Wednesday 25 April 2018
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
Protecting Children in Conflict Areas
I beg to move,
That this House has considered protecting children in conflict areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the Minister for being here to respond and hon. Members from across the House who have joined me for this important discussion.
I want to begin with a question. Why are photographs taken of children in warzones, which are the most arresting, harrowing and distressing to viewers? It is because they get to the heart of the matter. Children are the ones who suffer the most, yet have the least involvement with the players and actors of war. Children are the ones we all relate to, either because we are parents of children ourselves, or because we have all been children and like to look back at that time more often than not as being happy, loving and with fond memories.
We all remember from autumn 2015 the photograph of Alan Kurdi that was splashed across newspapers, which I have in my hands—that lifeless body lying down, washed up on the Mediterranean shore with his trainers still on his feet, after fleeing with his family from war in Syria. He drowned alongside his mother and brother, trying to reach safety in Greece. Some of us may also know the photograph of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting dazed and bloodied, with soulless eyes, in the back of an ambulance after surviving a regime airstrike in Aleppo. Yesterday, a new photograph emerged, taken from a video, of a young boy in a green shirt, hugging a man’s lifeless body—probably his father. He is screaming and crying, after Saudi-led airstrikes at a wedding party in northern Yemen killed at least 20 people, including the bride, and injured 45 others. I ask hon. Members to keep those images in mind for the rest of the debate.
With the growing instability around the world, new kinds of war are developing that are very different from the traditional method of thousands of mobilised soldiers fighting one another on open battlefields. Now, new weapons and patterns of conflict, which include deliberate attacks against civilians, are increasingly turning children into targets of war. This is why now more than ever, we need to make sure we protect children in conflicts. The shocking images on our television screens and in our newspapers of children in warzones come from the most dangerous conflict-affected countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, but also from other regions such as Myanmar, where almost 400,000 Rohingya children have had to flee to Bangladesh for safety.
Despite the collective efforts of the international community, brutal tactics are still commonly used against children. They are suffering things that no child ever should. They are used as suicide bombers and their homes, schools and playgrounds have become battlefields. The widespread use of indiscriminate weapons, such as cluster munitions, barrel bombs and improvised explosive devices, make no distinction between soldiers and children.
To give just a few examples, in South Sudan, around 13,000 children have been recruited to fight by all sides of the conflict, putting their lives at risk and changing their future forever. In Myanmar, the atrocities include girls being raped, infants being beaten to death with spades and children being forced to witness soldiers execute their families. Girls and boys in refugee camps who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh told World Vision that they fear violence daily. Almost half a million child refugees in Bangladesh face extreme danger, as the monsoon season approaches. In Syria, one in five school children are forced to cross lines of fire just to go to school. In Yemen, it is estimated that one child dies every 10 minutes because of extreme hunger and disease resulting from conflict.
The examples do not happen just in far-away places. Closer to home, on Europe’s doorstep, the conflict in Ukraine has destroyed or damaged an average of two schools every week for the past four years. Areas where children used to play and learn are now littered with landmines, killing and injuring dozens of children a year. Those children are innocent bystanders in times of conflict, caught up in the violence taking place around them. I could go on and on.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting this timely debate. If we do not have the debate, all these things tend to fade into the distant past. One of the areas that does not get much attention is China. We have seen on television that schools have been bulldozed, leaving minority children in particular with a lack of education to advance themselves in future. We could do more to take children from some of those areas into this country. I do not think we have met the targets for taking refugee children.
I welcome the comments from the hon. Gentleman; they are a message to the Minister to reconsider renewing the Dubs amendment, which brought Syrian children here. I welcome the observations on China.
Last month, Save the Children published the report, “The War on Children” at the Munich Security Conference. The report shows that more than 350 million children around the world are living in conflict zones. Let us pause for a minute: that is one in every six children on earth, and an increase of 75% since the 1990s. Those are harrowing figures. The images I asked hon. Members to remember at the beginning of the debate are only three of those.
The report found that nearly half of those children are in areas affected by high-intensity conflict, where they could be vulnerable to the UN’s six grave violations, which are killing and maiming, recruitment and use of children, sexual violence, abduction, attacks on schools and hospitals and—last, but certainly not least—the denial of humanitarian assistance. As I touched on at the beginning of my speech, the shocking increase in the number of children growing up in areas affected by conflict has been fuelled primarily by a growing disregard for the rules of war and indiscriminate violence in countries such as Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Furthermore, the increasingly destructive nature of modern armed conflict intensifies the trauma that children experience, and usually leads to long-term mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. The psychological impact of living in conflict zones can lead to a vicious cycle of conflict, in which the next generation struggles to rebuild peaceful societies following the trauma of violence.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the difficulties is not only the mental and physical health of those children, but their future education? In Syria, for example, the war is in its eighth year, so a whole generation of children has been denied the chance to prepare themselves to become the educated people that Syria will need.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. Every child needs a safe environment where health and education are paramount.
In other words, history will repeat itself through our lack of intervention and as the vicious cycle continues. The findings of this report are stark and the message is clear: we need to take concerted, collective action to turn back the tide of brutality and indifference, and to better protect children in conflict; otherwise, woe betide any chance of conducting peaceful resolutions to conflict on earth in the future.
Turning my attention to the UK Government, the UK is well placed to globally champion measures that will protect and improve the lives of children caught up in conflict. Previous welcome initiatives, such as the UK leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict and global campaigns on cluster munitions and landmines, have demonstrated that changes in policy and practice can limit the impact of conflict on civilians.
I welcome last week’s announcement by the Foreign Secretary that the UK is now signed up to the safe schools declaration, which commits the UK to take concrete measures towards protecting education in conflict. However, I urge the Minister to commit to going further to protect children in conflict and to introduce practical measures to reduce the impact of conflict on children. They must include updating the Government’s civilian protection strategy to include a focus on explosive weapons in populated areas and measures to address challenges surrounding that, and improving civilian harm tracking procedures by creating and implementing a cross-Government framework, so that child casualties are properly monitored and reported.
Furthermore, funding must be put in place for conflict prevention initiatives, peacekeeping and training for military forces on child protection. We cannot expect to implement these measures without funding designated for that purpose.
There is no doubt that more needs to be done to help children after violence has come to an end. The UK Government have the opportunity to play a leading role in responding to the psychosocial challenges of childhood trauma in conflict. We must therefore invest in programmes for children affected, including providing the right mental health support, training local mental health and social workers and assisting children with disabilities.
Children must be at the centre of reconstruction efforts, which means including them in peacebuilding initiatives and social stability. Those children are the most powerful actors in reconciliation and recovery from conflict. I urge the Minister consistently to champion independent accountability mechanisms at the UN, including stronger justice systems to hold perpetrators of crime to account, and investigations into potential grave violations of children’s rights. I look forward to hearing views from across the House on what we can do to help innocent children who are caught up in conflicts around the world and exposed to the most serious forms of violence imaginable.
I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman, who said that 350 million children around the world are suffering because of war. Does he agree that we should focus a lot more on prevention of such conflicts, bearing in mind the huge impact that they have on young people, including in later life?
I agree, but unfortunately certain nation states decide that war is their only option, and children are the biggest casualties of that. Prevention of war would be the ultimate best step forward, and children who have unfortunately been caught up in war in their own nations should be involved in any future prevention strategies. All children deserve peace, safety, security, and an opportunity to thrive in life, and no effort should be spared to give them a better future, free from the horrors of war. All hon. Members must fight tooth and nail to ensure that every child has access to health, education and a safe environment free from conflict and war.
I began this debate by asking Members to consider three images of young children caught up in conflict that we, and the world, are well aware of today, and I will conclude by reminding us all that such images are nothing new. Back in 1972, another image that we are all aware of shocked the world. It is of a child nicknamed “napalm girl”. She was only nine years old, naked and screaming in pain, and running towards a photographer after an aerial napalm attack on a village. That image helped to bring the Vietnam war to a close one year later. The name of that girl is Kim Phúc, and today she lives in Toronto with her family. Not only is she a motivational speaker, but she also helps other child victims of war around the world. Sadly, however, her story is unique and does not reflect the grave situation we face today. Let us begin to put an end to such photographs in our media, and to the horrific statistics of one in every six children worldwide living in conflict. Until then, however, let us keep those photos in our mind, and focus on the real losers in war, who are of course the children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to follow the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) who has secured this important debate. As he rightly said at the end of his speech, children suffer more than anybody else. They lose their parents, their family networks, and their brothers and sisters. Indeed, members of the International Development Committee saw that in action in some of the areas we visited. We saw lost children who were being looked after, but not necessarily by their parents. That is a tragedy, as it is to see men and women who have lost their children and are terrorised by the thought of what has happened to them. On a recent visit to Bangladesh we saw a grown man crying. He had fled, but had not been able to go as fast as the rest of his family, and apart from one small son, he did not know what had happened to them. That is the tragedy of war. He has one young son left, and he has no idea whether he will ever see the rest of his family and his other children. That is why this debate is so important.
The hon. Gentleman reminded us of very important images brought back by journalists who, at times, have risked their lives. That is important because such images send a powerful message to everybody, and we have all been moved at different times by these terrible and traumatic photographs. The sad inevitability of war means that, unfortunately, the children who populate the countries involved in conflict are affected by it, either through recruitment and their use in hostilities, or—probably more frequently—as innocent bystanders. Armed conflicts have left children vulnerable to appalling forms of violence, sexual exploitation, abduction, mutilation, forced displacement, and amputations if they step on land mines, as happened a huge amount in Vietnam.
Conflict also impacts on the availability of education and children’s development. We heard today about the conflict in Syria, which has lasted eight years, meaning that a couple of generations of children are missing out on education. Although we are committed to helping children in conflict areas to receive education, it is incredibly difficult to ensure that they get the appropriate education, in the right language and with the right curriculum, because they have probably moved to another country to be safe. As the Committee saw in Lebanon, Jordan and other places, it is difficult for aid agencies to set up schools in refugee camps. I feel that we must redouble our efforts because once a child misses out on education, it is incredibly difficult ever to catch up.
Given that we are taking part in a Save the Children sponsored event, does my hon. Friend agree that we should thank such organisations for the enormously good work they do, particularly in Jordan? We in this country should be grateful to the countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that surround Syria, because in some ways they are risking the education of their own children by running a two-shift system in schools every day to enable refugee children to be educated.
I was not aware that this was a Save the Children sponsored event; I thought it was a debate secured by the hon. Member for Dundee West. It does not really matter who started it—it is an important debate. We should be incredibly grateful to Jordan and Lebanon, which have done an amazing job. They both have relatively small populations that have been overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees, but at least the people in those refugee camps speak their language and can be taught in local schools. The money that the Government and the Department for International Development have sent to keep those people in their own region has been incredibly valuable. If and when they can go back to Syria, they are not too far away and will not have lost their traditions, customs and language. Unfortunately, if they came to Europe they would have to do that. They would be able to keep those traditions to a certain extent, but if huge numbers of refugees came to Britain it would be very difficult for them. They would have to learn English, just as they would have to learn French or German if they went to the countries that speak those languages. We owe huge gratitude to countries that have willingly taken in refugees, even if there will be tensions in different areas.
Education is incredibly important. If children lose the opportunity of education, they are more likely to take up activities that most people would prefer young children not to get involved in. Children are more likely to become radicalised if they are disaffected, upset and have no education to cling on to, and they will have no hope of a proper job unless they have received at least basic, if not further, education. We have put a huge amount of money—indeed, we are the largest contributor —into Education Cannot Wait, which is the first global movement of aid funding dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises. Through that we are targeting some of the world’s most vulnerable children, and aiming to reach 3.4 million children through the first set of investments—an incredibly ambitious target.
I am concerned, and I have spoken repeatedly, about the sexual exploitation and abuse of children by UK peacekeepers and other personnel operating in the name of the United Nations. There has been recognition of that by the media in recent months and we have discussed it in the International Development Committee. From what evidence there is, it appears that there is a real macho culture, and a white western culture, among some of the aid organisations. Obviously, I am not talking about the majority of people who work in the aid industry, but it permeates many of the organisations working there. It is not good enough to say, “Well, they are away from home for a very long time, and they are tired.” There is no excuse for any form of sexual exploitation, particularly when it affects children, but also when it affects women. It should not happen.
There is now, from the office of the special representative on children and armed conflict, a framework of six grave violations, which are monitored and reported on annually: recruitment or use of children as soldiers; killing and maiming of children; sexual violence against children, which is incredibly important because they do not recover easily from something like that; attacks on schools or hospitals, which have happened again and again in Syria; abduction of children; and denial of humanitarian access. It might be interesting for the Committee to look at the reports over time, and the results.
I am particularly concerned about the number of children who are now affected, not just in Syria but worldwide. A huge number live in conflict zones and they need every bit of help that we can give them. I should be interested to hear from the Minister how we are doing. I know that 50% of DFID’s funding is directed towards fragile states and regions, and that is important because those children deserve all the help they can get.
Nutrition is one area of particular concern. Some children live in areas where we cannot get nutrition to them. If they do not get the right nutrition in their first 1,000 days, they are stunted for life and will always struggle to get a decent education and a proper job. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) commented, it is important that they can eventually get a job, and they need help while they are in the conflict zone. There will be a time of rebuilding afterwards, and particularly in places such as Syria one would hope for an educated workforce that could come back. There is a need to educate young people now, so that they can replace the educated adults affected by the situation as they get older, and fulfil their roles in jobs; there will be a huge amount to do when they eventually go back to their country.
I am pleased that DFID officials co-hosted a high-level Wilton Park dialogue addressing mental health and psychosocial support. The needs of children affected by conflict in the middle east are enormous. Some children need safe spaces before they can even think about education. They have to get the trauma out of their minds before they can even start on education. Much of what we need to do is about education and trying to protect children so that, on their return, they can play a full part in society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I want to declare, as relevant items in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, that I went to Jordan with Oxfam in 2015 and made two visits with RESULTS UK, which supports the work of the all-party parliamentary group on global education for all, which I now chair.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing the debate and on his powerful opening speech. It is also a great pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). Both are active members of the International Development Committee, and they have raised important issues. I look forward to the response from the Minister and from the Labour Front Bench.
As I listened to the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire I reflected on visits that the Select Committee has made, and was struck by the opportunities we have had to meet children who have escaped from some of the worst conflicts in the world. In Uganda last year, we met Congolese children who were being educated in Kampala. They had escaped the appalling conflicts that have scarred the Democratic Republic of the Congo for many years. In 2015 I visited the Zaatari refugee camp with Oxfam, and met Syrian children traumatised by the experience of barrel bombs being used on the communities where they had grown up. They had to flee and all that they and their families wanted was the opportunity to go back to a peaceful Syria. Most recently, of course, the Committee last month visited Cox’s Bazar—the hon. Lady told the story of the families we met when we were there.
I have also been reflecting on the experience of the predecessor Committee, when we went to Nigeria and met the amazing campaigners for girls who had been abducted by Boko Haram. One of the factors that we need to address when talking about children in conflict is the actions of armed groups such as Boko Haram, as well as the actions of Governments. The hon. Member for Dundee West was right to remind us about the children of Yemen, the appalling consequences of the conflict there, the atrocities by all sides, and the impact on children growing up there.
As crises around the world become more complex and protracted, it is vital to use opportunities such as today’s debate to restate the centrality of the protection of children to our development and foreign policies. As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, schools wherever they are should surely be safe havens for children. Even when crisis strikes or even in conflict, children should not be denied the fundamental right to education, yet often schools are targets for attack by armed forces and groups. In some cases they are even turned into military bases or barracks. Even the presence of armed personnel close to a school puts children in the line of fire. There are countless examples from conflict zones around the world where that has happened. Of course there is an addition element—children’s vulnerability to recruitment as soldiers or to sexual exploitation.
I welcome the fact that the Minister last week signed the safe schools declaration on behalf of the United Kingdom, making us the 74th country in the world to do so. I am pleased about that because I and others called for it to happen when we were here to debate the Select Committee’s report on global education just before the Easter recess. The declaration is important. It commits Governments around the world not to use schools for military purposes, and to ensure that they are protected even during military operations. Now that the UK has signed it, we have an opportunity and responsibility to encourage as many other nations as possible to sign up. I hope the Minister will use her good offices to do so.
I want to state my appreciation for the efforts of the fantastic Send My Friend to School campaign, which has mobilised public opinion, particularly among children and young people in this country, on global education. In particular, it ran a high-profile campaign encouraging the UK to sign up to the safe schools declaration. As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, it is a big challenge to ensure that the increasing number of children caught up in conflict situations, either internally displaced or living as refugees, get some sort of quality education.
More than half of the world’s registered refugees of school age are not in school. Funding for education in humanitarian emergencies is not readily available, and less than 2% of global humanitarian funding goes towards education. When we visited Cox’s Bazar, we saw the efforts being made to provide some sort of education, but essentially the child-friendly spaces in the camp provided two hours’ education a day. That is clearly better than nothing but we need to aim for much better. It is perfectly understandable that humanitarian support in the form of food, water and shelter is given first priority, but surely we must not neglect the importance of investing in education for children who have been forced to flee their homes. What more will the Government do to work with the authorities in Bangladesh to ensure that the fleeing Rohingya refugees have access to quality education while they are displaced?
I reiterate some of the points the hon. Lady made about the Education Cannot Wait fund, which was launched in 2016 at the World Humanitarian Summit. As she rightly said, the UK has played a leading role and is the biggest single funder. It is a fund dedicated to education for children in emergencies and protracted crises. DFID has pledged £30 million already, but we know that, as conflicts become more protracted, it will be even more important to have funds such as Education Cannot Wait. I would welcome confirmation from the Minister today that the Government maintain that commitment.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has long been regarded as one of the best multilateral organisations in the world. It operates in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the west bank, and provides services for more than 5 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who have been displaced since the 1940s. UNRWA has been hit recently by a decision by the Trump Administration in the United States to cut its funding.
Child protection is central to UNRWA’s work. Given the volatile nature of the region, Palestinian refugee children have faced enormous challenges, including as a consequence of the conflict in Syria, the impact of the Israeli occupation and the blockade of Gaza, and simply the protracted nature of their displacement. Even faced with all those crises, UNRWA has come up with innovative ways in which to ensure that children caught up in them are protected and given an education. When the Select Committee visited Jordan and Lebanon, we visited an UNRWA school in Jordan, and were impressed by the quality of education provided for those Palestinian children.
In Syria, UNRWA has developed a series of self-learning materials for children in hard-to-reach or besieged areas who have been out of education for prolonged periods. A series of summer learning activities and catch-up classes is provided to students who have missed out on education, to help them to catch up with their peers. The agency also runs recreational spaces supervised by teaching staff and support counsellors, where refugee children can learn and engage in recreational activities, hopefully free from the threat of violence. In 2012, UNRWA launched its own education TV channel, broadcasting from Gaza and providing additional educational support to students and parents. It broadcasts English, maths, Arabic and science lessons to refugee children across the region, to ensure they do not miss out on learning the vital skills they need for their future.
I urge the Government, and the Minister if she has time in her response, to both reaffirm the UK’s long-standing commitment to UNRWA, and say that we will work with other donors to ensure that funding cuts by the US do not hit the vital work it does.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should support moves from other multilateral education funders such as the Global Partnership for Education to look at funding non-state actors where they control particular regions, such as the Kurds in the northern region of Syria, so that they can access education funding for their children?
That is an important point for both GPE and Education Cannot Wait. The agencies best placed to provide education in some of these emergency situations are often non-state actors. It is important that informal as well as formal education receives the necessary funding. Last week, I met with Alice Albright, the head of GPE, to discuss what more the organisation can do to support Syrian refugees, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, and Rohingya refugees. GPE is looking at those issues, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw our attention to them.
The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire touched on the important issue of sexual exploitation in the aid sector. I put on record again my tribute to her personally. She has been raising the issue for some time, well ahead of recent public and parliamentary interest. I remind colleagues that that follows damning reports of sexual misconduct by Oxfam aid workers in Haiti. As a result, our Select Committee is conducting an inquiry into sexual exploitation. In Haiti, aid workers exploited aid recipients after the earthquake in 2011. I thank The Times, in particular, and other journalists for shining a light on that appalling situation.
As the hon. Lady rightly reminded us, there have been long-standing concerns that some United Nations peacekeeping missions have failed the children they are meant to protect. In February, the UN revealed that it had registered 18 cases of sexual abuse and exploitation by its peacekeepers and civilian personnel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of those involved were minors, and we have had previous complaints about actions by UN staff in a number of countries, including from Senegal, Uruguay and South Africa. In those instances, people who were sent to protect children from crises tragically became the very people committing violence, adding to the crisis. If we are to protect children in future crises, surely we have to be able to trust the people who are meant to be there to provide that protection.
