Tuesday 18 June 2019
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
International Humanitarian Law: Protecting Civilians in Conflict
[Relevant documents: Twelfth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Britain: Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention, HC 1005, and the Government Response, HC 1719.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the continued importance of international humanitarian law in protecting civilians in conflict.
I am pleased to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.
I applied for this debate to mark the 70th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva conventions and the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council first putting the protection of civilians in armed conflict on its agenda. The UK is the penholder at the Security Council for that mandate.
This debate allows us to convey appreciation for what has been and is being done to protect civilians by a wide range of actors that adhere to international humanitarian law—which I will now abbreviate to IHL—and to interpret its provisions to prioritise civilian protection in armed conflicts. It also provides us with an important opportunity to highlight the terrible price that civilians continue to pay in such conflicts the world over, and to suggest what should be done—what must be done—including by the UK Government, to alleviate their suffering.
IHL, as detailed in the 1949 Geneva conventions, sets out the specific protection that civilians are entitled to in armed conflict. IHL requires that parties to a conflict must distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians, and must direct attacks only against combatants and other military objects. Constant care must be taken to spare civilians and civilian objects, such as schools, hospitals, and water treatment and sanitation facilities, from the effects of the fighting. IHL also calls on parties to authorise impartial humanitarian assistance to populations affected by the conflict. In addition, a number of key human rights such as the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life, or the prohibition of torture and slavery, cannot ever be suspended.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the preservation of water treatment facilities. In Europe, unfortunately, we have a prime example of the corruption of IHL in the Russian-occupied bits of Ukraine: Russian forces targeted the Donetsk water plant in order to destroy it, and attacked 42 schools. Will she join me in condemning that?
Absolutely. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s experience on the Council of Europe, given the kind of discussions that take place there. Unfortunately in so many areas of conflict, we are all aware of examples of such attacks on what should be protected people, facilities and so on.
Despite the frameworks in place that are meant to protect civilians in armed conflict, and their further development and consolidation, including through the UN, civilians continue to suffer in armed conflict. According to the May briefing paper of the Overseas Development Institute, “Twenty years of protection of civilians at the UN Security Council”, a century ago civilians represented about 10% to 15% of total casualties in armed conflict; by the second world war that had risen to 50%; and by the 1990s civilians accounted for between 80% and 85% of such casualties, a trend that has unfortunately continued and possibly even intensified into this century. What is going wrong?
I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does she agree that as the UN penholder, the UK has significant leverage to pressurise countries such as Iran? Does she find it as chilling as I do that a former British military officer said that without US and UK assistance Saudi Arabia could not wage war on Yemen, yet four years on we still sell arms to the Saudis? Does she agree that that should stop?
My hon. Friend obviously knows that I totally agree with her. In fact, I have joined in the argument on that particular point at various stages. I am a member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, and that is an issue that we certainly continue to discuss.
Last month, the UN Secretary-General published his annual report on this subject. Why, as he set out, do
“civilians continue to account for the vast majority of casualties in conflict”,
and suffer from a variety of “short and long-term” impacts, “including forced displacement”, forcible
“starvation…unlawful denial of humanitarian access; attacks on humanitarian and medical personnel, hospitals, and other medical facilities; sexual and gender-based violence; and intentional damage and unlawful destruction of civilian infrastructure, property and livelihoods”?
The first thing to recognise is that armed conflict has changed in many ways, some of which have put civilians in greater danger, such as a massive increase in armed groups, including non-state armed actors. Research by the International Committee of the Red Cross shows that more armed groups have emerged in the past six years than in the previous 60 years. The proliferation of armed groups, backed by a variety of partners, allies and arms providers, often leads to a dilution of responsibility, fragmentation of chains of command, an unchecked flow of weapons, and longer and more intractable armed conflicts. All that results in greater danger to civilians. In addition, there is increased use of explosive weapons in urban areas, where populations are highly concentrated, and of so-called precision weaponry which is not precise enough.
I argue, however, that the changes in the way that armed conflicts are carried out do not mean that international humanitarian law is no longer fit for purpose, but that greater efforts must be made on three fronts: to adhere to IHL; to interpret it with civilian protection at the forefront; and to ensure that those responsible for serious violations are held to account. I cannot emphasise that last one enough. As one who collected evidence on Iraqi war crimes over a period of years, I know how important it is to document such crimes, because a time will come when it is possible to prosecute people for those crimes.
There continue to be too many instances of IHL not being respected and, worryingly, a determination at times to flout legal obligations to protect civilian populations.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this debate and on her continuing interest in this matter over many years. Does she agree that one of the issues that comes up frequently in the civilian population is particular to children? Some of those involved in conflict situations across the globe make forcible use of child soldiers. That is another transgression that must be highlighted and, I hope, resolved in the near future.
I absolutely agree. To my knowledge we have raised that issue in this Parliament on many occasions, but we still have not come to any resolution apart from to condemn it.
We can all think of armed conflicts where armed parties have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure to try to terrorise the population into submission, such as in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Other hon. Members will no doubt highlight such shocking and despicable crimes in their contributions. It is important to keep in mind that it is not just non-state armed actors such as IS that carry out such crimes; IHL violations are committed equally by state and non-state armed actors. In addition, states always have the primary responsibility for protecting and meeting the basic needs of the civil population.
The second failing putting civilians at greater risk is armed parties not prioritising the protection of civilians when implementing IHL. IHL leaves room for interpretation, particularly as regards its application, as while it sets out what armed actors are supposed to do, it does not necessarily detail how those responsibilities are to be exercised. I have visited armed conflicts in various parts of the world, but in Iraq in particular I remember talking to American military personnel and emphasising to them the importance of the Geneva conventions, but being met with a blank look because they had no idea what those were. That was a great difficulty when trying to persuade them to do something differently.
All armed actors must incorporate the protection of civilians into their core military missions and strategies and must actively seek to do everything possible during military operations to ensure civilians are properly protected. They should do that in recognition that success in armed conflict is not just about fighting to control territory but about the need to ensure the safety, dignity and wellbeing of affected populations, so they are not driven to support radical and extremist ideologies and groups, further fuelling conflict, and so they are better able to contribute to sustainable peace-building and reconciliation efforts when the armed conflict is over. To do that requires a much better understanding by armed actors of how their operations could and have had an impact on civilians, as well as much more investment in more accurate recording of civilian casualties and tracking of civilian harm.
I must highlight my concern about the Ministry of Defence’s ludicrous claim that there was only one civilian casualty resulting from its operations in Mosul and Raqqa in the fight against IS, despite the RAF dropping over 4,000 munitions, of which over 70% were 500 lb bombs, primarily in urban areas. That figure indicates the UK’s inability to accurately record civilian casualties and track civilian harm, and the lack of a baseline for assessing civilian harm.
The UK wants to be a global champion on civilian protection—obviously, we would all commend that. We will not, however, be credible on the international stage until and unless we are first accountable for our own operations. We therefore need a dedicated civilian casualty mitigation and investigation team with proper resources, to understand the impact of our operations and accurately record civilian harm. We need to appoint a dedicated military chief of staff to co-ordinate civil-military issues, and a civil-military focus in all major military headquarters with a centralised role in planning and decision making, to represent the interests of civilians.
In addition, the UK must do more to uphold our positive responsibilities under IHL and clarify the British position when assisting and working with partners, whether sharing intelligence and assets, providing weapons and materiel support or training and giving advice to local forces. We sometimes still fall short, so I urge the Government yet again to rethink our support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) mentioned, to ensure that any support provided is, at the very least, more explicitly conditional on a proactive policy of adherence to civilian protection.
More generally, the Government should adopt a dedicated process of operational end-use monitoring—again, in the Committees on Arms Export Controls we have had in-depth discussions about end-use monitoring, taking examples from other countries, to analyse the operational outcomes of UK assistance, work with partners through training and education to build a foundation for civilian protection before conflict begins, and build capacity in all relevant areas, including security sector reform, neutrality of humanitarian actors and targeting. I emphasise the need for more vigilance in preserving the space for, and enabling the capacity of, neutral dedicated humanitarian actors, who work hard in extremely difficult circumstances to fill the gaps in civilian protection. We must ensure that their neutrality is not repeatedly compromised, as that opens them up to attacks; counter-terrorism measures must not risk criminalising their essential activities; their funding must remain adequate and not be tied to unreasonable or overly bureaucratic conditions; and they and their facilities must not be targeted.
Last but not least, we need to do more to address the accountability crisis. Impunity for serious IHL violations simply fuels further violations and puts civilians at even greater risk. The UK needs to support referrals to the International Criminal Court, champion ad hoc fact-finding mechanisms—including commissions of inquiry and the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission —and the establishment of local courts and transitional justice mechanisms, and it must consider adopting targeted measures against those who commit such atrocities.
All Governments need to step up their efforts to protect civilians in armed conflict and recognise and adopt best practice, such as that of NATO, which is making significant efforts to make civilian protection a key element of operational planning. That is essential if we are to see a dramatic reduction in civilian casualties and harm in the next decades.
For the UK really to make its mark on the global stage, I urge the Government not only to take the action I have called for, but to ensure the current review of its protection of civilians strategy is the beginning of a longer term process to adopt a cross-departmental strategy and whole of Government approach, so the protection of civilians is formalised as a top-line priority in UK operations and UK assistance to partners. The Government should also appoint a dedicated ambassador to champion protection of civilians on the global stage, to better utilise the UK’s position as chair of the informal expert group on protection of civilians and to work with the broadest possible range of states and relevant actors, as well as increase our influence in the UN, including through increased support and involvement with peacekeeping operations, UN missions and relevant UN agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Now more than ever, armed conflicts in other parts of the world can no longer be, to paraphrase slightly, quarrels in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing. We need to care about how civilians are affected by armed conflicts, because the horrific violations carried out against them are a stain on all humanity, and their effects are long lasting and widespread.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I thoroughly agreed with much of her speech, and I will comment on some of the things she said.
As the right hon. Lady pointed out, we are trying to deal with the effect of the Geneva convention and the protocols aimed at protecting civilians in conflict, but I was fascinated to read a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that seemed to take that one stage further. I was actually quite shocked by the report, but it may reflect the reality of the situation. It stated that there is a level of harm to civilians that is acceptable. It set that out by reference to three key principles, including proportionality and precaution, but the idea was that there is a level of civilian casualties that is, as the report described it, acceptable “collateral damage”.
The idea that a civilian building can have a military use as well as a civilian use brings me to my first point, which is related to the situation in Gaza. What do Israeli forces do when Hamas deliberately sets up its rockets in hospitals and schools? Do they simply turn away and do nothing, or do they accept, following the doctrine I have just set out, that they can take retaliatory action, in the full knowledge that there will be collateral damage—that real people will be killed? That is the first issue, which I raise to show that this whole business is not as simple as it should be.
The second area I want to deal with is Africa. In the past 20 years, there have been armed conflicts in Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda—that is probably not an exhaustive list—but where are the African participants in the IHL debate, and where are the African participants at the UN trying to take this forward?
The hon. Gentleman is making a lot of sense, especially in what he says about collateral damage. War is war. Unfortunately, a lot of innocent people are caught up in it. Surely, the message must be that the sanctions that are applied to countries that carry it out need to be enforced. Rather than condemning, we should do something about it.
I agree. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which I may come to if I get that far in my speech.
Between 1990 and 2007, 88% of conflict deaths internationally happened in Africa. That may have changed subsequently, with a rise in the middle east, but it is significant that 88% of deaths happened in a continent that does not really participate in the IHL debate. Of course, that is mixed up with genocide—I think Rwanda was in that list of countries, and of course we saw a massive genocide there—but the idea of genocide developed at the same time as the fourth Geneva convention, so there is an opportunity to try to revise IHL to incorporate that and to recognise that things have developed in parallel over the years.
On the middle east, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley mentioned Yemen. We debated Yemen recently in the main Chamber, so I will not cover it now, except to reinforce the points she made. However, I do not blame the Saudis alone; Iran has a lot to answer for with respect to its funding of the Houthis. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said
“there are no good people in this conflict.”—[Official Report, 23 May 2019; Vol. 660, c. 849.]
That is very true.
The last area I want to comment on is Europe. Europe is not exempt from violations of IHL. In my intervention on the right hon. Lady, I mentioned a prime example of defiance of IHL in the Russian-occupied area of Ukraine. That needs to be stated time and again. We in the Council of Europe need assistance from the Foreign Office so we can take a stand against the Russians and ensure, at the very least, that they give back the Ukrainian sailors they took. In the occupied bits of Ukraine, the Russians have attacked the Donetsk water filtration system, as I mentioned, which goes against everything the right hon. Lady said about trying to protect that for the benefit of individuals, and they have attacked 42 schools. Those were not schools where the Ukrainians were hiding rockets. This is not a Gaza situation. That was a deliberate attack on 42 schools, which we need to acknowledge.
What do we do about all this? First, we need to encourage more work by academics across Africa. I am aware that there is some activity in South Africa, but we need to encourage more Africans to carry out research and projects, which the Department for International Development may need to help fund. Above all, we need to ensure that the Geneva convention is enforceable. At the moment, it is characterised by a huge amount of non-compliance. We sit back and cross our arms and say how terrible that all is, but we do very little about it. We need to do something about it if we are to stop it happening.
Lastly, we need to boost the amount of UN peacekeeping. Peacekeeping plays a vital role, and having peacekeepers on the ground is a good way of tackling this problem. I would love to see us argue for more peacekeeping, and more effective peacekeeping, throughout the world, wherever we can play our part.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on initiating this debate. As Members will know, she chairs the all-party human rights group, and I am vice-chair of the all-party group on drones. We made a joint bid to the Backbench Business Committee, and I am pleased that we secured this debate.
Before coming here this morning I dropped in on Richard Ratcliffe. I recommend that people do that; he is outside the Iranian embassy, which did a good job of suddenly deciding its front needed painting and that it therefore needed some screens, which obstructed Richard Ratcliffe, or the view of him. I am pleased the police were not willing to move him on, which is apparently what the Iranians asked them to do. I encourage Members to visit him. In some respects, he and his wife are civilian casualties of an unofficial—well, there is not exactly a conflict or war between the UK and Iran, but there are certainly casualties.
It is right to debate this topic in the year of the 70th anniversary of the fourth Geneva convention on the protection of civilian persons in time of war. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the protection of civilians agenda at the UN Security Council, for which the UK is currently penholder.
The protection of civilians must be a priority, and the right hon. Lady set out many reasons why. Save the Children says at least 420 million children globally are now living in areas affected by conflict, which is more than ever. That has an impact across the board. Before coming here this morning I met an organisation that campaigns on education in the Lake Chad basin—an issue that particularly affects girls in that area of conflict—including in Nigeria and Cameroon. Children are a priority, as is education, and we must ensure that, where they are lacking, appropriate protections are put in place for civilians and children.
The right hon. Lady referred to the figure for RAF casualties, and the claim that there was only one civilian casualty after 4,000 munitions were dropped in the war against Isis. In future, we should perhaps require independent confirmation that there have been no civilian casualties, and use that as the basis. In circumstances where there is no independent confirmation for whether there have been civilian casualties, there must be a question mark over that issue. The RAF is effective and efficient and has tight safeguards over the use of munitions, but to suggest that there was only one civilian casualty after 4,000 attacks is challenging in terms of credibility.
We know that warfare is changing and that we are moving away from large-scale ground interventions. Airstrikes are becoming the primary means of achieving military objectives, and as we saw in Syria, they are increasingly used in urban areas. Drones are an added element of that. People attempt to portray drones as highly precise in their targeting, but there must be a question mark over that. We must ensure that issues of legality, transparency and accountability in the use of drones are monitored and built on. This is a developing area of military intervention, and the legal safeguards around drones must grow at the same time as their use.
We must focus on civilian protection during our own operations, but we must also consider the role that the UK increasingly plays when working with its partners—Saudi Arabia and the conflict in Yemen are often mentioned as an example of where UK personnel are not involved in directing attacks, but they are in command centres. The role the UK should play in civilian protection should be enhanced to cope with scenarios where the UK is an active partner in conflicts. Unfortunately, evidence is overwhelming that attacks have taken place in Yemen, from both sides, that are in breach of IHL. As parliamentarians, we should be worried that, while we have a role in expressing a view and voting on whether the UK should or should not take part in armed conflicts, we do not have one regarding whether the UK partners with countries that are in conflicts, such as that in Yemen. Perhaps we should look at whether we as parliamentarians should have an enhanced role when such partnerships are established.
It is not just when the UK is involved in a partnership that there are perhaps risks around whether we might be—either actively or at a distance—involved in matters that affect IHL. For example, the current US campaign in Yemen is separate from the conflict, but we must consider the use of drones. The same is true in places such as Pakistan and Somalia. The all-party group on drones set up an inquiry into the use of drones, and there are concerns about British involvement in US strikes in Yemen. It has been reported that there has been UK assistance with intelligence sharing, information triangulation and the tracking of informants, via the base in Yorkshire.
The German High Court recently found that at least some of the US drone strikes are unlawful and that Germany has an obligation to protect the Yemeni plaintiffs’ right to life. The German Government also have a legal obligation to establish a mechanism to ensure that any assistance to the US adheres to IHL. I therefore hope that, when the Minister responds to the debate, he will say whether the UK Government have looked at the German High Court ruling on the US strikes and at whether they need to develop a policy or position on that. Are the Government comfortable that we could not be in the same position, given our role in Yemen?
I have three precise asks for the Minister. First, will the Government assure Members that they have considered the German case and assessed its legal implications for the UK? Secondly, as part of the forthcoming UK protection of civilians strategy, will there be a clear mandate and commitment to the protection of civilians, and specific guidance on the use of explosive weapons in urban areas and in partnerships? Finally, through our position as a penholder on civil protection at the UN, we have a unique opportunity to lead a global recommitment to civilian protection in UN forums—I know that is something to which the Minister would wish to commit.
We have a crisis of great magnitude on our hands. When up to 85% of war casualties are civilians, it is clear that the laws of war—distinction, proportionality, necessity and precaution—are being disregarded on a large scale. The time to act is now.
It is a pleasure to speak for the first time under your benign sway, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing the debate and on her wonderful speech. There are many issues that are before us today where there is a political division, but I submit that on humanitarian issues, the House of Commons ought to be absolutely united on what the ground rules are. Today gives us an opportunity to honour and thank those who so often put their lives in harm’s way when trying to help in the humanitarian space that we are discussing.
It is worth remembering that before the second world war, there was no specific international legal norm that aimed to protect civilians in conflicts. Philippe Sands’s outstanding book “East West Street”, which was published last year, sets out clearly the way in which history was changed after that. The horrors experienced by civilians all over the world during that war prompted the international community to adopt, in 1949, the fourth Geneva convention on the protection of civilian persons in time of war.
My submission is that today, 70 years on, our generation is facing its own crisis of civilian protection. Gareth Evans at the United Nations made great progress on the responsibility to protect—R2P—in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda and, indeed, events in Europe. My submission today is that the responsibility to protect remains an absolutely critical international doctrine, but that it is a skeleton, and there is far too little flesh on the bones of R2P and what it means to protect civilians.
