Tuesday 29 January 2019
[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
Children with Life-limiting Conditions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions and their families.
I am conscious that other people want to speak, so I will limit my time and give them a chance to contribute, Ms Dorries. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place. I spoke to her last week and before today’s debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this important debate and the Minister for her attendance. I also thank everyone who is here to speak on behalf of their constituents. This matter is not for my constituency alone; it needs to be addressed UK-wide in a co-ordinated manner. As for the magnitude of the issue, 49,000 babies, children and young people live in the UK with health conditions that are life-limiting or life-threatening, and the number is rising. There are 40,000 in England alone.
I have three wonderful children and three perfect grandchildren. They are the best in the world, but every grandparent probably thinks that about their grandchildren. Hearing the news that one’s child has a life-limiting condition and is likely to die young is devastating. My heart always goes out to those who hear such dreadful news. The children have complex and unpredictable conditions and often need round-the-clock care seven days a week. Families have to cope with the knowledge that their child will die before them, and daily life for the whole family can become extremely challenging.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this debate. Will he join me in praising the children’s hospice movement, including Tŷ Hafan, which serves my constituency in south Wales, for their excellent work in providing care not only for the children but for the families who need support?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right. By the way, several of today’s speakers applied for this debate along with me and I thank them also. Hospice care is important and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Every one of us knows the role that hospices play in the lives of those who need help at a very difficult time. Although there are many excellent services, many families still have difficulty accessing the care and support that they need, which is why hospices are important.
Children with life-threatening conditions need palliative care from when their condition is diagnosed or recognised until the end of their lives. Families also need care and support throughout the trajectory of their child’s illness, including bereavement care after they have passed away. Palliative care for children includes, but is not limited to end-of-life care, and the two terms should not be used interchangeably.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise, as highlighted by CLIC Sargent, the financial cost? It might be the last thing that people think about when everything else is going on, but there is a huge financial cost. The costs associated with cancer treatment are estimated to be around £600 a month extra, and the travel costs are on average £180 per family. For some people that is a huge amount of money.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and reiterate the point he has made. The financial implications, restrictions and pressures are important. I know CLIC Sargent well. It does massive fundraising in my constituency and elsewhere. I appreciate its work immensely.
Children’s palliative care providers offer a range of services, including supporting families to manage their children’s pain and distressing symptoms; providing children and their families with lifeline short breaks; and offering bereavement support both before and after the child has passed away. Families want to be able to choose where they receive the lifeline children’s palliative care services that they rely on when they need and want them. They also want to choose who cares for their child and which treatments they receive.
Along with others, I am a vice-chair of the all-party group for children who need palliative care. We seek to educate, inform and motivate parliamentarians to take action to help transform the lives of children and young people with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are supported to do so by our secretariat, Together for Short Lives, the UK’s leading charity for the 49,000 children living with life-limiting conditions and their families. In November 2017, the all-party group began a Select Committee-style inquiry into the extent to which the Government are meeting their choice in end-of-life care commitment for babies, children and young people. The Government are clear that that commitment applies to people of all ages who need palliative care. The commitment explicitly states:
“To support high quality personalised care for children and young people, commissioners and providers of services must prioritise children’s palliative care in their strategic planning”.
Prioritising children’s palliative care in strategic planning is so important.
In a report last October, the all-party group published what we found and what action we recommend as a result of our inquiry. Despite the end-of-life care commitment, the APPG has heard evidence from young people, families, services and professionals that the quality of palliative care that children and families can access is patchy—the reason for today’s debate—and depends on what part of England they live in. MPs and peers have stated that that is unfair and represents a wholly unjustified health inequality.
The APPG highlighted five areas of particular concern where many children and their families have limited access. The first is children’s palliative care out of hours and at weekends. They also need short breaks and respite. As MPs we know these things, but the respite that is needed is so important to give parents a break. Age-appropriate palliative care and smooth transitions to adult services must be smoother, simpler and less stressful. Specialist children’s palliative care teams led by level 4 consultants are needed, and we need advance care planning. Those five barriers explain why the Government's choice commitment is at serious risk of not being met, which is why we are having this debate.
I am very pleased to see the Minister and the shadow Minister in their places. I know they both understand the issues. That certainly came out in my discussions with the Minister last week. Today we hope to hear the responses that we need to satisfy our concerns.
The first area of concern is leadership and accountability. Almost half—46%—of clinical commissioning groups are failing to implement the Government’s choice in end-of-life care commitment and have no plans to do so, which is disappointing, but there are reasons for it. Only a third of CCGs responded that they are implementing the guidance, and a further 19% stated that their plans to do so are in development. Consequently, will the Government and NHS England consider appropriate mechanisms to bridge the children’s palliative care accountability gap? Furthermore, will the Government develop a system to monitor how sustainability and transformation partnerships, integrated care systems, CCGs and local authorities are supporting children’s palliative care in accordance with their legal duties? That is very important. Will the Government develop outcome indicators that measure the extent to which children with life-limiting conditions and their families can make choices about the palliative care that they receive? If so, will they reflect the outcomes set out in the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence quality standard for end-of-life care for infants, children and young people?
The second area concerns clarity. Will the Minister work with her colleagues at the Department for Education and NHS England to write to STPs, ICSs, CCGs and local authorities to clarify which parts of the health and care system in England are responsible for commissioning palliative care for children and young people aged 0 to 25? We always go on about data, but data is important to get a strategy that works. It is vital to make it clear who is responsible for commissioning short breaks and specialised children’s palliative care, as described by NHS England.
The third area is funding. Unfortunately, there has been a downward spiral in the trajectory of funding: 22% in 2016-17 and 2015-16 compared with 23% in 2014-15 and 27% in 2013-14. That downward trend worries us greatly. There was a wide range in the state’s contributions to voluntary care sector children’s palliative care providers’ charitable costs in 2015-16. The maximum contribution received by a charity in 2015-16 was more than half and the lowest was 2%. Like other members of the APPG, I was therefore pleased to welcome NHS England’s recent decision to commit to funding children’s palliative care in the long-term plan. However, I want to highlight the mismatch in the two announcements that NHS England made.
On 27 December, NHS England announced that up to £18 million would be available to children’s hospices through the long-term plan, of which £7 million would depend upon CCGs contributing another £7 million through match funding, which is fair enough, taking the total to £25 million. Yet in paragraph 3.41 of the plan, published on 7 January, NHS England said that the £25 million would be for local children’s palliative and end-of-life care services, including children’s hospices. Does the Minister recognise that the two NHS England announcements were confusing, and can she clarify whether the £25 million will be for children’s hospices only, or a wider group of services? We need answers to those points. I gave the Minister advance notice of all my questions. It was almost the highest number of questions I have ever asked a Minister at one time, even though I ask a lot of questions.
Can the Minister guarantee that the £11 million children’s hospice grant will be protected and increased as a result of the long-term plan, to reflect the growing demand and the complexity of care provided by those lifeline services, and will she guarantee that total NHS funding for children’s palliative care will not fall as a result of the long-term plan? Will she also monitor the amount of money that NHS England, clinical commissioning groups and local authorities are contributing to children and adult hospice and palliative care charities? If so, will she ensure that they bring about parity in the state’s percentage contribution to their charitable costs?
I often refer to the Scottish Government—in the best of terms, as well. I note that they have committed to bringing about parity and funding 50% of the agreed charitable costs of children’s hospices across Scotland. They often set the bar, and set an example for the rest of us to try to achieve. I know that my hon. Friends from the Scottish National party will speak to that, and I look forward to their contributions.
The funding challenges are being exacerbated by the Government’s decision not to provide voluntary sector providers that do not apply “Agenda for Change” pay and conditions with financial support in order to mitigate the recent pay rise for non-clinical NHS staff. Will the Minister provide financial support to help voluntary sector children’s palliative care providers, including children’s hospices that do not apply “Agenda for Change” pay and conditions, to mitigate that recent pay rise?
We have to mention the Government’s proposal to increase the proportion that employers need to contribute to the NHS pension scheme from 14.9% to 20.9%. That will also lead to children’s hospices incurring significant costs. I say very gently that there is an imbalance in what is happening. Although the cost of the increases for NHS organisations will be met by the Government through additional funding, the potential additional costs for charitable hospices will not be.
Children’s hospices are faced with the puzzling situation where NHS England is giving them more money with one hand while, through the pension scheme changes, the Government are taking it away with the other. We all have concerns about that. Will the Minister meet the significant costs that children’s hospices will incur as a result of the Government’s proposal to increase the employers’ contribution to the NHS pension scheme?
The APPG believes that the Government and NHS England should go further to ensure that children’s palliative care provided by the statutory sector, in hospitals and in the community, is funded equitably and sustainably in England. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence calculates that by investing £12.7 million in implementing its guideline on children’s palliative care, non-cash savings worth £34.7 million would be released back into the NHS. Mathematics is not one of my stronger points, but it seems logical to do that. Will the Minister undertake a review of the palliative care available to children with life-limiting conditions in England as a matter of urgency, and will she develop a funded, cross-departmental children’s palliative care strategy for achieving better outcomes for children and families across the statutory and voluntary sectors?
There are too few professionals with the skills, knowledge and experience to provide children’s palliative care in hospitals, children’s hospices and the community. Those who are skilled, and have the ability and opportunity, do wonderful work. Will the Minister set out the steps that she is taking to develop and advance care plans with families? Shortages in children’s nurses, and generally in children’s palliative care, are particularly acute.
The final area is integration. Single, joined-up education, health and care assessments, plans and personal budgets for children and young people up to the age of 25 are available only to those who have a special educational need. The APPG is also unclear on how the Government’s approach to personalising palliative care for children and young people, which is underpinned by joint plans and budgets, correlates with the special educational needs and disabilities system. That is tremendously important to us all. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us whether she plans to ensure that all 40,000 babies, children and young people in England with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions have the right to an integrated assessment, plan and personal budget.
Will the Minister commission a review of health and social care law, to strengthen and clarify rights and entitlements for disabled children and their families, including children with life-limiting conditions? That would help to bring about more integrated assessments and plans. Will she invest in supporting work to develop children’s palliative care managed clinical networks across England?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he agree that the Government need to speed up, and that they cannot apply the general criteria that they apply to everyone else? Those parents, those families, and those children need support straightaway, not after waiting for weeks—sometimes months.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and his wise words. I absolutely agree that we need to implement right away the response that families need. He is right: one size does not fit all. Every person’s case and circumstances are unique, so we need to respond with something that fits, quickly.
If not quickly met by the Government, those challenges will threaten Ministers’ ability to meet their end-of-life care choice commitment for children by 2020. We have to work to that timescale. We need that response to do away with the patchiness; there are parts where the Government are doing well and families get help, and other parts where they do not. I know that the Minister is committed to that, and hopefully her response will be helpful to all of us who are asking these questions.
We urge the Government to work with the APPG, and interested bodies and charitable groups, to implement the APPG’s recommendations. There has already been progress in the past few weeks. That is good news, and we are pleased about that. NHS England has decided to recognise children’s palliative care as an important priority in the NHS long-term plan.
I commend the Government, I commend the Minister for her commitment to the strategy, and I commend Health Ministers for the Department’s commitment to addressing health, and spending money on it. That is good news. Nobody in this House would not welcome that. I very much welcome it. Will the Minister assess the extent to which the NHS treats children’s palliative care as a priority, as it commits to in the long-term plan, and if so, how? Will she tell us a wee bit about how that long-term strategy and plan will work?
I think it is the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) who says, “Jim Shannon gets more words into a minute than any other MP.” I am not sure that I have given my four-minute speech in one minute, but I have tried to compress what I wanted to say, and I gave the Minister my questions beforehand. There are hon. Members present who have a real knowledge of the subject matter. It is so important that we hear all their opinions as well.
I ask the Minister to update us on the progress that the Government are making in responding to all the APPG’s recommendations. I very much look forward to hearing her response. These children need help. The report is clear, and now we need to be clear on how the Government can and will make changes to ensure that these short lives, and the lives of loved family members, can be better. Sometimes we see only the child; we also have to see the families. I think the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) referred to that in his intervention. It is so important that we reach out and help. Our job as MPs is to do just that. We look to the Minister for the response that we all want.
I will impose an informal five-minute limit on speeches. Obviously, if Members go over the informal limit, I will have to impose a formal four or three-minute limit, so if everybody would realise that and be courteous, that would be great.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate and for his continuing interest in the matter.
It is exceptionally difficult to care for a child with a life-limiting condition. The Government have made progress on making things slightly easier in areas such as bereavement care, but I recognise that more needs to be done to support families who are going through the process, especially in terms of palliative care. The issue affects not just the 49,000 children in the UK who live with life-limiting or life-threatening health conditions, but their families and those who care for them. Those who are suffering from such conditions need the best medical care possible, but the families require care too, whether that is in the form of respite breaks or financial support for adjusting their homes and lives.
I sympathise somewhat with the Minister: she has to respond on behalf of her Department, but it is not just her Department that acts in this space. Local authorities, the voluntary sector and other Departments all have a role to play, and it will be possible to tackle the challenges faced by families only by taking an integrated approach that encompasses all of those groups.
I will come on to that point, but I know that in my area the situation is certainly not as good as it might be.
I hope that the Minister will commit to ensuring that children have a right to an integrated assessment, a plan and a personal budget to address their individual needs. Likewise, I hope that she will agree to review health and social care law, not only to strengthen the rights and entitlements for disabled children and their families, but to clarify them. That clarification would be hugely welcome, because uncertainty leads to some local authorities failing to meet their obligations. For instance, Together for Short Lives reports that 21% of local authorities are failing to meet their legal duty to commission short breaks for disabled children. That postcode lottery is deeply unsatisfactory and requires the Minister’s attention.
I was concerned to discover from December 2017 data that only one of the four Cheshire clinical commissioning groups was developing a strategy or care pathway for children with life-limiting conditions. The same data shows that although some of my area’s CCGs offer out-of-hours paediatric palliative care consultants, community children’s nurses and psychological support, others do not. Given that families have 24/7 responsibility, should not the NHS? My area is lucky to have specialist paediatric care close at hand, thanks to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, but it is clear that even in Cheshire more must be done, which probably means that more funding must be put in place.
The all-party parliamentary group on baby loss wrote to the Chancellor at the end of last year to ask for a guarantee of the future of the NHS England children’s hospice grant beyond March 2019; for an increase in its value to £25 million per year; for parity of funding between children’s and adult hospice and palliative care charities in England; and for a funded, cross-departmental children’s palliative strategy for England. I was pleased to see that the issue received attention in the NHS long-term plan, but I am concerned by the mismatch between NHS England’s 27 December announcement about children’s hospice funding under the plan, and what was published in the plan itself on 7 January: the announcement said that the money was for hospice funding, but the plan said that it would be for palliative services, including hospices. Will the Minister clarify whether that £25 million will be for children’s hospices only, or for a wider group of children’s palliative care services?
Likewise, will the Minister guarantee that the £11 million children’s hospice grant will be protected and increased as a result of the long-term plan? It is vital that we resolve that, because in 2006-07 the children’s hospice grant contributed 14% towards the cost of providing clinical care in children’s hospices across England, but by 2015-16, when the grant had risen to £11 million, it contributed an average of just 8%.
I hope that the Minister will offer the reassurance that so many families deserve, not just about the finances but about integration and ending the postcode lottery. I am sure all hon. Members agree that these families need support, but now we must build on that agreement and implement a sustainable, compassionate plan to support them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate and on his speech. We have campaigned together on many issues and I am happy to participate in his debate today.
Many hon. Members will be aware of my campaigning work to support families who have lost a child. I am very proud to have brought about the introduction of the children’s funeral fund to support grieving parents with the costs of their child’s funeral. My campaign came after my own experience of losing my son Martin and having to take out a loan to cover his funeral.
I lost Martin very suddenly in a car accident. From the perspective of a parent, I have no idea whether it is worse to lose your child suddenly, like blowing out a candle, or to watch them pass away slowly from a life-threatening or life-limiting condition; all I know is that, whatever happens, it is the end of the world. It feels as if it is a bank holiday and the world is still going on around you—you cannot comprehend why people are still putting the kettle on, taking the milk in and having the post delivered. It is such a painful experience: nothing can prepare you for it, and realistically it is not something that you will ever recover from. Nothing will ever be the same again. You think that you will never worry again about anything like how much the telephone or electricity bill is, because nothing will ever matter again, but in reality it is more painful: you worry more and you keep waiting for that moment when something really bad will happen again. I think that stays with you for the rest of your life.
Tragically, the parents of 5,000 babies, children and young people have to face that dreadful pain every year. It is a pain that nobody can help them with, but one thing that we can do for those families at such a difficult time is try to lessen or ease their financial worries. There are very many additional costs when you lose a child, apart from the funeral. At the time, it seems as if all the other things do not really matter, but they do. Someone whose child has a life-threatening illness has to think about parking at the hospital, childcare for their other children, making sure they have clean pyjamas, pants and vests, and maybe having to give up work to look after them.
When a child passes away as a result of a long-term disability, the family may well have been receiving a benefit because of the child’s health, such as carer’s allowance, disability living allowance or child benefit. As well as the personal loss, they will face a huge and immediate financial loss. I will never, ever forget losing Martin on a Monday—I had cashed his family allowance that morning—and getting a letter the following week asking me to repay it because I had sent in the death certificate to say that Martin was not with me anymore. As a parent, you cannot imagine how painful it is even to get that letter, let alone to try to find the money to pay back. It may be small, but for a parent it is the end of the world.
That is not the only financial hardship that parents face when they lose a child; as I said, there is also the cost of the funeral. Royal London has found that the average cost of a funeral in 2018 was £3,757. For someone who is not anticipating losing a child, or who is on a low income, that is an insurmountable amount. Some people have actually asked me why I did not have insurance. Why would you insure a child? Why would you consider insuring against a child’s passing?
As hon. Members may be aware, health in Wales is a devolved matter. I am very proud that the Welsh Government led by example and introduced a children’s funeral fund in 2017. I will say only that I had a letter from the Prime Minister on Easter Sunday last year, yet we still do not have a children’s fund throughout the United Kingdom. Scotland has introduced it and, in the absence of Stormont, Northern Ireland has done it on a local level, so it is only parents in England who are not getting support with their child’s funeral. The Welsh Government, who were the first to introduce such a fund, have announced an additional £1 million investment to support the work of the end-of-life care implementation board. That funding will go towards a variety of areas, including training for staff on having difficult end-of-life care conversations with parents.
I give personal thanks for the work of the wonderful charities Tŷ Hafan, Hope House and Tŷ Gobaith, which provide care to children and families in my constituency and across Wales. After I lost Martin, I spent a lot of time trying to do what I could to help other families. I provided pastoral care for mentally and physically handicapped children, and I went to work for a children’s cancer charity. I felt like my personal experience would help those parents. Today I still talk to parents who have lost a child and try to reason with them by saying, “The thoughts that you are thinking, the worries that you are having, the fears and the fright that you will experience day in, day out for the rest of your life—they’re real but they’re not abnormal, and you need to share.” As a country, we should support these people financially and give them that little bit of comfort, so that it is only the emotion—something nobody can ever help you with. I urge the Minister to do whatever she can to ensure that families in such a position never have to worry about the incidentals of life and can grieve with dignity and peace of mind.
It is humbling to follow the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I want to put on record my respect for her campaigning on this and other issues, and for my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach).
I commend the work of the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice in Stoke-on-Trent, which provides children’s and young people’s hospice services across Staffordshire and south-east Cheshire. It has written to me this week—given that time is short, I will pass the Minister a copy of the letter after the debate. It talks about the quality of palliative care as patchy:
“The way in which NHS CCGs and local authorities plan, fund and monitor children’s palliative care in hospitals, children’s hospices and the community represents”—
as we have heard—
“a postcode lottery. Staffordshire has no coherent plan and this is reflected in the poor financial support the Hospice receives from local commissioners. Donna Louise receives 8.9% of its income from the NHS”.
The hospice calls on the Government and NHS England
“to consider appropriate mechanisms to bridge the children’s palliative care accountability gap.”
