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House of Commons Hansard
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Westminster Hall
15 May 2019
Volume 660

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 15 May 2019

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Marriage and Civil Partnership: Minimum Age

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank our new Minister for replying to this important debate and look forward to his response. The debate is about whether the House should consider increasing the legal age of marriage and civil partnership in the UK to 18.

Whatever our differences, I confidently predict that everyone in the House believes that it is sacrosanct that we protect our children; indeed, I suspect that all agree that we should be at the forefront of protecting children across the world. Laws in this country rightly consider young people differently until they are 18, and in the wider world the United Nations convention on the rights of the child relates to those under that age. It is clear that 16-year-olds are not adults. Some may outwardly appear more mature, but the reality is that they are still developing in both body and mind. In their teens, boys and girls are still guided by parents and teachers; after all, it was us who insisted that they need to be in full-time education until they are 18.

Could Members possibly imagine the 16-year-olds they know—their own children or grandchildren—getting married at that age? My granddaughter will be 15 later this year, and the idea of her getting married in just over a year’s time is mind-boggling, and she would agree. She will not be forced into marriage, but sadly that is not true of all young people, either in the UK or, just as importantly, across the globe, and specifically in countries where this country, and indeed this House, still hold significant sway.

The ability to marry under the age of 18 with the consent of parents is an important legal anomaly; I would argue that it is an absurdity. The reality of child marriage is extremely complex and wide-reaching.

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My hon. Friend makes a strong point. Has she looked at minimum ages around the world? There seems to be quite a large variation, particularly in places such as Africa, where it can be as low as 13 in some countries. Has she looked at comparative ages in the rest of Europe?

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I have not actually looked at comparative ages in the rest of Europe. However, certainly in Africa and other developing countries, there is a wide range. We ask African countries and anywhere that we send development money to not to allow children to marry, and to set the minimum age at 18. They turn to us and ask why they should listen, because we allow children to marry. That is another very good reason why we should increase the age to 18.

The problem cuts across religions, regions and cultures, and it happens at home in the UK too, in the 21st century. The fact that it is possible to marry at 16 effectively means that child marriage is written into British law, which is held up as a guiding light in legal systems across the world. By not changing it, we give regimes an excuse to say, “What’s good for the British is good for us.”

I previously advocated changing our marriage law to increase the legal age to 18—with no exceptions—through a ten-minute rule Bill. Unfortunately, I had to withdraw it on Second Reading. Among the arguments I made in the House in support of the Bill were those relating to maturity levels, negative social implications, meeting international standards and helping to prevent forced marriages. I will reiterate all those arguments in more detail in this speech, to stress the importance of increasing the legal age of marriage in the UK.

Statistics on marriage among 16 and 17-year-olds are limited, but a limited dataset can be found on the Office for National Statistics website. It shows that 40 boys and 200 girls aged 16 to 17 married an opposite-sex partner in 2014, which is the most recent period for which we have data. Same-sex partners can now also marry at 16, but there is no recorded data on same-sex couples getting married at 16 or 17, which might be because there are so few cases, or none at all, of same-sex couples marrying below 18. The numbers might be relatively low, but the negative impact on the individuals involved in the marriage are large and wide-ranging.

Hon. Members should keep in mind the wider influence that our laws have. Increasing the marriage age in the UK to 18 has been gathering political momentum for some time. It should be noted that in 2017 Parliament considered the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, which sought to raise the minimum age of consent to marriage or civil partnership to 18 and create an offence of causing a person under 18 to enter into a marriage or civil partnership. Unfortunately, the 2016-17 Session was prorogued and the Bill made no further progress. I attempted to reignite the process with my ten-minute rule Bill, but this failed on Second Reading.

Frustratingly, previous efforts to amend the existing law have been rejected or delayed for a number of reasons. One argument is that the number of people who get married under 18 is so low—and ever decreasing—that it is not worth the legislative time to change the law. However, for those who get married at such a young age, the social impact is enormous, and as we have not legislated for more than a month, we could have fitted it in. The reality is that the largest body of people that this change in the law will protect are not foolish, love-struck teens but vulnerable young women forced into marriages permitted by their own families for a host of social and cultural reasons.

As a nation, we have a moral duty to do everything in our power to reduce the number of forced marriages and close loopholes that make it possible to obtain such marriages by legal means. This relatively simple and straightforward change to the existing law would have a significant impact on young people. Marriage is a major life decision for which children are not emotionally or physically ready. Marriage is intended to be a lifetime commitment and should not be rushed into. Setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 provides an objective, rather than subjective, standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not ready.

I passionately believe that it should be our priority to protect children, and that may mean from themselves as well as from potential dangers from others. The very fact that children of 16 and 17 need the consent of their parents to be married shows that they are not mature enough to make the decisions themselves—they are children. Increasing the age to 18 ensures that teenagers do not recklessly and naively rush into marriage, but it also protects them from the demands of parents who try to push their offspring to marry early. I say this as somebody who believes in marriage; I am not trying to stop marriage, just for those who are too young. In both cases, child marriages suffer from complications that too often end in divorce.

This year marks 101 years of the suffragette movement. We should recall that it was pressure from those brave campaigners that brought about the Age of Marriage Act 1929. Until then there was no defined minimum age, and making it 16 was seen as protecting children. However, 90 years ago, most young people aged 16 would have been working, probably since they were 14, unlike now, in England, where they must stay in either full-time education or training. My own mother started work at 14, so it would not have been unreasonable for her to get married at 16. She did not; she waited until she was 19, which in my view is still too young. However, life has changed. In other words, that was then and this is now, and we need to move with the times. Culture has changed, and so has our commitment to protecting young people—or at least it should have done.

There are a number of negative consequences from marrying at 16 or 17. Research has shown that child marriage is often associated with leaving education early, limited career and vocational opportunities, serious physical and mental health problems, developmental difficulties for the children born to young mothers, and an increased risk of domestic violence. A clear example of that is that if married children drop out of school and fail to finish education and training, they can subsequently be locked into poverty. It is clear that that phenomenon disproportionately affects girls. Child brides in particular are often isolated, with limited opportunities to participate in the development of their wider communities and reach their full potential in modern society. It is difficult for child brides to pursue education, employment or entrepreneurial opportunities. Child marriage therefore hampers efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development goals. It leaves young brides at risk of premature school drop-out, sexual activity—often without consent or contraception—and the myriad health-related consequences that accompany teenage pregnancy.

The Campaign for Female Education notes that teenage birth rates are highest where child marriage is most prevalent. When girls become pregnant before their bodies are ready, they are at high risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, which endanger the life of both mother and child. Human Rights Watch noted that girls who marry are at higher risk of domestic violence than women who marry as adults. The Campaign for Female Education supports that assertion.

It is interesting to note that, in general, fewer people are getting married at a young age. For marriages of opposite-sex couples, the average age for men marrying in 2015 was 37.5 years and for women it was 35.1 years. People are less likely to settle down quickly when they are young.

There is a far greater focus on education for both men and women now. Quite rightly, ambition and expectation are higher for many young people in the modern day and age. The late teens and early twenties are seen as key development years to study, travel and consider options for the world of work. Historically, women may have got married younger, but in the modern world their education and employment prospects are far greater. Some 37.1% of young women go to university, which did not happen in previous years.

The Campaign for Female Education states that women who are employed reinvest 90% of their earnings in their families, lifting themselves, their children, their siblings and relatives out of poverty. However, when a girl is married as a child, that can often mean the end of her education and impede her ability to become financially independent. The campaign concludes:

“One girl’s potential to lift an entire family, and even a community, out of poverty disappears. This is happening millions of times over. As the inter-generational cycle of poverty continues, youth unemployment and economic instability can lead to migration, conflict and violence.”

Every child bride could have been a doctor, teacher, scientist, entrepreneur or politician even. There is a huge social as well as economic cost to child marriage.

British law should act as a gold standard internationally and reverberate around the world. That should be the case with child marriage. We should be using our influence with other countries to end child marriage. Unfortunately, the UK is out of sync with other western countries and ignores the advice of the international human rights conventions on this issue. The international human rights conventions on women’s rights and on children say that countries should end the practice of enabling child marriage below 18. The UK is violating those commitments. Under the UN sustainable development goals, countries around the world have pledged to end child marriage—any marriage in which one or both spouses are under 18—and we have promised to do that by 2030. Human Rights Watch has asserted that the EU could do more to help to end child marriage, and I understand that the European Parliament is working towards that.

Many countries’ legal systems prevent marriage before the age of 18. I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that I had not researched the position in Europe, but I have looked at Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain, because they recently reformed their laws on child marriage, as did the US state of Virginia. Similar laws are pending in other US states, but not in this country yet. Other countries permit marriage among the young only for certain groups. For instance, according to the US State Department’s human rights report on Trinidad and Tobago from 2014, the official marriage age is 18 for men and women, but Muslims and Hindus have a separate Marriage Act.

International law is very specific about who should be allowed to marry. If a country wants to permit exceptions to the minimum age of 18, “mature, capable” children are allowed to marry, but only “in exceptional circumstances” at age 16 or older, when

“such decisions are made by a judge based on legitimate exceptional grounds defined by law”

and

“without deference to culture and tradition.”

By allowing 16-year-olds to marry without consent from a judge, the UK is in reality breaking international law. However, the great hypocrisy here is that we ask other countries, in the developing world, to abide by international law and ensure that the legal age of marriage is 18. I believe it is vital that the UK live by the standards that it is keen to advocate for in the developing world.

Following the first Girl Summit in 2014, the Department for International Development allocated up to £39 million over five years to support global efforts to prevent child marriages. There is a vast body of work to do, as globally 15 million girls under 18 are married each year. By its proactive contribution, the UK recognised that child marriages result in early pregnancy and girls facing social isolation, interrupted schooling, limited career and vocational opportunities and an increased risk of domestic violence, so why are we not leading the way by increasing the legal age of marriage in this country?

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If I get the opportunity, I hope to catch your eye, Mr Bailey, and raise a couple of points, but in the interim, let me ask this. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) has referred yet again to teenage pregnancy. Can she clarify whether she is seeking to change both the legal age of marriage and the age of sexual consent, or just the legal age of marriage?

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With my Bill, if I can bring it back after the next Queen’s Speech, I would be looking to change only the age of marriage. I do not think the House would accept changing the legal age at which sex can take place and I think it would be very difficult to stop that—to change that law. Although it might be desirable, I think it would be impossible—just think of all the young people in this country, with hormones racing round their bodies—to stop sex happening. It has happened throughout the ages, and I think that a measure to try to stop it in this day and age would not get through the House. What I want to do is to change the age of marriage, and perhaps that will have some influence in terms of people deciding to keep themselves pure until they get married. That is a hope I have, but I do not know whether it is a reality.

Why are we not leading the way by increasing the legal age of marriage in this country from 16 to 18, which is the recognised age of adulthood? In Bangladesh, which has the second highest absolute number of child marriages in the world—just under 4 million—some lobbyists are said to be using the current UK law as an example of why the legal age of marriage there should be lowered. They are saying, “You allow children to get married. Why shouldn’t we? Why should we listen to you?”

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I have had exactly that experience in Bangladesh. I met the Prime Minister and spoke to her about a law that the country was trying to pass to make marriage legal under 18 in certain circumstances, and she threw back to me, “In your country, you are allowed to marry at 16.” The message was really “Do not come here lecturing us,” so I want to echo the point that the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) made very well just now.

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I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We cannot tell people what to do if we are not doing it ourselves. We have to lead by example, and the change that I propose is one way in which we can do that. We need the three relevant Departments in the UK: DFID; the Ministry of Justice; and the Department for Work and Pensions—no. Which Department is the Minister from?

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Does my hon. Friend mean the Home Office?

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The Home Office—yes, that is it. I thank the Minister, who is so new that I cannot remember which Department he is from.

Those Departments have to work together to bring this change about. Maybe this long debate will be one of the first steps in that process, but as soon as the Queen’s Speech—whenever it is—is over, I intend to bring this matter back as a ten-minute rule Bill or a private Member’s Bill, because it is really important that we set a good example to the rest of the world.

In addition to attempting to stop child marriage on the international stage, it is crucial that we meet the international human rights standards that have been established to put a stop to the practice. I agree with the assertion by the chairwoman of the global advocacy group, Girls Not Brides, Mabel van Oranje:

“Britain’s delay in reforming its own marriage laws is increasingly counterproductive.”

Forced marriage is defined by the Home Office as

“a marriage conducted without the valid consent of two parties, where duress is a factor.”

It is marriage—a lifetime commitment—entered into by an individual against their will. In the UK, law dictates that forcing someone to marry is a criminal offence. It is child abuse, domestic abuse and a form of violence against women and men.

England and Wales outlawed forced marriages in 2014. That was, in part, down to the work of a campaign by Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana, which started in Derby. I know her well, and she has worked tirelessly with that organisation to stop forced marriage, to help girls who have been forced into marriage to escape and to make sure that girls in such marriages are safe. Many of the girls who have been married early for cultural reasons do not feel safe in their own homes.

The outlawing of forced marriage was enshrined in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which sets out that forcing someone, including children, into marriage is illegal and can lead to a maximum of seven years in jail. Previously, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 came into force along with forced marriage protection orders, which are designed to assist those who are threatened with forced marriage, or by a third party on someone else’s behalf. Those orders can be used to prevent a forced marriage from taking place, or to protect someone who has already been forced into marriage.

I welcome the fact that in the UK, forcing someone into marriage now carries a maximum sentence of seven years in jail. I also acknowledge that in many ways the UK is a world leader in the fight against forced marriage. Unfortunately, however, that does not prevent the practice from happening. The Home Office estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 people are at risk of being forced into marriage every year in the UK. In 2017, more than a quarter of cases dealt with by the Forced Marriage Unit involved children aged 17 and under, and the vast majority of the victims—77.8%—were female.

The ability to marry at 16 with parental consent is a significant discrepancy in the law here. Too often, parental consent means parental coercion for 16 and 17-year-old children, and sometimes for even younger children, because children can be taken out of school in the UK and sent to another country, where they are married at 14 and kept there until they are 16, and then brought back to the UK at 16. We are told that these girls have parental consent. The organisation Girls Not Brides warns that this “legal loophole” means that child marriages, and potentially forced marriages, are still sanctioned in the UK, because in a number of cases parents do not act as the safeguarding mechanism that the law intended them to be.

In some communities in the UK, the legality of marriage at 16 can result in forced child marriage, whereby parents can consent on behalf of their children. Furthermore, many vulnerable teenagers are being sent overseas to marry. Forced marriage is a violation of human rights and is contrary to UK law, including the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which states that a marriage shall be voidable if

“either party to the marriage did not validly consent to it, whether in consequence to duress, mistake, unsoundness of mind or otherwise.”

Such marriages must be identified and ended. However, an amendment to the law to increase the legal age of marriage to 18 might stop these marriages in the first place, by making them an illegal impossibility here in the UK. On a personal level, individuals may be more mature and able to resist forced marriages at the age of 18, by which stage they may have managed to get to university, or to get a job after they have finished training.

Although changes to the law have helped to safeguard people from forced marriages, it is important that educational professionals and local communities are fully aware of the signs of forced marriage. The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation’s executive director, Diana Nammi, recently stressed the importance of education in a televised interview, saying:

“We need to educate the community as well, we need to let them know that child marriage is a brutal situation.

Many of them think it is just a sexual relationship, but it’s a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the children and they are not prepared yet.”

To conclude, I strongly believe that the legal age of marriage should be increased from 16 to 18. It is important that we rewrite marriage law here, so that it is fit for the 21st century and aligns with international law.

I was pleased to learn that 79% of 2,700 respondents agreed with me that the minimum age for marriage and civil partnerships should rise from 16 to 18 in a recent poll, which was conducted between 10 and 14 May on the social media pages of the House of Commons. I thank the House’s digital engagement programme for conducting this research for me.

At the heart of this matter is a moral dilemma about our values, not only here at home but internationally. This country is an advocate on the international stage for the eradication of child marriage and we must practice what we preach. I am on the International Development Committee and I have been out to many countries and seen how some of them are trying their best to raise the age of marriage, but that is not happening here. As I say, we must practice what we preach. Ultimately, I am in agreement with UNICEF’s assertion that

“marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights”.

Meanwhile, forced marriage has a profound personal impact. In a recent Sky News feature, one interviewee—Mrs Khan—recalled her experience, which captures the sad reality of forced marriage. She said:

“It took away so much freedom from me. I could have met someone I loved. Instead, I was forced to get married, forced to have children, forced to put up with so many unbearable things.”

Therefore, I would like to see the Government pass clear and consistent legislation that establishes 18 as the minimum age of marriage, with no exceptions for customary law, parental consent or judicial consent. It is also clear that increasing the minimum age of marriage to 18 would provide a vehicle to help to safeguard girls and boys from being married before they are ready, or indeed from entering into a forced marriage by legal means.

I will finish my speech today by quoting the judge, Mr Justice Peace, in the landmark legal case, Pugh v. Pugh, in 1951. He spoke of the capacity of young people to marry and his words are as relevant today as they were then, 70 years ago. He stated in his conclusions:

“According to modern thought it is considered socially and morally wrong that persons of age, at which we now believe them to be immature and provide for their education, should have the stresses, responsibilities and sexual freedom of marriage and the physical strain of childbirth. Child marriages by common consent are bad for the participants and bad for the institution of marriage.”

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), to his post. It is good to see him here in Westminster Hall.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) not just on raising this issue but on making what really was a powerful speech. We use the word “powerful” so often in this House, but her speech really was exemplary, setting out so many of the arguments that I am now wondering what I will say. She and I will remember our visit to Ethiopia as members of the Select Committee on International Development. We spent quite some time in a village community where DFID was working to encourage young girls to defer their marriages. It was working successfully, particularly with the community elders—the leaders—and had transformed the lives of some of those young women.

As we have heard from Mabel van Oranje, the chairman of the global advocacy group Girls Not Brides, the UK should practise what it preaches. Girls Not Brides argues that the major impacts of getting married young are that girls are more likely to drop out of school; they never have a chance to develop the vocational skills that will enable them to enter the world of work; and they are at greater risk of marital rape, domestic abuse, serious depression and health problems. All of those issues were discussed with us in those communities in Ethiopia, and the benefits of deferring marriage were clearly shown to us. Indeed, we had the opportunity to meet a number of the young women who were benefiting substantially.

I will give a couple of examples to flesh out the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has made. One of them refers to a lady called Amina, whose parents were born in Bangladesh. Interestingly, it has also been made clear to me that the proposals to change the law in Bangladesh to allow marriage at 16 cited British law as a justification. Amina—not her real name—is now a mother of four in her 30s, and lives in London. She had never talked to her husband before her wedding, just after her 17th birthday. It was an arranged marriage, arranged by her parents; it put an end to her studies and plunged her into depression. She says:

“The marriage was all about fear. I was a total stranger in my own house. I was really naive. I felt like a child myself when I had my first children…It was a big sacrifice of my life. I had no chance to explore things. I went through terrible times.”

Another example, that of Zee, has been reported by Reuters. When Zee was 13, she returned home from school one day to find an engagement party underway at her home in the north of England. Her excitement at the celebrations quickly turned to shock when she asked her mother, “Who’s getting married?” and her mother said, “It’s you!” She told Reuters that her betrothed was represented by a photo; he was an older cousin whom she had never met, who lived in Afghanistan, her parents’ country of birth. She said to the reporter:

“One day I’m not even allowed to talk to boys and the next I’m getting married…I was dressed up”—

this was at the engagement party—

“to look like a Christmas tree—very sparkly, very bling. Everyone was happy. The only person who was miserable was me”.

