Monday 12 October 2020
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: First Report of the Education Committee, Getting the grades they’ve earned: Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and ‘calculated’ grades, HC 617; Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 2 September 2020, on The impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services, HC 254; Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 16 September 2020, on Accountability hearings, HC 262.]
I remind Members that there have been 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 using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and should respect the one-way system around the Chamber. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members may speak only if they are on the call lists, and that applies even if debates are undersubscribed; Members may not join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for wind-ups. When there are more than 10 speakers, Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move on to the horseshoe when seats become available.
I also remind hon. Members that there is less expectation for them to stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken. That is to help manage attendance in the Chamber. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech but should be aware that, in doing so, they might prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats in the horseshoe—some of that is redundant, because no one is in the Public Gallery at the present time.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 306773 and 320772 relating to exams during Covid-19.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
This debate has been triggered by two petitions: one started by Jakia Ali to review the decision to use previous data to calculate exam grades, which received 148,880 signatures; and Rafia Hussain’s petition to reduce the curriculum content for years 10 and 12 students who will sit exams in 2021, which received 147,099 signatures. The debate is very timely today, in light of the Government’s written statement. In what has been a worrying time for everyone, and in spite of the furore over the summer about the exam results, many students still feel as if they have been abandoned in this crisis.
At the outset, I put on the record my thanks to all the students, parents and teachers who have had to deal with this unprecedented situation. Students have shown a resilience that has surprised many, and dealt with the impact of covid-19 better than the majority of adults I know. Having been a teacher myself, that did not surprise me, but I am proud of them all none the less. From now on, however, we must ensure that our students, our future generations, are supported properly in their efforts.
Since my name was announced as leading on this debate, a number of students have got in touch me with about how the uncertainty is affecting their mental health. The issue has much wider impacts for many of them: it could affect their entire life. Having spoken to the authors of the two petitions, listened to teachers and students and drawn on my own experience as a teacher, I am clear that clarity is paramount for everyone involved.
Today’s announcement from the Government will, I believe, do nothing to allay the fears of most students, parents and teachers. This Government are keen to say that they are “levelling up” the country, but this debacle has shown that they are not interested in helping the most disadvantaged pupils. That is what I find most striking.
All students lost five months of in-school teaching and, as we know, many of them have not had access to the internet or IT. Efforts to address that have not reached everyone. For the five months of missed school, students will now be given three weeks of extra time—I can hear the guffaws of my teacher friends in Wigan from where I am now.
As we face further uncertainty from a second wave of covid, those disadvantages could be further exacerbated. Far from levelling up, this is treading down students who do not have afforded to them all the advantages that the two thirds of the Cabinet who went to private school had.
Unlike the UK Government, the Welsh Government have commissioned an independent review into what happened with exams over the summer, which will look at what improvements can be made for next year. In the summer, when the A-level results came out and students and families were rightly upset, all I could think, as a parent of a child awaiting GCSE results, was, “It didn’t have to be like this.” Where was the debate? Where were the conversations with students, teachers and parents? There was none—or very little. The views of the unions were readily ridiculed and silenced by those who have no idea what it is like to teach in a comprehensive school system.
I would like to thank both of those behind these important petitions, Jakia Ali and Rafia Hussain. The sheer number of signatures on both petitions demonstrates the strength of feeling across the country about this issue. Jakia started her petition in March. It was great to speak to such an eloquent and determined young woman, who was meant to be sitting her GCSEs this summer, like my son. She felt the stress and frustration at first hand, and I can relate to that. Moreover, Jakia had little to focus on when she knew there would be no exams, and she had a long wait until her A-levels. What is notable about her petition is that indeed it was on A-level results day that it gathered momentum: a true reflection of how unhappy young people were. She was worried and concerned about how her results would be calculated and understandably wanted to ensure that she and her friends received grades that reflected their true potential. Is that not what we want for all our children?
When I spoke to Rafia, who is herself a teacher, we found that we had quite a lot in common. Last week, she still felt that the Government were doing nothing. She found it very difficult to engage with her learners through remote learning, and she said that was the experience of many of her fellow teachers. We know that it is not the same as face-to-face learning. She had experience of that, especially with a family member in year 10. The situation had a huge impact on his self-esteem and engagement with the GCSE curriculum.
Rafia set up the petition in frustration in the early hours of the morning so that the Government would hear her call to debate the petition and put into action a plan to reduce the content of GCSEs and A-levels so that students could achieve their full potential in a limited time. The hard fact is, as the National Education Union has stated, that the only route to fairness would be a complete cancellation of exams and use of robustly moderated, externally quality assured teacher judgment. We relied on teacher judgment this year. I found it very difficult listening to my friends in the teaching profession and hearing their concerns, not just in England but in Wales as well. They need to be listened to. This is my plea, and it is the plea of the petitioners: listen to the people at the chalkface. Listen to the teachers, pupils and students at GCSE and A-level. It is very important for them to have their voices heard. That is why I am proud to talk to speak to the petitions, because petitions give people a voice. The Government should do more and should be listening to them.
Thank you, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Having not done too well in my maths, I am struggling to work out how much time I have got, but in any event I will not take all the allotted time. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who gave a wide-ranging speech and an introduction to this e-petition debate as we rightly discuss covid’s impact on exams.
I want to talk about the cohort who have just been through their GCSEs and A-levels without sitting exams. I also want to look to the future and at the current cohort—what might be the right thing for them in the circumstances? Looking at the current year groups who are about to take their exams, I am very mindful of the written statement from the Department for Education today, which has announced that exams will be put back by three weeks. There is also talk of other changes. Can the Minister tease out a little more information from that written statement? Perhaps we can hear a little more from him about that.
I start by talking about the pupils who have had a miserable time in the last six months of their GCSEs or A-levels. All pupils have been affected, but especially those who were unable to sit the exams that they worked so hard for. I am incredibly sympathetic and empathetic to what they have gone through. With the support of their teachers and loved ones, they had geared themselves up to take their big test—to find that they were unable to do so was heartbreaking for all concerned.
I know there has been a lot of discussion, with the benefit of hindsight, about how things could have been done differently, and I am sure it will come up again. All I would say in that regard is that I am very conscious that decisions were made by the Conservative Government in England, the SNP Government in Scotland, the Labour Government in Wales and the DUP/Sinn Féin Government in Northern Ireland, and they were not that different. Every single Department has had to wrestle with what is right in the circumstances in a fast-changing situation. I am certainly mindful of that, and I am grateful to all the nations’ Departments for what they have done. However, the reality is that some young people have missed out in certain regards.
I want to talk about the importance of exams. For some people, exams are the way they are best able to demonstrate their aptitude and their ability to have absorbed information. Young people who have not been able to sit their exams, which would have perhaps given them better grades than their teacher-assessed grades, have missed out. I stand here as someone who was in that exact situation. I got very poor GCSEs and went to a further education college—not the private, elite education to which the hon. Member for Gower referred, but then I am not in the Cabinet; perhaps there is a correlation there.
I attended a secondary modern school because I failed my 12-plus, and then I went through to a further education college, where my grades were effectively rather lazily based on my GCSEs, the assumption being that I had not been taught anything during the two years of A-levels. It was a surprise to everyone, not least me, when A’s were awarded. I had to start again and reapply to universities that perhaps I should have applied to in the first place. That occurred only because I took my exams. I am not suggesting the teaching quality is as it was decades ago, when I was in that situation, but many young people will have missed out on a great place at university, or somewhere else they want to go, because they did not have the opportunity to take an exam. They might have had the fallback, but—let us be honest—who was going to take that in the circumstances?
I absolutely applaud the determination to have exams back on the timetable for 2021; it is absolutely the right thing for us to do. However, I want to express my concern to the Minister about how much time has now been lost by pupils who will be sitting their GCSE and A-level exams. Arguably, they have missed out more of their content than those who would have sat exams in the year just gone, because by March they have pretty much finished their content for the two years. That cohort have lost a good six-month chunk, and I am very concerned. I would like to see us reflect on whether the syllabus and the content can be changed in order to take that into account.
It is fine to say we are giving an extra three weeks, but that does not correlate with the months that were lost, and I feel that would be right. I understand that geography has been looked at, in terms of field trips not going ahead, as has English literature, in terms of the reading. However, I believe that other subjects have not been looked at. Can the Minister tell us whether that can be done on a subject-by-subject basis and whether a report can be given back after the upcoming half-term has ended? Schools and pupils need that clarity.
The other thing that I ask the Minister to do is to take coursework into account. If we go down the road where schools are not able to hold exams again, which we hope we will not, then we are looking at schools on an individual school-by-school basis. I wonder whether it would be better to have some coursework marked by the exam boards, so that there is some rigour and consistency of standards should we fall back to a place that we do not want to fall back to: having no exams.
I will end there, so that there is time for the Minister to respond to the debate. By and large, however, I welcome the statement by the Government today and I welcome the fact that there is a recommitment to exams. The announcement about the few extra weeks will be very well received, but I ask that we go a bit deeper and look again at the syllabus content, to ensure that those young people who have missed out on quite a large chunk of their A-levels or GCSEs are not disadvantaged when it comes to getting their grades.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
It is a privilege to take part in this important debate, which, if I may say so, has been very ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). It has been triggered by a summer of chaos in our schools and colleges. Hundreds of people in my Slough constituency have signed both the petitions that we are considering today, which shows that there is real concern and anger among the people I represent.
Like every hon. Member here, over the summer I was contacted by parents, teachers and young people themselves about their concerns, and about the confusion and chaos, surrounding this year’s exam results. There were heartbreaking stories of university places being withdrawn and people’s futures being stolen. I think that even the Government’s greatest supporters would acknowledge that things did not go well.
In March, the Education Secretary cancelled exams, saying that this year’s students should not face
“systematic disadvantage as a consequence of these extraordinary circumstances.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2020; Vol. 670, c. 1WS.]
In July, the Education Committee sounded the alarm that groups of pupils—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds or from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds—would be penalised. On 13 August, the number of pupils being awarded A or A* at A-level increased to an all-time high in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with 27.9% of A-level students securing top grades; I congratulate all those students for that.
However, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were hit hardest by the algorithm that was used, with Ofqual itself showing that such pupils were most likely to have the grades proposed by their teachers overruled and downgraded, while children from affluent backgrounds were most likely to do well. The same pattern was evident a few days later with the GCSEs. Although Ministers started the summer by saying they wanted to avoid “systematic disadvantage”, by the end of the summer it was plain that Ministers were responsible for the exact opposite, hardwiring disadvantage into the system.
Where was the Prime Minister? Like Macavity, the mystery cat, the Prime Minister is not there. A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research last month revealed that school pupils were on average three months behind where they would normally have been without the lockdown, with more deprived students and schools being worst affected.
I have a rather famous top school near me, down near Slough and Windsor, but why should pupils at that particular college get enhanced opportunity, on top of the huge opportunities that they already have, at the expense of pupils at Wexham School, at Beechwood School, at Ditton Park Academy or other such great schools in Slough? It is especially cruel for those pupils who had worked hard and were on track to do well—simply because they attend a school that historically had struggled they were punished. As the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Mary Bousted, said:
“Grades were initially awarded, for the vast majority of students, with no reference to, or evidence of, their individual achievements.”
We tell people that their children can do better than they themselves did and we tell the next generation that if they work hard they can get on. If we as a society break that fundamental promise, we risk far more than one summer of chaos; we risk there being a breakdown of trust in our institutions and a generation held back by injustice. We are storing up troubles for decades to come.
The petitioners point to two key areas where we can try to get things right next year: first, to review in forensic detail what went wrong this summer, despite the warnings from education unions, schools and the Education Committee; and secondly, to make plans for, and give much-needed clarity to, those who are taking exams next year. I am glad the Government have addressed the exams timetable for 2021, but since August, the Labour party has been calling for exams to be delayed until June to give pupils more time to catch up on lost teaching time. It is unacceptable that it has taken until today, more than a month after schools returned, for the Government to finally commit to that.
Until now, parents, pupils and schools have been left in the dark regarding the timing of exams, making it more difficult for them to plan for the academic year. Additionally, although a delay to exams is necessary, other measures must be considered by the Government to ensure that exams are fair. Perhaps the Minister can address the following three points. First, what guarantees can he give parents, pupils and teachers in Slough schools that we will not see a 2021 summer of chaos? Secondly, what measures will Ministers put in place to ensure that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have their dreams stolen by hard-wired injustice? Finally, what can he tell us about thousands of taxpayer pounds going to public relations agency Public First, which was paid by Ofqual in the summer to clear up its PR disaster?
