Thursday 14 June 2018
[James Gray in the Chair]
Brexit: Trade in Food
We start the afternoon in this great Chamber, Westminster Hall, with a debate on the recent report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs entitled “Brexit: Trade in Food”. It is normal on these occasions for the Minister to be present at the beginning of the debate, although that is not required under Standing Orders. I suspect he may be approaching the Chamber quite quickly. There being no further intelligence on where the Minister might be, I know the Parliamentary Private Secretary will take a keen interest.
The PPS can do it!
Order. I know the PPS will take a keen interest in how the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee approaches the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Third Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Brexit: Trade in Food, HC 348, and the Government response, HC 1021.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. As you have said, let us hope we see a Minister in the very near future.
Before we begin, it is one year since the disaster of Grenfell Tower, and I want to remember those whose lives were devastated when they lost their loved ones and their homes. We should all reflect on that.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement in the Chamber last night that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will bring forward two Bills on sentencing and animal sentience, as recommended by our Committee.
The British public voted to leave the European Union in 2016 so that we could take back control of our money, laws and regulations. Farming is a prime example of that. For 40 years, all our policies have come from Brussels, but now we will be able to decide a new farming policy for ourselves. I chaired the agriculture committee of the European Parliament, and in trying to deal with 27 countries, from Finland in the north to Spain in the south, it can sometimes be difficult to come up with a policy that suits everyone. We have a bright future, provided we embrace what will be good not only for the environment, but for farming and food production in this country.
We need to know exactly what impact Brexit will have on our agricultural sector. That is why the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee held an inquiry on Brexit and food, which we published on 18 February. My Committee spoke to many people—farmers from all sectors, academics and other food and farming professionals—and they all agreed that trade is crucial to the farming industry. As a rural MP and a former dairy farmer, I know more than most how important that trade is. [Interruption.] It is good to see the Minister arriving. I will allow him to take his seat. It is all right, Minister. It is usually me who is late, not him.
I must give my apologies for missing the start of the debate. The reason is that I thought a debate of such importance should be in the main Chamber. I was hovering outside the wrong Chamber, but I am here now. I apologise for missing the first few minutes.
That is a very good apology. The Minister elevated our debate to the Chamber when we are actually in Westminster Hall. I appreciate his explanation and thank him for arriving. I am sure his officials will fill him in on the start of my speech.
We have a great farming industry and high-quality products, and it is important that that is supported over the coming years. Continued trade with the EU is essential to ensuring our farming sector thrives after Brexit. We must have an outward-looking, global Britain. That will be key to seeing our agricultural sector flourish, but we must also maintain a good share of our home market and home production. I feel strongly about that. We buy 70% of our food and drink imports from the EU, and we sell 60% of our food and drink exports back to the EU. We can see that trade to the EU is extremely important, and that that means that a farming-focused free trade agreement with the EU is essential. We have always sought reassurance from Ministers that as the deals are done, DEFRA, DEFRA Ministers and the Secretary of State will be at the forefront.
If we do not reach a free trade agreement with the EU, our agricultural goods might well be subject to tariffs once we have left. EU tariffs are high. Tariffs on dairy products are over 30%, and they can be as high as 80% on frozen beef. Reverting to World Trade Organisation rules would be even worse, as tariffs there are far higher for agricultural goods than for many other products. In addition, all countries must be treated equally under WTO rules. For example, Irish beef would need to have the same tariff as Brazilian beef, which could be devastating not only for us, but for Ireland. That is why our report recommends that the Government undertake work as a matter of urgency to evaluate the impact of any deal that they negotiate.
We are calling on the Government to publish a sector-by-sector analysis on the impact of Brexit so that we can better understand how tariffs will affect our farmers. For instance, in the dairy sector we import a similar amount to what we export. We are often importing yoghurts and cheeses, and we have the ability to produce more of those ourselves. We could therefore reduce the need for imports, as we could in other sectors, such as the pig and lamb sectors.
We export some 40% of our lamb, and import some 35%. On the face of it, we could say, “That’s okay. Stop the exports and the imports and we can eat all our own lamb,” but in reality we are exporting fifth-quarter joints and importing legs of lamb from New Zealand. We can see that the trade in lamb backwards and forwards, and with France in particular, is incredibly important.
The Secretary of State assured us on the sector-by-sector analysis yesterday in Committee, and I seek your assurance, Minister, that that work is under way and will be published. In my view, it should have been done already. We have seen, rightly in many respects, many more extra staff being taken on in DEFRA, but I have to say bluntly to you, Minister—
Order. It is not me that the hon. Gentleman is addressing, but the Minister. You are speaking to “him”.
I beg your pardon, Mr Gray. I say to the Minister, what is happening with the sector-by-sector analysis? When can we expect the analyses to be published? In all the evidence we took for our report, we found that the trading arrangements affect different sectors in very different ways. We need to know exactly what those trading arrangements will be to ensure that we maintain our food production.
A farming-focused free trade agreement is not the only way that the Government can support farmers. I am sure that you, Minister—
Order. I do not mean to be stiff and pompous, but the reason for the convention is that referring to all other Members in the Chamber in the third person removes the directness from the debate. It is not “you”, but “he” or “the Minister”.
So I can say “Minister”?
It is perfectly reasonable to say, “As the Minister will know,” or, “As I hope the Minister will say in replying to the debate.” It is not in order to say, “As you know, Minister,” or, “As I hope you will say in your reply.” You may not use the word “you” apart from when you are referring to me, and I have no part in the debate beyond chairing it.
Thank you, Mr Gray, for that clarification.
Farmers offer vital support to the rural economy, with the food and farming industry generating more than £110 billion a year, and employing one person in eight in the country. Food and drink, much of it produced in this country, is a vital industry, and the way our food is produced is so important for our natural environment, as we can see in many parts of the country.
The Secretary of State was in Exmoor and Devon last week, where the farming of sheep and cattle produces that lovely landscape with many natural features. Within those natural features is a managed farm landscape, which is why the profitability of food and agricultural production is so necessary. We can look at environmental payments, but they will not be able to replace the profitability of agriculture and food production entirely. The two need to go hand in glove, which we are really keen to see happen.
As a member of the EFRA Committee, I apologise for not being able to stay for the whole debate; I am on the Ivory Bill Committee, which sits again at 2 pm.
I entirely support what the Chair of the Select Committee says about the need for much greater clarity and strategic direction from the Department, but it is also important that we hear a lot more from the Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the European Union. I asked about rules of origin and their impact on the food sector this morning and got a very disappointing response. Does he agree that all three Departments need to send a clear message to farmers and food producers about what the future holds for them?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and for the excellent work that she does on the Select Committee. She makes a very good point about geographical indicators. Interestingly enough, when the Secretary of State visited Exmoor and Devon last week, there was talk of giving protected geographical indication status to Exmoor, where we can sell lamb from both sides of the border—from Somerset and from Devon.
All those things are intricately linked to the need for a future food policy, so that people know where their food has come from and so that we can market it better and, hopefully, get a better price for the producer. That money can then be linked back to the landscape. I cannot emphasise enough that the landscape and the food production, especially in certain parts of the country such as big livestock areas and more marginal land, are intricately mixed.
We must also ensure that we have high-quality vegetable production. Where we can produce organic vegetables, we should; where we can produce vegetables with fewer pesticides and fungicides, we should. We must be very positive about a food policy. I am worried that in the recent Command Paper on health and harmony, the only real talk of food production was very much at the high end. The high end of food production is great—from local restaurants, to tourists buying food and to everything linked to the countryside. However, we also need affordable food that the whole population can eat.
At least 90% of our food business goes through our major retailers, and people often buy on price. As we move forward, we have to be assured that our vegetable production not only is of good quality, with high welfare standards, but comes at a price that the average consumer can afford to—and will—pay. Whatever we buy in life, it is a choice, so not only do we want to have good, high standards, but it needs to be affordable.
We have a managed landscape with many natural features, as I said. The onus is on the Government to engage more closely with the industry to provide the food and farming sector with greater clarity. Tit-for-tat tariffs will do more harm than good—just look at the situation in America. The Americans have started putting tariffs on steel and aluminium. That might well help the steel and aluminium industries in America, but it will drive costs up for the industries in America that need to use those products. Food, a commodity and a manufactured product, does not need tariffs on it. In the end, that will only create more costs and could well lead to higher prices to consumers. I do not believe that those tariffs will ever come back to the producer.
It is imperative that we have a farming-focused free trade agreement with Europe. I repeat what has been said day in and day out in this House: two years since the referendum, all sectors—not just the farming sector— need some clarity on the direction in which we are going. People in all lines of business need to make investments, but those in the beef and dairy sectors in particular need to have a long-term view of where the world is going in order to make investments.
On that point, it is worth mentioning Northern Ireland, which the Select Committee considered. There is a particular need for as much certainty as we can give regarding Northern Ireland, because I think 45% of all sheep produced there go south of the border. We made a specific recommendation on Northern Ireland, as any change in trade arrangements could be more disruptive there than anywhere else in the kingdom.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is also a very good member of the Committee. He raises a good point regarding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The lambs go south and the pigs go north to be processed—and the milk goes round and round in circles, as far as I am aware. A lot of processing goes on across the border. If anywhere in the whole of the United Kingdom is essential, it is that border, for obvious political reasons—reasons of peace and many others. We must get that border right. I am sure it is not lost on the Minister that we need to do more regarding that border.
The various systems we are putting in place are interesting. I am quite happy for the Government to look at having a new system. It does not have to be the single market and the customs union, but we have to ensure that the new system we devise is recognised by the EU, because the Republic of Ireland, obviously, is an EU member state. Those are the great challenges, and I am sure that that is not lost on the Government.
If tariffs were imposed, I believe that consumers would suffer. Tariffs would also make it more difficult for our farmers who produce food to our world-renowned high standards to compete and properly export, inhibiting the building of “Brand Britain”, which is going to be even more important in the future than it has in the past. We will be able strongly to market not only regional produce, but the British product. We have only to go back to horsegate, when horsemeat was being put into burgers because it was a lot cheaper, and look at the food cycle, the provenance of food and the food processing industry, to find that food travels all across Europe. Provenance, branding and the confidence that the world—and those in our own country—has in our products are going to be more important than ever.
As I said, the Government have struggled with their post-Brexit policies. I am hoping that we are seeing some clarity; we have had some interesting votes this week. I believe that will bring forward a clarity, so that we can move forward; the industry needs to have confidence to invest and to address the opportunities and challenges that Brexit will offer. We must go into this with our eyes open.
That is not all. We have dealt with the cross-border situation in Northern Ireland; investing in an IT system to support a more efficient export certification process could minimise delays, and we need to make sure, whether through the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the Food Standards Agency or our veterinary services, that we have the necessary personnel to be able to get the licences up and running quickly, especially if we are going to have a change in the system as we cross the border. It is very important that we move quickly where we are talking about perishable products, which include not only agricultural products but fish.
It is possible to design a bespoke support system that encourages greater productivity and further strengthens our animal welfare standards, which are already among the highest in world. To do that, we need clarification from our Government. It is good to have very high welfare and environmental standards, but the quid pro quo is that the standards of imported products should maintain our high standards, through the free trade arrangement with Europe—which should not be difficult because our standards are currently the same—and free trade arrangements with other countries across the world. Otherwise we will put our producers and farmers out of business.
Our food and drink sector needs a reinforced trade deal. “Brand Britain” must become a national advertisement to the world, showing what an outward-looking, open nation we are. The new farming policy we call for in the Select Committee report is about creating a “Brand Britain” that delivers high-quality food that is affordable for all. British agriculture should be front and centre of all our negotiations, not left to feed from the crumbs under the table.
