Tuesday 9 April 2019
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Devolution of Welfare
I beg to move,
That this House has considered devolution of welfare.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating this debate and to my colleagues who are here to participate. We are of course meant to be in our constituencies this week, but events have overtaken us, so I am pleased that we are able to use our time in Westminster to discuss an issue that affects many of the people whom we represent. Indeed, the devolution of welfare is set to impact more than 1 million people in Scotland. That is why it is so important that the process is got right.
I want to make it crystal clear that I enthusiastically support the devolution of the welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Act 2016 fulfilled a promise made by the United Kingdom Government—the so-called vow—that voting to remain part of the United Kingdom, as Scots did so overwhelmingly in 2014, would not mean an end to devolution. The Conservative Government established the cross-party Smith commission to look at what should be devolved. The Conservative Government then passed the 2016 Act, which devolved a significant tranche of welfare powers, and my Scottish Conservative colleagues in Holyrood voted for the Bill that has paved the way for Scottish Ministers to take over the powers.
No one can question this Government’s or the Conservative party’s commitment to this process. Devolution of welfare allows the Scottish Parliament to try different approaches, to learn from and build on experiences in other parts of the United Kingdom and to deliver welfare more locally in a way that is more tailored to Scottish needs. That is a good thing.
The hon. Gentleman refers to how things work in other parts of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Assembly is not functioning at the moment as it should be, but when it was, we had a very good relationship with the Conservative party and Government that enabled us to bring in some changes in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions that helped us in Northern Ireland. That involved taking some money out of our block grant. It meant that we were able to help the more vulnerable people. We have very large numbers of disabled people who are in receipt of benefit, whether it be disability living allowance or personal independence payments, across Northern Ireland. A relationship between the Government—our Government, the Conservative Government—and the devolved Administrations is the way forward, and the way to make things happen.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about the importance of different Governments within the United Kingdom working together. Ultimately, and in this policy area in particular, we are helping some of the most vulnerable people in society, and it is imperative that we get it right. That is why this debate is so important.
I think it a good thing that more control over welfare is coming to Scotland, but it is clearly a challenge, and it is obvious that the Scottish National party Government in Scotland have significantly underestimated the challenge. Under the 2016 Act, 11 DWP benefits are being devolved to Scotland. The power to legislate for that has already been transferred. On 1 April next year, the Scottish Government are due to gain “executive competence”, which is essentially administrative control over the benefits. Those are significant new powers. Launching Social Security Scotland, the First Minister described it as an “historic moment”.
Although some of the benefits to be devolved are less substantial—they are of course hugely important to those who receive them—significant benefits will be taken on by the Scottish Government. They include PIP, carer’s allowance and DLA and, as a package, they account for about £3 billion, or just over 15% of total social security spending in Scotland.
The Department for Work and Pensions has been working with the Scottish Government to allow the change to take place. The Scottish Government have previously promised that they will be fully delivering these benefits by the end of the Scottish Parliament’s current term, which ends in 2021. In fact, the Scottish Government previously indicated that they hoped to complete the process by 2020, so the timetable had already slipped slightly. Given that the Scotland Act was introduced in this place in May 2015, the Scottish Government could have got ahead of the game and begun preparing for this process much earlier than they did.
I compliment my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He has mentioned the investment that the DWP has already made in helping the Scottish Government to prepare to assume the devolved powers for these benefits. Does he know how much that has cost the DWP in addition to its usual expenses?
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this incredibly important debate to this place. Does he agree that, in fact, the blame lies firmly at the door of the SNP Scottish Government? I asked a question in the Chamber, and have met the Secretary of State about this matter as well. The DWP did all it possibly could to ensure the Scottish Government were ready to take on these powers. The blame lies firmly at their door, because this UK Government have done everything they possibly can.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; I am going to expand on that a little further. Despite all the rhetoric we hear from the SNP about taking on these powers and many others, it has absolutely failed to fulfil those promises on the delivery of welfare.
By the end of February, the Scottish Government announced that they expected it to take until at least 2024 before this process would be completed. They also said they would not be taking on competence for the severe disablement allowance, instead leaving that controlled by the Department for Work and Pensions indefinitely. The issue is important for this place, because these powers were due to be devolved. It therefore now falls on the Department for Work and Pensions to step in and ensure that the people of Scotland—our constituents—receive the support they need.
All of this is perhaps understandable. Delivering a welfare system is a complex matter that we need to get right. I acknowledge that the UK Government have needed to delay the roll-out of universal credit, which is a much more complex undertaking. The SNP has spent the past decade criticising the UK Government for their welfare policies and demanding these powers, so the people of Scotland expected the Scottish Government to be keen to take them on as quickly as possible. Instead, it will take the Scottish Government nine years to build a social security system, despite one of the benefits being handed back to the Department for Work and Pensions here at Westminster. This is from a party that tried to con the voters of Scotland by saying that they could set up an entire independent country, with all the apparatus that this would have entailed, in just 18 months. This is from a party that is demanding the devolution of all welfare powers to Scotland, as well as a whole range of other powers.
There is not really any disagreement about why this has happened. I am sure the Minister will be tactful in his closing remarks, because the Department for Work and Pensions wants this process to be done properly and these powers to be devolved in a smooth way. However, the fact remains that these delays are entirely the fault of the Scottish Government and their failure to build capacity to deliver a new social security agency.
Department for Work and Pensions officials have been working hard to devolve these powers since the Scotland Act 2016 was passed. Indeed, they were working towards the 2021 timetable right up until the delay was announced by the Scottish Government. There had been warning signs long before, which should have made the Scottish Government think they had to improve progress. Last year, Audit Scotland warned that Scottish Ministers had not done their homework and had no idea how achievable the plans for Social Security Scotland were. It is already costing more than the Scottish Government thought it would, and plans for local benefits agencies are well behind schedule. It is very clear that the Scottish Government underestimated how complex and expensive it is to deliver a social security system, which is why they have caused these delays.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I hope he agrees that it is very unfortunate that SNP Members have chosen to laugh at elements of what he is saying about an extremely serious issue, rather than focus on the debate. He mentioned the Audit Scotland report. Does he agree that it is wrong of the SNP to claim that it was prepared for this, when Audit Scotland said it had not even worked out how much a new benefits system would cost?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is quite telling that there are only three SNP Members here, given the number of Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour party Members. I sense that on this issue, they feel a deep sense of embarrassment about how their Scottish Government colleagues have delivered. They are not bobbing up to make interventions to challenge the points that are being made; instead, they sit and they laugh. The reality is that it is our constituents, the people of Scotland, who are being let down by this Scottish Government failing to deliver.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and commend him on securing this debate, as it will give us an opportunity to set out the positive things that the Scottish Government are doing on social security, as I will when I make my speech. The hon. Gentleman is laying all the blame at the Scottish Government’s door. Can he advise the Chamber on how many occasions the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has met with the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People in Scotland, or with the joint ministerial committee, and how often those meetings have been cancelled as a result of the Department for Work and Pensions’ failure to engage?
The Secretary of State and other Ministers in this Government have been working hard, because we recognise how important the continuation of welfare support is to our constituents and the people of Scotland, and that the Scottish Government have failed to deliver as they have promised. These delays are of huge concern to our constituents, because they raise doubt about the Scottish Government’s ability to take on functions of the Department for Work and Pensions and to deliver benefits in Scotland. People are looking at those delays and are rightly asking whether the Scottish Government are up to the job.
Although the Department for Work and Pensions has stepped in to ensure that benefits will be paid notwithstanding the delay, how long can that go on for? It is far from satisfactory for the DWP and Scottish Government to be working to a presumption that social security will be devolved by 2021, only for the Scottish Government to suddenly announce a three-year delay. Perhaps in his closing remarks, the Minister could provide some clarity about whether his Department was made aware of the new timetable, and whether any further delays are anticipated.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time. Does he acknowledge the comments that have been made by Inclusion Scotland and the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability about the timetable for the delivery of Scottish social security powers? Given that those organisations speak for the people who will rely on those powers being delivered effectively, why is the hon. Gentleman so willing to challenge what they have said in welcoming the timetable set out by the Scottish Government?
I am grateful for that point, but it is astonishing—it is a Scottish Government timetable that has slipped. The hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in Edinburgh—the Scottish Government, the SNP—said that they would try to put the new welfare system in place by the end of 2020. That deadline then became 2021, and then became 2024. It is an absolute failure by the SNP Scottish Government to deliver and match their promises, and I think supporters of Scotland will judge them when the next election comes.
In the event of any further delays, I am confident that the DWP stands ready to step in, but perhaps the Minister could provide my constituents with some reassurances that that will be the case. There are also questions about the additional cost of these delays. Given that the Scottish Government are meant to be taking on these powers, and are spending considerable money on setting up Social Security Scotland, any extra spending by the DWP is an additional, duplicate cost to the public purse. The welfare system is crucial to the life of many of our constituents, and it is vital that these powers are devolved in an orderly fashion so that nobody falls through the cracks. It is important that a new timetable is developed so that the Scottish Government get ready to take on these powers, and there are no further unexpected delays.
One issue that is unique to my constituency, I think, is about the devolution of cold weather payments. In the Scottish borders, the TD12 and TD15 postcodes include homes on either side of the border. For the purposes of cold weather payments, other postcodes in Northumberland use a weather station in Scotland. Some properties will get their cold weather payment from the Department for Work and Pensions, while others in the same postcode should get theirs from Social Security Scotland. If cold weather payments are eventually to be taken on by the Scottish Government, could the Minister confirm whether there have been any discussions about how those payments will be delivered where postcodes are split across the border?
One final issue concerns other welfare powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament by the Scotland Act 2016. As well as delays to taking on devolved benefits, the Scottish Government seem less than enthusiastic about accepting these powers. The Scotland Act devolves the ability to top up reserved benefits, provide short-term payments and create new non-reserved benefits. UK Ministers have repeatedly made their view clear that these powers allow the Scottish Government to compensate women affected by the equalisation of the state pension age. The Scottish Government do not often accuse the UK Government of giving powers away, so the fact that UK Ministers say that these powers have been devolved is a compelling reason to believe this to be the case.
A more detailed look at the legislation clearly shows that the Scottish Government could act in three ways. First, section 24 provides the Scottish Government with the ability to top up pensions and, therefore, compensate women affected by this change once they reach the new pension age. This may not be an ideal solution; none the less, the Scottish Government accept it as possible.
Secondly, section 26 allows for payments to provide help with short term needs if payment is required “to avoid a risk” to the person’s wellbeing. The Scottish Government claim this requires each case to be individually assessed, but this is simply not true. The legislation allows payment merely to avoid a risk of harm. That is a low threshold. If the Scottish Government’s language about the impact of these changes is accurate, the threshold is clearly met.
Thirdly, section 28 allows the Scottish Government to create new non-reserved benefits, except to provide a pension or provide assistance merely by old age. This does not prevent the Scottish Government from taking action, because compensating Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign women before they reach pension age does not amount to a pension nor to assistance due to old age, which, in the context, clearly means the state pension age.
A letter from the then Minister for Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), in 2017 made the Scottish Government aware of this point. My hon. Friend wrote about section 28:
“Whilst this power cannot be used to provide pensions to people who qualify by reason of old age, many of those affected by changes to the state pension age will not have reached state pension age. As a result, this broad power does offer the Scottish Government the possibility of introducing financial support to help this group.”
Clearly, this is another way in which the Scottish Government could step in but fail to do so.
I have huge sympathy for the women affected by this change and I have been working with a number of them in my constituency to help them manage the process. However, I have no time for the SNP’s position on this matter, which is completely inconsistent. The SNP might not want to take action to compensate these women; that would be a perfectly legitimate position. The SNP might want to take action but feel it would be too costly; again, that is an entirely legitimate position. It is not legitimate to try and make political capital out of a group of women who clearly feel wronged, and mislead them about the Scottish Government’s ability to help.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very eloquent argument as to why the Scottish Government can pick up the WASPI problem, but this matter also rests with the Government. In his view, is the Government’s decision not to compensate the WASPI women legitimate or is it democratic?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I support equalisation of pension age. This is how devolution works. Just as we have different policies on prescription charges and university tuition in Scotland, potentially, you could have a different policy in Scotland about how women of a certain age are supported. I support the UK Government’s position, but there are options open to the Scottish Government to take a different approach. However, they are exploiting these women for party political purposes and for no other reason.
I support the equalisation of the pension age. It is quite astonishing for the hon. Lady to almost deny the devolution settlement. This is how devolution works. Different parts of the United Kingdom can pursue different policy objectives. The hon. Lady is almost arguing for the abolition of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government’s ability to take different decisions and pursue different policy objectives. Why not accept that they have the power and ability to take action to compensate those women and support the Scottish Government in taking a different approach if they choose to do so?
Given that the hon. Gentleman is advocating his support for 1950s-born women, is he in favour of the UK Government’s pension credit changes, which will go through in May, which are being referred to by WASPI women as a toy boy tax?
I support the changes. I have supported a number of my constituents. As I have said, the equalisation of the pension age is right. People are living to be older, and it is right that men and women are entitled to their pension at the same age. This is another example of the Scottish Government’s failure to take action when it has the power to do so. Despite all the rhetoric demanding more powers, they have an inability to use those powers.
Devolution of welfare by this Conservative Government has made the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the Scottish Government have found taking on those powers such a challenge. The latest delay is surprising, given the SNP’s criticism of the system they are inheriting. It is important that the Department for Work and Pensions continues to do all that it can to ensure the orderly transfer of welfare powers and to ensure that the recipients—the people of Scotland; our constituents—continue to receive the support they need.
It is great to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. If the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) will allow me to refer to him as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, that might save us a little time.
This is a strange debate, because we have two parties—the Conservatives and the SNP—arguing when they are both culpable for why we are here. Since 2010 the social security system has been completely and utterly discredited by a deliberate narrative from the then coalition Government that welfare was a bad thing. They completely changed the narrative in this place, and indeed in the country, from social security being a safety net to welfare being bad. That is part of the problem we have today.
Between 1997 and 2010, the previous Labour Government created a system that lifted millions of pensioners, and millions and millions of children, out of poverty. We should be incredibly proud of that. Since then, most of that has gone backwards in the name of austerity, which has been a political choice rather than a necessity. Before Conservative Members, if they wish, pop up and go on about the employment statistics, which are welcome, most of the decline in terms of poverty comes from in-work poverty—people actually in work.
It is a fantastic thing, but it is bad that most of those children are in poverty when they were not before. Social security is a sensitive subject, and we must be careful about the language we use.
I want to reflect on what the Smith commission has done. In response to the 2014 independence referendum, a commission was put in place that allowed all the parties to come together to find consensus about what the next stage of devolution to the Scottish Parliament should be in the devolution journey.
I am glad that Members across the House now extol the virtues of sections 24, 25 and 26 of the Scotland Act 2016, because while the Conservatives and SNP argued about the minutiae of what was not in the Bill, Labour were promoting changes at the Dispatch Box. We proposed amendments to put stuff into the Bill that could have been there, such as my amendment 31. The amendments that went through in the House of Lords gave Scotland the power to create its own social security system. The Scottish Government can top up any reserved benefit and create a new benefit in any devolved area; that is incredibly important. That is why it is so frustrating that the devolved powers have been delayed. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Berwickshire mentioned the WASPI issue, because it is a key aspect of the way the whole issue has been dealt with.
The hon. Gentleman will understand the difficulty and complexity of delivering a combined social security system—one that has to interact with a Department that is putting roadblocks in the way of some of the flexibilities and changes that the Scottish Government are looking to achieve. Can he outline an area where the Scottish Government could have gone more quickly, such as the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018? Could that have been quicker? Is there any area where he thinks things could have moved more quickly than they have?
That is an interesting intervention. I admit I am not an expert on social security, and I would not claim to be. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the intervention. However, is it not interesting that, whereas the Scottish National party social security spokesperson was telling everyone in 2014 that an entirely new state could be set up in 18 months, the matters we are discussing have been delayed not twice but three times, in 2016, 2018 and 2019? That was with respect to benefits that the SNP claimed had to be in the Bill and had to be devolved immediately, and that it would be able to deal with.
I will not, because the Chair has said we have only five minutes.
I wanted to mention the WASPI issue. The WASPI women in my constituency are beside themselves that the issue has not been resolved. Both parties, and both the Scottish and UK Governments, are culpable of robbing WASPI women of the pensions they have worked hard for. Scotland could use the powers at its disposal to take a different course, but its Government refuse to do so, because they would rather create grievance than deal with the issue.
It is important that the people of Scotland know we have an inhumane welfare system across the UK at the moment. Scotland can make a different choice and create its own welfare system. The UK Government have created a situation that means Scotland has the ability to do something different. The SNP Government of Scotland refuse to do so. They have delayed it until 2024—eight years after the passage of the 2016 Act. At the same time, disabled people and WASPI women in Scotland, in particular, are suffering. The SNP Government should hang their head in shame.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this important debate.
We have already heard about the foundation Acts of 2016 and 2018, enacted by the UK and Scottish Governments respectively to devolve various welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament and facilitate delivery of the new social security benefit scheme in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s website states that
“the benefits we will deliver may be different in nature but there is one common thread which binds them—an investment in the people of Scotland”.
