Tuesday 12 January 2021
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
India: Persecution of Minority Groups
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India.
The right hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), and my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and I applied to the Backbench Business Committee to have this debate almost eight months ago, so we are very pleased that it has now arrived. I note that debates in Westminster Hall will be suspended for a period of time, so this will be one of the last debates in here until we get to the other side of the pandemic.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have come here today to discuss the important issue of the persecution of Muslims, Christians and other minority groups in India. The issue has been in my heart for a long time. Given the correspondence that we have had, there is a need for this debate, so I am pleased to be here to promote it. I am my party’s spokesperson for human rights issues and I register an interest as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. I remind this House that the Republic of India is the world’s largest democracy. These facts are not in dispute. India has a freely elected Government and is not run by a nightmarish authoritarian regime such as China’s, which arbitrarily imprisons millions from religious minorities and sponsors forced organ harvesting on an industrial scale, as we all know. Today in the main Chamber there will be a statement by the Minister in relation to the Uyghur Muslims.
India has a rich and unparalleled history of religious plurality and co-existence. The United Kingdom has always had a good relationship with India. Even today, hundreds of millions of people from different religions and backgrounds live together peacefully in modern-day India. However, the reason for this debate is clear. India is not perfect in terms of freedom of religion or belief, and there has been a concerning trend when it comes to FORB violations over the past several years. Of course, this is not unique to India. Even in the UK we have recently seen record highs for incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia and discrimination against Sikhs and other minority groups. Still, the scale and trajectory of the persecution currently being experienced in India by non-Hindus is very worrying and disturbing.
I talked beforehand to my friend and colleague from the Scots Nats party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East, and I said that those from India have to be able to take constructive criticism that is made in a friendly way but none the less highlights the issues that are the reason for this debate. Our debate will be in the spirit of that. I hope that through this debate and the Minister’s, shadow Minister’s and others’ contributions we will be able to highlight the issues that we need India to address.
Despite Prime Minister Modi’s pledge to commit to “complete freedom of faith”, since his election in 2014 there has been a significant increase in anti-minority rhetoric—the complete opposite of what was said in 2014—from Bharatiya Janata party politicians, and I will quote some of the comments. India has also seen the rise of religious nationalist vigilante groups, growing mob violence, the spread of anti-conversion laws, worsening social discrimination, the stripping of citizenship rights and—increasingly—many other actions against religious or belief minorities. That is totally unreal and unacceptable, which is why we have to highlight it here in Westminster Hall today.
According to IndiaSpend’s analysis of Indian Home Ministry data, there was a 28% rise in communal violence between 2014 and 2017, with 822 “incidents” being reported in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 111 people and wounding of 2,384 people. A recent Pew Research Center report claimed that India had the highest level of social hostility and violence based on religion or belief of any country in the world. That is quite a statement to make, but when we look at the facts of the case, which is why this debate is being held, we see that India does rank as highly as that; the social hostility and violence based on religion or belief is the worst of any country in the world.
The covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated problems for religious minorities in India. Through the APPG, I obviously receive comments and information, but I also receive them from religious groups, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, the Barnabus Fund and Open Doors; I think that the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will tomorrow launch the Open Doors strategy after what has happened in the last year. We very much look forward to that, because I believe that it will highlight not just India but other parts of the world where these problems exist.
At the beginning of the covid-19 outbreak, two dozen Muslim missionaries tested positive for the virus after an international event in Delhi. This led to accusations that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus and to a campaign of Islamophobia in which Muslims were labelled as “bio-terrorists” and “corona-jihadists”, and discriminated against. This scapegoating of Muslims was picked up and supported by political leaders such as the Minister for Minority Affairs of the BJP, who accused the event organisers of a “Talibani crime”. What a play on words that is. In no way had those missionaries ever done such a thing; they went to the event to follow their religious beliefs and worship their God. But they were made a target for doing so. And another BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh told citizens:
“Do not buy from Muslims.”
I mean, where does it all stop? That is my concern about the whole thing.
Furthermore, over 3,000 Muslims were forcibly detained by Government authorities for more than 40 days under the guise of protecting public health. Well, public health is for everyone and we cannot blame one person or one group for it, and those Muslims certainly did not set out to do anything wrong. Nevertheless, as a result of this stigmatisation, countless more instances of violence against Muslims in India have been recorded. So, those 20 or so Muslim missionaries, who were worshipping in a careful way, were then focused on and made the targets of verbal violence, which has now spread to other parts of India.
One attack that was caught on video showed a Muslim being beaten with a bamboo stick by a man asking him about his conspiracy to spread the virus. Really? Because they are a Muslim, they are spreading the virus? No, they are not, and to make such an accusation is completely wrong.
Other minority groups in India have also suffered such violence. For example, on 3 February 2019, a 40-strong mob attacked the church in Karkeli village, near Raipur. Fifteen worshippers were hospitalised after church members were beaten with sticks. Where is religious tolerance in India, when it was said in 2014 that there would be such tolerance? The facts are that it is not happening.
Similarly, on 25 November 2020, an estimated 100 Christians from Singavaram village in India’s Chhattisgarh state were also attacked. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s sources reported that a mob of around 50 people armed with home-made weapons attacked the Christians during the night while they slept. The mob burnt their Bibles and accused their victims of destroying the local culture by following a foreign religion. Again, I find that greatly disturbing—indeed, I find the whole thing very hard to understand.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and colleagues on their campaigning—we have all campaigned—on matters such as this. As he outlines some of these issues, does he agree that one of the ways we can address this is not just in debates such as this, which are exceptionally worthwhile, but by encouraging others who have influence in the Indian sub-continent also to take these issues seriously; to lobby the Indian Government and campaign to ensure that the progress that the Indian people and Governments have made in recent decades is stepped up and increased and the sort of items that the hon. Gentleman has outlined are clamped down on, so that we do not see them in the future?
I wholeheartedly accept my hon. Friend’s intervention. The spokesperson for the Scots Nats Party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), will also be doing something similar. I hope to meet the Indian High Commissioner next week, with others from Northern Ireland who have asked to speak to me. When it comes to making changes, we should do so in a constructive fashion. I hope that next week we can reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and try to influence those in positions of power to make the changes.
When attacks happen in villages across India, they are sanctioned, at least verbally or by non-action, by the police and Army. That sometimes encourages people to go ahead with what they are doing. The 50 people armed with homemade weapons who attacked Christians during the night when they slept and burned their bibles might be able to burn the Holy Bible and the word of God, but they did not in any way stop its teaching of how we should love others and follow its truths. Unfortunately, much of the violence against minorities is not appropriately investigated by Government authorities. It happens all the time and it is so frustrating whenever the police or Army stand back and do not act. When they are told what has happened, they do not investigate to the full extent, catch those involved and have them taken before the courts and imprisoned. Basically, they encourage perpetrators. In 2018, the Indian Supreme Court went so far as to urge the central and state Governments to bring back lynching restrictor laws and had to do so again in 2019, after no substantial action was taken.
In all these debates, we have a verbal commitment to change, but no physical action to prove it. That is what I find incredibly frustrating. In addition, Christian organisations have noted worsening patterns of discrimination against our communities in India. There have been reports of Christians who will not participate in Hindu rituals being denied employment. How often have we seen that, because they do not conform to what the Government want them to do, they are cut off from the water supply and prevented from even burying their dead? These are cruel actions by those in power.
Moreover, 80 year-old Father Stan Swamy, who has been an advocate for the rights of the poor and marginalised in India for 50 years has been unjustly held captive by the National Investigation Agency of India for alleged Maoist links. I hope that the Minister will reply to this point—if not today in the Chamber—and tell all those here who are interested how we can help that gentleman get out of prison.
Another issue is the spread of anti-conversion laws in India, which make me very angry. They are ostensibly designed to protect people, but often restrict the freedom of individuals to freely convert and deny their right to freedom of religion or belief. If you want to be a Christian, you have a right to be a Christian; if you want to be a Muslim, that is your choice; if you want to be a Hindu, that is your choice; if you want to be a Jehovah’s Witness or a Baha’i or a Coptic Christian, it is your right to do that. The anti-conversion laws in India that prevent you from doing that are despicable.
According to the US Commission on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, authorities predominantly arrest Muslims and Christians for conversion activities, whereas mass conversions to Hinduism often take place without any interference from the authorities. They have double standards, powered by the anti-conversion laws and often with the police’s complicity, right-wing groups conduct campaigns of harassment, social exclusion and violence against Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities across the whole country. Worryingly, this law seems to be strengthening. Four more Indian States are planning to introduce anti-conversion laws in 2021, in this year—more stringent laws to deliberately persecute and disenfranchise Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups. If that happens, close to two thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people will be under some anti-conversion law. That is how far this goes, Mr Chairman, and that is why it is so important to highlight it today.
Before I finish—I have a couple of pages to go—I feel obliged to mention the Citizenship Amendment Act, or the CAA as it is known, which was passed into law in India in 2019 and provides a fast-track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from certain neighbouring countries. The CAA is very concerning because making faith a condition for citizenship flies in the face of both Article 18 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights and the Indian constitution. To decide that and pass it into law is wrong. Its defenders say that it prohibits religious discrimination; that it is designed to protect minorities who have been persecuted in neighbouring states.
You leave a neighbouring state where you are facing persecution and you end up in India and the persecution continues, just by a different person, or a different Government, or a different rule. This can never be acceptable. It is difficult to accept, given that the Act does not include the Ahmadiyya Muslims from Pakistan, and I want to make a plea for them today as well. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has been a spokesperson for that cause on many occasions. I know that she would ask me and others to speak up for the Ahmadiyya Muslims as well, arguably the most persecuted minority group in that country.
The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have experienced ethnic cleansing and potential genocide at the hands of the Burmese military. How many of us have not been absolutely cut to the heart by what has happened to them? The Indian Government have deported Rohingya refugees rather than seeking to offer them a means to citizenship; a means to better themselves; a means of helping them.
The CAA is particularly concerning when it is considered in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens, the NRC. The NRC requires Indians to prove in court that they came to the state by 24 March 1971, or they will be declared illegal migrants. When the Assam state NRC was released in August 2019, 1.9 million residents were excluded. Why? Because they did not suit the form, the type of people India wanted. Those affected live in fear of statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention. They need protection. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some indication of what is happening in relation to that.
The Indian Government have plans to introduce a nationwide NRC, under which the citizenship of millions would be placed in question. However, with the CAA in place, non-Muslims will have a path to restore their citizenship and avoid detention or deportation, whereas Muslims would have to bear the consequences of potential statelessness. It just cannot be right to have a two-tier focus on those who are Christians, those who are Muslims, and those who are Hindus.
This move bears worrying similarities to the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who, in 1982, also had their citizenship removed and were labelled illegal immigrants before being demonised and then eventually attacked by the Burmese military. The stories that we heard of the Rohingyas and what they had to go through were outrageous. I think they worried every one of us and probably brought tears to our eyes. People were killed and butchered or abused, their homes burnt, just because they were Rohingyas.
If this sounds like an extreme comparison, I point hon. Members to the words of Amit Shah, the Indian Home Minister, who, in 2019, described people considered to be illegal immigrants as “termites”, and said that,
“A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.”
If that is not inflamed rhetoric, if that does not inflame the situation, if that is not a hate crime in the very words of a person in power, I don’t know what is. I feel greatly disturbed, greatly annoyed, angered even, that any person in a position of power, but especially the Indian Home Minister, should say anything like that.
To conclude, I reiterate that India is a great ally of the UK, but it must be possible to have constructive criticism among allies and friends. We must come to Westminster Hall and this House and say the things that are factual on behalf of those who have no voice. Great Britain, our Government and our Minister work extremely hard to put forward the case on behalf of those across the world who do not have someone to speak for them: those who, in their own country, where they have lived for many years, do not have the rights that we have—and they do not have those rights as immigrants, either. It is our responsibility to raise those concerns not just on behalf of the minorities who are persecuted but for the benefit of all Indian and British people.
The large majority of people in India believe in fair play and the right to religious belief, but there are those—some in positions of power—who are not prepared to allow that. Violations of freedom of religious belief lead to domestic conflict, which is good neither for India’s economic prosperity, nor for the chances of a stable, long-term trading relationship between India and the UK. We want to have that relationship, but we also want human rights to be protected. Those of different religions should have the opportunity to worship their God and to work, have houses and businesses and live a normal life without being persecuted because they happen to be of a different religion.
I urge the Minister to support his Indian counterparts to realise the political, strategic and economic benefits of guaranteeing the rule of law and human rights. I also call on him—I believe he is a Minister who wants to help, and his response will reflect that—to ensure that robust human rights provisions are included in any future trade and investment agreements with India. If we are to have a relationship with India—we do want that relationship—it is important that that is reflected. We in this country have high regard for human rights, the right to worship a God and the religious freedom that we have, and that should be had in India, too. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for coming; I have left them plenty of time to participate.
We should congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on ensuring that we had the debate and on the comprehensive way in which he moved it. I suppose we started having such debates—some instituted by him and others by me—20 years ago, and I think we have made progress in ensuring that the Government take a more active role in such matters. When we started off, Governments were, frankly, careful to be equidistant: they said, “On the one hand, there is persecution of Christians, but on the other hand, that.” The truth is that, although in India the victims of persecution are overwhelmingly Muslims, the victims of persecution worldwide are overwhelmingly Christian. Actually, in recent years the Government have had the courage to stand up more and more for human rights, the right of Christians to profess their faith and the rights of people of other faiths to convert to Christianity. These Westminster Hall debates may not seem important in the great scheme of things, but they are all part of a pressure on the Government, and our Government has a moral duty to speak out as for centuries—certainly for the last century—Governments have spoken out in favour of human rights throughout the world.
I hesitated to take part in the debate because India is an incredibly complex country with an amazing history. Hinduism is integral to India—80% of the population are Hindus—and it is the most wonderful religion. Those who go to India, as I have, realise that it is part of the country’s DNA. I do not condone Hindu nationalism in any way, but we need to understand how Hindus feel that theirs is the religion of India. That said, there have been Muslims in India for many hundreds of years, so presumably they were living there when they originally converted to Islam. The same applies to Christianity. Christianity is also integral to India. There have been Christians in India for the best part of 2,000 years. It is the third largest religion. There are 200 million Muslims, but there are still 30 million Christians—a huge number—in the country. According to legend and, undoubtedly, in fact, India was one of the first lands reached by early Christians. In Kerala, they date their Christianity back to the Apostle Thomas himself. And parts of north-eastern India even have a Christian majority.
