workers and institutions perceive. Overall, people in Scotland are positive about social services’ impact on society and believe that those services perform an important public role. Indeed, 73% of the public agree that social services play an important role in supporting the most vulnerable people in communities. That is a good statistic and one that we should not tire of telling people about.
I am pleased to say that that has also been my experience. My constituency is fairly typical of the demographic challenges faced across many parts of the country. That means that the role of social workers becomes ever more important in supporting people living with dementia and their family carers. When family carers, who are often advanced in years themselves, become ill, it is often to the social work service that they turn.
The recent bad weather—two weeks ago—brought knee-deep snow across my local area. I am aware of social workers going the extra mile until the situation stabilised. There are many examples of social workers going on foot from their own home to the homes of service users living in their neighbourhoods, and providing help with personal care when the social care providers were unable to get through the snow. I am aware of staff from children’s services in the Falkirk Council area, for example, staying on for double shifts and staying overnight at colleagues’ homes to ensure that they were ready and able to be back in work the next day. As a result, all the children and young people were cared for by a consistent residential care staff, despite the snow and freezing conditions. I am grateful for their efforts and commitment to the role.
Similar examples occurred in the West Lothian Council area, where staff went above and beyond to ensure that residents who rely on them for care were supported during the bad weather. Staff turned up for shifts when not scheduled to work, to ensure care could still be provided if colleagues were unable to come in due to the conditions, and helped out in other areas. To give just one positive example, a member of staff who went to pick up a prescription for a service user was told by the chemist of other vulnerable people unable to collect prescriptions, and delivered the lot. That kind of commitment above and beyond is often overlooked.
I take this opportunity to publicly put on record my thanks to all who helped out during those difficult days a few weeks ago, but social workers play a vital—sometimes thankless—role throughout the year. The recent inclement weather conditions simply helped to highlight how essential that role has been to members of our community.
In conclusion, social workers are highly qualified and professional individuals, who contribute greatly to our society and to the protection of our most vulnerable citizens. We must therefore ensure that they are not working under undue strain, and that they are adequately resourced to support the public services and meet the demands we place upon them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) for securing this important debate ahead of next week’s World Social Work Day.
There is a general misunderstanding of what social workers do. As a result, they are often treated with suspicion by not only the general public, but many politicians in this place. True to type, when something is not understood by politicians, they seek to over-regulate and control it. This Government are treading that path too.
There are over 114,000 social workers in the UK. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I was proud to be one of them, working in the field of child protection. Each of those social workers works a demanding week of approximately 46 hours in a physically, emotionally and mentally demanding job. I recall being regularly assaulted, punched, spat at, needing security escort and being held in victim support. It is therefore vital that the Government support and value the profession, but they do not.
The problems social workers face are not of their own doing or by their own design. Many people in the profession tell me that things are not getting better; things are getting worse. That should be no surprise to anyone following what the Government are doing to services and the most vulnerable in our country. Sure Starts and early years services have been decimated. We have heard a lot today about the Munro review. It is a real shame that the Government did not implement her suggested legal duty to provide early intervention services. Labour Members understand that that is vital; it is a shame the Government do not.
Disability benefits have been slashed. Public sector job losses have occurred on a massive scale. We have record levels of in-work poverty. Support and advice services are shutting. Mental health services have been stripped to the bone. Our NHS is creaking at the seams and our adult social care system is broken.
My local authority, Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, has suffered a 52% cut since 2010. It now spends 57% of the money it has on social care. Is my hon. Friend aware of this happening elsewhere in the country, and does she wonder, like I do, how councils are managing to deliver what they do deliver?
My hon. Friend is spot on: this is happening in other councils right across the country; it is not confined to his own. In fact, there is a reported funding gap of £2.5 billion by 2020, with more than 400,000 people no longer able to access social care.
Children’s services are grappling with the highest numbers of children in care since the 1980s and facing a funding gap of £2 billion by 2020, as referral rates continue to rise at a staggering pace. The fact is, social work simply cannot be separated from the wider environment. Social work is interlinked with wider societal and economic issues. If one part of the system is depleted, the other is depleted, and it is social work clients who suffer.
Social workers know that all too well, because they see it every single day. Entering their eighth year of a pay freeze, 60% of social workers have stated that they feel Government austerity has had a dramatic impact on their ability to make a difference. The Government certainly have the profession in their sights. Since 2010, there has been an aggressive focus, which, as noted by the National Audit Office and a number of cross-party groups, is yielding no positive results in the reform of social work or social work assessment and accreditation, giving a clear signal that this Government feel the problems are with social workers, not the system.
With that in mind, can the Minister can shed any light on the hash that has been made of the new accreditation for social workers? After an embarrassing climbdown, accreditation will now only be of 4% of social workers by 2020, as opposed to the planned 100%. Since there is a groundswell of opposition from the profession, does the Minister not think it is about time to scrap this nonsense altogether?
Social Work England, another Department for Education initiative born out of zero discussion with the profession, has also been subject to some backtracking, after the Government thankfully failed to secure direct regulation of social workers. Will the Minister explain when the regulations will be produced for Social Work England? Clarity is needed regarding transition from the Health and Care Professionals Council, and social workers need some assurances that they will not be hit with exorbitant fees. Both of those developments signify to the profession that the Government have little faith in them and feel they need to be regulated and subjected to state control to a much higher degree than any other profession. Will the Minister please explain why that is?