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee and its members for the work that they have put into the report over the past few weeks. The food and drink sector is enormously important across the UK. Mr Gray, I hope you will forgive me if I focus a little on the Scottish food and drink sector, which has grown enormously and very successfully over the past few years. It is a huge and very important employer, not least in rural communities, and the excellence of its products is increasingly recognised throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world.
The fishing sector in my own constituency is not quite what it once was, but it is still there, with fishermen working exceptionally hard producing fine produce that is then sent off around Europe from the quaysides in places such as Pittenweem. A large agricultural sector produces some of the finest food and drink, which makes its way to destinations throughout the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
There are other successful food and drink industries, including a growing number of whisky distilleries, which complement yet further the fantastic, vibrant food and drink sector in North East Fife. I recently visited a newly opened gin cottage, Darnley’s Gin, near Kingsbarns, which I would heartily recommend to people if they make it up as far as St Andrews. I recommend that the Select Committee visit it at some point, if it ever gets the opportunity. We cannot overstate how valuable such industries are and, as I have said, they are particularly important in rural communities.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said something enormously important about clarity in the Government’s plans to leave the European Union. The Committee is right to seek greater clarity, regardless of what side of the debate people may have sat on. The EU is Scotland’s biggest overseas export market for food and drink—69% of food exports go to the EU, which is worth three quarters of a billion pounds. In Pittenweem, for instance, the lorries take the food products and they arrive in restaurants in Spain, France, Belgium the very next day. That is where customs checks become exceptionally important, and I know that is something that the Minister will want to touch on.
Fresh food and drink processes are where the customs union really comes into its own, and I wonder whether the Minister can give us some clarity. We are seeking clarity for something that may happen not in the years to come but in the months to come. In a sector that is already planning for next year—it does not plan a day ahead and it may plan years ahead—clarity has so far been very poor, and I know there have been a huge number of concerns about that.
The National Farmers Union Scotland has called for the UK or for Scotland to remain part of the customs union for that very reason—the critical importance of the customs union to our food and drink sector, to our export markets and our partners elsewhere in Europe—but there are other important areas as well. Protected geographical status is exceptionally important to the food and drink sector. Perhaps the Minister will want to update us on where we are with that. It is not just with whisky: Arbroath smokies recently obtained that status and there are other such products as well, so it is an important point.
The food and drink sector is employing an increasing number of people. Newburgh in my constituency has the highly successful Lindores distillery, and farmers next door are looking for a little certainty as well. We know from the Scottish Government’s analysis that any plans to take us out of the European Union will have an impact on our economy, and that is reflected in the UK Government’s own analysis, which we have all seen: that any plans to take us out of the European Union will hit our economy hard.
The Scottish Government analysis shows a loss of 8.5% of GDP, £12.7 billion, and by 2030, £2,300 per individual. That will hit industry, including the food and drink industry, because it relies on our relationship with the rest of Europe so heavily. Although those are figures from the Scottish Government—they have published those figures, so they are publicly available—we know that they reflect the UK Government’s figures. They are pretty much the same figures, because they were drawn together by a wide range of independent economists, whom the Government employ to teach them about this kind of thing. Will the UK Government now publicly publish their figures to inform a fuller debate about these key issues? The Scottish Government have been very open about this, but the UK Government have been less so.
I have mentioned the devastating figures for Scotland —my part of the United Kingdom—but Professor Graeme Roy of the Fraser of Allander Institute says that the food and drink sector in other parts of the UK will be even harder hit. Other hon. Members will reflect on that, but there is nobody here from Northern Ireland. We know how important it is to sort out that border problem, given the food and drink exports that go to and fro over the course of producing food and drink items. The World Trade Organisation rules would be the worst of all.
One issue that affects farmers now is seasonal workers. I hope the Minister will tell us how we can tackle that issue. Lord Duncan, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, was good enough to join me at a farm in my constituency recently. Mr and Mrs Mitchell, who run Allanhill farm, told him that they need clarity now, because their seasonal workers are down. The produce of that berry farm is for consumption across the UK and elsewhere in Europe, and they need to know whether to plant their next crop so they can harvest it next year. That is a very difficult decision if they do not have certainty about seasonal workers. This is not something we will be debating in the future; we are debating it in the here and now. Will the Minister reflect on the urgency of our food and drink producers’ situation?
That is echoed by James Orr, who farms around Blebo Craigs in my constituency. I am sorry to be talking about my own constituency, but those are the examples I know best. For example, I recently learned that there are only two places in Scotland where broccoli can be grown. One is in my constituency, because it is so sunny—yet another reason for the Select Committee to visit us. Broccoli has to be harvested by hand, and it is really important that it is not left to rot in the field. If seasonal workers are down, there is the distinct danger that that will happen.
On trade, the Scottish Government have done a lot of work on farmers markets and on promoting the food and drink industry, because agriculture is, of course, reserved to the Scottish Government. Will the Minister tell us how that will work in the future? The Secretary of State for Scotland is making a statement right now, but we have not had much in the way of certainty. The legislative consent motion for the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which will have a direct impact on this area, was refused by three quarters of parliamentarians in the Scottish Parliament—not just Scottish National party Members, but Labour, Liberal Democrats and Green Members, too.
Will the Minister tell us how we will take that forward? For instance, what will happen in the future if there is a dispute between the UK and Scottish Governments? I know the Minister will do everything he possibly can to avoid disputes, but such things will happen. If there is a dispute over the trade in food and drink, will Westminster simply override that decision, and therefore 20 years’-worth of devolved settlements?
What will happen if there are more trade disputes with, for example, the United States? Although the tariffs are being applied to steel, there is considerable concern that they will also affect the food and drink sector. The whisky industry, for example, has highlighted that. If we step outside the European Union, we step away from those closest to us in terms of our trade and our economy. They are closest to us politically and geographically, which is particularly important to the food and drink sector. What happens when the UK stands itself alone against the world? That is not a particularly comfortable place to leave our food and drink producers.
What happens to access to the critically important single market? Like the customs union, the single market and freedom of movement are hugely important to our food and drink sector. We have no clarity about those issues at present. I know the Minister will not be able to give us all the answers, but he needs to provide certainty. I thank Committee members again for their valuable work on this timely report. I hope the Minister’s response will reflect the urgency of the situation, as Committee members have done in their work.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am very pleased that, yet again, we are in this place debating food and farming. I am even more pleased that the Minister is here, because otherwise I would not have been able to ask him the questions I want to ask him. I am sure he will try to answer them.
The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), raised a number of issues that I wish to take up. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who has had to leave, and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan). They are very strong members of the Select Committee, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), who has not had a chance to say anything yet, but if he wishes to intervene and put something on the record, I am more than happy to let him do so.
I am a former member of the Select Committee, and I am grateful that it is in good hands. I was lucky to be chaired by David Curry and Michael Jack, and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has carried on in the same good order. He has shown how the Committee is making a difference. The quality of its work is in the preciseness of its arguments. Why write a long report when a short one can do the job?
The hon. Gentleman’s speech ranged far and wide, so I make no apology that I will refer to the later report, which may also be discussed in this place in due course. It is, however, contingent on the report before us. I will refer to a number of things in the Government’s Command Paper, and how the Select Committee has investigated them.
Let me start with where we are with this whole exercise. Although farming is a relatively small part of the British jigsaw, it is a very important part of European functionality, because half the EU budget is spent on farming. My first question to the Minister—I have asked this previously—is, when will we get into serious negotiations about farming, and particularly food? Although farming is not a huge constituent part of the British economy, food and food exports are. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, that sector is responsible for about £110 billion-worth of business, and employs one in eight people. It is an important part of the UK economy, so we have got to get this right whatever the post-Brexit situation is.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s request to see the sectorial reports. Like lots of hon. Members, I went to look at the original sectorial reports. I have to say that a good A-level student would probably feel reasonably pleased with them, but I do not think their quality was much better than that. We need definitive evidence, because these sectors are very different and will require different negotiations. It would be good to know when some of those negotiations will take place, and that there will be ministerial—not just civil service—input, because they will be complicated.
I am not sure—I know the Minister is sure and can allay my fears—when we will start talking to the WTO. We are a signatory to the WTO, but through our membership of the EU. At what stage will we start to talk to the WTO about how we will exercise our independence? The one thing that I know from all my time on the Select Committee, and since, is that when we start to get into the different boxes—amber, red, blue and green—and the aggregate measure of support, we get into enormous complexity, which will not be sorted out in a few weeks. That will take a long time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and certainly for his comments about the Select Committee. When it comes to tariffs and the European relationship with agriculture, the problem with the WTO is that if we were under WTO rules rather than in a free trade arrangement with Europe, French and Irish beef would have to have the same tariff as Brazilian beef. Imagine having to compete with Brazilian and Argentinian beef—we produce very high-quality beef in this country, but it would be difficult to produce it at the same prices as Brazil and Argentina.
Again, I am not an expert on the farming industry per se, as the hon. Gentleman is, but having talked to those who know about it, I know that the lamb market—Welsh lamb, in particular—is very vulnerable. I made the point that New Zealand would no doubt be keen to expand its exports to this country, but I was proven wrong in the sense that New Zealand can already export 200,000 tonnes of lamb. The big threat is actually from Australia, which has a more limited quota arrangement and will no doubt wish to have a free trade agreement—any agreement—so that it can export more to us. Again, that is a question I ask. I genuinely do not know where outside the EU—where 60% of our food exports go to—we can form all these free trade agreements.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is not only where our exports will go or where our imports will come from, but that the laudable environmental and health and safety constraints that we place on agriculture in this country will not necessarily be replicated in countries in other parts of the world that may wish to export to us? We shall see a race to the bottom on environmental and health and safety concerns.
That is, of course, a real threat. I refer to the Government’s response to the Committee’s report. At paragraph 6, on “Regulations and Standards”, the Government cited the Prime Minister in her Mansion House speech, saying that
“the UK will need to make a strong commitment that its regulatory standards will remain as high as the EU’s.”
I should damn well hope so—excuse the proverbial—because if we do not, we will not be able to export to the EU. It is important to maintain the existing standards, and we would want to drive them up—the Minister has said that—but that will be in some jeopardy if we form free trade agreements with countries with lower standards, because those would preclude the higher-standard export markets that we have now.
Looking ahead to the Select Committee’s “The future for food” report—to laud the Committee again—its value is that it has all the right headings. The keynote is uncertainty: we need to allay the element of doubt that is creeping into what is now a tight timescale. Looking at the report, the questions will obviously be about budget—I am pressing the Labour party to ensure sufficient funding. We have already guaranteed the same money until 2022, but to be honest with the Minister, we want to go further, because we do not think that the transitionary period is long enough. That has come through in both reports.
There is not enough money to make the transition work. Whatever form of payment system we come up with, it will be a pretty traumatic change. For some farmers, it will be the most traumatic change they have ever had in their lives. We would therefore like more money to be allocated and for things to be done properly. We are not against public using moneys for public goods, but we have to handle the situation with extreme sensitivity. Otherwise, we will lose a lot of good farmers who cannot make the transition easily.
To go back to today’s report, I have some questions arising from the Government response. How will they deal not only with tariffs, but with non-tariff issues? In my constituency, some of the manufacturing companies say that the problem is never with free trade, or setting up free trade agreements, because they are set up all the time. The problem is when other parts of the world take non-tariff action, which is a real danger in the food sector. It would be good to know how far the Government have got and in what ways they are at least investigating how to deal with the threat of non-tariff barriers.