Money was paid out of the public purse to a PR agency run by Rachel Wolf and James Frayne, former special advisers to the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), on a contract awarded without competitive tender. Does the Minister consider that a good use of public money?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who opened the debate, talked about those who had had a private school education. As someone who had that, I am certainly not going to apologise for going to a school that my parents thought was best for me to attend at the time, when the two state schools nearby were both failing, and one was on the verge of closure. Before other Members chastise me as a Tory toff, they might be interested to note my backstory before they assign that tag to me and make a lazy assumption—
I will not. Ofqual’s reaction was quite simple. It saw what was coming down the road. How do I know that? Because I am a member of the Select Committee on Education. After taking evidence, we made very clear in our report, published on 11 July, what the situation was: where we had large cohorts, kids would be disadvantaged; where we had disadvantaged children within those large cohorts, who were high achievers but were in low-achieving schools, they would see their grades brought down; and schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities, with small cohorts and variable results year on year, would also see an impact, so Ofqual had notice of what we thought would go wrong. Sadly, it appears that Ofqual chose to not heed the advice of the Education Committee.
What annoyed me even further was that when the chair of Ofqual appeared before the Committee after the A-level and GCSE results fiasco, I asked him whether he had run a dataset after what happened in Scotland on 4 August to see how results would be impacted in this country, and I got dodging and skirting from him. There was no answer to the fact that Ofqual chose at no stage to look at its data analytically enough to determine whether it would see a good outcome. I am led to believe that the algorithm itself was not shown to Ministers for an awfully long time. It certainly was not shared with the Education Committee and was not published, despite numerous people wishing to take part. In fact, an outside agency, the Royal Statistical Society, offered its services to engage with Ofqual and look at the algorithm, but that offer was turned down. Two fellows were blocked from joining the Ofqual technical advisory group of independent experts, even though they wished to advise. Again, Ofqual has answers that it needs to give.
In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which I am proud to represent, I had emails from young people who had worked tremendously hard and were unable to leave school in the traditional way. When they were unable to have a leavers assembly and to get the recognition that they deserve, I was deeply disappointed.
I will not, unfortunately. To return to Ofqual, Tim Oates, the director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment, raised issues with the Secretary of State and the Minister, whom, he said, were eager to hear about the problems the organisation uncovered regarding the algorithm. Sadly, when that was raised with Ofqual, it shrugged it off, as if to say, “We’re not interested in hearing from anyone outside.” Ofqual, therefore, has lost the confidence of the education sector.
As a former secondary school teacher in state schools for eight years, across London and in Birmingham, I can only imagine the pain teachers felt when they saw that their hard work ranking students—my partner, who is a head of religious education, worked for eight and a half hours ranking students—was simply ignored because of the size of the cohort. I do not think that is good enough. The lessons must be learned from Germany, where students sat exams and results fell in line with previous years or slightly exceeded them. Exams are an absolute must.
Before I finish, I must say that two young ladies in my constituency would like to know what is expected of them in terms of the curriculum and the exam content they will face, because they feel that while those three weeks are very welcome, six months of face-to-face contact was lost, which was awfully damaging to them. I beg the Minister to ensure that Ofqual does not move to an online model, as it mentioned in the Select Committee, because I believe that will only end in disaster yet again.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I went to a tough south-east London comprehensive, which was big on pastoral care but not so big on academic results. If I had been graded in 2020, I am sure that I would not have been graded my three As by the algorithms and my life would have taken a very different path, so I feel strongly about this issue.
The pandemic has presented schools with a range of complex problems, but schools up and down the country, not least in my constituency, did a brilliant job staying open for the children of key workers and for vulnerable children, providing lessons for home-schooling and preparing for the wider reopening in September. However, the summer exams fiasco, the failure to get an adequate testing system in place and a complete lack of specific guidance for schools have made it apparent that our schools are being let down by the Government.
I recently invited all the headteachers in my constituency to a virtual meeting to discuss the current situation and to listen to their concerns. One of the most pressing issues that they raised was clarity and guidance around how exams will be conducted this academic year. Their demand is completely acceptable. It is staggering that it has taken the Government until today to respond to it, particularly given what happened over the summer.
While today’s announcement of a three-week postponement is necessary, it does not do anything to make up for a term or more of missed classes. It also does not recognise that students have been disrupted by the pandemic to varying degrees. Those impacted the most by coronavirus are at the greatest disadvantage. More must be done to take that into consideration and make this year’s exams fairer.
Pupils set to sit those exams were in the final stages of years 10 and 12 when schools closed in March. As a result, they have missed out on months of face-to-face learning. Additionally, the wide range of safety measures in schools, the risks of periods of self-isolation and other external disruptions are preventing teaching as usual for now. Further, it is possible that the development of the pandemic could prevent many from physically sitting the exams of summer 2021.
In these difficult times, we look to the Government to set a direction and bring a degree of certainty to the uncertain, but it has taken until today to get an answer, and questions and uncertainty remain. This uncertainty does not help anyone. We should not underestimate the impact of lockdown on young people’s mental health. The pandemic has further exacerbated inequalities in society. Schools need to be able to focus on pastoral care and support after many months out of the classroom. A recent survey by the charity Parentkind found that 88% of parents surveyed thought that the lack of clarity about arrangements for exams had negatively affected their child’s mental health or wellbeing.
Several questions are omitted from today’s announcement. How will exams ensure that pupils, who have faced different levels of disruption, will be treated equally? What will the contingency plans be if future lockdowns occur? What information should schools be gathering in case exams are cancelled again and grades have to be estimated?
Serious consideration also has to be given to the impact that self-isolation of pupils and teachers will have, given the issues with the lack of access to tests that schools have told me about. Five education unions, including the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers, have put forward a detailed proposal to help remedy these problems. They suggest mechanisms such as reducing the content in qualifications, or introducing greater optionality by which students could choose to answer questions on, for example, three out of five possible topics. That would help to ensure that the grades received were as fair as possible and recognise the different experiences pupils may have had over the year. The proposal also suggests contingency plans, so that students who were significantly impacted by the pandemic would still be able to receive a fair grade. Suggestions include reserve papers for students unable to sit exams on a particular date, but able to sit them shortly afterwards, and staged assessments before the summer exams, which could then be used if those exams had to be abandoned altogether.
I hope that we can get clarity from the Minister and his Department today, and that, going forward, they will be discussing with schools and unions how best to design the summer exam system. The Government’s approach to negotiations with the unions about the wider reopening of schools was wholly lacking; I hope they do not make the same mistake again when it comes to exams. I do not doubt the scale of this challenge, but given the Department’s recent performance and the lack of urgency with which it has treated this issue, it is more important than ever that the Department engage with schools and unions. By doing so, I believe a fair system could be delivered that would give the young people who have already been impacted so much by this pandemic a fair chance at future attainment, but that requires the Government to listen and to work with all those involved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and it is of course a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves). As many colleagues have mentioned, the impact of the results scandal is still being felt by young people across the country: students who felt their life chances had been changed through no fault of their own, parents who spent hours on hold waiting to speak to someone in a university admissions office, and teachers who felt ignored by this Government and powerless to help their hard-working students.
Back in August, when the A-level results were published, I received correspondence from many angry constituents who had their results downgraded by the Government-approved algorithm. Barnsley College, which serves my constituency, said that, overall, 63% of pupils were downgraded against teacher predictions. This was in sharp contrast to pupils in more affluent areas and those who were in private education, whose grades were reported to have risen overall—that is the point that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), despite his private education, seems to have missed. Fortunately, the pressure that followed let to a Government U-turn, but young people in Barnsley East and across the country should never have been subjected to such an injustice, which in turn led to so much uncertainty regarding their university places and next steps.
The Government’s mishandling of this was nothing short of disastrous—a fiasco. Young people and their families were put through days of anxiety and uncertainty just because our Prime Minister and his Education Secretary were too stubborn to accept that using their algorithm was unfair and discriminatory. At the time, teachers reported to me that they were left feeling undervalued and ignored after their predicted grades were overruled. I accept that these are unprecedented times, but this should never have been allowed to happen, and I fully support calls for an investigation of what went wrong and how to ensure it is never repeated.
However, any investigation should take place alongside planning for exams in 2021. Our year 11 and year 13 GCSE, BTEC and A-level students face enormous pressure, trying to cram the lost six months of learning into an already crammed curriculum. Unless there is a rethink, they will have to complete up to 18 months of work in nine short months if they are to have any chance of following their desired educational career paths. I fully support the move to get students back into the classroom, but the Government have to acknowledge that this is so different from any other academic year, and our teachers’ calls for a rethink in how exams take place this school year should not be ignored.
As we realised from August’s fiasco, no one is better placed than our teachers on the frontline to judge what will happen if the Government fail to step in and make the required changes, before we hurtle headlong into another educational catastrophe. Pupil attendance is already significantly lower than in previous years, mainly due to bubbles collapsing, pupils isolating, suspected and confirmed covid cases, and rising anxieties and mental health challenges. Teachers are reporting fatigue such as they have never felt before in October, because of the stress of managing their and their pupils’ health and safety, and the added workload. However, one of the most important factors, which the Government appear completely to have overlooked, is the disparity between pupils from affluent areas and their less affluent neighbours.
Young people from more deprived areas are more likely to do worse in the 2021 exams if the Government do not step in with a sustainable, fair plan. As many schools and colleges begin to move back to online learning, it must be acknowledged that that disproportionately affects pupils who may not have the internet at home, who do not have access to a laptop, or who simply have a chaotic home life, so that finding a quiet space to work is almost impossible.
I welcome the Government scheme to provide laptops for disadvantaged children, but it does not go anywhere near far enough to ensure that no student or young person will miss out on vital learning as a result of the crisis. There are many students who are outside the Government eligibility criteria, who will simply fall through the cracks if the scheme is not extended. In July, it was reported that 80% of private schools were offering a full online suite of lessons, in contrast to just 8% of state schools. The outcome of the pandemic cannot be one where the richest survive. Steps must be taken to equalise the life chances of all who are due to take exams next summer. I pay tribute to the hard work of teachers across Barnsley East and the whole UK. These are unprecedented times and they call for unprecedented measures. The Government must listen to the professionals and act quickly to ensure that the life chances of the class of 2021 are not reduced.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to contribute to a debate where we have the wonderful leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who was a teacher and who, Members may not be aware, is also an excellent rugby player. We can all be grateful for that.
It is never easy waiting for exam results, but the young people of Hornsey and Wood Green spent their summer waiting for the results of exams that they never sat, which were determined by algorithms designed by someone who had never seen their work. This has been particularly challenging. Everyone accepts that setting grades was difficult in those unique circumstances, yet the Education Secretary had five months to prepare, and it was not as if warnings were not flagged. As has been mentioned, the report of the Education Committee went into quite a lot of detail:
“Pupils will carry these qualifications with them for their entire lives. Their calculated grades must be accurate. But we have concerns that the system described by Ofqual as the ‘fairest possible in the circumstances’ could be unfair for groups including disadvantaged pupils, BAME pupils, children looked after, and pupils with SEND.”
Never was a truer word spoken, yet all the hard work that Members of the House put into the report appears to have been completely ignored.
While the Prime Minister was holidaying in a wigwam, I joined the local students, in Parliament Square, in their fight for justice. Many I spoke to were distraught, terrified that they had lost their university places through no fault of their own, and unable to believe that they had been given grades lower than they had ever received throughout their education. Ludicrously, some students got a U, as though they had never been there—a U that related to a student at their school from the previous year. My local mental health trust has given me a figure of 20% for the increase in demand for mental health services, which is predominantly going to fall on the shoulders of our young people. Not only are we not prepared at that level; it seems that we are not prepared on the level of education either. We need to begin to predict the dreadful outcomes of covid now, and prepare for the mental health needs of the next generation, because they appear to me like the first world war generation—shellshocked, traumatised and in desperate need of comfort and support.
Eventually, the U-turn came. It was quite exciting watching television every day in the summer holidays, with Ofqual coming out, then the Department, and then Ofqual again. What was finally done was so late, and caused so much unnecessary distress, that, sadly, it seemed to symbolise the way the Government have approached the whole covid crisis. Tragically, many students decided to defer, which means that universities will be in a terrible place in a year’s time. Once again, they will have to turn down certain students. When a large number of students defer their university place for a year, the poor university ends up with a lot of applicants to process. Inevitably, some people will miss out. The endless pattern of incompetence is no way to run the country. Young people deserve to know why they were let down so badly, and 17-year-olds embarking on their final year of A-levels or BTECs need to know that it will not happen again.
I want briefly to comment on today’s announcement, because the Minister is in the Chamber. I shall take no more than 30 seconds, Mr Stringer. Would he please get the poor teachers around the table? They want desperately to discuss the proposals in today’s announcement. He should not just try to impose this from the top, because pupils should be treated fairly. Able pupils in schools should not just reflect the cohort from the year before; they should be taken seriously. The concept of exams needs to make allowance for the fact that some students are so nervous about sitting exams for which they have missed so much preparation that will they drop more difficult subjects that they are capable of doing, thereby missing out on good university places which will go to the same students, as they do every year. Let us try to fight this with a genuine vision of how we can allow students to be socially mobile, and allow those who are able to get places at good universities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to speak in this timely debate.
