Wednesday 18 July 2018
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Russia and the Council of Europe
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Russia and the Council of Europe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the many members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who have joined me to discuss this issue. It is a great pleasure to see them, and I am grateful to them for turning up to speak.
I start the debate by making two declarations. Neither is required for financial reasons, but they will offer some context to the debate. First, I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. To set the scene a little, the Council was established to promote the rule of law, democracy and human rights throughout post-war Europe. It is no less relevant today than it was 70 years ago. It has become the premier human rights forum in Europe for its now 47 member states. That will be important when we discuss Russia.
The Council is a bicameral institution, with member countries from across the wider Europe—not just the European Union—including Turkey and countries from the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, some of which I will mention during my speech. It also includes a number of partners in democracy and other observers, including Japan, the US, Mexico, Canada, as well as other important countries, such as Israel, and the representatives of the Palestinians.
The Council also has a relationship with a number of other institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights. It is important to remember that the Assembly elects judges to the European Court of Human Rights, which gives the judges, and therefore the whole Court, significant democratic legitimacy. That will also be relevant when we discuss Russia.
If the United Kingdom is to be part of the wider Europe, the Council offers a tailor-made vehicle for doing so. Rather than seeking to reinvent the wheel, we need to strengthen and to maximise the UK’s unique status within the Council, including on matters relating to Russia.
The second thing I wish to declare is that, before entering Parliament, I was the principal private adviser on matters eastern European, including the former USSR, for successive UK Governments of both colours. In that role, I helped to set up and steer the technical assistance programmes that helped those countries to develop. We worked on a range of activities, including on privatisation throughout the region.
Russia is also a member of the Council, but it has chosen not to put its delegation forward to the Assembly for approval. That is worth repeating: Russia has chosen to absent itself from the Assembly by not allowing its delegation to be questioned and approved, presumably for fear of the reaction to its continued occupation of large parts of Ukraine—not only Crimea, but eastern Ukraine, including Donbass.
Russia subsequently chose not to pay the Council its annual dues, which, as a grand payeur, were originally set at €33 million, so the Council is running short by €33 million. The Council is now under tremendous pressure to readmit Russia so that it will start paying again. In other words, we are being asked to sacrifice principle for cash.
The Council took away Russia’s voting rights because of the invasion of Ukraine. That was not the first time Russia had done something like that; we are dealing with a serial offender. It has now also lost its right to elect judges to the European Court of Human Rights, following its annexation of Crimea and its action in eastern Ukraine. The Russian ambassador to the Council wrote that it was the “free choice” of the people of Crimea to become part of Russia and that the Assembly had so restricted the rights of its representatives that they could not continue. The first part of that is, frankly, laughable.
It is possible to argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that when the USSR broke up, we should not simply have accepted the countries based on the former component states of the USSR. However, to do otherwise would have complicated an already complex situation and would have delayed the emergence of independent nation states. I remember discussing this issue at the time and passing it by.
Russian activity in the Donbass and in Crimea has badly affected the human rights of Ukrainians there, some of whom are held as political prisoners. Members may recall our opportunity to meet Nadiya Savchenko—an Assembly member and Ukrainian air force pilot who had been imprisoned by the Russians. She addressed the Council after her release. Whether one agrees with Nadiya Savchenko’s politics is irrelevant; the fact is that she gave a moving account of her imprisonment by the Russians.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that the invasion of Crimea was the tipping point? Russia’s taking of two enclaves in Georgia—South Ossetia and Abkhazia—was when the international community should have acted. The invasion of Crimea followed because of our supine response when Russia invaded those parts of Georgia: we refused to do anything.
My hon. Friend anticipates what I will say in a moment. I agree that we are dealing with a serial offender, as I said in answer to the earlier intervention. We should have taken a strong stance when Russia attacked Georgia. It came as no surprise that it then attacked bits of Ukraine.
My hon. Friend is indeed making a powerful speech. Does he welcome Georgia’s being at the forefront of some of the discussions at the recent NATO conference and of a report from the special committee? Does he also agree that we ought to get on with allowing Georgia into NATO?
I agree that Georgia is fit for NATO membership. I look forward—along with my right hon. Friend—to monitoring the elections there later in the year. I have no idea what I will find on the ground there, but Assembly members play an important role in monitoring elections in newly emerged democracies.
Many might also recall the motion at the last part-session of the Council of Europe, which took up the case of Ukrainian prisoners of war—as I said in the Parliamentary Assembly, the issue of political prisoners goes right to the heart of what the Council of Europe is about. However, like many resolutions that the Council of Europe has passed to condemn the actions of Russia, that motion will almost certainly be ignored. Indeed, the Council of Europe has passed so many resolutions about occupied Ukrainian territory, the rights of the people there and political prisoners, that Russia’s non-compliance can be seen only as a gesture of ill will towards the Council of Europe.
I will come on to that, but I wonder whether the hon. Lady means that we should consider admitting Russia or excluding it. I put the Novichok case to the Croatian Prime Minister during the last public session of the Assembly, and I asked whether he thought that his decision to send away a Russian member of the Foreign Office based there was justifiable. His response was that the evidence Britain had produced was so strong that he would do it again. That is important.
Crimea is not the only source of disagreement. The Council of Europe has passed a resolution about the serious, systematic and widespread persecution, discrimination and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Chechnya, which has caused more than 100 people to flee that country. The Council of Europe called on Russia to conduct an independent national investigation, and for the extreme discrimination to end, but Russia has done nothing.
We have already mentioned Georgia, and the Council of Europe has criticised Russia for the abuse of human rights in the occupied regions. That abuse effectively extends to the use of war in that country, Russia’s non-recognition of the borders of Georgia and its treatment of people who live there, whose human rights have been abused. As the Georgian ambassador to the UK recently wrote, after 10 years of Russian aggression, Russia continues its occupation of regions of Georgia, undermining international law and the rules-based system, with massive infringements of human rights.
Another issue is the Smolensk plane crash, which killed the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, and the Russian refusal to return the wreckage. The Russians claim that the return of the wreckage will simply fuel Polish conspiracy theories. They may be right, but returning the wreckage would also prove beyond doubt what happened in that plane crash, so the Russians should do it.
Ukraine has become the cause célèbre of this debate. A paper produced at the last meeting of the Council of Europe stated that 64 Ukrainians have received politically motivated convictions and are effectively prisoners of war whose human rights have been killed off.
The secretary-general of the Council of Europe said that the continued absence of Russia from the Council affects the rights of ordinary people in Russia to access the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps that statement can be believed, but I think it is so far from the truth that it is difficult to justify in terms of what can occur. The number of cases involving Russia that have been brought before the European Court of Human Rights is large, but is also worth considering Russia’s total disregard for the ECHR’s judgments, and the claim by the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation that Russia should not be bound by those judgments. We know from the judgment in the Yukos oil company case that following the rules of the ECHR and putting right a case on which it has already opined will be expensive. I am afraid, however, that I regard that as a fair price to pay for the wild west nature of Russia that we helped to create after the fall of communism.
No one doubts that Russia’s human rights record is egregious, and one can go on listing its faults forever—it has as many faults as countries such as Azerbaijan, which is in the Council of Europe. Surely, however, my hon. Friend is not suggesting that the Foreign Office should stop talking to or engaging with Russia. Similarly, in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, if one engages with the Russians, despite their faults, one might at least have some chance of persuading them or informing them of our point of view.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but we are not simply engaging with Russia as a third party. We are talking about Russia’s inclusion in, or readmission into, the very body of which we are part, and for which we were, in 1949, an inspiration. Those are completely different circumstances to the description that my hon. Friend gives, whereby we should talk continually to Russia. This is about admitting Russia into our family home, as it were, and about it being part of that. In that situation, I think different rules apply.
I was speaking about our role in the fall of communism. We got it right in Poland and in the Czech Republic, but I fully acknowledge my part in getting it wrong in Russia. We await with bated breath the promise to amend the Russian constitution to allow judgments to be implemented.
So what do we do? The first thing that is not going to happen is the lifting of sanctions that we imposed against Russia’s voting rights at the Council of Europe or the restoration of those voting rights. The second thing that I do not believe will happen is the sudden withdrawal of Russia from the Donbass or Crimea.
Can it be right for a member of the Council of Europe to invade another’s territory, to conduct hateful campaigns elsewhere in the region, to have a casual attitude to human rights and to suffer no consequences? Are we simply to roll over and readmit Russia to the Council of Europe without any effects? Is the cost of keeping Russia out of the Council of Europe completely out of kilter with the benefits of bringing it back in? I think the answer to all these questions is no. Is it true that the Council of Europe cannot survive without the presence of Russia? Again, the answer is no.
The Russian Ambassador to the Council of Europe said:
“in seeking to ‘punish’ the delegation of the Russian parliament in 2014-2015 for the free choice by the people of Crimea to become part of Russia, the Assembly restricted the rights of Russian parliamentarians to such an extent that it made it impossible for them to continue their work in PACE.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Russians have chosen to exclude themselves. The ambassador goes on to describe the actions of the Parliamentary Assembly as “thoughtless”, but they were not. Those actions were a deliberate reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which the Council of Europe can hopefully help to reverse.
Depriving the Council of Europe of €33 million is a serious matter, but it should not stand in the way of the wholesale reform for which many of us have argued. It cannot be right to simply sit and plan for nothing to happen at the end of next year—that is not a realistic option, and neither is it realistic for the Council of Europe to have no contingency plan for what will happen if the Russians continue in this way.
My hon Friend is making a powerful point. At the moment, it looks as though the Council of Europe is being held hostage by means of a concerted effort by the Russians, through friends in the Council of Europe, to get themselves back into the Council. That is happening, as far as I can see, under the secretary-general, because he feels that the money is more important than the political will to say no. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I agree. The point I would make is that the Council of Europe is all about political will. It was set up with that background. If we give in to that political will, we have nowhere to go. What is required is a proper plan to reduce the waste and inefficiency of the Council. I am sure we can take out enough expenditure to replace the Russian contribution. I believe, overall, that we are right to maintain our position of principle and to reject this choice of cash.
Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing the debate; it is important that we discuss in this House the situation in the Council of Europe as it relates to Russia.
As the leader of the Labour delegation to the Council of Europe and someone who has seen at first hand the turbulence that Russia is causing there, I believe this debate is critical. Russia’s relationship with the Council of Europe is fraught with difficulty. How we approach it over the coming months and years will have a profound effect—not only on the Council, but on the integrity of UK foreign policy and the security of the UK and other member states.
I begin by reminding hon. Members of Russia’s accession to the Council, as the points made in the debate at that time are being replayed to some extent today. Russian membership was given in 1996—a decision based on pragmatism and democratic hope. Its human rights record was a long way from spotless—indeed, its initial membership bid was suspended because of its actions in Chechnya. On balance, it was agreed that Russia and the Council would mutually benefit from Russia’s membership. Over time, it was hoped, Russia’s record of human rights under the rule of law would improve. The Moscow Times said that the Council and Russian citizens would get
“some small degree of leverage over Moscow and its justice system.”
To an extent, Russia’s record did improve. It ratified the European convention on human rights, acceded to various Council conventions and made reforms to its judicial and penal system. However, the list of human rights abuses and the occasions on which it has flown in the face of Council of Europe conventions is so long that it would be impossible to fully recount them within the constraints of this debate. Its record in Chechnya is horrific, as is its aggression in Transnistria. At home, its treatment of minority religious groups and LGBT people—particularly in Chechnya, as the hon. Member for Henley mentioned so eloquently—and the restrictions it imposes on journalists clearly deride the principles the Council of Europe was founded on.
Human Rights Watch says that under Putin, human rights standards have fallen, and Amnesty International’s report on human rights in Russia over the past year records that there were,
“further restrictions to the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and independent NGOs continued... Religious minorities continued to face harassment and persecution. The right to a fair trial was frequently violated. Torture and other ill-treatment persisted”.
That is the analysis of Amnesty International. In 2017, Russia had 370 registered cases at the European Court of Human Rights—almost triple the number for Turkey. If I am honest, we have allowed Russia to get away with a lot up to now—too much—but we must draw a line somewhere. If the invasion of another member state’s sovereign territory does not represent that line, what on earth does?
It is absolutely right that the Council of Europe should have condemned and sanctioned the Russian Federation for its actions in Crimea and the Donbass. The hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend, in this context—was absolutely right to say that Russia excluded itself from the Assembly. I will say this: Russia may suspend its contributions to the Council, it may threaten not to resume them and it may risk its position on the Committee of Ministers, but we cannot allow ourselves to be blackmailed into accepting such brazen disregard for the common principles on which the Council was founded.
The Council of Europe’s job is to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law. In that context, we must ask ourselves why Russia is so keen to reinstate its membership on its own terms. Does its membership enable the Council’s mission? Does it help us to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law, or does its role complement its approach elsewhere on the international stage? In other words, is the Russian Federation’s membership primarily related to an attempt simply to disrupt and to divide western democracy?
I acknowledge Secretary-General Jagland’s position on all of this. He argues:
“It would be a big step back for Europe”
if Russia withdrew its participation in the Council. In my view, however, Jagland’s position is also deeply worrying. A report in the Financial Times in November made it clear that Jagland was,
“touring European capitals warning of a serious risk that Moscow could withdraw or crash out of the 47-member body unless its demands are met.”
“It would really be very, very bad if Russia was to leave…because the convention and court has been so important for Russian citizens…It will be a negative development for Europe, because we will have a Europe without Russia. It would be a big step back for Europe.”
I do not accept that. Two days ago, Jagland tweeted:
“President Trump is right, ‘The World wants a better relationship between USA and Russia’. The first step has been taken, hopefully”.
Then again, a few hours later, he tweeted:
“Good that Presidents Trump and Putin meet. Better than the opposite. Congratulations to the Finnish Government…an outstanding statesman”—
referring to the President of Finland.
The hon. Lady has made a very powerful point about Mr Jagland, and I think she needs to go a little further. I suggest this: he wants a legacy from what has been a failure of his tenure. This is his legacy. He wants the Russians back. The hon. Lady is right that we are being blackmailed in a very simple way by the secretary-general to allow him to have some kudos. Her point is absolutely forthright, and she is right.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, it is quite clear that the secretary-general is more than sympathetic to the Russian cause. Those tweets about the meeting between Trump and Putin earlier this week showed a lack of real judgment. For someone who is leading an important, international European body that defends human rights, I found those tweets astonishingly disturbing.
I do not think either that the argument that Russian citizens need to maintain access to the European Court of Human Rights is correct. My understanding is that, if Russia is suspended from the Committee of Ministers, it is exactly that—suspended. It is not expelled from the Council of Europe; its membership is suspended. On that basis, Russian citizens would still have access to the European Court.
The issue needs to be bottomed out, because the view being propagated around the Council of Europe and among the delegates to the Assembly is exactly that we cannot afford to let Russian citizens lose access to the European Court. In any case, my response to that is, “What about the human rights of the Ukrainians, the Crimeans and the Crimean Tatars, which have been deeply compromised by the actions of the Russian Federation?” Jagland does not seem to want to acknowledge that.
I genuinely look forward to a time when we can welcome Russia back to the Council of Europe on the right terms, but so far Russia has done nothing to reverse its annexation of Crimea. It continues in a “totally unacceptable” manner—those are the words of Secretary-General Jagland—to block the Council’s human rights commissioner from visiting the region. It continues to undermine the most fundamental pillars of the European convention.
In recent years, Russia has ramped up its aggression on the global stage. It defends President Assad and his use of chemical weapons, meddled in the US election and is now under investigation for its ties to the Brexit campaign. Let us not forget that it was responsible for poisoning a former intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, right here in the UK. While we fight among ourselves in the west, Russia is of course busy building out its strategic capacity and its influence in the Black sea and the eastern Mediterranean.
A careful balancing act was being played out when Russia was given membership of the Council of Europe. At that time, there was genuine hope. There was a belief that Russian membership would help Russia and Europe to integrate and move towards a shared moral code. But to lift sanctions now, based on the same assumption, would be wrong. In the words of one Ukrainian official:
“It would be the first hole in the wall.”
This is a matter of principle over expediency, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said. We cannot permit a member state to behave aggressively and hold the Council to ransom over its membership. What message does that give to Russia, Ukraine and the people of Crimea? What does it say about the standards that we apply to other countries or to future applicants? It is blackmail, and it cannot be tolerated.
I make it clear that my feelings do not come from a place of dislike for the Russian people or the Russian state. They come from an honest and sincere belief in the work of the Council of Europe. The principles on which it was founded we must all, as citizens of a liberal democracy, hold dear. We need only to reflect on the grounds on which the Council was founded to be reminded that we must never take those values for granted, and at a time of increasing instability at home, in Europe and beyond, we must robustly defend that which keeps us safe and at liberty.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who leads the Labour delegation in the Council of Europe in an exemplary fashion. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on obtaining this timely debate. I am looking forward to hearing what my right hon. Friend the Minister from the Foreign Office has to say about this subject, because he is an accomplished Minister, but he must realise that this is a very difficult situation. My speech will be in accordance with the two speeches that went before; I have a similar perspective.
I serve on the Council of Europe alongside many of my colleagues in this Chamber. It is very ably led by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), and my political group is led by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger). However, I can honestly say that the group of Members of Parliament and Members of the other place who go there to represent the United Kingdom work together as a team—a very comprehensive team and one whose members complement one another. Very little politics is played in the UK delegation to the Council of Europe; we see ourselves representing the United Kingdom, rather than our independent political positions, which gives us great strength as a delegation.
As a former colleague of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, I, too, worked behind what was then the iron curtain. We suffered similar deprivations when we went into that territory in the name of capitalism and bringing private companies into the newly emerging markets after glasnost and perestroika. I commend him for the sterling work that he did and the advice that he gave to successive UK Governments.
I think that it is useful to remind those listening in to the debate that the Council of Europe is Europe’s oldest political body. It emerged from the ashes of world war two and has been described as the
“democratic conscience of Greater Europe”.
Its commitment to upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law across, now, 47 member states and 820 million people is remarkable.
I think my colleagues would agree that we sometimes see the dead hand of the European Union trying to take over and dominate the Council of Europe, but fortunately it fights and maintains its independence, which is absolutely right. I think that it is in many ways a more important body than the European Union, because the people who go to the Council to represent their countries are directly elected Members of the Assemblies in their countries. Also, it has a very proud history, which includes eliminating the death penalty across the 47 countries. We should all be proud of that.
As I have said before in this Chamber, I think that we should have an annual debate on the Floor of the House in Government time on the work of the Council of Europe. I hope that by reiterating the proposal—I know I have cross-party support for it—we could achieve that. At the end of every year, to be able to do a summary of what the Council has been up to would be very important.
On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons that we needed to be
“clear and unwavering about where Russia needs to change its behaviour, and for as long as Russia persists in its efforts to undermine our interests and values, we must continue to deter…them.”—[Official Report, 16 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 24.]
That is exactly what we have been seeing in the Council of Europe. As hon. Members have said, following the annexation of Crimea, the Council enforced sanctions on the Russian Federation. Six years on from the military aggression that we witnessed from Russia in Georgia, it continues illegally to occupy territory there.
We ought to be clear: there has been some confusion about this, but the Russian Federation has not been suspended from participating in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It has taken the decision to remove its delegation from representing its credentials on the floor of the Hemicycle, following our unwavering support for the sovereignty of Ukraine, which is to the credit of all our colleagues in the Council of Europe—those from other countries as well as our own delegation.
My right hon. Friend is completely correct to put it on the record that the Russians suspended themselves, but they are, irritatingly, still coming to the ad hoc committee, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and I attend as well. They are coming back to the Council of Europe regularly in that guise.