Zee escaped by running away from home, but many are not so fortunate. The latest figures I have from the Government’s forced marriage unit—the Minister may have more recent ones—are that of the 1,196 victims dealt with, one in four was below the age of 18. That is around 300 people. Interestingly, one in five was a male victim, so we must not forget those people either.

The points that we are making are serious, because every one of those victims is an individual life. It cannot be acceptable to say that the numbers are not great; those are substantial numbers, and the impact on those young people is lifelong. The impact is not just on them, because if a marriage is good and positive, it is good not just for the people involved within it but for any children they might have and, indeed, for the community around them.

This is national Marriage Week, so the next part of my speech will touch a bit more widely on the importance of marriage. Marriage is a major life-changing decision that establishes a family, often—though not always—with children as part of it. Strong marriages contribute greatly to a stable and flourishing society, including the wellbeing of those children, so it is in all our interests to promote good marriages, including through public policy. It is what everyone wants from marriage.

However, although marriage is a source of great pleasure, it can also be challenging. At times it requires perseverance, which more often than not requires a degree of maturity in understanding human relationships, and understanding both ourselves and others. That must be very difficult at the ages of 16 or 17—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has said, remains difficult for many years afterwards. Marriage is far easier if we make a wise choice at the outset about who we marry and who we will be compatible with, because it is going to last a very long time. As I say, that necessitates an understanding of ourselves, as well as of others.

The Church of England marriage service says of marriage that

“No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly”.

It is

“a sign of unity and loyalty which all should…honour. It enriches society and strengthens community.”

We should not expect that of 16 or 17-year-olds, especially in today’s complex world. When my hon. Friend’s mother or grandmother was getting married, life was so much simpler: often, one married someone within one’s local community, who had grown up with the same values and customs. That so often is not the case now. Life is complicated for these young people, and they also have much higher expectations for their life fulfilment than maybe two or three generations ago. It is too big an ask to expect them to be able to make that decision at 16 or 17, even if it is their own decision and not forced on them. The risk of allowing those young people to marry is too great. We should support them and, I believe, protect them from what could be not just their most major, life-changing decision, but the most damaging decision that they could make. Making the wrong major, life-changing decision can be the biggest mistake of a lifetime.

For many reasons, I fully support my hon. Friend’s proposal. Indeed, I would go a bit further and say that anyone contemplating marriage should be offered the opportunity to take advantage of the wealth of resources out there to help people, particularly young people, make the right decision. We as policymakers could do that, for example, by promoting policy No. 11 in the manifesto to strengthen families—the Minister is smiling. I carry a copy in my handbag, virtually permanently.

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I am not surprised.

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I am very glad to hear that; we are making some impact. Here is policy No. 11, which as I say, I am unashamedly talking about in national Marriage Week:

“Promote high quality marriage preparation by waiving Marriage Registration Fees for couples who take part in an accredited marriage preparation course.”

Not only would that help remove one of the financial barriers to marriage, but it would encourage the uptake of marriage preparation courses. Those courses could be kitemarked, such as the marriage preparation course for engaged couples produced by Holy Trinity Brompton. We have showcased that course, along with a number of other resources, through the all-party parliamentary group for strengthening couple relationships and reducing interparental conflict. They really are excellent materials for people who want to embark on married life with a greater understanding of what it involves. Indeed, after going through some of those courses, some people decide that they are not going to get married. Is that not success, too? Is that not helping to protect them from the heartache and disappointment that such marriages can entail if they do not work out?

One of my parliamentary staff members, Sophia, attended the marriage preparation course when she was engaged; she is now married. She says that it was

“very helpful and laid a strong foundation for going into marriage”,

and she would recommend it. If a couple are busy, Marriage Care offers a “marriage preparation in a day” course, and there are resources on the web such as marriagebydesign.org.uk, which is made available by Care for the Family. That organisation has a host of other resources—I actually went on one of its marriage preparation courses 29 years ago, so it must work. Harry Benson has written a tiny relationship tip booklet, “Let’s stick together”, which he says contains

“simple guidelines to keep your love alive and keep you together.”

Can I recommend that the Minister considers the whole manifesto, and in particular policy No. 11, this week?

The structure of the house we live in when we start off in married life—I know that it is a struggle for some young people to find a home of their own—cannot be stable without strong foundations. No one would expect a house to stay up for long if it was not built on strong foundations; it would collapse. So, too, with marriage, which is too big an issue to leave to chance. A little help from us as policy makers, including by raising the marriage age, could go a long way to helping facilitate lifelong fulfilment for many people, as well as a more flourishing society.

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I will endeavour to be brief. I have just been doing a quick bit of research while the debate has been taking place. To start, I notice that throughout the European Union—I appreciate that that may not be regarded as a particularly good example at present—the average age of marriage is fixed at 18 legally. That varies in some cases between men and women. In the Nordic countries, for example, the age for males to marry without consent appears to be 18, while for women it can be 16, which tells us something about the problems we are facing in this day and age. That is why I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) about the age of consent. There are those of us who believe, as she clearly does and as I do, that the age of marriage without or even with consent is too young and needs to be raised to 18, but we then have the problem of promoting unmarried sexual relationships, which many of us would not wish to seek to do. There is a dilemma there.

I was running a yard rule over the ages of consent, and they range from 11 in Nigeria up to Portugal at 21, though the age of consent for marriage in Portugal is 18, which presumably makes for some interesting celibate relationships between the ages of 18 and 21. I am not sure how they square that circle, but happily that is not our problem. We are here to discuss the situation that prevails and the situation we would like to see prevail in the United Kingdom.

I have listened to the arguments of my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Derbyshire and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and I concur with virtually everything they said, but I do not think we are here this morning to preach, and I am not here to sit in judgment on my fellow man or, in this case, more particularly, my fellow woman. Relationships and cultures vary, but we live in a United Kingdom that sets its norms and standards by the wishes of our population, and, in so far as it is possible—I think it is right to use the phrase that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire used—we try to set a gold standard. We seek to do what is right for the young men and women of our country, of whatever colour, class, denomination or creed.

I hope you will permit this, Mr Bailey, but I will digress very slightly. During the debates on same-sex relationships—note that I use the word “relationships”—as a Christian and an Anglican, I apparently heretically raised the proposal that marriage, a word I use advisedly, is a relationship between a man and a woman with a view to procreation and that anything else is a partnership. That is something that prevails not only in the Christian faith, but in many other faiths—probably most. I put forward the suggestion that we should recognise the fundamental difference between a civil union and a faith marriage and that the word “marriage” should be reserved for faith. I would have got rid of registry office weddings and civil unions and had one category of civil partnership, whether heterosexual or same-sex, for everything else. That would have made a much safer definition for everyone, but unhappily we did not go down that road at the time, because that was not the way the political wind or political correctness were going.

While seeking to recognise the separation between the age of consent and marriage, or civil union—in this context, I will use “civil union” from now on—it seems to me that one of the duties we have is to protect young people from predatory older adults of whatever sex. I can just about remember when I was 16. I suspect I was fairly vulnerable; I suspect most of us were and I suspect that young people today still are, in the main, in the United Kingdom, which is what we are talking about.

I understand the culture of arranged marriages, but that is not what we practise in our culture. I do not think they are advisable or desirable, but if such marriages are going to take place and that is the nature of the culture, I see no reason whatever why even an arranged marriage should not be arranged at 18, rather than 16. I take the point that has been made that 18 ought to allow a child to have a childhood, an education and a degree of maturity, whether male or female, before entering into what for some of us is the most sacred of unions. By the way, I speak as a hypocrite, because I am a divorced married man. I am happily married now, but I have to concede that my “till death us do part” vows did not hold. I want to set the record straight on that. I am unable, in the terms of my faith, to marry the lady whom I love and live with in a Christian church because technically, in the eyes of the Lord, I am still married.

Although I support the motion, I want to put down one caveat, which is that comparisons with other continents are dangerous. I have worked as an international election observer in many countries for some years, but particularly throughout the continent of Africa, where the voting age is 18, as it is in most countries. I recall very vividly challenging a young lady about her voting intention as she was queueing to vote. I asked her to produce a card, which she did. She had an ID card that claimed she was over 18. Well, that young lady was certainly not a day over 13, but she was carrying a baby on her back, and it was her baby. It was borne in upon me by local people that although this young lady was probably well under 18, sadly, in the terms of that particular country, where the average lifespan for a young woman is still probably only about 35, she was actually nearly halfway through her life.

If we look at it from that point of view, to suggest that that union, inside or outside of marriage, should not have taken place, becomes ridiculous. We have to recognise that while we may set an example and want to raise the bar ourselves and say, “This is what is right for our young people”, it ill behoves us to go to far-flung places to try to tell other people in other countries with other cultures and, sadly, other life expectancies, how to live.

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I understand what my right hon. Friend says, but the girl is a child. If he thinks she was only 13, she must have been pregnant when she was 12. Whatever the culture of the country, it is a terrible burden for her, however long her life will be. She could have had the child at that age as a result of rape. She probably was not married. If she was married, it was probably a forced marriage. I cannot agree with his point, because that girl should never have had a child at that age. Whether she lives to 35 or 95, it matters not; her body is not ready for it. I fundamentally disagree with the point that he has made.

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I knew it would be a point of disagreement; it was fairly inevitable. That is why I said carefully that I do not think we can come here and preach this morning. Secondly, while we are entitled to set our own gold standards and yardsticks, we should not seek to impose them on other people in other countries with other cultures. We can set an example and help to raise standards of living and life expectancy in other countries through our aid programmes and in other ways, but we cannot tell them what they should do.

The reality on the ground is precisely the reality that my hon. Friend conceded when she said we could not fix the age of marriage in this country to the age of consent. We have to live with the reality internationally. The reality in this country can well be marriage at 18, and in my view and my hon. Friend’s view, it should be, but to say that we are going to stand like Canute at the waves’ side and tell the tide to go away is nonsense. Realistically, politically and practicably, we will not be able to raise the age of consent. It simply will not happen.

There is an incompatibility between the age of consent argument and what we are proposing, which I endorse: the age of marriage at 18. I would prefer people to be married or in a formal, legal civil union before they have children, but in reality that is not the case. With those caveats, I am pleased to support my hon. Friend’s motion.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I welcome the Minister to his place and congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this important debate. I thank Members for their valuable contributions today. The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire argued for raising the minimum age for marriage and civil partnerships, which I will respond to, but first I will lay out the current position.

The current law in England and Wales states that the minimum age for marriage or civil partnership without parental consent is 18. The number of 16 and 17-year-olds who married in 2016 stood at just 179, so the number of young people deciding to get married with their parents’ consent before they turn 18 is a relatively small group. But we must ensure that access to marriage and civil partnership is equal. The introduction of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Act 2019, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) worked so hard to secure, extended civil partnerships in England and Wales to non-same sex couples. The Labour party has a proud history of establishing equality—it introduced the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and equalised the age of consent—and I am very proud that this place introduced an equal marriage Bill that became law. Now civil partners can convert their partnership to a marriage if they so wish.

The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire has made various arguments for raising the minimum age for marriage and civil partnerships to protect against forced marriage. It is of the utmost importance that we protect vulnerable individuals who are exploited and coerced into a forced marriage. Forced marriage is a vile, dangerous and abhorrent practice, and we must ensure that those who fall victim to it are protected. Sadly, the practice takes place across the UK, and we need to do more to protect the vulnerable and offer them the dignified support that is required to free them from such relationships.

Statistics from the forced marriage unit show that in 2017, where the age was known, 15% of cases involved victims below 16 years of age, and nearly 30% involved those under 18, so the UK Government must do more to ensure that victims of forced marriage are listened to and given the support they require. Those who force vulnerable individuals into marriage—for example, to secure immigration status in the UK—must be challenged. Although I welcome the steps that the Government are taking against forced marriage, including their public consultation into introducing a legal mandatory reporting duty relating to cases of forced marriage, they have been too slow to react and those who are suffering now need urgent help.

I get what the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire says regarding maturity, but if we allow people to join the Army and buy a lottery ticket at 16, and given that Wales is currently consulting on lowering the voting age to 16, we cannot say that they are mature enough to do all of those things, but not mature enough to marry. I know several couples who met in school, married at 16 and have had wonderful married lives together. I also know many people who got married at 40 and within 18 months could not stand the sight of each other.

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I think I am absolutely correct in saying that although it is technically possible for somebody to join the Army as a boy soldier at 16, they are not allowed to engage in combat until they are an adult.

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I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman; I was making the case that they were eligible to join the Army at 16.

Couples can fall out of love at any age; I do not believe that age plays any part in how their future develops. If this debate was about protecting people from forced marriage, I would 100% agree with the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire, and if it was about thousands and thousands of 16-year-olds getting married and then finding themselves getting divorced a few months later, I would also agree, but in reality we are talking about a very small number of young people who decide to get married very young for whatever reason. I remain receptive to the arguments, but I want to see a bigger conversation. Far be it from us to stand in the way of love’s young dream. I cannot honestly say that if my 16-year-old son came to me and said he wanted to get married, I would be best pleased, but I would support his decision and help him and his future partner in any way I could.

I really do appreciate the hon. Lady’s sentiments, but can we truly say that by increasing the age for marriage and civil partnerships to 18 we will stop forced marriage and unwanted pregnancies, and stop people remaining in happy relationships purely because they are 16? Let us have a bigger debate and work collectively to ensure that we protect and offer equality for all.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for giving me such a fascinating first outing as the Minister responsible for family justice. I had never given the subject a moment’s thought until Saturday morning when I learned it was on the agenda. I have had a fascinating few days thinking about it. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for their interesting comments. I also thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), my parliamentary next-door neighbour—not geographically, although we share an interest in tidal barrages, but in terms of where our offices are on the parliamentary estate.

The debate has been fascinating. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has a compelling track record on this issue. I pay genuine tribute to her for the knowledge, advocacy and expertise that she brings to the issue. I have listened carefully and thought deeply about the points she has made, which should be the start of a dialogue. As the Minister, I have to take an administrative approach predicated upon the evidence presented to me. The Government understand the concerns about any possible link between marriages involving parties aged 16 and 17 and forced marriage more generally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out—in this, national Marriage Week—marriage will always be one of our most important institutions, but only where consenting parties enter of their own free will and free choice. There can be no doubt that it is a serious violation to be deprived of marital autonomy, and the potential cost on victims of any age, gender or background is abundantly clear.

As the hon. Member for Swansea East pointed out, we announced the launch of a forced marriage public consultation, which sought views on issues such as a possible mandatory reporting duty, requiring certain professionals to report cases of forced marriage and how Government guidance should be updated. In answer to a question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, the Prime Minister said that we will look specifically at whether there is any link between parents giving consent to marry and instances of forced marriage. When we analyse the consultation responses, we will look specifically for that connection. The consultation is now closed. The responses are being sifted as we speak, and we will take a close interest in the analysis that emerges.

It may be helpful to tell all Members present what they already know and to clarify the position on the age of marriage. All UK jurisdictions require that marriage or civil partnership is entered into freely. In England and Wales, the age of majority is 18, but the law provides for marriage or civil partnership at 16 or 17 if the requirement for consents, including judicial consent when parental consent is unavailable, has been met. That requirement is a longstanding one and operates alongside the work of registration officers, who are trained to spot signs of forced marriage and take notice of the intention to marry without the other party, parents or relatives present.

That goes back to the important point made by the hon. Member for Swansea East about the different ages of maturity that emerge. She rightly pointed out the growing debate about whether we should have votes at 16. At the other end, I believe that someone cannot operate a tarmac roller until they are 21. There is still a spectrum of what we consider, as wider society, to be the point at which we reach adulthood and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet pointed out, there is a range of options across Europe and the wider developed world regarding when marriage can occur.

Some US states allow marriage at 18 as of right, and at 16 if some conditions are met. Other countries have taken other approaches. Spain, for example, raised the minimum age to 16, with consents for under-18s, in response to specific concerns about child marriage and forced marriage. Sweden raised the minimum age of marriage in 2014, removing the ability of under-18s to marry with consents. Those differences demonstrate that there is no clear consensus yet in the developed world regarding the minimum age. However, we should continually monitor the impact of changes and their effectiveness, particularly in what goes on around the world more widely.

We have discussed the numbers of people affected in the UK. As the hon. Member for Swansea East pointed out, in 2016, the last year for which we have figures, only 179 people aged 16 or 17 entered an opposite-sex marriage—down from 424 in 2006. Clearly, it is a declining feature of our marriage system. None the less, I strongly take the point that, whether the number of people affected is 400, 100, 10 or one, we should still have the issue at the forefront of our mind.

The British social attitudes report identifies a dramatic shift in British society’s opinions on marriage, and changing norms about formal and informal unions. Men and women have increasingly been marrying at a later age because of their education, employment and economic opportunities, without any prompt by legislative change. I would be fascinated to see any research on the reasons of those 179 under-18s for marriage. I am sure that a charity, think-tank or group out there will take up that challenge, so we will not have to speculate about who those 179 people are. That might help us to identify the extent to which forced marriage is a component.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire made it clear that the fact that consents are needed shows that people might not be mature enough to make those decisions themselves. I understand that, but it is worth pointing out that consents are not a loophole; the law derives from the concept of the age of majority. When the age of majority for getting married was 21, consents were required for anyone under that age. A longstanding provision exists not to make an exception for people to marry at certain ages, but to respect what Parliament has previously determined to be the age of majority.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet introduced the important point that consequential changes would follow were the proposed change enacted. Where would it leave the age of consent? That is a whole new debate that would open up. There would also be consequential changes on other pieces of legislation that involve marriage, dating well back in our statute book. I realise how deeply felt the implications might be, and any change requires careful thought and engagement. Wider policies are brought in, in terms of what happens in Northern Ireland and Scotland, when we, yet again, have different regimes and disparities are introduced. We need to take into account the legal, moral and societal repercussions of any change such as the one proposed. The Government have a duty to explore that carefully in my view.

Perhaps most pertinently, we have to consider whether any such change would affect the incidence of forced marriage in the UK. Raising the domestic marriage age would not by itself prevent people from marrying informally, such as in a religious ceremony that was not legally binding, or from marrying abroad. Amending the minimum age of marriage would not necessarily deter perpetrators from coercing children into marriage through another route, or make the crime of forced marriage any more visible than it is currently. It is also unclear whether a change in the law would necessarily change the attitudes of families and communities who want to exert control over a young person’s decision to marry.

As I said at the beginning, I will look carefully at the consultation responses to try to identify themes that might emerge and that might help to buttress the case, or perhaps diminish it—who knows? However, there is clearly an important international dimension to the debate, as many Members have set out in much more depth than I could. I will not repeat ad nauseam the points made about the work that we have been doing as a Government with the forced marriage unit. I am immensely grateful for all its efforts. The fact that, of more than 1,900 applications since it came into being, more than 1,800 have been granted demonstrates that there is an issue that we need to deal with and that, so far, our actions are having the desired effect. We are sending a clear message that the abhorrent practice of forced marriage is unacceptable and the UK will not tolerate it, domestically or overseas.

Although the number of 16 and 17-year-olds marrying in England and Wales continues to decline, worldwide one in four women are married under 18, and one in 12, incredibly, is married under 15. There is a broad range of contributors to the problem in less developed countries, including community and cultural pressures, a lack of education or employment opportunities, and stigma around illegitimacy. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet, whose name I saw pop up on the all-party parliamentary group’s 2012 report, which looked into this issue and brought it to the forefront of public debate.

I agree that the international dimension is crucial, and we must continue to have it at the forefront of our mind. I reassure Members that the debate will not end today. I will continue to show an interest, but there are many strands that have to be pulled together. I am open to ongoing dialogue with Members, but I am conscious of the limitations that might be found in merely enacting the proposed change. I thank everyone for their contributions and look forward to seeing Members more frequently, I suspect, in Westminster Hall discussing many similar issues.

