Tuesday 3 November 2020
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis: Covid-19
[Relevant Documents: First Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2019-21, Humanitarian crises monitoring: the Rohingya, HC 259; and the Government response, HC 658 Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee, on 15 September, on Humanitarian crises monitoring: impact of coronavirus, HC 292.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Rohingya humanitarian crisis and the effects of the covid-19 pandemic.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am delighted to serve as you chair this morning’s discussion of the Rohingya crisis. I thank the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) for supporting the application for this debate and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting us time for it.
Before I say anything more, I think we should all reflect for a moment on the terrible events in Vienna last night—the shooting and killing of people in an event based on horror and hatred, which have no place anywhere in the world.
As chair of the all-party group on British-Austrian relations, I have sent a message to His Excellency the Ambassador, Michael Zimmermann, saying that we extend our sympathy to all those who are affected. Perhaps I could add that no one should judge Muslims by what one or two people do, in the same way that we should not judge Christians by what was done in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Catholics by what the IRA has done.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. I absolutely agree with him and I am pleased that, as chair of the all-party group on British-Austrian relations, he has sent that message; indeed, I sent a message to the same effect last night to the Socialists, Democrats and Greens group of the Council of Europe. He is also quite right that we should never judge people by their faith; we should judge people by what they do. And what was done last night in Vienna is absolutely disgraceful—whether it is done against Jewish people, against Muslim people, or against anybody else, such action is wrong, wherever it happens. I am sure that we are all agreed on that.
Today, 65 million people across the world are either refugees or internally displaced persons, which is the largest ever number in recorded history, and the situation is getting worse as global inequality becomes greater and the climate emergency leads to more climate refugees.
When we see what is happening in north Africa, in particular Mali and Burkina Faso, we know that the number of refugees is likely to increase in the future. We also have refugee crises in many countries, including Venezuela, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, South Sudan and Palestine. There is also the situation in Colombia, which has the second largest number of internally displaced people in the world.
We are an advanced democratic society, and we have a duty to acknowledge and highlight the plight of refugees, wherever they are. We must reach out the hand of humanity towards those who have gone through trauma in their lives that we hope we never have to go through ourselves. It should be a source of deep shame that many vulnerable people who flee from their home country experience further breaches of their human rights, either as a consequence of having to live indefinitely in refugee camps that are in very poor condition or as a consequence of being turned away at borders, which often is in contravention of international refugee law.
Human rights debates carry a danger of assuming that everything that we do is okay and that everything that everybody else does might not be. We need to be careful and at times quite self-critical. Last month, it came to light that a number of asylum seekers are being housed in an Army barracks in west Wales and that the search was on for a possible location for asylum processing centres elsewhere, off the shores of this country.
We need to reflect for a moment on what it is like to be a refugee. Indeed, I raised these matters in a letter to the Home Secretary, saying that we did not want to see a repeat of the horrors of the Windrush scandal. So, it is also worth reflecting on the number of people in our country and in our communities who started out in this country as refugees but have gone on to make the most amazing contribution to our society—in science, engineering, education, transport and so many other areas—in the same way that many black and minority ethnic workers have made an incredible contribution to our national health service, particularly during the current crisis.
I say that because I think we should set this debate about the Rohingya crisis in the context of the refugee crisis around the world. There are many refugee crises, some of which we hear more about than others. Despite their being one of the largest and fastest growing groups of refugees in the world today, the Rohingya crisis does not get the coverage or publicity that it deserves. More than 1 million Rohingya refugees have been forced to leave their country.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was colonised by Britain in 1885 and finally achieved its independence in 1948, after the second world war and slightly after India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka had achieved their independence. It had to deal with the disastrous repercussions of colonialism, including extreme nationalist tendencies, which had been exacerbated and, indeed, exploited during the second world war. There were deep-rooted fears in the country that it would once again fall under non-Burmese control. As a result, foreigners residing in Myanmar today are often seen, sadly, as remnants and reminders of a colonial period. That is one of the issues that must be addressed.
In Myanmar, it is claimed that the Rohingya migrated to Rakhine state from Bengal during and after the British colonial era of 1824 to 1948. However, many experts believe that the Rohingya people have been living in Rakhine state since at least the 15th century and possibly as early as the 7th century. Claims that the Rohingya are recent immigrants from Bangladesh are simply untrue. I say that because, when we talk about the plight of the Rohingya, it is important to draw attention to two major Acts introduced by the Myanmar Government that have infringed their rights. The first is the Emergency Immigration Act 1947, which required all citizens to carry an identity card. The Rohingya were ineligible for those cards; they were eligible only for the foreign registration card, which provided limited rights and was meant for foreigners. Even then, few Rohingya were able to secure a foreign registration card. Therefore, the process of their exclusion from normal civil society speeded up.
Secondly, in 2014, the Government conducted their first census in 30 years. On the census form, there was no option to register as Rohingya. Therefore, the Rohingya had to register as Bengali, effectively forcing them to admit what the Government had claimed all along—that they were immigrants to the country, not citizens of the country. They were then allowed to register as temporary citizens and receive a white card, which provided them with very limited rights. However, the Government revoked that limited status in February 2015, which meant that the Rohingya were not able to vote in the elections in November of that year and have not been able to vote or stand for election ever since.
We have a number of very serious issues relating to the role of the military in society. After independence, there was a series of elected Governments, but in 1962 a coup placed the military in control of the Government. Although reforms have lessened their influence, the military continue to play a very prominent role in politics and life in the whole country.
Early in the morning of 25 August 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, known as ARSA—these are a minority Muslim people from Myanmar—attacked a security post in northern Rakhine state. Nobody is condoning that attack. Following the attack, the Myanmar security forces, led by the army, attacked the Rohingya population across the whole of northern Rakhine state, driving more than 700,000 people—80% of the Rohingya who lived in the northern part of the state—into neighbouring Bangladesh. Let us just reflect on the figure there. As I said, there was an attack on a security post and nobody is condoning that. The army responded by driving the entire population out of the country.
According to Amnesty International, the military-led operations in the wake of 25 August 2017 were far from necessary or proportionate in response to the threat posed by ARSA. They amounted to an orchestrated campaign of murder, rape, torture and destruction of villages and homes that was aimed at punishing the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine state and driving them out of their country. Collective punishment is illegal in all forms of international law, but that is exactly what the Rohingya people have had to suffer.
Four years after the Myanmar military unleashed a wave of violence against the Rohingya civilians, killing thousands and burning entire villages to the ground, millions of Rohingya are still displaced across the region. Anyone who has met anyone who has been in their village at night will have heard that when the army arrive, it drives people out, kills the men, rapes the women, drives those who have survived or managed to escape out of the country and then burns the village behind them.
It is now estimated that 1.2 million refugees are in Bangladesh, 100,000 in Malaysia, 200,000 in Pakistan and—the figures are disputed—between 100,000 and 200,000 in India. The scale of this humanitarian crisis is unprecedented in that part of the world. While Bangladesh is hosting 1 million refugees, sadly, the Governments of Thailand and Malaysia have been extremely hostile towards Rohingya refugees trying to find somewhere safe to survive. Every day, more vulnerable people arrive in Bangladesh with very little, if anything, and settle in overcrowded camps or extremely congested makeshift sites. It is a very difficult situation for all of them.
The Government of Bangladesh, local charities and volunteers from the UN and many non-governmental organisations, to which I pay enormous tribute, are working in overdrive to provide assistance. The UK Government have provided significant amounts of aid, which is very welcome, and I look forward to the Minister telling us what future aid and guarantees for the future will be available for the refugee camps and organisations that are helping them. However, much more is urgently needed. The efforts must be scaled up and expanded to receive and protect refugees and ensure they are provided with basic shelter and acceptable living conditions.
The UN is seeking permission to conduct comprehensive technical and protection assessments to evaluate the safety and sustainability of Bhasan Char. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UN must be allowed to inspect Bhasan Char and that until then no relocations should take place?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I hope she will get an opportunity to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make a longer contribution.
According to UNICEF, an estimated 30% of children living in the camps suffer from chronic malnutrition—one third of children suffering from malnutrition—and 11% from acute malnutrition. A whole generation of children are growing up in their most important, formative years without enough to eat, which will lead to stunted growth and development and probably a much shorter life expectancy. There is not an overall food shortage in the world; there is a problem of distributing food across the world. Again, while I am not critical of the UN or aid agencies and what they are trying to achieve, resources are needed to feed those children. Imagine being in a refugee camp and unable to get enough food. Also, sadly, there are reports of sexual abuse, human trafficking, exploitation of children and violence against women within these very overcrowded camps. Funding for education, food and to deal with gender-based violence is very important. I hope that Britain will continue to work closely with the UN to ensure an effective implementation of the joint response plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.
All long-term problems are exacerbated by the threat of covid-19. Cases have been confirmed among the Rohingya and the International Rescue Committee has advised that the camp is particularly vulnerable to virus transmission due to an exceptionally high density—40,000 people per square kilometre are trying to survive in those refugee camps. There is very poor sanitation, limited access to health care services and a high level of malnutrition. In the monsoon season, the heavy rainfall leads to flooding and further danger of terrible diseases such as cholera breaking out as a result of inadequate sanitation.
I am sad to say that there are serious concerns about the fencing erected around the camps, as it restricts the Rohingya’s legitimate freedom of movement and access to services. The UK must urge the Bangladesh authorities to review urgently their approach to security. The issue will not be solved by putting fences around civilians or removing deported Rohingya from the camps along the border to an island in the Bay of Bengal—an island just above sea level with prison-type accommodation. The island places them further from Myanmar with no access to a regular ferry service. It would be a place they would go to and possibly never return, which is an unacceptable step. The international community must do all it can to ensure that that does not materialise.
In looking at any refugee crisis, we must look first at the humanitarian needs of desperate people, and I have tried to outline those needs, but we must also look at why they sought refuge in the first place and were forced to make the desperate and dangerous step of at least trying to get away from being murdered or raped and having their villages destroyed. The Myanmar Government must take immediate steps to address the chronic situation, including the 1982 citizenship law, and restore the Rohingya right to citizenship, a measure that was supported at the 44th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The President of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has issued a number of decrees following the provisional measure to prevent genocide, from the International Court of Justice. The Court said that the Rohingya remained at serious risk of that. Just get that: the International Court of Justice said that the Rohingya remained at serious risk of having genocide committed against them.
It is time to translate those decrees fully into concrete actions. The fighting in Rakhine must end. Civilians must be protected. Evidence of serious violations must be preserved. I must say I find the actions and attitudes of Aung San Suu Kyi perplexing. I am one of many people who marched around London in support of her, asking that her house arrest be ended and that she be given the freedom to return to political open life, which she did. She was elected and eventually became President. So I should be grateful if the Minister would help us and say what pressure is being put on Aung San Suu Kyi, and whether the Government will consider their relationship with her in the future. It is extraordinary that someone who came to office on the basis that she was a victim of human rights abuses seems to have a blind spot where the rights of the Rohingya people are concerned, and is happy to promote a sort of supremacist attitude over them. Unless that changes, their right of return becomes a bit of a pipe dream.
I do not know how long the crisis will go on, but I do not want to say that children now being born, or living, in those refugee camps in Bangladesh have no future other than to be refugees in a camp in Bangladesh for decades to come. Therein lie illness, mental health problems and anger—and a breeding ground for the terrorists of the future because they are so angry. I hope that our Government will do all they can to bring about a peaceful solution to their plight and engage with the UN and the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, to stress the importance of including the Rohingya in all discussions for the future.
The Foreign Secretary said recently:
“The Rohingya people have faced horrific brutality and were forced to flee their homes in the worst circumstances imaginable. We have taken action against the architects of this systemic violence, including through sanctions and we will continue to hold those responsible to account.”
I look forward to the Minister telling us how many other people may be subject to sanctions in the future, depending on what happens to the Rohingya people.
I shall not be making a speech in the debate, but I hope that those who are watching it will understand that we are concerned not just about the Rohingya and Myanmar. Yesterday in the House of Lords Jammu and Kashmir was raised, as China and the Uighur have been raised. It is not targeted: we have an aim to try to have justice for people. I refer those watching the debate to the report by the United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar that came out a year ago, and the campaign material from the Burmese Rohingya Organisation, the Burma Campaign UK and Justice for the Rohingya, all of which illustrate some of the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. My speech is concentrating on the plight of the Rohingya people, but any other refugees should be included in the issue, because if a country is to be at peace with itself it has to be at peace with recognising the diversity—the linguistic and ethnic diversity—of all its people. If the army of the country, in this case Myanmar, attacks and drives one particular ethnic group out of the country, who is next and what happens after that? There has to be a process of reconciliation, as well as support for the right of return and for people to be able to live safely and securely in Rakhine state.
The UK Government recently imposed sanctions against two Myanmar military generals, which is an important symbolic measure, especially for the victims, but further and more meaningful action must be taken. The UK Government should, for instance, prevent British companies from trading with companies in Myanmar connected with the military in any way. I look forward to the Minister explaining what the process is on that.
If we focus on just mineral rights exploration, such as gas and oil offshore, we will find that many foreign investors are competing to stay friendly with the Myanmar Government and that the UK is among the top investors. We have to be careful here. If British companies are investing in exploiting oil, gas or any other natural resources found there, they will find, not very far away, the influence of the Myanmar military, which will be making a great deal of money out of that. They are the ones who stand accused of the attacks and of killing so many Rohingya people in Rakhine state. We should have nothing to do with that. We should be strong enough to say, “We are not prepared to be involved with a military, a Government or companies that have paid for or supported those attacks in any way.” When the Minister replies, can he explain what exactly the relationship with Myanmar’s military is at present? We need to know that we are not supplying any weapons to it or providing any training facilities for it, and that we are resolute in our determination to protect the Rohingya and other minorities from future attacks, as the hon. Member for Worthing West correctly pointed out.
It is extremely concerning and unethical that the UK has apparently obtained large quantities of personal protective equipment from Myanmar, a country where the Government are accused of ethnic cleansing by the UN and genocide by other human rights organisations. It is simply unacceptable that we purchase equipment to save lives in the UK from a country that has taken so many. We can and should find other sources of PPE. We are going to enter a second lockdown now. Can the Minister guarantee that the Government will not purchase any more PPE from Myanmar?
I close by saying that the Rohingya people were discriminated against and manipulated during the colonial era, have been brutally treated by the Myanmar military for many decades and are now desperate in refugee camps with unsanitary, unsafe and dangerous conditions. The world has to wake up. We cannot allow a million people to be forgotten in that way. The world needs to do two things: first, to provide the support necessary for those people to survive and, secondly, to apply political pressure to the Government of Myanmar so that they will allow people to return safely and to live safely and securely in the country and place of their birth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate and drawing attention to the plight of Rohingya refugees. He eloquently made the case today that all of us must do more to support the Rohingya people.
People forced by wars and persecution to flee their homes frequently embark on risky journeys in many parts of the world. They should find safety and support and not be exposed to more danger and hardship. However, there are approximately 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, a country already facing significant challenges, not least during this world pandemic. Many people are still living below the poverty line and feel that they have no other choice but to go out and earn their living despite the risk of getting infected by the virus. Covid-19 has exacerbated existing problems for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, including by increasing gender-based violence, and the lack of adequate sanitation and healthcare and the crowded conditions make distancing impossible.
Bangladesh should not be left alone with the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya refugees, and the international community should increase its economic support accordingly. What steps is the Minister taking to work with the Government of Bangladesh to encourage efforts to designate critical gender-based violence services as essential and to ensure that there is a continuity of gender-based violence service provision for the Rohingya throughout the covid-19 response? Given the inescapable reality that many refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years to come, what steps are the Government taking to support the expansion of educational training and support in refugee camps?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North is correct in arguing that it is critical to address the root of the problem. Three years ago a military operation in Myanmar destroyed entire Rohingya Muslim villages. UN investigators say that as many as 10,000 people were killed, and more than 730,000 Rohingya fled the massacre for Bangladesh. The UN called it “a textbook …ethnic cleansing.” According to Médecins Sans Frontières, at least 6,700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of five, were killed in the month after the violence broke out. About 288 villages were partially or totally destroyed by fire in the north of Rakhine state after August 2017, according to analysis of state imagery by Human Rights Watch.
Just today, an independent human rights expert called on the Government and the military in Myanmar to stop persecuting Opposition supporters, including journalists and student protestors, ahead of the elections next week. Thomas Andrews, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said:
“But this cannot happen as long as it is enforcing laws that undermine the very lifeblood of democracy, and the right to vote is denied based on race, ethnicity of religion as it is with the Rohingya.”
Canada and the Netherlands have supported the case brought to the International Court of Justice by Gambia, alleging that Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine state violate various provisions of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. Can the Minister tell us any more about that and about the role that the UK could play in that regard?
In conclusion, I express my solidarity with all people around the world who are victims of political human rights abuses. Ultimately, it is the duty of all of us to do everything we can to uphold fundamental human rights, as laid out by the universal declaration of human rights.
It is a pleasure to see you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was surprised when I walked through the door. I had to screw up my eyes and say, “My goodness, you have come back to us.” Thank you very much. It is lovely to see you.
I thank the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) for setting the scene, which was admirably done. One of the first debates the right hon. Gentleman and I had in Westminster Hall was on human rights, although not the Rohingya. He introduced the debate, and I was there to support him. It is good that we are on the same page on this issue, as we often have been and probably always will be when it comes to human rights across the world.
The suffering that the Rohingya refugees have had to endure is scarcely imaginable. Everything that right hon. and hon. Members have said, and will say after me, encapsulates the fact that the Rohingya have survived horrifying violence, been driven from their homes and been forced to live in squalid conditions in refugee camps. People could be forgiven for thinking that things could not get any worse, and yet here we are with a global pandemic, adding still more to their burden.
Our duty in this House is to speak up for those who do not have a voice. Maybe we will never meet them, but we can familiarise ourselves with their circumstances and conditions and try to help them. I look forward to the Minister’s response, as we often do, and today we have three things to ask of him.
I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), in her place. She and I are good friends, and I look forward to her contribution, as well as that of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), the spokesperson for the Scottish National party.
Fortunately, data for the Rohingya refugee camps currently shows that the number of cases of covid-19 is lower than anticipated, although I question where that data came from. The restrictions put in place on humanitarian agencies by the Bangladeshi Government to isolate Rohingya refugees are having a devastating effect, and I would suggest that the data is not available, primarily because of the restrictions in place. The restrictions placed on organisations permit them to do only certain types of work or to do it only in a certain way, and they are allowed into the camps only for a set number of hours—in some cases, they are not allowed in at all. If the data cannot be collected, any data will be suspect and will not be correct.
The report by the ACAPS and the International Organisation for Migration stated that the “drastic reduction” in humanitarian access and the
“decreased ability to implement critical services has led to an increase in unmet needs. Many Rohingya have been unable to fortify their homes against rain and windstorms because shelter-related service restrictions meant that monsoon preparedness activities were not completed… Additionally, common coping mechanisms, such as increasing debt, borrowing assistance from family or neighbours… were reported as less effective than in previous periods, more difficult to access, or unavailable because of the changes due to COVID-19. As a result, many families feel desperate and uncertain about their future.”
The impact of these restrictions has been so great that, in July, many Rohingya perceived the impact of covid-19 containment measures as being a greater threat to their overall wellbeing than covid-19 itself. We cannot ignore that. Hopefully, the Minister will be able to alleviate some of our fears for the Rohingya people at this time and tell us where they stand.
Many acknowledge the risk of covid-19, but it is secondary to more immediate risks, such as shelters collapsing. People must also have safe and accessible toilets and be able to feed their families. These myriad issues come upon people quickly, and they are bread-and-butter issues. Those of us that have a comparatively good life here, with access to such things, may take them for granted, but these people do not, and we want to see what is happening. The Government have taken steps, and I always acknowledge that, because it is fair to give them credit for that, but perhaps the Minister can give us an idea of what, specifically, has been done for the Rohingya, in the precarious conditions and circumstances they face.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says. I am reminded that the problems of Burma, or Myanmar, did not start with the Rohingya. When John Bercow was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy in Burma, he and Baroness Cox went to see what was happening to the Chin people, who faced appalling behaviour in 2007. On the point the hon. Gentleman makes about covid, others may want to look at the report by ActionAid UK on its work with women, who are carrying the major burden of the covid crisis in Myanmar and in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I thank him for his fantastic, wise words, for the debate and for his significant contribution to it. Hopefully, the Minister can take that into account as well.
The Rohingya refugees have experienced even more suffering due to covid-19, and they remain in an extremely precarious position. Yet, despite their harrowing plight, the international community and the UK Government have not done anywhere near everything in their power to support these persecuted people. I say that kindly and respectfully, because I understand that the Government are doing their best, but I urge them to perhaps do more.
