Tuesday 7 May 2019
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Women Human Rights Defenders
I beg to move,
That this House has considered celebrating the work of women human rights defenders globally.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Members who co-sponsored its application. It is fantastic to have support from six other political parties that are also committed to defending the human rights of women across the globe.
This House recognises and celebrates the contribution of women around the world to promote and protect human rights, the rights of individual women, their families and their communities. The Government need to be fully behind that, which I hope the Minister will confirm.
As we celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK, we are reminded that suffragists and suffragettes were the forerunners of modern-day women human rights defenders. Thanks to them, we secured equal voting rights, the right to stand for parliament, the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which are rights and freedoms that we all too often take for granted.
Women human rights defenders are at the forefront of the battle for human rights globally. From India and South Africa, where thousands have taken to the streets to protest against endemic sexual violence, to Saudi Arabia and Iran where women activists risk arrest to resist the driving ban and forced hijab; from Ecuador where Amazonian women face reprisals for trying to protect the rainforest, to Colombia where women are demanding inclusion in the political process and enforcing the historic peace process; and in London, where thousands of women took to the streets last year to protest against the misogyny that is still rife throughout our society, the reality of which is sadly epitomised by the utterances of the current incumbent of the White House.
I am immensely proud of the human rights defenders in my constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green: Deborah Coles, the Director of Inquest and author of “Dying on the Inside: Examining Women’s Deaths in Prison”; Samantha Smethers, the influential chief executive of the Fawcett Society; and Sajda Mughal, the director of the JAN Trust, which specialises in ethnic minority women’s empowerment and families combating extremism.
Women’s activism is recognised as key to development. Evidence shows that women’s movements have been the most significant factor in securing legislation on violence against women around the world. The burgeoning power of women’s voices cannot be overstated. We need women involved in all aspects if we are to address key challenges such as the gender pay gap and enabling women—many of whom are the heads of households—into business and, crucially, ensuring that they keep the profits of their labour. There are some really good examples of what the Government are doing to support women who are heads of households in developing countries, where micro-loans allow women to run their own businesses, from which they get to keep the profits and look after their own families without having to share the profits with men in the household who may not share that purpose.
Women who stand up and speak out face unprecedented levels of repression and abuse in response, because of both their activism and their gender. Women human rights defenders defy societal expectations of what women should and should not do and of what spaces they should occupy. We must recognise not only the achievements of women defenders, but the grave challenges that they face for speaking out.
Next week, 15 May marks a year of detention for the women activists in Saudi Arabia who successfully led the campaign for the right to drive. While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took the credit for introducing that right, the very women who brought it about find themselves behind bars instead of behind the wheel. Those incredibly brave women, who have been detained for months with no charge and—as reported by Amnesty International—face torture, including sexual abuse and electric shocks, at the hands of the authorities, have paid high prices for their peaceful actions to realise the rights of all women in Saudi Arabia.
Like the suffragettes in the UK, who were women from all walks of life, women human rights defenders are ordinary people doing extraordinary work. They could be farmers, doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, journalists, or families of victims. They work in their communities to push for progress, defend people and their rights, and stand up to tyranny. Marielle Franco, who campaigned tirelessly in support of minority rights and against police brutality in Brazil was, tragically, murdered in March 2018. Azza Soliman is a lawyer who, for many years, supported women who experienced domestic and sexual violence in Egypt. She was arrested, banned from travelling, had her assets frozen and was accused of dishonouring the nation for speaking the truth on the violence that women face. I note, in that particular circumstance, the combination of silencing a woman and freezing her assets. We must recognise that having access to funds often allows women to speak out. Vitalina Koval, an LGBTI rights activist in Ukraine, was physically attacked for organising Pride marches.
Women human rights defenders drive change in their communities, but are under attack, and face imprisonment, travel bans, restrictions on funding, reprisals against their families, surveillance, smear campaigns and even enforced disappearances, death sentences, extrajudicial executions and murder. All around the world, women are fighting for progress and refuse to be silenced, whatever the cost. They are on the frontline as critical agents of change in their communities and countries, and must be recognised and celebrated as such. They need more than just our words; they need action. They need the international community to call for their release when they are imprisoned, to offer protection when they are threatened, to demand justice when impunity prevails, to fund them when they are impoverished, and, above all, to listen to them when others wish to silence them.
The UK should be at the forefront of the response to that global backlash, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the sensible thing to do. Women and other defenders on the ground can deliver change on media freedom, modern slavery, the rule of law and other UK Government priorities. We must recognise that in our globalised world, we are all connected—the unnoticed restrictions and abuses of those who speak out somewhere else today can happen here tomorrow.
As women in this House know, women who raise their voices in this country can also face a backlash. Online harassment and abuse of women, particularly on social media platforms, is rampant. Amnesty has shown that a woman receives a toxic tweet on Twitter every 30 seconds, and women from ethnic, religious and sexual identity minorities are even likelier to receive abuse. The same study reveals that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) receives over a third of such abuse. She shattered the glass ceiling for black and minority ethnic women in 1987 and, over thirty years later, she is bombarded hourly with the most horrific racist and misogynist abuse.
We in the UK cannot ignore what is happening around the world. We must challenge what happens, whether in Egypt, Ukraine, Brazil or Saudi Arabia, in the knowledge that we are not only supporting the voices of change there, but protecting the voices of change everywhere.
Will the Minister confirm his Department’s commitment to promote and protect women human rights defenders globally, in recognition of the unprecedented surge in attacks against them? That should start with a new strategy to support and protect human rights defenders—I am surprised that such a strategy does not already exist, but today is an opportunity to start that process—and ensure that women human rights defenders are given particular consideration, in recognition of all that they do in the UK and in every country around the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Evans. Women human rights defenders are on the frontline of achieving positive change around the world. From #MeToo to #TimesUp, women are pushing back against hundreds of years of misogyny and oppression.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua, I will highlight the role of women human rights defenders in West Papua. They are mainly women from outside West Papua, due to the fact that the stories of women rights defenders in West Papua are still hidden because of the oppression that they face daily.
I want to talk about Jenny Munro of the University of Queensland and her work on the subjugation of and violence directed against Papuan women street sex workers in highlands Papua, in particular by the Indonesian military. Her work describes co-ordination between the health sector and the military to force women to undergo HIV testing and medical treatment irrespective of the need for such medical interventions. Jenny’s work also describes some of the living conditions of young women who end up doing street sex work as the result of complicated social circumstances, as happens elsewhere in the world, and it highlights the experience of women who return home to Papua after testing positive for HIV.
West Papua faces the highest prevalence of HIV in Indonesia—admitted by the Indonesian Ministry of Health in 2014—and is the only part of Indonesia to be experiencing a generalised epidemic. In 2013, HIV prevalence among indigenous Papuans was officially estimated at 2.9%, while the prevalence among non-indigenous migrants was 0 4%. Health officials estimate that just one in five cases of HIV has been detected, and fewer than one in 10 of those people receive treatment. HIV prevalence is highest among youth aged 15 to 24 and among Papuans living in remote and rural areas. The prevalence of HIV among pregnant women, detected during antenatal screening, ranged from 2% to 6%, a much higher percentage. The data suggest that West Papuans face the most rapid increase in HIV prevalence anywhere in the world.
Similar to men diagnosed with HIV, the women in West Papua experience stigma and ostracism at the community level. However, because women’s position is more precarious to begin with, due to patriarchal values in which women overall are subordinate to male standards of behaviour, they are more likely than men to end up ostracised from their communities. That leads to a complicated management of secrets in order to remain within a supportive family network. Jenny Munro has also done some excellent recent work on young Papuan women who leave West Papua to study outside the province, and on the challenges that they face to complete their education when confronted by discrimination on the lines of gender and race—Papuans are Melanesians, rather than having the same ethnic origins as other Indonesians.
I raise this issue because, without Jenny’s work as a human rights defender, the systemic oppression and exploitation of West Papuan women would be hidden, and the extent of the utilisation of West Papuans by the Indonesian military and the high price in terms of their health and wellbeing would be kept secret. We would otherwise never know what was happening to women in West Papua—being forced into the sex trade to have unprotected sex, often contracting HIV.
Jenny is one of those people who works in an area of oppression or occupation where local conditions are so degraded that it needs women from the rest of the world to speak up for it and to give the people their voice, so that they can be heard here. This is the first time that any Parliament has heard about that particular aspect of the West Papuan occupation, and that is down to Jenny’s work, of which I was made aware in the weeks leading up to this debate.
I call on the Minister to do more to support women human rights defenders in West Papua and in other occupied territories. The sustainable development goals recognise the vital role of human rights defenders, including women, in contributing to progress. The Minister could do more to support women human rights defenders campaigning on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in West Papua and its causes under sustainable development goals 3 on good health and wellbeing, 5 on gender equality, 8 on inclusive growth and decent work, 10 on reducing inequality and 16 on access to justice. I will not labour the point, because tomorrow we have a debate in this Chamber on human rights in West Papua and I will use that opportunity to expand on how I see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s role in safeguarding human rights in West Papua.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I thank my constituents who wrote to me about the issue and encouraged me to come along to make a contribution. For them, it is very important for the human rights of women to be defended, particularly those of women trying to defend and protect other women. The UK Government must do all within their power to take action to protect those women and to ensure that all those countries with which the UK has diplomatic contact are left under no illusion as to the UK’s position on the matter. I am sure that the Minister will respond to some of that in his speech later.
It is easy for me as a woman to stand in this place. It is relatively easy for women in this country to stand up and give voice on whatever societal ills they wish to speak up about. However, when I come into this building, I am acutely aware that many women around the world do not have that level of privilege—nowhere near it. In many countries, for people to speak out can be to sign their own death warrant, or to lose everything they hold dear. The risks of doing so are incredibly profound. Women are not able to speak out in that way without risking their families and homes.
I encourage the Minister to speak out, particularly to those regimes that are often found wanting on human rights, especially Saudi Arabia, which has not done nearly enough to change its behaviour. The most recent executions did not involve women, but they were of people who could not defend themselves properly under that regime. Where we see persecution of men, persecution of women will be doubled or trebled in severity, because women there do not even get the chance to speak out.
As the Minister knows, I have some involvement in Yemen through the all-party group on Yemen. Recently, I was pleased to meet some women campaigners who visited London. They were able to tell me more about their situation and how difficult it was to tell their stories, or even to get out of Yemen to come here and give us their testimony. It seems a lot easier for men to get to London and to make representations to groups or in front of Ministers, but if women’s voices are not heard—if women cannot even get out of their countries to give their testimony—their stories will not be told, and we will not hear about the disproportionate impact on women.
The World Economic Forum studied 146 countries and found that, of all of them, women in Yemen came last. They had among the worst circumstances in the world, and the war in Yemen over the past few years has only made that worse. In such situations, women seem to make more sacrifices than men—the cause of women and girls’ education in Yemen has gone backwards, as women are married off younger in order to get a bit of security for their families and their own lives.
Women in Yemen are compromised not only in education but in health services, because they cannot access such services without a male relative or because those services have been lost in the war—attacked in air strikes—and it is not safe for women to get to the hospitals, let alone to get the treatment they so desperately need. As for women working in those services, many civil servants in Yemen have not been paid for a considerable time, so the women cannot work to bring money into their families. They therefore cannot defend other women who desperately need health services, particularly for maternal health.
When talking about women’s voices, I ask the Minister to consider who is around the table in his meetings when he goes to and engages with other countries. Are women allowed to go to such meetings? Are they allowed to give voice to the issues that they might wish to raise? Are they able to give a full account, or are they being screened away by the men with the power? Will he consider that in relation to his meetings and the groups he is meeting? Where are the women in such conversations, and are they present and able to give voice to their concerns?
I also want to remark on women in this country who have come from other countries to claim asylum. In my casework, I encounter women who have been trafficked or come here under some kind of coercion—I can think of one woman who came here as a married woman but came out as gay when she got here, because it felt safer here—but all such things are often counted against them in the immigration process and in their asylum interviews. I sat in on that particular woman’s asylum interview, and the Home Office official said, “Well, you lied about your sexuality to your husband, so you must be lying here today. How can we say that you are not?” Women need to be believed—their stories and testimonies must be believed. In a lot of circumstances, for a woman to be able to tell her story, she has come through a hell of a lot to get there in the first place. Telling that story in front of her husband, her children or whoever it happens to be—in front of a male person from the Home Office—can be incredibly traumatic. A lot of the women I see in my surgery have not been believed but should be. I believe them very much when they tell me their stories.
I would like the Minister to pass on to his Home Office colleagues that when women have been trafficked to this country in difficult circumstances, we should do everything in our power to make sure that they have sanctuary and safety here, even if they could not feel safe in the country they came from.
I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate on women’s work to defend human rights globally, and for pointing out, in her well-informed and comprehensive speech, the importance of the path set by the suffragettes in the UK to secure votes for women.
In the spirit of celebrating human rights defenders, as this debate seeks to do, I want to pay tribute to the fact that across the world, as we have heard, ordinary women commit acts of great self-sacrifice in the face of persistent abuse, threats to personal safety, persecution and violence, simply for standing up for what is right. All of us who believe in human rights, certainly in all western democracies, have a duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with those women and do all we can to support them. All states that believe in freedom should use every diplomatic means and avenue at their disposal to secure human rights for all—no ifs, no buts.
We should support all women who stand up for human rights in countries where women are seen as mere chattels—the legal property of their closest male relatives—such as in Saudi Arabia. Women all around the world are denied their basic human rights simply because they are women. We need to talk about that and learn more about it. I learned much from listening to the speech by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) about the situation in West Papua.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green referred to the appalling situation in Saudi Arabia. So-called wrongdoing in such regimes, such as women’s campaigning to be permitted to learn to drive, is sufficient to put one’s life in danger. We who believe in freedom must have the courage to stand up to those regimes and to support women, instead of turning a blind eye. We talk much in the west about the contribution of women in western societies, but we betray the women living under misogynistic regimes—such regimes are misogynistic, as the hon. Member for Leeds North Wests pointed out—where women have much lower status than men. We betray those women by staying silent about their plight.
We all welcome the recent decision of the Saudi regime to allow women to drive. According to some folk in Saudi, the lifting of the ban is controversial since they believe that it will lead to women becoming promiscuous. But we need to remember what we heard from the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green: in the month before the ban was lifted last year, more than a dozen female activists who had campaigned for the right to drive were rounded up and put in jail. At least nine of them remain in prison. The families of the activists say that they have been tortured and put in solitary confinement for long periods. No formal charges have been brought against the women, only a series of allegations of their having been involved in a foreign plot against the Government.
It has been pointed out to me—and to many of us, I am sure—that we should have a care for cultural sensitivities. I am sure that we are all in favour of being mindful of cultural sensitivities, but we must not be complicit with our silence about a regime that believes that women are not equal to men in any sense. They are not allowed to go out unless they are accompanied by their male owners, and they can be cruelly treated and imprisoned for having the temerity to hope to be seen as individuals in their own right, rather than the possession of a man. We must not be silent about that in the name of cultural sensitivities. When we are silent in the face of others being repressed, we become a friend of the oppressor, or perhaps even a useful idiot for the oppressor if we continue relations with that state as though it were not a tyrannical regime. That simply will not do.
There is deep concern about reports of the torture and ill treatment of detained women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. They have been imprisoned since mid-2018 solely for peacefully campaigning for the protection and promotion of human rights, including women’s rights. Some were detained incommunicado, with no access to their families or lawyers during the first three months of their detention, and were subjected to chilling smear campaigns by state media. They all remain without access to legal representation.
Recent reports have emerged that some of the detained women activists have been subjected to electric shocks, flogging, sexual threats and other forms of torture. Testimonies recount that the abuse has left some of the women unable to walk or stand properly, with uncontrolled shaking and marks on their bodies. At least one of them has attempted suicide on several occasions. Those women have long been advocating for Saudi women’s right to drive, have called for an end to the discriminatory male guardianship system and have peacefully campaigned for greater respect for human rights. For that, they risk being tried and sentenced before the specialised criminal court, the country’s counter-terrorism court.
In 2016 the United Nations Committee Against Torture, in its second periodic report on Saudi Arabia, expressed concern at the application of terrorism legislation through the specialised criminal court, which enables the criminalisation of acts of peaceful expression considered as “endangering national unity” or
“undermining the reputation or position of the State”.
Those regulations have been used to try human rights defenders for exercising their fundamental rights. They violate international standards for the right to a fair trial and have enabled the authorities to detain individuals without providing them with access to legal representation during the investigation phase.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women further recommended in March 2018 that the Saudi state should facilitate women’s access to justice and institutionalise legal aid that is accessible, sustainable and responsive to the needs of women. If it were not so serious, it would be laughable that Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council. As such, it is obligated to uphold the highest standards for the promotion and protection of human rights, and to co-operate fully with the Council’s mechanisms. However, the Saudi Government have been largely unco-operative with the Council and continue to exhibit a flagrant disregard for fundamental freedoms.
My concern is that the international community seeks to stay on good terms with this rich and powerful regime at any cost, and the Saudi Prince knows that. Where is the motivation for Saudi Arabia to care about international opinion? I urge the Minister and the UK Government to lead attempts to bring pressure to bear on the Saudi Government to persuade them that their action is simply incompatible with civilised, modern codes of behaviour. Halting UK arms sales to a country that deals in terror, killing and oppression would be a good start. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), that would immediately benefit the people of Yemen.
It is worth noting that the Saudi Government require visiting reporters to be accompanied by a Government minder. That really says it all. I want to challenge the UK Minister to urge the UK Government to lead support for all women human rights defenders in the international community, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central pointed out, our constituents really care about these matters.
I apologise for being late—my plane was delayed and I ran the whole way here, so I am still catching my breath. Women have been at the forefront of the defence of human rights for many years, such as Maud Kells from Northern Ireland, who has spent 50 years providing maternity care for Congolese women, even after she was shot by a bandit while in the missionary hospital she helped to found. Women like her deserve recognition and the utmost respect. That is what this debate is all about: giving women the recognition that they rightly deserve.
I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is amazing that such women are ordinary women, who are doing extraordinary things in some of the most barbaric conditions and regimes.
Women human rights defenders not only face the challenges and attacks suffered by male human rights defenders, but suffer more due to the historical and structural inequalities in power relations and discrimination. They suffer heightened risks and acts of violence because of their gender and the specific, often marginalised, human rights issues they work on. For example, women human rights defenders are more likely to experience sexualised smear campaigns, sexual assault and rape, including at police stations. Targeting of their children also takes place. There is also sometimes marginalisation within their own movements and communities, which must be extremely difficult to bear.
That is why this debate is important. We cannot forget—we must not forget—the struggles and risks faced by women human rights defenders. They stand up to repression, barbarity and cruelty every single day, risking everything to have the kinds of rights and freedoms that we in the west take for granted. They must not be forgotten, no matter how rich, powerful or important the state perpetrating the oppression happens to be. It is right that we celebrate them, salute their courage and stand beside them in their struggle. I look forward to hearing how the Minister intends to put the UK at the forefront of those efforts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for bringing this important debate to the House and for her comprehensive introduction to the subject. She gave a thorough guide to women’s activism worldwide and at home—from women campaigning against a Saudi driving ban, to the protests against the utterances of the incumbent of the White House. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—they are a small but select group, as might be expected at this time of day following a break. No Westminster Hall debate would be complete without an intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I thank him for that.
As we have heard, women human rights defenders around the world work tirelessly to challenge violence against women, to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to create economic justice for women. While women doing that work face the same threats as other human rights defenders, including surveillance, false charges and violence, they also face, as I think every Member has said, threats due to their gender.