On the potential for increased paperwork, the Government are setting great store by a new computer system—as did my Government, to our cost, when we introduced the Rural Payments Agency, and I dealt with Accenture at that time. We were told then how everything was going to be wonderful because the computer would do it all for us. It would be good to know how far we have got with the new computer system and what it will do—there is the idea of “e-certs”, but whatever name it has, it is just a computer system. If we do not have the right brief to start with, we will not get the right outcomes. Therefore, how far have the Government got towards introducing that computer system in such a way as to cope with all the different pressures, whether of trade or of the standards and so on?
There is also the human dimension. The spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins)—to whom I should have paid due regard earlier, but I do so now—spoke about the need for seasonal workers. Another element, which was picked up on by the Select Committee, is the additional need for veterinary support. At the very least, we do not have enough vets in this country to do the work that is needed, which is why we recruit foreign vets.
That work will only increase, despite restrictions on immigration and on what is called mutual recognition of professional qualifications—a very good thing that ensures we get in people with equivalent qualifications to ours. Dealing with that takes time. We will need additional vets in the short run to deal with some of the new processes. Again, will the Government give us an update on their important discussions with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association and so on?
That leads on to the issue of customs and how those arrangements are being looked at. I must say that some of the Government’s answers are fairly sketchy. The response is a fairly brief piece of work—I laud the Select Committee again because although its work was brief, it was precise, but the Government did not necessarily tell us everything. Perhaps the Minister will fill in some of the detail, such as how much store is set by the IT system, how he will deal with border inspection post capacity and what is happening with some of the trade agreements with non-EU countries. All that will require a very different approach. I hope that we will not have a hard Brexit, but even under a soft Brexit those will be very complicated issues that are difficult to work through in the short term.
Another issue is country-of-origin labelling, which Members across the House would all support. Customers need assurance to know where something has come from and whether it is of the standard that they expect. Again, the Government have made lots of commitments, but it would be good to know how they will deliver on those commitments—what they said in paragraph 13 of their response was very good in aspiration, but not detailed in how they would action it.
In conclusion, there are many points of detail. That matters, because we should be entering a period of discussion where agriculture, hopefully, will be in the footlights. That is rare, because normally agriculture is somewhat in the shadows, but it is crucial at this stage because of what happens to our food chain. We must make sure we get this right to support the industry and the people who work in it. That may not be easy in the short run, but we must be clear where the strategy is taking us.
If there is any regulatory divergence from the EU, those of us who fear that things could get worse in the short run need the Government to be clear on what they are trying to do. What mechanisms will they employ and who will employ them? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has taken on a huge number of new people—perhaps it should not have got rid of as many as it did when it was not at the frontline of these changes. It would be good to know how those people could be as effective as they should be, in a short period. Their knowledge alongside the ministerial team will be crucial. I sympathise with Ministers; I know how much pressure they are under, because this issue puts the Opposition under a lot of pressure due to the number of ways in which we have to respond.
I hope the Government have got the message that they need to be very clear on how they are moving forward. Otherwise, we will be back here week after week with debates, trying to ascertain what the detailed considerations really mean and how we will take British agriculture and the British food chain forward into the next decade, whatever our status with the EU. More particularly, they must make sure that British food is of as good a standard as it can and should be, and that it can be traded successfully with the rest of the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I apologise again for being late to the debate, for the reasons I described earlier.
I thank the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), for introducing the debate. This is an incredibly important issue that matters to all sectors of the economy and to food and farming. I want to set out, for the record, the Government’s approach to our future trading relationship with the European Union, because that is important. Much of the report looked at the consequences of a possible no-deal Brexit, for reasons I can understand and that I will deal with, but it is important to recognise the UK’s position.
We are seeking a bold and comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union. We want tariff-free access for all sectors, which would be reciprocated, and we seek a frictionless border. We believe that the growth of technology in the last 20 to 30 years means that we do not have to have as much friction at the border as some would claim. Indeed, we have looked the procedures used prior to 1993, when the single market was introduced—an important point that many people forget. We had frictionless borders not when we joined the European Union, but after 1993. Technology has assisted a lot with the frictionless borders that we enjoy today in the European Union—that is not just about the regulations of the single market.
I agree with the Minister entirely; it would be great if we could get the frictionless trade deal and frictionless borders. Is he convinced that when we have the technology—I think we have it—it will work? I must be quite blunt about the Rural Payments Agency, Natural England and others. I know he will defend them to the hilt, but I said yesterday that they are not fit for purpose. If they were in the private sector, they probably would be dead by now, because they do not handle things properly—every time, we get more and more problems. The key thing is whether we can get this to work and whether we can get Europe to agree to it. Ultimately, let us get those lorries across the border and back again. We all want that. That is the reassurance we are all looking for.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I was going to come on to why it is in everyone’s interest to do the type of agreement that we are offering. We do not believe that we have to have total uniformity of regulations on these various issues to have a frictionless border. It is quite possible to recognise what in trade jargon is called equivalence.
Our offer to the European Union is that bold and comprehensive free trade agreement, tariff-free trade and frictionless borders, where the European Union and the UK can both adopt a risk-based approach to any border checks they might put in place, assisted by technology. We want to give each other confidence by agreeing a set of arrangements through which we will recognise the equivalency of our various regulations. That can be done. Our starting point is not as a third country trying to establish a trade deal with the European Union, but as a member state that is stepping back from being a European Union member. On day one, we start with absolute uniformity of our regulations. That is unique in the world, which is why it is absolutely possible to do the type of agreement on borders that we seek.
The other point to recognise is that the European Union has a trade surplus with the UK in food and drink alone of £18 billion each year. It may feign indifference to its trade with the UK for the purpose of the negotiations that are going on, but that matters. Access to the UK market matters to Irish beef farmers, poultry producers in the Netherlands, pork producers in Denmark, horticultural producers in the Netherlands and cheese producers in France. They need access to the UK market. Therefore, it is in their interest to take up what we are offering, which is a comprehensive free trade agreement with frictionless borders.
Will the Minister tackle the issue of how the customs relationship will work? Can he set that out? How will seasonal workers work? That is a matter of urgency; other Members also have made it clear that it is a matter of urgency.
I noted the hon. Gentleman’s points from his speech and will come back to them.
First, I want to address one of the questions posed by the report: what happens in a no-deal scenario? The reality is that there are quite a number of options open to an independent country in control of its own trade policy. It does not have to be most favoured nation rules, and that is the end of the story. One option for an independent country when setting its own trade policy would be to have unilateral tariff rate suspensions—it would keep the bound tariffs where they were, but it could suspend them on certain product lines if it wanted to. It also could have what is called an applied tariff for some product lines that was lower than the bound tariff set in the WTO schedule.
An independent country could also establish unilaterally something called autonomous tariff rate quotas—ATQs. They enable the country to create a quota in certain product lines to allow that tariff-free trade.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton pointed out that one of the issues is that those have to be what is described in trade jargon as erga omnes—open to all—around the world and not just to the European Union, but we could, of course, abide by our own sanitary and phytosanitary regulations. In a short period where such measures might prevail, our existing trading partners would find it easier to satisfy those and potential new ones. There are many tools in the box that we would have as an independent country controlling our own trade policy.
My hon. Friend also asked about a sector-by-sector analysis. He will be aware that in December last year, the Department for Exiting the European Union published analyses for each sector. The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) read that and was very complimentary about the detail in it. There was a specific report in there on the food and drink sector—my hon. Friend will be aware that, in addition to that, the Government have done a great deal of more detailed ongoing analysis and modelling—but for reasons that we have been clear about, and that I think Parliament understands, there are certain things in a negotiation that we should not put out there. Not everything that we have done has been published, but we have published that report sector by sector.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. This is important and we have plenty of time, hence I will take up a bit more. When you say “sector by sector”, are you talking about the food and drink—
Order. I am not talking about anything—the Minister is.
When the Minister says “sector by sector”, is he referring to the food and drink sector? Our report naturally referred to the individual sectors of agriculture—dairy, sheep, beef and so on. This issue is linked not only to trade, but to the support policies that will be needed. An extensive beef and sheep farmer perhaps needs the basic farm payment much more than a dairy farmer due to the overall income from that business. That is what we are particularly interested in.
Yes, I understand, and I was going to come on to that. Although, of course, we have done other, more detailed work, not all of which has been published, I think I pointed out in evidence to the Committee that in March 2016 the National Farmers Union commissioned a detailed piece of work by a Dutch university, which looked at precisely that issue—what would happen under a most favoured nation trading scenario for a range of sectors. I probably cannot go much further, except to say that I recommend that research to anyone with an interest in this area because its analysis was broadly correct. In summary, it showed that some sectors are indeed more exposed than others to our trade with the European Union.
Notably, as the shadow Minister pointed out, the sheep sector is quite dependent on our trade with the European Union. The analysis commissioned by the NFU bore that out. It also identified that there might be some impact on barley producers that export for the lager industry in Europe in a most favoured nation scenario. However, broadly speaking, for most producers in every other sector there would actually be a slight firming in farm-gate prices, because most sectors would have less import competition. It is hard to predict exactly what would happen in a no-deal scenario, but in a scenario in which it was slightly harder to export lamb to Europe and harder to import beef from Ireland, some mixed beef and sheep enterprises likely would diversify a little more into beef to substitute for Irish imports and put a little less into sheep, particularly if they were exposed to the export market in countries such as France, Greece and Belgium.
There would obviously be changes under such a scenario, but it is worth reflecting on debates in the House in the late 1950s on whether we should join the European Union or remain a member of the European Free Trade Association. I am afraid that, given the nature of the debates we are having now, I revisited some of those debates to understand how we got into this pickle in the first place. It is telling that in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was cross-party agreement that joining the European Union would be bad for agriculture. One reason we did not join early was that it was recognised that that would be negative for agriculture. It is interesting that the NFU analysis largely bears that out to this day.
Just to be facetious, Minister, does that mean you are going to re-establish deficiency payments? Do not forget that deficiency payments were coupled with that.
Order. Two points. First, interventions must be quite short. Secondly, I am sorry to pull the hon. Gentleman up again, but it is an absolute rule in this place that hon. Members must refer to one another as “the hon. Member”, “him”, “the Minister”, “she” and so on. Hon. Members may not refer to the Minister as “you”, because whenever you use the word “you”, you are referring to me. Please make an absolute habit of using only the third person.
I am interested in history, but I am not necessarily interested in implementing all historical policies. To extend the history lesson, there was also a view in the 1960s that we should not have subsidies but we should have tariffs. Obviously, we have moved some way since then.
I always love a bit of history, but to bring us up to date, in all those previous reorganisations and structural changes, there was time to make changes partly because the British Government were deciding things for British farmers. Will the Minister assure us that the transition period must respect the importance of these changes, and that there must be support for those who will suffer if we get this wrong in the short run?
Yes. I was going to return to that point. The Select Committee report states that we have to take care during the transition. We absolutely recognise that. Indeed, in our recent consultation, we described what we have as an agricultural transition, where any changes we make to the support regime will be done gradually over a number of years to take account of the fact that we do not want to deliver unsustainable shocks to the industry that it would not be able to cope with.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned the importance of Northern Ireland. I absolutely understand that a huge amount of trade takes place across that land border. That is why, unsurprisingly, the way we should approach that issue dominates much of the discussion about our future arrangements with the European Union. He will understand that that is a much broader discussion, which is being handled by people in the Government more senior than me.
Let me pick up on some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), such as customs, which is being looked at. We have a cross-Government working group, which has brought on board lots of Departments, including Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury, to look at customs, as well as DEFRA and our Animal and Plant Health Agency to look at border inspection posts. DEFRA’s focus is ensuring that we have the right capacity at any border inspection posts, and we will seek to agree our approach to that. Generally speaking, customs is regarded as an easier and more administrative thing to do, rather than necessarily requiring lots of checks and infrastructure at borders. Technology really has moved on in that area.