That is one of the confusions that has arisen, because the rules and regulations about what happens to a country that is in Russia’s position are unclear. I think that Secretary-General Jagland has a great deal of work to do to clarify the position, because the Russians coming back to the ad hoc committee has caused a great deal of consternation among many of our colleagues and not least to myself, because we cannot understand why they still have the right to sit at the table when we are in this hiatus where the money has been withheld and they have removed the rest of their delegation from participation in any of our committees and activities.
It is widely agreed that the violation of the sovereignty of states arose from an illegal referendum. I want to dwell on that for a moment, because I serve as the vice-president of the committee on political affairs and democracy and am also the rapporteur for the new rules on referendums. We have just completed a large report in this country, under the auspices of the constitution unit at University College London, looking at the rules in the United Kingdom on referendums. The independent commission on which I have served for the past nine months has come up with a series of recommendations for changes to legislation in this country. I am working with Dr Alan Renwick, who is now the international adviser to the Council of Europe’s political affairs committee on this matter, and I am working with the Venice Commission as it updates its rules on referendums, which is badly needed after 10 years, to try to bring more clarity to the situation.
That we have Russia in the Council of Europe at all is one of the key achievements of the post-cold war period. When it ratified its membership of the European convention on human rights in 1998, there was a real welcome for its inclusion, but in December 2015 it passed a law to allow Russian courts to overrule the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, because it disliked those decisions. Russia was particularly exercised, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley mentioned, by being told to pay $2 billion to shareholders of Yukos, but there have been many judgments that have irked both President Putin and the ruling party, and some of their behaviour has resulted from that. More than one third of the cases that come before the European Court concern Russia. To put that in perspective, in 2017 the Court dealt with 8,042 applications concerning Russia. Even though 6,886 of those were declared inadmissible, it delivered 305 judgments concerning 1,156 applications, and in 293 of those there was a finding of at least one violation of the European convention on human rights. Before I arrived in the Chamber I looked up the figures for 2018, and already 5,975 applications have been allocated to a judicial formation, of which 579 have been decided by judgment. There are currently a further 9,191 applications pending a judicial formation. That is a heavy workload, and is a reflection of the human rights situation.
The Council of Europe is no stranger to the practice of bringing together representatives of countries that have political and diplomatic tensions, and it acts as an important partner in the soft diplomacy required to bring resolution to intractable problems. What we are discussing is probably one such problem. We need to seek a remedy for the situation because at the moment 140 million Russians will be denied access to the European Court of Human Rights, and that is not something to be taken lightly. We should not capitulate and accept an unconditional deal, as that would set a precedent for those countries that are often accused of backsliding on democracy. It is important that the founding principles of the Council of Europe should not be held to ransom as it faces complicated financial issues.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. However imperfect the Russian Government’s attitude towards the Court, at least there is a chance that the 144 million Russians will continue to have access to a genuinely independent human rights court. That is why Russia must maintain its place on the Committee of Ministers—so that at least there is a chance of ordinary Russians getting access to the Court.
The unilateral withdrawal of the funds that are important for running the Council of Europe and the Court is to be deprecated, and I should like those funds to come back, but I do not believe we should give in to the current blackmail. We need to stiffen the resolve of the Council of Europe and of Secretary-General Jagland. Money should not be more important than the democratic principles by which we all want to live. I hope for a resolution to the problem that does not involve rolling over and giving in to the Russians.
Order. I am not going to impose a time limit, but there are four Members remaining to speak, and I have to call the Front Benchers at 10.30. If Members can confine their remarks to between four and five minutes, we should be able to get everyone in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing this timely debate. It is important that the subject is being discussed in the House.
Our argument is not with the Russian people, but with the Russian Government and—dare I say it—the elite. It will be the Russian people who end up suffering—in fact, they are suffering—because of Russia’s self-imposed suspension from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Let us not forget that it is the Russians who do not present their credentials at the Council on an annual basis. Russia has also suspended its €33 million payment to the Council and has threatened to withdraw from it entirely. If it did that, access to the European Court of Human Rights would be denied to Russian citizens, whose cases take up a disproportionate amount of its time: about one third of the cases brought concern Russia.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said that we could go on forever listing the types of cases, but there are a few that we need to mention: the imprisonment of children, phone tapping of journalists, holding prisoners in cages, failing to investigate high-profile murders, torture and detaining lawyers and judges. The Russian Constitutional Court has ruled that Russia should not be bound by all international human rights obligations. In June 2016 the Venice Commission for democracy—a body of the Council of Europe—issued a final opinion on the legal changes in Russia. The commission stressed that the
“execution of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights is unequivocal and an imperative legal obligation.”
It would seem that the relationship between the Russians and the Council of Europe is tense in any case, but it can be resolved over time. I am sure that if Russia remained a member of the Council of Europe, matters would have the opportunity to resolve themselves amicably in the years to come. However, although dialogue is important, so are the principles by which the Council of Europe is governed.
There are also the issues that the Parliamentary Assembly has criticised Russia for in the past, including the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Chechnya; the Smolensk plane crash in 2010, which killed the Polish President; the refusal to send back the wreckage of the plane, which raises more questions than it answers; the politically motivated conviction of Ukrainians; and the condemnation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organisation. The Russian Government say that their failure to implement the ECHR’s rulings is because of the fact that without Russian representation they do not have right to select ECHR judges and therefore they should not abide by the Court’s decisions.
The Russian people are the victims—but not the only victims. They are denied human rights protection at the highest level in Europe because their Government have taken the decision to invade another member state, so sanctions are imposed. Still, the Russian Government insist that it is not their fault that the Russian people are denied their human rights—those that any civilised society would want its people to enjoy. For the Russians, it is always someone else’s fault.
The sanctions on Russia should not be lifted. Countries cannot go around invading other member states of the Council of Europe and think they can get away with it. The financial hit on the Council of Europe must be endured, I suppose. This is about principle and we need to seek a way through that does not deny principles. We can consider the human rights issues of the Russian people but we should also consider the rights of the Ukrainians as well. Russia—a country prepared to flout international norms—cannot get away with it.
I do not believe that we can view Russia’s relationship with the Council of Europe in isolation. Russia’s relationship with the Council is disruptive, disconcerting and manipulative, and is part of a pattern that is intended to sow discontent and division on the European continent. That pattern includes the Council of Europe, Crimea, Ukraine, incursions into democratic institutions of other European states—and, indeed, in America—and the use of chemical weapons on the streets of Salisbury. It is part of a strategy to divide and rule—to disregard human rights, international rule-based order and the rule of law.
A populist nationalist Russian leadership believes it can make itself strong only by ensuring Europe is weak, and it will go to any length to secure that objective. Populist movements in Hungary, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, as well as Brexit itself, and President Trump in the White House all play into Putin’s hands. We must take that backdrop into consideration when we think about how we deal with Russia’s relationship with the Council of Europe.
I understand the time constraint, Mr Howarth, but because I am the leader of the UK delegation there are certain things that I need to say. I shall do my best to stick to five minutes, as you asked.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). I want immediately to express my appreciation for the collegiate attitude taken by the entire United Kingdom delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and for the cross-party basis on which we work in the interest of the United Kingdom.
I am particularly grateful for the support of my friend the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who recently accompanied me to the Struthof concentration camp to lay a wreath. That was a stark reminder, in Alsace, of why the Council of Europe was founded and the principles on which it was founded by Winston Churchill and nine other countries after the war.
There is no doubt in my mind that Russia is in flagrant breach of the principles of the Council of Europe by its actions in Crimea, Ukraine and the Donbass; by shooting down a civilian passenger aircraft; by the invasion of Georgia and Moldova; by the poisoning of the Skripals; and, as has been mentioned by hon. Members, by its breaches of human rights across the piece. The list is almost endless.
I must underscore the fact that in 2014, following the annexation of Crimea, the Parliamentary Assembly suspended the voting rights of the Russian delegation, but they were not expelled. Aleksey Pushkov, the leader of the Russian delegation, stage-managed a press conference, walked out of the Hemicycle and led his delegation out of the Parliamentary Assembly. Since that time, it is the Russians who have declined to present their credentials. The idea that they have somehow been excluded is a myth. As has been said, the Council of Europe is a bicameral body and the Russians still attend and contribute to the Committee of Ministers. For reasons that none of us really understand, they have also been allowed to participate in Michele Nicoletti’s ad hoc committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) indicated that we took away the Russian voting rights, which is apparently why they are allowed to suspend their payments. I suspect that if Spain were to annex Gibraltar, which is a fairly direct comparison, my hon. Friend might have something to say about it. If the Spanish then persecuted part of the population of the Rock and imprisoned some of them, he might have even more to say about it. That is precisely what has happened in Crimea. The Russian Federation is clearly in flagrant breach of the terms of the convention on human rights.
Another myth, which has been said by Secretary-General Jagland and propagated by others, is that if Russia were expelled from the Council of Europe, the Russian people would not have access to the European Court of Human Rights. That is, quite simply, wrong. The Committee of Ministers has no power to expel Russia; it can only suspend. If Russia does not pay next year, the Committee of Ministers will do precisely that. That suspension, however, will not deny the Russian people the right to take cases before the European Court of Human Rights.
We are facing a straightforward attempt at blackmail. The secretary-general of the Council of Europe has realised that money is more important to him than principle and that he is not prepared to make the necessary budget savings to accommodate the loss of funding from Russia. The delegation that I am proud to lead is united in saying that principle is more important than money, that the Council of Europe is not for sale and that we will fight the proposals to readmit Russia—on its own terms and nobody else’s—in the presidential committee, the bureau, the rules committee and the next plenary session. Unless and until the Russians acknowledge the transgressions and make concessions themselves, they will not, for our money, come back into the Parliamentary Assembly.
I fear I will be the grit in this debate, but maybe it will produce a pearl of a speech from the Minister—like him, small, but perfectly formed. I will see what I can do to put an alternative point of view, at least for the sake of debate. I am not one of Lenin’s useful idiots. I have no illusions about President Putin. Like everybody here, I could list all the appalling human rights abuses.
Thank you, Mr Howarth; I will try to make these points as quickly as I can. As I was saying, nobody doubts Russia’s abuses. We did suspend their voting rights because of Crimea.
Without getting into all the history, I should say that the history of Crimea is complicated and somewhat different from that of Gibraltar. Nobody, as far as I know, in the Council of Europe, the House of Lords or the House of Commons objected when Khrushchev wrested Crimea from Russia in the 1950s and transferred it to Ukraine by decree, against the wishes of the people. I am just now repeating the common view among Russians—it is important that we understand it. No one doubts that the Russian community in Crimea is in the overwhelming majority. Despite all the doubts about the exactness of the referendum, nobody doubts, surely, that the people of Crimea, having been part of Russia for hundreds of years, wish to remain part of Russia. This history is complicated.
Were we right to suspend their voting rights? I do not know. The Russians are a proud people. Russia is not a developed democracy like France or Germany. We cannot expect instant success. As a proud people, it would surely be too much to expect them, having had their voting rights suspended, to say, “Fair enough. We will carry on turning up without voting rights.” None of us would do that here, would we? If we had our voting rights suspended, none of us would agree just to sit around. That is their point of view and we have to understand it.
What of the future? I believe it would be wrong to kick Russia out of the Council of Ministers. As has been said, it is a bicameral system. The delegation and our ambassador talk the whole time. He engages robustly with the Russians. He puts across our point of view. We engage robustly with the Russians through our Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary.
The Council of Europe is not the European Parliament, nor is it this Parliament; it does not have executive authority. It is primarily, in my view, an inter-parliamentary union. When we admit people to that union, we accept that we have to take them warts and all. We know, for instance, that Azerbaijan has a bad human rights record and, although it has been found to be corrupting the Council of Europe, it is still a member. Surely it is better to engage—to have jaw-jaw not war-war—and at least make some effort to influence them. It would be a dangerous development if those 144 million Russians had no access at all to the European Court of Human Rights. It may be imperfect access, as I have said. The record of the Russian Government in obeying its judgments may not be up to standard, but at least it is some way forward.
I hope that, in those terms, we can view this in a moderate, middle-of-the-road way. We should constantly attack the Russians, stand up to them and condemn all their human rights abuse, but at least engage with them. I would be grateful if the Minister said whether he thinks that our ambassador, in doing all this work in the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe, is fulfilling a useful role.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this debate. I am here as a bit of a fraud, really, because I am not an expert on the Council of Europe, although I am particularly interested in this subject. I am a history graduate and when I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I chaired the cross-party group on Russia. What the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has just said will be my theme as well.
As the hon. Member for Henley said, we got it wrong after the break-up of the Soviet Union when it came to Russia. We must remember two things about the Russians: first, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough said, their pride; and secondly, their respect for authority and deep fear of anarchy, which explain much of what Russia does. They have a tremendous fear of the great European plain, because Napoleon and Hitler swept in. We have to remember their defensive attitude and that of the Russian state; if we do not, we will make a big mistake. That is where the Russia of today comes from.
Equally, as other hon. Members have said, we should make no mistake about the fact that Russia is a serious issue for the UK—I am the defence spokesman for my party. The under-sea, covert warfare that is happening in the oceans, not least off the north coast of my constituency, is real and we have to be very careful. The Ministry of Defence must remember that. As we have heard again and again, there is also a cyber war. A former Member of this House is on Russian television for propaganda purposes—make no mistake.
This is a first-year essay compared with the very elegant tutorial that I have just heard—I have been learning a great deal—but surely it is correct to say that the UK must deal with Russia from a position of strength, because Russia respects strength in other countries. When we achieve that position of strength, however, we should seek to have a mature new relationship with Russia, because jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough said. I, too, will listen with great interest to the Minister’s response.
Today’s debate has sparked my interest. I am sure that the House will return to the issue as the months and years go by, and I will keep track of it. One of the best things about this place is that we can have a thoughtful debate such as this one, from which a relatively new Member like me can learn something. It has got me thinking and taking a greater interest in what other hon. Members have said.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I start by putting a few things that have happened in the past 48 hours in context, regarding President Trump’s visit and discussions with President Putin. I thought the whole point of playing golf on a quiet Scottish golf course was to clear the mind and think about other things, but President Trump has left us in a much more confused and incoherent position than we were in at the end of last week. Many Republican party members have denounced not just his comments but his whole demeanour during that visit. Either way, it has destabilised the rules-based order and left us ill-prepared for future challenges.
I support and welcome the debate secured by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). The Scottish National party supports the pressure that the Council of Europe put on Russia following the annexation of Crimea. We are strongly committed to membership of the Council of Europe and recognise its pivotal place and role in strengthening human rights across the world since its formation in 1949. We are concerned, however, about the UK’s withdrawal from the European convention on human rights, which sends completely the wrong signal to Russia. We should try to enhance the recognition of human rights in Russia and abroad. I hope the Minister will comment on that.
On Ukraine, our defence team recently returned from a visit to Kiev and the Donbass region. Russia has absolutely no right to be in Crimea, by any measure of international recognition of the rule of law. It has created millions of displaced people. We spoke to many families on the frontline in the Donbass region who are subject to daily shelling—they can time it almost to the minute; the shelling starts at 7 o’clock. They cannot move from their houses or flats because there is nowhere for them to go. That affects millions. Russia is creating dreadful problems in that region.
In Kiev, it does not feel like the country is at war, but dealing with the incursions on the massive border that exists between Ukraine and the annexed area of Crimea takes up 90% of the Government’s time and energy. Many citizens are in prison in Crimea and others are under daily attack because of their beliefs and sexual orientation, or for organising political resistance.
On human rights, repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 would be a retrograde step. The European convention on human rights was a considerable achievement for the whole of Europe after the atrocities of world war two. It is effective in defining the common principles and standards agreed by almost all the countries across the continent. As I said, the UK’s withdrawal from the convention risks sending the wrong signal to Russia—that it could freely disregard international human rights norms at home and abroad—and undermines the work of human rights groups in Russia.
Many hon. Members present are hugely experienced in the politics, funding and fees of the Council of Europe, but I agree with those hon. Members who have said that retaining the principles of the Council should trump any issues around funding and maintaining as much dialogue with Russia as possible.
I started with President Trump, and I will end with him. It was important that during his visit he sat in Churchill’s chair at Chartwell. Many hon. Members have said that there should be jaw-jaw instead of war-war, and we should consider that way forward more fully, even after Salisbury and Ukraine. I hope that hon. Members who are involved in the Council of Europe can involve Russia in future discussions to ensure that we can rely on it as a valuable partner in the future and that relations are cemented rather than broken.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Howarth. This important debate, secured by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), has roused strong passions and concerns about the significant issues of human rights and civil liberties.
The background is that, after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Council imposed sanctions on Russia, and Russian delegates’ voting rights to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe were suspended. That suspension has been renewed since. In summer 2017, Russia suspended its annual payments of €33 million to the Council of Europe, as has been said. The Council of Europe rules state that member states that do not pay their contributions will also be denied representation in the selection of judges for the European Court of Human Rights.
In November 2017, Council of Europe Secretary-General Jagland toured European capitals warning of the risk that Moscow could withdraw completely from the organisation unless the sanctions were lifted. He argued that that would be a blow to Russian citizens, as they would lose access to the European Court of Human Rights. It has been mentioned that they would not necessarily lose their right to use the Court, but they would lose the ability to implement its decisions.
Russian cases take up a disproportionate amount of the time of the European Court of Human Rights, and that has been highlighted today by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan). In relation to what she said, the figures are quite significant, and we have to consider how we can try to influence that situation. Many aggressive stances have been taken over what Russia is doing, as there should be when it comes to human rights and civil liberties. Equally, however, a number of Members have said that we need to have more jaw-jaw rather than just war-war. So there is an issue here that we have to try to address in order to move forward. However, supporters of Ukraine and others argued against such a move, saying it would be a signal to other organisations, particularly the EU, that it was time to soften the position regarding the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s backing of the Crimean rebels in the Donbass against the Ukraine Government.
In March 2018, Russia announced that it was again withholding its payment to the Council of Europe. Many Russian citizens have taken their cases to the ECHR, and the number of applications to the Court has increased recently, as has been mentioned. In 2017, Russia was the country with the highest number of cases registered at the Court, with 370 cases, which put it some way ahead of Turkey, which had 138 cases registered, and Romania, which had 110. Also, Russia has the highest number of awards by the Court against it. Notable cases can be found in the Court’s Russia press country profile, which was updated in June 2018. However, despite what the Council of Europe regards as Russia’s legally binding commitments, Russia has not complied with some judgments of the Court. All these issues are very important in terms of human rights, and we have to consider how we can get those judgments implemented.
A number of Members have mentioned that the principles are more important than the money, and I wholly agree. However, we also have to consider what Russia is currently doing to work with the European Union, and particularly with Germany, on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will bring in about 70% of the Russian gas exports that go to Germany. Currently, the Nord Stream 2 deal is not being negotiated, because of Denmark’s refusal to give Russia permission to lay the pipeline through its territory.
There are significant issues we can negotiate with Russia about to support the Russian people, who suffer huge human rights abuses. That is the important issue here: how do we support them? A number of cases have been highlighted, including the Polish plane crash and a number of other issues relating to the LGBT community, particularly in Chechnya, where members of that community are completely ignored as a group of people and do not have a status. The only way that we can support such people is if we have some sort of discussion and ability to negotiate with Russia.
As far as I am concerned, that is the key here, and isolating Russia is not going to be a mechanism for moving forward. We have such a mechanism because of Russia’s desire to trade with Germany; we have to look at that. That trade can also help Ukraine, even though there is an issue with Russia’s Brotherhood pipeline, which comes through Ukraine. Actually, that pipeline earns Ukraine more than 2% of its GDP.
So there are significant issues that we can try to negotiate with Russia about in order to move forward and get Russia to honour its human rights obligations, its obligations to the Council of Europe and its obligations to the ECHR. Those are the significant issues we want to handle, and if we do not handle them and just completely isolate Russia, we will leave the Russian people completely to their own devices and without any international representation.