One point on which we can all agree is that students have had an incredibly tough time this year. The petitions that we are debating raise several important questions about exams next year. The Government’s announcement today represents, I think it is fair to say, baby steps in the right direction, but we are left asking where are the serious actions that will help to stop a repeat of this summer’s fiasco. So far, the answer is to delay school exams by three weeks next summer, to give students more time to study. If those exams cannot go ahead, plan B is to push the schools to perform “rigorous mock exams” many months earlier to provide more data to determine grades. That is incredibly half-baked. Today, students and teachers have met the measures with, at best, scepticism and, at worst, derision. How can we push back school exams by three weeks to give more time for teaching, then basically bring them forward by five months by formalising mock exams?
Most mocks will take place early next year, and many students and teachers feel that they will have little time to cover this year’s syllabus, making a mockery of the Government’s measures to give more teaching time. I would like the Minister to give a firm commitment that no student will be tested on any subject that they have not learned. That is absolutely vital. I would like the Minister to explain why mocks are being used in this way, because the Government had previously dropped the idea of using them, so it is important that people understand what has changed. I would also like him to explain whether time will be provided to make sure that marking is done after the full exams.
That brings us to the second petition, which asks for the curriculum to be reduced, as teaching time is likely to be lost because of disruption. Students have lost at least five months of in-school teaching, and many of them are right to be concerned that some of this year’s mistakes may be repeated. Where there is increased interruption in teaching, we should give schools and teachers more input into those decisions on which parts of the curriculum should be prioritised. As hon. Members have said, many teachers have said that they were not consulted on today’s announcement, and they want to discuss it. Will the Minister make a commitment today that he will meet them very soon?
There are wider issues at play. Schools are warning that they may grind to a halt without access to covid tests, and without quick turnaround times for results. Many still do not have the resources and funding that they need to provide education from home for those who have to self-isolate. That is all the worse for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Today’s announcement is unbelievably thin. It could have been made weeks ago. Where is the independent assessment of what went wrong? Where is the scenario planning for next year? Saying that it will come later in the autumn is not good enough. The Government have had months to sort this out. What about our most vulnerable children—those who are clinically vulnerable, who are facing a life or death decision about whether they can return to school? When can we expect a comprehensive plan for these various challenges?
Students, parents and teachers are sick of the Government passing the buck and letting civil servants take the hit. Ofqual was not on the ballot paper last December; the Conservative party was. It is this Government who are accountable to the public, both for what went wrong and for how they are going to fix it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this important debate.
I am proud that around 250 Leicester East residents were among the 300,000-plus people who signed the petition calling on the Government to improve the allocation of grades during the coronavirus pandemic. It is important for us all to keep in mind that pupils will carry these qualifications with them for their entire lives. We cannot allow young people in Leicester East, across Leicester and across the UK to be punished because of circumstances beyond their control, and yet there are widespread concerns that the system described by Ofqual as
“the fairest possible in the circumstances”
could be unfair for groups including disadvantaged pupils, African, Asian and minority ethnic pupils, children who are looked after and, as has been said, children on free school meals and pupils with special educational needs or disabilities. Ofqual must urgently identify whether these groups have been systematically disadvantaged by calculated grades and, if that is the case, Ofqual’s standardisation model must adjust the grades of affected pupils upwards.
Research by the University and College Union found that the grades of pupils from low-income families are more likely to be incorrectly predicted than those of their more affluent peers. High-attaining disadvantaged pupils are even more likely to be underpredicted compared with those from more affluent backgrounds, with Sutton Trust research concluding that the grades of 1,000 high-achieving disadvantaged students are underpredicted per year.
Tragically, racial inequalities exist alongside class discrimination at every stage of the education system. Research by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that black African and African-Caribbean A-level students had the lowest predicted grade accuracy, with only 39% of predicted grades accurate, while their white counterparts had the highest, at 53%. Amid the coronavirus crisis, it is therefore likely that the cancellation of A-levels will have a disproportionately negative impact on black students. The Government must work urgently with Ofqual to ensure that students are not discriminated against because of their background.
It is crucial that pupils are able to appeal their grades if they believe that bias or discrimination has occurred. Worryingly, research into grade prediction accuracy for university applicants has found that just 16% of applicants receive the grades they are predicted. I am concerned that Ofqual has not given enough thought to how accessible this route is to all pupils without support. Proving bias or discrimination would be an almost impossible threshold for any pupil to evidence. Disadvantaged pupils and those without family resources or wider support risk being shut out of this process. The Government, working with Ofqual, must urgently publish the evidence threshold for proving bias and discrimination and set out what evidence will be required and how they will support students through the appeals process.
Before I finish, I take this opportunity to send my solidarity to year 12 A-level students in Leicester and across the country who have taken strike action over the Government’s failure to provide adequate support to their cohort during the pandemic. Aaisha, one of the strike organisers from Leicester, says the Government have not done enough to support the future of this country. I could not agree more. Two thirds of the current Cabinet were privately educated, and yet they systematically deny working-class young people—especially from African, Asian and minority ethnic communities—the opportunities that they were afforded. The Government must urgently adopt a fairer means of allocating grades, to ensure that no one is unjustly left behind as a result of this pandemic.
Education has changed dramatically since the covid pandemic. I, too, am a former secondary school teacher. I feel deeply concerned about the disruption, challenges and stresses that teaching staff, school leaders and especially our young people had to go through, and that they continue to face. In Bath and across the country, our teachers, school staff and pupils, along with their families and carers, have done a truly amazing job, and I thank them all.
The exam results chaos caused great distress and disruption that could have been completely avoided. The Government, more worried about grade inflation than about fairness, let thousands of young people down. As I said at the time, teachers are far better judges of their pupils’ ability than are algorithms imposed by the Department for Education. Many young people’s aspirations and plans for their future were dashed. Once again, as we have heard already, students from disadvantaged backgrounds were disproportionately affected.
Today, the Government have announced that they will bring back exams in 2021, with a three-week delay. Having engaged this afternoon with school leaders in Bath, whom I trust in everything they say and do, I believe that that is the wrong decision. We have seen that teacher assessment works, and for the next academic year that is clearly the best option.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) did not take any interventions, but I wanted to ask him what lessons we should learn from Germany. I am always interested when people speak with great confidence about other countries without necessarily knowing the details. Germany does not have any national exams. It has a devolved education system. Indeed, many exam grades are awarded through teacher assessment, which proves that teachers know best and we can rely solidly on their assessments of their pupils. I believe we should look at that as the best option for next year, at the least.
Many learners are still catching up. The help announced in June for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds has been delayed, and in some cases is still not in place. The education of young people is constantly in danger of being disrupted. If some members of a group or cohort have to self-isolate because of an outbreak, young learners find themselves back at home. Those who are due to sit the exams next year already worry that the mock exams might end up counting as the actual results. That adds another layer of stress that teachers and pupils do not deserve.
Behind every exam result is a young life, full of promise. We cannot begin to know what toll the A-level and GCSE results fiasco will ultimately take on the self-esteem, mental health, personal development and earning capacity of those who have been impacted. On behalf of the students and teachers of Bath, I call on the Government to bring back teacher assessment for 2021. It is simply not realistic to assume that we can return to business as usual for this academic year.
That is also true of Ofsted inspections. I understand that Ofsted inspections are due to resume in January. Schools are simply not ready for that. Many schools have finely tuned social distancing arrangements in place. The additional presence of inspectors at the school, when they are not normally part of the school community, adds extra worry and anxiety. How should schools plan for that? Is it right that schools should have to have an extra contingency plan in case of unexpected inspections, to add to their already stretched capacity? I hope that the Government are considering that too, and that they will put back Ofsted inspections until at least September 2021.
As cases rises, so too does the risk of local and national lockdowns. Pupils may not have seen the last of home learning. In that eventuality, the Government must support all schools to deliver high quality education to every child in this country. Give schools the space they need, and trust teachers and school leaders to be the best judges of the young people who are their responsibility.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I thank the 551 petitioners from my constituency who have signed the petitions.
Our young people have shown extraordinary resilience as they have battled the traumas of the past six months, not least when they were presented with a mutant algorithm that downgraded so many of their expectations after the extensive work that they and their teachers had done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) rightly said, it is so important to listen not only to pupils, but to teachers. She is not just an excellent rugby player; given the way she tackled the debate, the Minister should surely step out of the way and listen to what she had to say.
Sadly, the upheaval continues for too many young people as infection rates soar. After securing a place at the university of their choice, they now find themselves locked down, isolated and not knowing what comes next. Young people really need a clear plan to see them through this year securely, and the Government need to come up with that plan now. One thing that this summer has done is to shine a spotlight on our whole education system. The inequality has been exposed. Pupils who took the BTEC line of assessment had such a delay in their results coming out—that was a real inequality for them. What happened this summer also demonstrated that reliance on a single form of assessment—the exam—at such a time has created significant risk. When the Minister knew about the inequality that was coming through, as my parliamentary question exposed, why did he still go ahead and publish those results, and not hold off and put the corrections in the system? That could have removed a lot of the trauma and stress that our young people had to experience this summer.
The catch-up support that the Government promised—the covid catch-up programme and the national tutoring programme—has not arrived, partly because they are trying to procure a national contract with some private organisations. We know how well that has gone with testing. Local authorities have the relationships and the means to deliver this, and they know the needs of local schools. I suggest to the Minister that he moves that support to local authorities, as York is requesting—the excellence of York’s education system is well known—so that they can deliver it to schools. That would be a first step forward. Today’s announcement that six months’ catch-up can be achieved by having a three-week extension to exams is just unreal.
Further episodes of isolation are continuing as we speak. This morning I was told that a constituent who is due to sit exams this week has had to self-isolate for the second time this term, resulting in three weeks of absence in this half-term alone. How can she be fairly assessed against her peers, who have perhaps been in school the whole time? The same applies to pupils who have been shielding at home because they are extremely clinically vulnerable.
Today in York, 50 more pupils from just one secondary school have been sent home to self-isolate. We know that this year will be a very disrupted one, but the scenario planning that we would expect to have had from the Government by now has not been forthcoming. The Government really need to recognise the reality of the situation. I trust that the Minister will let us know exactly when we will hear what the future holds for young people. We cannot get to the end of the year and have some young people self-isolating when exams are due. Young people who are already stressed today will be even more stressed by that point in the calendar, so we need to build flexibility into the system now.
I support the call from the trade unions and others to have a broader choice of questions in exam papers so that young people have options as to which ones they answer, because we will not get all the content into this year. I would be interested in the Minister’s views on that. We should also have a broader assessment process that is properly moderated and planned for—not like it was last year—to ensure it can accommodate people.
If we are honest, we will acknowledge that exams are a crude assessment tool. I am glad to hear about the experiences of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), for whom exams were the solution that allowed him to show his academic prowess. However, we know that that is certainly not the case for other people. How can we really assess an individual’s whole learning journey in a few hours? Different people respond in different ways to assessment, and I believe that we need to see how young people can thrive through the assessment process and show off their capabilities, not least because exams are currently the only tool on which their future depends.
The acquisition of knowledge is so important. Understanding how to navigate ourselves through this complex world with the necessary skills to chart our course and to accomplish our goal is the value of education. However, if we never get to enjoy the journey, mature as a person, and gain confidence and the application of the tools required, what has been achieved through our education?
A hybrid assessment tool of moderated assessment, project work, problem-solving challenges, assignment and exams would stretch pupils further and assess their broad range of skills, without benefiting only those who succeed at exams. At the moment, recovery curricula are being put in place in some schools, but that is not universal. Will the Minister say whether more attention will be paid to that? I welcome how some schools—I believe even Eton is doing this—are putting things like farming and art into the curriculum, yet so many of our state schools do not have that opportunity. If that benefits some kids, it should benefit all kids. That is what we should look at.
While mastering data management and league tables might be important to Government, our young people’s mental health is suffering more stress than ever before. We have heard that throughout this debate. If we are serious about developing confident and well-rounded young people, building an economy fit for the future, improving productivity and being world leaders again, we should equip our young people with a curriculum that helps all of them to soar and not to stumble.
Knowledge is one thing, but skills to know how to research and critically appraise information are of far greater value. We should therefore redress the assessment system, because before an exam paper, some people thrive and some people dive. Education must therefore be about stretching and challenging young minds and providing young people with the opportunity to show off their gifts and talents to shape our future.
Let us not crush this opportunity with an exam, particularly when there are so many unknowns in the equation. Let us reward our young people with the right assessment tool so that they can have confidence in their learning now, and in the assessment to come at the end of the year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this debate. This issue has affected thousands of our constituents, and I thank the more than 1,000 of my constituents who supported both petitions. I also thank the teachers, the other workers in the school system and everyone who has played a part in keeping our young people safe as they returned to school.
That happened despite the Government—despite their failure to prepare over the summer and despite warnings from education unions, parents and Members of Parliament across different parties. The fiasco over the summer demonstrated a level of incompetence that frankly beggars belief. I hope that the Minister, with his colleagues, will ensure that lessons are learned from what happened and went wrong. It is not enough just to blame the institutions—Ofqual and others—and not to take responsibility. If politicians are going to blame such institutions, they ought to ensure that Ministers are responsible. Ultimately, what happens is down to ministerial responsibility.