I simply make the point that one of our biggest successes in food and drink—perhaps the biggest, and certainly the biggest in Scotland—is Scotch whisky. We have zero tariffs on Scotch whisky, but that sector competes globally and has a recognised international brand. It is also very used to dealing with national markets, even within the European Union, because there are different alcohol duty rates so there must be bonded supplies for each country. There are sectors that have got very good at managing borders. Several hon. Members made the point in yesterday’s debate that we have borders even within the single market for things such as customs duties.
Probably the second biggest food export from Scotland is Scottish salmon, which again is renowned around the world. Scotland’s biggest competitor in that sector is Norway, which is outside the European Union and outside the single market for the purposes of fish products, because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the European economic area does not cover fisheries products. So there are sectors, including fisheries and Scotch whisky, that have developed quite sophisticated ways to address some of these challenges. This is not an insurmountable problem.
The hon. Gentleman also raised seasonal labour. We recognise that that issue is important, which is why the Home Office commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to look at what our labour needs will be after we leave the European Union. The MAC is already doing that piece of work. It published an initial summary of the responses it received, and it is now looking in earnest at what arrangements we will need after we leave, and in particular after the end of any transition period.
However, in some ways we already have the necessary structures in place under our existing migration system, through things such as tier 3. That is currently set at zero because we have free movement of people, but we could make some allowance for work permits in less skilled sectors if we wanted to and deemed that we needed to. We have been clear that we are looking at the idea of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme. We had one, which ran successfully from 1945 until 2013, and we have been clear that we are looking at that issue. I worked in the soft fruit industry for 10 years, so I am fully aware of some of the challenges. Those are issues that we will have the power to deal with as an independent country—they will not need to be negotiated with others.
I am astonished by the Minister’s use of the phrase “an independent country” given that Ireland, Greece and Denmark all consider themselves independent countries. On customs and seasonal workers, he referred to infrastructure. I mentioned urgency, so what is the timescale for that infrastructure? We have heard from a wide range of experts—we still believe experts—that the end of 2021, or even the end of 2020 when the transition period ends, is not realistic. Have they got that wrong?
Look, on your first point—sorry, Mr Gray, it is a contagious problem. On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, there are degrees of independence. As things stand, as an EU member we do not have an independent farming policy, an independent fisheries policy or an independent policy on migration. When we leave and become not an EU member, we will have independence in those areas.
On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, there will be some challenges, but we have been working on this area. One scenario we have been planning for right from the referendum result is a no-deal scenario where we come out without an agreement, even in March next year. There are contingency plans and work has been done to prepare for such scenarios. While there will be challenges, we are aware of them and have been addressing them.
The problem is that those who might have come here in the future will not do so and we are now into the second year in which they would have been making such arrangements. What inducement is there for someone to come here, when effectively they have been told for two successive years they are not wanted, rather than go to other parts of Europe, as they are now?
There are anecdotal reports that more have come back this year because of recent changes in the exchange rate. Some daffodil producers in the west country say that it was easier to get labour this winter than last. It is quite common for seasonal agricultural workers to return for a number of years, and indeed levels of returning are one of the yardsticks used to assess the availability of labour.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) posed a question in an intervention about rules of origin. The Government are looking at that area. Obviously, not every nation state in the world is a member of the European Union. Lots of countries are not, and they have quite established procedures on rules of origin. While we have not reached a final position on those issues, there is, for instance, the pan-Euro-Mediterranean regional convention, which is a rules of origin system covering countries both in and not in the European Union. Other parts of the world have therefore addressed such issues.
I turn to points raised by the shadow Minister, who asked about how we are approaching the WTO. We have been clear that our schedule of tariff rate quotas on agricultural products should be divided between the EU and the UK based on an historical reference period. We regard that as a matter of technical rectification rather than reopening everything for renegotiation, and that is the approach we are taking on existing TRQs.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned New Zealand lamb and pointed out that we have a TRQ of just short of 250,000 tonnes for lamb from New Zealand coming into the UK. It is also important to recognise that, in recent years, New Zealand has only ever used about 70% of its quota. That demonstrates that long before the ceiling of that tariff rate quota is hit, they find themselves unable to compete with UK producers. I am more optimistic than some about British sheep producers’ ability to compete with New Zealand and Australia. Many do so already. As a country, we should not get spooked by some kind of New Zealand haka on lamb production. We need to get on the pitch and play, and I think we will find that we can beat them.
We have been clear that in any future trade agreements we will maintain our standards. We will not reduce our standards in pursuit of a trade deal. That is a common feature. It is quite possible for us, through doing trade deals with third countries, to require that those who wish to supply us under such agreements must meet our standards.
Just this morning, I visited the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and talked to officials who were involved in our negotiations with the United States on reopening its market for British beef, which we have worked on for a number of years. There are opportunities for British beef exports to the United States, but there are also one or two technical areas where the United States wants us to change our rules for those supplying them to meet their standards. For instance, they have a slightly different approach to monitoring things such as E. coli and to the methodology that a vet should use when visually inspecting animals as they arrive in the pen.
We could go in and say, “This is no good. You’ve got to change your rules to be like the British rules,” but we do not. Actually, we say, “Fair enough. Those suppliers who want to supply that market should do that. We should respect their rules, and they should respect ours.” Equally, if US producers want to supply the British market, it is absolutely open to us to say that that must be done on British standards. We are a free-trading country, and we will be open to doing trade deals, but we are clear that we have standards and values that we will not abandon.
We have very high standards in this country. We also use less and less antibiotics in producing meat. The Americans still use a lot more antibiotics, their environmental standards are lower and often their welfare standards are lower. On the antibiotic side in particular, we must be clear in negotiations that we do not reduce our standards and allow in products that have had many more antibiotics.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In a trade negotiation we are talking about food standards, not just food safety. Some people misleadingly try to divert the debate, but it is about food standards, and issues such as animal welfare and the approach taken to farm husbandry are integral to those standards. We should not be shy about saying so.
A number of hon. Members mentioned IT systems. We—in the European Union—currently use the trade control and expert system, but we are doing a detailed piece of work to build a replacement system, should that be needed, and that work is well advanced. My hon. Friend asks in his Committee’s report for the Government to set out clarity about the future of the agriculture Bill. I am aware that this week the Secretary of State appeared before my hon. Friend’s Committee, where he was given that reassurance. The report also raised the potential impacts of tariffs on food prices. Again, as with the sectoral impacts, the Government are looking at this area, but we are not in a position to publish details. However, I recommend those hon. Members interested to look at work done by, for instance, the Resolution Foundation, which identified the fact that the impact on domestic food prices would be quite marginal, even under a most favoured nation scenario.
We have had a comprehensive debate covering a wide range of issues. I welcome the Committee’s interest and it bringing its report to the House for debate.
The question is, That this House has considered the Third Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Brexit: Trade in Food, HC 348, and the Government response—
I beg your pardon. Mr Parish can indeed conclude if he wishes. That is quite right.
Thank you, Mr Gray; I wanted to ensure that we kept to correct parliamentary procedure, having been corrected a number of times this afternoon. I will do my best not to refer to hon. Members as “you” in future.
I thank the Minister for his summing-up speech. He mentioned the good work done by the NFU through a Dutch university on sector-by-sector analysis, which I welcome, but I do not think that takes the place of a proper sector-by-sector analysis by DEFRA, which still needs to be done. I make that point very strongly.
I also thank the Minister because I know the work he does to understand the trade deals and to get a good deal in the future for this country; he cares very much about that, which I respect. In particular, the deal we do on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will be important not only for Northern Ireland and our own country, but for the Republic of Ireland. I had an Irish grandmother from Dublin, which may account for many things. I find it fascinating that, after nearly 100 years of independence from the United Kingdom and of being its own country, the majority of the Republic’s trade is still with the United Kingdom. Not only is it important for us that we get it right, but it is important for the Republic of Ireland. I hope the EU, on the other side of the argument, also understands how important that is.
I like the Minister’s idea of a bespoke, risk-based arrangement. The idea that we will be able to open up and inspect every lorry will never actually happen, but we need to have a system where we are able to do that if we need to. What matters is the speed at which we can get through those borders, and keeping the trade that is so important. We have talked about trying to ensure that, as we do a future deal, there are no tariffs, because that will not be good for any sector, and especially not the farming sector, in the long run.
The shadow Minister referred to the fact that we must watch for interference with trade, not through tariffs but through other means. I remember that in my previous existence, when I was elected to the European Parliament in 1999, we were trying to get British beef back into France after bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Even under single market regulations and all the regulations that were in place, the French were masters at finding reasons why that beef should not go into their country.
Although I am very happy to trade with France and the rest of the European Union as we leave, we have to be conscious that those countries could find ways of disrupting trade. They still do it within the European Union now; they usually stop just before the Commission throws the rulebook at them. They are very clever at looking after their own trade, and we need to be equally clever to ensure that our trade goes into France and that, when we reciprocate those trade arrangements, they also honour their arrangements as we move forward.
Again, I thank the Minister, who has come to our Committee and had some very good and open exchanges. In the end, whether we voted to remain in the European Union or to go out, I believe now that a Brexit deal must be done. The people have decided, and we must make that work. Nowhere is that more important than in the farming and food sector, because it has been part of a common agricultural policy and trade policy for 40 years. We have great opportunities, but we must get this right—not only for food and farming, but for good food to be had by all in this country at affordable prices.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Third Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Brexit: Trade in Food, HC 348, and the Government response, HC1021.
Immigration Detention (Victims of Torture)
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered immigration detention of victims of torture and other vulnerable people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate and hon. Members from all parts of the House who supported the application.
I also thank the 131 Members who signed my early-day motion on immigration detention last December. It is the eighth most supported EDM in the current Session, which I think signifies the amount of concern on this matter. I am also grateful to the 118 and 114 Members respectively who supported my other two EDMs that prayed against the Government’s delegated legislation on these matters. Those were debated in a Delegated Legislation Committee last week, at which some hon. Members here were present.
I will return to the substance of those statutory instruments later. That the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are also currently investigating issues relating to immigration detention indicates the scale of concern across the House regarding current Government policy.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know she is aware of it, but I draw other colleagues’ attention to the joint inquiry of the all-party parliamentary groups on migration and on refugees, which involved a number of Members from both sides of the House, including a former Conservative Cabinet Minister. Our recommendations were adopted by the House, albeit without a vote.
We recognised through our inquiry the impact of immigration detention on some of the most vulnerable people, hearing evidence of those who had been through trauma having that trauma multiplied through the experience of detention. We concluded that, as well as a different approach to vulnerable people, there should be a statutory time limit on indefinite detention. Will she join me in hoping that, when the Government look at immigration in the pending White Paper and the immigration Bill, they will also consider the whole impact of immigration detention?
I know that those APPGs do valuable work. After seeing examples of the harm caused to vulnerable adults by immigration detention—I am sure we will hear more today—I hope the Government will pay more serious attention to this than their legislation from past years demonstrates, particularly since the introduction of the adults at risk policy in 2016.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests relating to the support I receive for my work on asylum and immigration. Does she agree that, for those who have already suffered torture and persecution in their home countries and who flee here for security, to have that pain compounded in detention, with abuses against them carried out by those who detain them, is the ultimate outrage and something of which we should be deeply ashamed?
Absolutely. I will later ask the Government whether they are not ashamed of the harm caused in their name and which it is within their gift to change—not only is it within their gift, it is under the instruction of the High Court.
