Wednesday 10 April 2019
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
British Steel Pension Scheme: Transfers
I beg to move,
That this House has considered pension transfers and the British Steel pension scheme.
For many of us, pensions are a distant, complex and opaque topic. Everyone hopes that their pension will provide financial security for their family’s future. It is often the single biggest pot of money that anyone will have, but that makes pension pots ideal targets for mis-selling. Unfortunately, in recent years pensions mis-selling has got worse. Since further pension freedoms were brought in four years ago, it is easier to transfer out of defined-benefit pension schemes. More than 200,000 people have done that, but as transfers have increased, so have the problems. The compensation paid out for poor transfer advice increased to £40 million last year.
I called for this debate because of a specific mis-selling crisis that affected hundreds and potentially thousands of people across south Wales in particular. Two years ago, the British Steel pension scheme began to restructure its fund after a difficult period for the industry. Scheme members had a hard deadline to make a critical decision: they could go into a new scheme, be defaulted into a lifeboat fund or transfer out. They had to decide against a backdrop of serious uncertainty about the scheme and the industry. The scheme’s administrators were under enormous pressure, with 4,000 calls a day. Vital information about pension advisers from the Financial Conduct Authority was often highly technical. All that helped to create a perfect storm.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and commend the work that he is doing in this area. He has mentioned the Financial Conduct Authority. Does he agree that one issue here is regulation and that too often those who suffer a loss are pushed in the direction of a civil remedy when actually we need stronger enforcement and tougher criminal sanctions?
I agree. I think that the FCA has the right teeth but is not using them and that the police need to intervene much earlier.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. I do not have any people with steel pensions in my constituency, but I am here to support the hon. Gentleman and to do so on the record. He mentioned that 4,000-plus people a week were trying to get details and advice on how to move forward. Is not the onus on the FCA and, ultimately, the Government to ensure that the necessary advice is there and available? The volume of contacts being made clearly indicates that the system is unable to respond in the way it should.
The advice is there. The difficulty is that for many people it is too technical and complicated; working through it is really very hard.
Transfers were talked up, and pension sharks soon began circling around the key steelworking sites across south Wales and the rest of the UK. They were often facilitated by unregulated introducers, through word of mouth. For example, constituents of mine were approached by a rogue financial adviser at their caravan while they were on a family holiday. Wider possibilities were common currency: a place in the sun, a conservatory and a deposit for a son’s or daughter’s new home were all said to be within reach.
The pension changes meant that it was easier to transfer from a stable fund into investments that were far riskier, on the promise of better returns. Unfortunately, it meant that a safe bet could turn into a bad bet, and a high fee was often part of the deal too. It was the case that 7,800 steelworkers transferred out altogether, of whom 872 had transfers arranged by firms that were eventually ordered—ordered—to stop advising by the FCA. One steelworker lost £200,000. Many others lost tens of thousands of pounds. Many suffered incredible stress and anxiety. I heard yesterday that £1.8 million has been paid out in compensation to steelworkers so far. I emphasise the words “so far”. Because that might not grasp the full scale of the issue, the FCA has now reviewed the files of 2% of the nearly 8,000 steelworkers who transferred out. It found that 58% of the advice was not suitable, which means that the tally of those who lost out could run to several thousands. To deal with that possibility, the FCA now needs to set out a clear programme of how it will identify the steelworkers affected, how it will let them know and what practical support it will provide to help to get them through this process.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and leading on this issue, as he has now for several years. On how the FCA now informs steelworkers, does he agree that part of the problem is that lots of steelworkers will simply not know that this has happened and will not understand that they have received bad advice? Given that these are complicated issues, as he has mentioned, that means that they will often just ignore the issue in the hope that it will somehow resolve itself. This could be yet another pension scandal waiting to happen, purely because people do not wish to face up to the realities of what is happening.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point. The FCA is a large organisation based in London. I believe it does not have sufficient resources to help consumers on the ground in places such as Port Talbot or Shotton, or across the country, where pensioners need support at their homes.
The concerns that my hon. Friend has raised are valid in north Wales among steelworkers who used to work at the Shotton plant, many of whom live in my constituency. A cursory look at the FCA website reveals that there are 17 firms that the FCA is currently examining. I did not know that until I looked at the site in preparation for this debate. How are steelworkers supposed to know who those 17 firms are?
My right hon. Friend gets to the nub of the situation. Who does one trust when one has a pot of gold and people want access to it? He poses a really important question. The FCA has got to help our steelworker pensioners and their families.
It can be argued that this was a unique situation, but many of the underlying problems that allowed it to happen are still there. Rogue financial advisers do not face sufficiently tough consequences from the regulators. The FCA’s register has been improved, but consumer information sometimes remains unclear. The support for people who might have been mis-sold pensions is insufficient.
I recognise that some steps have been taken to improve co-ordination between regulators. That is welcome, but much more needs to be done. At the moment, the pension sharks have generally received administrative sanctions only, but I think they need to face serious penalties. Will the Minister scrutinise the effectiveness of the FCA’s enforcement regime? Steelworkers say the FCA needs to impose heavy financial penalties on bad financial advisers. I think it needs to employ its powers much more often, as it seems this has not been done sufficiently.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and pay tribute to him for his work for our constituents in this important area. At our recent meeting with the FCA, the issue of mandatory insurance wording came up. Those unscrupulous financial advisers are not taking out proper insurance—when they go bust, there is no source of compensation for the steelworkers who have been ripped off. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister needs to take urgent action to improve the regulatory framework, not least in the area of mandatory insurance wording?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Given reports that the FCA is investigating so-called introducers in connection with a major scam, the Government should now ensure that they, too, are regulated. The Treasury has to take action to ensure that financial advisers always have—this comes to my hon. Friend’s point—sufficient insurance to pay out, should they go into administration.
Will the Minister ensure that the FCA updates the Treasury on how it is supporting the potentially several thousand steelworkers who might have received poor transfer advice in this instance? The Treasury needs to co-ordinate with the Department of Work and Pensions and other key bodies in order to help victims of mis-selling to access the support they need. Although BSPS members have been supported by a strong team in Port Talbot, including a financial adviser and a lawyer, there needs to be a single initiative, aimed specifically at people who may have been mis-sold in cases such as BSPS.
I am very grateful to my good friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate and on the powerful case that he is making. In the consultation on the changes, concerns were raised that the burden could fall too heavily on scheme members, and we worry that that is the case. Our mining and steel communities built this nation. Does my hon. Friend agree that they should be looked after in retirement?
My hon. Friend is a champion for miners’ pensions, on which she has done some great work, and I think she is absolutely right.
I press the Minister on the Treasury’s response to recommendations that others have made about the crisis. The Rookes review suggested that the FCA needs to look at how it handles advisers who have had regulatory issues in the past. Phoenixing, as it is called, has allowed some advisers to reinvent themselves to sell anew. There must be greater scrutiny to stop rogues re-emerging in the marketplace. The review also suggested that the FCA work with the Treasury and the DWP to use digital channels to help to communicate important information to pensioners and to help them.
Finally, the review suggested that the Pensions Regulator work with BSPS, trustees and trade unions—Community and Unite have been particularly good in south Wales—to select a panel of reliable financial advisers that members can use. Those advisers must be able to deal with the scale of the problem with BSPS and with the insurance needed. Can the Minister explain how the Department is progressing those recommendations and when we can expect the changes to be fully implemented?
In his valedictory speech, Mark Neale, the outgoing chief executive of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, strongly advocated increasing the compensation limit in cases of poor transfer advice. They were powerful remarks, so let us listen to him. I ask the Treasury to actively support that proposal and to investigate how many people are currently suffering uncompensated financial losses because of poor advice.
We need justice for steelworkers who are ripped off. If the FCA will not do that, local police forces in south Wales need to pursue what appear to be complicated cases of fraud. The crimes are committed locally; the losses are clear and often substantial; and those responsible are identifiable. I call on the police forces across south Wales to open files and thoroughly investigate whether those cases amount to fraud. Criminal investigations have to start. If they do not, I call on the forces to state publicly why not.
The financial and emotional toll that this crisis has taken on my constituents and many others has been heavy. They worked hard for decades to earn their pensions, and they expected a secure pot to provide for them and their families. That was put at risk because of the wrongdoing of a few bad actors and a weak response from the regulators. Steelworkers and their families have been let down. The Government and the FCA must improve their act and support those people better. The rogues who ripped off steelworkers and their families must be held to account. If the regulators cannot do that, the police need to step in. We need to make sure that good people see their hard-earned money better protected in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I pay tribute once again to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing the debate and for all the work that he does. He and I have worked on the transfer of steelworker pensions out of BSPS since 2017, which was when all Tata Steel workers were forced to decide whether to move into the BSPS 2 or transfer out into another pension scheme. Given that trust between employees and employer at that point was fragile to say the least, it is not too surprising—completely understandable, in fact—that about 8,000 of the steelworkers decided against joining the BSPS 2. Little did they know that the vultures were circling.
The behaviour of the unscrupulous financial advisers who ripped off these men and their families was completely inexcusable. The sheer size of the pension transfer exercise, the high level of publicity that the transfer received, and the workers’ deep-seated mistrust of the employer at that time, the trustees and Tata made for fertile territory for the parasites. The trade unions, steel MPs and the BSPS trustees all called on the Government to introduce a system of deemed consent regarding the transfer of BSPS 2. I was one of those MPs; I sent a letter to the then Pensions Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke). However, we were ignored and those hard-working, honest men were targeted, despite the fact that in only a very small number of cases was transferring out their best option.
These unscrupulous advisers are not stupid; they have behaved in a manner that is cunning, morally bankrupt and in many cases criminal. These events have had a dreadful effect on steelworkers in my constituency and their families. One man transferred £560,000 out on the strength of a 40-minute phone call with an “adviser”, who convinced him that it was what everyone was doing —40 years of service reduced to 40 minutes on the telephone. He believes that he was charged £11,000 to transfer out and for a 40-minute consultation. A man’s entire life plan was ruined by one phone call. Another was advised by one of the local advisers to transfer £348,858 out. He is now paying in excess of £3,500 a year in various costs and charges, as well as exposing himself to the risk of shortfall and dying after his pension pot runs out. That adviser played on the fear that BSPS was going to go into administration. They did not present my constituent with the facts or evidence, but approached the situation from the starting point that he wanted to transfer out, and facilitated that transfer without checking that it was in his best interest to do so.
Who were those unscrupulous financial advisers? The main culprits have been Active Wealth (UK) Ltd and a man named Darren Reynolds, who account for all but a couple of the 77 cases that have so far been taken up with the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. The FSCS has so far paid out £1.8 million to 61 of the 77 claimants, 16 of whom exceeded the £50,000 compensation limit—a limit that has since risen to £85,000. For those who have not been granted compensation, it is purely because they have not suffered a loss, not because they were not badly advised. I think I am right in saying that every single claimant was judged to have been badly advised.
It has been clear for some time that Active Wealth was just the tip of the iceberg. Several other advisers have been acting inappropriately; one did a lot of work in concert with a financial adviser who did not have the required permissions. The transfers were going through in about one hour, and some steelworkers never even met with an adviser. In another part of the country, in west Wales, an adviser had the required permissions, but by the end of 2017 had had their permissions to do pensions transfers revoked. Scores of steelworkers were days away from the transfer cut-off when that adviser circled in. Other advisers saw the writing on the wall and went into voluntary liquidation a few months ago. Those two advisers took their clients with them, literally next door.
Other sales tactics were entirely risible. In one case, steelworkers were turning up at an adviser’s office over the weekend because he had told them that on Monday the pension company would be stopping distribution in the UK. He was literally telling them to hurry up and buy; he spent 30 minutes talking to each steelworker about their pension. It is notable that those financial advisers are finding it easier to simply lock up shop, close their business down and walk away than to face up to what they have done. That, in effect, then limits the redress that steelworkers can receive to £50,000—now up to £85,000—under the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, and from £150,000 under the Financial Ombudsman Service. In effect, we have a deep structural problem in the system, with financial advisers able simply to lock up shop and walk away, rather than give redress to the people they have ripped off. That is a fundamental question for the regulator.
These men were let down not just by rogue financial advisers, but by the authorities: the regulator, namely the Financial Conduct Authority, and the Government. The FCA was far too slow to see the obvious risks and act to protect steelworkers from these vultures. It knew from its investigation in 2017 that more than half of the transfer advice being given was not up to its own standards, but even that, apparently, did not raise any alarm bells or red flags. Most shockingly, certain financial advisers who were under investigation still appeared on the FCA website. The fact that that information was unavailable to the steelworkers feels utterly unjust.
The focus now is to raise awareness among steelworkers who have not spoken up but are due compensation, and to ask them to come forward and seek advice. Something that we have all observed is the role of shame in that. Many steelworkers are deeply embarrassed and ashamed that they have been ripped off. They have found it extremely difficult to share that difficult information with their families and spouses—one of the reasons that more men have not come forward.
I recognise that this is an emotionally sensitive matter for those involved, who may be reluctant to overturn the rock and look at what they might find underneath. However, it is right that we do everything that we can to get justice for these men. Investment companies and self-invested personal pension providers must no longer be able to look the other way and adopt a “see no evil, ask no questions, tell no lies” approach as long as the money continues to roll in. That approach is morally bankrupt.
Since the end of 2017, I have been working with my hon. Friends the Members for Blaenau Gwent and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), lawyers and independent financial advisers in order to bang the drum and get these steelworkers the justice that they deserve. In November, 18 steelworkers came to Westminster to meet the regulators and the FSCS. We were pleased that the FSCS was able to revisit some of those adviser charges. We have also had very welcome promises from the FCA to run seminars in Port Talbot. Tata has also shown a willingness to facilitate meetings with the men—all in the cause of raising awareness. That means that we can at least be optimistic that getting these men some of the justice that they deserve may be possible.
Looking forward, our main focus must be, first, to continue to raise awareness among the steelworkers who may be affected. All firms that gave advice to transfer should verifiably send out a letter written by the FCA, strongly advising them to get the advice looked at and reminding them that they may be entitled to a form of financial top-up if they come forward. We will keep pressing the FSCS and FCA to offer the level of compensation package that the men who have come forward deserve and are due. We will also focus relentlessly on ensuring that unscrupulous advisers are exposed for what they are, and that every bit of insurance that they owe is claimed.
Secondly, we must do all we can to achieve legislative change. We need to ensure that individuals are automatically enrolled in new schemes, not left to be picked off mercilessly by rogue financial advisers in an environment that is characterised by uncertainty. Thirdly, we need to ensure that regulators do their jobs. Why the advisers that I mentioned were allowed to remain on the FCA website while under investigation seriously needs looking into.
Finally, it is worth noting that this issue does not affect steelworkers alone, and that pension mis-selling pay-outs in 2018 hit a whopping £40 million—double the figure for 2017. This is a national issue across many sectors, and it is up to the FCA and the Government to stand up and stick by workers and pensioners who have been wrongly advised, and do all they can to improve regulation and legislation for future generations. I look forward to working with those in this room on all of those challenges, and I thank hon. Members for their attention.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this important debate. I should also declare that I have a steel plant in my own constituency, although it is not as badly affected as those in Port Talbot.
About 40,000 members of the British Steel pension scheme, the Tata Steel retirement fund, had the choice to trade their guaranteed pensions for a cash lump sum and transfer to a riskier plan as the scheme was restructured. To date, there have been about 8,000 transfers worth about £2.8 billion. Last year, as transfers from the British Steel scheme ramped up, the Financial Conduct Authority intervened to halt the activities of advice firms because of concerns that dubious advisers, incentivised by commissions and high fees, were descending on steel towns, especially Port Talbot in Wales, and enticing BSPS members to transfer their pensions.
It is extremely alarming that we now know the role advisers played in persuading steel workers to move their savings into riskier schemes. To call them cowboys would be an insult to cowboys. Financial advisers persuaded hundreds of steelworkers to give up their guaranteed pensions before the FCA halted their activity, concerned that it was mis-selling. The Work and Pensions Committee report into the BSPS described how:
“Many BSPS members were shamelessly bamboozled into signing up to ongoing adviser fees and unsuitable funds characterised by high investment risk, high management charges and punitive exit fees.”
It is clear that there was widespread mis-selling to members of the BSPS. The FCA found from a sample of those members that nearly half had been given unsuitable advice or advice that was unclear.
In its findings, the review into those pensions transfers recommended that pension scheme trustees should compile a list of recommended advisers for pensions transfers. Indeed, it seems strange that that is not already the case. I know that unions such as Community and Unite have done their best, but it is a complicated set of circumstances in which people have been shamelessly robbed of their pension funds. It is right that scheme members should not be left out in the wilderness when it comes to advice on what to do with their retirement savings. There must be more clarity for scheme members, so that they are not lured in by dodgy and self-interested firms, as illustrated by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock).
The Scottish National party is keen to support steel communities across Scotland. First and foremost, workers must be put at the heart of solutions to put pension funds on a sustainable footing. The SNP Scottish Government took urgent action to ensure that steel plants were attractive to potential investors, to save workers from losing out. An investment of almost £200,000 was made by the Scottish Government to keep key workers on standby to safeguard full manufacturing capability, ensuring that plants could get back up and running as quickly as possible. The Dalzell works in my Motherwell and Wishaw constituency was the prime beneficiary of that policy, which also helped to safeguard Clydebridge works in the neighbouring constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
When the UK Government were dealing with the matter of the British Steel pension scheme, my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) expressed concern to the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that workplace pensions and incentives to save must not be undermined by any deal. In Parliament, my SNP colleagues and I have expressed solidarity with the workers at those plants, and I must thank the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal related industries, which has done outstanding work in that regard as well. Hon. Members should rest assured that we will continue to press the UK Government to take meaningful action on issues that threaten the viability of industrial premises across the UK and their workers. This entire episode reaffirms the need for an independent pensions and savings commission to put the pensions landscape on a sustainable footing.
People have a right to know and understand their pension savings. At the moment, the UK Government’s extremely complicated pensions and savings landscape—made all the more confusing through the introduction of pension freedoms and vehicles such as lifetime ISAs—is making it more likely that consumers will make the wrong choices for their circumstances.
The BSPS members were in an extremely difficult and vulnerable situation that was exploited by greedy firms to the detriment of normal working people, who deserve the retirement that was promised to them. I can speak personally of the difficulties of realising that the pension being looked forward to will not materialise, because it happened in my husband’s case. We were not in anything like extreme circumstances, but it was still a shock to us that the future we had been promised and were looking forward to did not happen.
The SNP has long called for the establishment of an independent pensions commission to ensure that employees’ savings are protected and a more progressive approach to fairer savings is considered as we move to a period where defined benefit schemes are becoming a thing of the past. Now that the UK Government are battling with the chaos caused by the Brexit vote, the need for such an independent commission is more important than ever. This also highlights that the Government’s initiatives to improve consumer support and pensions are playing catch-up. More action must be taken urgently.
The Government have dragged their heels on the introduction of the pension dashboard, but there is absolutely no reason why this needs to be dragged out. It certainly should not be watered down. Consumers need a unified dashboard that includes their state and private pensions. The SNP was broadly supportive of the creation of a new single financial guidance and claims body that would merge independent financial and pensions advice bodies and the Minister should update the House on the progress of the establishment of this body. Is it up and running? How can it be used to ensure that people in vulnerable circumstances, such as BSPS members, can be armed with the facts to be able to make the right choices for their retirement?
I again congratulate the hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent and for Aberavon on their outstanding work in this field. In the past, I have had dealings with the Financial Conduct Authority on pensions matters and with the financial ombudsman and have found them to be reactive, dilatory and unable and uncertain about how they can best help constituents who have been tricked and duped in terrible circumstances. The idea that a man, and it is nearly always men, who worked in a hard and sometimes dangerous job should end up being duped by financial advisers—to their complete detriment—and unable to look their families in the eye and say, “I made a mistake, I am sorry, but nothing can be done”, is unacceptable to everyone in this place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing the debate. I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who has played a major role in the drive for justice for those who were cheated on their pensions, the work of the APPG and the co-operation of colleagues from the SNP. I also welcome to her first Westminster Hall debate the newly elected Member for Newport West, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), who will, I know, be a strong champion of the people of Newport West.
A good pension is about security and dignity in retirement. The people of Britain deserve nothing but security and dignity in retirement. People work hard, build our country and, when they come towards retirement, plan ahead for the holiday they had always dreamed of, or of helping their kids to be able to buy their own home. There can be nothing more painful than to be cheated out of what they have worked for all their lives.
I sometimes say I have been around since Churchill was a boy. I remember the era back in the 1970s and 1980s, when half the population of Britain was in good final salary DB schemes. We have made some progress—for example, the battle on auto-enrolment that we fought and won when Labour was in power, and which I welcome being carried forward by this Government—but to be frank, there has been a depressing direction of travel for good final salary schemes. There have been too many scandals, but none more scandalous than that of British Steel, and that is emblematic of the problem we face with the regulation of DB pension schemes in the UK.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent stated, when a deal was struck to keep Tata afloat, members belonging to the £15 billion British Steel pension fund were given the option to shift their assured benefits to the pension protection fund, to join a new retirement scheme backed by Tata, or to transfer to personal pension funds. That led to what was called a “feeding frenzy” at the site in Port Talbot, as dodgy introducers preyed on workers who were more than likely confused about the position of their pension, and who may not have had the financial support or education needed to make such an important decision. Some advice was available, but often it was simply not good enough, or it was technical and unintelligible. Those rogues, those introducers, should be utterly ashamed of themselves. They bought meals for workers in local pubs, and convinced them to transfer their pensions into totally unsuitable schemes. Some people could have lost up to six figures from their pension total.