Teachers, students and their families have faced nothing but anxiety all the way through to the exam period and then through the summer. The Education Secretary had his head buried in the sand. The reactive, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to handling the crisis over the summer—along with others—has damaged young people’s future and left many parents wondering what will happen to their children.
In my constituency, where 55% of children live below the poverty line, although the Government promised that young people would be given laptops and support, many have not received the help they need. Up and down the country, many young people who suffer disabilities have not had the help that they desperately need, and that is no different in constituencies such as mine. It is important for the Minister to address the question of getting the help and the kit that young people need but have not received. I would be grateful if he provided some facts about how many young people are still to receive that. The reports are that, in constituencies such as mine, they do not have the laptops and are not getting the internet access that they need and that would make a big difference.
Findings from the FFT Education Data Lab show that kids from disadvantaged schools are now 22% behind those from advantaged schools, and there is a big differential in the impact, with ethnic minority young people significantly worse off. Those in the SEND category need much more help. I hope the Minister will address that point.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the issue of school results being based on results from previous years, which is a massive problem. I have come across a number of cases in my constituency. In one, a student received three unclassified grades when he was predicted two As and a B. That was to do nothing to do with him; it was the algorithm making judgments based on past exam results. There is an inherent problem with that and there must be an inquiry into what went wrong.
It is scandalous that the Government chose a system that discriminated between private schools and state schools, against minority ethnic groups and, ultimately, between social classes. That is shocking. Nobody ever thought that could happen in this day and age. We must learn the lessons from what went wrong. I hope the Minister will not only give us assurances but demonstrate precisely how he will ensure that that does not happen again.
The National Foundation for Educational Research found that, while the average learning loss was three months for all pupils, it was four months for children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. We have seen the differential impact on different groups, with poorer families made worse off by the both the economic crisis and the health pandemic and its impact. We have seen the differential impact on BAME communities and, as others have said, on those with disabilities, particularly children. We need special initiatives from the Government to support the groups that have been hit very hard. Whatever our analysis of what happened over the summer, that is surely something we can all agree on. We need to ensure that young people are not condemned by what has happened in the pandemic and that their future is protected. What happened this year was avoidable and lessons could have been learned. Action could have been taken faster.
My final point is about test and trace. We need to ensure that it is working properly. I have reports from schools in my constituency of whole year groups being sent home because test and trace is not adequate. That cannot be good for ensuring that young people get the education they deserve and need. The Government need to get a grip on that, otherwise it will get worse and become an even bigger problem during the exam period.
I will conclude, because I am conscious that the Front-Bench speakers need to come in, but I hope that the Minister will have clear answers and give assurances to our constituents that lessons will be learned and that there will be an inquiry into what went wrong, so that we have a proper line of sight on that. The Government can then be held to account properly, to ensure that the young people with exams coming up next year get a better outcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this important debate. We have had some really important contributions from Members. My hon. Friend gave an excellent speech, grounded in the realities faced by pupils and teachers, and called on the Government to listen to their voices. She rightly said that clarity is paramount for everybody involved.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Hew Merriman) called on the Government to consider looking at coursework marked by exam boards. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) spoke eloquently on the confusion and chaos that the Government have presided over this year and the heartbreaking stories of university places being withdrawn. He also set out how students from disadvantaged backgrounds were most likely to be adversely affected and how Ministers were responsible for hard-baking disadvantage into the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) spoke passionately about the injustice visited on her constituents as a result of the Government’s discriminatory actions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) expressed her concerns about the impact that Government actions would have on students’ subject choices.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) paid tribute to pupils who have shown extraordinary resilience this year, and she spoke of the injustice visited on BTEC students, who had to face such long delays before receiving their results. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) set out quite clearly that the Government’s incompetence over the summer beggars belief, and that they should learn from their mistakes. She also spoke eloquently about the disadvantage that children in her constituency face.
The petitions that we have been debating today each received almost 150,000 signatures, so it is clear that these issues are of immense public interest. The Government have presided over a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion, and their failure to effectively manage the exams and assessments processes for summer 2020 caused enormous anxiety for many children and young people, as well as their families and teachers.
There were problems from the beginning, with the way in which the Government decided that pupils’ grades would be calculated. According to Ofqual, Ministers were repeatedly warned about this issue. At a meeting of the Education Committee in September, Julie Swan, executive director of general qualifications at Ofqual, said that the regulator provided advice to Ministers on 16 March that
“it would be challenging if not impossible”
to attempt to moderate estimated grades in a way that would be fair for all of this year’s students. She went on to say that
“Everyone, throughout the process, was aware of the risks”,
and referred to a paper of the general public sector ministerial implementation group on 1 May, which highlighted the risk of widespread dissatisfaction with the grades awarded among individual students, schools and colleges, and the risk to public confidence. She also said that Ofqual briefed No.10 on 7 August and held regular meetings throughout this period with the Minister for School Standards.
After days of confusion following the A-level results on 13 August, when nearly 40% of students’ centre-assessed grades were adjusted downwards, the Secretary of State finally listened to young people, their parents, their teachers and the Labour party, and allowed centre-assessed grades to be used.
Labour tried through an Opposition day debate and a vote on the Floor of the House to get the Government to be open and transparent about what Ministers knew, when they knew it and what they did about it when they were warned of the difficulties. Full disclosure of this information by the Government would at least have enabled students, their families and their teachers to see what went wrong and why. Although Conservative MPs voted the motion down, the Government’s chaotic handling of the exams process really dented confidence in our examination system.
There are now questions about what happens next summer and beyond. Petition 320772 called on the Government to reduce curriculum content for year 10 and 12 students who will sit exams next year. It argued that the loss of classroom-based learning cannot be effectively compensated for by the provision of remote learning activities, and that reducing the content will give students the opportunity to sit their exams equitably. In August, Labour called for A-level and GCSE exams in 2021 to be pushed back to June, to give pupils a better chance to catch up on lost teaching time. On 1 September, the Secretary of State indicated that the Government would indeed implement a delay to exams. Then there was a long period of silence from the Department.
What were the Government doing when they should have been providing much-needed clarity to teachers and students about assessment for 2021? The silence lasted for five and a half weeks, until just two days ago, on 10 October, when press reports suggested that the Secretary of State was expected to announce a three-week delay in the start of next summer’s exams, alongside a requirement for schools to hold mock exams in controlled conditions earlier in the year, with exam-style invigilating, marking and grading. According to those reports, the mock grades could then be used to assess results in regions or centres where pupils’ exam preparations had been severely disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks, or in the event of their being unable to sit exams in the summer.
The Government’s announcement today about the exams for next summer, along with those press reports, raise a number of questions. Can the Minister say why speculative reports about next year’s exams appeared in the press before an official announcement was made? Why has it taken the Government almost half of the first school term to come up with this statement? Can the Minister elaborate on reports in the press referring to tensions between the Department and Ofqual? Will he also set out the full range of options for next summer’s exams presented to the Department by Ofqual?
The Government have also announced that they will engage widely with the sector over the next six weeks to identify any risks to exams at national, local and individual student level, and to consider measures needed to address any potential disruption. That is really quite remarkable. What have the Government been doing, and why have they not been doing this already? Students and teachers really cannot wait any longer for the clarity that they need, yet today, as the leaves outside are turning golden brown, the Government are telling them that more detail will be published later in the autumn. Precisely when during this season does the Minister have in mind?
The incompetence of the Government is breathtaking. We need a Government who are able to plan effectively for next year. We do not know how much more school-based teaching time may be lost. However, we know it is likely that any such loss will be different for different schools and cohorts of pupils. A group of headteachers who wrote to me last week highlighted that very point, and said that:
“Substantial adjustments need to be made at subject level that will ensure those in areas of the country that have been most badly affected by the virus are not further disadvantaged by an assessment process that assumes that problems experienced have been spread equally”.
What plans do the Government have to address the matter? As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) has pointed out, five education unions have come up with a proposal for awarding GCSE, AS and A-level grades in 2021. Together, the ASCL, the National Association of Head Teachers, the NASUWT, the National Education Union and the National Governance Association have set out recommendations that include commissioning an independent review of what happened this year to learn from when planning what to do next year, and publishing contingency plans as soon as possible to outline how students who are unable to sit exams in the summer, or whose education is significantly disrupted, will nevertheless receive robust, reliable grades next year. What assessment have the Government made of the unions’ recommendations?
Today’s announcement could have been made weeks ago. The consultation with the sector that the Government now say they will carry out over the next six weeks, to consider measures needed to address any potential disruption of learning, should have happened already. The fact that the Government say that they will publish more detail in the autumn will not give students and teachers reassurance. It will make them anxious at having to wait even longer for answers from the Government.
I certainly will, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and to respond to the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). I congratulate her on securing the debate, and on the way she introduced it.
Coronavirus has been causing huge disruption to young people and their families, schools and the wider teaching community. The Government have always made the education of young people a priority and, as we all continue to adapt and to progress through the pandemic, we are determined to make sure that, when the time comes, young people are able to take the next step in their lives with the skills and qualifications that they need. At the same time, we must do whatever we can to reduce the pressure on all those studying at school or college during an incredibly stressful time. As many Members have said in the debate, too much teaching time has been lost in the past few months. We are determined that we cannot risk any child’s education being put on hold. Today’s announcement of a three-week delay is only one component, designed to increase teacher time and help students to catch up. The changes proposed by Ofqual to the assessment process, and the £1 billion catch-up fund, are also part of that process.
I stress that I understand clearly that the grading situation in summer 2020 caused great stress and uncertainty. The Education Secretary and I both understand the distress that it caused young people and their parents. We never wanted to cancel exams. They are obviously the best and fairest form of assessment, but we had to take the difficult decision to close schools and colleges, and cancel summer exams, because of the covid-19 outbreak. We were in uncharted territory in devising an alternative system. The overriding aim was to ensure that all students received just recognition of their efforts and that they would be able to progress to the next stage of their lives in the knowledge that their qualifications would have the same value as in previous years.
We worked closely with the independent qualifications regulator, Ofqual, as it developed a process for arriving at calculated grades through a standardisation model, but it became clear that the model was throwing up far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for students that might not have reflected their hard work or ability. It was not reasonable to expect all those to be dealt with through an appeals system. The outcomes also severely undermined public confidence in the system, so Ofqual and the Government took immediate action. We announced on 17 August the decision to revert to centre assessment grades for all students, or the calculated grade if this was higher. That was the best outcome in the difficult circumstances we were in, and the fairest for students and their families. GCSE results were recalculated on that basis and returned to schools on time and within 48 hours of that decision being made. A-level results were also recalculated and reissued.
The Minister said that students should receive the fairest grade, but 63% of pupils in Barnsley had their grades downgraded, compared with 40% nationally, while many private school pupils’ grades went up. He says the Government acted quickly, but they saw this happen in Scotland and did not anticipate it happening here; they did not take action and waited days. This is genuinely affecting the future of many hundreds of thousands of young people. We need to make sure it does not happen again.
That is why the decision was taken on 17 August to revert to whichever was highest of calculated grades or centre assessment grades. It is also one reason why we determined that exams will go ahead this year, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) said, they are the fairest system of assessing pupils’ ability and the work they have done in the two years of their course. Our priority now is to ensure that next year’s exams proceed fairly and efficiently and that students gain the qualifications they deserve. That is the view of the teacher and headteacher unions, including, I say to the hon. Member for Gower, the NEU, as expressed in its letter to the Department on 2 October, which said:
“The government is right, in our view, to pursue a ‘Plan A’ which would enable all students to sit exams in summer 2021. Students in Year 11 and 13 are already more than halfway through their courses, and must be enabled to complete those courses…As these qualifications are mainly designed to be assessed by final examination, it is right that these exams should go ahead if possible.”
We are working with Ofqual on viable assessment options based on a number of different scenarios, and we will share further details of those in good time. We asked Ofqual to support the Government in developing these arrangements, engaging closely with schools, colleges, teachers, exam boards, unions and universities. The planning and discussions are ongoing, and once we reach a conclusion, we will publish the results.
The hon. Lady also raised issues about remote education. The vast majority of children are back in school, but if face-to-face education is disrupted, we have made 250,000 laptops available, building on the more than 220,000 laptops already delivered to those in need. We have also made resources available to deliver online education and we are funding the Oak National Academy, which provides hundreds of online lessons for schools, as well as webinars and guidance for teachers on how to deliver remote education in the most effective way.
The Minister is being extremely generous with his time. Does he accept that it is particularly difficult for many students on reduced incomes at further education colleges to pay for internet access or devices? It is hard to write an essay on a mobile phone. What does he propose to do in those cases?
As the Secretary of State said today, there is flexibility in the bursaries available to be used for those for those purposes.
We have been working continuously with the exams regulator, Ofqual, the exam boards and groups representing teachers, schools and colleges on the best approach to exams and assessments in 2021, and we will continue to work together to ensure that exams take place next year. However, we recognise that students continue to experience disruption to their education because of covid-19, and we need to take account of that, which we are doing. In July, Ofqual consulted on a range of possible adaptations to GCSE, AS-level and A-level exams and assessments next year on a subject by subject basis, with the overriding priority of ensuring that the exams and assessments are fair. In particular, the consultation proposed a range of ways to free up additional teaching time, including the possibility of a slight delay to the exams timetable, which we have now announced, and to accommodate any public health requirements next year.