The hon. Gentleman is making incredibly powerful points. However, having been a member of the Council of Europe for eight years, I gently say to him that Russia is determined to come in by the back door. It cannot come in through the front door because we, as western democracies, are saying, “No. We do not accept what you have been doing in Crimea and elsewhere.” I also gently say to him that one of the things we are trying to do—through our ambassador, the Foreign Office and other routes—is to make sure that Russia lives up to its responsibilities. We want Russia back, but it has to understand that what has happened is not the way to do things. I gently say that to the hon. Gentleman and no more.
I think the hon. Member for Henley, who secured this excellent debate, made the point—and it is the essential point that I am trying to make as well—that if we completely isolate Russia, we will not achieve some of those objectives.
So I leave this to the talents of the Minister, who is more than able to negotiate. He should particularly take into account the relationship Germany has with Russia at the moment, our continued support for Ukraine over Russia’s Brotherhood pipeline, which goes through Ukraine, and the position that Denmark has taken in relation to pipelines. Those are the real issues that we should try to push Russia on, to get it to come to its senses and return to the table to negotiate an agreement with us.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak and for your chairmanship of this debate.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing this debate, because I genuinely welcome this opportunity to put on the record my appreciation and the Government’s appreciation of his contribution and that of all other hon. Members who are active members of the UK’s delegation to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, many of whom are here today. As a rapporteur, my hon. Friend has been at the forefront of the Parliamentary Assembly’s work on press freedom, and I know he was particularly active during the last session in highlighting Russia’s failure to honour its human rights obligations, notably in illegally annexed Crimea. I am also grateful for the contributions from all the hon. Members of all parties who have spoken today, in what is a very cross-party and enlightened endeavour in relation to the Council of Europe.
The defence and promotion of human rights is a fundamental part of our foreign policy. That is why the Council of Europe is important, as a pan-European institution working to advance human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the whole of Europe.
Russia has signed up to Council of Europe standards relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, but the Russian Government routinely disregard them. The Council of Europe provides a means to hold Russia to account, both in the Committee of Ministers and in the Parliamentary Assembly. I should just put on the record, to clarify matters so that anyone watching our proceedings understands the situation, that Russia continues to play an active role in decision making in the Committee of Ministers—it is properly called the Committee of Ministers and not the Council of Ministers—including on the Council of Europe’s budget, albeit that Russia is not paying towards that budget, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe did not suspend Russia’s rights to participate in debates, just its voting rights, as has been already explained.
I and ministerial colleagues regularly instruct the UK’s permanent representative at the Council of Europe to condemn the Russian abuse of human rights and to do so in the Committee of Ministers, and our permanent representative has worked hard to secure language in Committee decisions that binds Russia to those decisions.
The Committee of Ministers also requires Russia to execute judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, yet Russia continues to have a woeful record, both in front of the Court and in terms of executing the Court’s judgments. Most recently, the Committee of Ministers reaffirmed its stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex discrimination—a decision that binds the Russian Government to combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Establishing and upholding internationally accepted standards in multilateral organisations is the absolutely fundamental starting point to improving the lives of the repressed and those who are discriminated against in countries where human rights are not routinely respected. Their failure to do so completely undermines the rules-based international order.
Europe’s parliamentarians play a key role in the Council of Europe in upholding European values. In April 2014, in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Parliamentary Assembly decided to restrict the Russian delegation’s participation in the Assembly by suspending their voting rights. Ever since, the Russian delegation has chosen not to participate in the Parliamentary Assembly.
My predecessor at the Foreign Office welcomed that action by the Parliamentary Assembly and the strong stance taken by the UK delegation at the time. I am grateful to UK parliamentarians for their efforts to maintain sanctions on the Russian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly and for their continued work to shine a spotlight on Russia’s transgressions.
The Russian Federation’s decision in July 2017 to withhold its budget contribution to the Council of Europe was particularly egregious. The figure mentioned earlier today was €33 million, but I am advised that the figure is now higher, because Russia has missed three payments. The amount that Russia now owes is about €54 million. Its absence from the Parliamentary Assembly is entirely self-imposed, and its failure to meet its financial obligations also undermines the rules-based international system.
I have made it clear to Secretary-General Jagland that the UK wants Russia to address the reasons that led to the suspension of its voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the first place before its delegation can enjoy all the rights that other delegations enjoy. Regardless of the sanctions applied in the Parliamentary Assembly, Russia must make all outstanding payments, including interest, in line with its obligations. If it does not, it will face further sanctions in the Committee of Ministers in July 2019 under the Council of Europe statute.
The international community has shown increasing resolve in dealing with Russian aggression and belligerence, and to reward Russia’s blackmail tactics in the Council of Europe would undermine that institution and the wider purpose of global foreign policy. Of course, the Council of Europe is not alone when it comes to being subjected to Russian pressure. We have all seen the actions that Russia has taken to undermine countries and other international institutions—institutions that have kept us safe since the end of the second world war. Russia flouts international law—most egregiously in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Georgia. It interferes in other countries, whether that is the botched coup in Montenegro, the repeated cyber-attacks on other states or seeking in a malign way to influence others’ democratic processes.
It is not for me to make a judgment of that sort, and if I might say so, the words I have been uttering have not been—and should not be—particularly warm. We see it as the intention of Russia to exploit instability wherever it sees it. Whenever it sees a problem, instead of trying to solve it—as we would in our foreign policy—it tries to make it worse in order to divide. It seems to be the widespread policy of Russia to try to drive a wedge between the core alliances that protect the UK and our partners.
I consider that I have replied to that question. It is not for me to dictate to the Council of Europe exactly what it should do, and that is why we are having today’s debate. I work with representatives in this room; I do not stand here to instruct them.
As we have heard, the sanctions against the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe were in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea, and Russia continues to take actions to destabilise its neighbourhood. At the Council of Europe ministerial meeting in May, my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon called on Russia to support regional stability by recognising the independence and territorial integrity of its neighbours Ukraine and Georgia. Crimea is Ukrainian territory; the UK Government remain fully committed to upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders. If Russia hopes that, sooner or later, the world will forgive or forget about what it did in Crimea and that Crimea-related sanctions will be lifted, it is wrong. The UK will not allow Crimea to be forgotten.
We have used our membership of other multilateral institutions to demonstrate our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as I myself did last December at the Vienna ministerial meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In June 2017, the UK supported a UN resolution on human rights violations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and at the UN Third Committee, the UK was in the core group supporting a resolution tabled by Ukraine on human rights in Crimea. Those resolutions continue to hold Russia to account for its illegal annexation.
I reiterate the UK’s commitment to the Council of Europe. We will continue to engage actively and help to find solutions to the challenges that the Council of Europe faces. In that light, I reiterate the UK Government’s firm commitment to ensuring the territorial integrity of Ukraine: Crimea is Ukraine, and Russia must be held accountable for its actions. Her Majesty’s Government look forward to continuing their strong working relationship with all right hon. and hon. Members who work so dutifully on the Council of Europe.
I thank the Minister for his excellent reply. Can I make one point on behalf of all of us who serve on the Council of Europe? We not only enjoy it, but play an important part in what we think is a very important organisation, and it is a shame that the UK seems to be the only place in Europe that does not take it as seriously as others do. If there were one change that I would advocate, it would be for the UK to start to take the organisation seriously.
We have raised an important issue, but more important than that has been the quality of the debate that we have had. A number of people have already commented that we operate across parties, and this is a brilliant example of how we do so. I am so grateful for the contributions that others have made to the debate.
This issue is not going to go away; this issue is important to us. My reason for bringing the debate was that we had an opportunity here in Parliament to collectively make a statement about what is happening in relation to Russia before the next part-session of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where we will have to fight for this cause—we will have to fight for it again and again. If there is one thing that the debate shows, it is that we are united in what we want. We are united in our stand to make sure that human rights continue to be upheld in Russia by the Russian Government, and I look forward to our continued involvement in fighting that fight.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Russia and the Council of Europe.
Swaminarayan School Closure
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the closure of the Swaminarayan School.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I welcome the Minister to his place. We are all deeply saddened by the news of the Swaminarayan School’s closure after what will have been 28 years of academic, social and faith-based achievements. The school has consistently provided west London’s Hindu community with a space for gathering, education and growth. That is why so many parents have been in touch with me—concerned that they were not consulted, concerned that they have not had a chance to reply, and concerned for their children’s futures.
Pupils have flourished at the school since its founding in 1992, and it has turned out great leaders and thinkers from its fold. The Swaminarayan School has provided an invaluable service to the youth of our country, adding deeper meaning and purpose to their studies. It has nurtured an ethos of cultural diversity, and to this day adds richness and options to the breadth of British education. That diversity is part of what gives our country its reputation for being home to so many top-quality schools.
This academy in particular has met and exceeded the expected standards of a faith-based educational institution. No community, especially this one, could ever delight in the closure of such an institution. The Swaminarayan School has allowed students to receive a uniquely Hindu and British education, which grants them the opportunity to remain in touch with their heritage while getting a top-tier academic experience. There are no other schools in London that are the same, and we are losing an important part of our community’s culture.
As the school moves towards closure, perhaps it is time to recognise what it brought to the community. The students and their families deserve access to an education with the same ethos that Swaminarayan offered. The school had three main aims in its time. First, to provide a high-quality education, which parents are pleased to agree it did. Secondly, the school promoted Hindu values—values that I am proud chime with British values, but are uniquely diverse and tolerant. Thirdly, as an independent school, Swaminarayan was there to make a profit, and I am worried that the closure addresses that rather than the other two aims. There has, I believe, been a failure of communication, and the trustees and governors running the school have failed to fully explain why it is closing. Profit should be the last thing on the minds of those running any school, much less one with such an honourable mission as that of the Swaminarayan School.
I am pleased that on Monday the school publicly appealed to parents, and demonstrated a commitment to helping the children to complete their education. I am concerned about the details of the offer, and that the commitments being requested are unrealistic for many parents, but it represents a positive step forward. The failure to keep families properly informed of their plans to close the school has left dozens scrambling to find a new place for their Hindu children to receive a faith-based education.
Education is not meant for profit, and any organisation that fails to share that sentiment is not fit to run an educational institution. I sincerely hope that after this event, organisations such as the Akshar Educational Trust will prioritise the impact of its decisions on families over monetary considerations. The Akshar Educational Trust has stated that the reason for closing the school relates to regulations introduced by the Government, though I must express my disappointment in the revelation that money may have been a driving factor in the decision.
Closure has left many families and pupils disappointed and feeling left behind by those who should be fighting for them. My colleague, Councillor Ketan Sheth, and my constituent, school parent Parag Bhargava, have been vocal about their disappointment in the handling of Swaminarayan School’s closure. Parag rightly states that the school can and should remain open. Knowing that the future of one’s child’s education is unclear creates great stress for parents and families. Regardless of the dissatisfaction that those connected to Swaminarayan School have been feeling lately, they continue to fight for their children’s education.
I applaud the parents of students and all others who are campaigning to keep the school alive. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) has for many years been a fervent supporter of the school. She has taken great effort to work with the community—first, to oppose the closure and now to mitigate the worst effects. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) has also gone to great pains to work with parents and the community to seek a resolution.
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) has long been a firm supporter of the Swaminarayan School, and I thank him for his interest in the debate. As leader of the council, he was instrumental in securing the site on which the school sits today. Without him we would not have the Swaminarayan School that we do today. Other councillors in Brent and from across west London have contributed time and effort to the cause of the school and trying to secure its future. I cannot name them all, but I would like to thank them all. I also thank the trustee Dr Mayank Shah, who kindly gave a briefing to me lately.
Parents have taken a stand too, and many have bravely agreed to take on the responsibility of running the school and finding a solution to keep it from closing. That spirit of dedication and community reflects the great respect that people in the local area have for the school. Parents from my seat of Ealing, Southall and as far as Hounslow want to keep the school open. It is worth fighting to keep its doors open. Even though the future seems unsteady for the institution, those who care about the cause press forward.
Whatever happens, we will not forget the achievements of the Swaminarayan School. Its legacy will have a lasting impact on the Hindu community in Europe. As a Hindu school, it was the first and only one of its kind in Europe for many years. Although we welcome the success of other Hindu schools, the Swaminarayan School has offered a unique learning environment apart from the mainstream.
I am sorry that I missed the beginning of my hon. Friend’s well-informed and interesting peroration. He talked about other parts of west London supporting the Swaminarayan School. Certainly in my constituency of Ealing North there are many supporters. The Swaminarayan School was the first school that I am aware of to incorporate yoga as part of its teaching curriculum, and also to be a completely vegetarian school. Does he agree that we can learn much from the Swaminarayan School?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, which speaks for itself. I fully agree with him that the contribution that the school has made to society in general is great.
I will fight to ensure that the Hindu community of west London continues to have its needs met, despite the closure of an essential part of that community. The end of the Swaminarayan School is a great loss, but we are not lost. The community will continue to call for what it needs, and the Hindu community in west London is stronger than ever.
I congratulate my honourable friend, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), on securing this important debate. I, too, made a request to the Deputy Speaker to have a debate on the subject. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I was leader of the council when the Swaminarayan School was created, and a large number of my constituents have children educated in the school, so there is a twin aspect to my interest.
We also need to remember the history of the site. Before the school became the Swaminarayan School, it was Sladebrook High School—a notorious school, which was state run. By the time it closed, there were more teachers in the school than children. It had failed dismally as a state school and had to be closed by Brent Council. It was then sold to the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission as a means to provide what was required at the time—as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall mentioned, the first Hindu secondary school in the area and, I believe, in the country. Unfortunately, successive Governments failed to make the school state-aided, and it has been a fee-paying school ever since.
Parents demanded a Hindu ethos to their children’s education—and quite rightly, too. Other Hindu schools have been set up in north-west London, and I am delighted that we will very shortly be celebrating the opening of the first state-funded Hindu secondary school in my constituency, in September, when that site formally opens. Parents now face a choice: they can send their children to state-run schools with no fees at all or send their children to a fee-paying school.
Swaminarayan School has been an outstanding school and has had the best results at public examinations of any school in Brent. It has been an outstanding success. However, in these times, parents find it very difficult to afford the fees and that has led to the need to make decisions. The school buildings are in a relatively poor state of repair and need substantial moneys to bring them up to modern standards.
I have a number of questions for the Minister that I hope he will deal with in his reply. The Swaminarayan School has made a decision to close. It could have closed this month, which would have been a disaster: more than 377 children would have no place in education and their education would be completely disrupted. The governors have made a decision to close the school over a period of time; they are not allowing new admissions and are running the school down.
What help can the Minister offer the parents of those children who want a school place elsewhere—not necessarily in Brent, but in the wider area—in a school that will have a Hindu ethos? How can the Minister work with the Avanti Schools Trust, the trust that runs the state-funded Hindu schools? What can the Minister offer to enable those parents and children to get places in schools?
The site has been a school site forever. I mentioned Sladebrook, which was set up a very long time ago when the Stonebridge estate was built, and it has been a school site ever since. What protection can my hon. Friend the Minister offer to ensure that the site is preserved for educational use? There have been all sorts of rumours about the intentions. My understanding from the trustees is that they wish to retain the site for general use related to the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission and they are not in the position of wanting to profit or make money from the site, but I would ask nevertheless what protections we can ensure are offered. What advice might the Minister be able to give to the local authority in that respect?
Thirdly, various rumours have reached me about the Avanti Schools Trust wanting to set up a Hindu school in Brent. That has been welcomed by parents in Brent who want a Hindu ethos for their children’s education and it would give more parental choice across north-west London. However, it is suggested that there is a surplus of places in Brent schools at the moment and therefore setting up such a school would be resisted. I understand that there is a potential proposal for a school to be set up on what is loosely called the Northwick Park site. That is an opportunity for the matter to be advanced, which would help residents of Ealing, Harrow and Brent to get a Hindu-ethos education, if they so wish.
The governors have made the decision. I ask the Minister what comfort can be given to the parents of children in the school who are asking whether they could advance the idea of a free school run by parents. What would the process be for that?
With that, I will sit down. I hope the Minister will kindly answer those points, which the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall has also raised, so we can give parents some answers at a crucial time for their children’s education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this important debate and on his opening comments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is, of course, right that the Government’s academies and free schools programme has enabled a number of Hindu faith schools to be established in the state sector for the first time, as free schools set up by organisations such as the Avanti Schools Trust. He pointed to a new school opening this September under the free schools programme. There is also the Avanti House Primary School in Harrow and the Avanti House Secondary School, which were opened under the free school programme—the secondary was rated good by Ofsted in May 2018. There is the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Croydon and the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Leicester, again set up under the free school programme.
There are more than 2,300 independent schools in England, and between them they provide an enormous variety of educational experiences for our young people. Around 7% of children are educated in the independent sector, which is a significant contribution to our education system. Some schools in the independent sector will close and some will open. The independent sector also has a number of faith schools, which bring their own distinctive flavour. Schools with a religious character also play a strong and positive role in the state-funded sector, making up a third of all schools. They are some of our highest performing schools and are often popular with parents, giving them greater choice and the opportunity to pass on their ethos to their children.
Although the independent school sector as a whole is flourishing, with broadly constant numbers of schools and pupils over the past few years, it is inevitable that there will be changes. Every year, a number of independent schools close—usually about 70 or 80. Other schools open their doors in broadly the same numbers, but the profile of the sector tends to change over time in response to a number of factors, including market pressures. We should not forget that independent schools, whether run by charities or as businesses, operate in the marketplace. The decision to close an independent school is a matter for the owner or proprietor alone, except for the small number of cases when the Government seek to close a school because of a serious and extended failure to meet the independent school standards; that has not been the case for the Swaminarayan School.
Unlike state-funded schools, independent schools do not have to go through an approval process before they close. Although the owner or proprietor is asked as a matter of courtesy to inform the Department for Education that the school can be removed from the register of independent schools, there is no obligation to give the Department any details of the reason for closure. The Department passes what it knows to the relevant local authority, in case the closure results in demand for state-funded school places.
It is, of course, always a priority, whenever an independent or state school closes, to ensure that alternative schools are found for the pupils. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East is absolutely right to raise that important issue. It can be a very difficult time for families, and sometimes there are added time pressures. Families were told about the closure of the Swaminarayan School well in advance. That is not often the case, and it will assist parents who are currently sending their children to the school.
I turn to the closure. Although the school is not in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, it is likely that many children from families in his constituency attend it. Naturally, those families will have found the announcement of the closure disappointing. It is a reasonably sized school: in January 2018, it had 420 pupils, although only 377 are expected to be there this September, and it caters for an age range of between two and 18 years. When it was inspected in 2014, the Independent Schools Inspectorate found that the provision was excellent. The October 2014 report says the school
“enables pupils to obtain excellent standards in their work and to develop outstanding qualities as young people”.
It also says:
“Both at GCSE and in the sixth form, pupils benefit from first class curricular arrangements, and from a wide-ranging programme of activities”.
That reflects what the hon. Gentleman said. As I said, there is no requirement to give the Department specific reasons for closure, but our understanding from statements supplied by the trustees is that the reasons are primarily financial, and that falling pupil numbers are the driver. The closure of all parts of the school is now planned to take place in 2020, to give parents the maximum amount of time to find alternative schools.
The school has a designation as a school of religious character and a declared religious ethos of Hinduism, although not all the pupils who attend are of that religion. It is right to acknowledge that the closure of a school with a specifically Hindu ethos is a matter of regret, simply because at present there are relatively few other schools of that nature in England. There are two primary academies, four free schools and an independent school. Most Hindu children attend schools in the state or independent sectors.
As I have suggested, there is nothing the Government can do to stop the closure now that the trustees have taken the decision. We do not fund independent schools, and nor do we come to arrangements that are designed to help them overcome financial difficulties. That is what being independent is about; it is not just about giving schools greater freedom to operate in the way they want.