Women human rights defenders encounter intensified threats when their work challenges male dominance in society. Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, highlighted that when he presented his report to the Human Rights Council. He said:
“In the current political climate, in which there is a backlash against human rights, women who defend and promote rights are often the first to come under attack”.
His report shows how the rise in misogynistic, sexist and homophobic speech by political leaders in recent years has normalised violence against women human rights defenders. In some cases, those acting on behalf of states have engaged in direct attacks against women defenders and their families.
The special rapporteur’s report said:
“In many countries, women who dare to speak out for human rights are stigmatised and called bad mothers, terrorists or witches, silenced and marginalised from decision making and can even be killed. It is particularly worrying that the hostility they face comes not only from state authorities, but also the media, social movements, their own communities and even their family…Public shaming, attacks on women’s honour and their reputation…publishing their personal details on the internet, sexual violence and attacks against their children and loved ones are used to silence women human rights defenders”.
The report notes that women face the same risks as men defending human rights, but it makes clear that women defenders face additional and different threats that are shaped by entrenched gender stereotypes and ingrained social perceptions of women. The special rapporteur stated:
“We have documented how the obstacles and risks faced by women human rights defenders are shaped by their gender. Women are attacked for promoting and protecting human rights simply because of their identity as women and because of what they do”.
The report raises alarm about the increasing number of states that have been restricting civil society space and imposing legal and administrative requirements that curtail the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association and peaceful assembly. In some countries, women’s rights defenders have been targeted for promoting women’s human rights, including the right to equality and to sexual and reproductive health.
The special rapporteur expressed serious concern at the increasing use of the concept of gender ideology, which is presented in various parts of the world, and especially in Latin America and eastern Europe, as an attempt by feminists and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights defenders to destabilise the social and political order. He stressed:
“There are no short cuts to reversing this deplorable situation. We must dismantle harmful gender stereotypes and radically reimagine social constructs of gender to prevent the domination and marginalisation of women…States and international organisations must recognise the specific challenges and risks women defenders face. They must ensure that such defenders are recognised, supported and enabled to participate equally, meaningfully and powerfully in the promotion and protection of human rights”.
It is also important to mention UN Security Council resolution 1325, which highlights the importance of women’s voices and involvement in achieving and keeping peace. In 2000, the Security Council formally acknowledged through the creation of resolution 1325 the changing nature of warfare, with civilians increasingly targeted and women continuing to be excluded from participation in peace processes. The resolution specifically addresses how women and girls are differentially impacted by conflict and war and recognises the critical role that women can and already do play in peacebuilding efforts. It affirms that peace and security efforts are more sustainable when women are equal partners in preventing violent conflict, delivering relief and recovery efforts, and forging lasting peace.
Each of the resolution’s mandates relates to one of the four basic pillars of participation, protection, prevention, and relief and recovery. Participation calls for increased participation of women at all levels of decision making, including in national, regional and international institutions; in mechanisms for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict; in peace negotiations; in peace operations, as soldiers, police, and civilians; and as special representatives of the UN Secretary-General. Protection calls specifically for the protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence, including in emergency and humanitarian situations such as refugee camps. Prevention calls for improving intervention strategies in the prevention of violence against women, including by prosecuting those responsible for violations of international law, strengthening women’s rights under national law, and supporting local women’s peace initiatives and conflict resolution processes. Relief and recovery calls for the advancement of relief and recovery measures to address international crises through a gendered lens, including by respecting the civilian and humanitarian nature of refugee camps and considering the needs of women and girls in the design of refugee camps and settlements.
ActionAid UK has demanded that Governments and donors urgently scale up efforts and resources to support the leadership of women human rights defenders and to protect their rights, and cease to condone the rise in violence, whether through harmful action or no action at all. It asks the UK Government to recognise, champion and prioritise women human rights defenders and to support and increase resources to protect the rights of civil society, including women’s rights organisations and defenders.
The UK Government should defend those rights and hold Governments and other powerful actors to account, and they should actively resist and challenge reversals of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights by Governments within the UN and other key global policy forums. They should introduce mandatory gender-sensitive human rights due diligence for UK companies to ensure that they identify, prevent and mitigate rights violations in their supply chains and linked to their activities, including against women human rights defenders who are challenging abuse. They should also permit access to effective remedy, in line with UN guidelines on business and human rights.
Amnesty International has asked the UK Government to hold meaningful consultations with women human rights defenders in the development of their foreign policy and development programmes. Importantly, we should recognise the vital role of defenders in contributing to progress on the sustainable development goals, especially goal 5 on gender equality and goal 16 on access to justice. I fully support those asks of the UK Government, and would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that.
In December last year, Lord Ahmad announced at an event to mark Human Rights Day that Foreign and Commonwealth Office internal guidance on supporting human rights defenders would be made public, which is welcome. Will the Minister confirm when that guidance will be made public, as promised in December last year?
In conclusion, if we want to make the world better for women and girls, we must acknowledge and celebrate those who defend women’s human rights every day. We must defend the defenders.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate. She mentioned the scourge of the misuse of social media and the internet, and a further report by Amnesty International identifies that those most at risk of being abused on social media—whether Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere—tend to be women, because it is used as a way of trying to silence them. We heard about the unacceptable situation faced by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). She is by no means unique, but the sheer volume of that abuse could be the focus of a further long debate. We all have concerns about the idea of regulating, or introducing too much compliance to, the internet, and we believe that free speech is an element of a free society, but, equally, the shocking level of abuse has, unfortunately, cautioned so much political debate, and it will continue to do so unless some sort of code—whether voluntary or otherwise—is introduced. That is probably an issue for further debate, but it reflects the challenges faced by human rights defenders, especially women.
I am grateful for the contributions by other hon. Members, who eloquently described the impact of women human rights defenders locally, nationally and internationally, and I will begin with a quote from a human rights defender that goes to the heart of this debate. Sara Landeros is one of a number of women human rights defenders the Foreign and Commonwealth Office profiled on social media last year to mark the 20th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders and to give them a platform to talk about their work. Ms Landeros’s organisation provides legal representation for persecuted human rights defenders in Mexico. She said:
“As a defender, you don’t have the right to give up. When you are defending victims, you have to be strong. If they, as victims, have not stopped, then you have to keep going too, for them.”
That kind of selfless commitment and dedication lies behind everything that human rights defenders do day in, day out, as they work tirelessly to defend the rights of others who are often voiceless in society.
Human rights defenders often operate in the most difficult environments, and by exposing issues that the powerful would prefer to keep hidden, their work puts them in constant danger. They or their families could face discrimination, violence or, at the very worst, death. That is what happened to Berta Cáceres, who bravely stood up for the rights of an indigenous group in Honduras against a proposed hydroelectric dam project. She paid for that with her life, and it has taken five years for those responsible to be held to account. Tragically, Berta’s murder is by no means unique, and many others have been killed for standing up to those in power. Many others face similar threats.
In some cases, the threats that women face are the same as those faced by their male counterparts, including surveillance, false accusations and physical arrest. For example—this was raised by the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Hornsey and Wood Green—we are deeply concerned about Saudi women activists who have been detained. The British Government, including the Prime Minister, have lobbied consistently on behalf of women human rights defenders who are currently in detention in Saudi Arabia, and asked for them to be given due process, for allegations of torture to be properly, fully, publicly and independently investigated, and for those responsible for any alleged abuse to be prosecuted. British Embassy officials have continued to request to observe each and every trial session and have unfailingly, quietly behind the scenes, advocated the importance of the right to freedom of speech and a fair trial. Sadly, however, many of those women remain in jail facing unclear charges.
Women are also exposed to particular risks by virtue of being women. Those range from sexual abuse and harassment—several Members have raised that issue—to domestic abuse and hostility in the workplace. In such circumstances, it takes even more courage, strength and resilience to stand up to the powerful.
What is the proposed action if Saudi Arabia does not comply with the discussions through the back channels? Such discussions are correct and part of diplomacy, but we are facing a crisis. What could be done differently to promote a just solution for not just women but all those facing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia—a country with which we do so much business?
If I may, I will say a little more about that later. I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that the Floor of the Chamber is probably not the right place for me to make up policy on the hoof, but there are clearly grave concerns, and perhaps I can write to her in due course to explain some of the steps we intend to take in that regard.
We are all proud of those women who stand up day after day, proving time and again that their words and work have a real impact in righting wrongs and creating a more equal and just society. It is therefore right to honour them in this debate, and the Government—indeed, I am sure, all Members of the House—unequivocally support them.
Protecting and promoting human rights is a cornerstone of our work in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although it often means engaging in difficult conversations, both publicly and privately, with a variety of Governments with whom we have strong diplomatic relationships. We are fortunate to work with and support courageous women, such as Rebeca Gyumi, who succeeded in raising the legal age of marriage for boys and girls in Tanzania. In recognition for her work, she was awarded the UN human rights prize. She is still hard at work in Tanzania and working with the British high commission there.
In Jakarta, Indonesia, we used our Chevening alumni programme fund to raise awareness among young people about sexual harassment. The project implementer is a former Chevening scholar, who is now a prominent human rights defender and lawyer focusing particularly on gender and equality. She and tens of thousands of other women human rights defenders around the world dedicate their time, efforts and energy to helping others; they deserve our gratitude and support.
Throughout 2019, the UK will increase the transparency of our support for such human rights champions. We will work with like-minded partners—Governments, NGOs and others—around the globe to support and uphold human rights.
We all have concerns about how Saudi Arabia treats women and human rights defenders. Given that we are aware of the barbarity of the Saudi regime—notably, that it appears to have no qualms about bombing innocent civilians in Yemen—is the Minister comfortable with the UK continuing to sell arms to such a blood-thirsty regime?
The situation in Yemen is far more complicated than the hon. Lady puts it. I could rehearse the issues that have resulted in the civil war in Yemen. As she is aware, there are the most rigorous arms control codes in place, which have been adhered to by all UK Governments for the last 20 years. All Ministers take the issue extremely seriously. I can assure her that there are opportunities, challenges and responsibilities in signing off any arms sales, and there are strict criteria, in UK and international law, to which we adhere.
I have talked about our bilateral work, but we also work multilaterally through the UN. The UK is working with partners to strengthen the resolve of the international community to support women human rights defenders. A year ago, we committed £1.6 million to support efforts to get more women participating in peace processes, as mediators and peace builders, across the Commonwealth. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) is right that that is an important part of the process. The UN is continually aware of the issue through Security Council resolution 1325. It is trying to raise interest across the globe and to create female advocates, who will make a real difference.
Working with partners means continuing to work with the many thousands of non-governmental organisations that share our human rights values and objectives, a number of whom have been referred to during the debate. They are the experts; it is their expertise and passion, alongside that of Governments, that helps to deliver change. They also support the human rights defenders on the frontline of human rights.
We are actively supporting women’s political participation because we recognise that political empowerment gives women the opportunity to share their views, to challenge the status quo and to make informed decisions. That is why women’s empowerment is at the heart of the Department for International Development’s latest “Strategic Vision for Gender Equality”, which was launched last year. That strategic vision aims to build gender equality from the ground up through the education, employment and empowerment of women and girls, including in conflict, crises and humanitarian emergencies.
Let me touch on the specific points that were brought up in the debate. I hope Members will forgive me if I do not fully answer all of them, and I will respond in writing if necessary. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked when the Government intend to publish the UK guidelines on working with human rights defenders. The guidelines are an internal document to help diplomatic staff in our embassies and high commissions to support human rights defenders. We have worked with NGOs to update the guidelines, and Lord Ahmad agreed in December to make UK support for human rights defenders more transparent. We intend to publish a document setting out UK support for human rights defenders in 2019, in consultation with NGOs. We hope to have something published within the next few months, but I am sure the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton will remind me about it later in the year if we have not had a final publication. We will be as transparent as we can be, but Members will appreciate that parts of the toolkit involve sensitive discussion, and it would not be wise to publish the rules and regulations in their entirety.
I will be facing the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) again tomorrow, at the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) about West Papua. I know the subject is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart, and I would not wish to belittle it; he has been passionate about it since his pre-parliamentary days, as he has made clear. I hope that debate will give us the opportunity to cover the situation in depth. He made some powerful points about particular female human rights defenders in West Papua.
I must confess I have nothing specific to say in response to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I think she recognised that her concerns were more of an issue for the Home Office, so I will pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration and try to get that sorted out. On a personal note, the hon. Lady may be aware that one of my great British political heroes is Andrew Bonar Law, who was Member for Glasgow Central in the days when it was a safe Conservative seat—I think the business folk had something to do with that. Ironically, during his time in the House, just over 100 years ago, the great debate was about women’s rights to vote. He was quite a liberal on that matter, although he went on to be a Conservative Prime Minister. I think he would have been proud that the hon. Lady is the first female Member of Parliament—the first of many, I am sure—for that historic seat in the centre of that great Scottish city.
I promised the hon. Members for Hornsey and Wood Green and for North Ayrshire and Arran that I would mention Saudi Arabia, and I will write to them if there are more specific points I can address. They asked what actions the Government are taking in regard to the continued detention of women human rights defenders. We are concerned about that situation in Saudi Arabia, and we are monitoring it closely. Concerns are consistently raised by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary when they deal with the Saudi authorities at the highest level. I will make similar representations. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green may be aware, I am also interim Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, so I will endeavour to raise these issues in future conversations with the Saudi ambassador to London.
Concerns have also been raised through the UN. The UK was a signatory to the joint statement published at the UN Human Rights Council on 7 March, which expressed significant concerns about the situation. We are deeply concerned about the allegations of torture and have raised that directly with the Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, particularly because of the death penalty, its restrictions and clampdowns on women’s rights, and broader issues about freedom of expression, of assembly and of religion and belief.
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton asked about business and human rights, and what we are doing to better human rights practices. We are committed to focusing on business and human rights through the promotion of the UN guiding principles. She is quite right to identify the importance that we rightly attach to issues around sustainable development goals 5 and 16. We also wish to utilise as many diplomatic skills as we can in relation to legislative and non-legislative measures to protect against, and provide remedies for, human rights abuses by business. The UK was proud to be the first country in the world to produce a national action plan responding to the UN guiding principles on this matter. We have since encouraged other states to draft their own national action plans. We were also the first country to produce an update to that plan, in 2016. We regard those guiding principles as the authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing the risks of adverse human rights impacts on business. We will continue to promote those principles.
Thank you for giving me a little leeway on time, Mr Evans. We have had a little time on our hands, and it is fair to say that, while the debate will not fully take up its 90 minutes, there is no lack of passion from those who are here. As the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton pointed out, the debate is on the first day back after a break, when people are making their way back to London, and that has affected the quantity of debate, if not its quality.
We have heard practical examples of the ways in which women human rights defenders can and do transform lives. That is why we should all be proud that the UK remains committed to helping women all over the world to feel safe and protected in the work they do, so that they can speak freely and be part of the change we all want. I speak for not just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but, I hope, everyone in Parliament when I say that we want a world in which all people are treated with fairness and dignity, and in which those fighting to improve human rights can do so without fear of discrimination, violence or retaliation. Let us take all our inspiration from women such as Sara Landeros. If she is determined to keep fighting on for that better world, we must do the same. The Government and, I am sure, Parliament are committed to doing that.
I thank the Minister for what he said at the end of his speech. I am pleased about his commitment to do what he can to bring forward the internal document on supporting human rights defenders. I am also pleased that Lord Ahmed has said that there have been moves to make the approach to human rights in general more transparent, and that in-depth consultation is going on with NGOs about bringing forward the document. I know that Members of this House will be keen to see that, and perhaps even to have a debate on it at the relevant time.
I was pleased that the debate introduced two crucial issues not mentioned in my opening speech. The first was the dire situation of women with urgent health needs in West Papua. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) said, we believe that this is the first time that aspect of human rights in West Papua has had such a platform in the UK Parliament. I am pleased that we shall be able to explore it in even more depth in tomorrow’s debate on West Papua.
The second issue is something emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who is herself a role model, as a woman shadow Minister—I note that the Government have only one woman on their Foreign Office Front-Bench team, but we live in hope that more will be appointed. There is an opportunity now, as the Minister is currently doing two jobs. Perhaps a woman could do one of them for him. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton spoke about UN Security Council resolution 1325, the importance of the picture of conflict, and how much more at risk women human rights defenders are in those conflicts. She mentioned the need to design refugee camps specially to protect women. Often it is women human rights defenders in the camps who make the case for that, in Yemen or in Libya, where there are terrible detention camps for refugees fleeing conflict in Africa.
The lives of many girls and women are phenomenally disrupted by conflict, which changes things for them very much, but out of that, occasionally, wonderful women leaders might arise, to be part of the excellent programme now being put in place by the UN under resolution 1325. That work involves promoting women in human rights as part of the peace process, and putting the case for them to be at the table, as my hon. Friend said. Then there will be women who are able to express, in a unique way, with passion and clarity, what other women face in difficult situations around the world.
I hope that we can have a further debate once the principles of the human rights picture are put forward by the FCO.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered celebrating the work of women human rights defenders globally.
Universal Credit Helpline
It is good to see so many hon. Members here today for the debate, which is due to begin now, on the topic of the universal credit helpline. I call Danielle Rowley to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the universal credit helpline.
Thank you very much, Mr Evans. I am very pleased that this debate has been granted and to serve under your chairship.
We so often hear in this place about the devastating impact that universal credit has on people’s lives, and there is mounting evidence that those struggling to use this system are not getting the help that they need, so I think it is very important that today we discuss some of the issues and look at how we can work to resolve them.
It is the duty of the Government to support people who are struggling with universal credit, including those who, for many good and valid reasons, are not able to access the digital element of universal credit. I get in my office all the time constituents who are struggling to access the online system, for many different reasons. There might be financial barriers: they might not have a smartphone, or a computer at home, and they might not have the money to get the bus to their local jobcentre or library—indeed, those facilities may have been closed down. Those who struggle with digital access also include people with poor mental health, anxiety or disabilities; older people; people who are computer illiterate; and people with English as a second language.
I met with the Minister who is here today and I asked why the universal credit system was available only in English, because there are Syrian refugees in Midlothian who have struggled with the system, as English is not their first language. The Minister reassured me that it was available not only in English but in Welsh—I do not believe that that is helping people who really need this crucial support.
According to Citizens Advice, people who do not have online access are disproportionately likely to be disabled or to have a long-term health condition, and to be unemployed or on a low income. It is clear that the most vulnerable people will be the same people who will struggle to use a fully digital service and who will need extra support.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I welcome the fact that the helpline is at least now free, which it was not in the first place, but does my hon. Friend agree with me that there are far deeper problems and that actually the whole system needs to be looked at? Certainly in my constituency, universal credit is driving up debt, driving up rent arrears and driving up poverty for those in work and those out of work.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very important point. I campaigned for the helpline to be made free and also welcome the fact that it is now, but my hon. Friend is right: the system is driving vulnerable people into hardship. They must be given the right support and not be rushed off the phone and directed to the online system, yet in February we saw, from the leak of a deflection script being used in call centres, that that was what was happening; people were being rushed online.
The hon. Lady is pointing out challenges with universal credit. Does she agree that digital exclusion is already becoming a significant problem under universal credit? Many disadvantaged people do not have access to a computer or the internet, and even if they do, the application process is very difficult for them. Does the hon. Lady not think that the Minister should ensure that implied consent is part of the universal credit system, to rectify some of the problems?
The hon. Lady is right: there are many issues with this system, and digital exclusion is a huge one.
