Wednesday 7 October 2020
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
China: Labour Programme in Tibet
Welcome to Westminster Hall. If hon. Members will bear with me, I have to read the pre-flight briefing. I remind Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones before they use them and respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can speak only if they are on the call lists. This applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reports of China’s rapid expansion of the labour programme in Tibet co-published by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. Having wiped my microphone, I feel like I am ready to go. Today’s debate is about the recent report on China’s rapid expansion of mass labour programmes in Tibet. This paper was co-published by a leading human rights adviser and scholar, Adrian Zenz, with a group that I am a member of called IPAC—the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China—and there are others in the room who are also part of that group. It includes both left and right parliamentarians in 17 countries who are concerned about the behaviour of China across a range of issues. As I say, Adrian Zenz is a scholar in this area, and he has previously published a paper with IPAC on the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women, and I will touch on that issue shortly.
Adrian Zenz has uncovered this material through existing Government papers. That is the interesting thing: none of this is secret. In a sense, it is quite open, and these Government papers spell out exactly what has been going on. The findings are shocking, although it is important to note that, with all the other debates about China, which I will touch on in my conclusion, Tibet has, funnily enough, been rather forgotten. It has been an issue for a while, and then it has disappeared, and nobody seems to talk about it. What this paper has done is reminded us that, over a longer period than for anything else, the Chinese authorities have been bearing down on the human rights of the indigenous population in Tibet.
The findings of the report are particularly interesting, because they show that there has been mandatory—I use this term advisedly—vocational training, which basically means driving out the sense of identity of the people in Tibet. Alongside these programmes, there are forcible labour transfer schemes. Those are slightly gentle words, but what they mean is that people are being taken from one place and put into camps, a bit like—well, a lot like—the Uyghurs we uncovered, who are forced to do hard labour in all sorts of areas and without proper pay or support.
Over half a million labourers were collected together into these camps in the first seven months of 2020. Local government officials are required by the Government to meet quotas for what they term recruitment to the scheme—it is nothing like any concept of recruitment that we might understand. It basically means that they have to get people in certain categories into those camps as quickly as they can. This process is overseen by strict military management, which includes enforced indoctrination and intrusive surveillance of participants. Labourers may also be forcibly transferred from their homes to work all over China. In other words, this is not just about camps in Tibet; people are being moved around to fulfil requirements elsewhere. Of course, this process has close similarities with the training and labour transfer in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, which I will touch on.
The Government’s attempts to dilute Tibetan identity are really critical. That is being done through forced cultural assimilation, and the same pattern is going on in a number of areas. Interestingly, the Government documents state that these programmes aim to reform Tibetan cultural “backwardness”. That is an interesting concept and a relative concept, and of course its relativity is defined by those in power, which is to say the Communist party of China. That aim is achieved by the Government enforcing the learning of Mandarin and weakening, however they can, the religious influence that exists among those who claim to be indigenously Tibetan.
This is not an isolated incident. We have seen this pattern of eradication—or attempted eradication—of ethnicity across China. We know from the parallel report that was published a little earlier on the Uyghurs that at least 1 million Uyghurs are in mass arbitrary detention in Xinjiang. There are almost 400 prison camps in the region, with more still under development. It is disgraceful, but we understand that western fashion brands use supply chains where forced labour is prevalent. I am sure that will apply in due course, if not already, in Tibet. The Government-sponsored forced sterilisation and birth suppression in the Uyghur populations, which we believe do exist, would meet the genocide criteria—we have yet to get the UN to even look at that, but it is the key. Civil servants are also placed in Uyghur homes to monitor behaviour, and children whose parents are detained are being taken from their families and placed in state facilities.
But it is not just the Tibetans and the Uyghurs; it is now also the Christians. Party members who profess a faith are now subject to disciplinary procedures, with the arrest and detention of Christian leaders such as Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Church, who was detained in December 2018 and sentenced to nine years in prison for
“incitement to subvert state power”.
These acts of repression never happen all at once. It is never a single thing that happens immediately. Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern about reports that we are now hearing from southern Mongolia about the start of the same process of cultural and linguistic oppression of the local population? If we do not call it out, we will probably see the same thing happen there.
It is a pleasure to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who came early to this issue. He has been calling it out for some time, and I congratulate him on that. I agree with him. We have to look at the starting point. People took their eyes off Tibet, but we can see now what is happening. People did not want to talk about the Uyghurs, but we have advanced. Repression is happening everywhere.
My point about the Christians is that it has been going on for a long time. There are threats, for example, to withhold state support from low-income Christian families who do not give up their religious belief, and there is a similar experience among Catholic churches. It is not only about churches that the Government do not consider to be registered; it is also even churches that they might consider to be registered.
The Falun Gong has experienced the most appalling behaviour. The 610 Office is the security agency charged with solely persecuting the Falun Gong. If detainees do not renounce Falun Gong beliefs, they are subject to re-education through labour. There are reports of beatings, solitary confinement, 24-hour monitoring, rack torture, tiger bench torture, water torture, stress position torture, forced feeding for those on hunger strike and forced injections of unknown drugs, and now, most shockingly of all, there are confirmed stories of organ harvesting from those who have been incarcerated.
Liu Guifu, a Falun Gong practitioner from Beijing, was twice sent to RTL camps—retraining camps—in Beijing. She reports being deprived of sleep, not allowed to use a bathroom or drink water. She was forced to consume faeces and toilet water, and was given unidentifiable drugs to make her lose consciousness. I urge the Government to call that out.
I also urge the Government to do a series of things so that the UK becomes a lead advocate in all of this. First, we need to look at mandatory sanctions with regard to global human rights abuses: sanctions such as travel bans or asset freezes. The officials responsible should have Magnitsky arrangements applied to them for the use of forced compulsory labour in Tibet and in other areas, too. The Government should also open a way for similar judgments to be issued on cases regarding abuses against Xinjiang’s Uyghurs and other minorities in China that I have touched on.
I urge the Government to support amendment 68 to the Trade Bill in the Lords to nullify trade arrangements past and future if the High Court makes a preliminary determination that a proposed trade partner has perpetrated genocide. I can tell the Government now that, should such a new clause come to the Commons, I will absolutely support it. I also urge the Government to consider that, to meet GDP targets. China’s economy needs to grow by some 7.5% a year. Under the cover of that, China is being given the capacity to behave in the way it does by western companies and Governments, which are turning a blind eye.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, beyond even the human rights abuses, China is now in breach of World Trade Organisation rules endlessly across the piece. It incentivises companies through illegal discounts, tax breaks and subsidies. Even Volkswagen reported that it had to buy a quota of components from local Chinese suppliers or pay more than double the standard import tax on such parts, which violates the WTO rules that everybody else is meant to obey. China favours exporting finished products, which means that it basically forces companies to manufacture and produce.
The supply chain risk profiles are all in the report, and they are there for us as well. The supply chains in Tibet, Xinjiang and other regions are linked to forced labour, and the Government have to make it clear to British business that it is unacceptable to be in the slightest bit involved with those chains. I also ask the Government to demand reciprocal access to Tibet and other regions, such as Xinjiang, in order to allow for independent international investigation into the reports of forced labour, and to call for a UN special rapporteur on Tibet.
The peculiarity of the situation is that if China were any other country in the world, every Government would call it out. They would demand change. Imagine if it were a country in Europe, Africa or anywhere else—there would immediately be demands and debates in the UN. That does not happen. Far too much of what we think and do about China is now influenced massively by the concern about getting goods, manufacturers, investment and so on organised.
China is involved in occupying the South China sea. The UN has said that China has no right to it at all, yet it is demanding and controlling whole areas. It has been involved in border disputes—aggressive behaviour—recently with India, in which Indian soldiers have been killed.
Then there is the situation in Hong Kong. How much more can we say about Hong Kong? China is abusing what is going on and has dismissed an international agreement with regards to the legalities, leading to the incarceration of many peaceful protestors and their shipment to China for prosecution, where they will certainly not get a fair trial. By the way, I asked the Government what they think of British judges being employed still on the bench in Hong Kong. Surely it is time that we said, “Enough!” They can no longer give cover to what is going on in Hong Kong. It has to stop, for goodness’ sake.
There is one other action that the Government can take. The winter Olympics are planned to be in China. Many of us believe that, if it were any other country, there would now be calls for the Olympics to be moved. I simply say to the Government that they will have to take a stance on this issue pretty soon.
Overall, we are dealing now with a country that appears to have bullied and threatened its way through all of this. It is imposing the most dreadful and terrible things on many of its people, it is abusing human rights, and many people now believe that it might even be guilty of a form of genocide. I simply say to my Government that it is time for them to stand up. It is time for this Government to lead, and it is time for this Government to act.
The debate can last until 11 o’clock. I am obliged to start calling the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.27 am. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, and Sir Iain Duncan Smith will have three minutes at the end to wind up the debate. Five very distinguished Back Benchers are seeking to contribute, and we have 42 minutes of Back-Bench time before the Front Benchers come in.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall today. I echo what has been said about human rights abuses in Tibet and in the People’s Republic of China in general. It is shocking that in the 21st century we are still having to speak out against the barbaric acts of a totalitarian regime. The basic rights enshrined in documents such as the universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights are the foundation stone on which human life can be lived in dignity. We have a duty to stand up for those rights on behalf of not only persecuted people inside China but all people, not least because the Chinese Communist party is seeking to expand its influence around the world.
I would like to speak more specifically about the recent report by Adrian Zenz on militarised vocational training in Tibet and to place that in the context of the CCP’s long-term strategy in Tibet. First, it is important to note that the report refers mainly to what is happening in the so-called Tibet autonomous region, which is only one part of Tibet. The vast areas of eastern Tibet are contained within the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan. We must be careful not to overlook the Tibetan people in those regions.
About 6 million Tibetans live under Chinese rule. Although exact numbers are hard to ascertain, it has been estimated that, until recently, there have been roughly 2 million Tibetans whose lifestyle can be described as nomadic or pastoralist. They graze their herds on the high pastures, as their ancestors did for generations. Their way of life is fine-tuned to the harsh climate. The CCP has long sought to undermine that traditional lifestyle. The fundamental reason for that is that the pastoralist way of life perpetuates the distinctive Tibetan identity and culture. Together with the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism, it is one of the pillars on which that distinctive identity and culture rest. The CCP has for decades seen the Tibetan’s distinctive identity and free spirit as a threat to its authoritarian rule. Just as the CCP wishes to cripple the Tibetan language through Mandarin education, as we have heard, and to cripple Tibetan Buddhism through the demolition of monasteries such as Larung Gar, so it is trying to undermine the pastoralist lifestyle.
That is the context for this report. The CCP’s pretext for its action is framed in terms of economic development. The pastoralist lifestyle is characterised as backward, and pastoralists are treated as surplus labourers who are lazy. Using a combination of superficial incentives and punitive force, the CCP has long been driving pastoralists off their ancestral lands and into towns, where they are expected to engage in the Chinese economy. The forced vocational training courses described in the report are nominally to give them skills that they can use in the towns. It must be affirmed, however, that that is a pretext. Considerable evidence amassed by Tibetans suggests that the lifestyle of pastoralists who are driven into towns is deeply degrading.
Once in the towns, the Tibetan people are much more easily controlled within the horrifying systems of surveillance, such as the grid management and double-linked household system described in the report. To reaffirm the key point, the CCP’s framing of its policies in Tibet in terms of economic development is spurious. The issue here is deliberate cultural destruction. In that sense, there are many similarities between the CCP strategy in Tibet and the horrific cultural genocide taking place in Xinjiang. I stress, however, how important it is to take the situations in Tibet and in Xinjiang on their own separate terms. We must be careful not to blur the important difference between the two cases, as that would only help to let the CCP off the hook for its specific abuses against Tibet.
Therefore, I call on the Government to bring Magnitsky sanctions against those members of the CCP involved in perpetuating human rights abuses in Tibet, as we have heard. I also call on them to adopt the private Member’s Bill from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on reciprocal access to Tibet, which would make it harder for the CCP to continue to hide its abuses in Tibet from journalists, diplomats and independent travellers.
Finally—this is important and has not been mentioned yet—I call on the Government to publish their formal strategy for when the current Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, dies. It is very likely that the CCP will try to use that moment to further undermine the Tibetan identity by appointing its own stooge Dalai Lama. We should be ready to stand in defence of the Tibetan people if and when that moment comes.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for bringing this debate today. He started by saying that Tibet is something of a forgotten issue. Over 20 years, as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for Tibet, and as chair and co-chair for the last five years, I have been in this Chamber—a very lonely Chamber—raising the cause of Tibet, so it is good to see many more hon. Members from across the House here in support.
Last year, we marked 60 years since the invasion of Tibet. Since then, more than a million Tibetans have lost their lives at the hands of the Chinese. The regime has brought about the suppression of basic human rights, such as religion, cultural identity, free movement and assembly, as well as subjection to arbitrary arrest, detention, disappearances, torture and racial discrimination. It is also imposing an environmental catastrophe on the world with the degradation of the Tibetan plateau, which is responsible for the water sources that feed or refresh almost 40% of the world’s population. That must not be a forgotten or hidden disaster any more.
China is now widely recognised as a serial abuser of human rights and cultural identity. It has been doing it in Tibet for years, but now because of what is going on in Xinjiang province with the Uyghurs, with the suppression of the Mongolian minorities that we have seen more recently, and, of course, in Hong Kong, this human rights abuse is at last getting the attention that it so rightly deserves.
I am proud to be a member of IPAC, to which my right hon. Friend alluded, and very much welcome this report. A few days ago, when we marked the international global action day on China, I issued a statement on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group on Tibet, which I want to put on the record. I said:
“On the day that the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the National Day of the People’s Republic of China with a characteristic display of military might and global arrogance, we join the great majority of the free world in remembering the victims of Chinese oppression past and present. For over 60 years now, the peace-loving people of Tibet have seen their liberty, their culture and their heritage systematically suppressed and over one million have lost their lives upholding everyday freedoms that we take for granted in the free world. They continue to be persecuted within Tibet and increasingly amongst the widespread communities forced to live outside their homeland.
In the last few years, the suppression of minorities within Chinese borders has taken an even more sinister turn, as we see the latest assault on the liberties of the Uyghur people forced into concentration camps and subject to appalling sterilisation programmes that constitute genocide under UN definitions. In Hong Kong, which has for long been a beacon of freedom and creativity, China has thought nothing of reneging on international agreements to bring that population to heal and we stand shoulder to shoulder with the brave citizens who continue to take a stand against the world’s most oppressive superpower”.
I hope that all hon. Members concur with that.
The report contains the most extraordinary revelations. The labour transfer policy mandates that pastoralists and farmers are to be subjected to centralised, military-style vocational training which aims to reform backward thinking and includes training in work, discipline, law and the Chinese language. I gather that the Chinese authorities ordered Tibetan nomads to wipe out Tibetan goats. The Chinese authorities deemed that the goats were detrimental to the environment, which is rather ironic given the environmental carnage that the Chinese Communist party is waging in that region. Last year, all the goats in western Tibet, especially in the Tingri region, were wiped out. Tibetan nomads and farmers are now being turned into menial labourers and are concerned by the sudden change of their traditional nomadic or farming lives. This is the equivalent of the Westminster Government telling Welsh farmers to kill all their Welsh lambs and retrain as Ikea shop assistants, for example. It is extraordinary. Why can we not call this out for what it is? It is absolutely appalling.
In the last two years, more than 10,000 monks and nuns have forcefully been evicted from hundreds of destroyed monasteries and placed into internment camps for political re-education as part of the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism. Retired Tibetans are not allowed to go on pilgrimages to holy shrines. Tibetan children are not allowed to participate in religious activities during vacations. Possession of a photograph of the Dalai Lama is an imprisonable offence. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law)—who, alas, cannot be here to today—and I went to Dharamshala and again had the honour of meeting his holiness the Dalai Lama. A more peace-loving group of people could not be found on this planet. The torture and the horrendous suppression that they have been through is quite extraordinary, yet they retain their dignity in the face of such adversity. They have seen their holy sites Disney-fied for Chinese tourists.
A new law passed by the Tibetan People’s Congress in January this year, “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibetan Autonomous Region”—I use “autonomous” loosely—is all part of the Sinicization programme, despite Tibet’s constitution supposedly guaranteeing the autonomy and cultural identity of those minorities within the Chinese border. The Tibetan language has been replaced by Mandarin in schools and is banned from being taught in monasteries, and Tibetans certainly have reduced job prospects if they continue to use it. Tibetans have to register and seek permission to travel across the Tibetan autonomous region. In contrast, Han Chinese do not need permits to travel anywhere they like in China or the whole Tibetan autonomous region. There is mass surveillance of the population. We have debated in Parliament what Huawei is up to; it is part of that surveillance, certainly in Xinjiang province and in the monitoring of mobile phones used by Tibetans.
On the minoritisation of Tibetans, we have seen a mass inflow into Tibet of Han Chinese and of Chinese companies that employ only Chinese-speaking migrants; they reluctantly employ Tibetans where they have to, because in the higher parts, only native Tibetans can withstand the altitude. There is no freedom of assembly. Escape routes through Nepal for Tibetans who cannot tolerate the oppression anymore have now been cut off because the communist Government in Nepal have done a deal with the Chinese. There is persecution of the Tibetan diaspora around the world, who live in fear of the long reach of the tentacles of the Chinese Communist party.
China denied what has been going on in Xinjiang province until satellite photographs of the concentration camps caught them out in the end. What should we do? I am pleased that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) mentioned my Tibet (Reciprocal Access) Bill, which I reintroduced again in this Session. It is based on legislation passed in Congress unanimously, with cross-party support, which has been put into effect. It was backed by Marco Rubio from the Republicans and Jim McGovern from the Democrats, and as a result neither is allowed to go to China—a badge of honour, frankly. The Bill calls for reciprocal sanctions against officials who do not allow representatives of the British Government or others to visit Tibet to see the human rights abuses going on at first hand. We need this law to send out a strong signal from this country that Governments cannot abuse their own people in secret, because we will call it out. Human rights abuses of this magnitude, wherever they happen, must be called out. China has no divine right to immunity.
We need a UN special investigation into genocide and the use of slave labour. We remember the Tesco Christmas card incident last year, when somebody found a message from a slave labourer being used to produce Christmas cards in part of China. We must resist Huawei. We must resist the influence in UK boardrooms, with highly paid British directors taking the Chinese shilling.
I completely agree, and perhaps we will get it at the end of the debate. We must also call out the Confucius institutes, which wield sinister influence in our universities and increasingly in our school classrooms. They give money supposedly to teach Mandarin, but there is another, subtler agenda going on. As my right hon. Friend said, the Magnitsky legislation is absolutely made for such abuses. We must bring that forward.
Last year, I was at the Riga conference of international parliamentarians with the hon. Member for Dundee West, where we issued the Riga declaration—we all signed up to it—which asked China
“to give unimpeded access to Tibet to foreign journalists, scholars and researchers, diplomats and other foreign citizens, including those of Tibetan origin.”
It called on China to
“cease its policies and practices that harm the natural environment of the Tibetan Plateau and to resume the dialogue with envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama without preconditions.”
Let me end by quoting the Global Alliance for Tibet and Persecuted Minorities, which produced some of the information in the report. It said:
“The silence of the world community has emboldened the Chinese aggression and onslaught against Tibetans and Uighurs, who are being stripped of their human rights. Although much damage has already been done, it is high time that the international community should wake up and recognise the threat posed by the Chinese Communist party to peoples living under its role and to those countries which are under the influence of China due to their monetary benefits and the huge debts which they offer. The crimes against the Uighurs and Tibetans should be recognised as genocide according to the International Genocide Convention.”
Hear, hear to that. It is time we vociferously called out the oppressive regime that is the Chinese Communist party.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for bringing the report to the House’s attention. A constituent of mine will be particularly grateful that he mentioned the plight of the Falun Gong and concerns about forced organ harvesting, as she has been waging a long campaign to bring that to public attention.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on all the work that he has done as co-chair of the all-party group for Tibet and his latest legislative move. A couple of years ago, as a vice-chair of the all-party group for Tibet, I had the pleasure of travelling to Dharamsala with him and the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), where we met the Tibetan Parliament in exile. Everything he said about the peace-loving, respectful nature of the people we met is absolutely true. We have welcomed Tibetan exiles to Parliament on a number of occasions, from the hugely impressive Lobsang Sangay, the Sikyong—the political leader—of the Government in exile to Buddhist monks. I echo what he said about the humanity of the people and their desire for a peaceful solution to the situation in Tibet, as well as the grave injustice they have suffered over the years.
In Bristol, we have an active local group of people from the Tibetan diaspora, some of whom recently embarked on a walk from Bristol to London to raise awareness of their cause. I was there to see them off at the start of their walk by the plinth where the statue of Edward Colston was recently pulled down by Black Lives Matter campaigners. Obviously that statue marked another great injustice, so it was by fitting that they set off from that site. I know that those local campaigners are grateful that this matter is being discussed in the House today.
The report is worrying, and especially so when put in the context of China’s wider human rights abuses. The coercive training regimes in Tibet are not on the industrial scale of those in in Xinjiang, and is not yet any evidence of extra-judicial internment, but it does bear worrying hallmarks of the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims. The training of surplus labourers to “remove backwards thinking” and to teach Chinese language, work and ethics is the latest chapter in a long-running campaign to dilute Tibetan identity and assimilate Tibet in the Chinese provinces. Some 500,000 Tibetans have been recruited to the programme, which is disturbing when we consider that the population numbers only 3 million. Of the half a million people put into the re-education camps, 10,000 are monks and nuns, as has been mentioned. Conditions in those camps are so harsh that, according to recent reports, one nun was driven to suicide.
Outside the camps, the efforts to sinicize Tibetan Buddhism continue. China has recently demolished two historic Buddhist academic institutions, Larung Gar and Yachen Gar. Tibetans are being detained for sharing photos of the Dalai Lama, sharing books written in Tibetan, and even speaking to relatives about the importance of the Tibetan language. That is a clear, orchestrated attempt to remove Tibetan culture from Tibet.
What is happening in Tibet is reminiscent not only of Xinjiang but of Hong Kong, albeit for different reasons. The 17-point agreement lays out a framework for Tibet not dissimilar to Hong Kong’s one country, two systems rule; but as in Hong Kong, that agreement is being eroded over time.
I want to speak briefly about the brave Tibetans who have spoken up against China’s environmental crimes in the region, and who have faced imprisonment and fines. I was particularly distressed to hear what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said about goats being destroyed. It is obviously wrong, when there are human rights abuses on such a massive scale, to be upset by what is happening to goats, but I think it is symptomatic of the wilful destruction of the Tibetan people’s way of life in the plateau.