I am afraid that that common thread is fraying. Delivery is delayed. The Scottish Government’s investment to date is not timeously delivering the promised benefits for the people of Scotland. The Scottish Government will, over time, take on only 10 of the original 11 devolved benefits. The severe disablement allowance remains with the UK’s DWP. The transfer of responsibility for a number of other devolved benefits, such as personal independence payments, is on hold—not until tomorrow or next week but until 2024.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned severe disablement allowance and he will be aware that no new recipient has been admitted to that benefit for 19 years. Can he describe what changes, and what difference, the Scottish Government could make to that area of benefits?
That is entirely up to the Scottish Government. It is devolved. It is another ball that they have dropped and are not prepared to pick up.
The state of preparedness of the Scottish Government’s social security agency is such that it is unable fully to administer and make its annual payments of circa £2.9 billion. The Scottish social security system is apparently failing to fulfil, at least in part, one of its own stated principles, which is
“to be efficient and deliver value for money”.
I understand that Audit Scotland is due to report on a further audit, of how effectively the Scottish Government are managing the delivery.
The Scottish Government’s stated aim of improving benefits for disabled people and people with ill health is laudable, and I applaud it. However, I note that assessments may not be carried out by the private sector, so there is potential for an already overstretched public sector to inherit that significant, important responsibility. In an earlier debate, I acknowledged previous concerns about the DWP assessments that are carried out by the private sector, and those concerns are being addressed. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions advised in February 2019 that the average wait for an assessment had been reduced by nearly four fifths since July 2014, while the average end-to-end claim journey had been significantly reduced.
No. My concern with the Scottish plan of action is that constituents complain about the public sector, for both the length of time that they have to wait for an NHS appointment and the shortage of specialist medical staff. That said, I fear that either the waiting time for those constituents could increase or the decision-making process for benefit claimants could take longer. I note that the Scottish Government, in response to recent questions, have proposed to do away with some assessments and re-assessments unless there is no other way to obtain information.
In future, constituents need clarity. Will the Minister consider enhancing public awareness of the revised timetable for the Scottish Government—assuming that that is much wanted and desired—in their responsibilities to devolved benefits? The current situation is not good for the people of Scotland who rely on those benefits; it is not good for the Scottish devolution settlement; and it is not good for Scotland. It lies firmly and squarely at the door of the Scottish Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate both the Backbench Business Committee and my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), on securing this most timely debate. We find ourselves discussing the devolution of welfare, and I shall start by echoing some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray).
What is welfare? It is the bottom line below which we feel that people, as part of our community, should not fall. Somehow in the last 10 years, however, that argument has changed to looking at the most vulnerable people, as they are described—rather than people who are in the most vulnerable positions—as being something less, and possibly unworthy. They are certainly seen as a group who should pay for the problems, errors and omissions of the parts of society that led to the economic disaster. That is an appalling state to reach.
Our communities are being fractured enough, with the closures of banks and GP surgeries and the collapse of the high street, but they are now also being asked to turn against themselves and look down their noses at a group of people who find themselves in desperate situations. That is a truly appalling position to be in. I find it disingenuous when I listen to arguments, both in the main Chamber and in this one, in which those people are held up as those who should suffer most for the faults of others.
The Scotland Act and the devolution settlement in Scotland opened up the opportunity for something more. It opened up the opportunity for a fairer and kinder system, and to tailor welfare to the people who are closest to those who make the decisions. We find ourselves arguing over delay and postponement. That is an appalling situation, because those individuals, families and single mothers and children cannot wait for a more humane situation. They come to my surgery on a weekly basis and contact me almost daily. I find it appalling that the set-up of a system has been postponed until 2024.
I ask both the Minister, out of respect—he kindly asked for a civilised debate, which I think that we should have—and the SNP spokesperson: what went wrong? Was it the responsibility of those who advised the Scottish Government, or were flippant statements made with a level of enthusiasm for welfare that could not then be fulfilled? People in Scotland deserve an apology for the situation that they find themselves in. So much was promised and, at present, so little has been delivered.
I know that I have little time, and I would like raise the matter of PIP and epilepsy. Earlier this year, I lodged early-day motion 2124 on epilepsy and PIP payments, particularly in Scotland, where 55,000 people suffer from debilitating seizures, which seriously affect their mental health. Those people had hoped that the PIP system would become fairer and kinder, but they are now looking far into the future for that to occur. Will there be an apology in respect of those people and the situation that they suffer?
I want to ask both the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson about Motability. The Scottish Government have indicated they do not want to take it on, yet it is a benefit that individuals have come to me about. A constituent who suffers from spinal issues fears that the approach of the Scottish Government will be the same as the DWP’s and that she will lose the opportunity to use Motability to manage her condition.
Lastly, I seek reassurance on the people who have found themselves falling foul of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Originally brought in to help deal with terrorist activity, it is now being used to decide whether people are fit to work or are less disabled than they say they are. I met a constituent only last week who was still awaiting a decision so that she can appeal it. She is trapped in a circle; there are no responses from the DWP, so she cannot appeal a decision. There are no responses from the investigation unit to decide whether any criminal procedures will take place. Locked into that labyrinthine nightmare, she looks to the Scottish Government and asks genuinely whether things will get better. On the evidence that we have heard about the two delays, I fear that that will not be the case.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to follow the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who made his usual thoughtful speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this Westminster Hall debate.
I remember the conversation back in September 2014. The SNP had produced its blueprint for an independent Scotland, which it claimed was a White Paper, but, as it has transpired, was a work of pure fiction. Events have proven that beyond doubt. On page 339 of the document there was a timeline for independence, and it put independence day in March 2016. That is a total of 560 days from the date of the referendum to the date of independence: 560 days to set up an entirely new country from scratch. The timeframe would include all the negotiations on how Scotland would withdraw from and have a future relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. On reflection, how extraordinary those dates and numbers now seem, and how ridiculous, particularly in the light of what has transpired in relation to Brexit.
Today’s debate is about the establishment of the devolved Scottish social security system. The Scotland Act devolved the powers and they passed into law on 23 March 2016. The Act delivered on the promise made to the Scottish people about devolving more power to our Parliament. It fulfilled the commitments of the Smith commission, to which all the parties in Scotland contributed and agreed. The noble Lord Smith of Kelvin has confirmed that all the commitments made in the commission’s report have been delivered, so the powers in relation to social security should be transferred to the Scottish Government on 1 April 2020, but the SNP will not touch them. It will cost more than £308 million to set up Social Security Scotland. The SNP claimed, just five years ago, that it would cost £200 million to set up the new Scotland that it falsely promised the people of Scotland. In February, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security announced that the Scottish Government would not be in a position to introduce and own the devolved powers until at least 2024.
My hon. Friend is right that the Scottish Government have not touched the powers. The nub of the issue is this: their only desire is to have the constitutional change of independence, which means using any mechanism at their disposal to attack the UK Government, bash Westminster, and use the politics of grievance rather than come up with solutions to help people.
My hon. Friend is correct; there is no issue that it is beyond the SNP’s powers to politicise and use for its own nationalist agenda. Clearly, these things are more complex than they seem, and I accept that. I do not really want the SNP taking these powers and using them if it cannot handle them, because we are talking about the lives of the most vulnerable people in Scotland, who deserve to be protected from any possible incompetence on the part of the SNP. The SNP’s track record on IT systems alone is a horror story, and the farm payments fiasco is a warning.
The hon. Gentleman warns of the problems that his constituents could face if this system is not delivered effectively. To his credit, he has been a critic of this Government on universal credit, so does he not think it a tad ironic to be speaking about the potential incompetence of the Scottish Government who are delivering a safe system when his Government have presided over the shambles of universal credit and personal independence payments?
The hon. Gentleman is someone I respect, but we are talking about the Scottish Government’s willingness to accept powers that have been devolved to them, and their unwillingness to touch those powers speaks volumes about them. They will now take until 2024 instead of 2020. That is more than 3,000 days’ notice—six times the number of days the SNP told us it would need to set up the new Scotland that it promised the Scottish people in 2014. This is the sad state of affairs of the SNP.
The fact is that the SNP does not want to have to handle these powers, because they are difficult powers to handle. Welfare and benefits are expensive and complex; they need politicians to be grown up, to make difficult decisions and to show leadership. Let us be clear: the next time we hear SNP politicians in this place or elsewhere deriding welfare reform or bemoaning a decision that they view as disadvantageous to their constituents, they will be complicit. The SNP Government could have set up a social security system; they could have grasped the nettle and dealt with this, but, through either political cowardice or sheer incompetence, they have failed the challenge.
The people of Scotland are sick and tired of the SNP and its excuses. Devolution works. The powers are there. It is simply the nationalists who, through their wilful negligence, are leaving Scotland to stagnate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
I thank the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for calling this debate, which is timely and important, particularly for me. When full transition happens, I will have the largest number of constituents claiming universal credit of any constituency in Scotland, so it is something that particularly affects my constituents.
I suppose this debate leads us to reflect on why we are in politics and what our purpose is as Members of Parliament. For me, it is about building a country that has the capacity to ensure that the maximum number of its people are able to work, sustain themselves in a dignified way and achieve their opportunity. Enabling everyone to have that opportunity will improve our collective function as a society and our capability as a country. That is, in essence, what I want to achieve in Parliament and in politics and why I am a member of the Labour party.
Let us look at the record of the last Labour Government on child poverty. In 1998, there were 3 million children in poverty. By the end of the last Labour Government, that had been reduced to 1.6 million. Sadly, under the coalition and pure Conservative Governments since, that figure has risen to 3.7 million. That is shameful; and before there is any hubris from the Conservatives on welfare or social security, I just want to make clear that that is a shameful stain on their record.
That is a function of a society that has seen the narrative of removing the shame from need and the creation of a floor below which none can fall and everyone can rise completely destroyed. The ideal of the Attlee Government in creating the social security foundation that built the welfare state has been thoroughly damaged by this Government. That is the main take-away from this debate and one that cannot be dismissed.
However, I also reflect on 20 years of devolution and the great opportunities that we saw from it. I still remember, as a nine-year-old, watching the opening of the Scottish Parliament and that parade down the Royal Mile, and the great optimism in the immediate aftermath of a Labour Government coming to power, as well as the great opportunities sensed by people. The Parliament was built not just for the inherent right to have a Scottish Parliament, but as a functional thing that would achieve objectives. In my opinion, one of the key objectives was to have an effective bulwark against a future Tory Government that might attack the fundamentals of our social security system and welfare state.
The Scotland Act 2016 was passed in that spirit. That was due in no small part to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who fought valiantly to ensure key amendments to the Bill, in particular the power to top up reserved benefits, which gives the Scottish Government a significant measure of autonomy. That autonomy is combined with the great opportunity of the United Kingdom’s fiscal union, which each year delivers £10.2 billion extra for Scotland—£1,900 per person—to invest in the economy and public services. That would not be achievable under independence. Therefore, the Scottish Parliament has been pump-primed with a great measure of financial capability to achieve change in the face of an onslaught by the Conservatives, who wish to cut the fabric of our society and our public services.
With this delay we have seen a huge failure to live up to the expectations of devolution. Around 60% of all social security has now been devolved, with the exclusion of the state pension, which is an automatic stabiliser. That is a huge opportunity for Scotland. There have been some improvements, such as the ban on private sector involvement in assessments, but that was thanks to Labour’s campaigning efforts in the Scottish Parliament. There was a commitment to reduce face-to-face assessments—that was a Green proposal—and short-term assistance is now paid if an award is reduced and the applicant subsequently asks for a review or appeal.
However, we have also seen the Tories and SNP unite in Holyrood to vote down a £5 per week top-up to child benefit, by using the Social Security (Scotland) Bill and the budget processes. There has been an endorsement for the uprating cuts, which has blocked Labour’s move to revert to the retail prices index when uprating carer’s allowance. The 2011 cut based on the consumer prices index has cost carers £1,000 since 2011, while Tory uprating cuts have cost Scots £1.9 million in the past decade. Those are just some examples of a complete failure to live up to expectations. We need radical and effective measures, which is what we seek to propose, and we encourage all parties to live up to the expectations that people had when devolution was first delivered 20 years ago.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing this debate.
Government figures illustrate that 1 million people in Scotland now live in relative poverty, which equates to one in every five Scots. They also highlight that 240,000 children in Scotland are living in poverty, two thirds of whom come from working households. The Independent Food Aid Network found that more than 480,000 crisis food parcels were distributed by Scottish food banks between April and September 2018, which included 27,000 parcels in North Lanarkshire and in my constituency. The Government are presiding over a crisis of in-work poverty, child poverty and food poverty, and their policies are directly contributing to that with the failing roll-out of universal credit and the unjust benefits freeze.
The central purpose of devolution is to give the Scottish Government a chance to take different decisions, yet the SNP Scottish Government are far too timid in their ambitions for a devolved social security system. Eleven benefits have been devolved, including PIP and DLA, which are worth more than £3 billion to Scots every year. The Scottish Government have shown no sign that they are prepared to take responsibility for those benefits, having twice asked the DWP to delay devolving them. Scottish Government Ministers now admit that the full devolution of benefits will not be completed until 2024, leaving hundreds of thousands of Scottish claimants to languish under the welfare reforms of this Tory Government.
I should stress that I welcome some of the positive changes that the Scottish Government are seeking to make to the devolved social security system. I am pleased that the responsibility for evidence gathering for assessments will be shifted away from claimants. I am glad that short-term assistance will be paid to those who find their awards reduced or who are challenging decisions through the appeals process, and I welcome the commitment to reduce the number of face-to-face assessments. However, I continue to have concerns that much of what is wrong with the current UK welfare reforms will remain in place in the new devolved social security system. There will be no changes to the rate of benefits. The current points-based system and assessment indicators for PIP will be retained, and the mandatory reconsideration process will not be reformed in any meaningful way.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the PIP points-based system staying the same. In many constituencies the change from DLA to the PIP-based system has meant huge losses for people. In my constituency, it amounts to £2 million a year. Does he not agree that that is shameful? Surely the Scottish Government could take action immediately to resolve it.
That is indeed something that the Scottish Government could do. They want to be the Scottish power. They talk down here about “owning Scotland”. Well, start owning Scotland and start making changes to help people—our constituents.
The SNP has voted against topping up child benefit by £5 a week and against reverting to uprating carer’s allowance by RPI, and failed to mitigate the two-child limit. In the Scottish Parliament, Labour has already secured legal guarantees that the devolved social security system will have automatic split payments for universal credit and a ban on private sector involvement in assessments. We have committed to using the full powers available to take action, such as topping up child benefit, mitigating the two-child limit and bringing forward the income supplement that families across Scotland so desperately need. While I welcome the devolution of welfare, there is little point if the Scottish Government are not prepared to use their powers. That is why a Scottish Labour Government, committed to using those powers, are so desperately needed. If we are to tackle the crisis of poverty, make Scotland Labour.
I am pleased to speak in this debate and to be the first woman called. Although we have had some interesting perspectives from men, it is important to note that welfare affects women disproportionately. We have women who are still mainly carers, women in low-paid jobs, who will often be working all the hours they can get while also caring for their children or perhaps elderly relatives, and also women affected by Government pension decisions, which have again been squabbled over. It is women who are affected by many of these policies, so I am glad to be able to speak.
I thank the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this debate. It is encouraging to see many of his colleagues here. However, when I listen to much of the arguments, I think about my constituents who come to my office every week, some of them in dire situations. They need support and advice, and often they need help. I think about one constituent, a young woman called Kelly, who is a fantastic woman. She is a working single mum in education who is currently on universal credit. She told me that she was once left with £6 in a month, which was supposed to support her and her young son. She was not sure why that had happened; it was not explained to her. She did not come to me and say, “Who should I point the finger at? Is this the Tories or the SNP? Which Government should I be angry at?” She just wanted it to be sorted out. She just wants a welfare system that works, so when I sit here and hear this blame game, it is very frustrating, because it is not really helping her.
We have heard a lot about the delay in devolving welfare powers that the Scottish Government have presided over. I will not go into that, because it has been well covered, but we have also heard about some of the changes that are not actually changes. We hear that the SNP wants more powers, but what is the point if it will not use them to improve things?
The recent consultation on disability assistance in Scotland and the position papers published just last month showed that the Scottish Government’s plan is to replicate much of the existing Tory-designed benefit system. Given that we hear criticisms of that system from SNP spokespeople, why do they want to keep much of the same? Severe disablement allowance is being devolved in name only and then outsourced back to the DWP, which is mind boggling.
I always call for more working together, and there has been some on this issue; however, I fear it has not been very positive. As some of my Labour colleagues mentioned, the SNP and the Tories have worked together in the Scottish Parliament to vote down a policy that would have supported 4,000 families and lifted 5,000 children out of poverty, yet cost the Scottish Government only 0.2% of their budget. There has to be a better way.