The Financial Conduct Authority has been probing concerns that pension changes that involve 130,000 members of the Tata retirement fund appear to have been affected. A study of the 8,000 people who transferred their pension demonstrated that 58% received advice that was simply not suitable, and the Pensions Regulator calculated that in 2017, the average loss was £94,000.
I will never forget the heartbreaking story that I was told by the chief executive of the Pensions Advisory Service during the passage of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill that introduced the Single Financial Guidance Body. The Pensions Advisory Service set up an advice facility on site, and one of the first people to come in was a big burly steelworker and shift supervisor. He sat down and burst into tears. It turned out that he had been duped by one of those introducers, and it had cost him tens of thousands of pounds. The main reason for his grief, however, was not what he had suffered and would endure for the rest of his life, but the fact that the 20 guys on his shift had all followed his lead. He said to the Pensions Advisory Service, “I’ll never, ever be able to forgive myself, because the mistake that I made has had catastrophic consequences for the people I’ve worked with for 10, 20 or 30 years”.
The British Steel case was central to our work during the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, and I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friends the Members for Blaenau Gwent and for Aberavon, and many other Members, particularly from Wales, who played a noble role in strengthening the legislation to crack down on the outrageous. Real progress was made. Cold calling more generally was central to the debate on the Bill, and the ban on pension cold calling was a significant step in the right direction. However, we must now go further and introduce a ban on all cold calling—there were constructive discussions about that, and it would helpful if the Minister would update us on the Government’s thinking—and we must also ban the work of introducers. From January this year there has been an end to pension cold calling, but more needs to be done.
More generally, the introduction of the Single Financial Guidance Body is a welcome step towards greater financial education and security. It brings together the three previous bodies, which all did good work, into a new, more effective body for the next stages. Crucially, it needs to be adequately resourced, not least because of the role that it will play in the oversight of the dashboard process, but it is welcome that it has been established.
Having said that, lessons need to be learned, and significant further progress must be made. On the learning of lessons, and the need for action, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said of the Committee’s findings earlier this year:
“British steelworkers were roundly failed by the official regulators meant to protect their life savings. They were given precious little to guide them through murky waters filled with scammers looking to snatch their pensions—scammers who had little to fear from the FCA’s grossly inadequate action at the time”,
which I think it now acknowledges. The right hon. Gentleman continued:
“Now it seems they are being sold short again on what even the FCA calls ‘rightly’ deserved compensation. The FCA has ridden to their defence and urged the FSCS to be more generous, but the FSCS is clinging to rules the FCA says needn’t apply.”
That is a powerful indictment of what happened, and a call for further action to be taken. That is essential because—I say this with some sadness—British Steel is not the only outrageous case of pension mishandling. We have seen too many other scandals, most notably BHS and Philip Green, who ought to be utterly ashamed of the way he has conducted himself over the years, and what happened with the collapse of Carillion, which I will never forget.
In my constituency, we had a first-class apprentice training centre that was operated by Carillion and that had 60 apprentices going through it at any one time. When Carillion collapsed on the Monday, they were told, “Don’t worry. You’ll be okay.” On the Tuesday, they all got called in and sent home at lunch time—a number of them in tears. One young man, who had suffered from autism but whose life had been moving forward in the right direction, was sobbing uncontrollably and saying, “What am I going to tell my mum?”
On the pensions issue, Carillion has been centre stage in our discussions, including with the Government, about the further steps that need to be taken. Some of the proposals in the DB White Paper are welcome, such as stronger criminal sanctions for directors neglecting pension schemes—although I will come on to the fact that the possibility of criminal action is there in the here and now—stronger powers for TPR, and clearer standards on scheme funding.
On the issue of further action, particularly regarding legislation, is it not vital that the Government recognise the huge risk in divesting pensions? If people are not defaulted into the new scheme that is being set up, and it is left completely open to them, there is a real risk that they will be easy prey for unscrupulous financial advisers. Should the Government not bring forward a statutory instrument that makes it the default to go into a new scheme, rather than to go into the Pension Protection Fund? That is particularly important when all the actuarial advice is that it would be best for the vast majority of those pensioners to have gone into the new scheme and that they should have just been defaulted into it. That can be done by statutory instrument.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. In the debate over the last 12 or 18 months, we have called that the progressive default option. There is no question but that it has enormous merits and it would be helpful if the Minister were to comment on it in his response.
The experience with Carillion pointed to more general problems that started with the Government’s lamentable non-intervention. Despite the fact that the company was getting into greater and greater difficulty, and despite repeated profit warnings, they continued to let contracts to Carillion. The regulators were aware of the risks at a relatively early stage, but they did not use the full extent of their powers to avoid unnecessary burdens on business. I kid you not. I quote from what was said at the time.
The board, which failed in its duties to workers and pension scheme members, continued to pay out large salaries, bonuses and dividends, but did not pay into the pension deficit. The trustees did not alert regulators to the extent of the problems early enough. Asset managers continued voting through large pay packages despite profit warnings, and the auditors did not spot the signs of trouble early enough. There is a raft of problems associated with the scandals that have befallen too many workers in our economy. The lessons from Carillion in terms of the need for action more generally are powerful indeed.
At the next stage it is vital that the regulators act to make sure that such events never happen again. They need to become more people-focused, ensuring that workers’ pensions are protected at all costs. Rogues in the industry must be sought out and punished, ensuring that they never work in the industry again, and the law needs to be strengthened. To that end, there have been constructive discussions with the Government on presenting a Bill as soon as possible to introduce the stronger powers contained in the DB White Paper to go after rogues. Perhaps the Minister will comment on where that legislation is. It is important for two other reasons, including the introduction of the pensions dashboard—for example, the compulsion on providers to provide the necessary information to the dashboard—and the collective defined contribution pension scheme that has been agreed between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union.
There are welcome measures on pensions that can and should be taken where there is a degree of consensus, even if we argue that the Government should go significantly further. The sooner they are introduced into legislation, the better.
In conclusion, this is little comfort to the workers of British Steel or those in Carillion, but the tragedy that befell them was at the centre of the drive for changing and strengthening the law last year. It is at least something of a legacy, even if it is cold comfort to them. At the heart of it were MPs such as my hon. Friends the Members for Blaenau Gwent and for Aberavon, who played a major role in highlighting the scandal and demanding that action be taken.
At the next stages, I stress again that it is important that lessons are learnt by all those I have referred to and that the law is strengthened. I will finish by referring to something that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent said, and he was absolutely right. Is it necessary to change the law in the ways that I have argued for? Yes, without hesitation, but there are powers that exist now in criminal law, and those powers should be used. I know the workers of Port Talbot would say that those evil men and women who cheated them on their pensions need to be investigated, tracked down and put in the dock. An unmistakable message must be sent: if you rob workers of their pension scheme, you are an utter disgrace, will end up in the dock, and, in extreme cases, in prison.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this important debate. I know he has engaged extensively and constructively with the Financial Conduct Authority on these matters over the past year. I was pleased to meet him in February to discuss how we can avoid a repeat of the unfortunate circumstances that occurred in the British Steel pensions scheme case. I am aware of the extensive work he has undertaken with the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and others from south Wales, and I know that the FCA has valued immensely that interaction to try to improve communications and other aspects raised in the debate this morning.
Many issues have been raised in the debate, and I will seek to respond to them all—particularly the importance of a well-functioning financial advice market. I have listened carefully to all those who have made observations about the aspects of that that are not functioning well.
I will refer to the lessons that have been learned specifically in the British Steel pensions case; the actions the FCA has taken to address unsuitable pensions transfer advice; the protections in place for consumers; and the issue of so-called phoenix firms—an outrageous situation where individuals seek to leave behind responsibility for a previous, failed enterprise, recreate a new enterprise and therefore absolve themselves of responsibility.
I am here as the Minister responsible for financial services. I note the questions that have been raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) concerning the status and other aspects of the pensions Bill. I was in front of the Work and Pensions Committee last week with my colleague, the Minister for Pensions, so I have some observations on that, but he has lead responsibility in that area, so I shall seek to secure a response from him.
As the Minister responsible for financial services, I am committed to ensuring that a well-functioning financial advice market exists to support people to make the right decisions for them and their families. In 2015, as has been mentioned, the Treasury and the FCA launched the financial advice market review, with the goal of improving the accessibility and affordability of financial advice. The Government and the FCA have now implemented all 28 recommendations from that review and will be reviewing the advice market again over 2019 to monitor progress and report back next year.
The Government have also made financial advice mandatory for people considering a defined-benefit pension transfer where the value of the pension is over £30,000. That threshold is purposely low, given the dire consequences of taking poor advice and making unwise decisions—as has been said in relation to a number of cases this morning. That is to ensure that people consider the fact that they may lose guaranteed income in retirement and are aware of all the options available before they make such a complex decision.
Turning to British Steel, although most financial advisers offer sound advice, unfortunately there are cases where the advice people receive is not right for them. The British Steel case was one such instance and resulted from a unique set of complex circumstances. A minority of advisers were responsible for giving unsuitable advice, which resulted in losses for scheme members. The restructure of the British Steel pension scheme occurred at a time when there was considerable concern over the future of Tata Steel, and members were understandably worried about whether they were about to lose their jobs and pensions. Several public bodies were involved in supporting scheme members to decide what to do with their British Steel pension, and it would be helpful to outline their different roles, because that will bring clarity to where the issues lie and how we can address them.
The Pensions Regulator is responsible for negotiating and agreeing arrangements where an employer is unable to continue to support a defined-benefit scheme, as was the case for Tata Steel and the British Steel pension scheme. That includes guidance and oversight of the trustees and scheme administrators. As such, the Pensions Regulator was also responsible for the options available to BSPS members, the communications sent by the trustees and the deadlines for decisions to be made.
The FCA is responsible for the regulation of the financial advice market. Financial advice firms must be authorised by the FCA before they are permitted to provide advice, including on pension transfers, and advisers are required to provide financial advice that is suitable for the individual’s personal circumstances.
The Pensions Advisory Service was an independent service offering free-to-consumer guidance on pension matters. As has been mentioned, it has recently been merged with Pension Wise and the Money Advice Service to create a new single financial guidance body, which is now known as the Money and Pensions Service. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington asked from the Opposition Front Bench about the status of that body. The chief executive is now in place, and work is going on in this financial year to set up the processes for bringing those three entities together. There will be a series of announcements over the coming months about their intentions, but the body will operationalise in the course of the coming financial year.
As to the lessons learned from the experience in south Wales with the British Steel scheme, the independent Rookes review, which considered the communication exercise that supported members of British Steel to take decisions on their pension, reported in January. It noted that there are important lessons for organisations to learn to prevent such a case from happening again. There are, I think, 18 recommendations, and they include earlier intervention and intelligence sharing between the regulators and the Money and Pensions Service; improved support for members considering cash transfers out of defined-benefit schemes; improved guidance for trustees facing restructuring and other major changes; and improved message content clarity and channels.
The Pensions Regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Money and Pensions Service have publicly committed to addressing the review’s remaining recommendations. They have agreed a joint protocol to work together to ensure that consumers are appropriately protected. It includes ensuring that support and communications are in place for members of defined-benefit pension schemes, ahead of any restructures and consultations—something manifestly different from what happened in the regrettable case that we are considering. Another aim of the protocol is that there should be better co-ordination of the involvement of different public bodies through early intervention, expedited approval processes and improved information sharing. The bodies have also developed branded written materials for trustees, to ensure that there are better communications with pension scheme members, including letters to alert them to the risks of transferring out of DB pension schemes, and the giving of practical information.
I will now talk about action on unsuitable pensions transfer advice, because the British Steel case has also raised many questions about quality.
The Minister has set out some of the structural and institutional issues and the lessons to be learned, but does he agree that when 8,000 members transfer out there is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed at source? Flagging up risks is all very well, but this is a case of shutting the door after the horse has bolted. We need a system that prevents such mass migration out, because once those kinds of numbers are involved it is highly likely that people will be going against actuarial advice that is in their best interests.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s interventions, and he is right to say that 6.6% of the 122,000 individuals who had those pensions did transfer out, and that, in general, the default option would not be to transfer out of a DB scheme. There is work going on to develop pathways. I am not clear, given that it is not my direct area of responsibility, about the status of that work. I think, however, that there is a challenge, in the context of the policy on freedoms that is now well under way, about how to reconcile that freedom with making the decisions in question. Perhaps I might pivot over to consider the DC schemes. I think what is happening is that many people decide to take the 25% tax-free lump sum and then do not necessarily make appropriate, or the best, decisions on the remainder of that pot of money. Work is being done on that, but with respect to the specificity of the default option, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a definitive response now.
I think we are moving to a point where there will be default pathways that people will need to be advised on when they take advice. I think that is probably a sensible compromise that deals with the fact that, in some instances, not coming out of the DB scheme would not be the right thing to do. The hon. Gentleman will agree about that, although he is also perfectly correct to say that, generally, not coming out would be the right thing to do. There is work to be done, but I think progress is being made, and I acknowledge the sensible point he has raised.
I want to focus on what the Minister calls the 6%—perhaps nearly 8,000 people—who may have been badly advised in this case. What is he going to do to get the FCA to up its game, contact those people and help them, in case they have been badly advised?
Following our meeting, I undertook to speak to Andrew Bailey, the chief executive. We are due to meet every few months, and our next meeting is imminent. I will speak to him about that. A number of live investigations are under way; I do not have investigative power myself, but I will take a close interest in those investigations. Individual companies—I will not name them—are being actively investigated now, and I expect the FCA to make announcements and recommendations consequent to those investigations imminently. I am not privy to the detail, but I am taking a close interest and will be speaking to the chief executive, because I realise that time is pressing on. This morning we have heard vivid accounts of individuals and families ruined by these decisions, and I take the matter seriously.
To get back to my script, the FCA leads on financial advice and has considerable power to act against firms and individuals who provide negligent advice. To be clear: the FCA can impose a financial penalty on a firm, require the firm to pay redress to its customers, restrict the firm’s permissions, or prohibit individuals from operating in financial services. The FCA can bring criminal prosecutions. I hear the enthusiasm for that action being taken, and I think the FCA hears it too, but it works closely with other organisations to support criminal prosecutions. Both the Government and the FCA are targeting their attention on the effective regulation of financial services and wider work to tackle scams, including the recent implementation of a ban on pensions cold calling.
That is helpful, but in the case of British Steel, I think it would send absolutely the right message to the workers concerned if the Minister said today that a sense of urgency is needed on the part of the FCA and the South Wales police about investigating potential criminal wrongdoing and taking action. The workers back at the plant would welcome that.
I am happy to respond to that intervention by saying that it is absolutely imperative that the FCA works with all bodies to hold those individuals to account and to take the appropriate action in the light of the evidence presented to it. This is urgent; the individuals who have suffered this experience expect that of the FCA, and I believe the FCA is keenly aware of that.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent talked about the regional presence of the FCA. It has more than 3,000 employees and runs an annual programme of regional supervisory workshops under its “Live and local” banner, in which it educates firms and gathers intelligence from across the country. That has included recent workshops on DB pension transfers. Although the FCA does not have a series of regional offices, there is a clear expectation on the part of the Government and the FCA itself that it will go out into communities across the country, to ensure it has a presence among the 35,000 IFAs that operate.
The regulator is also undertaking further work on the pensions transfer advice market. The FCA is analysing responses to a recent data request from firms that undertake pensions transfer advice and is planning a programme of work, which is likely to include further engagement with stakeholders, targeted education for firms involved in providing pension transfer advice, and assessment of those firms significantly involved in the provision of DB transfer advice. The FCA has already announced a requirement for all pension transfer specialists to obtain the same qualifications as fully regulated investment advisers, alongside their existing qualifications, by October 2020. In relation to the BSPS, the FCA intervened to stop 11 firms from providing pensions transfer advice, and several firms are still under investigation.
It is important to ensure that consumers are protected from poor-quality and unsuitable advice, and there are proper mechanisms for redress when they receive poor advice. The first port of call for consumers to seek compensation is to approach the firm itself. If they cannot resolve the issue, consumers can take their complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service. The FOS is a free, independent service that provides an alternative to the courts. The maximum award it can recommend was increased at the beginning of this month from £150,000 to £350,000 per individual. If firms go into liquidation and cannot provide compensation to individuals, a second tier of protection is open through the financial services compensation scheme. The FSCS is mainly funded by an annual levy on the financial services industry. Since its founding, the FSCS has helped millions of people and paid billions of pounds in compensation.
It is important to note that in the British Steel case, only a very small minority of former steelworkers who have taken their claims through the FOS and the FSCS have not been fully compensated. That group were all clients of one firm, and the Government’s decision to make financial advice mandatory for those seeking to transfer their DB pension has therefore guaranteed a crucial layer of consumer protection to those individuals.
“Phoenixing”—firms or individuals seeking to avoid liabilities arising from poor investment advice by re-emerging as a different legal entity—can leave consumers and taxpayers out of pocket and tarnish the reputation of the industry. The FCA has a range of tools to identify and act against firms or individuals who try to avoid responsibility in that way. Those seeking to liquidate firms must provide information about outstanding complaints, and the assets of collapsed firms cannot be sold on or passed back to former directors without the prior consent of the regulator. The FCA has already used those powers to prevent several individuals and businesses from avoiding their liabilities, and other cases are under investigation. This has caused some individuals to withdraw their applications, knowing full well that they will not get through. Although I acknowledge that this will not give absolute comfort to those who have suffered, I believe that we now have in place a regime that will prevent the practice in future.
On the issue of compensation, phoenixing and rogue financial advisers’ ability to just shut up shop and walk away, surely there is also a question of insurance. In our recent meeting with the FCA, which I found absolutely extraordinary, it was made clear to us that there appears to be no mandatory level of insurance that financial advisers must take out so that they can be held to account and insurance pay-outs can be made. My understanding is that, as soon as these advisers see the writing on the wall and know that people will come after them for compensation, they shut down, and there is no backstop—perhaps safety net is a better term—so that people who have been ripped off can go after them through an insurance process. Does not that extraordinary situation require a policy and legislative shift so that the FCA has a chance of doing its job in this area?
I have been trying to find the note that one of my officials kindly sent me on the quantum of insurance. My understanding is that FCA authorised and regulated firms must have insurance in place; if they do not, the FCA has it in its armoury to de-authorise. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and his point seemed to be on the amount of that insurance. I am happy to take that matter away and consider it. On the practice of phoenixing, I am given to understand that the FCA has done a significant amount of work in that area. It launched a programme of work in April 2018 to strengthen authorisations, and I have given some of the details. I do not want to waffle further on this point, but I will give consideration to the amount and level of insurance required. The hon. Gentleman has discussed the matter with the FCA; I will do so as well and write to him. If it is not fit for purpose, it is not fit.
I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent for bringing to the House this debate on a very important topic. I was pleased to hear that he is committed to supporting the communications work with the FCA to raise awareness among former BSPS members of their rights to complain and to seek justice. The Government, regulators and other organisations are strongly committed to monitoring the market for financial advice and defined-benefit pension schemes, and to taking decisive action to ensure that these events cannot be repeated. I recognise that Ministers often say that at this point, but I have listened sincerely and carefully to the points that have been raised.
A lot can be done as a consequence of the excellent work of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, and through my interaction with the FCA. I accept that there have been some differences of opinion in the Chamber this morning regarding the amount that can be done by regulatory intervention and legislative action. However, I will do all I can to ensure that we exhaust reasonable opportunities for the FCA to tighten up in all these areas. The example given by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington of an individual who inadvertently, unwittingly and tragically led his 20 colleagues to make certain decisions, and the multiplier effect of those, was heartbreaking, and one that the Government need to respond to. I thank Members for the opportunity to respond to this morning’s debate.
Thank you, Mr Howarth for chairing what has been a productive debate on an important issue. There have been some strong contributions about some of the key problems that steel pensioners have had to work through in the last 18 months or so. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) spoke movingly about the human impact on his constituents, who were at the epicentre of these problems. I have seen the impact too, and it has been heartbreaking.
My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), emphasised the importance of looking at the possibilities for criminal proceedings. I strongly endorse that point, which needs to be taken on urgently by the South Wales police or the FCA.
Other contributors spoke clearly about these serious issues, and about what needs to be done to help in the future. It is clear that a lot of things went badly wrong, and hard-working people found their life savings put at risk. The problems that have been highlighted today need to be addressed as a matter of urgency so that we do everything we can to prevent this from happening again further down the line. I hope the Minister will see through the changes that are needed, given the problems that we have identified today. We will work with him to do that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered pension transfers and the British Steel pension scheme.
Turkey: Treatment of Kurds
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the treatment of Kurds in Turkey.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for allowing me to speak on this matter. As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Kurds in Turkey, I wanted to secure this debate to highlight what I believe is a worsening situation for Kurds in Turkey.
On 31 March, my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and I were meant to travel to Turkey to meet Leyla Güven and observe the local elections taking place in Turkey. Unfortunately, the Government announced extra sitting days due to Brexit—something that I suspect even the Government could not help at that time—and we had to cancel the trip. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and I did travel down to Newport to meet Imam Sis. Imam is a brave Kurdish activist from Newport who, 114 days ago, embarked on an indefinite hunger strike. Two weeks ago, when we met him, the hunger strike was taking its toll, but although his body was giving way, his determination in the cause of Kurdish freedom was not.
As my hon. Friend said, I visited Imam Sis in Newport with him, and what struck me most was Imam’s plea for the world not to look on in silence at the human rights abuses against the Kurds in Turkey. Deciding to go on an indefinite hunger strike for one’s political cause is one of the hardest decisions and most drastic peaceful political actions that one can take, so does my hon. Friend agree that this Parliament and this Government must not stay silent about human rights abuses against Kurds while British citizens are risking their lives for the Kurdish political cause?
