Wednesday 11 March 2020
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Trade Deals and Fair Trade
I beg to move,
That this House has considered trade deals and fair trade.
It is a great pleasure to move the motion during Fairtrade fortnight. The debate is about how to hardwire the ethics of fair trade into future trade deals as we break out of Europe. I stand here as a Labour and Co-operative MP. The Co-op has a proud tradition of fair trade, solidarity and social justice, and, on the retail side, promoting Fairtrade coffee, bananas, wine, chocolate, and so on.
I represent Swansea West, and I am pleased to say that Swansea has been a Fairtrade city since 2004. In fact, Wales became the first fair trade nation in 2008, and a lot of that work was done by the Swansea fair trade forum. I am also a supporter of the Fairtrade Foundation, which has tended to focus on cocoa producers in the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where there are issues surrounding living incomes, gender inequality and environmental standards.
Coming to the crux of the matter, we are all aware that we face opportunities and risks in striking trade deals. Naturally, a lot of focus has been on the removal of subsidies and tariffs, and some of the focus has moved on to standards of products and services. However, I wish to talk about standards in relation to the environment, labour, and crop diseases and the like, which can be used to undermine free and fair trade by providing unlevel playing fields.
In a nutshell, fair trade is the principle that market actors should not gain a competitive advantage by adopting practices in other states that would be unlawful or unethical in their home states. The fair trade principle is that we should not outsource abuse—whether in terms of human rights or environmental standards—and then import products made under such conditions, creating unfair competition for domestic producers, who have to live up to high environmental and ethical standards. It is important that we do not import products that are produced below our standards and by virtual slave labour. Such imports naturally lead to people complaining locally that trade is uncompetitive, and to rhetoric about stopping trade and how everything is unfair to domestic producers, who miss out.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate in Fairtrade fortnight. Does he agree that Britain needs to be a real example around the world in standards, and would it not be a good idea if the Government set out clearly that they intend to remain a signatory to the European convention on human rights?
Yes, that is crucial. There has been some ambiguity over whether we will continue with the European convention on human rights. Ministers have simply said, “We’re still in it,” when questioned. They have not ruled out leaving it, and that is of great concern. If we, as a country, decide on our own definitions of rights and human rights, other countries, such as China, Russia and others, will say, “Oh well, Britain is doing that.” We became a signatory 60 years ago. Winston Churchill was an architect of the convention. It is very important for our standing that we remain a signatory to it.
There used to be a commitment to including dynamic alignment on environmental and labour standards in our agreement with the EU, but that is no longer the case. If those commitments are not given, the EU will consider imposing restrictions based on the presumption that non-alignment might be a doorway to providing uncompetitive trade and an unfair advantage, by undermining rights, the environment and labour standards. I certainly would not want to see that.
International agreements tend to be policed by independent tribunals invoked by investor-state dispute settlements. Those settlements focus very much on the interests of the inward investor, and on any profit that they might lose from the host nation’s introduction of laws and restrictions. Such laws and restrictions are often introduced to protect the host environment, workers’ rights and so on, and such settlements make it possible for a fine to be levied against the host country. The Minister will know of cases such as Lone Pine fracking in Canada, which sued Canada for hundreds of millions of dollars because Quebec decided to have a moratorium on fracking. There are cases of companies suing Mexico on the grounds that it introduced a tax on fizzy drinks to protect people from diabetes. There are cases of such mechanisms being used against Slovakia when it tried to roll back privatisation.
The point that I am making is that such arrangements contain a chapter for the investor that completely overwhelms the balance of power in relation to human rights and the environment. There may be an environmental chapter in some of the agreements, but it will not have the enforceability that investor-state tribunals do. The Government should look at that in order to hardwire labour and environmental standards into trading agreements, and to help to sustain and grow fair trade. It would also be ideal to hardwire the Paris agreement and the convention on human rights into new trade deals. We know that in the US-UK negotiations, the US explicitly wants to rule out climate change and the Paris agreement, and that is of great concern.
I am moving towards suggesting to the Minister that trade agreements should allow states to penalise social and environmental dumping as well as economic dumping. At the moment, under World Trade Organisation rules, most trade agreements allow players to penalise other countries that overtly subsidise and dump products on their marketplace by way of tariffs, and so on, or they allow referral to a dispute resolution mechanism, as I mentioned. They do not include similar mechanisms for social and environmental dumping. I ask the Government to look at such mechanisms to ensure that countries are not undermined by the abuse of human rights and environmental conditions, thereby undermining prices in the market and providing unfair competition.
Some trading agreements include references to some of those things, but they are essentially unenforceable. There are warm words about hoping to look after workers and the environment, but they are not enforceable. When push comes to shove, that leads to disaster, particularly in very poor countries. If we are serious about taking back control when we leave the EU, we need a trade policy that respects the environment, public health, social justice and democracy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share the Co-operative party’s concern about the mooted winding up or merging of the Department for International Development? We need it to grow in order to tackle inequalities around the world.
That point is very well made. This is a critical time, during which DFID needs to be closely engaged in the whole issue of negotiating trade deals. It is helpful for DFID to be separate from the Department for International Trade. We do not want DFID to be absorbed, eliminated, pushed into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or whatever; we want it to be a strong voice in a difficult time as we move forward, so that Britain can be seen to champion these values for others to follow, rather than undermining standards and leading people in the opposite direction.
Coming back to the point about democracy, it is important that we are all in this together, so to speak, by virtue of having democratic scrutiny and a vote on the mandate. The process should be as transparent as is sensible, and then there should be final scrutiny and a vote on the deal in Parliament. That is something that the US Congress enjoys, and democracy in trade deals is not much of an innovation. The US Congress looks at trade deals, and there is public consultation. Of course, the European Parliament also has a vote on trade deals. If we are taking back control, we should have similar or better rights ourselves.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Does he agree that the current avenues for public and parliamentary scrutiny of future trade deals are not fit for purpose; that the Government must be transparent about their negotiating priorities to ensure that social and environmental protections are adequate; and that they must provide scope for genuine parliamentary debate and influence in any and all trade deals?
Order. Can I just say to the hon. Lady that it is normally good practice to not intervene on a speech when you have not heard the beginning of it? The hon. Gentleman gave way, so I allowed the hon. Lady to speak, but it is not good practice to come in midway through a speech and intervene.
Thank you very much, Mr Stringer, and I thank my hon. Friend very much for her intervention. I agree with the points that she made, because in a mature and open democracy such as ours we do not want to have trade deals done in secret, and then find out that they contained all sorts of strange things that we did not want. By way of example, we would not want to wake up one day and find GM food scraps on our shelves. Neither would we want chlorinated chicken or hormone-impregnated beef, which provokes premature puberty in children.
We would not want certain things to be negotiated on the grounds of regulatory co-operation. That might include moving away from REACH—a process that the Minister will know about—on the chemical front. Under that process, if he were to produce a chemical, he would have to show that it was safe. If I were to produce a chemical in the United States, however, the Environmental Protection Agency would have to show it was hazardous. That is why asbestos is still for sale in the United States. We would certainly want to debate and scrutinise whether regulatory co-operation would lead to a much higher incidence of hazardous chemicals or poor food, which I would not want to see.
I know that the Government have committed to maintaining our standards of food production. However, the threat now is that while our farmers are delivering good food, the doorway will be left open for American farmers to pump in low-grade, low-price products that are consumed by poorer people who are under the hammer of austerity, and who end up feeding hormone-impregnated beef to their children, with strange medical side effects. I would not want that, and we would certainly want an open debate and discussion about it, so the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) was well made.
In addition, we do not want our NHS to be undermined behind closed doors. The Government have said, “The NHS is safe in our hands,” and all that sort of stuff, but as we already know, the Americans will want to compete in areas of the NHS that are nationalised. They want access to patient data, and in fact a lot of patient data has already been leaked to private companies. They also want to increase medicine prices by protecting patents more effectively, and the World Health Organisation also promotes higher medicine costs. At this tragic time when we face the threat of coronavirus, and when we are talking about public health and equality of availability of drugs to deal with this and any future threats, such protections are essential.
We need democracy to shine a light and blow out the bugs in the system, so that we know what we are doing. Indeed, we want to eliminate any clauses about ratcheting and stand-still that are basically designed to stop the renationalisation of privatised utilities and industries. Clearly, people have different political views, but in a democracy the balance between public and private should be a matter of debate, discussion and public mood. It should be a moving target, rather than being fixed in one place or continuously going towards privatisation.
I will say a couple of words about what we might want to change and retain as we leave the EU. The Minister will know that the EU offers certain developing countries tariff rate preferences through its general system of preferences on everything but arms schemes. There is a risk that our bilateral trade agreements with other countries will lead to a relative erosion of those standards, or that developing countries will lose out as we carve up arrangements with developed countries.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Do you agree with me—I think you do, from what you said earlier about dumping and the issues faced by developing countries—that the new deals must not erode the hard-fought preferences given to countries in the global south? There is a real danger that the new trade agreements that are brokered with other trading blocs will not be in those countries’ development interests. We need further public and Government scrutiny of those deals so we can be assured that that will not happen.
Thank you very much, Mr Stringer. agree precisely: it is important that as we move forward, Britain shows leadership in this area. As has been pointed out, DFID continues to exist to champion the needs of developing countries, including elimination of poverty, protection of our environment and sustainable development in the context of the Paris agreement, and to ensure those things are not undermined by future trade agreements made in private.
There is also the question of the EU’s economic partnership agreements for Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. There are problems with those agreements, because they undermine regional integration and domestic production in those zones. It would seem fair to have a balance of power between the different groupings of nations, rather than bigger powers making smaller powers less weak. Arguably, there is an opportunity for Britain to continue to lead here—unfortunately from without, as opposed to within—while keeping those trading preferences.
I know that a lot of people want to speak on this important subject, so I will simply say that this is a new chapter in Britain’s history as we move forward as a great trading nation. It is our responsibility to uphold the very best standards in human rights, workers’ rights, fair play, social justice, the environment and democracy. I hope that the Minister can give the reassurances that I have requested, and that we can go from strength to strength on fair trade, rather than using our EU exit as an opportunity to move in reverse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) for securing this debate in Fairtrade fortnight. I will make four short points.
First, it would be wrong of us not to acknowledge that the Fairtrade establishment needs a considerable amount of reform. The poorest countries in the world, which are trying their hardest to participate in it, find it difficult to get Fairtrade certification, because they are poor and simply cannot meet its regulatory requirements. If we are trying to ensure an even spread across the world, we need to look at that so that we can access Fairtrade products.
To be clear, is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that Fairtrade should be reformed so that ethical and other standards are reduced, rather than maintained, to allow a level playing field? Surely we should invest further in international development to make sure that we level up.
The hon. Gentleman misquotes me. I am not saying that standards should be reduced, but there is a definite difficulty with the Fairtrade method when the poorest cannot afford the Fairtrade certification that is required to get their products to the rest of the world.
Secondly, on the human rights question, I am fully committed to the human rights that we have and to the European Court of Human Rights. As the hon. Member for Swansea West knows from our common membership for some time of the Council of Europe, I am absolutely committed to the Council and the ECHR. Recently, a Member in the other place asked about the future of the ECHR and the UK Government’s commitment to it, and I was pleased to note that the Minister responsible gave a firm commitment to the ECHR. There is, however, a serious corruption problem in the ECHR, which we need to acknowledge and do something about. The petition about it has already reached something like 13,000 signatures, including mine. It is apparent that several of the judges whom we elect—I reiterate that we as members of the Council of Europe elect the judges of the ECHR—come not from legal practice but from non-governmental organisations. They are the very NGOs that bring cases before the judges without a declaration of interest. That undermines the credibility of the ECHR in taking great strides forward on our human rights.
If the hon. Gentleman would like a defence of the ECHR, I am happy to provide that, but this is probably not the occasion. I point out, however, that about 96% of cases that are brought before the ECHR are dismissed by its secretariat as worthless and having no legal merit and do not get to a judge. In the few cases that are brought before a judge, we are by far the winners in the way that we defend them and that they are taken forward. I share his commitment to the ECHR and will do all I can to ensure that we stay part of it.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the agreement with Africa. As he knows, I have been and still am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria. The UK’s involvement with the Nigerian economy is productive. The UK has gone out of its way to try to achieve good things for the Nigerian state and the UK, one of which is the abolition of modern slavery. Agriculture is a sector full of opportunities for modern slavery. When I went to see Unilever and its operations, I was pleased that it and its entire supply chain are working with organisations to eradicate modern slavery. There is an enormous opportunity for British companies to get into Nigeria and to work constructively with Nigerian companies. That is why a year and a half ago I was pleased to invite the Nigerian Federal Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to see the entire supply chain of the agricultural sector, from growing to packaging and selling, and everything along the way.
Fourthly, on the standards of health foods, we have heard a considerable amount from the Prime Minister and the Government about the standards of our health foods not being open to trade discussion. I have discussed it with my farmers on numerous occasions and given that commitment to them. I am sure that that will remain something that we will take forward in our negotiations.
Despite that indiscretion, it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. You are certainly not the first person to make that mistake and I doubt you will be the last.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on securing this important and timely debate, to which I will make a short contribution as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Fairtrade. I offer my sincere apologies that due to Select Committee commitments, I am unlikely to be present for the contributions of Front-Bench Members.
At our annual Fairtrade reception two weeks ago, Rosine, a cocoa producer from Côte d’Ivoire, shared information about what fair trade means for her and how it has transformed her life and the lives of her family and workers in a region where a typical farmer earns just 75p a day. Hon. Members who came to support the event—we had a record number of people through the door, including more than 100 MPs—will have understood the power of what she shared and the value of fair trade.
The debate is timely not only because of Fairtrade fortnight, but because we as a country are embarking on probably the single biggest shake-up of our trading arrangements in modern times. Without a strong sense of trade justice and fairness at the heart of that process, we may make quick wins here and there, but they will be to the detriment of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. As we transition away from our membership of the EU, we will be looking to negotiate with the larger, stronger economies first, and having a close eye on existing market access for developing countries must be a priority as we go through that process. With that in mind, I call on the Government to consider the impact of any proposed changes to our international development aspirations. Without the right scrutiny, our ambition to get bilateral trade deals done may have a detrimental impact on other smaller and more vulnerable exporters, undercutting and marginalising Fairtrade producers.
There could be some positive opportunities for Fairtrade within proposed changes to the tariff schedules and agreed continuity of preferences within trade deals after 2021, but without proper impact assessments that focus on potential unintended consequences, there could be significant impacts on market access for developing countries, which will affect Fairtrade products and producers. I welcome the news that the Government have committed to the roll-over preferences currently granted to developing and low-income countries by the EU, but I understand that several countries that currently have preferential access via the EU have not yet agreed continuity arrangements with the UK; they include Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Cameroon. I hope that the Government are in a position to update the House on that before too long.
My anxiety is that in our haste to sign off bilateral trade deals, we will approach the agreements as a means of securing quick wins for the UK and neglect to see them as the journey through which we can unlock the potential of farmers and producers across the developing world, satisfying our international development aspirations at the same time—resulting in a fair deal for all of us, if we get this right.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is hugely worrying that investor-state dispute settlements were not ruled out in the Government’s objectives for the US and EU trade agreements? Those mechanisms hugely undermine nations’ sovereignty and the hard-won rights and regulations she is discussing.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want accountable methods of making sure that fairness runs through those trade deals, and we have to explore any and all opportunities to do that. Impact assessments are one of the ways of getting to that position, and the Government should take those issues into account, with an eye firmly on gender, inequality, pay and labour rights.
I pay tribute to some of the Fairtrade heroes we have in Halifax. When I first became a Member of Parliament, I was determined to make sure Halifax became a Fairtrade town; it was thanks to some wonderful people who had already been doing some great work promoting Fairtrade over a number of years that I was able to pull all that together to secure Fairtrade town status, which we have now had for three years.
Across Fairtrade fortnight we have had a number of activities. The brilliant fairandfunky have been in to deliver our annual Fairtrade schools conference at Halifax Minster. Just this weekend, the Albany Arcade at Halifax borough market hosted an exhibition of entries for our school poetry and poster competition. We had recipes and amazing samples of Fairtrade tiffin to try, made by Jane Simmons, and we had the absolute Fairtrade legends, Clive and Kay Holmes, who have been championing Fairtrade for years, holding stalls, making products available and sharing information. You could not meet two more wonderful people, entirely motivated by trade justice and fairness. I thank Ash Green primary school, Salterhebble, Warley Road and St Joseph’s for really getting behind the poster competition. The staff do an enormous amount of work in their schools promoting Fairtrade to their young people.
It would be remiss of me not to say that the APPG is always recruiting and always active; I encourage any and all MPs who are motivated by these issues to come along and get involved. As those trade deals come back to the UK Parliament for discussion, we will have to start doing some of the heavy lifting on scrutiny, in addition to the grassroots campaigning work that we have undertaken as the APPG up until now.
I apologise again that I will not be able to stay for the end of the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on setting the scene so well. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch); her contributions are always very helpful to any debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for his speech. He and I often spar—no, not spar; we are often together in this Chamber, he on the Conservative side and I on this side.
I have spoken on this issue previously, and I am pleased to again lend my support to the calls for ensuring that any trade deals we set up ensure that the first producers receive a decent wage. That is something that I have had in my heart for many years. Constituents contact me regularly about fair trade and some Fairtrade events take place—it is an issue of concern not just for myself but for many in my constituency. I have always said that we should be the example in this place—the example of how we treat each other, the example of how we treat our staff and the example of how we deal with those who are less able to stand up for themselves. That is what fair trade is about. It is about standing up for those who do not have someone to fight their battles, and doing our best for them. We have the opportunity in this debate to do so. Brexit discussions in this place showed that many of us failed in how we treated each other. I want to do my part to ensure that our trade deals reflect how we should treat the little man or the little woman at the start of the production process who has no one to speak for him or her, and demand fair play.
I was recently pleased to attend the Fairtrade event here at Westminster. I am a type 2 diabetic. We were sent away with a bag of Fairtrade products, including coffee, which I am a great drinker of, and there was also some lovely dark chocolate. For a diabetic, dark chocolate is not as bad as milk chocolate—I have convinced myself of that—so I energetically scoffed the dark chocolate by myself; I did not even offer it to anybody else. The event was of course a reminder of how important it is to support others across the world. Hearing the story of how one bar of chocolate comes to sit on our shelves has made sure that not only will I be thinking of my sugar levels when I consider whether to buy the bar of chocolate, but I will now be thinking of the origin and whether the pay has been fair.
The Fairtrade event highlighted that the UK chocolate industry is worth at least £4 billion each year—the girls in my office have told me they believe that to be a conservative estimate, as they think they consume that amount between them! I am not sure that is entirely true. In all seriousness, £4 billion is not a small amount. It is a massive trade and one that must be profitable, but that is not the case for those who farm the cocoa. The Fairtrade Foundation highlighted to me the fact that most cocoa farmers live in abject poverty. We may not know it when we eat a bar of chocolate or purchase it for someone else, but a typical farmer in Ivory Coast or Ghana earns less than 75p a day. Women farmers are worse off, which is disgraceful. They work longer hours and earn less. Pricing is not simply a matter of supply and demand; it is measured in how little they can get away with paying. Unfortunately, in 2020, women are still given the raw end of the deal. At home we talk about glass ceilings; these women farmers barely have a dirt floor.
Just 25% of women cocoa farmers own their land, and they work about a third more than men if we take childcare and domestic chores into account. In countries where housework is considered women’s work, too many women are expected and required to do it all themselves. It is tradition in many societies, which I know from personal contact with many across Africa and elsewhere. At home here, women work hard, and as my parliamentary aide says, “I work and he works, so whoever gets in from work first starts the dinner.” Things have moved on in many homes, and working women are often helped by their partner, although it should be acknowledged that many women do the work alone or rely on their families—but in third-world countries, women carry out back-breaking work, come home and take care of their families and get paid less for it.
I am extremely concerned that farmers, particularly women farmers in many countries, are not properly paid. When I was younger, my mother had a saying that “you earn the money by the sweat of your brow”. If they are earning their money by the sweat of their brow, and they are, they should be getting paid more than 75p a day. We need to take steps to ensure that our British pound is not part of this terrible chain. Brexit has afforded us a unique ability to re-evaluate our trade deals and to ensure that the lowest price is not the sole consideration, although it obviously plays a part.