Labour has been leading the fight to improve social security for people in Scotland. For example, Scottish Labour pushed the Scottish Government to accept automatic split payments of universal credit—something that the SNP has now embraced and often takes credit for, despite voting against the initial move to amend the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 at stage 2, voting with the Tories. It remains unclear how split payments will be administered in Scotland. Will the Minister update us on that? What is the current timetable for implementing them in Scotland, and have the Scottish Government proposed a split formula?
The Minister and the SNP spokespeople in Westminster and in the Scottish Government need to work together to find a genuine way forward. I want to see less blame and more action to deliver for Kelly, my constituent, and the people who come to my office in need of help and a better system, because there is a better way.
Thank you very much, Mr Betts. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you, my Finance Committee colleague, in the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing the debate, as it gives us an opportunity to talk about the great work being done by the SNP Scottish Government—
At least let me get started.
With support from other parties and brilliant stakeholders in Scotland, we are working to build our new social security system. I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk has a newfound interest in this area. Until now, he does not appear to have had much of an interest in the work and pensions brief since arriving in this House. A quick look at his speaking record shows that he has never mentioned universal credit or employment support allowance, and has raised personal independence payments—[Interruption.] I will not be shouted down, Mr Betts. The hon. Gentleman has raised personal independence payments just once, which, given the case that I and other colleagues have in this area, I find surprising.
If other search terms are entered, however, the number of mentions made by the hon. Gentleman rockets up. “The Scottish Government” gets 242 mentions, “the Scottish National party” gets 37, “the SNP” gets 116 and “independence” gets 43. That is quite the contrast. Those speaking records perhaps speak not just to his intentions today, but more to what he regards as his purpose in this place: not so much being part of a bloc of Scottish Tories holding this shambles of a British Government to account, but trying to do the job that he left as an Opposition Member of the Scottish Parliament.
I will tackle some of what the hon. Gentleman said and highlight some of what he conveniently forgot to say. I note that he did not once mention how the Scottish Government could safely deliver the new system any faster. I think we were right, having learned from the unsafe and disastrous delivery of universal credit and the personal independence payment, to take our time, do this properly and deliver it safely for our constituents who depend on it.
The hon. Gentleman speaks about delivering functions in Scotland. Could he perhaps advise Westminster Hall how the SNP has done when it has tried to deliver things in Scotland—for example, paying our Scottish farmers, delivering i6, the IT system for Police Scotland, or delivering a social security system? Is it not the fact that it is failure, failure, failure under the SNP?
I wish to put on record my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman and his wife on the safe delivery of their new born—I think this is the first chance I have had to put that on record. He has a bit of cheek when he talks about farmers, given the way that the Tory Government robbed Scottish farmers of their convergence uplift money. I do not think that is a safe area of ground for him to be campaigning on.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk described the timetable that the Scottish Government have come forward with as a failure, despite it being welcomed by Inclusion Scotland and the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability. I challenge him to point out the areas of contradiction with those organisations, which speak for those who depend on the safe delivery of this system.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) was right that the Scottish Government can do something different, and we are. We are creating a system that is based on dignity and respect, which I think is something that the Scottish Government and the Labour party agree on. We are looking to do something different in Scotland, which is why we have been working together in Holyrood on so many areas, in order to deliver that system. However, the hon. Gentleman did not answer how the system could have been delivered more quickly and fairly, so I am happy to allow him to intervene and describe that.
The narrative from the SNP Scottish Government has always been, rightly, about generating a new system that is more respectful of its claimants. Can the hon. Gentleman lay out why the Scottish Government are completely refusing to do anything about the WASPI women?
That is not actually true, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. We have been campaigning very hard in Westminster for the problem faced by the WASPI women to be sorted across the United Kingdom. He constantly talks about not having any differences between people in Livingston and people in Liverpool; we are in agreement on that. This issue should be sorted out for those women across the United Kingdom, and his ire should be directed at the Minister to resolve the situation.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) asked why there was a delay. Again, we have been working hard to deliver the system as quickly and safely as possible, but sadly there has intransigence on the part of DWP Ministers. There has been good engagement—[Interruption.] No, it is not nonsense. There has been a good level of engagement at official level, but successive Secretaries of State have missed joint ministerial working group meetings and refused to allow the Scottish Government to utilise some of their powers, such as separate payments, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. There are areas where we are looking to make changes and develop new policy, but sadly the DWP is putting roadblocks in the way of that progress.
The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), who to his credit has been critical of this Government on the roll-out of universal credit, has not quite taken his concerns in that area to their logical conclusion when it comes to the safe delivery of a new devolved system. We have learned from the shambles of the poverty-inducing roll-out of universal credit and the problems with personal independence payments, and we are determined to deliver the new system safely. It benefits and supports the people of Scotland.
Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) secured a debate on the delivery of welfare. In criticising that debate, the hon. Gentleman said:
“Of course, the Scottish Government are proceeding quite nicely as they build the new Scottish social security agency.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2018; Vol. 638, c. 119WH.]
Does he stand by his comments in last year’s debate?
Yes, I do. The hon. Gentleman is a former Member of the Holyrood Parliament, so he knows how quickly legislation can progress through Parliament, and he knows the steps that need to go through in order—[Interruption.] I will not be shouted down. The hon. Gentleman knows how legislation goes through Holyrood, and knows that these things take time. Sadly, we are now, thanks to the intransigence of DWP Ministers, in a position whereby certain things are being delayed. I go back to the point that the hon. Gentleman had never mentioned universal credit and had mentioned PIP once before today’s debate. I am very surprised at that. He does not seem to have a problem with the delay—
No, I am answering the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk first. He does not appear to have a problem with the delay or the problems in the roll-out of universal credit or the roll-out of PIP. He has never mentioned those before, despite the constituency case load that I imagine he has in those two areas, yet he uses this place as a battering ram to criticise the Scottish Government. That says more—[Interruption.] That says more about the hon. Gentleman’s intentions than it does about the Scottish Government’s.
I have listened to this gang of Trumpists shout and bawl and try to shout people down. Does my hon. Friend agree that the main issue, the real issue, is that the DWP and Social Security Scotland will truly share clients? Not once have we heard from a Conservative in this debate about clients—about people, about the poor—and what that means. The Conservatives have completely ignored the fact that universal credit is being delayed to 2023, which will have a real impact on all claimants.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He serves on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, so he knows these issues well. Of course, what the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and some others in the debate forgot to talk about was the fine work that the SNP Scottish Government, as a minority Government, have achieved by gaining cross-party consensus to protect the people of Scotland from the worst damage being inflicted by this poverty-inducing Tory Government. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents do not need to pay the bedroom tax and can still receive council tax benefit. If they are in receipt of carer’s allowance, they will have had a significant uplift in their payments. They can still get access to education maintenance allowance. Some 316,000 low-income households in crisis in Scotland have been helped to buy essential items, such as nappies, food and cookers, through the Scottish welfare fund—a local crisis grant system almost completely abolished elsewhere by the Tories. And we have set a clear path to deliver a new—sadly, it is limited to just 15% of spend—social security system based on dignity and respect. That is all with 55% of taxpayers in Scotland paying less than they would elsewhere in the UK. It is a more progressive tax system that sees those at the top paying a little more and those on the lowest incomes paying a little less.
I am concluding.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk also forgot to mention the catastrophic introduction of universal credit and PIP, which has literally ruined lives. He calls a debate to attack a responsible Government making responsible progress to deliver a fairer social security system, but ignores the tragedy of his own party’s disgusting attack on low-income families. He ignores disabled people having their Motability cars removed. He ignores people on universal credit left in poverty. He ignores a freeze on benefits that is predicted to plunge 400,000 more children into poverty. So forgive me, Mr Betts, but the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland will take no lessons from the hon. Gentleman or any other Tory party member preaching about how to deliver a social security system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. It was almost a “Get the popcorn out” moment there.
I thank the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing such an important debate. He is on record as saying:
“Devolution has been a good thing for Scotland”
because it has
“the potential to bring power and decision makers closer to the people.”
That principle is a rare example of something that I can agree on with him. It is a historical reality that the Labour party and the late Donald Dewar were the architects of this landscape—a legacy that has strengthened the voice of Scotland and democracy in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) made me realise my age when he pointed out that he was just nine years old at that time.
To Labour Members, two things are clear from this debate. First, devolution of powers alone is not enough; we need an Administration willing and able to use the powers available to them, with a defining mission to reduce poverty and the political drive from the centre to get on with it and not to delay, delay and delay. Secondly, while devolution of particular policies may be a positive step, as we can all agree, it does not absolve the Conservative party, which conceived, developed and delivered a poor, failing policy here in Westminster, of responsibility for its effects elsewhere.
The Tory Government, as has been pointed out by Opposition Members, have used social security as a vehicle for cuts, with more than £37 billion taken away from UK citizens since 2010—£3.7 billion taken away from Scottish citizens. The effects and consequences of universal credit, as was rightly pointed out by most Opposition Members who have spoken, are a direct result of the Conservative party’s designing and pressing ahead with a policy that is deliberately under-resourced, cruel and unfair. That policy is causing hardship across the United Kingdom, and Labour Members are all too familiar with the effects on our constituents.
Those effects continue to be felt strongly in Scotland, but they have not been mitigated by the SNP-led Scottish Government, even though they have the power to do so. That is a cause for great regret and disappointment for Scotland’s Labour Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament.
It is a great disappointment that in a debate on such an important topic, the SNP Members—who are the Scottish Government—did not even bother to turn up. Only the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), their spokesman, has been here for the whole debate. They have come in and out like a magic roundabout, but they have not stayed for the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a shame on the SNP?
The hon. Gentleman has made his point.
Mitigation is essential, and a lack of it is a cause for unnecessary hardship and continuing poverty. It certainly shames both the Westminster and Holyrood Governments that that continues. Although legal powers to run benefits in Scotland will pass to the Scottish Government in April 2020 as a result of the Scotland Act 2016, the SNP-led Administration have wilfully delayed using those powers in full until 2024.
The spend accounts for some 16% of welfare, or £3 billion. As has been pointed out by Government Members, the SNP is a party that claims it can create an independent state in 18 months. Twice, SNP Ministers have asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay devolving social security, in 2016 and 2018, which means that, over the next five years, we will have a ludicrous situation in which SNP Ministers will, effectively, send millions of pounds down south to pay the DWP to run social security provision in Scotland.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the absurdity, if the DWP is so evil and malevolent, of the Scottish Government’s effectively paying it to continue to administer the system. Even after the full transition has happened under the revised timescale of 2024, severe disablement allowance will still be outsourced to the DWP and still visiting harm on the Scottish people. Surely that is an absurdity?
Yes; it is another failing of fine and warm words but nothing happening in reality.
While those agency arrangements are in place, SNP Ministers are blocked from making changes to any of the benefits the DWP delivers. They are not able to intervene in aggressive debt recovery or even to change the inflation measure to uprate benefits. While the SNP dithers and sits on its hands, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) has pointed out, thousands of families are falling into poverty every year. Both parties are concentrating on avoiding responsibility, rather than using what levers of power are available to change the failing policy.
The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about the high poverty levels that we have throughout the United Kingdom. However, will he reflect on the fact that the poverty rate in Scotland—although far too high—is significantly lower than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and that that might have something to do with the different policies that are being pursued in Scotland to ensure that we eradicate poverty as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time, and is making an excellent speech. We have talked about mitigating factors in the Scottish Parliament, but some of the key mitigating factors, such as mitigating the bedroom tax, were implemented only after significant and persistent Labour pressure. Indeed, John Swinney, who was finance Minister at the time, said that he did not want to let the Tories off the hook; he would rather the Scottish people suffered to make a political point.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent record of Labour in Scotland, campaigning to change things for people on the ground.
Together, SNP and Tory politicians repeatedly voted down a £5 a week top-up to child benefit during the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill and the budget process. In February, they endorsed George Osborne’s uprating cuts, blocking Scottish Labour’s move to revert to RPI uprating of the carer’s allowance. During the recent budget, the SNP refused to mitigate the two-child limit—a policy that would have supported 4,000 families and lifted 5,000 children out of poverty, and would have cost just 0.2% of the Scottish budget. After years of warm words and claims that it will build a system based on human rights, the SNP relied on the Tories to block the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights from being included in the social security Bill.
Labour Members know the effects of Tory welfare policy all too well, wherever in the United Kingdom we represent. We have heard about those effects today: my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian argued that we need bold action for women born in the 1950s, and was right to highlight the woeful response of the Tory Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) argued that in-work poverty is a major problem in Scotland, as well as out-of-work poverty, with over a million people in Scotland living in poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) attacked the political choice of austerity, and called for a social security system that draws on the founding principles of the Attlee Government: security, opportunity and dignity. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) correctly pointed out that she needs to be the champion of women in this place, because women are disproportionately affected by that political choice of austerity—a choice made by this Tory Government.
Labour believes that the Tories’ approach to welfare is flawed and failing. It is a story of failure that begins with the Tory Government in Westminster’s cruel and unnecessary welfare policies, but has been worsened by the decision by the SNP Government in Holyrood not to use their powers to effectively mitigate those policies. As a result, it is a story of hardship and hunger, wherever in the UK a person is affected.
My questions to the Minister are simple. First, will he accept that universal credit is failing? It is cruel in design, it is under-resourced, and its roll-out needs to be halted. How about scrapping the benefit freeze, the two-child limit and the five-week wait? Hardship is hardship, wherever we are in the UK. Finally, will the Minister confirm whether the devolution of welfare to Scotland could have happened earlier, had the Scottish Government not asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay the process twice, in 2016 and 2018? The only way we will change things is by having a Labour Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing this important and timely debate. He spoke with great passion. He cares deeply about his constituents and he wants an effective welfare system in Scotland that leaves no one behind, which is something that we all want to see. We have heard passionate speeches. If I have time I will refer to some of the points raised. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for their contributions today.
To reiterate the context of where we are—colleagues have set this out—the Scotland Act 2016 provided a significant shift in the way that welfare would be delivered. As has been said, we are transferring responsibility for an estimated £2.8 billion of welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament, which currently support around 1.4 million people in Scotland. That will of course have a major impact on people living in Scotland as we move into a shared welfare space for the first time.
We should not underestimate the significance of the task. We recognise that responsibility for many vulnerable claimants will be transferred to the Scottish Government, and it is vital that both Governments get it right. The DWP has been instrumental in the Scottish Government’s delivery to date of certain benefits, and we will continue to support them to achieve their plans. We must ensure that the transfer of the welfare powers proceeds in a safe and secure manner with the claimant at the heart of what we do. That is why we have established strong Government structures, including a joint ministerial working group on welfare and joint working practices to oversee the transfer of powers and to ensure that we work together to identify and mitigate any issues that arise.
The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) raised points about the ministerial working group. As he knows, there was a recent meeting that was both cordial and constructive. In terms of the support from DWP, we have approximately 80 DWP staff working exclusively on the Scottish devolution programme. Between 2015 and October 2018, DWP managed more than 2,297 requests for information from the Scottish Government. I gently point out to him that I do not think there is any intransigence on our part. He knows that I am happy to take up cases, and we are meeting later today to discuss a constituency case that he has.
Following Royal Assent to the Scotland Act 2016, the DWP has worked hard to support the Scottish Government in the transfer of powers. We have given them access to DWP payment and customer information systems to support their delivery, as well as providing training and knowledge transfer as they build up their capability. We have provided support to enable them to deliver their new employment support programme, Fair Start Scotland, with DWP work coaches making the majority of referrals.
As we approach the first anniversary of the programme, the Scottish Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills has recently written to me to praise our staff in Jobcentre Plus for the work that they have done to date. It is important that politicians talk not only about the challenges. Of course we should challenge each other to get things right, but we should also praise and acknowledge good joint working when it takes place.
Since 2017, we have also delivered Universal Credit Scottish Choices, giving people in Scotland a choice over the frequency of their payment and whether their housing element is paid directly to their landlord. We supported the Scottish Government to deliver their first new benefit, the best start grant, and we are on track to support delivery of their replacement for funeral expenses payments later this year. Critically, since September 2018, we have been paying carer’s allowance on behalf of the Scottish Government, enabling them to pay a six-monthly supplementary payment to carers in Scotland.
The Minister is setting out well some of the areas where there has been good working between the Scottish and UK Governments, particularly at ministerial level, as I said in my speech. I should put on the record that there have previously been problems at ministerial level between the two Governments, but in the most recent exchange of letters the Secretary of State appears to make a more conciliatory and helpful suggestion for work going forward. So I hope that the two Governments will be able to work together constructively, whereas previously that has not happened.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Over the past few years we have been working constructively, and we want that to continue. My hon. Friends definitely want that. They come in to see me and the Secretary of State regularly to raise issues, and it is right that we continue in that spirit.
Many lessons have been learned in the first wave of devolution, such as in the transfer of accountability of carer’s allowance, where the DWP continues to pay carer’s allowance on behalf of the Scottish Government but under the same rules and rates as for people in England and Wales. It is vital that we consider these lessons as we move forward with the next wave of delivery.