I totally agree that we must speak up, and I hope that we will get good responses from the Front Bench later.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. It is good to see this issue being discussed in this Chamber. I support the Kurds and their right to self-determination—their right to be a nation and form their own Government. Alongside that, we have Turkey, which is an abuser of human rights and a suppressor of civil rights. Religious and ethnic groups are having their beliefs restricted; new churches are being prevented from being built. Is it not time that the free world, the west, the Minister, this Government and we ourselves stood alongside the Kurds and backed their wish for democracy and freedom—indeed, for liberty itself?
I totally agree. Of course, historically, Britain was part of drawing the lines on maps that exterminated a Kurdish nation. We therefore have a responsibility to ensure that we are adding our voice in support of correcting an historical wrong in terms of the map, but also recognising the role that the Kurds have played in allying with us in numerous battles and particularly the latest one, against ISIS.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I would like to echo the comment that he has just made. It is a fact that the west and the wider world have let down the Kurdish people, particularly after the first world war and again when we have seen them help the rest of the world—most recently in Syria against ISIS. We are in danger of once again turning our backs on the Kurds, but that must not happen.
I totally agree. I should of course mention that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) is the local Member for Imam Sis. She has been an advocate for his struggle, but cannot be here today because of the death of her agent last week; she is at his funeral. She is following this debate with great interest.
When I was with Imam, I asked him to write down the key demands that he wanted to be raised in Parliament, so I am here today to put Imam’s voice in Hansard as well as to get a response. He wrote to me, saying:
“The hunger strikers are demanding that Turkey ends the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan. Namely, they are demanding that Öcalan be returned access to his lawyers and family. In not doing this Turkey is breaking international law and its own laws. The hunger strikers are also asking that the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture re-open its investigation into the conditions on İmralı Island where Öcalan is being held.”
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am sure he will agree that we have noticed a pattern with Turkey: when there is international attention, Abdullah Öcalan gets something, such as a brief meeting with, say, his lawyer or his brother; then the attention of the world retreats and nothing further happens. It is essential that we keep the pressure on and that we call on the Government to ensure that the response of the Turkish Government is not just a superficial and tokenistic one.
I totally agree. Since 2015, little if any access has been granted to Abdullah Öcalan, and it is only because some of the hunger strikes and campaigning that brief interventions have been allowed for relatives to make sure that he is still alive. He has been allowed no access to the external world and his lawyer has had no access in that time.
Does the hon. Gentleman, like me, praise the trade union movement in the UK for highlighting this issue as part of the Freedom for Öcalan campaign? Is he, like me, concerned that 700 appeals have been launched on behalf of Mr Öcalan but that, as he has said, lawyers are not getting access to him?
I totally agree; this last year just gone, the Durham Miners’ Gala had an international theme of Freedom for Öcalan. Like many other struggles that we have had in the past, it shows that the trade union movement is stepping up to fight for what is just and right.
For the benefit of those watching proceedings who may not be aware of Abdullah Öcalan, he is the Kurdish leader and political philosopher who is currently imprisoned in Turkey. Last Thursday was his 70th birthday, but for 20 years of his life he has been held in prison by the Turkish authorities. Öcalan was abducted in February 1999 from Nairobi, Kenya, where he was in exile, in an international clandestine operation involving Turkish intelligence agencies. He was transported to the island prison, where he has been kept in harsh solitary confinement. He has been forbidden to contact his lawyer since 2011—I met his lawyer a month ago—and he has only been granted access to anyone twice since 2015. The conditions in which he is held violate not only Turkish law, but the European convention on human rights, which Turkey is obliged to follow as a member of the Council of Europe.
To protest these unlawful conditions, the then imprisoned MP for the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, Leyla Güven, began an indefinite hunger strike on 7 November. Leyla was imprisoned by the Turkish authorities following her critical remark on the Government’s bombing of Afrin in northern Syria, which she rightly described with detestation. She was a sitting MP, thrown in prison for doing her job and holding the Government to account. She was released 80 days later, but now, after almost 140 days, she is nearing death, suffering from nausea, fever, severe headaches, insomnia and unstable blood pressure. We have seen a set of elections in Turkey that are beyond what anyone could call fair and free, particularly in some of the Kurdish regions.
Leyla in Turkey and Imam here in the UK are not alone in their hunger strike. Since the end of last year, they have been joined by 8,000 political prisoners from across Turkey, and numerous activists in Europe, north America, the middle east have all joined Ms Güven in declaring indefinite hunger strikes. Many hunger strikers are now suffering from serious health problems, but refuse medical treatment until the isolation of Öcalan is lifted.
We are joined in the Public Gallery by three hunger strikers who are based here in London. If they will excuse my pronunciation—I will probably get it wrong—they are Ali Poyraz, Nahide Zengin, and Mehmet Sait Yılmaz, who are on their 27th day of hunger strike. It is awful to find oneself in the position where that is the only recourse to political voice, but I welcome them to Parliament today and I know that many MPs in this place, while not joining them in their methods, will be sympathetic and support their demands.
The human rights situation in Turkey has been progressively deteriorating since the breakdown of talks for the peaceful resolution of the decades-long conflict between the Kurds and Turkish state in 2015, at which point the Turkish state began to engage in a policy of brutal oppression of the Kurdish population, imposing harsh 24-hour curfews in the south-eastern Kurdish region and committing countless human rights abuses—all this after Öcalan had spurned violence in favour of peaceful, political resolution. In Britain, we know that converting a violent protest to a peaceful one is not an easy road; it requires good faith and perseverance on all sides. The fact is that Turkey’s continue repression of Öcalan and the Kurds destroys any potential for a peaceful resolution for them and Turkey as a whole.
The situation was greatly exacerbated by the state of emergency that followed the failed coup in 2016, under which political opposition and trade union activity has largely been banned, and democratically elected politicians, Members of Parliament and members of the judiciary have been removed from office on the grounds of suspected affiliation to opposition activity. They have all been replaced with President Erdoğan’s AKP puppets.
The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture has visited the notorious island where Öcalan is held, İmralı, and other political prisoners seven times since 1999. Very few of the improvements that it has called for have ever been implemented. The CPT’s last visit to the island was in 2016, and Turkey gave permission for the publication of its report only in 2018, two years later. The hunger strikers are demanding that the CPT be allowed to revisit İmralı island prison immediately and investigate the conditions of the prisoners there, to see if any of the improvements have been made.
I have been disappointed by the reaction to the growing concern. In January, the Council of Europe passed a resolution expressing concern about the human rights situation in Turkey and the condition of the hunger strikers, as well as calling Turkey to authorise the immediate publication of the CPT’s reports. However, the resolution has been insufficient in putting pressure on Turkey to change its ways. The hunger strikers are calling for all possible pressure to be put on Turkey to end the isolation of Öcalan before the situation escalates and there are mass casualties.
What recent discussions has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had—I am aware that the Minister covering for this debate is not the Minister for the middle east—with counterparts in Turkey on the treatment of Kurdish prisoners in Turkey and in particular on the conditions on İmralı island. Will he seek assurances from the Turkish authorities that Öcalan will be granted access to his lawyer in compliance with Turkish and international law? Will he, as a matter of urgency, seek to have the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture reopen its investigation into İmralı island? Will the Government support the Welsh Assembly’s referral to the CPT on this matter, so that it has the backing of the whole of the British state? Will we ensure that our member of the CPT raises this issue in those committee meetings? Turkey is a NATO ally, but we must not allow a friendship to stop us demanding fair and just treatment of all citizens.
In Northern Ireland and other parts of the world, we have seen that we achieve lasting peace only if political leaders on all sides are given legitimacy, respect and a seat at the table to forge peace. The British Government must stand with the Kurdish people—as I have mentioned, we have an historic duty, as well as a current humanitarian and moral duty to do so—to seek the peace that they desperately deserve.
May I first say how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for securing the debate, and to other hon. Members for their contributions? The Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), cannot be here today and sends his apologies. The fact that I am speaking about Turkey is not a further extension of my duties, but it is a great pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I will try to respond to all the points that have been raised; if I fail to do so, I hope that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown will forgive me, and I will respond in writing afterwards.
We are obviously aware of Imam Sis’s hunger strike in protest at the conditions in which Abdullah Öcalan is being held and related issues. I will go into more detail about the hunger strike later, because it has been raised by a number of hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown also mentioned election outcomes. We note the preliminary conclusions of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, which monitored Turkey’s local elections, including wins for the HDP in a number of major cities in the south-east. On the one hand, its conclusions welcome the impressive turnout of 84%, calling it a
“sign of healthy democratic interest and awareness.”
However, we also note the deep concerns that were raised about the fairness of the campaigning environment, particularly in relation to the media coverage. We will encourage the Turkish authorities to engage with the recommendations of the full report, which is due in July. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, recounts are ongoing in Istanbul, and the governing AKP has appealed to the Supreme Electoral Council for a full recount. We must of course await the decision of that council, which may adjudicate on the matter as soon as 13 April. Meanwhile, the CHP candidate for Ankara received his certificate of election from the council on Monday.
I will say a bit more about broader relations with Turkey. It was fair of the hon. Gentleman to recognise in his contribution that Turkey is a vital partner for the UK. Turkey is a long-term member of NATO; it sits on NATO’s southern border, on the frontline of some of the most difficult challenges we face. We work together to counter terrorism, build our prosperity and pursue stability in our neighbourhood, recognising that a lot of these issues are now of global importance. We should also acknowledge that Turkey is hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, at considerable cost.
Of the approximately 83 million Turkish citizens, some 15 million to 18 million are of Kurdish origin. They live in all parts of Turkey, from the traditional Kurdish heartlands of the south-east to the larger cities in the west, with perhaps 3 million in Istanbul alone. There are many Kurds in the Turkish diaspora, including here in the UK, where they make a positive contribution, not just to the UK economy but culturally. I know that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who is no longer in his place, recognises the importance of the Turkish diaspora to that part of north London.
It is important not to generalise when we talk about “the Kurds” or their plight. They are a diverse section of society, with a range of political affiliations, lifestyles and outlooks. As Members will be aware, there are also large Kurdish populations in Iraq, Iran and Syria, countries that are all of great strategic importance to the UK. Our approach to the issue of the Kurds in Turkey needs to reflect aspects of that wider context.
We should also not generalise when we talk about the treatment of Kurdish people in Turkey. I absolutely note the concerns that have been expressed in this debate about the policies of the current Turkish Government towards Kurds, and I will try to address some of the issues that have been raised. It is worth remembering that a great many people of Kurdish origin have voted for, and continue to vote for, the AKP Government. Indeed, some have served in it—two of Turkey’s most recent Deputy Prime Ministers were of Kurdish origin. All Turks, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, enjoy the same rights under the Turkish constitution, and from 2003 onwards—especially following the 2009 Kurdish opening policy—the AKP did much to end the historical restrictions on the free expression of Kurdish identity in Turkey.
The Turkish Government have always said that their quarrel is not with the Kurds as a whole, but with the specific terrorist groups that threaten the Turkish state. I appreciate that this matter is open to some dispute, both within Turkey and among those in the UK who have an interest in Turkish issues. However, the Turkish state has been locked in a bitter conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—the PKK—since the 1980s. The PKK is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and throughout much of the world.
Does the Minister recognise that the latest court ruling in Belgium about the PKK’s proscribed status in European law at least opens up a discussion about whether it is still an active terrorist group or has transitioned to more peaceful means?
I understand that. It is worth pointing out that the proscription of organisations is always quite fluid and constantly under review—I see that in my day-to-day brief as Minister for Asia and the Pacific, as well as in the middle east and north Africa.
That tragic conflict has resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths and the displacement of millions of people in south-east Turkey. An end to that conflict is possible. Between 2013 and 2015, the Turkish Government and the PKK engaged in fruitful negotiations to end it, and a ceasefire was in place for much of that time. Sadly, that ceasefire broke down in July 2015. Since then, according to the International Crisis Group, more than 4,000 people have been killed. That includes more than 400 civilians and more than 1,000 members of the Turkish security forces. I say to hon. Members who have a strong interest in this matter, not least because of the diaspora in their constituencies, that the UK very much hopes that those negotiations can reopen to bring an end to the conflict and prevent further deaths. For that to happen, the PKK must end its campaign of terror, and we urge it to do so.
I note that there are Members from across the House in the Chamber today. There are two Members from Plaid Cymru: the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake)—I am sure I have mispronounced both constituencies.
You have been practising.
In fact, there are no other English Members here at all. We have the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) from Northern Ireland and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for the Scottish National party. All have raised the serious situation of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Naturally, we condemn the PKK’s acts of violence, just as we condemn all forms of terrorism, but we also naturally expect Turkey to respect properly its international obligations regarding the treatments of all prisoners. We are aware that the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture reported on Mr Öcalan’s prison conditions as recently as March 2018. In January, British embassy officials discussed his case, as well as that of hunger-striking prisoners, with Turkish officials.
Hon. Members have raised the issue of hunger strikes by prisoners, including by members of the HDP. Although it is of course distressing to witness any hunger strike—we see evidence of them closer to home, in Newport and elsewhere—the decision to embark on one is a matter for the individual concerned. As I said, we expect Turkey to respect its international obligations with regard to prison conditions, including by ensuring access to appropriate medical treatment.
A number of HDP MPs have been arrested on the basis of their alleged links to the PKK. If those links are proven to be accurate, we urge the HDP to distance itself entirely from the PKK and any terrorist activity. However, we have registered our concern with the Turkish authorities about the very large number of relatively recent detentions, including that of the HDP leader, Selahattin Demirtaş. Our embassy in Ankara, alongside other diplomatic missions, has attempted to observe Mr Demirtaş’s trial hearings. Unfortunately, we have sometimes been prevented from doing so. We urge the Turkish authorities to allow diplomatic missions to observe such trials so that we can understand the evidence on which the charges are based.
Hon. Members raised concerns about the replacement of large numbers of HDP mayors in the south-east of Turkey with state-appointed trustees. President Erdoğan has suggested that the same measures may be taken following last month’s local elections. That decision was taken on the basis that those mayors and their municipalities were allegedly channelling funding and political support to the PKK. Again, if that is the case, we should condemn it unreservedly, but we also expect the Turkish state to undertake any legal processes against locally elected representatives fairly, transparently and with full respect for international law and the rule of law. That is vital not just for the long-term health of Turkish democracy, but increasingly for Turkey’s international reputation.
As hon. Members will know, in 2016 there was an attempt to overthrow the Turkish Government by force. Obviously, we are thankful that the attempt failed, but many innocent civilians were killed. I am proud that the UK Government stood alongside our Turkish allies on that night. The Minister for Europe and the Americas travelled to Turkey as soon as he could to show solidarity. I also accept that aspects of the trauma have allowed more space for other activity. However, the trauma of the attempted coup is still fresh in the Turkish consciousness.
Does the Minister feel personally comfortable that the PKK is aligned with terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda on the proscribed list?
As the right hon. Lady will be aware, obviously we have a proscription in place for good reason, but it is not a hit list of acceptability from one organisation to another. Until such time as the PKK denounces violence, it must recognise that it will be regarded as a proscribed organisation in many parts of the world. I would like to see those people who have been actively engaged denounce violence to ensure that they are no longer proscribed and can play a proper and full part in the democratic process. The list does not run from A to Z according to some level of acceptability; an organisation is either proscribed or it is not. One might objectively sit back and think, “Certain organisations are more dangerous to our interests than others.” None the less, it is right that rules for proscription are in place.
The Turkish Government have a right and a responsibility to act against the perpetrators of any coup attempt and all who have committed or are planning terrorist acts. However, it is also vital that any and all measures taken are proportionate and in line with Turkey’s democratic principles and freely given human rights obligations. We shall continue to express our concern to Turkey where we believe that is not the case. This includes a number of individual cases, including that of a former Amnesty director, Taner Kılıç, who was released on bail last year. We look forward to the judicial reforms that Turkey’s reform action group is considering and hope they will make a genuine difference to other cases of concern, including those of the civil society patron, Osman Kavala.
We remain concerned at the sheer scale of the response, including the number of civil servants who have been summarily dismissed from their jobs, and especially the number of journalists who have been detained. We believe that a free press is an essential component of a healthy democracy, and I know that the UK’s championing of that will have support across the House with our Defend Media Freedom campaign in 2019, which will culminate in a conference in London on 10 and 11 July with our friends from Canada. In raising these issues, we will never forget the trauma of the coup attempt and the extraordinary security threats that Turkey continues to face on a day-to-day basis. We can see that just by looking at a map of the region.
To conclude, we shall continue to engage with Turkey and other countries that have significant and sizable Kurdish populations on all the issues that have been raised in this important debate. We shall continue to press for lasting solutions that are proportionate, democratic and lawful.
Question put and agreed to.
Legal Aid for Inquests
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered legal aid for inquests.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Main. This debate is about a simple premise: who can access justice, and who cannot? Much to our shame, during inquests, too many people who have experienced appalling loss and suffering fall into the latter category. This debate is about deaths in state detention and custody, or where there is a public interest, and about how the families of those lost should be given adequate resources to find the truth. It is about a fair request for a non-intrusive, non-means-tested, automatic right to legal aid for legal representation for bereaved families. The charity Inquest claims that granting such a request will cost as little as £5 million, yet it will be invaluable to suffering families who need answers. The topic of legal aid for inquests has rightly moved up the political agenda, and I pay tribute to Inquest and other campaigners who have worked tirelessly to make that so.
A huge injustice sits at the very heart of our justice system. On the one hand, state bodies and representatives are equipped with access to unlimited funds and resources —the best experts and the best legal teams. On the other hand, vulnerable families in the midst of grief are forced to navigate a complex and alien application process that is provided with the bare minimum of support—indeed, most people will not even receive that.
Legal aid is currently means-tested, and even then it is for limited purposes. Once someone has overcome that hurdle they must then apply for exceptional case funding, which puts them at a massive disadvantage compared with the huge resources available to state bodies.
My hon. Friend gets to the heart of this debate. The process is far too complex, and those who apply for legal aid are forced to run up huge legal bills on their own, represent themselves in court or rely on the generosity of strangers to help raise the required funds. Often, people have to tackle complex legal processes that involve multiple interested persons and agencies. Among a host of other complicated legal matters, people must address issues such as access to and release of a body, post mortems, communication with investigation teams, securing evidence and criminal investigations. Most people do not have the legal knowledge to do those things, and many do not have the resources to help. I ask the Minister: is that fair?
We are talking about the death of a child in a mental health setting—a death as a result of neglectful state services, or the self-inflicted death of a prisoner. The families of those lost feel a deep sense of pain. This debate is about deaths in state detention and custody, or where there is a clear public interest element to finding out the truth—for example, the Grenfell tragedy, the disaster at Hillsborough, or the recent case of Molly Russell who tragically took her own life in part, her parents believe, because of distressing material related to depression and suicide that she was able easily to access on social media platforms.
Order. Inquests once opened are sub judice, and even when adjourned they are under a strict interpretation of the resolution. Reference should not be made to legal inquests at all, but if something is linked to a specific case, as the hon. Lady just did, we must ask for details of that case not to be mentioned as they may well compromise the case currently under consideration. I urge all Members who wish to refer to that case to try to refrain from making specific references.
I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh).
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making a powerful speech, and I thank her for initiating the debate. The point she is making, and the examples she gives, are incredibly important. This debate is about death at the hands of the state, and the families who are trying to improve things so that such deaths never happen again, and the same mistakes—or criminal acts—are not made again. Given what we are talking about, does she agree that it is even more grossly unfair that the state’s legal advice and representation should be so thoroughly weighted against the victims?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All we are asking for is a level playing field, which, at the moment, is totally disproportionate—a point I will come to.
The families of victims require help, accountability and answers, not only for themselves but, selflessly, to make sure that no other family goes through what they have. Instead, they are left by a callous Government to fight alone, their voices denied and excluded from the process. The scale of the discrepancy is a disgrace. In 2017 the Ministry of Justice spent £4.2 million on legal representation for the Prison Service in inquests involving deaths. In the same year the families of those who died were awarded just £92,000 in legal aid. I ask the Minister again: how can we in this place look the families of victims in the eyes and tell them that the current system is fair?
Where families are seeking through truth the knowledge that their loss was not in vain, the state seeks damage limitation through multiple expert legal teams defending the interests and reputations of corporate bodies. Such a staggering inequality of arms is a stain on our justice system. The testimony of those who have experienced it at first hand, kindly provided to me by Inquest, serves to prove it so. The process required to acquire legal aid is complicated, and the effects on those not fortunate enough to be successful are devastating. One father who lost his son in police custody said:
“The legal aid application process was incredibly stressful...the hoops we had to jump through to get funding to represent our son, who died as a result of one of the state agency’s actions, remains a source of anger and hurt.”
Another, who lost his daughter in a care home after a long history of serious mental ill health, said:
“The time, effort, emotional energy, distress that the process has cost me in itself is very damaging. The cost of my legal representation to the State fades into insignificance compared to the cost the State has incurred in the aftermath of my daughter’s death.”
Another, who was unsuccessful in their legal aid application said:
“We had to do everything ourselves. We had no lawyer at the inquest. Those three weeks were the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life. I had to cross examine witnesses, it was absolutely terrifying, and they had lawyers. There needs to be a level playing field; a family member should never be put through that.”