I am a Brexiteer, which is no secret. The Minister is a Brexiteer. This country has taken the decision to leave the EU, which it did on 31 January. We have moved on. The responsibility now lies with the Government to ensure that we give a fair price for the excellent goods that we receive through fair trade. I gently ask the Minister to outline how he intends to ensure that any and all future trade deals and renewals of existing deals—we have many deals where the price structure is already in place—have at their core a desire for a foundation of fair trade for the worker on the land, and not simply for the shareholder in their office. We have to get the balance back again; we cannot always pay out dividends for shareholders when the person who produces the goods finds it hard just to make ends meet. Gone are the days when we can say, “Well, we shut our poorhouses and workhouses, but we are not responsible for the workhouses in other nations.” We are, and we are obliged to ensure that our deals reflect the basic principle of fair pay for good work.
I ask the Minister, gently but firmly, to do everything in his power to change not simply the market in chocolate, which we all adore—diabetics or not—but our entire foundation of trade deals at this pivotal time in British history. The Minister is nodding his head, which indicates that he wishes to respond in a positive fashion. I very much look forward to hearing from him.
This is my first full contribution to a Westminster Hall debate, and I look forward to making more contributions. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on securing the debate, which addresses an important issue as Britain prepares for life outside the EU.
Stockport is a Fairtrade town, and I am a long-standing supporter of fair trade. My local Stockport fair trade group is active throughout the year, to raise awareness about exploitation of some of the lowest-paid people in the world. In December 2019, the Fairtrade Foundation recognised Stockport fair trade group as the Fairtrade community of the month. I pay tribute to Sheila Townsend and Robert Twigg, who have led my local group as volunteers. They put in lots of hours every month.
Since entering Parliament, I have joined the all-party group for Fairtrade to help to promote the vital work that the movement does for workers in developing and low-income countries, such as helping to tackle exploitative employment practices and ensuring that workers are paid a fair price for their labour and produce. Fairtrade also sets the social, economic and environmental standards for employers and employees by safeguarding workers’ rights and ensuring that they are paid a Fairtrade premium, protecting the environment and establishing a Fairtrade minimum price to benefit businesses.
The fair trade community plays an important role in helping to tackle the climate crisis through initiatives such as Fairtrade standards, which ensure that all farmers reduce carbon emissions. That is particularly important because, in addition to facing economic hardship, many farmers in developing countries are also on the frontline of the climate crisis and require increasing support to sustain their livelihoods. Fairtrade is an established brand, which has raised awareness of exploitative practices for almost 30 years and has consistently proven to be highly trusted by British consumers, with recent polls showing that around 89% of the public trust the Fairtrade mark.
Across the UK, fair trade is supported by a rich network of more than 1,000 Fairtrade schools, in addition to more than 650 Fairtrade towns, faith communities, universities and local groups. The UK has a proud track record of being a global leader in the Fairtrade movement, which spans more than 73 countries and almost 2 million workers across the globe. As Britain leaves the EU and puts in place free trade agreements, it is absolutely imperative for the citizens of developing and low-income countries that those negotiations ensure that the rights of workers in developing countries continue to have the same protections and remain in line with the sustainable development goals.
This is a crucial time for the Fairtrade movement in the UK, and the Government now have the opportunity to increase their support for developing and low-income countries. Life outside the EU brings with it many uncertainties, but also opportunities. The Government should pursue the gold standard in trade for development policy, to support the world’s poorest people to escape poverty. The Government must also consider policies that enable developing countries to move up the value chain and that guarantee their current market access in a post-Brexit Britain. Although it is undoubtedly important that environmental and labour chapters form part of the current trade deals, they can be effective only if they are enforceable. Furthermore, it is essential that the Government consider the overall impact of trade agreements on different sectors, including the extent to which they improve human rights and encourage sustainable behaviour.
The Government must also prioritise securing continuity arrangements before the end of the Brexit transition period at the start of 2021, so that we protect developing countries that rely on continued trade with the UK as part of the £9 billion Fairtrade industry. Although the Government have made encouraging noises about rolling over the preferences currently granted to developing and low-income countries by the EU, there are concerns that a number of countries have yet to secure arrangements with the UK, including Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Cameroon.
I call on the Government to consider carrying out an impact assessment to identify whether any trade deal or arrangement that is put in place will support a country’s development, in addition to protecting its national policy space. For example, lowering or eliminating tariffs on Brazilian sugar could have a detrimental impact on producers and exporters in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. Such assessments need to look beyond economic impact and take into consideration what effect they will have on gender inequalities, labour rights and the environment.
In closing, I join the Fairtrade Foundation in calling for a revised parliamentary process for the agreement of new trade deals, which would give Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise the legislative process. At present, MPs have no official mandate process, no clarity on transparency in negotiations and no vote on any trade deals. That is less democratic scrutiny than Members of the European Parliament or US Senators have. It is vital that we consider the EU process as a baseline.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on securing this important debate.
I do not think anyone in this room would disagree that trade needs to be free, or that trade needs to be fair. I thank the hon. Gentleman for expanding what we mean by fairness. We are not just talking about ensuring that there is fairness between an investor and the state, or fairness for developing countries—by, for example, stopping the illegal dumping of excess goods to the detriment of their own economies. We need to ensure that there is fairness in subsidies and state aid, fairness in competition and fairness for Governments. That can be done by ensuring that businesses pay their taxes and that Governments are not restricted, or perceived to be restricted, in legislating for the common good. Fairness for citizens involves ensuring that corners are not cut and that standards—be they social or employment standards, product safety or food standards, or environmental standards—are upheld, so that we all play fair with the environment and do what we can to combat climate change.
To ensure there is a level playing field and fairness in all these areas, the Scottish National party’s view is that trade deals need arbitration and dispute resolution mechanisms that work not simply for investors, but for all of us. It is instructive that in its negotiating mandate for the UK-EU free trade agreement, the European Union has said that each of the areas I have mentioned should be subject to a dispute resolution mechanism. It is equally instructive to note that the UK Government—certainly at this stage in the negotiations—are trying to exclude subsidies, competition policy, labour laws, the environment and tax from any dispute resolution mechanism. If the UK’s Government’s intention is to exclude those important matters from arbitration, I am not convinced that it will fill the public with confidence that the Government are serious about fairness and a level playing field.
Nor am I, but I am surprised and slightly disappointed that the UK Government’s stated intention is to exclude certain important matters from dispute resolution or arbitration. But—and this is a big but—not all arbitration and dispute resolution mechanisms are the same. Although the SNP will continue to support the inclusion of all the aspects of modern trade deals that I have mentioned, we would be deeply concerned if other future trade deals implemented the one-sided ISDS-type mechanisms that the hon. Member for Swansea West mentioned.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech closely, and I agree with what he is saying. Does he agree that it is imperative that the UK stands up for dispute resolution mechanisms that include social and environmental matters and other areas beyond investment, as a precedent for when the EU—and indeed the UK, which is in a much weaker position—talks to the US or China? The EU will be the future of fair trade globally.
Of course I agree with that. It is important that the wide range of issues that form the basis of modern trade deals—not simply tariffs and quotas—are included. As I have said, however, not all arbitration mechanisms are the same, and I would not want one that operated on the basis of the secret ISDS-type schemes that we have seen.
That is primarily because of the potential restrictions that such mechanisms could place on Governments, including the UK Government, in legislating even on public health, for example. To demonstrate, I will give two brief examples of how ISDS-type arrangements are unfair and limit the Government’s ability to act in the interests of citizens. The examples are not new and the information has been around for some time.
In the first case, between 1995 and 1997, the Canadian Government banned the export of toxic polychlorinated biphenyl waste to comply with their obligations under the Basel convention, to which the United States was not a party. Waste treatment company SDMyers sued the Canadian Government for $20 million in damages under chapter 11 of the North American free trade agreement, which included an ISDS-type arbitration scheme. The claim was upheld by a NAFTA tribunal even though Canada had acted to comply with an international treaty—that is quite extraordinary.
In the second case, in April 1997, the Canadian Parliament banned the import and transportation of the petrol additive methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl, because of concerns that it posed a significant public health risk. Ethyl Corporation, the additive’s manufacturer, sued the Canadian Government—again under NAFTA chapter 11—for $251 million, to cover losses resulting from the “expropriation” both of its plant and its “good reputation”. The claim was upheld by the Canadian dispute settlement panel, and the Canadian Government repealed the ban and paid Ethyl Corporation $15 million in compensation.
Those cases involved toxic PCB waste and a petrol additive that was deemed to have an impact on public health. In my view, it is quite wrong and unfair for large corporations to be able to sue Governments simply for taking steps to protect the wellbeing of their citizens, or for enacting public health measures that they believe to be right and fair, and for which they may well have an electoral mandate.
Although we welcome new trade deals, they need to be fair. As has been said, the process of agreeing them needs to be transparent and inclusive. For example, it must formally involve, at all stages, the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations; and approval must be sought from and granted by Members of Parliament. That mirrors the point about democracy that the hon. Member for Swansea West made.
A clear understanding is required that although genuine dispute resolution mechanisms are vital for delivering fairness, free-trade agreements that include secret ISDS-type courts that limit, or appear to limit, the ability of Governments at any level to act in the best interests of their citizens are wrong, unfair and profoundly unacceptable.
I apologise to you and to other hon. Members for my late arrival, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on securing this fantastic debate, which is well timed given that the Fairtrade fortnight has just passed.
My hon. Friend started the debate by describing what he thinks of when he considers the subject of fair trade. It is not to gain a competitive advantage through market practices that would be unlawful or unethical in one’s own market. It is about avoiding abuses of human rights or environmental standards, promoting fair competition in domestic markets, and avoiding unfair domestic activity that undercuts or undermines domestic producers. That was a pretty good starting point for the debate, which has flowed from those remarks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) spoke about the importance of high standards and rights around the world, to which I would add regulation. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) quite rightly mentioned the role of the Co-operative party and movement in promoting fair trade. He also spoke of the vital role that the Department for International Trade should play in tackling unfair trading practices around the world and raised his concerns about its potential merging into the Foreign Office. I add to that my concern that the Department does not have responsibility for the negotiations with the European Union, which accounts for nearly half of our international trade. That undermines the Department’s effectiveness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) quite rightly spoke about the need for high standards to be maintained in the UK and promoted around the world. In response, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West spoke about the importance of standards in the chemical industry through the European REACH system. The film “Dark Waters”, which I recommend to you, Mr Stringer, and to all right hon. and hon. Members who have not seen it, depicts exactly what goes wrong when those standards are not in place. Historically, the United States has not had high chemical standards and the 70,000 population of the town of Petersburg, West Virginia, was put at risk by the irresponsible actions of the chemical industry there. That shows what can go wrong without good regulation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) spoke of the potential for international trade agreements to undermine free trade if they are not negotiated in the right way. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) argued for fairer trade, and although my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton responded to his point, I would simply add that given the way that economic partnership agreements have been rolled over, it is important that the Government continue to negotiate with countries in the developing world for improvements that benefit those who need fair trade the most. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who is not my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), spoke about what fair trade means for workers and communities in the Ivory Coast and the importance of trade justice and fairness to them. That was reiterated by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) made an excellent contribution in his first speech in this Chamber about the fact that Stockport is a fair trade borough. He also mentioned the importance of the sustainable development goals.
To pick up briefly on what the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) said, I agree with him. I am sure we are speaking about the same things when we compare fair trade with free trade. Unfortunately, not everybody uses “ free trade” in the way he and I would use the term. It is very important that we consider, as he did in his analysis of some of the challenges in dispute mechanisms, what we mean by “free”. Who does free trade serve, and who is it free for? Similarly, when we speak of fair trade, who is fair trade for? The hon. Gentleman’s example was to do with investors with deep pockets. They have the ability to take on the public or environmental interest if dispute mechanisms that they can use are in place in the international agreements.
What is fair trade? Typically, we think of it as fair trade for farmers in the developing world, a badge on coffee, chocolate or wine that we see in supermarkets, the kinds of stories that we heard at the Fairtrade fortnight reception in the House of Commons, and the work of the Fairtrade Foundation, but there is so much more to the topic than that. There is the need for a rules-based system governed by the WTO, in which it is incredibly important that the United States plays its full part. I think I put that question to the Secretary of State last Monday: is it important enough to this country that in negotiations with the United States we insist on the United States taking its responsibilities to the WTO seriously, including it appointing to the appellate body?
Fair trade is about international trade agreements that support human rights and workers’ rights, combat exploitation and undermining of trade union activity, and support environmental and climate justice. It is no coincidence that those on the frontline of the climate crisis in the developing world are those who face the most difficult economic times and those most in need of support through a fair trade system. It cannot be right that this country continues to promote and fund the export of fossil fuel projects, which, sadly, the Government still do, as we saw most recently at the Africa summit. We should promote renewable energy and help the developing world to move to a low-carbon and net-zero future at the same time as we do at home. That would also be an opportunity for our domestic technology and export potential.
Not only in the agreements and settlement mechanisms mentioned by the hon. Member for Dundee East, but in the trans-Pacific agreement, we see the ability to undermine trade union activity and the ability for opt-outs in countries such as Vietnam. We already have significant trade with China, another country where there are significant concerns about human rights abuses and a complete absence of trade unions. That is what international trade and its agreements need to consider. It cannot be right that we trade at all costs; it must be right that international trade is done sustainably and fairly.
That brings me to the impact on our own economy. The result of a trade war—as we have seen with the tariffs imposed by President Trump—is an impact from dumping, which we see at the moment, with low-quality cheap goods on our market. Dumping is undermining our steel, ceramics and wood industries. Unless the Government get things right, we will see the potential for the United States to dump low-quality products on us, as a consequence of the type of deal that President Trump would like to negotiate.
It is not good enough to say, “We are going to have zero tariffs to benefit consumers,” because if the goods that come in as a result of those zero tariffs are of a low quality, consumers lose out. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West mentioned the problems of poor food standards and the prospect of the poorest in our society being fed chlorinated—or, now, acid-washed—chicken. Remember the reason that chicken is acid washed is the appalling hygiene and animal welfare standards in the United States, and that the United States has 10 times the level of food poisoning that we do in this country is those poor standards. That is what is at stake for consumers.
Our domestic producers will be undermined if cheap food is allowed in as a result of a US trade agreement. If domestic producers are forced by those low standards to compete unfairly, will they survive? Will they survive to take advantage of the reciprocal opportunity to export to the United States market? That seems unlikely, and that concern has been expressed not just by me but by the National Farmers Union and the farmers themselves.
Trade, historically, has been about power relationships. That is a reality. Do we take the opportunity available to us in negotiating new trade agreements to take our responsibilities seriously? The countries that are party to the economic partnership agreements that we rolled over want to revisit them. They want better terms, because of the unfairness of those agreements—concerns that have been expressed historically. Those countries have rolled the agreements over because they want to continue trading, but they have made it clear that they wish to revisit them.
That would be the responsible thing for us to do it but, equally, it would be wrong of us to accept—in a distressed state—whatever terms we are offered by the United States. We have discussed the poor standards that come with such an agreement and that are the consequence of the negotiating objectives set out by the Government. The Government include the dispute settlement paragraph—only a short one—but the problem, as the hon. Member for Dundee East set out clearly, is that that dispute settlement mechanism is the back door to undermining, or running roughshod over, all the commitments not to allow US pharmaceutical companies access to our markets to sell their medicines, not to undercut workers’ rights, not to undercut our ability to address the climate crisis, and not to support our domestic manufacturing industries.
I expressed that concern in a question I put to the Secretary of State—I think the hon. Member for Dundee East put the same question. I checked and double-checked the Secretary of State’s responses, but that is the question she did not answer. Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity now to make it absolutely crystal clear that he understands that the United States has those dispute mechanisms in its trade agreements because it and its investors use them to secure market access, to undermine our domestic producers and to sue the Governments with which the agreements are made. We must not have undercutting of our manufacturers, we must not allow access to public services, we must not have a reduction in workers’ rights, and consumers must not have to put up with lower standards.
When it is fair, trade is a force for good. When it is between equal partners—whether it is between us and the developing world or between us and a larger trading bloc—trade is essential to economic prosperity. Trade has the ability to transform the lives of local producers and communities in the developing world, but it must be balanced and there must be an opportunity for those countries to diversify away from a system that relies on the export of minerals and cash crops and towards a much more balanced economy. Trade must also be on the basis of a fair international rules-based system. It should mean avoiding both exploitation abroad and undercutting at home.
I call on the Minister to carry out the Government’s pledge to revisit the rolled-over agreements with the developing world and to rule out the use of a dispute mechanism in the United States agreement that is very different from what is envisaged for the EU agreement. Given the track record of the United States, that has the potential to undermine all the warm words on workers’ rights, the environment, consumers and access to the national health service, so I hope the Minister rules it out. Fair trade is an incredibly important aspect of what we do and what we support, but it has to be carried out appropriately. We must both act responsibly and ensure that we look after our own domestic markets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, for my first speech as a Minister in Westminster Hall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on securing the debate, and other hon. Members not only on their contributions but on their ingenuity in using this occasion at the end of Fairtrade fortnight to widen the debate into one about our future free trade agreements around the world, in particular with the United States. I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having been such a doughty advocate for the cause of fair trade over the years—a position that the Government share.
The Department for International Trade works very closely with the Fairtrade Foundation; indeed, the foundation serves on the strategic trade advisory group—the STAG—which I chair as the Minister responsible for trade policy. The global fair trade system reaches more than 1.5 million farmers and workers in more than 73 countries, many of which have historical ties to the UK, principally through the Commonwealth. The UK market for Fairtrade certified goods, which is underpinned by fair trade standards, minimum prices and direct payment of premiums to producers, has grown into one of the world’s largest. The Fairtrade mark continues to be trusted highly by the UK consumer, with more than 80% of the public saying they trust it.
Working towards a living income in domestic and global value chains is one of the keys to driving poverty reduction and economic development, and fair trade plays a crucial role in that. It also provides a means to create wealth, jobs and prosperity in local communities, in turn driving a country’s development and allowing it to grow into a trading partner of the future.
I will give some examples of how the Government, across various Departments, support free and fair trade. Between 2010 and 2016, the Department for International Development provided £20 million to Fairtrade International to help it to have a greater impact through its work and to make the global fair trade system stronger. DFID has also supported fair trade by investing more than £30 million in the responsible, accountable and transparent enterprise programme. That programme has helped to fund Shift, which works to improve companies’ human rights reporting through capacity building in business and human rights, and a new reporting database. It has also piloted and promoted Fairsource, a suite of supply chain mapping tools for use by companies to improve the sourcing of agricultural commodities such as flowers and cocoa, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Fairsource dashboards are now available for more than 410 businesses and have been used by household names such as Ben & Jerry’s, Marks & Spencer and Starbucks.
Achieving the UN sustainable development goals by 2030 means achieving inclusive economic growth and decent jobs. The Government are committed to supporting that to spread opportunity ever more widely. We have the trade and investment advocacy fund to build developing countries’ capacity to participate in trade negotiations and fully engage at the World Trade Organisation. We have the SheTrades Commonwealth programme to enhance the competitiveness of women entrepreneurs in Commonwealth countries by connecting them to international markets. We have the Commonwealth Standards Network to increase awareness and the use of international standards across the Commonwealth in order to boost trade.
The Minister mentioned the good work of DFID in promoting fairness. Will he confirm, or press the Government to ensure, that DFID’s work continues and that it is integral to trade negotiations? There is some concern that the Department for International Trade is working in isolation and in the interests of investors, while DFID may be thinking about fair trade. It is important to hardwire the interests of fair trade into future trade arrangements.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he served as Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary —I was his Parliamentary Private Secretary at the time—was frustrated to a degree by the disconnect that sometimes existed between DFID and the Foreign Office in pursuing Britain’s overall development and foreign policy objectives. It absolutely makes sense that we should try to co-ordinate our activity across all the international Departments of Government to get maximum influence for the United Kingdom and, most importantly, the most positive outcomes. One of the key drivers that motivates us in the Department for International Trade is the opportunity of trade with some of the poorest countries in the world to increase the opportunity for wider prosperity there. That will be at the heart of trade policy as we develop future free trade agreements.
We give £15 million to support the implementation of the trade facilitation agreement programme, which helps developing countries to reduce inefficient border processes, excessive red tape and administrative bottlenecks, which are hindrances to effective trade. The UK is the largest donor to the WTO’s enhanced integrated framework, providing technical and financial support to build trade capacity in 51 of the poorest countries in the world and to increase agricultural productivity for both local consumption and export. Through our support for the Impact Management Project, more than 2,000 organisations are harmonising a global approach to managing impact, including robust global standards on measurement and reporting. We are also examining the potential for fair trade standards to encourage businesses to be more responsible and reach vulnerable people in their supply chains.