I am sure the school will work closely with the local authority and parents to ensure that alternative schools can be found for the children who are still at the school in 2020. I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East about the site. If it had been a state school, there are particular provisions to ensure that the first option is for it to open as a free school. As it is an independent school, I will write to my hon. Friend in technical terms about whether there are provisions in statute that can enable the site to continue to be used for educational purposes, or whether it is free for the owners to dispose of as they wish. I will write to him to confirm that position.
I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said. The priority over the next two years must be to ensure that the pupils who would have been at the school in 2020, had it remained open, are found alternative places.
One of the questions I asked—I apologise to the Minister, because they were not necessarily expected—was: what assistance can the Department give to parents who wish to set up a free school, if they wish to pursue that route? There are 377 pupils in the school at the moment.
We give a lot of help to groups that wish to set up free schools. The New Schools Network is the starting point of that help; once a proposal is in play, we will allocate an official in the Department to help it come forth. A number of Hindu free schools have already been established through that process, and I am happy to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), if they want to meet to discuss particular proposals for a Hindu free school to replace the Swaminarayan School.
Question put and agreed to.
Domestic Abuse Victims and Family Courts
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered progress on protecting victims of domestic abuse in the family courts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan. We are here, for what seems like the millionth time, to talk about any progress on and the still numerous problems in the family court. We have been here before. We sought approval from the Government, and made gains with them, on issues presented by the all-party group parliamentary group on domestic violence. Unfortunately, a general election then got in the way, so all the progress that could have been made was lost. It is important to mention that, because that lost progress is not just one of those things; it means that, during this intervening period, hundreds and hundreds more women are being treated poorly while we do not get our act together.
I must say a massive thank you to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friends the Members for Hove (Peter Kyle), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and, especially, for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). Together, as a cross-party collective, we have been fighting for an improved family court system for victims of domestic abuse for a very long time. It is a pleasure to fight alongside them.
I must also thank the previous Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who took a huge amount of flak from some quarters, some of which I think was because she was a woman. She was the only person in a ministerial post who ever really listened to us about this subject. She broke the deadlock and got the Government to agree with us, and I cannot but think that having a woman in such a position was the reason that that happened.
I thank Women’s Aid, which has done so much campaigning in the area, and many others: this week I have received briefings from all over the place, including the Law Society, the Magistrates Association, Barnardo’s and SafeLives. There is often friction among specialist women’s organisations, the judiciary and lawyers with regard to issues to do with violence against women and girls, and the court system. Often the problem is that we do not all sing from the same hymn sheet. Every single one of the briefings, however, whether from the Magistrates Association, the Law Society or one of the specialist organisations, makes at least one of three recommendations to Government. I will therefore focus on those specific recommendations and ask the Government to do something about them.
The first relates to perpetrators being able to cross-examine victims in the family court. If the general public had any real sense that that was happening, they would be absolutely horrified. Members of Parliament have come up to me in this place to say, “You’ll never guess what about this case in my constituency, Jess—her perpetrator was allowed to cross-examine her in court.” They are stunned to find that that is allowed to happen.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. Does she agree that that loophole in the system makes those—usually women—who have been victims of domestic violence victims twice over, not only in the attacks that they have sustained but in a court setting?
Absolutely. It is, fundamentally, revictimisation and—if the Minister cares to browse the Equality Act 2010—illegal. There is a very real case for a public sector equality duty on the basis of gender to be made against existing practice in the family court. If such practice does not change soon, that is absolutely the route that people such as me will take, because our public sector is not meeting that duty.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this incredibly important debate. Does she also agree that one problem in this country is that, still, only about 30% of judges are female? In other European countries the average is much more likely to be about 50%. In this country women often feel that their voices are not heard in that environment, thereby adding insult to injury. Terrible stories are being judged in court, but sometimes the women feel that they are not getting justice, simply because people often do not understand as no one else is female.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. We have to change the nature of our justice system from one that is fundamentally old fashioned and, at its very core, fundamentally male.
Every single one of the organisations that has been in touch with me has suggested specialist domestic abuse and sexual violence training for those involved in making judgments. Later, when I read out some of the victim testimonials, we will hear about the things that victims have put up with in court. It is as if some of those judges have never met another person, let alone know anything about domestic abuse.
The idea that in this country—still, today, right now, in the courts—a perpetrator is cross-examining a victim of domestic abuse, perhaps in order to gain access to their children, is absolutely harrowing. James Munby, the outgoing head of the family division of the High Court, made it very clear that he wished the practice to end. It is, of course, not something that happened by accident or that we ever saw when I was working in domestic abuse services; the practice is a direct consequence of the changes to the legal aid regime made by the coalition Government and this Conservative Government. As a result, it is now the case that not only perpetrators but—we must not forget this—victims must act as litigants in person. That practice would never be allowed in the criminal courts in our land. The Ministry of Justice, whose Ministers sit across from me today, rules out the use of that practice in a criminal setting on human rights grounds, but the very same Department allows it to happen in our family and civil courts every single day.
The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful case. Does she agree that it is absolutely obscene that people who need help the most, at a time of such vulnerability, are denied even the most basic support via legal aid to make their case? As others have said, that is revictimisation a hundred times over and it has to stop.
Absolutely. The Minister will no doubt respond by saying that the Government have made changes to legal aid in civil and family court cases involving domestic abuse, but every single day I am notified of at least one case of domestic abuse victims not being able to access legal aid in the family court. I am writing lots and lots of letters to the Legal Aid Agency to remind it of its duty to victims of domestic abuse and of the ruling on how long someone has to be free from violence or abuse. That limit was changed from two years to five years by the Government, but that was thanks once again to campaigners taking them to court—the Government did not make that change out of the kindness of their heart.
I certainly do not know of any. I will mention the recent study by Queen Mary University of London, in partnership with Women’s Aid, of how people are treated in the family courts. I am not aware of any Government reviews of the effect of litigants in person and, more broadly, of people being cross-examined by people who abused them, but I would certainly like to see one. If our courts and the Department are happy for that to go on, it is only right that they review whether it should continue.
Queen Mary University of London found that 24% of domestic violence victims who had gone through the family court system had been cross-examined by their perpetrator—someone who may have raped them, kept them prisoner or made them look on while they abused their children. We have the “achieving best evidence” standards in this country. I am not sure I can remember the bit in those standards that says the best way to get evidence in a justice environment is to allow someone who is utterly terrifying and has abused the victim to question them. I am not sure that we currently meet any sort of standard for achieving best evidence.
James Munby made it clear that the hands of family courts are tied—they simply cannot stop that cross-examination. Legislation is not in place to allow them to stop it. I know the Government want to stop it, too, and I am glad they heard our calls about that. I suggest that they do it. When the right honourable—I am not sure whether he is right honourable, and I am certainly not sure whether he is right or honourable—Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) embarrassed them on upskirting, a Government Bill was suddenly introduced to address that. It has been widely publicised that the House will sit for two days next week. I would gladly come back then to see through a piece of legislation that has been passed once already—it has already gone through rigorous scrutiny by the Clerks and the House. I would gladly pop down on a train from Birmingham to stop the cross-examination of victims of domestic abuse by their abusers.
The second area that everyone who has been in touch with me has given a lot of attention is practice direction 12J and new practice direction 3AA. I believe practice direction 12J was reaffirmed for magistrates courts and our family court system because, frankly, it was not being followed. For those who are not as geeky as I am about the old practice directions in the family court system, practice direction 12J basically undoes the idea that someone who has been abusive has a right to see their children. That is not an automatic right, especially in cases where there is domestic abuse. Practice direction 12J gives that steer to people making such judgments. I handled hundreds of cases involving domestic abuse, and I cannot say I ever noticed that practice direction being used. I have great faith in the Magistrates Association, and I believe from what it wrote to me this week that that direction has been affirmed.
I wonder whether the Minister will join me in stressing the importance of this very simple message: “If you beat, coerce, humiliate and abuse your children’s mother, you waive your right to be their father until the moment the non-abusive parent decides otherwise.” I am not saying for one second that no one who commits domestic abuse should be able to see their children, but they should not have a right to demand to see them where the non-abusive parent does not wish those children—and the children do not wish—to be put in that situation.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for the speech she is giving, and I send solidarity from all the women’s aid organisations in Scotland, which want this change to be made, too. I understand that in England there is a presumption that the welfare of the child is best served by the involvement of both parents. That is not the case in Scotland, where decisions are taken on the facts of the case. Does she agree that looking at each case individually—looking at the facts of the case, the situation and the risk—is a much better approach than an automatic presumption?
I totally agree. I can only praise Scotland for the progress it has made in this area. I very much would like the Minister to look at what happens there. I am sure it is by no means perfect, but it is a lot better than what we have here.
New practice direction 3AA requires courts to consider whether those involved in family proceedings are vulnerable and, if so, whether that is likely to diminish their participation in proceedings or—as I said—the quality of their evidence. What are the Minister and the Department doing to review the use of practice direction 12J following its reaffirmation? It has been around a long time. Can we conduct some sort of review of whether it is working or whether it needs updating, and of new practice direction 3AA? Both are key to ensuring that we can rebuild trust among victims of domestic abuse.
The third thing that every single person who has been in touch with me has raised is the issue of special measures in the family courts, which are woefully behind those in criminal justice proceedings. In some cases, the same woman may present at the same courthouse—literally the same building—and be offered different things. She would most likely be greeted at the door of the criminal court by an independent domestic violence adviser co-located in that courthouse, who would have arranged different times for her and would explain the system and help her find the special area for her in the court. She may then walk around the back of the building and go through a different door into the family court, where someone may say, “Oh, there’s Larry—you can just sit next to him, regardless of the years of abuse you have suffered.”
There is absolutely no excuse for the tardiness with which we have reacted to something we have known about for a long time. At least since I came to this place, we have been raising the need for separate rooms, separate arrival times and better evidence-giving opportunities, so that people do not just have a curtain around them but can give evidence from elsewhere via video link. Those are well-trodden practices in our criminal court system, but for some reason in the family court we seem unable to recognise that there is a victim. The fact that family court proceedings are civil proceedings in which both parties are considered equal does not mean that both parties are equal.
The hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. A number of my constituents who have gone through traumatic and abusive divorces have raised concerns with me about the family court. Is it not terrible that women do not feel our legal system protects them at the time they are most vulnerable?
What does my hon. Friend consider the ramifications of that failure to be for those victims? Does she think a lack of confidence in the judicial system, and particularly in the family courts system, could give rise to people staying in a domestic violence situation, thereby prolonging their situation and perhaps causing greater damage to their health?
There are lots of case studies in the papers in front of me where the consequence of a lack of trust or of a lack of safe and free access to our justice system is that women return. Women are now convinced that they will not win in a family courts setting. I would stay with somebody who beat me black and blue every day if it meant that I got to watch over my children and did not have to leave them alone with him. If someone has a violent partner and the choice is, “Leave them with this man, who you know is violent, or take the beating on behalf of your children,” we would struggle to find a single parent in the land who would do anything other than return.
The worst ramifications are, of course, that we are leaving people in violent homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge has handled one of the worst cases of failings in the family courts—the case of her constituent Claire Throssell, who is a personal hero to many of us in this House, and my hon. Friend will talk about that later. The ramifications are the deaths of women and the deaths of children. That can no longer go on.
I cannot understand why the special measures issue has not been sorted yet. It is not that hard to sort out. Every single court in the land has a robing room for the judges. How about putting the victims in there? I think the judges could put their robes on in the corridor. We manage it—I put my coat on just earlier. I have a fancy job, but I do not need a special room.
On the issue of special measures in courts, James Munby has said:
“In too many courts the only available special measure is a screen or curtains round the witness box. What, for example, about the safe waiting rooms for which the APPG has…called?”
I feel that he is personally talking to me in this quote. He goes on to say:
“The video links in too many family courts are a disgrace—prone to the link failing and with desperately poor sound and picture quality… The problem, of course, is one of resources, and responsibility lies, as I have said, with HMCTS and, ultimately with ministers.”
Those are the words of the outgoing president of the family division. Special measures are something we should invest in, and we should do so immediately. I welcome whatever the Minister can say today about any schemes currently in place to improve the situation, because 61% of the women surveyed by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London were offered no special measures at all in the family courts.
Another issue that was raised was specialist support and advocacy for women going through the family justice system. I believe schemes are under way to pilot that issue up in the Northumberland area, where the brilliant Dame Vera Baird is the police and crime commissioner. There will be lots and lots of evidence of the value of the independent domestic violence adviser role in the criminal court and in community-based domestic violence services. With independent sexual violence advisers, the arguments are long ago won: having these advisers maintains victims within the process and means that they understand the process and can continue to try to get their rapists convicted.
There is no Government scheme or nationally recognised network for women facing civil issues through the civil courts, and I might argue that there is a far greater need there, not only because of the issue of litigants in person, but because—in an era when we have no representation for a lot of these women and many do not have any legal aid—having a system of advocacy in our family courts so that victims can understand exactly where they are meant to sit and what they are meant to present is something the Government should look at funding. Independent domestic violence advisers were launched under the last Labour Government, with match funding from local authorities and the Home Office, and I recommend that the Ministry of Justice creates a similar scheme, in partnership with the Home Office, for the family courts system. Certainly, every single one of the organisations that wrote to me called for that.
The next issue that everybody raised, which we have already touched on, is legal aid. Legal aid is currently available to victims of domestic abuse going through the family courts system, but that is still on a means-tested basis. There are all sorts of reasons why that system continues to fail victims of domestic abuse, meaning that they cannot access legal aid. The Law Society, which has written jointly with Women’s Aid to the Secretary of State for Justice, has called for a review into all the things I am talking about, but it and the Magistrates Association wanted me to stress today that the capital element of means-testing for legal aid is massively disadvantaging women.
Yes, a woman may well have been left after her ex-partner has put her through the wringer and no doubt left his name on her property, and it has probably taken her two or three years to get it off. She has already been through all that process, and she has managed to maintain a home where she and her children live, and that home now means she cannot access legal aid. I am not talking about the people who buy houses around Westminster; these are people living in my constituency, where it is about £120,000 for a three-bed semi, with one car on the drive. They are not rich people, and their capital means nothing in terms of their ability to pay. We cannot for a second suggest that they should be selling their house to protect their children from a violent perpetrator, yet, seemingly, we do suggest that.
Everybody has called for an end to the capital means test, which in many circumstances means that the equity in someone’s home should be used to fund legal costs. Of course, that is a double-edged sword, because if I were to use the equity in my home, I would then lose my home and would be much less financially secure—and when a woman is not so financially secure and has a precarious housing situation, it will be about 15 minutes before a social worker is saying to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service that she should not be looking after her children, and we will end up in exactly the same situation we were in at the beginning. We are exacerbating things.
I am here to tell hon. Members from personal experience that, currently, victims of domestic abuse in the family courts system are, more often than not, unable to access legal aid. That has to change. The problem in the family courts with perpetrators, which I highlighted at the beginning, has been caused by this Government’s policy on legal aid—let us not use these things to twist the knife.
May I also add the support of Welsh Women’s Aid and campaigners such as Rachel Williams from Newport, whom my hon. Friend knows, for the debate? Is it not the case that such situations become more difficult because victims can be forced to return to family and civil courts time and again?
Absolutely. I will mention Rachel in closing. It gets lost that coercive control does not stop when a woman leaves her partner. Women’s risks massively increase once they leave, and they are more likely to be murdered. In Rachel’s case, this was when the most harrowing consequences played out for her and her children. Coercion does not all of a sudden go away, and we—the state—allow perpetrators to re-victimise women again and again by hearing the same case over and over.
There are judges who try to stop that pattern of abuse in courts, but they are not the norm. There are hundreds of cases in which the same woman will be taken through the wringer again and again. She will be told that she is mad, and things will be given to the court to show that she is mad. And, yes, she is mad: she has been driven mad by having to fight the same battle again and again. There has to be some limitation. A line has to be drawn in cases where domestic abuse is evidenced. That is incredibly important.
Let me move on to CAFCASS. I may start forwarding all the complaints I receive about CAFCASS to the Minister. I have an entire folder in my email inbox called “Complaints about CAFCASS”, which has around 800 emails in it. I get them from people from all over the country, and because I am standing up and saying this, I will get hundreds more. I create a file of all the problems that people have with CAFCASS.
There is a constant feeling that the children and the women are not listened to, that their experiences of domestic abuse are diminished, that they are considered to be in the wrong and that they have to constantly prove that they are telling the truth and have understood their own experiences. The main complaint I receive is that CAFCASS does not pay nearly enough attention to listening to children, which is a grave error. Barnardo’s said exactly the same in a submission to me—that there is a barren wasteland in all of this when it comes to listening to the voice of the child. We must work much more closely with them.
SafeLives sent me a series of briefings on its concerns about CAFCASS’s parental alienation models. We will all have heard about parental alienation from some idiot dressed as Spider-Man crawling up the side of a building—the idea that women purposefully alienate children from their fathers is well known.
Those people have won the war of rhetoric. If we ask anyone in the street whether they think family court proceedings are more likely to fall in favour of a man or a woman, every single one would say it was more likely to fall in favour of a woman. The reality is entirely different. In cases of the most severe domestic abuse, 38% of violent perpetrators—people who have been criminalised for abuse—are granted unsupervised access to their children. It is absolutely not the case that family courts are favourable to women. CAFCASS plays a severe role in marginalising women in that process.
Rachel, who has already been mentioned, sent me 199 pages of testimonials this morning, with about 10 to 13 testimonials on each page. That is thousands of testimonials about the situations that women face in the family courts. I will read a couple out:
“CAFCASS is not working in the best interests of the children, who are victims of domestic abuse themselves”;
“CAFCASS is enabling the perpetrators of abuse to gain more control”;
“CAFCASS did not talk to my children, who, too, are victims. Their voices were nowhere on the accounts”;
“They think that abusive partners are good dads”;
“They were incompetent, stupid, easily taken in by a manipulative perpetrator and aggressive towards me. One woman couldn’t even be bothered to know my name. They called my 999 call a ‘minor disagreement’ in their official records. They are a complete disgrace”;
“I, too, have had a terrible time with CAFCASS and the family courts. They were more supportive of my abusive ex than actually listening to my kids. Also, when my son made a statement and showed signs of abusive behaviour, they continued to put him through the court and pooh-poohed and belittled everything that we had to say.”
Those are just a few. Accounts were sent to me over the weekend from women who said that their perpetrators, some of whom had to be handcuffed, and who even kicked off during the family court proceedings, were congratulated by judges for remaining calm.
There is testimonial after testimonial from women who have been stared down by their partner and have capitulated in front of judges, just to make it stop. It is our responsibility to make it stop, so will the Minister commit to a timetable for when it will? I know that the Government want to stop this, but when will we actually do it? If I were to review the Government’s current policy, or this era in politics, I would write, “We did a review.” I ask the Minister to actually do something.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this important debate. I also pay my respects to organisations such as Women’s Aid, which have raised many of the issues that have been discussed—specifically, judicial attitudes.
I know some of the difficulties with judicial attitudes because I did an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship in the law courts, during which I spent almost three weeks sitting with judges. If she has the time, I urge the hon. Lady to undertake such a fellowship in the specific courts of interest to her, so that she can participate in how they work and see how they could change to achieve some of the aims that she holds so dear.
The one aspect of this issue that I raise above all others comes from my membership of the Council of Europe: the Istanbul convention. It is very important to the debate. [Interruption.] I see the hon. Lady nodding, so she knows of it. I mention it because it sets minimum standards for how domestic abuse and violence towards women and girls are treated in the member countries. Its primary aim is to protect victims. That is a very important point to bear in mind.
The convention ensures that domestic violence and rape crisis shelters are set up and that helplines and counselling are available for victims. Although the UK has signed the Istanbul convention, it has not yet fully ratified it because we still need a legal means of bringing elements of it into our legislation. Given that we are one of the countries that helped to produce the Istanbul convention, I hope that we move quickly to ratify it. If I may, I will read a brief quote from it:
“there can be no real equality between women and men if women experience gender-based violence on a large-scale and state agencies and institutions turn a blind eye.”