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech with many good points. Does she agree that many families find the process intrusive as their own circumstances and financial situation are looked into? However, the state gets automatic legal representation. Does that not create exactly the uneven playing field that she refers to?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The system is simply unfair. Others have spoken of how the inquisitorial hearings are anything but. Instead, they are adversarial, law-drenched, distressing journeys, where already traumatised families are silenced and a well-oiled state machine sets about cementing a wall of denial. The families did not ask to be in such a situation. It was not something they sought or could prepare for. They are thrust unexpectedly into intense grief and pain and forced to go through further trauma.
One father spoke of how his family was forced to use money that they had been putting away for his daughter’s wedding to pay for legal help following her death. Such stories are utterly devastating. The Government must do more to help. They cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering of some of the most vulnerable in our justice system.
The Government seem to rely on this point about the inquisitorial process, so one must ask why, if the family does not need representation, the various state bodies always need to be lawyered up. Indeed, there is something deeply cynical about the Government saying that in their final report—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has applied to speak, but he cannot make his speech now. He has made his point and hopefully the hon. Lady will tackle it.
My hon. Friend makes an important point: the system is completely unfair. The Government and their agencies are given a blank cheque, whereas victims are not. It is not just the families of those lost and charities such as Inquest telling them that. Reports have proposed the necessity for changes for years, yet over the last few years the weight of evidence has mounted. Dame Angiolini in her report on deaths and serious incidents in police custody, the Right Rev. James Jones in his report on Hillsborough and the experiences of families, Lord Bach, two chief coroners, Baroness Corston, Lord Harris, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act, and agencies, including the Independent Office for Police Conduct, have all outlined the need for change. Central to the reports of Dame Angiolini and the Right Rev. James Jones were the voices of families speaking about the impact of the inquest process on their wellbeing, much like the testimonies we have heard today.
In response, the Government launched a call for evidence in July as part of their review of legal aid for inquests. What followed was a Government submission document that was riddled with errors, strewn with inaccuracies and in no way befitting the seriousness of the subject. The short turnaround time for submissions left those whom the Government should have been doing their utmost to hear from unable to sufficiently offer their thoughts.
Furthermore, the document made no explicit mention of, and no adequate attempt to hear from, bereaved families. After its so-called consultation in February, it was therefore of little surprise that the Ministry of Justice decided to ignore the weight of evidence to the contrary and refused the call for non-means-tested legal aid for inquests where the state has representation.
The Government’s normal consultation period is 12 weeks. Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that it was six weeks for this consultation, which was held over the peak summer holiday period? Does she share my suspicion about its timing?
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern and suspicion. I hope the Minister will answer that point.
For families to fully and effectively participate in the inquest process, they should have access to free automatic non-means-tested legal representation throughout. The Labour party has pledged to provide that, after listening to those who know best, but the Government remain in denial. However, the playing field must be levelled, the inequality of arms addressed and access to justice made a staple of bereaved families’ experience throughout inquests.
I, too, join Inquest’s call for legal aid to be made available, especially for people in rural areas, as well as subsistence and travel costs, which can be a real drain on families.
I support that call. Not only is that the way to discover the truth that will provide redress to individual families in individual cases, but it is an avenue to expose the systematic practice problems that have led to deaths, which can alert the authorities and prevent more. That means providing truth and accountability to prevent another Hillsborough or Grenfell, and ensuring that our justice system works for everyone—not just those who can afford it.
I had not planned on speaking, but when I saw the debate’s title, I realised that I come at the issue from a variety of angles and, sadly, with a great deal of experience. In about 1994, as a junior lawyer, I was sent—because I was cheap, I suspect —to sit in on inquests concerning elderly people who had died in old people’s homes. In those days, it was common practice for us to provide a report for insurance companies, which even junior lawyers were considered capable of, and inquests were viewed as the place where we could garner information.
As a junior lawyer, I thought that was exciting, and I was pleased to see a system that was inquisitorial and not that adversarial, and where real facts were teased out that could be of use, or not, to insurance companies that wanted to protect their assets from later claims. I remember being excited by the ancient nature of the coronial system, by how flexible it could be and by how it can adapt to needs today and later on.
Ultimately, I became a Government lawyer for 17 years and specialised in article 2 inquests. [Interruption.] I am glad to be described as the best of the best, and we were—indeed, we are, incidentally. In that respect, I had the privilege of taking part in some very sad inquests, including many relating to Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Litvinenko’s inquest, the 7/7 bombings inquests, and far too many about prisoner deaths. As a Government lawyer, I hope that I was able to help and counsel families, and that we were able to come to the truth of what happened in many of those tragic situations. I also, rightly, protected the Government’s assets in terms of secret material, which is what I was usually there for.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting speech, but does she agree that it illustrates exactly the inequality of arms at inquests? Insurance companies and the Government have exceptional lawyers, but the bereaved families do not, and that is why the system is so disadvantageous for them.
I partially agree with the hon. Lady, for whom I have great respect. I am trying to make a speech that is possibly slightly less political than the one that opened the debate, and to say that there are many reasons for inquests. As a Government lawyer I was useful in protecting the secrecy of what had happened. Often, in a war context, for example, important national security secrets had to be protected. It was not awfully much something that we were protecting from families—often families had been talked through the secret issue in the privacy of their home at an earlier date; it was just something that we did not want to have aired in open court. I am not anti-family at all, and I will come on to say why not, but I am trying to explain why, if the Government are lawyered up, it is, I hope, not often in an adversarial way. In my working life, I tried hard to make sure that it was not that way. I completely accept that it does not always look like that.
Order. Others are waiting to speak. Can I drag the hon. Lady on to the legal aid for inquests side of the debate? I think that is what many of those who have put in to speak want to cover.
Yes, Mrs Main. I should also say that I am the parent of a child who died, so I know how ghastly it is for people to think of the death of someone who matters so much to them being legalised. I am fully aware of the impact and full horror of the inquest process for families, which is why we are talking about whether they need legal aid.
The inquest usually comes at a particularly bad time for families. Is it often around the anniversary mark—sadly, in Mr Litvinenko’s case, it was seven years later—and it is often at a difficult time in the grieving process. Inquests themselves are horrible. Legal language is used about someone’s worst nightmares. In the inquest, the family will meet the other people who were there at the time of death, and hear evidence directly from people who might have been the last to talk to their loved one or, indeed, whom they might blame for causing the death. It is often the first time that that happens. It is really horrible.
Even in the most no-blame type of car accident the inquest may be the first time the family hears truly about the time of death. They will have been told at the time, “Oh, yes, he died instantly,” but at the inquest they might find out that he died two or three hours later. They may find out about the place of death: “Oh, yes, he died instantly at the scene.” Oh no, he did not; he died two or three hours later in hospital. Those are horrible, difficult issues for a family to deal with and very difficult to grapple with, but they are not legal issues, and that is the point I am politely trying to make. This does not have to be adversarial.
In my experience, coroners are very sensitive and well trained these days. Coroners’ officers should be lauded to the skies. They do a great deal of loving and supportive work with families.
My hon. Friend speaks about a more inquisitorial system. Does she agree that if we are looking at a genuinely inquisitorial system of the kind that would be recognised on the continent, it might help if coroners were able to question and probe rather than being expected purely to be the independent arbiter and judge, which lends itself to cases being more adversarial?
Order. Before the hon. Lady continues her speech, can I say that it is far broader than the debate we are having. Given the shortness of the debate, I would appreciate it if we could stick to the legal aid aspect that has been explored by the Member who moved the motion. I do not wish to interrupt, and I know that the hon. Lady has personal experience, but I would like her to get on to the debate.
My hon. Friend’s intervention was helpful, and the point I am trying to make is that I am not sure legal aid is the answer in all cases. I am quite sure that more support is needed for families. I am not sure that that support can be provided only by lawyers. I do support the idea of airline-style investigations—for example, in the health service. We are teasing this out at the moment; it is quite a new concept in the health world, and we have talked about bringing it into the prison world as well. That style of inquisitorial investigation is possibly more useful for families than legal aid. That is the point I am trying to make, Mrs Main—I am sorry if it does not entirely fit with the terms of your debate, but that is why I am not sure that legal aid for inquests—
It is not my debate; it is the debate of the hon. Lady who introduced it, and it is important that it is on legal aid.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is here. He is a great man, and he recently managed to steer a private Member’s Bill on stillbirth inquests through the extraordinary system that we have set up for such Bills—I was involved tangentially in framing that Bill. I am not sure whether we need legal aid for the parents of stillborn babies who have inquests—I think the pass is still out on that. We do not want to over-legalise some of these very tragic events.
I welcome the review the Government had, although I slightly take issue with what the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) said about the timing of the review. I suspect, although the Minister may correct me, that the timing was meant to fit in with the legal aid review generally. I counsel hon. Members present not to over-politicise this issue. It is a difficult one. I, for one, am convinced that families need more support, but there might be better people than lawyers to provide it.
Before I start, may I say that it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Main?
I want to begin by saying how much I empathise with the aim of an inquiry, which is to find the truth of the matter when someone has died whose safety has been entrusted to the Government—truth that, when found, can provide the families of the bereaved with much-needed and sought-after closure; that simply tells them how and why it is that their loved ones are no longer here; and that provides a foundation of understanding about what mistakes may have been made and how we can learn from them to ensure that what happened may never happen again.
Yet what we find in the present system of legal aid is a great barrier to the goals of truth and understanding. The aim of the bereaved families, more than any other party in an inquest, is to ensure that what has happened to their loved ones cannot happen again, and that nobody must again feel the pain of losing somebody they love in the same, preventable way that they did. However, under the present rules, bereaved families are more often than not forced to fund their own legal representation in these inquiries.
Under the current financial eligibility rules, the threshold for receiving legal aid for an inquest is only a gross monthly income of £2,657—a gross income of just under £32,000 per year. Those earning more must pay for rent, food and all the other basic essentials of life, as well as what can be the crippling costs of legal fees in inquiries that can take months, if not years, to complete, as in the case of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, the Morecambe Bay investigation and the Harris review. All those inquiries provided great insight into how the state needed to make changes to protect the lives of those who had been placed into its care. However, those who cannot cover the costs face the prospect of representing themselves in proceedings.
When talking about the Hillsborough disaster, Bishop James Jones described how families who had no public money provided for their legal expenses, or who were self-funded, would be forced to pool their resources. At one of the mini-inquests, one solicitor represented the interests of over 90 families. At the generic inquest, one barrister represented 43 families. One of the families was represented by the mother of the person who had died. What a harrowing experience for a woman who had lost her son to be forced to question witnesses and untangle legal proceedings just to find out what had happened to her child.
Compounding that is the fact that all those other families had no representation whatever. Their voice was stolen away from them because they did not have the financial means to represent themselves. It is simply not right, and it is simply not justice.
When we compare that to the funding that the Government or linked organisations have in these kinds of proceedings, we find that, unlike the bereaved families of those lost, the Government are able to bring the full might of the public purse to bear on these proceedings. On 3 April, the Secretary of State responded to my question about public funding for bereaved families. He stated:
“We must remember that there are ways in which we can be sympathetic to and supportive of bereaved families without ending up in an arms race of who has the most lawyers, the most expensive lawyers and so on”.
If we must use the analogy of an arms race, then at present the Government can spend money on the legal equivalent of tanks, helicopters, fleets and so on, while the families of the bereaved are left with the legal equivalent of a stick. It is all well and good for the Secretary of State to argue that we must not enter an arms race, when the Government sit in the position of power, possessing the finance to bring those legal arms to bear.
The Secretary of State also stated that he was “keen to ensure that” inquests
“continue to be essentially an inquisitorial process, rather than adversarial”.
However, I and many others in this place and beyond would argue that the process is already adversarial. While the nature of the inquest itself is not adversarial, we often find that the Government and other organisations do not fear the judgment of the coroner’s court, but that of the court of public opinion.
Quite often in an inquest a person will be gathering information, and that will be the only venue in which they can do so in advance of potential litigation. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is so important for families to have lawyers with them to enable them to carry out that process?
Absolutely, and that is why I am here today. The Government and other organisations approach proceedings with the aim of damage limitation, instructing combative legal teams to defend state policies and practices, rather than to seek the truth that I spoke of earlier.
There are ways in which we can overcome that imbalance. First, automatic, non-means-tested legal aid for families would both help to level the playing field and prevent families from being burdened with crippling legal costs. It would also avoid forcing families to jump through confusing bureaucratic hoops during what can be one of the most traumatic periods, if not the most traumatic period, in their lives. Non-means-tested legal aid is provided in care and supervision proceedings in which children are to be removed from their parents, and in certain cases under the Mental Health Act 1983 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which demonstrates that there is a precedent.
Secondly, funding for families must be equivalent to that enjoyed by the state bodies, public authorities or corporate bodies represented. Ensuring like-for-like spending between the parties involved in inquests would not only further help to level the playing field for bereaved families, but would prevent the arms race that the Secretary of State alluded to in his response on 3 April. The parties mentioned would be able to spend more on lawyers only if the bereaved families received the same funding. As mentioned earlier, bereaved families do not have the means with which to outspend the Government.
I ask the Government to heed the recommendations made by the 1999 Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the 2003 independent review of coroner services, the 2004 Joint Committee on Human Rights, the 2007 Corston report, the 2015 Harris review, the 2016 report of the Chief Coroner to the Lord Chancellor, the 2017 Angiolini review, the 2017 Bach commission, the 2017 Hillsborough review, the 2017 report of the Chief Coroner to the Lord Chancellor, the 2018 Joint Committee on Human Rights and the 2018 Independent Office for Police Conduct consultation response. I ask them then to finally make the reforms necessary to give bereaved families the tools they need to achieve the fundamental goal of inquests, which is to find out the truth—the simple truth.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing the debate and on doing such a good job of presenting her case. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), who is not just a colleague but a good friend. It was good to hear her comments too.
I wish to highlight the case of young Molly Russell’s parents and their fight for legal aid as they tried to make sense of their daughter’s death and to make a change to prevent more deaths. That is heart-rending and touching, and I fully support them. I was relieved to see the Minister’s Department being more positive about helping them—well done for that.
In my constituency, I have seen several cases in which legal aid has been turned down, and that can only be classed as a travesty. I have also watched people representing themselves and receiving help from a judge who felt that, on the day, during the trial, they should advise the person before them. The hon. Member for Barnsley East referred to how complex the system is, and it is sometimes hard to follow how it works. However, that should not happen in genuine cases in which there is an element of public interest and a need for not just representation but the correct representation.
There must be a more open route to public inquiry funding, but there must also be safeguards in place. Lessons have to be learned from the likes of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, during which approximately £400 million was claimed, although not paid out. After that, there was a question about, and an inquiry into, the fees for the solicitors’ firms. Almost £200 million was paid out in that one case. That is astronomical. There must be a clear delineation as to what is in the public interest. A system is now in place for legacy issues in Northern Ireland. There is a budget to be used for these cases to ensure that there is not further Saville inquiry palaver—to use a word used quite often in Ulster Scots. I understand that there is not an unlimited supply of finance, but the decision not to introduce automatic public funding where the state is represented, and it being cited that the policy change would cost between £30 million and £70 million, seems strange when the cost of just one case in Northern Ireland was allowed to run up to £200 million.
My parliamentary aide may not be on the breadline—we know she is not—but could she afford to take on the Government? No, she could not. Could anyone in the House today afford to take on the Government? I suggest that the answer is no. Therefore, on behalf of our constituents, whom we are here to represent, the argument has to be that they would find that difficult as well. Most people could not do it. There must be some middle ground that we have not yet reached that takes account of the representations of those who need legal aid to satisfy their own conscience, to answer the questions they have and to get beyond the period of grief that they are clearly experiencing.
I recently read an article that furiously challenged the decision. It stated:
“The ministry said: ‘Means testing serves to determine the allocation of taxpayers’ money to those most in need. This mechanism upholds the wider policy intention of the existing legal aid statutory framework of ensuring that legal aid is targeted at those who need it most,”
as it should be,
“for the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation is justified. An additional spend of £30m-£70m would run counter to this wider policy intention.’”
I have always supported access to legal aid, whatever the case may be. I know that this debate is specifically about inquests, but I have supported legal aid being available across the board and have always been of that opinion. I supported that when I was in my previous job in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I am on record as supporting it in this House as well. But I do understand that, in relation to inquests, there is a special need. The hon. Member for Barnsley East, in introducing the debate, explained that special need, and you have guided us, Mrs Main, on how best we should do that as well.
I want to finish with this comment. Inquest, a campaigning charity—most of us will know it and the good work that it does—has called for automatic non-means-tested legal aid funding to families for specialist representation immediately after a state-related death, to cover preparation for and representation at the inquest and for other legal processes. We are elected representatives and compassionate people. Our compassionate nature as representatives should be reflected in what we ask the Minister for today. I fully support the call for legal aid at inquests and believe that that message should go from this place today. I gently and respectfully ask the Minister for a positive response to help those who find themselves in a very difficult situation. On legal aid for inquests, let us do our best for them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing this debate. It concerns a very technical subject that is hugely important to a number of constituents, whether because of large tragedies involving the multiple loss of human life or because of the single tragedy of losing someone, from a baby through to someone in adulthood. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) for her kind words about my private Member’s Bill, now an Act, which will enable coroners to have the power to launch inquests into stillbirths. The consultation, which has already been launched by the Ministry for Justice, will explore the whole issue of legal aid for those inquests, too. It is very important that we get the consultation right, so that measures in this sensitive area can be brought in proportionately and appropriately and help in the campaign to reduce the number of stillbirths in this country, which we all wish well. It is also important to explain to already traumatised and grieving parents exactly what happened and how improvements can be made to the system to make sure it is less likely to happen to other parents in that situation in the future.
In addition, would the hon. Gentleman support legal aid for people who are killed at work? It is not available for the many people who die in fatal accidents in work every year.
That is a completely different subject, and one that needs to be looked at, absolutely. I am sympathetic to this. When families faced with the sudden loss of a loved one through circumstances that are well beyond their control—in a workplace, air crash, or whatever—we need to give them every support and not add challenges such as the need to try to find the money to fund lawyers to try to get to the basics of the truth.
I want to focus purely on the Shoreham air show crash in my constituency. On that fateful summer’s day in August 2015, 11 Sussex men were tragically in the wrong place at the wrong time and lost their lives. Almost four years on, we have still not had the inquest for that tragedy. For a range of issues, not least the fact that there has now been a trial, which was completed last month, that delay has meant that the families of those 11 men have been denied the opportunity to get to the bottom of the truth for an extended period, compounding the grief, confusion and challenges that they have felt. We need to do more to make their pain less in any way we can. The system is not working for such people, as we have heard in the case of other tragedies as well.
To recap, in August 2015 those 11 men lost their lives when a Hawker jet crashed on the A27, on the very spot where I had been travelling in my car four minutes before the accident happened. It could have been a much more serious tragedy, and as it was, it was the largest civilian loss of life since the London terrorist attack in 2005. It had a huge impact, not only on those families directly affected, but on the wider community of my constituency and beyond, which still remembers and is in the process of installing a permanent memorial to the loss of life in that tragedy.
The pilot was acquitted. I make no comment about that, other than to say that those families sat through the trial with great dignity—I joined them at the beginning and end—listening to the lurid details of exactly what happened and watching the footage taken by people’s mobile phones of the plane coming down. They sat through that trial with great dignity, and they then had to accept a verdict that they did not want and had not expected.
Justice went through its due courses—I make no criticism of that—but it means that the inquest, which had to wait until the trial was completed, is now even more important for those families who wish to try to flush out who was responsible, and whether any parties contributed to that accident in some way. Most importantly, what is being done to try to minimise the likelihood of such an accident happening again in future?
The record of civil aviation shows was virtually unblemished in this country, and there had been no on-the-ground casualties since the Farnborough tragedy in the 1950s. This was a huge and important event that went well beyond its impact on the local community and the families. I pay tribute to the local coroner for West Sussex, Penny Schofield, who has worked tirelessly with the families to try to manage their expectations and to be as sensitive as possible about their continuing grief. What has compounded that grief, however, is the issue of legal aid—I know you want me to come on to that, Mrs Main. Legal aid is the focus of what I am about to say, but I wanted to put it into context, as I am sure you will appreciate.
The inquest is likely to happen in the autumn, more than four years since the tragedy took place. At last count there will be at least 19 interested parties, including a number of public bodies such as Sussex police, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, and the Health and Safety Executive, which will have legal representation paid for out of the public purse. Until recently—this has still not been confirmed—the only parties whose legal representation at that inquest will not be paid for will be the families of the 11 victims. Arguably, therefore, the people who are most important and have the greatest interest in those proceedings will have no legal representation at the inquest. That is a travesty of justice, and I once secured a debate explicitly on that subject. I have also spoken to the Minister about the issue, and raised it at Prime Minister’s questions. I have worked with the families and their lawyers, but the system is not working.
In 2017 there was a bid to the Legal Aid Agency and the exceptional cases fund to get legal representation paid for during the inquest, but that was turned down on the basis that somehow it was not within the scope of the ECF and did not represent the wider public interest. That is extraordinary because what I learned during this process is that civilian air shows have the second largest public audience of any activity in this country. There is a huge wider public interest, given the many hundreds of air shows that happen up and down the country each year.
The AAIB’s report was published in March 2017 and stated that
“the parties involved in the planning, conduct and regulatory oversight of the flying display did not have formal safety management systems in place to identify and manage the hazards and risks. There was a lack of clarity about who owned which risk and who was responsible for the safety of the flying display…Controls intended to protect the public from the hazards of displaying aircraft were ineffective”.
It added that there was a valid, proper and serious legal argument that the CAA failed as a regulator in properly implementing the safety recommendations made over six years by the AAIB after a previous fatal Hawker crash. If that does not represent a wider public interest, I do not know what does.