The Tibetan plateau is not only a vital geopolitical region; it is home to the world’s largest ice storage outside the north and south poles, yet a quarter of its ice has been lost since 1970. Even if we limit global warming to 1.5°C, up to two thirds of the region’s remaining glaciers will disappear by the end of the century. At the moment the Paris climate accords bind us to 2°C rather than 1.5°C, but we are not even on track for that. Currently, it is very possible that the earth will be 4°C hotter by the end of the century. When we think that the temperature difference between the present day and the last ice age was only 6°C, that puts into context how massive an environmental catastrophe it would be.
It is not just a question of global warming. The Mekong, Yangtze, Ganges and Indus rivers all have their source in Tibet, and 1.6 billion people are supported by the rivers. The melting of the third pole will have a catastrophic effect on those people, and there will be global ramifications. Banks will burst and livelihoods will be destroyed; there will be an unprecedented refugee crisis, but there will also be an effect on geopolitical relations in the regions. Indo-Chinese relations could turn ugly. We need to question the environmental record of the CCP in Tibet, just as we do its human rights record.
A couple of years ago, I was involved in a campaign with Free Tibet. Liverpool football club had entered into a sponsorship deal with Tibet Water Resources, a company that extracted and bottled water from Tibetan glaciers. I think the football club did not have the slightest idea that there was anything wrong. Those involved probably thought it sounded like an incredibly environmentally sound, pure type of project. We drew to their attention the fact that they were facilitating, condoning and in some way complicit in what China was doing in exploiting the natural resources of the region. I am glad to say that after a year that sponsorship deal was dropped.
On the question of the trading relationship with China, it is obviously an incredibly important business partner of ours, but there needs to be a point where we put principles before our own economic interest. From 2011 to 2015 I was in the shadow Foreign Office team for Labour. As well as covering the part of the world that we are talking about, I had the shadow human rights brief. In September 2013, William Hague and Vince Cable launched with great fanfare the business and human rights action plan. We were the first country to present that sort of national action plan to implement the UN guiding principles developed by the former special representative to the UN Secretary-General, John Ruggie. Warm words were spoken—I think that William Hague used a phrase about two beating hearts of UK foreign policy: the business side and the human rights side—but only a couple of months later, in December 2013, David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, led the largest ever trade delegation to China. I asked questions about to what extent this business and human rights action plan in any way influenced that trade mission, and the answer became very clear. I remember a Minister from the Lords coming along to a meeting of the all-party parliamentary China group and saying it was not his job to think about human rights; he was a Trade Minister, and his job was to do the trade side of things.
The same was true for a number of other countries, as well. Nick Clegg went to Colombia, and I asked whether human rights were discussed there; in fact, I ended up making an official complaint because his answers were so hopeless. David Cameron went to Saudi Arabia, and it is quite amusing to look at the answers I got back when I asked if human rights were discussed. I was told, “We discussed a wide range of issues,” so I asked again, and was told that “Nothing was off the table.” There were endless permutations of those sorts of phrases, and it became clear to me that this business and human rights action plan was not worth the paper it was written on. That was very sad, because I think the intention was there to develop a more ethical foreign policy.
To conclude, we cannot allow countries such as China to act in this manner with impunity. The Government need to seriously consider Magnitsky sanctions on officials with ties to the situation in Tibet, as well as to human rights abuses elsewhere in China. We should not pick and choose which human rights abuses we condemn and which by our silence we condone; instead, we should stand up unequivocally for human rights throughout the world.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on having secured this debate. I fully support his powerful speech, and thank him for all the work he has done to raise the issue of human rights in China.
I believe that the Government are now actually listening; they are listening more than they did three or four years ago, when the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which I chair, published its report “The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China, 2013-16”, which can still be found on our website—www.conservativehumanrights.com. We made 22 recommendations in it, some of which have been echoed here today. It is a tragedy that four years on, yet we are still asking the same questions.
That report included a whole section on Tibet. We reported on the limited civil and political rights of people in Tibet—that was a quote, and the reason is partly because the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), to whom I also pay tribute for his work on this issue, talked about how there is progression of abuse. As the report said,
“the main causes of the Tibetan people’s grievances are China’s policies of political repression, cultural assimilation, economic marginalisation, social discrimination and environmental destruction in Tibet.”
We also detailed reports and testimonies about the treatment of political prisoners, including beatings by police and other security services during interrogation sessions, mock executions, electric shock treatment, the accused being locked in cells that were pitch black or so small they could not move, torture using iron chairs, and other egregious breaches of human rights, restricting freedom. What we did not report on then, but which we hear about today, is the forced abduction of hundreds—potentially thousands—of Tibetan people and their effective imprisonment elsewhere.
I ask the Minister to look at this report, which we are actively updating now, and at its recommendations. In the time I have left, I also want to suggest four ways in which the UK could effectively respond to these deeply concerning human rights issues in Tibet. The first is global human rights sanctions: I support calls for the Government to consider using the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 to target officials responsible for the use of forced or compulsory labour in Tibet. Names have been given to us; forced or compulsory labour is specified in those regulations as a violation, and under the regulations those sanctioned could face travel bans or asset freezes. We recall that when announcing those measures, the Foreign Secretary commented that the sanctions would be
“the latest next step forward in the long struggle against impunity for the worst human rights violations.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 663-4.]
Will the Government now show that they intend to fulfil the express purpose of those sanctions, and hold to account the perpetrators of the human rights abuses we have heard about today?
Sanctioning officials responsible for human rights abuses in Tibet would send out a clear signal that the UK will stand up for human rights globally, wherever such abuses occur. I hope it would also open the way for similar judgments to be issued on cases regarding abuses against other minorities in China. We have heard about the Falun Gong, the Christians and others today. They were referred to in this report, several years ago.
I am deeply concerned to hear about the similarities between the report we have heard about today and the situation we see in Xinjiang with the Uyghurs. The international community must step up, and the UK must take a global lead and take action to stop Tibetans facing the same fate as the Uyghurs. It might already be too late. Will we follow the lead of the US in sanctioning officials?
Secondly, with regard to modern day slavery in supply chains, will the Government work to ensure due diligence and risk assessments are completed by UK businesses and public bodies with supply chains in Tibet, Xinjiang and other regions in China affected by forced labour? To do so would be in line with the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which requires large organisations to report on efforts to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in its supply chains or any part of the business.
A study conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that many household brands, such as Apple, BMW, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen, could be implicated in the use of forced Uyghur labour in the Xinjiang region. There are similar concerns about the fashion industry, with potentially almost a fifth of the world’s cotton supplies originating from Xinjiang. I urge the Government to work with businesses to ensure that supply chains originating from Tibet are not similarly tainted with forced labour. To enforce this, the Government should use their new powers to issue civil penalties for non-compliance with the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which would require large organisations to report on steps they are taking to remove forced labour from supply chains and to demonstrate reasonable practices in their supply chains.
Thirdly, there is the issue of reciprocal access to Tibet. We called for that in our 2016 report and we have heard calls for it today. The Government must now surely ask for reciprocal and unrestricted access so that we can ensure an independent international investigation into reports of forced labour and other human rights abuses in Tibet. The Chinese Government have systematically obstructed travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas by foreign diplomats, officials and journalists. Reciprocal access would ensure that abuses in Tibet do not escape the world’s attention.
Before I close, I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I support his Bill. He made a most powerful speech, and I thank him for the information that he brought to the Chamber today. Will the Minister look at a further report, which I did not bring today, that our Human Rights Commission has done on the Confucius Institutes, which my hon. Friend also mentioned? It goes into detail about the grave concerns about what is happening through their existence within our UK universities.
Finally, can the Minister update us on the UN’s position regarding the installation of a special rapporteur to investigate forced labour in China? Will he commit to raising this issue at the UN and call on the Secretary General of the UN to install a special rapporteur to investigate forced labour in Tibet? That will provide unbiased and thorough scrutiny of allegations of human rights abuses in Tibet. We need to ensure that the Government do not just listen and speak, but act.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this debate. I declare an interest, in that I am also a member of IPAC. I, too, think that IPAC is to be commended for the production of the report that is tagged in the title of the debate.
To pick up on the theme first touched on by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), it is heartening to see the attention that issues such as the oppression of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province and the situation in Hong Kong are now getting. However, it has not always been thus, and we should acknowledge that there has been a significant attitude change in Governments across the developed world towards China.
By and large I welcome that and I think it a positive change, but I sound a note of caution: when we criticise the regime in Beijing, the Chinese Communist party, we do that because what it does is worthy of criticism. It is not about isolating or demonising China. China has the potential to be a force for good as a massive and growing economy, but when we see that strength in the Chinese economy being used as a malign force in different parts of the world—the way in which China has used its economic influence in Africa, in particular, is worthy of greater consideration—we have not just the right, but the duty to call it out.
It is the case, candidly, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) touched on, that Governments of all stripes in recent years have been slow to the party on this. I remember the years when visits to this country under the Blair Government saw protesters shielded away from the site to avoid the risk of offending the delegations, and in 2013, Alex Salmond should have met the Dalai Lama when he came to Edinburgh. However, on all those occasions it is fair to say that the risk of upsetting China, getting on the wrong side of it and then being somehow economically disadvantaged, meant that we made the wrong call and took the wrong turns.
I am delighted to see a different approach from this Government and others throughout the western world. It was for that reason that I made the point about southern or, as we often call it, inner Mongolia, because what we are seeing there has disturbing echoes of what we have seen in other semi-autonomous regions in China. It starts with the linguistic and cultural oppression, but it never finishes there, and when we see it starting, that is the point at which we should be calling it out. I know today’s debate is not about southern Mongolia—perhaps we can keep that for other occasions—but I would draw the House and the Minister’s attention to some of the recent work being done by bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre and the reports that they published towards the end of August.
The IPAC report that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green referenced reveals that Tibet now has a significant compulsory vocational training programme and forced labour transfer scheme—straight out of the Xinjiang playbook, we could say. More than 500,000 people have been enlisted by the programme in the first seven months of 2020 alone; 49,900 of them were directly transferred to other parts of the province, while 3,109, according to the report, were transferred out of Tibet. It is easy to talk about the figures, horrific as they are, but it is worth pausing for a second to reflect on what they actually mean.
The figures mean, essentially, that the people of Tibet are seen as tools of the state and are deprived of the right and the opportunity to have any say in how and where they work. They have no freedom to choose how they live their own lives. It is a wilful disregard of human rights and human dignity, and that is why we have a duty to call it out. The report says that the forced labour programme is overseen by “strict military-style management”, which limits the liberty of Tibetans in an attempt to remove their so-called “backwardness”.
There is absolutely no place for such an approach in any working or social environment. We see this obsession with conformity and uniformity time and again in the way in which the Government in Beijing approach their people. There is no place for that in a modern state. The treatment of Tibet is part of the much wider programme that we have seen by the Chinese in other parts of the country.
I have a number of points for the Minister. To pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), there is a need to get observers and a human rights taskforce, badged under the United Nations, into Xinjiang province and other areas of concern. There is a need to meaningfully use Magnitsky-type sanctions and to look at whether the supply chains of companies selling and operating in this country have been using forced labour and whether British businesses and public bodies should take that into consideration. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 means that we have legal obligations as well as a moral imperative.
This comes down to the most fundamental human rights imaginable. We should never forget that human rights are universal. If they do not matter in Tibet and Xinjiang, frankly they do not actually matter here either.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to be back in Westminster Hall. I join others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing the debate and on his incredibly comprehensive opening contribution, which has been followed by equally powerful contributions from Members representing a wide range of parties and the wide range of views within some of those parties. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, we are identifying a new and increasing consensus about the importance of speaking out about the actions of the Chinese state and, particularly in this debate, its treatment of the Tibetan peoples and other minorities.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is right that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) would have been here in other circumstances. He has been a passionate campaigner with his colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting Tibet over the years. He has been on visits, and has met some visitors, as I have had the privilege of meeting, including the Sikyong and others, who have come to address the all-party group.
The report that the debate has highlighted and the efforts of Dr Adrian Zenz have given a new level of coverage to, and awareness of, the tragedies that are unfolding. It is important also to recognise the role of journalists who have picked up on the report, in particular Reuters, which, in the face of the restrictions on journalists that Members have spoken about, has produced a comprehensive piece of coverage and analysis, and attempted to seek a response from the Chinese authorities.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is right: for many people, the oppression of Tibet and the exile of the Dalai Lama is a kind of static fact of life. However, the report has brought home the chilling reality of all the different horrors—enforced military-style training and education, environmental degradation and what the report calls a coercive lifestyle change for the Tibetan people from nomadism and farming to wage labour, which is the strongest, most clear and targeted attack on traditional Tibetan livelihoods that we have seen since the cultural revolution. As others have said, it is essentially a form of cultural genocide, or indeed worse.
We know that the Chinese regime denies that and says that everything is voluntary and nothing is forced, but that does not match the reality that has been reported and the experience elsewhere. As we have heard, the United Nations estimates that at least a million people in Xinjiang, mostly from the ethnic Uyghur population, are subjected to similar treatment—detained in camps, subjected to ideological education and forced sterilisation, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, and other horrors—despite Chinese claims that the participants in such camps have “graduated”. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified at least 14 detention centres being built this year alone—14 out of 380 that it has identified across the country using its satellite technology and other methods. Speaking up and speaking out has to be an important first step, and global leaders must recognise and respond to the report and other similar analysis.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was right to say that the global attitude towards China is changing. Throughout Members’ contributions to this debate, we have heard the options that are open to Governments, including the UK Government, be it travel bans for identified officials, Magnitsky sanctions, the implementation and monitoring of the Ruggie principles and the business and human rights action plans that the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke of, or questioning the role of specific companies. We have had a lot of debate in the House recently about the role of Huawei and how it is allowed to operate here in the United Kingdom. Most importantly, journalists, academics and international observers should have a right of independent access for monitoring in Tibet and the other regions.
The UK Government have to support all those calls. This is an important moment for the UK. If it wants to emerge now as a new, global Britain, it has to demonstrate that it will have the courage to rise to the challenges. That is why questions around participation in the winter Olympics in 2022 have to be part of that consideration. They have to be part of our use of soft power, how we make our views on these issues felt around the world and how we engage.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most perilous moments will be when the Dalai Lama dies? It will create an interregnum, and the Chinese Communist party will use that moment to undermine the Buddhist tradition and spiritual leadership. We have to be aware of that.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and indeed His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that he will think about whether or not he wants to be reincarnated. The Chinese Government will have to take that into account. If we are going to talk about religious minorities, a growing number of adherents to the Catholic faith are also concerned about the Vatican’s relationship with China. We must bear that in mind as well.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland spoke about the Scottish Government’s previous relationship with China in the context of how other Governments’ relationships have changed. When the current First Minister visited China, she made a point of speaking out on human rights, equality and women’s rights. She made the point that economic growth and equality have to go hand in hand, because there cannot be successful, sustainable economic growth without respect for equality and human rights. That has to be remembered.
In all of this, we have to think about our individual responsibilities as well. The hon. Member for Bristol East and others spoke about bottled water and supply chains. We all have to think about consumer goods that appear to be too good to be true in terms of price and quality. As the hon. Member for Congleton said, whose hands have made that cheap clothing, cheap electronics or cheap hand sanitiser? Who made our cheap facemasks that have suddenly become ubiquitous? The wipes that we have in the room were made in Turkey—I made a point of checking before I spoke—but it is clear that many of our facemasks were made in China.
The hon. Member for Bristol East spoke of one of her constituents. My constituent Yu Yu Williamson died, sadly, during the summer. She moved to the UK from China as a young woman. When she came here, she was able to have access to free media and understand the truth of the regime that she had been brought up in. From that point, she never stopped campaigning for the rights and freedoms of her people, particularly the rights of the Tibetans to self-determination and religious freedom across the country. She also campaigned on concerns about organ harvesting and the oppression of Falun Gong practitioners. She was an ardent lobbyist. It is possible that Members present met here if they were ever outside in Parliament Square, because she was a regular presence at the Falun Gong protests that took place outside. Her campaigning meant that she was never able to return safely to the country of her birth. I pay tribute to her and send my deepest sympathies and condolences to her family and many friends in Scotland and around the world. I commend the beautiful obituary that appeared in The Herald—perhaps I will send it round to the Members who have taken part in the debate.
We owe it to people such as Yu Yu, countless other campaigners around the world, and the millions who are suffering under oppression in China to continue to challenge and question the actions of the Chines regime. I hope that the Minister will rise to that challenge today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who gave a powerful speech listing the issues with the behaviour of the Chinese Communist party, whether in Hong Kong, the Himalayas or the South China sea. That set the stage for what has been an excellent debate.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who gave a powerful critique of the human rights action plan. She demonstrated that our values are not for sale and that, when it comes to the constant debate on whether to prioritise trade or human rights, there should be no debate at all, because the priority is to stand up for our values and for human rights. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) rightly put it, if human rights do not matter in Tibet, in Xinjiang or in other parts of the world, they end up not mattering here either. This is a universal issue that affects all of us. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) made that point very clearly with regard to the ethnic and cultural survival of ways of life and diversity across China.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has done so much work on the issue of Tibet and has been a leading voice on it for so long. He set out some very tangible and clear recommendations for what we need to do to address these issues. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) did likewise. Indeed, there were so many other contributions today that unfortunately I do not have enough time to go through them all in detail.
I will say a few words about where my party sits on this issue. It is absolutely clear that we are profoundly concerned by the human rights abuses in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims. We have called repeatedly on the Government to take action and we are deeply troubled to hear that similar abuses of human rights are taking place in Tibet.
The research sets out some very disturbing statistics, including the half a million labourers over the first seven months of 2020. There is strict, military-style management and enforced indoctrination and intrusive surveillance of participants. It is clear that the programme’s aim is to reform Tibetans’ so-called cultural backwardness, through teaching Mandarin, and by weakening the way of life and the religious practices of the Tibetan people.
Before I appeal to the Minister with some specific recommendations, I will say a few words on the wider context of the policies and activities of the Chinese Government. It is becoming increasingly clear that our interaction as a United Kingdom, and the interaction and engagement of the United Kingdom Government—indeed, of successive Governments since 2010—has been characterised, I am afraid to say, by naivety and complacency, both domestically and abroad. Of course, in 2015 David Cameron and George Osborne announced the so-called golden era of Sino-British relations, based on the premise that we would open our markets to China and that the Chinese Government would reciprocate while gradually aligning with the international rules-based order and opening up to trade with the rest of the world. That approach viewed the UK’s relationship with China purely through an economic lens, turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in exchange for the naive and narrow promise of future economic benefit.
The reality is that the benefits of trade have remained largely unbalanced, a process actively encouraged by the Chinese state, which has facilitated the replication of intellectual property and the dumping of heavily subsidised products on European markets, leaving UK firms open to hostile takeovers and driving the UK to a trade deficit with China of around £20 billion a year. Further still, the UK now has 229 supply chains dependent on China, 59 of which relate to our critical national infrastructure.
Moreover, we are increasingly isolated on the global stage. Over the past decade, I am afraid we have gained a global reputation for being alliance breakers, when one of the great strengths of our country has traditionally been our role as alliance makers. The UK’s relative isolation has made it easier for President Xi to press ahead with the imposition of national security legislation in Hong Kong, which has been met with international condemnation; the persecution of the Uyghur and Tibetan minorities; and destabilising actions in the South China Sea, which are a violation of international law. To summarise, our supply chain dependence on China clearly constrains our ability to stand up for our national interest and national security, while this Government’s approach to international relations has hindered our ability to convene and lead an alliance of democracies, to stand up for our values and interests.
The golden era strategy was an unmitigated failure. Britain alone—an agenda that the current Government appear to be pursuing—is not a strategy at all. It is a recipe for disaster. China respects strength, unity and consistency, but we are in a position where we are starting to look weak, divided and inconsistent, and that has to change. We need a fundamental reset in Sino-British relations and, indeed, in relations between China and the rest of the world.
It is against that backdrop that we debate Tibet today. Our central message to the Government is that expressions of outrage are not sufficient. Tangible action is required and we recommend three initial responses. First, the scope of legislation that underpins the so-called Magnitsky sanctions must be broadened. The senior Chinese Communist party and Hong Kong Executive officials, who are clearly responsible for breaches of human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, must be added to the list. The rapidity of the Government’s recent decision to add senior Belarusian officials to the Magnitsky list was very welcome. Why, then, are they dragging their feet when it comes to Chinese Government officials?
Secondly, we urge the UK Government to revise their risk advisory for British companies that source goods and services from areas that may involve Tibetan forced labour. The vast majority of British companies want to do the right thing. They want to behave ethically, and the Government must act to support them in doing so.
Thirdly, we support calls for the UK Government to push for the appointment of a UN special rapporteur for the full and transparent investigation of forced labour and ethnic persecution in Xinjiang and Tibet. The issue of genocide has been raised, but in order for that to be classified as genocide, very clear and compelling proof and evidence are required. The way to get that is through international action to get that special rapporteur; otherwise, we cannot move forward with the debate on genocide.
I trust that the Minister has taken note of the strong views expressed by right hon. and hon. Members from across the House. I look forward to his response to the specific points and recommendations.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a great pleasure to be back in this Chamber. I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for initiating this very important debate. I am also grateful to others for their contributions and strong views, including the hon. Member for Bath (Vera Hobhouse), my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock).
Promoting and protecting human rights are incredibly important to this Government, no matter where those violations and abuses occur. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, on 22 September the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China published a report alleging that the Chinese Government had expanded a large-scale mandatory vocational training programme in Tibet. The reported nature of this programme is deeply concerning to the UK Government and we take these allegations extremely seriously.
As we have heard, the report alleges coercive vocational training and the transfer of labour. It describes a large-scale campaign to retrain and transfer some rural labourers within Tibet and elsewhere in China. Those allegations bear similarities with the reported system of forced labour in Xinjiang, including the military-style vocational training; a focus, as we have heard today, on Chinese language training; and local middlemen receiving financial incentives to transfer labour throughout Tibet and beyond.
It is worth noting, however, as brought up by the hon. Member for Bristol East, that we do not have clear evidence that the very worst abuses taking place in Xinjiang are being replicated as yet in Tibet. There is no evidence of mass extrajudicial internment or of workers being kept in closed and securitised environments, like in Xinjiang. But of course we are working very closely with the report’s author. We are scrutinising the report, which has been out for two weeks. We are also working with other experts on Tibet and our international partners, so that we can get a clear and thorough understanding of the situation.
As is evident from our track record, we pay very close attention to the human rights situation not only in Tibet but right across China. We have called on the Chinese authorities to lift the severe and unjustified restriction on access for foreigners to Tibet. That has been raised by virtually every right hon. and hon. Member in the Chamber. Our officials at the British embassy in Beijing were last able to visit Lhasa in July 2019. We are consistent in our calls that that access needs to change.