The debate provides an important opportunity to scrutinise these matters and to call on the Government to honour their promises to improve the protections for identifying and securing the release of vulnerable adults at risk in immigration detention. The debate also enables us to refer to there being no time limit for immigration detention, unlike in nearly all other European Union countries. That adds to the lack of protection, to the suffering and to the likelihood that the serious mental health harm being inflicted will increase suicide attempts.
The debate is particularly pertinent because the new Home Secretary has pledged to review the Home Office’s hostile environment policy—admittedly because of the Windrush scandal. The 70th anniversary of the arrivals on the Windrush is currently being debated in the main Chamber. I am sure that, as they arrived, they did not expect what has happened recently. The example of what has happened to the Windrush generation should be a warning to the Government that we do not raise these issues to make party political gains; we raise them because there is a humanitarian need and a human rights cause that the Government should not need reminding that they need to address, given what has happened with the Windrush scandal.
The treatment of vulnerable people in our country’s immigration detention system should be an important part of the Home Secretary’s review. It is the considered judgment of esteemed organisations, such as Freedom from Torture, Medical Justice, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Bail for Immigration Detainees, that the current safeguards and the Government’s proposed changes to the law have failed to provide, and will fail to deliver, adequate protection to vulnerable people. That view is held across the board.
My right hon. Friend mentioned a number of organisations. Has she also seen this week’s report from the British Red Cross, which specifically and very helpfully proposed that the Government adopt a vulnerability screening tool, to provide more effective screening of individuals prior to the decision to detain?
I absolutely agree. As I am sure the Minister will mention, because it came up in the Delegated Legislation Committee just a few days ago, the Government consider they have done that. However, given caseworkers’ comments on the training, it is evident that that screening is precisely the problem in many ways. It is not clear to caseworkers how to identify those who are vulnerable or powerless. Those terms are too vague, and the catch-all simply says that the list of identifiers is not exhaustive, which in itself is not good enough.
I am sorry to intervene on my right hon. Friend again. Does she agree that one deficiency of the current arrangements for identifying vulnerable individuals is that, at that very first stage, Home Office staff rely on Home Office information and do not obtain other objective evidence, which might support their making a better decision?
Absolutely. All the evidence tells us that there are major problems with the screening, and all the expert organisations that have commented on this situation, including the Red Cross, tell us that the Government’s changes will not provide the protection that should be provided.
Long-standing Home Office policy has required that vulnerable people, including those with independent evidence of torture, should not be detained unless in exceptional circumstances, but in practice many are. We know from extensive medical evidence that immigration detention can seriously harm the mental health of detainees, particularly those who have previously suffered from ill treatment, and the conditions of immigration detention can be appalling. In a series of findings between 2012 and 2015, the High Court said that the Government’s immigration detention system amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment”.
In 2015, undercover reports by Channel 4 News inside Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth immigration removal centres revealed abuse of detainees and references to medical mistreatment. When the then Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, commissioned the former prison and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw to conduct a review into the welfare of vulnerable persons in detention, his damning report, published in January 2016, found that safeguards for vulnerable people were inadequate and that detention was used too often and for too long.
The Government responded by drafting and implementing their adults at risk policy, which incorporates the detention centre rules and the guidance on detention of vulnerable persons. However, that flagship policy, which is intended to safeguard vulnerable adults by routing them away from or out of detention, is not working—far from increasing protection for vulnerable detainees, it has increased the risk of harm.
In its initial 10 weeks of implementation, the adults at risk policy was applied incorrectly in almost 60% of 340 cases. From January to September 2017, Freedom From Torture’s medico-legal report service received 101 referrals for suspected torture survivors in immigration detention, and 14 of its treatment clients were detained between January 2016 and November 2017. Torture survivors continue to be detained.
The guidance on the detention of vulnerable persons raised the threshold for a decision not to detain by increasing the evidentiary burden on the vulnerable individual. As a result, the release rate following a rule 35 report—designed to screen torture victims out of detention—has fallen dramatically. In quarter 3 of 2016, before the policy was introduced, 39% of those with a rule 35 report were released. In quarter 1 of 2018, that number had fallen to 12.5%.
I urge the Minister to publish more detailed information and data on the functioning of the adults at risk evidence levels and the rule 35 process. Since the adults at risk policy was introduced, how many people have been categorised as an adult at risk under levels 1, 2 and 3, and how many within each of those categories resulted from a rule 35 report? I hope all the scribbling going on among officials and by the Minister herself means that we will get some answers to these questions today.
For each of the adults at risk categories, how many people were subsequently diverted from detention—in other words, not routed into detention? How many were released from detention as a result of a rule 35 report and under which categories? I hope we get some answers today, but I certainly intend to correspond further with the Minister and will consider parliamentary questions as a means to get more data on those matters.
Although it might be the case that the overall number of people in detention is decreasing, there were still more than 27,000 people placed in immigration detention last year. When I reveal that figure to people, they are shocked. I do not think the general public realise how many people are held in immigration detention and they are horrified when they hear that number.
In 2017 alone, 11 people died in custody. Detainees are dying at a faster rate in immigration detention than we have seen before. According to Freedom from Torture,
“statistics for 2017 show that 446 people self-harmed to an extent that they required medical attention. This constitutes a 30% increase over the last two years, which is even worse when we remember there has been a reduction in how many people are detained. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has noted that there has been a significant increase in deaths in detention, particularly self-inflicted deaths: in 2017 there were at least five self-inflicted deaths in immigration removal centres compared with only three in the previous five years.”
There were 2,272 people on formal self-harm watch last year. That constitutes approximately 8% of the detained population, or almost one in 10.
Last September, the BBC’s “Panorama” programme investigated conditions in Brook House immigration removal centre and exposed a culture of abuse and widespread instances of self-harm and attempted suicides by detainees. In its most recent inspection report on Yarl’s Wood, published in November 2017, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found that vulnerable women were still being detained, despite
“professional evidence of torture, rape and trafficking, and in greater numbers than we have seen at previous inspections.”
“The effectiveness of the adults at risk policy...was questionable”.
I would go further: this catalogue of failings shows that the Government’s policy is not fit for purpose.
Let us remember that, despite all the evidence, the Government are not changing their policy. We did not see that in the delegated legislation a few days ago. They are not making changes because they have listened or seen the evidence for themselves; they are doing so because they were pulled into the High Court and told that they must make changes.
The analysis that the policy is not fit for purpose was borne out by the ruling of the High Court last year in a case brought against the Home Office by Medical Justice and seven detainees. It found that the Government’s policy unlawfully imprisoned hundreds of victims of torture. That was due to the Home Office’s deeply regrettable decision to narrow the definition of torture so that it refers only to violence carried out by state actors, and excludes vulnerable survivors of non-state abuse. We discussed that in the Delegated Legislation Committee, and I made the point then that the definition excludes anybody tortured—I am sure we can all come up with our own groups—by Hezbollah, ISIS, Daesh, Hamas or whoever. It excludes all those people and encourages states to outsource torture to their proxy groups. I cannot believe the Government are not aware of that.
We need a change. During the Delegated Legislation Committee last week, it was galling to hear the Minister say:
“The adults at risk policy represents a proportionate and rational way of carefully balancing the vulnerability considerations against immigration considerations.”—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 6 June 2018; c. 12.]
Will the Minister clarify how the policy is proportionate and rational when, according to Medical Justice, it has
“fundamentally weakened protections for vulnerable detainees, leading to more rather than fewer being detained, for longer”?
How is it proportionate and rational to propose amending the detention centre rules and guidance as set out in the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2018 and the Detention Centre (Amendment) Rules 2018, when Medical Justice, which brought the successful litigation against the Home Office, said that the changes will not deliver inclusive, protective and effective detention safeguards for vulnerable people? Medical Justice brought the litigation and the High Court agrees with it. The Government now propose changes, but again Medical Justice says that they will not deliver the required outcome. It beggars belief that the Minister and the Government are not listening.
I did not get a satisfactory response to the question from the Minister in the Committee last week. However, I received a letter from her yesterday—finally responding to a letter that I wrote to her at the end of March, expressing my concerns about immigration detention matters. Given that I wrote my letter two and half months ago, it would have been useful to have the Minister’s response prior to the Delegated Legislation Committee last week. The time lag is unacceptable. In her response, the Minister claimed again that
“the policy we have in place, which will be enhanced by the amendments we lay before Parliament, is rational, sensible and balanced, and provides vulnerable people with proportionate levels of protection.”
What does “proportionate levels of protection” mean? Proportionate to what? That feels like a huge step back from the Government’s commitments in the adults at risk policy. Certainly, it is not what Stephen Shaw had in mind. Drawing on medical evidence, Shaw said in his report’s conclusions that
“detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability. I need hardly say that a policy resulting in such outcomes will only be ethical if everything is done to mitigate the impact”.
We should be seeking maximum levels of protection for vulnerable people—not proportionate levels. Can the Minister please clarify today what she means by “proportionate levels” of protection?
The Minister also said in her letter that her
“officials have engaged with a range of NGOs and inspectorates in producing and developing the Statutory Instruments.”
I do not know what criteria the Minister uses to judge adequate levels of engagement with outside organisations, but I know that the NGOs are not happy with the way the Minister and the Home Office have conducted the so-called consultation. Freedom from Torture, Medical Justice and others have said that the Home Office failed to consult appropriately or to consider relevant evidence. How can it be, to use the Minister’s words, “proportionate and rational” of the Government to ignore the advice of expert organisations when drafting the statutory instruments, and proportionate and rational of the Minister to run the risk that the Government will face further court action, by ploughing on regardless of criticism?
When the High Court ruled against the Government last year, it placed no obligation on the Home Secretary to define torture in the new policy. Medical Justice and Freedom from Torture cautioned that the new torture definition set out in the Detention Centre (Amendment) Rules 2018 was unnecessary, inappropriate and too complex for caseworkers and doctors to apply to specific cases. That is the very point raised by my hon. Friends. Last week, the Minister said that she did not accept that assessment. I ask her to check again. Organisations commenting on the Home Office training to accompany the new adults at risk guidance said that
“it is quite obvious that the caseworkers did not understand the torture definition”.
“The training focuses very closely on distinguishing between victims of assault and victims of torture, rather than on identifying vulnerability. The training kept creeping back to notions of detention and physical restraint in the language used to explain the definition, and it was clear there was no common understanding of what severity or powerlessness means in the examples used.”
I hope that we do not hear those points referred to in court at some time in the next 12 months, but I fear that we may.
Freedom from Torture and Medical Justice said that
“even when applied correctly, the definition of torture will exclude a group of victims of severe ill-treatment who do not fall within the other indicators of risk”.
I ask the Minister to look at the matter again. I urge her to replace the current categories of torture and sexual or gender-based violence with a more inclusive category, modelled on the detention guidelines from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, namely victims of torture or serious physical, psychological, sexual or gender-based violence or ill-treatment.
NGOs have stipulated that the new catch-all provision in the revised guidance on the detention of vulnerable persons
“does not adequately mitigate the risk of excluding from the protection of the safeguard those known to be at risk of harm in detention.”
Their concerns have been ignored by the Government. NGOs, as well as a cross-party group of parliamentarians, also called on the Government to wait for the publication of Stephen Shaw’s re-review of the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention before laying the statutory instruments before Parliament in 2018. That was mentioned in Committee last week and I am afraid that the response was far from satisfactory. I am not even sure that I count it as a response at all. It held no water.
