Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.—(Tom Pursglove.)
I will be as brief as I can, and well under the eight minutes, I think, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Before I raise a couple of constituency issues, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all the House staff—the policemen, doorkeepers, catering staff; virtually everyone who works here—who have done so much to support us during this difficult year so that we can continue to work as safely as we can. We must not forget that they come here at some risk to themselves, given that every week we travel in from all over the country. So we are very grateful and I wish them a happy and restful Christmas.
The first issue I would like to raise is the matter of the M49 Severnside junction. Before the 2015 election, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) and representatives from South Gloucestershire Council, I began a campaign for a link road to connect the M49 directly to the Severnside enterprise and distribution area. The link road will unlock thousands of jobs in the area, which already has a number of significant distribution centres, such as Amazon, Royal Mail and GKN Aerospace.
The junction was almost completed by Highways England at the end of 2019, at a cost, so far, of £50 million to the taxpayer. Much to my astonishment, however, the project has not been completed because there was no legal undertaking whatsoever for Highways England, the developer and the landowner to complete the project by building the link roads to the motorway. I cannot understand how planning permission was granted without securing a legal undertaking from the developer to build the necessary roads to connect this junction to the motorway, which would, as I said, not only unlock local jobs, but relieve the traffic in small villages around the area, such as Easter Compton and Pilning, which would help with the environment and traffic disturbance. It would also potentially unlock a fantastic opportunity, with the free ports and Brexit, to build thousands of good, sustainable jobs.
I have written to Transport Ministers and had a meeting with the Secretary of State for Transport, who has personally written to the developer asking for an update and a timescale. There has been so far no response and no progress, and this unfinished project is just sitting there. It must be completed; I cannot and will not allow the situation to continue any longer if I can prevent it. In the new year, I will seek a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to see whether we can exert some pressure and get this project—this fantastic opportunity—completed, not only for all the benefits I have mentioned, but for the considerable money spent by the taxpayer.
The second matter I wish to raise, with associated issues, is defence spending. Filton and Bradley Stoke and the west of England region is a centre of excellence for the aerospace and defence industries. In my constituency, at least 20,000 people’s jobs are directly linked to aerospace and defence. The south-west of England’s aerospace cluster is the largest in Europe, and the UK’s aerospace industry is the second largest in the world.
The announcement that the Government will honour their pledge to continue to invest in this country’s armed forces is hugely welcome. The pledge of £16.5 billion over four years, combined with the manifesto commitment of a 0.5% uplift, means that the total increase for defence is a substantial £24.1 billion. Thus, if the defence budget for this year is £42.6 billion, by 2024 it will be £54 billion. That will ensure that we can keep the UK safe and confirm our place as the second largest contributor in the NATO alliance and the largest in Europe.
The increase will also help to secure hundreds of jobs in my constituency and investment in our future capability. It will allow us to enhance and maintain our vital strategic sovereign defence manufacturing capability. It means that we will continue to be a reliable partner to our allies and friends around the world and, importantly, able to conduct operations in our own right unilaterally. This is not just about exporting hard power; it is about soft power, our values and humanitarian operations as much as about safeguarding our homeland.
I promised to be brief, so related directly to defence spend is the Tempest programme, which I welcome and thank the Government for their ongoing commitment to. The programme is essentially the development of the next generation of fighter aircraft, which will ensure that the UK can retain its world-leading position in combat aerospace and guarantee freedom of action. As I have said, hundreds of jobs in my constituency will be protected and increased over the years of its development. It has brought together BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, MBDA and other European partners. That is fantastic news, and not only for our strategic defence capability. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), the Deputy Chief Whip, who is sitting in front of me, is a former Defence Minister and has visited my constituency regarding this programme. I thank him for that.
On a related theme, I will continue to be a candid friend. I am bearing in mind that the Deputy Chief Whip is sitting there listening to every word, although he is my proxy so I cannot really do much damage at the moment. I would like to address the question of the UK’s aerospace early warning capability. We undertook to purchase five E-7 Wedgetail aircraft, which will help to protect our aerospace and our national deterrent, and will be part of our vital AEW&C—airborne early warning and control—working with our colleagues across the world, and in NATO in particular. Will the Government therefore use the additional flexibility and the extra money granted by a multi-year settlement to revisit the decision to reduce our initial order of five to three? The reduced number will adversely affect our ability to support our NATO allies as well as to protect our own skies.
Finally, I pay tribute to all the NHS workers, care workers and other key workers in my constituency for the work they have done in the past 12 months. I have been so inspired and impressed by the way that our small communities have worked together, looking after and taking extra care in minding our neighbours and friends. They, the faith groups, the churches and the voluntary sector have done an amazing job. We have all worked together and looked after one another, and I pay tribute to everyone for that. I wish everybody a very happy, peaceful and safe Christmas.
I would like to start by paying tribute to all librarians and other staff working in the public library services across our nation, and of course in my constituency of Stockport. Research tells us that public libraries are a vital part of our social infrastructure. They empower and equalise our communities. They strengthen communities, improve digital inclusion, and help with everything from physical and mental health to cultural engagement, literacy, diversity, inclusion, and of course education. I am incredibly proud of the library staff in my borough of Stockport. They do an important job and are a key part of our community. The Central Library in the heart of my constituency is grade 2 listed, internally and externally, and is one of the original Carnegie-funded libraries, built in 1913. My town has a beautiful heritage and iconic buildings, from the Victorian viaduct, to the Central Library, to the outstanding Underbanks.
Sadly, a combination of covid and years of central Government underfunding have forced many local authorities to close public libraries and reduce the offer available to communities. Of course, public health must come first and foremost, but we must recognise the positive impact that public libraries make on the wellbeing of our constituents. It is evident that we need a fair financial settlement from the Government so that local authorities can continue to support libraries and all public services. I welcome the statement made earlier in the Chamber, but, as ever, the devil is in the detail, and we need to make sure that the funding is made available to all councils rather than to specific shires. I have a record of campaigning against Government austerity policies over the past decade, and this terrible pandemic has highlighted the need to support our local authorities properly.
Turning to another issue—I will be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker—I would like to start by commending the work of John Gurr, co-ordinator of the Western Sahara Campaign, and the all-party parliamentary group on Western Sahara. They have done a lot of work to raise awareness of this issue. I would also like to pay tribute to the chair of the all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), for years of activism on this issue and tireless efforts to resolve this long-running dispute. Unfortunately he is not able to be here today to speak on this matter, but he wanted me to mention the work of the APPG.
The situation in Western Sahara is at a tipping point and is becoming increasingly desperate for the region and its people. The conflict has had devastating humanitarian consequences. It is now 45 years since the displacement of the Sahrawi people, which has resulted in more than 180,000 Saharwi refugees living on international aid in bleak camps in south-western Algeria who are almost entirely dependent on aid to survive. The Moroccan-Western Sahara wall that separates the two sides spans more than 2,700 km and is reinforced by military bases, artillery posts and airfields that run the length of the wall.