My final point is one that has already been touched on: the mental health impact of crises on children. Of course, when a crisis strikes, the first step of any humanitarian response is the basic services of food, water and shelter, but the psychological impact of those conflicts on children should not be overlooked. Without access to proper mental health and psychosocial support, there is a risk that children will develop greater problems later in life, and that their ability to rebuild their lives after conflict will be limited.
Last December, War Child published a report calling on the Government to commit a minimum of 1% of humanitarian funding to mental health services for children and their support networks. I ask the Minister to set out in her response what priority the Government place on the challenges of mental health and psychosocial support for children caught up in crises. Protecting all children caught up in conflict is important. That means protecting them from the threat of violence in whatever form it might take, including sexual violence, but also, in so far as we can, it must surely mean allowing children to live as normal a life as possible and preparing them for life after conflict.
That is why education is so central to this debate on the protection of children, and why the UK has such an important role to play not only in our bilateral work on education, but in the multilateral organisations such as Education Cannot Wait and the Global Partnership for Education. The right to education surely does not end when a conflict begins. It is critical that children caught up in conflict are still provided with every opportunity to continue to learn.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for bringing this important issue to the Chamber’s attention and for speaking so passionately on the subject.
Unfortunately, today’s debate could not be more relevant, and it was pertinent that the hon. Gentleman brought to the attention of Members in the Chamber pictures that remind us of the impact that war, and living in a conflict zone, can have on young people and children. I am sure that all hon. Members here have witnessed the horrific pictures of injured children in the aftermath of the chemical attack in Douma only a few weeks ago. Seeing children gassed by their own leader is truly terrible, and I am glad that the United Kingdom, with her many allies, has spoken out against that and stood up to it. We must act to stop any further use of these despicable weapons, especially on civilian populations where vulnerable children will inevitably be victims.
That is evidently not the only area where children are affected by war. According to Save the Children, around one in six children live in conflict zones. Whether those children are recruited as soldiers, attacked in their schools or killed in their homes, the consequences of these conflicts are devastating.
I applaud the Department for International Development for doing all it can to alleviate the horrendous situations that children find themselves in, through no fault of their own. Committing 50% of aid to conflict zones shows the United Kingdom’s dedication to this cause. That includes our £45 million of support to the United Nations children’s fund in Syria, to help with humanitarian assistance in the wake of the civil war, as part of the wider £2.4 billion aid package to Syria as a whole. We are also providing almost £40 million to places such as Vietnam to help to clear landmines, which can maim or even kill children many years after a conflict has passed.
The funding provided by DFID for education, vaccinations and democracy in many countries around the world also helps to reduce the possibility of conflict; as countries grow their economies, they produce healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous nations. I am very proud to support the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid, and we should all be proud that the United Kingdom— alongside only six other countries in the world—achieves that target. The long-term continuation of that funding will help to eradicate more diseases, empower more women and, importantly, ensure that those who are caught up in conflict, including children, are protected from the horrors of war.
I conclude by again congratulating the hon. Member for Dundee West on raising this important issue. I hope that we can all work together, on a cross-party basis, to ensure that more children in every part of the world can grow up in a safe environment.
I am delighted to contribute to the debate, although, like probably every Member here, I wish it was not necessary. I am also delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) secured the debate. It is timely, as we have heard, given international events and the February 2018 Save the Children report, “The War on Children”.
We have heard throughout the debate that the sad fact is that children pay the heaviest price for war, but they bear no responsibility for causing it. They may survive conflict, but their innocence is murdered. War robs them of their sense of themselves, their homes and, too often, their parents. It is an indictment of mankind as a species that the number of children living in conflict zones has increased by more than 75% from the early 1990s, when it was around 200 million. It is now more than 357 million—around one in six of the world’s child population. Some 165 million of those children are engulfed in high-intensity conflicts, where there is often no access to schools or health facilities, and where they are much more exposed to violence.
The middle east is where children are most likely to live in a conflict zone. In 2016, about two in five children in the region lived within 50 km of a conflict event in their own country. Africa, where one in five children are affected by conflict, is second in this grotesque league table. Children are more at risk of conflict now than at any other time in the last 20 years. Research shows that the trends are very clear: there has been an escalation in the number of UN-verified cases of killing and maiming children, with an increase of nearly 300% since 2010. Incidents involving denial of humanitarian access have risen fifteenfold in the same period, and there has been a growing trend of abductions, because war opens the door to, and invites in, the chaos in which such licence thrives.
We also have to accept that increasingly brutal tactics are used: the use of children as mere weapons of war—as suicide bombers—and the targeting of, or the launching of weapons from, schools and hospitals. We in this Chamber are extremely lucky that we can only speculate; we cannot even really begin to imagine what effect living in such conditions has on children. A culture of violence often breeds a culture of violence in the next generation, and peaceful societies become harder to build and rebuild as a result.
We need real and concrete international action to ensure that children’s lives and safety are protected. Save the Children has called on the United Kingdom Government to use all the influence at their disposal to improve measures that protect children and to ensure that there is a greater focus on explosive weapons in populated areas. It also calls on them to bring in measures to address the challenges surrounding that; those measures include the provision of training and support to the forces of other states, the establishment of a cross-Government framework to track civilian harm and ensure the comprehensive recording of civilian casualties, and the consistent championing of independent accountability mechanisms at the UN and other forums, including investigations into potential grave violations of children’s rights.
The UK Government should seek to show leadership in delivering humanitarian assistance, working with allies to prevent the long-term damage of armed conflict. Responding to the psychosocial challenges of childhood trauma in conflict and toxic stress is extremely important. There is an opportunity here, and there ought to be the political will, to drive forward global action and investment in children’s mental and psychosocial health, thus helping to reverse the long-term damage that will be done to a generation of children.
The earlier point from the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) about the UK Government’s absolute duty to fulfil, in full, the terms of the Dubs agreement was well made. The UK’s endorsement of the safe schools declaration is, of course, to be welcomed. As the lead in the global partnership to end violence against children initiative, the UK must use and prioritise aid to protect and champion children, to protect them against violence and recruitment into the worst forms of child labour.
Children do not create wars; they, more than any other group, are victims of war. The UK Government and the international community must take note and act. It is time to do all that can be done to end this murdering of innocence.
It is very nice to see you in the Chair, Sir David. It is great that the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who is actually a good man and a friend, brought the debate. Well done, you. [Interruption.] I am not allowed to say you. Well done to him.
As the hon. Member for Dundee West said, about one in six children on earth have the bad luck to live in conflict areas. We should thank our lucky stars that our children are safe from war. However, we have a duty to try to reduce the threat to the lives of nearly 17% of the world’s children. They can be active participants in conflicts—as soldiers or suicide bombers, for instance—but in the main it is their bad luck to have been born and brought up in the wrong place. The problem is compounded because more and more conflicts and armies operate more and more among the people, in villages, towns and cities, where the majority of children live.
The problem is getting worse. According to the United Nations, in its report from the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict, 10,068 children were verified as being killed or maimed in 2016. In 2003-04, that figure was 3,223. Those are just the incidents that we know about. That is a 300% increase in kids being killed or maimed in conflicts around the world. We can clearly see from those figures that the situation is getting worse.
It is their innocence and lack of knowledge that puts children even more at risk than adults in conflict areas. Let me use an instance from my own experience. In 1993 in Gornji Vakuf, central Bosnia, a soldier from my battalion, which was working for the United Nations peacekeeping force, was on patrol when he saw a child pick up what the soldier thought was a bomblet. He could not speak the boy’s language, but he moved close to him and gestured to him to put the thing down gently. Instead, the child threw it to the ground. There was an explosion. My soldier was hit in the head by a ball bearing from the device, but luckily he survived. Thank goodness the child was unhurt. The point of the story is that the child had no idea of the danger that he faced when he saw something attractive lying on the floor, and of course armies sometimes use attractive things such as flashlights to make people pick them up.
Save the Children is calling for greater investment in training for military forces on child protection. I must admit that I never had any myself when I was a soldier, but honestly, protecting children should come automatically to anyone, soldier or not. I presume that the training for which Save the Children is asking would include measures such as not using schools as bases, not firing near schools and playgrounds, and ensuring that weapons and explosives are not used near children, but for goodness’ sake, is that not obvious to normal, decent people? I do accept that sometimes it is very difficult when soldiers are in the middle of a battle and children are nearby.
It is not just in far-flung places that children are used in conflicts. To my knowledge, from seven tours in Northern Ireland, several attacks were carried out by the Provisional IRA in which a terrorist gunman opened fire on our soldiers and then, at a pre-arranged signal, children were encouraged to come between our soldiers and the gunmen. I am proud to say that, in such cases, our men immediately stopped firing, but of course that encourages unscrupulous terrorists to use the tactic again—because it works.
Personally, I was educated on my responsibilities to children in conflict by one simple comment when I was the UN commander in Bosnia. An International Committee of the Red Cross delegate asked me to take responsibility for a six-year-old Bosnian girl and look after her in the house where I was quartered. She told me that the girl had been woken up very early in the morning—at about 5.30, I think—on 16 April 1993. Her mother and father had told her to dress quickly and come downstairs with her brother. She did that, and her mother and father and she and her brother were then taken out by soldiers and laid on the grass, face down. As the girl said, there was a lot of noise and her mummy, daddy and brother did not get up. The man who was going to kill her could not do so, and she was thrown into a prison camp.
When the ICRC delegate asked me to take in the girl, I was surprised and immediately replied, “No, I can’t! I’m the British UN commander; I’ve got enough on my plate without taking children into my house.” Her tart, barbed response was to ask me what the hell I was doing there if I could not do such a thing. She said, “What’s the point of having soldiers here if you can’t help a little girl to live?” I felt ashamed and I had no choice but to agree, albeit reluctantly. I did not know how I was going to do this or where it would lead and I was extremely concerned. I could not see how I would square it with the Ministry of Defence that I would have a child living in my house.
The girl, whose name was Melissa Mekis, was brought to me by the ICRC delegate the next day. I could not quite believe that I was taking possession of a six-year-old kid. She was filthy dirty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed—a Muslim girl, as it happened, not that it mattered what her religion was. She was left with me and my soldiers. My so-called bodyguards boiled up a billycan, filled a bath and bathed her. They went and found fresh children’s clothes from Save the Children’s house nearby, and they fed her, particularly with sweets. Clearly, they pampered her as much as they could. They made up a bed for her between their own two camp beds and checked on her all the time.
After a few days, the ICRC delegate who had brought Melissa to us located her uncle in Novi Travnik and came to take her away and reunite her with her real family. She did not want to leave my two soppy bodyguards, whom by then she adored, but of course it happened. I gather that Melissa Mekis eventually went to the United States, where she married and she has two children.
The moral of the story is that wherever we are and whatever we are, we should all take responsibility for trying to protect the one in six of the world’s children who suffer because of conflict. That includes us in this place.
My goodness, how can I possibly follow that account? I thank the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). As always when I hear him speak, in any debate, he contributes something from his own experience that sets us all thinking about our own responsibilities and what more we can do in the world. I thank him for sharing that story, and I thank him and his bodyguards very much for taking that responsibility. We have to wonder what would have happened to Melissa without that and where she would have gone. They at the very least gave her somewhere she felt safe, which was a hugely important thing to do. If the MOD got the hon. Gentleman into trouble for it, it certainly should not have, because he did absolutely the right thing, and we should all express our appreciation.
Robert Owen said that
“no infant has the power of deciding at what period of time or in what part of the world he shall come into existence”.
That is true, because no child would want to be born in a conflict zone or grow up in one, but those are the circumstances in which so many children find themselves—it is one in six of the world’s children and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, disproportionately those in the middle east and Africa. The brilliant briefing by Save the Children gives us food for thought on what more we can do in that respect.
All hon. Members have said strongly and passionately that the first thing that we should try to do is to protect education for children, because that is the foundation on which all other things will be built for the future, for the children individually, for their communities and for their countries. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran and the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) highlighted, if we do not protect children’s education, that will breed further violence. There will be a cycle of violence that the country will not be able to break out of. The responsibilities that we hold as a significant player in the international community and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council should therefore include, in as many circumstances as possible, ensuring that the protection of education becomes a priority in all those different areas. That is the basis on which the countries will be able to get themselves back on their feet once the conflicts hopefully conclude.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) mentioned the safe schools declaration, which seems like a hugely positive step in making places of education safe spaces where children can come together. I am glad that so many countries have signed up. We should use our pressure in the world to get other countries to come on board. I suggest we prioritise Saudi Arabia, which is not yet a signatory.
I do not mention Saudi Arabia and Yemen lightly, because as we saw with the attack on a wedding this week, it is a huge problem. We have responsibility because we are selling arms to a country that is disproportionately targeting civilians in the attacks it carries out. The evidence is there to see in the picture that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) held up. It is also evident in projects such as the Yemen Data Project, which collects airstrike data for Yemen. The results do not make good reading. At least one third of Saudi airstrikes have hit civilian targets. Last month’s data identified that a school had been targeted and hit, and that parks and residential areas have also been targeted. This should give us cause for concern as a nation. The Government are signing off on arms deals to a country that is not taking its responsibility for the safety of civilians in conflict seriously. We must cease these arms sales before more children are severely damaged and lose their lives forever.
The UN convention on the rights of the child is almost 30 years old, but this is clearly a time of increasing danger for children. Many hon. Members have mentioned that children are becoming part of the very mechanisms of war, and are targeted by state and non-state actors. It is a huge worry to us all not only that chemical weapons are coming back to countries such as Syria—as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) said—but that children, whom we have always tried to protect in war, are becoming part of the target. We should be extremely worried about that and use our international influence to maintain international norms and standards. If children are becoming a routine part of conflict and the target of weapons, the fabric of international society and conventions is fundamentally damaged. We must be very afraid of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West movingly showed us four photographs, which stick in our minds and resonate. I went recently to an exhibition of photographs by Antonio Olmos and Young Lens Syria at Anderston Kelvingrove church in my constituency—they showed the journey of Syrian refugees from their home countries to Europe. It strikes me that families in conflicts make decisions, not choices—there really is no choice in such situations. They want to keep their family and children together if they can, and keep their children safe by all means possible. It has often been said that people will not put their child on a boat in the sea unless it is more dangerous than staying on land. That is the non-choice and the decision that families make every single day. We will continue to see that until their countries are safe.
We must also bear in mind our responsibilities when those children reach Europe and the UK. Organisations I have spoken to in my constituency have taken in child refugees who are on their own, and tried to support them and give them the counselling that we can perhaps better offer than their home countries—we have the professional expertise and the counsellors who can do that. There is barely any counsellor in some countries, never mind one for all the children who need one. What those organisations cannot offer, but the Government can, is certainty for those young people. They do not know how long they will be here, whether they have a future here, or whether or when they will be sent back to a country where they feel unsafe, and where they might have seen their families killed, as the hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned. We must do all we can to ensure that the young people that we as a country take into our care feel safe, that they do not feel that they cannot put down roots here, so that they can start to heal from their traumatic experiences. If they cannot do that, they will not be able to fully engage with the services that are trying to help them and will continue to feel unsafe.
I thank everybody who has spoken in the debate and look forward to hearing what the Minister will do. We have a responsibility to children all around the world. They are not somebody else’s children. They are the world’s children—they are our children. We must do all that we would do for our own children to ensure that they stay safe and get all the rights that we expect for our own.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing this debate. It is clear that in his official capacity on the Front Bench he takes these issues seriously, but I know that he has a real personal passion for all these important development topics, especially the rights of children.
We have heard some excellent contributions, not least from the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). I realise that we will be in this Chamber many more times over the coming years, which is a delight. My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), is Chair of the Select Committee on International Development. I know how much time and energy he puts in every day on these really important topics. He reminded us today that the fundamental rights of children need to be put front and centre in all of our debates in this area.
My hon. Friend mentioned UNRWA. I had the privilege of travelling to the West Bank and seeing some of the work that UNRWA does over there. I believe that more than half its employees are teachers working with children and young people across that region. It is so important, as the Minister has said in the past, that if there is any negative impact from the announcement from the Trump Administration, we look at how the UK can lead the way in securing additional resources from all our partners. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) really illuminated what this looks like on the ground. I want to give him my appreciation for telling us that story of his real lived experience.
We must remember that as we debate, children are being abducted to fight in wars. They are being trained to use weapons. They are being abused and targeted as deliberately victims of war. As we heard, protecting education and schools needs to be one of the main priorities for the UK Government and all global institutions. Today we have heard a number of alarming statistics, and we could continue simply to exchange them for the rest of this debate. The most alarming is that one sixth of all children in the world are affected by conflict. Heaven knows that these statistics are deeply shocking, but they do not alone do justice to what we are talking about today.
I want to begin by telling James’s story. James lives in South Sudan, a country that was born out of decades of bitter conflict to become the world’s newest independent state in 2011. Tragically, South Sudan has been plunged into bitter internal conflict in the years since. James’s happy family life in a small village with his mum, dad, brothers and sisters was disrupted when he was only 13 years old. James tells his story:
“I was betrayed by my own brother, who forced 15 of us from the same village to become boy soldiers. It was a very hard life and there was so much suffering.
I saw soldiers abusing civilians—I saw them with guns, powerful guns—I knew then that we could be powerful like them if we had guns. One day we received an order that we had to march from Unity State; it was a terrible ordeal.
We marched without food and water, in a terrible heat. I watched some of my colleagues die of hunger and exhaustion.
Later I was shot in the shoulder, and I hid in the bush. It took a month for me to recover. I hid and eventually I found a school that took me in.
But after 7 years as a boy soldier, I then found out that my mother and father had passed away.”
James’s story is typical of South Sudan, and of the conflict zones that girdle the globe. Since 2003, well over 12,000 children have been recruited on both sides of the conflict inside South Sudan. Untypically, perhaps, James’s story is now a happy one. Eventually, he trained as a United Nations child protection officer and 15 years on, he uses his experience to help others who, like him, have been caught up in conflict that is not of their making.
Virginia Gamba, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict, presents an annual report on children and armed conflict to the UN Secretary-General each autumn, as the world gathers for the UN General Assembly in New York. Last year, she told a handful of journalists at a press briefing:
“The tragic fate of child victims of conflict cannot and must not leave us unmoved; a child killed, recruited as a soldier, injured in an attack or prevented from going school due to a conflict is already one too many”.
It was not the fault of Ms Gamba or the few journalists gathered that attention was largely focused elsewhere—when disturbing and uncomfortable facts are presented, it usually is.
Ms Gamba’s report referred to children from countries such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. In the 20 countries covered by her report, at least 4,000 verified violations were committed by Government forces and more than 11,500 verified violations were committed by non-state armed groups.
We look to the United Nations, UNICEF, the International Red Cross and others to provide leadership in forcing global leaders to act, and we commend UK charities and non-governmental organisations—such as Save the Children, World Vision UK and War Child—that continue to make the unarguable case for action. It is important to support their calls to increase investment in education for children in conflict areas and in improved mental health opportunities for children who are living through major conflict or where conflict has ended.
I also commend the work of Gordon Brown, UN special envoy for global education and former Prime Minister, for all the work that he has put into the safe schools initiative, which has helped to bring about the safe schools declaration. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on its signing last week.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and associate myself with his comments.
Britain has a continuing and strong role to play as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a leading member of the Commonwealth and a member of NATO. We have put our global influence to good use by being at the forefront of initiatives to combat sexual violence in conflict and to ban the use of landmines and cluster bombs. Will the Minister commit to updating the Government’s civilian protection strategy to ensure that those and other explosive weapons are explicitly avoided, that their impact is mitigated and that when we train foreign forces, we ensure that explosive weapons do not contribute to the deaths of civilians and children?
Let us not fool ourselves: some of the Government’s other actions go completely against the commitment we share in this debate to protect civilians and children. On Monday, the BBC reported that 20 people, mainly women and children at a wedding, were killed in an air strike in northern Yemen, as has been mentioned.
According to the United Nations, Yemen is a now a failed state. Let us be absolutely clear that the so-called Saudi-led coalition, which the Government continue to arm heavily, is responsible for the lion’s share of the death and destruction. How can we arm the Saudis with one hand and provide humanitarian aid to the suffering Yemenis with the other? Where is the sense and where are the ethics?
In the last week, my hon. Friends and I have twice, without receiving a clear response, asked Ministers from the Department in the Chamber why, if the Government are concerned about children in Yemen, they did not insist on full and permanent humanitarian access in Yemen and on an immediate end to the bombing of civilian areas before they signed what is, I am afraid, a disgraceful new £100 million aid partnership with Saudi Arabia last month. That partnership whitewashes that country’s reputation but does nothing to protect children in Yemen. I hope the Minister will answer that question.
UN Special Representative Virginia Gamba said:
“If you have no justice, there is no law, there is no order, there is no fair deal and there is no fair play.”
Those words should ring in our ears, because our country has an ability and a special responsibility to behave in a consistent manner to champion an international rules-based system. To achieve that, we need a foreign policy based on human rights and social justice, and for that, it is increasingly clear that we need a Labour Government.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing the debate. I recognise the important and passionately argued personal contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden).