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It has been a really interesting debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) for taking part. I know that many others wanted to contribute but were unable to attend. I hear what everybody has had to say.

I urge the Minister to work with the Ministry of Justice and the Department for International Development to see if we can agree to look at the issue firmly. I know that the Justice Minister who has oversight of this matter is keen to bring it in—

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The Home Office.

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Sorry—the Home Office. I am confusing my Departments again. Furthermore, those in DFID look rather foolish if they are telling other countries to raise the age of marriage to 18, so I think they will also be keen to take this matter on.

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My hon. Friend puts her finger on a point that those of us who promote strengthening families make time and again: no single Department is overseeing the issue, because it straddles several Departments. We need a senior Minister, ideally at Cabinet level, to oversee the issues that affect families.

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Order. We have a little time available, so I have been fairly lenient in allowing interventions on what should be just a summing-up speech, but I ask hon. Members not to abuse that leniency.

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Thank you, Mr Bailey. The Minister said that there are not many marriages under the age of 18, but actually I think the issue is under-reported: there are more forced marriages than we know about, and we need to protect girls from them.

The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke about children being able to sign up to the Army. However, it could be argued that that is education and training, because up to the age of 18 they cannot fight on the frontline. That is just what we have legislated for; we want people to stay in education and training until that age.

It is interesting that this debate has come up in National Marriage Week, which is an important thing. I am not trying to stop teenagers who have fallen in love at school, who are love’s young dream and who want to get married, but I think that they can wait until they are 18. There is no compulsion for them to get married that much earlier; waiting would give them time to reflect.

Northern Ireland and Scotland have been mentioned, but the marriage age should probably be a devolved matter, so we should look just at England and Wales. I am sure that Northern Ireland would not disagree that 18 is the right age, but I think Scotland would argue differently.

Finally, I recommend that the Minister reads Jasvinder Sanghera’s book “Shame”, which tells her life story. She has written several other books, including “Daughters of Shame”. Her story is quite sobering. Her sister had a forced marriage under the age of 18; she was taken away, forced to marry somebody she did not know and brought back to this country. It was a very unhappy marriage, and in the end she decided to cover herself in petrol and set herself alight. That was in the streets of Derby; it is very close to my heart. I recommend “Shame” because it shows the realities of forced marriage. It is slightly out of date, because it happened a few years ago, but the point stands.

Increasing the minimum age will not stop forced marriage, but children of 18 are that much more mature and have more of an opportunity to tell their parents, “No, I don’t want to do this. I want to go to university, study and make something of my life.” I urge the Minister to work with other Departments to make our proposal a reality. I will be bringing it back after the Queen’s Speech, so I urge him to get on with it, please.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership.

Sitting suspended.

Rape Trials: Treatment of Victims

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered rape trials and CPS treatment of victims.

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Bailey. I was recently privileged to meet an extraordinary and courageous young woman from my constituency at my weekly MP’s surgery. She told me that in May last year a man had attempted to rape her on her way home from a night spent with friends. Physically hurt and emotionally distraught, she made the brave decision to go to the police and seek justice for herself and our community. I was saddened to learn that at the most vulnerable time in her life, when she was most in need of human care and protection, she had been left feeling let down by our justice system.

Time and again, this lady has repeated that although she cannot change what has happened to her, she can try to change what happens to others. As her Member of Parliament, I feel it is only right to speak on behalf of my constituent, who is a voice for many other survivors of rape, attempted rape and sexual assault, to draw attention to the need for urgent Government reform.

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I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I wonder whether he will take back to his constituent the heartfelt feelings of the House for the ordeal that she went through—please convey our best wishes to her. This is not something new or limited to this incident: there are plenty of examples of how the Crown Prosecution Service has not handled this sort of thing very well. I applaud him for what he is trying to do with this debate.

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I thank my hon. Friend for coming today. He will find out that we are trying to do exactly what he said. My constituent is in the Public Gallery—not because she can change what has happened to her, but because we can try to change things for the future.

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I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on everything he does in the House, and particularly on this case. I commend him for what he is doing on behalf of his constituents. There have been 820 accusations of rape in Northern Ireland, but only 15 convictions. Does he believe that the CPS, in co-ordination with the police forces, can enable more cases to be tried successfully by offering greater support to the victims and their families—in other words, by working together on behalf of the victim?

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As so often, the hon. Gentleman gets it in one. From what I am about to say, he will see that I agree with him. I am sure the Minister is listening to what he and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) are saying.

First, I want to raise the issues of sentencing for attempted rape and the lack of transparency in published statistics. Secondly, I want to turn to the treatment of victims who report their assault, and call for Government action to make this process easier. We must strive to ensure that justice is served and that there is always compassion and support for the victim.

Section 1(4) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 sets out that the maximum penalty for rape is life imprisonment. Under the Criminal Attempts Act 1981, a person who attempts to commit the full offence of rape shall also be liable for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In the case of my Harlow constituent, her attacker had the intention, or mens rea, to commit the full offence. Had it not been for the fact that she had the sheer physical strength to fight him off until a security guard heard her screaming for help and intervened, his attempt might have been undeterred.

In their legislative form, the offences of attempted rape and rape are considered punishable by equal measure. However, by taking into account the circumstances of the case under the Sentencing Council’s guidelines, the court often imposes a lesser sentence on perpetrators of attempted rape because they have not committed the actus reus of rape. For my Harlow constituent, she feels let down by the justice system—robbed of the possibility of a longer sentence for the perpetrator because she fought so hard to fend him off. Will the Minister clarify the Sentencing Council’s guidelines for attempted rape and the basis on which their effectiveness as a means of securing justice is tested?

Another key problem on the subject of sentencing for sexual offences is the lack of clarity in the statistics. I welcome the Justice Secretary’s response to my letter on sentencing for attempted rape, but I was shocked by his acknowledgement that

“The Ministry of Justice does not disaggregate attempted rape from rape offences by sentence length in published figures.”

Can the Minister tell us whether the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice will commit to transparency in sentencing figures for rape and attempted rape, so that we have a much clearer basis on which to assess the suitability of existing law? Will she ensure that this is clearly published, rather than buried in spreadsheets and data tools?

Only 15% of sexual violence cases are reported to the police, and only 7.5% of rape charges result in conviction. These statistics are devastating and demand urgent Government attention. A whole host of factors might well be to blame for these figures: a high threshold for sufficient evidence; the CPS’s continuous demand for more intrusive personal data, including from mobile phones; and the myths surrounding what constitutes rape, to name but a few. However, some responsibility must be borne by the treatment of victims before, during and after trial. We are discouraging people from reporting their assault or forcing them to drop charges, because they cannot bear to continue.

After making the courageous decision to give her statement to the police, the process of my Harlow constituent’s fight for justice has been arduous and often extremely uncomfortable. It is important that I go through some of her experiences in detail—sadly, my constituent’s account is not unique. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, she waited eight hours in discomfort, exhaustion and emotional trauma to have forensic evidence collected at the sexual assault referral centre, or SARC. She was not permitted to wash and was asked to strip down before being swabbed from head to toe and photographed. She was then interviewed and asked intrusive personal questions. At the time, she was constantly waiting for nurses, police and support staff to attend to her.

As they are often the first port of call after an assault, SARCs play a crucial role in the victim’s ability to secure justice. It is possibly the most critical part of the process in obtaining forensic evidence that can be used by the prosecution at trial. However, we make victims wait in distress and discomfort, because otherwise they risk evidence being lost due to a lack of qualified staff. The rape support fund has been a cornerstone for support services, and I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s commitment under the victims strategy to increase spending from £31 million in 2016-17 to £39 million in 2020-21. The solution is not necessarily throwing more money at the problem, although more money will always be welcome; it is essential that money is being used wisely and efficiently to maximise reach.

NHS England says that SARCs delivered services to 20,000 people in 2017-18. In the same year, Rape Crisis supported 78,000 individuals on £10 million less funding. What measure will the Minister take to ensure that the £39 million is used to staff SARCs properly? While they are not staffed properly, we are not only adding to the distress and anguish of victims, but potentially risking the successful prosecution of people who commit such horrific acts. Additionally, the all-party parliamentary group on sexual violence, together with Rape Crisis, has identified concerns about increased competition for this extra money and whether there will be any significant changes to individual sentences.

The consequences, of course, are felt by the end user—the victim. As my constituent’s experience shows, the Government’s commitment to strengthen victim support, although wholly admirable, does not always trickle down to the people using the services. For example, sexual assault victims do not get the psychological support that they need. Waiting times for counselling are as long as one year, and the counselling sessions that individuals are offered may be just for a few weeks.

My constituent realised that she needed much more counselling. She actively pressed for more, and was given it. On top of her emotional trauma, she felt guilty that she may have been depriving someone else of vital support. People who have already been through an emotional and horrific ordeal should not be concerned about that. Will the Minister ensure that the additional funding outlined in the Government’s victims strategy will be channelled to staff support services properly, minimise waiting times and allow survivors to start getting on with their lives?

In the months leading up to the trial, my constituent was contacted regularly by the police, who asked more questions and wanted more statements, interviews and photographs of the bruising. The trial took more than a week and a half. She had to express her discomfort at the idea that her attacker would be in the same room as her before a screen was put up. She described the trial and cross-examination as:

“A torturous experience of being asked the most vulgar questions...based on the attacker’s recall of the event, which made me feel so uncomfortable and emotional, whilst being forced under pressure by the lawyer”.

Even after a guilty verdict has been reached, victims are still not free to get on with their lives. My constituent had to wait months before her attacker was sentenced to six years.

Survivors of assault put themselves through that not because they want to, but because it is their only hope of building a case, and yet we jeopardise it by making the process so difficult. Minister, what can be done to speed up the process from reporting to the police to sentencing, so we do not prolong the suffering for longer than is wholly necessary?

Since the perpetrator’s imprisonment, my constituent has been asked by her attacker’s parole board to fill in reams of paperwork to put in place measures not only for her, but for him. Although he got six years—now reduced to just three—my constituent feels like she has been served with a life sentence. She is reeling from the anguish and suffering she experienced. Why on earth should she—the innocent party and victim—face a never ending struggle to keep the perpetrator in prison and feel some sense of safety?

I recognise that resources are limited, and that this is a particularly sensitive area of the law, but we cannot sit by and ignore the problems. The statistics relating to this area of justice are dire, as has been highlighted, and they are not getting any better. In 2017-18, the number of rape referrals from the police to the CPS fell by 9%, the number of suspects charged for rape fell by 8% and the number of rape prosecutions fell by 13%. The volume of sexual offence prosecutions excluding rape also fell by 11%.

My constituent suffered because of the lenient justice system. She suffered in the reporting of the attempted rape and suffered again in the aftermath. That is just wrong. She, like every rape and sexual assault survivor, has suffered enough. The Government must review all these areas and ensure that no one feels let down by the justice system again.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for raising this very important issue. I acknowledge his constituent’s terrible ordeal, and I am truly sorry that she feels let down by our justice system. Rape, attempted rape and other serious sexual offences are devastating crimes. I cannot begin to imagine what his constituent has been through. I commend her for her courage in speaking out, reporting the crime, raising her experience with her MP, and continuing to draw attention to the ways in which we can improve the system. I commend her for that, because it is only through reporting crimes that people are brought to justice, and other women who could be victims are saved a terrible ordeal. I thank her for going through the process, which I understand has been extremely difficult.

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Does the Minister think there is an opportunity to refer this matter to the Victims’ Commissioner? We have just appointed a new Victims’ Commissioner, Vera Baird, and I wonder whether it would be useful to report this. She is responsible for ensuring equal performance across the whole gamut of the justice system.

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I have already had the honour of liaising with Vera Baird, and I very much look forward to discussing this issue with her. The issue of consistency across police forces and the CPS, and within local authorities that deal with rape victims, is very important. We will be discussing these issues, and I am sure she will have considerable insight into them.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow for raising this issue. I am very pleased to see the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) in the Chamber. I look forward to hearing about her expertise in this very important area.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said that it is important that we treat victims sensitively and with respect. I agree. I am pleased to have the opportunity today, in my first debate in my new role, to discuss how we can improve the system and what we are already doing. My right hon. Friend mentioned many issues thoroughly, and I want to respond to them. He said that the sentences for rape and attempted rape start similarly. Rape carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and he is right that attempted rape has the same maximum penalty. A judge will have regard to the sentencing guidelines for the substantive offence, but he then selects a starting point based on harm and culpability as if he were sentencing for the full offence. He will then reduce the starting point at the lower end of the category range to reflect the fact that it was an attempted rape, not a rape. The amount of the reduction will depend on how close the offence was to being completed, and a judgment will be made on a case-by-case basis.

I realise that victims of rape and attempted rape will be extremely traumatised, but they should know that, regardless of the sentence imposed by the court, anyone convicted or cautioned for a relevant sexual offence is automatically made subject to notification requirements—in other words, they are placed on the sexual offenders register. The court can also make a sexual harm prevention order on anyone convicted or cautioned for a relevant sexual offence, which can prohibit the individual from doing anything described within it, as long as the court has determined it to be proportionate and necessary.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned the lack of clarity in the statistics. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of data. I assure him that the Ministry of Justice is conscious of the importance of data and transparency. During my time there, we worked with the media to improve public transparency. When we build a common platform for taking cases in the criminal justice process through a digital system, we will use it to improve the collection of data, which can then be shared. My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the distinction between the statistics collected on rape and attempted rape. I will pass that on to the Ministry of Justice so it can address the collection of its data as the common platform develops. With better data, we can have better scrutiny.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the treatment of victims and how they feel treated. He is right to say that the figures for reporting and for convictions could be better. That is not a new issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley rightly pointed out, but we have some positive news. According to the most recent figures in the year ending June 2018, there was an 18% increase in reporting of sexual offences. The CPS has also doubled the number of specialist prosecutors in its dedicated rape and serious sexual offences units.

We need to improve the care of those brave enough to come forward. The CPS is working with the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to revise the victims’ code, to improve the support and care offered to victims. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, cross-Department and cross-agency work is important. The CPS is also working with the police to ensure that we improve the process of the criminal justice system.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow mentioned mental health, which is very important. I cannot begin to imagine the consequences of such an ordeal for someone’s mental health. We are launching a new toolkit for therapists and prosecutors on the support that an individual who suffers from a mental health condition will require.

My right hon. Friend mentioned his constituents’ use of a screen, which is an important part of the special provisions in court. We are trying to improve access to special measures, and the Ministry of Justice has committed to recording and monitoring applications for special measures, to ensure that everyone who is entitled to them can access them.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the role of sexual assault referral centres, or SARCS, and the significant funds invested in them. NHS England investment in SARC services increased from £8 million in 2013 to £31 million in 2018-19. As he mentioned, that funding has risen this year and will rise further next year. He is right, however, to say that, as with all public services, funding alone is not sufficient; it needs to be well spent. I say to him that, locally, police and NHS England commissioners have meetings with providers to review their performance. Nationally, NHS England undertakes internal assurance to look at cost, performance and quality, as well as areas of emergent risk.

I am deeply sorry that my right hon. Friend’s constituent had to wait a long time in a SARC. I understand that long waits in SARCs are unusual, as a referral is usually immediate for adults, and an out-of-hours policy states that a SARC can be opened for a referral, which can take up to two hours. I am sorry about her experience. The police, police and crime commissioners and the NHS should all hold SARCs to account. The Care Quality Commission has also started to inspect SARCs and publish the findings on its website. It is extremely important that we ensure that SARCs, which receive public funding, work well.

My right hon. Friend mentioned delays and the time that it takes not only for a case to come to court, but to go through court. It is true that sexual offence cases take longer to go through the criminal justice system than other cases. That is because sexual offences, especially rape, are some of the most challenging and complex cases with which the CPS deals. Yesterday, I met the Director of Public Prosecutions and I raised the issue of delays when such cases go through the system. He made the same point that I have about the difficulty in evidencing those types of cases. He stressed the importance of ensuring that when such traumatic cases are reported, sufficient work is done to ensure a fair trial and that, at the end of the day, if the perpetrator is guilty, he or she is brought to justice.

Unfortunately, successful prosecutions take time. We want to speed up the court process and ensure that cases are heard effectively. I know, through my time at the MOJ, that in both Crown court and magistrates court we are trying to reform the process to ensure that cases are heard more efficiently, through transforming summary justice and better case management systems in both jurisdictions.

This is a terribly important area because people who suffer from serious violent sexual offences—or attempted serious violent sexual offences—may deal with the consequences for life, as we heard from my right hon. Friend. It is therefore important that, as a Government, we continue to look at how we can improve the criminal justice system when dealing with such offences.

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I join the Minister in thanking the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for bringing this case forward. I am sure that he will have given his constituent enormous moral support and made her feel that, after a traumatic offence has been committed against her and she feels that the criminal justice system has failed her, she has at least had his full support as he has brought her case to the House. The points arising from her case are so important.

I warmly congratulate the Minister, who I am delighted to see in her new post as Solicitor General. She will take all of these issues forward. I know that her appointment, as well as her support for those in the criminal justice system who want and strive to improve it—particularly in the Crown Prosecution Service—will be welcomed. For my part, I will certainly do everything that I can to help her work.

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I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her comments. It is an honour to follow her in this role, albeit not immediately. She has done a significant amount of work on this matter and continues to do so. I very much look forward to working with her on this important area, which we as a Government want to improve.

It is important to understand the personal experiences of those who have gone through the process so that we can better make change. Although I hope that the constituent of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow will feel that she has some level of personal support, I reiterate that, by coming forward and raising the issue, she has helped to improve the justice system more broadly.

We in Government take such issues extremely seriously. We have already committed to a number of measures, some of which I have had time to mention, some of which I have not. In March, as part of the violence against women and girls refresh, we started an end-to-end review of the criminal justice system response to rape and sexual offences cases, which is ongoing. Debates such as this and hearing personal experiences are so important because they feed into that process. I thank my right hon. Friend and his constituent for a further opportunity to debate this very important matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

British Sign Language Users: Access to NHS Services

[Joan Ryan in the Chair]

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I draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that our proceedings are being made accessible to people who are deaf or hearing impaired. The interpreters in the Chamber are using British Sign Language, and the debate will be broadcast on Parliament TV with live subtitles and British Sign Language interpretation.

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to NHS services for British Sign Language users.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Ryan. I am pleased that we have the BSL interpreters here in the Chamber for the debate and that it will also be covered by simultaneous live BSL interpretation and subtitling on the parliamentlive.tv footage.

I have been trying to secure a debate on this important subject for several months, because for some time now I have been raising the issues with the Government and a number of other organisations. This afternoon’s debate is timely as well, taking place just days after Deaf Awareness Week, which was from 6 to 12 May. As I am sure hon. Members and the Minister are aware, Deaf Awareness Week aims to increase awareness and challenge perceptions of hearing loss and deafness, promote positive aspects of deafness, promote social inclusion and raise awareness of the huge range of organisations throughout the country that support deaf people and their family and friends. That includes the ITV SignPost team, which offers content production, access services and training from their base in Gateshead.

Sadly, given the subject of the debate, there appears to be no reference to Deaf Awareness Week on the websites of the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England or indeed the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department with overall responsibility for cross-Government disability issues. I am pleased that many local NHS organisations, including the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, have marked Deaf Awareness Week. The key thrust of my argument, however, is that all public bodies should be aware of and provide for the needs of deaf people, including BSL users, not just one week of the year but 52 weeks of the year. As I will highlight, on far too many occasions that is certainly not happening.

According to the British Deaf Association, the UK has about 151,000 users of British Sign Language, of whom 87,000 are deaf. That first figure does not include professional BSL users, such as interpreters and translators, unless they use it at home. As the BDA has described:

“Sign languages are fully functional and expressive languages; at the same time they differ profoundly from spoken languages. BSL is a visual-gestural language with distinctive grammar using handshapes, facial expressions, gestures and body language to convey meaning.”