I welcome the sanctions that Her Majesty’s Government have put on Burmese military leaders responsible for violence against the Rohingya, but much more needs to be done. I have three asks of the Minister. First, the British Government should immediately take action to prevent British companies from doing any form of business with the Burmese military and with companies owned and controlled by the military. I say that because, according to Burma Campaign UK, the Burmese military earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year through its vast range of military-owned companies. I always think that the best way to hurt someone is to hurt them in their pocket, because that seems to have the desired effect. I am sure the Minister will agree that no British company should be involved in business that funds genocide. I urge him and our Government to take action to prevent that.
Secondly, I acknowledge that the Bangladeshi Government have done much, but I say again that there must be careful diplomatic engagement with them about the restrictions on humanitarian assistance to refugees. Clearly, there are obstructions that should not be there. An urgent revision of the restrictions is required to allow humanitarian agencies to increase the assistance they provide, especially shelter assistance, and much-needed maintenance and repair of public facilities such as toilets must be carried out. Those are the basics, but they are really important. If we want to address covid-19, we have to do that as well. Health and safety is of course of the utmost concern, but the Bangladeshi authorities must be convinced that it is not in their interest to abandon the Rohingya refugees to the virus, because that will lead to a hotspot from which the virus can spread to other parts of the country, so, again, diplomatic engagement is needed.
Thirdly and finally, I urge Her Majesty’s Government to join the genocide case at the International Court of Justice. Gambia has brought a case at the ICJ claiming that Burma is in breach of the genocide convention. It is supported by 56 other members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and by the Maldives, Canada and the Netherlands. We cannot ignore the volume of voices from those 59 countries from across the world, which are speaking up and which see a breach of the genocide convention. Why have the British Government thus far refused to join? I ask the Minister to look at that and to perhaps give us an answer today. I hope he will push for the UK to join that case, or at least explain to this House why they have refused to do so. We see the genocide against the Rohingya, and it hurts our hearts to think of these things—the powerful violence and brutality, and the conditions that those people are living in.
We cannot allow such unspeakable persecution to go unchallenged. A failure to take the actions I have outlined will only enhance the sense of impunity enjoyed by the military and will encourage it to commit further human rights abuses. If we do not do something hard about this issue, it will continue. I say this very gently: how can we, and I say “we” collectively, sleep at night knowing that we have made a few speeches—yes, it is great to make speeches—but have not done everything we could when crimes against humanity, if not genocide, have arisen during our lifetime? I urge Her Majesty’s Government to take the three actions I have outlined, and I hope the Minister will be so kind as to keep me and others informed about progress on them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. The previous speakers have been crystal clear about the urgent nature of the situation. If it was not clear to us or pressing enough previously—obviously, it should have been—the covid-19 pandemic and the terrible price that it has wrought, especially among the most vulnerable, has confirmed once and for all that life in a refugee camp should never be considered an acceptable long-term plan.
Nobody would argue that the Rohingya community is not suffering disproportionately from this terrible virus. In fact, as far as we know—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a sensible point about data—the death rate from covid-19 among the Rohingya refugees is 8%, compared with 2% for the Bangladeshi host community. Their situation, even on the basis of those figures, means a huge difference in outcome, in terms of life and death.
Amnesty International has spoken about a dangerous lack of access to even basic information. Mobile and internet services for the Rohingya were restored only in late August, and blackouts remain in Rakhine state. This is a hard time for those of us who are able to communicate and seek out potentially life-saving information, but what about people who cannot?
A huge issue is the inability to practise preventive measures such as frequent hand-washing in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. We rightly place much emphasis on the importance of hand-washing, but when we do so we are supposing that it is even an option. We all keep ourselves socially distant wherever we can, but with the population density in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, for instance, social distancing is almost impossible. In fact, Relief International Cox’s Bazar programme director has described the situation there as a “ticking time bomb”.
Existing healthcare facilities are woefully inadequate to handle a severe crisis such as this: in the whole of Cox’s Bazar, there are only two ventilators. We already know that Bangladesh has one doctor for every 2,000 people, compared with one doctor for every 350 people in the UK. There is a woeful shortage of PPE, even before the other critical issues in purchasing PPE that we heard about from other Members.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister—I think; it may have been someone else—referred to 90,000 ventilators being secured for the United Kingdom, although we have used only 4,000. Does the hon. Lady think it might be a good idea to send some of those surplus ventilators to help the Rohingya?
Thinking broadly about the needs of the people in this perilous situation is vital, so I am interested in hearing the Minister’s thoughts about the practicality of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that covid-19 is deepening the marginalisation and exclusion of the Rohingya, who are already in such a perilous situation. That seems self-evident to us, but it bears reflecting upon. Once the Bangladeshi Government announced a nationwide lockdown on 25 March, every aid agency worker was required to vacate Cox’s Bazar, which has had far-reaching impacts, further reducing access to education, safeguarding and mental health support. We have already heard about the vulnerability of children to exploitation, trafficking and abuse increasing because of this. Save the Children reports that almost 45% of the refugee population are not getting enough daily nutrition, which of course puts children at higher risk of worse outcomes from covid-19.
Worryingly, aid groups in Bangladesh have reported a rise in anti-Rohingya hate speech and racism, and rapidly deteriorating dynamics between the two communities—a particularly difficult situation. A recent report on the gendered impact of covid-19 on Rohingya communities also reports increases in forced marriages, child marriages, gender-based violence, transphobic violence, violence against people with disabilities and violence against female sex workers as the presence of camp authorities has fallen away, so the people on the margins already are increasingly and dangerously further marginalised.
Human Rights Watch also reported that, in Rakhine state camps and villages, 70% of children are not attending school at all. To compound that—if things were not difficult enough—in May this year, more than 100,000 refugees were affected by heavy rains, monsoons and landslides because of Cyclone Amphan, which destroyed shelters, washed away crops and further increased disease. Those multifaceted threats faced by the Rohingya are not going away during the pandemic, they are getting worse. It is vital that the UK Government are aware of and focused on that and continue to provide sustained financial support. With that in mind, it is deeply concerning that the UK Government confirmed on 23 July this year that they will slash international aid spending by £2.9 billion across the board, reportedly reallocating fund towards countries with which we have future trading prospects.
There is absolutely no doubt that 2020 has seen violence against the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar escalate once again. The situation has taken on an increased complexity. While the international community remains understandably hyper-focused on addressing the virus domestically and on their economic situations, the violence and persecution that the Rohingya people face has not stopped, despite the International Court of Justice ordering Myanmar’s leadership to take all measures within their power to stop the killing or harming of the Rohingya people, as set out under article 2 of the genocide convention.
More children were maimed in the first three months of this year in Myanmar than in the whole of 2019, according to Save the Children, while 19,000 Rohingya people fled their homes in the Kyauktaw township in Myanmar between the end of August and the beginning of September. Despite the International Court of Justice’s ordering the Tatmadaw not to destroy evidence of crimes, new UN satellite images show that the military has bulldozed the ruins of Kan Kya—just one example of the almost 400 Rohingya villages destroyed by the Myanmar military in 2017 as part of a wider cover-up. Overall it could not be a more dangerous situation and of course, if continued violence in Rakhine state makes repatriation less viable as time goes on, it grows more perilous.
International Rescue Committee figures show that only 4% of the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar have actually been granted refugee status and that means for almost all of them that services and employment cannot be sought in Bangladesh. It is important that in the long run, the international community makes an active and focused effort to help resettle Rohingya people permanently in Bangladesh or in third countries, as seen with other refugee groups such as the Lhotshampa refugees in Nepal.
It has been evident since the covid crisis began that there has been an increase in the number of Rohingya people moving from both Bangladesh and Myanmar to Malaysia and other countries in south-east Asia, largely on boats that are not fit for that purpose. Myanmar must undoubtedly address the root cause of the issue of statelessness of the Rohingya if the plight of those boat people is to be resolved.
Amnesty International has warned that,
“Regional governments cannot let their seas become graveyards.”
The SNP stands by calls from Amnesty International to allow safe disembarkation and for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations members to urgently agree emergency measures to prevent further humanitarian crisis.
Bangladesh has built housing for 100,000 people—we have heard about this from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum)—on the remote silt island of Bhasan Char, with plans to relocate some of the Cox’s Bazar residents there. There are concerning reports emerging of Bangladeshi military officers beating refugees, including children, who are protesting their detention on the island. An Amnesty International report alleges that sexual assaults have taken place against Rohingya women on the island. It is critical that the UK Government increase international pressure to allow UN experts to conduct an independent assessment of the island to ensure that any relocation there is voluntary and that it is truly habitable, which has been questioned by the former UN special rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee. Our global mechanisms for accountability and the protection of human rights have clearly failed the Rohingya people so far, and it is essential that we have a renewed focus on not allowing that to continue.
It is disappointing that the UK Government have still not heeded the repeated calls that my colleagues have made about adopting a national strategy of atrocity prevention; that is a gaping hole in UK foreign policy that should be urgently filled. My hon. Friends the Members for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) have been focused on keeping this issue on the agenda. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East specifically pressed on this matter just weeks ago, and that echoed calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith). That is critical because if these cross-Whitehall prediction and prevention frameworks are left out of the upcoming integrated review, that will represent a body blow to all those who wish to see the UK Government play a greater role in ensuring that all possible steps are taken at each stage to prevent mass atrocities from happening, which is surely what we all want.
To conclude, as the Myanmar genocide against the Rohingya shows few signs of relenting, surely such a strategy could not be more pressing. I would encourage the Minister to give some thought to that as part of the bigger picture in how we support and deal with the perilous and terrible situation facing the Rohingya people.
It is a honour to serve with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to thank the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) for securing this important debate. I also want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and her staff who have been leading on this work in the shadow development team. I am sure that I echo the thoughts of the whole House when I say that we hope she is able to return to Parliament as soon as possible.
The contributions today have been thoughtful and well informed, and I thank all those who have taken part and especially the organisations who work on these issues on a daily basis and have provided vital briefings. I also want to welcome the return of debates in Westminster Hall as a vital means for us as Members of Parliament in the UK to raise issues of global importance, and I hope we find safe ways to continue them during the upcoming restrictions.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North made a powerful speech reminding us of those fleeing their homes, those internally displaced, and those living in refugee camps, which have become a long-term placement for so many. He rightly says that the plight of refugees seldom gets the coverage it deserves.
[Derek Twigg in the Chair]
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) talked about gender-based violence, which is so important and something that I will touch on in my speech, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us of the impact of covid on refugees, who are already facing very difficult and, in some cases, inhumane situations. I thank him for his contribution, for raising the ICJ case on genocide brought by The Gambia, and for challenging us all to speak out on crimes against humanity.
Since the eruption of violence in 2017, the Rohingya have faced a series of life-threatening situations; covid-19 is just the most recent. Many have faced a lifetime of discrimination, ethnic cleansing, enforced migration and years in unsanitary and overcrowded camps. I commend the UK Government for the work that they have done to provide some immediate humanitarian aid, but we all know that there is much more that could be done in both the short and long term to provide sustainable solutions.
It is a tragedy that despite its being more than three years since the mass exodus of the Rohingya, fleeing persecution and oppression in 2017, the international community is still having to provide them with immediate life-saving humanitarian support. That is the situation that we need to take a long, hard look at, to learn from mistakes and rectify them so that we are not here next year and the year after having the same debate. It is estimated that there are still 600,000 Rohingya people in Rakhine state. Of those, around 130,000 are confined to arbitrary and indefinite detention in heavily restrictive camps, the inhabitants of which face significant constraints on healthcare, food and shelter, and growing restrictions on humanitarian aid and freedom of movement.
A recently published report by Human Rights Watch documented Rohingya being killed simply for breaking curfew, and where they are not in detention they face discrimination and segregation. As the covid-19 pandemic has further increased restrictions, the impact on minorities, and upcoming elections in which most Rohingya are prevented from voting or running for office, are likely to further increase tensions. Can the Minister tell us what progress he has made in lobbying the Myanmar Government to end the arbitrary detention of various ethnic minorities in what are, in effect, mass prison camps, and what steps have the Government taken to ensure that those living in the camps have access to humanitarian assistance?
For the hundreds of thousands who have fled that oppression to Bangladesh, the situation that they face is also of grave concern. Some 860,000 of those million refugees currently reside in the Cox’s Bazar district in some of the most densely inhabited land in the world. The Kutupalong refugee settlement is the largest of its kind, with more than 600,000 people living in an area of just 13 sq km. That number of refugees would be a struggle for most countries, and for Bangladesh it has been no different. The proposals to relocate the Rohingya to Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island several hundred miles to the north in the Bay of Bengal, should be a wake-up call for the international community.
After being taken from a distressed vessel in May, 306 refugees were transferred to Bhasan Char, which at the time was described as a temporary measure in the light of covid-19 restrictions on the mainland. Those refugees are yet to be reunited with their families, and there have been numerous reports of maltreatment, ranging from beatings to sexual violence. I welcome the Minister’s comments in support of UN assessments, but can he confirm that it is his position that no further relocation should take place until full assessments have taken place, and will the Secretary of State push for that with his Bangladeshi counterparts?
Although temporarily lifted over the past few months, it appears that internet and communications around Cox’s Bazar remain limited and restricted. That drastically limits the ability of Rohingya and Bangladeshis to obtain crucial information about the spread of covid-19. That is combined with inadequate sanitation, which makes even basic preventative measures such as hand washing inaccessible to so many. We have also received reports that a number of humanitarian organisations are experiencing growing problems in acquiring visas and work permits for international staff. Can the Minister explain why that is the case, and what representations he has made to ensure that organisations with the relevant skills and experience are able to access the area and provide necessary support and assistance?
In such cramped conditions the spread of any virus is extremely likely and concerns have been raised about the accessibility of tests and the reliability of the covid-19 data. With community transmission clearly apparent in the refugee population, the World Health Organisation has emphasised that the highest priority must be increasing the rate of testing. What steps are the Government taking to encourage the end of internet restrictions and to support aid agencies and the Government of Bangladesh to increase the availability of tests across the region? Is UK aid funding to support the Rohingya in Bangladesh protected from any cuts to the Official Development Assistance budget both this year and next?
Looking at the wider picture and moving beyond humanitarian assistance, it is vital to ensure that we do not have a lost generation in these camps. Over 326,000 Rohingya refugee children are in dire need of education. Earlier this year UNICEF was co-ordinating work by humanitarian agencies to introduce a pilot and a new curriculum to 10,000 students. That pilot was placed on hold when education was categorised as non-life saving by the Government of Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner. That allowed learning centres to be closed to prevent the spread of the virus. More than 6,000 learning spaces in Rohingya refugee camps were closed, depriving 325,000 children of the already woefully limited learning opportunities available to them. Failing to provide children with educational rights traps them in a cycle of poverty and massively reduces any hope they may have of leading independent, fulfilled lives. What steps are the Government taking to improve educational access and quality in the refugee camps?
Trafficking, child marriage and unpaid work that women and girls are forced to take have all increased during the pandemic. Vital services, including sexual and reproductive healthcare, have been cut, with gender-based violence services deemed non-essential and either stopped or reduced at a time when the need for them is acute and growing. Intimate partners perpetrate 81% of gender-based violence in the Rohingya camps and 56% of incidents are physical. As lockdowns have left refugees confined to their homes, women have been afflicted by what the International Rescue Committee has termed “a shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence.
What progress has been made in pushing the Government of Bangladesh to provide support to those suffering from gender-based violence and to empower women to take the key choices about how their communities move forward and receive aid? What specific actions is the Minister taking to ensure that tackling gender inequality remains a key priority of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and in particular can he explain what steps he is taking with regard to the Rohingya to ensure that no one is left behind?
All those issues need to be tackled now. Supporting efforts to slow the spread of covid-19 and overcome it must be only the tip of the iceberg of the support that the Government must provide to tackle the wider social and economic damage that the virus is causing and exacerbating. While a safe, secure and voluntary return to Myanmar must remain the objective, even if repatriation were to begin immediately, analysis by the United Nations Development Programme indicates that it could take between five and 13 years to achieve full repatriation.
Our Government are in a unique position to display the moral duty and global leadership required to support the Rohingya and to find ways to reach the solution of a return on the Rohingya’s terms. But that cannot be done until the Myanmar Government end the arbitrary detention of the Rohingya in camps and recognise them as full citizens. Will the Minister update us on what steps he has taken to place diplomatic pressure on the Myanmar Government on both fronts? It also requires the United Kingdom to make sure that it is not supporting actors who have supported, deliberately or otherwise, the oppression of minority groups. Earlier this year, a journalist discovered that UK aid, through the CDC, had been funding a telecoms company that censored websites under the orders of the Myanmar Government. Does the Minister believe that that is a good investment and, since then, what steps has he taken to ensure that any and all investments made with UK taxpayers’ money achieve the highest standards in protecting human rights?
Until a safe return is possible, our Government need to support local actors to mitigate the social and economic impact of covid-19. These are difficult problems, but they are not intractable and I hope to continue to work with the Minister to make real and concrete progress for the Rohingya people.
I will start, Mr Twigg, by thanking your predecessor in the Chair this morning for filling in. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) for securing this important debate on what is a critical issue. I am also grateful to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), for the way in which we have collaborated on many issues previously. Her concluding remarks were testament to that work. I think we are all on the same page on this issue, and my door at the FCDO is very much open to right hon. and hon. Members to discuss this issue in more detail. We do not get a lot of time to dig into all the issues and respond to all the questions, but I will do my best in the time available.
In thanking the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to the debate—it had originally suggested that we might be able to have it in the Chamber, but needs must in the circumstances—I would like to put on the record that there would have been more participation had my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) not been due to take part in a Westminster Hall debate later today, which I think is why he is not speaking now.
That is absolutely right. We did get advance notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) would not be able to participate in this morning’s debate.
On 25 August, we marked three years of the Rohingya crisis. The scale of the violence and discrimination against the Rohingya is shocking. I pay tribute to the resilience, courage and tenacity of the Rohingya people in the face of extreme adversity, violence and oppression. I also pay tribute to the generosity of the Government and people of Bangladesh for hosting the refugees in Cox’s Bazar, a point already referred to by hon. Members today.
The UK will not sit, and has not sat, idly by. Very recently, on 22 October, the United Kingdom co-hosted a donor conference on the Rohingya refugee crisis, alongside the US, the EU and the UNHCR. The conference brought together leading donors, Rohingya-hosting countries, international organisations and Rohingya representatives to keep attention on the crisis and demonstrate global commitment to the Rohingya people.
A total of $600 million in new and existing funding was announced at the conference. The United Kingdom announced a further £37.5 million for the Rohingya refugees and local communities in Bangladesh. That brings the total UK commitment to the Rohingya in Bangladesh thus far close to £300 million since 2017, when they had to flee their homes in Myanmar. That makes us the second largest single donor globally in assistance for the Rohingya people in Bangladesh.
That has been very helpful and underlines the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government, which we appreciate. Is there any follow-up to monitor and regulate where that money is going, to make sure that it actually goes where it should, which is to help the people? If people are living in dilapidated shelters and do not have toilet facilities, it makes me wonder where the money is going.
It is absolutely crucial that we keep a trail and manage to do due diligence before the money is handed over. We work with third parties—non-governmental organisations—to make sure that the money does get to the correct place, where it is needed most. That is absolutely crucial when we are talking about such huge sums and we need to monitor that constantly as we deliver the cash. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that point.
The new funding announced last week will provide improved education for more than 50,000 children and young people from the refugee and surrounding local Bangladeshi community, something I know is close to the heart of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum). It will also provide food for 290,000 refugees for four months, and provide cash and food assistance for 10,000 of the most vulnerable members of the local economy to cope with the economic impact of the covid-19 crisis.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly asked about humanitarian support and access to those services. Since March, we have committed £11 million to help prepare the refugees for the impact of covid-19. We have backed major deployments to Cox’s Bazar by the UK emergency medical team to offer clinical expertise and set up isolation and treatment centres. United Kingdom aid has created capacity for more than 600 beds for treating refugees and locals alike suffering from severe respiratory infections. More than 2,400 hand-washing facilities have been added to the camps and public health information has been widely shared across communities.
I had the pleasure of a virtual day visit to Myanmar, where I saw at first hand—albeit over the internet—the work that our aid is delivering. If hon. Members would like to see what the UK is doing on the ground in these camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh, I would be more than happy to facilitate access to some of that information and perhaps give a presentation. Meanwhile, we have continued to fund critical services, such as food, regular medical services, clean water, sanitation and protection.
Thankfully, the number of confirmed covid cases in the Bangladeshi camps is much lower than anticipated. The WHO and health agencies are seeking a better understanding of transmission levels and expanding the reach of community health workers in the camps.
The Minister is being generous and most gracious in giving way. My question is on the data. There is some concern among many hon. Members and non-governmental organisations that the data was perhaps not as accurate as it could be, simply because they had no access to it. Has he had a chance to look at that?
