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Westminster Hall

Volume 641: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2018

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 22 May 2018

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

UK Automotive Industry: Job Losses

Before I call Matt Western to move the motion, it might help Members to know that, at 11.30 today, the Division bells will ring and there will be a minute’s silence.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered job losses in the UK automotive industry.

I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate. I also thank you in advance for your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

“Precipitous” is not a word used very often; when it is said by the chief executive of a major global automotive manufacturer, it is time to listen. Why? Because such utterances from major industrialists are rare; such people prefer to keep out of the headlines and to get on with the day-to-day of running multibillion-pound organisations that employ hundreds of thousands of people.

In the UK, the automotive industry has been one of the great success stories since the financial crash of 2007-08. In the two decades before that crisis, the industry’s economic output was broadly flat, before it dropped sharply in 2009. Since then, we have been fortunate to witness a renaissance in this major industry, which was seriously damaged by the crash, but which managed to sustain itself, with some Government intervention, through that difficult period. In 2017, in real terms, the motor manufacturing industry was worth 25% more than in 2007, although growth appears to have levelled off in the last year. In 2007 motor vehicle manufacturing accounted for 5.4% of total UK manufacturing, but in 2017 it accounted for 8.1%—a 50% increase in its overall importance. That was the result of significant inward investment from all resident vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers. The industry has contributed to almost 10 consecutive years of steady growth. Just as importantly, that has translated into a 29% increase in direct manufacturing employment in the sector.

The headwinds are strong and many. As the industry meets the challenges of transitioning to cleaner fuels and to a super-low-carbon future, it has been disrupted by the uncertainty of Brexit and a Government policy that penalises the cleaner diesel-powered vehicles. It is one of the great paradoxes in business that, in seeking to improve air quality, the Government have managed the reverse the progress achieved over many years to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

In my maiden speech last year, I stated that there were rising pressures on the industry and that action was needed to maintain its recent success. I warned of the slowdown, with falling sales, and that the industry represented an economic bellwether. It has become increasingly clear that, from trucks to cars, sales are falling as people decide not to replace their vehicles.

I have repeated those calls in many subsequent debates, and there have been many in recent months, including those held by my hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). Both of their debates reflected the rising concern about the real, clear and present danger to the sector, and sought the attention of the Government so that they would act.

That danger has become very real since the autumn, with the announcement of job losses all over the UK. To date, 2,000 jobs have been lost among car manufacturers, and planned increases in staff recruitment have been put on hold. More widely, when the component suppliers and related sectors are taken into account, it is estimated that between 8,000 and 12,000 jobs at least have been lost in just eight months.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting this crucial debate. Given the numbers that he mentions, does he think we ought to return to the subject of the last debate we had here—business rates? The car industry needs a shot in the arm; is it not time that the Government gave it one?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The business rates situation handicaps the industry in this country and puts it at a significant disadvantage to competitors on the continent. Added to that are the energy costs that it faces: on average, there is a 74% premium on the energy costs on the continent.

Major manufacturers have told me that their greatest concern is that there seems to be little concern from the Government. It is disheartening that this apparent lack of interest flies in the face of the industry’s importance to our overall economy. The financial services sector is held up as the great driver of UK national wealth, but it is worth remembering the increasingly important contribution of the UK motor vehicle manufacturing industry. According to the Library, it generated £15.2 billion of value to the economy in 2017, which is 0.8% of total output. More relevantly, it represents 8% of manufacturing output. Likewise, it employed 162,000 people across the UK in 2016, equating to 1% of all UK employees.

In UK manufacturing, the automotive industry is the second most investment-intensive sector for total investment as a proportion of gross value added, although it is top in value terms, investing £3.6 billion in 2015. The west midlands has the largest number of people employed in the manufacture of vehicles in any UK region or country—perhaps that is why this subject is so close to my heart. The 54,000 employees in our region represent around a third of all motor industry employees in the UK.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this timely debate. Not only are there direct employees, but for every direct employee there are probably two or three indirect employees—we are talking about the supply chain. There could be a massive effect if the problem is not handled properly. We need a transitional period, with electrification on the one hand and diesel on the other hand.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and I met the trade unions about this issue some months ago, and there is a lot of concern that it could affect jobs. With business rates, the Government are shifting expenditure away from proper funding through the taxpayer to local government. That creates a major problem for local government and for the efficiency of these industries.

My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. He is quite right about the multiplier effect on supplier industries—component manufacturers and so on. I totally agree with him about the importance of establishing a very clear pathway for the transition between where we are and where we have set ourselves to be in future. I will speak about that at some length.

The employment statistics are significant by anyone’s measure. The concern voiced by the industry is that direction is needed from policymakers, in particular with regard to Brexit and the UK’s future trading relationships, as well as to support for the transition to clean fuels. Without that clarity, it is inevitable that investment decisions will be placed on hold.

People will cite recent announcements at Luton and elsewhere as great news about the future of the industry, but many of us will understand that those sorts of decisions are taken many years in advance—those were taken way before the EU referendum. Without clarity, there will be a recruitment freeze or job losses, as we have seen. One example of the recruitment freeze is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham, where Dagenham has recently announced that it will have to put on hold 150 planned jobs.

Just over a year ago, in March 2017, Lloyds bank conducted a survey of the UK automotive manufacturing sector. It summarised that the vast majority—some 87%—of automotive manufacturers planned to create new jobs in the next two years. It estimated that, if those plans were replicated across all the UK’s automotive firms, a further 85,000 new jobs would be created. What a difference a year makes.

In the context of Brexit, there are concerns that there may be job losses in the industry in the long term. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee conducted an inquiry into the impact of Brexit on the industry and stated that, should the UK leave the customs union and single market, hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost. It reported that

“it is difficult to see how it would make economic sense for multinational volume manufacturers—the bulk of the UK automotive sector—to base production in the UK in a no deal or WTO tariff scenario. The shift of manufacturing to countries within the customs union and single market would be inevitable; the cost in UK jobs could be in the hundreds of thousands, and inward investment in the hundreds of millions. For the automotive sector, no deal would undoubtedly be hugely damaging. The Government should not seriously contemplate this outcome.”

Carlos Tavares, the chief executive of the PSA Group, which manufacturers Peugeot and Citroën vehicles, said:

“We cannot invest in a world of uncertainty. No one is going to make huge investments without knowing what will be the final competitiveness of the Brexit outcome.”

That sentiment was echoed by others, including the chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover, Dr Ralf Speth, who said:

“Uncertainty is really challenging us very much and not only us, it’s for the complete industry. You hardly see inward investment any more.”

Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Some have explained that job losses in manufacturing are an inevitability, and that we should embrace the loss of manufacturing in the post-Brexit era. One such voice is that of Professor Minford of Cardiff Business School, who has advocated “running down” the UK auto industry. In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2012, he said:

“It is perfectly true that if you remove protection of the sort that has been given particularly to the car industry and other manufacturing industries inside the protective wall, you will have a change in the situation facing that industry, and you are going to have to run it down. It will be in your interests to do it, just as in the same way we ran down the coal and steel industries. These things happen as evolution takes place in your economy.”

He echoed that statement in The Sun ahead of the EU referendum, writing:

“Over time, if we left the EU, it seems likely that we would mostly eliminate manufacturing, leaving mainly industries such as design, marketing and hi-tech. But this shouldn’t scare us.”

Well, I am afraid it scares me, and I think it scares many of us—for good reason.

A while back, the BEIS Committee stated that

“it is difficult to see how it would make economic sense for multinational volume manufacturers—the bulk of the UK automotive sector—to base production in the UK…The shift of manufacturing to countries within the customs union and single market would be inevitable”,

and it would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, as I said. The Committee concluded:

“Overall, no-one has argued there are advantages to be gained from Brexit for the automotive industry for the foreseeable future. We urge the Government to acknowledge this and to pursue an exercise in damage limitation in the negotiations. This involves retaining as close as possible a relationship with the existing EU regulatory and trading framework in order to give volume car manufacturing a realistic chance of surviving in this country.”

The Committee is not alone in voicing its fears. The automotive industry’s trade body, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, stated:

“There is no escaping the fact that being out of the customs union and single market will inevitably add barriers to trade, increase red tape and cost. Settling for ‘good’ access to each other’s markets is not enough as it will only damage the UK’s competitiveness and reduce our ability to attract investment and the high quality jobs that go with it.”

It is worth noting that in 2017, 86% of the UK’s imports came from the EU, while only 41% of the UK’s exports went to the EU.

Many say that the UK runs a widening trade surplus in motor vehicles with non-EU countries and a widening trade deficit with EU countries, and that leaving the EU and the customs union is therefore a positive thing. That is true, but the industry has responded by using its strength through the renaissance that I mentioned to reduce that deficit considerably. Importantly, the industry shows a determination to grow in other markets—it seeks to retain its strong position in Europe, but want to build elsewhere too. Other countries’ domestic manufacturers are doing that, and we can do so too. It is not a choice between one and the other—they are complementary.

Our remaining in a customs union is critical to the sector’s future. We must avoid at all costs losing tariff-free access to the EU. In the worst-case scenario, under World Trade Organisation rules, a 10% tariff on finished vehicles and a 2.5% to 4.5% tariff on components would be introduced. Those tariff rates would cost the automotive sector at least £2.7 billion on imports and £1.8 billion on exports. Just imagine what would happen to the sticker price of vehicles in this country.

Ford has stated that rules of origin would “add a significant cost” to its business if UK-manufactured products were no longer considered to have originated in the EU. Similarly, Vauxhall has stated that any rules of origin changes

“will have a drastic impact on UK trade with any countries outside the EU”.

It is critical that a future UK-EU trade deal includes provision for full bilateral cumulation, which would ensure that components produced in the EU were considered local UK content for the purpose of rules of origin, and that the automotive sector was able to benefit from preferential trading relationships established with not only the EU but third countries.

It is worth noting that the majority of Ford’s Bridgend output goes to the EU. Without a comprehensive UK-EU free trade agreement, engines sent to European assembly plants would attract a 4.5% tariff, increasing the cost to the consumer. In an industry where margins are wafer-thin, that sort of tariff may cause significant damage to the sector. The SMMT’s position is clear. It has stated:

“Should the UK and the EU no longer have a customs union arrangement, UK businesses exporting to EU27 countries would need to submit information about the origin of the product, the destination country, relevant commodity codes, Customs Procedure Codes, product value, a unique consignment number, as well as relevant safety and security information. This would represent a significant increase in bureaucracy, and undermine the competitiveness of British business. Compliance with these new requirements would be particularly challenging for SMEs that make over 90% of the automotive supply chain.”

The components industry and the highly integrated supply chain are crucial to this debate. Currently, an estimated 1,100 trucks from the European Union deliver components worth £35 million to UK car engine plants every day. The movement of those vehicles and the timeliness of their departure and arrival is crucial—every minute counts. However, about 78,000 people are employed in the supply chain here in the UK, supplying not just the UK but Europe. The sector is highly integrated with the rest of Europe in the case of both finished cars and component parts. For instance, the UK imported just under £14 billion of vehicle engines and other components in 2017, 79% of which came from the EU. Some may ask, “Why can’t we transfer more of that back to the UK?” The complication is in scale, the strength of businesses and where they need to be located, and the geography of supply.

The manufacturers’ trade body, and the automotive trade body, the SMMT, have both called on the Government to protect that close integration. The financial reality of the chain’s fragility is underlined by the fact that some manufacturers face costs of up to £1 million an hour if production is stopped due to a delay in the supply of components to the assembly line. The SMMT estimates that a 15-minute delay to parts delivered just in time can cost manufacturers just under £1 million a year.

Let me give two examples. The manufacture of a single Delphi fuel injector takes more than 35 components, requiring 100 processes, and the elements for that come from 15 countries. The injector goes through 39 UK-EU border crossings and five UK-customs union border crossings. Another example is the Mini crankshaft, which crosses the channel three times in a 2,000 mile journey before a finished car rolls off the production line. The casting is made in France before being transferred to Hams Hall back in the midlands, where it is crafted into shape. Those pieces are then sent to Munich and inserted into an engine, which is then sent to Mini’s plant in Oxford, where it is installed in a car.

Related to all of that is the importance of type approvals, a much overlooked area that can add significant cost. One engine supplier—I will not mention its name—has estimated that, if we do not have harmonisation with Europe, it will cost between £300,000 and £500,000 per vehicle certification. In fact, the CBI noted that the two areas where convergence with the EU is of the greatest importance are the rules that determine how and by whom vehicles can be approved as safe for the road, and the Vehicle Certification Agency maintaining its ability to approve vehicles for the European market. It also mentioned maintaining pan-European rules on carbon dioxide and other air pollutants to ensure that international targets on clean air and climate change are met.

That brings me to diesel. In the early 2000s, the drive to achieve climate change goals led to the rapid uptake of diesel: from 17% of the total car market, it grew to 50% in just eight years. The manufacturers responded. Ford set up its Dagenham diesel centre, which I think employs 3,000 staff and provides for 50% of all of its global diesel production. Then came the Volkswagen dieselgate scandal and subsequently the demonisation of diesel, which has led to a 33% drop in diesel sales so far this year. Once more, manufacturers have sought to respond where they have seen a lack of leadership, in this case perhaps from policy makers. Ford introduced a diesel scrappage scheme, as certain other manufacturers have done, and since September it has taken 21,000 vehicles off the road. The programme has been so successful that it was extended beyond December, when it was due to close, and is still running.

A tax on diesel was announced in the November 2017 Budget, with an increase in vehicle excise duty by one band and on benefit in kind by an additional 1% for all diesel vehicles. Some would say that that is kicking an industry when it is already struggling. The taxing of vehicles based on such a legislative standard has yet to be finalised or introduced by the EU; it is unprecedented and unrealistic. I suggest that the measure is counter- productive and merely makes worse the problem it seeks to solve. People are holding off buying new diesel vehicles and keeping on using older, polluting vehicles. Of course, the reduction in—or lack of—support for the diesel industry does not take into account the many hundreds of millions of pounds that it has already invested in manufacture, responding to the Government’s policy direction of five to 10 years ago.

Today’s diesels are the cleanest yet, having the same nitrous oxide and particulate emissions as petrol and 20% lower CO2 emissions. To put it into context, it would take at least six of today’s new diesel cars to emit the same nitrous oxides as one vehicle put on the road just two years ago. The focus should therefore be on getting older vehicles off the road, not on penalising customers who wish to buy newer, cleaner diesels. Of course, the swing to petrol means a collective failure to meet our carbon dioxide targets. Hon. Members will know that we are now seeing an uptick in carbon dioxide emissions for the first time in 15 years.

We see challenging issues in our deliberations over Brexit and the trading arrangements we face. That is best exemplified by the profound challenges faced by the automotive industry, one of our most successful industries. The industry has seen a renaissance, which was seriously damaged by the global financial crash, but it managed to sustain itself, and since then we have seen huge inward investment by various manufacturers, which has contributed to a 50% increase in manufacturing share, almost 10 years of steady growth and a consequent almost 30% increase in direct manufacturing employment in the sector, notwithstanding the growth in component suppliers.

The industry also faces the challenge of transitioning to cleaner fuels and a super-low-carbon future, and that is being disrupted by the uncertainty of Brexit and Government policy that seeks to penalise cleaner diesel-powered vehicles. It is currently one of the great paradoxes that, in seeking to improve air quality, the Government have managed to reverse the progress achieved over many years in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. As Mike Hawes, the chief executive of the SMMT, put it:

“The industry shares Government’s vision of a low-carbon future and is investing to get us there, but we can’t do it overnight; nor can we do it alone. The anti-diesel agenda has set back progress on climate change, while electric vehicle demand remains disappointingly low amid consumer concerns around charging infrastructure availability and affordability.

To accelerate fleet renewal, motorists must have the confidence to invest in the cleanest cars for their needs, however they are powered. A consistent approach to incentives and tax and greater investment in charging infrastructure will be critical. Now more than ever, we need a strategy that allows manufacturers time to invest, innovate and sell competitively, and which gives consumers every incentive to adapt.”

That is all the industry seeks: a controlled, orderly, managed transition from one system to the other. Regarding Brexit, it simply wants both clarity and certainty urgently.

Many are calling on the Government to act now to reduce the effects of diesel taxation on the newest, cleanest diesel vehicles and amend the carbon dioxide bands to reduce the impact of new emissions standards on consumer vehicle excise duty. Failure to do so will threaten the future success and sustainability of businesses and the significant contribution that the sector makes to jobs and the UK economy. The orderly, managed transition I described is essential to enable the manufacturers to use their revenues today to invest in our tomorrow. Without that support, the sector could be seriously damaged in its need to compete with the likes of China who have the scale and state backing to invest in newer technologies.

We have grown used to having a successful industry that contributes greatly not just to our international trade but to our global manufacturing prestige. We would be fools not to support it.

Order. The winding-up speeches must start at 10.30 am, and 10 Back Benchers are trying to catch my eye. It is easy to work out: roughly three minutes each, please.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and I thank the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing this important debate.

Job losses in the automotive industry are of great concern to everybody, particularly to those of us with car manufacturers in our constituencies. My constituency, Chichester, is home to Rolls-Royce, which is the single largest employer and employs more than 1,700 people in highly skilled, well-paid jobs. Nationally, the automotive industry provides 814,000 jobs, with an annual turnover of £77.5 billion—more than 8% of the UK’s manufacturing output. The car manufacturing industry is of great importance not just to Chichester, but to the whole country.

I began my working life in a car factory in Liverpool where I worked for seven years. When I first started work, the industry was introducing a supply chain mechanism called just-in-time. First developed in Japan, just-in-time manufacturing would revolutionise the industry and make UK car manufacturing competitive and able to compete effectively with the rest of the world. However, just-in-time manufacturing is logistically complex: components arrive from suppliers based all over the world on the same day that they are to be assembled into a car or a sub-assembly, thereby avoiding the need to store large quantities of inventory that add to overhead costs.

Over decades the automotive industry has created a highly integrated and fast-paced supply chain, and that has been facilitated in Europe through the free movement of goods within the customs union. A car comprised of parts from throughout Europe will be assembled in around 20 days from start to finish, but not a screw will have been made before those 20 days. A network of suppliers based all over the world will be involved, and parts will sometimes cross borders several times before becoming a sub-assembly that is ready for final production. To put that in context, a crankshaft in a car manufactured in the UK will cross the English channel four times before being assembled into the final car.

The success of the supply chain network depends on many parts moving in a frictionless fashion. Imagine the effect that even a small delay at customs will have. I am probably one of the few Members of Parliament who have spent days sitting in customs, desperately waiting for parts to be released, to dash them back to a car factory where a line of workers are sitting eagerly waiting for work. Stopping a line in the manufacturing business is a disaster—it means all the cost, none of the production, and a knock-on delay for other plant production in future. To say it is a costly experience is an understatement.

Such delays make car manufacturing uncompetitive and would certainly lead to job losses. Car manufacturers will not risk that happening, and instead they will have to build warehouses to house stock. That will effectively set the industry back years, sending it back to the 1980s. What effect will that have on our roads? Lorries currently pass through customs in under two minutes, but if that time is doubled, it will have a huge impact on our ports and the surrounding roads. We must be innovative when we implement new customs arrangements and utilise technology to ensure there are no hold-ups at crossing points. I am pleased that the Government are aiming to ensure that crossing points are as frictionless as possible, but we must ensure we get it right.

The size of the UK’s car manufacturing industry is impressive, but we cannot take it for granted. Every new model is highly competitive, because a number of car plants located around the world will have similar capabilities but different labour rates and market conditions. As we leave the EU, the UK must remain competitive because increasing pull factors to other locations will seek to draw investment away from our shores. Thus far the industry has shown its support by investing further in the UK, and since 2010, jobs in car companies have increased by nearly 30%. If we continue to prioritise friction-free customs arrangements and continued close co-operation with the EU on rules of origin, harmonised standards and type approvals, I am optimistic that the automotive industry will continue to thrive and grow.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing this debate. I fully support his goal of highlighting the need to support the car manufacturing industry, since it props up so many local economies in many ways.

The manufacturing base across the entire United Kingdom is important, but it is particularly important in Northern Ireland because of Bombardier, which employs some 4,000 people in the manufacture of aeroplanes. Bombardier is an essential primary and secondary employer in my constituency, as well as in neighbouring constituencies. It represents about 10% of our total exports and 40% of direct manufacturing jobs in Belfast, and its impact on wider manufacturing and the supply chain is felt across Northern Ireland. Investment in Bombardier is an investment not simply in job security but in local spending power. The hon. Gentleman made that point in his speech, and we understand it only too well.

County Antrim, which borders my constituency, is home to Wrightbus, which is a world-class bus manufacturer. It is increasingly recognised as one of Europe’s leading providers of passenger transport solutions, having established a reputation built on a foundation of high-quality design and world-class engineering. Many of the buses in London today come from Wrightbus in North Antrim, and people can enjoy their very good finish. The company offers the largest portfolio of vehicles in the UK, covering midi, maxi, full-size, double-deck, articulated and hybrid-electric categories—no one would have thought there were so many kinds of buses, but there are. The widest range of chassis has elevated Wrightbus to being the largest independent manufacturer in the United Kingdom. I have done my duty to my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) by highlighting that tremendous manufacturer in his constituency and the jobs that it creates, not only in North Antrim but across Northern Ireland because people travel to take advantage of those jobs.