Like spoken languages, sign language is not international and is not derived from the spoken language of a country. For example, the UK, Ireland and the US all have entirely separate sign languages, despite speaking the language of English in common.

In 1988, the European Parliament passed a resolution on sign languages, proposing that every member state should recognise its own national sign language as the official language of deaf people in that country, which on 18 March 2003 the British Government did. In 2009, the UK Government went on to ratify the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which states that Governments must uphold rights by

“Accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages...in official interactions…and…Recognising and promoting the use of sign languages.”

BSL, however, still does not have any legal or protected language status, despite many deaf organisations campaigning for that since the early 1980s. Back in 2014, the British Deaf Association published a detailed discussion paper and highlighted the

“policy apathy about the shocking levels of linguistic exclusion we face as individuals and as a community”,

and,

“the shocking extent to which Deaf people are denied their civil rights.”

The paper itself highlighted the good practice that takes place in Finland, New Zealand, Austria and Hungary and set out why our Equality Act 2010 was not working as intended for deaf people—an issue to which I will return. Of course, since that paper was published, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 has been passed, requiring the Scottish Government to create a BSL national plan for Scotland to set out their strategy for promoting BSL. That was produced in 2017. The Act also required all other listed bodies such as local authorities to establish their own BSL plans.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister whether her Government have made, or intend to make, any progress towards providing BSL with legal status on a UK-wide level. I recognise, however, that she might have difficulty in doing so, given that it remains somewhat unclear just who has overarching responsibility for promoting and protecting BSL within and across Government.

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The hon. Lady mentioned the European Union, but another organisation in Europe, the Council of Europe, covers 47 countries. It has already looked at the issue and suggested that countries need to emphasise their BSL equivalents and undertake training to ensure that that is available. Has she seen that report, and does she think it is something that we might like to support?

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It is an important report, obviously, but I am interested to hear whether the Government have considered it, what their response is and how that would fit with their overall requirements to better meet our obligations on such issues in this country.

In preparing for this afternoon’s debate, I of course looked back to the 30 November 2017 debate on deafness and hearing loss secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is present in the Chamber today. In that debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health commented:

“It is not entirely clear to me which Department would lead on legal recognition of British Sign Language, which is the problem that so many people have referred to today. I am sympathetic to the calls for strengthening the role of British Sign Language. We want to see as many people trained and providing support as possible. At this time, Her Majesty’s Government are not yet convinced that the way to achieve that is through legislation.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2017; Vol. 632, c. 236WH.]

I therefore look forward to hearing from the Minister whether that position has changed. In the light of some of the issues to which I will refer, I hope it has.

For some time I have been working with a number of local deaf organisations on the significant challenges faced by far too many deaf people in accessing services, information and support. Those organisations include the Newcastle-based charity Becoming Visible, but also Deaflink North East, in particular since I attended a hustings that it organised for the local deaf community ahead of the 2015 general election. At the time, the overwhelming sense of frustration felt by many deaf people about continually having to demand, to challenge, or to fight to access even basic services that most of us take for granted was palpable.

Since then, I have worked to do what I can to make myself accessible to deaf people in Newcastle North as their Member of Parliament, including by launching a BSL section on my website with the support of Deaflink North East, to whom I am extremely grateful. The page includes a subtitled video of a person using BSL to explain, in accessible language, my role as a Member of Parliament, including the types of issues I can help constituents with. Perhaps most importantly, it also makes it clear that should any BSL user from Newcastle North wish to attend one of my surgeries, Parliament can fund a BSL interpreter to facilitate that. In response, the manager of Deaflink, Heidi Jobling, commented:

“We are really pleased that Catherine has taken this positive step towards including the BSL communities. It is so difficult for BSL users to access any type of service and to have our local MP leading the way sends out a clear message, not only to the BSL community but to other providers and organisations, that being accessible is important.”

But this is not about ticking a box and moving on. I hope it is a clear demonstration of my determination to improve accessibility for deaf people wherever I can, including through this debate.

To mark Deaf Awareness Week, the chief executive of the National Deaf Children’s Society wrote a blog entitled “Unsure How to Communicate With Deaf People? Here’s Some Advice”. It revealed the findings of her charity’s recent survey that more than half of British adults do not feel confident talking to deaf people, while one in five has been nervous when speaking to a deaf person, simply because they do not know what to do. The piece opened with a really powerful description:

“Imagine if you were with a group of friends and one of them said something funny, which you didn’t quite catch. Now imagine, while everyone else is laughing, you ask them to repeat it, only to be met with the response ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’ What if this happened to you again and again, in lots of different situations? For many deaf people, this is far from hypothetical; it’s real life.”

That scenario is bad enough in social situations, but the constant inability to communicate or be communicated with in one’s own language—and therefore access timely, appropriate and important healthcare, support or information—is particularly serious, as it can be a matter of life or death.

My constituent Ellen O’Sullivan, who is deaf, recently contacted me about the tragic death of a young man from Essex, who ended his life last month. It is reported that, having been assessed as having severe mental health problems and requiring urgent attention, the man was referred to mainstream counselling with the provision of a BSL interpreter, instead of the specialist deaf-focused therapy requested by his GP. Following his death, the specialist counselling service Deaf4Deaf set up a crowdfunding page to establish the Daniel MJ Webster Deaf Mental Health fund, with a target of raising £50,000 to provide six emergency counselling sessions to 278 deaf people with severe mental ill health in the parts of England where the NHS does not fund that. Such support is vital because, as the crowdfunding page highlights:

“The NHS regions who do not offer BSL counsellors use an interpreter with a counsellor. In general hearing counsellors do not understand the specific issues faced by Deaf people.

Interpreted counselling involves a counsellor and interpreter in the room with the Deaf person as they talk about deeply personal issues. Many Deaf people give up after a few sessions because communication becomes difficult.

There is an increasing number of Deaf people asking for NHS funded Deaf focused BSL counselling, they report suicidal thoughts. Many of these people have tried interpreted counselling which was not suitable for them.”

The establishment of this fund in Daniel MJ Webster’s memory is extremely powerful, and it is highly relevant that I raise his case during Mental Health Awareness Week. Does the Minister seriously think it is acceptable that the crowdfunding campaign should have to take place?

On being informed that I had secured this debate, my constituent Ellen O’Sullivan took the trouble to share her wider concerns about access to NHS services for BSL users and to canvass the views of many of her deaf friends. I will share some of their experiences. One commented:

“I am trying to be independent but I am unable to do that because to make an appointment you have to ring up, which obviously I can’t do because I am deaf. So, I have to rely on my mother to ring them or make or cancel the appointment. The doctors do have a website to book an appointment online, but when I need to see a doctor as an emergency on the day, I can’t book an appointment online because the appointments are not available to book until after a week or two.

I do understand that the NHS are trying to save money but as a deaf person I think it is important that doctors and hospitals book an interpreter to be with a patient the whole time while they’re at hospital or the doctors, in case something happens. For example, my partner who is also deaf, had a nose operation. It was a day operation and the hospital only booked an interpreter for 2 hours, but he also needs an interpreter when he wakes up, so he knows what is happening.”

Another explained:

“I am sick of going to the doctor to make an appointment and when they send letters regarding the appointment and the dates I can’t make due to work, I have to get my Mam to ring them and rearrange the time or cancel. I would rather email or text because I hate bothering her to ring up all the time.”

Another of Ellen’s friends commented:

“I don’t want to ask my Mam to make an appointment when I’m 30, I would like to be independent now. We need an app for quick easy access to book GP appointments.”

Another stated:

“I was in hospital for an operation and when I woke up the nurse came up to me and was talking to me, so I told her I was deaf but she was still talking to me! The staff gave me paper and pencil after my operation but I couldn’t write because I was hooked up to drips. I need an interpreter with me all the time!”

Other concerns raised by Ellen and her friends include the use of BSL interpreters who are not fully qualified, and the constant stress and anxiety that deaf people feel before and during medical appointments because they do not know whether their communication needs will be met.

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The hon. Lady is making an excellent case. I wonder whether she is aware of a number of NHS trusts that have tried to get around the problem, initially at least, by having television screens showing a BSL interpreter who helps the patient to get their appointment. That is a very good start, but it illustrates her point that it is only the start, because the person needs to be there throughout the whole process. Is the hon. Lady aware of that experiment?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a point that I was about to make. I said that an app should be available for contacting a doctor’s surgery—I think most doctor’s surgeries would agree. We need to explore the use of technology to make accessing NHS services a reality for deaf people—texts, apps, Skype or FaceTime—and urgently to invest much more in making sure that where there are technological solutions, we harness them to their greatest effect as soon as possible. All NHS staff, whether administrative or medical, need to understand deaf people’s communication needs and NHS buildings must be accessible, with clear plain English signage. Those issues are reflected in the experience of many deaf people in my region.

The Newcastle-based charity Deaflink North East shared the recent outcomes of work that it is undertaking on behalf of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to identify the issues and barriers that BSL users face, which Deaflink states are common right across the country. They include deaf people regularly being told to telephone to book a BSL interpreter; continually having to remind GPs and hospitals that they need a BSL interpreter and it not being clear whose responsibility it is to book one, despite their communication needs repeatedly being flagged; appointments not being long enough for BSL interpretation; interpreters not having appointments and people being sent home after waiting for a very long time; being asked to sign forms without fully understanding what they mean; being sent large amounts of complex pre and post-operation information, with only telephone numbers provided if they require further advice; staff being generally unaware about deaf people’s communication needs, such as that they need to look up when speaking or should not shout out a deaf person’s name when they are waiting in reception; and deaf people simply not understanding what treatment they are receiving and having no means of finding out, and the likelihood that they are, therefore, being treated without informed consent.

Those communication issues clearly become more frightening in an emergency situation. Last year, deaf blogger Liam O’Dell highlighted concerning findings from freedom of information requests he had made to hospital and ambulance trusts about the BSL interpretation services they provide—or, rather, often do not provide. His article opened:

“Distressed, in pain, in an unfamiliar environment with no means to communicate.

It’s a feeling of isolation one would usually associate with your typical horror movie, but if the right provisions aren’t in place, it can be a real-life nightmare for the 50,000 deaf people in the UK that use British Sign Language as their first language.”

Of course, this issue is by no means restricted to NHS services. The Minister may be aware that, in September last year, I wrote to the Minister for Disabled People after being contacted by Deaflink, which was due to lose its core funding from the Newcastle Gateshead clinical commissioning group in what appears to have been a cost-saving measure. I wrote to the Minister for Disabled People because I felt the wide-ranging concerns Deaflink had raised should be addressed by the Department with overall responsibility for cross-Government disability issues: the Department for Work and Pensions. However, my letter was transferred to the Department of Health and Social Care and then seemingly got lost. I received a response from the Minister in January. That again begs the question of which Department has specific responsibility for promoting BSL and standing up for its users. If the Minister is unable to provide an answer today, I suggest that the Government need urgently to resolve that.

Deaflink’s manager, Heidi Jobling, told me that after more than a decade of working with BSL communities in the north-east, she has seen

“the statutory services available to BSL users getting progressively worse. There are always exceptions, but it is widely acknowledged that, when leaving school, the average reading age of a BSL user is 8-9 years old. The majority of the hearing world do not understand that many BSL users do not feel comfortable or able to communicate in written English. Lip reading is difficult, exhausting and at best about 50% accurate. Yet, these are the fall back communication methods when no interpreter is present.”

She went on to ask how BSL users are supposed to access public health information about things such as joining a gym, stopping smoking, joining a weight loss group, safe amounts of alcohol or preventing diabetes—or, indeed, about how BSL users can access the benefits system, which now is almost entirely online. I dealt with a case in which a leading high street optician did not provide or fund a BSL interpreter for a deaf constituent, believing that offering a double-length appointment and speaking more slowly would be sufficient.

The letter I received from Deaflink highlighted serious concerns about the impact of almost a decade of austerity on BSL users. For example, the adult services sensory team has closed, all BSL-using social workers have been removed, and support to the majority of BSL users has been withdrawn following punitive local authority funding cuts. Heidi Jobling concluded:

“I am writing because I am concerned that, in times of austerity, the needs of the BSL community are the easiest to overlook.”

I find that statement deeply depressing.

I am, of course, acutely aware that the enormous challenges BSL users face in accessing what most people would consider to be everyday services are not restricted to the public sector. Indeed, the Treasury Committee, of which I am a member, highlighted only this week the difficulties that far too many people with accessibility requirements face in engaging with financial institutions and services. That certainly includes BSL users. One of the recommendations we made in our report was that the Equality and Human Rights Commission needs more resources to enforce the Equality Act 2010.

That brings me to my final concern. In response to the concerns I raised on behalf of Deaflink, the Minister emphasised:

“NHS organisations should provide interpretation services to all patients requiring them, including users of BSL Providing communication support to service users is driven by the requirement to comply with relevant legislation, including the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, and supporting guidance. This makes it imperative for organisations to provide language and communications support to ensure that patients are able to communicate effectively and appropriately with clinicians and other health service professionals.”

She went on to highlight that

“non-compliant organisations risk complaints and legal challenges, as well as patient safety and other implications.”

Given all the concerns I have highlighted, does the Minister really think the current legislation is sufficient to ensure that BSL users have their communication needs met across the NHS, or will she consider introducing a BSL Act along the lines of the one in Scotland? Given the difficulties that BSL users have in accessing many NHS services in the first place, just how easy does she think it would be for them to make a complaint about those services or to find out anything about the complaints process?

The fact that Deaflink is undertaking the work I mentioned with the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust and, to a lesser extent, the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust is really positive. Is the Minister confident that all NHS services are taking steps to conduct and then act on similar work, or will she ask NHS England to properly investigate the level of deaf awareness in those services and their accessibility for BSL users? I make a gentle plea to her not to make reference to induction loops or technology for hearing loss. Although those things are extremely important, this debate is about accessibility to NHS services for BSL users specifically.

In conclusion, does the Minister really think it is appropriate to expect adult BSL users to have continually to rely on friends and family—often their parents—to access healthcare and treatment or to discuss private medical information? Is it really acceptable for BSL users to have continually to challenge, demand and fight for access to NHS services that most of us take for granted, or to face delays to their treatment because their communication needs simply have not been recognised and met? That is not a situation that any of us would tolerate, so why on earth should deaf people have to do so in 2019, almost a decade after the Equality Act became law?

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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). I congratulate her on securing this important debate and commend her both for her role as a champion for deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens and for her excellent opening speech. I also thank the House authorities and technicians, and the interpreters—the signers—for their ongoing efforts to ensure that our proceedings are accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Having spoken recently to senior members of staff, I know that a number of initiatives are being explored, and I look forward to some really positive news very soon.

I am grateful to Action on Hearing Loss for its briefing, and to SignHealth. Action on Hearing Loss offers some top tips for GPs to improve access, such as providing a range of methods for people who are deaf to contact the surgery, providing deaf awareness training for practice staff, and ensuring that people who have hearing loss leave feedback about the quality of their care. It lists troubling statistics about the experience of deaf people at their local health centres. Some 57% of people who are deaf said they felt unclear about their health advice because a sign language interpreter was unavailable for their appointment. Only one in 10 deaf people surveyed had been asked about their communication needs, and two fifths said that staff at their GP surgery still call their name out when it is their turn to be seen. Those numbers indicate a serious lack of attention to deaf people’s needs. You probably know, Ms Ryan, that NHS England has set out an accessible information standard—a clear approach for improving the accessibility of NHS and adult social care services for people with disabilities and sensory loss. Will the Minister comment on how the standard could be better enforced among GP practices in England?

Other recommendations made by Action on Hearing Loss include: introducing loop systems in all GP surgeries; making BSL interpreters available, and allowing for extended appointments when they are needed; and making sure that staff have a good knowledge of the communication needs of people who are deaf or have hearing loss by annotating their medical records and files appropriately.

Action on Hearing Loss quotes from a recent NHS England study, which found that

“deaf people’s health is poorer than that of the general population, with probable under diagnosis and under treatment of chronic conditions putting them at risk of preventable ill health.”

When it comes to mental health, the picture for deaf people is not encouraging. SignHealth reports that deaf people experience significant difficulty in accessing mental health services. Deaf people are twice as likely to experience mental health problems, but their access to help in British Sign Language is extremely poor or non-existent. Deaf people continue to suffer from mental ill health in disproportionate numbers and, sadly, suicide is becoming more of a concern. SignHealth reports that several high-profile deaf men have died by suicide in the past few weeks. Clearly, deaf access to NHS services is a life-or-death issue that needs to be treated with the utmost urgency.

In conclusion, easily solvable problems continue to inhibit deaf people from accessing health care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North pointed out, when deaf people want to see their GP, many have to walk to their surgery to make an appointment because there is often no other way for them to do so. When deaf people see their doctor, 80% want to use sign language but only 30% are given the chance to do so. Of the deaf people surveyed, 70% had not been to their GP recently although they had wanted to go, mainly because no interpreter was offered.

On behalf of Action on Hearing Loss and SignHealth, and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, I will ask the Minister some questions. It is the first chance I have had to welcome her to her place; I wish her well in all her endeavours. Will the Department for Health and Social Care commit to monitoring performance against the accessible information standard? Will the Department publish performance results? Will the Department commit to providing funding to help with the standards requirements? Finally, will the Minister make representations to the Minister for Disabled People about looking again at the steps that can be taken to improve the market for BSL interpretation?

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today and to help to represent the views of the deaf community. I hope the Minister can agree to their requests, and that we will start to see a positive change in the physical and mental health of deaf people in England. I look forward to the responses from the Front-Bench spokespeople, especially from the Minister.

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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), and I give special thanks to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for her passionate contribution on behalf of those who use British Sign Language. I commend her for the steps she has taken in her constituency.

I must be honest and say that I do not know much about British Sign Language. The staff in my office are aware of it and we try to have someone available for people to communicate with in BSL, should they wish to; it is important that we as elected representatives provide that opportunity. While I do not have the ability, some of my staff have made it their business to be able to communicate with those who use BSL.

I am happy that my two granddaughters have both learned sign language—in a rudimentary way; not in totality—at school. They can sign their names, which is a small way of moving forward, among other things we can do. I will ask the Minister a question along those lines, but first let me say that I am pleased to see her in her place. She seems to be enjoying her new role, and we are pleased to see her there. The difference between my grandchildren and me highlights the need for young people to have basic skills to enable them to communicate with people who may need their help. It is important that our children have an opportunity to do that at an early stage.

Although we must take steps to address the interpreter system within the NHS, as mentioned by the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse and for Newcastle upon Tyne North, I sincerely believe that we also need to make BSL a staple of education, so that every child has a rudimentary understanding of sign language by the time they leave school. I know the Minister is not responsible for education—her role is big enough as it is—but will she communicate with the Department for Education and find out how that can be achieved? It is so important. Our children are often criticised for anti-social behaviour, but I believe our young people are a marvellous example of what the future can hold. Such small steps enable them to have compassion for other people. My boys were always interested in other people, and I am encouraged to know that my grandchildren are the same. If the new generation has an interest in others, that means a whole lot.

The media in Northern Ireland last year highlighted the case of a deaf lady who was going through treatment for cancer, but who did not have an allocated interpreter for any of her appointments. I was shocked by the lack of signers available to NHS trusts in Northern Ireland. An article in the Belfast Telegraph outlined the issue and quoted Ann Owens from the charity Hands that Talk—a lovely name that sums up sign language. She spoke about the lack of signers available for short-notice requests:

“It can be difficult as you can need about two to three weeks’ notice sometimes, but if it’s an emergency there can be times when someone’s not available due to the shortage, including for A&E admissions.”

