House of Commons
Thursday 23 May 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Our world leading horse-racing industry employs over 17,000 people and contributes around £3.5 billion to rural economies across Britain each year. The Government support British racing, and our reforms to the horse-race betting levy have established a firm financial basis to support the sport.
I am very proud to be the joint chairman of the all-party parliamentary racing and bloodstock industries group. Like many Members across the House, I strongly support our fantastic sport and our fantastic British horse-racing industry, but the sport does face challenges. Given that the yield from the levy is £17 million less than forecast, what measures will the Secretary of State and the Government take, working with British horse-racing to ensure its long-term financial sustainability?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, not just for what he says, but also for the valuable work he does with the APPG to support the industry. He is right that the levy receipts this year will be lower than expected, but he will recognise that there was a very substantial increase last year because the Government reformed the levy in order to bring offshore bookmakers into scope. That was an important change to give the industry a broader and more substantial financial base. We will look at future changes to the levy that may be appropriate to deal with any change in circumstances, but it is right to allow the substantial changes that we made last year to bed in. We will of course discuss with the hon. Gentleman and the APPG what further action may be appropriate.
As the other co-chairman of the APPG, may I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the recent Racing Together Community Day. Does he agree that, with 60 racecourses across the country, horse-racing has a wonderful opportunity to reach out to very many people, including schoolchildren, and can he help us to support that action?
In order to be even-handed, I should offer equal thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend for the work that he does with the APPG. He is right that horse-racing can make a significant contribution —not just to our sporting life, but to our broader community life. It is important that young people understand the sport and understand horses, and we welcome any opportunity that the industry has to support that.
Digital Skills: Older People
Three quarters of people who lack basic digital skills are over the age of 65, so we have launched a digital inclusion innovation fund specifically to help older people and people with disabilities. We are also tackling digital exclusion via the £15 million future digital inclusion programme, which since 2014 has helped more than 1 million adult learners to develop their basic digital skills.
We all know how important it is to have digital skills in the modern world. Will the Minister therefore join me in congratulating the South East local enterprise partnership on being awarded funding to set up a local digital skills partnership, and wish it well in its new task?
I certainly congratulate the South East LEP in gaining this initiative. We have now launched six local digital skills partnerships, and they will match provision to the very local needs of people, particularly in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
I hold regular discussions about digital inclusion with a group called Young At Heart in Cefn Cribwr in my constituency—a group of women who are, in the main, over the age of 80. One of their biggest complaints is being unable to make face-to-face appointments to see their doctor, and they also have complaints about the telephone services at doctors’ surgeries. What more support could the Minister provide to allow GPs to have funding to teach and upskill those women to be able to use those services?
I congratulate everyone behind Young At Heart in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency; it sounds like an excellent initiative. NHS Digital has the widening digital participation programme, which will enable people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere to make better use of digital services, as well as the face-to-face appointments that will always be required.
TV Licences for Over-75s
The Government have guaranteed the over-75s licence concession until 2020. After that, the future of that concession is the BBC’s decision, but we have been clear that we would want and expect it to continue. We expect the BBC’s decision next month.
It was a Labour Government who introduced free TV licences for pensioners, in the vital battle against isolation, loneliness and severe mobility problems. Next year, up to 6,000 pensioners could lose their licence in Jarrow. Half of them class the TV as their main source of company. What is the Minister going to do about that?
The hon. Gentleman is right that television is important for many older and more isolated people, but the key word in his question was “could”. We do not yet know what decision the BBC will make, and it is sensible to wait until we have the proposal before commenting upon it.
What deal have the Government come to to compensate the BBC if it decides to continue with free television licences, bearing in mind that this was in the Conservative party’s manifesto for the general election?
We have made it quite clear that we will continue to fund the concession until 2020. It is worth noting that, over the last two years, the funding has been managed in a transitional way. The Department for Work and Pensions transferred £468 million in 2018-19 to the BBC and £247 million this year. It is important to make that point, because it means that the remainder of the cost is now being borne by the BBC. We have been clear that when the BBC takes on this responsibility, it is important for the concession to continue.
As this is the last Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions before the women’s World cup in France, I want to take this opportunity to wish Scotland, led by Shelley Kerr—another Livingston lass—all the very best, as well as England, who we look forward to taking on on 9 June.
Research by Age UK shows that more than 2 million over-75s will have to go without TV or cut back on heating and food if free TV licences are scrapped. The scale of loneliness in the UK is becoming apparent, and the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, concluded that unless austerity is ended, the UK’s poorest people face lives that are
“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
Why do this Government want to heap more misery on to the elderly and poor and think it is worth removing what, for many, is the only source of information, company and link to the outside world?
First, let me mostly endorse what the hon. Lady said about the women’s World cup and wish a huge amount of luck to England and almost as much luck to Scotland.
I disagree with the hon. Lady’s description of the position. We do not accept the characterisation in the report that she refers to. In relation to TV licences, as she has heard me say this morning, I think it is important to wait until we see the BBC’s proposals, and we will then be in a position to comment. That principle applies more broadly—it is always sensible to wait and see what is proposed before you decide you do not like it.
I am pleased to say that the NHS is expanding specialist support for gambling addiction in its long-term plan. Public Health England is reviewing evidence, and GambleAware will publish a needs analysis this autumn. Building evidence is key to future funding decisions. We want the industry to be responsible in all ways, which includes funding support for people experiencing harm.
According to the Gambling Commission, the gross gambling yield of Great Britain’s gambling industry is £14.4 billion, yet the amount donated through the levy for gambling-related harm was less than £10 million. A statutory levy of 1% would equate to £140 million. I know that such a levy is being considered, but what alternatives exist to raise a guaranteed amount over a period?
GambleAware was fully funded last year. As the hon. Gentleman said, it almost reached the £10 million target, and another £7 million was brought in through financial penalties. We expect targets to be increased in the future and welcome commitments by operators to substantially increase the amounts they give. However, as I said at the Gambling Commission strategy launch, if the voluntary system cannot meet current or, more importantly, future needs, we will look at alternatives. Everything is on the table, including a mandatory levy.
Some gambling companies sponsor football clubs to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds, and in return, they get branding on T-shirts and around grounds, seen by thousands in stadiums and millions on TV, including millions of children. Yet we found out recently that some of those sponsors gave as little as £50 to GambleAware—the charity that funds research and treatment of gambling addiction. Currently, just 3% of gambling addicts get the treatment they need. When the stakes are so high and contributions so low, how can the Minister justify refusing a mandatory levy?
I think every sport, but particularly football, has a responsibility to those enjoying the game in relation to the amount of sponsors they have and they experience the fans have. In particular, on the size of football shirts, children may be a young adult size, and that should be looked at appropriately.
As I say, if this voluntary system does not work, everything is on the table. However, I would say that of those people who come into contact with GambleAware, 70% come through a life-changing experience and get on to a better future, and I would advise anyone experiencing harm to contact it.
I call Jim Shannon—not here.
Leaving the EU: Performing Arts
We have consulted widely with a diverse range of stakeholders from across the performing arts to ensure the potential impacts of Brexit are understood and to ensure that future opportunities can be realised. We are pursuing a wide-ranging agreement with the EU on culture that will ensure all parties can continue to benefit from international collaboration.
As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, the UK has the most vibrant performing arts sector in the whole of Europe. An important part of that is the ability of UK companies to work collaboratively with European companies, for UK artists to visit and tour venues in the EU and vice versa. However, to achieve that, will he tell us what specific steps are being taken to ensure that there is frictionless travel for performing artists and musicians, as well as their equipment, including musical instruments?
DCMS is engaging extensively with the performing arts sector. My hon. Friend is right about the importance of the sector to our culture, but also to our economy. For example, more people go to the theatre than go to football matches in this country. I did have a meeting with UK theatres and the Home Office; we set up that meeting to give them the opportunity to express their concerns. We are working very closely with the Home Office and others on that. I very much recognise the importance of touring for the cultural sector, and we will work on that.
I have a personal interest in that my daughter is a poet and playwright, and my son is an actor and scriptwriter. They thought they were being brought up as citizens of Europe, and they are deeply worried about the future in relation to artists coming here and their ability to tour across in Europe. This is a sad, sad day for Europe.
The reality is that our UK theatre and performing arts community is an excellent example of how we work collaboratively throughout the country and around the world, and that is going to continue even after Brexit.
The multi-talented character of the Sheerman family is, frankly, not a surprise to the House.
The chief executive of the Edinburgh fringe has expressed serious concern about the cost and complexity of artists coming to Edinburgh, and fears they will go elsewhere. Does the Minister really believe that losing access to Creative Europe funding, ending freedom of movement and pulling up the drawbridge will culturally enrich the people of these islands?
We are not pulling up any drawbridges. The political declaration agreed between the UK and the EU specifically acknowledges the importance of mobility for cultural co-operation. Indeed, the Government have announced plans to negotiate reciprocal mobility arrangements with the EU, which will support businesses to provide services and to move their talented people.
May I recommend to the Minister the RSC production of “As You Like It” that my brother is appearing in at Stratford-on-Avon?
As part of the preparations for leaving the EU, the EU has indicated that there will be an opportunity for reciprocal agreement for up to 90 days in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Given the importance of the EU for our performing artists, and for our world-leading musicians as well, can the Minister give us the strongest possible indication that the Government will honour that reciprocal deal with the EU—whoever ends up in charge?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s brother is a magnificent performer, but I hope he will forgive me if I add that my daughter, Jemima, will be performing in “As You Like It” at her primary school in a matter of days, and it is a key priority for me to observe her at work.
There are clearly several performers in the family, Mr Speaker.
In answer to the question, we are working very hard, and I am extremely confident that the UK theatre and performing arts community will continue to perform as excellently as it has been doing. Our performers and theatre are world-renowned, and that will continue after Brexit.
I asked for that.
Society Lottery Reform
As outlined in the consultation, we are considering changes to the sales and prize limits for society lotteries. The regulatory framework for lotteries must be appropriate, and both society lotteries and the national lottery should be able to thrive. We hope to respond to the consultation by the summer recess.
In February last year I wrote on behalf of the People’s Postcode Lottery to ask for the limit on charity lottery sales to be raised to £100 million. On 7 February I was told that the Department was “considering” that proposal. There have been 15 months of consideration and deliberation, so is it not now “make your mind up time”? Many of those charity lotteries are trying to fill the gaps left by the Government’s austerity policies, and it seems unfair to continue to hold them back. When the Minister announces the response to the consultation, will he commit to raising that limit in line with inflation?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I will not announce the result of the consultation until we have that result. We have been saying for some time that we would seek to do that by the summer, and that is what we will do. It is important to consider carefully the balance of arguments. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that society lotteries make a considerable contribution, but he will understand that I also have a responsibility to protect the interests of the national lottery. Getting that balance right is not straightforward, and we seek to do it so that a contribution to the life of this country will continue to be made by both society lotteries and the national lottery.
Heritage: Cultural Importance
As set out in the Government’s heritage statement, heritage is an essential part of our cultural economy, cultural landscape and our country. Our heritage is globally renowned and world leading. The importance of heritage to towns and cities includes the creation of a better place to live in, work in, and visit.
Heritage will be a vital component part of town centres as they reinvent themselves, and the high street area in Lowestoft is now a heritage action zone. What steps are being taken to ensure that such good initiatives are nationally co-ordinated, so that we best promote the UK as a world heritage visitor destination?
The Government’s comprehensive plans for high streets are a nationally co-ordinated initiative that will help high streets to adapt to change, and promote our heritage. Some £42 million of funding from the Government and Historic England will create dozens of high street heritage action zones, including Lowestoft, and £3 million will come from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and £15 million from the Architectural Heritage Fund to support social enterprise. Lots of money is going to heritage, as it should do.
As it says in “As You Like It”:
“Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons.”
Our cultural heritage is important. Banbury has a long cultural heritage, and I am delighted that the Government have pledged more than £60 million for the heritage high streets fund. How will we use local heritage to benefit our towns and cities?
The hon. Lady really is an impressive culture vulture.
The heritage high street fund will restore and adapt our high streets, drive consumer footfall, increase further investment, and generate greater pride in our high streets. By reviving older buildings that are in a state of neglect, we will ensure that high streets remain at the heart of our communities for years to come. That will help to bring about the regeneration of high streets and the communities they serve, including in my hon. Friend’s wonderful constituency of Banbury.
The stunning FOCUS Wales music festival highlighted the importance of music worldwide when it brought artists from across the globe to Wrexham for three days last week. It used our magnificent St Giles’ parish church, which is the resting place of Elihu Yale, who founded Yale College, and a superb venue. May I extend an invitation to the entire Front-Bench team to come next year and see what a superb venue Wrexham is?
The hon. Gentleman is very kind to issue such a generous invitation. I commend him for his support for his constituency and for that important event. The Government announced almost £500 million of funding between 2016 and 2020 for a diverse portfolio of music and arts education programmes. The rewards from that include support for the festival in Wrexham.
A big part of Newport’s heritage is the Chartist Rising, which happened 180 years ago this November. In Newport, we commemorate it every year. What more can we do in this place and nationally to recognise the Chartist movement’s critical role in shaping our democracy?
Historic events such as the Chartist Rising, and many others in communities around the country, are a part of what makes this country’s rich cultural tapestry so endearing and so rewarding to our society. I commend the hon. Lady for her support for that event. She will no doubt take many opportunities to continue to remind Members of it and attract attention that could indeed bring tourist footfall to the area.
Cleethorpes currently benefits from coastal communities funding to improve its many Victorian and Edwardian buildings. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Department’s various funding streams will continue to benefit our coastal communities?
We are certainly looking very carefully at our coastal communities, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want to support them. They bring in tourist visitors, but we want to see their number increased. We will definitely take the point he makes under advisement.
Commercial Radio: Wales
We continue to support the growth of radio services in Wales. A number of new community and digital stations have launched in recent years, including those offering programmes in the Welsh language. The BBC has also improved its Radio Wales FM coverage and last year it launched BBC Radio Cymru 2.
I thank the Minister for that answer. She alludes to Wales as a proud bilingual nation. At present, Ofcom has no power to introduce safeguards in relation to the provision of Welsh language content when awarding licences. Given that existing localness requirements may be weakened as radio transfers to DAB, does the Minister not agree that the regulator should now be empowered to ensure the Welsh language is not abandoned in the process?
We are very committed to programmes in minority languages. We have launched a new audio content fund and we expect 5% of that fund to be devoted to Welsh and Gaelic programming. I urge the hon. Gentleman to be cautious about mandating programmes in minority languages, because we have to balance that with overall choice. He needs to bear in mind that with the Radio Ceredigion application, which I know he supported, Nation Radio was the only applicant to replace it. By stipulating more and more regulations, we might reduce overall choice.
Works of Art: Retention in the UK
My Department, in partnership with Arts Council England, delivers and advises on various statutory schemes that are designed to keep items of particular cultural significance in the UK, such as the judge’s copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” from the obscenity trial in 1960. The statutory schemes include various tax incentives to assist UK public institutions in acquiring pre-eminent items.
Seeing as we are all in the business of burnishing our thespian credentials this morning, may I refer back to the time at my little-known secondary school when I was a very convincing Badger in “Toad of Toad Hall”? It was somewhat safer to be badger in those days.
Will the Minister ensure that in the event of a foreign purchaser refusing a matching offer, an absolute ban on future export can be enforced by compelling him or her to keep the item on display in a recognised public institution and pay any insurance, rather than expecting Government indemnity?
Might there be photographic evidence of the right hon. Gentleman’s performance that could be made available to Members of the House?
Well, in school I played Sir Roderic Murgatroyd from Gilbert and Sullivan. I felt that I had to mention that.
The Government are currently considering the results of a consultation on strengthening the process for retaining national treasures. When an owner or foreign purchaser wishes to export a national treasure and does not accept the matching offer from a public body that has taken the trouble to raise the funds to purchase it, that will be taken into account when making a decision on the export licence application and a licence will normally be refused. However, the owner is not currently compelled to display the item. We are looking at that in greater detail at the moment through the consultation.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. My Department monitors proposed changes to library service provisions by local authorities, and if DCMS receives a complaint that a council may be failing to meet its statutory duty, we challenge those councils and carefully consider the evidence before deciding if a local inquiry is needed.
The Manic Street Preachers said “Libraries gave us power”, but since 2010, 230,000 library opening hours have been lost and 127 libraries in England have completely shut their doors. I have three under threat in my constituency. I listened to the Minister’s answer. What advice or assistance can he give Ealing Council, which is struggling to keep its statutory services going with a 64% cut from the Government, to keep these engines of social mobility alive?
I would ask Ealing Council, as with other councils, to look at local authorities that are investing in libraries. Local authorities around the country of every political hue are opening, expanding and developing libraries. The first reaction to those facing budgetary challenges ought not to be to cut cultural items, but to provide support for them, and other local authorities have proven that they can do it.
I congratulate the four English football teams, one of whom I know you take a particular interest in, Mr Speaker, who have qualified for the European finals. It is the first time that one nation has ever provided all the major European finalists in a single season. We have seen success elsewhere in my Department’s portfolio, too, with the Tech Nation report showing that our digital economy is leading the way in Europe, with 35% of Europe and Israel’s tech unicorns being created here in the UK. We have the cricket world cup to look forward to, with the opening match at the Oval next week. I am sure the House will join me in welcoming the nine visiting teams and in wishing our cricketers the very best of luck. Perhaps I also ought to congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), the shadow Secretary of State, for climbing Snowdon, which he recently achieved. All of us in the House are used to uphill struggles; I am pleased that he has completed that one successfully.
The access to cash review recently published a report setting out that 17% of the adult population—about 8 million adults—would struggle to manage in a cashless society, with the majority of those people in rural areas. Will the Minister explain what the Department is doing to improve the situation for those in rural areas to bring the standard up to that in more urban areas?
My hon. Friend is right that we face two challenges: one is skills and the other is access to broadband. On broadband, he will know that we have succeeded in achieving our initial objective of 95% of the country being covered by superfast broadband, and in fact, exceeding that somewhat, but we now need to move on to rolling out full fibre. When we do that, it is important that we focus on those areas that the market will not reach unaided—an outside-in approach, as we have described it. I believe that will benefit rural areas predominantly.
The notable athlete himself: Mr Tom Watson.
Good morning, Mr Speaker, and my very best wishes to Jemima and all colleagues’ family members in their thespian endeavours, including my daughter, Saoirse, who has just successfully auditioned to play Nancy in the school production of “Oliver Twist”.
UEFA’s inclusion and diversity policy says the following:
“Everyone has the right to enjoy football, no matter who you are, where you’re from or how you play.”
But next week, Henrikh Mkhitaryan will miss the match of a lifetime because he is from Armenia, and Arsenal fans with Armenian names are being denied visas to travel to Baku. This is a scandal. It is a deeply ugly side to the beautiful game, and if I was Secretary of State, I would make it clear to UEFA that it is completely unacceptable. Will the Minister demand that UEFA ensures that countries that force players to choose between their sport and their safety and that discriminate against travelling fans will never be allowed to host future events?
The hon. Gentleman is right: if football is to be for everyone, and we all believe that it should be, that should apply to football in our own country and to football in places where we want our fans to be able to travel. It is important that we engage with UEFA, as we have been doing, to send the very clear message that places where football travels to should be welcoming to those who support football, and politics should have nothing whatsoever to do with it.
There is, as the hon. Gentleman says, the related challenge of whether British fans who are of Armenian descent are able to have a visa to travel to Azerbaijan. That is something that my colleagues in the Foreign Office are picking up, because it is important that all those who want to travel to support their team should be able to do so. If they cannot, football is not achieving what it should.
A woeful ticket allocation means that the vast majority of fans will not travel to that match or, indeed, to the Champions league final, because UEFA has favoured corporates over fans. Will the Secretary of State condemn UEFA with me today? On this day when the House is divided over Europe, can we unite to condemn UEFA for its disgraceful treatment of football fans?
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are not enough tickets available for fans, either on Saturday or next week in Azerbaijan. I think we can agree that as many people who are passionate about their team as possible should have the chance to see them succeed and compete on the European stage, just as they can on the national stage. We believe that it is important to say to UEFA that that is a message we all support. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it, so that we can communicate that message with clarity.
It is important that we spread the benefits of the major European competitions around Europe. I do not believe it is right that they should be held in only a small subset of European countries. There are huge economic and sporting benefits to be derived from them, and countries should have access to those benefits, but only if they are prepared to give access to passionate football supporters.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the exciting summer of women’s sport that is coming up, which will include the Ashes and the Solheim cup. Today, the netball squad is being announced for Liverpool. It is a very exciting time for sport across our nation and many people will be coming to our shores to enjoy it. I will be sending off the women’s team, because I will see them at Brighton and Hove before they go on their final warm-up. It is absolutely right that we prioritise grassroots opportunities for everyone to enjoy.
Next month, UEFA will start the process of recruiting 12,000 volunteers from host countries, including Scotland and England, for Euro 2020. They will be expected to give a huge time commitment and to work for free in complex roles that involve huge responsibility, including anti-doping. Is that not just exploitation dressed up as an opportunity, and will the Secretary of State raise it with UEFA directly?
I feel we have a number of conversations to have with UEFA and I am happy to add that to the list. As we approach the Commonwealth games in Birmingham in 2022—10 years on from London 2012, where people derived incredible experiences from volunteering—I think we should support this. However, if there are challenges in recruiting people due to their responsibilities, we must look at that.
I am very pleased that I can mention that my daughter, Jemimah, is going to be a barnacle in her next production. [Laughter.] She is going to be really unhappy about my saying that. [Interruption.] She’ll stick at it.
On the broader point, as we approach a really important time for our young people in terms of bringing forward the youth charter for our next generation, we absolutely have to think about the positive activities, engagement and participation of our young people. On my patch, we have Friday night football, which gets people off the streets and gives them the chance to have free wi-fi and some toast afterwards, and to enjoy being part of the community. We need to make sure that there is that participation, at any time of the day or night. As Sports Minister, that is what I like to hear.
Last week, Wolverhampton Wanderers became the latest football club to commit to rail seating at its stadium. Football fans want safe standing, clubs do, and the governing bodies are on board as well. It has been eight months since the Government announced their consultation and a review of this. When will it come to a close?
The Secretary of State and I have had the results of a review come to us that we are considering very carefully. In this Chamber over a number of months, it has been very clear that fans and MPs alike want to know what the next stages are. We are considering the review appropriately and will be coming forward with the next steps.
Indeed. Garden tourism contributed billions of pounds to national GDP in 2017. The proposed sector deal has been in negotiation for some time now. There has been wide consultation with the sector, and it has come forward with a list of proposals for key areas to target within the industry. My hon. Friend is right to focus on the value of our garden tourism. At Alnwick castle, for example, and elsewhere, there are very special gardens for people to visit. I would be happy to hear of any further proposals from her afterwards.
The Secretary of State will know that Coventry will be the city of culture in 2021. Will he meet me to discuss the future of the Priory museum in Coventry? In that area, under Henry VIII, the old church was destroyed. The Parliament of Devils was held there.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for supporting Coventry city of culture 2021, which is a very exciting project. I would very happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.