The importance of such industries to the Northern Ireland economy cannot be overstated. Indeed, the manufacturing industry—with special reference to the motor manufacturing industry—was worth 25% more in 2017 than it was in 2007, although growth appears to have levelled off in the past year. According to Library papers, the UK motor vehicle manufacturing industry contributed £15.2 billion to the economy in 2017. That was 0.8% of total output, and 8.1% of manufacturing output—those are very important figures—and it employed 162,000 people across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I am conscious of the time, Mr Bone, and I want to ensure that other Members get to speak. In conclusion, therefore, there is capacity for more growth, but we have to speculate to accumulate. The industry needs support to thrive and—much like our industry at home—the dividend to the local economy is incredibly valuable. It is not enough to wait until the industry is on its knees; we must invest and support, and ensure that skills are taught for long-term survival. Most importantly, we must ensure in the post-Brexit era that we facilitate the industry to thrive globally. That can be done only by working in partnership and by doing all we can to help the industry foresee and meet the needs of a growing global market.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and I thank the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing this worthy debate on an issue that I know is important to his constituents. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group for fair fuel for UK motorists and UK hauliers.

The British automotive industry has been the cornerstone of our economy and engineering sector for decades, yet it has known hardship in previous years. In 2000, the amount added to the economy by the motoring industry stood at £9.2 billion, but following the global economic recession, production slowed to £5.9 billion. Despite that, I am delighted to note that last year £15.2 billion was added to the economy by car manufacturing, and the number of those employed in that sector has also seen sustained growth.

Since 2010, employment has risen by nearly 30%, from 126,000 to 162,000 jobs. To put that in perspective, those involved in automotive construction account for approximately 8.1% of all manufacturing jobs in the UK, and according to recent research by Lloyds bank, there is potential for that figure to rise even further. The UK Government are keen to see similar progress on the environment and engagement with alternative fuels, which is one of the most pressing topics facing car manufacturers. As set out in our manifesto, we want a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, with the majority of cars and vans on the road in 2050 producing zero emissions. Although that is a considerable step, that commitment does not mean that we are turning our back on existing firms or on what has been achieved in the past. Instead, we wish to work with those organisations and guide them towards new and emerging technological avenues. I am sure all Members will agree on the vital need for such a change for the sake of the environment, but it would be wrong to present it as instantaneous.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy made the point recently:

“There’s a place for diesel vehicles and will be for some time to come.”

I hope the Minister will clarify that that means we can do more to improve environmental standards with respect to diesel and electric cars and that we will produce new systems that will have a starkly different impact on the environment but will still be familiar and accommodate the specific wishes of the user. The need for clarity on the issue is paramount. We have already seen the detrimental impact of the demonisation of certain sectors in favour of others. What follows is a loss of confidence, a decline in production and the loss of jobs. As we move forward, it must be clear that different fuels are supported equally in the UK. Only by promoting a nuanced manufacturing industry that prioritises development over exclusion will it be possible to encourage further foreign investment and allow the industry to thrive.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing this debate on a sector that is so important to the city that I represent and the wider region. The automotive industry is at the heart of my home town of Coventry. The British motor industry was born there—the names originating there include Jaguar, Rover, Triumph and Armstrong Siddeley. The first ever British car was built in Coventry more than 120 years ago. The industry gave Coventry people much needed prosperity, and my city thrived because of that.

Coventry now boasts two world-class universities specialising in automation: Coventry University and the University of Warwick, with its Warwick Manufacturing Group. Coventry University is home to the National Transport Design Centre. The National Automotive Innovation Centre, a partnership between Jaguar Land Rover, Tata Motors European Technical Centre, WMG and the University of Warwick, is set to open this summer. It will be the largest automotive R&D facility in Europe and shows a commitment by the university and industry giants to continue Coventry’s history as the UK’s motor city. Jaguar Land Rover is now firmly entrenched in the makeup of the city, with the firm’s headquarters at Whitley. Recently JLR even declared its intention to make Coventry the heart of its large-scale battery and electric vehicle production plans. JLR brings jobs and security to my city, as it does for the wider west midlands. Its success and Coventry’s fortunes are inextricably tied.

With those things in mind, I share my hon. Friend’s desire to protect the UK automotive industry at all costs. The UK’s departure from the EU presents new challenges to the sector, which Jaguar Land Rover has openly stated may be detrimental to business. Uncertainty is bad for business. It is vital to offer safeguards to companies such as JLR and universities such as Coventry and Warwick to maintain the UK’s place in the industry. Yet protecting Coventry’s automotive status is vital not just for companies and universities but for employees. There have already been job losses in the west midlands, and people need guarantees, too.

I am thrilled to represent a city with a record as impressive as the one I have set out. I cannot wait to see the future developments in which Coventry will lead. I hope that the Minister will tell us the Government’s plans to help to protect the automotive industry and the jobs that it supports and to ensure that the sector thrives, in Coventry and more widely in the UK.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing the debate. As we have heard from him and other hon. Members, the car industry is of strategic national importance. I am sure the Minister has heard that message loud and clear, so I will take the opportunity to focus on the issues facing the Vauxhall car plant in my constituency, which has lost nearly half its workforce in the past 12 months.

There is virtually no one in Ellesmere Port who does not have some connection with the plant. At its height, it employed about 12,000 people, but sadly, with recent job losses it employs only around a tenth of that number now. It is still a substantial number, however, and it does not take account of the many people employed in the supply chain and associated industries—or of the potential for much greater numbers if we were to increase from single-shift production again. The plant remains a big part of the local economy. Recent job losses there have meant our going against the national trend, with unemployment in the constituency shooting up in the past few months. Every job lost is of course an individual tragedy, but my job now, and the Government’s job, is to make sure that those jobs that remain are protected and built on, because they are exactly the sort of jobs I want to see as a central component of our future: highly skilled permanent jobs in the manufacture of something that is a source of national and local pride.

Whatever our feelings about history and the pride that the plant generates, we cannot expect sentimentality from the new owner, the PSA Group, which has consistently said that each plant will be judged on its efficiency. If there is truly a level playing field, I welcome that. As we have heard, there are many things that we can do with respect to business rates and energy costs, for example, that can help. I know that the Minister has had a quite long list of the things that we would like to happen. However, one factor may make the competition unfair altogether and render all the other good work that is done academic—and that is Brexit. We have a clear message that the current uncertainty is delaying investment decisions by the parent company. Some might say that that is a ready-made excuse not to invest; but I do not want us to be in the business of providing people with excuses. I want us to be in the business of providing people with jobs. It is important to recognise that the automotive sector is one of our most vulnerable sectors, and we need to do everything possible now, as a priority, to safeguard jobs and investment. A bespoke trade deal for the automotive sector should be considered. After all, if it has been looked at for other areas, why not this one?

Vauxhall Motors has enjoyed half a century of production in Ellesmere Port. If that is taken away, a huge chunk of our identity will go with it, but it does not have to be that way. As hon. Members have said, the Government have a big challenge ahead, but I believe there are solutions, and we have heard some of them. On behalf of everyone in the constituency, I express a sincere wish that between us we can all rise to that challenge.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing this important debate.

As many of my colleagues will know, Nissan has a large plant in my constituency, which employs about 7,000 people directly and 28,000 in the UK supply chain. It contributes significantly to the local and national economy. Nissan recently announced job losses at the plant, which was of course hugely disappointing news. Many people will have been concerned about the announcement, but I understand from speaking to Nissan at the time that, although it was unfortunate, the decision was due to anticipated drops in demand for vehicles currently under production. Based on business projections, it is expected that making the changes will allow for increased production of newer models in the future that will therefore provide more jobs in the long term.

With the uncertainty around the diesel industry because of Brexit, the move towards electric vehicles and drops in consumer confidence after the emissions scandal, it is easy to see how any loss of jobs can be seen as part of a wider concern. The motor vehicle manufacturing industry provided 7% of all UK manufacturing jobs in 2016, and it is only right to follow any changes closely and act to prevent further losses. With those points in mind, I want to talk about the Government’s target to ban all sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040.

The UK is in the grip of an air pollution crisis—the Environment Secretary was talking about it this morning—with pollutants responsible for 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK. I see two problems with the target, however. First, it is not ambitious enough to deal with the environmental issue with sufficient urgency or to ensure that the UK maintains its leadership on electric vehicles. Research shows that bringing the target forward by 10 years could nearly halve UK oil imports, support a larger number of jobs overall in the automotive sector and reduce total cumulative carbon dioxide emissions in a shorter period. Is the Minister’s Department currently considering bringing the target forward?

Secondly, I do not see how consumers are being assisted in the industry-wide move away from more polluting cars and, ultimately, towards electric vehicles. Reaching any target will require a seismic change in consumer behaviour. In 2009, the Labour Government introduced a vehicle scrappage scheme designed to help the motor industry through the recession following the global financial crisis. It was co-funded by the Government and the car industry, and 400,000 claims were submitted. If we are now to expect consumers to move away from older and more polluting diesel and petrol vehicles, often at some expense, is it not right that the Government should assist them to do so, particularly when we consider that, historically, many consumers were encouraged to purchase diesel vehicles?

I had a lot more to say, but I shall leave my remarks there, to give other Members their moment in the sun.

I start by declaring an interest; I chair the all-party parliamentary motor group, which receives support from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Motorsport Industry Association and the RAC Foundation. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on his comprehensive tour of the challenges facing the UK’s automotive industry and his explanation of how this industry literally drives economic growth in this country.

In the short time I have available, I will focus on two areas, both of which my hon. Friend covered: first, the challenges of Brexit, and secondly the transition away from petrol and diesel production. As he said, when we have over 1,000 trucks coming in across the channel every day, delivering £35 million worth of parts to build 6,600 cars and 9,800 engines every single day, most of which then go back to the European Union by similar means, achieving frictionless trade post Brexit is vital to this industry. I simply do not see a way of doing that except by continued membership of a customs union.

My hon. Friend also mentioned regulatory alignment. Keeping the Vehicle Certification Agency’s ability to certify cars as safe for sale throughout the EU is key to the industry in this country. I ask the Minister what negotiations are going on to ensure that that is the case, and how he feels that could be achieved except through as close as possible a relationship with the single market.

On skills, a key part of the integration of the industry internationally, particularly across Europe, is the ability to transfer skills from one country to another. Frankly, the UK’s visa requirements all too often get in the way of that, but the integration is at its closest with our European partners. I ask the Minister what negotiations are going on to ensure that, post Brexit, it will still be possible to transfer those skills between the UK automotive industry and partners on the other side of the channel.

Very briefly, in relation to the transition away from petrol and diesel, there are three challenges: anxiety over the range of electric vehicles, price and infrastructure. I hope that the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will help to improve infrastructure, but I must say to the Minister that more needs to be done to ensure and to mandate interoperability of charge points. It makes no more sense to have differences on that than to have different domestic plugs depending on whether someone has a Dyson or a Hoover vacuum cleaner. What is being done to ensure that we can achieve on-street charging? In particular, what negotiations and what work are being undertaken to try to enable wireless charging? What are the Government doing to ensure that there is infrastructure in place not just for conventional electric vehicles, but for hydrogen-powered vehicles in the future?

My last point is on the transition. As my hon. Friend said, there is something wrong when the cleanest diesels are being hit the hardest. Of course, the UK’s air quality crisis means there must be a trend away from petrol and diesel in the future, but the real challenge is to get the oldest and most polluting diesels off our roads, and we will not do that by hitting the cleanest ones. What are the Government’s ideas for getting those older, more polluting diesels off the road? At the moment, the signals being sent out by Government are confused.

This is a very personal debate for me, because my Ford engine plant employs over 1,760 people and has 12,000 jobs associated with it. The plant covers the equivalent of 17 rugby pitches—we view size in that way in Wales. It produces one of five different engines every 30 seconds, and those go into seven different Ford models. Leaving the customs union means that the engines sent to European assembly plants will attract a 4.5% tariff, and it will inevitably lead to increased cost to consumers and loss of sales, leading to further loss of jobs.

Those of us who watch the automotive industry are concerned about the impact of Brexit and the confusion of Government policy on clean diesel. Changing diesel sales have not translated into petrol sales, and consumers are holding on to older products—cars and vans—for longer, slowing down air improvements. The Bridgend engine plant is a great example of the complex and integrated automotive supply chain across the EU.

There are a number of things we must be absolutely clear about. The Bridgend engine plant can be counted under originated content under the EU’s rules of origin. Components flow from the EU into Bridgend, and engines flow back. That must continue unimpeded. A frictionless customs regime is essential for us. Mass producers such as the car industry, as we have already heard, need the just-in-time delivery principle. A 15-minute delay to parts delivered just in time can cost over £850,000 a year. Storage of stock just increases customer costs, as the cost knock-on to the car manufacturer is passed on to the consumer. We need zero-tariff trade; that is a minimum requirement and should form the basis of any trade deal for the future.

We have already heard reference to minimum customs costs and delay in moving goods. Regulatory alignment—a prerequisite for minimising customs delays—is crucial in preventing cumulative cost and restricted customer choice as a result of trying to meet different standards. Ford would be especially impacted by a change of type approval if the VCA certification was no longer approved in the EU, and by CO2 targets if the UK was not included post 2020 in EU-wide calculations. Preferential trade with third countries, including Ford’s trade flow with Turkey, facilitated by the EU-Turkey customs union, and with South Africa through the EU-South Africa free trade agreement, is important to the European business.

I will end by saying that Bridgend has seen the loss of jobs in steel manufacturing. Bridgend has seen the loss of jobs in coal. We do not wish to see further devastation to the constituency from the loss of jobs in the automotive trade.

As has been mentioned, this sector has been one of Britain’s greatest manufacturing success stories, providing thousands of jobs and a major contribution to our country’s economic growth. The story of my own constituency’s past cannot be told without an understanding of the sector, dominated by Ford’s Dagenham plant, which at its height employed some 40,000 workers. Today, Dagenham’s two engine plants produce 1 million diesel engines annually—50% of Ford’s global diesel requirement —and provide over 3,000 jobs. Some 89% of those engines are exported. The total turnover stands at £1.75 billion.

However, investment in Britain’s car industry has halved during the past two years. Brexit concerns and the demonization of diesel appear to be the two biggest challenges. The crisis of confidence in diesel vehicles and diesel technology was triggered by Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, but the upshot has been damage to not just VW but the whole sector. I am not seeking to defend older diesel engines, which, in truth, are more polluting than their petrol counterparts. However, we must bring some nuance back into the debate. All diesel technology is being tarred with the same brush, despite the fact that state-of-the-art diesel technology is a vast improvement over its predecessors.

As has been mentioned, those dirtier engines will, ironically, be kept on the road longer if consumers are misinformed about the difference between diesel technologies. It is clean-diesel technology that is being invested in in Dagenham. Ford invested £490 million in developing clean, cutting-edge diesel technology in Dagenham in 2014. This new generation of clean engines meets the Euro 6 emissions standards and satisfies Transport for London’s ultra-low emission zone. Modern Euro 6 diesel cars are the cleanest in history; they capture 99% of particulates and emit 84% fewer oxides of nitrogen than in 2000—a point worth making on the day the Government publish their new clean air strategy.

To help the Dagenham plant to transition to future technologies, we need to provide stability today and in the near future. That can be done only by supporting modern diesel technology and production, yet diesel sales have fallen 37% since last year. Unfair criticism and a misunderstanding of the technology are threatening thousands of high-quality jobs in my constituency; plans in Dagenham for 150 new jobs in 2017-18 were shelved due to falling demand. The overall lack of clarity around modern diesel compared with older diesel is also hurting the environment. In 2017, carbon tailpipe emissions rose for the first time in two decades.

My overall point is simple: the Government have a role in restoring consumer confidence in new diesel technology. They have to begin to make the case for modern diesel and for British jobs. That can and needs to be done, regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

I first pay tribute to the excellent presentation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western). I will speak about the human consequences of what will happen if the Government get this wrong.

Erdington is rich in talent, but is one of the poorest constituencies in the country. However, we are blessed with having the Jaguar plant in our midst. The industry has now become the jewel in the crown of British manufacturing. It has been transformed, but it is characterised by its troubled history and by tragedies. I remember working night and day back in 2005 with Tony Woodley to try to prevent the collapse of Rover, and I remember that awful Friday when the factory finally collapsed and 5,000 workers were made redundant. However, in 2009 we saw the establishment of the Automotive Council—the first great industrial strategy—and the scrappage scheme to save the industry from collapse. The basis was laid for a future to be built on.

In 2010, Tata Motors took over Jaguar Land Rover from Ford. It brought in two gifted German industrial managers, one of whom—chief executive Dr Ralf Speth—is still there to this day. We worked night and day with them to turn around a factory that was doomed to close and where there was a funereal atmosphere on the part of the workers. I will never forget that wonderful day in October 2010 when we stood outside the main gate and said that the factory that had built the Spitfire during the war and two generations of Jaguars after the war was safe for the next generation.

That transformed the lives of thousands of local workers. I will never forget Warren, who is a big bear of a man. I first met him at a jobs fair that we organised. Four years later, he was moving into a house in Edwards Road, just down from my constituency office. He called me over and told me about how he was buying this little Edwardian terraced house. He said how he had been in and out of work for 10 years before getting that apprenticeship, and was now in a job that he described as secure, well-paid work that he loved. He then turned to his partner and said, “I’m moving into the house of my dreams with the woman of my dreams.” He said that could never have happened had it not been for the success of Jaguar Land Rover.

Lives were transformed and progress was built on. I actually pay tribute to some of the things that the Government did by way of continuity of policy, such as with the Automotive Council; the focus on the industrial sector and the engine plant; the skills initiative; and investment in research and development. All of that was welcome. As a consequence, we saw the number of staff at the factory double from 1,400 when it faced closure in 2010 to 3,000, while GKN—the parts plant just up the road—increased its staff from 500 to 800. Thousands of local people were given the opportunities that Warren had.

However, we now face deep and growing difficulties. Some 1,000 workers are being laid off at the Solihull plant, while 240 workers have been transferred from the Jaguar plant to Solihull. Why? Because of the combination of utter confusion over diesel on the one hand—forgive me if I say this, but the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has grossly mishandled this situation and has sent the wrong message, having a serious impact on consumer confidence—and Brexit on the other.

I have only a short time remaining, so I will conclude. I wholeheartedly agree with the points made earlier. Hope emerges from despair. I once again see workers on production lines despairing and fearing for the future. Our fortunes are inextricably linked with those of the European Union—crucially, through the single market and the customs union. If we get it wrong over Brexit, this country will pay a very heavy price, and the people who will pay that price above all will be the workers in the automotive industry.

Before I call the spokesman for the Scottish National party, I am advised that the minute’s silence has been moved from 11.30 am to 2.30 pm.

It is good, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing the debate. Critically, he highlighted the supply chain, which goes beyond the idea of the automotive industry and reaches every part of the industrial complex across the UK.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in their place, mentioned the issues for Northern Ireland. In Scotland in 2016, there were 4,000 employees in the industry, representing 2% of manufacturing employees in Scotland and 2.5% of all motor vehicle manufacturing employees across the UK. It continues to be an important industry, for not only employment but the economy. The industry has seen a steady increase in output since 2010. In real terms, the motor manufacturing industry was worth 25% more in 2017 than in 2007, although growth appears to have levelled off in the last year.

However, as other Members have highlighted, we need to recognise that the sector is highly integrated with the rest of Europe, in both finished cars and component parts. For instance, the UK imported £13.95 billion-worth of vehicle engines and parts in 2017, 79% of which came from the European Union. From my perspective, if the UK Government continue with their desire to leave the customs union and single market, it will have a detrimental impact on the industry and will cost jobs.

That is why the industry has called for the UK Government to change their approach to Brexit and opt to remain in the single market and customs union, to facilitate trade and investment. I hope that the UK Government listen to those calls and take action to protect the sector’s close integration with the rest of Europe as they negotiate our leaving the European Union.

As the Scottish National party spokesperson for industries of the future, I welcome the Government’s announcement of the automotive sector deal as part of the industrial strategy, as that should boost investment in emerging technology and establish leadership in meeting future mobility and clean growth challenges. However, with countries such as Estonia and Singapore at an advanced stage of preparation, and with investment in infrastructure that will allow them to take advantage of industries of the future, there is a danger that the automotive industry, and many other industries across the UK, are unprepared for the inevitable advancement that will be made.

As the Member for West Dunbartonshire, I know only too well the impact of industrial policy that fails to meet the challenges of the modern age—the complete and utter collapse of the industrial complex. I would not wish that on any other Member. From my perspective, the UK Government must therefore step up and lead on the issues that put thousands of jobs at risk, which would have an immediate impact on local economies and feed into the larger economy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing this important debate. He said that “the headwinds are strong and many” for the automotive sector. He went on to point out 16 issues, including business rates; energy costs; the move from older energies to renewables; the UK’s future trading relationship following our withdrawal from the EU; a freeze on recruitment in the industry; our leaving the customs union; huge uncertainty for businesses owing to a lack of certainty on the Government’s position on a future customs union; the potential shift of manufacturing to EU countries; the kind of regulatory framework that will exist following our withdrawal from the EU; added barriers to trade; the potential loss of tariff-free access; what will happen if we return to World Trade Organisation tariffs; and changes to rules of origin rules.