That is a critical point at which to have interpreters in place. She went on:

“There’s about 25 to 28 British Sign Language interpreters in Northern Ireland and only three Irish Sign Language interpreters, which would mainly be used in the Enniskillen area.”

That illustrates the issue that we want to highlight, and it shows the dearth of interpreters. We need to address that by recruiting more people who can give up their time, and who are paid to be available at short notice. Each trust must have a list of interpreters who can be available at short notice to step into A&E situations. Other Members have referred to this, but it is important to take steps to address the matter where it is at its most critical, which is usually in A&E or on the ward.

I do not want to be critical of nurses—that is not the purpose of this debate—but we need nurses who can communicate in sign language with those who require it. Last year, I was in hospital on three occasions, and I was asked to sign a document to give consent. Truthfully, I was in so much pain that I would have signed away my land and farm; just imagine what it would have been like if I could not understand what I was being told to do, because I was deaf. How difficult would it be for a deaf patient, lying in absolute agony, to be asked to sign something that they did not understand? That shows me how frightening it is for deaf people, and how important it is to have the right people in the right place at the right time.

When foreign nationals go to A&E, interpreters are sourced and money is paid out—rightly so; I support that 100%—and yet our own British deaf people are left out in the cold because of the lack of interpreters. It is not good enough to say that we do not have the signers. We know there is a problem, so let us train staff within the NHS to do the job. The hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North and for Poplar and Limehouse have referred to that, and I think others who speak will do the same. Let us put funding and courses in place to teach signing, to ensure that there is always someone on site who has at least a basic understanding of BSL. It is important to have someone with even a rudimentary knowledge of sign language to communicate. We know there is a problem, we have acknowledged our responsibility and now we must address it.

Although there are 11 million people with hearing loss in the United Kingdom, new research has revealed that a staggering 94% of Brits—I am one of them—know no more than two words of British Sign Language. That really has to change. We have to be more open and more capable of responding, especially in our Government Departments and most especially within the NHS. It is so important to address the issue in the NHS. I look forward to the plan of action to fund and recruit the necessary staff to do what is right for the deaf in our community. I look forward to the contributions of the shadow Ministers from the Scottish National party and the Labour party, but I especially look forward to the Minister’s response. We are very impressed by her so far, and there is no pressure on her.

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It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this debate today following national Deaf Awareness Week. Her initiatives in Newcastle are very worthy; she clearly cares passionately. I add my congratulations to the thought given in having BSL interpreters and signers here today. That was really good thinking. As always, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and other Members who have spoken today.

Every day, people with hearing loss get on with work and family life while dealing with all the challenges that that brings. It is difficult to imagine what it is like to cope with a job using public transport, as well as coping with shopping and meeting your child’s teacher, when basic communication, which the rest of us take for granted, does not come easily. Almost 9 million citizens in the UK, including 50,000 children and 758,000 people in Scotland, have some degree of hearing loss, as have I. At least 24,000 use British Sign Language as their main form of communication. They are a large and important part of our community, and they need us to be more aware.

Access to NHS services is an important improvement that we can make to the lives of those in our deaf community. To support people who use British Sign Language, as mentioned earlier, NHS Scotland has created information in BSL for a range of health topics, including accessing NHS services in Scotland.

Scotland was the first country in the UK to legislate for BSL to achieve legal status. The British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015, passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament, promotes the use of British Sign Language and made provision for the preparation and publication of the British Sign Language national plan for Scotland, which we now have. The BSL national plan sets out 70 actions that Ministers will take to improve the lives of people who use sign language, backed by £1.3 million of public funding.

Under the plan, BSL users will have access to the information and services that they need to live active, healthy lives and to make informed choices at every stage of their lives. The national plan’s health, mental health and wellbeing actions include, among other things, publishing a schedule for making all screening and immunisation information accessible in BSL; increasing the availability of accurate and relevant health and social care information in BSL; developing a learning resource for health and social care staff to raise awareness of sign language and deaf culture; and working with partners to deliver and evaluate two training programmes aimed at supporting BSL English interpreters to work within the health sector, with a view to informing a longer-term approach.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has appointed a health improvement practitioner to support mental health in the deaf community, which will help raise mental health awareness and empower that community, allowing them better access to services. In the wider community within my own Falkirk constituency, I have surgeries every month at a wonderful place called the Forth Valley Sensory Centre, which is run by volunteers. I can recommend its coffee and square sausage. People with hearing loss are welcome to come along. Everyone is welcome, by the way, if they like square sausage.

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The Minister is not familiar with the concept of square sausage.

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Many people are not familiar with the concept of square sausage. I tried to introduce it some time ago when I first came down here; it was refused by the catering staff, but I shall redouble my efforts.

The centre is a place where people with hearing loss or visual difficulties can access quality services, advice and equipment that helps them to be as independent as possible. Practical support is there for the deaf community at all stages in their lives. In fact, my mother-in-law, Mrs Chalmers, and my own mother, Rosa, made use of the services in the not-too-distant past. Young people looking for work can access advice on job seeking and training. It is also a thriving social hub, holding a range activities and giving folk a chance to chat, try new skills and have fun. It was the first of its kind in the UK and has proven to be an absolutely invaluable resource to the community.

As with all language skills, it is good to teach communication to the young. We see successful examples in some children's television programmes, using a system of signs and symbols called Makaton. It is picked up by all young viewers, not just the deaf community. The more who know some of the skills, the better. It helps us talk to each other at the earliest stages.

I want to draw attention to the inspiring “I’d like to teach the world to sign”, an initiative known as Hands of the World, co-ordinated by the remarkable Sharon Tonner-Saunders of the University of Dundee. She brings music and sign language together across the globe. Some 40 countries are participating. It is a great example of horizontal communication integration, and I ask everyone to Google it and have a look.

The Scottish Government have a plan for primary schools called the 1+2 language plan, which requires every child of primary school age to have experience of their native language, whatever it may be, and of two additional languages—they could be French, Mandarin or British Sign Language. The Scottish Qualifications Authority qualification in BSL is being developed and SCQF levels 5 and 6 will be available from autumn 2019. The UK Government have not yet committed to introducing a GCSE BSL qualification. Rather, they will consider introducing one before 2022, but we hope that action will be taken sooner.

We want to make Scotland the best place in the world for BSL users to live, work and visit. A start has been made, but the efforts must continue. I hope the same thing happens here in Westminster, so let us keep talking—and, of course, signing.

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Thank you, Ms Ryan, for your chairmanship of today’s important debate on an essential issue for our times. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate and for her passionate speech and obvious commitment to acting on behalf of her own constituents and deaf people everywhere. She has inspired me to audit the provision in my constituency to see what I can do to make things easier for the deaf. I want to say how pleased I am to see Parliament facilitating sign language and subtitles here today. I spoke to the Minister ahead of the debate and we agreed that it would be wonderful if such provision could be made available in every debate in this place.

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I alluded to the fact that a lot of progress has been made behind the scenes. The authorities are working very hard to see whether provision can be made, as it is in other Parliaments around the world. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority gives financial support for tuition for MPs who want to learn BSL, so perhaps we can make colleagues more aware that that facility is available also.

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That information is helpful. I am sure that a number of Members would like to take advantage of that and learn more, and perhaps make a commitment to becoming signers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) reminded us, two thirds of people with hearing loss have left their GP surgery feeling unclear about the health advice that has been provided. The scale of the problem is that there are 11 million people living with hearing loss. That is one in six of the population. The charity Action on Hearing Loss estimates that by 2035 15.6 million people will have some sort of impairment. It is time we took that seriously and focused our attention on solutions. It beggars belief that 40% of deaf people say that staff at their medical healthcare provider have called out their name to announce that it was their turn to be seen by a healthcare professional. It is hard to believe, but it happens all the time.

We have also heard about difficulty in making telephone applications. The Secretary of State is focusing on technology, and perhaps he might want to look at the request for an app to make emergency appointments for a deaf person. The Minister could advise him about it. Other issues include the fact that in trying to communicate on the telephone there is obviously no one to sign, and no opportunity to lip read. There can sometimes be difficulties with reading documents, because often when someone’s first language is sign language they fall behind with their reading level, which adds to the difficulties.

Those communication barriers mean that many people rely on friends and family members when navigating NHS services. We have heard about the challenges that someone experiencing hearing loss or deafness has in dealing with life in general, but none can be more important than those arising over health matters. When deaf people are forced to rely on family members, their independence is clearly compromised. Their confidence is undermined and their right to confidentiality is taken away. It is estimated that communication difficulties experienced by people with hearing loss cost the NHS an extra £76 million a year in additional, unnecessary GP visits. Those barriers may also deter some patients from seeking medical advice and attention, which could lead to their having more serious conditions and more expensive treatments—so the situation is not cost-effective, either.

Last year there was a BBC broadcast showing some distressing experiences of deaf people who were undergoing complex medical treatments for serious conditions, with no one to explain properly what was happening. The reporter concluded that deaf people were being left behind by the NHS and described a moving scene in which a patient undergoing complex investigations in connection with cancer treatment was absolutely terrified. There was no one there for them to talk to, although they felt extremely unwell and totally frightened. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) touched on that very point, which is a powerful one, about empathising—putting ourselves in the place of a deaf person and thinking what it might be like for them, given that such procedures can be frightening even when we are able to ask “What is that for?”, “How long will this go on?” and “What happens next?”

The issue could easily be addressed by the provision of trained interpreters with a full working knowledge of British Sign Language. BSL is a visual-gestural language that is the first or preferred language of many deaf people and has its own grammar and principles, which differ from English. The provision of British Sign Language interpreters would surely facilitate a kinder, more efficient, more cost-effective service. Members have mentioned that where such a service is provided it is done in a limited fashion. Someone who is in for five hours of medical treatment will be given an interpreter for only two; or the interpreter will not be there when they awaken after an anaesthetic. Clearly that is not good enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse talked about the mental health issues that deaf people face disproportionately. Is it any wonder, given the isolation forced on them?

The whole issue relies on the recognition that for many deaf people sign language is their first language. English is often their second language, so providing a British Sign Language interpreter is as important as providing an interpreter for a speaker of a foreign language. Surely the Government must recognise that access to a BSL interpreter should be not an optional extra but a fundamental right. More than that, not only is the lack of qualified British Sign Language interpreters discriminatory; it is putting the health and, in some cases, the lives of deaf people at risk.

Those who suffer with deafness or hearing impairment have a legal right to support. Since August 2016 all organisations that provide NHS care and/or publicly-funded adult social care have been legally required to follow the accessible information standard. The standard sets out a specific, consistent approach to identifying, recording, flagging, sharing and meeting the information and communication support needs of patients with a disability, impairment or sensory loss. In addition, the Equality Act 2010—landmark legislation introduced by the last Labour Government—made provision for equality in all public services and made a specific demand for service providers to make reasonable adjustment to avoid substantial disadvantage. Offering the services of an interpreter is cited as an example. The failure to provide support and British Sign Language interpreters is not just undesirable: it is a breach of the law.

We understand that the Minister who is responding to the debate cannot tackle all the issues on her own, but if she has been as moved as the rest of us by some of the speeches we have heard, we ask her to offer a lead. We want her to liaise with her colleagues in the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions, and to talk to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work about taking the issue forward to ensure that the communication needs of all those who are deaf or who have some hearing loss are assessed and that, where necessary, a qualified BSL interpreter is always available.

Will the Minister demonstrate today that she understands the problem, which amounts to discrimination on the basis of disability? Will she listen, as I did, to the examples of good practice from Scotland, Finland, New Zealand and Hungary? If they can get it right, I am sure it is not beyond us to take some action.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I will begin with the observation that I was wondering how to include square sausage in my speech. I do not think it will fit in anywhere, but I am very much looking forward to speaking to the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and finding out more.

I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing the time for this important debate. I know that she has wanted to raise the matter for some time. As last week was Deaf Awareness Week, the debate could not be more timely. What a pleasure it is that we have two interpreters here today; we welcome them. I know that Mr Speaker is committed to making Parliament accessible to all. It was great to see that one of the senior Clerks was present just now. Let us hope that she takes what was happening back to the Speaker. I am sure that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper), and I can speak to the House authorities about the possibility of a pilot in Westminster Hall. We have discussed whether we might ask even a team of interpreters to interpret busy sittings in the main Chamber—I do not think that some interventions deserve interpretation anyway, but this is an important issue, and it is wonderful that we have subtitling and interpreters here today.

Ensuring fair and equitable access to public services, including but not limited to the NHS, is of critical importance to disabled people. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for all the efforts that she has made in her constituency to use BSL to be more accessible to her constituents. I will definitely reflect on that with my team. I also want to thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for his careful stewardship of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, and for the group’s work. It has done a lot of work to raise awareness and improve the way that we support people with hearing loss or deafness.

I shall attempt to answer several points raised by hon. Members, but I hope they will bear with me if I do not answer them all, in which case I will write to them. I am afraid there was nothing on the Department’s website about Deaf Awareness Week, but if I am still in post next year, I and the Minister for Care, who was due to respond to this debate, will ensure that that is no longer the case. NHS England highlighted Deaf Awareness Week on social media, including advice on how the NHS can help the one in six people who are estimated to have hearing loss. On Twitter, the NHS Business Services Authority published a video highlighting how its technology team have been learning BSL to support deaf colleagues.

The Government consider that current legislation is sufficient—I will speak more about that issue—but the challenges raised by hon. Members today mean that I will look carefully at what more we can do to communicate obligations under existing legislation to individual NHS trusts. The issue of BSL as a language is probably a matter for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport rather than the Department of Health and Social Care, but all Departments have a responsibility to create inclusive communities. I will take away the comments made by hon. Members and discuss them with ministerial colleagues in other Departments.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North brought up a distressing example of the gentleman in Essex, and mentioned issues of deafness and mental health—of course, we are thinking about mental health this week. The Government are committed to that issue, and addressing mental health is at the heart of the long-term plan. We are investing £2 billion over five years to improve mental health services, and NHS England commissioned specialist mental health services for deaf people, including in-patient and outreach services. The hon. Lady and the shadow Minister asked me to ask NHS England to look at health services for deaf people, and I am happy to raise those points and look at what the Care Quality Commission is doing. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse set me several challenges, and I will attempt to address the performance results later in my remarks. If I do not, I will be happy to talk to him after this debate or hold a meeting, and I would also be happy to speak to the Minister for Disabled People.

I was asked how we can help more people to know about British Sign Language—indeed, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that his grandchildren are learning it at school. The Department for Education has confirmed that it will begin working with experts to develop subject content for a British Sign Language GCSE, and that will be assessed against the rigorous subject content criteria that apply to all GCSEs. Ofqual will also need to consider the proposal against its assessment criteria. Schools have asked for a period of stability to provide them with a chance to embed the extensive reforms to GCSEs and A-levels, and in March last year, the Education Secretary confirmed that the Government will not introduce further reforms to GCSEs or A-levels beyond those committed to during this Parliament. However, if a British Sign Language GCSE can be developed in line with GCSE requirements, the Government will consider making an exception to their rule on stability, and introducing it this Parliament, and I hope hon. Members will be encouraged by that.

As hon. Members have said, British Sign Language is the primary form of communication for many deaf people and fundamental to the way that they communicate with their families and loved ones. I thank everybody—interpreters, teachers and users of BSL—for their work, which helps people with hearing impairments to lead fulfilling lives in our communities. About 24,000 people in the country have BSL as their first language, and it is essential that they can communicate with NHS staff and services to access the best possible healthcare.

This Government are committed to a truly world-class health service that must be equally available to all. People must be able to communicate their needs and access the information, advice and support that they need to complement the hands-on work of health professionals. Some people may need additional support or to be supported in a different way. We must take proactive steps to provide support for reasonable adjustments —hon. Members highlighted examples of where that is perhaps not happening, and I will take note of that.

Let me focus on the robust framework that we have in place to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to permit access to NHS services for those with hearing impairments and those who use BSL. Existing equality legislation means that employers, service providers and public bodies must provide services in BSL when it is reasonable for them to do so. That was underpinned by the Equality Act 2010, which places a duty on all public bodies to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled people are not put at a disadvantage compared with those who live without a disability. Commissioners of NHS services must pay due regard to the needs of their population, including those living with a disability, when planning and commissioning services.

Service providers must consider what disabled people who use their services might need and make reasonable adjustments accordingly. That includes, where appropriate, access to BSL services. The Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2014 further expand on how the NHS should implement the Equality Act and make reasonable adjustments. Such provisions help to ensure that people are treated at all times with the dignity and respect that they deserve. A key part of that is the accessible information standard, which is essential for an effective high-quality health service. It was introduced in 2015 and clarifies what health and care services must do under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments so that people with additional communication needs are not put at a disadvantage.

All organisations that provide NHS care or publicly funded adult social care are required to comply with the accessible information standard, which sets out how patients and service users—including carers, where appropriate—should receive information in a way that is accessible to them. The Care Quality Commission, which monitors how the standard is put into place, specifically highlights that that includes users of British Sign Language. One wonderful example of that is the fact that BSL users can use the NHS 111 BSL language service, which provides telephone advice on when to seek further medical help, advises on medication use and provides tips on self-care. BSL users can download an app that enables them to connect to an interpreter via a webcam, and the interpreter then relays the conversation to the 111 adviser. Such technology is a great passion of the Secretary of State, and I will take away the comments that have been raised about that during the debate.

For standards and duties to be effective, compliance must be monitored and action taken where needed. When it inspects a service, the CQC uses five steps to identify whether it is complying with the accessible information standard to ensure that people with disabilities can access health and care services. Those five steps focus on how services identify and assess needs and how they are planned, how services clearly record identified needs, what steps are in place as part of the assessment and care planning service, and how services flag information and communication needs and their records, given that the method used must make it possible for all staff to be quickly made aware of and work to meet those needs. Finally, the CQC assesses whether services meet an individual’s needs, ensuring that people receive information in a way that they understand. That might mean arranging communication support if people need it, and it could include access to a BSL interpreter or lip reader, or using a hearing aid.

Organisations are required to publish an accessible communications policy and establish a complaints process. It is important that organisations support users to provide feedback and help to improve those services. In 2017, NHS England led a post-implementation review of the accessible information standard, which provided an invaluable opportunity to assess its impact and ensure that it remains fit for purpose. Following the review, a revised specification was issued. Although there were no substantive amendments, there were changes to the definition of some terms, and clarification of requirements regarding the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and data sharing. The review showed that there was widespread support for the aims of the standard and that patients and carers were clear that receiving accessible information is essential if they are to receive high-quality, safe care.

More generally, there is an action plan on hearing loss, which sets out key objectives including prevention, early diagnosis, maximising independence—a point the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North made—and enabling people to take part in everyday activities, such as gaining access to work. There is already a commissioning framework published as part of the action plan, and a joint strategic needs assessment for local authorities and NHS commissioners is expected this summer.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published “Hearing loss in adults: assessment and management” in June 2018, which will form the basis of developing a quality standard for adult onset hearing loss that clinical commissioning groups can use to support commissioning. The action plan on hearing loss consortium is led by NHS England, which works with stakeholders across a system to tackle this important issue and galvanise action, given the rising prevalence of hearing loss.

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I commend the framework document and the action plan published last year; the Department of Health got a lot of plaudits for putting in place a plan to ensure that that which everyone has been raising is delivered on the ground. I would be very grateful for reports on how well the Department is doing, on cross-government support, and on progress in the NHS, because what is on paper is very good and got huge support from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community last year.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Once plans are put in place, it is important that we monitor them, assess them and review them. I am happy to ensure that the Department keeps lines of communication open with the hon. Gentleman and his group on this matter.