Since obtaining the deflection script documents, I have had discussions with a former case manager on the helpline, Mr Tarpley. I talked with him about how the leaked script comes across, and he explained to me that really it only hinted at how much it was expected of call handlers to deflect people online. He explained to me that if someone called and asked to make a change over the phone, they would be told no by default. No matter what reason the caller gave, whether disability, bereavement or lack of digital skills, they would always be asked the same questions: “Do you have a mobile device?”, “Do you have any friends or family who can help?” and “Can you get to the library?” Call handlers would be told to explain that there are computers at the jobcentre that can be used for free, but I have heard from constituents that often, when the jobcentre is very busy, that is not the case; they are not able to access that help.
The Minister knows about these issues, because I have written to him about them. Does the hon. Lady agree that, given the murky way in which universal credit is worked out, with staff members often not even having access to the payment plan, people being expected to hold on for hours on the phone for the information and then being told that there is no information is not acceptable? Does she agree that perhaps the Minister should be looking at ensuring that staff members are trained to the standard necessary to enable people to get the answers that they need, at the time that they need them?
That is a very important point. I will come on to staff and training.
The burden on the staff is a significant point as well. Bayard Tarpley told me:
“We were trained to never help callers on the phone unless it was going to lead to a manager call or complaint. If you did make the change, there was a risk of failing a ‘CEF’ check, in which a manager would listen to the call and rate it based on several elements of the call, with ‘following the deflection script’ being part of that criteria”.
Staff are being marked against deflecting people online. Some of that may now have changed, likely because of media coverage and pressure, but given the Government’s absolute lack of transparency on this issue, it is unclear what has changed, how much has changed and when changes have happened or are likely to happen, so I hope that the Minister will be clear today about those changes.
It is astounding that the Government thought that this was an appropriate strategy in the first place, and it raises very serious questions about how little consideration is given to the people’s experiences. I imagine that, in his response, the Minister might point to some of the different training that call handlers receive to assess and deal with vulnerable callers, but I have been told first hand that although call handlers are trained to do certain things, that does not necessarily happen in practice. How much of the training is actually being implemented by managers, or are managers being told to do things differently? Are they being monitored?
When hearing about these strategies, it is no surprise that in many cases people have not received the support that they need from the helpline. That jeopardises and delays people’s payments and financial stability, at times with significant implications for their mental and physical health. That is something that I see and that other hon. Members here today will often see with constituents in their offices.
Earlier this year, I spoke to Sky News about the deflection scripts that were shown to me by whistleblowers, and it covered the issue. Sky News also highlighted the case of Brian. He was put on universal credit at the beginning of 2018. In July, he died by suicide. He was 59. His daughter Leann spoke to Sky News and said:
“He couldn’t understand the system from the very start. He was told to go online and access his journal but he didn’t have a clue about the internet. He was constantly ringing up and asking for advice but was told to go online. It really got him down.”
When she saw the deflection script, she could not believe that that was happening, but it rang true given the experience that her father had had.
A constituent of mine used the helpline after questions in his journal went unanswered; the online system had seemed to fail him. He was asking, for example, why the money that he was entitled to was not coming through. On the multiple times that he called, he was told that his inquiry would be passed on and he would be phoned back. That did not happen. When contacting the UC helpline, the shortest hold time that he experienced was 20 minutes and the longest 42 minutes. That has been backed up by Citizens Advice, which has found that at points the helpline has had an average waiting time of 39 minutes. My office has had to intervene for that constituent on three occasions, as well as for many others. My constituent believes that the problems would not have been resolved through his own efforts without such intervention. It cannot be right that people are only treated with the respect that they deserve and given what they are entitled to when an MP’s office or another agency intervenes. What happens to people who cannot get to an MP’s office or access that extra help? Bear in mind that these are some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
The ability to challenge decisions made on UC claims is particularly important. Recent research by the Child Poverty Action Group showed that one in five cases in a UC monitoring project involved administrative errors by the Department for Work and Pensions, resulting, for example, in a claimant being paid the wrong amount. The significant stress people face in not being able to manage the UC process has huge implications for family life.
Exactly three months ago today, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions essentially admitted to Sky News that deflection had been a strategy used by the universal credit helpline. She said:
“We’re going to make sure it’s absolutely clear in the future, there shouldn’t be a deflection script strategy and I have taken control to make sure that’s the case.”
Although I welcome that change, I have not heard anything since about changes that will be made. It seems that the issue has been swept under the carpet, so it is important that we get the answers today.
I have pursued the issue of deflection for months, primarily because of the significant implications for people’s lives of not being able to get help over the phone. Macmillan Cancer Support welfare rights advisers have reported that people with cancer are often being redirected online. They have also said that there is inadequate training for helpline staff to cope with the specific concerns of cancer patients. One cancer patient claimant said:
“When I phone the numbers that they give me, they say they can’t deal with it. I’ve phoned them three times. This is causing me more stress than the cancer.”
We cannot have a situation where trying to get the help that the Government should be providing is causing people more stress.
The Government have been evasive with me throughout the discussion on the use of deflection. They have fobbed off my freedom of information request and denied that deflection exists, even in the face of clear evidence. They have ensured that they have not admitted in the House that deflection is taking place. I am still waiting for a reply to my letter on this subject to the Secretary of State dated 5 February. We have had to rely on leaks and whistleblowers to find out that these tactics have been used and their effect on people’s lives. That lack of transparency seems to run throughout the system. The Child Poverty Action Group’s report concluded:
“The combination of poor decision making and a system that is not transparent about how decisions have been made is causing significant hardship in people’s lives.”
I want to make it clear before I finish that none of the criticisms of universal credit, the way it is handled or the helpline are aimed at staff. Frontline DWP staff have some of the toughest jobs. They are under intense pressure. I believe they have a genuine desire to help people. However, they are working in a broken system, which must be criticised, condemned and changed. Families are turning to food banks. Working people are struggling to pay the bills. People with severe disabilities are being left without vital support.
The general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, who represents call centre workers, said:
“Our members would prefer to be given the resources and time to give a first class service to help claimants. However they are instructed to use this deflection script as a means to get people off the phones.
It is another example of a government who has failed to invest in staff and support claimants.”
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. The universal credit helpline is even more important because it is being used as back-up for journal entries, which are supposed to be the way that claimants are able to get questions answered during their claim. However, because it is the third trigger of the amount of work that staff have to do—after priorities zero, one and two—the helpline is picking up all these cases that should be answered by the journal, but there is just not enough staff to do that.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members—I am sad to see no Back-Bench Conservatives here—will be familiar with the experience of the journal letting people down, just like the helpline.
I have some questions for the Minister, which I hope he will answer. Will he take the opportunity to be clear about what happened in the Department leading to the development and implementation of a deflection script on the helpline? Will he apologise to claimants who have not received the support they deserve, often in times of great need, and to the whistleblowers on whom we have had to rely to expose these damaging practices?
Have any changes been made to the helpline since the Secretary of State said that there should not be a deflection-script strategy and that she had taken control to ensure that that was the case? If so, what changes have been made and what evaluation was carried out to inform those changes? When were those changes made, or when will they be made? What checks have been put in place to ensure that people receive the support that they need on the helpline and they are not deflected online? Does the Minister really believe that the helpline is sufficiently resourced and run, with the best interest of claimants in mind and staff being fully supported?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. As we saw at the start, you are characteristically generous when dealing with colleagues. I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) for raising this issue—I know she cares deeply about it. She has written to me, and I apologise that my response has not arrived yet. I signed that letter yesterday, so I hope she will receive it in the next 24 hours. She has also raised this issue in parliamentary questions and, in February, at DWP oral questions, when I responded to her. I will come on to that.
I will begin by setting out where we are in terms of universal credit. Universal credit rolled out to all jobcentres across the country last year. We now have 1.8 million people claiming this benefit. When we talk about support, it is worth pointing out that, over the last two Budgets, we have announced changes to universal credit worth an additional £6 billion—in particular to ensure that vulnerable claimants are supported in the transition to universal credit. That includes changes to work allowances worth an extra £1.7 billion a year. Those changes, which increase work allowances by £1,000, were brought in from April this year, providing a boost to the incomes of the lowest paid. That will result in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 per year of what they earn. I hope that underlines our learning and adapting approach.
We have always been clear that universal credit is primarily a digital service, which allows claimants to manage their own data and account online at a time that is convenient to them. Via their accounts, claimants can check their universal credit benefit payments, notify us of changes, and record notes via an online journal facility. Some activities still require a call from a claimant, as they are not yet automated, such as booking an appointment. The telephony channel remains an important part of our service offer.
The universal credit telephone helplines have been freephone numbers since the end of 2017. Claimants who call the universal credit helpline are connected directly to the person or team dealing with their case. We also have dedicated national service hubs, which provide telephony for third parties, such as landlords, welfare rights organisations and those citizens without a claim.
For those unable to access or use digital services—this is an important point—assistance to make and maintain their claim is available via the freephone universal credit helpline. The universal credit service centre will establish the best means of support for the claimant. We also provide comprehensive support for claimants who do not have digital skills or who do not have access to a computer. Support is provided in person in jobcentres and through the computers that are available for claimants to use, as well as through home visits for those unable to attend a jobcentre.
From April this year, we introduced a help to claim service delivered by Citizens Advice. This provides additional support for any claimant from point of entry to the first award of universal credit, and is available by phone, webchat and in person at local Citizens Advice outlets and jobcentres.
The hon. Lady asked about training. The DWP staff who service the universal credit helplines have a three-week facilitated learning period. That structured learning provides the skills and knowledge required to support them to answer claimants’ queries. For new universal credit helpline call handlers, the learning journey is broadly made up of soft skills such as customer service learning, which covers how to gather information through active listening; equality and diversity training; and bespoke IT system-based technical learning, all of which is supported by consolidation activity.
Colleagues receive ongoing learning in their roles alongside experienced case managers and have access to universal credit guidance, which is refreshed at regular intervals. We are committed to continuous improvement, and as part of that we regularly review call plans, service levels and intelligence to improve our offer and understand why claimants are calling.
The Minister may know that a jobcentre employee described universal credit as like being in a leaky boat: a leak springs up, and someone sticks their finger in the hole, but then a new hole appears, and they end up sprawled across the boat trying to block all the leaks. The holes are not the problem though; it is the boat. The Minister will know that many people and many groups in civil society believe that universal credit should be paused. Will he think about pausing it so that all the holes in the boat can be fixed?
I gently say to the hon. Lady that I visit jobcentres, as do my ministerial colleagues, and that is not the feedback that we receive from people on the frontline. In terms of pausing universal credit, we have been rolling it out across the country since December, and we have been clear that it will be the main welfare provision for the country in future.
To return to the universal credit helpline, when someone calls it they are presented with a series of options to select from. They are then put through to the agent best placed to answer their inquiry. All further triage is done through conversations to establish the claimant’s needs. There are 26 service centres across the country that aim to support people with their universal credit claim.
We have between 5,000 and 7,500 staff answering calls in our service centres to support our customers. An important point in terms of the statistics—I would not want any hon. Member to be in any doubt that we are making a big effort when it comes to supporting people over the phone—is that, in March, we answered about 1.3 million calls to the universal credit full service helpline.
The hon. Member for Midlothian talked about waiting times. In March, the average waiting time for a call to be answered was two minutes 43 seconds. In February, the average duration of a call to the UC helpline was just over six minutes. I hope she will appreciate that it is not about rushing people off the lines but about providing support to them.
As I said earlier, the hon. Lady raised this issue in parliamentary questions on 11 February. I reiterate what I said to her then, which is that she has already been sent a copy of the universal credit digital channel document. She talked about FOI requests, but she already has that document, which is what DWP staff use as a guide when taking calls from claimants. She will be aware that the document says clearly that staff must use a common-sense and sensitive approach in resolving queries ahead of any digital discussion. Again, I want to be absolutely clear that there is no intention to deflect and there are no targets for getting claimants to use a digital channel.
The hon. Lady made several other points, including about supporting people who struggle with English or Welsh. We have an interpreting service available for those with language barriers. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of people being held on the phone and not being given an answer. We regularly review service levels on the UC helpline to improve our offer. If we cannot answer a question, we will call the claimant back.
The Minister says that the universal credit helpline is there and that staff are not necessarily trying to direct people on to digital platforms, but the complaints procedure for universal credit cannot be undertaken by phone—people are simply directed to make a complaint online. Those who struggle with online access are unable to do the very basic thing of making a complaint when they have a problem with the online service or the helpline. How does that square with his commitment that people are not being directed online? Will he make sure that people can make a complaint over the phone?
When a conversation takes place between a DWP staff member and a complainant, of course there is the opportunity for the staff member to answer the question. There are standard procedures when people want to make complaints. The hon. Lady takes a deep interest in such matters, and she knows that if any of her constituents ever have such an issue, she can write to me. I understand that, and it is incumbent on us, as Ministers, to make sure that we provide a response. In terms of the statistics that I have put out there, however, I hope she will appreciate that DWP staff make a huge effort to answer phone calls and deal with them sensitively. She also made a point about journal entries. The journal is available 24/7 for claimants to communicate with their work coach. That was not available under the legacy system.
DWP colleagues are fully committed to supporting claimants through a range of channels, and we are clearly making progress in the support we provide. In our latest claimant survey, which was published in January, four out of five people were satisfied with the support they had received when claiming universal credit, which is broadly consistent with satisfaction levels in legacy benefits. Satisfaction levels are high, and the vast majority of claimants who use the telephony system found staff to be helpful and polite. Of course, I acknowledge that we want and need to continue to make progress and improve further so that everyone claiming universal credit gets the support they rightly deserve.
In conclusion, if hon. Members raise individual cases with me, I hope, again, that they will find that the Department and I are open and that we acknowledge when we have made mistakes.
Question put and agreed to.
China: UK policy
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK policy towards China.
It is my honour and privilege to lead this debate. I must start by declaring an interest. Last year I was pleased to visit China as part of a delegation from the all-party parliamentary group on China, very ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and superbly well organised by Saki Reid, the all-party group’s administrator. That visit is one of the reasons I called for this debate—not the only reason, but one of them.
My simple proposition is that our policy approach to China should rest on three pillars: expertise, realism and wisdom. To start with expertise, it is important that we exert every effort institutionally to understand and gain expertise about modern-day China, and about the remarkable scale of the impact that its recent rise will have on all of us and on our children. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping started his reform and the opening-up of China, at least 600 million people have been lifted out of poverty. China’s GDP has risen from $150 billion in 1978 to $12 trillion last year. China now has a defence budget of $228 billion, which is second only to that of the United States. The rise of China and the growth of its economy is the single biggest event shaping global politics today, and indeed shaping issues such as climate, for example. It is therefore our duty to gain expertise in order to understand that.
The scale of the impact of the rise of China can be seen in, for example, Chinese pork consumption. That is perhaps an unexpected example, but it provides an interesting insight—the scale of China’s impact on the world can often be seen in areas that one does not necessarily think about. Since the 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping put in place agricultural reforms, among other reforms, the scale of Chinese pork consumption has risen sevenfold. China now consumes almost 500 million pigs annually, which is actually half of the global production of pigs—I am quoting from an excellent report by The Economist.
That increase in consumption is about more than just calorific impact; it is also about the symbology of the new Chinese middle class being able to enjoy pork, which their parents were unable to do, and that represents a triumph over hardship that is part of the Chinese story. Also, the scale of that consumption has significant consequences for climate change. Water and accessible and available land are so scarce in China that it does not grow enough pig-feed to feed all those pigs, so more than half of all global feedstuffs goes to feeding Chinese pigs.
That has an impact all the way around the globe, because 1 kg of pork requires 6 kg of feed, mainly soy or corn, and whole swathes of what had been Amazonian rainforest in Brazil and other countries are now given over to the production of soya beans that are purely for Chinese pigs. In Brazil, more than 25 million hectares of land are used to cultivate soy. China is not one of the countries that has signed up to the soy roundtable, which is a group of countries that have agreed not to consume pigs fed on soya beans cultivated on newly deforested land.
As the hon. Gentleman is talking about international matters, does he agree that we should also be mindful of the human rights abuses in Tibet when we are thinking about trading with China? I think that is a very important issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I entirely agree that, along with climate change and other important global impacts, we should certainly consider human rights when thinking about our relationship with China. I look forward to having a free and frank discussion about human rights later in the debate.
The environmental impact of the rise of China is absolutely huge. I gave the example of pork consumption because it provides quite a good mechanism for understanding the significance of the rise of China.
It is also important to understand the historical context of China’s re-emergence as a global power, and that is exactly what it is; what we have seen over the past 40 years is not the emergence of China as a global power, but the re-emergence. Until the first opium war in 1842, China was indeed a serious global player, and in Chinese eyes the century between that war and the victory of Mao Zedong in 1949 represents a century of humiliation, which they are now trying to put behind them. That is especially the case because, in addition to the degradations of the opium wars, following the first world war Chinese ports such as Qingdao were handed to the Japanese. That humiliation is keenly felt in China even today.
It is really important to understand that historical context, because it is a central part of the new doctrine of China that has replaced the quiet rise under Deng Xiaoping. The new doctrine of Xi Jinping is much more assertive and seeks to return China to what it regards as its historically rightful place as an assertive and outward-looking global power. Xi Jinping has himself describes this new era as “the Chinese dream”, not least at the 19th party congress in 2017. That must guide our thinking about China, and we therefore need to be very realistic.
The second pillar of the approach that I am proposing is therefore realism. We must be very clear and realistic in our understanding of what is driving the new doctrine of Chinese engagement with the world, because Xi Jinping, as well as seeking to return China to its historically rightful status, has reaffirmed the absolutely central role of the Chinese Communist party in the affairs of the Chinese state. This is about the party having absolute control not only domestically, but in relation to engagement abroad.
In seeking to understand the absolute priority placed on the role of the Chinese Communist party, it is useful to quote the evidence that Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, gave to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which, as Members will know, recently produced an excellent report on China. Rudd, who is a noted sinologist, was talking about the central role of the party in Xi Jinping’s China. As quoted in the Committee’s report, he said:
“[W]hat are the core priorities of Xi Jinping’s Administration at home and abroad? They intersect in this institution called the Party. The interest of the Chinese political leadership is for the Party to remain in power. That is the No. 1 priority, the No. 2 priority and the No. 3 priority.”
When we consider China’s foreign policy and its engagements with the rest of the world, we need to understand the absolute priority placed on the role of the CCP. We need to bear that in mind when we understand the belt and road initiative, or Chinese defence policy and the rapid, and quite alarming, increase in that country’s naval capabilities—as a member of the Defence Committee, I have called for an inquiry into that. We also need to bear it in mind when we consider China’s treatment of Hong Kong and of Muslim Uyghurs and other minority religious groups, and its attitude towards human rights more broadly.
The absolute priority placed on the role of the CCP also drives China’s attitude towards domestic interference, which we in this country have experienced. I recommend to Members Charles Parton’s excellent report for the Royal United Services Institute. That report lays out the range of influence, moving towards interference, that China has carried out in this country, particular with regard to academia. It is certainly food for thought.
When we consider our response, we must be clear and realistic. We must ground our relations with the Chinese state in a keen understanding of the risks, as well as the opportunities, of dealing with it. Of course, there are clear benefits—we have to be very clear about that. Our commercial relationship alone is worth some £68.5 billion a year, and we should also be seeking positive relations through joint efforts to tackle climate change and deal with issues such as UN peacekeeping. There are significant positive areas that we should be focusing on; our challenge is to have the wisdom to know what is good and what is bad, and to be able to focus on the positives. We need to recognise and deal with the duality in the relationship.