Recently, in what was widely regarded as ethnic cleansing, we saw the appalling events that took place for the Rohingya in Rakhine state. The Minister, who we are glad to see in his place, has taken a leadership role in trying to protect the people caught up in that. Threats to civilians are worsening and becoming more complex, more urban and more protracted, but perhaps the major challenge facing civilian protection today is the rise in deliberate identity-based targeting of civilian populations, not as a by-product of war but as a distinct objective. Those crimes and atrocities are abhorrent in their own right, and they can also lead to the outbreak of armed conflicts. The eight-year crisis in Syria, for example, was propelled by the deliberate perpetration of atrocities by the state, leading to protracted armed conflict and a hellish cycle of intentional violence against civilian groups by different perpetrators.
Many hon. Members will have seen the work being done by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a distinguished former military officer. I had the opportunity to hear from him today, just after his return from the middle east where he advises the Idlib Health Directorate of the most up-to-date circumstances in Syria and particularly Idlib. He says this:
“Nearly 700 civilians killed this year and 500,000”
internally displaced people
“in Idlib many without homes living in the open and off scraps and evidence of another chemical attack. There have been 29 attacks on hospitals by Russian and Syrian aircraft with many now out of commission. A handful of hospitals and doctors are now trying to care for 3 million civilians…Because we have done nothing to prevent this atrocity the crimes against humanity of attacking hospitals and the use of chemical weapons, this will haunt us much longer than the Syrian conflict. People in Idlib, who I speak to on a regular basis, feel completely let down by the West—we might be prepared to act against Iran for attacking an oil tanker but nothing to help the humanitarian disaster in Idlib?!”
I submit that we should be seeking to name and shame the aircraft attacking those hospitals, and provide evidence to the International Criminal Court for future prosecutions. As the Minister knows, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has sought protect evidence of breaches of international humanitarian law in Syria. The advent of mobile phone technology means that we can collect evidence of the atrocities. In Khartoum, Sudan, mobile phone pictures have been taken of individual soldiers committing atrocities, breaking international humanitarian law. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that in Syria, where there is a long-standing FCO operation, and in Khartoum, Sudan, we are collecting that evidence and we will make sure that it is used to bring international justice to those who have perpetrated those atrocities.
On that point, I remind the Minister that General Bashir, currently in jail in Khartoum, has been for many years the subject of an indictment through the International Criminal Court. We expect the British Government to do everything in their power to ensure that that warrant is executed.
With regard to Syria, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Government should also be keeping records of the Russians involved, so that they too may be held to account?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman; he is quite right, and the Minister will have noticed what he said.
Of today’s major and emerging crises, the vast majority—Syria, Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Venezuela and Xinjiang—are driven, at least in part, by the deliberate violent targeting of civilian groups by political elites. Just as the decision was taken 70 years ago, in recognition that modern war was changing, to create a convention that aimed to protect civilians during the time of war, so we must admit today that more is needed.
Mr Bone, you will have heard the Queen’s wonderful words in her toast at the banquet for President Trump. She said this:
“After the shared sacrifices of the Second World War, Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions, to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated. While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard won peace.”
It is incredibly important to support international structures, particularly the UN—I draw the Minister’s attention to the comments in the House yesterday on the urgent question on Iran—and to use international bodies that were built up in the aftermath of the second world war.
The Government’s ongoing review of the UK’s protection of civilians strategy provides a welcome opportunity to ensure that British policy is fit for the challenges of modern conflict. It is, as the Minister will appreciate, an opportunity to ensure that any new strategy is in line with the substantial progress made in related areas since the previous strategy was published by the coalition Government in 2010 and last reviewed in 2012—namely, the UK’s growing commitment to the prevention of mass atrocities.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in developing the strategy, it is important that the UK shows clear leadership—for example, by appointing an ambassador in that area to deliver Britain’s message to the UN and globally about the protection of civilians?
That is true. Of course, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Britain has a highly effective ambassador who can do that work.
Introducing a concept of “preventing while protecting” into national frameworks of civilian protection would raise the ambition from not targeting civilians to an active commitment to save lives. Any modern protection of civilians framework should prioritise the capacity to assess emerging and long-term risks of atrocities, including horizon scanning, the mapping of actors and interests, and contingency planning.
Any commitment to protect civilians from armed conflict and atrocities must be consistent. I have spoken out on many occasions against what is happening in Yemen and the role of the British Government, which I think is not in the right place. I greatly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s change of emphasis on Yemen, and the fact that his first act as Foreign Secretary was to go to both Tehran and Riyadh to try and bring that appalling conflict to a close. Nevertheless, the British Government are complicit in what is happening in Yemen, and we await the judgment of the Court of Appeal—probably on Thursday—on the issue of arms sales by Britain to Saudi Arabia.
I have never called for an arms embargo, because I understand that Saudi Arabia is a country surrounded by enemies, with the wealth to purchase arms, and a British arms embargo will not protect the children who suffer from the aerial bombardment of Yemen by the Saudi air force—at least, not any time in the near future. However, the way in which Saudi Arabia has pursued its policy against Yemen has united huge numbers of us against what is effectively the bombardment and blockade of a nation, which is causing a medieval famine, with the break-up of infrastructure leading to the prevalence of diseases that we have not seen in Europe for generations. Of course, that is radicalising thousands of young Yemenis, who know from where that appalling destruction is coming.
It was a low point in a low war when, last year, we saw that school bus hit by coalition bombs. Some 40 children were murdered, and we saw the pictures of them in their UN blue smocks and satchels. I stood, some time ago now, in the funeral parlour bombed—during a funeral ceremony—by coalition aircraft; 180 people were killed, with the plane coming around again for a second attack. That was a breach of international humanitarian law, and I hope the pilot responsible for that will be held to account in the same way as the others I have mentioned.
While the UK can and must play a role through all its internationally facing Departments to help prevent these dreadful crimes and innocent loss of life, we can and must uphold the same values here at home. The UK must never be a haven for those who commit atrocities, war crimes and genocide. We must uphold our responsibilities to victims and prosecute subjects who reach our shores. In that context, I wish to draw the House’s attention to the fact that five alleged Rwandan genocidaires remain free, wandering around the British Isles, three at least claiming British benefits. They have not been held to account for the alleged crimes that they committed and perpetrated during the Rwandan genocide. Britain’s judicial system, which of course is entirely separate from politics, declined to extradite those five back to Rwanda, where they could have faced justice along with hundreds of thousands of others. There is therefore an onus on the British judicial system—our laws—to ensure that those people are held to account in this country if they are not to be extradited.
I draw that to the Minister’s attention. It is not a direct Foreign Office matter, but I can tell him this: it is not the Rwandan system of justice that is in the dock today, but the British system of justice, for not delivering justice to the many people in Rwanda who allegedly suffered at the hands of those five genocidaires. I hope it will not be too long before the British judicial and legal system holds them to proper account, for their sakes, as well as for those in Rwanda who allegedly suffered at their hands.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I thank the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this debate. I associate myself with the words of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who gave a clear and precise overview of the dreadful conflict in Yemen and the impact on civilians, and with those of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who talked about the impact of technology—especially drones. I agree, as I usually do on this matter, with the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who spoke about Ukraine and the Russian state’s interference in and occupation of Donbass.
An example of how we need to review IHL in the context of the changing nature of warfare is the targeting of the infrastructure of the Estonian state through cyber-warfare in 2007. Government institutions were unable to deliver civilian—public—services after that direct attack on the civilian population. However, I do not think that could happen today, given that Estonians are leaders in the field of cyber-warfare.
It is important to commemorate and remember those who brought about the fourth Geneva convention. We should be thankful that we are able to be here today to discuss its 70th anniversary and the work that was done in the light of the horrors of the second world war. It is clear that IHL is a solid and extensive legal framework for protecting civilians in conflict. Nevertheless, the protection it affords is in many ways inherently qualified. It is clear from the evidence that the failure is due not to the law itself, but to the persistent failure to comply with those obligations. IHL has proven to be a practical, durable and adaptable framework for providing passive protection for civilians in the midst of conflict, but that inherent qualification means that we must review it in the light of changing technologies and methods of warfare.
There have been elements of failure. The genocide in Srebrenica in 1995 and the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994 made it clear that we need to ask ourselves consistently how valuable and effective the framework is. In the light of the increase in civilian casualties, which was well documented by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, we must redouble our efforts proactively to protect civilians in a range of spheres. I hope the Minister will say something about that later. Civilians must be protected not just on the frontline in Syria or Idlib, but in the cyber-sphere. I am a member of the Defence Committee, and I note that NATO has thankfully recognised the importance of making civilian protection a key element of operational planning, and has published a protection of civilians strategy.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, although the UK seems to have been slow in following NATO’s moves on the protection of civilians in operational planning, will he assure Members that the Government are moving in the same direction as our NATO allies? If he is unable to furnish us with that answer, will he ask the Ministry of Defence to write to Members?
Secondly, do the Government recognise that investment is required to respond to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of different groups—specifically, women, children, the disabled and the elderly? Finally, does the Minister agree that the continued abuse of the Security Council veto undermines not just IHL but the rule of international law itself?
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Bone. I thank the Members who brought this fundamentally important issue to the Chamber. I have known the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) since I came to this place in 2001, and she has done phenomenally well in holding our consciences to account. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who represents the royal borough of Sutton Coldfield—
The royal town of Sutton Coldfield—it is close to Birmingham; that is as far as I will go. The right hon. Gentleman certainly made a great contribution during his tenure as Secretary of State for International Development. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for international development from 2002, and has done great work since then, particularly as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on drones.
Today, we are celebrating the Geneva convention, which was created almost 70 years ago. It was a skilful piece of drafting of international law that sought to move forward from the severity of what we had suffered during the two world wars. We decided to bring nations together to look at how we could continue to operate. It was adopted by the United Nations Security Council, and everybody welcomed that.
I am not sure people realised when it was put together 70 years ago how much worse the situation would become. The implementation of that international law was a great achievement, but who knew how tragic things would become in the past 50 years? Certainly, since the start of the century, that great legislation has been set aside and people have suffered. We must address that. Great speeches have been made today by all the Members who took part, and they raised valid points. What we must consider is how to move forward and get implementation. Members have expressed positive ways of looking at the issue, and it has sometimes been the collective failure of Governments that means we have not moved far enough forward.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley set out a clear understanding of the convention of 70 years ago, with its definition, purpose and importance. The protection of children is fundamentally important, and that has been true for my right hon. Friend in the work she has done. As to how we move forward, she raised interesting issues about attacks on civilian facilities and other acts counter to the convention, which need to be considered. She rightly said that attacks have intensified since 2000 and continue to do so, and referred to the non-state actors that have increasingly played a part in the past almost 20 years. I hope that we can try to address those issues and how they arise.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) raised a key point about Ukraine, on which he does a phenomenal amount of work—as well as on eastern Europe generally. His role is important, because sometimes, when there are wider issues such as what is currently happening in places such as Yemen and Syria, there is a need to recognise what is going on in our back yard. The hon. Gentleman raised the complex issue of Gaza and how to resolve that and move forward. He made a fundamentally important point about conflict in Africa—the number of deaths, and the part to be played by African nations and individuals. He also mentioned the conflict in Yemen, and the roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Sometimes we tend to pick sides in conflicts but, if we are to serve the people and be bound by the Geneva convention, we must not be bound by individual preferences as to what side we are on. We should be on the side of the victims.
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has played a huge role, particularly with the all-party parliamentary group on drones. He believes in the importance of that work. It includes the issue of accountability in the use of drones, and the way people see them—sometimes we put such things to the back of our minds—as being part of a military mechanism. That suggests to me other areas where we take action and may say, “If we just have air attacks and nothing on the ground, that is much safer.” It is not. When strikes begin to be made from above there will be mistakes, because those concerned will not know in which building or area people are concentrated. There have been attacks on Syria and Iraq where a huge number of people have been lost, and people have been killed in Yemen, because of air attacks alone. We go into such arenas and it is always said that technically we can do whatever we want and that it will limit casualties, but we must realise that, as has been said, that is not accurate. We need to take a serious look at how to deal with that issue and whether such action, or any action perpetrating additional acts of war, makes sense. We must look at our role and how to move forward. The right hon. Gentleman also raised the German legal action, and it is a great example that I am sure the Minister will address.
I think that the Minister has taken note of the issues raised by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and particularly what he said about women, children and people with disabilities, which is important. It is the purpose of the Geneva convention to resolve those things, and we have not done enough to address some of them. There are some issues that Save the Children want to encourage the Government to look at, to see how they can be dealt with. They include the importance of child-specific expertise in peace support and military operations. How can we cater for that, and record those issues? Several Members have referred to committing to avoiding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which is another key thing we should continue to push for when we take sides and support military action. Members have also mentioned what Save the Children says about creating civilian harm tracking procedures, and we should strongly focus on that.
As for improving and championing accountability for violation of children’s rights, it is difficult for us to get full accountability and a full assessment of what happens on the ground. However, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, where there are people—in particular the people in question from Rwanda—who have committed genocide and have still not been held accountable, and who are still walking around in the United Kingdom, never mind anywhere else, we should be looking to hold them to account, and thinking about how to do that.
The hon. Gentleman will obviously want to make it clear that those are allegations, but that it is in the interest of those who are accused, as well as everyone else, that they should have their day in court so that justice can take its course.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who makes a valid point. That was perhaps a slip of my tongue, which I should clarify, and I thank him for correcting me.
Save the Children also advocates a commitment to share expertise. In a conflict area we must be able to address some of the issues it has raised.
I declare an interest as I begin the next section of my remarks, about Kashmir—a region that has not been mentioned by many speakers in the debate—and human rights. The situation there has continued for 70 years, over the period we have been considering. Protection is given by the Indian state to the military and it cannot be held accountable in a court of law within the civil structure of India. Abuses happen day in, day out, and mass graves have been found. Torture is commonplace—including of children, women and people with disabilities. We need an open arena where the issues can be discussed, rather than just pointing fingers. However, people must be held accountable. The country that purports to be the largest democracy in the world should be held to account for the way it treats its people. My constituents from Punjab in India raise significant issues in that respect and we should be keen for development and progress on those issues.
It is also important to reiterate the role of the United Nations. The hon. Member for Henley mentioned peacekeepers in relation to the United Nations, and it is important that we consider that, but the United Nations should be not just a peacekeeper, but a peacemaker.
Part of the failure of the United Nations is due to the partisan issues that have arisen in the Security Council and the inability to get resolutions through. There should be a far greater presence of the United Nations in these conflict areas, to avoid further escalation of violence there. That would certainly help. There has been too much political side-taking by different nations and countries—again, I point to where that has happened in the Security Council—but, if the purposes of the United Nations are to be fulfilled, the organisation must be fit for purpose. Over the 19 years of this century, at least, we have seen huge conflicts escalate.
We, as countries and nations, must also understand that when we put arms into an arena, when we do not like someone and want to support the fighters against them, we add additional weaponry to that arena. We have no guarantee who gets hold of that weaponry and no say over what they will do with it. It is important to recognise that fact in terms of Syria. The US needs to learn some lessons on this and perhaps we, in some instances, need to learn lessons on it: if we are prepared to put more arms into those conflict areas, they will get used, and we cannot be guarantors of who gets to use them and how things move forward.
I have asked the Minister a lot of the questions that Save the Children has raised and other hon. Members have raised. In addition, we need to understand that, after 70 years of this great legislation that we are here to support, it would be far better for countries and nations to have more jaw-jaw and less war-war.
I am grateful, as I am sure we all are, to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this debate, and to all other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I shall try, in the course of a slightly longer speech, to respond to all the points raised.
As the right hon. Lady said, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) reiterated, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Geneva conventions, which were designed, after the terror and the horror of the second world war, to serve as a founding pillar of what we know today as international humanitarian law. They represent a clear affirmation that the principles of international humanitarian law are both neutral and universally recognised.
Today’s motion rightly highlights the central place of IHL in international efforts to protect civilians affected by conflict in our world today. There is little doubt that, as conflicts become increasingly complex, IHL will become ever more important and will expand as a body of law. Its underlying principles—the distinction between civilians, those hors de combat and combatants; the principle of necessity and the prohibition on the infliction of unnecessary suffering; the principle of proportionality; the observance of precautions in attack; and the principle of humanity—are all clear and unambiguous.
However, as many speakers have rightly pointed out, the nature of conflict is changing. Too often, the distinction between combatants and civilians, between a target that is legitimate and one that is not, has become blurred. Too often, civilians, including aid workers, are deliberately targeted. In almost all modern wars, it is not the combatants who suffer most, but the civilians. Indeed, as a number of hon. Members brought up, current patterns of violent conflict worldwide show that 90% of all casualties today are civilian. As urbanisation increases, the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that there are
“some 50 million people worldwide affected by armed conflict in cities.”
The changing nature of conflict presents challenges for states such as the United Kingdom and our allies, who seek to provide humanitarian assistance and make a positive contribution to preserving international peace and security, and to ending conflict, including, where necessary, through military action. The UK Government are committed to facing those challenges, because we all take very seriously our commitments to international humanitarian law and to the protection of civilians in our operations and in the humanitarian contexts where we provide assistance.
Adherence to IHL is a paramount consideration in our approach to conflict, and when we encounter potential violations, we strongly support engaging the appropriate mechanisms to deal with them, while ensuring that we have a domestic legal framework that makes certain that our armed forces are fully accountable. A number of hon. Members will recognise that the Ministry of Defence has an important part to play in some of the questions I will come to in a moment or two, and those really relate to that Government Department.
The UK military is at pains to operate to the highest standards. It closely monitors and verifies the impact of our military activity. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly pointed out that the increased use of social media provides a mechanism for not only the long-term maintenance of evidence, but, on a day-to-day basis, a recognition of where military or other individuals have gone beyond what is acceptable.
The protection of civilians is and will remain a central pillar of the UK’s approach to our humanitarian efforts and to managing conflict. It has been pointed out that we have played a leading role in the UN Security Council over 20 years in developing that international approach. If I might respond to what my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said earlier, South Africa is currently the African nation on the Security Council, but Tunisia will join, and I very much hope it will play an important part in this, given the recent conflicts that have taken place there.
My hon. Friend will perhaps be aware that the Asian nations currently on the Security Council—Indonesia and Vietnam—have made questions around peacekeeping and the rights of combatants and civilians in war an important part of what they hope to achieve. I hope we will work together with those countries and others in the UN Security Council to raise the profile of many of those issues during the next two years and beyond.
To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the first resolution on this issue, we are undertaking a review of our approach to the protection of civilians in armed conflict, to ensure that it is fit for purpose in the context of modern conflicts and that it addresses all civilians, including children and other particularly vulnerable people, which goes to the heart of the point made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire—
Sorry—West Dunbartonshire. The hon. Gentleman might well become the leader of the Liberal Democrat party if I am not careful.
Nominations are closed.
I think I’ll pass.
I think the hon. Gentleman has a supporter in the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire made a good point about recognising issues around disability, children and other groups. We do not want simply to look upon civilians as a single group, and part of what we are trying to achieve here is focused on what I think is a public demand on all these matters.