I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind, because time is short.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) criticised the Government’s delivery of universal credit. I believe it is working, and we have put in an extra £6 billion to support the most vulnerable in the past two Budgets, which unfortunately he has not been able to support in votes. I point him to the summary of a Public Accounts Committee report from 2005 on tax credits, which says:
“In April 2004, the Committee reported on the severe problems following the introduction of the New Tax Credits, which meant that several hundred thousand claimants were not paid on time.”
I gently point out that we all want to get the system right, and I am not sure that constantly criticising is the best way forward.
As colleagues have noted, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People recently announced the Scottish Government’s delivery timetable for their replacements to the current disability, carer’s and industrial injuries benefits, as well as replacements for winter fuel and cold weather payments. The timetable proposes that the Scottish Government will progressively take over responsibility for delivery from April next year, with the final cases being transferred by 2024. That reflects the pace that the Scottish Government believe that they can commit to and is achievable.
On timing, it will be for the Scottish Government to keep it under review. The Scottish Government’s plans involve considerable work for DWP in both supporting them to achieve their ambition and, as necessary, continuing to deliver benefits on their behalf. We share the Scottish Government’s commitment to a safe and secure transfer, and our priority is as seamless a transfer as possible from the person receiving the benefit’s point of view.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk raised a number of issues in his remarks. He spoke of his concerns about the Scottish Government’s delivery plans, the continuity of provision for his constituents and the cost to the public purse from the DWP continuing to deliver devolved benefits on behalf of the Scottish Government. We will, of course, continue to work with the Scottish Government, and costs arising from the DWP’s delivery of services on behalf of the Scottish Government will be reimbursed by the Scottish Government.
Many other points were raised, and if colleagues want to write to me I will be happy to respond to them. A number of colleagues mentioned WASPI. It is for the Scottish Government to determine how to use their powers to make further payments, including to fix issues for those individuals.
The devolution of welfare powers represents a significant constitutional change that will require substantial work by both Governments to ensure that the people of Scotland are well served. We are committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government. I look forward to the future and seeing the Scottish Government successfully delivering their new social security benefits for the people of Scotland.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed. It is telling that we had only one substantive speech from the Nationalist benches; the other 34 SNP Members obviously find it very uncomfortable. I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), but it is telling how much time he spent in preparing for this debate counting off how often I have spoken in this place and how many words I have mentioned; never mind trying to defend the Scottish Government’s record. It is more about a social media clip than anything else. The Scottish Government are always pleading for more powers and control over welfare, but it has taken them nine years to get 15% of welfare, so it would take 60 years for them to get full control over the welfare budget.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Our job is to ensure that our constituents—the people of Scotland—are getting the welfare support that they deserve, and I am pleased that the UK Government are taking action to deal with the failures of the Scottish Government.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered devolution of welfare.
Waste Incineration: Regulation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the regulation of the incineration of waste.
It is particularly pleasing to open this short debate this morning for three reasons. First, it is good to talk about anything other than Brexit. Secondly, it is good to have a fellow Yorkshireman in the Chair and as Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which is looking at the Government’s waste strategy in a short inquiry. Thirdly—I hope we can reach some consensus across the Chamber—this debate is inspired by two rising stars. I am glad to see one of them, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), in his place. He is the first ever shadow Minister for Waste and Recycling combined. The second, who not in his place as he has other business today, is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. When I pointed out at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions recently that new incinerators could divert waste that might otherwise be recycled, he said I had a good point. That is perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me during questions. I am particularly glad for those three reasons.
I wish to put three propositions to the Chamber. First, there is a case for a moratorium on incineration. We have quite enough incinerators to deal with residual waste at the moment. Secondly, the Environment Agency should be more robust in its approach in enforcing the waste hierarchy. Thirdly, the Treasury should continue to look—as it has be doing publicly in recent months—at whether a tax on incineration should mirror the landfill tax.
I acknowledge at the beginning that there are many Members in the Chamber today and I will happily take interventions. There is an organisation called the UK Without Incineration Network that is to be commended on the quality of the information it provides. Indeed, in reporting on an industry conference, an industry paper said that if Paul Davidson, who is a strong lobbyist for incinerators,
“wanted technical and other details”
about individual incinerators,
“he went to the website of implacable opponents UKWIN.”
Mr Davidson was reported as saying
“It’s a great website. It’s a disgrace that that is the best source of information.”
When I form my first Administration, the organisation’s chief co-ordinator, Shlomo Dowen, will be the first person I will recommend for a peerage.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. There is no doubt it will be lively. He has just hit the nail on the head. When incinerator operators apply for licences from the Environment Agency, a lot of bureaucratic and complicated paperwork goes with that that prevents local residents from scrutinising some of these applications. Does he agree with me that more needs to be done to unpick that information to make it more accountable and transparent for local residents?
I agree. Many residents feel that the Environment Agency’s job seems to be to try and do everything possible to nod through the application rather than rigorously interrogate it. Indeed, as I pointed out in my opening remarks, the Environment Agency has responsibilities under the Waste Regulations (England and Wales) 2011, passed by the coalition, to enforce the waste hierarchy, which puts reuse and recycling at the top. It fails to do this.
In my constituency of Swansea East, in the very pleasant community of Llansamlet, Biffa is currently attempting to get permission to build one of those incinerators and 2,500 members of the local community have come together to object. Does my hon. Friend agree that placing such a facility in the middle of a community is detrimental to its health, schools and homes and that we should be looking at other ways of disposing of our waste?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene in this brilliant debate. I agree with his propositions, particularly on the waste hierarchy and the likelihood that incinerators will reduce both the amount that we recycle and our attempts to reduce waste in the first place. Does he agree that there is a risk, through so-called gasification, that we may have incineration by another means, and that it is absolutely right that applications should be considered—if they are to be considered at all—only if they are away from centres of population, on the precautionary principle?
Some 7,000 constituents in Carnbroe rejected this for 11 years, and the council fully backs the community. The Scottish Government keep overturning that decision, however, and keep coming back. Will anyone listen to the communities who actually have to live with the incinerators?
At the moment, my constituents are very worried about proposals for a new incinerator the size of Battersea power station in the Hampshire downs countryside, which is a rural location, not an urban one. It would be in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), whom it is good to see in her place. Given that incineration is not recycling and the proposals would lead to countless lorry movements just to feed the machine, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be good to hear from the Minister about where the Government see incineration in the hierarchy of waste management in England today?
My hon. Friend knows that I have a long-term interest in the sector. Indeed, he can check the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I have always been interested in energy from waste. He should be very cautious about calling it “incineration”. Energy from waste is at its best—looking at Sheffield or the new power plant in Leeds—when, for most of the town or city, it not only feeds into the electricity supply, but is a large contributor to it. On the other hand, if the heat is retained and heats the whole of the centre of Sheffield, as it does, it is a very valuable part of the balance that we need. We can never recycle everything, and if we do not have that balance between good quality energy from waste, recycling and minimising throwing stuff in holes in the ground, we are lost. I would love that sort of facility in my constituency, where we have an old-fashioned incinerator, but all the heat goes out into the atmosphere.
I say to my hon. Friend that I used to chair the last but one coalmine to close in this country; Hatfield Colliery, in Yorkshire. Incinerators actually emit more CO2 per megawatt-hour generated than any other fossil fuel source, including coal. On CO2 and global warming grounds alone, we must consider that.
I will go back to my remarks about whether we have enough incinerators. Only one independent analysis is widely respected: Eunomia’s. It is an environmental consultant with expertise in this area that has issued 12 reports, the last of which was published in July 2017. The analysis clearly demonstrates that operational incineration capacity has grown rapidly, from 6.3 million tonnes in 2009-10, to 13.5 million tonnes in 2017. Additional capacity is assessed to be 4.8 million tonnes.
I appreciate that many councils and local authorities are entering contracts relating to providers of incineration. In doing so, they are diverting waste that should be recycled, because of those contractual agreements. That is creating a big problem.
The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. It creates a perverse incentive for local authorities which, on the one hand, have a duty to recycle, but on the other must fulfil a contract that they have entered into. That means that when Eunomia did the analysis it looked at a series of projections, assessing the capacity of the incinerators against the availability of the feedstock of waste. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I would point out the assumed levels of recycling to which we are committed in Yorkshire in particular. We are committed to a recycling rate of 55% by 2025, 60% by 2030, and 65% by 2035. Eunomia and, indeed, the Government have accepted that we will have enough incineration capacity to meet the residual waste, given those recycling targets. Tom Murray, the deputy head of resources and waste policy at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said this year:
“Our evidence is suggesting that, when we meet recycling targets…recycling will leave no capacity gap”
with respect to incineration.
The way I would help local authorities to recycle more would be to tax incinerators, just as landfill is taxed, to give them the money to increase recycling rates. That is being considered by the Treasury at the moment. The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury said recently that the Treasury
“would be willing to consider a future incineration tax once further infrastructure has been put in place to reduce…the amount of plastics that are incinerated, further improving the environment and reducing the amount of throwaway single-use plastics.”––[Official Report, Finance (No. 3) Public Bill Committee, 6 December 2018; c. 299.]
On the point about incinerator tax, does the hon. Gentleman agree that in situations where, as in my constituency, there is a proposal for a major incinerator yards outside the constituency boundary, and local people feel they have no ownership to enable them to affect the outcome, whether through their MP or councillors, it is particularly important that any tax that might come in should be shared broadly with neighbouring communities, and not just in the council area where the incinerator is?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There are precedents that can be looked at, such as the landfill tax. However, I hope that the Government—any Government—will rapidly bring the matter to a conclusion, to give certainty. Instead of just flirting with the idea of taxation it is now time to act on it.
If the House will indulge me, in my remaining couple of minutes I need to refer to the outstanding application in the Keighley area. I commend the work of Aire Valley Against Incineration, which has campaigned hard on the issue. There is planning permission. It is quite unusual to apply for planning permission and not to apply at the same stage for an environmental permit. I do not know whether the Minister would have a comment to make on that. The application for an environmental permit bears little resemblance to the original planning application. Fifty per cent. more waste is envisaged. There is planning permission for 100,000 tonnes, and an extra 48,000 tonnes is now being added. The layout of the buildings and chimney stack has changed. The nature of the waste that might be burned has changed. The planning committee was told that only residual waste in the form of refuse-derived fuel would be included. Now the Environment Agency is being told that the facility will accept residual, commercial and industrial waste of a similar nature to unsorted municipal solid waste.
There is therefore great concern in the community. We hope that the Environment Agency will do a rigorous job. There is even more concern because of the nature of the company involved—Endless Energy, which is not even a member of the trade association. It is based in the Isle of Man. It has two directors who have been named by the Environment Agency. One of them, Rajinder Singh Chatha, was the controlling force behind Oddbins, which has recently gone into administration. A tax tribunal recently found that he was
“intentionally misleading about some of the explicit lies that the tribunal has found were told to HMRC”.
It decided that he was not a fit and proper person to be allowed to sell or distribute duty suspended alcohol. He is not a fit and proper person to sell alcohol! Despite the pleadings of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that this industry should be given a fair chance, these people are cowboys. Until recently cowboys were running Keighley Cougars, our proud rugby league team, but they have now gone. I will be writing to the chair of the Environment Agency to ask how it can possibly trust a man who the tax authorities say cannot be trusted.
I will not give way to my hon. Friend for a third time, but I look forward to having a cup of tea with the chair of the all-party group for Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire, and restoring our friendship. In the meantime, I hope the Front-Bench speakers will be robust about this. Obviously the Opposition Front-Bench speaker cannot speak on this occasion, but there is a chance that we could reach agreement on incinerators, perhaps even before we reach agreement on Europe across the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) on securing this important debate. It has clearly attracted a lot of attention from Members across the House.
The hon. Gentleman has particular concerns about the growth of incineration and the potential for overcapacity, and the negative impact that that might have on the drive for increased recycling. In the waste hierarchy, incineration is only above landfill, and we want to ensure that we reduce, reuse and recycle. Whether that involves promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy, the actions taken will allow us to extract maximum value from resources, and recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their lifespan. We set that out clearly in our resources and waste strategy, which also set higher recycling ambitions. Those include delivering a 65% municipal waste recycling rate by 2035, and a minimum 70% recycling rate for packaging waste by 2030.
Hon. Members will know about the increase in recycling rates between 2001 and 2017-18, and local authority recycling has more than tripled, increasing from 12% to more than 42%. Over the same period, waste sent to landfill has gone from 79% to 12.5%. Policies aimed at diverting waste away from landfill have meant that the volume of waste being treated at energy-from-waste plants has increased, but that growth must not hinder recycling ambitions. Even after delivering higher recycling levels, there will still be waste that we cannot recycle or reuse, either because it is contaminated or because there are no end markets for the material. Our overarching ambition is to manage that waste in a way that maximises its value as a resource, while minimising the environmental impact of its management.
We currently deal with such waste in three main ways: landfill, incineration with energy recovery, or export as refuse-derived fuel. Landfill is the least favoured option for waste. We have been clear in our strategy that we wish to reduce the level of municipal waste that is sent to landfill down to 10%—or less—by 2035.
I was about to answer the hon. Gentleman’s point so I will not give way. He has already contributed twice to the debate.
Energy from waste or incineration with energy recovery should not compete with greater waste prevention, reuse or recycling. England currently has enough capacity to treat around 36% of residual municipal waste, and the projected increase in recycling thanks to our resources and waste strategy measures will reduce the future level of residual waste treatment infrastructure that is required. However, energy from waste will continue to have an important role in diverting waste from landfill—that is the point that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) tried to make clear.
I will not. That is the best management option for most waste that cannot be reused or recycled, in terms of environmental impact and getting value from waste as a resource.
Energy-from-waste plants are regulated by the Environment Agency in England and must comply with the strict emission limits set by the industrial emissions directive. Every application for a new plant is assessed by the Environment Agency to ensure that it uses the best available techniques to minimise emissions, and that it will not have a significant effect on local air quality. The Environment Agency will not issue an environmental permit if the proposed plant will have a significant impact on the environment or harm human health. Once operational, energy-from-waste plants are closely regulated through a programme of regular inspections and audits carried out by the Environment Agency, which also carefully checks the results of the continuous air emissions monitoring that all plants must do.
Hon. Members should also note that Public Health England’s position remains that modern, well-managed incinerators operated in accordance with an environmental permit are not a significant risk to public health. The Government have been clear that we want to maximise the resource value of waste, including residual waste. That is why we are working to drive greater efficiency of energy from waste plants by encouraging the use of the heat those plants produce.
I am trying to respond to the hon. Member for Keighley, who brought this 30-minute debate. I am conscious that other people have made points, but I will deal with his points first. He specifically referred to the Aire Valley incinerator; I am aware of what is being proposed, and I understand that City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council has granted Endless Energy, formerly known as the Aire Valley Energy from Waste facility, planning permission to develop such a facility for the recovery of energy from non-hazardous waste, to be built on the site of the former gasworks east of Keighley. The proposed facility will use standard incineration technology to generate electricity.
Endless Energy has also applied to the Environment Agency for an environmental permit, which it will need to operate its facility. The agency is carrying out a full technical assessment of Endless Energy’s proposals to determine whether a permit can be issued. The Environment Agency has consulted the public as part of its determination and has received more than 2,000 responses. It also consults Public Health England and the local government director of public health on every energy from waste plant application that it receives, and takes their comments into account when deciding whether to issue a permit.
On a point of order, I have never been in a Westminster Hall debate where a Minister has refused to give way, even when she has mentioned the person who wants to intervene. I have never known a Minister fail to give way and just read her speech and ignore the fact that this is a debating Chamber.
As I say, I am trying to answer the points made by the hon. Member for Keighley, whose debate this is. He referred to a planning application, but he will be aware that it will not be a matter for the national Government in this instance to determine whether the changes to the planning application are appropriate. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) have a planning application that is under way as a nationally significant infrastructure project, I believe. They will be aware that again, I cannot comment specifically in that regard.
However, it is important that we recognise that one of the things we are doing in the resources and waste strategy is effectively removing this condition, which I believe is where the hon. Member for Keighley has a problem, of TEEP—technically, environmentally and economically practicable—exemptions, which allow exemptions based on technical, economic and environmental differences. Under the proposals that we have put out in the consultation, which we hope to include in the Environment Bill in the next Session of Parliament, there is a specific removal of that TEEP exemption on what councils will be required to collect for recycling. It will determine not how they collect it but what they collect.
Therefore, that situation will no longer arise; if the responses to the consultation agree with what the Government believe is the right policy to take forward, councils will no longer have the ability to simply say, “It is not economically viable for us to do this anymore.” That is quite a revolution in the resource and waste strategy.
Returning to the point about the Environment Agency’s being more robust, there are some challenges relating to how the EA can implement the TEEP exemptions with councils in its considerations. That is an important part of why we are pushing forward that proposal in our consultations, which I hope will be in the future Bill.
Will the Minister give way?
I am very conscious of the quality of people being considered. That is another reason why we are starting to make changes, which I hope the Environment Bill will strengthen, that will allow the Environment Agency to assess the different offences that people may have committed. At the moment, it is restricted specifically to issues surrounding waste. We are broadening that out.