Let me turn to a point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford—who is currently being interfered with by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has just arrived in his coat. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the terrible conditions in which some people work in some of the poorest parts of the world. We are absolutely clear that those people and providing them with opportunities are at the heart of our trade policy. That means engaging across the whole supply chain, working in partnership with businesses, NGOs, producers, investors and consumers to be more responsible and reaching vulnerable people to ensure safe and decent opportunities for all.
Now that we have left the EU, we have a superb opportunity to advance the agenda further. It will enable us to build a fully integrated training and development package, encompassing trade preferences for developing countries alongside our existing aid spending. We know that trade is a key driver of economic growth, helping to raise incomes, create jobs and lift people out of poverty. That is why the Government are working to place development and global prosperity at the heart of UK trade policy.
Free and fair trade has been a great liberator for the world’s poor. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of people living in extreme poverty globally fell by more than 1 billion, but as the hon. Member for Strangford indicated, there is still so much to do. I say to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), that fair trade also means free trade. Let me tell him and colleagues that by free trade we mean supporting the international rules-based global trading order to ensure that trade works in the interests of all countries, large and small. As an independent trading nation, the United Kingdom will prioritise fair trade and, in particular, trade that helps developing countries to lift themselves out of poverty. That starts with working to ensure continuity in our trade agreements with those developing countries.
Following the transition period, the UK will put in place its own trade preference scheme granting duty-free, quota-free access to 48 least developed countries and tariff reductions to other developing nations. Far from rowing back, as was suggested, we intend to use our new independence to go forward. I contend that while DFID is the Department spending 0.7% of gross national income on development, the Department for International Trade is also, in a very real and profound sense, a Department for development by providing opportunities for creation of wealth and prosperity through trade.
We have signed four development-focused economic partnership agreements with the Southern African Customs Union, and Mozambique and other specific eastern and south African states. We continue to work with our partners on arrangements for the remaining countries covered by EU economic partnership agreements, including Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Madagascar. As was alluded to by the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), we are absolutely determined to get those over the line. In fact, only last week I met representatives from some of those countries to discuss how we could get those agreements rolled over by the end of the year. We are also using our influence in organisations such as the WTO.
The Minister will know that the history of investor-state dispute mechanisms is basically about protecting investors who invested in countries without established systems of law and protection for investors. These days, we need a system in which people can invest in the knowledge that the host nation will also protect its environment and workers’ rights. Will he endeavour to strike deals that ensure that those social and environmental rights will be protected alongside investors’ rights, with investors’ rights not trumping those rights and attempts in host countries to protect those vital interests?
We will first roll over our existing trade agreements, but we will then want to go further on many of them. We will want to ensure that the trade agreements we strike offer the opportunity to raise standards and consumer and employee protections. We do not see trade agreements as a race to the bottom. I will say a bit more about that in a moment, but I am also conscious of your stricture, Mr Stringer, to leave a little time at the end.
I will respond directly to more of the points made by colleagues. We heard quite a bit from the hon. Member for Swansea West about the national health service, medicine pricing and privatisation. I do not know how much more explicit the Government need to be in our resolve—those things are categorically not on the table. In fact, in the US negotiating bundle, we put that in black and white. Those things are not on the table. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been clear that were the United States to expect or demand things of us that we did not think were acceptable, we would walk away. I understand the politics of it—it is a very useful message—but it is categorically not correct.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) does a great job as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, which I hope to visit in the next couple of weeks—it depends on the virus. I hope to have a chat with him before we go. He made some excellent points. He talked about modern slavery, and one of the greatest achievements of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) is the Modern Slavery Act 2015. I had the privilege to serve on its Bill Committee.
I referred to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Strangford. I will not get into the debate about whether milk or dark chocolate is best, particularly since we are in Lent and I have given it up. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on his first speech in this Chamber.
To the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), I point out that my Department does not lead on the UK-EU negotiations, which is regretted by the shadow Minister. We just have the rest of the world, which does keep us moderately busy, as I am sure colleagues understand. In terms of the dispute resolution, the critical difference between us and the EU at the moment is that it sees an ongoing role for the European Court as a judgment mechanism on some of these matters, whereas we are explicitly clear that we have left the European Union, and at the end of the transition period the European Court can have no jurisdiction in the United Kingdom; the supreme court in the United Kingdom will be the UK Supreme Court.
The hon. Member mentioned the involvement of the devolved Governments and devolved nations in the negotiations for future free trade agreements. I look forward to meeting my SNP trade counterpart, Minister McKee, this afternoon. We have had a successful programme, as acknowledged in all bar the SNP’s press releases, of sharing documents and information at an official level. We have been totally clear that we intend to negotiate on behalf of all nations and all regions of the United Kingdom.
I said in response to the shadow Minister that we do not lead on the EU; we have the rest of the world, and it is quite a big task. We are clear that we want reform of the WTO. The Secretary of State was in Geneva last week, taking our seat and making the first speech there by a Cabinet Trade Minister for almost 50 years. We passionately want a resolution to the Airbus-Boeing dispute. We hope that the United States will agree to appoint people to make the appellant body quorate again, but we agree with the United States that the WTO more widely does need reform. The Prime Minister has been clear that what we negotiate will be driven by evidence and science, not rumour and mythology, but we want the agriculture sector in the UK to take the opportunities of future FTAs, not least that with the United States, which will be incredibly positive for the sector.
In conclusion, on workers’ rights, manufacturing and environmental standards and the NHS, the shadow Minister was essentially saying that those of us on the Government side are motivated by bad values and want to do bad things. In a sense this is the big difference. I want him and the country to understand that we see great opportunities in free trade agreements for our citizens and companies to grow, with prosperity, wealth and opportunity for all, and to have free and fair trade, which has been the unblocker of liberty, social progress and political rights across the world. We see an opportunity opening before us, providing enormous chances to some of the world’s poorest people. In the months ahead, I will be very proud to advance that agenda.
It has been an interesting debate My response to the Minister is that if we agree on ensuring social justice, ensuring environmental protections, ensuring that human rights are protected and so on—we may do—we need to build those commitments into our trade agreements and not just hope for the best. Investor-state dispute systems are specifically focused on the interests of investors. Let us ensure that those values persist as we look at those relationships with the EU and, in particular, in the interests of the poorest—
Mental Health of Veterans
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the mental health of veterans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank you and the Members who have turned up for the debate on what is probably rather a slow news day.
Since I introduced my Bill to ring-fence NHS spending for veteran mental health services, military personnel from across the UK have been in touch to confirm the worst: veterans are struggling to access mental health support and, sadly, we are all letting them down. We have only half an hour for this debate, so I cannot cover all the complex reasons why we are where we are today. I will focus on three areas: the importance of peer-led support, the funding problem and the need for a more holistic approach to ensure we look after veteran mental health in every aspect of life.
In addition to speaking to veterans up and down the country, my office has engaged with amazing charities such as the Forces in Mind Trust, the Ripple Pond, the Royal British Legion, PTSD Resolution—that organisation works with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder—and, of course, Combat Stress. Together with our NHS, these groups work hard with volunteering veterans to do what they can, but my fear is that without the Government’s help, they will struggle to continue the fight for improved mental health support.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important debate. He is absolutely right to praise the work of a number of different charities in this area. Does he agree that we need a strategic approach to ensure that once veterans leave service, they are signposted in the right direction, and the support that they seek is properly funded?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, and I will come to that point later. I will deal first with the importance of peer-led support. One veteran, Mark Lister, who is a volunteer for Combat Stress in the highlands and who served as a forward observer in the Royal Artillery for 18 years, called me yesterday and relayed his personal experiences, which were most interesting. One thing he said that stood out was that there is a stark difference between the combat trauma experienced by a soldier or a service person, and the trauma experienced by a civilian.
In his classic, wonderfully frank highland manner, Mark said, “Jamie, only a veteran is going to know how to help another veteran. We don’t want to get bogged down in the trivia of military maps. We don’t want to go through explaining all that stuff. We just want to speak about our trauma with someone who knows and gets what it’s like”. He is absolutely right, because most of us will never understand what our veterans have been through. That is why some of the best care available comes in the form of peer-to-peer support. Alas, cuts to the NHS have made it harder for such services to exist, never mind to be set up in the first place.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. We are all here for the same purpose. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the recent witch hunt of our armed forces who served in Operation Banner has put additional strain on the mental health of those who served? We have a duty of care to those men and women to assure them that we will not allow them to be persecuted, when their only crime was to serve Queen and country. They need every assurance—not just mentally, but emotionally and physically—and the support of this place as they fight to overcome what they have seen and been subjected to in service.
The hon. Member for Strangford makes a point that I know is close to his heart. He has spoken about it with eloquence in the past, and he does so again today.
In constituencies such as mine, which is vast and remote, accessing healthcare is already difficult. That makes it particularly hard for veterans like Mark to reach out and share what they have been through with people who have also risked their lives for their country. The Government should be making it easier for veterans, service personnel and their families to connect with one another and access peer-led mental health support. Time and again, the evidence—both numerically, and in people’s personal experience—suggests that peer-to-peer treatment is the most effective form of mental health support for people who are affected by combat trauma. Accessing this kind of mental health support is a battle for those who have risked their lives for their country, and they should not be asked to fight that battle.
I turn to funding. It is the custom in this place to cite lots of statistics, so here are a few. The Care Quality Commission rated two out of four Ministry of Defence mental health centres as inadequate or needing improvement between April 2017 and January 2019, and there were shortfalls of at least 50% in uniformed and civilian psychiatric posts in 2017-18. Those are not good figures. Charities that provide support for veterans, service personnel and their families often receive no Government funding whatsoever. They rely solely on donations and pay no salaries. For example, in the last 11 years, PTSD Resolution treated more than 2,700 veterans, reservists and families.
I declare an interest: PTSD Resolution is run by my old commanding officer, Colonel Tony Gauvain. It is the most brilliant charity, and it takes very little money from Government. It has more than 200 counsellors and a 78% success rate. It is the sort of charity that we want to encourage and, indeed, give some more resources to, if we can.
The hon. and gallant Member speaks with great knowledge and authority, and I welcome his words.
PTSD Resolution prides itself on delivering a prompt, local, brief and effective treatment, at an average cost of £650 per case. If untreated, the social cost can amount to tens of thousands of pounds; it manifests itself in lost jobs, broken families or perhaps, most tragically of all, suicide. Since Combat Stress had to stop taking referrals from Wales and England because of a reduction in funding, PTSD Resolution has seen a 60% increase in referrals. It tells me that it needs the Government to co-operate in funding, according to demand and outcomes.
The chief executive of Combat Stress, Sue Freeth, said to me:
“82% of the veterans treated by Combat Stress have tried to engage with NHS services but their needs have not been met. The government needs to ring-fence funding for specialist services such as ours, that understand and can successfully treat those veterans with complex PTSD. There is a significant funding gap for veterans with complex mental health needs who need intensive clinical rehabilitation and struggle to access this support elsewhere.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. As the Member who represents part of Salisbury plain, I have a lot of interest in this, and I know the charities that he refers to well. I fully endorse everything he has said about those brilliant charities, and we need to support them directly, as well as providing more support through professional mental health services. Does he agree that beyond money and civil society, we have to consider the role of the statutory system and the literacy of some public servants, who are well-meaning but often let our veterans down? Veterans are sent from pillar to post, and they often have to repeat their terrible stories to frontline public servants in the Department for Work and Pensions or the Department of Health and Social Care, who do not really understand this matter. If we improved the literacy of those who work in our frontline public services, it would make a great difference.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely well. The mention of Salisbury brings to my mind mixed memories as a private soldier in the Territorial Army, but we will gloss over that.
I believe that the Government must try to step up for veterans and bridge the funding gap, if they can. I do not have all the answers, but as a start we should ring-fence NHS funding for mental health support. As a Scottish MP, health is outside my remit, but, as my presentation Bill set out a few days ago, it is entirely possible for the Government to ring-fence NHS spending for veterans’ mental health support. As much as I think that ring-fencing NHS expenditure would be a good start, it is not, in all honesty, a catch-all answer. As many hon. Members know, mental health treatment can be complicated, and the circumstances surrounding veteran welfare can be challenging. We all need to bash heads together and see how we can collaborate more effectively to deliver a more holistic mental health strategy.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent and important point, which he and I discussed when we were on the armed forces parliamentary scheme last year.
As we know from recent publicity, last week Commonwealth veterans took legal action against the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence over a systematic failure to assist them properly with complex immigration rules. Many of those veterans, sadly, now fear deportation. The claimants allege that the Government failed to follow their own duties at discharge, meaning that little guidance was given about their immigration status. Under current Home Office rules, a Commonwealth veteran with a partner and two children would have to pay—can you believe this?—nearly £10,000 to continue living in the UK.
Why do I raise that point in a debate on mental health support? Imagine someone risking their life for a country only to find out that they will have to pay just to live there when they retire. I cannot begin to think how stressful it would be for someone on a military pension to try to pay the Home Office’s extortionate visa fees. When the Home Office makes such decisions, they tap into the general problem, which has already been alluded to. Mental health support for veterans is not just a matter for the Ministry of Defence or the Department of Health and Social Care: it is also a matter for the Home Office, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Work and Pensions and many others.
Just last week, Craig Bulman, who served in 2 Para, the Red Devils freefall team and the Household Cavalry, contacted my office and told me about his experience with the Child Support Agency. Again, it is not an issue that would immediately strike us as relating to mental health. However, Craig told me:
“I am currently helping with 13 cases, mostly veterans. Of those, I have four veterans who are suicidal due to their experiences with the CSA. In a couple of these cases, it triggered their PTSD.”
I do not know a huge amount about those cases—in fact, I know little, and there is a lot more to the story—but I would be grateful if the Minister would agree to meet me to discuss Craig’s experience in more depth. I think it would be useful for the Ministry of Defence, as it would for the people Craig is helping. I bring it up again today to reiterate the simple point that we require a more collaborative and holistic approach to improving mental health support for veterans.
I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. As a veteran, I defer to no one in my admiration of our veterans, or my desire to ensure that their mental health is promoted. However, for credibility, it is only fair to point out that many other public servants are at least as badly affected by some of the traumas to which the hon. Gentleman referred. If he is trying to create a system in which we prioritise the management of particular groups, he needs also to consider the police service, for example, which today loses more frontline people than the armed forces. Otherwise, his case kind of falls apart. I wonder whether he agrees.
I absolutely accept the point and can think, off the top of my head, of a number of policemen in my part of the far north of Scotland, who, most unfortunately, are leaving the service. That is something we do not want to happen.
I spoke earlier about the highlands’ very own Mark Lister, and it is true that constituencies such as mine face an additional challenge with regard to access to public services. Transport is not good, health services are patchy and we have a housing shortage, as I am sure nearly all constituencies do. I stress again that improving mental health support for veterans requires Government Departments to work together, possibly with other services such as the police, and it requires the Treasury to find the money and put it where it is needed.
The big ask that I want to conclude with is my hope that the Minister and the Government will look closely at my Bill, the National Health Service Expenditure Bill, which has received support from across the House. I am grateful to Members of all parties for what I take as a great expression of support. Second Reading is scheduled for Friday 26 June, the day before Armed Forces Day. I hope that Members recognise that I do not intend to let the matter drop.
It is a pleasure to speak under your leadership this morning, Mr Stringer.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for his interest and for the way he continually drives the debate. Clearly, I have a script that talks about all the stuff we are doing, but I want to answer some of the specific points that he has raised this morning. I am delighted that he shows such an interest in the subject. He will know that support for veterans was a driving force for me in coming to Parliament; I wanted to drive through change. I can honestly say to him that a shift in strategy is under way in how we support armed forces veterans. For too long, colleagues in charities and in this House have asked the Government to step up and do more, and we are now starting to do that. I do not pretend for an instant that we have always got it right. That has led to some of the challenges that we face today, and I came into Government specifically to try to lead the change.
I want to challenge a couple of things that were said, and the first relates to the portrayal of veterans. There is no doubt that some of our people are extremely poorly because of what we have asked them to do over a number of years. I am acutely aware of that. The Prime Minister and I are acutely aware that the nation has a debt of gratitude to them that must be realised by more than words and ceremonies in Whitehall; it must be repaid by provision to look after them throughout life. It is important to me to challenge the portrayal of the problem as greater than it is. There is in the country undoubtedly a way of portraying veterans—exacerbated by the media and TV programmes—that suggests that military service or combat experience equals mental health problems. In reality, we all know that that is not so, and we cannot say that too much, because the problems that that view causes are significant. This week we are bringing in changes with respect to national insurance contributions, and that is important because although there are pretty good veterans programmes at big firms in cities, for people who can get access to those workplaces, sometimes when I have been to towns and cities someone from the CBI has stood up and said, “I can’t take the risk on a veteran.” They are worried about whether they will be off sick, and all the concomitant issues with service. We must be careful about the narrative that veterans are all broken. I would not advance this view if it were not true: the vast majority leave their service greatly enhanced by their time in the military. The reason I raise that is that is that if we do not get it right we will simply be unable to meet the challenge of those who are genuinely poorly and unwell because of what the nation asked them to do. I am committed to getting those people the help they deserve.
I support exactly what my good Friend the Minister is saying. I am backed up by other Members here, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland). The vast majority of members of the armed forces go through their service and do not have a problem at the end of it—that is absolutely true; but please, Minister, give more resources to PTSD Resolution, because it deserves them.
I thank my hon. Friend, who knows the impression he left on me in my formative journey into this place. I think that I am speaking for him at a dinner tonight, where we can take the matter further. I shall come on to the question of funds for specific charities in a minute.
The Minister is of course right that service in the armed forces is positive, generally speaking, in terms of mental health, and veterans probably have better mental health than a non-serving cohort would. However, does he agree that that slightly misses the point, because if PTSD is service-attributable, then in accordance with the military covenant and “no disadvantage” we have an obligation to do what we can to resolve any problems that may have been caused as a result of service? I pointed that out in my report, “Fighting Fit”, about 10 years ago.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that it is no good sitting down with the widow of somebody who has taken their own life, or with their family, and saying, “Actually, statistically, we are in a pretty good place in this country when it comes to suicide.” The reality when it comes to figures and so on is that we are—the rate of suicide in the service community is eight in 100,000; in the civilian equivalent cohort it is 32 in 100,000. People who have served in the military are less likely to take their own life. However, he is absolutely right that each one of these suicides is a tragedy not only for the individual and their family, but for us as an institution, because we owe this unique debt of gratitude towards those who serve.[Official Report, 16 March 2020, Vol. 673, c. 6MC.]
We are beginning to really shift the debate. We have invested a lot of early money in data. We started from a very low point when it came to veterans’ data and data on suicide. We have put money into a cohort study, looking at 16,000 people from the beginning of the Iraq process through to where they are now. Clearly, most of them are civilians, but we are watching what happens in their lives, the cause of death if they die and so on. We are marrying that with an exercise in the MOD, going over the records of every individual who served who has died since 1991—almost three quarters of a million people —to have a look at the cause of death and the incidence rates. We have just signed the contract to give some money to the University of Manchester to look at cases in which veterans take their lives, to undertake a comprehensive study of the events in their life in the 12 months leading up to that, to answer the question whether we could or should have done anything more to intervene. I totally accept that the Government have not started from a strong start point when it comes to data around suicide and what we have done on it, but I want to make clear this morning that that is changing.
When it comes to this strategic shift in healthcare provision for our service people, I start by paying tribute to the service charities. They have done an amazing job—there are no two ways about that. When Combat Stress started, and throughout the period where mental health really was a Cinderella service—we talk now about winning that battle on the stigma of mental health, but 30 years ago that was not the case—Combat Stress held a candle for this stuff and was the only port in a storm. It has done an incredible job over the years.
However, for a long time Combat Stress and others have talked about the increasing presentation and understanding of mental health versus a decline in giving from the public. That has presented a unique challenge about what we do now. I am very clear, as is the Prime Minister, that that basic underlying mental health provision is owed to those people by this country and the NHS must step forward to provide that. With the problems with Combat Stress that have come to light recently, which everybody knows about, I have brought forward a third service to try to fill the mental health provision gap for our veterans. We have the complex treatment service, which was introduced last year and has been very successful, and we have the TIL—transition, intervention and liaison—service to speed up access to talking therapies and so on, but there is a requirement for a high-intensity service to look after some of our most poorly people on the NHS. I have brought that commissioning forward. The bidding process is going through now and in April I will be launching that. We will have those three services—CTS, the high-intensity service and TILS. That will be the framework through which this Government will see through their commitment to veterans on mental health.