On 3 August, Ofqual published its decisions on the changes proposed in the consultation, which include changes to assessments in some subjects: for example, removing the requirement to record the spoken language assessment in GCSE English language, and allowing GCSE students to observe practical science work rather than undertake it. In some subjects with a high volume of content, such as GCSE history, ancient history and English literature, Ofqual has confirmed that exam boards should change how they assess students next year by allowing a choice of topics in the exams. Those changes will reduce pressure on teachers and students in the next academic year; individually, some may appear modest, but we believe they will have a significant impact when combined across subjects, and with the three-week delay and the £1 billion catch-up fund.
As it was this year, the most important principle is that students due to sit exams and assessments next summer should be enabled to progress successfully to the next stage of education or employment. Each of the elements of content that forms the foundation for GCSE, AS-level and A-level qualifications is important, and while the Government were clear that the content of GCSEs and A-levels will not be changed in 2021, allowing a choice of topics in certain subjects with a high volume of content will release teaching time, and support students and their schools or colleges. As the Education Secretary has confirmed, there will be no further subject-level changes to exams and assessments this year. That confirmation gives teachers, school leaders and pupils clarity on what will be assessed in the exams next summer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle was right to raise the issue of lost teaching time, and we recognise that students, including those who will sit exams next year, will have experienced disruption. That is why we have the £1 billion catch-up fund, as well as the tuition fund for 16 to 19-year-olds, from which up to £96 million will be allocated for disadvantaged students. To conclude, our approach next year will ensure that young people can prepare for exams with confidence and receive the extra teaching time and support that students need to enable them to do their best in their exams, so that they can progress on to the next stage of their education.
I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his response, and say for the sake of correctness that I took my comments from an immediate email that was received from the NEU this afternoon.
To point out a couple of things, I know that the petitioners, Jakia Ali and Rafia Hussain, will be very pleased that we have discussed this today and that they have seen some action, although maybe not exactly what they wanted. I also say to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) that I am sure my son would also have done better if he had sat the exams—it is matter of learning style, I think—and exams are important, but we have to remember that we are in a pandemic. It is important that we have a contingency, and the feeling behind this petition was not to have a go at the private education system, but to call for transparency and equality across all education. That did not happen this summer, and we and the Government have to ensure that it does not happen again; also, the buck stops with the Government, not with Ofqual.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 306773 and 320772 relating to exams during Covid-19.
China’s Policy on its Uyghur Population
[James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300146 relating to China’s policy on its Uyghur population.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. This e-petition was started by Zayd Amjad. It asks that the Government impose sanctions on China over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims. Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group native to Xinjiang, China. They are reported to be subject to mass detention, surveillance, restriction of religious and cultural identities, as well as other gross human rights abuses. Over 1 million Uyghurs have been forced into re-education camps.
In the international community, awareness has been growing of the treatment of Uyghur people, and I know that it is a cause of concern for many on both sides of the House. We have already had debates in this House on the UK’s response to China’s treatment of its Uyghur population, notably an Adjournment debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and a Westminster Hall debate led by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). I also understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) has written this weekend to the Foreign Secretary expressing her views. I thank all of them for bringing this important subject to the House’s attention.
The strength of feeling in favour of upholding of human rights across the world has been shown by the nearly 150,000 signatures on the petition. At the most recent UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UK led on a formal joint statement setting out concern about the situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, with the support of 27 international partners. The petitioners argue that despite public pressure from the UN and growing public awareness, nothing substantial or concrete has been done to resolve the crisis and help the Uyghur people. The petition therefore argues that the use of Magnitsky sanctions is the most appropriate course of action.
Reports suggest that the Chinese Government are deliberately creating living conditions calculated to bring an end to the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. They include imposing measures intended to prevent births, and causing serious bodily and mental harm to members of the group. The suffering that the Uyghur Muslims have undergone, and sadly continue to undergo, is nothing short of horrifying. The Uyghur people who have escaped to Turkey have given interviews detailing the fear that they lived in in China; they tell of families torn apart, torture in camps, invasive surveillance, and forced and sometimes unknown sterilisation. Detainees in Xinjiang re-education camps have reported beatings, electric shocks and sleep and food deprivation. Reports of women who have faced forced sterilisation and abortions are alarmingly widespread.
The campaign against the Uyghurs is total. Many are forced into factory labour and transported to factories for up to a year before being allowed to return to their families. According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Uyghurs are working in factories,
“Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour”.
Conservative estimates suggest that more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories from 2017 to 2019. One factory is given as a case study in the report. It is
“equipped with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences and police guard boxes.”
The image is dystopian, yet all too familiar for students of modern history. Reports of the sites, discipline and workers’ days read more like a prison than a place of work. They are constantly monitored and threatened with longer stints in factories if they do not comply.
The surveillance is total. China already takes its infamous mass surveillance to another level when policing its Uyghur population. Movement is restricted and phones and behaviours monitored in minute detail. Uyghurs living in China have no privacy. They are even required to submit biometric data to the police. Social media activity, travel and even which door they use to enter their house are all tracked by the police. Identification cards must be swiped in schools, banks and parks. No movement goes untracked.
The Chinese Government have justified the existence of camps and surveillance as a part of measures designed to prevent religious extremism, but it is not just religious extremism that the Chinese Government target; it is any practising of Islam at all. The events in Xinjiang are a threat to religious freedom throughout the world. Mosques have been destroyed, and halal and Ramadan banned. The signs of religious radicalism laid out include common behaviour among devout Uyghur such as the wearing of long beards, the study of Arabic and praying outside mosques. Even those who give up alcohol or cigarettes have been branded extremists and are noted by the authorities. Uyghur Muslims do not have the right to their religion, to their bodies, or to freedom of expression. The system is policed through directives given to officials in Xinjiang. The directives do not mention judicial procedures, but call for the detention of anyone who displays so-called “symptoms” of radicalism or anti-Government views. The international community should be gravely concerned.
The petition calls for action and asks the Government to take any necessary steps to stop such breaches of human rights. It specifically calls for the use of Magnitsky sanctions, named after the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and charged after uncovering Russian tax officials had defrauded Hermitage Capital, a company he was advising. In jail, Mr Magnitsky was refused medical treatment, and there is evidence he was beaten. Sadly, he sadly died in police custody in 2009. Since that time, his former employer, Bill Browder, has campaigned for the implementation of Magnitsky sanctions across the world. He argues that individual sanctions act as a more effective deterrent than broad-based sanctions, which often have the most impact on the poorest in society, not on privileged Government officials.
Notably, the first Magnitsky sanctions were enacted by the United States in 2012. Congress passed the world’s first Magnitsky Act after efforts by the late Senator John McCain. The Act imposed sanctions on a list of Russian officials who were believed to be responsible for serious human rights violations, freezing any US assets that they held and banning them from entry into the United States. The UK implemented its version just this year. It applies to human rights violators around the world. Our laws allow sanctions such as banning travel to the UK and the freezing of assets of listed individuals.
The Magnitsky sanctions are effective because sterling is a valuable global currency to hold. By having their assets frozen in Britain, sanctioned individuals are unable to have assets or continue to do their business. The sanctions also come with the stigma of no longer being allowed to enter the country or to own residences. The addition of names to the list of sanctioned individuals is in the power of the Foreign Secretary. Those who can be sanctioned include people who act on behalf of a state to violate other human rights, such as the right not to be subject to torture, the right to be free from slavery or forced labour and, above all, the right to life. The Government have already used such powers to sanction the killers of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Also sanctioned were Russian officials who were allegedly involved in the mistreatment of Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail.
Crucially, we have sanctioned organisations that are involved in forced labour in North Korea. Given the evidence that the Uyghur population are being used for forced labour in Xinjiang, I see no reason why similar sanctions should not be taken out on organisations that benefit from this labour. In fact, our American allies have already implemented sanctions on Chinese Government agencies and senior officials who run companies and farms in Xinjiang province. The suffering of the Uyghur Muslims is rightly receiving international attention.
As the petition mentions, the UN has already made statements regarding the treatment of the Uyghur people. The UN statement demanded that the Chinese Government comply with international obligations to respect human rights and freedom of religion. It also called for China to allow UN human rights monitors access to detention centres in order to ensure that human rights standards are being met. Outside Europe, countries also publicly opposed China’s policy in Xinjiang. Malaysia declined to deport Uyghur asylum seekers back to China in 2019, and Turkey’s Foreign Minister condemned China for its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.
Despite the announcements by the UN and the British Government’s expressed outrage at China’s policies in Xinjiang, nothing is changing. The British Government therefore need to realise that more must be done. In response to the petition, they have said:
“We have grave concerns about the gross human rights abuses being perpetrated in Xinjiang.”
Although I am pleased to see the Foreign Secretary speak out against human rights abuses, now is the time for action. Although I understand that imposing sanctions on individuals is a difficult process, the petitioners and I ask that it is expediated as a matter of urgency.
Along with other countries at the UN, the UK has condemned China’s actions, yet Uyghur Muslims in China continue to face persecution. The next steps therefore must be taken to oppose China’s treatment of Uyghurs. The Government have said that they
“will continue to urge the Chinese authorities to change their approach in Xinjiang and respect international human rights norms,”
but they are not speculating about future sanction designations. Their argument for this is that it
“may reduce the impact of those future designations.”
Concern over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims is widespread in Britain. The Muslim Council of Britain has urged the Government to take strong action. In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, it voices its fears that, without tangible actions, the abuses will not stop and more lives will be lost.
Our country takes pride in its commitment to uphold human rights and to fight for equality. To that end, the Government should aim not only to confront China over its treatment of the Uyghurs, but to encourage others to do the same. To do nothing in the face of such human rights abuses is to allow the continuing suffering of many. We have an abundance of evidence in the form of leaked documents, satellite imagery and the harrowing testimony of victims. We cannot continue to listen to the mounting evidence and do nothing substantial with it.
The petition urges the Government not just to speculate on the sanctions, but to act. As I mentioned, America has already taken that step, and we should be looking to do the same. Sanctions are stronger when more people enforce them. It is our duty to protect those whose human rights are being violated. China is undeniably an economic powerhouse, but we cannot let its strength in world economics shield it so as to allow atrocities and human rights violations.
Order. Before we move on, I point out that one speaker, the hon. Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), has withdrawn and, as a result, we have been able to insert between the hon. Members for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) and for Henley (John Howell) the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). She and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) will of course realise that they may not speak from where they are sitting at the moment. One seat is available on the horseshoe, if either of them wants it, although the hon. Member for Isle of Wight might need to smarten up before he takes his seat there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I hope that I am suitably smart to continue—
I am glad. That is very kind of you, Mr Gray.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on a powerful speech to begin this brilliant debate. It is important that he laid out many of the issues before us, and he did so with great power and oratory. I commend him for that. This is not an issue that should in any way divide those of us who are present today, I hope, but rather it will unite us, in the best traditions of this House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) asked to be recommended to the debate, although he was unable to join it. I said I would do so, if you do not mind him being on the record, Mr Gray. It is by the by, because he will not be coming to speak—you do not need to worry about that.
The key thing to say is that the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China—now formed of 18 countries, from east to west around the world, on the left and on the right—helped to sponsor Adrian Zenz’s first report on the Uyghurs. I am not saying that people were not aware of the issue, but the report has reignited it with some of his findings. The findings come from official Chinese documents that relate directly to individual officials—I will come back to that, in response to the point made by the hon. Member for Islwyn about Magnitsky sanctions, because there are individuals party to this named in the papers by the Chinese Government.
Adrian Zenz made the point clearly that at least 1 million Uyghurs—up to nearly 3 million—have been detained in Xinjiang in the re-education camps. I will not go into the details about the camps, because the hon. Gentleman made those clear, but detainees reported often being subject to forced labour, political indoctrination and torture. Almost 400 internment camps have been built, with dozens more still under development and yet to be built.
We all saw the film that was shown to the Chinese ambassador on “The Andrew Marr Show”. The ambassador preferred not to recognise anything said to him, but the reality is that those things were redolent of a time that we thought had gone—treatment of human beings that, looking back in history, we thought we had finally banished, but not so. The hon. Member for Islwyn made all those points about the treatment of the Uyghurs, the torture, and the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women, which was exposed in those documents and is a shocking tale, and the preferment of non-ethnically Uyghur in the Uyghur territories. All are a terrible indictment.
I want to raise something else, because the long hand of those involved in such repression reaches out way beyond China now. About 5,000 Uyghurs live in Australia, most of them former refugees and their families. They told a parliamentary inquiry about frequent intimidation and harassment, such as WeeChat calls from family members back in China that were held in the presence of Chinese law-enforcement people, warning Uyghurs in Australia not to speak unfavourably about the Chinese Government lest something happen to those family members.