I hope that I have provided some reassurance that there is a robust legislative framework, standards that enact it and a monitoring regime in place. This debate has highlighted where we can sponsor greater responsiveness—I appreciate the important point that the hon. Gentleman in particular made about the market for interpreters. I take these concerns very seriously and I am committed to communicating with colleagues across Government. I will finish by thanking the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for highlighting such an important issue.

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I must begin by apologising for the fact that, in my enthusiasm to set out this debate at the beginning, I did not welcome the Minister to her new post or acknowledge that she has stepped in to this debate at short notice. It is often the way in Parliament, when two issues come up in two different places at the same time. I thank her for her response today.

I also thank everyone who has contributed to the debate, which has been incredibly constructive. It has highlighted that there is some good practice, but still an awful lot of work to do. I know that much of that work is taking place within the all-party parliamentary group, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on the tireless work that he and his group do on this matter.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his positive contribution to the debate and the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, who managed to get a reference to Lorne sausage into his remarkable contribution. I studied in Edinburgh, so I am very familiar with the square sausage concept.

In all seriousness, while the Minister has given some positive feedback, there is still a question about who in Government is responsible for this matter. Who is the champion within Government? Who will take this on? I have no doubt about the Minister’s sincerity in taking on the points raised in this debate, but it would be good to know who has responsibility in Government for delivering on this, and I would be grateful if we could get a clear answer to that from the Government in response to this debate.

I must also raise a concern with one of the statistics that the Minister used in her response. She referred to there being 24,000 people who have British Sign Language as their first language. That is a disputed figure because it comes from the 2011 census, in which British Sign Language users were not able to properly participate, due to their inability to access the census in the way that those not having British Sign Language as their first language were able to. Their figures for users of British Sign Language are that 50,000 people have it as their first language and that 87,000 people in total use it. I just put that on the record, because it affects a large number of people, not to mention their families and friends and those around them.

As we were talking, I was reminded of another experience that somebody told me about, which has driven a lot of my passion in this area. It was quite a disturbing story: a gentleman went to the hospital with his father as the interpreter for a medical consultation to get the results of some tests. When they received a diagnosis of cancer, the son was so upset by the news that he left the consultation room, because he could not interpret it for his father. That to me is unforgivable. It is not how our NHS services should be. I therefore implore the Minister to do everything she can to champion this issue, both in the Department of Health and Social Care and across Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered access to NHS services for British Sign Language users.

Sitting suspended.

Licensing in Durham

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered licensing in Durham.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Christopher? The Licensing Act 2003 replaced several more complex systems; and at the time, there were good reasons for introducing that legislation. A reduction in time-limited binge drinking and the staggering of leaving times to reduce public disorder were laudable aims, as was the inclusion of consideration of the impact on residents, but it is far from clear that the Act has withstood the test of time. It placed responsibility for licensing with local authorities and introduced four licensing objectives that all applicants must uphold: the protection of children from harm, the promotion of public safety, the prevention of crime and disorder, and the prevention of public nuisance. Licensing authorities were also required to produce a statement of licensing policy outlining their approach to promoting those objectives. However, even when, for a variety of reasons, the objectives are not being promoted by a local authority, the granting of licences seems to continue unabated.

I have been dealing with licensing in my constituency since 2006—just one year after the Act was implemented. I have held many public meetings on this matter, as the policy appears simply to allow more and more venues to open in what is a highly compact residential city as well as an historically important one. I have raised the matter with the council and previous Ministers on numerous occasions, but as one resident recently told me,

“the town just seems saturated with drinking”.

To give a better understanding of the scale of the problem, I should explain that in a very small area in the city centre, there are 11 establishments open until 2 am, two to 2.30 am and four to 1 am, with a further 14 between 12 am and later. However, the new norm is 2 am, as the new developments that are planned for the city centre—the Riverwalk, which has almost been delivered, and Milburngate—despite not being open yet, have been granted licences to 2 am. There are constant applications for extensions to 4 am, and we are all questioning how long it will be before some of those are granted.

Durham County Council recently consulted on its statement of licensing policy, so I held another public meeting, in March this year, as it is obvious that the problem is getting worse. It became clear during the consultation with residents that the existing policy does not uphold the four licensing objectives. The policy rightly states that licensed premises may become a source of public nuisance, generating crime and disorder problems if they are not properly managed. It even acknowledges existing issues of crime and disorder by stating that evidence suggests that late-night alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour remains a problem in parts of the county and that the effect that any such disturbance may have is

“a genuine matter to be considered when addressing the hours during which licensable activities may be undertaken.”

The publicly available crime statistics show that in Durham city, the three crimes most linked to alcohol consumption—public order offences, antisocial behaviour and violence—are clustered in two areas: North Road and Walkergate, an area that covers less than half a square kilometre. In fact, nearly 50% of reported crimes between March 2018 and February 2019 took place in those two areas. Both are saturated with bars and clubs that have late licences, and that concentration of recorded crimes is far above that for other town centres in the region.

The local authority’s current policy has simply failed to uphold public safety. In fact, the number of people leaving Walkergate and trying to get home creates such a problem that Durham County Council now closes a city centre street to traffic between 9 pm and 4 am on Friday and Saturday nights. That street is largely residential. How can that be acceptable for people who live or, heaven forbid, are trying to sleep in properties on that street?

Given the large concentration of students living in the city centre, there is a particular issue about how the licensing policy addresses their safety. Investigators are still looking into the tragic death of a student last year. However, we have no idea how, or whether at all, the council’s licensing policy will be changed to incorporate lessons learned from that investigation when it eventually reports.

“Prevention of public nuisance” is a broad term, covering among other things noise, disturbance and litter. It is clear from the feedback that I have received from residents over many years, and my own eyes and ears, that the policy is not working for the city centre. The noise created by people moving around the city in the early hours of the morning is extremely disruptive, and the condition of the marketplace, particularly on a Sunday morning, is horrendous, with large amounts of litter left uncollected and the city appearing dirty and unappealing.

The issue of public nuisance is experienced not just by those living in the immediate city centre, though. As Durham is a small city, many people make their way home on foot. The centre is surrounded by residential areas in all directions, so whichever direction in which people travel, there is disruption and noise for residents.

I do not think that the policy protects children from harm either. One message that I am consistently getting from residents and businesses is that disruption is starting earlier in the day, because of the increased number of stag and hen parties visiting Durham. In fact, Durham’s chamber of trade, in its submission to the council for the licensing review, says:

“The…aggressive, rowdy, noisy and often intimidating behaviour of afternoon binge drinkers in Durham is especially off-putting to vulnerable and younger people, parents…and children, or visitors to the city who are unprepared for the ‘wild west’ environment.”

During my most recent public meeting on this topic, the increase in rowdy behaviour during the day was raised time and again, with residents saying that it was “totally unsuitable for families”, “obscene” and “horrific” and that it often creates quite a hostile and unpleasant atmosphere.

Durham’s policy states:

“Licensing Services works almost exclusively with, through and for people.”

How is it that a policy that clearly states that has allowed Durham to become a place where people feel intimidated? Despite working on this issue for more than 10 years, I am being contacted more and more by residents for whom it is becoming unbearable. During the meeting earlier this year, one resident told me that he had taken to sleeping in the bathroom to get away from the noise. But actually, more and more residents are moving out of the city centre, and in the longer term that will be a disaster for the city. The issue is having an effect not just on residents and visitors, but on businesses. The chamber of trade goes on to say that it is having

“a demonstrably negative impact upon city centre trade and employment.”

There is of course the option of adopting a cumulative impact policy to restrict licences. However, that relies on several things, not least the willingness of the licensing authority to expend time and effort in gathering the evidence needed to adopt such a policy. Other local authorities do seem to use that option effectively, though. Cambridge City Council has put five separate such policies in place. In fact, Cambridge’s most recent policy states:

“It is evident from the decrease in crime and incidents that current initiatives”,

through the cumulative impact assessment,

“are effective and are having a positive impact.”

Cheshire West and Chester Council has also taken steps to address this problem, with a cumulative impact policy covering the centre of Chester. In fact, the policy states that

“because of the historic nature of…Chester and its population distribution, applicants for larger entertainment venues may find it easier to meet the requirements…by using areas outside the City Centre.”

However, despite many requests over the years for a specific city centre policy, huge amounts of communication from residents and evidence being submitted to it, Durham County Council has yet to introduce a single cumulative impact policy.

That leads on to my next point, which is the difficulty that residents have in engaging with the licensing system. Government guidance says that one of the aims of the Licensing Act 2003 is to encourage greater community involvement in licensing decisions. However, in Durham people are often simply unaware that such applications are being made until it is far too late to make a representation.

Some local authorities have introduced requirements for stronger community engagement, such as Lambeth Council, which requires applicants to canvass residents’ views before submitting an application, or Newcastle City Council, which allows residents to view the full details of a licensing application and comment online. In Durham, details of an application are available to view only in person, by appointment, and in one location in the whole county. How does that enable people to have a say?

These problems are exacerbated by the increasing use of temporary events notices by venues in the city centre. Existing legislation allows for a venue to apply for up to 15 TENs in a year, which has seen several venues in Durham, particularly in a cluster around Walkergate, open until 4 am. Because there are so many venues in Walkergate, that could mean many TENs in a year, with two or three a week.

What this all adds up to is a small, historic city, with a UNESCO world heritage site right at its centre, that has far too many licensed premises. Durham is not a big city like as Manchester or Birmingham, which can accommodate efforts to boost the evening economy; it is a small residential city and it needs a much better balanced licensing policy.

The statement of licensing policy that applies across a county the size of Durham does not appear to allow for the more detailed approach that is needed to address the specific issues in different communities. How can one licensing policy be adequate for rural towns and villages, as well as for a compact, saturated and busy city centre?

Just before I put some specific questions to the Minister, let me say that I am extremely proud of Durham. It is a beautiful city and I want people to come and enjoy it, whatever their age or background, but I also want residents to be able to enjoy it too. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how we can get a licensing policy that genuinely protects residents by allowing licensing hours to reflect local needs as well as visitor needs, and a licensing policy that does not put developing a night-time economy ahead of the quality of life for local residents.

We need a licensing Act that makes it easier to refuse late licensing hours and one that meets the needs of different communities. That also means reviewing the whole system of TENs and giving local people a greater say over licensing policy, not simply allowing their councillors to take on that role. Instead, there should be more thought about how local communities can have a much greater role in the licensing system, including consideration of how we can get a set of licensing policies in Durham that establishes a balance—allowing, obviously, a limited night-time economy, but also protecting the historic nature of the city and its many residents.

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Christopher.

I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this debate. In a previous life, I had the pleasure of being shadowed by her, and I know her to be a person of great integrity who is enormously proud of the City of Durham. If, as she has said, she has worked on this issue as a constituency MP for 10 years, that is because there is clearly an issue in the city. I am sure that she speaks for many of its residents in expressing concern about the impact of the licensing regime on that beautiful place.

The hon. Lady noted, as I do, that in February 2018 the city suffered the tragic death of Olivia Burt, who died outside a club in terrible circumstances, which are the subject of an investigation at the moment. I acknowledge that and place on the record our sympathy with her family and friends following that terrible event.

The hon. Lady is probing the application of the Licensing Act 2003. Given her experience, she knows as well as I do that the system we have set up means that decisions on local licensing policy and how the law is enforced are, quite rightly, matters for local authorities and the police. It does not take too much to read between the lines of her speech and realise that, frankly, her main beef is with Durham County Council rather than with the law as it stands and the actions of the Government.

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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. At the end of my speech, I should perhaps have made it clear that one of my big asks is for us to try to understand how we can get Durham County Council to change its licensing policy massively during the course of the current review.

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I think that was clear. I am sure that that message will get through loud and clear to the hon. Lady’s constituents, to residents and to the council through the attention that this debate will generate in her local area. The bottom line of her argument is that the current licensing policy does not comply with licensing objectives; she went through those objectives and made that argument. She also referred to other areas. She mentioned Newcastle, Cambridge, Chester and Lambeth, here in London, which are delivering, in her view, a better policy for their residents.

All that confirms my premise: that the problem in this case is not necessarily the law but the application of it. The central issue is the statement of licensing policy, which is now under consultation and review, as is required every five years. This is the moment for changing the policy and the statement, if they need to be changed, so I quite understand why the hon. Lady has brought this matter to the House.

The statement of licensing policy, which all areas are required to have, is a way to ensure that licensing authorities clearly set out their approach. If that requirement is not met, the five-year review gives a wide number of interested parties the opportunity to engage in the process of addressing shortcomings in the policy and contributing to the development of a stronger approach. I have referred to the recent consultation by Durham on its licensing policy, which I believe has now closed. Clearly, this is the opportunity to address some of the issues that have been raised today. As I have said, I am sure that the council will be aware of this debate and will listen to the hon. Lady closely.

The hon. Lady eloquently expressed some of the concerns that exist, not only among residents but in the local chamber of commerce, about the impact on the city centre. Of course she will also be aware that the night-time economy is real, valuable and important for the UK economy, although it is clearly in everyone’s interests for the industry to continue to promote responsible drinking and to educate its customers about the risks of alcohol abuse. The licensing system needs to try to strike the right balance between supporting a vibrant night-time economy and protecting the rights of residents and people’s quality of life in some of our city centres.

In relation to the Licensing Act 2003, the Government believe that measures to manage the sale and supply of alcohol, supported by strong local governance and accountability, strike the right balance. We do not see any argument for revisiting the Act, and I am not sure that is what the hon. Lady was arguing for. That Act, which is supported by detailed statutory guidance, is clear that the four licensing objectives that she went through must inform all decisions made by the licensing authority. As I said, the measures in place allow the development of vibrant night-time economies while ensuring that licensees give proper consideration to licensing objectives on the prevention of crime and disorder, the prevention of public nuisance, public safety, and the protection of children.

The 2003 Act is clear; we believe it has improved day-to-day co-ordination and co-operation within the various regulatory agencies, and between the regulators and the licensed trade. We believe that its key principles and objectives have endured, as its application in practice has proved capable of evolving and adapting to balance divergent interests. The House of Lords Select Committee that scrutinised the Act and heard evidence about it said that where the Act works, it works very well, so we believe that the measures we have in place can be effective when used appropriately. However, it is the contention of the hon. Lady that Durham County Council is not applying the Act in an appropriate way. As I said, the review and consultation on the statement of licensing policy is the key opportunity to change that.

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In general, I am saying that the licensing policy of the county council needs to be massively changed, but there are two areas in which I thought the Minister might be able to help. The first is better guidance on how to ensure local people know about licensing issues and are involved with them, and the second is temporary event notices, which—as other Members have also said to me—seem to have got rather out of control.

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I will certainly try to address both issues for the hon. Lady.

Late-night opening raises issues, tensions, and competing and sometimes conflicting interests between those who are out for a good time and those who want some peace. The Act abolished set licensing hours, so opening hours are now set locally. When late opening by particular premises leads to problems of crime, disorder or public nuisance, it is open to a responsible authority such as the police, the environmental health services, or any member of the public to seek a review of the premises’ licence. At review, the licensing committee may decide to amend that premises’ opening hours or to require other measures, such as door supervisors taking greater responsibility for the swift and peaceful dispersal of customers. For what it is worth, I remember visiting Newcastle last summer and going around the town centre with the police. The system that I viewed appeared to work extremely well in terms of co-ordination between the police and licensed bodies, all in the name of having a vibrant night-time economy while also protecting the interests of residents.

The hon. Lady asked me about temporary event notices, commonly known as TENs, which are intended to be a light-touch process. They allow licensable activities such as the sale of alcohol or regulated entertainment that are not authorised by a premises licence to be carried out. Licensed premises typically give a TEN to extend their hours on the occasion of an event of sporting or national significance, or when hosting a family celebration. It is worth noting that TENs are also valued by community groups, as one may be issued to allow, for example, the sale of alcohol at a fête taking place on unlicensed premises.

The Government are keen to remove unnecessary licensing burdens on businesses and other premises, to encourage economic activity and community vitality. Changes introduced by the Deregulation Act 2015 increased the number of TENs that can be held each year from 12 to 15, to give greater flexibility. In 2017, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Licensing Act recommended the introduction of a system for notifying local councillors and residents about TENs. In response, we have amended our statutory guidance to ask licensing authorities to consider making their register available online, or simply to provide details of TENs received on their website.

I do not think the hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned cumulative impact assessments, but they may be relevant in the context of this debate. A CIA may be considered in areas where there is evidence to show that the number or density of licensed premises is having a cumulative impact, leading to problems that are undermining the licensing objectives. In publishing a CIA, a licensing authority is setting down a strong statement of intent about its approach to considering applications for the grant or variation of premises licences in a specified area. The CIA does not, however, change the fundamental way in which licensing decisions are made. It is therefore open to the licensing authority to grant an application when it considers it appropriate, and when the applicant can demonstrate through its operating schedule that it would not be adding to the cumulative impact. However, CIAs are tools that are available.

The hon. Lady pressed me on the issue of public engagement with the licensing system, and I absolutely understand that point. The Government wish to encourage greater community involvement in licensing decisions. It is, of course, important that local residents are given the opportunity to have their say regarding licensing decisions that may affect them. In order to have their say, they need to be aware, which is why applications for a premises licence must be advertised in the local newspaper and on a notice outside the premises for 28 days. As I have already mentioned, many local authorities also post details of applications and notices on their websites.

From time to time, there have been calls for licensing authorities to be obliged to notify all residents within a certain radius when an application for a premises licence is made. It is our view that the present arrangements are sufficient, and that such a requirement would be both costly and unnecessary. The licensing authorities are, however, required to publish a statement of licensing policy every five years. As we have discussed, that seems to be at the heart of this debate; that is the major opportunity to change policy and change how the law is enacted in Durham.

I should point out to the hon. Lady that as part of our work as a Government, we have run two phases of what is called the local alcohol action areas programme; its second phase closed in January. That programme engaged directly with 32 local areas and provided support to implement plans to tackle alcohol-related issues. It appears to have been well received, and we are considering how we can build on that foundation for the third phase of the programme. It is quite possible that Durham could offer some valuable insight in those discussions, because one of the items we are considering is how licensing works in practice, and we will be looking to engage with a number of areas. Durham may be highly relevant in that third phase.

I spoke earlier about the Licensing Act achieving the right balance between the benefits of employment, profits for business and enjoyment for the public provided by a thriving night-time economy, and the need for licensed premises to operate responsibly to ensure public safety and avoid public nuisance. The Government believe that the Act strikes the right balance. When there are problems in the night-time economy relating to late-night opening or the number or density of premises, which I think is the hon. Lady’s point, the Act provides measures that can be used to tackle them.

To come back to my central point, the actions of the county council seem to be at the heart of this debate about the appropriateness of licensing policy in Durham. Those actions are embodied in the statement of licensing policy, which is up for its five-year review. That consultation, and the county council’s response to it, seem to be the key. By securing this debate, and by presenting her argument so eloquently, forcefully and passionately, I am sure that the hon. Lady has ensured that her message—which I know represents the views of many residents in Durham—will be heard loud and clear by the local authority.

Question put and agreed to.