As my hon. Friend would expect, I am very proud of Silicon Spa in the area of Warwickshire that I represent. I visited one of the games- designing companies very recently. I accept that having one’s picture taken under a big sign saying “Rebellion” is not a sensible thing to do at the moment. None the less, I thought it was important that I made that visit, and I was impressed by what I saw. My hon. Friend is right that it is important that we give these companies people with the skills that they require to continue to be successful. He will know about our creative careers programme, which gives 160,000 children an opportunity to learn about careers in video games and elsewhere.
I am very proud that I supported the millennium dome that became the O2 and is a great success. The other night, I heard Elbow play there. Will the Secretary of State help me get a performing arts centre of international quality in Huddersfield—an O2 for the north?
As it happens, when I am in London I live very close to the O2, so I hear all kinds of people playing there. The hon. Gentleman is right that we should be looking to deliver the benefits of these kinds of performing opportunities to the whole country. I am happy to talk to him further about what we might do to bring this opportunity to the north, and, of course, all parts of the UK.
VisitBritain works very hard to promote the UK internationally, including all our regions, and promotional images from across the country demonstrate our wonderful tourism offer. In addition, VisitEngland has a brilliant programme called the Discover England fund, which helps to ensure that visitors explore all of England, including Lincolnshire. A number of Lincolnshire projects are a part of the initiative including The Explorers’ Road, The Friendly Invasion and the England’s Originals products.
The Attorney General was asked—
Legal Professionals: Pro Bono Work
May I start by acknowledging the work of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), my predecessor in this role? I wish him well in his new post in the Ministry of Justice.
I would also like to acknowledge the tremendous work that legal professionals up and down the country do for free every day to help people who are in need and require legal support. The Attorney General and I are the Government’s pro bono champions—I am delighted to take up that role. Earlier this month the Attorney General’s pro bono committee met and discussed how the Attorney General’s Office can help to raise awareness of pro bono work, and I am greatly looking forward to building on this work.
The sheer volume of legal advice and assistance that lawyers offer free of charge too often goes unremarked, but is remarkable. It rights wrongs, protects rights and strengthens the rule of law; it deserves our immense gratitude. Will my hon. and learned Friend join me in paying tribute to those lawyers who give up their time to offer support to others, in particular to victims of atrocities such as the Manchester Arena bombing?
My hon. Friend is a very well respected criminal barrister and has done a great amount of work here as a member of the Justice Committee. He is absolutely right to highlight the incredible work that lawyers undertake for free, which does go unrecognised. He is also right to highlight the Manchester attack. We are in the anniversary week of that terrible tragedy and my thoughts are with all those who have suffered. The Manchester Law Society did a call for support and over 100 firms and barristers offered free advice and representation.
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend to her new role and wish her every success.
As has already been said, pro bono law work is an important resource for all of us as constituency MPs. Given that fact, as well as the message we have heard that lots of pro bono work is being carried out, will my hon. and learned Friend outline what more can be done to encourage law firms and universities outside London to provide more pro bono work?
That is a good point, because students can play a critical role in giving support, and of course both London and the regions need to help and support those in need. In my role as a constituency MP, I was at the Anglia Law School law clinic only few weeks ago. It brings law firms in Cambridge together with those studying at the local university to help to support people.
I thank the Bar pro bono unit for its work advising constituents who have found themselves in some very difficult situations. The unit is being rebranded as Advocate, and it would be great if the Minister could support Pro Bono Week in November and encourage MPs and their caseworkers to make referrals as early as possible.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has mentioned the work of Advocate, which used to be called the Bar pro bono unit. As a barrister, I was pleased to volunteer for the unit. In fact, more than 3,500 barristers are now registered as volunteers for Advocate and, like my hon. Friend, I would encourage Members to refer cases to it. I do so as a constituency MP. I know that Advocate, among others, is involved in the planning of this year’s Pro Bono Week, which will commence on 4 November.
I welcome the Solicitor General to her new position. Solicitors and barristers in towns up and down the country can provide pro bono advice, as I did when I was in practice as a solicitor, only if the practices are there. There is real pressure on the provision of advice in desert areas, because private sector firms are going out of business. What is she going to do about this?
I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman also did pro bono work; he is to be commended for that. As he will know, the Ministry of Justice is carrying out a review of the market at the moment. There are some areas in which there are not as many law firms offering legal aid as there could be, but that review is already being undertaken.
I warmly welcome my hon. and learned Friend to her new position and wish her well. She will know that the importance of legal advice is a theme that occurs in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera “Iolanthe”, in which my wife Anne-Louise and my two stepchildren Victoria and James will be singing principal roles with the Grim’s Dyke Opera this Sunday. Does my hon. and learned Friend recognise that the valuable and magnificent pro bono work done by lawyers is there as a supplement to properly funded legal advice—from public funds as well—and that the two go together? Does she agree that one is not a replacement for the other?
It is always a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend, who is an excellent Chair of the Justice Committee. I wish Victoria and James every success on Sunday. He is absolutely right to highlight the fact that there are many elements to the legal profession. There is of course private work, as well as legal aid and the free service provided through the pro bono work that lawyers provide. We spend £1.6 billion every year on legal aid, and we are continuing to look at how we can best support people in need through legal aid.
CPS Engagement with Local Communities
The Attorney General’s Office has regular engagement with the Crown Prosecution Service, and we know that the issue of community engagement is of key importance to the CPS. In May 2018, it launched its inclusion and community engagement strategy in addition to the existing consultation groups and scrutiny panels, all of which are pivotal in building trust with all communities in relation to CPS decisions.
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend to her post. Can she give an example of community engagement in my local CPS area?
My hon. Friend’s constituency falls within the Merseyside and Cheshire CPS area, and the inclusion and community engagement manager there is Jennifer Friday. She manages an ambitious programme of community engagement that includes sessions in high schools and a community conversation with people with learning disabilities, and I commend her work. The local criminal justice board has set up a sub-group to focus on hate crime, which is chaired by the CPS and includes Sefton Council.
Does the Minister agree that local engagement with religious and minority groups helps to build public confidence in the criminal justice system?
It is absolutely vital that the CPS engages with all communities in the region where it operates. There is a variety of local engagement strategies, including through the local scrutiny boards, and I am aware that the local chief Crown prosecutor for the west midlands has specifically engaged with the Muslim community to help to build local relations there.
Having spoken to victims of crime and to police officers, I feel it would be hugely beneficial for the promotion of engagement and understanding of the CPS if it had the ability to explain charging decisions directly to the victims of crime. Does the Solicitor General agree, and how are we resourcing the CPS to do that work?
It is absolutely vital that the CPS talks to victims and understands both them and local communities. In fact, the CPS produced an inclusion and community engagement strategy in May 2018, which has been widely recommended. Hate crime and violence against women and girls strategy boards can discuss such issues locally.
I wish the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), well in his new role. Of course, I welcome the hon. and learned Lady to her new appointment.
One area in which community engagement by the Crown Prosecution Service is vital is the terrible crime of rape. The latest Home Office figures show that the proportion of reported rapes reaching prosecution is now at a pitiful 1.7%. In January, the proportion was 1.9%. Why does the Solicitor General think that an awful figure has got even worse in recent months?
Rape is an absolutely terrible crime, and those who suffer it need to be supported through the criminal justice system. I am pleased that the reporting figures for rape have gone up over the years, and that more people are feeling able to report rape. We have managed to improve those figures through the pilots that we have run in various regions, which are going to be rolled out. Conviction rates still need to go up, and we are looking at how to improve them.
That percentage was not for convictions, but for the proportion of rapes even reaching charging stage. The Law Officers are presiding over a situation in which more than 98% of reported rapes are not even getting to that stage. We desperately need action, so may I make some suggestions? Let us stop the cuts to the investigative capacity of the police and the CPS, let us get the balance on disclosure right, and let us invest properly in victim support. I say seriously to the Law Officers that the figures are appalling—they must get a grip.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, rape is one of the most difficult offences to prove, with cases often relying on say-so and the testimony of individuals—the evidence of two people. I recently met the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss the issue, and he reiterated the importance of collecting evidence in these terrible crimes so that we can bring successful prosecutions.
Prosecution Rates: Electoral Fraud
The Crown Prosecution Service works closely with the police, including by providing early investigative advice, to consider any allegations of electoral fraud in accordance with the code of Crown prosecutors. The Crown Prosecution Service recognises the importance of protecting democracy, and all cases involving election offences are referred to specialist prosecutors within the Crown Prosecution Service’s special crime and counter-terrorism division.
Of 266 reported electoral fraud cases last year, only one resulted in a conviction. The Vote Leave campaign dropping its appeal is as good as its admitting the illegality and illegitimacy of the 2016 referendum result. When will electoral law breaking be treated as a serious crime? Will the Attorney General also ensure that there is a full, transparent, independent inquiry into the foreign funding of Nigel Farage’s new vehicle?
The hon. Lady is quite right that electoral fraud is serious. From whichever side it comes—a referendum campaign or a political party—it must be dealt with according to the law, and it is dealt with unflinchingly. We have an independent Electoral Commission that investigates electoral fraud, and it is right that the Government should allow the commission to be independent, as it must be. However, if a case is referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, it is dealt with precisely according to the code in the same way as any other offence. It is dealt with by trained specialist prosecutors, and a single point of contact in each police force is also trained in election offences. While there may be many allegations, those that are fit for prosecution will be prosecuted—I can give the hon. Lady that assurance.
I think that we all agree that electoral fraud should be rooted out and tackled, but the question is one of priorities. Many of us fail to understand why the Government appear obsessed with personation and individual electoral fraud, spending so much time and energy on a problem that is virtually non-existent, at a time when the Electoral Commission finds Vote Leave and other campaigns guilty of electoral fraud and is currently investigating the Brexit party. Is it not time that the Government reassessed their priorities and focused on the organised campaigns that try to thwart our procedures?
I cannot comment on any ongoing investigations that may be carried out, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, but the Electoral Commission, as he knows, is independent and is charged with responsibility for ensuring the integrity of elections. The commission has a full range of powers that it is able to use, and it takes its decisions with full independence.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that if any prima facie case of electoral fraud is referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, it will be dealt with with complete and utter impartiality, and will be prosecuted.
Order. Very briefly, the remaining questions.
Support for Parliamentarians (Intimidation and Harassment)
Everyone should be free to go about their business without facing abuse or harassment, and the Crown Prosecution Service recently published an information pack to help Members of this House and the other place to recognise possible criminal conduct and to report it to the police. Criminal offences committed against Members of this House imperil the democratic process and public service, and the Crown Prosecution Service is fully committed to pursuing prosecutions in these cases, wherever appropriate.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that colleagues and members of staff who think they have been abused or harassed come forward to report those cases so that we can get this exemplary system working here in Parliament?
I do agree, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is vital that everybody should have the courage and confidence to be able to come forward. The pack that was given to all Members of this House indicates how to report it and the process that will be followed, and that publication is a good guide, I hope, to the way in which both staff and Members should deal with the matter.
This is deepest complacency. These are supposed to be topical questions. Lord Neuberger has said that the justice system is in crisis because of legal aid cuts. Does the Attorney General accept that the Crown Prosecution Service is so under-resourced that it cannot do its job?
A man drove into a bus queue in my constituency, killing a little girl and injuring two other people. The CPS did not even charge him with careless driving. Something is deeply wrong with the CPS, and the Attorney General should wake up to it.
I admire the hon. Gentleman’s passion, and I am sure it is entirely well grounded and sincere. The Crown Prosecution Service applies the code of conduct for prosecutors. In those circumstances, it is completely right that it does so impartially. I do not know the case to which he refers but, if he writes to me, I am certainly willing to look into it. Question 6 is on the abuse and harassment of Members of this House and the other place, and I hope we can both agree that any such abuse and harassment is deplorable and contemptible, and is an attack upon democracy.
Finally, and briefly, Mr Jim Cunningham.
Prosecution of Sexual Offences (Criminal Gangs)
The offences of gang-related rape and other sexual violence, including child sexual exploitation, are dealt with by specially trained rape and serious sexual offences lawyers who work closely with police investigators to build strong cases. The training is regularly updated, as is the legal guidance, to support the effectiveness of rape and sexual offences prosecutions, including building awareness of victims and the issues connected with victims in the context of gang-related violence.
I draw the Attorney General’s attention to the fact that organisations such as the Coventry rape and sexual abuse centre are struggling to be funded. These organisations play a major role in advising victims. When will these organisations be properly funded, and will he meet me to discuss it?
Whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to organisations inside or outside the Crown Prosecution Service, I am very happy to meet him if the matter is within my sphere of responsibility. I can assure him that the Government are now reviewing why there is a problem of reported cases of rape going up and the number of convictions and prosecutions going down. We are concerned to tackle it, which is why we are seeking to get to the bottom of the factors that affect it, but they are complicated factors. It is not as easy as saying, “Well, the prosecutors are not prosecuting enough.” There are many factors affecting this question, and we all need to come together to inquire into it and to reach the right solutions.
Colleagues, today marks the last day in the service of the House of the Principal Clerk of the Table Office, Philippa Helme. Philippa began in the service of the House on 3 October 1983, so she has served for 35 years, seven months and 20 days. I hope colleagues will agree that she has been a diligent, personable, efficient, ever-helpful and outstanding servant of the House as an institution and of individual Members who have sought her guidance.
I first came to know Philippa in 1997, when I joined the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, of which she was the brilliant Clerk. [Interruption.] Happy days, as the Attorney General pointedly observes from a sedentary position. She has done wonders for this place. She retires after that magnificent tenure and, as she approaches her retirement, we wish Philippa, her husband, Robin, and all the family every possible success, good health and happiness long into the future. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister if she will make a statement on the treatment of people with learning disabilities and complex needs at Whorlton Hall.
Many of us here today, and many of those listening and watching this urgent question, will have seen the very disturbing footage shown on the “Panorama” TV programme last night. It was footage detailing the incredibly traumatic experiences of vulnerable people with learning disabilities and autism at Whorlton Hall—somewhere they should have been safe, somewhere they should have been cared for. The actions revealed by the programme are simply appalling—there is no other word to describe them—and I condemn any abuse of this kind completely and utterly.
I want to begin by saying that I can only imagine the impact of those experiences on the people themselves, and the lasting damage and trauma that it will have caused to them and their lives. It must also have been incredibly distressing for their families, watching what has been happening to their loved ones, unable to step in and unable to do anything to help them. It is utterly, utterly tragic. On behalf of the health and care system, I am deeply sorry that this has happened.
As hon. Members will be aware, unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident; we have heard reports like this before. That is why there have been a number of reports published even this week on the care of people with learning disabilities and autistic people in in-patient settings. All those reports have been commissioned directly or indirectly by the Government, and all of them have found very clear evidence of care that has fallen way below the standard we expect and the standards that people absolutely deserve.
The allegations of abuse at Whorlton Hall were shared with my Department, NHS England, the Care Quality Commission and the provider ahead of the programme airing yesterday. Immediate steps were taken to ensure the safety of patients, including ensuring that safe staffing levels were maintained following the suspension of a significant number of staff by the provider. A Whorlton Hall incident co-ordination group was established, involving NHS England; NHS Improvement; Cygnet, as the owner; the CQC’s regional head of inspection; the local clinical commissioning group; and the local authority.
Durham constabulary opened a criminal investigation earlier this month, and the CQC and NHS England are supporting its enquiries. While that investigation is ongoing, I cannot comment on the specific incidents or individuals depicted, as Members will understand. The evidence presented, including but not limited to the “Panorama” footage, must be thoroughly examined, and where those investigations find that allegations of abuse are substantiated, action will be taken.
One thing we can all be clear on is that what was shown last night was not care, nor was it in any way caring—suffice it to say that I am clear in my mind the nature of what was occurring at Whorlton Hall.
There are three questions that we need to consider urgently. First, was the activity in Whorlton Hall criminal? The police investigation is looking into that. Secondly, is the regulatory and inspection framework working for these types of services? We want to know why, after whistleblowing concerns had been raised, was the outrageous culture and behaviour at Whorlton Hall not identified? What went wrong? We will be working to understand in detail the timeline of events, the actions taken and where things might have been addressed earlier. Thirdly, was the oversight of commissioners fit for purpose? Where were the CQC and NHS England in this?
More broadly, there is a range of questions about whether these types of institutions and these types of in-patient settings are ever an appropriate place to keep vulnerable people for any extended length of time and why community provision is not sufficient. Work is continuing on all those subjects as well. We know the problems that exist in the system and we are utterly determined address them.
I thank the Minister for that response. Last night’s “Panorama” was deeply shocking and particularly distressing for any family who have a loved one in an institution and are worried about their safety. We saw people with learning disabilities and autism mocked, intimidated, taunted and provoked, and care workers admitting to deliberately hurting patients—behaviour appropriately described as psychological torture. The individuals responsible must be held to account, but so must the provider that allowed this dreadful culture to persist. Will there now be an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive into the possibility of criminal prosecution against the provider?
The truth is that, seven years on from Winterbourne View, the system continues to sanction a model of care that is outdated and wrong. If people are contained in institutions a long way from home, awful things will happen behind closed doors. Will the Secretary of State now take personal responsibility for closing down institutions that provide the wrong model of care? Why does the CQC continue to register new institutions that offer inappropriate institutional care? Does the CQC need new powers? What lessons must we learn from the fact that the CQC rated this place as good? Is this another case of whistleblowers not being listened to? How much was Cygnet charging the NHS per week for this awful abuse and neglect?
This horror comes in the same week as a damning CQC report on segregation, an equally scathing report by the Children’s Commissioner on children being wrongly placed in institutions where force is routinely used and the LeDeR—learning disabilities mortality review—report confirming the extent to which people with learning disabilities and autism are fatally failed by the system. Does the Minister accept that we tolerating are widespread human rights abuses? Is it true that the Government moved forward the publication of the CQC report to pre-empt the “Panorama” report? What families want is not another review; they want action to protect their loved ones.
Will the Government take action to end the endemic use of restraint—including face-down restraint against adults and children—five years after I issued guidance to that end? When will the Government tell us what will replace the transforming care programme? It ended in March and we are still waiting—there is hardly a sense of urgency. Finally, will there now be substantial investment in the development of community facilities, so that people with learning disabilities and autism have the chance of a good life that the rest of us take for granted?
These exchanges reflect the views that I am certain we all hold, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising all those questions. The culture and behaviour shown on yesterday’s television programme are absolutely abhorrent and we must stamp them out. More broadly, it is clear from the reports published earlier this week, which the right hon. Gentleman refers to, that we need to do much more to improve the quality of care in mental health wards for anyone with a learning disability or autism. I want to reassure the House that we absolutely recognise that, and steps are being taken to address it.
Societies are rightly judged on the way we treat our most vulnerable citizens. This is not just about reviewing a few individual cases in which things went wrong; it is about a system across health, education, social care and criminal justice—it all needs to change. Today, people will rightly be very angry about what has happened and what was shown on last night’s television programme, and they will want answers. They will also rightly be very angry that, eight years after Winterbourne View, we have another scandalous case in which vulnerable people with learning disabilities or autism are on the receiving end. They will rightly ask what action has been taken and what more we need to do.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, six months ago the Secretary of State commissioned the CQC report on segregation, seclusion and restrictive practices. It was published earlier this week simply because the original publication due date of 31 May is during a recess, and he will know that the Department has come in for enormous criticism in the past for publishing reports when Parliament is in recess, post elections or when the House is not sitting and for publishing late. We wanted to avoid all those things. That is why the date was brought forward. The publication was ready and we took the view to publish it. The publication of the LeDeR report was a matter for NHS England, of course, it being an independent document.
The action we announced in response to the CQC report on Tuesday confirms how seriously we take this issue. We are adamant that no stone should be left unturned in identifying problems, poor practice and care that falls short of what we would expect for our own family members. That said, this is not about segregation or seclusion or failings at specific hospitals, but about the need for far better oversight more generally. Where it is essential that somebody be supported at a distance from their home, we will make sure that those arrangements are supervised. We will not tolerate having people out of sight and out of mind. Where someone with a learning disability or an autistic person has to be an in-patient out of area, they will now be visited on site every six weeks if they are a child and every eight weeks if they are an adult.
The host clinical commissioning group will also be given new responsibilities to oversee and monitor the quality of care provided in their area. This is an issue not just for the regulator, but for those who commission the care. We must be clear that improving the quality of specialist in-patient care is critical, but we are committed to preventing people from entering crisis and having to be admitted to in-patient care in the first place, and that is what the transforming care programme is about. This programme has not finished. As was highlighted in the NHS long-term plan, the transforming care programme and the building the right support plan continue, and we are renewing and redoubling efforts to reduce the number of people in an in-patient setting by 35%. So far, it is down 22% from 2015, but that endeavour continues. The right hon. Gentleman highlights the report from the Children’s Commissioner on Monday. We take the issues they spoke about very seriously.
The right hon. Gentleman asked lots of questions, many of which I think were answered in the three questions I highlighted earlier—the questions that we will be addressing over the coming weeks: criminal liability, oversight and commissioning. Where there have been failings, these will be addressed. Autistic children often have a range of needs or supports that must be joined up, which is why we are reviewing our entire autism strategy and will extend it to include children. As part of the NHS long-term plan, there will be a concerted effort to implement arrangements to ensure that those at the highest risk of admission to a specialist hospital get the help they need, and we will ensure that every area has a dynamic support register in place.
We think that staff in these settings must be much better trained in awareness of learning disabilities and autism, which is why we conducted a thorough inquiry and public consultation on training for learning disabilities and autism. In the coming months, we will set out our response to that consultation and proposals to introduce mandatory training for all health and care staff. We will continue to bring those in-patient numbers down and take every step to take the best practice in health and care and make it the norm everywhere. We will root out toxic cultures and behaviours of the type we saw last night so very painfully on our television screens, but I am fully aware that there is no room for complacency.
Order. This is an extremely important and sensitive matter, but I am looking to move on to the business question at 11 o’clock, so short questions and short—though, I am sure, informative—replies are required.
What happens at the Care Quality Commission’s headquarters when a story such as this emerges? Are the inspectors who so recently rated the facility summoned in for a meeting without coffee, or perhaps with the rough end of a pineapple?
The Care Quality Commission is taking the situation incredibly seriously. Some massive concerns were raised last night, and Paul Lelliott from the CQC apologised and said that the matter would be very thoroughly addressed and investigated by its team.
I appreciate the Minister’s response, but the Secretary of State really should be here to deal with this. The abuse shown on the BBC “Panorama” programme last night was appalling, and it should never have been allowed to happen. The fact that it is eight years since the Winterbourne View scandal and nothing has changed should be a source of shame for the Government. Rather than warm words—the Government seem to be getting good at warm words these days, but little else—will the Minister take personal responsibility and tell us what she is doing to ensure that this never happens again?
The abuse that was shown was tantamount to psychological torture, with residents sworn at, threatened and intimidated. Other residents were violently restrained or deliberately hurt by care staff. As the Minister has mentioned, other cases—such as Mendip House and Thors Park—show that this is not an isolated incident; it is part of a pattern of cruel and callous behaviour in such institutions. There is only one sure way to end this abuse, and that is to close down the institutions and move people into supported placements in the community.