Our approach to the review embraces a cross-Whitehall consultation, as proposed by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, as well as consultations with civil society—we have made reference to Save the Children, but a number of other charities will play an important part in the review. When completed, we hope it will contain an agreed Government-wide position that will take account of all Government Departments.
To demonstrate what that means in practice, I will focus on three main areas: our international engagement, our work on international peacekeeping, and our domestic activity to promote and uphold international humanitarian law. On the international stage, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, our permanent seat on the UN Security Council bestows on us an important responsibility to protect civilians and uphold IHL, whenever and wherever international peace and security are under threat. We have not shied away from those responsibilities.
In terms of the review, is the Minister aware that the World Bank has changed from a system of trying to put out today’s fires to one of trying to identify what fires will occur tomorrow and to prevent them? Should we not adopt something similar for the UN?
To an extent, I agree. Obviously, predictions of the future are always fraught with difficulty; a number of the conflicts I am going to touch on now might have been predictable 10 or 15 years ago, but others have arisen unexpectedly. We need a flexible system, but there is some sense in having that forward-looking approach at the UN as well as at the World Bank.
In Iraq, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure accountability for the crimes committed by Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. Through a Security Council resolution adopted in 2017, we helped to establish a UN investigative team to support the Iraqi Government in the collection, preservation and storage of evidence linked to Daesh crimes.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield pointed out on Syria, we co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution in December 2016 that established the international impartial and independent mechanism for Syria, which was designed to deliver accountability for horrific atrocities, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and the use of chemical weapons.
On Myanmar, the UK was the penholder at the UN Security Council that co-sponsored the creation of the UN fact-finding mission, which concluded that ethnic cleansing had been carried out against the Rohingya by the Myanmar military and could amount to genocide. We worked in the UN Human Rights Council to establish a unique investigative mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of atrocities for future prosecutions, recognising—tragically, I am afraid, in certain cases—that those who need to be brought to account will possibly remain in office for many years to come. None the less, we have a reliable and legally watertight mechanism to hold them to account. I would like to think that our country has played a leadership role, but, of course, we do not do this alone; we work with like-minded partners to address conflict situations, such as in Sudan, Yemen, Libya and the horn of Africa.
Let me come on to some of the contributions made in the debate. Risks around serious or major violations of international humanitarian law, or abuse of human rights, are a key part of our assessment against the IHL consolidation criteria. In relation to arms exports, a licence will not be issued to any country if so to do would be inconsistent with any provision of the mandatory criteria, including where we assess that there is a clear risk that arms might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL. The situation is kept under careful and continual review. We examine every application rigorously, on a case-by-case basis. That applies in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia, but also in many other walks. The test is designed to be forward looking. A licence will not be issued to Saudi Arabia or any other country if to do so would be inconsistent with any provision of the consolidated EU or national arms export licensing criteria.
On arms exports, unless there is proper end-use management—which we do not do—we cannot be confident in the assertions that the Minister makes.
I was coming on to that very point. I know it is one that the right hon. Lady made earlier.
While the Minister is collecting points to come on to, does he agree that it is not a good idea for investigations into breaches of international humanitarian law to be undertaken by one of the parties to the conflict, namely Saudi Arabia? Is it not better to agree that, under UN auspices, any such inquiries should be neutral? Otherwise, it is akin to a student marking their own homework.
I wish I had homework that I could mark these days—it is more my children’s homework that I have to do that with now. My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. Above all, the issue is less to do with whether that is desirable, and more about the credibility in the international community of such outcomes. He makes a fair point.
To return to the point made by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, the operational end-use monitoring and the establishment of a dedicated civilian casualty mitigation and investigation team are an MOD lead. I will ensure that her speech is passed to my friends over in that Department, although I am sure they are well aware of the concerns raised here today. The issue relates to operations in the field and is therefore an MOD matter. From our side, we are trying to improve data collection, as I referred to, in other parts of the world. We feel that that may have an important part of play. There is project underway with the University of Manchester looking at many of these related issues, and I hope the right hon. Lady will be able to feed into that.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who is no longer in his place, made a point about child soldiers. The UK is firmly committed to ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers and to the protection of all children affected by armed conflict. We are an active member of the United Nations Security Council working group on children and armed conflict. I believe it will be an important part of the Indonesian presidency next year that they want to address this terrible issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley talked about Africa, and I have discussed the Security Council issues a little. Uganda, Senegal and Ghana—I am not sure they are all on his hit list, and I have put them in reverse alphabetical order—are working with the US and other countries, looking at positive reform of the International Criminal Court. We would obviously like to see more activity in Africa, given the prevalence of concerns that have arisen from that part of the world, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out.
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made an important point about drones, their legality and the implications of the German High Court ruling. The MOD leads on this, but we will look closely at that German High Court ruling. Upholding IHL is already integral to any assistance that we would provide to other states. This matter is under review at the moment through the MOD.
On that point, I and other Members here today would like something in writing from the Minister, once those discussions have been completed.
I am happy to undertake to do that.
I want to talk about the challenges that our UN peacekeepers face. In today’s modern conflicts, missions are facing increasing asymmetric and physical threats, and they can be targets themselves. The importance of finding political solutions remains paramount. We are committed to improvements in peacekeeping. We will continue to call for support to improve the three Ps of peacekeeping—planning, pledges and performance—as we, along with 63 nations, set out in a communiqué at the 2016 UN peacekeeping Defence ministerial meeting in London.
I realise that time is getting tight, and if there are matters that I have not been able to bring up, I will respond in writing. I will make sure my team looks through the Hansard transcript.
A key approach is that there should be no impunity. Primary responsibility for investigation and prosecution of the most serious international crimes rests with states themselves, but where those states are unable or unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities, other justice mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court, have an important role to play. The UK remains one of the foremost contributors to the ICC, and we will work to ensure that the court undergoes the necessary reforms to enable it to fulfil its mandate as the court of last resort, as intended under the Rome statute. We have been strong advocates of ad hoc and hybrid international tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and its successor, as well as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone.
UN peacekeeping is an important aspect of the protection of civilians, and we will continue to work with the international community on it. In addition to our international efforts, we are working domestically to ensure that we are doing all we can to uphold IHL in the interests of protecting civilians. We have established a centre of excellence for human security, which will deliver extended training on the protection of civilians; women, peace and security; human trafficking and sexual exploitation; and cultural property protection. Ours is the first military in the world to have a dedicated national defence policy on human security. The centre will help other militaries. We have also had a safe schools declaration, to support the continuation of education during armed conflict, and the publication of our “Voluntary Report on the Implementation of International Humanitarian Law at Domestic Level”.
Mr Bone, I appreciate that you want to ensure that the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley has a moment to speak at the end of the debate, but, if I may, I want to conclude by saying that our support, recognised, I think, by everyone in the House, for the principles, rules and instruments of international humanitarian law remains unwavering. The robust framework is designed with the protection of civilians in mind. We take our responsibilities seriously, and I am glad that the House feels as strongly as we do. The review is under way, and I am convinced it will be a great success, not least because it will have input from Members here and from a range of bodies with these interests at heart. I hope we can discuss these matters again in the House before too long.
Does the right hon. Lady want to wind up?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the continued importance of international humanitarian law in protecting civilians in conflict.
Diplomatic Representation in Wales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered attracting diplomatic representation to Wales.
I am delighted to have secured this debate, which is of huge interest to me, as I am sure it is to any hon. Member from Wales. This matter has gained in importance in recent times, thanks in part to the turbulent situation in which we find ourselves—a political context that has made Wales’s place in the world more uncertain than ever. However, the development that triggered—or, dare I say it, inspired—the application for the debate was the decision earlier this year of the Irish Government to reopen their consulate general in Cardiff, which was rightly heralded at the time as a promising development for Wales.
The reopening of the consulate, following a 10-year leave of absence, offers a valuable opportunity to strengthen the cultural, economic and social ties that have woven together the histories of our two nations for centuries. It may also provide some impetus to other nations to follow Ireland’s lead and develop their diplomatic presence in Wales. Given that we live in such turbulent times, with Brexit uncertainty lingering into the foreseeable future, this endeavour is worthy of serious and sustained effort. The question before us is how we build upon this and encourage more Governments to develop their presence in Wales, to deepen social and cultural links and to encourage companies from across the world to invest in Wales.
After all, Wales is no stranger to the diplomatic sphere; indeed, in the middle ages, France’s efforts to increase its influence on the island of Britain were often manifested in diplomatic overtures to Welsh leaders. Such efforts continued well beyond the death of Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf in 1282, perhaps exemplified most famously by Owain Glyndŵr, who sent diplomats to the French court and who, in his Pennal letter of 1406, sought to strengthen the cause of Welsh independence by aligning himself with the French king, Charles VI, on the pressing matter of the papacy. Although his efforts to charm the French were ultimately unsuccessful—indeed, I do not think he ever received a reply from the French king—they nevertheless serve as useful reminders that there is precedent, albeit historic, for the idea of Wales nurturing its own diplomatic connections, and of doing so for a higher purpose; for in the Pennal letter, Glyndŵr set out his plans for establishing a Welsh Church and two Welsh universities—an enlightened vision of a prosperous and autonomous Wales.
Fortunately, and unlike the exertions of Owain Glyndŵr, any new effort to develop Wales’s diplomatic links will have strong foundations to build upon. The Welsh Government already have offices across the world, from Belgium and France to Japan and the United States, and recently appointed Eluned Morgan AM as a Minister with some responsibility for international relations. This can be seen as part of a wider trend that in recent years has seen stateless nations increasingly becoming important actors in diplomacy—or perhaps paradiplomacy, the term more usually applied to the diplomatic capacity of sub-state Governments.
Without doubt, EU membership has exposed Wales to opportunities to increase its international standing, through such institutions as the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions and the Welsh Government’s office in Brussels. However, with our relationship with the rest of Europe perhaps more uncertain than ever, we must now look to other ways of strengthening these international relationships. One way of doing so would be by encouraging greater foreign diplomatic representation in Wales itself.
There is currently an extensive network of honorary consuls in Wales, which is organised as the Consular Association in Wales, which was formed over 100 years ago and whose current president, Mr Michael Rye, has set a sterling example as a champion of promoting consular representation to Wales. By way of background, honorary consuls differ from ambassadors, in that they are not usually employed by their respective nations, even though they do undertake quite a lot of work on their behalf, but are more honorary appointments under the terms of the Vienna convention on consular relations. Their role is broad-ranging, encompassing such tasks as co-operating closely with embassies to co-ordinate official visits to Wales; providing background and contextual briefings to enable closer bilateral relationships to be formed; and assisting nationals of their country who require aid, such as in cases of accident, illness, injury or the loss of personal travel documents. They also serve an important role in validating those same travel documents.
I am very interested in what my hon. Friend says and greatly appreciate that he has been able to secure the debate. Does he agree that any means of strengthening the contact between Wales and Argentina should be welcomed, particularly given the ongoing diplomatic quandary of finding a way of transporting Eisteddfod chairs from Y Wladfa back to Wales? It could also facilitate visits between Wales and the Welsh community in Patagonia.
I thank my right hon. Friend—this is the first occasion I have had to greet her as such—for that important point. It is not always well known, but Patagonia, in southern Argentina, and Wales share a very close history. People can be found there called González-Jones, who speak both Spanish and Welsh, which is a pretty unique situation. There are also shared cultural links, most notably with the matter of the Eisteddfod, and if we were to have closer diplomatic links we might be able to facilitate the transportation of those important Eisteddfod chairs back to the homeland.
While embassy personnel tend to change every three to five years, honorary consuls have their accreditation renewed every three to five years, unless they retire or if their respective country changes its attitude to the particular individual. In that sense, consuls can provide much-needed continuity, with their longer terms allowing for deep and long-lasting relationships with civic, political and business leaders to be forged, regardless of any political turmoil or changes. Simply put, as a collective, honorary consuls help bring the best of the world to Wales, as well as the best of Wales to the world. While their work is vital for diplomatic relations, it would be unrealistic and grossly unfair to expect them to undertake the full range of duties associated with staffed diplomatic missions.
For this reason, we should be enticing Governments to set up consulates general in Wales, as Ireland has done, with paid personnel tasked with developing ever-closer links between Wales and the rest of the world. The benefits of doing so are not solely cultural and social. Stronger diplomatic representation could help boost inward investment, the rate of which has been steadily reducing in recent years, with Wales attracting 57 inward investment projects in 2017-18, compared with 85 in 2016-17. No data is yet available for 2018-19.
The development of a thriving international quarter in Cardiff, with consulates general from all over the world, underpinned by an even broader network of honorary consuls, could offer a substantial boost to the Welsh economy. Before coming to this place, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) used to do a lot of work with the rural development board of Wales, as well as the Welsh Development Agency, which in some form acted with quasi-diplomatic status in attracting those closer links with companies from across the world and was very successful in bringing companies from as far afield as Japan and America to locate themselves in Wales. So there is economic potential in this endeavour.
There are many examples that we could follow. We could look to countries such as Catalonia, Quebec and the Basque country, which have all worked proactively in recent years to encourage Governments to establish a presence in their capital cities. The Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, known as Diplocat, offers a useful model for Wales’s efforts overseas, and perhaps a potential strategy for all those overseas offices that the Welsh Government have opened.
Diplocat is a public-private consortium, formed by representatives from different Catalan authorities and organisations, including chambers of commerce and universities. Through active engagement with the international community, Barcelona has established itself as an international hub for businesses and organisations. Barcelona has 38 consulates general and consulates, while Bilbao, in the Basque country, has seven. Montreal has 42. The UK Government have an office in all those cities, so why not start our efforts to reintroduce Wales to the world by encouraging those nations to replicate Ireland’s example by opening an office in Cardiff?
With a slightly different focus from the strategy pursued by Barcelona and the Catalan authorities, the Quebec Government’s international policy has at its heart a desire to attract international organisations, diplomatic and consular offices and international students and research conferences to Quebec. That has in recent years led to several international organisations establishing themselves in Montreal, most importantly, perhaps, the International Civil Aviation Organisation—a United Nations specialised agency that works to make the civil aviation sector safe and efficient worldwide and to ensure that the sector develops in a more economically and environmentally sustainable manner. Other major international organisations located in Quebec include the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the International Air Transport Association, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Institut de la Francophonie pour le développement durable—apologies for my pronunciation.
In Wales, the onus would of course fall, to some extent at least, on the Welsh Government, who I believe should be sending frequent delegations around the world to establish closer links with businesses and international organisations. The honorary consuls whom we already have in Wales are ideally placed to facilitate the process. However, I fear that the Welsh Government have still to realise the true potential of the Consular Association in Wales to strengthen cultural, economic and social connections around the world.
Therefore, an important first step for Wales’s re-entry into the diplomatic theatre would be the formalisation of the relationship between the Welsh Government and our existing honorary consuls. Only then can we look to build on that by enticing larger diplomatic missions to establish themselves, and to co-ordinate with Wales’s existing overseas officers to put into action an international strategy for Wales that focuses, perhaps, on certain key objectives or themes. Those could include becoming global leaders in the protection of minority languages, for example, or promoting the incredible potential that we have in the realms of renewable energy technology and research and the benefits that their development would deliver for the entire world as well as for Wales.
Of course, it cannot be denied that the UK Government have a role to play, too. In Quebec, we have a fine example. The Government of Quebec and the Government of Canada work closely together to establish favourable conditions for hosting in Montreal some of the most important international organisations. Might there be an opportunity, I wonder, for the UK Government to look to offer more opportunities for the Welsh Government to co-locate their overseas offices with those of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—I know that already happens to some extent—and likewise to facilitate diplomatic delegations from London to Cardiff, perhaps by raising the prospect of shared office spaces or hubs, or even just trade delegations, which could come from time to time to meet representatives of Welsh industries and businesses at first hand.
The Irish consulate general is a first step towards developing a more visible international presence in Wales, but that will require putting aside old-fashioned notions of diplomacy and will require the realisation that in an era of multi-track diplomacy and para-diplomacy, all levels of Government, as well as businesses, universities, civic organisations and non-governmental organisations, have a role to play and must be involved.
My only ask today is whether the Minister will consider working with the Welsh Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to encourage more Governments to open consulates in Wales, so as to boost Wales’s international presence. I reiterate that the Consular Association in Wales seems to me a natural starting point. Its knowledge and connections can be harnessed to revolutionise the way that Wales is seen by the rest of the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing the debate. I thank hon. Members for their valuable contributions and particularly for the trip that we had through the diplomatic history of Wales in the medieval period, which certainly helped to expand my knowledge.
Attracting diplomatic representation to Wales is an important issue. I particularly welcome, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion did, the recent announcement of the Republic of Ireland reopening its consulate in Cardiff. That is a step to building closer relationships—particularly given the key trade routes between Holyhead and Fishguard—with the Irish Republic.
It is important that we take this opportunity to pay tribute to the network of more than 20 honorary consuls in Wales, who work tirelessly to strengthen, build and maintain our relationships with the rest of the world. Those include honorary consuls from our more traditional European partners, such as Italy, Germany and France, but the network has recently expanded to include countries such as Lesotho and Tunisia. Further expansion of the network is a matter for the respective countries, based on their individual national interests, but I am sure that Argentina will have heard the passionate plea for a representative in Cardiff, given the strong links with Patagonia. The cultural traditions are important as well. This is not just about the economy and, shall we say, hard power; it is also about some of the great cultural links between the nations.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has already spoken to the new chair of the Consular Association in Wales about how the UK Government can work closely with the honorary consul network in Wales in the future. In addition, I have met the Jordanian ambassador at the Wales Office to have a conversation about how links could be strengthened and improved.
Ultimately, attracting greater diplomatic representation is about forging greater links between Wales, as a strong nation within the United Kingdom, and countries around the world. It is critical that we capitalise on the opportunities that EU exit presents us with in this regard. Of course we want to maintain our strong links with our European partners. The issue of the EU’s presence in the UK after exit day is a matter for discussion and agreement between the UK Government and the EU. I would like to assure hon. Members that those discussions are ongoing, particularly in relation to what presence it may have in Wales in the future.
I have been remiss: I do not believe that I have welcomed the Minister to his position in the Wales Office, but I do so heartily now. On the matter of a European presence in Wales post Brexit, does the Minister agree that one idea that European nations might think of looking at is co-location? I know that they do that in other countries across the world. What comes to mind is New Zealand, where different European nations share buildings to reduce costs. Does the Minister think that European nations might do well to look at that as a possible idea?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive intervention. Of course countries can sensibly look at how they can work together, either to reduce costs or to provide better opportunities. I remember a visit to Reykjavík, where the same building houses both the British and the German embassies. They have separate parts of the building; there is a clear divide, but that has brought opportunities for closer working—better opportunities—when we are arguing, probably, on the same types of issue. At the same time, we maintain a distinct and separate presence that is easily recognisable to those who visit. Certainly we would be only too happy to talk with countries, if they wanted to look at this in Cardiff, about how it could be supported and what opportunities would be available to them. Let us not forget that it does not necessarily have to be Cardiff. There are other great towns and cities in Wales where they may look to have or may have economic interests, particularly in the north of Wales, that they need to service and where they need to provide support to their citizens.
We want Wales, all parts of the UK, and the UK as a whole to be open and outward looking, building new relationships in Europe and beyond. As foreign affairs are a reserved matter, the Government represent the interests of the whole United Kingdom, and we will continue to deliver for Wales and all parts of the UK overseas.