The request to wait for the re-review is perfectly sensible. The High Court did not demand that the Home Office should respond to the court order before Shaw published, so that is not an adequate answer. We are now in the bizarre situation where Parliament must consider the revised definition of torture and the amended guidance separately from the findings of the Shaw re-review. It would have been much better to give the Home Office, parliamentarians and expert organisations the benefit of considering the changes in the light of the full insights from Shaw. Given that the statutory instruments are not due to come into force until 2 July, I urge the Government to withdraw them so that a proper consultation can be carried out on the basis of Shaw’s recommendations. Last week, the Minister said in Committee that Stephen Shaw’s new report had been given to the Home Office at the end of April—a matter of a few weeks after the statutory instruments were tabled—and that it will be published with the Government’s response later in June. I ask the Minister to reaffirm when it will be published. Can she guarantee that it will be this month?
The Home Secretary said in a recent written statement to the House on the Windrush scandal that it was
“fundamentally important that the lessons from this episode are learned for the future, so that this never happens again.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2018; Vol. 641, c. 53WS.]
However, it is very difficult to have any confidence in Home Office Ministers when they are demonstrably unwilling to learn the important lessons on how to increase protection for victims of torture and other vulnerable people in immigration detention. Freedom from Torture, Medical Justice, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Bail for Immigration Detainees could not be clearer:
“Under current arrangements the Adults at Risk policy does not work to ensure that fewer vulnerable people are detained for shorter periods of time. It is already failing and the proposed changes will exacerbate the problem.”
It is their considered and expert judgment that a terrible situation is going to be made even worse.
The Government should be ashamed, yet at no stage have I heard the Minister offer any kind of apology to the victims of torture and other vulnerable people who have suffered under the policy. It is a prime example of the hostile environment that flourished when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary. The adults at risk policy was drafted on her watch. I know that the Minister has been in her post only six months, so I urge her to apologise on the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s behalf for the torment that so many individuals have faced.
However, an apology alone will not be sufficient. We need a fundamental review of immigration detention policy. We need a policy devised with consideration, care and compassion for victims of torture and other vulnerable people. We need a more humane approach, which should also include an end to indefinite immigration detention. I urge the Minister to reflect and act on the concerns that I have expressed and to commit to engaging far more constructively with parliamentarians and NGOs on these important issues. I look forward to her response.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It will not surprise anybody that I wish to join in this debate to talk about my experiences of detained women who have been victims of torture, gender-based violence, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, abuse—anything that can be thought of that happens to us women. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) on tenaciously and consistently fighting for these people. The Minister should recognise, after a few weeks of being in front of her, that she will not give up.
I associate myself with everything that my right hon. Friend said about the adults at risk policy. That policy specifically states that survivors of sexual or gender-based violence are recognised as “at risk” and so are unsuitable for detention, yet anybody who ever visited Yarl’s Wood would know that the majority of women in there have certainly suffered gender-based violence, sexual violence or domestic abuse.
I went to Yarl’s Wood about a year and a half ago to visit a woman who I knew to have been a victim. She was in Yarl’s Wood regardless of the fact that she had been a victim of quite horrendous trafficking and abuse. I do not know whether it was just because these people knew I was coming, but by the time I got there, they had released her, so I went to speak to another woman, who had nobody visiting her—I went back round through the security.
I am not entirely sure what training the Home Office is getting, but as somebody who was trained as a first responder for human trafficking and modern slavery and as such was allowed to refer into the Home Office’s system, it took me one minute to identify that this woman I had never met before was a victim of human trafficking. I did that by talking to her and asking her about her experiences—it was not difficult. I had no doubt that this woman was somebody I could easily have acted as a first responder for to get her into the national referral mechanism for modern slavery in this country. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind, yet there she was, in Yarl’s Wood, surrounded by people who were meant to have assessed her.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention particularly to the situation of women and, indeed, men who have been trafficked, because there is plenty of evidence that being in detention makes it harder for those individuals to receive the expert support and advice that they need, to be able to build up trust to report the experiences that they have had to the authorities and therefore to access the national referral mechanism. As long as we put people in detention, we make another part of the system that is supposed to protect them even less likely to be effective.
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and the matter of trust between the different agencies is something that I shall come on to; in fact, that is the main focus of my speech. I could give hon. Members endless evidence from Women for Refugee Women. I have with me case study upon case study of women who had suffered FGM, been forced into prostitution, managed to escape and ended up in Yarl’s Wood. None of them ever seemed to have rule 35 laid out to them—and if they did, that was after two weeks of being detained.
I need not go through all the stories; I am sure that the Minister is very familiar with the issues and I will gladly send her every single one of the case studies. I want to talk mainly about how the Home Office is not only not assessing the people it finds in detention, but actively seeking victims as low-hanging fruit, in its drive to get deportation numbers up. We have seen from the Windrush situation that there is a target culture that is undeniable—somebody got a big Brucie bonus for getting more people deported. We have seen what that has done to that community.
In my constituency, I was dealing with the case of a woman who was brought to this country on a spousal visa and was abused, tortured, kept locked up and prevented from being fed by her spouse and his family. When she escaped, she came to me, and I did all I could to ensure that her immigration was secured through the domestic violence rules that the Home Office lays out.
It used to be the Sojourner project—or “sojournay” for people who are not from Birmingham. Things were going absolutely fine. We often deal with these cases, and the Home Office agreed that it would put the appeals on hold while we were dealing with this woman’s case. There were some discrepancies. Her husband obviously denied what she had said, and the Home Office, for a spell, decided to agree with him, but we managed to get over that little hump in the road, and then he sent a letter to her family in Pakistan, threatening to kill them—his family in Pakistan would kill her family in Pakistan—and that he would kill her in the UK.
On receiving the letter, my constituent called the police; her brother told her what had happened, and she called the police. I do not necessarily know whether this fits into the fancy idea of torture, but I think that somebody threatening to kill a person’s entire family and them—it is a credible threat, because it is not the first time that they have tried to kill the person—is pretty torturous. The woman called the police. The next day, her neighbour, upset and frightened, called me and said, “She’s told us to call you; she said to call you as she was being taken away.” She was taken away to Yarl’s Wood. When she called the police for help because her life was in danger, the response that she got was that she was taken away to immigration detention.
I cannot think of anything that would make women who are desperate and at risk in this country more unlikely to call the police than the fact that they might be dragged off to immigration detention. It is not only that when this woman was taken to Yarl’s Wood, she was not assessed properly for vulnerabilities or how at risk she might be; they actively took a woman, knowing that her life was at risk. That is totally unacceptable.
As somebody who has dealt with many cases like that, I know that immigration detention and deportation is a tool used by perpetrators of violence and abuse, grooming gangs—you name it, it is used by pretty much every perpetrator I have ever met where immigration was involved in the case. The perpetrators say, “If you tell anyone, they’ll take you away,” and boy, haven’t we just colluded with the violent men in this country that we pretend we are trying to stop!
I thought, “Maybe this is an isolated case and it just happens to be in my constituency,” which I did think was a little odd, but it turns out that it is in no way an isolated case. A freedom of information request was made recently of every police force in the country. Of the 45 police forces asked about the practice of handing over victims’ details, more than half said that they did that; the rest either did not reply or did not give a clear yes or no. Currently, we have a situation in our country where immigration officers are specifically targeting victims who come forward to the police forces. There should be a Chinese wall between victims of abuse and violence, and immigration detention.
I will not read the list of names of migrant women with unstable immigration status who were murdered last year. I asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department,
“how many victims detailed in domestic homicide Reviews were classified as (a) migrant to the UK and (b) no recourse to public funds in the last three years.”
Unsurprisingly, although we share all sorts of information about who is in our custody, we do not collect that information centrally.
It is horrifying to think that people who are vulnerable and desperate, who have suffered all manner of torture, are still being failed by our immigration system when they come forward for help. It is criminal that we are handing over victims of violence into immigration detention centres. We do not even need to do an assessment, because we know; they have rung us up about rape, abuse and torture, whether at home or abroad. That we think the appropriate thing is to get on the phone to immigration detention is totally and utterly unacceptable. It is a massive breach of trust in this country that this is still happening.
Again, I associate myself with everything my right hon. Friend has said and the questions she put to the Minister. I want to know what plans the Home Office has to introduce proactive screening processes in the adult risk process; it has a proactive way of detaining people, as I have just outlined. How will the Home Office ensure that people are detained only for the shortest possible time, as the detention policy sets out? As has been said, why is it only the UK that does not have limits on immigration detention? I want to hear from the Minister about that.
I am sure the Home Office will get used to all the amendments that will be tabled to the Domestic Abuse Bill, because this Chinese wall will be in there. I will stand and ensure that no woman who ever rings up about being raped or having a threat to the life of her or her children, whether here or in a different country, ever ends up in Yarl’s Wood again. I will find every single woman that has happened to.
What plans does the Home Office have to look at different ways of dealing with this? The Corston report on women in prison should be a lodestar and touchstone. There are community organisations to which the Government could pay a tiny fraction of what they are currently paying to whoever it is these days—G4S or Serco, or perhaps it is Sodexo, which makes sausage rolls for hospitals and keeps prisoners safe. Such a range! Those community organisations would actually help these people.
I worked in a human trafficking service. I worked for years in community projects with women with unstable migration status. I can almost guarantee that our rates of return home were better than those of the current detention system, because we did not just send people back to a country with no support. We ensured that those choices were made in reasonable time and that the safest option, whether staying here or going back, was followed.
There is no energy going into looking at better community options for immigration detention, for both men and women. Yet, in every other area of criminal justice, we will see that community detentions have far better rates, are far cheaper and are much better for the human rights of the people involved. I will leave the Minister with that. I cannot ask enough times whether she will confirm for me that a victim of crime will never again be used just to inform our deportation numbers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I do not have a great deal to add to the eloquent speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). Like them, I have been absolutely devastated by some of the stories I have heard of what has been happening to vulnerable people, who have committed no crime and who are locked up by the state when they have already suffered unimaginable trauma.
I became aware of just what that means for individuals at the St Bride’s Destitution Project, which is run with the British Red Cross at St Bride’s church in my constituency. It is a drop-in for refugees and asylum seekers, many of them destitute, to find company or to get some advice, food or clothing.
While I was there on a visit, a lady came in who had just been released from Yarl’s Wood and sent all the way back to Manchester that afternoon. That was not the first time that this had happened to her, because one of the features of our detention system is that people are in and out, in and out. We have a cat and mouse situation of taking people into detention, deciding they are vulnerable or do not pose a risk, releasing them and then—later in the protracted process of handling their claim for status—bringing them back into detention again.
When that lady came in, she collapsed in front of me. She literally collapsed. Her legs gave way beneath her, not for a physical reason, but for the sheer relief of being out of detention. I have never seen anything like it. I was moved and horrified. The distress that lady felt and her relief at being out of that situation will stay with me all my life. What threat she posed to our community and society I cannot imagine. The threats were being directed by us, as a state, at her.
I endorse everything that has been said about the deplorable, inhumane way that we are treating people in detention, particularly about the failure of the process to screen out at the first stage people who should not be going to detention at all. I would also like to draw the attention of right hon. and hon. Members to the complete failure of the assessment process when people try to avail themselves of rule 35 inside our detention centres.
Women for Refugee Women produced a compelling report on the experiences of a group of women that it was able to talk to in Yarl’s Wood, some of whom had sought rule 35 reports. Sometimes those women had had to wait a considerable period even to have the assessment and the report prepared—women who present as highly vulnerable and are then told to wait days, if not weeks, until someone takes the time and has the capacity properly to assess that vulnerability. That would not happen in any other part of our public services. It should not happen to those vulnerable people.
Even when those women obtained a rule 35 report and it confirmed that they were survivors of gender-based or sexual violence, many of them were still kept in detention. I cannot understand how they were not released when it had been identified that those women had experienced something that any woman in this room will know would be torturous. We could not live with that. We would be vulnerable as a result.