Despite the electoral success of Modi and the BJP, it has to be said that although Hindus are still the overwhelming part of the population, their proportion of the population has been declining. No doubt that engenders a feeling of threat, but, dare I say it—I am not here to lecture anybody else’s country—nobody needs to feel under threat from Islam or Christianity in India. Hinduism will always be an absolutely integral part of the nation and overwhelmingly the majority religion.
Despite that and perhaps for political reasons—this is where nationalism is extremely dangerous—politicians around the world feel that they can use religion quite wrongly to promote themselves, get into office and stir up their followers. We just have to accept this, and our Government, in their dealings with the Modi Government, have to accept that the BJP has sharpened its tone against India’s religious minorities. There is absolutely no doubt about that; it is on the record.
Between 1967 and 2020, six states introduced laws or ordinances aiming to stop conversions. It is a dangerous thing to convert to Christianity in India, but there has to be some equivalence drawn, too. Let us make it absolutely clear that it is even more dangerous to convert to Christianity in Pakistan. We have to condemn absolutely this feeling in many countries of the world that it is wrong to convert or change religion, in any direction. Those ordinances and laws are often made, perversely, in the guise of protecting freedom of religion. In 2015, Rajnath Singh, India’s then Minister of Home Affairs, called for a national debate on anti-conversion laws and said that one was needed at national level. However, although the Indian Government undoubtedly set an antichristian and anti-Muslim tone, I am afraid—well, I am not afraid; it is just a fact—that the fact is that violent intimidation at street level does the most harm, and much more harm than the Government or what they say.
As reported by Aid to the Church in Need—by the way, I am closely connected with Aid to the Church in Need; it does wonderful work throughout the world and should be congratulated on its very detailed reports—there was
“no sign of anti-Christian violence abating during India’s COVID-19 lockdown. In the first six months of 2020 one Indian NGO recorded 293 cases of persecution.”
Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur says:
“It is a cause of concern with the Church because Christians are being killed and beaten…There are much more attacks than ten years ago. Fundamentalism is a real problem.”
The Indian Government’s own figures, released in 2018, show an upward trend in inter-religious violence, and one has to ask why there is an upward trend. Is the tone being set by Government themselves? In 2016, 86 people were killed in sectarian violence and 2,321 were injured in 703 incidents. The following year, that rose to 111 people killed and 2,384 injured; there were 822 incidents in 2017. Between 2017 and the end of March 2019, there were more than 1,000 individual attacks on Christians.
The attacks are also widespread. In recent years, they have taken place in 24 out of India’s 29 states. In Odisha state in May 2019, local officials sent a team of 50 workers to demolish a Christian school and children’s hostel near Lichapeta. The school’s application for recognition of land tenure was suspiciously lost. Hindutva nationalism is pervading the actions of many officials in the Indian Government, from the Ministers at the top to local government bureaucrats.
Before I sit down, it would be quite wrong not to mention—as I think I have already said once, but I now emphasise—that the overwhelming victims of violence and discrimination in India are Muslims, and this follows decades of discrimination. Riots in north-east Delhi last year resulted in Muslim homes and businesses being destroyed; of the 53 dead from six days of violence, two thirds were Muslims—who had been shot, slashed or set on fire.
India is the world’s largest functioning democracy, and we should be proud of that. We are inextricably linked to India through our shared history, not all of which has been happy or peaceful. With more than 1 billion people, it is the largest Commonwealth country by a huge margin. On a number of fronts, India is a friend of Britain and a country we want to trade with more, deal with more, and visit. However, true friendship requires not turning a blind eye to each other’s faults, and we must protest the violence and persecution in India today. I hope that this debate is a small step in the right direction.
Before I begin, I want to say that I resent having to come here this morning. I also resent the fact that this will be one of the last debates that we are able to have in Westminster Hall. Scrutiny is very important, and the scrutiny we do in this Chamber is important, but we should be able to do it remotely and observe the guidance that the Government have given to others.
Imagine when the Windrush scandal broke in the UK if there had been a debate in the Indian Parliament about the persecution of black people in Britain. Or, in 2011, when the London riots broke out after the police shooting of Mark Duggan, that there had been questions asked in the Indian Parliament about the impartiality of the Metropolitan police, and how it was that they stood by and did not use force to stop the rioters for four days before those riots were brought under control. Imagine that there had been debates in the Indian Parliament all through the troubles in Northern Ireland, accusing the British Government of persecuting the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.
I say this, not to minimise the subject that hon. Members have brought for debate in this Chamber today—injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere—but to give ourselves a sense of humility and a little perspective about how we might feel, as parliamentarians, if legislators in India were to pronounce on our institutions from afar, putting us under the microscope in the same way that colleagues are doing for their Indian counterparts today.
Add to that the fact that the UK is the former colonial power, whose influence in what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was not entirely beneficent, and certainly not above pitting one religious or ethnic group against the other. In this light, it is not beyond ordinary powers of imagination to conceive that people in India might not regard our intervention as either wholly welcome or appropriate.
Many of my own constituents—British citizens whose families were originally from India—have written to me, outraged by the very fact that we are holding this debate at all. One of my constituents’ letters says:
“It is a very difficult time in the UK due to the severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It is surprising to know that elected British Members of Parliament are debating subjects attacking the Government of India, rather than focusing on UK priorities.”
There is of course a debate on covid in the Commons Chamber today, and I do not think that we must confine our debates only to immediate to domestic priorities, so perhaps I should have begun my remarks by declaring my interests. I am a Christian and I therefore have an interest to prevent the persecution of my fellow Christians; but, then, I am also a human being and I have never understood how anyone can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation, let alone the persecution, of a fellow being. I am also the founding chair of Labour Friends of India, and as one of India’s longest-standing friends in the UK Parliament, I am keen to see that the true nature of Indian democracy is properly represented and not distorted.
I shall refer to the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks later, but at this point I will continue to make some progress. I represent the constituency of Brent North, which only Newham, which includes the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), might be able to rival for diversity of ethnicity and religious faith. Perhaps 40% of the families in my constituency are originally from the Indian subcontinent. Many are Hindu and many are Muslim and I am equally at home visiting the mosque or the mandir.
As a Christian, I remember the appalling murder of the Christian missionary Graham Staines in Odisha. He was burned to death with his two little boys, aged 10 and six, when Dara Singh led a group of Hindu militants who set light to the van that they were sleeping in. I think I was the first person in this Parliament to raise the matter with the then high commissioner, my good friend Lalit Mansingh. As a human being, I also remember that Dara Singh murdered the Muslim trader Sheikh Rehman, chopping off his hands before setting him alight too. Psychopaths and murderers exist in all countries, but when talking of persecution it is important to examine how the authorities in those countries respond to such atrocities. The Indian constitution is, importantly, a secular constitution and it provides for protections of minority communities including Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Christians. Though different political parties have formed the Government since its independence, all have respected the constitution and worked within its boundaries, so it is important to say that 21 years later, Dara Singh is still serving a life sentence for his crimes. It is also important that he was convicted in the year 2000 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, at the head of a Hindu nationalist BJP Government.
In June 2017, in response to the growing violence of Hindu mobs known as cow vigilantes, it was the current Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who spoke out against that violence and proclaimed that killing people in the name of protecting cows was criminal, illogical and unacceptable. When the Muslim trader Alimuddin Ansari was later lynched by a Hindu mob for allegedly transporting beef, 11 people were sentenced to life imprisonment, including one local BJP worker. That justice was meted out by a fast-track court and was the first case ever successfully prosecuted against such religious extremists in India. The state acted. It did not sanction the atrocities. Are there atrocities in India? Yes, there are. Are they often perpetrated against religious minorities? Yes, they are. Do they represent persecution by the state? No, they do not. Islam is the second largest religion in India. There are 40 million Muslims in Uttar Pradesh alone. As the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, there are 1.4 billion people in India and the second largest population is Muslim. He spoke of 1,000 attacks on minorities.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but what has unfortunately not come across yet—I ask him to reflect on this—is the fact that, in the legal system in India, four more Indian states are to introduce anti-conversion laws. That means that 1.3 billion people will be under specific state law and state changes that disadvantage them, and 1.9 million Rohingyas do not have the right of citizenship. I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I have to say this: we are here to speak on behalf of those who have no voice. We should be their voice in this Chamber.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his points so clearly. Let me try to address them. He spoke of Muslims being stripped of their citizenship rights—no. Actually, they are not stripped of rights that they ever had. They were not citizens; they were classed as illegal migrants into the country.
It is very important when talking about India and religious persecution to consider the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. India is one of the world’s top destinations for illegal migrants. Most are Muslims who come from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Pew Research Center estimates that they number 3.2 million and 1.1 million from Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively. The Act provided a pathway for illegal migrants to become citizens of India where they had been victims of religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan. It established the important legal principle of non-refoulement by offering shelter to refugees who fled those countries due to discrimination based on religion. It gave that right to Christians, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists.
The Act was passed in both the Lok Sabha, where the BJP Government hold a majority, and the upper Rajya Sabha, where they do not. It sparked riots and outrage because the pathway was not open to Muslims. The argument applied by the Indian Government is that those are Muslim countries, and therefore Muslims coming to India as migrants could not be persecuted religious minorities.
The right hon. Member for Gainsborough spoke about Ahmadiyya Muslims, and I entirely agree with him. The Indian Government say that the legislation discriminates not against Muslims per se, but only against illegal immigrants who do not have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin. There is a basic logic to that argument, and I disagree with it. It is clear to me that if someone is an Ahmadiyya Muslim or a gay Muslim, it is perfectly possible—indeed, highly probable—that they have suffered religious persecution in one of those countries. It is also possible that Christians or Parsis have come without actually having a well-founded fear of being persecuted. They may simply be an illegal migrant, rather than a genuine refugee. Better, in my view, that the law should seek not to treat illegal immigrants on the basis of broad religious categories at all, but to consider each individual case on its merit. However, India is a sovereign country with an established democracy, and I respect its right to enact legislation whether or not I think it clumsy or ill-framed.
As people criticise India for legislation that is giving citizenship to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, perhaps we should recall that just in December, a British Home Office Minister complained to the Home Affairs Committee that we had been unable to get the French to agree to a policy of turning back migrant boats in the channel. As India enacts the principle of non-refoulement, we are busy trying to do the opposite. Sometimes, as a Christian, I think we would do better to cast out the beam from our own eye, and then we might see clearly to case out the mote from our neighbour’s.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Robertson. India is a vibrant, pluralist and secular democracy. Its constitution declares clearly that freedom of religion is a fundamental right. Article 15 outlaws discrimination on the grounds of religion, and a series of other articles provide further protections, including in relation to schools. Those rights are safeguarded by respect for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, supported by bodies such as the National Commission for Minorities and the National Human Rights Commission. An enduring goal of the Indian state has been diversity and inclusion, and a national minorities rights day is observed on 18 December every year.
The size of India’s minority populations has been growing in recent years, and India is, for example, home to 16% of the world’s Muslim population. Members of minority faiths have played a prominent part in India’s history and they continue to hold leading roles in Indian politics and public life, in science and universities, in the law and other professions, in business and culture, and across the Indian economy. Let us just take one, symbolic example. In 2004, a Catholic, Sonia Gandhi, facilitated the handover of power to a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, enabling him to become Prime Minister, with his oath of office overseen by a Muslim President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam.
As Members present will know, I take seriously matters related to freedom of religion, whether it is Islam or Christianity. I have raised those matters in this House many times and will continue to do so. Sadly, in a country as huge as India, there will be lawbreakers who attack others, including members of minority communities and faiths. Sadly, no state can prevent all such crimes and tragedies, no matter how seriously they take policing and justice. Of course, there are hard-line individuals in India who promote hate speech and division, just as there are in this country. Again, no democracy that allows freedom of speech can shut that down either.
However, I argue that India’s record on minority faiths stands up to scrutiny. I do not accept that there is evidence of systemic or state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities. When it comes to protection of freedom of religion and belief, the more important focus of this House should be on places such as Pakistan, where forced marriage and forced conversion of young Hindu and Christian women is a serious problem, and from where Asia Bibi had to flee for her life after years of imprisonment, and China, where incarceration and oppression of Uyghur Muslims is, quite frankly, a disgrace.
Mr Modi’s Government has embarked on a huge reform agenda, tackling issues that his predecessors ducked because they were just too difficult. Change on this scale inevitably causes controversy and conflict in India, just as it would elsewhere. All such crimes must be fully investigated to bring anyone responsible to justice. In any democracy, there is further work to be done to safeguard and protect human rights, and bring to justice those who commit crimes of violence against others, including religious minorities. It will be important for some of the serious matters raised in this debate to be considered in India. No doubt, they debate similar matters in their Parliament, in the same way that we do, and the concerns raised by Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide must be carefully considered. In a country as vast as India, with so many different communities, ethnicities and faiths, there are some unavoidable tensions and it is a matter of massive regret that, sometimes, that can spill over into conflict and violence. However, the principles of unity and diversity have been a core aspiration and value of the Indian state ever since its creation.
India is a stable and increasingly prosperous home to around 200 million Muslims and 32 million Christians. While, like any country, its record on law and order and security cannot always be 100% perfect, it is still a huge democratic success story. Rapid economic development and Government action are also starting to bring many millions of people out of poverty. If we are considering some worrying points raised in this debate, let us also at the same time remember the hugely positive progress in India, which is benefiting so many of its citizens, including millions from India’s minority and minority faith communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate.
“It’s time the Modi government learned they cannot promote ‘Make in India’ abroad while condoning the propagation of ‘Hate in India’ at home.”
Those are not my words but those of Shashi Tharoor, an author and Indian politician, highlighting the reality of India under a BJP Government.
With the rise of nationalist politics all over the world, we have seen the threat to minority rights. With Trump 2.0 in charge in India, in the form of Narendra Modi, we are witnessing before our eyes the scaling down of the secular, liberal rights for which Indian democracy once hailed itself. Power politics has an interesting link with the legitimacy of an individual, especially in the case of Narendra Modi, a man once barred from the US because of his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat massacre, which saw more than 2,000 Muslims murdered and some newspapers giving him the title, “the butcher of Gujarat”. Today he is invited on to red carpets across the globe, including in Britain.
Narendra Modi does not just attract a nationalist crowd with his populist rhetoric; he is directly involved. He is a life member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is inspired by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini and the ideas of an Aryan race. The RSS is built on an ideology of the superiority of Hindus, and the group’s mission statement calls for change to the policy of
“endless appeasement of the Muslim population”.