That is an important point to bear in mind. I hope the Minister will take the Istanbul convention into account in her response, because it provides the necessary framework for people to be able to tackle the issue.
My second approach relates to my role as a member of the Justice Committee. That may not seem immediately relevant, but the Justice Committee is a statutory consultee of the Sentencing Council. We recently looked at draft sentencing guidelines on domestic abuse. The previous guidelines were, I am afraid, last produced in 2006 and are completely out of date, particularly with society’s attitudes to domestic abuse and the standards that we want to see. The starting point is the definition of domestic abuse. If I may quote again, the guidelines state that it is:
“any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass”—
this is the important point—
“but is not limited to: psychological...physical...sexual...financial ...emotional”
issues. That range of different abuses shows that there is a great attitude among the judiciary: to change and try to incorporate a much broader spectrum of activities.
In our response to the Sentencing Council, we said that such offences need to be seen as particularly serious and not ranked on a par with other offences; they need to be sorted out as really important offences. Overall, we said that they needed to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. One of the paragraphs in the report stated:
“We recognise that recorded offences related to domestic abuse are largely, but not exclusively, perpetrated by men and boys against women and girls.”
“the various contexts in which domestic abuse may occur and the forms that it may take...Accordingly, we recommend that comprehensive training on domestic abuse and intimidatory offences should be provided to magistrates and the judiciary to coincide with the launch of the guideline.”
I was pleased to see that the judiciary has moved some way towards doing that and has begun the training required. The need for training has been recognised.
I heard the most heart-breaking story a year ago from a Bath constituent about a CAFCASS worker. She felt that the social worker allocated to help her through the process was absolutely not sympathetic and seemed not to have had any of that training. Should the training not also include the social workers allocated to help women through the process? Should not women have the right to pick the social worker to work with them?
I agree with the hon. Lady that the training can incorporate a large number of people, but we are dealing here with the courts and what we want to happen there. I am simply saying that the need for training has been recognised in the courts. It is also important to ensure that domestic abuse cases are flagged up properly as they pass through the court system so that everyone knows what is a domestic abuse case and can help to smooth it along the way.
To go back to the guidelines, they are overarching and recognise that a defining characteristic of domestic abuse is the harm caused. That harm goes to a violation of trust, which is a crucial element. Trust is a very important thing that we hold dear, and we should take that into account.
The third element that I want to touch on is the Government’s domestic violence consultation, which came out recently. I hope the Minister will provide information about how the process is going and the sorts of questions that will tackle the important issues we have raised today. I do not have a vast array of case studies of my own to share, but I have my experience of dealing with the courts; I also have experience, as has the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), of the Council of Europe and the Istanbul convention. I urge the Government to try to ratify the Istanbul convention as quickly as possible.
Order. I am sure everybody is aware of the time. I intend to start calling the Front Benchers at 3.40. If the three remaining speakers limit their remarks to about seven or eight minutes, everybody should be able to speak for a decent amount of time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. At one point it looked as if I would have to step into her shoes, but I am really glad that she was able to lead the debate because under no circumstances could I have done the same job so well. She is a superb and brilliant advocate for women’s rights on this particular issue. Where would we be without her?
I welcome the new Minister to her position. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who has responsibility for this area of policy, would very much like to have attended the debate, but cannot because she is in a Bill Committee. I also want to put on the record my thanks to her for meeting my constituent, Claire Throssell, last Thursday morning. She was deeply touched and, indeed, disturbed by what she heard—not least the catalogue of errors and the dreadful handling of Claire’s case by CAFCASS. The Minister is committed to tackling the issues. It is a difficult brief to hold because of the sensitive and emotionally stressful nature of the subject. Although I do not doubt the Government’s integrity on this matter, or their commitment, I hope that the new Minister will pick up the reins and pursue the matter with diligence and speed.
In September 2016, I led a debate in the Chamber on domestic abuse victims in family law courts. I felt compelled to do so after Claire came to me for support.
“It took just 15 minutes for my life to end and my existence to begin,”
she said about the events that unfolded on 22 October 2014. On that day, her abusive ex-partner coaxed her two boys into the loft of the marital home, saying he had a new model railway for them to play with; but there was no railway. Instead, once the children were in, he locked the door, barricaded it and lit 16 separate fires around the home. On that day, Claire lost absolutely everything. Jack and Paul, her two beautiful boys, were brutally taken from her. Her “life and heart”, in her words, were “broken completely beyond repair”. The pain caused to Claire is unimaginable, but her strength and resilience is hugely impressive:
“If I can prevent one other mum going through the pain I’ve suffered, stop them having to question whether they could have prevented their child’s death, hopefully my sons didn’t die in vain.”
Those are Claire’s words and she has continued valiantly to confront her heartbreak every day and campaign to ensure that no one else ever feels her pain.
Claire is my constituent, but all parliamentarians have a collective responsibility to prevent such a tragedy ever happening again. The terrible thing is that what happened was totally avoidable. Claire warned the courts that Darren Sykes was a threat to her children. Social services, the family courts and CAFCASS failed Claire. It is two years since her story went into the parliamentary record, and what has changed? Practice direction 12J has been revised and a new practice direction 3AA has been introduced, which will help to protect vulnerable families in family courts. The Government have committed to banning the cross-examination of survivors by their perpetrators, but so far that has is yet to be enacted, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley pointed out. We need the special measures that she talked about to be introduced. Finally, a domestic abuse Bill is on the horizon; the consultation on the White Paper is complete.
The Bill will need to be substantial, thorough and comprehensive, but it will have to show breadth in the scope of its provisions. Women’s Aid’s most recent report “What about my right not be abused?” gives a damning verdict on the treatment of domestic abuse survivors in the family courts. I encourage all Members to read it and I encourage the Minister, in particular, to meet with Women’s Aid to discuss the recommendations in the report. It covers various aspects of the family courts, but I want to focus in particular on child contact, as it was the child contact policy that took Claire’s boys from her.
The report makes it clear that the
“culture of contact at any cost”
persists—something that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley pointed out earlier. There are several accounts of contact centre workers persuading terrified children to go and meet their fathers. One woman talks of a centre considering putting her daughter in a room and allowing her father to “ambush” her unexpectedly; those were their words, not mine. One woman said:
“They’ve taken away safety from my child and I pray nothing will ever happen. If it does I will always feel guilty but in the end there is nothing else I can do”.
That is exactly what Claire has set out to change. She wants our family courts to put children first, and to recognise that a man who abuses a wife or partner is more likely than other men to abuse his children. Those accounts and many others paint a picture of a court system that does not protect women and children, but rather perpetuates abuse, makes vulnerable people feel intimidated and puts the lives and safety of women and children at risk.
With those considerations in mind, I want to ask the Minister directly to outline the scope of the domestic abuse Bill and the accompanying measures. Those measures will be very important—particularly, I hope, in relation to CAFCASS. Will she confirm that reform of the family courts is on the agenda? The distinction between criminal and family courts in this context seems totally arbitrary; it certainly is for survivors of domestic abuse. Will the Minister outline the timetable for ending cross-examination of domestic abuse survivors by their perpetrators as, again, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has already asked?
So far two legislative opportunities have been missed. We cannot afford to delay any further. Will the Minister ensure that no parent who is awaiting trial, on bail, or facing ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse will receive unsupervised contact with a child? Will she also set up a clear mechanism so that inappropriate referrals to contact centres can be challenged? There are many more questions I would like to ask, but I must begin wrapping up. It is clear from the report that the family court system as a whole is not fit for purpose. Will the Minister consider running an independent inquiry into the handling of domestic abuse by the family courts? It is clear to me that a root-and-branch policy review is needed.
I remind Members again of the 2016 debate. I said then that it showed the House “at its finest”. We agreed on the need to take action and broadly accepted the course that needed to be taken. However, I also said that
“all of this means nothing until we see effective change.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 1119.]
Here we are, two years on, and Claire is still campaigning. Her two boys are yet to see justice. Claire has been a great teacher for me and a true inspiration. She possesses a deep spirituality that has enabled her to refuse the temptation to pursue a path of vengeance and hate. She has chosen instead to believe that love can triumph over hate and that good can triumph over evil. In doing that she has taken with her the whole community where she lives in Penistone, as well as, I believe, the whole parliamentary community. Claire has taken us all by the hand and enabled us to believe that we can be better, that our society can be better, and that her sons’ deaths need not be in vain. We cannot afford to delay longer; to delay is to put lives at risk. With Jack and Paul in mind, I ask the Minister: please act quickly.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing the debate and on her amazing and powerful speech. Hansard does not record blushes, but she has done a fantastic job, as ever, on an important subject.
When we talk about domestic abuse in this place, there is often a lot of commentary along the lines of, “What about the men?” Of course, we know that women are not the only victims of domestic abuse, but it is an unassailable truth that the vast majority are women, so I make no excuse for the fact that we are concentrating on women predominantly, and Women’s Aid has been an invaluable organisation in pushing the campaign on this issue.
I look forward to the introduction of the domestic abuse Bill. We have all been working towards it and pushing for it, and it will be welcome. I understand that one of the main reasons for the delay was that we were trying to get a good, rounded definition of domestic abuse and coercive control so that there can be legislation. In the 2016 debate, I raised a couple of examples of coercive control, one of which involved a family member of mine, to show that it is not something that just happens to other people. It can happen to people of any background, from any geographical area. The woman in question had a tracker put on her car—that was the level of control that the man wanted. That makes me think, “Crikey, what would have happened if she was in court with him?” if she faced that level of coercive control. That level of control, which might start with a tracker, can mean a repeat of abuse in court, bringing up time and again the previous horrific instances.
Before we look at what we are pushing for in campaigning, it is important to acknowledge the good things the Government have done. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley correctly said that, in too many cases, there are still curtains and screens around certain areas. However, family procedure rules part 3A and practice direction 3AA came into effect only in November last year, and they will, unfortunately, take time to get through the court system—indeed, certain areas that require separate waiting rooms might even need new construction.
None the less, more can clearly be done, and I take the hon. Lady’s point about robing rooms—we have one of those here, so perhaps we can think about that as well. We must speed up action to ban perpetrators from cross-examining victims in court, because there cannot be anybody in this place who believes that that is right. Women’s Aid has said that a perpetrator can be seen as a violent criminal in a criminal court but as a good enough parent in a family court, which is patently ridiculous.
The hon. Lady mentioned the need for more female judges. Clearly, the numbers and percentages are too low, but that in itself is not necessarily the origin of bad judgments. Indeed, it was a female judge who sent Ellie Butler back to my constituents in Sutton, which resulted in her death shortly afterwards. We need judges who are not out of touch and who can relate to people—the hon. Lady referred to that. We need a judiciary that can take a rounded position, in the same way that anybody outside a court room might think, “My goodness. This is so obvious. Why are we not doing it?”
In conclusion—I know other Members want to speak—let me say to the Minister that I am looking forward to the domestic abuse Bill. If I can help in any way in formulating it and pushing it through this place, I would be more than happy to do so, because we have been waiting for this Bill for so long.
It is always a pleasure to speak in these debates, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on setting the scene. She is obviously very passionate when it comes to this subject, and she tells her story straight from the heart. She does that well, and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
Statistics for domestic abuse throughout the UK are astounding. The prevalence of such abuse is difficult to measure, but the English, Welsh and Northern Irish police receive calls about domestic abuse-related incidents every 30 seconds, which gives an idea of the magnitude of what is happening across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In 2014, a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, “Everyone’s business: Improving the police response to domestic abuse”, deemed the police response to domestic abuse “not good enough”. As the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have said, if that response is not good enough, what are we doing to improve it? I always look to the Minister for a substantive response, which I know we will get, but I hope she understands that there is a bit of frustration about what has happened so far. A follow-up report by the HMIC was published on 15 December 2015. Entitled “Increasingly everyone’s business: A progress report on the police response to domestic abuse”, it found positive changes, which was good news, but concluded that there is still room for improvement. We must consider what further steps we can take.
Being the victim of, or witnessing, domestic abuse, can have serious long and short-term physical, psychological and social effects. Numerous police interventions that are victim-focused or perpetrator-focused are currently in use or being trialled. According to statistics published on the website of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, around 29,000 domestic abuse incidents were recorded in 2016-17—the most in more than a decade. I know this is a devolved matter, or at least it would be if we had a working Assembly, but at the end of the day we must address it.
The level of recorded domestic abuse crimes dropped for a while, but that was not enough. In 2016-17, 69% of domestic abuse crime victims were female and 31% were male. More than 50% of relationships between domestic abuse victims and offenders were categorised as being between current or ex-spouses or partners.
I have spoken several times on this issue in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber, and I have asked for support for people who are abused. I have also raised the lack of prosecutions, which I believe to be linked to fear of reprisal. We must hope for things to be different. A Women’s Aid worker once told me that these women go back to their abusers because they have no hope, and that is the story I hear as the elected representative for my constituency. When someone is hopeless, they are also helpless, which worries me greatly. We need to provide support that brings hope that things can and will change.
The Crown Prosecution Service’s 10th report on violence against women and girls outlined the huge increase in the number of convictions—48% for rape and 79% for other sexual offences—that we have witnessed since the first report was published in 2007-08. That report also showed large annual increases over the last year in prosecutions and convictions for rape, at 11.8% and 11.2% respectively, and for other sexual offences, at 12.5% and 14.7%. Along with domestic abuse, such offences now count for one fifth—19.3%—of the CPS’s case load, which is up from 7.1% just 10 years ago. That is a massive step. Domestic abuse prosecutions have risen by 47%, and convictions by 61%, over the last 10 years—again, a welcome indication of progress.
However, this year’s report shows a decrease in domestic abuse prosecutions and convictions compared with 2015-16, following a two-year fall in referrals for domestic abuse from the police to the CPS. There is clearly a breakdown that must be addressed if we are to have more successful prosecutions, and, to me, that is all about support. Support must be available when the call to the police is made and when the police leave, and there must be someone available for the victim to talk to so that they feel secure. Someone should be available through the CPS to sit alongside the victim and offer assistance, as well as to be a shoulder to lean on and perhaps sometimes to cry on. Support should be available during the trial and afterwards. Hope for a new future and a new life must be given from that first phone call reporting the abuse until the person is settled in their new life. We must follow a process to ensure that happens. Anything less than that cannot be acceptable, and all Departments must accept their responsibility and duty.
On average, there are two domestic killings of women each week, which accounts for 40% of all female murders. If we are not shocked by that, there is something wrong. Some time ago, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley spoke on this issue in an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber—I was present for that as well—and we must all uphold our duty of seeing the number of these killings reduced to zero. The way to do that is to support the men and women who are abused, so they know there can be a different future—a future with hope and purpose, for which it is worth pushing through the emotional quagmire, and standing up and telling the abuser, “No more.” The police have a role to play in that, as do the courts. We in this House have a role to play, as does the Minister, in securing funding and appropriate legislation. So let us ensure today that we play our part.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this debate. Since entering Parliament, she has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of women in her constituency and across the country, and she has pushed domestic violence up the Government’s agenda. I am in awe of her work.
Even today, domestic violence remains one of the most under-reported crimes, and in Britain one woman is killed every three days by a partner or ex-partner. According to the Office for National Statistics, four in five victims of partner abuse did not report the incident to the police last year. Although some progress has been made in recent years, victims still talk of battling to be believed by a system designed to protect the perpetrator. Even worse, the process of reporting abuse can be re-traumatising in itself. Victims talk of having to re-live the experience over and over again—first with the police and then in court, all the while dealing with the fear of reprisal from the perpetrator.
If we want to eradicate domestic violence from this country and have a truly accessible justice system, we must make that system more open and supportive to survivors of domestic violence. Today, however, we are a long way from that goal. The Government’s removal of legal aid for family law cases in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 had a catastrophic impact on access to justice for victims of domestic violence. Between 2012 and 2017, applications for civil legal aid in cases involving domestic violence fell by 20%. The imposition of a five-year limit on evidence and the restriction of evidence forms meant that 40% of female survivors were unable to meet the new requirements and were left without access to legal aid. According to Women’s Aid, the result was that victims were either prevented from fighting their cases or forced to represent themselves in person and risk being cross-examined by their partners.
In December, I uncovered figures showing that the number of domestic violence victims representing themselves in the family courts had increased by 147% since LASPO’s introduction. Recent figures from the Ministry of Justice show that the number of people without representation in domestic violence proceedings reached record levels in 2017. Imagine facing the decision between representing yourself in court, without legal support, against an abusive partner, and risking their obtaining custody of your children.
I pay tribute to the organisations, such as the charity Rights of Women and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, that ensured that last year the Government finally published reforms to the evidence requirements for accessing the DV gateway for civil legal aid. Those changes were long overdue. However, we have yet to see a significant impact. Just 56 applications for legal aid in other family proceedings such as custody cases were made to the DV gateway in 2017-18; the figure was down from 83 in 2013-14. Can the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that victims of domestic violence are aware of the changes to the evidence requirements for accessing legal aid in the family courts?
Legal aid is available to victims of domestic violence on paper, but in reality the wholesale removal of family law cases from its scope means that people are now hard-pressed to find someone to represent them. Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice show that the number of family law cases started with the assistance of legal aid has fallen by 84% since LASPO’s introduction. The figures also show that the number of legal aid providers giving support in family law cases has dropped by one third, with legal aid deserts opening up in parts of the country. The number of providers has fallen by 22% in London, but by 45% in the east of England and Wales. The devastating truth is that access to justice is simply not available for many victims up and down the country, because of this Government’s changes to legal aid.
For victims who do make it to the family courts, the ordeal does not stop there. Survivors frequently report being re-traumatised in the family court room, with the perpetrator allowed to continue their abuse by manipulating the court process. Women are still routinely cross-examined in front of or even by the perpetrator in what can be a deeply traumatising process; and outside the courtroom, survivors can come face to face with the perpetrator.
Opposition Members welcome the Government’s announcement of a new domestic abuse law, including the introduction of special protection measures for victims of domestic abuse. However, those protections must be available to victims in the family courts and not just the criminal courts.
A survey by Women’s Aid of more than 100 survivors who had been through the family courts showed that more than half had no access to special measures, and more than one third were verbally or physically abused by their former partner, in the family courts. Measures such as video links, screens and separate entrances, and exit times can be life saving; they prevent victims from being followed home by their abuser or confronted outside the courtroom. I understand that the Government have just finished consulting on the domestic abuse Bill. However, they have no reason to leave us in any doubt about where they stand on this issue. Can the Minister confirm today that family courts will be included in proposals to introduce special court measures for victims of domestic abuse, and will the Government set a deadline for when that right will become fully accessible to every victim of domestic abuse?
Of course, to support victims of domestic violence to have real access to justice, we have to do more than ensure that the courts are acting as a safe space. For survivors to come forward and access the justice process, they need security outside the court as well. We are extremely concerned about the proposals to remove refuges from the welfare system. The Government’s plans to remove housing benefit as a means to pay for refuge accommodation would remove half of refuge funding overnight. Currently, more than 10% of these women are forced to sleep rough because a place in a refuge is not available. We are calling on the Government to take those dangerous proposals off the table.
Our justice system is designed to protect the perpetrator, not the victim. Important checks and balances ensure that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but they also routinely leave victims feeling like an afterthought in the process or, worse, like the person on trial. The issues raised today demonstrate the urgent need for reforms. Will the Minister commit to a wholesale review of the culture, practice and outcomes of the family courts in child contact cases where there are allegations of domestic abuse?
More generally, Labour has been pushing since 2015 for a stand-alone victims law that would enshrine the rights of victims in primary legislation. We need a victims law, rather than piecemeal reform, if we are to transform the experience of victims in the criminal justice process. More than three years ago, the Government agreed, and pledged, to introduce a victims law, but victims are still waiting. Now, instead of legislation, Ministers speak of a victims strategy, so can this Minister confirm when the victims strategy will be published? Do the Government still plan to introduce a stand-alone victims law as they promised?