It is important that the data is accurate and I will follow that up with my team. I know that more work is being done on the ground to assess the data and ensure that the information gathered on transmission rates is as accurate as possible. Thus far, thankfully, we are seeing a relatively low infection rate. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point—collecting information and getting an in-depth, detailed analysis is crucial.
We have also continued to support local Bangladeshi communities, for example by bolstering the local economy and giving 50,000 local Bangladeshi people access to safe water. However, we know that, three years on, this is a protracted crisis and the Rohingya and local communities will need long-term support—I know that one or two colleagues have asked about that this morning. We are working with the Bangladeshi Government, the United Nations and the World Bank on a development strategy for the Cox’s Bazar district. As hon. Members will know, this was an incredibly poor area even before the influx of refugees, so we continue to encourage the Bangladeshi Government to help the Rohingya lead safe and full lives by improving education and offering access to jobs. That is crucial if we are to prevent despair setting in.
The Bangladeshi Government agreed earlier this year that Rohingya children could have access to the Myanmar curriculum. On the other side of the border, in conflict-afflicted Rakhine state in Myanmar, the UK has provided over £44 million to all communities since 2017—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston raised this point. This includes over £25 million for Rohingya communities for education, nutrition, water, health, sanitation and general livelihood support. As I saw on my virtual visit in June, our partners are doing some life-saving work. There are 128,000 Rohingya and 88,000 ethnic Rakhine in internally displaced person camps. Our priority is to reach those IDPs and the conflict-affected populations.
Covid has only exacerbated the problems. The number of covid cases is increasing across Rakhine state and testing is not widespread in those camps or villages. The Myanmar Government have implemented lockdowns and curfews, the impact of which we are closely monitoring.
We are also working closely with the Myanmar Ministry of Health on equipping facilities, protecting health workers, and reducing the cost of accessing healthcare for the most vulnerable patients. We are enabling the life-saving work that the crisis threatens to end. The importance of childhood immunisation and ensuring safe, high-quality maternal health services are also crucial, and our assistance is helping to deliver that. We are the largest donor of water, hygiene and sanitation in IDP camps and displacement sites, which also supports work on protection and livelihoods. Most of the IDP camps are based in central Rakhine, and the UK funds all of those camps. We also provide significant food support in northern Rakhine and have reached 200,000 people.
Turning to the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members, we heard a thoughtful speech from the right hon. Member for Islington North, who talked about the history of the Rohingya in Myanmar. We are clear that the Rohingya who have lived in Myanmar for generations should be granted full citizenship and the associated rights. We continue to call for the reform of the 1982 citizenship law, which is deeply flawed. The Rohingya should not be excluded from Myanmar elections. On 23 June I spoke to the Myanmar Government and raised my concerns in the strongest terms about how the Rohingya are denied citizenship and have been stripped of the right to vote.
The right hon. Member for Islington North also talked about sanctions and raised the point about companies owned by the military. The hon. Member for Strangford also mentioned sanctions. It is clear that the Myanmar military has vast and complex interests across the economy, on both an institutional and an individual level. The military economic institutions grew up under sanctions and are opaque. Thankfully, they have limited exposure to the UK economy. However, we encourage UK companies to conduct thorough due diligence, but it will not be possible for credible investors to ensure that investments have no exposure whatever to the holding companies. We have applied direct sanctions to the perpetrators of the atrocities against the Rohingya people. In total, 16 people in Myanmar have been sanctioned. We will continue to use this tool as a force for good in Myanmar. We will also continue—one or two Members have raised this—to review options for targeted actions that impact on the military but do not harm poor people in Myanmar.
The right hon. Member for Islington North mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi. We are clear that the military are responsible for the atrocities against the Rohingya. The President is the elected leader of Myanmar, and it is vital that we continue to engage with her to help Myanmar make progress on the very serious challenges that it faces. We also had a thoughtful speech from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse. In an intervention on the right hon. Member for Islington North, she mentioned the UN inspections at Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, which was also mentioned by the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston and for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). The inspection should happen urgently. There are 306 refugees on the island. Full and detailed assessments are urgently needed to evaluate the situation on that island, which is something we will continually support and call for. We continue to work with the Bangladeshi Government on that issue.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston also mentioned, as did other Members, the ICJ case brought by The Gambia. We have publicly welcomed the case and the ICJ’s provisional measures, and we continue to call on the Myanmar Government to abide by this ruling.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned education, as did the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, and I agree that education and skills training are absolutely fundamental. Our latest funding of £37.5 million will support a safe return to quality education for those people. She also mentioned gender-based violence, as did the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire and for Birmingham, Edgbaston, and she was absolutely right to do so. This is a priority area, and we are prioritising the protection and safeguarding of women and girls in our humanitarian response to this crisis. The latest funding I referred to will help improve support and protection, especially for women and girls. Our aid will prevent, mitigate and respond to violence, exploitation and abuse, including gender-based violence, and will also help child survivors of abduction and trafficking, as was referred to by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. Our aid has already provided lighting and padlocks for home shelters, and sanitation and infrastructure to improve women’s safety.
I appreciate that I have to allow some time for the right hon. Member for Islington North to conclude this debate, so in the time available I will say that we must work to create the conditions that will allow the Rohingya to return safely, voluntarily and with dignity to Myanmar,. The conflict between the Arakan army and the Myanmar military has made this so much harder. A commitment to civilian protection will be key to any bilateral ceasefire, and we continue to call for de-escalation and for dialogue, including at the UN Security Council. We convened the Council in September and called for a cessation of hostilities in Rakhine and Chin states.
However, this is not just about providing humanitarian assistance, essential though that is; accountability is also vital, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said. The Myanmar military has committed atrocities against the Rohingya and other minorities, yet there has been no tangible progress on accountability. We support the ICJ process and those provisional measures, and we are putting pressure on Myanmar to protect the Rohingya. The Foreign Secretary has raised the issue of impunity in the Myanmar military with Myanmar’s Minister for International Cooperation. We will not pass by on the other side. This terrible crisis demands our full attention. We will build on the recent donor conference and do everything we can to help the Rohingya, and I know the whole House and the constituents we represent want nothing less.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Twigg. I do not know whether you can give us a little latitude because we lost 10 minutes at the beginning of the debate, but we shall see what happens.
I thank all Members for their contributions to this incredibly well-informed, serious and intelligent debate. I think that we have managed to send out a message from this House around the world that we are concerned about and in solidarity with the Rohingya people in the plight they are facing. The Minister said that his door is open. I welcome that statement and look forward to going through that open door to discuss further what we can do to support the Rohingya people. In particular, I hope that he will be able to write to me on two of the questions I raised that he was unable to answer today, concerning the purchase of PPE and the relationship with the military. I will await a letter from him on those issues.
I was very pleased that the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) mentioned the good work done by John Bercow, the former Speaker of this House, who did a great deal to promote democratic development in Myanmar, and indeed he went there. I think he should be thanked and applauded for that, because he showed real courage and determination to spread democracy there.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) used a word in her speech that we never want to hear, but we have to. The word is “genocide”. We should thank the Government of The Gambia for being prepared to take that case to the International Court of Justice. The provisional judgments made are very serious indeed, and I think that they have to be given a wide circulation. I thank all those who have managed to get the word out. In particular, the very good report on al-Jazeera last night—
Royal Mail: South-east London
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Royal Mail service in south-east London.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I start by paying tribute to our postal workers. During the coronavirus pandemic, they have been a lifeline for people across the country who have been unable to leave their homes; they have been delivering parcels to people unable to get to the shops and letters from loved ones who are unable to visit. As we enter a second phase of lockdown, the importance of their role is set only to continue. Postal workers have also been a vital source of human contact for people living alone at this time. They are spotting people who are struggling physically or emotionally, and often going the extra mile to offer support or raise concerns.
As frontline workers, our postal workers have faced additional risks. Many have contracted coronavirus. Some have, tragically, lost their lives. All have had to live with the additional anxiety experienced in a line of work that involves handling many thousands of individual items every day. While touching post boxes, knocking on doors and handing items across a threshold, they may come into contact with a deadly disease. I pay tribute to all of them. I know how hard they have worked to maintain collections and deliveries and serve our communities.
There is no doubt that, despite the best efforts of postal workers, coronavirus has brought challenges for Royal Mail, particularly in terms of staff sickness, and there has been a great deal of forbearance among members of the public for frontline workers doing their very best to keep going at an extraordinarily difficult time. However, in the East Dulwich part of my constituency, covered by the SE22 postcode, patience has run out.
In 2017, Royal Mail announced its intention to close the East Dulwich delivery office on Silvester Road in SE22 and merge it with the already busy SE15 delivery office in Peckham. The East Dulwich delivery office was clearly not fit for purpose at the time. Specifically, it was not big enough for the volume of mail being processed there at busy times of the year. But moving that workload to an already busy office in Peckham made no sense then and has continued to make no sense ever since.
I worked with local councillors and the community at the time of Royal Mail’s announcement in order to warn that the closure would result in a failure of service to my constituents in East Dulwich. Specifically, we warned that parts of East Dulwich were a very long way from the Peckham delivery office, which would make it difficult for postal workers to complete a round on foot within their shift; that the topography of East Dulwich, parts of which are very hilly, would further add to the difficulties; that public transport links to Peckham from parts of East Dulwich are difficult; and that there is no convenient parking near the Peckham office. We urged Royal Mail again and again not to close the East Dulwich delivery office without providing a fit-for-purpose replacement delivery office in the SE22 postcode area.
Nevertheless, Royal Mail management went ahead with the closure two years ago, just before the peak Christmas period in 2018. The result was total chaos, with delayed and missing post. Residents were left completely bewildered after Royal Mail continued to deliver “Sorry we missed you” cards with details of the closed East Dulwich delivery office and thousands of letters informing residents of the closure went undelivered. Royal Mail claimed at the time that it was not compulsory to tell local residents that their local delivery office had closed.
Services improved a little after that difficult Christmas, although many of my constituents continued to struggle to pick up post and parcels from the Peckham delivery office, due to its inaccessibility from large parts of East Dulwich. It is also clear that there is very little resilience in the arrangements for East Dulwich deliveries, so staff sickness and annual leave have continued to lead quite quickly to unreliable service.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has tested East Dulwich delivery services beyond breaking point. Since the start of the pandemic in March, constituents across the SE22 postcode area have reported that their postal deliveries are entirely unreliable. On many streets, residents report not receiving deliveries for days and sometimes weeks at a time.
Residents across East Dulwich have been inconvenienced, but many individual constituents have suffered consequences that are far more serious than being inconvenienced. Among the constituents suffering the most serious outcomes of this collapse in service are those who have missed important hospital appointments for critical health conditions, those whose relatives’ death certificates went missing and those required to shield who did not receive the Government’s advice on how to keep themselves safe.
In addition, dozens of replacement bank cards went missing, leaving some constituents unable to buy food online at a time when they were unable to leave their homes. Cheques went missing, including one for £4,000. One constituent now has to attend court for no other reason than that the letter informing her of a speeding fine arrived after the deadline for paying the fine had passed. Parcels for students leaving home for university have not been delivered before the start of term, and there are many cases of legal documents relating to power of attorney, care arrangements or conveyancing being lost or greatly delayed.
Royal Mail announced at the start of the pandemic that it was suspending Saturday deliveries. Also, Ofcom has confirmed that it considers the coronavirus pandemic to constitute an emergency and that Royal Mail is not required to sustain services without interruption in the event of an emergency. However, there is a huge difference between dropping Saturday deliveries and leaving my constituents without any deliveries at all for two or three weeks at a time. I believe that there is a serious gap in regulation, because if Royal Mail is not currently required to meet the universal service obligation, my constituents effectively have no way to hold it to account.
I want to draw attention to the context in which my constituents are suffering such serious consequences. While postal workers across the country have been serving on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, Royal Mail’s chief operating officer and outgoing chief executive were both working from home, in Germany and Switzerland respectively. The outgoing chief executive, whose abrupt departure was announced in May, had received a golden hello of £5.8 million, a sum that could have been used to hire 252 postmen and postwomen, just a few of whom would have been able to sustain reliable services for my constituents in SE22. The SE22 Royal Mail delivery office on Silvester Road in East Dulwich was sold for £7.5 million and is currently being developed for luxury flats, carefully designed to fall just below the threshold requiring any affordable housing.
Royal Mail has announced a suspension of delivery of dividend payments for the current financial year. There is no doubt that the organisation faces some serious challenges, but it is also clear that a privatised model for delivering this vital public service has not worked. The twin objectives of delivering the universal service obligation and a return to shareholders are not compatible. As a consequence, we see an organisation that, despite cuts and asset-stripping, is failing my constituents.
I have been in regular contact with Royal Mail since the start of the pandemic and I recently visited the Peckham delivery office. It is clear that staff there are working very hard, but they are being failed because their work environment is not fit for purpose. Voluntary van-sharing, which would compromise the safety of postal workers just as we enter the second wave of coronavirus, is not the answer either.
Also, although I receive replies from Royal Mail on behalf of my constituents regarding each individual failure, Royal Mail has never acknowledged the cumulative failure of its services in SE22 or the seriousness of the problems caused for so many of my constituents.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. Will he join me in raising the catastrophic failure of Royal Mail in the SE22 postcode area in East Dulwich at the most senior levels in Royal Mail and Ofcom, and in calling on Royal Mail to reinstate a delivery office in SE22? Does he agree that a regulatory system that does not allow for any accountability when the universal service obligation is suspended is not fit for purpose? Will he commit to a review of the regulation of Royal Mail? Will he take action to ensure that Royal Mail can no longer unilaterally close and sell off delivery offices without clearly demonstrating that it will not result in repeated failures to deliver the universal service obligation, as has often happened to the residents I represent in East Dulwich? Does he agree that Royal Mail should not be run by absentee, arm’s length executives domiciled overseas? Does he agree that the payments to Royal Mail executives are excessive and should be used instead to fund additional postal workers in areas of staff shortage? Finally, does he agree that privatisation is failing to deliver the services my constituents need, and that it is vital to bring this vital public service back into common ownership so that it can be run for the benefit of people, not profit?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing this important debate and standing up for her constituents, who have clearly suffered through the teething issues of the change to the sorting office and from the impact of coronavirus, which has affected other users and customers across the country.
Before addressing the specific concern about disrupted delivery services in south-east London, I will provide a bit of context and outline the performance of, and pressures on, postal services in the current times. I agree with the hon. Lady, and I recognise the important role that postal workers have played and continue to play in serving customers and supporting local communities across the UK. We should never forget the social and economic impact of Royal Mail, the Post Office and postal services in general in connecting people. Their willingness to maintain deliveries during the coronavirus pandemic, at a time of increased social isolation, when many people cannot leave their homes, is vital. The Government are relying on the postal service’s continued operation to keep people connected across the country, and deliver the letters and parcels that are so important to everyday life and supporting the economy in these unprecedented times. It is therefore vital that normal services are maintained as far as possible.
Royal Mail’s well-established contingency plans to mitigate disruption to postal services are overseen by Ofcom, the independent regulator. It has reassured the Government, and I continue to monitor it and press it to ensure it is doing everything it can to maintain service levels during this period and that it continues to keep Ofcom informed. Specific changes to Royal Mail’s services are an operational matter for Royal Mail. Any reduction of services by it in exceptional circumstances will be temporary and are undertaken only when absolutely necessary. It is for Ofcom to monitor service levels in the first instance.
The regulatory conditions that require Royal Mail to deliver letters six days a week as part of the universal postal service also provide that it is not required to sustain those services without interruption, suspension or restriction in the event of an emergency. Ofcom has acknowledged that the covid-19 pandemic is such an emergency. It published a statement on its website on 29 April clarifying the regulatory framework that supported Royal Mail’s actions. It also confirmed that Royal Mail’s delivery obligations remain important elements of the universal service, and that it will keep the temporary change under review.
The regulatory framework is clear that emergency conditions allow Royal Mail to modify its operations, which includes reducing the frequency of the delivery of letters without formal authorisation if that is considered necessary to respond to the challenges it faces in sustaining the wider universal postal service during the pandemic. Royal Mail temporarily suspended Saturday letter deliveries for six weeks from 2 May to 13 June 2020 in the light of pressures on its staff during the height of the pandemic. Saturday deliveries of parcels continued through the six-week period.
A flexible approach to regulation under emergency conditions has supported Royal Mail and its hard-working employees. It has enabled the delivery of above-usual volumes of parcels, while managing high levels of coronavirus-related absences and necessary social distancing measures, keeping the country moving. Throughout the pandemic Royal Mail has been transparent with the public about changes to its services, with service update information published on its website.
Saturday deliveries were temporarily suspended nationwide, but I should like to address the specific concerns about services in south-east London. Royal Mail informs me that service levels have been affected owing to necessary changes to business operations and increased staff absence during the pandemic.
I shall address each of those issues in turn, because as the hon. Lady said there have clearly been teething problems and the changes have affected people, sometimes severely. I acknowledge the difficulties her constituents have experienced with those teething problems and during the coronavirus outbreak.
The safety of workers is a key priority of the Government. It is essential that Royal Mail workers are, and feel, safe in their working environment, which is why Royal Mail took significant steps to ensure its staff work in a safe environment in line with Government guidelines.
Royal Mail advises colleagues that good hand hygiene is the first and most important line of defence and promotes regular handwashing with soap and water. Other protective items such as hand sanitiser, disposable gloves and face coverings are available to all staff.
Royal Mail has implemented social distancing measures to ensure the safety of its staff and customers. For example, it introduced the “thumbs up” campaign during the height of the pandemic to make the public aware of the need to keep a safe distance while deliveries are made. In addition, Royal Mail reduced the number of staff in delivery vans from two to one. These measures have understandably had an impact on service levels.
As with businesses across many sectors, staff absence at Royal Mail increased during the pandemic and remains higher than usual, and that has clearly had an impact on service delivery. South-east London covers 28 postcode areas serviced by 20 Royal Mail delivery offices, and these combined postcode areas are served by Croydon mail centre. In the south-east London postcode area, sickness absence peaked at above 20% in May and is still higher than Royal Mail would normally expect at this time of year. Postmen and women who served the area throughout the pandemic continue to dedicate themselves to providing a public service in Dulwich and West Norwood and in all south-east London parliamentary constituencies.
Royal Mail employees have done their utmost to deliver as much mail and as many parcels as possible in difficult circumstances. In the East Dulwich area specifically there are 23 delivery rounds a day. At the peak of the coronavirus, Royal Mail partially failed to deliver in an average of 12 delivery rounds a day. That means there may have been a failure to deliver some products in each of those 12 rounds, and we have heard about the impact on the hon. Lady’s constituents. Those partial failures are now down to two or three delivery rounds.
Where business operations have been adjusted to deal with the pressures of the pandemic, Royal Mail has been transparent about the changes in services. It acknowledges there have been some reductions in service delivery, but given the pandemic, that is really no fault of its own, notwithstanding the teething problems with the changes to delivery offices.
The covid-19 pandemic continues to present challenging conditions, not just in the south-east but across the United Kingdom, Europe and globally. Royal Mail has done its level best to maintain service levels throughout a situation outside its control. To try to keep on top of the ongoing epidemic conditions, which might see rising staff absence alongside higher-still parcel volumes, in the run-up to Christmas, Royal Mail intends to recruit an additional 33,000 temporary workers, 10,000 more than usual, to help to manage the increase in online shopping caused by the coronavirus.
The Royal Mail’s universal service obligation is clearly a challenge. The changes that have been made are temporary, but services across a number of sectors have clearly been affected. Postal services affect so many people, which is why it is so important that we keep their social value and keep people connected.
The Government continue to push to keep Royal Mail to as high a standard as possible. Any permanent change would need to go first through a process with Ofcom before being decided in Parliament. It is important that we assess the impact on the hon. Lady’s constituents, and on people across the country—how they are being affected and how they use postal services.
The hon. Lady talked about absentee executives. As she said, there has been a change at the top, and I think that it is a better reflection of people’s expectations of what is required in Royal Mail at a particularly challenging time, even beyond covid. As to privatisation, there are some fundamental changes, not necessarily on ownership, that Royal Mail recognises and must address. It has a universal service obligation to keep six-day delivery right across the UK at a single price, but it also faces a challenge with the reduction in the number of letters being sent and the increase in the number of parcels, which as yet it has been unable to capitalise on as much as some of its competitors. A lot of functions need to be changed.
I said that operational matters are a matter for Royal Mail, so I will not comment about reinstating the service office in Silvester Road, but on behalf of the Government, I again take the opportunity to thank Royal Mail and to thank the hon. Lady for raising concerns for her constituents. It is important to focus on this and get it right, and not just in relation to the temporary nature of the pandemic, hopefully, as we learn to live with the virus—we do not know how temporary it is. Clearly, we need to get things right for those constituents who still rely on letters. Yes, people want their parcels, and people can use email, but some people like—and, as we have heard, need—a connection through letters, so thank you to the postal workers who continue to serve the nation, keeping us connected during these unprecedented times.
Question put and agreed to.