We believe that Wales approaches EU exit from a position of strength and continues to be an attractive location for business and investment. Last year, more than 3,000 jobs came to Wales through foreign direct investment, from 57 projects. The Office of the Secretary of State for Wales will continue to work closely with the Department for International Trade to support that work and attract new opportunities.
Welsh businesses continue to export their products across the globe. I was pleased to note that the value of Welsh exports for the year ending March 2019 was up £1.2 billion over the previous year, with growth in exports to EU and non-EU countries alike. Our exporting success is testament to our great exporting businesses. I am thinking of businesses such as Babi Pur, based in Gwynedd, which has grown to be one of the leading retailers in fair trade and organic children’s products, selling all over the world—it was ably promoted to me by the two local Members of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), when I met them to discuss the North Wales growth deal—and Llanllyr Source, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, selling spring water globally.
Alongside the strong economic links with other countries, it is important that we recognise the cultural ones. I welcome plans by the Thai embassy to hold the first Thai festival in Wales next month to help to raise awareness of the links that exist between Thailand and Wales. We should be clear that organising events with another nation to promote the country does not automatically mean organising events in London; that can happen across the rest of our United Kingdom as well. I am particularly pleased that the Thai embassy has decided to hold this event in Cardiff.
The Secretary of State for Wales has regular meetings with overseas diplomats, to discuss opportunities to strengthen the links between Wales and countries across the globe. He also promotes Wales abroad and has done so recently in Hong Kong, Japan, the US, Qatar and elsewhere. These trade missions are vital in ensuring that our long-term aspirations for the Welsh economy are secured. He has also worked extensively with the Department for International Trade to launch the Wales portfolio at MIPIM—le marché international des professionnels de l’immobilier—the world’s largest property and investment event, in March. The six projects in the portfolio, from across Wales, showcase our potential.
In response to the specific query that was made, we want to continue working closely with the Welsh Government in marketing Wales to the world. The Secretary of State has a positive relationship with both the Welsh Minister for Economy and Transport, and the deputy Minister with responsibility for international relations in the Welsh Government, and has invited them to join him on trade missions in order to demonstrate a joined-up approach to our prospective partners.
Businesses in Wales rightly have access to support in 108 markets globally through the Department for International Trade. I would be happy to look at how we can expand that sort of work further, so that Welsh businesses are heard in our international trade work. We are also working with the Department of International Trade to consider how best they can boost their resource and presence in Wales. DIT is a Department for the entire UK, and basing key staff in Wales, to work with stakeholders and the Welsh Government, can help grow our exports.
All of that is important, because, after we have left the EU, the UK will have an independent trade policy for the first time in more than four decades. I know that you will particularly welcome that, Mr Bone.
Order. While I sit in this Chair, I have no views on anything.
I am sure you would merely welcome the fact that this was a thorough debate, Mr Bone.
We will play a full and active role on trade policy on the global stage, working closely with friends old and new. That freedom will allow us to deploy all the tools at our disposal, tailoring our trade policy to the strengths and requirements of the UK economy, and supporting the industrial strategy. The voice of Wales will be heard at all stages of these negotiations, from mandate design to the final agreement.
The Government are making good progress in preparations for the UK’s independent trade policy, including ensuring continuity for our current trading arrangements. Just last week, the UK Government and the South Korean Government announced the transitioning of the existing EU-South Korea free trade agreement.
While the UK Government will negotiate trade deals on behalf of the United Kingdom, we have been clear from the start that the devolved Administrations should be closely involved throughout the negotiations process. That is already happening. Last year, I was in New Zealand with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. A delegation was there from Wales, already engaging on some of the challenges and opportunities that a free trade agreement with New Zealand may present to the Welsh economy, particularly in relation to agriculture.
Indeed, the Prime Minister committed to an “enhanced role” for the devolved Administrations in the next phase, respecting their competence and vital interests in these negotiations, along with the devolved Assemblies, which we will need to engage with, too. We are working closely with the devolved Administrations to deliver this, and Ministers from the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments regularly discuss how this would work in practice, in meetings such as the ministerial forum on EU negotiations. To be clear, we would include an executive from Northern Ireland, if the devolved Government is restored. At the moment, the Northern Ireland civil service represents Northern Ireland there. We hope that, in the near future, we can engage with a Northern Ireland Administration again in relation to these issues.
In conclusion, we want Wales to be part of a strong, outward looking United Kingdom outside of the European Union. The UK’s departure from the EU provides significant opportunities to foster and strengthen links, both diplomatic and economic, with countries around the world. In doing so, I believe we can attract significant global representation into Wales, to help to develop those links and support the whole drive to ensure that the United Kingdom, with Wales at its core, is a prosperous and successful country post Brexit.
Question put and agreed to.
History Curriculum: Migration
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered teaching migration in the history curriculum.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Gary. At the end of last year, I joined a group of young students, members of the brilliant Advocacy Academy in my constituency, in a protest outside the Department for Education. They were delivering a letter to the Secretary of State, and their message was simple:
“Our history is British history.”
Their history—that of a diverse group of young south Londoners—is the history of our nation, and the history curriculum taught in our schools should reflect that.
I was extremely disappointed with the Minister’s response to that letter. It did not really acknowledge any deficiency in the current curriculum; it pointed to flexibility within the curriculum as evidence that there is no problem, and confirmed that the Government have no plans to change it. I am pleased to have secured this debate, because the Minister’s response ignored some really significant issues.
In preparing for the debate, I have drawn on research by the Runnymede Trust and the Royal Historical Society and on engagement work undertaken by the parliamentary digital engagement team. I thank everyone who took part in the online survey on this topic, the results of which I will return to later.
More than one in six children aged nought to 15 in England and Wales are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. BAME young people make up more than a quarter of state-funded primary and secondary school pupils in England, but despite Britain’s increasingly diverse classrooms, and notwithstanding some recent changes in the options available in the curriculum, the history taught in schools remains focused on narrow and celebrated accounts of “our island story”. As one young person who responded to the Runnymede Trust’s consultation said,
“it’s the Tudors and the Tudors and the Tudors”.
The approach that predominates in history teaching often results in an understanding that is incomplete and inaccurate. Students struggle to connect different periods in our history, to connect British history to the wider global story, or to place themselves within the narrative. Yet British history is the history of migration to these islands. None of our families was always here. Whether our ancestors were Roman invaders, Normans from northern France, Huguenots fleeing persecution or Irish immigrants fleeing starvation during the potato famine, whether our family story is rooted in the painful, shameful history of the colonisation of parts of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, or whether our forebears came to the UK as freed slaves in the 19th century or as Commonwealth citizens after the second world war, all of us can find our story in the history of migration. Teaching that history from every possible perspective helps us to find that story.
Migration has shaped not only individual family stories, but places and communities. The town where I grew up, Ormskirk in Lancashire, has a Viking name. We have Roman cities such as Bath; cities such as Liverpool and Bristol with links to the shameful history of slavery; and Spitalfields, which has been formed, shaped and sustained by successive generations of migrants, as is powerfully illustrated by the mosque on Brick Lane, which was previously a synagogue and, before that, a Huguenot chapel. Every community, as well as every family, has a migration story.
A migration-focused approach to British history both globalises it, placing it within a wider international context, and localises it, opening up previously marginalised and untold stories about specific times and places, yet the history curriculum is struggling to engage students from all backgrounds. The Royal Historical Society’s race, ethnicity and equality report, which was published in October 2018, highlights the low uptake of history as a school subject by BAME pupils and the low levels of undergraduate history admissions for BAME students.
Racial and ethnic inequality affects history more acutely than most other disciplines. What we were taught in history lessons in school has a huge impact on our understanding of history, yet history is not a science; it is never complete and is never completely objective. Sources and perspectives matter. Whose story is told, and from which perspective, informs our understanding of who was important and powerful, who contributed, who were the heroes and who were the villains. A partial telling can leave people and communities entirely invisible and leave stories that affected hundreds of thousands of people completely untold. The way in which history is currently taught contains too many artificial binaries, such as world versus British history, or BAME versus British history. World history is British history, and BAME history is British history too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that, to genuinely recognise the contribution of communities that have come to the United Kingdom, we need to teach an honest history of Britain, including the repression and exploitation that has occurred in its name, alongside the positive and progressive parts?
That is exactly the argument I will go on to make: a migration-focused articulation of British history is also a more accurate, rigorous and—as my hon. Friend rightly says—honest version of British history. That is a really important point.
The understanding that we derive from history lessons in school informs our sense of national identity. It informs the internal narrative that runs in each of our minds when we hear the word “British”—who is included in that term, and who is not. Too often, what we are taught in school leads to a characterisation of Britishness that is only partial. During the Windrush scandal last year, Ministers had to be reminded again and again in the House of Commons Chamber that the citizens who had been denied their right to be in the UK by the Home Office were not foreign nationals whose status was in doubt, but British citizens. They had come to the UK as British citizens as a consequence of the British Nationality Act 1948, which granted citizenship to Commonwealth citizens—itself a consequence of the long and painful history of British colonialism.
The current history curriculum offers some opportunity to teach migration, but there is little explicit focus on internal racial and ethnic diversity within Britain. It also tends to downplay our internal diverse histories; in addition to race, they include gender, class, sexuality and religion.
I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this subject to Westminster Hall. When we talk about migration, we cannot ignore the fact that our great nation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, came together with the integration of the Ulsterman and the Ulsterwoman from Northern Ireland, the Scots, the Welsh and, to a lesser degree, people from the Republic of Ireland. All those five nations coming together as one—surely that tells us how we can do things if we do them the right way. It is unfortunate that none of our Scots Nats friends is here to hear this, because it is important that we say it and say it often: we are better together.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point.
In 2016, two new OCR and AQA exam board units on migration to Britain were introduced at GCSE level, both of which include some coverage of empire. They offer exciting and innovative opportunities to engage with important British histories, but they remain optional, and there are some structural barriers to take-up that I hope the Minister might address.
Over the past 10 years, in partnership with Manchester and Cambridge Universities, the Runnymede Trust has led a number of projects to engage young people and teachers with more expansive, representative and inclusive histories of Britain. The lesson from that work is that there is a strong appetite among young people from all backgrounds for history teaching that reflects a broader range of voices and experiences, and there is interest among teachers in engaging with more representative histories of Britain. But there is also a lack of confidence, support and resources for teachers who want to embed those histories in their practice, and teachers feel constrained by the increasing demands on their time and energies in a fast-changing teaching climate.
The appetite for change is also evident in feedback received by the parliamentary digital engagement team in response to a survey posted ahead of this debate. Joanne, a teacher, wrote:
“This would enrich the curriculum by demonstrating that migration had a key role to play in the formation of a more inclusive national identity. It would also offer opportunities for a wider range of voices and perspectives to be heard and valued within our history teaching—crucial for us as a nation moving forward.”
Nick, who is also a teacher, wrote:
“I find that students are usually interested in migration but it is often very new to them, reflecting a wider lack of knowledge about migration in wider society. It helps students realise the connections between history and geography and provides a glimpse of the big answers about the composition of modern society, culture, language and food.”
Interest also extends beyond the teaching profession. John, an immigration solicitor, wrote:
“It’s amazing to think how little we are taught about our awful past relationship with the colonies and indeed our closest neighbouring country, Ireland. Had more people been educated about the colonies and Ireland, there may be more understanding now of the issues we face in modern times, including the Windrush scandal and the Brexit disagreements over the Irish border issue. Forgetting our past is a real failing.”
Following the work of the Runnymede Trust, a web-based resource called Our Migration Story was launched in 2016, in direct response to requests from teachers for classroom-ready materials on histories of empire and migration. Our Migration Story was built in collaboration with more than 80 academic and local historians; local and national museums and archives, including the Imperial War Museum, the National Archives, the Black Cultural Archives, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Migration Museum; and exam boards, teachers and professional history associations.
Our Migration Story is a one-stop shop on Britain’s long migration history, from Roman invasion to the present day. Through a series of case studies driven by historical research and primary source material it presents the stories of the people, ideas and objects from near and far that have travelled to and then shaped the British Isles over the last 2,000 years.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again; her speech, including its introduction, is excellent. Does she agree that it is essential that our children understand the importance of how migrants have flocked to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for years and have integrated well into our systems? It is important to understand that not all immigrants wish to have “their” country and “our” country; indeed, our country is made up of those who live here, integrate and raise their children to be British, and who have made this nation as great as it is today. In my constituency, there are Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, people from eastern Europe, and people from Nigeria and Kenya. All those people together have made this nation great.
Order. Interventions must be brief.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and his point is very well made. If we teach our history with a migration narrative, everybody in our society can understand exactly the diversity of which he spoke so well.
Our Migration Story challenges us to rethink British history by capturing the histories of ordinary and otherwise marginalised Britons; by charting histories of welcome and inclusion, as well as those of rejection, exclusion, inequality and violence; by placing histories and conditions of global connectedness at its core; and by making mainstream British identity inseparable from 2,000 years of migration and settlement. The site connects its content with the national curriculum, and it has received several awards. It adopts a rigorous and academically recognised approach; in fact, it reflects the way that history is already often taught at universities.
Even in some of the most diverse communities, such as those in my constituency, our understanding of the history of migration is often limited. Lambeth Archives has just opened a fantastic exhibition at Lambeth town hall called “Before and After Windrush: 350 years of Black People in Lambeth”. It has been curated in response to the assumption that many people made during last year’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush that there had been no black people living in Lambeth prior to 1948, and it charts the area’s history from the first record of a black person living in Lambeth in 1661 to the present day. That longevity is so significant for our current community. We have always been diverse; people from across the world have always contributed to community life in Lambeth. People from everywhere belong here. As the Windrush anniversary logo, which was designed by young people from Brixton, reflected, the Windrush generation are part of our DNA, but long before 1948 our DNA was international.
My plea to the Minister today is not to dismiss this research, as he did back in January, but to engage with it. In our society, which is both diverse and riven with divisions, we need the teaching of history to be inclusive, we need everyone to be able to find their place in it and we need our definition of “British”, based on our understanding of history, to be inclusive. That means not only making migration content available, but signposting it effectively and considering making more of it compulsory. It also means making additional training and continuing professional development available to teachers to equip them with the confidence to teach new material. To return to where I started, it means working to realise a vision in which everyone in our diverse country, whatever their heritage, can say with pride and confidence: “Our history is British history.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary.
It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), but I will take a slightly different approach to her on this issue. Before I do so, however, I should declare an interest; I am a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and I state that now because I will use examples from the Royal Geographical Society as I continue.
The point I want to make is essentially this: what the hon. Lady has described as “history” is really “geography”. I know that we could argue for ages about the difference between the two, but I agree that what she has described is appropriate for teaching. I just think that it should be taught under a geographical syllabus rather than under a historical one. I will also give some examples of what the Royal Geographical Society already offers, which schools are already taking up to take forward the teaching of these issues.
The first example is an international one, which is material that is made available to answer the question, “Why has unprecedented migration occurred in the Mediterranean in recent years?” The sort of material that the RGS has produced is related to the work of Professor Heaven Crawley, who has done a lot of work with 500 migrants; that is the actual physical work of interviewing them and talking to them. They have shared their experience of what has driven them to migrate, and of how they went about migrating. That is a valuable lesson to be learned from migrants. Professor Crawley has concentrated a lot on the UK, so let me turn to some of the things on offer from the UK.
One of them is about migration and the skills and job market. What it sets out to do is to get students thinking about who is migrating, about the impacts that migration has made, and about how the current financial crisis may affect patterns and volumes of migration. That brings the course right up to date, to include a lot of the political aspects of migration, because geography is about the current politics and sociology of the situation.
I will give another example. Our Migration Story has made available to schools a series of courses that answer the question, “How has our local area been shaped by migration?” That includes a lot of the historical background that the hon. Lady mentioned, and the sort of questions that it asks include, “How might migrant groups change the local area?” It also asks, “What evidence is there to show how migrant groups have changed the local area over time?” And it goes on to ask, “How has that changed over time and how can we identify the different parts of it?”
Our Migration Story also looks at the background of migrants, including the fact that many of them have come from a small number of countries over the years, although that number is now increasing. So, comparisons can be made between the two—that is, between the UK and other countries.
Another example that I think will appeal to Opposition Members is “Migrants on the margins”. That too is produced by the Royal Geographical Society and includes a range of posters, podcasts, animations, videos, factsheets and lesson plans for teachers. It has been funded by the global learning programme, and provides the context for the idea of migrants on the margins, covering things such as how cities are changing, the causes of migration and why people move. The materials being produced by the Royal Geographical Society are very good and should not go unnoticed.
Does the Royal Geographical Society take cognisance of the persecution of those with religious beliefs across the world, in particular Christians, and of how they have migrated because of that? Is that part of the background that the society uses? If it is not, may I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he proposes, as a member of the society, that it should be?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I have not seen in any of the material any detailed work on that, but I suspect that it is included as part of the thinking that goes on to produce the result. The subject that he identifies is valuable in teaching, in understanding not just how things have happened historically but how they are still happening to Christian groups around the world. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point.
The last Royal Geographical Society project is a complex one, but it starts from the position that although migration to Britain in the past has been overwhelmingly the story of a small number of nations, recent immigrants have come from a larger number and the numbers of immigrants who were born in the Caribbean and, indeed, in Ireland—traditionally key migrant groups—have fallen and the numbers of others have risen in their place.
In summary, why do I think that this is more part of geography? We have seen the historical context in all the modules put forward by the Royal Geographical Society, but migration is about place. It is about spatial relationships and it is also about social science, and I think that the issues about place and spatial relationships are more appropriate to a geographical course, given that those modules are already being offered.
With apologies to the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), I call the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans).
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I, too, apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). She has been in the House a lot longer than I have and perhaps should have been called first.
I am passionate about history—one of my proudest boasts is that I am a history graduate—and I want to talk about how history is taught in schools, about how a subject about the human life story is often seen as boring and dry. It amazes me that we are so narrow in our curriculum, in how we speak. I did GCSE history, and I could sum it up like this: there was Adolf Hitler’s Germany, which I studied in depth, then crime and punishment, which was mainly about Jack the Ripper, and then we did the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that was it. I then did my A-levels and we did the Tudors and the civil war, and even when we talked about people we talked about them as great people. We talked about Elizabeth I, yet we did not talk about her persecution of Catholicism. We talked about Oliver Cromwell and the new model army but we did not talk about the terrible events at Drogheda. We smooth over those awful events while we are talking about great men.
When we are talking about such things, we also seem to forget about the growth in family history. Right now, people who study history in their spare time, through the various family history websites, want the answers to two questions: who am I, and where did I come from? It is time to do that in schools. I want to use the example of when I visited the Fleur-de-Lys local history society and spoke about a former Member of this House, S. O. Davies. He was deselected by the Labour Party in 1970, was then re-elected as an independent and died in 1972. He was the first person to introduce a Bill to bring in the Welsh Parliament. After the lecture, we started talking about oral history and its importance. There were so many people in that room.