I want to spend most of my speech talking about an issue that I know is uncomfortable for some people to hear about. For that reason, I am delighted that you are in the Chair, Ms Dorries, because you have spoken about this issue on a number of occasions. Many families face a difficult decision when a child in the womb is diagnosed with a life-limiting or life-threatening condition. This is not a small issue: in 2017 there were a total of 3,314 ground E abortions on the grounds that the child was diagnosed with a substantial risk that, if born, they would suffer from physical or mental abnormalities, such as being seriously handicapped. Parents have to make really agonising decisions.
A few years ago, I held an inquiry in this place on the difficult situations that parents face when their child is diagnosed in this way and they have to consider an abortion. We took evidence from dozens of witnesses. Some had come under huge pressure to have an abortion, and the support they were given to consider keeping their baby was very limited. Many told us that they were steered towards an abortion, and they felt like the medical profession was irritated by them. Many felt like they were given no information on the support they might get; often the best information they got was through contacting charities, which could put them in touch with parents who were bringing up children—often very successfully. Those children brought great joy to their families, but the medical professionals did not give the families the information they needed to make a decision that was right for them. Some told us that all they received was a leaflet telling them how to have an abortion. The mothers who had kept their children, even if it was for a very short time, felt like they could grieve and care for their children in a way they had not been able to do otherwise. One mother had to have an abortion with her first baby and then decided she would keep the second, even though she knew the condition was life-limiting. She felt like there was a much better outcome for her and her family’s going through the grieving process.
The inquiry made a series of recommendations—I will pass a copy to the Minister because time is very short. I hope she will consider them and respond to me. Many people generally find this issue a very difficult one to address, as do—I am sorry to say—Ministers. Many of the recommendations in that report, which was published a few years ago, are still valid today. We recommended that guidelines for the medical profession should include training for obstetricians, foetal medicine specialists and midwives on the practical realities of the lives of children who have such conditions, so that they can better advise parents and give them better information when they make this difficult decision. One parent summarised what many others reported:
“Guidelines and standards need to be set in place”
so that all hospitals can meet a certain standard. Can the Minister assure me that she will look at our report and perhaps produce guidance to ensure that all mothers feel like they can make a genuinely informed decision when they are carrying a baby with a life-limiting condition? Does she agree that we ought to provide much better information, so that parents in such circumstances can make an informed choice?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate. Given that we are reduced to four minutes each, I will ensure that I keep to that.
Like other hon. Members, I want to bring attention to two outstanding children’s hospices that serve my constituency: Chestnut Tree House and Demelza. They are not based in Eastbourne, but they do a considerable amount for many of my constituents and their children. Both are hospices and also deliver outreach services to very poorly children at home. I want to put that on record, as they do outstanding work.
I know the Minister is getting a long shopping list, so I will keep my requests fairly simple. I want to focus on two areas, both of which I am confident the Department can respond to fairly swiftly. First, NHS England states that its end-of-life care programme for children and young adults is managed through a cross-system governance board. That makes sense. It includes a lot of the key providers, such as the Department of Health and Social Care, clinical commissioning groups, NHS England and others. However, I discovered that there is no representation on that cross-system governance board of the children’s palliative care sector—the charities and groups that represent families and children and really know their stuff. I urge the Minister to look at that again.
The other serious issue—I am sure the Minister is aware of it, and I would welcome information from her on what is being done to respond—is that, according to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, there are only 14 children’s palliative care consultants across the UK. I am sure the Minister would agree that that is completely inadequate. Perhaps the Minister can let me know—either at the end of this debate or in a letter—what plans NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care have to work with the Royal College to increase that number. Fourteen is clearly inadequate.
Let me end with a constituent’s issue that brings home the issue of long-term conditions and the end of children’s lives. This subject is incredibly important—we are talking about 45,000 youngsters—and I want to bring it down to earth and make it real. I am working with a constituent couple, Mr and Mrs Spence, and their teenage daughter Connie, who I have known for well over 10 years. She is now 16 or 17 and still has—obviously—a progressive, life-threatening condition. She is an amazing girl. Her parents have done fantastic work in looking after Connie and working with Demelza, giving her a good life.
Recently, Mr and Mrs Spence’s CCG told them that they would be allowed only three nappies a day. Without going into too much detail, we all understand that a very disabled 17-year-old girl—or any of us in her situation—would usually use six or seven nappies a day. They have been told that she can have only three. That is completely unacceptable, highly inappropriate and just wrong. The CCG pleads costs, as does the local trust. I will be writing to the Minister with details and hope that she will support me by making representations to the CCG to stop that completely inappropriate cut.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Dorries. I commend my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for securing the debate. As one might expect, I wish to offer a few examples from Scotland, where I believe that we have a good story to tell, although we still have so much more to do. In the context of Scotland, it is important to make the distinction that funding for children’s palliative care is given parity of esteem with adult care. That is a point that I have made before to the Minister down south.
I know from my good relationship with Children’s Hospices Across Scotland, known as CHAS, that it is one of Scotland’s most well-known and best-loved charities. That is why it was right that in 2016, the SNP Scottish Government announced that they were committing £30 million in funding to CHAS, commencing in the financial year of 2017-18. That funding provides half of the agreed funding costs of running CHAS; that is very important. Not long after I was elected, my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and I had the honour of visiting Robin House in Balloch, where I saw at first hand the absolutely amazing work done by CHAS to provide compassionate care for children with a life-shortening condition.
At this juncture, I pay tribute to my good friend and colleague, Alex Neil MSP, a former Health Secretary in the Scottish Government, who drove that vital funding boost for the sector. His backing for research, in particular, was immeasurable. We know from experience that engaging comprehensively with the issue through research is an absolute necessity to determine the needs of those with life-limiting and life-shortening conditions.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate and, in particular, raise issues through the prism of English funding, so I will make a couple of brief points before I conclude. First, it felt as though we were making a lot of progress on the baby benefit bar but I am not sure how far we have got. I would therefore welcome an update on that from the Minister.
Secondly, on the issue of workforce, having spent last night participating in debate on Second Reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, I am concerned that there are far too few professionals with the skills, knowledge and experience required to provide children’s palliative care in hospitals and children’s hospices. Can the Minister outline what strategies the Government are pursuing to meet workforce challenges in future? That is a major issue.
Thirdly, on the difficult issue of when a child finally passes away, I am glad that my own Government, in Scotland, announced last year that they were taking action to ensure that all burial fees for children are abolished. When I was first elected to Parliament, the 32 local authorities in Scotland had different policies and charges for burial fees—it was very much a postcode lottery, so I welcome that change. I am concerned, however, that we need to do more to support families when their child eventually passes away. I absolutely welcome the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, which was piloted through this place by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), but I remain disappointed that the scope of the Bill was so narrowly defined. I hope that we will have the opportunity to go back and widen it in the future.
In summary, there is plenty of work for us to do and get on with to support children with life-limiting conditions, as well as their families. We look to the Minister to take forward the consensual and strong cross-party support we have heard about today and deliver a better standard of research, funding and care for vulnerable children and their families. Again, I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford, for securing this important debate. I hope that we can make progress going forward.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it.
Over 40,000 children and young people in England have a life-limiting or life-threatening condition, so we must not underestimate or undervalue the support that both the NHS and charity care sectors provide to both patients and their families. I am proud to represent the seat where the purpose-built hospice movement has some of its origins, with the foundation of St Christopher’s Hospice by the late Dame Cicely Saunders. South London is also home to the renowned Demelza specialist children’s hospice. Demelza was started more than 20 years ago and, in that time, it has grown to include two hospices and a community scheme in East Sussex, to which the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) referred.
Demelza’s hospice in Eltham, which opened in 2009, serves the boroughs of Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Greenwich, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark. It is a specially designed hospice that provides first-rate care to the children who use it, while also supporting their families. I recently met the chief executive of Demelza children’s hospices, and I appreciate the lengths that he and his colleagues in the voluntary sector go to to make sure that the whole family is cared for. Their service is about a lot more than just the child and the medical and palliative side of care. Not only do charities like Demelza ease pressure on the NHS, but by providing support, advice and respite for the whole family, the assistance that they provide is invaluable. Having a child with a life-limiting condition can cause unimaginable strain on a family, and the smallest gestures have a big impact during those difficult times.
I follow the work of the all-party parliamentary group for children who need palliative care and I pay tribute to it. The APPG, alongside Together for Short Lives, recently published a report into end-of-life care for children. Worryingly, the report concluded that children who need palliative care are often subject to a postcode lottery of patchy service. The recent NHS long-term plan acknowledges that for far too long, funding for children’s palliative and end-of-life care through the children’s hospice grant has not kept pace with growth in clinical care costs or inflation. I welcome the plan’s pledge to boost funding for children’s hospices by up to £25 million a year by 2023-24, but the sector still has many funding requirements that need to be addressed if the hospices are to continue delivering such world-class care.
In October, I spoke in the Westminster Hall debate on hospice funding and the NHS pay award, and I mentioned that without additional Government support, local children’s hospices could face difficult choices about reducing services. The additional estimated cost to staffing budgets of matching the pay award for the NHS, which hospice staff rightly deserve, would be £200,000 every year. I hope that the additional funding will go some way to allay the fears of local hospices, but we cannot assume that the funding pledged will still be adequate in five years’ time.
We have much to be proud of in our care sectors, but there is still a great deal more to do. The funding commitments are welcome but are not a one-fix solution to the many issues faced by children with life-limiting conditions and their families. I hope that the continued hard work of the hospice workers who run Demelza and other hospices across the country can continue to bring care and compassion to families at the most difficult times, and that they will have the funds and resources to do so.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) secured this debate on an issue that is so important for so many children and families across the country. It goes to the very heart of the work done by the APPG for children who need palliative care, of which I am vice-chair, alongside the chair, the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson).
Babies, children and young people with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions rely on a range of social care services provided by a variety of statutory and voluntary organisations such as short breaks, practical assistance at home, home adaptations and support to access travel and leisure activities. A good example of one such provider, which celebrated its 15th birthday this year, is St Oswald’s Hospice in Newcastle. It provides residential short breaks and care to babies, children and young adults. Up to six children and young adults can stay at St Oswald’s at any one time, in a beautiful, relaxed, home-from-home environment. Indeed, one mother said about the hospice:
“Having respite at St Oswald’s for a couple of nights a month helped to give me a break. While I was doing all the medical care for my son, I couldn’t be a mum. Being at St Oswald’s gave me time to step back and just enjoy playing with him and having fun.”
Seriously ill children and their families across the country need short breaks and the respite provided by skilled, highly trusted people who can meet the child’s often complex health needs. It might only be for a few hours, or overnight for a few days at a time, but those short breaks are vital to help parents and siblings manage the immense stress and 24/7 pressure that a child with a life-limiting condition can bring. The evidence suggests that such respite care helps to support children and their family’s physical and mental health, and mitigates the risk of parental relationships breaking down.
Local authorities of course have a legal duty to provide short breaks for disabled children and their families, to be planned and funded jointly by local councils and the NHS. A Government-commissioned review of funding arrangements for palliative care made it clear in 2011 that that duty must include respite care for the carers and families of children requiring palliative care. Despite that, however, the charity Together for Short Lives found that too many CCGs and local authorities in England fail to plan and fund short breaks. More than one in five local authorities do not commission short breaks for children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions, despite having a legal duty to do so, although 84% of CCGs reported that they commission short breaks for children who need palliative care.
Furthermore, the Disabled Children’s Partnership, of which Together for Short Lives is a member, has gathered increasing evidence of cuts to services for disabled children. Is it any wonder that that is taking place? The Local Government Association estimated that children’s services face a £3.1 billion funding gap by 2025, just to maintain existing levels of service. Given such findings, I shall be grateful if the Minister confirms in her response how she holds sustainability and transformation partnerships, integrated care systems, CCGs and local authorities to account for the way in which they plan and fund short breaks.
I am also keen to highlight the importance of the provision of short breaks to all families who receive them, not only those families with children who need palliative care, but those with disabled children whose conditions can be life-limiting as well. I was able to witness that on Friday, when I visited the excellent Alan Shearer Centre in Lemington in my constituency. It provides specialist respite services in a specially adapted environment. One of the key concerns expressed to me at the centre was about how the level of respite care support that disabled children and their families receive can be halved when a person’s condition has not changed at all—the only thing that has changed is their age. Many families described that as feeling as if the rug has been pulled from under their feet.
I also want to highlight the work of the Rainbow Trust, which provides vital support at home for so many families, including in Newcastle. Will it be possible for the recently announced funding of £25 million for palliative and end-of-life care to be used to provide that emotional and life-affirming support for such families? Children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions face enough challenges without the added stress of not having the support they need.
I am grateful to you, Ms Dorries, for calling me to speak, and to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for giving me the opportunity to raise an urgent case.
My constituent, Shakil Malji, has a daughter, Maryam, who is five months old and a beautiful, engaging child. Recently, Maryam was diagnosed with a terrible condition called spinal muscular atrophy, type 1. The effects of SMA1 if left untreated are horrific. The disease causes muscles to waste away even before they can properly develop. It reduces and then takes away the ability to do basic things unassisted, including walking, crawling, sitting, eating, drinking and breathing.
Maryam’s family are devastated—of course they are. However, an effective treatment developed by international drug company Biogen—remember that name—does exist: a new drug called Spinraza. Clinical trials, which ended more than two years ago in 2016, showed that Spinraza is effective and can provide a lifeline—a longer life and less suffering; what else is medicine about? Spinraza is available on the NHS in Scotland and in 23 other European countries. It is licensed for use in the UK, but it is not available to Maryam because Biogen and NICE have not yet reached an agreement, and because last November Biogen’s extended access programme was closed; I have been told repeatedly that it will not reopen. To date, 220,000 people have signed a petition about ensuring that all children with SMA get access to Spinraza through the NHS. I have written to the Secretary of State to encourage him to intervene. The NICE approval process is taking far too long.
I am here to talk about Maryam, however, and to argue that Biogen has a special and moral responsibility to ensure that she receives the care she needs. SMA is genetic and Abdullah, Shakil’s son, was also diagnosed when he was very young. Shakil was offered access to Spinraza for Abdullah as part of the clinical trial. That trial was successful and led to Biogen being able to sell the drug. Abdullah, unfortunately, was still very weak from his condition, and he died in 2015. But Maryam could have that drug now, soon after diagnosis, which would bring the family hope again.
Shakil feels that his family have been used. His son helped to test the drug but it is now being denied to Abdullah’s sister. Biogen offers to work with NICE towards what it calls a “bridging solution”, if and when NICE commits to a permanent agreement to pay for SMA patients to access Spinraza. Shakil and I have been encouraged by Biogen to campaign for that, even as the weeks pass and as Maryam inevitably gets weaker.
I call those tactics heartless. In effect, Biogen’s approach is to hold a baby’s life in its hands and to ask a still grieving family to use their child to get the deal that the company wants with NICE. Shakil and his family have suffered so much, and Maryam needs Spinraza as soon as possible. I will not let the Government or NICE off the hook on this one, and I would like to meet the Department. Biogen, however, needs to step up now to offer a way forward for Maryam—she cannot wait. Biogen, do the decent thing!
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate. He and I are both members of the all-party group for muscular dystrophy, so I know that his commitment to the issues being discussed this morning is genuine.
Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), I will talk about Spinraza, because nothing is more fundamental for anyone with a life-limiting or life-threatening condition, or their families, than to have access to treatment that will give the chance of a better quality of life and, possibly, some chance of longevity.
As my hon. Friend said, one of the rare conditions that until the last few years has had no proven treatment is SMA. There are four types, and the most severe is type 1. Infants diagnosed with that have a life expectancy of no more than two years. The condition affects the lower motor neurones in the spinal cord, leading to loss of mobility and eventually of the ability to breathe and swallow.
The drug Spinraza, which was developed and marketed by the pharmaceutical company Biogen, is the only treatment that has proved successful for children with SMA. Spinraza was granted a marketing authorisation by the European Medicines Agency more than 18 months ago. It is available in 24 European countries including Scotland, as has been said, but not in other parts of the UK.
The APPG, which I chair, has supported the work of our excellent secretariat organisation, Muscular Dystrophy UK, and other groups to press for Spinraza to be approved by NICE. Many MPs across the House with constituents who suffer from SMA feel the frustration of families waiting for Spinraza to be approved. So far, however, progress has been slow. That is largely due to the fact that Spinraza has been assessed by NICE under the single technology appraisal, or STA, route, which is not appropriate for such a rare condition. That route is normally used for more common conditions, and it is now a year since the assessment began. Also, in August, when NICE published its initial decision on access to the drug, it did not recommend Spinraza for use on the NHS. That was a bitter blow for all the families, including the family of young Sam McKie from North Tyneside, who has the condition.
Biogen opened an expanded access programme globally in 2016, as an interim solution for patients with infantile-onset SMA. In the UK, the programme was extended to support continued access for those patients until NICE completed its appraisal. To date, more than 80 eligible children in the UK have received the drug free of charge. Under the timeframes provided by NICE, the final appraisal document was scheduled for last November; therefore, disappointingly, Biogen closed its access to the EAP for new patients.
Since August, the APPG has been active in pressing NICE, NHS England and Ministers to be flexible in finding a way forward, and I raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions in September. There is an impasse, because NICE continues to require that Spinraza should be cost-effective through the STA route, but Biogen has pointed out that, given the smaller patient population in rare diseases, it is inappropriate to expect treatments to achieve the same cost-effectiveness thresholds as medicines in disease areas that have much larger patient populations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank everyone who has taken part in this extremely important debate. It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), who raised the issue of Spinraza, and the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who spoke about her constituent Maryam and about why this issue must be taken forward by the UK Government. I hope the Minister will agree with her.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this important debate and for speaking so passionately. Week in, week out in the House of Commons he champions the most vulnerable in our society. He gave a poignant speech to support children with life-threatening conditions. By securing this debate, he has let us all speak about the important issues raised by those conditions and the charities that do such excellent work, including Together for Short Lives, the Rainbow Trust, the Children’s Hospices Across Scotland at Robin House and CLIC Sargent, to name just a few. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee; I was extremely pleased to be part of the cross-party group that requested the debate. I have chaired the all-party parliamentary group for disability since 2015; we are working extremely hard on these issues, and I thank everyone involved in it.
I should like to mention my constituent Gary Butterworth of Westwood Golf Club, who, as well as playing lots of golf, has taken the time to raise more than £20,000 for Children’s Hospices Across Scotland. Every year I support the efforts of the club and Gary to fundraise; we will visit Robin House together later this year.
I also thank my constituent Lisa Quarrell, who has worked so hard over the past year not only to look after her six-year-old son Cole, who has experienced repeated epileptic seizures and whose health has deteriorated dramatically, but to try to access medicinal cannabis since the Home Secretary took up that issue. I hope the Minister will look at those issues very carefully, because the care pathways for families are not adequate. Lisa has battled day in, day out just to access the Home Secretary’s recommendations. Those families do not have the energy, in addition to caring for their children, to battle the system.
A number of issues have been raised in the debate. I want to stress the care and emotional and practical support that needs to be put in place for siblings. When a young child has a life-threatening or life-limiting condition, siblings often feel, not ignored, but not the focal point of the family’s daily life. There should be support for the whole family unit, and particularly for siblings. We heard about the need for family-friendly working policies and psychological support. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, having worked as a psychologist.