Despite that, both sides have respected a ceasefire agreement for almost 30 years. However, military clashes erupted last month between the Moroccan army and the Polisario Front, and tensions have been further stoked by the US Government’s decision to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed region. President Trump’s message to the United Nations was not only a departure from long-standing US foreign policy in Western Sahara—it rode roughshod over the inalienable rights of the people of Sahara to self-determination, and furthermore it is a breach of United Nations Security Council Resolution 377, which was passed in the year 1975. The US Government’s reckless decision to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory risks even more fighting between the Polisario Front and Moroccan troops and puts tens of thousands of lives at risk. It is imperative that international law be respected and that disputes are resolved peacefully. The US Government’s wading into this conflict not only makes the region more unstable and jeopardises the ongoing negotiations, but it puts a peaceful resolution further away.
International charities and human rights organisations have been unanimous in their condemnation of President Trump’s declaration. Indeed, Oxfam’s country director for Algeria said:
“The implications of this move—ironically made on Human Rights Day—by the US Government will be severe. Only one month ago we witnessed the first collapse of the ceasefire between Morocco and Frente Polisario in 29 years—the peace process is moving backwards, not forwards.”
The International Crisis Group voiced similar concerns. Its north Africa director stated:
“I think we can safely say that this move makes the resolution of the current bout of violence much harder. This will also make Sahrawi youths more angry, mobilised and committed to resolving the conflict through force.”
It is further concerning that Amnesty International stated last month that access to the territory for human rights monitors and independent journalists has become increasingly difficult, restricting their ability to monitor the crisis. This is particularly troubling given the recent reports from local organisations monitoring the human rights situation in Western Sahara that last month’s conflict was followed up with a crackdown on peaceful Saharawi activists by Moroccan police, including raids on homes, increased surveillance and arrests.
It is vital that a United Nations personal envoy for Western Sahara be appointed immediately. The failure by the United Nations Secretary General to appoint an envoy for over 18 months has left a vacuum in the diplomatic leadership and enabled the situation to deteriorate. It is clear that restarting the political negotiation process is essential for regional stability and will be the most effective way to avoid any further escalation of the conflict.
Our Government must do all they can to support efforts to halt the current conflict and prevent further loss of life. The Foreign Secretary has stated that the UK’s position on Western Sahara remains unchanged and it continues to support the right to self-determination; however, the Government must go further in condemning the intervention by President Trump and supporting efforts to deliver a just settlement for the Saharawi people.
To finish, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you, and all the members of the staff of the House, who work so hard, a very happy Christmas. Their dedication empowers us to represent our constituents. I hope you have a restful and peaceful Christmas break.
I am pleased to speak in this debate to mark the Christmas Adjournment. I am particularly delighted that my hon. Friend the Deputy Chief Whip is on the Treasury Bench. He is a very close friend of mine and I have known him for many years, but I do not get to interact with him much in the House, other than when he tries to tell me off—or does tell me off—in the Whips Office. I look forward to giving him a slightly hard time this afternoon, with lots of long lists of what my constituents need—but not too long, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Perhaps in this debate my hon. Friend will be tempted to give me some positive news, although I do not expect that to continue for the rest of my career, particularly not good news from a Whip. None the less, I hope that this afternoon he will be able to give me good news on some of the things I want. He will not be surprised to hear that I have a few things to raise with the Government about what is going on in my constituency.
Of course, the first subject I have to talk about is the covid pandemic. It goes without saying that I pay tribute to all the health workers and businesses in my constituency who have struggled and worked really hard to make sure that the people of Eastleigh and Hampshire have the health services they need in my constituency and the wider region. The Health Secretary’s announcement this morning on the further tiers was welcome. I am pleased that calls from colleagues from across Hampshire for a splitting of geographical regions in the county were followed through. However, Eastleigh is sitting at 50 to 60 cases per 100,000 people and is the only place in Hampshire not currently seeing an increase among the over-60s, so may I gently say to the Deputy Chief Whip that I expect my region and constituency to remain under constant review? We need to drop a tier, and my constituents expect that to happen as soon as possible.
That brings me to the businesses in my constituency, which have invested thousands—hundreds of thousands —of pounds in making their businesses and their premises covid-secure. Of course it was welcome when, a couple of weeks ago, the Government announced further assistance for the hospitality sector, in particular wet-led pubs and small breweries, but businesses in my constituency such as the Steam Town Brew Company, the CrackleRock Brewing Company and the Botley Brewery need more support. The £1,000 was welcome, but they need further support, especially those that had previously invested to make sure that their businesses could continue. Perhaps the Deputy Chief Whip might like to speak to the Treasury in future so that we can see whether we can continue small brewery business rate relief as we go forward. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] That sounds very popular, so perhaps it might happen.
My constituency is not different from any other constituencies in the country, and we desperately need infrastructure. The Deputy Chief Whip will remember that I raised this issue in my maiden speech. My Liberal Democrat council has not had a sustainable housing local plan for over a decade, and the Liberal Democrat council in Eastleigh personally buys land and develops it itself. I do not have a problem with that, but when there is a lack of a sustainable local plan, it is open to speculative developments, often put forward by the borough council. I am raising the possibility of the Deputy Chief Whip asking the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about this so that his Department starts to take a stronger line on local authorities that are not developing local plans. It is fair to say that there is a local plan process in place. The local plan that was proposed by the Liberal Democrat council was found to be unsound, and 5,000 houses were taken out of ancient woodland in Bishopstoke, which is welcome, but the local plan process is painfully slow. The council is not delivering on that local plan and speculative developments are being accepted on green belt right across the constituency.
While I welcome housing and want it to be built, I just say to the Deputy Chief Whip that I did get an early Christmas present when we heard that there was a change in emphasis on the housing algorithm going forward. He will acknowledge my feelings on the housing algorithm, and it is certainly welcome, but tougher interaction from the Department on local plans would be very welcome.
When houses come, there has to be further infrastructure, and there are two particular things that I want to raise today on behalf of my constituency. The first is the levelling-up fund, which is incredibly welcome. I strongly welcomed that emphasis from the Chancellor when it was announced, but can I ask for a reassurance that southern constituencies will receive equal weighting if they bring forward a bid to Government and the Treasury on infrastructure projects—
My hon. Friend just said “You’re fired” from a sedentary position, I think. I am not in that situation yet, but we will see.
I would like to know whether there will be an equal weight on bids put in by southern constituencies. Since the 1980s, my constituents in Eastleigh have been promised the Chickenhall Lane road link—I mentioned this in my maiden speech—which would ease congestion in an incredibly tight geographical area in the town centre. With the added housing, we need that. I am ready to bring forward a bid. The county council is ready to bring forward a bid. The borough council is willing to bring a bid forward, and I hope that that would be looked on favourably.