The protection of children in conflict situations is clearly close to many of our hearts. I was struck by the way in which the hon. Member for Dundee West used pictures. As politicians in Westminster Hall, we have to rely on words and try to match the power of those pictures with them. In preparing for the debate, I was struck most powerfully by the shocking statistic that in the last six years, more non-state armed groups have been created than in the previous 60 years. That brings home the scale of the issue that we are dealing with as a world.
The numbers bear repeating. A staggering 246 million children are living in countries affected by armed conflict, 61 million children are missing out on part of their basic education, and millions more are migrating in the hope of a better life, risking violence and exploitation along the way. Clearly, those children deserve our attention and protection if they are to reach their full potential.
We have heard about the gravity of living in conflict or crises for children. It is harrowing to hear those individual and collective stories about losing the opportunity for education, being separated from loved ones, being forced into marriage or slavery, suffering from the worst forms of child labour, being trafficked across borders or, increasingly, recruited into armed groups. As hon. Members rightly pointed out, the effects are not just physical, but mental. The trauma and distress caused during times of conflict can endure for a lifetime—well after the conflict has ended—and need appropriate help.
The UK Government are not sitting on the sidelines, but showing leadership in protecting the worst affected people. We have heard many allusions to that. I reiterate that the UK’s aid strategy commits 50% of our aid to fragile states and regions. In such places, protecting children is a policy priority.
In the time allowed, I will highlight three themes of the debate: our provision of education to children in crises; our work to reform the humanitarian system; and our protection of children from violence, abuse and exploitation, including modern slavery.
First, the need to get children back into school came up throughout the debate. During a conflict situation, it is critical to support them, because it helps to regain a sense of normalcy above all and invests in their education and the human capital that will be needed post-conflict. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby asked specifically about the Education Cannot Wait initiative. The UK will continue to make multi-year investments in quality education in crisis contexts that prioritise child protection and support children’s psychological and social wellbeing.
I am proud that the UK has been a leading supporter of quality education for children affected by the devastating crisis in Syria. We have played a key role in the “no lost generation” initiative. The UK has helped over 350,000 Syrian children to access formal education, and future support will reach a further 300,000 children.
In Uganda, we have reorientated our education support to ensure that we reach the children who have been displaced by conflict in South Sudan—an issue that was rightly highlighted by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton—as well as the communities that are hosting refugees around the world.
I am glad that hon. Members appreciate that the UK has just signed the safe schools declaration, underlining our important political support for the protection of schools during military operations and in armed conflict, and of course the UK will encourage other countries to endorse the declaration.
Secondly, our humanitarian reform policy, which was launched last October, demonstrates our continued commitment to reforming the humanitarian system to protect children in conflict. It reaffirms our commitment to international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law, and it states that protection should be at the centre of all humanitarian action. We call for all humanitarian agencies to put protection of civilians at the centre of their work and to ensure minimum standards for the protection of children. That includes the work that we have done since the situation with Oxfam in Haiti was revealed by The Times, and the leadership that the Department has shown in ensuring that all the organisations we work with have really robust safeguarding measures in place.
We also continue to support agencies that work specifically with children in conflicts. People have mentioned the important work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF, and how much of that work will be funded by UK aid. Questions were specifically asked about United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA—an unlovely acronym. I have said it before but I will repeat today that we are a firmly committed supporter of UNRWA, which provides vital services to refugees, and we are very concerned about the impact of reduced donor funding, particularly from the US, so we are working very closely with other partners on how best to ensure continuity of services.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. I just wanted to highlight that she has not mentioned the International Committee of the Red Cross, which the British Government hugely support. The ICRC is always there—always there last, when everyone else pulls out, and normally there first in conflict areas. It does hugely good work and I just wanted to highlight that point.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that absolutely remarkable organisation, which, as he said, enjoys considerable support from UK aid. It is trusted to reach places that other organisations cannot reach and it is seen as being impartial in so many different situations around the world. It is right to pay particular tribute to its work.
Hon. Members asked about the Dubs amendment. I want to highlight, because no one else has done so, the fact that the UK has already welcomed over 10,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria, nearly half of whom are children now making their lives in the UK, and that is well ahead of schedule in terms of the commitment that the UK Government made.
Another topic that came up was the Rohingya crisis. Clearly, we are working in that area through UNICEF to respond to the needs of unaccompanied children, including a provision of specialised protection assistance, which was rightly mentioned.
Syria was recently described by Save the Children as the most dangerous conflict-affected country for children. Of course the UK continues to be at the forefront of the response to the crisis there. In 2016-17, our funding in Syria provided access to education for over 430,000 children, and psychosocial support for nearly 3,000 children. In addition, hundreds of thousands of children were provided with food, water, relief packages, medical consultations, vaccinations and nutritional support, and Members will be aware that the Secretary of State for International Development is in Brussels today to announce our increased allocation for the coming year.
Thirdly, I will highlight the need in protracted crises to do more to help strengthen systems, in order to prevent children from falling through the cracks in the first place. I can highlight examples of the work that we are doing in Somalia, where we are helping children to have a legal identity, without which they are obviously at greater risk of family separation, trafficking and illegal adoption.
We are also a leading donor to the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children; indeed, the Secretary of State for International Development is on its board. We hope to see many fragile and conflict-affected countries commit with new vigour to ending violence against children.
In conclusion, the protection of children in conflicts and crises remains a top priority for the UK. We will continue to show global leadership on this issue. We will also continue to be flexible enough to respond to emerging threats in a changing world, going beyond delivering humanitarian assistance by building better systems and societies for children of the future. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West on securing this debate and I leave the last word to him.
I thank the Minister for her response, and for giving us assurances about what is being done and mentioning some pathways for the future. As outlined in this debate, there is a lot more that we can do if we are serious about protecting children in conflict.
I thank you, Sir David, for chairing this debate, and I thank each and every Member for their poignant and powerful speeches and contributions to it. In addition, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for his personal testimony about his time in Bosnia.
In many ways, this debate has been difficult to listen to. The atrocities committed against children during conflicts are so appalling that we need to confront them and we need to begin doing so now. The sheer scale—one in six children across this world live in conflict—can no longer be ignored. After listening to the debate, I hope that the Minister will take on board the unanimous view of hon. Members and go further. In doing so, she will have our support and—I am sure—support from across the UK, to show how deeply we feel about what is happening to children in conflict and the urgency of the action that is required.
I will finish by mentioning an issue that has already been raised today by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), and it was also raised yesterday in an urgent question on Yemen. There have been over 17,000 targeted bombings in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, with one in three targeted at civilian targets. Our weapons are being sold to Saudi Arabia and used against those targets; our British military are involved in intelligence and service there. So, if we want to end the suffering of little children, the first step we should take is to halt arms sales now and end the atrocity that is happening in Yemen.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered protecting children in conflict areas.
Capital Needs of Co-operatives
I beg to move,
That this House has considered capital needs of co-operatives.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is a particular delight to be able to talk co-operatives with the Treasury Minister twice in two days. For those of us who want the co-operative and mutual sector of our economy to double in size, fixing the difficulties that co-operatives have in accessing the capital they need to expand is critical. Co-operatives UK, the co-operative movement’s trade body, has done an excellent job in recent years of championing community shares as one way for local co-operatives to raise significant but comparatively small amounts of capital to grow. Lottery money is currently being used by Co-ops UK’s community share unit to support community shares offers, but more could be done if the Government renewed their previous interest in this area. It would be good for Ministers to explore what else they can do to encourage the further expansion of community shares.
More recently, Co-ops UK, working with retail co-op societies, has begun to explore whether fixed-term withdrawable share capital could be developed, allowing more established societies to raise patient and engaged equity finance from members and non-member investors, up to a £100,000 maximum individual shareholding limit. The Financial Conduct Authority does not always get a good press, but it has been very supportive of that work, and I hope the Minister will encourage the FCA and Co-ops UK to continue to champion that new potential source of capital for many co-operatives. The chief executive of Co-ops UK, Ed Mayo, deserves praise for his skill in getting this work so far down the road.
Other parts of the co-operatives and mutuals sector of our economy—notably building societies, friendly societies and mutual insurers—have been subject to legislative changes permitting them to raise much larger amounts of additional capital. These reforms are yet to apply to the co-operative world.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene—I sought his permission to do so beforehand. Does he agree that co-operatives should be allowed to invest in social housing? It is the very essence of what a co-operative seeks to do. Benefits are involved. I gently suggest that the Minister should consider revisiting the ability of co-ops to invest capital funds directly in social housing.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. If he can use his not inconsiderable influence on the Minister to support what I will say, we might be able to accelerate the addressing of some of the problems co-ops face in investing in social housing. Unless co-operatives can raise additional capital, they cannot expand or develop to their true potential. At worst, they are at risk of demutualisation, as I will set out. Co-operatives do not issue shares in the same way as investor-owned companies—to do so would mean demutualising—so bigger co-operatives can face considerable difficulties raising additional capital at the level they need. Their growth inevitably is limited and their ability to compete on equal terms is reduced.
In short, legislation is needed to fix this problem—legislation that protects that unique governance model of co-operatives, but allows them to issue permanent investment shares. Such shares could allow consumer co-ops to grow by acquisition and by developing new business offers for their customer members. Football supporter-owned clubs could fund the development of new stadium facilities, grow their businesses, serve their communities and consolidate their income streams. Co-operative-owned energy generators could attract long-term investment to build even more energy infrastructure of the sort we need in this country. A lack of capital limits a co-operative’s growth and ability to develop new services. The growth rate of that co-operative is constrained by its relative inability to add significant capital through retained earnings.
In my constituency, the Headingley Development Trust is doing its second community share offer. It has already managed to raise £232,395 from individuals—I declare an interest as an investor in that share scheme. That money is being matched by £100,000 from the community shares booster programme from Co-ops UK, Locality and Power to Change. The trust can have only £100,000 because of the cap. Energy, community facilities and social care can all be aided by lifting the cap.
My hon. Friend raises a good example of the difficulties that co-operatives face. I pay tribute to his work championing the co-operative he mentioned. He also underlined my point about the good work that Co-ops UK has done in championing community shares. His fundamental point is absolutely spot on: there is a limit to the amount of capital that co-operatives can raise because they do not have the instruments available to them that are available to many of the non-co-operative businesses that operate in our economy.
Like all businesses, co-operatives need to be able to benefit from the economies of scale that are often available only by growing their businesses. They need to gather sufficient capital to serve their members well, to extend services to new members and to expand their services. Without new capital, many co-operatives could be driven into inappropriate corporate forms through demutualisation. Many of us in the co-operative movement can think of many examples where that has already happened. If co-operatives convert to other corporate forms, consumer choice in our economy is reduced and large numbers of consumers would no longer have non-listed, member-owned options in the marketplace. That reduces competitive pressure from the operation of different business models in the same market and adds to systemic risk to the economy.
There is inevitably a limit to the amount of debt that can or should be raised by any business. Mutual shares would present an opportunity for small mutuals to raise funds that they may not be able to raise otherwise, and for larger co-operatives to raise funds that subordinated debt does not provide.
Additional capital helps in a number of ways. It could be used in tactical acquisitions, which would help businesses’ competitiveness. They could also look at local infrastructure development potential. There are a number of examples overseas of similar co-operative share offerings. Examples from Canada, the Netherlands and across the European Union show how mutuals can enlist their members in raising capital through the issue of new deferred shares. In summary, the benefits offered provide evidence that Government support for such a Bill would create a viable new opportunity for mutuals to attract new capital and deliver positive outcomes for mutuals and consumers.
Currently, co-operatives largely have to generate capital for growth internally. They have no shares to sell and hence no access to equity markets. Ongoing capital in co-operatives consists of retained earnings and bank borrowing, with some smaller co-ops also raising withdrawable share capital. The lack of access to reliable capital can be a serious limiting factor on the growth and development of consumer mutuals. How these businesses are constructed means that the introduction of external capital without additional safeguards, such as limits on voting rights and distributions, would water down the mutual purpose of the organisation. The International Co-operative Alliance said that co-operative capital needs to offer
“a financial proposition which provides a return, but without destroying co-operative identity; and which enables people to access their funds when they need them. It also means exploring wider options for access to capital outside traditional membership, but without compromising on member control”.
Consolidation between mutual businesses has been the short-term response to pressure in the past. That has created a small number of firms of critical size that are better able to compete in their markets. Without access to new capital, however, organic growth has remained a difficult challenge. In staying true to their business purpose, customer mutuals are therefore limited by their options to access capital for growth. Some external capital instruments do exist in mutuals. In building societies, more than a billion pounds of deferred shares have been issued. Nationwide building society and Cambridge building society have issued core capital deferred shares. That new capital instrument is designed for mutual building societies and enables them to raise common equity tier 1 capital to supplement retained earnings and diversify their capital base.
The Government supported legislation for mutual insurers and friendly societies to issue deferred shares in 2015, although I note that the restrictive position of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has prevented its full implementation and the relevant orders from being laid before the House. It would be good hear whether the Minister can unlock that particular blockage.
The mechanisms for funding co-operatives are more restricted than those for companies. It is not possible for co-operatives to have equity share capital, as understood in the company law context, because equity ownership is incompatible with the co-operative principles and would therefore be prima facie unregistrable. It is also not possible for societies for the benefit of the community because distributions of income and capital are not permitted.
Co-op societies, like building societies, were historically funded by their member customers, who were required to subscribe a minimum amount of share capital in order to be afforded full membership rights. That might be built up over a period of time, including by leaving undrawn dividends. Subject to the minimum capital requirements, therefore, members were permitted to withdraw funds from their account, and share capital was typically withdrawable. One of the consequences of that was that members’ share capital remained static in value. Although it was risk capital in the sense that it could be lost on insolvency in paying debts owed to creditors, it did not give members an undivided share in the value of the underlying business.
While the co-operative carried on trading, members therefore had no expectation of any entitlement to more than the repayment of their original capital. Their real interest was in the continuity of the existence of their society, providing goods and services to meet their needs. As a direct result of that approach to funding and ownership, any undistributed surplus was retained as reserves and shown as such in the accounts, and although such reserves constituted members’ funds for accounting purposes while the society remained a going concern, they did not belong in a traditional ownership sense to the members. They were more like assets currently being held by the body of members, almost as trustees for the purposes of the society.
An appropriate and sustainable basis of funding is a prerequisite for any business if it is to start up and survive, and the requirements for funding are likely to change or evolve over the life of the business. The restrictions in relation to the funding of co-operatives, which are created by legislation, are therefore fundamental to the future use of the co-operative form, and to the future viability of co-operatives.
I do not expect the Minister to give a guarantee of support today for the new form of investment capital for co-operatives, but I hope he will take time to reflect. Although I appreciate he has committed to meet me on another issue, perhaps he will be willing to meet me with Mutuo, the think-tank in the co-operative world, which has been developing this instrument, and which supported Lord Naseby when he introduced similar measures in 2015 which, as I said, are currently held up as a result of the unfortunate attitude of HMRC.
Another new type of raising capital that I want to put on the table comes from Italy. Worker co-operatives can play a significant part in rejuvenating firms that would otherwise close in places where there is a supportive policy and business infrastructure to facilitate that. It can act as an essential component of a progressive employment policy. Perhaps the best example of this is the so-called Marcora law from Italy, where conversions take place as negotiated employee buy-outs between workers, the exiting owners, the co-operative sector, the nearby local authorities, and bankruptcy courts. Under a legal framework—the Marcora law—an infrastructure of support has been created to assist the worker buy-out of firms. State funding that would otherwise be spent on unemployment benefits is used to finance the new co-operatives. It has been remarkably efficient for the Italian taxpayer. It is estimated that that investment has safeguarded nearly 14,000 jobs in 270 businesses and generated an economic return for the Italian state of almost seven times the capital invested.
The Italian method of creating staff buy-outs is essentially a negotiated conversion and business restructuring mechanism, with a unique set of supportive policies and a financing structure facilitated by a collaborative approach between staff, the co-op sector and the Government. Some resources are provided by the Italian state Treasury. Again, I do not expect the Minister to commit to this measure today, but in due course it would be good to hear his reflections on that example.
Perhaps on another occasion it would be good hear what further steps the Minister will take to try to encourage the expansion of the credit union sector, where capital remains a significant issue. The lack of resources for marketing is probably one of the biggest things holding back that sector’s development.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David—for the first time, I believe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing this debate today. I am grateful to him for giving advance notice of the topics that he has brought before the House, which has given me an opportunity to consult my officials. Although I do not anticipate that we will get to final conclusions that will fully satisfy him today, I am very happy to have a meaningful dialogue with him in the Treasury with officials and Mutuo, the think-tank that he mentioned. I acknowledge his long-standing commitment to co-ops as chair of the Co-operative party and chair of the all-party group for mutuals. I take what he has said very seriously.
We have heard today how much the mutuals sector is valued in this country, and we share that enthusiasm in Government. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman, alongside other voices in the sector, proposes the introduction of a new financial instrument that co-operatives could use to raise capital. I also recognise that co-operatives need to be able to raise capital quickly and efficiently, and I appreciate the need for flexibility in capital planning.
The hon. Gentleman knows, as a distinguished former Minister himself, that any new policy needs to be thought through and to receive due consultation, not as a wilful delay but to ensure that it is right. I will ask my officials to explore the proposal further, including through discussion with representatives of the sector. I will gratefully receive any further information that he can provide me with.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of allowing co-operatives to invest in social housing, and I thank him for that suggestion. Again, I do not have an answer now, but I will be happy to discuss that with officials and to liaise with him over the outcome. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) asked about the £100,000 cap on share capital and its potentially being lifted. In 2014 the cap was lifted from £20,000 to £100,000. We will keep that under review, but I acknowledge what he said and we will continue to examine that.
I turn to the mutuals’ deferred shares, which the hon. Member for Harrow West mentioned. The Government recognise the benefits of mutual insurers to consumers and the economy. That is why they supported the passage of the Mutuals’ Deferred Shares Bill, which was originally introduced as a private Member’s Bill in 2015. The Treasury consulted on the technical details of MDS in late 2016. We received representations from a variety of mutual insurers, consultants, and industry groups. It emerged from the consultation and follow-on work that the industry sought to issue MDS that, first, qualified as top-tier capital under relevant prudential regulation, and, secondly, had no ill effect on the tailored taxation regime that applies to mutual insurers. Since the consultation, my officials have been working closely with HMRC and the regulators to investigate whether it is possible to structure MDS to satisfy both requirements. Throughout that process, officials have sought the views of industry and its representatives via correspondence and roundtable meetings.
It has become clear that, if a mutual insurer issues equity that qualifies as top-tier capital, it will breach at least one of the principles of mutuality, found in case law, affecting mutual insurers’ tax treatment. Amending primary legislation to ensure that that did not occur would not be straightforward, and could have many unintended and undesirable consequences. For instance, any proposed exemption could give rise to legal risks in the form of state aid. I am happy to get into the detail of that in conversation with the hon. Member for Harrow West. I am considering the available options, but clearly there is no simple solution. I was drawn to ask officials why this matter did not become apparent during the passage of the Bill. Probably it was because the Bill was passed quickly in the early part of 2015, and the issue did not arise.
I now want to exhaustively examine the issues raised. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Marcora law would assist worker buy-out of failing firms. I thank him for making me aware of that policy, which sounds worthy of further consideration. Job losses caused by firm failure can have a devastating impact on communities, particularly when those employers account for a high concentration and number of employees in a single community. I would be interested in learning more from the Italian example about how converting to a co-operative structure can avoid job losses while saving taxpayers money.
I would also be keen to see evidence on the implications for productivity. Clearly, a short-term fix that does not address some of the fundamental challenges that exist in a business is something that one would wish to examine. Again, I will ask my officials—they will be very busy—to discuss that with representatives of the co-operative sector in order to understand whether that model could be used in the UK, if not in that precise form then in one derived from the concept.
We must not forget that the Government have shown a demonstrable commitment to supporting the sector, because we are acutely aware of its significance. There are nearly 7,000 co-operatives in Britain today that, together, contribute more than £36 billion to the UK economy. Recognising the value of co-operatives, in February we introduced a measure to bring audit requirements for small properties in line with those for small companies. Properties have a key role to play in social investment. Last year, the Government expanded the social investment tax relief scheme, which provides a tax break to encourage investment in social enterprises for certain co-operative investors. That expansion will allow social enterprises to receive investment of up to £1.5 million under the tax relief, which is a substantial increase from the previous limit.
The Government see the great value in the mutual sector and the contribution it makes to not only our economy, but our communities. That is why we have taken steps to support all mutual structures, from co-operatives to credit unions. Today’s discussion has been fruitful, and I will look to have further such conversations. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West for his long-standing commitment to co-operatives, and the constructive way in which he has brought this matter to my attention. As a Minister, I am very conscious that one’s time in office can be very short. If there is anything I can do to move this agenda forward, I give him my commitment that I will do so.