Today, we have heard passionate speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House on the need to ensure that victims of domestic violence receive the protection, support and representation that they need in the family courts. Let me now use my position to pay my respects to Claire, about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) spoke so heartbreakingly and movingly. I hope that the Minister has listened to Claire’s story and the other stories raised today and realises that significant reform is urgently needed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing the debate. Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the huge amount that she has done to protect victims of domestic abuse—not only the work that she has done as an MP, which includes chairing the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence, but what she did before she was elected, in working for a charity supporting victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
We all know, and have heard today, that domestic abuse has devastating effects. I heard about some of those when I attended a meeting of the APPG at which a victim gave evidence anonymously about her experience. Since I have been a Justice Minister, MPs have come to me to share their constituents’ experiences of domestic abuse. I am pleased to have had the opportunity both to discuss those concerns with experts such as Katie Ghose from Women’s Aid and Jo Todd from Respect and to hear about domestic abuse victims’ experiences of court from professionals in the courts, such as Her Honour Judge Rachel Karp, and academics such as Rosemary Hunter.
The Government are committed to tackling domestic abuse—dealing with abusive behaviour and improving support for victims. We want to do more to protect and empower victims, communities and professionals to confront and challenge domestic abuse wherever they encounter it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and other hon. Members mentioned, the Government have launched an extensive public consultation on domestic abuse to inform our approach to future reform. We have received more than 3,000 responses, which we are analysing now, ahead of publishing a Government response in the autumn. That will include a domestic abuse Bill, which we hope will further protect victims of domestic abuse.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, we need to ensure that the court experience supports victims of domestic abuse and is not a forum in which to continue abuse. The Government have already taken a number of measures, to which some hon. Members have referred, to improve the court process. We have made practical changes following work with the senior judiciary. Last November saw the introduction of new rules requiring the court to consider whether those involved in family proceedings are vulnerable and, if so, whether they need assistance, such as a video link or protective screen, to participate or give evidence.
I was disappointed to hear that the experience of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is that those measures are not working well, because I recently met a family barrister who told me that her experience was that they were working. We do need to keep this under review. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is collecting data, so that we can see how it is operating. We will consider whether we can do more, as we examine consultation responses in due course.
We have also introduced fresh training for family court staff on how to support vulnerable court users—by ensuring that separate waiting rooms or secure entry into and exit from the building are available, for example. The training has now been rolled out across England and Wales. Courts are also preparing local protocols on vulnerable court users, in consultation with their designated family judges. The president of the family division and the Judicial College have also taken steps to improve domestic abuse training for family judges. Issues of domestic abuse continue to be addressed on an ongoing basis as part of the college’s regular training for family judges. I recently visited the courts in Liverpool and was interested to hear from a family judge that he had found the training very helpful.
A further positive development came last October, when the president made changes to the guidance for family judges dealing with applications for child arrangements orders where domestic abuse is alleged. As hon. Members have mentioned, that is practice direction 12J. The revisions included a number of important changes, such as making it clear that family courts should have full regard to the harm caused by domestic abuse and the harm that can be caused to children from witnessing such abuse. The revised practice direction also includes an expanded definition of domestic abuse.
These changes are a positive development. At a roundtable on domestic abuse that I held recently, I heard from family judges and practitioners how they were working. I was asked during the course of this debate whether we can review the practice direction. That is primarily a matter for the judiciary, but I am happy to discuss it with the incoming president of the family court, whom I am meeting tomorrow. I should add that the current President, Sir James Munby, will be retiring shortly. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned, he has been a strong advocate for improving support and protections for the vulnerable. I pay tribute to the significant action he has taken in this area.
Many hon. Members mentioned the provision of legal aid. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned, we have changed the law to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to access legal aid and support by reforming the evidence requirements for legal aid in private family cases. The changes included introducing new forms of evidence and removing the time limit previously placed on evidence. We are already seeing a positive effect on the number of victims accessing legal aid. The latest statistics for January to March show that 21% more victims applied for legal aid than in the same quarter last year and there was a record high number of grants. We will continue to monitor those figures.
We have made changes to support victims of domestic abuse, but we need to do more. The hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley and for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) were right to highlight the importance of bringing forward legislation in relation to the cross-examination of domestic abuse victims by their perpetrators. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has made a powerful case for this for some time and she made it again today. It is right that we get it on the statute book. She has already rightly identified that the Government want to see this legislation on the statute book. The Government remain committed to delivering this as soon as parliamentary time allows.
The hon. Lady knows that it takes some time to go through parliamentary procedure and it is not possible to do that on Monday or Tuesday next week.
I have also heard concerns about the issue of abusers making repeated applications to the family court, as a means of further abusing their former partners. I recently held a roundtable with judges, academics and others from the legal profession, to discuss this. I also met the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) to discuss the private Member’s Bill she proposed on the matter. The family court does have wide powers to manage such situations, but I am looking again at whether there is more we can do across the system to tackle this issue. We will be examining this as part of the next phase of work on the consultation.
Many hon. Members mentioned important points. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley made interesting points about the recognition society and Government have of the nature of abuse, and that it is not just physical abuse and violence that form domestic abuse. He also discussed the need to see how the courts are operating. I have visited a number of courts already and spoken to a number of judges on a variety of issues. He raised the Istanbul convention, which, he rightly said, the Government have signed and remain committed to ratifying. Some of our measures in the UK, however, go further than the convention requires in some areas.
The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) raised the need for CAFCASS workers to be trained. I should point out that CAFCASS workers do receive comprehensive training. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) made a variety of sensible points. He rightly observed that, in a number of areas, the Government have already taken measures, some of which I have referred to. It is important to see how those operate and keep them under review. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the impact of domestic abuse on victims.
I have left to the end the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). She asked a number of questions, one of which was about the scope of the review and whether we will consider options for reform of the family justice system in the consultation that has just closed. I can tell her that that will form part of the consultation exercise. I left her to the end because she mentioned the terrible story of Claire, for whom we all must feel sympathy. I hope that this Government, with the support of hon. Members across the House, continue to bring forward measures to protect women like her, to help support them and ensure that her story is not repeated.
In closing, I hope hon. Members will agree that we have taken positive steps to improve the family justice system and its response to domestic abuse. We need to build on that and deliver further improvements. The domestic abuse consultation and the programme of work that will flow from it provides one way of doing this. I look forward to working collaboratively with hon. Members to take this important work forward.
Like the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson, I thank everybody who has spoken. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) never fails to move me when she talks about Claire. I have known Claire for two years now and have heard her story a million times. It still moves me to tears every single time I hear it, because it could have been avoided.
I thank the Minister for her comments. At the latest, the timetable for changing these things must come in the domestic abuse Bill. If they are not in it, we will ensure that they are put into it. I look forward to working on the domestic abuse Bill. I am sure that we will be able to make some progress.
On the issue of CAFCASS workers receiving appropriate training, I say to the Minister that it is not working. There needs to be a Government review of CAFCASS and the way its workers are interacting with victims, as well as of settings where families go for visits. There needs to be a real look into that. Most importantly, I thank all the women who write to me every day to tell me about how we should make this system better. We should hear their voices.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered progress on protecting victims of domestic abuse in the family courts.
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s 2017 litter strategy and roadside litter.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who takes litter-related matters very seriously.
In his foreword to the 2017 litter strategy, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) stated that roadside litter
“harms our economic prospects and stifles communal wellbeing.”
As well as damaging our quality of life, roadside litter and debris can put lives at risk if they blow into the road and damage the vision of passing drivers. Page 55 of the 2017 strategy acknowledged:
“The current situation is unacceptable. Our roads and highways are the gateways to our towns and cities, and yet verges, traffic islands, and roadside paths are often marred by unsightly litter. Local authorities will need to improve their own cleaning and work more effectively with neighbouring authorities and Highways England to keep such places consistently clean”.
Discarded litter is a scar on our countryside and more needs to be done to bring home to motorists how unacceptable the practice is. Does my right hon. Friend agree that deterrent sentencing is an answer, and that in the worst cases the court should have the power to endorse the licence of a littering motorist?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. We need to ensure that people know that it is a criminal offence. The courts should be tough in imposing punishments on those who cause that scar on our countryside, as he describes it.
I applied for this debate after a similar conversation with my constituent Mr Nick Spall, who contacted me to complain about litter and debris piling up along the approach roads linking the M25 with the South Mimms turn-off. He had particular concerns about the connection with St Albans Road leading south towards High Barnet, which is just outside my constituency of Chipping Barnet. He pointed out:
“Visitors to the UK will be surprised and disappointed that this cannot be kept under control at such a visible and prominent location.”
I raised that complaint with Highways England, which told me that Hertsmere Borough Council was responsible for litter clearance on the roads concerned. Hertsmere Borough Council informed me that the general area was litter-picked on a weekly basis, but that several sections could not be safely accessed without traffic management measures, and that they could take place only if Hertfordshire County Council had road closures planned.
That illustrates the first key issue I wish to raise with the Minister. If we are to tackle the litter that we can see through our car or bus windows every day, we need to address the problem of divided responsibilities and introduce clearer lines of accountability. That point was made by Peter Silverman of the Clean Highways campaign, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for the briefing he provided for the debate and for his determined work to highlight these important matters.
My right hon. Friend is giving her customarily fantastic evocation of the issue. I congratulate her on securing this hugely important debate. In my constituency, Christine Dunster has set up the Olton library litter pickers and she was recently awarded a British Empire Medal for galvanising the community. As my right hon. Friend has just congratulated the gentleman in the Gallery, will she join me in congratulating other local campaigners on their work to involve the community in this issue?
I will. We should take pride in the fact that so many members of our communities are prepared to put their own time, effort and hard work into tackling litter. In that regard, I highlight the staff at McDonald’s Friern Barnet, who regularly go out to litter pick. Those volunteer efforts are hugely to be welcomed, but we also need to ensure that we have an effective response from the Government and local councils.
Allocation of responsibility for clearing highway litter is governed by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Local councils have that duty in relation to the majority of roads, including trunk roads in the strategic road network. Highways England is charged with maintenance and litter clearance on motorways and a small number of trunk roads. Similarly, Transport for London is responsible for maintenance and litter clearance on several strategic routes in the London region.
That means that there are many cases where the body responsible for maintaining the road and its verges is not responsible for litter clearance on those verges. We also end up in a situation where small district councils are supposed to clear litter from busy major roads but are not geared up for the extensive organisation that comes with health and safety requirements, such as coning off lanes or shutting roads altogether, as in the example near my constituency, which I referred to earlier.
Will the Government consider reforming the law to provide that the body responsible for maintaining a road and the roadside is also the one tasked with clearing litter from that roadside? In particular, that reform would mean that Highways England had an increased duty to clear the litter around all the roads for which it is responsible, and it would make it much easier to combine work such as trimming roadside vegetation with litter picking, so clearance could take place more regularly and efficiently.
If the Government feel that that would be too big a step, can they at least report on progress on improving the partnership working between Highways England and local authorities, as they advocated on page 57 of the 2017 litter strategy? That would be a crucial way to address some of my constituents’ concerns.
My second concern is more general. Section 89 of the 1990 Act imposes a statutory duty on Highways England and local authorities to clear litter and refuse from roads where they are the designated authority. The amount of litter blighting our roads must surely mean that that duty is not being taken seriously enough. That is implicitly acknowledged on page 60 of the strategy, where the Government promise to revise the code of practice that provides guidance on how to comply with the section 89 duty.
We need to strengthen the obligations placed on Highways England in relation to litter clearance. I have a copy of its litter strategy with me and, frankly, it is a bit thin—it runs to four pages plus a list of roads. The Government’s 2017 strategy refers to working with the Office of Road and Rail and to including a tougher litter-cleaning key performance indicator in the performance specification for Highways England. The Government promised to review the mechanism for holding authorities to account in relation to the performance of their obligations under the code of practice. They also undertook to remove responsibilities from local authorities that failed in their duty to keep the road network clear of litter. I appeal to the Minister to press ahead with reform to make Highways England take the issue more seriously, to toughen up the code of practice as it applies to all local authorities, and to ensure that the enforcement of the section 89 duty becomes much more effective.
My third point relates to the procedures required for litter picking on fast, busy roads. Those responsible for clearing litter have a duty to keep their employees safe, and that obligation must always be strictly adhered to. At present, extensive coning off of lanes, or even full road closures, are often deemed necessary for routine roadside litter clearing.
On page 56 of the 2017 strategy, the Government express their determination to tackle the practical barriers preventing clearance of road litter. They refer to a working group that they have established, which is dedicated to looking at these matters. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that the outcome of that work ensures that rules requiring the coning or closing of roads are used in a proportionate way and only when necessary, to ensure the safety of workers. What we do not want to do is place unnecessary constraints on litter clearance. The Government have been looking at the issue as it relates to workers involved in road maintenance and road works. I hope they will also undertake a similar process in relation to workers who are at one remove—in other words, who are on the edge of the road and not on the road itself.
A fourth concern on which I would like the Minister to reflect relates to heavy goods vehicles. Sadly, roadside litter is not just food wrappers and coffee cups thrown by irresponsible and antisocial drivers; a significant proportion of it will have blown off skip vans or lorries with open loads. I urge both the Environment Agency and Highways England to give higher priority to prosecuting that kind of waste crime. I am sure that they have been sent many dashboard camera video clips of such an offence. I have raised this issue with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association. There is also a real concern about some HGV drivers leaving litter after overnight stops, as referred to in the litter strategy. I appreciate that it is very much a minority of HGV drivers who behave in that way, but such littering does happen.
Page 64 of the 2017 strategy refers to the particular challenges in getting an anti-litter message across to drivers from overseas. It would be useful if the Minister could update us on the Government’s progress in communicating that message. Of course, it is also important to note that there is a shortage of overnight provision for HGV drivers, and finding more space for those kinds of facilities—including, of course, litter bins and waste disposal facilities—is an important part of a strategy to tackle roadside litter.
Thankfully, the problems that I have highlighted regarding the national road network occur largely outside my constituency. However, like almost everywhere in the country, we suffer from the blight of fly-tipping, with recent bad examples occurring in Mays Lane in the Underhill area and Regal Drive in South Friern. Fly-tipping is a serious crime that enrages those constituents affected by it. I believe that the police and prosecution authorities, including the Environment Agency, should pursue offenders more vigorously and seek the maximum penalties available for that crime.
I welcome the work done locally in my area by Barnet Council to combat fly-tipping. Many neighbouring boroughs have introduced fortnightly bin collections, which inevitably worsens problems with fly-tipping. That is one of the reasons why Barnet Council has kept weekly bin collections for general waste and general recycling. I also commend its #KeepBarnetClean campaign, which started in 2016 and has involved an extensive campaign of public engagement, including highlighting the £80 fine for littering and the £400 fine for fly-tipping.
In conclusion, not too long ago the Government published a 25-year plan for the environment. A plastic bag charging scheme is already in place, a bottle return scheme is out for consultation, and there is a long list of other ideas under discussion on reducing the need for avoidable single-use plastics. There is now greater public concern about plastic waste than I can ever remember in my lifetime. I urge the Government to harness that momentum in support of long-standing efforts to prevent litter from disfiguring our roads, countryside and public spaces.
At this time of year, students throughout the country are embarking on their National Citizen Service programmes. I hope that one of the issues they are asked to consider is litter and how to prevent it. However, I am afraid that it is not just young people who drop litter. To illustrate that, I produce this Crunchie wrapper, which I picked up this week after it had been dropped in the back row of the main Chamber of the House of Commons.
It is truly depressing that littering occurs even here, in this mother of Parliaments. All ages and all types of people can be guilty of this kind of antisocial activity. We all have a part to play in addressing it, and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the matters I have raised.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this debate on a subject that, as she rightly points out, matters to so many people.
Litter is unpleasant and absolutely unnecessary. Litter louts exhibit behaviour that is selfish, lazy and downright irresponsible. Our litter strategy detailed how we will achieve a cleaner country, with a substantial reduction in litter. We intend to do that by applying best practice in education and enforcement, and by supporting local authorities with better “binfrastructure”, in order to change people’s behaviour and make littering entirely socially unacceptable.
Dealing with litter is costly. In 2016-17, local authorities spent £682 million, or £29 per household, to keep our streets clean. In addition, Highways England spends at least £6 million a year on collecting litter from the strategic road network. Those funds could be better used to deliver the range of important services provided by our councils.
Our litter strategy, which was published last year, was the first ever for England, and it was produced in partnership with the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We have delivered on a number of key commitments that we detailed, as set out in the annual report, which I assure the House will be published shortly.
Councils now have new enforcement powers they can use, making it easier for action to be taken against people who litter, principally through the use of fixed penalty notices. The big change has been to make the owner, or more precisely the keeper, of a vehicle liable for littering offences committed from it, although I recognise that this power has already been in place in London councils for some time. However, I understand that only one London council uses it, and that is Wandsworth and not, sadly, Barnet.
Since April this year, the maximum fixed penalty that local authorities can issue for dropping litter has nearly doubled, from £80 to £150. The minimum fixed penalty will also increase from £50 to £65 next year. The same changes also apply to penalties for graffiti, fly-posting and the unlicensed distribution of free printed material in a designated area, although I am assured that that does not apply to election leaflets.
I am conscious that people are concerned that councils may just use these penalties as a money-grabbing initiative. That is why we have consulted on improved guidance for the use of these powers. Responses are being carefully considered, and the guidance will be published later this year. However, I should emphasise that penalties collected are to be used to improve tackling litter, including cleaning up litter and educating people.
I stress that it really is now up to councils to take advantage of the powers that they asked for. I think this initiative can become self-financing, and there have been some great examples of how a crackdown has really had benefits. For example, in Southend-on-Sea—a lovely place to visit, where the local people are very proud of their sea front—council officers have been proactive in issuing penalties, and that has had a positive impact on cleaning up the sea front.
The second part of our approach is education and changing behaviour. I am pleased to announce today that we will work in partnership with Keep Britain Tidy to further develop and launch our new national anti-littering campaign. This ambitious campaign will seek funding from private sector companies, particularly those whose brands’ packaging is often littered. However, I recognise what my right hon. Friend said when she commended staff from her local McDonald’s for being the first to get out and clear up.
Keep Britain Tidy already has an army of 350,000 litter heroes—people who have had enough of other people’s litter and who are willing to do something about it—to help us spread the word. I also think of people such as Nadia Sparkes in Norwich, who has embraced the name of “Trash Girl”, which was given to her by bullies. I understand that she is now being turned into a cartoon superheroine for her efforts to clean up the streets of Norwich.
The third element of our strategic approach is to improve cleaning and “binfrastructure”. I recognise the context of ever-increasing pressure on local authority budgets, so it is important that we share best practice and ensure that local authority money is spent in ways that are proven to be effective. To promote innovation and proper testing of new ideas for tackling litter, we have launched a litter innovation fund to pilot and evaluate innovative new approaches that have the potential to be rolled out more widely. This fund, of just under £500,000, is jointly funded by my Department and MHCLG, and 10% of the money has been exclusively allocated to tackling litter in the marine environment.
After more than 200 expressions of interest were received in the first round, grants totalling £125,000 were offered to 14 projects to trial approaches across England. Those projects included reducing litter from riverside pubs along the Thames, work focused on the night-time economy and work using nudge techniques to reduce dog-fouling on playing fields. I must admit we were slightly disappointed with a lot of the initial applications, and we hope that, with some feedback, more will be successful in the second round, which we expect to open next month.
A lot of what my right hon. Friend talked about today was to do with roadside litter, which I recognise is particularly problematic. Our roads and highways are the gateways to our towns and cities, and litter by the roadside gives a bad impression of our country. Furthermore, as she pointed out, clearing that litter from the side of busy roads is a dangerous and expensive job for councils and their employees. This Government are committed to tackling roadside litter, as reflected in our manifesto, and we have taken steps in the last year to do exactly that. I have already mentioned the new powers that we have given to councils to improve enforcement against those who throw litter from their vehicles, but there is a great deal of other activity under way to address that particular problem.