In reality, what they see as the ending of appeasement towards Muslims is seen by the world as the ending of equality towards Muslims in India. Over the years, mob attacks on Muslim communities in India have risen. Only last year, five Muslim men, severely beaten by police officers, were forced to sing the national anthem. Two days later, one of the men, a 23-year-old Muslim, was murdered. Later, we witnessed a nationalist mob launch riots in New Delhi. More than 52 people were killed, hundreds injured, places of worship and property destroyed, with the majority of victims being Muslims.
It is not just extremist mobs that are changing the landscape in India. It is directly ingrained in the policies pursued by the BJP Government. The controversial citizenship law and the national registration of citizenship directly discriminate against Muslims. The citizenship law ensures that Hindus and people of other faiths who live in India have an automatic right to citizenship, whereas Muslims do not. In 2019, the Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah said,
“I today want to assure Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees, that you will not be forced to leave India”.
That outrightly left out Muslims.
A New York Times investigation in Assam province found Muslims, who have lived their entire lives in India with voter ID, birth certificates and marriage certificates, being sent to foreigners tribunals to prove their citizenship. One man, Asbahar Ali, due to a spelling error by the authorities on his documentation, was sent to prison for four years. His family sold the house to pay for legal costs and his wife committed suicide. The same investigation found five officials of the foreigners tribunals, such as Mamoni Rajkumari, claimed they were dismissed from their posts because they accepted the citizenship of too many Muslims.
If one believed that the discrimination against Muslims is India is just hearsay, consider the words of an MP and BJP leader, Dr Swamy. In defence of controversial citizenship laws in an interview, he stated,
“We know where the Muslim population is large and there’s always trouble…If Muslims become more than 30%, that country is in danger.”
When challenged for his hateful comments, he asserted he was being kind to Muslims by not letting them into India, because equality does not apply to them, as they fit into a completely different category.
The Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary in 2019 found rising levels of hate and attacks on Christians in India. The report mentions 750 reported cases of Christian persecution in India in 2017 alone. Recently, we have witnessed the use of brute force with water cannon on Indian farmers, who are mainly Sikhs. Other marginalised groups such as Dalits, those of lower caste or even non-religious groups such as humanists have often been at the forefront of hate and discrimination in India.
India is at a pivotal point. While its economic advance is set to lead it to become the third biggest economy by 2035, its political advance is set to eradicate the legacy of Gandhism based on a pluralist India. The world is also at a pivotal point because nations likes ours need to make a choice between turning a blind eye to the Nazi-inspired ideology taking charge in the ruling party of India in favour of economic trade, or standing by persecuted minorities and the very values of Gandhism.
If our words fall on deaf ears, then the world should not be shocked if minorities in India push towards a path of ethnic cleansing in the future. India has a choice to make, but so does the rest of the world.
There is an indivisible historic bond that we have been reminded of between the UK and India. India is rightly admired as the world’s biggest democracy, and its economic achievements have been staggering. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) rightly paid tribute to the constitution of India drawn up under the leadership of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, which says
“all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”
It is a model for such a vast and richly diverse nation. However, India is seeing growing violence against religious minorities.
As the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said, the latest Open Doors’ World Watch List will be launched tomorrow. For the last two years, India has been in 10th place on that list of the worst countries for the persecution of Christians, and the position is not going to improve, as I understand it, in the list being published tomorrow. Now that would once have been unconceivable; 10 years ago it was down at number 32. The current Indian Government was elected in 2014 and in 2016, Open Doors put India for the first time among the world’s worst 20 countries and the report that year referred to
“a surge of militant Hindu pressure on religious minorities, most frequently Muslims and Christians.”
In 2019, India entered the worst 10 countries. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that year that India be designated a country of particular concern. Human Rights Watch reported in 2019:
“The government failed to properly enforce Supreme Court directives to prevent and investigate mob attacks”.
India remained in the top 10 last year. Open Doors reports four religiously-motivated murders of Christians in the first half of 2020 and eight just in the third quarter.
We have been reminded that Christians and Muslims account for 20% of India’s population. I paid a wonderful visit to Kerala in 2017 where the location of churches established by the Apostle Thomas were pointed out to me. Islam arrived between the 12th and 16th centuries. Both religions have been very significant in India’s development. The problem is, and this point has rightly been made, that it is not that the state is perpetrating violence against minority religions but, to quote Christian Solidarity Worldwide:
“Right-wing groups are emboldened by a culture of impunity due to state negligence or complicity.”
Government inaction has meant that mob lynching against Muslims and Dalits and violence against Christians and humanists are increasing. The Government are not always negligent, but they have often been negligent.
A report from the London School of Economics published at the end of 2019 entitled “WhatsApp vigilantes” refers to more than a hundred lynchings since 2015, many against Dalits, Muslims, Christians and Adivasis, carried out by
“mobs of vigilantes who use peer-to-peer messaging applications such as WhatsApp to spread lies about the victims, and use misinformation to mobilise, defend, and in some cases to document and circulate images of their violence.”
We have been reminded that covid-19 seems to have increased the problems. When our Prime Minister visits India, he must raise this issue.When Ministers such as the one who is with us this morning visit India, I hope they will meet religious minorities. That will be a huge source of encouragement.
Meeting in the USA and in India, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi have heaped praise on each other. At the moment, we are seeing where America-first politics leads playing out in the US. Every community needs to feel protected; it is not enough to protect only the majority, and the authorities in India need to act against those who perpetrate violence towards Muslims, Christians, Dalits, humanists and other religious minorities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for leading today’s debate on behalf of the APPG for freedom of religion or belief. In paying tribute to fellow APPG members, I also congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her appointment as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I know that she has a personal passion for this subject, and I do not doubt at all that she will be an outstanding envoy for the Government, so I wish her well on behalf of my party.
In the run-up to this morning’s debate, I have to say that I have been fascinated—indeed, quite perplexed—by the knee-jerk reaction to the debate. That extends to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner): if I followed the logic of his remarks that we should not be interfering in the domestic politics of other countries, particularly countries that the UK once ruled over, surely the same would be true of the United States of America, but I recall that fairly recently he had lots to say about George Floyd. The reality is that foreign affairs is a reserved matter for this Parliament, and it is entirely right for Members of this House to comment on it.
I do not doubt for a moment that we should be engaged in foreign affairs, and we have the right to debate what we wish in this House. I did not suggest otherwise; what I did say was that we should always do so with a sense of humility and appropriateness, and in this particular case, remembering that we were a colonial power that was engaged in pitting one section of the community against the other for over 200 years.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is a point that I will echo later in my speech. However, several hon. Members in Westminster Hall today have been recipients of emails from members of the Indian diaspora, the High Commission of India, and even a Member of the House of Lords, all getting their excuses in early and suggesting that the issues raised in today’s debate are overblown or misplaced. Only this morning, a number of us received an email with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards copied in, complaining that by taking part in this debate we were in breach of the MPs’ code of conduct—which is frankly nonsense, and I expect the Commissioner will clarify that.
As a Scottish nationalist MP, I understand the optics of India’s former colonial rulers being seen to lecture them on human rights and democracy; that is an irony that will not be lost on many people. However, as I said earlier, foreign affairs is still very much a matter reserved to this Parliament, and it is therefore right that we comment, whether on India or on other parts of the world. I have no problem whatsoever with other Parliaments commenting on our situation as well.
In an email that we received from the noble Lord Ranger, we were reminded—if not rebuked—that India is the largest working democracy globally. I have to say, being reminded by an unelected peer about India being a democracy was certainly a novel experience, but Lord Ranger went on to say that
“a free trade agreement is on the cards in the not too distant future.”
He is right: it is precisely because India is the world’s largest democracy, and a country with which the UK seeks a free trade agreement, that we are having this debate today and bringing into sharp focus violations of FORB and persecution of minority groups.
Religious persecution in India is a topic that I have been following for several years now, but I want to draw the attention of the House to a report from Open Doors UK, entitled “We’re Indians Too”. That report provided a sobering analysis of the escalating human rights violations against religious minority communities in India. Although religion-based violence has existed for years, analysis of instances since 2014 demonstrate that Hindu extremists have created an environment of hate and intolerance towards India’s religious minorities, primarily its Christian and Muslim communities. This in turn has led to an escalation of violence, social ostracism, property destruction, hate speech, disruption of peaceful non-Hindu religious activities, and false accusations of conversion activities. This has all been compounded yet further by the emergence of covid-19. We have heard alarming testimony of Christians from different states walking hundreds of miles to Madhya Pradesh state, being denied rations and informed that they would not have access to assistance. Indeed, the hon. Member for Strangford has said already that Muslims continue to be targeted as a perceived source of coronavirus and in many cases have been denied medical treatment as a result of that rhetoric.
Just as I have paid tribute to the work of Open Doors, I also want to thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide for all of its advocacy in respect of India. With your forbearance, Mr Robertson, I want to single out Joanne Moore who has been instrumental in briefing me on FORB issues over the years, specifically on but not limited to India. Joanne leaves CSW this month and will be enormously missed by all of us in the House who have appreciated her diligence, passion and expertise.
The South Asia state of minorities report of 2020, published just last month, paints a picture of spiting, oppressive and minority politics, the criminalisation of dissent and a deteriorating humanitarian situation within India. Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, wrote, and I quote:
“In India, human rights defenders and religious minorities protesting discriminatory laws and practices have faced restrictions, violence, criminal defamation, detention and harassment.”
She went on to say:
“Other recent legislation limits freedom of opinion and expression, in the guise of preventing disharmony and disaffection.”
The situation is grave, and the UK has a role to play, I would argue. It is imperative that the Prime Minister’s upcoming trip to India in the first half of 2021 is used to send a signal that an enhanced trade partnership between the UK and India will not be signed until real change is realised. The British Government often comment that the UK has very constructive relations with India. It is precisely for that reason, Mr Robertson, that we should be acting as a critical friend when it comes to advocating for minority groups facing persecution. As with any negotiation there are trade-offs, but turning a blind eye to the persecution of religious minorities should not be one of them. It must be the case that that remains a priority for the British Government and this matter should be a red line in any future trade agreement.
Last night the House had an excellent debate on the concept of global Britain. I made it clear then and I do so again today that global Britain is not the SNP’s project. We wish it well, but we do not wish Scotland to be a part of it for obvious reasons. However, an early first test for global Britain is in confronting the increasingly thuggish Modi regime, which has seen the oppression of religious minorities for far, far too long. The Minister knows this particular caucus of MPs well enough to understand that we always put party and constitutional politics aside to advocate for international freedom of religion and belief. In doing so, though, we will hold the Government’s feet to the fire as the Prime Minister departs for India on his trip this year. The success of the trade mission will not just be measured in the size or scope of a free trade agreement. For me, the real measure will be whether or not Members of this House are still raising concerns about religious persecution later in the year, and I very much hope that we will not be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I would like to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I thought gave a passionate account of his views on this matter, along with other Members who secured this debate, including the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). I would like to thank hon. Members on these Benches for their contributions. I thought my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) gave a particularly compelling and balanced account of the issues we are facing. Other contributors, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), made a number of very important points.
I want to stress that those on the Labour Front Bench stand firmly behind the rights of minorities to religious freedom, both in India and across the world. The Labour party’s new foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and human rights at the very heart of our agenda, and we are absolutely clear that religious freedom is a critical right that must be universally upheld. However, the wider picture is that, according to recent research by the V-Dem Institute, for the first time since 2001 authoritarian regimes outnumber the world’s democracies, and the number of such regimes is growing. That is why it is essential for democracies, of which India is of course the world’s largest, to stand firm together in defence of universal human rights. We must lead by example in standing up for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. They are the cornerstones of the values that we in the United Kingdom, and particularly the Labour party, hold dear. They should be the values that democrats across the world cherish.
We have consistently stood up for religious freedoms throughout Asia. We have called on the UK Government to take action against the Chinese Government for their persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang by deploying Magnitsky sanctions against senior officials. We also consistently urge Ministers to defend the rights of minorities in Sri Lanka, and to act far more robustly on to the appalling treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
The Labour party has stood up for human rights in India, including by standing by Amnesty International in India, which was recently forced to discontinue its operations due to what it described as “persistent harassment” by the Indian Government. I also recently expressed our strong belief that the farmers protesting in India must have the right to peaceful protest, and that the Indian authorities must commit to upholding that right. Again, UK Ministers should be engaging far more actively and effectively with their counterparts in New Delhi to convey that message clearly.
The religious rights of minority groups in India are a hugely important issue. In the three years to June 2019, India’s national human rights commission registered 2,008 cases of minorities being harassed. Every one of those events is heartbreaking for those affected, who in some instances lost their lives, for their families and for all of us who wish to see India thrive as a nation.
Religious minorities constitute one fifth of India’s population. Articles 29 and 30 of the constitution protect the rights of those communities, including the right to use their own language and to form their own educational institutions. Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, sex or place of birth. In spite of those constitutional protections, however, in late 2019, the Indian Government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act caused concern because it failed to state that it would offer a path to fast-track citizenship for Muslim immigrants, while explicitly committing to fast-tracking Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
More recently, in late February 2020, New Delhi experienced terrible communal violence. The initial attacks were predominantly by members of the majority Hindu population against Muslim minority groups. The death toll reached 53. The majority of those who died were Muslims, but many Hindus also lost their lives and parts of north-east Delhi were put under lockdown. Every section of the population is profoundly damaged by such violence and strife.
Later in 2020, the persecution of Muslims continued as they were blamed for the spread of covid-19, as many hon. Members have mentioned. Hon. Members have also eloquently pointed out that Christians have suffered some persecution. According to Persecution Relief, between January 2016 and January 2020, there were 2,067 crimes inspired by religious intolerance against Christians in India.
India is the world’s largest democracy. As such, it can and should take its place as a leader in global affairs and a shaper of the global agenda. It is also a hugely diverse rainbow nation. As such, it has an opportunity to be one of the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multicultural societies. The vast majority of the Indian population, whatever their ethnicity or religion, are rightly proud of their country’s vibrant diversity and are committed to the principles of religious freedom that are important in any healthy democracy. The Indian Government have, of course, made some effort to support minorities through their multi-sector development programme, with the majority of the spend going on education. We are confident that those interventions will yield positive results.
In the light of the above, we call on Ministers to engage actively with their counterparts in New Delhi; to set out the role of the new special envoy on freedom of religion and belief, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and what she will do to encourage tolerance and inclusion; to explain the Government’s plan to compensate for the abolition of the Department for International Development, which did some outstanding work promoting religious freedoms across the globe; and to explain the decision to renege on the Government’s manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on development. Can the Minister tell us which DFID programmes for freedom of religion and belief will survive these swingeing cuts?