I want to reflect on what the hon. Gentleman said about when he was at school. In my early years at school—long before he was at school of course—our religious and history teacher gave us the opportunity to learn Irish history along with British history, and also about other religions, thereby giving us a perspective on the rest of the world. It is good to know that that did not make me less of a Unionist, by the way—I would just like Members to know that. It is important to have that.
That is very interesting. The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. I did not study Irish history until my third year. I hold my hands up that I did not know who Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera were. I knew nothing about the cause of the troubles. When I was growing up, the troubles were just something that happened over the Irish Sea in places I did not recognise but if I had been taught about it I would have understood where the troubles began. That, essentially, is what I am getting to.
Coming back to my upbringing in south Wales, on every street corner there was a Bacchetta, a Gamberini, a Sidoli; the Italian community migrated into south Wales and set up cafés, ice cream parlours and other things. The story of south Wales is also the story of migration. Many of the pits and steelworks came about from people migrating in for the work, yet we never talked about that. Interestingly, I grew up in Lower Bailey Street in Wattstown in the Rhondda but I did not know who Bailey was. He was a guy called Crawshay Bailey, a landowner from Northumberland who had never visited south Wales.
What is so important about these migrant stories—we see this with the Windrush generation as well—is the question of how many of us sit down with a relative or an elderly friend and record their experiences. Their experiences are the experiences of Great Britain, and that is what I am talking about in my example of the Fleur de Lys local history society. We were sitting there just as Tower colliery was closed—the last deep mine in south Wales. The number of people who remember the mines and have experience of working underground is getting smaller, and we need to sit down and record those experiences, because once they are gone they are gone forever. I urge everyone here to sit down with a friend or relative and talk about their experiences. I direct this to the Minister: this is something we should seriously look at having on the curriculum. We should get schoolchildren to speak to their relatives, and ask them to keep an archive of those relatives’ experiences, especially as they are now getting old.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about migration and the history of those coming into communities in south Wales. Of course, many from south Wales went to Chile and other parts of the world, to mine there. So we have had migration out of the country, when people have been seeking employment.
My favourite fact is always that in Pennsylvania in the 1920s there were more Welsh speakers than in Wales. That came from Welsh migrants going to West Virginia and Pennsylvania to work in the mines. We also have the famous colony in Patagonia, which was set out in the famous novel “How Green Was My Valley”.
We need to be a bit braver about our history, about our history as an island race, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said. We have to accept that slavery happened. We talk about it a lot when we talk about American history. We touched on it a lot when I was at university—
The hon. Gentleman indicated that we should be a bit more brave in remembering our history. Does he agree that it is sometimes regrettable that in recent years we have seen student campaigns in a small number of educational establishment to remove links to Rhodesia, for example, because of the perception of what happened there? It is not much better to recognise and acknowledge that those things happened, whether we agree or disagree, rather than trying to obliterate them, particularly in seats of learning?
That is the whole point of this debate: we cannot whitewash our past. These things happened; we should recognise them, and we should learn lessons so they never happen again.
The Department for Education itself said in 2014 that the teaching of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade was considered patchy. We should accept that for well over 300 years, whether we like it or not, Britain played a leading role in forcing Africans on to slave ships for transportation across the Atlantic ocean. It is not just America that has to take the blame for the slave trade; it is this country. When Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1830, it paid the slave owners financial compensation. The enslaved people themselves received absolutely nothing—okay, that was a long time ago, but there were 46,000 slave owners, and 3,500 lived in Britain. Those are truths that we should not be afraid to address.
In response to the earlier intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I made a point about not understanding history until I got to university and studied it in more depth. I understand Dr Deana Heath, who teaches southern Asian, imperial, colonial and global history at the University of Liverpool, when she says:
“I face an uphill struggle at the start of each new academic year. Many of the undergraduates who greet me know virtually nothing about any of the subjects I teach.”
When I went to university to study history, I was one of those undergraduates. It was not just Irish history that I did not know about; it was British history, and the terrible record of the colonies.
This issue is really important, so I have two asks of the Minister. First, I hope that he takes seriously the idea of putting oral history at the front and centre of the curriculum. Secondly, although we have a great history, we should also shine a light on those things that are uncomfortable for us, because if we do not learn from those mistakes, we run the serious risk of repeating them. I urge the Minister, who I know is a good and thoughtful man, to take those points on board.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and it is a real honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who made a passionate and pertinent speech. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing today’s debate, and for her superb opening speech.
Three of my four grandparents were Irish, and my much-loved brother-in-law is of Jamaican descent. Without him, I would not have my very beloved niece. Migration is central to who we are as a family, and it is also central to who we are as a nation. Only by understanding where we come from can we truly understand where we are going and where we are now. Including stories about migration in our history lessons is a central part of that, and I am proud that Labour has committed to creating an emancipation educational trust to support that work.
It is hardly news to many of us that migration has shaped our country for centuries, because we have grown up in diverse communities and have ourselves been shaped by that history. However, the history of different types of migration is not taught as widely as it should be. So many people do not know that there were hundreds of free African people living and working during the Tudor period, and some were even at Elizabeth I’s court. We seem to think that migration is only a very recent thing, but that is a nonsense. We need to embrace and understand our history much better than we currently do.
I am going to take a different approach from that of the other Members who have given speeches so far, because I will talk about West Ham. In my maiden speech in 2005, I talked about one example of how migration has helped in Newham. In the 1980s, we were suffering from the dying docks and the ravages of Thatcherism. Green Street was dying on its feet; the only two things that were doing well were West Ham United football club—which had its best ever season in 1986—and, sadly, the local jobcentre. However, a few traders got together, who were overwhelmingly Asian and African-Caribbean, and took a risk. They got some money together and started rejuvenating the area through their businesses. First they sold food, then fabrics—things that the big chains would not touch—and then businesses focused on designer fashion and jewellery came slowly on to Green Street.
Now, Green Street is a one-stop wedding shop, serving not only the local community but people from all over the country and, indeed, much of Europe. Without migration, those community-spirited and canny traders would not have been in Newham, and our local economy would have suffered an even worse decline. My kitchen would have certainly declined, because there was nowhere that I could buy turmeric, chillies, coriander, cumin or the other exotic items in the new cookbooks that were stocking my shelves at that time. On Christmas day, I remember having to pop out a number of times to grab that thing that I had not managed to put in my basket before. That is a recent history, but none the less an important history, and one that risks being lost unless we make an effort to ensure it is remembered and celebrated.
Whenever I think about stuff like this, I think about Eastside Community Heritage, led by the redoubtable Judith Garfield. Eastside has always been clear that letting people own and tell their stories is the best way of collecting testimonies and engaging communities in their past, and that is exactly what they do. Unsurprisingly, many of their projects are focused on the contribution of migrants—people such as Kamal Chunchie, who was born in Sri Lanka and served in the Army’s 3rd Middlesex Regiment during the first world war alongside members of my family, witnessing horrifying conditions in the trenches. He was gassed twice and shot once, and served right up until the end of the war. After the war, he came back to Canning Town and served that community for the rest of his life. He established the Coloured Men’s Institute and provided solidarity and means of support for black and Asian families living around the docks. Disgracefully, racism was common at that time, and many living in and around those docks were denied a home and a living. Kamal’s institute became a community centre that served all the poor and needy in Canning Town, providing shelter, regular meals, Christmas celebrations and toys for children. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, his work prevented destitution, alleviated poverty and built solidarity. For that, he was greatly and rightly loved.
Eastside has created a number of projects, including those on the Ugandan Asian community; on the role of nurses from the Caribbean in building our NHS, such as my brother-in-law’s mum, Lucy; and on historic communities in Newham, such as the Chinese and Bengali communities. I have attended lots and lots of Eastside’s events, which are wonderfully informative, telling stories that would otherwise be simply forgotten. Several of those projects have been created in collaboration with our schools, including Sarah Bonnell and Forest Gate, so that our children understand the rich diversity of their history. Students helped create exhibitions about African and Caribbean fashion and the role it has played in the local economy, our culture and our lives. I would have loved to take part in projects like that, growing up; I was always really excited by the beautiful clothes that my Asian friends wore, and I remember learning how to dance in the sixth-form common room. Such projects bring our history alive for children from all backgrounds, and help us to understand the current social problems that we have.
One pressing social problem today is that across the world, we are witnessing a resurgence in far-right politics—a politics of hatred and division, which offers only scapegoats, not solutions. All too often across the world, migrants—even asylum seekers, the most vulnerable of us all—have been targeted. I do not have to remind people in this Chamber about Trump, whether it is his nonsense about Sadiq Khan, his attempt to enforce a Muslim ban, or his constant scaremongering about central American families fleeing to safety. I do not have to remind people in this Chamber about Netanyahu, who describes African refugees as,
“illegal infiltrators flooding the country.”
Brazil’s Bolsonaro described the residents of a black settlement as,
“not even good for procreation.”
It happens in so many ways in so many places, and all of it is linked. It is more important than ever that our young people understand the bits of this country’s history that we do not celebrate enough and the rich diversity of our home’s past and future. We need all of our citizens to understand the contributions and the lives of the people that migration has brought, and we have to build solidarity among the different parts of our communities, just as Kamal did in the 1920s.
In my constituency, Newham Council has done wonderful work to counter and prevent the rise of the far right. It has done it for decades and it set up a holocaust memorial exhibition as a response to the rise of the far right in the 1980s and ’90s. It celebrates Black History Month and still makes sure that the children’s education focuses on Holocaust Memorial Day.
As usual, my hon. Friend makes a powerful speech. Will she join me in encouraging everybody to visit the Mary Seacole statue, which is just across the road outside St Thomas’ Hospital, to see the wonderful contribution that she made as a British Jamaican woman to nursing in this country?
Mary Seacole is somebody that Lucy, my mother-in-law, speaks of regularly, and she does not understand why she is not recognised as fully as Nurse Nightingale. So, yes, I would encourage people to explore and discover parts of our history that are not as prevalent and as in your face as some of the other stuff.
The work of the council continues today. As we all remember, the theme for the previous Holocaust Memorial Day was “Torn from home”. Schools in Newham not only used it to reflect on the experiences of the Jewish community who were forced to leave everything behind, incredibly important as that absolutely is, but used it as a theme for creative inspiration—for the writing of poetry, performances of plays and the composing of songs about the lives of their families and the communities that they had come from, which, in many cases, had also been torn from home. Their experiences today are reflected sadly in our history.
Many have forgotten that Irish migrants were subjected to terrible xenophobia and discrimination during the 19th century and into the 20th. We forget that Jewish migration was represented as a real threat. We have learnt not to think of the Huguenots from France as refugees. The world did not come to a stop when those communities joined us; our world was enriched instead. What I am trying to say is that we sometimes fail to make the connections that we should because we have simply forgotten our history—or our geography.
I will not pick the hon. Lady up on that point, but has she seen the BBC’s “Born Abroad” pages, which take a fantastic look at diversity in Wembley?
I have not, but I certainly will. As soon as I get back to my office, I will have a quick butcher’s.
Constituencies such as mine have been blessed with diversity. We include Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Africans, Caribbeans, Irish and many others in our number. When we hosted the Olympic games—it was not a London Olympics, but a West Ham Olympics—we believed that we had a resident representative from every participating country living right there in West Ham. Many in my community have immigrant backgrounds, as do some of my closest and dearest family. It simply would not be the place that I love so dearly without them; and we would be much poorer, not only economically but creatively, in terms of the ideas and perspectives that we can draw on. We would be able to communicate so much worse if we did not have those communities living with us, talking with each other and learning from perspectives. Imbibing the cultures and the stories helps us to communicate so much better as a society. That is why it is really important to me that children are taught to see migration for what it is—not just economically beneficial and not just a charitable act, but unreservedly good for our communities and absolutely essential for our future.
We now come to the Front-Bench wind-up speeches, after which Helen Hayes will have the final two minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this important debate. She made an absolutely barnstorming speech, as is her custom, on teaching migration in the history curriculum. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), although I am not sure I agree that migration should be taught as human geography or ethnographic studies. I think it enriches our history when we talk about migration, and it should sit within the history curriculum.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) made powerful points about how the mining community of south Wales has influenced North and South America, but we have to remember how the South Americans have also influenced West Ham. The Chilean, Manuel Pellegrini, and the Argentinian, Pablo Zabaleta, led West Ham to one of its best seasons in many a year, although I would say they were mainly immigrants from Manchester and Manchester City.
I am pleased to be able to respond to the debate, whose subject is close to my heart. Manchester, where I am from, has a rich tradition of inward migration. It was originally founded in AD 79 by the general Agricola, a Gallo-Roman immigrant to Britain, who some said was black. My city has a long history of welcoming migrants from around the world. I am a Mancunian son of two Irish immigrants who settled there as part of a large Irish community in the north-west of England. Britain’s second largest Jewish community calls Manchester home. We have a large Somali community, and Wythenshawe and Sale East, which I represent, has a thriving Chagossian community. We de-populated the Chagos Islands in the late 1960s to give the land to the Americans for the Diego Garcia airbase—the mother of all injustices inflicted on any settlement on the planet in modern times. We recently had an International Court of Justice judgment against the UK, so we are still seeking justice after 50 or 60 years, but the Chagossians bring a rich tapestry to life in south Manchester.
More recently, we have had immigration from India, and the Keralan community has come to populate our hospitals with nurses. Suddenly, on a huge council estate in Wythenshawe, we have Keralans who believe that St Thomas the Apostle directly proselytised their people when he left Jerusalem after the ascension of Christ. Thousands descend on our community to decorate our church and parade in our streets, and they make a huge contribution both culturally and to our NHS.
I have seen at first hand how important it is to teach a curriculum that represents and is relevant to our children. When I was a primary teacher in a school on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal, where I was the history co-ordinator, we did not teach the industrial revolution; we taught the Manchester revolution. We taught about the Duke of Bridgewater building his canal in 1661 and about how that brought coal from the Cheshire plain to Manchester city centre to power Arkwright’s mill on Miller Street 20 years later, which changed the face of the world. I was also the history co-ordinator who introduced Black History Month when it came into being, and we dedicated the month of October to it. A tailored, local approach to history teaching needs to include an accurate and representative British history and the important part that migration has played in the development of our country.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said, 27% of BAME students in state-funded schools currently have a low take-up of history at key stage 4 and beyond. Research by the Royal Historical Society shows that racial and ethnic inequality affect history more acutely than most disciplines. As has already been said, the Runnymede Trust has shown that, although the national curriculum in theory offers a broader range of diverse histories, in practice there are constraints on what is taught. Labour has pledged to ensure that schools teach black history—we celebrate Black History Month in October—and that would give us an important opportunity to understand the role and legacy of the British empire, colonialism and slavery. The British history taught in schools needs to move beyond binaries of black history versus British history. As has been said, black history is British history. To allow a full, accurate and representative British history to be taught, we must lift the structural constraints holding back teachers. They need to be given access to the resources, teacher training and support necessary to teach a complete version of our national story.
I was pleased to be able to sponsor one of the great consultants in my local hospital, Binita Kane, who was a star in the show about partition that some Members may have seen. The BBC did a show on the 70th anniversary of partition and its impact on the nations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Imagine, Sir Gary, that you had been in Manchester on Sunday. Oh my word, there were only 26,000 tickets for the global show of India versus Pakistan—the most globally viewed sporting event ever, we think. On the night of the local government elections, I was at the place where we hold them, in Trafford, chatting to the chief executive of Lancashire Cricket Club, and he said that 1.2 million people had applied for tickets for the game. But how many of our young people know how the conflict was driven and what happened to millions of people in the area during partition?
To allow a full, accurate and representative British history to be taught, we must lift the structural constraints. Labour’s schools policy would tackle that. We announced at the National Education Union conference earlier this year that Labour will scrap key stage 1 and key stage 2 SATs, replacing them with a more flexible and practical primary assessment system. The new system will free teachers up so that they can better deliver a rich and varied curriculum. We also committed, in our manifesto, to launching a commission on the curriculum, which will give politicians a chance to listen to everyone. The commission will allow input from experts across all subjects, including on issues such as the one we are debating. It is not good enough in this day and age that the way to change society should be for MPs to raise curriculum change in this place. That is how change was made to the sex and relationships curriculum—on the back of an amendment to the Children and Social Work Act 2017. We have to do better than that when it comes to designing the country’s curriculum. Evidence shows that when children are taught a wide-ranging curriculum and encouraged to be creative and to develop their imagination, they do better at the core elements of literacy and numeracy too.
We cannot ignore the pressures of the Government’s sustained funding cuts. The figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies could not be clearer: they show an 8% real-terms cut since the last Labour Government. We cannot expect teachers to be able to teach the curriculum they want, including a more diverse history of migration, when they face such huge pressures. Labour’s national education service will re-fund our schools, ensuring that all the fantastic teachers have the resources they need to give our children a proper, world-class education. It will also provide practical help for today’s migrants. It will end cuts to English for speakers of other languages—a vital resource for refugees who have sought asylum in Britain. The Government talk about the importance of ensuring that everyone has the chance to learn English, but over the past decade funding for ESOL has been drastically cut. More than £100 million has been taken from the budget—a real-terms cut of almost 60%.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) has noted, victims of trafficking and modern slavery who are freed in Britain—the Prime Minister must be thanked for her work on that—are often denied access to education by the Government’s rules. We must learn the lessons of the Windrush scandal. Denying the victims an education is both cruel and senseless. The Windrush scandal has been a shame on our country. It was born as a result of the Home Office’s hostile environment—this Government’s policy. It is a story of injustices and migration that highlights the importance of teaching migration in schools so that the Ministers of the future do not make the same mistake. In Labour’s national education service, every child will have not only access to a world-leading school system, but the opportunity to engage in a wide-ranging, accurate and reflective curriculum.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing the debate and on an excellent opening speech. I am aware that she has a deep interest in the topic of migration, and that her interests also extend to teaching and schools.
Migration has been a part of our country’s history as long as we have been able to record it. The different waves of migration to these islands have helped to form our national identity and created and developed distinct regional and local identities, as we have heard in some excellent speeches. There are many opportunities within the scope of the framework of the national curriculum for teaching about migration and its causes and effects, both within the history curriculum and in other subject areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) pointed out, it can come within geography.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood cited a pupil who complained that the history curriculum was focused on
“the Tudors and the Tudors and the Tudors”.
I share that concern about what is a consequence of a skills-based rather than knowledge-based history curriculum, introduced in the revision of 2007. However, that approach was also predominant before the last Labour Government in the 1990s and it is probably the reason the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) was not taught about de Valera, whereas I had been taught, of course, about him and about the whole issue of Ireland. We have sought since 2010 to ensure that the curriculum is knowledge-based and does not just focus on a narrow range of knowledge as a vehicle for teaching a range of so-called historical skills.
The hon. Member for Islwyn talked about key stage 3 and said we only teach the good. At key stage 3 there are some non-statutory examples in the history programme of things that are not necessarily—or definitely not—good things. For example the transatlantic slave trade and Ireland and home rule are in that curriculum. The development of the British empire is also an example of an in-depth study.
I listened carefully to the hugely interesting speech of the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) who gave examples of the effect on her community of different phases of immigration over the years. That gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to Sir Robin Wales who, when he was the directly elected Labour Mayor of Newham, did so much to raise education standards in Newham’s schools. It is now one of the highest-performing education authorities, particularly for the teaching of reading and phonics. I like to take an opportunity to praise Sir Robin whenever I can.