Many of the people who were abused at Whorlton Hall were hundreds of miles from their families. Does the Minister recognise that cutting people off from their support networks allows such abuse to carry on without anyone noticing? Labour has pledged £350 million extra per year to ensure that people can move from such institutions and be supported in the community instead. Will the Minister match that commitment?
In 2011, the Government pledged to end the use of units such as Whorlton Hall. Eight years later, however, there are still more than 2,200 people detained in inappropriate institutions. More recent targets, which were less ambitious, were also missed. After years of broken promises, autistic people, people with learning disabilities and their families cannot trust the Government to deliver on their promises. Is it not time the Government brought in an independent commissioner to oversee the closure of such units?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady that what I have said today is about warm words; it is about action. The CQC report that came out on Tuesday was commissioned by our Secretary of State to really shine a light on the matter. We are shining a light on some of the most distressing information so that we can address it—so that we cannot brush it under the carpet and speak warm words about it. Not only did we accept all the CQC’s recommendations, but we made more recommendations of our own that we intend to put into practice.
In answer to some of the hon. Lady’s questions, I am very clear that as far as possible, people should be treated in a community setting. If they have to go into an in-patient setting, they should be as close to home as possible and they should be there for the shortest possible time, with a very clear route out and plan for their future. To help to deliver that, we have committed £4.5 billion to community funding as part of the NHS long-term plan, and I expect a good proportion of that money to be spent on investing in the community settings that we need.
Why not close them?
The hon. Lady is saying from a sedentary position that we should close settings, but we are talking about very vulnerable people who have complex needs and require special care, and we need to make sure that there are sufficient services in the community to support them. It would be a complete dereliction of our duty and responsibility to take people out of one setting that is not working for them and put them into another setting that will be as bad, or worse.
I thank the Minister for her robust efforts to get to grips with the matter. I have heard from my constituents overnight that they have no confidence in the CQC if it thought it could get away with assessing Whorlton Hall as good. If it takes an undercover investigator to highlight a message that whistleblowers are not getting through, why are the Government not taking immediate action properly to investigate every single in-patient centre so that the Minister can look us all in the eye and say, “I know which places are safe and which are not”?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. I think the CQC itself admitted to this. In fact, some of its social media engagement over the past 24 hours has been unprecedented in its level of frankness and openness, and in the way in which it has shown a desire to change and make this situation better. It has been very disturbing for everybody concerned, and it is true that NHS England has started enhanced oversight and scrutiny of this particular group’s other learning disability and autism settings to try to ensure that we are not going to uncover any more stories of such horror.
What was revealed on “Panorama” last night was truly horrific. This was public service broadcasting at its best, but it should not have taken the BBC to uncover the case; the CQC got this totally wrong. However, whatever the failings of the CQC, ultimate responsibility must lie with those who own and manage these homes and make money out of them. I am therefore extremely concerned to hear that the Minister has put Cygnet on the body that is to look into this matter. There is a clear conflict of interest because Cygnet may end up needing to be prosecuted. Finally, the Government need to fund these services properly. It is no good having people who are not qualified and not properly paid working with the most vulnerable people in society.
Let me clarify what I said, because I think the hon. Lady might have slightly got the wrong end of the stick. I did not say that Cygnet was being put on a group that is investigating this situation. I said that a group was established to deal with the immediate problem as soon as the issue came to light. That immediate problem was the safety of the individuals living in this particular setting and the conduct of those whose behaviour had been so outrageous. At that point, we were told that 21 people had been suspended. The safety of the individuals living in the setting was therefore our immediate concern, as well as finding alternative places for many of them to go. At that point, there was an incident co-ordination group that included Cygnet because it is the owner, but that group was set up to deal with the immediate situation that needed to be dealt with very promptly.
The NHS has been using a system of ambulatory care, particularly to deal with elderly patients by treating them in their home, plus a hospital visit. Why has this not been rolled out quicker to those with learning disabilities and autism?
That is what we are looking towards, which is why the Government are putting so much more money—£4.5 billion of the extra investment in the NHS—into the sorts of community services that we need to make exactly that a reality. There are cases where people do end up in an in-patient setting, often because services have failed and their situation has almost reached crisis point. The transforming care and building the right support system that I spoke about earlier is all about ensuring that we get people out of those settings as quickly as possible and into the right kind of support in the community.
Too many people are ending up in terrible institutional care hundreds of miles from home for the want of much more appropriate community care, including social care. The Minister has spoken about not wanting to delay the publication of reports, but she will know that the delay to the social care Green Paper has been unaccountably prolonged. Will she bring forward the social care Green Paper because this issue lies at the root of inappropriate admissions?
The hon. Lady knows that I listen very carefully to what she says. I completely share her frustration about the delays to the social care Green Paper, but I do not think that we should ever be held back from making progress on all the things that are wrong in society that we care very deeply about because we are awaiting the publication of such documents. We will therefore be pushing forward with all the work on a lot of the issues that I have spoken about today as a matter of great urgency.
Mencap has called for a cross-Departmental ministerial working group to review the system, and a taskforce made up of people with real-life experience of dealing with people with learning disabilities and autism. Will my hon. Friend confirm that she will set up both such groups so that we can get some action in helping people who are suffering?
There is already a cross-departmental working group on disability, and quite rightly, this could be part of its work. In addition, as part of the response to the CQC report published on Tuesday, the Secretary of State has committed to set up a group made up of academics and experts, including experts by experience, to look at exactly that.
I chair the Westminster Commission on Autism. The Minister will know that people on social media are asking why it took a television programme to reveal this. Can we learn the lessons quickly? I make no party political point—these crises have happened under other Governments, but we have to learn the lessons and reappraise the whole sector. Some people have said this morning that we should keep these children and adults close to home, in their communities, and that is right. We should also look at something that has really worked, which is the Children’s Commissioner, especially with someone like Anne Longfield in the role. That has been an enormous success, and perhaps we need a commissioner for autism, who would give a voice and a personality to this kind of crisis.
I greatly respect all the work that the hon. Gentleman does with autistic people, and I know he is passionate about this. He is right. We have committed to review the autism strategy. The Autism Act 2009 is the only condition-specific piece of legislation in British law, and we want to ensure that it continues to be fit for purpose. The consultation on the autism strategy review has just closed, and we will look carefully at everything that comes out of it.
What protection is in place for those who come forward to shine a light on allegations relating to such grave care? What is the Minister’s message to people who have concerns?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, because it is the whistleblowers who have brought these concerns to everyone’s attention. It is deeply regrettable that whistleblowers brought this to people’s attention before, and it was investigated, but this abuse was not rooted out and stopped. We need more protection for whistleblowers. We have accepted some of the CQC’s recommendations on encouraging whistleblowers to come forward, and we are always looking at more ways to offer protection and encourage them to do so. It is always wrong when deeply disturbing practices have to be brought to light by those who shine a light on them.
Children with autism and learning disabilities are still being pinned face-down on the floor, tied to beds or locked up in seclusion rooms. The Government promised five years ago to publish guidance to prevent that kind of abuse, but they still have not done it. After Whorlton Hall, we desperately need a date. When will the Government publish that guidance?
The Secretary of State commissioned a report on exactly that—segregation and restrictive practice. It was published on Tuesday, and we have accepted all the recommendations. We are working very hard on this. There will be guidance, but it is more important than that. As shown in the TV programme last night, there was training and guidance on the restrictive practices to be implemented, but it was ignored, and restraint was recorded incorrectly. This is a much bigger issue than the one the hon. Gentleman highlights.
I see more and more families in my surgery with loved ones who suffer from autism or learning difficulties being failed by the system. Will the Minister give an assurance to my constituents and their families that there will be a genuine focus in the NHS long-term plan on these vulnerable people?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question; she is right to raise it. Autism and learning disability are both mentioned as clinical priorities in the NHS long-term plan. That is absolutely right, and we must relentlessly continue that focus.
Business of the House
May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to business questions and ask him to give us the forthcoming business?
Although the House will realise that I am not the Leader of the House, I welcome the opportunity on behalf of the Government to set out the business and to take questions from colleagues today. Mr Speaker, it is a pleasure once again to have my voice heard within this Chamber, without being chastised by you for doing so.
The business for the week commencing 3 June will include:
Monday 3 June—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 4 June—Remaining stages of the Wild Animals in Circuses (No. 2) Bill, followed by a debate on a motion on the mineworkers’ pension scheme. The subject of this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 5 June—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2019, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2019, followed by a general debate on invisible disabilities and accessibility change. The subject of this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Thursday 6 June—General debate on the response to the Grenfell Tower fire, followed by a debate on a motion on mortgage prisoners and vulture funds. The subjects of these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 7 June—The House will not be sitting.
We will update the House on the publication and introduction of the withdrawal agreement Bill on our return from the Whitsun recess.
Before I sit down, I would like to pay tribute to a superb outgoing Leader of the House. I think the whole House, across all Benches, will agree with me that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) was a dedicated Leader of the House who was passionate about her responsibilities in this Chamber. She made a real difference during her time in post. As the Prime Minister recognised yesterday, she leaves a legacy of championing reform in this House. She was unfailingly dedicated to changing the culture within Westminster. She introduced a new complaints system to this House, was pivotal to the introduction of proxy voting and took on the challenge of setting the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster in train. She is an excellent colleague, she was a formidable Leader of the House and I wish her the very best for the future.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for stepping up and giving us the forthcoming business. I do not know what I have done wrong, but it seems there is some sort of relationship with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who have got two extra Back-Bench days; I am obviously going to ask for our Opposition day back.
I, too, want to place on record my thanks to the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), whom I have shadowed for I think nearly two years. She has made a huge contribution in pulling together new policies on bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, with the establishment of the independent complaints and grievance scheme, and in working with all colleagues across the House and across parties to ensure the system for the first proxy votes for our colleagues has been put in place.
The right hon. Lady’s commitment to the restoration and renewal programme culminated in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, which passed its Second Reading on Tuesday. I want to place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who made a wonderful debut at the Dispatch Box, for opening and closing the debate for the Her Majesty’s Opposition; I had a long-standing personal commitment, which involved wearing a hat. I also want to thank the deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), who has also enabled us to get to this place on restoration and renewal. The non-execs are always going on at us that we and our staff do not do the fire safety and safety training, so I encourage all Members to do that, and also—as the outgoing Leader of the House would say —the training on the behaviour code.
We are in “Brexit paralysis”—the words of a Government Minister. The Government have had three years, with five major speeches and red lines which never changed, and that have brought us to this position. Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the House that the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill would be in the week commencing 3 June; we now hear it is not, so in less than 24 hours the Prime Minister has broken her word. This is yet another broken promise by the Prime Minister on Brexit. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm why the Bill is not coming forward for its Second Reading as promised, and when is it likely to do so? Why is the Prime Minister incapable of keeping her word? Will it actually be published on 24 May, as the Prime Minister told the Commons yesterday, or will this be another broken promise? Why did the Prime Minister raise the issue of EU election purdah, when last week the Leader of the House said that there was no such issue and that the Government had received advice to that effect? Will the Bill be published in draft form so that hon. Members can amend it? When will it receive its First Reading? How long will we have to debate it, and how many days will it be in Committee, if it achieves its Second Reading?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Prime Minister has become part of the problem? Even Ministers in her Cabinet know that she must go. Yet again, she has put her own political survival ahead of the national interest. It is clear that she does not command a majority for her approach to Brexit, and she has failed to accept that political reality. The Prime Minister has failed in the central policy of her Government, and the continuation of the current political situation leaves our country without the leadership it needs. The country cannot continue without an effective Government, and a fresh approach to leadership is clearly required.
It is not just with Brexit that there is paralysis—there is paralysis everywhere else. British Steel is among the UK’s most important manufacturers. It is one of Network Rail’s largest suppliers, and 95% of rails are supplied by the Scunthorpe plant. More importantly, this is about the lives of nearly 4,500 people and their families, mainly in Scunthorpe but also at the Teesside plants, and there are as many as 20,000 more people in the supply chain. This issue will not just affect people now—it will affect future generations. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) asked whether the company is a good steward for that vital business, and the Government are in paralysis, which will affect future generations.
In the run-up to International Children’s Day on 1 June, two alarming reports have highlighted that the Government are failing in their duty to protect the most vulnerable children. The report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, is entitled “Who are they? Where are they? Children locked up”, and for the first time it gathers together all the data about children living in children’s homes, youth justice settings, mental health wards, and other residential placements. In England, 1,465 children were detained in 2018, and the report found that an additional 211 children were locked away and their whereabouts in the system is invisible.
In 2016 the Health Committee, of which I was a member, produced a report on this issue, but no action has been taken. A Care Quality Commission report published this week found that 62 people are living in segregation in mental health settings, and 20 of those are children or young people. In 16 cases people had spent more than a year in isolation, with children and young people staying for up to two and a half years. The Minister said earlier that the Government are setting up a taskforce. Will he come to the House and update it on what is going on?
Human Rights Watch has said that the Government are breaching their international duty to keep people from hunger by pursuing “cruel and harmful polices” with no regard for the impact on children living in poverty. The United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published his final report, stating that child poverty in Britain today is
“not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster.”
If the Government are challenging that, why can we not have a debate in Government time to consider those statistics and hear about their next steps? Those are independent reports.
This week we heard harrowing testimony about the London attacks, and about the heroic actions of doctors and nurses, and of people helping each other, including Ignacio Echeverría, who went towards the attackers with his skateboard trying to save lives. It is also the second anniversary of the Manchester bombings and those young people who went to a concert. At a concert, and on a Saturday night out, that loss of innocent lives will never be forgotten.
Finally, Philippa, thank you very much, and good luck.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments about the former Leader of the House. They enjoyed a sparky relationship across the Dispatch Box, but I know it was one of mutual respect. My right hon. Friend has a great deal of respect for the hon. Lady, and she enjoyed her time opposing her at the Dispatch Box.
We plan to publish the withdrawal agreement Bill in the week commencing 3 June. We had hoped it would have its Second Reading on Friday 7 June, but at the moment we have not secured agreement for that through the usual channels. We will, of course, update the House when we return from recess.
The hon. Lady is right to draw the attention of the House to the steel industry. Hon. Members from across the Chamber will have listened to the urgent question and ministerial statement this week. The Business Secretary is currently engaged with Greybull and British Steel to try to find a resolution. The Government recognise the importance of that and recognise that our constituents’ jobs and livelihoods depend on it. We will do all we can to assist and try to secure a way forward.
On vulnerable children, the hon. Lady is right to draw the attention of the House to this challenge. The Government recognise that we need to find a way forward. We need to work together and continue the battle against poverty. We need to drive in the right direction as fast we can, but we can only do that if we have economic success. We need to use the economic success the Government have created to resource and move forward.
Turning to the rapporteur the hon. Lady referred to, I wholly reject that report. The report actually talks about Governments from the second world war onward, including Governments that Opposition Members were members of. I reject the notion that this country since the second world war has not made significant progress. Governments of all colours have tried to tackle these issues and move forward. This Government continue in that direction and are doing all they can to move forward.
The hon. Lady made reference to the Manchester bombing. That was a terrible event and I think that is one topic that unites the whole House. When children and young adults go out to a concert they expect to do so in safety and for someone to commit an abhorrent act, as they did on that evening, is beyond words. We should be grateful to the emergency services who have to deal with the aftermath of such events and pay tribute to them.
Before I sit down I would like to add my voice to those who have paid tribute to the retiring Principal Clerk of the Table Office, Philippa Helme. I wish Colin Lee success as he takes over the role.
I join you, Mr Speaker, and others in paying tribute to our retiring Clerk, Philippa Helme. She and I joined the House at roughly the same time. Throughout her time here she has given wise advice. If only it had been taken by everyone. I wish her a happy retirement sailing and with her dogs. The tragedy, Mr Speaker, is that she leaves this place when in my judgment Parliament is at an all-time low.
Moving on to more pleasant things, will my hon. Friend or whoever will be Leader of the House find time for a debate—there is plenty of time for a debate on anything and everything—on the enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, for which I was the promoter? I find it very disappointing that a number of local authorities do not, for whatever reason, employ animal welfare inspectors. There is no earthly good this place legislating unless our laws are enforced by someone.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a vociferous campaigner on animal rights. The Government uphold our high standards on welfare, including in relation to tethering. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is an offence to fail to provide for an animal’s welfare or to cause it unnecessary suffering. If anybody is concerned about the way in which an animal has been tethered or treated, they can report that to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or World Horse Welfare. They can investigate and, if necessary, take out prosecutions. This topic would make an excellent suggestion for an Adjournment debate. I am sure that Mr Speaker would be sympathetic to such an appeal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for announcing the business for the week that we come back. May I too wish you, Philippa, all the very best in your retirement. Enjoy yourself. You deserve it.
I was not sure whether there would even be a business statement this morning and it is certainly a novelty to have business questions without a Leader of the House, but may I start by wishing the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) all the best? I enjoyed our banter on Thursday mornings. I think we will all miss her good-natured and convivial approach at business questions. I think we should all thank her for the very determined leadership she offered on a whole range of issues across the House, from tackling bullying and sexual harassment to proxy voting for baby leave. We wish her all the best.
I, Mr Speaker, will now be going on to my fourth Leader of the House in four years. I am looking forward to seeing who will be at the Dispatch Box when we return, but it has to be asked: who would want the job? We have a Prime Minister hanging on by her fingertips, barricaded into No. 10, and a Government collapsing around her ears, as we speak.
Just what on earth is this so-called business for the week after next? We were promised the withdrawal agreement Bill on the Tuesday and Wednesday that we return. Unless it has been renamed the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, which was always quite likely, I am afraid I do not see it anywhere in the business statement. Can the temporary Leader of the House tell us when we will see the withdrawal agreement Bill? I heard him say something about a Friday, which I did not quite understand. Perhaps he can flesh that out a little, because the House wants to know when and if we are going to have it.
The business is all Backbench business. They should make my friend the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) the new Leader of the House, given that the Government are taking all their business to him. He would make a very good job of it, too. [Interruption.] He says, “Taking coals to Newcastle”—indeed. What is intriguing about the withdrawal agreement Bill is that it seems to offer the prospect of a second referendum. The Tories in Scotland are running around today saying that they are the party that is resolutely against any future referendums, so what has happened with the withdrawal agreement Bill is that the Government have deprived these one-trick ponies of their one trick.
It is hard to believe that we are having an EU election today, but the Government should be commended for one thing: the Tories’ attempts to make sure that no one votes for them look like being extremely successful. But in Scotland it is entirely different: people can vote to keep Scotland in the European Union and to make our decisions for ourselves—and they will get that when they vote SNP today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words about the former Leader of the House. I know that she enjoyed the sparky relationship that she had diagonally across the Chamber with him.
We are hoping to publish the withdrawal agreement Bill in the week commencing 3 June. During discussions with the usual channels, we will see when that comes forward, but at the moment we have not secured agreement through the usual channels and we will update the House when we return after recess. The hon. Gentleman is able to feed into the usual channels and I am sure that he will use his influence to do so. I also say to him that he jumps in and starts to condemn the withdrawal agreement Bill before he has even read it. He should wait until it is published. He can take the opportunity to read through it and then form his opinion, instead of jumping the gun and deciding that he is going to oppose it.
Of course, I wish all the candidates standing in the European elections the very best for election day today. I hope that everybody will go out and vote. I have voted Conservative already and I hope that many other people will do the same.
I welcome the excellent acting Leader of the House to the Dispatch Box; his clarity on these occasions is up to the previous Leader’s clarity. Will he explain to us how the usual channels have anything to do with when a Government Bill is debated in the Chamber? I just do not follow that. However, my main question to the excellent acting Leader of the House is this: there is some speculation, however remote, that the Prime Minister might resign tomorrow. Could we have a statement on what mechanism there is to recall the House? Surely whether the House is recalled during the recess should be up to the House, and not up to the Government.
My hon. Friend will be aware that any decision to recall the House is a procedure that is set out and which everybody understands. There are currently no plans to recall the House at any point in the future. I am sure that he will be engaging with all the usual channels, including the Whips Office, to make sure that his views are listened to and heard. I am sure that he will take every opportunity to make sure that his vociferous and well known views are taken fully into account.
I thank the acting Leader of the House for announcing the very first Backbench business week in this place—it is very welcome. With the assistance of the Clerks and members of the Backbench Business Committee, we managed at very short notice to pull together business to fill the void that the Government highlighted to us, so that there are debates to be had on the 4 and 5 June. There are still significant concerns among Members and we have a long list of unheard Backbench business debates.
May I echo your comments, Mr Speaker, about Philippa Helme? Philippa, I wish you a long, healthy and happy retirement. It is undoubtedly deserved and you go with my very best wishes.
I also echo the comments that have been made about the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). In my role as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, she has always been a pleasure to work with. She has been approachable and open to discussion about developing Backbench business as an entity within this House, and I thank her for that.
I support the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the retiring Clerk. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would be a little more grateful: I have been in this role for nearly 20 minutes and I have already secured him three debates. He turns up every week asking for more time for Backbench business debates and when he gets it he is still not happy. We can only provide that service to him. I know that Backbench business debates are valued across the House, and he does a fine job of making sure that we get the right topics at the right moment.
It is good to hear a Nottinghamshire accent at the Dispatch Box—almost as good as a Lincolnshire one. You and I know, Mr Speaker, that levity is sometimes virtuous here, as it lightens the burden of the work we do, but it is with a heavy heart today that I must challenge the flawed decisions of the perverse Parole Board that let vicious criminals—indeed, heartless murderers—back on to our streets. The Government promised to act to introduce a reconsideration mechanism by which victims’ families could ask for a review, but that has not yet come in. Will my hon. Friend therefore ask the Law Officers to enact an immediate review of all Parole Board decisions? It is vital that the liberal establishment grasps what our constituents know: that there is a world of difference between kind hearts and soft heads.
My right hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner on matters of law and order. I know that he will take the opportunity to raise his concerns at Justice questions on 4 June, when a Minister will be able to respond to him directly.
Brixham Trawler Agents in my constituency recently invested £107,000 in rooftop solar for the fish market. It applied in good faith and in advance of the deadline, but unfortunately fell the wrong side of the cap. It therefore faces considerable unexpected costs. Given that the House has now declared a climate and environment emergency, may we have a debate about how we can properly reward those who are doing the right thing by trying to reduce their carbon footprint and serve their communities?
Before I finish, I join others in thanking Philippa Helme for the remarkable work she has done. I thank her personally and on behalf of Select Committees for everything, and I wish her a long and happy retirement. Will the Minister also send my personal good wishes to the retiring Leader of the House? I thank her for the constructive work she has done to support Select Committees.
Of course I will pass on the hon. Lady’s good wishes to the former Leader of the House. In January, the Government published a consultation, “The future for small-scale low-carbon generation”, on a smart export guarantee to follow the feed-in tariff scheme, which closed to new products on 31 March, with some limited grace periods and extensions. The SEG will ensure that small-scale generators, including those using solar, can export to the grid and receive payment. We are analysing the results of the consultation and aim to publish the Government response in due course.
I shall be seeing the Azerbaijan ambassador later today, and I will pass on the views of the House to him about the situation with Chelsea and Arsenal fans, and Arsenal players.
We have just witnessed in India the historic, landslide re-election of the BJP, and Shri Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating him on his re-election? Can we have a debate in Government time on our relationship with India and how we have forged this friendship that goes back over 300 years?