The other thing, when more houses come, is that transport links need to improve. The number of people using Hedge End railway station is increasing because our ex-villages are now becoming small towns. We applied for funding for the station to have accessibility, because at the moment my constituents have to travel down the M27 to go to either Southampton Airport Parkway or Eastleigh train stations. It is not good for people with disabilities or people who are not able-bodied if they have to drive down the M27 to get access to London or further into south Hampshire, particularly when the Government’s green agenda, which is completely welcome, is not being helped when we have extra motorway usage to use those railway stations. I hope that Hedge End station will be looked on favourably in future funding rounds. The Government can be sure that I will be standing up and asking about that issue again.
On a more important issue, I have raised before the plight of independent lifeboat stations, such as the Hamble lifeboat station in my constituency. It has struggled through a lack of fundraising because of the pandemic and the expenses incurred with PPE, all while operating as normal to keep one of the UK’s busiest waterways safe. I have previously called for the rescue boat grant fund, which was extremely welcome, to be reinstated to help independent lifeboat stations. Working alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), we are looking to try to establish an independent lifeboat station commission so that we can try to get the funding necessary for that issue.
Lastly—you will be glad to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker—this year has been completely out of the ordinary for me serving my first year as a Member in this House. It has been extraordinary because unprecedented demand has been placed on our staff by constituents—quite rightly, because they needed help. I pay tribute to all Members’ staff, particularly my staff Sue, Ben, Charlie and Emma, who have worked tirelessly at all hours to try to get people’s issues sorted. More importantly—they will not like me saying that—I pay tribute to the Doorkeepers, parliamentary staff and security staff, who have made me feel particularly welcome in my first year. They have helped me and colleagues from all parts of the House to really settle in. I pay tribute to the staff in the Tea Room, who constantly put up with my pleas that I am on a diet when I order my red velvet cake, which is very good. They serve it without judgment, and they never remind me that I am on a diet, despite my putting on the parliamentary stone in my first year.
I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Speaker, all Members of this House and all staff in this House an incredibly safe Christmas, but hopefully a better year when we all come back together in 2021.
I smile wryly to myself, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) talks about being on a diet. He can look at me and see how it fails after 15 years. Clearly I need to take a leaf out of his book. The cycling in clearly is not working yet, but I live in hope.
There are some very important issues to raise, and I am glad to have the chance in this debate to raise issues affecting my constituency and the country as a whole. One of the key issues affecting many householders in my constituency is unsafe cladding on tower blocks and leasehold properties. In the early ’90s, Hackney demolished a lot of council housing stock in high-rise flats that had not lasted well. Between Birmingham, Glasgow and Hackney, we had more high rises than any other part of the country. We demolished those, but they have been replaced with private sector leasehold properties.
I must declare an interest in that I live in one of those properties. I am affected by the issue of fire-safe cladding, but the developer that built my block is funding its entire removal, so I am not financially affected, which is a blessing for me, but most of my constituents affected by this issue are not in that happy situation.
The Government have announced a total over the past few years of £1.6 billion to remove cladding in the light of the Grenfell tragedy. The first tranche was to remove the same type of cladding as was on Grenfell, and the next tranche was to recognise that other cladding is also unsafe and needs removing. There was, however, no new money in the spending review this year, and that alarms me, because that £1.6 billion was effectively re-announced. That is a little trick I am aware of as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. I say this to be helpful to Members on the Government Benches: beware a figure brandished by a Minister in this House, because usually it is not as simple as they suggest. The £1.6 billion available to remove cladding is exactly that; it has already been announced. We had the cladding fund announced in March just before the pandemic really kicked off, which was £1 billion on top of the £0.6 billion that was previously put forward and had mostly been spent. There have been bids in for the £1 billion, but it is about a 10th of what is needed to replace the cladding.
I have hundreds of constituents—there are thousands up and down the country—who are trapped in homes that are technically valueless and that they cannot sell or get permission to do anything on, even if they are less risky, because they need certain bits of paperwork, such as the infamous EWS1 form. It is clearly a bigger issue than the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government can solve on its own. Its budget alone will not resolve this. It needs a proper cross-Government review of how these people are going to be supported.
I alert the Government to a not unrelated problem, which is not about fire safety but about the plans to allow extra storeys to be built on top of high-rise blocks. Before the Government announced their plan, it happened to the block in which I live. We had a floor built above us. The builders then declared themselves bankrupt, and all sorts of charges are being levied on the innocent leaseholders who are having to fork out for faults that were not of their own making.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point and underlines the longer-term need for leasehold reform. I welcome the fact that the Government are committed to doing that. We have obviously had a lot of upheaval this year, but it is something that we all need to work on. Many people now live in leasehold properties and need protection.
We all need to join forces, and I will join forces with whoever, in this House and beyond, to try to persuade the Treasury, and perhaps the Prime Minister too—that is the level of the decision that will have to be made—to provide the funding. There are really only three ways to do it: through finance vehicles, although they can affect mortgages, as we can imagine people having to take out a loan or a charge on their property; as a direct grant, which would cost the taxpayer, but I cannot see much alternative given the fact that this consumer and fire-safety failure is the biggest in a generation; or the sector pays, which I would love to see, but we would have to wait.
I applaud the former Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), for getting a ministerial direction for the first tranche of fire-safety money because he knew that it would take so long to track down the owners of properties and that so much legal cost would be involved that it would not be feasible. He recognised that, so I urge the Government to recognise it too, and to come to the rescue of my constituents who are waiting. It is an uncertain year and an uncertain Christmas and, as it stands, there is no further money for the 12 months after March next year.
Let me touch on the issue of schooling, and particularly the issues relating to covid. It has been a really challenging year for our schools and all the staff working in them, and of course the parents and pupils are affected too. When schools had to stop teaching physically, for the most part, there were not enough laptops. No one would have predicted that we would need quite so many so fast, but the Government continually overpromised and underdelivered on the laptops and other necessary equipment. Many constituents of mine—around a third of them overall, although the number fluctuates, particularly with more people going on to benefits at the moment—are on free school meals. They do not all have access to wi-fi or equipment at home to work on, so pupils have been working on their parents’ mobile phones that are on contract, not on data-rich wi-fi. This has had a real impact: the gap between the richest and poorest students is getting wider in a constituency where for 20 years we have been shrinking that gap. A number of my local schools are in the top 1% in the country.
I gasp, because most of my constituents do not have £37 left at the end of the month, let alone to spend every day on wi-fi. It is a real problem. I have poverty in my constituency—people see the trendy side of Shoreditch and Hackney, and there is wealth, but there is also immense poverty—but there is no poverty of ambition and children have been doing very well at school. We need to make sure that the catch-up money is available. The permanent secretary at the Department for Education gave a commitment today that she would do everything in her power, but we know that her power is limited unless funding is available to make sure that the tutoring and catch-up is in place.
