Wednesday 21 October 2020
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Persecution of Christians and Freedom of Religion or Belief
I remind hon. 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 room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members may speak only if they are on the call lists. That applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members may not join a debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered progress on the Bishop of Truro’s independent review on persecution of Christians and freedom of religion or belief.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity to have this Westminster Hall debate. As colleagues from across the House know, I led on the implementation of this report and on championing freedom of religion or belief as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I led on this work across Government from September 2019 to September 2020. I stepped down from that role because of a policy difference with the Government. It was on a matter of principle regarding the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and my personal commitment to respecting the rule of law.
At the outset of this debate, I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for giving me a chance to serve as his special envoy covering issues of freedom of religion or belief, which are dear to my heart. I know that they are also dear to the Prime Minister’s heart, and he made FORB a top priority for the Government.
I came to this country in 1984 at the age of six and as the son of an imam. My family and I were able to practise our faith openly and freely and were welcomed with open arms in Gillingham. A moral duty on me, whether in Parliament, as envoy or in everyday life, is to stand up for the rights of individuals from minority faiths around the world, so that they are able to practise their faith or belief openly and freely, as I did in Gillingham and as I do now in my home towns of Gillingham and Rainham.
I am most grateful to His Grace Archbishop Ian Ernest, the director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, for pointing me towards Jeremiah 29: 4-8, from the Bible, which he said means, “You should welcome all people, regardless of colour, creed or background, to your city, and when you join that city, you work hard for co-existence in that city, so that the area prospers.” Gillingham accepted me with open arms, and my parents taught me the values of respect, kindness and individual responsibility, which helped to give me an opportunity to serve my home town as its Member of Parliament and a chance now to serve its community.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated at the time of my appointment:
“A staggering 83% of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is threatened or banned. It is an area where the UK can and must make a difference.”
Those were the words of our Foreign Secretary. According to a Pew Research Centre report, 84% of the world’s population claim to identify themselves with a religion. I agree with the BBC’s chief international correspondent:
“If you don’t understand religion—including the abuse of religion—it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world.”
I thank the Prime Minister for his personal commitment during my time in office and for his keen interest in my work. For example, when I sent an update note to the Prime Minister on the work that I was doing, I got a note back saying, “The Prime Minister very much appreciates what you have put in the update note. Can you clarify point x?” One does not need to know what point x is; that shows the Prime Minister’s personal interest in the note that had gone in and that he wanted to know more about the work that was being done.
In 2018, the Prime Minister also personally supported my campaign for the UK Government to grant asylum to Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was being persecuted in Pakistan for her faith, in an abuse of the blasphemy laws. I thank Members of Parliament from all parties for being absolutely amazing champions in promoting FORB in Parliament; I see them in Westminster Hall today.
I also thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his personal support for my work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I thank him right from the outset for going to the extent, as the Minister knows, of saying that, as a special envoy, I was entitled to attend ministerial meetings on a Tuesday to give updates on FORB. The personal support that I received from him in this role was absolutely superb, and I thank him through the Minister; I have already thanked him personally, but I thank him again now.
Likewise, it was a real pleasure to work with Ministers from across the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on this top priority for the Government, and I thank all the excellent officials who I worked with on the FORB team at the Foreign Office.
I also personally thank four other individuals. Someone coming in as a special envoy is given a team of civil servants to work with, which is great, but I wanted experts, so I said that I would like to appoint my own four experts to advise me on delivering the 22 different recommendations. There is a recommendation on the United Nations Security Council resolution, which I will turn to later. I am not an expert on the United Nations Security Council, so who should I have appointed? I was very fortunate to have Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the United Kingdom’s former ambassador to the United Nations, a brilliant national security adviser and a former director general at the Foreign Office; I see the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), nodding with approval. Sir Mark is a brilliant former diplomat, so I was very lucky to have him on my advisory board.
I was also lucky to have Sir Malcolm Evans, a professor from the University of Bristol and a member of the Foreign Secretary’s advisory board on human rights, as well as Dr Naz Ghanea from Oxford University, who is brilliant on human rights and intersectionality on FORB issues and women’s issues across the board. Finally, I was fortunate to have Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, a former bishop in Pakistan and also Bishop of Rochester, so he covers all the jurisdictions and issues that face individuals.
I turn now to the report from the Bishop of Truro. As colleagues from all parties know, the Bishop of Truro’s independent review was commissioned by the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), on 26 December 2018, to consider the persecution of Christians around the world. As I see it, the review was a direct response to wide-ranging reports that the suffering of Christians globally and especially that of Christian minorities is of such a scale and intensity that it can no longer be ignored by the Government or other actors. I thank my right hon. Friend the former Foreign Secretary for commissioning that report.
The review was carried out by the Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, and his team: Sir Charles Hoare, David Fieldsend and Rachael Varney. On 9 July 2019, Bishop Philip published his report, which made 22 recommendations. This Government, like the previous Government of Prime Minister May, accepted those 22 different recommendations in full.
I thank Bishop Philip for his excellent work and detailed report. As the report, which I have here with me, spells out on page 4:
“Across the globe, in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, Christians are being bullied, arrested, jailed, expelled and executed. Christianity is by most calculations the most persecuted religion of modern times.”
That is a statement from Bishop Philip, who was asked by our Government to carry out a report into the scale of persecution of Christians around the world.
One needs to look at the work and the data of excellent NGOs such as Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Aid to the Church in Need—to name just a few—that I had the real pleasure of meeting and interacting with, because best policy is made when we speak to, listen to and engage with people on the ground, and our NGOs do that.
I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). She organised the Open Doors event that was attended by over 110 parliamentarians from across the House—Members of the Commons and Members of the Lords. That is why I say to the Government that in this Parliament the issue of religious freedom is a top priority among parliamentarians, and so is the delivery of this report, which I will shortly outline.
It would not be fair of me if I did not refer to what Bishop Philip said on page 7 of his report. He wrote:
“To argue for special pleading for one group over another would be antithetical to the Christian tradition. It would also, ironically, expose that group to greater risk. We must seek FoRB for all, without fear or favour.”
The report and its recommendations, which I was taking forward for the Government, were designed to protect and stand up for freedom of religion or belief for all.
For me, freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right for everyone. It is crucial for a peaceful, prosperous, virtuous society as well as being a national security priority. When I came in, I split the delivery of the different recommendations into short-term, medium-term and long-term deliverability, after I had consulted Bishop Philip. I had the report and I asked myself the question, “What is behind this report and these recommendations?” I met Bishop Philip to ask, “How can we take these forward? Why did you come up with that recommendation? What did you have in mind when you designed that recommendation?” His advice and counsel, from the outset and throughout, has been outstanding.
There were challenges during the year. We had a general election, which meant we were away from Parliament for a bit, and there was covid-19. From March, covid-19 meant that resources and officials working on this area were deployed elsewhere, to a certain extent, and rightly so. They were dealing with covid-19 and making sure that our citizens were brought back from different parts of the world. I thank the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister for doing a great job and getting 1.2 million of our citizens back to the UK.
On 13 September 2020, after one year in office, 17 of the Truro recommendations were either fully implemented or progressed. How did I come up with those 17 recommendations? It is important to have accountability. In July this year, we had a new head of freedom of religious belief, Juliet, a brilliant official tasked with overseeing all of the FORB work. I asked her to review every aspect of the work that I led on, because there needed to be accountability for my work.
I asked Juliet to look at the different recommendations across the board because by July, when I gave evidence to the yearly review with Bishop Truro, there were 11 recommendations that may have been classed as moving forward into the category of implemented or fully implemented, but I wanted someone to independently look at that. On 7 September, Juliet, as the head of FORB, and said that 17 recommendations could be classed as fully implemented or progressed.
I will touch on some of those recommendations now. Recommendation 1 says:
“Ensure FoRB…alongside other human rights and values, is central to FCO operation,”
and talks about a “Diplomatic Code.” When I read the report, my first question was. “What do we mean by a diplomatic code? Bishop Philip, what do you mean by a diplomatic code?” He said, “It is an internal working programme for the Foreign Office.” It provides overarching objectives for the Foreign Office.
I then met the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office and said, “This is the recommendation. This is what is designed to be delivered. Can we look at how we take this forward?” He said, “Rehman, one of the objectives we have at the Foreign Office at the moment is promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.” In the Foreign Secretary’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, he gave a three-winged approach on freedoms—FORB freedom, media freedom and Magnitsky sanctions. On the framework, I asked officials to come back by December with a recommendation of how it could be taken forward.
The next recommendation will take a bit of time, Mr Hollobone, but it is important that I cover it for Members. It says:
“Articulate an aspiration to be the global leader in championing FoRB”.
That is crucial. It is a top priority for our Government, but what have we actually done to make it a top priority? How have we interacted with others around the world?
When I advised the Government, it was a delight to join the International Religious Freedom Alliance as a founding member in 2020. The IRFA is an organisation of like-minded states that respect freedom of religion or belief, as in article 18 of the declaration of human rights. It was launched in Washington by Secretary of State Pompeo with over 20 members from states around the world. I had the pleasure of representing the United Kingdom at that meeting.
I pay tribute to Sam Brownback, United States ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He had a vision of creating an international alliance that could take swift, quick and appropriate action with like-minded partners, and he made it a reality by getting the alliance set up. It has done work on covid-19 and the challenge that we face. We sit here in Parliament representing constituencies. Our constituents have faced challenges and difficulties, but some citizens around the world have suffered more than others under covid-19 for being a member of a religious minority. So what has the alliance been doing?
The alliance helped religious prisoners of conscience in Yemen and worked to get prisoners of conscience in the Baha’i community released. In Eritrea, religious prisoners of conscience were released. On speaking to Ambassador Brownback at the weekend, I learnt that 1,679 religious prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan have been released with the direct involvement of the alliance and the work of Ambassador Sam Brownback, and it would be unfair of me not to mention the work of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed. I thank them all.
Before I stepped down I was fortunate to be the vice-chairman of the international alliance, having helped to create it, and the members had asked if I would serve as co-vice-chair with Ambassador Jos Douma from the Netherlands, who did a terrific job on the campaign to get the Baha’is released in Yemen. Another issue that we faced was how to get like-minded countries to make a statement on the persecution of individuals around the world, and there was a covid-19 statement from 18 countries.
I must highlight what minorities around the world have faced during covid-19. First, some Governments have used the pandemic to further repress religious minorities. Secondly, religious minorities are often discriminated against when it comes to the provision of food, aid and healthcare. Thirdly, some religious minorities are being blamed for the spread of covid-19 and are targeted as a result. Fourthly, online propaganda campaigns are targeting religious minorities. Fifthly, technology is being used to further repress, discriminate or surveil religious minorities. That is why the United Kingdom alone cannot make a difference. We have to work with like-minded partners through multilateral fora, which is what the alliance did. I want to give a huge thanks to Professor Mariz Tadros from CREID, the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development, who recently covered that point at the G20.
CREID has been doing vital work on covid-19 and the scapegoating of religious minorities in countries such as India, Pakistan and Iraq. In Pakistan, CREID provided poor sanitation workers, predominantly from Christian backgrounds, with awareness training around personal protective equipment. As well as providing the equipment, CREID conducted advocacy activities with the Government around the right to dignity, respect and protection.
I see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) sitting to my right. His report on minorities in Pakistan and his visit with Lord Alton was absolutely superb. I thank him from the bottom of my heart for what he does day in, day out, and for what he has done throughout his career in Parliament. I also thank his colleagues on the APPG. I have a small example. When I was the envoy and I needed to know what was going on, I used to have Twitter alerts from the APPG to find out what was going on. The guys on the APPG were absolutely brilliant. Also, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for her report on minorities in Pakistan.
On the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, a great British saint who made a global impact, we were at the Holy See. We had an APPG delegation there at the time. We also had His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales leading the United Kingdom delegation. We had two Secretaries of State representing the United Kingdom Government and we had the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I thank our brilliant ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, for the way in which the celebrations were conducted. If colleagues have not had a chance to read His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales’s October 2019 article in The Tablet on interfaith at the time of the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, I strongly suggest that they do, and I thank him for his work on interfaith dialogue. I will come to the Minister in due course.
For the UK to be a leader on FORB prompts the question of whether the United Kingdom will host the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. I went to the United States and said, “Hey, the United Kingdom would like to host that conference.” Other countries wanted to do it, but the United States said that the United Kingdom could do it. We decided on 2021 for the full conference, but then the decision came back and officials said, “It will be in 2021, but I understand that given covid-19, COP26 is being moved to 2022. Would you do it?” I did not think we should have a virtual semi-conference; there should be a full conference. I spoke to counterparts in the United States to ask whether another country could step in in 2021, and the United Kingdom in 2022. The Foreign Secretary accepted my advice. It would be great if the Minister could say exactly when in 2022 the United Kingdom will host that conference.
Recommendation 2 was for the United Kingdom to:
“Advocate that member states introduce a Special Envoy position for FoRB”.
The first country that I visited as the envoy, on transit to the Holy See, was Bahrain, a Muslim-majority country that has a good track record on interfaith, mutual co-existence. It has had a Hindu temple for 200 years and churches for over 100 years. The vicar from my constituency, Reverend Chris Butt, had been the vicar at St Christopher’s Cathedral in Bahrain just prior to my visit. I asked His Majesty King Hamad whether Bahrain would appoint a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I was pleased that one of the last meetings that I had in my official capacity was with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain in early September and he said, “His Majesty has considered your request, and Bahrain will appoint a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief in due course.”
Recommendation 3 is to
“Name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination”.
The decision on that recommendation was not made by the envoy. Research was allocated to Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Christian Church. Through the John Bunyan fund for freedom of religion and belief, 15 projects were given money to conduct research on FORB. He put forward a submission, and he has a strong track record on freedom of religion or belief. The research was carried out by his team, and I hear that there were mixed representations. Some want a name for the phenomenon of Christian persecution, and some do not, but the recommendation was from Archbishop Angaelos, not me as the envoy. The key thing from him was saying that there should be a recognition of the phenomenon of Christian persecution. I accept that the most persecuted faith in the world is the Christian faith, and we should advocate our policy with that in mind.
Recommendation 4 is
“to gather reliable information and data on FoRB to better inform the development of international policy.”
I am pleased to say that recommendation 4 is another that has been adopted and is now part of business as usual at the Foreign Office. Research continues, but let me say this: various projects funded by the John Bunyan fund, which I will discuss in greater detail, will also feed into the delivery of recommendation 4. Furthermore, I was delighted to meet representatives of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington earlier this year. With the help of the funding from the FCDO Magna Carta fund, it has developed a highly sophisticated online tool to gather simple, meaningful, accessible, reliable and timely smart data on religious freedom landscapes across the globe. That is how we got the data from the work with the RFI, and the strategy that was applied. The smart tool collects data in 17 countries and aims to focus on collecting detail in a very localised way.
CREID has also produced some excellent work in this area, including a working paper titled “Humanitarian and Religious Inequalities: Addressing a Blind Spot”, which discusses religious inequalities being blind in humanitarian frameworks and how humanitarian actors can incorporate sensitivity to religious difference and persecution into their programmes.
Recommendation 5 would:
“Bolster research into the critical intersection of FoRB and minority rights”
and gender issues. Again, I pay tribute to CREID and I thank the Government for allocating in 2018 via DFID £12 million for research into security, economic activity and religious hate content online. The CREID paper “Invisible Targets of Hatred: Socioeconomically Excluded Women from Religious Minority Backgrounds” addresses the intersection of religious, gender, social, economic, ethnic and geographic marginalities affecting women who belong to religious minorities in six contexts. CREID has also been working on countering hate speech online, which can often have severe violent consequences in real time. If colleagues have not seen it, the research is available in documents such as the ones I have here. It is crucial that that research is taken into account when Foreign Office officials, and those who were in DFID, make policy.
Recommendation 6 would establish permanently the role of the special envoy. Peter Jones was appointed a director-level champion on FORB and he did a terrific job and I thank him for his support. Based on my experience, my advice to the Government, as we look to appoint a new envoy, is to consider how we make the post most effective. The Minister is terrific; he is a great Minister. However, the work on FORB and the Truro review is led by an envoy, and an envoy does not have the authority to shape or make policy; an envoy does not have the authority to come before Parliament to answer questions on why certain decisions have been taken on certain countries; an envoy may pick up an issue on the alliance and try to put it through the system, but he does not have the authority for political or policy steering. Therefore, my advice to the Government and to whoever comes in next is to give the role the maximum authority possible by ensuring that that person has that authority and is answerable to Parliament. When I was the envoy, I used to read all the debates introduced by Members, and it was a pleasure to read them. If whoever comes in as the Government’s key lead on FORB, they should have the authority to be accountable to Parliament for the decisions that they make about different countries.
Recommendation 7 would:
“Ensure that there are mechanisms in place to facilitate an immediate response to atrocity crimes, including genocide”
and would set up an early-warning system. I was advised by the FORB team that the United Kingdom already has a strategy to deal with early-warning signs and genocide but I refer colleagues to the speech made by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) in the previous Westminster Hall debate led by the hon. Member for Strangford. It was a powerful speech and highlighted the need to get the early-warning system right. In the seventh paragraph of his speech in the debate on the large-scale persecution of religious or racial minorities on 12 March, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) highlighted the issues that lead to intolerance and hatred going to their ultimate extent.
The work on the subject is being undertaken by the FORB team and a note was to reach the envoy in December. However, the alliance is crucial as part of that thematic work that I advised the Government to join. The occurrence of mass atrocities targeting members of religious and ethnic minority groups has highlighted the need for greater co-ordination among countries and a more robust response whether atrocities are perpetrated by state actors, such as in Myanmar against the Rohingyas, or by non-state actors, such as in Iraq by Daesh. The alliance can serve as the mechanics to mobilise a response based on the principles of action in the joint declaration of principles. That is the vision but before we do that, we can still work together to share good practice.
Recommendation 9 is to be prepared to impose sanctions. I thank our sanctions team. Before we had the designations in July, Bishop Philip and I met the sanctions team at the Foreign Office so that he could explain recommendation 7. There was a FORB perspective on the designations and in the first designations were two Myanmar generals. I read the debate on 12 October on China’s policy on the Uyghur people and have seen the United States’ position on the sanctioning of individuals for the way the Uyghurs have been treated in Xinjiang province. As a parliamentarian, do I think the line has been crossed for the United Kingdom to designate individuals in line with what the United States has done to members of the Chinese Communist party? The answer is yes. In this Parliament, Government needs to take into account the views of parliamentarians. As the envoy, I saw debate after debate: freedom of religion debates on 12 March, 10 October and 6 February, and the debate on 12 October 2020 on China’s policy on its Uyghur population. That debate says it all.
The United Kingdom has a moral obligation to do the right thing and stand up for our global values: democracy, rule of law and liberty. That means taking that decisive, appropriate action. I know the Government have done that in Belarus with sanctions on certain individuals, but my question to the Government now is: why wait? We took the decision and, on my understanding, designations were supposed to be every few months. We took an exceptional decision on Belarus, and rightly so. Why are we not taking that decision on the Uyghur situation in China? My understanding of the Magnitsky sanctions is that, as global Britain, we are working with our like-minded partners Canada and the United States. The United States has designated individuals from the Chinese Communist party on the sanctions list, with visa restrictions, export restrictions, a ban on exporting to the US and business advice to US companies, cautioning businesses about the reputational, economic and legal risk. As such, I say to the Minister that the United Kingdom should quickly and swiftly do the right thing. Our great parliamentarian William Wilberforce is quoted on page 6 of Bishop Truro’s report:
“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know”.
On that recommendation, future designations always need to consider FORB and I ask the Government to make that decision on exceptional grounds, quickly and swiftly.
Recommendation 10 is for
“The Foreign Secretary to write to FCO funded ‘arm’s length’ bodies”.
I am pleased to say the Foreign Secretary wrote to the Westminster Foundation, Wilton Park and the British Council: done, done and done. I also highlight something crucial to colleagues: the Foreign Office-produced reports on conferences on protecting vulnerable religious minorities in conflict; promotion of freedom of religion or belief; tackling violence committed in the name of religion; and fostering social cohesion in Nigeria. Nigeria will come up in the debate, and colleagues may highlight that. When I was the envoy, I said to officials “Let’s have a Wilton Park conference on Nigeria” and we had that. The documents are superb and highlight the United Kingdom and the Foreign Office’s commitment and good practice and I ask colleagues that we move forward in that.
The next recommendation is number 11, to ensure
“both general and contextual training in religious literacy”.
When I first came into office, that was one of my first goals. Unless our diplomats have the right training across the board, how do they pick up the issues of intolerance, hatred and non-violent extremism that lead to violent extremism? We need to make sure our diplomats have that. We have some of the best diplomats in the world; I have worked with them. However, they need to be given the right tools.
When I came in, there was some support through the LSE programme. Now, there is a Cambridge module on religious literacy. However, tying in with recommendation 13 to
“deliver tailored responses to FoRB violations at Post level”,
I have a recommendation for the Government. When I came in there were four priority countries, but I say there should be 13 review countries. How do you identify a review country? I asked Sir Mark Lyall Grant, our former ambassador—I am running close on time, but I shall be very brief in my summing up. Review countries are based on where the most significant infringement on FORB is taking place and where the United Kingdom can make the most impact on it. I wrote to 24 different missions with a view to getting 13 put into that category. We could, then, ensure that the diplomats going to those 13 countries had that tailored support.
“Ensure FCO human rights reporting”.
I am pleased to say that the annual human rights report covers freedom of religion or belief in that regard.
Recommendation 17 is for
“The FCO to convene a working group for government departments and civil society”
to engage. I am pleased to say that the FORB forum, chaired by Bishop Truro, has recently been established by a diverse group of human rights NGOs, civil society organisations and faith groups. The UK FORB forum is a mechanism for civil society actors to engage with HM Government on the issue and ensure that egregious violations in both individual cases and systematic abuses are looked at. I thank Bishop Philip and the civil society organisations for coming forward.
Among the final recommendations I want to cover, one concerns the annual event in support of the UN international day on victims of religious violence. The United Kingdom supported Poland at the UN on that, and carried out a Red Wednesday event, with Aid to the Church in Need. Buildings across Government Departments were lit in red. I spoke about that at Westminster Cathedral.
Recommendation 20 is for the United Kingdom to secure a Security Council resolution on FORB. When I first came into office I advised and spoke to No. 10 and the Foreign Secretary, and I spoke to and got a note back from our mission in New York on a strategy to take forward that recommendation. I gave the Foreign Secretary an update note on that in July. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for accepting my advice on the strategy to take that recommendation forward. Before I left, that matter was on my desk. The United Kingdom has the Security Council presidency in February next year and I would like confirmation that the United Kingdom will move that motion then.