We need what I call a two-handed approach. On one hand, we should be reaching out a hand of friendship, co-operation, and commercial exchange with our Chinese friends. On the other hand, we should be clearly delineating with red lines those areas that are off limits, including critical national infrastructure, over which we should have absolute sovereignty. That other hand should also call out domestic interference, if that is taking place, and call for reciprocal respectfulness. It should make clear our unwavering commitment to our own rule of law, which is not something we should ever put up for negotiation. In my view, dealing with China through our foreign policy is not a zero-sum game. We need to have nuance, flexibility and duality in our mind, which requires wisdom.
Someone who was very wise about China was, of course, Dr Henry Kissinger. He was better placed than most to understand the Chinese state. In his magnificent tome, “On China”, he calls for what he terms a “coevolution” through which China and the US, and by extension its western allies,
“pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict. Neither side endorses all the aims of the other or presumes a total identity of interests, but both sides seek to identify and develop complementary interests.”
I propose that that spirit should guide our relations with China, and those of our western allies. That doctrine precludes clumsy belligerence in the South China sea and requires an energetic China policy, based on expertise, realism and wisdom.
In conclusion, I will put three direct questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister. I would be grateful if he could explain what institutional effort is being made to increase the number of Mandarin speakers and other sinologists in the Foreign Office, because that is an issue of gaining sufficient institutional expertise and capacity. I would be interested in him describing in his own words what he understands the “golden era” to mean, in terms of the duality and balance in the relationship between the UK and China. Finally, I would be grateful if he could state what Britain’s ambition is for our relationship with China in a post-Brexit world.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who made an excellent case and covered quite a lot of areas I would like to cover.
I want to declare an interest: I went to China through the all-party parliamentary China group, although that was in September 2017, so it was a long time ago. As a result, I formed the all-party parliamentary group for the belt and road initiative and China-Pakistan economic corridor, which is working hard to get UK businesses involved in the multitrillion-dollar belt and road initiative.
I appreciate that the subject of this debate is wide ranging, but I will limit my remarks to the issue of international trade policy. The key question for UK trade policy towards China is how best to engage with the belt and road initiative, which is China’s signature foreign policy. Last week, I chaired a panel discussion on Britain, Brexit and the belt and road initiative. As we prepare to leave the world’s single largest trading bloc, I asked how post-Brexit Britain should respond to China’s BRI, the world’s biggest ongoing infrastructure project. If Britain is to take a lead as an upholder of the multilateral, rule-based system, we need to be asking ourselves that question. Estimates of China’s intended investment in the BRI range from $1 trillion to $8 trillion; it is a project on an unprecedented scale, yet UK awareness and understanding of it are very limited.
At the belt and road forum two years ago, the Chancellor described the UK as a “natural partner” in that project. It is true that this country is well placed to complement that initiative. There is a lot of scope for the UK’s strong legal, professional and technical services sectors to support the delivery of BRI projects. Britain also has deep historical ties with China, as well as with key BRI partner countries, such as Pakistan. A project of that scale needs international co-operation and partnership, which is something we are well placed to provide. However, our international co-operation must be tied to a commitment to uphold human rights, as well as social and environmental protections. The hon. Member for Aldershot mentioned the Uyghur community in north-west China, as well as the significant role that China can play in climate change. That is really important.
Too often, we are offered two competing visions of China: the paranoid western image of China as a threat to the global order, often endorsed by advocates of Trump’s protectionism, or the image of China as a benevolent state, which is promoted by its state officials. If we are to cut through those narratives, we need to strengthen our multilateral institutions.
At the heart of the BRI is a spirit of mutual co-operation, but China can best embody that spirit by acting with more transparency, embedded in the rules-based international order. The UK can be at the forefront of that order by acting as a strong, independent voice on the global stage. In doing so, we can reject the failed doctrines of free trade orthodoxy and Trump’s tariff wars, to promote a just trade agenda.
In an era when unilateralism and protectionism are on the rise, it is more important than ever that we reject self-imposed isolation and explore fresh opportunities for UK businesses overseas. Under the right leadership, we can do that in a way that reflects our core values of mutual respect and shared prosperity. China should be no exception.
I will make a brief contribution. When I was appointed as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, I was called in by the Department for International Trade and told that I would have to develop my own personal policy in relation to China, as I was going to come into contact with the Chinese all the time. Nothing was more exact than that. They are everywhere; they are bidding for all the major infrastructure projects, and doing so in a largely transparent way. That provides an enormous opportunity for us if we can get the terms of the deals right.
It was made clear that it was up to me how that should be handled. Should I see the Chinese as the enemy, as opponents or as potential friends and allies? Because I am that sort of person, I wanted to see them as potential allies. However, doing so means identifying the areas in which we can establish projects with them where we can, effectively, be subcontractors to them.
Does it strike my hon. Friend as a little strange that he was given that advice?
I do not find it strange in the slightest. It was absolutely accurate. To echo my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), it is an example of a practical approach to dealing with the Chinese on the ground in an overseas country.
But does it not strike my hon. Friend as a little strange that a country that for 4,000 years was half the world’s GDP, and that as our hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) pointed out is reasserting its position now as a quarter of the world’s GDP and, by some standards, as the world’s largest economy, is one in relation to which our Department for International Trade believes it has to subcontract policy to a trade envoy?
No, I do not find that strange at all. It gives me the flexibility I need as the trade envoy to Nigeria to deal with the Chinese in the way that best suits the opportunities that are available. That is certainly what I have done.
As I was saying, I am a friendly sort of individual, and I would like to see relationships built with the Chinese. However, doing that is difficult for a number of reasons. First, I quickly found that, whatever the product is, it is often quite shoddy. Do we want to be associated with that? Secondly, I found that no projects can be changed without a reference back to Beijing. That makes it difficult to deal with the projects on the ground as flexibly as I would like. Nobody on the ground has the ability to make the decision.
The last thing that I found, which is by far the most important, is that the Chinese leave nothing behind. When they come over to do a project, they bring an army of people to do it. They do not involve the local community or leave behind anything in the way of knowledge transfer or anything tangible. That is so different from the approach of British companies. For example, Unilever, which I know is a hybrid company, has taken on board the modern slavery agenda, and has largely eradicated these problems from not only the company itself but its supply chain. I have met some of the individual non-governmental organisations that have been involved with that.
My overall feeling is that we should treat the Chinese with caution, and examine the details of projects carefully to ensure that we can add value to the local community. Otherwise, there is no point doing them. There is no point helping to develop a country if we cannot involve people in the project itself.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. As we consider our Government’s relationship with China, we must not lose our ability to speak openly and frankly about the actions of the Chinese Government. China’s prosperity is highly impressive, and China has developed innovative solutions on many fronts to bring unprecedented numbers of people out of extreme poverty. I am sure that all Members present agree that, whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, a strong relationship with China is essential. However, it is simultaneously necessary that we discuss areas where its Government may have fallen short of the standards that we expect of our trading partners and allies.
Last week, Ramadan began across the world. However, we have strong reason to believe that few of the Uyghur minority in Chinese eastern Xinjiang could practise their faith. In recent years, authorities have termed fasting a sign of extremism, dangerously conflating a mainstream religious practice with radicalism. Any sign of so-called extremism—such signs include wearing a veil, regular prayer and avoidance of alcohol—can lead to imprisonment in one of the huge internment camps that have been springing up across the region over the last few years.
I commented earlier on China’s record with regard to human rights, particularly in Tibet. These things have been going on since the 1950s, and we really have to focus on them.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.
Last week, official briefings by the Pentagon claimed that as many as 3 million people could be imprisoned in those detention centres. Although the exact numbers are open to debate, it is clear that an enormous number of people—at least 1 million—are being locked up against their will. We all want to have a trading relationship with China, but how can we ignore the fact that 1 million people are being detained? That is the minimum figure; the maximum could be 3 million.
Furthermore, although Chinese officials maintain that what they call “vocational training centres” do not infringe on the Uyghurs’ human rights, they have consistency refused to share further information about those detention centres and have prevented journalists from examining them. Where reports have escaped the camps, we have heard rumours of forced indoctrination, harsh discipline and even torture. Such claims are profoundly troubling. In January, I spoke in another Westminster Hall debate on this issue, and it is worrying that little seems to have been done. With little discernible action from the Government, we are left only with mounting estimates of the numbers who have been imprisoned.
Tragically, just as prisons are rising out of the desert, ancient buildings are reportedly being razed. While the world rightly mourned the damage to Notre Dame last month, few heard of the total erasure of another ancient building over the last year. Satellite pictures show that an 800-year-old mosque, the Keriya Aitika in south Xinjiang, appears to have been flattened, depriving people of an important piece of their cultural heritage. According to a detailed article in The Guardian today, two journalists have investigated and found that at least 24 places of worship have been erased, including Imam Asim’s shrine. Many people used to travel to that shrine three times a year, which was equivalent to completing the Hajj. It has been erased, and that is part of a wider demolition programme that appears to be being pursued across the province in an attempt to destroy its Muslim heritage.
Recent reporting also shows a more sinister element. The wider ecosystem of traditional policing and new technology is being used to construct what may be the world’s most heavily monitored area. On top of a growing network of police stations and the centrally planned roll-out of DNA profiling, Chinese start-ups are developing algorithms that track members of the Uyghur community, specifically targeting them to analyse their movements and assess the “threat” they pose. That is possibly a unique development—intentional mass racial profiling through artificial intelligence—and the technologies are no longer being used only in Xinjiang. The New York Times reported that law enforcement bodies in the central Chinese city of Sanmenxia ran a programme that screened whether residents were Uyghurs 500,000 times in a month. The dangers of such technologies cannot be overstated. While the rest of the world is waking up to the danger of unintentional bias in code, China’s Government are reportedly funding purposely discriminatory artificial intelligence. Ethical boundaries are being crossed with incredible speed.
There is also evidence that the issue does not just affect Uyghurs in China. Uyghur communities in Turkey, Pakistan and the US have stated that their family members have warned them against further contact for fear of persecution. Investigative research by Middle East Eye found that the World Uyghur Congress, a group that has represented Uyghurs at the UN, had apparently been put on a terrorist blacklist, yet hardly any country had made the case for that or asked for it.
Encroachments on freedom to travel, the ability to access funds and the right to remain in contact with one’s family are fundamental deprivations of the most basic rights. Clearly, these issues require robust responses, and there are a number of avenues that we should be pursing. More research needs to be done to understand which companies are involved in creating apps that are discriminatory by their very design. More broadly, our Government must provide more clarity over precisely what steps they are taking to provide Uyghurs with the support they need. Realpolitik claims that economic concerns should be prioritised are morally bankrupt and fail to face up to the enormity of the claims being made.
Perhaps the allegations are all false. Perhaps the satellite images and the other evidence are all made up. I am sure that the Chinese Government would want to dispel the rumours, and they can do so very simply. An independent group, whether led by a UN body, a human rights organisation or even a delegation of MPs, could be allowed to travel there to see first hand what is taking place. Unless that happens, we must recognise that moral lines may be being crossed that we can no longer ignore.
I have already asked this question once: what representations has the Foreign Office made to the Chinese authorities up to now? More importantly, what has their response been? Have they said, “This is all a load of rubbish. It is all made up. Come and have a look and we will show you what is really going on”? Will they allow an independent organisation to travel there to see? If China says that it is not doing any of this, and that these are false allegations, that is fine, but it must let an independent body in to have a look. That would also be beneficial to China, as it would dismiss the negative discussions taking place in our Parliament and in other places across the world.
The convention now seems to be that business interests are paramount in everything, but the human cost, and human rights, must come in somewhere. I am not comfortable that I can have a nice home—nice everything—at the expense of people in a number of countries we need to trade with who have no rights. That cannot be right. It is an immoral state of affairs. I ask our Government to find out if the allegations are correct. Whether they are or not, the Chinese Government should explain.
It will not surprise colleagues or the Minister that I want to focus on issues of human rights, persecution and freedom of religion or belief. I agree that we should reach out with a hand of friendship to China, but a true friend does not flinch from telling another what might be unpalatable truths. I welcome the assurances from the Foreign Secretary on 2 April that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been raising the issue of human rights abuses with China, and his assurances that it will
“raise those concerns with China at every opportunity.”—[Official Report, 2 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 916.]
However, I am concerned that that is simply not enough.
In June 2016, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which I have the privilege to chair, launched a report on human rights in China entitled, “The Darkest Moment: China’s Crackdown on Human Rights, 2013-16”. At the launch, an MP who knows China well expressed agreement with all our findings. His one criticism was with the title. It was, he said, premature: “It will get even darker.” From what I have observed over the past three years, he was right.
Last week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom published its 20th annual report. It is an independent, bipartisan, US federal Government commission. It monitors the implementation of the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world in accordance with international law standards, and it makes policy recommendations to the US Government.
In its 2019 report, it identifies the ever-deteriorating situation of different religious groups in China. I will mention a few of its findings. First, the Chinese Government continues to take steps
“to ‘sinicize’ religious belief”,
which not only diminishes or prevents the right to freedom of religion from being in anyway meaningful, but is also erasing
“the cultural and linguistic heritage of religious and ethnic communities”.
The groups mentioned as particularly affected are the Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims, about whom we have already heard today.
Secondly, in the summer of 2018, reports emerged that the Chinese Government were detaining hundreds of thousands, possibly up to 2 million Uyghur and other Muslims in Xinjiang, in so-called re-education camps, allegedly to address the issue of extremism. Continuing reports come from those camps of abuse, primitive living conditions and disappearances.
Thirdly, it reports that more than 900 Falun Gong practitioners were arrested in 2018 simply for practising their beliefs or distributing literature about Falun Gong. The Government have also raided or closed down hundreds of Protestant house churches, including Zion church, Rongguili church and the Early Rain Covenant church. I will go into a little more detail about this, if I may.
Churches are being destroyed. Christians are being arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Members of the family are under surveillance, Christians are forced to deny their faith and young pupils in schools are investigated for their religious backgrounds. In the case of the Early Rain Covenant church in the city of Chengdu, police arrested more than 100 of its members in December 2018, including the pastor, Wang Yi, and his wife, Jiang Rong. They are being charged for inciting subversion, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. A statement signed by 500 house church leaders says authorities have removed crosses from buildings, forced churches to hang Chinese flags and sing patriotic songs, and barred minors from attending. Indeed, one of the most disturbing issues in recent developments is that the Chinese regulations on religious affairs, which were implemented last year, banned five categories of people from attending church, including children under 18.
I know I have said some of this before, but I was interested to hear the Bishop of Truro being interviewed on Radio 4 on Sunday. He has just issued his interim report on the persecution of Christians worldwide—the interim report of the inquiry instituted by the Foreign Secretary himself—and has said that he is shocked by the scale, scope and severity of the persecution of some 250 million Christians worldwide. Almost 100 million are in China, and one of the things that I was interested in was that he said, “A lot of this has been out there, but it’s not really being heard.” That is why we have to keep repeating these issues.
Bob Fu, the founder of China Aid, told me last year that:
“Last year’s crackdown”—
“is the worst in three decades.”
The pastor of Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church, Huang Xiaoning, said:
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants to be the God of China and the Chinese people. But according to the Bible only God is God. The government is scared of the churches.”
The tragedy is that the authorities in China now see faith as a threat to their authority.
Those statistics are just the tip of an iceberg of issues that are identified in the report I have mentioned, and which are happening all over China. Many Members of this House will be aware of the Open Doors organisation, which produces a watch list of persecution across the world. It rates countries according to the level of persecution. In the 2019 list, which was launched in January, China jumped from 43rd place in 2018 to 27th. Bearing in mind what I have just said, I do not believe that that will change. If anything, I think China will make its way closer to the top of the list.
Open Doors emphasises the Chinese Government’s plans to contextualise the Bible to make it more culturally acceptable—in other words, to rewrite it. However, the Bible is a sacred text. We hear of Christian preachers who are being required to adapt their texts to include the core values of socialism, and to have their sermons pre-checked by the authorities before they deliver them. Facial recognition cameras are being placed in front of pulpits so that the authorities can check on who is attending services and ensure that no one from the five forbidden categories is there.
In October 2018, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China counted at least 1,422 prisoners of conscience in Chinese prisons, which does not include the mass detention of the Muslims in Xinjiang. The violations of human dignity that are involved in mass surveillance in China should cause us real concern. Apparently, 13 million Uyghurs are being monitored and watched in Xinjiang, often by smartphone technology and facial recognition cameras, as I have mentioned. An app is used by police to assess China’s integrated joint operations platform, or IJOP, which is a mass surveillance database gathering information from checkpoints on the street and in gas stations, schools and workplaces. It monitors individuals’ every action and triggers alerts to the authorities. Some of this very sophisticated intelligence can actually monitor the facial traits of categories of people such as the Uyghur Muslims.
A recent data leak from Chinese police contractor SenseNets revealed that the IJOP app had collected almost 6.7 million GPS co-ordinates in a 24-hour period, tracing 2.6 million people, mainly in Xinjiang. We hear that China has plans to have 400 million CCTV cameras in place across the country by the end of 2020. Is it not reasonable that we have concerns about Huawei and what it proposes to do by using its technology in the UK?
Order. We have two more Members who wish to speak, so could the hon. Lady kindly bring her remarks gently to a close?
I certainly will.
Having heard some of these findings, I question what religious freedom is in China. Does it mean anything, and are we doing enough in the UK to challenge what is happening in China? Other states have taken a stronger stance on the issue. In response to the situation in Xinjiang, the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, has called on China to allow international observers to visit, and for the release of people imprisoned there. He has mentioned that if China does not comply, the US could invoke sanctions. May I suggest that our Government should look to take much stronger steps on challenging human rights grievances in China?
I had not actually intended to participate when I decided to come to this debate, but I find that I really want to. Although I accept that there are very considerable issues about the treatment of various groups in China, it seems that there is a much larger issue, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) began to attend in moving the debate. It really is very important that we should begin to attend to it.
The fact is that the world is being remade before our eyes. Between them, China and India are very likely to be the dominant features of our globe in the latter half of the current century, and they might simply reassert a position that was the norm until the industrial revolution. We should remind ourselves that after the industrial revolution, we in Britain were among the leaders in a period of imperialism and colonialism, and of aggressive mercantilism, in which appalling scandals were visited on both India and China. We inherited power in India at a time when the country accounted for 23% of world GDP; when we left, it accounted for 3%. I declare an interest in this issue: I am leading a project on India and China at the Legatum Institute—incidentally, I am the vice-president of the Great Britain-China Centre. Actually, one need not be involved in these things at all to know what the history looks like.
On China, the opium wars, which have been mentioned, were correctly described by an independent observer of the scene—namely William Ewart Gladstone in this House—as probably the most awful scandal that had ever until that time occurred in the relations between one country and another. We fought a war in order to force very large numbers of people to accept the export to them of a dangerous drug. It is not surprising, therefore, that India and China have certain issues with the west, and Britain in particular.
Nor is the construction of the so-called international rules-based order, which has been referred to, anywhere near as unequivocal as people often imagine. It is, in point of fact, a construct of the western liberal victors of the second world war. The whole international rules-based system, which is being replicated in a completely different way in the institutions surrounding the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, has embedded in it western liberal values to which I happen to subscribe, but which are not at all the values of the entire tradition of Indian thought and postcolonial Indian thought from Nehru onwards, nor of Chinese thought, ancient or modern.