Will the hon. Lady support the campaign that I have been working on alongside the IT provider Cuckoo, which is calling on the Treasury to look at defining broadband as an essential item and reducing VAT on it to 5%? We are led to believe that that would save on average £70 per household, which is a small but still significant saving for many families.
The hon. Gentleman and I sing from the same hymn sheet: broadband needs to be seen as an essential service. The Public Accounts Committee has looked at the idea. Government after Government have not quite got there with getting broadband fully rolled out, but it is vital. It is heartening that during the height of the pandemic broadband did hold up for those who had it; my particular concern is for the people who do not have it.
The exams fiasco this year has really hit young people hard. The Government need to be really clear about their plans for next year. My key ask of the Government is that information is clear and timely. We have seen too many Saturday-night or Friday-night announcements from No. 10 Downing Street about what will happen in schools on the next school day. That does not leave enough time for headteachers and school leaders to plan and makes it impossible for parents, especially if they are working. We should remember that many parents will not earn money if they do not go to work: they do not get the luxury of paid leave, parental leave or employment that they can do from home, although that is hard enough for people with children at home.
There seems to be a real gap between Whitehall and the centre of Government and the reality on the ground for parents, pupils and teachers. The Government really have to get a grip on this issue. Only this morning, the permanent secretary was unable to tell the Public Accounts Committee what would happen in schools on 4 or 5 January. While we were in Committee, it was being laid out by various journalists who had clearly been briefed, but we were not able to get answers from the very top civil servant. That is ludicrous. That was a chance for parliamentarians of all parties—admittedly, a small group of us on the Public Accounts Committee—to ask direct questions. It seems that, as it stands, we will not have that opportunity today, on the last day that Parliament sits. We need earlier decisions and clarity on decisions and, crucially, school leaders need to be involved, because the logistics are vital.
I want to touch on some of the issues with tier 3 and covid. What concerns me, as I see Manchester and Leicester still in tier 3, is whether there is any understanding of the route out. My constituency, in London, went into tier 3 at fast pace on Tuesday night, and that followed a 10 o’clock curfew for hospitality, which hit my constituency very badly. When I challenged Ministers and the Prime Minister on the rationale behind the 10 o’clock curfew, I got the impression that it was rather subjective, which was very much proved by the introduction of an 11 o’clock curfew later. The Government should give some trust to the businesses in my patch; they are well run, well organised and can manage to run a very controlled environment inside if they are given the opportunity. We have also seen a huge impact on the creative industries, particularly the forgotten freelancers. I have a large number of them in my constituency, many of whom have not received a penny since March. They are living on fresh air, and it is unacceptable. We need a clear route map out of tier 3, and I look forward to that.
My final point is about Brexit. What a shambles. We are here today on 17 December. The Government—the Prime Minister, indeed—offered and promised an oven-ready deal. As I stand here today, we do not even have a cold turkey coming out of the negotiations. The Public Accounts Committee has 13 times now, in different reports, raised concerns about preparedness. With 14 days to go, it will be a miracle if anyone is prepared for the chaos that could ensue.
Let me begin by associating myself with the words of the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, particularly about cladding and getting London out of tier 3 as soon as we can.
Madam Deputy Speaker, 2020 was not quite the year we envisaged, particularly for me as a first-time Member of this House. It is important that we remember that behind all the statistics we have heard, at many Christmas dinner tables this year a loved one—a family member or a friend—will not be sitting in their chair because they have been taken from us too soon by this terrible virus. Of course, our collective national effort this year has been about tackling coronavirus. Out of the 10,000 bits of casework that have come through my mailbox this past year, the overwhelming majority have been related to the pandemic in some way. I hope that this Christmas we will remember those we lost too soon, and I also want to pay tribute to our frontline workers—those in the NHS but also those in all the other essential services who kept going throughout the pandemic—for everything they have done for us this year.
As well as tackling coronavirus and the issues related to it, I have not been deterred from standing up on the issues that the residents of Carshalton and Wallington elected me to raise a year ago. One of those is jobs and the local economy. Even before the pandemic, residents were raising with me concerns about how long shops would stay empty on our local high streets. That was not just in our main shopping centres, such as Carshalton High Street and Woodcote Road in Wallington, but on our small shopping broadways that are so often forgotten, such as Hackbridge, the Rose Hill roundabout, the Circle, Beddington, Carshalton Beeches, the Mount in Clockhouse, Wallington Green and others. I have spoken in this place many times about support for businesses, and the support that the Government have put in place during the pandemic has been unprecedented. It is incredibly welcome. I want our local economy not just to survive but to thrive once the pandemic has passed, so in 2021 I intend to work with the local businesses to push for the improvement funding that is needed and to use tools such as business improvement districts, so that businesses can get together and show what they can do to help them bounce back after the pandemic.
Transport is another major concern for residents, and was before the pandemic. Obviously, passenger numbers on our public transport networks are incredibly low. I think you may have even been in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, during my Adjournment debate back in June. You may have heard me speak about the fact that despite being in a London borough, Carshalton and Wallington is incredibly poorly connected compared with the rest of London. During that debate, I drew attention to the need for additional investment in public transport infrastructure. Our excellent candidate for the London Assembly, Neil Garratt, has shone a light on some of the astonishing figures on public transport in Carshalton and Wallington, not least of which is the fact that Sutton consistently comes last for investment from City Hall compared with all other London Boroughs. Projects such as the Tramlink extension and the Go Sutton bus, which have been fought for for so long, now have a very bleak future indeed.
We have had some good news. This year we commenced the National Rail consultation on the Croydon bottleneck scheme, which, if it goes ahead, will unlock additional rail capacity in suburban London, including to Carshalton, Wallington, Hackbridge and Carshalton Beeches stations. On top of that, Transport for London is running consultations on improvements to the local bus network.In 2021, I will continue to work with our London Assembly team to push for those improvements.
I will also work with local councillors to hold the council to account over failures in its road closure schemes, which are causing chaos on local roads. One concern is about the impact that these road closures schemes have on the local environment, as air pollution builds up when traffic starts backing up on main roads. That is not a new worry; protecting our green spaces and cleaning up air pollution has long been a concern, not just during the pandemic, as more and more people are using their cars.
The Beddington incinerator is the best example I can give. The incinerator can be seen from many points across my constituency, and I have raised it in the House many times this year. It is partly because of the incinerator that I want to see more air quality monitoring stations put in place across the constituency, especially near the site, so that residents can access independently gathered, real-time data about the air that they are breathing. We have heard a willingness to install one near the site, so I hope that the council and the operating company will deliver on that promise.
Linked to that, I want to continue to stand up for our fabulous local green spaces. Indeed, Sutton is one of the greenest boroughs in London. Whether it be fighting the council’s previous proposals to build on Wellfield open space, build a school at Sheen Way or put a Traveller site at Roundshaw playing fields, I will continue to protect our green spaces and fight to enhance them—for example, by delivering the promised Beddington Farmlands projects and protecting parks from overdevelopment, so that our residents can enjoy the open space and our children can be sure that they are breathing cleaner air.