Does the Minister have a strong view as to the division of responsibility between Highways England and local councils? Local councils are ultimately responsible to their electorate. Ideally, I think Highways England should be responsible, but I wonder who is marking the organisations’ homework and what mechanisms we have for checking they are doing their job properly.
My hon. Friend raises a good point. I was going to bring the matter up later, but I will do so now. Highways England is responsible for cleaning alongside motorways and some of our major trunk roads, and it often contracts that to the local authority. However, to respond to one of the questions my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet asked, we are not considering changing the law or the responsibilities at this time.
The Minister for roads—my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman)—and I want to see Highways England being more effective. We commissioned an independent survey of every council in England that has responsibility for cleansing one or more of the roads I mentioned. Unfortunately, that was delayed by poor weather as a result of the “beast from the east”. The data is still being analysed, but it will give us a much more accurate picture of the scale of litter on that part of the strategic road network and enable us to identify good practice and work with those local authorities that appear to be underperforming. Roadside litter is a problem that can be addressed effectively only by working closely with my colleagues across Government. I will bring some of the points that my right hon. Friend has raised to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know off the top of my head how many vehicles have been seized, but I know that the Environment Agency and local authorities have been keen to make use of the power. If he wanted to table a written question, I would be more than happy to get that data to him as quickly as possible.
That is good to know. Officials will be working on that as we speak, as they have heard this debate.
Since publishing the strategy last year, I have worked with the Department for Transport and Highways England to build on the work they already had under way to develop both new methods to reduce the amount of litter on the road network and ways to improve litter removal practices.
Thinking about the particular issues faced by hauliers, who spend many hours living in their cabs, it is important to provide suitable facilities for them to dispose of their litter and other waste. In my constituency I have the port of Felixstowe and the A14, which is one of the busiest transit parts of the strategic road network, so I am very conscious of the things that can often appear.
I raised the issue of litter at a meeting with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association earlier this year, and I stand by the commitment made in the strategy to work with local councils, ports and the haulage industry to improve facilities for hauliers and others to dispose of their litter and waste. However, that does not excuse littering behaviour in the meantime by people who work in that industry.
We wrote to the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association following the introduction of new local authority powers to tackle littering from vehicles in April this year. So far as I am concerned, if litter is thrown out of an HGV, we should pursue those people, but it is for local councils to take that action.
There is obviously still more to do, but I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet that, while she may feel progress is slow, Highways England has removed more than 12,000 bags of litter in the past year from the 25 identified hotspots. It found that, for February to April 2017, customer reports of littering had reduced by 70%, as compared with the same period in 2016.
Highways England has also been working to improve collaboration between its contractors and local authorities, including by enabling local authority litter pickers to access roads for which they are responsible while Highways England has closed them for routine maintenance, which makes it easier to clean high-speed roads. I am sure Members will agree that is a sensible move. Highways England has also introduced a new way of undertaking maintenance on the network, bringing the responsibility for asset and operational decision-making in-house and directly managing assets and network operations. That means Highways England can take a more flexible approach to when litter picking is planned, scheduled and co-ordinated, enabling a faster response to litter problems on the network.
I hear my right hon. Friend’s point about smaller district councils, health and safety requirements and people not necessarily having all the expertise. I also hear her point about the action we will take on those councils that are not performing as well as they can. In the short term, it is fair to say that we need to assess the data, particularly on the strategic road network, to give us a better understanding of what is happening in different councils. I know there has been a change of Minister at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government since the report, and I am conscious that we now need to work together to take forward the action my right hon. Friend suggests.
In conclusion, I want to assure my right hon. Friend and other Members that the Government are absolutely committed to reducing and preventing litter and littering behaviour. The actions I have outlined today are just the first steps in delivering on our commitments in the litter strategy. I know it is something we all want to see succeed as quickly as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NHS whistleblowers and the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Gosport, Morecambe Bay, Mid Staffordshire and Bristol Royal Infirmary are NHS scandals that all have quite a few things in common: they went on for a long time and often whistleblowers who might have brought the issue to an end and saved lives were punished or ignored. They were certainly intimidated. The anaesthetist who raised the issue of baby cardiac surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary ended up in Australia.
The term “whistleblower” suggests a pressure cooker—a build-up of pressure to the point where someone cannot resist it any longer and feels the need to come forward. We are trying to decompress some of that impression by having audit of patient safety through such systems as Datix, where staff get used to reporting every little aspect that does not go smoothly, which therefore creates the habit of coming forward. We still have issues. They often relate to the whole system, the trust or perhaps the behaviour of certain medical or clinical staff. There is no easy way to come forward, and the people seeing that behaviour take a long time to be listened to or to step up.
In the investigation into Mid Staffordshire, which was the worst NHS scandal, Sir Robert Francis’s report spoke about developing a “freedom to speak up” culture, to make doing so normal. Sir Robert suggested only minor changes to the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 but, as I will come on to later, I think it needs major change because it underwrites everything else.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. I had two cases in Coventry, going back 10 or 15 years, in which consultants were suspended for whistleblowing. On the one hand, the Government encourage whistleblowers, but on the other the national health service seems to have a different definition of whistleblowers. One of those cases ended up in court. I do not know the exact figure, but it cost between £3 million and £4 million, and went on for at least 10 years. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the individual was losing their skills. What does she think about that?
Obviously, I am unaware of the individual case and the rights and wrongs of it. However, a review of the cost of whistleblowing as it stands shows that having an effective system and effective law would save us money overall.
Sir Robert Francis envisaged “freedom to speak up” guardians in each trust, to whom whistleblowers could go informally to seek advice and support. Such guardians are in all trusts across England. They include a wide range of people, and the appointment system is not altogether clear or transparent. We will have to look at what kinds of staff work best, whether appointments have been appropriate, and whether whistleblower guardians can recognise, if they are clinicians—which many of them are—that there might be a conflict of interest, because the issue might be in their department. The national guardian has been in place since 2016, but her position is non-statutory and sits inside the Care Quality Commission. Her role is described on the website as “leading cultural change” rather than deciding individual cases.
Through all the publicity, there has been quite a change in atmosphere and tone. The whole issue has had a significant airing. In Scotland, we have an alert and advice line run by Public Concern at Work. It is interesting to see the changes from the second half of 2016 to the first half of 2017. The number of concerns that the hospital, or the health board as it is in Scotland, admitted immediately were valid—instead of their having to be proved, or their being put off—went from 0% to 14%. The number of those that were ignored or denied dropped by 30%, and those reported to a manager or a senior manager went up by 30%. That suggests quite a difference in practice. The numbers are quite small, but they suggest a pattern. The data showed that, naturally, the most common group to report is nurses—they are the biggest employed group within the NHS—and the most common reason was still patient safety.
The problem is that that is all still legally underpinned by the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which was passed in 1998. It was a private Member’s Bill very similar to one that had been introduced a few months before. It therefore did not have a Second Reading, and it had only one day in Committee. At the time, it definitely was ahead of what was going on elsewhere, and was a recognition of the importance of whistleblowers, but that was 20 years ago. It really is time for change.
I utterly agree. It is important to be clear that a disclosure in the NHS, which is what we are focusing on, regarding patient safety as opposed to employment issues, which are quite separate and dealt with differently, is in the public interest. The problem is that in cases where whistleblowers have been punished and have suffered detriment, what starts as reporting becomes a bullying and harassment issue that ends up in a normal employment tribunal setting, and the original concern is not dealt with.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. Some 7,000 staff raised concerns about bullying or patient safety in 2017-18. Over the same period, some 356 whistleblowers said that they had experienced repercussions, ranging from subtle persecution, such as career opportunities being closed off, to being fired unjustly. That is truly shocking. Does she agree that the Minister may have to look at a full investigation into just how far-ranging these matters are?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that this is just the first little step towards putting the matter on the agenda. The tragedies at Gosport brought the whole issue back. A nurse had come forward years and years ago, and could have saved hundreds of lives had she been listened to. Not being listened to is almost the least that can happen to a whistleblower, in that often they suffer detriment or reprisals and even lose their jobs.
The one change that Sir Robert Francis suggested to PIDA that has been made in England and Scotland is redress for discrimination regarding new employment—that is, applying for a new post within the NHS. Work is under way to introduce that in Wales as well. However, the main Act remains as it was. The first key weakness of PIDA is that it does not ensure an investigation of the whistleblower’s concern. Given the risks they take when they come forward, the detriment they may face, and the months or years of tribunals or other stages, it is crucial that the concern that made them step forward is not either overshadowed or completely ignored. I think that is their biggest frustration.
The Act most certainly does not protect whistleblowers. It describes itself as protecting whistleblowers from detriment, intimidation and reprisals, but PIDA can be used only for litigation after the detriment. Once someone has lost their job they can take their employer to an employment tribunal and attempt to have redress. The problem at that point is that the whistleblower has to prove that it was their disclosure—their coming forward and speaking up—that drove the loss of their job. Of course, employers will find all sorts of other excuses, such as, “Oh, they didn’t get on with their colleagues,” or, “They were a trouble maker,” or, “They were late for work.”
The success rate of litigation under PIDA is 3%, which is appalling, and shows how utterly weak the law is. Whistleblowers suffer further detriment while going through litigation. They know that they may face being landed with the costs. They may face bankruptcy, and stress that could go on for extended periods. Furthermore, between 2013 and 2017, people had to pay for employment tribunals. That, of course, closed that avenue off to many whistleblowers.
I make the simple case that we need a new public interest disclosure law. It should not sit inside employment law. It should not be a tweak to what we have now. We should recognise that the Public Interest Disclosure Act covers all sectors. The NHS may be one of the most common sectors to have whistleblowers, but the Act covers finance, research and business. We need a specific law.
It must be utterly clear that such disclosures are in the public interest, and that is where I disagree with the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), who may speak later. I do not agree with paying bounties to those who would disclose. Whether or not it creates a conflict of interest, it certainly gives the impression of doing so. It is utterly important, in the defence and protection of whistleblowers, that they can show that the only reason they have come forward is to protect patients or whoever the consumer is in their service.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has set up an all-party group on whistleblowing and on the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. I welcome that, but one of my concerns is the issue of bounties.
It is important that we have a new PIDA law and an independent, statutory body that is equal to other bodies and can take on the NHS, NHS Improvement and the CQC. It must not be a department in one of those regulators; it must be separate from the NHS to ensure real independence, and it must investigate and act on concerns. If a local investigation has failed or is failing, there should be a mechanism to report that to an independent body. If we get to the point where there is simply a slanging match within a trust, there will never be a satisfactory resolution, so arbitration needs to come in and look at the cold facts and the original facts of the disclosure. Often, what is looked at is the process, but not whether the whistleblower was actually right to raise an issue in the first place.
It is critical that whistleblowers are protected from detriment from the moment of speaking up. They should be protected during the investigation, and they must not be picked on either subtly, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, or blatantly—they must not lose their jobs. It is important that legal penalties for reprisals against whistleblowers can actually be enforced.
There should be a system of redress for whistleblowers that does not involve litigation. Litigation is expensive for the NHS and the whistleblower, and is utterly confrontational. That means that, at the end of the process, even when a whistleblower has been proven to be right and genuine, there has often been such a breakdown in relationships that it is not possible for them to go back to their previous role.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way once again. The case I outlined actually ended up in the courts, and the hospital was told to take the individual back. Well, it never took him back. There was a long, drawn-out process over a number of years, and it was eventually settled through litigation. That individual—Dr Mattu—was a well-known consultant.
Some of the older Members will remember the case, going back 10 or 15 years. We had debates and got the support of Mr Speaker. The hospital tried to use letters I sent to it, in which I raised issues that had been raised with me, in the courts, and the judge ruled it out of order. The hon. Lady is right that we need an independent body, but where it finds that the hospital is guilty, as it were, and that the whistleblower was doing their job, it should have the power to order reinstatement—that is the nub of the matter—to ensure they are not victimised.
I agree that there should be protection to ensure that whistleblowers are not victimised, but the problem is that if the relationships have been allowed to break down because the system is so confrontational, often even the whistleblower does not consider it possible to go back. That is a tragedy, because it often means losing someone talented, particularly at a time when we are so short of staff in all four NHS systems in the UK.
The body obviously needs to be statutory so it has enforcement powers, but it should also be responsible for developing standards and training to show hospital trusts, health boards and hospitals, regardless of the system, what good looks like. Setting up, speaking up for and reporting on a body structure for the NHS will be for all four nations, because health is devolved, but PIDA still sits above that. It needs to be the underpinning statutory law that gives the body force.
In Scotland, we are still working on our system. Obviously, the Francis report looked at the system in England. We have whistleblower champions in our health boards, but we are working on setting up the independent national whistleblowers office. The difference between that and the national guardian in England is that it will be statutory and independent of NHS Scotland. It will sit in the office of the Scottish public services ombudsman, so it is utterly outside the NHS and clearly sends a message of independence. It will be able to adjudicate in individual cases. Normally, that will be when all local processes have been exhausted, but provision is being considered to allow an earlier referral when the local system has simply broken down and the concern about patients has been lost in the conflict-driven system.
Standards are being developed for all health boards so there is a consistent approach. The standards that sit above everything else are that whistleblowers will be listened to, that their concerns will be acted on and that they will be supported. The former Secretary of State, who is now away to sunnier climes or travelling the world, used to keep saying in the Chamber that whistleblowers are central to patient safety. I have to say that I slightly disagree.
When someone is forced to blow the whistle, it is because the patient safety systems have failed. In Scotland, we have a national patient safety programme, which is the first in the world that is right across the system. People cannot pick and choose whether they do the huddle at the start of an operating list or whether they do the World Health Organisation checks before operating on somebody. It looks at the frontline to try to reduce errors, but we know that there will still be situations that are not ideal, so someone will need to come forward. That is the thing: whistleblowers are a backstop. The patient safety system, the Datix system or the auditing may need to be improved, but whistleblowers provide a backstop to prevent us from going over the cliff, to prevent more people from dying and to allow timely action.
The problem is that, although doctors have a duty of candour laid on us by the General Medical Council, we also see the landscape littered with people’s careers and jobs, as the hon. Member for Strangford said earlier. For an individual, that is really difficult. They think, “If I speak up and step forward, it may be the end of my career. I may be out of a job. I may be out of this hospital.” For patients’ sake, we need a change, we need to get it right, and we need a new public interest disclosure law. We should start work on that now.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing this debate and on her compelling and powerful speech. I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with what she had to say. It is a noteworthy event when Scottish Conservatives and Scottish National party Members agree unanimously, but it has happened twice today—it happened in the main Chamber, too.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s description of the work being done in NHS Scotland. She described the patient safety system, which has been in place for some time. Work on it is subject to continuous improvement, which is the correct approach. The different parts of the United Kingdom can share things with and learn from each other, and this is a good case in point.
As the hon. Lady has said, I was recently elected co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on whistleblowing—I declare that up front. Time and again, inquiries into healthcare scandals, such as that at Gosport War Memorial Hospital, expose cases of people who spoke out to warn those who should have taken action but who were suppressed because healthcare leaders know that PIDA has no effective mechanism to address cover-ups and retaliation. The NHS continues to forensically investigate and penalise whistleblowers, while concerns go unheeded. PIDA has not changed that. It leaves patients at risk because it does not require the investigation of the whistleblower’s concerns. It is, in short, no deterrent. More than 19% of calls to Public Concern at Work and 30% to WhistleblowersUK are from the healthcare sector. Very few complaints proceed to an employment tribunal. Only 3% of claimants who make it to an employment tribunal win a PIDA claim, as has been mentioned. That is not good enough, and it is not a fair reflection of reality. Furthermore, the cost to the whistleblower can be far reaching and include complete ruination, while the institution can remain unaccountable—“It’s only taxpayers’ money”—but for a few forgettable headlines.
Inquiries into healthcare scandals such as those mentioned by the hon. Lady show that we are still not there on measures for whistleblowing. People who spoke out to warn those who should take action were suppressed, as I have said, and that happens because of the lack of an effective mechanism under PIDA. Punitive investigations and penalties are still part of the reality of life for a whistleblower. The Act does not go far enough to protect whistleblowers against that.
For whistleblowers, the cost of bringing a PIDA claim often exceeds £100,000 and they often find themselves on trial, as has been said. They suffer from retaliation and financial ruin. In the health service, as in so many sectors, institutions use attrition to wear down whistleblowers and can bring to bear uncapped resources and lawyers who use strategies to exhaust their funds, wearing them down mentally as well as financially and into submission. Whistleblowers are left without any money or resources, with their professional reputation undermined and their health impaired.
When a whistleblower acts, it is from a sense of duty to the public and to their vocation. In the case of health, that is in pursuit of patient wellbeing. When institutions react, it is often with an attitude of legalistic defence rather than in the spirit of embracing the opportunity to improve, or to right a wrong. Take the case of Dr Raj Mattu who exposed the preventable death of patients. After a fight of more than 10 years—this case may have been the one referred to by the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), but I did not catch the name he used—Dr Mattu’s case was upheld by a judge. It had cost taxpayers anywhere between £6 million and £22 million, according to various estimates. Furthermore, Dr Mattu had been a leading cardiologist but now, at the age of 59, he is having to retrain. That is a waste of talent, and he was someone who did the right thing and has been proven to have done the right thing. A vast amount of money was spent to defend a legal position and to fight against a whistleblower, instead of being used to right the wrongs that Dr Mattu identified—all because a route of legal challenge was followed.
The main upshot of such cases is to channel NHS funds to firms of employment lawyers. That cannot be right at any time, because resources are always scarce. The case for legal reform is evident. The APPG will gather evidence to support changes to the law, which is what is required. Our objective is to bring together Members on both sides of the House, including those with different views on the finer details, to continually highlight the issue of whistleblowing and what happens to those who have the integrity and courage to act. The objective is to build consensus on certain issues and, we hope, to draw sufficient attention from Members across the House to achieve that change in the law.
We need to look closely at the idea of an independent investigatory authority, as has been discussed—I completely support what the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said in that regard. We must also look at having independent and transparent investigations, and at the provision of arbitration, which has also been mentioned. We need to keep the law under review and up to date—it is 20 years since this law was looked at in any detail, and that is a long time—because the landscape changes, loopholes become apparent and new legal strategies can be deployed to shut down whistleblowers. Most of all, we need to look at the issue of protection for whistleblowers. Our job in this place is to formulate law, and we should do so to give genuine whistleblowers the protections they need. They may need financial help, and their professional reputations will almost certainly need protection. Most importantly of all, however, they need to know that we as legislators have their back through not only our words but our actions.
I hope that this important and valuable debate will continue. I also hope that the Minister will suggest that the Government have taken heed of the need for improvements to be made to the way in which whistle- blowers are treated, because we still have a long way to go.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for allowing me to speak under your chairmanship.
I absolutely agree with the aspiration of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) to put in place a separate level of protection. My experience of whistleblowing comes from my experience of many years as a full-time trade union official for Unison. I remember the original PIDA being enacted, and that immediately afterwards employers were scurrying about to design internal policies to make it hard for whistleblowers even to come forward, let alone to proceed with a complaint in comfort and with protection. Many of those policies emphasised that, if the complaint were malicious, it could end with disciplinary proceedings. Certainly the policies were not favourable to the spirit of the legislation.
I agree with everything that has been said, but I must underpin my opinion that employment law must sit alongside the matter in question—there must be protections for workers. Yes, we have had the Francis review, but let us not forget the recent Gosport War Memorial Hospital inquiry, which shows that PIDA is clearly not working as a self-policing device within big employers such as the NHS.