Other hon. Members then set out many more concerns, including about the impact on SMEs, which makes up 90% of the supply chain, and the complex EU-wide production web and the multiple border crossings needed for the production of a single car. They also spoke of dieselgate and the punitive measures currently levied on some of the cleanest diesel cars, and—crucially—of the lack of confidence for the car industry and its uncertainty over the Government’s position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington also talked of how the automotive industry represents an economic bellwether and how crucial it is for the west midlands and his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) talked about the automotive industry’s transformative effect on Coventry, including her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked about the loss of almost half the jobs at the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port. He repeatedly speaks up for his constituency. It was poignant to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) explain so eloquently how a job for Warren was about so much more than work. We know that, in every industry, it is about so much more; it is the lifeblood of a community.

It has been said many times that the automotive industry is one of the UK’s most successful sectors. It provides employment to more than 150,000 people across the UK and last year contributed £15.2 billion to the economy. There is no doubt that the continued success of the automotive sector is vital for workers and families across the UK and for the success of our economy as a whole, but worryingly it has been going through a challenging time.

Although there was an uplift in April, car sales plummeted in March by 15.7% compared with last year, and almost 2,000 job losses have been announced during the past six months. In January, despite all the assurances from the Government when PSA Group took over, Vauxhall announced 250 job losses, on top of the 400 lost last year, at its plant in Ellesmere Port, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston described. I pay tribute to him and to Unite the union for all the work that they did with PSA Group to protect as many jobs as possible for the future. In April, it was announced that Nissan would be cutting jobs in Sunderland, and last month Jaguar, the UK’s biggest car manufacturer—it employs 40,000 people—announced that it would be shedding 1,000 temporary contract workers in the west midlands.

Three reasons were listed for those cuts: low demand, with sales at Jaguar down by 26%; changes to tax on diesel cars; and the uncertainty caused by Brexit. Those three factors are all either wholly or partly within the Government’s control. They have complete control over the uncertainty on Brexit, or at least they would if they could sort out the Cabinet and it was not in so much chaos. They also have control over the confusion about taxation policy on diesel, but in recent months they have actually exacerbated it. Weak demand in the economy could be mitigated by Government policy through, for example, encouraging wage growth and Government spending to increase national income.

As has been said, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has highlighted just how important trade with the EU is to the automotive sector. It says that 1,100 trucks from the EU deliver components worth £35 million to UK car and engine plants every single day. The complex cross-border supply chains depend, crucially, on the free and frictionless movement of goods. Manufacturers are very concerned about that freedom and those frictionless borders being disrupted.

It has been one year, 10 months and 30 days since the UK voted to leave the European Union. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have therefore had more than enough time to sort out their negotiating position on the customs union, considering how important it is?

That is right. I have outlined previously that perhaps some of the confusion and slowness in the process is due to the fact that an initial set of negotiations has to be carried out with two or three Cabinet members before negotiations with the EU can take place.

The SMMT says that

“neither option currently being considered by government...would provide the frictionless movement of goods that UK automotive needs to maintain its competitiveness and productivity.”

It is right that the Labour party has called for the Government to negotiate a new comprehensive EU-UK customs union covering all goods. That is the best way to ensure that there are no tariffs or customs checks within Europe, to support jobs, particularly the 2.1 million UK manufacturing jobs, and to help to avoid, crucially, the need for a hard border in Northern Ireland. It would be very helpful if the Minister could use his closing remarks to set out how the Government will ensure the future security of the automotive industry and those employed in it, going beyond the bespoke assurances to the likes of Nissan and Peugeot. Those were important, but we need more than that.

The automotive industry in the UK is a great success story. We have heard a tour de force in defence of the industry from all hon. Members in the Chamber, but it is currently under huge pressure, and sadly that shows through in the increasingly frequent announcements about job losses and in sales figures. It is incumbent on the Government to work with businesses, industry bodies and trade unions and listen to them when they express very clearly that the Government should prioritise a customs arrangement that removes the risk of tariffs being imposed. We must, as an imperative, seek to protect workers’ jobs and secure the future success of the industry as a whole, and I would be grateful if the Minister could now set out how he intends to do that.

I am very grateful to the 10 Back-Bench Members who have spoken and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen for keeping their comments short—I know how difficult that is—to give the Minister the chance to reply fully to this excellent debate. I would just like to remind the Minister to leave a little time for the proposer of the debate to wind up.

Thank you, Mr Bone, for the iron discipline that you have exerted on the Members of Parliament here today. It has worked, because I have the time that you originally said I would.

I commend the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) not just for bringing about the debate—he has always very eloquently represented his constituents who work in the automotive industry—but for his speech. I think that it was described by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock), as a tour de force, and it was. I agreed with a lot of the things that he said; I agreed with contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. A lot of the views expressed are based on severe concern about the automotive industry. We all know how critical it is to our economy—specifically to the constituencies of hon. Members who have spoken today, but also to the economy generally.

I would like to put it on the record that the only comment that I could really object to—I do not take offence, because it is part of the political system to say these things—is that the Government do not really care about the industry or are not involved with it. I can say from personal experience that that is not true. The automotive industry is at the top of our list. As was well published in most of the press, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State uses the automotive industry in the Cabinet as an example of the complexity of business within the European Union. There are well known examples of what happens to different parts. I saw one part in a car factory that had been in and out of the country seven times. Hon. Members, in their contributions today, gave similar examples.

In relation to communication with and listening to the industry, hon. Members should know that I meet, as does the Secretary of State, every Wednesday morning with the business representative organisations. The particularly relevant one here is the Engineering Employers Federation, which represents thousands of businesses up and down the country; many of them are involved with the automotive industry. Stephen Phipson, the director of EEF, may be known to hon. Members. He had worked in industry for most of his life and more recently had worked for the civil service in relation to trade. He has written a letter to one of the newspapers, explaining his recent visit to the Canadian-American border. He saw how complex, after many years, billions of dollars of expenditure and good will on both sides, movements across borders are even with electronic trading. A very important part of what we do in government is listening to people about that kind of thing.

I have made visits since I took on this portfolio, and I should say that I asked for the automotive industry to be part of my portfolio. I have not had constituency experience of it, but in terms of manufacturing and this kind of manufacturing investment, I realise, as does the Secretary of State, how important it is to the economy. I think that it is fair to say that I have met executives from nearly all the major manufacturers in this country. I have met senior Japanese executives from Toyota, for example. That was with the Secretary of State, who made very clear the critical importance of frictionless trade between this country and the countries in the European Union. I agree with the comment made today that this country is not a big enough market on its own to sustain a healthy automotive industry.

The population is 60 million. The demand for new cars in a good year could be between 1 million and 2 million, along with all the components. This is big business. These are very complex parts. It is not as it was when the car industry started. We have to be part of a larger market. In whatever way it is worked out, it has to enable companies to do business as they are now. That includes regulatory matters, the frictionless—or near frictionless—movement of goods and the ability to recruit necessary labour. On a recent visit to BMW’s Mini plant in Oxford, I saw—I may be wrong by 1% or 2%—that 21% or 22% of labour there was from the European Union. Fortunately for our economy, there is not a large number of unemployed people in the Oxford area and it is clear that that labour will have to come in, to work in a good career, in a fantastic company and in a fantastic factory.

I mention all that because the engagement aspect has not been communicated enough to hon. Members, but is a very important part of what we do. I believe that the interests of the automotive industry have been reflected in the negotiations. The shadow Minister made an eloquent speech, but she said that one of the delays has been a disagreement among the Cabinet on how this should be approached. That, however, is part of democracy. There are different views within the two major political parties. That is a legitimate part of democracy. I wish everyone agreed with me. They do not always, but I believe we will prevail. I had better make some progress. I spoke a lot on engagement with other companies and I have completely ignored the notes I made earlier, but I did feel that I should react to that.

There has been speculation today in the press that the decline in the diesel market has been caused by uncertain messaging. I think that it was the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) who suggested that comments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had been prejudicial to the diesel industry. It is important to note, however, what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said about this last week:

“Diesel cars have played an important part in reducing CO2 emissions from UK road transport. They can still play a valuable role in further reducing CO2 emissions during the transition to zero emission vehicles.”

We have stated that we will end the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. That is a general European-wide policy. But we will shortly publish the Government’s “Road to Zero” strategy, which will set out the gradual steps that we will take over the coming years to deliver our mission. The mission is for every car and van in the UK to be effectively zero emission by 2040. I think that will prove to be significantly beneficial to the UK car manufacturing industry.

Consumer incentives will have to be part of the package that we hope will incentivise the shift towards zero emissions. The Government have scaled back both the plug-in car grant and the grant available for the home charging of electric vehicles. Does that not send out a confused signal, if we are trying to encourage people to make that shift?

One of the issues is not reducing the amount of grants, but where the grants should go, which I am happy to discuss separately with the hon. Gentleman, as I need to make progress due to lack of time. There are questions: for example, should hybrid cars receive the same grant as all electric cars? I would be delighted to meet him to talk this through, formally or informally.

I want to stress the importance that the automotive industry has to us with regard to the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), while stressing frictionless trade, mentioned Rolls-Royce in her constituency and how it might appear as a small blob on a map compared to vast production, but it is critically important to the country and the local economy. I would be happy to accept her kind invitation to visit with her.

Investment generally in the UK auto industry is important to us. The industrial strategy and landmark automotive sector deal show how the Government can work with industry at the forefront of new technologies, to ensure that we remain the destination of choice for future investment decisions. There was good news, which hon. Members have mentioned, about the Luton plant with the Vivaro vans. Toyota announced that it will build the next generation Auris in Derbyshire. Those decisions are not to be sneered at, but are important. While I accept that decisions are made over a long period, I think that 10-year decisions for any significant investments are also important, but they can be pulled. Like any decisions, a company can decide to do that at the last minute for whatever reason it wants—for example, if it is short of money or if there is uncertainty in the market or points are raised about Brexit. Although they are long-term decisions, they are not decisions until they are finally made. BMW’s investment in the electric Mini and Nissan’s investment in Sunderland mean that since 2016, this country has won every single competitive model allocation decision by major car manufacturers. That does not mean we can take it for granted.

I would like to speak for an hour on the EU exit issue. I cannot, however, due to your quite rightly ruthless chairing, Mr Bone. The Government have reached an agreement on the terms of the implementation period, but we have to plan for all scenarios. I have a lot of confidence that we will leave with a deal and that a no-deal scenario in March 2019, which I think would be disastrous for the automotive industry—I am happy for that to be on record and will defend it to anybody—is significantly less likely. I hope that it is totally unlikely. I hope that it does not happen and I believe that it will not happen. There needs to be a competitive market as part of a European-wide industry. It has been a huge success. It was Mrs Thatcher who persuaded many of the Japanese firms to invest here, because of the market that they would be involved in. Whatever hon. Members’ different views about Mrs Thatcher are, I think that they will all agree that that has been a good thing for the country.

Our vision for the UK is clear. We are seeking a comprehensive solution, which includes most of the things that the industry wants, such as vehicle standards, one series of approvals and simple, frictionless movement for parts and labour, where it is required in the industry. We are pleased that the Government are producing a White Paper, which will set out in detail the UK’s position on a future relationship. I think that it will be significant and show the exact terms of the relationship we are seeking with the EU and our preferred option for the future customs relationship, providing detail on precisely these issues, such as tariffs, rules of origin and mutual recognition, which are important to the industry.

I am happy to take up this discussion afterwards. I am meeting the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and others later today, and I am happy to meet any hon. Member to talk in more detail about this complex issue. In conclusion, hon. Members should know how strong the automotive sector is for us. We are a strong manufacturing nation. I believe that we will be a lot stronger. I thank everyone for their attention today.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this wide, but clear and focused debate on such an important industry. This industry has been a phenomenal success for the UK and we should all be proud of it, but it is being handicapped. We have heard from around the Chamber how the industry faces great challenges, such as clarity and direction over Brexit and the transformation to cleaner energy. On both challenges, it is within the Government’s gift to set a policy to assist the industry—not necessarily to advantage the industry, but certainly not to disadvantage it as at present.

The industry has been extremely competitive, but it is being made uncompetitive as a result of contradictory policies from the Government, particularly the decisions of the Chancellor to further penalise a product that is critical to an orderly transition to a zero-carbon future, while achieving the international climate change obligations and reducing CO2. I simply urge the Minister to revisit both those areas urgently. Whether it is diesel or the transition, we are hampering and damaging the most crucial manufacturing industry in this country.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Child Sexual Exploitation and Consent to Sexual Intercourse

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of child sexual exploitation and consent to sexual intercourse.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am delighted to see that the Solicitor General is here to respond to the debate. I put on record, however, that I am disappointed that no one from the Home Office is here to discuss the issue. It was intended that the Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), would be here, but she is not. However unintentional that may be, I find it suggestive of a lack of interest in this topic—it is not the first time that I have had difficulty in engaging the Home Office on the issue.

Recent press coverage of child sexual exploitation and grooming gangs in Telford has enabled many victims to come forward. Some speak about historical crimes that they have not previously reported; others speak of the enormous challenges that they have faced in getting justice. I will focus on the latter point.

Anyone listening to the debate will be astonished, as I was, to learn that a child as young as 13 can be targeted and groomed for sex with multiple men, and that those men can say to police, by way of defence, “I had no reason to believe that she did not consent. I had no reason to believe that she was under 16.” In such circumstances, unless the victim can show otherwise, the police may not have the perpetrator charged with any offence at all. All the perpetrators have to do is say, “The victim willingly met for sex and did not tell me her age.”

It is worth pointing out that, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, under-age sex is an offence and consent should not be a factor, but in practice, the police can take a different approach. That suggests that they may not fully understand grooming and the power that a perpetrator can exert over a victim who has been groomed. A child who is groomed into acquiescence is not willingly and voluntarily consenting to sex, but they may not get justice unless they can show that they made the perpetrators aware of their age and that they were unwilling.

Grooming is coercion, and it brings about a sense of control over the victim. It can be subtle or indirect, or it may be direct, by way of a threat to shame a child by exposing their sexual activity to their parent, school or friends. Either way, it is a process of psychological manipulation to force a vulnerable child to do something that they do not want to do and would not otherwise have done. That cannot be equated with consent. Just because physical force is not present, that cannot be grounds for the police to infer that a groomed child is consenting.

How can the authorities assume that a child as young as 13 would willingly consent to sex with multiple men? Let us be honest: in the cases I am talking about, the men are not in the child’s social network—they are not young teenagers from the child’s school, or known to the child’s parents or older siblings. They are groups of adult men targeting young girls through street grooming or in takeaways and restaurants. How can the police possibly assume with good reason that the targeted child consents simply because she did not refuse sexual intercourse? Consent must be freely given without duress or coercion. Consent is a voluntary act.

A young girl in Telford was groomed for sex with a group of men. The grooming began while she was celebrating her 13th birthday in a local restaurant. While she was still 13, she became pregnant by one of those men, and her parents realised what was going on and went to the police. The identity of the perpetrators was not an issue and arrests were quickly made. Two things went wrong, however: the police failed to identify that the men were connected to each other, or that the child had been groomed. The police treated the men as if each one was in a separate relationship with the child. She was treated as willingly engaging in sexual activity with men she had voluntarily chosen to have a relationship with.

The offences the police were to consider in the case were rape and engaging in sexual activity with a child under 16. The police accepted that the perpetrators could not have known from the victim’s actions that she did not consent and, further, that the perpetrators reasonably believed that she was over 16, as she had not disclosed her true age to them until after she became pregnant.

It is clear in this case that the child could not articulate in the testimony that she gave to the police the psychological impact of grooming and coercion. When it was put to her by the police, she accepted that she had not told the perpetrators her age and that she had not refused sexual intercourse. Despite not wanting to have sex with any of the men, she accepted that they would not have known that she did not want to have sex, so the police did not ask the Crown Prosecution Service to bring charges. The grooming was ignored: she had not said no, she had not been physically forced and she was over 12, so it could not be rape, and as she had not revealed her true age, the perpetrators had a reasonable belief that she was over 16, so it could not be sex with a minor.

The destruction and damage to the girl’s life and to her family is impossible to communicate. The family exhausted every avenue in their battle to get justice. One perpetrator, who had sex with the child again while on bail, received three and a half years for sex with a minor, but all the agencies upheld the police’s position when complaints were brought. The family were told that it was right that no charges had been brought against the other perpetrators in the case. How do the parents explain that to their daughter? What message does it send to perpetrators if no charges are brought in such a case?

I want to believe that that is a one-off, isolated case, because under the law consent should not come into it at all. However, the family wrote to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the CPS, the professional standards board, the Home Office and the Prime Minister, and all the parties that responded took the view that the police’s course of action was correct.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important local and national issue, and on attracting to the debate the Solicitor General, who is probably the most qualified person in Parliament to respond. The police can always learn lessons, but charging decisions are often a joint exercise with the Crown Prosecution Service. Some of the cases she refers to are of vulnerable young adults who are known to the local authority. Telford and Wrekin Council, which is a key stakeholder in the issue, needs to get on with conducting the independent inquiry, appointing an independent chairman, restoring public confidence in the local council and ensuring that victims get the justice they deserve.

I fully agree with my hon. Friend that the Solicitor General is an eminent and learned colleague. I also agree with his point about Telford and Wrekin Council. Now that it has decided that it will have an investigation into child sexual exploitation in Telford, it is imperative that it gets on and appoints a chairman. We have already waited two months, and I cannot see that anything has happened yet. I hope it will take the opportunity to delay no longer on that. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point.

To return to the case that I was raising, the family wrote to all those different parties and the answer was that the case had been correctly handled. The CPS sent a letter to the family about the perpetrator who was responsible for the victim’s pregnancy, which said:

“It was right that no charges have been brought in this case.”

It explained why it came to that conclusion by saying that

“the prosecution must prove that a victim was not consenting to the sexual intercourse and...that the person accused did not reasonably believe that the victim was consenting.”

It went on to say that the victim

“was clear that although she may not have wanted sexual intercourse…the suspect would not have been aware from her actions at the time that she did not want to have sexual intercourse…As such a charge of rape is not appropriate and indeed the police did not seek a charging decision from the CPS for an offence of rape.”

It then addressed the possibility of bringing a charge of sexual activity with a child under 16, and said:

“The prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the suspect did not reasonably believe the victim was over 16. We could not prove this to the required standard. The victim agreed that she had not told the suspect her age until after she discovered that she was pregnant. I believe a jury may have doubts as to whether the suspect is guilty. For these reasons, it was right that no charges were brought against this suspect.”

I repeat that it was judged

“right that no charges were brought against this suspect”.

The authorities were telling the father of a child victim of abuse that there was no good reason to prosecute the men responsible.

Anyone else looking at the facts of this case would see grotesque and traumatic abuse and exploitation of a child by multiple perpetrators; anyone else would understand the lifelong impact that this horrendous crime would have on this child and her family. But the police did not see that. When I discussed this case with them, it was almost as if they thought that it had been the child seeking out the perpetrators and not the other way round. They did not value the account given by the victim. They did not see an abused child; they saw a young woman who had failed to reveal her true age willingly engaging in sexual activity with multiple men.

Social services became involved in the case after the event and held multi-agency meetings; in fact, they held a number of them. At every one of those meetings, what was discussed was a behavioural contract for the child—a code of conduct for the victim. It was the victim who was placed on a curfew and not allowed out after school. I am sure that everyone in the extensive cast list at those multi-agency meetings meant well and wanted to protect the child from further harm, but why was it her behaviour that was in question and not the behaviour of the men who had committed the crime?

The hon. Lady is making a very powerful speech, and what I am hearing is really concerning. The thought occurs to me that when an older man seeks to have sex—consensual sex, as he may think it is—with an obviously young girl, surely it is up to him to find out the girl’s age, so that he can be confident that she is old enough to engage in sexual activity, rather than his just being blithely able to say, “I thought she was old enough”. I assume that the girl in this case looked young; surely the onus is on the adult to ensure that she is of the age of consent.

Indeed—the hon. Lady makes an excellent point. She and I would both have reached that conclusion and many members of the public would, too, which is why I am glad that it has now been placed on the record.

It is difficult for me to understand why it was the victim’s behaviour that was in question and not the behaviour of the men. It is almost as if it is an accepted norm that predatory grooming and exploitation of young girls will happen, and that it is the victim who must be controlled and not the perpetrators. That is not a world that any of us want a young person to grow up in. We all to want to see vulnerable young people being protected, but does that really mean that young girls should be prevented from going out after school? In this case, the known perpetrators were released without charge and without any monitoring of their behaviour. That is more than just victim-blaming; it is a failure even to see that there is a victim.

That suggests that something is very wrong, because how is it that the police could fail to see an abused child when an ordinary member of the public would see one? The police acted as if this was a young woman freely entering into multiple relationships with multiple older men, each of whom—the police thought—did not realise they were doing anything wrong, as they thought she was over 16. In fact, one of the men suggested that he thought this 13-year-old was 18.

Are the police undervaluing or not even accepting the testimony of victims while accepting the testimony of the perpetrators, or is it just that they do not understand what grooming is and the impact that it can have on the way a child behaves? What is apparent is that there is no requirement to consider the impact of grooming and coercion, or the power that a perpetrator can have over a child victim, when the decision is made about whether to ask the Crown Prosecution Service to press charges.

Under sections 9 to 11 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sex with a child under 16 is an offence irrespective of consent, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm that. Given that law, therefore, most of us would assume that in a case such as this, there is no need for the victim to prove that she did not consent or that the perpetrators knew her true age. In reality and in practice, however, when a child is 13 or over, certain defences can be used, and indeed are used, that are readily accepted by the police without the defendant having to do anything more than simply tell the police their account of events. It must be wrong that individual police officers can, in effect, act as judge and jury and decide not to ask the CPS to charge, particularly in a case such as this one where some very serious offences have been committed.