We have consistently urged China to respect all the fundamental rights, in line with its own constitution and the international frameworks to which China is a party. The right to freedom of religion or belief applies to the people of Tibet just as it does to the people of Chingford and Woodford Green and elsewhere in the UK.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was mentioned by Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. The UK views the Dalai Lama very much as a respected spiritual leader, and as such he has visited the UK on a number of occasions. We continue to do all we can to encourage freedoms for religious and cultural expression in Tibet and across China.
I think that the hon. Member for Bath made the point about the succession. The appointment of a new Dalai Lama is clearly a religious matter, and one for the relevant religious authorities to decide, in line with freedom of religion or belief. It is worth pointing out that we have also raised the case of the Panchen Lama with the Chinese authorities. We have demanded confirmation of his welfare and that he enjoys freedom of movement.
This Government have therefore shown time and again that when allegations are substantiated, we will speak out and act to hold China to account. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and First Secretary of State, supported by his ministerial team, has repeatedly set out our grave concerns about the human rights violations perpetrated against the people of Hong Kong and against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang. I have done so myself in many parliamentary debates, the most recent being last month. We have raised those concerns directly with the Foreign Secretary’s counterpart, Wang Yi, on a number of occasions.
We have also played a leading role within the international community to hold China to account, with two unprecedented joint statements at the UN in the past year. Twenty-eight countries joined the UK-led statement at the Human Rights Council in June, and right hon. and hon. Members will have seen that yesterday 39 countries joined a statement at the UN General Assembly in New York expressing our deep concern at the situation in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. I believe that that growing coalition reflects UK diplomatic leadership. I have an awful lot of respect for the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon, but I rather disagree that we have been ineffective in that regard. We have shown diplomatic leadership, as those statements in the UN demonstrate. The personal involvement of the Foreign Secretary is testament to that situation.
At the UN Human Rights Council, we used China’s most recent universal periodic human rights review to challenge its record publicly and encourage improved compliance with all its international human rights commitments. Last month, we dedicated our entire national statement at the council to the human rights violations taking place in China. That is only the second time that the UK has dedicated a national statement to a single country, with the first being in 2018 on Russia, following the poisonings in Salisbury. As the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made clear, we want a positive relationship with China. China is a leading member of the international community with which we want to have a strong and constructive relationship in many areas.
I turn to points raised by right. hon. and hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green raised sanctions, as did virtually every other Member. We are carefully considering further designations under our newly introduced sanctions regime. It is essential that sanctions are developed accurately and with the correct evidence. My right hon. Friend will know that it is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated, but it is absolutely right to say that we are constantly reviewing this within the FCDO.
Members have mentioned supply chains, responsibility and amendment 68 to the Trade Bill. It is crucial that all businesses conduct the appropriate due diligence to ensure that their supply chains are free of forced labour. All Members referenced how there should be reciprocal access, and that is absolutely the Government’s position in terms of unfettered access to these regions. I will come shortly to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green also referenced judges in Hong Kong. An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of Hong Kong’s economic success and way of life. Sadly, the new national security law provides Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, rather than the Chief Justice, with the power to appoint judges. That risks undermining the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary. We will monitor that closely, including the implications for the role of UK judges in the Hong Kong justice system.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned the Olympics, which he has also mentioned publicly. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, we are focused on working closely with our international partners to hold the Chinese authorities to account. We need to build the evidence base on which future action should be taken. While we have no current plans to boycott the Olympics—that is a matter for the sporting authorities—we have been clear throughout that we will not look the other way when faced with egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang or violations of the freedoms of the Hong Kong people.
The hon. Member for Bath mentioned the Tibet (Reciprocal Access) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the APPG for Tibet and all he has done to bring Parliament’s attention to what is happening in Tibet. We are very much aware of his Bill, which has its Second Reading in March 2021. We will continue to call, at the UN and directly with the Chinese authorities, for unfettered access to the region, and obviously we will work with my hon. Friend and closely monitor his private Member’s Bill.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised the issue of Inner Mongolia, which he and I have discussed separately. We will continue to monitor that situation and engage on that. He also referred to unfettered access to those regions, which we will continue to call for; all the Opposition spokesmen also made that point clearly. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned, as have others, the call for a UN special rapporteur. We have repeatedly called in the UN for China to allow unfettered access to observers, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is vital that that should include access to Tibet. She also mentioned the work of Confucius institutes. It is simple: any attempt to interfere with academic freedom or freedom of speech will not be tolerated. If any universities or research institutions experience attempts to undermine free debate, we encourage them to come forward and speak to the Government.
I have a few seconds left before I hand back to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. We will always act to uphold our values, our interests and our national security. We are crystal clear with China when we disagree with its approach. We urge the Chinese Government to respect all fundamental rights across the People’s Republic of China, including in Tibet. We are examining the latest reports of coercive training and transfer of labour in Tibet, and we take them seriously.
I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this issue to the attention of the House today. We are working to establish a full picture of the situation. We have repeatedly held China to account for its human rights violations, and we will continue to do so. We will continue to stand up for our values and act as a force for good in the world.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his comments at the end of this really powerful debate, featuring many right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House. It is clear from the debate that there is now a growing strength and unity of feeling across all parts of the House of Commons that the policy—as referenced by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock)—initiated by the then Chancellor and Prime Minister of a Government in which I served, which was referred to in turn as “Project Kowtow”, can no longer exist. We now need to bear down on Chinese abuse.
The point of the debate was to highlight the latest abuse in Tibet, but more than that, across the board, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take the following points forward. We must make sure that Magnitsky sanctions are applied to those mentioned in the reports, as well reports on Xinjiang and the Uyghurs and all those other areas as well, particularly Hong Kong. It is time now to call them out and put those sanctions in place; we have spent too long thinking about it.
We need to condemn those companies involved with and linked to modern-day slavery and abuse in China. The Government should call out those companies. The way to act here is to agree to amendment 68 to the Trade Bill in the House of Lords, which would immediately stop that activity. I ask my hon. Friend to tell those in the Government that it is time to take a position on the Olympics, no matter what.
I hope that the calling out of those abuses in Tibet for a long time by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Minister, will let the Government know that we can no longer just say that we want a good and constructive relationship with China. We want an honest relationship with China—one in which, when something is wrong, we say it is wrong. In this case, if genocide and abuses of human rights are taking place, we now, as a Government and as a people, must call them out and take action.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered reports of China’s rapid expansion of the labour programme in Tibet co-published by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.
Rule of Law
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the rule of law in the UK.
Although I may not be a lawyer, as a professional I understand the need for the highest standards of professional conduct and, like every parent, I cherish my responsibility to instil in my children a deep understanding of right and wrong. How that develops is vital to their future and how they make their way in the world. When our children are little, we guide their understanding through the language of good choices and poor choices, working with their teachers and others to celebrate their successes and to use natural and restorative justice techniques to support their understanding of the impact and consequences of the choices they make.
As our children move into adolescence, we necessarily begin a process of refining that understanding, which manifests in a natural pushing against the boundaries of childhood and a process of reflection, leading to the development of their internal moral and ethical codes, which they then carry into adulthood.
Like any parent, I want the very best future for my children, so I take great care to act in a way that supports and guides the development of the values of honesty, integrity, respect and compassion, underpinned by a strong sense of self and a high degree of self-awareness. It is not always easy, but I always strive to demonstrate that I am a human, that I am fallible and that I am able to take ownership of any error in judgment, to apologise for any harm I may have caused, however inadvertently, and to embody the principles of restorative justice by making amends in a sincere and transparent way.
My hope is that, by my actions, my children will understand the value of truth, contrition and atonement. However, that is increasingly difficult when the actions of those in power suggest that such values and principles only exist for others—that their word is always negotiable and never their bond or guarantee. What does that say about the character of those who lead us?
We have a Prime Minister whose past includes well-documented and repeated incidents of racist language. Despite having been given ample opportunities to apologise, he has steadfastly refused to do so. In the absence of any sense of responsibility or of the value of truth there can be no apology, no contrition and no atonement. While the Government may wish those matters away, they still stand as a measure of the man and of all those who stand in his defence.
However, the PM is not alone in that regard. At the height of the global pandemic, in which the UK has one of the highest mortality rates in the world, this Government’s Health Secretary regularly obfuscates when pressed on matters of importance. And what of the UK Government’s man in Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack)? He is stuck on his repeat with his claims of a “power surge”, so lacking in substance that he cannot produce any evidence to support its existence. I could question his motives, but I do not need to. Speaking at the Conservative party conference yesterday, he said about the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill that “they”—the SNP—
“don’t like the bill, which makes me like it even more.”
If that is what passes in the Conservative party for an appropriate motivation to enact legislation—legislation that will have a demonstrably damaging effect on people’s livelihoods, jobs and businesses and Scotland’s democracy —that is shameful.
The right hon. Gentleman’s words reveal the dangerous and ideological grip that this Government are in, not just in observing the law but in writing it. If that type of casual comment is anything to go by, it is little wonder that the Prime Minister and his Back Benchers get such pleasure from their contentious behaviour towards Scotland, where the wildly exaggerated promises of Brexit are readily discarded but a casual comment made during Scotland’s 2014 referendum is held as inviolable. The Prime Minister should consider that the tissue of lies that was the vow used to secure that vote and its immediate betrayal will never be forgotten in Scotland. Those promises of devo-max ring hollow like never before as this Government impose their will on a Scotland that did not vote for them.
Prior to 2016, the Sewel convention performed a useful function, ensuring that the devolved legislatures engaged with the UK’s legislation to address problems early on. It engendered a culture of mutual respect and was based on trust, compromise, and transparent and open dialogue, but Brexit has exposed the vulnerability of devolved power in the face of a Conservative UK parliamentary majority.
Despite a clear majority remain vote in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the unilateral enactment of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 without the consent of the Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies or the Scottish Parliament was described by Aileen McHarg, professor of public law at Durham University, as threatening the Sewel convention “almost to destruction”. She went on to say that while it was possible to depart from the Sewel convention, UK ministers had failed to give constitutional grounds for doing so, and that
“To make an exception to a rule, what is required is an explanation of why its underlying rationale either does not apply, or is overridden by some competing principle.”
Perhaps that is a point that the Minister could clarify today. Professor McHarg further cautioned that such a
“radical re-reading of the Sewel Convention…would seriously undermine the protection it offers for devolved autonomy.”
So much for a power surge.
Professor McHarg is not alone. In January, the Institute for Government stated that the Sewel convention had been broken by Brexit, and that reform is now urgent. Although both the Scottish and Welsh Governments put forward substantive proposals for such reform, such as making the convention legally enforceable or adding a stage to consider the views of the devolved Administrations, this Government were reluctant to engage. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill makes it abundantly clear that their idea of reform has been to do the complete opposite. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) recently opined,
“The Sewel convention is about as much use for defending devolution as a chocolate teapot”.
The Bill also shows a flagrant disregard for the Sewel convention, one of the key planks of the UK’s unwritten constitution. Clause 46 attempts to strip away powers from Scottish Ministers in clearly defined devolved areas of power. As Baroness Helena Kennedy QC said of the Bill last week,
“It goes against the Sewel convention. It goes against our traditional constitutional workings and conventions. This is a really shocking business, and we shouldn’t take it lying down”.
Indeed, the very mechanism that exists to protect devolution is toothless in the face of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and its facility to drive a coach and horses through the devolution settlement.
However, the further betrayal of the promises made to Scotland in 2014 is not the only impact of the Bill. It has also alerted the international community of something Scotland has known for a considerable time: that the word of the UK Government means nothing. Legislating to break international law in the midst of efforts to forge trade agreements with the EU and other nations across the globe—agreements that the UK Government presumably hope will be binding on both sides—is a very peculiar way to demonstrate the necessity of good faith.
On 24 September this year, the Attorney General asserted in this House that, as a matter of domestic law, it was proper for Parliament to pass legislation that might breach
“international law or treaty obligations.”
Fortunately, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West was on hand to raise the following question:
“The Attorney General has justified her support for the Bill by reference to the domestic legal principle of parliamentary supremacy and the judgment of the UK Supreme Court in Miller. But in that case, the UK Supreme Court also said, at paragraph 55, that ‘treaties between sovereign states’, such as the withdrawal agreement, ‘have effect in international law and are not governed by the domestic law of any state.’ The Supreme Court was quite clear that such treaties ‘are binding on the United Kingdom in international law’.”
She then asked:
“Why did the Attorney General omit reference to that part of the Supreme Court’s judgment? Did she not learn the rule against selective citation when she was at law school?”—[Official Report, 24 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 1125-1126.]
However, it quickly became evident that not only had the Attorney General missed the point of law by confusing Miller 1 with the Miller 2 and Cherry cases—she must have been taking lessons from her boss by trading playground taunts as a substitute for substance and mounting an undignified attack on my hon. and learned Friend and the Scottish Government.
Following the point of order and an impromptu celebration from my hon. and learned Friend given her great victory for the rule of law made in Scotland, the misunderstanding was clarified, as one esteemed commentator opined that it was a case of
“Mixed Millers from the attorney general.”
However, there was no further response from the Attorney General. Perhaps we can hear one today.
It is worth noting that the Attorney General also raised the matter of the Scottish Government’s named person scheme when they were found to be in breach of international law, but there is little by way of equivalence. The Supreme Court ruled that although the named persons proposal was unquestionably legitimate and benign, some of the provisions breached the rights to privacy and family life under the European convention on human rights. Unlike the UK Government, the Scottish Government accepted the ruling without question and introduced a Bill to address the concerns of the court. That response to a court ruling stands in stark contrast to the UK Government, who have pressed on with their legislation regardless, despite a flood of criticism from some of the most senior legal voices in the country.
The SNP Scottish Government did not complain about “activist” or “leftie” lawyers or suggest that judges should have their wings clipped; they welcomed the role of the courts in holding the Executive to account, and see it as a crucial part of a healthy democracy. I gently suggest that the UK Government could learn a lot from Holyrood’s approach. In pursuing a clear breach of international law, UK Government Ministers are now also in breach of the ministerial code.
As confirmed in the Court of Appeal in 2018, the ministerial code still mandates compliance with international law. Furthermore, the Attorney General’s justification that treaty obligations become binding only to the extent that they are enshrined in domestic legislation is nonsense: they become enforceable before domestic courts only if incorporated by legislation. The Government’s reliance on internal law to justify their position does not in any way affect the fact that the Bill places the UK in breach of its international treaty obligations. It was therefore of little surprise to read the reaction of the Financial Times legal correspondent, who described the Attorney General’s legal opinion as
“first-term, first-year undergraduate tosh”.
I should not need to say this, but fulfilling obligations under international treaties is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of any state that claims to be a responsible member of the international community. International law governs the making, interpretation and termination of international treaties. Most importantly, the Vienna convention on the law of treaties 1969, which the UK signed in 1970 and ratified in 1971, provides in article 26 that
“Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.”
That article reflects a very long-standing principle of international law: “pacta sunt servanda”—agreements must be kept. That is a basic principle of customary international law, and as such, is also part of English common law. It is key to the very existence of a rules-based international order.
In recent years, we have seen the UK call on the Iranian, Chinese and Russian Governments to respect their commitments under international law. It is difficult to see how the UK will be able to conduct such conversations with any credibility in future. To that end, one can only conclude that the consequences for the UK’s international standing and reputation have been deeply damaging.
According to the Foreign Secretary, however, he has met no one who thinks that the UK is not a defender of the international rule of law in the wake of that controversial legislation. That statement lacks any credibility. I will give a flavour from some people the Foreign Secretary may meet. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), asked
“how can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations in the agreements it signs?”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 499.]
Former Prime Minister Sir John Major has said:
“Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct…If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.”
The right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) said:
“Seeking to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol will be regarded worldwide as an act of bad faith.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, said:
“The UK must respect the Northern Ireland protocol as signed with the EU to ensure the free flow of goods across the border. If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”
Finally, Amal Clooney, the former UK special envoy on media freedom, said:
“very sadly, it has now become untenable for me, as special envoy, to urge other states to respect and enforce international obligations while the UK declares that it does not intend to do so itself.”
I could seriously go on and on. In a recent Foreign Affairs Committee sitting, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) raised the Sino-British joint declaration, which the Foreign Secretary has accused China of breaking by forcing controversial national security legislation on Hong Kong. In response, the Foreign Secretary said:
“What I think you’re trying to neatly do is draw some moral equivalence or substantial equivalence between the two and I think it’s crazy, I think it’s absolute nonsense.”
He also insisted that
“we haven’t broken international law”
yet, instead saying that the legislation is necessary because of
“frankly some of the aggressive behaviour”
That got me thinking. Should Scotland also take a similar tack, and introduce the legislation that we feel is necessary because, frankly, of some of the aggressive behaviour from this UK Government? Or is this more a case of “do as I say and not as I do”? Of course, it is not just the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill that undermines the devolution settlement and the Union; the planned independent review of administrative law, which is no small matter, is set to target the crucial judicial review process following the successful use of that mechanism to prevent the unlawful prorogation of Parliament, and that inquiry poses a danger to the Union.
It is important to reiterate widely held concerns about contracts recently awarded by this Government. Data analysed by The Guardian shows that in response to covid, state bodies have awarded at least 177 contracts worth £1.1 billion to commercial firms. Of those contracts, 115— with a total value of more than £1 billion—were awarded under the fast-track rules, bypassing competitive tenders. Of course, that is nothing new from the UK Government. Last year, when the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) handed a £13.8 million ferry contract to Seaborne Freight, with no tender process, despite the fact that the company owned no ships, that led to Eurotunnel suing the Government, who paid out £33 million in settlement just before the case was to go to court. In the meantime, Seaborne Freight has gone into liquidation, owing £2 million.
Today, I am focusing on the party of government, because they are in Government, but I make no exception for others, regardless of their political stripes, who abuse the power that they are trusted to carry as a means to nefarious or personal ends. The party of law and order appear to have become the party of lawlessness and disorder. I ask the Minister to ask the Attorney General the question on the lips of parents up and down these islands: how can we teach our children right from wrong when those in power are seen to abuse it, when those who make the law break the law and when the protectors of the people throw their best interests to the wind in pursuit of self-interest? By their failure to observe the rule of law, the Government diminish us all.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to be the Minister here at Westminster Hall. I thank the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) for raising this issue and I congratulate him on securing the debate.
On the rule of law, the freedoms and protections that we all enjoy are crucial. That is an important constitutional principle. It demands equality before the law. It demands access to independent and impartial justice, a Government subject to the law, and law that is clear, unambiguous and concise. The duty of the Law Officers of the Crown is, at least in part, to ensure that the Government act lawfully at all times—that is, that Ministers of the Crown and civil servants act in accordance with the law.
As the hon. Gentleman has made clear, his reason for requesting the debate today was not so much for a general discussion on the rule of law—important though that is—but about the very specific provisions of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. I will say a few words about the Bill and the rule of law. The Bill that the Government tabled is clear, and the Government have been clear throughout that they are acting in full accordance with UK law and the UK’s constitutional norms, which have been an example and an exemplar around the world for centuries. The Bill is currently being considered in the other place, having comfortably passed Third Reading in the House of Commons by 340 votes to 256.
Before I move on to legal aspects of the Bill, I note that there will be no change to the powers that the devolved Administrations already have as a result of it. The vast majority of powers with devolved competences returning from Brussels, as they will do from 1 January, will go straight to Holyrood or Stormont or Cardiff Bay. Those include, for example, agricultural measures, air quality—very important—and energy efficiency of buildings, and also elements of employment law. All those areas will go from Brussels straight to the devolved competences. That will mean that the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, which are already among the most powerful devolved Administrations anywhere in the world, will have even more powers. The hon. Gentleman should be delighted by that.
Returning to the rule of law, this House has extensively debated what are now clauses 44, 45 and 47 of the Bill and the interaction of those clauses with the UK’s international law obligations. The Government have explained why the inclusion of those clauses are the actions of a responsible Government to provide a safety net. As I speak, our UK representatives are working in the Joint Committee to try to resolve these difficulties, but, as a responsible Government and a Government for the whole Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we must prepare. We have a duty to prepare for all eventualities. We cannot allow the peace process, or the UK’s internal market, to inadvertently be compromised by unintended consequences either of the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement, or anything else. We need an insurance policy. We need a safety net to make sure that our Union—this precious Union—is not broken apart by these agreements.
Protecting the Union is the highest priority. To provide that safety net, the Government considered it appropriate to ask Parliament to provide a means of addressing these issues if the genuine and earnest attempt by the UK’s negotiating team to resolve these conflicts does not succeed. Providing that safety net reflects the difficult and highly exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves, because we cannot guarantee the result of Joint Committee negotiations. It is, therefore, the only way of ensuring the effectiveness of other more fundamental provisions of the Northern Ireland protocol. These provisions guarantee Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within this kingdom under the Belfast Agreement, and guarantee that Northern Ireland would be part of the United Kingdom’s customs territory. Left to its own devices, and without the Joint Committee to iron out the creases, these inconsistencies would only get worse over time. It may be that the Joint Committee is able to resolve matters, but we must set up these legislative safety nets just in case.
It goes without saying that this does not change the key principle that continues to guide the UK’s approach to international relations and international law. We remain a state that accepts that we are obliged to discharge our treaty obligations in good faith. Our word is our bond. Other sovereign states who deal with us know that. They know it very well, they respect it, and they act accordingly, as in the case of Japan, which recently concluded a free trade agreement with us. There is also an understanding around the world—the Foreign Secretary alluded to it—
I will just finish my sentence. There is an understanding that decoupling from the European Union is a unique—indeed, unprecedented—situation with the added complexity of the peace process and Northern Ireland, and the unstable political landscape that prevailed before the last election. In the difficult and highly exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves we must, therefore, consider the fundamental principle of parliamentary sovereignty.
I have not been given an awful lot of time, but I must just say that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty means that it is entirely constitutional for Parliament to enact legislation even if provisions within that legislation, once commenced, would affect the UK’s treaty obligations. I will just make this point: section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 reiterated, in terms, that parliamentary supremacy “subsists” notwithstanding the provisions of the withdrawal agreement with express reference to direct effect, the very thing that may potentially be disapplied here. In other words, Parliament had already prepared for that eventuality. It is there in black and white in section 38.
In the United Kingdom, treaty obligations only become binding in domestic law to the extent that they are enshrined in domestic legislation. Whether to enact or repeal legislation, and the content of that legislation, is for this Parliament and for this Parliament alone. It is a dualist approach. It is not uncommon, and it is not rare. In fact, it is shared by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Parliamentary scrutiny of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill so far has served to reinforce Parliament’s central role in the UK’s constitution.