My hon. Friend is right to draw the attention of the House to what is, I think, the largest democratic vote in the world. I congratulate the new Prime Minister of the Indian state. This would be an excellent topic for an Adjournment debate or a Backbench business debate. I encourage him to take the opportunity to make representations to the Backbench Business Committee so that we can all celebrate our relationship with the Indian state.
Last Saturday, I attended a community iftar at the Salfia centre in Dewsbury. It was a fabulous evening with people from all walks of life coming together to understand and celebrate Ramadan with our Muslim friends. At a time when it feels like division and hatred are on the rise, does the hon. Gentleman agree that these events are more important than ever? May we have a debate on how we promote love and understanding among our neighbours?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I think she is actually out there doing the job herself in attending such events. In raising this topic in the House today, she has almost started that process. Again, it is an ideal topic for an Adjournment debate to draw people’s attention to how we all need to co-operate and get on with each other. Such community events are a great way to assist with that process.
This weekend, thousands of football fans will be heading to Wembley for the football league play-off finals. As a fellow east midlands MP, I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to wish Derby County every success in their match against Aston Villa. Many supporters will be travelling by train. Will he consider a debate in Government time about the capacity of the rail network and how HS2 will benefit football fans in future?
As a committed Nottingham Forest fan, I can honestly say that in all my time as Leader of the House, that is the worst question I have had. The fans who are travelling to Wembley clearly need to get there in good time—they do not want to miss the match—and those train links are absolutely vital. I know that my hon. Friend has been vociferous in pursuing improved links to Derbyshire for her constituents. I take this opportunity to wish those supporting Aston Villa all the best.
May I add my congratulations to Philippa, who is retiring? I have known her for all her career here. She is a wonderful woman because she can combine ruthless efficiency with being really kind, pleasant and supportive. That is a very interesting synthesis. I thank her for all her work and all the help she has given me.
I had an eerie feeling after the two Front Benchers had spoken, because the E-word was not mentioned. Here we are in this democratically elected House, but no one seemed to have the courage to mention that the European elections are taking place today. [Interruption.] In response to SNP Members, it was mentioned by their spokesman. Could we have an early debate on how we tackle the issue of democratic participation in this country? Even in a good year, the turn-out in European elections is poor. The turn-out in general elections is not that good. Some people argue for compulsory voting. It is a very important day today. People should go out and vote, because when they do not, good people do not get elected, and nasty and even nastier people do get elected. Let us have a good democratic vote today, and let us have a good discussion about how we increase participation in democracy.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we have a responsibility as politicians to make sure that as many people as possible engage in the political process—I have certainly done my bit by voting today. I hope the colour of the hon. Gentleman’s tie does not indicate a change of political allegiance—he is looking very green. A Westminster Hall debate might be the ideal vehicle to discuss these issues, and I know that Members on both sides of the House would want to join in trying to find a solution to get more people engaged in politics and democracy.
One of the many things that I would like to thank the former Leader of the House for was her passionate support for the “give up plastic for Lent” campaign, with the leadership she gave and the game way in which she took that on. One of the campaign’s recommendations was the ban on straws, stirrers and cotton buds that came into effect yesterday, although sadly other news might have overtaken that. While this is a busy time in Westminster, can we make absolutely sure that our focus on the environment is not second stage and that proper time continues to be made available for debates about the environment and how we all can build a cleaner, greener planet?
My hon. Friend often champions environmental issues and she is right to draw the House’s attention to the recent progress that has been made. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is committed to improving the conditions for generations to come, and my hon. Friend is right to call for a debate along those lines to once again highlight the environmental improvements that this Government continue to make.
Now that we are going to get a new Leader of the House, perhaps we can have another look at the proposals to refurbish the parliamentary estate, because I think people will think we have gone mad if we are to spend billions of pounds refurbishing this place. I was shocked to discover we are going to spend £1.5 billion on a fancy new Chamber at Richmond House. Imagine the impact that money would have in a community in the Black Country that sorely needs extra investment in schools, housing, roads, the police and so much more. Let us have another look at this proposal. I think we should take the opportunity to move Parliament out of London to the midlands, preferably the Black Country—to somewhere in the middle of the country. [Interruption.] This is a serious proposal. Let us do something radical and ensure that the metropolitan London-based elite running this country finds out what life is like in the rest of Britain. Unlike any other country, we have Government, politics, the media, finance and business all concentrated in the capital. Let us take this opportunity to move Government and Parliament out of London and rebalance our country and economy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue. Of course, we had a vigorous debate about this only on Tuesday and I hope he took the opportunity to engage in it. The future of this building is important to the nation. I think that people recognise the iconic status of this building as not only the home of Parliament, but a treasure for the nation. We have a responsibility, as the incumbents of the House, to make sure it is maintained for many generations to come. I hope the hon. Gentleman will continue to engage in this debate. He is one of a number of colleagues who have made representations to move Parliament to their own constituency, but the House has decided that the best course of action is to remain here, within this secure area, and we have to move forward in that direction.
The residents of North Hykeham have to put up with terrible traffic congestion. Does my hon. Friend agree that what is needed is the completion of the Lincoln bypass and that that should be a priority for the Government? May we have a debate on that matter?
My hon. Friend will be aware that Transport questions are on 13 June, when she will have the opportunity to raise that directly with the relevant Minister. I know she is a campaigner for the people of North Hykeham and that they will be delighted that she has taken the trouble to raise the Lincoln relief road here today. She continues to represent her constituents very well.
Imam Şiş, a member of the Kurdish community in Newport, is on day 158 of a hunger strike, along with thousands of others around the world. We understand that the Turkish Government might be moving on some of the campaign demands, so please may we have an urgent statement from a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister on what the Government understand the current situation to be?
I am very sorry to hear that that gentleman finds himself with no option but to pursue that course of action. I know that the hon. Lady will want to represent the ongoing campaign directly with the Foreign Secretary, and if she would like me to assist in that process of direct communication with the Foreign Secretary, I will do all I can to help her to register the points that she wants to raise.
In Redditch, we are proud of our heritage. We make needles, fish hooks and springs, and we have led the world in those industries, but Members might not know that we are also famous for Royal Enfield motorbikes. Will the Minister pay tribute to Royal Enfield for returning to Redditch, and will he thank the borough council for all the work it has done to secure this historic achievement? Will he also push his friends in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to look again at how business rates can be used to support these projects in order to revitalise our high streets?
I pay tribute to all those in Redditch. This demonstrates that, with the right support and by working with local authorities, we can help and support the high street and manufacturing so that we retain jobs and keep the economy moving forward, meaning that we can generate tax and spend it on the nice things we want to spend it on, such as more doctors, nurses and police officers.
May we have an urgent statement on the Government’s policy regarding the surveying of coastal areas for potential oil and gas deposits? This is in the light of widespread concern at a proposal to conduct seismic surveys in areas of Cardigan bay, which is home to the largest resident population of dolphins and porpoises in the UK. A statement clarifying that the Government do not support such a venture would be welcome, and it would also demonstrate the integrity of the Government’s commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I know that seismic surveys—certainly for shale gas—are a topic that many colleagues want to engage in. It is vital that any such survey is regulated by the Environment Agency, that there is scrutiny of all the issues as plans are moved forward, and that the planning process is completely robust so that his constituents can be confident that the right process will take place and no environmental damage will be committed.
“Channel 4 News” has revealed that in the past two years the Northern Ireland Office has spent just £318 on advancing LGBT rights in Northern Ireland, a part of the UK where people are still denied the right to marry if they are in a same-sex relationship. I do not think that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has done anything on this since she took office. May we have a statement from her in which she can explain exactly what action she is taking to advance LGBT rights in Northern Ireland?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a renowned campaigner on these issues—I pay tribute to him for that. The Secretary of State does take these issues seriously, and I suggest that he writes directly to her to express his views and to hold her to account.
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his well-deserved meteoric rise. I want to ask a question following a meeting that I had with a constituent last week. He has been a victim of fraud and, over several months, he has been sending information to the police about the circumstances behind that. However, he has now been told that the police are not going to investigate the alleged offence because they do not have the resources to do so. In fact, they have a policy that they do not investigate allegations of fraud under £15 million, which is absolutely disgraceful. Is this something that the Government endorse? Will the Home Secretary make a statement to clarify whether this is now Government policy?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my trajectory, but of course what goes up must come down—I think that if he watches this space, it will come down quite rapidly. We will have Justice questions on 4 June, and I know that he will be in the Chamber to try to raise that topic again. I am also informed that the Treasury Committee is looking into the issue. I would ask him to submit any evidence to that Committee to ensure that it is as fully informed about that investigation as possible.
The dwindling ranks of the Conservative party membership will soon elect a Prime Minister with no public mandate to lead a Government without a majority to try to enforce a policy that is way past its sell-by date. With House business now in suspended animation, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the people of the United Kingdom deserve an urgent statement from what remains of the Government to tell them exactly what the hell is going on in this place?
The one thing that the hon. Gentleman cannot accuse the Prime Minister of is not keeping this House informed. No one has stood at this Dispatch Box more than the Prime Minister; she has always kept the House informed about the progress being made. Of course the hon. Gentleman is completely within his rights to make any party political point that he wants, but we need to work together as a House of Commons to find a solution to deliver on the Brexit challenge we face, and I would expect him to approach that in a mature and co-operative way if we are to try to assist our constituents.
My constituency has a high-rise tower block called Lydstep Flats. Its cladding was recently removed, and the residents are living in fear of their health because no one is taking responsibility to re-clad it. The UK Government recently announced funding for English residences and high rises, so will the Minister assure me and the Welsh Government that there will be fair funding so that my residents do not have to live in fear of their health?
The hon. Lady is right to draw the House’s attention to the matter. Some people living in high-rise blocks clearly have great concerns about their safety, and the Government are doing a great deal to try to solve that challenge in the aftermath of the terrible Grenfell fire. I know that the hon. Lady will take part in the Grenfell Tower debate on 6 June, which presents an ideal opportunity to make such points and to register her concerns, which she rightly highlights on behalf of her constituents.
I join colleagues in paying tribute to Philippa Helme for the advice she has given and wish her a happy retirement.
Many people who turn up at polling stations today will be told that they are not able to vote. Even though they are legally entitled to vote, they will have not received postal vote envelopes from their local authorities in time, or they may be EU nationals who have not been able to get the extra form that they are required to sign. Postal voters living in France, Spain and other parts of the world are also not entitled to vote because they have not received their postal vote forms in time because of the incompetence of some local authorities. May we have an early debate on the role and responsibilities of the Government, the Electoral Commission and local authorities in ensuring that people who are legally entitled to vote are able to do so?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to that important matter. As I said earlier, we have a vital responsibility to ensure that people are able to engage in the political process. He will be pleased to know that Cabinet Office questions will be on Wednesday 5 June as they are the ideal opportunity for him to raise the matter directly with Ministers. I am sure that he will continue to champion the cause of all those who want to participate in our democratic process.
Will the Minister consider holding a debate in Government time on the important role of community-led master planning in charting the future of our communities? In Glasgow North East, the Springburn regeneration charrette took place in March and over 1,000 people in the community were involved in looking at master planning. It was masterminded by Helen Carroll and the Springburn Community Council, and there has been a great effort to try to achieve the regeneration of our community. Will the Minister commend that work and the work of architects Kevin Murray Associates? I hope that the report, which will be published next week, will offer a great way forward for the rebuilding of the community of Springburn.
I would welcome that. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for trying to engage in that process and for ensuring that his constituents have the opportunity to make representations about the development of their community. The towns and villages in which we live have developed over hundreds of years, and the more that we can engage people in that process, the more ownership and pride they will feel in their communities. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all the work that he is doing.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. One thing was omitted from the congratulations paid to Philippa Helme by Mr Speaker, and I take this opportunity to congratulate her on her work over the past few years as a trustee of the Industry and Parliament Trust. I happen to be the trust’s deputy chairman, so it is appropriate for me to congratulate her on an enormous amount of hard work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order, not least because it gives me the chance to give my own thanks to Philippa. I have found her cool, calm advice, which is obviously always right, to be absolutely invaluable, and all the Deputy Speakers are so grateful for her dedicated service to the House. Philippa, we will miss you. Happy sailing.
Yemen Peace Process
I beg to move,
That this House notes that 22 May 2019 is the 28th anniversary of the unification of Yemen, when that country emerged from a long and painful civil war; further notes that today Yemen is once again in a deep and pitiful state of conflict, having entered the fifth year of its current, tragic war; acknowledges that the most recent estimate places the death toll in excess of 70,000, of which 10,000 have died in the last five months alone; notes that Yemen remains in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, in which at least 85,000 children have starved to death and almost 200,000 have contracted cholera in 2019 alone; commends the work of the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, who brought opposing sides together for agreements including on a ceasefire in the Al-Hodeidah Governate; regrets that the implementation of those agreements has been slow or non-existent; and calls on the Government to take every possible measure to support an immediate ceasefire, the flow of humanitarian aid and further peace talks in Yemen.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee and its excellent Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), for granting time in the Chamber for this important debate. I am pleased to see so many Members in the Chamber despite this being election day.
I congratulate the Minister for the Middle East, the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), on his appointment. He knows this area well, and I wish him well. I hope he can continue the diligent work of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). I am glad to see the shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), and the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), whom, of course, I met many years ago in Yemen—she was born in Yemen.
Yesterday was a special day for many Yemenis. It was Yemen Day, their national unity day: 22 May, the day on which the country’s unification took place in 1990, is a national holiday in Yemen and should have been a day of festivity, yet no one was celebrating in that troubled land. And why should they have been when their country is being destroyed and fragmented, town by town, street by street and house by house? We are in the midst of a terrible war in Yemen, and in March we passed the grim milestone of the war’s fourth anniversary.
Yemenis are losing their lives every single day. According to the Foreign Secretary, a hundred children die every day. So far, at least 70,000 children have been killed in the fighting since the war began. This will rise to 100,000 if the war ends this year, according to the United Nations. We can add to that 130,000 more who will die from starvation and disease.
Women and children are suffering and bearing the brunt of this war. A child dies every 12 minutes in Yemen, and at least 85,000 have succumbed to starvation. The all-party parliamentary group on Yemen has heard time and again from aid agencies and Yemeni organisations about the episodes of brutality, which range from the indiscriminate detonation of landmines laid by the Houthi militias to the aerial bombing of the hospital in Kitaf, northern Yemen, by coalition forces. Yemenis are literally being blown apart from the skies above and from the ground below. This must end.
An agreement was made in Stockholm in December 2018. It included three key proposals: first, the deployment of forces from Hodeidah; secondly, the exchange of prisoners; and, thirdly, humanitarian access to Taiz. In each of those areas, there has been little progress. Prisoners have not been exchanged, and talks broke down in February this year. Taiz remains in the grips of a humanitarian disaster. It is likely to have shrunk to a city of just 200,000 people, which is one third of its pre-war population of 600,000. It is as though the city of Sheffield had lost two-thirds of its population. The Taiz-Aden highway, along which much-need aid can travel, remains cut off by the fighting. The redeployment of forces from Hodeidah has been dragged out. The original deadline for troops to leave was 1 January 2019, almost half a year ago. The implementation process was only agreed in principle on 17 February, and the detailed plan of how this would take place only accepted on 15 April. This is painfully slow, while people continue to die. Finally, on 10 May, just 13 days ago, Houthi forces finally began their redeployment.
The Houthis withdrew from the key ports of Ras Isa, Hodeidah and Salif. That of course has to be welcomed by this House, and we hope it is an indication of a path to peace that both sides will travel along. Around Salif and Ras Isa, there are minefields that can now be cleared—these minefields have cost so many lives, including those of aid workers The House will be aware that about 80% of Yemen’s humanitarian and other goods are imported through the port of Hodeidah. We are now at a critical juncture. There have been reports of rising violence away from Hodeidah. In the al-Dhale governorate in southern Yemen, there has been a sevenfold increase in air raids in recent months. In Hajjah, in northern Yemen, fighting near the border with Saudi Arabia has caused the displacement of 100,000 people. If the agreement is not implemented in full, and if these recent developments break down, it is likely that the peace process will irretrievably falter and come to an end, with catastrophic consequences. For the sake of the people of Yemen—for humanity—we cannot let this take place. Before it is too late, this Government and the international community must grasp this chance for peace.
On 26 February 2019, the United Nations, and the Governments of Sweden and Switzerland, hosted its annual high-level pledging conference in Geneva. Donor states pledged a total of $2.6 billion in aid to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the people of Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates each donated $750 million. We donated £200 million, bringing the UK financial contribution since the war began to £770 million. This support is most welcome. However, Sir Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs—OCHA—told Members of this House recently that it has received very little of this promised funding, with only 7% of the $4.1 billion required delivered by 24 April. From Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it has received less than $240 million of that promised. Saudi Arabia’s impressive Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, assured hon. Members in a robust exchange at the Saudi embassy recently that they were ready to transfer the rest of the funding. Will the Minister confirm that the rest of that funding has been transferred?
The UN reports that it has received only £30 million from the UK; will the Minister explain why we have not delivered exactly what we promised? The pledging of aid is one thing, but the promises have to be delivered on. Delays in payments are costing lives.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his engagement with Yemen. In particular, his visit to Aden, the city of my birth, on 3 March this year showed that he cares for the people of Yemen and that he wants to see a solution to the conflict. He met members of the all-party group on Yemen on 4 February this year and hosted a meeting of the Yemen Quad in London on 27 April. All that is by marked contrast to the engagement of his predecessor, but, as he knows, much more needs to be done.
I welcome the new Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), with whom the all-party group worked during his previous period at the Department. These ministerial changes show that we have two friends of Yemen in key Front-Bench positions, and I hope we will hear from a third when the Minister responds to the debate.
Our message to our friends is that they need to tell our partners to stop the bombing, and to do so now. We need seriously to consider the issue of arms sales to our coalition partners. The United Kingdom has sold at least £4.7 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and a further £860 million to its coalition partners since the war began. The issue must be addressed.
We need to talk to other regional powers. We know that the Government are not friendly with Iran—they have made that clear—but they need to talk to the Iranians. Of course, Iran denies involvement in Yemen, but only last week the Houthis, backed by Iran, struck Saudi oil pipelines. This violent act had to be, and was, condemned. But just three days later, exactly a week ago, the coalition retaliated with an air strike that hit central Sana’a, killing six people, four of whom were children. This is the never-ending cycle of death that happens whenever there is an act of violence and whenever we do not engage in the peace talks. That is why we must have an immediate ceasefire.
I commend the work of Congressman Ro Khanna of the 17th congressional district of California, and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Mike Lee of Utah and Chris Murphy of Connecticut for their passion on and commitment to this issue. The US Congress has been more active on the Yemen peace process than we have been—to be frank, in some areas it has been more active than our Government. On 4 April this year, Congress passed a resolution, which was previously passed in the Senate, calling for an end to US involvement in the Yemen war. Regrettably, the measure was vetoed by President Trump, who, as we have heard, is making a state visit to the United Kingdom from the 3 June to 5 June. The House will expect the Yemen conflict to be on the agenda for his meeting with the Prime Minister; will the Minister confirm that that will be the case?
We owe a debt of gratitude to the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, for all that he has done. He has brought the parties in the war together and has initiated the trust-building measures that led to last week’s troop withdrawal. We know how busy he is, but we hope he will meet members of the all-party group when he comes to London. Members of the group have been diligent in raising awareness of the Yemen peace process both inside and outside the House. In particular, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who sends her apologies for not being able to attend this debate, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) and the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), who I see is in his place, have all worked tirelessly on this issue.
The humanitarian impacts of the peace process have been the focus of the Chairman of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is in his place, and of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). Other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), have considered Yemen because of the plight of constituents with family members caught up in the conflict. I am so delighted to see the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) in his place. He is the only senior politician in Europe to have visited Sana’a during the conflict. From his time as one of the great International Development Secretaries, he has shown himself to be a great friend of Yemen.
Yesterday afternoon, the all-party group hosted its annual Yemen Day event. We heard from charity representatives about their work in Yemen and the devastation they encounter. International humanitarian organisations continue to do so much to help the people of Yemen. These include Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Human Rights Watch, Médecins sans Frontières, CARE International and Save the Children. I have presented the Foreign Secretary with a letter signed by 86 hon. Members from both sides of the House, as well as Members of the other place, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. It calls on him to use every tool at his disposal to push for peace in Yemen. We urge him to use our considerable influence—that great soft power that Great Britain is so good at wielding—in the region to stop the bombing. It has to remain at the top of his agenda.
On the 20th of next month, the all-party group will host an international conference on Yemen. Parliamentarians from across the world will join us in Edinburgh and Glasgow for the conference being hosted by the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for Glasgow Central. This follows the first international parliamentary conference for peace in Yemen held in Paris in November last year and hosted by Sébastien Nadot, a Member of the French Assembly. I extend an invitation to the Minister, who has not yet been to a Yemen event—he has just been appointed, so I forgive him—to come to Edinburgh and take part in that meeting.
Here are our key asks. The Stockholm agreement was a vital staging post, but it did not go far enough. We should have had an immediate nationwide ceasefire in Yemen. We have played an important role in the peace process. We secured the passing of UN resolution 2451 on 21 December 2018 and resolution 2452 on 16 January 2019. Just last month here in London there was a meeting of the Quad. The US was represented by David Satterfield; Saudi Arabia, by Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir; and the United Arab Emirates, by Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed.
As we all know, the UK is the penholder at the Security Council, but we need to do much more. I have an idea for the Minister. Why do the Government not host a peace conference in London in the next eight weeks? Why do they not use their position on the Quad, as the penholder, to organise such a conference, as we have done in the past, to keep this right at the top of the agenda? Key parts of the agenda should be the facilitation of the unimpeded access for food, fuel and medicines through the key port of Hodeidah and through Taiz and implementing the demand for an immediate nationwide ceasefire. What better way to show a commitment to peace?
In successive debates in this House, I have lamented the fact that Yemen is bleeding to death, while all we do is make speeches in this House. One cannot look at the pictures of what is happening to our fellow citizens of the world and not be overcome with emotion. As I have said many times before, I want one day to return to the country of my birth to show my children where I was born and where I spent the happiest days of my life. I want to live long enough to see Yemen peaceful, prosperous and united, free from violence and free from hate. We have reached a critical juncture in the peace process that will be of historic significance if we seize the moment. From the bottom of my heart, I beg the Minister to save the children of Yemen. I beg him to stop the bombing and the killing. I beg him to stop this war. This is in our Government’s hands.
It is right to congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate, and on his powerful and compelling contribution. He and I have known each other for very many years, and there are not many political issues on which we agree. On the question of Yemen and Britain’s role, however, you cannot get a cigarette paper between his opinion and mine. He set out clearly for the House the profound jeopardy of what is going on in Yemen, and Britain’s complicity in it. He spoke of the tens of thousands of young Yemenis who are being radicalised, and who know where the death and destruction that rains down from the skies night after night comes from.
I welcome the new Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), to his position. He will cast a fresh pair of eyes on the problems of Yemen and Britain’s role in tackling them. I hope that he will speak out in the Government if his fresh view suggests that there are other ways of handling those problems. The purpose of my speech is to pose four questions to him, although I do not expect him to answer them from the Dispatch Box. I must apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I have already done to him, for the fact that I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate, because I have a very important engagement in my constituency.