Government Response to Covid-19
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effectiveness of the Government response to the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, for the first time. First, I want to make it crystal clear that I do not underestimate this nasty virus. I have friends who have had it, friends who have got it, and a friend who nearly died from it. I also want to state that I have a lot of sympathy for our Prime Minister, who faces an unprecedented challenge, contradictory advice, and a tough call to make, but that must not extinguish debate. As we hurtle towards another lockdown, I would be doing my constituents a disservice if I did not question the wisdom of repeating what has already been implemented and failed.
Lockdowns, in most people’s view, do not work. They simply delay the inevitable—the re-emergence of the virus when lockdown ends, as has been shown. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. I do not know about you, Sir Charles, but after three long years of project fear during the Brexit debate, I am tired of fear. I long for optimism, hope, aspiration, courage, and our long-departed friend, common sense. Instead, we have been force-fed a diet of death and destruction on an almost hourly basis for month after month, and we face more, although who would not have capitulated after Saturday’s presentation when we heard that deaths could peak at 4,000 a day by Christmas?
I have heard that. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will come on to more statistics later, although they are not always helpful.
I was interested in a recent article written by The Telegraph’s Ross Clark in which he asked whether anyone had been able to read the small print at the bottom of the graph, which states:
“These are scenarios—not predictions or forecasts.”
He added that it was odd that there was no source listing for the graphs. I would think that the best guide to future deaths is numbers of infections, but even those are a difficult yardstick as they are falling in some parts of the country and rising in others. It is also important to acknowledge that the more we test, the higher the infection rate. It is encouraging that the death rate has halved as effective treatments have come into play. Let us not forget Professor Neil Ferguson’s dire warning in March of 250,000 deaths. The truth is that—my hon. Friend has hinted at it—predictions, modelling, forecasts and scenarios change, and with them the Government’s policy. What is that exactly? The modus operandi appears to be a roller coaster ride of lockdowns and release until a vaccine is found. But why, when we have a virus with a 99% survival rate? Last month the virus was the 19th most common cause of death. Have we overreacted? Yes, I think we have. A draconian, onerous and invasive set of rules and regulations now govern our very existence. Lord Sumption calls it a form of house arrest, and I concur. Interestingly, he also points out a section in the minutes of SAGE, the body advising the Government, where behavioural scientists advise the Government that
“Citizens should be treated as rational actors, capable of taking decisions for themselves and managing personal risk.”
Instead, unfortunately for all of us, coercion was selected.
This interference in our personal freedoms has not been seen since the war. Imagine then if we had predicted the human cost; we would have surrendered immediately. I am 62 and I cannot recall a moment in our proud island history when our nation has been so cowed, to the extent that it is now. Today, a police officer can issue a fixed penalty notice of £10,000 to those “involved” in a gathering exceeding 30 people. Initially aimed at raves, that power has now been used for other purposes. That and other draconian rules, such as the 10pm curfew and the rule of six, further enhance the sense of oppression.
The good reason why a few of us voted against those measures was that there was no evidence to support them.
The 10 pm curfew only further destroyed the hospitality sector, while the rule of six broke up families. I cannot think of a modern crisis in which family and families are more essential and more important. Surely, their support is common sense, despite the risks. It is for them to make decisions about who they see and when, not the Government.
Depressingly, we have been warned that this lockdown might go on after 2 December, putting family gatherings at Christmas at risk. Nowhere in the debate, as far as I can recall, have we heard the word “risk”. The reason, I fear, is that we have become risk averse. Personally, I think that has made the sleepwalk into an invasion of our civil liberties even easier.
All appears to hang on the introduction of a vaccine, but the history of vaccines does not bring much comfort. An all-out effort is being made to create a vaccine, but how effective will it be? Who will it help? When will we actually have it? All these questions are still unanswered, although I welcome every effort to get one. I have spoken to quite a few medical experts and they tell me that pandemics end naturally, mitigated by better treatment of those who suffer, a vaccine and immunity in the population. Like flu, we must learn to live with this virus and not let it destroy us.
In the meantime, we are leaving a devastated landscape, economically, financially, physically and mentally. My own constituency of South Dorset, the prettiest in the country, relies heavily on the hospitality sector. Those in that sector responded to calls to make their facilities safer, only to now see them shutting again.
My hon. Friend mentions the financial aspects of the crisis and the financial devastation we are going through. Does he recall that, in the last 10 years, the Labour party has repeatedly lambasted us for what they call austerity, which was us trying to balance the books, reducing the deficit from £152 billion a year to £20 billion a year? Does he agree that if we had not pursued that fiscal discipline the situation now would be catastrophic?
I am always delighted to hear from my hon. Friend. He sounds like the former Chancellor of the Exchequer on Radio 4 just the other day. I concur; when there is no money in the coffers, savings have to be made or taxes raised. I pay tribute to the coalition Government, who did their best to get our economy back into a place to face circumstances such as we face today.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for initiating today’s debate. Will he also note that had the Government not stripped our NHS so bare that it did not even have enough PPE to protect its workers, we would not be in this catastrophic mess and we would not have seen our incredible NHS workers die?
I do not entirely concur with the hon. Lady. The NHS has record amounts of money. Let’s face it, many care homes are privately run and responsible for PPE themselves, as is the NHS. Not that long ago an exercise was run and warnings given that were a pandemic of this sort to come, the NHS should prepare. I am not criticising the NHS, for which I have huge respect, but it is up to the organisations themselves and not, perhaps, individual Ministers, to ensure that they have the right equipment. I am not going to go further down that road, if the hon. Lady will forgive me.
I go back to people opening and shutting their businesses. Business owners are furious at this chop and change, which places their livelihoods at risk, some after years of hard graft and sacrifice. Many of my constituents who are on low wages and struggling to survive depend on these jobs to get by. There is no doubt that another lockdown will see many jobs disappear; many already have. The huge take-up of universal credit will get even larger. Not one of my constituents has asked for this. They are proud people who do their level best to contribute. Signing on must be utterly soul destroying.
Let us not forget the welfare bill. Along with the furlough scheme, which is now to be extended—I welcome that in the circumstances—it has soaked up hundreds of billions of pounds we do not have. How and when will it be repaid? It will be repaid by my children—our children—that is who.
We will have to treat this spending spree in the same way we treated our wartime debt. Raising taxes would cripple those who survived these shutdowns, and who, let us remember, pay for our public services through tax. I mean no disrespect to those who work in the public sector, but on the whole their jobs are secure. It is the companies, entrepreneurs, small businesses and self-employed in the private sector who are bearing the brunt of this blunt tool and who must not—I urge the Minister for whom I have huge respect—be hit by taxes when we emerge from this pandemic. More of tax on another day.
What is an alternative path? I am a signatory to the Great Barrington declaration, to which I would like to add eight thoughts. First, the virus is not an indiscriminate killer, as portrayed. We know it mainly targets the elderly, especially those with serious underlying conditions. All our resources should be aimed at protecting them and those in care homes and hospitals. I hope that the Government respond positively to those who rightly say we should be allowed to visit family and friends there during this next lockdown. No one should suffer or die alone. Human touch is not only essential but it saves lives. Test and trace is vital and must be expanded nationwide as soon as possible.
Secondly, we must and should have expanded services in the NHS. Because that has not happened over recent months, many seriously ill patients have forgone hospital treatment either for fear of catching the virus or because beds have been put aside for the predicted surge of those suffering from covid. I have huge admiration for all those working in the NHS and thank them from the bottom of my heart for what they do. But the Government’s slogan “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” has the wrong emphasis. The NHS is here to protect us, not the other way round.
Thirdly, sadly, we must accept a certain number of deaths although, as I have just said, everything must be done to keep the figure as low as possible. Every death is regrettable.
Fourthly, it is time to publish everything we know to counter the current lack of transparency, especially the number of deaths caused by lockdown. Too many inquiries are met with silence or referred to freedom of information requests.
Fifthly, we must abandon lockdowns. They are destructive, divisive and do not work. Sixthly, while protecting the most vulnerable we must let the majority of the nation get on with their lives. Seventhly, that majority should adopt common-sense precautions where appropriate.
Finally, we must get the nation back to work, continue to keep our students at university receiving the education for which they have paid and not virtual education, and our schools must remain open.
I conclude as I started. I sympathise with the Government, but I and others must be allowed to question the direction of travel, especially one that clearly is not working. With signs of unrest growing here and in Europe, I urge the Government to look seriously at another way forward. I am genuinely shocked at how easily people’s hard-earned liberties have been taken away from them without so much as a by your leave. We are in this House to serve, not to dictate. I have learned in life that there is never one solution to a problem. An appreciation of our current situation would throw up several courses of action. May I urge the Government to study the alternative courses before theirs is beyond recall?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.
I thank the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr Drax) for securing this important debate. All of us here today are saddened that we are heading into another lockdown without the Government having done everything in their power to limit the loss of lives and infections in this second wave. I worry that thousands of lives will be lost and that our health and social care sectors will be pushed to breaking point once again. While I commend the Government for listening to the Opposition and to SAGE and for following the science, I am concerned that it has come a little too late.
We are here to discuss the Government’s effectiveness in dealing with the crisis, and I would not be telling the truth if I did not say that the Government have fallen short in navigating us effectively through the crisis. But here we are, and I look forward to working collaboratively with all Members in the House to move forward and mitigate the worst of what is to come.
The Government have rightly said that the NHS will get whatever it takes to deal with covid-19, and I am sure that the hon. Member for South Dorset agrees that it should be the same for the social care sector. It is imperative that weekly testing of care home residents and staff is prioritised in order to save many lives. As I speak about my friends and colleagues in the health and social care sector, I am sure that the hon. Member for South Dorset would like to join me in paying tribute to all the frontline workers who have put their lives on the line during the pandemic.
Statistics show that 1,320 healthcare workers have died from covid. One life lost is too many and 1,320 represents a dereliction of duty on our behalf. Delays in the early stages of the pandemic meant that healthcare workers were forced to work without the requisite PPE. Staff with pre-existing conditions are still working, despite evidence showing that they are more likely to die, or become very ill, from the disease. The sacrifices that they have made makes it incredibly painful that our nurses and colleagues in the social care sector are not being paid a fair wage. There are about 759 nurses living in my constituency who will be expected to work during the deadly second wave. One way this Government can show us that they value the work of our nurses is by increasing their pay now. It is unfathomable that nurses should still have to wait until April to receive better pay for the important work that they do.
As for social care staff, I hope that the hon. Member for South Dorset will agree that those on the minimum wage should also receive increased pay. A pay rise will not compensate them for the missed birthdays, school plays and other memories not shared with their loved ones, but it will give them—nurses and social care workers—dignity in their work and help them to provide for their families, which is help that they deserve.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will join me in asking the Government to ensure that just three things happen: first, that healthcare workers do not run out of personal protective equipment; secondly, that they receive a pay increase; and, thirdly, that healthcare and social care staff with pre-existing medical conditions are better protected and shielded during the second wave.
As I said, it is really important for us to learn the lessons of the first wave and to work together for all our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Sir Charles.
On 31 January, the first case of coronavirus occurred in the UK, in my constituency. At that point, we had real engagement with the Government, and I was grateful for the discussions I had with them and officials about how we could manage the pandemic. However, the plans put in place then certainly have not lasted throughout the crisis. That is why it is really important to return to some of the principles that were established early on.
We now know that over a million people in our country have contracted the virus, and 46,853 of them are no longer with us. Therefore, we cannot continue to take the risks that have been taken up to now. Although I heard what the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said, the situation we are in means that we must put people’s lives at the forefront, which means protecting both their physical and mental health.
It seems to me that the virus is always a step ahead of the measures being put in place to control it. Therefore, this lockdown period will be absolutely vital for us to catch up with, get ahead of and then get on top of the virus, so that we can lock it, rather than people and the economy, down.
That was the plan on day one; that was part of the discussions that I had earlier this year. I was told that meticulous contact tracing was absolutely essential to track down the virus. However, after talking to public health officials locally, it is clear that there is so much delay in the process that contact tracing has been ineffective.
Let me give some statistics. When it comes to getting the test results themselves, 16% are provided within 24 hours and 60% within 48 hours. Within 72 hours, we get 96% of the data. Often, however, the data coming through is incomplete, because it has not been properly entered into the system. On top of that, we know that Serco then holds that data, often for 48 hours, as it has a national contact tracing system. By the time local authorities get the data, we are into day five, six or even seven of the virus. That is not how we lock down the virus tightly and move into the isolation and testing process. That is what must change.
We know that the ability of Serco to deliver good contact tracing falls below 50%. However, local authorities are turning that situation around. Yesterday, the statistic for York was 83.7%, and local officials say they would get to 100% if they had complete data. Let us just imagine it: the local authority controls the testing process, so when somebody turns up at a test, local officials input the data, and the test results could then be delivered overnight. That could be done in York if the Government supported local providers, such as the university and local laboratories, to turn those tests around overnight. Then, in the morning, the local public health team would be tracking down the virus and there would be contact tracing the next day, locking down the virus and therefore ensuring that the rest of the economy is working well.
That turns the whole debate on its head, from assuming that everybody is contagious to allowing us to have our freedoms. That is what needs to happen in the next month, because the accuracy local authorities can achieve comes from their local knowledge and the precision they have through their professional training. There are also just simple things, such as using a local phone number and knocking on doors to lock down the virus. That works, and it is essential that we go through that process.
I also want to raise an issue about the economy. At the moment, broad sweeps are taken, with different parts of the economy and different sectors shutting down. If we took a public health approach, as we do with all other public health issues, and instead made sure that workplaces and venues were covid-secure, we could certify them as such and ensure that there is enforcement. If they were not, they would be subject to an improvement notice or closure. Again, taking that public health approach means that we are not ruining the economy; we are just putting good practice in place. That is how we can manage the pandemic into the longer term, and I trust the Government will respond.
Sir Charles, I am absolutely delighted that you are in the Chair, and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Minister is glad too. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing the debate, and I am glad that he did so.
Having had the privilege of being a Minister with cross-Government responsibilities, I want to begin by reflecting on just how magnificently effective the Government have been in many ways in responding to the covid-19 outbreak. I regret that I will not be able to enumerate in five minutes all the ways in which they have been high performing, but I will touch on a few.
Starting locally, Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust has been absolutely outstanding. It is under the leadership of Neil Macdonald, and I could not have asked for more from our local NHS, which has responded flexibly, kept services going and looked after the public. I do not mind putting on the record that even though I am fine and I got the all-clear, I had a genuine cancer scare in the course of the first lockdown. I was therefore delighted that cancer services were continuing and that I was able to have the necessary tests to discover I was fine. However, it was a frightening moment, and I was grateful to the healthcare trust for making its services available uninterrupted, as far as I experienced them, throughout the crisis.
Buckinghamshire Council is so effective and dynamic that I could almost become an advocate of the ephemeral term “the entrepreneurial state”. I have been delighted with how the council has risen to the challenge of looking after local people, whether that was those who needed food delivered, local children or the homeless. I am delighted by the council’s performance. Fire, ambulance and GPs have all also risen to the challenge. This is about Government effectiveness, so I will not touch on the private sector, but I am grateful to it too. I have been delighted, both personally and on behalf of my electors, by the performance of the full spectrum of local public services.
The Treasury’s performance in delivering economic support has been absolutely tremendous. The gaps in support have been well rehearsed and argued over, and I will not go over them again here. I suspect it is futile to ask my right hon. Friends to close the gaps in support, but I particularly plead for the self-employed earning just over £50,000 a year. They have been especially hard hit, and there are a number of other groups, which we do not need to go through now. However, I encourage the Government to close those gaps. The key point with the Treasury is how easy it is to forget just what a stellar performance it was to get the furlough scheme, the self-employed schemes and the various loan schemes in place as fast as it did. It was an absolutely incredible performance.
We could also talk about the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government getting the homeless off the streets, apart from those who did not want to be reached, as far as I can tell, and about the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education.
However, I want to press one issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister, which is PPE supplies. It has been raised already, and it has rather dropped off the radar between waves. I hope that in the next wave we do not find we have any shortages of PPE. I do not think the public will take that kindly at all. In the Department of Health and Social Care, there has been tremendous success with testing, and we are now looking forward with energy and enthusiasm, I think, to a further expansion of testing, particularly in Liverpool.
In my remaining minute and a half, I want to touch on some suggestions in terms of areas for improvement. I have four, if I can rattle through them. The first, which is possibly the one that has been most alive in our minds this week, and which hon. Friends have touched on already, is the communication of complex data. In particular, the modelled death projections have quickly been shown to be out of date, never accurate and not the most relevant factor to the decision—yet they are repeatedly put to us. I use those three factors because those are what come out of the answers I have been given. Every time officials and Ministers have shown us those charts, it has been like sunshine on the morning mist—the importance of the charts has just evaporated when prodded. That is regrettable; I will try not to go any further than that. This Government are supposed to be very good at communicating complex data. There are some exceptional data scientists in the Government—it has been my privilege to have contact with them over the last week, and these are really impressive people—but something went wrong when those charts came out.
The second area is expert advice. I have made some proposals for competitive multidisciplinary expert advice with red teams. I thank the Government for letting me be a red team. Modelling also needs to be improved; I will make some suggestions. Finally, there is cost-benefit analysis. It might be practically impossible to give us a cost-benefit analysis, but in the context of these momentous decisions, we really should be looking at some figures to help inform our choices.
I thank the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I might have a slightly different focus in relation to where we are going.
As I said in the main Chamber last night, I am not a scientist, and I am certainly not a strategist. I understand my limitations in relation to covid-19, and I depend on others to keep me right about where we are. That allows me to accept that, during the first wave, the Government did what they could with the information they had, to fight the virus and the effect it had on this country. I am not going to cast any aspersions on the Government for that. I thank them and Ministers for all that they have done in a very difficult and trying time.
I also want to put on record my thanks to nurses and care workers, and I will make a plea, as the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) did, for the nurses. The Royal College of Nursing has contacted me, as it has contacted every MP, asking for a wage increase. I have told them I will support that; I have written to the Minister about it, and I want to make sure that that is in Hansard today.
We are now in a second wave, and we thankfully have more information. We have more knowledge and experience, and with the additional support comes an additional demand to get things right—as the Scripture says, to whom much is given, much is required. That being the case, the nation is watching and will hold us to a much higher standard. We have to get this right this time round.
I have lost a loved one very close to me. My wife’s mother died from covid-19 just two weeks ago. My sister-in-law was also getting oxygen. My wife’s aunt and uncle have both had it as well. I understand all too well the human aspect that is faced. I see the torment of those who cannot be with their loved ones at the end, who cannot choose the outfit and cannot have a normal funeral. Funerals are limited to 25 people, who then have to go home separately to their homes to grieve. The human cost is massive. What I suggest to everyone here—I say this honestly and respectfully—is to not underestimate the impact of covid-19 and the harm and the deaths that it brings. We all have to find a way to mitigate that as best as we can. Speaking personal, covid-19 is the most horrible, unfeeling and cruel disease. It robs families of their loved ones and their dignity.
However, the human loss in terms of the worst recession this nation has faced will be great too. There are cancer diagnoses missed by people who are afraid to go to the doctors. There is the inadequate funding that will come when budgets are slashed, which will mean that mental health services are lost. Every one of us is pleading for that focus on the national health. We see cutting-edge technology as a faraway dream, and we see all those things that are taken for granted—our welfare state—decimated due to decisions made in this House. The pressure to get it right is immense. Those who are on the minimum wage and those whose hours have been cut find themselves in a dire financial position. We cannot ignore these things—they are happening. We cannot ignore the self-employed, as the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) said. We all know those people as well.
Local businesses in my area have gone all out to ensure that they mitigate what is happening as much as possible. I have seen small businesses taking such steps as supplying free masks at the door. Small businesses understand that the mortgage payment is due. Their ability to invest in stock is on the line, unless they do all they can to stop the spread. It is for those people that I ask the Government again to assess the transmission data, and pinpoint where transmission happens, rather than blanket banning all shops.
Christmas is the time when the local high street makes the money to keep it going for the year. We all know that, and I know it is true for the towns in my constituency. That all hangs in the balance—on a thread. There are also the hairdressers and barbers; the Government want to get the R rate down to 1, but they get it down to 0.02 and they are all closed. Why is that? Children can go to school—in Northern Ireland, they went back to school on Monday past, which is good news. I also make a plea for churches. People want to worship and pray together. I would like to know where the data is that says churches must close, because I am not quite sure it is there.
It is important that we are here to do our job. I wholeheartedly agree with the Leader of the House, but it is vital that shops can be open in a safe way to do their job. We must get that right and ensure that lockdown gives us time to get opening and safety measures right, so that we do not find ourselves in this situation again, with the spikes that we are told will happen, in February and the spring. Our economy and the future health of the nation simply cannot take it. How do we do it? We do it together. We deal with health and the economy together. We support our Government and our Minister to try to make that happen.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I am sorry for his recent loss.