Question put and agreed to.
Transport for the South East
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Transport for the South East.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and to see colleagues from across the political divide from the south-east here to contribute to the debate.
Last year, I hosted a parliamentary reception for a new, emerging subnational transport body, Transport for the South East. Strategic transport investment is integral to growing our economy and parliamentarians should support bodies such as Transport for the South East, to allow them to secure and direct the investment needed to grow our regional economy. I called this debate to demonstrate our collective support for the aims and objectives of Transport for the South East.
Let me describe the transport challenges and opportunities for those living within the south-east region. It is home to 7.5 million people, a figure that will grow by 16% over the next 25 years. That accounts for 12% of the UK population and 13% of the workforce. At £200 billion per annum, our region is the second-highest contributor to the economy after London. The amount of public spending per head in the south-east is, at £8,100, the lowest in the UK—10% lower than the national average and 20% lower than London.
Despite carrying the bulk of rail passengers, the public subsidy per passenger mile on Southern and Southeastern railways is in the region of 5p to 7p, versus Northern Rail’s 25p. Unlike London, we do not have an efficient mass transportation system, so 70% of those in employment travel to work mainly by car, which is similar to the UK’s other regions outside London. Despite that, spending per head on local roads and local public transport is lower in the south-east than in any other English region outside London.
As the gateway between the rest of the UK and mainland Europe, we are fortunate in having some of the major transport assets within our region. Dover and Southampton ports power the UK’s European and global export market. Gatwick carries the world’s busiest and most efficient runway. Heathrow, on our border, is the second busiest airport in the world. We have a high-speed railway link to the continent and more commuters journeying to London by rail than any other region.
That is very good timing—perhaps I should have let my hon. Friend continue. As he mentioned High Speed 1, does he agree that the Elizabeth line—the Crossrail system—which is very much to be welcomed, is nevertheless unsatisfactory because it falls 10 miles short of High Speed 1 at Abbey Wood? There is a gap of 10 miles that prevents commuters going from Windsor and the west of London right through to Brussels, Paris and so on, which would enormously help the transport network in the south-east.
My hon. Friend has a similar issue about High Speed 1 to the one I have about Ashford. We believe there is a real economic case for links towards Hastings and Bexhill. I am absolutely sure that his economic case and the case for expanding on current plans will be heard.
I was about to reference the Dartford crossing, and the challenges and opportunities delivered by 50 million vehicles per year travelling across the River Thames.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing today’s debate. Does he agree that we have incredible infrastructure and transport hubs? I would add Newhaven port to the list he gave. Outside London, the south-east economy needs those infrastructure hubs to add up to more than the sum of their parts. If we are to exploit fully the economies of Slough and Brighton—I struggle to add Bexhill and Eastbourne to that list—getting people to and from them is incredibly important. We need to get that right so that the south-east economy outside of London does not remain dependent on just London.
Despite our political differences, I work very closely with the hon. Gentleman, who comes from further across the coast in Hove, and whose constituents experience many similar challenges to those of my constituents. He is absolutely right. A body such as Transport for the South East gives us that opportunity. Although it is always tempting for us to focus on our individual constituencies, which we must, the reality is that the sum of the parts is going to be much better at delivering what we need as our constituents travel from one part of the south-east to the other. He is right, and I hope this debate will move us on.
On the Dartford crossing, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the concerns of the residents of Gravesham, and in particular of those in Northfleet and Gravesend, should be taken into consideration before the scheme is finalised by the Government?
With any major transport project, that is absolutely essential if we are to have good will. A crossing such as that is incredibly exciting because it will alleviate the existing pinch point and make us more productive, but of course we need to carry the local population with us, particularly as it is the locals who are impacted—many who travel will not necessarily be from the local area.
It is a coincidence that I took interventions from two Opposition Members as I was about to talk about Government intervention and thank them for significant investment schemes in the south-east transport network. In this road investment period, Highways England will invest £2 billion into roads in the south-east. The equivalent funding period for Network Rail will see £3 billion invested in the Southern and Southeastern rail network, which has some of the oldest rail infrastructure in the UK despite carrying the most passengers. Although we have challenges to overcome, and although we lobby for a funding share commensurate to our output, we are getting more funding overall because the Government are spending more on transport. The key is to ensure we get the projects the region needs. That is where Transport for the South East comes in to play.
Established in June last year, Transport for the South East is the shadow subnational transport body representing 16 local transport authorities and five local enterprise partnerships, which speak with a single voice about strategic transport priorities for the south-east. Its primary aim is to support and grow the economy in the south-east by identifying and prioritising a programme of integrated strategic transport interventions. It also aims to improve the experience of the travelling public and businesses and bring about more reliable journeys, free of congestion, while safeguarding the environment.
Although I am tempted to raise my own local transport issues in this debate today—I encourage others not to hold back—and lobby for schemes within my 200 square miles of constituency, I believe that there is more chance of securing success in my constituency and those of colleagues if we all work together to establish one body, with one voice, that works effectively across the south-east region to address the biggest problems in our strategic infrastructure network. By getting behind the work of the body—it is under the chairmanship of Councillor Keith Glazier and the leadership of the region’s local authority and local enterprise partnership representatives —we can secure the best strategic transport to support the outcomes we want for our region: new housing without increased congestion, improved connectivity and access to the best employment opportunities for our residents.
The south-east’s population has substantially grown in recent years. Businesses are drawn to a great place to do business and individuals are drawn by high levels of employment. That has driven growth in the south-east’s economy of 25% since 1997, which has generated substantial tax revenue for the country. There is, however, a cost to this success. Our transport infrastructure is facing the challenges of population and economic growth and we risk the future delivery of an economy of huge strategic importance to the UK if action is not taken. That is why Transport for the South East is vital for our future prosperity.
At the same time, TfSE knows that it must not forget those pockets of the region that have not experienced the same economic success and are not as prosperous as other parts. Our coastal communities in particular—many hon. Members represent those communities—have large populations, high unemployment and low productivity. That is due in part to poor connectivity, and in part the further and higher education facilities in those deprived areas of employment. The transport network has a key role to play in improving access to skills and employment and creating new opportunities for the residents of those areas so that they, too, can lead prosperous lives. The challenges extend beyond the administrative and political boundaries. They require the new body to join up transport policy, regulation and investment, and give clear strategic investment priorities to improve connectivity across our region.
To move forward, Transport for the South East needs to do three things: develop a transport strategy, secure statutory status and secure additional funding from the Government. Considerable funds have been awarded to Transport for the North, which has received £50 million, and Midlands Connect, which has received £17 million, to help them take forward their work programme over the next few years. The subscriptions that Transport for the South East is currently raising from its constituent authorities will amount to only £500,000 in the next year. We must congratulate the local authorities that raised that cash. They have taken the initiative and come together despite their own funding pressures because they recognise the importance of working as one. However, more funding is badly needed, not least because the Transport for the South East infrastructure has a significant bearing on the performance of the wider UK economy. Securing statutory status is critical in ensuring that Transport for the South East becomes a formal legal entity and a formal partner of the Government, Network Rail and Highways England, with the ability to influence their investment programmes. Without that status, it will not have the influence we need it to have.
This substantial, resource-intensive process will require additional funding support from the Government if it is to be completed in a timely manner. Work on the main transport strategy is due to commence in the summer, but the pace of its development is dependent on central support of the kind enjoyed by Transport for the North and Midlands Connect.
To conclude—I want to give other hon. Members the opportunity to raise issues in their localities—the south-east economy is already delivering for the country, and has greater economic potential if we allow it to come through. Awarding Transport for the South East statutory status would give us the opportunity to identify and prioritise a package of strategic transport improvements, which will benefit not just the south-east but the entire UK economy. With Government support, Transport for the South East will be able to move at pace to statutory status and, more importantly, complete its transport strategy, which will determine the transport investment we get in the south-east.
Strategic transport investment will give not just the south-east but the country as a whole the opportunity to prosper. I look forward to working with colleagues and Transport for the South East as a new body as it drives these new opportunities. I hope the Minister will signal in his response his encouragement for the quest we are following.
I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this very important debate, especially after the very successful launch of Transport for the South East, which we attended last October.
This is a well-timed opportunity to talk about the western rail link to Heathrow, as next week a new all-party group to support the case for and the delivery of the scheme will have its inaugural meeting. As co-chair of the western rail link to Heathrow stakeholder steering group, along with the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), I want to take this opportunity to invite all hon. Members to join the APPG. The group consists of representatives from Network Rail, Thames Valley Berkshire local enterprise partnership, Slough Borough Council, Heathrow Express, Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd, Great Western Railway, British Airways and the Department for Transport. Its aim is to promote and support the delivery of a direct rail link between Slough and Heathrow before 2024.
A western rail link to Heathrow would enable passengers throughout the west to travel to the airport without travelling into London. It would mean faster, more reliable and convenient journeys for passengers, with travel times expected to be about 26 minutes from Reading and only six minutes from my Slough constituency. It would provide a step change in rail accessibility at Europe’s busiest airport, open up new markets across the Thames valley, Wales and the south-west, and relieve congestion at London Paddington.
A link coming in from the west, through Reading and Slough and on to Heathrow, would mean four direct trains every hour each way between Slough and the airport. According to Network Rail statistics, that short link of less than four miles would generate more than £800 million of economic activity and 42,000 new jobs across various regions.
In addition to the obvious convenience and benefits to the economy, there are potentially huge benefits for our environment. The carbon dioxide savings from the modal shift from cars to rail would equate to approximately 30 million road miles a year through a reduction in road congestion. Some 20% of the UK’s population could access the airport via just one interchange; there would be no need to go into London and back out. The scheme is beneficial to areas of the south-east, even if they never use it. The areas of the south-east that stand to benefit most from the direct link are Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.
It would be remiss of me not to point out what an opportunity the link would present for passengers in Bristol, the midlands and beyond, including the south-west and Wales. All that from a four-mile rail link, most of which is tunnelled, with no obvious planning, land ownership or technical obstacles to overcome. There has been a very favourable response to Network Rail’s public consultation exercises thus far.
Given that the Government committed to the rail link in 2012, I hope the Minister will extend his support to it today and assure us that it will finally be built without delay. I very much hope he joins us next week at the inaugural meeting of the APPG on the western rail link to Heathrow. Simultaneously, I ask that he reassures us about the promised timetable to deliver Crossrail—the Elizabeth line—by the end of 2019 to ensure that residents and users in Burnham, Slough and Langley will benefit and that those stations will be fully operational.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate.
Transport infrastructure is a core component in the functioning of a modern society. Transport has the power to guide our decisions about where to live, study and work. If it is done well, it can transform and regenerate villages, towns and cities, increase workforce productivity and facilitate the operation of industry, which in turn attracts other industries and services. If it is done badly, we have the flip side of the coin.
The south-east of England is the most populated part of the country and a powerhouse of economic activity. It contributes more than any other region outside London to the national economy. Consequently, we are home to some of the busiest roads and railways in the country, and that is further compounded by historical underinvestment and a lack of foresight in planning decisions.
Evidence of capacity limitations on road and rail networks is becoming increasingly stark. As an MP, I hear about it on a weekly basis. Just yesterday, a constituent who works in Chichester told me that she regularly sits in traffic for an hour each way on the A27 to and from work, even though in normal conditions the journey, door to door, should be about half an hour.
There are similar concerns about the railways. Govia—the company that manages Southern, which operates much throughout my constituency—announced in November last year that complaints from the previous year were up by well over 200%. Of course, that was exacerbated by strike action.
The hon. Lady is making a really great speech, and I am enjoying listening to it. The Minister will know that every MP in this Chamber joined together in the all-party group on Southern Rail. We called on the Government last year to release £300 million, which Network Rail told us was the most it could spend on infrastructure upgrades in our area. To their credit, the Government released that money, for which MPs from both sides of the House are very grateful. Will the hon. Lady join me in endorsing the Gibb recommendation for that £300 million to be released for the next three years, after which we can deliver transformation on the line?
I agree, of course. As a fellow member of the APPG on Southern Rail, I agree with its recommendations.
In the south-east, high economic activity is good news for our area, but that does not tell the whole story. Many coastal and rural communities miss out on the wider region’s success. In part, social and economic exclusion can be attributed to the design of the transport network, and our system is designed in an “all roads lead to London” pattern, like spokes from a wheel. Only two key routes cross my region from east to west: the M25 to the north and the A27 along the coast.
The A27 is therefore a highly congested road, exacerbated by pinch points where traffic builds in Chichester, Arundel and Worthing, to name but a few. The effects are wide-reaching, pushing more traffic on to local residential roads, worsening air quality and impacting on business supply chains moving goods in and out of the area or, indeed, from the ports or the coast. Such is the issue along the south coast that much east-west traffic will go from the south coast up to the M25 and come back down on major trunk roads such as the M3—all to avoid the A27.
The rail network is formed in a similar pattern. All trains run into hubs. The Windmill Bridge junction at East Croydon, for example, can have a paralysing effect on the network. Routes across the south-east and London funnel into that single junction and, put simply, the sheer volume of traffic has long exceeded the capacity of the junction. Consequently, a delay on one line delays the next, creating a domino effect of delays across the region, with people sitting on a train and not at their place of work. The effect on productivity could be mitigated, at least, if we had some degree of adequate wi-fi connectivity on the trains.
The Coast to Capital LEP hit the nail on the head when it described the travel network in the south-east as congested, overcrowded and inefficient. The problems we as an area face are clear, but so are the opportunities for locally driven strategic transport infrastructure improvements to link up networks, to support businesses and attract them to our area. I therefore fully support the formation of Transport for the South East as a statutory sub-national transport body. That would be a positive step to meet the needs of our area.
Transport for the South East brings together representatives of the area who have an inherent understanding of local needs and concerns. They can inform any process from the start. That is crucial when we consider impacts on our protected landscapes, for example, such as the South Downs national park that reaches across the heart of region, so I am glad the South Downs national authority is represented on the TfSE board to give a voice to our protected landscapes.
Other local advantages can come into play, such as planning decisions. TfSE comprises representatives from 16 local authorities that understand national, regional and local priorities such as housing provision, business development, tackling unemployment, social care services, energy supply, global economic competitiveness and environmental sustainability. Those can all be fed into the process to deliver smart and sustainable growth.
Working with a collective voice has advantages. As an area, we have common transport issues, such as the Windmill Bridge junction that I mentioned earlier or the lack of an east-west road infrastructure. A single regional voice will be much more impactful than people working as individuals.
I am glad that TfSE is already talking about improving travel technology as part of our infrastructure investments, such as electronic ticketing and—another much-needed tech enhancement—the provision of effective wi-fi to all trains and stations. That is crucial in an area such as Chichester, where we have a poor signal—never mind 4G—or across the South Downs. Wi-fi could be transformational for commuters and productivity, and TfSE could do just that. Similar programmes, such as Transport for the North, have already been successful.
The World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index shows that the UK is behind many of its major western European trading partners on transport infrastructure. The south-east is home to international businesses and industries that use our airports, seaports, roads and railways. By bringing together 16 local authorities and five local enterprise partnerships, we shall have better integration of transport modes across our region to create a transport system that runs smoothly, improving services for all users.
I fully support Transport for the South East, and I hope that we secure statutory status for it soon so that it can become a formal partner of the Government, Network Rail and Highways England. In doing so, we shall be able to address the significant issues in our area, bringing together communities and providers to form a truly integrated network. Strategic transport planning and improvement has the potential to bring with it talent, investment and opportunity for the entire south-east region and beyond.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.
I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this important debate. I also appreciated the words of the previous speakers. This is an important debate, and one of the things that I was thinking about as Members were talking was that, as we all know, the south-east is one of the most prosperous parts of the country, and yet for decades the transport infrastructure in parts of Sussex and Kent has been absolutely atrocious. It has never really been any good.
A wee while ago someone of the same persuasion as Government Members put a theory to me, saying, “Well, Stephen, you have to appreciate that all those years ago in Sussex and Kent there were a lot of ex-colonial officers, colonels and senior civil servants who had moved to Bexhill, Eastbourne and other parts. The last thing they wanted was good transport, because they would get all the hoi polloi down there”—his quote, not mine, I stress. I drew myself up to my full height, only to say, “You’re probably right.” It is bizarre, however, and Eastbourne is a case in point. My colleague the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), whom I know well, is well aware that he has a speedy train from Brighton to London and the M23, but from Eastbourne I am constantly struggling with Southern Rail and the A27.
The point about this debate, however, and about Transport for the South East, which I am keen to support, is that the only way we can move forward productively is to join together and pool our resources, and do so on a cross-party basis. A lot of the business chambers and local councils are involved. I am delighted that the chairman of Transport for the South East—I was going to say this anyway, but I see him in the Public Gallery—is a colleague of mine, the leader of East Sussex County Council, which I usually spend my time attacking these days because of the cuts. I am absolutely delighted that Councillor Keith Glazier is the chair.
We have had a number of discussions, but from the purely selfish perspective of East Sussex, having the leader of the county council right in the middle is very important. Bluntly, over the years East Sussex has for one reason or another lost out a lot on transport infrastructure in many areas. It is good to welcome Councillor Glazier, although I think he has two letters from me on their way to him right now, as usual.
The two key issues are rail and road. Obviously, Southern has problems that have been going on for a long time, albeit I would like to think that it has been getting better over the past few months. More than that, specific rail transport infrastructure matters need to be put on the table, which I am happy to do. I have been reminded that rail infrastructure generates £5 billion in gross value added per annum for south-east England, provides more than 81,000 jobs and brings in almost £1.5 billion in tax. More specifically, in Eastbourne alone the rail network brings in £47.2 million per annum and provides directly and indirectly 750 jobs. Rail is crucial.
I recognise that Sussex has infrastructure challenges—it has had them for a long time—but we also have challenges on how much space we have to put down new tracks. What I would do to have a fast train zip from Eastbourne to London in an hour! It would make such a transformational difference, but I appreciate that there are challenges. None of that detracts from the infrastructure benefits that rail brings to my town, East Sussex, Kent and beyond. Those benefits are vital to the south-east.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about the importance of the link between the coastal towns and London. However, does he agree that we have learned in recent years that the coastal towns between the cities on the south coast have not benefited from the economic renaissance and prosperity of recent decades in the same way as places such as Brighton and Chichester, and other towns and cities in the region? That is why we need investment in the coastal route and much smarter travel between the coastal towns. We need to make the economies of the cities far more accessible, rather than being dependent on London all the time.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. One of the most depressing things imaginable is to drive around this country and stop at every single coastal town—for one reason or another, a lot of them are suffering desperately and have been for a long time. I am enormously proud of how Eastbourne has bucked that trend, certainly in the last 10 years. We will be opening a new transformed shopping centre, with £85 million of private money—my God, I had to have an awful lot of meetings to be part of making that happen.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that poor transport links between the coastal towns and cities makes it three times harder to try to turn them around. I do not want to name any particular coastal towns that have suffered, because that is invidious—I know how hard it is to turn a coastal town around once it goes over a tipping point—but without improving infrastructure between those towns, turning them around will be impossible. We can pour as much money in as we would like, but unless we can find a way to get people to come to the towns and spend money, they will keep going in an ever-deteriorating circle. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
There are very specific inconsistencies in rail funding. I believe the Department for Transport is looking at them, but I would like to reiterate them. I pay tribute to the Rail Industry Association for providing this briefing, because it is very important. It states, as we know:
“The Government provides funding for the rail network in five year timespans known as control periods. At the end of these control periods there is often a drop off in funding before it ramps up again at the start of the next control period. This means the supply chain for rail goes through periods of boom and bust, making it very hard for business to plan”—
particularly SMEs, which are involved from a subcontracting perspective. The briefing also states:
“It also increases the cost of…the rail network by up to 30%.”
The hon. Member for Hove alluded to the Department’s generosity in boosting the funding to Network Rail to improve the infrastructure in the near past. I support him very much in the hope that the Government will continue in that direction of travel over the next few years. I believe they will—I am hearing good soundings and would be very supportive.
Believe it or not, I try very hard in most debates to stay away from the subject of Brexit, because it does not half go on a bit, but it is important. One of the realities of Brexit, according to RIA figures, is that anywhere between 20% and 45% of the skilled staff of Network Rail and related ancillaries are of EU origin. We need to ensure that, over the next year—whatever my personal views are, we leave the EU next year—the Government do everything they can.
When the hon. Gentleman mentioned Brexit and Kent, I thought he was going to announce the independence of Kent, but clearly not. He makes an important point. The Government have put a lot of effort into that—they face specific local residential problems in various areas and are looking to extend transport and parking facilities. I am glad the Department for Transport has to sort the problem, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has to be resolved. Clearly, it is likely to get worse from March 2019.
