Tuesday 8 December 2020
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Global Malnutrition: FCDO Role
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call-list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones, using the cleaning materials provided, before they use them and should dispose of those materials as they leave the room. Members are asked to respect the one-way system around the room and exit by the door on the left. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members may speak only if they are on the call list. That applies even if the debate is undersubscribed. Members may not join the debate if they are not on the call list. I remind Members that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall—obviously, you are all here, so this is just for future reference—and Members are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches, but are certainly not discouraged from remaining for them.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s role in tackling global malnutrition.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the application in my name and that of the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell). We originally sought the debate pre-lockdown as co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on nutrition for growth. The group has been campaigning now for almost two years for the UK Government to make a strong early pledge on nutrition for growth, with the reliable multi-year funding and policy reforms that will increase the impact of the FCDO’s work.
To be honest, I rather hoped that the campaign would be complete by now. The N4G summit was supposed to take place this month, and we hoped that the UK would have pledged early. The summit has understandably been postponed by a year as a result of the pandemic. In the meantime, however, UK commitments on nutrition expire at the end of 2020, just as covid-19 is causing malnutrition cases to skyrocket.
Up to 10,000 more children are predicted to die because of undernutrition each month in 2020 than was predicted pre-covid-19. Stunting, which before the pandemic affected one fifth of children under the age of five, is set to rise dramatically unless urgent action is taken. Therefore, we are not where we wanted to be at this stage, but that is understandable. Covid-19 has disrupted the FCDO’s work in the N4G process in a way that none of us could have foreseen. We did meet the Minister back in May, and she assured us that progress was being made. I hope that, in response to today’s debate, she will be able to demonstrate some of the steps that her Department is taking.
Nutrition is a foundational investment in people. A child who suffers malnutrition in their early years is less likely to develop a strong immune system and, as a result, is more likely to fall ill and, indeed, to die. As well as costing lives, malnutrition holds people back. A child who is more likely to fall ill will get less from their education and is therefore less likely to meet their economic potential in adulthood.
In regions such as east Africa, where almost 40% of children suffer from stunting, countries are held back by malnutrition as they haemorrhage money on avoidable healthcare costs and lost workforce productivity. Indeed, the World Bank estimates that malnutrition costs some countries up to 11% of GDP each year.
In his speech addressing the cuts to the official development assistance budget, the Foreign Secretary set out his Department’s priorities. I argue that nutrition is central to each one and I therefore hope that it will remain a priority. Let us look first at climate change. Climate change adversely impacts food systems, but food systems also emit 20% to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, so the Foreign Secretary will need to look at reforming food systems to become both climate-smart and nutrition-sensitive.
Secondly, on covid-19, we have all been thrilled by the news of the vaccines, the administering of which started this morning. However, vaccines are often less effective on malnourished people. An article in The Telegraph, which I must confess I am not an avid reader of, confirmed that that is likely to be the case with any covid-19 vaccine. Malnutrition is also a risk factor for developing severe covid-19 symptoms.
Thirdly, on girls’ education, malnutrition disproportionately affects girls, and it is estimated that malnourished children are 19% less likely to be able to read at the age of eight and 13% less likely to be at the appropriate grade for their age. Put simply, the Government cannot meet their objectives on girls’ education without prioritising nutrition.
Fourthly, on resolving conflicts and alleviating crises, conflicts and malnutrition mutually reinforce each other. It is no coincidence that 80% of stunted children live in conflict zones, so any UK aid programmes in a fragile context must invest in long-term nutrition improvement.
Finally, on the issue of strengthening accountability and value for money, according to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, nutrition is one of the most cost-effective development actions with significant economic returns. If the Minister wants to invest in proven high-impact interventions that represent excellent value for money, nutrition is very much a safe bet. The fact that nutrition is so foundational is what makes it so important, but it also makes it a challenge to invest in. Nutrition is relevant to health, education, agriculture, economic development and climate. Without processes in place to ensure that nutrition is embedded into the Department’s work in those areas, there is, I am afraid, a real risk that nutrition becomes everyone’s problem, but no one’s responsibility.
There are numerous cost-free steps that the Minister could take to ensure that nutrition is more effectively embedded across the FCDO’s work. First, will she re-commit to reach 50 million women, adolescent girls and children with high impact nutrition interventions over the next four years? Secondly, will she implement the policy marker for nutrition across all relevant parts of the FCDO’s work, and set percentage targets for its work in other areas to meet nutrition outcomes? Thirdly, will she ensure that at least £680 million-worth of FCDO spend in other areas is adapted to include nutrition outcomes?
Such changes would embed nutrition into the FCDO and improve value for money across the piece. However, basic nutrition financing is also important. Reliable multi-year funding for Governments and implementing agencies would allow them to plan and maximise value for money and impact. We call on the Government to pledge at least £120 million each year to nutrition-specific interventions between 2021 and 2025. That is less than the Government spent on nutrition in 2017-18, but is ambitious enough to make meaningful progress. Will the Minister agree to that financial pledge today, or at least set a timeline for when she will make a financial pledge?
I will wrap up by saying that the UK has been a global leader in tackling malnutrition. As a Scottish nationalist MP, it is not my modus operandi to routinely praise the UK Government, but this issue is far too important for party politics. It was the UK Government that hosted the first Nutrition for Growth summit in 2013—the most successful global nutrition summit ever. Governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector pledged more than £17 billion to end malnutrition, representing a 33% global uplift in nutrition spending, and rates of malnutrition have steadily decreased ever since.
The UK can be immensely proud of its record on nutrition. Its leadership has galvanised others and meaningfully changed the lives of millions of people around the world, making us all safer and better off, so I hope the Minister can demonstrate that the UK’s commitment to leadership will not wane at a time when it is more needed than ever. I look forward to her summing up on behalf of the Government.
It might be helpful if I tell colleagues that I plan to get to the Front-Bench speakers at no later than 10.30 am. I am not setting a formal time limit. I have six people looking to catch my eye, so, as a guide, if they take eight minutes each, I will not have to impose a limit. I call Christian Matheson.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I declare an interest because, a couple of years ago, I visited health and vaccination programmes in Ethiopia, and the visit was paid for by the advocacy group, RESULTS UK, which has helped me with some of the information for my speech today. I congratulate my good friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), on his excellent introductory speech.
The context in which we meet today is an unfortunate one. The Government have recently announced that they are walking away from the legal commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development aid support, reducing it to 0.5%. Of course, it would have been 0.7% of a smaller amount, anyway, so it is a double whammy. In fact, we get a triple whammy with the abolition of the Department for International Development, which sends out completely the wrong message at this time. It is all well and good telling scare stories about aid and space programmes in India and the such like, but as my friend the hon. Member for Glasgow East said, this is about life-changing and life-critical decisions that have real-life consequences for hundreds, thousands and millions of people across the globe. As he said, the great tragedy is that the Government would have some good stories to tell if only they had the confidence to believe in the importance of development aid assistance and overseas development and if only they had the confidence to stand up to the naysayers on their own side and say, “Actually, this is the right thing to do, and we have a good story to tell.”
The UK has indeed been a global leader on nutrition since it hosted the first Nutrition for Growth summit in 2013, which raised more than £17 billion—a 33% uplift in global nutrition spending—and rates of malnutrition have steadily declined as a result. The number of children under five suffering from irreversible stunting, which has lifelong health implications, has reduced from 170 million in 2010 to 144 million in 2019, although, Mr Davies, I think you would agree that a figure of more than 100 million youngsters having lifelong conditions is horrendous. However, that does mark progress, but covid-19 threatens to undo all those hard-won gains. Many of the world’s poorest people cannot work from home and most Governments cannot support them through furlough schemes. Food prices are soaring and, for most people, the threat of hunger and malnutrition is far greater than the threat of the virus itself.
Additionally, as health systems have redeployed resources to address covid-19, other areas of health, such as nutrition, have been under-resourced. UNICEF reports a 30% reduction in the coverage of nutrition programmes. In some countries, coverage is reduced by as much as 75%. As a result, an additional 10,000 children will die from malnutrition each month this year. The number of children suffering from wasting—being dangerously underweight—is likely to increase from 47 million to 53 million and the head of the UN World Food Programme warned at the Security Council that covid-19 could lead to a famine of biblical proportions.
Although I recognise DFID’s work to tackle covid-19-induced food security, food security and nutrition are not the same thing. None of us wants to bring up a child exclusively eating carbohydrates because of the obvious health implications. Unless the Government prioritise nutrition alongside their ambitious food security work, they risk turning an immediate economic crisis into a protracted health crisis. At this critical time, not only is the coronavirus reversing years of progress on nutrition, so is the disruption to the FCDO’s work and to the nutrition for growth process as a whole.
The Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit at which we had hoped the FCDO would renew its commitment to nutrition has been postponed by a year. The Government have carried out just a one-year spending review and announced their intention to cut the aid budget, making reliable multi-year FCDO financing of nutrition even more difficult. I understand that the Governments of Canada and Bangladesh have stepped in and are hosting an event next week and launching 2021 as a year of action for nutrition. I hope the Minister will attend and announce what action the Government intend to take in the year of action. Perhaps she can share her Department’s plans for that event when she wraps up the debate.
I am worried by the cliff edge in the FCDO’s nutrition commitments at the end of the year. Will the Minister share her predictions for what official development assistance will be for basic nutrition from the start of 2021? How will she mitigate the effects of any drop in nutrition financing and ensure it is for as short as time as possible? Does she agree that the FCDO will have to prioritise nutrition in order to meet the Government’s manifesto commitments to end preventable deaths by 2030 and ensure 12 years of quality education for every girl? Will she commit to spending £120 million on nutrition-specific interventions each year between 2021 and 2025, and will she ensure that spending of at least £680 million of the FCDO’s work in other areas includes nutrition objectives?
Will the Minister commit to reaching 50 million women, children and adolescent girls with high-impact nutrition interventions? As the hon. Member for Glasgow East said, women and girls are disproportionately adversely affected by this particular crisis. Will she develop a nutrition-sensitive investment case, and can she set percentage targets for the FCDO’s work in other areas to meet nutrition outcomes? If she cannot make any commitment in response to the debate today, I hope that at the very least she will set out a timeline by which the UK will meet these pledges.
With covid-19 wreaking havoc on health systems and economies around the world, it is more important than ever that the international community ramps up efforts on nutrition. I hope that the UK can display some of its historic leadership in this space at a time when it is needed more than ever. However, the Government are signalling that they are pedalling back on a commitment to development and aid. That is the wrong signal at absolutely the wrong time, and the consequences really are a matter of life and death for millions of people.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), not only for his work in securing this debate on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s role in tackling global malnutrition, but for all his efforts as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on nutrition for growth. As co-chair of that group, I know that he has been at the forefront of the push for a pledge from the Government for a multi-year settlement on nutrition for growth. When he and I appeared before the Backbench Business Committee to argue for this debate, these were not the circumstances in which we envisaged it taking place, but we were clear that it was important that this issue is highlighted.
I commend to you, Mr Davies, and other Members present an excellent article that appears in The Herald today, which is headed, “Britain must not lose sight of those who go to sleep hungry”, with the by-line, “For many, malnutrition can pose a greater threat than covid”. I think we have already heard that in contributions to the debate.
Like the hon. Member for Glasgow East, I am concerned that the pledge has not yet been made and worried that UK support for nutrition faces a potential financial cliff edge in a few days. This debate provides the Minister with an opportunity to respond to those concerns. I know from my own direct experience of working with her—not in this House, but in Rwanda as part of what was then the Conservative party’s development programme, Project Umubano—her own level of personal commitment to development. I also know, from our own meetings with her, that she will pursue this issue, but we need action.
As the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) said, it was recently announced by the Canadian and Bangladeshi Governments that there will be a virtual event early next week, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that she will be part of it. It has been styled “a year of action on nutrition” and that is really what we want to see from this debate today. We want to see action and we want to hear about a definitive timeline for when decisions on nutrition will be announced here in the UK.
Obviously, we had hoped that the pledge would have been made already and that the Nutrition for Growth summit in Tokyo would have taken place. Although it is obviously understandable why that event is not going ahead and has been postponed, the needs of those who are reliant on UK support cannot simply be postponed.
The need for UK commitment is clear. Malnutrition is a factor in 45% of all deaths of under-fives worldwide and the head of the UN World Food Programme expects another 130 million people to face starvation, and that a further 6 million children are likely to suffer wasting. Stunting, as the hon. Gentleman has already said, causes lifelong health complications and it is set to rise dramatically after years of decline. Perhaps most disturbingly, an additional 433 children are expected to die of malnutrition every single day.
Further to the appalling human cost of malnutrition is the financial cost: a staggering $3.5 trillion to the global economy. The World Bank estimates that, for some countries, up to 11% of GDP is lost each year to otherwise avoidable healthcare costs and reduced workforce productivity.
However, we know how to alleviate this. The UK’s interventions have reached over 50 million women of child-bearing age, adolescent girls and children under five. This, among other successes, has supported a steady reduction in the number of children who were suffering from stunting from roughly 170 million to 144 million. As has been referenced, we need to highlight those successes and the positive impact that has already been made by our previous commitment.
Moreover, nutrition enables and increases the effectiveness of the UK’s action in other areas, such as health, education, economic development and helping those in conflict zones. A malnourished mother-to-be is much more likely to suffer complications. A hungry child is one fifth less likely to be able to read by the time they are eight. An adult living with stunting will have greater barriers to reaching their economic potential. Those growing up hungry are far more likely to find themselves vulnerable to the offers of dangerous groups.
Nutrition is a keystone of effective aid. It is also exceptional value for money, which I know is a matter that you take a great interest in, Mr Davies. As the Independent Commission for Aid Impact noted, while offering a green-amber rating, the UK’s nutrition programmes are one of the most cost-effective development actions, with significant economic returns. Indeed, research suggests that every £1 invested in nutrition spending will yield, on average, a £16 return.
I am proud of the UK’s record on nutrition. Its leadership brought us the first ever Nutrition for Growth summit in 2013, where Governments, NGOs and the private sector united around a common set of objectives to end malnutrition and pledged £17 billion to the cause. From the very positive interactions that we have had this year, I want the UK to maintain leadership in this field, as I am sure the Minister does too. To that end, I ask her for the following: to recommit to reaching 50 million women, adolescent girls and children with high impact nutrition interventions over the next four years; to ensure that at least £680 million of the FCDO spend in other areas is adapted to include nutrition outcomes; and to commit to spending at least £120 million per year on nutrition-specific interventions.
As the hon. Member for Glasgow East pointed out, that is less than we spent in 2017 and 2018 to account for the effects of covid-19 on the UK economy, but it is still ambitious enough to make meaningful progress. Without such commitments, we will potentially waste the progress that our aid has made in recent years, and right at the time when those who need that support need it the most.
I thank the Members who have brought forward this debate. This year, the Nobel peace prize committee awarded its prize to the World Food Programme, because it wanted to turn the eyes of the world to the millions of people who suffer from, or face the threat of, hunger. It said that hunger was used in many cases as a weapon of war and conflict, and that giving the award was a call to the international community to provide adequately funding to ensure that people would not starve. It said that the World Food Programme would have been a worthy recipient in any year, but in this year the virus has strengthened the reasons to address this issue, including the need for multilateralism in a time of global crisis.
The head of the World Food Programme has warned that next year there will be famines of biblical proportions. The Lancet has reported that the pandemic poses grave risks to the nutritional status and survival of children in low and middle-income countries, due to the decline in household incomes and interruptions to health and nutrition and social protection services. That is without dwelling on the worsening impact of climate change on the most vulnerable.
It is clear to see that, for the first time in many years, development progress is actually going backwards. This is the unfortunate context in which the Government have dropped their legal commitment—and, of course, a manifesto pledge made less than a year old—to protect the UK’s aid spending.
There is no doubt that the UK has been an enormously generous aid donor over the years, which is something to be very proud of, and I was struck by what the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said. I am an Irish MP from a contested region. People talk a lot about the Union, and it is fair to say that things like sovereignty, militarism and flags are never going to move me politically, but I have been deeply proud of the UK’s record on aid spending for many years. For all the talk of global Britain and walking on to the world stage, it is important not to strip back things like this generosity, like far-sightedness, like multilateralism, which have been meaningful to so many people.
We are now in an economic contraction that is worse than any in living memory—that is not in doubt. However, investment in aid, and particularly in nutrition, is not a short-sighted way to spend money, because we know that it helps to guard against longer term problems. Adequately nourished children will learn better in school, and tackling poverty helps to drain the reservoirs of ill-feeling in which extremism can take hold. We know this will make for a safer and more secure world for all of us.
I had the privilege of working for the NGO Concern Worldwide for a decade, until 2015, and then chairing the all-party group on international development during my time in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I had the opportunity to see projects from those NGOs in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean—to see the impact of UK aid all around the world.
We know that fractional cuts in the past have had major impacts on programmes. Save the Children has estimated, based on previous Department for International Development statistics, that the approximately 30% cut in aid spending will mean many reduced programmes. People have spoken about the importance of nutrition, particularly in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life; about the impact it has on education; and about the impact it has on gender equality, because we know that most farmers around the world are women, and most will be feeding their family first. We know about the impact of nutrition on the efficiency and effectiveness of HIV medication, and we know that it is absolutely the founding stone for all other areas of poverty reduction.
The Government have repeated the promise that this is a temporary cut and that they intend to return to the 0.7% commitment when the financial situation permits. I hope the Minister can commit to writing that into legislation in the same way the initial 0.7% proposal was courageously put into law, to assure people that if this really is just a particular need in the time of covid, a sunset clause can be put in place to revert whenever finances allow. Even in the context of the cuts, the Government can commit to improving governance and oversight of spending.
It is important to remember why DFID was created in 1997: the need to separate general overseas policies from aid spending in order to ensure that the aid was used in the interests of the most vulnerable and not, as I believe was the case then, to leverage trade and arms deals. It is important that the Government set out their priorities for aid more comprehensively, and in consultation with civil society here and in the countries we will be seeking to help. We have seen the top line of that, and although everything listed by the Government is good, there is concern that it does not focus on the needs of the most vulnerable, and that it has not been worked through in such consultation.
The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) was correct to point out the poor timing of the abolition of DFID, when civil servants and those who administer aid were operating in very challenging circumstances. They did not need to be dealing with a bureaucratic shake-up. As I said in the Chamber at the time, it was also the period when, in the context of the Black Lives Matter campaign, we were examining the UK’s legacy on the world stage. As I say, aid was the most positive manifestation of that.
The year that we have just had has shown us how connected the planet is, as well as the value of solidarity and the power of Governments when they choose to invest for good. It is always morally right to support the most vulnerable in the world—those in extreme poverty—and particularly so when their circumstances have been worsened by the pandemic. I do not think it is too late for the Government to do the right thing. Members have made constructive suggestions about how to continue to stand by the world’s poorest, and particularly the world’s poorest children.
I want to begin as others have done by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for bringing forward this important debate. Like others, I want to recognise that, despite the strong feelings on the issue, no one wants to diminish in any way, or not give recognition to, the work that the UK Government have done on tackling global malnutrition up to this point. It is because of the commitment that the UK Government have shown that there is now such profound concern about the threats during the current crisis to the good record that has been set.
There are growing concerns about the Government’s commitment to the overseas aid budget and the fight against world hunger. Many of us voiced concerns about a diminution of that commitment when the Department for International Development was merged with the Foreign Office. The Minister will recall the concerns expressed then. We were concerned that there would be a reduced focus on international development priorities. We feared that diminution, and indeed many even speculated at that time about whether the 0.7% of national income invested in aid was itself in danger. We were told that was nonsense. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary reaffirmed the UK Government’s 0.7% aid budget commitment as recently as July. Yet it has been abandoned. The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, condemned it as
“breaking a promise to the poorest people and the poorest countries in the world”,
and said it was a promise
“that didn’t have to be broken.”
We were told that there was to be no loss of focus and that the UK Government’s commitment to the poorest in the world was not in question, and that it was scaremongering and misleading to suggest otherwise. But now we fear that there will be a wavering of the commitment. We face a cliff edge on funding commitments, including the commitment to tackling malnutrition, at the very time when covid-19 has exacerbated an already desperate situation. We know that combating covid-19 has been costly to the UK. It has been costly to our health and the economy. As attention is focused on controlling the virus, there is a danger that the gains made globally
“in reducing hunger and malnutrition will be lost.”
Those are not my words, but those of Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on covid-19, in the context of the 2020 Global Nutrition Report.
One in nine people in the world are hungry—or 820 million people worldwide. That reveals the scale of the challenge if those of us in richer countries really want to ensure that the world is fed. Save the Children tells us that a quarter of children in the world today suffer permanent damage to their bodies and minds because they do not get the nutrition they need. Some 45% of child deaths in the world are linked to malnutrition. By 2030, 129 million children will suffer stunting as a result of hunger, and in the face of that there are concerns about reduced programmes to feed the hungry. As we speak there is a food crisis in southern Africa following the worst drought in 35 years, and the number of people at risk of food shortage is expected to rise to 45 million in the coming months. In the face of that, there are also concerns about reducing programmes to feed the hungry.
That means that international co-operation—all richer countries doing their bit, stepping up to the plate and recognising their role in the global village—becomes ever more pressing. We in richer countries have a moral duty—I do not think this is controversial—to come together and do all we can to invest in nutrition, which is vital for the development of a strong immune system and the prevention of protracted health crises.
In that context, the 0.7% commitment could not be more important. Due to the unprecedented economic emergency, we were told that the 0.7% commitment had to be temporarily suspended, but this economic emergency that we face is alongside the hunger emergency in developing countries, where millions face starvation.
What we need are: forecasts for the total drop in aid spending for nutrition from the start of 2021; an impact assessment on the effect that this decision will have on nutrition programs; a plan to mitigate the effects on the world’s malnourished; and an assurance, provided to the developing world and to concerned people in this House and across the UK, that this drop in financing will not be extended. It is alarming, quite frankly, that aid spending is being reallocated away from poverty-alleviation towards projects that cannot be considered aid projects, such as diplomacy and building yachts. I think most people in the UK would agree that these priorities need to be reassessed.
Malnutrition is a violent and corrosive social injustice that is morally inexcusable and politically and economically unsustainable. As human beings, we cannot ignore, or indeed seek to downgrade, the starvation and malnutrition of other people when we are able to help. We cannot turn our backs or reduce our focus simply because these people live far away. In the longer term, we need integrated, international guidelines on the human right to healthy, nutritious diets, and sustainable food systems, as a critical way forward.