It is vital that the Government take a serious and strategic approach to defending religious freedoms, and we look forward to the Minister’s answers on these vital issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate and the role he plays on this issue in this House. I pay tribute to all his work as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions. My right hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) all made very thoughtful and insightful speeches. Like the hon. Member for Brent North, I am a little surprised to be here. Nevertheless, we are and have the opportunity to recognise and share the feeling in the House on these vital issues. Later in my speech, I will respond to the points hon. Members raised.
The UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all. It is one of our human rights priorities. Nobody should be excluded because of their religion or belief. Discrimination, as we all know, does terrible damage to societies. Importantly, it holds back economies. A country cannot fully develop or thrive while members of minority communities are oppressed. It is a core message of our diplomacy that communities are stronger, more stable and more prosperous when they embrace their diversity rather than fear it.
In November, my ministerial colleague who is responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, underlined our commitment to freedom of religion or belief, speaking at the ministerial meeting to advance freedom of religion or belief and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Ministers’ forum. All hon. Members present will know that in 2019, the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), commissioned the Bishop of Truro to undertake a review into the Government’s support for persecuted Christians. I want to confirm yet again that this Government remain fully committed to implementing all the Bishop’s recommendation and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.
I am delighted, as I am sure everyone here will be, that we have confirmed that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) will continue that implementation, as the Prime Minister’s new special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) was absolutely right to raise that point, as well as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who, in a previous debate, pushed on when that appointment would be made. I am thrilled that it was made before the Christmas break. I am sure that my hon. Friend will do a fantastic job.
Those of us who have had the pleasure of visiting India know that it is a magnificent country. It is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. It boasts over 20 official languages, over 1,500 registered dialects—it is very similar to Yorkshire in that regard— and a rich tapestry of religious minorities, alongside its sizable Hindu majority. It is also the birthplace of the other great religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Most notably in the context of this debate, it is also home to the world’s third largest Muslim population—over 195 million people—and approximately 28 million Christians.
Shortly after partition, India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru, said:
“Whatever our religion or creed, we are all one people.”
This is the foundation stone of India. Regardless of religious differences, all citizens can consider themselves Indians.
Indians are rightly proud of their history of inclusive government, and their secular constitution, which hon. Members have referred to. This guarantees citizens equality before the law. We are proud of our diversity and religious pluralism in the UK, and those are shared values, central to the governance of both our countries. They lie at the heart of our partnership, which is further strengthened by the UK’s 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora—the living bridge between us.
However, as hon. Members have noted, India faces challenges in enforcing its constitutional protections for freedom of religion or belief. The situation for religious minorities across India varies depending on where they live, their socioeconomic background and how their numbers compare to other communities. Some have suggested that the UK turns a blind eye to these challenges, because we do not want to criticise an important partner. I can assure the House that this is not the case. On the contrary, thanks to our close relationship, we are able to discuss the most difficult issues with the Government of India and make clear our concerns, as they do with us, and as one would expect from close partners and friends.
Absolutely. The hon. Member is right to raise this. There is a real opportunity, when that trip goes ahead, not just to talk about what is incredibly important in our trading relationship with India, but to put on the table our concerns around these issues. In that vein, I can confirm that during the Foreign Secretary’s visit to India in December, he raised a number of these human rights issues with his Indian counterpart, including the situation in Kashmir and our concern around many consular cases.
Most recently, our acting high commissioner in New Delhi discussed the UK’s parliamentary interest in minorities in India with officials from India’s Ministry of External Affairs on 4 January. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials here in London discussed the situation for India’s religious minorities with the Indian high commissioner on 29 December. Our Minister responsible for human rights and our relations with India, Lord Ahmad, speaks regularly to his opposite number in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and with the Indian high commissioner here in the UK. Where we have concerns, he raises them directly with the Indian authorities.
Over the last three years, our high commission has worked with local non-governmental organisations to bring together hundreds of young people of diverse faiths in three cities in India to work together on social action projects in their local communities, thereby promoting a culture of interfaith dialogue. Our diplomatic network across India also regularly meets religious representatives from all faiths to understand their perspectives. We use important milestones such as Inter Faith Week to reach out to these communities. In May, our high commission hosted a virtual Iftar, engaging over 100 Muslim and other faith and civil society contracts across India. There was positive media coverage, reaching around 7 million people.
In September, our high commission hosted a virtual roundtable with faith leaders from the Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian communities to understand how faith groups in India have responded to the pandemic, to celebrate their important contribution to supporting local communities, and to promote joint working between faith leaders. This year, our high commission will support an interfaith leadership programme for a cohort of emerging Indian faith leaders, including Christians and Muslims. Hopefully, this will create an opportunity for: UK-India interfaith dialogue on tackling shared global challenges such as climate change; exchanging expertise on leading modern, inclusive faith communities; and promoting values of tolerance and multiculturalism.
The hon. Member for Strangford raised the case of Father Stan Swamy. Human rights defenders make an essential contribution to the promotion of the rights of their fellow citizens. We acknowledge that they face growing threats, and the UK works with many international partners to support them through our networks of high commissions and embassies. We have directly raised the case of Father Stan Swamy with the Indian authorities, most recently on 12 November. We will continue to monitor such cases and raise them directly with Ministers where appropriate.
With regard to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, Lord Ahmad has previously raised our concerns about the impact of recent legislative and judicial measures on India’s minorities directly with Ministers. We have not yet received any confirmation from the Government of India on whether an India-wide national register of citizens will be implemented. We keenly await details of any next steps that they take following the NRC in Assam.
I am conscious that I have to give the hon. Member for Strangford a couple of minutes at the end of the debate, so if the hon. Lady does not mind, I need to conclude.
I end by saying that we look to the Government of India to address these concerns and protect the rights of people of all religions. That is in keeping with India’s constitution and a proud and inclusive tradition. Our high commission in New Delhi and our network of deputy high commissioners across India will continue to monitor the situation closely. Where we have concerns, we do not hesitate to raise them directly with the Indian authorities.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their heartfelt contributions, some of which I would not be entirely supportive of, but all were contributions in the right sense of the word, which is the important thing.
It was said that every community needs to be protected; that is so important. Our role in this House and in this debate is to speak up for those who have no voice. We are speaking up for the 1.9 million Rohingya Muslims who have no citizen rights, and for the 1.3 billion citizens in India living under new anti-conversion laws. We speak up on behalf of the Christians, the Muslims, the Shi’as, the Sikhs, and all people who do not conform or do not follow the Hindu religion.
I thank the Minister for his response. He has confirmed what we all wanted to hear: the Government raise the issues with India whenever the opportunity arises. In replying to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), the Minister gave the answer that we hoped for, and it was said in a constructive and positive way. The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East will know that I like to end these debates with a scriptural text. This is from Peter 5, verses 7 to 10.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you…the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore
Today, this House, in Westminster Hall, has spoken up for those who have no voice, and for those who have no one to speak for them. We look forward to the Government and the Minister doing just that for each and every one of us.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered domestic tourism.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I rise to speak as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for hospitality and tourism and the MP for St Austell and Newquay, which is the constituency that many recognise as being the most reliant on tourism and hospitality in the country. It is estimated that more than 50% of jobs in the town of Newquay are directly reliant on the tourism industry. In 2018, St Austell and Newquay had more overnight stays than any other constituency in the country, at just under 5 million.
Across Cornwall as a whole, tourism represents almost 25% of our economy. It is said that one in three households relies on tourism for at least part of its income. There is no doubt that nationally—domestic tourism contributes almost £20 billion to our economy—and in Cornwall, we are very much reliant on the tourism industry for a large part of our economy.
There is no doubt that the tourism sector has been one of the most adversely impacted over the past year as a result of the global pandemic that we are all grappling with. I thank all businesses in the sector that have worked incredibly hard over the past year to adapt, innovate, deal with the challenges they have been facing, and respond positively. Many have helped to support their communities in any number of ways, whether by providing housing for those who are homeless or by providing food for those who have needed it. Some hotels have provided accommodation for people being discharged from hospital. In any number of ways, the sector has helped our country get through the pandemic over the past 10 months or so. It is right that we recognise that and thank it for all it has done. The positive way that those businesses have responded is a great credit to them.
In my constituency of Strangford, and particularly in my council area of Ards and North Down, domestic tourism is the key to the council’s economic growth for the future and the jobs that can be created. It spins off to bed and breakfasts, wedding venues, and the tourist attractions at Strangford lough. I am very fortunate to live at the very edge of Strangford lough, so I know the beauty of it. I challenge the hon. Gentleman to say whose constituency is the most beautiful. I will just say this: domestic tourism is so important to my area, and to the whole United Kingdom. I support his debate, and I am looking for a really good answer from the Minister.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. No one could ever doubt his enthusiasm for representing his constituency in many ways. He makes some great points about the reliance of his part of the world on tourism; Cornwall has that same reliance. One of the key things about our tourism industry is that it supports many of the poorest and most deprived parts of our country. Many of our coastal areas, which struggle economically in many ways, rely heavily on tourism. I will come back to that later in the debate.
I place on the record my thanks to the Minister. I am delighted that he is here to respond, because he has been incredibly accessible and responsive over the last year in his role as Minister with responsibility for tourism. He came to Cornwall in the summer; it was great to see him. Businesses there were very grateful, and spoke about how highly he is regarded in the sector for the way that he has engaged with and been accessible to businesses up and down the country.
The Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses in the tourism and hospitality sectors through grants, the furlough scheme, the VAT cut, which was hugely welcome for the sector, the eat out to help out scheme and Government-backed loans. Those schemes have all been absolutely essential in helping businesses to get through the pandemic, and have been warmly welcomed by businesses. We should acknowledge the recent announcement of a further round of Treasury grants. That is absolutely crucial to ensure that businesses get through the current lockdown.
The Minister will be aware that many businesses still face huge challenges despite all the support that the Government have provided. They face what is now commonly called the “three-winter scenario”: businesses that rely on seasonal tourism did not make as much money as usual in last year’s summer season, and now face another very difficult winter. It is absolutely essential that the Government do everything that they can to ensure that all viable businesses survive this period. After we have put so much support into those businesses, it would be a tragedy to see them fail, just as we are hoping that our country can return to some sort of normality and that the tourism sector can reopen.
It is absolutely essential that we do all that we can to ensure that businesses get through this period. I know that many of these things are not the Minister’s responsibility, but I urge him to work with the Treasury to look at what further support we can provide.
Domestic tourism is absolutely vital. In Keighley and Ilkley in my constituency, we have a huge number of fantastic businesses in the self-catered accommodation sector, which is vital in supporting tourism, such as Upwood Park in the Worth valley and Olicana Park in Addingham. Does my hon. Friend agree that a little extra support should be given to the self-catered accommodation sector?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was about to make that point: despite all the support that the Government have provided, parts of the sector, such as self-catering, events and weddings, have fallen through the gaps, and it is important that we look at what we can do for them.
The wedding industry is absolutely crucial to many hotels and other attractions in the tourism sector, because it provides good income outside the peak season—they have lost all that income in the last year. We also need to bear in mind that a wedding cannot normally be planned in just a few days. Once we are able to reopen the sector, it will still be weeks and months before those businesses’ incomes are built back up, as people are not booking weddings at the moment because of the uncertainty; they will be booking them in many months’ time. Businesses will not open their doors and suddenly see the revenue flow back in overnight. It is important that we look at what we can do for some of those sectors.
I also place on the record the impact that some of the very sudden changes have had on the sector. In Cornwall, we went from tier 2 to tier 3 on 30 December. Although I absolutely understand and support the need to take that decision to protect public health, it had a huge impact for many hotels—which were expecting to be booked up for new year’s eve and had stocked their fridges and bars for that—to suddenly find, with just a few hours’ notice, that they would have to shut. The impact was not just in terms of the lost revenue, but the wasted stock they had already purchased and were then unable to sell on. I am not sure that the impact of those sudden changes has always been reflected in the support that the Government have made available.
If grants are provided to retailers which perhaps sell clothes, then in six or eight weeks’ time, when they may be able to reopen, those clothes will still be there to sell. Restaurants or hotels that have stocked their fridges and must then dispose of all that stock are in a very different position from that of a retail outlet, but the grants that are given are pretty much the same; that difference has not always been reflected.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the impact on the hospitality sector, particularly on the restaurants and cafés that were preparing for the new year. Does he accept that there is not only a financial loss for all the preparations they have done, but a psychological disadvantage? Sometimes the ups and downs—the topsy-turvy way that things are happening—have an effect upon them mentally.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the impact of this for businesses is not just financial—although how important that is—but emotional and mental. However, hope is on the horizon with the rollout of the vaccine. I place on record my thanks to all those who are working so hard to get this vaccine into the arms of people up and down the country. We can now see light at the end of the tunnel. We know that this pandemic will come to an end in the coming months.
It is vital that we ensure that all those businesses in the tourism sector can not only reopen, but be in a position to make the most of the coming months, because there is huge pent-up demand for holidays and for days and nights out. It is not just about the economic recovery; it is about the social, emotional and mental recovery of our country as well—being able to do all those things that we have missed for the last year.
The tourism sector will be vital in helping our country achieve that because, as much as we want to see the travel industry also recovering, and people taking overseas holidays, the reality is that it will probably be some time before that happens. UK residents may be nervous of booking overseas trips. I also think it will take a while for that part of the industry to recover, so the opportunity for staycation holidays next summer will be huge. It is very important that our businesses can make the most of that.
The challenge that many of those businesses are facing is working capital. Although they may be able to open, unless they have the working capital to invest, buy stock, take on staff and make themselves ready to take advantage of the coming months, they will not be able to lead our recovery in the way we would like. There are a few things that it will be very important for us to look at doing to ensure that those businesses can open their doors and be in a place to make the most of the coming months.
First, we should look to extend the business rates holiday, which has been hugely welcome. If we expect those businesses to start to pay full business rates in April, just as they will possibly be able to start to reopen, it will put a huge strain on their cash flow and their working capital. There is a very good case to be made for extending the business rates holiday for the next year, or at least another six months, to enable those businesses to build up some working capital.
The VAT cut has also been hugely welcomed by the sector. Again, if we expect businesses to start paying VAT just as they are looking to reopen, it will limit their ability to make the most of the months ahead. I would like to see VAT on tourism and hospitality cut permanently, but at the very least there is a case for extending the VAT cut for another six months to enable those businesses to build up the working capital they will need to make the most of the opportunities this year.
Thirdly, we should looking at extending the repayment terms for the loans that the Government have backed. Many business people took them out months ago, in May or June, and they will have to start repaying them just when they need that cash to invest in enabling their businesses to reopen.