On the jobs front, if 20% to 45% of staff are EU nationals, that has to be absolute priority for the Government. We were talking coastal towns earlier. Somewhere between 60% and 70% of staff in the catering and hospitality area are EU nationals. We are on a journey, which I appreciate is supported and was voted for in the referendum, but I hope the Government are watching closely for the complexities coming down the track such as jobs in the rail network.
I have spoken a lot about the importance of rail. I make no apologies for that, because I have always believed that it is a crucial game-changer for my town. The usual trains take an hour and 25 minutes to an hour and 30 minutes. If I could get that down to an hour and 10, it would make life so much easier to keep Eastbourne growing in the positive and prosperous manner for which I have worked so hard for so many years. I look forward to the chairman of Transport for the South East, Councillor Keith Glazier, working with me, together with all of us, to keep the pressure on Govia Thameslink Railway and Southern rail to ensure that they keep improving. It is absolutely vital that the industrial issues and dreadful problems we had for one reason or another for 18 months or two years on the line from Eastbourne to London and back, and on other parts of the network, do not reoccur. I will be working on and watching that very closely.
When the hon. Member for Hove drives from Eastbourne to Folkestone as the crow flies, it is only about 70 miles but takes about three and a half hours. It is absolutely ridiculous. The coastal connections around that part of the country are absurd—there is no other word for it. Going across Romney Marsh, I half expect to see some of the old smugglers from 200 years ago. It is ridiculous and needs to be fixed. It would transform a lot of the coastal towns that have seen terribly difficult times for the last 30 or 40 years. It is the sort of thing that would be a game-changer and I would be very supportive.
My bête noire is the A27, as we know—I wrote to the Minister only 10 days ago. I am aware that East Sussex County Council has put a lot of thought into it. Colleagues and various businesses are putting together a strong business case for the Department, which I know has been looked at. The Minister knows very well my views and how supportive I would be of a solution, which probably means a new spur that would be a dualling of Lewes and Polegate. I will be happy to do anything I can do to encourage that.
I again thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle for securing this important debate. Given the problems we have had for decades with transport in the south-east, it is amazing that we have done as well as we have. So much of the infrastructure is rickety. This new body is very positive step. I wholly appreciate that it covers and includes a whole range of people, experts, political parties and business groups. I have no hesitation in supporting it and hope and pray that it will be the catalyst for making a significant difference, which we all know the south-east needs, over the next five to 10 years.
It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate.
Transport plays a crucial role in the development of a strong economy. That is what l argued on 22 March when I delivered a speech in the other Chamber of this House during an equally important debate on the economy, which I am pleased to say continues to defy the naysayers, and I was one of them. In that speech I urged the Government to make some use of the expected Brexit dividend by spending some of it on the roads and rails going to Clacton—I have moved our argument slightly north of Bexhill.
It is interesting to note that connectivity along the coast is not something we could do in my area because we have these damned great rivers, so I am going along the lines of being one of the spokes on the bicycle wheel when we talk about Clacton. As a regular commuter myself, I know that it takes far too long for my constituents to travel from Clacton to the capital, and vice versa. We are that spoke.
Without more investment in transport infrastructure around Clacton, we will limit the incentive for people to move to and commute from our glorious sunshine coast. That would harm the economic potential of my district and would restrain the prosperity of hard-working local residents: an outcome that is not acceptable to me or my residents. That is why I have continued to push for what I call my 70 in 60 campaign at every opportunity, which has the ultimate aim of ensuring that the people of Clacton are able to cover the 70 miles—that is all it is—to London in 60 minutes. That is not unthinkable. It is not even illegal.
Currently the journey of 70 miles takes one hour and 40 minutes nearly, and it takes longer than it did in the days of steam, which, unfortunately, I remember—or fortunately; depends how you look at it. If we get that journey time down to about an hour it would in my opinion regenerate our area, and it would make our sunshine coast a place for people to come, live, work and play. I am here today to plug that campaign once again, because my constituency has so much to offer, not only as a tourist destination, but as a place to live, and it has real untapped economic potential. When it comes to unlocking that potential, I know, as someone with extensive experience of supporting businesses in my district—I was the cabinet member for regeneration at Tendring District Council—that important investment in infrastructure is a crucial first step, so I am pleased to say that we will soon have new rolling stock with wireless internet and USB ports. The trains will be comfortable and modern and they are beginning to be delivered this year.
The new trains will stop and start with greater efficiency. They will be quicker, but not quick enough, which is why, although I celebrate the positive development of the new trains, I maintain that much more must be done because, without more significant investment in our transport infrastructure, commuters simply will not believe that Clacton is a place they can live and work from, as the journey times to London are currently so unfavourable. I have been meeting regularly with Network Rail, Greater Anglia, and the Great Eastern Main Line Taskforce to raise my concerns and support their efforts to improve the current appalling situation.
Additionally, as the Minister will probably know to his cost, I continue to make representations to his Department for Transport at every opportunity. I thank him for his support and I am encouraged by the Government’s shrewd approach to transport investment.
I do, of course, recognise that the core issue is that places such as Colchester are growing and have an increasingly young and more economically active population. Consequently, they are seen as more vital for transport investment than some of the older communities and coastal communities such as Clacton that have for far too long been neglected. However, although the demographics are set against us, I am determined to keep going and find a way forward. We cannot fall into a cycle of neglect where our older communities are left isolated—I speak as one of them because I became a pensioner a few weeks ago—[Hon. Members: “No!”] Thank you for that. Our older communities are left isolated in favour of areas that have younger residents and new development. We want to attract younger residents, and if we do not take steps now to invest more in improving Clacton’s transport infrastructure, we cannot hope to attract that younger economically active population at any point in the future.
I accept that we have not built enough homes in Clacton. That might be another reason why young commuters do not wish to call my constituency their home, so I would support sustainable housing developments in my local area, because we must do our part to help address the national housing crisis. That is not only vital for people in Clacton, but for the entire south-east region. However, the Government must do their part, too, and we must improve our transport infrastructure before any new major housing developments break ground. We simply cannot build more dwellings without first making it easy for people to occupy and live in them, and investing more in transport would do that.
Furthermore, such investment will address the concerns of current residents, who just this weekend told me they have worries about the new developments because of congestion on their roads and railways. That is why the Government should focus on infrastructure investment before delivering new homes. We need the I before E approach: infrastructure before major expansion. By following that approach in the south-east, we can deliver quick transport to London and to major regional hubs such as Colchester, Ipswich and Chelmsford and further to the north in Norwich. By doing so, we can deliver the homes we desperately need, the transport we require and the economic opportunities that are currently just out of reach. With that in mind, there are various opportunities across the south-east that I would like the Minister to look at.
One of the projects includes Stansted airport, which I heard today has the most efficient runway in the south-east. It is already a vital transport hub, but that hub needs to be able to continue to expand, and in the next few years the right decisions need to be made to help the airport reach its economic potential. According to projections, that will deliver an additional 15,000 jobs by 2030, with a £1 billion boost to our region’s growth. I ask the Minister to do all he can to support that project as I know there are those who live in my constituency who work there, but it is still quite a long a commute.
It will come as no surprise to the Minister to hear me ask him to support the upgrade of the A120. He knows how passionate I am about that campaign, and I was pleased to read in his recent letter to me that the A120 scheme is in a strong position moving toward the decision making process for the second road investment strategy. Delivering an improved A120 would open the doors to a renaissance in house building in the south-east and connectivity to Stansted. For any hon. Members who agree with me, I will be hosting a reception on 17 July to move the campaign over the line, so please come along.
There are jobs to be created and homes to be built in areas just like Clacton if we invest in and improve the roads and rails to such areas in the south-east, which we have neglected in the past. For people in Clacton there is the world of entertainment, enterprise and revelry to be had in London if we improve the ability to access it for people in some of our less well-connected areas. I will always argue that the transport investment strategy should focus on delivering locally to unlock the economic potential of communities such as Clacton: regionally, on projects to improve connectivity between our economic hubs; and of course nationally to rebalance our economy. The implications of such a decision for our economy, transport in the south-east and our country are in my view only positive, and I back the body for transport in the south-east.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Henry. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on what has been an incredibly constructive debate this afternoon. He was absolutely right to set the tone and say that transport should be about serving our wider economy. It plays an important role.
We find ourselves yet again debating transport across the south-east, which has been a regular theme in my role as the shadow Minister for Transport. It is significant because we know that 9.2 million people live across the south-east region and investment is therefore really important, which we must get right as we move forward. As the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) said, this matter is not only about the economy. It is about housing and infrastructure and making sure that we get a wider connectivity, and we must recognise the importance of that.
Transport infrastructure requires a strategic approach, not least because of its significance to London, but also because far better orbital routes are needed to rebalance the London focus back into the region to develop wider regional economic opportunities. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) made the point about how investment in transport is crucial if we are to see the revitalisation of our coastal towns. Across the ports in the south-east there is currently concern, however, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) said, about the customs arrangements that could well operate in a post-Brexit environment. The ports provide a vital gateway to the British economy. They are a major employer in the region and support millions of passengers each year. Business is dependent on the pace by which freight flows through the ports and moves onto its onward journey. Customs equivalence is therefore essential, and the whole industry is nervous about the Government narrative, and the contemplation of less favourable terms.
The technology that the Prime Minister has raised to address a bad deal does not currently exist, so it would be years before technology could undertake the task required. With her hard Brexit approach, there is a risk that ever more lorries will stack up on local and main roads or, more likely, that they will not come at all. The roads infrastructure cannot cope as things are now, but that would be a challenge too far. The road freight infrastructure deficit and the lack of lorry parks were exacerbated by the latest fiasco of not following process and having to scrap the lorry park plans at Stanford West. Local people’s calls for the Government to get things sorted out have been ignored. Operation Stack needs decisions to be taken now, and actions to be expedited.
The rail network always dominates the debate, and its fragmentation creates barriers not only between the London and south-east footprints, but within the south-east, which has hosted a plethora of rail operators over time. The lack of capacity is straining the infrastructure, but the Government have been too slow in managing the avoidable mismanagement of the services, not least on Govia Thameslink Railway. We are nine months on from the publication of the Gibb report, whose importance has been mentioned in the debate. It is important for the Minister to update the House on progress that the Government have made with the recommendations in the report.
We have heard how fragmentation, and the issues with Southern across the network, have been a distraction from the provision of what I would call basic passenger services, including wi-fi, which, as the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) said, is essential for increasing productivity.
My hon. Friend’s speech about the region’s transport challenges is a tour de force, and I am grateful. The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) made the point incredibly well about the lack of wi-fi, and some of the technological advances that we are missing, but it is worth pointing out that most trains running from Hove to Chichester do not even have toilets on them. They are class 313 trains, which were mostly built in 1976, before most of the Members present were even born. Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to the technological advances that have been mentioned we need to get really good rolling stock, so that people who work on the trains, as well as passengers, can from time to time use a toilet?
I could not put that better than my hon. Friend has done. Toilets on trains are a public health issue as much as anything, and we need to make sure that the transport system can provide all passengers with the basics. That would be Labour’s focus on the transport system—seeing it as a service to the public, and therefore ensuring that the infrastructure is in place.
I want to discuss devolution, because it is important that decisions can be taken as close as possible to the communities that they affect, so that local expertise can be invested into the transport system. Westminster currently has far too much power, and the level of centralisation of decision making by the Secretary of State for Transport and his Department is unbelievably constraining. It also ignores local advocacy. We must see devolution as about moving powers and resources from Westminster to the regions. We do not want new bodies to become talking shops; we want them to have power to make a difference to their communities. Transport for the North was recently established, and it has powers of strategy setting and advocacy but still has to go cap in hand to the Secretary of State.
Earlier this week I raised concerns about the inequality in decision making between Scotland and Wales. The country is becoming a patchwork of entirely different powers, and some areas have no voice at all. It is a mosaic of chaos and confusion, leaving all frustrated. I advocate redress and with a Labour Government the public will be confident in how strategic planning will be embedded across the transport system, giving devolution a strong place across the country, with no one left behind, and equality as things move forward.
That brings me back to transport in the south-east. I welcome Councillor Keith Glazier to the Public Gallery. I was reading some statements made by Councillor Tony Page, who also sits on the shadow board of Transport for the South East, which was launched last month, in which he highlighted why the region was plunged into chaos after the Government scrapped the former regional transport board in 2010, and set out the regional and strategic focus that is needed. I realise that the Secretary of State is now trying to make up for lost time. However, I must emphasise the slowness of the pace of reinstatement of the board. More could be done to bring it forward from 2020 to 2019, and I urge the Minister to do that and make sure that the process does not continue to be so protracted. The blueprints for regional boards are already out there, and I want the Minister to put more emphasis on bringing things forward. There is cross-party support for doing it by 2019. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
Since I have been in post, I have listened to numerous debates, questions and MPs’ concerns about the need to future-proof the south-east’s transport infrastructure and investment. I recognise the inequality that has grown across the nation with regard to transport spend, and it is vital to redress that, for the sake of the economy and communities of the north, but it is no secret that the south-east’s infrastructure is creaking and that at times things have almost ground to a halt for passengers and freight on roads and rail. The region hosts the UK’s most significant airports, and yet connectivity between them is poor, and air pollution from ground access alone is poisoning communities. Those are urgent matters, and there has to be a regional approach to them now.
We just seem to move from one underwhelming environmental piece of the Heathrow expansion plan to the next. It has, to date, failed to address the serious environmental standards that are demanded. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) is right to press the Minister about the importance of the western link into Heathrow—just four miles of track to improve air quality significantly and bring about modal shift back on to the railways.
Labour cannot stress enough the urgency of improved infrastructure links to the many important coastal ports, and the fact that rail and road connections to most of them are nearing full capacity, if they have not reached that point already. Without the use of strategic regional intelligence to future-proof the transport system, the country will continue to stumble forward to the next hurdle. Devolution is also urgently needed to drive a sustainable transport system in the south-east. The heavily congested road and rail networks demand a completely different approach. Seventy-one per cent. of people currently commute by road. We need a modal shift away from car reliance and its environmental consequences. The Government have spent a lot of time in court defending the indefensible with respect to the nation’s poor air quality. Instead, they should bring the focus of a strategic vision for the transport system.
As is, sadly, often the case, buses have not yet been mentioned in the debate. Nevertheless, a strategic bus plan in the region is important, and I wish to ask the Minister what investment his Government are putting into the next generation of sustainable buses. We hear much about cars, including the significant investment in electric cars, but that will not solve the issue of congestion because there will still be an equivalent volume of vehicles in the south-east, and the roads cannot cope with that. Many journeys carried out by car could, as an alternative, take place by bus, and bus tech is really important for the future. We must invest in R and D in bus tech, and I would be interested to hear the Government’s plans on that and their focus on our bus network.
Labour has focused on buses in recent weeks. We will offer all those under 25 free bus travel where there is municipal ownership—rightly putting buses back under the control of local authorities to provide a public service, rather than allowing bus companies to cherry-pick the most profitable routes. In a region with the highest age demographic, that point will not be lost.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must fully support the work of Slough Borough Council, which is trying desperately to ensure that bus services continue in the area? A current operator has decided that certain routes will no longer be operational, but the council needs support from the Government. As yet, that support has not been forthcoming. Does she agree that the Government need to step in and support local councils?
It is crucial that local authorities such as Slough Borough Council have control over bus routes. Buses are servants of the community and must determine how best to service the wider needs of that community. Quite simply, bus operators put other interests such as the profits they make above the service they provide. We must ensure that people again have confidence in their bus service. We have seen how successful that has been here in the capital, where a real investment has been made, and we are clear that local authorities must again have that control over the bus system.
Finally, I wish to mention the promotion of active travel across the region. Cycling and walking have not featured in today’s debate, but they should be the transport mode of choice, particularly for short journeys. Sadly, however, the car is often seen as the most convenient way to travel because of the barriers that have been put in people’s way. What does the Minister plan for the south-east regarding the promotion of cycling and walking? To date, I believe that the Government’s plans have not been ambitious enough to see a modal shift or a real embrace of the cycling and walking agenda.
In conclusion, it is vital to have a far more strategic approach to transport planning across the south-east to ensure that resources are in the right place, as well as a longer-term vision. As we have heard, start-stop control periods do not give authorities enough time for substantial planning. We must advance our transport system, because it is imperative that we rebuild our economy and build a sustainable environment for the future, whether for freight or for passengers.
May I say what an adornment you are, Sir Henry, to the Chair in Westminster Hall, and may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this debate on the important issue of the sub-national transport body, Transport for the South East? As with everything else, my hon. Friend has been a vigorous, energetic and, if I may say so, effective campaigner. Indeed, as he gently reminded the House, this is the latest stage of his campaign to put this institution on the parliamentary map, and I salute him for that. In his speech he gave an excellent summary of the opportunities and challenges facing the region. This debate is timely given the run-up to the launch of the economic connectivity review for Transport for the South East on 8 May, which I understand will be a key milestone in its work towards developing a transport strategy for the region as a whole.
I will come in due course to the many constituency issues raised, but I will first follow my hon. Friend in placing the emphasis precisely where it should be, which is the regional potential of Transport for the South East—I think that is the original purpose of the debate. My Department and I have been impressed by the pace at which Transport for the South East has worked, despite its young age, and I pay tribute to Councillor Glazier who is sitting in the Public Gallery observing—and, I hope, approving—the proceedings of the work he has done and the leadership he has shown. At not even a year old, TfSE has built, and continues to build, partnerships across the region, and it speaks with an increasingly clear voice to Government about its priorities. I am sure that voice will make a real difference to local people in the south-east, and in due course to the country as a whole, since this is a principal engine of economic growth.
Local areas know their economies best, and the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) was right to say—indeed, it is an ancient Tory principle—that power should be devolved and exercised wherever possible close to the people it affects. In part that is for informational reasons, because local councils will know what local priorities are, but those priorities must be balanced with national and regional priorities, and getting that balance right lies at the heart of good transport policy. Local areas will know how best to drive growth for the benefit of their residents, and it does not need saying that transport has a key role to play. As colleagues have said, transport unlocks housing and economic growth; it gets people where they want to go for work, education, or to access and enjoy public services.
Sub-national transport bodies are new organisations that speak with a single voice for their region. Contrary to there being too much centralisation, the hon. Lady seems to have forgotten that this Government have been significantly decentralising. Metro mayoralties are an important aspect of that, as are sub-national transport bodies, which allow us and local people to prioritise the transport interventions that will make the biggest difference to people in their areas and beyond.
STBs, as they are called—no clinic required here, Sir Henry—fill the current gap between local and national transport authorities, bringing a regional voice to Government investment decisions. When local areas come together to plan long-term infrastructure, they can deliver outputs that are greater than the sum of their parts. Using evidence and local knowledge, STBs will make the case to Government for the transport priorities that they believe will drive transformational growth. The Government are hearing those voices across the country, and those bodies—including Transport for the South East—have already submitted to the Department their priorities for the second road investment period. They are also engaging with our proposals for a new major road network that will benefit from dedicated funding from 2020.
On 1 April 2018, Transport for the North became England’s first sub-national transport body, and I was delighted to lay the statutory instrument for that in the House. Three other STBs are currently operating in shadow form across England, with ambitions to become statutory bodies in their own right: Midlands Connect, England’s Economic Heartland and, of course, Transport for the South East. TfSE is the youngest of those shadow bodies, but it has made impressive progress since its inaugural meeting in June last year. There are also proposals for STBs to emerge in other parts of the country, including the east of England and the south-west, and I and my colleagues watch those developments with interest.
We are seeking to work closely with all those bodies to support them as they establish their priorities, develop their own transport strategies, and submit proposals to Government to become statutory bodies. That should ensure they can continue to add value to transport decision making over the longer term, but I should be clear on what we look for in a successful sub-national transport body. We want it to have a strong rationale and a coherent economic geography, and to speak with one voice alongside its local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and, of course, local MPs. Where those things come together, STBs can be very powerful bodies, and my Department will take account of their views in our decision-making processes.
From the toil and woe that some hon. Members have told of in this debate, one might have thought that the south-east was an area in significant economic difficulty, rather than one of the richest parts of this country and indeed of Europe and the world. But, of course, with success come growing pains and strains. It is important to recognise that, and we do. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle has stated, it is important to say that the south-east is a significant contributor to, and driver of, the UK economy as a whole. We will continue to support that process in Government.
It is also worth noting—a point well made by colleagues on both sides of the House—that there is no standardised, one-size-fits-all picture of unbroken economic success across the region. There are clear and important areas of deprivation that exist, especially in coastal communities, and we must attend to those no less than we must feed the flames of economic growth across the region as a whole. To reflect both, we have provided a boost to local economies across the whole south-east, with over £1.4 billion of local growth fund money allocated to local enterprise partnerships in the region to help to encourage economic growth and housing. A substantial portion of that money has been invested in transport projects.