Some remarkable speeches were made; I thank the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), who does such fantastic work in the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, for raising the important issue of personal budget plans. Families should not have to think about finances at such a grave time in their lives. If I was wearing a hat, I would take it off to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for her excellent work in Parliament to strengthen families, provide support and raise issues that many find extremely difficult to broach. I hope the Minister looks very carefully at the hon. Lady’s recommendations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) outlined the Scottish Government’s developments and funding for CHAS; I thank him for his work on those issues. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke so poignantly that I was almost in tears while listening to her talk about the end of the world for individuals and their families. We must take that on board. I am sure the Minister heard those words clearly.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) paid tribute to all his local hospices and spoke about the important issue of the number of consultants available. The Minister should look at that issue closely and meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) spoke about the fantastic work of the specialist hospices in her constituency, and the need for funding to preserve and enhance that work. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for speaking about the importance of respite, which too often is forgotten about. Respite is not a dirty word; it is not about respite from your child but with your child, to enjoy them, to play with them and to do the natural things that families do.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Can she confirm that total NHS funding for children’s palliative care will not fall as a result of the long-term plan, and that children’s hospices will not receive less funding? Will she clarify whether the increase in funding from £11 million to £25 million is intended to be open to providers of emotional and practical support, alongside the hospices? If not, what will be provided to ensure that we have that emotional and practical support? What steps will the Minister take to encourage clinical commissioning groups and local authorities to increase commissioning for the sibling support that I mentioned?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing a debate on this very important subject. I pay tribute to all the dedicated people in hospices, in the community and in hospitals who support families with a seriously ill child. I also thank organisations such as Together for Short Lives, CLIC Sargent and the Rainbow Trust, which do excellent work to provide support.
Hon. Members across the House have made powerful speeches on a very emotional subject. I am grateful to them all. I can think of few things in life worse than for a parent to hear that their child is so seriously ill that they cannot expect to live a full life, or to live with the knowledge that their child will never grow into adulthood, and will die before them. That must be absolutely devastating and is against the natural order of things. The pain is almost unimaginable. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for sharing her moving story and for the work she does to support other parents to get through very difficult times.
In the United Kingdom, 49,000 babies, children and young people, and their families, are coping with life-threatening and life-limiting conditions. In recent years, the Government have made various commitments to deliver support for appropriate end-of-life care that recognises the difference between the end-of-life care needs of children and those of adults. The needs of children and young people in that situation are invariably more complex and can be longer term. The children’s charity CLIC Sargent reports that four out of five children survive cancer for five years or more. In fact, many children with life-limiting conditions live into adulthood. It is clear that although they may not need end of life care, they and their families usually need access to expert support and palliative care in a children’s hospice, at home or in a community setting.
As children with life-threatening and life-limiting conditions increasingly live into adulthood, it is more important than ever that they are able to express their care preferences and that the continuity and co-ordination of their care is assured. In 2016, the Government committed to offering children and their parents the right to be involved in choosing and accessing the most appropriate care. NICE guidelines published in December 2016 stated that local commissioners and providers should prioritise advance care planning and agree in partnership, in a responsive and flexible fashion, the place and delivery of that care.
However, the reality is a postcode lottery. We heard many good examples of that. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) spoke movingly about the plight of Maryam and the fact that children in England still do not have access to what is effectively a life-saving and life-enabling drug. I hope the Minister listened very carefully to that. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) raised similar concerns about what children and their families suffer.
Shockingly, 46% of CCGs are failing to implement the Government’s end of life care commitments. I note that when Ministers are questioned on the provision of health and social care services for disabled children, their answer invariably includes the words, “The commissioning of health and social care services is the responsibility of clinical commissioning groups and local authorities respectively.” That is all very well, but agreed standards are not being implemented.
I know the Minister cares about this issue, but there is a worrying lack of accountability. Will she outline what steps the Government will take to bridge the accountability gap? Will she clarify who is responsible for commissioning palliative care and who is responsible for commissioning respite breaks for families? Respite breaks provide essential relief for the parents and siblings of children with severe life-threatening and life-limiting conditions; they are often the difference between coping and not coping. Does she agree there is a desperate need for a review of all commissioning of palliative care and support services, and that the Government need to develop an overarching strategy to bring an end to the postcode lottery that leaves so many families struggling to access vital services?
An important part of the support available is provided by children’s hospices. We have heard many examples of those; the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and others talked about excellent hospice care. In the main, hospices are charitable organisations that rely for the majority of their funding on donations and fundraising in the local community. The current economic climate makes it more difficult for hospices to raise the requisite funding; at the same time, the proportion of funding provided by the NHS is falling. Again, there is no consistency or strategic oversight of the amounts that CCGs and local authorities contribute.
My hon. Friend mentions the fundraising that is done by some excellent organisations and lots of individuals, some of whom we have heard about. Does she agree that the Government should undertake to fund increased pension contributions for staff working in hospitals, instead of giving with one hand and taking with the other?
I totally agree, and I will come to that point in a moment.
The average NHS contribution to children’s hospices is only 9%. Recent additional costs relating to the implementation of the NHS staff pay award and extra pension costs have pushed many hospices into a dire financial position, with closure a real possibility. Where hospices are forced to close, the NHS is left to fund the entire cost of health and social care for those children and young people.
In that context, the announcement by NHS England in December of £25 million of extra funding for children’s hospices was extremely welcome. However, children’s hospices do not know how to access that extra funding. Derian House Children’s Hospice in Chorley, which currently supports 12 families from my constituency, told me this week that there is no clarity about how that newly committed funding can be accessed. As many Members mentioned, since the publication of the NHS 10-year plan there has been confusion about what exactly has been promised.
The Minister will be aware that the 10-year plan promises that, over the next five years,
“NHS England will increase its contribution by match-funding clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) who commit to increase their investment in local children’s palliative and end of life care services including children’s hospices.”
Does she agree that that is confusing, and will she clarify the following points? Will the £25 million promised in December be only for children’s hospices or for a wider group of children’s palliative care services? Can she guarantee that, as a result of the long-term plan, the £11 million children’s hospice grant will be protected and increased to reflect the growing demand and complexity of care provided by those lifeline services? The total spend on children’s palliative care in hospices, hospitals and the community currently exceeds £25 million, so the promised funding could be viewed—I am sure this is unintentional—as a cap on NHS spending on children’s palliative care. In the light of that, can she reassure me that the NHS will indeed provide additional funding for children’s hospices?
I turn briefly to the financial pressures that parents of children with seriously ill children often experience. The 2018 “Counting the cost” survey of families who provide long-term care for a disabled child found that many experienced huge financial difficulties. A third of all families surveyed said they had additional costs of more than £300 each month. Some 46% of families had been threatened with court action for non-payment of bills. That is hardly surprising given that 87% of the families surveyed were unable to work because of their caring commitments.
CLIC Sargent has highlighted that children suffering with cancer often have to travel longer distances than adult patients for regular treatments, placing a significant additional financial burden on parents already coping with so much. Will the Minister commit to introducing a package of financial support that includes a children and young people’s cancer travel fund for parents who care for children with life-threatening diseases? Will she also spare a thought for bereaved parents and accelerate the introduction of the children’s funeral fund that so many Members have requested?
In conclusion, I ask that the Minister answers the specific points that I and other hon. Members have raised, and commits to implementing a comprehensive strategy that provides a consistent standard of joined-up, adequately funded children’s palliative care that has full parity with adult care.
Of course, Ms Dorries. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate and on his enduring and passionate commitment to this incredibly important cause.
We heard incredibly powerful speeches from both sides of the Chamber, with lots of great examples of amazing practice in different regions. Some worrying issues were mentioned; I thank the hon. Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) for raising the issue of the life-saving drug that they are keen to get hold of for their constituents. I will of course commit to looking at that with the Secretary of State, but I share the concern of the hon. Member for West Ham that children should never be used as pawns in communications between drug companies and Government organisations.
Absolutely. The meeting probably would not be with me, because the issue does not fall under my portfolio, but it is really important that the hon. Lady meets the relevant Minister.
The debate has been very broad, and a lot of questions were asked. I will attempt to answer as many as I can, but I commit to writing to hon. Members with all the answers they asked for if I miss any out. Whenever we discuss this issue, we must keep at the back of our minds the powerful point made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), despite her throat issues, that at a time of their lives when they are dealing with unimaginable stress and grief, parents should not have to fight for what they need to best care for their children.
The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) painted a picture of how the world ends when you lose a child. I cannot even begin to imagine that, but it must feel the same to be told that your child may die at a young age. That must, quite simply, be devastating. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, almost 40,000 children and young people aged 19 or under in England live with a life-limiting condition and may need palliative care. Of those, around 1,000 die every year.
As outlined in the NHS long-term plan, we know that children’s palliative and end of life care have not kept pace with the growth in clinical care costs or with inflation. NHS England’s hospice grant programme provides £11 million a year for children’s hospices, which are incredibly valuable. I have spoken before—probably in this room—about my great passion for children’s hospices. That comes from my mum who helped raise money to build Naomi House children’s hospice just outside Winchester, and throughout my twenties she made the whole family partake in a range of humiliating fundraising exercises to raise money for that. I went to visit Naomi House again last year, many years later, and I saw at first hand the incredible, valuable services that it offers, not just for end of life care, but because of its respite and outreach work, which is a lifeline for so many families.
Hon. Members will know the invaluable services offered by children’s hospices, and I was pleased that in the long-term plan additional funding has been made available each year for children’s palliative and end of life care services. I understand the confusion about the different amounts that have been mentioned and issues around that, and Department officials are currently working with NHS England to clarify those numbers and what they mean. I am clear that funding for children’s hospices is vital. We must ensure they get the money they need, and that money must increase from its current levels.
As the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, there is regional variation in how palliative care is delivered. I know that such care is exceptional in some parts of the country, and many staff up and down the country go above and beyond to ensure that experiences for children with life-limiting conditions, and those at the end of their life, are as good as they can be. We know, however, that there are areas where we need to do considerably more, and NHS England is firmly focused on providing support and challenge to achieve that. Choice at the end of life is a centrepiece of the Government’s drive to improve end of life care, and for choice to be meaningful it needs to be personalised and matched by healthcare services that respond in an effective way that places patients, families and carers at the heart of decision making. We know when we achieve that that we have got it right, but also that we have a long way to go. I pay tribute to the all-party group for children who need palliative care, and charities such as Together for Short Lives, and the work they are doing to take that crusade forward.
I appreciate the commitment made by the Minister that her officials will clarify those figures. Will she also commit to ensuring that children’s hospices do not receive less money as a result of the long-term plan? Can she make that reassuring commitment to everybody watching the debate today?
I know that we are planning to meet next month to discuss this issue in more detail, but my understanding from the announcement in the long-term plan is that there will be an increase in funding for children’s hospices. I would not support a move towards anything other than that, so we are certainly in agreement about the value that children’s hospices offer up and down our country.
In July 2016, “Our commitment to you for end of life care” set out what everyone should expect from care at the end of life, and the actions being taken to make high-quality personalised care a reality for all. NHS England is responsible for delivering that commitment in partnership with key stakeholders through its national end of life care programme board. The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned ensuring that sustainability and transformation partnerships and integrated care systems deliver care in a way that supports their local population. NHS England is already working with Public Health England and the Care Quality Commission to provide bespoke end of life care data and support packs to STP and ICS areas, to help plan for and improve end of life services.
NHS England is developing a new indicator for clinical commissioning groups to measure deaths in hospital after three or more emergency admissions in the final 90 days of life. That sounds like a technical piece of data to collect, but such vital information will help us to understand exactly what care is being delivered, and ensure that we spread best practice and identify areas for improvement.
The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the crucial role that leadership and accountability play in commissioning those vital services, and NHS England has and is seeking to improve support for commissioners when funding and delivering children’s end of life care. In April 2017 it made available a new specialist palliative care currency—one for adults and one for children—to support local areas in planning and delivering services, including hospice services. The currency can help local services better understand complexity of care and the investment needed to deliver it. It can be difficult for some commissioners to develop suitable models to meet children’s needs, given that in some geographical areas relatively small numbers are involved. That is why NHS England has established an expert group, which includes Together for Short Lives, to bring together knowledge and expertise in children’s end of life care, consider developing models that are suitable for that incredibly vulnerable group of patients, and set up pilot models of care that will be implemented later this year.
A number of hon. Members mentioned short break services, and access to respite and short breaks is fundamental for many families and carers. Local authorities have a legal duty to commission short breaks, and although the NHS’s role is not statutory but a matter for local commissioners, it may also provide clinical support. Having the reassurance of clinical oversight can often mean the difference between carers taking those much-needed breaks and feeling unable to do so, and it is important that such work is collaborative. A recent report from Together for Short Lives found that 84% of clinical commissioning groups said that they commission short breaks for children who need palliative care—an increase from 77% in 2018. We want to ensure that 100% of clinical commissioning groups make such a contribution so that carers have access to the breaks they need. NHS England provides bespoke data and commissioning support to STP and ICS areas to enable them to plan and deliver effective services, such as short breaks, for children and young people.
Access to and quality of palliative and end of life care goes beyond funding for hospices, and through the long-term plan we are accelerating the roll-out of personal health budgets to give people greater control and choice. We want 200,000 people to benefit from a personal health budget by 2023-24, and that will include things such as provision of bespoke wheelchairs and community-based packages for personal and domestic support. NHS England is expanding the offer of mental health services to people receiving social care support and those receiving specialist or end of life care.
That is right. The system has to be rolled out carefully because we must get it 100% right. It is a jointly funded and collaborative system, but at the end of 2018 it covered 32,000 people, and by 2023-24 it will cover 200,000 people. That shows enormous progress and commitment, and it will give those who want it more choice and control over what kind of care and support they need to meet their needs.
NHS England is developing a refreshed end of life care core skills education and training framework to standardise training, and the NHS now employs more staff than at any other time in its history. The data does not identify nursing specialities, such as palliative care, but the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) may be interested to know that 648 full-time equivalent doctors are working in palliative medicine, which is 202 more than in May 2010—an increase of 45.2%. NHS England’s long-term plan sets out how it will work with patients, families, local authorities and voluntary sector partners to personalise and improve end of life care.
I will write to the hon. Member for Strangford about NHS pensions and hospices. I was going to mention “Agenda for Change”, but I do not have much time and I wish to leave him time to conclude the debate. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. We know there is more to be done to meet our ambition to reduce variation at the end of life and ensure proper support for children with life-limiting conditions and their families.
I thank you, Ms Dorries, for enabling all Members to speak today, and I thank the 17 right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken for their personal and incredible contributions, which came from every region of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Their constituents should be proud of their elected representatives who made such significant contributions to the debate. I thank the Minister for her compassionate and understanding response, and for her obvious interest in and commitment to improving the situation. The meetings that she will hold will be an indication of how that goes. Today this House shone a light on an issue that has united us. Is it too much to hope that before the day is out, we may unite on other things as well?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions and their families.
Short Prison Sentences
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effectiveness of short prison sentences.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on boxing and a steward of the British Boxing Board of Control.
I have called this debate because I was heartened by the Minister’s recent statement that he is seriously considering abolishing short-term prison sentences. Considering the many reports in the news about the apparent decline of prisons across the country— perhaps most notably HM Prison Bedford—this debate could not have come at a better time. It is my hope that the debate will serve as the beginning of a conversation with the Government, wider society, charities and other organisations that inspires confidence in our criminal justice system and brings about effective, fair punishment in the future.
According to Dr Robert Jones at the Wales Governance Centre, Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. As of last Friday, there were more than 82,400 people serving sentences in prisons across England and Wales, 95% of them male. The current prison capacity of England and Wales is estimated to be around 85,000, which means many prisons are suffering from severe overcrowding and a massive strain on resources. This overcrowding leads to increased risk of inmate violence, and leaves resources and staff thinly stretched across the prison, which can heavily impact on the success of rehabilitating inmates.
It is clear that things have to change. I believe that there are alternatives available to the Government. If we were to see more investment in community services and rehabilitative treatment programmes, which can address an offender’s criminogenic needs, we would see a reduction in the prison population and rates of reoffending. I am aware that the Minister expressed an interest in abolishing sentences of only three months, but I believe that there is a case to extend this to sentences of up to six months. All of the evidence stacks up to show that shorter sentences do not work.
The hon. Gentleman is making some good points about overcrowding and the state of the prison estate. When looking at short sentences, the key issue for me is whether they achieve the rehabilitation of prisoners; my judgment is that they do not. Would he agree?
The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point, which I will elaborate on later. There are numerous examples of people in the system with substance abuse issues, who cannot get into substance abuse rehabilitation or overcome their problem, who then find themselves outside, and get back into the system. I will develop this argument more as I go on and I will be happy to take another intervention, if the hon. Gentleman so wishes.
To me, short sentences do not help to reduce reoffending and they can cause unnecessary disruption to the lives of those who could have been dealt with in ways that have seen better results.
My hon. Friend talks about the impact on people’s lives. A recent report published by the Prison Reform Trust showed that 17,000 children in England and Wales are affected by maternal imprisonment each year. One in four women are sentenced to less than one month. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is completely unsustainable for women and their children?
In the case of non-violent crimes, especially those committed by women, there is a real argument to make about that. I cannot quote the figures off the top of my head, but I understand that a large number of women who are locked up have been victims of domestic violence. The courts need to accept that and think about it when they are sentencing women in the future. As I said, 95% of the prison population is male. How many of the 5% who are women have been convicted of non-violent crimes and sentenced to less than one month? Many women are in nurturing and caring roles, with children and also with elderly parents, and that would cause severe disruption as well.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is critical to develop a robust and credible system of community sentences, so that my constituents can feel satisfied that when people are punished by the court they truly receive something that is inconvenient, rehabilitative and credible?
The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. This is all about building confidence in community rehabilitation sentencing. Somebody said to me earlier in the week that if somebody’s house gets burgled, they want to feel that people have been punished. However, community sentencing is seen as the soft option. As this debate goes on over the next few months, we have to be talking about building confidence in those sentences—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
The Revolving Doors Agency’s campaign, which is called #shortsighted, backs the sentiment that ending short sentences can reduce cost and be resource effective. It is calling on the Government to bring an end to short sentences and opt for community-based sentences instead.
In England and Wales we are too quick to send people to prison for petty and often persistent crimes. I understand that Governments of all shades are often influenced by the media, which likes the idea of “lock them up”. The fact that many people who have received a short sentence often reoffend and commit similar crimes shows that short-term sentences are ineffective in reducing recidivism. Government statistics from 2018 show that 63% of those who had sentences of less than 12 months went on to reoffend within a year. It is clear that short prison sentences do not provide an apt amount of time to stage an intervention and address the needs of an offender, particularly if that offender is also experiencing ongoing problems with drug and alcohol use or other mental health issues.
On the other side of the coin, those who have committed crimes of animal cruelty face a maximum of six months’ imprisonment in Wales. I understand that the Government in England have committed to increase that to five years, an extension which I believe should be applied to all parts of the UK. Six months hardly provides enough time for an intervention in such criminal behaviour, and animal cruelty should not be treated in the same manner as petty crimes. I support the continued campaign by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home to increase these sentences.
Last year, the Revolving Doors Agency carried out research among voters of all parties in England and Wales, bearing in mind what I said about the media and “lock them up”. It found that an overwhelming 80% believe that those convicted of petty crimes, such as theft of daily essentials, should not be sent to prison. They also found that voters strongly back reducing the prison population and investing money in activities such as drug treatment programmes instead, with 74% thinking that offenders who have committed a petty crime and who have drug or alcohol addictions belong in treatment programmes, instead of prison. What is more, the majority of voters said that they would be more likely to vote for an MP who supported reducing prison populations and investing the savings into treatment programmes, with only 16% saying that they would be unlikely to do so.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that we need to slay the myth that this country is somehow soft on locking people up? Across the United Kingdom over 90,000 people are locked up, whereas in France the figure is closer to 60,000 people. It is important that we set the record straight, and do so loud and clear.
I absolutely agree. From the contributions that we have had so far, the tone of the debate makes me think that we are going to produce something that will inspire confidence. I welcome all the interventions we have had so far; it has been good. The hon. Gentleman is right. Coming from a small country like Wales, I find it amazing that we have the highest prison population in western Europe.
I have always been supportive of the UK’s prison system taking a rehabilitative approach with offenders, rather than a punitive one. Rehabilitation is proven in successfully reducing reoffending rates, far more than a punitive system does. All we need to do is to look to prison systems in countries such as Norway and Finland to see that rehabilitating and educating offenders massively reduces rates of crime, and to the US and Russia to see that punishment does not.