I am grateful to colleagues for their amazing support and their championing of FORB, and I look forward to working with them on this again as a parliamentarian.
I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.31, which gives us 24 minutes of Back-Bench time, so I am going to impose a four-minute limit so that we can get the contributions of the six Members in. The Scottish National party spokesman has generously volunteered to limit his contribution to six minutes, but the guideline limits for Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Minister are 10 minutes each, with two or three minutes at the end for Mr Chishti to sum up the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone, and to speak in this extremely important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for the work that he has completed already. I am sure that he will continue to be an assiduous advocate in Parliament of freedom of religious belief. He has spoken of detailed and extensive work, and it is heartening to be shown how much work has been happening. It has been heartening, I am sure, for people in my constituency, to hear of the progress being made; but what the hon. Gentleman said also provided an outline for the Government of the important recommendations that need to be taken forward.
I want to thank the organisations that work in this space: Open Doors, Aid to the Church in Need, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, to name just a few. I also thank other hon. Members here today, who are familiar faces from the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief—particularly, of course, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who works tirelessly on the issue.
In much of the world, freedom of religion is, indeed, the linchpin on which other freedoms rest—such as the freedom to congregate, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. Those rights are interdependent and absolutely inseparable. That is one of the reasons why the issue should be seen as such a priority for Government. It is not just because of the faith groups that depend so heavily on Government to champion those freedoms, across the United Kingdom; it is also for the whole of society, because the other rights that non-religious groups and other organisations depend on rest solidly on the foundation that has been set.
In the couple of minutes I have, I want to focus particularly on Nigeria. I understand that Fulani militants have carried out multiple raids on villages in Kaduna and Plateau States. Thirty-two Christians who were obeying directives to stay at home during the humanitarian disaster of covid, to prevent the spread of the virus, were targeted in attempts to uproot the Christian community from the area. Open Doors recorded one local Christian who said:
“If people are going to stay in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, they need to feel safe from attacks like this.”
I think we can echo that sentiment.
Open Doors notes that there is an urgent need to engage with representatives of organisations that work to secure freedom of religious belief in places such as Nigeria, where persecuted Christians are incredibly vulnerable—that was highlighted in the recent APPG report, “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?”—and where the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office still refuses fully to recognise the religious dimension of the conflict. I urge the Minister to focus on those issues and work with excellent organisations such as Open Doors to take these matters forward.
I wanted to speak about Pakistan; I dare say that I will not have enough time to do so, but I can perhaps send the Minister a letter about that. I pay tribute to the work of all across our constituencies in the United Kingdom who champion these issues in their work, and who provide such support for those who are in need internationally.
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for his tremendous work. The energy and commitment that he has brought to the role of Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief will be a hard act to follow, whoever is appointed to succeed him. We all owe him a deep debt of gratitude.
We have heard much from my hon. Friend about the progress that has been made in applying the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s report. I want to focus on one of those recommendations—recommendation 7, which makes reference to the crime above all crimes: genocide. In Article II of the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, to which we are a signatory, genocide is defined as,
“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
Recommendation 7 has two important components. The first is on early warning monitoring and the second concerns the determination of genocide.
Sadly, over many decades now, through many atrocities in different parts of the globe, both in this country and as part of the wider international community, we have all too often failed to take note of genocide and to address it until it is too late. From the suffering of the Armenians in Turkey a hundred years ago, through the holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq, and the Uyghurs in China today, too often—indeed, invariably—religious minorities are part of the equation when crimes against humanity and genocide occur.
As the report says, genocidal actions against Christians are high on the agenda of concern. The report contains a quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
“The persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, [and] elsewhere is one of the crimes against humanity of our time.”
Yet, as I say, we fail to hold perpetrators to account or recognise genocide. The UK does not have comprehensive early warning monitoring mechanisms and does not engage in genocide determination. Without that, we fail to trigger our duty under the convention. As a signatory to that convention, we are required to act to prevent genocide and to protect those affected, but only if there is a judicial determination of genocide. It was a sad failure in 2016, when I was privileged to bring a motion to the House on this issue, that we failed to persuade the Government to act, even though that determination was passed by a majority—indeed, unanimously.
How do we break this circular argument that only the courts can determine genocide, and without that we cannot refer this internationally? In recent years, one way in which Lord Alton in the Lords and I in the Commons have endeavoured to do that is through our private Members’ Bills, the Genocide Determination Bills, which provide for the High Court to make a preliminary finding on cases of genocide where, for example, an affected group refers a matter to it. That would facilitate a referral of such a finding to the International Criminal Court.
The Trade Bill is being discussed in the Lords—this is the single point that I want to make today—and amendment 76A, which takes proposals from the Genocide Determination Bill, requires that if a referral for a declaration of genocide is made to the High Court by a representative of a religious or ethnic group, for example, the Court must consider it and make a determination. Any trade agreement would then have to be voided if a signatory to it is a partner that has perpetrated genocide. I urge the Government to support the amendment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), the special envoy for religious freedom for the UK, for securing this important Westminster Hall debate. I and many of my Christian constituents, and indeed members of all faiths in Coventry North West, were pleased when we were told that there would be a long-overdue independent review into the persecution of Christians and the freedom of religion and belief. I stand here representing Christians in my constituency, and I denounce the human rights abuses facing Christians in Thailand, China, India and other places across the globe.
Earlier this year, I met a constituent from an organisation called the International Asian Christian Front, which supports and advocates for persecuted Christians in Pakistan and India. They expressed concerns that covid-19-related assistance is not going into predominantly Christian religious bodies in this country. Discrimination and attempts to deprive people, on the basis of their religion, of the health assistance they need in a pandemic are unconscionable, and I am sure that the Minister and hon. Members agree. At such a precarious time, when we should be banding together in solidarity and support, swathes of our society are being left to fend for themselves simply because they adhere to a different faith.
I am sure the Minister will join me in paying tribute to Open Doors, which provides support and assistance to persecuted Christians across the world. I am proud to support it. It shines a light on the Christians who face injustice and discrimination on the basis of their faith, and it ensures that Members of this House are aware of and can lend their support to those who need it most.
I welcome the Government’s pace in implementing the Bishop of Truro’s 22 recommendations. Will the Minister outline when they will be implementing the remaining recommendations? Will he also tell me what they are doing to support persecuted Christians who are being denied food aid in Bangladesh and India during the pandemic, nurses in the Gulf who have been denied personal protective equipment, and those who have reportedly been attacked during lockdown in Nigeria? For my Christian constituents of Asian heritage, will he tell me what the Government are doing to support Asian Christians in the UK who do not have a church or community centre to call their own?
In everything we do as representatives in this place, we must work towards promoting and building cohesion among all religious groups in the UK and across the world so that we can navigate this crisis as one, and come out the other end better than we entered it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your stewardship for the first time, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for the great energy, intellect and compassion he has brought to this subject and his role as the Prime Minister’s envoy on freedom of religion.
I think we all agree that one of the cornerstones of the United Kingdom is our fundamental belief in the individual’s right to live freely without fear, threat or harm, regardless of whether it is from other individuals or the state. Freedom of thought and belief is perhaps the most fundamental right, and sadly the one that is most at peril around the world. It truly saddens and pains me to witness the rise of persecution based on religious belief. It has been estimated that one third of the population of the globe suffers from religious persecution, in whatever heinous form it takes.
In absolute terms, Christians are the most persecuted of those groups, and they have been subject to violence, extrajudicial killings, involuntary disappearances, social persecution, the suppression of public expression and attempts to cleanse regions of religious belief over a prolonged period. Sadly, during my time living in Pakistan in support of the Pakistani army and Pakistani state on behalf of the British and American Governments, I saw the deep link, which was referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, between religious exclusion and inequality and extremism, violent extremism and terrorism. It is clearly there.
Unfortunately in Pakistan, martial law ordinance XX, which was first promulgated to be used against Ahmadis, is increasingly being employed to persecute Christians. Across the middle east, the birthplace of Christianity, the persecution of Christians is seen at its very worst. One hundred years ago, Christians made up at least 20% of the population across the middle east and north Africa. Today, that stands at a meagre 4%.
Sadly, in many countries it is the state that drives prejudice and discrimination against its Christian citizens. In Egypt, Iran and Syria, church properties and properties owned by Christians are confiscated or outright attacked, and restricting Christians’ access to their places of worship is common. In Iran and Turkey, incitement to hatred against Christians has been observed on state-sponsored media. Turkey’s Christians have been portrayed as “not real Turks”, and various campaigns smearing their beliefs have also been run. In China, the Communist party seeks to control what its citizens think and to inhibit their ability to feel and believe. That is not only the case for Uyghur Muslims; Uyghur Christians are also being interred and persecuted.
These regimes not only violate the sacred value of freedom of religious belief but encourage non-state actors to violate that freedom. That is a violation of what Britain and decent, right-minded people everywhere cherish, champion and fight for. As we redetermine our place in the world following Brexit, a key part of global Britain must be defending the values that underpin our society—namely pluralism, tolerance, diversity and individual liberties—wherever they may be assaulted. Standing up to these nations and protecting the rights of individuals to live, work and worship as they please will be vital. I am greatly appreciative of the Bishop of Truro’s report’s shining a light on countries that fail to do so.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing the debate. My wife just texted me. We have a new grandchild, who was born at 11.50 pm last night. We are up to five now. Perhaps the Shannons will be able on their own to vote their grandfather into Parliament once again—I hope that I will be elected by more votes than that, but that is by the way. I am pleased to speak in the debate. I declare an interest as chair of both the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief and the all-party parliamentary group for the Pakistani minorities.
I put on the record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless work. His door has always been open for a meeting, and his responses have always been excellent. I thank him for that. I will do as he did and start off with a Scripture text, from Romans 8:35, which asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Shall tribulation, distress or persecution? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
Covid-19 has exacerbated the plight of Christians and other religious minorities across the world, because they get blamed for the virus and for spreading it. I will speak up for the Jewish community, who have faced dramatic increases in antisemitic hate speech as a result of covid-19. The office of special envoy for freedom of religion or belief is so important. The Prime Minister has not appointed anybody to that post yet; I hope he will soon.
I put to the Minister the need for all the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s review to be implemented fully. Recommendation 11 is to do with making sure that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff who work in countries have the necessary training and can make the most of their resources to address these violations. I encourage FCDO to incorporate civil society evidence submissions into their human rights and democracy report-writing process.
It is important to have that focus from the Department—I know it is there, and I am happy that the Minister will confirm this, because I want it on the record—on the Baha’is, Shias, Hindus, Armenians, Rohingyas, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ahmadis, Muslims and Coptic Christians in all countries, but particularly in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt. The focus is very much on the middle east, which I have had the opportunity to visit on occasion.
I also ask the UK Government to implement recommendation 8, which is to be
“prepared to impose sanctions against perpetrators of FoRB abuses.”
The right of freedom of belief is enshrined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights.
In the case of China, we have often talked about the Uyghur Muslims, but there are also the Tibetan Buddhists, with over half a million labourers detained in camps in the first seven months of 2020 alone. The Chinese Government have also cracked down on other religious groups: they have destroyed churches and harassed, imprisoned and intimidated Christians. Even small church groups have been under terrible threat, and, worse still, the independent China Tribunal found that there was forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience: that is Christians, Uyghur Muslims, Falun Gong and others. We really do have to grab China—in a nice way—by the lapels and tell it to get into line.
What can we ask the Minister to do in relation to that? I support amendment 68 to the Trade Bill, to which the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred. I confirm to the Minister that we are asking for pressure to be put on China. What is happening about that? We have to address the face of evil that China is, so that we can change things. While we may look forward to the future, I pray and beseech that we make the right decision, and that our grandchildren will look at us and say, “You spoke up when you should have done.”
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for all his tireless work on this cause and for having secured this debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and congratulate him on the birth of his grandchild, who will, I am sure, bring much happiness.
I read with concern the deeply depressing final report submitted by the Bishop of Truro, which set out in stark terms the persecution faced by Christians around the world. It seems perverse that Christians face greater oppression now than at any other point in recent history. It is also an uncomfortable reality that the persecution of Christians is largely unacknowledged by leading Governments, for various reasons, but while we prevaricate, Christians across the globe are being attacked, harassed and killed because of their religious beliefs. As Members will know, I believe freedom of religion to be a central pillar of our civic society. As a Catholic, I can see the ways in which people of Christian faith enrich discourse and dialogue in the United Kingdom every single day. However, in many countries, Christians are regarded with suspicion, contempt, and often outright hostility.
The persecution of Roman Catholics in Pakistan and the People’s Republic of China are crimes that I have been following closely. Maira Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Catholic girl in Pakistan, was recently abducted, raped, married to her abductor, and forcibly converted to Islam. She is now on the run and at risk of being killed. This is a disgusting situation. Regrettably, Pakistan’s recent record of protecting religious minorities, including Christians, is woeful. I understand that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised freedom of religion or belief with Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights and with the Governor of Punjab, but I urge the Government to keep up the pressure on our Pakistani counterparts to ensure that authorities there seek justice for Maira, and guarantee her future safety.
In the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist party is waging the most severe, systematic suppression of Christianity in that country for decades. In the past few years, the CCP has been destroying crosses, burning Bibles, shutting churches and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith. Only state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association churches are allowed to exist, and Catholics have been driven underground at great personal cost. It is no wonder, then, that the Holy See recognises the Republic of China as being the true representative of China: Catholics can worship freely and openly in Taiwan, but not in the PRC. Many Catholics are worried that the renewal of the secretive agreement between China and the Church damages Rome’s moral authority and puts Catholics in danger through its acquiescence to Beijing’s terms. I entreat this Government to work with the Vatican and the PRC to stop the oppression of Catholics, and to legalise the Church in that country.
Set against that background, the Bishop of Truro’s review was welcome and timely, and the Government’s commitment to its recommendations will bring real improvements to the lives of those persecuted because of their faith. I am pleased to note that more than half of the recommendations have already been implemented, or are in the process of being implemented. I am particularly encouraged by the creation of a UK global human rights sanctions regime, responding to the recommendations in the report that we must impose sanctions against those who persecute Christians. Furthermore, the launch of the John Bunyan Fund for Freedom of Religion and Belief has funded 15 research projects to look at the challenges facing different religious communities among those Christians. That is great progress.
The Government should visibly and robustly stand up for the rights of Christians everywhere. We must face down oppression wherever we find it and protect the world’s most vulnerable, regardless of race, background or creed. I pray for my fellow Christians and will continue to fight for them in this House.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing the debate and on all his work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I also pay tribute to Mervyn Thomas, who stood down earlier this year as chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He served that organisation with distinction for 40 years. Most of us who work in the field of FORB know what a titan Mervyn Thomas is in the field. I am sure I speak on behalf of all hon. Members in wishing him well for whatever comes next.
This debate has been excellent, with contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford).
In my time as an MP, the issue of religious freedom has been close to my heart and to the hearts of my constituents. However, an image has stuck with me from before my time as an MP. In 2011, in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Christians formed a human shield around Muslims who were on their hands and knees praying. For me, that is the essence of what freedom of religion and belief is all about: when people of different faiths or no faith whatsoever come together in respecting each other and upholding that freedom.
That is not just a romantic idea; it is enshrined in the United Nations universal declaration of human rights, which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, which we should all honour and protect. As a Scottish National party MP, I am not often proud to be a Westminster MP, but this is one of the few occasions when we come together and affirm our absolute belief in that freedom.
During the 2019 Backbench Business debate on this topic, I offered my support and that of my party for the Bishop of Truro’s report and all its recommendations. We, like others, are committed to ensuring that religious freedom is observed around the globe and that the report’s recommendations are implemented in full in order to attain that goal.
As the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham set out, 17 out of 22 of the report’s recommendations have been, or are in the process of being, implemented. All hon. Members want them to be implemented as quickly as possible. However, no one has been named as a replacement for the hon. Gentleman as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. It is a crucial role and I urge the Government to fill the position as soon as possible, to ensure that this vital work can continue.
As a nationalist MP, I appreciate that the Prime Minister is unlikely to take advice from me, and probably rightly so. However, I advise the Government, in all sincerity, that if they choose to appoint another MP as the special envoy, they should seriously consider the hon. Member for Strangford, who does so much work in this field. There are examples of Members of other parties being appointed as special envoys. I ask the Minister to take that suggestion back to the Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Strangford is a champion in this field and would be an excellent candidate for the post.
Covid-19 has negatively impacted on Christian communities across the globe, with persecution continuing during this public health crisis. I have continued to work closely with Christian Solidarity Worldwide during the pandemic and have been in touch with one of its contacts in Uttar Pradesh, India. The contact, who shall remain anonymous for their safety, informed me of violent attacks that have taken place against Christians worshipping. I was told that there were 60 cases of persecution in 2019 and that a further 45 cases had already occurred by September this year, even with covid-19 lockdown measures in place.
My contact also described how some police officers in the region have been biased against the Christian community. It is often a lottery as to which police officer receives the call and, therefore, how those Christians who are worshipping will be treated. For example, if the officer is sympathetic to the Christian faith, they will respond to the call; if not, there is often no response to the attack, meaning that violent criminals often go without punishment.
I know that the Government are probably fed up of hearing me complain about the situation in India, but we have to take stock of the fact that this is the world’s largest democracy, with an emerging middle class, but it is rising rapidly up the world watch list. I once again ask the Government to ensure that they raise this with the authorities in India. Around the globe, everyone should be free to worship without fear of persecution. It is vital that the Government do everything in their power to condemn violent attacks against those worshipping, and work together to protect freedom of religion.
I am glad that the hon. Members for Congleton and for Strangford, and others, referred to the Trade Bill. There is no doubt that, as the United Kingdom becomes global Britain and tries to find a new space on the world stage, it has an opportunity to ensure that these issues are not missed out in trade negotiations. I appreciate that in a trade negotiation we do not want to raise things that will perhaps be controversial, but we should never lose sight of the fact that freedom of religion or belief and human rights should be at the top of the agenda.
We are faced with a unique moment in history. Between Brexit talks and the pandemic, it is vital that we continue to protect human rights and freedom of religion. It is crucial that during the crisis we continue to work towards ensuring that the persecution of all religions, and of those who have no religion at all, ends and that everyone around the globe is free to worship without fear. At the unique moment of history in which we find ourselves we cannot lose sight of the values that mean the most to us, including the core belief that absolutely everyone should have the freedom to worship without fear.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank everybody for their incredibly strong and passionate contributions, as I would expect from the Members present. I commend the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for securing the debate and for his work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I am sorry that he had to resign.
I thank the Bishop of Truro for his work and all the organisations, many of which have been named, for the work they have done in bringing attention to many of these instances of persecution, particularly against Christians, around the world. I declare an interest as a Christian, and as someone who worked previously with Open Doors and a number of other organisations to highlight such cases, including working with Christians on the Left within my own party.
It is, of course, disappointing that it has been a month since the resignation of the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham and the Government are yet to appoint a special envoy. I hope that the Minister can give us some news on that, because it is crucial and relates to at least four of the recommendations in the report of the Bishop of Truro. It is vital that we get that work back up and going, but I know that the hon. Member will continue to be a strong voice on these issues.
The Bishop of Truro said very clearly at the start of the report:
“Across the globe…Christians are being bullied, arrested, jailed, expelled and executed. Christianity is by most calculations the most persecuted religion of modern times. Yet Western politicians until now have been reluctant to speak out in support of Christians in peril.”
We have seen the opposite today. Many of us are willing to speak out on these issues, and I know that many others across the House are not afraid to do so either and that they will also continue to speak up for those facing persecution.
Sadly, there are far too many circumstances to mention them all, but I will focus on a number. I will start by talking specifically about the situation for Christians in Nigeria, but given the events overnight, with your leave, Mr Hollobone, I will briefly mention the shocking scenes of brutality and violence at the Lekki toll plaza. I hope that the Minister can share the Government’s response to those shocking scenes, not least because of our strong relationship with Nigeria and its military and security forces. Amnesty has said that there is credible evidence of excessive use of force leading to the deaths of protesters. The action has been condemned by the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, so can the Minister tell us whether he and his colleagues will be urgently speaking with the Nigerian high commissioner and their counterparts in the Nigerian Foreign Ministry? It is crucial that they do so, given the horrific scenes overnight.
I want to draw attention particularly to the concerns in Nigeria for Christians. We have heard from Christian Solidarity Worldwide of 50,000 Christians in southern Kaduna state having to flee violence. We have heard from a number of Members, including through the work of the APPG and the report that was mentioned, of the violence between Fulani herders and settled farming communities. In 2019, 1,000 Christians were killed. The International Crisis Group has pointed to more than 300,000 people being displaced, and, of course, Nigerian human rights organisations have also been speaking out, saying that in 2015 up to 12,000 Christians were killed, with 350 deaths in just the first two months of 2020.
There is also alarming persecution of religious minorities by elements of the Nigerian state. There have been arbitrary arrests of both Christian and humanist figures. For example, Professor Solomon Musa Tarfa was detained in Kano state, as was Mubarak Bala from the Nigerian Humanist Association, whose case I have raised regularly with the Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge).
There are many other worrying circumstances beyond those in Nigeria. We have heard about the circumstances of the Muslim Rohingya minority and the persecution they face at the hands of the Myanmar authorities, and about the situation for Rohingya Christians. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) talked about that. There are approximately 1,500 Rohingya Christians and they report that they have faced threats and violence in camps, including an attack in January this year when a group of men attacked 22 Christian families, vandalised homes, looted personal property and smashed up a makeshift church and school.
Of course, we have also seen attacks across the middle east. We have heard about the persecution of Coptic Christians and the destruction of churches in Egypt. In Algeria, there is an ongoing campaign of church closures against the Protestant Church of Algeria, which serves the Berber population—13 churches have been closed over the past three years. We have heard about the situation in Iran, where only Shi’a Muslims are allowed to hold key political positions and there are continued attacks on people who change or renounce their religious beliefs. Atheists, too, are affected. Many people whose religious beliefs differ from those of the extraordinarily repressive regime in Iran are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture and the death penalty.
We have also heard about the situation in Pakistan, where the blasphemy laws still carry the mandatory death penalty and violate fundamental rights to the freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion. Rather than moving away from such violations, there has been an increase in attacks. Many individual cases are of deep concern to the organisations that have been speaking out so powerfully on behalf of individuals, individual churches and others who have been affected.
There is also the situation in Sri Lanka, with the horrific attacks that we have just been marking. Those scenes have utterly shocked the world. The situation has also worsened in places that have not been drawing attention, such as Mozambique. The situation in the north of that country is deeply worrying. Recently, monks in the north of the country have been forced to flee across the border to Tanzania after an attack on their monastery in the district of Cabo Delgado. The deeply worrying rise in extremism there is, I am afraid to say, little noticed by the outside world.