I do not know how that would apply to the issue to which the hon. Member for Keighley referred about somebody not being licensed to sell alcohol. I do not know what that would mean with regard to offences, and whether such a condition would be introduced. I assure him that the industry is fed up of cowboys taking this on, but it is important that the district council and the Environment Agency have different roles in the assessment of energy-from-waste plants—one is about the planning, the other is about the environmental impact and keeping in line with the industrial emissions directive.
The hon. Member for Keighley has suggested an incineration tax previously. As he pointed out, tax policy is generally a matter for the Treasury. Although energy from waste can play an important role in reducing the amount of waste going to landfill, in the long term we want to maximise the amount of waste used for recycling. Again, wider policies are set out in our resources and waste strategy. Changes that we will introduce to the extent of producer responsibility will effectively incentivise the design of products that are much more straightforward to recycle.
That is an opportunity, but I am also aware that industry and the Environmental Services Association are concerned that, if we do not reach 65% in that time or do not make progress more quickly, there will be a lack of incineration. In effect, that will be a commercial decision for them to consider, but, as was mentioned earlier, we want to encourage the use of the heat that plants produce, and to work closely with industry to secure a substantial increase in the number of energy from waste plants that are formally recognised as achieving recovery status R1. We will ensure that all future EfW plants achieve recovery status.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) rightly talked about transparent information for residents. I am conscious that some environmental assessments are very technical. That is why we have the Environment Agency to make that judgment. However, there is still an opportunity for residents to table questions either directly to the developer or to the Environment Agency during its consideration.
I am just trying to get through all the different points. My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) rightly talked about the local community, but he should be aware that most such plants are dealt with through local planning. They tend to be in the local plan, so it is important that we challenge those different elements during the consideration.
I am conscious that two people want to intervene. I invite the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) to do so first.
He has gone, thankfully. The Minister will be aware that there has been an application for a gasification plant in my constituency. The key bone of contention is that no decision was made on what form of technology would be used before the application was put in. Does she agree that in order for people to campaign and scrutinise such applications properly, those making them should say up front what form of technology they will use?
That is an important consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) mentioned pyrolysis or gasification. Different technologies will have different environmental impacts. There is starting to be a trend towards that, possibly because it is then easier to generate heat. However, I am not an expert in the individual technologies. It is worthy of consideration, but the hon. Lady’s constituents should be assured by the industrial emissions directive-tough regulations that are already in place, and will be carried over in the event of an EU exit.
I was going to invite the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) to intervene, but I had not realised that he had walked out of the debate. I am sure that he will write to me anyway. I will finish by saying that it really matters that we transition to better designed products, and make more of recycling, reducing and re-using the waste that we generate. The Government are introducing very strong parts of our resources and waste strategy, and I am confident that that will lead to better environmental outcomes. I want councils to use every lever possible, including the ACE UK recycling site in Halifax, which has offered, through Costa Coffee, to do a lot more recycling of coffee cups; it is the only place that recycles Tetra Paks. Overall, I believe that we are making good progress.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
[David Hanson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for two reasons, Mr Hanson. First, I have not served under your chairmanship before and secondly, as I will allude to later on, you and I have shared some of the memories of this terrible event.
It is worth remembering what happened 100 years ago—in fact, it began 100 years ago today. Amritsar is a holy city that is immensely crammed, as it was 100 years ago. It is a place where people live on top of one another. Thousands had gathered at the Bagh in the days before 13 April 1919. British Army officers greatly feared an uprising in or around May, which is when the Army changed its positions for the summer months in India.
On 10 April, a protest took place at the home of the deputy commissioner of Amritsar, calling for the release of two independence movement leaders. The protests spilled over, protestors were shot and some were killed. Bear in mind that this is three days before the massacre itself. That sparked rioting, during which British banks and people were targeted and British lives were lost. On 11 April, a British schoolteacher, Marcella Sherwood, was attacked and left for dead when cycling home. She was saved by local Indian men who recognised her from the school.
Between 11 and 13 April, civil disobedience and protest rang out across the Punjab. By 13 April, the Army had implemented martial law, and the measures included the prohibition of mass assembly. Any gathering of more than four people could be dispersed by the military. On 13 April, 100 years ago, approximately 15,000 people were gathered in the square. It was a common meeting place for people of all religions. They were not just people of the Sikh faith; there were Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, present to celebrate and coincide with the Sikh new year festival of Baisakhi. They were gathered in the square. The crowd was peaceful and unarmed. The location, date and time had been set the day before so citizens could register discontent with the political situation, but on a peaceful basis.
On the morning of the massacre, General Dyer had paraded his troops, flexing his power and authority. With martial law on its side, the Army knew it could break up any large groups. However, the scale of the gathering exceeded the Army’s expectation and it was outnumbered by an astonishing margin. The square where the gathering took place is approximately 200 yards by 200 yards. It is surrounded by high walls and has a deep pit in the space. Those present were hemmed in with no shelter and no means of escape.
On the day, the reports say that the massacre took place with 50 Sikhs and Gurkhas under General Dyer’s command. They shot 33 rounds each-a total of 1,650 rounds. The official estimate was that 379 people had been killed and more than 1,000 injured. The reality was that the crowd was so dense that one bullet would kill three, four or even five people as it passed through them. The death toll is therefore believed to be far higher, with more than 1,000 people killed and many thousands injured.
I am sure colleagues will want to relay stories about the massacre. I will talk also about my personal experience, having been to the site. We have to remember this was 100 years ago, when there was no 24/7 news coverage and no mobile phones to take pictures of what had happened and the atrocity that had occurred. It took the British Government until October 1919 to open an inquiry under the direction of the then Home Secretary, Edwin Montagu, led by Lord William Hunter. The inquiry became known as the Hunter Commission, after the Government of India had originally called it the disorders inquiry—talk about an inapt name. The inquiry called witnesses from across the region, which spanned what is now Pakistan, as well as India. At the time, and importantly, those questioned were not put under oath when giving their evidence. In November, after the key eye witness accounts had been taken, General Dyer himself was called to give evidence. For reasons unknown to us—or to anyone—he refused legal counsel or advocacy and represented himself. Almost immediately, he made trouble for himself. Reports of the inquiry suggest that:
“Again and again, Dyer convicts himself out of his own mouth. As his friend Major General Nigel Woodyatt later told him, ‘he was bound to get the worst of it; not so much for what he had done, but for what he had said.’”
That is a particular view.
The report published by the commission found, in summary, that notice to disperse was not issued to the crowd at all, which should have been done by the Army, under its normal terms of engagement, and that Dyer had exceeded his authority—note that he was, temporarily, a brigadier, was really not qualified and had had his own uniform made in his own guise. It also deemed that the time for which the shooting went on, for 1,650 rounds, was an error, although I think that “an absolute atrocity” would be an accurate perspective. The inquiry found no evidence that supported the Army’s theory that a conspiracy was in motion to overthrow British rule in the Punjab.
There have been various different visits to the region since. Her Majesty the Queen visited in 1961, 1983 and 1997. Up until 1997 she made no comment, but in that visit she said in her speech:
“It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past—Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”
I think that if Her Majesty the Queen had made that speech later, she would have used different words.
Asquith, leader of the Liberals and a former Prime Minister, said it was
“one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history”,
and I agree with him. Winston Churchill, who was Secretary of State for Air at the time, said:
“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed upon the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for 8 or 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.”—[Official Report, 8 July 1920; Vol. 131, c. 1729.]
If they had had more ammunition, they would probably have carried on shooting.
General Dyer commented—though I cannot give the date—that,
“I did not know the city very well. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd; but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more especially throughout the Punjab…I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing, but they would have come back again and laughed.”
That he shot people in such a fashion condemns him out of his own mouth.
He then apparently commented to women at the consulate that evening:
“I’m for the high jump but I saved you women and children.”
No one was under threat. It was a peaceful religious gathering, and we should hang our heads in shame at what was done in the name of Britain.
General Dyer went on to receive a hero’s funeral. He gave the order to shoot, and in my judgment, having read about this topic, he was unfit to hold the position he held. He showed no remorse at any stage for the deaths he had caused, or the damage he had done to the Indian people and to India-UK relations. He remarked to his underlings at the height of the firing:
“Do you think they’ve had enough? No, we’ll give them four rounds more.”
That was outrageous. In spite of that, General Dyer was vigorously defended by—I say this with shame—the Conservative party, as well as most of the military establishment. He evaded any penalties post inquiry, as his military superiors advised that they could find no fault with his actions, his orders, or his conduct otherwise. However, during debate in the Commons, Asquith made his appropriate comments.
At the time of the massacre, O’Dwyer was the lieutenant general of Punjab, and it was understood that General Dyer was his man in the military. Dyer did his bidding and followed his orders closely. A theory has been repeatedly floated that O’Dwyer approved the order to open fire, and was the chief architect of the plan. O’Dwyer, like many of his ilk, was paranoid about a plot to overthrow British rule in the region. The regional British rulers were convinced that the increasingly popular independence movement would involve violence against Brits on a large scale, and would lead to humiliation for the empire—note that the commission found that suspicion without merit and completely untrue.
In March 1940, O’Dwyer was shot by Udham Singh outside a Westminster venue. Singh had been at Amritsar that fateful day, and the story goes that he himself had been shot and wounded. That led to a life of activism that resulted in him fatally shooting the man who, alongside Dyer, many in the Raj held responsible for the massacre. Udham Singh was hanged for taking his revenge.
You and I visited the site of the massacre in August 2016, Mr Hanson, and prior to seeing it at first hand, I expressed ignorance about what had happened there. Nothing can prepare people for seeing the site and imagining what it must have been like for the 15,000 people trapped within that arena—literally in a shooting gallery—by the soldiers who were present. The atmosphere must have been incredible; it must have been horrendous for the people who suffered that massacre. Remember, not only were they shot: some threw themselves down the well to try to escape the bullets, and many were crushed to death while trying to get down that well and out of the troops’ firing line.
Mr Hanson, we saw at first hand the museum that is being created on the site of the massacre, and the fact that India will never forget. We owe it to the victims and their families to never forget what happened in our name. I hope that there will be an apology from the British Government, not just an acceptance of a terrible crime. When the Minister replies, I look forward to him not explaining away what happened, but apologising for our involvement and for what was done in our name. That would be a start; it would clear the air. Equally, I hope that Ministers will go to commemorative events in India: one is to be held later this month, but I particularly hope that Ministers will attend in July, when I understand the museum will be formally opened.
Those who follow these things will know that I have asked for an apology before. I signed two early-day motions—413 in October 2017 and 1868 in November 2018—and last night I tabled another one, 2281, calling on the British Government to apologise and to attend the commemorative events. I encourage colleagues from across the House to sign that early-day motion to demonstrate our cross-party support.
I certainly support the hon. Gentleman in asking the British Government to apologise, because what he has described —we have all read about it in the history books—is horrendous. Although he mentioned that 1,000 people could have been killed, the Indian Government say the figure is much higher, so the figure is disputed, although I do not contradict what he has said. I certainly support him, and many people in my constituency feel very strongly about it. Also, the area was known as the Indian subcontinent then and people from Bangladesh and Pakistan could equally identify with the massacre. Does he agree with me that they too should be involved in any apology?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right to say that the number of deaths is disputed. The Indian Government estimate more than 1,000 and the official report at the time stated 379. Because of the absolute disaster on the day, the figures are disputed and we do not have further records. People had gathered from across the Indian subcontinent for the Baisakhi. They came from what we now know as Pakistan and Bangladesh and from India itself, so other countries were involved, as well as citizens and families of other countries. Clearly, they should be remembered, and other Governments will no doubt have a view.
I simply want to add my endorsement. I have a significant Sikh population in my constituency—more than 3,000 people—and I was delighted to attend a Baisakhi event at the weekend to parade with them. The topic often comes up when I visit the gurdwara, so I want to endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend and I wish him well in his pursuit of the apology.
Should it not be reinforced to the Minister and the Foreign Office that the 100th anniversary is the most pertinent time to make an apology? With Baisakhi festivals taking place all over the country in the next couple of weeks, it would be good if the Minister were able to give good news to those gatherings today.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The centenary of such an event is the right time to apologise and own up to what happened, as opposed to simply acknowledging the dreadful event and atrocity that took place. The British Government at the time accepted responsibility, but did not issue an apology, and one should be issued, particularly at this time. Although a mixture of people of different faiths were massacred, it was predominantly people of the Sikh religion who suffered.
I classify myself as a firm friend of India. I am a devout patriot of this country, but it makes me sad and ashamed that the massacre was perpetrated in our name. It is time to own up to it and make an apology and time to make suitable reparations for the damage it caused not only to people present and their families, but to the relationship between India and the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this important debate and I declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for British Sikhs. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on 13 April 1919, it is clear that there needs to be a formal apology from the United Kingdom Government that accepts and acknowledges their part in the massacre. We heard from the hon. Gentleman about the events that transpired. I will not go into much further detail. Instead, I will focus on what should happen now and how we can seek to ensure that such a tragedy helps us to better understand our history and shape our future.
The outrage and the shocking nature of the attack, even 100 years ago, can be seen in comments and condemnation of the massacre, including from former Prime Minister Asquith, who called it
“one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history”.
Churchill called it
“an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”
Under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, the British Indian Army fired rifles into a crowd of people, who were predominantly Sikhs but also Hindus and Muslims, gathered in Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate Vaisakhi. When the firing finally ended, the public place had turned into a garden of the dead. Even children, some as young as three, were not spared.
It is not enough to condemn the incident and express shame. The UK Government must show respect to the worldwide Sikh community and have the courage to make a full apology for the deeply shameful massacre of innocent, unarmed civilians in Amritsar 100 years ago.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work she does as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for British Sikhs. I join her and others in calling for an outright apology. It is frankly shocking that we have not had that, after a number of calls for it in Parliament. Does she agree that we need a further apology for the findings of the Hunter commission, which concluded that General Dyer committed a “grave error”? It was not a grave error; it was a massacre of innocent men, women and children, and we need an apology.
Order. I say gently to hon. Members that interventions must be short. A significant number of Members wish to contribute to the debate, so there are only four to five minutes each. The longer Members speak in interventions, the shorter that time will be.
My hon. Friend raises a good point about the Hunter commission, which I am sure the Minister heard.
Regrettably, the massacre came within months of the end of the great war, in which tens of thousands of turban-wearing Sikhs from Punjab had sacrificed their lives for our freedom in Europe. The formal apology should include the victims of the massacre, their families and descendants, the people of Punjab and, given the location, timing and identity of the massacre, the worldwide Sikh community. That is the least that the UK Government can do on the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar massacre. Will they take this opportunity finally to do the right thing?
That is not enough. The apology should mark the start of learning of teaching our children about the massacre in history lessons in our schools and learning about the context of the British empire, which through imperialism and colonialism had exploited and subjugated people around the world. According to polling in 2017, 44% of people were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism, and YouGov polling in 2014 showed that nearly half believed that countries were better off for having been colonised. The Amritsar massacre was not the only brutal act carried out, and we need to teach our children about it, the shared history that it creates and the backdrop of what the Commonwealth is and means. In that, children will learn where they came from and why they are where they are today.
I will not take any more interventions as I am conscious of time; my apologies.
By othering or writing certain people out of British history—casting them simply as pawns or as a means to an end rather than individuals with their own histories—can we really be surprised that hate crime continues to exist or that racism continues to fester? The question therefore remains whether an apology without a genuine understanding of the past can ever provide the closure that so many Sikhs need.
It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill). Her speech touched many chords that echo with us all.
I was going to speak about the history of the massacre, but that has been very well covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), and I was going to speak about some of the cries for justice, but that has been very well covered by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston, so I will cover what I think the massacre says to us today.
It is important to remember that this massacre, this crime—because that is what it was—does not just speak to the past. It speaks to the future; it speaks to us as people in this House, in this country, in this world, because it reminds us that the responsibilities that we hold today have consequences going forward for generations. It reminds us of the significance of the decisions that we take today—whether, like the House of Lords 100 years ago, to celebrate a man so guilty of an extraordinary crime or, like the House of Commons then, to condemn him. Those decisions will echo on the children and grandchildren of those people. It reminds us also that the divisions that we once saw—British soldiers on one side and Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus on the other—are not as stark today as they once were.
For me, that is the message of hope in this. In all great tragedies—this is undoubtedly one of the greatest—there is a message of hope, and the message of hope here is that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and I, whose peoples have been victims of different massacres in different parts of the world over the last century, are sitting here as equals, representing communities that are equal, in a country that really does understand what it is to come together, to bring together communities of many distinctions, many differences, many creeds and colours.
That is why I think the moment for honesty is here. I thought the hon. Lady spoke beautifully when she said this. The moment for honesty is here, because an apology is not the undoing of an act that ended 100 years ago with the deaths of almost 1,000 people. An apology cannot bring them back to life; it cannot right that wrong. But what it can do is turn a page and say to a generation of Indians today and to a generation of British people today: “Neither of us are those people any more. Neither of us were there on that terrible day in Jallianwala Bagh. But we both recognise that the shared history that binds us, the shared history that brought us together at that point in time a century ago, unites us today.” An apology would allow us to move forward, to look to the future and to build the future that the people of the UK, the people of India and people around the world really want to see.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this timely and important debate.