The abuses and problems in China that have been referred to are reminiscent of things that went on in our country for many centuries. It is helpful in many respects to think of Xi Jinping’s regime as a kind of Tudor monarchy. The Tudors in this country, operating in part from this building, engaged in torture and religious persecution, and did all sorts of things of which we now do not approve. They also presided over the most vibrant cultural and economic renaissance that this country has ever seen, which gave great benefits to the world. They also initiated what became an industrial revolution—the greatest explosion of human progress and development, in economic terms, that had ever happened until the Chinese outdid it.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, in the past few years China has brought out of poverty the greatest number of people that has ever been brought out of poverty anywhere in the history of the world. It may in due course be overtaken by India, but unless and until that happens, it has a striking world record in improving the quality of life of its people. The fact that it is doing so in a way that does not wholly meet with the approval of western liberals is, first, no surprise, and, secondly something that, although I agree it should not be ignored, should not lead us to think that the major issue is what we think about China.
The major issue is a quite different one. My hon. Friend quoted Kevin Rudd, who happens to be one of the most sober-minded and sensible of the commentators, but in certain circles in Washington a powerful narrative is developing—this is why I asked him whether he really thought the Department for International Trade should be advising him to invent his own foreign policy vis-à-vis China—that foresees, almost as if it welcomes it, the prospect of an encounter, which actually means a world war, between the United States and China as China rises. Some of the more pessimistic texts have analysed cases in which one power has risen and succeeded the hegemony of another, and have found that rather few of such encounters have been peaceful. When Germany rose and sought to supplant Britain in the early part of the 20th century as the world’s leading economic and colonial power, the first world war eventuated. There are many other cases of such shifts occurring, not because of ideological difference, but simply because one power overtakes another. That thesis is now prevalent in some parts of Washington. Alongside climate change, I think it probably constitutes the biggest single danger to our children and grandchildren.
What therefore seems overwhelmingly more important than our criticisms of China’s internal arrangements, which we have a right, albeit a limited one, to criticise, is that we work with our allies to ensure we fashion a world for our children and grandchildren that does not disappear in a wholly unnecessary nuclear conflagration. That is a much bigger issue for humanity. Unless we start taking China and India seriously—not just in this country but in the west as a whole—unless and until the west as a whole recognises that it cannot expect to maintain hegemony in a world in which, on a very wide reckoning, there are 1 billion westerners and 2.6 billion Indians and Chinese, and unless we reconcile ourselves to a peaceful coexistence based on a radical reassessment of the whole post-war structure, which was designed around the principles of western hegemony, we are heading for a very great catastrophe. That above all is the issue that we need to debate.
I call Julia Lopez—no more than five minutes, please.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this important debate, and on setting out a very wise and thoughtful approach to relations with China. Too often in this place we concentrate on short-term issues that are driven by the news cycle, while entirely overlooking critical strategic questions that will have a massive impact on our constituents over many years and decades. That shortcoming contrasts with China’s approach. I hope that we can find a way of addressing it as we seek to reform our political system as we leave the EU and start to think with long-term vision about the UK’s place in the world and our relationship with key allies and new partners.
The focus on the UK’s relationship with China under the previous Administration, driven by Chancellor George Osborne, was welcome, if perhaps prematurely enthusiastic in certain sectors. It has reaped tangible benefits—notably, the impetus to make London the biggest renminbi trading hub outside China. However, Chinese influence within the UK is not without risk, and other big policy announcements deriving from that effort, such as the Chinese investment in Hinkley Point, threw up tricky questions about security and dependence. Broadly, we have a decision to make about our approach: do we wholeheartedly embrace the relationship with China; do we welcome what it can bring but handle with care; or do we take a cautionary approach that would exclude whole sectors of our economy from Chinese input, even if that means that we do not gain an understanding of its technological advances or benefit from its investment?
The Huawei case encapsulates that dilemma and highlights some of the trade-offs at play in our relations with critically important allies such as the United States. It should also make us ask why the western world got so behind in the development of 5G technology that it became reliant on Chinese telecoms firms. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether there is work under way within Government and with allies to identify strategic areas in which China is gaining a competitive edge, particularly in autonomous weaponry and cyber-warfare, and how that edge might be leveraged in future.
Similarly difficult questions must be posed about the impact of Chinese wealth as that nation moves more decisively on to the world stage. China has a population of 1.4 billion, so even a tiny percentage of the most mobile and wealthy Chinese citizens will have a profound impact on global cities. I have travelled to Australia several times in recent years, and I was taken aback by the marked change I saw on my most recent visit due to growing Chinese influence, particularly due to the affluent student population and tourist numbers. That can be enormously positive, but how that wealth is handled— particularly in relation to investment in domestic property markets—has the potential to cause public unease in the years ahead. Skyrocketing house prices in Auckland, New Zealand, have led to a ban on foreigners buying homes there, and there are already stringent rules on overseas investors in the Australian and Singaporean property markets in response to such concerns. London may have to review its own openness.
Antipodean nations are at the sharp end of some of those policy dilemmas. They are keen to have a positive relationship with a strategically important near neighbour, but nervous of dependence or exposure. That nervousness is something we can both learn and benefit from as we seek a new role in the world at the same time as allies step up efforts to diversify risk. In that regard, although new free trade agreements with the likes of Australia and New Zealand may derive only modest benefits due to their market size, both countries have valuable experience from which we can learn. New Zealand was the first country to strike an FTA with China, and each antipodean nation has suggested smarter ways in which we might work together—for example, by fulfilling the demands of the burgeoning Chinese middle classes for safe, high-quality agricultural produce. I welcome my hon. Friend’s tremendous exposition about pork markets.
We must be realistic and pragmatic about the power dynamic at play. We must place our relationship with China neither on an outdated sense of economic or technological superiority, nor on fawning weakness that leads us to be cautious about upsetting the apple cart. With respect to the latter, we should not underestimate what we bring to the table or allow ourselves to be cowed when we think that China gets it wrong, including on the kinds of issues that have been discussed, such as religious freedom.
China is aware of the growing unease about its expanding global influence and seeks credibility of the kind the UK can lend. That is partly why the Hinkley investment was so critical to Chinese ambitions in nuclear power. Last week the International Trade Committee heard from the Institute of Directors, which, in response to growing demand, is considering setting up a Chinese branch where Chinese directors could be trained in corporate governance. The picture is similar for UK corporate law firms.
Worries about the structure and terms of Chinese investment—
Order. Will the hon. Lady please bring her remarks to a close, in order to leave time for the Front Benchers?
Certainly. I was going to say that my views on the belt and road initiative are similar to those of the hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid). I also wanted to touch on my own observations from an all-party parliamentary group visit to Huwei’s Shenzhen facility in November 2017. I was rather alarmed by how some of the facial recognition technology was deployed, which woke me up to some of the issues that we will have to handle.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot for securing such a fantastic debate. We really need more time to discuss such issues, which will be critical in the years ahead.
I am pleased to have the chance to speak in this debate. China is the biggest country in the world—even with a properly scaled map, it is difficult to understand its scale—with a population twenty times bigger than the UK’s, and a land area two and a half times bigger than the whole of Europe. China is on its way to becoming the biggest economy in the world. Its potential as a partner for trade, cultural and educational exchanges is clearly enormous and the Government should rightly seek to explore such links.
As we have heard from a number of hon. Members, there is another, much darker, side to China that must be considered at the same time as potential deals, not just as an afterthought. China continues to operate one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. For the majority of its vast population, the rights to express opinions, to participate in the democratic process, to read and write what they want, to believe what they want and to practise those beliefs, are at best severely curtailed and, all too often, completely absent.
A couple of hon. Members have spoken passionately and knowledgably about the persecution of religious minorities. Some of those minorities represent 1 million, 2 million or 3 million people. We are talking about the rights of a huge number of people. The Foreign Affairs Committee recently reported that credible evidence shows that over 1 million people have been held in detention camps in Xinjiang province simply because of their Muslim faith. They are not a danger to anybody, they are not criminals or terrorists, and they have not done anything wrong; all they have done is believe in something and seek to live in accordance with that. As the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) so eloquently expressed, Christian communities in China very often meet with the same persecution, as do other religious minorities.
The response of the Chinese authorities is similar to responses to such atrocities elsewhere. First, they deny that detention and persecution is happening. Then they say that although there may be some harsh treatment, it is reserved for people who are a danger to national security. Finally, they say that what happens to human rights in China is China’s business and nobody else’s.
We simply cannot give any credence to that assertion. Will the Minister give an assurance that China will not be allowed to put up a border against international and universal human rights? We have human rights because we are human, and it would be a denial of the universality of human rights if we allowed the prospect of trade deals or inward investment to silence criticism of China, or any country that shows such contempt on such a huge scale for what should be international norms of behaviour.
There are also concerns about the degree to which China does or does not respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries, including those nearby. As we have heard, we must remember that China’s history with other countries has not been happy. For an awful lot of the past 200 or 300 years, China’s experience has been one of other countries oppressing its people, who retain, unsurprisingly, a significant degree of suspicion and wariness of anyone who introduces ideas that differ from traditional Chinese culture and beliefs. However, China cannot be allowed to trample on the rights of its own citizens, or those of other countries, under the guise of protecting itself from external threats.
A potential downside to the rapid advancement of China’s home-grown technology industries is that it is now easily capable of causing significant harm to others, including the United Kingdom, should it wish to do so. We are not allowed to know how serious that risk is—apparently, we are not even allowed to know whether the National Security Council has considered it—but the United States has concerns, as do a number of other traditional friends and allies of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister confirm that those concerns will not simply be swept away or sacrificed at the altar of a preferential trade deal?
The belt and road initiative has been mentioned. Although there is no doubt that it could provide a way for the wealth generated by China’s economic resurgence to be more fairly distributed, we need to ensure that it is not used simply to make China’s neighbours more excessively reliant on China, to the extent that they almost become satellites or colonies. I am aware that this Parliament has not always had a proud story to tell in the history of colonialism, but it would not be in China’s long-term interests for its neighbours to become so reliant that they almost cease to exist in their own right.
Just over a month ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee published a thorough and worrying report that set out a number of concerns that need to be addressed when setting out our future relationship with China: the retrenchment of power in the hands of a small number of Communist party leaders, the persecution of religious minorities, the oppression of political opponents, the undermining of the international rules-based order, and the potential threat to the UK’s interests and security. Those concerns are important and must be kept in mind by those negotiating on our behalf.
The Government were very quick to surround themselves with red lines before beginning the Brexit negotiations. The Foreign Affairs Committee has, in effect, asked for some red lines to be set in our relationship with China. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to those. Above all, we cannot allow the Government’s desperation to land a trade deal with a major economic power to blind us to the substantial risks—both to us and to our way of life—if the wrong deal is agreed in haste and repented at leisure.
It is nice to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this timely and important debate—he has given us an extremely useful opportunity.
The hon. Member for Aldershot spoke about the re-emergence of China after the century of humiliation, to which the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) also referred. I do not quite accept that narrative. Of course, relatively speaking, China was very big in the 15th and 16th centuries, in terms of its economy, population and technological advancement, but its level of international engagement is completely different today.
I commend to hon. Members a book called “Vermeer’s Hat”. It sounds as if it is about Holland, but it is really about the relationship between Europe and China in the period before the century of humiliation. At that time, China was extremely closed; things went out via the silk route, but not much went in. That is different from the current situation.
The most revealing moment in the debate was when the right hon. Member for West Dorset asked the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) whether he found it strange that, when he was appointed as a trade envoy, the Government’s advice was to have his own personal policy on China. That is an astounding revelation, which really says it all. I might as well sit down now—but I will not. We want to know from the Government what their policy is, because it is has been swinging around wildly.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that the problem is not only this Government at this moment but the west over the past 30 years? Successive UK Governments and Governments around the world have simply not treated this issue with anything like the seriousness it deserves, as a result of which we see what we see in Washington.
The swings and turns have been peculiarly rapid. Under George Osborne, we were pressed strongly to engage economically with the Chinese; under the recently sacked Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), we were to have naval ships going into the South China sea. One does not normally expect to see such twists and turns in a mature European democracy.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report is excellent. It stated:
“China is seeking a role in the world commensurate with its growing economic power, and…This makes China a viable partner for the UK on some issues, but an active challenger on others.
The current framework of UK policy towards China reflects an unwillingness to face this reality. The UK’s approach risks prioritising economic considerations over other interests, values and national security...there does not appear to be a clear sense either across Government or within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of what the overarching theme of a new policy towards China should be”.
The Committee also calls on the Government to publish a new strategy—that is a fair call.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will give way, but I will not keep giving way, otherwise I will lose my time.
The passage the hon. Lady just read out sums up exactly what I was saying. Furthermore, I treated my reaction to dealing with China with a great deal of seriousness.
I was not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman was not serious. In fact, he seemed to have a more serious approach to China than perhaps some members of the Government do. That is worrying.
The leak of discussions in the National Security Council was obviously wrong, but it was illuminating. We were shown that an unresolved dilemma and differences of view remain at the very top of Government. On the one hand, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the then Defence Secretary and the International Trade Secretary argued against giving Huawei infrastructure contracts because of the security risks. On the other hand, the Prime Minister argued that such contracts should go ahead. We are left uncertain what the decision was, and why—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
The Minister will get his chance to speak in a minute.
Why are the other members of Five Eyes now saying that, if we give such a contract, they will be reluctant to share security information with us? That is extremely concerning. Over the weekend, we learned that the Cabinet Secretary is leading his own mission to Beijing, with 15 permanent secretaries. That is a huge mission to take to Beijing. I hope the Minister will tell us whether he is in agreement with the Cabinet Secretary that we need long-term engagement, or whether he thinks, like the former Defence Secretary, that we need to be much more cautious. What precisely is the Government’s position?
The right hon. Member for West Dorset took a surprisingly relativist view. I thought that we were all western liberal democrats and that, as a western liberal democrat, it was completely respectable to stand up for those values, promote them and try to get other people in other countries to share and adopt them. I would point out two things to him. First, the Chinese have signed up to quite a lot of the big United Nations international treaties that were written in that framework. They did not have to sign them; they chose to sign them. Therefore, when discussing human rights in China, Myanmar or anywhere else, it is reasonable to hold other members of the Security Council to those standards.
Secondly, of course, it is true that we cannot force China to change and that we might be alarmed by what is going on in Washington. However, the best way to resolve such potential conflicts between large countries is to uphold the international rules-based order. That is the way to resolve such difficulties. Another question for the Minister, therefore, is about where the Government stand on the trade dispute between China and the USA, because that is a sort of proxy for future disputes and conflicts.
I also ask the Minister, as the Foreign Affairs Committee did, exactly what the Government’s position is on the South China sea problem, and how they see us moving forward. It is right to uphold the international law of the sea, and we should be doing that, but I want to know what the Government see as their legal base and what their intention is.
The belt and road initiative has an upside, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) said, but it has problems as well. Where do the Government stand? Are they with Christine Lagarde? Does the Minister agree that China has problems with environmental standards and with how it puts a lot of debt on to other countries in pursuit of the initiative? If he is worried, what are the Government going to do about it?
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) were absolutely right to raise human rights issues. To put another question to the Government, what will they do about the undermining of the civil rights of people in Hong Kong, where the Government have a legal position?
I am afraid that my conclusion is that we need a policy—China is a big, important country—so let us hear from the Minister what it is.
I thank my jousting partner, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), for her robust views. In a relatively short time, I will try to say a little in response.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for securing this debate, giving me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on what is undeniably the single most important geopolitical bilateral relationship that the UK has, and will have, in the decades to come. The “golden era”, which was announced in 2015 by the then Chancellor, reflected the importance of that closer bilateral relationship.
Our relationship with China is broad and deep, involving constructive, positive and frank dialogue on major global issues and distinct challenges as well as opportunities, but it has the potential to bring enduring benefit to both countries. We are clear and direct when we disagree with China. Our approach is clear-eyed and evidence-based. For example, only at the end of last year we called out China as responsible for a particularly damaging cyber-intrusion.
The relationship is and must continue to be firmly rooted in our values and interests, but I absolutely accept the warnings of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). To my mind, he was a little too relativist—that was the criticism—but his warning is important, both in the broad sweep of history and in the risk that in some of what we say we can be accused of being hypocritical, given our track record. I will come on to the rules-based international order in a moment or two, but he is right that that order was not set in aspic in 1945. We cannot simply hold firm, saying, “That’s it, that’s the rules-based order and we can say no more.” I am afraid that we cannot talk just about universal human rights without recognising the change in the world, the rise of China and India, and therefore the need to adapt and evolve the rules-based system with those two countries firmly in mind. Indeed, we need to engage firmly with them if it is to be a system that we can all rely on for all our citizens.
The relationship between our two countries is of global significance. We both are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the G7 economies, frenetically active on a range of global issues. We have together forged constructive collaboration on shared challenges. At the Security Council we address together issues such as international security and North Korea. On global challenges such as healthcare advances, climate change, money laundering, people trafficking and tackling the illegal wildlife trade, we have and will continue to have a lot in common.
I will try to cover all the issues that arose in the debate. On trade, in a post-Brexit world, trading relationships with non-European countries will become ever more important. It is anticipated that in the very near future China will become the world’s largest economy. It is therefore welcome that the UK’s trade and investment with China are at record levels, currently worth more than £68 billion a year. We are seeking an ambitious future trading arrangement and will want greater access to China’s market, to expand and develop our economic links, not least in the service sector, as China continues to reform and open up. During the Prime Minister’s most recent visit to China, our Governments launched a joint trade and investment review, which is designed to identify a range of opportunities for us to promote growth in goods, services and investment, which in my view is critical in a post-Brexit world.
I was not sure it would come up, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) and the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) raised our relationship with national security and Huawei. China has become an increasingly important source of investment for the UK, and we are one of its most important investment destinations. Ours is an open economy—I take on board the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid)—and we welcome inward investment, but like any country we must ensure it meets our national security needs. That is true when we look at investment in key national infrastructure—raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot—whether from China or elsewhere. As we look at our 5G telecoms infrastructure, I assure the House that we will have robust procedures in place to manage risk and we are committed to the highest possible security standards. The Government will take decisions on the 5G supply chain based on evidence and a hard-headed assessment of the risks.
I was on the Intelligence and Security Committee in the 2010 Parliament when the issue of Huawei was first raised. It was raised at a conference in Ottawa, where we saw our counterparts from the US and Australia, as Five Eyes nations, take differing views both from each other and from us on some of these issues. Through the National Cyber Security Centre, the UK Government have undertaken a thorough review of the 5G supply chain to ensure that the roll-out of 5G is secure and resilient.
As many Members may know, Huawei has had a long-standing joint venture with BT going back almost a decade and a half. Arguably, those who oppose Huawei having any more involvement will have to recognise that that has already been worked through. The extensive review that we now have will go far beyond individual vendors or countries.[Official Report, 9 May 2019, Vol. 659, c. 9MC.] The decisions of that review will be announced in due course to Parliament. We want to work with international partners to try to develop a common global approach to improving telecoms security standards. We must all recognise that we live in a world of the rise of the fourth industrial revolution, of artificial intelligence, robotics and all the technology. Almost inevitably, there will be global standards. China needs to be fully engaged in that debate, in a way that India already is in cyber. We will have to make some very difficult decisions, but the choice in relation to Huawei has to be to try to engage, recognising that some standards are different, but to try to get as much protection as we possibly can.
To answer the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, I am very pleased that Mark Sedwill is out in China, with 15 other permanent secretaries, allegedly. That seems a sensible statement about the breadth and importance of our relationship across Government Departments. Some of the press reportage has suggested a dispute between Departments. We recognise the importance of the China relationship, and of course there will be some disagreements on issues between Departments—
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, if the hon. Lady will excuse me, because I want to move on to human rights issues.