There are so many examples of religious persecution that it is difficult to do them justice. Organisations have been highlighting such atrocities. I mentioned the specific Christian organisations, but organisations such Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and many others have also been leading efforts to draw attention to the circumstances and to urge Governments around the world to act.
We heard about the situation with the Chinese Communist party, including from the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), who is no longer in his place. The so-called sanitisation of religion, which was pushed by Premier Li at the National People’s Congress in March 2018, has been on show and affects not only Christians but other religious minorities, including Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists, and other non-religious groups. The week-long disappearance of Catholic Bishop Shao Zhumin from Guangzhou diocese in Zhejiang was also very worrying. There is also the case of Guo Xijin in Fujian province. When he fled state custody and went into hiding, having refused to bring his church under the Government-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the authorities in the diocese of Mindong began closing churches, installing surveillance cameras and evicting priests who refused to be brought under official control.
Of course, we cannot have this debate without mentioning the absolutely shameful and disturbing atrocities that are being perpetrated against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, who are facing a monstrous Government-co-ordinated programme of police surveillance, enforced re-education, disappearances, internment and mass detention. There are even shocking reports of forced sterilisation.
Having heard the powerful contributions made today, I want to put a few questions to the Minister. Obviously, the Government have enacted a number of the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, including the launching of the John Bunyan fund, but there have been cuts to official development assistance budgets as a result of the decline in gross national income, and we believe there are cuts that go beyond that. Can the Minister confirm what cuts will be happening and to what extent there will be ongoing funding for the John Bunyan fund and work will continue to focus on tackling persecution of religious minorities? Will specific country programmes in some of the contexts that we have mentioned today face the chop? I certainly hope not, because that work is absolutely vital.
Recommendation 18 in the Bishop of Truro’s report talks about a standard FORB scale of persecution. It would be incredibly beneficial to have a clear scale of escalation, so that the Government and others could formulate common approaches in advocating for persecuted Christians, especially in the very worst cases and situations.
The freedom and right to believe and worship as one chooses, without threat of attack or sanction, whether legal, financial, social or physical, is one of the most fundamental rights that we hold, but too often and in too many places, we see both governmental and non-governmental actors using division, hatred, sectarianism and persecution to advance their agendas, bolster support and eradicate dissent and freedom of thought. The UK must stand boldly against such egregious abuse of human rights. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government will be expanding their work to uphold freedom of religion and belief for all.
These freedoms are guaranteed by some of our most fundamental human rights global commitments: article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, and the declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief. There is of course a crucial UN special rapporteur on these issues. There is the UN Human Rights Council. Perhaps the Minister can say how we will be using our seat on the UN Human Rights Council to push these agendas forward.
Of course, all of this is underpinned by the UK remaining committed to the very highest standards of human rights, to the rule of law and to a proactive role in global human rights bodies. I am sorry to say that we have seen some drawing back from that in recent years. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that will not be the case, that these programmes will continue to be funded and that he and his colleagues will continue to use their full diplomatic muscle for global Britain to advance the case of persecuted Christians worldwide.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I not only congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing this debate, but commend him for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief. I also thank him for his incredibly hard work over the last year as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. He gave us a fantastic run-through of his work over the last year—an exhausting year, by the sounds of it—and it was well worth the over-run on his time, Mr Hollobone, to be able to hear about all the work that he has done. There sure are big boots to fill in that regard. My hon. Friend’s commitment to this agenda has contributed hugely to the Government’s work in this area. It has been instrumental in the implementation of more than half the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations.
I also extend my gratitude to colleagues for their impassioned speeches today. I will try to respond to all the points raised, although I suspect, given the time, that that is wishful thinking. But I do have, to coin a phrase, an open-door policy at the FCDO and I will be more than happy to meet individual colleagues to go through some of the issues that I am not able to respond on today. We have a great team there, working on this agenda, and we will be more than happy to work with everyone collaboratively where we are all on the same page.
I can start by reaffirming the Government’s unwavering commitment to freedom of religion or belief. The commitment was further underlined by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s appointment last year of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, who succeeded my ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who continues to champion this cause in his capacity as FCDO Minister responsible for human rights, in the House of Lords.
The Prime Minister is resolute in his commitment to freedom of religion or belief, and I can confirm that a new special envoy will be appointed in due course. I thought that the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) was making a fantastic pitch for the job until he pivoted and gave a great reference for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I ask colleagues to “bear with”, as my kids say. An appointment will be made by the Prime Minister shortly; he is absolutely committed to there being that role. Diplomacy and development go hand in hand. Religious intolerance and persecution are often at the heart of foreign and development policy challenges. Where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other human rights are often threatened too. The newly merged FCDO is using all its diplomatic tools to ensure that no one suffers because of their conscience.
As the House is aware, the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), commissioned an independent review into the scale of Christian persecution globally. It produced a set of challenging recommendations on what more the Government could do to support people of all faiths and none everywhere around the world. So far, as we have heard, we have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, 17 of the recommendations. I will run through just some of them.
Recommendation 11 focuses on the religious literacy of our officials. I am pleased that work is under way to ensure that British diplomats and officials have access to enhanced religious literacy training to help them understand the role that religion plays in many people’s lives and in the decisions that they make. That training will help us to develop more religiously literate policies and to engage more effectively.
Recommendation 9 is about the establishment of a John Bunyan fund. In August last year, we launched the fund successfully. In the first year alone, we funded 15 research projects looking at the challenges faced by different communities, including Christians, Yazidis and humanists, as well as at cross-cutting issues such as migration and the double vulnerability experienced by women from minority faith backgrounds.
Recommendation 20 encourages us to use our position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to seek a resolution calling on Governments in the middle east and north Africa to ensure protection of Christians and other faith minorities. The Foreign Secretary remains absolutely committed to delivering that recommendation, recognising freedom of religion or belief as a force for good. Lord Ahmad has been working tirelessly on this and met our mission in New York a fortnight ago to review the opportunities presented by our presidency of the Security Council in 2021. We are working harder than ever to support those who are persecuted on account of their religion or belief and to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro.
Today’s debate highlights why our efforts are so urgently needed. We have stepped up our work internationally as one of the founding members of the new international religious freedom or belief alliance—we have stood together alongside 31 other states to protect freedom of religion or belief. Again, I have to extend my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham for his leadership on that. We have heard about some of the excellent work that the alliance has delivered.
We will continue to use our influential voice to raise FORB at the United Nations, including urging the international community to work together—we have heard today how important that is—to face the challenges presented by covid-19. It is particularly important at this time to ensure that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society are actively included in response and recovery efforts.
Turning to some of the references made by right hon. and hon. Members, we heard an excellent opening speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, as I said. He asked whether we would host the inter-ministerial global conference on FORB in 2022. We will announce a date for that conference in the coming months.
My hon. Friend also talked about sanctions. One or two other Members mentioned our sanctions regime and asked why we are not already implementing it against certain individuals who are oppressing the Uyghur population. We introduced the sanctions regime in July. It gives us a powerful tool to hold to account those involved in serious human rights violations. We are constantly considering further designations under the regime but, as hon. Members will appreciate, it would be wrong to speculate on exactly who may be designated, because to do so at this stage reduces the impact of any sanctions.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) referred to the excellent work of Open Doors, as did the spokesperson for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who has worked with that organisation himself. He and other hon. Members also referred to what is going on in Nigeria. We are aware of the reports of recent human rights violations involving the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, and recent incidents have prompted serious and widespread protests. Our high commissioner in Abuja has raised that with the Nigerian Government. We condemn all incidents of inter-communal violence in Nigeria, which continue to have a devastating effect on communities of all faiths.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow also referred to Pakistan, and I very much look forward to receiving her letter. As I said earlier, I am happy to meet her with my team to go through that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is a constant champion on this issue, and we thank her for all her work on it. She rightly mentioned the genocide definition. Genocide has a specific definition in international law, and any judgment about whether genocide has occurred is a matter for a judicial decision, but I thank her for rightly referring to it again.
Yes. With regard to the Trade Bill, we have a strong history of safeguarding human rights and promoting our values globally. Strong economic relationships with our partners allow us to have open discussions on a range of important issues, including human rights. We continue to encourage all states to uphold their international human rights obligations.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) spoke passionately about her personal experiences of meeting constituents who have been discriminated against. I thank her for welcoming the pace at which the recommendations are being implemented. I can assure her that the full set of recommendations will be implemented by July 2022. We are very concerned about reports that some communities are being denied access to aid. My colleague the Minister for human rights raised that issue during the UK’s closing statement at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) for their passionate contributions. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford on the birth of his grandson. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), who is no longer in his place, rightly raised the issue of Pakistan and China. The hon. Member for Glasgow East made a well-thought-out and passionate speech, which was almost a great pitch for the special envoy’s role.
Before handing back to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, I want to assure the House that the Government will continue to be a long-standing champion of human rights and freedoms. We have a duty to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect at home and abroad. We will continue to stand up for the rights of minority communities around the world and defend the right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone everywhere.
I thank the Minister for that response, and I also thank colleagues. People of all faiths or beliefs and none have the concept of forgiveness, and I ask for forgiveness for going on for longer than I should have at the outset.
I could only do my job as envoy because of the fantastic work of parliamentarians pushing it at every level, and constituents. The first question I asked at the Foreign Office was where FORB is on the scale of correspondence. I was told that it was the second-highest issue that people write to the Foreign Office about after the middle east peace process. It is fantastic that, when we speak to officials, we can say, “This is what Parliament says, and this is what constituents say.” We have a duty to deliver and do everything we can on FORB.
From our days of playing cricket for the House of Commons cricket team, I know about the Minister’s captaining—his brilliant strategy, frankness, openness and listening—and I thank him for all he does. I just want to ask a couple of things. The FORB forum, led by Bishop Philip, is brilliant at getting NGOs together. In addition to writing the letter for the new special envoy, the work it has done on China, Nigeria and Iraq recently is absolutely crucial. It would be great if the Minister was able to meet with it and discuss that at its monthly meetings.
I should mention recommendation 12:
“Establish a clear framework for reporting”
at post. That was more or less signed off in my time. I ask the Minister for the FORB toolkit to be shared around the world.
Right to Food in Legislation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the right to food in legislation.
I called this debate because of the humanitarian crisis we are seeing in every community and in every part of this nation. The crisis of food insecurity, which is leaving no MP’s constituency untouched, affects the basic human rights of millions of our citizens every day. We are seeing a crisis of food poverty born out of the political choices and systemic failings created over the past four decades, which have now reached a tipping point for so many in our communities. The figures are devastating for one of the richest nations in the world and highlight the inequality of the UK in 2020.
The Trussell Trust reports a soaring 81% increase in emergency food parcels from food banks in its network during the last two weeks of March 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, including a 122% rise in parcels given to children as the coronavirus pandemic continued to unfold. As long as I live, I will not forget meeting a community leader in Liverpool five minutes from my home and seeing what I thought was a queue for the bingo in my local community centre. There were people, young and old, drawn from across my community. I was corrected by the community leader, and told that, in fact, it was a queue for the food bank. It haunted me then, and it haunts me now, because it was so unfair and so wrong.
The problem of escalating food poverty in the UK can be fixed. We can see in the evidence available the direct correlation between the cuts in Government welfare spending and the numbers of families with children, pensioners, the working poor and homeless people queueing up for food parcels because of those cuts. Like austerity, this is a political choice, not a pre-determined occurrence. Therefore, it cannot be fixed without a concerted effort by the Government of the day to take clear responsibility in developing solutions and policy to eradicate the problem’s root cause. We need more voices like the inspirational Marcus Rashford, bringing the plight of hungry children to the attention of the public and the political classes.
One key recommendation made by civil society organisations and various independent experts, such as United Nations committees, is to introduce a right to food into domestic law. That approach recognises that the UK has ratified international treaties such as the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights and three separate international conventions, protecting children, women and people with disabilities, but has never incorporated them into domestic law. Each of those treaties contains a specific mention of the right to food, yet those legally binding international treaties have limited influence and bearing in domestic courts. The right to food would need to be strengthened by the establishment of a strong system of domestic legal entitlements and the provision of easily accessible accountability mechanisms that redress violations and contribute to the improvement of citizens’ wellbeing.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward today’s debate. Since the start of the lockdown, the use of food banks in York has increased by 300%. I agree with and support his call for a statutory right to food. Does he agree that, within that, everybody should be able to access a hot free meal every day?
Absolutely. I agree wholeheartedly with my colleague. That is a hugely important principle, which we should adhere to as a civilised society, and we may discuss Marcus Rashford’s petition later. Having the right to food in law would hopefully result in people having the ability to have a hot meal a day. That is why I am here today to discuss this topic.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that the Government consult on whether a right to food should be given a legislative footing to ensure that the Government have a reference point for action to tackle and measure food insecurity, with the flexibility to meet that commitment using different measures. Some of the evidence from the Committee’s session was compelling. Professor Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, told the Select Committee:
“If you do not have it in legislation, you do not have indicators and it does not happen.”
Anna Taylor, who is working with Henry Dimbleby on the national food strategy, represented the Food Foundation at the evidence session. She added:
“If we get the legal structures right, the governance arrangements are right and Parliament is involved in scrutinising those, we will not be in the situation we have now with such high levels of unmet need.”
The second part of the national food strategy being drawn up by Henry Dimbleby gives us a real opportunity to recommend the right to food, and I really hope he can be persuaded that it must be a key recommendation.
The right to food should not be seen in isolation. Having enough food for your family is part of a decent standard of living. Hunger is a symptom of broader social inequalities and rights violations, not least low-paid, insecure jobs and a broken social security system—all of which have been exposed even further by the current economic crisis under the pandemic.
In Wales, we are hoping to pilot the universal basic income initiative, because, as my hon. Friend has just alluded to, prevention is much better than cure in terms of food poverty. Does he endorse the recommendation of the Welsh Senedd that it is now time to introduce universal basic income so that nobody has to go without food?
I do endorse that call. I am a huge supporter of universal basic income. It should be looked at as one of the possible strands of the solution to what we are facing as a society. I hope the Government listen to some of the calls for universal basic income and look at different solutions. We are in extraordinary times at the moment. Universal basic income could be one of the strands of the solution, so that we do not have 9 million people who are struggling to put a meal on the table. That is hugely important.
As I said, the right to food should not be seen in isolation. We are living through extraordinary times and seeing a spotlight shone on the inequalities in society. According to the Independent Food Aid Network report, 82.7% of food banks in its sample that collected relevant data
“indicated waiting on a benefit payment or decision as one of the three most common reasons for food bank use, and 73.8% of food banks indicated interruption or reduction in benefit payments as one of the three most common reasons for food bank use.”
The solidarity shown during the covid-19 pandemic has been heartwarming, and it is one of the positives that we can draw from the period, completely at odds with the ideology of Thatcher and the infamous quote about there being “no such thing as society”. That has been exemplified in grassroots mutual aid efforts across the country, in all our communities, and we can all be proud of that. I speak with personal knowledge from Fans Supporting Foodbanks, an organisation started in Liverpool five years ago and built with the magnificent efforts of football supporters from across our nation, particularly Newcastle, Leeds, Burnley, Aston Villa, Manchester United, Manchester City and West Ham. That sort of collaboration has been absolutely magnificent and has been welcome in our communities.
I thank my hon. Friend for all that he has done in working with the football community and the broader community, and even Man United fans—I declare an interest. He walks the walk and is passionate about the issue, but there are things we can all do together, collectively. We come here to make a difference. We should not even be talking about the right to food. Let us all come together and make a difference. I pay homage to my hon. Friend and thank him.
Many thanks. Fans Supporting Foodbanks says, “Hunger doesn’t wear club colours”. It certainly does not, and we have fantastic friends in Manchester and across the board, and solidarity with Manchester in these troubling times.
I also pay tribute to the trade unions that have been involved locally, such as the GMB north-west and Irish region, which has been magnificent in supplying help, aid and support. That is acting collectively, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said, to tackle food poverty in the communities they serve. It has been a joy to behold, but we cannot forget that it is just a sticking plaster on a broken leg.
Sabine Goodwin of the Independent Food Aid Network has said:
“The amount of people needing to go to food banks is not remedied by food banks… The problem is a lack of income and a lack of food. It stems from the fact that there is a level of poverty that is being ignored.”
We cannot tinker around the edges of food insecurity. It must be addressed head on with political courage and a morality that has been lacking in the past decade. Ensuring that millions of our fellow citizens do not go hungry and that their basic rights, including the right to food, are protected is a moral duty. Those things should be a legal right.
I thank the Minister. I enjoyed the chat we had, which was informative. I look forward to working with her. I also thank hon. Members who have attended the debate. I note with interest that the Leader of the House wrote to his Cabinet colleagues calling for bold and ambitious Bills for the upcoming Queen’s Speech.
I know that my hon. Friend is about to conclude, but is he aware of a charity called Foodshare? It goes around the country looking at food wastage, and deals with companies that might, for example, have quite a bit of food wastage in their production, and puts money into them. It also goes to farmers who may have over-produced a crop. Instead of those farmers putting the crop back into the ground, Foodshare gives them the extra money they need to produce the crop so that they can give it to food banks. It has been doing that work with food banks across the country. Does he agree that there is enough food in this country to feed everyone, given all the waste we have, and that the Government should put money into organisations such as Foodshare to help alleviate food insecurity?
Absolutely. I am fully in agreement. I would be interested to find out more about that organisation, because that is exactly what we need to be doing. We need to ensure that the food being produced is used and targeted. There are some fine organisations that do that, alongside organisations such as FareShare, which we have talked about. There are plenty of organisations out there, but we need more of them and we need a more targeted approach. The waste in this country is unforgivable when we have 9 million people struggling with food insecurity. That is something we need to rectify.
We have heard about the Leader of the House’s call for bold and ambitions Bills. I can think of nothing more bold than legislation that recognises the simple, basic human right to food, which would help lift 9 million people out of food insecurity. Many more people will be following them over the next six months. I look forward to working with colleagues to achieve that aim, because regardless of political party, we surely all support that. It is the decent and right thing to do, and it is where we should be as a country.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing such an important debate. I, too, enjoyed our chat about food charities before the debate, and our previous conversations in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I look forward to working with him over the coming winter, which we all know will be a challenging time.
The last few months have highlighted to everybody the importance of access to food. I put on record my thanks to all those who have kept the nation fed at this difficult time, including the people who work for Fans Supporting Foodbanks, such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, who was too modest about the work that he has done for that charity. I would like to thank the community fridges in my area, particularly the one run from Banbury mosque, which has done sterling work to feed Banbury during the pandemic. Later I will touch on FareShare, which has a depot in my constituency, and with which I have been pleased to work closely in my ministerial role.
I was privileged to chair a cross-Whitehall ministerial taskforce—I wish it had not been necessary, but I was pleased to be involved—that was set up to ensure that food and essential supplies reached the vulnerable during the pandemic. We worked with industry to smooth the way wherever we could, including relaxing competition laws and drivers’ hours. We worked on access issues. At the beginning, that was very much physical access issues for people who were stuck at home, but we then moved to focus more on economic access to food.
The continuation of the taskforce is one of the recommendations listed in Henry Dimbleby’s interim report, published in July this year. We are taking his recommendations very seriously. We have made a firm commitment to publish a food White Paper within six months of his final report, which is due next spring.
As part of our wider commitment to regular reporting on food, we have a duty under clause 19 of the Agriculture Bill—if and when it receives Royal Assent, which I hope will be soon—that commits the Government to lay before Parliament a regular report containing an analysis of statistical data relating to food security, in the widest sense, in the UK.
We listened to concerns raised, particularly from the House of Lords, regarding the frequency of the food security report, so we have reduced the minimum frequency of reporting from five to three years, but I stress that is a minimum. In times of real pressure on the national food supply, it may well be appropriate to report much more often. That is why I was so glad to have Henry Dimbleby’s interim report in July, which touched on the beginning of the pandemic. The food security report is different and extra to Henry Dimbleby’s work on the national food strategy, but both are useful to all of us who are interested in this sphere, as we take this work forward.
We all know that this is a very difficult time for people across the country. Many households have felt a real financial impact from coronavirus. That is why we, as a Government, have taken steps to ease the burden where we can through targeted support, which includes income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional support for renters. We have also injected further spending into the welfare system, and approximately £9 billion of extra support has gone to people’s incomes throughout the pandemic where possible.
During the pandemic we have worked across Government to try to concentrate our effort, as the hon. Gentleman asked, on people struggling to access and afford food. In March we started the shielding scheme and supported the 2.2 million people in England identified by the NHS as particularly vulnerable. Through our wholesaler partners, Brakes and Bidfood, 4.5 million boxes of essential food were delivered to some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has always worked closely with the third sector to identify individuals who might need support to get essential food supplies. We talk regularly to volunteer groups, food bank organisations and other redistribution charities, including FareShare, with which we have worked particularly closely this year. In May it was an early recipient of a large sum of Government money to help it to help the people it provides food to. We remain in regular contact with FareShare and others across civil society to ensure that there is sufficient support for those who need it.
We know the difficulties that some families currently face in accessing food and we continue to take steps to support them. We know that a large number of vulnerable people rely on their friends, family and other community organisations. Where that is not possible, we continue to work with major third sector organisations to refer vulnerable people to a variety of tailored services, including facilitating access to priority supermarket delivery slots. I was pleased that in June we could announce an additional £63 million-worth of food for local authorities in England that could be targeted at the vulnerable—at a local level, local authorities know who is struggling—so that they could access food and other essentials. I had a very useful meeting less than two weeks ago with the Trussell Trust and with the Children’s Society, and they felt that that targeted fund was particularly useful and was reaching those who needed it most. There is still money available in the fund—possibly not in all areas, but in many of the areas where that money has gone. I understand that money is still going out from that fund and that it can continue to do so until the end of this month.
I really appreciate what the Minister is saying. We are on the cusp of seeing mass job losses, which is terrifying. The demand for food security will escalate sharply, so what additional support will be put in place for local authorities? I agree that they know best where the need is. Where will the additional support come from?
I thank the hon. Lady, who I am proud to call a friend, for that intervention. I would very much like to continue to work with her to identify particular areas of need. Work is going on across Government at the moment. The Secretary of State took part in a cross-Government roundtable on food yesterday. Many of us will be in the Chamber later to hear what Members from across the House have to say about access to food. I think we all recognise the scale of the problem. We need to continue to check that our figures are right and that we know what is happening on the ground. It is important that we continue the work that we started this year.
I want to turn to the work being done by Marcus Rashford, who was referenced by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby. I welcome the establishment of the new child food poverty taskforce. The Government will carefully consider its recommendations as we approach the next spending review. I will not talk further about free school meals now because I know that debate will take place in the Chamber this afternoon.