One Uyghur received a message from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security after attending a Tiananmen Square memorial, warning that his actions would have an impact on his family. The wife of the president of the Uyghur Association of Victoria said:
“I have left my homeland but I continue to live in fear. If I speak out for my people inside my homeland, I am afraid of retaliation on my family left behind. If I don’t speak out, I feel guilty of keeping the freedom and democracy all just for myself in a free country.”
That is shocking. We know beyond doubt that what is being done to the Uighur population in Xinjiang province is, in my view, a form of genocide. It is a deliberate attempt to eradicate a whole ethnic group.
They are not alone. Only a week ago I held a debate about similar things that are happening to Tibetans. During that debate, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) told me that in Inner Mongolia we are beginning to see the start of exactly the same process. This is not a one-off; it is policy that comes straight down from the Chinese Communist party and the Government. It is their way of supressing any potential angry rows, debates or pressure, and it is appalling.
We know about all this stuff. I mentioned the birth suppression and the way in which population growth rates have fallen by 84% in the two largest Uyghur prefectures between 2015 and 2018, and it declined further in 2019. Such activities could meet the term genocide—I believe that they do. We accept religious freedoms and freedom of speech, which are normal here, but now alien in China.
If one adds those factors to the way that China is behaving in Hong Kong—with the arrest of peaceful protestors, their movement back to China for an unfair hearing and the likelihood of their never being seen again—its threats towards Taiwan, its involvement in taking over the South China sea, against the UN’s own statements about its lack of any historic presence in the area, and its clashes with the Indian army on the border with India, then we are beginning to see a pattern of arrogant and determined behaviour by a Government who care nothing about the reaction of the international community.
What can we do? The hon. Member for Islwyn touched on the Magnitsky amendments that we have made that apply to officials. The Minister knows that I think there is now enough evidence from Xinjiang and the official documents to move on many of those officials. I accept that they are not the top people, but that will send a strong signal to the Government that we, and the rest of the free world, will no longer tolerate it.
That gives us all that we need to start. The House of Lords has added new clause 68 to the Trade Bill. I publicise that here because it is important. I hope and believe that we will support the new clause when the Bill returns to the Commons. The clause makes it clear that we cannot trade with counties that are guilty of genocide. Our High Court will make the decision about whether there is enough evidence. We will no longer have to worry about going to the UN to watch the Chinese and their allies block that; that will allow us to do it independently. Under the charter we have a responsibility to act as a nation.
Mr Gray, I will stop now as I know that other Members wish to speak. There are a huge number of areas in which we can act, not just in Magnitsky. We can implement sanctions and mount evidence suggesting violations specified by the global human rights sanctions regulations. We can ensure that we implement sanctions against officials who are responsible in other areas, such as Tibet and even Hong Kong. We need to act in line with the petition, which has given us clear evidence that the British public have formed their own opinion. If we are not careful, we will be running behind them, rather than leading them. Our purpose, I believe, is to call this out and no longer accept it. As the hon. Member for Islwyn said, no matter how much trade is worth to us, it is not worth that for the loss of those lives.
Order. We have 45 minutes until I call the two Front Benchers. Without applying a formal time limit, there are 13 speakers, which means about four or five minutes each, if that is at all possible and as a courtesy to one another. I call Shabana Mahmood.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. It is almost a month since I secured an Adjournment debate on the plight of the Uyghur people. I had hoped that we would see more progress since that debate on 9 September. I had hoped that we would see the imposition of so-called Magnitsky sanctions against key individuals from the Chinese Communist party, but sadly we are no further on, and the plight of the Uyghur people, against whom, I am quite clear, the Chinese Communist party is perpetrating genocide, becomes ever more desperate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) have both given a huge amount of detail about what the Uyghurs are suffering as a result of the actions of the Chinese Government. They have detailed issues around forced sterilisations, the drop in the birth rate—a drop of almost a third in Xinjiang province—mass detentions, slave labour, and the destruction of culture and heritage. Families are being torn asunder, and we all wonder, as we look on in horror, how much more the Uyghurs will endure as the world simply watches, impotent and unable to act.
I have pressed the Minister before on his rationale for not pursuing Magnitsky sanctions. When I questioned him in September, he told me that I was right to press him on this point. I believe that I am right to do so. Members who make similar arguments about Magnitsky sanctions are right to do so too. It is completely unclear why the Government are still dragging their feet. The case for the imposition of sanctions against individuals, about whom we have clear evidence, has been made. What is the roadblock? I would like the Minister to explain what the roadblock is, because we deserve to know. Too many Members across the House have been pressing him on this point, and have got very little out of the Government.
Since that Adjournment debate in September, the Government have moved with lightning speed on the imposition of Magnitsky-style sanctions against individuals connected to the regime in Belarus and the rigged re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. It was announced that sanctions were being drawn up on 24 September, and they were imposed on 29 September. It took merely days. I contrast that with what is happening to the Uyghur people, and the actions that the Government are still considering against key individuals in the Chinese Government. We have many years-worth of evidence, and months and months of review from our Government, but still no action.
We have heard that the Americans have taken action and imposed sanctions against key individuals in the regime. What is the reason for the UK not following suit? The legal tests have been met, but perhaps there are political tests—and ever-shifting political tests—that have not been met. If that is the case, that is a low moment for our Government. As the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has said, no amount of trade can wipe out the actions of a regime that is committed, in the case of the Uyghur population, to genocide.
I echo the remarks that have been made about the amendment tabled by Lord Alton in the Lords to the Trade Bill. I hope that when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House of Commons, Labour spokespeople will support that amendment, and I hope that the shadow Minister will enlighten us on that today. I hope that the amendment receives cross-party support, because it is an important step and is one of the legal innovations that I told the Minister we must consider, given that we all know that the United Nations is a bit of a busted flush on the issue. The Chinese, with their veto in the Security Council and the buying up of influence we have seen in the last few years, will be able to ensure that any UN process is frustrated and even prevented from getting off the ground.
We therefore need more innovative and legal approaches, and empowering our own High Court to nullify trade agreements with regimes where the trade partner is, with good evidence, believed to have perpetrated a genocide, would be an important step forward. It would be a way for our country, with our long commitment to the rule of law and to calling out egregious human rights abuses, wherever they occur in the world, to make a real contribution.
I therefore hope that approach has support across the House. I will certainly seek to support it. I hope that the Government can bring forward such measures. If there are concerns that such mechanisms may be used in vexatious ways before our High Court, may I say to the Minister that we can come up with thresholds and tests that must be met before the High Court could make such a declaration? It is, however, an important thing for us to consider. It is an important step for us to take, and I hope it will happen.
Finally, I have a couple of quick remarks about UK supply chains in relation to Chinese production of personal protective equipment and, in particular, ventilators procured by our Government for use during the pandemic. There is a clear, real risk that personal protective equipment and ventilators that have ended up in use in our health system in the last few months, procured at great cost in the middle of an international emergency, may well have come about as a result of forced labour of the Uyghur people. If that is the case, that is an unconscionable breach.
We must do much more as a country to ensure that forced labour, slave labour and the labour of the Uyghur people is not found in either the clothes we wear and the technology we use or the kit that our national health service uses. Allowing for the international emergency, there are many more questions for the Government to answer about the checks that took place to ensure that Uyghur labour was not being used for the procurement of things now in our health service. I hope that the Minister can enlighten us today.
In my view, all legal tests have been met for our Government to act. It is time for the Minister to stop repeating the words he has given to all of us before and lay out some practical action, because the time has long passed for us to act against the Chinese Government.
It is a pleasure to follow such eminent speakers. I agree with so many of the points made that I will skip to others, which have not. We do not seek to hold China to either a standard that we would not hold ourselves to, or indeed one that China has not already agreed to. China has already agreed and signed the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the UN convention on the rights of the child, the slavery convention 1926 and the international covenant on civil and political rights. Perhaps most importantly, it was China or, rather, a Chinese diplomat who drafted the individual rights into the UN declaration. P.C. Chang, then a representative of the Chinese Government, held the pen and wrote into international law the principles of individual rights that we value so highly today.
These are not western values; they are universal values that China has agreed to, that the Chinese state has accepted and pledged to obey, and which it is now violating among one of the ethnic minority populations within its borders. This is not something to which we can look idly by and pretend is not happening, because this is not just about the torture, murder and forced sterilisation of Uyghur Muslims—it is of course about that. It is also not just about the violation of freedom of faith and the repression of the Islamic community in western China—and, by the way, the repression of the Christian community across China. It is also—fundamentally for this House—about the liberty of the British people, whom we are here to represent. Our ability to represent and to defend the rights and interests of the people of these islands is contingent on the rights and liberties of other people being respected. We cannot trade and travel freely and fairly if the people of those countries are not free to enjoy the liberties that we think matter.
Anyone who does not think that that is true should ask the family of Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat who worked for the International Crisis Group who was arrested and has been detained for two years by the Chinese Government. The Chinese state—this communist state—is violating the rights of not only Chinese citizens, but all citizens, which is why it is right that this House speak out.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I thank all those who signed the petition to bring this matter to the Chamber this evening.
I do not know whether it is a formally declarable interest or not, but I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Uyghurs. My co-chair, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), would be here, but she is shielding. It is worth reflecting that this is another instance demonstrating that the current procedures for participation in House business perhaps require another visit. In fact, the same is true of the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who takes a close personal interest in these matters.
As the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) observed, I first held a debate on the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang province in this Chamber on 29 January last year. It is gratifying to see the number of people attending the debate today, which is an indication of the attention that has come to the issue and that interest in it has grown.
I was particularly struck in June when Jewish News ran a front-page story with the headline “Chilling echoes”. On 1 October, it ran an editorial revisiting the issue:
“When Jewish News ran a front page earlier this year with the headline ‘Chilling echoes’—in reference to the abuse of the Uyghurs and parallels with the Shoah—we didn’t do so lightly. Any hint of a parallel with the darkest chapter in human history is something we’d always caution against. But the discovery of tonnes of hair taken from members of the minority community in China invoked emotions we as Jews simply could not ignore.”
I quote that because the question of genocide, and the evidence required to establish genocide, is now perhaps at the centre of this issue and our examination of it. As others said, this time, nobody can say that they were not told, that they did not know. There is a growing body of evidence that what is being done in Xinjiang province to the Uyghur Muslim population bears all the characteristics of a genocide, and that there is a requirement for it to be called out politically, and acted on legally, as a genocide.
The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling referenced the UN convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. Article 2 outlines the basis on which genocide is to be established legally—that it is
“committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”,
although that should not be treated as an exhaustive list. That is to say, to meet the legal definition of genocide, the atrocities committed against the Uyghurs need to be committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Consider what has come into the public domain in recent months in that regard. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute published “Uyghurs for sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang.” We have the report prepared for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China by Adrian Zenz, “Sterilizations, IUDs, and Mandatory Birth Control”. We have further Australian Strategic Policy Institute reports: “Cultural Erasure: Tracing the destruction of Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiang” and “Exploring Xinjiang’s detention system”.
Surely, now, on the basis of that evidence gathered by campaign groups around the world, there needs to be a formal mission to China headed up by the United Nations to gather the evidence in a systematic manner, in order to move forward in a legal, not just a political, way. That is the opportunity that we have as a member of the United Nations Security Council, and I urge the Minister today to make every progress in that regard.
In debates such as this, it is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who rightly quoted a newspaper on what the Jewish community has said. My speech is about genocide and why the Government are not calling it what it is.
We often stand in Westminster Hall or the other Chamber and say, “Never again”, but the truth is we continue to have to say it. We have seen many other genocides, but, with reference specifically to the Uyghurs, mounting evidence has shifted international attention on to Xinjiang. The Chinese Government admitted to the existence of the camp only when it was discovered. They sought to justify it under the pretext of national security, vocational training and re-education. The reality of those so-called vocational training and education centres is far more sinister. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China has stated:
“A body of mounting evidence now exists, alleging mass incarceration, indoctrination, extrajudicial detention, invasive surveillance, forced labor”.
The testimony of witnesses and survivors is even more disturbing. We have learned that Uyghur women have been subjected to forced contraception, abortion and sterilisation, including forced removal of their wombs. There are also reports detailing that horrific abuses have been uncovered, such as Muslims being forced to drink alcohol, eat pork and convert from the religion of their choice, yet despite the intelligence and testimonies, and the fact that China is hiding its actions in plain sight, our Government fall short of acknowledging that acts of genocide are taking place.
Recent reports and analysis of satellite images reveal that the Chinese Government continue to construct new internment camps, displaying an unwavering desire to continue their campaign of genocide against the Uyghur people. It is clear that the Government’s stance is not working. The co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response points out that if a state does not make a formal determination of genocide, it will be less likely to fulfil its duty to prevent or stop the genocide. The Government must, in the interim, be able to make the determination to respond accordingly to atrocities. Much has been said about the Magnitsky amendments and I will push the Minister to respond. What is stopping us applying those measures, which should be imposed on those involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang?
Alarmingly, as China asserts its dominance among global economies, it has been accused of benefiting from the fruits of the forced labour of the Uyghur people. A coalition of up to 180 human rights organisations has said:
“Virtually the entire apparel industry is tainted by forced Uighur…labour”.