Trophy Hunting

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered trophy hunting.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. This debate about trophy hunting takes place within a much wider context. For example, we learned from a recent International Partnership of Business Schools report published just a few days ago that humanity threatens a million species with extinction—species that cover the full range of biodiversity. Although extinctions have always occurred, the report makes it clear that we are witnessing a man-made tragedy on an unprecedented scale. Since 1970, the world’s human population has doubled. The global economy has quadrupled in size and international trade has grown tenfold, and yet as the human footprint has expanded, nature has suffered dramatically. In that same timeframe, we have lost half of the world’s wild animals. We continue to lose around 20 million hectares of forest a year. Only 13% of the world’s wetlands that existed in 1700 still survive today. A third of fish stocks are now harvested at unsustainable levels and live coral cover has more than halved. Perhaps most starkly of all, a quarter of all animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. That is a rate of destruction hundreds of times higher than the average of the past 10 million years.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. The world’s pre-eminent experts have highlighted that we as humans have wiped out more than 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles just within the past 50 years, implying that the annihilation of wildlife is an emergency that threatens civilisation itself. On top of that, we have pathetic, reckless, foolish individuals engaged in trophy hunting. Does he agree that a lot more needs to be done by the Government to tackle the evil wildlife trade and to clamp down on trophy hunting? I hope we will hear some concrete measures from the Minister today.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The statistics he cites are absolutely right. That is a mere blink in evolutionary terms; another blink of inaction, and we could wipe out what remains. I will come to the point about trophy hunting soon.

We are exhausting the planet, and we need radical and immediate action to reverse that. I will not claim today that tackling trophy hunting will reverse this mass extinction—far from it—but I put the debate in that context to remind us all of what is at stake and the situation we find ourselves in.

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Trophy hunting has become an industry in Africa. They see people coming from the United States and just killing tigers, for no apparent reason other than that they think they are getting a thrill out of killing the animal and can post it back to the United States or wherever they come from. I know that the British Government are doing a bit of work on that. We had a good example of that with the ban on animals being used in circuses. The exploitation of animals and the rainforest are going to have a major impact on climate change in the world before long.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will come to the points he raised later. Despite the appalling background that I and others have already described, we do care about nature in this country. It is often rightly said that we are a nation of animal lovers. I am proud of things that have happened even on this Government’s watch. We have banned microbeads and ensured that CCTV is required in every slaughterhouse. We are finally prohibiting the use of wild animals in circuses. That took a while to happen, but it is happening. We have banned the ivory trade. We have world-leading legislation. We have extended the blue belt to protect vast swathes of the world’s oceans. We have done much more besides that, but the need to protect animal welfare does not stop at our borders, and that is why I want to highlight the issue of trophy hunting today.

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No one is in any doubt as to the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to these issues. He just mentioned things outside our borders. I apologise if I pre-empt what the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) is here to say, but there is also real concern about what is happening in Woburn on the estate owned by the Duke of Bedford. Tourists are paying up to £7,000 to shoot deer there. That is another form of canned trophy hunting, but it is happening in this country, not very far from where we are now. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that also should be prohibited?

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I think that issue will be raised later in the debate. It is not an issue that I know a huge amount about, but from what I do know, I very much share the hon. Lady’s concerns, and I thank her for raising them.

On a personal level, I believe that shooting beautiful endangered wild animals purely for sport is barbaric and perverse. I think the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spoke for many when he said recently that he had an “emotional problem” with trophy hunting. It is no surprise that a poll found 93% of the public opposed to trophy hunting. Earlier this week, the Commons digital engagement team kindly asked members of the public for their views in advance of this debate, and there was a huge response. Many thousands of people responded and, unsurprisingly, the vast majority were opposed to the practice, describing it as “abhorrent,” “appalling”, “barbaric”, and more besides.

Members will remember the tragic story of Cecil the lion, a beautiful and much celebrated animal, shot dead by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe in 2015. I remember feeling sickened by the sight of celebrity hunter Melissa Bachman gloating on Twitter and Facebook, smirking alongside dead bears, crocodiles, lions and so many other beautiful animals, but the issue goes far wider than the stories that occasionally make it into the mainstream media or even social media. A 2016 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare revealed that as many as 1.7 million hunting trophies crossed borders between 2004 and 2014, at least 200,000 of which were from threatened species. The US accounts for a staggering 71% of them. In 2016, 1,203 trophies were taken from the most endangered species of all—those listed on appendix I of the convention on international trade in endangered species.

Some of those species are in real trouble. Wild lion numbers, for example, may now be as low as 15,000, which is a 43% decline in just 21 years. Only 415,000 African elephants remain, when there were more than 3 million a century ago. The black rhino population has recovered a bit, but there are still just 5,000. It therefore seems perverse that the hunting continues, and in many cases is all perfectly legal. We sometimes hear from the hunters when they are pushed, charged or challenged that they do it for the love of the animal or for the love of nature, but could anyone who loves and respects the noble lion or the gentle giraffe even entertain the idea of paying thousands of pounds to butcher them?

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Given what the hon. Gentleman has said, will he clarify something for me? I am mystified as to why the UK Government’s position, according to the Secretary of State, is that the UK will not yet be banning imports from trophy hunting. That is the central point of the debate where I want to put pressure on the Government, but I genuinely want to know the hon. Gentleman’s understanding of why that is the case.

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I cannot speak for the Government, but I will attempt to answer that question in the remaining minutes of my speech. I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman and I are largely on the same page.

Having said what I have said about the moral conundrum or the moral case for or against trophy hunting, it is important for the sake of this debate—the Government certainly have to do this—to separate the moral arguments from the conservation arguments. Morally, the issue is largely black and white. We are either comfortable with endangered wild animals being killed for fun or we are not, but from a conservation point of view, I have to acknowledge, not least because I have just been in a big discussion with conservation groups arguing about the issue, that the issue is at least more nuanced than that. I will explain why, but before I do, I will give way.

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First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for what he does on conservation work across the world. We are much indebted to him for his leadership. He referred to conservation. When we have any conversations about animals or animal welfare, we must always be sure to discuss conservation, because it is so important. How can we do better at conserving wildlife and ensuring that the habitat is still there to sustain the animals? Some of the reasons for the decreasing numbers are habitat loss and poor management. He has secured this debate, and I know he wants to add hippopotamuses to the Ivory Act 2018. I fully support him in that.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to habitat loss, which is the biggest cause of extinction. I have an idea—I will mention it right at the end of the debate, if that is okay—that would help to address that problem.

It would be wrong if I failed to acknowledge the live debate between experts, NGOs and even conservation charities about hunting. There are those who argue that it can contribute to conservation. Those in favour of trophy hunting say, for example, that it is nothing compared to the threat of habitat loss, illegal poaching, human and animal conflict and so on, which contribute a great deal more to the decline in species, and that we should focus on them instead. The first part of that is true, but it does not strike me as an argument against taking action to tackle trophy hunting. We could say, but I do not think we would, that we should not worry about deforestation because it is not as big a part of the climate change problem as transport, for instance.

Those in favour of trophy hunting also say that it can generate important revenue for deprived areas of the world—revenue that can be spent on preserving habitat and protecting endangered species more widely. That is an important argument, which needs to be examined properly. The problem—the Minister will probably make the same point—is that there is simply not enough evidence or data to back up that assertion. I am struck by the way in which pro-conservation arguments in favour of trophy hunting are always phrased. Trophy hunting is okay if it is properly regulated, if the fees go to local communities and if it is sustainable. I suspect that advocates of those arguments are arguing for something that, although it is undoubtedly done to a higher standard occasionally, just does not exist on a wide scale.

The Government use a similar argument. In explaining the Government’s position, Ministers have said that sustainable trophy hunting can play a part in species conservation efforts, including providing funding for conservation. I have three questions about that approach. First, are Ministers confident that the large fees charged for trophy hunting are actually being spent on conservation, rather than going to those organising the hunts? There is very little evidence that the money is genuinely reinvested in protecting habitats or helping local communities.

Secondly, do Ministers really believe that the money generated from hunting is preferable to the much larger sums that could be generated, where appropriate, from such things as wildlife tourism and sustainable land use? The Wildlife Trusts estimates that a live elephant is worth 76 times more than a dead elephant.

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Is it not rather hard to create the right culture and educative environment if we say, “Oh yes, if you’re rich you can go and shoot a few elephants or whatever, but if you’re some poor poacher, that’s terrible—you mustn’t do that”? We have to say that it is completely unacceptable behaviour whether someone is rich or poor.

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I share my right hon. and learned Friend’s view, and I will come to that shortly. I thank him for his intervention.

The third question for Ministers is: can we be confident that the legal hunting trade is not acting as a cover for the illegal trade in animal products, which the UK has been a world leader in fighting? We banned the legal ivory trade in the UK precisely because it often incentivised, and provided cover for, the illegal trade. Surely the same logic applies.

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I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but, as he knows, I am about to go and give his apologies to IFAW for his absence from its celebrations. He mentioned the ban on the ivory trade—there is probably nobody in the Chamber who has not welcomed that—and he used the word “perverse” several times. Is it not perverse that although the Government have banned the ivory trade and justly claimed credit for doing so, they are permitting and almost encouraging the killing of animals for trophies other than ivory, such as skins? Does it not make it even worse, and kick the bottom out of the conservation argument, that in South Africa lions are being bred as cubs to be released into the wild for no purpose other than to be shot? There is no conservation in that, is there?

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My right hon. Friend is right that there is no conservation value in that whatever. Colleagues will raise that issue in more detail, but I will touch on it shortly.

My fear is that the existence of some small-scale examples of better practice is driving our policy generally on trophy hunting, without recourse to the wider evidence, which suggests that the real story of trophy hunting is a lot less rosy than those advocates would have us believe. Indeed, on almost every level there is reason to doubt the arguments in favour of trophy hunting.

When it comes to the claim that sustainable hunting supports local people, a report prepared for—not written by—the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is the global authority on nature, said that hunting

“serves individual interests, but not those of conservation, governments or local communities.”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation, around 97% of hunting revenues stay within the hunting industry. Incidentally, just 0.03% of African GDP derives from hunting, when the prospects for expanding tourism are clearly far greater, and likely far more profitable for local communities. Another report written for the IUCN noted that 40% of the big game hunting zones in Zambia, and 72% in Tanzania, are now classified as depleted because the big game has simply been hunted out of those areas.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest threats to some of those species is the growth of populations in continents such as Africa? Will he applaud work done by non-governmental organisations, such as one I have seen for myself at Amboseli, where IFAW has put people in place to co-ordinate the interface between wildlife and human beings, which has caused threats particularly to species such as lions? It is really important that that is where resources go.

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I could not agree more strongly. The best conservation projects harness the power of people at the grassroots—people who then directly benefit from an emerging economy in conservation. There are so many examples—not enough to buck the trends that I mentioned at the beginning, but some really inspiring ones that I could spend hours relaying. However, I will not do that, as I am going to allow another intervention.

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I have applied to speak, but in case there is not time, I could not let the point about Zambia go. I lived in that country many years ago, in the Luangwa Valley, which was a game reserve and which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is now totally depleted of the richness that it had years ago. Does he agree that, were we to ban—as Ségolène Royal has done in France, and as has been done in Australia and the Netherlands—the importing of what are regarded as prize trophies, such a ban would deplete the hunger for trophies and their magical status? Perhaps other countries would follow suit, and the appetite for barbaric trophy hunting would begin to die down.

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I strongly agree, and I will come to that. On the claims about the conservation value of trophy hunting, I will make one other point. The findings that I described were echoed by a US congressional report, which was damning in its conclusion. It stated:

“Claiming that trophy hunting benefits imperiled species is significantly easier than finding evidence to substantiate it.”

It added that

“it is difficult to confidently conclude that any particular trophy import would enhance the survival of a species.”

There are other problems with trophy hunting. For instance, the idea that all the animals are killed quickly and cleanly is a myth. Cecil, the lion I mentioned earlier, took 11 hours to die, and it is reported that 50% of animals that are hunted are wounded rather than killed straight away. In addition, hunters invariably prize the rarer species, meaning that the most endangered species—lions, giraffes, elephants and so on—are disproportionately targeted. In addition to that, hunters prize the biggest and most impressive of those animals—the elephants with the largest tusks or lions with the largest manes. Trophy hunting therefore risks weakening the gene pool as well.

Finally, there is the revolting practice that has already been mentioned of canned hunting, in which animals are bred to be hunted and then shot like fish in a bowl. It has been widely covered recently in the UK press, thanks largely to investigative work by Lord Ashcroft. It is not reflective of all trophy hunting, but it is on the increase, especially with lion farms in South Africa. As well as the ethical horror of breeding animals simply to shoot them for fun, such farms supply the trade in lion bones, which in turn fuels, and provides cover for, illegal trade in the same products.

I received letters in the run-up to the debate saying that we must be conscious of so-called “conservation colonialism”. Clearly that is right, and I do not disagree with that. Whatever we think about trophy hunting, we cannot dictate laws for African countries. However, we can focus on our domestic responsibilities. Between 2007 and 2016, UK hunters brought home 2,638 trophies, of which 15% were from the most endangered species. The flow of trophy imports into the UK is increasing, with 12 times as many trophies taken between 2010 and 2017 as were taken in the decade from 1981 to 1990.

It seems particularly perverse, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) said, that even though we have taken a leading role in banning the ivory trade, elephants remain by far the most popular trophy of choice for British game hunters. Clearly, we cannot ban trophy hunting overseas, and it is not our place to do so, but we can reduce demand for it. Australia and France have banned the import of lion trophies, and the Netherlands has gone further and banned trophies from several threatened species.

I want the UK to take the lead and introduce a ban, or even, for now, a moratorium, on the import of hunting trophies, in particular from those species listed as threatened or endangered. My early-day motion 1829 calling for that has attracted the support of 166 colleagues, making it the third most signed early-day motion this Session.

In 2015, the then Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whom I am very pleased to see as the new Secretary of State for International Development, promised that

“the Government will ban lion trophy imports by the end of 2017 unless there are improvements in the way hunting takes place in certain countries, judged against strict criteria.”

Is the Minister going to tell us that those improvements have been made? I cannot find any evidence of that whatever.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for whom I have huge admiration and respect, has explained his refusal to act immediately on trophy hunting by saying that he wants to be “cautious”. He is right to be cautious, and he is right that there is a genuine debate on the issue, but surely the cautious thing would be to introduce a moratorium on trophy imports now until robust scientific evidence shows that they are a clear net positive for conservation. We should also use our international role to argue for trophy hunting to be removed as an exception to trade under CITES appendix I, because it is absurd that CITES recognises species as endangered but permits trophy hunting as an exception to the ban on trading them.

I will finish where I began. Global nature is in crisis, and we must act. Banning imports of hunting trophies will not, on its own, save species; I have spoken before about the need to divert more of our aid spending towards protecting and restoring nature, not least as a means of tackling and alleviating poverty. However, by supporting trophy hunting and allowing its proceeds into the UK, we are actively supporting an activity whose conservation benefits are dubious at best. The evidence suggests that it is actually causing harm to endangered species and that its proceeds rarely, if ever, reach local communities.

I hope that the practice of trophy hunting will stop; I recognise that that will work only if it is replaced by other sources of income, which will not happen overnight, but we should be so much more ambitious for conservation. After all, is it not dispiriting to argue that the best that we can do for endangered species is allow wealthy people to come in and shoot them? Surely we can do better than that.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this debate. He is one of the foremost experts on ecology and conservation, not only in this Chamber but in Parliament, and he always speaks with passion and love for the environment. I congratulate him on another outstanding speech.

Most level-headed people are disgusted and outraged by the trophy hunting trade. As the hon. Gentleman said, clients—mostly from Europe and the USA—pay thousands of pounds to take part in hunts and keep trophies such as an animal’s head or skin. The worst thing about this horrible trade is how proponents and apologists make an utter nonsense to justify such brutal acts. One trophy hunter said that he hunts mostly because he enjoys it, but also because he wants

“to try and preserve those wild places in Africa”—

what a patronising view of the African continent!—

“but the only way they get preserved is if there’s money. If it doesn’t pay, it doesn’t stay—it’s as simple as that.”

It seems to me that trophy hunting is a trade that deals in killing animals.

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Surely they are not preserved—they are stuffed.

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That is exactly the point: they are not preserved. Common sense dictates that if people go around shooting every animal in sight, there will soon be none left to kill, so there will be no trade anyway. What is the point?

The hon. Member for Richmond Park spoke about fantastic things that the Government have done with the Opposition’s wholehearted support, such as banning the ivory trade. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) pointed out, the essential question is why they have not banned trophy hunting. The hon. Member for Richmond Park has already cited the commitment that the International Development Secretary made as an Environment Minister in November 2015 that

“the Government will ban lion trophy imports by the end of 2017”.

That has not happened.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park spoke about the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015. Australia, France and the Netherlands underlined their outrage by banning the import of lion trophies. At the time, the UK pledged to do the same

“unless there are improvements in the way hunting takes place”.

That has yet to happen.

I have been a Member of this House for nine years, and I know that a lot of people attack early-day motions as parliamentary graffiti or as a waste of time. In debates like this, however, I sometimes wish that the Government would take action on sensible early-day motions such as the hon. Gentleman’s, which

“calls on the Government to commit to halting imports of hunting trophies”.

The Government should adopt its eminently sensible suggestion

“that nature tourism is a humane and more effective means of conserving wildlife and supporting local communities”.

Nature tourism is more accessible financially and for families. It has a wider pool of customers, clients and tourists, which means more money. It is also more sustainable, because it does not involve the threat that endangered species will eventually run out because they have all been killed. By supporting it, we could end the trophy hunting industry at a stroke, allowing animals to live out their lives and be observed from afar. It is more sustainable and long-lasting, as well as more educational and humane; it would be a more compassionate way of supporting rural communities.

The export and import of hunting trophies from endangered species must be licensed under the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora. CITES is implemented across the EU, but EU regulations go beyond its requirements. I did not want to mention the B-word, because I am sure that we are all fed up with it, but Brexit really is involved. The Government should look at what the EU is doing. In February 2016, it launched an action plan to tackle illegal wildlife trafficking, including 32 measures that must be carried out by 2020. Assuming that we have left the EU by 2020, will we still commit to that action plan?

I have known the Minister for a long time. I am not sure whether she remembers this, but many years ago she gave her maiden speech just before I gave mine. Since then, her career has flown up to the top, while mine—well, that is another story.

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You have a lovely wife, though.

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Thank you very much—I will pass that on to her tonight.

There are three main areas of the EU action plan that I hope the Minister will adopt:

“Prevent trafficking and reduce supply and demand of illegal wildlife products…Enhance implementation of existing rules and combat organised crime more effectively by increasing cooperation between competent enforcement agencies…Strengthen cooperation between source, destination and transit countries…and provide long term sources of income to rural communities living in wildlife-rich areas.”

Another issue that we have to look at is the involvement of criminal gangs. The trophy hunting trade is greatly abused, with gangs increasingly using the system to traffic wildlife and items such as rhino horns, which are fraudulently exported to places such as Vietnam. In its 2016 report on EU trade policy and the wildlife trade, the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade found that most common offences relate to corruption, the fraudulent obtaining or forgery of licences, money laundering, and drug trafficking.

Simply put, trophy hunting brings misery to communities all over the world and should be stamped out. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that his ambition is to regulate wildlife as much as possible. However, between 2013 and 2017—under this Government’s watch—global trophy imports increased by 23%. Why anybody would want an animal on their wall or fur on their floor is beyond me, but in 2017 there were 16 recorded trophy imports to the UK—a reduction from the 46 in 2016. If there is not much appetite for trophy imports in the UK, surely we should ban them anyway. We should ban them on moral grounds, on legal grounds and above all because, as a nation of animal lovers, it is our duty. I hope that the Minister will have some good news for us this afternoon.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to follow the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans)—not least because he has spent a long time teaching me how to pronounce his constituency. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this important debate and on his excellent speech, which was characteristically passionate about our natural environment.

I would like to focus on the trophy hunting of lions. More than 15 years ago, I was privileged to see lions, along with many other incredible animals, in the Tanzanian wild, where I could appreciate at first hand the beauty of those creatures in their natural habitat. I remember to this day my sense of awe at the vibrancy and diversity of animals in a national park that stretched further than the eye could see. I thought how incredibly lucky I was to be sharing that part of the planet with them at that very moment.