We need to look at extending those three things to ensure that businesses do not just survive through the coming weeks, but are then able to make the very most of the opportunity that the coming months will present to them. As we do so, there is an opportunity to use this moment; I use the term advisedly, because one of the Labour Front Bench team used it in a slightly different way, but we should not waste this crisis.
This crisis has brought the tourism and hospitality industry more into focus. People are much more aware of its importance in our country, and that cannot be a bad thing. We need to look at what we can do to make the most of the recovery from this crisis, so that we have a thriving tourism industry—particularly domestic tourism—for many years to come.
There are a few things we should look at doing. First, I would like to see us make the very most of the tourism sector deal; it is very welcome, but it can be beefed up. There is more that can be done, and maybe as part of that deal we need to look at some sort of tourism recovery fund to invest in the sector. We need to come forward with the tourism zones, and I would like to make the case to the Minister that Cornwall, or at least the south-west, should be one of the first areas to get that recognition and the support that goes with it.
Secondly, we need to better market UK tourism, both internationally and within the UK market. There is a case for more support to invest in destination marketing organisations; they have had a really tough time, but they will be absolutely crucial to the future of the sector.
Thirdly, we must ensure that the sector has the workforce it needs; with our ending of the free movement of people, which I absolutely agree with and accept, we need to promote jobs within the sector as good career opportunities. I would make the case for bringing forward the T-level in catering and hospitality as soon as possible, to ensure that the sector has staff with the skills that they will need.
To sum up, there is no doubt that our domestic tourism industry has had a tough time and been hugely affected over the past year, but it is in a good position, with Government support, to recover quickly and to play a crucial role in helping our nation recover from this pandemic. I also believe it will be absolutely essential to the Government’s achieving their ambitions for their levelling-up agenda that our tourism sector recovers as quickly as possible. I ask the Government, through the Minister, to look again at what we can do to continue to support the sector through the coming months, to ensure that it is in the best possible place to lead our recovery.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this debate. I know he works tirelessly on behalf of the tourism industry in Cornwall and, in his APPG role, of tourism right across the country, as well as of the broader hospitality sector, which was the subject of a debate here in Westminster Hall only yesterday, which he also participated in. I also thank other hon. Members who have contributed today; they are all consistent advocates for the tourism and hospitality industry, and I have had conversations with many of them previously.
Indeed, as my hon. Friend said, because of the advocacy for the sector in this place by the hon. Members who are present today and many more, the voice of the tourism sector has never been stronger in Parliament. That can only be a good thing, because today’s debate demonstrates the vital importance of the tourism industry to the UK economy and underlines just how strongly it is missed in these stretches of enforced covid closures.
I will start by echoing the contributions made by hon. Members about the economic contribution of the domestic tourism industry, and then talk in more general terms about what the Government are doing to support the sector. The tourism industry contributes well over £70 billion to the UK economy, and prior to this pandemic it employed 1.6 million people directly and more than 3 million—perhaps as many as 4 million—people indirectly.
In 2019, 41 million visitors travelled to the UK from overseas, creating many business opportunities and of course generating many jobs in every corner of the country in the process. And domestically, British residents took 99 million trips in England for leisure or business purposes, spending the best part of £20 billion. Indeed, buoyed by the positive momentum of previous years and Government interventions, including the tourism sector deal, the Discover England fund and other initiatives, we were looking forward to having a really booming domestic tourism industry as we entered 2020, but of course covid had different plans.
None the less, the Government acted quickly, straightaway from March last year onwards, and I appreciate the recognition of the Government interventions that has been expressed today. That action included introducing a variety of measures that particularly helped the sector; even though many of them were all-economy measures, they were particularly adopted by the tourism sector. They included the furlough scheme, the self-employed support scheme and a variety of loan schemes. Of course, on top of that there were the retail, hospitality and leisure grants, and the business rates holidays.
When the sector did open in July, we helped it further with a variety of initiatives, including tourism promotion campaigns and, of course, the VAT cut, as has been mentioned. And in the spirit of the “Enjoy Summer Safely” and the “Escape the Everyday” campaigns, I was delighted to be able to visit my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay in his constituency. In fact, I managed to get around all six constituencies in Cornwall, and I very much appreciated hearing from a number of local stakeholders and businesses who were very clear, honest and frank about what they needed; I always appreciate such communication from the sector. I visited some really iconic and truly global destinations, such as the Eden Project. Also, alongside all the marketing work, VisitBritain introduced a “We’re Good To Go” standard last year and over 41,000 businesses signed up for it, showcasing the hard work that venues put into reopening in a secure way.
However, although the summer may have gone well for some—I understand that particularly in the south-west there were good average daily rates and good occupancy rates—that was by no means consistent across the board. In particular, our city centres and other urban areas are still struggling with incredibly low occupancy rates.
So, covid forced us to adapt our approach in the late summer and autumn of last year, but unfortunately we had to introduce more restrictions later in the autumn. I know that those restrictions, which hampered domestic tourism considerably, have placed further strain on businesses.
However, the Government acted, and will continue to act, to help to mitigate those pressures. In response to November’s national lockdown and the local measures that were introduced at that time, the Chancellor provided further support for businesses and individuals, including extending various Government-backed loans, the furlough scheme and the self-employed scheme, and in particular the Government introduced new local restriction grants.
In light of the new national restrictions, last week the Chancellor announced one-off top-up grants for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, which are worth up to £9,000 per property, to help businesses through to the spring, plus a further £594 million discretionary fund to support other impacted businesses. My hon. Friend mentioned those entities, businesses and sub-sectors that have perhaps fallen through the cracks. I encourage all of them to apply for these discretionary funds. There was an existing discretionary grant fund, which has been topped up recently. I also encourage—indeed, I implore—local authorities to be particularly sympathetic to those sub-sectors within the hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors that hitherto have not been able to access such grants. Supporting them is precisely what these grants are for.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has made that point, because there has been a concern that sometimes councils have been too rigid in using their discretion regarding these discretionary grants, and many businesses have not been able to access them. So, I join him in encouraging local authorities across the country to be flexible and to use the discretion that the Treasury has given them in applying those grants, to ensure that they are accessible to the businesses that really need them.
Absolutely—I agree with my hon. Friend. As I say, the very clear message from myself and from this Chamber today to those local authorities is, “Please be very generous with those grants for those sectors that have not been able to access support.”
Of course, the details of the latest grant schemes will come out very shortly. There will be swathes of the hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors that will be clearly identified specifically for those grants; as I have said, they are for retail, hospitality and leisure. Large swathes should be covered. However, regarding those sectors and sub-sectors that are not covered already, I really hope that they will now be covered. I would like to see as many parts of the country covering those sectors as possible.
With the vaccination campaign under way, the Government will stand beside tourism through the pandemic’s finishing straight. Of course, we all know that now is the time to listen to the sector’s priorities for recovery, and to incorporate them into our thinking. I place on the record my deep thanks for the many stakeholders who have contributed, through the Tourism Industry Council and many others, and through their MPs, to help us develop the recovery plan for the sector.
In the short term, that means that we will allow businesses to reopen as soon as possible. We also want to ensure that where businesses are open, they can do so as profitably as possible, which also means stimulating consumer demand through marketing campaigns and removing pandemic-related barriers on travel as soon as it is safe to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay mentioned the important role of marketing both domestically and for inbound tourism, and that is exactly what we will be doing.
Further down the line, it is about making sure that we build back better. While we must first focus on assisting businesses through the immediate period, we have not lost sight of our long-term ambitions for the sector. We want to future-proof the tourism sector and are determined to play our part in developing a more sustainable, innovative and data-driven tourism industry. We will continue to engage with tourism stakeholders, including the all-important destination management organisations, which my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay Gentleman also mentioned; they play such an important role.
As we look forward to how we can effectively support the sector through covid and beyond, we will continue to develop the tourism recovery plan, which I mentioned, and we will be working across Government Departments in that. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay knows from yesterday’s debate that I work very closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), and the Department for Business, who oversee the pubs, bars and restaurants side of the hospitality sector. It is a good thing that we have multiple Ministers advocating this sector, it all helps in the discussions that we have with the Treasury, who, I am sure, are listening to today’s debate.
On that line, my hon. Friend the Member for and St Austell and Newquay and others have voiced certain requests, for which I certainly have a lot of sympathy. With the VAT proposals, of course, I understand the need there—we are in discussions with the Treasury, which has already extended the VAT scheme once. With the loan schemes, changes have already taken place. I think the fact that the loan schemes have changed once, and the fact that the VAT scheme has already been extended, show that the Treasury is listening, and that is why debates such as today’s are always so useful.
I can assure my hon. Friend that the Treasury is listening; we are in constant dialogue and I appreciate all the lobbying work that the sector is doing, putting forward strong evidence to argue the case as well, which is very much appreciated. The fact that the sector has been so open with providing information and data in realtime has really helped to inform the Government’s decision making over the last few months as we have been dealing with the covid crisis. In fact, they have been extremely open, often giving information that otherwise would perhaps be very confidential and sensitive, and we really appreciate that openness. It helps us to make realtime decisions.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay also mentioned the importance of the longer-term programme for the issues of seasonality, the perennial issue of productivity and, indeed, concerns about the perception of the industry, which I know we all fight against. This industry is a fantastic sector. I have worked in it; he has worked in it for a long time. There are very fulfilling careers in this sector. We need to ensure that it is promoted and respected in the way that it should be.
I can assure hon. Members that the Government overall are listening. I believe the voice of the sector has never been louder and stronger, and I absolutely commit to continuing to work with all stakeholders and all colleagues to make sure that we further support our domestic tourism industry and put it on the pedestal that it deserves.
Question put and agreed to.
Early Years Settings: Covid-19
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on early years settings.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I would like to start by saying a huge thank you, if I may, to the early years leaders, the staff and the childminders up and down the country who have kept rising to all the challenges thrown at them during the pandemic over the last year, and kept putting the needs of our children first. They are often unsung heroes, putting their lives at risk many times to educate and care for our children, and I am delighted to be able to have this debate today to right the wrongs for those who have felt forgotten.
Far too often during the pandemic, the early years sector has felt like an afterthought, yet all the evidence shows that pre-school education is absolutely vital to a child achieving their potential. Going into school already months behind is too often a guide to underachievement later. Early years settings are essential and provide long-term benefits for the economy and society. They help to close the attainment gap between children from low-income families and their more advantaged peers, and remove barriers to employment, particularly for women, who are still disproportionately responsible for unpaid care. I hope that this debate will be an opportunity to correct the lack of support for early years settings throughout the pandemic, to look their representatives in the face, and to address and gain parity for early years with other education sectors.
Two local nursery headteachers got in touch with me this morning. I thank the Minister for meeting some of my local nursery headteachers during last year’s lockdown, because it is important to talk to headteachers. One of them said to me: “We are proud to be open, but we need support and clearly thought-out guidance focused on the early years. We are looking after their children, but who is looking after the staff?” Another said: “We really feel like a forgotten sector, and if primary schools in the UK and nurseries in Scotland are only open for key workers, why not nursery settings in England and Wales?”
Many questions are being asked today, and they are hoping for answers. I pay tribute to the Early Years Alliance, to the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, and the National Education Union for championing the sector. This is needed now, more than ever.
Early years leaders in my constituency have two major concerns that I will focus on today: safety and funding. First, there is a huge concern from early years staff about the safety of being open at the moment. Will the Government publish the evidence base for nurseries being open, and will they commit to reviewing the transmission rates regularly and revise this decision, if necessary?
Early years staff feel that they are putting their lives in danger by coming into school, and that they are putting their mental and physical health at risk. There is no social distancing in nurseries, and nor should there be. One local headteacher said to me: “I have been an early years professional for over 30 years, but today is the first time I go to work fearing for the safety of my staff, myself and that of my family.” Another constituent said to me: “I feel strongly that nurseries should only be providing childcare to children whose parents cannot work from home, or for key workers’ children and vulnerable children, for as long as schools stay closed.” That is a question being asked by parents and by staff across the country.
Last week, the Prime Minister conceded that, especially regarding the new variant of covid, schools are vectors for transmission. I have asked about early years settings in the briefings we have had with health experts and Ministers, and I understand that the data show that transmission rates reduce in line with age. However, with transmission rates so high at the moment—one in 20 people have covid in some parts of London—the transmission rates will still be high in nurseries.
Early years staff simply do not understand why it is so important that primary schools, right down to reception, have had to close because of community transmission, but not early years. The Secretary of State said in one briefing last week that nurseries open because they are businesses. Is that the real reason? We really need to know. Staff are worried and parents are confused, and this undermines public confidence in decisions and public health messaging. The Government need to provide answers.
That is safety, and now for finances: the UK’s childcare sector has been crushed financially by covid-19. There was already a £660 million shortfall in early years funding before the pandemic, and that has been worsened by the inadequate and patchy Government support throughout lockdown closures. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that childcare settings received £4 in income for every £5 spent during the last lockdown. They are running at a significant loss. The financial issues faced by early years settings will result in closures, and they are a real risk to the diversity of early years settings, which we all value: parents value it, and children see the benefit of it across the country. Will that diversity still be there at the end of the pandemic?
Headteachers have said to me that this is currently about the survival of the fittest—those with the most accommodating landlord, those with councils paying the free entitlement funding, and any number of other factors—instead of survival based on the needs of and the best places for our children. The decision to allocate funding from this month onwards on the basis of current occupancy levels rather than pre-covid occupancy levels is incredibly misguided, and will spell financial ruin for thousands of nurseries. Costs such as rent, insurance and salaries are fixed for many nurseries, yet attendance is down because of illness, concerns about going in, being told to stay at home, lower enrolment for this year, and parents having reduced incomes themselves. The only financial support was the furlough payments received by many nurseries. I am sure that support will be lauded by the Minister later, but those furlough payments did not cover nurseries’ running costs, which stayed fixed.
I return to the issue of free entitlement funding from councils, which must be addressed. Councils receive the free entitlement funding from Government, but only some of them pass it on to the nurseries. Some do so on the basis of the number of children currently present. Schools, however, get funded on the basis not of the numbers present, but of the numbers enrolled at the school. That should be the same for nurseries. Many nurseries were not eligible for a small business grant, as most do not pay business rates. Maintained nurseries do pay business rates but were not allowed to apply for the business rates holiday. There were lots of anomalies in nursery funding, and there is still time to fix them.
Another nursery head pointed out to me this week that no financial support has been offered when settings have had to close for up to 10 days because of a positive test, and there was no financial support for cover staff. That is the one thing that could break them financially, as one teacher who contacted me pointed out. Maintained nurseries should be able to access the schools covid catch-up fund, but they are not able to do so, even though catch-up will be crucial to the life chances of those in early years. Will that be addressed? There are only 389 maintained nursery schools left in the UK, and only one in my constituency, Eastwood Day Nursery, which is outstanding and an essential part of local education provision.