People being imprisoned in England and Wales are mostly being convicted of non-violent, petty crimes. Many of these offenders have other issues, such as alcohol, drugs or their mental health. Sending those people to prison for a few months will not help them, and nor will it help wider society. The Ministry of Justice has published research in the past which confirms the fact that offenders given short-term prison sentences were associated with significantly higher proven reoffending than those given a community order or suspended sentence.
To reduce reoffending by those with substance abuse or mental health issues, treatment programmes would be far more beneficial than imprisonment. For younger offenders engaging in petty crime, perhaps educational workshops would be better. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on boxing I have been researching and learning about the benefits of sport and boxing in reducing and deterring criminal behaviour and keeping young people on the straight and narrow. It is definitely an avenue that the Government should consider exploring. However, despite a review from Rosie Meek about the benefits of sports, boxing and martial arts in prisons, the Government have yet to act on the recommendations. I want to ask the Minister whether I and a delegation from the all-party group could come to discuss her report with him.
My hon. Friend is making a considered speech, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. We both represent working-class communities that believe in being tough on crime and its causes. Does he agree that the Government could do much more to support projects such as the Wildcard boxing academy in my community, which keeps young people in places such as St Helens out of the criminal justice system in the first place?
When it comes to boxing there is evidence. I could cite a huge number of champions, from both sides of the Atlantic—some famous examples—who found themselves in trouble and used boxing to turn themselves around, because of the discipline that the sport taught them. The Government need to take those ideas on board, and provide support for boxing clubs, which tend to be at the bottom of the pile when money is handed out in community grants.
Yes. The trend in the past 20 years has been that prevention is better than cure. The NHS is getting success in encouraging people suffering from obesity to go on to fitness and diet programmes. There is some success from that approach, and it could be transferred to the Prison Service. If people with energy have time on their hands, sport can fill it.
In research published last year by the Ministry of Justice it was found that reductions in reoffending were associated with the use of court orders such as community sentences rather than short custodial sentences. The effect was greater for people with a larger number of prior offences, younger offenders, and people with severe mental health problems. For those with prior offences who have already served a number of short stints in prison, imprisonment is clearly not a deterrent but more of an occupational hazard. It is interesting, therefore, that those offenders are less likely to reoffend when given community sentences.
Community sentences can be a win-win for all. Taxpayers’ money is saved, local communities and projects benefit and offenders learn skills and the value of giving back to society instead of taking from it. Not only do short sentences do nothing to rehabilitate an offender or reduce their risk of reoffending; sending people to prison for a few months unnecessarily adds to the overcrowding in prisons throughout the country. As I mentioned, England and Wales are reaching peak prison capacity and many prisons are heavily overcrowded. The overcrowding means even more strain on already pressured prison staff and resources; there are not enough of them as it is. That in turn has an impact on the success of inmate rehabilitation, levels of violence in prisons and access to illegal drugs, not to mention the wellbeing of prison staff.
That overcrowding could be prevented if courts did not instantly resort to sentencing offenders to short prison terms for non-violent petty crimes. In the year ending June 2018 almost 29,000 people entered prison to serve sentences of six months or less. That was 47% of all sentenced offenders entering prison during that time. According to Ministry of Justice prison performance statistics for 2017-18, in England and Wales the cost of keeping one person in prison for a year stood at £37,543. That works out at about £3,125 per month for one prisoner. The annual figure is more than Brits earn on average each year, and is almost as much as the cost of a place at an elite public school. Think of the amount of money we could save and invest elsewhere, if we did not imprison people on short sentences. It would also save money in the long run, as those who serve a community sentence or enter a rehabilitation programme are less likely to reoffend and to be imprisoned again in the future.
The money saved could be invested into the programmes and used to create more jobs and train more staff in the skills required to work in rehabilitation and treatment services, as well as being spent on other public services. With the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit and a shrinking economy, we need to be more efficient and effective with money and resources, and invest in and utilise more efficient and effective options.
It is not just the placement in prison for a few months that is costly. Short-term sentences can be hugely disruptive to people’s lives and lead them to be more reliant on public and social services than they were before entering prison. Resettling a previously imprisoned offender back into the community uses up a lot of time, money and resources. Short sentences can disrupt employment and housing situations, which can lead to more people applying for and relying on universal credit. There is a risk of people being left homeless, particularly if they are released on a Friday, as happened to more than 25,000 people in 2017-18. The public services that people rely on upon release, such as access to benefits, medication, housing or other assistance, are closed over the weekend. That means there is a risk that they will not get their basic needs supplied and that they will sleep rough for at least three nights. Therefore they will be at increased risk of reoffending. From there the offender can fall into the cycle of offending and imprisonment, which racks up the costs in the long run.
I know that the Minister is committed to prison reform and reducing the levels of inmate violence and access to drugs, and that he recognises the virtue of rehabilitating and educating inmates. I commend him for that. I hope he would agree therefore that, if we truly want to protect the public and remove people from a life of crime, so that they become proactive citizens who make positive contributions to society, we must take heed of the research and the multitude of statistics showing that short prison sentences do not work. I mentioned earlier the Revolving Doors Agency’s #shortsighted campaign, and I urge the Minister to take on board its recommendations. It calls on the Government to introduce a presumption against short custodial sentences of less than six months, much as the Scottish Government have done. That would allow for such sentences to be given only when no other appropriate option was available. In cases where short prison sentences were imposed for non-violent petty crimes, the courts would have to give a reason why they had opted for a custodial sentence over a community one. What is more, that approach would not remove the court’s discretion, and would allow courts to deal with more serious and violent offences appropriately. What is proposed is a presumption, not a ban on short prison sentences.
The fact that an offender does not go to prison does not mean that they are escaping justice or retribution. Such offenders will serve their time in another way, whether through curfews and tags or community service that benefits the wider community. Many of them face pressing personal issues, including substance abuse, homelessness or mental illness. I believe that they should be given the opportunity to escape the vicious cycle of criminal behaviour. They should have help alongside serving their community sentence, so that they can be rehabilitated and learn skills that can benefit their local economy and wider society.
We have to ask: do we truly want our streets to be safe, or do we want offenders to be punished and thrown into an expensive cycle of petty criminal behaviour and short-term imprisonment? If the answer is the former, the only way forward is to focus on how we can help those people change their lives for the better, rather than throwing them in prison and forgetting about them for several months. By allowing the latter to happen we will only contribute to the rising level of crime on the streets, and to overstretched prison services. I hope that the Minister can agree with me on that, and that he will pursue alternatives to short-term prison sentences.
As I said at the beginning of the debate, I look forward to engaging in a constructive and robust conversation. I do not expect to get all the answers today. However, I want a real opportunity to engage, over the next few months, in bringing about a justice system that brings benefits and, above all, inspires the confidence of the whole community.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for his fantastic speech, which has really framed the problem we are dealing with today. I am happy to encourage interventions from any hon. Member; I am sorry to hear that we will not be hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who has an enormous amount to contribute to this debate.
He can always intervene on me. I will first touch briefly on the issue of public protection, secondly try to take a concrete example from Bedford Prison about how short-term prison sentences actually work in reality, thirdly touch on the alternatives to prison and, finally, talk about the prison regime.
I begin with public protection. It is not a subject that can be approached with anything other than the greatest, profoundest degree of seriousness. In the end, almost the most fundamental duty of our Government is to protect the public, and in particular to protect the public against crime. Whatever we are talking about today, all parties across the House begin with a fundamental understanding that crime is wrong and that it can inflict unspeakable misery on a victim. We have only to think of recent events—victims of knife crime, innocent people smashed up in the streets, victims of burglary, victims of sexual offences—to see why we must begin with absolute horror at and abhorrence of crime.
In addressing it, we must combine our desire to punish people, quite rightly, for committing crimes, our desire to deter more people from committing crimes in the future, our desire to rehabilitate people and change their behaviour, our desire to protect the public, and our desire to pass on a strong message that we will not tolerate this misery being inflicted on the public. When we talk about this, it is important to stress that nobody, on either side of the House, is in any way questioning the horror that crime imposes on victims.
However, it is also important to look at the reality of what is happening in our prisons. On Thursday last week, I was in Bedford Prison, talking to a man. I asked, “How long have you been in for?” He said, “Three weeks.” I asked if it was his first time in Bedford Prison and he said, “No, I was here eight times last year.” I said, “How could you possibly have been in Bedford Prison eight times last year?” He showed me his arm; he was not wearing his shirt and he had tracks from his heroin addiction right the way up his arm. He said, “What happens is, I’m a heroin addict. I leave Bedford Prison after a few weeks, I don’t really know what to do with myself, I shoplift and I get put back in Bedford Prison again.” The question is, what purpose is being served by moving this man in and out of Bedford Prison eight times in a year?
By all means, we can come back to that suggestion, but first I will go through some of the purposes that might be put forward. It was quite clear from my conversation with him that this was a man who had serious mental health issues, serious learning difficulties and a serious drug addiction. The first suggestion, made by the sotto voce intervention from my hon. Friend, is that perhaps the reason we have put him in prison is that when he is in prison he is not shoplifting. That is true, but we must remember that he is only in prison for three weeks. It is not a great protection of the public from his shoplifting if he is removed for three weeks and then popped back on to the streets again.
The second reason that people would suggest for his being put in prison is to deter him from committing an offence in the future. That is clearly not working: he leaves, he reoffends. The third reason he might be put in prison is to rehabilitate him—to change him so that he does not reoffend. That is clearly not working, because he is obviously reoffending. The final view that is sometimes put forward by judges or magistrates is that there is no alternative; they have tried everything else with this person, so what else can they do other than put him in prison? But it is not working. The idea that there is no alternative to putting this person in and bringing him out again cannot possibly make sense.
That brings us to the nub of the issue: prison, for somebody such as that, does not seem to be working. A better way of dealing with them would be a community sentence that addressed the fundamental problem, which is that this man is a heroin addict. The right kind of treatment programme is not about being soft on the individual, but about protecting the public. If we can turn his life around so that he is not coming out and reoffending seven more times in a year, that shop is protected and the public are protected from the misery of crime.
It is also worth bearing in mind the prison itself. Our prisons are currently facing a rising tide of violence, a rising tide of drugs and a rising tide of assaults on prison officers and prisoners. An enormous amount of that is driven by short-term prisoners. The way that drugs get into prison is frequently through prisoners bringing them in, often inside their bodies. The people who are coming in and out of those prisons most frequently are, of course, prisoners with short-term prison sentences—people such as the man I met, who are coming in and out eight times in a year. By definition, if someone has been put in prison for 20 years, they only have one opportunity to bring drugs into prison. Someone who is going in and out on short sentences is really contributing to that flow.
Furthermore, someone who is not imprisoned for 20 years does not have the same incentives to engage with the regime. Somebody who is in for 20 years will often settle down and focus on work and education; they need to make a life in prison. Somebody who is in for a few weeks simply does not have the same attitude toward prison. Therefore, from the point of view of a prison governor or prison officer, the prisoners on whom they are spending an enormous amount of time are those on short-term prison sentences.
That relates also to self-harm and suicide: people are at their most vulnerable in prison on their first night there. It is very destabilising to go into a prison. That is when much of the self-harm and suicide happens, so a lot of the prison officers’ focus is on those people who are coming in and out for a few weeks, but it is difficult to do them much good. In Durham Prison, the average length of stay at the moment is 10 days. Ten days cannot possibly be long enough to get someone into an education programme, a work programme or a drug treatment programme.
Prison is and should be a very serious thing. It is very expensive. In certain cases, it costs more than sending someone to Eton. It is incredibly complex to manage. We are dealing potentially with people who could be terrorists, murderers or sex offenders and with a complicated regime, moving people in and out of cells, keeping them safe in prison and dealing with self-harm. That requires an enormous amount of professionalism. Having a safe, stable, decent prison, which would be helped by not having prisoners on short-term sentences, would help us to focus on the more serious prisoners and to do the professional work to turn their lives around.
We must get the right kind of community sentence in place, ensure that those people are not destabilised by being dragged in and out of prison all the time and recognise that the wrong type of short sentence is long enough to harm them but not long enough to change them. It is long enough to harm them because they lose their house, their partner and, if they have one, a job; they come into prison, and—bang!—a few weeks later they are back out on the streets again, with none of the support networks that might keep them stable, they commit crime again and they are back inside prison.
If we can find a way of working with them in the community, we can prove what is absolutely clear from all the research we have done: they are less likely to reoffend after a community sentence than after a short prison sentence. If I take that man in Bedford Prison as an illustration, that individual, given a community sentence, is less likely to go on to commit that ninth shoplifting offence than if he is put in prison for the eighth time. If he is put in prison for the eighth time, he will almost certainly go on to reoffend; in fact, in two thirds of cases, short-term prison sentence prisoners do so. That is endangering the public, not protecting the public.
What I have talked about today is an expansion on what the hon. Member for Islwyn said, referring to the problem that we face. The solution is much more difficult. We will have to bring parties together in Parliament, we will have to discuss it with judges and magistrates, and above all we will have to discuss it with the public. Our primary obligation is to protect the public from crime, to show our moral abhorrence at crime and our sympathy of its victims, and also to explain that in order to protect the public, we need to be practical and focused. One way of being practical and focused is to be honest about the problems of short-sentence prisoners. I will allow the hon. Gentleman some time for closing remarks.
I find myself in the happy position of agreeing with everything the Minister has said. His critique of what is going on with short sentences is spot on. I know there are hon. Members on the Opposition side who would be interested to meet with him and talk about a way forward, and I hope we can get those meetings in place. I only regret that the debate was only half an hour; I think we could have spoken all day about this subject.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. To conclude, we must focus on what outcome we want—not the process, which is the prison, but the outcome. The outcome must be to find the right way of protecting the public, and whether we are talking about punishment, deterrence, incapacitation or rehabilitation, there are serious problems with short-term sentences.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Human Rights: Xinjiang
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in Xinjiang.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this issue. I am also pleased to see a good number of other MPs in the Chamber, given the importance of business elsewhere in the Palace. I am grateful for their support. I place on the record my appreciation of the work in this area of various non-governmental organisations, including Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide—CSW—Human Rights Watch and the World Uyghur Congress.
I also add the BBC to that list. It was a remarkable 10-minute report by John Sweeney on “Newsnight” in August 2018 that first brought this issue to my attention; I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing about it until that point. In that 10 minutes he described very graphically the scale of what is happening in Xinjiang province and well illustrated the human cost. Even if the BBC does nothing else worth watching over the next 12 months—I do not completely discount that possibility—that 10 minutes alone justifies the licence fee.
The concerns that I and, I hope, others will raise are all supported by evidence, although there are other concerns that are not so well evidenced. However, even on those concerns for which evidence exists it is impossible to be entirely accurate, as we shall see when looking at the numbers affected. That is principally a consequence of the secrecy and surveillance of the government of the Xinjiang province, which is said to extend not only within the province but outside it as well. Uyghur Muslims living in this country feel very much under the same pressure as those who live in Xinjiang. Parenthetically, I hear anecdotal reports that the Chinese secret service has been recruiting Chinese students at British universities to spy on other Chinese students, thus continuing and worsening the climate of secrecy and fear.
However, thanks to the evidence of “Newsnight” and the efforts of Amnesty, CSW and Human Rights Watch, we have an emerging picture on an epic scale. What is being done in Xinjiang is also happening in Tibet, where mass detention camps have been a feature of the landscape since 2014. The so-called re-education camps, officially known as centres for transformation through education, are principally, but not exclusively, targeted at the Muslim community.
CSW lists reasons for detention in the camps including, among other things: someone having WhatsApp on their phone; having relatives who live abroad; accessing religious materials online; having visited certain “sensitive” countries; participation in communal religious activities; and behaviour indicating “wrong thinking” or “religious extremism”. Indeed, sometimes no reason is given at all.
Amnesty gives some useful context, stating:
“China’s Constitution, laws and ethnic policies all stress ethnic unity and prohibit discrimination against ethnic groups…But China’s expressed determination to eradicate the ‘forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism’ leads officials to pursue discriminatory policies that target members of ethnic groups merely for exercising their rights to freedom of religion and belief, thought, peaceful assembly, association, movement, opinion, expression and access to information.”
Quite incredibly, the Chinese Government continue to deny the existence of these camps. However, eyewitness accounts, documentation relating to the construction and procurement of the camps, and satellite imagery all contradict that denial. The number of detainees is said to be between several hundred thousand and just over 1 million, with CSW saying that it may be as high as 3 million. We can be certain that that number is rising.
What goes on within these detention facilities has been described as Orwellian, which I think, because of what we know, does some injustice to George Orwell. If George Orwell was commissioned to write in the style of Franz Kafka, that might come close. Inmates are required to chant Communist party slogans, recite party thought and take part in self-incrimination sessions.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I thank the Minister for his help in answering several of my questions on this issue. Does the right hon. Gentleman share the concern of many in my constituency, most importantly Mohammed Haroun, representing the Uxbridge Street mosque, who wrote to me to say that the scale of Muslim persecution in China makes what is happening in Myanmar pale into insignificance, and that we must act?
I always think it invidious to try to compare persecution in one country with that in another. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is a good one. I suspect that we do not hear more about this issue because of the difficulty in getting reliable information out of the province. I will return to that point.
To give a bit more of a human flavour of what goes on in the camps, I will share with the House, and place on the record, a couple of the testimonies from that “Newsnight” report in August. The first is from Azat, whose family are detained in the camp. He describes having been allowed to visit his family, saying:
“It was dinner time. There were at least 1,200 people holding empty plastic bowls in their hands. They had to sing pro-Chinese songs to get food. I never dreamt the place was so huge. The cell windows were barred. From the lights, I knew there were many more people inside as well. I estimate that there were at least 3,500 people in there.”
He describes them, saying:
“They were like robots. They seemed to have lost their souls. I knew many of them well—we used to sit and eat together—but now they didn’t look normal to me. They behaved as if they weren’t aware of what they were doing. They were like someone who’d lost their memory after a car crash.”
There was a further interview with a re-education centre survivor called Omir, who said:
“They have a chair called the tiger. My ankles were shackled, my hands locked into the chair, I couldn’t move. They wouldn’t let me sleep. They also hung me up for hours and they beat me. They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out your nails. All these tools were displayed on the table in front of me, ready for use at any time. You could hear other people screaming as well.
You have no freedom at all. You must do everything according to the rules set by the Communist party: recite what they say, sing red songs, thank the party, think like a robot. You do whatever you are told.”
It is hard to listen to some of those descriptions of the situation in the camps and the psychological pressures placed on people. Has the right hon. Gentleman heard evidence, as I have, that DNA samples and biometric data are also being obtained from Uyghurs in the camps, perhaps for the possibility of organ harvesting? That issue has been raised in relation to China before.
I have heard that suggested. The evidence around the purpose of the use of DNA harvesting—I think, clearly the fact that it is suggested demands proper investigation. I think it is something that we as a country could do, and that we should lead on exerting pressure for such an investigation; but whether or not that is actually happening, I do not honestly know and I am careful not to overstate the case. What we know, and what is evidenced already, is certainly bad enough.
The human rights report produced by the Minister’s own Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in June 2018 said of Xinjiang that
“the authorities introduced intrusive security and surveillance measures and cultural restrictions targeted at the Uyghur Muslim population. Thousands of Uyghurs were held in re-education camps after returning from abroad.”
I would suggest, on the basis of what we know now—what has come to light since then—that if anything, that is something of an understatement. I will look with interest to see how that statement is revised in this year’s human rights report.
I am conscious of the shortage of time and am grateful for the support of colleagues who have turned up for the debate. I could say a lot more, but I will focus now on why this matter should concern us and what my asks are of the Minister. First, it should concern us because the United Kingdom is a party to several declarations of human rights, including the universal declaration. The defining characteristic of human rights is surely their universality. An abuse or denial of human rights anywhere is a denial that affects us all.
The issue affects a number of Uyghur Muslims living in this country. “Newsnight” spoke of one case in which a family member had lost contact with up to 20 members of her family, who had possibly been taken into detention. What we know about the threats to the Muslim population in Xinjiang province raises serious questions for our own asylum policy. We know that there are some 10 Uyghur Muslims with active asylum claims at the moment. I know that this is not directly within the Minister’s responsibilities, but the Government should consider following the example of Sweden and Germany and introducing a moratorium on returns to China of Muslims from the Uyghur province.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the Chamber for us to debate. The issue is not only the need for pressure in relation to asylum applications and so on. Other authoritarian states are copying that example and piling in and persecuting citizens in a similar way.