I do not want to be negative, but I am going to be quite negative, so I apologise up front. There is a lot that the Government—especially Treasury—have done that is extremely good, and I know that all Ministers are working as hard as they can, but I am concerned that people are losing faith in their use of data and science. Because the debate is such an important one, I want to focus on that and to park a lot of the good stuff, although I am not ignoring it.
First, scientists are becoming increasingly sceptical about the use of lockdowns. Edinburgh’s Professor Woolhouse says that lockdowns are a strategy that is “visibly failing”. Oxford’s Carl Heneghan—thank God for him—says that lockdowns push peaks into the future, just requiring more lockdowns. Anyone who thinks we are all coming out of lockdown on 2 December is living in a parallel universe. One can dream about it, but frankly the reality is slight. Sunetra Gupta has said:
“Lockdown is a blunt...policy that forces the poorest and most vulnerable people to bear the brunt of…coronavirus.”
Everyone making decisions about coronavirus is in a well-paid job with a cushy pension. There are many people who are suffering about whom one cannot say that. The WHO says that lockdowns are a last resort.
So disturbed are Heneghan and Tom Jefferson by the use of Government stats—the predictions, projections and illustrations—that they have said that the Government’s use of them is “abysmal”. I would love to know from the Minister why she thinks that senior independent scientists are being quite so caustic about the Government’s use of facts.
One reason, as far as I can see, is Professor Ferguson and Imperial College. I shall be careful what I say, because they are professionals and worthy of respect, but Professor Ferguson has for 20 years had a history of predicting mass death from almost every public health emergency. I am not a scientist, so I will not quote myself; instead, I will quote a bunch of other people, because it is strongly in the public interest that the Government, as a matter of urgency, conduct a peer review of the evidence that they have been receiving.
Johan Giesecke, Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist, said Ferguson’s model was “not very good”. In academia that is fighting talk. The Washington Post quoted him as saying that the forecasts were almost hysterical. Lund University applied Ferguson’s models and found a massive difference between his predictions and what happened. Professor Angus Dalgleish said that there had been “lurid predictions”. Viscount Ridley has criticised Ferguson’s modellings. Professor Michael Thrusfield of the University of Edinburgh said that Ferguson’s modelling on foot and mouth was “severely flawed”. John Ioannidis of Stanford University said that
“major assumptions and estimates that are built in the calculations…seem to be substantially inflated”,
although he did say that the Imperial team seemed to be professional.
Other experts whom I have spoken to say that Imperial’s work is almost always an extreme outlier to normal forecasts. Yet it seems that the Government, because of their risk-averse nature—which I understand—have taken outliers as the norm, which they categorically are not. Let us look at Ferguson’s predictions: 150,000 deaths from foot and mouth disease, when the figure was between 50 and 50,000; 150 million worldwide from bird flu, when 282 died; and 65,000 British deaths from swine flu, when 457 died. I know that mitigations take place afterwards, but the Government need to look into some of the advice they are getting, because I think it is highly dangerous. Members of SAGE yesterday were arguing for a total shutdown, including schools, and I really wonder whether the Government are losing the plot over this. We are obsessive about the risks of covid.
I had a meeting earlier, which my hon. Friend knows about, with Sir Jeremy Farrar. One thing that he explained to me is that if schools are left open, that adds 0.3 to 0.4 to R, so if we are going into lockdown for a month, it is a big compromise. The Government needs to explain why their strategy is consistent with leaving schools open, much as I applaud the fact they will be there.
Where is there any sense of balance? I speak personally, and I know the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) lost somebody recently. Over the last decade, both my parents died of winter respiratory flu, and that was really upsetting for me. Three years ago, 22,000 people died of winter flu. According to the logic of some hon. Members of this House, we would effectively have to shut down our lives for six months of the year in case people die. A bizarrely dangerous precedent is being set, whereby the Government now believe they can effectively halt death.
Once upon a time, we would go to someone’s funeral when they hit 85 or over—my dad made it to his mid-80s—and talk about a life well led. Now, if someone dies of covid several years above the national average lifespan, politicians are saying it is the greatest disaster facing humanity and must never happen again.
I understand the virulent nature of covid, and I understand the impact on the NHS, although I thought the NHS was there to protect us, not the other way around. We need some semblance of balance; if the Government were using statistics honestly, openly and transparently and, on balance, came down on the side of lockdown, that would be fine. However, lockdown is a dubious tool and the way we are presenting the data is a hazardous way to approach the subject.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for securing this important debate. I want to spend my five minutes touching upon how devolution stands up at a time of national crisis. Many of us had severe reservations about the devolution process when Mr Blair started to change our national makeup and constitution. I speak as someone who represents an English seat that borders Wales.
In Shrewsbury we are very proud of being the gateway to Wales. We have so many Welsh people living in our constituency that when England and Wales play against each other in rugby, we have both flags flying side by side throughout the town. Many people in our community have homes, businesses and land on both sides of the border; most importantly, many have families on both sides of the border. It has been devastating to see increasing divergence between the jurisdictions of London—of Westminster—and Wales, throwing up a great deal of uncertainty, misery and paralysis for border communities such as mine. It was really brought home to me by Councillor Hignett from Pontesbury, who has grandchildren just across the border. He can see some of his grandchildren who are on one side of the border, but not others, although Powys and Shropshire have an almost identical R rate.
I am also very disappointed with the Mayors, and the one I am most disappointed with is Andy Burnham. I believe that his grandstanding, pontificating conduct on the television has destabilised to a certain degree the tiered system that was starting to show results. Has his conduct contributed to the fact that the United Kingdom is now moving from a tiered system to a full-blown national lockdown? I would argue that the sheer refusal from him and his like to understand the common need to come together in a national crisis has contributed to making sure that areas such as mine with low R rates are now being forced into a national lockdown.
I absolutely agree. This is something that historians will be looking over for many years to come. We have to learn from these mistakes during the national crisis.
We have a very low infection rate in Shropshire in comparison with other parts of the United Kingdom. We are a large rural county that is very spread out. Salopians—people from Shropshire—have been following the rules, but as a result of what has been going on in other parts of the United Kingdom, we now have a lockdown, which will have devastating consequence for many of our businesses. I will be voting for the legislation on Wednesday, but I am sure, Sir Charles, that you have listened to your constituents and many small businesses, which have put so much energy and effort into creating livelihoods. So much is at risk now, and it really pains me to see that suffering.
As I said earlier, I am proud of the fact that when we came to office we reduced the annual structural deficit that we inherited from Labour from £152 billion to £20 billion a year. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset will remember the vilification to which we have been subjected for the past 10 years, with talk of savage Tory cuts and austerity. My goodness me, at a time when we are borrowing more than £200 billion, when we have a debt ratio of more than 103% of GDP, when we are already spending £53 billion of taxpayers’ money on debt interest and when the crisis has not even finished, I dread to think of the economic situation that we would now be in if we had followed the policies of the now suspended former Labour leader and gone for massive borrowing when we did not have a crisis.
I want to ask the Minister about something that a Conservative candidate in the forthcoming local elections has asked. Mrs Susan Coleman wants confirmation that everything is being done for ladies who are pregnant so that when they go through the process in hospital, their partners are given covid tests as quickly as possible and can be present throughout the whole process of giving birth to the child.
Finally, the leader of the Conservative group in Shrewsbury Town Council wants me to ask what happens if the R rate falls below 1 during this lockdown. Will it be possible for it to be lifted sooner than 2 December?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this incredibly important debate.
My principal concern is the somewhat erratic nature of the Government’s approach to dealing with the covid crisis. At the beginning, we were in a very difficult position because we knew very little about covid, its impact and how it spread. It is not like flu, which we can understand by looking at last year and the year before that, and we cannot really look at what other countries are doing to see what we should be doing, because each country is different. We do not have that comparative process, but as we move forward we can reflect on what we have done, reflect on our successes and failures, and adapt as we go along. I was hopeful that once we had the tier system in place, we would be able to see the impact in the respective tiers. In Liverpool, for example, the Government would say that tier 3 was having a positive impact.
There were drawn-out negotiations in Greater Manchester that lasted 10 days. I would not want to apportion the blame for that to the Mayor or the Government. On one hand, we understand that this is an incredibly urgent situation, requiring decisive and quick decision making. One the other hand, negotiations can take 10 days, when in other circumstances the lockdown features have been imposed centrally.
The current approach to lockdown has us going from the tiered system—before it has been proven to work or to fail, and without seeing what evidence we can take from it—immediately into another national circuit-breaker lockdown. We have had one of those before, for three weeks. This is a milder version, because schools are not included, but it is happening in winter, in more difficult conditions. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset suggested, this lockdown should be more severe, because winter presents a more difficult environment in which to achieve a reduction of the R rate and control transmission to allow the test and trace system to work.
In Bolton, we have been through the national lockdown restrictions, the Greater Manchester local lockdown and the Bolton economic lockdown. We came back out into the Manchester lockdown and went into tier 2, then tier 3. Before we know it, we will be in another national lockdown. I am not sure that there has been sufficient reflection on the often devastating impact on people’s lives, livelihoods and education. Questions over civil liberties have not been looked into a great deal over the course of the pandemic, which began months ago.
There has not been enough time for reflection. Throughout this crisis, and especially since Bolton has been in such a difficult position, I have been asking for information from the Government. What has been happening? What is going on? What reports and assessments have been produced, and can I have access to them? Can I explain to my constituents what they have been through and why, and what the problems were? I have also asked what the successes have been. What successes have the Government learned from in Bolton that can be applied to the national lockdown or introduced to the tiering system? I would love to know.
Unfortunately, the Government have not communicated the basics. We are now going into a second national lockdown, and we need people to have confidence in the Government and their actions. We heard on Saturday about the figure of 4,000 deaths per day—four times the figure at the previous peak of the pandemic—but it largely does not reflect our experience over the last six or seven months. Our doctors and hospitals are far better prepared, and they have far greater knowledge than they did. According to the Government, however, the median figure in that report of 4,000 deaths a day could increase to 6,000. Many of my constituents are looking with disbelief at what the Government say. If people do not believe what the Government say or believe in their approach, people will not follow the law or the guidance.
To conclude, I would like to raise a couple of points. Regarding places of worship and gyms, what evidence is there to say that they should be closed down? What impact assessments have been made on the closure of gyms, particularly for women? People are concerned about running in the dark, and I think that will have a greater impact on women. The question should not be what assessment the House has made of the Government’s actions on covid, but whether the Government have really considered their own actions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I spoke yesterday at the general covid debate, where I covered lots of issues that I feel strongly about. Today I will talk specifically about NHS Test and Trace and some of my concerns about low levels of compliance, the mental health implications for people who are asked to self-isolate and the impact on their financial circumstances. I know a fair bit about this, because I was recently asked to self-isolate for 11 days. I immediately went to the guidelines, which said that a person will be asked to self-isolate if they have been exposed to somebody who has tested positive for covid within 48 hours of them developing symptoms. For me, I worked it out and it was 62 hours, and yet I was asked to self-isolate. According to the NHS Test and Trace guidelines, I should not have been asked to self-isolate. However, I was and I did. It was not pleasant, but we got through it. I got a very bad cold, which I thought was a cold and not covid. Then I thought I might have covid and a cold at the same time, so I did get a test and it was negative, but I still had to self-isolate for nine days afterwards.
I mention this because it got me thinking about the low levels of compliance. In the debate yesterday, I think my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) suggested that the figure for compliance was only around 20%. I have heard similar figures mentioned in the media. That is a concern, because if we are going to have a successful test and trace system, we need really high levels of compliance. The question is: are we asking too much by requiring people to self-isolate for 14 days, and are we getting very low levels of compliance because we are asking too much? Would it be better to be more realistic, by perhaps asking people to self-isolate for seven days and getting about 90% compliance? I happen to think that would be better, and that there would be higher levels of compliance.
We have heard about the financial impact faced by those who are asked to self-isolate, and how self-isolation not only impacts them financially—I know that financial support is available, and whether that goes as far as it needs to is a different question—but disrupts their working life. Their lost income and the disruption to their working lives need to be taken into account.
The other point is about the circumstances in which people live. Not everybody has a nice big garden, not everybody has a terrace and not everybody has a balcony. When we are asking people to self-isolate for 14 days, we should never lose sight of the significance of what we are asking them to do. Some people live in circumstances that mean that they really would not want to be confined in their flat for 14 days, because of the impact on their mental health and the sense of being imprisoned and unable to escape or even to go out for a breath of fresh air.
If we are going to have a successful test and trace system, we need guidelines that are easy for people to follow and buy in to. I do believe that the vast majority of people in this country get it and want to play their part. If they are asked to self-isolate, they need to understand the rules and the guidelines, and those rules and guidelines need to be followed—in my case, they were not. It needs to be realistic about what it is asking people to do. If that means being pragmatic by saying seven days instead of 14 to drive up the rates of compliance, that is better than the status quo where it seems like so many people are not following the guidelines.
We have heard all about test and trace, but we have not heard enough about the implications for people of being asked to self-isolate for so long, or from the perspective of our liberties. Yes, it is necessary to have a test and trace system and yes, self-isolation is necessary if someone has tested positive, has had symptoms or has been exposed to someone who has tested positive. When we are discussing local authorities sharing data with the police force, the great concern I have is that some individuals might not get a test when they have symptoms. They may think, “If I get a test, not only will I have to self-isolate for 14 days, but potentially nine or 10 people I know will have to as well,” and that might impact their lives in all manner of different ways: financially, mentally and psychologically.
Let us have a test and trace policy driven by pragmatism to get high rates of compliance, but also one that never loses sight of the significance of what it is asking people to do. That is incredibly important, and I thank all the NHS workers who are working on this. We need to have a system that is easy to follow, realistic and drives high rates of compliance.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles.
I am grateful for the opportunity of this debate on the Government’s response to covid-19, which was not particularly effective. Unusually in debates in this place, there is cross-party agreement that their response was not particularly effective, albeit perhaps not always for the same reasons. Conservative Members and I might not agree on many other things, and we might not agree today, but there is agreement in this room that the UK Government’s response to coronavirus was not particularly effective.
We can see that in the figures, the latest of which appeared today and showed over 1 million cases recorded across the UK and 46,853 deaths. Those figures should chill us and give us cause for reflection. We could always have done more to prevent those deaths and the upset and suffering caused to so many people. My thoughts go out to everybody who has been affected, including my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke of his family circumstances. It diminishes those deaths to say that we should get back to normal. We should not do that. We should try to protect more people in the weeks and months to come.
The UK has among the highest number of deaths and of cases in the world, so we have done something wrong. I fully accept that we did not know what we were dealing with—everyone muddled along and did the best they could—but we have now had many months to get this right. The UK Government spent lots on Serco’s ineffective track and trace system, and money has been thrown at the wrong kind of PPE that could not be used, yet we still do not have a proper plan. We saw the image of the Prime Minister hustling on to the television and disrupting Saturday night’s TV schedules because his plans had been leaked, only for him to announce lockdown not because of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or northern England, which had asked for and needed it given what they were going through, but because the south of England needed it, showing the chaos the Government are in.
The Government were told time and again to plan ahead. Only the other week I asked the Chancellor to plan ahead, to extend the furlough and to accept that things are not going back to normal any time soon. Businesses in our constituencies need that additional support in the weeks and months ahead because we cannot go back to normal.
Sectors of the economy—hospitality, leisure, tourism, transport, culture and the arts, conferences and exhibitions, weddings; the list is endless—cannot go back to normal because it is not safe for them to do so. In many cases, the Government seem to have ignored that reality, but they should not do so.
The other issue raised by my friend on the Treasury Committee, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), is the gaps in support. The Committee highlighted those gaps in its work and offered suggestions on how they might be addressed by the UK Government, who of course have the powers and the money to do so. The gaps remain. Those who run their own businesses—company directors and freelancers—have been advised by the UK Government to take up freelance roles and organise their businesses, only for them now to find themselves with no support and no prospect of it, because following the Prime Minister’s announcement at the weekend it does not seem as though those gaps will be plugged. The Government know about this. They have been told about this. They have been offered solutions, yet still they ignore a significant group of at least 3 million people. How the Government expect those people to pay their bills and feed their kids I do not know, because they cannot.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the financial pressures of people on the minimum wage, who cannot survive on two thirds of their wages—nor should they be asked to do so. People on benefits are struggling. There has been no guarantee that the welcome £20 uplift to universal credit will be extended. It was not extended to people on legacy benefits—many millions across the UK—who are struggling and need that additional support.
I welcome the announcement made today by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on extending the minimum income floor to April, I believe. If that extension has been made and the DWP has accepted that there needs to be a change to the minimum income floor, why not to everything else? Why pick this one aspect that needs additional support and extend it to April, but nothing else? The furlough for the self-employment scheme runs until December. Why not extend it? Why not look at the reality we face? If the Government do not need to use it, that is fine, but it would be in place if it was needed. That is crucial in enabling families and businesses to plan.
I was disappointed to hear the comments made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). He accused devolution of being about division, and the Mayors—particularly Andy Burnham—of grandstanding. They are not. They are representing the people who elected them. That is their job. That is their duty. That is their role. It is the UK Government’s role to listen. If the UK Government had listened and reacted in kind, there would have been no need for that grandstanding, and no need for those Governments to be calling for more. It would have been something that would have been put in place in partnership. It should not be that these things have to be conducted in the media. These things should have been agreed well ahead of that having happened. The Government failed by not listening to those directly elected Mayors and devolved institutions, and that is why we have ended up in this situation.
I dispute the point made about the ten years of austerity that we have seen. I read an article on the website of the British Medical Association, which said that austerity had actually made the UK more vulnerable to coronavirus and its effect. In an article about experiences from the front line, it described austerity as “covid’s little helper”. That should also give cause for thought.
It is all of our money. The Member talks about other people’s money. It is all of our money. We all pay in and we all deserve to have things when we need them. Part of the situation we are in is because of that. I shall wind up, Sir Charles, because I can see the clock.
There is much talk of scientists and different scientific opinions, and that is fine. Scientists are the experts in many ways on this. We should not judge them too harshly, because we have been finding out more all the time. Those scientists have the experience and qualifications that most of us in this room do not. We can have our opinions on which scientists we want to believe, but in the end we have to take the best possible evidence, do the best we can, and try to prevent any more people from losing their lives to coronavirus in the weeks and months ahead.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this important debate. It is right that in the midst of this deadly pandemic, which has cost over 46,000 lives and prompted the deepest recession since the 1930s, the Government are held to account for their response. It is welcome that hon. Members have had the opportunity to do so today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) spoke powerfully on behalf of nurses and social care workers and about the extraordinary sacrifices made by so many of them, as well as the need for them to be properly paid and protected. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) rightly highlighted the vital role of test and trace in enabling as many people as possible to live as normally as possible, and the failures of the Government’s privatised Serco system to do so. I want to add my condolences to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on the sad loss of his mother-in-law to this horrible disease. The hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) spoke about the Government’s use of data, saying that they have not made the best use of it, and the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) described the Government’s approach as erratic: I agree with both of those statements, though I fear not so much with the rest of their analysis.
The Labour party supported the Government in introducing necessary measures to respond to the coronavirus pandemic to save lives and to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed. We are now at a point, once again, at which R is rising in all regions and across all age groups, so we do not agree with hon. Members who have expressed the view that lockdown restrictions are not necessary, or that a whole-country approach should not be used at this point in time. Nor do we agree with hon. Members seeking to trade off the impact on the UK economy against coronavirus spread and impact on health.
I am afraid that I will not, as time is short. The consistent pattern across the world is that the countries with the highest levels of coronavirus infections also have the worst economic impacts. The two are linked. An effective approach to infection control is also protective of the economy. The tragic reality is that the UK has both the highest number of deaths of any European country and the deepest economic recession of any G7 country. The key question at this point is why the Government’s response has been riddled with so many failures. The UK entered the pandemic with a PPE stockpile which had been depleted and without emergency supply chains in place, leaving health and social care workers unprotected at the frontline of infection control. Despite the horrific data and dire warnings from Italy, Spain and France—and the knowledge that the pandemic in the UK was running just weeks behind them—the Government were too slow to introduce the first lockdown.
When faced with the challenge of PPE and ventilator procurement, and the need to establish a test, trace and isolate system, the Government instinctively turned to outsourcing companies—many without any proven track record of delivering the goods and services required but, on too many occasions, with strong links to the Tory party—instead of looking to public services. Documents leaked this week reveal Cabinet Office contacts and others were helping VIPs sell PPE to the Government outside normal procurement channels. Contact tracing—the critical tool in preventing infection spread—was suspended in mid-March, at which point the Government lost control of the virus. Since it started again, the privatised Serco test and trace system has entirely failed to reach the baseline hurdle of reliable—still less the promise of world-beating—while much more effective contact tracing has been done by hard pressed local public health teams.
The hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) highlighted issues around compliance. Yet in failing to hold his closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, to the same rules that he had ordered the public to obey, the Prime Minister himself undermined public trust and confidence in his approach, confirming in the minds of residents across the country that we are not all in this together. For months, the social care sector was left entirely abandoned, without PPE or access to testing, but was forced to accept patients who were covid positive, resulting in huge numbers of tragic, avoidable deaths. Unlike in Wales, social care workers in England are not entitled to full sick pay if they need to self-isolate, forcing many to choose between health and safety and putting food on the table. Now the Chancellor has increased the tax on PPE by reinstating 20% VAT, affecting people buying face masks. Why have the Government introduced a mask tax in the second wave of a pandemic?
The Government were warned weeks ago that a short, sharp circuit break would be effective in limiting infection spread and mitigating the impact of a second wave. If anybody has any doubt about the need for that, I invite them to make—as I did just a week ago—a visit to their local hospital, to see how exhausted staff still feel coming into this second wave. When we talk about the need to protect our NHS, we are talking about those staff being overwhelmed by the numbers of patients who are so sick and who they have to treat. But when Labour called for a short, sharp circuit break, the Prime Minister ridiculed the idea, and the Chancellor doubled down to block it. It is clear that the delay has cost both lives and livelihoods, and has deepened the scars to our economy. We now face a much harder lockdown with a far higher cost, because the Government have once again acted far too late.
While the Government have our support for the additional measures this week, their response to this deadly pandemic has been characterised by a lack of preparedness, dither and delay, prioritising who they know over who is best placed to deliver, and failing to heed and act on the advice of scientists. Families and communities across the country are paying a devastatingly high price for their incompetence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. In making a speech, the advice is usually say what you are going to say, say it, and then say what you have said, but I am going to start by saying what I am not going to say, because I understand that the specific rules around this next lockdown were signed off during the course of this debate, and will be published at around 5 o’clock this evening. Some hon. Members have mentioned specifics for places of worship, golf, gyms, and so forth. So as not to give Members duff information, I will not go into detail on that, except to say that I have had daily calls with Members. I have been listening to concerns from many Members about those issues and ensuring that those taking decisions and designing policies are very aware of the concerns of Members on both sides of the House, as well as the importance of things such as exercise to people’s wellbeing, alongside the importance of visits to family members in homes and the isolated elderly in particular.
I am also not going to go into detail about the general issues that my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and the hon. Members for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) have raised about testing, track and trace and PPE. Those issues have been well rehearsed, and those Members’ points have been well made and will certainly be listened to.
I want to get to the heart of this matter, and of the issue that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), who secured this debate. I thank him for having done so and, in response to his opening remarks, I will not say that that any Member who has spoken today wishes to let this virus rip. I regret those accusations that have been made in the past about people who are sceptical of the Government’s approach. None of wants to let this virus rip. All of us understand how devastating it is; many of us have had bereavements as a consequence of it. We have all been touched by this virus, and my sympathies go to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Given that there is no silver bullet on the horizon, hon. Members are rightly asking whether this is the right course of action. That is a completely legitimate question to ask; in fact, it is our job in this place to ask those kinds of questions.
The question is whether we are paying too high a price to push infections out. As hon. Members will know, the Prime Minister has been trying to avoid a second lockdown, and has instead been pursuing local and regional lockdowns in the first instance. However, he has reluctantly decided to take this decision, and outlined his reasons for doing so at the weekend and yesterday in the House. I realise that it is incredibly bad news for many hon. Members and their constituents. I understand that people who are in areas of the country that have very few infections or none will be very aggrieved by this situation, and I also understand that there are parts of the country that have not just had the double whammy of two lockdowns—one gone and one to come—but have been under other restrictions in the interim. That is a very painful place for them to be.
Why are the Government pursuing this strategy? At the heart of it is the NHS. The aim is simple: to avoid hospitals buckling under the weight of covid patients, and to prevent deaths. Shortages of bed spaces and staff in certain parts of the country mean that the system is already under pressure, and we are told that the whole system capacity, including the additional Nightingale capacity, could be overwhelmed by Christmas if we do not take this course of action. Of course, there are costs to healthcare and the NHS of pursuing that strategy. Many hon. Members have spoken, not just today but previously, about the consequences of the first lockdown. We know that there were people who did not seek help —who did not access healthcare. We know that treatments were delayed, and we know that there is a real human cost to delaying those treatments and surgeries.
In social care, too, there has been a price to pay: isolation for many of those in their twilight years, but also—this is often not spoken about—adults of working age, such as those with a learning disability who have seen their care packages cut because of the provisions understandably put into the Coronavirus Act 2020. Mencap’s survey of carers across the UK revealed that 69% of people with a learning disability have experienced cuts to their social care during the pandemic. That is not for any malicious reason: it is because they could not access daycare centres and have the social contact that was so critical to their care. Of course, there will be an economic hit, too: if people are poorer, they are likely to suffer the long-term effects of mental and physical poor health.
However, the Government argue that the price of not pursuing this course of action would be greater than the damage I have outlined. The bottom line is that if the NHS becomes overwhelmed, deaths from covid and other diseases will soar, with doctors unable to treat everyone. The bottom line is that if the NHS becomes overwhelmed, then deaths from covid and other diseases will soar, with doctors unable to treat everyone. That is the worst outcome from the negatives I have outlined.
The strategy that the Government are pursing would indicate that that also has consequences for the future of healthcare spend and policy. Whatever criticisms are levelled at the NHS, it is a very efficient system. People often argue that it could have better outcomes, but it is a lean and efficient system. What it has, it uses. There will undoubtedly be questions in the future about capacity and staffing levels. Lessons must be learned about the future shape of policy in the NHS, as well as the specifics of the pandemic, not just in health but in social care too.
How effective will this lockdown be? It will drive down infections, but by how much depends on who is making the estimate, as we have debated today. Some models show infections being reduced to a quarter of what they are now, but others show reductions of just 10%, in which case the NHS will still be under strain. It will be a fortnight, at least, before people see change. I am afraid to say that those who may sadly lose their lives from covid at the end of November, probably have the virus today.
The Prime Minister and his team think that doing this now will provide the optimum outcome. They are hopeful about being able to unlock in December, but, as they have said, they are being driven by the data. Once lockdown is lifted, as Members have said, cases will rise. It means that a high proportion of the population will remain vulnerable to infection, which is why some scientists expect a third or more waves of the virus to be managed by repeat lockdowns.
Others argue that the need for future lockdowns is evidence that they do not work, but that is to misunderstand what they are there to do. As the Health Secretary has stated, this approach buys us time and is the optimum use of the healthcare we have in the meantime, while capacity is built and vaccines are sought. I thank hon. Members who have paid tribute to those working in health and care, in track and trace, in testing, in the heroic search for a vaccine and in improving treatments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), made some comments about devolution. I think it is a good thing, but the price of devolution is divergence and diversity. I know that it has had very real consequences for border communities, particularly for businesses that have been asked to lock down one side of the border and not on the other. We have to learn lessons about better co-ordination from that, and we might try using the same app in the future. Devolution is a good thing and diversity is the price.
Many hon. Members have spoken about the hit to the economy and the human consequence of that. About a quarter of GDP was erased in quarter 2, but in quarter 3 there were signs of a sharp recovery. A number of factors were involved in that, including confidence in the drop-off of cases but also pent-up consumer demand and the Chancellor’s measures to stimulate the economy, which Members have mentioned. I know that Members do not want that choked off. That upturn shows that we have an incredibly robust and innovative private sector.
All of us are impressed by how businesses have adapted swiftly, to carry on and live with this virus, from investing in signage, PPE and sanitiser, dealing with fewer customers, moving online, changing shift patterns and introducing one-way systems in stores. I understand that those adjustments had real costs and, having invested in them, how aggrieved businesses must be to have to close down. We must not forget that.
Before I close, I wish to say a few words about the authoritarian nature of the lockdown, as people have described it. I say that knowing that the British people like rules. Anyone familiar with the off-side rule or the Duckworth–Lewis–Stern method will testify that British people like their rules. They like clarity and fairness, but I understand that they also like to be able to choose to follow rules. I know how uncomfortable many of us are in having to take these measures. I was asked by the Department of Health to take through the Coronavirus Bill and I remember the emotional state of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who was kind enough to say that he recognised that I might be in a similar state today.
I know that we have asked our constituents to do very painful things, and there has been real material harm to people’s livelihoods and emotional well-being, including, as my hon. friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, women having to give birth on their own. I can assure Mrs Coleman that, in great part due to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), those guarantees were secured for women giving birth and, I think, were announced at the weekend.
We are asking our constituents to do very difficult things, and that is matched by how little agency Members of Parliament feel they have over this situation. You, Sir Charles, alluded to this, saying that you felt the only thing you could do was to vote against the Government. However, I think that whatever seat we occupy, whether junior Minister, Secretary of State or Back Bencher, there is always something that we can do. What I will take away from this debate is to feed back to the Government the need for better and clear data. I looked at what the House of Commons provides Members with as well as what Government provide, and there is room for improvement. I will do that, recognising suggestions that hon. Members have made. If there are specifics on data, please let me know. As hon. Members know, I take calls with all MPs every single day, and I want to hear their ideas if they think policies are not working. I will continue to take that forward.
We also need to think about the future and our economic recovery. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, in whose name this debate stands, called for low taxation. We need to think about the future—not just about how we can ensure that we stick to our agenda of levelling up but how we can, through the G20, lead the global recovery as well. We are well placed to do that.
Finally, I think everyone in this debate will agree that we have to learn how we can live with the virus. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) has suggested that we need a White Paper on that topic, and I will report back. I thank all Members who have taken part in this debate. If there is a lesson we should have learned in this place over the last four years, it is that when politics and politicians are in tune with the British people’s character, success follows. That is a lesson that we should bear in mind in the coming days and weeks.
That was a typically courteous and thoughtful reply from my right hon. Friend, for which I am most grateful. As I said, she and the Government are not in an easy position, and I offer them huge sympathy. I am not rebelling in this instance—I am just seeing another way forward. My right hon. Friend mentioned living with the virus. We are going to have to live with the virus. It is here, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, like flu and other diseases. It will slowly reduce over the years and we can mitigate in the ways I suggested in my speech, but we cannot afford to shut down the economy and cause the devastation that we are currently doing. It will take many years to repay; that is what really concerns me.
My right hon. Friend talked about deaths. We regret every single death. I disagree with the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who said that this was a trade-off between the economy and covid. It is not. There is no such thing as a trade-off. As my right hon. Friend said, none of us wants people to die. We want to protect those who are under threat from this disease while allowing others, within reason and using common sense and all the precautions that we know about, to get on with their lives and to keep this country running.
I offer my deep condolences to my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his loss. Many others have lost people through this ghastly disease, and I offer all my sympathy to them, too. No one wants anyone to die, but at the same time we do not want our country to be destroyed economically, with all the consequences, including for health, that would be involved.
In closing, I urge my right hon. Friend to consider at least another option along the lines that many others, including eminent people, are suggesting.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Pothole and Highway Repairs
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Pothole and Highway Repairs.
Potholes drive us potty in the Potteries. There is a legacy of decades of under-investment in our roads by previous administrations of Stoke-on-Trent city council and the current Conservative administration are running up a down escalator to get them fixed. They are running very hard. Levels of investment in our roads have shot up, and the council is investing £5 million a year in the current four-year period, which is absolutely pushing to the limits of the budget available.
The sad fact is that even when we spend pretty much everything we have available for our roads, the city lacks the council tax base, the parking surplus and, crucially, the Government grants that other cities enjoy.
I wish to raise the dangers to pedestrians of poorly maintained pavements and roads and to give the hon. Member an example of a constituent who lives in sheltered housing, who contacted me after tripping on an uneven pavement and ended up with a black eye and a sore hip. I am pleased to say that the pavement was fixed within 24 hours of our raising the issue with Brent council—which has just won the Local Government Chronicle “council of the year” award—but does the hon. Member agree that when councils have had their budgets cut by £16 billion over 10 years there will inevitably be a focus on dealing with emergencies rather than maintenance to prevent them?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree that where local authorities have seen funding cuts, sometimes it is right to question whether or not we went too far. Certainly with road, highway and pavement repairs, there are questions that need to be answered, because I have very similar casework coming in from constituents in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. This is one of those problems that can be very easily and quickly fixed, but, sadly, when we have to keep replying to constituents to say that resources are as stretched as they are, sometimes they do not necessarily understand how severe the situation is. So, I completely concur with her.
The reason for that situation is that the current funding formula works against us. The need to address that unfairness is the reason why I applied for this debate. This is a debate in Westminster Hall, and I think that most people would agree that the roads in Westminster, if congested, are in good order. So I looked at what Westminster City Council has available to spend on keeping roads well maintained, and I was staggered to see that in parking surplus alone, the City of Westminster enjoys some £70 million a year—talk about the need for levelling up.
The figure for the city of Stoke-on-Trent is barely 1% of that figure—around £700,000 to £800,000 per year—and in my constituency there is no room to increase parking charges without reducing visitor footfall. Perhaps if we relocated the National Gallery to Burslem or the Royal Opera House to Tunstall, there would be room, but I recognise that for the immediate future this is a quite a big ask. For now, we are much more likely to be competing with comparable cities in the midlands such as our great friend and rival to be the UK city of culture, Coventry. Even there, according to a freedom of information request reported in the Coventry Telegraph, a £700,000 annual parking surplus is secured from the single most lucrative of Coventry’s car parks.
We cannot match that, so I was delighted that the Department for Transport awarded Stoke-on-Trent a one-off £6 million highways challenge fund grant for the current financial year—that is to say that I was delighted by the £6 million grant, but I would be more delighted if it was not a one-off.
As I have said, there is not an option to increase road repair funding further locally from either parking surplus or council tax. We have, I understand, the lowest council tax base of any city other than Hull. We are more than doing our bit by squeezing every penny we can from the city’s limited local budget into roads, but we need more money. Of course, the Government recognise that, and the Minister will be as determined, as I am, to unlock the transforming cities fund money promised to Stoke-on-Trent.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. I agree with everything he has said so far and I will probably agree with everything he says from now on as well. I am sure that he agrees with me that the resurfacing of key sections of the Stoke-on-Trent road network, not least Joiners Square and Snow Hill round- about, has been a great benefit across the city, and that we need more of it. Does he agree that the transforming cities fund bid would provide similar cross-city benefits, offering increased connectivity and better public, private and commercial traffic flow on road and rail across the six historic market towns that make up our city?
I am extremely grateful, as always, to my hon. Friend and good neighbour for her intervention, and I feel that in Stoke-on-Trent we always come at least in a duo, and normally in a trio when my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) joins us. I could not agree with her more about the importance of the transforming cities fund to unlocking some of the potential for our city and to improving our highways. I appreciate that the Minister who is here today does not oversee this particular portfolio, but I am sure that she has taken note of my hon. Friend’s comments just now and will pass them on to others in the Department for Transport, which she works in.
Such investment really would transform Stoke-on-Trent as a city, with key interventions to improve traffic flow and to revolutionise the city’s relationship with public transport. There are too many pinch points on our road network and traffic is very heavy, particularly at “slow hour”, which is a much more apposite phrase for the city than “rush hour”—or at least it was until covid-19 suppressed traffic.
I have a number of points to make about covid-19, because it continues to weigh on all our minds, and rightly so. It has caused much uncertainty about the viability of public transport and it is in no way a positive thing. The road workers who have continued to work throughout the pandemic are heroes. They have been delivering ahead of schedule on a number of resurfacing projects, and they will stay out digging roads and filling in potholes in the weeks and months ahead. Like everyone else, they would have preferred to have been on schedule without the covid pandemic than ahead of schedule with it.
However, we have seen what is possible if traffic volumes decrease and investment capital is put in place. The transforming cities funding will help us to realise similar outcomes in much better times and help us to power up Stoke-on-Trent.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although potholes, road quality and pavement quality are primarily safety issues, they also say something about an area’s pride in itself? There are areas in Ipswich, such as Chancery, Gainsborough and Rushmere, that need this extra investment, and when the Government are thinking about such extra funding, they should take into account not only safety, which is obviously important, but also an area’s sense of pride. To build up an area, it helps to invest in such things.
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely superb point. At the end of the day, improving the look and feel of an area improves the mindset and attitude of the people living in it. I look at the town of Burslem, which I represent—the mother town of Stoke-on-Trent. It has the highest number of closed high street shops of any town in the United Kingdom. I see the attitude of the local community, which has felt ignored and forgotten for decade after decade. However, knowing what potential that town has and the energy in the community to see it realised, I agree that if we improve our road surfaces and our pavements, it is not just about safety; it is about making a statement to the community that it is no longer going to be left behind.
Heavy traffic has been an exasperating problem for the city for two key reasons pertinent to this debate: first, because it causes damage to roads that were not laid to carry it, and secondly, because maintenance funding from the Department for Transport is not calculated according to traffic incidents but on road length. Research conducted by the Department for Transport in 2018 suggests that A roads under local authority control made up only 10% of road length across the country, but that that 10% carries 31% of the nation’s traffic. Minor roads made up 88% of road length, but the proportion of traffic they carry—34%—was only slightly greater than on the A roads. The remaining 35% of traffic is carried on the 3% of roads that are motorways or trunk A roads. Obviously, large rural areas with long roads and little traffic benefit disproportionately from the formula and heavily unurbanised areas with high-traffic A roads miss out.
Part of my constituency is outside the boundary of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, and I certainly would not want to cut the grant received through the transport authority, which is Staffordshire County Council. However, I want to see new considerations introduced to the formula that would top up cities such as Stoke-on-Trent, which lack the mileage of minor roads that even cities such as Manchester have. As I understand it, Manchester receives twice the highway maintenance funding of Stoke-on-Trent, based on the 299 miles of extra minor roads that Manchester has within its boundaries. That means a financing differential of nearly £2 million a year.
The Minister may know that local authorities make an annual report on the condition of principal A roads and also report each year on the average volume and frequency of all its traffic. I therefore suggest that it is not unreasonable to ask that a revised or bolt-on formula should take those reports into account. That is to say, funding calculations should show due regard for road type, with principal A roads attracting a premium in some way related to their reported condition, and with traffic incidents also taken into account. There would need to be safeguarding against false reporting of road conditions and it would be useful to include a match-funding element for cities such as Stoke-on-Trent that put precious resources into roads despite a low council tax/parking surplus base. I would be grateful for the opportunity to discuss that further with the Minister.
If we can get our fair share of road funding for Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we can carry on providing viable and well-connected sites to meet the Government’s housing targets, maximise the returns from the Ceramic Valley Enterprise Zone, boost our exports and productivity, support our growing logistics economy, enhance our city as a place to live, visit and work, and keep up the hard graft of turning around the fortunes of a city that deserves every bit of success in its current manufacturing recovery.
Outside my constituency office on Tunstall high street, old tram tracks have been revealed in road resurfacing works. The tracks have not been used for 100 years. They are a reminder of the past and also an allegory of a public transport revival yet to come. Filling our potholes and repairing our highways will not be enough for our future transport needs, but it will certainly be necessary. To conclude on this point, in order to realise both the aims of better public transport and better roads, we need input from the Department for Transport. I hope that we will see support for the transforming cities fund submission and that serious consideration will be given to a fairer formula for road funding.
Bus use has declined by a third in 10 years in the potteries, even before covid-19, and the condition of our roads and their pinch points are key contributors to the lack of reliability that has caused that decline. The transforming cities fund and a fair formula will keep Stoke on the up and help us to be even more ambitious. We can reopen the Stoke to Leek railway line via Milton, reinstate a tram network and deliver tourism gains that will help to preserve our amazing industrial heritage in the must-see, authentic potteries, the world capital of ceramics. They say that from tiny acorns great oaks grow and that if we mind the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves. I say that if we keep getting the potholes filled, the transport network can run smoothly and grow.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir David.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this debate. I know that he has already engaged my Lords colleague the Roads Minister on potholes and highway repairs in his constituency. He passionately highlighted the pride in his local area that starts from the roads and spreads throughout his constituency. It is a symbol of his care and passion for his area. If we were to take a straw poll of MPs on the importance of addressing potholes and improving local roads, I think there would be a vote of 650-0 in favour, unlike many votes in this place, because everybody believes in it. I also thank the other Members who demonstrated that with their contributions: the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt).
We in the Department fully understand that potholes and other road defects are a major headache for everyone and the consequences of a deteriorating local road network are truly significant for all road users. They impact local economic performance, resulting in directly attributable costs to taxpayers, either through the rising costs of deferred work or through a more reactive approach that does not represent good value for money in the long term. We all want our local road network to be improved, and that is why the Department has provided over £7.1 billion in local highways maintenance funding between 2015 and 2021. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North will undoubtedly be aware of Budget 2020’s pothole fund, with over £1.5 million this year to help to fix potholes and resurface roads in Stoke. As he said, the Government have provided Stoke-on-Trent City Council over £5 million through the transport infrastructure investment fund, which includes this funding allocation, for highway maintenance for this financial year.