One of the best things that we can give our children is a good or outstanding local school to go to. Carshalton and Wallington is lucky to be home to some of the best schools in the country. Indeed, some of our grammar schools, such as Wallington County Grammar School, Wilson’s School and Wallington High School for Girls often appear at Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the league tables. I benefited from an excellent education at Carshalton Boys Sports College, and I want every local child to have that same opportunity, but we simply do not have enough secondary school places in Sutton to cope with the demand. I hope that the Planning Inspectorate will decide next year to approve planning permission for a new secondary school at Rosehill, which the council is currently trying to block, so that we can build the schools that our children need and give every local child a good or outstanding local school place.
Another area that has been a concern throughout the pandemic and before it is crime and antisocial behaviour. Carshalton and Wallington is statistically one of the safest parts of London, but the pandemic has shone a light on an increasing number of incidents, especially of catalytic converter theft, pet theft, vehicle-related crime, antisocial behaviour and, tragically, domestic violence. The increase in police officers in London is incredibly welcome, and I am glad that Sutton will benefit from that uplift. Working closely with the local police, I hope that we can find the people behind these organised crimes and encourage a greater police presence in some of our worst-affected areas, such as the St Helier estate and Roundshaw.
Finally, the biggest issue, not just during the pandemic but for many years, has been our amazing local hospital, St Helier. As a former NHS worker who was born at St Helier, and as the hospital saved my fiancé’s life last year, I make no apology for making St Helier the No. 1 thing that I will be fighting for. Even before I was elected. I was making the case with my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) that St Helier needed investment and that we needed a third local hospital to complement Epsom and St Helier Hospitals.
Our local hospital has been there for us during the pandemic. I am therefore delighted that the Government have listened to the calls and backed the NHS with a £500 million investment in Epsom and St Helier Hospitals. That half a billion pound package will not just upgrade Epsom and St Helier to become modern, 21st-century healthcare facilities but build a third, purpose-built, state-of-the-art new hospital to provide acute services, saving services that were previously going to be lost to outside the borough, such as A&E and maternity. I want to put on record my thanks to Daniel Elkeles and all the staff at Epsom and St Helier for helping to bring that about and for their amazing contribution to tackling the pandemic in an incredibly difficult year.
Despite the pandemic, Carshalton and Wallington has achieved a lot this year, but there is still a lot more work to do. We all hope for a better 2021. As well as supporting the community through the pandemic, I want to continue standing up for Carshalton and Wallington’s interests here in this place, to support our thriving local economy, improve our transport links, protect our parks and clean up our air, provide a good or outstanding school place for every child, keep our area safe and deliver that £500 million investment into St Helier.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to finish by wishing you, Mr Speaker, all the House staff, my own team—Tommy, Lewis, Richard, Daisy and Catherine—and everyone in Carshalton and Wallington a very merry Christmas and a happy 2021.
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and of course all the Members and staff here a very happy Christmas? It has been, as people have said, a truly turbulent year. May I put on the record my gratitude and enormous respect for the extraordinary frontline staff in our country, particularly our medical and care staff, whom history will remember as the pride of our generation?
The service of my constituency and the people who live in it has always been my priority during the 23 years I have had the privilege of representing Mitcham and Morden, but as we have all stayed at home and worked at home, even more of my focus has been local. When the nation searched for PPE, scrambled for tests and desperately secured university places, I am sure that all Members, like me, felt duty-bound to fight loudest for their constituents. I wake up every morning and remember just how lucky I am to have that responsibility
However, I am afraid that there are some things that no Member should bear the burden of responsibility for, including ensuring that the children in their constituency have a meal and an education. This year, my local area has been forced to open an eighth food bank to account for the growing number of people who simply cannot afford to put food on the table. Every week at our Friday morning food bank, the queue grows longer, and more hard-working families tell me that they have lost their jobs, let down by the dither and delay that the Prime Minister has shown at every turn. We have stepped in where the Government have failed.
Meanwhile, when schools closed in March, the Government failed those children who could not continue learning from home without the tools required to log in. The lockdown exposed the digital divide across the UK, with approximately 9% of children—Ofcom estimates their number to be up to an extraordinary 1.78 million—without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. While the Department for Education promoted its online Oak National Academy, let us be clear that no number of online lessons could benefit those children unable to log in from home.
My community rallied, securing hundreds of devices packed with data for children in some of the most vulnerable families. No child’s education should be dependent on their internet access. Once again, we stepped in where the Government had failed. Many of those families are trapped in temporary accommodation, spending lockdown in cramped rooms with no outside space. Under the Government’s watch, the number of families in temporary accommodation has soared, with 127,240 children destined to wake up on Christmas morning without a permanent place to call home.
I recognise the challenge for any Government in a global crisis, but no matter where we sit in the Chamber, our reaction to yesterday’s news that UNICEF will be feeding hungry children in the UK for the first time in its 70-year history must have been one of shock and shame—shock and shame for the Government, that is, not for UNICEF. I understand that the Leader of House said earlier today that UNICEF “should be ashamed”. He is a proud Catholic. I am too, but I am aware that my religion puts the need for self-awareness and responsibility at the top of its beliefs. If we are to be responsible, the Government should be aware of their failings in regard to vulnerable children and not try to blame the charities attempting to resolve some of those difficulties.
I do not just want to be negative; I also wish to be positive. It is not a silver bullet, but may I raise with the Minister an easy, tangible step forward and ask him to discuss it with his colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government? In September 2018, the then Prime Minister announced that a stamp duty surcharge of up to 3% would be imposed on overseas residential property investors and that all the money generated would be used to tackle homelessness. It was expected to raise £140 million. The percentage has changed three times since and is now set to be 2%, meaning that a £40 million loss is due to be implemented in April. Reverting to 3% on overseas properties will not resolve homelessness, but it would make another £40 million available, and help an awful lot of people. Food banks, the digital divide, and homelessness are three issues that arrive as a trio, presenting hardship to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The number of people this hardship impacts continues to soar.
I would like to finish by voicing the case of the millions of people and businesses who remain excluded from Government support through no fault of their own, many of whom, when they can no longer afford to pay their rent or mortgage, could face the difficulties I have described today: hard-working people in my constituency, such as Paul the photographer, Zohra the childminder, and Larry the florist, who this Government continue to overlook. Initially, they were told that it was too complicated to include them in the support schemes, but almost a year on, I am afraid that excuse simply does not wash. The Government have failed enough people this year, but Minister, it is not too late to listen.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), and I pay tribute to both her campaigning work and the insight she has given to the House this afternoon, which I found most moving and quite powerful. I would like to address three issues this afternoon: the first is to reflect on 2020, which has been a very difficult year for all of us, as I am sure we would all agree. I want to spend some time paying tribute to all of those who have served our community so well during this year. Secondly, I would also like to draw the House’s attention to, and comment on, the current crisis with the spike in the infection rate due to the coronavirus. Thirdly, I would like to move on and look ahead to what I hope we can all agree will be a better and brighter year—we hope—in 2021, as a vaccine is rolled out.