Those of us who are lucky enough—and it is luck—to live in a richer country were filled with hope and optimism with the news of a vaccine, which has started to be rolled out this very day. However, vaccines are harder to deliver, and less likely to be effective, for malnourished people. In the developing world, diseases resulting from a lack of calcium, such as rickets, can have lasting harm, especially for children, whose bodies are still developing. The effects are far reaching, as those children are more likely to grow up with their intellectual and economic potential being limited.
Women and girls are most affected by famine, as their traditional roles in developing countries make it so. It is harder for them to survive because they have to care for their families and have to evade sexual violence, if they can, in areas of armed conflict. In some cultures, women eat last and least, and are subject to domestic violence as family access to food comes under greater strain.
The World Bank estimates that malnutrition costs some countries in Africa and Asia up to 11% of GDP each year; that shows us the limiting and damaging effects of malnutrition in economic terms, as well as in human terms.
The truth is that the UK Government’s aid budget has been cut by £6.9 billion this year alone. All of the good work that we have talked about—and were happy to talk about—done by the UK in poorer countries sadly sits under the shadow of that £6.9 billion cut, at a time when covid-19 rips through developing countries that are simply not equipped to deal with the consequences of that health threat.
We need the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to use every diplomatic and financial tool in its armoury to ensure that the postponed Nutrition for Growth summit, in Japan in 2021, is successful and attracts support for financial and policy commitments to end malnutrition. We do not need the international community to give us warm words; we need the UK on the global stage, leading the effort on the front foot.
The health pandemic must not and cannot be used as a reason for cutting back international aid. In fact, the consequence of the pandemic is that in developing countries an additional 433 children are expected to die every single day, according to The Lancet. It is a cruel irony to argue that the pandemic means that the UK must abandon its millennium development goals commitments.
Malnutrition is a threat multiplier in developing countries, since those who are malnourished are likely to have lower immune systems, and, with a global health pandemic, the significance of a virus that preys on compromised immune systems could not be more profound. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I hope to see her embracing the need for the UK Government to do their bit on the international stage, tackling global malnutrition and leading the effort. It is the right thing to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for securing this important debate, which follows hard on the heels of the Government’s recent announcement of the cut to UK aid, and could not have come soon enough.
I pay tribute to Concern Worldwide for its long-standing commitment to eradicating malnutrition, as well as the all-party parliamentary group on nutrition for growth, chaired by the hon. Member for Glasgow East, which has continued to put pressure on the Government to prioritise the issue.
As a member of the International Development Committee, I was appalled that the Government saw fit to abolish DFID in the middle of a global pandemic that has put some of the poorest and most vulnerable people at further risk. DFID was highly regarded as a world leader in its field and an excellent example of global Britain. However, the decision to scrap the Department and slash our aid budget has damaged the UK’s standing among our international peers. I am sure Members on both sides of the House will be interested to learn the amount of expenditure on the rebranding exercise that went on between the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID earlier this year.
With more, not less, funding required to meet the increasing demands placed on many countries as a result of the covid crisis, there must now be a clear commitment from this Government to set out a timeline for a multi-year financial pledge to tackle global malnutrition. That means pledging a minimum of £120 million each year to support high impact nutrition-specific programmes over the next four years, which will directly benefit 50 million women, adolescent girls and children. I hope the Minister will make urgent policy commitments to increase the FCDO’s commitment to nutrition programmes.
My constituents are rightly proud of the achievements of UK aid, which has lifted millions out of illiteracy and poverty, and provided so much support to some of the poorest communities around the globe. They have been directly invested in that process. Indeed, data made available by ONE, a campaigning global movement to end extreme poverty and preventable diseases, revealed that taxpayers’ money from my Stockport constituents helped more than 11,000 children receive a decent education, 40,000 people have access to clean water and better sanitation, and more than 37,000 people be vaccinated against meningitis and pneumonia.
In 2020, it is shocking that we still have children in this world suffering from malnourishment and starvation. It is deeply troubling that the figure, far from going down, is instead forecast to increase from 47 million people to 53 million, according to the medical journal The Lancet. Furthermore, it is concerning that the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit, which was scheduled to take place this year, has now been delayed to the end of 2021. Several Members have made the point about that summit.
The Government’s recent spending review and cuts to the aid budget add to the complications and challenges around a meaningful financial commitment from the FCDO to tackle global malnutrition. In light of the Chancellor’s recent announcement to reduce spending from 0.7% to 0.5% GNI, I hope the Minister can assure the House that cuts will not impact nutrition programmes. The reality of not providing that funding is stark. Malnutrition is a leading factor in 45% of cases of death of children under the age of five globally, according to the World Health Organisation.
Furthermore, Save the Children estimates that malnourished children score an average 7% lower in maths and are 19% less likely to read at the age of eight, hindering their chances of reaching their full potential in later life. Nutrition is a cornerstone of learning and development, and must be protected. I ask the Minister whether this Government plan to break their manifesto commitment to stand up for the right of every girl in the world to have 12 years of quality education, less than a year on from the general election and at a time when child malnutrition is rising sharply as a result of the covid crisis.
Mr Davies, we had excellent news this morning that the first covid vaccine has been administered in the UK. I am sure that the vaccine will help us overcome the pandemic, but the reality is that it is scientific fact that vaccination is less effective on malnourished people. In the sixth richest country in the world, we have a moral obligation and responsibility to intervene to alleviate that terrible suffering. A reduction in our financial support is unacceptable and would have long-term ramifications for those who find our funding a vital lifeline. We have a duty to act, and we must do so now before it is too late for the millions of people who desperately rely on us.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak on this issue, which I have a great interest in. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for introducing the debate. He and I—like many others, I suspect—always feel persuaded to turn up to speak on issues at Westminster Hall that we feel are important, and it is one of those issues. I thank him for the chance to do so.
I have long been an advocate for our responsibility to fulfil our moral obligation and—I believe—our compassionate determination towards those less fortunate than ourselves through the 0.7% aid threshold. I am open about that and want to put that on record. As Christmas approaches, we are probably all thinking about the special food treats we are going to enjoy, some of them probably to our detriment—that is just by the way. Have we paused to think of those who perhaps will not have those opportunities to even have a small meal of some sort, while we enjoy the luxuries of what we have in this world? It is sometimes good to reflect on that and to realise our responsibility for compassion. We should be reaching out to those who are less well-off, indeed to those for whom a meal is not just a meal but their very chance of survival. As we have watched the repercussions of the coronavirus take hold, I have seen an increase in the use of food banks in my area. Food poverty is a reality for some families in this so-called western world, and in the western country in which we live.
Before the debate I had talks with some APPG groups, and I suspect that the hon. Member for Glasgow East probably listed their names, which was why they came to me. They discussed malnutrition, and we have malnutrition in this country in some areas. I would have been unaware of the figures they gave me for my constituency, to be truthful. It is about the food people are eating, the food poverty in which they live, and how we address those issues.
The first ever food bank in Northern Ireland, from the Trussell Trust, was initiated by church groups in my constituency, who came together with other groups. Over the years, that food bank has become an integral part of life for a great many people. People come to me regularly for pointers towards a food bank, and I can honestly say that without those initial injections of food at that time those people would have been under tremendous pressure. I thank God for all the food bank volunteers who have dropped food round at people’s doors and worked tirelessly to help the community. They must be saluted. I salute Richard and Natalie Porter and my local team at the Trussell Trust food bank established at the Thriving Life Church, along with all others making a difference to people in our community. For the record and for Hansard it is also important to thank all the churches and charities for all that they do. Those teams have set their goals to reduce malnutrition. Many of the churches in my area are involved in projects in Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Kenya. They do incredible work there, and we could not do without their work.
Will the Minister indicate in her response what could be done to partner and work with the churches and charities that have their feet on the ground and that may perhaps be able to allocate and distribute the food to the people who need it most? I also believe that we have a moral and personal obligation to reach out and help others. It is what we are. It is how we look at things, and it is what we wish to do. I congratulate the Government on their historic leadership on nutrition as outlined in the 2013 Nutrition for Growth summit and the recent review of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact into DFID’s, and now the FCDO’s, nutrition work. It is a known fact that covid-19 has caused malnutrition rates around the world to skyrocket. The focus has all been on covid-19 and some of the other things that we would focus on have not happened, so that is rather disconcerting. Up to 10,000 more children are predicted to die each month due to undernutrition in 2020 than were predicted prior to covid-19. Again, that underlines how important the debate is and underlines as well why we look longingly to the Minister and our Government for responsibility to help us address those issues.
The number of children suffering from wasting—being dangerously underweight—is likely to increase from 47 million to 53 million as a result of covid-19. Some of the adverts we have seen on TV, in particular for Yemen, where we see some of those malnourished children, are really very hard to watch. As yet unpublished data shows that stunted physical and cognitive growth as a result of malnutrition affects some 149 million children under the age of 5 and that the figure of 21.9% per cent before the pandemic is set to rise dramatically unless urgent action is taken. Now is the time to put the action that Government have promised in place. Let us be clear: the United Kingdom is committed and we know that. It is the third biggest donor to nutrition programmes in the world after the United States and Canada, when we look at average donor financing to nutrition between 2013 and 2017. Yet again, I take the opportunity to urge Government to continue displaying leadership in nutrition. They are doing it, we need to continue to do it and we need to encourage others who are not doing it to do it equally.
I read the APPG’s report on nutrition and it makes a number of calls. I support it in those calls, in that the FCDO should recommit to reach 50 million women, adolescent girls and children with high-impact nutrition interventions over the next four years; to implement the policy marker for the nutrition aspect of its work, which would encourage teams within the FCDO, beyond the nutrition team, to consider the impact they can have on nutrition; to utilise the tactical leadership of the nutrition team within the FCDO to ensure all teams within the Department understand how nutrition relates to their brief; and to develop a needs and evidence-based nutrition-sensitive investment case. So: recommit, implement, utilise and develop.
I know that the Minister will be aware that the Governments of Canada and Bangladesh are hosting the event, as others have said, called Nutrition for Growth: Year of Action. The purpose of the event is to launch 2021 as the year of action for nutrition. Would it not be great if we were able to turn things around in 2021 and have a programme where money could be committed and make things happen? All Governments and others around the world should step up in the fight against malnutrition. Given the UK’s historic leadership, which we greatly appreciate, is the Minister planning to attend the event or play a part in it if at all possible? I take the opportunity to urge her to use the event to make a generous governmental pledge to nutrition.
We can make a difference and I believe we must ensure that every pound of foreign aid finds its place in a place of need and is not lost in greed. This is a big responsibility, but I believe that the Government and the Department are up to the task. I look forward to seeing how best we can save lives, bring hope and encouragement for those who need it and fulfil a global vision of no child left behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and a great pleasure to warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for bringing forward this debate on a crucial issue at a crucial time. It is also a pleasure to follow so many constructive, sensible, warm-hearted and powerful contributions from across the House. There is a great deal of unity on this issue.
Malnutrition is a devastating condition in its own right, but it is also an aggravating factor in disease risk and a threat multiplier occurring with other conditions. By way of context, according to The Lancet, an additional 433 children each day are going to die as a result of the interaction between covid and malnutrition. This is a global pandemic that is affecting everybody, but it is affecting the poorest hardest. Public health has come to the fore like never before and global interconnectedness has never been clearer, so for the UK to be walking away from its commitment at this time is, to our mind, a matter of great regret. It is stark how, in the “2020 Global Nutrition Report in the context of Covid-19”, David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation special envoy on covid-19 has talked sharply of the real risk that
“as nations strive to control the virus, the gains they have made in reducing hunger and malnutrition will be lost.”
This is a timely debate and I am glad there is so much cross-party unity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East alluded to, the UK has a good story to tell on this. The UK has not been idle. Our concern is on the future direction of the UK’s policy and the people who are in charge of setting and influencing it.
The SNP conference at the weekend committed the SNP, in an independent state, to the 0.7% GNI commitment on overseas aid. That will be the cornerstone of our development policy; we believe it is a mark of global decency. Even with the powers that we have under the devolved settlement, the Scottish Government have pledged £2 million to UNICEF efforts in Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda.
DFID, as was, is based in East Kilbride. Scotland has a keen interest and support for international development and related issues. That is why we so much regret the decision by the UK Government to walk away from the 0.7% commitment. We appreciate there are budgetary pressures—there always are—but to blame the pandemic, which is affecting everybody worldwide and the poorest hardest, as a reason to walk away from that commitment is, to our mind, a matter of great regret. We hope that we will see a change of course. At least let us prioritise malnutrition within the existing spend. The UK remains, of course, a considerable overseas development player. We celebrate that but we are concerned about where it is going in future.
I will not rehearse points that have already been made, but will perhaps distil some of the very constructive suggestions we have heard. We believe that the UK must commit to a multi-annual financial pledge to malnutrition. The UK’s existing commitments expire in a matter of weeks. We hope and expect they will be continued, but we would like to see that multi-annual financial pledge. We would like to see commitment of a minimum of £120 million a year to malnutrition projects, and we would like to see malnutrition accelerated within existing spend in other areas.
We would also like the UK to back enthusiastically the postponed Tokyo 2021 Nutrition for Growth summit. We believe that global action is necessary and the UK can play a part within that. We would also like to see the UK implement calls made in The BMJ by 180 experts for integrated international guidelines on the human right to healthy, nutritious diets. Guidelines can help inform development policy, and the more coherent they are globally, the stronger that effort will be.
We are concerned about the future direction of travel of the UK Government, but it is not too late to change course. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. If we are prioritising spend to help the poorest and malnourished in our global society, she can rest assured of the SNP’s support.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and his co-sponsors for securing such an important debate on such a crucial topic. I also commend the work of the all-party parliamentary group on these issues.
We have heard powerful and passionate speeches: from my hon. Friends the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra); and from the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), who spoke powerfully of her experiences; the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith); and from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who always makes a powerful contribution on such issues. It is good to see him back. I also take this opportunity to commend the work of my shadow ministerial colleague, Lord Collins, who has done much to highlight these issues and has campaigned for global action.
Despite the huge advances we have seen in agriculture, food science and distribution, it should be a profound shame to the global community, including this country, that so many continue to go hungry and malnourished globally and in this country. We have heard today of the wider consequences for education, women and girls, and wider health.
As a Co-operative Member of Parliament, this is cause close to my heart. I am proud to support the Co-operative party’s Food Justice campaign. Since the covid-19 crisis hit, it has been estimated that 8 million people in the UK regularly have trouble putting food on the table and half a million people are using food banks. I know all too well the reality for those facing food poverty in my community, having volunteered with and supported a number of local food banks and delivery schemes for the most vulnerable.
My concern and that of the official Opposition for those going hungry does not end at our borders. I have seen with my own eyes the stark face of hunger and near-starvation globally with the World Food Programme and others. As we have heard, that picture is even more stark today, despite decades of progress in tackling hunger and malnutrition. As the Co-operative party Food Justice campaign states, the big picture is not that there is too little food; the problem is that people simply have far too little money. Such is the inequality in our economic system that profound structural change is fully required to address that. As we have heard, malnutrition is a leading cause of preventable death around the world, and millions are affected by food insecurity. Despite the fact that we live in a world of plenty, one in nine still go to bed every night hungry or undernourished. That is one of the reasons why the United Nations made food security one of the key sustainable goals—the Minister is wearing the badge today. As we celebrate UN Human Rights Day this Thursday, we must remember the key human right to food and adequate nutrition, as defined by the United Nations.
The United Nations reports that, after decades of steady decline, the number of people who suffer from hunger has been increasing slowly since 2015, even before the current crisis and the coming climate change emergency. It is estimated that, staggeringly, nearly 690 million people are hungry—8.9% of the world’s population, up by 10 million people in one year and nearly 60 million in five years. The world is not on track to achieve zero hunger by 2030, and if recent trends continue the number of people affected by hunger and malnutrition will surpass 840 million by 2030.
We have heard about many of the causes of that increase: man-made conflicts, climate change and economic downturns. In recent weeks, I have had conversations with humanitarian agencies operating in South Sudan and Ethiopia—two countries that exemplify those challenges; millions in South Sudan are on the brink of famine. I was having those conversations on the very day that the Government decided to slash the 0.7% commitment—what a stark contrast! The covid-19 pandemic could double that number, putting an additional 130 million people at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of 2020. Of course, malnutrition is linked to economic inequality more widely. Rates of being underweight are 10 times higher in the poorest countries in the world than in the richest.
We have heard many examples illustrating the global situation, and I will touch on a few of them. It comes as no surprise that, following six years of disastrous civil war, Yemen faces the most acute malnutrition crisis in the world. The statistics are absolutely shocking: 12% of the population are in a critical emergency and 13 million people—many of them children—are in food insecurity. In South Sudan, 44% of the population are at the most critical phase, and more than 5 million people are affected. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, countries across the Sahel and north-east Nigeria are also affected. In Zimbabwe, 45% of the population—more than 4 million people—are at risk. In Haiti, the numbers facing food insecurity are nearing 4 million—40% of the population.
Too many turn away and forget. I see it as a particular tragedy that 36% of the population of Afghanistan—more than 11 million people—face food insecurity. We see food insecurity in more than one in 10 of the population of Burundi, Ethiopia, Eswatini, Guatemala, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, Uganda and Zambia. Of course, there is a conflict ongoing in Tigray in Ethiopia, and the situation across east Africa and the horn of Africa is exacerbated by the locust pandemic, flooding and the impact of conflict on crucial harvests.
To put it simply, this is exactly the time when the world’s poorest need more investment in food security and nutrition, not dangerous and life-threatening cuts. We need more, not less, work on the fundamentals of nutrition and food insecurity. As the “Global Nutrition Report” outlines, we need to build equitable, resilient and sustainable food systems. We need to renew and expand our nutrition commitments at key moments, such as the crucial Nutrition for Growth summit in Japan next year, leading the way for other countries.
We heard that, next week, Canada and Bangladesh are holding a virtual summit to launch Nutrition for Growth’s year of action. Will the Minister or one of her colleagues be attending, and will the UK Government make a pledge? Will there be a continuation of nutrition finance at current levels at least through to 2022, to ensure that we do not face a cliff edge at the end of 2021? In what other ways are the Government working with donors around the world to ensure that new commitments are made at that crucial summit in Japan next year?
As has been said many times, the UK can rightly be proud of its record, under multiple Governments of different colours over many decades, on combating malnutrition and preventable deaths and preventing hunger, but promises to tackle malnutrition and hunger in the future are meaningless given how easily manifesto commitments are tossed aside at the whim of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. Will the Minister confirm whether, as well as the plan to scrap the 0.7% Act, there is a plan to scrap the International Development Act 2002, which ensures that our funding is targeted at those who most need it and are at risk of malnutrition and hunger?
I have some specific questions for the Minister. DFID funded a multi-organisation programme in south-central Somalia to prevent the worst effects of disasters and food insecurity in a country where 28% of children under five are stunted. Will that programme continue to be funded, or will it be cut? The Pakistan food fortification programme is doing critical work to enhance nutrition among women—in particular, pregnant women. Will that continue after 2021, or will that nutritional support for the poorest and most vulnerable women be scrapped?
The World Food Programme appealed for £4.9 billion in 2020 to respond to the covid-19 pandemic, yet only half of that has been secured. The World Food Programme has had to implement prolonged ration cuts, including in refugee and internally displaced people’s camps across east Africa, including in South Sudan and Syria. The World Food Programme is clear that its partners do not have the funding required to prevent widespread hunger and famine. What is the UK Government response to that World Food Programme appeal at such a critical time? Will the Minister tell us how much funding for global food programmes has been cut last year and this year, and how much the Government plan to cut next year?
As I said, I have witnessed the impact of hunger and malnutrition at first hand. I have stood talking to villagers in Malawi as they queue for hours, waiting for a few basic bags of grain, while I am able to return to my comfortable hotel in the evening and eat well. I have seen impoverished street children in Kabul in Afghanistan. I have met women from Zimbabwe forced to sell themselves for sex so that they can feed their children. I have spoken to young people who have had their education disrupted or ended completely by having to return to till the fields for meagre returns, simply to help their family subsist. I have met families who have been ravaged by HIV/AIDS, through want of not only medicine but basic nutrition. I have met those whose lives have been torn apart by conflict originating in battles over scarce resources such as food and water, which are likely to be exacerbated as the climate emergency gathers place.
I put it to the Minister that as global Britain, we have a choice, we have a moral duty, and we have an imperative to act in our common interest to lay the foundations for mutually beneficial growth, education and health, and to remove the conditions that drive conflict and migration, with people fleeing the poverty, hunger and malnutrition that we have heard described so passionately in today’s debate. This is not the time to undermine our commitments on nutrition and hunger, at the very time when all that progress risks reversal.
Let me start by saying that I am really grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for having secured this morning’s debate, and to all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I thank everyone for their recommendations and the thoughts they have shared this morning regarding our future approach, and I am deeply grateful to all those who are working tirelessly on this vital issue. I am reminded of the APPG meeting that we held earlier in the year. I am also reminded by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) of the many visits that I have made to Africa over the years with Project Umubano, where I have seen at first hand some of the work that is taking place—not just through Government projects, but through civil society organisations and other groups—to tackle a range of issues, including hunger and malnutrition.
Tackling malnutrition continues to be of importance for this Government. Between April 2015 and March 2020, the UK Government reached more than 55 million young children, adolescent girls and women in the poorest countries with nutrition support. I was pleased to see that the Independent Commission for Aid Impact recently commended us on our work, and noted that the UK had undoubtedly underestimated its reach and impact. Preventing and treating malnutrition remains fundamental to achieving the Government’s commitment to end the preventable deaths of mothers, newborns and children by 2030.
Malnutrition is the underlying cause of almost half of all child deaths and one in five maternal deaths. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, progress to reduce malnutrition was already far too slow, particularly across Africa and south Asia. There is concrete evidence that the indirect effects of covid-19 are increasing malnutrition risk and threatening to reverse the gains that have been made. My Department, the FCDO, is closely monitoring the effect on nutrition. Many countries are reporting significant disruptions to key nutrition services, particularly breastfeeding support, delivery of vitamin A and iron-folate supplements, and treatment for acute malnutrition. Those disruptions will undermine the nutrition of the most vulnerable women and children in the world, and increase the number of people who die.