The hon. Member for Warrington South and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster raised the issue of belt and road. Foreign investment will be essential to the success of the belt and road initiative. We have made it clear that we regard ourselves as a natural and willing partner for global infrastructure projects, but we are also clear that all projects must develop in line with recognised standards on transparency, environmental impact including carbon emissions, social standards and—importantly—debt sustainability. Therefore, there needs to be a sense of transparency on international standards. That was the message that the Chancellor and the Minister for Trade and Export Promotion took to Beijing last month at the belt and road conference.
We have touched on the rules-based system already; it has been the cornerstone of international co-operation and global standards for decades—indeed, since 1945. We recognise that that system is under huge strain. China has been supportive of some of its features, particularly with regard to trade, but less so of others, where it regards itself as not having had an input in the western rules created in the aftermath of 1945. We have been disappointed by its failure to oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea or to support measures to strengthen the international ban on chemical weapons. We believe that with economic power comes political responsibility, and we want China to give strong and consistent backing for a rules-based international system. We must also accept that the system must adapt and evolve to take account of the fast-changing world.
I crossed out my section on the South China sea, but then the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland brought it up. Let me say this: our position remains unchanged. We do not take sides on issues of sovereignty, but our commitment is to international law, to upholding existing arbitration rulings and to freedom of navigation and overflight. In many ways, the disputes arise because of China’s concern that there could be a question mark over freedom of navigation, given how important the South China sea and the Malacca straits are to its exports.
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) that I can touch on the next issue for only a couple of minutes, because it deserves a lot more time. Our constructive relationship with China at a diplomatic level is underpinned by the growing links between our peoples. Many visitors and students come here. We hope those personal links will allow more mutual understanding and bode better for future co-operation and awareness of our values—and Chinese values for those who go there.
Promoting and defending those values is vital, which is why we take a proactive approach to influencing improvements in human rights and rule of law in China. Our concerns are set out year by year in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual report on human rights and democracy, including many concerns about use of the death penalty, restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly, freedom of religion or belief, and civil and political freedoms. We continue to raise those at the highest level.
The Prime Minister raised human rights with both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during her visit to China in January 2018. The Foreign Secretary raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang with State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July 2018, as I did with my opposite number earlier that month. We will continue to lobby on that and the Tibet issue. I have not had enough time to go into as much detail as I should have liked. I hope the hon. Members will excuse me, and I will write to them to set out blow by blow what we are doing and will continue to do in that regard.
It is very sad that we have not had a little more time. This has been a fantastically important debate, and I hope it is the first of many that look at the importance of the geopolitical rise of China and all our concerns with what is happening with the trade war, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset pointed out. I thank everyone for their contributions.
The rise of China is shaking the world. It is our duty to work with the Chinese towards a shared future of peace, prosperity and reciprocal respect. I am very grateful to the Minister and all colleagues for attending this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK policy towards China.
Ivybridge Community College: Examination Pressure
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered views on examination pressure from pupils of Ivybridge Community College.
It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Sir Graham. I am particularly pleased to welcome the Minister to his place and am delighted that a Minister of his seniority is here to respond to this short debate.
Just before Christmas, I met with a group of bright students at Ivybridge Community College in my constituency to discuss a range of issues relating to their education, including their reaction to the Government’s mental health Green Paper. For as long as I have been a Member of Parliament, Ivybridge College has been an “outstanding” school under three different heads. It is a real centre of excellence. The group of predominantly year 11 pupils I met with did great credit to their school, their parents and, most importantly, themselves.
For more than an hour, we had a fascinating in-depth discussion about their school experience and, in particular, the issues that impact on their mental health on a day-to-day basis. We discussed everything from exam pressures to the impact of social media, how students are taught to deal with mental health, emotions and general wellbeing, and issues of competitiveness during what, as we all know, can be some difficult teenage years.
On dealing with mental health issues, we must recognise that teenagers and young people in general are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They face issues that young people of my generation never faced, with modern communications and social media. We must therefore do all that we can to help to improve their mental wellbeing by ensuring that help is there for them when it is needed the most. I promised to raise their concerns and the issues we discussed with Ministers to ensure that the people making the laws under which my constituents are being taught are fully aware of what life is like for the modern teenager living in Devon. I hope the Minister will bear with me as I take him through the concerns raised by this highly impressive group of young people.
First, year 11 student Lucy Ryder asked:
“What is a ‘mentally healthy’ student?”
We discussed that smart question. We think we know what mental health problems look like, but what does it mean to be mentally healthy? The group believe that could describe someone at peace with themselves for most of the time, accepting that there will be periods of stress and angst, particularly during important exam periods—Sir Graham, you may think, as I do, that that could also describe the life of a politician. A mentally healthy student should know how to lead a healthy lifestyle and feel comfortable approaching teachers and members of staff for help and advice when it is needed, without hesitation.
The students felt strongly that the Government focused too much on treatment and not enough on prevention, as was evidenced in the recent Green Paper on mental health, although its ambition to reduce the time it takes young people to get treatment was warmly welcomed, as ensuring that we help students to deal with mental health conditions at the earliest possible stage is both best for them and saves money down the line, when certain conditions would require much more counselling. A House of Commons Library briefing paper published in April 2018 shows that the average waiting time for someone to receive psychological therapy in my constituency was between 16 and 49 days. Most people are therefore seen within six weeks, but an appointment to child and adolescent mental health services can take significantly longer.
Nell, one of the pupils in the group, said that six weeks is a long time in the life of a teenager, especially one going through difficult circumstances, with it certainly being long enough to result in mental health conditions creating a dark place for young people. That is an important point. Mental health conditions should be treated with the same urgency as physical injuries and disabilities. I explained that the Government are seeking to prioritise mental health treatment, but I am sure the Minister recognises that we have a long way to go. What steps might his Department take to improve focus on prevention rather than cure in the mental health of school pupils?
The students were concerned about the current delivery of personal, social and health education classes. When delivered properly, PSHE lessons should help to make up a balanced school curriculum, providing an important opportunity to discuss issues such as mental health, living healthily and wellbeing in general. However, the students raised an important point: not all teachers are comfortable in delivering mental health lessons. They remarked that it is difficult for a teacher who is not trained properly, or who may not have any first-hand experience of mental health issues, to deliver a quality and informative lesson on dealing with those issues.
One member of the group, Ela, provided a good analogy: we would not expect a Spanish teacher to deliver a history lesson, or vice versa. They are not trained in that field, and are not likely to have a good grasp of the subject. Part of the Government investment aimed at schools should allow them to provide specialist mental health teachers, who can empathise and show proper understanding of what students experiencing mental health conditions are going through and how they can best deal with it.
The group welcomed the ambition of putting mental health leads in every school and college, but felt strongly that we must go further. We must ensure that existing teaching staff are properly trained to identify students who are experiencing mental health conditions, and especially those who may be nervous or uncomfortable approaching their teachers or wider school staff directly to talk about it. Of course, that is all part of prevention rather than cure and responding to the changing issues of our modern age. The group would be grateful if the Minister commented on what more Government can do to ensure that teachers are fully trained in this area.
We moved on to social media. Now, old people like me are often quick to blame the mental health issues that our youngsters experience on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat—all of which I am very familiar with—but the students told me that social media is not the overriding factor playing on their minds that we think it is. In fact, they made a number of points that took me by surprise. They all believed that, far from being an instrument of bullying or pressure, social media was, more often than not, the antidote to it.
Nell raised the point that bullying at school, both in the playground during breaks and in the classroom, can be far harder to deal with than that on social media. I had taken a view that was the polar opposite. The students explained that it is far harder to deal with bullies face to face during the school day, whether it be passing in the corridor, in the playground or indeed in the classroom.
If a student feels intimidated by someone in their class, that will have a negative impact on how they take part in certain lessons that they share with those classmates. It may, for example, make them less likely to take part in activities during class, perhaps by shying away from group tasks or by not volunteering answers to questions. That could prevent a student from achieving their true potential in that class, affecting their grades and results later. In their opinion, physical bullying remained a greater threat than bullying on social media, bad though that might be.
Evie raised an interesting point: social media, by contrast, is far easier to control. If a young person feels threatened or anxious by the actions or comments of another user or peer, they can simply block that person at the touch of a button. The bully or troll is then prevented from seeing that person’s profile, pictures and comments. It is even possible to prevent certain words or phrases being used in comments on social media posts.
For many students and young people, social media acts as a platform through which to share their collective experience of mental health conditions and support each other, and it serves as a reminder that they are not alone in dealing with their challenges. Before I sat down with this impressive group, I had not fully recognised how social media can help students cope with bullying and threats.
I was interested to see in The Times today, which I was reading on the train on the way to London, new research that tends to bear out the point of view expressed by the pupil group, namely that the link between social media and lack of student wellbeing was not supported by robust evidence and may well be the opposite of the truth. Can the Minister comment on the Government’s view on the impact of social media? I am sure he will agree that any comments should be based on science and not the prejudices of members of an older generation, such as me. Does the Minister agree that at the same time as closing down the worst excesses of social media, we must proactively promote the positive resources that internet platforms provide in helping youngsters to deal with mental health issues?
We spent some time discussing exam pressures. The Green Paper states that
“Children and young people with mental health problems are more likely to experience increased disruption to their education,”
and suggests that could be due to time off school. Results from a 2018 study by the Mental Health Foundation suggest that young people today have higher stress related to pressure to succeed than previous generations. Some 60% of 18 to 24-year-olds and 41% of 25 to 34-year- olds agreed that they experienced significant examination pressure, compared to 17% of 45 to 54-year-olds and just 6% of those aged over 55. I may have simply forgotten what it is like to sit exams, but those survey results chime with my own experience in the 1960s and 1970s. I do not recall exam stress being much of an issue, either for myself or my fellow pupils, but clearly that has changed significantly. The students at Ivybridge Community College were fairly unanimous about the impact that target grades and upcoming exams have on their mental health. I believe they are now under pressure in a way that my generation never was. Does the Minister have any research to support that point and does he think that examination pressure today is too great?
Lucy made an interesting point when she said that students do not want to feel like they are constantly in competition with their friends and classmates. She said that they want to work in class to support each other to get the best grades they can, particularly when, as in the case of GCSEs and A-levels, those results will be judged for a significant period of time and be used to gauge the likelihood of whether they will get into their preferred university courses. The students would prefer the approach to exams to be more collegiate, rather than overtly competitive. They felt that we should not understate the importance of exams in school but that we need to emphasise to students that doing badly in an exam does not mean their life chances are over.
Annabel argued that students are tasked with taking significant decisions about their journey through education from the age of 13, when they start choosing subjects to study at GCSE. These are important decisions, as they will inform which subjects they study at A-level and university. That brings a great deal of pressure at an early age. The point was made that students should not always feel that they are in competition with their fellow classmates to get the best grades or to out-do each other; students would prefer a culture of working together. Can the Minister can suggest ways to improve the way students collaborate with each other to help to improve their performances in exams? Does it have to be so competitive?
Lucy suggested that at school students are taught that the workplace is full of competition and that they will be competing for jobs and promotions. That is true, but the difference is that adults have a choice about whether to be in competition with their colleagues in the workplace. Students do not feel that they have that choice; perhaps they should. We need to demonstrate more intentionally to students that the workplace is also about team work and collaborating with colleagues. That should be no different in school; we should encourage students to work with and to support their classmates.
On A-level and GCSE results days each year, influential people from the business world remind students that they got 2 Cs and a D at A-level, but that has not stopped them achieving their full potential over the course of their adult lives. That is an example of how social media can help students to see that people who do not test well can still go far. That is an important point on which I invite the Minister to comment.
Amelia argued that the Government need to reconsider curriculum and scheduling in the run-up to already stressful exam periods and to look at the impact that target grades have on young people over the course of the academic year. Can the Minister comment on whether schools have sufficient flexibility?
I ask the Minister to join me in thanking the students at Ivybridge Community College—Lucy, Amelia, Evie, Ela, Lilana, Izzy, Annabelle, Nell, Ella, Katy, Katie and Cameron—for being so clear and robust about these important issues. They all contributed to an excellent discussion, although I have not been able to include all their points. Can I invite the Minister to fully take on board the comments made by those excellent pupils? They are pupils at one of the largest and most successful state comprehensive schools in the UK, which has been outstanding for as long as I can remember. They are intelligent and articulate young people, who demonstrated an extraordinary understanding of the issues affecting them. They were able to talk confidently and openly about how they feel their schooling could be improved, in the presence of their teaching staff. We should take notice of those fine young people and work as hard as possible to deliver for them.
I realise that the Government are already active on some of these issues. By aiming to put dedicated mental health leads into every school and college, the Government have recognised the need to take a co-ordinated multi-agency approach to understanding children and young people’s mental health conditions and are putting together the most effective package of treatment and support for young people. I welcome the fundamental principles proposed at the heart of last year’s Green Paper: ensuring designated mental health leads in all schools and colleges, by providing an extra £15 million to £20 million per year from 2019, and encouraging schools and colleges to collaborate locally to help to improve services for students and reduce NHS waiting times for young people’s access to specialist services.
Whether we like it or not—or fully understand it—the mental wellbeing of our young people today is rapidly becoming one of the key issues that we must deal with. Although perhaps it has lessened in the last decade, there is still a significant stigma attached to mental health conditions that we do not necessarily see associated with other health conditions. I hope the Minister will agree that it is helpful to hear from young people themselves about the challenges they face, their response to them and what they request from Government.
Even though the students had been fairly robust with me, I left our meeting with an overwhelming sense of confidence in the future of this country. The pupils of the coming generation are exceptionally talented and committed to doing their best for themselves and our nation. We must now do all we can to help them achieve their potential; we do that best of all when we listen to them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) on securing the debate, and the pupils at Ivybridge Community College—particularly Lucy, Amelia, Evie, Ela, Lilana, Izzy, Annabelle, Nell, Ella, Katy, Katie and Cameron—on providing such clear and articulate views on this important topic. I recall visiting the college some years ago and opening an excellent maths department. It is an outstanding school with a high proportion of pupils being entered for the EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs.
I agree with many of the points that the pupils made to my hon. Friend, including that mental health is about not just treatment, but prevention. There has been a lot of focus on the significant investment that the Government are making in increasing specialist children and young people’s mental health services. The NHS long-term plan announced that by 2023-24 an additional 345,000 children and young people aged up to 25 will receive mental health support via NHS-funded mental health services and new mental health support teams, as referred to by my hon. Friend. Mental health services will continue to receive a growing share of the NHS budget, with funding set to grow by at least £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24. Spending on children and young people’s mental health services will grow faster than adult services, and faster than other NHS spending. That investment will go a long way towards tackling the sort of waiting times highlighted by my hon. Friend.
The trailblazer areas testing our Green Paper proposals include some testing about how to achieve waiting times of a maximum of four weeks. But the trailblazers also focus on prevention. The mental health support teams we are introducing will be linked to groups of schools and colleges, bringing expertise in dealing with milder and more moderate conditions, precisely to provide fast, local responses to issues as they arise. It is a huge undertaking. The teams will introduce a new, trained workforce, eventually numbering in its thousands, to provide support in the more preventive way envisaged by the young people of Ivybridge college.
The preventive aspects of our reforms do not stop there. The Department is providing up to £95 million between 2019 and 2024 to support the delivery of the Green Paper proposals, including the costs of a significant training programme for senior mental health leads, to help schools to put whole-school approaches to mental health in place.
The Ivybridge pupils emphasised the importance of PSHE to my hon. Friend. Our reforms in that area, making a new relationships and health education curriculum compulsory in all state-funded schools from September 2020, are probably the most significant preventive step of all. Health education includes a new requirement for all pupils to be taught about mental health. The aim of making the subject compulsory is to bring the quality and consistency that the pupils are calling for, ensuring that pupils are taught the right framework of knowledge to help them to lead a mentally healthy lifestyle and deal with the challenges they face.
The new subject will include content such as understanding emotions, identifying where someone is experiencing signs of poor mental health, simple self-care, and how and when to seek support. Schools will be required to teach the new subjects from September 2020, but we are encouraging schools to get under way sooner. We already have hundreds of schools signed up as early adopters, with more schools registering every day. To help schools to teach the new subjects effectively, we recently announced an additional £6 million in 2019-20 to design and develop the training and resources that schools need.
We are also building the evidence on what other support for wellbeing works in schools. Our children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing research programme is one of the largest studies of its kind in the world. Thousands of children and young people will learn how to use a range of innovative techniques to promote good mental health and wellbeing.
I was not surprised to hear the views of young people that social media can be a force for good in relation to mental health—although I was impressed by the range of apps that my hon. Friend is familiar with. Social media is part of life and relationships for young people, but for it to be helpful we need to make sure that the online environment is as safe as possible. The Government’s recent online harms White Paper set out a range of measures, detailing how we will tackle online harms and setting clear responsibilities for technology companies to keep UK citizens, and especially children, safe.
We also need to equip young people with the knowledge to use the internet and social media safely, understanding how to deal with the different behaviours they will encounter online. That is why, to support the teaching of the relationships and health education content, we are developing detailed guidance on teaching about all aspects of internet safety, to help schools deliver the new subjects in a co-ordinated and coherent way.
We know that all kinds of bullying, whether in school or online, can have long-term effects on mental health as well as immediate impacts on pupils. The Government have sent a clear message to schools that bullying for any reason is unacceptable. All schools are legally required to have a behaviour policy with measures to prevent all forms of bullying. Relationships education will also include content on tackling bullying. To support schools further, we are providing more than £2.8 million to projects run by anti-bullying organisations such as the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the Diana Award.
My hon. Friend also talked about exam stress, which obviously is a particular issue at this time of year, with hundreds of thousands of teenagers up and down the country preparing to sit their GCSEs, A-levels and other exams. I take this opportunity to wish all those students, including those at Ivybridge, all the very best with their exams.
I would beg to differ from my hon. Friend on one point, when he says that exam stress was not much of an issue in the 1960s and 1970s. I think that exams are inherently stressful, for any generation. Perhaps my hon. Friend has forgotten, but certainly my own experience in the 1970s was that sitting my O-levels and A-levels was a challenging time. I know that for some students that pressure can get too much and can tip over into real mental health problems. Clearly that is a matter for concern, and the support that I have described is there to help those young people.
However, for very many young people the level of stress created by exams is manageable, so long as they are well supported by their schools, families and peers. Research shows that there is a clear difference between exam stress and exam anxiety, which is a cause for concern. Recent research found that young people recognise that exams can be a time of pressure and want their school to support them, especially on how best to revise and prepare for those exams. We trust schools to provide that guidance, and there is help to support them to do so. Ofqual support includes a blog aimed at teachers and a guide for students on coping with exam pressure, produced with Professor Dave Putwain from Liverpool John Moores University.
My hon. Friend mentioned that two of the students at Ivybridge had talked about not wanting to feel that they are in competition with their classmates. He also invited me to comment on the fact that there are many successful people who did not do well in their exams. He is quite right; no student should be made to feel that their life chances are over because they did badly in an exam. However, as my right hon. Friend Secretary of State said in his recent article on the subject, not many of those people
“would say that it isn’t important to do as well as you can.”
Few people succeed without preparing and working hard. All anyone can expect of our young people over the next few weeks is that they do their best.