Grooming is the means by which someone is forced to do something against their will. How could anyone believe that a child who is being groomed has free will to decide whether to have sex with their abusers? That is why we need to have an investigation in Telford and why I am delighted that there will now be such an investigation. Otherwise, how are we going to work out what needs to be done, so that the police and the authorities in general can respond differently in the future? I am glad that the local council has finally agreed to commission such an investigation, although it is due to the work of journalists, who brought some of these issues to light, that the investigation is now happening. I am very pleased that the press has the freedom to report on these issues and bring them out into the open.

I was going to ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle, to review the specific case that I have referred to today. I took details of the case to the Home Secretary in March, delivering them in person to the Home Office. I have not yet had a response, and I should be most grateful to receive one, if not from the Solicitor General then from the Home Office in due course. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is also Minister for Women, will take the time to read the details of the case, which I have given to the Home Office, and indeed the report today’s debate.

In a case where it is clear that a child is the victim of multiple acts of abuse by multiple perpetrators, there should be no reason for that child to show that the abusers knew she was 13 years old. Why should she have to show them that she did not consent to sexual activity, and why, in this particular case, was no evidence of grooming given to the CPS? I know that it is for the prosecution to prove guilt, but in a case such as this the prosecution is not even being given the opportunity to prove guilt, because no charges were brought. The victim and her family were dismissed by the authorities, more or less on the say-so of the male perpetrators.

In light of what we now know about grooming and child sexual exploitation, I ask the Solicitor General to consider whether it is time to update both the guidance to the police and perhaps the Sexual Offences Act 2003, particularly when it comes to the definition of consent. As I have said, consent cannot be implied by the absence of a refusal or the absence of physical force. Coercion and force can and do take many non-physical forms.

As more such cases come to light and we find out more about what is happening—the case that I have referred to is a recent case, not a historic one—it is essential that the police actively look for evidence of grooming that can they can then pass on to the CPS, which has to make the decision about charging. However, if the CPS does not have the evidence of grooming, then it cannot take it into consideration.

Most children in such circumstances will be unlikely to know that what has happened to them is grooming or coercion, and they certainly cannot be expected to volunteer that information if all they are asked is, “Did you make it clear to the suspect that you did not want to have sex?”

We have come a long way in our response to this crime, but we must now consider whether the law is protecting children and young people from grooming and exploitation. As each case comes to light, we cannot just go on wringing our hands and saying how horrific it is that different cases are emerging up and down the country. If the law does not protect our children from being groomed and targeted for sex, we must update it.

I thank the Solicitor General for listening to what I have had to say today. It is only by listening to the experiences of MPs in their constituencies that the voices of victims are properly heard, and that is why I am disappointed that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is not here today. The full picture can emerge only by our listening to the voices of the victims, and we need to understand how the law operates in practice, not just how it is written on the statute book. Only by understanding that can we take the necessary action to prevent this abuse happening to more victims. I would be most grateful if the Solicitor General could set out what action can be taken in cases such as the one I have described.

I had been expecting, as Chairman, that a Home Office Minister would be here, but we have an excellent substitute: the Solicitor General.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

May I put on the record the reason for my presence at this debate, bearing in mind my ministerial responsibility as superintendent of the Crown Prosecution Service of England and Wales? As this debate has been quite rightly focused by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) upon questions of law and the prosecution of these offences, it is entirely appropriate that I am appearing in Westminster Hall today.

May I assure my hon. Friend that I have already had an important conversation with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who is the Home Office Minister with responsibility for safeguarding? Indeed, Home Office officials are here today with me.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford on securing this debate. I know how much she has campaigned for the victims of child sexual exploitation in her constituency and how she has been a tireless champion of securing an independent inquiry into systematic issues that have resulted in a whole cohort of young people in her local area being failed by the authorities after having to suffer appalling abuse.

I speak not only as a Minister; I have many years’ experience in prosecuting just this type of offence. Having taken what is now the Serious Crime Act 2015 through Parliament as a Minister, I am proud that in that Act we updated the law to remove old-fashioned references to child prostitution in acknowledgement of the fact that when it comes to consent we are dealing with children. These are children who deserve the protection of the law, and to apply to them the standards that can be applied to fully mature adults is a betrayal of their vulnerability and a failure to safeguard them. Over and above everything, the issue must be one of safeguarding. Underlying some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised is perhaps a failure, at times, by the respective agencies and their representatives to understand that safeguarding must come first and therefore that the point of view of the child—the victim—is paramount, rather than considerations of another kind. If people understand that, we will make even further progress.

I have been part of a number of inter-ministerial groups on child sexual exploitation, from my time as a member of the coalition Government right through to this year, and I have been impressed by the sense of purpose the Government have shown in seeking to co-ordinate and improve the work that needs to be done to safeguard children. We have had new legislation on safeguarding and a robust response to the appalling incidents in Rotherham, Rochdale and other local areas that shone a light on the problem often encountered by young people in getting their story regarding child sexual exploitation heard and believed.

My hon. Friend raised a specific case, of which I am aware, and I know that she has written to colleagues in the Home Office. She will get a response; I will undertake to ensure that by writing to her. It would perhaps be invidious for me to make detailed comment on the merits of the case, as a further inquiry investigation is under way, but I take on board her points. She drew the important distinction between consent and knowledge of age, both of which issues I will deal with now, in general terms.

When a case meets the threshold, the police should refer it to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision. That decision is then made by an independent prosecutor in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors and CPS legal guidelines. On consent, it is important to draw a distinction between consent in fact and consent in law. In fact, the threshold for absence of consent in law is somewhat more rigorous. A child under the age of 16 cannot in law consent to a sexual act. Therefore, a person is guilty of a child sexual offence such as sexual activity with a child contrary to the 2003 Act if sexual activity takes place and the child is either under 13 or is under 16 and the perpetrator does not reasonably believe them to be 16 or over.

My hon. Friend referred to the question of reasonable belief and I assure her that the test is rigorous and takes into account all the evidence in the case. Proof of the age of a child is of course a simple, straightforward matter—date of birth can easily be proved. The question of reasonable belief often depends on the circumstances, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the old chestnut of, “I didn’t know her age. She didn’t tell me,” does not mean that the police and the prosecution are suddenly discharged of any responsibility to bring the case. Wider circumstances need to be considered and assessed. Each case must stand or fall on its facts, and the perception that somehow at all times the burden should be on the child to prove their position is not correct. It is important that we as Ministers and parliamentarians get that message out there, so that young people know that if they come forward they will be taken seriously and treated properly.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) knows well from experience—we have worked together on such issues and I am grateful for her presence and her intervention today—that it is vital that young people know that we have moved on from the appalling response we saw in Rotherham and other local authorities and that that approach is no longer acceptable. The courts themselves, in sentencing, now readily acknowledge that. The idea that somehow a child can consent in any way to sexual activity, where consent is not an element of the offence, is no longer relevant in sentencing. Indeed, the courts no longer give defendants any mitigation or concession for so-called implied consent on the part of a victim who is a child. That has been an important development as well.

In the context of offences of rape, other than the rape of a child under 13 for which consent is not necessary, the absence of consent must be proved regardless of age. The definition of consent is that a person agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to do so—and there comes the issue. Again, it is important that we send the message out clearly that the age and circumstances of the complainant—the victim—must be taken into account in understanding age and capacity.

Acquiescence is not consent, and that message is vital, particularly in the context of some of the child sexual abuse of which we are all aware. The fact that a vulnerable or young person has been groomed starkly raises the reality that he or she may have been placed in a position in which they have merely acceded to sexual activity, rather than having given real, meaningful consent. The despicable actions of those who prey upon such young people should, and have, come under scrutiny when considering the issue of genuine consent. Even in the absence of clear evidence of grooming, a victim under the age of 16 is likely to be considered vulnerable, regardless of whether the defendant believes them to be older. Evidence that a victim has been drugged or is so intoxicated that they no longer have capacity to consent may also support the absence of consent per se.

I am not privy to all the facts of the case, but in the light of what the Solicitor General said about the age of consent being 16, I really struggle to understand why the men are at large and not behind bars. I am curious about that.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to reiterate the point that has been made. I cannot comment on the specific case, but it is clear to me that we have moved a million light years from perpetrators being able to get away with such things with impunity.

Did my hon. and learned Friend say that there will be a review into the case I have put before the Home Office?

There is indeed a further investigation as a result of my hon. Friend’s letter and I have committed to writing to her about the outcome.

The tools that the prosecution now has are considerable. We even have tools relating to sending sexual communications to a child ahead of any grooming, which came into force last year, and for young people between the ages of 16 and 18 we also have preventive measures, such as sexual risk prevention orders. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. I undertake to respond to her more fully in relation to the specific offence and I reassure her that this Government, and this Solicitor General, take child sexual abuse extremely seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

National Funding Formula: Social Mobility

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

A one-minute silence was observed in memory of the victims of the Manchester attack.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the national funding formula on social mobility.

My thoughts are with all those affected by the terrible atrocity last year in Manchester. We lived in Manchester for many years, and our children went to the arena many times. It could have been them.

A few weeks ago, I joined headteachers from Bath who had given up their Saturday to march through the city because schools are in the depths of a funding crisis that the Government are refusing to acknowledge. We are at a point where teachers are quite literally shouting in the streets, trying to get the Government to listen to them. Today, I am calling on the Government to listen—to listen to the people who are tasked with preparing the next generation for their lives to come, and to listen to them when they say they do not have enough money to do so.

The issue should not be a political football. Teachers simply do not have the resources to do their jobs properly. In 2015, schools were promised they would be funded in line with inflation. Later they were promised that

“each school will see at least a small cash increase.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 536.]

That has not happened. Schools are facing higher costs from increased pupil numbers, pensions, national insurance contributions, pay awards, inflation and the apprenticeship levy, while facing a reduction in the education services grant. By 2020, £8.6 billion will have been taken out of the system.

School budgets are at breaking point, with 55% of academies reporting deficit budgets and 75% of secondary schools saying they are spending more than their income. Some 23 local authority areas will see cuts of at least 5% by 2019-20. Some 91% of schools face real-terms cuts by 2019-20 as compared with 2015-16. As cuts continue, teachers as well as support staff are lost, because staffing forms around 85% to 90% of school budgets. In the last two years, 15,000 posts have been deleted in secondary schools.

Out of curiosity, I want to pick up on the point the hon. Lady is making and on funds being moved from one part of the country to another. Does she accept there are circumstances where some schools have historically received more funds but have perhaps had demographic changes, while other areas have also had demographic changes but need more funds? There has to be a point where a reallocation is necessary. We need that reallocation in West Sussex, for a start.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but if he will allow me, I will point out how things look for my local authority of Bath and North East Somerset, where school funding per pupil is falling in 58 schools and increasing in only 17. I would like to see local authorities where that balance is different.

In my local authority, three out of four schools are losing funding. For example, under the new funding system, one school in my constituency—Twerton Infant School and Nursery—will see a 0.5% increase next year. However, in September, it will be paying its teachers 2% more. It will also be paying its support staff between 2% and 5% more. If we add inflation on top—it is currently 2.5%—the financial outlook starts to look incredibly bleak. The school is facing a funding black hole of at least £50,000.

During Education questions last week, I asked the Minister whether school funding was rising in line with inflation. He dodged the question and suggested that the Government were helping schools by giving them advice for managing their energy bills. That very same day, the headteacher at Twerton Infants, George Samios, had been sitting with his business manager trying to find £50,000 in savings. Needless to say, £50,000 is significantly more than the school’s energy bill.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that, while raising teachers’ pay on the main scale is very welcome, it is pointless if it is not new money coming to schools? Otherwise, that money is being taken away from the frontline—the children.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. My school is facing a funding black hole of £50,000. I assume that the situation in her schools will be exactly the same.

Responses like that of the Minister show how far detached the Government are from schools and teachers in Bath and across the country, as well as from the impact of their decisions on our young people. Twerton Infants has already had to cut the one-to-one support it used to have for children who had experienced early adversity and trauma.

That situation is not unique to Twerton. Headteachers from schools across Bath tell me regularly about the difficult decisions they are having to make. Parents will come to the school and ask, “Where is the extra support for my child with special educational needs?” The school will answer, “We are sorry, we do not have the funds to provide that anymore.” If a school wants to put on extra support for a child with autism, that is not going to happen. If a school wants an extra member of staff to look after classes at lunchtime or to help children who are finding it difficult to transition, that is not going to happen. As one Bath headteacher put it:

“By starving our schools of funding, we are accepting that our children can get by on a cut-price education. Morally, let alone economically, this is indefensible.”

Where is the understanding from Government of how our young people learn and progress? Where is the commitment to our children’s futures? The Government say there is more money in the system than ever before, but there are more pupils in the system. The Government hide behind deliberately complex figures and funding streams and obfuscate the real picture.

I have recently become a trustee of a multi-academy trust in Bath. The trust’s main concern is that it no longer has the funds to employ support staff, because its budgets are becoming tighter every year and it has no more reserves. The local authority in Bath, which used to support schools, is making staff redundant, especially those in welfare roles. The Government expect trusts to take over those functions, but the trusts do not have the money to do so.

What further increases the pressure and creates a vicious cycle is that good and experienced teachers are leaving the profession in growing numbers. Teaching is already a difficult job, but it is becoming so hard that many teachers find it impossible to cope. My academy trust in Bath finds it increasingly difficult to recruit qualified teachers, and it is worried about the de-professionalisation of teachers. Trusts, although not my particular trust, are employing teachers without qualified teacher status. That cannot be right.

I know the teaching profession very well. I taught secondary school children modern languages. An already difficult job became even harder when the resources were not there and class sizes were heading towards 30. It is our young people who suffer. Good classroom practitioners know that during a lesson they cannot just engage with the five pupils at the front or the five at the back. With large class sizes, it is the 20 pupils in the middle who are the most difficult to reach. What happens if teachers do not reach those young people? Those young people lose out, and an awful lot of them are losing out. If children do not receive the right support, they do not reach their full potential.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing what I would call a timely debate. In Coventry, I have visited 12 to 15 schools out of probably just over 100. Each of those schools is losing £275 a year per pupil. Nationally, probably about 3,000 youth clubs have been closed, which needs to be taken into consideration. The Government say that they have put more money in, but we should not forget that they cut £4.5 billion over the last couple of years, and put in £1.5 billion. Is it any wonder that schools are in the state they are? Certainly in Coventry there is very serious concern about rising numbers in classrooms. Does the hon. Lady agree?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is not just about what happens in our classrooms; it is about what happens outside them. He makes a very powerful point. It is about the importance we place on our young people and their future. It is not only about schools, but about youth services, support and, as we are discussing today, social mobility and how we help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to thrive fully.

I would not normally intervene at this stage in a debate, but I wanted to point out to the hon. Lady that when the national funding formula is fully implemented, funding for schools in Bath and North East Somerset will rise by 8.8%. That is one of the largest rises of any local authority. In her own constituency, it will rise by 7.1%, and the funding for the school she mentioned—Twerton Infant School—will rise to £5,457 per pupil, compared with the national average of £4,189.

I thank the Minister for that intervention, but it is very clear that talking in percentages hides the real picture and does not tell us the per pupil funding. My headteacher in Twerton is absolutely clear that per pupil funding is going down, year on year, and the pupils who are particularly suffering are those who need extra support.

With regard to Twerton Infant School, I was talking about per pupil funding. It will rise to £5,457 per pupil once the national funding formula is implemented in full, compared with the national average of £4,189 per pupil.

I am listening to my headteacher, who has given me the numbers. If he gets a 0.5% increase, but has to pick up increases in teachers’ pay and in support staff, his overall funding is going down. If the Minister is happy to meet with me and that headteacher, we can probably discuss it at an individual level.

If children do not receive the right support, they do not reach their full potential, which is a national tragedy, because we lose out as a country. We lose out on the nurses and teachers of the future, the software engineers and the hospitality professionals—the list is endless. We deprive Britain of the people who will continue building its prosperity. The worst thing is that the loss of opportunity particularly affects children and families from poorer areas.

In my maiden speech, I said that whenever I mention that I am the MP for Bath, people go, “Ooh, Bath, how beautiful!” It is, but like almost every other place in the country, Bath suffers from serious inequality. One fact illustrates that perfectly, and it is well known in Bath, but perhaps not outside it. Twerton Infant School, which I mentioned, lies on the number 20A bus route. Three stops on from Twerton, life expectancy increases by seven years. Let that sink in for a second—seven years’ difference over a five-minute bus journey. The so-called “fair funding” formula eradicates the extra funding that used to go to schools in catchment areas with high levels of deprivation.

We all agree that funds must be there to support those most in need. Personally, I welcomed the national funding formula’s emphasis on ensuring that children who come from deprived backgrounds, or who have English as a second language and need extra support, get that targeted support. That is in addition to the pupil premium, which was a great triumph of the coalition. I think the hon. Lady is being a little unfair on the national funding formula.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I go by what I see on the ground. I have just explained that I am a trustee of a multi-academy trust. We are facing a problem with the loss of local authority staff, particularly in welfare and support roles. Trusts are meant to pick up those roles. They cannot, because they do not have the money, so staff who are helping young people with difficulties are not supported. That is the tragedy.

The important point is that the schools that most need the support are losing the most money. However, as we know from an announcement last week, the Government have found some extra money—£50 million for grammar schools. To me, that clearly demonstrates that the Government are committed to inequality. Inequality has no place in our society. Every child has the right to achieve their full potential, and should receive the support and education to do so. That costs money, and the state has a duty to provide it.

Schools are in a funding crisis. I very much appreciate the Minister’s being here today. I urge him to listen not just to me, but to teachers and headteachers across the country.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing the debate. It was very short-notice but, as she flagged up, this is an important issue.

This is one of those fascinating debates where it is a bit like the old cliché of apples and pears, in the sense that one side says one thing, and the other side tweaks it a wee bit, says, “It’s an apple, not a pear,” and stands the argument on its head. Rather than going round in circles, which we can do, frankly, for hours, I will mention one point in particular that strikes home to me.

I have been involved in politics for nigh on 20 years, and previously I spent many years in business. In all the years that I have been in politics, I have discovered that senior public sector people very rarely put their head above the parapet—for obvious reasons, as doing so can put their career in jeopardy. Whether that is right or wrong is irrelevant to the argument. The main thing is that colleagues will remember that, last year, 5,000 headteachers across the country not only wrote to their Members of Parliament and to the Government but went on a march, because they were so anxious about what they said were real-terms cuts to our schools budget. Before I get on to those cuts, I reiterate that I have never seen, in all my years in politics, so many senior people within schools say, “We can’t be doing with this any more. We’re going on a march. We need the money, otherwise our schools are in trouble.” That was so significant to me.

Clearly I know a lot of my local schools, and I met a lot of the heads both when I was first an MP and during the time after I was briefly defenestrated before coming back as the Member of Parliament. I have known some of those people for a long time. I can even remember, in the halcyon days of the coalition, trying to get them to go public on particular issues. There was no way that they would put their head above the parapet, because they did not need the grief. On this issue, however, heads across the country—in Labour, Conservative and Liberal areas across England—were so angry that they rose up and said, “Our schools are facing a crisis.”

To be fair, the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), listened and came up with an additional £1.3 billion. I am quite sure that there were sound political reasons for that as well, because of the snap election, but I will give her due credit because I think she deserves it. Despite our being on different sides politically, I thought that she was a good Secretary of State.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it was slightly concerning that that £1.3 billion was not new money? When the Public Accounts Committee, on which I sit, questioned representatives from the Department on where that money would come from, they said that the vast majority of it was coming from so-called efficiency savings. At the time, they were unable to tell us exactly where the money was coming from. Does my hon. Friend share my worry about that?

I entirely agree. A lot of it was apparently not new money, and anyway, even with the best will in the world, it just held everything in place for 12 months—it did not solve the problem. As my hon. Friend has emphasised, as we began to pick into and drill down into those figures, what did we discover? We discovered that quite a lot of it was not the new money it was initially alleged to be.

Having said that, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Putney. I believe that her heart was in the right place and that she was fighting the schools’ corner as strongly as she could. I certainly think she was probably more on our side of the divide when it came to grammar schools, which is possibly why she is now the ex-Secretary of State—but who am I to make such an allegation?

I come back to the important fact that the headteachers—the people who know—say that funding is going down; there are not net increases, and it has been going on for years and causing real problems. Teachers have not had a decent wage increase in many years, and again, there is a real cross-party push on that. We are hearing soundings from within Government that there is an appreciation that teachers’ wages need to be increased more in line with inflation, similar to the situation in the NHS. However, it is terribly important, to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), that that is done with new money. If we finally do get that salary increase for teachers, and there is the same story of efficiencies—after seven years they are really beginning to cut into the lean muscle, with the fat having gone from the whole sector—that will be very disappointing. If the Government sign off a good pay increase on the one hand but then on the other hand say that it has to come from school budgets, we will go even further backwards.

I have known the Minister a long time; I hold him in genuine respect, even with our disagreements in the past. I urge him to make a statement today about the scale of the salary rise and a commitment that it will funded by new money and not taken from school budgets, which would just make a bad situation chronic.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and I have tabled an early-day motion today, specifically urging that the Government find new money to pay teachers a decent increase after their many years of getting static salary increases. I urge hon. Members to sign the early-day motion; I am sure it is very much a cross-party aim that many of us would support.