I hope that the Minister will consider what he hears today. Britain is a beacon of light in some very dark places in the world, standing up for values that really matter to us and around the globe. On Yemen, however, I believe that Britain has lost its moral compass, and I say that with deep regret. I praise the new Foreign Secretary—he is not that new—who, immediately on taking office, went to Riyadh and Tehran. He has made it very clear that Britain’s contribution to solving the problem is right at the top of the agenda. That was made rather easier by the profound change of sentiment towards the war after the murder of the journalist Mr Khashoggi in Turkey. The values that were displayed in that despicable act led to considerable rethinking.
I also praise Martin Griffiths, a distinguished international civil servant. As the UN special representative, he is clearly giving everything he can to finding a solution, and his energy and endeavours on the ground are helping. I pay tribute to Sir Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and former DFID permanent secretary, who has been equally tireless in his efforts to help. Above all, this debate is a good opportunity for the House of Commons to pay tribute to the bravery and effectiveness of humanitarian workers. Many in the sector are very young, and they often put themselves in harm’s way to assist their fellow human beings who are caught up in such jeopardy.
I went to Sana’a and Sa’dah, as the right hon. Member for Leicester East mentioned. I think I remain the only European politician who has been into Sana’a and Sa’dah. Many have been into the comparative peace of Aden in the south, but you have to go to the north, Madam Deputy Speaker, and see for yourself the extraordinary damage that the bombing has caused to infrastructure and people’s lives. When I was there, I met British aid and humanitarian workers from Oxfam, in particular, who were doing brilliant work for some of the most dispossessed and miserable people in the world.
My purpose today is to encourage the Government in their apparent change of emphasis, and to urge them to move away from their former position of complicity in what is happening in Yemen. The blockade of the country by land, sea and air with British support has effectively created a famine, which is on Britain’s conscience. It is incredibly important that the Government move away from a partisan position and towards a neutral one by seeking to achieve a ceasefire, a negotiated settlement and an end to the violence.
I echo the urgent concern that the World Food Programme raised yesterday about corrupt Houthi leaders blocking humanitarian access to civilians. The arbitrary denial of humanitarian access is an unconscionable violation of international humanitarian law, and everyone should condemn it. It is no less concerning to see an intensification of violence in Yemen, including aerial attacks by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition. When I recently asked a Yemeni human rights defender about the well-being of her family in Sana’a, she replied that
“in Yemen we are only safe by accident”.
That reflects the position of millions of men, women and children on the ground who suffer these air attacks, which I heard and saw for myself when I was in Sana’a, night after night.
Last week, on Thursday 16 May—I think the right hon. Member for Leicester East also referred to this incident—at least five children were killed and 33 civilians, including 15 children, were injured by coalition airstrikes in Sana’a. That attack was on a residential area with no military targets anywhere near—another clear violation of international humanitarian law. One of the houses belonged to journalist and writer Abdullah Al-Sabri, who lost two of his children. He and his parents are now in hospital in a critical condition. My first question to the Minister is: what conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with his Emirati and Saudi counterparts about potential violations of international humanitarian law, specifically during the airstrikes in Sana’a on 16 May?
I approach this matter more as a humanitarian than as a politician. In spite of the discomfort of this position, I have never called for an arms embargo. That is because, first, I do not think it is for politicians individually to make judgments about the sales of arms. It is for the Committees on Arms Export Controls to reach judgments in accordance with the laws that are made by this House. Secondly, quite apart from the undesirability of politicians waving their moral consciences around at the expense of high-quality jobs in the north-west of England, I think it is likely that the Saudis will continue to procure weaponry from some in Europe. Saudi Arabia is a rich country surrounded by opponents and enemies, and it will be able to secure such weapons. When it comes to protecting the people on the ground—the children in the school I saw in Sa’dah—an arms embargo from Britain will not have a direct effect, and it may not even have an indirect one.
I know exactly what the hon. Gentleman is going to say, and I fully accept that my position is an uncomfortable one. The point I make to the Government is that those of us who have resisted the lure of calls for an arms embargo have done so in the hope that the Government will change their policy, as I have suggested, and make an arms embargo unnecessary. The longer the situation goes on, the more likely it is that an arms embargo will follow.
For SNP Members, the question of an arms embargo, or stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia, is more about messaging. I know that there are jobs at stake, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we have to give a special message to the people in the region? Arms sales are part of the problem, and we should be trying our very best to ensure that they do not contribute further to the existing heartache and humanitarian crisis.
Well, I am going to come back to some aspects of that point, but I think we can agree that the case for an arms embargo is going to get stronger and stronger unless Britain moves to a position of neutrality in this dreadful conflict.
It has been just over two years since I stood in a funeral parlour in Sana’a where more than 100 people were killed by a Saudi airstrike. It is shameful—a profound political and moral failure—that Britain has been unable to convince our Saudi and Emirati allies to end the bombing of innocent Yemeni civilians. On that occasion, the aircraft that killed the mourners in the parlour came around again for a second attack after the devastation of its first strike. In my view, the Government continue to take an imbalanced approach, rightly criticising Houthi transgressions but wrongly remaining silent when our Saudi and Emirati allies commit violations. There has been no response by the British Government to the strikes on Sana’a last Thursday that killed five children—not even an expression of concern.
Quiet diplomacy with the Saudis is clearly the Government’s preferred approach, but the continued bombing of civilian areas demonstrates that this approach is simply not working. That brings me to my second question to the Minister. Does he not agree that incidents in which innocent children are killed warrant a public expression of concern and condemnation by the United Kingdom? An imbalanced approach to the conflict in Yemen risks undermining efforts to bring parties to peace negotiations. The idea that the Hadi Government hold true democratic legitimacy in Yemen is clearly fundamentally flawed. President Hadi was elected on a ballot paper with only one name on it, his term has long expired and he spends most of his time in Saudi Arabia, so I do not think that the British Government should camp on the legitimacy of President Hadi’s Government.
It is high time for the UK to correct this imbalanced approach—not just in our public statements, but in our capacity as penholders on the UN Security Council. Resolution 2216 is widely seen as imbalanced and unhelpful, yet it still underpins efforts towards a peace process. The United Kingdom should demonstrate strong leadership to unite the United Nations Security Council and ensure that Yemeni civilians do not pay the price for increased tension between the US and Iran, which threatens to undermine Security Council unity on Yemen.
Let me be clear: I am no apologist for the Houthis. Violations are being committed by all parties to the conflict and all violations should be condemned, but it is the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition that the UK is backing, and this is where we can yield serious influence in order to prevent needless civilian casualties and push for revitalised peace negotiations. That brings me to my third question. Does the Minister agree that the UK should urgently lead action at the UN Security Council to call for a nationwide ceasefire and a swift move to inclusive peace negotiations?
The United Kingdom can play an important role supporting impartial investigations of violations by all sides in Yemen, and promoting accountability for perpetrators. Relying on the Saudi-led coalition’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team to conduct credible investigations into incidents is like trusting children to mark their own homework, and it simply will not carry any international credibility. That brings me to my fourth and—the Minister will be relieved to hear—final question. Does he agree that we need a strengthened UN mechanism for investigating human rights violations in Yemen, and that the UK should support the creation of a commission of inquiry in September’s session of the Human Rights Council at the UN, so that a truly independent body is established with a strong mandate to collect and preserve evidence of possible war crimes and other violations of international law?
As I said at the outset, Britain needs to be seen at the United Nations as a force for the constructive conclusion of these dreadful events in Yemen, moving to a comprehensive ceasefire on the ground and meaningful peace negotiations at all levels in Yemeni society. Britain’s reputation at the United Nations is challenged at the moment, and this situation is one part of that. The Minister will have noticed that only six countries supported Britain on last night’s vote in respect of the Chagos Islands, which was a very significant change of tone by the UN. He will also be aware that Britain was unable to procure, for the first time since 1947, the election of a judge to the International Court of Justice—a position formerly held by the highly respected jurist Sir Christopher Greenwood.
In spite of the quite outstanding work that the current British permanent representative to the UN, Dame Karen Pierce, undoubtedly carries out, our reputation is damaged. If we are to hold the role of penholder on Yemen, we owe it to the United Nations and the international community to be in a far more a neutral position. It is unsatisfactory that the Russians and the Scandinavian countries had to amend the British-drafted presidential statement on these matters. For as long as we are maintaining the planes that are used for the bombing runs, supplying the armaments and advising the targeting cell in Riyadh, Britain’s complicity is unavoidable. Britain’s role is also still quite extraordinarily confused. When I was in Sa’dah, I had the opportunity to meet the very brave unit that was demining and defusing armaments, some of which were British. The unit was largely paid for by British taxpayers’ money and led by a former British major. That seems to put the confusion of the matter in very clear sight indeed.
I want to end with the words of the chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, Radhya Al-Mutwakel, who visited Britain recently and met the Foreign Secretary and the Chair of the International Development Committee. She is a very powerful and independent Yemeni voice on what is happening, and she said:
“Since March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates…have led a coalition of countries in a military campaign against…rebels in Yemen. As documented by multiple human rights organizations as well as the UN, the Saudi/UAE-led Coalition has consistently attacked civilians and critical civilian infrastructure—including hospitals, schools, school children, weddings, farms, and water wells—in violation of the laws of war…Four years into the conflict, around 20,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed or wounded and half the population—14 million people—are at risk of famine, according to the UN. Other estimates, however, range much higher: ACLED”—
the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project—
“has recorded over 50,000 reported deaths as a direct result of the fighting, and according to Save the Children, 85,000 children may have died of hunger and preventable disease.”
That is the situation. Britain’s position needs to move and intensify, away from what it was, to a new place.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who has shown great leadership in speaking up on the Yemen issue. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—my good friend—who led the debate for his very long-standing work on Yemen and for his role, with others, in the all-party parliamentary group. I echo his thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. I also welcome the new Minister to his post, as Minister both in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in the Department for International Development, and I look forward to working closely with him in that capacity—on Yemen specifically, on the broader responsibilities he has for the middle east and north Africa, and on his important work on global health.
The scale of the humanitarian catastrophe has been well described already and is thankfully now widely known about. I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said about the pledging conference that was held in February. The head of OCHA, the UN humanitarian relief agency, Mark Lowcock—to whom I also pay tribute—has pointed out that we face an 80% gap in terms of the funds that were pledged in February. I support the question that my right hon. Friend put to the Minister. It is important that the House is updated today on what the United Kingdom is doing to press the donors who pledged funds to deliver those funds, to assist the humanitarian relief effort.
We know that millions in Yemen face malnutrition. Save the Children, in its excellent briefing for the debate, estimates that 85,000 children under the age of five may have already died from extreme hunger or disease during this conflict—85,000 children under the age of five. We know about the scourge of preventable diseases. We have seen a recent increase in cases of cholera—it is estimated that around 1,000 children a day are contracting cholera—and the emergence for the first time in this crisis of swine flu in Yemen.
We also know that the breakdown of public services in general, and health services in particular, has a major and disproportionate effect on women, and in particular their access to maternal healthcare and family planning services. I want to talk a little bit about restrictions on access for humanitarian aid, because it lies at the heart of the humanitarian crisis that Yemen faces.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. What is happening in Yemen is truly heartbreaking, and it has rightly been described by many as the largest humanitarian crisis on our planet. In his highly considered and expert opinion, what key event should occur to allow aid to pass through the port of Hodeidah?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He has anticipated something that I am about to say, so I will say it now. If implemented, the Stockholm agreement, about which I will say a little more later, is crucial to achieving that. While we have seen fragile progress in that regard, were that agreement to collapse, the consequences could be disastrous. The International Rescue Committee’s country director in Yemen, Frank McManus, says that the cost of the deal collapsing “cannot be overstated”, that almost 10 million people are “on the brink” of starvation in Yemen and that fighting in Hodeidah and disruptions to imports through the port
“could propel the country into a full-fledge famine.”
That is why implementation of the Stockholm agreement is so important.
The focus on Hodeidah is understandable, but there are challenges elsewhere in Yemen. The International Rescue Committee tells us that in Aden port, cargo is being delayed for months due to five different departments of the authorities there having to approve customs clearance, and in the north—the Houthi-controlled area—there are delays in getting the Houthis to agree to aid operations and increasing efforts by the Houthis to influence where aid is delivered to.
Stockholm is a hugely welcome development, but as both my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield pointed out, progress is fragile. As we have heard, last week we saw Houthi attacks on the oil export pipeline linking eastern and western Saudi Arabia, then a retaliatory strike by the Saudi-led coalition in Sana’a and further clashes in Hodeidah. The Yemen Data Project points out that the latest figures from April marked a record monthly low in the number of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. Despite that, the number of civilian casualties from airstrikes in April was 131, which was up from the previous month.
I want to emphasise, as the two previous speakers have, the vital role of the UN special envoy and to welcome the diplomatic leadership of the United Kingdom, which I have no doubt has contributed to the progress we have seen in recent days, with the Houthis finally agreeing to redeployment from Hodeidah, Ras Isa and Salif.
Let me comment briefly on the wider regional context. We are seeing greater tension between the United States and Iran. Iranian links to the Houthis are well documented, but this rising tension makes it even more important for the United Kingdom, in our role as pen-holder, to retain an absolute focus on Yemen and its people. It would be a further risk to the prospects of peace if Yemen were simply seen through the lens of Iran versus the west. That is why, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly said, we should be clear in calling out both sides for any alleged violations of international humanitarian law. I endorse his call for an independent commission of inquiry to be established through the UN Human Rights Council, and I hope the UK Government will support that.
Last year, the UN group of experts on Yemen said:
“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties.”
We have heard about the Houthis’ appalling and widespread use of landmines, which are laid right up the western coast of Yemen, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries and inhibiting access for humanitarian aid. I thank Human Rights Watch for the excellent work it has done in exposing the Houthis for their use of landmines.
Looking at the other side in the conflict, the Yemen Data Project points out that there have been almost 19,000 air raids by the Saudi-led coalition during the conflict. That is one air raid every 102 minutes. In March this year, five children were killed in a Saudi-led coalition attack on a hospital in Kitaf supported by Save the Children. At the time, the Government said that the UK had
“raised this matter with the Saudi-led Coalition, who have announced an investigation.”
My understanding is that no public statement has yet been made by the coalition about an investigation, and neither the hospital nor the families have been contacted. Can the Minister update the House—ideally in responding to the debate, but if necessary after it—on any progress towards a genuine investigation into that attack, which resulted in the deaths of five children in March at a Save the Children-supported hospital?
Let me comment briefly on the issue of child soldiers. There is huge concern about the number of children who have been recruited into this conflict, mostly by the Houthis. It is well documented and must be condemned, but there are also reports that children have been recruited by the Saudi-led coalition. Can the Minister comment on that? Yesterday I had the opportunity, as others did, to meet the Yemeni Minister of Information. He raised with me the Houthis’ use of child soldiers, and I agreed with him entirely in his condemnation. I asked him about allegations of there being child soldiers on the Government side, and he said there were none. I would be interested to hear the UK Government’s assessment of whether that is actually the case.
Let me say a little more about what needs to happen with the peace process, and in particular the importance of peace-building efforts that engage Yemeni society, empower women, give a voice to young people and reach local community organisations. As we have heard, women and children have borne the brunt of this crisis. We have a responsibility to put women and children at the heart of efforts to build peace in Yemen. In the financial year that just finished, £7 million of the conflict, stability and security fund was spent on stabilisation and peace building in Yemen. What plans do the Government have to scale up support for peace building and to include as part of that engaging with Yemeni civil society, and especially women, young people and marginalised groups?
Let me comment briefly on the issue of UK arms, because I very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East that we need to see a major rethink. This is the only issue in the speech of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield with which I disagree. I respect his point of view, but I do disagree, not least because our sale of arms has contributed to the issue that he so eloquently described as our not being seen as a neutral player diplomatically. I also feel that the example of the arms that are being used in Yemen has undermined the claim, which is still made by the British Government, that we have the most rigorous arms export control regime in the world. I think it is now, sadly, very difficult to justify that claim, so I urge the Government to think again. They should follow the example of a number of European countries, including Germany, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East rightly said, the resolutions that were passed with cross-party support—bipartisan support—both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate in the United States.
An important element in our debates on Yemen is the Yemeni diaspora here in our own country. It has been an honour for me over the last three or four years to get to know the Liverpool Yemeni community, and we formed the Liverpool Friends of Yemen to enable people across the city to show solidarity with the people of Yemen. I was pleased to join the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), at an excellent event in Birmingham in March, which engaged with the Yemeni diaspora from across the country but particularly from the west midlands. I am very pleased that we have formed the Labour Friends of Yemen, of which I am the chair. May I ask the Minister to give an undertaking when he responds that when Martin Griffiths is next available in the United Kingdom, he could meet representatives of the Yemeni diaspora so that their voice can be heard as part of his efforts to build peace in that country?
Let me finish by joining in the tributes paid by both my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield to the amazing, brave work that is done by human rights organisations and humanitarian organisations on the ground in these dangerous circumstances in Yemen. I welcome the leadership the Foreign Secretary has shown since he took the post, and in particular the support of the United Kingdom for the efforts at the UN of the special envoy, Martin Griffiths.
As the motion sets out very clearly and very powerfully, what is needed now for Yemen is a nationwide ceasefire. The whole country needs a ceasefire. We then need a peace process that, yes of course engages the combatants, but also engages civilians and civil society. We need a sense that there will be justice for victims on all sides in this conflict. Perhaps most importantly of all—I hope the Minister can give this commitment today—we need to demonstrate that the United Kingdom’s commitment to Yemen is not just during this conflict, but will be a long-term commitment to rebuild a country that was always poor and always faced many challenges, but one that has come close to destruction because of this conflict.
Let me start by saying how pleased I am that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has brought forward this debate, and how pleased I am to participate in it and follow what he has said. I think we all agreed with his feelings, which he set out very clearly and quite emotionally in his speech, for the people of Yemen, who have suffered so tremendously. I thought his description of that was very powerful indeed. I may be only the fourth speaker in this debate, but the three speeches before mine have covered so much of the ground and so many of the points that there are only a few additional points I want to comment on.
First, I think it is a cause for celebration that we do have the outlines of a truce. We should take great comfort from that. I know it is just the outlines and that it could always go further than that, but in this sort of conflict one has to grab whatever one can to try to keep some sanity in the whole process. The peace process is now more akin to a mediation than to a conference set up to tell the Yemenis what to do. In any mediation, the system only works if there are two people who are genuinely prepared to sit down and talk to each other. Only then can the essence of a mediation, which is for the participants to agree and to bring out themselves the solution to the problem, actually come through. That is a very important point to bear in mind, including for the role the UK may want to play.
A lot more work needs to be done on the triggers that can bring two warring sides to the realisation that they need to come together to agree a peace. I do not think we have done enough work on that internationally. We have done a lot of work on conferences that can take place to cover these issues, but I do not think that they are as important as trying to get the people themselves to agree. The triggers may be very different for different conflicts. The trigger may be the crisis of hunger in the country. The triggers may be external, such as stopping arms sales, in which case we need to stop arms sales to both parties. There may be a whole range of things that we need to look at to make sure that we can really get to grips with this.
It is worth remembering that this whole war started as a result of a Houthi rebel insurgency. I know that some speakers have particularly said that they need to condemn and we all need to condemn the faults on both sides. However, the Houthis are a very unsavoury group of people. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) raised the issue of boy soldiers. Whether the Saudis are also generating boy soldiers is a separate issue, but we know that the Houthis are employing boy soldiers, and that has to stop because it is a great attack on everything that we all believe in. We must bear in mind that they killed Saleh, the former Prime Minister, and the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned landmines as well.
Part of trying to move the Government to a better place is to accept that there are no good people in this conflict. My hon. Friend mentions the murder by the Houthis of Ali Abdullah Saleh, but the Saudis murdered al-Sammad, who was the President of the Houthis. I had met him, and he was a dove who wanted to negotiate. Part of moving the Government’s mindset is just to accept that there are no good people in this, and that includes the Houthis and the Saudis.
I have a great deal of sympathy with that statement, but I am trying to make sure that we achieve some sort of balance from our perspective when we look at the situation there. It should not be seen solely as a Saudi exercise in the bombing and intimidation of the Yemeni people; it started as a result of a particularly unsavoury group of people among the Houthis. I cannot remember who mentioned it, but I think the drone attack on the Riyadh pumping stations is very important because sources from the region state very clearly—very clearly—that this was inspired and paid for by Iran and Hezbollah. I think that is really unchallengeable and we would be unable to go against it, and I want to come back to that in a minute.
First, however, let me comment on the scale of the humanitarian crisis, which I think could be a trigger for getting the sides to agree. Some 71% of the population are living in extreme poverty—an enormous number— and 84% are malnourished. The loss in economic output from the country is enormous at something close to $700 billion, which is a phenomenal amount. UNICEF has estimated that more than 12 million children are in desperate need, and the number of internally displaced people is also large and must be considered.
I completely agree that in this case it is not good enough just to pledge aid, although the almost three quarters of billion pounds that we have pledged should not be sneezed at. We must, however, keep the pressure on and ensure that that money is paid, and used in a good way, in particular to help children in that area. The British Government are helping with the creation of the UN civilian co-ordinator in the area, which is a good thing for us to be involved with.
Let me return to my earlier point about Iran. It is true that we do not have the sort of relationship with Iran that we have with Saudi Arabia, but we are not the United States. We have a better relationship with Iran than the United States does—it would be impossible to have a worse one—and we should use that to talk to the Iranians about the geopolitical situation. In addition to what is happening in Yemen, a geopolitical discussion between Iran and Saudi Arabia is being played out, and I view this as a proxy war that is taking place against Iran. As I said, the attacks on the Riyadh pumping stations appear to have come from drones that were supplied by Iran through Hezbollah.
Will the Minister redouble his efforts in negotiating with Iran, so as to take this forward in a positive way? We must ensure that as part of the complicated discussions that must now take place between the Houthis and the internationally backed Yemeni Government, and between Saudi Arabia and Iran, we try to find a trigger point that could solve this conflict.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). He raised important points about the Houthis, which I will come to in a moment. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing this debate. Even though we in this country are obsessed with Brexit, and with who might be Prime Minister in three days’ time, other important issues deserve our attention. The ongoing failed state that is Yemen is a major threat not just to its neighbouring countries but to the whole world, and it could be the powder keg that sparks a wider conflagration.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because a year ago I went to Saudi Arabia and visited Najran. I saw buildings, a school, and a power plant that had suffered extensive damage from missiles fired into Saudi Arabia from Yemen by the Houthis. For those in Saudi Arabia, this conflict is seen as a threat to their state.
Let me add a little history to this debate. First, this conflict is not just between the internationally recognised and living in exile President Hadi and the Houthis, because Yemen has other conflicts within it. Since 2009, there has been an insurgency by the Southern Movement—its Arabic name is al-Hirak—and an area in the south of Yemen is controlled by tribal groups and militias, and has a transitional council that is supported, ironically, by the United Arab Emirates. Everybody talks about Saudi Arabia, but the UAE is also a key player within the internationally supported and recognised coalition that is led by Saudi Arabia. The UAE also has strong views about resisting all forms of influence in the Arab world from Iran and what it perceives to be its proxies.