The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh stands out as one of the most appalling and significant episodes in colonial history, not only because of the brutality of what happened there, but because of the context and its huge and long-lasting effect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) said, the context is that it was just after the first world war, when Indian soldiers had made huge sacrifices in fighting side by side with British soldiers. Many of those Indian soldiers came from the Punjab, which has a long and proud military history. However, when they went home, they were not treated as heroes, but found themselves subject to harsh colonial laws such as the Rowlatt Acts, which were passed in March 1919 and deprived people of their liberty—they sanctioned indefinite detention and incarceration without trial. All of that is the backdrop to the protests that were happening in the Punjab at the time.
The hon. Member for Harrow East read out the horrific details, and I will not dwell on them, because we now know them: a peaceful crowd of thousands; the attempt to bring in an armoured car that was foiled only by the narrowness of the alleyway on the approach to the Bagh; the lack of any warning or any attempt to disperse the crowd by peaceful means; 50 soldiers, armed with Lee-Enfield rifles; 10 minutes of firing; 1,650 rounds fired; people vainly jumping into the well to try to escape the bullets. Official estimates were that 379 people were killed and three times that many injured, but other estimates suggest many, many more of both.
The rounds fired were indiscriminate—Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus were all among the dead. We know of Churchill’s verdict that it was a “monstrous event”. Those horrific details ensure that it is remembered 100 years later. Many see Jallianwala Bagh as the moment when the movement for Indian independence became unstoppable—the moment when many people in India gave up any hope for colonial rule—and perhaps even as the beginning of the end of the empire itself. The episode was not only outstanding in its brutality; it achieved the very opposite of the intention of General Dyer.
Let us turn to the question of an apology. When Prime Minister David Cameron visited the site in 2013, he described this as a
“deeply shameful event in British history”,
but stopped short of an apology. Now, as we approach the 100th anniversary, there are growing calls for an apology, as we have heard in this debate. I add my voice to those calls. I am currently co-ordinating a cross-party letter calling for an apology, which has been signed by the hon. Member for Harrow East, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, and many of my hon. Friends.
Some people ask why we should apologise for one atrocity, when there have been many more in history. “Why should we judge the past by the standards of today?” The crucial point is that this massacre was not judged by the standards of today; it was widely condemned at the time by Churchill, Asquith and Josiah Wedgwood. In response to what happened, the first Asian Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, returned his knighthood in disgust. The exceptional horror was there for all to see in 1919 and 1920, and not just today. In any case, what kind of argument says that, as we cannot do everything, we should do nothing? This demands far more than a cycle of whataboutery in an attempt to change the subject. It was a particularly heinous and appalling act, and had enormous historical as well as human significance. A lack of an apology has continued to be a thorn in the side of the relationship between the UK and India, even though great progress has been made—today we are friendly and cordial diplomatic powers with good relations.
The Jallianwala Bagh atrocity still lives on in memory. As we approach the 100th anniversary this weekend, the time is right for an official apology. It should not take 100 years to say sorry for such a terrible crime, but saying sorry 100 years on is better than not saying sorry at all. I hope that the Minister will heed the calls made in this debate—on a cross-party basis—for an apology. If he cannot personally issue the apology today, I hope the Prime Minister makes one soon on behalf of the Government and the country, 100 years on from this terrible crime.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this afternoon’s debate. He set out the background very well. It is clear from the Hansard transcripts of the time that there was uncertainty about the events as they happened, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. As the truth emerged, some of the things that people had said at the time did not reflect what had actually happened on the ground.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre is a particularly awful event to read about, because it was a methodical and disturbing mass murder of innocent people who were peacefully protesting in a public square. Many of them had come on their way back from worship at the Golden Temple, and there were also children there. The exits were blocked and unarmed people were shot at over and over, as we heard, until the ammunition was all but exhausted.
The incident changed the course of history, but as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) said, it certainly was not an isolated crime by the British empire. The massacre came in the context of the repressive Rowlatt Act 1919, which permitted political cases in India to be tried without juries and included internment of suspects without trial. That in turn led to protests and an escalation of violence, to martial law and the forbidding of gatherings. The massacre was followed by other events, such as public floggings and forcing people to crawl in the streets just to humiliate them. Mahatma Gandhi said that he had no doubt that
“the shooting was ‘frightful’, the loss of innocent life deplorable. But the slow torture, degradation and emasculation that followed was much worse, more calculated, malicious and soul-killing, and the actors who performed the deeds deserve greater condemnation than General Dyer for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The latter merely destroyed a few bodies but the others tried to kill the soul of a nation.”
India is a country that has contributed greatly to the world in culture and faith, despite enduring such horrific events in its formation. The Indian diaspora, of all faiths and none, who I have known in my constituency show compassion and kindness to others. The Scottish Sikhs who I marched alongside in Saturday’s Vaisakhi celebrations have made a huge impact on their community, providing free meals, running soup kitchens and providing education services for people both at home and abroad. They stand up for human rights abuses and show solidarity for persecuted people around the world. They have invested time, energy and money in Scotland—they are Scottish. They are building in Glasgow two purpose-built and beautiful gurdwaras. We owe it to them to ensure that their legacy is acknowledged and this is not just swept under the carpet.
Of course, it was not just Sikhs who were killed that day; there were Hindus and Muslims, as we have heard, and a peaceful gathering of a cross-section of India’s peoples, who were indiscriminately murdered. A poster featured in a book about the atrocity by London historians Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh reads:
“Those who sacrificed their lives for their country, live forever. Brutality crossed all limits at Jallianwala Bagh, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh—everyone cried in grief.”
The Minister knows, as we all do, that there is no justification for what happened. Even 100 years on, that flame of injustice still burns brightly in people’s minds.
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
At this particular time in history, with the UK leaving the EU, amid the radicalisation of right-wing extremists and the pompous rhetoric about the rebuilding of the British empire, we need a meaningful acknowledgement of the horrific legacy that that empire left behind. It must be for schools everywhere to learn of that legacy, not just for gurdwaras to teach it when people choose to come and visit. Everybody should learn in school of how the peoples of the empire were treated.
I find myself in full agreement with everything that has been said today, and I echo the calls for a formal apology. It has been said that if we do not learn from history, we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. We cannot allow those mistakes to ever be repeated, so we need a clear and unequivocal apology from the Government on behalf of us all.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. As elected Members of this Parliament, if we allow notions of empire to go unchecked and unchallenged, we fail to acknowledge the pain of that past—the pain for countries all around the world, but particularly in this case for the people of India. It is beyond time for Her Majesty’s Government to apologise and take responsibility for one of the worst crimes of colonialism. An apology for those events is a very good place to start.
Opportunities for apologies or acknowledgements of the events at Jallianwala Bagh have been missed in recent times. As hon. Members have said, David Cameron visited the site and described the incident as “deeply shameful”, but did not use that ample opportunity to make a formal apology. A visit from Her Majesty and Prince Philip in the 1990s managed to create even more ill-feeling, when Prince Philip said that the Indian Government’s figure for the death toll at the site was over-exaggerated. William and Kate chose not to visit the site on their official tour of India. Those are all opportunities missed, adding to that sense of pain.
It is well beyond time to stop side-stepping the issue and to show some humility and regret for the horrors of the past. I ask the Minister to go back to the Foreign Secretary and encourage him to take the steps that successive Governments have not been brave enough to take.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
One hundred years ago, the lives of 1,000 men and women were ended and the destiny of millions was changed. I thank my dear friend the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his work and congratulate him on securing the debate. It has been an opportunity for him and everyone here to discuss and commemorate a historically distant, yet important and emotive subject, and I thank him for his emotional contribution to the debate.
The murders at Jallianwala Bagh are almost unknown in Britain outside the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, but to this day they shape the relationship between those countries and the UK. For millions of people across my home state of Punjab, the event is their defining cultural memory of British rule. The massacre finally crystallised in the minds of the intellectual and wealthy middle classes of British India what millions of working-class people already knew: ultimately, imperial rule was neither enlightened nor benevolent, but rather it was brutalising, dehumanising, and murderous. It set in motion the forces that ultimately secured independence.
At the time, the actions of General Dyer were roundly decried by many Members of the House, and the Labour party unanimously passed motions at a national conference, denouncing the killings. As the hon. Member for Harrow East said, there was no majority for support for Dyer in this country, yet a Conservative newspaper, which later merged with The Daily Telegraph, raised funds for General Dyer and collected for him the modern equivalent of £1 million—perhaps that was the origin of the hostile environment.
What was not forthcoming was a formal apology from the Government for what had happened, for the lives taken away, or for the injuries to thousands more. I hope that there is agreement today—including among those Members who have been unable to contribute to this debate—that although a formal apology would not undo the hurt and pain, it would send a signal. I do not believe, however, that an apology would be the be-all and end-all of the matter. I wrote to the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, demanding an apology, and in 2007 I tabled an early-day motion that was supported by Members from all major political parties and called not just for an apology but for education and commemoration. Last March I asked the Prime Minister whether she would lend her weight to the campaign for remembrance of that brutal day, and I thank the Minister for the communication between us on that subject.
I want children across the country to benefit from learning about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and to learn not just about 1,000 years of British success and innovation, but also about the human cost across the world of expedition, exploration and exploitation. This is not just an act of flagellation; it will help British people to understand better our own place in the world, and not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It means that we will know our own history, and how we are seen by people in other cultures and countries. We should also take steps to remember those who were killed, not just through those actions, but by actions that were repeated around the world and perpetrated on communities large and small. Acts of barbarity and cruelty pepper the history of the British empire. Such acts must be remembered, and a monument in central London—the heart and capital of the empire—would be a fitting tribute.
The speeches made today have been emotive. Such emotion runs through the communities of all the countries of British India, and even today the views of millions of people about the United Kingdom are derived from that. Members of the Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian communities are meeting this week, in halls, religious places and civic buildings, to commemorate and remember those family members and their friends who lost their lives on 13 April 1919.
I thank the Jallianwala Bagh centenary commemoration committee and the Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Trust in Birmingham for leading the campaign in this country and supporting us all. I hope that this place will do them and those who were affected 100 years ago the honour of respecting their loss, and that the Prime Minister will officially apologise for what happened and take action to ensure that we do not fall into old behaviours.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I, like so many others, take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate and for expressing so eloquently the horror of that day; what it must have been like; and how he appreciated that horror for the first time. That is something that we should all take away from the debate.
I will move on to why, 100 years on, I feel that it is almost inconceivable that we are still discussing whether we should apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In this place, we so often pride ourselves on calling for action by others—other countries and Governments—to end injustice. In the last week, we have railed against injustice in Brunei; we have talked at length about injustice all over the world; and we have pondered the 25th anniversary of the horrors of Rwanda. Yet here we are, 100 years later, with this crime and horror on our national conscience, debating whether to apologise.
For me, there is no question; there is no other action but to apologise. It is important that we do so for many reasons. The horror of the massacre, the injustice of it and the mistakes that were made at the time must be acknowledged or we will—as hon. Friends have said—be condemned to repeat them. It is time that we expressed the respect that we feel for our Sikh communities throughout the country, in my Edinburgh West constituency and beyond, and for what their community has suffered at the hands of the British empire. It is important that our constituents feel that respect and know that we do not just acknowledge the massacre, but apologise for what was done 100 years ago.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) said, it is also important that we do not just apologise and walk away, but that we see that as a beginning to highlighting that moment and using it to educate our own children about a past that was not as perfect as is often portrayed in our schools. It was not as wonderful to be part of the British empire as we often claim. We must acknowledge that, although we should not be trapped in the past as some say, we need to recognise the crimes that were committed and the people who were affected. Although we can never change that, we can at least go some way to alleviating the pain that is felt, simply by saying two words that sometimes seem so difficult: “We’re sorry.”
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response and I thank him for his tireless efforts on behalf of our great country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This morning, I signed the latest early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Harrow East, as well as his previous early-day motions, and I will be on the record tomorrow morning as having supported him the whole way through.
Yesterday, there was a story in the provincial press about the massacre and, unfortunately, about the role played by some with Irish ancestry who were in the Army at the time. I am very privileged to represent Strangford and Northern Ireland. Other hon. Members have referred to communities coming together. In Northern Ireland, our two traditions have two different histories, but if we dwell too much on the history that divides us rather than the reasons for being together, we would find ourselves unable to move forward. I am very pleased that we have managed to do that.
I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate. Those of us who have visited Jallianwala Bagh have seen the well where people scrambled for their lives, and the bullet holes still in the walls, and realise that just around the corner from that place, where some of the worst that humanity can do happened, is some of the best that humanity can do, at the Golden Temple. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as Rabindranath Tagore said, that was the end of the British legitimacy in India? The end of the raj was April 1919. I should like, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) suggested, a physical memorial, but should schools not teach about it far more? Jallianwala Bagh was not just a crime against humanity. It was the end of British India.
I agree. As has been said, it was clearly the turning point for the empire. As others have mentioned, on Sunday 13 April 1919 the British military opened fire on thousands of unarmed civilians in Jallianwala Bagh, leaving somewhere between 379 and 1,000 people dead, and perhaps as many as 1,500 wounded. That terrible tragedy represents an extremely dark chapter in British history, which stands in stark opposition to the modern-day British values that we hold so dear, and particularly the respect for human rights that I have spoken about often in the House and in Westminster Hall. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on international freedom of religion or belief, and on the Pakistani minorities. I have a deep interest in the issue.
What started as a celebration turned into a scene of carnage—a graveyard and the murder of innocents. On that fateful day in the Punjab, the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and religion or belief, to name but a few, were violated in one of the most violent ways imaginable. Peaceful protestors, Sikh celebrants of the major religious festival of Baisakhi, and indeed many Muslims, were cut down that day for exercising their human rights as they should. We are rightly proud of the stance that the United Kingdom has taken in support of human rights across the world, including work to advance freedom of religion or belief. If the British Government are to continue to stand up for those rights, as I believe they will, and to be taken seriously, we must call out violations wherever they happen and whoever carried them out, even if that means looking at our past and perhaps recognising our errors.
It is not a sign of weakness to acknowledge mistakes—even one as egregious as the one we are discussing. In fact, it is much easier to live in denial or to blame mistakes on something or someone else. What is difficult and truly requires courage is to stand up in front of the world and say that the UK is fully committed to human rights and that we therefore fully accept we should act, in relation to the violation of the rights of those killed in Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago.
Failure to issue a formal apology is harmful to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because the value of recognising a mistake and owning up to it is not a matter of self-flagellation or wallowing in the error—it is to ensure that such mistakes are never made again and to create room for stronger relations built on the basis of shared humanity. If we bury our heads in the sand and refuse to take responsibility we will be refusing fully to learn the lessons of the past and develop stronger bonds, and putting an asterisk beside any statement about the UK’s commitment to human rights. However, if we face up to our past, accept our role and teach our children, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said, not only about our glories but about our mistakes, we will create a stronger, more compassionate nation and a stronger, more compassionate world.
A true test of the morality of the action is to ask what we would want if the situation were reversed. I dare say that if the shoe were on the other foot, everyone in this Chamber and indeed everyone in this great country would demand that the Indian Government take responsibility. I believe that commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and apologising for our role in it gives us an enormous, powerful opportunity to announce to the world that that terrible event does not represent modern British values, and that Britain will stand up for the rights of anyone, anywhere, be they Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or of any other religion, belief, nationality or race. I sincerely hope that the Government will seize the opportunity with both hands and I look to the Minister for that much needed apology.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this timely debate. As we approach the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre I also thank my parliamentary neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), for organising a letter to the Government asking them to issue an apology. That letter and today’s debate demonstrate the strength of cross-party concern and support for such an apology.
The horrific events of 13 April 100 years ago in Amritsar, when thousands of innocent people were killed or injured on the orders of a British officer and at the hands of British soldiers, are a source of deep pain among the British Indian community, particularly the Sikh community. I know the strength of feeling among my own constituents in Wolverhampton about the atrocity.
On that April afternoon in 1919, people came to the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, the Sikh holy city—home of the Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs—for a peaceful gathering during Baisakhi, the most significant Sikh religious festival. The crowd was unarmed. They were in an enclosed space, a walled garden, with only a few entrances. Thousands of people were crammed into a space that Churchill later described as
“considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square”.—[Official Report, 8 July 1920; Vol. 131, c. 1729.]
Therefore, when the firing began they were trapped; there was nowhere for them to escape to. Many of those present were women and children.
The gathering presented no threat to British troops. It was a peaceful gathering. As many hon. Members have mentioned, no warnings were issued, and there was no order for people to disperse. Instead, the British commander had the exits blocked and ordered his soldiers to fire into the crowd. As the hon. Member for Harrow East so eloquently described, the firing did not stop until the soldiers ran out of ammunition, and the bullet holes in the walls are visible to this day.