In the last minute that I have, I wanted to reiterate this point: other states known for upholding the rule of law have passed domestic legislation that ran contrary to their treaty obligations. For example, in 2018 the Canadian Government introduced domestic legislation to legalise cannabis. That was in breach of specific provisions of the existing treaty obligations under three United Nations narcotics conventions. The Canadian Government acknowledged the breach, but they stated that their approach was still consistent with the overarching goal of those conventions. Debates such as this are an important opportunity to explain how the Government are upholding the rule of law while making provision for the internal market in the UK and retaining the ability to act decisively in the interest of the whole United Kingdom following our departure from the European Union earlier this year, so I thank the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath for raising the issue today.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6))
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered online harms.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am delighted to have secured this debate this afternoon. I know that lots of colleagues are keen to participate, and many of them have much greater expertise in this policy area than I do. I have never been more overwhelmed on securing a debate by offers of briefings, information, research and support from organisations that are dedicated to trying to make a difference in this area. Given the strength of feeling and the depth of the evidence base, it is remarkable that we have not made more progress.
I was approached by the Petitions Committee who asked if four online petitions could be considered as part of this debate. Those petitions are entitled: “Make online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders,” “Make online homophobia a specific criminal offence,” “Hold online trolls accountable for their online abuse via their IP address” and “Ban anonymous accounts on social media”. The petitions have collectively been signed by more than half a million people and I am pleased to say that there were 773 signatories from my Halifax constituency.
I had intended to include a list and thank all those who sent briefings, but there were so many, it would take me about 12 hours to read out that list. I would therefore just like to mention the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s, the Antisemitism Policy Trust, John Carr OBE, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and my good and honourable Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who has a vast knowledge and expertise in this area, not least in his capacity as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social media. I will reference others throughout my speech. I thank them all for the information and support in shaping the focus of my efforts.
During lockdown, we have seen how the internet has facilitated digital connection and social media has provided a lifeline to the outside world for so many. None of us in this room is ignorant of the good that social media can do; however, as lawmakers, we are all collectively responsible for the utter failure to regulate it and for the societal damage that that is causing.
The online harms White Paper published last year confirms that nearly nine in 10 UK adults and 99% of 12 to 15-year-olds are online. The NSPCC estimates that in the first three months of 2020, online sex crimes recorded against children surpassed 100 a day—that is roughly one every 14 minutes. Barnardo’s also contacted me about some of the harrowing online experiences it has been supporting children through as part of its new “See, Hear, Respond” campaign over the course of the lockdown—the sorts of experiences that would significantly damage adults, let alone children.
As MPs, we all know what it is like to be in the public eye and to be on the receiving end of online abuse, but I started to ramp up my work in this area when I was approached by a brilliant woman, Nicky Chance-Thompson, who is the chief exec of the magnificent Piece Hall in my constituency, which everyone should come and visit when they have the opportunity. She is a deputy lieutenant and the Yorkshire Choice Awards Business Woman of the Year 2019. She is also on Northern Power Women’s power list.
When Caroline Flack tragically died in February this year, Nicky bravely approached me and others to share her own experiences of women in the public eye and to call on all of us to get a grip of online abuse before any further lives are lost. Nicky published an article with the Yorkshire Evening Post describing how she was a victim and survivor of online abuse, which rides high on social media. She said:
“Cowards hiding behind fake profiles can say anything they like about anyone, and there appears to be no consequences for them nor recourse for the victims…Misogyny is unpalatably frequent. Many women in high profile or public positions cop it simply for doing their jobs or being successful.”
She urged everyone involved to speak up and take action because “silence is killing people.”
Nicky’s article was published by the Yorkshire Evening Post as part of their “Call It Out” campaign, which has been spearheaded by editor, Laura Collins. It proved to be the catalyst for a broader initiative between Nicky, myself, editors of the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post, James Mitchinson and Laura Collins, Stop Funding Hate, the Conscious Advertising Network and the Journalism Trust Initiative, led by Reporters Without Borders. We came together to agree a constructive way forward to make progress on cleaning up the internet. We interrogated the online harms White Paper; its joint ministerial statement bears the names of two former Cabinet Members who both left Government over a year ago, which hardly screams urgency, but it does state:
“While some companies have taken steps to improve safety on their platforms, progress has been too slow and inconsistent overall.”
I am afraid that, in itself, is a reflection of the Government’s inaction.
We talk a great deal about public health right now, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said in a discussion I had with her about her Petitions Committee investigation into online abuse, we will look back on this period in history with disbelief and shame that we did nothing in the face of what can only be described as a public health ticking time bomb. She compared unregulated online abuse and hate to smoking, and that analogy is entirely right.
Until a landmark study in the 1950s, whether a person chose to smoke was nothing to do with Government, and even when the body of research provided evidence for the link between tobacco use and lung cancer and other chronic diseases, Governments were slow to involve themselves in efforts to stop people smoking, or to get them to smoke less or not to start in the first place. If we think about where we are now on smoking, although smoking cessation budgets have been slashed in recent years, we proactively fund stop smoking services, have school education programmes and heavily regulate what is available to purchase and how it is advertised.
We do that because we recognised that smoking was having a detrimental impact on physical health. We invested, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it was more cost-effective to intervene than to allow so many people to become so unwell as a consequence. Compare that with online abuse and hate and the impact we know it is having on the wellbeing and mental health of society, particularly young people.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. She mentioned the importance of regulation, and as she was speaking I was reflecting on the regulation that is in place to govern the BBC and broadcast media, because it was felt that, if communication was going straight into the living room of every home in this country, it needed to have a firm regulatory footing. Does she not think that a similar approach to this sector could have prevented some of the harms that she is talking about today?
The right hon. Lady makes an important point. I am about to come on to some of the different ways that we need to extend the regulation that is already there. She makes the point that that information was going straight into homes; information online is coming straight into somebody’s hand in front of their face, so why do we not extend the same types of regulation to it? I will come on to that in more detail, but I thank her for that point.
As I said, 99% of 12 to 15-year-olds are online, and seven in 10 young people have experienced cyber-bullying, with nearly 40% of young people saying they experienced cyber-bullying on a high-frequency basis, according to the Royal Society for Public Health’s “#StatusofMind” report. Those of us in this Chamber know better than anyone the impact that social media is having on public discourse and on the ability to have safe spaces for the exchange of different opinions, which are vital in any democracy.
One of the reasons the Yorkshire Evening Post was so motivated to launch the Call It Out campaign was realising the impact of the barrage of online abuse directed predominantly, but not exclusively, towards their its female journalists. Editor Laura Collins, who I commend for her leadership on this issue, told me this week that the sentiment of one comment on Facebook responding to an article about the local restrictions in Leeds was not uncommon: it said, “Whoever is publishing these articles needs executing by firing squad”. The newspaper reported it to Facebook on 28 September and nine days later is yet to receive a response.
Our “Clean Up The Internet” initiative, somewhat underwhelmed by the White Paper, feared that the Government did not have the will to truly transform the way the internet is used, so we considered what else would need to happen. Online social media platforms have said far too often that they just provide the platform and can only do so much to oversee the content shared on it, but that holds no water at all where paid ads are concerned. It is a glaring omission from the White Paper that it does not consider misinformation and disinformation, which can be not only shared widely for free, but promoted through online advertising.
As we have heard, advertising in print or on broadcast platforms is regulated through Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority, and it must be pre-approved by a number of relevant bodies. There are clear rules, powers and consequences. The internet, however, to quote the NSPCC campaign, is the “wild west”. We must therefore extend that regulation to online advertising as a matter of urgency.
The urgency is twofold. The spread of misinformation and disinformation relating to the pandemic, whether it is conspiracy theories about its origins or even its existence, fake cures or promoting the sale of personal protective equipment by bogus companies, when we are trying to combat a virus, can have fatal consequences. So-called clickbait advertising and the monetisation of items dressed up as news, with the most outrageous and sensational teasers inevitably receiving the most clicks and generating the most income, means that credible news from real journalists with integrity to both their conduct and their content, like those at the Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post, is being driven out of that space. The online business model does not work for those who play by the rules, because there simply are not any.
Let us move on to what else would make a difference. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer a number of questions today about the progress of legislation and regulation. We have had the initial response to the White Paper, but when can we expect to see the Bill published? If we consider that the process began when the Green Paper was published in October 2017 and that the Government have suggested it may be 2023 before new legislation comes into effect, that will be six years, which is an incredibly long time in the life of a child—almost an entire generation.
Opportunities to strengthen protections for children online have been continually missed. During lockdown, large numbers of children have been harmed by entirely avoidable online experiences. If the Government had acted sooner, those consequences may not have been as severe or widespread.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and thank her for her tribute to me. I pay tribute to her for the work she does in her constituency and across Yorkshire on this issue.
In terms of protection of children, one of the most concerning things I have seen during the pandemic is about the Internet Watch Foundation, which is Government- funded and reports to the police and central Government about the number of URLs focusing on paedophilia and child exploitation images. Takedown has reduced by some 80% since the pandemic started. I have raised that with Ministers in the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Does she agree that the Government need to take that far more seriously and put funding in place to ensure such things can be taken down and that children are protected from the most extreme online harms?
My hon. Friend, who has vast experience in this area, references some of the most extreme and harrowing online experiences, which our children are now becoming exposed to on a regular basis. We absolutely must re-resource this area to get a grip of it and prevent children from becoming victims, which happens every day that we do not tighten up the rules and regulations surrounding the use of the internet.
I also ask the Minister whether legislation will include— it should—regulation of, or rather the removal of, misinformation and disinformation online. Will it seek to regulate much more of what is harmful and hateful but is not necessarily criminal from a public health perspective, if nothing else? Will the proposed duty of care be properly underpinned by a statutory framework? Just how significant will the consequences be for those who do not adhere to it?
The Government announced the suspension of the implementation of an age-verification regime for commercial pornography sites on 16 October 2019, despite the fact that it only needed a commencement date. It is not at all clear why that was or when it will be reintroduced. I hope that the Minister can enlighten is about when the regime will come into effect.
The Local Government Association has raised important concerns. Local authorities have statutory safeguarding responsibilities on issues such as child exploitation, as we have just heard, suicide prevention and tackling addiction, all of which become incredibly difficult when a child or young person—or an adult, for that matter—goes online. It had to produce the “Councillors’ guide to handling intimidation”, which recognises the growing need among councillors for support related to predominantly online intimidation. That is another damning indication of just how bad things have become.
I have worked with these groups on this issue and have been overwhelmed with suggestions for what more could be done. First, no one should be able to set up an entirely anonymous profile on social media platforms. The rise in bots and people hiding behind anonymous profiles who push hate and abuse should simply no longer be allowed. People would not necessarily have to put all their information in the public domain, but they would need to provide accurate information in order to be able to set up an account or a profile. The approach is explicitly called for in two of the public petitions attached to the debate, demonstrating that there is public support for such an approach. That would allow us to hold both the platform and the individuals responsible to account for any breaches in conduct.
Imagine if being held to account for posting something that is predetermined to be abusive through the online harms Bill, such as hateful antisemitic content, meant that an appropriate agency—be it Ofcom, the police or the enforcement arm of a new regulator— could effectively issue on-the-spot fines to the perpetrator. If we can identify the perpetrator, we can also work with police to determine whether a hate crime has occurred and bring charges wherever possible. The increased resources that are necessary for such an approach would be covered by the revenue generated by those fines. That type of approach would be transformative. Can the Minister respond to that point—not necessarily to me, but to all those who have signed the petitions before us, which ask for that kind of thinking?
Fearing that the Government lack the will to adopt the radical approach that is required, the working group that I spoke about will look to get more and more advertisers on board that are prepared to pull their advertising from social media platforms if the sorts of transformations that we are calling for are not forthcoming. I put everyone on notice that that work is well under way.
On securing the debate, I was approached by colleagues from all parties, and I am pleased that so many are able to take part. Given just how broad this topic is, I have not said anything about extremist and radical content online, gang violence, cyber-bullying, self-harm, explicit and extreme content, sexual content, grooming, gaming and gambling, and the promotion of eating disorders. I am sure others will say more about such things, but I fear the Government will say that there is so much to regulate that they are struggling to see the way forward. There is so much there that it is a dereliction of duty every day that we fail to regulate this space and keep damaging content from our young people and adults alike.
We know that this is an international issue, and Plan International has just released the results of its largest ever global survey on online violence after speaking to 14,000 girls aged 15 to 25 across 22 countries. The data reveal that nearly 60% have been harassed or abused online, and that one in five girls have left a social media platform or significantly reduced their use of it after being harassed. This plea goes to the social media companies as well: if they want to have users in the future who can enjoy what they provide, they must create a safe space. Currently, they simply do not. It is an international issue, but we are the mother of Parliaments, are we not?
The Government seem so overwhelmed by the prospect of doing everything that they are not doing anything. I urge the Minister to start that process. Take those first steps, because each one will make some difference in bringing about the change that we have a moral obligation to deliver.
I remind Members that the convention still applies: if you wish to speak, you should be present at the beginning. There are quite a large number of people on the call list, so please restrict your comments to about four minutes; otherwise, I will have to impose a time limit. I will call Members as on the call list, starting with Andrew Percy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), a fellow Yorkshire MP, for securing the debate and for the content of her speech.
I will primarily focus on antisemitism online, particularly in my role as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on antisemitism. Before I do that, I want to raise the issue of financial scams, which many of us have been lobbied on. I had a very sad case of a constituent who was recently affected by such a scam. They are truly shocking and harmful scams that take place online. I hope that as the Government move forward in this space and introduce legislation, they will have scams in mind too.
We all know the history of the rise of antisemitism in recent years, both on the far left and on the far right in this country, and across Europe and the wider world. It is sad that antisemitism has continued to grow and to find space online during this period of coronavirus. We have seen a fall in the number of physical incidents, probably because of the lockdown, but sadly we have seen all too much of a continuation online. Between the start of this year and June the Community Security Trust recorded 344 online incidents. There would have been many more were it not for the narrow reporting parameters. We could easily be up into the millions if we could measure antisemitism under the broadest scope. Those examples are as shocking as what we all know. There are many Members present who are members of the all-party parliamentary group on antisemitism and who have taken a stand on the issue.
During the period in question there has been Zoombombing of Jewish events with vile racist antisemitic commentary. Sadly, there have been covid conspiracy theories growing online. It is disappointing, first, that there is an anti-mask movement—sadly that is across the world; but often that moves closely to antisemitism. A constituent recently contacted me about that, with some barking mad idea about masks and how terrible they are, to which I replied, “Next thing you will be telling me it is all the fault of the Rothschilds,” to which—no word of a lie—I received a response saying “Actually, the Rothschilds knew this was going to happen.” That is how this stuff spreads. It is a simple step from one to the other.
The hon. Gentleman is making some crucial points. Does he share my disgust, and is he appalled, that YouTube at the start of this debate is providing links to a notorious antisemitic radio station called Radio Aryan and, indeed, a whole channel dedicated to antisemitic material? I will not read the name out. The content is there right now, as we are having this debate. YouTube has not removed it.
It is absolutely shocking. It should not take legislation to deal with it; it is obvious that the content should not be there. We need the Government to legislate, as I shall come on to in a moment, but it takes no brain surgeon to figure this stuff out. Sadly, too many platforms do not do enough.
Then of course there was the shocking Wiley incident, when he was tweeting on average every 87 seconds, which is incredible. There were 600 tweets, on a conservative estimate, which were seen online by more than 47 million people, of vile antisemitic abuse. Let us just consider some examples of it. He tweeted:
“If you work for a company owned by 2 Jewish men and you challenge the Jewish community in anyway of course you will get fired.”
Another one was:
“Infact there are 2 sets of people who nobody has really wanted to challenge #Jewish & #KKK but being in business for 20 years you start to undestand why:”
Then—something completely disgusting:
“Jewish people you think you are too important I am sick of you”
“Jewish people you make me sick and I will not budge”.
It took days. As I said, it took, at a conservative estimate, 600 tweets before anything was done about it. Instagram videos were posted. When one platform closed it down it ended up elsewhere. That is despite all the terms and conditions in place.
Enforcement is, sadly, all too invisible, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has highlighted, with regard to Radio Aryan. I was pleased that Wiley was stripped of his honour, but he should never have been able to get into the position of being able to spout that bile for so long. The best we have been able to do is strip him of an honour. It is completely and utterly unacceptable.
There is a similar problem with other platforms. I want to talk briefly about BitChute. It is an alternative platform, but we see the same old tropes there. Videos get millions of views there. It is a nastier version of YouTube—let us be honest—with videos in the name of the proscribed group National Action, a channel, for example, with the name “Good Night Jewish Parasite”, livestreaming of terrorist content, racist videos about Black Lives Matter protesters and much more; but it is a UK-based platform with UK directors, and while action is taken against individual videos there is, sadly, not enough recourse. Given the time limits, I shall quickly ask two questions and make two comments on legislation and where we are heading.
The online harms White Paper suggested a number of codes of practice, and that seems to have been rowed away from somewhat in recent weeks and months, so that there will be reliance, instead, on the terms and conditions. I do not think that that is enough. I hope that the Minister will confirm that enforceable codes of action will flow. I hope that also if she has some time she will perhaps meet me, and the Antisemitism Policy Trust and other partners, to discuss the matter in more detail.
Will the Minister consider introducing senior management liability for social media companies? The German model for fines is often talked about, but it has not worked. The maximum fine so far issued in Germany is, I think, two million dollars or pounds, which is nothing for Facebook. It can afford to build that into its programme.
There is plenty more I could have said—I am conscious of the time—but I hope the Minister will commit to meet with us and respond to those two points.
Thank you, Sir Edward; the pressure is on. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), as I have already said. I remember a debate on online harms some four years ago, when I first entered the House, when only three Members were in this room. Clearly our numbers are restricted today, but it is great to see a full Westminster Hall, as more and more Members come to realise the huge problems that the online platforms create.
Being aware of the time, I want to stick to two areas where I think the platforms are failing. First, I have raised anti-vax issues right across the summer, and as the pandemic started. In the last year an additional 7.8 million people have visited anti-vax Facebook pages or followed the Twitter, Instagram or YouTube accounts of organisations that are trying to make a quick buck out of people’s fears by selling false vaccines and treatments, asking them not to consult a doctor if they have any symptoms—“Don’t get tests because you can cure these things with different types of herbal tea”.
Across all the platforms—none is particularly worse than the others in my view, because they all have a responsibility—the argument that comes back is: “It’s a point of view: a position they could take, if you could form an argument, about this possibly being the way forward on covid.” Sadly, I have heard Members of this House suggest that covid is no worse than flu, despite all clinical professionals saying that is not the case. This gets picked up on anti-vax platforms, which quote Members saying, “You don’t have to wear a mask, you don’t have to get a vaccine and you don’t have to worry about it, because it’s no worse than flu”. Even if the Member has not said that, they twist their words into that position. How the platforms manage that is a huge concern.
I welcomed Facebook’s intervention yesterday to take down President Trump’s comments about covid. It is nice to see an intervention at that level, confirming that he indeed spouts fake news. It is about time Facebook did a lot more of that to address what is happening in this pandemic.
My second point is about the protection of children and young people. I have a huge concern about cyber-bullying and the targeting of young people, and specifically the growing number of young people being coerced, via gaming or the platforms or livestreaming, into committing sexual acts of harm against themselves, and that then is moving into the dark web. The Internet Watch Foundation says that Europe is the grooming capital of the world—it is mainly in the Netherlands, but it is on the increase in this country. I have already mentioned the concern of the IWF and the Met about the need for the Government to put more resources into getting these URLs taken down. There is a real fear among the tech community that young people are being taught how to abuse themselves by people who are grooming them. I know the Minister cares about this—we have spoken about it before. It needs to be rectified.
My two asks, in the half a minute left to me, are that we introduce the Bill as quickly as possible and that it is robust and clear, and takes on the platforms. I agree with the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) that it cannot be about the platforms setting their own regulations and then Ofcom deciding what should or should not be controlled and fines being issued. There should be culpability.
My final ask to the Minister is to create a social media levy fund that allows research into this issue. Make the platforms pay for the fact that they are not willing to do half of this work themselves, for the sake of young people, politicians, people in public life and people in the street who believe the fake news or the anti-vax information, because they are fearful of something. If they do not take responsibility, they should be fined for the dishonour of not dealing with these problems.
The 2015 Conservative manifesto made a commitment that
“we will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.
That is crucial, because of what the Children’s Commissioner says about the damaging impact of such sites on young people’s views of sex or relationships and
“belief that women are sex objects.”
In 2016 the Government therefore rightly introduced proposals for age verification, or AV, and some of us here spent many hours scrutinising, amending and ultimately passing part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. Commercial providers would have to implement age verification systems requiring users to provide proof of age—that they were over 18—or the provider sites would be blocked. That is critical when only a small proportion of those sites are UK-based; the top 50 are all based outside the UK.
Concerningly, however, in 2019 the Government suddenly announced that they were not going to implement part 3 of the 2017 Act, which was then the subject of an angry urgent question. At the same time, though, Ministers gave reassurances that they regarded protecting children from pornography as “a critically urgent issue” and that their purpose was not to abandon plans to introduce AV on commercial pornography sites but to introduce AV instead through the online harms Bill, which would address all online harms in the same piece of legislation.
The indications were that that Bill would be ready for pre-legislative scrutiny in early 2020. I am more than saddened that that was not the case. The Government produced an online harms White Paper and a consultation in April 2019. The consultation closed in June 2019; the Government’s full response to it is still awaited, with no draft Bill yet in sight.
We have heard that the draft Bill might now be published in mid-2021, meaning that, subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, it could be 2023 before it is on the statute book, six years after this House passed part 3 of the 2017 Act—six years during which increasing numbers of children, some as young as five, have had unfettered access to online pornography.
Parents, children’s charities and many colleagues here in Parliament are deeply concerned. This week, Savanta ComRes polling has been published showing that the public are not happy. In mid-September, 2,100 adults were polled across the UK, 63% of whom said that the Government should implement part 3 of the 2017 Act now and additional protections against other online harms through the online harms Bill, when that legislation has been passed. Only 21% thought the Government should delay introducing statutory AV on pornographic sites until all the other mechanisms for addressing online harms are ready. If we discount the “don’t knows”, 74% said the Government should implement part 3 of 2017 Act now.
Finally, I suspect that the provisions that the Government may introduce could be even weaker than those in part 3 of the 2017 Act, having received replies to written parliamentary questions indicating that the proposed duty of care will apply not to all commercial pornographic sites but only to those that do not enable user-generated functionalities, because they usually require payment, which acts as a deterrent to children accessing them.