The NHS requires people to deliver those services, and that is where the charities are absolutely critical. They have bid into the services and they are indeed running CTS and TILS in other parts of the country. We have had a lot of bids for high-intensity service. Those charities are going to go through a change as they fit in around this framework and leadership, which they have asked us for for a long time. The challenge then is to make sure that every single veteran and every service member in this country when they leave service knows about the programme of mental health care, so that they cannot honestly look me in the eye and say to me, “I did not know where to turn.” That is the challenge I am absolutely determined to meet. I will come on to talk about funding for that at the moment.
I accept the generous intent of the Minister’s remarks, and I thank him for that. It is worth making the point in passing that, if we could get this right and if the general public could see us getting it right, that in turn would surely help recruitment to our armed forces—something that is a real problem for all three services.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I come back to the point I made earlier: when this goes wrong, when we do not get this right, it is not only a tragedy for the individual and their families, but a tragedy for us as an institution if people come and give the best years of their lives, and we do not then have the follow-on care and so on that so many of them need.
I am confident that when we launch this service in April, it will provide the framework and the leadership that will bring in all the charities and all the brilliant little groups such as PTSD Resolution and others. They will fit in around this framework and deliver parts of the course. That is critical for the charities, because they will be able to focus on some things and not on others, but cognisant of the fact that that need is being met. There will be more long-term sustainability and contracts that they can enter into with the NHS that will give them financial stability. I am confident in 12 or 18 months’ time we will have a world-class offering for mental health for our veterans in this country.
When it comes to money, the Prime Minister is absolutely clear that we will provide the resources required to meet the demand. This healthcare model is the future of veterans’ care in this country. As he came into office, we saw a fundamental shift—this from someone who has irritated colleagues in this place over many years on this subject—towards this nation, particularly this place, being the ultimate guarantor of services for those who have served. It is not always the deliverer, but it is the guarantor.
Finally, we are going to get there with the programme. I am speaking at King’s College about it tomorrow and the formal launch is in April. I have a huge job of work to do to ensure that everybody in this country understands what it is, and I look forward to that challenge, but it is a team effort. This is not my mental healthcare plan. There are people who have done some amazing stuff in this field. All I am doing is bringing it together and providing that leadership, because that good stuff is there already. I genuinely think we are going to see a fundamental change in the next 12 to 18 months.
Order. I believe I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman for Bracknell came in after the Minister started his speech. The Minister has given way, so I will call the hon. Member, but it is very bad practice to intervene, particularly in an Adjournment debate, when the hon. Member has arrived after the Minister started speaking.
Thank you, Mr Stringer, and apologies for that. I was going to apologise for being late and not being here. I was at the Procedure Committee. My humble apologies. I know we are short of time, but I want to clarify with the Minister that there are an estimated 2.3 million veterans in the country at the moment and we have a fantastic framework already across the UK, through the armed forces champions and also through the fantastic civil military partnership boards. The framework is already there, but there is a bit of fine-tuning that we need to get this put into statute and therefore give the veterans the help they need.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are some areas in this country where mental health care works extremely well, and models of care that should be promulgated further and rolled out nationwide. The challenge is that we have perpetually judged ourselves by what we are putting into the machine in terms of money and organisation. We have an event in London and we say, “We are providing this for veterans’ mental health.”
The key for me is that the experience of being a veteran in this country in 2020 should be equalised across the country. Plymouth, where I come from, is a military city, so there are some wonderful relationships, and generally speaking someone’s chances of accessing good mental health care are pretty good, but that is not the same all over the country. That is why this kind of leadership in the centralised framework is so important. It is going to shift the dial on what we can present.
In closing, I come back to my initial remark: the vast majority of people leave genuinely enhanced by their service. If we do not have that conversation, my concern is that we will never meet the demand, because it is unrealistically inflated. No one wants to look after these people more than I do, or than anybody else here in this Chamber does, but we must have an honest conversation about it. I believe this structure will enable us to do that, and that we will have a very good service in the years ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
China’s Policy on its Uighur Population
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered China’s policy on its Uighur population.
I am grateful to the Speaker for allowing the House time to discuss this important and timely issue. Officially, according to the Chinese state, Uighurs have been resident in China since the ninth century; in fact, historians suggest that Uighurs have been around for about 4,000 years, since before the Islamic period. They have certainly experienced trials and tribulations over the centuries, but today, in a so-called industrial nation and a member of the G8, they find themselves in arguably their cruellest moment in history, with the Chinese state undertaking a systematic security, political and cultural assault on their very existence as a people.
Over the past four years, at least 1 million people, mostly Uighur Muslims, out of a Uighur population of about 10 million have been detained without trial in the Xinjiang autonomous region of China. In recent years, a vast network of so-called re-education centres has emerged. The first of these detention centres emerged following the Chinese Government’s “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism”. The stated aim of the campaign was to bring political stability to Xinjiang after terrorist attacks and unrest that killed 1,000 people and injured 1,700 between 2007 and 2014. I will come back to that later. The current Chinese ambassador to London praised the campaign for creating
“social stability and unity among ethnic groups”,
citing the absence of terrorist attacks in the region in recent years as proof of the campaign’s success. However, the definition of terrorism applied in the region is troublingly vague. It does not allow peaceful protest, human rights activism or even routine religious practice.
My hon. Friend raises a good point. A troubling aspect of this is that people are being detained for—intentionally or even unintentionally—visiting foreign websites. That has to stop. People should be free to surf the internet as they wish.
The definition of terrorism is worrying, as my hon. Friend points out. Uighurs should be allowed to undertake peaceful protest, human rights activism and religious practice without fear of the Chinese state coming after them. The Chinese Government should not conflate those peaceful activities with acts of terrorism or violent extremism. With mass surveillance and ethnic and religious profiling, leaked Chinese Government documents show that Uighurs are detained for exercising basic human rights and freedoms such as praying, attending a mosque or studying the Koran, applying for a passport, wearing religious dress such as a veil, or simply for being deemed “untrustworthy”—whatever that is—for unspecified reasons by the Chinese state.
The Chinese Government claim that the detention centres are voluntary re-education centres focused on teaching Mandarin, the law and vocational skills, all supposedly to eliminate extremism and improve the prospects of the Uighur minority, but China allows no monitoring of these facilities by the UN or international human rights organisations. For clarity, leaked Chinese Government cables demonstrate that the camps operate as high-security prisons, with intrusive video surveillance, harsh punishments and compulsory Mandarin classes, to supposedly achieve the “ideological transformation” of Uighurs. Surveillance from satellites reveals that the so-called voluntary re-education centres have watch towers, double perimeter walls topped with razor wire and armed guards. Former detainees describe detention of the elderly and seriously ill, forced confessions, rapes and beatings, severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, Muslim detainees being force-fed pork and alcohol, the administering of unknown pills and injections, and detainees being forced to repeat slogans such as “I love China”, and “Thank you to the Communist party”. Tragically, there are reports of significant numbers of suicides among detainees.
On 9 December last year, Governor Zakir of the Xinjiang region claimed that all Uighur detainees had been released, but there has been no independent proof to verify that claim. Indeed, many Uighurs living outside China believe that their relatives are still being detained, while satellite imagery reveals new detention centres being built and existing detention centres being extended. Even those Uighurs who have been transferred from detention centres might not be free as we would define it. Leaked Chinese Government documents show Uighurs released to so-called industrial park employment—in effect, forced labour camps. Perhaps the Chinese are learning bad lessons from their neighbours in North Korea.
A stark report published earlier this month by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that, between 2017 and 2019, approximately 80,000 Uighurs were transferred from detention centres in Xinjiang to factories throughout the whole of China. Once again, Uighur communities have been separated and families torn apart. Worryingly, the same report claims that some of these factories form part of the direct and indirect supply chains to dozens of global brands, including Apple, Nike, BMW, Samsung and Sony—something that these tech companies, many of them suppliers to Her Majesty’s Government, need to explain or convincingly refute. I had the privilege of chairing sittings of the Modern Slavery Public Bill Committee some five years ago. Making profit on the back of slave labour is a criminal offence and has to stop.
In addition to monitoring the activities of Uighurs at home, Chinese authorities have made foreign ties a punishable offence. Uighurs who have been abroad, have families overseas or who communicate with people outside China have been interrogated, detained and imprisoned. Particularly targeted have been those Uighurs with connections to so-called sensitive countries. There are 26 in total, including Kazakhstan, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia. As a result, many Uighurs living outside China say they have lost contact with relatives back home, including young children, for months at a time. The sudden tightening of passport controls and border crossings has left Uighur families divided, with children often trapped in China and their parents abroad, or vice versa.
What is more, the actions of the Chinese Government are clear violations not only of international human rights laws but of China’s own constitution, domestic laws and judicial processes. The Chinese constitution is clear: it forbids discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or religious belief. Political re-education camps have no basis in Chinese law. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that China is bound by the universal declaration of human rights and is a signatory of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, which China signed in 1997 and ratified in 2001. It is also bound by the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, which it acceded to in 1981; and the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which China signed in 1986 and ratified in 1992. All those international agreements create a duty to guarantee freedom of thought and expression, freedom of religion and association, freedom from discrimination, a prohibition on torture, and the right to a fair trial.
Even if we accept that the Chinese Government are responding to a real and ongoing terrorist threat in Xinjiang, multiple UN resolutions make it clear that in tackling terrorism and violent extremism, all states must still comply with their obligations under international law. In response to reports of human rights abuses, the UN has condemned China’s criminalisation of fundamental rights in Xinjiang and called for it to
“Halt the practice of detaining individuals who have not been lawfully charged, tried and convicted”.
Last summer, at a US Government-hosted conference in Washington DC on religious freedom, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, called China’s treatment of Uighurs the “stain of the century”—pretty strong words. I was pleased when, in December, the US House of Representatives passed a bipartisan Bill that condemns the
“arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment”
of Uighurs. I pay particular tribute to Senator Markey, a Democrat, and Senator Rick Scott, a Republican, for that rare bipartisan approach in the US Congress on a foreign policy issue. Amnesty International has demanded that UN inspectors be able to verify Chinese Government claims that Uighur detainees have been released. I certainly call for that today as well.
The purpose of the detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang is, I think, becoming alarmingly clear. It is a misplaced counter-violent extremism counter-narrative and, in my view, erroneous counter-terrorism policy, which will inevitably create more terrorists than it will detain or ever re-educate. That is not to deny that Chinese nationals from the Xinjiang region have previously fought in Afghanistan, or previously or currently fought in Syria, with jihadis from other parts of the world, but just like in the UK, those numbers are small compared with each nation’s Muslim population, who predominantly want to live in peace and without conflict.
My hon. Friend is making an exceptionally powerful speech. I feel confident that the Government will agree with him, and with me, that individual criminal acts can never be used to justify the systematic persecution of ethnic or religious groups, in this case the persecution of Muslims, but the Government will need to set out in considerable detail how they intend to do something about that. It is easy to utter warm words, but we will need to use our connections to international institutions with great robustness if we are to act and satisfy my hon. Friend on this matter.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. He is absolutely right. There have clearly been, as I referenced earlier, acts of terrorism within China, but those have been committed by a small minority of people. Claims were made by organisations regarding the Beijing attacks, but China said that in fact they were not responsible. A variety of domestic and international groups want to cause harm to Chinese nationals. We would stand with the Government of China and with the people of China against such groups, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that the Muslim population in China want to live in peace and get on with their lives in freedom, like most people around the world. We are talking about a very small minority compared with the 10 million population that I referenced earlier.
I have my own experience of staying with the Uighurs, having spent some weeks in that part of the world. It is clear to anyone who has lived there what a noble civilisation they represent. To cast an entire population as terrorist sympathisers is an absolute travesty and does not in any way justify the Chinese Government’s undertaking population-level oppression and their wholly disproportionate response to a small terrorist incursion.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I was not aware of his personal experience, but he adds real value to the debate by sharing that. He is absolutely right. A one-size-fits-all policy is not right, and I will elaborate on why I think that.
Notwithstanding this debate and what might be perceived as criticism by some in the embassy here, or those in China, it is not criticism. It is what I call critical appreciation, or being a candid friend. China is a strategic partner and a key ally on so many levels internationally. To make this speech and have this debate is not to deny that there is a domestic terrorist threat in China; it is not a denial that, for example, the Turkistan Islamic party is a real threat to the Chinese nation. However, it does appear that the detention and forced labour camps policy is at best a clumsy attempt to reduce the threat of home-grown terrorism and at worst an illegal attempt to eradicate Uighur culture, language and religious practice. I think that either attempt will ultimately fail.
The short-term outcome might be a decline in the number of protests, and reduced Uighur gatherings, but the acts of state-led oppression are, I fear, laying the foundations of the very radicalisation and future home-grown terrorism that the Chinese Government are seeking to avert. It is a tragic irony that, in carrying out these policies, the Chinese state itself is in danger of becoming a recruiting sergeant for its own domestic terrorist threat in the coming years.
Last November, the United Nations issued a report agreeing with that analysis. It stated that
“disproportionate emphasis placed by the authorities on the repression of rights of minorities risks worsening any security risk”
and that such practices
“deeply erode the foundations for the viable social, economic and political development of society as a whole.”
Today, I am calling on the Chinese Government to end the extrajudicial detention of Uighurs and other minority groups in the Xinjiang region; to allow religious minorities to practise their religion peacefully and without state interference; and to heed the UK Government’s call to allow the United Nations to send in observers with unrestricted access to the detention or re-education centres. I urge Ministers to keep diplomatic pressure on their Chinese counterparts, both in bilateral discussions and through the United Nations.
Finally, I say to the Chinese authorities, as a friend—a candid friend—recognising the great and long history of China, China’s huge economic success and its astonishing and positive sociological transformation, that in sowing the seeds of oppression and repression in its own Uighur population, China’s leadership runs the very high risk of reaping a harvest of significant home-grown terrorism in the years that lie ahead.
Thank you very much, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. I join him, following his excellent speech, in expressing my deepest concern about the victims of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in Xinjiang.
I speak as a Member of Parliament and the chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. Four years ago, we conducted an inquiry, “The Darkest Moment”, which examined the human rights situation in China up to 2016. We mentioned the ethnic discrimination against Uighurs. Sadly and very concerningly, their situation appears to have dramatically deteriorated since then. That is why we are here today.
Last week the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission instigated a new inquiry on human rights in China, which will involve hearings in Parliament and a call for written submissions. It will focus on several aspects, including the Uighurs’ situation and the situation in Xinjiang. We have our first hearing with Uighur witnesses and experts next Monday at 5 o’clock in room Q of Portcullis House. I invite all concerned colleagues to join us there.
A variety of reasons are offered for the detention of Uighurs in the camps, which we have heard about: having the messaging service WhatsApp on one’s phone, having relatives living abroad, accessing religious materials online, having visited certain sensitive countries, communal religious activities, behaviour indicating “wrong thinking” or “religious extremism”, and sometimes no reason is given at all. The latest estimate I have is, staggeringly, that up to 3 million people may have been incarcerated in these camps. That heightens the already critical level of fear that pervades the region. Disappearances can happen at any time, to any person, without warning.
I want to focus on the position of children in the region. I thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which does such excellent work highlighting these issues, for drawing this to my attention. The children of individuals detained in the camps are reportedly sent to what are called state-run orphanages; otherwise they may be called training centres or welfare facilities. One way or another, those children are also being arbitrarily detained.
Wrenched from their families, homes and villages—which are often completely abandoned—the traumatic effect on the children cannot be overstated and, for many, will be lifelong. The conditions in the camps in which they are kept are completely unimaginable. A Uighur worker at one of these so-called orphanages told Radio Free Asia that the facility was seriously overcrowded, with children as young as six months
“locked up like farm animals in a shed”.
Ethnic minority schools in Xinjiang have reportedly been effectively closed. In some cases, the schools have been changed. According to China Aid, the fourth Uighur secondary school of Xinjiang is now a political training centre, and the Chinese authorities are only permitting schools with a Han Chinese background to operate, closing those that specifically cater to Uighur, Kazakh and Mongolian children.
The conditions in which some of the children are kept are unimaginable. Teenagers are reportedly now held in adult re-education camps. According to Radio Free Asia, in March 2018, a 17-year-old Uighur boy, Naman, died of unknown causes. He was detained at a political re-education camp in Kashgar. His family was forced to bury him under police supervision. Concerningly, he was arrested after travelling to Turkey as a tourist with friends. A child’s right to an education without discrimination is guaranteed by article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights and article 13 of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, which China has ratified.
I have several asks of the Minister. Will the UK Government call on the Government of the People’s Republic of China to respect and protect the wellbeing and rights of children in Xinjiang by ceasing the practice of forcibly removing them from their homes and families, and by ensuring that minors are not detained in adult facilities? Will the UK Government press the Chinese Government to grant access to UN special procedures and other international human rights bodies and experts, particularly to examine what is happening to children in the region? More widely, will the UK Government call on China to abolish the use of these re-education centres, particularly for children, and all forms of extra-legal detention, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention, to release detainees immediately and without condition, and to ensure that no citizen is detained incommunicado and that family members of detainees are informed of their whereabouts?
Finally, I ask the Government to press the international community. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who is so concerned about such issues, has referred to this. We must press the international community to consider all means of investigation into human rights abuses in the region, including inquiries into whether abuses perpetrated by the Chinese Government constitute crimes against humanity and genocide, and to consider sanctions against policymakers responsible for the human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Looking at the number of hon. Members wishing to speak, and given the time allotted to Front Benchers, I appeal to you to be brief. At this point, I will impose a time limit of six minutes, but that may be reduced. You do not have to use six minutes, if you can use less.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this important debate and his powerful, factual speech.
The situation in the People’s Republic of China for Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities is beyond disgusting. It taints the meaning of humanity and compassion. In Xinjiang, we see an oppressive system that brings all the powers of the state down on a disenfranchised minority, whose culture and people have committed no crime, but the state has determined their very existence to be a crime.
Across Xinjiang, we see Uighurs in their millions being imprisoned in detention centres and re-education camps. They are under constant surveillance. Their biometric data is forcibly taken by the state. There are restrictions on travel and their phones are monitored.
The Government claim that those are preventative measures against Islamic extremism. However, the disproportionate nature of those oppressive acts shows that they are systematic, racially motivated actions by the state. It is not just limited to the Uighurs; it extends to other minority groups, such as Christians, Tibetans and Falun Gong.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination are all raising grave concerns about the Chinese Government. Even more horrifying are the findings of the independent China Tribunal, which is chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, a leading war crimes prosecutor. The tribunal released its 562-page report on 1 March. It found unanimously and beyond all reasonable doubt that China is operating a forced organ-harvesting programme on prisoners of conscience and on ethnic and religious minorities, such as Uighurs and Falun Gong. The organs, which are forcibly taken from healthy living people, are either given to Han Chinese or sold to wealthy tourists, who are willing to pay vast sums to extend their own lives at the expense of other human beings. Sir Geoffrey Nice QC has been quoted as saying that
“It is now the responsibility of all those who interact with the Chinese government and international bodies to remember the duty every individual, and every organ of society, has to respect the entitlement of all on this planet, near or far, to the right to life. This cannot be done by wilful ‘blindness’ or ‘deafness,’ ‘pragmatic’ silence and inactivity. It requires action.”
Despite that, the World Health Organisation reports that China operates
“an ethical, voluntary organ transplant system in accordance with international standards”.
We would be right to ask how that can be, when the China Tribunal has evidence beyond all reasonable doubt that China is operating the exact opposite of an ethical and voluntary system. The answer is that under WHO rules China is able to self-assess its organ transplant system, so all we hear through WHO—a normally trusted international organisation—is the Chinese state’s party line. In a sense, we are asking the criminal to judge their own trial.
If I were to describe a state that was oppressing minority groups through mass surveillance, detention and re-education, and that harvested organs from living people to sell to the wealthy, people would think that I was describing a make-believe state in some dystopian novel. Sadly, that description is all too real and these practices are happening now within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. We cannot allow those practices to continue; we must take every diplomatic and judicial step we can to bring this abhorrent situation to an end.