The coroner spoke in support of ensuring that legal aid is available to pay for legal representation for the families when the case is put in front of her at the inquest. She said:
“This is a highly complicated case. It involves areas of aviation law which are complex and technical in nature. Families will struggle to participate in the Inquest in any meaningful way without the assistance of legal representation. The Inquest will engage a number of complex legal issues including article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is further complicated by the fact that I will be sitting with a Jury. If the families are not represented it is likely that the Inquest, which is already likely to last up to 8 weeks, will take considerably longer”.
Those are the words of the coroner, who says not only that it is unfair for the families not to have legal representation when all those public bodies do, but that it will be difficult for them to participate and to assimilate the proceedings of the inquest properly without legal experts to put it to them, and that it could end up costing more.
If we provide a legal expert to represent all the families as a whole, it will make proceedings more efficient, but if all the families look to have legal representation, or even to represent themselves, it will spin out the inquest and cost the public purse more. Not making sure that legal aid is available for those families is an entirely false economy. That was the coroner speaking about the inquest that will come in front of her. The lawyers acting for the families have also produced papers that show how essential it is for family members to have legal representation at that inquest, which must be provided by the public purse.
The decision by the Legal Aid Agency not to permit funding under the exceptional case funding provisions, which were introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, is patently wrong and unjust. Exceptional case funding is available for categories of law that are not in scope for legal aid, and where failure to provide legal services would be in breach of an individual’s rights within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998, or other enforceable EU rights relating to the provision of local legal services.
Inquests have never, however, fallen within the main body of legal aid provision. Legal aid for inquests is available only at the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency under the exceptional case funding provisions introduced by the LASPO Act. This is just the sort of case that was envisaged when setting up the fund in the original Act, so it is nothing to do with cuts in legal aid funding, as some have tried to claim, but is about the provisions in the legislation apparently not working.
The Law Society supports the application and strongly believes that bereaved families should have access to legal representation where possible. It says that the definition of exceptional case funding does not provide an adequate safety net for inquests. Applications for exceptional funding are highly complex and time consuming, and require applicants to have an understanding of human rights law, and, in the case of inquests, to show that there is an article 2 right to life issue or a wider public interest in legal aid being granted. Even when one of those triggers is present, the Legal Aid Agency guidance suggests that the assumption should still be that the bereaved family does not need representation because the process is inquisitorial and led by the coroner, rather than adversarial, but the Law Society challenges how far a bereaved family can be expected to engage effectively with a legal process that relates to the death of a loved one.
I pay tribute to the legal firm Stewarts Law, which is providing a lot of support to the families, largely pro bono. It has challenged the ruling. Unofficially, we are optimistic that legal aid funding may be available when the inquest comes around, but the families should not have had to fight for it. It should have been there as a matter of course—as was intended in the original 2012 Act. The inequality of arms is inequitable and could undermine the inquest’s ability to serve the public interest by failing to protect the rights of the families under ECHR article 2, and there is clearly a wider public interest.
I welcome the Government review of the LASPO Act, which the Minister recently published, but it does not make the future of exceptional case funding clear. The Minister might wish to comment on this when she winds up, but in response to the review we need to look at this further and in more detail to make sure that when tragedies such as the Shoreham air show disaster happen, and in the many applications that we have heard about when there is a multiple or single loss of life, the system automatically swings in to support the families, rather than putting yet further hurdles in the way of their securing justice and access to the truth, which only exacerbates their trauma, tragedy and grief. We surely owe it to people who have been unfortunate enough to suffer such loss to do everything to support them and not put obstacles in their way.
Wind-up speeches will begin at 3.37. I have three speakers left; the maths are fairly self-evident.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing this incredibly important debate. As she has said, access to justice is a fundamental issue. Inquests where families are properly legally represented are important not only for the families’ sakes, but because they perform a wider public service to ensure that lessons are learnt so that things change for other people and so that lives may be saved in future. That is achieved by ventilating the issues in public and putting those potentially responsible for the deaths under proper scrutiny.
If the families are not fully involved to press to ensure that such lessons are learnt, an inquest is far less likely to result in the wider reform and lesson-learning from which we all benefit. It is naive to expect that an inquest in which the family is not legally represented, but in which the agencies of the state are fully represented, will approach an investigation into a death with a genuine desire to uncover failings. On the contrary, state agencies approach inquests with the express objective of, at best, damage limitation and, at worst, to undermine and downplay the concerns of families. I urge the Minister to look at the submission made by Liberty on the review of legal aid eligibility and the exchange that took place between counsel for Surrey police and the father of one of those who died at Deepcut barracks to see probably one of the worst, most callous and distressing lines of questioning imaginable. Although there was legal representation on that occasion, it is concerning to think that a family member could be faced with such cross-examination without any support at all.
I mention Deepcut because in 2002 one of my constituents, Yvonne Heath, tragically lost her son, James Collinson, to gunshot wounds there. She is among four families who have been looking for answers ever since. The other three families have had or are in the middle of inquests, and there is no doubt that it is in the public interest for there to be one into James’s death as well. I understand that the other families have all had to face what has been described to me as a tortuous and intrusive process just to get legal aid granted. It should be absolutely self-evident that the families need representation at the inquests, so I put the Minister on notice that should my constituent face similar obstacles to obtaining legal aid as the previous families have, she can expect regular representations from me until the right thing is done.
I have no doubt about the value that representation can provide at an inquest. I have previously spoken in a debate here about the sad case of Ronald Volante, whose daughter, Rita Cuthell, is a constituent of mine. Ronald died in tragic circumstances when an ambulance call made via a community alarm service led to his call not receiving the priority needed. When the ambulance turned up two hours later, it was too late. We had various meetings following that debate and improvements have been made to procedures, but one area where there has not been any change relates to the experience that my constituent had at the inquest. There is no doubt that she would have benefited enormously from legal representation. I know how distressing and bewildering it was, and how she did not feel that the process gave her the answers that she needed.
If the Minister needs any more persuasion on the importance of the issue, there are many examples of how improvements were made and lessons learned that would not have happened but for the involvement of legally aided, represented families cross-examining witnesses and pressing for change. Such examples include the inquest into the death of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement, who died after reporting rape and bullying in the Army. The inquest led to recommendations that a special kind of victim support be made available to soldiers who complain of sexual assault against other soldiers, as well as improvements in mental health training and procedures. It also led to soldiers being given information about non-military sources of support and help in the aftermath of sexual assault.
The inquest into the death of Sean Benton, who died at Deepcut in 1995, finally revealed the true extent of the abuses and assaults that trainees had suffered at the camp and has led the police to open a criminal investigation. That would not have happened had the family not been legally represented to press for it. The inquest also led to the Army’s undertaking to the coroner that it would ensure that in future all trainee soldiers would be informed that if they were the victim of a criminal offence they could approach the civilian, as opposed to just the military, police. That happened only as a consequence of the family pressing for it at the inquest. I doubt whether it would have happened had they not been legally represented.
A cursory glance at the relevant pages of summaries of inquest findings demonstrates the enormous potential of inquests to identify and learn from failings when people have died where there is state involvement. For example, a jury found that failings in the immigration detention centre system had contributed to the killing of Tarek Chowdhury, and another inquest found serious failures at Sodexo-run HM Prison Peterborough, which contributed to the death of a prisoner, Annabella Landsberg. An inquest found that failings by South West London and St George’s Mental Health Trust had caused the death of Charlotte Ball. Finally, an inquest found there was neglect involved in the death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk, which resulted in the coroner making various formal recommendations.
In all those cases the families were legally represented, which demonstrates the enormous public interest and value in ensuring that lessons are learned from the most tragic cases. That can be achieved only if families are represented on an equal footing against state bodies. It is a basic tenet of justice that everyone is equal before the law. When well resourced public bodies are legally represented at inquests it is only right that the bereaved families seeking answers should be represented as well.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Main.
To be fair to the Minister, as I always try to be, the issue is not a new one, and has not appeared on her watch. I remember appearing at inquests more than 20 years ago when lack of representation for families, including in death in custody cases, meant that Inquest—led then, I think, as now, by the admirable Deborah Coles—was going around finding pro bono lawyers to act for families.
I do not entirely agree with the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) about lack of need, and indeed the Government’s report includes something about families receiving legal aid, and being represented. Not all coroners treat families well in those situations, not all lawyers acting for state agents behave well, and not all witnesses tell the truth, particularly when they may be found negligent, or even culpable of causing death.
I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) about the Government’s report, that the process was not entirely right. The fact that it came out with the rest of the LASPO review meant that it got rather lost in all that. It shares some of the faults of the LASPO review in that the facts are well marshalled but do not appear to bear out the conclusions. In particular, the report states that
“a number of stakeholders pointed out that it should not be assumed that in cases where the state has legal representation, representation for the family is necessarily required nor that it enhances the results of the coroner’s investigation. They suggested that the addition of further lawyers might actually hinder the process, by making the process more adversarial and legally complex.”
The Government hide behind other “stakeholders”, whoever they are, but that is a rather cynical way of dismissing families’ concerns. How else, other than by the provision of legal aid—because pro bono cannot carry the weight of inquests in its entirety, although lawyers do a good job—are we to deal with complex medical and legal issues, with coronial rules that are not straightforward and are unique in the way they work, as well as securing evidence, preparing cases and challenging witnesses? As an analogy, public family law cases are one of the few areas where there is still representation for families, because it is perceived that the issues are crucial and the state has a lot of power in those cases. I do not see that inquests are different.
The case of Molly Russell was mentioned. I am not going to deal with the facts of that case, but nevertheless it is true that legal aid was refused on the basis that the matter is not of “wider public interest” and because of the means test. The matter was being appealed, but then the Legal Aid Agency just changed its mind, which shows rather faulty logic. I have been involved in a number of cases, including the tragic case of my constituent Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died on an airline flight because of an allergen in a Pret a Manger sandwich that she was eating. That led to a prevention of future deaths report that made substantial recommendations to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Government agencies.
I could mention, also—I wish I had more time—some of the cases involving the Whirlpool company. I have had incidents in my constituency, but in particular I want to talk about the death of Douglas McTavish and Bernard Hender in Llanrwst. That was caused by an electrical fault in a Hotpoint tumble dryer, which caused the fire which led to their death. In all these cases, there is a need for proper representation in the public interest, even though those involved are not state actors.
Why should there be legal aid in such cases? In many cases, the Government should have been aware of the risks, but took no action—whether that involved the Office for Product Safety and Standards, the Food Standards Agency or the internet and internet regulation, which are very topical at the moment. The Minister cannot get away with the report that has been done so far. These matters need to be properly looked at again.
I hope that my constituent’s experience can help to illuminate some of the learned arguments that have been made today. Families can provide important inputs to help a coroner reach correct findings and make recommendations to help state bodies to improve their systems and avoid more tragic cases.
My constituent, Angela, is a senior manager in social care. She has huge experience of local care systems. Her son, Adrian, suffered from mental health issues all his adult life. In 2016, he was taken into the care of a mental health hospital but discharged a few weeks later into the care of the community mental health team. He was told by that team that he would be discharged from any support just two weeks after his discharge from the hospital. He was distraught about that. His mother, Angela, was frantically seeking some support for her son on the Friday before he took his life. She had obviously been involved with him throughout his life. Having not found support on the Friday—
Order. This is not an ongoing case, is it?
It is not an ongoing case, Mrs Main. I took your advice.
We have to be very careful.
Absolutely. I have full permission from the constituent to raise the details.
Adrian took some drugs and alcohol on 10 December. He was found by police at 2.30 in the morning and taken to the local A&E. However, the police left, and he was allowed to walk out without being triaged. He later lost consciousness at a friend’s home and passed away.
The inquest with the coroner involved the mental health trust, the hospital trust and the police. It was to take place over an eight-day period—although that was reduced to four days—with barristers representing the three bodies, all with their legal representation funded by the state. When I first met Angela, before the inquest took place, she had been told she would not qualify for legal aid. Although she was desperate to use her personal and professional experience to make changes to the systems to make sure no other parent had to go through this, she was not sure she would be able to participate fully in the inquest, due to a lack of representation.
The coroner, when considering applying article 2 of the Human Rights Act and using a jury, finally decided that the family should have legal representation, but that was just three days before the inquest. Angela had to go through very detailed financial statements, which was very personally intrusive at the time she was grieving, a year after she had buried her son.
In the end, she was able to participate with the help of her lawyer, and she pays tribute to the lawyer and the barrister. With three organisations all arguing about who was culpable in the circumstances, Angela felt it was very important not only that she was able to be involved and put the facts of the matter straight, but that she could make sure that recommendations were made.
I quote Angela’s comments on the coroner’s report:
“Following Adrian’s death, the burning question we asked ourselves was ‘did we do everything we could to gain support for him? Did we call enough people or shout loud enough to be heard? Was there more we could have done?’. Given the evidence that was heard through Adrian’s inquest, it became clear that as a family we had not failed our son, although this may not be said for some of the professionals involved in his care. We will miss Adrian for the rest of our lives, but hope that changes will be made in the near future to avoid further deaths following the recommendations made by the coroner”.
Families in this situation have just one opportunity to make a difference; that opportunity is at the inquest, where, as some learned Members have said, incredibly difficult facts may be put to them about the death of their loved one. It is not only important that families are able to grieve, have their voices heard and find the truth, but that we as a society and our state agencies can learn from their experience and their support and make recommendations so that no family has to go through this again.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on having secured this debate.
Families affected by a state-related death are already going through some of the most difficult moments of their lives, but if they cannot afford legal representation, the process of finding out what happened and why is made harder still. It is almost impossible for me to put into words the pain, fear and frustration that is in these human stories. The stories we have heard about their constituents from my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for High Peak (Ruth George) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) are the most compelling arguments for change that anyone could make.
Reading through the testimonies that bereaved families have provided to the Government’s recent review highlights the gaping injustice at the heart of our justice system, which must be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East made an excellent speech, and it is worth reading part of one of the comments from a family member once more:
“We had to do everything ourselves. We had no lawyer at the inquest. Those three weeks were the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life”.
“Families are often left in the dark, trying to sort out numerous matters associated with a loved one dying whilst under the protection of the state, while trying to make sense of what has happened both emotionally and legally. Having access to funded legal representation is paramount for justice.”
Today’s debate is about the fundamental values and principles of our justice system, which should never leave people feeling afraid and helpless when seeking truth and justice for their loved ones. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) spoke particularly powerfully about that point: is our justice system fair if state bodies are legally represented at inquests, and victims’ families are not?
The Government’s recent review states that about 30,000 cases per year result in an inquest. Of those, about 500 are related to deaths in custody or other forms of state detention, whether that is police, prison or immigration detention or detention under the Mental Health Act. Will the Minister confirm what the year-on-year rise is in litigants in person at such inquests? In such cases, the bereaved families deserve state support in their pursuit of the truth, but proper legal representation is also about preventing others from suffering, by identifying mistakes and ensuring future deaths are prevented. It is an urgent and ongoing issue for everyone in this country and should be treated as such, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston stated in his contribution.
The need for better state-funded legal support for bereaved families at inquests has been a central recommendation of several major reviews in recent years, including Bishop James Jones’s powerful Hillsborough report; Dame Elish Angiolini’s independent review of deaths in police custody, which was initiated by the Prime Minister herself; the independent review of the Mental Health Act; and Baroness Corston’s review of vulnerable women in the justice system. All of those reviews called for a major improvement to funding for bereaved families at inquests, in order to prevent further miscarriages of justice of the sort that shocked us all in the cases that have been mentioned. When such heavyweight reports about profound flaws in our justice system, often commissioned by the Government, call for better legal representation, it would be astonishing if the Government did not do the decent thing and adhere to their recommendations.
However, the Government’s review into legal aid for inquests just let bereaved families down again. The charity Inquest, which works with bereaved people, lawyers and support agencies, providing expertise on state-related deaths and their investigation, labelled the Government’s inaction
“a betrayal of those who invested in this review in the hope of securing meaningful change”.
Having listened to the story about the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George), it is hard to conclude anything different. If the Government do not listen to me, or even to the charity sector, can the Minister give me one good reason why they have chosen to ignore the powerful, united voices of Bishop James, Baroness Corston and Dame Angiolini?
There are families trying desperately to afford the crippling costs of legal fees they never expected to need to pay. We are seeing increasing numbers of families whose loved ones were killed in horrific accidents crowdfunding vital legal help, and the ongoing failure of the legal aid system to treat even the most determined families fairly.
Last year—Mrs Main, this is all in the public domain—the families of five men killed when a wall collapsed at a recycling plant were denied legal aid for the inquest. The men were crushed to death under a pile of concrete, bricks and scrap metal in 2016. Their families, who are from Gambia and Senegal, applied for funding for a lawyer to represent them at the inquest, to establish the circumstances around the deaths, potentially leading to compensation from the employers. Despite meeting the means test and not speaking English, they were turned down for legal aid. The Health and Safety Executive and the recycling company were both to be represented by lawyers, so the families would have been at a significant disadvantage if they had been left without one. Could they represent themselves in court, with no English and no knowledge of the legal system? Of course not. They resorted to crowdfunding their legal fees—reduced to shaking a modern version of the collection tin in pursuit of their basic rights to truth and justice. They managed to raise over £3,000 to fund their costs before their appeal was finally heard and legal aid was granted—after the inquest had already begun.
That completely unnecessary stress during such a traumatising process can be blamed only on a totally dysfunctional system, which should obviously have known that the families were eligible, given that they met the means-testing criteria and spoke no English. This protracted process cannot possibly have had any advantages for the public purse, but it will have cost bereaved families a great deal in emotional stress. It is that process that was raised by the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), and also by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who spoke about the 11 men who lost their lives and the inadequacy of exceptional case funding.
Will the Minister tell me how common she believes crowdfunding is for inquests? Following on from the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East regarding the Government’s inadequate consultation, will the Government publish a list of respondents to their review and a summary report of the responses? Will they also publish the findings of their survey of coroners and the coroners support service?
A Labour Government would commit to providing proper legal support to those who have been the victims of deaths in custody, with legal aid for representation at inquests. Truth is the first step towards justice, and quality legal support is a key first step towards the truth.
Although she did not make a speech, I should just mention my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens). I always learn things from her when she makes an intervention, because she brings so much experience to these issues.
Unless the Government will commit, as Labour has, to giving automatic, non-means-tested legal aid funding to families to allow them to seek specialist legal representation following a state-related death, I suspect bereaved families and those who support them through the inquest process will continue to feel nothing towards this Government but a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing a debate on this important subject. She spoke passionately about the issue, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to visit Westminster coroner’s court to watch an inquest. I saw first hand the professionalism of the coroner and the importance of the inquest process to the bereaved family. Before turning to the individual points that have been made in this debate, I would like to set out some facts in relation to the inquest process, the purpose of an inquest and what we have done to improve that process. I would also like to mention some of the types of cases that inquests deal with, which we have heard about throughout the debate, and to respond to the points that have been made in relation to legal aid. I would like to do that, because it is important to understand the process and how legal aid fits into it.
The starting point is, what is the purpose of an inquest? An inquest is an investigation by a coroner into a death reported to them, and it should answer four questions: what is the identity of the deceased, what is the place of death, what is the time of death, and how did the deceased person come to his or her death? An inquest is a public court hearing to determine those matters.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) said—as we heard, she has considerable experience of these issues—an inquest is meant to be an inquisitorial process, not an adversarial one. Bereaved families have a special status in any inquest. They do not have to make legal arguments, but they can question witnesses, or ask coroners to question them on their behalf. Inquests are essentially about fact finding.
At the inquest I saw on Friday, a man had either taken his own life or died from natural causes. The family were given every opportunity to question the toxicologist and the doctor present. There was no legal representation on either side, and at the end of the inquest the father of the deceased thanked the coroner for her findings and commented that she could not have done much more.
As with all legal processes, we can make room for improvement. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) suggested that not everyone who appears at an inquest—for example, coroners or legal representatives —always behaves as they should. We have sought to improve the experience of bereaved families who go through this process at such a tragic time, and I wish to highlight some of the changes that we have made or are making.
First, we are in the process of revising the information we give families on coronial processes, to ensure that it is tailored to them. We have re-established a stakeholder forum to engage with other Departments and external stakeholders and to consider what more can be done to ensure that the process is inquisitorial, as it should be. Our reforms allow bereaved families access to most documents seen by the court, and they should expect the coroner’s office to update them at regular intervals and explain each stage of the process. We have also introduced the role of Chief Coroner, who provides leadership, guidance and support to coroners, and we have engaged with him on training for coroners and their officers, which will be delivered in 2019-20.
As we have heard, many types of inquest come before coroners. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned stillbirths and the tragedy in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury spoke of her experience in a number of matters, and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned some terrible stories. The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) told us of the experience of someone in her constituency. At the inquest last week, a number of cases were opened at the start of the hearing. They involved men who had died—some had taken their own lives, some cases involved drugs, and some were in foreign countries.
None of those cases involved the state. Other cases do involve the state, however, and there is a question over whether the state or its agents were responsible. Those are known as article 2 inquest cases, in reference to the state duty to protect life under article 2 of the European convention on human rights. In those cases an enhanced investigation must decide not only who died, when, where and how, but the broader circumstances of their death.
As hon. Members have suggested, it is likely in such circumstances that the state will be represented. Bereaved families may require representation, and legal aid for that may be available through the exceptional case funding scheme—my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned that, as did the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero).