That is absolutely the case. It is the contagion of the abuse of human rights. We have seen it times without number in different parts of the world down the decades.
What consideration have the Government given to the use of section 13 of the Criminal Finances Act 2017 in response to gross human rights abuses? This could be a good first test of that section. Most importantly of all, what will the Government in this country do to see that an independent investigation is carried out into what is happening in Xinjiang province? The Chinese Government have said that they would be prepared to co-operate with a UN-led investigation. As a permanent member of the Security Council and as an advocate and strong promoter and defender of human rights, our country could take an important lead in making that sort of investigation happen. We should not be relying on groups such as Amnesty, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Human Rights Watch to find out what is going on.
Human rights are to be defended wherever they are challenged. The right to religious belief should be defended, and everyone has a right to due process. None of these things features in the way in which Uyghur Muslims and others in Xinjiang province are treated. We have a direct interest at play also. It is obvious that the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang is now acting as a recruiting sergeant for Daesh, for IS. As that happens, yes, of course its primary focus will be in relation to China, but we know from our own experience that Daesh, IS, does not confine its activities to any single country, so Britain has a very direct interest in ensuring that the rights of Muslims and others of religious faith in Xinjiang province are protected, and that the abuses are brought into the public domain so that their human rights and those of others can be protected.
Order. Several people want to speak, and I want the Back-Bench speeches to finish at 28 minutes past 3 so that we can give the three Front Benchers 10 minutes each and then allow two minutes for the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who moved the motion, to conclude his remarks, so I ask people to keep their speeches to about five minutes. I do not want to impose a time limit. If we play it that way, we should get everybody in.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing it and for his speech, with which I very much concur.
Last week, as chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, I was able to meet a Uyghur Muslim who is now living in Washington DC and part of the NGO the Uyghur Entrepreneurs Network. He said that, about two years ago, Uyghurs who use Washington as a base—there are now about 3,000 of them—started reporting that relatives in China were disappearing. He says that, now, every Uyghur he meets there has a relative who has disappeared. Indeed, all of his own relatives have disappeared. The last one was his father, who sent a message to him saying, “Son, they have come for me.”
As we have heard, reports suggest that there are huge numbers—quite possibly more than 1 million—in the camps. People are often there for no reason at all. I am told that the difficulties experienced by Uyghur girls are such that they are even selected for Communist party officials to have relationships with them and used for bartering in exchange for their family’s freedom.
The religious dimension to the detentions is self-evident. Detainees are predominantly, although not exclusively, Muslim; they include people of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicity. In this climate of fear, Uyghur Muslims have stopped public and communal religious observance. We have been told about the treatment of people once they are in the camps. Detainees have been not only forced to renounce their religion but forced, we understand, to eat pork or drink alcohol, in violation of their right to freedom of religion or belief. Conditions in the camps are extremely difficult, as we have heard.
The awful treatment extends even to children in the camps. Children as young as three can be detained, although sadly the children of those detained are often left to fend for themselves. We were told last week of one child who was found frozen—they had died when their parents were taken away. Children are often mistreated or sent to retraining centres. We have heard of children as young as six months old being locked up like farm animals in a shed.
Let me also draw the Minister’s attention to the concerns about DNA testing of Uyghurs, about which we have heard, and the potential that that might be being used for forced organ harvesting. I know that that is currently being investigated by the independent China tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments on that.
Bob Fu, of China Aid, told us last week that the human rights violations in terms of religious persecution are at their worst for some 40 years in China. I am grateful to the UK, during the universal periodic review, for calling on China to implement the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and to allow the UN to monitor the implementation. But the UK needs to do as much as it can to ensure international accountability for the human rights violations, so can the Minister say whether he will support the calls for the UK to work with others in the international community to establish an independent, impartial and comprehensive UN-led investigation and to work towards the establishment of a mechanism for accountability on this issue?
Let me also draw colleagues’ attention to concerns in America. In relation to what is said to be happening in China, the Washington Post says:
“It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”
This month, members of Congress and the Senate introduced the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which calls for the President to condemn the abuses, for the Secretary of State to co-ordinate closely with the traditional allies on targeted sanctions and restrictions, and for the appointment of a US special co-ordinator for the Uyghur autonomous region. It also calls on the private sector to conduct due diligence in dealings with China, and asks the FBI to track and take steps to hold accountable officials from China who harass, threaten or intimidate US citizens and legal permanent residents. I hope the Minister will join me in welcoming this action from the US and that he will co-ordinate with his counterparts there on this situation.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I want to thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate on a topic that is overlooked.
We have all been made aware of the plight of the Uyghurs in the last year or so by the media coverage, the satellite images, and those who have family and friends in the region, who talk about the abuses taking place. Last week I met with several human rights groups to discuss the reports of widespread abuse in the Xinjiang region. The experts I spoke to emphasised that while tensions between the Communist party and the Chinese citizens of non-Han identity have been present for some time, the last two years have seen violent escalation in the state policy. Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities are now facing unprecedented levels of repression.
Since 2017, a network of enormous holding camps has been built, with as many as 1 million Uyghurs said to be currently detained in them. As evidence of these camps has become indisputable, thanks largely to investigative journalism, we have seen a shift in the rhetoric of the Chinese state. Colleagues will be aware that for a long time the Chinese Government denied the reports that the camps existed and that people were falsely detained in them. Now, of course, they say, “Oh yes, there are camps, but they are vocational training centres and educational centres.” I am not the only one who is very sceptical of this. The United Nations and our Government have publicly expressed deep concerns about those sites.
Given that individuals are forcibly placed within them, we must recognise that they are camps. There has also been evidence of physical abuse and torture of the people there, as eloquently set out by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. We know that the Chinese Government have argued that the measures are justified by the growing threat of religious extremism and separatist activism in the region. However, it should go without saying that whatever the perceived threats, the measures have lost all sense of proportion. Uyghurs outside the camps are now also subject to some of the most pervasive and intrusive surveillance systems in the world, including being on a register of DNA samples and blood types, and constant tracking by facial recognition cameras. Thousands of police stations have sprung up across the region and correspondence with family members outside of China is either banned or closely monitored.
We have heard of various religious and psychological violations. In a secularised society such as Britain, choices of food, drink or dress may not seem so fundamental, but for those of faith, who are brought up in cultural environments where certain foods are prohibited and alcohol is not drunk, forcing people to abandon those articles of faith is deeply dehumanising. Not only are they prevented from practising their religion, but they are forcibly fed with meat that they do not normally consume and forced to drink alcohol, which they do not normally do. That is surely traumatising. They are prevented from fasting in the month of Ramadan, their dresses are cut to make their clothing more in line with everyone else, they are asked to remove their headscarves, and they are asked to quote the Communist manifesto and learn about China. Forcing them to do these things takes away their identity.
When the state begins to isolate and discriminate against a minority group, it has overstepped the mark of acceptability. When the state sends citizens into camps without legal representation or international oversight, the door is left open to something truly terrible. We have to condemn such actions in the strongest terms. History has shown us that such actions can lead to even worse atrocities. If the world stands by and does nothing, in light of what is happening, what is to say that it will not continue and escalate to another level?
China has said that it welcomes an inspection, as long as the UN restrains itself from interfering in domestic matters. What does that mean? Will the Chinese Government give the investigators the right to visit these prison camps? Will they give the investigators the freedom to speak to the people there? Will they allow the investigators to investigate things properly? If they are saying that those things are not happening, they should allow for it to be openly investigated, so we can all know whether they are happening or not. The Chinese Government should realise—as should Governments worldwide—that when they start suppressing their own people, they do not solve any problems. If anything, they make the problems worse.
I ask the Minister, what specific representations have been made to the Chinese Government about these concerns? Have these issues been raised with the embassies of those countries with large Uyghur diasporas, including Kazakhstan and Turkey? What steps are we taking, to ensure that our position on the Human Rights Council is used to place real pressure on the Chinese Government to reverse those measures? What efforts are being taken to gather evidence on the ground and apply diplomatic pressure on the Chinese Government? Does the Minister agree that the UK border authorities should make every effort to ensure that the Turkic and Uyghur Muslims residing in the UK are not deported back to Xinjiang, because of what they would face?
There are more than 10 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang. They speak a Turkic language. They are Muslim. In many ways, they are culturally and geographically closer to central Asia than central China. Over the past decade, due to outbreaks of protest and violence, and the subsequent harsh crackdowns from the Chinese authorities, hundreds of lives have been lost in Xinjiang.
A BBC investigation said:
“Over the past four years, Xinjiang has been the target of some of the most restrictive and comprehensive security measures ever deployed by a state against its own people.”
That includes the large-scale use of technology and penalties to curtail Islamic identity, stopping them practising their religion. Uyghurs face severe travel restrictions and are subject to ethnic profiling at thousands of checkpoints. Most alarmingly, as we have heard already, the Chinese authorities are building and operating high-security camps on a huge and growing scale. Testimonies from Uyghurs living abroad confirm that they are detention camps, where inmates are often beaten, terrorised and brainwashed. This is the brutal subjugation of an ethnic minority aimed at crushing their identity.
The detention camps in Xinjiang are the most recent Chinese human rights abuses to draw the world’s attention, but we must not forget that human rights abuses in China are the norm, not the exception, especially for China’s ethnic minorities. Of the roughly 1.4 billion people living in China, over 1.2 billion are Han Chinese. Ethnic minorities with distinct cultures and identities, such as the Uyghurs—and the Tibetans, who are better known—live mostly in the outer regions of China and tend to be seen as threats by China’s one-party state.
Within China a small number of people dare to speak up for human rights, but their voices are invariably silenced. Those of us who have the freedom to do so, therefore, have an even greater moral responsibility to speak up. The Chinese authorities tend to take the line that what happens inside China is not the concern of foreigners, but China is a member of the United Nations, and the belief that human rights are universal is at the core of the UN’s vision.
Of course, there is an argument that our criticism makes no difference, but that is untrue. China’s leaders care a great deal about its reputation and invest huge resources in its global image. The problem in recent years has been that our Government, alongside most other western Governments, have been cowardly about speaking out. Many western countries see China as an indispensable trade partner, and China’s rulers have used its economic power to withhold access to its own huge market from countries that have spoken out on human rights issues. Consequently, almost every country in the world has stopped speaking up on human rights abuses in China.
How can we break the silence? Three things need to happen. First, there must be a domestic political cost for any British Government who do not speak up on Chinese human rights abuses; parliamentarians, the media and the public need to demand action.
Secondly, we must all wake up to the importance of international human rights, because China’s actions pose a threat not only to its own people. The Chinese Government are no longer trying just to crush dissent internally, but to become a global superpower with influence over the wider world. The Chinese Government’s view of the world is not democratic, inclusive or based on the rule of law; they are trying to undermine many aspects of the international order that has existed for the last 70 years. We need to develop a clear awareness that China is a more serious threat than familiar rivals such as Russia, because of its growing economic and military power. The unflinching defence of human rights issues is key to the battle about values that will certainly play out over the next decades.
Thirdly, countries that believe in human rights need to stand together because, apart from the US, no individual country has enough power to stand up to China’s bullying. Collectively, however, we would have that clout.
A practical way forward could be to create policies of reciprocal access. The principle of reciprocity exists in economic trade deals and it could be applied to other areas too. Chinese journalists and officials are free to go anywhere in most western foreign countries, but foreign journalists and diplomats do not have anywhere near the same freedom to travel in China. Last year, the US passed a law that bans officials who are involved in restricting access to Tibet from coming to America. The EU considered similar measures at the end of last year.
Human rights abuses flourish in the dark, so it would make a big difference if journalists and diplomats were free to travel everywhere in China. I encourage the Government to examine reciprocal access policies, alongside their European and global allies. Human right abuses will stop only if we dare to call them out. We must be prepared to defend human rights as the pillar on which our democratic societies and the whole international order are built.
I will do my best, Mr Wilson. I have filleted my speech as I have been sitting here.
Last October, a senior editor from Foreign Policy, James Palmer, was interviewed about his work and about human rights in Xinjiang. It was a heart-wrenching watch. He said:
“All of my Uyghur sources are gone”,
and then apologised as he broke down in tears. He continued:
“I can’t talk to people because they’re gone. I cannot reach them.”
Even his Han Chinese sources had been arrested for talking about what is happening to the Uyghur people. They are disappearing from the streets and being put into camps. The Government appear to be trying to erase the memory that they even existed. Mr Palmer made it clear that he is no longer trying to contact Uyghur people because his attempts could put them in danger.
In October, in response to a question from me, the Minister stated that according to credible reports an estimated 1 million people—at least—were being held, including Uyghurs and other minority ethnic Chinese. As has been said, Chinese officials describe the camps as,
“vocational education and employment training centres”
“criminals involved in minor offenses”,
but Human Rights Watch has gathered evidence that points chillingly to something else.
Basically, there are reports of beatings, solitary confinement, psychological abuse and even inmates being forcibly given psychotic drugs in the camps. We are told that people with serious mental and physical health conditions receive no special treatment; nor do heavily pregnant women. There are reports of deaths inside the camps. Survivors have described to Human Rights Watch how they were chained to a bed or to an iron chair for days, or even hung from the ceiling, as they were interrogated. They eventually confessed to whatever they were charged with, whether that was owning a religious book or having a friend who had been abroad.
Apparently, that is what the Chinese Communist party is calling its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism”. Under that regime, as we have heard, Turkic Muslims are identified as belonging to one of three categories: trustworthy, average or untrustworthy. Muslim citizens have to not only keep out of trouble, but actively display their loyalty. From a place such as this, it is hard to imagine what it must feel like to live with such suspicion and in constant fear of saying the wrong thing, being with the wrong person or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Chinese artist and defender of human rights, Ai Weiwei, spent 16 years of his childhood in exile in Xinjiang province because his father, a poet, had fallen out of favour with the authorities. His international fame as a dissident artist is evidence that that kind of repression is eventually ineffective as well as cruel. He has said about the current situation that we have to think about human rights and human dignity as one, and that if anyone’s rights are violated—whatever minority, whatever religion they are—we have to think of it as our rights being violated. I could not agree more.
The Government have been asked several times about the steps we can take to improve the human rights situation through our trade with China. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said:
“China is an important strategic partner, and it is because of the strength of our partnership that we are consistently able to raise these issues”.
Although I agree that raising issues bilaterally is important, the level of abuse documented calls for something stronger. Given what is going on in the Chamber at the moment, I worry that human rights might be viewed as an inconvenience or a threat to our trading relationship.
I hope that the Minister will commit to concrete steps today. Statements of concern are simply not enough. We need economic sanctions against those responsible and we need to follow Germany and Sweden in offering expedited asylum processes for Turkic minorities from the province.
My apologies for hearing only the end of the speech by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), whom I congratulate on securing this debate to discuss the important issue of human rights in Xinjiang.
I declare three interests. First, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary China group. Secondly, for eight years, I was the director of the Great Britain-China Centre. Thirdly, in 1993, I was a member of the first-ever successful crossing of Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang, as part of an Anglo-Chinese and Uyghur crossing by foot. That led me to spend more time in Xinjiang than probably anyone else in the House of Commons, and has left me with a strong affection for that enormous, harsh and beautiful land of different minorities and peoples.
It is worth highlighting the all-party group’s expedition to Xinjiang some two and a half years ago to look into some of the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and other hon. Members, and other issues as well. During that expedition, we were accompanied by the Minister’s enterprising now private secretary, who was then with the embassy in Beijing. More recently, the all-party group has had updated briefings in Beijing and London.
I have arrived at five thoughts to share with hon. Members. First, Xinjiang, which means “new land” in Mandarin, was known as East Turkestan for a long time. Although the name has changed, the essential cultural differences of that huge province remain fundamental to the way of life of its residents.
Secondly, the UK, which reopened formal relations with China in 1972—56 years ago—is now an important strategic partner of China and the depth of that relationship allows for respectful differences of view. Although we acknowledge and hugely recognise the vast progress that China has made in the living standards of its enormous population, and its contribution to the world’s economic growth—a consistent 30% for the last three decades—we can also express real concern about specific human rights issues in China and work with her on reforms to the rule of law, including on the death penalty, which has been one of the achievements of the Great Britain-China Centre.
Thirdly, on Xinjiang today, there can be no doubt that relations between the peoples of Xinjiang, by whom I mean predominantly the Uyghur community, but also other ethnic minorities—Kazakhs and people who would normally be found in Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz—have deteriorated considerably. They have worsened recently after a clampdown on the freedoms of expression, gathering and religion, and other freedoms that have been mentioned. Much of the evidence is anecdotal because it is very difficult to access information at first hand either by visiting the province or through journalists and others who have been there.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. It would not be impossible for her or others to go to Xinjiang. The question is what they would see and how genuine it might be. The point I want to highlight is that in recent times there has been much greater use of artificial intelligence and sophisticated control mechanisms to clamp down strongly on what we would regard as the fundamental freedoms of the people living there. The Minister might want to comment on this, but the opportunity is for the UK to try to help China recognise that some of the evidence coming out will not necessarily act in China’s own interests.
Of course, China has considerable security interests. For example, the bombing of the railway station in Yunnan a few years ago by Uyghurs was absolutely unacceptable, just as terrorism in this country is unacceptable. It is important that there are training and skills opportunities available to Uyghurs as there are in other parts of the country. But a large-scale detention policy of large numbers of people, or other repressions of freedoms such as Islamic boys under the age of 18 not being able to go and pray in a mosque, are not justified. Such issues will affect China’s belt and road initiative across central Asia, which is predominantly Muslim in religion, and there are issues that will damage China’s reputation internationally and affect the world’s acceptance of the increasing leadership role that China is taking on a range of global issues.
It is worth highlighting China’s report to the United Nations General Assembly on China’s human rights. In the report submitted in August last year—some 25 pages long—only one paragraph in the entire report is on Xinjiang, as I am sure the Minister knows. The report refers to the year of building people’s livelihood initiative, the disposable incomes of urban and rural residents and free education programmes, all of which are no doubt worthy in their own right, but they do not address the issues that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and others have raised today.
Although China would regard our interest in such matters as fundamentally interfering in her own domestic situation, the truth is that in this House we debate issues across the world for the benefit of all mankind. Today’s debate therefore shines a torch on the fact that we need to work closely with China on how the situation in Xinjiang will develop and on what changes might be made that will benefit the people of Xinjiang, particularly the Uyghur community, and China’s own standing in the world. Our role should be to work closely with her on some of those difficult issues.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Wilson, and I thank you for calling me. I also thank the Minister, who, we know, has a deep interest in human rights and I am sure we will get a positive response from him when he replies. Finally, I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important and timely debate just a week after Orkney was named the happiest place in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—we already know that, as it is epitomised by the right hon. Gentleman. However, we are gathered here to discuss a serious issue.
The debate is timely because it takes place in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember how millions of people were rounded up and placed in camps and harassed, tortured and killed simply because of their religion. It is deeply saddening that some 70 years later we are having a debate to discuss the fact that potentially millions of innocent Chinese citizens are being rounded up and placed in camps because of their religion. It seems we have yet to learn the lessons of the past—oh, that we had looked back at the past and learned the lessons.
It is important to note that just yesterday evening, right here in Parliament, where today we are discussing persecution by the Chinese Government on an unimaginable scale, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Foreign Secretary were guests of honour at a celebratory reception for the Chinese new year. It is a coincidence: we are discussing very serious issues within 24 hours of a celebration. Although I am a firm believer in friendly and open dialogue, I am not sure what message that sends to the world and to the millions currently in detention camps in China about the UK’s commitment to human rights and defending those who are persecuted for their religion.
Hon. Members know that I chair the all-party group for freedom of religion or belief. Our group stands up for those of Christian faith, other faiths and no faith. Hon. Members have rightly raised the plight of the Uyghurs, but I want to make sure we do not forget the plight of some of the other religious or belief minorities suffering at the hands of the Chinese Government: for example, practitioners of Falun Gong and Chinese Christians. Twice a year the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and I co-sponsor events in this House for Falun Gong. I want to put on the record our thanks to Becky James, who works so hard to make it happen.