Secondly, elements in the south of Yemen are linked to al-Qaeda, and there are real dangers to that happening in any failed state. We have seen in Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya that if there is no state with power, the vacuum is filled by non-state actors, including extremists who are prepared to act totally ruthlessly, and who have no principles or regard for international law or what their international partners think. That is what we could have in Yemen—indeed, we already have it, but it could be much worse.
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) spoke about having a new approach to whether we should continue to recognise President Hadi, given that he does not have any real locus within Yemen. That is a big issue and a fundamental question, because if there are to be talks, and if any real progress following the Stockholm agreement is to be made, the voices from the south of Yemen must also be heard. Such talks would not involve just the backers of President Hadi and of the Houthis, but other voices from within Yemen.
Yemen is a complicated country with a complicated history. There were once two Yemens, and with the end of the cold war they became one. Now we seem to have more than two, as there are several disparate groupings. Since last year there has been some hope—the efforts of Martin Griffiths have been referred to so I will not repeat them. There was an agreement to remove forces from Hodeidah and to have a neutral policing operation in the city, but we have not had that. The unilateral claim of withdrawal by the Houthis has been disputed by some people. We have also seen that even if the problem of the port of Hodeidah is somehow solved, that does not necessarily mean that the starving people in Yemen will be any better off.
The World Food Programme, which supplies food aid to 12 million people in Yemen, stated on Monday that it is thinking of suspending its operations in certain areas that are controlled by the Houthis. Of those 12 million people, 9 million are in Houthi-controlled areas, and the World Food Programme referred to a series of problems, including intimidation, corruption, extortion, insecurity and fighting, that are presenting great difficulties in getting that aid through. The Houthis are effectively taxing and extorting. Food and other aid is not getting through to the poor people, because these organisations are using their power to prevent it. That absolute scandal deserves wider publicity.
The hon. Gentleman is very experienced. He is a distinguished former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and his presence for this debate is extremely important. I remain puzzled, however, so perhaps he can help me with his vast knowledge of international affairs. The coalition admits that it cannot win the bombing war and the Houthis cannot win the war. People are starving. From looking at this problem from the outside, with a lot of knowledge about the tribal nature of Yemen, what does he think is stopping everyone saying that this has to end?
In short, it is because the conflict has become a proxy. The Houthis are perceived by a large number of countries in the Arab world to be either proxies or puppets of the Iranian regime. I do not think that that is absolutely an accurate description, but it is clear that the Iranians are arming the Houthis. I have seen the remains of missiles with Iranian markings on, which were on display in Najran, and the Saudis have a lot of such material. Nevertheless, the reality is that this is an internal conflict that outside countries are exploiting.
The problem we have is that in the past few days the United States has decided to send a carrier group into the region. The US has always had aircraft carriers in the region. In 2000, flying with the Defence Committee, I landed on the deck of the USS John C Stennis, named after the Chairman of the US Senate Defence select committee. Bruce George, the then Chairman of our Defence Committee, was hoping that the Ministry of Defence would do the same, but that never transpired. We landed, with the wire, on the deck. This aircraft carrier was in the Gulf of Hormuz. We could see all the aircraft movements in Iran up to the horizon from the bridge of the vessel. The US is reinforcing its military capability with carriers in the region because of its tensions with Iran. I do not want to be diverted on to issues relating to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iranian nuclear programme and so on, but there is the potential for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to get America into a regional conflict with Iran.
There are good reasons to be critical of Iran: internally, it has the highest number of executions of any country in the whole world apart from China—much more than Saudi Arabia, actually—its bad behaviour in Syria; its support for Hezbollah; its consistent attempts over decades to undermine any prospect of a middle east peace process; and what it is doing in Yemen. At the same time, the Arab League has just sent an invitation from the Saudi Government to an emergency Arab summit on 30 May in Mecca. The terms of the invitation refer to “recent aggression”, which refers to the attacks on the two Saudi oil tankers off the UAE coast. No one has claimed responsibility. Blame has not yet been attributed, but the assumption is that that was done by either Houthis, people from Iraq or, potentially, those from Iran as part of the proxy regional conflict.
A year ago, as our plane was flying back from Najran and was about to land in Riyadh, there was an alert. We could see, from a distance of probably just a few miles away, an incoming missile fired into Riyadh airport. When attacks start on oil tankers and pipelines, and missiles are fired into airports as planes are landing, that gets into the mind-set of the Saudis. If we are to get peace and to get the Saudis out of this conflict that the then Defence Minister, now the Crown Prince, got them into in 2015—I am sure they never thought that four years later they would be sucked into it in such a manner, and I am sure they would like a way out—the problem, as has been said, is that the Houthis also have to want a way out. However, they are doing very well out of taxing the aid that comes in, controlling the ports and all the rest of it. They are not a big group. As a percentage of Yemen’s total population they are a very small group, but they have maximum power and leverage at this time.
I do not have a message of easy solutions. I know it is fashionable for some people to say, “Well, if we stop supplying arms to Saudi Arabia, there would be no conflict in Yemen.” No one who has spoken in this debate has said that, but I have seen leaflets going out from groups such as the Stop the War Coalition that seem to imply that that is the reality. The reality is that we must use our position in the United Nations, as we have been. We must back up Martin Griffiths and his efforts. We must try, even though it is difficult, to talk to the Iranians and say, “This pattern of bad behaviour is not helpful to you if you want us to stop the pressure for more sanctions.” We also need to find ways to get support internally in Yemen for a dialogue between all groups. I flag up the fact that it is not just about the Houthis and Hadi’s Government. There are other factors in Yemen and they all have to be brought together.
It is a great pleasure to follow so many distinguished gentlemen who are very knowledgeable about Yemen, led of course by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is originally from Yemen. I do not pretend to be an expert on Yemen, but for the reasons that have been very ably set out, I have become increasingly interested in Yemen following my original interest in the Syrian area. I do feel, as the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) just told us, that the powder keg worry is very real, which was why I wanted to take part in the debate. I will, however, confine my remarks to the plight of civilians in Yemen, especially children. It is important that we focus on what it is really like to be a child in Yemen today.
As we have heard, it is now four years since hostilities escalated in Yemen, and the suffering of millions of children and their families has grown worse and worse. Millions of Yemenis are malnourished, with an estimated 85,000 children under five—that is as many people as I represent in my constituency—who may already have died from hunger or famine. About 360,000 children under five are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition for which they require treatment. Those are eye-watering numbers and it is important that we stop and try to imagine the level of suffering, which has been exacerbated by the denial of access to humanitarian and commercial goods, the destruction and shut-down of much of the country’s medical and educational facilities, mass cholera and diphtheria outbreaks, and almost four years of still-escalating conflict.
The situation is estimated to be causing a child to die every 10 minutes—that was what I read, although the right hon. Member for Leicester East said it was every 12 minutes—from a completely preventable cause. It should be said that because there is so little infrastructure and because, in certain areas, so little notice is taken of who is dying and what is happening to them, the figure could be much higher. More than half of all health facilities are closed or only partially functioning. Preventable diseases are flourishing, with cholera cases increasing in recent weeks. About 1,000 children are being infected with cholera every day. In the last two weeks of March, 40,000 children contracted cholera.
Yemen has seen the emergence of swine flu for the first time. That is not something to be dismissed, because those of us who got swine flu when we had the outbreak in Britain know just how difficult that disease can be, particularly for the young. My daughter was desperately ill with swine flu. We need to think back only to what happened to a weakened population after a serious conflict of our own, the first world war, to know what flu in its worst state can do widely across weakened populations.
Long-term conflict has other implications. In the worst-affected areas of Hodeidah, only one in three children go to school and less than a quarter of the teachers that are needed are still in post. The closure of schools creates an exploitation crisis as child marriage, child labour and military recruitment—several hon. Members have mentioned this—fill the void that schools should be taking up in children’s lives. It also stores up a very real problem for the future, as we will not have educated a whole generation of Yemenis.
In 2018, a fifth of all armed violence casualties were children and nearly half those casualties were from airstrikes. Several hon. Members have mentioned that two months ago, a hospital in Kitaf was bombed. Five children were killed; the youngest was eight. This was almost certainly an airstrike and it was not an isolated incident. It is comprehensively estimated that a fifth of all armed casualties are child casualties.
Since the escalation of the conflict in March 2015, the Yemen data project has counted around 19,000 air raids—one every 102 minutes for almost four years. Approximately half the known targets have been against non-military sites, which usually include places where civilians are, such as hospitals, schools, markets, factories and farms. While the ceasefire in the port means that the situation is perhaps better than it was, there has been an increase in violence in other parts of the country. Last week, four more children were killed by an airstrike in Sana’a. Across the country, children continue to be killed and maimed by shelling and mines.
We must make sure that there is humanitarian access into Yemen so that aid and commercial goods, including food, medicine and fuel, get into the country and to everyone who needs it. Children do not ask to be involved in these conflicts, and we should do everything we can to ensure that they get the protection that they need. It is our obligation to protect them.
The Stockholm agreement was the first diplomatic breakthrough and the first real source of hope. Of course, the agreement needs to be implemented, as many people have said across the House, so that the UN can continue to conduct its role in monitoring and facilitating it. I praise the Secretary of State and the new Minister for the interest that they are taking in this region and for the work that they are doing. I look forward to hearing about the Minister’s plans later this afternoon.
It is simply not acceptable that children face these risks. Charities and doctors do their best to pick up the pieces, but it is incumbent on Governments around the world to prevent the atrocities from happening in the first place. The UK Government have taken a welcome first step by promising to review our protection of civilians strategy—something that has been widely called for across Parliament and by the UN. Updating the strategy and urging our allies to follow suit presents an opportunity to consider the changing nature of warfare. As conflict inevitably becomes more complex and more urban, we must update our policies, practice and global norms to protect civilians. Of course, terrorists may not read that review, but we still must continue to take the lead on it and to encourage our allies to follow suit. We can start by introducing new measures to protect children, such as ending the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in populated areas. More than that, we must champion the protection of children globally, demanding that the UN and our allies do more to uphold the international rules-based system.
The debate on Yemen seems to focus very much on arms sales, and it is an important debate that raises many ethical problems, some of which are rather complex. However, like the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), I think that denying sales to Saudi may not achieve a great deal because it will simply buy the bombs from elsewhere. I would rather have our people in there targeting cells to minimise casualties.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). She makes a very important point about ensuring that targeting in built-up areas is given an intense priority because of the potential for civilian casualties. As I am sure she knows, when we were running the ISIS campaign, if there were any civilian casualties, even in ISIS territory, we simply could not drop a bomb. For Saudi, it may be that those restrictions on battle damage assessment—BDA, as it is known in the military world—are somewhat looser or perhaps they justify it by going after particular individuals. There is an issue over BDA and the levels of BDA allowed by Saudi as opposed to other people.
I do not intend to talk for long, but I want to raise a few issues about the internal dynamics in Yemen and to ask questions of the Minister, in part because I am curious about the subject and covered it a bit in a previous employment. For me, the most concerning issue is the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman in the south and east of Yemen. All three countries are important allies of ours. I fear that those proxy dynamics are being played out through tribal forces in Hadhramaut and Mahra. A worsening conflict between those major states will increase civilian casualties in formerly more peaceful parts of the country, such as Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Mahra. It will also worsen the dynamic between our allies—the Saudis, the UAE and especially the Omanis—and Iran. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) was absolutely right when he said that we should not just see this through the prism of a proxy war. Unfortunately, that is an important part of great power politics. Clearly, that proxy battle, as we are seeing with the Houthi, and the dynamic between the Houthi and the Saudis in other parts of the country—around Sana’a and in the major ports—is driving the civilian casualties. Solving the civilian crisis and solving the great power politics around Yemen are very much one and the same thing.
I am concerned about the Iranian dynamic and abut the Saudi desire to put a pipeline through parts of Yemen when there is no central Government to negotiate on behalf of the tribes in Hadhramaut and Mahra provinces. I would like to hear what the Minister thinks we can do to use our limited influence—we should remind ourselves that our influence is limited—in certain parts of the country for stabilisation. I ask that for a specific reason: about five years ago, we had a plan—not for all of Yemen, but the MOD and other bits of Government put together a plan for the south and east of Yemen. I vaguely know about it because I was very vaguely involved in it. It was a good plan, which looked at linking up a bit of military support with peace-building measures, a bit of development, a bit of media work, education work and with a clean-up along the coastline, because the place was a bit messy. All these things were designed to stabilise south and east Yemen to prevent the Iranian smuggling routes of drugs and weapons into Yemen that were fuelling the conflict, especially from Mukalla. I cannot quite remember when, but about 15 or 18 months ago, the UAE special forces cleared out Mukalla—the Saudis came in as well—with the local tribes. I understand from my contacts with the local tribes, especially in the Mahra tribal federations, that they have, to a certain extent, welcomed outside forces, because they have helped to clean out al-Qaeda. Yemenis fear UAE attempts to cut off Aden from the rest of the country. The tribes fear that the Saudis are simply going to put a pipeline through eastern Yemen and not ask too many questions. The Omanis, who may not be our most powerful ally in that part of the world, but are one of our best allies, fear that they are being dragged into a proxy conflict with Saudi tribal federation groups and the UAE.
I am very keen to hear from the Minister how our influence is being played out, either locally or in our diplomatic relationships here and elsewhere, to ensure that our allies do not come to blows, and that they and we can be part of a solution that seeks to stabilise. Specifically in Hadhramaut and Mahra, that would look like engaging a broader tribal federation or tribal council—I think in Afghanistan it is called a Loya Jirga, but I cannot remember what the Yemeni version is called. There should be a wider tribal federation plan than the one that exists at the moment, whereby some tribes accept Omani support and some accept Saudi support. I know that I am asking some detailed questions, but very often the devil is in the detail with these things. If the Government could say what they are doing as an honest broker between our allies, I would really appreciate it.
Will the Minister also say whether there is a new joined-up strategy to replace the at least partial joined-up strategy that was attempted a few years ago, which for various internal governmental and agency reasons sadly never saw the light of day. I regret that because it was a decent plan. Are the Government concerned about the posture of the UAE in Aden? Are they concerned about the posture of Saudi in other parts of the country and about whether it wants a more permanent presence in Yemen? If it does, what would that mean for the delicate internal dynamics in that country?
I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) and other experienced Members around the Chamber for their comments. There is obviously a huge amount of knowledge about Yemen in the House. I hope the Minister is in a position to listen to the comments that have been made today and to act on the good suggestions that we have heard.
My starting point is that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Can the UK do more to alleviate the dreadful humanitarian situation in that country and that region?
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for supporting this debate in Yemen week. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing the debate and on the assiduous way in which he has pursued such a complex issue through the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, which he chairs with the support of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who sadly cannot be with us as she is on manoeuvres elsewhere. All Members share their passion for peace and prosperity in Yemen, both in the short term and in respect of its long-term success.
The pressure that the APPG has brought to bear over the past four years has been something to behold, particularly the number of parliamentary questions that have been put down by our members and the number of early-day motions that have detailed every twist and turn of the process. As the bombs have rained down on the people of Yemen; as food, water and medicines have been in exceptionally short supply; as the humanitarian crisis has deepened; and as the Government have blatantly ignored our calls to stop UK-built weapons being exported to Saudi Arabia, the APPG has been there, influencing, making the case and highlighting the deficiencies of the Government. We have praised the good work that has been done where we can, but overall we have been hugely frustrated by the slow progress that has been made over recent times. The APPG has worked assiduously with the non-governmental organisations that have a presence in the country. We keep ourselves as well informed as we can. We keep in contact with Yemeni groups here in the UK and those who work every day to bring some sense of normality within the country itself.
The biggest thing for the APPG has been to support the work of the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, and the peace process that he has put in place. Despite some setbacks, we wish him well in all his efforts, because the only solution in this dreadfully war-torn country will be a political solution. I look forward to those issues being discussed in Edinburgh and Glasgow at the inter-parliamentary conference on 20 June, which follows a similar event at the French National Assembly in Paris last November. Most of all, I look forward to Martin Griffiths’ efforts being successful. I doubt there is even one Member of this House who does not want that peace to be won for the people of Yemen and the security of the region.
I will say a bit more on the peace process later, but I will begin by looking at an issue that some other hon. Members have veered away from: the sale to Saudi Arabia of arms that are subsequently deployed in Yemen. I believe that those exports still play a significant negative role in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. By continuing with this policy, the UK is now “out of step” with the rest of the EU member states and its position is
“becoming ever more absurd, to the point where Jeremy Hunt claimed at the end of March that it would be ‘morally bankrupt’ not to sell weapons to the Saudis.”
So wrote Anna Stavrianakis in a recent article for The Guardian.
Agreeing licences for arms sales is not the good news the Foreign Secretary thinks it is; it is a blot on our reputation. When Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch UK are supporting a legal appeal brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, and when we know that many of our European counter- parts have not fallen into the arms trade trap, it is clear that a serious message on arms sales is not getting through to the most senior levels of our Government—a Government who have the power to stop or suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until Yemen is firmly on a path to peace and stability.
There is an even stronger warning from Amnesty International’s extensive and credible report, which has
“demonstrated that British-made weapons have been repeatedly used—and continue to be used—to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes.”
That is a dreadful legacy for any Foreign Secretary and, indeed, any Government to leave to those who come after them. Someone, someday will have to be around to clear up the mess that has been left behind.
The Netherlands, the Flemish part of Belgium and Greece have all suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Austria, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland have put restrictive measures on exports to Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, several EU states announced that they would suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including Germany, Norway, Finland and Denmark. I hope that the Minister accepts in his response that many of the countries I have just mentioned are our friends and allies. Why have they seen the light, and why is the UK out of step with them?
The Government have said many times that they are friends with the Saudi regime and that they have influence in the region. In a good friendship, sometimes one has to be a critical friend. I therefore hope that the Minister will listen to the views that have been expressed in this House and explain to his Saudi counterparts that many Members of the House are unhappy with the arms sales and the way in which British arms are being deployed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
Many hon. Members have highlighted the dreadful humanitarian crisis affecting Yemen. Women and children are on the frontline of that crisis. Their difficulties have been well documented by UNICEF, Oxfam, Save the Children, Islamic Relief and the Red Cross. Some of the statistics that we read are chilling: 80% of Yemenis are in need of humanitarian aid; 50% of children between six months and five years old are chronically malnourished; half the population, or 16 million people, wake up every day hungry; there have been, to date, 17,000 UN- documented civilian casualties, 10,000 of which are attributed to Saudi-led coalition assaults; 85,000 children have died of starvation; and 20 million people do not know where their food will come from in the next week.
Those are just numbers, and it is easy for them to trip off our tongues as Members of Parliament, but the House must recognise the lives, the families, the education and the wellbeing of those who lie behind them. While we are the fifth-largest contributor to aid to Yemen, which is to be welcomed, we are the second-biggest arms exporter to Saudi Arabia. It might be a start if the those two areas were transposed and we started putting more into aid and much less into arms sales—if, indeed, we are to have arms sales at all.
The peace process is of course where much of our hope for the future lies. As I said, I think the whole House is united in our support for the work of Martin Griffiths and Sir Mark Lowcock, whom many hon. Members have met in recent months. The UK is the penholder for Yemen in the UN, which means that we have a special role—a significant responsibility to the people of Yemen to help to lead them to a situation where they live in a peaceful and prosperous country. We support UN resolutions 2451 and 2452. I thank the Foreign Secretary for travelling to Stockholm to engage in these peace talks, but we need to do more. I also thank the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), for everything that he did in this area and the way that he kept Members informed. I hope that the new Minister will step seamlessly into his shoes and do an equally good job.
There are five areas critical to peace where the UK could do more. We need to do much more to apply pressure to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to bring about an end to this conflict and to secure peace and a lasting ceasefire. The special relationship must be made to work towards peace and stability. I would like to hear the Minister’s views on how he is working towards that. We ask that the UK stops, or at least suspends, arms sales to give a really strong signal that we are serious about a ceasefire and bringing peace to the region. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) made a good point about allowing us to find some space to rethink what our position is on arms sales. We should send a message that we want to bring peace and stability to the region. This is not a long-term position that the Government need to adopt; we just need to provide a bit of space to make sure that progress can be made.
Having a diplomatic presence in Sana’a would give a clear message that we are serious about the long-term future of the country and help to focus the international efforts to bring about an immediate and lasting ceasefire. I do not know if there are any plans to do that or if it has already been done, but it would send a very strong message to people on the ground that the UK was playing a major part and respecting our penholder status.
I hope that we can listen a lot more to the people of Yemen on the ground—particularly women—who have a crucial role to play in the future of their own country. The solutions must be found by the people of Yemen and not just done to the people of Yemen. I hope to hear from the Minister about how he would hope to encourage that sense of inclusion across communities and groups that currently operate in Yemen. I look forward his response.
Order. I recognise that the Front Benchers usually speak for about 10 minutes, but as this is such an important debate and we do not have time pressure, I suggest 15 minutes for both sides.
First, I welcome my opposite number, the Minister, to his place. He has big shoes to fill but I know he will do it effectively and efficiently.
I thank my right hon. Friend—my good friend; my dear friend—the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for bringing this debate to the House today. He is a fine, fearless and forthright advocate for Yemen. For as long as I have known him, he has provided that advocacy, but never more so than in these past four years when it has been more necessary than ever before. He opened our debate by talking about the unification of Yemen in 1990, when it was a country that was being destroyed and fragmented, to use his words, after four years of appalling conflict, echoes of which we have heard from many hon. and right hon. Members. We know that 100 children die every single day and 70,000 have been killed or have died since the war started. This is the largest humanitarian disaster since the second world war and a shocking testament to our inability to stop this needless slaughter of innocents. A child dies every 12 minutes, he told us, and many have echoed that.
My right hon. Friend referred to the Houthis’ indiscriminate use of landmines, which we have condemned over and over again. He mentioned the Stockholm agreement that was agreed in December 2018, but the implementation process of which has been sadly and woefully slow. On 10 May—at last—Houthi forces began their redeployment. We hope, like him, that that is a path to peace. As we know, 80% of goods come in via Hodeidah, and they are much needed—more needed than ever before. There has been $2.6 billion pledged in aid, but only $770 million in aid has been received. Sir Mark Lowcock says that much more must be done to try to ensure that those pledges turn into reality. The most important message that he gave us was, “Stop the bombing now”—something echoed by every hon. and right hon. Member who spoke.