Legal aid for representation through the ECF scheme may be provided where failure to provide representation would amount to, or risk, a breach of article 2, or where there is a wider public interest. In the last two years, 339 applications for publicly funded representation at an inquest were granted, and we have taken a number of measures to ensure that ECF funding is more easily granted.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, most people who apply for legal aid generally in civil law have to satisfy a means and merits threshold. That is to ensure that public money is well spent. Those who do not merit legal aid should not get it, and those who can afford to pay themselves should do so. We have recently made it easier in two ways to obtain legal aid. First, we have made changes to ensure that there is a presumption that the article 2 threshold is satisfied in cases where there is a death in state custody. Secondly, we have relaxed the means test.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned the stress of filling in the form at a difficult time. In June, we updated the Lord Chancellor’s guidance so that the Legal Aid Agency can disregard the means test and take into account the stress that the family are going through, which may be exacerbated by the legal aid process. Furthermore, only the individual applicant’s financial means will be tested, and not the means of family members, which will help to ease the burden of the application process.
As the hon. Members for Barnsley East and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) mentioned, the process is complicated. In February, we identified that we will do a wider review of legal aid. We have committed to simplifying the exceptional case funding forms and guidance to ensure that applying for legal aid is as simple as possible. We will put more money into resourcing that to ensure that funding decisions by the Legal Aid Agency are made in as timely a manner as possible.
The Minister has described how there is some process for people to apply for legal aid, but in my constituent’s case the decision was made only three days before the inquest. She had to attend a pre-inquest trial with three barristers, which was incredibly upsetting. She also had to go through her personal finances, including her car finance, to make the application again—on top of what was happening with the inquest and the anniversary of her son’s death. Does the Minister agree that that process would be assisted if there was automatic legal aid for victims’ families?
I hope that I have identified a number of measures that we are putting in place that may help the hon. Lady’s constituent. We are making sure that the process is easier. The Legal Aid Agency is looking at linking up with banks and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, not just in relation to inquests but across the board, to automatically see whether people satisfy the means test, without them having to fill in a whole load of forms. I appreciate that, obviously, automatic non-means-tested legal aid would be much easier for everybody, but we are taking steps to make things easier within the ambit of having a means test.
In February, we announced another measure that may help the hon. Lady’s constituent, which is that we have agreed to backdate the legal help waiver. The director of legal aid casework has the discretion to backdate funding for ECF representation to the date that the ECF application was made, but he did not have the discretion to backdate funding for legal help, even when an application for the means-test assessment to be waived had been successful. We have committed to changing that by the end of the year.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) mentioned the threshold for legal aid, as did several other hon. Members. Our action plan sets out a broad, across-the-board review of the means-test threshold for legal aid, which will include the means test for inquests. We have committed to looking at the threshold at which people become eligible for legal aid across the board. We have also committed to launching a campaign to raise awareness about the availability of legal support, including legal aid, which will ensure that all bereaved families are aware of their rights to claim ECF.
I was disappointed by the cynical suggestion of several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Barnsley East and for Hammersmith, that the timescale of the review that we conducted was somehow inappropriate. The hon. Member for Hammersmith identified that that review ran alongside the legal aid review, and the timing was dictated by the legal aid review, which we promised to publish by the end of the year, as he is aware.
The Minister has not explained why the consultation lasted for only six weeks rather than 12. Is she disappointed that only 48 out of the 89 coroner areas in England and Wales responded to the survey? They are obviously not very interested in the review either.
We wanted to publish the review at the same time as the legal aid review. In addition, we have committed to look subsequently at a key part that will affect inquests in relation to the threshold, so we are now undertaking a review of the threshold. All the comments made about inquests will be carried forward to that review, which is ongoing.
Some hon. Members mentioned families’ input into the review. Some 20 families provided evidence, and we held a roundtable event for bereaved families. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston and others mentioned funding and an inequality of arms, which I will touch on. We say in our report that we are interested in looking at that area more fully. There are a variety of ways to tackle funding, all of which involve working with other Departments that may be represented in a hearing involving an article 2 case. It might involve reminding those that take part in the process on behalf of the Government of their duty of candour. It might involve asking Government Departments to look at their own instruction of lawyers and whether they need the number they instruct. It might also involve looking into further options for funding legal support at inquests where the state has state-funded representation. We will look at all those issues and will work closely with other Government Departments.
In conclusion, very important issues have been raised about the inquest process. It is important that an inquest is sensitive and meets the needs of the bereaved. Legal aid and the process in relation to state deaths are an important issue, as we have heard in the debate today, but legal aid is only one part of the jigsaw, and we must look at the whole system more widely if we are to deliver access to justice.
I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley East for securing the debate on legal aid for inquests. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, and I thank you, Mrs Main, for chairing it.
I thank hon. Members for their powerful contributions. We have heard so many examples of why change is needed, and I want to briefly mention a few. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned a travesty of justice and the families of the victims of the terrible Shoreham air show crash. He mentioned that they will not have legal representation and talked about how they have been turned down for legal aid, showing clearly how the system is broken. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked about the tortuous process of getting legal aid. A tragic case was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George). In seeking justice and truth, bereaved families want to help other families and prevent future deaths.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) remarked on the political nature of my speech. I gently say to her that decisions about public expenditure are inherently political. We have been given no answer on, and there is no excuse for, the huge disparity in funding between the Government and victims. Labour Members make no apology for calling for equality and justice. It is all very well to say that inquests are inquisitorial in nature, but time and again that is simply not the experience of families. The system is not equal.
I thank the Minister for her comments, but they simply do not go far enough. She talked about the merits of means, but this issue is not comparable to other legal aid applications. Families do not choose to be part of the process. She has given no real explanation for the disappointing consultation.
I will conclude by quoting Inquest, which states:
“Specialist legal representation and input from families is crucial to ensuring robust post-death investigations and inquests. Inquests must shine a light on any state failings”.
I implore the Minister: please listen to Inquest.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Primary Care: Plymouth
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Will those not staying for this debate please be kind enough to leave quickly and quietly, because we are moving on to the important issue of primary care provision in Plymouth?
I beg to move,
That this House has considered primary care provision in Plymouth.
Today is a special treat for me. Not only is it my 39th birthday, but I have a chance to raise the concerns of the people I represent about a very important issue: their difficulty accessing primary care in Plymouth. This is the second time that I have spoken in this place about primary care in Plymouth, having participated in a similar debate in March last year, and never has the issue been more pressing.
I will start, though, with a welcome and a thank you. First, I welcome the new Minister to her place. I have great respect for her, and there is sincere warmth towards her from both Government and Opposition Members—although perhaps they are not in the Chamber today. She has a very difficult job, and I genuinely wish her well. She is not the type of Minister to play party politics; she does engage with the issue, and I am really pleased that she is able to respond to this debate.
Secondly, I thank all those medical professionals who work in primary care in Plymouth: the doctors, including GPs, paramedics, nurses, community pharmacists, dentists, medical students, receptionists, wellbeing professionals, volunteers, patient participation groups and many more besides. Their dedication and good will is the glue that is holding together a very fragile system in Plymouth, and I place my thanks to them on the record right away.
Many GPs in Plymouth often work long hours—12 or 13-hour days. They do so out of dedication to their patients and to the health service, but they simply cannot be expected to do more and more with less and less. I am pleased to have secured this debate. When I was elected, I said that I would try to give Plymouth its voice back in Parliament by raising the issues that really matter, and primary care is one of those issues that comes up at nearly every constituency surgery that I hold. People who live in Plymouth know that the far south-west does not get its fair share of funding, and that is true from health to education and from transport to housing—all get below-average spend. Ours is one of the lowest funded regions in the UK, and that has consequences for our public services.
I worry that with the housing crisis, the NHS crisis, the crisis in young people’s mental health and the social care crisis, we are at risk of crisis fatigue. That is where the exceptional support required to resolve any one crisis is no longer given because a crisis is no longer exceptional.
I think that these debates are best done on a cross-party basis. Plymouth is represented by three Members of Parliament, and I am sorry that the other two are not here today, but I hope the Minister will recognise that many of the things I speak about are cross-party concerns. I will attempt to keep party politics out of my remarks today.
Plymouth’s primary care is in a state of crisis. Our GPs are working to the point of exhaustion because of the lack of funding and resources not just in primary care, but throughout the system. I think that it would be helpful to hear the voices of those on the frontline. An inner-city Plymouth GP, Dr Williams, told me:
“I don’t know of a GP at the moment who isn’t working at full capacity. We are all working way beyond our contracted hours, late into the evenings, on our ‘days off’ and at weekends. Not for money, not for glory, but to give our patients the best possible care.
I have colleagues who have burnt out, friends who are burning out, friends who are back at work too soon after serious illness because we are…putting our lives on hold to prop up the job we love and the patients we are passionate about. But the system is failing, and it’s feeling like that may be intentional. We believe we are set up to give the most cost effective and best patient care—but maybe that’s wrong. Can you give an honest answer about where NHS England see primary care going? Is there an agenda or even a plan in place for change?
It has been said that Plymouth is being watched to see what happens when Primary Care fails. If there is any truth in this please tell us now—don’t watch it fail”,
but act to stop that happening. That is a common view among most of the GPs I spoke to. They have a real sense that primary care in Plymouth is being watched by NHS England and other NHS bodies to see what happens when a system falls over. Whether or not that is true, that is the sense they have.
As a result of underfunding, nurse and GP vacancies in Plymouth’s primary care sector are hard to fill. If GP practices cannot fill vacancies, the quality of care they can offer suffers as more and more patients chase fewer and fewer available GP appointments. NHS England estimates that one in seven GP posts in Plymouth have not been filled, which is alarming. A GP in Plymouth who recently advertised for a vacancy at their surgery told me that they did not receive a single application. We know that the far south-west has trouble recruiting healthcare professionals at primary, secondary and acute levels. Our peripherality as a region compounds an already extremely difficult recruitment environment for health professionals. I know that the Government have considered support for GP recruitment in Plymouth in recent months, but it has not produced the additional GPs we are looking for. Will the Minister update us on GP recruitment and on what will happen next?
A common theme in feedback from GPs is that funding and pay have decreased while job pressures have increased. If there is not enough funding GP practices cannot recruit enough doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants and other health professionals, receptionists or managers. Everyone therefore works harder, yet many GP surgeries feel they cannot meet patient demands or expectations. An inner-city Plymouth GP, Dr James Boorer, told me yesterday:
“Working in Plymouth is hard. But we are not alone—there are many other practices in similar deprived cities around the country where it is equally difficult. The problem probably stems from systematic under-resourcing of primary care over the last 10 years where demand has increasingly outstripped resource and funding.
This has led to a failure to recruit new GPs and retain others who have left the profession early because it has been so difficult. The challenge is so great that we feel abused by the government who know we are dedicated and will stay until the job is done no matter how hard it gets. But there is a limit—we do break.”
That sense of getting to the point where they cannot go much further came across from a lot of GPs, and we have witnessed that in the number of practice handbacks across Plymouth. About 15% of Plymouth’s population is now covered by non-GMS primary care, where a contract has been handed back and an emergency provider has stepped in. That should worry the taxpayer as well, because those organisations consume two to three times as much resource as normal primary care. Last year, instead of about £79 per patient, the step-in provider got about £191 per patient. If that is acceptable as a step-in provision, I would like the Minister to look at whether increasing the per patient funding would avoid the need for practices to hand back their contracts. Levelling funding across a city in this respect, rather than adding extra resources to those practices that have handed back their contract, might be a more efficient tool to address the funding crisis and to deal with the emergency situation.
Deprived practices in Plymouth are not the only ones that are underfunded and under-resourced; the crisis is a national one affecting the whole of primary care, but the crisis is crystallising in hotspots, where the funding and resources are more markedly different from elsewhere in the country. It gets tough in those hotspots first, so GPs leave to work in better resourced areas, and it is harder to recruit in those practices when partners retire. This inequality in funding is driving the crisis. Will the Minister reconsider whether levels of deprivation and health need can be taken into account in the funding formula to ensure that inner-city practices are well resourced?
On average, GPs in more deprived areas have a higher workload, with 20% more consultations with patients, who are more likely to have multiple morbidities with both physical and mental conditions, but they do not necessarily receive the additional funding to address those complex needs. The Care Quality Commission has described primary care in Plymouth as at a “tipping point”. It found 15% GP vacancy rates, with several practices having handed back their contracts or at risk of doing so, in some cases owing to recruitment difficulties. It also found that between 25% and 35% of GPs and practice nurses would be retiring in the next five years. I realise that issue is not specific to Plymouth, but it is a trend across primary care that we need to address if we are to continue providing patients with the care they deserve. I should be grateful if the Minister responded to the concerns that those GPs have raised and set out what steps her Department is taking to address GP recruitment and retention, in particular. I think that a lot of GPs will be watching the debate and looking for reassurance that there is light at the end of the tunnel, albeit the route to it may not be an easy one. They are looking for confidence that there is a plan.
In a similar debate in March 2018, I spoke about primary care in Plymouth and the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), agreed to meet to discuss the issue with Plymouth GPs. I spoke to him about it in the Tea Room the other day and, while I realise that the Minister will not be controlling her diary in the same way as she did before being elevated to ministerial office, I should be grateful if she confirmed that she too would be happy to meet Plymouth GPs, so that they can raise their concerns directly with her about the direction in which primary care in Plymouth is going. I should welcome it if the meeting were with a cross-party delegation, to make sure that the concerns were not party political.
A crisis in primary care means longer waiting times. It means patients will experience longer waits for routine appointments, have trouble getting through on the phone, and face reduced availability of urgent appointments. Healthwatch Plymouth published a report in November about primary care in our city. One patient had this to say about their experience:
“I had a brilliant surgery. But since merging with another I have had problems. I had the flu bug over Christmas, I received a diagnosis of a throat virus over the phone. I waited 7 weeks to see my doctor. Then when the results of my ultrasound came in, I found out from the receptionist that my doctor had retired. I have just tried to make an appointment and have been told I can’t make an appointment”—
for many months—
“as they are changing their systems.”
I think that is an isolated example, but it is part of a trend of concerns that patients express not only to the patient participation groups in practices—groups of patients who deserve special thanks and who are often overlooked in our debates—but by way of representations in the postbags of councillors and MPs.
The Care Quality Commission found that people could not always access a GP when they needed one and GPs told the CQC that it is not uncommon for the waiting time for a routine appointment to be four weeks. There are even some areas of the city where people are having difficulty registering or cannot register with a GP, because GP surgeries have closed and there is not sufficient bandwidth in the system to accept additional patients. I know that because my GP surgery in Plymouth closed and it was a struggle for the patients to find another with places available.
People in Plymouth have reached out to me on social media, and I have been inviting comments on my Facebook page. It was nice to get comments that were not about the B-word. I will recount a few of those experiences, but should the Minister or officials want to look at them again there are plenty more on my Facebook page. I heard from a pregnant woman who told me she had to wait three weeks for an appointment. Someone else said:
“For months now, it’s been impossible to book appointments online at my doctor’s. It takes three weeks to see a GP, and two just to see the practice nurse. After becoming part of a merged practice, the surgery has declined drastically.”
Another told me:
“Telephone consultations now seem to be the norm. Better than nothing, but a poor substitute for thorough examination.”
There is, of course, a growing role for community pharmacy in Plymouth, as there is across the country, and our pharmacists do a superb job. More people need to access services provided by community pharmacists, and I encourage the Minister to continue to promote the services that pharmacies offer as part of the broader array of services to address the primary care crisis.
GPs are on the frontline of healthcare and many people in Plymouth have told me that pressure has increased as community services have been cut back in other areas. A large proportion of the patients that GPs see consists of patients with severe, complex and enduring mental health difficulties who need regular GP support, and for some their GP is their only point of contact. While GPs continue to go above and beyond for their patients, they are not being given enough help to ease the pressure, particularly with patients with complex needs. Mental health services in Plymouth have significantly longer waiting times than other areas in Devon. Patients struggling with their mental health consult their GPs more frequently, until they are accepted into a specialist service that can support them in appropriate settings. That means that GPs in Plymouth have far more appointment demands to support patients with mental health needs than GPs elsewhere in Devon. At a meeting I held with GPs last year there was general agreement that integration of general practice, mental health and community services would be beneficial and would lead to patient care being not only better but more efficient.
This is a good moment to talk about something that Plymouth is really good at, as well as having challenges: the introduction and roll-out of health and wellbeing hubs. Plymouth City Council, our local clinical commissioning group, and Livewell Southwest—our social enterprise that provides NHS services in Plymouth—have come together to roll out health and wellbeing hubs across our city. Many of them are in the north of Plymouth, which is represented by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), but three weeks ago I attended the opening of an all new wellbeing hub at the Cumberland centre in Devonport in my constituency. Those are genuine attempts to provide wraparound care, in addition to primary care, and to provide more thorough and effective services. I believe that Ministers should roll that model out across the country as it has real benefits. We should listen to our doctors, not just when it comes to our health but about what is best for our health services. They claim that the health and wellbeing hub model is an important addition to GP services, although not a substitute for them.
Plymouth City Council has submitted a bid to Ministers for £13 million funding to create more hubs across the city, including a superhub in our city centre. I have spoken to the Minister of State for Health about that a number of times, and I will be grateful if the Minister looks favourably on that funding application if it crosses her desk, as it is a genuinely pioneering project. The superhub would bring together in one location NHS dentistry and Plymouth’s award-winning dental school, sexual health testing, mental health support, social care, and new forms of directly employed general practice doctors, as well as wellbeing services. A site has been identified for those services in the Colin Campbell Court development, and my Labour colleague on the city council, Councillor Mark Lowry, and our health lead, Councillor Ian Tuffin, would jump at the chance to brief the Minister and her officials about that project.
As GP services in the localities continue to close in Plymouth, that project would create a new south pole in Plymouth for health services, as well as the north pole at Derriford Hospital in the northern tip of our city. We all want to discourage people from attending hospital if they can access their care in local communities, and health and wellbeing hubs, as well as the new superhub, could make a transformative difference in Plymouth.
The doctors and patients I have spoken to in Plymouth all agree that our primary care is in crisis, but recognising that there is a crisis is the first step to solving it. The crisis is not because our doctors, nurses and health professionals are not working hard enough; it is because they need more support and a better system to support them in their work. Dr Boorer said:
“We regularly continue working late into the night, often still doing administrative tasks and checking bloods at 10 to 11 pm, or catching up at weekends so we can meet the needs of our patients. But this level of work is unsustainable as evidenced by practice closures. With the current crisis, related as a result of sustained under resourcing, we see sub-optimal care for patients, burnt out GPs handing back contracts and leaving the profession”.
I praise those GPs who have chosen to work in inner-city practices such as those in my constituency, because they genuinely care about their patients and the quality of care they receive. I am concerned, however, that the current GP partnership model, and the high costs of buying into it, is not sufficient or appropriate for 21st century Britain, especially when we are suffering from a recruitment and retention crisis. We need to attract more younger talent as we seek to replace those GPs who are nearing retirement, and I believe there are ways to flex the model of providing primary care.
Research shows that cities such as Plymouth have been hit hardest by some of the cuts to public services. Levels of deprivation are high, and the wraparound care provided by other providers—in particular council services—is not as present as it used to be. We know that when the primary care system breaks, costs for the taxpayer rise and people suffer. The scale of the challenge we face is great. I genuinely welcome the Minister to her new role. I hope we will be able to work together to address the specific challenges faced by Plymouth, and come up with some solutions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing this important debate and for his kind words. I wish him a very happy birthday.
The hon. Gentleman spoke passionately about his constituency, as he always does, and he raised a number of pressing issues related to GP provision in Plymouth. I join him in thanking GPs and all the 1.3 million dedicated NHS staff for how they coped with increased demand on services over a challenging winter. The Government will continue to give the NHS all the additional support it needs over winter to ensure that patients continue to receive high-quality care.
The Government recognise the vital role primary care plays at the heart of our NHS, but a growing and ageing population, and increasing numbers of patients with long-term conditions, are putting strain on the system and adding to the challenges we face in recruiting and retaining GPs. Those real pressures can affect the quality of care that patients receive. We fully recognise those huge challenges, which is why we have made primary care a clear priority.
I will set out the significant measures that we are taking to support and reinvigorate general practice, which will improve GP services for patients across England, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. In 2015, we set an ambitious target to recruit 5,000 more GPs. That is challenging, but it is vital to ensure that we have more GPs in the NHS, so we remain committed to delivering that commitment as soon as possible. The NHS long-term plan, which was published in January, made a clear commitment to the future of general practice, with primary and community care set to receive at least £4.5 billion more a year in real terms by 2023-24.
In January, we launched the new five-year GP contract, which was agreed with and widely welcomed by the profession. It will see billions of pounds of extra investment for improved access, expanded services at local practices, and longer appointments for patients who need them. We have listened to GPs about the biggest pressures they face and where we must focus to deliver reform of general practice. GPs have told us that one of the biggest pressures they face is an often unsustainable workload, which is a key reason why many dedicated GPs leave the national health service. Our new GP contract seeks to address the workload pressures that have resulted from a workforce shortfall. NHS England has committed to further expanding community-based multi-disciplinary teams and will provide funding for up to 20,000 other staff, such as physician associates and social prescribers, in primary care networks by 2023-24. Those bigger teams of staff will provide a wider range of care options for patients and free up more time for GPs to focus on their true passion—treating patients.