The official inquiry concluded that 379 people were killed that day, with many more injured, but many sources dispute those figures and claim that the death toll was much, much higher. It is important to remember that that massacre came after hundreds of thousands of Indians had fought alongside British troops in the first world war. At the time of the massacre, Winston Churchill, the then Secretary of State for War, described the atrocity as a “monstrous event” that was
“without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.” —[Official Report, 8 July 1920; Vol. 131, c. 1725.]
I welcome the fact that David Cameron, when he was Prime Minister, visited the site in 2013 to pay his respects. He called the massacre a “deeply shameful event”, but stopped short of making an apology. Now is the time for the Government to go much further. The Mayor of London also visited the site in 2017 and asked the Government to make an apology. The journalist Sathnam Sanghera who comes from Wolverhampton—he grew up in Park Village in my constituency—has recorded a documentary about the Amritsar massacre that will air this Saturday on Channel 4. In a recent article, he put his finger on it when he wrote:
“As a country, it’s about time we invested some emotional energy into facing up to what happened in Britain’s name.”
I hope that the Government will recognise the strength of cross-party support in today’s debate and in the letter organised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East. I hope that the Government, if they cannot do so today, will see fit to issue a formal apology, perhaps later in the week of the actual centenary. As my right hon. Friend said, it should not take 100 years to say sorry, but it would certainly be better late than never.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for introducing this poignant debate, nearly 100 years to the day since the tragic events of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
In 1919, during one of the first debates in the House of Commons discussing the massacre, Colonel Josiah Wedgwood commented:
“This damns us for all time.”—[Official Report, 22 December 1919; Vol. 123, c. 1232.]
He was correct. With 379 people officially recorded as dead—although, as we have heard today, local sources say that more than 1,000 people were killed—the British Army in India committed an indefensible atrocity in Amritsar. It had a profound effect on the Indian independence movement, and has had a lasting impact on the psyche of the people of the Punjab, and across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Yet despite the enormity of this deplorable incident, too few of us in the UK are aware of what happened at the Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago. Not enough of us are willing to engage with our unedifying past and the legacy of the British empire. Astonishingly, no British Government have issued a formal apology for what unfolded. When David Cameron visited the memorial in 2013, why did he stop short of apologising? It is imperative that we take this opportunity to reflect today on the devastating nature of the massacre and acknowledge unequivocally that this was one of the many shameful episodes in British history and a symptom of the colonial mindset that had been developed. Crucially, the Minister must set out the Government’s plans to issue a formal apology for what happened in Amritsar. No ifs, no buts, no whataboutery or rhetorical gymnastics—Britain must say sorry.
I have been to Jallianwala Bagh several times. It is an enclosed garden with high walls, accessible only through five narrow passages. I first visited in the early 1990s and last in 2012. Every time I have been there, I have been struck by what a tranquil, peaceful place it is—a place to remove oneself from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Amritsar, or to relax following a visit to the Golden Temple.
Let us picture the scene: it is 13 April 1919. It is a hot day, with temperatures in the mid-30s. The city is busy with pilgrims visiting to celebrate the Vaisakhi festival and farmers, traders and merchants attending an annual horse and cattle fair. Thousands of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims have gathered in the garden. What happened next is almost unspeakable. With a relatively small group of soldiers, Colonel Dyer arrived at the Bagh late in the afternoon. The entrance to the garden was blocked by some of his men. He had also brought armoured cars with machine guns. The only reason those guns were not used was that they could not get through the passageways.
On Colonel Dyer’s orders, 1,650 rounds were fired over a 10-minute period. The soldiers only stopped because the ammunition had run out. There was no warning, the crowd was not told to disperse and shots were not fired in the air but directly at the crowds. When the bullets ran out and the shooting stopped, Dyer and his soldiers left the scene. No aid was given to the wounded.
Dyer is reported to have said:
“I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing, but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself…I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed…It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect…not only on those who were present, but more especially throughout the Punjab.”
That should send a shiver down all of our spines.
This was not an accident. This was not a reaction to imminent danger. This was not an officer making a poor judgment in the midst of chaos. This was cold and calculated. This was purposeful slaughter. This was meant to send a message to the Indian population to remain obedient to the colonial master or face the consequences.
When reading Shashi Tharoor’s book, “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India”, which was published last year, the following words particularly struck me:
“The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was no act of insane frenzy but a conscious, deliberate imposition of colonial will.”
Even Winston Churchill, a man hardly renowned for his concern for the welfare of those under colonial rule, as Indian people later experienced when millions died during the Bengal famine, condemned the massacre as “a monstrous event”.
If we were able to acknowledge back then the wrong that had been committed, there is no reason why Britain should not take this opportunity on the 100th anniversary of the massacre to finally apologise. Many continue to show support for Dyer. One of them was Rudyard Kipling, who believed that Dyer
“did his duty as he saw it”
and hailed him as
“the man who saved India.”
That is illustrative of many people’s views of the empire and its subjects at the time. They considered others lesser beings than themselves. Whatever one had to do to keep the population in check was what was necessary. In their eyes, Britain was always on the right side of history.
By refusing to apologise and engage in debate that is critical of the British empire or historical figures who played their part in it, and by embellishing the past or looking at it through rose-tinted glasses, we perpetuate that colonial mindset. While the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was shocking, the brutality exhibited that day was sadly not unique in India or, indeed, across the empire. That brutality continued.
In 1920, during the debate on Government policy on Ireland, one MP commented:
“We may have an Amritsar there.”—[Official Report, 9 August 1920; Vol. 133, c. 138.]
Kenyans tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s will now receive pay-outs totalling £20 million. In Iraq, our American allies tortured and abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, while today we are complicit in the sale of arms to others who commit atrocities in Yemen.
We cannot pick and choose our history. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was an atrocity that must be recognised and apologised for. Concluding his speech in 1919, Colonel Wedgewood said:
“By this incident you have divided for all time races, races that might otherwise have loved one another...It has destroyed our reputation throughout the world. You know what will happen. All the blackguards in America when they lynch, will say, ‘Oh, you did the same in India.’ When butcheries take place in Russia, whether it be by White or Red Guard, they will say ‘We never did anything like what you did in India;’ and when we tell the Turks, ‘You massacred the Armenians,’ they will say, ‘Yes, we wish we had the chance of getting 5,000 of them together, and then of shooting straight—[Official Report, 22 December 1919; Vol. 123, c. 1232.].’”
Again, he was correct that the past comes with a price. The Jallianwala Bagh is now a memorial garden, and its walls are scarred by the bullets fired by Dyer’s men.
Minister, let me put this on record, as someone who carries a British passport when I travel. On each and every visit I have had to India over many years, I carry a personal sense of shame in the knowledge that the places I visit, such as Amritsar, have a history that Britain has yet to come to terms with and apologise for. I offer my sincerest apologies here today as a beginning, and I urge the Government, on this anniversary, to set in motion from this debate a formal apology on behalf of all British citizens, who live with the legacy of what happened in India 100 years ago, and to consider all our other colonial legacies that we choose to forget.
The UK cannot lecture others until it faces up to, accepts and remedies the baggage of its colonial past and acknowledges the role it has played in conflict throughout the world. If the UK is to be serious as a major global player now and in the future, our foreign policy must reflect a moral and ethical standing that takes action on atrocities both past and present, whomever they may have been committed by. On this atrocity we must formally apologise.
It is a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for ensuring that the debate came to the Chamber. I thank him for the detailed historical perspective he gave of the events that took place and for his words on behalf of us all about the huge grief felt at the lives that were lost. He described that in much detail and with sincerity.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) for the calm and collected way in which she presented this issue. She is of Sikh heritage and is the first Sikh woman in Parliament. She has campaigned on this issue for a long time, and particularly in this Parliament. She is right that this is an important issue for the generations who came after those who were brutally murdered in that arena, with no way to escape and no exit but to drop themselves into a well. That was absolutely horrendous, and those who went in first were killed, if not by bullets, then by the people who fell on top of them. It was a difficult position for people of that origin.
My friend—I keep calling him that, because that is what he is—the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) has served in the military and understands full well the onerous conditions placed on military personnel in the battle arena. He has written about that in “The Fog of Law”, and understands those issues deeply. It is important that he is part of the debate to ask for that apology. It is important to bringing back the professionalism and integrity of our armed forces that, when such mistakes have been made, we must now look forward and try to accept them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) said, the apology is important, because it allows people closure and to move forward. That is essentially the issue here.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) made an impassioned case and wanted to know how to move forward, as did the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law). The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has been a champion of religious rights and human rights across the whole of the world for as long as I have known him, and I have been here since 2001. He is always a strong advocate of those who cannot represent themselves. I thank him for his contribution. I also thank my mentor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), who has been taking up the case for the 30 years that he has been in Parliament. I thank him for the way in which he has supported the Sikh community. He has supported every single event and moved forward the issue of representation in the Sikh community. He has worked strongly in that community and I thank him for the great work that he does.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) has done a huge amount of work on the matter, and his letter is a considered and respectable way of trying to deal with the issue. It is time for the Government to deal with it. That is important, because it gives closure and allows people to move forward in their relationship with the United Kingdom. I say that as someone whose maternal great-grandfather was in the British Indian Army. My right hon. Friend done tremendous work for his Sikh community, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), has for hers; she spoke eloquently today.
Every speaker today has spoken about the need for the apology, which is important. The Minister needs to be able to see that. The apology, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East has said, is long overdue. The anniversary is the right time to apologise, so that we can move forward. Also, there is another instance that we should look at while looking at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre: the massacre at the Amritsar Golden Temple in 1984. I link them because of the involvement of a security services officer who was there. On this occasion we are trying to address some of the wrongs committed by our Government, and it is important to look at that instance as well. Advice was given to the Indian Government’s military in relation to that.
I have a huge Sikh community in my constituency and across the whole of Birmingham, and I have heard about those two episodes from Sikhs in other parts of the country where I regularly go to events and meet people. The numbers at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were far greater, but the massacre at the Amritsar temple was hugely devastating to people. It is important for the Minister to address both issues. An apology now is absolutely necessary to allow the generations who continually look at the issue to move forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall, mentioned the Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Trust, which is based in my constituency and has worked for a long time on these issues. A lot of organisations do, but let us get them to move forward. I want them to look at the work that they need to do in this country and move forward the heritage of the Sikh community. Rather than looking at what has happened, I want them to look forward to the future.
I thank my hon. Friend for his passionate speech. I am from Punjab originally and I know the psyche of the Indian community in general. This is the right time for the Prime Minister to publicly apologise. I mean no disrespect to the Minister. He is passionate and he has expressed in his communications how he sees the issue, but I am sure he will agree that the Prime Minister should apologise.
My hon. Friend is right: the Prime Minister has to apologise. That is where the apology should come from, although I know that the Minister is a studious man who works hard and understands the issues. He continues to do that, and I thank him for it.
Finally, I reiterate my thanks for the great work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East has done in relation to this letter. We need to get a conclusion; we need an apology. That apology has to be made so that we in the Sikh community, both in the United Kingdom and in Punjab, and the Muslim community and the Hindu community that were involved in the Jallianwala Bagh can have some sort of closure.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this debate, for his long-standing work on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and for his tremendous commitment to south Asia. This has been a compelling debate, and in my reply I will go into some detail. As I think hon. Members recognise, it would not be appropriate for me to make the apology today that many wish for, and I am glad that the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) recognised that in their contributions. However, I will say a little bit about the path that we are on.
It is fair to say at the outset that I have slightly orthodox views on these matters; I feel a little reluctant to make apologies for things that have happened in the past. Obviously, any Government Department has concerns about making any apology, given that there may well be financial implications to doing so. I also worry a little bit that we debase the currency of apologies if we make them in relation to many, many events. However, if the House will bear with me, I have found almost all of today’s contributions extremely compelling. They were made in the right tone—one not of anger but of regret—and with a keen eye on the future. That is my view on this matter, and I assure the House that it is a work in progress. An active debate is taking place among Ministers and senior officials, not least our excellent high commissioner in New Delhi, Sir Dominic Asquith—who is of course related to Herbert Asquith, quotes from whom have come up in today’s debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East has rightly said, later this week we will mark the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. I recognise the enduring, very deep feelings and emotions that this incident continues to raise, not just in the House but across the world. I thank my hon. Friend for setting out the full context of the events of Sunday 13 April 1919. Brigadier-General Dyer had received news that a 15,000-strong peaceful crowd had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh—the walled public garden in Amritsar, in the heart of the Punjab. Brigadier-General Dyer entered that walled garden that afternoon with 50 rifle-armed and 40 other British Indian Army soldiers. Without warning, he ordered those soldiers to fire into the large, unarmed crowd that was gathered there, killing hundreds of protestors from the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim faiths in the space of just 10 minutes.
Let me be clear: this was a tragedy, and a shameful episode in British history. The British Government of the day rightly condemned the incident, and there was strong criticism on the Floor of the House from some unexpected quarters. Members have referred to the former Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, and as others have pointed out, Winston Churchill—then Secretary of State for War—described it as a “monstrous event”. One century later, we as the successors of that Government recognise that people here and in India continue to feel very deeply about this issue.
There is increasingly strong recognition that a formal acknowledgement of deep regret is important to help frame the modern bilateral relationship that increasingly thrives in a wide range of globally significant areas of mutual interest in which Indian and UK values align. I have been taken by the contributions that Members have made, including what the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) rightly said. I hope that we do not preach in the world, but I think we stand up for what we regard as the rules-based international order. We stand shoulder to shoulder with India in so many of those areas that, when we state these things, we perhaps do not entirely recognise the sense of hypocrisy arising from our colonial past. It is important that we make those acknowledgements.
We are committed to ensuring that what took place in Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 100 years ago should not be forgotten. That is why I welcome the tabling of this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. It is right that we continue to pay our respects to the victims, and we shall strive to learn from and appreciate the passions that arise from these events.
We also recognise how important it is that, during the course of this year, we mark this sombre anniversary in the most appropriate way. In India, I have asked representatives from our High Commission in New Delhi to visit the site to lay a wreath on behalf of the British Government, and there will be further acknowledgement of those terrible events in the months ahead. I also reassure all hon. Members that the Government will publicly acknowledge the centenary closer to home in the United Kingdom, looking back with the deepest regret on what occurred, but also looking forward to the strong bonds that both our countries are building for the future. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I look a little bit at some of those bonds, which are worth putting into context.
May I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that there have been many compelling speeches, and I will touch on them towards the end of my comments? He should recognise that it is not an issue of reconsidering; there is an ongoing sense of consideration that is happening in that regard. It is worth pointing out that we must always remember that issues such as this frame our history, and we expect them to do so. I believe that we have, and we must continue to do so, but it is also right that, in focusing on the future, we work to build and sustain a flourishing partnership that benefits all our citizens. It is evident that that ambition for the future was shared in the discussions that took place between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister May at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London last April.
Today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) rightly recognised in his compelling contribution, we have a thriving and respectful partnership of equals. It is important to recognise that. That is why I think my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made New Delhi her very first port of call after her appointment, and why she was so pleased to welcome Prime Minister Modi to London last year. It is also why I have been to India no fewer than three times in the past 18 months, visiting Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, as well as, of course, visiting New Delhi on each occasion.
As a result, I have experienced our dynamic relationship first hand, in many different ways. We share a proud parliamentary tradition, a global outlook and a commitment to maintaining the rules-based international system, which is coming under threat from unexpected quarters, but remains the bedrock of global security and prosperity. I can testify to the fact that our relationship is characterised by close collaboration and mutual respect, and is focused on enhancing the prosperity and security of our people. That is why India and the UK signed our first framework agreement on cyber co-operation, which will help to write global rules on cyber.
We have launched our ambitious technology partnership, marrying Indian and British skills and ingenuity to drive forward the fourth industrial revolution. We also, of course, welcome many talented Indian workers to this country; indeed, we issue more skilled work visas to India than to all other countries combined. The numbers of Indians coming to visit and work and study in the UK are all on the rise, with a 35% increase in student visas, a 6% increase in work visas and a 10% increase in visit visas in the year 2018.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to finish, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East will want to say a few words right at the end.
The Indian diaspora is the UK’s largest, at over 1.5 million, contributing not only to UK prosperity but to our national culture. All that activity is underpinned by what Prime Minister Modi has rightly described as a “living bridge” between us in the form of personal, professional, cultural and institutional ties, which have shaped each other’s countries and give our relationship a unique depth and created a panoply of people-to-people links.
It is right that we mark the centenary of the tragic events in Amritsar in the most appropriate way and that we never forget what happened. It was a shameful episode in our history and one that we deeply regret to this day. In the intervening years, we have learned lessons. Everything that we do today is in order to try to prevent such tragedies occurring again elsewhere in the world. Importantly, our modern relationship with India is focused on the future—on pooling our strengths, sharing our skills and knowledge, and enhancing the prosperity and security of our people. We are working together to deal with some of the greatest challenges of our age, such as climate change and infectious disease.
However, I recognise that this relationship is framed in part by the past. Although it would not be appropriate for me to apologise in the context of this debate, I have found many of the speeches very compelling. I will take up with the Foreign Secretary and No. 10 Downing Street a sense that we need to do more than set out very deep regrets, as I have done today. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and the Labour spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), have all made a strong and compelling case that we need to do more.