The Government believe that all children and young people should, as part of a broad and balanced education, acquire a firm grasp of the history of the country in which they live, and how different events and periods relate to each other. The reformed history curriculum has been taught since September 2014. It sets out the core knowledge that will enable pupils to know and understand the history of Britain from its first settlers to the development of the institutions that help to define our national life today. We have also included history and geography in the English baccalaureate school performance measure. Since the EBacc was introduced in 2010, the proportion of pupils taking history or geography GCSE has increased from 47.7% in 2010 to 78.3% last year. Provisional entry data recently released by Ofqual indicate that that trend will continue in 2019.
The programmes of study for history set the framework for the teaching of the subject in schools in terms of the broad time periods to be taught. Within that framework, the Government have ensured that decisions about the detail of what will be taught, and choices about teaching approaches and resources, are for schools and teachers to determine. One of the key aims of the history curriculum is to ensure that pupils know and understand how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world. That aim supports teachers to teach about migration and to teach pupils about how different cultures and different groups have contributed to the development of Britain at key stages of our country’s history.
Let me highlight examples of where teaching about migration might be included within different key stages of the national curriculum. At key stage 1, pupils should be taught about events that are significant nationally or globally; about the names and lives of significant individuals in the past who have contributed to national and international achievements; about significant historical events; and about people and places in their own locality. An example of migration in that framework is that teachers can teach the life stories of refugees.
Within key stage 2, pupils should be taught about the changes in Britain from the stone age to the iron age; the Roman empire—including Agricola—and its effect on Britain; Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Scots; and how the Vikings affected Britain and its development. Teachers can teach pupils about the connection between migration and those aspects of the curriculum. At key stage 3—that is secondary school—pupils should be taught about the history of Britain from 1066 to the present day, and the effect over time of the migration of people to, from and within the British Isles. The end of the British empire, and social and cultural change in post-war British society are given as specific examples of what can be taught at key stage 3. As part of a compulsory unit on a broad aspect or theme in British history, 11 to 14-year-olds may study an aspect of social history. That could focus on migration as a particular area to help to understand key changes in our history.
At GCSE, specifications in history should support students to learn more about the history of Britain and the wider world, and to deepen their understanding of the people, periods and events studied. There are clear opportunities to include migration as part of the rich subject knowledge that we expect pupils to be taught. Awarding organisations and exam boards have flexibility to offer a greater focus on particular knowledge areas within the GCSE subject content, and modules on migration form part of the GCSEs offered by a number of exam boards. The influence and effect of migration locally can also be explored within the curriculum.
As part of the new GCSE history syllabus introduced in 2016 by OCR and AQA, there are now modules on migration in Britain. That gives teachers the chance sensitively to explore the fact that migration to Britain is not new but has evolved over centuries, largely because of people’s desire to have a better life for themselves or, in many cases, to seek refuge from war or hostile situations. Within the OCR GCSE, the British thematic study, “Migration to Britain circa 1000 to circa 2010”, focuses on patterns of change and continuity over a long period of British history. The study is divided into three eras. Those eras are divided into broad sections that have been chosen as vehicles through which pupils can gain knowledge about a number of key themes.
Examples of those themes include: “The reasons for immigration—differing political, economic, social and religious reasons”, and “From circa 1500: ideas of national ‘identity’—how we have come to define ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’ over time”. Examples of content are time-period specific. For example, in the era circa 1000 to 1500 students should be taught content including, “Immigrants in England during the middle ages; their treatment by the authorities and the population generally; the extent to which they integrated”. For the period 1900 to around 2010, students should be taught content such as, “Immigration as a political issue circa 1990 to circa 2010: the debate over a ‘multi-cultural society’; attitudes towards, and treatment of, political refugees and asylum seekers; the issues raised by EU ‘open borders’”. Those are only some of the topic areas available within that module.
As OCR highlighted, there was an unprecedented high take-up of that option when it was introduced. In 2018, 25% of schools chose to offer OCR’s GCSE History A, and nearly 1,500 students took migration as an optional topic with OCR on GCSE History B. The AQA GCSE includes an option for a thematic study on, “Migration, empires and the people: circa 790 to the present day”. The study will enable students to gain an understanding of how the identity of the people of Britain has been shaped by their interaction with the wider world.
There are many opportunities for teachers to teach about migration within the framework of the history curriculum, and as such migration could be seen as already part of the national curriculum—I hope that reassures hon. Members. The Government have also committed to making no further reforms to the curriculum, or to GCSEs and A-levels for the remainder of this Parliament—however long it may last— beyond those already announced. We have recently reformed GCSEs and A-levels to establish a rigorous suite of new qualifications that are in line with expected standards in countries with high performing education systems. That followed a review of our national curriculum, and we believe that those extensive changes will need time to settle in, because schools and teachers want stability.
The Government welcome high-quality resources and materials being shared with teachers to support them in this subject, and more resources are becoming available for teachers. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley pointed out some good resources on migration from the Royal Geographical Society—people will no doubt read his speech with interest and google them. As the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said, the recent collaboration between the University of Cambridge, University of Manchester and the Runnymede Trust has developed the free resource called Our Migration Story, which supports history teachers, and features video and text summaries of significant events in each era.
The Runnymede Trust has developed the History Lessons Project, and a guide for teachers called “History Lessons—Making British Histories” provides teachers with the content needed to navigate parts of the new history curriculum. It also offers resources to help teachers use the local history element of the history curriculum. As I stated previously, the local aspect of understanding history is a common thread across all key stages of the national curriculum. Significant migration points are supported by resources such as those that highlight the experiences of the Windrush generation. For example, the Windrush Foundation has developed the definitive Empire Windrush education resource for key stage 2, and an e-book about the 70 Windrush pioneers and champions. The Historical Association offers a wide collection of resources on migration, spanning different areas and stages of the curriculum.
I have picked out just a few examples, and no doubt there will be more. As the hon. Lady highlighted, the Runnymede Trust plans further to develop its work on supporting teachers to teach migration and diversity, including by supporting continuing professional development. I have focused on history in my speech, but the issue of migration features in other parts of the national curriculum such as religious education and citizenship education. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley pointed out, it could also be included in geography lessons.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood for raising this important matter, and I welcome the opportunity to set out how migration is already supported within the national curriculum. As a truly diverse country it is important for children and young people to gain knowledge about how Britain has migration at its core. Our global outlook has both shaped the world and been shaped by it.
I am hugely grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. We have heard powerful examples of untold migration stories in the communities of those who have spoken, which include West Ham, Welsh mining communities, and Wythenshawe, and all those examples serve to emphasise the importance of this agenda. As the daughter of a geographer, and someone who is married to a geographer, I will not argue with the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) that migration is an important prism through which to teach geography. However, this is not about either/or—our whole curriculum should be inclusive within all the different disciplines on offer to students today, and the resources that he mentioned are welcome.
I am a little disappointed that the Minister did not acknowledge the need for change, which is illustrated most powerfully in the low take-up of history as a discipline by students from BAME backgrounds at GCSE, A-level and degree level. Will the Minister reflect on the need for further promotion of migration curriculum content for history, on the need for more training and CPD to give teachers confidence to teach this curriculum, and on possibly making some of that content compulsory? I hope the Minister will continue to listen to the voices of young people across the country, and to the rigorous academic research from organisations such as the Runnymede Trust, which clearly states that there is a need for change, notwithstanding some of the changes made in recent years.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered teaching migration in the history curriculum.
Transport Infrastructure: Redditch
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered transport infrastructure in Redditch.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to raise this issue. As the MP for Redditch, I have one simple aim: to work with my colleagues in local government—in town hall and Worcester city hall—to unlock Redditch. I want to unlock the full potential of our great town. Naturally, that aim is multifaceted. I welcome the recent cut in business rates and investment in housing stock, and I am actively promoting the regeneration of our town centre, but a critical part of our strategy to truly unlock our town is improved transport infrastructure.
These are exciting times for Redditch. Growth is good and the future is bright. Our manufacturing businesses, such as Mettis Aerospace, are second to none, but new commercial enterprises are developing all the time, too. Now is the time to invest in our town’s future, boost productivity, drive prosperity, create new jobs, increase people’s earning power and ensure that our town remains a great place to live, work and raise a family.
With respect to transport, my vision is of a cleaner, greener Redditch with upgraded rail infrastructure, improved bus services and better pedestrian facilities. A considerable amount of work is already taking place, thanks to the local enterprise partnership, Worcestershire County Council and Redditch Borough Council. Due to their hard work and the strategy they have put in place, plans are already under way. The local Conservative council has secured investment for the upgrade of Redditch station, with possible plans including a second platform, additional parking and a better link into the Kingfisher centre. That is a really positive development for our town’s future. Currently, as people arrive at the station, they do not get the optimal impression of the kind of place Redditch aspires to be. We want to make that first impression on people. Momentum must be maintained, and I urge the county council to continue to pursue its strategy apace. I raise that regularly in my meetings with county councillors.
I am pleased that the rail strategy recognises the need for better connections with Birmingham in the longer term. Does the Minister agree that towns such as Redditch rely on regular, fast commuter connections into the city, because many of our residents work in Birmingham or travel there for shopping and leisure, and that we should continue to look at how to provide those connections? Surely, connectivity across all our metropolitan regions is vital to boosting our economic growth. We have already seen investment in HS2, which will provide connectivity between London and Birmingham, but secondary links with urban centres outside the main city centres are vital to jobs and investment too.
Does my hon. Friend agree that bus services are key to a multi-modal approach? At the moment, the attitude of county councils around the country is to try to take away subsidy for bus services, which has left the vulnerable unable to get about. What does she want to do in that respect for Redditch?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that good point. I will come on to bus services, but I certainly agree with him. We all know that local authorities’ budgets are under pressure, which means that they find it difficult to maintain services that are loss-making but are vital to constituents in remote rural areas. That is especially true for elderly and vulnerable people, who rely on those services to take part in day-to-day activities, with all the benefits for an independent life that they bring. I thank him for making that point, and I am glad he agrees with me. I will come on to bus services directly, so his intervention was timely.
I receive a lot of correspondence from constituents about bus services in Redditch. I hold a bus tour to Parliament—to this very room—once a fortnight. A number of constituents come to see me, and we do a question and answer session. We always start with Brexit, but we go straight from that to buses. My constituents are really interested in bus services, and they are desperate for a better service.
The service in Redditch is run by Diamond Bus. I thank it for its constructive approach to criticism—it takes the time to look into the issues we raise—but, as my hon. Friend said, local bus services should be a higher priority for support from central Government. That would enable local authorities to commission improved services, especially in rural areas, that they cannot deliver with the funding that is available at the moment.
I therefore call on the Government to recognise our local authorities’ challenges and support them. Many bus routes do not make a profit, but they are an absolute lifeline. My constituency covers not only the town of Redditch, which is an urban area, but the rural ward of Wychavon. For elderly residents who cannot drive, the lack of bus services hinders their capacity to live an independent life, which is what we all want for our elderly constituents.
In the west midlands generally, the West Midlands Combined Authority has invested more than £100 million in upgrading its bus fleet, which now includes brand-new buses with some of the cleanest engines on the market. Unfortunately, areas such as Redditch do not have the critical mass of such a large transport authority, so we do not benefit from the same level of investment. Andy Street, the West Midlands Combined Authority Mayor, has called for buses across the entire metro area to meet the latest Euro 6 emissions standard. Will the Minister please outline the Department’s thinking on supporting cleaner vehicles for smaller areas such as Redditch?
We are all aware that air quality is a critical issue, and that dangerous small particles emitted by vehicles penetrate deep into people’s lungs and cause harm in the long term. I welcome the Government’s commitment to reducing emissions to net zero, but they should focus too, hand in hand with that, on the quality of the air we breathe. We know that polluted air can cause long-term health conditions, and our citizens—especially our children—should be protected from that. Of course, public transport must play its part in achieving that objective.
As well as addressing issues with public transport and longer commutes, we should focus on improving shorter journeys, so I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s ambition to make cycling and walking the natural choices for shorter journeys by 2040. Of course, a lot of work has to take place to make those realistic options for people. Redditch is perfectly placed to take advantage of that—we have beautiful green spaces around every corner, plus a network of easily accessed routes—but much more can be done to encourage more residents to leave their cars behind and take to two wheels or two legs.
The benefits are immense. We know that investment in walking and cycling can improve people’s access to green space, tackle loneliness and reduce health inequalities. The Government are rightly prioritising cycling and walking, and have allocated £476 million for cycling and walking infrastructure from the local growth fund for local enterprise partnerships. An important component of that is the requirement for local government to invest around 15% of local transport infrastructure funding in cycling and walking infrastructure. That kind of investment can really help to integrate communities, improve people’s access to green space, tackle loneliness, improve social housing and reduce health inequalities.
I pay tribute to the Church Hill Big Local group, which has launched a programme of weekly local walks. People from across the area join the group for a walk around the neighbourhood, often visiting hidden beauty spots, enjoying an hour outside in a green environment and making new friends. It is simple, free and open to all. It is growing in popularity and building a genuine, strong sense of community in the area, which is welcome. We know that if people are not accustomed to taking walks and do not know the area well enough, they may lack the confidence to go out. Going out with a group or with family, turning off the TV and leaving the screens behind—even for only an hour—has huge benefits for mental and physical health, which we all need in our busy lives these days.
There is such an opportunity to join up the initiatives with the new focus on social prescribing by GPs. Simple steps, such as walking and cycling, have a positive impact on mental and physical health. There is an opportunity to harness technology. We can have more apps on phones to direct local residents to their quickest cycling and walking routes. There is an opportunity to work with Ordnance Survey, especially in a new town such as Redditch, where mapping has not always caught up with house building programmes. Technology can play a part in opening up opportunities for local residents who have newly moved to the area to access green space and all the benefits that that brings.
I want to touch on the future of driving. The Government are committed to ending the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, but there is a lot of work to do to ensure that we have the infrastructure and technology to enable people to harness cleaner, greener vehicles that are better for the environment and cheaper. Recently, we have had discussions with the local borough councils about how they will ensure that we have enough charging points for electric vehicles in a town such as Redditch. How do we develop the batteries to ensure that the cars are fit for purpose and can genuinely replace a petrol or diesel car? Colleagues may be interested to know—I learned this just this week on one of my bus tours—that people with pacemakers cannot recharge electric cars. I was not aware of that, and clearly we need to look at that if we want people to use electric cars. Those fitted with a pacemaker cannot approach a charging point, so we need to change something to help people take advantage of the technology. There clearly are enormous opportunities that will bring enormous benefits to my constituency of Redditch and to others up and down the country.
We all need transport to live our daily lives, and at the same time we need to look to the future and make long-term plans. We have the comprehensive spending review coming up. Sometimes transport is seen as a poor relation. Everyone thinks that other priorities such as policing, schools, education and hospitals are top of the list, and I cannot disagree with that, but we need to think about these more mundane—pedestrian, perhaps—projects that are so important day to day and make a real difference to people’s quality of life. I very much thank the Minister for coming to respond to my debate, and I look forward to his remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing this debate on transport infrastructure in Redditch. She is a doughty campaigner and constituency representative for Redditch, and I commend her work in that regard. She is absolutely right that transport infrastructure is seminal and of considerable importance, not only because it helps people to get from point A to point B, but because it helps our economy and our health and wellbeing, and it helps our entire society to function.
Redditch sits right at the heart of a dynamic region that is key to the UK economy. The midlands is home to more than 10 million people, more than 815,000 businesses, 21 universities and two international airports. Its economy is worth £237 billion to the UK as a whole, and it generates more than 13% of the UK’s gross value added. Her area and region are of extreme importance.
There is a lot going on in the midlands. There are the 2022 Commonwealth games. Coventry is our 2021 city of culture, which I had something to do with as Culture Minister. To capitalise on the region’s strengths, the Government have established the midlands engine partnership, with the goal of creating a midlands engine that powers the UK economy and truly competes on a world stage. We want to make the midlands an even better place to live, work, study and do business, improving opportunities and quality of life for the people of the region.
My hon. Friend’s region sits at the heart of our transport network. Investment is not just critical for regional success, but is key to our national success. That is why, among other things, we are building High Speed 2, which will be the new backbone of the national rail network, improving capacity, connectivity and growth. The midlands will be the first region to benefit from that new railway.
That covers rail, but we are also investing £1.8 billion in the region’s roads, motorways and trunk roads. We are investing £1.7 billion from the local growth fund, which includes investments in transport schemes across the midlands region. Our £1.8 billion investment in strategic roads includes a major investment on the M42, which my hon. Friend knows provides Redditch with vital connectivity to the wider motorway network. That investment will create a smart motorway at the interchange of the M42 and M40, helping to ease congestion and smooth traffic flows. Work is expected to begin on that important scheme as soon as next March.
My hon. Friend will not need me to tell her that local transport and local issues more generally are often at the front of people’s minds. The local highway network is one of the most valuable national assets and an essential component of our economy. To that end, the Government are investing more than £6 billion in local highway authorities outside London between 2015 and 2021. The £6.6 billion of funding includes nearly £300 million for a pothole action fund, which is being allocated to local highway authorities between 2016 and 2021 to help repair potholes or stop them forming in the first place. Funding from the pothole action fund is enough to repair, or stop from forming, more than 5.9 million potholes on average. That funding is not ring-fenced; its use is entirely at the discretion of highway authorities, based on their local needs and priorities. Between 2015-16 and 2019-20, Worcestershire will receive more than £85 million to help maintain its local road network alone. That includes more than £12 million for small-scale transport improvements.
With the creation of the major road network—comprising around 5,000 miles of our most important A roads—the most important local authority roads are now in scope for new funding from the national roads fund for upgrades and improvements. Regional prioritisation of improvements to such roads is the responsibility of some sub-national transport bodies. Roads that serve Redditch—the A448, A441, A435 and A4023—are part of the major road network and could be eligible for that funding. I encourage my hon. Friend and her local authority to look into that, because that funding, subject to regional prioritisation, could apply to those roads.
As my hon. Friend will know, Redditch forms the southern terminus of the cross-city line, which provides a regular train service from Redditch to Birmingham New Street and on to Lichfield Trent Valley. I am sure she has used the service more than once. Local rail users are now benefiting from the £100 million Redditch branch enhancement, which was completed in late 2014. That has allowed for a more frequent train service, rising from two trains each hour to three trains each hour in each direction. Passenger numbers at Redditch have since grown from just below 900,000 in 2014—889,366, to be precise—to nearly a million in 2018.
Rail services to Redditch are now operated by West Midlands Trains, which started running the franchise in December 2017. As part of the franchise agreement, it has committed to deliver £700 million of investment in new and refurbished trains, which matters a great deal to commuters and rail passengers. That includes 400 brand-new carriages, of which 100 will be for the cross-city line, which serves Redditch. Those carriages will offer metro-style services, with increased space to carry more passengers, and wider doors for quicker access.