Maintained nurseries were in major financial crisis before covid, and they now have increased costs for personal protective equipment and staffing, for which they have been unable to claim. They pay business rates, as I have said, but were not allowed to claim for the business rates holiday, and it has now emerged that they cannot claim from the covid catch-up fund. The headteacher at Eastwood Day Nursery said: “The quality of what we can offer in real jeopardy if our funding is reduced. We are fearful that the much-needed service we provide to the children of a very deprived community is at great risk if we do not have the secure funding to continue our work. Nurseries will simply not be able to continue at the current rates. Closures of early years settings across the country will deepen both financial and educational inequalities, while slowing the recovery from the pandemic.
I have several urgent questions for the Minister and would be grateful if she could answer them in her response. My first question is on safety: will the Department for Education publish the evidence base for the decision to keep nurseries open? Will that be reviewed regularly and will consideration be given to closing nurseries during this lockdown, for the safety of staff and to stop the spread of the virus in our community? Any closures must come with support for families, including a legal right to flexible furlough for childcare reasons, and not a cut in universal credit. Will the Government provide funding for PPE for early years settings? Will the Minister ensure that early years settings have priority for lateral flow testing, ideally delivered to the early years settings and then picked up, and that all early years staff and childminders are prioritised to receive the vaccine as soon as possible?
Will serious consideration be given to prioritising education funding for early years settings? Issues that need to be addressed include their ability to claim for PPE expenditure and the covid catch-up fund, and the fact that they are penalised for pupils’ absence and do not receive free entitlement funding. Much more clarity of funding is needed, as different councils make different decisions—it is a postcode lottery. Will the Minister confirm whether nurseries will receive funding to cover support when teachers have to self-isolate, or will the whole nursery have to close? Will the business rates holiday be applied to maintained nursery schools? Will the Minister work with her colleagues in the Treasury to bring forward a new package of financial support for private and maintained early years settings, to look at provision across the country and make sure that the sector is secure enough to be able to build back?
I conclude with a quote from the headteacher of a nursery in my constituency in Putney: “But who are we, the forgotten educators who ensure that people can continue to work knowing their precious children will be cared for and educated safely? We are in trouble. We need your help. We have been given no support for PPE or to implement extra hygienic measures. Our staff are putting themselves at risk every day, and we do it willingly. We do it because we are early years professionals and we care. But please, we need help. If early years settings go bankrupt because of lack of Government support, who will look after our children—your children —in the future?”
My message to the Minister is simple: the early years sector desperately needs her help. I urge her to listen and to act.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on securing and introducing this debate. As chair of the all-party group on childcare and early education, I want to make a brief contribution. I hope the hon. Lady will join the group. We look forward to having her as speaker at our next meeting. She will be very welcome.
On occupancy and demand for places, demand is, on average, 21% lower than it was in 2019. The Government had been basing early entitlement funding on pre-covid attendance rates, but it was announced just before Christmas that this would stop in the spring term. New guidance has not yet been issued on whether councils should continue to fund places for children not currently attending. That said, I was pleased to learn that Hampshire, my own county, said last week that it will guarantee funding until half term—which is good but obviously very short-term—whether or not parents decide to keep their children at home due to the pandemic.
More generally, I want to place on record a survey carried out in November by the excellent Early Years Alliance, which found that 56% of providers said that basing fees on current occupancy would have a negative or very negative impact on them. Of those, 45% said they did not think they would be able to remain viable for more than six months as things stand. This means that the decision to remove this support could result in some big closures by late spring. It is that urgent, remembering, as we do, that early years settings are open and allowing parents to go to work.
Turning to testing and vaccinations, it is hugely welcome, as the hon. Lady said, that early years staff will be offered asymptomatic testing. When she closes the debate, will the Minister provide some detail on when and how that will be accessible, what support and training practitioners will be offered with administering the tests; and, of course, how associated costs will be covered?
Some practitioners have been offered vaccinations by their local hospital. Some, obviously, will come within the first four groups, but that is not the case for all. Early years practitioners are bravely continuing to come into work, despite the current prevalence of the virus in society. In my opinion, they, along with other educators and critical workers, should be offered the vaccine as a priority in phase 2 of the roll-out. I made that point in this very Chamber yesterday, so I will not labour it again.
Thirdly, on self-isolation and covid in early years settings, we know it is a constant juggle for settings to remain open due to the number of staff self-isolating. Nurseries have had to form closed bubbles of specific staff and children, meaning that if there is a positive test in one bubble, the other children need to isolate. That obviously has an impact on parents, particularly critical workers, so I would argue that offering routine testing for the early education sector and prioritising it for the vaccine roll-out is key.
Furthermore, having a lot of staff self-isolating and testing positive also means that practitioners are struggling to maintain the important staff ratios. I have heard many nursery owners say that they are not clear whether, if they had to close due to a lack of available staff, they would lose their entitlement funding. They will typically also lose parent fees in this situation, which means that paying staff and keeping up with other costs, such as rent and utilities, becomes a real challenge.
It is important to note that for childminders, who are so often overlooked in this whole early years debate—I declare my interest, because I am married to one—a positive test will almost always mean the temporary closure of the entire business, which will have an impact on all those who rely on that childminder.
It would remiss of me not to mention the pre-existing funding challenges, which have already been touched on. They never went away and were, of course, the subject of the debate I led in this place last month. The early education sector was, I continue to argue, experiencing market failure long before the pandemic. Funding levels have not covered the cost of provision for many years. Ceeda, an excellent independent research company, has shown that even if occupancy levels were exactly the same now as they were in spring 2019, some 77% of childcare providers would still be coping with a shortfall of £2 per hour for every funded two-year-old, and 90p per hour for every funded three and four-year-old. That drag becomes a problem, and it is now a real problem.
I thank the Minister for the 1.2% increase in funding rates due to come into effect in April. However, in practice and at best, it equates to just 6p or 8p an hour per child for childcare providers across England—at a time when we should remember that the national living wage is due to increase by 2.2.%.
In closing, I still believe we need to commission an independent, meaningful review of early years policy and funding, to ensure that the gap between the costs of delivering early education and the rate paid per hour per child to providers is closed and eventually eliminated. If we do not do that, we are going to lose a lot of provision, which would serve nobody and would be the opposite of levelling up.
Finally, I want to say how sad it is that sittings in Westminster Hall will not continue after today if the motion tonight goes ahead. As a former Minister who has spent many hours sitting in this Chamber and responding to debates, I believe that good scrutiny leads to good policy and good government, and without it, we are all worse off.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on securing the debate and making an excellent opening speech. Although she has been here quite a short time, she is becoming an exceedingly accomplished parliamentarian.
“Underfunded for years, future funding cut, and now expected to work at a time where the new variant is more transmissible, when most others are instructed to stay home. The decisions this Government is making will be the nail in the coffin for many providers. There will be a shortage of childcare space when society returns to more normal times.” Those are not my words; they were sent to me by a manager of an early years setting in my constituency. They deserve better.
On Saturday, I sent out a short survey asking for childcare providers, staff and parents to respond in advance of this debate—although I did not know at that time that I would be chosen to speak, and certainly not quite so high up on the call list. Just before the start of this debate, we had 748 responses. I would be happy to pass them on to the Minister, because I can only use a small selection in the debate today.
It is not before time that we discuss early years settings in this place. Since the start of the pandemic, while the subject of schools has rightly been discussed and debated widely, early years settings have been largely ignored by the media and neglected by the Government. During the first lockdown, nurseries and providers wrote to me. They were anxious about the future, stuck with very little Government support and dependent on the continued support of parents. The Early Years Alliance warned in October that as many one in six settings could close as a direct result of the lack of support given during the crisis.
Nurseries in my city and across the country relied financially on parents continuing to pay their fees, often at significant cost, while their children remained at home.
A little over a week ago, early years settings were again plunged into crisis. Having opened up all the schools on Monday, the Prime Minister then reversed that decision on television, closing all the schools from Tuesday morning. However, he asked all the early years settings to remain open. Early years staff in my constituency were and still are very concerned that their safety is deemed to be less important than that of their counterparts in primary and secondary schools.
Amanda, a staff member in an early years setting in my constituency, said:
“I don’t think this decision reflects how important early years staff are. We feel forgotten and very put upon. We feel unprotected. Does our health not matter? Social distancing in early years is impossible.”
Amy, a childminder in Leeds, said:
“We can’t wear PPE, we can’t socially distance and we are regularly coughed, sneezed and spat on as part of our job. I accept that puts me and my family at greater risk. However, there is no recognition of this from the Government. It feels as though early years staff are being thrown to the wolves for the sake of keeping parents working.”
Just hours after the Prime Minister’s announcement last week, early years settings in my constituency were in crisis. Staff were scared and did not feel safe, protected or valued by the Government. Some of those settings chose to close on Tuesday anyway, to assess the situation fully and to conduct a proper assessment of the risk that staff were being asked to take.
That risk is significant. Jill, an early years teacher in my constituency of Leeds North West, described the risk that she takes every day. She told me:
“I am 56, with a history of cancer and lung problems. My husband is 75, and I am my mum’s support. She is 85 and has not been vaccinated yet. I am very worried that contact with so many children who cannot socially distance puts myself and my family at risk.”
Lindsay, a childminder, said that she feels obliged to earn money and play her civic part. However, she is juggling the home schooling of four of her own children and had to tell them that they cannot visit their father, who is receiving palliative care, because of the children she is obliged to invite to their home for her work.
The Government say that there are good reasons for making an exception of early years settings. They point out that for children in that crucial age group no online substitute is available for nursery or pre-school education. That is true; there is no doubt that another lockdown would have significant detrimental effects on young children, who all depend on their routine and their social interactions. Also, early years settings provide a lifeline for children who have difficult or chaotic home lives, and are a key weapon in reducing educational inequality. And for parents, the reactive, unpredictable and knee-jerk decisions that have been taken have caused huge anxiety for them and their families. Many of them are worried about the effects of another closure; they are not only worried about their own working lives but about the psychological effect on their children.
However, these facts prompt important questions. Why is it that the Government recognised the value of early years education only after they asked staff to go on the frontline? Why has almost every other frontline worker been promised early vaccination except for these vital members of staff? Last week, I tabled a written question asking the Minister to prioritise early years staff in the vaccination effort. She wrote back, saying:
the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—
“advise that the first priorities for the covid-19 vaccination programme should be prevention of mortality and the maintenance of the health and social care systems. As the risks of mortality from covid-19 increase with age, prioritisation is primarily based on age. Regarding the next phase of vaccine roll-out, JCVI have asked that the Department of Health and Social Care consider occupational vaccination, in collaboration with other Government Departments. The Department for Education inputs into this cross-governmental exercise and I hope that educational staff, including those in early years settings, will be vaccinated as soon as possible.”
In short, there is no saying when, or if, these members of staff will receive the vaccine. It has been clearly stated by respondents to my survey that the urgent need for the vaccine for frontline early years staff is of paramount concern. Those members of staff need a firm commitment to and a timeline for vaccination. Asking them to wait for the outcome of a cross-governmental exercise is simply not good enough.
Yesterday, less than 24 hours ago, I stood here in Westminster Hall and spoke in a debate before the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), but I think that we were of one mind in advocating a 24-hour vaccination programme. I repeat this call now. There are very few early years staff who I have heard from—as I said, there have been 748 responses to my survey—who would not go for a vaccination out of hours to ensure that they were protected from the virus. If we cannot provide 24-hour vaccination, it would not be morally defensible to ask staff to go to work when they do not feel safe.
The second thing that early years staff and providers, as well as parents, need from the Government if early years settings are to remain open is clear guidelines, and measures to ensure that those guidelines are being met. The working environments on which people are reporting back to me are patchy. Many early years settings have ensured that they have small bubbles and good safety procedures, but I am also hearing worrying reports of bubbles of up to 40 children, and very little protection for staff. PPE must be made available for all staff in early years settings and mask-wearing must be a requirement for every parent or other visitor to such settings.
Thirdly, we need clarity about the risk. We need to understand the full science behind every Government decision, especially when asking people to work on the frontline. Many workers in childcare settings worry about the accuracy of information on early years contraction. After all, we know how difficult and unpleasant tests are to administer ourselves, let alone to a toddler with a temperature.
Finally and crucially, early years settings need a commitment on funding. In this year of all years, the funding of a setting should not depend on 2020 or 2021 attendance. Settings where parents have had to withdraw children to protect them and staff should not be punished or suffer financially. I want to underline the point made in a letter written by Leeds City Council to the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment. It calls for funding to be based on 2019 attendance, with a view to a sustainable, long-term funding model for the sector.
As Helen, a provider in my constituency, warns, many early years settings are already on a very tight budget and cannot afford to open with reduced numbers and income. There is a real possibility that many groups will be forced to close permanently. This is a question of value. We know how crucial early years settings are. We know how crucial the staff are. We cannot ask them to work in an environment where they simply do not feel safe. There does not have to be a binary choice between protecting staff on one hand and ensuring provision on the other.
If this crisis has taught us anything, it is that we cannot afford to undervalue our key workers and key institutions. We cannot wait until we are back in this place after another crisis. We must ensure the financial future for our early years settings and improve outcomes for staff, families and, most crucially, children.
I want to end with a quote from Nikki, a childcare provider in Leeds. She believes that, once it is safe to do so, we must all visit settings in our communities. She said:
“MPs need to listen to staff and owners when we say we need help, to listen to the voice of children and see first hand how hard staff work, with no regard for themselves, to ensure that children in our care are cared for, loved and reassured.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my colleague from the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), for bringing forward this important and timely debate.
I, too, declare an interest: I am the father of a toddler in an early years setting. Like many parents, in the first lockdown I truly came to understand the difficulty of home-based learning and working at home. I was simultaneously trying to sit on Select Committees and take part in debates with a two-year-old wanting to climb into my lap and wave at everyone. Granted, when that happened in a meeting with No. 10, it was very pleasing to see the Prime Minister wave back. However, it causes difficulties. When the router is unplugged in the middle of a Select Committee and we have no idea what is happening, by the time we dial back in the meeting is already over.
There are difficulties, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for every parent who went through them last year. It was a difficult time but we got through it. Now we have different difficulties. We are highlighting the difficulties of a sector of the education system that has got forgotten, but it has taken this pandemic to truly see the importance of early years. We need to do that now, because the teachers and childminders, our maintained nurseries, our private settings, do a job that many people do not understand, cannot comprehend and cannot do themselves, no matter how much they wish to. Despite all my love for trying, play-based learning does not come easily to me, although I must admit that I am quite enjoying reading “The Runaway Pea” and “Superworm” almost nightly.