Another huge cause of concern for GPs has been professional indemnity. In recent years, the spiralling cost of purchasing professional indemnity cover has been a major source of stress and financial burden for GPs. That is why we addressed it in the GP contract and why just last week, on 1 April, we launched the new state-backed clinical negligence scheme for general practice. That brings a permanent solution for indemnity costs and coverage and includes all staff delivering primary medical services, including out of hours. It will remove a huge cause of worry for GPs, which will help with the recruitment and retention of GPs.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we are looking at how to make the general practice partnership model fit for GPs working in the NHS in the 21st century. We recognise the huge contribution that the partnership model has made over the last 70 years of the NHS, but we know that it faces huge challenges, because many GPs, like other NHS doctors, want more flexible and varied portfolio careers; perhaps they do not want the long-term financial and geographical commitments of joining a GP partnership. That is why we commissioned Dr Nigel Watson to lead an independent review of the partnership model to understand those challenges.
As part of that review, Dr Watson visited more than 25 practices around the country, some of them small and some super-partnerships. As the hon. Gentleman alluded to, Dr Watson visited areas that are experiencing the greatest difficulty in recruiting GPs, including meeting some in Plymouth. Those visits played a key role in informing the work of the review, which reported in January and made seven key recommendations about workforce, business models and risk. We are grateful to Dr Watson for his important work, and we will respond to his recommendations in due course, with a view to reinvigorating the partnership model and making it fit for the 21st century.
I have set out that general practice is a priority for the Government, but what does that mean for Plymouth, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents? GPs know the needs of their patients best, which is why the long-term plan seeks to change the balance of how the NHS works by shifting more activity into primary and community care. That will be enabled by expanding multidisciplinary teams working within general practice.
In Plymouth, the funding linked to the new GP contract will create extra capacity, with a 25% increase in staff numbers expected over the next five years across Devon as primary care networks employ pharmacists, physician assistants, physiotherapists, paramedics and social prescribers. I commend the valuable work being undertaken in Plymouth to open a network of local wellbeing hubs, aimed at giving residents easier and earlier access to health advice and support.
I understand that in a meeting with the former Health Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), there was a specific proposal for funding to develop a hub in Plymouth city centre. I understand that following that discussion the clinical commissioning group has undertaken further work on the case for investment with the local sustainability and transformation partnership, in anticipation of the next capital funding bidding process.
I am encouraged by the number of promising local recruitment schemes that Devon CCG has put in place both to recruit more GPs and to retain those already in the workforce. I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, hopefully along with my hon. Friends the Members for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), and some GPs. Other schemes include investment in portfolio careers for GPs, supported by funding from NHS England; investment in GP coaching to support retention, and a scheme to entice those who have left the primary care workforce to return to the profession, which will launch this year. It will also offer flexible working and alternative employment arrangements.
Flexible working is a huge opportunity. May I ask the Minister to look also at whether flexible working schemes with acute hospital trusts, such as part-time GPs and part-time acute hospital doctors, could be included in that scheme? I think there is real merit in that.
I will take that salient point away and write to the hon. Gentleman.
The CCG is also working closely with the Devon Community Education Provider Network and Health Education England to develop primary care training hubs to support GP training, as well as the broader primary care workforce. Furthermore, the targeted enhanced recruitment scheme in England—an initiative that offers a one-off payment of £20,000 to GP trainees for committing to work in a specific area—has offered 24 places in Plymouth from August 2019. I am delighted to tell the House that 22 of the 24 places have been filled ahead of schedule, which is excellent news for Plymouth. It is the second highest number of places for any one area in England.
It is important to note that, despite the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman has raised, primary care in Plymouth is improving. Provision has been reviewed by the local authority’s health scrutiny committee regularly over the last five years. Most recently, the committee concluded that it was assured that the system in Plymouth—in particular, general practice—had made substantial improvements since its last review, and that although the system was fragile, significant work was under way to address recruitment issues.
I hope that I have made it clear what an absolute priority supporting and reinvigorating primary care is for the Government. We know that there are challenges with GP recruitment and retention, and other important issues facing general practice as the hon. Gentleman has outlined. However, the commitments made in the NHS long-term plan and the significant extra funding to back them up mean that we are well placed to address them. We can anticipate real improvement and reform of general practice, ensuring better access and improved services for patients in Plymouth and across England. It is such an exciting time for me as the new Minister responsible for primary care to come in and see those new commitments begin to be put into effect, and to ensure that they are delivered. I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing such an important matter for debate, and I wish him a very happy birthday.
Question put and agreed to.
LGBT Rights: Brunei
I beg to move,
That this House has considered LGBT rights in Brunei.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I am glad that so many right hon. and hon. Members have been able to come today, because this is an important topic that is dear to our hearts and those of our constituents.
As Members will know, last week the Sultan of Brunei implemented the third phase of the sharia penal code—the SPC—which was first introduced in 2014. This phase of the code’s implementation licenses brutal executions and violent punishments of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including death by stoning, effectively just for living their sexual identity. As a result, Brunei is now the eighth country that can punish consensual same-sex relationships with the death penalty. It also punishes women for abortion, which is a health matter, and anyone for sex outside of marriage, which is a private matter.
Last week in the House, the Minister gave a welcome statement about this situation. However, he said that the UK has a “close friendship” with Brunei as a result of our long-standing military and strategic partnerships, which I understand. He also mentioned Brunei’s membership of the Commonwealth. I believe that that relationship gives the UK special responsibility to act against this violation of human rights, which has implications for people both within and beyond Brunei. I will return to that point later.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this vital debate. When I clicked on the Commonwealth’s website this morning, the strapline that came up was “53 countries working together to…celebrate diversity” and to “protect human rights”. Given the situation in Brunei, which, as the hon. Lady says—is appalling, and the fact that same-sex consensual sex is criminalised in 35 of the 53 Commonwealth countries, does she agree that Britain must raise this issue at the forthcoming Commonwealth meeting?
I absolutely agree, and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Later in my remarks, I will emphasise that Britain’s position in the Commonwealth gives us a position of leadership that we must act upon. Brunei is only one of the countries that is behaving in an egregious manner towards people because of their sexuality, and I would like us to use our influence.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Last November, I was privileged to visit Rwanda with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, where there are also questions about LGBT legislative equality. Surely the role of the British Government, and the Foreign Office in particular, is to provide challenge within the Commonwealth and to promote the idea that if a country is a member of the Commonwealth, it must advocate the equality legislation that the UK Government and other members of the Commonwealth partake in. It is simply unacceptable in 2019 for these barbaric acts to be undertaken against people who are LGBT, purely on the basis of the way they were born.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right, and I would like the Minister to urge his colleague, the Foreign Secretary, to use his position in the Commonwealth. I will return to that issue later.
I will set out the dangers that the penal code poses for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Brunei and outside, and also for other women. I will also identify how I believe Brunei benefits from its association with the UK through military, diplomatic and economic relationships. Finally, I will press the Minister on the ways in which this country can bring its influence to bear on Brunei. I have some specific suggestions for action that I would like him to consider.
First, I thank the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights—particularly Anna—the Brunei Project, the Kaleidoscope Trust, the Human Dignity Trust, Stonewall, ForcesWatch, the House of Commons Library, and others for having provided briefings for this debate. I also thank the parliamentary Digital Engagement Programme, which has brought members of the public into this discussion in a way that I never knew about. Because of that programme, the House of Commons’ Facebook post on this topic was seen by 35,435 accounts between 5 and 9 April. There were 6,061 post-clicks and 1,275 engagements, including reactions, comments and shares, and the post prompted 20 private messages to that Facebook page. I will refer to some of those comments and suggestions during my speech.
The Government of Brunei, as part of an increasing trend towards religious conservatism, introduced the SPC in 2014. It applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, although the latter group is exempt from certain sections, and operates in parallel with common law inherited from British rule, which the Bruneian Government have said continues to be the primary means of administering justice. Punishments that came into effect with the implementation of phase 3 of the SPC include death by stoning for adultery, sodomy or extramarital sexual relations by Muslims, public flogging as a punishment for abortion, sex between women or consumption of alcohol, and amputation of limbs for theft. The SPC also criminalises trans people through charges of “indecent” dressing.
Homosexuality was already illegal in Brunei, but the third phase of the SPC increases the sanctions, which are barbaric in themselves. They are punishments for love, for private matters and for health matters, not for anything that any country with a legal framework based on human rights should count as crimes. Last week, the Minister rightly noted that there is an evidential bar, such as requiring four witnesses for some acts, and said that that bar is high and could therefore mean low use, if any, of these punishments. However, there is an alternative, which is confessions, and I am worried that coercion may be used to push people into confessing. For my money, a high evidential bar does not make anything better; the punishment is still on the statute book.
The Brunei Project, a human rights campaign, has stressed the intersectional implications of the SPC, with its attacks on rights to freedom of expression, religion and belief, and noted that the SPC laws also codify discrimination against woman and girls. Human Rights Watch says that the SPC has further implications for women and will make it difficult for Muslim women in particular to escape violent marriages or seek employment opportunities. As I have mentioned, there are also the punishments for abortion and adultery.
Why should the legal system of a far-away country matter to any of us here? Well, both Bristol West and the UK are diverse and home to an international community, including a large student population. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people come to Bristol and the UK from all over the world, and there will be Bristolians who come from, live in or work in Brunei who will be affected by the SPC. They want to see us fight this assault on their rights. Local people with no direct connection to Brunei are also rightly concerned about this erosion of human rights. They, I, and all hon. Members here want a world in which human rights—including those of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people—are respected everywhere.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making an incredibly powerful speech. Given the problems that some LGBT asylum seekers have recently found in gaining asylum, will she join me in calling on the Minister to raise concerns with the Home Office to ensure that we in this country are granting sanctuary to those LGBT people who face persecution in their home countries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, I am particularly concerned at this country’s record, at the fact that, unfortunately, it often fails to give asylum to people who come here because of persecution due to their sexuality, and at the high evidential bar that seems to be imposed on them. I gather that that is particularly true for women.
The implementation of the SPC has been condemned by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Caucus, so this is not just the west criticising south-east Asia; Brunei is not acting in step with its friends in other south-east Asian nations. I am also pleased to note that, despite things going backward in many parts of the world, India recently repealed section 377 of the Indian penal code, introduced by the British under colonisation, which criminalised sex between people of the same sex.
That is progress, but we need to keep progress and halt backward steps, because if we tolerate them, it signals to other countries that it is fine for them to go backward too. In too many countries, the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are being undermined and fragile gains lost to bigotry and authoritarian chauvinism. As I said, Brunei is now one of several countries where being gay is effectively punishable by death, but there are over 70 countries where it is criminalised.
I have had dealings with Brunei for a very long time, in so far as I know the people there. What I do not understand is how anyone as civilised and used to working in the west as the Sultan and the people around him would even contemplate being so barbaric. That is the big question: why are they doing this stupidity?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am also baffled—why do this? I hope the Foreign Secretary will be able to use the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group later this month as a place to talk openly, frankly, but firmly to the Sultan’s representatives and ask that very question.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. It is outrageous what is going on. Does she agree that the Government should review the deployment of our troops to Brunei?
I would certainly like us to use the fact that we have troops in Brunei as a measure of leverage. I understand the strategic position that those troops hold, but it is important that we do not just give troops unconditionally when the nation of Brunei and the Sultan are benefiting from those troops.
Last September, a Defence Minister confirmed to me in a written answer that Brunei’s armed forces had had UK military training during the previous 12 months—2017-18. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should make the case for there being no further military training for Brunei until this issue is resolved?
That is certainly a way of using our position of influence. I ask the Minister to consider that, and to talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence about how we are deploying our military, to what purpose and whether that is appropriate given the Brunei state’s attitude towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I contend that it is not appropriate, and I really would like the Minister to consider talking to his colleagues about that.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate. Is she aware of the petition started by my constituent Sarah Quinn, who is a brilliant counterpart of mine in the Scottish Youth Parliament? Her petition calls on the UK Government to do more to use their influence to stop human rights abuses against LGBT people in Brunei. The petition is just 16,000 signatures short of the 100,000 it needs to secure an even longer debate on this subject, so will the hon. Lady encourage others to sign it?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s constituent on taking that step. It is great to see such campaigning by young people, and I certainly encourage everyone who watches or hears about this debate to take that sort of action and to show the Government, who I believe agree that this is an egregious breach of human rights, that we want them to take firm action. This is not good enough. An abuse of human rights anywhere is an abuse of human rights for us all; it is an attack on all of us.
As was mentioned, Brunei is a strategic partner of the UK in the region, and we have close military, diplomatic and economic ties. I would like us to make use of those ties as a form of leverage. On military ties, as others mentioned—I will try not to repeat what they said—the British Army in Brunei comprises an infantry battalion of Gurkhas and an Army Air Corps flight of Bell 212 helicopters. That arrangement has been periodically renewed since 1962 by a series of agreements known today as the Brunei garrison agreement, the most recent of which was signed in 2015 and lasts until 2020. I understand that the Ministry of Defence has already begun discussions about the continuation of that agreement. Will the Minister communicate my hon. Friends’ suggestions to the Ministry of Defence for consideration in negotiations about the future of that agreement?
Since 1997, the garrison in Brunei has been the only remaining British military base in the far east. Obviously, we want to keep our strategic influence there. However, the continued presence of British armed forces in Brunei offers clear defence and security benefits for the Sultan—the Sultan wants us there too. According to the UK Defence Journal, Brunei
“sees Britain as its biggest European ally to count on if necessities arise”,
“the UK is expected to be prepared to support Brunei against an expansionist China; not mentioning the British role as a political ‘stabiliser’ for the Sultan.”
What can be given can also be taken away, and we can use the possibility of its being taken away. I understand the need for us to have geopolitical influence in the region, but that influence is morally bankrupt if we do not use it for good.
On economic ties, the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that there are around 6,400 British citizens in Brunei. Around 2,000 are military personnel or civil servants attached to the British Forces Brunei base, but 60% of Brunei’s GDP is derived from oil and natural gas, so many British citizens work for Brunei Shell Petroleum and in related industries and businesses. I am concerned about what is happening to UK citizens in Brunei.
There are also trade links. Neither the UK nor the EU currently has a free trade agreement with Brunei, but Brunei is a member of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, a trade agreement between 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Brunei does not appear to have ratified that agreement yet, but the Department for International Trade is currently consulting on a possible future free trade agreement between the UK and the CPTPP. That is one of four consultations on possible future trade deals happening now, the others being with the US, Australia and New Zealand. The question is how we use our influence. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department for International Trade about how human rights can and must be integrated into the conditions for trade?
We must ask how we can use our influence not only directly with Brunei but with other nations. This morning, I met activists in UK civil society, who urged thoughtfulness and caution, and asked us to listen to the voices of Brunei civil society—particularly to the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Brunei. This is difficult, because the voice of civil society is not strong in Brunei, and neither is the voice of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We will need to do some work to allow it to be heard.
There has also been a lot of press about boycotting the Dorchester—I am not in a position to boycott something I cannot afford.
Is my hon. Friend aware that this afternoon the Police Federation has announced that it will boycott the Dorchester for its police bravery awards? Will she join me in congratulating the Police Federation and hoping that other organisations will follow suit?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that intervention, because it brings me to my next point. I might not be able to afford to stay at the Dorchester, but I can talk to organisations that use the services of other organisations about how we all make our own decisions about how we spend our money and where we bring our trade and business. I want companies with interests in Brunei to think about their influence, but also, crucially, about the safety of their staff there. I understand concerns about economic boycotts, and I also understand the need for us to have a relationship with Brunei. I do not want Brunei to feel cornered, because dialogue is essential, but I want it to feel encouraged to change its mind and do the right thing.
Friendship has limits. We need to show how we feel when our allies or associates treat their own citizens’ human rights, and potentially ours, as optional. I have various things that I want to ask the Minister. I will start with the members of the public who, via the parliamentary digital engagement team’s work on the Commons Facebook page, gave various views—this is not a statement of endorsement, but of representation. Their views included taking away the Sultan of Brunei’s honours; freezing his assets, boycotting his businesses; suspending Brunei from the commonwealth; guaranteeing assistance and/or asylum to all persecuted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Bruneians; withdrawing military support; and recalling the British ambassador to Brunei. It would be good for the members of the public who contributed those ideas to have them at least considered by the Minister. Many respondents rightly pointed out that several of Britain’s other allies have similarly egregious human rights records, and that Government policy should apply consistently to them, too. Some respondents said that the UK should not interfere with the laws of another country and should focus on its own issues—I represent this, even though I do not agree with such a view.
I would like the Minister to consider diplomatic pressure. What steps have the Government already taken to convince the Sultan of Brunei and his Government to repeal the SPC? What representations have the Minister or his colleagues made on the UK’s commitment to securing human rights internationally for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and for women? Have the Government considered the full range of diplomatic sanctions, and if so, can the Minister tell us more about that? What consideration has the Minister made of sanctions or actions against similar regimes with similarly abhorrent legal frameworks?
What contact has the Minister or his colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had with businesses that have employees or representation in Brunei? What support is being offered to UK citizens in Brunei? If state sanctions are being considered by this Government, what consultation is being carried out with civil society in Brunei on the impact of those sanctions and how to make them most effective?
I reiterate what I mentioned earlier. Will the Minister ask his colleague the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary—I emphasise the word Commonwealth—to ensure that equality briefings are provided to all attendees at the meeting of the Commonwealth Ministers Action Group in London this month, and to help to give civil society activists a voice at that meeting? Will he ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to do everything he can to create a constructive atmosphere for dialogue with Ministers from Brunei, in which the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are heard?
My hon. Friend will obviously be aware that the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will be held in Kigali in about 18 months’ time. Perhaps I could suggest to the Minister that an agenda item on equality and LGBT legislation could be developed for that Commonwealth summit, where Rwanda will take over the chair. While we in the United Kingdom have the chair, this issue should be very much at the top of all the agendas of Commonwealth Ministers.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. [Interruption.] I am hearing a colleague say from a sedentary position that LGBT rights was an agenda item last time, and my concern is that this influence is used as strongly as possible. It feels like we are in danger of going backwards, which is not okay. It is not good enough.
I would also like to refer the Minister to my question from last week, on which I hope he will show me a little patience—I kind of sprung it on him. It is a very techy question, but I hope he might be able to update us. Article 1 of the United Nations convention against torture and other cruel and unusual punishments prohibits the use of intentionally inflicted pain as a form of punishment inflicted by a state action. I think we both agree that that covers this situation. However, the UK has agreed to that convention, so we are also bound by article 3, on refoulement, which means that we should not return, expel or expedite anyone to another country if there are substantial grounds for believing that that person will be in danger of being subjected to such cruel and unusual punishment or torture. What discussions has the Minister had since I raised this matter with him last week with his counterparts in other Departments, such as Justice, about ensuring that we abide by the principle and practice of article 3?
In relation to asylum, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said, there is deep concern among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the UK that the Home Office does not understand the risks that people seeking asylum in the UK face if they are returned to their home countries where they are at risk of persecution because of their sexuality. As chair of the all-party group on refugees, I am concerned that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people report not having their sexuality believed and that officials do not recognise that, while a specific state might be generally safe for heterosexuals, there may be a well-founded fear of persecution for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group report published in 2018 found that LGBT people face insensitive questioning, that statements from partners and friends are dismissed and, further, that women asylum seekers face even more scrutiny than men. Home Office data show that, of the asylum claims made between 2015 and 2017 based on a fear of persecution because of sexual orientation, only a quarter were approved. What assurances can the Minister give those seeking asylum in the UK from Brunei—or any other country where this applies—for protection from any aspect of the SPC? What discussions has he had with his counterparts in the Home Office about that? Will he undertake to have such discussions?
Finally, the Minister has a crucial role in talking to colleagues across government on instilling ethics in defence and trade contracts. The maintenance of the defence presence in Brunei is obviously of regional importance, but in this context the British presence in Brunei is also a political statement. Will the Government commit to using their leverage to secure full human rights for LGBT people and women in Brunei as part of the negotiations over the renewal of the garrison agreement?
To conclude, I applied for this debate because, like many hon. Members and members of the public, I am outraged that Brunei has introduced a penal code that sanctions such appalling violence on its people—as well as ours—contrary to international law and a human rights-based framework. I am disappointed, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, that the Sultan has chosen to go down this route. It is not necessary. This is a test for the Commonwealth. Will the Minister ask the Foreign Secretary to ensure that every piece of Commonwealth pressure can be brought to bear on the situation?
One thing we cannot know about, but I bet happens, is the influence of our royal family, who I know feel very much as we do and will be outraged. I am quite sure that some of the younger members of the royal family will be having words about this subject.
I do not think I can comment on the views of members of the royal family, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I want the UK Government to take a leadership role in the world on the human rights agenda. It is clear to me that the UK Government have a specific role in correcting injustice everywhere. Whether or not we exercise that responsibility will say a great deal about how we want to be seen in the world and by our own lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people here in the UK.
I do not want my lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans constituents, friends or colleagues, or anyone in the UK to live in fear anywhere. I do not want my country to be complicit in turning a blind eye to state-sanctioned persecution in a nation where we have a military presence and that we would consider to be friend.
Clearly, this is brutality at the very extreme end of the spectrum. However, it should not have to get to that point before we take LGBT rights seriously. My hon. Friend is talking about the UK. The Government are turning a blind eye to LGBT rights here in the UK, by denying the extension of equal marriage rights to Northern Ireland. Surely we have to get our own house in order if we are to be an effective voice on the international stage.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I agree with, although obviously that is not in the Minister’s portfolio. If we are to have true moral authority, we need to make sure that we have equal rights for every one of our citizens, everywhere in the United Kingdom.
I have said what I do not want, but what I want is for my constituents, my friends, my colleagues, and everyone in the UK—every single person, whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans, or a different sexuality—to be able to travel and work freely and to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as everybody else. I want lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people to be able to visit countries and take up employment or study opportunities anywhere they want, without having to check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website to see if it would be safe for them to do so. It does not feel okay that my friends, my staff or my constituents have to check whether it is safe to fall in love, travel with their partner, or live in a way that expresses their true gender identity or sexuality, wherever they choose to live, work or visit.