Doing as well as you can does not necessarily come at the expense of others, and certainly not your classmates. It is fundamental to any qualification that it tests individual performance. Each young person will take that qualification forward with them into later life as evidence of what they know and can do. I also believe that it is right to expose young people to a certain level of competition, to help build the resilience that will help them to make a success of their adult lives, but that does not mean that schools should not foster a collaborative spirit and encourage team working during the school year. Indeed, I would hope that all schools are doing exactly that.
That brings me to an element of our preventive work that is especially pertinent, given that this debate has been inspired by young people taking an interest in mental health and helping each other out. We know that young people turn to their friends and peers first when they have concerns about mental health. Peer support programmes can be an effective part of a whole-school approach to mental wellbeing, as well as in tackling bullying and supporting each other with their exams. We are working with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families to pilot different approaches to peer support, to help more schools to develop or improve their own programmes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and the pupils of Ivybridge Community College for giving me the opportunity to set out just how much we are doing to promote mental wellbeing, as well as to increase access to specialist services. I hope they are reassured that what we are doing will go a long way to help schools and young people themselves play their part in meeting the challenge of improving the nation’s mental health.
Question put and agreed to.
Wales: Regional Development Funding
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of regional development funding in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to his place. I have lost count of how many have preceded him. I have not counted how many days he needs to get through to exceed his predecessor, but I am sure that one of my colleagues will work that out as we speak. We wish him well and we wish him good luck—he is going to need it.
Regional development funding has been absolutely critical in boosting less prosperous areas across the United Kingdom, including in Wales. It is crucial in an era in which the divides in terms of wealth and prosperity in British society are so evident for all to see. We are witnessing a growing trend whereby our cities attract investment, create wealth and offer high-quality jobs, whereas our smaller towns are left behind or, worse still, buffeted by the winds of globalisation without any real support from the UK Government.
That has been the story of the last 40 years. UK Governments have stood by and watched the forces of globalisation and new technology destroy our industrial base and decimate our high streets, and they have been intensely relaxed about the impact of those changes on the pride, identity and prosperity of constituencies such as mine and others across Wales and the United Kingdom. First, Margaret Thatcher sold out the miners across south Wales, the English midlands and northern England, offering no state support to those who needed it to retrain in other fields. Then, although new Labour injected much-needed investment into our public services, it did not manage to deliver fundamental structural reform through a bold, radical industrial strategy. Then came Osborne-omics, which inflicted utterly self-defeating austerity on the areas that could handle it least.
As a result of this triple whammy, manufacturing has collapsed, from 30% of UK GDP to just 10%, since the 1970s. In comparison, Germany’s manufacturing base has remained stable, at 23% or above. The vast differences between the UK and German experiences of the last 40 years demonstrate conclusively that globalisation is not an unstoppable force of nature; it is a man-made phenomenon. The repeated failure to harness globalisation and make it work for our communities was caused not by force majeure but by repeated failures of political leadership.
The collapse of our manufacturing base has of course led inexorably to our skills and productivity crises. No recent Prime Minister has come up with any kind of half-decent strategy to support the so-called forgotten 50% who do not go to university or get good jobs and training. For those graduates living in the big cities, the last 40 years have delivered wealth, opportunity, diversity and the excitement of technological change, but non-graduates who live in our towns and villages have simply been ignored and left behind. Younger, diverse cities full of graduates continue to thrive; older, smaller towns with close-knit communities of non-graduates continue to suffer. Wales is a case in point. Despite the efforts of the Welsh Government—I will come to the vital support the Welsh Government have delivered for constituencies such as mine—many parts of our great country have experienced hardship due to inept government at the UK level.
The gap in GDP between Wales and London makes the UK the most unbalanced EU member state in terms of regional economic disparities—a truly shocking statistic that shows the size of the challenge we face if we are to reduce inequality and spread opportunity. In Aberavon, we have had absolutely no regional development support from Westminster. The Swansea bay tidal lagoon would have put south Wales at the forefront of a 21st-century industry, marrying our desperate need to produce more green energy with the creation of genuinely high-quality jobs across the region.
Wales was the cradle of the first industrial revolution, and we could have been the cradle of a new, green revolution, but the Tory Government ran scared, spending £1 billion to buy the votes of each Democratic Unionist party Member but not a single penny for a long-term strategic infrastructure project that could have boosted wealth and opportunity for my constituents and so many across south Wales. I cannot help wondering whether that £1 billion would pass a value for money audit, given the voting behaviour of the DUP over recent months, but I digress.
The tidal lagoon decision followed hot on the heels of another broken promise: to electrify our railway lines. That promise made it only as far as Cardiff, with the line down to Port Talbot and Swansea still firmly embedded in the 20th century. With everything the Transport Secretary has achieved in his quite remarkable tenure, it feels that too little attention has been paid to this kick in the teeth for Welsh commuters and travellers and for the Welsh economy. Maybe handing a £50 million ferry contract to a company with no ferries was in fact a cunning plan to distract us from the fact that the Government he represents were holding Wales in contempt.
Thankfully, where the UK Government have failed, other tiers of governance have stepped in to give the Welsh economy a much-needed boost. The Welsh Government and local councils have combined to deliver so many crucial projects, but many have relied on the funding that we receive from the European Union—the EU structural fund.
Although the Swansea bay campus is in my hon. Friend’s constituency, the £60 million EU investment in it has benefited my constituency incredibly. Does he agree that, given that we have missed out on the tidal lagoon and electrification, we now deserve assurances from the Government that structural funding will come to our region and to our communities?
I agree with every word. As I will come on to, the key point is that we must not receive a penny less; there must not be any sleight of hand in the shift from EU structural funding to the shared prosperity fund.
EU structural funds are distributed to regions throughout the European Union based on their relative GDP. Areas where GDP per capita falls below 75% of EU GDP are placed in the first tier, and therefore receive the maximum funding. The poorer the region, the higher its priority and the more funding it receives. West Wales and the valleys is ranked as a region of the highest priority, and therefore received £2 billion for the 2014-20 cohort. No other area of the UK received more than £750 million, showing the scale of the challenge for the economy in that area of Wales. We are talking about a serious amount of funding here.
Like much of Wales, my Aberavon constituency has benefited hugely from European money, and from the strong vision and partnership working formed between the Welsh Government and our local Neath Port Talbot Council. Take, for instance, the new integrated transport hub—a Neath Port Talbot Council project in partnership with the Welsh Government, using EU money—or the sunken gardens and toddlers’ play area on Aberavon beach, which is a Neath Port Talbot Council project using EU funding granted by the Welsh Government.
There are more, from the bay campus, as my hon. Friend mentioned, to the Croeserw community enterprise centre, to the Cognation mountain bike trails in the Afan valley, to the Port Talbot magistrates court regeneration project. Those projects would not have been possible without European funding and strong political leadership of a type we see consistently from the Welsh Government and our local councils, but too rarely from Westminster. That is why Brexit raises a number of concerns regarding the future of regional development funding.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Government have previously guaranteed that every penny from Europe that Wales lost would be matched by Westminster funding. That still has not happened. Has he noticed that, in the meantime, the Government have guaranteed that the British overseas territories will now receive from Westminster every single penny that they received from the European Union? Is it not a bit of an irony that the British Government are prepared to guarantee money to our overseas territories but not to our territories at home?
Indeed. That is a quite shocking example of the failure to prioritise what is happening right on our doorstep. It is absolutely vital that we see the funding in Wales that we need if we are to deliver. We all know how much support is required to deal with the huge changes in our economy over recent decades. We currently have a system that, while not perfect, works relatively well: EU funding is targeted at less prosperous areas and delivered by devolved Administrations who know the needs of their areas better than anyone else.
Now, we can debate Brexit until the cows come home—I am sure that we would love to—but I am sure that we can all agree that it is crucial that Wales does not lose a single penny of the funding that we would have received had the British public voted to remain instead of to leave the EU on 23 June 2016. The UK Government have agreed to replace those European funds, yet nearly everything about the shared prosperity fund is still to be worked out. We still do not know how much funding will be available. We need £1.7 billion per year UK-wide to keep up with what the EU is set to contribute from 2020 to 2026.
There is an active debate ongoing about how the shared prosperity fund ought to be allocated. Some strongly argue that there should be a huge competitive element. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is far better to have a needs-based formula, so that resources are allocated where they are desired, not according to which area can put forward the best bids?
I agree entirely. There are two key points. First, the big advantage of the current system is that it is depoliticised. The European Union works on the basis of data and facts and of a scientific analysis of what is required. There is a huge risk that the shared prosperity fund will be turned into pork barrel politics, where the fund gets used as a slush fund for, dare I say it, a Conservative Government in Westminster. Secondly, competitive bidding does not work. The shared prosperity fund needs to be embedded in an industrial strategy and a regional development strategy that works from a strategic point of view rather than being based on bidding.
The second key question is how this money will be divided across the country. The third question is what activities will be eligible for support. The fourth question is who will take the decisions on how the money is spent. We are still none the wiser on all those key questions.
It really is not just about the money. There is a real fear that this will be not just a financial grab, but a power grab: the Westminster Government will use this opportunity to reduce funding for areas that need it most and claw back powers that sit naturally with the devolved Administrations.
This week is the 20th anniversary of the first elections to the Welsh Government. It is therefore important that, when we have this debate, we respect the role of the Welsh Government and devolution.
One of the key recommendations we in the all-party parliamentary group for post-Brexit funding for nations, regions and local areas have made in our report on the future of the shared prosperity fund—apologies for the plug, Sir Graham—is that the devolution settlement must be respected. Of course, the Westminster Government, the Assembly in Cardiff Bay and local authorities need to work as a team on this, but, fundamentally, the people on the ground know best how to spend this money and deliver maximum impact. Therefore, it is essential that the devolution settlement is respected in spirit and letter.
As I was saying, there is a fundamental worry that the shared prosperity fund will become a politicised slush fund, with a Conservative Government using it to buy votes in marginal seats. Those deep-seated concerns led to the creation of the all-party group, which I am proud to chair. The wide-ranging review we carried out heard from 80 organisations across the UK, including the Welsh Government, a wide range of local authorities in Wales and the Welsh TUC. Those representations were unanimous: the UK shared prosperity fund must comprise not a single penny less in real terms than the EU and UK funding streams it replaces. Westminster must not use Brexit as an opportunity to short-change the poorest parts of the UK and of our great country of Wales. Equally, the UK Government must not deny devolved Administrations the appropriate control over funds. Local decisions must not be made by an official or Minister sitting at the other end of the M4.
While it is deeply disappointing that the Minister with overall responsibility for the shared prosperity fund, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), has refused to meet with our APPG, I am pleased to report that its officers met with the Secretary of State for Wales last month to make these points to him, and then last week with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Both meetings were conducted in a positive and constructive spirit, but it is shocking that there is still no sign of the public consultation on the SPF being launched any time soon. In fact, in one meeting there was a suggestion that the consultation may even be delayed until the comprehensive spending review in the autumn. Given that the CSR will include information on the funding of the SPF, I am not sure how relevant bodies, such as the Welsh Government and our local authorities, will be able to contribute in a meaningful way to a debate over funding when the horse will have already bolted. However, I can assure the Minister that our APPG will be watching carefully to ensure that there is no sleight of hand from the Government on this point.
Our APPG report contains 19 specific and deliverable recommendations. I hope the Minister has had an opportunity to read it, and we look forward to his response. However, in the limited time available, we would be particularly grateful if he responds to the following requests. Will he guarantee that Wales does not receive a penny less and that the devolution settlement will be fully respected, and will he provide clarity on when the SPF consultation will be published?
Let us be clear, the Welsh are a proud, resilient people. They are not looking for special treatment or anybody’s charity. However, we are looking for a level playing field—an opportunity to compete without having one hand tied behind our backs. This is the essence of the Welsh spirit: an unrelenting commitment to community, fairness and the wellbeing of our future generations. With that spirit, every single Welsh MP on the Labour Benches will keep fighting to ensure that Wales gets the regional investment that it needs to thrive in this city-centric era of globalisation and fast-paced technological change.
Order. To get in everybody seeking to speak, I will place a four-minute limit on Back Benchers’ contributions.
Thank you, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing the debate. He has made such a superb contribution through the all-party parliamentary group for post-Brexit funding for nations, regions and local areas. I also welcome the Minister to his post. I want to speak briefly about regional development across north Wales.
At the time of the 2015 general election and its aftermath, there was a strong political focus by the then Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer on the development of the northern powerhouse. As the MP for Wrexham, on the border with England, I was concerned that investment should not be focused on one particular city in the north of England, but should be spread to regions, towns and communities to the west. My concern was shared by MPs representing English constituencies to the west of Manchester. We established the all-party parliamentary group on Mersey Dee north Wales, so that we had a political structure to enable us to raise the issue politically.
In north Wales our economy works from west to east, rather than north to south. We were very encouraged by the response from business, local authorities, universities and the community as a whole in supporting the initiative that we had set in place, which we used as a template to campaign for more focus and more investment in north Wales. Together with the work of organisations such as the cross-border Mersey Dee Alliance, that template led to the momentum that brought about the north Wales growth deal project, which we all worked extremely hard to achieve. It was very important that that project involved all political parties in north Wales, as well as business and the academic community, through universities and further education colleges.
My concern—I am sorry to say this—is that since the announcement of the establishment of the north Wales growth deal late last year, the cross-party and broad nature of the work being carried out in north Wales has lessened. Certainly, the consultations that have been done by certain political parties and local authorities in north Wales have not been in step with the collaboration that led to the achievement of the growth deal. Rather than the partisan approach that a particular political party has taken, a consensus among political parties to work for the benefit of north Wales is required.
To deliver the north Wales growth deal, I want a new structure that is more in step with business in north Wales and that involves Members of Parliament and Assembly Members, regardless of their political party. We need to set up an accountable structure to deliver the future investment in north Wales that must be delivered. Certain areas in north Wales did not benefit from European funding—my constituency did not receive the same level of investment as other parts of Wales—so it is imperative that we rebuild the sharing and investment that we set up after 2015 as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for the opportunity to speak in the debate, although, frankly, I would rather we were not leaving the European Union and not giving up the £370 million a year that Wales receives from European structural and investment funds. I hope that, three years on, the public are soon asked to decide whether they now wish to accept whatever exit deal is available or retain the much better deal we have as a member of the European Union. Today’s debate encapsulates the Government’s failings with regard to Brexit. We were due to leave the European Union more than a month ago and they have failed even to open the consultation they promised on how regional development funding will work in Wales after exit.
The lack of information about the shared prosperity fund is stark. I have asked 18 parliamentary questions about the fund and I am yet to receive a clear response on a host of vital issues such as when the consultation will start, who will be eligible to apply and whether funding for Wales will be guaranteed. Perhaps the Minister will give us some information today—who knows?
Meanwhile, what happens to my constituents who would otherwise have continued to benefit from EU funding? What about the school leaver who could have obtained one of the thousands of apprenticeships that have been funded by the £71 million provided to the Welsh Government’s skills enhancement programme by the European social fund? What about the student who might end up helping to conduct cutting-edge research on the causes of dementia at Cardiff University’s revolutionary brain research imaging centre in my constituency? That centre exists only because of £4.5 million of funding that the European regional development fund provided to Cardiff University, but its work benefits dementia sufferers across the world. What about my constituent who just wants to drive across Cardiff bay to see family in Penarth, through the tunnel funded under the old objective 1 funding scheme?
Such opportunities and improvements to my constituents’ everyday life are there only because the EU has partnered with the Welsh Government and local communities and has consistently invested a net gain of more than £680 million per year in Wales. Is it any wonder that we on this side of the House are suspicious about what, if anything, is coming down the line? We have had prevarication and obfuscation about the fund. It has that mythical air about it, as do many of the promises made after 2016 about life after Brexit. We were told by the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), the Environment Secretary and the Defence Secretary that Wales would not lose a penny from voting to leave the EU, but since the referendum result all we have heard about is efficiencies and targeting.
That raises deep concern on these Benches, because we have been here before. We were told that cuts to policing budgets were just efficiencies, before crime started spiralling; we were told that councils having their resources cut was just targeting, before the homelessness crisis hit our streets; and we were told that help was being directed towards the neediest constituents, before terminally ill people started arriving at our surgeries having been declared fit for work. Given that track record, the people of Wales have every reason to think that there will be less money, fewer projects and fewer opportunities for our communities.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, I want the Minister to provide some guarantees to back up what his colleagues have said about match funding. The Government have failed to take decisive action to resolve the Brexit crisis. We have no clarity about future funding and we do not even have a date for the start of the consultation. It surely cannot be that difficult, because there is not much else going on, so perhaps the Minister could enlighten my constituents—they have been waiting long enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on the case that he made.
As we have heard, Wales has been a net beneficiary of European regional development funding. In recent years we have seen towns and villages across the south Wales valleys transformed and regenerated, much of which has been due to European structural development funds. Wales has received millions of pounds more than it has contributed in recognition of the deprivation that exists.
Over the past 15 years, the upper Rhymney valley in my constituency has benefited from about £16 million in EU structural funds for regeneration projects, while in the Merthyr Tydfil part of my constituency the figure is £35.8 million. Merthyr Tydfil’s town centre has benefited from significant regeneration, from a brand new college development to the creation of the hugely popular public space that is Penderyn square, which is a real focal point for a renaissance of Welsh culture and heritage, including the annual Merthyr Rising festival, which takes place over the spring bank holiday weekend later this month.
We have also seen regional projects, such as the dualling of the A465 heads of the valleys road, which links the Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney parts of my constituency and is a hugely important road link from west Wales across the heads of the valleys to the M5 and the midlands. That has all been made possible with the support of regional development funding from the EU.
In my previous life as a councillor for the New Tredegar ward in the upper Rhymney valley, I was heavily involved in the New Tredegar regeneration partnership. At that time, in 2001, the then Labour Government secured objective 1 funding for the south Wales valleys and west Wales, which resulted in billions of pounds of funding for crucial regeneration across the region.
The New Tredegar regeneration strategy helped to secure about £28 million for the community from a range of sources, including local regeneration funding from the Welsh Labour Government, which have helped to support and regenerate the Welsh valleys communities. The catalyst for the investment, however, was about £6 million of European funding. New Tredegar has new small business units, a new road, a community school, a museum, a community resource centre and a community café, all of which have helped to breathe new life into a community that was deeply scarred following the collapse of the coal industry under Thatcher. Regional development funding was essential to begin the process of regenerating valley communities.
Mrs Thatcher came to power exactly 40 years ago this weekend, which heralded one of the most difficult economic periods in modern history for many of the communities in Wales and created significant deprivation. The Thatcher Government ripped the heart out of our communities, threw countless people’s jobs on the scrapheap and decimated villages and towns across south Wales without any plan to replace the jobs that were lost. The economic decline of that period can still be felt today, despite the investment in the valleys by the last Labour Government.
It was not just the jobs in the coal industry that were lost; there were many support industries. At the bottom of my street when I was growing up was Evans Coaches, a small family-run coach company that had taken miners to work since the 1930s. The company did other jobs, but that was its main business. Some 15 drivers worked there, as well as support staff, all of whom were local. The company went out of business after Thatcher closed the pits. It is one of many heart-breaking examples.