On Saturday, I took my three-year-old son to Port Lympne, where the Aspinall Foundation is doing some amazing work. We got to see a little bit behind the scenes, including meeting—behind secure fencing, I hasten to add—two Barbary lions. One roared, and I could see the same awe in Freddie’s eyes that was in mine when I heard a different type of lion roar in Africa. However, the Barbary lion is extinct in the wild, and it suddenly became very clear that my son’s experience last weekend might be, if we are not careful, the closest he will come to seeing a lion if the current rate of hunting is allowed to continue. As the Aspinall Foundation says on its website:

“All subspecies of lion are now threatened in the wild mainly due to conflict with people.”

The Library’s briefing paper on trophy hunting from March 2017 talks about the “sport” of hunting lions. As someone with a clear interest in sport, I would say it is not a sport. I struggle to see the difference between illegal poachers, who hunt animals to sell valuable assets such as rhino tasks and who are rightly condemned by the majority of the world, and the privileged businesspeople from this country and others who travel to Africa and kill these beautiful creatures for the personal gratification. There is a clear difference between bringing a lion’s head home to place on the mantelpiece and real conservation of these animals. I believe that Government policy of carefully managed hunting playing a part in species preservation is disappointing, unfounded and potentially dangerous going forward.

The UK has a duty to support the establishment of new national parks, and the protection of existing ones, where lions and other animals can live freely without the threat of hunting or poaching. The tourism industry in such countries clearly relies on the visibility of these animals, so their numbers must be protected and increased through careful conservationism, which would be of greater benefit to national economies than the money brought in by hunting. In fact, there are rather criminal figures showing that communities in sub-Saharan Africa that give up land to hunters receive just 50 cents per head each year. Hunting areas provide just 37 cents per square kilometre to the Government of Tanzania, whereas maize cultivation can provide up to $25,000 per square kilometre. In fact, using land for hunting generates the least amount of money for Governments out of all forms of land use in Africa. It is clear that the past argument for hunting as providing support for conservation efforts is untrue, and many former parks where animals have been hunted to near extinction have become wildlife deserts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park noted.

I supported the Prime Minister on her visit to Africa last year, where she outlined her ambition for a closer relationship between Britain and African Commonwealth nations that would benefit both. This new relationship with Africa should have both cross-party and cross-departmental support, and the new International Development Secretary spoke recently of African prosperity and good, old British values such as humility and innovation. However, there is nothing innovative in allowing this dated and inhumane trade in hunting trophies from the African continent to the UK.

The UK had an opportunity to be a global leader in preventing trophy hunting imports, a move that has overwhelming public support. Instead, we have sat on our hands while countries such as France and Australia have introduced outright bans and the USA has made it increasingly difficult to import by making individuals prove that the killing of the animal led to greater conservation of the species. Frankly, we should be ashamed of ourselves for missing out on the opportunity to take the lead. It does not mean that public pressure has disappeared: a petition by LionAid to ban lion trophy hunting imports into the UK has reached over 370,000 signatures and continues to accumulate further support. The disdain for stories of trophy hunting is real, and I hope the Minister recognises that there is public appetite for changing the law.

If anyone is in any doubt about why the Government’s current position is wrong, I encourage them to meet Peter and Christine from LionAid. Even without their briefing, and at a time when we have the opportunity in an ever-changing geopolitical world to showcase ourselves as animal welfare and environmental champions, we need to ask ourselves whether we in Britain want to allow trophies from hunting lions and other endangered species to adorn our walls as the only reminder for the next generation of what they could have seen if we, the current crop of politicians, had taken action.

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We will start the wind-ups at 5.10 pm. I call Nadine Dorries.

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Thank you, Mr Chope. I had no intention of speaking today as I came to listen and learn, but I feel compelled to respond to the comments about Woburn Safari Park and make some other points. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is no longer in her place, but she said concerns were raised about Woburn. Woburn is in my constituency. As the local MP, I have not heard about or been contacted by email or in any other way about such concerns with Woburn Safari Park or Woburn Abbey Deer Park.

I am passionate about animal welfare, as anybody who follows me on Twitter or knows me will be aware. It was important to me that I got to know both the safari park and the staff who worked there, and that I did my own appraisal of the conditions the animals were kept in and how they lived. I am in awe of both the research and the conservation work that takes place at Woburn in order to contribute to the preservation of various species. In fact, at Woburn—if I had known I was going to speak about this today, I would have got a list before I came—there are not only endangered species, but species that are extinct in the wild, ranging from insects to big game and other animals. They are looked after incredibly well, so I support Woburn Safari Park in its work.

On the deer park and culling, I was reassured on Friday that deer have to be culled, because an old deer left to die in a pack in a park does not have a pleasant death. No deer takes longer than three seconds to die. They are shot, and a marksman rides on the wing with the person doing the shooting. If the deer is not shot instantly, a second shot is fired almost immediately. That has to happen.

I want to follow on from the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). I lived in Zambia 35 years ago. I spent part of my time in the Luangwa Valley, which was a beautiful, rich and vibrant game reserve. People would walk instead of going in jeeps; I spent time there on walking safaris. I recently spoke to friends who live out there, in what was a beautiful, lush and incredible place. I will never forget being stuck on a riverbed when we were in a jeep and about to be chased by a bull elephant. I will never forget coming across a pride of lions at night, with a light and a halogen lamp. Slowly, one by one, little cubs came out from under the bushes, and the female lions licked them and patted them back into bed again. It was incredible to watch. The behaviour was so like our behaviour—the behaviour of a mother with her young replicated in those animals. It is so sad to hear that people are now going out there to trophy hunt and shoot those animals illegally.

I also wanted to make a point about what the Government should be doing about rhino horn. Anyone who has seen a rhino left for dead after having its horn removed by poachers will know it is a sight that cannot be unseen—it is there in our brains. We should be looking at how we can ban trophy hunting in this country. I see no reason why we cannot do that immediately, out of pure compassion and a desire to stop this behaviour from being normalised, and to prevent it from having any kind of credibility. By allowing it in this country, we almost give it a stamp of credibility. The UK is the fifth-richest nation in the world, and one of the most civilised—if we think it is okay, we rubber stamp trophy hunting. Surely we should dispel the impression that it is something we approve of. Out of compassion, if nothing else, why not ban it immediately in the UK?

We should be engaging with our international partners. Rhino horn, which has the same composition as compressed fingernails and toenails, is exported illegally to countries such as China and Vietnam. We should have conversations with our international partners and try our utmost to prevent them from claiming these awful, dreadful prizes and from believing that rhino horn possesses qualities that it does not. We cannot do that unless we take a stand. Unless we say, “We ban the import of these trophies,” we cannot have those conversations with other countries and ask them to ban or limit the import of rhino horns, lion heads and other dreadful trophies.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for securing the debate and for his thorough summary of this issue and the wider one of the risk of extinction. I agree with very much of what he said. He and others cited some sobering statistics, but one of the positive, encouraging stats was that 93% of the public oppose trophy hunting. That tells us that there is very little risk to banning it: the public would support it.

Across our nations, we are all animal lovers. I myself am a big cat fan; the pun is intended. I have a small—well, not so small—tabby cat who thinks he is a lion. If he saw the danger lions are in, he might change his mind.

The practice of trophy hunting is abhorrent to many, including me. I fail to see its attraction. It deprives endangered species of healthy individuals, and perhaps as many as half of the animals are wounded, rather than killed, with some taking days to die. In fact, I worry about the mindset of those who find pleasure in the practice. I just do not get it. I say that irrespective of whether it relates to endangered or non-protected species, and whether it takes place abroad or at home.

It is important that we do not confuse this issue with legitimate pest control, the management of habitats and conservation issues. The SNP takes the welfare of domestic and wild animals very seriously. We are committed to protecting the welfare of animals. Our manifesto promised to support more animal welfare measures with a global focus. My colleagues and I supported the passage of the Ivory Bill in the Commons, and we welcome the UK Government’s progress in tackling the illegal ivory trade. I hope we will see a total ban on ivory sales as a result.

The Scottish Government will continue to legislate to improve animal welfare and will establish a Scottish animal welfare commission to advise on the welfare of both wild and domestic animals, and how it should be improved. They will introduce new legislation and issue Scottish Government guidance. Last year, the First Minister noted concerns about the current rules, which permit the stalking and hunting of animals. She has confirmed that a review of current hunting laws will be carried out. The Scottish Government are therefore reviewing trophy hunting in Scotland and considering whether changes in the law are required.

Although there is much we can do in our nations, many of the endangered species under threat from trophy hunting are to be found abroad. In the European Parliament, Alyn Smith, who was our MEP and is heading up our list for Scotland at the moment, has been very active on this issue. He signed a letter to President Trump, expressing concern about the US Administration’s decision to lift the ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe.

A number of countries have introduced positive bans on trophy imports; Australia, the Netherlands and France have all banned lion trophy imports. I would welcome action from the UK Government on that and would certainly support such a move here.

It is estimated that there are now about 20,000 lions left in the wild, and some figures suggest far fewer; the hon. Member for Richmond Park suggested that it is 15,000. That certainly shows that we have a real problem. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) covered much of the lion issue. I will not repeat what she said—I agree with it entirely—but I want to highlight her point that all sub-species of lion are now threatened in the wild. That is a very sobering, frightening fact.

I am grateful to the briefing from LionAid, which was circulated in advance of this debate. It contains many good points in support of a ban on the import of lion trophies. I particularly agree that, at the very least, requiring evidence that an imported lion trophy has benefited conservation of the species and that hunting profits have benefited local communities would be desirable if a full ban is not introduced.

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Obviously, killing animals for sport is totally unacceptable. Does my hon. Friend agree that hunting lions does not benefit conservation in any way? That is the presumption of the recent change in US regulations. Why cannot the UK do exactly the same? If the US can do it, we should be able to.

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I agree entirely. Indeed, the US ban led to a reduction of 90% in imports of such trophies. We would all benefit from that. There is very little financial benefit from trophy hunting to local communities. The Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting has highlighted that it amounts to 0.3% of GDP in African nations, while photographic safaris generate 40 times as much. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke about the benefits of nature tourism. Those nations could gain much more financial benefit from that.

In conclusion, I hope the UK Government will consider a full ban on trophy hunting. I welcome the consensual nature of this debate, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to participate.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this debate. We have heard several useful interventions from Members of all parties—I would especially like to mention those of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson). Not only was my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) passionate, but he showed identifiable ways forward to help to bring this horrible trade to an end. We also heard passionate speeches from the hon. Members for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) and for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who exposed the spurious financial arguments for hunting.

When I spoke for Labour to support the Ivory Bill, which the Government were taking through the House, we debated the extent to which sales of old ivory could disguise the continuation of the slaughter of elephants in pursuit of the trade in ivory. Clearly, selling an ivory-handled hairbrush made in the 1950s would not in itself cause the death of any more elephants, but the very fact that the trade in ivory was still legal gave merchants dealing in fresh ivory a market for their goods. I am very pleased and proud of what this House decided to do, with unanimous, cross-party support.

Having taken such a firm line on the ivory trade, how can we possibly support the importation of hunting trophies, which can include parts of those self-same elephants? We have heard the appalling statistics from the hon. Member for Richmond Park: 1.7 million dead animals, or bits of dead animals, were imported over the previous decade, according to an International Fund for Animal Welfare report from 2016, including 10,000 lions. Britain is one of the world’s 12 most prolific countries for killing lions and elephants, and bringing bits of their dead bodies back. Even with the National Rifle Association supporting international trophy hunters, the US does not allow the import of bits of dead cheetah, but the UK does. The CITES statistics show a 23% increase in the number of trophies imported globally over the four years from 2013 to 2017, amounting to 20,846 in 2017 alone.

Imports of some trophies have reduced in recent years. The number of southern white rhinos shot for their trophies went down from 75 in 2016 to 72 in 2017, but that is probably because there are so few left to shoot. How can we be so concerned about the possible extinction of rhino and still let people go out with the intention of shooting them and return with a bit of the animal to prove their action?

The word “trophy” suggests that there was a contest, in which the brave hunter managed against the odds to defeat the ferocious beast against which he was pitted and took part of the animal to remind himself of his accomplishment. In reality, so-called canned lions are bred in enclosures and factory farmed, and then released to be shot like clay pigeons. Even if such blatant preparation were stopped, there is no genuine contest involved in trophy hunting; the activity is just plain slaughter.

When we debated the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill last week, I made the point that it is not the number of animals that is at issue, but the degrading treatment and the inhumanity of taking pleasure in making them perform. How much more cruel, pointless and inhumane is it for a person to go out to another country and deliberately kill an animal just so they can put a bit of its dead body on the wall of their house? In this case, it is about not just the inhumanity but the numbers. Of the 1.7 million so-called trophies taken over the past decade, 200,000 were from endangered species.

We do not have to allow this preposterous practice to go on just because it is allowed by CITES. CITES is clearly not adequate for the preservation of international wildlife. It allows trophy hunters to shoot even species listed as critically endangered. It would not be helpful for this country to withdraw from CITES, but it is time for us to join with other nations in creating a framework for the genuine protection of wildlife around the world.

Trophy hunting does not protect against poaching. There is good evidence that poachers use the activity of legally sanctioned hunters as smokescreen for their own killing. Permits for hunting have been used by poachers to trade rhino horns. Two-thirds of hunting trophy export records are inaccurate, and there is no reason to suppose that some are not being used to cover poaching. In any case, what difference does it make whether a species is wiped out by poachers or by trophy hunters?

Hunting does not support the economies of the world’s poorest countries in any meaningful way. Photographic safaris in African nations generate 40 times as much revenue as hunting, as revealed by this week’s report from the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting, which is based on United Nations figures. How much of that tourism income will be retained if all the animals that tourists come to see and photograph have been wiped out?

It is time for this country to act. Labour has already committed, in its animal welfare plan, to ending the import of all wild animal trophies from species classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and to extending that ban to species listed under CITES. There may be good grounds for going further and we would like to hear from those who think that we should explore that option.

Will the Minister tell us whether the Government plan, in the near future, a wide-ranging public consultation on trophy hunting and the import of wild animal parts, with the view to banning all imports of such trophies? We cannot and must not allow the present situation to continue, and we cannot stand idly by while extraordinary and magnificent creatures are driven to extinction to satisfy the vanity and bloodlust of a tiny number of killers.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this important debate, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing it. I welcome the contributions that have been made.

I recognise that trophy hunting—some call it big game hunting—brings out strong and deeply held views and passions, as has been evident today. For many people, it is a straightforward ethical issue. Many people do not agree with any form of hunting or of killing animals in that way—by that, I mean not just fox hunting in this country, but deer stalking and shooting, which has been mentioned.

Although more people accept the need for culling to manage wildlife, it is not a simple issue and there is certainly no unified position among stakeholders. Many hon. Members will have received briefing packs from different stakeholders. We heard a lot today when we hosted a roundtable on this topic—my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park contributed—and listened to views to enhance our understanding and build on the available scientific evidence. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there were very different views on the evidence that was put forward, including a particular report, which he mentioned. An IUCN representative suggested that that was not their policy. We will get strong back and forth in discussions.

I assure Members that the Government take the conservation of species seriously. We should recognise that some countries see big game hunting as an effective conservation tool that can support local livelihoods and be an important source of funding to protect habitats and species, including those being hunted.

Various hon. Members referred to a statement made a couple of years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). He commissioned a study into the impact of hunting on lions. That led to the report by Professor Macdonald of Oxford University called “Lion Conservation with Particular Respect to the Issue of Trophy Hunting”.

That report found little evidence of a negative effect on populations when the operation is sustainable, and found that game hunting can provide benefits to conservation as a financial incentive to protect lion habitats. A lot of the focus was on the practice of captivity breeding for hunting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned. When I was at CITES, I raised the issue of canned hunting and similar approaches with a South African Minister, and I raised tiger hunting with a Chinese Minister, so I can assure the House that we take those issues seriously. The report also highlights a risk that African nations who feel continually imposed upon may opt out of internationally important agreements such as CITES.

There has been a lot of discussion during this debate about species, and I will set out why we should treat countries individually, rather than considering Africa as one nation. I am fully aware that elephants, lions and others do not know geographical boundaries, but different approaches have been taken and we work closely on those.

Our policy on imports starts from the point of EU regulations, which are considered by looking at both the species and the country. That is why there are different import restrictions on species by country or area. Trophies from hippos, for example, can be imported from Tanzania but not Mozambique, and at the moment, imports from Cameroon to the EU are suspended. A regional example is that trophies from African elephants in Tanzania can be imported to the EU only if they are from populations in set areas or reserves, such as the Serengeti. Currently, 10 species-country combinations have import suspensions at EU level, and there are numerous temporary import suspensions while additional evidence is gathered.

The EU wildlife trade regulations that implement CITES in the EU are directly applicable in the UK. When species are listed in annex A of those regulations, they require an import permit that will be issued only if a number of criteria are met, including a valid export permit from the relevant authorities of the exporting country. The applicant must provide that permit as documentary evidence that the specimens have been obtained in accordance with the legislation on the protection of that species from that country.

The Animal and Plant Health Agency is the licensing authority and it receives advice from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. APHA can refuse entry of the species listed in annex A, as well as of six species listed in annex B. APHA considers entry on a case-by-case basis with advice from the JNCC. On the status of big game imports to the UK in 2017, of the 63 permits requested, 44 were issued by the APHA and 41 were used.

Hon. Members referred to other countries. Australia has made probably the biggest change by making ineligible for import any animal that is listed in CITES appendix I, regardless of the country of origin. France has excluded specific parts of lions: heads, paws and skin. The Netherlands will no longer allow more than 200 species to enter the country. Interestingly, in a domestic situation, the Netherlands has a special place, Oostvaardersplassen, which is known as the Dutch Serengeti, where the policy was to allow nature to evolve. Unfortunately, that led to species starving to death, so while some aspects of culling wildlife may seem uncomfortable, it is sometimes necessary for animal welfare.

We have been discussing the legal wildlife trade, which understandably brings discomfort to many people, but, considering the wider perspective, the UK is showing global leadership in tackling the illegal wildlife trade. We will, of course, continue to take the actions to which the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) referred. In fact, we are looking right now for another EU member state to take up the championing that the UK has done on the issue in the European Union for many years.

As with the international wildlife trade conference in London last year, we will continue to work with many countries and partners around the world. That is essential to achieve real change. In Africa, the UK is committed to supporting action in the KAZA, or Kavango-Zambezi, region to tackle IWT and to enhance biodiversity and the habitats of the wonderful animals there, and I hope to attend a wildlife economy summit next month.

I am very conscious that people see CITES as a way to allow trade. At the most recent CITES, in 2016, we pushed for and were successful in getting tougher controls on species from appendices I and II. The JNCC is doing some work for us on some of these things and on where we could consider potentially taking more action. We do not intend to have a consultation, but we are seeking views and gathering evidence to further our understanding.

It will always be challenging when scientific evidence does not necessarily provide support, which is why this might well come down to being a straightforwardly moral or ethical issue. However, we need to consider the wider impact, recognising the conflict that can happen and the unfortunate developments in parts of some African countries, where increasingly—in human-elephant and, in particular, human-lion conflicts—we see animals being poisoned by local communities as they take away people’s livelihoods or go into areas where people live. We are still gathering the evidence—we do not have it yet—and I am interested in working with others on that. I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park may wish to respond for the remaining 15 seconds or so.

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The Minister will not be able to answer now, but I hope that as she gathers the evidence, if it emerges—I believe it will—that the practice of trophy hunting has no net positive effect for conservation, the Government will take the firm position that I think pretty much everyone in the debate has demanded. I thank hon. Members for their contributions, and I thank LionAid, Born Free and the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting for all their work to raise the issue right up the political agenda, resulting in this debate and, I hope, more to come.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).