In addition, the Government are investing £2.2 billion in major road schemes on the strategic road network in London and the south-east of England, and investing substantially in rail schemes such as Thameslink and Crossrail, which has been mentioned, and in transformational local schemes such as the £850 million improvement—I do not think we have any hon. Members from Berkshire here—to Reading station. The Department is also investing £1.2 billion to improve local transport through maintenance and small improvements, as well as large local schemes such as the £56 million towards the Combe Valley Way link road between Hastings and Bexhill, which has helped reduce congestion and supported growth in the area.
As my hon. Friend and Opposition Members have pointed out, the sub-region contains a number of ports and airports that are nationally significant, supporting not just the south-east but also London, the midlands and the north. TfSE and its members can play a major role in ensuring that the importance of those international gateways is fully understood and that they continue to support economic growth across the whole country. That role will become more important in the future, when we look to expand trade relationships with the world as we leave the European Union.
I know that TfSE has worked hard to establish itself, working alongside Government to identify investment priorities and to establish a robust evidence base that will feed into its own transport strategy. As I said, it has made a good amount of progress in a short time, and we are pleased to see it learning fast from those that have gone before it. My officials are working hard with its members to help them to sustain that pace. As TfSE develops its economic connectivity review, which will form part of the evidence base for the transport strategy, Department for Transport economists are providing support and advice to ensure it is able to fulfil its objectives and hopes.
We are seeking to support the sub-national transport bodies appropriately at each stage of their development. One thing that is misunderstood is that each of those entities is at a different stage of development. The classic example is Transport for London, which is very well established and now self-funding, with its own historical settlement from central Government. That is one thing. Transport for the North is substantially funded, with £10 million a year and a lot of extra money for ticketing and so on, but it is a much younger organisation, albeit we are seeking to build capacity and work with it as it gets bigger.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman may have to sit down for a second and let me answer the previous intervention. Otherwise, he can intervene on his colleague’s intervention and I can try to make a sub-response to a further response.
To finish my point, TfSE is an even younger body, but we are supporting it in a small way and expect to continue to do so as it grows. The hon. Member for Hove raised the question of metrics. What metrics one sets will inevitably be those that are devoted to local needs. Part of the challenge of successful growth is not to have a one-size-fits-all set of metrics but to develop challenging local targets with the STB that meet its goals, and encourage it to meet national goals.
The Minister mentioned Berkshire. I am from Slough, where we have not only the highest number of electric vehicle points in Berkshire, but one of the highest in the country. Will he explain what support the Government can give to our council and its partners as they seek to get more people into electric cars?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we make a lot of money available to local councils to support the roll-out of charge points. We have given money historically to support plug-in car grants and home charging. I recently wrote to local authorities to encourage them to take up our offer, which remains open and, I think, not fully expended. He would be welcome to invite Slough Council to write to us, and we would be happy to work with them according to that scheme to make more installations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle mentioned funding for TfSE. In all STBs it is important that we are clear that local partners are committed for the longer term, and that there is clarity about what funding is needed and what it would and should be used for. My officials and TfSE have been working closely on those issues, and Ministers will take a decision at the next stage in the near future.
We welcome the ambition the subnational transport body has shown to become a statutory body and are working closely with it to develop that proposal for the Government. That requires groups of local authorities to pledge to come together with a proposal to the Secretary of State, including what functions they think might be best exercised at a more regional level. They may differ from one to another on that. As I have said, where those groups can show a clear mission and purpose—not just economic and geographical strength, but robust governance arrangements—the Secretary of State will be in a position to have a constructive conversation about their ambitions.
On that important point, the Minister knows I am very interested in the question of the A27 from Lewes to Polegate. He also knows that there is a tremendous partnership between the county council, different MPs, the business community and, I would hope, Transport for the South East in support of the new spur. Can he give any indication of when a decision will be made?
I was coming to the specific issues that have been raised. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the current roads investment strategy scheme includes a package of improvements to the existing route. We expect consultation to start in spring 2020, and are providing funding toward a feasibility study for a larger-scale bypass. Those options are being developed as we speak.
If I may press on, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to STBs. The Secretary of State will consider each on its individual merits, and the creation of bespoke arrangements for each STB will reflect the varying local transport and economic growth needs of the area. Creating these organisations permanently by statute is a serious matter and is not to be undertaken lightly. It requires the proper level of local consensus and commitment, but if it is done properly, the payoff is that the entity increases its impact and influence, as well as its longevity, and therefore has the potential to play a role in delivering transformational change.
The shadow Minister raised Operation Stack and the M20. We will recall that the disruption in 2015 was not brought about by any Brexit-related activity but by unions and by other factors. As she will be aware, the Department has asked Highways England to develop and deliver an interim solution to mitigate the worst effects of traffic disruption on the M20 by March 2019. A series of potential options can be used as part of that, and our goal with all of those is to allow non-port traffic to continue to travel in both directions.
One colleague mentioned the extension of Crossrail to Abbey Wood. I can confirm that the route to Abbey Wood is safeguarded, from our point of view, but the focus in the first instance, as one might imagine, must be to deliver Crossrail on time.
One perfectly understands why hon. Members mentioned A27 investment. They should be aware that we expect to make preferred route announcements for the improvements at Worthing and Lancing, and for the bypass at Arundel, by summer 2018.
The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) mentioned the Heathrow rail link. He knows that that important proposal will be considered alongside other national priorities through the planning process for the next control period. That will ensure that the rail link provides maximum benefit for passengers, and will allow us to understand the journey opportunities and other possibilities that such a link could provide.
I was asked whether the concerns of Gravesham residents will be reflected in the decision on the lower Thames crossing. I can confirm that Highways England will continue to work with all stakeholders.
It is a little hard, and self-contradictory and inaccurate, for the shadow Minister to accuse the Government of introducing too much centralisation. Let us not forget that, since 2010, the Government have created local enterprise partnerships, metro mayoralties, Transport for the North, Transport for the South East and other sub-national transport bodies. They do represent not centralisation but devolution. It is self-contradictory to say that too much centralisation is going on and that devolution has created a patchwork or mosaic. With devolution comes diversity and difference. Part of the strength of devolution as an idea is precisely that we can take advantage of the best efforts and the best opportunities and examples used locally and the creativity that pushing power down unleashes.
Does the Minister recognise that Transport for the North was absolutely clear that it wanted the electrification of the Transpennine route? The Secretary of State denied that opportunity to TfN. While the Government have created spaces for dialogue, they certainly have not given power, which is what devolution has to be about.
The hon. Lady will know that TfN became a statutory body literally weeks ago. These are very early days. There remains a role for national policy making where issues of cost and benefit, passenger satisfaction and the proper spending of public money are in play—that is entirely as it should be. The key point is that TfN exists and is functioning. It is working hard to reflect the interests of the constituencies and the economic priorities of its diverse region, which we massively welcome.
The shadow Minister offers what she calls a completely different approach. Since our approach is long term, strategic and integrated, and involves a significant increase in funding, I wonder which part of long term, strategic, integrated or higher funded her new approach will differ from.
I will again draw on the electrification example and the words of sheer frustration coming from the rail industry at the Government’s stop-start approach to control period 5. The industry has seen only blocks of funding, as opposed to the Government looking at the 30-year planning process needed across the rail network, which Labour will certainly adopt.
It is certainly a helpful clarification that the shadow Minister’s comments apply only to rail. I thank her for that.
The shadow Minister raised bus tech. She will know that bus companies are investing significantly in new ticketing technologies. We rightly fund them to the tune of, I think, a couple of billion pounds a year through the bus service operators grant. The proposal she seems to be making amounts to expropriation of the bus companies if a Labour Government are elected. That seems to me to be not only economically unwise but thoroughly contrary to the interests of passengers.
Finally, the shadow Minister raised cycling and walking. I invite Members to raise their hand if they cycled to the House of Commons today.
I am delighted. I congratulate the shadow Minister for sharing my commitment to the cycling and walking investment strategy. I assure her that our new cycling and walking review is gathering an enormous number of good ideas about how we can put public money and better regulation, co-ordination and co-operation to better support cycling and walking. She is absolutely right to raise the importance of this issue and the importance of modal shift, and I thoroughly concur. She will know that, as a result of our cycling and walking investment strategy, public funding for those areas has roughly trebled since 2010. That is a record on which I would like us to continue to build.
I am sorry but I cannot; I have no time because I need to make way for my beloved colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle. I have taken quite a lot of interventions already, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows.
I am absolutely aware of the close involvement of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle with TfSE and am delighted to see the wider acknowledgement that debates like this can bring to the organisation’s good work so far. I wish it good luck in its launch event on 8 May, and I very much encourage it to continue to work closely with the Department on its transport strategy and proposal to Government. I look forward to learning more about the work it is doing and its priorities as it enters this exciting next phase of its development.
I thank you for chairing what has been a really good-natured debate, Sir Henry, and your team for keeping us to order. I thank the Minister. I am sorry that, unlike him, I did not cycle in today. Commuting from East Sussex, as I do daily, I would not have made the debate unless it was moved to tomorrow. I also thank the shadow Minister for her kind words.
The Minister is absolutely right when he talks about the south-east having large areas of wealth. I say to him to keep investing in us and we will pump more than the £200 billion that we pump into the UK economy as a whole to support the other regions. We can do that only with more support and investment in our area. The Minister is also right to point out that parts of the south-east—the coastal areas, which have been represented today—are deprived. Those constituents of ours deserve the same right of access to transport to link them to other parts of the UK as other deprived parts of the UK have. We very much stand up for those constituents.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Clacton (Giles Watling), and the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Hove (Peter Kyle) and for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), for making this a debate in which we have worked cross-party to encourage TfSE to find its voice. It is absolutely essential that we work together as a team. It is no good us looking to the team of MPs in the north or in the west midlands engine.
The reality is that the south-east is the powerhouse. We have the assets: we have Gatwick, Dover and Southampton, we have Heathrow and we have the Eurostar. Those are the jewels that we want to support. I very much hope that all MPs from across the south-east will work together to make Transport for the South East a great success.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Transport for the South East.
Christchurch Council: Governance
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future governance of Christchurch Borough Council.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Let me remind hon. Members of some important parts of the 2017 Conservative party manifesto. On page 9, it says:
“True Conservatism means a commitment to country and community…a respect for the local and national institutions that bind us together”.
On page 12, it says:
“Theresa May’s Conservatives will deliver…Prosperous towns and cities, underpinned by strong local institutions”.
On page 32, it says:
“We will support those authorities that wish to combine to serve their communities better.”
It is with those three commitments in mind that I invite my hon. Friend the Minister carefully to think again about the future governance of Christchurch Borough Council.
The most fundamental question that this debate raises is whether the future governance of Christchurch should be decided by its citizens and elected representatives or by the Government. The Government are seeking parliamentary approval to ignore the will of the people of Christchurch, its elected district councillors, county councillors and Member of Parliament. The issue was put before the people of Christchurch in a local referendum last December. They voted by 84% to 16%, on a 54% turnout, against the council’s being forced into a merger with Bournemouth and Poole to create a new unitary authority.
The Dorset (Structural Changes) (Modification of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007) Regulations 2018, laid on 29 March, are designed to make several changes to the 2007 Act and to backdate those changes so that an application for single-tier local government does not have to be made in response to an invitation from the Secretary of State. Since the laying of those regulations, I have tabled a series of parliamentary questions to my right hon. Friend, to many of which I do not think I have received a satisfactory response. I shall refer to one or two of them now.
Why has there been no specific consultation on the regulations to which I have referred? Two sets of regulations were laid on the same day. The second set of regulations were certainly the subject of consultation and discussion, but why was there no specific consultation on the first set—the ones to which I have referred? When was the need for the regulations first identified, and for what reason were they laid more than 13 months after the need for them arose? That was when the Dorset councils made the application that the regulations are designed to validate.
The chief executive of Christchurch Borough Council has told me in an email:
“There was no discussion at any point about the need for an invitation to be made. It was only when the draft Regulations were sent to each of the Councils that the matter of ‘invitation’ came to light”.
Why did the letter that my right hon. Friend sent on 27 March to me and other colleagues in Dorset state specifically that the draft regulations had been
“developed and worked up with all nine Councils”,
when that was not correct? In one of my questions, No. 136755, I asked him to explain why the retrospective effect and impact of the regulations was not set out and why he did not consult Christchurch Borough Council in making the regulations. This Minister answered that the regulations
“were shared and developed with the Chief Executives and Monitoring Officers of all nine…councils.”
It is clear from what the chief executive of Christchurch Borough Council has said that that is not correct. In a further briefing, the chief executive said:
“I don’t recall any discussion with MHCLG”—
the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—
“about this and my first knowledge of any of the details was in a letter, sent by MHCLG in the latter part of March to each Chief Executive to ask if their Council would give its consent to the making of Orders to bring about local government reform”.
I should therefore be grateful if the Minister would now correct the answer that he gave to my question, and the assertion that the regulations had been
“developed and worked up with all nine councils”.
The Minister has also failed to explain why he believes that the regulations have no impact on the costs of business and the voluntary sector and, as a result, do not require a regulatory impact assessment to be produced. One justification for the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 was to facilitate devolution so that businesses could be more involved with local authorities in achieving regeneration. To that end, all Dorset councils and Dorset local enterprise partnership collectively made a submission for the creation of a Dorset combined authority. The submission was made in July 2016, but remains undecided by the Secretary of State. In his statement of 26 February, he said that he intended
“now to ask the leaders of the Dorset councils how they would like to proceed with their combined authority proposal”.—[Official Report, 26 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 20WS.]
Although the Secretary of State said some time ago that he would reach a decision on the Dorset combined authority proposal at the same time as making his announcement on local government reorganisation, I understand that there has been no further communication on this even since 26 February. Why is that? How is it that the Government believe that their decisions on local government reorganisation do not impact on the costs of business?
To take one topical example, on 6 March Bournemouth Borough Council decided to approve an investment in the construction of a hotel on the site adjacent to the Bournemouth International Centre involving some £70 million to be borrowed by the council, and
“to make consequential changes to the budget of the Council”.
I do not know whether the Minister shares my concern that that is another example of the abuse by local authorities of the preferential loan terms that they get from the Government, which enable them to make borrowings at far lower cost than the private and commercial sectors.
In a letter sent this week on behalf of other hotel proprietors in Bournemouth, it is said that
“there would be a real, adverse impact on the provision of front-line services”
“this highly speculative venture were to fail”.
The authors of the letter describe the prospect of failure as “disturbingly likely” and say that, in such a scenario, Bournemouth Council
“would be left to service a significantly increased debt, backed by an asset which…would not cover the value of the ‘investment’.”
The loan being taken out by Bournemouth Council to achieve its objective is described as
“the very antithesis of prudent borrowing”.
If the Secretary of State has his way, citizens and businesses in Christchurch will be saddled with the consequences of Bournemouth’s decision for many years to come. It is ironic that the justification that the Government give for seeking local government reorganisation is to achieve better value for money. Over recent years, my constituents have watched Bournemouth with dismay—from the safety of the other side of the River Stour—as they have seen one failed project after another: the IMAX cinema, the surf reef and the £395,000 pay-off for the last chief executive.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that there is a well-established and, I think, well-founded loathing by many Christchurch citizens of the way in which Bournemouth Council behaves. That is now coupled with a real fear that if Christchurch is forced to join with Bournemouth and Poole, it will result in a diminution of the quality of services and Christchurch taking on responsibility for enormous debts, which have been brought together by Bournemouth Council at a time when Christchurch Borough Council has been prudent. It is debt free. It has done the right thing. It has quite high levels of council tax. A report in The Sunday Times this week said that the highest council taxes in the country are in the Dorset area. They are not so high in Bournemouth and Poole, because for many years they decided not to increase their council taxes—as was prudently required—in order to ingratiate themselves with their electors.
Now, with a gap of more than £200 a year at band D between the council tax in Poole and that in Christchurch, the people of Christchurch are really worried that in the event of a unitary authority, they will not only take on the big capital debt risks to which I have referred, but will have to subsidise people in Bournemouth and Poole who are inherently, in many cases, better off than they are. For example, Poole has residents in Sandbanks and Canford Cliffs, who are immensely better off than those in many parts of my constituency. Why should Christchurch Borough Council be expected to subsidise those people long into the future?
The Government’s proposal raises some serious issues. Recently, the Secretary of State used his existing powers under section 2 of the 2007 Act to invite proposals for structural change in Northamptonshire. By so doing, he triggered requirements for consultation, under section 7(3) of the 2007 Act, and he enabled local authorities collectively or individually to put forward their own proposals. He has also set out guidance as to what a proposal should seek to achieve and matters that should be taken into account in formulating a proposal. None of those privileges, which the Secretary of State accords to councils and people in Northamptonshire, have been accorded to my constituents. Instead, a proposal has been brought forward over a long period of time, initially by council chief officers—with the support of many of the leaders of the councils at that time, many of whom have since been replaced—on the basis of a very dubious “consultation”, which took place as long ago as the autumn of 2016. In relation to Northamptonshire, the Secretary of State says that he would expect proposals to come forward and that they should be current, so that any business plans will relate to the current financial arrangements, rather than to historic ones, which is what is proposed in Dorset.
Harmonisation is a fraught issue. Given the gap of over £200 in the current level of council tax between Bournemouth and Poole, on the one hand, and Christchurch on the other, a new authority will need to levy a council tax that is ultimately the same across the whole of the new unitary authority area. Christchurch Borough Council has been insistent that in such a scenario harmonisation or equalisation should take place from the outset. A similar proposal has been accepted by the joint committee in the rural part of Dorset. However, in order to try to demonstrate that local government reorganisation would be good value, the consultation with the people was carried out on the basis of a harmonisation period of 20 years. Where did that figure come from? It came from a discussion that was held between section 151 officers from Dorset and departmental officials in June 2016. I have asked for notes of that meeting, but I have been told that no notes were kept. However, that meeting was really crucial, because on the basis of what was said at it, the consultation that was carried out in Dorset—designed to secure the approval of the people for a change from two-tier local government to unitary local government—was based on a 20-year harmonisation period.
In November 2017, the official in charge of this, Paul Rowsell, told me that the harmonisation period of 20 years was certainly off the agenda completely; that the maximum period for harmonisation would be five years, but more likely in the range of zero and two to three years; and that up until now there had never been a situation where councils had been abolished or restructured and the harmonisation period had been longer than two years.
So what happened? This relates to the issue of governance. When Christchurch Borough Council went to the joint committee, which it has joined to try to show good faith and co-operation, it insisted that the committee should accept the fairness and equity of having everybody paying the same council tax in a new area from day one, but that committee has shown absolute contempt for the council’s representations. Of course, that is not surprising, because in a new unitary authority Christchurch would only comprise 13% of the councillors and resources of that authority. Therefore, Christchurch’s interests will be in a permanent minority. This issue of harmonisation is symptomatic of the high-handed way in which Christchurch people will be dealt with in the future, were this unitary authority to come about.
That point is also emphasised by the fact that Christchurch Borough Council has at the moment 24 councillors and there are five county councillors in Christchurch. In the proposals that are being considered, the number of councillors would fall to about 10 or 11, which would be a significant diminution of democratic representation of the people of Christchurch. That means that Christchurch people would have much less influence in the future.
The fear and loathing I have spoken about is coupled with the fact that it is well known that Bournemouth Borough Council is keen to take advantage of the fact that Christchurch has a lot of land in the green belt. Under the Government’s new relaxed arrangements, if the council as a whole were to bring forward a plan seeking to remove that land from the green belt, all the protections that the people of Christchurch thought that they had in relation to green-belt land would be swept away. That is another cause for concern.
The Government have dealt with all this in a thoroughly asymmetrical way. In Christchurch’s alternative submission to the Government, it suggested that one way out of all this would be for Bournemouth and Poole to merge together and leave Christchurch as it is. That was ruled out by the Government as not permissible under the rules, because they cannot force Bournemouth and Poole to merge together if they do not wish to do so. Amazingly, Bournemouth and Poole do not want to merge together to achieve significant savings, because both of them have a common interest in getting their hands on Christchurch and its assets. Although Christchurch cannot suggest that Bournemouth and Poole merge together, Bournemouth and Poole can not only object to their own merging together, but insist that they would like to merge with Christchurch in a new unitary authority.
According to the Government’s rules, that is perfectly hunky dory and fair, but it is certainly not fair as far as my constituents and I are concerned. I fought the general election hard on this issue. Ironically, we face the prospect that one issue on which I fought hard, namely leaving the European Union, will be delivered on 29 March next year, thereby bringing back sovereignty to the United Kingdom to the delight of myself and my constituents, but two days later, the other issue on which I fought hard, namely that Christchurch Borough Council should retain its sovereignty and independence, will not be delivered, because Christchurch will lose the sovereignty that it has had, in one form or another, since 1216 or thereabouts—a long time.