In 2018, Cristian Solidarity Worldwide recorded extremely concerning violations against Catholic and Protestant churches in Henan province, where authorities have demolished crosses and churches and destroyed religious materials. From March to June, dozens of independent house churches also reported cases of harassment, fines, confiscation of property and forced closure of churches. Many Christians have also been arrested or disappeared. For example, Lu Yongfeng, a member of the Church of Almighty God, was arrested with her husband in June 2018. The following month she died in police custody, reportedly as a result of torture. I look to the Minister to ask him this: can we make inquiries about what happened to that lady? She died in custody because she is a Christian. That was the reason for her death.
Similarly, thousands of practitioners of Falun Gong have been arbitrarily imprisoned by the Chinese Government. There are credible reports that China is using prisoners of conscience to supply organs for its vast, lucrative transplant industry. In response to such accusations, the UK Government have said that the World Health Organisation believes that China is implementing an ethical, voluntary organ transplant system. However, many who argue that China is involved in forced organ harvesting often point to the fact that the average time to get a kidney transplant in the UK or the United States is two to three years, whereas in China it is two to three weeks. It is fairly obvious; you do not have to be a mathematician or Einstein to work out that something is wrong there. It is almost like a conveyor belt of organ transplant in China, and that needs an answer.
Has the Minister asked either the World Health Organisation or the Chinese Government how they can explain such a remarkable difference? Also, does the Minister know whether the World Health Organisation has assessed the wealth of evidence compiled by former Canadian Cabinet Minister David Kilgour on this issue? It is a phenomenal evidential base. If not, will he suggest it does do so? Might he also suggest that it assesses the evidence being presented to the ongoing independent people’s tribunal being led by Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC?
The tribunal recently released an interim judgment that reads:
“We, the tribunal members, are all certain, unanimously, beyond reasonable doubt, that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time, involving a very substantial number of victims”—
“by state organised or approved organisations or individuals.”
The horrifying nature of the charges makes them difficult to believe and we must rightly assess the evidence before jumping to any conclusions. However, we also must make every effort to gather and assess evidence honestly, and not just turn our backs on the issue because what we may find out might not be palatable. We must speak out when we see the evidence, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because how can we ever hope for a peaceful and secure world when a permanent member of the UN Security Council is rounding up and abusing millions of its own citizens?
Such crimes against humanity—affronts to human dignity and to the very concept of justice and morality—cannot be allowed to pass by with muted and occasional condemnation. There is a time for quiet diplomacy, discreet dialogue and private conversations. This is not it. This is a time to stand up for what is right. This is a time to let every oppressor and would-be tyrant know that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and the rest of the world—will not tacitly accept the systematic, sinister destruction of entire communities. This is a time for the world to rally together and proudly declare, in one unified, powerful voice, that enough is enough. That should be our message today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this important debate.
I shall not speak for long. I just want to say a little about Hikvision, one of the world’s biggest CCTV companies. It provides equipment for the massive prison camps in Xinjiang and has been used in Tibet to develop an extremely intrusive police and security apparatus. Hikvision uses facial recognition technology that can distinguish entire ethnic populations from the Chinese. It puts Tibetans and Uyghurs at serious risk. While the company is now subject to bans by the US and Australian Governments, Hikvision was revealed to be Britain’s biggest supplier of CCTV equipment in 2016.
Absolutely. The point is well made and I share the hon. Lady’s concerns.
The Government of this country must speak up. They must make it clear that we will not accept the abuse of human rights, and the Chinese Government must and will be called out. The abuse of the Uyghurs is abhorrent, but abuse has been going on in Tibet for much longer.
Is the Minister aware whether any UK Government agencies purchase surveillance equipment from Hikvision? Are questions being raised about the security implications of its unfettered access to the UK? Does he share my concerns, and if he does not have answers to my questions, will he follow those matters up?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate.
I, like many other hon. Members, was not aware of the difficulties that many people are suffering in China until a number of my constituents brought the matter to my attention. When I looked into it further, the work of many NGOs and a BBC documentary brought home to me the extent of the abuse taking place. A recent report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination suggested that there was widespread detention of the native Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. About 1 million adults are detained, most of whom are Uyghur. Alleged forms of torture include forcing detainees to denounce Islam and forcing them to abandon their native language, religious beliefs and cultural practices.
Sadly, the world’s response has not matched the gravity of the situation. The Chinese Government’s claim that the camps are vocational training schools is not credible. There is now significant discussion among US and European leaders of economic sanctions to be directed at key Chinese leaders and security companies. I understand that the Foreign Secretary raised the situation of Uyghur Muslims with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during the official visit to China in July 2018. However, continued human rights abuses suggest that clearly more needs to be done.
Will the Minister provide urgent assurances that the British Government will step up their efforts to hold the Chinese Government to account for those blatant human rights violations and urge the Chinese authorities to stop the practice of mass internment and close the camps? Will he give an update on the current situation and tell us what representations the Government have made to the Chinese authorities?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
I am pleased that the debate has such a good turnout, and that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) was able to secure it. I think even more Members would have come if it had not been on such an important day for votes to do with the European Union. It is great to see so many participants from across the House. I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on China, and it is encouraging that many Members are joining, to discuss not just trade opportunities but the important human rights element of our dialogue with China. I was pleased that at last night’s reception the chair of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), mentioned in his keynote address that the group has that concern.
I am also pleased that, following a parliamentary question to the Minister, the issue emerged in the FCO reporting cycle. That is not recent; for several months it has been taken seriously by FCO officers. However, I should like an update from the Minister today, and a sense of the ultimate direction of travel. What can be done, if the reports are indeed true—as we believe they are, given the evidence coming before us? What is the endgame, in terms of what the Government will do?
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about the position of children. China is a signatory of the UN convention on the rights of the child. It is worrying that the children of individuals detained in camps have been sent to state-run orphanages, training centres or welfare facilities, and that it is reported that children as young as six months old have been locked up like farm animals in a shed. The reports come from Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia and ChinaAid, which I believe to be independent and to be reporting from a place where reporting is difficult. As the hon. Member for Gloucester said, it is not easy just to go there and see what is happening.
I want to mention the good things that have happened in China as a result of the convention on the rights of the child, to show that issues can be tackled. A lot of work has been done in China on human trafficking, and good results have come from that. Action to tackle climate change and air quality, and the effects on children in polluted cities, has also borne some fruit. I do not want to give a counsel of complete despair. With challenge and dialogue, we can move forward.
I want briefly to consider our response in the UK. First, could the Minister please tell us exactly how independent our own FCO investigations might be? Who are our international partners, and what kind of resources are we using? Secondly, is there a forum in which to challenge tech or other companies that could wittingly or unwittingly be supporting the crushing of dissent, and compromising on the Uyghur people’s human rights? Thirdly, what is the Minister’s plan for reporting back regularly to interested Members in the House?
We have had an excellent debate, very measured but also very concerned, expressing great worry about what is happening to the Uyghur people in China, but focused on seeking a more action-based response from the Minister.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) not just for bringing the debate to the House, but for his work to increase awareness of the issue in Xinjiang province. As he said, we are relying a lot on reports. The evidence is difficult to gather, and that is one of the big issues for us. However, we know that the state in China is not just promoting its values and principles, but using its position to commit cultural genocide and scapegoat an entire culture. History has taught us the danger of such intolerance.
It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) talking about his experiences in Xinjiang province, but I want to correct him on one thing. He said that the UK and China had had diplomatic relations since 1972, and that that was 56 years ago. Having been born in 1972, I must tell him that it was 46 years ago.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) gave descriptions of the horrific torture and conditions in the detention camps, and several Members made comparisons with other horrific situations. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that this debate was timely as it was being held in the week in which we remember the holocaust, and many of the conditions that have been described this afternoon are very similar to those found in the horrific concentration camps during the second world war. The hon. Gentleman also drew our attention to the plight of the Falun Gong community, and of ethnic Christians in China, who are also subjected to human rights abuses. The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) spoke about religious abuse and Muslim people being forced to eat particular meats, or drink alcohol or wear inappropriate clothing—all things that we recognise would impact on someone’s freedom to practise their religion.
Reports from former detainees claim that women have been forced to take unidentified medication, which in some cases has stopped menstruation, and in other cases has resulted in severe bleeding. The use of female detainees as sex slaves was highlighted by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) who, together with the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), raised serious concerns about the plight of children in detention centres, as well as those kept in separate locations. To hear reports of children as young as six months old being locked up without care or parents is disturbing and shameful for us all.
Dangerous propaganda is being peddled against the Uyghurs. It has been reported that the Han Chinese people who live in the region have been put through state-mandated self-defence drills; that as part of China’s suppression campaign, education portrays the Uyghurs as potentially dangerous extremists; and that a steady stream of Government news paints the Uyghurs as unsophisticated and uneducated.
Interestingly, China has said that it would welcome UN officials to Xinjiang if they follow China’s procedures and restrictions, but that is not how it works. There must be open access without any restrictions. If such a UN investigation concludes that Chinese activity in the region constitutes a violation of human rights, there must be decisive diplomatic condemnation and consequences for China. Human rights violations cannot go unchecked, particularly if sanctioned by the state on a massive scale.
The hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) mentioned a worrying trend developing in Chinese domestic and foreign policy, and respect to human rights abuses more generally. That trend includes sinister practices such as the collection of biometric data, including DNA and voice samples, and the use of biometrics for automated surveillance purposes should be causing us concern—the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) also raised that point. China holds more data on its citizens than any other country in the world, and we must wonder why it needs that data and what it is doing with it. None of us would object to our data being collected if we knew the purpose for it—data on health is fine, traffic data is okay, but we need to know the purpose and the ways it is being used. In China, however, those systems are being deployed without effective privacy protections in law, and people are unaware that their data is being gathered in that way.
Concerns about human rights records in China extend beyond what it does to its own citizens, and it is now trying to prevent meaningful international scrutiny, including at the UN. Human Rights Watch recently reported that Chinese officials are working to weaken key human rights reviews at the UN. China remains a designated human rights priority country for the UK, but with trade and investment becoming more important for the UK in a post-Brexit Britain, there is a concern that the UK’s performance regarding human rights in China is far weaker than it should be. The Scottish First Minister met Chinese officials in April 2018, and she specifically raised human rights in China. Has the Minister done the same, and if not, does he intend to?
Over the past few days we have had debates on subjects involving human rights in different countries. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is utterly wrong to be selective about where we see human rights abuses, and that we should call them out wherever they are, most importantly in China?
Absolutely, although not “most importantly in China”—we must call out human rights abuses everywhere. Look at Saudi Arabia and what it is doing in Yemen, yet we are still selling arms there. We must think carefully about our trading partnerships.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised the issue of Chinese students, which is slightly controversial, and we must think about policy decisions that we take here and how they impact. A few years ago the post-study work visa was removed, and the diversity of our international students was greatly reduced. Far more Chinese students were happy to come for one or two years and go back, as opposed to in the past when students wanted to stay and work here. Because of that, the situation is ripe for exploitation, because different students can monitor the activity of other Chinese students. We need to be aware of what we are doing, and I call on the Minister to discuss the reinstatement of the post-study work visa. There are unintended consequences to such decisions.
Finally, will the Minister take every opportunity in public and private to condemn China’s use of these camps and all forms of non-legal detention? Will he speak up for the rights of children and use all possible levers to cease the practice of forcibly removing children from their homes and families? Will he call out human rights abuses, including violations of the right of freedom of religious belief, and will he seriously consider sanctions against policy makers responsible for human rights abuses in China? Finally, given the high risk to those returning to Xinjiang and other parts of China from overseas, will he hold discussions with his Home Office colleagues to ensure that those who are under threat are not forcibly removed from the UK and sent back to a harmful and dangerous situation in China?
It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Wilson, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this important debate. We are extremely grateful to him, because it gives us an opportunity to send a united message from this House to the Chinese Government about the unacceptability of what is happening in Xinjiang at the moment, and of our shared desire to see the detention camps closed.
I will begin my speech where the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) began his, because on Sunday afternoon I went to a holocaust memorial service in Bishop Auckland in my constituency. Everybody said, “Never again”, and “How did it happen?” It is all too clear how these things happen: they happen when it is too unpleasant or too inconvenient to think about them and people have a desire to look away. On Sunday, we pledged
“to proclaim release to the captives,
to let the oppressed go free”.
We should make a reality of that commitment in the work that we do with respect to the Uyghur community in Xinjiang.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland set out the fundamental problems with the detention camps that have been set up, which we now believe are imprisoning about a million people, perhaps more. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) made a fearless speech; she is becoming well known for being fearless on human rights issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) described the denial of people’s religious rights. She gave a clear insight into how that might feel for this minority. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said that we should look for more reciprocity with the Chinese Government. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) gave powerful testimony and pointed to the important work undertaken by the voluntary sector.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has been to Xinjiang several times, said that it was difficult because Xinjiang is in a very closed part of China, but that none the less we need to shine a light on the situation. The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about Christians being persecuted. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) raised important concerns about the use of modern technologies to oppress people. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) asked how the Government would keep reporting back to us. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) spoke about the impact on children; I am particularly grateful to her for organising a meeting last summer at which we heard from academics who had looked at satellite images, from refugees and from relatives of people who are suffering.
It is absolutely clear that the situation in Xinjiang has deteriorated over the past four years. It is beginning to emerge and become clear to the rest of the world that what was suggested to be an attempt to prevent extremism and terrorism has morphed horrendously into the systematic oppression of a whole ethnic minority, who are being physically abused and psychologically indoctrinated. I am glad that the Minister has answered a number of parliamentary questions that I have tabled about Xinjiang; we know that Ministers have raised the matter and British diplomats have been in Xinjiang and gathered mounting evidence about the problem, but we can do more than tell the Chinese that we do not like the situation.
What can be done? Clearly it is important that we maintain public condemnation of the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, and that we echo the call of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for the Chinese authorities to shut down the re-education camps and facilitate the immediate release of all detainees. It is clear that there has been a lot of focus on work at the UN level; I do not know whether the Minister has also discussed the matter with European colleagues, but I urge him to do so. The Government have the opportunity to continue to challenge the Chinese Government through intergovernmental forums. We would also like them to initiate calls for UN access to Xinjiang, including access by the UN Human Rights Council.
Many of my colleagues have spoken about the problems that asylum seekers face in this country. I know that that is a Home Office responsibility; none the less, it is all very well to talk about human rights abuses—we need to treat refugees well. I hope that the Minister will talk to the Home Office about that.
One possibility that the Government did not have a year ago is to use Magnitsky powers for personal sanctions. An obvious candidate for such sanctions is the Xinjiang state secretary, because it is since his arrival in that part of China that the oppression has screwed down in a particularly nasty way. Well, we have a lever now—let us use it. As well as looking at the activities of particular companies, I would like the Government to consider using export controls on surveillance technology that is used by the Chinese Government to monitor and oppress Uyghur Muslims. They should also review the operation of companies in Xinjiang. The simple message is that we are horrified by this state of affairs and we must always prioritise human rights over trading relations with the Chinese.
I commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate. Mischievously, perhaps, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) put it to us that Orkney and Shetland may be the happiest constituency in the country; on a day like today that may have something to do with its proximity to Norway, but I will not make too much of that point. There used to be a quiz question asked about the right hon. Gentleman and me because my constituency is the nearest to Westminster, while his is the furthest away.
As a last bit of levity in this important, serious and high-profile debate, may I say that it is great to hear from the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse)? She knows that I have a German mother; we used to tease my mother about her malapropisms. If the hon. Lady’s only problem is that she has difficulty in saying the word “reciprocity”, I am sure that very few of us could answer that we know much about Gegenseitigkeit. I thank the hon. Lady and all hon. Members present for the high quality of their contributions today; this is a serious debate and I do not wish to use any more levity.
If I may, I will update the House on the current situation in Xinjiang and the action that the Government propose. I do not have anything like the depth of knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), but I have visited the region, not as a Minister, but on my very visit to China some 16 years ago. I was struck even then by the atmosphere of tension. There was clearly a very large Muslim population in many of the towns and cities of the autonomous region close to the Mongolian border, but there was also a sense—this was only a couple of years after 9/11—that human rights issues were beginning to crowd in. We have seen that happen with much more serious effect in recent years.
The ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang have faced a variety of restrictions on their freedom of religion and belief, freedom of speech and freedom of association over several years—indeed, for decades past. Xinjiang’s energy reserves and geopolitical significance are likely to be key factors in the Chinese Government’s close involvement in the region: Xinjiang is home to China’s largest gas fields, half of its coal deposits and an estimated 20% of its oil reserves.
The Strike Hard campaign was initiated following an outbreak of violence, including bombings and knife attacks, in 2009. As many hon. Members have said, it has developed into the intensive crackdown that we are seeing today. The situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past two or three years, particularly—as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) rightly pointed out—since the appointment of a new regional party secretary, Chen Quanguo. He had previously held the same position in Tibet, where he obviously earned his spurs as far as the Chinese authorities were concerned.
Mr Chen has introduced many of the techniques that he used in Tibet to monitor residents in Xinjiang. In fact, he has developed them further and fused them with a system of “political re-education camps”. However, we should also be clear that although Mr Chen has been a leading architect of the crackdown on the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, culpability for the worsening situation does not lie with him alone. His actions have been supported at the highest levels by the Chinese leadership.
Many hon. Members have already said that there are credible and important reports by non-governmental organisations describing the restrictive and oppressive measures being employed by the Chinese authorities, and quoted those reports. Our own diplomats visited Xinjiang as recently as December last year and their report painted a similarly bleak picture of the oppression being suffered by over a million Uyghurs and other minorities.
Let me speak for a moment about the specific measures that the authorities are using in Xinjiang. Among other things, traditional and unexceptional expressions of religious observance are now banned, from giving children religious names to having an “abnormal” beard or wearing a veil; I think the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) went into some detail about some of the oppressive practices that are being imposed on the local community.
As part of an apparent attempt to redefine Islam and to sinicise the Uyghur culture, extensive cultural restrictions have also been introduced, including the restriction on the use of the traditional Uyghur language. Contravention of the rules is likely to lead to detention and other punishments.
Uyghurs and members of other minorities with overseas connections, whether they have family members living abroad or a history of travel themselves, are deemed to be particularly suspicious and are highly likely to be detained. Families are monitored closely, including by Han Chinese officials, who they are obliged to host in their homes for several days at a time. Outside the home, Uyghurs and other minorities are reportedly watched closely through extensive use of sophisticated technologies, as has been pointed out already, which is supported by a heavy police presence. However, as has also been mentioned during the debate, what most concerns many of us is that over 1 million Uyghur Muslims—more than 10% of the Uyghur population—and other ethnic minorities have at one time or another been held in extra-judicial camps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) pointed out.
It is not known just how long each individual is detained, what chance they have of being released or what the mechanism for release might be, or whether they can appeal their detention. However, what is clear is that these detentions have split up families, left many children effectively orphaned, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) pointed out, and created an overbearing culture of fear.
Much of this activity was considered by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in its report last August. It issued very detailed recommendations, including that China should
“Halt the practice of detaining individuals who have not been lawfully charged, tried and convicted for a criminal offence in any extra-legal detention facilities”.
In addition to the extra-judicial camps, and according to Chinese Government data, criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for an alarming 21% of the total number of arrests in China in 2017, when the population in Xinjiang makes up only 1.5% of China’s total population.
As a number of Members have pointed out, China’s response to the increasing expressions of international concern was initially simply to deny the existence of these camps. Later, it sought to brand them as education and training facilities, and it justified them on the basis of counter-terrorism. As I think all of us know, there have been incidents in the past, but this is a wholly unprecedented and unwarranted over-reaction to that matter.