At the end of 2019, 135 million people in 55 countries and territories already faced acute food insecurity. Experts have estimated that as a result of the pandemic, acute malnutrition has increased by 14%, resulting in an additional 125,000 child deaths. Good nutrition is central to health, educational outcomes and poverty alleviation. A two-year-old who has received the basic nutrients they need in their early years is 10 times more likely to overcome the most life-threatening childhood diseases. They are also set to remain in school four years longer than their undernourished counterparts and to go on to earn more and have healthier lives and families. Every £1 invested to prevent malnutrition brings returns of £16 in increased productivity, so it is imperative that steps are taken to stop the current deterioration and to help countries get on track to achieve the 2030 target to end malnutrition in all its forms.
The UK Government are addressing this global challenge in three major ways. First, we are prioritising and continuing foreign investment in essential nutrition services, with a focus on countries experiencing the greatest shocks, including the impacts of covid-19. This includes highly cost-effective interventions such as breast-feeding support and acute malnutrition treatment in countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and Ethiopia. We are also supporting programmes to deal with the chronic drivers of malnutrition in countries such as Zambia and Malawi. I personally made sure that our support to the Power of Nutrition financing facility was prioritised, so that this essential initiative can continue to save lives and avert malnutrition in countries such as Tanzania and Liberia.
Secondly, in September, the Foreign Secretary appointed the UK’s first special envoy for famine prevention, Nick Dyer. This is a clear signal that this Government are not prepared to look away as conflict, climate shock and the coronavirus pandemic put millions at risk of large-scale food insecurity and malnutrition. Alongside this, we launched a £119 million package of support to avert famine and food insecurity, which included a new five-year £30 million partnership with UNICEF to transform how acute malnutrition is prevented and treated. This will enable at least 4.3 million children each year in Africa and Asia to access essential nutrition services.
Thirdly, turning to Nutrition for Growth and the Canada event, to which many Members have referred to today, we remain firmly committed to working with the Government of Japan as they prepare for the next Nutrition for Growth summit. 2021 will be an important year for galvanising action to address malnutrition and I look forward to joining the Government of Canada at their event on 14 December to launch the Year of Nutrition for Growth. I am grateful for their leadership and support on this important issue. However, it is very clear that the scale of the global nutrition challenge needs a wide and diverse coalition of support. It cannot and should not only fall to Japan, Canada and the UK to deal with this global challenge. An essential part of our role is making the case to broaden the support base. It is incumbent on our partner Governments, the private sector and the multilateral system also to step forward. Nutrition investment is fantastic value for money, as many Members have highlighted.
The House will be aware of the difficult decision that the Government announced recently to reduce the aid budget to 0.5% of gross national income. I am conscious Members have raised this point during the debate. I have to say this was a difficult, but temporary decision. It is our intention to return to the 0.7% target as soon as the fiscal situation allows. In 2021, we will remain one of the most generous G7 donors, spending more than £10 billion to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health. We will also do aid better across Government; even though the budget is smaller, we will deliver it with greater impact for every £1 that we spend. Some 93.5% of UK aid will come under FDCO leadership—
I do not doubt the Minister’s personal commitment on these issues, which she has shown over many years. Obviously, what we have heard about the aid cut is deeply concerning. I have some doubts that the cut is temporary, particularly given the scrapping of the relevant legislation, but I asked the Minister a specific question about the International Development Act 2002. Will she rule out changes to that Act, because it is the focus in that Act that ensures that our aid is spent, by whatever Department, on the most crucial challenges, such as nutrition and hunger?
I know that the hon. Gentleman will seek to press me on this matter. I reiterate that we will remain one of the most generous G7 donors, even though we will spend 0.5 % of our GNI rather than the 0.7%, and as soon as the fiscal situation allows, we will revert to 0.7%. It is a temporary reduction.
I still have a bit of time left, so I want to respond to one or two more specific points raised by hon. Members. One was the link between covid-19 and nutrition. It is an important secondary impact for us all to be aware of. Malnourished people are likely to be more severely affected by covid-19, and the wider impacts of covid-19 are predicted to increase malnutrition, particularly across Africa and Asia. Over the past year, nutrition services have been prioritising many FCDO country programmes, including in Ethiopia, Somalia, Zambia and across the Sahel, to help to reduce the negative impacts of the pandemic. We have also supported Governments in the Scaling Up Nutrition movement to adapt their own responses.
Some Members raised the issue of vaccines in this debate, and I think it is important to recognise that malnourished children have been shown to have a less effective response to some, but not all, vaccines. Clearly, averting malnutrition is a sensible strategy to underpin any vaccination programme.
Girls’ education was mentioned by several Members, including the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra). The UK is a global leader when it comes to girls’ education. Helping poor countries to provide 12 years of good-quality education, particularly for girls, is a top priority for this Government. We know that for children to learn they need the right nutrients, and that malnutrition disproportionately affects women and girls, preventing many girls from attending school and hindering the potential of those who do. I recall on some of my visits to Africa actually teaching in schools and visiting schools and seeing the difference that a child having had something to eat could make to their ability to learn.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) touched on partnership working. Let me assure him that we work with a range of partners to deliver our nutrition programmes. In countries such as Nigeria, we work very closely with faith-based groups to ensure that we reach those in need.
If those church groups and charity groups that do very specific physical work in some of the countries that I mentioned want to be partnered with Government officials to ensure that that happens, is it possible for the Minister to give me some contacts, or give us all contacts, whereby we could perhaps bring them together?
I undertake to respond to the hon. Gentleman directly on that very specific point.
During the debate, we have raised the situation in various countries around the world that are experiencing food shortages and challenges with nutrition. I want to pick up on a couple of specific places. One is the Sahel, where our support will provide nutrition screening to 526,250 children and mothers in that region. That will include emergency malnutrition response treatment for almost 26,000 children with severe acute malnutrition. Yemen is a country that was specifically mentioned by several Members. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary warned in September, Yemen has never looked more likely to slide into famine. Food prices in some areas have risen by 20% since the start of 2020. The UK has shown leadership and responded to the crisis. We have committed £200 million this financial year, including an extra £30.8 million in new funding for famine prevention in September. That takes our total commitment to more than £1 billion since the conflict began in 2015. This financial year, we are providing the World Food Programme with £58 million to provide vital food assistance, meeting the immediate food needs of more than 500,000 Yemenis each month.
Preventing and treating malnutrition will remain a core part of what we do, given its vital contribution to health and wellbeing as well as to education and to ending poverty. I will be happy to update the House again on our approach to malnutrition in 2021, prior to the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit. There remains no doubt that addressing malnutrition in the poorest countries of the world is the right thing to do. Even in these difficult times, we will endeavour to do what we can to reach those most at risk. The real power of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is that we can now tackle global challenges like this by combining our world-leading aid expertise with our diplomatic strength. In doing so, we will still be able to help millions of people escape the terrible impact of malnutrition.
I thank everyone for the strong cross-party representation that there has been in the debate. No fewer than five political parties have contributed to a Westminster Hall debate. When our minds are sometimes on other issues, that is not insignificant.
I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for referring to Lord Collins of Highbury. He has been a stellar champion in the other place and helpful to me and the hon. Gentlemen in the work that he does in the all-party parliamentary group.
All Members have put on record the need for the multi-year financial pledge. I very much welcome what the Minister said about her commitment to attending the Canada summit. I hope that the UK Government will take the opportunity to make an early pledge.
We heard excellent contributions, starting with that from the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who spoke about his regret at the reduction of the target from 0.7% to 0.5%. I hope that the UK Government will clarify when we will return to a target of 0.7%. The right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) spoke about the financial costs of malnutrition at £3.5 trillion. I have often thought that in order to explain to Ministers why the issue is so important, we should sometimes cite the economic cost. The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that the financial cost is staggering. He said that for every £1 invested, we get £16 in return.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) is no longer in the Chamber, but she spoke about her experience of working in this field for 10 years and about working on the issue in Stormont. She was right to refer to the concerns of the World Food Programme about the prospect of a famine of biblical proportions. She also questioned how the UK Government’s recent move ties in with their commitment to a global Britain.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) was right to quote the former Prime Minister, David Cameron—not someone I would normally quote in the House of Commons. I was struck by the tweet that he put out on the day of the spending review when he said that we share this planet with some of the poorest people in the world and now is not the time to turn our backs on them.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) spoke about his experience on the DFID Select Committee and his regret that it has been abolished. Because of a malfunction with my hankies—hon. Members will see that I am falling apart with a cold—I had to leave during the speech of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I apologise to him. He was right to speak about a moral obligation and reminded us that many people across the world will not enjoy a Christmas dinner.
I say to the House—this point will not be lost on those watching in Scotland—that these days there is little to unite Members from the Scottish Conservative party and the Scottish National party, but the fact that the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and I have managed to put our parties’ politics on domestic issues and the constitution aside to campaign on nutrition should send a strong message to the Government. The biggest thing that divides me and the right hon. Gentleman is his belief that the UK and Scotland are somehow better together. I will never agree with him on that, but we can all agree that when it comes to the issue of vaccines in tackling malnutrition, we are very much better together.
When we applied for this debate, I thought about how it was not a covid-related issue—“My goodness; how will this look in Westminster Hall?”—but on the day when vaccines are being rolled out across the United Kingdom, we are reminded of the importance of good nutrition, so the timing could not have been better. I say to the Minister that we should not look at this issue in silos as we go forward. Let us tackle it as a team and make sure that we understand how vaccines and nutrition go hand in hand. That is why it is so important that we get a multi-year funding pledge. If the Minister commits to that, she will have the support of the whole House and every party in here.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s role in tackling global malnutrition.
Covid-19: Music Education
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on music education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Although I have spoken in many Westminster Hall debates before, this is my first as the instigator of the debate.
When schools teach music and other creative subjects properly, our whole society and economy benefit. Although by no means a musician myself, I hugely enjoyed my experiences of music at school, which helped me develop a deep love for classical music. My family have been Methodists for over 200 years, and as the preface to the celebrated 1933 Methodist hymn book says,
“We were born in song”.
Music has been part of the national curriculum for children aged five to 14 since it was first published in 1988-89, and has been recognised as an important part of a broad and balanced curriculum by successive Governments. Music education needs that recognition again from this Government—perhaps more so now than ever before.
There is a wealth of evidence indicating that studying music builds cultural knowledge, creative skills and improves children’s health, wellbeing and wider educational attainment. Through classroom music, children and young people develop their skills in making and creating music through performing, composing, improvising, and responding critically, in an informed way, to music from a wide range of genres and traditions.
While classroom music forms the foundation of children and young people’s music education, it is hugely enriched by the provision of a wide range of extracurricular opportunities for young people to develop their musical interests, such as school orchestras, choirs and other ensembles. Altogether, this is an essential talent pipeline for the music industry, which is worth a staggering £5.8 billion a year to the UK economy. Schools around the country are already trying their best to continue to provide excellent music education, despite adverse circumstances, and they are bolstered by several bodies that are adopting innovative approaches.
As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on independent education, I am aware that over 650 Independent School Council schools have music partnerships with state schools, and those partnerships allow students to attend music lessons at each other’s schools, host joint music events, and send teaching staff across to share their knowledge and expertise in both directions. This helps to foster strong working partnerships and connections that are increasingly important given the current circumstances.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the undisputed benefits of music within society are at greater risk now than at any time in history? Does he agree that the Government need to step into the breach? Covid-19 affects disposable income, which means fewer private music lessons, so we must offer music education involving various instruments in every school throughout this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to ensure that we hold on to music’s positive benefits for society?
The hon. Gentleman is right, because no one could have predicted the idea that someone could not blow through an instrument because that spreads particles and so on, and it means that so much new work now needs to be focused on this area.
The joint approach I am describing was also highlighted by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference chaired by Sally-Anne Huang, and the Music Teachers Association, which is the country’s largest association of music teachers. They have made a firm commitment to work together to advocate for music in all schools. The vast majority of HMC schools already partner with state colleagues in music, but this is a new national partnership, which will allow co-ordination at an enhanced level, drawing attention to the essential role played by schools in the musical life of our nation. This month they launched the “Bach to School” teaching and singing resource led by Gabrieli Roar, which I would encourage all colleagues to investigate further via its website.
I declare a former interest as a professional classical singer who, like many performers, also held down a peripatetic teaching job in several schools for many years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that music is essential to build children’s confidence? It benefits a wide range of other academic subjects. The initiative that he described to keep music education going can also be found in resources that schools have innovated, such as #CanDoMusic. There is more scope to support children whose music education has been adversely affected by covid-19.
I thank my hon. Friend not only for her point, but for my promotion to right honourable. I will reflect upon what she has said and how important it is that she said it, given that she is a voice of experience with a background in the subject, who has knowledge about the subject itself and its wider benefits. That is a key part of why I brought forward today’s debate.
In my own constituency, the Northamptonshire Music and Performing Arts Trust, led by Peter Smalley and comprised of over 300 staff, has worked with over 20,000 children and young people in the past year to deliver the promises of the national plan for music education. NMPAT employs a team of peripatetic staff who visit different schools to deliver teaching projects and musical experiences. Its headquarters is in my constituency; I have visited it and attended their concerts. I am looking forward to being able to go to those concerts again as a way of celebrating our re-emergence next year.
With limited experience in the delivery of online teaching, NMPAT reacted quickly to deliver a digital alternative, to ensure children continued to receive vital access to music education. NMPAT has asked me to specifically raise with the Minister its thanks for the job retention scheme, which has been a lifeline for the staff throughout the pandemic, ensuring children in Northampton and the county continue to receive the music education they deserve.
An issue that has been raised with me in numerous calls and in meetings, prior to securing this debate, is funding for the adjustments that NMPAT and others have had to make for the digital age and the creation of covid-secure environments. I hope the Minister will consider that in her remarks. Funding for 2019-20 has not been adequate to cover the costs of the current situation and there is a need for an uplift in 2020-21, back to parity to at least 2011 levels. That is even more pressing now we find ourselves where we are.
Even prior to covid-19, music education was facing significant challenges, including cuts to funding and widening gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, particularly when it came to instrumental tuition, as we have already heard. There have been falling teacher training and recruitment numbers, and a continuing decrease in the uptake of music examination courses.
The pressure of accountability measures, such as year 6 SATs in primary schools and the English baccalaureate, or EBacc, in secondary schools, has meant that access to music education has been significantly reduced. For example, “Music Education: State of the Nation,” published in 2019 by the all-party parliamentary group for music education, found that more than 50% of responding schools were not meeting the curriculum requirements in year 6, citing the pressure of statutory tests as a contributory factor. Interestingly, those findings were supported by observations by Ofsted.
Since the introduction of the EBacc in 2010, there has been a significant decrease in the uptake of GCSE and A-level music. The figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications show a 25% decline in pupils taking GCSE music and roughly a 43% decline in those taking A-level music over the past decade. Ofsted’s annual report, which is hot off the press and was published on 1 December 2020, found that
“not all children were receiving a full and appropriate curriculum”
and identified “curriculum narrowing” as a concern. Where the full curriculum is not offered, that often results in inequalities of opportunity for the pupils affected.
The Department for Education’s own figures show that only 82% of the recruitment target for music teachers was reached in England in 2019-20, and the number of music teachers recruited into teaching music since 2010 has decreased by 53%. In the context of the delivery reductions due to covid-19, those trends are likely to deepen. I know that that will be a concern to colleagues here and to those in the teaching sector.
Some of these statistics are worrying and make the national plan for music education even more important. Can the Minister commit to a date for a revised national plan? My hon. Friend also raised funding issues. Can the Minister give a date to agree future funding for music hubs, which face significant challenges over the next few years?
I am sure the Minister has heard that.
The coronavirus pandemic has had and will continue to have an impact on all aspects of music education: curriculum entitlement, singing in schools, music making, and especially extracurricular activities, learning instruments and examinations. That has been captured by a report published on 6 December by the Incorporated Society of Musicians, titled “The heart of the school is missing”, which I strongly suggest that colleagues and the Minister read.
To measure the impact of covid-19, the ISM collated 1,300 responses from members of the music-teaching profession who work in schools across the UK. It reveals the detrimental impact that covid has had on music education. I will set out the headline figures. Ten per cent. of primary and secondary schools do not teach class music at all, even though it is a requirement in the curriculum. That is on top of schools reporting that, as a result of their lack of access to technology and the resources they need to adapt, many children were not given any music lessons throughout the closure of schools. Sixty-eight per cent. of primary school teachers and 39% of secondary school teachers stated that music provision had to be significantly reduced to ensure that key parts of the curriculum, such as those for exams, are covered due to time pressure as a result of corona restrictions. Extracurricular activities are no longer taking place in 72% of primary schools and 66% of secondary schools this year. That is partly due to the fact that it took time to get guidance on singing, brass and woodwind playing from the Government before schools resumed, and—much more difficult—a lack of access to well-ventilated spaces.
Singing and practical music making have all been affected. Teachers report that face-to-face instrument lessons are not continuing in 35% of primaries and 28% of secondary schools. Eighty-six per cent. of secondary music teachers report that they have had to rewrite schemes of work completely due to coronavirus. Sixteen per cent. of music teachers have had no access to specialist classrooms, and 43% have to move between non-specialist classrooms to teach some or all of their music. One teacher was even quoted as saying that they had been given 15 B&Q buckets to use as drums in their classrooms.
An important issue that has become evident because of that is the mental health of staff and the impact that covid has had on them. Many of the organisations that I mentioned highlighted music teachers’ mental health and wellbeing and the damage that has happened as a result of these disruptions and changes. Many of us are very aware of the mental health implications for virtually everybody involved in trying to keep life going as a result of the impact of the pandemic.
Although we face an unprecedented crisis, coronavirus also provides us with a pivotal moment for reflection and an opportunity to reset education policy. We need to begin to implement a strategy that will future-proof music education for future students and reverse the trend of music education being sidelined. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) said, the national plan for music education was first published in 2011. It established music education hubs, which provide opportunities to sing and learn instruments in addition to classroom music. Following a consultation in March 2020, a refreshed plan was due to be published this autumn, with the aim of levelling up musical opportunities for children from all backgrounds.
The Government are due to publish the new national plan for music education, and when that document is released, schools need to be informed of their role so that they are fully engaged as part of their own local music education hubs. I hope the Minister will consider that. The need for the joy of music to herald our emergence from this terrible time only serves to underline the need for particular departmental focus on it in the way I have suggested.
The pandemic also offers the opportunity to revisit the nature and purpose of assessments in ensuring that young people are equipped for the future. In the short term, the Department for Education needs to guarantee that pupils sitting music assessments in summer 2021 are not disadvantaged by the pandemic but are rewarded for their achievements.
That steady progress, which takes a number of months or years, is an essential element of learning an instrument or taking singing lessons, and I am very concerned about the mental health of students who, no doubt, will feel deflated at not being able to make the progress that they have worked so hard to achieve. I seek reassurance from the Minister on behalf of those children who will sit practical music exams over the coming year and possibly next year. Will the grading process take into account the significant interruption to the progress of those many music students?
My hon. Friend makes a key point about an area in which practical and helpful steps can be taken relatively easily. Concessions such as scaling down the requirements of the practical elements of exam courses have been put in place for music qualifications. However, the content and assessment requirements for many EBacc subjects have not yet been changed. That puts pressure on schools to focus their available time on prioritising those subjects, which can create an unnecessary and unhelpful hierarchy of subjects—and a questionable hierarchy at that.
I know that the ISM is concerned that Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools told the Education Committee on 10 November that, in 2021, exams could take place for core subjects, with centre-assessed grades for other subjects. If that happens, it would lead to a further devaluing of arts subjects, which in turn would cause severe damage to music departments that already feel under threat.
Furthermore, the Government must address the ongoing narrowing of the curriculum, which is happening as a result of reducing accountability measures both in primary and in secondary schools. We have an opportunity after covid-19 to build a curriculum that puts young people’s needs first and that champions creative learning as well as science, technology, English and maths. We need to capitalise on that opportunity.
In conclusion, the purpose of securing this debate was to raise awareness of a sector that in some instances gets overlooked. As I am sure the Minister would expect, I also have some general asks. As I mentioned earlier, funding for 2019-20 has not been adequate in the current situation and there is a need for an uplift in 2020-21, to attain parity with 2011 levels. This is not just a general request for funding, but a specific one because of the particular circumstances faced by this sector as a result of the restrictions that have been placed on it and the subsequent costs it has incurred. I ask the Minister to look at funding levels in the light of that experience.
School and music organisations need clarity on the national music grant funding from March 2021, and these additional costs need to be borne in mind. Music is a key entitlement for young people, and it contributes positively to the health and wellbeing agenda for the current generation.
I ask the Minister and the Department to remind schools of their obligations to provide a broad and balanced curriculum under the Education Act 2002 and the Academies Act 2010, of which music is a vital part. I also ask them to reinforce the scientific findings on, and the subsequent recommendations for, the safe delivery of curriculum and extracurricular music, and to look to a day—it will be a day on which we will all celebrate—when all of the restrictions will be stopped and we will abolish forever the expression “the new normal” and get back to a proper normal in which we can all live and flourish.
Finally, I am concerned that the Government have removed music from the list of the initial teacher training bursaries on offer for 2021 and 2022. The need to attract the finest musicians into teaching is the greatest that it has ever been, and schools are the only place where young people are guaranteed to receive music education. The surest way of achieving that is through the continuing recruitment of outstanding music teachers.
How important is all of this? It could not be more important. As Beethoven himself put it:
“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) on securing this debate on such an important topic. I stress that the Government remain committed to music education during this very challenging time, for the reasons that he himself outlined—to build creative skills, health and wellbeing. Those things will all foster the next generation of innovators, creators, artists and much, much more.
Music and the arts form a vital part of children and young people’s education. In fact, the best schools in the country combine a high-quality creative arts and cultural education with excellence in core academic subjects. We are committed to ensuring that pupils in England continue to access both. Music education remains a central part of a broad and balanced curriculum. That is why it is a statutory subject, from age five to 14, in the national curriculum, and why pupils in maintained schools have an entitlement to study at least one arts subject in key stage 4.
Although only maintained schools are required to teach the national curriculum, academies are also expected to teach a curriculum that is similar in breadth and ambition. My hon. Friend referred to music teacher recruitment and concerns regarding bursaries. I am pleased to inform him that from 2020-21, the initial teacher training census shows that we have provisionally recruited 483 postgraduate trainee music teachers—that is 125% of the post-graduate ITT target for music. The bursaries and incentives are reviewed regularly to ensure that we are filling the skills gaps and needs. They might be put back in place at later dates but there are positive signs at the moment.