The Welsh Government have announced that they will extend free school meals during school holidays until spring 2021, which will cost £11 million. We do not have the resources, but we are finding them because there is a desperate need for this. Surely it is now time for the UK Government to follow the Welsh Government’s lead and do the same.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I enjoy working with Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, on food security issues—she was a valued member of my taskforce. I am sure that we will discuss that specific issue in the main Chamber this afternoon, but I look forward to having further conversations with Lesley Griffiths and others about what we do as four nations moving forward in this area.
The work that Marcus Rashford is doing to look into the current UK food system links in with the Government’s commitment to develop a food strategy that will support the development of a food system that is sustainable, resilient and affordable, and that we hope in time will support people to live healthy lives, and protect animal health and welfare as well.
In closing, I will further emphasise that the Government are committed to doing everything we can to support the most vulnerable to gain access to food, by having a robust welfare system that provides a safety net where needed, and by having policy interventions in place that can be implemented where needed.
Question put and agreed to.
Support for People and Businesses in Wales: Covid-19
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for people and businesses in Wales affected by the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I am pleased to have secured this debate and glad to see so many hon. Members from across the House who hope to contribute. I do not need to tell anyone that we are living in extraordinary times. No one foresaw the pandemic, and the virus, by its very nature, has been difficult to predict. In the absence of a vaccine, it seems as though the virus will be with us for a long time and that we will have to learn to live with it. That means trusting science. As always, we have those commentators who are suddenly experts in microbiology and seem to know better than the scientists. However, the debate must focus on how the Welsh economy will adapt to the new world in which we live.
Ever since a national lockdown was announced in March, nearly every sector in my constituency—from the hairdresser, to the driving instructor and the estate agent—has written to me because they are worried about their future survival. Just last month, the Caerphilly county borough area, which includes Islwyn, was put into a further lockdown, which has only increased the financial pressure on businesses struggling to recover from the March lockdown. With the announcement of a firebreak—a two-week lockdown commencing at 6 pm on Friday—those fears have massively escalated.
The firebreak lockdown proposed by the Welsh Labour Government is necessary in order to regain control of the virus, save lives and alleviate the pressure on the national health service, but the news of a lockdown has been a hammer blow for so many businesses already struggling to stay afloat. During my time as a Member of Parliament, I have worked with and come to know one of the Islwyn businesses under threat. Halletts Cider got in touch in March to ask for assistance in finding financial support. Since that time, it has been able to access a bounce back loan, but it now faces the worry of how to pay that back. As this crisis goes on, I fear that many people will be in a similar situation to Hallets, a company that many hon. Members will know well, as it has taken part in past events arranged by the all-party parliamentary group on cider, and it can be seen at many festivals around Wales and other parts of the country. It is a very good business, and I ask that the Treasury makes plans to address its concerns.
I am concerned for businesses across the UK. It is vital that we do all we can to support them. As I said about Halletts, these businesses are completely viable in normal times—they are flourishing and thriving—but through no fault of their own they face huge financial uncertainty. The Welsh Government have worked hard to curtail this uncertainty, going above and beyond the work of the UK Government to offer the support that Welsh businesses needed. However, areas such as mine have not been able to function properly for a long time now, and this looks likely to continue, given the recent announcement of the two-week full lockdown.
The Welsh Government have done all they can to support businesses, but at the end of the day it comes down to one thing: finance. The Welsh Government can offer support only within the confines of Barnett consequentials. However, that will only become more difficult given the need for a firebreak lockdown. Since the lockdown was announced, I have heard from more businesses concerned about being unable to operate once again. I know that the Welsh Government will do all they can to support those businesses, as they have throughout the pandemic. However, I feel that the Chancellor of the Exchequer can and should do more.
I place on the record my thanks to the Welsh Economy Minister, Ken Skates, and I am sure that many Members will agree. Whenever I have written to his office about a business in my constituency asking for support, he has often arranged for members of his office to give the business a ring and talk through the options. I know those businesses have found that help invaluable— and I include Halletts in that, after his office rang Halletts within a couple of days of my asking them to give the business a call. The Welsh Government have provided the most comprehensive and generous package of financial support for businesses of all the UK’s nations. To date, the Welsh Government’s economic resilience fund has given almost £300 million of support to more than 13,000 businesses in Wales. That has helped to protect more than 100,000 jobs that were at risk of being lost. Welsh Government Ministers have made available a £300 million support package for businesses affected by the firebreak, including additional discretionary grants and support for smaller businesses that are struggling.
I believe that the Welsh Government are doing everything they can, but I am deeply concerned about the level of communication with the devolved Governments. It has been nothing short of disappointing. Sometimes I think that the Prime Minister needs to realise that we live in a new world. Perhaps it is beyond his ideas of the 1940s and ’50s, when the Prime Minister was all-powerful. The fact is that there are three nations with their own Governments and leaders, and he has to talk to them. The UK Government should commit to more regular and reliable engagement with those devolved Governments. Simply put, the matter is too important for us not to be singing from the same hymn sheet.
Among new measures that the Welsh Government have introduced is an increase in the flexibility of terms for firms borrowing from the flexible investment fund of the Development Bank of Wales. The limit for that fund will be doubled from £5 million to £10 million. The development bank will also have the discretion to extend loan periods up to 15 years, which will help to spread the cost of borrowing. Those are all helpful steps, but the measures that are coming in on Friday will strain them to the absolute limit.
At the end of last month the Welsh Government announced that £140 million would be spend in grants to Welsh businesses. Of that, £20 million has been earmarked for tourism and hospitality businesses, while businesses with a rateable value under £50,000 are able to apply for grants as well. Those are incredibly helpful measures for a huge number of businesses, but the next two weeks will mean that more help is needed.
In the phase of local lockdowns, the Welsh Government introduced a new local lockdown business fund. That support is invaluable for areas such as mine that have now been in local lockdown for over a month. The purpose of the fund is to support businesses with cashflow support, to help them to survive the economic consequences of the local restrictions that have been put in place in their area. Businesses can apply for the fund when their local area has been in lockdown for a minimum of 21 days. It is administered by local authorities, which are best placed to serve the needs of the community. I want to thank the chief executive and leader of Caerphilly County Borough Council for their handling and management of the lockdown, as well as the vast number of staff who have been so helpful during the pandemic.
The Welsh Government have also implemented targeted support for childcare providers. At the beginning of the pandemic I was contacted by several nurseries and childcare providers in my area, who were understandably concerned that if everyone worked from home their services would no longer be required. Thanks to the Welsh Government, they can now apply for a grant of £5,000 to cover any losses from April to June, when the strictest measures were in place.
Wales is a nation with many great assets that we can be hugely proud of. One area that I am passionate about is the promotion of tourism in Wales, and I am glad to see that it is the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who will respond to this debate, as we spoke extensively in February about the development of a Henry VII trail, to encourage American tourists with an interest in British history to come to Wales and see where Henry VII landed before eventually becoming King. I pay tribute to the Minister for the encouragement that he and officials and other Members have given to trying to bring that to fruition. Unfortunately the pandemic brought the talks to a crashing halt, but we were making progress.
Tourism has been one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic. Gareth Bates, who owns the Cardiff-based tourism company Tours of Wales, has said that usually about 50% of his customers are Americans, and so, as he has not seen any of them, he has lost a portion of his revenue. Some tourism companies have been able to recoup part of that loss through an increase in the number of tourists from other parts of the UK. As families could not holiday abroad, more of them turned to Wales for a summer holiday. However, this increase has not been enough to meet the shortfall, with many hotel and bed-and-breakfast owners wondering where their next booking is actually going to come from.
Local lockdowns and full lockdowns, such as the upcoming two-week lockdown in Wales, and the guidance not to travel unless absolutely necessary have made fewer and farther between the number of UK travellers hoping to holiday in Wales. This means that many business owners now face the prospect of losing not only international customers but customers from elsewhere in the UK, too. I am pleased to say that the Welsh Government have once again stepped in to help secure these businesses by ring-fencing £20 million of support specifically for the tourism hospitality sector.
Some 34% of businesses in Wales have benefited from Welsh or UK Government coronavirus support, compared with only 14% in England. I believe that is a good thing. The Welsh Government are also taking additional steps to ensure that covid support reaches those who need it most. They have announced that coronavirus support will not be available to companies based in tax havens, thereby ensuring that coronavirus aid reaches the companies that need it most and that contribute to our economy fairly. That is why support needs to be provided in an ethical way, ensuring that we reward companies that do the right thing and contribute.
An example of the extra support offered by the Welsh Government is the aid given to start-up firms, which are currently left out of the UK provisions for financial aid relating to covid. The Welsh Government have not left these businesses out in the cold. This is such an important point, Mr Leigh, as the vast majority of our businesses in Wales are microbusinesses of one or two people. The fund for this aid is worth £5 million, with flexibility to increase this amount in the future, if needed. It will support start-up firms that fall outside of the UK Government’s self-employment income support scheme. Under the UK scheme, businesses that were started within the last year do not qualify for the SEISS, and it is unclear whether that will be remedied or if other provisions will be made for those affected. The Welsh Government are stepping in and providing crucial funding to recently established businesses so that they can continue to trade through the pandemic. This will aid at least 2,000 businesses that fall outside the UK Government’s help schemes.
Although every sector across the country has felt the economic hardship that covid has brought with it, I will highlight only some sectors today. There are recurring themes in the correspondence I receive from the people of Islwyn about certain areas that need help, or else face closure. They are all related to gaps in the UK Government’s schemes.
As we are well aware, pubs and restaurants have been operating under varying levels of restriction since March. Restrictions on their opening times and capacity, guidance to limit contact with others, and public anxiousness all drastically cut footfall. Footfall is significantly lower even for those businesses that are capable of being opened. As we know, all these businesses will be closed completely during the coming weeks while the firebreak is in effect.
In my own constituency of Islwyn, I have heard of many local pubs and restaurants that have struggled in the past few months. One pub was excluded from furloughing staff because of the date that the landlady took over, meaning that she had to choose between staff not being paid or paying them and going into debt herself. The cut-off date for support seems completely arbitrary to me, and it puts new business owners, such as my constituent, in a difficult position.
I take issue with the lack of clarity in the Chancellor’s statements. Many people in Wales do not follow the intricate details of what is and what is not devolved, or they are simply too busy to keep up with such matters. We do not all live in a bubble within which politics is the be-all and end-all of our lives. At the start of the crisis, Welsh Labour MPs were forced to write to the Treasury to seek clarity on what support applied to businesses in Wales, as the guidance simply was not clear enough. Businesspeople were often left confused as to whether or not the Chancellor’s announcements applied to the whole of the UK or just England. The message was not clear and it was also difficult to access, leaving many businesspeople confused as to what financial aid they qualified for.
Only the UK Government have the financial firepower to guarantee the levels of support that workers need, despite the continual work of Welsh Ministers. Welsh businesses need more generous payments to help their workers through this crisis. The Welsh Government are clearly taking proactive steps and doing all they can to support businesses, plugging gaps where UK support is not sufficient. However, through no fault of its own, Wales is struggling, despite the best efforts of the Welsh Government and of the residents to keep their businesses alive.
It is time that proper consideration is taken in Westminster as to the level of flexibility of aid that should be offered, to ensure that businesses can continue to function and jobs can be retained over the coming winter. As Wales faces a two-week lockdown, this has become even more urgent. Aid needs to be more targeted and more flexible, to take into account the complexities of British businesses. Above all, that must happen right now.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this important debate. The last time he and I were in Westminster Hall, he reminded me of a day we spent in Blackwood, walking to raise funds for Velindre Cancer Care, which at that time was treating the late Steffan Lewis, a great man and a Plaid Cymru Member of the Senedd. We have sadly lost Steffan now, but every time I see the hon. Gentleman, I am reminded of that uplifting day and the collegiate, cross-party support that came with it, which I hope will seep into this debate.
Coronavirus has devastated businesses across Wales. I am incredibly proud and thankful for the level of support that both Governments have made available. Schemes such as the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme and the bounce back loan have directly supported businesses of all sizes right across Wales. Some 11,000 jobs in Brecon and Radnorshire have been protected through the UK Government’s furlough scheme. These schemes have been a lifeline to businesses that have lost the ability to trade for the better half of a year, with no clear end in sight.
Every sector in Brecon and Radnorshire has lost out, but I want to speak in particular for the tourism and hospitality sector. Many of the most beautiful parts of Wales can be found in my constituency. In a normal year, they would draw hundreds of thousands of tourists from all corners of the United Kingdom and, indeed, from around the world. For example, the small, independent book shops in Hay-on-Wye attract thousands of visitors each year, with the Hay festival being one of the world’s foremost literary events—yet another example of a loss to our community during this pandemic.
Following the easing of restrictions in Powys, pubs, restaurants and hotels were slowly coming back to life. Supported by the unique eat out to help out scheme, demand picked up in August. Many restaurant and café owners have told me how much they valued this scheme, which resulted in more than 77,000 meals being enjoyed in the constituency. The argument that it contributed to increasing rates of the virus in September is simply not borne out in Brecon and Radnorshire, where coronavirus rates have stayed mercifully low.
The First Minister’s decision on Monday to put the entire country into lockdown once again is, to use the words of the hon. Member for Islwyn, a hammer blow for those businesses that were just starting to recover. The decision penalises everyone across Wales, irrespective of the number of virus cases in a certain area. To make the problem worse, businesses have no foresight as to what comes next. The businesses in my constituency, which have relied on customers being able to travel up from the south Wales valleys, have no idea whether those people might be allowed back after the lockdown is lifted.
Like the hon. Gentleman, since Monday I have been flooded with emails from businesses and workers who are now deeply uncertain about their future. I was saddened to read on Facebook this morning that Aroma, a café in Llandrindod Wells, has announced that it cannot survive lockdown 2 and will be closing its doors permanently.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Is there not more certainty around the idea of a firebreak, or a circuit breaker, because it is time-limited, with a specific deadline of 9 November, whereas a very open-ended tier-based system leaves people in a vacuum for an indefinite period of time? Surely the Welsh approach provides far more certainty than the UK Government’s approach.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but we do not know what will happen after 9 November, as I will address in my speech.
It is clear to me that businesses do not want to be kept on life support through Government grants and loans. They want to be open and busy, serving customers and playing an important role in our communities. Throughout coronavirus, the tourism and hospitality sectors in Brecon and Radnorshire have reacted admirably and have done everything they can to stay open, while ensuring that their customers are safe.
I was pleased to visit Cantref activity centre in Brecon in the summer, which has worked incredibly hard to implement social-distancing measures and limit capacity, as have Dan yr Ogof caves, a 60-year-old underground caving attraction in Abercrave. They have all now been told by the Welsh Government that that work was for nothing and that they are to lose their half-term revenue—the only glimmer of hope in an otherwise dreadful year.
The lockdown is being imposed, and we will all have to comply, businesses included. I welcome that the Welsh Government have made £300 million available, but I hope that that can be targeted at businesses in the tourism and hospitality sectors, which are now facing their third winter of 2020. I will play my part by urging the Chancellor and the Treasury to maintain the 5% VAT rate, but I urge the Welsh Government to commit to scrapping business rates for tourism and hospitality businesses for another year. Above all, in answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), the Welsh Government need to explain what happens next. It is vital that we avoid an endless cycle of rolling lockdowns, as trailed by the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on Sunday morning.
Before I conclude, I want to highlight the plight of the events sector, which is another important employer in my constituency. The Royal Welsh show is the largest agricultural show in Europe. Each year, it welcomes a quarter of a million visitors to Llanelwedd, just outside Builth Wells. It creates £45 million for the UK economy and, more than that, it is a rich seam in our cultural fabric. For many, it is the highlight of the year—an annual holiday and a chance to catch up with friends right across the agricultural sector. Just before the Royal Welsh show was cancelled for 2020, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport provided the Welsh Government with £59 million to support cultural activities in Wales hit by the pandemic. I find it curious that only £53 million of that money has been made available so far. The Royal Welsh show is one of the biggest cultural events in Wales. It is on a par with the Urdd eisteddfod, which received £3.1 million in support from the Welsh Government. The Royal Welsh show has received next to nothing in comparison. I implore the Welsh Government to consider the rural economy and find some extra funding for the show, which faces an uncertain future.
Support for businesses comes in many forms, not just lifeline funding. Businesses need to know what comes next. We in Wales know that half-term, Halloween and bonfire night are all cancelled. Valuable chances to recover are gone. Where do we go from here? How do we fight the virus on an economic and a public health front after 9 November? The Welsh Government need to come forward with a plan urgently.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this debate and on the excellent speech he made. I apologise profusely for having to leave before the winding-up speeches, as I must go and chair a Committee.
As my hon. Friend said, this debate on support for people and businesses in Wales during covid-19 comes in the context of the Welsh Government’s announcement that Wales will enter a national firebreak for a fortnight from the end of this week. That is a sensible, proportionate response to the national rise in cases we have seen over recent weeks—we only have to listen, for instance, to national health service staff from the Aneurin Bevan health board on social media to know that. I know it is also something that many of my constituents, while accepting the challenges it will pose—and it will be hard —will understand.
The First Minister’s tone, which encouraged the people of Wales to come together to look after each other and ease the burden on our NHS, was well judged. That is not least because in Newport, which has been under local lockdown since 22 September, we saw our cases drop yesterday to the joint lowest figure in the Aneurin Bevan health board area, along with Monmouthshire, part of which I represent. People in Newport have stuck to the rules, and there are some signs that that is now having an effect, even against the backdrop of a worrying national picture. We thank them for their efforts and their sacrifices at this time, and we also thank those working hard on the frontline during the second wave, who must be exhausted but who are keeping going. We are eternally grateful.
In his announcement on Monday, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, highlighted the challenges that businesses across Wales are continuing to face. That is why it is good to hear that businesses affected by the firebreak will be supported with the new £300 million fund, which opens next week, on top of the economic resilience fund that has safeguarded 100,000 jobs. It will include payments for businesses covered by small business rates relief; small and medium-sized retail, leisure and hospitality business; and targeted support for struggling businesses, for which it cannot come soon enough. We need to repeat the First Minister’s ask: the Chancellor must give Welsh businesses early access to the new, expanded job support scheme from Friday. The Welsh Government are offering to pay the extra costs to retain staff. I hope that can be resolved quickly.
It goes without saying that the past few months have been incredibly challenging for us all in Wales, and all the more so for individuals and businesses that are falling through the cracks of the support offered by the UK Government. In Welsh questions last week, I spoke up for constituents who are locked out of the Government’s new job support scheme or are deemed to be in unviable jobs. In his response, the Secretary of State invited me to raise individual examples of gaps in Government support that my constituents have encountered. Here are just a few for my constituency neighbour, the Minister.
A worryingly large amount of correspondence has come in from constituents who were denied access to the furlough scheme in the first place, including those on maternity leave; those who are shielding; those made redundant before 19 March, whose previous employer does not agree, for whatever reason, to re-employ them and place them on temporary leave; and many zero-hours contract staff, particularly agency workers. There are also those who started new jobs in March and who have been unable to access support through the furlough scheme. For example, a constituent who started a new job in south Wales in March was told to stay at home after a week in the office. He was later informed that the company could not afford to pay everyone, and he was put on eight weeks’ unpaid leave.
There are also ongoing problems with Government support schemes that affect those who have received support. They include the deeply unfair situation, which is only now becoming apparent, whereby lower paid workers who fall ill after returning to work from furlough risk losing their entitlement to statutory sick pay, as their earnings fall under the limit of £120. I thank Mike Payne of the GMB union for highlighting that, and I think the Government should sort it out.
There are also gaping holes in the Government’s support for the self-employed, including those who work on short pay-as-you-earn contracts. For example, constituents in the creative sector on local film sets have not been covered by the self-employed income support scheme or the job retention scheme. Those I have spoken up for in previous debates who serve as directors for limited companies and draw down their income in dividends currently have no support under either scheme. Those small business owners and directors are often not high earners, paying themselves a nominal salary and taking the rest as dividends.
The new job support scheme is also flawed. An Institute for Public Policy Research report estimates that only 10% of so-called viable jobs will be saved by the package. The truth is that a grant of two thirds of their salary for workers is simply not sufficient for those on the lowest wages, and will make it harder for many of my constituents to pay bills and feed their families, especially in the run-up to Christmas. Government adviser Dame Louise Casey said last week:
“It’s like you're saying to people, ‘You can only afford two-thirds of your rent, you can only afford two-thirds of the food that you need to put on the table.’ There’s this sense from Downing Street and from Westminster that people will make do. Well, they weren’t coping before Covid.”
She is absolutely right that this level of support simply will not cut it. The UK Government should reconsider the policy and listen to the Wales TUC, which has rightly stated that the wage replacement should be at least at the current furlough level of 80%.
Given that two thirds of the national minimum wage is about £800 a month, there is a strong likelihood that many of the lowest-paid workers in Wales, where the average wage is 15% lower than the UK average, will need to claim universal credit under the new job support scheme. That again illustrates the pressing need to address the in-built flaws in the universal credit system, including the five-week wait, which the Work and Pensions Select Committee highlighted yesterday, and the advance loan payment, which pushes people into debt.
Whole sectors of the Welsh and UK economy are facing an uncertain future. In my constituency—my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn has mentioned many of these—the sectors include the exhibition and events industry and its many supply chains, driving instructors, garages, dog kennels, gyms, the wedding industry, and beauty and hair, as well as others. As chair of the all-party group on steel, may I point out the need to help out our steel industry, which we will definitely need if we are to build back greener? I urge Ministers to work with their counterparts in the Welsh Government to produce a road map for recovery for these businesses, particularly those where supply chains frequently cross borders within the UK.
My final point is about lower-paid workers, particularly women, and I draw Ministers’ attention to the excellent report by the Welsh equality charity, Chwarae Teg, “Covid-19: Women, Work and Wales”. What we are going through might be the new normal, but for lower-paid workers in unfurloughed sectors, such as care, retail and the NHS, who are keeping the country going, there is nothing normal about the contribution they are making to keep us safe in the second wave. The lowest paid—those on the living wage—deserve the Government to commit, at the very least, to giving them a raise next year. As I highlighted in Prime Minister’s questions last month, Ministers should confirm that the hourly level will still rise to £9.21 in April. Working people in Wales and across the UK should not be made to pay for this crisis.
It is pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing it.
I, too, believe that the decision that the Welsh Government have taken is absolutely right and necessary to bring the virus under control and to provide certainty to many of the businesses and organisations in my constituency that are deeply worried about the prospect of open-ended periods of restrictions that will cause them much more difficulty than a defined, albeit very difficult, period of restrictions. Many of them are telling me that the confusion, particularly from the Prime Minister, that has been reported in the UK media filters through into Wales and depresses demand and the willingness of people to go out and use local hospitality, for example. It is clear that, with the virus rising in the way that it is, and with the potential impact on the NHS and the potential for even stricter measures to be put into place, this is the right decision at the right time.