I am very aware of that with my own work on the future relationship. At the back of one’s mind, there is always a sense—not just when one looks at the figures on trade and investment, although that is an aspect of it—that something is holding us back from fulfilling the full potential and a flourishing relationship. In all honesty, I would take a more orthodox and different view of our colonial past, but I accept that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre grates particularly strongly in the relationship between India and the UK.
In a funny way, Pakistan and Bangladesh feel that they come from the yoke of a different country, and therefore there is perhaps a stronger day-to-day relationship with those two countries than there is with India. These issues are an important way of trying to draw a line under the past. Therefore, this is work in progress and I cannot make any promises. I feel that we perhaps need to go further. As I say, I came to this issue when it was discussed some months ago. Obviously, I discussed it when I was out in New Delhi, but with a more orthodox view. I have now been persuaded—not just by this debate—to take a different approach.
So I believe that the best way to honour the memory of the people who suffered and died in Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago is for us all to do our best to build a new partnership between the UK and India that will work for both our countries, and to recognise that such a partnership can be an important force for good in the world at large.
I thank my right hon. Friend for answering this debate, and I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions. There have been three key messages. The first is that children should be taught about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in our schools, because people should know what happened in our name.
The second message is that, in taking forward our relationship and friendship with India, saying sorry—apologising for this massacre—is the right thing to do. I hope that the Government, who I am very proud to support, will take that action. Finally, if this massacre were to happen today, the people responsible would be indicted for war crimes and held to account for what they did; they would not have been buried with full military honours. We should recognise that fact, say sorry and ensure that the memories of what happened will be preserved. We should own up to what was done in our name.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Age-related Macular Degeneration: NHS Funding
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NHS funding for age-related macular degeneration.
I begin by welcoming the Minister to her place. I am very pleased that she is now a Minister and I look forward to having many more interactions with her.
Sight is a wonderful gift. Sight allows us to witness and experience the world we live in. It is not surprising that, in survey after survey, the fear of losing one’s sight comes top in comparison with other conditions. It is remarkable that we do not hear more about the leading cause of blindness in adults, which is age-related macular degeneration or AMD for short.
AMD is the breaking down of the macula, which is the sensitive and small tissue at the centre of the retina. It is responsible for processing central vision and allows us to see colour, detail and sharpness in objects. There are two types of AMD: dry and wet. Dry AMD, which affects 90% of people with the condition, is caused by thinning of the under-layer of the macula, which can lead to blurred vision. Thinning of the under-layer of the macula is caused by small white or yellow deposits called drusen. They may at first not affect vision all that much, but as they build up over time, they can lead to blind spots in someone’s central vision and can later become wet AMD.
Wet AMD is usually caused by new blood vessels growing underneath the macula that bleed and leak into the macula, which can cause blindness and distort vision in that eye. The onset of wet AMD is more rapid and can be more damaging, leading to irreversible vision loss. According to the charity Fight for Sight, AMD is the leading cause of sight loss in the UK, predominantly affecting people aged over 65. It accounts for 50% of severe sight impairment and 52% of all Certificate of Vision Impairment registrations in England and Wales.
AMD progressively damages a person’s central vision, which in some cases can leave them unable to read, drive or recognise faces, although they may retain their peripheral vision. It is estimated that 600,000 people in the United Kingdom are living with late-stage AMD. Industry data suggest that by 2026 there will be 9.7 million people in the UK affected by all stages of AMD and 800,000 of them will have late-stage disease that affects their vision. Projections suggest that by 2050 the figure for people with late-stage AMD could rise to 1.3 million unless measures are taken now to address this issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate and I, too, welcome the Minister to her place. Significant numbers of people will potentially lose their sight. My hon. Friend has cited some of the figures. By 2050, the number of people living with sight loss will be in excess of 4 million. Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the numbers, it is time that we had a UK-wide vision strategy on eye health and sight loss?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; I will come to that matter later in my speech.
AMD is an ever increasing public health issue, presenting as one of the number of long-term conditions that can lead to an increased risk of morbidity in patients. AMD costs the economy an estimated £1.6 billion a year and hits the productivity of society. There is a strong correlation between AMD and decreased quality of life outcomes, including an increase in depression, impaired ability to do everyday tasks, feeling more socially isolated and being 1.7 times more likely to suffer falls. Twenty-one per cent. of the annual medical cost of falls, which is £56.5 million, is attributed to those with visual impairments. The loss of independence resulting from sight loss can also be incredibly debilitating because systems are not set up to deal with it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and I offer the Minister all best wishes in her new position. It is well deserved, and we look forward to working with her regularly in Westminster Hall and elsewhere.
My father suffered from AMD, although he did not know he had it until it had reached a late stage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that early diagnosis is important for all matters of eye care that affect us, as is visiting an optician at least once if not twice a year? That is one positive thing we can do.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Early diagnosis is so important, especially for wet AMD. The target requires people to be seen within 18 weeks of diagnosis, but that is unacceptable for people with wet AMD who should be seen within two weeks. Otherwise, their vision could suffer serious damage.
One concern is that the NHS has insufficient eye clinic capacity, due to delays and cancelled appointments that the British Ophthalmic Surveillance Unit has identified could lead to up to 22 patients a month losing their vision. The all-party group on eye health and visual impairment—I am pleased to see two members of the group here today—is supported by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and in its inquiry, “See the Light”, published in June 2018, it identified 16 recommendations on which the Government should take action.
Three recommendations on which the APPG is still waiting to see progress include: the urgent need to increase the number of trainee ophthalmologists to keep pace with increasing demand; the need to ensure that sustainability and transformation partnerships—STPs—address current and future need; and the need to establish a national target to ensure that patients who require follow-up appointments are seen within a clinically appropriate time to prevent delayed and cancelled appointments.
According to statistics from the Industry Vision Group, last year three out of 44 STPs identified ophthalmology as a priority service, and only seven out of 44 met the 18-week referral target every month between January 2017 and January 2018. Early intervention for wet AMD is crucial to avoid blindness, and even the 18-week target that I mentioned to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not suitable for people with wet AMD, which requires treatment within two weeks. There is still a need to collect robust data on ophthalmology at clinical commissioning group level in order to assess performance and learn from best practice. Some of the issues relating to delay or the cancellation of appointments may be due to systems and processes, and not necessarily to funding.
Ophthalmology has the second highest outpatient attendance of any speciality, with 7.6 million appointments in England in 2017-18 accounting for 10% of all outpatient appointments. As we are all living longer, that figure is projected to increase by up to 40% over the next 20 years. The Government could do a number of things to help improve the situation for people with AMD and other sight-threatening conditions. First, we need a national eye health strategy—that point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova). Unlike Scotland and Wales, England does not have a national eye health strategy, but one is needed to address workforce capacity issues and health inequalities, and to enable better care and improvements to the quality of life for those with AMD.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. In my community the Kent Association for the Blind has done a lot of work on this issue, and I was proud to visit it recently. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her new appointment, and on her liberation in finding her voice again and being able to express her own views, albeit of course measured through those of the Government.
I am pleased to hear of the excellent work taking place in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Contained within the strategy should be a minimum commitment to research similar to that given in the Government’s dementia 2020 challenge, which committed £60 million a year to dementia research, resulting in significant advances for those suffering with dementia. It is unclear how much funding has been set aside for ophthalmology from the £20 billion announced in the Government’s NHS long-term plan. I would be curious to hear from the Minister whether it is part of the plan or not.
There is also a need for the establishment of a national ophthalmology database to collect and analyse data for the purpose of improving outcomes, better decision making, and allocating resources. At present, there is fragmented data collection, such as that by the health quality improvement partnership, administered by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, which covers only cataract surgery. A database that routinely collects information on AMD would greatly assist research and the planning of clinical care for those with AMD.
All STPs and integrated care schemes should be held accountable for developing and implanting integrated ophthalmology plans. Three years ago, the Department of Health commissioned a number of “Getting It Right First Time” reports into a series of areas, including ophthalmology. Unfortunately, that report is yet to be published, but hopefully when that happens it could inform the integrated ophthalmology plan, along with other sources such as the Royal College of Ophthalmologists’ “Way Forward” reports.
The hon. Gentleman is very gracious. As I should have said earlier, I declare an interest as the chair of the APPG for eye health and visual impairment. He is right that it is important to visit an optician to have a test for AMD, but such a visit can have other benefits. Through a person’s eyes, an optician can get an idea of what that person’s body is like, and can diagnose other things that are wrong. There are other benefits to visiting an optician for an early AMD test, in terms of everything that goes with it.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We should all visit opticians on a regular basis, because they can detect a whole series of other eye conditions.
My second ask is for the publication of a workforce development plan for ophthalmology. That should also be a priority. There is already a shortage of eye care specialists who can diagnose and treat AMD. The number of ophthalmologists in the UK is the second lowest in Europe. The numbers are expected to reduce further, while the patient population is likely to increase significantly. The Department of Health and Social Care should commit to producing a workforce development plan that addresses the current situation and assesses future demand and provision need.
NHS RightCare should also develop guidance and a workstream for AMD, and data packs that can be shared as a resource and inform improvement in treatment for AMD. An IT platform that allows better integration of services is needed—for example, from primary care to hospital-based ophthalmology—so that a more joined-up approach can lead to better outcomes for patients with AMD.
Finally, it should be remembered that there is a link between sight loss and mental health, depression and frailty. The secondary effects of sight loss should also be considered when making both national and local policies on commissioning services.
My hon. Friend is being very generous. On that point about the impact of sight loss and the link to mental health, does he agree that a clear strategy would enable all services to be more joined up, so that when somebody is diagnosed with losing their sight all the relevant support would fall into place because there is a clear pathway?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The impact of sight loss can lead to depression and other mental health issues, so they should form part of any strategy related to sight loss. I agree with her 100%.
I ask the Minister to recognise the need for more attention to the needs of people with AMD, and to set about taking on board and implementing the suggestions that I have raised.
It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, as I respond to my first debate as the new Public Health and Primary Care Minister. I thank all hon. Members for their good wishes and reassure my officials that, although I have found my voice again, I will try not to alarm them too much.
I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for bringing this important matter forward for debate. Age-related macular degeneration—AMD—is a devastating disease that seriously affects the lives of many people, particularly older people. It is the leading cause of sight loss in the UK and affects over 600,000 people. As the hon. Gentleman outlined, the two main types are dry, or early, degeneration, and wet, or late, degeneration.
Around 75% of people with AMD suffer from dry generation. For most of them, it causes milder sight loss or even near-normal vision. Although there is currently no effective treatment for that form of AMD, its impact can be reduced with vision aids. A minority of those with dry degeneration, however, will progress to wet degeneration, which can be far more serious and threaten their vision. A number of treatments for it are available, including regular eye injections or a light treatment called photodynamic therapy.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has recommended a class of drugs, anti-VEGF therapies, as the clinically appropriate and cost-effective treatments for wet AMD. Currently, there are two licensed options: Lucentis and Eylea. As such, NHS commissioners are legally required to fund those treatments for patients where necessary to comply with NICE’s recommendations. NICE is currently considering whether to examine a further drug, brolucizumab, for treating AMD and recently consulted stakeholders on the suitability of referral to its technology appraisal work programme, and a decision will be taken shortly.
There is some dispute about whether nutritional therapy and a healthy diet high in antioxidants, or the prescription of supplements, can assist with the management of AMD. NHS England has advised me, however, that it has informed CCGs not to prescribe lutein or antioxidants to patients with AMD, as evidence suggests that those treatments have low clinical effectiveness.
Although we have some effective treatments for AMD, we do not rest on our laurels. Medicines continue to evolve, and we continue to look for better treatments to improve outcomes for people living with AMD. The Department provides significant funding for medical research, mainly through the National Institute for Health Research. NIHR welcomes funding applications for research into any aspect of human health, including AMD. It is important to set out some of the ways in which NIHR engaged in advancing learning in that area and is funding research.
In 2017-18, the total spend by NIHR for eye-related research was just over £20 million. That covered a wide range of studies and trials, including research relating to AMD. In that year, the NIHR clinical research network supported 38 clinical studies and trials related to the treatment and care of people with AMD and other retina-related conditions. Since 2014, NIHR has provided £9.6 million for seven research grants and awards related to AMD, including five health technology assessment studies.
I pay tribute to the excellent work of the NIHR Moorfield Biomedical Research Centre, which is a partnership between Moorfields Eye Hospital, with its unique clinical resources that support over half a million patient visits per year, and the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology, which is one of the largest and most productive eye research institutions. The partnership was awarded £19 million over five years from April 2017. It is now conducting a wide range of ground-breaking biomedical research on AMD through several of its research themes, which will ultimately translate into significant improvements in the treatment, diagnosis and management of people with eye diseases.
Prevention is an absolute priority, both for me as the new Minister for Public Health and Primary Care, and for the Secretary of State, as we prepare to publish our prevention Green Paper later this year. At the heart of the NHS long-term plan that was published earlier this year is the idea that prevention is better than cure. AMD is one of the top four causes of sight loss, alongside glaucoma, diabetic retinopathies and cataracts. All of those conditions are most prevalent in older people and we know that, once lost, vision is especially hard to restore. The Royal National Institute of Blind People suggests that 50% of cases of blindness and serious sight loss could be prevented if they were detected and treated earlier. Research shows that almost 2 million people in the UK are living with sight loss, which is vision less than six out of 12. As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate and the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) mentioned, by 2020 that number is predicted to increase by 22% and to double to 4 million people by 2050. Those increases are due mainly to an ageing population. Eye health will be particularly relevant to these matters, given that more than 80% of sight loss occurs in people aged over 60.
I pay tribute to Galloway’s, a charity in my constituency that does amazing work with people on sight loss. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), who is no longer in his place, also mentioned the Kent Association for the Blind in this capacity.
I thank the Minister for giving way. She is picking up on some really important points. She talks about prevention, but there is a national need for a vision strategy. We cannot have prevention in isolation, nor living with sight loss in isolation. Everything needs to be joined up. Does the Minister agree that it is now time for a vision strategy to be part of the long-term NHS plan?
I will respond to the question that the hon. Lady raised in her intervention later on in my remarks. We know that regular sight testing can lead to early detection of these conditions. In his capacity as chair of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to the importance of regular eye tests, given that, combined with early treatment, they can prevent people from losing their sight. That is why we continue to fund free sight tests for people over 60 and, alongside NHS England, are fully supporting the aims of the UK Vision Strategy to improve the eye health of people in the UK. A mark of the priority that the Department places on eye health is the inclusion in the Public Health Outcomes Framework of an indicator of the rate of avoidable blindness, both as a headline measure and by main cause, to highlight and track the direction of travel at national and local level.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate has raised a number of wider important issues for the eye care sector. Many of those were highlighted in the report from the all-party parliamentary group on eye health, “See the Light”, which was published last summer. The Department welcomes this report and, along with NHS England, is carefully considering the key recommendations.
The hon. Gentleman said that eye clinic capacity was insufficient. I of course share any concerns about delays to treatment. National guidance is clear that all follow-up appointments should take place when clinically appropriate, and patients should not experience undue delay at any stage of their referral, diagnosis or treatment. To help address that issue, two key initiatives—“Getting it Right First Time”, led by NHS Improvement, and the elective care transformation programme, led by NHS England—have been set up to consider what can be done to ensure that patients do not suffer unnecessary delays in follow-up care. My Department is following that work closely.
The hon. Gentleman also asks that we establish a national target to ensure that patients requiring follow-up appointments are seen within a clinically appropriate time. As I am sure he will appreciate, the intervals for follow-up appointments will vary between different services or specialties, and between individual patients, depending on the severity of their condition. That is why all follow-up appointments should take place when clinically appropriate. For patients who require further planned stages of treatment after their “referral to treatment” waiting time clock has stopped, treatment should be undertaken without undue delay and in line with when it is clinically appropriate and convenient to the patient to do so.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Battersea both raised the matter of a national eye health strategy. The Department takes sight loss very seriously. We are working with NHS England to ensure that the commissioning and development of eye services are of high quality and sustainable. I look forward to meeting the hon. Lady to discuss all matters relating to vision and sight loss.
CCGs are responsible for commissioning all secondary care ophthalmology services, and are also available to commission primary care services such as minor eye services and monitoring, in the community, to meet identified need. It is therefore right that the planning and commissioning of high-quality eye care services that meet the needs of the local population should happen locally, not at a national level.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, also referred to the national ophthalmology database, and asked that it be expanded to collect data on AMD. Data is currently collected on cataracts as part of a five-year programme funded by NHS England. I understand that at an earlier stage the programme funding panel considered expanding the focus, but decided that the focus should remain on cataracts in that time-limited audit.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and thank him for raising the matter. We are working incredibly hard, alongside NHS England, Public Health England and other partners, to ensure that eye care policy is focused both on preventing disease and, where disease develops, on ensuring that there are high-quality, sustainable eye care services for people across the country. I hope that the significant focus on effective treatment, prevention and AMD research that I have outlined means that he can reassure his constituents that we take AMD incredibly seriously. Maintaining good vision throughout life is of the utmost importance, especially as we grow older.