I think it is fair to say that the past year has been an extremely difficult and challenging year, one that is genuinely unprecedented in modern British history and, indeed, world history. I pay tribute to a number of groups of people: first and foremost, I would obviously like to give my heartfelt thanks to our NHS and care workers, particularly those in my constituency of Reading East, such as those working at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, in GPs’ surgeries and the community, or in care homes. Those people have worked incredibly hard; it is difficult to imagine what they have been through, and I am sure the whole House will agree that across the country, and indeed around the world, we owe our health and care workers an enormous debt of gratitude. It is difficult for us as laypeople to fully express the level of our sincere and complete appreciation for the work they do.
I would also like to thank other groups of workers, bearing in mind in particular my shadow ministerial responsibilities as shadow Transport Minister. I have been deeply impressed by the work of our key workers during the crisis in this country, and I have previously put on record my support for, and recognition of the work of, those in the transport sector; I would like to do so again. It is particularly important to consider the contribution made by bus drivers and other workers in the transport sector who have put themselves at risk during this crisis, and have continued to provide reliable, safe and appropriate services during a time of national crisis. I also understand—I believe we all understand—the enormous contributions made by other key workers, whether in retail or a wide range of aspects of public service, ranging from the most straightforward to ones that are perhaps behind the scenes. I would like to spend some time paying tribute to those workers, some of whom have spent an enormous amount of time and energy in the service of our community, and some of whom have paid quite heavily for that service.
I am sure the whole House would agree that a great service to our country is being provided by our public servants; however, their efforts have been supplemented by volunteers.
I wish to say a brief word about some of the voluntary groups across my constituency. I am sure that, similarly, there are others around the country that have carried out the same vital functions. Indeed, other Members have mentioned some of these today, especially those groups running food banks and providing emergency help and relief to the most needy. We have an enormous number in Reading and, indeed, in suburban areas such as Woodley and Caversham, which are often thought of as relatively affluent. Enormous problems have been created by the pandemic and the way that the community has rallied together has been quite simply outstanding and deeply impressive, and it has been supported very valiantly by local authorities.
I wish to say a brief word about the work of Reading Borough Council, which I am very proud to be associated with—I should declare an interest as a former councillor. There has been impressive cross-party working in the authority, partnership with the voluntary sector through Reading Voluntary Action and, indeed, an impressive level of support across the town. Briefly, let me mention a couple of agencies, particularly ReadiFood, the Trussell Trust and a number of other food banks and support organisations. I have mentioned others in previous speeches, so I will not overdo my slot by mentioning every single one by name, but I am deeply grateful for their work and I commend their work to colleagues.
Finally, it is also important to consider the way that our whole community, and indeed the country, has responded during this crisis. It was quite moving that we reflected on VE Day during this crisis. In fact, at the very height and pinnacle of the crisis, we were celebrating the contribution of previous generations to this country. We need to recognise that the whole community has contributed quite substantially during this very difficult period. I am sure colleagues will all agree that the broad community, going beyond anybody with a special role, deserves to have some recognition for the work that has been done whether that is just people in their day-to-day lives socially distancing and putting up with the necessary, but extensive range of restrictions, including the separation from friends and family and from loved ones. We are all missing our loved ones greatly, and it is important to bear that all in mind as we look back on 2020 and hope for a better future in 2021.
Let me move ahead. I wish to mention briefly the current crisis. I hope that I am still in time. I cannot see the clock because the camera is in the way. Obviously, we are all aware that many parts of the country, including my own county of Berkshire, have moved into different tiers in the past few hours. This is difficult; it is not easy. However, the important point is that we appreciate the actions that are being taken, but I urge the Government to look again at their advice for the Christmas period. It is much easier for people if they have clear and simple rules, not complicated and overly elaborate ones. I hope that the Government will think again about that in the run-up to Christmas. We all want to see our loved ones, but we want to be safe. It is so important that we take stock at this difficult time and that we continue our efforts while the vaccine is being rolled out. I am sure that we all agree with that—this is not a party political point. The question is how we deliver that effectively in partnership with the community. I raise that with Ministers and hope that they think about Christmas.
I am grateful for the action that has been taken on the tiers, even though it is difficult. I also ask Ministers to look again at the broadbrush approach. I say to the Minister on the Front Bench that, as an Opposition Member, I am grateful for the way that the Government have offered economic support. We have all seen the need for Government action to be taken at this time of national crisis. Perhaps some people have reassessed their view of the economy as a result. However, the action that has been taken has been somewhat broadbrush. I ask the Chancellor to look again at the way that the money has been distributed within that overall financial envelope. It has been quite telling to see wealthy supermarkets, which have increased their sales during the crisis, actually handing money back, while people in small and medium-sized enterprises, the lifeblood of our economy, especially those in the new SMEs, who have set up small businesses and are trying very hard, are receiving no support whatsoever. I am thinking of the 3 million people across the country. I have been contacted by many in my own constituency—I am sure that we all have. I urge the Government to look again at the spread of their spending and to think a bit more about how best to use that effectively and I do hope that Ministers will take that point away.
Finally, I would like to wish everyone, particularly you, Madam Deputy Speaker, other colleagues, our staff and the country a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. I hope that we can look ahead to a brighter new year with a better future ahead.
I fully endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda); I think we are all looking forward to 2021 being a whole lot better than the year we are leaving. I also associate myself with what he said in the tribute he has paid to his community; we have seen the best of our communities in response to this pandemic, and I wish to pay tribute to everyone in my constituency for stepping up to the challenge and bearing a difficult year with great fortitude. Let us all hope that next year is so much better.
In that vein, I wish to talk about how we come back out of this crisis and to advise the House about the exciting plans we are making in Thurrock in our bid for a Thames estuary freeport, led by the ports of Tilbury and London Gateway. Members have often heard me claim that Thurrock is the port capital of the UK. As a centre of excellence for ports and logistics, there is no stronger case to be made than for a freeport to be located in Thurrock—[Interruption.] I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) will fully agree with that. It is the natural evolution of the role of the Thames as an engine of wealth creation and prosperity. We sit here in this Parliament on the Thames. London is a great capital city, one of the richest cities in the world, but it is located here only because of the Thames and because the Romans set up the port of Londinium. So it makes great sense in the natural evolution of history—of exploiting our River Thames and our position as a maritime nation—to make sure we continue that evolution and establish the Thames estuary freeport in Thurrock.