We then heard from somebody who has really shown his mettle over the past few years and has acted where many others just speak—the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). He is somebody we should always listen to. I agreed with everything he said, bar one thing that I will come to in a moment. He posed four pertinent questions to the Minister, and I know the Minister will do his best to answer them. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has visited Sana’a, Sa’dah and many other towns and cities in Yemen, and has shown his knowledge and understanding from those visits. He said something very important—that the United Kingdom has been complicit in this war. He mentioned the corrupt Houthi leaders blocking food aid, and the aerial attacks by the Royal Saudi Air Force and the United Arab Emirates, which I will say a little more about later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chairman of the International Development Committee, has also taken up the cause of Yemen and spoken again and again, with passion and with feeling, to try to make sure that we play our part in this country to stop the slaughter. He said that the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe has been widely described. He emphasised the 80% gap between the funds pledged and the funds actually paid, and asked what the United Kingdom is going to do to ensure that the push for the pledges to come forward is made. Like every other Member, he mentioned the effect on children, especially those under five, and the 1,000 children a day—a day—who are contracting cholera. He welcomed, of course, the diplomatic leadership by the United Kingdom. Importantly, he agreed that there should be a major rethink on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He said that although we do have rigorous arms sales licensing, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned, our sales of arms to Saudi Arabia undermine that rigorous set of rules. He said that a nationwide ceasefire is of course vital, but, more than that, we must have a long-term commitment by this country to rebuild Yemen. We would all agree with that, I hope.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said that it is a cause for celebration that the truce outlines are there, and that the peace process is akin to a mediation, but much more needs to be done to build peace. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned peace building, a role close to my heart as our shadow Minister for peace.
We then heard from the former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), a close friend. I served under him on the Committee when he was Chair. His knowledge, understanding, interest and passion came through very strongly. He is a Member we should always listen to, especially on this subject—especially with his lifelong knowledge and expertise of the middle east and of the conflicts. Not only does he talk about these things, but, as he made clear to all of us this afternoon, he acts, too; he visits the regions—he is fearless in doing that.
The hon. Gentleman made some important points. The UAE is also a big player in the coalition against the Houthis, and of course Iran’s role in this proxy war is extremely important and we need to tackle the Iranians on it. He also said something I would certainly agree with: while we listen to what the Americans say about Iran we need to play a much stronger role because we have a warmer relationship with the Iranians. In that regard, I hope I will be having some contact myself with the Iranian ambassador, as I am sure the Minister does regularly. The final point the hon. Gentleman made was that there are more than just two Yemens; this is a multifaceted country and we have to make sure all parties, all tribal groups and all the groups playing a role in this terrible conflict are brought into the peace talks, not just the main contenders.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) again talked about the plight of children. I know that she is concerned and always passionate about trying to stop conflict. She mentioned the increase in violence in other parts of Yemen now that there is a relative ceasefire in Hodeidah.
Finally, we heard from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), who also clearly has a great deal of knowledge about the region. He said, again backing up comments of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, that this is not just about weapon sales, and stopping weapon sales will not solve the issue. He also emphasised once again that this is a proxy war.
The Houthi rebels have started to comply with a UN-led agreement to withdraw their forces from the key port of Hodeidah. Before talking about that, however, I want to mention a “Dispatches” documentary by journalist Sue Turton shown on Channel 4 recently. It underlined the role our country is playing and that many personnel, both military and non-military civilian staff, are playing in ensuring the Royal Saudi Air Force is able to operate. They do not touch the bombs—that would be against the law—but they do make sure the aircraft are airworthy and able to go on bombing missions. That is why Labour pledges absolutely to push as hard as we can on this, and if in government to stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia while we ensure there is a UN investigation into the role those arms sales have played. I accept that, as some Members have said this afternoon, it will not stop the war necessarily, but I urge everybody who has not seen that documentary to watch it; that journalist’s credentials are excellent and her sources impeccable, so it is worth watching because it might change Members’ views about this.
While UN figures estimate over 10,000 people have been killed in the last two years, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project claims that the figure is closer to 60,223, many of these being children as we have heard so often today. Save the Children claims 85,000 may have died from starvation since 2016. I know that figure of 85,000 has been mentioned a few times this afternoon, but we need to remember it. These are children; not only are they the innocent victims of war, but they have no say in trying to stop this war. They were never consulted, and nor were most of the civilian population for that matter.
While we on this side of the House welcome—as I am sure we all do—the progress finally being made under the auspices of the Stockholm accord and the Houthi decision to withdraw from the port of Hodeidah, it is now vital that all sides adhere to the terms of the peace plan. Over 80% of humanitarian aid enters Yemen through the port of Hodeidah. The Yemeni people have suffered enough, and the chair of the Redeployment Coordination Committee, Lieutenant General Michael Lollesgaard, is right to say that the unilateral withdrawal of the Houthi rebels must be followed by
“the committed, transparent and sustained actions of the parties to fully deliver on their obligations”.
We believe that there must be a full investigation into why there are reports, such as in the documentary I have just mentioned, of British weapons and even SAS soldiers being used in Yemen—it may not be true, but there have been reports. The fact that British weapons may have been used to kill innocent civilians, including many children, is extremely sickening, but we want to make peace in Yemen possible.
I do not say the hon. Gentleman is wrong to argue the point he is making, but does he understand that insurgency theory specifically suggests that insurgents put their kit and their people where, if attacked from the air, there will be civilian casualties? This has been practised as long as insurgency wars have been going on. So the insurgents are deliberately trying to induce the Saudis to bomb them where civilian casualties will be an outcome. Therefore this is not a black-and-white scenario, but is a very complex one about risk versus reward on targets. I am not saying the Saudis are not getting it wrong sometimes, but it is not a black-and-white situation as they are trying to target a justifiable target that specifically goes into civilian areas.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and I hope I have not suggested for one minute that there is a simple solution to this conflict and it is simply a matter of stopping UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the whole thing stops, although I would recommend that, if the hon. Gentleman has not seen it, he watches that “Dispatches” documentary because there is certainly a hint in it—although I do not necessarily agree with it. Of course this is a complex situation, but, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield hinted, there may come a time when we all call for the withdrawal of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia as a way of trying to stop the conflict escalating further or of trying to bring about a peace deal. But Labour thinks those arms sales should stop immediately.
We think that in order to make peace in Yemen possible we must end those arms exports to Saudi Arabia immediately. Following in the footsteps of our European allies—Germany, Spain, Italy and Denmark—we think that that will give the Stockholm agreement and the United Nations the best chances of achieving peace, although I do accept that there are the complexities that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight legitimately raised in his intervention. We on this side of the House have consistently called for that immediate cessation of arms sales and of the conflict—of course we all want to see that. We feel that, as other Members have mentioned this afternoon, we are complicit unless we act more neutrally and diplomatically in the conflict in Yemen.
We have also called for an independent UN-led investigation into allegations of war crimes in this terrible conflict. An open letter to the Government sent a few weeks ago by colleagues of mine in the shadow Cabinet and other opposition parties states that
“it is morally reprehensible that the UK government is not only not considering changing its policy”
on arms sales
“but is actively lobbying other foreign governments, as it did with Germany, to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”
I also want to briefly refer to the House of Lords International Relations Committee recent report that stated that the UK was
“narrowly on the wrong side”
of the law by allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. The report noted that it was concerned that the Saudi-led coalition’s misuse of weaponry bought from the UK has been deliberately or accidentally causing civilian casualties. The report stated:
“Relying on assurances by Saudi Arabia and Saudi-led review processes is not an adequate way of implementing the obligations for a risk-based assessment set out in the Arms Trade Treaty.”
My colleague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, claimed in The Guardian earlier this year that as many as 40% of the soldiers in the Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebel army were children, and the United Nations has documented 1,702 cases of child recruitment for which it has clear evidence. As we have heard, Saudi forces have bombed vital infrastructure and innocent civilians, and starvation has been used as a weapon of war through the blockading of ports. A UN human rights investigation in August 2018 noted that Saudi coalition airstrikes might constitute war crimes. I have posed a number of questions to add to the list that the Minister already has, and I will end my remarks here to allow him the chance to answer the questions that have been put to him this afternoon.
The unfolding crisis in Yemen reminds us, as we struggle with our own domestic issues, that they are as nothing compared with the disaster that is unfolding in that country. It gives us a sense of perspective. Set against that, of course we can never do enough. I have been in this job for two weeks, and I am already enfolded by a sense of frustration and inadequacy. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), who speaks for the Scottish National party, hopes that we might have an embassy again in Sana’a, and so do I. That would be a litmus test of real progress in Yemen, but we are a long way from there at the moment. I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for bringing this matter forward. I am sorry that the turnout has not been greater, but what we lack in numbers, we have made up for in quality today. No one in this House knows more about Yemen than he does. He is a tremendous advocate for the people of that country, the place of his birth, and I salute him for a really high-quality speech.
As right hon. and hon. Members have said today, there has been some progress. It is always a good thing in debates of this sort to try to find something positive to say. The Stockholm peace process has progressed, in baby steps, over the past several weeks, and General Lollesgaard, the head of the UN mission to support the Hodeidah agreement, confirmed on 14 May that Houthi forces had redeployed away from those vital ports that have been cited in the debate. Progress is painfully and disappointingly slow. Nevertheless, the United Nations has rightly described Hodeidah and Salif as a lifeline. Last month, they were the entry points for well over half of all the food imported into Yemen. Given that more than one in three Yemenis rely on aid as their only source of food, those ports are truly vital.
As I have said, there is still a lot to be done. Our country is one among many, but we do punch above our weight. I have only been doing this job for two weeks, but I have been struck by how much effort this Government have put into trying to make a difference in Yemen. Hon. Members have generously mentioned the contribution made by the Foreign Secretary, who has been to Yemen very recently. He has assembled the Quad, and we are the penholder at the United Nations in this matter. I am proud of that fact. I am also proud of the amount of aid that the United Kingdom has given to Yemen, and I will come back to that if I may. A number of Members have asked questions about aid, and I should like to describe and enumerate that issue a little more.
Central to all this is the work of the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, who I spoke to yesterday. I am grateful for the support for him that has been expressed today by a number of contributors to the debate, not least the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife.
Let us be clear that only a political solution can end this situation. It is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It might not seem that way to the general public, because it does not get the kind of coverage in our media that I think it deserves, but that remains the case nevertheless. Millions of Yemenis are experiencing the most appalling suffering. I am not keen on statistics, because they can sometimes betray and let down the sheer scale of some of these ghastly tragedies, but 24 million people—a staggering 80% of the population—are now in need of humanitarian assistance. UN Security Council resolutions 2451 and 2452, proposed by the UK, were unanimously adopted in December 2018 and 2019. It is important to understand that the UK has been right at the heart of trying to resolve this desperate situation—with the assistance of others, of course.
As the right hon. Member for Leicester East and others mentioned, we do not currently have a diplomatic presence in Yemen, but let me assure them that we monitor the situation on the ground closely, and this assessment is reviewed on an ongoing basis. As soon as it is safe to do so, we will ensure that we have proper diplomatic and, importantly, consular representation on the ground. I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members are concerned about constituents who are wrapped up in this situation, and not being helped by the fact that the normal assistance that we would give to UK citizens is being hampered because we simply cannot have normal diplomatic or consular relations at this time.
With regard to the right hon. Member for Leicester East’s question about the upcoming state visit, I should like to remind Members of the remarks that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made only yesterday at the Yemen Day meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, where he said that he would raise Yemen with President Trump and that he had already discussed it with Secretary Pompeo. It would be remarkable if that were not the case. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his suggestion of a UK-hosted conference for peace in London. As I have said, we are just one country among many, but we are influential and we have taken a lead on Yemen. In the spirit of the soft power that he cited, I will certainly consider his suggestion very carefully indeed.
I should like to make a few remarks about the UK’s response to the humanitarian crisis. We are providing a further £200 million this financial year, bringing our total humanitarian contribution since the start of the conflict to £770 million. I have checked with officials this morning, because I know that several Members are concerned about the roll-out of that money, and I am told that more than £600 million of that sum has already been paid. I will go further and say that in my early conversations with my interlocutors over the past two weeks, I have made it clear that those who have pledged aid must give that aid. I have underscored the fact that it is not good enough simply to pledge money, and that they must hand it over.
This is slightly complicated because most of those interlocutors, including the UK, disburse most of those funds through non-governmental organisations. That is quite right and proper, and it is the best way to achieve our aims, but the process means that there could be some delay in disbursing funds. According to the programmes and schedules of the NGOs, donors must hand over the cash as soon as they possibly can, and that has been the burden of my conversations with my interlocutors over the past few days. I hope that that gives right hon. and hon. Members the reassurance that they were rightly seeking from me.
Our latest disbursement of funds will help to meet some of the immediate food needs of the people in Yemen. It will enable us to feed people, to treat them and to ensure that they get better access to water and basic sanitation, which leads me to the subject of cholera and watery diarrhoea.
Almost 300,000 suspected cases have been recorded by the World Health Organisation. Our support is saving lives, and the British public need to know that, but it goes beyond simply giving people vaccines—simple though that is in the case of cholera. It has to mean a much wider public health approach to tackling what we in this country would call an “antique disease”— a disease that should not be affecting people in the 21st century—and that means instructing people in proper hygiene. We need teams who can do that, and we must ensure that people have proper access to clean water. GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, understands that full well, which is why we are supporting it and UNICEF and other partners to help vaccinate over 2 million people in high-priority districts.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about cholera. It is a truly terrible medieval disease, and the outbreak is the largest in the world. Does he understand that the cause of the outbreak is the smashing up of the infrastructure through the nightly bombings by the Saudi and Emirati air force? If infrastructure is smashed up like that, and if sewage is mixed with clean water, cholera emerges. Will he bear that in mind as he makes progress in the Foreign Office on this difficult issue?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I will come on to address some of his remarks in my contribution, but he is quite right that poor, broken infrastructure inevitably means cholera, particularly in a country like Yemen.
There is some good news in that the instances of cholera in Yemen have fallen for the fourth week running. That is positive and shows the difference that British and international support is making, and although it is early days, I very much hope that that positive trend continues.
Several right hon. and hon Members spoke about what we do next—what happens in the event that the conflict is resolved to the point that we can start rebuilding Yemen. I think we have actually started that. We have to look at Yemen’s economy and see what we can do to support it—even in its current desperate state and even at a time when the priority clearly has to be to stop people fighting and to resolve issues relating to the humanitarian crisis. We need to ensure that what passes for a Government in Yemen is able to disburse funds to public servants, and we have been working on that. By that, I mean disbursing funds to public servants right across the country, not just those in the parts that are controlled by the Government of Yemen. We have made it clear that the Government must pay public sector workers, some of whom have not been paid for two years.
The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) made a balanced speech. He forensically dissected the conflict in Yemen, rightly pointing out that it is not just one war, but several conflicts. The principal one that we are engaged with today is clearly the conflict between the Government of Yemen and the Houthi insurgency, but there is also the war in the south between the Government of Yemen and the so-called Southern Movement. Most worryingly for those who live some distance from the middle east, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to be active. We may not hear a great deal about that in the context of Yemen right now, but it remains there, and we must be alive to the threat that it poses, both to Yemen and to the rest of the world.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the World Food Programme. The protection of NGOs in general is a matter of the utmost importance, and they must be allowed to do what they do safely. The World Food Programme is absolutely essential to resolving the situation in Yemen right now, and its work—for example, to ensure the safety of grain in the Red Sea Mills—is vital to unlock those stores and to ensure that people have food. I salute the World Food Programme and all the NGOs that put themselves at considerable risk. Looking around the world today, there is a real risk that those people’s lives are often in peril, but they continue never the less.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about southern voices in Yemen, I am absolutely clear that any process needs to include all the people of Yemen, including those vital southern voices. Indeed, the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths reaffirmed that in his most recent briefing to the Security Council on 15 May. It is right that the UK continues to engage, so far as it possibly can, with a wide range and diverse group of Yemeni individuals, and we will continue to do that wherever we can.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) made several vital points in his important contribution. The evidence stands in relation to child soldiers. We are appalled by the presence of child soldiers, some of whom we are told are as young as eight years old on Houthi side of this conflict. The evidence is clearer for the Houthis, but the accusation stands that both sides are employing minors in this conflict. That must stop. It is a truly terrible thing, and it must stop.
I entirely agree with the need to involve women in that process, and Martin Griffiths made that clear in his remarks. It is always important to point out that conflict leads to an increase in gender-based violence, and that is certainly happening in this case. I am pleased that we continue to support the UN, particularly the Yemeni women’s pact for peace and security, which is extremely important. As far as we can, we will ensure that all groups within Yemen are involved in this process.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our commitment to Yemen must be long standing. As he will know as Chair of the International Development Committee, the important thing is that we do not consider the job done when one way or another this conflict inevitably grinds to a halt—although may that be sooner rather than later—because we need a plan for the future. We have also heard about the dusting off old plans where they may be of assistance. He is also right to call for a ceasefire, which we of course want. Goodness me, wouldn’t that be good? We must plan for what might come in the future while doing everything we can with all our interlocutors to impress the importance of dialling down and stopping the conflict, and I will come on to why that is important not just for Yemen, but for the wider region.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) rightly concentrated on the impact that the conflict is having on the most vulnerable: the children. I am pleased that UK aid means that the screening and treating of 30,000 children for malnutrition is going ahead this year. That will always be inadequate, but these are big numbers, and it means so much at a human level for people who would otherwise be left to face their fate. Of course, that action comes from the £770 million previously cited, which puts the UK in the premier division—head and shoulders above all the other countries with which we can reasonably be compared.
People in this country are sometimes said to be parsimonious when it comes to international development. I do not believe that to be the case, but they want to know that their money is being spent properly. I do not think there will be many objections to spending money in Yemen today. Incidentally, I agree with my hon. Friend’s insistence that the UK must be a champion of the international rules-based system. It is something that goes without saying, but she is right to make that important point.
I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) has probably left, but I will nevertheless deal with his points because he is an acknowledged expert in this area. He is obviously concerned about Saudi Arabia’s purchasing of arms from the UK, and we have been around this buoy many times. The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who speaks for the Opposition, knows pretty much what I am going to say. The Labour party, with all respect, is an expert in this matter, because it was famously involved in some of this when in office. However, this is not something that can by any means be attributed to any particular political party. We do comply with the EU consolidated criteria and with the tenets of the Export Control Act 2002, which is so important. I am absolutely clear that this country must ethically pursue whatever we do. I am prepared to argue, though this is probably neither the time nor the place—you may call me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker—that if the United Kingdom did not sell arms in the way it does, for legitimate self-defence in accordance with international law, other countries would do so, and probably a lot less ethically.
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is concerned about the investigation of things that have gone wrong in the prosecution of Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen, and there have been some horrible examples. The UK is heavily involved in ensuring that when that happens, as it regrettably does in conflict, it is properly investigated. It is not right to dismiss the joint incident assessment team, which has produced over 100 reports on incidents during this conflict. We will clearly hold the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s feet to the fire in relation to the investigation of these matters, as we will with all our partners in the region. I hope that gives some reassurance.
I am being hurried along, and it is absolutely right that the Whip on duty should do that, but, needless to say, the speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) were superb. I agree with much of what they have to say. The latter, of course, has an extensive geopolitical understanding of the region, for which he is famed, but both speeches were balanced and highly commendable.
The Government are fully committed to ending the devastating conflict in Yemen. We believe that supporting the work of Martin Griffiths and the UN-led process is the best way to do that, for which I heard general assent in the Chamber today. It is in the interests of all parties, but especially of the Yemeni people themselves, that we work together to find a lasting solution to this appalling situation. For our part, the UK will do everything we can, both through our determined diplomatic efforts and through our generous humanitarian support, to help find the solutions about which the right hon. Member for Leicester East spoke so passionately.
This has been an excellent and passionate debate, fully justifying the decision of the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), to give us time, for which we thank him.
I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell), for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), and my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). And I thank the Minister, who will always remember his first speech from the Dispatch Box as a Foreign Office Minister. He has responded very positively.
It is often said that the war in Yemen is a forgotten war, but it is not forgotten in this House. Today we have remembered Yemen, but another 12 Yemeni children have died since the start of this debate. What we want is not great speeches but great actions. A ceasefire is not a mantra but an objective. We need this ceasefire, and this country needs to make sure it happens. We need to seize the moment and bring peace to this sad, troubled but beautiful land.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes that 22 May 2019 is the 28th anniversary of the unification of Yemen, when that country emerged from a long and painful civil war; further notes that today Yemen is once again in a deep and pitiful state of conflict, having entered the fifth year of its current, tragic war; acknowledges that the most recent estimate places the death toll in excess of 70,000, of which 10,000 have died in the last five months alone; notes that Yemen remains in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, in which at least 85,000 children have starved to death and almost 200,000 have contracted cholera in 2019 alone; commends the work of the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, who brought opposing sides together for agreements including on a ceasefire in the Al-Hodeidah Governate; regrets that the implementation of those agreements has been slow or non-existent; and calls on the Government to take every possible measure to support an immediate ceasefire, the flow of humanitarian aid and further peace talks in Yemen.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
It is always a privilege to lead such debates as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, not least at the moment, as I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about something other than our withdrawal from the European Union. I promise not to utter the B-word in the Chamber this afternoon. Instead, I will use the next few minutes to remind you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and colleagues on both sides of the House why I represent the best constituency in the United Kingdom, with a few policy complaints thrown in.
I can say with absolute certainty that austerity is not over in Gateshead. Despite the Government’s proclamations to the contrary in recent months, and despite their promise to shake the magic money tree for the north-east of England, we have seen more damaging cuts coupled with welfare reforms and chronic, continually rising unemployment in my constituency. I say that advisedly. Unemployment in my constituency now stands at 7.2%, and it has risen month on month every month without fail. There are 470 more unemployed individuals that at the same time last year, so unemployment has not gone away in the north-east of England.
We see local authorities being forced to turn away vulnerable people from their doors. In my constituency, the employees of social housing providers are creating their own ad hoc, unofficial food banks to help tenants who simply cannot make ends meet.
I am not sure whether we should be delighted that the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Professor Philip Alston, chose to visit Newcastle and Gateshead while gathering evidence. Believe me, we would much prefer not to be of interest to an investigation into extreme poverty. None the less, it was finally an opportunity for members of the communities I serve—those communities are bearing the brunt of successive Government policies—local authorities and voluntary organisations to share their experiences with officials from outside the region who care enough to listen.
The report, published yesterday, is a damning indictment of how this Government treat some of their citizens and of how they view their role in office. Sadly, nothing in Professor Philip Alston’s report should come as a surprise to Members. Opposition Members have repeatedly highlighted how this Government are driving constituents into abject poverty while slashing the support services that were once available to help the most vulnerable.
We have just had a great debate about Yemen. It is ironic that Ministers are quite happy to accept UN evidence on Yemen but are openly dismissive of an objective UN report on what is happening here in terms of domestic policy. That is rather strange. This is, and rightly should be, a national embarrassment. How many more of our constituents will be starved and frozen out of their homes before this Government decide to change course?
I believe that the existing council tax system contributes to the difficulties of local authorities like mine in Gateshead when it comes to raising enough money to meet increasing demand. The system is flawed and requires urgent reform to establish some equality across the UK.
The vast majority of properties in my Gateshead constituency—over 70%—are in council tax bands A and B, unlike in some parts of the south-east, where the average banding is C, D or, in some cases, E. Having a high proportion of band A and B properties significantly reduces how much money can be raised through the council tax system. As a direct result, Gateshead Council has no alternative but to continually raise council tax by the highest percentage allowed. That, in turn, has resulted in Gateshead having one of the country’s most expensive council tax bills for band A properties.