The Department for Education invested nearly £500 million between 2016 and 2020 on a diverse portfolio of music and arts education programmes. That includes £300 million for music education hubs that provide specialist music education services to around 90% of state schools. Almost £120 million has been given to the music and dance scheme that currently supports more than 2,300 exceptionally talented children and young people.
The Department works closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Together the two Departments co-fund a wide range of national music programmes for young people, led by the Arts Council, providing a total of £3 million in the financial year 2020-21. That includes seven national youth music organisations, such as the National Youth Orchestra and the National Youth Jazz Collective; the In Harmony project, which aims to inspire and transform the lives of children in six areas in England, through community-based orchestral music making; and the Music for Youth project, which provides opportunities for young people and families to perform in and attend festivals and concerts.
In January, the Department for Education announced a further £80 million investment in music education hubs for the financial year 2020-21, to ensure that all children, whatever their background, have access to a high-quality music education, which, as we have heard today, is so vital. I stress again that the Government remain committed to supporting music education. We will provide shortly an update on funding for the financial year 2021-22. I am afraid I am not at liberty to do that today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) referred to the national plan. As we know, the national plan of 2011 set out our vision for music education. We will be refreshing that and consulting widely. I urge everybody to input into that consultation. We can expect an announcement in the coming months.
The Government have continued to support schools to deliver a broad and ambitious curriculum, including music, since the start of the pandemic. In the previous academic year, our teachers worked tirelessly to support the majority of pupils through remote education from March, and priority groups of pupils were supported through the gradual easing of national restrictions from June into July.
Similarly, teachers and leaders of music education hubs, specialist schools and training centres funded by music and dance schemes, and the leaders of our national music programmes, transformed their support to allow children and young people to engage remotely in music making, overcoming those logistical and technical challenges highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South. They were able to support the remote learning. In addition, the Department assisted with the introduction of several initiatives for schools and parents, including establishing the Oak National Academy to provide direct curriculum support to schools from a range of online resources. Professional organisations such as Music Mark, the Incorporated Society of Musicians and the Music Teachers Association, along with the Musicians’ Union, also acted quickly to help their members.
The situation has been very different in the autumn term, with schools open, but we set out additional guidance, given the risk of infection in environments where singing and the playing of wind or brass instruments take place. That advice was informed by DCMS guidance on performing arts, informed by the latest scientific advice from SAGE, to give schools and educators the confidence to continue with lessons and workshops, given the importance of the activity. Guidance for schools includes comprehensive advice on music, drama and dance, including on social distancing, additional safeguards for singing and playing wind or brass instruments, groups for ensemble, and handling equipment and musical instruments. In parallel, the Department published advice on music and the performing arts in our guidance for all other educational settings, including out-of-school settings such as school clubs, tutors and other organisations that provide supervised activities for under-18s.
I recognise that the national restrictions brought new challenges for some providers of music education, such as private music tutors and performing arts organisations that run supplementary schools in the evening and on weekends. That face-to-face activity was permitted only if the primary purpose was to enable parents to work, seek work or undertake education or training, or for respite or care for vulnerable children and home-educated children. Those specific conditions have been an important part of reducing the spread of the virus and, as hon. Members will know, they have now been lifted and the general exemption for all supervised activity for under-18s applies to all tiers.
The past months have been challenging, to say the least, and hon. Members have pointed out the impact on music education and learning. However, I am encouraged by the resourceful response from our educators and I wish to thank all 120 music education hubs and their dedicated staff for all they have done to adapt and innovate in that time. The swiftness of their response as the pandemic escalated was, quite frankly, remarkable. Never has it been more important for children to have music in their lives, and the hubs helped ensure that that continued.
Music education hubs provide an important service to the vast majority of state-funded schools, with specialist teachers providing expert advice and support to classroom teachers, music tuition to individual pupils and directly supporting whole-class ensemble teaching—a cornerstone of a high-quality music curriculum. The Government recognise that one of the most significant impacts on the sector of the spring lockdown was the reduction in the money from schools and parents to music education hubs. That is why the Government took steps to ensure that music education hubs were eligible to apply for the Government’s £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund, launched by DCMS and administered by Arts Council England. As a result, 12 music education hubs secured a total of more than £3.5 million in additional funding.
We will also announce shortly an additional package of support provided by Arts Council England to struggling music education hubs, such as the Northamptonshire Music and Performing Arts Trust mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South. He also flagged that it had benefited considerably from the covid job retention scheme, which is important to note.
All of that, once again, demonstrates the importance the Government place on music education and that we have stepped up, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) requested. I hope that hon. Members present are left in no doubt that the Government’s commitment to music education is solid. I will end by once again thanking all of the teachers, those working in music hubs and the music education sector at large for their hard work throughout the past few months, which has enabled so many children to continue to access, enjoy and learn music, no matter their background.
Question put and agreed to.
Future of Pensions Policy
[Mr Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of pensions policy.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. There is an old saying that people should not talk about politics or religion; I sometimes wonder whether that extends to the topic of pensions as well. While saving for a house or car is seen as exciting and a real achievement—and rightly so—the same enthusiasm and planning is never given when people are saving for their retirement. It is time such attitudes around pensions and planning for retirement changed. Pensions are becoming increasingly important and we need to talk about them, both here in Parliament and in the wider public domain, if we want people to feel empowered to make their own decisions about their future, and secure a retirement that they deserve.
People are living longer, and the state pension age has increased, but discussions and debates around pension policy and infrastructure have not moved on in any significant way. A recent study found that 22 million working-age adults do not feel that they understand enough about pensions to make decisions about saving for retirement, highlighting that we need to do more to ensure that people feel informed and empowered to do that saving.
The fact that 5 million people in retirement are not satisfied with their financial circumstances proves that more needs to be done to ensure people take steps earlier so that their later years are more comfortable and secure. Only 38% of seven to 17-year-olds say that they have learned at school how to manage money, which showcases that the lack of knowledge and awareness about savings and pensions starts right at the beginning. This tells us that we need to be having frank and honest conversations about pensions much earlier in people’s lives. It is not enough to start discussing savings and retirement at 60; it needs to be happening in education, in the workplace, at key moments in life, and also here in Parliament.
Today’s debate, I hope, is the first of many important and crucial conversations around pensions and how we, as parliamentarians, can look to shape pension policy in a positive way in the years to come. I am going to touch on a couple of broad themes, the majority of which the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), can respond to, while I appreciate that some of the topics—although relevant—may be for the Treasury to consider rather than my hon. Friend.
Although it is hugely important to start conversations about pensions and retirement as early in life as possible, it would not be right to hold a debate on pensions policy without first looking at how we can help pensioners who may already be struggling. Sadly, pensioner poverty is a real problem across the UK. While it may have decreased over the past 20 years—I commend the efforts of the Minister and the Department in their work on this—Age UK found that 1.9 million pensioners are still living in poverty in the UK. That means that over a quarter of pensioners, despite having worked all their lives, paid their taxes and contributed to our economy, are now living their later years facing more challenging decisions than they necessarily should, wondering whether they can afford to turn the heating on or pay their bills, and watching how every penny is spent.
It does not have to be that way. Many pensioners will be eligible for pension credit: a financial lifeline that tops up their income and prevents them from having to make those difficult decisions, such as keeping warm in their home or having a good meal. Pension credit is also a gateway to other benefits that make a real difference to pensioners’ quality of life, including cold weather payments, NHS dental treatment and, topically, free TV licences for those over 75. Quite simply, pension credit gives older people the financial stability and security to live their lives in a much more worry-free manner.
It is also important to note that, while pension credit makes a huge difference to many individual pensioners’ lives and well-being, it also benefits the whole of society. Research from Independent Age estimates that the cost to the Government of those eligible for pension credit, but not taking it, is around £4 billion a year in increased NHS and social care spending, so it is imperative that we either get the implementation of this benefit right, or reform it altogether.
The question is: does the benefit work effectively for the people it is supposed to serve? Currently, it is not working nearly as effectively as it could, with uptake stagnating at around 60% for the past 10 years. It has never been more than 70%. To put that into perspective, around four in every 10 eligible pensioners are not collecting the free money that is due to them. That means that, at present, around £3.5 billion that is allocated to eradicating pensioner poverty is not reaching older people each year. That is, in part, due to awareness of pension credit being low, despite many advertising campaigns by successive Governments. It seems that wholesale reform is necessary to help reach the people it is designed to help.
The low take-up of pension credit is also due, in part, to the way it is assessed. Instead of being an automatic benefit provided to those who need it, pensioners have to make a claim when they reach the appropriate age, which considers their income level and savings. That is problematic for a couple of reasons, not least that the process can be seen as daunting, overly complicated and difficult to navigate for pensioners. Also, by taking into account people’s savings pots, it discourages long-term responsible economic actions such as saving because people will become ineligible not only for pension credit, but for other gateway benefits I mentioned earlier on.
We need to have a fundamental change in how pension credit is assessed and claimed. We should be looking to help those who need it most by ensuring that financial support is accessible and fair, taking away the blame on people who fail to make that claim. One way to do that would be by making pension credit a full or partial auto-payment benefit, so that no claim has to be submitted, and basing it solely on income levels, which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs really should be able to track to ensure that no one is unfairly at a disadvantage for having prudently saved throughout their working life.
While successive Governments have taken steps to raise the profile and take-up of pension credit, as seen through the work to make it claimable online during the pandemic, we need serious, fundamental change if we want pension credit to play its part in eradicating pensioner poverty and helping the poorest households. I want the Government to consider their role in boosting take-up by making it an automatic benefit that solely considers income.
While pension credit is one important issue that the Government should review as we look to bring positive change, many other areas would also benefit from innovation and further development. One such area is the auto-enrolment regime. Auto-enrolment was introduced by the Government to improve pension savings in the UK, and it has worked, reversing the decline of workplace pension saving. Prior to the start of auto-enrolment, the number of eligible employees who enrolled was 10.7 million. That has now increased to almost 19 million—almost 90% of those eligible.
While that confirms the success of its original aims, instead of engaging the wider public in taking an active role in their workplace pensions, being auto-enrolled has meant that the vast majority of savers assume they will automatically have a large pension pot when they retire. However, that is often not the case, and we have added a layer of what I will call complacency risk into the mix of other issues to consider. It is the risk that people will assume that the pot they are building up is going to get them a particular lifestyle in retirement, which may not always match reality.
Do not get me wrong; auto-enrolment has been fantastic in getting pensions moving again. I really believe that we should be looking at what has been done so far as a starting point rather than an end game.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I accept entirely that this is a legitimate discussion about the future progress of automatic enrolment, which has transformed savings among women and young people to the extent that 80% are now saving, up from 40%. He is right that we are doing better than we have previously done, but it is the suggestions for the future that clearly need to take us forward. I support entirely the direction of travel that he is taking us on.
I thank the Minister for his intervention. The suggestions for the future are about to unfold before his very eyes, as he may have anticipated.
Analysis by the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association suggests that the current contribution rate of 8% is simply not enough for people to have a good standard of living in retirement. I fear that will be the case for many people in several years’ time who have been auto-enrolled into workplace pensions and assume that, as the rate is automatically set by the Government, that means they will have a comfortable pension pot when they retire. Unfortunately, many people are simply not engaged enough with their pensions to realise that until it is too late, despite them being fundamental to their future. I fear auto-enrolment has created the complacency I mentioned earlier.
To combat that issue the PLSA has proposed an increase in the minimum contribution level, to at least 12%, and I agree. Forty-three per cent. of savers do not know how much of their monthly salary they should be saving, in any case, and the increase would benefit a great many individuals, by increasing their savings further. Additional changes could include reducing the starting age to 18 and removing the lower earnings limit, so that every penny of earned income counts towards pensionable pay. According to the Association of British Insurers that would have the potential to save a further £2.5 billion in pension pots. It would not only increase the number of years over which an individual saved, and consequently increase the pot; it would emphasise the importance of saving from a younger age.
What else can we do with auto-enrolment? Why not think a little more outside the box and create a savings culture in the UK? If covid has taught us anything it is the importance of preparedness and planning for every eventuality. One of the bedrocks of financial planning is having an emergency fund in place, but putting money away each month is perhaps easier said than done—there is always something else to spend it on.
We could look at including a savings element in auto-enrolment. Why not, when payroll makes a deduction for the relevant amount for a pension, put 1% into a savings pot at the same time? There could be an auto-enrolment ISA, and people could be given the ability to increase the percentage to what they can afford. Creating a savings culture on the back of pensions policy could be one of the more pleasant side effects of covid. Many people might be more open to having emergency funds to combat future challenges.
Another area of pension policy that could benefit from further positive change are the annual and lifetime allowances. Bearing in mind that that is a Treasury issue and not necessarily one for the Department for Work and Pensions, I shall not labour the point, but there is no need for an annual allowance if there is a lifetime allowance. Saving should be encouraged, and individuals should not be penalised for taking on extra work and saving more into their pensions. That happened to doctors recently, leading to them not taking on shifts and procedures because of the danger of a significant tax bill. A potential solution to that issue would be to remove the tax penalty for breaching the annual allowance, but keep the restriction on the amount of tax relief available to current limits. There would be no additional cost to the Exchequer, and people would be able to continue saving into their pensions in the same way. Yet those who were unnecessarily penalised under the limits of the annual allowance would not be at a disadvantage. As I have said, it is a Treasury area, and I am sure that the Minister will take great pleasure in passing it along.
Wider change is needed in the pensions industry, and one way to achieve that and encourage people to engage earlier with pensions is by improving the accessibility and reach of financial advice and guidance. Despite having been a financial planner involved in the pensions industry for many years prior to coming to this place, I admit that the topic of pensions can be complex. I can see how, for many without such experience and knowledge, pensions could be viewed as hard to understand or even, God forbid, a boring subject—a terrible thought.
I welcome the Government’s push for a simpler regime, which is coming down the line, to make statements more comprehensible for both the consumer and professionals. Members would not believe the wide range of disparate information that pension providers send out to customers, making it impossible not only to understand what they have but to make accurate comparisons between providers. It is currently extremely complicated, and I look forward to simpler statements that will put the consumer in charge. I keep my fingers crossed that that policy will not be several years in the making, as the wheels of Government tend to take rather an age to turn.
It is right to empower individuals to make their own decisions about their futures, but we should ensure that before they make such life-changing decisions they feel informed and supported, and have considered their own unique circumstances. Advice and guidance about pensions needs to be accessible, affordable and available. Despite the benefits that financial advice can bring, only 8% of all UK adults have received it. That is, amazingly, an increase on previous years, but it is still shockingly low, and it puts individuals’ retirements at risk. Whether that is because people feel that financial advice is unaffordable or only for the wealthy, or because they feel it is a risk and do not trust the financial services industry, we need to work actively to change those perceptions and show that financial advice is for everyone.
I can assure the public that the vast majority of advisers whom I have worked with will treat someone’s £30,000 pension pot with the same care and diligence that they will treat someone’s £300,000 pot, because each sum is just as important to the individual concerned. Indeed, the smaller pot can be considered to be much more important to that individual in many ways, because it will often be a lower-earning individual’s only pension provision, and so the risks of it running out too early are more significant.
If we do not promote the need for and the benefits of financial advice, I worry that we will have a retirement crisis on our hands 20, 30 or 40 years down the line. Recent data shows that 35% of the adult population say they do not have a pension. Of those who do have one, 36% are not sure how much is in their pot. Even more worryingly, the uncertainty around pensions goes further than uncertainty about individual circumstances, with almost half the population admitting that they do not have a clue about how much income they would need to retire comfortably. That clearly shows that widespread advice and education regarding pensions and retirement are urgently needed if we want people to be able to live out their later years in financial security and comfort.
In the past, these types of financial decisions and risks were shouldered by employers, pension providers and life insurance companies. Now, however, with the introduction of greater flexibility and freedom to the pensions marketplace, it is increasingly down to the individual to decide these matters, which is a wonderful thing in some respects, but worrying in others. We should not really place all responsibility for such important decisions on to people themselves. Instead, we should ensure that people feel supported and know where to turn for help and advice.
Financial advice is not only needed to help people feel more informed and aware when they make decisions that will affect their lives; it also adds real value to people’s pensions, providing them with a better retirement in the long run. A recent report by the International Longevity Centre found that those who have sought professional financial advice are better off by an average of £40,000 in their pension pot compared with those who did not seek advice. That is not an insignificant amount of money. Ensuring that financial advice is seen as a viable option for people is not only the right thing to do, but crucial if we want people to have the best possible future, as well as the peace of mind that they are making the right decisions to benefit themselves.
Most importantly, how can we make sure that people are accessing the right financial advice and support? Forcing people to access support is not an option. Some people will not even take a vaccine to save lives, for goodness’ sake, so mandating things just because people have an in-built aversion to being dictated to does not work.
One option, however, is to encourage individuals to use guidance services, such as Pension Wise, the free and impartial guidance service that was set up in 2015. Accessing guidance is often the first step towards accessing full financial advice and should be greatly encouraged. Seeking guidance helps people to gain a good initial understanding about their options and also helps to boost their confidence in their ability to do things such as avoiding pension scams, which, sadly, are all too common.
In addition, we know that financial guidance is a great enabler for the full advice process. Data from Pension Wise’s user evaluation report recently found that 36% of customers who booked an appointment with Pension Wise went on to speak to a financial adviser in the following three months, compared with only 22% of non-users. That highlights the fact that we need to emphasise the benefits of these services, and ensure that people use them as early as possible to improve advice take-up and improve the financial outlook for many individuals in the UK.
Currently, it is far too easy to opt out of taking this free guidance from Pension Wise. Many studies over many years have shown that individuals need several exposures to information before they start taking action, so perhaps we need to start them on that journey a little bit earlier, so that they are engaged in the process when the time is right.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on his speech, which shows his great expertise in this important policy field, and he is right to press on this issue of financial advice. However, does he agree that the education systems of the respective countries of the UK should play a greater role, so that our children are financially capable when they leave school? When it comes to pensions in particular, the earlier that people start saving for their pension, the better. Interventions need to happen far earlier than they do now.
Absolutely—that is a very salient and very welcome intervention from the hon. Gentleman. I completely agree.
We need to start financial education in schools about the more basic things: what is a current account? How does it work? What is an overdraft? What is a credit card? The number of people leaving school and university who are already in massive debt before even taking into account things such as university fees is staggering. If we are not getting people on the right footing, I completely agree that we should be looking into developing that. People need to start the journey earlier.
During my research for this speech, I came across an article from years ago with a picture of a young-looking fresh-faced pensions Minister: my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham. He was supporting the concept of a provider’s mid-life MOT. Engagement with the UK population as a matter of course when a person hits particular ages could be a transformative idea. Imagine the benefits of speaking to someone aged 45, when they may be in a more stable home and employment situation after those expensive years of having young children, and providing that person with some guidance on what they should be looking at from a financial point of view! That could have a significant impact on their outlook on pensions and financial planning for their remaining 20-plus years before retirement.
I am conscious that this job has aged me a great deal and that I look different from the fresh-faced photograph taken in 2017 when I first got it. I have no idea why I have aged so much in the job—aside from putting on the lockdown stone.
On the mid-life MOT, I point my hon. Friend to the Aviva trial and the various other trials done by the private sector. The mid-life MOTs started out as an HR benefit to employees. Their benefit to employees was found to be good, but the benefit to the business and to wider state in terms of wealth, work and wellbeing—the three things on which it is measured—was utterly transformational. I encourage all businesses to follow the initiative of those companies and the public sector to follow the initiative of the DWP, which also pioneered the mid-life MOT.
Absolutely; I thank the Minister for his intervention. It was in the Aviva article that I saw the fresh-faced youthfulness of the Minister, although he has now turned into an advert for Just for Men. It is working well for him.
The Minister is absolutely right. Adding a health review to that mid-life MOT process could also have untold benefits: it could catch illnesses early and could encourage people to change their lifestyle before problems arise. I completely endorse the Minister’s support of the mid-life MOT process and encourage him to work across Departments to put something together in that space that could drive real change in financial and medical wellbeing.
The banking and financial industry has developed and adapted to the 21st century, and in the same way the financial advice sector needs to undergo wholesale reform and change. Financial advice is often viewed as too expensive, or individuals worry that they do not have enough to invest. Those outdated perceptions of the sector need to change. To do that, the sector needs to become more transparent and to move towards set fees on an hourly rate, or towards a project fee basis. That would help make access to financial advice easier and more affordable.
There is a large amount of worry and mistrust around the financial services industry. It would certainly help boost consumers’ trust and confidence that they were getting the right advice if the advice sector were made more transparent. The inherent unfairness of percentage-based charging is clear. It is simply wrong to charge double the fee for handling a £200,000 investment compared with a £100,000 investment; it literally takes no more time and no more resource to do the work.
Even factoring in slightly more indemnity risk to the adviser for advising on a higher sum would certainly not justify anything like a doubling of the fee. I firmly believe that the public should seek out advisers who charge fees expressed in pounds and pence, and who give a quotation for services based on time expected or a fixed project fee rather than a percentage-based amount.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many providers who give pensions advice should actually be putting their fees and charges explicitly on websites and other promotional materials, so that people can see what the costs would be from the start of the process?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is now incumbent on advisers when they see clients for the first time to give them an initial disclosure document, which sets out the fees and charges that the client can rightly expect to pay. The disclosure of fees should always be completely upfront and agreed to by the client, before any work is undertaken—that is an absolutely vital part of the process, for sure.
Too many consumers are missing out on the potential opportunities that advice can bring because of a lack of understanding or a perception that advice is too expensive. It is time to develop the financial advice sector and make it work for consumers. I urge the Minister to continue to develop awareness of financial advice and guidance services, and make them as accessible as possible so that the advice gap around pensions can be closed.
One area of pensions where the advice gap is intrinsically linked is costs and charges associated with pensions. In many cases, the associated costs and charges, whether the annual management charge or underlying fund charges, are too much of a focus for consumers, advisers, the regulator and policy—to the detriment of the performance and quality of the actual pension. Instead of focusing on which contract is the cheapest, more time and guidance need to be shared that consider the end result and outcome. This is what will be available to pensioners and what will impact the quality of their retirement.
Even though pension costs may be more expensive, if a contract has the propensity to generate higher returns, it will give a better end result for the individual. In addition, as many people do not seek financial advice regarding their pension, many will lack the knowledge to understand the full impact of any costs and charges, which often leads to people choosing the cheapest contract which may not benefit their situation. The principle of having lower charges and less of a drag on performance is a noble principle, but it does not always work out that principles follow through to superior outcomes. It is the outcomes that people can spend in retirement, not the principle.