The Government should neither delay nor water down their manifesto commitment. I call on them to implement part 3 of the 2017 Act immediately and to introduce additional online safety protection through the online harms Bill urgently. We can never make the internet safe, but we can make it safer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.
I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for bringing this extremely important issue to Westminster Hall for debate. She spoke very eloquently and comprehensively on these issues, highlighting the lack of consequences under current legislation and the absolutely devastating impact of online abuse.
In the time that I have, I will speak briefly about a couple of different issues. The first is mental health. In this generation, one in five individuals online are children, so there will be an absolute tidal wave of mental health issues linked to online abuse. Indeed, that is already happening: I see it with my own children and their peers, and I see it across my constituency and, indeed, the UK. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on mentoring, which provides the secretariat for the Diana Award, I recently spoke to the ambassadors on its youth board and heard that online bullying is one of the most fundamental issues that children have to cope with every single day of their lives. When I was young, bullying used to happen at school, but a child could come home from school and there was a gap, and they could receive support from elsewhere. Nowadays, it is constant. Now children are linking with their peers all the time—the majority of that is online, as well as occasionally in person, now that they are back at school.
The mental health impact must be addressed, and the legislation is crucial to that. It is a starting point, but we also need to support the youth ambassadors in schools who want to do anti-bullying work, be mentors to peers and ensure that they progress that good work to build resilience in their generation against this abuse. We look to the Minister to ensure that the legislation is robust and provides support in schools. I echo the words and sentiments of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who spoke about the importance of tackling antisemitism, particularly online. The Community Security Trust is recording the data and found 185 online instances in 2015 and 697 cases in 2019. That is a massive increase of 277%. That is another issue that really has to be tackled.
Finally, will the Minister look closely not only at the individuals who are online anonymously, but at those who impersonate others? I had that myself at the last election. As soon as I gave up the “MP” in my handle, someone online took that handle and started to tweet as though they were me. I am raising this not from my own perspective particularly—although it could have been extremely damaging—but because, as everyone here knows, constituents contact us online to tell them about their personal issues as a first port of call. Will the Minister consider meeting me to discuss that important issue further?
I commend the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important debate on an issue that I am passionate about, being motivated by my own experience of online abuse. A constituent has spoken to me about their experience and their concerns. I speak also as a mother who has concerns about what the online world will look like when my son starts accessing the internet.
Covid-19 has magnified the benefits of the internet. Our social media platforms have been so important in getting the safety message out, as well as being important for remote learning and home schooling. More than ever, we talk to our family online. Those are just some examples of how the internet can be a tremendous power for good. However the internet also remains one of the most dangerous and potentially destructive interventions of the last century. It is a place where online bullying and harassment occurs daily, where child abuse is endemic, and where damaging information can be shared, suicide and self-harm promoted, and terrorism encouraged and espoused.
In recent months, these abhorrent sides of the internet have certainly got a tighter grip. If what happens every second on the internet happened on the streets, we would not let our children anywhere near it and we would expect the full force of the law to be applied to it. Yet Government and law enforcement have allowed the intangible, remote worldwide web to self-regulate, and have also allowed an attitude of self-regulation for well over a decade. It is my belief that this must end.
I wholeheartedly endorse the six tests outlined by the NSPCC last week on what must be delivered by the legislation, including liability, empowering a regulator, effective sanctions, and recognising and dealing with the gravity of issues such as abuse, self-harm and suicide. Can anyone give me a good reason why we cannot take these steps?
I wish today to highlight a number of concerns. The first is about age verification, which is an absolute must in the forthcoming legislation. The Government U-turn of 16 October 2019 on age verification has never been accompanied by an explanation that made sense. Given that age verification providers were in place and ready to provide robust, high-specification, secure, anonymised verification, the alleged technology issues explanation does not stack up. In addition, why would the Government hold back on something that could be delivered now, as opposed to trying to marry it with other online harms that will be picked up in the current legislation? The Minister at that time told us that provision in the Conservative manifesto for statutory age verification on commercial pornography sites was “a critically important issue”. If it is critically important, it needs tackling immediately. I also ask the Government to prove us wrong on the perception that they are intent on watering down the protections for children in this regard.
On anonymity, we need to tackle these faceless trolls. We need to strip away the ability to have several accounts, all of which are used to abuse individuals. We are all accustomed to confirming our identity, be it for employment or going through the airport. Why not online?
Finally, let us look at what else we can do to increase awareness and educate children, parents and society at large. I had the privilege last week of meeting a young lady from my constituency, Mrs Deborah Webster, who has carried out significant research into the impact of legal but harmful content on our young people. Her findings are staggering—so much so that she now goes into schools to carry out a digital resilience programme. I think we all need some digital resilience in today’s society, but it needs to be underpinned by education and the curriculum. This is a huge opportunity for the Government to make a difference in almost every home in the country. It ought not to be missed.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate. I also thank the NSPCC, CARE, UK Safer Internet Centre, Girlguiding and Refuge for their excellent briefings. As the hon. Lady pointed out, this is an enormously complex issue. A number of petitions touching on areas of online harm have attracted around half a million signatories in total, as she said. That shows the Minister not only the strength of feeling but the importance of the Government’s providing a comprehensive response to this.
Let us be honest: when this sector wants to act, it does. It acted back in 2010 on online child abuse images, by putting in place protocols around splash pages, and it has acted on some issues around electoral fraud and fake news. However, the problem is that the industry does not consistently react, because it does not feel that it needs to. That has to change.
The Government have shown a clear intent to act in this area, through the 2017 Green Paper, the White Paper and the promise of legislation. The core concept that the Government want to put forward—as we understand it, anyway—is a duty of care: to make companies take responsibility for the safety of their users and to tackle the harm caused by their content, their activities and their services. Those are basic things that one would think were already in place, but they are not. They are to be applauded as a starting point, but again let us be clear that it is only a starting point, because setting up a regulator and regulatory frameworks do not provide a route of redress for victims. Lawyers know that a duty of care will not enable people to pursue a complaint to the regulator about an individual problem; it will just give the regulator an opportunity to fine companies or hit them over the head with a big stick.
People can bring a claim through ordinary legal proceedings, but that is limited by the existing legal framework, which we know is inadequate. The Law Commission is belatedly looking at a number of these areas, but it feels like the horse has already bolted. We might have to wait months or even years for its recommendations to come through, be reviewed and then be put forward in further legislation. It would be wholly unacceptable for the Government to bring forward a Bill with only measures to regulate, not legislation that actually has teeth.
We also need to deal with the inadequacies of the legislation, and I suggest that the Government should focus on at least three areas. When it comes to image-based abuse, the law is a mess. We have layer upon layer of legislation that does not give the police the necessary tools to protect victims. The second area is age verification, which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has already gone through. That is a promise we have not yet delivered on, and this Bill has to deliver on it. The third area is the importance of putting in place legislation that protects victims of intimidation during elections, which again the Government have promised to look at.
In conclusion, the coronavirus lockdown has served to create a perfect storm for online abuse. The Government have to act, and act quickly. Regulation alone is not enough; we need legislative reform as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this important and timely debate. I also thank House officials for ensuring that Westminster Hall is open once again, so that we can have these debates. Before I begin my remarks, I will note my declarations of interest: my chairmanship of the parliamentary internet, communications and technology forum all-party parliamentary group, and of the APPG on technology and national security; my chairmanship of Labour Digital and the Institute of Artificial Intelligence; and my previous professional work on these issues as a technology lawyer, as noted in the Register of Members’ Financial Interest.
The online harms Bill will be a big and important piece of legislation, covering a range of difficult issues, from defining content that is harmful but not illegal and how we protect children, through to ensuring an effective regulatory framework that delivers a meaningful duty of care. Given the time, I will not rehearse the many important arguments for getting this right; I will keep my remarks short, both to give the Minister enough time to give substantive and full answers and so that other colleagues have a chance to contribute. The Secretary of State confirmed to the House in early September that the full response to the White Paper would be published this year—that is, 2020—and that legislation would be introduced early next year, which is 2021. On that basis, I have three sets of questions.
First, can the Minister confirm whether the publication of the full response to the White Paper is currently allocated to her Department’s forward grid, and if so, when it is pencilled in for publication? My understanding is that it will be published between now and December. Could she also tell us whether the Department has secured a legislative slot with the Leader of the House for First Reading, and if so, give us a rough idea of when that might be? Does the Department envisage a period of prelegislative scrutiny before Second Reading? If it does, what role will the House of Lords play in that?
Secondly, can the Minister reassure us that the initial scope of the duty of care and the enforcement powers being made available to the regulator have not been watered down, and that she agrees with me that, while it is difficult to define what is harmful but not illegal, Parliament is the body best placed to do so, not private companies? Will she also reassure us that the passage of this Bill will not be linked to negotiations with the United States on the UK-US trade deal, given that we know that the United States has placed liability loopholes for platforms in trade deals with other countries?
Finally, will the Minister confirm that the answer I received from the Security Minister on the Floor of the House--that the online harms Bill will include provisions for enhancing sovereign defensive and offensive digital capabilities--is correct? If so, will she tell us whether the progression of the Bill is linked to the ongoing integrated review?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing today’s debate. These issues are absolutely crucial; I have spoken about them many times in this place, particularly during my time on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and have exposed gross failures by social media companies on a number of occasions. Of course, this goes well beyond the usual suspects. We have heard today about a range of sites, including gaming sites, BitChute, Gab, Discord and others that are less well known than the YouTubes, Facebooks, Instagrams and Twitters of this world. Even Tripadvisor, I have been told, was being used to share links to extremist content, which I am sure many of us find absolutely shocking.
I am also informed very much by my experiences in my Cardiff South and Penarth constituency over the last eight years. I have seen online videos glamorising drugs gangs and violence not removed due to claims of freedom of expression. These were videos that showed young people dripping in blood disposing of evidence after stabbing somebody—a simulated event, but one that was clearly glorifying utterly unacceptable and disgusting behaviour. I have seen jihadi organisations recruiting and spreading their messages of terror, including proscribed organisations, and other obvious ones such as Radio Aryan given the freedom to operate and spread their message of hate by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and others, not taken off. I have seen online attacks on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and attacks on the LGBT+ community. I have had my own experience of such online attacks, including threats about real-world events, and having to deal with those through the police.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) spoke about fake news, whether that is anti-vax, about 5G or about foreign powers spreading disinformation in our country. I am told that the Russian state, for example, seeded 32 separate narratives about the poisoning of the Skripals and its shameful activities with chemical weapons on our own soil, in order to spread disinformation.
We have heard about the huge damage to mental health, as well as issues such as cyber-stalking and the activities of paedophiles, but I want to draw the House’s attention to two specific issues today regarding the extreme right wing. The first is an organisation called the British Hand. Children as young as 12 are being drawn into extreme far-right groups, often by peers of a similar age, through the ease of anonymous social media accounts on bespoke sites such as Discord and Telegram, but also through Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. One particular cell, exposed by Hope Not Hate, is the British Hand group, allegedly led by a 15-year-old in Derby who recruits through Instagram and Telegram to encourage acts of violence, particularly against migrants. The group has been sharing videos of the Christchurch shooting and pro-national action material, which is readily available on its Instagram page and through private group chats, instigating members to commit acts of violence, to join organisations such as, I am sorry to say, Sir Edward, the Army and the Army cadets, and to participate in the study of homemade weapons. That group must be dealt with and I hope the Minister will have something to say about them.
Secondly, there is the Order of Nine Angles. Alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), I have repeatedly called for the group to be banned. On 12 September, Mohamed-Aslim Zafis was sitting outside his mosque in Toronto when he was stabbed to death. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has uncovered the alleged perpetrator, William Von Neutegem, is linked to the far right and particularly the Nazi satanist group the Order of Nine Angles. The group spread their message on YouTube using videos with references to neo-Nazism and the occult, and with chanting, a nine-pointed star and the monolith of a homemade altar associated with Order of Nine Angles ceremonies. This comes after serious events in the United States as well. They need to be banned. Hope Not Hate has been doing excellent work on this and I declare my interest as a supporter of theirs in Parliament.
This problem has got to be dealt with. We cannot see any more delay from the Government, either in banning these organisations or bringing forward online harms legislation. We cannot wait until 2023; this was needed years ago. It is needed in all of the areas that Members have spoken about today, but I would particularly like to see a focus on these extreme right organisations that have been given such a free rein.
May I say how wonderful it is to be back in Westminster Hall after so long? I thank all the House staff who have made that possible and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important debate.
Many Members have spoken about the abuse and grooming that happens online. I completely agree that that needs to be targeted and legislated for. Some may have assumed that I would be talking about gambling today, but I am not. I want to focus on a specific area that is a cause of untold damage and should be included in the scope of any legislation about online harms.
Online sellers are creating a significant problem by not protecting consumers who are purchasing electrical goods from their sites. We know from experience that such goods may be substandard, counterfeit, recalled or non-compatible with use in this country. There is a severe lack of transparency that is putting many lives at significant risk.
Electricity causes more than 14,000 house fires annually, almost half of all accidental house fires. Each year, thousands are injured due to electrical incidents. In a survey carried out by Electrical Safety First, a staggering 93% of customers said that they would expect online sellers to protect them from purchasing counterfeit or substandard products, yet even when buying from well-known global platforms far too often that is not the case. Millions of people are falling victim with potentially tragic consequences.
This year has unsurprisingly seen a record rise in online sales, meaning a record number of unsuspecting customers purchased potentially unsafe goods. When the hair, beauty and wellbeing sector was forced to close salons and spas for longer than other businesses, many people will have gone online to purchase equipment to cut the family’s hair or bought items that would enable them to do their own beauty treatments at home. In fact, research suggests that as many as 21 million consumers did this. With stocks running out fast, many people were just grateful to buy whatever they could get hold of, probably without even considering whether the product would be safe or not.
With covid restrictions set to continue, the increase in online shopping could have devastating consequences. Sales of electrical goods online are likely to be even higher this Christmas, so we have to do everything in our power to limit the harm and protect innocent consumers.
Since I first became an MP in 2015, I have campaigned for the need for the safer sale of electrical goods through online marketplaces. As a nation, our shopping habits were already moving online, but the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns have escalated that trend at a far greater pace than we could ever have imagined. That is why I urge the Government to include the sale of unsafe electrical products in the expected online harms legislation.
Tighter controls are needed on the platforms selling those products, to ensure that people are purchasing items confident in the knowledge that their goods meet safety standards. Online sellers must take responsibility for their own checks and procedures to guarantee that the goods they are selling are genuine, safe and not subject to manufacturer’s recall.
Online harms legislation is vital to protect people from a wide range of potential dangers. Almost 90% of adults use the internet, and none of us can deny how potentially dangerous so many aspects of the digital world are. We cannot ignore the fact that our legislation needs to catch up. Terrorist activity, online bullying, gambling, child safety and the safety of vulnerable adults are all areas in desperate need of legislation, but so is the hidden harm of the potential purchasing of life-threatening electrical goods. When the Government bring in this new legislation, it is essential that the sale of unsafe electrical goods is included within the remit. Potentially fatal products are an online harm and it is our responsibility to ensure those sales are legislated against.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important and, I hope, influential debate.
Online harms are one of the biggest worries and harms faced by parents across my constituency and across the country. As a parent, I am very worried about what is happening in the safety of my own home, which I cannot control. Speaking to other parents, I know that is a shared concern. In our own homes, children can have free and unfettered access to pornography and to people inciting young people to violent hate and extremist views. Women can be threatened to share intimate images, which can cause long-lasting damage. Our online world must be a safe and positive place for us all to explore, including our children, but at present it is not. Providers are not taking action. Parents just cannot keep up. Self-regulation is definitely not cutting it and online harm in our society is spiralling out of control.
The 2015 Conservative manifesto pledged that
“we will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material.”
Well, it is time to come good on that commitment. If the Government had acted sooner, large numbers of children would not have been harmed by avoidable online experiences during lockdown. The consequences of ongoing inaction are severe and widespread. Our children can never unsee images they have stumbled across in all innocence in their own home. There are more children online for more time with more anxiety, yet there is less regulation, less action taken by providers and more sex offenders online.
I want to highlight three key issues. The first is pornography. According to the NSPCC, in the first three months of this year, more than 100 sex crimes against children were recorded every day. Lockdown led to a spike in online child abuse, meaning that that is much higher. The second issue is youth violence. The Mayor of London and deputy mayor for policing and crime have been vocal about the role of the internet in spreading violent messages and the incitement to commit serious youth violence. That is around us every day. The third issue is threats around sharing intimate images. One in 14 adults and one in seven young women have experienced threats about sharing intimate images. As a mother of two daughters, I am really concerned about that, and I know that parents across the country share that concern.
Although the sharing of intimate images was made a crime in 2015, threatening to share them can be just as damaging, but it is not illegal in England and Wales, although it is in Scotland. The threats are used to control, damage and affect mental health, and one in 10 survivors said that the threats had made them feel suicidal. There is also a substantial body of evidence suggesting that exposure to pornography is harmful to children and young people and can have a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex or relationships, leading to a belief that women are sex objects. There are links between sexually coercive behaviour and higher rates of sexual harassment and forced sex. We simply cannot let this situation go unregulated any longer, so I have some questions for the Minister.
When will the first reading of the online harms Bill be? Is there urgency to tackle online harms? Will the Minister commit to introducing legislation to outlaw threats to share intimate images as part of the Domestic Abuse Bill? Can she introduce a statutory instrument to redesignate the regulator as the British Board of Film Classification? That could be done very quickly and would enable age verification of pornographic websites. Will the online harms Bill contain strong and robust action, with a framework of comprehensive regulations and an adaptable new regulator that can adapt to the issues that will come up in future that we do not even know about yet?
It is time for tough action. We have really strict limits against hate speech and pornography in other areas of life, but just where most children are most of the time is where the Government are failing in their duty of care.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. We have had an absolutely excellent debate, as evidenced by the number of Members who have attended. The debate opened with a thoughtful and powerful contribution from the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), and I congratulate her on securing it. She spoke alarmingly of the 100 online sex crimes against children each day—or more than 100 now—of the endemic misogyny online, and of the serious danger of doing nothing, comparing the long-term effects of doing nothing to smoking.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) spoke of the ridiculous anti-mask and anti-vaxxer narrative and how it has gained traction online. He shared some of the vile antisemitic comments that often get posted online, often unchallenged on some platforms. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) went into a lot more detail on the anti-vax brigade, who are too often emboldened by too many in the public eye, including Members in this place. I am sure he is delighted that Trump’s dangerous posts are being taken down. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) expressed her disappointment, which I share, in the delay thus far in Government action, and she spoke of the survey that found that 63% of adults wanted the Government to implement part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 immediately.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke of the tidal wave of mental health problems that we can all see in our constituencies and perhaps even in our own families, and the prevalence of online bullying. I think we all agree with what the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) said: if every incident that happened online happened in the street, we would not let our children out the door. She spoke of the importance of age verification being part of any Government action.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) spoke of providers and platforms and the absolute necessity for them to show a duty of care to their customers. She also spoke about the inadequacies of the existing legal framework. I look forward to the Minister’s answers to the three sets of on-point questions from the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones). The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) spoke of foreign powers spreading disinformation and the dangers of the extreme right wing online, which is definitely a sentiment I agree with.
The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) surprised us all by not talking about gambling. She spoke about the fraudulent sale of dangerous, substandard and counterfeit goods. Lastly, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said that the internet should be a positive place for our children, but that online harm is spiralling out of control. We have had quite contrasting contributions to the debate, but certainly there was a consensus within that that the Government must take action now. As has just been said, the internet should be an enormous and progressive force for good, whether for our economic development or for connecting with family and friends across the world, but all too often our experience can be a negative one, be that through the daily undermining of civil discourse, identity theft or being bullied or abused.
The internet has become an integral, indispensable and in many ways pervasive part of daily life, with nearly 90% of UK adults online. For 12 to 15-year-olds that figure is 99%, and I can definitely state that my 14-year-old is not one of the 1% in this case. One thing I think we all agree on is that the sheer pace of the development of the internet and our use of it, particularly over the past few months, has been difficult for Parliaments, Governments and therefore laws to keep pace with. These reforms are absolutely vital; they were already overdue and they have been subject to repeated delay. The pandemic has only added to the urgent need for their completion, as the world has moved online to an even greater extent.
The last formal update on the White Paper came in a report in February, but during the past six months, the NSPCC has reported an increased risk to children online during lockdown, while cases of covid-19-related fraud and scams have become prevalent. We know of fraudsters routinely targeting victims through sponsored Google and Facebook links and harvesting personal details from fake call centres.
There is a long-standing problem with serious organised criminals impersonating investment products; the Investment Association has reported that in the three months following the start of lockdown, reports of cloning scam activity spiked. Pandemic misinformation and online conspiracy theories have real consequences in the real world too, from increased numbers of people saying they will refuse a vaccine to the burning down of 5G masts.
That all increases the urgency for reform, but, as has been mentioned during the debate, the recent report from the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee said that the Bill might not come into effect until 2024, as the Government drag their feet on a draft Bill. In her response to the debate, may I seek an assurance from the Minister that that is not the case and that it will come in sooner than that?
The longer these delays continue, the more difficult it becomes for the Government to deny that they are due to the influence of extensive lobbying by large tech companies, coupled with a fear of potential damage to US-UK trade talks. Again, I seek an assurance in the Minister’s contribution that any trade talks with the US will have no influence on the Government’s approach or their timetable for taking action. The UK’s reputation as a secure financial centre is also at stake; with Brexit already leading firms to look to relocate, it is even more vital for the Government to avoid giving them another reason to do so.
It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that the Scottish Government firmly believe that online abuse is unacceptable and that everybody deserves to be treated fairly, regardless of age, disability, gender, gender identity, race, religion, belief or sexual orientation. The Scottish Government have funded respectme, Scotland’s fantastic anti-bullying service, which acts as a source of information for young people in Scotland. The organisation has created and made available publications to raise awareness of the issue of cyber-bullying. It has highlighted that online bullying is still bullying, and it implores us not to get caught up on the medium of abuse. We absolutely must tackle online abuse as robustly and reactively as offline abuse. There should be greater steps taken to inform the public of their right to report online abuse to the police, and training given to police forces on how to handle such cases.
A number of our own MPs, as has been mentioned, have experienced online abuse. Although politicians have chosen to be in public life, and with that comes an acceptance of public criticism, there is a crystal-clear difference between criticism—even harsh criticism—and abuse. I stand with all hon. Members who have suffered abuse, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow during the last election. I will also make the point that, while men are harassed online, when women are the target, online harassment quickly descends into sexualised hate or threats. Online gender-based violence is a clear example of the deeply rooted gender inequalities that still sadly exist in our society.