It is disappointing that the UK Prime Minister has not taken the same approach despite calls for him to do so. There has been a stark contrast in approach between that taken by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, and Ministers in Wales, and what we have seen from the Prime Minister. I have similar stories of helpful engagements with the Economy Minister, Ken Skates, when I have brought him concerns on behalf of individual businesses and sectors. However, I will be generous to the Minister and the Secretary of State, who is not with us today, because of the support that they have provided in a number of cases, particularly in the case of the steel industry in my community. Unfortunately, it requires the whole UK Government to be working in concert, and such support has not been forthcoming in a number of other areas. That is disappointing. However, I acknowledge the support the Minister has personally provided on a number of issues, and it is right to acknowledge that.
We have the most comprehensive, nuanced and generous package of financial support, beyond the support from the UK Government, and it has protected 100,000 jobs in Wales. The package of support that was announced at the same time as the proposed measures is crucial in bringing together clarity on public health restrictions with economic support and making sure that the support gets through to businesses. Ken Skates has announced a £300 million support package for businesses and, although it contains multiple aspects, I should just mention that it provides individual payments to those who, for example, benefit from small business rate relief and—of particular concern to my constituency—those small and medium-sized enterprises in the leisure and hospitality sectors that receive individualised payments.
I wish to raise a few specific issues. I have already mentioned the wider implications of confusion. Despite the welcome BBC Wales broadcasts and coverage of statements from the First Minister, the Economy Minister and other Ministers, much of the media reporting on what is happening in England and on the chaos and confusion that we have seen in recent days filters across into Wales. Many businesses and individuals regularly come to me to talk about the tiers and the decisions that have been taken for England. I have raised that point since the start of the crisis, and I know that the Secretary of State for Wales has made attempts to try to be clearer, but that is not often matched by the Prime Minister and others getting up at UK Government press conferences to put information out there. That causes huge confusion not only for businesses and individuals along the border but for others who pick up news from England. There needs to be a real step towards greater clarity on the decisions—whether people agree with them or not—that have been made and why they have been taken. Anything that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales can do to help provide clarity, even if there are differences and disagreements, would be helpful. The decisions are taken in Wales, and businesses should know that there is that certainty and clarity about what is happening.
I have raised this many times, but I want to raise again the situation facing many freelancers and those in the excluded groups who have fallen through the gaps in different programmes and packages. Again, I want to praise the Welsh Government for the approach they have taken, particularly on freelancers working in the arts and creative industries, in setting up a freelancer fund. Individuals are not able to benefit in the same way from the large sums that the Chancellor keeps trumpeting as having been given to the arts and creative industries, but the freelancer fund is of course welcome. That package supports many venues and arts and creative businesses in my constituency, but individuals—often the lifeblood of our creative industries—are not eligible in England, although they are Wales, but the demand is huge. If evidence is needed about the hurt and pain going on out there, one has only to look at how quickly people have applied to the freelancer fund scheme in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan in recent days. There have already been two phases, and I am arguing for a third. Many people are struggling and are absolutely desperate for payments to help get them through the next few months. The problem is not related to the lockdown that starts on Friday; it has been going on for months, and we have heard again and again from those who have fallen through the gaps.
I also want to raise the issue of the bureaucracy that businesses face and the fact that the Chancellor has not responded to the very reasonable request from the First Minister to bring forward the job support scheme package. Businesses now have to apply for the furlough scheme at its tail end and then apply for the job support scheme. I know there is a difference in approach and there are different views, and I know that politics is involved, but I am talking about plain common sense for businesses. It would have made a lot more sense for the Chancellor to have brought the scheme forward. If businesses have to continue to apply for the two separate schemes, I urge the Minister to ask his ministerial colleagues to bring forward the funding for the tail end of the furlough scheme as quickly as possible, because we all know that, for many businesses, cash is king. Many are really struggling with their cash flow, and they need the money as soon as possible.
I want to raise a related issue. I am being contacted by many constituents and others facing delays at the UK Government-run testing sites in Cardiff. I have raised the issue with the Department of Health and Social Care. The site is run as part of the Lighthouse lab system. I have had multiple cases come in over the past few weeks of people not getting tests and then having to self-isolate. They are unable to go to work, which is causing financial strain and worry for them, their families and the businesses that they work for. I have raised the matter with the DHSC Parliamentary Private Secretary and others. I urge the Minister to look into that specific case because it relates to the UK Government-run site, not the Welsh Government.
We have seen a methodical, measured, science-led and consultative approach from the Welsh First Minister, our Economy Minister and others in these very difficult circumstances. I will continue to stand available to support all of my businesses and all those who are struggling at the current time. I will continue to make sure they get the right information and access to support. I hope that we see a more measured, methodical, clear and consultative approach from the UK Government going forward. We are going to get through this only if everybody works together and if we take some of the politics out of it. We need to support our residents and our businesses and not make the cheap jibes that we have heard in recent days from the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and their health spokesperson, Andrew R. T. Davies. It is not helpful, it is deeply damaging, and it is not in line with the facts on the ground.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this timely and important debate. If there is one thing that 2020 has taught us, it is the unshakable truth that we are far stronger and more resilient when we come together, pool resources, look out for one another, take collective responsibility, and shield and protect the most vulnerable among us.
The health and wellbeing of people, the planet, family, communities and businesses are at the heart of decision making in Wales. I know that the people of Cardiff North, whom I am here to represent, fully understand the gravity of the situation that we face and that no decisions are being taken lightly by the Welsh Labour Government. I am so very proud of the clear, responsible and transparent leadership that the Welsh Labour Government have shown throughout the crisis. They have rolled out the most all-inclusive financial support package for businesses of all the four nations—£2 billion to keep businesses afloat. That has already saved 100,000 businesses across Wales, and is appreciated by many I have spoken to.
I have had many conversations with constituents and exchanges with people and businesses right across my constituency. There is no doubt that it is a very worrying time. We are facing tough times, but these businesses are integral to our communities. Cardiff North would not be the same without Mr Lazarou, the barber’s down the road from my office in Whitchurch; Dave Vater and his Forest café in Tongwynlais; or Fran and Rupert with their fantastic deli, Snails, in Rhiwbina. Hairdressers, beauty salons, cafés, restaurants, the creative heritage and tourism sector—these are the people who put their heart and soul into our high streets and communities and who create jobs in local areas. They must be protected too.
The Welsh Government have also provided grants for the self-employed and a freelance fund for those who have been shamefully excluded from all support from the UK Government since March. They have lost work, yet still have the same bills to pay to keep the roof over their heads and their families fed. Yet again, the Welsh Labour Government have committed to providing support for all where the Tories in Whitehall have been either unable or unwilling to do that. It is no surprise that in a recent constituency-wide survey I conducted, the majority of businesses who responded—78%—said that they far preferred the Welsh Labour Government’s approach to the UK Government’s.
As we approach the short, sharp two-week firebreak this Friday, we see the difficult decisions being taken by the Welsh Labour Government, listening to the scientific advice and taking action where needed. It is at times like these that I am so proud to be Welsh—I know that this view is shared by the majority of my constituents who write and tell me—and so proud to represent a Welsh constituency. The Welsh Labour Government are ensuring a supported firebreak for a short period, rather than a slow decline towards Christmas, which we know is the time that a lot of businesses depend on to secure them throughout the year. The firebreak is absolutely necessary to get back on top of the virus, to suppress the spread of infection and to stop the NHS being overwhelmed.
The Welsh Labour Government stepping in to save lives and provide a generous financial support package is in stark contrast to what we see unfolding in England, which is the UK Government playing poker with people’s lives and livelihoods. In Wales, the Welsh Government are providing £300 million in an enhanced resilience fund for this short two-week firebreak, small business rates relief grants, funding for retail, hospitality and leisure shutting down for two weeks, and a £100 million fund for long-term business development.
The Government in Wales have swiftly provided the clear and quality support that is needed now, as well as keeping an eye on the future. Despite repeated requests from First Minister Mark Drakeford to work with the UK Government, they have continued to ignore our First Minister. The UK Government’s display yesterday towards Manchester shows the deep contempt they have for people’s lives and livelihoods. Never has there been a more important time for us to come together and govern together. This is not governing—the UK Government seem incapable. They are seeking to divide and conquer. It is politicking at best, but it is downright dangerous at a time of national emergency. We need trust and transparency.
I will make some specific requests of the Minister. I hope that the Chancellor responds swiftly to Mark Drakeford’s request to give Welsh businesses early access to the new job support scheme, cutting down paperwork that overstretched and overworked businesses must complete to access it. Will we see outlawed fire and rehire tactics under the guise of covid that few businesses—thankfully—but some practise? Usually, that affects those lowest paid and in the most precarious jobs. Many have contacted me and are desperate to see an end to the practice. Likewise, the £20 uplift for recipients of universal credit has been a lifeline for more than 5,000 people in Cardiff North, the difference between being able to cope and being cut adrift. Economic hardship shows no sign of easing, so will the UK Government extend that uplift to and throughout 2021?
This is a deeply worrying time for everyone, and we have an uncertain future until there is a vaccine. There is no easy fix right now, but I thank the people of Cardiff North and of Wales for making those tough sacrifices and for their continued co-operation. Elsewhere, we have witnessed how division leads to dithering and delay. Ultimately, that is bad for public health, and the uncertainty is bad for livelihoods and for businesses. Coming together is our best chance of defeating this virus.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this vital debate.
To start, I pay tribute to all those across my constituency and, indeed, across Wales and the UK for doing their bit to fight this pandemic. Community groups in Aberavon sprang into action to help residents across our community, to help with food shopping, prescription pick-ups and so many other forms of support, and often just with acts of human kindness. Demand on our food banks has increased dramatically. I thank the Port Talbot, Briton Ferry, Cwmafan and the Skewen Salvation Army food banks, as well as Age Cymru West Glamorgan for ensuring that those most in need in our community do not go without.
Our key workers have, of course, played an absolutely pivotal role. Our health and social care workers have been right on the frontline of this fight, working so hard in the toughest of conditions. However, so have many of our other unsung heroes, such as our transport workers, waste disposal men and women, food producers, steelworkers and many more who have kept our economy going even during the national lockdown.
Manufacturers have also played a critical role. I visited local Aberavon firms which have shown incredible innovation, flexibility and adaptability in producing essential frontline equipment: BOC kept our Welsh NHS stocked with oxygen; Ministry of Furniture, also in my constituency, flipped on a sixpence to start producing shields and screens for frontline workers; and a company called RotaTherm, which turned its hand to PPE, also moved from its core business to a very different type of activity almost in the blink of an eye. It has been truly inspirational to witness such a community effort.
I have also been profoundly impressed by the response of my local authority, Neath Port Talbot, and of course by the Welsh Government, as many of my hon. Friends have pointed out. Our First Minister has led by example. He has followed the science and provided adequate support for businesses and individuals, where it is the Welsh Government’s responsibility and capability to do so. The £300 million of financial support to firms and workers, to help them through the upcoming firebreak lockdown, is a case in point. That is leadership, and it is truly welcome and much needed.
Contrast that—as a number of my hon. Friends have already observed—with the events in Greater Manchester, where the UK Conservative Government are certainly failing to deliver on their levelling-up rhetoric. One specific issue that my constituents regularly raise is the need for more support from the Chancellor for the self-employed. Creative industry workers have told me that their work has dropped off a cliff, and because of the nature of their employment—short-term pay-as-you-earn contracts, freelance work and so on—many of them fall outside the income support schemes.
We also need far more support for our steelworkers. The Port Talbot steelworks is the biggest employer in my constituency by far, but Tata Steel has fallen through the cracks in the UK Government’s schemes and has yet to receive any emergency funding or loans. It took the French and German Governments just weeks to provide their major steel producers with the finance to cover their short-term cash flow issues—issues that are, of course, due to the impact of the pandemic—yet there still has not been a penny for the British steel industry from the UK Government. They continue to sit on their hands.
Steelworkers are key workers. The steel industry continues to operate and serve our country through the current crisis, and will be critical to rebuilding our economy after it. It is the backbone of modern manufacturing, and it should be noted that every other sizeable economic power in the world has a significant steel industry. It is also far greener to make steel in the UK than it is to import it, and lots of incredible work is taking place in this sector, including the SPECIFIC project at the Innovation and Knowledge Centre on Swansea Bay campus, in partnership with Tata Steel. That project is making steel-based materials that form the basis for photovoltaic cells, potentially turning every building in our country into a power station.
Steel is very much a 21st-century industry, and it is the backbone of our economy and our manufacturing sector. We need our steel industry, yet because of the extraordinary nature of the situation we find ourselves in, that industry can only get through this crisis with Government support. Of course, part of the reason why the steelworks needs this short-term support is that over the past 10 years, the Government have consistently failed to back the UK steel industry with the long-term support it requires. The UK Government have not offered a sector deal similar to those that are in place with industries such as aerospace and construction, and have not done enough to create the policy framework around energy prices, procurement, and dealing with the dumping of steel by countries such as China that is needed to form the foundation for a strong and healthy steel industry. The message to the UK Government is clear: we need our steel. There can be no post-pandemic economic recovery without a strong and healthy steel industry, and the Government should be backing this industry to the hilt.
It is not just the steel industry that the UK Government have failed to back in the long term. The impact of 10 years of austerity on public services in Wales, including a reduction in the Welsh Government’s grant, has affected the ability of local services to meet the challenge that this pandemic poses. Neath Port Talbot Council has had to remove £90 million from its budget since 2010, and is expected to find another £50 million reduction by 2025. Now coronavirus has hit, meaning that like other councils across the UK, both the extra spend and the loss of revenue for Neath Port Talbot Council will run into the millions. This really is going to be a test for public services whose resilience has been undermined over the past decade.
Local councillors need the Chancellor to heed the words of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who promised in May that the Government
“stands with local councils at this difficult time”
and that they would do “whatever is necessary”. So far, there is scant evidence of the UK Government making good on that pledge, but they need to, because “whatever is necessary” needs to mean what it says.
Take also the long-term issue of strategic independence. I recently visited one local company, which has turned its hand to manufacturing PPE for the Welsh NHS in a truly flexible and inspirational way, but what came home to me during that visit was that at that point, there were no Welsh companies making PPE for the Welsh NHS. That is because the whole supply chain had been moved offshore to countries such as China.
Every single one of the firm’s employees who I spoke to expressed their profound concerns about the way in which our sovereign capability had been eroded, to the point where we are left dangerously exposed and over-reliant on other countries. Frequently, those countries are not allies of ours or our national interest and security. The UK Government must understand that when we talk about supporting UK businesses through covid-19, we also need to have an eye to the future, and the reliance and resilience that UK manufacturers would bring to the economy. We cannot go on in a situation where so much of our critical infrastructure is exposed to forces that we cannot control.
Finally, Sir Edward, I want to touch on skilling and reskilling. After the pandemic we are going to need significant investment in vocational training for my constituents and for people across the country, to help them get back into the job market, because, I am afraid, there will be a huge shift of people losing their jobs. We are going to need to retrain those people and bring them back into the labour market.
Skilling and reskilling programmes have frequently been funded through European structural funds in Wales and other economically challenged parts of the United Kingdom. That money will disappear in January, when the transition period ends, leaving a huge black hole. The UK Government have promised that a UK shared prosperity fund will replace EU development funding, but we still know next to nothing about the SPF. How much money will be in the envelope? What development programmes will it cover? What will be the focus of those programmes? Who will be in charge of administering the scheme? There is a tremendous risk that the UK Government will undertake both a money grab and a power grab from the devolved nations with regard to how that development funding is spent. We have even recently heard suggestions that the UK Government plan to funnel money directly into marginal or Conservative-held seats in what can only be described as the worst sort of pork barrel politics.
It is frankly unacceptable that we are just two months away from the day on which the shared prosperity fund is supposed to be launched, yet we have no idea about its overall size, focus or governance. That is yet another example of the UK Conservative Government treating the regions and local areas of our United Kingdom with contempt. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on post-Brexit funding for regions, nations and local areas, I will be working closely with colleagues to hold the Government to account and to ensure that they deliver on their promises.
With those words I close, and simply add that we have seen some inspiring examples in all our local communities. In this time of crisis, we all need to pull together in the interests of those communities, our constituents and our entire country. That will require leadership, investment and a new way of working across our United Kingdom. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on all those issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Edward.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing today’s important and timely debate, which comes just a few days away from the new restrictions coming into force in Wales, in the form of the firebreak lockdown between 23 October and 9 November. As the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, said, that was not an easy decision, but it was taken on the advice of the Welsh Government’s scientific advisers and it is absolutely necessary to regain control of the virus, to protect our NHS and to save lives.
No one in the Chamber is ignorant to the challenges that this will cause to businesses and families in Wales, who have already sacrificed so much as we seek to control the virus. As we have heard, the Welsh Labour Government are putting in place an enhanced package of support, doubling the third phase of their economic resilience fund, making more than £300 million available to Welsh businesses. That builds on what the fund has already achieved, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn and others, supporting nearly 13,000 companies and helping to secure 100,000 jobs in Wales.
Many Members have cited the support Welsh people and businesses have received from the UK Government, primarily through the furlough scheme, and on these Benches we have welcomed that. We are a party that believes in the Union, and it is only right that we pull together and pool our resources, so that we can support one another in times of national crisis.
It is also right to recognise the huge contribution of all partners in supporting local communities. Local authorities in Wales have been at the forefront of ensuring that our crucial public services are maintained; and, of course, local authorities and third sector organisations, working with public health bodies and others, have made a huge contribution to sustaining families and communities. That has included co-ordinating food box schemes, neighbour befriending schemes and other schemes that support residents’ wellbeing and combat loneliness and isolation. I pay tribute also to the work of those in the housing sector—in local authorities and housing associations—who have done much to support their tenants. An example of that was the WithYou campaign launched by Community Housing Cymru.
I do not think I shall have time today to mention all the contributions to the debate in as much detail as I should like, but I want to acknowledge some of the comments that were made by other Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn highlighted the genuine concerns of businesses in Islwyn and across the country. He also rightly highlighted support from the Welsh Government, as well as the lack of regular contact from the UK Government to the Welsh Government and the lack of co-operation from the UK Government at various times during the pandemic.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) talked about the understandable concerns raised by businesses and the tourism sector. I am sure that she will join me in welcoming the additional funding set out in this week’s announcement dealing with the firebreak lockdown, and the additional £20 million that was ring-fenced by the Welsh Government as part of that, specifically for tourism and hospitality.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about her gratitude to constituents of hers who have done the right thing. I am sure that we would all echo that, as people in communities across the country have gone through a hugely difficult few months and unfortunately the end is not yet in sight. She also raised the need for early access to the job support scheme—something that was echoed by my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin)—and the need to combat bureaucracy as businesses deal with two schemes in the short two-week lockdown.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth talked about taking the right decisions at the right time, which would contrast starkly with examples of what we have seen from the UK Government. He also mentioned the fact that the Welsh Government have aligned public health with the need for economic support—a crucial link. He talked about the lack of support for those who have been excluded, and contrasted the launch of the freelancers’ fund in Wales with what has happened across the UK, pointing out the huge need for that fund across the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North talked about the need to pool resources and the measured approach of the Welsh Government. She also raised the freelancers issue, and requests for early access to the job support scheme.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) talked about the community action that sprang into place throughout the pandemic, of which I am sure we have all seen examples across Wales. Our communities have demonstrated a huge amount of community spirit, and I pay tribute, as I am sure we all do, to the key workers across Wales who have kept our economy going. My hon. Friend raised the need for a steel support fund and contrasted the UK Government’s approach with that of other Governments around the world, who sprang into action a lot more quickly to support their key industries. Of course, he also raised the important issue of the shared prosperity fund, highlighting the fact that in 2018 we were due to have a consultation on it, and two years later, with just two months to go, clarity about the fund is missing. That is a shocking indictment of the UK Government.
The Welsh Government’s inclusive approach has ensured that local government, the third sector and other partners have pulled together in one direction, with a shared interest, to support people across Wales. That is, unfortunately, in stark contrast to the situation we find at Westminster.
It is disappointing to hear some representatives of the Conservative party continually calling into question the justification for the firebreak lockdown, as they have done in recent days. I think that approach is both ignorant and irresponsible. Unlike the UK Government, we have followed the science in Wales. I suggest that Conservative Members actually read the advice produced by the Welsh Government’s technical advisory cell. I have a copy if Members want to pass it on to their colleagues.
We are in the middle of a national and global crisis, and the responsible thing for us all to do is to reinforce the clear public health messages that are designed to regain control of the virus and to save lives. It has not been a happy 24 hours for the Government in their dealings with the nations and regions across the UK. I hope that, when the Minister gets to his feet, he will address some of the genuine concerns and questions that Members have raised on behalf of our constituents. I hope that we will achieve some unity as we work to tackle this dreadful virus and support Welsh businesses and families who are affected at this hugely difficult time.
I am not quite sure how many minutes I have.
Right. I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for his comments. He, like many others, including the hon. Members for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock)—I think everyone did this, actually—mentioned the role played by public sector workers, including local authority workers, teachers and, of course, the police. I want to mention prison officers, because they always seem to get left out. I am not saying that they did any more or less than anyone else, but they have certainly taken risks and, sadly, in my constituency one member of the Prison Service died as a result of covid. I thank all hon. Members for an interesting and perceptive debate, and I will try to respond to as many of the points as I can.
I want to strike a note of unity by saying that covid-19 is the biggest challenge that we have faced for generations. We are tackling this pandemic head-on, and we seek to reduce the risk of transmission and the number of infections and deaths, while minimising the longer-term damage to the economy. I believe that the UK Government have shown clear leadership across the country in fighting the scourge of coronavirus. Every time the UK Government have implemented measures designed to curb the spread of covid-19, we have put in place provisions to support those who are affected, in Wales and right across the United Kingdom.
We started with an additional package of funding in the spring Budget to support the NHS and other public services. We followed that up with support for business through lockdown and beyond, including Government-backed loans, starting with the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. To date, almost £400 million of UK Government-backed loans have been extended to firms in Wales under that scheme. The bounce back loan scheme, introduced for small and medium-sized enterprises, has supported over £1 billion-worth of loans in Wales. The furlough scheme kept workers in their jobs during lockdown, with the Government paying up to 80% of their usual wage. At its peak, the scheme supported more than 400,000 workers in Wales—around a quarter of the workforce.