As I said, it comes down to apples and pears. The National Audit Office—as we all know, it is a highly reputable, respected body—says that in 2018-19, schools will experience additional cost pressures of 1.6%. That may not sound an awful lot, but after a few years of consistent 1%, 2% and 2.5% rises, and a failure to get net funding increases, it adds up considerably. The additional cost pressure comes on top of several years of static Government funding and increases in pupil numbers, salary increments, employer national insurance contributions, employer pension contributions and inflation, meaning that real school budgets have seen a decline of—wait for it—about 15%.

I was in business for years before I went into politics. I know how to trim and how to make efficiency savings. When times are tough, we have to go through efficiency savings. I wholly signed up to those necessary efficiency savings in coalition, but there comes a time when a line needs to be drawn. If someone is looking at a 15% real-terms cut in their business, school or hospital, they are heading for a car crash. That is why I, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, who is the Liberal Democrat lead in this area, and the Labour party urge the Government to make a longer-term, significant increase to contributions to the schools budget, as well as a separate increase to teachers’ wages.

Does my hon. Friend recognise from meetings he has had with headteachers, as I have had, that the reason why this is significant is that roughly 75% of a school’s budget goes on its teaching and support staff? The reduction in budget can only come from what is left. Schools have now got to the point where they can cut no more without affecting frontline staff, and that will lead to a drop in the quality of service that we can give children and parents across the country.

My hon. Friend is so right. We know that is true. Hon. Members will have spoken to their local headteachers and visited their schools. The number of teaching assistants has been slashed, and support for disabled children is under tremendous pressure. The schools are creaking—there are no two ways about it. I know that the budget is huge and there are thousands and thousands of schools across the country, but having proper funding is such a crucial part of our nation’s future.

I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath about grammar school investment. I thought that, after the catastrophic consequence of the snap election in 2017 for the governing party, the whole idea of grammar schools had been kicked into the long grass. Suddenly, out of nowhere, it got into the headlines last week—another £50 million for grammar schools. There really are better ways than grammar schools in a society where we are trying to give everyone the same opportunities to succeed. Without banging on about it, there is so much empirical evidence that shows that they are counterproductive and do not improve outcomes for disadvantaged people. There is so much evidence there that I will not even bore the Minister by outlining it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath for securing this really important debate on an issue that affects our future and our children’s future. I had the pleasure of welcoming pupils from a wonderful school in my constituency called Shinewater this morning. I know it well; I have visited it probably one gazillion times over the years that I have been either the MP or the parliamentary candidate. It is in a more disadvantaged part of my wonderful constituency of Eastbourne, in Langney. It is a great school with passionate teachers, and the sort of school where the Liberal Democrat policy of the pupil premium, which we delivered when we were in coalition, makes such a difference. That additional funding and support means that children who may not have the obvious advantages that I and many other Members of Parliament have had have an equal chance to have a very successful life in their jobs and relationships.

It was wonderful to welcome the children here. They were all about six or seven years old. Many of them had never even been on a train, let alone an underground. It is so long ago that I was that young that I can barely remember, but it was a pleasure to welcome them. I know the pressure that school is under. It is a good school, and it is doing its best and doing well, but it does not have anywhere near the number of TAs that it used to have. Its funding for special educational needs is severely stretched, and likewise its funding from the county council. It is the sort of school where the teachers go the extra mile, beyond anything that any teachers would have even contemplated 30, 40 or 50 years ago. They do it because they are passionate about the children and the school. I urge the Minister to help us to help schools such as Shinewater around the country—to give them the budget they deserve, to give the teachers the salary rise they deserve and to secure our schools’ funding and future for many years to come.

I am most grateful to be called to speak, Mr Walker, in particular because, only about five minutes ago, I intimated to you that I had not prepared a speech and did not intend to deliver one. I am most grateful that you have found time for me. This is an important subject, which it was important to raise, and I thought it deserved a longer airing in the House than would otherwise have been the case.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing the debate. My colleagues in West Sussex and I campaigned long and hard for a national funding formula. We were pleased to get a 5% increase in overall funding for the county, so I suppose I should congratulate the hon. Lady on doing better than that—the hon. Lady or, if I may be so bold, her predecessor. A 7% increase is possibly one of the highest increases achieved by any area of the country as a result of the NFF reallocation.

The hon. Lady is right that one can do a lot with statistics, but those I have seen show that we have, as a country, rightly put a huge emphasis on education. I think we have more than doubled our per pupil funding since the early 1990s, and we needed to: we expect a lot more from schools and teachers than we ever did before, and I pay credit to their huge commitment. Perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe we spend more per pupil on education than France or Germany. We need to—it is an investment in our future, and I am delighted that we make that commitment as a country. We owe it to our children and to our country to ensure that we have a fantastic cohort of children coming through.

In my constituency, we get £171 less per pupil, so when we talk about funding increases, it is important to bear in mind that, outside London, the situation is not the same for every constituency—the funding formula may not be fair for areas that are deprived.

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. [Interruption.] I hear whispers from the direction of the Minister, so I am certain there will be an answer about per pupil funding of schools in Peterborough. I hope there shall be.

We have to look at where we were before the NFF came in and at what brought me and my colleagues here. The first meeting I had in this place as an MP was with the then Secretary of State for Education to insist that we push through the NFF, because we needed it. Historically, the allocations were all over the place, but data from about 2000 to 2005 revealed genuine demographic changes, meaning that funding should be better allocated.

Disparities between parts of the country remain—the Minister knows I think this—and over time they need to be addressed, but the NFF was a proper step in the right direction of allocating funds according to the need of individual pupils. We need to have a basic amount of funding per pupil, and we need to make certain that we get that right. Beyond that we also need to allocate according to the need or characteristics of individual pupils.

Will the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that if we simply say, “We will increase per pupil funding,” but do not take into consideration inflation and other pressures on school budgets, such as teachers’ pay rises and so forth, that does not give the proper picture?

I totally accept the hon. Lady’s point about significant cost pressures. Some of those have been through the system—we have gone over a hump in cost pressures in relation to pensions in particular—but she makes a valuable point about staff pay. That will need to be addressed, but I am sure we shall hear wise words on funding teachers’ pay rises as they come through.

I recognise the issue of costs, but the debate is about funding and the NFF, and my county will get an extra £28 million as a result of the fully implemented national funding formula. West Sussex needed that funding, and that it received it was right. My secondary schools will get an increase of between 7% and 12%. There are increased costs, and I recognise those pressures, but the NFF is a fairer way of allocating funds than was previously the case.

Similarly to the hon. Lady, I have schools that have not done as well out of the NFF. Some of my primary schools are experiencing significant cost pressures, and I have talked to them and to the county about how to mitigate the impact of cost increases as they affect primary schools. I also have other issues, as the Minister knows. I would like more focus on the high-needs bloc, and I think the ASHE—the annual survey of hours and earnings—formula for allocating local costs of living in different areas could be improved. If I find a better way of doing it, I shall beat a path to the Minister’s door, because areas such as Horsham have very high costs of living, and I am not sure that that is properly reflected in the ASHE formula, which may need some attention.

The motion, however, was about the national funding formula and social mobility. At core, yes, we must make certain to have the right level of per pupil funding throughout the country to ensure that our excellent teachers can deliver the curriculum to the best of their ability and give our kids the head start in life that they need and that we all want for them. However, the NFF is right to go beyond that: we also need to allocate according to the characteristics of the pupils, be that speaking English as a second language, being in receipt of free school meals or having low prior attainment.

Education is part of the answer to help the country achieve better social mobility—it is only part of the answer, but it is an important part. Surely an NFF approach through which we recognise the individual characteristics of pupils is the right approach. The NFF is not the perfect answer, and I shall continue to work on it and to bend the ear of the Minister, but it is a step in the right direction, and the Government were right to introduce it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing the debate and for her eloquent and detailed speech outlining the key issues facing our schools and the negative impact that some of the Government’s decisions are having on our children. I also thank the hon. Members for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) for their contributions, and other Members for their interventions.

It is safe to say that there is a consensus in the Chamber: we all agree that our system of school funding should be designed to improve social mobility. Sadly, that is probably where the agreement ends, because everything the Government do flies in the face of improving social mobility—from their inaction on low pay and insecure work to their punitive welfare reform measures, which led the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to conclude that almost 400,000 more children have been plunged into poverty in the past four years and that the number of children in poverty is due to soar over the next few years to a record 5.2 million. The new schools funding system is no different: it will not achieve social mobility.

Children should never be denied the same opportunities in life just because of the place they were born. Yet in the north, two to three-year-olds are less likely than their London counterparts to reach the expected standard of development when starting school, and the National Education Union has said schools in my part of the world—the north-east—face the biggest cuts, with one school due to lose nearly £8,000 per pupil. Success in life should not be the result of a postcode lottery, but under this Government it is.

I think I can pre-empt what the Minister will say. He will tell us that there is funding for children in disadvantaged areas, for children with low prior attainment and for children eligible for free school meals. That is correct, and it is welcome, but it is simply not good enough. It is not good enough, because it ignores the wider issues facing schools in terms of the implementation of the funding formula and the impact of the first cuts to school budgets in a generation.

Does the hon. Lady agree that headteachers are not just making that up? For example, a headteacher in a deprived area in my constituency is not laying off support staff because he enjoys doing that; he is laying off support staff and those who help vulnerable children because he does not have the money.

I agree. I have had representations from headteachers, staff and support assistants in my constituency as well. That problem faces schools throughout our country—they are put in an intolerable position because their funding has been cut and cut.

The Education Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have both said that every school in the country will receive a cash-terms increase to their funding. We know, however, that that is simply not the case, as do the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UK Statistics Authority, which has repeatedly told the Government that that claim is not accurate. Perhaps the Minister will get it right this time. I am sure that by now his Department has received the local funding formula for every local authority in the country. Can he tell us how many schools will face a real-terms cut to their budgets, and is he able to tell us where those schools are?

The Minister has told us of the local authorities that have written to his Department to seek permission to top-slice their budgets to fund additional high-needs support. How many schools across the country will see their block funding cut as a result of those decisions? Such cuts should not be necessary. Schools and councils should never be forced to choose between funding the day-to-day expenses of their schools and getting the high-needs funding that is vital to so many of their pupils’ needs.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and for raising the issue of special educational needs provision. The education, health and care plan system is not working in places such as Oxfordshire because the county does not have the resources to deliver it. Although the schools are able to come up with the plans, they and the county do not have the money. Is this a picture that she has seen, because it is inundating my inbox?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. A recent local ombudsman report said that the picture of ECHP plans across the country is dire, and local authorities are often spending more money on tribunals to rectify decisions they made in the face of cuts, rather than actually implementing the plans in the way they should be implemented in the first place.

The fact is that school budgets have been slashed for the first time in a generation. The National Audit Office found that, since 2015, £2.7 billion has been lost from school budgets in real terms. If the Government were not making cuts to school budgets, it would be possible to introduce a new funding formula in a way that was equitable and sustainable and that could actually improve social mobility, but the Government are failing to do that. When the revised funding formula was put forward after the snap general election, one of the major changes was the introduction of a minimum funding level per pupil in secondary schools. Given the way that the formula allocates funding and the extent to which it allocates more funding to disadvantaged pupils, a minimum funding level would be particularly helpful to schools that take a very small number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds—in other words, grammar schools.

When the £4,600 minimum per secondary school pupil was announced, the Government committed an extra £1.3 billion to schools over two years. How much of that additional funding will find its way to grammar schools? It seems to us in the Labour party that finding extra funding to go to grammar schools—most of them in areas represented by the Minister’s colleagues on the Conservative Back Benches—is not a policy that will increase social mobility. In fact, it will do the opposite and focus resources more and more on the pupils who need it least, while those who need the additional support and additional funding will simply not have access to it.

We do not object to the principle of a minimum level of funding per pupil. However, it is worth remembering how the Conservative party arrived at that policy. When the funding formula was first devised, the Government did not believe that there should be a minimum funding level. Only after their Back Benchers—particularly those representing schools with more affluent intakes—raised concerns that they did not see enough extra funding in the formula did the Minister come to believe in the policy.

Although we welcome the belief in the minimum amount to which every single pupil should be entitled, I wish the Government would do this properly. Instead of finding a fraction of the funding that our schools need by making cuts elsewhere in an effort to buy off their own Back Benchers, why did the Minister not push to end the cuts to school budgets and increase per pupil funding in real terms for every single child, not just a minority of children?

Despite there being some elements of the funding formula that we welcome, the funding that goes to the most disadvantaged pupils is being cut in real terms year after year. Despite the rhetoric from the Government, the pupil premium has been falling in real terms every year since 2015. They have failed to increase the funding in line with inflation, which has led to the funding falling in real terms. In fact, it has fallen by £140 million.

A recent article in the press noted:

“A Department for Education source confirmed that in real terms the amount per pupil spent on the pupil premium specifically has fallen.”

Will the Minister confirm today that the per pupil spending on the pupil premium has fallen in real terms? Will he also tell us why, in reducing the funding formula, the Government have not ensured that that vital funding is protected?

The hon. Lady is very generous for allowing me to intervene again. Does she agree that the pupil premium introduced by the coalition Government was a powerful thing because it followed every single pupil around? The fact that funding per pupil is now being cut is a tragedy and is counter to what was radically introduced during the coalition Government.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. It will come as no surprise to her that I am a big advocate of the pupil premium and pupil premium plus.

Does the Minister really believe that the funding formula can truly support social mobility when it has not included meaningful protection of funding for the most disadvantaged students in our schools? He might say that the funding formula does not distribute pupil premium funding, but it would be disingenuous to act as though the two issues could be meaningfully separated. The issue of school funding and how it is allocated includes the pupil premium, whether the Minister considers them to be the same issue or not.

I sincerely hope that, in answering our questions and after listening to today’s debate, the Minister will show some appreciation of the fact that it is simply not possible to really improve social mobility when the Government have cut school budgets for the first time in a generation and are slashing the funding that goes to the most disadvantaged pupils year after year. Frankly, Minister, our children deserve better.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this debate. I will start by saying that standards are rising significantly in our schools: 1.9 million more pupils are in schools now rated good or outstanding compared with 2010. Children are reading better thanks to our reforms and we secured the highest ever scores in the PIRLS—the progress in international reading literacy study—of nine-year-olds’ reading ability when that was published last year. The proportion of young people taking at least two science subjects at GCSE has risen from 63% to 91%. Nine out of 10 young people now take at least two science subjects at GCSE.

The attainment gap between those from disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds has closed by 10% both at primary and secondary level. We are spending record amounts of money on our schools: £42.4 billion this year, rising to £43.5 billion from next year. We are spending £2.5 billion on the pupil premium: £13 billion since 2010. None of that could have been afforded had we not made careful decisions about public spending across Whitehall when we came into office in 2010, tackling a historic budget deficit of £150 billion, equal to 10% of our GDP. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy owing to the banking crisis of 2008-09 and because of decisions taken by the previous Government. We brought that down to about 2% of GDP. We have the highest level of employment in our history and the lowest level of unemployment for 40 years, and that has enabled us to maintain spending in real terms per pupil in our schools.

Of course, there have been cost pressures, particularly in the three years leading up to last year: higher national insurance contributions, which help to deal with the deficit, and higher employer’s pension contributions to the teachers’ pension scheme are costs that schools have had to absorb. We are helping schools with our school resource management advice on how they can manage those costs.

Under the national funding formula no school will see a cut in funding this year or next year. They will all receive, through the national funding formula, the money that is allocated to local authorities, which will be a rise of at least 0.5% for every school in the country and up to 3% this year for the lower-funded schools. How those local authorities allocate the funding to the schools this year and next year—we are allowing local discretion as we transition towards the national funding formula—will be for them to decide, but every local authority is receiving sufficient cash to pay at least a 0.5% increase to every single school in their area.

Can the Minister explain to me how advice increases funding? Advice is not the money that the schools need. In Bath, which has definitely not had a particular drop in population, 58 schools are losing and 17 are gaining. Almost three out of four schools are losing funding. How can the Minister explain that loss in funding?

Perhaps I may turn to schools in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Funding for Bath and North East Somerset will rise by 8.8% once the national funding formula is fully implemented. That is an increase of £8.4 million under the national funding formula. As my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) said, it is one of the largest increases for any area. To take some individual examples of schools in the hon. Lady’s constituency, Bathwick St Mary Church of England Primary School will have a rise of 9.5% once the national funding formula is fully implemented, and there are large increases for other schools in the constituency. She cited Twerton Infant School, whose funding level is £5,457 once the funding formula is fully implemented. That is significantly higher than the national average for a primary school of £4,189. In the move to a national funding formula, there will be schools that do not get as big an increase as schools in, for example, Horsham, or, indeed, other schools in her constituency that were underfunded, according to the formula. She happened to pick the one that was receiving a smaller increase than others, but that is because its per pupil funding of £5,457 under the formula is significantly higher than the national average.

Figures are figures, and can be turned one way or the other. I said in my speech that the funding increase received per pupil is 0.5%, but the extra pressures, which have been acknowledged, are mounting up to 4.5%. That is a lot of pressure—more than the extra funding. I worry about schools that are getting even less, because the head teachers in Bath do not lay people off for the fun of it. They do it because they do not have the necessary resources any more. Figures and percentages will not take that away. Will the Minister explain why headteachers have to lay off staff?

In circumstances where headteachers feel they have to do that, it is because they need to manage their funding within their budget. Funding for schools goes up and down depending on the number of pupils. If they have fewer pupils, they will of course receive less money per pupil and the overall budget will be less. That sometimes means planning for staff not to be replaced.

On that basis, how does the Minister explain the fact that in the past 18 months or so the number of schools releasing teaching assistants has grown faster than in the previous few years? Does he accept that that must be because of budgetary pressures and that, if it happens across the piece, it could lead to severe challenges down the line?

We have a benchmarking website where schools can look at their pupil-staff ratios. We have a tool that schools are using, called the curriculum-led financial planning tool. Schools can examine their curriculum using the tool, which was developed by some schools in the north of England—the Outwood Grange multi-academy trust—to ensure that over a three to five-year time span they are planning their staffing to reflect their curriculum. I think that a lot of schools are applying that tool and becoming more efficient. We are helping schools to manage their resources in a way that ensures they can balance the budget.

Every school will, according to the national funding formula, receive an increase in funding of at least 0.5%, but the Secretary of State has acknowledged on many occasions, as I have today, that there have been cost pressures: employers’ national insurance contributions have risen, as they have across the public and private sectors, and there are higher employer’s contributions to the teachers’ pension scheme. We think that is the right thing to do, to get the balance of the cost of those things spread between the schools and the taxpayer and to help to deal with the deficit. We are helping schools to tackle those cost pressures, but the hon. Gentleman should remember that we are spending record amounts of money on schools—£42.4 billion this year rising to £43.5 billion next year. We have been able to do that and maintain per pupil funding in real terms because we have a strong economy and have managed the public finances in a sensible way, bringing down the deficit and keeping public spending under control.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for his acknowledgement of the increased cost pressures. Another cost pressure—welcome, in a sense—is the rise in pay, particularly for teachers on the main pay scale. I want that to continue, because as the Minister knows teacher retention and recruitment is a major issue in the sector, but does he agree that if it does continue we will at some point need new money in the system, so that we do not keep eating away at the tiny amounts left until it is necessary to cut the number of teachers to make the numbers work?

The hon. Lady will know that the School Teachers Review Body, the independent pay body that makes recommendations about teachers’ pay, has reported to the Department, and we are looking at that report. We will respond to it, and I hope that that will be before the summer recess; that is our intention.

I have been following the Minister’s remarks on overall funding. Does he seriously think that what the Government are now implementing makes up for the £2.7 billion lost since 2015 in the first cuts to school budgets in a generation and for all the neglect since 2010?

I remind the hon. Lady that last year schools funding was £41 billion. This year—2018-19—it is £42.4 billion, and in 2019-20 it will be £43.5 billion. As the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed, that will allow us to maintain school and high-needs funding in real terms per pupil for the next two years. The IFS also pointed out that by 2020 real-terms per pupil funding will be some 70% higher than it was in 1990 and 50% higher than it was in 2000.

The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) acknowledged the extra £1.3 billion brought in, which we were able to identify last summer. We have been able to ensure that all schools, and all areas, will attract some additional funding over the next two years and have provided for up to 6% gains per pupil for underfunded schools by 2019-20. We have therefore, Mr Walker, gone further than our manifesto pledge—and I should have mentioned at the outset what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship; I was keen to get stuck into the debate. Now every school in every area will, under the national funding formula, receive at least 0.5% more per pupil this year than it received in 2017-18 and 1% more in 2019-20. The significant extra investment in schools demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that every child, regardless of their background, receives an excellent education.

During consultation on the formula, we heard that we could do more to support the schools that attract the lowest per pupil funding, something that the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) mentioned in her remarks. We listened to those concerns—something that I am criticised for, but I thought it was important to do so—and our formula will rightly direct significant increases towards those schools. In 2019-20, the formula will provide a minimum per pupil funding of £4,800 in respect of every secondary school and £3,500 in respect of every primary. That ensures that every school will attract a minimum level of funding through the formula, no matter what its pupil characteristics are. In addition, those schools will be able to attract even larger increases, as we have not limited their year-on-year gains to the 3%. Some of the lowest-funded schools in the country will therefore attract gains of more than 10% per pupil by 2019-20—something that I now understand the Labour party opposes. It therefore opposes, for example, the increase under the national funding formula of 10.1%—some £145,000—for Newbridge Primary School in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bath. That minimum funding also applies to St Stephen’s Church School, which, under this system, will receive a funding increase of 17.5%, or £214,000. Beechen Cliff School will receive a 10.9% increase in funding, equal to £427,000, once the national funding formula is fully implemented.