I have outlined the history of the communities I represent and highlighted why the economic deprivation exists. We benefited from the regional development fund simply because we needed it. It is essential that we have clarity on a future regional development fund, known as the shared prosperity fund. A few weeks ago, during Wales questions, I asked the Secretary of State about it, but I received little response. I hope that the Minister can provide some answers about how it will work. We were promised that we would not lose a penny when we left the EU. We need answers, because the uncertainty cannot go on.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this important debate. The future of regional funding is crucial for Wales, and in the past it has been serious money. Wales has received more than £3.5 billion in European Union funding since 2000, and that money has made a difference. It has been a big boost for projects in Blaenau Gwent. There was the £77 million to support the dualling of the heads of the valleys road; there was the £7.5 million to help improve the railway line between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff; and there was a further £7.3 million to help build the new-ish Blaenau Gwent learning zone. Those important investments have helped many people to travel to work or to get the skills and qualifications they need. However, there is still much to do to help create opportunities for all our people. To do that, we need significant further investment. This funding needs to be in the pipeline and ready to go as soon as possible.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon said, given the recent extension of article 50 we need some clarity about the Treasury guarantee. In Blaenau Gwent we need three specific things: improvements on our railway line to Cardiff, with four trains an hour; road upgrades to the south and to the west; and the Welsh Government’s Tech Valleys project to be supported through a dedicated training centre that will equip people for the jobs of the future. The eastern valleys and Blaenau Gwent deserve their fair share from the new fund. After losing coal and steel, our valleys are taking time to catch up with the rest of Wales and the rest of the UK. Both the UK Government and the Welsh Government need to prioritise our communities’ industries, which previously powered not just the UK’s economy but the world’s economy.
Finally, the EU’s structural funds were not meant to be a replacement for a UK-wide regional policy but, wrongly, that is what they became. I therefore urge the Government to make two commitments: to ensure that areas such as Blaenau Gwent get a fair deal out of the shared prosperity fund; and to ensure that in future those areas also get the capital spending they need from other investing Departments, such as those responsible for transport, business and culture.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing the debate, and I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), to his place—I hope that he will add some much-required substance to the Wales Office team.
Three years ago, Vote Leave campaigners promised that Wales would lose not a penny if we voted to leave the EU. If we leave the EU, Plaid Cymru is determined to ensure that they fulfil their promise. I will briefly outline the principles of Plaid Cymru’s model for regional development funding. It would be a substantial new step in reducing regional inequalities across the UK; I think that Wales could take a lead in this regard.
Although the EU has the makings of a proper regional development policy, in the UK, by default, the regional policy is to favour London and the south-east of England. Wales currently receives £245 million more a year from the EU than it pays in. That we qualify for so much money reflects our poverty, which is on a par with areas in former USSR satellite states. It also reflects the extreme centralisation, the policy vacuum and the chronic underfunding by the UK Government. The worst inequality in any EU member state is indeed that between London and Wales, and leaving the EU will make the situation worse, unless the Government act.
Two years ago, Westminster committed to creating a UK shared prosperity fund that was
“specifically designed to reduce inequalities between communities across our four nations.”
We are on the cusp of exiting the EU, so where is it? Wales will not forgive a Westminster Government that cannot, or perhaps will not, plan for the funding on which so many of our communities are forced to depend. However, decisions on future funding must be timely. We cannot have a Government-caused funding gap disrupting the proper transition in the delivery of projects on the ground.
Replacing European structural funds with a well-funded UK SPF could be genuinely transformational for Wales and for the rest of the UK, but we need timely planning and proper funding to enable Welsh solutions for Welsh problems. Funding must be managed in Wales and be pre-allocated. A cut-throat bidding process would pit Wales against other regions and nations in a race to the bottom. Also, funding must be multi-annual. I think that all hon. Members here today will know of project managers who have so often been disempowered by self-defeating short-term funding cycles.
Finally, Welsh programmes should continue to meet the goals of European structural funds, with streams for employability and economic development, with any funding being co-ordinated with Welsh Government policy and spending, as well as meeting sustainability legislation, such as the very welcome Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as far as Wales is concerned, it is important that any allocations are made outside of the Barnett formula?
Indeed, that is a crucial point, and one that I have taken up with Government Ministers. In my case—in north Wales and in much of rural Wales— that point is particularly crucial for farming. If we pit marginal farming on the uplands of Wales against the grain barons of East Anglia, we all know what will happen. The hon. Gentleman makes a crucial point.
Funding for Wales should meet the goals of the European structural funds. I also mentioned the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which is crucial in this regard. Decades of under-investment by the Welsh and UK Governments have led to chronic and disgraceful child poverty, as outlined in the Assembly this afternoon by my colleague, Rhun ap Iorwerth, and to families having to choose between heating and eating. Leaving the EU will harm our communities further, unless the Government act properly.
The UK shared prosperity fund must deliver for Wales. Otherwise, ever more of our citizens will conclude—rightly, I believe—that we would be better out and in: out of the UK and back in the EU.
I will be as brief as I can, Sir Graham. I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on post-Brexit funding for nations, regions and local areas, for the work he has done in this area. It is important work and it has really exposed the lack of planning by the UK Government on a matter of such importance to Wales and Scotland.
It is quite disturbing that communities and charities have been waiting for years to find out what funding will be available after Brexit, and we urgently need from the Minister the details of this so-called UK shared prosperity fund. It is also important to note those issues that must be considered when setting up the fund, including its priorities and objectives, as hon. Members have already said, as well as the sums of money involved, the allocation method and model, the length of planning and who will administer it, because at the moment these matters are devolved matters, serving devolved priorities, which each devolved institution can decide upon and set the priorities for spending.
It is deeply worrying that, as the hon. Member for Aberavon set out, there appears to be a power-grab, plain and simple, because there is no clarity about what will happen. When questions have been asked about this, in local government questions and in other places, it has looked to some as though this process is a means of bringing powers back to the UK Government to decide what Scotland and Wales shall get, rather than Scotland and Wales deciding for themselves what they actually need. It is important that we do not lose that devolved power.
It is also critical for our communities and charities to know what the future funding will be. The EU funding will run out in 2020, and there are charities, businesses and all types of organisations the length and breadth of these islands that need to know, for planning purposes, whether or not they will have funding in just over a year’s time. Yet we still have not seen a consultation, even though the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has promised to publish full details. In November the Wales Office told MPs that a full consultation would be published before the end of 2018, and six months on we are still waiting. I seek some clarity from the Minister today on exactly what that consultation will look like and when it will begin.
The only real information that we have had was a written statement from last July, which consisted of a future planning framework for England, which does not reassure any of us today that Welsh needs will be taken into account. I know that my colleague in the Scottish Government, Aileen Campbell, has written to ask about that issue, but she has not had much by way of a response that will set out what exactly will happen in those inquiries.
What we know is that analysis from the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions estimates that the UK would have been entitled to approximately €13 billion of regional development funds from 2021 to 2027 if the UK stayed in the EU. If the UK’s Stronger Towns fund is anything to go by, the funding for the SPF will be only 10% of what the UK would have received from EU cohesion funds, so we need to know from the Minister today when this funding is coming, and will he guarantee that there will be not one penny less for Wales or for Scotland in the new fund?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I, too, extend my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for having secured the debate. Perhaps more importantly, I am grateful to him for having sponsored the “not a penny less” report through the all-party parliamentary group for post-Brexit funding for nations, regions and local areas. That report has informed the debate throughout.
This is the second debate on the shared prosperity fund over the past six months; the previous one was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). There were nine Labour speakers at that debate in November, and 11 are here today. The fact that so few Conservatives have attended speaks volumes about how important they view the shared prosperity fund for Wales as being. [Interruption.] Well done to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies).
“Not a penny less” has been mentioned by virtually every Member who has spoken today. Wales is home to 5% of the United Kingdom’s population but receives 23% of European funding sent to the UK; “not a penny less” has been mentioned by every Member, and that is the level of funding that we want in future.
It is not only Wales that is concerned about the shared prosperity fund. There have been 177 written parliamentary questions about the fund over the past couple of years, many of which centre on the lack of consultation and detail that has been coming out—or, rather, not coming out—of the Wales Office, the Treasury and other Departments. We were promised a consultation in 2017, but it did not happen. We were promised a consultation in 2018, but by the end of that year it had not happened. As we speak, that consultation is nowhere in sight. We do not just need to secure the level of funding that we have received in the past.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about the consultation. Does he agree that it is important that the consultation occurs as soon as possible, so that it can be fed into the comprehensive spending review and so that Wales can get its fair share?
I agree entirely. I am not sure what the Government are hiding, or why they cannot be open and transparent with the people of Wales.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point about asking Ministers. I have asked Ministers from the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Wales Office. All of my questions have fallen on deaf ears, and when I have queried why the consultation is delayed, no Minister seems to know. My concern is that there is a question of trust: the Government have cancelled various projects that they promised they would deliver, and now that we are moving into the position of what will happen post Brexit, they cannot give us answers. That is why we on the Opposition Benches are so sceptical about what the Government will deliver in the long term. Does my hon. Friend agree?
As ever, my hon. Friend speaks immense sense.
We are concerned not just with the level of funding, but with the issues of democracy and respect for devolution in this, the 20th year of devolution. We do not want the Welsh Government to be leapfrogged, and for the Conservative Government in London to be undermining devolution by dealing directly with local government in Wales. If we do not have direct, democratic input from the Welsh Government, what happened in the United Kingdom will happen in Wales. When the Conservatives got into power, they vired education funding away from the poorest areas and towards the Tory shires. Nine out of 10 of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom have had three times the rate of austerity cuts than the average.
The poor will be punished unless the Welsh Government have overriding responsibility for the allocation of funding within Wales. It is not just Labour politicians saying this; the Federation of Small Businesses has called for the devolved nations to retain the power to set their own allocations and frameworks for how funding should be prioritised, taking into account local economic needs. There is unity across the board, with the private sector, government and public sector all wanting the democratic control that we have had for the past 20 years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon gave his three demands: not a penny less; that devolution should be respected; and that a date for the shared prosperity fund consultation should be given immediately, as has been mentioned by virtually every single Member who has spoken today. I hope the Minister will at least be able to answer my hon. Friend’s three questions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I will finish a minute early to allow the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) to respond to the debate. I congratulate him on having secured this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Members who have contributed today, showing their pride in, and passion for, the communities they represent here at Westminster. In particular, I thank those hon. Members who have welcomed me to my new post over recent weeks, and with whom I have already enjoyed discussions. My door is always open to those who want to engage constructively with the Government on issues that affect Wales and their constituents.
Although I have been in the Wales Office for only just over a month, I have managed to travel across the nation, so the issues raised today are already familiar. Particular highlights of the past month have been, first, the visit to Tata Steel in Port Talbot, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Aberavon. There, I heard first hand about the exciting prospects for carbon capture and not just storage but use. I was also in Monmouthshire recently to talk with the local authority about proposals for a Chepstow bypass to cut congestion through the town, improve economic growth and link our Union more closely, given that the bypass will literally cross the English-Welsh border. Only last week in north Wales, I met the innovative telecommunications business Moneypenny—familiar, I am sure, to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas)—which shows how Welsh firms compete on the global market.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberavon in his role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for post-Brexit funding for nations, regions and local areas. From what he has said today, it is clear that he is passionate about that issue, as are his colleagues who have also spoken. That is why, as he mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales met him and colleagues from the APPG on 11 March to discuss post-Brexit regional funding. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues found the meeting helpful and that it reassured him that this Government are taking future regional funding in Wales seriously.
I congratulate the Minister on his role, and say “Well done” for travelling around Wales and hearing people’s concerns about the future. When will the consultation on the shared prosperity fund begin?
I thank the hon. Gentleman; I will come on to the shared prosperity fund in a moment. Of course, if he invited me to visit his beautiful constituency of Blaenau Gwent, I would be more than happy to add it to my list of travels.
At this point, it is important to look to the future and at what the Government have committed in regional funding. In our 2017 manifesto, which I am sure was a popular read for everyone in this room, we set out our proposals for a UK shared prosperity fund to reduce inequalities between communities across our four nations. The UK’s shared prosperity fund seeks to provide the opportunity to move away from the old bureaucratic EU model, and to design a future regional funding model that truly benefits people across our United Kingdom in a way that reflects the specific needs and strengths of its different parts.
Will the Minister give way?
Not for the moment.
We will achieve our objective by strengthening the foundations of productivity, as set out in our modern industrial strategy, to support people to benefit from economic prosperity. As a Government, we have already begun engagement on the fund with the Welsh Government and key stakeholders in Wales. That engagement will continue, both at official and ministerial levels. Of course, a benefit of debates such as this is that we can hear the views of right hon. and hon. Members. It is important to recognise that direct engagement with stakeholders has already taken place, including with the third sector, universities and local authorities in Wales. Official-led events were held in Cardiff in November last year, and more recently in St Asaph on 30 January.
As has been referenced several times, the Government have committed to holding a public consultation on the design of the fund. The consultation will build on the conversations and engagement on the fund that have already taken place. That includes engagement with the Welsh Government, because we will respect the devolution settlements as part of the fund, as requested by Opposition Members.
I recognise that right hon. and hon. Members are concerned about the delay in the consultation. I make this point in response: the delay should not be misunderstood as the Government not being fully committed to the fund—we are. The dynamics of EU exit, not least in this place, often mean there is a fast-changing situation, so it would not be appropriate to speculate on specific dates for when the consultation will be launched.
It is worth reflecting on how constructive work has taken place between the UK and Welsh Governments on city and growth deals in Wales. By the end of the Parliament, every part of Wales will be covered by a growth or city deal. Cardiff and then Swansea, as well as, most recently, north Wales and then mid-Wales, are or will be benefiting from that collaborative approach to turbocharge economic growth regionally in Wales.
I listened with interest to the points made by the hon. Member for Wrexham. He may be aware that I was in Wrexham last week talking with local authority leaders and other members of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board. I respect the fact that it needs to be a collaborative effort, but what is key is that the proposals come from the region upwards, not Westminster downwards. Although we have to ensure that we are satisfied that the money will be transformative, it is about what the region thinks.
I encourage the Minister to engage with Members of Parliament, who have been very active in establishing the forum of the all-party parliamentary group, with which he has not yet engaged. It would be helpful if he would meet the all-party group to hear what Members of Parliament, who have the largest mandate, have to say to him on this important subject.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive intervention. I am more than happy to accept the invitation, although I have not been short of north Wales Members of Parliament wanting to come and see me. I have already met the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), and spoken with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). As I said at the start of my speech, my door is always open to those who want to talk constructively, and I hope to meet on their patch as well, if possible. Certainly, I am more than happy to engage with Members of Parliament on these issues.
The Minister seems reluctant to give us a date for when exactly the consultation will begin, but does he agree that it should begin, and finish, before the comprehensive spending review is delivered?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his further intervention. As I said, I do not want to get into specific dates, but I am clear that the spending review will set out how we approach the fund in the future. I am not surprised to see such passion. We will ask people across Wales about the size, structure and priorities for the fund, and that will develop as we approach this year’s crucial spending review. Given the continuing debates about our EU exit, it is clearly hard to give a specific date, although, as the hon. Gentleman knows, constructive discussions are ongoing between our Front Benches as we speak.
I understand that the Minister cannot go into any detail about the fund itself, but can he give us some indication of the principles behind it? Will it be based on need, or on some sort of competitive tendering or competitive proposals, either between Wales and other regions and nations, or even within Wales itself?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Our clear emphasis will be on ensuring that it works for local communities and delivers prosperity and growth across the nation. The consultation will set out our plans, and I am sure that he and other Members will be powerful advocates in ensuring that the fund works for their communities in the way they envisage.
I am conscious that many Members have raised the future of EU funding. In 2016, the Government guaranteed funding for UK organisations in receipt of EU funds where projects are agreed before the day the UK leaves the European Union. In July, the Government announced an extension to that guarantee, which will underwrite the UK’s allocation for structural and investment fund projects under this EU budget period to 2020 in the event of the UK leaving without a withdrawal agreement. That ensures that UK organisations, such as charities, businesses and universities, will continue to receive funding over a project’s lifetime if they successfully bid into EU-funded programmes before December 2020.
Our overall message is therefore business as usual. We want all places to continue to sign contracts while we still belong to these funds.
Will the Minister give way?
Not for the moment.
The December 2017 withdrawal agreement means that Wales will receive its full 2014 to 2020 allocation, because we recognise the importance of short-term certainty on funding. As we transition to longer term arrangements, we will of course ensure that all parts of the UK are treated fairly and that their circumstances are taken into account. We have promised, as I have already touched on, to engage the devolved Administrations as we develop the UK shared prosperity fund.
Will the Minister give way?
Given the time, I need to make progress.
I fully recognise the importance of EU funds to Wales. The guarantees set out by the UK Government show the importance that we place on those funds, as does the position that we have since reached with the EU on participating in the 2014 to 2020 EU programmes until closure. Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, UK entities ripe to participate in EU programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ during the current multi-annual financial framework period will be unaffected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU for the lifetime of the projects financed by the current multi-annual financial framework. UK-based organisations and people will be able to bid for funding and participate in and lead consortia in 2019 and 2020.
In terms of our future participation, the joint political declaration published in November sets out a basis for co-operation in European Union programmes, subject to the conditions set out in the corresponding Union instruments, such as in science and innovation, culture and education, development and defence capabilities, civil protection and space. Of course, the UK would make financial contributions were we to participate in any EU programmes.
On the specific point made about Barnettisation and potential agricultural funding, direct payments will continue to be made on the same basis in 2019 and 2020. The Government have already confirmed that overall funding for UK farm support will be protected in cash terms until the end of the Parliament in 2022, providing more certainty than any other EU member state. Crucially, the Government are clear that they will not simply apply the Barnett formula to changes in DEFRA funding beyond this Parliament. That means that farmers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will not just be allocated funding according to the population size of each nation, which in each case is significantly smaller than that of England.
In the beginning, EU funding was seen as something of a panacea for all Wales’s ills and as an opportunity that needed to be grasped with both hands. However, we should question whether, given the way that money was spent, it has reached those communities. We can all think of examples of projects that did not succeed, such as Techniums, the Ebbw Vale funicular railway and the All Wales Ethnic Minority Association.
I hear the passion with which many Members representing their communities have articulated what they see as the benefits of EU funding. However, we need to contrast that with the fact that some of the areas involved returned some of the highest leave votes. That was not based on whether a consultation was going to take place, but on what people perceived in their areas. It is a challenge for us as politicians to ensure that people see the benefit of what is done in their area.
As I set out at the beginning of my speech, the UK’s exit from the EU provides us with a considerable opportunity to reconsider how we invest our money in a way that helps to reduce inequality across our four nations. The current system is bureaucratic, inefficient and difficult to access. With the UK shared prosperity fund, we would have the opportunity to design a fund that works in the interests of Wales and the UK as a whole. I am clear that we will do that while respecting the devolution settlements and continuing to engage with the devolved Administrations, as we have successfully and productively done and continue to do on growth deals, and as I have done personally since my appointment, in the shared interests of those we serve.
Ultimately, the Government want to see an economically strong Wales, within a prosperous and strengthening United Kingdom. Working alongside the Welsh Government, through a future shared prosperity fund and other initiatives such as the growth deal, we can ensure that that becomes a reality.
The Minister’s speech showed that the Government are truly paralysed by Brexit. We could have a debate about that, but the fact is that that paralysis is having real-world consequences. What is the future of that key infrastructure project? What is the future of that vital skills project in our community? What is the future of that vital railway upgrade? We simply do not know. We do not have answers to those questions, and the clock is ticking. We are talking about 2020 as if it is a decade away. It is not; it is just around the corner. These are multi-annual programmes that have a time lag in them, and the clarity should have been forthcoming months ago.
I and many other Members asked for a guarantee that Wales will not receive a penny less, a guarantee that the devolution settlement will be fully respected, and clarity on when the shared prosperity fund consultation will launch. It is a matter of great regret that answers to those three questions were not forthcoming. We will therefore continue to press the Government for some clarity on those vital points.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned with Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).