Alongside imposing sanctions, the Government must go further and seek out brands based here in the UK that are profiteering from the exploitation of the Uyghur people. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) referred to medical equipment in that context. The Government should remind brands of their ethical responsibility and impose corporate accountability on them. Their supply chains are propping up China’s genocide against the Uyghur.
Unless China is forced to act by unflinching political, commercial and legal action from the Government, nothing will change. Indeed, China is a signatory to the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, and it must be reminded of its obligations. We have witnessed time and again the direction that the road of religious and ethnic hatred takes us in. Our inaction also means that we all know how it ends—with the deaths of countless innocent men, women and children.
How many more times are we going to have debates where right hon. and hon. Members pledge “never again”? In my lifetime, we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and said, “Never again.” We left UN peacekeepers unsupported, despite their concerns that there would be war crimes in Srebrenica, and afterwards we again said, “Never again.” We saw acts of genocide against the Yazidis in Syria, we debated that genocide in its aftermath, and we said again, “Never again.” In Myanmar, we have seen acts of genocide against the Rohingya population, leaving the survivors stateless, and once more we said, “Never again.” At some point, we need to stop saying, “Never again.” We need to learn from history, identify these things when we see them happening and—crucially—we must act.
As a British Muslim, I know that Islam is based on ideals of peace, equality, loyalty, justice and, most importantly, submission to the will of Allah. This is also true for Uyghur Muslims; they are no exception. Yet despite their peaceful characteristics, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs find themselves suffering cultural and religious annihilation at the hands of the Chinese Communist party, and among their number are also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Christians and adherents of Falun Gong.
Sadly, there is a growing mountain of evidence to support claims that the Chinese Communist party is seriously violating the human rights of these people. As the United Kingdom, it is our moral duty to verify and document these human rights violations. As we have heard, up to 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other Turkic Muslims have been rounded up and put in re-education camps, where they are subject to political indoctrination, forced sterilisation and torture. Such extermination goes well beyond the Uyghur people. The CCP is intent on destroying non-Han Chinese cultural identity and history. Revered religious sites and mosques have been demolished, under supposed mosque rectification campaigns, while others with distinctive architectural features, such as minarets and domes, have been moved, as part of a campaign to Sinocise Islam.
According to CNN, since 2018, over 100 Uyghur cemeteries have been destroyed and relocated, including one that was transformed into a car park. Indeed, in response to a written question that I submitted to the Minister who is here today, he said that British diplomats themselves had verified in person much of this destruction.
We know that the Uyghur language is being banned in Xinjiang schools and that practising Islam is discouraged, shall we say, because it is seen as a sign of extremism. UNESCO has called this process “strategic cultural cleansing”. The cultural genocide is nothing other than an attempt to remove the Uyghurs and further cement Han Chinese supremacy. In 2018, an official in Xinjiang said on state media that the aim of these policies was to
“break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins”.
If that is not bad enough, there is a further point that I believe it is our duty to bring to the public’s attention and it is nothing other than the evil of slavery. These re-education camps conceal slavery, and slavery has seeped into almost every part of the Chinese economy. In addition to the exports that China sends to the United Kingdom and our allies around the world, in July, as we have heard, the United States seized a shipment of 13 tons of human hair products coming from China, allegedly from Xinjiang camps.
Slavery and forced labour in any capacity are repugnant to us all. The idea that, unwittingly, citizens of this country—in Wakefield and elsewhere—are purchasing Chinese goods and thereby becoming a partner of this evil industry must be rooted out and we must take a stronger view on it. So, the Magnitsky-style sanctions are a step in the right direction and should be used against those involved in the imprisonment and enslavement of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minorities. However, we must go further and do our utmost to prevent the supply chain that we are involved in from having any link to the abhorrent practice of slavery.
It pains me that most Muslim-majority countries around the world have stayed largely silent. As a Muslim, that is a cause of great upset and regret. If it is left to us, Britain must become the champion and defender of liberty, freedom, tolerance and pluralism for peoples around the world, and must stand up against tyranny, oppression and persecution wherever they are found, whether in China or in Muslim-majority countries.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I defer to the great knowledge of Members in this room. My own interest and involvement in the plight of the Uyghurs come from watching the Andrew Marr interview with the Chinese ambassador in July. The flagrant denial of oppression in Xinjiang was almost as terrifying as the images and videos that accompanied the interview on screen: row after row of men blindfolded with their heads shaven, waiting to be loaded on to trains. The images were so shocking that they play on one’s mind for days and weeks, and even now. The similarities, as so many have said, between that video and historic footage of Nazi concentration camps are truly chilling. All of us rightly remember and reflect on the sickening and frightening ways in which humans treat one another, and we pledge that it must never happen again. Now that the world is presented with such overwhelming evidence of gross human rights abuses, nobody can turn a blind eye.
Some 141 parliamentarians, including some Members in this debate, joined me in publicly expressing absolute condemnation of such oppression in an open letter to the ambassador after his interview. More than a month on, we have still not received a reply. In the meantime, shocking testimony and frightening reports have filled our in-boxes and our screens, each more terrifying than the last. There are accusations of torture, the forced abortion of babies, the sterilisation of women and the removal of their wombs. A genocide of the Uyghurs is happening before our eyes.
The Minister knows how important the word “genocide” is in international law. He might even be under strict instructions not to use that word here today, but he will know how unlikely it is that the world will arrive at a definition, given the countries that sit in the United Nations and the veto that they hold. A cowardly country could hide behind the linguistic excuse. Shame on us if we choose that path, because the Chinese Government’s actions must be stated as what they are: a systematic and calculated programme of ethnic cleansing against the Uyghur people.
An independent tribunal is under way, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC. Government endorsement of the findings, whatever they may be, is surely the moral and necessary action to take. Organising and leading an international tribunal would be even stronger. No one could leave this debate anything other than horrified at the situation in Xinjiang. Condemning the world’s next superpower is easy. Taking action is much harder. If we look on, history will condemn our unforgivable cowardice and ask why those in power did not act. This is a heavy burden for the Minister, but he is the person in the chair in a position of influence. Warm words are simply not enough because this time no one can say that they did not know.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate.
The fight to prevent genocide is a subject close to my heart, as it is to all Members in this debate and many others across the House. I have vivid memories of observing as a teenager what happened during the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. Since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have campaigned on the genocide committed by the Myanmar Government against the Rohingya people. Many other examples that we have all witnessed in the past echo what has been happening recently.
We have seen in recent years that despite our proud record as a country in standing up against human rights violations, systematic discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide, our Government have been found wanting. We have seen that from the failure of the British Government, with the international community, to act in relation to what was happening with the Rohingya Muslims. I draw that parallel because it is vital that we learn the lessons of our recent history. Many of us warned our Government to act: not to remove sanctions against the Myanmar Government prematurely as they made the transition towards democracy, even when the US was not doing it.
This time, we see the US taking a leadership role and our Government dithering once again. I hope the Minister will step up and, if he is being prevented from speaking out against what looks like another genocide, talk to his boss and ask him to take genocide much more seriously. There is no more serious issue than what is happening in Myanmar, as well as in China with the Uyghur population.
I am incredibly grateful to right hon. and hon. Members from across the House for debating this issue because despite all our efforts, we failed to get accountability and action to prevent the exodus, punishment and persecution of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims. We ultimately saw a million forced out of their country in 2017, and we saw the plight of that group, yet even today—again, there is a parallel—our Government fail to support the actions of the Government of Gambia, who are leading an International Court of Justice case on that issue. I hope that as we move forward, we will learn those lessons and ensure that in relation to China, our Government show the courage of their convictions and take action to prevent another genocide.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. We have three minutes in which to cover a huge amount, so I will just say that I agree with literally everything I have heard so far. I think it is wonderful how this place comes together to represent what I think is, as we are seeing, the enormous, heartfelt, emotional view of our constituents and the country as a whole.
Today, in addition to continuing to make the case that we must call this a genocide and that we must get on with Magnitsky sanctions, I want to focus on the fact that we all have power because we are all consumers. As has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), there are issues with the procurement of PPE and ventilators, but the apparel industry is also well-trodden ground. It is estimated that one in five cotton garments from anywhere in the world has touched this supply chain, and when this has been looked into by the Associated Press, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and others including the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, some of the names of the list of companies are shocking.
I will name and shame a few: they are public services, people will love me for it, and I will not be able to do more because I am going to run out of time. I ask anyone who might be listening to please look on my Twitter feed. Those companies include Amazon, Calvin Klein, Esprit, Fila and Gap. They include H&M—I was really sad to read that—and Ikea. Who does not have Ikea in their homes? They also include Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma, Skechers, Tommy Hilfiger, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret and Zara, and that is not the full list.
In addition to the apparel industry, we know that there is movement of workers from these internment camps to factories across China that, in turn, touch the supply chains of other types of companies. Those include Amazon, Apple, BMW, Dell, Gap, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Nintendo and Nokia, and the list goes on. I want these companies to take up what I am saying, and take issue with what is happening. This was raised with Adidas and Lacoste, and to their credit they have now agreed to cut ties with the implicated suppliers and contractors as a result of that public pressure. I hope that has added to the public pressure on those other companies.
As I say, people need to look up the full list. They have power as consumers; we have power in this place as well, and the Government have power. I believe the Government should now be looking at those international supply chains. We are doing it with forests; we can do it with human rights. I ask the Minister whether he will agree to meet with me at some other time so that we can discuss this further, because I think this might be one of the ways in which every single person can act quickly.
I would like to say how much I welcome the British Government’s refocusing on human rights. I hope the Minister will take back to the Secretary of State my congratulations to him on the work that he has been doing at the United Nations on this issue.
I am a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. That might not sound particularly relevant to the debate, but the trust concentrates on genocides and other similar activities that have occurred since the second world war and that continue today. It is an organisation that goes out of its way to ensure that the “never again” message is heard very loudly.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members have asked for Magnitsky sanctions to be imposed on China. I know a bit about Magnitsky sanctions, because I spoke about this issue in January 2019 at the Council of Europe, on a motion raised by Lord Donald Anderson—a socialist motion that was put forward on which we could all agree. There was nothing that separated us on this issue.
The thing about Magnitsky sanctions is that they need to identify people. We cannot use them just to attack a country; we have to use them to attack an individual group of people. Can the Minister tell us how close we are to having identified people in China on whom we can impose the Magnitsky sanctions, so that we can get this thing moving?
As somebody else has already said, it is not just a case of doing the Magnitsky sanctions and then forgetting about it. We also need to do as much as we can in other areas. That is difficult for us to do as the UK; we need to have the co-operation of other countries. Clearly, the opponents of our actions against China have also got their acts together—we saw Belarus, Iran and Zimbabwe among the group that is leading on this. The action that we take with other countries can be far more powerful than if we try to do it alone.
As right hon. and hon. Members have described, what is happening to the Uyghur people in Xinjiang is absolutely abhorrent and cannot be ignored. The Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 give us a means
“to deter, and provide accountability for,”
the kinds of activities that China is carrying out. The regulations say that people have the right
“not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,”
and that they have the right
“to be free from slavery, not to be held in servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labour”.
Given the clear abuses being carried out by China against the Uyghurs, which have been described by right hon. and hon. Members, I urge Ministers to consider how the regulations can be used to help bring an end to this situation. The Magnitsky-style sanctions would honour the request of the petition and show the UK’s commitment to protecting global human rights.
Of course, we MPs and the Government are facing an enormous challenge right now, and many of our constituents expect us to be focused on that challenge. I wanted to attend the debate and speak briefly, because history is watching us. What is happening in Xinjiang is of historic significance. We have seen the power of the modern state wielded against its own people before, with the result being millions killed in factories of death. People who hesitate to make that comparison should remember that that stain on human history began with the erosion of rights, mass detention and forced labour. We are now seeing the power of the modern state supercharged in the digital age and the age of surveillance.
We must be honest with ourselves: there are no simple solutions to what we are discussing, and we are not in a position to rescue the situation alone, just as we were not able to do so in world war two. We will need to work with others. Even then, the task is incredibly daunting. However, I want China to know that we are watching—this House is watching, and the world is watching. History has shown us that simply disapproving from afar is not enough to stop regimes of this nature. We must find further ways to act. We must stand up, and we must be counted.
I promise to keep my jacket on for the whole sitting, Mr Gray.
I am going to mention three things briefly, slightly echoing other Members: first, consistency; secondly, forced labour; and thirdly, China’s surveillance state. Before I begin, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on the work that IPAC has been doing to bring all these things to light. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) on her work. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, will lead an inquiry on the Uyghurs, and I look forward to participating in that.
Consistency is important. We lack capacity to change China’s policy, but recognition of what is happening is important in its own right. Not to recognise it and avoid it, and avoid discussing it, puts us in moral jeopardy. Recognising that something is happening—it may be an obvious statement—is the first step in actually being able to do something. That brings me on to forced labour. We can all be outraged, but outrage—there is an awful lot of it in Parliament, especially on foreign affairs questions—does not necessarily produce anything. What could produce something is some kind of work on forced labour. Freedom from oppression should be one of our new foreign policy goals.