I will give way once I have finished this list, which I have to say is rather long. Hayesfield Girls’ School in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bath will receive an 8% increase, equal to £335,000, once the national funding formula is fully implemented, and Oldfield Secondary School will receive a 9.4% increase of £414,000. Saint Gregory’s Catholic College will receive an 8.2% increase once the funding formula is fully implemented, equal to £293,000.

With the national funding formula, we have been able to allocate funding to schools that historically have been underfunded. We listened carefully to the f40 campaign, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham was part, and we want to deal with the historical unfairness of schools that have been underfunded year after year. We are addressing that, and the examples I have given show that we have a national funding formula from which schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bath are benefiting. Bath is getting one of the biggest increases of any local authority in the country, and I had hoped that she would come to this debate to congratulate the Government on taking a brave stance in implementing that funding formula.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Bath since I mentioned her, and then to the shadow Minister.

The Minister is generous in giving way. I am grateful on behalf of any school that receives extra funding, but that extra funding should not come at the expense of other schools that most need more funding. To me, a fair funding formula should be based on the biggest need. As I said earlier, every child from whatever background should receive the education they deserve, but if we are to address social mobility, we must focus on those who need the most support. In Bath, schools in the most deprived areas are losing out, which is not acceptable.

But those schools are funded at significantly above the national average for schools, and if we are moving towards a national funding formula, that will be the consequence. We addressed that in our 2017 manifesto when we said that no school would have a cut in funding to get to the national funding formula position, but we changed that when we came back after 2017 and secured extra funding of £1.3 billion. That enabled us to introduce this minimum funding from which many schools in the hon. Lady’s constituency have benefited and to ensure that no school will have a cut in funding, since the worst that can happen is a 0.5% increase in each of those two years.

The Minister is talking about fairness and equity in the system, but what does he say to a school in the north-east that, according to the National Education Union, is set to lose £8,000 per pupil? How is that fair?

What the NEU is doing with its school cuts campaign is misleading. It is taking the cost pressures that we have acknowledged and telling the public that those are funding cuts. I have been clear that no school has had a funding cut. School funding went up in real terms per pupil in the last Parliament, and that increase has been maintained in real terms.[Official Report, 19 Jun 2018, Vol. 643, c. 1MC.] The NEU is talking about cost pressures that have had to be absorbed, not just by the school system but by other parts of the public sector and the private sector. The hon. Lady will know that once the national funding formula is fully implemented, funding in South Tyneside will increase by 4.5%, which is equal to £3.9 million more going into schools in that area.

I was not going to intervene again, but the Minister mentioned my area, and I will not take any lessons from him about what is happening to schools on my patch. Teachers come to see me on a regular basis saying that they are at breaking point because the cuts are damaging their ability to continue. Some schools are saying that they will have to go down to teaching just four days a week. I am sorry, but the Minister is wrong when he talks about how great things are for school funding in south Tyneside .

I am saying that thanks to the £1.3 billion extra funding that we secured, schools in south Tyneside will receive an extra 4.5% once the funding formula is fully implemented, which is equal to £3.9 million. [Interruption.] I have acknowledged that over the last three years, up to 2017-18, there have been cost pressures. Higher employer national insurance contributions have had to be absorbed not just in the school sector but across the public and private sectors, and there have been higher teachers’ pensions contributions, which was the right thing to do.

I am slightly frustrated, so I will share my frustration with the Minister. I would like more money to be spent on schools—I think everyone in the Chamber would like more money to be spent on pupils, and we would like better standards even more. I know that standards are rising, and what is being achieved on the attainment gap is great. However, I am frustrated because when the Conservative party came into office with its coalition partner, there was a £145 billion deficit that the kids of today were going to have to pay back. It is all very well wanting more and more money spent on things, but that money has to be raised. In the past, billions and billions of pounds were being left for the schoolchildren of today to repay, and that is not fair either.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, because that debt also carries an interest charge, which is similar to the overall amount of money we spend on schools each year. If we were to go down the Labour party’s route of promising even more expenditure and borrowing tens of billions of pounds to renationalise whole swathes of the private sector, as was promised during the general election and has been promised since, we would add even more to the interest that we have to pay each year. Indeed, we would have to pay something like £9 billion more in interest charges than we pay already.

When fully implemented, the national funding formula will lead to a 4%—£3.4 million—increase in the constituency of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya), and in Oxford West and Abingdon the increase will be 2.4%, which is £1.2 million extra for schools. Once the funding formula has been implemented in full, there will be a 3% increase in funding for schools in Oxfordshire as a whole, which is £10.5 million. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon referred to high-needs schools, and those schools will get an increase of 3.7% to £60.6 million. That important money is being spent on the most vulnerable children in our society, which is why there has been a 3.8% increase in funding in her area.

Does the Minister understand the frustration not just of the teaching profession but of parents? I am a governor at one of the schools in Oxfordshire that he mentioned. Perhaps he is suggesting that the board of governors and I are not managing our money or resources properly. I assure him that we are doing everything we can for this issue not to affect frontline services, but it does. My question is simple: does the Minister accept that although he can spout numbers—it is true; these are facts—the reality on the ground in schools such as Botley Primary School in my constituency is that teachers are at breaking point, and parents are beginning to see the real effects of the cost pressures that are played off against the increases in funding that the Minister lists?

We have to live within our budget, and the Treasury has to work with the tax receipts it receives and deal with the historic budget deficit it inherited. Somebody has to lend the state that money, and they would not lend us £150 billion every year if we showed no sign of reducing that figure to something more manageable and did not plan ultimately to eliminate it altogether. That is what is happening. That is why we have a strong economy and the lowest level of unemployment for 40 years, why there are opportunities for young people to have a job once they leave our school system, and why fewer children are living in workless households. That is all part of how to manage the public sector in a serious way, which is what the Government have been doing since 2010. That is why we have been able to maintain school funding in real terms over that period, spend £23 billion on capital funding for schools, and fund an increase of 825,000 school places to deal with the increasing pupil population.[Official Report, 19 June 2018, Vol. 643, c. 2MC.]

When we came into office in 2010, we discovered that the previous Government had cut 100,000 school places, despite the increase in the birth rate at the turn of the millennium. We were very sensible in how we managed the capital budget and the revenue budget at a time when we had to tackle a very serious budget deficit as a consequence of the banking crash in 2008.

The Minister has been talking a lot about the national fair funding formula and the additional money in the constituencies of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and of my hon. Friends the Members for Bath and for Oxford West and Abingdon. When exactly will that national funding formula come in? Does the Minister acknowledge that when it comes in, it will be taking over from cuts of upwards of 20%? There is an awful lot for it to make up for.

It came in this year, for 2018-19. In the first two years, because of the transition, we want to allow local authorities to have some discretion over how they implement it on a school by school basis. Most authorities are moving quite close to the national funding formula if not moving to it fully, but some want to tweak it for the two years of the transition, and we have allowed that. As I said, we acknowledge that there have been cost pressures, and are helping schools to manage those cost pressures. Going forward, as the IFS said, we are maintaining funding in real terms per pupil for the next two years, because we have managed to secure an extra £1.3 billion.

We are absolutely committed to providing the greatest support to the children who face the greatest barriers to success. That is why we have reformed not just the schools formula but high needs provision, by introducing a high needs national funding formula. It will distribute funding for children and young people with high needs more fairly, based on accepted indicators of need in each area. The extra money that we are making available means that every local authority will see a minimum increase in high needs funding of 0.5% in 2018 and 1% in 2019-20. Underfunded local authorities will receive gains of up to 3% a year per head for the next two years. Overall, local authorities will receive £6 billion to support those with high needs in 2018-19, up by more than £1 billion since 2013-14.

I will draw my remarks to a close, to allow the hon. Member for Bath to make a final contribution to the debate. I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. Our prime concern is the investment we are making in schools and the steps we are taking to ensure that that money reaches the schools that need it most. That is why we have introduced the national funding formula.

We have been reforming our schools system since 2010, by changing the curriculum to improve the way children are taught to read and the way that maths is taught in our schools. We have reformed our GCSEs so that they are on a par with some of the qualifications taken in higher education institutions around the country. We have been improving behaviour; we have given teachers more powers to deal with bad behaviour in our schools. Standards are rising in our primary and secondary schools, and the attainment gap between children from wealthier and poorer families is closing by 10% in both. Clearly there is more to do, but we are on the right track. Our funding formula is a fairer and more transparent way of distributing funding to our schools.

It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate, including my hon. Friends the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and the hon. Members for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck).

I thank the Minister for his response. He has been eloquent in telling me how much funding the schools in my constituency have received, and I am sure that on an individual basis, some schools have increased their funding. But the overall picture is that of a funding crisis. I would not have been on the march that I mentioned at the beginning of the debate if headteachers were not so very desperate about the situation they are in. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that this is the first time that people from the profession have gone directly on to the streets to shout about that. I urge the Minister to listen to the professionals—to the headteachers and the teachers across the country—who say that they are in crisis. I urge him to listen to the trust of which I am a trustee. We are very worried, because our reserves are running low and we cannot support schools, particularly in our more deprived areas in our multi-academy trust, because the funding is not there.

If we really are committed to social mobility, it is important that we look particularly at the schools in our more deprived areas and make sure that they receive extra support, rather than support being taken away from them. I will take him up on what he said about extra funding for high needs areas, and I will scrutinise that. I am not quite certain whether that is new money. I agree fully with Members who have said today that we need new money. The 0.5% extra money per pupil that has been put into the system does not make up for the pressures from extra pension contributions, inflation and pay rises. Whatever figures we are bandying around, I believe what I see on the ground. I listen to the parents and the teachers, and I look at the young people in my constituency. We should do so across the country, and make sure that young people do not lose out.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the effect of the national funding formula on social mobility.

Sitting suspended.

Somerset County Council: Unitary Status

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Somerset County Council’s plans for unitary status.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) in his place, joining me today. This is an important subject to us, because it concerns the county of Somerset. A fortnight ago, the leader of the county council came to Westminster and threw an unexpected spanner in the works for all Somerset Members, who got no advance warning of the desperate plans to turn the whole county into a unitary. One by one, he spelled out his vision to us, and we were collectively gobsmacked—we had had no warning.

We knew that the county council was squeezed, and we understood the pressures of providing the most expensive public service with a small grant from Government. We also recognised that the writing had been on the same wall in Taunton for years. Funnily enough, it was back in 2006 that the idea of a Somerset unitary was originally conceived. I was there at that time; unfortunately my hon. Friend was not, but I believe that he was a county councillor.

He says from a sedentary position that he was not, so that is me in the doghouse already.

The idea came from the dangerous mind of the chief executive, a tiny little man called Alan Jones—no surprises there. He was ruthless and he wanted a “lean, mean council”—his words. He went for the quick fix of getting rid of the district councils, and said the county could pocket—guess what?—£28 million. I will come back to that in a minute. Nobody ever knew quite how Jonesy arrived at £28 million, including me.

The present leader of the county council is still running with the idea 12 years later, and I am afraid that it is as wrong now as it was then. This is what rings alarm bells in my mind: Somerset County Council has never been good with money. I have looked at its books just to prove how bad it is. In 2007, it had only £11 million in the general reserve fund. Here we are, 11 years later, and it still has about £11 million—it is difficult to get a handle on it, but it is between £11 million and £18 million. That may sound like a lot in certain quarters, but it is chickenfeed when the overall budget runs into hundreds of millions. If an unexpected crisis happens—normally it does—there is nothing to fall back on, and unfortunately we have had that in Somerset. Occasionally, the place floods.

Alan Jones liked to pretend that everything was going well, but it was not then and it is not now. The county needed to borrow £376 million in 2007, so Napoleon Jones did a dodgy deal and signed his life away to IBM. He even persuaded his mates in Taunton Deane Borough Council to follow suit. Only two councils did so; the only other organisation to do so was the Avon and Somerset police force, known as the police farce. Together they created a thing called Southwest One, an overblown IT monster that it was boasted would save money faster than anyone could print it. The two councils apparently stood to gain £200 million in savings if everything went according to plan, but it never does—not in Taunton, anyway. Welcome to the south-west bubble: our proud county town—that is what it is—where backhanders are normal and nobody trusts the leaders. The two councils handed over a mass of public money to a multinational, and they wondered why it went belly-up.

If only little Jonesy had got away with creating a unitary, there would have been even more money for—guess who?—IBM. Many of us know of it. The plan was taken over by the districts, but it was doomed because the public did not buy it. When the county council refused to hold a referendum, we—me and the MPs at the time—organised it ourselves, along with the district councils who, regardless of political colour, all subscribed to it. Two hundred thousand people voted, and 84% of them said no.

By July 2007, the people had spoken and unitary Somerset was dead in the water. My hon. Friend the Minister might like to know this. He is the Member for Richmond—I helped on the by-election for his predecessor, Mr William Hague, only because I was in the Army and had a car—and North Yorkshire had also planned to become a unitary, but that plan was rejected by the Government at exactly the same time. There is historical precedent.

As for the Somerset IT monster, Southwest One had only two councils on its books, which made its own death inevitable. Then along came the international financial crisis, the credit crunch and the grim dawn of austerity, which we all remember with no great fondness. Austerity for everybody? Not in Taunton. Jones was sacked by the county in 2009, but it cost £300,000 to get rid of him. Down the road at Taunton Deane, the other IBM champion, Penny James and Shirlene Adam are still in the top jobs and, I am afraid, heading for another IT disaster. They say that donkey dung floats—we have incontinent donkeys galore in Taunton.

By 2012, Somerset Council’s borrowing was on course to hit £410 million, which means shelling out £100,000 every single day just to keep the loans going. All the while, the price of providing vital children’s services and social care was going up, and I say gently to my hon. Friend the Minister that Government grants were coming down.

There is plenty of evidence that the council cannot control what it spends and tackles big problems by taking even more ridiculous risks. The learning and disability service was outsourced, for example, which made financial sense only if the savings added up, but, just like with Southwest One, the real cost outweighed the benefit. Learning and disability burst its budget and then faced extra cuts.

There are ongoing problems in several parts of the council. A recent peer review found that only 65% of promised savings actually took place, so I am afraid the reserves are running out. They were dwindling three years ago when a budget freeze was imposed, but things have got worse. By September 2016, the cabinet talked about declaring the authority bankrupt. It did not happen then, but it is dangerously close to happening now.

I am indebted to the work of Kevin Nacey, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil knows well. He has been the head of finance at Somerset County Council for donkey’s years. He has done the accounts since 2006, but he has had enough: as the latest county calamity began, he announced an early exit. Mr Nacey is off to pastures new, and—dare I say it?—a big juicy carrot: he will soon be in charge of the books of the donkey sanctuary. Eeyore would say of all this, “How very appropriate.”

I have several direct questions for the Minister. We have to work through this; we cannot go on like this in local government. Last week, he and I had another debate on the future of Taunton and West Somerset, which—dare I say?—the Government managed to get through. I feel I was unfair in what I said at the time, but I gently say that I strongly believe that the Government are not playing fair with local government. Last week I was a little more profound, but I was more cross; this week I am more measured.

Local government does matter. The Minister’s constituency covers a vast geographical area—he has a seat bigger than mine, and I always think that Bridgwater and West Somerset is pretty large—and the problem for all of us is that the democratic deficit cannot be taken away without leaving a problem. Where unitary status has happened in very big counties, it has created enormous stresses, not least on the MPs in those areas. When councillors have to look after more and more, and deal with more and more, that deficit gets big. I ask him to pass this point on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State: please think about the future of local government. I do not wish to spend whatever time I have in this place getting up every time I can to say to Ministers, “Could you please defend local government?”

Reorganisations are never good. In 1974 the Government of the day created Avon, which my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil is aware of. They created North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset, which is now a unitary and is struggling because it is too small for a unitary. Maybe we as a county need to talk to Devon and to North Somerset.

My hon. Friend is making an interesting speech about the history of local government in Somerset. Does he not think, though, that to deal with the overhang of debt that the Liberal Democrats left the county with in 2009, it has been necessary to take a raft of difficult decisions? Is it not worth at least exploring ways of saving the taxpayers money? This proposal might be a solution, but like him, I would say it is imperative that we ensure no democratic deficit is created through the process.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He was a county councillor, and so was fully aware of the situation—more so than any of us. I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), who I know had a pressing engagement, has made it here. He will recognise this point, because he wrote a devastatingly good article that follows on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil has said. My hon. Friend puts forward a good case that we must look at the debt, look at our options and look at our future. I will take that first point first, if I may.

My hon. Friend is right that it was the Liberals who created the debt—not the Conservatives, but the Liberals. We are now living with that legacy, but it has to be faced. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is our social services that are pulling us down. The problem we face is that we do not have enough money to take care of the neediest in our community.

The second point my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil makes, which I have made before and which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Wells agrees with, is that we should also look to our neighbours. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells wrote a good piece about looking toward BANES, and I mentioned looking toward Devon. We have no parameters—we could look at either of them—but we need democratic accountability. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that if we are going to go through with any form of unitary, we need to have a referendum. If we need to look to the people of BANES to split up the ghastly edifice that is Avon and get our old county back, we will do that.

When Councillor Fothergill came to the House—he was very courteous; it was a very courteous meeting—I asked him directly about a referendum. He said, “I will hold negotiations or conversations with our stakeholders.” To me and to my hon. Friends the Members for Yeovil and for Wells, the stakeholders are our constituents. They are our stakeholders, not the Avon and Somerset police farce, based in Bristol, or the ambulance service, now based in Exeter, I believe, or the fire service, based wherever the heck it has got to now. We, the people of Somerset, are the stakeholders. That is who we represent.

I would like the Minister, if possible, to say a referendum should be held. We did not hold one in West Somerset. When I had to put my views gently to the Minister last week, I said that the majority of people who took part in what can only be described as a pretty desultory consultation were against that proposal, but they were ignored. I hope that will not be the format for the future.

I say to the Minister, please do not underestimate the ability of Somerset to fight back. We have done it once, and we will do it again. The last time was the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, which happened in my constituency, very close to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells. We marched on London. This time we are coming by train, so we will not get it wrong, and I assure the Minister that we will do what we have to in order to overturn this decision. I therefore urge him to think constructively about a great county such as Somerset. We have had our traumas, but we have a team that is blue throughout, and we want to keep that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that, while a referendum is certainly the way to finish this process with full public support, the problem with referendums in recent years is that people have sometimes gone into them with incomplete information at their disposal? We must insist that the county council and the districts fully resource the analysis of all possible courses of action, so that a decision can be made on our future as a county based on all facts, rather than those selectively presented to engineer the outcome the county council desires?

I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend does a phenomenal job up on the north flank of Somerset. He is absolutely correct in what he says. We must take local opinion into account—not by saying in some waffly way, “Well, it’s quite a good idea,” but by saying, “A referendum must be held.” As I think my hon. Friend alluded to, his preference would be to go north and look toward BANES, if possible. We need to talk about that. It is no good the county council leader’s turning up in the House of Commons to try to persuade MPs of a course of action.

I am not from Somerset; I am an MP for Oxfordshire, which of course is thinking of going through a unitary process as well. Does my hon. Friend think it is wise for councils that are thinking about that to share common experience and the enthusiasm that he has for a referendum on these issues?

My hon. Friend and I have worked together for many years, and I totally respect his guidance and thoughts on this. That is a wake-up call to the Minister. We need to have referendums, because this process is not working the way it should. We need to take public opinion into account, and a referendum is the way to do that. The Government need to make sure that they insist on referendums and therefore that we have democratic control, as opposed to a democratic deficit, which is where I started in the first place.

I therefore say to the Minister that this plan is a dangerous, unwarranted and unnecessary intrusion into government in Somerset. We will talk about it and look at it, but at the moment there is no merit in doing it. In fact, it would be more sensible for the districts to take over the county’s functions than for the county to take over the districts’ functions, because the difference is that the districts will not go bust.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, for what I think is the first time in my new role. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) not only on securing this important debate, but on his continued engagement on the topic of local government. I have enjoyed the discussions I have had with him in previous parliamentary Committees and debates, and I look forward to many more. It is also a pleasure to see my hon. Friends the Members for Yeovil (Mr Fysh), for Wells (James Heappey) and for Henley (John Howell) contribute to the debate, and perhaps we may have the honour of hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset will have heard me say before that the Government are committed to considering locally led proposals for unitarisation and mergers between councils, where requested. He will also have heard me say that the Government are not in the business of imposing top-down solutions on local government; we wait to hear proposals delivered, developed and initiated by local government.

Only last week, as my hon. Friend mentioned, we discussed in a Delegated Legislation Committee the draft secondary legislation that, if Parliament approves and it is made, would implement the merger proposal that was submitted to the Government by two district councils in Somerset, West Somerset and Taunton Deane. Today we are considering the possibility of Somerset councils wishing to pursue further restructuring to form unitary local government in Somerset.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said earlier this month, the Government believe that there is space and scope for unitary authorities, and where unitary authorities can seek to make a difference, the Government will support that. However, we want to hear from the sector itself on the benefits that can be experienced, and we will listen.