We have also heard that children are deeply vulnerable to online abuse. We must do more to keep them safe. The Scottish Government have a national action plan on internet safety for children and young people. The plan emphasises the role that wider society, including the online sector, must play in enhancing internet safety for children and young people. The Scottish Government continue to work to ensure that professionals and communities have the appropriate skills and knowledge to provide support to children and young people.
As in England and Wales, there are a number of offences in Scots law that can cover online bullying and harassment. The Scottish Government are looking to add further protections in this area by publishing a hate crime Bill, which will consolidate, modernise and extend existing hate crime legislation, ensuring that it is fit for 21st-century Scotland. The Scottish Government have engaged extensively with more than 50 organisations, including Police Scotland, the Crown Office and others that work in the criminal justice system. The Bill does not prevent people from expressing controversial, challenging or offensive views, nor does it seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way, but it will target individuals whose behaviour is threatening or abusive and is intended to stir up hatred. The Scottish Government will continue to consult and listen to all views as the Bill progresses, to ensure that the correct balance is struck.
It is crystal clear from today’s debate that there is a consensus for action on this vital issue. We just need the Government to get on with it. The longer they wait, the more lives are ruined by online crime and abuse.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate and other Members on their contributions, which have been thoughtful, well-informed and passionate on this critical subject.
I also declare an interest: as a chartered engineer, I spent 20 years building out the networks that have become the internet. Over that time, but most particularly in the 10 years since I entered Parliament, our lives have been increasingly lived online, with 80% of UK adults using the internet daily or almost every day. Social platforms such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter are woven into the fabric of our lives. Together with a vast array of online apps for everything from video conferencing to healthy eating, they are a critical enabler of an active life as citizen, consumer and economic contributor.
The covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift online. At the height of the lockdown, UK adults were spending on average over four hours a day online. For those not digitally excluded, it brought huge benefits, keeping us in touch virtually as physical touch became antisocial. However, as we have heard, particularly for my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Members for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the internet is at times an increasingly dark, challenging and inhospitable place. No matter how vulnerable or how well informed people are, they have little control over content, which is curated by tech platforms, allowing the spread of disinformation, sexual exploitation, fake news, extremism, hatred and other harmful content.
The importance and timeliness of today’s debate can be seen in the number of hon. Members in the Chamber, in yesterday’s United States Congress tech antitrust report and in today’s report from UBS, which reveals the eye-watering levels of wealth in the tech sector. Yet, as we have heard, the UK Government have done nothing. Regulation has not kept pace with technology, crime or consumers, leaving growing numbers of people increasingly exposed to significant online harms. It did not have to be this way.
In 2002, the then Labour Government saw the growth of new communications technologies and undertook a comprehensive, forward-looking review of the issues they raised. The result was the Communications Act 2003 and a new regulator, Ofcom, with the power to ensure that these issues were resolved in the public interest. That regulatory framework was given a 10-year lifespan—I know that because I was head of technology at Ofcom at the time.
In 2012, the Conservative-led Government saw the growth of our online lives, social media and big data, and did—nothing. The 2012 review of online harms may be the most important review we never had. As we have heard, the Government cannot even respond to their own belated and limited online harms consultation in a timely manner, leaving it to big tech to continue to control our online lines.
I consider myself a tech evangelist. I believe that tech is an engine of progress like no other. I believe it can improve the lives of my constituents and enable a more equal, more productive and more sustainable skills- based economy through a fourth industrial green revolution. However, people need to be protected online and empowered to take control of their online lives. The Government need to be on the side of the people, not tech lobbyists.
Hon. Members have set out many of the critical issues, so I will focus my remaining remarks on four areas: children, finance, disinformation and regulation. As emphasised particularly by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), the Government are failing in their duty to safeguard children. Worsened by increasing social isolation due to the pandemic, online abuse is being normalised for a whole generation. The previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), called the pandemic the “perfect storm” for child abuse. The UK Safer Internet Centre found 8.8 million attempts to access child sexual abuse in one month alone. How will the Government address that, and what will they do to support schools? The centre found that schools desperately need help and support in levelling up online safety. Will the Government replace the UK Safer Internet Centre’s EU funding, so that it can continue to do its good work as we leave the European Union?
On financing, the platform giants’ business model is driven by algorithms that serve up more and more extreme content, which drives extreme behaviours such as radicalisation and self-harm. The model depends on eyeballs and is financed through advertising. Google and Facebook control the online advertising market, which facilitates so much online harm. What plan do the Government have to address the failings of that model or to give the Competition and Markets Authority and the advertising regulators the powers to do so? It is despicable that, nearly three years after her death, the family of Molly Russell have had only limited access to her data and have been denied access to the algorithms and all the content that helped facilitate her suicide. Will the Minister ensure that that changes?
The tech giants’ model also means that Google and Facebook have control of the online high street, directing the traffic on it, even as Amazon unfairly outcompetes the high street in our real-world towns. How will the Government address economic online harms and enable competition?
Our ability to build back from covid will depend on the successful deployment of a vaccine. As we have heard from the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), however, misinformation on vaccines—as well as on 5G, the holocaust and just about everything—is freely available and promoted on social media. The Government’s counter-disinformation officer has a full-time dedicated staff of zero. When will they take disinformation seriously, and what will they do about it?
We are a constructive Opposition. It might appear that I have been liberal in my criticism of the Government, but that is born from my experience, the experience of hon. Members present and, most importantly, the experience of constituents up and down the country. Far too many people’s lives are detrimentally affected by what they experience online. As a constructive Opposition, we have proposals as well as criticisms. The Government have been too slow to act, and tech giants have thought themselves unaccountable for too long. However, they can be made accountable. Self-regulation has failed, but robust, reasonable, rational, forward-looking and principles-based regulation can succeed. It is shocking that, in all this time, the Government have not established what those principles should be. Is anonymity a right, or is it a privilege? Is identity a right? How do we decide when legal online content becomes harmful?
Labour has made it clear that we need a digital bill of rights and a legal duty of care to give more powers and protections. We need a statutory regulator for online platforms to crack down on the harm, the hate and the fake. However, we have also launched the Our Digital Future consultation to build consensus on the underlying principles by which our online lives should be guided—it is still taking submissions, if hon. Members would like to contribute. We are also committed to eradicating the digital divide—indeed, the many new digital divides—as a result of which marginalised people have become increasingly excluded from the online world.
Many bodies have contacted me and asked me to raise their concerns about issues from dangerous goods online to data adequacy, small business competition to fake reviews, age verification to facial recognition, and antisemitism to intellectual property. I cannot do them all justice. The Government must outline a clear plan to address the multitude of online harms. It cannot be limited to the platforms simply policing their terms and conditions. Enforcement and redress are required, and I repeat the questions posed by my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax and for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), although I despair of answers. The Government must get a grip if our lives are to flourish online without fear or favour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for tabling this incredibly important topic for debate. This is my first opportunity since taking this role in February to speak publicly about online harms, and I am grateful for the chance to do so. I am also grateful to all Members who have taken part in the debate and raised some incredibly important topics.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) summed up an important challenge at the beginning: it should not take Government legislation to sort this out, but, unfortunately, it does, now more than ever. That was brought home to me over the summer, when I talked to the father of Molly Russell, a young lady whose story started with online bullying and then led on to her seeking information online as to how to take her own life, which she did. That was a conversation that I never want to have with another parent again. It was utterly chilling. That is why my dedication to making sure the legislation is fit for purpose is stronger than ever.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) challenged me to ensure that the legislation is robust, clear and soon, and I take that challenge. I have had a number of other challenges from across the room, and given that I have only a few moments to respond, I will get through as many as I can. Anyone I do not get to, I will write to.
As hon. Members know, the Government published the online harms White Paper last year, setting out how to make legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. User safety is very much at the heart of our approach. The intention to establish a new duty of care for companies towards their users will ensure they have appropriate systems and processes in place to deal with the harmful content on their services and to keep their users safe.
Our approach will require companies to have clear and accessible mechanisms for users to report harmful content and to challenge it—take it down, in fact—where necessary. Companies will be expected to enforce their terms and conditions transparently and consistently. The duty of care will be overseen by a regulator, which will have oversight of these mechanisms and strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance.
The White Paper spoke about some of these powers, but we have also consulted on further powers to carry out things such as business disruption activities, blocking internet service providers and personal sanctions for senior managers. Further information will be published in the full Government response.
Since publishing the public consultation, we published the interim Government response earlier in the year, which shares the findings from the consultation and indicated the direction of travel. We intend to publish the full Government response within the next few weeks and to have the legislation ready early next year.
A range of other issues have been raised today, and I will get through as many as I can. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and many other hon. Members suggested that there might be some watering down of the legislation compared with the White Paper. In fact, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) thought that it might be part of some of our trade negotiations. That is not the case. There will be no watering down—in fact, the opposite.
The protection of children is at the heart of our approach to tackling online harms, and a number of hon. Members have raised that. There is huge recognition that the online world can be particularly damaging for children. We understand that. It is their mental health and their very well-being that are at stake. Our online harms proposals will assume a higher level of protection for children than for the typical adult user. We will expect companies to have a range of tools to protect them, including measures such as age assurance and age verification technologies to protect them from accessing inappropriate content.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about the Digital Economy Act 2017. This will go further than the focus of the Digital Economy Act. One criticism of that Act was that its scope did not cover social media companies. One of the worst places where a considerable quantity of pornographic material is available to children is on social media. Our new approach will therefore include social media companies and all sites on which there is user-generated contact, including major pornography sites.
It is important that we no longer see age verification for pornography in isolation, but as part of this wider package to protect children across a range of sites and harmful materials. This technology is new and emerging, and it is important that we take every opportunity to get at the front end of it. That is why we are collaborating with the Home Office, GCHQ and a wide range of stakeholders on research into the verification of children online, and considering the technical challenges of knowing who online is a child. We ran a successful technical trial to test the use of age-assurance technologies at scale. The initial findings have been promising, and I look forward to developing that work shortly.
In recent years, there has been a massive rise in online abuse, harassment and intimidation, with a large majority of that on social media. I am clear that any abuse targeted towards anybody is unacceptable, but we heard from many Members that certain users are disproportionately targeted. For example, we know that issues such as revenge porn are rising. The UK Safer Internet Centre recently cited the fact that, this year, the revenge porn helpline has already dealt with 22% more cases than in the whole of 2019. That is not acceptable.
We are clear that what is illegal offline should be illegal online, including a number of things raised today, such as incitement to violence and the selling of faulty and potentially hazardous goods. We need to make sure that social media companies take as much responsibility as they can, but we also need to make sure that law enforcement agencies are equipped to take action where they need to. In some cases, the law is not fit for purpose to deal with the challenges of the online world, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). That is why we instructed the Law Commission to review existing legislation on abusive and harmful communications. It is also undertaking additional reviews, including on the taking, making and sharing of intimate images, which is obviously incredibly upsetting for victims. Given the nature of lawmaking, a patchwork of offences has been developed over time to address this issue. The Law Commission is now considering the best way to address these harms and whether there are any gaps in legislation. We are working alongside it to consider the right legislative vehicle to take this issue forward.
Finally, we have seen some horrific examples involving disinformation and misinformation over the covid period, including the burning down of 5G masts because of some horrific conspiracy theories. We stood up the cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation cell earlier in the year and, to give reassurance to those who asked for it, we have been working since the beginning of the summer with colleagues across Government and with social media companies on how to respond to anti-vax campaigns, so that is very much in hand.
As well as calling for action from companies, it is key that users are empowered with the knowledge and skills to keep themselves safe, which is why our online media literacy strategy will come out in partnership with the White Paper. With that, I will end, to leave time for the hon. Member for Halifax to conclude the debate.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part in this important debate, and not least to the Labour shadow spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), for her important contribution. She again made use of her expertise in the powerful position she took.
I am also grateful to the Minister for her response. She gave what I felt was quite a personal commitment to get a grip of this. However, while we asked a lot of specific questions, we heard phrases like “range of tools”, “terms and conditions”, “misinformation and disinformation” and “is in hand”. It was not necessarily the absolute clarity we were asking for. Will social media companies have heard that response and realised that the transformation that we ask for is on its way? I am not sure they will, so I politely put it to the Minister that we very much hope that her personal contribution and the commitments she made are forthcoming, and that where she is afforded more time in the future, she will be able to share more with us.
I will end with a personal plea, echoing the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and the hon. Members for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart). As a mother of a two-year-old boy, the clock is ticking, and I need assurances that, by the time he is old enough to use the internet, we will have got a grip of this. Others shared experiences of their children using it here and now, and they are witnessing the impact that it has on them. We also have responsibilities beyond that, as Members of Parliament and lawmakers.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Covid-19: Financial Implications for Schools
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the financial implications of covid-19 for schools.
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise an issue of considerable importance to my constituents and, I suspect, constituents across England. Schools in Harrow and across the country are facing a very tough financial year because of their extra covid costs. I say gently to the Minister that Ministers are not yet doing enough to help.
Harrow is blessed with a very strong state sector, with generally excellent primary and secondary schools, as well as a strong sixth-form college and good further education provision. The schools work together extremely well and the quality of Harrow’s schools remains a central attractive part of the borough’s offer to families with children.
I pay particular tribute to Harrow’s headteachers. They are a remarkable group of very talented leaders and generally have very strong staff teams in their schools. Since the beginning of this term, students from 12 schools have had to self-isolate, but in general the return to school has gone relatively well.
I am a former pupil of two Harrow schools and am now a parent of a child at one, and I have many friends whose children are either at or have been at Harrow schools. What happens in the borough’s schools and their funding is a lively concern in the many conversations that I have as a constituency MP. Talking to headteachers and others involved in the financial governance of our schools, I am concerned, first, about the funding difficulties that covid is causing our schools; secondly, about the limited financial support the Government have so far offered; and, thirdly, about the difficult financial backdrop faced by schools, even before coronavirus became an issue. I am also concerned about the increased difficulties that covid is causing those children with special needs; the mental health challenges facing our young people, which are being exacerbated as a result of covid; and what the feared increase in child poverty will mean for schools and their finances.
One of the many excellent high schools in my constituency expects to incur, over 12 months, approximately £175,000 in extra costs due to covid. Extra cleaning, extra teaching cover, longer hours needed for support staff, additional essential supplies, such as personal protective equipment and sanitiser, and significant digital investment—for example, in laptops to ensure that students can study at home in the event of closure, partial closure, self-isolation and so on—are just some examples of things that have created extra costs. Also, the school has suffered a significant loss in income in relation to a lot of community clubs—for example, football clubs—to language schools and to simply the use of buildings for event hire. That is lost income that the school would have invested in education for its pupils. To be fair, that high school has received some funding from the Department to cover cleaning costs, and funding equivalent to two teachers from the catch-up fund, which will, according to the headteacher, help just with years 10 and 11.
One large primary school, which is fairly typical of the borough, has incurred more than £60,000 in extra costs just over the last—summer—term. Again, the school has faced significant costs for additional staffing to cover lessons where teachers or teaching assistants have been shielding, and for site staff and office staff overtime to prepare for the reopening of the school. School lunchtimes are costing more because of the need for disposable cutlery and packaging, and, given the staggered lunchtime arrangements required, there are, again, extra staffing costs.
Two primary schools have seen the need for significant extra IT investment. Similarly, they have had extra cleaning costs and they have seen significant losses of income, as their premises cannot be hired out. Some schools in Harrow and, indeed, across the country are also trying to maintain wraparound care—even as external providers can no longer do so—in order to help parents who otherwise would struggle to keep working.
The spending review announcement will not leave Harrow schools much better off. The so-called funding increases are largely just recycling the pay and pension awards, which used to be funded separately. I understand specifically that pay and pension increases from last month are not funded, costing the average high school in the borough between £150,000 and £200,000, and the average primary school more than £50,000. Changes to the school funding formula for deprivation have hit Harrow schools very hard, because for some reason we are now classified as a less deprived area. The consequent loss of funding meant that Harrow schools did not get anywhere near the 4% funding increase announced nationally for 2020-21. It is difficult, therefore, to see how the funding settlement for Harrow schools—welcome as any increase always is—goes anywhere near addressing the real-terms cuts in school spending over the last 10 years.
On the national picture, as I alluded to, I recognise that the Department for Education has provided some additional funding for schools facing, in Ministers’ words, “exceptional costs”. However, there are limits on the amount of costs that will be recompensed, and no consideration is given to the loss of often crucial lettings income.
The National Foundation for Educational Research set out in September the scale of the educational and financial challenges facing schools, based on interviews with almost 3,000 school leaders and teachers across more than 2,200 primary and secondary schools in England. The NFER pointed out that nearly all teachers estimate that their pupils are behind in their curriculum learning, with the average estimate being that they are three months behind. Teachers in the most deprived schools were more than three times more likely to report that their pupils were four months or more behind in their curriculum learning than teachers in the least deprived areas. Indeed, more than half of all teachers thought that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had widened.
The report notes the difficulties in teaching remotely, with more than one quarter of pupils having limited or no access to IT at home—a particular challenge for schools serving the most deprived areas. Across the piece, almost 50% of teachers thought that their pupils needed intensive catch-up help, with the figure being even higher in the most deprived schools and in areas serving the highest proportion of pupils from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, such as schools in my constituency. The report notes the need for additional IT equipment. Senior leaders have been particularly aware of the need for improved IT, with the limitations of school IT systems hindering their ability to communicate with pupils, parents and, indeed, staff.
The NFER went on to suggest that some primary schools could need up to an estimated £280,000 a year and that an average secondary school could need up to an estimated £720,600 in order to operate in line with the Government’s requirements. I should underline that these estimates are based on talking to senior leaders who were concerned about their ability to provide a full and comprehensive service to their pupils from the beginning of last month.
The NFER acknowledges the funding that the Government have provided for cleaning costs, the catch-up funding and the IT funding, but it says, in its traditionally understated way:
“Nevertheless…there is still likely to be a need for additional funding beyond the current government offer.”
The Institute for Fiscal Studies annual report on school funding, which was also published just last month, is also striking. The IFS is arguably the most independent and respected group of analysts in the UK, and it reported that larger funding costs for schools in poor areas have left them badly placed to deal with all the challenges that covid-19 has thrown up. The IFS notes the obvious widening of educational inequalities over lockdown and highlights the particularly tough challenges faced by schools serving more deprived pupils over the next few years, with planned increases in teachers’ starting salaries—welcome as they are in their own right—likely to weigh even more heavily on their budgets because they are more likely to have to employ new teachers.
The IFS describes the post-lockdown funding support for schools as “modest”, and goes on specifically to say:
“Faster falls in spending per pupil over the last decade, slower increases under the National Funding Formula…widening of educational inequalities…all provide a case for greater targeting of funding to more deprived schools.”
The IFS also notes:
“School spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20”,
describing it as
“the largest cut in over 40 years”,
compared with the
“increase in spending per pupil of over 60%”
during the period of the last Labour Government.
The IFS goes on to acknowledge the 2019 spending review announcement for day-to-day spending on schools in England through to 2022-23. It notes that, using school-specific inflation, the expected growth in spending per pupil between 2019-20 and 2022-23 would leave spending per pupil about 3% in real terms below its 2009-10 level, which will still be the biggest squeeze on school resources since the 1970s.
The IFS further notes the lower increases in formula allocations for schools in poorer areas, which
“run counter to the objective”—
that is, the objective of the Government, apparently—
“of using school funding to ‘level up’ poorer regions.”
Echoing the NFER report, the IFS says that this could
“pose additional challenges for deprived schools seeking to help pupils catch up after the closure of schools during the pandemic.”
The IFS goes into some detail on the different aspects of the Government support, in particular describing the national tutoring programme as offering a level of support that is “low” when compared with the scale of likely lost learning.
The Minister will also know that there is particular concern about children with special needs, with almost one fifth of them, according to Government figures, off school due to the problems that schools face in managing infection control, timetables and transport difficulties. There is a particular problem, which the media have covered, in providing access to education for children with a tracheostomy, or who require what is called oral suctioning to clear their airways. Public Health England rules state that schools must ensure that they are suctioned in separate ventilated and sanitised rooms by staff wearing full protective gear. Many schools are simply unable to comply with those rules. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister—if not today, then soon—what specific steps his Department has taken to address that issue.
There are broader issues about funding for children with special needs. The Children’s Commissioner has noted specifically that the problem of access to mainstream schooling for children with special educational needs was showing up long before lockdown. None of the disruption of this year has helped to change that picture.
Many local authorities, struggling with years of austerity cuts, are still often finding it difficult to provide appropriate placements, and children with special needs are missing out in many cases on their education, putting their parents under enormous pressure to pick up the pieces. Research commissioned by the Local Government Association acknowledges the extra funding that the Government have provided for special educational needs in this comprehensive spending review period, but it estimates that councils still face a high-needs shortfall of at least £889 million. It would be good to hear from the Minister whether there will be further sustained investment in special educational needs provision by Ministers over the course of the next spending review.
Similarly, it would be helpful to hear what further support Ministers are providing for investment in mental health services to which schools can have access. Various charities have highlighted the increased feelings of isolation and loneliness during lockdown for many young people. Again, the Children’s Commissioner has articulated the greater threats of domestic abuse, online grooming and other threats that children faced during lockdown, few of which would have been picked up by teachers during that period, and for which children now require support.
The final thing I want to mention in terms of the financial implications that covid has for schools is child poverty. Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that covid threatens to push up to another 200,000 more children into poverty by the end of the year. That is on top of the 4.2 million children trapped in poverty already. As unions such as the National Education Union have highlighted, child poverty is already putting pressure on school budgets, with schools funding extra breakfast and holiday clubs, providing and washing children’s clothing, and supplying children with essential equipment that they need to learn.
I acknowledge the Government’s investment in digital equipment and the expansion of free school meals to cover school holidays at Easter and over the summer period but, given the expected rise in unemployment and the associated rise in child poverty that I fear is inevitable, it would be helpful if Ministers would confirm whether similar free school meal provision can be made this half term, and in the holidays at Christmas and next year, particularly while the covid pandemic is still having an impact.
What further investment will Ministers make to tackle the digital poverty that is likely to hold young people back if they still do not have access to laptops, tablets or other such equipment? Will Ministers consider providing free household internet access to children and young people in households on universal credit?
I am grateful for helpful briefings from the National Association of Head Teachers, NASUWT, the Local Government Association, the National Education Union and, of course, schools in my constituency, and my local authority. Schools face a difficult financial challenge in the coming months, and none more than those in my borough. Ministers need to extend funding to cover covid costs and to recognise that sustained investment is needed in areas of deprivation and special needs. Further investment will be required in mental health services, and rising child poverty will have a further significant impact on schools and their finances.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I will be brief, as I want to hear from the Minister. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing this important debate. I thank him for giving me a couple of minutes for sharing, reiterating and adding to his experience of school funding, especially from my constituency in Putney and from across Wandsworth. I pay tribute to the heads, the staff management and the chairs of governors of schools who are managing budgets during this difficult time. I would like to outline four areas of concern that I have noted for local schools.