We have to recognise that many of those who spend time in detention will be released and returned to the community. Some 56% of those in detention return to the community after a time.
That is a really interesting statistic—56%—and I thank my hon. Friend for making such a powerful contribution to the debate. Let us remind ourselves: Home Office policy is that people should be detained only in exceptional circumstance. How can that be being applied if 56% are then released?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and when she was talking about detention not being proportionate, I thought, “How can it be proportionate, when more than half the people who are detained are clearly not a risk that means we have to lock them up? If they were, they would not be returned to the community.” It makes no sense.
We need some clear answers from the Minister on the failure of the assessment process—or lack of process—before people are detained, and we need much greater insight into what the Government are doing to address the fact that in detention, the way of screening, assessing and dealing with vulnerable adults is still not working well, despite the adults at risk policy and the availability of rule 35.
Just today, I was sent a copy of the Independent Monitoring Board’s report on what happens when people are deported from detention centres. There, too, we have a catalogue of poor-quality treatment of people who are leaving the country and are therefore likely to be traumatised, angry and frightened. Although it is legitimate to remove them, we should do that in a way that is dignified and humane. The report makes it clear that we do not consistently do that. How can we hold our heads up in a civilised country if we have to shackle people unnecessarily, deny them access to private toilet facilities and leave them to get off a plane in their home country without any knowledge of what support they will have or what situation they are walking back into, and without any advice available?
At every stage of the process, our system shames us, especially in relation to the most vulnerable people who have suffered persecution, torture and abuse. I hope the Minister understands how much concern there is about the way our detention system works—not just among those of us who could be in the Chamber this afternoon, but across the House. Like my hon. Friends, I very much look forward to her response to that concern.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) on securing the debate, on another expert speech and on the work that she has done in recent weeks to challenge Government policy on the detention of vulnerable people. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate so far. It is fair to say that they all have strong and long track records in championing the cause. We have heard typically eloquent and passionate speeches from the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
I also thank the campaigners and campaign groups who do so much to keep the issue on the agenda. The vulnerable detainees we are talking about are kept so far out of sight and out of mind that it would be easy to forget about them. It is a tribute to the campaigners that they continue to work to support those detained individuals and push to keep them on the political agenda.
As in every debate on detention, I begin by repeating the position of the Scottish National party that the large-scale, routine detention of many thousands of people in private prisons for an indeterminate period at the discretion of immigration officers remains a scandal. It is a stain on our democracy and an affront to the rule of law—a matter of shame, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston correctly put it.
The current system is unacceptable for a host of reasons: it detains too many people, including people who should never be detained; it detains people for too long and without a defined time limit; and the safeguards against detention are utterly inadequate. If those factors are not enough, we can appeal to the purse strings: it is hugely costly and inefficient, and it does not remotely achieve what the Government want it to do.
Root and branch reform is urgently required; tinkering around the edges is nowhere near enough. Reform is needed not just of the detention system, but of the whole immigration system of targets and the hostile environment, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley argued.
I suspect that the Minister will say, as she has said before, including last week, that the number of people detained is proportionately quite small, but that is just too far removed from reality. The fact that 28,000 people are detained in any given year is absolutely horrendous. The UK’s immigration estate is among the largest in Europe; we detain several times as many people as some of our European neighbours. It has become a matter of routine rather than a last resort.
All those facts and figures were set out in the cross-party report referred to by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). The sheer volume of people involved is one reason that adequate procedures to stop the detention of vulnerable people are almost impossible to operate—the system cannot cope.
The debate is not just about numbers; it is about individual stories. The hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley and for Stretford and Urmston did us an important service in reminding us of that, and in providing some horrifying examples of what is going on. As Stephen Shaw made clear in his first report,
“detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability.”
That vulnerability will vary over the period of detention and has consequences for people long after they are released—as we have heard, 56% of them will be released back into the community—as highlighted in the new British Red Cross report, which has also been referred to.
Despite that, the UK still locks up vulnerable people on a huge scale, including victims of trafficking, torture or sexual violence, people with mental health conditions, and pregnant women. Mr Shaw described the detention of people with serious mental illness as an “affront to civilised values” and I agree.
Torture survivors and victims of serious violence and ill-treatment are among those particularly vulnerable to harm. Last week, the Government ignored concerns from the Opposition and from organisations such as Freedom from Torture and Medical Justice that their proposed changes to the detention rules would undermine rather than improve the safeguarding of victims of torture and ill-treatment.
As the right hon. Member for Enfield North said, the problem with those changes is that they encumber medical practitioners with an overly complex definition of torture that introduces a concept of powerlessness that has a dubious link to vulnerability and that will require a detailed and excessive interrogation of the vulnerable person. There is a danger that victims of severe ill-treatment and violence risk being excluded from the protections offered in the detention centre rules and guidance.
The burden of evidence placed on torture survivors has also increased. Instead of simply requiring them to provide independent evidence of torture to justify exclusion from detention, specific evidence is now needed to show that detention is likely to cause harm, which is a difficult concept.
We also need to consider the fact that guidance now includes a broader range of immigration factors that can justify detention even of torture survivors. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said, the adults at risk policy appears to make it more likely that vulnerable people will remain in detention because it requires the Home Office to balance the person’s vulnerability with their immigration history, with disproportionate weight being given to latter in many cases. The proof is in the pudding: the figures show that the number of releases following a rule 35 report has plummeted from 39% to 12.5%. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston set out exactly why the rule 35 process cannot be considered fit for purpose.
Last week, along with other hon. Members, I argued that the Government’s policy on the detention of vulnerable people should be shaped by the new Shaw review. The right hon. Member for Enfield North described that request as not unreasonable; I think it would be entirely sensible. Even though the Government have ignored our request, it remains the case that fundamental reform is needed, and it should reflect the wide-ranging recommendations of Mr Shaw’s reports.
We will continue to argue that there is no need for a specific definition of torture, and that the category of vulnerability should be broadened to include other victims of serious violence and ill-treatment, as recommended in the UNHCR detention guidelines. There should be a presumption, not a burden of proof, that such individuals are vulnerable to harm, and we should make their detention truly exceptional, rather than arming the Home Office with a further list of excuses for keeping them locked up. There is a drastic need to introduce a more thorough screening process.
More broadly, the detention estate must be cut drastically. The Yarl’s Woods, the Brook Houses and the Dungavel Houses should be shut down. Community alternatives and case management systems are more humane, cheaper and more effective, and they should be rolled-out with learning from best practice in other countries. There must be a time limit on detention. We must end this stain on our country’s reputation. As the right hon. Member for Enfield North said, this is a human rights cause, and we will all continue to champion it until radical reform is delivered.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) for securing the debate, for her powerful speech and for her pertinent questions. I am sure that we would all agree that although there are not many hon. Members present, the speeches we have heard have been of a very high quality and very passionate. Some important questions have been asked of the Minister; as we have enough time, I hope she will answer them.
Victims of torture and other vulnerable people should not be in immigration detention, but current safeguards are not working and vulnerable people are still being detained for long periods. The Shaw review made a number of recommendations, but the Government’s response to that review—addressing adults at risk—has in some places made matters worse. Last week, the Minister confirmed that she already had Shaw’s follow-up review. I look forward to that being published this month, so that we can fully scrutinise and debate his findings. Today I will discuss issues that happen before people are detained, the experience of people in detention and the difficulties that vulnerable people have when they are released.
First, the Home Office should identify whether someone is vulnerable before they are detained; a number of Members emphasised that point. Currently, there is no effective pre-detention screening process. The detention gatekeeper works only with the limited information that is already on a person’s file; often, that information is not enough to identify vulnerability.
Secondly, the experience of being in detention can often increase someone’s vulnerability; again, this point has been emphasised before. Many studies have shown that the lack of a time limit on detention causes significant distress. As Sabiti from Uganda put it:
“It’s horrible not knowing when it will end. You are just there sitting, waking up and eating, and there’s nothing; it’s like your whole life has just stopped.”
We need a 28-day time limit on immigration detention. The detention estate is enormously expensive and it is not effective, even when measured by the Home Office’s own standards. The majority of people in detention are released back into the community and not deported.
It is common for people to be moved around between detention centres. I have been told that moves often happen at night because the contractors doing the outsourcing do not have enough vans and drivers to organise moves during the day. This causes a number of problems, especially for vulnerable people: people with health difficulties cannot receive the continuity of care that they need, and people are housed away from their families and often do not have any visitors for the whole period that they are detained, especially as detainees’ phones are routinely confiscated. They cannot contact family, friends or anyone else they rely on outside.
Thirdly, it is difficult for vulnerable people to be released from detention, even when the Home Office has recognised them as being vulnerable. Vivian experienced female genital mutilation, or FGM, as a child. Later, she married an abusive and violent man, who forced her into prostitution. She eventually fled to the UK. Vivian told the Home Office what had happened in her main asylum interview. She remained in detention for two months before she obtained a rule 35 report. However, even after that report, the Home Office refused to release her for four months, when a new legal aid solicitor threatened to take the Home Office to court. Vivian’s story highlights a number of problems with the rule 35 process. Many detainees do not know about it. Women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre are not told about rule 35 reports by Home Office or detention centre staff as a matter of course.
Some detainees also have to wait for long periods to see a doctor—sometimes two weeks or more. Even if a vulnerable person receives a rule 35 report, fewer vulnerable people are being released now than before the adults at risk policy was introduced. Before that policy was introduced, 39% of those with a rule 35 report were released. After its introduction, that fell to 12.5%. Why was there this fall?
The adults at risk policy raised the threshold as to a decision to detain. Before, victims of torture would be detained only in “very exceptional circumstances”; now the harm of detention is balanced against a vague set of “immigration factors”, such as the risk of absconding. And the vulnerable person must present specific evidence that detention is likely to cause harm. This is very hard to do before someone has actually been detained.
Most people with rule 35 reports are victims of torture. The Government have made changes to the definition of torture in the adults at risk policy that will come into effect on 2 July. I have already set out in detail our objections to these changes, but I will reiterate them briefly here.
First, the new definition is unworkable. It is too complex to be applied by either doctors or Home Office staff.
Secondly, the new definition is unnecessary. If implemented in its current form, and even if it is applied perfectly, this definition of torture will exclude victims of severe ill treatment.
The Secretary of State has the power to create an inclusive category of people who will be protected by the adults at risk policy. Rather than narrowing the definition of torture, the Government should incorporate the High Court ruling into their wider review of the detention centre rules, and the adults at risk guidance. This should take into account the findings of the second Shaw review and a proper consultation.
During consideration in Committee of the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2018 last week, the Minister told us that she is rolling out an extensive training programme for caseworkers and healthcare professionals in detention centres. Would it not make more sense to conduct a review of the entire detention centre rules and guidance, and train staff on everything at once, rather than bringing this change in now and possibly altering it later this year?
Finally, I turn to what happens when people are released; put simply, the problems do not go away. Often, people are released into destitution. Some very vulnerable people in detention will have been receiving medical treatment. Typically, people are given only four hours’ notice of release and then given a ticket back to wherever they were living before being detained. That creates serious problems regarding continuity of care. The trauma of detention stays with people. Without a resolution to their case, they are released from one limbo into another. Many people were originally detained when they went to report to authorities. On release, they go back to reporting regularly and each time they worry that they could be detained again.
Our immigration detention system is not adequately protecting vulnerable people. We have the Shaw review, and the review of the detention centre guidelines is coming up. I encourage the Minister to halt the changes to the definition of torture that are due to come in soon, and to undertake a proper consultation on the wide reforms that are needed. Our detention system desperately needs a culture change: we need a 28-day time limit; we need a true presumption against detention, so that it is used only as a last resort; and we need to end the outsourcing of detention to private companies.