Finally, it would not be right to hold a debate that seeks to improve people’s future in retirement without considering how to ensure that the pension industry is becoming green and playing its part in protecting the environment. Given that pension funds—long-term investments—hold around $20 trillion in assets globally, they are an integral part of socially responsible investing and can play a major part in helping the UK to reach net zero. I commend, in his absence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), whose campaign has led to the UK’s first green investment bond, which is on the horizon.
According to the Make My Money Matter campaign, sustainable pensions are 27 times more impactful in reducing your carbon footprint than stopping air travel and following a plant-based diet combined—27 times! Looking across the whole fund universe, we see that relatively few pension funds have fully embraced socially responsible investing or incorporated environmental, social and governance factors into their processes. While some have suggested that the Government should force private pension schemes to invest in a socially responsible way, that feels like an over-reach—an inappropriate and counter-productive use of power—as it may well encourage disinvestment. The bottom line to keep in mind is that pensions are there to provide retirement income first and foremost; if we can save the planet afterwards, that is an extra bonus. But 68% of UK savers want their investments to consider people and planet alongside profits, while 71% would opt for a fully or partially sustainable pension if they had the choice, showing the demand for socially responsible investment of pensions.
The Pension Schemes Bill has recently created a taskforce on climate-related financial disclosures that puts the consumer in charge and increases the transparency of pension funds regarding investments. There is clearly a demand in the UK for socially responsible investing within pension funds. The Government aim to facilitate that, as shown with the taskforce, and I commend them for it and look forward to seeing how it develops.
As I said at the beginning, pension policy is a topic that can often be overlooked. It is overly complex, too technical and not relevant to the many immediate, pressing issues of the day. But it does not have to be overlooked. Pensions policy is an incredibly important topic that will impact all of us in later life as we look to retire, and it is the responsibility of all of us to look at how we can shape it positively to provide the best retirement for as many people as possible. The contributions and sacrifices that our older citizens have made throughout this pandemic, and indeed throughout their lives, are considerable, and it is only right that our policies recognise and reflect that hard work and allow them to live out their retirement in comfort with the peace of mind that their pension will see them through.
I look forward to the contributions of colleagues, including the Minister and the shadow Minister. Although great strides have been made through the Pension Schemes Bill, there is more to do if we want our pensioners to have the retirement they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) on securing this incredibly important debate.
We have rightly spoken a lot over the past few months about how deeply people have been affected throughout this pandemic—people who have lost jobs, businesses that are worried that they are going under and the 3 million people who have not been able to access covid support. I am here today to speak up for my pension-age constituents who are struggling too.
As we have heard, since 2010 at least an extra 400,000 pensioners have been pushed into poverty, and a generation of women born in the 1950s were betrayed. That left millions of women with no time to make alternative plans, with sometimes devastating personal consequences, including for people I have spoken to in Luton North. The people who have written to me have done the right thing in life: they paid into the system and worked hard, and now they want their Government to be there when they need it. They include people such as my mum and her generation of friends—the WASPI women.
One Luton North constituent wrote:
“I am 65 years old and I am due to receive my state pension next year—at the age of 66.
I am currently struggling financially. I was due to receive my pension at the age of 60. I have worked my whole life and then I stopped as I became a carer for my elderly mother.
I am not entitled to apply for any benefits. With the current covid pandemic it is even more difficult for me to consider working. I suffer from a lot of health problems. I was diagnosed with TB last year and since had been receiving treatment for it.
I have never struggled so much financially before as I am now and the pandemic has made it even worse for me.”
I wish I could say that that was a one-off, Minister, but I am afraid that my inbox has been full of similar letters.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that very important issue. I have also received numerous pieces of correspondence over the years in relation to that group of women. The anger about the injustice relates to the goalposts being changed late in their lives.
What in her view is the way forward to help address the problems faced by those women? Some are campaigning for bridging pensions or early access to their state pension. Is her view that that is the way forward, or does she support an alternative strategy?
That is something that I will come to later in my speech. Whatever the future of our pension policy is, that injustice must be addressed.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on older people in this country, in terms of isolation, their mental and physical health, and their finances. I want to put on the record my thanks to wonderful organisations such as Age Concern in Luton, which has been there every step of the way for older people in my constituency.
However, it should not be this way. The Government should not be turning their back on pensioners. I was truly appalled by the decision this year to scrap free TV licences for over-75s, which added yet another financial burden and barrier to accessing important information, especially at this time. What are the Government going to do during the pandemic to help those pensioners who, like so many others, have found themselves struggling to make ends meet?
As we enter one of the worst recessions since records began, what guarantees will the Minister give to protect pensions in the future? The recent findings from the Pensions Policy Institute show that single mothers, carers, disabled people and black, Asian and minority ethnic groups had pension wealth of just 15% of the national average, and that 81% of carers and 21% of disabled people are currently shut out of being automatically enrolled in a workplace pension. What is the Minister doing to tackle that huge savings gap, which is scandalous?
It is clear that even before the pandemic many people already felt a deep sense of unfairness about our pension system. Parliament has debated the issue, in a full Chamber, time and again, because of the strength of feeling among the 1950s women we represent who have been ripped off by this Government.
As a new Member, this is my first opportunity to raise the countless emails that I know we have all received on this issue and the massive number of conversations we have all had. I had many conversations on doorsteps at the time of the election. One gentleman came out of a mosque and said, “I wasn’t sure how I was going to vote, but I’m definitely voting for Labour now, because my wife has told me that you have promised that we will see justice for the WASPI women.”
I would like to give that hope to every family because this is not just about women—it is also about the families supported by those women. Any future reforms of pensions policy must come with justice for the 1950s women who lost out when the Government changed the pension age. Again, this is all about fairness. Those women worked, paid in and did the right thing, then had part of their pensions taken away. I ask the Minister whether the Government’s line from last year still stands. Is there no money for the WASPI women or will that change? Dignity as we grow older should not be an optional extra; it should be the very basic that the Government should provide. In one of the richest countries in the world, we should not have any older people living in poverty.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) for securing this important debate and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen).
This is an important debate on a subject that should be talked about more by more of us. My hon. Friend mentioned the number of people who do talk about pensions. We could have done with seeing a few more people here today representing their constituents to discuss the future pensions policy of this country, which is incredibly important. I am sure my hon. Friend will thank all hon. Members here for participating; it is testimony to those who really care about the issue that they are here today.
The matter affects the lives of millions of people in our country. It is very complex and complicated for people to navigate. My Southport constituency has an incredibly high level of pensioners. We not only have a high number of our own but people come to retire to our beautiful seaside resort, so I quite often talk about pensions with people there.
I will discuss a few issues on pensions policy. A number of points have already been made but I want to reiterate some of them in my speech. I will first say that the introduction of the Pension Schemes Bill was welcome. It contains meaningful and impactful measures that will go a long way to address the challenges faced by pensioners. We know, for example, that people might hold at least 11 different jobs during their working lives and will have paid into a multitude of different pension pots. Someone is more likely to have 25 different name badges from companies than a gold watch after 25 years of service.
Most people will only realise when they reach that stage in life of coming up to retirement that those pension pots are theirs and are available, and they need to know how best to utilise them. That point is often too late. People might not realise that sometimes it is possible to take out funds, that the funds might not have been invested in the right way or might have been invested in a way that that person did not want. Information from pension providers, not just the annual update but more regular ones, is really important. Employers should also talk about pensions on payslips, whether they are physical or virtual, asking whether someone is getting the right pensions advice. That could be done every month for those who are paid monthly or every week for those paid weekly. There should be something there specifically talking about pensions, so that people are informed and reminded every step of the way, because people are obviously very busy.
The pensions dashboard is welcome. It will simplify pension information and bring it to one place. It will empower people to do more than they have previously been able to do, with pieces of paper given on an intermittent basis.
Another area of the Pension Schemes Bill is green pension investments. The UK is the first major economy to put climate risk and disclosure into statute for pension schemes. I asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about that last week. It is a new area for pensions, but the generations coming up are more inclined to support green issues and might want their pensions to be invested in some of those companies, so we should empower them to do that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn set out, people should receive a good retirement. The Government have shown through the Bill that they understand the issues facing pensioners; I genuinely believe that they are responding to them. When we talk about pensions, however, we are talking about the end of the process—when people will receive one or what time of life they will retire. We need to start talking about pensions at the beginning of people’s working lives when they start a job or a career and, hopefully, start saving for their retirement. As he said, it may not be the sexiest subject to speak about, but it is one of the most important. If somebody gets it right or wrong at the start of their career, it can be life-changing. Of course, as has been said, we should also look at points in time where we can have an MOT of where our pensions are.
Education in schools is critical and it should be there for all children in all schools. My financial education was about opening a bank account, credit cards, overdrafts and how to fill in a cheque, which was a cause of great excitement for many fellow pupils. I must say that I am still excited about it; I still use cheques. That being said, there should have been, and there should be now, more emphasis on pensions and what that will mean in later life. If we do not start explaining the long-term value of saving for a pension, we will never do it when people get close to the point of receiving one. That is really important. I know that the Minister is committed to lifelong financial education, and there is no better advocate of that than him in the Government, but I would like to see more of that happen when he speaks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education.
On pension credit, which has also been brought up, I know that the Government are doing all they can to ensure that people who are eligible for pension credit, who have paid into the system throughout their lives and done the right thing, receive it. Pension credit ensures that the pension of those who receive a weekly income is brought up to the minimum amount, which is an absolute lifeline to many people. As has been said, many people do not claim everything they can. We should encourage people to claim what they are entitled to.
Recent research commissioned by Independent Age shows that we must work harder on that. If the level of pension credit uptake was boosted to 100%, it could lift 450,000 pensioners out of poverty. Whether they are buying groceries or heating their homes, it is important that people in older age are living a life, not just existing, and that they do not feel shut away from society in any way. In 2018-19, £1.8 billion of pension credit was not received by those eligible for it. The low uptake of pension credit costs the taxpayer £4 billion a year in additional unavoidable NHS and social care spending. In an area that we are looking to reform and make better, we could prevent that high level of spending by giving people what they are entitled to.
Renewing our focus on increasing uptake would save the taxpayer money, as I have said, and people in all parts of our country would have a better standard of living. DWP representatives have already confirmed that the technology is there for greater automation of benefit provision and that the data required is largely already held by the Government. Hopefully, we can unlock that to get the process going. We need to build on that and work towards meaningful solutions for those in pension credit scenarios.
The key things that I would like the Minister to take away include education, of course, which is where we can start to build a better pensions policy and framework. If people have better education, they can take control of their lives. In later life, we need to look at the pension credit issue. We should also have an eye on innovation, technology and green industries and ensure that they are promoted to people now, because there is no better time for them to be thinking about it, in terms of their future and the future of our planet.
I am grateful to be called to speak in the debate this afternoon, Mr Hosie. I thank the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) for securing it.
The insecurity and inequality that people experience throughout their working lives is amplified in older life. I certainly see that in my constituency, where, regrettably, insecure work mars the lives of many people. It was in the city of York that Joseph Rowntree first introduced pensions in his factory in 1906, ahead of the Old Age Pensions Act 1908, which came into effect on 1 January 1909—on pensions day, as it was known. It was Seebohm Rowntree’s work in this field that brought about that Act, so my city has a real investment in today’s debate.
We need to ask what the problem is that we are trying to solve around pensions. Are pensions simply part of reward packages and used as a recruitment and retention tool by employers? Are employers really interested in the economic fortunes of their former employees once they have left their employment? How do we address the serious issue of pensioner poverty, and are pensions fair and equitable or dependent too much on past income, which we know is inequitable in itself? Today, 1.9 million older people live in poverty, which really amplifies how pensions have gone wrong, and we therefore need to look at how we address those issues.
I view this issue through the prism of women and their experiences of the inequality that is already built into their working life by the pay gap. They are more likely to be in part-time employment and more likely to be carers, and there is also the serious issue of underemployment. In fact, since the start of the pandemic, 70% of people who have lost their jobs are women. We therefore need to understand why so many women are in pensioner poverty.
Young workers and black workers are more likely to be in insecure jobs. Disabled people lose out altogether and fare worse. Inequality is hardwired into our pension system, exacerbating the unfairness of employment. I observed over the years as a trade union official how we needed to bring redress into our pension system, which is an issue I would welcome the Minister looking at specifically.
On state pensions, many countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia have far better statutory provision in later life, as can be seen in the quality of life that people experience. The Netherlands pays 95% of average earnings, Denmark 66%, Australia 58% and the UK just 29%. Insufficiency is also built into our pensions system. We have heard much about the pension credit system, but take-up is only 60% , with £2.8 billion not claimed. I therefore support automation. Data can be shared and the technology is there to tackle inequality and enable people to access not only their pensions but, as we have heard, TV licences and other such benefits. It is really important that the gap is closed with the mechanisms we have available to achieve that.
The hon. Lady is making a very well informed speech, as is typical of her. Does she agree that much of the drive over recent decades to increase the state pension age has been driven by the fact that life expectancy has been increasing? However, there is evidence that that is reversing and life expectancy is starting to fall. If that is sustained, the UK Government need to look at pensions policy and perhaps reverse the pension age increases that we have seen over recent decades.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Of course, that was the basis on which the Cridland review undertook its exercise of looking at how to address an ageing population, so he is right that the Government need to look at that issue.
Turning to employer schemes, we have seen a change in the schemes over the years from more beneficial schemes such as the defined-benefit schemes, first from final salary to career-average earnings schemes. There has also been a rapid move to defined-contribution schemes, where more risk is placed with the worker. Therefore, people’s lack of engagement in the complex world of pensions is ever more understandable. Of course, auto-enrolment in some of the pension schemes shows insufficiency, which the hon. Member for Delyn drew out, but the employer contribution of just 3% is hardly that of an employer investing in their workers’ future. I would urge, if we are looking at raising the sufficiency of stakeholder schemes, a greater employer contribution into those schemes, as opposed to the burden being placed on the workers’ shoulders.
I would also like the Minister to look at the number of pension schemes. Many countries have just a few hundred pension schemes altogether; we have more than 10,000, and we know that many of those schemes are struggling. I have looked at the charity sector, where, among the top 50 charities, there is now a deficit of £1.5 billion. We know that in other sectors, people move from job to job to job and therefore have no time to build up a pension pot with a company. If we moved to a more sectoral model, that would give individuals a lot more scope to build a pension for their future, and a model of sectoral bargaining could shape such pension schemes. I think it would be helpful to look into that.
As I have mentioned, equality needs to be brought to the fore, not least because of the impact in terms of women in poverty in later life. Economic events impact on pensions so much. We therefore need to address those issues, but we also need to recognise that in later life, people from areas of deprivation are more likely to be in poor health and so working longer is not always relevant. We need more flexibility to be built into pensions in later life, but we also need to ensure that individuals do not lose out because they work in different ways.
I echo the support that has been expressed for more financial education. I, too, was at the event that Aviva held on work, wealth and wellbeing. It was particularly about people having an MOT to check on them—to check their mental health as well as their physical health—and to look in mid-life at the opportunities and the finances ahead. We need to ensure that such opportunities are open to everyone.
Finally, I want to draw attention to the importance of building confidence again in the pensions system. At a time when people have so little dispensable resource, they will be making choices about whether to invest in their longer-term future or to buy essentials, such as a meal for their family. We therefore need to ensure that we address the poverty today as well as the poverty tomorrow. The WASPI women are one example of a group that certainly made the right choices, yet was badly let down by the changes brought about by Government decisions. We need to build confidence in our system to ensure that there are fair choices for people in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) on securing the debate. This autumn has demonstrated that there is a considerable appetite in the House for discussion of pensions policy. We have had the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Act 2020 and a landmark piece of pensions legislation in the Pension Schemes Bill, with amendments yet to be considered in the House of Lords. Not content with all that debate, we now find ourselves, thanks to the hon. Member for Delyn, looking to the horizon of pension policies yet to come.
Of course, that is entirely the right approach, for two reasons. First, pensions are, by their very nature, a long-term product, so the policy decisions we are making now will have an impact quite literally decades down the line. Let us say that someone is in their early 20s, has just started their first permanent job and is making their first pension contributions. They will not be drawing down their pension for another 45 or even 50 years, most likely, so the legislation and regulations that we make now—those, for instance, that are part of the Pension Schemes Bill—will have an effect stretching all the way to 2070 and beyond. That really is long-term policy making.
Secondly, this century poses new challenges of huge proportions. Those challenges of course include automation, an ageing population, with increasing life expectancy—I note the comments of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on that—and the climate emergency. I would not normally choose to quote Donald Rumsfeld, but when we consider the profound and unforeseen impact that a global pandemic has had on our society this year, we have to recognise that it is not just the identifiable factors that we need to be concerned about; it is also the “unknown unknowns”.
An incredibly important matter when it comes to long-term pensions policy is the triple lock. It was a decade ago that the Liberal Democrats helped introduce the triple lock on the state pension, and I pay tribute to the then Pensions Minister and former Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb, who was instrumental in that. The triple lock has been a huge success and an incredibly popular measure: indeed, since its introduction, it has been adopted by all major parties, although I note with concern that there has been some speculation that the Government may look to scrap it in future. I hope that rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated, because I do think that the triple lock plays a crucial role.
During the debate about the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill in October, I spoke to the issue of intergenerational fairness. That issue has become very clear over the past few months, during which young people have had to put their lives on hold to stop the spread of a virus that does not always pose the same threat to them as it does to older people in our society. Of course, it is young people who will bear the brunt of the current and future economic costs, not only because of the immediate impact on the jobs market that we are seeing, but because they will be saddled with the debt accrued into the future.
Some say that the triple lock is making the gap between the generations grow even further because, on the face of it, a large sum of money is being spent on older people. However, as I made clear during the debate on the uprating Bill, it is increasingly the case that many working-age people are unable to save adequately for their retirement. It is certainly the case that defined-benefit schemes, which many people were historically enrolled in, are being used far less frequently. That all means an increasing reliance on the state pension. As such, it is vital that we make sure the state pension is strong, not only for this generation of retirees but for the next one and the one after that. I continue to urge the Government, as I did during the passage of that Bill, to ensure that the triple lock is retained, now and in the future. We need to ensure a good deal for the generation of people who are currently only starting out in work. The choices we make now will have an impact decades into the future.
However, pensions policy is not just about the long term. As we have heard from other Members, there are many steps that can and should be taken to ensure that pensions work better for people who are about to retire, or who have retired already. Pensioners are feeling real financial impacts now, including the Equitable Life scandal, the situation experienced by the WASPI women and the issues with plumbers’ pensions, which I raised during the debate on the Pension Schemes Bill last month. There is also the fact that many British pensioners overseas have their state pensions frozen, and the Government have not committed to uplifting those pensions, at the very least for the duration of the covid pandemic. This has been a hugely difficult time for many of those pensioners in many different countries. We might just have taken a huge step in relation to pensions through legislation, but these campaigns continue, and it is imperative that the Government actively engage with them. Many of those campaigners are disheartened that the chance they felt they had to resolve those issues through the Pension Schemes Bill was missed, and feel that they remain unheard.
Another issue that I hope the Minister will address is that of married women who have been underpaid their state pension, having not been upgraded to their full pension when their husband reached state pension age. They could potentially be eligible for thousands of pounds in repayment from the Department for Work and Pensions. This is an issue that Steve Webb, whom I mentioned earlier, is working to highlight and resolve. We know that at least 1,900 women have been paid out to, but the Government have not yet said how much money has been paid out in total. We urgently need to know how many women the Government estimate have potentially been underpaid. It is so important that these women are informed as soon as possible that they have been underpaid.
Many Members have talked about pension credit; we need to inform people of what they are due. I hope the Minister will address that in his response, because so far there has not been sufficient clarity from the Government about the scale of this problem and what has been done to address it.
Finally, I come back to the Pension Schemes Bill, because it has not yet been passed. Amendments are still being considered by the Lords, and while the scope of possible changes to the Bill is now limited, I do hope the Government will be willing to engage and potentially to restore some of the additions made to the Bill. As the Minister knows, I am particularly keen to see further clarity on the issue of open defined-benefit schemes, and I hope the Government will continue to engage with my colleague Baroness Bowles on that issue—in fact, I believe they are doing so today.
On that particular point, the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that, provided this debate ends on time, I will go straight into a meeting with a cross-party group of Lords about clause 123 and open DB. I will be making the point that the Pensions Regulator will be very happy to meet the Lords to engage with them and ensure that they have an opportunity to fully comprehend what the proposed regulations are going to be. I will also make the point that we remain very supportive of DB on an ongoing basis.
I thank the Minister for that intervention. I only became aware of the meeting today, while I was sitting here, a short time ago, and I thank him for his response. There is still an opportunity to make the Bill even better than it is, and I urge the Government to take that chance. That Bill lays the foundations for the future of pensions policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I thank the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) for securing today’s debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) would have been here today but for her recent health issues. Other Members will be pleased to hear that she is showing good signs of recovery, and I know that everyone will join me in sending our best wishes to her.
Members should be in no doubt that the Scottish National party believes that pensions policy should be in Scotland’s hands; this would let our Scottish Parliament set a policy that reflects Scotland’s circumstances. That opportunity to do things that work better for people in Scotland will come with independence, which more and more people recognise as the best future for Scotland.
For now, while the SNP broadly supported the Bill, we believe that improvements can be made, including in managing the roll-out and risks of pensions dashboards, protecting existing defined benefit schemes, tackling the injustice of section 75 debt, and improving automatic enrolment. However, pensions policy must address more fundamental issues; as the hon. Member for Delyn said, pensions policy should be a simple matter, allowing people to save up during their working lives to finance their retirements. Instead, it is notoriously complex; it is of such complexity that many people switch off, leaving their biggest asset—their future security—in the hands of others. Adding new options, such as collective money purchase schemes, increases that complexity.
One of the questions facing the UK is: why has the pensions bar been set so low compared with other countries? A 2017 report by the OECD found that UK pensioners get the worst deal of any OECD country, retiring on just 29% of nation average earnings, compared with an OECD average of 63% and an average for EU member states of 71%.
As the UK’s population ages, this leaves much of the population with little choice and limited purchasing power. Even the triple lock, which the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) spoke about comprehensively, has had a limited impact, with the value of the basic state pension increasing by less than 1.5% of national average earnings since 2011.