For our part, we have allocated part of our funding to local authorities based on the level that they themselves have reached on the path to what we consider an adequate asset management plan. That has been driven by the highways maintenance incentive funding element and corresponding self-assessment exercise, in which Stoke-on-Trent has participated since its inception. On bids, I noted my hon. Friend’s mention of the potential to power up Stoke-on-Trent through the transforming cities fund. The Department was very glad to receive Stoke-on Trent City Council’s revised transforming cities business case in October. I can confirm that officials are carefully reviewing it and the Department expects to make a decision later this month.
Road maintenance funding comes from several different streams. Locally, that can be from sources of revenue that local authorities raise themselves. My hon. Friend alluded to some of those challenges in his area. It also comes from central Government. The Department for Transport provides capital maintenance expenditure, which is primarily devoted to the structural renewal of highway assets. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government provides revenue maintenance expenditure through its revenue support grant, which mainly covers the routine works required to keep the highways serviceable and other reactive measures, such as gully cleaning and gritting and salting the roads in the winter.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are still preparing for our ongoing spending review process, in which we will seek to determine future allocations for these funding streams. In order to prioritise the response to covid and the Government’s focus on supporting jobs, this will be a one-year review and will conclude on 25 November. The final outcome will help to determine what we do next on local highways maintenance and its funding.
That brings me to how Department for Transport funding is allocated, which was the central argument of my hon. Friend’s speech. It is fundamental that we have as fair, consistent and reliable a method as possible through which to allocate funding for highway maintenance to local authorities. Only a few years ago, in 2015, the Department reviewed how we allocate maintenance funding and we engaged with local authorities, including his, among other stakeholders, to seek their views and input on our formula. The funding formula allocates 82.42% to roads in each local highway authority. The remaining 17% or so takes into account bridges with a span of 1.5 metres or more and lighting columns.
The formula does indeed take into account the road type. Principal roads, or A roads, which might generally be expected to have a higher rate of traffic, account for 9% of all road lengths in England, based on 2019 road statistics. The funding formula allocated to A roads is 27.47%, which is approximately three times the amount if allocated on road length alone, and approximately a further 55% of funding goes towards minor roads, or B, C and U roads, which make up 88% of all roads in England.
The formula does not provide weighting based on the condition of the network, as that might create an incentive to selectively maintain the road network in ways other than following asset management principles. Basing funding on traffic flow might create an incentive to concentrate traffic on certain areas of the network, rather than encourage optimum flow. Traffic volume and type is just one part of road deterioration. Weather events such as flooding and freezing temperatures play a large part, along with the quality of road maintenance and repair work being undertaken in the first place.
Manchester City Council does not receive twice the maintenance funding. If it did, My hon. Friend would be right to point out how unfair that is. Manchester has nearly 20 miles more of A roads and nearly 300 miles of minor roads. Its highways maintenance block funding allocation in 2020-21 was just over £3 million, in comparison with Stoke’s £1.9 million. Stoke received approximately 62.5% of what Manchester receives, based on formula allocation.
Clearly, any funding formula that a Department has could be controversial, but our view is that the funding formula at present is the fairest and most equitable and consistent for all local authorities. More importantly than what we believe, the method has had input from, and the prior agreement of, local authorities. However, as we get further clarity on the outcome of the spending review, the Department may decide to reassess whether the current funding approach is still the best option, whether we should continue with aspects such as the incentive element or the challenge fund, or whether we look at other ways to target funding, including formula funding, effectively.
Debates such as this are helpful as they highlight the problems and challenges on the ground. We will be looking at input such as this and the views of local highways authorities as part of the overall process. My noble Friend in the other place, the Roads Minister, will be happy to engage further if that would be helpful.
In short, it is essential that potholes and defects are repaired correctly the first time to make our roads fit for the future. The Government’s national guidance is helping authorities to apply best practice in that crucial work. That is why the Department commissioned “Potholes: a repair guide” by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, which was published in March 2019, following the intense weather of the 2017-18 winter. Such guidance should be used alongside a risk-based approach, as noted in the “Well-managed highways infrastructure” code of practice by the UK Roads Liaison Group.
There is unfortunately a backlog of repairs, and the recent winter has not made the situation any better. That backlog is a legacy of past underinvestment, which some hon. Members have highlighted, and we are seeking to correct it. The effect hitherto is that roads have been improving, at least until this year’s series of cold snaps. My hon. Friend will know from the road condition statistics that A, B and C roads combined have seen a gradual improvement, and that fewer roads have been considered for maintenance in the past five years.
However, we strongly believe that more can and should be done, and we intend to do more. We therefore champion the need for proper planned preventive maintenance, based on seeing the road not merely as something that needs to be topped up periodically from time to time but as a recognised asset subject to proper capital asset management principles. It is clear that organisations that have adopted those principles can demonstrate benefits, in terms of financial efficiency, improved accountability and value for money. We see no reason why that is not doable for local authorities. Indeed, the evidence is that it is, and it is already starting to bear fruit for them.
I hope that goes some way towards answering my hon. Friend’s concerns. I am more than happy to try to answer any other questions on this subject, and I will certainly take back his queries to my noble colleague the Roads Minister on some of the more technical issues.
Question put and agreed to.
Syria: Humanitarian Situation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Syria.
In 2015, I first became aware of Syrian citizen journalist, and now BAFTA-award winning director, Waad Al-Kateab. Ben de Pear, the editor of “Channel 4 News”, texted me with words to the effect of, “Ali, you have got to watch our report from a citizen journalist in Aleppo.” I tuned in and, with horrified disbelief, saw Waad, a film-maker and mum, show the violent attacks that families in Aleppo were going through. Her images shook this country. Bombs were falling on hospitals. We saw it, but the bombing went on and on, from Aleppo to Idlib and beyond. This debate is crucial.
I begin by thanking an number of colleagues who have always supported efforts to protect Syrian civilians. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who is not here at the moment, was, alongside Jo Cox, a founding member of the all-party parliamentary group for friends of Syria. When he speaks, I encourage the Minister to listen. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), co-wrote “The Cost of Doing Nothing” with Jo, a vital report that underpins so much of what I will say. As that report points out, what is still required from the UK today is an atrocity prevention strategy with civilian protection at its heart. I thank other Members for coming to discuss Syria today.
I also thank the team at the Jo Cox Foundation, who, along with their colleagues in humanitarian protection organisations, provide a crucial rallying point for those who believe that a person suffering because of the Syrian conflict—or indeed any conflict—has the same right to protection as any of our constituents. They are an organisation worthy of Jo’s name.
Sadly, our response for Syrians and to what our own eyes have seen has not been worthy of Jo’s name. We should always have listened to Syrian civilians. That is a lesson for my party, the Labour party, as much as for anyone else. Regret about the past is not enough, however; we need action. I want to focus on the war against humanity that is still raging; on the intolerable lack of attention towards Syrian children, who account for at least half the refugees; and on how, even now, we as the United Kingdom can make a difference. We need diplomatic, defence and development strategies that all point in the same direction: the protection of Syrians. Faced with existing military and political failures, we recognise the limits on our ability to act, but just because an ideal situation is out of our reach, it does not mean that we cannot move beyond watching and waiting.
First, on the immediate situation, it is estimated that today 6.2 million people are living in camps in Syria. Mark Cutts, the UN deputy regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Syrian crisis, said:
“I was struck during our visit to Idlib this week by how many people are still in tents in the mud on the sides of the road, with little to protect them from the rain & freezing temperatures to come”.
Winter is on its way. Will the Minister please explain how the UK’s contribution to the Syrian crisis will make life better for displaced people this winter? How will we make sure that the necessities of life are provided?
It is very hard to tell how covid-19 has permeated Syria as the data is uncertain, but given what we know about the virus in the region, the medical situation must be bad. I have previously asked Ministers what steps they can take to get urgent medical supplies into Syria and the nearby countries hosting refugees. I repeat that request today. It is not good enough simply to cite to amount of cash that we have earmarked; we need to hear how it translates into the protection of life.
What is the Minister’s latest estimate of how many children from Syria are still out of school, wherever they may be, whether in a camp or as a refugee in another setting? What specifically is his plan to change that? Nobody’s permanent home should be a refugee camp, so we need to work diplomatically, supporting our partners, to come to an agreement about the future status of camps. What is the future for the refugees who live in them? I will say more about our contribution to that later.
Food supply is a chronic problem, not only for those in camps, but for civilians elsewhere. As the Minister will know, the World Food Programme estimates that 9.3 million Syrians—approximately half the remaining population of Syria—live in food insecurity, while another 2.2 million live on the cusp. Even in the last six months of relative stability in the conflict and the economy, 1.4 million Syrians fell below the food security threshold. Between 2019 and July 2020, the cost of a standard food basket rose by 251%, and by 420% in the north-west of the country. Economically, that is the simplest representation of supply and demand failure.
It is important—if facile—to say that those humanitarian problems do not appear from nowhere. The bombs have come from somewhere. A lack of food is a consequence of the failure of the international community to protect those who are suffering. This war is man-made; it is not an act of God. I remind the Minister that when the House last debated Syria, on 24 February, he told us no less than five times that the Government were calling for a ceasefire. What is his assessment of the success of the UK Government’s approach so far? When did the National Security Council last discuss the situation in Syria and what was the outcome of those discussions?
This summer, the Leader of the Opposition asked the Government why they had underestimated the Russian threat to public life in Britain. The Prime Minister gave a characteristically defiant response. I will repeat that approach by asking the Minister what the Government are doing at an international level to ensure that Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council do not stop Britain from standing up for its values and responsibilities.
Our failings in relation to the Syria conflict do not need to be more extended than they already are. Our country has a proud history of writing the rules of conflict and participating in efforts to hold the guilty accountable wherever they are in the world. Will the Minister give us a full update on efforts to collect and preserve evidence with regard to the conflict? What resources have his or other Departments committed to that, and what ministerial oversight is there of the process? I also want to be updated on the UK’s approach to sanctions because, without the overarching strategy that I and others have always called for, it is hard to see the purpose of them. They can be an important tool in changing the behaviour of a regime, but without an underlying strategy it is hard to understand where we are headed. Without a strategy, the bombs will still fall and the refugees will keep running from starvation and attack.
There are 6.6 million Syrian refugees, most of them in nearby countries. In Turkey, there are 3.5 million; in Germany, 600,000. The UK hosts only 19,768—as the Minister will no doubt remind us, we have indeed just about achieved 20,000 by 2020. I congratulate him on ticking the box for what was barely acceptable to the previous Parliament, but what will the commitment be for this Parliament? Syrians still in limbo cannot simply be left in camps. We cannot abandon people to hunger and homelessness. What are we going to do?
In closing, I want to return to a comment that Jo Cox made in relation to refugees. Her words are a forceful rebuke to the people who tell us there is a pull factor bringing refugees to British shores. She said
“Who can blame…parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing… one in three children have grown up knowing nothing but… war. Those children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness, and I know I would risk life and limb to get my precious babies out of that hellhole.”—[Official Report, 25 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 1234.]
There is another side to Jo’s story. It came last week in another short video shot by Waad Al-Kateab, who I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. Her friend from Aleppo, Afra, stood at a London airport. Finally, after 10 long months waiting, she was reunited with her little daughter, both now refugees in our care. The video has no words but shows Afra dropping bags and, arms outstretched, running to finally hug her child, both having risked life and limb to get to safety in our country. That short film shows what we can be: not just a safe haven for those running from terror, but a country that truly understands there is no greater love than the care that we show for our children. Action is urgent. I will again quote Waad’s tweet:
“I can't describe how happy we are to be together again. A new start and future until we will be back to #Aleppo.”
The first part of repaying the debt we owe to the Syrian diaspora here in the UK is to listen to them. I ask the Minister how he plans to listen to Syrians here in the UK about how they see the future of their country. I ask him to respond to that point and all the other questions I have raised.
Colleagues, we have only until 5.30 for this debate. Two people on the call list have not shown up, so if colleagues, other than the Front-Bench spokespersons, take no longer than five minutes, no one will be disappointed. I call Mr Tom Tugendhat.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Most of all, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). She was extremely kind at the beginning of her speech about several of us. Perhaps I can mention how I was about 80% through writing “The Cost of Doing Nothing” with my friend, Jo Cox, when she was murdered on that terrible day in June 2016. It was a very difficult time for all of us not only because we lost a friend, but because there were so many projects unfinished and so many deeds undone that would have been at least the beginning of what was so obviously a glorious career in the service of our country. It was difficult for many of us to understand how we could complete that work and how we could put flesh on those bones. The hon. Member for Wirral South was not only kind and generous but hugely courageous in helping me to finish that paper and in making sure that it lived in the spirit in which it was written—one of co-operation, care and compassion. I have nothing but praise for her, and her extraordinary speech today demonstrates that compassion that we all love her for, so I thank her for it.
However, I want to build on her words. What we are seeing in Syria today is the deliberate act of people. It is the deliberate act of the Assad regime and family. It is the deliberate act of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its sponsors—the theocracy and theocrats in Tehran. It is the deliberate act of China and Russia, which have chosen to block humanitarian aid. It is the deliberate act of others in the region who have funded militias, inspired hatred and stirred up violence. But, here in Westminster, we must also remember that it is the deliberate act of our country too, and of others in the west who have not acted and are now finding out the true cost of doing nothing.
The paper I wrote with Jo for Policy Exchange is available online. The tragedy is that although the times have changed, the words do not need to. What it sets out—the cost of inaction and the implication of death and suffering that follows—is merely clearer, more obvious and more painful. Now, it is not 1 or 2 million refugees in Syria; it is 4 or 5 million. There are 9.3 million dependent on food aid, according to the World Food Programme. There are 11 million dependent on humanitarian assistance. This is no longer a failed state. It is barely a state at all.
The decision we have to take, and that I urge the Minister to push forward on, is to work with our partners and allies and to recognise that if the UN route fails, that does not mean a veto on our action; it is a veto on only one route of action. We do have difficult relationships in the region, and I am not going to gloss over them. We know that many of our partners make at best difficult, and sometimes frankly unpleasant, bedfellows. However, the truth is that when we are looking at tens of millions of people affected, hundreds of thousands killed, and refugee convoys and movements leading to the destabilisation of our allies and partners in NATO and eastern Europe, this is not, anymore, a matter of choice.
This is a decision that Her Majesty’s Government have to be involved in, because it affects us here in the UK. This is a decision that Her Majesty’s Government must be involved in, because our allies and partners are being torn apart by it. This is a decision that her Majesty’s Government must be involved in, because, as my dear friend, the hon. Member for Wirral South correctly said, this is a humanitarian disaster that we can change.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). The conflict in Syria has created one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Some 5.6 million people have been forced to leave the country, and 6.2 million have been internally displaced. Some have been displaced since only January this year, when Turkish-backed forces took over Afrin—a previously a peaceful stronghold that had taken in hundreds of refugees since the beginning of this crisis.
The crimes committed against largely Kurdish communities forced out of Afrin include the persistent persecution of entire families, based solely on their cultural identity. In that context, I raised the issue of human rights atrocities against Kurdish communities in northern Syria in Prime Minister’s Question Time back in February. I asked my question of behalf of Rosanna, a constituent from Syria who came to this country as a refugee and who still has many family members in the region. I asked the Prime Minister if he would make a commitment to stand up for the rights of the Kurdish people not to be displaced. During PMQs, he made that commitment to meet me.
In preparation for that meeting, my constituent provided a significant amount of information about her and her family’s welfare, much of which was personal and challenging for her to provide. Both she and I were disappointed to receive an email from No. 10 saying that the Prime Minister would no longer meet us and providing little by way of explanation. Will the Minister meet me instead to discuss Rosanna’s case and the situation in Syria for Kurdish people in general? It would mean a lot.
The Syrian conflict is complicated, with many different groups involved and countless atrocities being committed. That deters the Government from acting, cementing the idea that we in the UK can do little to ease the humanitarian suffering in Syria. However, we are making the entire world less safe by not confronting and holding to account those behind the human rights atrocities.
Civilian suffering at the hands of different armies in this long conflict has been well documented by both UN investigators and independent human rights groups, but until recently the responsible parties have escaped punishment. Earlier this month, a criminal complaint was submitted to a German court over the use of sarin gas by al-Assad’s regime. That is at least a step in the right direction. It brings with it the hope that the world will begin to hold to account those who are responsible for those crimes against humanity.
It may come too late for many people. The Liberal Democrats are asking the Government to work with international partners to ensure enforcement of the ceasefire between Russia and Turkey and to make progress towards a long-term peaceful resolution. The UK Government must also use their role on the UN Security Council to push for continued humanitarian access by funding common humanitarian transport services and establishing shared logistics pipelines.
Coronavirus and the economic collapse are threatening what remains of normal life in the region. According to a UN report from 2019, 83% of people across both Government and rebel-held parts of the country were already living in poverty. The collapse of what is left of Syria’s economy means the timing of the covid-19 crisis could not be worse. Last month, the Syrian Government introduced limits on subsidised bread available at bakeries. Many families are now risking starvation. At least half of the nearly 12 million people in Syria needing humanitarian assistance are children. How dare we turn a blind eye?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on her powerful speech, and I congratulate the two speakers who followed her. I too pay tribute to our dear friend, Jo Cox, who was a powerful advocate for Syria and Syrian refugees.
I declare an interest, Sir David. I visited Lebanon in 2013 with the international children’s charity World Vision, and I also visited Jordan with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I visited Syrian refugees during those visits. During the trip to Lebanon, I visited a number of informal refugee settlements and saw the extent of the crisis. That was right at the beginning of the crisis, but things were unbearable, with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Lebanon, ultimately making up more than a quarter of the population.
Recently we have seen the challenges facing countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. They have hosted the largest number of Syrian refugees, compared with other countries, including our own, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South pointed out. I saw at first hand the devastation the crisis brought to people’s lives, and especially children’s. I will never forget the hundreds of children who were living in an informal settlement of makeshift tents on the outskirts of a town in the Beqaa valley.
The Palestinians, who had fled decades ago from Palestine and moved to Syria, had been forced out of Syria during the war, into the Palestinian camp in Lebanon. I will never forget the face of an elderly woman, who had been there since the ’40s, and then the children of the successor generation who had fled from Syria and were put in the overcrowded Palestinian camp in Lebanon. The plight of Syrian refugees is horrific, and alongside that, of course, there are the many Palestinians who were living in Syria and who were then forcibly displaced once again.
Almost a decade has passed now since the conflict began, and we see no end in sight in terms of a peaceful settlement, but the coronavirus pandemic has made the situation much worse. It is vital that our Government redouble their efforts to keep the pressure on those countries such as Russia and China that are blocking peace. They have blocked efforts by the British Government and the international community to bring an end to the conflict through various UN resolutions proposed by the UK Government and other Governments back in 2011, 2012 and so on.
The pandemic has meant that refugees face even greater risk. The spread of coronavirus is impossible to control in camps, not only in the camps that Syrian refugees live in, but in many other camps, whether in Bangladesh or in other parts of the world where people have been forced out. We need a resolution on achieving peace, but we also need to provide greater assistance to those countries that are bearing the brunt when they have their own challenges. I hope the Minister can say more in his response about what we are doing to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus in camps and to provide more protection. UN appeals have historically been significantly underfunded over many years, and those countries are bearing the brunt of the crisis in terms of providing for refugees.
I turn finally to the issues around trying to get an agreement for an at least temporary peace, while negotiations continue. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the UN Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire. We have to ensure that our Government take a leadership role in making that happen as we face a second wave that could spread into refugee camps.
I end by quoting the UN Secretary-General, who said at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis:
“COVID-19 is menacing the whole of humanity—and so the whole of humanity must fight back.”
Those sentiments are more important than ever now, especially as we consider the plight of Syrian refugees in different countries around the globe and the plight of other refugees around the world. We have to act together to protect refugees and to stop the conflicts going on in Syria and elsewhere, if we are to protect people’s lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). I do not believe we have actually spoken before, but it is a great honour to be able to take part in her debate. I look forward to working together on this issue and many others around development, foreign policy and aid.
We have heard from Members across the House just how devastating the impact of covid-19 has been on humanitarian work in Syria, already beleaguered after a decade of conflict. Difficult spending choices have to be made in the light of the covid pandemic, but our debate today highlights why a reduction in our aid commitments must not be one of them. Through our 0.7% aid spending target, we throw a vital lifeline to the world’s most vulnerable people, including the people of Syria. We must not balance our books on the back of the world’s poorest and must continue to uphold that 0.7% commitment.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the gender-based violence pandemic in countries all over the world. The UN estimates that in the 12 months before the pandemic, 242 million women and girls were subject to sexual or physical violence. Experts predict that the number will rise significantly higher before the pandemic is over.