I understand that China has risen to become the second most powerful economy in the world. However, we must ask ourselves whether will we allow the moral foundations of our nation to be sold out for economic profit, and will we allow innocent men, women and children to live and, sadly, often die in such horrific conditions in order to maintain our economic bottom line?
We have a tradition in this place of standing up for the voiceless and ending abuses of human rights within our own borders and within the borders of other nations. It is on this site that we became the first nation to abolish slavery; it is on this site that we voted to fight the ideology of fascism; and it is on this site that we stood up for nations ensnared by the oppressive Soviet Union when it was the world’s second greatest superpower. I ask all right hon. and hon. Members, and the Minister for Asia, who will reply to the debate, whether they will turn their back on that tradition. Will they turn their back on Uighurs, Falun Gong and others who are crying out for their support?
I therefore call on the Government to increase their diplomatic pressure on the People’s Republic of China and apply the Magnitsky Act to individuals in China who perpetrate organ-harvesting. I also call on the Government, and on right hon. and hon. Members of Parliament, to pressure the WHO to change the way that it assesses organ transplant systems, to move away from a self-assessment system and towards independent assessment.
We know that there is only so much that we can do in this place, but it is our moral duty to do all that we can do to help; to do any less would be to betray our morality, our history and the millions of voiceless people who are suffering and need our help.
I stand today to speak for those who have been silenced, and to call for my Government to respect our responsibility to protect the hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of Uighur men, women and children being detained by the Chinese authorities in internment camps, which the Chinese authorities spin as “hospitals” to treat the “infection” of those people’s beliefs. However, religious belief is not a pathology. There are reports of torture in the detention centres, of people being forced to listen to Communist party propaganda, of deaths, and of people being forced to do all sorts of inhumane and even inconceivable activities.
Unforgivably, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said, children are being ripped from their families; they are being kidnapped from their loved ones and placed in orphanages. The goal is to brainwash them into rejecting their culture, their people and their families. In 2017 alone, half a million children were forcibly removed from their homes. Their new so-called schools have 10,000 V electric fences around them; to my mind, those are not schools.
The actions of the Chinese authorities must constitute the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today. For those who are not forced into detention centres, there are mass surveillance programmes in place. This monitoring goes so far as to force Uighur families to have Chinese state officials live in their homes and monitor them at all times. There are also forced work programmes, as my hon. Friend so aptly described.
Sadly, all of this is nothing new. Since the 1960s, the Uighurs have been subject to tests in so-called experiments that conjure up images of the Nazis’ so-called hospitals. There is evidence and reports of forced sterilisation of women, organ-harvesting and electrocution, and it is understood that, between 2016 and 2018, 15 million Uighurs had their blood and DNA tested by the Chinese authorities. Forced cheek swabs have become commonplace.
Why would a Government forcibly create a genetic information database? It is to monitor, control and repress individuals and communities, who have been demonised, detained, imprisoned, tortured and killed. Religion is not a disease, and those acts are grievous and constitute crimes against humanity. For years, the Uighurs have been persecuted, yet there has been no meaningful international help for them. The current claims about counter-terrorism operations are misleading, because this discrimination has been going on for at least 60 years.
I call on the Chinese Government to uphold their international obligations and commitments to respect human rights, including freedom of religion and belief. Yes, China faces a small number of radicalised individuals, but the response of a nation should never be crimes against humanity against an entire ethnic group.
China is a wonderful, beautiful and culturally rich land, and I am sure that if the people of China knew the extent of the atrocities being committed in their country under the guise of counter-terrorism operations, they would stand with me against it.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Chinese Government will heed my cries. So, today I urge the Minister to respect our responsibility to protect, a political commitment that UN members, including the UK and the Chinese Government, agreed to in 2005, in order to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In so doing, like my colleagues I call for us to consider global Magnitsky sanctions on the perpetrators of human rights abuses—in this case, Chinese Government officials. I ask that we demand change ahead of the 2022 winter Olympics and threaten to boycott those games if we do not see some change in the treatment of the Uighurs. I also ask that we use the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to trace missing family members of the Uighur community; we have already acted in this way in Syria, so we can do so again in China.
I urge the Minister to use his ability to talk to our partners in countries with Muslim majorities, asking them to speak out and raise this issue with China. Most of all, I ask for the UK to table a resolution at the UN’s Human Rights Council to establish a special rapporteur to report back to the HRC on whether crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and torture have indeed been committed. If we feel unable to do that, at the least the UK Government should appoint a special envoy on the Uighurs.
Members may have seen that recently Amnesty International published testimonies of further harassment of members of the Uighur population and other Muslim ethnic groups even after they have left China. So, does the hon. Member agree that it would be helpful for us to know whether the UK Government are aware of that activity and the extent to which they will follow up on it?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. The reach of the Chinese Government is significant and, where possible, the UK Government should provide support to those individuals, who are political refugees. They are refugees from a state that has turned against them and that would harm them if they were to return home, so we should support them.
When atrocities such as those are perpetrated by a state, there can be only one goal, which is the eradication of a group—in this case, the eradication of the Uighur. We have seen the Rohingya and the Yazidis, and we still see the Uighurs, being treated in that way. Those actions are, without question, crimes against humanity; indeed, I would go so far as to say that they are acts of genocide.
The world can and must do better, and we must play a role in that process. For my part, I will be a voice for the voiceless, and I will refuse to be silenced. I hope that the UK Government will stand up for what is right and make their voice heard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. Alongside the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), I am the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human rights in Xinjiang province. The Uighurs are a separate religious and cultural group, but their very existence is being threatened. The tensions in Xinjiang are decades old. It is an area full of oil and gas, but there has been a dramatic shift in China’s policy towards those people since 2016. About 3 million Uighurs have been detained in so-called re-education camps since 2017, and the Chinese Government have subjected 13 million ethnic Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims to repressive surveillance.
The Chinese Government have banned beards and headscarves, forced Uighurs to eat during the month of Ramadan, and forced them to eat pork and drink alcohol. Ethnically Han men have stayed in Muslim households, even to the extent of being in the women’s bedrooms, to carry out surveillance. Leaked video evidence has shown that the camps are unsanitary and overcrowded. Detainees are subject to beatings, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, and they are forbidden to eat the food that they want to eat.
Recent reports from The New York Times show that the Chinese Government have the details of at least 3,000 individuals and examine the intimate aspects of their lives—for example, how they pray, who their family members are and who they speak to. The document proves that there is an active policy of persecuting and punishing the normal practices of traditional religious beliefs, and that there are plans showing how an entire ethnic minority population should be detained or forced to assimilate to the dominant culture. There is even a manual on ethnic cleansing.
Last September, the UN Human Rights Council was advised by the London-based China tribunal, which is investigating the issue, that China is actively selling human organs on an industrial scale to be used for transplants. The Uighurs are being operated on while they are still alive. Their ears, kidneys, livers, lungs, corneas and skin are being removed, and the rest of the body parts sent for testing. Some 15 million Uighurs have had their DNA forcibly collected. What is taking place is incredibly chilling.
Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, chair of the China tribunal and prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia against Slobodan Milošević, has said that he has heard compelling evidence from human rights and medical experts and other witnesses about China’s organ trade. He said that the international community
“can no longer avoid what is inconvenient for them to admit.”
He says that the events inside China amount to “genocide” of a racial and religious group. The organ transplant industry is worth about $1 billion a year to China. Some countries, such as Spain and Italy, restrict travel to China for transplants. What will the Minister do to ensure that we do the same?
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think-tank that has received massive media coverage, detailed the transport of Uighurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities across China to work in factories under guard. The report “Uyghurs for sale” names leading international brands that use China as part of their global supply chains. Involved in that are 83 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, such as Apple, BMW, Huawei, Nike and others. Just like the re-education camps in Xinjiang, the forced labour programme is part of Beijing’s effort to destroy Uighur culture. The factories are often far away from people’s homes, and those people are made to live in segregated dormitories and undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training. They are subject to surveillance and forbidden from participating in any religious observance. Numerous sources, including Government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom.
When South Africa’s apartheid regime was in full swing, we did not simply continue our involvement in order to somehow improve the oppressive context. We responded with divestment and sanctions. That drastically reduced the profits derived from oppression and ultimately, along with many other actions, led to the end of apartheid. We have left the European Union and we need to develop international trade links, but we should not do that at the expense of our morality or by ignoring what is happening in China.
To remain silent is to be complicit. What consensus is the United Kingdom building with other countries to ensure that the detainees are released? Not only that, but what is being done to ensure that the abuses taking place in Xinjiang and things such as organ transplantation are investigated, and that the Chinese Government are persuaded to desist from those practices? If they do not, although China is a powerful country both militarily and economically, we can take a moral stance in economic relations.
I thank the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing this debate and for his support for the Uighur population in China. As chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, it is my duty to come here and speak out on behalf of those with Christian belief, those with other beliefs and those with no beliefs. This debate will encompass all those people.
China’s deteriorating policy towards its Uighur population, and the general worsening climate of religious intolerance in China today, is serious and concerning, so I welcome this discussion and I hope the Minister will give us a positive response. I look forward to that. Since the emergence of large-scale labour camps in the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang, which was brought to the world’s attention when the United Nations human rights panel cited credible, evidential reports stating that 1 million Uighurs were being forcibly detained, disturbing allegations of human rights abuses have come from the region. They include harrowing stories of abuse, torture, rape and forced labour, as recently highlighted in several media reports, which include allegations that Uighurs have been forced to make products for 83 globally recognised brands, such as Nike, Apple and Dell. Those companies have a lot to answer for.
One thought-provoking example comes from a documentary called “Letter from Masanjia”. It tells the story of a Falun Gong detainee from China’s notorious Masanjia forced labour camp, who managed to smuggle an SOS letter out, pleading for help from the international community with the conditions and circumstances they were forced to endure. The letter was found in a box of Halloween decorations by a lady from the United States, and the story quickly gained worldwide media attention and drew claims from Chinese officials that the labour camp system had been shut down. Recent reports, however, demonstrate clearly that that is simply not the case.
The author of the SOS letter was a gentleman called Sun Yi, who was eventually found and bravely agreed to feature in the documentary. However, as a result of his bravery, and towards the end of filming, he was killed by poison under very suspicious circumstances. Sun Yi risked and lost his life to let others know the truth about what is happening in China today. We are very aware of the large contribution that he and others have made. The international community cannot ignore the recent media reports highlighting the scale and seriousness of forced labour in China endured by the Uighur population and others. They have been ignored for far too long.
Every Member so far today has spoken about this. The harrowing conditions are brought into stark focus when we turn our attention to the horrific plight of illegal forced organ harvesting, about which I have spoken and led debates over the past few years. The China tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, which others have referred to, recently published its full and final report on March 1, 2020. The judgment declared that crimes against humanity against the Falun Gong and Uighurs had been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Governments who interact with the People’s Republic of China should recognise that they are interacting with a criminal state that has abused many people’s human rights and has a very low opinion of its citizens.
The conclusions from the China tribunal stem from a robust year-long investigation in which more than 50 witnesses and experts testified during the London-based hearings, providing enough details to warrant a 562-page report. This is not the Minister’s responsibility, but what is being done to address the issue of transplant tourism whereby people can leave this country and get an organ transplant in China? The underlying connection between the horrific treatment of Uighurs and Falun Gong in labour camps and the illegal practice of forced organ extraction on an industrial and commercial scale is undeniable. The evidence is there. It is well documented that before the world’s attention was focused on the re-education camps in Xinjiang, there was a targeted campaign focused specifically on Uighur Muslims in the region. The campaign involved the mass collection of biometric and DNA data, and reports suggested that some 12 million to 15 million Uighurs were forced to undergo the process.
According to a report from Vicky Xu, a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s cyber-policy centre, the idea that Huawei is not working directly with local governments in Xinjiang is “just straight-up nonsense”. There was a Westminster Hall debate on Huawei a few days ago, and there was a vote in the Chamber yesterday. When we consider the persecution faced by the Uighurs, we must also look at the general landscape of religious intolerance imposed on millions throughout China. Whether one focuses on the well documented cultural destruction of Tibet, the persecution of Falun Gong—now entering its 21st year—or the increasing levels of oppression faced by Christians, it is hard not to see a common theme repeating itself in modern Chinese history. Bitter Winter, a watchdog on religious freedom and human rights in China, recently stated that the situation in China is going from “bad to worse” following on from the enactment this year of China’s harsh new rules governing religious groups. Every day there is oppression of religious groups.
To stem the tide of religious persecution and intolerance sweeping across China, Members of this House must declare that action has to be taken to help to bring an end to injustices such as those being inflicted on the innocent Uighurs living in Xinjiang, and everyone else in China.
It always changes just before I start, Mr Sharma. I do not take it personally, of course.
I want to start off on a slightly different tack. In March 1936, the Conservative MP for Chelmsford was a man called Jack Macnamara. He travelled to Germany to celebrate the remilitarisation of the Rhineland. Perhaps we might think that unusual today, but many people at the time thought that Germany should be allowed to stand on its own two feet again, after the Versailles treaty.
What changed his mind about Germany was visiting Dachau. The Germans showed it off. Most of the people in there at the time were political prisoners. They were members of the Communist and Social Democratic parties, or freemasons. Some were dissident clergy of various different Churches, and some were Jews. A significant number of them were homosexuals. The Nazi regime said they were there for their own protective custody—their re-education. They were kept in camps where they had to work hard every day. They were told what they had to do. They were told what they had to listen to. They were shown antisemitic magazines and horrible material that they had to inwardly digest. If they ever told anyone what was going on there, whether they told the truth or not, they were subjected to even harsher punishment. On top of that, it was felt that many of those people were being deliberately driven towards suicide.
Every one of those elements is present in what is going on in Xinjiang province in China at the moment. I want to say to Chinese friends that, just as that British MP in 1936 went to the new Germany as its friend and came back a harsh critic of Hitler’s regime—he ended up fighting and losing his life in the second world war to protect the freedoms of the kinds of people who were in Dachau—there is a danger that so too will China completely alienate the whole world community because of its actions in Xinjiang province and its treatment of the Uighurs. In many ways, some of what is happening to the Uighurs is even worse. There is the religious oppression, the refusal to allow people to have their own thoughts, the re-education, the deliberate reculturation and the attempt to destroy a whole community, but it is also applied to children. At least there were not children in Dachau.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and happy to give him an extra minute by intervening on him. He mentioned alienating the whole world, but does he agree that it is not just about that—whether it happens or not—because, clearly, if China is breeding a counter-terrorism problem for itself, that will also be a counter-terrorism problem for the whole world, including the United Kingdom? Terrorists do not abide by national borders, so that is another incentive for the British Government to be slightly more robust on the issue than they probably have been to date.
There is a patent injustice, and injustice tends to lead to people taking some form of action. We would always want it to be legitimate and peaceful. The danger is, as the hon. Gentleman says, that the action being taken will be entirely counterproductive. China says that what is happening is meant to prevent terrorism, but it is far more likely to create it, in China and other parts of the world. Many people see their brothers and sisters on the other side of the world and feel that they are being hard done by, and want to do something about it.
What angers me is that the situation is all of a piece with the creation of a security state. I thought that the whole point of communism was to create a welfare state, but a security state is being created—exactly the opposite. I would also make the point to China that it has done extraordinarily well in the last 20, 30 or 40 years out of the international rule of law. It has served it well and China has managed to make enormous advances economically and culturally. Now it stands, having previously tended to sit to the side in the international community, wanting to take a much more central part in the world—hence all the various initiatives it has come up with around the world. It will not be able to do that if it does not abide by the international rule of law in its own country. On those two points its actions are utterly counterproductive—even if one were to accept the moral outrage that is what is happening to the Uighurs.
I want to end with a point about the Magnitsky Act. It is about time we had such legislation on the statute book. It has been promised repeatedly by the Foreign Secretary and I hope that the Minister will update us on when it will be published, when it will be able to go through, and when we will be able to use it.
It is a huge pleasure to join today’s debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on bringing the matter to the House. He made valid points about China living up to its constitutional commitments to non-discrimination and its commitments made through the United Nations, and he asked searching questions about what exactly is going on there.
By way of background I shall make what is, if you like, a quick declaration of interest. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on China and I lived in China for several years. Most relevantly to this debate, I spent considerable time in Xinjiang and was part of the first ever successful crossing of the Taklamakan desert in 1993 with a small group of other Britons, Uighurs and Han Chinese. I should, I say as a matter of observation, have died there of amoebic dysentery.
A few years ago, I took the all-party group to Xinjiang—and a sad experience it was, too. The vibrant markets were closed, there were armoured cars on every street corner, young Muslims were banned from mosques, and much more besides. I paid tribute then, and do so again now, to our embassy officials who deal with human rights in the British embassy in Beijing, who continue to do their best to keep informed of the situation.
The situation today is of course always difficult to analyse. Few people in the Chamber, if any, will have been to Xinjiang in the past 18 months. Some of us may have found helpful Twitter accounts such as @dakekang where there are plausible accounts of what is going on. Most relevantly, of course, Her Majesty’s Government have raised the issue most profoundly with the United Nations. It was emphasised in the statement of 23 nations to the United Nations that we had concerns about the situation with respect to human rights, security and travel restrictions, as well as China’s move possibly to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s forced labour convention and a series of other points —validating, in effect, the eight recommendations made by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, whose 2018 report remains a seminal document for those interested in Xinjiang.
This is a time when there are huge difficulties with different types of human rights in China as a result of the tragic expansion of coronavirus, and we should be sensitive to that. We should also be sensitive to the fact that in the past, there have been Uighur terrorist activities, not least the bombing at Chengdu station and the car in Tiananmen Square some years ago, so we should not be naive about everything that happens there. Will the Minister update us on the Foreign Office’s analysis of terrorist activities in Xinjiang? Will he update us on China’s progress towards ratifying that important ILO convention?
This issue matters, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) rightly said, because ultimately, if there is substantial proof that global manufacturers are using forced Uighur labour deported elsewhere in China, that will seriously undermine their own brand reputations. It will create problems for their continuing manufacturing in China and that in turn could cause serious problems for growth, jobs and the economic prosperity of China.
Ultimately, this is my final appeal to my friends in China. It will be impossible to hide what is going on in Xinjiang forever. Sooner or later the world is going to know. Some of the accusations may be inaccurate, but many of them may prove to be very accurate, and if that is the case, China as a great nation should surely do her best to preserve her reputation and right what is not right.
It is definitely a cold—that has been confirmed.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing today’s debate. The hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham) all made impassioned speeches, and I think the debate has been enriched by that.
At the risk of repeating what has already been said, I will seek to limit my remarks to a few key areas. This matter is certainly not new. It has been widely reported as far back as April 2017 that the Uighurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained. The fact that we are talking about this issue three years later is shameful. What is truly alarming about the situation in Xinjiang is the sheer scale and institutional nature of the repression. Reports from the region paint a very bleak picture indeed. More than 1 million Uighur Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in re-education camps. Most of the people detained have never been charged with any crimes and have no legal avenues whatever to free themselves. For many of those who have been detained, the harsh reality is that their only crime is being Muslim.
Uighur Muslims have been identified as extremists purely for practising their religion, but this is not the first time that I have spoken about freedom of religious belief in China. Many will be aware of the persecution of Christians and Falun Gong adherents, to name but two religious minorities. That of course flies in the face of China’s own constitution, which specifically protects freedom of religious belief, yet time and again we see that not to be the case at all.
What particularly worries me is the UK’s response. A recent report by the Foreign Affairs Committee notes that some of China’s international interests actively conflict with those of the UK Government. It stated that the
“current framework of UK policy towards China reflects an unwillingness to face this reality.”
The report further urges the UK Government to actively respond
“to China’s attempts to subvert international human rights mechanisms, and support UN efforts to investigate the extremely concerning situation in Xinjiang.”
Our post-Brexit reality adds a new aspect to the situation. The former Brexit Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), believed—perhaps naively—that we should look to China to replace our lost trade with Europe and deliver our future economic salvation. We have passed that point now, but there really are fundamental issues at play regarding trade and the price we are prepared to pay. For me, turning a blind eye is simply not an option, and I am on the record saying that many times, particularly in relation to India. I have this overwhelming fear that human rights may be forgotten or overlooked in the rush and scramble to conclude a trade deal. I am sure the Minister will seek to reassure me on that point when he responds. However, he can understand my scepticism, given the Government’s track record.