The UK Government have pursued a generous approach, designed to work together with all devolved Administrations, and we have given the Welsh Government an up-front guarantee of an additional £4.4 billion of funding, over and above the normal block grant, to help them to deal with the scale and uncertainty of the disruption caused by coronavirus. Various Members, including the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Cardiff North—in fact, probably all the Opposition Members who spoke—praised the Labour Government. The hon. Member for Cardiff North seemed to use the words “Welsh Labour” in virtually every sentence, saying, “The Welsh Labour Government have delivered this; they’ve delivered that; and they’ve saved x number of jobs.” I am not denying for one moment that they have done those things, but they did them with the £4.4 billion and all the other money that has been provided to them to deal with this crisis.
It was right that the Welsh Government be given extra funding in order to deal with this crisis. It is perfectly reasonable to praise one’s own political party or Government—we all do that from time to time—but I was disappointed to hear the hon. Lady say that we must all try to work together and take politics out of this, and then not even to acknowledge that the Welsh Labour Government were able to deliver that help, which she spoke about in such grand terms, only because extra money was rightly given by the UK Government.
Does the Minister not agree that the Government in Westminster have acted across the UK in a way that could be described as politicking, at best, and downright dangerous, at worst? He fails to realise that by not engaging with Wales, Scotland and the regions, he and his Government are leaving people desperate and dying.
It is disappointing again that the hon. Lady uses the word “politicking” in one sentence and “dangerous” in the next, and then goes on to suggest that one Government’s approach is leaving people dying. If she wants to talk about poker games, she might want to look at what happened in Manchester, where a Labour local authority leader did everything possible to avoid locking down unless he could get some more money out of the Government. That is playing poker. That is politicking with people’s lives. The UK Government’s approach has been to try and avoid the narrow politicking. That is why you will not catch me saying that a policy that is being pursued by the Labour Government in Wales, even though it may be different from the UK Government’s policies, is causing people to die or causing danger. That is not a comment that I ever want to make.
The Minister is picking on my speech, so I seem to have got under his skin. Can he point out the scientific evidence that the UK Government are following? It certainly is not the scientific evidence that we have seen from our scientific advisers across the country and, specifically, in Wales.
It is not that the hon. Lady has got under my skin, but if she suggests that the UK Government are deliberately leaving people to die, that is something that I have to tackle. As far as the science goes, at the first Cobra meeting I attended—I have attended a few of them when the Secretary of State has not been available—I saw the Prime Minister ask the chief scientific adviser, “How can we save the maximum number of lives?” The UK Government’s whole approach has been about asking the scientists not, “What will be good for the economy?” but, “What will save lives?” The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that a member of the Welsh Government—I cannot remember if it was the Health Minister or the First Minister—was present at that meeting.
I will probably completely mess up my speech, now but I want to talk about co-operation. I have never seen such co-operation between the UK and the Welsh Governments. From the very start, Welsh Government Ministers have been invited along to every Cobra meeting and to the ministerial implementation group meetings, which are at the level below that, where a lot of decisions are also taken. We have had Welsh Government Ministers, SNP Ministers and Northern Irish Ministers there, all listening to the evidence and all taking part in the decision-making process. It is right that that was the case, because we wanted to approach the matter from a UK perspective.
At the same time, it occurred to the Secretary of State for Wales that it might be useful if he or I had some knowledge of what the Welsh Government proposed—not to take part in any decision-making process, but to have an idea of what was taking place. We wrote to the First Minister, pointing out that his Ministers rightly come to many UK-level ministerial meetings and asking if it would be possible for us to attend Welsh Government ministerial meetings—not to take any part in the decisions, and not necessarily even to say anything, but simply to listen and understand the process in Wales—but we received little response.
In the end, we were told that we could perhaps sit in on some of the meetings, but only for the moments where non-devolved matters were being discussed. I think we have had one invitation in the last six months. That is a disappointing lack of co-operation. It is extraordinary to me that anyone has the audacity, frankly, to suggest that the UK Government are not working hand in hand with the Welsh Government, when the UK Government have fallen over themselves to invite Welsh Ministers to these meetings.
The Minister is being generous with his time. Is it not the case that people in Wales are tired of this back and forth, and of people playing politics with who has been invited to what meeting? The Opposition’s accusation that we are not working closely is completely false. In actual fact, they do not like it when we disagree. They cannot cope with that, so they say that we are not working together. That is not working together; it is just disagreement.
I want to take the Minister back to a specific point. There has been co-operation on a number of issues—I mentioned the steel industry, and that was a good example of close working between the Minister, his fellow Ministers and Welsh Government Ministers with one of my key local businesses and with me—but I do not think it has been consistent throughout. It was not helpful that the Prime Minister did not even speak to the First Minister for many months, even if there was co-operation at other levels.
I want to ask the Minister this question specifically: why can the Chancellor not start the job support scheme that little bit earlier to coincide with the Welsh Government’s decision on a local lockdown? That would make things a lot easier for businesses.
On the point made that was made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, a telephone conversation took place last week between the First Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer; I am afraid that I cannot find the relevant part of my speech, but I know that that phone call happened. During that discussion, the First Minister indicated that he would bring forward this lockdown and indicated the date that it would start, and he asked for the financial support that the hon. Gentleman refers to. He was told very clearly that the Chancellor’s new scheme would apply on a certain date, and the Chancellor implored the First Minister not to bring in the lockdown on the dates proposed. The point is that the Chancellor and the First Minister had that discussion and knew each other’s position. The First Minister still decided to go forward with that lockdown, and therefore it is the First Minister’s responsibility to come forward with the proposals to support affected businesses in Wales.
I suppose there is one thing that we all agree on: a lockdown has an enormous impact on business. There is absolutely no doubt about that. It will cause people to lose their jobs and businesses to close—it will leave people worse off. We all agree on that, which is why we are arguing, to some extent, over how much money we can find to support those businesses. If we all accept that, we need to be careful before we introduce lockdowns.
The hon. Member for Cardiff North mentioned the science. The Government are following the science of people such as the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, who said—today, I think, or certainly earlier this week—that local lockdowns are working and are likely to be effective. The World Health Organisation said that lockdowns can be effective but should be used as a last resort. The Government have to take account of the fact that although a lockdown can temporarily suppress the number of people going into hospital, it will also have the impact that we all know about on people’s jobs and livelihoods.
In the long term, the inability to diagnose patients with things such as cancer will ultimately have an impact on lives. I was talking recently to a senior, established dentist in south Wales, who told me about the number of referrals each year for oral cancer, which are first discovered by dentists. Because so many dentists are now not operating, or are not operating the same service, fewer people are going to see the dentist. Therefore, fewer people are being referred for oral cancer consultations, and at some point in the future a number of people will lose their lives because of an undiagnosed form of cancer. That is absolutely inevitable; it is just not going to generate a headline.
A responsible Government must take account not only of what is going on here and now in the NHS with covid, but of what will happen in the longer term when people lose their jobs, or when they are not diagnosed as early as they should be for diseases such as cancer. It is a very difficult tightrope to walk. I do not envy anyone in the Department of Health or in No. 10, and I do not envy Mr Gething or Mr Drakeford; they both have a very difficult job to do and I do not doubt that they are doing their utmost. I certainly am not going to play politics or suggest that, because they are taking a slightly different course of action from that of the UK Government, they are doing something dangerous. However, we have a right to question what all of the Governments are doing.
As a Union of four nations, it is sensible to have that four-nation approach where possible, but clearly the virus is taking different directions in different parts of the country and there is a need to have that local—devolved or regional—response to things. Whether it is the Mayor of Greater Manchester or the First Minister of Wales, they are clearly in touch at a grassroots level with what is going on in their area. Does the Minister agree that in those circumstances, it is disappointing to hear the example that we have heard about today of the lack of contact between the Prime Minister and the First Minister, which at one stage meant there was something like three months or so without any contact between them whatsoever?
I do not accept that last point, because the First Minister would have been able to speak to the Prime Minister anyway, had he wanted to, and Welsh Government Ministers were dealing with UK Government Ministers on an almost daily basis. I would go as far as to say that, because at a lower level I was involved in the ministerial implementation groups, and I know that during lockdown they were taking place multiple times every week—I will not quite say every single day, but it felt like it. Every day, Ministers from each of the devolved regions were taking part in the decision-making process. I therefore cannot accept at all the argument that there was a lack of contact.
I am told that there were attempts by No. 10 to talk to the First Minister and that he cancelled one meeting, but I do not know the full ins and outs of that. However, I am absolutely certain that the First Minister would always have had access to the Prime Minister had he needed it, and he certainly has always had access to the Secretary of State for Wales. I know that they are talking on an almost weekly basis. It is inconceivable that the Secretary of State for Wales would not take a call from the First Minister; in fact, I am sure that has never happened.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney made the interesting point that it makes sense to have a regional approach, because the virus is breaking out in different ways across the United Kingdom; that is a fair comment. Of course, the same can be said within Wales. There are areas of Wales where the outbreak of the virus is far lower than in other parts of the United Kingdom. Therefore, he may feel that he needs to justify to a tea shop owner in Tenby why there is now a full lockdown taking place in half-term, at a time when that shopkeeper or that tea shop owner would have been hopeful of recouping some of the money that has been lost over the last six months.
I am conscious that the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) must respond to the debate. By the way, he made an excellent speech. I am grateful for the comments he made and I am looking forward to the Henry VII trail that will take place. Of course, by the time Henry VII made that famous march across Wales towards Bosworth, we had already seen the hard border disappear; from the time of Owain Glyndŵr onwards, we have not had a hard border in Wales. Yet, as a result of decisions that are being made at the moment, I fear that it will come back again, which is not something that I, as a Unionist, wish to see.
For as long as this virus continues, the UK Government will want to support all parts of the United Kingdom, and if other Governments or local authorities in other parts of the United Kingdom want to take credit for the enormous help that has been offered, that is absolutely fine by me. I can assure hon. Ladies and Gentlemen here today that we do not want to play politics with this situation; we simply want to eradicate this virus and then get back on with the job of rebuilding Britain.
May I begin by apologising to you, Sir Edward? I called you Mr Leigh when I should have referred to you as Sir Edward, and I hope you do not think I was being discourteous to you as Chair.
This debate was going very well until the Minister summed up, and then we had an argument for 15 minutes. I pay tribute to everybody who took part. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about how Newport is recovering during its period of lockdown. I thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), who made a very pertinent point about how important tourism is to her constituency. It has been embedded in her constituency for a number of years. As I alluded to when I spoke to the Minister about the Henry VII trail, we are trying to develop a growing tourism industry in constituencies such as mine. They have an industrial past, but we are hoping that we can bring about tourism, and Hallets, which I mentioned, is part of that. Who would have thought that cider would be made in the valleys?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) for being so feisty and causing such an interesting exchange with the Minister. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who made a very pertinent point. In the early days of this pandemic, when the Prime Minister was making announcements, there was a serious concern about whether they applied to Wales. I am glad that has been corrected, because it is a really important issue that we had early on. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who raised concerns about the shared prosperity fund and talked about how we go forward with it. I also pay tribute to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), for the way he summed up.
I should also mention the Minister. Very often we are on our feet battling with each other, as he did with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North, but we forget how important the work that he does behind the scenes is. He has always been very happy to meet colleagues from across the House if they have an issue, whether over the phone or face to face. I pay tribute to him for that work that he does behind the scenes. We often do not talk about it, and members of the public do not see it, so I thank him for that.
I want to end by saying this. The pandemic is no respecter of political colours or borders. Whatever the Government can do or think they can do, it is up to people on the ground to make sure those measures are in place as we fight this terrible disease. The most fantastic thing that all Members have seen since covid-19 is the way the country has come together. People in communities across the country, whether in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or England, have come together to reach out to their neighbours and friends to make sure they are okay and can get through the loneliness and the mental health issues that come with it. They have banded together, particularly in the summer when we saw a drop-off in the virus infection rates, to ensure that business thrives. I am hopeful that once the pandemic is over, business and the economy will once again bounce back.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for people and businesses in Wales affected by the covid-19 outbreak.
Schools in Kent: Covid-19
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on schools in disadvantaged areas of Kent.
I might add that the schools we are discussing include a number in my constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
The list of challenges that we have faced this year, following the outbreak of coronavirus in the spring, is growing longer all the time. Almost every aspect of our lives has been affected by covid-19 and the various restrictions imposed to combat it. One of the areas that has seen the biggest change is our education system, from the move to online learning during the lockdown earlier this year, to the implementation of classroom and year group bubbles when pupils were eventually let back into schools. I want to start my comments by praising school staff and pupils for their tenacity, patience and resilience throughout these challenging times, particularly those in my constituency, of whom I am incredibly proud.
I would like to take this opportunity to mention a number of concerns that have been raised with me. Before doing so, however, I want to stress that I broadly support the Government’s strategy for tackling the covid-19 crisis. The financial support that has been given to so many businesses and schools has been quite extraordinary, and I hope that Ministers will continue to provide whatever help is needed as we fight the second wave of this wretched disease.
Despite the Government’s excellent record, however, we would be kidding ourselves if we believed that everything had gone completely smoothly or that things could not have sometimes been done better. Mistakes have been made—not always by politicians—and we should learn from them as we go forward. Take schools in Kent as an example. They are already facing huge challenges—particularly those in areas of high social deprivation, including in my constituency—and those challenges are being exacerbated by the difficulty that schools face when either a pupil or a member of staff is forced to self-isolate because of possible covid symptoms. My information is that there have been far too many occasions when it has taken too long for pupils and staff to get the all clear when their tests prove negative. Those delays have caused enormous disruption to the running of the schools concerned.
Quite rightly, the Government are determined to keep schools open, even when areas move into higher covid alert levels. However, it is important that they can operate with as little disruption as possible. I believe that, like the NHS and care homes, schools should be given priority when it comes to testing.
One of the main reasons I applied for this debate is that the current covid-19 crisis has exposed the divide between pupils from areas of social deprivation and those in more affluent communities. As I pointed out earlier, there are a number of disadvantaged areas in my constituency, so I know better than most the consequences of social deprivation and how they can have a lasting impact on the lives and ambitions of some people.
Take the Isle of Sheppey, where the majority of 11 to 16-year-olds are educated at the island’s only secondary school. As the Minister will know, it is split between two sites that are 2 miles apart. Many of the more aspirational children choose to travel to the mainland, where there are two grammar schools and three high schools. For some of the youngsters on Sheppey, being disadvantaged begins before the school run. If their parents cannot afford transport to the mainland or are disinclined to take up that choice, the only option is the Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey.
There is nothing wrong with the Isle of Sheppey academy—in fact, it has come on leaps and bounds since it was first taken over by Oasis—and I certainly do not want my words to detract in any way from the very good work being done to help the young people in its care. For instance, pre-covid, a team of dedicated staff established a taskforce that works with local groups of people and organisations to improve the area around the students and highlight the positives that the island has to offer.
There are many success stories coming out of the Oasis Academy, which, as a result of forward-thinking leadership, is allowing many of its pupils to be proud of who they are and where they come from. However, there are still concerns over those who struggle to break out of the historic cycle of unemployment, which has led to social deprivation and is one of the causes of the lack of aspiration among some young people and their parents. Every child should have the same access to a good education and providing that is difficult enough, even when we have a society that is functioning properly. My inbox proves to me that if we are to achieve our ambition to build back better, we will have to work harder at getting learning for all our young people.
Of course, covid-19 has not helped. Speaking with headteachers in my area, one thing is clear: during the lockdown, there was a lack of IT equipment and internet access, which prevented the most disadvantaged pupils from taking part in online lessons. Just imagine that, Mr Pritchard—locked out of education because you are not one of those lucky enough to have access to superfast broadband.
I appreciate the unprecedented challenges faced by the Government to ensure children continued to be educated during the lockdown. I am sure that Ministers did what they could in very difficult circumstances. However, we must learn from those circumstances and ensure our schools are not left in the same situation again. Such disadvantages in education damage the perceptions that affected pupils have about their peers. It sows division and widens the difference in achievement levels, and ultimately leads to struggles later in life.
That is why I was horrified to hear the account from Alan Brookes, a widely respected headteacher in my constituency and chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers. Alan told me that the attainment gap between children from different socio-economic groups has grown since the lockdown, not least because children from the more deprived groups were least likely to attend lessons during lockdown, even when they were encouraged to do so. As he pointed out, the challenges he and his staff faced daily were compounded by lengthy delays in the provision of laptops funded by the Department for Education.
Schools did the best they could in the circumstances. The Isle of Sheppey academy loaned out laptops to those of its pupils who did not have access to one at home while in lockdown, or where families had only one device that would have had to be shared. We must also remember that, for a lot of children, the situation at home is not conducive to learning. We must do all we can to prevent a second national lockdown, which to be effective would no doubt have to include schools.
I must tell the Minister that there are also concerns in my area that the catch-up funding is inadequate, because it is spread far too thinly. I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong, but Kent schools will receive £4,237,650 this autumn. That represents £80 for each pupil up to and including year 11. Although I recognise that the money is designed to help pupils who have missed long periods of in-school education, it is going to all pupils, whatever their personal circumstances. I would like to see more of the money targeted at schools in deprived areas that have the pupils who need financial help most.
The Government are under pressure to extend their free school meals scheme. Personally, I believe there is an argument to agree to that in the short term, although I will not be supporting the Labour motion today because it is too open-ended. Who knows what will happen after Christmas? But that is by the by.
If we are to have a free meals scheme with the vouchers, we should once again ensure that it is for the hardest-hit families. However, we must improve the delivery of the vouchers used in the scheme. There were continual problems with the scheme in my local schools, with some people finding it difficult to get hold of vouchers. That led to schools providing meals for desperate families out of their own budgets.
Turning to exams, we saw how the pandemic impacted the GCSE and A-level results season this year. As policy makers, we must take what happened this summer as a black mark against our name. We must learn from it and use it as an opportunity to improve the system. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is working hard with Ofqual to ensure that future examinations are fair, but what assurances will he give students that their grades next year will be as valuable as their predecessors’ this year? What is being done to ensure parity in the education system, especially now, when we have a situation in which lockdowns are becoming ever more likely? How will we ensure that our young people are all assessed on the same criteria when their experiences are likely to be worlds apart?
To go slightly further, there are already concerns in Kent about the plans announced last week for the next block of GCSEs and A-levels. The Government have said that they will give pupils more time to prepare for exams next year, but heads in my area believe that the announced changes will simply widen the attainment gap, because a three-week delay in taking the exams does little, if anything, to compensate for the learning that has already been lost.
That leads me to another concern. No doubt, as we emerge from the pandemic, Ofsted will resume school inspections. I urge my right hon. Friend to insist that inspectors take into account a school’s individual circumstances before assessing it, especially those schools in deprived areas where the delivery of education has been more problematic and where standards and exam results will inevitably be affected. I would like an assurance that otherwise good schools will not be classed as failing as a result of circumstances related purely to the pandemic, which were outside their control.
I now turn to what is becoming one of the biggest issues of our time: mental health. Our young people are resilient and good at bouncing back, and at digging deep and getting on with the task in hand, but we must ensure that we have in place measures to offer support for those who struggle. Alan Brookes tells me that Kent schools are already seeing signs that children from the poorest backgrounds are turning up at school with increased mental health issues. His school, Fulston Manor in Sittingbourne, has been able to refer people to external services, but that is only because staff in the school are being proactive. I am worried that not enough is being done to ensure that pupils elsewhere do not fall through the cracks.
Other things are already creeping up on us, and it is our duty to look at those in our rear-view mirror to ensure that we keep ahead of them. One such thing is higher unemployment. The first roles to go are likely to be those in the more deprived areas of Kent. If left unchecked, that will impact most on those young people leaving school from the poorest backgrounds. Those people who will risk failing are the hard-working youngsters who want to leave school to start making a contribution to our society in the most valuable way. If we are not careful, they will simply join the long-term unemployed. We must avoid that at all costs.
In winding up, I take the opportunity to praise the work of Swale Borough Council and Kent County Council, which have gone above and beyond the call of duty in a bid to ensure that things run as smoothly as possible for pupils and students. Finally, again, I thank my local school staff, pupils and parents for the way in which they have conducted themselves in the face of a difficult and fast-changing situation.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I felt a little like a contestant in “Just a Minute”, with two seconds left before the bell went. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate and on an excellent opening speech.
Covid-19 has affected everyone but, as my hon. Friend says, children and young people in our most disadvantaged communities risk being acutely affected. It has been this Government’s aim throughout the crisis to do whatever it takes to mitigate the impact on communities such as those in his constituency, including by focusing support on schools in those areas. I begin by outlining that support, specifically addressing the points my hon. Friend made just now.
In March this year, the Government took the difficult decision to ask schools to close to most children, remaining open for vulnerable children, those with education, health and care plans, and the children of critical workers. Throughout that difficult time, I was inspired by the many examples of headteachers and teachers going above and beyond to support their pupils, including in disadvantaged areas of Kent. Throughout, schools have supported one another and shared information with the Department for Education. The regional schools commissioner for south-east England and south London hosted roundtable meetings with academy trusts from across Kent in the summer term, and I am also aware that Alan Brookes, who as my hon. Friend mentions chairs the Kent Association of Headteachers, has been active in supporting his association’s headteachers throughout this time and been supportive of the regional schools commissioner and their team. I am grateful for all those efforts.
Ensuring that schools provide high-quality remote education was and continues to be a key part of our work to support schools. We have invested more than £100 million in remote education. We have already delivered more than 220,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children who would not otherwise have access to the internet, supporting disadvantaged children to stay online and connected with their teachers during the summer term. Of those, 3,563 laptops and tablets were delivered to Kent County Council for children with a social worker and care leavers, and 437 for disadvantaged year 10s in local authority-maintained schools, alongside additional devices delivered to academy trusts in the area. I am pleased to see that some schools have supplemented Government support to make devices more widely available. As my hon. Friend said, thanks to the team at the Oasis Academy on the Isle of Sheppey, all pupils in years 10 and 13 have access to a computer.
We are now supplementing that support by making available an additional 250,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children in years 3 to 11 in the event that face-to-face schooling is disrupted as a result of covid-19 outbreaks or local restrictions. As my hon. Friend says, it is not acceptable for a child’s internet connection to determine their educational outcomes. That is why we have also provided more than 50,000 4G routers to help disadvantaged children get online. Of those, 500 4G wireless routers were delivered to Kent County Council for children with a social worker and care leavers, and 255 for disadvantaged year 10s in local authority-maintained schools, alongside additional 4G wireless routers delivered to academy trusts in the area. We are also working with the major telecommunications companies to improve internet connectivity for disadvantaged and vulnerable families. The Department is piloting an approach where mobile networks will provide families who rely on a mobile internet connection with temporary access to free additional data, offering them more flexibility to access the resources they need the most.