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
I commend the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) for securing this debate on the immigration detention of victims of torture and other vulnerable individuals. As many Members will know, the right hon. Lady has been absolutely diligent on this issue. Of course, we have heard several times mention of the debate that she secured last week, having prayed against the two statutory instruments, which, to a large extent, provoked this discussion today.
I thank Members for their contributions to the debate, but I pay particular tribute to the expertise and knowledge of the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). I certainly recognise their wealth of knowledge and the opportunities that they often provide to—for want of a better phrase—pick their brains and find common ground. That is important when we are discussing sensitive issues. We should find common ground when it is there to be found. I know that there will be many areas where we disagree, and I will undoubtedly cover them in due course, but it is imperative that when Members from across the House have expertise and knowledge, we seek to use it and learn from it.
There was certainly no intention in last week’s statutory instruments to make matters worse for vulnerable individuals and victims of torture, but I come back time and again to the judgment of October last year, which clearly gave us guidance and a steer that we needed to take action within a reasonable timescale to make our definition clearer. We have discussed the timing of the statutory instruments, but I go back to this point: we are duty bound as a Government to act within a reasonable timescale, and the judgment indicated we should do so.
I was concerned that if we waited for the Shaw re-review to come out, we would lose the opportunity to lay the SIs before the summer recess and that they would then not be laid until the autumn, potentially coming into effect more than a year after the judgment. In making his judgment, Mr Justice Ouseley had the benefit of the expert witnesses of Medical Justice, among others. He made it very clear that we as a Government had to act.
The Minister is being very generous, as she was in Committee. Did she give any consideration to simply going back to the definition that we had prior to the adults at risk policy, while we waited for the Shaw review? It was surely in her gift or that of her officials to talk to Stephen Shaw and ascertain roughly when the re-review might be available. Clearly he was very close to making it available. We could have taken a step back from the 2016 adults at risk policy, and then found ourselves with the Shaw re-review and in a position to do a full review to bring forward a policy that could command the support of the expert groups.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. I want to address briefly some issues of timing and whether the most desirable outcome would be to seek to turn the clock back. I think she almost commenced some of her commentary this afternoon with a discussion of how the Shaw review occurred. We received his first review in 2016. It was started because previous policies were not working. We should accept his expertise and recommendations and learn from them.
I am not going to say this afternoon that I think the adults at risk policy is perfect. I regard it very much as a work in progress—something that we will seek to improve, adapt and amend. Do I at this point seek to turn the clock back? No, I do not. The right hon. Lady must wait for the publication of the review and the response we intend to make. I intend it to be very full and to provide as much information as possible, taking on board Stephen Shaw’s recommendations and ensuring that we make our detention policies better. I said last week and reiterate this afternoon that we will update our detention centre rules in the second half of this year. That gives us an opportunity to look at many of the issues that have been raised this afternoon.
Members will know—it has been alluded to this afternoon—that 95% of those who are here without the right to be so are in the community. Some 5% will be in detention at any one time. I am determined, and have been since I came in as Minister, to look at the alternatives to detention. We do so constantly. We can all understand that being in detention puts stress on individuals. For those who are vulnerable, those stresses will be exacerbated, and we have seen the evidence that indicates that. It is important, however, that we accept that it is Government policy that for those who have no right to be here and for whom alternatives to detention have not succeeded, may not succeed or may not be appropriate, there will remain a place for detention within our immigration system. It is important that we recognise that it is only when there is a realistic chance of removal within a reasonable timescale that individuals will be considered for detention, including by the new detention gatekeeper that was introduced post-2016 and post-Shaw. We should acknowledge that the detention estate has reduced. I have an ambition to continue to see it reduce, because that is absolutely the right direction of travel.
I reject the right hon. Lady’s suggestion that there is targeting of victims, and I reject the phrase “low-hanging fruit”. That is not a term I recognise or would use, but I know we can do better. One hears with absolute horror the case studies that she identifies and highlights so properly to us this afternoon. We must ensure we are not putting individuals who have been the victims of domestic violence at further risk. She has been diligent in her determination to reinforce that message to me.
We have also heard of the horrendous—I think that is the only word I can use—instances at Brook House. As a new Immigration Minister, the “Panorama” programme made extremely unhappy viewing. My private office provided me with the link and told me to go home that night and watch it. We have the Lampard review in place, and we have the reviews that are carried out in every immigration removal centre by the independent monitoring boards. I have been pleased to meet members of the monitoring boards and receive their reports. They are an important tool in understanding where we are getting things wrong and how we can do things better.
We will review the detention centre rules in the second half of this year, and I regard that as an important opportunity that we must seize. As Members will know, the Government work hard to encourage individuals to comply with our immigration rules and support those with no right to remain to leave voluntarily. A minority of individuals refuse to comply, and detention can then become a necessary tool for enforcing return.
Like the right hon. Lady, I would prefer that we did not have to use detention, but when people do not leave voluntarily, have no right to be here and frustrate attempts to seek their return from this country, we must use it. It is used sparingly, however, and we operate a strong presumption in favour of not detaining. Of those people with no lawful basis to stay in the UK and who are liable to removal, 95% are managed in the community at any one time.
For every individual who is detained, there must be a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale. In each case, we expect those making detention decisions to consider the likely duration of detention necessary to effect removal. The majority are held for short periods. Some 91% of those leaving detention in the year ending March 2018 were detained for less than four months, and 64% were detained for 28 days or less. Their welfare is of the utmost importance to the Home Office.
Where it is necessary to detain people to remove them, a number of safeguards are in place including the presence of healthcare staff in all immigration removal centres and residential short-term holding facilities; a comprehensive suite of published guidance and operating procedures to govern conditions in the centres and support the wellbeing of detainees; regular reviews of detention by increasingly senior officers to ensure that detention remains appropriate and to drive forward case progression; and independent judicial oversight of immigration detention.
The adults at risk policy implemented in September 2016 provides a further vital safeguard and was a key part of our response to Stephen Shaw’s review of the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention, which was commissioned by the Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary. Under the adults at risk policy, vulnerable people are detained or their detention continued only when the immigration considerations in their case outweigh the evidence of vulnerability. Detention decisions are made on the basis of all the available evidence. Cases are reviewed not only at regular intervals, but whenever new evidence comes to light.
As I mentioned a few moments ago, we were all deeply shocked by the events shown in the BBC’s “Panorama” programme about Brook House. The centre operator took swift action in response, suspending and then dismissing a number of members of staff, and, as I said, Kate Lampard has been commissioned to conduct an independent review.
The national referral mechanism is the existing process by which people in the UK who may have been trafficked, or people in England or Wales who may be the victims of slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour, can be identified and supported by the Government or other agencies. In addition, detention centre rules 34 and 35 help us to identify vulnerable victims.
The right hon. Member for Enfield North asked a very specific question about how many individuals are categorised as level 1, 2 or 3 under the adults at risk policy. I will write to her separately with the management information, but I want to put it on record that we are considering publishing that information as part of our response to Shaw. The adults at risk policy seeks to strike a balance between the risk of harm to the individual from detention and the immigration factors in their particular case. That is both sensible and reasonable, and ensures that those who are most vulnerable, and therefore most at risk of harm from detention, are not detained unless the immigration factors outweigh that risk. I believe that that is a proportionate approach, and if people are detained their welfare is, of course, of the utmost concern, including ensuring that the period of detention is as short as possible.
What the Minister has just said beggars belief in the light of the statistic mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham—
Stretford and Urmston.
Stretford and Urmston. Streatham is not very far away, is it? You would think, with my accent, I would have been able to get that right—I do apologise.
My hon. Friend talked about 56% of people being released back into the community. There clearly is a problem. It is not as the Minister says. I do not understand what confidence we can have if she cannot take account of that. Will she also confirm that the Shaw re-review will be published later this month?
That is an important point about proportionality and the numbers who are released from immigration detention. We use detention to ensure that people who have no right to be here are returned to their home country. However, it is important that when additional information emerges and people demonstrate vulnerability, there is constant review. They can ask at any moment for consideration of immigration bail. That will be automatic after four months and every month thereafter. I accept that we do not make correct decisions all the time. I welcome the fact that when evidence emerges of vulnerability or of another reason it is inappropriate for somebody to be in detention, we are happy for them to be released into the community and for their case to be managed in a better way than detention.
The Minister might not have the information before her, but I wonder whether she could write to advise me of the frequency of people being taken into detention, released and then taken back into detention, and the reasons for that. She suggests that new information might come to light and people’s vulnerability may change over time. I accept that, but I would like a better understanding of the degree of churn in the system. That constant uncertainty, and the sense that even when they are returned to the community they might end up back in detention, is extremely damaging to vulnerable people.
As I would expect, the hon. Lady makes an important and concerning point about churn. We all share that concern, because we want to have effective immigration policies, not churn. As I said, it is right that when vulnerabilities are demonstrated people are released, and that their immigration bail can be considered on request at any time. I will certainly write to her with the information she seeks.
The Shaw review became available to me at the end of April, which was later than I had anticipated, albeit not by much. We are working very hard on our response. We will publish that as soon as possible, but I want it to be thorough. It is important that the Government’s response is as full as possible, taking on board, understanding and showing action on the recommendations that Shaw has made.
Listening to the Minister, I am struggling. The simple point is that she has said, even today, that detention is a last resort. We know from the facts that the majority of people are released back into the community. Does that not prove that the system is not fit and that something needs to be done?
The hon. Gentleman needs to reflect on the fact that 95% of those who have no right to be here are in the community. A small proportion are in detention, but it is absolutely right that when those who have gone into detention provide us with additional information towards their potential asylum claim, we reflect on that, and that we enable people to be released from detention when they should not be there. I do not accept his premise that the system does not work, and I hope that he might accept that there is a place for immigration detention.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry; I wish to conclude my remarks very shortly.
I reassure hon. Members that we are absolutely committed to the welfare of detainees, and specifically to protecting victims of torture and other vulnerable people in immigration detention. I am clear that those aims are important to us and not incompatible. It is to those complementary ends that we are now implementing the judgment that the court set down clearly in October, and we shall seek to do so within a reasonable timescale.
I thank hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) provided moving and powerful examples from her own experience. She and my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) fleshed out the human cost of the policy since 2016 and, I think, its cost going forward. I am grateful to the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), for his support and knowledge on this matter, both today and in Committee. The Front-Bench spokesperson for the Labour party, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), made a powerful case that demonstrated understanding, for which I am grateful.
I cannot deny that I am very disappointed in the Minister’s response. I do not expect her to stand here today and change policy, but I hope that she will go away and reflect on what has been said. I am sure that she will, and I hope that she will reflect to such a degree that we hear something different when we get the Government’s response to the Shaw re-review. I think we are seeing a change only because the Government were dragged into the High Court. The change has not occurred of the Government’s own volition, so perhaps we should not be surprised that we are not hearing the things that we think we should be.
It is no use talking about 95% and 5%. We are talking about 27,000 people—more than 4,000 women at any one time—suffering from an inhumane policy that contravenes many people’s human rights. I do not think we can say that the Government are doing it in the name of the people of this country. This is taking the low-hanging fruit to meet the immigration numbers, and it does not take account of how people are suffering.
The policy has to change. It will continue to be challenged, and I hope that we do not have to come back here in a year’s time. It will give us no satisfaction to say, “We were right,” given what the human cost will be between now and then. That could be avoided if the Government would but listen. Do not give lip service to abandoning the hostile environment—genuinely abandon the hostile environment.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered immigration detention of victims of torture and other vulnerable people.