In spite of all that, the profession survives. Excellent social work happens every single day in all areas of our country. Children and adults are protected from harm and their lives are improved. If the Minister really believes that our children, adults and families need the very best, he is in a position where he can actually deliver on what our profession is crying out for. I wonder if he will commit to that today and offer more than just warm words.
Let me begin by tackling the issue of funding, which has been raised a couple of times by colleagues here. We are keen to understand the sector’s concerns about funding and the demand on children’s services. We are currently consulting on the fair funding review. We have heard the sector’s concerns about the fairness of current funding for their local authorities and the challenges that children’s services in particular are facing in managing demand. The Department for Education and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have commissioned independent research to inform the fair funding review. We are very much cognisant of that fact.
I have a lot to say about Social Work England and the accreditation and assessment, so I would like to make some headway. Maybe, if I have time, I will come back to the hon. Lady.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on securing this important debate. Listening to him speak, the sheer depth of experience he has in this hugely important area soon becomes clear. From the world of think-tanks, the Eileen Munro review, the charity sector, the Children’s Commissioner, and more recently as a constituency Member of Parliament, his experience is considerable and wide-ranging. So too is the experience of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I could listen to them all day and I have been taking note of everything they say.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar focused his contribution on the work of children and family social workers and I will respond accordingly, but before I do so, I should place on record the valuable work done by those in the adult social care community. When I speak of the value to society of social workers, I very much include all social workers.
Above all else, we agree on a single unarguable point: social workers have a vital job in ensuring that vulnerable adults, children and families receive the best possible support to help them to overcome the challenges they face, and to enable them to look positively towards their future. I have only been Minister for children and families for a few months, but so far, from my visits to children’s services across the country, I have seen a dedicated and passionate workforce. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham described what is needed in one word: leadership. When we see good leadership, we see good outcomes for children. Every day, social workers deal with complex and challenging situations. The one thing they say to me is that the real magic sauce—whether it is the trust in Doncaster that has turned it around, or in Hackney, which had a turnaround—is consistent leadership: people they can refer to and teams they can work with, knowing they will be there the next day.
Social workers play a unique role in supporting people, often at the most difficult times in their lives. To do that successfully, they require a distinctive set of skills, knowledge and values. To do their job well requires compassion, empathy, analytical thinking and an understanding of the positive impact they can have in people’s lives. They work with complexity, uncertainty and conflict within a complex legal framework. They are required to use sound professional judgment in balancing needs, risks and resources to achieve the right outcomes. Done well, social work can improve people’s opportunities and quality of life, enabling them to lead the lives they want to lead.
In my constituency, I often hear from people in the social care system. It is overwhelming. To work closely, day in, day out, with such difficult and sometimes devastating cases requires exceptional passion and resilience. Members across Parliament will all be familiar with that from their surgeries. It is a job that a precious and extraordinary minority undertake and we must do all we can to support, empower and elevate the profession. As a Minister, I see this as one of my key priorities, and I will do my utmost to ensure that social workers get the recognition they deserve.
The debate is timely. As colleagues have mentioned, World Social Work Day is a week today and provides a moment to pause, reflect and celebrate the difference that social workers make. We in Government will be doing our bit to promote and champion the profession, both in what we say publicly and in how we support social workers.
All children, no matter where they live, should have access to the same high-quality care and support. That is about empowering social workers to excel even further in their practice, as well as building public confidence in the social work profession. One thing is clear: the quality of social work practice is, above all, the core of what we want to achieve. This is vital work and the reason we are prioritising social work reform. Social workers are not always given the right tools for the job, and can be held back by burdensome systems, which we have heard colleagues eloquently describe, including the horrendous time it takes to fill in a form.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar spoke with authority about the Munro review, about reducing bureaucracy and about empowering professional judgement. What he said is true, and while great progress has been made, more is to be done. Those entering the social work profession must have the best training possible. Teaching partnerships bring together universities and local authorities to improve the quality of social work degrees. Good continuing professional development is also essential, particularly at key stages of a social worker’s career such as the daunting task of moving from education to employment and when stepping up from the frontline to managing and supervising teams, and for those aspiring to be social work practice leaders. I believe that these reforms will have a positive impact for all and, most importantly, vulnerable children, families and adults in need of support.
I draw attention to two specific reforms mentioned by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). The first is the new accreditation scheme for child and family social workers. Through that innovative programme, we will introduce post-qualifying standards for child and family social work expertise, based on the current knowledge and skills statements, and offer voluntary assessment against them. The introduction of the standards will mean that employers and social workers will have a national benchmark to aim for, and learning and development can be planned in line with meeting the standard. If a social worker takes the assessment and becomes accredited, they may be offered career development opportunities, including promotion. I heard it directly from social workers who are involved in the early stage. We are doing this with social workers, rather than to them.
I have not got much time, but let me see how far I get because I want to talk about Social Work England as well.
We are supporting local authorities and social workers to get ready for this new system in a unique way, working with early adopters. Rather than, as in the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, stuff being done to them by IT people who know nothing, we are co-creating the assessment and accreditation. We will be working with more than 150 children and family social workers. I am also delighted that Essex County Council is in discussions with the Department about becoming a phase 2 national assessment and accreditation system site from 2019.
The other major reform I want to highlight is establishing Social Work England. Focused purely on social work, this bespoke professional regulator will cover both children and family social workers and those working in adult services. Social Work England will have public protection at the heart of all its work, but it is more than just that. It will support professionalism and standards across the social work profession.
I have two small questions. First, I agree with the need for ongoing professional development, but where will the time come from in social workers’ busy schedules to take this critical training? Secondly, does the Minister not agree that it is time that social workers got a decent pay rise?