In Gateshead, it costs nearly four times more in council tax to live in a one-bedroom band A flat than it costs to live in a band D property here in Westminster, which is clearly unfair. The system is punitive, outdated and regressive, and it should be replaced at the earliest opportunity. Withdrawing the revenue support grant without reforming and amending the council tax side of the local government funding system is causing hardship and suffering to our constituents, and it must be considered almost criminal because of the way in which it impacts on individuals
We have now had council tax for almost 30 years—let us remember that it was meant to be a temporary stopgap after getting rid of the poll tax, or the community charge, as it was known—and it does not work. The band D national median is meaningless in a place like Gateshead. Unilaterally taking away the revenue support grant without altering the other side of the system was a harsh decision that has clearly affected some areas much more than others.
I promised some positivity, and I realise that my speech so far has set out a pretty bleak picture, so let me say that despite revenue support grant cuts of more than £100 million per year, my local authority continues to promote Gateshead as a great place to live, work and invest. Gateshead Council has already attracted hundreds of millions of pounds in investment in recent years. It has ambitious plans for further investment of £1.5 billion in the next 10 to 15 years, starting with ambitious plans for Gateshead quays and the Baltic quarter to develop a major new state-of-the-art conference centre and performance arena. There are to be exciting ancillary facilities and, we hope, even a new railway station to service the development, as well as our excellent and outstanding Gateshead College.
I am proud to have been a member of Gateshead Council for 27 years during our process of moving the borough forward on a long line of flagship projects: the iconic Sage Gateshead; the turning of the Baltic flour mill into a gallery of contemporary art; and our Gateshead millennium bridge across the Tyne to the village across the river. Members on both sides of the House will recognise the importance of sensitive investment and development in our communities, and how that often acts as a driver for regeneration. We have a long-standing flagship projects policy that started in the 1970s with the Gateshead stadium and Brendan Foster. Who could ever forget the way in which we turned Gateshead into a hub of athletics? We were an exemplar of Britain in bloom. We built the Metrocentre, with John Hall and Cameron Hall Developments. We turned the old Derwenthaugh coke works site into a wonderful country park. We built our civic centre in Gateshead, which was a huge success because we brought the project in vastly under budget, meaning that the residue of the development grant we got from Government, via Lord Bellwin, was then used as a sort of development fund. That allowed us to do so many different things. We turned Saltwell park, an ageing Victorian municipal park, into “the people’s park”, and it became the favourite park in the north of England—it was voted the best park in Britain on two occasions. We also developed Gateshead quays, built the Angel of the North and redeveloped Gateshead town centre.
Although members of my political persuasion believe that investment for regeneration should come directly from Government, because that works, I also recognise that there is more chance of me watching Newcastle United win the premier league next year than this Government changing course on public investment in the regeneration of areas in the north-east of England, which, sadly, continue to be left behind, as the unemployment statistics show graphically. If any Member has a spare million or two burning a hole in their pockets, I would be delighted to welcome them to Gateshead for a look around, to meet the people and see the massive potential that exists—they will be given a very warm welcome and be under no illusion that it is a great place to work, invest and live.
As I touched upon earlier, council tax takes up an ever-increasing proportion of people’s income. We have all seen the reports of local authorities pursuing residents through the courts with bailiffs to recover insignificant sums of outstanding tax, adding significant charges and fees—and misery—in the process. I am therefore delighted to talk about the excellent work that my local authority is doing to identify and support some of our most vulnerable residents. The Thrive initiative uses council tax arrears as one of the trigger points for increased support. If residents fall into arrears with council tax, it is often a tell-tale sign that there may be other significant issues on which they need support. As a result, instead of multiplying debt through the recovery process and causing no end of distress to constituents, the Thrive team in Gateshead contacts residents who fall into arrears to offer them additional support.
We know all too well that very often those in our communities who are most in need are the least likely to seek help or even to know where to go to for help. The Thrive initiative does that work for them: it reaches out and tries to engage proactively with residents who may be having difficulties, with the aim of preventing the situation deteriorating. Not only is this holistically an excellent initiative—giving assistance before people reach the point of crisis—but it is actually beneficial to the people themselves and financially beneficial to the council. So I congratulate Gateshead Council on developing such schemes in the most difficult economic circumstances.
I feel that I have spoken for long enough but, although this does not directly affect my constituency, it would be remiss of me not to mention the ongoing abandonment of British Steel. We wish every success to all initiatives to try to retain steel production in this country, as this is so vital. While I was growing up, I watched deindustrialisation along the Tyne, with the loss of shipbuilding and heavy engineering, and the closure of coal mines, so we need to do something to retain a strategically vital industry here in Britain. Time and time again, we have seen Governments allow the deindustrialisation of the north of England, which has devastating long-term effects on communities, some of which will never recover. It is about time that industries that are vital to not only our economy nationally, but our local economies, workers and their families across the UK, were afforded the same protections as those in the square mile in the City of London. We managed to find £500 billion to bail out the City after the financial crash, so we must be able to find a few hundred million pounds to save vital industries for the future strategic interest of our country.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you, Members on both sides of the House and all staff a very restful Whitsun—we all deserve it.
Before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess, I wish to make a number of points. I am so glad that we are having this debate, because the previous one was cancelled. Unless I get a stare from the Chair, I am probably going to take a little longer than I normally would, but I assure the House that I will not squeeze colleagues out—I know that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would intervene.
The first thing I want to say is about this place. I am very worried about Parliament—indeed, I am frightened about it. I realise that everyone else knows better than I do, but since I have been here I have never seen this place in such disarray. As we work here, we have our own view, but this is playing very badly with the general public out there—every minute, every hour, every week and every month, damage is being done to our democracy. I have never seen incompetence at the level that we are experiencing at the moment, with Ministers coming and going—it is a complete fiasco. We all know that the terrible 2017 general election messed everything up, but we have had tight results before and we have legislated—we have been here, done our work and got on with our job. That is not happening at the moment.
I say to colleagues, perhaps those on my side, that very few human beings have what it takes to be a leader of a party and indeed a Prime Minister. That does not mean to say that someone is a wonderful person because they end up as Prime Minister; I am just saying that few people have the qualities needed. So many of us seem to be unaware of our own limitations. Since I have been here, I have seen colleagues become more and more ambitious. They think, “Oh, forget the constituency, it is a just a vehicle to get here. I want to lead my party. In fact, I even wanted that before I was elected.” That is how ridiculous the situation is at the moment, and it plays out there very badly indeed.
We have the poorest set of world leaders I have seen in my lifetime. I struggle to point to someone whom I think is at the top of their game. Let me say something to the House, although it will not take a blind bit of notice of me—after all, who am I? I am of no importance; I am a has-been. I want to say this: this is a really serious crisis and I hope that on Sunday, when we get the results of today’s vote, we will get a grip on this place, because we need to reassure the general public that the democracy that was hard fought for means that it is worth going out to vote. That ends that Victor Meldrew rant.
Ambassadors continually visit Southend, and why would they not? We have had ambassadors from Taiwan, the Philippines and Qatar, and we are shortly to have visits from the Indian economics Minister and the German ambassador. They all arrive in Southend and just cannot understand why we are not a city.
On 5 March, I hosted a meeting with our excellent Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), and the headteachers of secondary schools in Southend to discuss the thorny issue of school funding. The meeting was constructive and I believe it helped both sides to understand the difficulties. We will have a similar meeting with primary school headteachers in July.
For those who were there—I was delighted to be present with my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), the Secretary of State for Defence and other colleagues—the wonderful Music Man project really put life into perspective. When I first became an MP, I had never seen anyone in a straitjacket before. It was fantastic to see the pride on the faces of the families as they saw these people with learning difficulties perform so wonderfully well at the Albert Hall. The musical was called “Music is Magic in Space”, and the performance followed the one at the Palladium. The founder of the project, David Stanley, has been awarded the Winston Churchill fellowship, which will allow him to travel to America in November to study similar projects. That is why the show will be taken to Broadway. That is definitely going to happen next year. I am sure that Essex colleagues—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) on the Front Bench—will have constituents who took part in the project.
I recently had a meeting with our former colleague Helen Clark, who was the Member for Peterborough, and she had some wonderful ideas on children’s mental health. She met me with a lady called Monika Jephcott and a chap called Jeff Thomas, who were from Play Therapy UK, and we discussed proposals for a new approach to child mental health, including work to put the interests of children at the centre of the mental health Bill that we have been promised.
There may be a divide in the House on the governance of independent schools, but the past nine years have seen a huge shift in education, and specifically an increase in independent schools. As far as I am concerned, it is imperative that the leaders of independent schools are held to account, especially by the Independent Schools Association, because it is at school that children learn human values and life lessons. Independent schools cannot be allowed to get away with substandard conduct.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Southend resident and fibromyalgia campaigner Billy Mansell. More than 2.7 million people in the UK live with fibromyalgia, yet the condition is little understood. Billy is leading the way and I fully support his efforts to raise awareness and the understanding of this chronic condition and to ensure that patients throughout Essex get the right support.
Some people think I am obsessed with animals, but I know that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, have even more animals than me. The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and its wonderful co-founder Lorraine Platt continue to work hard on spearheading campaigns to improve the lives of animals in the United Kingdom and around the world. There has been lots to celebrate this year, with Lucy’s law having brought an end to puppy farming and Finn’s law getting Royal Assent, but there is still a long way to go on live exports, trophy hunting and the fur trade. I look forward to working with Lorraine and her colleagues on many more successes. We had a wonderful gathering in the Attlee suite, with all these wonderful dogs and many colleagues. It is good to see that the House has reacted well to issues of animal welfare.
On the same subject, more than half of all pets in the UK are exotic species. Unfortunately, 90% of exotic fish and 75% of exotic reptiles do not survive their first 12 months in captivity as domestic pets. There are numerous reasons for those sorry figures, but the pet labelling scheme is a series of proposals that seeks to address the problem. The hope is that by providing a labelling scheme to promote informed decisions at the point of sale and evidence-based guidance on husbandry and inspection, the number of pets dying will be reduced.
The House of Commons is sometimes parodied as a place where one can get alcohol in abundance. I recently chaired a meeting of the all-party group on liver health at which we were given some shocking figures. We were delighted to learn that the steps that have been taken relating to hepatitis C and alcohol are now beings looked at seriously, but I wonder how many colleagues realise that the most common cause of liver disease in England is a person having had too much drink. One person dies every two hours because of alcoholic liver disease—it kills more people than diabetes and road deaths combined. This under-reported problem costs the national health service £3.5 billion a year. There are so many ways to address the problem. The issue of alcohol labelling needs to be looked at again, as does pricing and NHS support. The good news for colleagues is that in a few months we will host a parliamentary drop-in event, which colleagues will be able to attend and, without any embarrassment, get their livers tested.
For 20 years I have been dealing with a constituent called Mr Nicholas Markos—this is a true story; he comes regularly to my surgeries. He lived with his mother, Milica. The issue was that his neighbour shifted the fence three and a half inches over their property line. That resulted in a horrendous legal situation. I am sure the House will be shocked to learn that the person who moved the fence got away with it all while Mr Markos lost everything, including his house—his mother is now in a home and he now lives in a car—because of the legal fees and bad advice. I am not going to stop Mr Markos coming to my surgery, but it costs the taxpayer a huge amount of money when I write to Ministers and get the same old thing passed backwards and forwards from the legal profession. Of course, Mr Markos cannot even get legal aid because it is so complicated. I am pretty determined and am not going to give up until we get justice for Mr Markos and his mother.
I continue to support Edwin and Janet Woodger as they try to resolve a dispute with the Co-op. My constituents have been reasonable throughout the process and I hope that the matter can be brought to a resolution at the earliest opportunity. The financial ombudsman is currently trying to help.
Many of my constituents are unhappy with the roll-out to the private sector of IR35 rules on off-payroll working. I know that the Minister who was dealing with it, my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), is apparently now the Leader of the House, but I hope that he will brief whoever has taken on his previous job. It is a significant development, and although I am glad that the Government appear to have been interested in the views of stakeholders thus far, I urge the Treasury to continue to work with small businesses to ensure that any unnecessary damage to individual’s livelihoods in the transition is avoided.
Sir Jack Petchey—I see the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) nodding away; he represents a part of London near my old home town—is in his early nineties and is an absolute legend. Rather than sit on all his largesse, he has given his money to an organisation called Speak Out. I think that some constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point are involved in this wonderful organisation. I pay tribute to Sir Jack Petchey.
Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 is a significant piece of legislation. I recognise the need to support tenants, but I also acknowledge the impact that the proposed changes will have on landlords. I take this opportunity to call on the Government to ensure that landlords and tenants alike continue to be consulted on the changes. I realise that it is a difficult issue.
I voted against the way we have proceeded on the restoration and renewal of this building—we lost by 17 votes. No one told us that the work would start immediately, meaning that every time we turn up here there is more scaffolding going up and more wires to trip over, and we cannot go down into the Crypt or up to the top of Big Ben. I should tell colleagues, though, that along with another colleague I went to the top of Big Ben three weeks ago and the restoration of the clock face is absolutely fantastic. After the Notre Dame disaster, we obviously have to address things in this place. My colleague on the all-party group on fire safety, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse will agree that fire safety is imperative. It was mentioned in business questions this morning. It is imperative that as many colleagues as possible click on the link and go through the fire safety procedures. It does not take long. When I mentioned it last time, several colleagues complained that it was not working properly, but it has been fixed now.
Fresh information has recently come to light on the so-called Prittlewell Prince, a discovery of major significance to the history of the United Kingdom. The body is thought to belong to a prince or aristocrat, and archaeologists are calling it the UK’s answer to Tutankhamun. And where do you think it is, Mr Deputy Speaker? It’s in Southend. It is yet another reason Southend should be declared a city.
Anna Baldan, a constituent of mine, lost her husband, Alessandro, after he fell from his mobility scooter and sustained fatal head injuries. Now Mrs Baldan wants laws to be re-examined regarding mobility scooter safety. Specifically, she would like it to become a legal requirement for all mobility scooter users to wear a safety helmet. Perhaps the Department for Transport could look at that.
Dr Zaidi is an outstanding local GP. The Kent Elms health centre is an established primary care site that has just gone through a major redevelopment. They have kindly asked me to open the centre. The development supports the principles of the NHS 10-year forward vision in providing more accessible high-quality services, and it is hoped that these newly refurbished premises will encourage newly qualified medical professionals to remain in Southend. I pay tribute to Dr Zaidi and his wonderful wife, who is also a GP.
I cannot for the life of me understand the way the local authority—whatever political party has been running the council over the past years—has overseen the Kent Elms improvement road safety network. I cannot seen any improvement, and now they have put back that huge monstrosity over the road, even though there are now traffic lights. It is incredible.
Angela Halifax is a lady who provides assisted living. Such places play a fundamental role in local communities, but she is concerned that the recent increase in service VAT will prove detrimental to those individuals who are most vulnerable. Angela would like Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury to re-examine their decision to bring forward this change.
My constituent Colin Baldwin has pledged to cycle 1,000 miles to raise £10,000 towards the rebuilding of St Stephen’s church. The £1,000 by 1,000 initiative— 1,000 people raising £1,000 each over two years—hopes to raise enough money to rebuild the church.
I turn now to Network Rail and c2c. A number of Essex residents are fed up with the situation at the moment, with the maintenance works going on morning, noon and night. I do not understand it at all, and suddenly we are told that the trains are not running from Fenchurch Street and one has to scoot down to Liverpool Street. It is going on and on. These people do not seem to be accountable to anyone. The latest fiasco is that the old system for buying tickets whereby passengers put their credit card in has been changed and the queues with the new system are endless. It is ridiculous.
Alan Hart, a local constituent who has now become a Leigh town councillor, has been corresponding with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other stakeholders about water companies and other organisations that he believes should re-examine the use of rateable value to determine water bills.
In February, the Kings money advice centre in my constituency, led by the wonderful Rev. Gavin Dixon, celebrated its 10th anniversary. I pay tribute to the wonderful support it gives to people in enormous financial difficulties. The Salvation Army centre recently reopened its day centre in the area I represent. It does a fantastic job on behalf of the community. As I am always telling people, they are not just wonderful at Christmas; whatever they do, they always have smiles on their faces. It does not cost anything and it raises spirits.
I am sure that all colleagues will agree that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our veterans. We heard much about that at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. Unfortunately, my constituent Darren Turner has not been receiving the support he deserves from the Department for Work and Pensions. I expect the Government to support former servicemen and women in any way they can, and I would ask the relevant Minister to re-examine the specific case.
I come now to what is a terrible tragedy. A constituent of mine, Mrs Rayner, came to my last surgery. In March 2018, the body of her grandson, who I had met—wonderful chap—was pulled from a river after he had been missing for three months. She and the mother of this poor boy are in meltdown. In August of the same year, the autopsy was completed and as it stands there is still an open verdict, which is obviously very distressing to the family. I believe the case needs to be looked at.
What is awful is that Mrs Rayner has been told by the DWP that she is not suffering from bereavement and as a result her personal independence payment has been reduced. This is absolutely ludicrous. It was clear to me that my constituent was suffering and I know that her GP agrees. The DWP needs to look at this case urgently. Adam’s mother, Clare, is hopeful that all future missing persons cases will be treated equally and that the parents of missing individuals will be listened to. I very much support the family.
Many colleagues say, “David, we’ve been to Southend airport. Isn’t it fantastic?” It is, but the residents whose houses adjoin it did not expect these huge jets now to be literally at the back of their fences pouring out noxious fumes. Recently on “The One Show” residents of Wells Avenue complained about having these jets with all their fumes in their back gardens. The dialogue with the airport authority goes on and on. It has reached a point where they might as well have a compulsory purchase order, buy the whole road of houses, give them a decent return and settle the matter. The airport is suggesting the installation of a noise barrier and other such things, but I do not think that any of us, over what I am sure will be a beautiful summer, would want to sit out in our garden with a jet at the back ready to take off.
Now is the Time for Change is a company set up by an inspirational constituent called Kelly Swain. As she continues her personal journey, she is working with colleagues to ensure that local people, especially children, have access to the wellbeing and mental health services they need. I am going to see her at the weekend. We were all encouraged by a meeting that recently took place with the mental health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), and we now look forward to meeting the chairman of our local clinical commissioning group. It is about time we had a meeting with José Garcia.
My constituent Robert Hubbard recently attended one of my constituency advice surgeries. His daughter-in-law, Lucianna, lives in Mombasa. When she has spent time in the UK, she has always obeyed the conditions of her visa. She is now looking forward to obtaining a visitor visa to come and see her children, but the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration have not granted the application. I have received assurances that Lucianna would obey all the conditions of her visa, and I call on the Home Office and the Immigration Minister, with whom I am in dialogue, to re-examine the case.
Mojo and the The Vine are two shops that have been converted into bars, and they are causing mayhem. When I was canvassing in the area during the last local elections, I turned around and a car pulled up with its lights on, even though it was during the day. An electric window was lowered, two chaps appeared and a plastic container was passed over—drugs. Nothing is being done about Mojo and The Vine. I want action from the council and the police on this matter.
I was very surprised that in the elections for two of the wards of Leigh-on-Sea Town Council, there were 153 spoiled ballot papers that had “Abolish Leigh Town Council” written across them. In another ward—these are very small areas—there were 50 spoiled ballot papers bearing the same words. We do not talk about what is written on spoiled ballot papers, because it is usually something offensive about the local Member of Parliament, but on such occasions we need to reflect on what is going on.
It was a great pleasure to attend the 50th anniversary of Southend and Leigh bridge club this year. To keep any club going for 50 years is truly amazing.
I hope I am not interrupting the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech, but I sense he is coming to the end of it, and I wonder whether he has included on his last page congratulations to West Ham United on finishing in the top half of the premiership this year. I only mention that because it will save me, as a fellow West Ham supporter, doing so in my speech; and because the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee mentioned Newcastle United, so we will beat them 2:1 on this occasion.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. My goodness, I was relieved that Southend United won their last game, so we were not relegated. As a staunch West Ham supporter, I think that having got off to a bad start and lost the first four matches, to finish 10th in the league was a tremendous outcome. My youngest daughter plays for Arsenal ladies, and they are a great team, but I am a dyed-in-the-wool West Ham supporter and I join him in congratulating them on their season. Onwards and upwards, and—who knows? —just like Leicester, they might win the league.
With my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) sitting nearby, I am thinking about the spring clean. I took part in our local spring clean, led by a wonderful local councillor, Meg Davidson, who is now deputy leader of the Conservative group. I think it is a wonderful opportunity.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I join all other Members in wishing you, the other Deputy Speakers, Mr Speaker and all the staff of the House a wonderful, joyous, restful and Brexit-free Whitsun.
We have been privileged to hear a masterclass from the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess)—I will call him the hon. Member for the city of Southend—on how to speak in the end-of-term Adjournment debate. I am a mere apprentice to his great talent.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to steelworkers and their families across the country, and across the ages, for their contribution to our nation. They have been in the vanguard of its growth, prosperity and development. They are amazing men and women, and they have had some tough times and tough years. The last few weeks have been some of the toughest. Yesterday, British Steel, which employs 4,500 people in Scunthorpe and across the local area, with probably 20,000 people working in the supply chain, went into compulsory liquidation. Steelworkers and their families, the contractor base and people who work in the supply chain will understandably be worried and concerned, as I am. But I know that we have a good business, and the country needs this business. Despite the challenge, I am confident about the future.
A few months ago, after a public fundraising campaign, a statue dedicated to steelworkers across the ages was unveiled in Scunthorpe town centre. That iconic statue is a beautiful piece of public art, and people swarmed to the town centre from across the community to recognise it. It demonstrates how the industry cuts through everything that the local area is about.
Steelmaking and steelworkers belong to place. Place is very important in our past, present and future. Many new industries, including digital industries, have been established, and it is good to see that, but they are not as located in place; they can move quickly and freely across boundaries and countries. That creates a huge challenge for us all as policy makers. Place is important, and steelmaking has helped to create the place of Scunthorpe. The discovery in the 1850s of iron ore resulted in iron ore being mined for a long while and eventually led to the building up of the steel industry.
I am pleased to hear about the steelworkers’ monument that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned. There is a firefighters’ memorial at St Pauls and a construction workers’ memorial at Tower Hill, but they have been there for only 20 years. It is important that we recognise the contribution of ordinary men and women—that may be in their industry, rather than as individuals—so I am pleased to hear that there is such a memorial in Scunthorpe for steelworkers.
And memorials to people who have helped to build this country; and memorials that include women as well as men. Most memorials to women in this country are actually to Queen Victoria, but the memorial in Scunthorpe includes a female steelworker and a male steelworker, recognising that it is through men’s and women’s work across the ages that this country has been built.
Steelmaking is the beating heart of the community that I am proud to represent. It is what gives the community its character and strength. Everyone has friends or family members who work in the steel industry or its supply chains. It provides high-skilled, well-paid jobs that drive the local economy, and has always been passionate about and committed to apprenticeships, training and investment—investing in community causes and the community effort. The supply chain and the contractor base are also hugely important.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) said, this is not just an industry that is important to places around the country; it is an industry that is important to our country and it is part of our national asset. The strategic value of the steel industry is massive. It is a foundation industry that underpins our manufacturing and economic performance. If we are serious about being an independent and modern country, we need to have our own independent steelmaking capacity so that we have defence and infrastructure security, othe