In Syria, such violence has been there for years. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the women of Syria have been subjected to some of the most appalling violence witnessed in modern times. Through my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on preventing sexual violence in conflict, I am all too familiar with the accounts of Daesh enslaving women and girls, raping them and selling them like livestock. While so-called Islamic State has been all but defeated, sexual violence in Syria continues. Just last year, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre released a report entitled “Do You Know What Happens Here?”, revealing the prevalence of sexual violence and gender-based violence at Syrian Government detention centres. The centre concluded that
“such abuses are “widespread, systematic and officially sanctioned”,
and that rape is used routinely in interrogation attempts to solicit confessions. Nor are these atrocities solely committed against women. A recent report from Human Rights Watch, “They Treated Us in Monstrous Ways”, details the sexual violence to which men, gay and trans people have been subjected by both state and non-state actors in Syria. The report notes that gay and trans survivors said that they were singled out for sexual violence because they were perceived as “soft”. These same regressive social views contribute to a cultural assumption in Syria that men should be invulnerable to sexual violence, exacerbating the deep shame and stigma of male survivors. That prevents them from accessing the support services they need, and from coming forward to seek justice.
There is no doubt that we cannot allow the people who commit these atrocities to escape justice. We must urgently tackle the culture of impunity that goes with the crimes committed. I have long advocated setting up a new international body to help collect evidence of conflict-related sexual violence, and to bring those who have committed these monstrous crimes to justice. I hope that today the Government will give serious consideration to pushing for such an international body, and to using next year’s G7 and our presidency to do so. That would help deliver justice for those subjected to sexual violence both in Syria and in conflict zones across the world.
Given the prevalence of sexual violence and gender-based violence in Syria and in other conflict zones, we should also consider earmarking a greater proportion of our aid budget to tackling these crimes. Our country spends just 0.3% of our aid budget on ending violence against women and girls. As we look forward to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and girls on 25 November, the Government must consider increasing the proportion of aid spent on that vital issue to support vulnerable women and girls in Syria and across the developing world. I echo the sentiments expressed earlier by the hon. Member for Wirral South on an atrocity prevention strategy: that is something that I would wholeheartedly support. Global Britain can lead, and it must lead. I hope that the Government will pay significant attention to the issue now and in the coming months.
I thank the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for making her point so well, as she does. She always has great compassion for her subject matter, and it is always a pleasure to hear her speaking up for those who are persecuted, those who are disadvantaged, and those who are second-class citizens in their own land.
As I have mentioned previously in Westminster Hall, we have Syrian refugees living and now working in my constituency of Strangford in the main town of Newtonards. They have integrated well and have employment. They have become very much part of the community. That has happened because the community accepted them. I say with real honesty. It is the sort of community in which I would have expected that to happen anyway, but the fact is that it happened. The Housing Executive made the effort to find them housing, Government departments made the effort to help them find employment, and church groups and community groups came together to donate furniture and clothes, and all the things families need when they come from a far-off land to a new town like Newtonards. Some could not speak the English language, but there were English language classes to help them absorb the language and get some knowledge of it. That tells me, and gives me great encouragement, that a community can adapt, and that people from a far-off land can come to a strange land and be totally and fully integrated. I had the privilege of speaking to some of them and their stories were harrowing and have stuck in my mind.
As we see the ravages of covid-19 in our country—a somewhat solvent country with good resources—I cannot begin to imagine what it is like in war-torn countries such as Syria. Reports I have read about it make it clear, in disturbing language. I have a deep interest in Syria and in the middle east, as do many of us, and that is probably why we are here. I have a particular interest as an individual and also as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I bring the issue to the attention of the Government and to the Minister on numerous occasions. I raise it at business questions on a Thursday if the opportunity arises. It is our job and our task in this world to do what we can.
A report that I read highlighted the fact that covid-19 overwhelms healthcare facilities. In Syria, 13,500 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed. It has spread as a result of an unchecked community transmission. Some 92% of officially confirmed cases cannot be tracked to a known case. The Syrians cannot even work out where the cases came from. We have a track and trace system, but they do not have that. They have no idea where it came from, who has had it and who is passing it on.
Worryingly, there are few healthcare professionals, with one Syrian doctor for 10,000 Syrian civilians, and of them 193 have tested positive and at least 11 have died from the virus. The pressure on Syria’s health system is incredible, and 18 doctors and distribution staff working at the crowded al-Hol displacement camp have tested positive, sparking fears that the virus will spread rapidly through the camp. That must be a concern.
In any debate I always like to say, and it is true, that our Government and Ministers are working extremely hard to help where they can, so I hope that in his response the Minister will say where help is going, how it is monitored and how it is delivered.
The numbers I cited are almost certainly a vast underestimate of those who have tested positive for covid-19. The World Health Organisation and the Office for the Co-ordination of Human Affairs admit that testing is limited and that the real figures far surpass official figures. Those statistics come from organisations on the ground. In north-east Syria alone, health actors estimate that the true numbers are 10 to 15 times greater than official figures suggest. Healthcare facilities are overrun.
We are reacting to covid-19 in our own country, but Syria does not have even the basics. It has just 13 ventilators and 59 ICU beds in the entirety of north-east Syria. I overheard an exchange during the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday that there are 90,000 ventilators in the United Kingdom and that we are using only 4,000. Minister, could we not send some of those ventilators to Syria? If we are not using them, let us at least give some of them to those who could make better use of them.
It is frightening. We must intervene if at all possible and send funding to trustworthy sources on the ground. Employment has evaporated: between 200,000 and 300,000 jobs have been permanently lost because of covid-19 and 15% of small and medium-sized businesses have reported permanent closure. The value of the Syrian pound is cratering—I use that word on purpose because it is right down. We think that the worst inflation is in Zimbabwe, but it is worse in Syria. The informal exchange rate hovers between SYP2,100 and SYP2,400 to US$1—that gives us an idea of just how bad it is—up from a rate of SYP694 to US$1 a year ago. The price of food and basic goods is sky-rocketing beyond people’s means—food prices have gone up 90% in the past six months and 236% in the past 12 months. My goodness: what does it cost to buy a loaf of bread or a packet of tea? It must be incredible.
I am aware that we are limited in our ability—we are unable to send out our medical staff and equipment when we are under so much pressure—but we can and must persuade other countries to do what we are doing. As the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) said, even if the rest do not do it, we should do it. We can and must secure funding to send aid. We must share our knowledge of how effectively to prevent spread and treat patients and we must be aware of our obligations when—please, Lord— the vaccine is available and in circulation.
I agree wholeheartedly about the need for an international court to try those guilty of murder, shootings and abuse of women. I support aid for Syria through NGOs that are on the ground and have accountability procedures and remind Members that while our priority is undoubtedly our own constituents we should never, ever forget those who are less able to look after themselves. Our job, my job, all of our jobs is to look out for those who cannot look out for themselves.
It is a great pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I want to start, as others have done, by commending the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for opening the debate and speaking with such compassion. I do not think that that will come as a surprise to any of us who have watched her in the Chamber. She set up what has so far been a very consensual debate, and that has reaffirmed my view that Westminster Hall is a much better place in which to discuss policy in the House, particularly when we are so divided. There were also excellent speeches from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), and from the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), as well as, of course, my dear friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I offer a few thoughts on behalf of the Scottish National party. Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria back in March 2011 the country has seen untold destruction, unthinkable death tolls and a refugee crisis that has spanned the globe. We have all seen the painful images from the conflict, from the war-torn streets of Aleppo, images of small children covered in dust from explosions—and, of course, the image that will I think live with all of us of Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey. The horrors of the conflict will have long-lasting effects for years to come, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that since the civil war begun an estimated 500,000 people have been killed, including more than 55,000 children. Sometimes when we stand and make a speech in Parliament we talk about numbers, but letting that sink in—55,000 children—makes us reflect. There is an onus on us in this House, who are legislators in the UK, not to turn a blind eye to that.
The Syrian refugee crisis is the largest displacement crisis of our lifetime, and as we have heard it has had an impact on 17.6 million people. Within Syria the infrastructure has collapsed under the conflict: 95% of people lack adequate healthcare; 70% lack regular access to clean water; half of children are out of school; 80% of the population live in poverty; and 70% of all Syrians live on less than $1.90 a day. The humanitarian crisis, which is now in its 10th year, now has another challenge, as Members have explained—coronavirus. The situation in the city of Idlib is desperate. Doctors say that covid-19 is now rampant in its overpopulated refugee camps, which Save the Children warns could overwhelm Syria. Precautionary measures such as social distancing and self-isolation are all but impossible—certainly in a war zone.
The Government have repeatedly failed the victims of the conflict. Only last month, Conservative MPs voted to remove child refugee protections. The UK Government have, I am afraid, also fallen short of taking on their fair share of people through the resettlement schemes. The Home Office capped the Dubs scheme at 480 children and, by default, have effectively closed it down, although there was no legal requirement to do that. By failing to provide safe legal routes for refugees to reach the UK the Government are leaving countless people vulnerable to exploitation by criminal gangs and a report last year by the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which the Home Secretary was a member at the time, said:
“In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”
More recently, the Home Office has failed even to acknowledge the refugee camp fire in Lesbos that left up to 13,000 of the most desperate people on earth homeless, many of whom were of course originally from Syria.
It is clear that the UK Government has fallen short on this issue time and time again, but moving forward there are clear steps that they can take. First, they should immediately resume the resettlement programmes that were paused in March. Italy, for example, has already done so. It is an abdication of responsibility at a time of global crisis if they do not resume those programmes. Secondly, the Government need to live up to international obligations by adopting in full the recommendations of the UNHCR, one of which is to increase the number of refugees resettled in the UK to at least 10,000 a year. The UK Government must lay out clearly what measures they will consider taking if Russia continues to be an obstacle to peace. The UK’s permanent representative at the Security Council, Dame Karen Pierce, called for a lasting solution for the situation. As a key member of the Security Council the UK should be prioritising the matter urgently, and should work to unite all parties around the table, in a desire for a resolution.
A protracted solution that works with Syrians, underpinned and led by the primacy of UN human rights principles, must, therefore, be the way forward. The Syrian people must not feel forgotten by the international community, and UK aid must be provided to the country. I agree with the comments that were made by the hon. Member for Totnes in that regard.
In stark contrast to the actions of the UK Government, though, Scotland has welcomed refugees. One fifth of all Syrian refugees have been settled in Scotland, and I am incredibly proud of that. Up until 2019, a total of 2,562 Syrian refugees were settled, which meant that Scotland met its target three years ahead of schedule through the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement programme. All 2,562 of those refugees are part of Scotland’s story, and we are proud that they have chosen to call Scotland home.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
First of all, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for having secured this important debate. She spoke with such passion and detail about the humanitarian emergency that continues to engulf Syria almost a decade on from when this conflict began; she made a powerful contribution about the need to listen to the Syrian people, and I agree. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for friends of Syria, she has been outspoken on this issue, loudly standing up for those who continue to suffer the horror of the war in Syria and for the refugee community, following on from the strong words and actions of Jo Cox. Five years ago, Jo said that we must look to the “best traditions” of our party’s history—our internationalism and our respect for human rights—as we think about the personal role we can play in protecting civilians in Syria.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for retelling her visits to Lebanon and Jordan, witnessing the plight of refugees. She is right that a decade on, we have seen no improvements to the humanitarian situation. I also thank the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for his contribution—a veto at the UN should not, and does not, mean a veto on Britain’s actions—and thank Members from across the House, the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Glasgow East (David Linden), for their contributions.
The emergency in Syria is on the brink of descending to a new, horrifying low. The crisis has descended into an emergency, and nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the north-west and north-east of the country. The situation risks becoming irreversible, with lasting implications for not just the immediate future but for the next generation and the one after that, as well as for stability across the region at a time when the middle east and the world can least afford it. Some 12 million Syrians —65% of the population, including 5 million children—require international humanitarian assistance. As we have heard, 6 million have been internally displaced since the war began, and 5.6 million have been forced to flee, seeking safety and refuge in other countries.
We know that healthcare services lie in ruins, or have vastly reduced capacities. Half of all hospitals and health facilities have been destroyed by conflict, and there is a critical shortage of life-saving medicines and equipment at this vital time, including personal protective equipment. The prices of medicines in Syria have increased by more than 250% this year, and a gradual reduction in humanitarian aid access at the Security Council has recklessly and needlessly stemmed the flow at a time of maximum vulnerability for many in Syria. We know that covid has dealt a heavy blow to whatever health resilience remained, and in the north-west, there are only 600 doctors among a population of around 4 million people. Their work is truly remarkable, but there is little capacity for testing. People are dying at home, in makeshift tents and shelters, unable or unwilling to receive healthcare because of the stigma attached to covid.
If there is one thing we know about during this pandemic, it is our interconnected vulnerabilities. What happens elsewhere affects us all.
Covid and its repercussions stalk Syria. Many Syrians live in overcrowded accommodation. One exhausted mother outside Idlib describes how her family of 30 share one room and the adults sleep standing up. Nine million people in Syria live with daily hunger. That is an increase of more than 1.5 million people in the last six months alone. That is on top of the 15 million Syrians whose access to water and sanitation has been disrupted. All these things are vital in the face of a pandemic, let alone in the midst of conflict.
Words and numbers do not do the situation justice. The fears and anxieties and the hunger and exhaustion are things that no adult, let alone a child, should have to endure. Think of the terror that children experience as they watch their school destroyed by jets, seeing what was once a place of stability and warmth reduced to rubble—a future shattered as Assad and the Russian forces continue to rain terror; their hopes of a secure and prosperous future dashed in those bricks and mortar. Think of the biting hunger on cold nights, or—this is so often overlooked—the mental health toll from the stresses that conflict and trying to survive place on everyone, or the exhaustion of those constantly displaced from their homes, their communities and their livelihoods. The familiarity and solid foundation that a home gives are lost. Families leave behind everything, not knowing where their journey will take them. That is the human cost of a humanitarian emergency caused and shaped by extremism, conflict and a deadly reign of terror, political brinkmanship on the Security Council, and the reluctance and failure to protect the most vulnerable or to stand up to the rogue forces that chose to act with impunity.
It does not have to be this way. Twice this year, a deadline for the reauthorisation of the Security Council resolutions has been used to diminish border access: first, in January, when the north-east ended up with catastrophic human consequences, and again in July, when one of the two remaining borders in the north-west, at Bab al-Salam, was cut, leaving one cross-line mechanism. That delivery mechanism is operated by the Assad regime, where aid is now politicised, delayed and sometimes blocked altogether.
How has it come about that we have ended up allowing Assad to control aid to an area that he wants to recapture and a people whom he is terrorising? What is the Government’s strategy for dealing with that, and with Russia and China’s veto power on the Security Council? Failing to take on those who act with impunity has resulted in a more costly, higher-risk and therefore less effective humanitarian response. As we know, the UN deputy humanitarian chief has made it clear that the UK must work with partners to bring forward a strategy that works for the people of Syria, and doing nothing is not an option. What can the Minister do to bring forward a stand-alone resolution to reinstate access and relieve the rapidly escalating covid and health situation? Can the UK be facilitators of such a proposal? With the non-permanent membership of the Security Council now changing, what discussions has the Minister had with the 2021 intake?
We welcome the UK’s contribution to the humanitarian situation in Syria, but at a time of increasing need, the funding has dwindled: £300 million was pledged this year. That figure is down by a quarter on last year’s contribution. Pulling back now risks undermining the UK’s involvement to date and, worse, a catastrophic failure to protect innocent civilians and an abandonment of the values that we champion. Given that the UK is a leading contributor, can the Minister confirm that the UK will continue to be a leading humanitarian donor and that his Government will not cut funding from the UK Syrian aid programme for the 2021 financial year?
On sanctions, despite an agreed ceasefire for the city of Idlib in March, Assad and Russian forces continue to strike hospitals, healthcare facilities, schools, places of worship and markets, leaving a trail of death and destruction. Does the Minister agree that sanctions are no longer a deterrent to those who act with impunity and choose to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis? Will he meet me to discuss these questions and how we can ensure that the UK shows leadership on these issues? This is an emergency born out of civil war and heinous crimes, but aggravated by the decimation of health services, a refugee crisis, deepening food insecurity, dwindling international aid and now covid, as well as the reprehensible destruction and terror rained down on innocent people by Assad, Russia and other forces. We need to see leadership.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this debate. She has regularly spoken with great passion on this issue publicly and I know that she has written about it on a number of occasions over the years. In the margins of the Chamber, she has spoken with me directly. The passion that she displayed today reflects her long-standing concern on the issue—a baton that, as she said, she picked up from our dear lost friend, Jo Cox, and I am very grateful that she did so.
I am also grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members, who outlined in various ways the humanitarian catastrophe that we are seeing in Syria and enumerated the pain and horror that so many Syrians are experiencing. I have made notes and will try to respond to the points raised, but if I cannot cover them all, I invite colleagues to correspond with me to fill in any gaps in my speech. I shall focus on three main issues, which I hope will cover the majority of what was raised: the human impact of this brutal conflict; the restrictions on aid and the non-engagement in peace resolution; and, ultimately, the UK’s humanitarian response.
The impact of the Syrian conflict is wide-ranging and horrific. It affects not just Syria but bordering countries and countries beyond the region. More than half a million Syrians have lost their lives and 5.9 million women, men and children have lost their homes and are displaced across the country, many living in squalid, makeshift camps. We have seen in previous years the impact of winter weather on those people. Some 6.6 million Syrians are refugees abroad. Within Syria, covid-19 continues to rampage and 9.3 million Syrians cannot afford basic food supplies as the economy suffers and the value of the currency plummets, as several colleagues, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), highlighted.
The conflict’s destructive consequences seep out beyond Syrian borders. The crisis has exacerbated economic pressures in neighbouring countries and many Syrian refugees have travelled to Europe, including the UK, as was mentioned by several hon. Members. Syria’s humanitarian crisis will only worsen while the Assad regime continues to violate international humanitarian law, while it continues to attack civilians, while it continues to flout its chemical weapons obligations and while it continues to hinder humanitarian access.
Our position on Assad’s chemical weapons use is unchanged. As we have demonstrated, we will respond swiftly and appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which have had such devastating effects on its own people. We welcome the first report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation and identification team, which found the Syrian Arab air force responsible for three abhorrent chemical weapons attacks in March 2017.
The UK has provided £11 million to support accountability for war crimes, which is one of the calls made by the hon. Member for Wirral South. Some claim that our sanctions are causing Syria’s suffering. That is a lie that the Russians have peddled for years.
Yes, that is part of my ministerial responsibilities. I let other colleagues know that I will not take any further interventions, otherwise we will overrun.
Russia has invested heavily in a disinformation campaign to protect its regime from accountability. The UK continues to implement EU sanctions in Syria and we will implement our own sanctions regime after the transition period. It is worth remembering that there are no sanctions on food or medicines and that there are humanitarian waivers so that essential items can get in while the tools for further oppression cannot. If Russia wants those sanctions lifted or for the UK and our allies to fund Syria’s reconstruction, it must first press Assad to agree to a political settlement.
The UK believes strongly in a UN-facilitated political process as the only way to reach a lasting and inclusive resolution to the conflict, as per UN Security Council resolution 2254. Special Envoy Pedersen has our full support. However, the Assad regime has not seriously engaged with the UN process. We call on those who have influence over the regime, including the Russian Government, to press for that engagement. That shows the importance of our aid and diplomacy working together.
Unfortunately, we have been appalled by Russia and China’s repeated use of vetoes at the UN Security Council to remove border crossings that are vital to the delivery of humanitarian aid in northern Syria. The loss of the al-Yaarubiyah crossing has already created a critical shortfall of medical supplies. It is essential that the resolution be renewed and the lost crossings revived. The UK will keep working to ensure aid reaches those most in need. We will not accept that aid deliveries from Damascus can effectively replace cross-border delivery until it is unhindered and needs-based.
Some countries may turn their back on the Syrian people in favour of politicking, but not us. The UK has committed more than £3.3 billion in response to the Syria crisis since 2012. Across Syria and its neighbours, UK aid has funded 28 million food rations, more than 19 million medical consultations and more than 13 million vaccinations delivered through UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. Our support in Syria targets those in the most acute need, including displaced Syrians living in camps. Our funding helps provide life-saving supplies such as medicine and shelter, water, food and essential hygiene support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) rightly raises gender-based violence, and the UK has supported the UN and NGOs in providing direct support to victims. The UK has allocated £33 million to help humanitarian partners tackle covid-19, and UK aid is helping north-east Syrian communities recover from Daesh’s brutal occupation. Many countries have turned their backs on the Syrian people; the United Kingdom is not one of them and we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their time of need.
Thank you, Sir David, for chairing the debate as excellently as you have. I thank all Members for participating, from the experienced ones like my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), to those newer Members, such as the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), whose interest in the subject is very welcome, to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who just joined us and who missed my comments saying that the Minister should listen to him. I am sure the Minister will have ample opportunity to do so, as my friend and co-chair of the all-party group for friends of Syria is not known for holding back in giving advice.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).