China claims that the camps are a necessary part of the policy to prevent extremism and that other countries have no right to interfere in its internal affairs. The Chinese authorities naturally have the right to address genuine security concerns in Xinjiang. However, all the evidence to hand suggests that their action is disproportionate and indiscriminate, and it is a response that, as a number of Members have pointed out, will be counterproductive in the long term, because it will exacerbate a whole range of ethnic tensions.
In this way, I believe that China is causing untold suffering to millions of its own citizens. It is also contravening its own constitutional provisions on freedom of religion and indeed its obligations under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UK is, of course, deeply concerned about the situation in Xinjiang. We believe strongly that everyone everywhere should enjoy equal rights and protections under the law. That is why we are promoting and defending human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief, as a fundamental part of our own foreign policy.
It was right that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green pointed out that in areas such as climate change, anti-money laundering and increasingly in combating modern-day slavery, we are making some progress alongside the Chinese authorities. Despite that co-operation, and notwithstanding our deep and strong relationship with China, we must and will have no hesitation about raising these issues of concern. Realistically, doing that at the UN Security Council will not have a great impact. Therefore, doing it in Geneva and through the European Union, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland rightly pointed out, is the more productive way forward.
The situation in Xinjiang is one of the most serious areas of human rights concerns in relation to our relationship with China.
Forgive me; I will not give way because I am running out of time and I want to touch on all the issues.
Our lobbying of China takes place both bilaterally and in multilateral forums. I myself raised the issue of Xinjiang during my visit to five cities in China last July, as did my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary during his visit to Beijing later that month.
In the UK’s “item 4” statement at the UN Human Rights Council in September, we raised several of our concerns about Xinjiang. And during China’s universal periodic review at the UN on 6 November, we pressed China on when it would implement the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In our formal statement during the review itself, we urged China to
“Immediately implement the Committee’s recommendations on Xinjiang and allow the UN to monitor their implementation.”
Additionally, we have applied such pressure both in private and in public, working strategically with likeminded international partners, in particular, of course, with EU member states and others, to raise awareness of our concerns.
I will touch on one or two of the specific concerns that were expressed in the debate. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the moratorium on returns of failed asylum seekers. As has been pointed out, that is a Home Office competency and responsibility. However, I understand that the Home Office has recently updated its guidance notes for asylum caseworkers, which I think reflects the latest situation in Xinjiang, and those guidance notes will be kept under constant review.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East called for an independent inquiry. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said that her office is seeking access to Xinjiang as a matter of urgency, to verify what she regards as very worrying reports about the “re-education camps”. We support her call for access and we continue to urge the Chinese Government to grant unrestricted access to the UN, so that it can take care of this matter.
The hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) talked about Hikvision CCTV, which is a very specific case. We are obviously aware of the reports of Hikvision’s specific role in providing facial recognition cameras for use in Xinjiang. I will be happy to write to the hon. Lady with more details about that, and indeed I will be happy to write to other Members to deal with the one or two other matters that came up during the debate that I am not able to discuss now.
To conclude, the Government watch with very deep concern the Chinese authorities’ crackdown on Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, and in particular the huge numbers of people in detention, apparently without recourse to due process of law. In the interests of the people of Xinjiang and for the long-term stability of that region, and indeed in the interests of China’s own international reputation, it is vital that China implements the recommendations of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and honours its own human rights commitments. We shall continue to urge the Chinese Government to change their course and to meet those commitments.
Thank you very much, Mr Wilson, for calling me to speak again.
I thank the Minister for that response. We should not fool ourselves that we will probably be the main focus of the world’s attention in Parliament today. However, in many ways that is unfortunate, because the debate we have had here today illustrates what is possible in this place when we manage to put aside differences, and find areas of common concern and work together.
In that regard, I hope that today is not just an event itself but the start of a process by which we might take forward our concerns on an ongoing basis, because a very clear message has been sent out from here today, which I hope will be heard not only in this country but in China itself. It is that we know what is going on in Xinjiang and we are not just going to sit back and be bystanders, watching it happen.
I had hoped that today I would be in my constituency, which was confirmed this weekend—in the latest in a long line of similar reports—as the happiest and best place to live in the country, as today is Up Helly Aa day in Shetland, when we celebrate our Viking heritage through a fire festival and burning a boat. Unfortunately, I have to be here, not just for this debate but for other business. So, I thank you, Mr Wilson, for chairing the debate and I thank everybody else who has taken part in it. I wish you all a very happy Up Helly Aa day.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights in Xinjiang.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
We now come to an important debate about the political situation in Venezuela. The debate can last one hour, and lots of people are seeking to contribute. I encourage those who wish to make a speech not to intervene, because that would be having two bites of the cherry. I want to ensure that everybody can make a contribution. I call Graham Jones.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political situation in Venezuela.
I thank the House staff, you, Mr Hollobone, for chairing the debate, and all colleagues who have come to speak about a country that many have followed and taken an interest in for a considerable time.
Since the last debate on Venezuela was held in Parliament two years ago, much has happened. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Venezuela I have chaired many debates and discussions in this place with good attendance and participation by the diaspora, with speakers from Venezuela and Canning House, and other academics. Unfortunately, there has been little positive news from the country. For those who care about others, it has been depressing to see such enormous distress in Venezuela. The authoritarian Government have only strengthened their power via the usurper and illegitimate President Nicolás Maduro, and the usurper legislature, with the establishment of a rival and illegitimate Parliament, the Constituent Assembly, created to delegitimise and dismantle the democratically legitimate Parliament, the National Assembly.
The economy, living standards and overall security have significantly deteriorated. In recent days, inflation has run at more than 1,000,000%, rubber bullets and live ammunition have been used to kill protestors—I believe the total number of fatalities stands at 26 people—and the population has lost on average 10 kg per person through hunger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) on securing an urgent question yesterday. I am delighted to quote what he said:
“The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says that there are 4.1 million people with malnutrition in Venezuela. The Catholic charity Caritas says that 41% of Venezuelans are now feeding on waste in markets. There is a shortage of medicines, including vital antibiotics for children, and blood banks are collapsing. Two thirds of buses in Caracas are out of action because there are no spare parts. An estimated 1 million people have sought refuge in neighbouring Colombia.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 482.]
That is in a country with an abundance of its own assets.
In recent days, Juan Guaidó from the National Assembly has been sworn in as interim President, and that appears to be the first fragile glimmer of hope for the country. The tragic political, social and economic situation in Venezuela has been caused by a failed Marxist revolution, now 20 years old, which was evoked in the name of one of the founding fathers of Venezuela, Simón Bolívar.
I would like to make some progress, please.
Bolívar’s revolution in the 1820s gave Venezuela a legacy of freedom and self-determination. Chávez and Maduro’s Bolivarian revolution in the 21st century plagued Venezuelans with destitution and dictatorship. There is no worthy comparison between the two. Some in the UK claim that Maduro’s cause is a rightful one, and the British left is aligned to that. They are wrong, and those who think that Venezuela is now subject to some right-wing coup are wrong. One is an economy of bankrupt Marxist ideas, and the Opposition represent democratic socialism.
Juan Guaidó, and his left-leaning Opposition, needs our party’s support. His party, Popular Will, is, in fact, a member of one of Labour’s sister parties in Venezuela, and a member of Socialist International, like the Labour party. It is worth stating too that the bankrupt Marxists who have ruined Venezuela over the last 20 years are not members of Socialist International and are, in my opinion, anything but socialist. They, and their fellow Marxist travellers who propagandise about foreign interference, are wholly responsible for a bankrupt economic policy.
It is ironic that those Marxists should reject unwelcome foreign interference. Perhaps they could include their list of friends who seem to be interfering in Venezuela: Iran, Russia and Turkey, who are propping up the illegitimate, authoritarian and kleptocratic regime. It would carry more weight if they knew what they were talking about. The United States, our long term ally, has so far resisted economic sanctions, instead targeting the extreme wealth of the Chavismo politicians, some with links to drugs cartels. The US has also targeted currencies that facilitate the syphoning of Venezuela’s assets into private bank accounts.
The truth is that the “Boligarchs” of Venezuela have ensured that Venezuela’s problems will never affect their luxurious lifestyles. According to the Venezuelan news website Noticias Centro,
“the late-president’s family owns 17 country estates, totalling more than 100,000 acres, in addition to liquid assets of $550 million…stored in various international bank accounts”.
The Marxist hypocrisy is astonishing. Hugo Chávez said:
“Being rich is bad, it’s inhumane. This is what I say and I condemn the rich”.
He also said that
“capitalism leads us straight to hell”
“we must confront the privileged elite who have destroyed a large part of the world”.
Meanwhile, his daughter, María Gabriela Chávez, is reported to be one of the richest people in Venezuela, with a net worth of $4.2 billion. I would like to know where she got that money from.
Finally, it is worth pointing out how the US has so far resisted economic sanctions and continues to allow US companies to purchase 21% of Venezuelan crude oil, which provides the Venezuelan Government with vital overseas currency. It is a regime that is increasingly despised by a majority of its citizens, that routinely arrests, imprisons and tortures its opponents, that mismanages the economy and that profits from narco-trafficking with the cartels, with much of the result finding its way on to the streets of English towns and cities such as mine.
It is not a functioning Government in the name of the people. Speaker after speaker at the APPG has relayed their and their families’ stories of just how bad the situation is, from hunger to property theft, gun crime and the “colectivo”—the Chavismo motorbike gangs that terrorise ordinary citizens on behalf of Maduro. The rest of the international community has a duty to support the values of liberty, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and to support the Venezuelan people at this time, not an oppressive dictatorship that ignores those values.
In the last partially free and fair elections in November 2015, the majority of the Venezuelan people voted in droves for the Opposition, and three years later those people are out on the streets protesting en masse. The biggest priority for the international community is to address a devastating consequence of Maduro’s Marxist regime: the migrant crisis—the exodus of almost 4 million people since 2014.
The Minister said yesterday that
“those who have left Venezuela are in staggering numbers: well over 1 million have gone to Colombia; well over 1 million to Peru; nearly half a million each to Ecuador, Argentina and Chile; and 180,000 to Brazil. This is the biggest movement of population we have ever seen in Latin America”.—[Official Report, 28 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 485.]
I would like to make progress, thank you.
That is a direct result of an economic meltdown, a huge spike in violent crime and a climate of fear towards the authorities, who routinely kidnap and torture those who dare to speak up against the regime. Human rights groups say that Maduro’s forces have arrested more than 12,800 people for speaking up against his regime since taking power in 2013.
The Amnesty report says that the Venezuelan Government are guilty of
“one of the worst human rights crisis in its history.”
It says that there have been 8,292 extrajudicial executions between 2015 and 2017—an absolute totalitarian disgrace. As a result, the Organisation of American States and the Lima Group referred the Venezuelan Government to the International Criminal Court last September for crimes against humanity, citing 8,000 extrajudicial killings, 12,000 arbitrary arrests and the detention of 13,000 political prisoners. It is the first case in which an entire state has been referred to the ICC. President Macri of Argentina said in an interview with CNN:
“For me, there is no doubt: in Venezuela, human rights are systemically violated by steamrolling the opposition and everyone. There is a growing sense that we need to take more forceful action.”
The UN Human Rights Commissioner stated:
“The UN Human Rights Office understands that at least 280 individuals who had been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty for their political opinions, for exercising their human rights, or because they were perceived as a threat to the Government, remain in detention in dreadful conditions.”
Given the scale of the problems, the response has been pitiful. Words have not matched actions, and refugees are suffering in horrendous circumstances. There seems to be reluctance to classify the situation as a full-on refugee crisis, perhaps because that comes with more responsibilities to act than a migrant crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has referred to a “mixed flow” of migrants and refugees pouring out of the country.
I appreciate that the Minister is here today as a representative of the Foreign Office, but I say to him that more needs to be done by the Government to address the human cost of the political crisis that manifests itself not just in Venezuela, but in neighbouring countries and right across Latin America—a point I raised with him in the urgent question yesterday.
From Ministers’ recent answers to questions on aid to Venezuela, we can see that not enough is being done. From the Minister’s responses to parliamentary questions from me, it appears that the UK spends just £10.2 million on aid through various agencies. I note that he told the United Nations last weekend:
“People are starving, children are malnourished, essential items are absent from the bare shelves of bankrupt stores. And from this wretchedness, millions have fled to seek refuge in neighbouring countries where they have been rescued by an outpouring of human generosity.”
I doubt that last point. He went on to say:
“This inexcusable and wholly avoidable wasteland…is entirely the creation of one man and his cronies.”
That contrasts sharply with a lack of commitment in his speech. At no point did the UK Government show any leadership on the refugee crisis or suggest the allocation of further resources. To put it in perspective, the UK Government give £1.6 billion to the Syrian refugee crisis, which makes £10.2 million seem insignificant. According to the National Audit Office, only five applications have been accepted from the 79 Venezuelans who have sought political asylum in the UK since Maduro took power in 2013. We must do more and recognise the crisis for what it is.
Last year, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy went to the border between Venezuela and Colombia to report the experiences of the thousands of people who attempt to cross it every day. The conditions he found were terrible: rivers were crossed on foot, armed gangs constantly patrolled the streets, and the Colombian army was at the border. The area is littered with narcos; the UK Government advice is not to go to those areas. The huddled masses in his film were not optimistic migrants packing up their old life and moving to another country for a job; they were scared, malnourished and resorted to walking hundreds of miles to flee daily life in their home country, which had become unbearable. It is suggested that half the refugees are children, and Colombia cannot cope. One boy cried for his mummy, and another said that the basic meal Channel 4 bought him was worth a month’s wages. Young girls are turning to prostitution.
Who suffers the most? It is the voiceless in society, particularly children. Venezuela’s Ministry of Health published damning figures in 2015. The death rate among babies less than a month old increased more than a hundredfold in public hospitals run by the Ministry. According to the Government report provided by lawmakers, the figure has increased from 0.02% to 2% since 2012. Maternal mortality has increased nearly fivefold in the same period, and 11,446 children under the age of one have died since 2016—a 30% increase in one year—as the economic crisis has accelerated.
In Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s documentary, he met a woman with a small, gravely ill child in her arms. Her daughter has kidney disease and was previously treated at the children’s hospital in Caracas until it ran out of drugs and equipment to help her due to hyperinflation and lack of resources. The only option to save the child was to leave everything and walk to Colombia. In tears, the mother pleaded with the Colombian soldiers to let her in for the sake of her child, whose life would surely have ended had she not received the medical attention she desperately needed. In this instance, the mother and her daughter were granted passage to Colombia. This is just one of the millions of stories of Venezuelans fighting to survive.
I have had the immense privilege of meeting many members of the Venezuelan National Assembly in the past couple of years. They come to London to learn about the Westminster system, and to learn about government. Some of them have risked their own safety and that of their allies by leaving the country and re-entering it when they return. Their bravery is a testament to their belief that, one day, freedom and democracy will rule once again in their country.
As I mentioned, this debate comes after the unconstitutional presidential election in Venezuela last year. The election process was rightly criticised by every country with a functioning democracy. Polling stations in areas of high opposition were closed, and food coupons were given away at others. There were counting irregularities, and people were intimidated in the streets by Maduro and his supporters. It is no wonder that many countries, including the UK, did not recognise the Maduro victory as legitimate. Let us not forget the British company Smartmatic, which provided the software that was used in the 2017 Constituent Assembly election. When it came back to the UK, Smartmatic said that the elections results had been “tampered with”. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, stated that the election
“does not in any way fulfil minimal conditions for free and credible elections.”
It is important to thank Members of all parties who have turned up today to engage in this debate, and I look forward to listening to their contributions. There is consensus among almost everyone, but sadly there are malign individuals for whom the Venezuelan people are no consideration. As I said yesterday in the House, it is vital that the UK Government, who have yet to step up to the plate and do what Britain does best—caring for those in need—begin to put together an international response that meets the scale of the crisis. This is foremost a human catastrophe: human beings, particularly children, are experiencing inordinate suffering. If there is one closing thought, let it be of the children of this or any other refugee crisis, who are suffering tonight and going forward.
I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than eight minutes past 5. The guideline limits are five minutes for the SNP and for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Mr Graham Jones then gets two minutes to sum up the debate at the end. Seven Back-Benchers seek to contribute within 18 minutes, so there has to be a two-and-a-half-minute limit. I call Mark Menzies.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is with great pleasure, but with some sadness, that I rise to support the words of my friend, the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones). As chair of the APPG on Venezuela, he knows only too well the issues that the people of Venezuela face. He has covered much territory and time is short, so I will keep my words focused on the impact on the people of Venezuela, as a side-effect of the economic crisis and political corruption there.
I speak in my capacity as chairman of the APPG on Latin America and not in my capacity as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Colombia, Argentina or Peru, or any other governmental role. I mention those roles because, by going to Colombia, I have seen at first hand the misery of hundreds of thousands of people who have had their normal lives, dignity, and good prospects torn from them, by no fault of their own.
There is no sight more heart-breaking than the one I saw when I went to Barranquilla and Santa Marta in Easter last year. I saw women with children begging by the roadside, in the morning, to be taken by men, in order to get money to see them through the day. No greater humiliation can befall any individual. I saw professionals washing car windows. On the whole, those people are not there to beg, but to survive. They will do whatever they can, and they are the lucky ones.
The unlucky ones are those who are still in Venezuela and who have no medicine. Forget complex cases; if someone is diabetic or HIV-positive, at the moment, they are simply counting down the days to their death because they cannot access treatment or basic healthcare in hospitals. Some 90% of urgent care in Venezuelan hospitals has gone. At the end of last year, Channel 4 produced a documentary, Unreported World, which was one of the most powerful pieces that I have seen.
In the time I have left, I urge the Minister to work with the Lima Group. Let us ensure that we capacity-build for the Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, and that we work with Colombia to look after those people, because by goodness, they deserve better than what they are getting at the moment.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) on securing it. This is an issue on which I have been vocal. It is incomprehensible that democracy is so vaunted but much of the world remains silent. Yet again, I am thankful that this House—the home and foundation of democracy—has not remained silent, and neither has the Minister. He too has been vocal—well done to him, as I said yesterday and say again today.
The Venezuelan Government decided to go ahead with presidential elections without instigating any of the reforms of the electoral system that the Opposition had requested. The Opposition candidates did not participate and claimed that there was widespread fraud, for which there is evidence. The UK, along with the EU, the US and the 14 members of the Lima Group to which the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) referred, has refused to recognise the result as legitimate, and with good reason. I was very shocked to read in the news on Sunday night that a teacher’s salary in Venezuela will currently buy only 12 eggs. What does she have to offer to her family and friends? There must be a swift resolution, and it is past time that we in the UN stopped hand-wringing and began to take action to help the people of Venezuela.
More specifically, the army is believed to be targeting political opponents, and the everyday person lives in fear. That is the kind of regime to which we are diametrically opposed, and the causes of democracy and freedom scream out that we put action behind words and do all that is possible to help in this scenario. The army has killed, injured, beaten, tortured and raped. I believe that it must be held accountable for its actions.
There are supposed champions of human rights whose brand of human rights murders on one hand but battles against supposed slights to human rights on the other. As usual, I will not follow the myopic trail of Sinn Féin, who are attempting to support someone who can only be called a despot, and were one of the first political parties in the United Kingdom to do so. We must do what we know to be right and support the calls for intervention.
Our intention is to do what we should for those who cannot stand alone. If we believe that there must be an interim President, will we offer advice and support? I hope that we will. If we believe that the currency issue must be rectified, will we offer advice and help? Do we have aid to help those who are working, yet are literally starving day by day as the world watches? This Government, this House and the people of this country will not stand idly by. We will do all we can to help. I ask the Minister to let us do everything that we can to help democracy and freedom.
I thank the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) for securing the debate. I speak as vice-chair of the APPG on Venezuela. I have been following the escalation of events closely for some time and have a deep personal interest in them.
In December last year, I sent letters to the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, urging them to be more transparent on the $500 million of gold belonging to the Venezuelan people that is held by the Bank of England. In my letters, I sought reassurance over reports that the Venezuelan Minister of Finance, Simón Zerpa, who had been sanctioned by the US Treasury, and Calixto Sánchez, the illegitimate president of the Venezuelan central bank, had met Bank of England officials and were seeking to take the gold away. Unfortunately, the reply I received from the Bank of England hid behind references to “individual customer relationships” and “customer confidentiality”, rather than directly addressing my concerns.