There are two unitary councils in the ceremonial county of Somerset—Bath and North East Somerset Council and North Somerset Council. It is important to put on the record that the Government have not received any proposals from the county council or any of the district councils for further unitarisation in Somerset. However, should such locally led proposals emerge, we would of course consider them.

If such proposals were to emerge, the Government have laid out previously the three specific criteria that we will use to judge them. It will be helpful to Members if I lay them out. The first criterion is that the proposal is likely to improve local government in the area, by improving service delivery, giving greater value for money, yielding cost savings, providing stronger strategic and local leadership, delivering more sustainable structures and avoiding a fragmentation of major services.

The second criterion is that the proposed structure is a credible geography consisting of one or more existing local government areas and that the population of any proposed unitary authority must be substantial.

Since the county council kicked off this conversation a couple of weeks ago, it has come to my attention that the Government have a figure in mind for what “substantial” means, in terms of the minimum size of an authority. Will the Minister offer any detail on that?

My predecessors, the Secretary of State and myself have previously laid out that a unitary authority should contain at least 300,000 people or more. That figure comes from research conducted by the Department in the past. However, each proposal will be considered on its merits.

The third and final criterion is that the proposal commands local support. In particular, the structure must be proposed by one or more existing councils in the area, and there must be evidence of a good deal of local support for it.

I am afraid that I cannot say those specific words; indeed, that is not the Government’s previous guidance. The criterion is that there should be evidence of a good deal of local support for the proposal, including from business, the voluntary sector, public bodies and local communities.

My hon. Friend will know from the various proposals that the Government have already considered that there have been a range of ways to demonstrate that good deal of local support. Other areas have engaged electoral and polling agencies to conduct representative polling, county and district council members—who represent people in different areas—have voted and extensive engagement exercises and consultation processes have happened. There are various mechanisms, but the key is that, at the end of the day, there must be evidence of a good deal of local support.

I will elaborate a little further on what a good deal of local support means, as opposed to the mechanism for establishing that it is there. We would like to see a good deal of local support, which we assess in the round across the whole area—from business, the voluntary sector, public bodies and local communities. We do not mean unanimous agreement from all councillors, stakeholders, councils and residents. However, we expect as much consensus from councils as possible.

My hon. Friend talked about democratic deficits, and he is right to highlight the importance of local democracy. From parish councils and all the way up, strong local democracy serves communities well and can make a difference to how people live their lives and to the area that they call home. We have seen in previous reorganisations and restructuring an increase in the incidence of parishing, revitalising that most local form of democracy. For example, in Wiltshire, Salisbury became a town council as part of that process. We are seeing similar moves towards parishing in other areas, such as Suffolk, which is currently in the process of a district merger. The Government also have powers to confer charter trustees as part of any reorganisation.

I agree that proposals will never get unanimous support from councils, but that is not the issue. In many cases when a unitary council has been created, parish councils have not even been asked. If we are to put the emphasis on parish councils as the basic building blocks of local government, they need to be asked and they need to be included in the decision-making process.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If a local area tries to demonstrate to the Government that it has a good deal of local support from every possible sector in the local area, parish councils would clearly be a set of institutions that it would be worth considering talking to. Indeed, previous proposals that we have received have specifically engaged parish councils as part of their deliberations. The charter trustee status that I mentioned also means that ancient civic traditions can be retained in an area, regardless of the final form of the restructuring that takes place.

I am keen to understand exactly what level of support is required among local authorities. If all or most districts involved in the proposal were against it, would that be sufficient to block whatever plans might come forward?

I am afraid I cannot give my hon. Friend a specific quantitative mechanism or definition that needs to be met. I re-emphasise the guidance, which states that a good deal of local support is needed. I have tried my best to elaborate on how that will be interpreted by the Secretary of State when he considers proposals in the round, along with all the other criteria that he has to balance.

I am keen to give my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset a minute or two to wind up the debate, so in conclusion—[Interruption.]

Order. In a half-hour debate, Ministers do not have the prerogative to give the Member who brought the debate time to wind up. The Minister has almost four minutes to go.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I was not aware of that; I appreciate the extra time.

It is important that the councils of Somerset think long and hard about how best to serve their communities and about how to deliver the public services that people rely on, whether adult social care, children’s services, strategic planning or transport. It may well be that innovation and re-organisation will help to deliver for the people of Somerset, but it is crucial to note that that decision should be taken by the people of Somerset themselves. It will not be for the Government to impose a top-down solution.

I will be very brief; I promise I will not wind up the debate, Mr Hollobone. I am confused, because the Minister says that there must be local involvement, but also that local stakeholders must support the proposals. Most of West Somerset’s local stakeholders are not based in the county, funnily enough. Ambulance services are based in Devon, the fire brigade is based in, I think, North Somerset and the police are up in Avon. I would love to know how that will work. I ask the Minister to think this through. The most important people are the 500,000 based in the county of Somerset.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and he is absolutely right to demonstrate that local people should have their say and that their voice should be heard. However, it is also important, when these deliberations are made, that we consider effective local government as one of the criteria. In any local area, there will be institutions and stakeholders, who may or may not be based in that area, who will make a difference to the delivery of local services, and their views will form part of those deliberations.

My hon. Friend started the debate by saying something that I wholeheartedly agree with: local government matters. I take that very seriously, as I know does the Secretary of State. That is why the Government will remain committed to responding and listening to proposals that come forward from local government. We will not seek to impose our view, but where there is a desire and a thrust for more change and innovation—whether in Somerset or elsewhere—we will look to support those involved, according to the criteria I have laid out. In conclusion, I commend my hon. Friend for the continued passion he has shown in ensuring that local democracy in Somerset remains vibrant and strong.

Question put and agreed to.

Christians Overseas

Will those not staying to discuss the persecution of Christians please be kind enough to leave the Chamber quickly and quietly? Let me say right at the start that this is an hour-long debate and an awful lot of hon. Members wish to speak. Depending on how long the mover of the motion speaks for, it is likely that other contributions will have to be limited to two minutes or less.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians overseas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Given the amount of interest from colleagues, I will keep my remarks as short as possible in order for them to have the maximum amount of time to speak.

In April last year, a young Nigerian woman, Dorkas Zakka, was murdered, along with 12 others in Kafanchan, simply for attending an Easter mass. Local priest Father Alexander Yeycock said that Nigerian military units stood by and did nothing while the murders took place.

Last November in Mina, Egypt, a mob surrounded a Coptic church, threatening worshippers inside, many of whom were also physically attacked. Local Coptic leader Anba Macarius says that the Egyptian authorities have done nothing to bring those responsible to justice.

Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy in Pakistan in 2010. Thankfully, that sentence has since been suspended. Two Pakistani politicians who advocated on her behalf and opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were assassinated.

In May last year, two churches in Sudan were destroyed on the orders of the Sudanese Government. In June last year, 33 Christian women in Eritrea were imprisoned by the Eritrean Government simply for taking part in prayer activity.

Just two weeks ago, Pakistani man Suneel Saleem was beaten to death by a group of doctors and security guards—a group of doctors, Mr Hollobone—at the Services Hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, when he protested about the anti-Christian abuse that his heavily pregnant sister had suffered at the hospital. A man was beaten to death by doctors in a hospital simply for being Christian.

In January this year, in Tamil Nadu, in southern India, a mob pursued and beat a priest and three companions outside a police station. Despite their desperate pleas for help, the police stood by and did nothing. We have heard nothing by way of condemnation of these sorts of attacks in India from Prime Minister Modi.

According to a petition presented to Parliament last year by Aid to the Church in Need, such attacks have been taking place in about 50 countries worldwide. In India alone, about 24,000 Christians were physically assaulted last year. In Iraq, the majority of the Christian and Yazidi populations have come close to being wiped out.

I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about various countries persecuting Christians. I hope he will come on to North Korea and China, which have also been persecuting Christians; in fact, that has been going on for a long time. In Egypt, the Coptic Church has been persecuted for years and years. I hope that the Minister, when he winds up the debate, will tell us, for a change, what the British Government are going to do about it. Perhaps we should look at aid for a start.

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my speech in two or three regards, but as he mentions North Korea, I will say now that Aid to the Church in Need ranks North Korea as the worst country for Christians to live in. Accurate information is of course hard to obtain, but ACN estimates that at least 200,000 Christians have gone missing in North Korea since 1953. North Koreans who are found practising as Christians face arrest, torture and imprisonment, and there are worrying examples of Christians being publicly executed in North Korea.

May I take my hon. Friend back from North Korea to Iraq and the middle east, but may I first make a general point? There are so many hon. Members present who want to speak—I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this really important debate—that I suggest he sponsor a longer debate in the future so that all of us will have a chance to speak. However, may I also invite him to praise the work of Open Doors, which has been working with the Christian communities in Iraq and Syria?

I thank my hon. Friend. Perhaps we should all get together and ask for a Backbench Business debate one Thursday, when we could debate this matter more fully. Let us all, as an action, take that away to the Backbench Business Committee. I will note down who is here, so that I can get in touch after this debate.

I would specifically like to praise Open Doors. I did write its name at the top of my notes, but in my haste to get the debate started and not to take up too much time, I overlooked it. In fact, I can see sitting in the Public Gallery Rev. Sue Thomas from St John’s church in Old Coulsdon, in my constituency, who I have been discussing this issue with for some time and who works with Open Doors. I thank Open Doors for its work in this field, and I specifically thank Rev. Sue Thomas.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The Open Doors charity has found that, overall, persecution of Christians has risen for the fifth year in a row. Such persecution—indeed, persecution of any religious group—is abhorrent and unacceptable. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Government must put the protection of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, at the heart of their foreign policy and use all diplomatic means available to ensure adherence to international law?

I agree very strongly with the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. I will come on to what I believe the UK Government could do in this area, or could do more of, but whatever efforts are being made at the moment, worldwide they are not enough, because as the hon. Gentleman has just pointed out, the problem of Christians being persecuted is getting worse, not better. The direction of travel is the wrong one, and it is incumbent on those of us in the United Kingdom and other countries who have or can have influence to do a lot more than we are doing at the moment. We need to reverse the trend.

There are many examples of where the trend is getting worse. We all know about the activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria, where 276 Christian schoolgirls were kidnapped several years ago; 112 of them are still missing. In Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted, Christian converts have been persecuted as well. About 100,000 Christians are living in displacement camps as a result.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Actually, there was a bid to the Backbench Business Committee for a wider debate, but unfortunately it was rejected—we should try again. He has just mentioned the Chibok girls. May I, through him, remind colleagues of early-day motion 1246 about the plight of one particular girl, who had to spend her 15th birthday still in captivity because she is refusing to renounce her faith? If all colleagues were willing to sign that early-day motion, that would be very helpful.

My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue and draws attention to a very important early-day motion. So many Christians subjected to this sort of persecution show tremendous faith and tremendous bravery by standing up for their faith in the face of the most appalling threats. The example that my right hon. Friend cites is truly inspiring and tells us how seriously we must take our duty to protect girls such as the one to whom she refers. They deserve all the support and protection that we can possibly give them.

I deliberately chose the examples that I gave earlier because in all of them a Government—a nation state’s Government—failed to take action to protect Christians being persecuted, whether it was those army units in Nigeria standing by and doing nothing, the police in Egypt and India standing by and doing nothing or, in the example from Sudan, the Government themselves imprisoning Christians.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is itemising the huge displacement that there has been. Does he agree that, in relation to the middle east alone, we are talking about unprecedented movements of Christians out of their historical homelands, and we really need to address that problem?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I have been raising individual cases, because they tell a painful and powerful story, but behind those individual cases lie hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Christians being persecuted and displaced, particularly in the middle east. We cannot stand by or walk by on the other side. We must take action.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important debate. I was reminded that when I was the parliamentary churchwarden for St Margaret’s, we did some good work trying to engage the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to get an interface with some of these countries where we are not getting through. Could we be optimistic and get something moving back on that kind of track?

I hope we can. The hon. Gentleman is driving at the point I was just beginning to make. We understand that there are terrorist organisations, such as ISIS, that do terrible things, and we are quite rightly combating them. However, I chose the examples I did very specifically, because in those examples, Governments of nation states—some of them Commonwealth members, and some of them allies of the United Kingdom—have either stood by and done nothing or, in some cases, actively encouraged and facilitated the persecution I have been describing. It is unacceptable that allies of the United Kingdom should stand by and allow this kind of persecution to take place. As a powerful western nation, we have levers at our disposal to influence these countries that are allowing the persecution of Christians to take place under their nose—and knowingly, deliberately and intentionally doing nothing.

The most obvious lever that we have was referred to by the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), namely the overseas aid budget. It is a good thing that we spend £13 billion a year on overseas aid, which is 0.7% of GDP. That gives us enormous influence. Much of that aid is spent bilaterally. It goes directly to countries rather than via third-party agencies such as the United Nations or the European Union. I believe we should use the power that aid donation confers to achieve the change we want to see.

For example, the largest bilateral recipient of overseas aid is Pakistan, which receives about £350 million a year. Yet, Christians there are persecuted terribly with violent acts. The court system in Pakistan often prosecutes Christians using blasphemy laws, which are wholly contrary to any notion of free speech or religious freedom. I believe we should be looking at imposing some conditionality, particularly on aid we give directly to another Government. We should ask that they do more and not just pay lip service and say fine words, which generally speaking they do, but that they take real action to prevent the persecution of Christians, whether it is in the court system, or through the police and other armed forces standing by and doing nothing.

Does my hon. Friend agree, on a more positive side, that we need to expect the Department for International Development to take far more account of the work that Christian and other faith-based organisations do? It does not take enough account of the strength of the work that those organisations do in development on behalf of the people of that country. My right hon. Friend the Minister has been an exception to that in his role in the Foreign Office, but that needs to spread to DFID, which cannot be a religion-free zone.

My hon. Friend is quite right. Christian charities and organisations often show enormous courage in going into areas where Governments and the UN fear to tread, and they do work protecting Christians who are not being protected by anybody else. I endorse my hon. Friend’s point, and I hope the Minister will specifically reply to it in his remarks.

I am clear that we should be using the overseas aid budget as a means to influence behaviour by sovereign Governments. In this country we offer full religious freedom, quite rightly, regardless of faith, to everybody. I am proud that we do, but in return we should be demanding that Christians and people of any faith around the world receive precisely the same religious freedom. Where that religious freedom is not extended by unenlightened Governments, we should be doing everything to change that.

We allow some countries, for example in the middle east, to send quite large amounts of money into this country to promote their domestic faith, which is fine, and we are happy to let that happen, but at the same time, those very same Governments that are sending money here are denying religious freedom over there. That is fundamentally unfair, and it should end.

I am conscious that time is pressing on, so I want to conclude. There are two reasons why I believe this issue should be at the top of our foreign policy and overseas aid agenda, and why we need more than warm words from some of these overseas Governments. There is a human rights dimension. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. There is a human tragedy, in that individual Christians are being persecuted in the most appalling ways, as I described in the examples I gave. I also believe that it serves our national interest to see human rights promoted, because if we help these countries become more tolerant—if we help human rights take root—that will in itself combat extremism. Where there is tolerance and respect, extremism will not flourish. There is an overwhelming human rights case for pushing this agenda hard and properly, and there is a national interest argument as well.

I know that lots of hon. Members want to speak, so I will conclude now. This is an important issue and one we all feel strongly about. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Would all those seeking to catch my eye please stand? I have to call the Front-Bench speakers at 5.7 pm. There are 12 Members standing, and there are 20 minutes left, so the time limit will have to be 90 seconds. It is amazing what you can say in 90 seconds, so I expect some powerful speeches. If there are loads of interventions, I am afraid that those at the back of the queue will not be able to contribute.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) for bringing this important debate. He so eloquently put forward the argument about the persecution of Christians. We have clearly seen a considerable increase in attacks by armed Fulani herdsmen on predominantly Christian farming communities in northern Nigeria. To get an understanding of the scale of these attacks in the past three years, I note that the Fulani herdsmen, armed with AK47s and in some cases chemicals, are believed to have killed more men, women and children than Boko Haram.

Egypt is home to the middle east’s largest Christian community—comprising some 10% of the population—the majority of whom are orthodox. The spread of ISIS-affiliated groups in the country has seen a significant rise in their persecution. In February 2017, the group released a propaganda video vowing to wipe out Egypt’s Coptic community and this followed the killing of 28 Christians by a suicide bomber in the Coptic Orthodox cathedral of St Mark in Cairo, in December 2016. Last year, two church bombings killed 49 people and another 29 were killed when extremists attacked people travelling to a monastery in May.

Given the time constraints, I will conclude by reminding the Minister that in 2017, in its report on human rights, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that freedom of religion and belief was now considered

“a key and integral part of the work”

of the UK Government and one of three areas that the Government would be prioritising. I urge the Minister to ensure the Government stand by that commitment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I would like to speak with particular reference to China. A recent hearing of the Conservative party human rights commission, which I chair, heard—as the Aid to the Church in Need report, which has already been referred to, says—that persecution in China has notably increased recently.

There are 127 million Chinese Christians, yet we have heard that, partly as a result of the revival of Christianity in China, the Chinese authorities are now cracking down even more strongly than previously, not just on the unregistered churches, where we have heard that thousands have been pulled down, crosses have been pulled down and clergy have been routinely detained, but now on registered churches and even house churches, the small churches where groups have met legitimately. Officials are going into those homes, removing any Christian items and replacing them with a picture of the Premier.

This spring, new laws were implemented to prevent certain groups of people from going to church in China, including people in certain types of employment, and even—quite shockingly—to prevent the taking of a person under 18 to church. Increasingly, apart from the imprisonment of the clergy, the human rights lawyers, who used to be able to defend the clergy from unreasonable accusations, have also been imprisoned. I understand that it is now virtually impossible to find such a lawyer in China—

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the opportunity speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on introducing the debate. I welcome the Minister and look forward to his important response. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, many things come to my attention. In Nepal, the new anti-conversion and blasphemy laws threaten Christians. In Nigeria, Christian farmers and others have been murdered in their thousands by the armed Fulani militias. In Pakistan, at least 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls are kidnapped, forced to convert, forcibly married or sold into prostitution annually.

I would like to leave something for the Minister to do in these 90 seconds—it is a bit like that radio programme “Just a Minute”. He should develop strategies to advance freedom of religion or belief in countries with severe FORB restrictions; develop a database that tracks quantitative data on issues relating to religious or belief minorities; increase Government expertise internally or via external experts; and introduce mandatory training for employees of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development who work in countries with severe levels of discrimination against religion or belief.

Those steps will address the persecution of Christians. This year, 100,000 people will die for their faith, 200 million will be persecuted and 2 billion will live in an endangered neighbourhood. When we put those figures into perspective, we know why this debate is so important. That is why I am very happy to support the hon. Member for Croydon South.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on securing this debate. In the brief time I have available, I will compliment Open Doors on its work.

The necessity for this debate is shown by an attack on the Emmanuel Christian College, which Open Doors has been supporting, that took place on 14 May in South Sudan, where 10 people, including five children, were killed. Although the details are unclear, witnesses blame the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. That is a sad reminder of the risks people face to do what many of us take for granted in our daily lives, which is to declare our Christian faith, to go to church and to wish to share that faith with others.

This is not just about the state actors—the traditional idea of a Government oppressing their people—but the non-state actors, such as Daesh, which have brought so much terror to the middle east and, in particular, to Christian families there. In the Minister’s response, I am interested to hear what work he plans to do with Governments who we want to change their policies to allow more religious freedom and to support Governments who are genuinely struggling to deal with extremist elements within their nation states that cannot be dealt with by normal law enforcement mechanisms.

The key part is about stopping the persecution not just of Christians, but of people who freely choose which faith they have, or who have no faith. All Christians should stand for that fundamental right.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp). I will be brief and talk about one person in China: Gao Zhisheng, a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer who is best known for his work defending Christians, Falun Gong adherents and other vulnerable social groups. He is believed to have been forcibly disappeared by the authorities since August as a result of his work on sensitive cases and his open letters to Chinese political leaders.

Gao was detained and tortured numerous times before being convicted of inciting to subvert state power. He was sentenced to three years in prison and was released on 7 August 2014 with serious health problems. He was disappeared again in August and I met his daughter not long after being elected.

My only ask is that the Minister makes direct representations to the Chinese authorities to revise all regulations and legislation pertaining to religion to ensure that they align with international standards on freedom of religion or belief, as set out in article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, in consultation with religious communities and legal experts. That is my ask. The Minister should get on with it.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I place on record my huge respect for people of all faiths who are persecuted around the world for their faith and, in the context of this debate, particularly for Christians who face horrific circumstances that we in this country can only imagine. We honour their dignity and courage.

Persecution is not always about violence and killing people. It often takes more subtle forms where Christians and people of other faiths are excluded from certain parts of society and from obtaining certain jobs—in some countries they cannot work in the public sector—and are perhaps put under surveillance. We should be conscious of all forms of persecution that Christians face around the world, not just the most extreme.

To echo other hon. Members, our Government should do more to use the influence they have, particularly through the Commonwealth and our overseas aid budget, to ensure that the rights and freedoms of Christians around the world are protected and to challenge countries where that is not the case. Like other hon. Members, I place on record my huge respect for Open Doors and the incredible work that it has done over decades to raise the issue of the persecuted Church around the world and to support persecuted Christians. It is a sad reality that despite the organisation existing for more than 50 years, its work is more needed in our world today than ever before. We should support everything that it and others do to support the persecuted Church.