The steps taken to provide remote education and initiatives such as the Oak National Academy have helped ensure the continuity of education for pupils during a uniquely difficult time. We know that time out of school will have created gaps in educational attainment. To address that, it was imperative for schools to fully open. The Government have successfully supported pupils in all year groups and from all types of schools to return to school full time from the beginning of the autumn term. Figures show that, as at 15 October, 99.7% of state-funded schools were open, with approximately 89% of all children enrolled in all state-funded schools in attendance.
We are continuing to do everything in our power to ensure that every child can be back in their classroom safely. This is the best place for them to be for their education and their wellbeing and development. This has not been an easy undertaking. School leaders, teachers and support staff have worked tirelessly to ensure that their schools are open and safe for children and young people, and I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the very significant efforts during this very challenging time. I know that all schools are working to ensure that remote education can continue for children in the event that they cannot attend school because of covid-19. For example, the Department has recently discussed remote education arrangements with the Stour Academy Trust which operates on the Isle of Sheppey. It is confident that its teachers are prepared to deliver remote education. In the event that bubbles of children need to isolate, live online lessons will be delivered, covering the same content as they would have covered in school. Systems are in place to check the engagement of pupils and to monitor their progress.
The Department continues to work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that staff and pupils have priority access to testing, an issue that worries my hon. Friend. We are supplying coronavirus test kits directly to schools for those who develop symptoms and face significant barriers to accessing a test through existing routes. These test kits will help symptomatic staff who test negative and who are not close contacts of confirmed cases to get back to work as soon as they feel well enough. We are also keen to explore new testing technologies as they become available and to understand how those kits could be utilised for the benefits of the education sector. Small-scale pilots are beginning this week to help us better understand how they can be operationalised in schools. Those technologies will form the foundations for delivering mass testing: testing large numbers of people in a short period of time with test results made available quickly so that those tested can be reassured more quickly that they are not infected or will isolate themselves more quickly if they are. This will help to protect those at high risk, to find the virus and to help schools to get back to normal.
The Government have provided considerable support to schools to help them tackle these challenges. We have invested in schools financially in three key ways. First, the Government are providing a package of additional support worth £1 billion to ensure that schools have the support that they need to help children and young people make up for lost teaching time. The figure that my hon. Friend quoted for mainstream school support for schools in Kent is correct, although more than £4.5 million has already been allocated if we include special schools. It is important to remember that this is just an initial allocation with further allocations to come. This is on top, of course, of the £2.6 billion increase this year in school budgets nationally.
Of this package, £650 million is being provided in the form of a universal catch-up premium for all schools. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, all children have had their education disrupted but, as he says, disadvantaged children will have been the hardest hit. That is why, alongside the universal catch-up premium—the £80 that he referred to—we are also launching a national tutoring programme to provide additional targeted support for those children and young people who will need the most support to catch up. All schools should use their catch-up premium funding as a single total from which to prioritise support for all pupils guided by the level of individual need. Even the amount that he referred to as being spread thinly—£80 per pupil and £80,000 for an average comprehensive school—is free to be targeted by schools where they think it is most required.
Secondly, the Government have worked with schools and communities to provide school food vouchers to support families in need. We recognise that there were initial problems with the system but, ultimately, more than 20,350 schools have placed orders for the scheme and more than £380 million has been redeemed into supermarket e-gift cards by schools and families. That included cover over Easter, May half-term and the summer holidays.
Thirdly, the Department has been supporting schools financially with the additional costs they may have occurred between March and July as a result of the pandemic. Schools have already received payments of £58 million in respect of their claims against those expenses, more than £2 million of which has been received by schools in Kent. We have also ensured that the schools in most need have access to expert support. In May 2020, the Department began the school-to-school support recovery offer to any school identified as vulnerable because of the covid pandemic, with up to five days of support from a system leader. In the summer term, the recovery offer supported about 300 schools, helping them to open to prioritised year groups. In the autumn term the offer was extended and a further 100 schools are being supported to reopen effectively. Some 10 schools in Kent are currently receiving support, and we continue to work with trusts and local authorities to identify others that may require support.
My right hon. Friend mentioned schools receiving the same amount of money, which they could spend how they wanted and could channel towards disadvantaged pupils. That does not cover what happens if that same amount of money goes to a school that does not have any disadvantaged pupils. That was the point I was trying to make. We have got to target schools in disadvantaged areas, rather than those in affluent areas.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable and important point. However, the sum of money is very large. We have secured £1 billion for the single task of catching up. In the schools he refers to, even the most assiduous pupil, who is working hard at home, will have lost education compared to being in the classroom. We wanted to ensure that there was money for all schools to address that concern, but I take his point.
While it is right that school leavers are supported, it is also right that parents, such as those in the constituency of my hon. Friend, understand how well their child’s school is serving them. For that reason, it is important that we plan for routine inspections to return from January, although that date is being kept under review. The point my hon. Friend makes is good, and I can assure him that, when they do return, Ofsted inspectors will be sensitive to the impact of the pandemic on schools.
My hon. Friend also raises the important question of exams. Assessment by exam will be part of a normalised year for this year’s cohort. We continue to believe that exams are the best and fairest formal assessment. We continue to work with Ofqual and sector representatives to consider the best approach. Above all, the Government want to ensure that the system is fair and robust.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the important issue of mental health. As well as supporting schools to get back on their feet and supporting pupils to catch up with their education, it is critical that the Government support the wellbeing of pupils and their teachers. The Department has worked with key partners, including the Department of Health and Social Care, Health Education England, Public Health England and voluntary sector organisations to launch the wellbeing for education return project.
The project, which is backed by £8 million, is training local experts to provide additional advice and resources for schools and colleges to help support the wellbeing, resilience and recovery of pupils, staff, parents and carers in the light of the ongoing impact of covid-19. It will give staff the confidence to support pupils, students and their parents, so that they know how and where to access appropriate specialist support, where needed. Kent has been one of the mental health trailblazers. In May 2020, two mental health support teams were established in Thanet and Medway, building on the four existing teams in Kent. That all comes out of the Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health.
Mr Pritchard, I am extremely grateful, as we all are, for the exceptional efforts that schools, academy trusts and Kent County Council have made to support pupils, including those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, during this challenging period. We know we have the professional knowledge and expertise in the education system to ensure that pupils and students recover, and get back on track, and help to ensure that this dreadful pandemic does not have a long-term impact on young people’s opportunities and life chances.
Question put and agreed to.
External Private Contractors: Government Use and Employment
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government use of external private contractors and effect on employment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. The question before the House is the use of external private contractors and its effect on employment. I am grateful to hon. Members for participating in this important debate. The recent pandemic has shone a spotlight on public sector procurement and the awarding of contracts. Although it is incumbent on the Government to ensure value for money for the taxpayer and quality of service delivery, they also have a duty, whether they like it or not, to those workers tasked with delivering services on which both Government and public rely. I believe that, on all fronts, the Government are failing in their responsibilities in that regard and so are failing taxpayers and workers alike.
Recent examples include the likes of Serco, which has received beyond hefty sums of taxpayer cash to run a failed test and trace system. The revolving door of Government, ex-Ministers and outsourcing companies is pernicious in every sense and does little to instil public confidence in a method of service delivery that is fundamentally flawed. I hope that other Members will speak more on this Government failure as the debate progresses. They will no doubt highlight other examples of failed contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
I have chosen to concentrate on the example of civil service facilities management work in this speech, but if we substituted for the civil service nearly every NHS trust, many councils and other public sector bodies, my observations would unfortunately still be valid. The experience of the civil service is generally the same as that across the public sector, but I particularly wanted to concentrate on the civil service, as I am hoping that Ministers will now start to consider the outsourcing model itself.
It goes without saying that if workers win improvements through union action, that immediately has an impact on the outsource company’s bottom line. Those companies, especially where there is no trade union recognition, then tend to try to recoup lost revenue by cutting staff or their working hours. There are natural limits to productivity gains made through cutting staff. Inherently, the model is unstable and leads to companies running into financial difficulties.
Let us look at the Mitie-Interserve merger. My argument is well illustrated by the announcement in June that Mitie and Interserve’s facilities management arm are to merge at the end of the year, subject to shareholders approving a £271 million share purchase. In reality, Mitie is taking over Interserve. Both companies hold a number of civil service and public sector contracts, worth more than £2 billion of public money. Mitie’s biggest contract is for the provision of in-country and overseas escorting for the Home Office. That contract is worth £514 million. Interserve’s biggest contract is the Department for Work and Pensions estate and facilities management contract, worth £225 million.
Interserve has clearly been in financial difficulty for some time. Last year, it went into pre-pack administration. At that time, the Labour party called for a temporary ban on Interserve bidding for public contracts, but that call was not heeded. We know that Interserve was awarded a five-year facilities management contract worth £670 million by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in early August 2018. Shortly after that contract was awarded, Interserve moved to cut staff, and Public and Commercial Services Union members went into a long-running dispute over job cuts, pay, sick pay entitlement and trade union recognition. The company issued profit warnings in March 2015, then two more in 2016, and another as recently as 2018.
Mitie has been involved in multiple disputes with its employees: we can cite the Royal Opera House, the Houses of Parliament, First Great Western, London Underground, and various NHS hospitals. It was subject to an investigation into its MiHomecare business by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for paying its employees less than the minimum wage. Industrial relations in Mitie are so bad that in March 2019, Unite the union said that it should be barred from acquiring contracts due to its woeful treatment of its workforce. That Unite warning is interesting, as even a few months ago it was clear that Mitie and Interserve were considering a deal.
This is where the similarities with Carillion might be interesting to consider, so what can we learn from the lessons of Carillion? The report of the joint inquiry by the Select Committees on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and on Work and Pensions recommended
“that the Government immediately reviews the role and responsibilities of its Crown Representatives in the light of the Carillion case. This review should consider whether devoting more resources to liaison with strategic suppliers would offer better value for the taxpayer.”
I do not know whether that recommendation was acted on in relation to facilities management contracts in the civil service, but it does not appear to have been exercised in this instance to scrutinise Mitie and Interserve.
Moving on to the issue of inequality in pay and employment terms, each civil service department has to comply with the public sector equality duty. The civil service does not have to award contracts where only the minimum wage is paid, statutory sick pay is given, and trade union recognition is not a right. It could choose to make the payment of the real living wage, full sick pay from day one, and trade union recognition a condition of the contract, as many local authorities have begun to do.
Research carried out by the PCS union shows that only two of the 23 ministerial Government Departments pay the real living wage to their facilities management outsourced workers, and no Department includes a policy of paying more than the statutory sick pay as a requirement of awarding a contract. Departments know that in their major urban areas, cleaners, security guards and so on are predominantly of black, Asian and minority ethnic origin, and nearly all cleaners are women regardless of where they work. From the observations of the PCS union, as relayed to me, senior managers and certainly Ministers believe that outsourcing work means they have no responsibility to those facilities management workers, whether in terms of pay, terms and conditions of employment, equality of treatment, or health and safety.
If we look at that indifference to health and safety obligations, we find that even though health and safety laws put clear obligations on civil service departments and facilities management companies working in the same buildings to co-operate and co-ordinate their health and safety at work—that is, regulation 11 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999—in reality we have had immense difficulty in getting the civil service to comply with the law. That indifference leads to what we see as a grotesque admission by the Cabinet Office, which we take as a proxy for the civil service, that it does not know how many facilities management workers have died due to covid, let alone their ethnicity. We know that at least six facilities management outsourced staff have died owing to the virus, all of them of BAME origin.
Turning to the issue of sick pay, in a recent survey—again conducted by PCS—86% of outsourced facilities management workers who responded said that they had often continued to work when they had been unwell because they could not afford to take time off sick.
I thank my Unison comrade for giving way. To support that particular proposition, there is a Unison briefing that shows that in schools in England, many of the private companies are only paying statutory sick pay. Does the hon. Lady agree that this puts people in the position of having to choose between statutory sick pay and going into work, which is more likely to spread the virus?
Sadly, I concur with the hon. Gentleman’s observations. Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the inequality between the sick pay provisions of civil servants and those of outsourced workers employed on civil service contracts.
Through PCS talks during covid-19, most civil service departments adopted a policy of paying their outsourced staff full pay for covid-19-related absences until the end of June 2020. From July 2020, Cabinet Office guidance was updated to allow the arrangement to continue where appropriate. As part of PCS’s campaign to defend and extend the right to full sick pay, it wrote to the Prime Minister in June, setting out the case for all outsourced Government workers to be paid full sick pay from day one. Disappointingly, there has been no response.
Does outsourcing facilities management services achieve social value? The simple answer is no. Section 1(3) of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 requires a public sector authority to consider how a procurement
“might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area”.
When awarding central Government contracts, the Cabinet Office is obliged to consider the wider social benefits of procurement to ensure that cost does not override other Government considerations.
I want to take the opportunity to thank you, Mr Pritchard, for overseeing today’s debate. Let us move forward by initiating an open, frank and honest debate, with which I hope the Government will actively engage in the coming period. Value for money is not always delivered by the current procurement and outsourcing arrangements. For a Government who claim to pride themselves on hating waste, the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.
The Government should be ambitious and see what services can now be brought back in-house. Fundamentally, the truth remains that when workers are paid properly and valued, productivity is better. After a long, difficult year for so many workers, the Government have often waxed lyrical. It is high time that politicians clearly show whose back they have—the cleaners, the contact tracers, the security staff and all manner of low-paid staff, or the directors of outsourcing companies.
I am going to set an informal time limit of three minutes, but if colleagues could be a bit quicker we might have some time for a two-minute reply later. Obviously, there are five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesman and the shadow Minister, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Thank you for your co-operation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am delighted that my first contribution in Westminster Hall is to a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on an issue that I care about deeply.
I declare an interest: for decades, I have been active in the Labour movement and it was my great privilege to have served for four years as regional secretary of Unite the union in the north-west. In that role, I represented thousands of outsourced workers right across the north-west, in sectors as diverse as manufacturing, care and catering. I saw at first hand how outsourcing has fostered a culture of low pay and insecure employment. Successive Governments have justified the race to the bottom on workers’ rights as a price worth paying for greater efficiency, flexibility and value for money for the taxpayer.
The Institute for Government reported last year, however, that a string of high-profile outsourcing failures had wasted millions of pounds, delivered poor services and undermined public trust. The collapse of Carillion in 2018 left the Royal Liverpool Hospital building years behind schedule, while the Government continued to award £660 million in public contracts to Interserve just months before it went into administration. In both cases, it was the taxpayer who was left footing the bill, and workers and service users suffered.
This devastating pandemic has truly laid bare the deep failings of outsourcing. This week, we learned that the Government’s outsourced Serco test and trace system has failed to track almost a quarter of a million people who have been in close contact with someone infected with covid-19. On the Wirral, just under 59% of people who have potentially been exposed to this terrible virus have been contacted in the last week. Instead of the world-beating system that the Prime Minister promised us, we have absolute chaos.
It is not just Serco test and trace that has made private companies an absolute fortune at a time when everyone else is making enormous sacrifices to win the war on this terrible disease. External providers have profited at every level of the Government’s response to covid-19. In fact, the British Medical Association has this month reported that the Government’s focus on external providers has left public facilities often underused and ignored. A vast range of companies have been paid to produce, store and distribute personal protective equipment, manage the logistics of drive-in testing and onboard returning healthcare workers into the NHS. That is despite the evidence showing that local public health teams are best placed to respond to this deadly virus.
The Government continue to shell out millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to their friends in the private sector who simply cannot do the job. Meanwhile, the Chancellor has the audacity to say that the Government can afford to pay furloughed workers in my constituency only a measly two thirds of their wages, while quibbling over the expense of providing free school meals to vulnerable children during the holidays.
The Prime Minister has said that there are lessons to be learned from his handling of the covid-19 crisis. That is unusual for him and is quite an understatement. One of the clearest lessons of all the outsourcing is that it has been a failed project. As we face the worst economic crisis in recent history, we need more than ever to put social value at the heart of national and local procurement strategies. That means creating secure and well-paid jobs, improving employment rights and promoting ecologically sustainable developments. It means creating economic growth that feeds back into our communities, rather than just lining the pockets of a handful of shareholders. We can do all of this and more, but only if we stop handing millions to private companies and invest in the public sector.
I first wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker). In the short time she has been here, she has made a great contribution to the House. She has also made a great contribution to our party and to the union movement, where she spent many years on exactly these sorts of issues.
In May, the Prime Minister promised us a world-beating track and trace system. What we have instead is a system in disarray. The NHS Test and Trace system is not run by our national health service. Frankly, it is offensive to link the NHS with the shambles that the Government and the private sector have created. Our track and trace system is provided by Serco, the outsourcing giant responsible for a plethora of well-documented scandals. There was the electronic tagging scandal for which it was fined £23 million by the Serious Fraud Office. There was the extensive cover-up of sexual abuse of vulnerable women at Yarl’s Wood, and there is the ongoing scandal of asylum seekers’ accommodation and the “squalid, unsafe, slum housing”—not my words, but those of the chief executive of the Refugee Council. And Serco won a further £2 billion of contracts from the Home Office last year.
Why do the Government choose to award contracts worth hundreds of millions to run track and trace during a deadly pandemic, in what is literally a life-or-death situation? Why have the Government ignored the recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and the BMA? Would it not make more sense for track and trace to be run by local public health experts? My Labour colleagues and I have been asking such questions since the contracts were awarded, but answers have not been forthcoming.
The problems that have since arisen have shown the Serco system for what it is: completely unfit for purpose. By the end of August, after a month of encouraging British people to eat out to help out, and around the time the Government launched their back to work campaign, track and trace was failing to contact more than 30% of those who had been in contact with someone who had tested positive. Only 40% of test results were being returned within 24 hours. Since then we have seen lockdown after lockdown. Both lives and livelihoods have been put at risk because of a Government so wedded to the private sector that they are unwilling to admit their mistakes and give oversight to local health protection teams who, by the way, have reached 97% of close contacts of those testing positive, in contrast to Serco’s 62%.
It is not really a surprise that the system is doing so badly when we consider that staff employed by Serco to work on track and trace have spoken of days without contact from supervisors, or without being given any work to do. They are paid the minimum wage while Serco’s profits have surged. Low-paid, badly trained workers are not to blame for the failure of track and trace. The Government’s ideological obsession with outsourcing and subcontracting is. Track and trace has failed, testing is in chaos, and the track and trace app is mired in a multitude of technical issues.
In early February I was forced to self-isolate for two weeks after attending a conference where there was a coronavirus patient. I could not be told by the system at that time whether I had been in contact with that person or not. When I returned here, I asked the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to introduce a track and trace app. He promised to look at it. Now, more than eight months later, we still do not have a working app.
Months of sacrifice and a Herculean effort on the part of the British people have been given scant regard by the Government. Now we have businesses on the brink and whole industries—tourism, hospitality and the arts, to name but a few—at serious risk of collapse. We are in recession and unemployment is climbing. No one is asking the Government for instant medical solutions to coronavirus, but we need a track and trace system that works to keep the public safe, delivered by local authorities with knowledge of the communities that they serve—not private profiteers, costing both public money and the public’s lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker)—my former employer, no less—for securing the debate. I draw Members’ attention to my membership of trade unions and donations from Unite, as set out in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I also thank the PCS union, which represents more than 8,000 workers employed by private companies on Government contracts, for its ongoing work in this area, particularly its campaign to bring outsourced jobs back in-house, and for continuing to apply pressure on contractors and the Government to pay a real living wage—the one calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, not the one appropriated in a public relations stunt by former Chancellor George Osborne—while continuing to fight for workers to have access to the terms and conditions afforded to their civil service counterparts.
Last year I was proud to join more than 200 PCS members in my constituency of Stockport when they took industrial action over workloads, staffing levels and the oppressive working conditions that they were forced to endure while working on universal credit reforms. The level of outsourcing, cost to the taxpayer and general wastage of hiring private contractors in my region of Greater Manchester alone is truly eye-watering. It is a legacy that we have been forced to endure since the Thatcher era, and it has been a 30-year-long failed experiment.
Almost three years on from the collapse of Carillion, described at the time as the largest ever trading liquidation in the UK, lessons have failed to be learned and it is slowly coming to light just how entrenched outsourcing has become in this country. In my region alone, the Manchester Evening News was able to unearth Carillion’s involvement in 10 major public and private sector projects, including Network Rail electrification, the M6 smart motorway work, High Speed 2, Airport City and Owens Park. It was also heavily linked to Greater Manchester schools, roads and basic services, through contracts with Manchester, Tameside, Rochdale and my own local authority, Stockport Council. In my borough, a Carillion offshoot was contracted to handle estates, assets and facilities management at various sites.
That is all part of a staggering 10-year £100 million deal that was signed in 2014 to handle key development services. Private contracting permeates every single stratum of our society, from Stockport Town Hall to Greater Manchester police. With local authorities already strapped for cash by central Government, how can it be right that they sign off multimillion-pound contracts with companies that often have little to no track record of delivery, as we have seen most recently in the Government’s decision to outsource covid test and tracing to Serco? Months later, we still do not have a functioning system like those of our European partners.
What is worse is that, despite paying such exorbitant fees to private contractors, nothing is put in place to ensure that workers are treated with dignity. For example, earlier this year the PCS union led a month-long walkout in response to Interserve’s treatment of its staff, who were maintaining the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office premises. The move was the longest period of strike action in the history of the Foreign Office—all because Interserve was not prepared to recognise trade unionised workers and was continuing to drive down its staff through measures such as reducing working hours.
It is not much to ask in return for multimillion-pound, multi-year contracts that these organisations recognise trade unions. As we have seen time and again, these companies will never prioritise workers’ wellbeing over private profit. It is time to end that practice once and for all, bring these contracts back in-house and finally deliver the services that we so desperately need, efficiently and in a fiscally responsible way, if we are to kickstart our economy again and recover from this crippling pandemic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this important debate. Civil service numbers have gone down in key Departments—the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health and Social Care—by between 30% and 50%, most drastically in the last couple of years.
They are the services that are most needed by the public. Yet the outsourced market has an annual turnover of £82 billion. Research by Unison shows that £9 billion has been paid in total cost overruns on 105 outsourced IT contracts in central and local government, the NHS and other public bodies. No one can ignore the latest disastrous privatisation of the test, track and trace system, where some consultants are paid £7,000 a day. That is just under half of what civil servants on the lowest AO grade outside London earn in a year.
Despite its failure, Serco is set to generate between £160 million and £165 million in profits this year, thanks to its covid-19 contracts. Last year, the CEO, Rupert Soames, pocketed an estimated £4.5 million. It is not about the money, and nor is it about effectiveness. Serco’s test, track and trace contract is running at 67% effectiveness, compared with the 97% effectiveness of local public health teams. This is the same Serco that was fined £2.6 million for shortcomings in relation to a contract for asylum seekers’ accommodation in January 2020 and that paid £22.9 million to the Serious Fraud Office under its tagging contract, where it claimed for returned, released or even dead clients.