Two weeks ago, I met the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to express my concerns about the situation in Venezuela, the illegitimate nature of the Government and the importance of ensuring that the dictatorship does not get custody of the gold—we all know what it would do with it. He undertook to repeat my concerns to the Bank of England. I thank him and Foreign Office Ministers for their reassurances as the situation has moved on. I understand that the Bank has independence from Government, but it is a pillar of the state and it is 100% owned by the state, so it is reasonable to expect a high standard from it.
For a while, protests in Venezuela had died down, as a consequence of the sheer exhaustion of the country’s hungry and abused citizens. Juan Guaidó has managed to resurrect democratic voices, gather a strong Opposition—left and right—to Maduro’s autocratic criminal Government, and offer a real chance of change. Maduro has been financially rewarding the military for its loyalty, making it harder for his regime to be overthrown.
As the UK has declared its support for Guaidó, I urge the Government to continue to be forthright with the Bank of England and not allow it to misuse its independence or to cite “customer confidentiality” in an inappropriate fashion. The hon. Member for Hyndburn expressed the bigger picture brilliantly and bravely. Although I understand the political situation for him does not make that particularly welcome, I still think he needs to be congratulated.
In September 2017, I had a heart-breaking meeting with the Venezuelan community in my constituency. I subsequently came to this Chamber to raise the desperate realities faced by their friends and families. Eighteen months on, the economic and humanitarian crisis that they face has soared to unprecedented and simply frightening levels.
I will communicate to the House just two cases that I have been contacted about today. I was contacted by my constituent Erika, who is struggling to support her family back in Venezuela. Sadly, Erika’s sister was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, but has been unable to receive any treatment for the last two years because of the cost and the lack of medicine. I will quote from Erika’s incredibly upsetting email. She said:
“We are not talking about trivial stuff. We are talking about life or death situations. When you need to decide which one of your family members is the one who is going to eat today. If my parents get ill at the same time, my sister may be in the position of choosing which one is going to survive.”
I also heard from local resident Militza. Her brother is a doctor with over 20 years’ experience and a private practice. The Venezuelan economy is in such disarray, however, that he cannot charge more than $1 per patient visit. That solitary dollar gets paid three months later by an insurance company, with an inflation rate of over 1,000,000%. By the time it reaches him, it is almost worthless. His clinic has been robbed twice; his staff held at gunpoint; and his machinery stolen. Over 80% of his patients have lost a minimum of 8 kg since their previous visit, and can no longer afford to attend their regular check-ups.
This House and this country can no longer ignore the situation facing Venezuela. Democracy was breached by the illegitimate Constituent Assembly, and Nicolás Maduro is clearly not the legitimate leader of Venezuela. This is a regime that must be condemned loud and clear.
This is an important debate to me. Yesterday, I was not able to make the main Chamber for the urgent question from the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), so I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) not only for making a superb and comprehensive speech, every part of which I agreed with and which warrants all our congratulations, but for giving me the chance to say what I was not able to say yesterday.
I come to the debate from three different perspectives: as a citizen of the world, with a lot of us seeing this appalling tragedy, one of the biggest in the world and with the potential to become much worse, as hugely worrying; as a citizen of the UK, which has a good international aid reputation, although South America perhaps does not attract quite the international aid focus that it warrants; and in the interests of Colombia, because of family connections and my work with the all-party group, which is particularly important. The scale of the crisis is shocking.
For three weeks in August, during the summer holidays, I visited Colombia. It was shocking to see Venezuelans, with all their possessions, just walking from Venezuela to Bogotá or even Boyacá, where I spent several weeks. They came in twos and threes, on the backs of lorries with all their possessions. It was incredibly sad.
I have one or two important points to make in the short time I have available. One is that we should recognise the way in which Colombia and other countries have behaved towards the refugees. It is a lesson to the world. Colombia has accepted 1.1 million refugees, registering them and allowing them to get jobs. It is an absolutely brilliant way for a country to deal with refugees. We should be incredibly proud of them for that.
In fact, I will leave it at that. I will have to look for another opportunity to say all the things that I would like to say.
There is undoubtedly a crisis in Venezuela, but I am afraid that what we have heard today has been something of a caricature of the situation there. Clearly, the severe crisis affecting the people of Venezuela has been exacerbated by sanctions imposed by the United States of America—[Interruption]—from Barack Obama in 2015 onwards. That has led to the very real shortages to which hon. Members have referred, in spare parts, medical supplies, food and so on, exacerbated by economic sabotage by elites in Venezuela—[Interruption.]
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I am afraid not; we do not have the time.
The rapporteur said that the US was waging “economic warfare” against the people of Venezuela. It is also important to challenge on the record the assertion about the election being rigged. I have spoken to election observers who were there, and they said that although the election process was not perfect, it was not rigged—it is impossible to stuff ballot boxes with ballot papers because each vote is twinned with the voter ID and fingerprint of each elector who votes in a Venezuelan election. A Member of this House, the hon. Member for South Down (Chris Hazzard), has said that it was complete rubbish to suggest that the Opposition were not allowed to campaign, because he saw them doing so openly during the election process.
We have seen this all before, have we not? Manufactured shortages and the intervention of the United States—we saw that in Chile, and we have seen similar influences in Honduras and other Latin American countries. It never ends well. Surely what the UK should be doing, rather than acting as Donald Trump’s poodle, is calling on the United States and the world community to urge the Venezuelan Opposition and Government to get together around the table, to meet and to reach a mutually acceptable solution. There is no place for external intervention by foreign powers.
It is rather impressive to follow an assault on the facts as heroic as the one that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) just presented to us. One only has to look at the whole situation of Venezuela, and to see what has happened to it and the enormous wealth with which it is endowed, to draw the appropriate conclusion about the management of the country and its economy.
I do not intend to add to the evidence adduced by my hon. Friends. In the two minutes left to me, I simply want to ask what the Government will do now. Will they identify all funds belonging to the Venezuelan Government in the United Kingdom and freeze them? Will they place those funds at the disposal of Juan Guaidó when, inevitably, it comes to recognising him on Mr Maduro’s refusal of a new election process? Will the Government provide direct funding to the Juan Guaidó Government through development assistance? Will they start a major crackdown on the stolen and laundered Venezuelan funds that are in the United Kingdom or have passed through it? Will the Government take action against individuals and institutions in the United Kingdom that have facilitated the corruption of the Maduro regime?
Over preceding years, that state has been looted systematically by its leadership, not least the military. I understand Juan Guaidó’s offer of an amnesty, but I am not sure that the United Kingdom needs to be party to that on foreign moneys. Those people need to be held accountable for what they have done to their country.
Will the Government facilitate the immediate transfer of the Venezuelan embassy in London to officials appointed by the interim President? Will the Government withdraw the visas of, and declare persona non grata, those appointed by the Maduro regime to London, inviting them to return to Venezuela? That is a list of concrete steps that one would expect the Government to take. I assume that some of that will be in anticipation of there being no response to the Government and the EU’s collective position on the need for a new electoral mandate for the President.
I also want to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) about the gold held by the Bank of England. My right hon. Friend the Minister got rather a good write-up in the Telegraph today, but I have to say that I do not think that it was entirely deserved, because I think he should have been significantly tougher with the signal he sent the Bank of England about the position of the Government on that gold.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) for securing an important, timely and incredibly factual debate.
As we have heard, the political and economic crisis in Venezuela is spiralling into an economic and humanitarian disaster. Schools are being closed, and hunger is killing Venezuelan children at an alarming rate as stores have run out of food. The country’s hospitals are collapsing under chronic shortages of antibiotics, food and other supplies, and diseases such as malaria and diphtheria have re-emerged. The United Nations has estimated that as many as 3 million citizens—a tenth of Venezuela’s population—have fled since 2015. Almost 90% of those who remain live in poverty. In recent days, the desperate conditions have led to thousands protesting on the capital’s streets in a bid to topple President Nicolás Maduro. Amnesty International has reported that more than a dozen people have been killed in the protests in the past week alone.
Maduro and his Government have overseen Venezuela’s collapse, and yet have maintained a tight grip on power. Last year, Maduro won a widely criticized re-election, with reports of coercion, fraud and electoral rigging. The roots of the crisis lie in the country’s political corruption and economic mismanagement, and a complex combination of short and long-term factors. Venezuela holds the world’s largest supply of crude oil, which has been an essential part of its economy. However, plummeting oil prices in 2016 triggered an economic implosion, and the oil-dependent country lapsed into political turmoil and economic misery.
The economic crisis has been decades in the making, but Maduro has presided over its acceleration. There can be no excuse made for him and his Government. Now, as the parliamentary chief Juan Guaidó has declared himself the interim President, Venezuelans find themselves with two declared leaders, unrest in the streets and foreign powers divided about who to recognise as the legitimate President. What comes next? I fully understand that there will be a range of views across the Chamber, and among those watching this speech, on whether Maduro should stay or go, but it is clear that Venezuela cannot recover while Maduro is in charge.
Research has suggested that most Venezuelans want a negotiated settlement and fresh elections. Previous attempts at talks between Venezuela’s political players failed, due largely to bad faith on the Government’s side. International engagement must take the form of considered action to support Venezuelans inside and outside the country, not crude and dangerous interventions such as we saw today when the US announced sanctions that will only worsen the situation for ordinary Venezuelans. Therefore, can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with his US counterpart about the crisis in Venezuela and the US policy towards the country?
Last Thursday, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy head, said in a statement that the voice of Venezuelans calling for democracy “cannot be ignored.” Constitutional order must be followed. So will the Minister confirm that the UK Government support EU calls for the immediate commencement of the political process that can lead to legitimate free and fair elections?
I turn my attention to the humanitarian crisis that has gripped the country. Venezuelan refugees need access to shelter, medical care, social programmes and employment opportunities in order to mitigate any risk of their becoming vulnerable to recruitment by armed criminal groups active along the border. Therefore, will the Minister tell us what support the UK Government are providing to border countries hosting refugees, particularly Colombia, to improve access to those services? The SNP firmly believes that any approach to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela must address the regional aspect, as the suffering in Venezuela is increasingly felt in the neighbouring nations of Columbia, Peru, Brazil and Ecuador. Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with EU and UN counterparts on providing humanitarian relief to Venezuelans?
The safety and rights of all Venezuelans must be upheld, and the UK must support a return to democracy and the rule of law. Ultimately, the Venezuelan people must choose their own political future. In the meantime, the UK Government must uphold the rule of law and promote strong democratic institutions, while doing whatever possible to help those suffering during this political upheaval.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair this afternoon, Mr Hollobone.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones); he has uncanny timing in securing the debate on Venezuela. He set out very well the humanitarian crisis overtaking the country. There is malnutrition, and refugees in their millions are leaving the country. More than 1 million have gone to Colombia, which puts at risk their peace process. There are shortages of medicines and there are now more than half a million cases of malaria.
Between 2012 and 2016, the oil price collapsed. That was a problem, but mismanagement by the Government compounded it, leading to massive inflation and the collapse of the currency. None of that excuses the Maduro Government’s abysmal human rights and political failings. Amnesty reports excessive use of force against demonstrators and torture of detainees. I believe the May 2018 elections were rigged by the Government and, following serious intimidation, boycotted by the Opposition. It is not surprising, therefore, that they were not recognised by the Lima Group of neighbouring states.
The Venezuelan people should not be a battleground for other countries’ ideological differences. Their welfare and well-being should be at the forefront of our minds. Free and fair elections are the priority. Dialogue and respect for human rights, rather than violence, are essential. Humanitarian support for refugees is needed, rather than the further sanctions announced by the Trump Administration overnight.
Given the rising death toll from the latest protests, does the Minister agree that the Maduro Government must respect the rule of law and move to elections? I note his carefully chosen words in the Chamber yesterday:
“Juan Guaidó is the right man to take Venezuela forward and that we will recognise him as constitutional interim President if new elections are not announced within eight days.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 481.]
That will be 3 February. Usual practice is to recognise whoever is in charge in a country, rather than who we would like to be in charge. The Lima Group is just as concerned as the EU; it has called for elections but has not issued an ultimatum. If Nicolás Maduro does not announce elections, and is still sitting in the presidential palace, supported by the army, on 3 February, what will the UK and EU Governments do? How does the Minister see this situation unfolding?
As Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said yesterday that the history of US intervention in Latin America is “tragic and troubled”. We all heard Donald Trump last week say that all options are on the table. Indeed, the Minister used similar language in October. John Bolton tweeted a note that said, “5,000 troops to Colombia”. The Colombian Government have not been consulted about that; their Foreign Affairs Minister issued a statement saying that an invasion from Colombia is absolutely out of the question.
Will the Minister give us some clarity? Do the UK and the President of the United States include in their list of all options the possibility of military intervention in Venezuela? Have the British Government discussed that with the American Government, and has the UK promised support in the event that the US takes action? Her Majesty’s Opposition would like military intervention to be ruled out.
We all appreciate the huge challenges for neighbouring countries of dealing with the influx of refugees from Venezuela, especially in Colombia, so will the Minister tell us what efforts are being made to ensure that those refugees receive the humanitarian support they need? Will he answer the questions on asylum that my hon. Friends have asked?
Yesterday, the Father of the House said that we should not impose further economic sanctions; overnight, the Trump Administration did just that. Instead, will the Minister use the Magnitsky powers that we gave him several months ago, and impose targeted sanctions against those who are abusing human rights?
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) for securing this debate. I thank him and his many colleagues for their continued interest in and support for Venezuela. I congratulate him on his re-appointment in October as chair of the all-party parliamentary group. However, I very much regret that I am unable to use such a welcoming tone for the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson). He has become a defender of the indefensible, a champion of someone who has impoverished his people, and a supporter of someone who has smashed the rule of law and usurped the constitution. I rather sense that he wants to make himself the most hated man in Venezuela. It is perhaps a race between whether he becomes so there, and whether he establishes that reputation in this House first.
Let me make no bones about it: Venezuela is a failing state in the midst of the deepest man-made economic and humanitarian crisis in modern Latin American history.
I will make some progress, but if I have time, I will give way later.
When I spoke about Venezuela at Chatham House in October, I described the demise of a once vibrant nation, charting, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Derby North, the many decisions that had been taken to prove that this was a Chavista-made crisis and not a US one. Since then we have seen no improvement; in fact, the situation has gone from bad to worse. The social implications are astonishing: four-fifths of Venezuelans are living in poverty. They are vulnerable to malnutrition and disease because of shortages of food and medicines. The poor are not just poorer—they are destitute. More than 3 million people have been driven to leave the country—10% of the population. In the UK, that would equate to almost the entire population of London. That massive exodus puts enormous pressure on neighbouring states, particularly Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. We applaud the remarkable generosity towards Venezuelan migrants of those countries, and that of Brazil and other countries in the region.
As well as punishing his own people, Maduro has damaged Venezuela’s reputation and relations in the region and the wider international community. Instead of diplomacy, he has chosen confrontation. He has deliberately sought confrontation through reckless border incursions by the Venezuelan security forces. He has cut off any means of diplomatic engagement, including by announcing Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Organisation of American States in 2017, and his conduct inexcusably threatens the peace process in neighbouring Colombia.
Under the Maduro regime Venezuela’s democratic institutions, including the judiciary, the national electoral authorities and local government, have been systematically undermined, while political repression and electoral malpractice have increased. The creation of an all-powerful Constituent Assembly in August 2017 was clearly a deliberate attempt to neutralise the democratically elected National Assembly. Over the past two years, election after election has been manipulated, culminating in a presidential election in May 2018 that few apart from the Government themselves considered free and fair. At Saturday’s United Nations Security Council meeting, which I attended, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Arreaza waved a copy of, and spoke passionately about, the constitution, yet it is Maduro who has trashed that constitution and Juan Guaidó who has upheld it.
The political Opposition have been suppressed and intimidated, their leaders have fled or been imprisoned, and we will never forget that the Opposition activist Fernando Albán was detained and then found dead beneath the windows of the national intelligence facility. Some leading Opposition leaders have been imprisoned, forced into exile or banned from holding public office. Maduro has cynically used his control of supposedly independent institutions such as the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council to cement his position. There was global criticism of the May 2018 presidential elections, with allegations of electoral malpractice and the banning of Opposition parties.
Those actions, along with the recent brutal suppression of demonstrations in Venezuela, are symptoms of an increasingly intolerant Government turning to repression simply to cling on to power. Ironically, Maduro’s re-inauguration on 10 January might just have been a catalyst for change, but a clumsy attempt to intimidate the new president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, by temporarily detaining him backfired spectacularly.
We know what has happened recently. During an Opposition protest on 23 January, Guaidó declared the May 2018 presidential elections fraudulent—and they were. Citing article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, he declared himself interim President of Venezuela, and he was swiftly recognised by the United States and 12 Lima Group countries. As of this moment, 22 countries have recognised him as the interim President.
If we get Juan Guaidó as the full, proper President, he will still need to reconstruct the economy, which has been wasted by the Maduro regime. Will the Minister look again at my suggestion yesterday that we need a Marshall plan to get Venezuela’s resources up and running as quickly as possible so that it can, like post-war Europe, sustain itself?
One of the blessings of Venezuela is that it has resources; its tragedy is that they have been exploited and destroyed by Maduro and his cronies. The right hon. Gentleman is right. We will look at anything to try to get those resources serving the needs of Venezuelans, who I hope will be able to return in their hundreds of thousands, if not their millions, to the country they have fled.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said in Washington on 24 January, the UK believes that Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela, and that Guaidó is the right person to take Venezuela forward. As I said at the UN Security Council meeting on Saturday, we will recognise Guaidó as constitutional interim President if new elections are not announced within eight days of that meeting. The sorts of actions called for by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) will be addressed then, as we assess what needs to be done after the world comes together, as I hope it does, to point out and act on the fact that Maduro is not the legitimate President of Venezuela.
The Minister mentioned that he accepts that Venezuela is in a state of crisis. If that is the case and that is the Government’s position, why are they wasting taxpayers’ money on trying repeatedly to appeal the asylum claim of my 73-year-old constituent Nelly Gelves, which was approved by a tribunal? Is it their intention to send her back to Venezuela while it is in that state of crisis?
As the hon. Lady will well appreciate, asylum is a semi-judicial process that is handled by the Home Office. I regret that I am unfamiliar with that case and she did not notify me of it in advance of the debate, so I did not ask the appropriate questions in advance.
In addition to what I have described, the UK stands with Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands in demanding the announcement of urgent free and fair elections within six days, and in calling for a legitimate Government to be established. We stand with the Organisation of American States and the Lima Group, whose members last September referred the Venezuelan Government to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States in saying that the National Assembly and its president, Juan Guaidó, are best placed to lead Venezuela to the restoration of its democracy, its economy and its freedom.
I have no more time, I am afraid. I have to leave the hon. Member for Hyndburn a couple of minutes at the end.
Today, we should all stand together against the tyranny of Nicolás Maduro and in support of the legitimate democratic forces in Venezuela. Venezuela can and must recover from the depths of its current despair. To do so, it needs an end to tyranny, an end to corruption and an urgent return to freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
This has been a very worthwhile debate, and the contributions by nearly all Members were exceedingly valid. I hope the Minister reflects on the questions that Members asked and provides some sort of response to them. I think that would prove worthwhile. This issue appears not to be going away. In fact, it may deteriorate somewhat; we ought to be mindful that the crisis may become even bigger in the coming days, weeks and months.
We must think immediately about the people who are suffering. Yes, there is a political question—yes, there is a bankrupt Marxist Administration running the country down—but right now, as the vice-chair of the APPG on Venezuela, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), said, there is a humanitarian catastrophe. We simply are not putting enough resources in. I am not backing away from attacking the failed Marxist regime, but the people who are suffering should be paramount in our thoughts tonight, this week and next week. We should all take away the experiences that the hon. Gentleman recounted as our lasting memory of this debate. I say in summary that the contribution from the UK Government needs to increase dramatically.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the political situation in Venezuela.