When I refer back to the Conservative party manifesto, which talked about the sense of community, I have in mind the sense of community that can come only from a strong, historic association. Christchurch was around a long time before Bournemouth was ever invented, and it resents enormously my Government’s proposals to abolish it against the clearly expressed will of the people. I recently saw in the paper that the Secretary of State has said that it would be wrong for Parliament to reject the people’s verdict in the EU referendum. Likewise, the people of Christchurch think it is totally wrong for the Government to reject their verdict, which was delivered by more than 17,000 people in their local referendum last December.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on securing the debate and on his dedication to pursuing the cause. He is a living embodiment of the values that he quoted from the Conservative party manifesto about making a commitment to one’s community.
I approach the debate with some trepidation, not only because of my hon. Friend’s long and distinguished experience in this place, but because he held my position as a Minister with responsibility for local government, which is something I am new to. As a small boy growing up in Southampton, his was one of the first MP’s names that I knew. It is a great honour to respond to him. There is a lot to get through.
The Government’s aim is to enable the people of Christchurch to have as good a deal as possible with their local services. Those services are mainly the responsibility of Dorset County Council, but Christchurch Borough Council is responsible for about 20% of them. Those services are important to the local people.
Although I agree with my hon. Friend and share his joy that we will be leaving the European Union, a difference between him and the Government may lie in our belief that the proposed governance changes, for which we are seeking parliamentary approval, will benefit people across the whole of Dorset, including the residents of Christchurch borough.
With respect, it is important to note that that is not only the Government’s view, in contrast to what was just said. It is a view shared by many other people and organisations across Dorset, including Dorset County Council, which has major service responsibilities in Christchurch, as I have said; approximately 79% of councillors across Dorset; and major public service providers and businesses, particularly those with responsibilities for health, police, fire and rescue, and rail services across Christchurch and the wider Dorset area.
A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends with constituencies in the area share that view. On 29 November, they wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and urged him to support the proposal that the Dorset councils have submitted, because it is the option that commands strong local support and does the job that needs to be done. They state that
“the further savings required to be made, if our councils are to continue delivering quality public services, can only be done through a reorganisation of their structures”.
The view is also shared by a third of the elected councillors to Christchurch Borough Council, who wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and stated:
“We are acutely aware of the constraints on local government funding and the financial pressure that upper tier services are facing. We therefore consider it our duty to respond to these challenges by supporting the restructuring of local government in Dorset”
The representative household survey commissioned by the nine Dorset councils estimated that 65% of residents across the whole of Dorset support the proposal. Of those nine councils, eight support the proposed change and have formally consented to the necessary secondary legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch raised a number of specific points, which I shall do my best to deal with. The Secretary of State has had careful regard to the local advisory poll and its results, but as a poll of only 6% of the whole area’s population, we do not see it as casting doubt on his conclusion that there is a good deal of local support across the area.
On council tax harmonisation, as the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), told the House in a written answer on 18 December, it has consistently been
“for those implementing any unitary proposal to put to the Secretary of State their proposals”
for council tax harmonisation. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that it is for the Secretary of State to specify in secondary legislation the maximum period for harmonisation.
Although a maximum period of five years has been specified in previous restructuring, the Government have made no such specification to date. We intend to introduce secondary legislation on council tax harmonisation in June or July. In deciding the maximum period to specify, we will have regard to local preference, the impact on individual council tax bills across the areas concerned and the financial implications for the authorities.
I have highlighted the considerable support for the proposals by business. On the specific question about the timing for the combined authority, the Government have written to the various local authorities about their proposals for a combined authority. We await a response to those questions to take that proposal forward or not, as local authorities see fit.
My hon. Friend asked about the timing for laying the regulations before the House. Of course, it would not have been appropriate to lay them 13 months ago, as he said, because it was not clear exactly what proposals would emerge from the locally driven process. As I am sure he is aware, the regulations are specific to the proposals that have emerged, so they could only have been laid after the proposals were finalised. On consulting, all council executives were shown copies of the regulations and asked for their opinions.
On the comparison with Northamptonshire, it is important to note that the situations are markedly different. In Northamptonshire, the proposals for restructuring are the result of a best-value inspection, whereas in Dorset, they have come bottom-up from councils themselves. In both cases, there has been extensive consultation. The year-long development of proposals in Dorset means that there has been considerable and adequate engagement of local communities in that process.
In conclusion, if Parliament approves the draft legislation that we have laid before it, it will provide the people of Christchurch with more sustainable local governance and safeguard the delivery of local services. I accept that my hon. Friend does not share that view, and there will be an opportunity for it to be considered and debated by Parliament when considering the secondary legislation, which I look forward to doing with him and others in the coming weeks. I will close as I started, by commending my hon. Friend’s dedication to his local community in pursuing the matter with such verve.
Question put and agreed to.
Internally Displaced People
I beg to move,
That this House has considered a strategy for internally displaced people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the Speaker’s Office for granting this debate. I am particularly grateful to my colleagues for giving up time on such a busy afternoon—mid-week, on a Wednesday—to address the important issue of internally displaced people.
I have no doubt that many hon. Members who are here in Westminster Hall now will have called in this morning to Christian Aid’s big breakfast meeting; if they did not, they really missed out on an excellent breakfast. That meeting was designed to draw attention to the issue of internally displaced people. I take this opportunity to thank Christian Aid, both for hosting that event and for its wider campaign to raise the profile of the issue. That will also help to give a focus to Christian Aid Week, which comes up very shortly, in May.
Internally displaced people, or IDPs for short, are people who have been displaced from their homes by conflict or disaster, often for very long periods of time. That might sound like an appropriate definition of refugees, but IDPs differ from refugees in one respect, namely that they have not gone across an international border. They have been displaced within their own country. Precisely because of that fact, they are not afforded the same rights and support that refugees have under the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees .
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UN’s own guiding principles on internal displacement. Those principles were established to address some of the concerns about IDPs and their exclusion from the earlier UN convention on refugees. However, at the time that those principles were conceived, the problems that IDPs faced were very different from those that IDPs face today.
Twenty years ago, refugees far outnumbered IDPs. In 1998, it was estimated that there were approximately five million IDPs, compared with about 11.5 million refugees. The interesting thing is that that situation is more or less reversed today. There are more than 40 million IDPs, compared with 22.5 million refugees. Both categories have increased in number, but their proportions have been almost exactly reversed.
Many IDPs have been repeatedly displaced for long periods of time, with the average length of displacement for IDPs now being 15 years. Just imagine being a child in a family that has been internally displaced; most of a person’s childhood, up to adulthood, would have been spent in this limbo position.
Lengthy internal displacement has become a global phenomenon and it must be properly accounted for when we consider how we can support and protect those who become the victims of forcible displacement. With that in mind, it is concerning that the zero draft of the UN’s global compact on refugees, which was published in January and will provide the basis for formal talks about how the international community should respond to refugee crises, contains little discussion of the unique and huge problems faced by IDPs.
IDPs are often excluded from the support offered to refugees. That is partly because, having not crossed a border, they are actually quite hard to identify. The vast majority of IDPs do not enter camps, as refugees do. Instead, on average, 75% of IDPs stay in host communities. In Iraq, the figure is as high as 90%. IDPs in host communities are not as well documented as refugees in camps, and they are therefore much harder to find and identify. If IDPs go undocumented, it is difficult to provide them with the proper support that they need.
A further reason for the exclusion of IDPs is that, because they have not crossed an international border, they remain the responsibility of the state within which they have been displaced. Unsurprisingly, this can prove incredibly problematic in cases where states have been ravaged by conflict; it may even be the state that is causing the displacement, as we have seen in Syria. The state may, in fact, be further abusing and exploiting its citizens once they have been displaced.
In 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that more than half of the Syrian population lived in displacement—that is really quite an astonishing fact—either across the border into another country or within their own country. As the civil war in Syria goes on and on, large swathes of the population continue to be displaced. In recent weeks, the Syrian Government forces in eastern Ghouta have been busing people to camps that are surrounded by other Government forces and then allegedly demanding that they surrender any form of ID.
Local journalists have reported that that is part of a broader Government plan to make drastic demographic changes, whereby property is handed over to pro-Government supporters. In such situations, the people who have been displaced must feel a real sense of hopelessness. Under international law, they remain the responsibility of the state that seems intent on persecuting them.
A further example of significant incidence of internal displacement can be seen in neighbouring Iraq, where it is estimated that there are around 2.2 million IDPs. Since the cessation of hostilities and violence in Mosul in 2017, many Christians from that area now wish to return, although they face significant difficulties in doing so.
I have not forgotten the most recent visit by a Christian pastor, whose church in Mosul had been burned down. He actually came over to Britain, at the investigation of the Open Doors charity, and he brought with him a scorched Bible, which he had asked to present to the Prime Minister, as one of the most poignant reminders of just how terrible the situation is for the persecuted minorities in Iraq. He explained how he and others had been displaced and how he had set up a new church, but, almost before he knew where he was, more than 300 families had come to seek refuge within the compound where the new church was situated.
The pastor explained how hard it is to return to Mosul and to try to start rebuilding one’s life all over again. We should not overlook the fact that the ISIL fighters have gone back to their original homes, so they are living in communities and making it very hard for the neighbours of Christians to welcome back their former Christian friends. The Christians are not made welcome again in the communities in which they once lived.
My own experience of visits to South Sudan is that IDPs get the worst treatment. They stayed within the country, which means that the SPLA—the Sudan People’s Liberation Army—does not trust them, because it organises the refugees. The SPLA blamed the people who remained in the south for being part of the regime of the north, and out of everybody they got the worst treatment.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman’s point will be made over and over again. One of the long-standing principles of international development is that, as far as possible, assistance should be given in the region so that people can remain in the region and rebuild war-torn places. However, when it comes to IDPs, that principle meets with the most incredible difficulties, and that problem must not be underestimated in any way.
The pictures that we see of both Syria and Iraq—sadly, those of us who have been to the conflict zone in Sudan will have seen similar things—show that when IDPs return to their homes, those homes are nothing more than a pile of rubble. Debris fills the streets and makes it difficult to navigate through the communities that IDPs used to live in. Sadly, uncleared and unexploded ordnance can cost lives, and certainly limbs, among those who return to these areas. They remain a very dangerous environment to return to.
The Government of Iraq and the UN agencies are working hard to try to make these areas safe, but given the level of destruction in a place such as Mosul and the high risk of unexploded devices, it cannot happen all that quickly. People are being secondarily displaced by the lengthy clean-up operation; on their return, they find that they cannot stay, and they are displaced all over again to camps or host communities while they wait for the area to be made safe so that they can return and start to rebuild something that looks a bit like normality. In January and February of this year, more than 23,000 people in Iraq were secondarily displaced to IDP camps.
Even for the IDPs who can make the journey home, and whose houses have not been destroyed, their return is often far from straightforward. They often encounter disputes over property; it is a common problem. Often, they are unable to provide the necessary documentation, and the relevant authorities are so overwhelmed by trying to resolve the large number of land rights disputes that many IDPs remain unable to return. Property disputes are an issue shared by refugees returning from other countries in which they have sought refuge, but because IDPs have not crossed an international border, their status is not as clear cut. These issues are therefore more hidden and more complex.
I want to touch on the plight of women and girls as IDPs. In the 100th year of our hard-fought battle for women’s suffrage in the UK, it is entirely appropriate to dwell for a moment on how women are disproportionately affected by internal displacement. They are at greater risk of sexual violence and trafficking. Girls suffer higher levels of early marriage. In many contexts, women have weaker property rights than men, or no property rights. Those things make returning or seeking compensation for land losses even further beyond their reach. For displaced women, even simple activities such as going to fetch firewood or water can see them fall victim to physical or sexual attack.
It is important to note that women often do not find personal security following displacement. Instead, they suffer violence as they flee and frequently continue to experience high levels of violence while living in displacement. I am sure Members will remember the haunting pictures of Yazidi women in the Upper Waiting Hall. They reminded us all, in their brief life stories, of what they have had to cope with. Estimates suggest that at least one in five women IDPs have experienced sexual violence in displacement. In South Sudan’s IDP camps, UN investigators found that 70% of women had been raped, typically by soldiers and police officers. The one place where a woman is hoping to find safe refuge can turn out to be a dangerous environment for her to reside in. Given the great work that the Government have been doing to support women and girls in developing countries, I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister could assure me that IDPs are firmly on the Government’s radar. Given the sheer number of IDPs today—there are more than 40 million globally—we must take steps.
The right hon. Lady is making an eloquent case about the situation of women, but is it not true that people with disabilities are also affected? They cannot make the long journeys to other countries, whether they have been disabled because of the conflict or were already disabled. Do we not need to make a special case and special provision for people with disabilities?
The hon. Gentleman makes a poignant point. I will never forget, during the war in Afghanistan, going to see internally displaced people and those who had fled just over the border into the federally administered tribal areas, sometimes to completely unofficial camps. Some were carried on the backs of their relatives. A person can move only very slowly if they are carrying another human being, especially an adult, to a place of relative safety. Those with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. Sadly, they often get left behind and fall prey to all the threats to life that pertain to any conflict zone. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the plight of the disabled in this debate on internal displacement.
There have been some notable successes in tackling internal displacement over the past 20 years, such as the Kampala convention, which was agreed in 2012. It was the world’s first continental instrument that legally bound Governments to protect the rights and wellbeing of people forced to flee their homes from conflict, violence, disaster and human rights abuses. However, much more needs to be done. Not everyone has signed up to the Kampala convention, including some of the countries we would very much like to see as signatories to that commitment.
The Department for International Development is certainly a leader in trying to promote other countries signing up to the convention. It is also a leader in its longer-term country programming in places suffering drawn-out, protracted, complex conflicts. For example, in answer to a written question relating to humanitarian operations in South Sudan, the Minister of State wrote:
“The UK is at the forefront of the international response to the crisis. Through the Humanitarian and Resilience Building in South Sudan programme, the Department for International Development will provide £443 million in humanitarian aid between 2015 and 2020 to support the provision of food, emergency shelter, and nutrition and health services, including our response to famine and severe food insecurity.”
Famine and food insecurity is a big problem in South Sudan. That level of support for IDPs is very welcome, and I commend DFID for it, but beyond the provision of aid, will DFID consider developing a broader strategy for IDPs that sets out how they can be supported and their status safeguarded globally? Such a strategy would stand DFID in good stead to be a global leader on the issue of IDPs and displacement more broadly.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development recently spoke of her support for a high-level panel to look into IDPs at the United Nations, and I was delighted to hear that. It would go some way towards addressing the lack of global oversight of IDPs in the current drafts of the global compact on migration and the global compact on refugees. It is worth noting the comments of Foreign Office Minister, Lord Ahmed. He said:
“The UK—alongside partners—remains committed to the UN process to develop both a Global Compact on Migration and a Global Compact on Refugees. The decision by the United States to withdraw from the former does not alter the UK Government’s commitment to engage fully and work towards the successful delivery of these compacts. We believe that the Global Compact on Migration should offer an effective international framework to ensure that migration is safe and orderly and that it should balance the rights and responsibilities of both states and migrants.”
Those are incredibly important words for anyone who has seen the general chaos and risks associated with people fleeing at speed from conflict. It is incredibly important to try to bring order to that chaos and safety for the most vulnerable among those who flee.
I encourage the Secretary of State for International Development to join such countries as Denmark, Sweden and Austria in supporting the calls for an expert report on refugees and IDPs to be commissioned by the UN Secretary-General. Such a report would serve as a useful precursor to any high-level panel on the topic. Furthermore, the UN has set up a plan of action around the 20th anniversary of the guiding principles this year. That multi-stakeholder plan of action aims to resolve and reduce internal displacement through prevention, protection and solutions for IDPs. Its purpose is to strengthen and galvanise support around the guiding principles and to add greater weight to them. I urge the Government to consider supporting that initiative alongside other such UN processes, including the high-level panel and the expert report.
I conclude by thanking my right hon. Friend the Minister for attending the debate today. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. He is knowledgeable on this subject matter, but so are those who have taken the time to come to the debate, and they will make other useful contributions to the discussion.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing this debate, and welcome the work of Christian Aid. As she rightly pointed out, the majority of displaced people around the world are internally displaced rather than refugees. Some 65 million people are displaced globally, of whom 43 million are displaced internally. I highlight one example, which is the Rohingya in Burma. Many Rohingya are internally displaced, so do not qualify as refugees. The Select Committee on International Development recently visited Bangladesh and saw the plight of the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, but we were refused visas to visit Burma, so we were unable to meet the internally displaced. It would be great if the Minister talked about the work that the UK is doing to support the Rohingya and other minorities within Burma who are internally displaced.
As crises in such places as Syria, Iraq, Burma, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan become more protracted and complex, it is vital that the world system responds. I echo what the right hon. Lady said about the importance of the UK giving support to the call for the UN Secretary-General to commission an expert report looking at the position of IDPs around the world and how humanitarian systems can be improved to help them.
The sustainable development goals—the global goals adopted in 2015—are very relevant here. For example, goal 13 is about tackling climate change. Some 25 million are displaced by natural disasters, and minimising the impact of climate change is a powerful tool of prevention. SDG 4 is about education. This morning we were in this Chamber talking about the protection of children. The Select Committee recently published our report on global education. It is vital that internally displaced children have access to education, not least when, as the right hon. Lady reminded us, they are likely to be displaced on average for 15 years. Thirdly, goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies is the goal for which the UK rightly fought. Within that, we need to ensure that religious minorities, women and girls, disabled people and others are fully protected.
The International Development Committee has decided that we will hold an inquiry later this year on displacement in Africa. We will focus on both IDPs and refugees. The inquiry is topical because, as the right hon. Lady said, it is the 20th anniversary of the guiding principles on internal displacement. It will give us an opportunity to look at the work of the Department for International Development; the work of the UN, particularly following the adoption of the new compacts on refugees and migration that are due in September; and the important Kampala convention, to which she referred.
Let us work together in this House to ensure that the very real needs of IDPs are fully reflected in UK policy.
Thank you, Mr Davies. I have redacted some of my speech, so will keep it short anyway. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing this important debate.
The number of internally displaced persons in the world is both staggering and unacceptable. As has been mentioned, about 40 million people worldwide have been made IDPs by conflict and violence alone. More than 24 million new displacements were caused by natural disasters and meteorological events in 2016 alone. Africa and the middle east account for the majority of displacements due to conflict and violence, and over in South America, Colombia is the single country with the most people—more than 7 million—who are internally displaced for those reasons. South and east Asia have the most displacements due to disasters. Even Europe has millions of IDPs, especially Ukraine. In 2016, 1.7 million people had been displaced there, in large part due to Russian aggression.
I must declare an interest at this point. My wife is originally from Azerbaijan, where 600,000 people were internally displaced. Compared with some of the numbers I have been reading, that is still a large number, but it is not as large as in some of the other countries that I mentioned. Nevertheless, those 600,000 IDPs mean that Azerbaijan still has one of the highest numbers of IDPs per capita—I think the population of Azerbaijan is about 10 million.
IDPs are faced with a unique range of challenges and difficulties. They are in their own country, but they are not at home. They are, in general, citizens in the countries where they are displaced, but in many cases they are denied their rights as citizens. Their Government may even be the reason they have been forced from their homes in the first place.
I applaud the action the UK Government have taken to help IDPs around the world. In Syria, for example, the UK is one of the largest bilateral donors—I think we are the second-largest. The UK has put large amounts of funding towards providing IDPs with a range of support, including food, water, healthcare, and shelter, and has supported UN efforts to ramp up international support for Syrian IDPs. I am also pleased that the UK Government are committed to diplomatic efforts around the world to end conflict, restore peace and pave the way for the return of IDPs to their homes. However, it is crucial that we redouble our efforts and take a lead in supporting IDPs so that we can stop this grave issue from growing.
Such efforts would certainly be complex—from working to end conflicts, to developing credible solutions to cases of displacement, promoting human rights, preventing conflicts from developing in the first place, and to working with countries to make communities more robust to natural disasters. Despite that complexity, we need to act. The problem is simply too big and too tragic for us to allow it to continue growing. I trust that the UK Government will continue to lead and work hard for a brighter future for the tens of millions of IDPs around the world.
Thank you, Mr Davies. I reiterate what you said about welcoming interventions. It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, and I thank the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) for securing this important debate. I also thank staff at Christian Aid and the Refugee Council for their help in preparing for the debate.
I do not intend to repeat what has already been said so eloquently. I want to add a specific aspect to the debate, which is the human aspect. I will read a short quote:
“One of the earliest and most prominent slogans during the Syrian uprising and the subsequent conflict was ‘The Syrian people will not be humiliated’…It should therefore come as no surprise how, after the outbreak of conflict and the subsequent massive forced displacement, many Syrians have expressed their dismay at experiencing humiliation not only by those who hold power in Syria but also by those who now control their lives in displacement.”