Since the EU referendum in 2016, the number of arms export licences issued to countries on the Foreign Office’s own human rights watch list has doubled, so the Minister will understand my concern and why so many of us in this House seek proper reassurances and guarantees on the Government’s commitment to human rights and freedom of religious belief. Last week, the Minister tried to reassure me in the Chamber that the Government
“will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights.”—[Official Report, 3 March 2020; Vol. 672, c. 755.]
While that reassurance is welcome, we need to see it become a central tenet of any trade negotiations with other countries. I know that many here will share the view that human rights should form the foundation of any such talks, rather than being a consideration.
Moving forward, we need to see the UK exercising soft power where Xinjiang is concerned. I would like to hear a commitment from the Minister today that the Government will exert influence on China to welcome UN officials to the province without restrictions. We all need reassurances that the Government will also do all they can to encourage other countries to do likewise, because if we ignore persecution against religious minorities, we open the door for every kind of intolerance and persecution.
One thing we have to be aware of is that while we and the other 22 countries that signed the letter are doing our best to pursue some of these key issues in Xinjiang, very few, if any, Muslim countries in the world have spoken up about this. Does that not strike the hon. Gentleman as odd?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We and every Government have a responsibility to make that point and to ensure that we are standing up for Uighur Muslims, so he is right to put that on the record. I certainly encourage Governments in all countries to do that. As a practising Christian, I am very much of the view that although there might not be persecution against me, it is my duty as part of my religious faith to stand up for minorities and other religions. I think that is something we are called to do. I implore other countries to put that point on the record.
To conclude, we need to do the right thing and take action. Members of the House have made impassioned speeches on the issue, and there is a consensus. The Minister would have our support in taking that forward to get proper action to protect Uighur Muslims.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this important debate and I thank him for his passionate and powerful contribution. We have heard many excellent speeches from other Members covering the subject.
The persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, China, is an issue that I have raised multiple times in Parliament. Having learned more graphically about the practices in China, I am simply appalled and disgusted. Sadly, the issue is ongoing. I have been deeply disappointed by the Government’s response and attitude. Calls from fellow Members, UN Human Rights Watch and even the Foreign Affairs Committee have fallen on politically deaf ears. The Committee voiced its concern over the treatment of the Muslim population in Xinjiang and warned:
“China is sowing the possibility of conflict into its future.”
More than 1 million individuals are believed to have been detained without charge in political re-education camps since 2017. Recent estimates are as high as 3 million. The reasons for detention in the camps include having the messaging service WhatsApp on one’s phone, having relatives living abroad and communal religious activities. Sometimes no reason is given at all. Conditions inside the camps are dangerously unsanitary and overcrowded. Detainees are subject to beatings, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. In October 2018, reports emerged of camp detainees being transferred to prisons in other parts of China.
In the light of the coronavirus outbreak, the poor conditions in the camps are even more worrying. Confining large groups of people together without adequate access to germ-killing soap and water will increase the likelihood of an outbreak. That is even more reason to close the camps, which would reduce the threat of the virus spreading. What steps has the Minister taken to urge China to release detainees immediately and without condition, given the risk of a coronavirus outbreak?
Individuals sent to re-education camps do not have access to legal counsel and there is no mechanism for appeal. Their families are typically not told where they are being held or when they will be released. Given the religious persecution and mass imprisonment of Uighurs in these so-called re-education camps, it is clear that an independent investigation is required. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments on that. Will he also tell us what representations he has made to the Chinese authorities over the mass imprisonment of Uighurs?
Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uighurs are working in factories of at least 83 well-known global brands, including Apple, Huawei, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen—hon. Members have listed other companies as well. It seems as though the Government’s approach is to prioritise economic benefit over human rights due diligence.
Another deeply concerning area that hon. Members have highlighted is the role of technology in enabling human rights abuses. From the phones in people’s pockets to the tracking of 2.5 million people using facial recognition technology, Chinese technology companies—including Hikvision and SenseTime—are deeply implicated in the ongoing surveillance, repression and persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Hikvision alone has provided 35,000 cameras to monitor streets, schools and 967 mosques, including video conferencing systems that are being used to ensure that imams stick to a unified Government script.
I find it alarming to learn that the Government have been engaging with companies such as Hikvision, which has been blacklisted by one of the UK’s most powerful allies, the US. The director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum referred to the terrifying persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang as “crimes against humanity”. Does the Minister think it appropriate to engage with companies that have been implicated in heinous human rights abuses? The highly sophisticated facial recognition technology being used has in-built biases within the algorithms that can help to identify Uighurs. In the UK, the Metropolitan police has rolled out facial recognition technology, which I find unsettling, given that we can see the extreme dangers of its use.
Credible research from multiple organisations, including the British Medical Journal, suggests that many thousands of people are being killed for their organs, including the Uighurs. Many hon. Members have touched on the subject. There are strong, well-documented allegations that Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans and Uighurs have been victims of that horrific practice. My primary concern is that people are being harvested for organs because of their beliefs.
The international community has strongly condemned organ harvesting in China. Action needs to be taken to end the abhorrent and unethical practice. The UN special rapporteurs on torture and on freedom of religion or belief have both requested that the Chinese Government explain the sources of the organs and allow them to investigate. There has been no response. Medical ethics aside, an unregulated system where organs are being delivered not to the most deserving recipients, but to the highest bidders, must be held to account.
I strongly advise the Government to follow in the footsteps of the European Parliament and the US Congress, both of which have called for an independent investigation, and several countries that have already taken legislative action to prevent their citizens from taking part in transplant tourism. Will the Minister explain why the UK Government are dragging their feet on this issue? Why are we not holding the Chinese Government to account on these blatant human rights violations?
Will the Minister also urge the Government to publicly condemn any form of live forced organ extraction in the strongest possible terms, and to call for its end? The world’s condemnation of China’s re-education camps must be matched by the Government's actions.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this important debate and on his excellent, well-informed speech. I thank hon. Members for their contributions, which included some powerful and well-informed interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell), for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew)—he brought his own personal perspective to the debate—and from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum).
As hon. Members know, the UK’s relationship with China is a long-standing one; we work together on many areas, including trade and climate change. However, as we have heard in the debate today, ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang are continuing to experience significant and indiscriminate restrictions on their basic freedoms, including their freedom of religion or belief, speech and association.
The intense crackdown we see today has its roots in China’s “Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorism” Campaign which began in 2014, following a series of terrorist attacks in the region. In Xinjiang, Chinese officials seek to disrupt what China calls the “three evil forces”—separatism, extremism and terrorism. That includes restrictions on religious freedom. Chinese authorities have banned traditional, unexceptional expressions of religious observation, from giving children religious names to having what is described as an abnormal beard or wearing a veil, to attending a mosque under the age of 18—bans that we in the UK find deplorable. There are also credible reports to suggest that Chinese authorities use a highly sophisticated central database to flag individuals deemed as suspicious. Such individuals, if identified, are likely to be detained.
Our diplomats most recently visited Xinjiang in May and November 2019. Their reports, much like some of the experiences of hon. Members here, paint a bleak picture of the oppression suffered by millions of Uighurs and other minorities. Their observations supported much of the recent open-source reporting on the region, reports by non-governmental organisations and leaked documents from the Chinese Government.
We have also seen credible evidence to suggest that Uighurs are being used as a source of forced labour in Xinjiang and across China, and that if individuals refuse to participate, they and their families are threatened with extra-judicial detention.
I am sorry to put the Minister on the spot, but we are not here to play games. These are serious issues. As I am on my feet, there are currently men, women and children illegally incarcerated in China. Will he commit today that the Government, through their procurement office, will write to all the suppliers to Her Majesty’s Government that I have referenced today in this Chamber, to seek assurances that they are not using slave labour or forced labour to manufacture their goods?
Our concerns about this area and the report that my hon. Friend refers to are very well known. The research in the report, and the potential use of forced labour, gives us a better understanding of the situation. We contributed a small part of the overall funding to that research, although we did not play a part in the drafting of the report. It helps to inform us, and my hon. Friend raises a very good point.
I will move on; I do have to finish, and I hope to give my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin a couple of minutes at the end. I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand.
Our intelligence is that families are also obliged to host Chinese officials in their homes for extended periods, to demonstrate their loyalty to the Communist party. On the streets, Uighurs and other minorities are continuously watched by police, supported by extensive use of facial recognition technology and restrictions on movement.
Of all the severe restrictions, our greatest concern is that more than 1 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities—more than 10% of the Uighur population—have been detained in internment camps. The deputy party secretary of Xinjiang stated in December that all detainees have been released from the camps. We have not seen sufficient evidence to support that statement and assess that a significant proportion remain in detention. It is unknown how long each individual is detained, what chance they have of release or whether they can appeal their detention. Clearly, detentions have split families, left children effectively orphaned and created a culture of fear.
China’s initial response to allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang was to deny the existence of the camps, but after a significant amount of evidence was reported and international attention increased, that position became untenable. China now describes the camps as education and training facilities. We recognise that Xinjiang is of significant geopolitical importance to China, both as an economic corridor to markets in central Asia, the middle east and Europe, and as home to large gas fields, half of China’s coal deposits and an estimated 20% of its oil reserves. However, although that may partly explain China’s strong security interests in Xinjiang, we believe, based on all available evidence, that its actions are disproportionate, systematic and counterproductive.
Innocent citizens have suffered greatly under the policies. We have been calling, via the UN, for China to close the camps, cease indiscriminate surveillance and restrictions on religion and culture, and allow UN observers unfettered access to the region. China is contravening its own constitutional provisions on freedom of religion and its obligations under the 1948 universal declaration of human rights. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin that the human rights situation in Xinjiang remains a priority for me, the Foreign Secretary and the UK Government as a whole. We strongly believe that everyone, everywhere, should enjoy equal rights and protection under the law.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made the sensible point that China’s actions could be counter- productive in terms of the potential for being a breeding ground for terrorism. That argument is difficult to disagree with. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who knows the region incredibly well, made a similar point. China has some genuine terrorism concerns, but as I said, its actions are indiscriminate and disproportionate, and will be counter- productive in the long term.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) talked about the rights of children. I share her deep concern about the impact of the policies on children in particular. She also mentioned sanctions, as many Members did, including the hon. Member for Rhondda. The Foreign Secretary has announced that the UK will establish a global human rights sanctions regime under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. We will lay secondary legislation to establish that regime in the coming months.
The reality is that, now we have left the EU, designing the first piece of UK autonomous sanctions legislation will be complex, and it is worth taking the time to get it right. The hon. Member will have to have some patience, but the matter is very much on our radar and we will do it.
That is absolutely right. Members have my commitment that we will introduce our own sanctions regime, but we have to put the secondary legislation in place to ensure that we get it right.
The hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) mentioned the allegations of organ harvesting. We have been in touch with the World Health Organisation on that issue. We note the publication of the findings of the report on forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China. We are reading that report very carefully and considering it alongside all possible evidence. Our position is quite simple: if this is true, the practice of systematic state-sponsored organ harvesting would be truly horrifying.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East asked what we are doing to ensure that people are released. I assure her that all our diplomatic activity is focused on urging China to end the policy, including closing the camps and releasing those detained. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) asked about international engagement. I assure her that lots of our engagement includes Muslim-majority countries, which is crucial. She rightly talked about the Human Rights Council action, including a resolution. I hope to set out the extensive UK activity and leadership in the area.
We have repeatedly raised Xinjiang in our national statements, and most recently in the current human rights session yesterday. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, raised CCTV and the company Hikvision. He may or may not be aware that, in the last few days, the Home Secretary cancelled the invitation for Hikvision to attend a security conference in the UK. That is very important.
We condemn the actions of the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang in the strongest possible terms. China is pursuing policies that prevent people in Xinjiang from lawfully practising their rights to freedom of religion or belief, speech and association. More than a million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities have been extra-judicially detained. We continue to urge China to end those policies. It is in the interest of China’s international reputation and the long-term stability of Xinjiang that China honours its commitments to its own constitutional provisions on freedom of religion or belief and the universal declaration of human rights. I assure all Members that we will continue to urge the Chinese Government to change course and to do so.
I always valued and admired the approach of Kim Howells, a former Labour Member of Parliament and Minister at the Foreign Office. He was driven with moral purpose and always gave clear responses, certainly in my experience. I think today is the first time in my 15 years here that I have heard a Minister from the Foreign Office, notwithstanding Mr Howells, be prepared to say on record that he condemns the action of China. I applaud him for his clarity and candour, which will bring huge encouragement to the Uighur population of China.
In our discussion about China’s policy on its Uighur population and the illegal detention of Uighurs, the Minister—this may be the quickest that he has ever heard quotes back from his own speech—used the words “indiscriminate”, “disproportionate” and “counterproductive”. As friends of China in this Chamber, we call upon the Chinese Government to think again about the policy, to end it and to abide by its international obligations and by international human rights and humanitarian laws. They are stoking up a terrorism problem for the future, which will be not only China’s problem but that of the region and then an international problem, affecting the United Kingdom. I applaud the Minister for his response and for his clarity. I hope that China is listening.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered China’s policy on its Uighur population.
River Severn Flooding
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the flooding of the River Severn.
I am grateful to have been called to speak in this debate on the recent flooding of the River Severn. I am sure that Members are aware of how badly Shrewsbury has been affected as a result of that flooding. The part of Shrewsbury where I live, Coton Hill, was badly affected, with terrible damage and flooding in my neighbourhood. However, over the past few days and weeks I have spent quite a bit of time in another bit of Shrewsbury, Coleham, which has also been badly affected by these floods. I will refer to a couple of people whose situations I am very conscious of, some of whom I have met: Lee and Sandra from The Hair Forum, Rachel from The Glam Studio, and G. O. Elson, who is in his 50th year as a local butcher. Seeing the devastation that has happened in those people’s neighbourhoods and the financial damage caused to their businesses has been galling.
Yesterday, I met with Peter Nutting, the leader of Shropshire Council, when he came to the House of Commons. He informed me that over 300 businesses and residential properties had been affected just in Shrewsbury, and estimated that the cost of clearing up from the ramifications of this flood will be over £1 million in my constituency alone. Of course, the Bellwin scheme will help, but a large chunk of money will not come from that scheme; Shropshire Council is having to find that money itself. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) will attest, our local council is grappling at the moment with the massive, spiralling costs of adult social care, and is running a deficit and struggling to make ends meet as it is. Those additional costs will be very problematic for it.
Local residents have stressed that action is needed, as problems with insurance and future floods will finish off many independent traders. I spoke to one bed and breakfast hotel owner who lost £30,000 over the course of these events. He was near tears as he showed me the devastation to his hotel. As is typical for businesses, his hotel will not only suffer during the floods, but for days and weeks afterwards. The media are very good at highlighting that Shrewsbury has flooded and very good at showing pictures of a flooded Shrewsbury, but not so good at subsequently informing citizens around the United Kingdom that those floods have been alleviated. Whether a business is a local pub, a local hotel or whatever else, its books will be significantly down, not just over the course of the floods but in the following days and weeks.
Seeing the devastation and listening to the heartbreaking stories has hastened my resolve to get action for these hard-working entrepreneurs. That is why on Wednesday 26 February, I was here in the House of Commons rather than in my constituency with my electorate, because I wanted to challenge the Prime Minister at Question Time, to share with him what was going on in Shrewsbury, and to try to secure some sort of commitment from him. If she checks Hansard, the Minister will see that in response to my question, the Prime Minister assured me on the Floor of the House that whatever work the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency do together to alleviate the problems on the River Severn, and whatever solution they come up with, he will ensure that the Government support that solution. I am going to hold the Government to account on this issue and make sure that the Prime Minister fulfils the commitment that he made to me.
I am obviously delighted that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced a massive additional allocation of taxpayers’ money for flood alleviation schemes in this afternoon’s Budget. With that in mind, we are going to ensure, hopefully collectively—I am pleased that other right hon. and hon. Friends from constituencies along the River Severn are also present—that we fight for our share of those additional resources to make sure a holistic solution is found for the Severn.
Last week I asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to visit Shrewsbury, and I am grateful that he took the time to visit my town. He met flood victims and also came to Shirehall, the council building in Shrewsbury, to meet with local councillors including Peter Nutting, as well as with council officials including Mark Barrow and others, who are in the audience today. He received a presentation on a topic I hope to address later: the River Severn partnership, which is a holistic, collective approach of communities and organisations up and down the River Severn, working together to come up with a credible solution for managing that river. We will then want the Government to support that solution.
I commend my hon. Friend on having secured this debate, and have absolutely no doubts that he will hold the Government to account. He has already alluded to some heart-wrenching stories, but does he agree that there have also been some very positive stories, and that we should pay tribute to local authority workers, Shropshire Council, Telford and Wrekin Council, the Environment Agency and the emergency services? All those groups have done a huge service to the people of Shropshire.
I could not agree more, and I am sure that all of my right hon. and hon. Friends from Shropshire will join him in paying tribute to those people.
The River Severn partnership is a strategic coalition of 18 organisations, including local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, water companies and the Environment Agency. It has an agreed memorandum of understanding aimed at working collaboratively to develop a comprehensive long-term approach to management of the River Severn. Here, we have an established group of all the relevant and appropriate bodies, working together on an innovative and forward-looking holistic solution that could literally be a game-changing approach to flood management.
My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on having secured this debate at this timely moment, and it is good to see fellow Members from further down the river present. “Holistic” means the catchment area. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should look at the whole catchment area? The River Vyrnwy runs into the Severn in my patch, and this afternoon Melverley is flooded, protecting Shrewsbury. We need to look at holding water much further back in Wales, possibly paying landowners to hold water back, building new reservoirs and giving farmers the right to catch water. As Mr Bryan Edwards, head of the Melverley internal drainage board, has said, we want to slow it up at the top, hold more back and plant more trees—exactly as the Government are proposing to do—but when that water gets into the river, we want to speed it on down.
We should remember that the river used to be navigable and took a lot more water. We had a meeting in Shrewsbury a few years ago, looking at getting more out of the river, having more capacity, opening up the weirs and locks and generally making more of it, but also getting more water away. Once the water is in the river, we want to get it away, as Members from further down the Severn know. We need to look at a catchment area solution that goes right back to the hills and includes both the Vyrnwy and the Severn.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. That is the flavour of what we are trying to get across to the Minister. Of course, individual flood schemes can help—we have one in Shrewsbury that protects Frankwell, the town council and the area around it—but in reality, although those small schemes protect parts of Shrewsbury, they just push the problem further down the line, which affects my right hon. and hon. Friends down the river.
By the way, the River Severn is the longest river in the United Kingdom at 220 miles. That accolade certainly means that the Government need to look at the river in its entirety and come up with a solution to manage its flow across all our constituencies.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, today of all days, when the Chancellor has just announced a doubling of flood defence expenditure over the next six years to £5.2 billion. He will have noticed that the Chancellor provided an additional £120 million to repair the flood defences already in place, which may help the constituencies of hon. Members whose flood defences were damaged in Ironbridge and Bewdley along the River Severn.
Most importantly, the Chancellor announced a £200-million contribution to place-based resilience schemes for local communities, in which the Severn valley catchment has an important part to play. I understand that £23 million of that £200 million is being allocated to the Severn valley to look at that catchment-wide solution. Areas such as Bridgnorth in my constituency, where water was pushed downstream from Shrewsbury and Ironbridge, and the river burst its banks, need some flood defences to prevent that happening again.
I always give a little extra to my right hon. Friend and neighbour, a fellow Salopian. I ask the Government to support, politically and economically, the development of a River Severn strategy, similar to that already in place for the Humber estuary and River Thames, with a remit to look at water management, flood risk, sustainable growth and climate resilience.
The River Severn partnership—this is the key point that I want to get across to the Minister and that should be underlined with her officials—now needs significant resources to commit to the detailed planning phases and studies required to progress to the design phase. I look forward to working with the Minister on how that can be funded and delivered, which is important because of the Prime Minister’s commitment to me on the Floor of the House that the Government will support whatever credible solution Shropshire Council, with the Environment Agency and collectively through the River Severn partnership, comes up with. My understanding is that the partnership is at the point where it needs those additional resources to conclude its studies and come up with the holistic approach that we are all determined to secure for our constituencies.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He talks about the holistic approach of the Environment Agency and other partnerships down the River Severn. Does he think that there should be a coalition of Members of Parliament who serve constituencies on the River Severn, and would he lead that coalition?