Recognising that pensions are too low to support a lengthy retirement should be the beginning of a serious programme for change. The SNP has long supported the establishment of an independent savings and pensions commission to ensure that pensions and savings policies are fit for purpose. Such a commission could prevent changes being announced with no assessment of impacts, and without communication of the changes being made properly, as happened when the 1950s-born WASPI women had their state pension age changed with little or no notice or information, as the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) noted. The increase in state pension age beyond 66 also does not take into account the demographic challenges we face in Scotland, but it seems that we in Scotland, just like the WASPI women, are getting a message—that is, that this Government and this Parliament are not listening.
Ahead of the spending review, the Chancellor was warned that the proposal to reform measures of inflation would result in more than 10 million pensioners losing out if he moves to a lower inflation measure. Where was the public debate around a so-called technical adjustment that could take an estimated £60 billion out of UK pension funds?
For many people on low pensions, pension credit could be the difference between living in poverty and simply keeping their head above water. However, pension credit take-up has stagnated at around 60% for the last 10 years; more than 1 million pensioners are missing this lifeline, which also opens access to other vital benefits.
Despite only recently taking responsibility for some benefits, the Scottish Government have already published a benefit take-up strategy and are working to increase awareness of and access to Scottish benefits; I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) has done a great deal of work on this. The UK Government need a similar take-up campaign and a strategy for reserved benefits, including pension credit. I wonder whether the Minister will commit to putting such a campaign in place, to ensure that people are aware of benefits and can access those to which they are entitled.
In the midst of great uncertainty, protecting people’s savings and eliminating pensioner poverty is more important than it has ever been. Young people whose lives and prospects could be irreparably damaged by covid and Brexit face losing out on vital lifetime savings. We have heard that there are significant gender, ethnic and regional disparities in pension incomes that a pensions and savings commission could address.
A 2018 study by the Chartered Insurance Institute noted that, by the time a woman is aged 65 to 69, her average pension wealth is £35,700, which is roughly a fifth of that for a man of her age. That is a shocking figure and surely reflects the number of women who have not saved for a pension because of low earnings. The SNP supports automatic enrolment, but far too many have been left behind. The UK Government need to extend the coverage. That could be done by reducing the earnings threshold to the national insurance primary threshold, bringing almost 500,000 people—mostly women —into pension saving, and by lowering the age threshold from 22 to 18. Saving from the first pound earned would also reinforce the importance of starting a savings habit early, but that can be afforded only if we extend the real living wage.
One of the reasons for pensions complexity is the need for reassurance that funds held over long periods of time will not disappear or promised returns fail to materialise. That is why pensions need strong consumer protections. For too often, Governments have failed to deliver that. George Osborne failed to do so when he introduced so-called pension freedoms in 2015. The SNP voiced its opposition at the time, highlighting the risk to people of transferring funds out of their pension to their detriment. Unfortunately, the evidence is that this has turned into yet another Government-initiated scammers’ paradise that will further inflict damage on the reputation of the UK financial services sector.
I want to address the biggest long-term challenge we face in future pensions policy. What will happen to pensions if we allow the assets on which they depend to be significantly devalued or rendered unusable by climate change? The SNP supports industry calls for firms to include climate change-related disclosures in their annual reports. It sounded as though the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) might agree with that. We are committed to putting that on to a statutory basis.
The SNP also supports moves to introduce an easy-to-understand system of climate-friendly external audits so small investors can better understand the climate-related risks of investments, including the risks facing company pension schemes. It was hugely disappointing that the UK Government prevented occupational pension schemes from being required to develop a strategy for aligning investments with Paris agreement goals and net zero emissions targets. With COP26 coming to Glasgow next year, perhaps the Minister could share with members what advice the Department for Work and Pensions has received from the Committee on Climate Change on the role of pensions in tackling the climate challenge. If no advice has been received, will the Department ask for it?
I would also like to ask the Minister to address the issue of frozen pensions that we have heard about already. Half a million UK pensioners living overseas do not receive an increase to their UK state pension with the value frozen when they leave the UK or when the pension is first drawn. This means that their pension decreases in real value year on year. Because it only applies in some countries, we now have significant inequality built up and, for instance, a disproportionate impact on groups such as the Windrush generation.
I will finish by highlighting the issue of inequality. That is the topic that the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) was particularly concerned about. It was brought to my attention by a constituent who was allocated a share of her husband’s police pension as part of a divorce settlement. Having become unable to work owing to ill health, she was told that although her ex-husband had retired early and drawn his share of the pension, she is unable to do so until she turns 60. She was shocked to find that such discriminatory regulations are expressly permitted under section 61 of the Equality Act 2010. Does the Minister agree that this seems wholly inappropriate in 2020? Will he tell me what he thinks can be done to address that issue?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I welcome this debate in which I speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). I congratulate the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) on securing the debate and on his broad-ranging opening remarks on the need to support pensioners and on the uptake of pension credit, the scourge of pensioner poverty, the sufficiency of pension savings and many other issues.
I thank other Members for their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) spoke powerfully about the plight of the WASPI women. I also thank the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore), my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), and the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain).
Hon. Members are right to say that pensions are all too often seen as a distant, complex topic. It is vital to make them easy and accessible to understand, particularly to engage younger people in savings choices early in their life. A pound saved at 18 is worth much more in retirement than a pound saved at the age of 30 or 40, or later. I welcome the many contributions on the importance of lifelong financial learning and literacy.
Ensuring that everyone, no matter their background, occupation or gender, has dignity and security in old age should be the fundamental objective of pensions policy. However, the complex and long-term nature of pensions policy decisions, and the long-term careful planning of public finances, mean that those ambitions are best realised through political co-operation and consensus. That is why, in government, Labour introduced the Pensions Commission in 2002, to provide a comprehensive analysis of the UK pensions system, assess how it was developing over time, and make recommendations on the long-term funding of pensions. Indeed, the commission charted a new direction in UK pensions policy and gained widespread consensus on reforms that might previously have been regarded as unthinkable.
I am proud that, for instance, it was the last Labour Government who created auto-enrolment, which has transformed the lives of millions, with 10 million more people now saving into a workplace pension. I give credit to the Government who took office in 2010 for their work to drive forward auto-enrolment. However, I think that we are all concerned that an estimated 12 million people may still be under-saving for retirement. We welcome the review of the policy that was commissioned in 2017 and its recommendations that the age threshold for auto-enrolment should be lowered from 22 to 18 and that the lower limit of the qualifying earnings band should be removed so that contributions are payable from the first pound earned by an employee. The Minister told us in Committee that the review will be implemented in the mid-2020s; but could we have confirmation that the intended legislation will enact those two proposals? If possible, can we have further detail on the timeframe?
I welcome the cross-party tone of the hon. Lady’s speech, and I hope it continues. Automatic enrolment is of course a classic example of a policy instituted by Labour, brought forward under the coalition and finally taken forward under the Conservative Government. We would definitely seek to take the action in question in the current Parliament, because we have said it would be brought forward by the mid-2020s; but many of the other policies that the hon. Lady is talking about, such as the state pension age increase brought in by the Labour Government in the Pensions Act 2007, are cross-party decisions, which I hope she continues to support.
The Minister knows, indeed, the importance that we also give to cross-party consensus on such important strategic directions in pensions policy, and that we have worked closely with him on many measures in the Pension Schemes Bill. There could not be a more important time for us to work together to protect people’s financial security in retirement, because even though the Government have refused to publish their dossier on the economic impact of coronavirus, we know that the economic fallout is vast. Indeed, according to the OECD the pandemic has compounded the challenges for retirement savings, including pressures such as ageing populations, slow growth and low returns, which will continue long into the future.
Furthermore, the fall of major employers puts the pensions of entire workforces at risk. An example is the uncertain status of the 10,000 members of the Arcadia defined benefit pension scheme, where there is an eye-watering deficit of about £350 million. The Government must act to ensure that those workers get the pensions that they are owed. It is Labour’s firm view that Sir Philip Green and Lady Green owe a moral responsibility to the employees to fill the pensions shortfall. They must not allow their workers to go into Christmas not only having to deal with the consequences of losing their jobs, but fearing for their pensions.
The pandemic also brings an increased risk from pension scammers preying on people who are worried about the impact of the current economic uncertainty on their savings. That is why Labour fully supported the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) to the Pension Schemes Bill, to protect people better from risky transfers and improve the provision of advice, to stop people falling prey to scammers. We regret that the Government did not support my right hon. Friend’s amendments, but welcomed assurances from the Minister that regulations will be brought in to ensure that trustees should not have to proceed with a transfer where there are good grounds for believing that a proposed transfer involves moving pension savings into a scam.
On auto-enrolling people into pension guidance appointments, Pension Wise is an excellent service with high satisfaction ratings, but only one in 33 of those eligible to use it do so. Surely, it is more important than ever that people make use of impartial guidance appointments and we would welcome concrete proposals by the Government to improve take-up of these appointments.
On pension charges, at a time when millions are struggling, it is vital that pension costs and charges are reasonable and transparent, and that people receive value for money. Research by PensionBee found that 70% of non-advised draw-down customers pay more than 0.75% a year in charges costing them £40 million to £50 million extra a year and more than £175 million since the pension freedoms were introduced. The long-term impact of high costs and charges for income draw-down could be significant. It is argued that putting costs and charges on the simpler annual statement would confuse people. Instead of being provided with specific information about how much they are paying, they would be signposted to what could be pages and pages of information about charges. We note that the Minister has said that costs and charges information will only be displayed on the pensions dashboard in the longer term, but we would welcome any discussions about a guarantee for value for money as well.
I return to climate change, which is a very important area for future pension policy. The investment decisions taken by pensions involve trillions of pounds—the kind of money that can catalyse significant change when used responsibly, from investing in infrastructure to green technologies. Labour’s amendment to the Pension Schemes Bill sought to ask pension funds to demonstrate how they are helping us get to net zero emissions. It is hard to see how the Government can achieve their own climate goals while excluding trillions of pounds of British capital from those efforts. By voting against our amendment, we believe the Government missed a chance to mobilise pension funds to protect the planet and support the drive to net zero. This is despite the fact that there is clear public support for such a move. The Government must use all the tools at their disposal to channel pension funds into investments that benefit people and the planet.
Finally, I highlight the particular challenges faced by specific groups where injustices need further action. On the former ASW steelworkers, the Minister is aware of their desperate plight. Many worked for decades, paying 100% of their pensions, only to find years later that they only received half of what they were entitled to. They have been fighting for their full pensions for 20 years. Will the Minister confirm when he plans to meet the ASW steelworkers, as he has committed to, and will he work to find a cross-party solution?
I once again raise the plight of the WASPI women, about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) spoke so powerfully. Labour also found recently that 15,000 1950s women are claiming universal credit—the pandemic will have made this worse. It is unacceptable that 1950s women have been forgotten by the Conservative Government, both within the crisis and before.
Finally, on the issue of pension underpayment for married women, it feels as if almost every week a new story comes to light of the DWP’s mistakes in paying women their full pension entitlements. It is particularly concerning that many of those affected contacted the Department and were wrongly told that their pensions were correct. This is simply not good enough.
Every single one of the issues I have addressed relies on an effective departmental delivery of pension entitlements, yet this issue raises profound questions about the ability of the DWP to do just that. Labour called for an inquiry into the mismanagement of pensions payments earlier this year. It is time for the Government to take urgent action on this growing scandal, to make sure that every woman affected is paid the pension to which she is entitled and to redress the root causes of the mistakes made.
In conclusion, putting future pension policy on a long-term footing necessitates careful planning and a consensus-driven approach. Labour stands ready to support the Government where they bring forward proposals to protect people’s pensions and savings. However, we urge the Government to take action to address the clear cases of pension injustices that I have highlighted, as well as those likely to emerge through the pandemic. We also call on the Government to take a greater role in ensuring that funds are invested in a socially and environmentally beneficial way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) on securing this important debate, and I look forward greatly to summing up about 35 different points, in copious detail, in exactly nine minutes, and I undertake to try to write to hon. Members where I am unable to do so.
Starting with one particular point, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) was mentioned; I also had a brain tumour and collapsed in the House of Commons in 2011, and I wish her tremendous good fortune in her recovery. We miss her, and I look forward to her coming back to this place, causing me difficulties and posing important and genuine questions, which I am sure she will continue to do. We all send her our best wishes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn secured an important debate, the fundamental point of which is that pensions play a vital part in all our constituents’ lives, and it is right that we debate these matters and champion their causes on an ongoing basis. While the Government’s immediate priority is the conquering of covid and to build back better, and we have a plan for jobs taking things forward, we are also clear in our desire to ensure that we protect people’s pensions and support people in saving for their retirement. It is timely and right that my hon. Friend raises these points, and I will attempt to address them in a bit of detail.
I will first touch on the fundamentals of the state pension and the fact that we now spend £126 billion on pensioners—the highest that has ever been in this country—of which the state pension is £102 billion. The state pension has gone up by £1,900 in real terms since 2010, thanks to the triple lock and various other measures, and we are in a position that material deprivation for pensioners has fallen from 10% to 6% in 2018-19. Average pensioner incomes have grown significantly in real terms over the past two decades. Average weekly income in 1994-95 was £165 a week at 2018-19 prices, after housing costs, compared with £320 a week in 2018-19. Clearly, there is more to do, and my hon. Friend rightfully raises the issue of pension credit.
The policy was introduced by a previous Chancellor, Gordon Brown, under the Labour Government, and successive Governments have had a variety of strategies, advertising campaigns and initiatives to try to boost take-up. It is patently clear from the available statistics that, even with significant advertising campaigns, take-up of pension credit has been between 60% and 76%. For example, the Labour Government spent over £14 million after the launch of pension credit and the take-up went down, if not remained static, that particular year.
The reality is that we need to work with trusted partners, and that is what we are trying to do. We are trying to institute a variety of campaigns. We had a nationwide campaign in spring last year to boost pension credit. We also have the online pension credit claim facility, ensuring ease of access for anyone wishing to make a claim. A whole host of other matters are under way to take the pension credit take-up forward, but I would particularly inform the House that, following a cross-party meeting with the House of Lords, we have reached out to the BBC and to Tim Davie, its new chief executive, to see whether the BBC can do anything to improve and expand on that particular process. I will put on the record in the Library the letter that Baroness Stedman-Scott and I have written to Mr Davie to see to what extent we could significantly enhance the take-up of pension credit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn raised the idea of an automatic entitlement to pension credit. I fear that is something that is simply not possible on the data available to the state at this stage. There may be a time in the future when such data and capability exist, but it is not possible at the present stage.
I turn to the point he raises on automatic enrolment. Many things were said not only in respect of the cross-party nature of this particular problem, but also the desire for a better outcome. Automatic enrolment has ensured that the participation of private-sector eligible women has increased from 40% to 86%. That is equal to men, I should say. For private-sector eligible 22 to 29-year-olds, it has gone up from 24% to 85%. In 2019-20, working people will save an extra £18 billion into workplace pensions as a result of those reforms. All Members of Parliament will find that there are many thousands of constituents and employers who are doing the right thing and providing the 8% automatic enrolment.
Of course there is more to do. We will be instituting the lower earnings threshold from the age of 18. The Government have made it crucially clear, following the 2017 review, that that is what we will do, and without a shadow of a doubt that will be brought forward. I hope it is at some stage in this Parliament, but obviously these matters are somewhat beyond my control.
Speaking of things that are beyond my control, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn raised the very important issue of lifetime allowance on tax relief pension savings. He waxed lyrical about a point that I am delighted to say that I am going to raise with the Chancellor personally. I look forward to the Chancellor addressing it at the Budget statement in March if he feels so inclined. I hope my hon. Friend’s plea is taken on board, but clearly that is a matter entirely for the Chancellor.
On automatic enrolment, my hon. Friend raised a very interesting issue that I want to touch on: the idea of a 1% saving added on to the automatic enrolment in the future. There is no question but that we want to look at the possibly of having a rainy-day fund, whether it is a 1% add-on to whatever the future of automatic enrolment is. I am looking at that personally. Clearly, there are many decisions to be made about the future of automatic enrolment, but without a shadow of a doubt trying to improve the financial capability, resilience and inclusion of this country is massively important.
On that issue, we talked about the mid-life MOT, which we back totally. I met the new chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority to discuss how we can improve the capability of individuals from the age of 47. Apparently that is when men are in their mid-life; for women, it is later. The reality is that we want tremendously to improve the mid-life MOT as an option so that we address wealth, work and wellbeing at an early stage.
I have about a minute left. Simpler statements will go forward on state pension age increases. As I indicated to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), that is a Labour party policy that the coalition and Conservative Governments have continued to implement, and there are no plans to change that. We have an ongoing review of costs and charges, and clearly great work is going forward.
I am deeply grateful to the House for the opportunity to address pension policy. There is no question but that these are serious issues. The Government are absolutely zeroed in on trying to make pension policy work. I totally dispute the claim that we are not doing anything on climate change. With COP26 coming up, we are leading the way. We are the first country to legislate for net zero and for the taskforce on climate-related financial disclosures. We lead the way on all matters, including green gilts. I believe very strongly that climate change and pensions will go hand in hand under this Prime Minister’s leadership. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn for this debate.
I thank the Minister for summing up. I am interested to hear about using the BBC to enhance pension credit take-up. I suggested that very thing to my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary just last week at Department for Work and Pensions questions, so it is good to know that there is movement on that. I was very pleased to hear about auto-enrolment, changes to age limits, losing the lower earnings limit and adding a savings element—all very good.
I thank all hon. Members. There seemed to be wide-ranging agreement on things such as promoting the idea of automation where we can and financial education. That may include not only knowledge of facts but the skills, critical thinking and analysis that will serve our young people well. There was cross-party support and agreement on many issues, although sadly not for the comments of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on Scottish independence. That is for another day.
I appreciated the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) channelling her inner Donald Rumsfeld and trying to tackle the unknown unknowns. I think we will allow our mortal Minister to tackle the known unknowns before we give him any powers of clairvoyance. That is definitely a wise thing to be doing. I appreciate everyone’s contributions, including that of the Minister.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of pensions policy.
Marine Renewables: Government Support for Commercial Roll-out
[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government support for the commercial roll-out of marine renewables.
It is a pleasure to be here in Westminster Hall—not least because somebody thought it would be a good idea to turn off the heating in Portcullis House today—and to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. This debate is both timely and—for a half hour Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall—very well attended. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members present.
I say timely because it follows hot on the heels of the speech by the Prime Minister last week, where he announced plans for a green industrial revolution creating 250,000 jobs. That has the potential to be a highly significant milestone on the road to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The speech included many laudable goals, and it is my experience from many years in the House that where ambitious targets are made and married to genuine political commitment, that building cross-party consensus in the House for them is not a difficult process; I do hope that we will be able to do so.
If what we got from the Prime Minister last week was the strategy, then today I want to focus the attention of the House and the Minister on one very important tactic: marine energy. The generation of electricity using wave and tidal power is an industrial sector in which the UK has the ability to lead the world. Much of what I want to discuss today will not be new to the Minister. It follows on from a briefing he had in the House from leading industrial developers in the sector earlier in the year, organised by the all-party parliamentary group on marine energy and tidal lagoons.
What is needed now is the finely tuned support mechanisms from Government to turn technical feasibility into commercial application. I declare a very obvious and particular constituency interest. Living in an island community, one is acutely aware of the power of the sea and never far away from it. It can affect just about every aspect of life. Orkney is home to the European Marine Energy Centre, the undisputed world leader in testing wave and tidal devices, both domestic and international. Others envy that status, but it will not last for ever without the positive signals of support that I seek to get from the Minister today.
The Minister will be aware that the EU is already looking at ways to ramp up its efforts to exploit the opportunities that marine renewables present. History tells us that, although we have an advantage having done the groundbreaking research and development work, there are plenty of other places in the world where that could be deployed commercially, as happened with the development of onshore wind.
Although my constituency is currently central to this emerging technology, even now this is not an industry confined to any one constituency, region or nation of the United Kingdom. Work is ongoing in engineering workshops and university research centres throughout the country, from Strangford lough to the Isle of Wight, from the Pentland firth to the south-west of England, this is a truly UK-wide industry. Of course, on the mention of Strangford lough, I give way to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
As an Orangeman, there is only one green revolution that I will support, and it is this one. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the movement of the tide is as sure as the sun rising and setting? Projects such as the tidal energy generator in Strangford lough, which is a pilot scheme, has given my constituency a glimpse into tidal potential that should be further explored.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and allowing me to intervene as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on marine energy and tidal lagoons. As he and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have highlighted, this is a resource of enormous potential across the UK.
We have representatives here from Wales. It is true to say that Bardsey will become the first island in the world to be entirely powered by tidal stream. The other projects in Morlais, Pembrokeshire and Perpetuus Tidal Energy Centre on the Isle of Wight, which is one of five centres funded through the Government’s TIGER project, give an idea, as the Minister is aware, of the potential. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, with COP26 in Glasgow next year, if the contracts for difference auction were to be just beforehand and marine energy to be given a fraction of the capacity there, that would be a fabulous project to highlight at COP26?
I absolutely agree because, as I am about to illustrate, we have a nascent industry. It is growing but it is in a position to undertake that important role for the UK on the world stage. According to the UK Marine Energy Council, there are currently 22 tidal stream and 23 wave developers active in the UK, with an estimated investment to date exceeding £500 million of private capital in developing marine energy technologies, and £70 million in direct public support.
Estimates of support suggest that the tidal stream could deliver £1.4 billion gross value added by 2030, while the figure for wave is £4 billion by 2040. Those figures, plus the thousands of jobs that would come with them, are a tremendous prize. There are currently tidal stream sites with an aggregated output of 1 GW under development in the UK, awaiting a positive signal from the Government. The industry is ready to move, the technology is there, the private investment is primed but it does need a helping hand from Government at this critical stage.
The right hon. Gentleman and I worked together in Government, and he knows that my constituency in Pembrokeshire is one of those hot prospects for the development of marine renewables in the years ahead. Does he agree that this area has been discussed a lot? It is very easy for everyone to be in agreement about the rhetoric, and how good these things would potentially be in the future, but what we need now is some practical steps that help build investor confidence to unlock the projects and see actual, practical growth in the sector.
I absolutely agree. I have been watching and engaging with this industry since I was first elected in 2001. Candidly, we have seen a few false dawns over that time, but it is clear that we have got to that point, where it is so tantalisingly close, that we are now looking at that missing link to get us over the line.