One positive of the pandemic is that it has re-highlighted the importance of the early years sector, and we cannot let that be forgotten. Unfortunately, far too many negatives have come out of this pandemic. To echo the hon. Member for Putney, early years intervention, which we have discussed many times in the Select Committee, really needs to come to the fore. We rightly have great intensive intervention for key stage 4 and GCSEs, but if we brought that intervention forward into primary, and ideally into early years, it would not need to be as intensive.
We have already discussed safety, and I echo the calls for the scientific guidance from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to be brought forward to all Members of the House. Certainly, when the chief medical officer and the scientific adviser for the Department are before the Education Committee in a couple of weeks’ time, we will be calling for that so that, as an absolute minimum, we can pass on that guidance to our key workers so that they know they are safe, or are aware of the mitigating factors that they need in order to become safe.
I echo the call for key workers to be prioritised for vaccination. They are working throughout this pandemic, even against the background of the great concerns over the new variant. But for what? If we are not taking them seriously, what message do we give them? That they are important but not important enough to vaccinate? That is not a message I feel comfortable giving.
The greatest concern, however, is that of funding. While I acknowledge the per hour rate increase, it is not nearly enough. Private providers are hit with the double whammy of financial pressures and decreased income due to children not coming in because their parents are furloughed and not working, have been made redundant or are isolating. They also face a fourfold increase in both cleaning and PPE costs. If they were a school setting they would receive assistance with those costs. However, because they are private providers, they receive no help. But there are solutions. If we look to extend the VAT holiday on PPE to private providers in nursery settings, that would go some way towards easing this financial pressure. Extending financial assistance and cleaning costs would give closer parity with other education settings.
I have heard stories of several owners of private nurseries who themselves have to do the cleaning, so they are still in the nursery at 8 o’clock at night, cleaning, to make sure that is safe for the morning, when they go back in at 8 o’clock to do a further clean to make sure it is truly safe for the children. There are so few examples of where PPE can really be worn in a nursery setting. That inevitably comes at feeding time or changing time, but these are children who learn through play-based learning. They learn through touch, hugging and kissing. It is very warming to my heart when I pick my daughter up on a Thursday if I am lucky, but if the first thing she does is pull my face mask down to give me a kiss and then pull it back up—granted, usually to cover my eyes—the sentiment that I feel is not one that a child can understand. We need to be doing everything we can to ensure that those workers are safe.
Without that help, the long-term and short-term viability of private providers comes into question. As the hon. Member for Putney has said, if these private providers do go under and fail, who is there to pick up the slack? The state and the public sector are not in a position to do so. There is not the capacity in maintained nurseries to pick up anywhere near the slack that would be needed.
We have touched on the vaccine and testing. Both need greater prevalence in our nurseries and for child- minders.
One of the biggest concerns is the findings in the letter from the Competition and Markets Authority, which has basically said that if early years settings are not providing facilities for the children, they cannot charge. It is one thing being forced to close, but when children cannot come in because they are isolating or because their parents cannot afford it, there is no recompense for those providers, who are really, really suffering. Many nurseries are worrying about making it through the month, let alone to half term.
While we sing the importance of early years, we cannot allow it to remain the forgotten education sector. We have seen an increase to primary and secondary per pupil funding, and I welcome that. We have seen an increase in funding for further education and vocational education, and I welcome that too. But for far too long we have missed out on a meaningful increase for the per hour rate for early years. It is about time that we do assess that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) has said, it is time for a meaningful funding review. We have kicked the can down the road for far too many years, avoiding the difficult questions as to what is needed for a truly world-class early years setting. Unfortunately, we have now run out of road and we need to make that decision now. If I could pass one plea to the Minister, it would be this: bring forward that review, start it while we are in the pandemic, so we can look at really levelling up and building an early years setting that is truly world-class, so that our children can make the most out of the opportunities they will have in a post-pandemic world. Please bring forward that review, make it meaningful and give our children the best opportunity we can.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for securing today’s important debate.
The strong messages that have been given under lockdown, telling everyone to stay at home and to keep school-aged children at home where possible, are in contrast with the messages that the early years sector should remain open, and have caused confusion and concern. Families and early years workers deserve to know the scientific basis for the decision to keep nurseries open when primary schools are moving to remote learning, and they need a clear, evidence-based explanation of why this is. Early years practitioners urgently need to be reassured that their safety is being prioritised, by making regular mass testing available to them, and by Ministers’ making the case to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that early years practitioners should be prioritised for vaccination.
This policy, like many of the policies thought up throughout this pandemic, has not considered the practicalities on the ground. For example, in my constituency of Jarrow, parents are now taking their primary school-aged children when collecting their children from nursery. That makes social distancing difficult, as it naturally leads to problems with children mixing in car parks and playgrounds outside. On the flipside of that, one mother in my constituency was so confused by the messaging from the Government around home schooling that she left a young child in front of an online lesson while she picked up her other child from the nursery school; although I cannot support that decision, of course, I understand her reasons and the difficulties that she faced.
Then, of course, there are general practicalities for early years workers in their day-to-day roles. By its very nature, early years education involves much more close contact than other kinds of education, as other hon. Members have said. Nappy changing, helping to take coats on and off, and mealtimes are all examples of where close contact is unavoidable.
The “protect early years” campaign, run by the three largest industry bodies, has called on the Government to provide scientific evidence for the decision to keep early years settings open. They have also called for early years staff to be prioritised for vaccinations. Trade unions such as Unison and GMB have further called for the closure of early years settings to all but key workers and vulnerable children during the current lockdown. I personally support those calls, and I hope the Minister will acknowledge these concerns and take them on board.
At the same time, like other hon. Members, I am concerned about the long-term impact of the pandemic on the already fragmented, privatised and underfunded landscape of early years education and care. The sector needs targeted financial support for nurseries, childminders and other early years providers, which have been hit badly by a decade of underfunding and now face substantially reduced income and higher costs during the covid-19 crisis, with months of uncertainty ahead. Early years providers were struggling before the crisis, with thousands closing every year, but this crisis poses a further threat to those that have managed to survive. A loss of parents’ fees during lockdown and continuing low demand for childcare due to covid-19 have left half of providers fearing closure before the summer.
Any Government change to providers’ funding from this month would push 20,000 providers to the brink of collapse. The Government’s decision to fund all local authority nurseries based on their one-day snapshot January 2021 census for the spring term means that early years providers with children who are off for covid-related reasons cannot access that funding. Even if all children on roll were fully funded, in most cases that would reflect a fall compared with those providers’ usual numbers, as many eligible January starters’ parents will have held back on taking up a place. That is putting pressure on already overstretched budgets.
Without urgent confirmation that there will be full funding of early-entitlement places, early years providers will not be able to remain open for all children. Just this morning, I heard from the headteacher of Boldon Nursery School in my constituency that it is set to lose £24,000 through the funding formula. There are four nurseries in my constituency, all outstanding: one of them, Boldon nursery, has not only provided an emergency childcare service during this pandemic, but has acted as an emergency service delivering food parcels to families in need, as well as its general role of acting as an extended family in many cases. I pay tribute to that nursery and all nurseries and childcare providers. Now they face being punished by potentially losing their jobs at the end of it.
Despite the crucial role the sector plays in caring for children outside of school hours, it has been completely neglected by the Government. The Government must urgently rethink the funding charges that will force many nurseries to close their doors, and give the sector the support it deserves.
I hope that the Minister will acknowledge how this unfairness is causing a huge amount of stress for early years leaders and workers. It is time that the Government recognised the importance of childcare and early years education for our economic recovery, and brought forward a review to ensure the safety of the workers and prevent the sector from financial collapse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again today, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on securing this timely and important debate. I also concur with the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on the stopping of Westminster Hall debates. That is a huge concern; I do hope we are allowed to scrutinise the Government, especially during the pandemic.
On 4 January, the Government finally announced a national lockdown and asked secondary and primary schools to remain closed, while simultaneously asking early years setting to open. The new variant of covid-19 has been estimated to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously circulating form of covid-19, and it is spreading far more quickly.
We know, and the science tells us, that children can spread the virus to their parents, families and communities. We also know that it is almost impossible to socially distance when working with young children in early years settings. To quote the science: Anthony Costello, SAGE member, Professor of International Child Health, director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, and a former WHO director, said in The Mirror on 9 January:
“We are in a national crisis with a pandemic out of control. We should have no nurseries open.”
Chris Whitty on Radio 4 on 11 January encouraged parents not to send their children to nursery if they do not need to.
The Government have left early years settings to conduct their own risk assessments, without providing them with the safety blanket of regular testing. The Government failed to prioritise regular and mass testing for staff and practitioners in early years settings and, even today, they still remain open without that support. Further to that, the early years sector has had to face the challenges arising from covid-19 and the associated costs with no increase in funding. I have been contacted by many early years settings in Bradford West, including the Midland Road nursery and Lilycroft nursery school, who are facing immense financial pressure and need the Government to act now.
In 2020, maintained nursery schools, along with the rest of the early years sector, were noticeably excluded from the Government’s £1 billion catch-up funding, despite the fact that early intervention is widely accepted as one of the most effective strategies to address gaps in learning. Last year, maintained nursery schools were also barred from applying to the coronavirus fund, which was intended to assist with extra costs incurred by schools during covid-19. I was informed by an early years practitioner in my constituency that the school she represents had already spent £20,000 from very tight budgets to cover the unplanned costs in staffing and resources directly resulting from the pandemic.
The current lockdown is likely to change the number of children attending early years settings, with a number of parents making the tough decision to keep children at home. That is likely to spell ruin for the sector, as the Government have decided to change the funding entitlement on current occupancy of early years settings rather than pre-covid occupancy levels. The early years sector should not be worrying about extra costs arising from covid-19 and a funding model that is not fit for purpose, given the risks to the safety of staff and overstretched budgets. The Government must urgently review funding for early years as a priority and provide additional funding to the sector.
It appears that the current restrictions and the changing nature of the virus mean that additional funding and a review of the current funding model for the early years sector is urgently needed. Indeed, statistics from the DFE show that the percentage of maintained nursery schools in deficit increased from 3.5% in 2009-10 to 17.7% in 2018-19. The time for the Government to act is now. Will the Minister commit to rethinking the funding model for the early years sector? Will she commit to providing additional funding to cover the cost of covid-19? Finally, will the Government prioritise testing for staff and practitioners to ensure that working environments are safe and that children and families are protected? It is not good enough that early years settings have been asked to remain open and survive without a lifeline.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah). This is the second time today we have been in a debate: we were here at half-past 9 this morning, and we are back again for a different subject. I thank the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for raising this essential issue. Obviously, I am from Northern Ireland, where this is a devolved matter, so the Minister will not have to respond to any of my points as it is not her responsibility, but I want to give a perspective from Northern Ireland perhaps to replicate what is happening here on the mainland. Although this is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, the problems that arise in Northern Ireland are probably relevant from the point of view of what we have faced.
I am sure I am not the only one to have been contacted by various charities about the difficulties they have faced and will face in the near future. Action for Children made a presentation to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Education with information that can be replicated in every region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I was asked to highlight that:
“Of particular importance…during the first lockdown, new referrals to the services often did not connect in easily with online offerings, and many staff felt that there will be many vulnerable children and families that will have missed…vital information and support around the critical 1,001 days in early development, breastfeeding and parental and infant mental health.”
They may have missed out all of that.
Initially, many services struggled to cope during lockdown. It was described to me that there was an “element of chaos”—it probably was not anybody’s fault; it was just the way it all happened. We were all unable to know how to reply or respond. The Departments were responding on their feet, and things kept changing. That was also part of the problem with the system, because whenever it kept changing, parents were asking, “What’s going to happen next?” The confidence in what is happening at a ministerial level needs to be addressed.
When a move towards virtual service delivery was initiated in March and April last year, most services did not have any records of email accounts for family contacts, and many did not have the technological equipment to cope with the sudden transition, which was strange and new not just to Government Departments but to all the parents, families and staff. Staff and families struggled with a lack of familiarity with the online platforms that facilitated their virtual services. There remains the issue that some families simply cannot be reached via that medium, and I believe that that marginalised those families, who faced a greater disadvantage.
In general, comments about communication from Health and Social Care and the Department of Education were positive. It was noted that there was greater regional communication and collaboration on practice and policies during the pandemic. However, many service providers also noted serious fatigue in relation to online offerings and the fundamental value of face-to-face contact when working with early years and families. It is much better to do things face to face, though it is not always practical, so sometimes we have to do it a different way. Experiences were also very different for families with whom there was already an established relationship versus new referrals, who often did not connect easily with the online offerings. Many staff were perplexed and still feel that many vulnerable children and families will have missed vital information and support around the critical 1,001 days in early development, breastfeeding and parental and infant mental health.
Privately run programmes for baby groups, breastfeeding and sensory play, and antenatal programmes, are currently running during this second lockdown, but not with the regularity that they should. Publicly funded groups, however, are not able to continue similar support services at present. Many providers are seriously concerned that that is another way in which social inequalities are widening, and warn that those inequalities are hard to rectify through remedial policies in the long-term. There are also concerns that minimal adaptations have been made to targets and monitoring processes for early years services, despite major adaptations to the way in which their offerings are delivered. The level of online engagement, for example, may not be reflected within the current target frameworks.
I am quite sure that those problems in Northern Ireland are also happening on the mainland. Action for Children has also reported that the situation has the potential to load extra stress on already highly stretched staff members who are coping with the changes by burdening them with unrealistic expectations to deliver “as things were”, as well as create content and opportunities for things “as they are”. Numerous issues have been highlighted at Stormont and are on the record there. I seek to highlight them in this place as well, to give the debate a measure of information and experience from Northern Ireland.
There is a great need for a strategy to help build those programmes to meet needs. Although we all hope that we are coming to the end of the pandemic—my goodness, I hope and pray that we are—children have lost out on a year’s support, and that cannot be glossed over. It is imperative that we determine how we can ensure that each child has a foundation without cracks, or it is inevitable that they will fall through those cracks. I know that the Minister does not want that to happen. I look to the Minister and the shadow Minister to understand our strategy in moving forward with early years development without leaving children and their mummies behind. I add my support to the calls to give consideration to the extension of maternity leave, enabling mothers who have thus far been robbed of support to have a chance of accessing support and help in the formative years.