That is an awfully generous offer. I take my hon. Friend back 10 or 11 years to my Westminster Hall debate on this issue, in this room. If he looks through the records, he will find that I started to talk about the need to look at the whole of the River Severn as a single unit 11 years ago. Let us not forget that the problem has not just come upon us recently. Shrewsbury has been appallingly flooded many times. The opportunity for the Government is enormous. If they can protect our constituencies from repeated flooding, think about the extra economic productivity they will achieve, how property prices will go up and how businesses will continue to operate and pay their VAT and other taxes.
I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly that all the Members of Parliament through whose constituency the River Severn flows have to work together cross-party. We are predominantly Tories along the River Severn, which is a great thing, but whichever party an MP is from, if they represent a constituency through which the River Severn flows, I would like them to take part in that campaign group. If we join forces as Members of Parliament, go to see the Minister repeatedly and keep raising the issue collectively, something can be done.
Does my hon. Friend share my hope that some of the additional flood defence funding announced today will be used not only for additional storage capacity in the Welsh hills, as proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), but to ensure that there is a piping system, probably provided by Severn Trent Water, to get excess water in the summer through the Severn to the Thames for the parts of south-east England that have a water shortage?
My hon. Friend raises a pivotal issue. The irony is that many parts of our country are badly economically hit because of a lack of water. In this day and age, we ought to be able to devise a system whereby we can properly manage water and ensure that it can be better utilised for areas lacking it while protecting our constituencies.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his proposal and I support it from Worcestershire. Does he accept that it is also important to look at the tributaries of the River Severn, such as the River Teme, which affected Tenbury Wells on this occasion, and the River Avon, which flows into the Severn.
I am very conscious of that and I hope that the Minister will take that point on board in her response.
I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond. I repeat that the River Severn is 220 miles long. It is the longest river in the United Kingdom. The River Severn basin has an area of almost 4,500 square miles that spans the English-Welsh border and runs across the west midlands before entering the sea at the Bristol channel. About 117,000 households, and more than 10,000 businesses, are considered to be within flood zones from the River Severn and its tributaries. The economic impact of the devastation that our businesses have been through is massive. In my constituency alone, there has been more than £1 million of damage and costs.
I am grateful to have had the chance to raise the issue. When I went to see the clear-up in my constituency, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that I saw an extraordinary Dunkirk spirit. People of all ages came together and gave up their time to help their fellow residents and businesses. We had a “buy local” campaign over the weekend in Shrewsbury to encourage people to use the businesses that were adversely affected. The Minister knows how strongly we feel about the issue. The time has come for the Government to act on managing the River Severn.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. He is always vociferous about his constituency, but he has been particularly determined and dogged about flooding. I cannot fault him for bringing this issue to the Government’s attention; I would do the same as a constituency MP. He certainly put the issues in his area on the map.
Like others, including my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), I pay tribute to the Environment Agency, the emergency services, local authorities, Government officials and our local communities and volunteers, who have done such brilliant work during the floods. Such situations really do test people, and the Severn Area Rescue Association should be particularly commended.
I think all right hon. and hon. Members would agree that it has been an unprecedented time. This has been the wettest February on record; it has been absolutely exceptional, and the River Severn catchment area has been hugely affected by Storm Dennis. Between 16 and 18 February the river at Kempsey near Worcester—I went there for a visit, having been first to Bewdley—reached its highest recorded level of 7.49 metres. That is just above the previous record of 7.47 metres.
We have had unparalleled times, and properties along the Severn have been protected by a whole range of permanent and temporary flood defences. Although the situation is dreadful for the homes and businesses that have been flooded, it has to be said at the outset that the defences that have been put in place have protected some 50,000 homes along the river. I know that Gloucester has been particularly affected.
I want to put on record my incredible thanks to the staff of the Environment Agency, the county council and others who put in protective measures after the dreadful floods of 2007, which effectively meant that not a single home in Gloucester flooded this time.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because we must not forget that a great deal of work has been done on flood defences as we have learned lessons from previous events and storms. The defences that have been put in place have protected many more homes and businesses, but there is still a great deal to do. Of course, not all areas are suitable for permanent flood defences. Perhaps one of the most striking examples this winter has been the installation of temporary barriers, particularly in Ironbridge. Although the barriers were pushed back by 2 metres as up to 500 tonnes of water per second flowed through the town, they still did their job.
I am pleased to say that the Severn is slowly receding. However, we must not be complacent, especially as there are continuing risks along the estuary, both today and tomorrow. We will be standing by to take the necessary steps, but recovery is taking place in many areas. It must be remembered that the Government have taken rapid action, chivvied on by our excellent Members who have spoken up for their constituencies.
We launched the Bellwin scheme very quickly. I take right hon. and hon. Members’ points about the scheme, but it has helped a lot of local authorities. On 18 February we launched the flood recovery framework, which triggered a whole series of other grant payments for eligible homes and businesses that have been affected, including the DEFRA property flood resilience scheme, which provides grants of £500 to help households and businesses become more resilient. I saw how that had been very helpfully used in Bewdley. Although it does not help everyone, it has definitely helped a lot of homes. I spoke to a lot of the people in those homes.
Farming is an integral part of life and the economy in our counties right along the River Severn. DEFRA, the Environment Agency and the Rural Payments Agency are working together to determine the full impacts on farmland, with the potential to make announcements about that farm recovery fund later.
Managing flood risks, particularly locally, requires risk management authorities to work together. As we have heard, the Severn is a prime example of partnerships working at their best. The Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, 29 lead local flood authorities, nine internal drainage boards—six in England and three in Wales—Highways England, the trunk road agencies in Wales and the water and sewerage providers work together in the Severn river basin district to manage flood risk.
The River Severn is the longest river in the country and it is a shared river; many of its tributaries rise in Wales before flowing through the Marches and on towards the Bristol channel. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) mentioned, there is a growing recognition that upstream solutions, such as natural flood management schemes in the upper reaches, can be important tools in flood management. That was highlighted by the Secretary of State, who, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, recently visited the area following the flooding. The Secretary of State and I have reiterated the importance of nature-based solutions to better protect vulnerable communities up and down the Severn, and I know that the Welsh Government are working on implementing some of those ideas already, as we have been doing in parts of England for some time. We must continue to work together on this catchment approach.
Those solutions cannot, however, provide the complete answer; there must be an integrated range of measures. That brings me on to the River Severn partnership. I absolutely share the ambition of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to deliver a long-term, comprehensive and holistic approach; that has to be the right direction. The partnership was formed only recently, but I am glad to see that it includes Natural Resources Wales. As my hon. Friend clearly outlined, it is taking the right approach—not just to having too much water in times of floods, but to handling situations when we do not have enough water in times of drought and to providing businesses with opportunities.
People up and down the Severn had the foresight to set up the partnership before the recent flooding. A memorandum of understanding has been signed, and local investment has already been committed. It is a really forward-thinking project, and I am aware that investigations are continuing on the feasibility of a floodwater storage area around Shrewsbury, which I believe my hon. Friend mentioned to the Secretary of State. I had a discussion with him before coming to the debate, and he wanted me to say how impressed he was by what he was shown. We would both like to be kept informed about how it is going, because that holistic approach is key.
I hear the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) for an MPs’ consortium—including MPs along the tributaries, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) mentioned—and we wait to hear more on that. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that significant investment has already been poured into the area, to the tune of £12.8 million for defences in Worcestershire, and there are other significant schemes up and down the river. Since 2010, the Government have invested £3.5 million on flood defences further upstream in Shropshire. All those defences better protect more homes.
As has been mentioned, flooding is not a new phenomenon. With climate change, we have to expect more frequent extreme weather events, and that is why we are investing record amounts in flood defences to protect our communities along rivers such as the Severn and the Wye. I hope that Members will welcome the Chancellor’s announcement today of a huge boost to flooding funding, to the tune of £5.2 billion, in the flood and coastal erosion management package. That underlines the Government’s commitment to this area. Within that, there is a £200 million package over six years for a place-based resilience programme, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) mentioned. That will support more than 25 local areas—urban, rural and coastal—from the north to the midlands to the south, with each taking innovative actions to improve flood resilience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham did not mention building on flood plains, but I know it is something that many people are talking about. The Secretary of State and I will speak to the Housing Secretary about the whole policy of building in flood areas and perhaps place renewed emphasis on how that should be looked at. I want to link the whole area of water consumption and supply with flood resilience. That is very important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned—he raises his large pipe programme in every possible debate.
I hope my response makes it clear that there is a great deal of commitment from the Government, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for being such a champion of his area. I look forward to hearing more about the great plans for the River Severn.
Question put and agreed to.
Women in the Commonwealth: Trade and Investment
I beg to move,
That this House has considered trade and investment opportunities for women in the Commonwealth.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I should refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and let them know that I am the acting co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on trade out of poverty.
As we celebrated International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Day just a few days ago, I felt it was timely to call for this debate on how the UK can promote trade and investment opportunities that empower women across the Commonwealth, especially in anticipation of the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda in June 2020.
Since the first International Women’s Day in 1909, we have seen great social and economic progress in many parts of the world. Across Commonwealth countries, women increasingly drive economic activity and engage in trade and entrepreneurship. According to some estimates, women lead a third of all small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries. In Kenya, 24% of SMEs are owned by women, while the figure stands at 26% in Rwanda. There is still much work to do, though. The gender gap means that women still face disproportionate barriers to access to trade and markets because of discriminatory attitudes, poor conditions and harassment, as well as unequal access to inputs such as credit and land.
Despite the values and commitments enshrined in the Commonwealth’s charter, which recognises that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are essential components of human development, progress towards more equitable inclusion of women in Commonwealth economies has been too slow. Only one in five exporting companies is led by women. Women-led enterprises are concentrated in less dynamic sectors than male-led ones, and few are involved in import and export. In employment, job segregation means that women work in lower paid jobs.
Promoting gender equality is a moral and economic imperative. Helping to tackle the many challenges that women face in the economic sphere can trigger tremendous positive social and economic change. A recent McKinsey Global Institute study found that closing the gender wage and participation gap could add nearly $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025. Astonishingly, that is equivalent to the GDPs of Japan, Germany and the UK combined.
On that point, although there have been really significant improvements in the employment of women, particularly in the developing countries of the Commonwealth, the fact remains that they lag behind significantly—as my hon. Friend’s statistics demonstrate—primarily because of poor literacy. In sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of women are illiterate whether they live in urban or rural settings, and that is usually linked to the size of their families and burdens at home. Does my hon. Friend agree about the imperative to improve girls’ education in developing countries as the critical determinant of whether they will be able to participate in trade in an equal way?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was very pleased that our Prime Minister made a commitment to support 12 years of quality education for girls around the world. Later in my speech, I will tackle some of the barriers that women face in developing countries.
Empowering women in the economy and closing gender gaps in the world of work is key to achieving the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and the sustainable development goals, particularly goal 5 on gender equality. The Commonwealth is an especially unique forum that the UK can leverage to further promote gender equality and bolster women’s economic empowerment in developing countries. With 54 countries and more than 2.4 billion people, the Commonwealth offers a more unified and structured network, sharing historical ties, values and language, and allows the UK to amplify its commitment to gender equality.
Commonwealth countries are more likely to trade and invest with each other than with the rest of the world. Collectively, Commonwealth members are less protectionist than other countries. Reduced trade costs and similarities in business, regulatory and administrative systems underpin the “Commonwealth advantage”. According to the International Monetary Fund’s forecasts, nine out of the top 25 fastest-growing economies are members of the Commonwealth, which demonstrates the trade potential of the group.
The UK chocolate industry is worth at least £4 billion each year, yet most cocoa farmers live in abject poverty. A typical farmer, such as those in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which account for 60% of the world’s cocoa production, earns less than 75p a day. That is well below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of approximately £1.40 per day. When visiting farmers in west Africa, I was struck to learn that only 25% of women cocoa farmers own their land, and and that on average they work about a third more than men when childcare and domestic chores are taken into account.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about how we can help people in extreme poverty in those countries. A problem, however, is that if we create new tariffs across the world for things such as cocoa, we may unwittingly allow greater competition against the farmers she describes, inadvertently undercutting their salaries rather than helping them into prosperity through trade.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Now that we have left the European Union, we have an opportunity to look at global Britain and our standing in the world. As he says, it is important that we do not undercut farmers in developing countries.
This year, the Fairtrade Foundation launched a campaign called “She Deserves” to achieve living incomes for cocoa farmers in west Africa, particularly women. I was very pleased to see people in Parliament, in Stafford and across Britain supporting Fairtrade fortnight earlier this month.
I will share with colleagues an example of a Fairtrade project that has made a real difference to people’s lives. The ABOCFA co-operative, which I visited last year, is the only organic Fairtrade-certified cocoa co-operative in Ghana. It has a total membership of 924 and produces more than 1,000 megatonnes of raw organic cocoa beans. The co-operative has signed a five-year memorandum of understanding with its current buyer, Tony’s Chocolonely—its products are stocked in British supermarkets—to supply it with Fairtrade-certified raw beans from last year’s season. As a nation of chocolate lovers, particularly in the west midlands, which of course is the home of Cadbury’s, the UK consumes more chocolate per person than any other European country. The UK could play a very powerful role in bringing about change to ensure that those farmers have a dignified life and receive a proper living income.
During the 2018 CHOGM in the UK, Commonwealth countries launched the Commonwealth connectivity agenda for trade and investment, which was a commitment to increase opportunities for women to trade internationally and to break down gender barriers in all sectors. The UK Government should be congratulated on the great work that they have already done on trade and investment and gender equality. I am thinking specifically of the SheTrades Commonwealth initiative, which was announced at CHOGM in 2018. I urge the Government to set out a five-step action plan as part of global Britain to scale up our efforts to promote the economic empowerment of women through trade and investment in the Commonwealth.
First, on female economic empowerment, I urge the Government to increase their investment in the SheTrades Commonwealth initiative. Following the successful UK-Africa investment summit, the Government have already announced £3.5 million of UK aid to support SheTrades, on top of the initial £7 million pledged in 2018 by the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I very much welcome the commitment, but the Government should go further to build on success and should increase their commitment. SheTrades has shown how investing in women has a clear multiplier effect. Results show that women entrepreneurs, on average, employ more women and invest more in community projects.
How do women do in international trade? The International Trade Centre’s large-scale survey looked at the extent of the challenge, and estimated that only one out of five exporting companies is women-led. That disparity occurs not only in developing countries but across Europe. Women-led enterprises are generally concentrated in less dynamic sectors than male-led ones, and women-led enterprises are involved in both import and export. In employment, job segregation means that women tend to work in lower paid jobs.
What are the reasons for that disadvantage? Women face unequal access to finance, skills, property and business networks, and some of those disadvantages can be explained by the fact that women often run smaller businesses and have other gender-specific barriers to entry. I have seen at first hand in numerous developing countries how financial innovation can be used to make credit facilities more accessible to women living in poor and rural communities. Lack of access to reliable and feasible loans is one of the major barriers to entry for women wanting to become economically independent.
Village savings and loan associations harness the existing social structure in villages to bring together people to make a financial contribution and save money as a community. That is a good example of funds being used as credit facilities and of a way for female entrepreneurs to get funding in locations where there are no traditional banking facilities. In Uganda, for example, more than 15,000 such savings groups have been established, and local people have now benefited from financial training. That is a good example of why savings groups are a key tool to promote female economic empowerment, so I hope the Government look at supporting such initiatives throughout the Commonwealth.
We need to reform the business, policy and legal ecosystem to ensure that it is not stifling female entrepreneurship and participation in trade. We need much better data to understand the barriers that prevent women from trading in the first place—what it is that is holding them back. We need to ensure that women have a voice when policies are being designed and implemented. It is also critical to acknowledge the work of the private sector, which has an important role to play in mentoring and training women to supply chain diversity programmes. All companies must be encouraged to create concrete opportunities for female entrepreneurs.
Secondly, the UK should champion an MBA scholarship initiative for 500 young women entrepreneurs and business leaders of the future from Commonwealth developing countries. That would give an opportunity for young female entrepreneurs to further their skills and to grow their businesses.
Thirdly, I congratulate CDC on its excellent commitment to close the economic gap between men and women. Forums such as the gender-smart investing summit in London have been successful in promoting collaboration between development finance institutions and encouraging them to work together. CDC is also encouraging women to be more economically active.
To give a specific example, the Chemi & Cotex company in Tanzania manufactures the leading brand of toothpaste in east Africa. I was impressed to learn that women now make up nearly 50% of its workforce. All the women who head up the sales branches join the company in junior roles and develop their skills within the business. That type of outreach programme is vital to help women to participate fully in the local economy. We must leverage the power of female entrepreneurship and continue to promote gender equality.
Fourthly, the UK should organise a business forum that brings together women entrepreneurs from across the Commonwealth. It would be a great opportunity for women entrepreneurs to share best practice and to forge networks, but also a chance to reflect on and take stock of the progress that we have made with different trade and gender initiatives, to determine the next steps for the future, and to reflect on the 2017 WTO Buenos Aires declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment.
Finally, the UK should appoint a new special envoy on women’s economic empowerment in the Commonwealth to work at international level across the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade. That would be an extremely powerful way to champion gender equality further. The new envoy could work with the new WTO working group on women and trade, which is expected to be agreed at the upcoming WTO ministerial conference in June of this year. It would allow an opportunity for a co-ordinated and harmonised UK approach truly to unleash the potential of women entrepreneurship in Commonwealth developing countries.
I believe that 2020 is an important year for women’s economic empowerment. It marks 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing declaration and platform for action, while little more than two years has passed since 127 countries launched the 2017 WTO Buenos Aires declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment. Ahead of the June CHOGM in Rwanda, the issue must continue to be high on the agenda of the various economic groupings in the Commonwealth, from the G20 and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to APEC, or Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation. The UK has made a strong commitment to the trade and gender equality agenda, and I hope that in 2020 the UK Government will continue to build on the success of the African investment summit, scaling up that ambition even further.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this debate. I am impressed at how the topic manages to combine both Commonwealth Day and International Women’s Day.
This year, 2020, marks the start of the decade of delivery of the sustainable development goals, which affect the whole of the Commonwealth and beyond. I am sporting my SDG badge to highlight that important commitment, and I hope that colleagues across the House support it too. Recently, I found another way to support the global goals: having them as a screensaver on my mobile phone. By doing so, I earn money that I can donate to my chosen goal. I urge other Members to do likewise—to literally be the small change that we want to see in the world. The two goals that are particularly appropriate for this debate are SDG 5, on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and SDG 8, on full and productive employment and decent work for all.
As we approach the Commonwealth meeting in Rwanda, including that of the Commonwealth Business Forum, it is important to ensure that women’s voices are heard in those important debates. Too often, such discussions are dominated by men. As a result, not only is no action taken on issues that affect women, but those issues are not even on the agenda. Open trading arrangements and the reduction of border barriers between countries can be of particular benefit to small women traders. They can promote women’s economic empowerment, as well as fit with our commitment to SDG 5.
I want to focus on the topic of period poverty. First, there is an issue of opportunity. Someone who does not have access to sanitary products will miss out on opportunities to participate in school or work. According to ActionAid, one in 10 girls in Africa misses school because they do not have access to sanitary products, or because there are not safe, private toilets to use at school. Every time a girl misses school owing to period poverty, an opportunity is denied, resulting in lower educational attainment and fewer chances to make an economic contribution through future employment. It is important not to underestimate the scale of that problem in the Commonwealth. According to ActionAid, in Kenya alone 50% of school-age girls do not have access to sanitary products, and 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women cannot afford period products.
Despite those challenges, alleviating period poverty can in itself create business opportunities for women across the Commonwealth. Lilypads is a social enterprise that works domestically and internationally. It has developed a reusable pad, which it manufactures in Nairobi, Kenya. Part of its mission is to develop low-cost pads, which can be supplied individually. Crucially, Lilypads helps to train women, who can sell the sanitary items in their communities as a way of generating income. It is in the business of creating opportunities for women. Culturally, it supports conversations that prevent menstruation from being a topic that simply cannot be discussed. Period poverty is experienced by women all over the world. I am pleased that steps are being taken both domestically and globally to eradicate it. Whether in Cupar or Kenya, Berwick or Botswana, no woman should be prevented from participating fully in her community by her inability to access sanitary products.
We must reflect on our domestic approach and adjust our international approach, and the same is true in reverse. Our commitment to the global goals does not just mean changing how we look at development work; it means changing our perspective and our policies at home too. The goals apply here. That is particularly relevant to SDG 5. This is not just about looking at what we do domestically and expanding it internationally; it is about looking at what we do internationally and replicating that domestically where appropriate.