I will offer a couple of illustrations from my constituency. Orbital Marine Power is at the forefront of this industry, and the most recent prototype successfully generated 3.25 GWh into the UK grid during a 12-month period of trials at the European Marine Energy Centre. Orbital has raised £7 million of construction debt finance through the Abundance crowdfunding platform to finance the building of a commercial tidal generator for deployment in spring 2021. Orbital and its investors are now awaiting the right signals from the Government to go fully commercial.
Orbital illustrates well the opportunity that we have here. Some 80% of the Orbital machine currently under construction is from UK suppliers. It believes that this could increase to 95% if the correct market conditions were put in place. The contrast with wind power, which has relied overwhelmingly on imported machinery, is almost too obvious to mention—I say almost, because nothing is ever too obvious to mention in politics.
The same runs true of Nova Innovation, which deployed the world’s first offshore tidal array in Shetland. Construction of the Shetland tidal array had over 80% UK content, including 25% of the supply chain spend in Shetland. Operation of the array has seen 98% UK supply chain content, with over 50% of project expenditure going to companies in the northern isles, such as Shetland Composites, which made the blades for Nova’s turbines and is now one of the top tidal blade manufacturers in Europe. Nova expects this high local content to be replicated at its other UK sites in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the south of England.
If we can be world leaders in the domestic application of marine renewable technologies, we will also be in pole position to become the leading exporters to the world. Make no mistake: these devices are substantial pieces of engineering, so the potential for jobs and green industrial benefits is enormous—I would say, parenthetically, that this is the point at which we should be looking at export finance support for these companies, so that when we get to that point we are not having to play catch-up.
The missing link, however, has long been one that would give wave and tidal energy the chance to develop commercially to the point at which it would, like other renewable technologies, outgrow the need for subsidy. To get to that stage, it simply cannot be linked in with other renewable technologies—often better established—and told to compete.
That brings me to my first ask of the Minister. We need a bit of fine tuning of the Government’s approach in the next CfD round. It is welcome that tidal and wave technologies will be in pot 2 for the forthcoming CfD round, with offshore wind in a separate pot 3. That learns from the failures of the past, and goes some way to addressing the most obvious weaknesses, which pitted so many technologies at very different stages of development against one another.
What the industry is really looking for is a pot within a pot—in other words, an allocated amount to be competed for by tidal and wave developers at a price that will not only make their projects economically viable and able to attract investment but, importantly, will do so in a manner that does not interfere with the overall objectives of the CfD round. The ability to create that ring-fenced refinement exists within legislation already. It is imperative that we act now. As we know from other renewable technologies, once the process of a commercial roll-out in underway, the costs drop like a stone.
As well as having an immediate effect, the creation of a tidal and wave-specific allocation would provide a clear and long-awaited policy signal and will pave the way for private investment, and not just in the technologies but in the infrastructure required to support the deployment. It is worth remembering that, by definition, most of that work will take place in coastal communities, from the Cromarty firth and the Clyde to the north-west and south-west of England, many of which have suffered badly for years as a result of post-industrial decline, even before the impact of the current pandemic.
My second ask of the Minister is one that he has heard before. The Government should support technology developers by implementing a complementary proposal that would support technology developers not yet able to participate in the CfD process. The innovation power purchase agreement would allow a developer to sell electricity to an electricity supplier at a strike price to be agreed with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
I understand that that is not a BEIS responsibility and that it sits with the Treasury, and we all know that the Treasury is not always the easiest Department to deal with, so I offer it to the Minister as his opportunity for glory. This emerging industry needs a champion inside Government, someone who will prosecute the case with the Treasury so that the potential that we have all spoken about today can be realised and something that he has heard about can then become a reality. He could be that champion for the marine renewable industry. I can think of nobody better for the role.
In short, what the marine energy sector needs today from the Government is not a handout, but a signal of support that can in turn be used to open the door to private investment and to create a platform for a vibrant industrial sector that ticks all the Government’s boxes: clean energy, technical innovation, world leadership, export potential, industrial regeneration, a genuinely British product, and economic benefits for hard-pressed coastal communities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. It is an opportunity to turn the rhetoric of the Prime Minister’s speech last week, and the Government’s laudable aspirations for levelling up, into a genuine political reality. If the Minister will take on that cause and fight it for us, he will have the support of all parties and all parts of the country.
I had not intended to speak, but now I am on my feet, and why give up the opportunity? I will put on the record again how excited I am by some of the developments off the west Wales coast. There is no shortage of projects coming forward and companies with various track records, but lots of good ideas and good intent for this new industry, which we have debated and talked about a lot in recent years. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, we are on the cusp of seeing those developments come to fruition if the right conditions are put in place.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
The only other point that I will make, before I allow the Minister to respond, is that in a constituency such as mine, for the last almost 50 years, the economy has been heavily dependent on oil refining. We as a country, and as a Government, have now made a commitment to bring forward a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol engines, and we are moving away from a carbon-based economy. Constituencies such as mine are vulnerable to the big strategic changes that we are mandating as part of our efforts to meet the global challenge of climate change. There is a duty on the Government to help bring forward replacement jobs—high-quality jobs and apprenticeships—in new exciting clean technologies.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I particularly thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing the debate—he and I have an awful lot in common, both in our commitment to marine energy and because we come from island communities. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that projects such as Morlais and Minesto on Ynys Môn need to have bespoke Government support packages?
I am delighted to be able finally to respond to the debate. There have been some really interesting interventions, and it is a shame that we have only had half an hour for it. It is also a real pleasure to participate in this debate with you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins.
I will address the two points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and then I will address some of the wider concerns relating to economic opportunities and the levelling-up agenda. First, the right hon. Gentleman gave me two challenges: the first was to look at the pot structure of the CfD round; and the second was, as he put it, my bid for glory within the Government, by championing the cause of marine energy. He will know that I have a real interest in this subject. I have seen the APPG on marine energy and tidal lagoons and its chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), a number of times on this issue, and I have also attended APPG meetings that the right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester and I have had the privilege of hosting here in Parliament.
To begin with, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the pot structure, and I pay tribute to him for actually attributing some degree of good policy on the part of the Government, because we split the offshore wind element—the offshore wind competition—into a separate pot, and we have allowed marine tidal projects and remote island wind projects, which may be of interest to him, to remain in pot 2.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the competition was unfair, but of course when we set up the pot structure we did not know that it was unfair, because we had not seen the progress in the development of offshore wind. And all I will say to him now on this issue is that I am very sympathetic to ideas, as he put it, of having a pot within a pot. That means that within pot 2 there would be a reserved quantum for marine projects, particularly tidal projects, to be able to compete for. I can assure him that that idea is being considered.
Having said all that, however, there is an issue, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, about the actual costs—the initial costs of marine technology and how we can support such technology. This is very much a chicken and egg situation, because people who are keen supporters of marine energy technology would say, “Well, if you don’t support it, how are you going to bring the costs down?”, and of course, our friends in the Government, including within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and, in particular, the Treasury, would say, “Well, if something is going to cost £250 per megawatt-hour and nuclear is at £92 per megawatt-hour, there is a discrepancy there.”
Obviously, public money must be well considered and looked after, and the challenge is very much on the industry, as I have said to industry players and champions on separate occasions. The challenge is for them to show how these costs can come down. If they can, then I am sure that the Government would be very willing to support the technology.
We have initiated a marine energy call for evidence. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that there was a whole debate about the Swansea Bay lagoon. When the development consent order for that lapsed, the Secretary of State said that we would have a call for evidence and we are engaged in that process. I fully recognise the economic opportunities for the coastal communities that he represents so ably, and I also pay tribute to the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, which, as he reminded us, is a world-beating centre. Of course, it initially enjoyed Government support, as he will well remember, because he was in government at the time. It is something that I would be very willing to engage with him on.
First of all, I understand the point the Minister makes about the operation of CfDs. When I was in government in 2011 and 2012, when the CfDs were introduced by the Energy Acts, we did not really know how they would work, so we have learned from the experience. Every time there is a development pot, one technology emerges, which is why the ring-fencing is important. On the issue of the evidence, will the Minister look at the figures that I have given him today relating to the private sector investment that is primed and ready to go? Surely there could be no better indicator of technological ability than the willingness of the private sector to put its money into it.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a fair point. The private sector is willing to go, of course, provided it is supported initially by the Government. That is exactly the kind of conversation we should be having. He made some good points in his opening speech. One of the phrases that stuck in my mind was that we should “open the door” to private investment. That is exactly what the CfD round has done. That is exactly what we would hope to achieve, should we go down that route with regard to marine energy. No Government in the world can simply spend their way to creating the industry. The trick is to create the financial incentives, as we have done with offshore wind, to allow us to open the door to private investors.
I pay tribute not only to the right hon. Gentleman, but to the communities he represents and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb)—I am glad I got the constituency right; I knew it was not Ceredigion. He made the point well. He represents a community that has clearly been under a huge amount of economic pressure and even distress with covid, and the green industrial revolution represents a real answer and a real chance to build back better, to level up, and to increase and widen economic opportunity across the country. It is rare to see three constituent countries of the United Kingdom represented in debates in Westminster Hall. I do not think we have Scottish representatives here.
Forgive me; I saw straight through the Scottish representative. In this debate, we have representatives from all four countries of the United Kingdom. That is significant, and points to the fact that the levelling-up agenda is geographically extremely diverse. The green industrial revolution and green energy topics engage all four of our constituent nations. It is an excellent debate for that reason.
The Government remain absolutely committed to renewable energy, and that was highlighted specifically by the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan. We believe that the only way we can get to net zero by 2050 is through innovation. Tidal technology is part of that innovation. The only caveat is that it cannot come at any cost.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire referred to eternal waiting and eternal words and rhetoric. We must have this dialogue and we must at least show a pathway to reducing costs, and if we can do that—I am sure we will be able to do that—we will in the short term be able to put flesh on the bones and realise in fact some of the aspirational rhetoric exchanged across the House for many years.
The Minister has been generous in his support for renewables in general, and for marine energy specifically. As referred to by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), he has been willing to see representatives of the industry and hear ideas for the future auction. Will he, at the same time, try to find a few moments to look at the innovative purchasing agreement proposed by the industry, allowing a tax reduction basis but with nothing rewarded till it has been delivered, in terms of energy? Will he commend it to his friends at the Treasury?
I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that that is something I will be looking into. With regard to my BEIS commitments specifically, we can potentially get some movement on the auction. I do not know, and it is part of a discussion. Once that is up and running, perhaps we could have a further debate and a further push on tax treatment in the way he describes. I would clearly be happy to raise that with Treasury colleagues, although the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland knows from his experience in Government how fraught some of those conversations can sometimes be. BEIS will certainly look at the auction seriously. We hope to push forward with that innovation.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is one of those places that few people can pronounce properly, let alone spell, let alone locate on a map, yet in recent months it has been the location of a bloody war involving thousands of fatalities and casualties; bombardment of civilian areas and destruction of towns and cultural sites; the use of internationally banned munitions; and now a return to ethnic cleansing. It has involved not just Armenians and Azerbaijanis, but global powers such as Russia and Turkey, with significant implications for geopolitics far beyond this remote area of the southern Caucasus.
I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Armenia. I am well aware that this has been a long-running dispute between Armenians and Azeris over many years, which was only contained during the days of the Soviet empire, and which flared up again in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. I am also aware that most of the international community recognises Nagorno-Karabakh as, most recently, largely Azeri territory, and I do not want to reopen that centuries-old argument. Whatever one’s view on the future government of Nagorno-Karabakh—as part of Azerbaijan, as an independent state per an earlier referendum result, or as part of an extended Armenian state—I hope we can all agree that engaging in a bloody war and an almost medieval-style battlefield invasion is not the way to resolve the dispute. However slow and problematic it has proven, a legitimate, internationally supported resolution process has been in place, namely the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk group. The current status of that group is rather unclear after the conflict, with the boots on the ground now provided by Russian troops, and others supported by Turkey.
I am not going to go through the whole history of the conflict—certainly not in an hour-long debate. The recent military action started at the end of July, when Azeri forces launched unprovoked attacks at various points on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the north-east corner of Armenia, far away from Nagorno-Karabakh. That attack was defended against robustly by Armenia. It was accompanied by bellicose statements from Azeri Government Ministers, especially the Ministry of Defence, which raised the prospect of the Armenian nuclear power station at Metsamor being within the range of Azeri missiles. It was followed by deliberately provocative joint Turkish-Azeri military exercises close to the Armenian border and words of encouragement from the Turkish Government under the slogan, “Two countries, one nation”.
I wrote to the Foreign Secretary on behalf of the all-party group and that letter was published. I received chastisement, as I would call it, from the Turkish ambassador, who criticised me for the deeply biased tone of my letter that failed to reflect the current situation in the region. He said that he had irrefutable evidence, both circumstantial and concrete, that clearly indicated that the current aggression and violence were once again started as a result of Armenian actions. When I asked him what that was, he failed to produce any evidence—concrete, circumstantial or otherwise. I think it is widely accepted that this conflict was started, completely unprovoked, by Azerbaijan, yet there was hardly a whisper from western powers, including, I regret to say, the United Kingdom, beyond the usual diplomatic niceties about returning to the negotiating table. That was clearly a prelude to the serious assault on Nagorno-Karabakh that started on 27 September—again unprovoked.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This might seem a conflict in far-off lands, but the diaspora communities here have brought it to our attention. I know that he knows my constituent Annette Moskofian, from the UK branch of the Armenian National Committee, the ANC. The Hayshen centre and the Navasartian centre are also in my constituency, and they played a vital part when it felt as if the eyes of the world were looking elsewhere.
Absolutely. I know that there is a large Armenian community in the hon. Lady’s constituency and I pay tribute to Annette Moskofian—I will supply Hansard with the spelling later—and the work of the ANC, which so ably represents the Armenian community here.
The invasion took place almost 100 years to the day since the Turks invaded the newly independent republic of Armenia against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide, which the Turks still deny took place. On 27 September, Azerbaijan launched sustained air and artillery attacks as well as an infantry offensive along the entire line of contact with Nagorno-Karabakh, indiscriminately shelling civilian populations and peaceful settlements, including the capital Stepanakert. We should remember that Nagorno-Karabakh has a population of just 146,000, 91% of them Armenian in origin. They are supported by the small country of Armenia, which has a population of just 3 million. It was attacked by oil-rich Azerbaijan, which has a population of 10 million and a defence budget of almost $2 billion annually. It spent $1.6 billion on a defence deal with Israel alone—almost the equivalent of a single year’s budget. That attack involved the use of F-16 Turkish fighter planes and rocket launchers brought in from Nakhchivan, which neighbours Turkey. Turkey has one of the largest standing armies and is one of the largest spenders on defence in the whole world.
During the 45-day bloody conflict that followed, countless soldiers on both sides lost their lives; bodies are literally still strewn across the battlefields, making it difficult to tot up the numbers. I was reminded by the International Committee of the Red Cross that 5,000 people are still unaccounted for from the conflict back in the 1990s. The Red Cross also estimates that there have been 150 civilian fatalities and more than 600 injuries. Fourteen thousand civilian structures—homes, schools, hospitals and heritage sites—were damaged or destroyed, and there were attacks on churches full of people at prayer.
The most worrying aspect of the conflict has been the use of Israeli so-called kamikaze drones—silent killers that hang over a battlefield; before anyone knows they are there, they explode their deadly cargo. That was a gamechanger for this conflict in a notoriously impenetrable mountainous area of the world. Also worrying was the use of banned cluster bomb munitions—the so-called Kinder surprise ribbon bombs. They have ribbons on them and are often picked up by children who think they are a trinket, only for them to explode. Those cluster bombs were used on a maternity hospital, schools and Shushi Cathedral, as witnessed by journalists from The Telegraph and other western representatives. They were delivered in Russian-made 9M55 Smerch rockets, described by Amnesty International as “cruel and reckless” and causing “untold death, injury and misery”. Also deeply worrying about this conflict was that Turkey, a NATO member, illegally transferred NATO-grade director drones to a non-NATO member country for use against civilians. That did, at least, attract a cancellation of export licences for certain defence items from Canada, Austria and the United States.
Most worrying of all was the importation by Turkey of thousands of jihadi insurgents brought in from Syria and Libya. Videos have been circulating of them openly involved in the conflict, and in some cases openly parading the decapitated heads of executed Armenian soldiers. It is reported they are paid a bonus—literally—for the heads of members of the Armenian military. Armenian families report having received gruesome videos of the mutilated bodies of their relatives, which were sent to them by these terrorists. Apparently, it is advertised in northern Syria that those who sign up for settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh will be given a parcel of land.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said
“reports indicate that Turkey engaged in large-scale recruitment and transfer of Syrian men to Azerbaijan through armed factions, some of which are affiliated with the Syrian National Army”.
Chris Kwaja, who chaired the working group, added:
“The alleged role of Turkey is all the more concerning given the similar allegations addressed earlier this year by the Working Group in relation its role in recruiting, deploying and financing such fighters to take part in the conflict in Libya,”
The report said:
“The way in which these individuals were recruited, transported and used in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone appeared consistent with the definition of a mercenary, as set out by relevant international legal instruments”.
That is the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner speaking; it is not just hearsay.
This is deeply worrying. After 45 days of bloody conflict, a ceasefire was signed on 10 November, brokered by President Putin and the Russians. The Armenian Prime Minister signed this declaration clearly under duress, without any reference to the President, Ministers or Parliament, because it was a fait accompli imposed by Russia and Turkey. Under its terms, the indigenous Armenian population from three regions were given just days to evacuate their lifelong homes. The Russians gave nine Armenian villages just 48 hours to leave their ancestral homes, without any chance to organise their exodus or get support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, for example.
The Russians and Azeris continue to draw arbitrary borders without involving representatives from Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh itself. What has become an island of remaining Nagorno-Karabakh territory is to be connected to Armenia through a narrow Lachin corridor under Russia-Azeri control and a new link between Nakhchivan and Turkey in the west, and Azerbaijan in the east has been carved out of land in the south of Armenia itself.
Baroness Cox, who has been an extraordinary champion of the Armenian nation and people, recently visited the war zone—I think it was her 87th visit to that part of the world. She reported back on what she had seen in deeply distressing terms:
“Lines of refugees taking their belongings heading for the safety of Armenia carrying whatever possessions they could … taking with them livestock, even digging up the graves of loved ones fearful for their bodies being desecrated after they had left and torching their houses so they would not fall into the hands of the Azerians”.
This is ethnic cleansing pure and simple. No Armenian feels safe in lands that have been their homes for years; they are being intimidated out, to be replaced by Azeris and jihadi terrorists. That should raise serious security alarm bells for the west as well.
Genocide Watch declared a genocide emergency alert last month, but the cleansing continues apace. We had a briefing from the International Committee of the Red Cross through the Inter-Parliamentary Union last week. It calculated that there have been many thousands of military casualties, but the figure is still unknown because the bodies are still unretrieved. It has no idea of the number of detainees on each side. It is hard to access those prisoners, but there have been reports of torture and executions. Russian peacekeeping forces and Turks in some places actually turn out to be Syrian mercenaries.
Why is that small population in a remote part of the world significant? It is significant because we should all take an interest when a nation and the peace-loving people in those territories are persecuted in an unprovoked way. It is also significant because of the geopolitical implications. Turkey has extended its influence eastwards to the Caspian, in an unholy alliance with the Russians. Russia has reasserted its influence over former Soviet republics and effectively stamped on the independent credentials of Armenia, one of the few democracies in the area. Russia will effectively exert control over the Armenian military, take over Armenian oil projects, effectively gain a military base in Nagorno-Karabakh and take over Armenia’s foreign policy. Those are all significant shifts in the spheres of influence in that volatile region. Russia has been extending its influence in Ukraine, Turkey and Syria, getting a taste for territorial expansion by force or stealth.
The Azeris will be given free rein to continue the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh and the suppression of its Christian culture. In the past 15 years, Azerbaijan has been more aggressive in destroying UNESCO-protected Armenian world heritage sites than even ISIS was in Syria. Not a single church or Armenian cross stone has survived in the historic Armenian Nakhchivan area. More than 189 churches and 10,000 Christian crosses have been blown up by the Azeris.
Israel does not come out of this well either. It is trading high-tech weapons, which have made the strategic difference in the war, for energy. It relies on Azerbaijan for about half its oil. It supports an Azeri President who embraces militiamen who behead prisoners, mutilate bodies, destroy churches and engage in anti-Christian campaigns. As the US writer Michael Rubin put it,
“Armenia is a democracy, while Azerbaijan has become a family-run dictatorship. Armenia embraces religious freedom while Azerbaijan works with Islamist extremists.”
Yet few have come to the aid of Armenia in the past few months. Armenia and the Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh are the victims in all this.
All this happened when the US was somewhat preoccupied by the controversy over the presidential elections. There have been minimal sanctions on weapons, and everything I have described has largely gone unchallenged. I welcome the meetings that we had with the Minister, and I acknowledge the calls by the Foreign Office for an end to the conflict, a return to the negotiating tables, and respect for human rights. We have also given some aid in the region. However, when a UN motion was proposed to prevent intervention of third parties in the conflict and to denounce the presence of Syrian mercenaries in the region, which was so important, it was reported that the United Kingdom Government stood in the way of the proposal. I would welcome a response from the Minister on that.
Where has been the condemnation of the use of Syrian mercenaries? Where has been the condemnation of the illegal use of cluster munitions? Where has been the condemnation and pressure on Turkey, a NATO member and ally, which has allowed NATO-grade weapons to be used against a democratic, sovereign country—Armenia—and is now exercising a worrying extension of its power into the Caucasus and beyond? I am afraid that the silence has been deafening. Many in Armenia are claiming that their ally, the United Kingdom, has let them down, and I can see why.
We urgently need western peacekeepers in the region to monitor ethnic cleansing and the activities of the Syrian mercenaries. We need a proper investigation into war crimes and the treatment of prisoners. We need to consider the future independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, which the citizens voted for many years ago and which was recently supported in the Parliaments of France, Holland and Belgium. I think it is time, at last, to recognise the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks—a century-old outrage in which between a million and a million and a half men, women and children were massacred by the Ottomans, in the first genocide of the modern age. I should tell the Minister that, with Members of both Houses, I have prepared the Armenian genocide 1915 to 1923 recognition Bill to commemorate the Armenian genocide through official recognition and remembrance, and to put formal recognition of that genocide on a statutory basis. I hope that there will be considerable support for that measure in both Houses.