Given the time constraints, I will focus on the Coptic Orthodox Church. In Islwyn, St Mary’s and St Abu Saifain’s Coptic Orthodox church is the first in Wales, and hundreds of people from across Wales go to worship there every year. I was lucky to be invited when my son, Zachariah, was three weeks old. I went with my wife and we celebrated our first mass with the Copts there. We were so welcomed.

Although Coptic Christians in my constituency and across the UK can freely worship without persecution for their beliefs, the same cannot be said for those in Egypt and elsewhere. Many will remember that a Coptic church just south of Cairo was targeted in a horrific terror attack in December, which took the lives of 10 people, including the perpetrator. That same day, an electronics shop owned by Copts in nearby Helwan was also attacked, leaving another two people dead. The Egyptian Interior Ministry confirmed that those attacks were by Daesh.

Estimates vary as to how many Copts there are worldwide, but it is believed that there are up to 20 million. Of those, at least 15 million reside in Egypt. That makes Copts a minority in Egypt’s population of 95 million, the majority of whom follow Islam, which is recognised as the state religion. There have been many examples of Copts, especially women and girls, being kidnapped, forced to marry and converted. That needs to stop. I agree with hon. Members who have said that where Governments are struggling to keep a lid on extremism and protect Christians, we must do all we can to help them in word and deed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. The largest Christian community in Africa is in Nigeria, a country for which I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy.

The centre and south of Nigeria are tolerant places where faiths live side by side in happiness. The problem comes in the north and north-east of the country, where there is a great deal of radical Islamism. Christians are caught in the crossfire there between ethnic or illegal groups as they pursue their vendettas against other groups.

Nigeria did not stand by, however, after an attack on a Christian church. The President was summoned to Parliament and he condemned the attack in the strongest possible language. The Parliament suspended its sittings for three days. Before it did that, it passed a no-confidence motion in the security chiefs. That is a strong indication of the feeling across the whole of Nigeria—we should not forget that the President is a member of the Islamic faith—that the attack on the church was not to be tolerated.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) for securing this important debate.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege to meet the Reverend Yunusa Nmadu, the chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide Nigeria and general secretary of the Evangelical Church Winning All, who gave me an insight into the awful situation facing Christians in Nigeria, particularly in the north of the country. I was told of the worrying rise in the number of young Christian schoolgirls being abducted and then subjected to forced conversion and forced marriage. I heard about Leah Sharibu, the sole Christian among the Dapchi girls abducted by Boko Haram on 29 February, who remains in captivity.

The rise in attacks by the Fulani militia was also highlighted to me. It is reported that since 2011 such attacks have displaced some 62,000 people and left 6,000 dead and many more injured, in what observers have described as some form of ethnic cleansing. In the same timeframe, the Fulani herdsmen have destroyed some 500 churches in Benue state alone.

I trust that the Minister will be able to use this Government’s influence to encourage the Government of Nigeria to meet their constitutional and international obligations to uphold freedom of religion and belief for all citizens. The examples that I have highlighted just touch on the issues in Nigeria, but there is certainly a great need to press the Nigerian Government to overhaul their existing security arrangements, so as to protect vulnerable communities from the threat posed by the Fulani militia.

I hope that the UK Government are able to raise those concerns, and that the Minister will join me in urging Nigeria to tackle the proliferation of small arms and to address the violence caused by the armed bandits and the Fulani herdsmen, among others.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for chairing this crucial debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) for securing it.

Sadly, persecution of individuals due to their religious belief is nothing new. However, there is no doubt that communities of Christians that might once have expected to live in peace now face new threats that go hand in hand with rising political violence, attacks on free speech and discriminatory law making in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia. The Minister will be aware of the appalling attacks that took place this month on churches in Surabaya.

What can we do? I know that the Minister has been developing a strong relationship with Indonesia, and I would like to know how the UK is sharing our security expertise with nations affected by Islamist terror, what work we are doing to share expertise on deradicalisation, and what engagement we have had on anti-blasphemy laws that are affecting Christian and Ahmadiyya communities.

What can we do to encourage thought leadership in regions such as the middle east? Saudi Arabia clearly wishes to rebrand itself very carefully as a more modern nation, in part to satisfy a growing demand for change from its young and vibrant population but also to diversify its economy. How can we harness that drive and carefully encourage the kingdom towards a more moderate approach, which other nations might be inclined to follow? I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

It has been mentioned before, but we also have leverage through our aid budget, with some £350 million going to Pakistan alone each year. Understandably, that development package is highly controversial among many of my constituents, but in so far as the Government wish to continue that aid relationship I agree with other Members that it ought to be conditional.

This issue is an extremely important one, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on securing the debate.

It is shocking that more than 2 million Christians around the world are persecuted simply because of their faith, and like many hon. Members today I commend the work of Open Doors. What stood out for me on its world watch list was the fact that many of the countries on the list are also synonymous with luxury holidays, such as the Maldives and Mexico.

We need to talk more about this issue and not be afraid to talk about it. We are traditionally still a Christian country, and this issue does not necessarily get the airtime that it deserves. We have leverage with our international aid budget, enabling us to push countries to do more and to stop persecuting people simply because of their faith. We should also ring-fence a proportion of our international aid specifically to address this issue, because it is so important. In addition, I want us to ensure that our aid does not have unintended consequences, whereby we try to further causes such as education but actually make the problem worse.

I also note the work of SAT-7 in my constituency of Chippenham. It is a broadcaster across the middle east and Africa that tries to promote Christian values but also tolerance of and respect for all religions, which we all want to see. Also, I echo the comments made earlier about SAT-7 being unable to get donations from the Department for International Development just because of its religious background.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone—thank you for calling me to speak, given that I have already made an intervention.

I return to what is happening in Nigeria. The 2018 world watch list names Nigeria as the country with the largest number of Christians who have been killed, at 3,000. In fact, 6,000 people in Nigeria have been killed by the radicalised Fulani herdsmen since 2011. Can the Minister give us some assurances that the Government will examine the spread of such terrorism into the centre and south of Nigeria, since those parts of Nigeria have ceased to be the focus of the Department for International Development’s responsibility? Nigeria is a vast country that lies on a fault line between Islam and Christianity. There should be very real concern in our country about Nigeria, which, after all, is a Commonwealth country upon which we should be able to bring some pressure to bear.

Will the Minister also come back to the question that I asked in my intervention about what the Government are doing to get the last of the Chibok girls freed? These poor girls have slipped all too easily from the attention of the media around the world, and to think that a girl had to spend her 15th birthday in captivity just because of her unwillingness to give up her most profound belief shocks me to the core. I hope that by having this debate we can do something to ensure that those girls are not forgotten.

We now come to the Front-Bench speeches. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then Mr Philp will have the time remaining at the end to sum up the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on securing this very important debate. He made a powerful speech, which at times highlighted very disturbing, even harrowing cases from across the world, and he talked about the fundamental human rights that are jeopardised when people are not free to practise their religion.

As Christians in the UK, we can be subject to verbal abuse, but nobody ever prevents us from practising our religion. We have had many contributions this afternoon, and I will mention some of them. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) talked about the rise of ISIS and the difficulties that presented for the Christian community. The hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) both talked about the Christian community in China and the fact that 127 million Christians in that country are in great danger. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) all talked about the Christian community in Nigeria. In fact, Nigeria is one of the countries where Christians face the greatest degree of persecution.

A number of Members have mentioned the Open Doors world watch list, and I will just highlight some of the countries on it. No. 1 on that list is North Korea, where persecution is led by the state, which sees Christians as hostile elements that have to be eradicated. Neighbours and family members, including children, are highly watchful and suspicious, and will report anything to the authorities. If Christians are discovered, they are either deported to labour camps or killed on the spot, and their families suffer the same fate. Meetings for worship are virtually impossible to arrange and so are conducted in the utmost secrecy. The churches in Pyongyang that are shown to visitors serve mere propaganda purposes.

In Somalia, family members and clan leaders intimidate and even kill converts to Christianity. Al-Shabaab, the radical militant group, relies on a clan-based structure to advance its ideology, forcing sheikhs and imams to teach jihad or face expulsion or death, so it is not only Christians who are targeted in Somalia but Muslims too. Christians from a Muslim background in Somalia are regarded as high-value targets, and at least 23 suspected converts were killed last year.

In Sudan, there is a complex cultural mix, but the Government are implementing a policy of one religion, one culture and one language. Under that authoritarian rule, freedom of expression is curtailed and the persecution of Christians is reminiscent of ethnic cleansing. Some Christians disguise their faith, even from their children and even after death, preferring to be buried in a Muslim cemetery rather than a Christian one.

In Pakistan, Christians suffer from institutionalised discrimination, with occupations that are regarded as low and dirty being officially reserved for Christians. I want to highlight the work of a Glasgow-based organisation called Global Minorities Alliance, which has produced a number of reports. Some of its staff travelled to Thailand to see some of the Pakistani Christians who had travelled to that country. What they found was that Christians fleeing Pakistan can easily gain access to Thailand, because of Thailand’s loose tourist visa regime, but Thailand is no safe haven for them. Once they are in Thailand, they are in a country that refuses to recognise their status as refugees and they find themselves in limbo, unable to go back to Pakistan and unable to start a new life. Daily life has become an economic hardship, coupled with the fear of arrest, detention and deportation.

Finally, I want to mention three countries that target Christians, all of which we have links with—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. We sell arms to Saudi Arabia at the same time as it targets Christians. The hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) mentioned tourism links. We have strong tourism links with Egypt and Turkey, yet their persecution continues, so we need to think carefully about our trade deals and our relationships when considering paying into economies through tourism.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on his powerful speech on an important subject.

Christianity has been dominant in this country for 1,000 years and, for us, it can be difficult to imagine what it is like to be the persecuted. We tend to think of the persecutions of the first century or of the Tudor TV dramas, but the scale of what hon. Members on both sides of the House have described shows that persecution is a large and growing problem. I want to say something about some particular countries, but we need to ask ourselves why this is happening before we can discuss what we need to do.

Hon. Members have spoken about the middle east. Between 50% and 80% of Christians in Syria and Iraq have been forced to move in recent years, according to Open Doors. I, too, commend that organisation’s excellent work in supporting those communities and in bringing the significant problems to our attention. I also commend the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which came to see me recently.

Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), talked about the problems in Nigeria, which are particularly concentrated in the north of the country and which have grown recently. My husband was born in Kaduna and his father, who had been a colonial civil servant, died in 2004. At that time, the persecution was a small cloud on the horizon, not the big problem it is today. We need to do more. It is, of course, not easy, and we cannot just go around threatening people, but we need to pay more attention to the problem, as we do to the oldest Christian community, the Copts, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) talked about, and their particular need for protection.

As hon. Members have said, the persecution takes different forms. In some places it is about a religious divide. In some places it is state-driven oppression, particularly in China. In some places it is about people being excluded, and that is what we see in Mexico where, for example, someone in the wrong denomination might have their water and electricity cut off—shocking things, which I will raise when I am in Mexico next week.

It is hard for us to understand why people feel that they are under threat from other religions, that what other religions do threatens their position, or that they are so entitled, and so confident in their own rightness, that they should impose their views on other people. It is important that we increase and improve religious understanding. The Minister probably knows that there is a very good centre for religious understanding at the London School of Economics and Political Science, led by Rev. James Walters. We also need to consider how we can use our aid money. We need to think more open-mindedly about what misunderstandings we have, as well as about those of other people, without in any way saying that any of the abuses are acceptable.

In Vietnam, there are arrests, imprisonments, torture and extrajudicial killings, yet the Home Office wants to send a constituent of mine, who is a Christian, back there. When I asked the Bishop of Durham for examples he knew of persecution, he raised that of a Jordanian Christian woman who came to this country and was then interned in Yarl’s Wood before she claimed asylum. We need to use the aid programme and we need to speak out, but will Foreign Office Ministers please also talk to the Home Office so that the very people who have been victims are not re-victimised in this country?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) for initiating the debate. I particularly respect his consistent and long-standing commitment—well, long-standing for a colleague of three years, anyway—to the issue during all his time in the House. He and other hon. Members from across the House have given appalling examples of the persecution of Christians overseas. I fear that I will not be able to do justice in the relatively short time available to their heartfelt contributions, but I will, if necessary, write to those whose issues I am unable to address in these few words.

I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). She made a very good point. I am a great believer in joined-up government. Sometimes I fear that, between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, things are not quite as joined up as they should be on these sorts of matters, and I will do my level best to take up the hon. Lady’s case and address it more avidly, if she will give me the details.

While we are on the subject of joined-up government, will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to seek to ensure that, when Christian clerics are invited to the United Kingdom on religious visits, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office will facilitate visas rather than blocking them?

No doubt I will have the specifics of that matter before too long. Yes, I will endeavour to do that for my hon. Friend.

The Government are, sadly, all too familiar with research conducted in recent years by reputable organisations that shows that the persecution of Christians is on the rise. In the 12 months to October, Open Doors concluded that more than 200 million Christians in 50 countries experienced what it regards as a high level of persecution. Its latest watch list charts a swathe of Christian persecution stretching from northern and western Africa to North Korea.

I should at this point like to touch on the situation in Nigeria— an issue that a number of Members expressed concern about. In addition to the challenges presented by Boko Haram, particularly in the north and on the north-eastern border with Cameroon, Nigeria faces daily violence in its central regions between Christian farmers and predominantly Muslim Fulani cattle herders. That cycle of violent clashes has resulted in countless deaths, particularly in recent years, and even in the destruction of entire villages, which we of course condemn.

I fully understand the concerns that have been raised. I should stress that this is a long-running conflict with complex causes, including land, farming rights, grazing routes and access to water, as well as the religious divisions referred to. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), I warmly welcome President Buhari’s engagement on the issue. It is imperative that the Nigerian Government and the military work together with the affected populations to bring perpetrators to justice and develop a solution that meets the needs of all the communities affected, as British officials will continue to encourage them to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) wanted some reassurance. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Nigerian vice-president following the abductions of the Dapchi, and the Prime Minister herself, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, raised these issues with President Buhari on 16 April. Our view is that the attacks on schools must stop. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is right, unfortunately, that the terrible events in the north-east of the country and the abductions—still—of over 100 schoolgirls have disappeared from the media, and this is an opportunity to raise the issue, as we will do in Abuja and beyond.

Returning to the broader theme, Christian persecution takes many forms. As we have heard, places of worship in far too many countries are targeted, shut down or even destroyed. Followers are discriminated against, subjected to mob attack and criminalised—in some cases, by the state. Many live in fear for their lives, and many thousands have been forced to flee their homes.

In whatever form it manifests itself, all religious persecution is abhorrent and deplorable. Governments, religious groups and right-minded people must do all they can to bring it to an end. I am glad that point was raised by a number of Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), among others.

In our work around the globe, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will stand up for religious freedom—full stop. We do not do that simply for Christians; indeed, one has to recognise that for us to stand up exclusively for Christians would risk protecting a minority perhaps close to many western hearts to the exclusion of others or would, indeed, risk making them more vulnerable.

I assure Members—I saw this in my most recent visit—that we do our best to recognise that the persecution of Christians has become much more profound in particular parts of the world, not least China. I hope to come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) later.

The Minister talks about bringing perpetrators to justice. Two years ago in a debate in this House, Parliament voted by 278 Members to nil to call on the Government to take action to hold to account the perpetrators of genocide against Christians, Yazidis and others in Syria and Iraq. Will he say what action has been taken since then, or perhaps write to us? In his response then, the Minister’s colleague said that the UK is taking an international lead on the issue. Will the Minister meet Lord Alton and me to discuss the genocide determination Bills we have introduced in our respective Houses? They would go some way to addressing the issue.

I will meet my hon. Friend. If she will excuse me, I will write to her with some of the details she has asked for.

We believe that religious freedom is a bellwether of broader individual freedoms, democratic health and, ultimately, economic health. For all those reasons, it is a priority for this Government to defend and promote the rights of not only Christians but peoples of all faiths and none so that they can practise their faith or belief without fear or discrimination.

I could say much—time is running tight—about aspects of the bilateral work we do. Earlier this month, I visited Nepal. I expressed concern to Prime Minister Oli in a meeting I had with him that uncertainty around provisions of the new penal code might be used to limit the freedom to adopt, change or practise a religion. Those provisions can especially target Christian minorities. I also raised concerns about freedom of religion or belief and about the protection of minority religious communities in Pakistan with the Ministry of Human Rights during my visit to that country in November.

Needless to say, we will continue to raise concerns with the authorities in China at our annual UK-China human rights dialogue and on other occasions about the increasingly worrying and widespread persecution of Christian minorities—particularly those converting from other religions. Our values form an integral part of our relationship with China; indeed, the Prime Minister raised human rights issues when she met President Xi and Prime Minister Li earlier this year.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I only have a small amount of time left.

So far this year my ministerial colleagues have raised issues about freedom of religion or belief with counterparts in such places as Iraq, Egypt and Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) mentioned Indonesia. We have made representations to the Indonesian Government to ensure that the proposed blasphemy laws are not applied on their current rather discriminatory basis. I will be going to that country for four days in August and will raise those issues then. My hon. Friend will appreciate the strong intelligence and security relationship we have with Indonesia. That is not in any way to forgive any of these issues, but we have important intelligence relationships, not least because of the global threat, particularly in Mindanao, which is just the other side of the Philippine border.

It is not just about Government-to-Government work. I could say much about NGO and project work, but I think it would be worth while to focus the end of my comments on issues around aid conditionality that have been brought up by a number of Members—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). It is important to state that the Department for International Development has its own faith-based principles that provide a framework for engaging faith partners in development. It also wants to actively support faith-based NGOs to apply to the UK Aid Connect fund, which is a funding pot for smaller NGOs.

In addition to our discussions with Governments, it has been suggested that UK overseas aid should be entirely conditional on recipient Governments taking concrete action to end religious persecution. I reassure the House that we challenge our development partners precisely and specifically on these issues, in whichever country they arise. There may be countries where we disapprove of what they are doing.

This is a non-religious issue, but in Cambodia we have had opposition leaders being locked up. However, equally, we have long-standing relationships in aid and development terms, particularly in mine clearance in parts of that country. The interests of some of the most vulnerable are at stake. If we do not clear those mines, arable land will not be able to be used. While it is right that these things are conditional and that guidelines are set down, we equally have to recognise that we are sometimes acting for the most vulnerable with a range of aid programmes. Simply to cut off that money mid-flow would not be the right way forward.

Generally, DFID will assess a country’s commitment to each of the four partnership principles. One of those is a commitment to human rights, which includes freedom of religion or belief. Evidence of a lack of commitment to the principles influences decisions on how much aid is given and in what manner it is passed out. For example, it might mean that aid is provided through civil society organisations, rather than Government bodies. Our aim is to support projects that can stimulate positive change in the countries concerned, such as our project to help secondary school teachers promote religious freedom in classrooms across parts of north Africa.

The hon. Member for Croydon South specifically mentioned Pakistan. As I have said, Ministers have raised concerns with the Government in Islamabad this year. We are doing a great deal of work through our projects to try to benefit religious minorities in Pakistan. Last year, for example, we had an £800,000 FCO project to counter hate speech and a £200,000 project to celebrate Pakistan’s religious diversity.

We should all be proud of the life-saving impact of our overseas aid on persecuted religious groups. While we do not allocate humanitarian support to them specifically—because we believe it could be counterproductive—our policy of prioritising those most in need means such groups are often the beneficiaries.

I share many of the concerns that have been raised by other Members. The situation is desperate in Iraq and Syria. Some 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq as recently as 2003. It is understood that fewer than a quarter of a million now remain. Likewise, in Syria, huge numbers of Christians are now in refugee camps in Lebanon or have fled the country. Very few, I suspect, will feel it is safe to return any time soon.

In conclusion, I thank Members for all their contributions. I fear that a 90-second speaking limit does not do anything like justice to the passion they all feel. Less is more sometimes, but not always in every parliamentary debate I have been part of. As a Government, we will continue to defend the fundamental right of religious freedom, not least because of our commitment to the universal declaration on human rights. I very much hope that other Members will have a chance to speak at much greater length. I will endeavour to look through this debate in Hansard and reply individually to each Member whose points I was not able to pick up in this contribution.

I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken in this afternoon’s debate. It was a great shame that time was so constrained. I have noted down everyone who was present, and I will follow up and try to organise a proper full-day Backbench Business debate on this important topic at the earliest opportunity.

This debate shows there is cross-party support for pursuing the issue. I think every major party was represented in today’s contributions, and there is agreement around the Chamber about the need to do more, because things are getting worse, not better.

I once again thank Open Doors for its work raising this important issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) has been a Parliamentary Private Secretary in this debate, and he has done a lot of work with Open Doors, which is based in his constituency. I know he is a great friend and supporter of the Open Doors movement.

I welcome the Minister’s remarks on overseas aid conditionality. I am glad he made the comments he did, but I would go a little further: no Government who are failing to take action on this issue should receive any overseas aid from this country on a Government-to-Government basis. Where there are mine clearance programmes or we are dispersing aid through charities, that work is valuable and should not be threatened, but no Government who stand by and allow this persecution to happen should receive a single penny of aid from the UK taxpayer.

Religious freedom, whether it is for Christians or any other group, is of fundamental importance. It is a fundamental human right and a mark of our civilisation as a country and as a world. We must do everything we can, and more than we are currently doing, to ensure that religious freedom is protected around the world.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians overseas.

Sitting adjourned.