The existing class 323 trains on the cross-city line are currently undergoing a major overhaul to improve the experience for passengers. Customers will benefit from accessibility improvements, upgraded passenger information screens, new seat covers and a deep clean of the interior. Thanks to Government investment, those improvements will make travelling on routes relevant to my hon. Friend’s constituency more enjoyable and easier for those requiring accessible facilities. The improvements will bring the inside of the units up to modern standards, after 25 years of operating on the route.
As part of its franchise, West Midlands Trains will also invest more than £60 million in station improvements, which will deliver more than 1,000 new car parking spaces and thousands more cycle parking spaces, as I announced in the last couple of days. West Midlands Trains will also deliver more than 800 new digital information screens, provide realtime journey information and free wi-fi, introduce compensation for delays of more than 15 minutes, and invest more than £70 million in new and existing depots to improve train reliability. Redditch will also benefit from earlier and later services to and from Birmingham, as well as more frequent Sunday services from 2021 onwards. The Government are investing in transport infrastructure in the Redditch area and across the country. We see that in both road and rail improvements.
Alongside rail, local bus services remain central to people’s transport choices, accounting for around 59% of all public transport journeys. My hon. Friend asked for acknowledgment that Redditch relies on regular, fast commuter connections. I, of course, acknowledge that. The Government remain committed to improving bus services. Each year, my Department provides a quarter of a billion pounds in direct revenue support for bus services in England via the bus service operators grant scheme. Of that sum, more than £43 million is paid directly to local councils outside London to support buses that would otherwise not be commercially viable, but which local authorities and services consider socially necessary. The rest goes to commercial bus operators. Worcestershire County Council—my hon. Friend’s local county council—receives more than £530,000 in that grant. Without that support, I venture to say that fares would certainly increase and marginal services would disappear.
I thank the Minister for that information. The subsidies that he describes are essential. Are there any incentives or grants in operation to enable bus operators to upgrade their fleets and exchange them for greener and cleaner vehicles?
Government funding supports the approximately £1 billion spent by local authorities on concessionary bus passes every year, and the Government have committed to protecting, at first, the very popular national bus travel concession, which is of huge benefit to around 10 million people, allowing free off-peak local travel anywhere in England. On the clean environment, the Government want the UK to be the best place in the world to build and own electric vehicles, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and have already supported the installation of more than 100,000 home charge points. So we are investing in all manner of ways to support such things.
The bus concession is something we have been investing in. It provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. Local authorities are best placed to decide how to provide support for bus services, reflecting local needs within available budgets. The deregulated bus market works well across much of the country, although in some areas the deregulated market has not always responded effectively to the changing needs of the population. However, to answer my hon. Friend’s question directly, the Government have spent nearly a quarter of a billion pounds—some £240 million—on greener buses since 2010, when we came into office. That is of course very positive.
I am pleased that Worcestershire County Council plans to launch a public consultation, with a view to developing a new passenger transport strategy that meets the needs of residents in Redditch and the wider region. The Bus Services Act 2017 contains a range of options for local authorities to improve local bus services and drive up passenger numbers. In addition to franchising, there are new and improved options to allow local transport authorities to enter into partnerships with their local bus operators, with a view to improving services for passengers.
Accessible information powers in the 2017 Act will require all operators of local bus services to provide audio and visual route and next stop announcements on board their buses across Great Britain, helping to remove barriers to bus travel, particularly for those with disabilities or accessibility needs. We are also pioneering technology such as our forthcoming bus open data digital service, to overhaul bus services across England and give passengers the information that they need to travel with confidence.
I am pleased that Swift, the west midlands travel smartcard, now has more than 3.5 million users, and has transformed how people use public transport in Redditch and the west midlands. Data from Transport Focus, the independent transport user watchdog, shows that congestion and roadworks are among the top factors that passengers think affect the length of their bus journeys. Together, local authorities and bus companies can identify the congestion hotspots that disrupt bus journeys and, through partnership commitments, do something about them.
I hope that I have assured my hon. Friend of my, and my Department’s, strong commitment to transport in Redditch, Worcestershire, the midlands and this country. I commend her for her work and advocacy on behalf of her constituency.
Question put and agreed to.
Colombia Peace Process
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Colombia peace process.
It is a pleasure to see you again in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. Colombia has suffered one of the longest civil wars in history—more than 50 years of armed conflict, with thousands of people tortured, disappeared and slaughtered, and millions displaced. It remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, and human rights defenders and social leaders have been, and still are being, murdered with impunity.
The armed conflict was a result of a deep-rooted social and political conflict. Despite the country’s huge natural wealth, many Colombians live in poverty. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very few people who wield enormous political power. They also own large sections of the media. These people are concentrated in urban areas that represent a tiny proportion of Colombia’s landmass.
The Colombian state, right-wing paramilitaries and guerrillas waged a decades-long war that none could, or would, ever win. When the peace negotiations began in 2012 and were overseen by the UN, there was a glimmer of hope. As someone who has campaigned on behalf of trade unionists, human rights defenders and social leaders for well over a decade, I felt that there might finally be a small chance of the Colombian people living in safety in the future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and commend her campaigning on this issue over many years. Does she agree that there is a real concern at the moment, as we read and hear about the killing of community leaders in rural areas? This must stop, and peace must be enforced. The peace that we have is precious and must be continued and secured.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The spike and increase in the number of civilians being murdered, and the lack of any prosecutions or convictions, is one of the reasons why the peace process implementation is so fragile at the moment.
No one doubts the challenging circumstances in which those negotiations took place. Through work by the non-governmental organisation Justice for Colombia, politicians from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland helped share their knowledge and experience of the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday agreement with the Colombian Government and FARC, so that they could benefit from the lessons that had been learnt. After four years of negotiation, the Colombian Government and FARC announced the final peace agreement in August 2016. A bilateral ceasefire took place; then there was disarmament by FARC, which became a legitimate, legal political party.
The peace agreement was put to a vote of the Colombian people. One of the most outspoken critics of the deal was former President Álvaro Uribe, who had been in power between 2002 and 2010, when some of the worst atrocities against trade unionists and human rights defenders were committed by the state and state-backed right-wing paramilitaries.
One of the groups of victims at that point included people who had suffered sexual violence in conflict. I know the British embassy in Bogotá had started a human rights programme. Has the hon. Lady assessed how successful that has been in dealing with people who had suffered sexual violence in conflict?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is something on which I hope the Minister will be able to elaborate in his response to the debate, because the UK and Colombia are friends. We wield enormous influence over what goes on in Colombia, and that is one of the programmes that I hope will continue, so that we can ensure that that particular group of victims does not suffer further.
In 2013 President Uribe co-founded a new political party, the Centro Democrático or Democratic Centre, largely to oppose the peace process in the 2014 Colombian elections. Despite the extremely narrow rejection of the peace agreement in that plebiscite, a revised agreement was ratified by the Colombian Congress shortly afterwards, in December 2016. That final agreement, for which the UK is the penholder on behalf of the UN Security Council, was structured around six areas. The first was comprehensive rural land reform. The Government promised to provide 3 million hectares of land to the landless or land-poor peasants, and to formalise legal property titles on another 7 million hectares, in addition to heavily investing in infrastructure projects and state-building in previously FARC-controlled areas.
The second area was political participation. As I said previously, FARC became a legal political party, and was guaranteed a minimum of five seats in Congress and five in the House of Representatives for two legislative terms, starting in 2018. After that point, FARC will have to win seats competitively in elections.
The third area was the ending of the conflict, disarmament of FARC, transition to civilian life and reincorporation, and guaranteed security conditions for former combatants and communities in UN-monitored reincorporation zones. In August 2018 I visited one of those zones, a specific camp in Filipinas in the Arauca region on the north-eastern border with Venezuela. I saw what little progress had been made in establishing those zones and getting former combatants to a position in which they could make a living and fend for themselves.
The fourth area was ending the drug trade, which will obviously have an impact on drug consumption in the UK—cocaine is a particularly topical point at the moment. The crop substitution programme with the Government and FARC will help farmers to stop growing coca and instead grow legal crops in order to make a living and grow their local economies.
The fifth area was justice for victims of the conflict, which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) touched on. A transitional justice system called the JEP would be established. Special tribunals would adjudicate war crimes and other atrocities committed by Government security forces, paramilitaries and guerrillas, with reduced sentences for people who came forward. The emphasis of the HEP would be on restorative justice and ensuring the rights of victims.
The sixth and final area was the implementation and verification of the peace agreement, which is a really critical part. The UN special political verification mission would take an oversight role, and a commission would be set up to follow up the implementation process. It would be known by its Spanish abbreviation, CSIVI, and consist of three senior Government members and three senior FARC members.
At first, the peace agreement implementation seemed to be working. There was a significant drop in violence in 2017, Colombia’s safest year since 1975. However, there was a very significant change in direction in 2018 with the election of Iván Duque as the new President. He is a protégé of Uribe, and ran on a platform of dismantling parts of the agreement, particularly in relation to political participation by FARC and the work of the JEP. Since his election, he has systematically attempted to undermine the JEP, despite its being recognised by the international community and, most importantly, by the victims of the conflict as a way to provide truth, justice and reconciliation for victims on all sides and an end to the impunity that has operated for decades. That has resulted in a significant stalling of the process, which is threatening the very existence of the peace agreement.
After the United States, we are the second-largest investor in Colombia. As a penholder to the peace agreement, we play a particular role in the process. The UN Security Council warned on 16 April that the peace process
“stands at a critical juncture”.
All sections of the peace agreement are crucial, but I want to focus a few remarks on three of them—ending the conflict, political participation and the role of the JEP. One third of the peace agreement’s 578 stipulations have not even begun to be implemented, and an estimated 1,700 former guerrillas have returned to armed struggle. The arrival of President Duque in London yesterday is very timely. I know the Minister is meeting the President later today, so I hope Opposition Members have questions for the Minister and issues that he can raise with President Duque when he sees him.
I now turn to the armed conflict. Colombian human rights organisations estimate that 591 social leaders have been assassinated since the signing of the agreement, and 236 of those assassinations have happened in the 10 months since the President took office.
My hon. Friend will know that I went on delegations to Colombia in 2007, when Uribe was still in power, and in 2012. We heard widespread evidence of human rights abuses, and I am really disappointed to hear that slow progress has been made with the peace progress. Does she agree that it is time for our Government to step up and work with human rights defenders to bring about a country-specific plan to protect human rights defenders in Colombia?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the questions I have for the Minister is on the help that we have been giving to the Colombian Government and their Ministry of Justice and Law in training their lawyers in investigation and disclosure. It does not seem to be working, because impunity continues.
An estimated 135 former FARC combatants have been murdered since they laid down their weapons in the disarmament process. One of the most recent victims was Dimar Torres, who is alleged to have been murdered by Colombian soldiers. The local community found his body next to a recently dug grave, raising suspicions that the soldiers were attempting to make his body disappear, which is what we saw over years and years, prior to the signing of the peace agreement.
A recent statement by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions and the UN working group on enforced disappearances urged the Colombian Government to
“cease inciting violence against demobilised individuals of the FARC…and to meet the guarantees that were made to them during the negotiations in Havana, most importantly respect of the right to life.”
The Minister responsible for peace implementation, Emilio Archila, reacted by responding that the statement was “badly intentioned” and rejected the conclusions, while former President Uribe attacked the UN on his Twitter account.
That follows revelations from The New York Times in late May that the army has reinstated orders to soldiers to show results of the killings of armed groups, with performance-related pay. That is a chilling reminder of the military’s involvement in the “false positives” scandal under Uribe’s Administration, during which thousands of civilians were murdered by the military and dressed up in army fatigues as though they had been guerrilla fighters killed in combat. After a huge outcry, the Colombian Ministry of Defence said that it would amend the orders, but concerns remain. Last week, the Senate voted to promote General Martinez Espinel, even though he was second-in-command of a brigade accused of murdering 23 civilians in that way between 2004 and 2006.
The Colombian Government recently claimed that there had been a 32% reduction in killings of social leaders, but that is in direct contradiction of the evidence from the many reports of human rights organisations on the ground. Uribe recently said that 5,000 FARC members had returned to the mountains—a coded reference to their taking up arms again. That claim is completely fake, with no evidence to substantiate it. It is not supported by anyone involved in the monitoring of the peace process and is a deliberate strategy by Uribe—the figurehead of President Duque’s party—to undermine the implementation of the peace process and the UN verification mission. In turn, that undermines Britain’s role as penholder for the agreement. At his presentation at Canning House yesterday, President Duque made no reference to human rights abuses and the targeting of social leaders in Colombia.
My second point is about the JEP. Its implementation has been resisted by Duque’s Administration, which sees it as too lenient and as treading on the toes of the criminal justice system. In March, the statutory law providing the legal framework for the JEP was stalled after President Duque refused to sign it off, citing concerns about six articles. After a lengthy legislative battle, it was eventually signed into law this month, after Congress and the Constitutional Court rejected President Duque’s changes. Duque’s resistance to such a fundamental part of the peace agreement should be a worrying warning to our Government about his attitude and disdain towards the agreement.
The case of Congressman Jesús Santrich, in which the Minister knows I have taken an active interest, perfectly illustrates the genuine concerns in Colombia and internationally about President Duque’s commitment to the agreement and to the JEP in particular. There has undoubtedly been political interference in the JEP by the Colombian Government, most notably by the actions of former Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martinez, who recently resigned following the long-awaited release from prison of Congressman Santrich.
Jesús Santrich was a key negotiator of the Colombian peace agreement, a member of the FARC delegation to the negotiations, and an architect of the agreement. At the time of his arrest in April 2018, he was a member of the CSIVI, the implementation committee that I mentioned earlier. He was due to take his seat in the House of Representatives in July 2018, as part of the FARC’s 10 representatives in the Colombian Congress, which was a specific part of the peace agreement. However, in April 2018 he was arrested on the order of an international arrest warrant requesting extradition, issued by a New York court. It alleged that he had conspired to smuggle 10 tonnes of cocaine out of Colombia in an aeroplane. He categorically denied the accusation, but was imprisoned in solitary confinement in La Picota high-security prison in Bogotá.
Last August, I visited Santrich in his prison cell. He is blind, suffers from a degenerative eye condition so severe that his sight is almost non-existent, and has other major health problems. He spent 13 months in La Picota prison, during which time he undertook a lengthy hunger strike to draw attention to his plight. When I met him, he was extremely frail, in declining health, and was being refused access to essential medical care. No adjustments were made to accommodate his disability. When I returned to the UK I met the Minister, and I am pleased to say that shortly afterwards, some disability aids were provided for Congressman Santrich. At no point was any evidence disclosed to his lawyers to back up the allegations against him, the basis on which the extradition warrant had been issued.
Santrich has since presented his case to the JEP, arguing that it had jurisdiction, rather than the Colombian criminal court. The then Attorney General challenged the case and lost. The Attorney General was asked by the JEP to provide evidence to substantiate imprisonment and the proposed extradition, but none was forthcoming. The US Department of Justice did not provide any evidence, either. On 15 May this year, the JEP gave its ruling, guaranteeing that there would be no extradition. It ordered that Jesús Santrich be freed. The Colombian Procurator’s Office appealed the decision, but the JEP insisted on Santrich’s release. The Attorney General refused to sign the order for release and has since resigned, saying that he is not prepared to sign the order. Santrich was kept in prison until 19 May, and on his arrival outside the prison gates, he was immediately re-arrested and taken to the Attorney General’s building by helicopter. Ten days later, on 29 May, the Supreme Court ordered his release and eventually, on 11 June, he was sworn into office.
I went into detail about that because the entire process has been carried out in the context of strong opposition to the JEP by the Government party. There has been a deliberate attempt to diminish the authority of the JEP that has wide-ranging consequences for its proper functioning and authority. Unsurprisingly, the case has caused huge concern among defenders of the peace process, which adds to the considerable concerns about the lack of implementation of the process, the rise in murders of civilians and continuing impunity.
As a key member of the negotiating team who was due to occupy one of the 10 seats in Congress guaranteed to FARC, Santrich has become symbolic for the peace process. That is why I hope that the Minister will tonight seek an explanation from President Duque about his Government’s conduct in this case—the conduct of the former Attorney General in particular—and ask what reassurances can be given about Jesús Santrich’s freedom and ability to carry out his democratic role in the future.
Finally, I will return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) about the UK’s role in assisting in Colombia. It has been mentioned in past debates that we have given support to the Fiscalía to help it learn about investigation and disclosure. If we are still doing that, why are we doing so when the JEP is being politicised and abused in such a way?
The debate may last until 5.30. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than seven minutes past 5, and the guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the Minister would be kind enough to allow Jo Stevens three minutes at the end to sum up, that would be appreciated. Until seven minutes past 5, it is Back-Bench time, and I have one hon. Member seeking to contribute: Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is always a pleasure to speak in these debates, but I will try not to prolong my speech beyond the time that you have so kindly given me.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) has presented the case for the Colombian peace process very well. She referred to my colleagues, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and the former Member for Foyle, Mark Durkan. They were, individually and collectively, involved in trying to progress the peace process—I, too, am a member of the Parliamentary Friends of Colombia group. Both my colleagues were invited to Colombia to speak and to tell their story about Northern Ireland. The reason was obviously what we—I say “we”, because everyone together made it happen—have done in Northern Ireland, although the political process has stalled at the moment. We ended the violence, started a political process and found a methodology to take that process forward. It was an example for the rest of the world, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley has spoken about it in many countries, one of them being Colombia.
I have a deep interest in Colombia, and I hope that its people will see the peace we have in many places across the world. As my party’s spokesperson on human rights and equality issues where they pertain to religious persecution, I am aware that some groups in Colombia—those who are Christians—have been targeted because of their religious persuasion. Peasants have also been targeted, although I use the word “peasants” in a general sense; it is meant not as a marker for anything, but for the people who live on the land and depend on it for their survival, livelihood and income.
Some of the things that have happened in Colombia are quite unbelievable. I have an interest in the country, which I believe has real potential and an appetite for change. With a bit more effort from the Government and everyone involved, Colombia could move from where we are to a peace process that can actually do something. My hope, prayers and ambitions are for that to happen. I believe in prayer—I say that because it is true—and I have prayed for peace in Colombia and across the world.
About this time last year, I asked a written parliamentary question:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, what discussions has the Minister had with the Columbian Government on progress on the peace process in that country.”
I received a full answer from the Minister present. He always responds well, and I am not just saying that because he is here—he does, and he has a deep passion for and interest in Colombia, as is the case with many other countries of the world. He is keen to see progress, peace and prosperity. His response was:
“The UK has assisted the peace process since 2012, contributing over £28m in Conflict Stability and Security Funding since 2015 and holding the pen in the UN Security Council. I have had numerous discussions with the Colombian Government during that time on progress, most recently with the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs on 21 June.”
Clearly, the Minister and our Government have made a financial input, have an interest in the process and have regular discussions with the Colombian Government. This nation—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—has made clear attempts and taken strides in the past to be a help and a guide in such scenarios, but equally clearly, almost a year down the line from that question, the journey to peace still needs a wee knock-on or a nudge—perhaps a detour—and more to be done.