Terrible things have happened in the southern Caucasus. They are no less terrible because of the remoteness of a country that few know about; but those terrible things, perpetrated specifically by Azerbaijan and its Turkish allies, need to be acknowledged, called out and punished. I ask the Minister to start that process today.
I shall be brief, Mrs Cummins. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing the debate, which is an important opportunity for us to raise the dire situation faced by the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is a pleasure to follow him in the debate.
I take a keen interest in the conflict for many reasons, but in particular as the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Armenia, a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and someone who grew up hearing the horrific stories of the genocide of Armenian people in Turkey. As the hon. Gentleman set out, Nagorno-Karabakh is an autonomous region of Azerbaijan with an Armenian majority population. Since 1994 it has been controlled by Armenians as a self-proclaimed independent state, although neither country recognises that statehood as yet. On 27 September this year, after some alarming escalations during the summer, the worst violence in the region since 1994 erupted. By 13 October around 1,000 people had been killed, as Azerbaijani forces advanced past the line of conflict established as part of the 1994 ceasefire.
The conflict has caused a humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. There are reports and evidence of numerous violations of international law by Azerbaijan, including the use of banned cluster bombs, the murder of elderly and disabled civilians, and the torture and humiliation of captured Armenians. Perhaps most shocking of all, Turkey, a member of NATO—an organisation founded to ensure a lasting peace in Europe based on common values of individual liberty, democracy and human rights and the rule of law—has been providing military support to Azerbaijan. Turkey has recruited and transported jihadi mercenaries to bolster Azerbaijan forces who are using Turkish weapons and war planes—in particular, drones.
The military attack on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh has been accompanied by a campaign of hate speech towards Armenian people in Azerbaijan and in Turkey. Garo Paylan, one of the very few Armenian Members of the Turkish Parliament—if not the only one—has said:
“Armenian-origin citizens have become scapegoats and the object of rising racism and hate speech”,
“The current climate reminds me of previous anti-Armenian pogroms.”
Paylan commented that Turkey’s Armenian community, and citizens of Armenia who live in Turkey, no longer feel safe.
Any conflict that leads to loss of life is a tragedy, but a conflict in which civilians are deliberately targeted, international law is ignored and the involvement of a NATO member, abandoning all pretences of neutrality, is making things worse rather than better is a conflict of which the west should sit up and take notice. To be fair, we must acknowledge that the US, France and other EU countries have raised concerns about the transportation of mercenaries, but the UK, unfortunately, has been conspicuous only by its silence. The broad lack of interest from the west has resulted in Armenia being forced to agree a peace deal devised by Russia and Turkey and—I kid you not—potentially with Turkish troops being deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh to keep the peace.
The scale and horror of this conflict cannot be laid out in the few minutes that I have today, but the urgency of the need for action is only matched by the moral imperative that sits behind it. That those responsible for the atrocities listed should be charged with delivering a lasting and equitable peace is unconscionable. The UK Government and the international community must act, so I ask the following questions today.
Will the UK Government condemn Azerbaijan for using cluster bombs on civilians? Amnesty International has reported that there is growing evidence that Azerbaijan used cluster bombs in Nagorno-Karabakh. In particular, the capital, Stepanakert, was attacked with cluster bombs, resulting in an unknown number of civilian deaths. The use of cluster bombs violates the ban on indiscriminate attacks and violates international law, as we know. Are the UK Government aware of the above reports that Azerbaijan used cluster bombs in Nagorno-Karabakh? Do the Government consider such violations of international humanitarian law to be unacceptable? If so, will the Minister condemn those breaches?
Will the Government use their influence to put pressure on Turkey, a NATO member, to remove the mercenaries from the region and stop its effort to relocate mercenary families from Syria? Will the UK support the Minsk Group re-engaging for a final settlement for the status of Nagorno-Karabakh?
It is reported that British-manufactured parts were used to build Turkey’s Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicles —drones—that were used extensively by Azerbaijan during the war. How do the Government trace the unsolicited sale of British military IP by Turkey to third countries?
The failure by successive Governments, including my party in government, to recognise the Armenian genocide, despite all the evidence, has led to yet another such experience for Armenians in the region, who are once more being removed from their ancestral land. Will this Government follow most countries in the world and our allies and finally recognise the Armenian genocide?
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on his excellent speech, with which I fully agree. I grieve for the suffering, particularly of civilians, in any conflict, but because time today limits me, I want, in speaking of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, to highlight only two points. These have been highlighted to me today by Baroness Cox. They are in her report, “Grief and Courage in Nagorno Karabakh”. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will read the full report, because there is much more in it, but Baroness Cox particularly wants me to highlight these two points.
The first is the urgent need to secure the return of Armenians still held as prisoners of war after the ceasefire and to ensure that ongoing atrocities against them do not continue. The second is the need to ensure that Azerbaijanis are held to account for the atrocities committed both during and after the conflict. I therefore ask the Minister these questions. What action are our Government taking, both by themselves and with international partners, to prevent the further abuse of Armenians held captive, to secure their release and to bring to justice those responsible for war crimes during this conflict? What assurance can the Minister give us that investigations into alleged war crimes, particularly those classed as genocide by Genocide Watch, as we have heard, will be carried out by a properly constituted, neutral and recognised international body?
It is heart-rending to hear in Baroness Cox’s report of multiple accounts of brutality inflicted on military and civilian prisoners of war, despite the ceasefire, and equally heart-rending to hear in the report from the Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman, who states that there is evidence of
“the deliberate targeting of civilians, ambulances, hospitals, religious sites, electricity, gas and water infrastructure and the use of chemical incendiaries”.
The information has been sent, but
“we have received no adequate replies from major aid organisations…We are totally isolated.”
What information can the Minister give us about what aid from the UK has reached those in need of help in the area and how is it being applied?
Baroness Cox’s report states:
“The scale and ferocity of these offensives has intensified the justifiable fear among local people—who are 94% Armenian Christians—of the possibility of ethnic cleansing from their historic land, with grave implications for the region.”
She goes on to say:
“we remain deeply concerned by the lack of international engagement with, and balanced reporting of, the suffering of civilians in Nagorno Karabakh.”
While the report cites the history of oppression of Armenian Christians over the past century, it also states that attempts by some
“to present the latest escalation of violence as an Armenian aggression—or to suggest”
that Armenia is equally culpable
“for the violence and civilian destruction that has taken place—are manifestly untrue and dangerous. It would be entirely against the interests of Armenia to initiate the recent war.”
I quoted that because yesterday evening I had the privilege of speaking with a member of a family from Armenia. That person now lives in the west, but has family still there. That individual echoes the concerns of Baroness Cox in such a way that, time permitting, I want to cite in some detail from an email I asked that person to send to me and received this morning. They call for the
“urgent release of Prisoners of War and the freedom for the Armenian soldiers who are in hiding to return home.”
The message states:
“The majority of soldiers who fought at the frontlines were newly drafted 18-year-old boys, only 2-3 months experiences in the military. They were only equipped with 20th century weapons to fight a 21st century military. The reality in Artsakh is that the 150,000 Christian population was in no way prepared to face a 21st century invasion—it was an uneven battle. Armenia’s military was weak and unprepared for drones, mercenaries, F-16s and military intelligence backing Turkey and Azerbaijan military forces. Around 5000 Armenian military men were deployed to the frontline, majority of them 18-year-olds who had just enlisted in the summer.”
Indeed, the writer’s 18-year-old cousin, now injured and missing, was one of them. The email continues, saying that the young men are
“in desperate need to return home. We believe they are alive either as prisoners of war facing daily humiliation and torture, or they have been in hiding in desperate and immediate need of medical attention. There are hundreds of young men and women in hiding who are unable to obtain food, security, care for their wounds, and basic human needs. Azerbaijan officials have placed a price on their lives. Their new demands since the ceasefire agreement have been to either exchange Armenian soldiers for more land or for a ransom to be paid for each soldier. Red Cross negotiations and efforts have failed to set these men free. Will the British Parliament voice the immediate need to release these men from these dire, inhumane conditions?”
In the same email, the writer grieves at the continual violation of the ceasefire against
“servicemen, women and civilians who face annihilation where their lives, homes, churches, heritage and their culture are being destroyed in front of the entire world.”
The writer comments that not only is aggression not part of Armenia’s Christian way of life but Armenia does not have the practical means or resources to be an aggressor. They say that the military invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh should be yet another wake-up call to Christians around the world following the demise of Christian populations in other parts of the middle east.
The writer also expresses concerns that not only is Azerbaijan actively removing the Christian population; it is also going about the potential rewriting of the region’s history, citing the example of the 9th-to-10th century Armenian monastery at Dadivank, which is today being presented by Azeri officials as an ancient Albanian site. Finally, the writer also comments that in order to protect human lives the Armenian people ought to have the right to self-determination on lands that they have called home for nearly two millennia.
I congratulate my good friend, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), on setting the scene so well. He and I share many concerns. It is also a pleasure to follow another good friend, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).
Behind everything, two superpowers, Russia and Turkey, are both playing for their own advantage and using the Armenians as the meat in the sandwich, so to speak. Something that sticks in my head is from the report of Baroness Cox—also vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief—who recently visited Nagorno-Karabakh. Her words are telling.
One family whose son was captured by Azeri forces said that his phone was stolen by his captors, who posted an image of his beheaded body on his own social media account for his family and friends to see—brutality, criminality and absolutely detestable action.
Similar concerns were expressed by the Armenian human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, who told Baroness Cox:
“We have video evidence of torture and mutilations...Azerbaijan have returned 29 military bodies and few civilians—DNA was needed to identify four bodies. But it refuses to provide the list of current prisoners…and continues to withhold information and access to prisoners from the Red Cross.”
Turkey, which is behind Azerbaijan, has totally ignored what is acceptable in the rest of the free world. I do not know if anyone in this place could read such information and remain untouched; that would be impossible. I certainly wish to see what more can be done—not simply to ensure that the ceasefire remains in place, but to see a return of soldiers home to their loved ones.
In the short time that I have, I also wish to express great concern about the attacks on civilians, on innocents and on churches—the dispersal of the Christian community, ethnic cleansing and despicable criminality. Those involved in murders and the extreme violence should be accountable for their war crimes. The exact numbers are unknown. Armenian officials in Yerevan told Human Rights Watch that Azerbaijan holds dozens of Armenian prisoners of war. Armenia is known to hold a number of Azerbaijani POWs and at least three foreign mercenaries.
I read carefully the response of the Minister for European Neighbourhood to the ANC. Clearly, there is more to do than to applaud a ceasefire—the ceasefire was despicable. Will the Government, in recognition of our obligations under the Geneva convention, uphold everybody’s values and demand that Azerbaijan ensures the safe return of all prisoners of war? Furthermore, will they commit to set up a commission or working group to support local efforts accurately to determine the number of captives and monitor their return?
I think I have spoken more quickly today than I have ever spoken. There is more to be said, but not enough time to do it. I appeal for POWs to be returned to both nations, but it is clear that the horrors faced by too many families have not ceased with the ceasefire. We must intervene where we can and use any and all diplomatic pressures at our disposal. I am sure that you, Mrs Cummins, would join the rest of us in beseeching the Minister for action, and for support for this war-ravaged nation—in particular for the Armenians, who have been despicably and unbelievably treated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I commend him on an excellent and balanced speech. It is a great pleasure to follow so many thoughtful and passionate contributions from all parts of the Chamber this evening.
The dreadful upsurge in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has seen 2,700 deaths that we know of and, as we have heard, there is concern that it could be worse, so we should be glad of the ceasefire. It is very much to be welcomed, but our concern is very much that it is good news for now. In particular as we see the refugees return to their homes, we could see tensions escalate again.
Armenia handing over the disputed regions of Kalbajar, Lachin and Aghdam has impacted upon upwards of 90,000 refugees. Many thousands of people are affected, and a huge effort remains to be done in clearing the munitions to make the area safe going forward. We therefore believe that there is a need for international observers of the process—not just from one country, not least when it is not impartial itself. We need the international community to remain engaged in peace-building within the region. I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister this evening that the UK will play its role within that coalition and take a greater role than, frankly, we have seen hitherto.
We can learn some conflict lessons from the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan, in global terms, does not have a huge defence budget: 2 billion US dollars is a considerable sum of cash but, globally, is not huge. Yet by buying in advanced weaponry from other places, in particular armed drones and GPS-guided ballistic missiles, it was able to turn the balance. That is indicative of the threats that we face here and will face in future.
I would be grateful if the Minister reassured us that those evolving threats will be very much a part of the ongoing integrated foreign and defence review. I hope that the UK Government, in that review, will take good note of the SNP submission that we need to work, globally, towards closing the loophole and grey legal area in which lethal autonomous weapons operate because the issue is of global significance.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has cooled for now—that is to be welcomed—but there could be plenty of others; this will be an ongoing global issue, particularly because those weapons are so easily deployable, worldwide, to various places. The UK could do much to close that legal grey area, and I would be glad of an assurance from the Minister that we will work towards that. She can rest assured of the SNP’s support in that project—I will soon lodge a 10-minute rule Bill to help that discussion—because we believe that it will calm tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh as well as elsewhere. There is much to be done, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. It was great to hear the very strong introductory speech from the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Armenia, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and that of the vice-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark). I look forward to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend’s remarks about the banned cluster bombs and the potential violations of international humanitarian law.
As we have all heard, the conflict has had all the hallmarks of a truly dreadful modern international conflict: the use of heavy weapons in civilian areas, the involvement of third-party competence and regional powers, the impotence of several international organisations to facilitate peace at the beginning, an unfolding and tragic toll on the civilian population, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, the destruction of places of worship. Despite all that, the humanitarian catastrophe in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the wide-ranging regional geopolitical consequences, have really not had the attention that they deserve from the global community.
British people with dual nationality have been caught up in a situation where people have been displaced or lost their homes—it is freezing cold at the moment—and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, illegal weapons are being used against people in the form of cluster bombs. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that there has been no full British ambassador in a couple of years, since the last one left, and that that just adds to the impression that the conflict is deprioritised for this Government?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She has been a real champion, together with our hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (James Murray), in making the case not just for the diaspora here in the UK, who are really suffering, but for what is happening on the ground.
I have only three questions for the Minister, because I know that we are keen to hear her reply. Will she tell us what is happening with respect to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, which, earlier this week, were unable to access all the detained combatants, and have struggled to begin the tragic process of returning the deceased to their families? What role are the UK Government playing in that effort? Will the Minister address that immediate and pressing concern? In addition, the impact of covid-19 brings an extra difficult dimension to the conflict, adding further pressure on the health authorities in both countries in coping with the injured and the displaced.
My second question is on the role of Turkey, which many hon. Members have mentioned, including the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who was eloquent in his questioning of Turkey’s UK armaments. Has the Minister—as I have as shadow Minister, together with the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who is shadow Minister for the Middle East—confronted the Turkish ambassador about the situation and the potential use of Syrian and Iraqi fighters? Turkey is an ally of the UK and is part of NATO; we should be able to have those frank conversations and hold our friends to account.
Finally, will the Minister tell us what she is doing with respect to Russia’s role and in bringing in the international community? This is not just about leaving it to Russia, which of course traditionally has the military pact. What effort is being made to breathe some life into the Minsk format and reinvigorate it so that the UK can play its role—for example, by tabling a proposal for a new resolution at the UN Security Council? Of course, all hon. Members want the conflict to stop and the peace process to be successful. We should all get behind the peace process, not just leave it to Russia’s protection of the Lachin corridor.
As all hon. Members are aware, Turkey does an enormous amount for refugees. It has been a welcoming force for Syrians in the last five years of terrible conflict. There are many things on which we can work together and be friends. In this regard, however, the use of that kind of weaponry and the bringing in of other mercenaries from the middle east was just a cocktail for aggression and conflict. That is why I felt that I as a shadow Minister had to go, along with the other shadow Minister my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly, to make those representations. I am sure we will hear that the Minister has done that as well.
In the time available, I will endeavour to answer as many questions as I can. If I am unable to cover the odd point, I will come back to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I am grateful to him for securing this debate on an incredibly important topic. I pay tribute to him for his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Armenia. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have illustrated, it is a very sensitive and complex issue. I assure my hon. Friend that I am conscious of the strength of feeling in the House.
The Government welcome the cessation of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Since the fighting broke out, we have been pressing both sides on the need to end the fighting, to secure a humanitarian ceasefire and to ensure a lasting peace settlement. I have made those points directly to the Foreign Ministers of both countries. The impact of recent fighting on innocent civilians has been absolutely devastating and it had to stop. We acknowledge that both sides had to make difficult decisions to reach the peace settlement.
The Government will continue to support both Governments and the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group—France, Russia and the United States—to ensure a sustainable and fully negotiated settlement to the conflict. Only that will ensure stability, security and peace for the people of that region. It is important that all further agreements and decisions are made under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk group and with the involvement of the co-chairs: France, Russia and the United States.
Despite not being a member of the OSCE Minsk group, the UK was diplomatically active throughout the conflict. I spoke three times to the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov and the Armenian Foreign Minister Mnatsakanyan during the conflict. I also spoke to the new Armenian Foreign Minister Ayvazyan at the end of November. I delivered strong messages of de-escalation and urged a return to the negotiating table under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk group.
The conflict came at an extraordinarily difficult time for both countries as they tackled the covid-19 pandemic. As hon. Members have pointed out, the approach of winter has further exacerbated the humanitarian situation. The internally displaced persons from both sides have required significant support, which will need to continue as the weather deteriorates. In late October, the Foreign Secretary announced £1 million in funding to the International Committee of the Red Cross to support its efforts. The Government continue to consider what further support we might provide, including in the key areas of de-mining, reconstruction and reconciliation. We are aware of the challenges in getting access and we are pushing that point. I am happy to come back on that but we are aware of it. The UK Government welcomed the news of the ceasefire. The security and safety of civilians is paramount.
I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me and the shadow Minister recently. Does she have anything to say about consular assistance to our citizens? France, the US and Russia are involved in the Minsk process, but there is an impression that this country is dragging its feet. Could the Minister step up our efforts?
I assure the hon. Lady that we absolutely support the efforts and the work of the OSCE Minsk group. If there are specific consular cases, I will probably need to come back to the hon. Lady, if I may.
Turning back to the ceasefire and the importance of the safety and security of civilians, during my recent visit to Moscow I met Deputy Foreign Minister Titov and noted the role of Russia in the negotiations. I welcomed its efforts to deliver the ceasefire. There are many details that still need to be clarified. It is essential that any further developments and agreements are made by Armenia and Azerbaijan and are in their best interests. However, this initial agreement paves the way for future discussions through the OSCE Minsk group. We note that the agreement does not mention the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and consider that to be a matter for the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs to facilitate discussions, in the light of the Madrid basic principles.
During the hostilities, I also held discussions with the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Önal. I urged Turkey, as a member of the OSCE Minsk group, to support fully efforts to secure a ceasefire and return to negotiations. Since the cessation of hostilities, I have spoken again to Deputy Foreign Minister Önal, welcoming the news of the ceasefire and urging full engagement with the OSCE Minsk group, as the primary format through which a peaceful and lasting settlement should be negotiated.
I will try to make progress because I am conscious that I do not have a huge amount of time and there are a lot of questions that I want to try to answer. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister also spoke to their Turkish counterparts during the hostilities and delivered similar messages.
Colleagues have asked about the role of foreign fighters during the conflict. I assure them that the Government remain deeply concerned by reports that foreign fighters were deployed. However, we have seen no conclusive evidence on that matter. We are aware that Turkey gave strong diplomatic support to Azerbaijan. Turkey and Azerbaijan have long-standing strong relations and describe themselves as one nation with two states. President Aliyev himself has referred to the use of Turkish-made drones by the Azerbaijani army, yet we have seen no evidence of direct Turkish involvement in the conflict. We will continue to raise any concerns we have on the matter directly with the Government of Turkey.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I will endeavour to resume where I left off. We were discussing the engagement with and involvement of Turkey. I was just going on to say that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister also spoke to their Turkish counterparts during the hostilities and delivered similar messages to mine.
Members have also raised the issue of alleged desecration of cultural heritage. I am conscious that they have raised that issue with me previously, and I also know that many Members of the other place attach significant importance to it. The Government have been clear to all parties that the desecration and destruction of cultural heritage sites is appalling and wholly unacceptable. When I spoke to Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov and Armenian Foreign Minister Ayvazyan in November, I expressed deep concern over these reports. Our embassies in Baku and Yerevan have continued to engage on this matter, and we fully support the efforts of UNESCO.
I know that many right hon. and hon. Members will have seen the videos that purport to show war crimes committed by both Armenian and Azerbaijani troops. I want to be clear that this Government’s position on war crimes has not changed: where we have irrefutable evidence that war crimes have been committed, we will call them out and take appropriate action. In this case, the evidence is not irrefutable and we know that some of these videos are several years old or doctored. Nevertheless, I have raised concerns with both Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov, who committed to a full investigation, and the former Armenian Foreign Minister Mnatsakanyan.
I will try to finish these points, given that I am almost running out of time. Members have raised points that I want to cover, including about the UN Security Council and the direct question whether the UK had vetoed a UNSC product, to which the answer is no. Although the UN Security Council was united in seeking an end to the conflict, it was unfortunately unable to agree the text of a statement.
The issue of prisoners of war has also been raised. I spoke to the Armenian and Azeri Foreign Ministers following the ceasefire agreement, and highlighted the importance of returning prisoners of war. I also highlighted the International Committee of the Red Cross as the primary mediator through which prisoner exchanges should take place, but we continue to monitor that situation very closely.
The issue of cluster munitions was raised. We are deeply concerned by reports that both sides used cluster munitions during the conflict. The reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which seek to verify the deployment of these munitions by both Governments, are incredibly concerning.
I will draw this debate to a conclusion. While the Government welcome the recent peace deal, I assure right hon. and hon. Members that we remain deeply concerned by the humanitarian situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan. We remain committed to utilising the diplomatic and humanitarian tools at our disposal to see lasting peace and recovery in the region. Since the cessation of hostilities, I have continued to engage with our partners. The UK and the international community have repeatedly welcomed the cessation of hostilities and stressed the importance that all further discussions are held under the auspices of the chairs of the OSCE Minsk group. The UK will continue to raise with the relevant parties any concerns we have over the protection of cultural heritage, the role of external factors and the humanitarian situation.