People often think that the ships have left the Thames, but the fact of the matter is that all they did was move east. Tilbury had the first container port in the country, in 1968, just before I was born—seamless history there. We now have Britain’s deepest sea port, which aims to be the biggest, at London Gateway; that has been the biggest inward investment in Europe, and opened within this past decade. I can also advise the House that we have Britain’s newest port, in Tilbury2, and that it took just one year between planning permission and the first ship arriving. If only all our public infrastructure projects were that efficient.
A little known fact is that the Thames remains Britain’s second largest port—second only in terms of tonnage landed to the Humber. We often hear people talk about Dover and other ports, but the port of London is still a significant one—it has just moved east to Thurrock. Having paid tribute to the entirety of my community and how they have responded to the challenge of covid, it has to be said that the ships that arrive in Tilbury and London Gateway are the ones that have kept us fed during this past year. The ships have continued to be unloaded and our dock workers have continued to go to work, and this is something we often take for granted. People are looking forward to finally leaving the European Union, and although we have heard much prediction of chaos and difficulty, I can tell them that the ports in Thurrock are extremely well prepared. As I said, they built Tilbury2 in the past year, specifically with the purpose of being Brexit-ready. I can advise the House that we already have ships relocating their routes from Dover to Tilbury to take advantage of what is a changed economic situation for how our ports will work. I think Members will see the great pride I have in representing what is our maritime capital. This is an astonishingly competitive sector, one with which it is a pleasure to work. It is also a pleasure because the ports invest hugely in the local community and are massively committed to increasing skills and to making that big community contribution, so it is a great delight for me to continue to support them.
That takes us on to what our freeport bid would look like. As I said, we have the port of Tilbury, which is owned by Forth Ports, which is obviously Scottish—again, it is good for the Union that we have this partnership—and London Gateway, which is led by DP World. So this is a partnership born out of two competitors, and it is a staggering feat for them to be taking this forward.
We also have another great opportunity. As I mentioned, the Thames as a port has moved east, but there are jetties all the way into London, including one at Ford in Dagenham. We all recall that for many decades Dagenham was a vast site and a massive car manufacturer. In recent years, that manufacturing presence has declined, not least because our car habits have declined. When some of the car production was moved to more competitive locations in the world, the site moved to manufacturing just diesel engines. Of course, demand for that is now falling off. Obviously, we want to keep Ford’s presence here in the UK and for it to play a bigger part, particularly as we leave the European Union and look to new global relationships.
I am therefore very excited to advise the House that not only have the two ports of Tilbury and London Gateway come together to discuss that, but we are working with Ford to see how a partnership can be formed so that we can develop a new centre of excellence for electric and autonomous vehicles. That is the future. That is exactly the kind of post-Brexit opportunity we should take full advantage of.
I very much hope that the Government will give their full support to the Thames estuary freeport, not least because for decades, successive Governments tried to get the Thames estuary moving as an economic entity. That never quite worked because we in south Essex do not really like being told what to do by people from London. We like to control our own destiny and that is exactly what we have done. The Thames estuary is an idea whose time has come. Our freeport will be the catalyst to make that happen and I look forward to working with the Government to ensure that the Thames estuary freeport underlines Thurrock’s position as the port capital of the UK.
It is a pleasure to speak in the Adjournment debate, which is different from all the others I normally try to participate in. This has been one of the most difficult times in our living memories. There will be so many homes with empty chairs, so many loved ones who cannot meet because of restrictions, and so many who will have no heart to celebrate.
Looking back, I think of those precious to me who have been lost through coronavirus and cancer this year, those who have been taken in accidents and those who felt that they had no option other than to end their lives. It has been a difficult time for so many and it is easy to feel downhearted, but I have also seen a community pulling together, with people helping neighbours, and perhaps speaking to neighbours they had not spoken to before or had not spoken to for a long time. We have seen glimmers of a silver lining with family Zoom chats to keep connected, grandparents learning how to FaceTime—I am one of them, at long last, my wife says—and an upsurge in baking; my mother is a fantastic baker and cook and we have been sustained by her good foodstuffs over the last period. It reminds me of God’s promise that what the enemy means for evil, God brings good out of it.
This Christmas will look very different for so many of us, but the message remains the same. It is a message of joy, of peace and, perhaps what we need the most, of hope. Things are bleak, but there is hope. I have that certainty of hope from my faith, but I also have hope as I see how some people have reacted during the pandemic. When I see the goodness of people to strangers, hear stories of fundraising for strangers in danger of losing their homes, see mystery gifts appearing on doorsteps, learn that the foodbank in my constituency has had more referrals than ever this year, but enough donations to meet those needs through the generosity of the people of Strangford, I have hope.
I am inspired by the normal, everyday person’s reaction to the events that have been out of their control, which is to make the best of it. As my mother would say—and she is definitely an Ulster Scot—“Get up and get on with it without gurning.” We do that, even though it might produce a wrinkle on our brow and some anxiety. I have seen so many people get on with it: our NHS workers in dangerous situations determined to come into work and make a difference; retired NHS staff stepping up and putting their shoulder to the plough once more—truly the angels in blue; businesses making adaptions to produce hand sanitiser, which they provided at cost to local companies. There are so many reasons to be glad that I am British. I am proud to be British when I see the overwhelming response by the British people. That should encourage us.
I love Christmas, and the dinner with the family. This is a different year for the family this year: last year, we were 14; this year we will be five, and two children under two. That is what the rules tell us we must do, and we will obey the rules because I want to get out the other side of this and I also believe that we have a responsibility to others. It is the time to read the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, knowing that this was the first step in the redemptive plan of love that offers hope to every one of us. Christmas will be different, but one thing that remains is love.
I urge the people of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to show love and bring hope this Christmas: the handwritten card could mean the world coming through the post; the lovely potted Christmas plant left at a neighbour’s door to bring cheer; the phone call made with no time pressures or restrictions; or the small thoughtful gift delivered with a smile and a wave. All of these are not the way we usually do it, but we can hold to the traditions of love and hope, and just try to be different this Christmas to encourage each other in what we do. I am hopeful that the light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel is getting slightly brighter, but there are still those who mourn, still those who are fervently praying for loved ones and still those who are hurting this year. So more than ever, the kind word and the kind gesture could be a lifeline, and in this year of all years, Christmas must be a community Christmas.
I take this opportunity to thank my constituents in Strangford for electing me. I have a privilege and an honour in being their MP. I serve everyone in that constituency, even though I am a member of the Democratic Unionist party. I love helping people, and I always have in my years as a councillor and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and then when elevated to this place. I want to wish every right hon. and hon. Member in this House a safe and merry Christmas and a happy new year.
The hon. Gentleman is most kind. It is a privilege to make new friends in this House, and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to encourage each other. I believe that my job in this House is to encourage each person. When I come to Adjournment debates, Members say, “Why do you always come?” Well, I actually come to support the person who is doing the Adjournment debate. I come to give them encouragement so that they can feel encouraged in what they do, and it is very important that we do that.