I remember the Winterbourne View scandal. The investigation originated with a different kind of whistle- blowing, through “Panorama”, but it came out of staff concerns. The scandal not only affected how mental health patients were treated in their communities from thereon in—it exposed the difficulties of working in such an environment—but had a knock-on effect for NHS employees. From my time with the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys mental health trust in Hartlepool, I remember the movement of workers, with patients, into localities. That was disruptive to their jobs and lives; sometimes it led to job losses, so there are consequences.
There are also difficulties with whistleblowing. Often, whistleblowers will blow the whistle at inappropriate times. For example, they might be subject to internal inquiry or a disciplinary, and if the whistleblowing comes at that point it can be seen as disruptive, even when it is not deliberately so. However, that should not deter any important review of the basis of that whistleblowing.
I agree with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire that local proceedings should be dealt with separately, with whistleblowing dealt with centrally from an independent perspective. We are not just talking about the NHS; there has also been whistleblowing in the civil service, for example.
I hate to see victims. As a trade union activist, I have seen too many victims. Equally, I have seen too many patients let down in mental and core health. Whistleblowers can be young or old. Young people are often concerned about peer pressure. They learn about whistleblowing on the job, and they might see obvious things that more experienced people do not. People at the older end of the shift also whistleblow, for whatever reason, about important issues that are stark-staringly obvious to them. Such things must be taken seriously. We cannot go on and have more and more patient deaths on our hands because we do not have a proper structure.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). I was interested in the APPG, but I was unable to get there. I have always been keen on the issue. We cannot have a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty situation. We have to have protections for workers, whistleblowers and patients. We cannot live our lives through television investigations, or organisations such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council saying they have fit-for-purpose policies to deal internally with such issues. Whistleblowing is a global matter of protection for all. I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this important debate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for bringing forward this important debate. I think we all agree that when malpractice and failure in our NHS threaten the public interest, and when concerned staff do not have the confidence to speak up and share their concerns, our public services are threatened across the board. Of course, that does not apply just to the NHS—we know it has happened in other sectors.
My hon. Friend, who focused on the NHS, pointed to recent examples that underline the need for staff who raise concerns to be protected. Indeed, almost all the official reports and the inquiries that have followed have shown that co-workers had seen the dangers but had been too afraid to raise the alarm, or had raised it with the wrong person or in the wrong way. We need only cast our minds back to the Clapham rail disaster, the Zeebrugge ferry disaster and the empire of Robert Maxwell—in all those cases and others, people already had concerns, but they were either unable or unwilling to come forward, for whatever reason.
Numerous NHS staff have indicated to me their unwillingness to come forward because they believe there is a culture of bullying in the NHS. If they make a complaint, they are targeted. Even though complainants want to remain totally anonymous, that does not seem to happen. I know one doctor, in particular, who raised an issue and who feels he has been sidelined from promotion and everything else because of the stance he took against his peers.
Sadly, we have heard that point several times during the debate. We hear it far too often. The culture must change.
We have focused on the NHS, which we all understand is an important public service. If the public cannot trust and have faith in the NHS, we are in a sorry state indeed. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire would tell us that the reason we need to ensure there are robust mechanisms in place to protect whistleblowers is that, ultimately, whistleblowing is about saving lives.
We will never know whether safer whistleblowing, with protection for those who raised concerns, would have halted the activities of Ian Paterson in the NHS and the private sector, given that concerns about his surgical procedures and his desire to carry out harmful and unnecessary mastectomies had apparently been circulating since 2003. Professor Ian Kennedy, who reviewed Paterson’s practice, put it like this:
“Whistleblowers do not fare well in the NHS. This is one of the major indictments of management in the NHS: that it is inwards-looking, over-defensive, and prone to destroy, by a variety of means, those who suggest that the Emperor has no clothes…It is a blight on the NHS and is one of the principal areas where lessons must be learned.”
As the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) reminded us, where provisions to further protect whistleblowers are required, they should be put in place.
It has been reported that up to 10 doctors who worked with Paterson are under investigation by the GMC, apparently for failing to act on concerns. I make no comment about that, but one has to ask how it is possible that there is a culture in which fellow medics can even be suspected of failing to act on such concerns. How on earth could such an ethos ever develop and, apparently, thrive? That monster has lurked in the NHS, and that culture has to be changed. As the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) said, it is changing, but not as quickly as we would like.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire outlined, the Scottish Government have implemented a number of measures to help protect whistleblowers and ensure they feel confident to speak out. Extra legal protections are now in place for student doctors and other postgraduate trainees who speak up if they are unfairly treated by their training body. However, as she pointed out, those are—and must be—quite separate from standard employment issues.
Importantly, the Scottish Government have committed to the function of the independent national whistleblowing officer for NHS Scotland being held by the Scottish public services ombudsman, creating a mechanism for independent external review where an individual has a concern about the handling of their whistleblowing case. That will be in place by the end of 2018. Importantly, the intention is to ensure that whistleblowing cases are concluded in a reasonable timescale. We heard from the hon. Member for Stirling about a case that dragged on for many years, which is far too long. That is simply not acceptable.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire pointed out, we are building a consistent approach in Scotland. Staff will have access to an independent external body that can review their case and bring it to a clear, final and fair conclusion. I urge the Minister to study the improvements in Scotland carefully to ensure that the system in England is as robust as it can be and as supportive as possible to whistleblowers who raise genuine concerns. Of course, that is not to suggest that Scotland has nothing left to learn. We all must continue to be very vigilant, as the hon. Member for Stirling pointed out.
Gagging clauses have been used to suppress, or potentially suppress, information about patient care, which can lead to failings being repeated. I think we would all agree that that is completely unacceptable. My hon. Friend gave us a timely reminder—if we needed reminding —about the tragedy of Mid Staffordshire, which led to the deaths of as many as 1,200 patients. That must not be allowed to happen again.
Such malpractice and failings can thrive only in a culture where people are afraid to speak out and where fear and secrecy reign, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool reminded us. We have learned from Mid Staffordshire, but we must go on learning from it. I urge the Minister to be ever vigilant and watchful. Of course, genuine concerns have to be raised responsibly, but they must be raised. The NHS as an institution must encourage that, as the hon. Members for Stirling and for Hartlepool set out.
A whistleblower must be seen not as a problem but as someone who genuinely seeks to improve how things are done. Every Member who spoke alluded to that. That requires a culture change in the many corridors and management offices of our health system, which will take time. We are getting there, but we are not there yet. We must never be complacent. Openness and transparency are key to ongoing learning and improvement, and such a culture will give patients the confidence they need. I am keen to hear the Minister’s response to those concerns.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing the debate and on her powerful and knowledgeable contribution. As always, she drew on her many years of experience in the national health service. She listed a series of scandals in the NHS and raised themes common to them all. They lasted too long, and too often those who blew the whistle paid a high personal price for their actions. She raised the real risk of clinicians finding themselves with potential conflicts of interest, which requires further thought, and rightly highlighted the fact that the current legislation does not create an obligation to investigate the original complaint—it is primarily concerned with protection after the event.
In his analysis, the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) suggested that PIDA was intended to be a deterrent but that, given the way it has operated, it is not that at all because whistleblowers are still being punished. Both he and the hon. Lady pointed out the woeful success rates in employment tribunals, which should give us all pause for thought about whether the legislation is fit for purpose. The hon. Member for Stirling talked about how litigation can sometimes be a war of attrition and employers can be very defensive at times, and how at the bottom of all this is an individual—sometimes a highly skilled individual—whose talent has been wasted and lost because they have blown the whistle.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) spoke with great passion and no little knowledge of some of the experiences of those who have blown the whistle. He was right that some employers have not embraced the spirit of the legislation; in fact, they contrive policies to run contrary to what we are trying to achieve here. Having met many of the staff in the NHS, I know they care deeply about the work they do and they want to do the best by their patients. That is why it is so important that we provide an environment where they are able to raise their concerns about things they may be worried are going wrong, without fear of repercussion or unfavourable treatment. They must also be confident, once they have raised those concerns, that action will be taken.
However, despite some notable advances in the protections available in recent years, it remains the case that even the best run organisations, with the most comprehensive policies in place, can still feel very daunting for individuals who want or need to blow the whistle. I know from my many years working as an employment lawyer—although not one who lined his pockets in this particular area—that it is extremely difficult for an employee to raise those issues. As we have heard already, the consequences of doing that can be hugely damaging. They can face anything from being shunned by their colleagues to summary dismissal on spurious charges, and the impacts of the kinds of things they deal with can last much longer than the period of employment to which we are referring.
In that respect, it was deeply concerning to read in the Francis report about staff who were on the brink of suicide because of the treatment they had received after speaking out. One of the few criticisms on the record of the NHS is the fact that many promising careers have lain in tatters as a result of ineffective protections under this legislation, while other people have spent years languishing in the legal system, with the taxpayer racking up tens of thousands in legal fees in the process.
Of course, while protecting whistleblowers is vital across all professions, it should be pointed out that NHS staff also have a professional duty to raise concerns. The NHS England and NHS Improvement policy states:
“If in doubt, please raise it. Don’t wait for proof… It doesn’t matter if you turn out to be mistaken as long as you are genuinely troubled.”
We cannot say that enough; I just wish it was easier to see that delivered in practice.
The Minister recently brought forward regulations to provide some additional protections for the present and future employment prospects of whistleblowers, which we welcomed. I raised a number of concerns during that debate and the Minister was good enough to write to me afterwards setting out some of the responses. However, one issue that I do not think we have got to the bottom of was protections for other workers who support whistleblowers. There is a worrying gap in the existing legislation. It is easy to envisage circumstances, particularly in the health service, where two or more employees might have an issue of concern that they jointly notice, but only one of them, in law, can make that protected disclosure.
When I raised that point to the Minister, her response made clear that the only remedy available to such associated parties would be to register a grievance under their employer’s grievance policy. That is a very worrying omission from existing legislation and I ask the Minister to consider whether she will look at that again, as well as at the many points that have been raised about the deficiencies of the existing legislation.
Another lacuna in the existing law was exposed much more prominently by Dr Chris Day. On 10 January 2014, Dr Day made a protected disclosure about critically low staffing ratios during a night shift on an intensive care unit at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Woolwich. Unfortunately, the trust and Health Education England decided not to act on his concerns and terminated his contract, based on what Dr Day believes were false allegations, thereby stalling his progress to consultant.
Sadly—like many whistleblowers, as we have heard today—rather than having his rights protected by his employer, Dr Day was instead forced to defend them via legal redress at an employment tribunal. This is because Health Education England contended that
“even if the facts alleged by Dr Day were true, HEE could not be liable in law for any acts causing him detriment.”
That was significant because, while not acting directly as the employer, HEE recruits doctors in training, supplies them to various trusts and appraises them. The result was a wholly unnecessary and extremely lengthy legal battle, whereby Health Education England, which is a body of the Minister’s Department, effectively sought to move around 54,000 doctors out of whistleblowing protection. Despite the clear principles at stake, the Government consistently refused to become involved in the case to prevent the costly and embarrassing outcome that we have now arrived at.
In September 2017, in a written parliamentary question, I asked about the cost to the NHS of defending the legal action brought by Dr Day. I was told that the total legal fees incurred by Health Education England stood at over £100,000, while Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust had incurred costs of £30,000. In May this year, Health Education England was ordered to pay Dr Day’s solicitors’ legal costs of £55,000 after it backed down and accepted that it should be considered an employer after all.
After four years and more than £200,000 of taxpayers’ money spent, Health Education England has accepted its responsibility and made a statement that I consider frankly astonishing:
“Having never wished to do anything other than facilitate whistleblowing for doctors in training, HEE is happy to be considered as a second employer for these purposes if it removes a potential barrier for junior doctors raising concerns.”
I ask the Minister to explain why this situation was allowed to go on for so long, when the case was refuted not on the basis of the facts, but on a technicality that flies in the face of everything we have tried to achieve today.
As in the case of Dr Day, the issue of poor staffing levels or rota gaps is a common incidence for people blowing the whistle because they feel it is unsafe. Scotland has just passed a safe staffing law, and I wonder whether, as with Datix and other systems, we need staffing level reporting to be seen not as whistleblowing but as something that should be done routinely. Whistleblowing would then start to become a smaller and smaller part of what staff might feel they had to do.
That is an important point; we should see reporting issues such as staffing levels as something that would not be such a big deal. As is happening in Scotland, the safe levels should be ingrained not only into law, but into the culture of the workplace.
In conclusion, I repeat the same point that I made when the recent statutory instrument was discussed: that we now have a two-tier whistleblowing system, which provides some NHS employees with a greater level of protection than others working in the health and social care sector—social care workers, construction workers or anyone else who does not happen to work within those particular areas. Social care in particular is an issue. Public Concern at Work found that more than half of whistleblowers also reported some kind of victimisation, with 23% saying they had been dismissed after raising concerns. I ask the Minister, who is of course also responsible for social care, whether she considers that a satisfactory state of affairs.
Whistleblowers should be not just protected, but celebrated for the role that they play in defending the safety of others. Nobody making such a disclosure should do so in fear, wherever they work, nor should they face the risk of having their livelihood taken away. We owe it them to ensure that those protections are as effective as they can be.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I start by thanking the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for bringing forward this important debate on a vital issue and for the keen interest she has shown in patient safety across the board. I always listen carefully to what she says, not only because her contributions come from her perspective as a clinician—something that should be incredibly valued—but because, as a Member, I respect the practical, constructive and calm way she presents information to the House. It always makes an enormous difference as a Minister when information is given in that way. I also thank her for the role she has played in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the health service safety investigations Bill—another piece of legislation we are introducing to ensure that our health systems are continually learning and making a difference when things go wrong.
I also put on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for setting up the all-party parliamentary group on whistleblowers. I am delighted he has taken that step. There are all-party parliamentary groups on a range of different issues, and one often wonders where they are coming from. However, I welcome his wholeheartedly, and I am keen to hear its considered recommendations. I am also delighted that the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has already stated his commitment to the health and social care workforce. The work of my hon. Friend’s APPG will go to the heart of that.
The Government are committed to building a culture of openness and transparency in the NHS, which is part of achieving our goal of making it the safest healthcare system in the world. We need to make sure that people who work in the NHS feel safe to speak up. We want that to become routine, and it is a key part of our commitment to ensuring patient safety and improving the quality of services. The NHS should support and welcome all staff—be they permanent employees, agency workers, volunteers or other contracted staff—raising concerns, wherever they have them.
The importance of people in healthcare speaking up has been demonstrated by many brave champions of patient safety, such as Helene Donnelly at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. It is through the bravery of Helene and those like her that we can fully recognise the changes that have to happen in our health and care services. As the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire has said today and in the past, people blowing the whistle is a sign that the system has failed somewhere earlier on—that something has gone wrong and has not been put right. We want a culture in which we do not need whistleblowers like Helene because stronger preventions and better patient safety measures are in place, because people feel confident to admit when something has gone wrong, and because people feel protected and supported and are willing to raise concerns in the workplace as a norm.
Hon. Members will know that I am the Member for Gosport. I have recused myself from speaking as a Minister on the situation there so that I can continue to represent my constituents in that case, which I have been involved in for the last eight years. However, the case amply demonstrated the risks of not listening to those who raise concerns. It is clear that much of the pain and suffering experienced by families could have been avoided had those whistleblowers been listened to earlier.
Speaking up and raising concerns should be routine in the NHS. As the hon. Lady said, whistleblowing legislation has been in place for 20 years, and all hon. Members have been vocal about its limitations. I am not averse to reviewing the legislation, and I am keen to hear any proposals that the new APPG and other Members feel would be appropriate. Evidence on the legislation’s effectiveness—or ineffectiveness—would be helpful. Hon. Members know that reviewing that legislation does not fall within the gift of either myself or the Department; the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy holds the control there. However, I am more than happy to speak to Ministers in that Department about this.
We are aware that improvements to our health and care system are needed to ensure that workers feel safe to speak up about problems. Responses to our call for evidence in 2013 highlighted that whistleblowers did not feel that way, which is why we legislated in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 to require prescribed persons to produce an annual report on whistleblowing disclosures made to them by workers. The regulations to implement that reporting duty are now in place, and the prescribed persons’ first annual reports, covering 2017-18, are due to be published in the next few months. That is aimed at increasing public confidence that prescribed persons take whistleblowing disclosures seriously, through greater transparency about how they handle disclosures, and particularly that they investigate and take action where necessary.
The Minister mentions prescribed persons. The fact that Members are also prescribed persons shows how difficult and confusing it can be for whistleblowers to know where they should go. I suggest it would be difficult and confusing for an MP to know what to do with such information and where to go. I recognise that the NHS, as one of the major generators of these cases, perhaps needs its own structure. However, if we had an independent body that covered all other sectors, everyone who wants to blow the whistle would at least know where to go, because a lot do not at the moment. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, they may blow the whistle in the wrong way and to the wrong person, and they will suddenly not be covered by PIDA at all.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point, which we will take into consideration.
As the hon. Lady knows, the National Guardian’s Office was established in 2016, and the independent national guardian, Dr Henrietta Hughes, was appointed to support NHS whistleblowers and to improve the NHS reporting culture. The National Guardian’s Office also provides leadership, training and advice for a network of more than 750 “freedom to speak up” guardians based in all NHS trusts and foundation trusts. There have been more than 6,700 cases of speaking up in the last financial year. The National Guardian’s Office is looking to extend a network into primary care later this year.
The ability of the National Guardian’s Office to effectively engage the system is already helping it to make recommendations to trusts, arm’s length bodies, the Government and providers of services to the NHS to help drive this cultural change. Its role in the system is as an influencer of change, rather than an imposer of requirements. Organisations should rightly remain responsible for tackling their own cultural issues.
The NHS is one of the largest employers in the world and makes a large investment in its workers. We do not want to lose great people from the NHS because they face discrimination for doing the right thing. That is why we introduced protections from discrimination for people seeking NHS employment who are perceived to have previously blown the whistle. That regulation came into force in May and will support NHS Employers in being an exemplar to others in fostering a culture of openness and a willingness to report problems with care. Separately, we also extended the definition of “worker” within the whistleblowing statutory framework in the Employment Rights Act 1996 to include student nurses and student midwives, meaning that those people are now protected under the Act.
Aside from statutory protections, on 1 April 2016 NHS England and NHS Improvement published a single national integrated “speaking up” policy to provide clarity and consistency across the system. In March 2017, NHS England also launched the whistleblowing support scheme—a nationwide pilot to help workers in primary care who have spoken up. A similar pilot was launched in September 2017 by NHS Improvement for people who have made a disclosure in secondary care. The schemes offer a range of services to support people back into employment. It is too soon to say how the pilots are progressing and how effective they have been. The aim is to ensure that any future scheme is fit for purpose and meets the needs of people who require support after making a disclosure.
We have also made changes at the regulatory level of the health and care system to better protect whistleblowers. The CQC has a legal duty to report on whistleblowing disclosures, and it has revised the “well-led” domain of its inspection assessment framework to include how organisations are progressing with implementing the recommendations from “Freedom to Speak Up”. It is important to mention the link between an organisation’s CQC rating and how seriously it takes speaking up, with 100% of organisations rated as outstanding by the CQC having guardians who reported that speaking up is taken seriously in their organisation, in contrast with only 36% of trusts rated as inadequate.
NHS staff who are prepared to speak up are an important asset. We want NHS staff to feel confident that, when they speak up in the public interest, it will not have a negative impact on their career. Supporting those who speak up in the NHS is utterly crucial to achieving those aims.
I appreciate how consensual the debate has been, and I hope the Minister recognises the points raised. As was mentioned, NHS structures will be different in each of the four nations, but PIDA sits above that. Perhaps, in trying to work together to tackle those differences, we can also share good practice from each country that sits within the NHS. We simply cannot go on as we are, because people die, and then people lose their careers. We are running without looking. I hope that the Minister takes this forward, both with the APPG and other Members.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered NHS whistleblowers and the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.