As long as someone is a friend of this Government, their ability to deliver is irrelevant. Now it appears that Serco may be awarded a contract to run interviews with vulnerable asylum seekers for the Home Office. The PCS union has serious concerns that the Home Office is cynically using the covid situation to bring in privatisation through the back door, and I agree with those concerns. Outsourcing is most certainly not about improving terms and conditions—look at the ISS cleaners, in dispute with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for several months, including in my Liverpool constituency, over the failure of companies to pay a living wage or afford them the sick pay and holiday entitlement of their directly employed counterparts. Now the same company is bidding to take on HMRC’s security contract, which will lead to more job losses.
The rationale behind the massive outsourcing of public sector work to the private sector is driven by ideology and nothing else. It leads to job losses, insecure contracts, lower wages and worse terms and conditions, but bigger profits for the Tory donors. I am fully behind our public sector unions—PCS, Unison and Unite—in fighting back for a living wage, secure jobs and decent terms and conditions and to save the public purse money, because it is becoming increasingly clear that privatisation is not about saving public funds.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this important debate.
Many elements of the UK’s public services that have been central to the response to covid-19 have been outsourced in recent years. The NHS supply chain, which is responsible for delivering personal protective equipment, was privatised in 2006. Since the disastrous Health and Social Care Act 2012, NHS outsourcing and privatisation has been incentivised. In the last five years alone, private companies were handed £15 billion of NHS contracts.
According to research by We Own It, the Government are wasting as much as £10 billion a year on running an internal market in the NHS. Every penny spent on NHS privatisation and outsourcing is a penny less spent on patient care. The amount we spend on the internal market would be enough to pay for 72,000 nurses and 20,000 doctors. It is the same pattern of privatisation and deregulation that has decimated many of our essential services since the 1980s, across the transport, energy, water, mail and healthcare sectors. The British public tend to pay more for these services than similar European nations, simply to enrich shareholders.
During the coronavirus pandemic, outsourcing has increased at an alarming rate. After suspending commissioning rules, Government Ministers have awarded exclusive coronavirus-related state contracts worth more than £10 billion to private companies. We only have to look at examples such as Randox. The Government have also spent £12 billion on a failed test and trace programme, which prioritises the enrichment of private corporations over the protection of our communities.
Outsourcing does not just result in dangerously worse outcomes. As many trade unions, inducing Unite, PCS, Unison and others, have made clear, the incentivisation of outsourcing has a devastating impact on workers’ rights. Across the board, outsourcing has reduced wages, increased workloads, provided minimal sick pay, and delivered worse conditions and, in many cases, worker exploitation.
Following the return of full school opening, Unison has begun a campaign to get all private companies that deliver services in schools to pay full sick pay. I support that important campaign, and I call on the Government to extend sick pay and full working conditions to all workers, no matter their terms and conditions.
I will end on this. The pandemic has demonstrated that an over-dependence on the private sector weakens our national ability to act in a time of crisis. For the sake of public health, the Government must reassess their ideological commitment to outsourcing and privatisation.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing this really important debate. As a member of the PCS trade union, I wish to speak about the use of private firms across the justice system. Millions of pounds have been wasted on outside agencies and contractors throughout the court reform programme under Tim Parker.
The ideological obsession with the private sector goes far beyond the courts. Last month, dozens of civilian enforcement officers employed by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service were transferred to the private sector after years of failed attempts to outsource that sensitive work. One of the two contractors, Marston Holdings Ltd, immediately put its newly transferred workers at risk of redundancy, blaming the anticipated impact of covid-19 on its workload. The courts service expressed surprise and disappointment at the move, but made no attempt to protect its staff when warned about it before the transfer. PCS insists that HMCTS is the only Government agency to transfer staff into a known redundancy situation. I wholeheartedly agree with its concerns about that behaviour. Had the courts service initiated a pre-transfer redundancy process, the affected staff would have had official union representation throughout this traumatic process. Instead, they have been left high and dry because Marston refuses to recognise PCS.
Another example of the private sector profiting from our justice system is the new generation of private prisons that are in the pipeline. At least five of the next six jails are set to be run by the private sector. Astonishingly, private prisons do not reveal how many staff they employ, and nor are their minimum staffing levels specified in contracts, yet it is widely accepted that prison understaffing leads directly to extra violence. Private prison operators, just like all corporate privateers, exist to maximise profit for shareholders, and that means slashing costs—especially staff costs—to the bone. No wonder private prisons are an average of almost 50% more violent than public prisons, according to Guardian research last year. I urge the Government to hold an independent inquiry into why private prisons are more violent than public prisons before awarding any more private prison contracts, and to ensure that minimum staffing levels and union recognition are requirements for all private prisons.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing this debate on a really important issue. Outsourcing is a scam, an illusion, a con and an opportunity for jargon-filled management consultants to do a flashy presentation about how they can save a few quid from the bottom line, in the short term, at least. In the long run, the costs are high in lost expertise and lost capacity, and the biggest cost of all is for those long-suffering employees who end up on inferior terms and conditions, if they have a job at all.
Public and private sector companies alike have been seduced by the outsourcing mirage. The savings that are dangled in front of them are not cost-free or painless. In almost every situation, the majority of the savings come directly from the employees, either by paying them less or by having fewer of them. Of course, in theory, employees’ terms and conditions are protected under TUPE, but as an EU regulation it is now at the mercy of the Government, who could decide to water it down or get rid of it at any moment. TUPE does not need watering down; it needs strengthening. There are many ways that employers can evade TUPE protections, both in terms of dismissals and changing terms and conditions after a transfer—if they could not, a major incentive for outsourcing would be removed at a stroke.
Why would anyone want to give up sick pay, overtime rates or other benefits accrued over, say, 20 years of employment just because the name over the door has changed? Is not the loyalty of the employee who has given more than half their life worth more than a factual reference and a redundancy payment that might be able to buy them a second-hand car at the end of the situation? Employers may say that that is not what they want to happen, and that when they outsource employees, they do not want to see anyone suffering, but that is what happens all too often. Every time, that is because the original employer has washed their hands of the situation. They have outsourced their employees, and they have outsourced their legal obligations, but they have not outsourced their moral responsibilities, and they will know, from the moment the transfer takes place, that the clock is ticking.
Insecurity is baked into the workplace, and it is given rocket boosters by the outsourcing industry. It is little wonder that so many people feel a sense of helplessness. It does not have to be this way. Job security should be a basic right in a civilised society, but we see the outsourcing poison spreading everywhere at the moment. Often, the lowest-paid members of society suffer the most, being forced to give up hard-won terms and conditions, with little that can be done to challenge that.
Such are the warped priorities of this Government that that happens at the same time as the obscenity of contractors getting paid £7,000 a day to run the abysmal test and trace system. Never has the contrast been starker, and never has the need for change been greater. Let us use the power of public sector finances to be a force for good, let us keep things in the public sector, let us aim to be an exemplar in pay and conditions, and let us never give the private sector an excuse to justify driving down people’s wages.
I was a long way down the queue to speak, Mr Pritchard, and I was worried about getting in, so I thank you and other hon. Members for making that happen. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for bringing this issue forward. I have expressed concern about it over a number of years as an elected representative.
It seems like a lifetime ago—it probably was—that I sat on Ards Borough Council. I was very unhappy with the outsourcing of staff to agencies. While we advocated certain pay conditions and holidays, to get around that in practice, agency staff were used. Clearly, the agency staff did not have the same conditions as others, and that concerned me greatly.
I agree with the use of agency staff for the short term for some staff members, but the agency had staff in place for over a year. As with all things, those in government, both local and central, must lead by example. I am pleased that Ards and North Down Borough Council, my local council, has taken the brave decision to cut down on agency staff for the long term. That must be applauded. That means that the staff there now have the pay and conditions that they should have had at the very beginning.
Bringing things in house should bring accountability, and it sends the better message that we treat staff equally on pay and conditions. Civil servants are some of the brightest people we have. To think that we are unable to train them in different skills and move them into different areas of need does them a disservice. I saw many examples during the lockdown of council staff stepping out of their office and into another role that needed filling. It was clear that the potential and the desire were equally matched, and they had the ability to do those things.
I realise that there were extenuating circumstances, and some people do not handle moving area well, but others clearly excel, so there is no reason to bring in private contractors when we have the ability and foresight to plan ahead and upskill our own staff, allowing the private sector to make use of the resources, while we train those who dedicate their life to public service. The social security office staff in Ann Street in Newtownards have got their heads round the brand-new benefits system, which is quite difficult for them to use. They were able to rely on outside consultants and contractors, but the staff that were there were retained, so the conditions remained in place.
Time does not permit me to continue, but I must be clear. There are some things that must be outsourced, but others cannot and should be kept in-house. I want to make a plea for those who are in-house. and I recognise those good employers who do the right thing.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, my position as chair of the PCS parliamentary group and my trade union membership of Unison, of which I have been a member of good standing for 25 years. It is pleasure to see a debate led by my Unison comrade—I believe it is her first in Westminster Hall—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker).
I was in Westminster Hall on Monday evening, when I heard the far-right of the Conservative party wax lyrical about immigration and slagging off other political parties, which were not there to defend themselves. Is it not interesting that no Conservative Back Bencher is here to defend the basic tenet of the Conservative party’s political philosophy of private sector involvement in public services? Those watching the debate will be able to draw their own conclusions as to why that is.
I will concentrate some of my remarks on the Home Office pilot being carried out for asylum case interviews, as touched on by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson). We understand that the company involved is Serco, although the Government have yet to confirm that—it seems to be a secret pilot scheme. We have to ask ourselves why that is the case. Is it because the director general of UK Visas and Immigration happens to be a former employee of Serco? Perhaps that is the reason why Serco has been drafted in to carry out these asylum case interviews.
It has not been touched on in the debate, but it is important when discussing asylum case interviews to say that the Government have argued in court, unfortunately successfully, that outsourced companies—private contractors—carrying out public sector services are exempt from human rights legislation. I have to say that I am fearful of the fact that a private sector company is carrying out asylum case interviews. I would have thought that we would want to make sure that someone’s human rights were respected in an asylum case interview—we would certainly expect their human rights to be protected.
That is one of the key reasons why I have consistently—before I arrived in this place and ever since—been against the outsourcing agenda that the Government have had for the last decade. My friend, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, and other speakers mentioned the rogues’ gallery involving Serco and its test and trace system. A quite astonishing figure has been provided; the Boston Consulting Group is getting eye-watering consultancy fees for this wonderful test and trace system that the Government talk about. Some consultants are earning £7,000 per day from the public purse. I think we may be in the wrong job, Mr Pritchard, if that is what some people are getting.
We have heard about the impact of outsourcing on terms and conditions—the cuts to wages and working hours and the refusal of outsourcers to pay the living wage, for example. We have seen great examples of trade unions fighting back on that, including the PCS, Unison and Unite, which have been mentioned.
In the moments I have left, I will ask the Minister a question on public procurement policy notes and the request for contractor relief to continue—I understand it is due to expire on 31 October. The Minister has a letter in her possession from myself, as chair of the PCS parliamentary group, asking whether she could give an update on the public procurement policy notes and if she will be amenable to the request that all staff who have to isolate should be given full pay during that absence. We are of the view that there is an opportunity here to help local communities to manage and recover from covid.
Mr Pritchard, I thank you for being in the chair today. The outsourcing agenda is wrong. I believe that the people of these islands should be entitled to strong public services and strong public sector delivery in public sector hands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this important debate and on her powerful speech, which set up the multiplicity of ways in which outsourcing is failing workers on pay, terms and conditions, job security, and health and safety.
The devastating impact of these failings was illustrated in many contributions, including those from my hon. Friends the Members for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), and from the hon. Members for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) shared an example from his constituency of outsourced workers in relation to universal credit and being subject to exploitative practices. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) shared the example of staff at Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service who were outsourced, only to find themselves made redundant. There were many other examples, and I thank all hon. Members who contributed to the debate.
The coronavirus pandemic has shone a bright light on the Government’s broken model of outsourcing. It has exposed the grotesque inequality of terms and conditions of employees working side by side in the same Departments—civil servants able to self-isolate on full sick pay, while outsourced cleaners or security staff face an impossible choice between coming to work with symptoms or being unable to pay their bills. There is cruelty and stupidity in that approach, in equal measure. It is terrible for workers and extremely risky for infection control. It has exposed the Government’s dependence on a small number of private firms to deliver vital public services, often with no clear evidence of their ability to do so competently, creating multiple layers of risk, both for staff and for those who rely on the services those firms are contracted to deliver.
Outsourced workers have been an integral part of the frontline during the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands are in roles such as cleaning, security and facilities management. Those jobs cannot be done on Zoom. Those workers have continued to travel to work on public transport, spending their shifts in contact with other workers or surfaces that have been touched by many other hands. Often, they are disproportionately from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds: BAME workers make up 16% and 26% of cleaners and security guards, respectively, compared with 12% of the wider workforce. They are key workers, those same key workers the Government clapped on Thursday evenings earlier in the year. They have faced multiple risks to do their essential work, yet they have been left to fall through the cracks in the protections from which others who work in public service benefit.
The major driver for outsourcing is cost reduction. Studies have shown that all too often it leads to a deterioration in pay, terms and conditions for the workforce, including insecure contracts and a loss of access to benefits, such as pensions and sick pay. That approach is being applied across many different areas of public services. Unite, Unison, the GMB and PCS all have harrowing examples—too many to set out in detail in the time available today—in which Tory austerity is paid for at the expense of the mental, physical and financial wellbeing of outsourced workers in Government Departments, local authorities and the NHS.
Yet the Government’s failing outsource model is simply not delivering. That failure is illustrated most starkly today in the Serco and Sitel track and trace contract, a shocking example of the Tory instinct to outsource overriding all the evidence that local authorities are best placed to deliver a service that involves the day-to-day investigation of contact between people in specific geographical communities. The Government spent more than £10 billion on a contract that has been subcontracted to 29 different unnamed companies, creating a completely unaccountable tangle, and it seems that they are committed to even more of the same.
In 2017, Carillion collapsed in an outsourcing scandal of national proportions. It became clear that Carillion had built a house of cards, with undeliverable contract stacked on undeliverable contract, and a huge web of smaller firms entirely dependent on it. Seven hundred and eighty firms went into liquidation as a consequence of the collapse of Carillion, and more than 3,000 people lost their jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) led the investigation into Carillion as Chair of the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Labour is committed to implementing the lessons of that sorry tale—it is beyond comprehension that the Government are not.
Instead, it would appear that the Government are now content for the two largest Government contractors, Interserve and Mitie, to merge. The merger would create the UK’s largest facilities management company, with almost 80,000 employees, yet both companies have had financial problems in recent years, both have a poor history of industrial relations and, since they are competitors, the merger is a back-door route to obtain contracts that they were previously not considered good enough to be awarded.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister what assessment she has made of the impact of the proposed merger of Interserve and Mitie on employee terms and conditions, on redundancies, and on the quality of services that will be delivered. What assessment has she made of the social value that the merger will bring? What evidence has she seen to give confidence that this is not another Carillion waiting to happen? What discussions has she had with trade unions on the disparity in terms and conditions for outsourced workers in Government buildings and frontline public services during the coronavirus pandemic? Does she know, and will she name, the 29 companies delivering track and trace services for Serco? If not, why not? Finally, and most importantly, what is her message to outsourced key workers on Government contracts, supporting and delivering vital public services, who are fearful today about the safety of their workplace or their journey to work, and are worried that if they develop coronavirus symptoms and have to self-isolate, they will have to choose between the health and safety of their colleagues and the wider public, or their ability to put food on the table?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing the debate. The Government are the custodian of public money and it is very important that we retain the confidence of taxpayers about how that money is spent. It is similarly important that we have a robust, highly skilled civil service, with the expertise and capacity to deliver projects and services over the long term and at pace, and that we treat those in the private and public sectors who carry out work for the Government with respect. That is why I welcome not only the way in which the hon. Member has raised issues about external private contractors but the respectful way in which she makes her case.
The civil service has historically used contractors, working alongside civil servants, to provide additional capacity and specialist skills and to manage short-notice urgent requirements. Where it is cost-effective to do so and the requirement is temporary, this makes sense, but let me also be clear that we are focused on driving down the use of consultants, improving internal civil service capability and driving greater value. We will do this in a variety of ways: revamping our in-house training; looking again at procurement rules, particularly relating to social value; and continuing the work of my predecessor, now the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in dealing with issues about outsourcing raised following the collapse of Carillion.
Consultants are used to provide advice on the strategy, structure, management or operations of an organisation, and where an external perspective may be helpful or even necessary. We also use professional services firms to support the implementation and delivery of services—for example, PwC supported the delivery of the reform programme for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service—and we use contingent labour to fill gaps in business-as-usual or service delivery activities. It is also right to say that the civil service itself has grown in number over recent years, partly because of the EU exit operations but also because of covid. We have recruited an extra 6,000 civil servants in the Home Office, for instance, to tackle security, counter-terrorism, crime and policing issues.
I will now address some of the points made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree. I met the leaders of the three civil service unions yesterday. I have not been in post for long, so it was simply an introductory meeting, but I know that some of those unions also represent workers within private sector contracting companies, and I will be very happy to look into some of the issues that she raised today about outsourced workers and their pay and conditions, particularly as regards sick pay.
Other Members have also raised issues about working conditions during the pandemic and it is important to say that not everybody can work over Zoom. In many ways, it is a privilege to be able to do so and not to have to go into an office. On the other hand, I am also aware many workers’ office jobs are not easily conducted at home, and it is important for the Government, as an employer, to provide safe work spaces, so that we can take into account those who are in shared or cramped accommodation.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree also talked about delivering social value through contracts, and we quite agree. We recently took a new look at social value, considering how we take into account environmental factors in how contracts are delivered, whether a contractor is improving the skills of their workforce or their approach to apprenticeships, and so on. We will look at social value in quite a comprehensive way, because once the EU transition period has ended, we will be in a position to come up with a new procurement strategy. Indeed, we are working very hard to draw that up. She raised a number of issues about how we extract value from existing Government contracts, and I will take those away to consider them.
The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) made a number of important points, but it is important that we recognise that we could not have responded to some of the challenges of the pandemic without expertise from both the public sector and the private sector. Again, I assure him that social value is at the heart of the new procurement strategy that we are drawing up, particularly on issues such as climate change and waste.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) raised a number of important issues about track and trace. We all want this system to work. Let us not pretend that it has been perfect from the outset, but a lot of things have been done to improve that service and we are now conducting hundreds of thousands of tests daily. We hope to be on track to deliver—I do not want to get the number wrong, but there is certainly a much increased capacity when it comes to testing and we have ironed out some of the problems that we saw around September with demand on the system.
It is also important that we understand that this process is a partnership between national and local, and between public and private, and I think that it is naive to suggest that the public sector alone could have built up this service so quickly and delivered it at such a great pace. We appreciate the expertise that we have received from the private sector.
Local authorities can furlough staff, so many local authority staff who could not do their normal jobs were still employed by the local authority. There was capacity in local authorities to deliver this programme. Should that capacity not have been taken up and used before going to the private sector?
It is important to understand that the private sector has provided the framework for the system, with local authorities able to plug into that framework. The private sector provides the national call centres and so on, but a lot of the local expertise is provided at local level from healthcare experts on the ground, particularly in some of those harder-to-reach instances where we need to go knocking on people’s doors. Ultimately, we share the hon. Gentleman’s aim to improve the service and build plenty of public confidence in it because it is such a key tool in dealing with the pandemic.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) is a PCS union member, and I met his leader yesterday. It is important to remember that successive Governments of all colours use outsourcers. In a previous life, I was a councillor in Tower Hamlets. There were a number of outsourced contracts there and not very impressive in-house management of them, I should say. Outsourcers can provide a lot of expertise and capacity and it is naive to suggest that the public sector alone has all that capacity and expertise in house. Let us not do down some of the people who work for those contractors and bring a lot of capacity and sense to the system.
Both the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) seem to take an ideological view that effectively says private bad, public good. That is a great shame because it fails to acknowledge what the private sector can provide for public good.
Leicester has been in extended measures and lockdown for the longest time, as the Minister will appreciate. On the test and trace system alone, the private contractors delivering that have a success rate of less than 50%. Our own local authority, which understands the issues, was able to deliver a success rate of more than 85%. That is the difference between the private and the public sector. That is the reality. It is not ideological; it is the reality on the ground. That is what is happening and it is serious.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. Does she believe that the local authority in Leicester would be capable of delivering a fully functioning test-and-trace system that would do all that such a system needs to do? I think that is not the case. The private sector has been able to achieve impressive things during the pandemic and provide a lot of public good at speed and in innovative ways. That has been critical in procurement of all manner of goods and services, from PPE to new diagnostics, which have been fundamental to how we have protected the public.
The hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) raised a number about the justice system, but I am afraid that, as a Cabinet Office Minister, I do not have the expertise on some of the issues she raises. I am happy to look into them for her and reply in writing. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) raised a number of issues on contractor pay. I am working on the very issue of value from contractors with my ministerial colleague, Lord Agnew. Some hon. Members may be aware that he has recently set out his concern about some of the reliance in Whitehall on management consultants and that we have infantilised civil servants and deprived some of our brightest public servants of
“opportunities to work on the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues.”
Our reliance on consultants and other contractors can, at times, hinder the development of internal civil service capability. We have discussed that at length and are keen to improve what we do in terms of in-house learning capability and expertise.
I am always glad to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in this Chamber. He talked about civil service churn and skills, and I reassure him that we want to upskill our civil service. We are looking again at the quality of our training, as I mentioned, and he might be interested in the comprehensive Ditchley lecture given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), which talks about some of these issues.
There are many other issues to cover, but I am cognisant of the time. I reassure hon. Members that we need tighter controls around contractor expenditure, supported by better quality data and management information.
I want to leave time for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree to respond, so I will not give way.
There will always be situations where it makes sense to use contractors, working alongside our high-quality civil servants, to deliver specialist advice and services and to tackle short-notice urgent requirements where the civil service does not have sufficient capacity. We also need to reverse the trend we have seen over recent years, which has eroded civil service capability and led to an over-reliance on consultants and other contractors.
Hon. Members raised a number of other issues today about outsourcing and I am happy to take them away. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree again for her thoughtful contribution.
I thank you, Mr Pritchard, for chairing this important debate today, and I thank all hon. Members who have spoken and the Minister for her considered approach.
The Minister said that the Government are the custodian of public money, and that it is important to retain public trust. I reiterate that public trust is at an all-time low, particularly in my constituency. I would be grateful if the Minister can take up the very important issues raised today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government use of external private contractors and effect on employment.