To say that Colombia is a war-torn nation is an understatement. The national victims unit, which was set up in 2011, and which records crimes that have occurred since 1985 in the context of the armed conflict, registered almost 280,000 killings, the majority of them involving civilians. That number is horrific, and it gives an indication of a genocide that has taken place—the slaughter of innocents. More than 46,500 people have been forcibly disappeared. By 1 November 2016, more than 7 million people had been forced to flee their homes. The actual figures are expected to be considerably higher; these are guesstimations of what has taken place, but they indicate the magnitude of the issue.
Over the years, I have had the chance to have direct contact with people with the friends of Colombia group. We have had meetings in London, here in Westminster, and elsewhere on such matters. We have had meetings in Belfast, back home in Northern Ireland, and people wanted to have an idea of how the peace process worked and was taken forward. Such meetings gave me an insight into what took place. Some of the people we met told horrific stories of what had happened to their relatives and friends—some had disappeared and never been found.
The nation of Colombia needs peace, medical care, education systems, social welfare, housing and initiatives to take people out of poverty. We have an advisory role, and perhaps even a clear practical role, in helping to achieve that. A fair and democratic process, and a commitment to that process, are needed. I do not want to be unfair, but I sometimes feel, looking at the situation from the outside in, in an observational way, that the commitment of all those involved in the process has not as been as transparent as it perhaps could be. However, I believe that we are not that far away from moving things forward. In Northern Ireland, when the process moved forward, it was by small steps—but those steps then led to big strides. That is what we need.
We need to see an end to the land grabs—to the theft of land from people who depend on it for their living. The killings that have taken place need an explanation and an investigation, because those who carried them out should be accountable for their crimes. No one can carry out crimes and expect to get away with them.
On justice and holding those who have committed horrendous crimes to account, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the establishment of the unit to dismantle the paramilitaries is a particular priority, and should be brought forward with due haste by the Duque Administration?
I agree with the hon. Lady. Clearly, paramilitary groups think that they are above the law, and they are carrying out atrocities. They need to be accountable and to stop that; if the peace process is to go forward, we need to ensure that those who have the power are doing their best to stop these things.
There have been kidnappings, and people have gone missing. In Northern Ireland, we always wished for the remains of those who were kidnapped, murdered or disappeared to be found and returned to their families. It is important to have that in place—for families to have the final resolution of being able to bury their loved ones in graves, and to have time to grieve for people who had disappeared. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central referred to many examples of people being disappeared, although in one case the person was found because the security forces were still trying to dispose of his body.
I am my party’s spokesperson for human rights, and they feature at the top of my agenda, in whichever country they are being abused. We need action to stop women being sexually abused and horribly tortured by security forces. We also need to help those activists—we have been aware of some of them for a number of years—who have been kidnapped and disappeared. Some journalists, who are spokespeople for human rights issues and who have made the world aware of what is going on, have disappeared and never been found—any dissent has been trampled on right away.
I am not any smarter than anyone else—far from it—but coming from Northern Ireland and having a personal knowledge of the country, I perhaps understand more than some others in this place the emotional trauma that is passed from generation to generation of those who have suffered at the hands of paramilitaries, as well as the impact and lasting legacy the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) referred to in her intervention. That can only be dealt with in two parts. First, we must allow time for wounds to heal over without anyone picking open the scabs. That means an end to violence and the threat of it, so that people can grieve and learn how to exist in a new nation where everyone is equal. Secondly, opportunities are required for things to be different—for children to be educated and get paying jobs, for skills to be taught, for work to be made available so that people can earn a wage, and for communities to recover.
We should do more, while not overstepping. I look to the Minister, whom I respect greatly, and who understands my passion for these issues, to explain the view of the Department, in particular, and the steps that can be taken so that we can play a small but valuable part in this process for peace.
I have two observations to make. First, rarely can a country-specific debate have been held immediately before a presidential audience to which the Minister of State responding has been invited. Secondly, we have a little more time available for the Front-Bench speeches than we thought. As long as the process is not abused, I am prepared to be flexible with the guideline limits for the Front-Bench speeches.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone; as always, your advice is extremely diligent and welcome. I will not speak for desperately long because this is the second debate on Colombia that we have had in recent months, after the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) secured a full debate in September. I declare an interest in this subject because, at the time, he and I had just returned from a visit to Colombia hosted by ABColombia, which is a platform made up of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Trócaire and a couple of other organisations to provide research and advocacy of the human rights situation in that country. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, also contributed to that debate back in September.
This debate has proven to be a welcome opportunity to reflect on how things have changed since then, particularly in the context of the President’s visit. As the hon. Member for Cardiff Central laid out in considerable detail, the situation has changed even in those few months: progress towards peace has become slower and pretty precarious, and there is a risk of the situation deteriorating. The case of Jesús Santrich is emblematic of that.
The bombings that have taken place have led to further deterioration of that peace process, particularly the bombing of the police academy in Bogotá on 17 January that claimed 20 innocent lives and is just one example of sporadic but increasing violence and tension across the country, particularly in rural areas, where poverty and the legacy of conflict are most acute. That is perhaps exemplified most significantly in the dramatic increase in the number of killings, threats, and instances of intimidation of human rights defenders.
During our visit, we had the privilege of meeting several human rights defenders in different parts of the country that we travelled to. The Minister will be aware that the hon. Member for Rhondda and I have written to him about a couple of specific cases of individuals we met who received direct threats of intimidation, violence and death. I hope he will be able to respond, if not directly in his speech then in writing, and will look up that letter in advance of his meeting with the President this evening.
The lack of security for human rights defenders, especially those working in rural areas on the implementation of the peace accord and on practical aspects of land restitution, environmental issues and crop substitution, are incredibly concerning. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) outlined in detail some statistics that should worry and alarm us all. As we all know, Colombia is the worst country in the world for the killing of human rights defenders. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 110 were murdered in 2018, and that trend has continued into this year, with an average of three defenders killed a week.
Colombia is also one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. There has been growing global attention to the hugely important role that those members of the community play in speaking up and defending the rights of others who they represent. They take huge personal risks to speak out against injustice and abuse of human rights in their countries, often by their Governments or by other non-state actors. It is hugely important that we recognise around the world the particularly acute situation in Colombia.
The Scottish Government remain committed to protecting human rights worldwide. As part of that commitment, last year they saw the launch of the Scottish human rights defender fellowship, which offers human rights defenders the chance to work with the Scottish Government, Scottish universities and civil society organisations to share expertise and work together to protect fundamental rights across the globe. I believe it may be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), who is sitting next to me, that it is hosted at the University of Dundee. We echo Amnesty International’s support for human rights defenders across the world and support its call for a flagging system to facilitate visa applications and allow them to travel more easily to the UK for work or respite and relief.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is clear research that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade union activist?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I was going to reflect on that towards the end of my remarks. I know that he met the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress last week, and had a full debrief of the Justice for Colombia peace monitoring delegation that visited the country towards the end of May, which included the STUC general secretary and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). The role of our civil society to hold both Governments to account is hugely important.
It is important that we take the opportunity to engage appropriately with President Duque, especially while he is here. I fully endorse everything that the hon. Member for Cardiff Central said about the special jurisdiction for peace; related to that is how to deal with land restitution, which is a key issue for sustainable peace across the country. There have been attempts to undermine the amount of land that should be up for restitution by the Government, despite the effort of many non-governmental organisations. That law needs to be fully extended, so that time is properly available to restitute the land to those who need it.
We should welcome the UK Government’s efforts, through its embassies, to support the JEP programme and to highlight its centrality as a pillar of the peace agreement. It is important that they continue to guarantee the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparations and non-repetition. The two important UN mandates that are operating must be renewed this autumn to their full strength and for as long as possible, so that their important work can continue. I finish by echoing the points about the importance of ensuring that civil society is fully engaged. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is very nice to see you in the chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this timely debate, and I thank Justice for Colombia for organising my visit at the end of May. In Bogotá we met members of the Government and members of the Opposition and civil society, but we also went out into the countryside. We went down to Cauca in the south-west, which is a very troubled area, and up to the north-east. When we got to Cauca, we went to a village and I was shocked: on the wall they had pinned up photographs of 30 human rights defenders who had been killed. The reason I was shocked was that they had all been killed in the past year.
That speaks to the first challenge: in the areas that the FARC have vacated, the Government have not put sufficient resource in to build up the criminal justice system. That is why paramilitaries and criminals have come in. For example, we met an old lady who said that people walked around her house at night with guns, and she had no idea who they were. The UN says that last year, 116 human rights defenders were killed; this year, it thinks that the number will be even higher. The first thing that the Colombian Government need to do is strengthen the criminal justice system in the rural areas.
The root of the problem, as hon. Members have said, is land. What has happened in Colombia in the 20th century is akin to what happened in the highland clearances in the 18th and 19th century. First, we saw people taking land from the campesinos to build sugar and banana plantations, but now that has shifted, and people are stealing land from indigenous people for very aggressive mining. We met people who had not been given what they had been promised as part of the peace settlement—coca farmers who wanted to switch but were not being given the capital and equipment to do so. It is really important that the August deadline that was set for achieving that change is extended, because the promises have not been fulfilled. In Tierra Grata in the north, one of the zones where things were supposed to be going so well, we went to a village where there was no running water, no connection to electricity and no roads. That is also extremely problematic.
The third challenge is about the Government’s lack of respect for the transitional justice process, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central described in some detail. Building on experience in Northern Ireland and South Africa, it was decided to right past wrongs through the JEP, through a truth commission and through the unit for the disappeared. The under-resourcing of the JEP by the Government is so severe that lawyers who work there have a caseload of 600 cases. It is not working as it should do.
I know that the new Government face a situation that is intrinsically difficult and complex; they have been in power for only 10 months and they have to cope with 1.5 million refugees from Venezuela. That is not straightforward. It is important that those people who gave up their weapons—the UN oversaw the process of disarmament; it says that it was done properly, and that people did it truthfully—are rewarded, so that there is an incentive for the FARC people who have yet to join the peace process to join in and for the ELN, which is a more extreme group, to get on board with it. That will happen only if the Government fulfil their promises. It is important that the international community continues to support them.
I will tell the Minister the things that I think the British Government could do that would be helpful. First of all, they could send election monitors for the local elections in the autumn. That is very important, because they have privatised the electoral roll. Secondly, the UK is the penholder. The UN Security Council will make a visit in July, and it is really important that when its representatives are there, they meet trade unionists and human rights defenders and go out into the countryside. Thirdly, it is really important that the mandate and the budget for the UN is extended beyond October, in order to have that neutral, impartial and fair overview of what is going on.
Fourthly, I would like the Government to include case studies from Colombia in the two forthcoming conferences that they are organising, on journalism and on sexual violence in conflict. It would be worth studying Colombia in that. Fifthly, they should maintain the work that the embassy has done on minerals and the environment, and co-operating via the OECD. Sixthly, they should deliver the messages to the Colombian Government that I set out—the three key points.
Finally, the Government should remind the Americans that they too sat in the Security Council, supported and agreed the peace process and are signed up to it. They should not undermine it, as they do when they take away the right to visas of judges in the JEP who make judgments that they do not like. That is interfering in another country’s judicial process and is extremely unhelpful.
I do not know whether you have been to Colombia, Mr Hollobone. It is a very beautiful country. The people we met were extremely welcoming. They deserve better. We cannot do everything for them, but I think that we can help, and I hope that the Minister will do so.
Thank you for chairing our proceedings, Mr Hollobone. I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for securing the debate, which, as she says, is impeccably timed to coincide with President Duque’s two-day official visit. It allows me to recognise the hon. Lady’s longstanding engagement with the issue and her obvious, genuine and passionate commitment to justice in Colombia, which we all applaud.
I welcome the opportunity to give the Government’s assessment of the direction of the peace process. The majority of the commitments made by the FARC and the Colombian Government as part of the peace accords are being implemented. FARC is no longer an armed group—it has laid down its weapons—and, for their part, the Colombian Government have made the constitutional and legislative changes necessary to enable the peace process.
In 2018, the FARC took part in elections that had a record turnout and were noted as being the safest for decades; it now has members serving in Congress. The Colombian Government are setting up the legal structures that will govern the Special Jurisprudence for Peace—the JEP. This should pave the way for a transitional justice system that can offer justice for the victims of the conflict.
In the context of a five decade-long armed conflict, all of this is hugely significant, but it is also difficult. Inevitably, there have been, and there will continue to be, bumps in the road, particularly around transitional justice. This is a contentious but critical part of the peace process and it is crucial that it enjoys both political and public legitimacy. We were pleased that President Duque signed the legal basis of the transitional justice system earlier this month.
Some of the wider and more practical aspects of the peace deal are yet to be fully implemented. New momentum is now needed, for instance to bring greater security and prosperity to post-conflict areas, especially in rural districts. As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said—I commend her for her best ever speech—the UN and observers should focus properly on the rural areas; I find that argument compelling. It is important that all Colombians, particularly those living in rural areas, see that the peace agreement is being consistently applied, and know that they will all benefit from it.
Reintegration of former combatants, on the scale necessary in Colombia, is another challenging issue. More than 13,000 former FARC fighters and militia have registered for civilian reintegration. Regrettably, slow progress with training, fear of reprisals and long waiting times have led many to join dissident and criminal groups. The murder rate in Colombia has fallen to its lowest level in over 40 years, but the delay in reintegrating former combatants risks undermining that positive record. Indeed, we raised our concerns about killings by criminal groups at the UN Security Council in January, and at the UN Human Rights Council in March.
Tragically, as we have heard, those who speak out for the rights of local communities are often singled out for attack. The UN reports that at least 115 human rights defenders and community leaders were killed last year, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland mentioned in her speech. Amnesty International has described Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders.
The Colombian Government accepted all the UK’s recommendations to improve the protection of human rights defenders at their universal periodic review of human rights in May 2018. We welcome this, but much work remains to be done. We are supporting that work. We regularly meet with human rights defenders and have spent more than £3 million since 2011 on projects to support them. Those projects are making a real difference to the lives of human rights defenders, social leaders and, importantly, victims of sexual violence.
The ELN perpetuates insecurity in Colombia. We should not forget the 20 innocent people killed in the ELN attack on a police academy in Bogota in January. The ELN was not party to the 2016 peace agreement. It is a cause for regret that it rejected President Duque’s conditions for a return to peace talks in September. It is perfectly clear that the ELN and other criminal gangs are more interested in conducting a campaign of violence, extortion and intimidation in order to control illegal mining and profit from the record levels of coca production. We urge the ELN to reinstate its ceasefire and end its campaign of violence.
We have supported the Colombian peace process every step of the way, and we will continue to do so. We are proud to be the penholder at the UN Security Council. We are the largest donor to the UN fund that supports the implementation of the peace agreement and a significant donor to the UN Office for Human Rights and the Organisation of American States peace monitoring mission.
I thank the Minister for his contribution and other hon. Members for what has been a good debate. Will he acknowledge in particular the role of women human rights defenders in Colombia? I know that Amnesty International in particular has been doing some fantastic work, and they are often those under particular threat.
I will acknowledge them very fulsomely. We particularly support the women’s network, which assists women who have been victims of sexual violence, which is often the most repulsive and hideous aspect of the violence that they suffer.
Returning to what we are doing, through our conflict, stability and security fund alone we have spent over £40 million since 2015 on projects and programmes that help to cement a lasting peace. President Duque’s visit this week has been an important opportunity to strengthen our relationship with the Colombian Government across the board— he has many Ministers with him for the two days of his visit. The Prime Minister expressed her full support for implementation of the peace accords in her meeting yesterday, as did the Foreign Secretary when he and I met the President earlier today.
Our discussions of course went much further than that, covering the full range of co-operation, from climate change and trade to security and human rights. It is a sign of how our relationship is evolving towards a genuine strategic partnership through which we will work together to address the shared challenges we face.
Later today, we will announce a memorandum of understanding for a sustainable growth partnership, through which both countries will commit to meeting ambitious targets on halting deforestation and environmental crime and to working together on the low-carbon transition. President Duque was clear at his Canning House lecture yesterday: deforestation in Colombia must stop. I am confident that our new sustainable growth partnership will be an important weapon in Colombia’s arsenal with which to fight deforestation and environmental crime.
It is worth noting the programmes that the UK undertakes in rural areas of Colombia, which directly benefit communities there and their environment. UK-funded programmes in Colombia work across the country, at national, regional and municipal level. Recovery of post-conflict rural communities is a priority focus for the cross-Government conflict security and stability fund programme that supports the peace process throughout the country. It directly supports 18 organisations working in rural parts of the country, while the cross-Government prosperity fund also works with six local rural partners. Our international climate finance programmes work with partner organisations in rural areas, and directly with farms and indigenous communities.
On the wider issue of business and the environment, honourable Members may wish to be aware of UK action in the extractive sector in Colombia. The UK has sought to address human rights risks in the Colombian mining industry by encouraging compliance with the OECD’s due diligence guidance and by fostering partnerships between the private sector and international organisations, local government and civil society to support responsible mining practices.
That is very important, because it is the new source of conflict in Colombia. I would like the Minister to consider that we perhaps need to have some sanctions on people who do not abide by the OECD guidance; I do not think there are any at the moment. Could he possibly take that away?
I must say that I found the hon. Lady’s thesis about the importance of land very well thought through, very important and very significant. In terms of sanctions, as she well appreciates, from the legislation—
Not those kinds of sanctions—penalties.
To complete my logic, at the moment we do actual sanctions with the European Union, although we will be able to do that soon, but I understand what the hon. Lady says about penalties; removing impunity for bad behaviour and bad conduct is, I think, what she is saying.
We funded a “train the trainer” project in the country on due diligence guidance for responsible supply chains. In addition, the UK has funded a project to support the engagement of the private sector with Colombia’s Truth Commission in its work as part of Colombia’s transitional justice process. The project developed methodologies, tools and recommendations aimed at addressing and promoting the role of the private sector in the transitional justice process.
Our £25 million prosperity fund programme also supports projects to help to develop Colombia’s national infrastructure and to build capacity in agritech and local government. This work will have important knock-on benefits for the Colombian economy and environment and for the peace process.
I also want to put on record, as has been mentioned today, our appreciation for Colombia’s generosity in hosting more than 1.5 million Venezuelans who have been forced to flee their home country. We are playing a part in the regional response by supporting it with an £8 million contribution to the global concessional financing facility.
We commend Colombia for the progress it has made following the peace accords, but we recognise that more needs to be done to implement them in full, to bring security and prosperity to all areas of the country and, crucially, to protect human rights. As an international partner and an old, long-standing friend of Colombia, the UK will continue to support the implementation of the peace agreement and to work with Colombia across a broad range of issues to promote prosperity and opportunity for all its people.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I think that we have covered off all six areas of the peace agreement in detail. I thought all the contributions, whether speeches or interventions, were made in a very thoughtful and knowledgeable way, and I am very grateful to colleagues for their participation. I also thank the Minister for his response. There were some very helpful and useful suggestions from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), which I hope the Minister will take up with the Colombian Government, although I might have got my timings wrong about when the Minister was seeing President Duque today—
Twice today, and again tonight.
That is good. That is excellent. So he will be able to raise with the President the points that we have raised today. We all have a shared interest in the peace process and its success, so when we raise our concerns it is because we are genuinely concerned about what will happen to Colombia in the future. I thank, again, all colleagues for participating in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Colombia peace process.