Last year, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) committed the Government to helping to eradicate period poverty worldwide by 2030. I am sure Members across the House will agree that that is a laudable aim, but a year is a long time in politics—especially this last year, in which we have had, as of today, one Budget, two Prime Ministers, three Chancellors and four Secretaries of State for International Development. Last week, I presented a Bill on period poverty, the purpose of which is to require the new Secretary of State to report to the House on progress on the 2030 commitments, to ensure that they do not drop off her agenda. I am pleased that my Bill was sponsored by hon. Members from across the House, including the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), alongside my six female Liberal Democrat colleagues.
I urge the Minister to update us on the progress that is being made towards the achievement of the goals and the UK’s involvement in that. There is a clear and obvious case that eradicating period poverty is, in and of itself, a worthy end towards which the UK should continue to make an important contribution. Women who are currently excluded from trade and investment opportunities in the Commonwealth will surely benefit.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this debate. She is clearly very experienced and committed to the issues she has raised, and it is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I also enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). There is interesting work going on around the world. There are lots of challenges and lots of ideas, and it is good to know that so many of us are so committed.
Fundamental to all this is education. Unless the UK Government seriously address inequalities in work and education in their role as Commonwealth chair-in-office, little progress will be made on business and investment. There is little time to make the impact we should be making. The UK has been Commonwealth chair-in-office for a year and a half; it has only six months left. The UK Government have been fairly slow in pushing for positive social change in the Commonwealth, and I hope we do not waste those precious final months. That is not to say that there are not positives or that the UK does not play any part in that positive progress—it would be wrong to claim that—but are we doing enough?
Let me start with the positives. From 2017, when I lost my seat, to 2019, I spent quite a bit of time working overseas. I did a lot of work in the Gambia, which is a Commonwealth member, on behalf of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID. I therefore know from first-hand experience that there is truly meaningful work going on that is funded by the UK. I would love to say more about my experience, particularly in the Gambia, but that is perhaps for another day.
Let me also acknowledge some of the progress that women have made in the Commonwealth. First, a girl is as likely as a boy—in some countries more likely—to attend primary school. That is an improvement. Secondly, in the Parliaments of 13 Commonwealth countries, 30% or more of members are women. Thirdly, in most countries, women can now expect to outlive men.
However, it remains the case—I do not put this at the door of the UK Government; it is for all of us across the world to resolve—that only one in five Commonwealth parliamentarians is a woman. That means four in five are men. Only seven of every 10 girls attend secondary school. Thirty-two countries do not mandate equal pay for work of equal value, 19 do not have laws prohibiting early marriage, and 89% of Commonwealth countries have at least one piece of legislation on the books that holds women back economically in terms of starting or growing a business. That is unacceptable, and it must be addressed before any real economic progress can be made.
On early marriage, as it is the week of International Women’s Day, I want to pay tribute to a truly inspirational woman, who is a tribal chief in Malawi. Since being appointed a few years ago, Chief Theresa Kachindamoto has annulled more than 1,000 child marriages and sent all the girls back to school. She is in charge of 551 village head men—they are all men. If one of them allows a child to be married, she dismisses him immediately—zero tolerance. That is why she is known in Malawi as the marriage terminator.
I spent some time in Malawi during recess. I went with Oxfam to two villages, where we met girls who had been married and had babies as children, and had dropped out of school. When they were encouraged to return, they said they could not because they had to breastfeed their babies and school was too far away. Oxfam gave them bicycles so they could go to school, cycle home at lunch time to feed their babies, and return to school. They no longer have to choose between their children and the education they need to create better lives for themselves.
Even if every country sorted out the inequality in education, the well-documented relationship between trade and gender would remain. Women are disproportionately affected by trade policy decisions, particularly in developing countries, as we have heard. As the UK leaves the European Union and forms its own independent trade policy, the Government have an opportunity to show leadership and develop a truly gender-responsive approach to trade policy. I hope they make the most of that opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for securing this important debate and for the way she approached the topic. I think she will find there is a great deal of overlap between us; perhaps some cross-party collaboration beckons. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for her remarks about period poverty and the potential of trade for tackling it. I also enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). Her description of the marriage terminator was an education, but I also welcome her emphasis on the value of education in bringing about gender equality.
As others said, it is timely that we have International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Day together this week. It is right that we should use this opportunity, as the hon. Member for Stafford said, to discuss how we use the tools and policy measures at our disposal to advance our efforts to ensure equality for women, including through our trade agreements with Commonwealth partners.
Trade has the potential to bring great economic empowerment to the world’s poorest countries, and specifically to women and others in more vulnerable groups. However, not all trade and investment policy measures are economically empowering for women. A careful balance must therefore be struck for trade policy to be effective. The World Trade Organisation and the World Bank have found that although women play a vital role in the economy, they face additional obstacles to participating in international trade. We should seek to overcome those barriers if we want women’s potential to be fulfilled.
We welcome trade agreements that elevate rights and standards and that are at the forefront of global initiatives to secure the economic empowerment of women. However, as the WTO and the World Bank have identified, gender-biased laws and procurement processes, and difficulties in accessing finance, are challenges to women’s ability to benefit from international trade. Those two institutions also point out that gender-biased environments generally mean that women face a variety of extra challenges, such as in acquiring necessary knowledge, or being in charge of or involved with companies large enough for the extra costs of trade to be incorporated at scale.
In countries where women’s socioeconomic positions are particularly precarious, trade can of course offer important routes to their social and economic empowerment, and trade agreements can create decent work opportunities for women. However, far too often they have been a source of further exploitation. Some trade agreements result in women finding themselves trapped in low-wage jobs and dangerous working environments, which we all wish to avoid.
Well-regulated, unionised jobs for men and women in one country being lost as they are relocated overseas, often to markets without those protections, is a potential downside of a trade agreement that is not well thought through. Poorly designed trade policy can therefore fail to deliver coherent ways of improving women’s rights and economic status. At worst, it can harm the rights of women—particularly those from poor and marginalised communities.
Civil society campaign groups in the Commonwealth have highlighted that bad trade policy can lead to jobs with low wages and poor working conditions for women—effectively a race to the bottom rather than, to use the Government’s favourite phrase, the levelling up that we all wish to see. Bad trade policy may result in women’s livelihoods being put at risk, and the interests of private companies and investors being prioritised over commitments to women’s rights. It can also lead to inadequate provision of quality public services and infrastructure, such as education, which are vital to give women an equal chance to participate in the market, redress their unpaid care work and tackle violence against women and girls.
But there is good news: there are ways of making this work. The joint declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment at the 11th World Trade Organisation ministerial conference helpfully identified some things for future discussion. I hope that the Minister is aware of those things and has taken them to heart, but I will remind him of them anyway. There were five key recommendations: sharing respective experiences relating to policies and programmes that encourage women’s participation in national and international economies; sharing best practice for conducting gender-based analysis of trade policies and monitoring; sharing methods and procedures for the collection of gender-disaggregated data—so often in gender equality work, just having the data makes for a huge step forward—and the use of indicators, monitoring and evaluation methodologies so we can analyse gender-focused trade statistics and work out whether we are doing anything good; working together in the WTO to remove barriers to women’s economic empowerment and increase their participation; and ensuring that aid for trade really supports the tools and know-how to analyse, design and implement gender-responsive trade policies. Future discussions alone are not enough. If trade agreements proceed as usual and lock in liberalisation measures, they set back efforts to improve labour standards and workplace rights, and they disadvantage women. I am sure that none of us wants that.
Not enough is being done to determine the gender impacts of trade agreements at the outset, let alone any subsequent review post ratification. Will the Minister set out what representations the UK intends to make at the upcoming 12th ministerial conference on gender and trade?
The SheTrades Commonwealth scheme, which was launched by the former Prime Minister at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London in 2018, has been cautiously welcomed by campaign groups and civil society organisations. There is caution, however, because such initiatives invariably focus on channelling support to women entrepreneurs in developing countries. That is good, but they are often target-driven, and much of the funding is ultimately directed towards well-connected and wealthy figures in developing countries, without any measurement of or focus on the benefits for other women. Those schemes may well have the noble intention of ensuring that women are better represented in global trade, and that is a good thing, but it is not enough if they fail to address the wider structural issues that are often reinforced by trade policy architecture.
Similarly, the Commonwealth connectivity agenda has been heralded as an additional tool to address how digital solutions can be used to empower women and unlock economic opportunities for them. Of course, that is worthwhile, but we have to tackle the underlying structural issues. The outcome statement of the 2018 Commonwealth Women’s Forum, which took place alongside the business forum, should be commended for recognising that trade policy could be used to leverage economic empowerment for women and encourage ratification of the International Labour Organisation conventions. Those involved in the forum call on the Commonwealth Heads of Government to
“create an enabling macroeconomic environment…Call on Heads to lead global action on developing and implementing gender responsive trade policies and economic development in collaboration with women…Call on Heads to address the systematic barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the economy…Commit to extending employment regulations and social and legal protection to cover women workers in the formal and informal economy…Call on Heads to recognise the economic value of unpaid care work”,
without which women will continue to be doubly disadvantaged. Even that does not go far enough to identify the negative potential impact of trade liberalisation measures that are drawn up without due attention to gender; nor does it include recommendations for how to proceed with binding obligations on all parties.
Echoing what the hon. Member for Stafford said, I ask the Minister to set out the Government’s priorities for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In 2018, the International Trade Committee heard much evidence on how trade policy unfairly affects women and what measures might be considered a step forward—the Minister might want to refer to that at CHOGM. The woman from the Gender and Development Network gave evidence about significant economic and social disadvantage, including unemployment, low pay and poor working conditions. She also highlighted how poorly thought-through free trade agreements can drive down labour standards. Again, that is not what we want. ActionAid noted in its evidence that women face economic discrimination at every level, and women in developing countries could be at least $9 trillion better off if their pay and access to paid work were equal to men’s.
The introduction of specific gender chapters in free trade agreements, such as that in the Canada-Chile free trade agreement, has been commended as breaking positive new ground. Such agreements have the potential to build on existing global commitments, such as the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and to provide for the establishment of trade and gender committees to oversee the application of aspects of a free trade agreement. However, such chapters often do not contain binding obligations or enforcement measures, so they have been described by the UN conference on trade and development as “light touch.”
The Labour party committed in its manifesto to ensuring that trade policy respects workers’ rights, not just domestically but abroad. That includes accountability for global supply chains. It also involves ensuring that women workers in the Commonwealth who produce goods for our market are in decent jobs with decent wages, safe working conditions and union rights, and that they are safe from sexual harassment and violence. We should not be in the business of offshoring exploitative conditions.
Many UK companies source goods from the global south and the Commonwealth, which has created many jobs in sectors that employ women, such as garments and agriculture. However, it is important to ensure that the jobs that are created have safe working conditions and pay a living wage. If we are to design a trade policy that genuinely promotes women’s rights and encourages women’s greater representation and participation in trade and investment across the Commonwealth, we must address the structural challenges. To ensure that trade policy in the Commonwealth is in line with women’s rights, the Government must carry out gender and social impact assessments prior to all new trade agreements—and I mean all of them. The debate is about the Commonwealth, but we should do the same for all trade agreements.
The Government’s response to the International Trade Committee report, in which they which committed to publishing gender-specific reviews and scoping assessments with trade agreements, is welcome. However, if Parliament does not have a properly defined role in scrutinising and debating those agreements, I worry that we will not be able to hold the Government to account on them.
Trade agreements can affect the public services that women rely on for their social protection, displace local jobs through surges of cheap imports and undermine working conditions. They can also do the opposite, and we could decide that we want to do the opposite. In the discussion about women’s economic empowerment, if we get it wrong and continue to overlook the aspects of trade agreements that stand to do the most damage, we risk making women’s lives worse. If we get it right, there is a good possibility that we can make women’s lives much better and assist with women’s economic empowerment in the Commonwealth. I hope that the Minister will address some of what Members have said.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to have heard powerful speeches from Members across the House. While only one in five exporting businesses are led by women, I am pleased to say that that ratio has been reversed in this debate. I am the first male to speak while the four women, who spoke so powerfully, went ahead of me.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), who has great expertise in this area, having previously worked for the Bill Gates Foundation. As she showed in her speech, she cares deeply and knows a great deal about this topic. She founded the Coalition for Global Prosperity and is the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on trade out of poverty, both of which do so much to increase our understanding of these subjects.
Having recently celebrated Commonwealth Day, and International Women’s Day last Sunday, this is a great chance to reflect on the huge benefits for women and society in this country and throughout the Commonwealth from having the freedom and opportunities to trade and invest. The Government put this issue right at the heart of our international agenda.
As the Minister for Women and Equalities said in the Commons last week, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day “each for equal” has echoes of the Government’s central domestic mission to level up, deliver opportunity to and unleash the potential of everyone in the United Kingdom. As was suggested in various speeches, we would like that to happen for everyone everywhere, not least for the women who are so often left behind. Women’s economic empowerment is a goal that we in the Department for International Trade and people across Government are pulling out all the stops to drive forward, not just here in Britain but across the Commonwealth and beyond.
The Commonwealth is rapidly becoming one of the economic powerhouses of global growth, with joint GDP expected to reach $13 trillion this year. While progress has been made in unleashing the full economic potential of women across the Commonwealth, their access to the benefits of trade remains startlingly unbalanced, as we have heard from a succession of speakers today. This issue is important for developed and developing countries alike. From barriers to technology and start-up capital to land ownership restrictions, all too often women are unable to fully exploit their business talents and realise their trading ambitions.
Women do not lack ability or ambition, yet we know that only one in three UK entrepreneurs is female, which is a gender gap equivalent to approximately 1.1 million missing businesses. Globally it is estimated that female-led SMEs face a credit gap of around $300 billion, with businesses run by women collecting less than 3% of global venture capital in 2017. The World Bank estimates that of 173 countries worldwide, 90% had at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities, hence our determination to help women in the UK to export to or invest in our Commonwealth partners and other global markets, and to enable women in Commonwealth nations to trade with us. After all, supporting women-owned businesses to trade internationally is a proven way to boost broader economic transformation.
In recognition of that, at the London Commonwealth summit in 2018 all member states agreed to address systemic barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the economy and increase opportunities for women in trade internationally. The UK is playing a key role in championing those goals. Our 2018 UK export strategy commits us to harnessing trade’s potential for boosting economic growth, creating jobs and supporting greater participation by women in the economy. In the UK-US negotiation objectives announced earlier this month, we made clear that we are seeking an agreement with the US that advances women’s economic empowerment.
As an independent member of the World Trade Organisation, the UK is now working with other members to use the joint declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and others mentioned, was adopted at the 11th ministerial conference of the WTO in 2017 as a road map for progress on this vital agenda. We will seek to build on that momentum and drive forward our existing commitments at the 12th ministerial conference in June. As we also look ahead to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, Rwanda this summer, I am encouraged that strategies for women in business and trade are expected to form part of the discussions.
I was pleased to spend several months working with colleagues in the FCO and DFID to deliver the Africa investment summit on 20 January this year. During the summit, we announced an additional £6.1 million of funding for the extension of the work and opportunities for women programme, known as the WOW programme. That will support a further 100,000 women in Africa to access safer and better paid employment. A memorable part of the event was when I attended a reception in the margins of the summit hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering, where I met female entrepreneurs from African countries who received the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa prize. It is dynamic young entrepreneurs like them who will supercharge economic growth across the developing world in the decades ahead.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford asked whether we should establish Commonwealth MBA scholarships. Since 2018, the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission has focused its new awards under six key development themes. It supports high-calibre female postgraduates from 23 Commonwealth countries in master’s subjects relating to the theme of business and industry. In 2018, some 48% of new awards were for women. As for the investment strategy of the CDC, that body is working hard to help promote women’s economic empowerment through their own investments. The CDC sponsored the first global gender-smart investing summit in London in 2018 and is a founder member of the 2XChallenge, which seeks to mobilise $3 billion-worth of investments into developing countries by the end of this year in support of women’s businesses.
My hon. Friend asked if we could appoint a special envoy on women’s economic empowerment for the Commonwealth. The UK’s special envoy for gender equality already represents the breadth of work that the UK Government do on this issue, and a key part of their role is to promote best practice in gender equality overseas.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of women entrepreneurs forging bonds across the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Business Women’s Network is currently a route to do that and a vocal participant in Commonwealth events. Indeed, it is co-hosting a conference this month on collaboration, trade and education across the Commonwealth. It will also be active in the Commonwealth Business Forum, which is taking place immediately before the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, where we expect encouraging women entrepreneurs to be on the agenda set by the incoming chair-in-office, Rwanda.
My hon. Friend asked me about the SheTrades Commonwealth initiative, which we launched at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, in London. As she observed, that innovative project has been doing great work in supporting women entrepreneurs in four Commonwealth countries—Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria—by helping to enhance their business competitiveness and connecting them with international markets. Building on the success of SheTrades, the Secretary of State for International Development announced a further £3.5 million, as my hon. Friend mentioned, towards a programme extension at the UK-Africa investment summit in January.
In today’s debate, we heard speeches from across the House. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) championed the issue of period poverty and the way it blocks women from accessing the economy, and thus trade. She spoke powerfully about that. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), with her memorable reference to the marriage terminator, and others, also spoke with great knowledge, based not least on the interregnum before her return to the House, when she worked abroad to understand the issues at a deep level.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) also spoke powerfully, although it is worth mentioning that, notwithstanding the barriers that women face, which across the House we are all committed to doing everything we can to address, it is trade liberalisation that has led to the greatest and fastest improvement in human welfare in history in past decades. It is a shame that the Opposition party has been taken hold of by a fundamentally Marxist view, which has led them to oppose trade agreements with the most benign of allies, leads to an attitude that regards liberalisation as fundamentally against the best interest, and talks as if we can impose our standards on every country—least appropriately of all on a developing country.
To impose such standards on them would effectively mean that the women—business people and others—in those countries would be barred from access to our markets by what comes together as a coherent view that opposes liberalisation and that puts up artificial barriers to those who cannot match the standards we take for granted. Thus, it does the exact opposite of what the hon. Lady would wish to do, which is to empower and strengthen the economic role of women in the developing world. I have to say that I fundamentally and totally reject that attitude, which unfortunately has infected the whole of the Labour party since the current leadership has been in place. I happily give way to the hon. Lady.
I am not going to make a point of order, Mr Hosie. I am going to ask the Minister if he would reconsider that uncharacteristically ungenerous characterisation of what I said. I absolutely said that we welcome trade agreements. I said that I welcome trade agreements. I also quoted from NGOs in the developing world—not my view but the views of those from the developing world themselves, from Commonwealth organisations, whom I have met in my work—who have themselves talked about some of the problems that emerge from some trade agreements. I was very careful in my choice of words and I was most definitely not opposing all trade agreements—very far from it. I do hope he will reconsider.
Hansard will show the record of expressing opposition to trade liberalisation. People will be able to see that for themselves. As I say, the failure to support trade agreements that should have been uncontroversial suggests a certain extremism in the economic outlook of Her Majesty’s Opposition as it stands. However, the Labour party is having a leadership election, and I hope and expect that some form of sanity will return to its economic strategy.
As Minister for exports, it gives me great pleasure to see the crucial role our trade policy can play in breaking down barriers to global commerce for women across the globe. Free trade and trade liberalisation bring the benefits of global commerce to all nations and regions of the UK, just as they are helping to level up economic opportunities for people of all genders and backgrounds across the world. As a truly global Britain, we will use our new role as an independent, outward-looking, free-trading nation to champion the cause of empowering women across the Commonwealth and beyond.
I thank the Minister and all hon. Members for their contributions today. I was very pleased to hear from the Minister that the special envoy on gender equality is doing a huge amount to champion this agenda. I have previously met with the envoy and I am pleased to see that she is continuing this important role. I will also look more into the CDC’s work on supporting gender equality. I was particularly interested in the 2X Challenge, which I will look into after the debate.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions, particularly the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for her work on period poverty. She has been a strong champion on this issue. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) for sharing with us some very interesting statistics on how girls are more likely to attend school than boys; I was very pleased and heartened to hear the progress that we have made over the past few years. The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) made a very important point about how important is that we have the correct data on gender. That will enable us to make progress on this agenda.
For me, it is vital to remember that more than half of our global population is female. Women play a crucial role in societies across the world, and it is important that the UK Government continue to ensure that all women have the ability to fulfil their true potential. I think we can do that in the Commonwealth.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered trade and investment opportunities for women in the Commonwealth.