Those are not my words, but those of a Syrian—Kholoud Mansour—writing in a recent edition of Forced Migration Review. He is currently a researcher at Lund University, and he further writes of being ignored by decision-makers, even in situations where he is there as an expert, and should be in a position of equality. In the article he also quotes a Syrian woman, a founder of a Syrian organisation for education, aid and development, who said:
“I, like all Syrians attending meetings with international humanitarian agencies, feel so humiliated.”
That woman, and the author of the article, are challenging us to look very hard at how we talk and think about displaced persons, and I am challenging us all in today’s debate to think very hard about how we make connections with internally displaced persons, which is even harder than connecting with those who are externally displaced, and how we involve and integrate them into our policy making. The author is directing his article mainly at humanitarian organisations, but I argue that we, as policy makers, are setting the tone and the context. Unintentionally—in fact, often with very good intentions—we set them slightly at odds with what Syrian people and others who are internally displaced want.
In my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, I have focused particularly on Syria, partly because my constituency has a link, but also because of the current crisis in which more than 0.5 million Syrians have died, 5 million are refugees, and 6 million are internally displaced. I am repeating what has already been said because that is three quarters of the population of Greater London, and six times the population of Birmingham. That is the equivalent of six Birminghams being forced to flee their homes within their own country.
I will leave hon. Members with one thought. I have struggled but am managing to learn Arabic. It has taken me a year and a half to get to conversational level. That is one of the ways I am trying to take the initiative—to hear the voices of people in the middle east who are in conflict, and who are internally and externally displaced. I urge all hon. Members to think about how they might include, involve, recognise and value the voices of internally displaced people, in policy making, as the Minister will say, and in our work.
Some people might think I was speaking in Arabic, but it would be Ulster Scots, which is very different.
It is always a pleasure to speak in such debates. I commend the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) for presenting her case so well, as she always does. Her compassion, knowledge of, interest in and love for other people always comes out in her speeches. I wanted to put that on record, and thank her for it.
Along with others, I received a briefing from Christian Aid earlier this year. Today we received an update on where we are. We should thank Christian Aid for all its does. Its staff have been very industrious in ensuring that we all have the facts and figures for this debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—I pulled out to give more people time, as there were too many speakers. I commend to anybody watching this debate the briefing from Christian Aid. For further background, I would direct people to Christian Aid’s website, where they can learn a bit more. I also commend Christian Aid’s ideals of a FAIR solution—one that is funded, ambitious, inclusive and respectful. Those are great headings under which to work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. His words are very much what we are all thinking in this House today.
More than 40 million people are currently displaced within their own country due to conflict. That is the equivalent of 60% of the population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Women account for 50%, and a further 40% are children—so 90% of the displaced are women and children.
There are internally displaced people in Syria, Sudan, Colombia and Iraq, as has been said, and the number of internally displaced has more than doubled since the creation of the guiding principles in 1998. Oh that the guiding principles had been adopted by all those countries, and we would be a step further on. Internally displaced people represent more than twice the number of refugees in the whole world. It is simply heart-breaking.
I will make some brief comments as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the freedom of religious belief, and on the persecution of Christians across the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in countries in the middle east, with families who have had to leave their homes and businesses, unable to return. People had worked their whole life for all they had and had to walk away.
Women are disproportionately affected by internal displacement, and are at greater risk from sexual violence and trafficking. Girls suffer higher levels of early marriage and women have weaker or no property rights and no recourse to compensation for land losses. They can be subject to physical or sexual abuse when carrying out simple activities such as fetching firewood or water. Women often do not find personal security following displacement. I make a special plea for the women and children.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent case. Is he aware that a compounding problem for internally displaced women and children is the lack of documentation, particularly if children are born without the location of the father being known, or without a living father? In certain countries, that makes documentation impossible.
The hon. Lady always adds to any debate she takes part in and adds a significant point to this discussion, which we would all endorse.
We are fortunate. We know that the Minister is an exceptional person, not just because he is here, but because his interest in this subject is renowned. We are all hopeful that his response will encapsulate the points we all make. Not to leave her out, I have got to know the shadow Minister personally, and I know she is also committed. What we are saying, we are saying together.
In South Sudan, UN investigators have said that 70% of women have been raped, typically by soldiers and police officers. Some 80% of IDPs live in urban areas. The countries most affected by internal displacement are some of the most afflicted by child marriage. I do not know how anyone else feels about child marriage, but it really nyarks me, to use an Ulsterism. I am very uneasy with it. In the Central African Republic, as many as 68% girls are married by the age of 18, and in South Sudan, more than 50% are. Such things should never happen. I do not know whether we have to address the culture in those countries or whether they just need a lesson on where we are. The levels are higher among IDP populations.
All those issues need to be dealt with and I look to the Minister to see how we can influence these things for the better—how we can use our embassies, our international development aid programmes and diplomatic pressures to bring about reform and change. How can we better work with the UN and non-governmental organisations to bring about a different and safer way of life for those who are internally displaced? Will the Minister tell us how his Department believes we can do things differently to promote a different result?
I believe we have a duty of care and an ability to help, and I would like to know that today is the first in a progression of steps in making a difference for people whose lives have been torn apart. It is our duty to be a voice for the voiceless and to speak out today for those who have no voice.
I am pleased to see you in the chair, Mr Davies. I dispense with the usual niceties because there is not enough time, but I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing this debate.
I was made aware of the difficulties of helping internally displaced people through speaking to Iraqis and representatives of the international community when I led an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Iraq in February. We were told repeatedly that rebuilding infrastructure and the restoration of services in areas recently won back from Daesh—some 40 cities in two and a half years—was the priority, so that IDPs could return home. Managing expectations about what could be done was, however, challenging.
We were told that reconciliation would be crucial in allowing thousands with family ties to militants to return to their homes. Yet the Financial Times recently reported:
“Aid groups and western powers all acknowledge the importance of suturing Iraq’s divisions, but few are willing to co-ordinate with Baghdad”.
They worry, the article continues, about some of the Government’s methods,
“like walling suspected ISIS relatives in displacement camps, while forcing other families to return home before they feel safe”,
sometimes when the area is not even cleared of bombs.
Would my right hon. Friend accept that one of the problems is that, whereas refugees often come under the accountable control of international agencies, including the military and the police, IDPs are often subject to national agencies and therefore subject to the conflict and repression that they have tried to flee from, and they get put back into that situation?
Indeed I would. That is a very good point. The Financial Times article also points out such methods
“violate international law and is a recipe for another round of radicalisation. That leaves much of the work to civil society groups, tribes and politicians with competing interests.”
There was an incredible account in The Times last week about the work of a young nurse in Mosul who now collects the remains of dead bodies with a small team of volunteers, which highlighted how little reconstruction has been carried out so far in the old city, though some rebuilding has begun in less damaged parts of west Mosul. Even more worryingly, the report highlighted the feeling of some there that the authorities are now enacting a form of collective punishment on Mosul, Iraq’s largest Sunni city, which was seen as a hotbed of radicalism even before Daesh took it on in 2014. There is a very real difficulty in fostering the reconciliation that will be required to ensure that many IDPs can return home and stay there.
I would like to talk about the tragic situation that colleagues have talked about in Syria, Yemen, the DRC and Colombia. However, I will conclude by calling on Governments with IDPs and the international community to do more to understand and address the challenges faced by IDPs and to engage with them. Last, but not least—who has the primary responsibility to protect and assist IDPs when their home state will not or cannot do so? Will the Minister tell us today what action the Department for International Development has taken to develop and publish a departmental strategy to support IDPs around the world, and what has been done to deliver on commitments on IDPs made at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on an important and deeply passionate speech. I congratulate all Members of this House who share a common cause in seeing a rapid reduction in the numbers of internally displaced peoples and an increase in protections for them.
We always think of displaced people as those who have fled their home country due to natural disasters or conflict, but we often underestimate those who are displaced within their own country, as we have heard today. These are people who have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home. The displacement of millions of people within the borders of their own countries has become a pressing global concern. It disrupts lives, threatens communities and affects countries as a whole, resulting in serious humanitarian, social and economic concerns.
Worldwide, there are now 65 million people displaced; around two thirds of that total are displaced within their own countries. The number of internally displaced people has increased by 10 million in the last four years alone. In 2016, it was equivalent to one person being displaced every single second. Everyone here today should be shocked by those figures.
As we have heard, people forced to leave their home are generally subject to heightened vulnerability in several areas. They also remain at high risk of physical attack, sexual assault and abduction, and frequently are deprived of adequate shelter, food and health services. The overwhelming majority are women and children, who are especially at risk. More often than refugees, internally displaced people tend to remain close to or become trapped in zones of conflict. They get caught in the crossfire and are at risk of being used as targets or human shields.
I will give a few examples of countries with high numbers of internally displaced people. As we have heard repeatedly today, Syria has the biggest internally displaced population in the world—6.5 million people, which is 1 million more than the entire population of Scotland. Since 2011, 50 Syrian families have been displaced every hour of every day. The pace of displacement remains relentless.
The comparison with Scotland is really helpful. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, like the population of Scotland, those people are teachers, nurses, architects, builders and engineers, and should be engaged? They have remained on the spot, and will be critical in the rebuilding of Syria. They need to be integrated into any peace process that we hopefully support.
I completely agree. They must also be involved in peacebuilding. The people who have seen acts of war and heinous crimes of war on the ground are those who will build the future peace in Syria.
The devastating famine across east Africa, combined with ongoing violence in parts of the continent, has forced so many people to flee that east Africa now rivals Syria in having the world’s largest displacement area. There are almost 2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan. In Sudan, almost 5 million people need humanitarian assistance, half of whom are internally displaced.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about Africa. All African countries had the opportunity to be part of the Kampala convention of 2012. Some that signed up and committed themselves to the process in ink and on paper have not delivered on it. Is it not time that those who have committed themselves to a process actually take action?
I completely agree. We need to speak about this issue in Chambers such as this all across Europe and beyond to make that point. If I am not mistaken, one of the signatories is Nigeria, which has 2 million internally displaced people itself.
The numbers continue to grow, but there has been an absence of effective and lasting strategies for the millions of internally displaced people in Syria, Africa and across the world. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UN guiding principles on internal displacement, which set out for the first time a definition and some of the vulnerabilities. This year, a joint plan of action is looking at what further steps can be taken to support internally displaced people. That work is being led by the UN special rapporteur, countries, NGOs and UN agencies. The purpose of the plan is to prevent more arbitrary displacement, improve protection and rights, and develop durable solutions to support the informed choice of those who cannot return to their home in their own countries. The UK Government must fully support that global plan, which is particularly pertinent in the light of the recent airstrikes undertaken by the UK Government in Syria. I therefore ask the Minister to confirm what action his Department will take to support and deliver the recommendations in the plan of action. Will his Department produce and publish its own strategy on how DFID will support internally displaced people around the world?
The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit made a number of extremely important commitments. For example, it committed to pass more humanitarian funding to local and national actors, and to reduce internal displacement by 50% by 2030. Will the Minister explain how the UK is delivering on the commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit?
The refugee migration crisis is probably one of the most important issues of our time, and it is getting worse by the minute. Our vision of Scotland is of an open country that looks outward. We believe the UK Government must live up to their moral obligations through action and leadership. They must lead the way in putting internal displacement back on the global agenda and developing an effective and lasting strategy for the many millions of internally displaced people at risk. We cannot stand by as the numbers continue to grow.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing this important debate.
We have heard some excellent contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) highlighted that displaced people with disabilities struggle to make the journey and need specific support. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) talked about the Rohingya who are internally displaced, and about some of the challenges in the camps. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) outlined the human side of internal displacement, and said that we as policy makers set the tone. I am proud to hear about her initiative to learn Arabic to connect with others; it is so inspiring. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), and the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), for their contributions and their concern about the plight of the internally displaced. This is one of the world’s most pressing humanitarian issues.
Although refugees fleeing famine, persecution and disease across borders understandably grab diplomatic and media attention, we must not overlook or forget those who are displaced internally within their own countries. We have heard that, of the 65 million people currently displaced from their homes worldwide, more than 40 million are displaced within their own countries, and 90% are women and children. It is sobering to think that, since the United Nations introduced its guiding principles on internal displacement some 20 years ago, the number of IDPs has more than doubled. Ultimately, that means we are not going far enough and fast enough in tackling the problem.
In 2016, natural disasters caused an additional 24 million internal displacements. Every year, an estimated 15 million people are displaced by development projects. Millions more displacements, including from land grabs, criminal violence and drought, are not systematically recorded. Colombia, Sudan, Iraq and Syria have the ignominious honour of topping the list of countries with the most IDPs. Colombia, where conflict has eased and the slow, painstaking process of reconciliation is beginning, reminds us that it takes only a heartbeat to displace millions, but a whole generation to recover and rebuild lives.
It is right that the UK treats the symptoms of displacement. Just last week, the UN launched its plan of action for IDPs, entitled GP20. It promises to tackle internal displacement through prevention, protection and solutions for IDPs. Will the Minister spell out exactly what the UK will do to support that plan, how we will support it financially and politically, how we will align DFID’s migration and refugee work with its priorities, and by when we can expect the UK to spell out clearly its full support? As with so many multilateral plans, the faster the UK gets behind the plan and the more vocal we are, the more likely other countries are to follow suit.
Let me turn to the second area where the UK can surely add value. The United Nations guiding principles for internal displacement identify good data as key to providing support to IDPs, yet 20 years on that data is not good enough. Indeed, UNICEF found that only 20% of data on IDPs is disaggregated by age, compared with 50% for all refugees and 77% for migrants. That is something the UK could lead on by providing technical expertise and insights to countries with high IDP populations, and enabling them to collect and monitor data on IDPs more effectively. That could form part of the global cross-Government UK strategy on IDPs. Will the Minister outline what steps his Department has taken to increase the volume and quality of data collected on IDPs?
I have spoken briefly about the importance of the Government addressing the symptoms of displacement, and look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks, but let me turn briefly to the wider context. The lives of IDPs and the issue of internal displacement cannot be improved by humanitarian responses alone. As Christian Aid argued, humanitarian efforts need to be conducted in concert with sustained investment by states and development actors to resolve the underlying causes of internal displacement, be they related to conflict, natural disasters, large-scale development projects or extreme poverty.
I am sure we all agree that, if we want to reduce and resolve internal displacement, we need to tackle its root causes, not just its symptoms. Labour has recently launched its own plan for Government, called “A World for the Many, Not the Few”, in which we commit to an approach that targets action on what we believe to be the five biggest drivers of poverty and inequality. That includes a commitment to building peace and conflict prevention, pivoting the UK’s approach from being one preoccupied primarily with national security in conflict settings to one preoccupied first and foremost with peace and development. It also includes a commitment to take action on climate justice, which threatens to be one of the biggest drivers of internal displacement.
It is easy to say that we will tackle root causes, but the devil is in the detail. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the Government’s strategy on internally displaced people gets buy-in and ownership from across Government, and that it is not dwarfed by the concerns of other Departments? For example, does the media and political focus on migration and refugees into the UK—driven by the Prime Minister’s “hostile environment” and the Home Office—risk shaping the UK’s priorities more than it should? With European donor agencies including DFID seemingly channelling more of their migration support into dissuading people from leaving their countries and coming to Europe, does the Minister agree that the job of political leaders is to rise above nasty rhetoric and keep the focus of our humanitarian support on those who need it most?
The Secretary of State argued in her keynote speech that the purpose of UK aid was to act as a
“shield against uncontrolled and unsustainable economic migration”.
Does the Minister think that that type of language is constructive or projects the desired image of the Government’s so-called global Britain?
To conclude, I call on the Minister to ensure that his Department produces and publishes a departmental strategy on how DFID supports internally displaced people around the world. The strategy must outline how the UK is delivering on the commitments made at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit by the Government on internally displaced people, and it must ensure that DFID does all it can to support and deliver on the recommendations made in the joint plan of action devised by the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs with states, NGOs and UN agencies. More than that, the strategy must bring the whole of Government to bear on the problem with a clear joined-up plan, and it must ensure that the priority in our displacement work is not to be a shield against migration or a hostile environment, but the lives of the 40 million people at risk.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. First and foremost, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) for securing the debate and for her courtesy in passing me a copy of her speech so that I am better able to respond to her questions.
In this debate, the majority of colleagues have again discussed similar things, speaking warmly and knowledgeably as they always do, and asking far too many questions—as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on the Opposition Front Bench did—for me to answer conveniently in the seven or so minutes that I have. I also need to leave a moment for my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden to conclude. However, let me say one or two things in response.
The debate is opportune, with 2018 being the 20-year anniversary of the international guiding principles. I very much thank Christian Aid for their work on the subject, informing Members of Parliament and bringing forward the “Big Brekkie” breakfast briefing on IDPs, which my noble Friend Lord Bates was able to attend. I am grateful that colleagues have brought the subject forward as well. Christian Aid policy officials met my noble Friend last year and are in regular touch with my Department, but my officials are happy to consider those conversations further and to meet them again.
As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said and as others have mentioned, more than 65 million people globally have been driven from their homes by conflict or violence—that is equivalent to the entire population of the UK. It is staggering to look back over the past 20 years and see the change in the numbers and how many of them are related to conflict.
I was particularly struck, as I have been a number of times, by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and the way in which she framed her comments and spoke about individual experiences. The particular vulnerability of IDPs needs to be put on the record. They are in transit from one place to another, which is disorientating in itself, and the social organisation that they have come from has been replaced—the psychosocial distress of heads of families who can no longer provide for their families, instead becoming supplicant to aid agencies and the like. That is a sense of loss and potential humiliation of which none of us has experience, but it has a profound effect. To look at the situation in human terms, beyond the large figures, is important, and the hon. Lady did that particularly well.
IDPs suffer the removal from sources of income and livelihood, and from schooling, which we now try to replace not only for refugees to other countries but for the internally displaced. There is also the deprivation of access to facilities. All that is a vulnerability and, as colleagues have remarked, IDPs are not refugees. The whole point of the internally displaced is that they remain within their countries. Therefore, in answer to the question of who is primarily responsible for them, the state is, yet the state might be the perpetrator of the very distress from which those people are fleeing, which colleagues mentioned.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who understands this well, spoke about how, unless IDPs are dealt with effectively, and if we do not resolve the issues, we will have a recipe for future conflict. The emphasis on peace building, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston mentioned, is about looking forward and not about only our policy—peace building for the future means that, to deal with an issue, we need to look forward to ensure that we have taken out the reasons for problems to recur. That is most important, and that is where the difficulty has been in dealing with IDPs.
Let me try to put some of that a bit more in context. We are strongly committed to meeting the needs of IDPs. Our work is part of a wider strategy to shift our approach to protracted cases, to do more to protect people in such crises, to find ways to improve humanitarian access and to mitigate the effects of forced displacement. That means doing more to effectively meet the long-term needs of internally displaced people, and the communities that host them, through sustained access to education, health and jobs. Fundamentally, IDPs should not have to wait until a crisis is fully resolved before they begin to rebuild their lives.
The specific vulnerabilities of women and girls, which were mentioned by a number of colleagues, are very much on our radar screen. The empowerment of women and girls in emergencies was a priority for the UK at the World Humanitarian Summit, where we committed to put gender equality at the heart of humanitarian action, going beyond protection to make further commitments to ensure that women and girls have a voice, choice and control even when crisis hits. In many contexts the UK is working to prevent and address the effects of gender-based violence for displaced people, which includes a £25 million research initiative that is delivering innovative new programmes.
To answer the question of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston on data, we work closely with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. A new report is out soon. We cannot have too much data in such cases, but sometimes it is very difficult to get.
I will now move on to what colleagues are looking for us to do, because we are short of time. We are exploring new options with the UN, including the idea of launching a UN high-level panel on IDPs. That would help to galvanise political and operational action by bringing together a wide range of experts to make recommendations that cut across humanitarian, peace and security, development and human rights issues. It would not solve all issues that IDPs face, but it could set out a blueprint for reducing displacement and driving a more effective response. Ultimately, learning what has worked, addressing the root causes of crises and delivering a more comprehensive global approach are firmly in the interest of those forced to flee their homes, the countries that host them and the UK itself. On our own humanitarian strategy published last year, which contained information on IDPs, we look forward to ensuring that our actions are relevant to mitigating displacement and responding to it more effectively.
We could have done with a longer debate, but I want to give the last moments back to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. A number of issues have been raised, and more can be raised in questions and further debates, but I am grateful for this opportunity. IDPs are an important issue and should not be neglected. All of us who have come across them, and those who work with them, are always profoundly impacted by what we have seen and heard.
I thank the Minister and all hon. Members. We are all on the same page. We have sounded the alarm today. The media focus definitely does not get the plight of such large numbers and the growing problems presented. My last experience of a high-level panel was that it gave rise to SDGs. Some things need to be elevated right at the top to draw attention, but we also need solutions that are right down on the ground. That is where agencies such as Christian Aid and others come in. It will take all of us working together to address a problem of this scale.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).