I would love to know what the Government are doing on the issue of forced labour. Are they preparing a report on the issue of supply chains and forced labour? If not, why can we not do so? One hundred or 200 Members of Parliament, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) said, could highlight western firms that profited from forced labour, and we could write to all those people. I know of Huawei, as I have said, but there are many others, as she pointed out. If wrote to all those people and said, “Do you really want your customers to wear the product of slave labour?”, we would not necessarily need Government to act, because we could act ourselves. I wonder whether that is something that collectively we could do.
Finally, on China’s surveillance state, there are two models for the 21st century for humanity: first, there is the western liberal model, however tarnished and however much Google and Facebook try to privatise all our personal information. That is still the great hope for humanity: government under law; politicians under law; with people at least nominally sovereign, and hopefully supreme over them. The alternative is the model that we see in the new authoritarian states, primarily Russia, but also China, of a surveillance system that is made much more powerful by big data, artificial intelligence and politicians who want to engineer dissent out of humanity. That is what we are seeing in China—we are seeing the sharp edge of that not only in Tibet but in Xinjiang province, so there is much to play for in the 21st century.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the Petitions Committee for securing this vital debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for making such a powerful and passionate speech to introduce the debate, and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), who made compelling contributions, both passionate and forensic. Members across the House have shown today that there is no doubt about the strength of feeling in Parliament.
The plight of the Uyghur people is a scar on the conscience of the world—of that there can be no doubt—and the fact that the Chinese Government continue to act with impunity leaves us all with a sense of burning injustice. It is vital and urgent that the international community comes together to speak with one voice, and to say loud and clear to Beijing, “We will not stand idly by while Uyghur people are imprisoned in these so-called re-education camps. We will not look the other way in response to reports of the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women. We will not react with indifference to any efforts to destroy the Uyghur language, culture and way of life.”
It is equally vital and urgent that the UK Government take a leadership role in convening and co-ordinating the international response. Our greatness as a country is based on our resolute and unshakeable commitment to human rights and the rule of law. The British people know that if our country is to be a force for good in the world, those values must be applied universally. Regrettably, attempts to show leadership on this issue are handicapped by the fact that, for several years now, the approach of successive Conservative Governments to China has been naive and complacent.
In 2015, David Cameron and George Osborne announced a new golden era in Sino-British relations. The premise was simple. The UK would open its markets and infrastructure to China and in return Beijing would reciprocate, while integrating with the rules-based international order.
Fast forward five years and where do we stand? We are still running a £19 billion trade deficit with China, and the Chinese Government have dealt a hammer blow to democracy in Hong Kong, committed egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, and stepped up their military activities in the South China sea. The fact of the matter is that the golden era strategy has been an unmitigated failure. Successive Conservative Governments have rolled out the red carpet for Beijing in the hope of reciprocity and constructive engagement, but the past five years have seen the emergence of a China that increasingly pursues policies that undermine international norms and violate what should be international and universal values.
We have deep respect for China’s history, culture and civilisation, and we fully acknowledge and recognise its great power status. The relationship between the peoples of the UK and China is deep, of long standing and valued by both. There is a pressing need to improve mutual understanding and friendly co-operation, but the Chinese leadership must understand that their breaching of international law and violation of human rights benefits no one, least of all themselves. China is deeply integrated into the global economy, and it needs globalisation to work for its people, just as much as we do. But if it continues to pursue zero-sum policies that place dominance ahead of consensus and crushing one’s critics ahead of compromise, the international community will have no choice but to toughen its stance by exerting further political, diplomatic and economic pressure on Beijing.
Against that backdrop, we call on the UK Government to commit to a fundamental strategic reset in Sino-British relations. We must seek constructive engagement based on mutual respect, but respect is a two-way street. The leadership of the Communist party of China respects strength and unity, and it is contemptuous of weakness and division. We must find ways to co-operate with the Chinese Government on crucial global issues such as climate change and pandemics, while also challenging them when they undermine international law.
To achieve that, the following needs to happen. First, we must rebuild our strategic independence. Successive Conservative Governments have left our country over-reliant on supply chains that originate in China and open to hostile takeovers by Chinese state-backed enterprises and investment vehicles. The UK is now dependent on China for 57 categories of goods that relate to our critical national infrastructure. This over-reliance on China dramatically diminishes our ability to stand up for our interests and project our values. There needs to be a far more joined-up approach across Whitehall on these issues.
Secondly, the UK Government need to build an alliance of democracies to champion co-operation based on shared values and promoting human rights. Successive Conservative Governments since 2016 have shown that they are adept at burning bridges. This Government must now show that they know how to rebuild trust with our European allies while engaging more effectively with democratic governments, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.
I turn to the mass atrocities that are taking place in Xinjiang. We urge the Government to take the following actions. First, it is imperative that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is given full and unfettered access to Xinjiang and the Uyghur people who are being detained there, so that the true scale and nature of the crimes can be established and documented. For that to be possible, far more intense and co-ordinated pressure must be applied, and we therefore urge the UK Government to publicly oppose China’s election to the UN Human Rights Council in the forthcoming elections, and to hold firm to that position until such time as Beijing provides the High Commissioner with access to Xinjiang.
Secondly, the Government must deploy Magnitsky sanctions against senior CCP officials who are responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Minister will say that that is under review and should not be rushed but, frankly, that is not good enough. MPs have been expressing concerns about the plight of the Uyghur since 2017, and the Magnitsky legislation was passed in 2018. I therefore encourage the Minister to provide some clarity: what is the real cause of this mysterious delay, and can the Opposition be of any assistance in removing the roadblock, whatever it is, so that the Government can get on with taking long-overdue action?
Thirdly, the Government should explore additional legal avenues for challenging what is happening in Xinjiang, including an assessment of whether China’s actions constitute a violation of the 1984 convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, to which China is a state party. The Government must consider infringement procedures if such a determination is made.
Fourthly, the Government must publicly support the UN International Law Commission’s draft convention on the prevention and punishment of crimes against humanity, which would close an important gap in international law.
Fifthly, as many hon. Members have raised today, the Government must mobilise action across Whitehall to ensure that British businesses conduct thorough due diligence of supply chains, such that British companies withdraw without delay from any and all supply chains that potentially involve forced labour or other human rights abuses. I trust that the Minister will give careful consideration to those recommendations, in terms of both the fundamental reset that is required, and the specific issues with Xinjiang province.
I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for this debate, to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for introducing it and to all colleagues for their contributions. There is, rightly, deep public concern about the issue, so I am also grateful to the 146,000 members of the public who signed the petition and enabled this debate to take place. We have heard the strength of feeling in the House about Xinjiang, and I will respond to as many as possible of the points that have been made.
I assure the House that we closely and constantly monitor the situation in Xinjiang. As we have heard and read, and as we acknowledge, there have been harrowing reports and evidence of gross human rights violations. Analysis of satellite images suggests that the Chinese authorities continue to construct internment camps and demolish mosques and other religious sites. Those are systematic restrictions on Uyghur culture and religion. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) about the extensive and invasive surveillance operation that targets minorities. We have also seen credible evidence of forced labour —that was raised by most Members this afternoon—and the Chinese Government’s own figures show a dramatic decrease in population growth in Xinjiang over the past three years.
I will now set out the Government’s position on global human rights sanctions. On 6 July, as right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, we established the global human rights sanctions regime. In a statement to Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the full scope of the UK’s new global human rights sanctions regime. He was clear, and I reiterate this today, that it is not appropriate to speculate on future designations under that regime. As I have said before and as the Foreign Secretary made clear, to do so could reduce the impact of such designations. However, I make it absolutely clear that that is under constant review.
On 9 September, during an Adjournment debate on Xinjiang, I stated that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is carefully considering further designations under the sanctions regime. We will keep all the evidence and the potential listings under close review. Our position on that remains unchanged.
Let me be clear that we are committed to responding robustly to all human rights violations in Xinjiang. We have played a leading role within the international community to hold China to account. We have led two joint statements at the UN in the past year, including a statement at the UN Human Rights Council in June that was supported by 28 countries. Last week, on 6 October, 39 countries joined our statement at the UN third committee in New York, expressing deep concern at the situation not just in Xinjiang, but in Tibet and Hong Kong. We believe this growing caucus reflects our diplomatic leadership, including the personal involvement of our Foreign Secretary.
Outside the UN, we have lobbied around the world to raise awareness of the issue and underlined the critical need for an international response. We have supported that by funding third-party research to increase the evidence base and international awareness, and by sharing our analysis of the situation on the ground, although Members will appreciate that getting access to Xinjiang is incredibly difficult. On 25 September, the UK dedicated its entire national statement at the UN Human Rights Council to human rights violations in China. That is only the second time the UK has dedicated its national statement to a single country, the first being about Russia in 2018 following the poisonings in Salisbury.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised our serious concerns about Xinjiang directly with his Chinese counterpart on a number of occasions, most recently on 28 July, and I have raised them directly with the Chinese ambassador in recent months. We continue to raise awareness of the human rights violations in Xinjiang with UK businesses. We impress upon them the need to act in line with the expectations set out in the UK national action plan on business and human rights. That means conducting due diligence to make sure that they are not contributing to any human rights violations, including the use of forced labour in their supply chains.
Several right hon. and hon. Members have raised the question of genocide. The term genocide has a specific definition in international law, and it is the long-standing policy of the UK Government that any judgment as to whether war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide have occurred is a matter for judicial decision.
In the time I have left, I will turn to remarks and comments made by right hon. and hon. Members. The hon. Member for Islwyn introduced the debate in his typically eloquent style, raising many of the concerns that we all share about the plight of the Uyghur people. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on the work he does with IPAC and his persistent championing of this cause.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) was absolutely right to raise the points that she did, but I politely suggest that it is not correct to say that we are no further on. Our actions at the UN last week, alongside 38 other countries, are an example of that. She raised the issue of forced labour, as did most Members. The reports are credible. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute report, which the FCO part-funded, estimated that 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work.
We are committed to eradicating modern slavery and forced labour. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 made the UK the first country to require businesses to report how they identify and address modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains, as hon. Members have mentioned. Businesses with an annual turnover of more than £36 million are required to publish an annual modern slavery statement, and we are developing a registry of modern slavery statements.
It is absolutely the case that companies need to abide by the law. More can be done in this area, and we are developing further measures. The Home Office announced on 22 September a series of new measures to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act. These measures require legislative change, which will be brought forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.
There were some excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat)—the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee—for Henley (John Howell), for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), for Isle of Wight and for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), and from the hon. Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) referred eloquently to genocide. Again, any judgment as to whether war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide have occurred has to be a judicial matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield referred to strategic cultural cleansing. The freedom to practise, change or share one’s faith or beliefs without discrimination or violent opposition is a human right that all people should be able to enjoy. He was also right to highlight the lack of condemnation from predominantly Muslim countries of the oppression of the Uyghurs. I am sure that his powerful voice will have been heard today.
The Minister mentions genocide. A clear-cut International Court of Justice case is currently ongoing, but the UK Government refuse to back it. What test has to be passed before our Government—a penholder in the UN on Burma—are likely to act? That is the problem: constant excuses.
I know how powerfully the hon. Lady feels about this issue, but, as I say, there is a specific definition in international law, and any decision has to be judicial. I am sure that this will come up in the future, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss it.
The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) asked whether we would publicly oppose China’s election to the United Nations Human Rights Council this week. He will be aware that we never comment on voting in UN elections, which are conducted by secret ballot. The UK has been absolutely clear with China about our grave concerns in relation to Xinjiang. As I said, on 6 October we joined 38 other countries to call on China to allow immediate and unfettered access for independent UN observers.
I know that I have to give the hon. Member for Islwyn a couple of minutes, so I will wrap up. I reiterate that we cannot speculate on future designations under our sanctions regime. China must immediately end extrajudicial detention in Xinjiang and uphold the principles of freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and freedom of association for every single one of its citizens. As the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made clear, we want a positive relationship with China, but 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.
This is one of the rare occasions when I am proud to be a Member of this House. Today, I feel as though we have spoken with one voice—a powerful and passionate voice. I hope it is heard when the Minister is dealing with his international counterparts. However powerful China is, or thinks it is, we in this House will not accept any reason for undermining someone’s human rights, because if one person’s human rights are denied, everybody’s human rights are denied.
The Minister and I have known each other for a long time now—10 years, I think—and I know that he will stand up. I know that in the international community he has to work within the international framework, but I hope that if he finds businesses engaging in modern slavery, repressing people’s rights or committing any other human rights abuses, he will let them know that they will feel the full might of the Government.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. This year, the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day, which was on 27 January, is about shining a light in the darkness. With this debate and those that preceded it, I really hope that we have shone a light on human rights abuses. We say to any country, however powerful, that we will not take that. The Minister can go away from this debate knowing that whatever sanctions he wishes to impose, he will have the full support of the House.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).