The first area of concern is mental health. That is one of those areas that is additionally funded, and is an area that can potentially be cut by school governors at the moment, when a school is stripped to the bone. The second area of concern is that of additional costs—more staff, more cleaning costs, and more PPE. There is also inconsistency in terms of income. Many schools have previously had some or a lot of income from hiring out their premises, but are getting no reimbursement or acknowledgment of that difference in budget as a result of losing that income. A third area of concern is youth services. There have been huge cuts in youth services: in London alone, over 100 youth services have been cut in the last five years. That has an impact on education. There is no area to do homework, informal education goes and family support goes. That has all been an additional concern after covid.
The fourth and final concern is special educational needs, as has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West. Only last Saturday, two parents came to my surgery. They were at their wits’ end. They were not getting the diagnosis support. When they had an education, health and care plan they were not getting any response to that plan. That is detrimental not only to the education of those children and young people, but to the schools that are having to put in additional resources to try and cope with and support those young people. I would like to highlight those areas of concern, and obviously the catch-up fund. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the catch-up fund—when it will be reviewed and whether there will be flexibility to provide additional funding for that catch-up as we know and understand the needs of our young people over the next year. Thank you.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, for the first time as far as I am concerned. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing the debate. Education does lie at the heart of our national mission as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Helping children to catch up on the time that they lost as we took action to stem the spread of coronavirus is critical, not only for this generation of schoolchildren but for the economic and social health of the nation. It is thanks to the outstanding efforts of our teachers and staff that pupils are continuing to receive the education and opportunities they deserve in the face of this pandemic.
The Government have been clear that pupils in all year groups, and from all types of school, should return to school full time from the beginning of the autumn term. Figures show that, as at 1 October, 99.8% of schools were open and 92% were open to all their pupils. Over 7 million children and young people are back in school, representing 90% of pupils across the country. I am delighted to hear from the hon. Member for Harrow West that the return to school in Harrow has gone relatively well too. We continue to do everything in our power to ensure that every child can be back in their classroom safely, as that is the best place for them to be for their education, development and wellbeing. The Department has published detailed guidance to support schools to implement protective measures that are endorsed by Public Health England and fully informed by evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Schools will have access to testing, PPE and advice from their local health protection team where needed.
The Government are supporting schools during the coronavirus outbreak and we are delivering the biggest funding boost in a decade, which is giving every school more money for every child. We are increasing core schools funding by £2.6 billion this year, and £4.8 billion and £7.1 billion by 2021-22 and 2022-23 respectively, compared with 2019-20, including additional funding specifically for children with special educational needs and disabilities. On top of that, we are providing £1.5 billion per year to fund additional pension costs for teachers, contrary to what the hon. Member for Harrow West said in his opening remarks. Overall, that will bring the schools budget to £52.2 billion a year by 2022-23. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said—in a report other parts of which were quoted by the hon. Member for Harrow West—that investment will broadly restore schools funding to previous levels in real terms per pupil by 2023.
On special needs funding, high needs funding has increased by nearly 25% over these two years—a rise of £780 million this year and £730 million next year—bringing total high-needs funding to £8 billion. We understand the pressures that schools and local authorities are facing with high-needs and special needs costs, which is why we have introduced such large increases, particularly large increases in the special needs budget. The hon. Member for Harrow West asked about the spending review. That is happening as we speak, so I cannot say what will be in it, but this is a priority for this Government, as we have seen from these two years of spending.
We need to acknowledge that every child and young person in the country has experienced unprecedented disruption to their education as a result of coronavirus, and those from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds will be among those hardest-hit. We are hugely concerned about that as a Government, as are the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). That is why, on top of that £2.6 billion increase in this year’s schools budget, the Government are providing a package of additional support worth £1 billion to ensure that schools can help children make up for lost teaching time, recognising the additional work that schools will need to do to help students catch up. Of that package, £650 million is being provided in the form of a universal catch-up premium for schools. The grant recognises that every young person has lost time in education as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. That £650 million—£80 for every child in a mainstream school and £240 per pupil in a special school—will be delivered in three tranches across this academic year.
It is likely that disadvantaged and vulnerable children will have been hit hardest by this outbreak. That is why we have also launched the national tutoring programme, to provide additional targeted support for those children and young people who need the most support to catch up—one-to-one and small group tuition. We have also been providing additional funding to schools on top of existing budgets, in order to cover unavoidable costs incurred between March and July due to the covid-19 outbreak that could not be met from those schools’ budgets. Schools were eligible to claim for increased premises costs associated with keeping schools open over the Easter and summer half-term holidays, support for free school meals for eligible children who were not in school and where schools were not using the national voucher scheme, and additional cleaning costs incurred due to confirmed or suspected covid-19 cases, over and above the cost of existing cleaning. Schools have already received initial payments of £58 million in respect of their claims against those expenses, and those payments have been made to schools that claimed only against their standard expenditure categories. Some schools have made claims outside their standard categories, and we are assessing those claims. If we decide that they are eligible, they will be paid later in the autumn term.
The Government are committed to the continuation of high-quality education for all pupils, and to the ambition—shared by schools—of ensuring that everyone can catch up and reach their full potential. We have therefore invested over £100 million to support remote education, and have already delivered over 220,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children who would not otherwise have access, supporting those children to stay online and connected with their teachers during the summer term. Those laptops and tablets remain the property of the schools and local authorities, so that they can continue to be used to support education, and we are now supplementing that support by making available 250,000 additional laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children in years 3 to 11 in the event that face-to-face schooling is disrupted as a result of covid-19 outbreaks or local restrictions that mean that children become reliant on remote education.
The Department have also made £4.8 million available to Oak National Academy to provide video lessons, for reception up to year 11, for the last summer term and for this coming academic year. That will provide a resource to support teachers throughout this academic year, helping them to transition education from the classroom to online in the event of local restrictions. So we are working to support all children to return and start to reverse the enormous costs of missed education. This will be an important move back towards normal life for many children and families. We are extremely grateful for the exceptional efforts that teachers, headteachers and other school staff have been making to support their pupils during this very challenging period, and we know that we have the professional knowledge and expertise in our education system to ensure that pupils and students recover and get back on track. To help them do so, we are providing schools with the resources they need to get children back into the classroom safely and protect a generation of pupils from the disruption caused to their education by this pandemic.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Before we begin, I briefly remind Members that there are some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system, and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones before they use them and respect the one-way system around the room—that means you come down this side and out that way. Members should only speak from the horseshoe and they can speak only if they are on the call list. That applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. In the case of heavily oversubscribed debates, Members are not expected to wait for the wind-ups, but that is not the position we are in today.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered flooding in Staffordshire.
Storm Alex this weekend has been an all too timely reminder of the havoc that flooding can wreak. In January 2020, we saw some of the very worst flooding in Staffordshire for a century. The River Sow in Stafford burst its banks. Throughout my constituency, from Bishop’s Wood to Ranton, from Lapley to Hopton, my constituents have yet again suffered from flooding.
I am grateful to a number of Staffordshire colleagues for coming today to provide support on this important topic. I am sure they will provide numerous illustrations of how their constituents have also been impacted by flooding in Staffordshire.
Staffordshire has done more than its fair share of house building over the last few years. Increased development in Stafford is important, given its strategic location in the UK, but with that come consequences for residents. It is vital that our local infrastructure is able to cope. Increased surface run-off means that, over the last 20 years, homes that were never affected before have suffered from flooding, once-dry sports grounds are now regularly unusable due to being waterlogged, and local businesses are often left counting the cost due to floodwaters preventing them from opening, or destroying their goods. Something needs to be done to tackle these issues. I fear that if we do not act now, the situation regarding flooding in Staffordshire will only get worse.
The major problem in Staffordshire is who to call when your house starts to flood. We all know who to call when a crime is being committed, when someone falls ill or if there is a fire, but there appears to be no answer for flooding. There is literally no one available to answer that call. I have repeatedly had constituents calling me and my constituency office, often at midnight, as water has been pouring into their homes and there is no one to help. It is simply not good enough. I am urging the Government today to create an emergency three-digit flood phone number—for example, 555— that everyone in our country knows to call if they are experiencing a flood emergency.
We already have the technology available. It could work like the 101 number that puts people through to their local police force. In this instance, it would put my constituents in touch with someone in Staffordshire who is able to help them with their flooding situation. The emergency flood phone number should run 24/7, because flooding is an emergency. When water is pouring through your letterbox in the middle of the night, the place where you live, your livelihood and even your life could be risk.
That brings me to another question that, frankly, the Government need to answer. It appears to be a very simple question: who is the lead authority responsible for flooding? Many agencies are involved with handling flooding, but when I speak to them, none seems keen to take overall responsibility. That is not good enough for residents.
Let me give an example from my constituency. Tixall Road was flooded for nearly a month and no agency sorted it out. The main roads from Great Haywood and Little Haywood were blocked due to floodwater; residents told me they had to go on a detour of many miles and it cost local businesses, such as the Canalside Farm shop whose customers come from far and wide, a huge amount of money.
What was I told when I tried to find help for my constituents? The agency responsible for the road said it could not deal with it because it “wasn’t their water,” as the water had come from a field. That is just one of numerous examples of the complete lack of joined-up thinking in relation to flooding, and I am sure the House will hear more examples from my colleagues in their speeches this afternoon.
Of course, I called all the different agencies that are meant to help with flooding but no one was willing to move the water on Tixall Road, and all gave me a different reason why it was not their problem. But it was a problem; the weeks went on and the villagers still could not get on with their lives. They were still cut off by floodwater, farmers’ crops were being destroyed in the fields and local businesses were suffering. The only official response was that the police came along and closed the road. I agree that that was necessary in the short term, but shutting the road did not solve the fundamental problem that it was still flooded and no one could use it. In the end, the residents had to remove the water at their own expense. In my view, that should not have happened and they have been badly let down.
In order to try and find a solution to such problems, I held a flooding roundtable this summer with all the key stakeholders in Staffordshire. They all told me how seriously they take flooding, but not one of them was prepared to say that it was the lead flooding agency or to take responsibility for the specific examples that I gave. It was almost farcical. Let me make this clear: the situation regarding flooding in Staffordshire is not a joke, and this bureaucratic runaround is the same problem that my constituents face every day.
I said earlier that there was a need for a telephone line for constituents to call if they were experiencing flooding, but in tandem with that I am calling for a flood control centre, which is something that I have raised repeatedly, and which has significant local support in Staffordshire. We need a flood control centre with a real person at the end of that telephone number, in Stafford, who is able to do something to help my constituents. It is frankly not good enough for my constituents to have water pouring through their front door, and to call number after number and be sent from pillar to post, when all the while the water is rising and their home and possessions are being destroyed.
Even worse, I have been told by constituents that, on the rare occasions that someone has agreed to help them with flooding, when the agency has arrived it has informed residents that it cannot do anything because, “It is the wrong type of water.” I repeat—“It is the wrong type of water,” and the agency says it is not responsible for it. Another constituent told me they were informed by an agency that, “The water was in the wrong place for them to deal with it.” My constituent was well aware that the water was in the wrong place—it was in her living room.
I am sorry, but this situation is unacceptable. I do not believe that it is my constituents’ job to figure out where water is coming from or the type of water it is. What they want is to have a lead authority for flooding, an authority with statutory responsibility for helping people suffering from this problem—no ifs, no buts, just a lead authority to help them.
Thank you, Mr Hosie. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the system is too fragmented; to give an example from my constituency, parish councillor Mike Joynson in Halmer End reported exactly the same problem, but this time it was with developers—there was a dispute about whether it the utility company or the developers were involved. Again, if we had a single point of contact and people knew who was responsible, it would make it much better for people in both her constituency and mine.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The whole point of today’s debate is to say that creating an emergency three-digit telephone number would mean that all our constituents had a direct number to call in flooding emergencies, which would be linked to our Staffordshire flood control centre, and that having an agency with statutory responsibility for flooding would lessen the impact on our constituents.
We must also have a long-term plan to try to prevent people’s homes from being flooded in the first place. To give another example from my constituency, Sandon Road is flooded all too frequently. As rain begins to fall, it is always the Marston and Sandyford brooks that start to overflow and the water often floods into my constituents’ homes. I recently attended the Sandon Road residents’ meeting, where I was distressed to hear at first hand the impact that regular flooding is having on my constituents. I pay tribute to Councillor Jonathan Price for all his efforts to try to help the residents of Sandon Road.
I am very grateful for Government-supported schemes such as Flood Re, which provides insurance for constituents who would otherwise be unable to access it. It is a vital safety net and very helpful when the worst does happen. However, we should strive to do better. Insurance cannot prevent the fear of flooding that my constituents have every time it rains. Insurance cannot replace priceless items such as family photographs, and floods can often destroy and take away the lives of many of my constituents, with days, weeks or even—in many cases—months being blighted by the impact of their homes being flooded. I therefore believe we need to do more to stop water getting into people’s homes in the first place.
Councillor Price helpfully put out a letter to local residents in Stafford last week in which he said that he has arranged the delivery of sandbags in case of imminent danger of flooding. While that may slow down the water, I am afraid it will not stop it coming in eventually. That is the crux of the problem. While it is vital that we continue to provide short-term emergency support for residents affected by flooding, that will only be truly successful for the residents of Sandon Road and elsewhere in Stafford if it is accompanied by properly funded long-term measures.
I welcome the Conservative party manifesto commitment to £4 billion in new funding over the coming years for new developments as part of a £100 billion investment in infrastructure. I was also pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirm in March that the Government will honour that commitment and spend £4 billion on flood defences over the next five years. Agencies have told me repeatedly that they do not have the funding to maintain and improve the waterways in Staffordshire to combat flooding effectively, so I look forward to working with the Minister and the Department constructively to see how some of that funding can be used to tackle the significant problems in Staffordshire.
I believe that, having left the European Union, the Government have a great part to play in promoting the role of farmers and landowners in preventing residential flooding. We should encourage our farmers to protect land, improve access to the countryside and take measures to prevent residential flooding. Farmers in Stafford should be congratulated on the work they are already doing in this area. I recently visited farmland in my constituency that is very prone to flooding, which has been replanted with willow trees. The area has become a thriving sanctuary for wildlife. I urge the Minister to investigate making such schemes more attractive to farmers, to allow compensation for some of their land to be flooded and to ensure that we can encourage nature as well as protecting homes.
The impacts of climate change will mean that, unfortunately, there will be an increase in both the severity and frequency of flooding in Staffordshire in the future. It is therefore vital that we have robust plans in place to deal with flooding not only over the next year but for the next decade, and to look to the future.
I am afraid that, when we try to look up the true picture of what is going on with flooding in Staffordshire, it is very hard to find out. I have welcomed the Government’s reviews into flood risk management and flooding, but it has been difficult to find a clear picture of the impact of flooding today. The people of Staffordshire completely understand that the Government do not have the power to control mother nature and that they cannot expect the Government to stop the rain from falling or the rivers Penk and Sow from flooding. However, they are asking for our help. They want help to know who exactly to call when water is pouring through their front doors, help to encourage and properly compensate farmers whose land is being submerged by flood waters in order to protect their neighbours’ homes, and help to fund flood management schemes to ensure that no one in Staffordshire lives in fear that one bad spell of rain could leave their house or their family home destroyed.
I am not demanding the impossible from the Minister. I do not expect her and DEFRA to hold back the tide, but I am asking for the measures I have outlined to be implemented to help us to tackle flooding and level up the country so that whether someone lives in Westminster or Stafford, they will know that the Government are doing their best to protect them, their family and their home from the devastating effects of flooding.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this important debate, and sympathise with the difficulties she and her constituents have experienced.
As Members know, 2020 has not been a great year. We started with the wettest January and February on record, with catastrophic results for many people as their homes and businesses suffered horrendous flooding. My own experience is slightly more positive than that of my hon. Friend; I felt that when severe flood warnings were in place, the stakeholders involved worked well together to keep the public safe, preparing for an emergency response, if needed, and keeping me updated as matters progressed. As grateful as I am for their support during those tense nights when we waited to see if flood defences would breach, I think much more work needs to be done all year round, not just as an emergency response.
The flood defences held in Burton town centre, but in villages, such as Marchington and Rolleston on Dove, residents were not so lucky. Following storm Dennis in February, I visited the village of Marchington. I met with parish council representatives and residents who, time and again, have battled with flooding. They have bought their own sandbags and prepared their own flood defences. One constituent told me she was woken by a flood warning alert at 3am and, upon looking out of her window, was already surrounded by a foot of water. Even though she had spent £1,000 on flood barriers, water was starting to enter the back of her property.
Residents and the parish council have worked tirelessly to set up a flood warning scheme that would allow them to close the road through the village and minimise the flood damage caused to surrounding homes. Some 18 months on, that flood warning scheme is still not in place. Bureaucracy seems to stop progress at every level. I urge the Minister to look at what we can do to support the flood warning scheme and ensure that communities get the training and support they need, in order to implement these measures and protect their villages.
For those who have not suffered the horrors of having their homes flooded, it is not a case of just needing to get rid of the water afterwards. The flood water contains all the dirt and grime that has been collecting in the drains, which brings me to the second issue I would like to raise—the ongoing maintenance needed for drains and gullies.
In another area in my constituency, Branston, there are streets that flood with the lightest of rainfall. The local authority works hard to ensure regular drain cleaning, but in July this year silt levels in Branston were at 60%. Regular jetting did not work and the council had to bring in expensive, specialist equipment to clear the drains. Can we look at what further support our local authorities need in order to provide regular drain clearing and equipment to undertake that work?
We also need to find a way to ensure all those with responsibility for drainage are playing their part in its upkeep, whether it is housing developers, highways teams, the local authority or water companies. We must ensure that we are regularly inspecting, repairing and renewing the existing infrastructure, so that our communities have the best possible chance to withstand flooding from heavy rainfall. These long-term cross-departmental projects seem to be where the projects stall, much to the frustration of constituents.
I started by saying that 2020 has not been a good year. After the flooding in January and February, I am not sure we would have expected to go straight into a pandemic. Our emergency response teams across many services have been stretched to their limits and I am grateful for their ongoing dedication and support. It is quite possible that going into 2021, we may have to respond to severe floods while operating under the restrictions that coronavirus brings. I urge the Minister to ensure plans are put in place to consider how responses may need to differ this year, with particular households with vulnerable people and those who may be shielding.
I hope the strategic coordinating group in Staffordshire, which supported residents unfailingly at the start of this year, has been given the tools it needs to continue that support throughout the coming months.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for securing the debate.
It has to be said that although I am an MP in Staffordshire, we are the most hilly bit of the county, as the name of my constituency might suggest. In many ways I feel a slight fraud for standing here and taking part in the debate when I know many of my colleagues have such dreadful, systemic problems with flooding. On the whole, we in the Moorlands tend to create the water and send it to them, and I therefore feel a bit guilty about that. That is not to say that we do not have some areas of significant flooding; I have residents who suffer enormously with flooding in their homes whenever there is even the slightest rainfall. On the whole, however, the Moorlands is home to the heads of the Rivers Trent and Dove. We have the heads of many brooks and streams, which all feed into the big rivers. I am afraid that they feed into the back gardens and roadways of many of my hon. Friends present, and I have great sympathy with them.
I will touch quickly on some of my local issues. There are some very specific issues in the Moorlands. I want to raise the matter of the village of Endon, which is on the main A53 road between Leek in the centre of my constituency and Stoke-on-Trent. Endon is at the bottom of the valley and therefore suffers from flooding. I was due to visit and see the work that the locals were doing and what support they needed, but unfortunately lockdown happened and we have not yet been able to find an opportunity for a physical meeting. I want to go and see my residents there and find out what is happening and what we can do to help. The idea that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has for an individual phone number is very good, and I know lots of people in Endon would welcome that.
There are newbuild homes in the Moorlands, and some of them have been built on floodplains. Looking at the topography of the Moorlands, it might seem extraordinary to think that there might be floodplains, but there are. Homeowners in the area really suffer, and I urge the Environment Agency and others to work really hard whenever there is contact from those homeowners, to make sure that they have the protection they need.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths) about drains and gullies. There is no doubt that the proper cleaning of drains and gullies would stop many of the problems. The fact that I am starting to see such problems in the Moorlands tells me that we really need to deal with this issue at source.
My final point is about what we can do in the Moorlands to help our work on flood defences. I have visited many of the examples of natural flood defences, including Tittesworth reservoir, just inside the Peak District national park, where Severn Trent Water has been putting in special watercourses, woodland areas and log chicanes in order to slow the water down and to try to stop the flood risk further downstream. Likewise, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust does incredible work. I was at Gun hill—anyone who does cycling will know the Gun hill climb on the Tour of Britain. Right at the top of Gun hill, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust is ensuring that rewilding happens and that protection of the natural peat bogs is maintained, so that the flood defences are the best they can be and are sustainable.
I have to mention that we had a dreadful fire on the Roaches a couple of years ago, which was the result of a barbeque that was left during very dry weather. It caused absolute devastation. It was not just devastation for the wildlife in that area; it was the impact on the peat that really will affect my hon. Friends’ constituencies. I fear that the damage that was done will be very long lasting, but Staffordshire Wildlife Trust is doing great work to repair that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on securing the debate. I support her idea for a phoneline, and I hope that the Minister can take account of the natural flood defences that we can introduce and help to support the Wildlife Trust and others to do the best they can with that.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this important debate, and I absolutely endorse what she says.
Last year’s floods were terrible right across the north midlands, sometimes with long-lasting effects. While campaigning for the general election, I met residents in Fonthill Walk in my constituency who suffered severe run- off flooding from Hulton Abbey park. I raised this issue with the council, which I am glad to say has undertaken work to improve drainage around the bungalows and the pool that is supposed to prevent flooding in the first place. Long-term damage, such as mould, was caused to their properties, and residents felt forgotten.
Keeping existing flood defences working needs constant attention. This includes the drains, of course. Even in the highest elevated part of my constituency at Bagnall Road, there is a problem with water not draining away. Too often, we see the drains are full and too often there is a tussle over whose responsibility it is to unblock them. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley).
In Joiners Square, a Mr Mandley has had to put steel supports under his house because a broken drain has swept foundations away. To make it worse, he has been told that, because Severn Trent did not admit responsibility soon enough, he has no recourse to compensation. Six years have elapsed—that cannot be right. I will raise this case directly with the Minister. Mr Mandley has been told his house is now uninsurable.