At this terrible moment for Brunei’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the UK Government have a responsibility to stand up and be counted. I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to take this opportunity to show the cross-party strength of feeling, which I hope he understands and absorbs, as I believe he does, and show the world that Britain will not tolerate attacks on anyone’s human rights—on the human rights of entire sections of the population—simply for being who they are and loving who they love.
We have about 10 minutes of Back-Bench time before I call the Front-Bench spokespeople: Hannah Bardell for the SNP, Fabian Hamilton for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and the Minister. The SNP and the Opposition spokespeople will have five minutes each and the Minister will have 10 minutes, then we will return to Thangam Debbonaire to sum up. Three hon. Members are seeking to contribute, so the time limit will be three minutes each. First, I call Luke Pollard.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on a passionate speech. It is not right that our LGBT friends across the world cannot enjoy the same freedoms as LGBT people in my constituency.
We need to send a strong message from this debate that love is love. We must use our power as a country to impress that on our friends. It is harder when our friends fail, and when we have to have difficult conversations with people with whom we share a common bond, but on this we must, because our values do not stop at our borders. I say that as a gay man who is proud to be out. We have an extra responsibility to make sure that people know that whether someone is L, G, B, T or straight, it does not matter—they deserve human rights wherever they are.
I have asked the Ministry of Defence in a written question about what advice has been given to UK forces stationed at British Forces Brunei, to make sure that there are no consequences for LGBT serving UK personnel in Brunei. I would be grateful if the Minister could reflect on that in his remarks.
We must be aware that the roll-back of LGBT rights can happen. There is sometimes a belief in the LGBT community that LGBT rights only go one way—that we will only ever get more equal and that our fight for equality is over. That is wrong. It is a false wrapper that we put round ourselves to pretend that we do not have to fight anymore.
It gave me great strength to see the first-time activists protesting outside the Dorchester and other hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei, because they recognise that their human rights in the UK are affected if human rights for LGBT people around the world are affected. It does matter. Every time there is hate internationally, hate is brought on LGBT communities in our country. It does not take much to find people on social media saying,
“Perhaps Brunei has the right idea”,
“The sultan of Brunei has the right idea of what to do with you Brighton bitches”,
“Brunei has the right idea in dealing with such FILTH.”
The hate engendered in the laws that my hon. Friend spoke so passionately about empowers people who want to divide others and peddle hate in our country. That is why our determination to fight such cruel punishment for simply being LGBT with our friends and allies abroad must be matched by our commitment to do so at home as well. We must be clear that there is no place for this type of hate, either in the UK or around the world. As we decide what type of country we want to be after Brexit, we must ensure that human rights—LGBT rights—are at the heart of our diplomacy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing the debate and on the passionate case that she made.
It is clear that the situation in Brunei is totally unacceptable in 2019. Fundamental human rights are the business of everyone—all right-thinking people the world over. It is right that this House and the British Government should give a clear view to the Brunei authorities. We have heard that Brunei sees the United Kingdom as its biggest European ally. It is therefore essential that we use that relationship to make it absolutely clear to the sultan and to the authorities that the introduction of this latest strict sharia penal code does not fit with the 21st century, and with anyone who believes that basic human rights across the world are rights for all humanity.
The UK and many other countries have made real progress on LGBT rights and equalities in recent decades. It is essential that we send a clear message to any country looking to regress on LGBT or human rights issues that that is unacceptable. We will not go backwards. The decision to impose the death penalty on gay people living in Brunei is utterly barbaric and a violation of basic human rights. The UK Government must show global leadership, and consider Brunei’s suspension from the Commonwealth if it does not reconsider the decision.
We have heard that the British Army has a presence in Brunei—its only presence in the far east—comprising of an infantry battalion of Gurkhas and an Army Air Corps flight. As we know, the current agreement will last until 2020. Of the 6,400 British citizens in Brunei, around 2,000 are members of the armed forces or the civil service at the British forces base. It is understood that the sultan, understandably, values that British Army presence.
In the light of our important defence and security partnership with Brunei, it is vital that the Defence Secretary demonstrates his commitment to human rights by urging the Brunei authorities to drop this appalling law without delay. We must also ensure that no British troops are affected by the law. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out what specific action the Government have taken in that regard, and whether he will raise the matter with the Defence Secretary.
Furthermore, the Government should commit to stripping the Sultan of Brunei of his honorary appointments as Air Chief Marshal of the Royal Air Force and Admiral of the Royal Navy. It is simply unacceptable for those honours to be held by someone who wishes to abuse fundamental rights in that way. This shameful and regressive move simply cannot be tolerated, and that message needs to go out loud and clear. At the very least, we need assurances from the Government that protections are in place for British military personnel, other British persons living and working in Brunei, and tourists.
Over and above that, such treatment is simply unacceptable for any human being. From a human rights perspective, that is the message that this country and Her Majesty’s Government need to say loud and clear. I hope that the Minister can give some assurances on this issue today.
Of course all right-thinking people will condemn what has been introduced in Brunei in recent weeks. We would condemn the stoning of anybody, whether they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or whatever. It is a positively inhumane way of undertaking what they pretend is a form of justice.
However, we in the United Kingdom have a share of the blame for what has happened in the Commonwealth and around the world. The countries with some of the worst records on LGBT rights once owed their allegiance to the Crown here. Sometimes we exported the most draconian laws that any country has ever had on male homosexuality, in particular between 1922 and 1967.
Some people point the finger at religion. Sometimes that is right, but sometimes it is wrong. Interestingly, when the House of Commons tried to legislate to ban lesbianism in 1922 the best speech given in Parliament to strike the law down was from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that it was a pile of nonsense. He was quite right. When it came to the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country in 1967, Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the best proponents for a humane and sensible approach to those matters.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) is right that it often feels as if we are taking steps backwards. We have taken so many strides forwards in this country in recent years, with civil partnerships, gay marriage and all the rest, that it is all too easy to forget that the most liberal city in the world in the last 150 years was probably Berlin in 1930. In 1934, Hitler killed all the gay Nazis, and went on to put thousands of people in concentration camps and kill them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) said earlier, we have to put our own house in order in Northern Ireland and the British Overseas Territories, as do so many countries with which we do business. It is ironic that the Sultan of Brunei owns the Dorchester, because that was where Victor Cazalet—a gay man who was a Member of this House in the 1930s, and director of the Dorchester—used to interview everybody for his almost entirely gay, queer or nearly queer searchlight battery in the second world war. I have also been to many dinners at the Dorchester that were hosted by Stonewall.
I am absolutely delighted that people—particularly young people—are taking action, because they want to see that the campaigns of yesteryear are not forgotten and because human rights are a seamless garment that have to be fought for by every single generation. In truth, the laws in Brunei will not stop anyone from being homosexual. They will not stop anybody from loving another person of the same gender. All that they will do is condemn them to a life of loneliness, sadness, lying and hypocrisy.
Order. We can squeeze in one more short contribution of 90 seconds from Richard Graham.
Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone. This is a good debate that follows both Foreign Office Questions and the statement by the Minister last week. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on raising the issue, about which many around the House and around the country will feel the same way.
I want to make two points, if I may. The Commonwealth charter itself is very clear about the requirements on Commonwealth members to oppose all forms of discrimination. In 2018 at CHOGM, the Prime Minister was clear about the importance that nobody faces discrimination or persecution because of whom they love. I suspect that the amount of strong opposition to the sharia penal code that has been implemented in Brunei will come as a surprise to the population of that country—an ally and friend of ours—because they will not have anticipated the stream of condemnation that has come their way.
I ask the Minister whether we can, in a sense, help to guide the Kingdom of Brunei through what is a very difficult situation for our relationship with it. Can we encourage it to look carefully at means of reassuring its own citizens, as well as others around the world, that this is not a change in the fundamentally tolerant approach that is characteristic of that country for all of us who have been? Can we encourage Brunei to do whatever possible to mitigate against the introduction of the last part of the sharia penal code?
We now come to the Front Benches. I call Hannah Bardell for the SNP.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this debate and on her excellent speech.
It is a sad fact—and not one that is in the infamous guide to coming out—that when someone comes out, they look at the world map in a very different way. That is largely to find out whether the country that they are visiting on business or on holiday is going to arrest, torture or murder them just because of who they love or who they are. As we have heard, Brunei’s strict legal code mandates for death for adultery and sex between men, lashes for lesbian sex and amputation for crimes such as theft. It discriminates not just against LGBT people, but against women particularly
That has sparked a tide of condemnation. We in the SNP have unequivocally condemned Brunei’s actions. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) spoke about the grassroots response, his constituent Sarah Quinn—a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament—and the number of signatures that her petition has gathered. At the weekend, we saw people outside some of the hotels owned by the sultan.
To my mind that is not enough, because until this shameful announcement, 70 countries criminalised same-sex activity between consenting adults. That accounts for almost 3 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population, living in countries that have anti-LGBT laws. Although, unfortunately, the shambles of Brexit is diminishing the UK’s soft power, it still has significant power and I know that the Minister has made strong statements of condemnation. However, he and the Government have also recently visited Brunei.
In August 2018 the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) visited as trade envoy to Brunei, Thailand and Burma. He talked about what a successful visit it was, and about the great insight that it gave him into the significant opportunities that already exist within Brunei’s economy. I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort and a sense that he will use his power to make sure a strong message is sent. Whatever happens with Brexit the UK will be flailing around potentially looking for trade deals, and they cannot come at the cost of our values.
It is interesting that since the CHOGM of last year two countries in the Commonwealth have changed their legal position on decriminalising homosexuality, including India, which means that in that great country of more than 1 billion people it is now perfectly legal. Does the hon. Lady agree that some progress is being made?
I absolutely do agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is hugely important. We must be in no doubt that we have the opportunity to bring about change and exert influence. The hon. Member for Bristol West spoke of specific things that we could do: freezing assets, recovering honours, recalling ambassadors and suspending Brunei from the Commonwealth. I endorse that. When I heard the news I felt sick to my stomach, and I am sure that we all did. I visited Malawi recently, where the Government turn a blind eye to homosexuality, but where if someone is trans they literally do not exist. There must be changes in those countries and we must do everything we can.
My hon. Friend mentions the Commonwealth and the possible remedy of suspension. Of course no country has ever been expelled but countries have been suspended for violation of democracy and the rule of law. Does she agree that what has happened in Brunei is every bit as serious as that and that we must keep suspension or expulsion from the Commonwealth up our sleeve as the ultimate sanction?
I absolutely agree. In the brief time I have left I want to refer to countries such as Qatar, which, in my view, have illegally been awarded major sporting championships. Qatar will host the World cup. Scotland will not be in the men’s World cup. England will. What kind of message would it send if England decided to take a stand and say “We are not going to that country and that competition”? It is a difficult decision to take and there is a balance of judgment, but until we stop allowing countries such as Qatar, Brunei and Russia to hold major sporting competitions they will continue to abuse their people and their human rights, and it is time we took a stronger stand.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on bringing this debate to us today, and I thank my colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for their excellent contributions.
Brunei is a country with a population of 420,000 people and is by some estimates the fourth richest country per capita in the world. It has been fully independent of the United Kingdom only since 1984. Its ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is an absolute monarch and rules absolutely; he is also the country’s Prime Minister. This year Brunei became the first east Asian country to adopt strict sharia law. As we have heard today, those laws violate international human rights including the right to life and freedom from torture. They violate certain conventions to which Brunei is a party, including the conventions on the rights of the child. Under international human rights law, corporal punishment in all its forms, such as stoning, amputation or whipping, constitutes torture or other
“cruel, inhuman or degrading…punishment”,
which is prohibited in all circumstances. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stated recently:
“Any religion-based legislation must not violate human rights, including the rights of those belonging to the majority religion, as well as of religious minorities and non-believers”.
Brunei has not executed anyone since 1957, but it has now become one of only seven countries in the world that punish consensual homosexual acts with the death penalty. We know that these new laws target some of the most vulnerable people in Brunei society. They also place restrictions on Muslim women who want to escape violent marriages.
The UK and Brunei have historically long ties; in 1888 Brunei became a British protected state and it was the only Malay state that chose to remain so in 1963, only gaining independence in 1984. The British Army has maintained a Gurkha battalion—currently about 2,000 personnel—in Brunei since 1962, and as we know, Brunei is a member of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Patricia Scotland stated recently that the new laws
“will potentially bring into effect cruel and inhuman punishments which contravene international human rights law and standards”.
The Government have stated that they have a good relationship with Brunei, which allows them to have “frank conversations”—a term often used in circumstances such as this—but has not called for Brunei to be suspended from the Commonwealth. The Government have said that
“threatening to kick countries out of the Commonwealth”
is not the “best way” to encourage Brunei to uphold its human rights obligations. I ask the Minister: why not? The scale and brutality of this attack on universal human rights by a friend and close ally of this country should not be without consequence. What action do the Government intend to take to persuade the Sultan of Brunei to rescind these laws, which are an attack on those who only wish to express their love for another human being? What can the Government do to ensure that half the population of that country, its women, do not have to put up with further suffering under the law simply because of their gender—especially those women who are trying to escape violent marriages?
Human rights are universal; Labour Members and, I am sure, every Member of the House of Commons and House of Lords believes that human rights are indivisible. We must ensure that, as a nation with an important and influential place in the world, we uphold those rights wherever they are challenged in today’s world. I hope the Minister can answer some of these questions.
It is a pleasure to be here. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this important debate. She is always a passionate advocate for equal rights, and I pay tribute to her commitment on the issue. I am also grateful for the widespread interest and the insights of other hon. Members.
To begin, I think it is worth reiterating what I said in my statement only six days ago. The Government
“oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in all forms, and we do not believe that amputation or stoning are legitimate or acceptable punishments. Indeed, we consider them to be illegal under international human rights laws relating to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.”
“consider it appalling that, in the 21st century, people anywhere are still facing potential persecution and discrimination because of who they are and whom they love.”—[Official Report, 4 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 1274.]
As a number of hon. Members have pointed out, human rights are universal and should apply equally to everyone.
LGBT people are not asking for special rights; they simply expect to be accorded the same dignity, respect and rights as all other citizens. That is why the UK strongly supports, defends and champions the rights of LGBT people here in the UK and all around the world, and opposes the criminalisation of homosexual relationships worldwide, whether in Brunei or elsewhere. As has been pointed out, there are still some 70 countries worldwide that discriminate against any person based on their sexuality, and we continue to encourage all those countries to repeal their laws. There has been some progress since 2015, with five countries decriminalising homosexual relationships, but we all accept that there is more still to do.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because I want to try to answer as many of the points as I can.
The introduction of the sharia penal code and hudud punishments in Brunei will have an even more discriminatory and intimidating impact on those who are LGBT there. That is something that we cannot accept and that we believe is in contravention of Brunei’s international commitments to respect human rights and individual freedoms. We have expressed our concerns to the Government of Brunei. I personally raised the matter when I was there last summer, because we saw this car crash coming. To be fair, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and others have pointed out, the pure weight of international opinion that has come out over the past week has surprised many within Brunei, and particularly within the court of the Sultan.
The day after the measures came into force on 3 April, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary called Brunei’s Foreign Minister, Dato Erywan, to reiterate our very deep concern. The Foreign Secretary, our high commissioner, Richard Lindsay, and I have heard explanations, first, that common law will continue to be the primary means of administering justice and, secondly, that the burden of proof under the sharia penal code is almost unattainably high—although I take on board the comments by the hon. Member for Bristol West about confessions.
Although those explanations provide a very small degree of reassurance, none of us, of course, accepts that they go anything like far enough. The fact remains that homosexual relationships will be illegal in Brunei, whether under common law or under the sharia penal code. We remain clear that homosexuality should not be illegal anywhere in the world, and that any form of punishment—particularly the abhorrent hudud punishments—is unacceptable.
The UK will remain committed to the principle of non-discrimination on any grounds, including sexual orientation, gender and identity. We are a party to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and a signatory to the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. To answer the hon. Lady, I understand that Brunei plans to expedite its ratification of UNCAT. That is welcome, but what has happened with this code is, of course, directly in opposition to it. I will come to that towards the end of my speech.
As has rightly been said, these are universal issues, but it is worth pointing out the position of British nationals, who are obviously impacted to a large extent. As I assured the House last week, we have taken positive action to inform and support British nationals in Brunei, whether they are visitors, residents or among the garrison. We have updated our travel advice to ensure that British nationals are aware of both the introduction of the sharia penal code and all its potential, albeit unlikely, implications.
On military personnel, I will obviously ensure that this speech is passed on to the Defence Secretary.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I always do.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is, as always, very courteous. He will know that British Forces Brunei was agreed on the premise that Brunei was seen as a moderate front against extremist ideology. Is that still the case?
Yes, it is, obviously, in counter-terrorism and other areas. The most disappointing thing for me and, I know, for my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, who is also a regular in Brunei, is the contrast between what we see on the ground—a peaceful, peace-loving people and a state that runs in a very patrician way, as we might imagine given that only 350,000 people live there—and the idea of hudud punishments and the enactment of a sharia penal code. Those things seem entirely at odds with each other, but we are working with Brunei on the grounds the hon. Gentleman points out.
The garrison is the UK’s only permanent military presence in the Asia-Pacific. I should point out that a vast amount of the expense of the garrison is met by the Sultan of Brunei, who has always been eternally grateful for our intervention in Borneo in 1962. The garrison provides unique influence and insight—not just for us but for Brunei—in a region of growing strategic importance, and enables vital training for UK forces, supporting our deployments and allies. We have ensured that the necessary protections are in place for personnel based in Brunei, but we would look for that to apply more generally.
A number of hon. Members and others outside this place have asked whether the Commonwealth should take action and whether there should be economic or trade boycotts. The FCO’s approach to both is the same: we believe that our concerns are best addressed not through blacklisting or boycotts but through persistent dialogue, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) will recognise, and through diplomacy.
Brunei is one of several Commonwealth member states that criminalise homosexual relationships and retain corporal or capital punishments. We will continue relentlessly to try to encourage each of those countries to amend and suspend those forms of punishment. There has been progress, but I accept that many would like to see much quicker progress. In many ways, what is disappointing about this issue in Brunei is that the implementation of such a code is a backward rather than a forward step.
My noble Friend the Minister for the Commonwealth has spoken in detail about this issue to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, who I understand is presently in contact with the Government of Brunei, expressing the deep concerns raised by the international community over the past 10 days. We stand ready to support any Commonwealth member wanting to reform legislation that discriminates against the LGBT community, women and other parts of society. Significant work is ongoing in a number of states where we hope that there will be progress.
The hon. Member for Bristol West asked me to do my homework from six days ago in relation to article 3 of UNCAT. Under UK law, extradition cannot take place where the death penalty is a possibility, unless a satisfactory assurance has been received that the death penalty will not be imposed or carried out.
No, I really am running out of time.
The UK Government remain committed to delivering an asylum system that is sensitive and responsive to all forms of persecution, including those based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and that supports claimants in providing all information relevant to their claim in order to facilitate fair and sustainable asylum decisions. We ensure that claimants are given every opportunity to disclose information relevant to their claim before a decision is taken, including where that information may be sensitive or difficult to disclose. Those who need international protection should always, of course, claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach.
The introduction of extreme hudud punishments in Brunei has understandably caused genuine concern, alarm and consternation in this country and elsewhere. It has also caused concern and uncertainty in Brunei, particularly among residents who are from the UK or are other non-Bruneian nationals. We are a friend of Brunei—I am proud to say that even at this time. Many Members will understand that it is easy to criticise Ministers for talking in such terms, but we have to work closely with our friends. We have expressed, and should continue to express, deep concerns candidly and openly.
We remain deeply troubled by the potential impact of the sharia penal code. Therefore, the Government, our high commissioner and I will continue to guide, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, the Government of Brunei to take all necessary steps to reassure its own people, the United Kingdom and the wider international community that it is fully committed to allowing all citizens and residents to live with dignity and free from discrimination or persecution.
The Foreign Secretary and I will reiterate that point when we meet the Bruneian Foreign and Finance Ministers, who are in London tomorrow. We will emphasise that this issue will not just blow over, and we will stress our ongoing concerns and the need for Brunei to provide public assurances. I shall also pass on the very heartfelt views that we have expressed in the House today.
I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your indulgence in allowing me these additional few seconds.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate verbally or by being present in support. I also thank the Front-Bench spokespeople and the Minister, who responded to some of my points, for which I am grateful, although he should expect a strongly worded letter from me. I would like to know more about what happens when he and his colleague meet ministerial colleagues from Brunei tomorrow. I will also write to him with a list of everything that was raised in the debate to ask if he could respond, because I understand that that is not always possible in so short a debate.
The Minister mentioned friendship. If a friend of mine suddenly decided that it was okay to torture gay people, I would have to talk to them about the nature of friendship, whether they valued my friendship and what price that friendship had for them. I would like the Minister to take that sentiment away. I understand friendship, but we have to be more than just a critical friend who expresses concern; we need to move beyond expressions of concern and outrage to actual action. I want him to understand the strong feeling in the Chamber and beyond the House, and that I speak for an awful lot of people when I say that we do not just want expressions of concern or warm words, welcome though they may be. We want action.
I urge the Minister to take that metaphor of friendship away with him and to think about what he would do if a friend of his was threatening to stone gay people. He would want to know that his friendship mattered more, and he would want to use that friendship as a position of influence. I thank all hon. Members for participating.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered LGBT rights in Brunei.