I want to convey to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I wish you, and the other Deputy Speakers and Mr Speaker, a very merry Christmas and happy new year. You deserve it. You have stuck up with me this whole year—well done! If there was a medal handed out for it, you would get the medal, along with everybody else.
I also want to say thanks to my staff, particularly Wendy, my manageress in the office; Naomi—who is the lady who is very much under pressure? The PPS—who writes the speeches for me, and as we all know, she is pretty busy; and Yvonne, Betty, Ashley, Christina and Billy. I thank all my staff for all they do.
I think perhaps I can have one more minute, Madam Deputy Speaker. [Laughter.] Sorry, but I want to finish with “A Christmas Prayer” by Robert Louis Stevenson. I studied Robert Louis Stevenson in literature class at school many years ago, and I have just found this Christmas prayer, so I will finish with this:
help us remember the birth of Jesus,
that we may share in the song of the angels,
the gladness of the shepherds,
and worship of the wise men.
Close the door of hate
and open the door of love all over the world.
Let kindness come with every gift
and good desires with every greeting.
Deliver us from evil by the blessing
which Christ brings,
and teach us to be merry with clear hearts.
May the Christmas morning
make us happy to be thy children,
and Christmas evening bring us to our beds
with grateful thoughts,
forgiving and forgiven,
for Jesus’ sake.
Before I start, can I wholeheartedly endorse the expression of appreciation for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)? It has been my great pleasure to work with him on a number of issues, especially freedom of religion or belief. He is an inspiring leader on that issue, in particular in his role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group.
As my term of office serving as chair of the Conservative party human rights commission comes to an end shortly, I would like to pay tribute to all who over the past few years have contributed to our inquiries and reports, in particular the brave people who have given evidence to us, many at personal risk, and who either themselves or through their families have suffered greatly, often at the hands of their own Governments. I want to put on record my thanks and respect to them. Many are named in our reports. Without them, we as commissioners could not have highlighted the human rights concerns in those reports.
The commission’s reports include a 2016 report on human rights in China, 2013 to 2016, entitled “The Darkest Moment”—sadly, now a misnomer. That was followed later that year by a report on forced organ harvesting in China. Under a year later, there was a report on human rights in Russia today. In 2019, there was a report on China’s Confucius Institutes, as well as a report entitled “The Limits of Consent on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery and their Impact on Prostitution in the UK”. This year, we have held nine sessions to inform a further report, which we will shortly publish on human rights in China 2016 to 2020, entitled, sadly, “The Darkness Deepens”.
Promoting and protecting freedom and human dignity should be at the heart of foreign policy. The Conservative party human rights commission was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) to highlight international human rights concerns; inform, advise and enhance the party’s foreign policy; and ensure that fundamental human rights are kept high on the political agenda. A number of Members of Parliament have been the chair of the Conservative party human rights commission since its creation, but the deputy chair has throughout this 15-year period been the same person, Benedict Rogers, to whom I pay particular tribute. I want to put on record my profound thanks and respect to him. He has not only carried the bulk of the commission’s work throughout this entire period, organising witness sessions and producing the first draft of most of our reports, but he has also travelled to dozens—probably hundreds, I have lost count—of places across the world, often at great personal danger. He has been refused entry to one place and arrested and detained in others, meeting directly with those subject to human rights abuses to ensure that our reports are as reliable and authentic as they can be. I know that my respect for Ben is shared by very many parliamentarians in both Houses, and it has been a true privilege to work closely with him in this role.
Four years ago, the Conservative party human rights commission was a canary in the coalmine in Westminster, calling attention to China’s human rights crisis almost as a lone voice—in fact, an urgent question I raised in 2015 prompted a furore from some parts of Government—although, of course, many other courageous voices, such as Bob Fu of ChinaAid, have been raising such concerns for years well beyond Westminster. Today, it is heartening that the Conservative party human rights commissioners are but one of many such voices here in the UK Parliament, as yesterday’s urgent question on the Uyghurs demonstrated—including voices from within the current Government. We welcome that.
As mentioned, we will shortly be launching a further report expressing concerns on the deepening deterioration of human rights in China, which we hope will serve to continue to highlight these issues and inform further debate—a debate it is critical we have if we are to better understand how, as parliamentarians, we can help to shape a new international order in which the value of human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, democracy, international treaty promises, and freedom of expression, association and religion or belief are better promoted and defended. It is heartening to me how, over my 10 years in this House, expressions of concern by parliamentary colleagues on these issues have noticeably increased, and with impact and effect, not least as we have seen recently with regard to Hong Kong.
Sadly, any such impact cannot yet be said to have happened with regard to the deteriorating human rights situation in China. Among the most dramatic evidence of the decline in human rights there since our commission’s last inquiry in 2016 are the violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. These have become even more egregious, widespread and systematic, according to evidence received by the Conservative party human rights commission this year. As we now know, some of the most egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief affect the Uyghurs, and they encompass an almost total denial of every basic human right. They include their own Government’s attacks on the Uighur identity, culture and religion, the breaking up of families, the destruction of thousands of mosques and the recent heart-rending sight of people being loaded on to trains to be transported to prison camps with purpose-built factories alongside them. This was all too reminiscent of the holocaust.
However, it is by no means only the Uyghurs who are being persecuted. For every major religious community in China today—Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, Muslims, Buddhists, practitioners of Falun Gong and others—the situation has become more restricted. Believers across the faiths have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and even killed in connection with their religion or belief. There are other Muslim groups as well as the Uyghurs in Xinjiang that are affected, as well as the Buddhists in Tibet. Violations against Christians have intensified with the imprisonment of pastors and the desecration or destruction of hundreds of churches.
Accounts to the independent China tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC, which delivered its final judgment in March this year on the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, were truly heart-searing. We are told that persecution by way of forced organ removal is taking place on an industrial scale. It is almost too horrible for the human mind to comprehend. Human beings are being cut open while still alive, without anaesthetic, for their kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, corneas and skin to be removed and turned into commodities for sale.
We, as commissioners on the Conservative party human rights commission, have found that human rights concerns do not always come neatly packaged and presented. Engaging can be messy, awkward and risky, and speaking truth to power is not comfortable, often as much for the hearer as for the speaker. So, why raise these concerns? It is because, whether we agree with their beliefs or not, these are fellow human beings who are being affected. It is because we should respect the worth of every human being, and because every created individual has value. It is because once we have heard of these things, we should not stay silent. As the holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said:
“Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness”.
We speak simply because we should, and because, however distant the sufferings of those who hurt might be, we share in their common humanity. In this House we have been granted the profound privilege of having voices that can resonate across the world, and we must use them to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable, afflicted and oppressed.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Taxation (Post-transition Period) Act 2020
United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020
Trade (Disclosure of Information) Act 2020.