It could be so much better, and I am increasingly confident that it will be. The River Trent runs through my constituency and work is at last under way to let people know that it is there. For years, the Trent has generally been hidden away when it should have been one of Stoke-on-Trent’s greatest assets. It has been engineered into concrete channels and culverts, but it is sometimes fenced off and overgrown. That has exacerbated flooding from time to time, not just from the Trent, but from various brooks that have likewise been channelled through concrete.
Floods can leave behind some very nasty things. I know of cases of toilet waste, used sanitary products and even a used syringe. There is also a problem with Himalayan balsam invading more and more of the city along water courses and flood plains, crowding out natural flora.
The more of the concrete engineering we can remove, the less of a problem there will be, making our beautiful waterways a visible asset to the city and increasing its appeal. At Boothen, the old Stoke City football ground—the Victoria ground—has been transformed into much needed housing. This has given us the opportunity to re-channel and rewild the Trent there. BBC Countryfile featured the project the other week as an exemplar of bringing the countryside, wildlife and biodiversity back into urban space. It is a hugely exciting flood prevention project offering so much more than flood prevention.
At Etruria, a shovel-ready link road has this month seen shovels hit the ground as part of a multi-million pound Department for Transport and Stoke-on-Trent City Council scheme to improve the Fowlea brook with 100 trees planted along it for flood prevention purposes, which will also make a nice walk. Further down from the Fowlea brook, in the historic centre of Stoke town, I am delighted that the Environment Agency is funding flood prevention works that will protect 300 properties and allow 300 more to be built. This will keep the town and the Spode works, an increasingly important tourism and arts destination, open and far less vulnerable to floods. It is wider benefits such as this that build public support for costly flood prevention measures beyond the residents affected by the floods, nearly 200 of whom currently benefit from the Flood Re insurance scheme.
At Bucknall park, one of the few places where people can already walk around the Trent in Stoke-on-Trent, the footpath is partly lower than the grass on either side of it, so it readily floods. It has been suggested that the lower part of the park be made into a water meadow, so raising the path or building a boardwalk would be necessary to accommodate the many residents who use the lower park walking route, not least for walking their dogs. It could be both beautiful and useful if got right, and would help to win support for the SUNRISE project’s proposal for a permanent water meadow.
To conclude, the water courses of Stoke-on-Trent are gradually being reengineered so that they are a source of enjoyment for all in the future, not, as now, a source of worry for the few. The meandering Trent and the lush floodplain in the centre of my constituency are both beautiful and oddly unknown, but things are getting better. By getting it right in Stoke on Trent, we will make it better down valley for the rest of Staffordshire too.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. It is also a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) who was with me at the opening ceremony for the Etruria valley link road the other day, which will increase the links between her constituency and mine to the mutual benefit of all our constituents.
I congratulate the other Members who spoke, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), who secured this debate. She is a doughty champion for her constituents in Stafford. As she said, too often residents across Staffordshire are passed from pillar to post, frequently between the council and the water authority, and they are supposed to somehow referee between the authorities. It should not be for them to do that. It often falls to us to do it, and we are happy to. Our constituency staff teams do a great job, but it really should not be for them, either. There should be a solution put in place, and I know the Minister will respond to that.
Over recent months, I have been contacted by constituents whose properties have been flooded as a result of heavy rainfall, capacity issues in the sewers and blocked gullies. In most cases it appears to me that the main cause of blocked gullies is not debris, although that is sometimes the case, but tree roots. Sneyd Avenue in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme is a clear example of that. Owing to a culmination of capacity issues and blocked gullies, residents of Sneyd Avenue have experienced serious flooding for several years. One constituent who has lived there since 1982 says that it is getting increasingly worse.
Following hydraulic modelling undertaken by Severn Trent Water, for which I thank it, it was identified that six properties are at risk of being flooded once every two years as a result of water capacity issues. Severn Trent had previously uncovered a taproot in the drainage system that required a precision cut to be removed. Tree root ingress is a main cause of blocked drains, pipes and sewerage systems in the UK. It is common for fine tree roots to gain access to the drainage system, and once inside they develop into taproots and root masses. That is what comes through to me in my constituents’ correspondence.
Staffordshire County Council is responsible for the highway drains. I know that it routinely cleans the gullies, based on the road classifications, but there is also a need for improved management and preventive measures with regard to the tree roots. For instance, CCTV drain inspections can identify drainpipes that are in close proximity to trees and hedges before a serious problem, such as root ingress, develops.
Flooding in Newcastle-under-Lyme appears to occur most frequently in the residential suburbs to the south of the town centre in areas such as Clayton, the Westlands, and Thistleberry. Many of the streets in those areas, such as Sneyd Avenue and Howard Place, are lined with trees, and therefore the tree roots are likely a contributing factor.
Earlier this year, on 12 August, communities across north Staffordshire experienced widespread flooding after scorching temperatures led to very heavy rain and thunderstorms. It led to some of the worst flooding that residents had seen. Together with the local borough and county councillor for Newcastle South, Mr Stephen Sweeney, I went to see residents of Lincoln Avenue in Clayton to see for myself the damage caused.
Lincoln Avenue rises gently uphill in both directions from the centre of the road, and the houses in the dip have long been plagued by flooding during heavy thunder- storms. Severn Trent addressed the issue approximately 15 years ago, but unfortunately the issue is now back and I can see for myself the damage caused. Again, it seems that tree roots are the issue. My constituents certainly believe that and have been advised of it by people who know about such things. I am pleased to report that Severn Trent has responded to me and undertaken to survey the local sewerage network.
I understand how disruptive floods are. I have heard about the awful cases in Burton and Stafford, although not so much in the Moorlands, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who is no longer here. I entirely appreciate the frustrations of all the constituents whose properties have been flooded, especially when it has happened on multiple occasions. In one case in my constituency, an elderly constituent could not return to her home for several months, and still has concerns about it flooding once again.
As the winter months approach, it is vital that Severn Trent Water and Staffordshire County Council work together to alleviate the significant disruption caused by flooding. They should employ the appropriate technology, such as hydraulic monitoring and CCTV drain inspections. I look forward to working with all my colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, who secured this debate, to find a solution to the problem.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for securing this important debate because my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, and Kidsgrove and Talke, is fortunate to be close to the sources of several rivers, brooks and streams. Although my constituency does not have mighty torrents running through it, it is by no means immune to flooding.
Through Norton Green runs the canal feeder to the Caldon canal and the River Trent. The river is hardly dredged. The canal feeder is man-made and beset with historical issues and when it rains, both flood: a double hit to the village of Norton Green. The river is the responsibility of the Environment Agency, and the canal feeder is the responsibility of Severn Trent Water: two agencies that, if they co-ordinated their work, could help alleviate the problem that my constituents face in Norton Green when it rains.
The houses in between the river and canal feeder are regularly cut off on an island of their very own when the Trent and the feeder flood the only roads to the village. I must give credit to the residents of Norton Green who pull together, and to the three local councillors, Dave Evans, James Smith and Carl Edwards, as they lend a hand to bail water out of the village.
Further downriver, properties and families who live on the strategic A53 Leek Road, which connects the major settlements of north Staffordshire, regularly face flooding. The road is not on a floodplain—it is relatively high up—but water drainage from the road runs into the River Trent; when the river levels increase, it backs up the drainage and floods the road, cutting the main arterial route connecting Newcastle, Stoke and Leek.
Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths), I highlight two examples of my constituents tackling flooding caused by poor drainage. First, Mr David Barber contacted my team pleading for something to be done about flooding on The Avenue in Kidsgrove, which runs down his neighbour’s property and obstructs pedestrians, including schoolchildren, with ankle-deep water. An investigative team from the council was sent out and discovered a severe blockage in the drains on both sides of the road. Repairs are finally being made, but the stress it caused residents is extremely unwelcome.
Similarly, Mr Amrik Rai has been battling poor drainage for the past 12 years, with his home being severely flooded twice over that period. The family is consumed by worry every time it starts to rain. Councillors in my patch have been fighting for Severn Trent Water to undertake work to link storm pipes, to prevent the overloading of single pipes during heavy rainfall years. Like Amrik, residents of Braithwell Drive have been fighting localised flooding due to poor drain management for more than a decade.
Staffordshire County Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council continue to face funding pressures, meaning that routine maintenance of gullies and highway drainage is less regular than it used to be. Across Stoke-on-Trent, though, £4.2 million from various partners is being spent on flood alleviation schemes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) referred to, including on redirecting the River Trent downstream in the neighbouring constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, which will benefit floodplains upstream in my constituency.
Locally, we suffer from a Victorian drainage network, underfunded and over capacity. Clarity is needed as to which authority, agency or company is responsible for what drainage. Disputes between Severn Trent Water and local councils in Staffordshire over responsibility for drains and ditches take years to resolve, but the actual work needed to alleviate the flooding takes only days to carry out. There is something wrong when it takes longer to establish who is responsible for the works than the time it takes to carry out needed improvements. We need to adjust the priority given to everyday maintenance and drainage of rivers and amend the gap in everyday funding for such essential services.
I am not a Staffordshire MP—I am from Shropshire—but I join the debate because it is obviously a great pleasure to support our friends and neighbours across the border. Shropshire and Staffordshire are very much interdependent. Many people have businesses or homes on both sides of the border; as I say, we are mutually interdependent.
A caucus of 44 Members is campaigning on flooding from the River Severn, the longest river in the United Kingdom. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) has joined that caucus. She realises that the River Severn’s continuous flooding has a deleterious impact on her county as well as mine. We have received £40 million of investment for a more holistic management of the river going forward—the operative word being “holistic”. For far too long, we have depended on small, ad hoc, piecemeal flood barriers that protect a small number of properties and push the problem further downstream. For the first time ever, Members of Parliament are working across a whole region and a whole river, with DEFRA, to come up with solutions to holistically manage these rivers, because the economic consequences for all of us and our constituents, in terms of lost business, the inability of companies to get insurance and the devastation caused to residents, is something that many constituents will no longer tolerate.
I am meeting the head of the River Severn Partnership, Mark Barrow, on Saturday to evaluate where we are and how we have spent the £40 million to date. I will continue to lobby the Minister and keep her informed about how this money is being spent and what additional resources we will require for the River Severn partnership. We have also invited the Minister to visit the River Severn; I very much hope that she and her officials will find time to do so later in the year. Many constituents are already worried about what will happen this winter, and how their homes will be affected by flooding. The investments, although they are extremely welcome, will take time to implement and to bed down.
I want to end by praising the Minister. She has been absolutely on the ball and attentive. She has engaged extremely well with the River Severn partnership, the council and officials. I do not envy her the position that she has, given its responsibility for something that has, historically, brought so much misery and devastation to so many large parts of the United Kingdom. I have every confidence that she and her officials are doing everything possible to ensure that the massive, multi-billion pound investment announced by the Government will be spent in the most erudite and cost-effective way. I look forward to working with the Minister, and also our friends and neighbours in Staffordshire, on a cross-party and regional basis, to make sure that such an important part of the west midlands will be protected more effectively.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for securing this important debate. She spoke passionately on behalf of her constituents, calling for the creation of a flood control centre in Stafford to co-ordinate the responses to flooding. It is an excellent idea. A joined-up approach is required to manage flood risk and co-ordinate multi-agency flood responses.
Labour is calling on the Government to protect at-risk homes and businesses now. The climate crisis, surprisingly, has not been mentioned in the debate but it means that flood events will only become more frequent and severe. It is not enough to stand in wellies in front of TV cameras and commit to action. Flood-hit communities want deeds, not words.
I begin by paying tribute to our emergency services and first responders, who work so hard to protect us and are often first on the scene to deal with crises. As hon. Members have mentioned, residents too often do not know who to call, and that becomes incredibly frustrating. That came up throughout the debate. The hon. Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths) spoke about support for a flood warning scheme, and the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who is no longer in her place, outlined how water and flooding affect many areas of the country and do not respect or follow boundaries.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) raised important issues about flood insurance and the difficulties that residents can face in insuring their homes. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) spoke about the increased frequency of flood events, and the fact that those are becoming more of a problem as they happen more often. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) rightly paid tribute to residents pulling together to respond to devastating local floods, and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) spoke about how all our areas are interdependent. That is absolutely right.
As hon. Members have stated, constituents’ businesses across the country—not least in Staffordshire—have been badly affected by flooding. Many people’s lives and businesses have been turned upside down, and we need adequately funded prevention schemes. For every £1 spent on flood defence and prevention, £5 in property damage is avoided. Such damage has been felt repeatedly in Staffordshire over the years. The flooding there late last year and more recently in August resulted in hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage to listed buildings, as well as to residents’ homes and businesses, as we have heard today. I know that Staffordshire Members have been making the case for further flood mitigation schemes and a more co-ordinated approach to respond to those crises. I agree with their concerns and must ask why the Government are not engaging with all areas and voices to build a long-term plan that addresses their concerns.
Local authorities work on the frontline during flood events to protect homes and businesses. Yet under the present Government the capacity of councils across the country has been decimated by a lack of funding and support. My local council has faced the biggest cuts in the country, and there has been a 40% reduction in its day-to-day spending in the past 10 years.
Despite that, it worked hard to respond quickly to November’s floods, which left 89 homes in Barnsley with flood damage. However, our councils need adequate resources to deliver their services and to ensure that they have the capacity that they need to react to flood events to the best of their ability and to support residents. I welcome the action taken by Staffordshire County Council to improve its road network and to fix problem drains and gullies to prevent future flooding. That matter was discussed quite widely in the debate.
It must be noted, however, that the Conservative councillor responsible for highways and transport spoke last month about the pressures on public finances and the impact on the council’s ability to maintain Staffordshire’s road network. In August, the Express & Star newspaper reported that the Environment Agency did not have the funds required to protect Sandon Road, where homes and businesses have been flooded several times over the last few years. Flood defence works would cost £2 million; the Environment Agency has £400,000 available.
I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion by asking the Minister to address some points raised during the debate. How will the Government ensure that all regional voices, including those in Staffordshire, are listened to? It was only last week that the Government gave a date for the long-awaited South Yorkshire flooding summit, which was promised back in November, so how will Ministers ensure that Members of this House do not face the same difficulty that I had in attempting to secure that summit? As I have this opportunity, I would like to press the Minister to set a date for all future Yorkshire-wide and Staffordshire flood summits, which I think the Government should hold. In the case of Yorkshire, they did commit to it in writing, so I think we should have that in Yorkshire and we should get a date, but I also think that it would be a very worthwhile thing for the Staffordshire region. We need more local control over decision making relating to flood risk protection or funding, because for too long Whitehall has sidelined regional and local stakeholders.
What are the Government doing to improve access to affordable insurance for homes at risk of flooding, and will they commit to acting on the recommendations of the Blanc review on affordable cover? After reading posts for the Stafford Borough Flooding Support and Action Group and the Help for the Victims of the Sandon Road Flooding group on Facebook, I am concerned that many reported difficulty in insuring their homes and properties.
Finally, what are the Government doing to ensure that responses to flooding are co-ordinated across agencies, regulators and local government bodies, so that flooding solutions do not merely shift the problem from one place to another? This has been discussed in the debate today. We need catchment-wide planning that makes use of natural flood management measures now, to deal with the challenges brought on by the climate change crisis. Whether in Barnsley or Staffordshire, our communities feel forgotten and they have been left to face increasing flood risk without the means to protect themselves. The homes and livelihoods of people from our communities will continue to be at risk unless a fully funded long-term plan is agreed, so I will conclude, as many other speakers in the debate have done, by urging action now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your auspices, Mr Hosie. This is my first time back in Westminster Hall, so I think this is quite an event for us all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this really important debate. She has been an assiduous proponent on behalf of her constituents, which is the right thing to do as the MP representing her area. She has bent my ear many times, it must be said, on some of the issues that she has talked about today.
I thank all hon. Friends and the shadow Minister for taking part in the debate, and showing a really strong and concerted effort on behalf of Staffordshire. I think that it demonstrates that, far from the regions not being listened to, we do listen to the regions in government. I think that our Severn colleagues would reiterate that, given the work that we have jointly all done for the Severn valley before.
In February this year, Storm Dennis brought more than 40 mm of rain in 24 hours. That deluge of rainfall over a short period caused 181 properties to flood in Staffordshire. Flooding affected properties, shops, homes, transport networks, towns, including Burton, Stafford and Rugeley, and the villages of Barton, Marchington, Handsacre, Hinksford, Rolleston and Yoxall.
I know that my hon. Friend has held a number of meetings with local residents about the impacts of the flooding. I know also that this summer she hosted a flooding roundtable with key constituents to raise these issues. I know that Staffordshire has suffered, but I do want to say that of course the Government are absolutely committed, as is the EA, to combating flooding. Flood and coastal risk management is a very high priority for Government.
We know of course that flooding has a severe impact on communities, individuals and shops. I know that from my own experience in Somerset, where we have had terrible flooding over the years. However, I am pleased to assure my hon. Friend that the existing flood defences across Staffordshire already protect 25,000 properties, and did so during the winter floods; that figure includes 4,555 in Burton-on-Trent alone.
Over the current six-year investment period, which runs to 2021, we will spend £40 million to better protect 5,500 properties from flooding, and this sum includes £37 million of direct central Government funding. We expect over the next investment period, which runs from 2021 to 2027, to invest a further £26 million, of which £24 million will be funds from central Government, and that investment will better protect over 3,000 more properties in Staffordshire from flooding. These last figures that I have just given all relate to Staffordshire, so the Government are certainly committed to providing funding in Staffordshire.
In addition to this investment in new defences, I am pleased to assure my hon. Friend that Staffordshire has also benefited from a proportion of the £120 million of recovery funding awarded by HM Treasury to repair assets damaged by the 2019 winter floods. Approximately £160,000 has been allocated to projects in Staffordshire, including on floodbank repair in Marchington, which I believe is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths), on repairing flood warning telemetry at Coven, and on removing deposited silt and stone from a channel in Yoxall.
I will expand a little on some of the successful schemes. Phase 2 of the Burton-on-Trent scheme, which is the largest investment project in Staffordshire, is under construction. It will reduce flood risk for 4,555 homes and 1,000 businesses, and it will upgrade 3.7 km of existing defences. The scheme is expected to be completed in February 2021. During the February 2020 floods, the scheme continued to protect homes and worked perfectly, even during construction. I think that we can be proud of all the work that has been going on there.
In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned the funding of, and her support for, natural flood defences. The Government are very committed to such schemes. A project that both the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency are involved with was cited by my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who has now departed from Westminster Hall, among others. Through the new environmental land management scheme that is coming in now that we are leaving the EU, we anticipate that natural flood management will be one of the public goods that can be paid for and delivered by our farmers to help to tackle flooding. It will deliver lots of other public benefits, but it will help to tackle flooding, so I am pleased that hon. Members have raised the issue of natural flood defences.
Of course, there are still challenges and lots of those challenges have been mentioned by hon. Friends today. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned Sandyford brook and the issues there, which in October 2019, I think, affected 50 homes. I understand that the brook is a confined channel running through a densely populated area. A preliminary economic analysis has suggested a cost in the region of £2 million for that scheme, and it would provide economic benefits to the area of around £4.5 million. However, delivery will be dependent on sufficient partnership funding contributions being available, as the scheme would only be eligible for £400,000 of flood defence grant in aid under the updated partnership funding rules. I understand that the Environment Agency has been in negotiations with a potential contributor, but further negotiations are required.
I also wanted to say, because lots of colleagues have mentioned it, that the EA aims to finalise a delivery plan this autumn—autumn, going into winter—and to set up strategic delivery groups, as an opportunity to encourage local flood resilience forum partners to help deliver key activities, such as on highways issues, planning permissions and community support.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend supports the significant amount of money that the Government are pouring into flooding and flood defences. Our new £5.2 billion capital programme will continue to be allocated in accordance with DEFRA’s partnership funding policy. It is my duty as Floods Minister—I take the responsibility very seriously—to take a national perspective on flood risk management and to ensure that the available funding is fairly and consistently distributed. Although I appreciate that there can be challenges in securing the partnership funding, it would be contrary to the aims of the partnership funding policy for DEFRA to fill funding gaps for individual projects, and we have made no provision to do so.
I want to touch on my hon. Friend’s one-stop shop suggestion. I listened to her with great interest, and I definitely encourage her to continue to engage with at local level with the EA and any relevant risk management authorities. I know that we have seen successful collaborative working of this kind elsewhere in the country, particularly in the Calder valley, where the eyeoncalderdale.com website provides a one-stop shop for flood information. Clearly, solutions of this kind need to work for the community and one cannot use the same approach everywhere. I urge my hon. Friend to go and meet colleagues there in order to learn lessons from them.
Similarly, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for his input and his kind words. There are lessons to be learned from what is being done in the Severn valley, and that partnership working will be invaluable as we go forward.
I want to touch on a couple of other issues that have been raised. The issue of blocked drains was mentioned by a number of colleagues, including my hon. Friends the Members for Burton and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). In August we published an independent review into surface water and drainage responsibilities, which looked at some of the complexities of determining responsibility for surface water and drainage assets. The Government have already accepted a number of recommendations from that review, including new measures to strengthen partnership working.
We are also implementing the 22 actions set out in the surface water management plan in order to improve understanding and to strengthen actions to reduce surface water where it impacts on drains. That links to the issue of who takes responsibility for what water, where and when. There seems to be a lot of angst about that, but the local sewerage network is the responsibility of the local water company. It is a risk management authority, and the Floods and Water Management Act 2010 sets out a duty to co-operate with other risk management authorities to manage flood risk, so that is for the water companies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) touched on tree roots. He is doing exactly the right thing by getting in contact with the water company, because it is largely a local issue. I am nearing the end of my speech, but, to link to the one-stop shop suggestion, the EA runs a comprehensive flood warning system that works 24 hours a day non-stop, and 1.4 million properties are signed up to that free service. We also have a really comprehensive flood forecasting centre that is improving its services all the time.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford for securing the debate. She raised many important and interesting issues, but I hope it is clear that the Government are absolutely committed to tackling flooding and the terrible issues that people and communities face. We have upped all the funding towards that. However, if my hon. Friends have any other issues that they would like to discuss with me, they know that my door is always open.
I thank the Minister for taking the time to respond to this important debate and all my Staffordshire colleagues for their support, as well as our neighbour from Shrewsbury. I hope the debate has demonstrated how important a problem and how Staffordshire-wide flooding is. I urge the Minister to reflect on what she has heard and implore her to make a lead agency to have statutory responsibility for flooding, to create a Stafford flood control centre that my constituents can contact on an emergency phone number 24/7 for them to receive help; and to ensure that we have sufficient Government funding. I urge the Government to make those changes as soon as possible to ensure that the people of Staffordshire no longer live in fear of flooding.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered flooding in Staffordshire.