I have always wanted to say this in Westminster Hall, and I will make it my last comment: the Minister is very fortunate—she knows it, I know it—to come from Omagh. I was born in Omagh, long before she was born—maybe not long before, but a wee bit before, anyway—and I am so pleased to see a Northern Ireland export in her position.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. This important debate has been characterised by a high degree of cross-party consensus and interest across the nations of the UK. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on introducing the debate so eloquently, and I thank all colleagues who have contributed and emphasised the crucial importance of the early years and the people who work in the sector.
This is a worrying time for families and early years staff, as well as a perilous moment for the whole of the childcare sector. Colleagues’ efforts to raise the concerns of the sector will not have gone unnoticed. Many more colleagues would have liked to have participated today, including the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), but they are not able to attend Parliament in person. As we have heard, a motion to halt Westminster Hall debates for the time being is before the House, but I very much hope that alternative arrangements will be put in place swiftly, so that all hon. Members can take part in all future debates.
When the Prime Minister told us last week that early years settings in England would remain open to all children in lockdown, he was essentially asking nursery workers, childminders and others to provide a fourth emergency service: an emergency childcare service for working parents—particularly key workers—and vital early years education for their children. However, although those early years practitioners deserve our greatest respect, they feel that their concerns have been disregarded. Ministers have failed to publish the scientific evidence for keeping early years settings fully open when primary schools are moving to online learning for most children.
Labour believes passionately in the importance of early years, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and others have said, staff are anxious about their safety and the risk that they will transmit infection to their families. Someone who works in a pre-school in Leeds—my hon. Friend will be interested—accurately summed up the situation in an email to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, last week. That person wrote:
“there were lots of assurances in the press that early years settings ‘are safe’ but no actual data or studies, so we are expected to trust ministers. This a few days after we are…told primary schools are safe and then the next day a national lockdown is called because primary schools are vectors of transmission…Frankly I don’t trust ministers telling me my workplace is safe with no actual data to back that up.”
May I repeat the request of my hon. Friends the Members for Putney, for Leeds North West and for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), as well as the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford)? Will the Minister commit to publishing today the evidence underlying the decision to keep early years settings open?
Anyone who has had a young child or worked with young children knows that enforcing social distancing among them is impossible. We heard that graphically, for example, from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah). As the same pre-school worker in Leeds put it,
“two-year olds do NOT sneeze into the crook of their elbow no matter how many times you might remind them. They wipe their nose on us!”
The Government do not recommend face coverings in early years settings and say that PPE is rarely needed, but we can see why the workforce is worried. Can the Minister explain why regular mass testing has not been rolled out in all early years settings yet? When will it be? Is the Minister considering changes to the early years guidance and allowing providers to claim additional support for safety, testing and staffing? What is the Government’s plan for vaccination of early years and all education staff?
Despite safety being everyone’s primary concern right now, as we have heard, the early years sector is also operating under implicit threat to its funding—“Stay open for as many children as possible in lockdown or lose cash.” My hon. Friends the Members for Putney and for Bradford West outlined some of the funding pressures that settings are facing, including pressure in covering staff absence, additional covid costs for which schools were funded but early years settings were not, the lack of access to business grants and business rates relief, and the lack of catch-up funding, which was given to schools and colleges.
As we heard from colleagues around the House, in the first lockdown, providers were funded at pre-covid levels, but from this month they will receive funding only for children who attend. The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) pointed out that we are still waiting for new guidance in this respect. With everyone now advised to stay at home where possible, demand for childcare is set to plummet further than its already low levels. Evidence suggests that many parents are keeping their nursery-age children at home.
Highlighting the dilemma that providers face, one provider asked:
“Should I be encouraging those parents to bring their child to us so we get the funding to help us survive?”
As we heard, there are places that cannot stay open because too many staff are ill, self-isolating, shielding or caring for their own children. One setting manager told the National Day Nursery Association that
“60% of my workforce is unable to come to work because they must remain at home to look after their own children who are not attending school”.
“if I reduce the number of children allowed to attend according to staff availability, then I will be unable to claim funding for the children I cannot accommodate.”
As we have heard, surveys, including one by the Early Years Alliance, found that 25% of early years providers may close within six months, due to this month’s changes, which link funding to occupancy. Nearly 20,000 providers could be lost before the summer as a direct result of this policy. That survey was done before the lockdown, which will drive down occupancy further. The situation is, as we have heard, affecting providers up and down the country. Providers in my constituency have raised their concerns about the risk of closures and the impact on children—especially the most disadvantaged children. I am sure that that will be the same for all colleagues. I know that that is exactly not what the Minister wants to happen, so I urge her and her Treasury colleagues to rethink the misguided funding changes and give the early years sector the targeted support that it so badly needs to survive.
The covid-19 outbreak has been devastating for an early years sector that already faced a £600 million-plus funding gap. Coronavirus has shone a light on the fragility of the sector and pushed tens of thousands of struggling nurseries, pre-schools and childminders to the brink of collapse. Throughout the pandemic, early years providers have been asked to take on the responsibilities of schools and the liabilities of businesses, with none of the additional support that they need with safety, testing and staffing. Now, the 300,000 brilliant, dedicated people who work in the sector, the vast majority of whom are women on pitifully low wages, are once again being asked to provide an emergency service at an extremely scary time without any scientific evidence or even a plan for their safety, and are being faced with the prospect of losing their job at the end of it. It really is not right to treat an entire workforce in that way—especially in a sector as important as early years. It is a sector on which the economy and the life chances of the next generation rely.
My challenge to the Minister is this: do the right thing. Keep early years workers safe, rethink financial support for providers, and do everything possible to ensure that a vital sector does not become one more casualty of coronavirus.
It is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important topic, and for the contributions of all Members who have taken part—but particularly to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for mentioning the Northern Ireland situation. I enjoyed my childhood in Northern Ireland so much that I think I did P1 twice. He will get that.
As the hon. Member for Putney said, early years staff are, too often, unsung heroes. I should like to begin by offering my sincere and heartfelt thanks to the early years sector, which has been doing an outstanding job of supporting our youngest children throughout the covid-19 pandemic, in what I know are difficult circumstances. I spoke to people at the maintained nursery school in my constituency this morning. Our frontline early years staff are phenomenal, and they love and care for our children so much.
The early years experience is a vital part of a child’s education. It is when children develop the communication skills that set them up for life. Those skills cannot be taught online. Early years provision also, as we know, gives parents the ability to balance work and family life. The Government invest heavily to ensure that children can get access to that high-quality early education, which includes a universal 15 hours of childcare for three and four-year-olds, the additional 15 hours for three and four-year-olds with working parents introduced under the Conservative Government in 2017, and, of course, the 15 hours for disadvantaged two-year-olds.
The Prime Minister made the announcement last Monday, on 4 January, that early years would remain open for children during the national lockdown in England. That includes nurseries, childminders and maintained nursery schools, as well as nursery classes in schools and other pre-reception provision on school sites. It was with great reluctance that we restricted attendance at early years settings before the national lockdown in March. As I have said, early education enables very young children to develop the core building blocks of communication and social skills. They are the building blocks of life. We know that if a child’s vocabulary is underdeveloped by the time they start school, they are more at risk of falling behind and being unemployed in later life. They cannot catch up those years. It is hard to imagine how to teach those communication and development skills remotely in anything like the way that is possible for older children.
We also know much more about coronavirus and our understanding of the new variant is developing. Since the beginning of the pandemic, evidence has emerged that shows the very low risk of children becoming unwell from covid, even those with existing health conditions. There is no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus disproportionately affects children. Indeed, under-fives continue to have the lowest rates of confirmed coronavirus cases of all age groups. They are less susceptible. Evidence also suggests that pre-school children aged nought to five are not playing a significant role in driving transmission. That is partly because our youngest children tend to have the lowest levels of contact with others outside their household.
We took the difficult decision to restrict attendance in schools to all except vulnerable children and the children of key workers because additional measures were needed to contain the spread of the virus in the community. Doing that has enabled us to keep pre-reception provision open to all to support parents and to deliver that crucial care and education for our youngest children. We are planning to keep early years settings open unless the scientific or public health advice changes. We continue to monitor that very closely.
I know that there is a lot of worry about safety, so I want to be as clear as I can about the safety of early years settings for children and staff. Early years settings have been open to all children since 1 June. There is no evidence that the sector has contributed to a significant rise in cases in the community. The advice of Public Health England remains that the risk of transmission of infection is low, provided that early years settings follow the endorsed systems of control that have been in use throughout the pandemic. Those measures create an inherently safer environment for children, young people and staff where the risk of transmission of infection is substantially reduced.
I met representatives of the early years sector last Tuesday morning immediately after the Prime Minister’s announcement and again last Thursday. One of the things they asked for was better covid testing for EY staff. The Department worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure rapid asymptomatic testing for all early years staff. The national roll-out of rapid testing, which was announced on Sunday, will support the Prime Minister’s announcement for early years settings to remain open.
Local authorities will be encouraged to target testing at people who are unable to work from home during the lockdown. On Thursday, I met the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to reinforce the importance of early years staff in the asymptomatic testing programme. An expansion of testing will help to identify more positive cases of covid and ensure that those affected can isolate to protect those who cannot work from home in our vital services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned childminders. He is no longer in his place, but I wish his wife well. She does an important job. We are working with local authorities to put in place an appropriate route for childminders so that they can also access the asymptomatic tests.
Hon. Members have mentioned the vaccine. Those who are most vulnerable to the virus have to be prioritised for the vaccine. People working in early years who are over 50 or who are over 16 and in a higher-risk group will be eligible for the vaccine in the first phase of the programme. That includes all those over 50 or vulnerable and it will also include the early years staff who fall into those categories.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) is right to have written to me. I have to resay what I said just a couple of days ago in answer to his question. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which makes the recommendations for who should get the vaccine and in what order, has asked the Department of Health and Social Care to consider occupational vaccination in the next phase of the vaccine roll-out. That will be a cross-Government piece of work; that Department will need to collaborate with other Departments. The Department for Education will have input into it and we will urge the need to prioritise our absolutely frontline staff.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been very clear about the timeline that he has set for getting the first phase of the vaccines rolled out, and he went through the priority groups at the stage when he announced them—was it just before the 4 January start date? We have had the mid-February date from the Prime Minister to get through the first phase. Then we will move into the second phase and, as I said, we have been asked to look at occupational roles in relation to the vaccine. That will be in the second phase of the roll-out; that is my understanding.
I have been told that there will be consideration of occupational vaccination in the next phase of the vaccine roll-out. I am sorry that I cannot give the hon. Member more clarity than that, except to say that I very much understand that, for some workers with children—including in early years and including many of those who work in special schools and some who may be working in children’s homes—it is challenging to maintain social distancing in those roles and there is a need for close contact. Those are the cases that we will be making, and I am very happy to follow up with the hon. Member and give her more detail on the second phase.
Given the goal of keeping early years settings open to as many children as possible, we also want to provide financial security to nurseries and childminders who are open for the children who need them, and many Members have mentioned that today. We have provided unprecedented support to the early years sector throughout the covid-19 pandemic and, as I have said many times, we continue to plan to spend £3.6 billion on Government entitlements this year.
In addition to Government entitlements funding, early years settings have access to a range of business support packages, including the coronavirus job retention scheme. We have updated the guidance so that providers that have seen a fall in their overall income can furlough staff who were on the payroll on or before 30 October and who are not required for delivering the Government’s funding entitlements. The Government have made temporary changes to the 30 hours’ free childcare and tax-free childcare entitlements during the pandemic so that eligible parents, including key workers, are not disadvantaged if their income temporarily falls below the minimum threshold and they are receiving support from a Government coronavirus support scheme, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme.
We are providing further investment next year. At the spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extra £44 million for 2021-22 for local authorities to increase the hourly rates paid to childcare providers for the Government’s childcare entitlement offers. That increase will be more than enough to meet the rise in the minimum wage. We are also increasing the funding floor so that no council can receive less than £4.44 per hour for three and four-year-olds.
In line with the spring funding announcement, we also updated the CJRS guidance so that providers who have seen a further drop in their overall income are able to furlough more staff if they are not required for the funding entitlements. Thanks to the support provided by the Government and the hard work of settings since June, I am pleased to report that last year we did not see a significant number of parents unable to access the childcare they needed.
We are staying in regular contact with the early years sector, including on the subject of funding, and will be closely monitoring both the parental take-up of places and the capacity and responses of providers, while keeping under constant review whether further support or action is needed. Local authorities have been urged to alert us to any sufficiency issues as quickly as possible.
We saw attendance rise over the autumn term, with 792,000 children attending on 10 December, up from 482,000 on 10 September. The latest attendance data from last week shows that there were fewer children in early years settings during the first week of this term compared with the end of last term. We expected attendance levels to be slightly lower last week, as we saw at the beginning of the autumn term last September, and we often see a staggered start date back after Christmas, but we are monitoring it very closely.
We currently intend to go ahead with this year’s census next week. However, I recognise the particular challenge that the sector faces in recording an accurate picture of expected uptake because of the impact of covid on attendance and the operation of settings. To support local authorities, we will very shortly be issuing questions and answers to help them to interpret existing published census guidance, so that census data reflects expected attendance and excludes what is considered to be a temporary absence or closure. That ensures that children at open providers are counted when they are temporarily not in attendance, which will be important for the providers. The Q&A will explain that in more detail.
To wrap up, I thank the hon. Member for Putney for scheduling the debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I hope she is reassured that the Government have the interests of children at the heart of our decision making. We are supporting our incredibly hard-working early years sector, monitoring closely the impact on attendance and whether further action is needed and getting them the asymptomatic testing within days of their request on Tuesday, and we will make the case for them to have the occupational vaccine as soon as possible.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this important debate, and all those other hon. Members who I know would have liked to take part but were not able to, as well as the many people across the country who have written in to their MPs to raise the concerns of early years settings.
This debate has gone a huge way towards addressing and raising the voices from the frontline, which is what needed to happen. There are many areas of cross-party agreement here, as the shadow Minister has said, and I recognise the steps that the Minister has already taken to address some of the concerns we have raised. However, there are a couple of areas of unfinished business that I would like to raise.
I thank the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who is not in his place now, for raising the independent meaningful review. That would answer many of the questions that we have raised about not only short-term but long-term funding for the early years sector, which has been rocked by the covid pandemic and will need extensive changes to ensure that it is resilient and strong for the future.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate about their experiences or those of their own nurseries and headteachers, and about the concerns that are being felt. We share some things. We share the understanding of, support for and knowledge of the importance of early years education. We share a feeling of huge respect for early years staff, who are doing an outstanding job. We share a feeling that early years settings have been ignored too often, and that must be changed.
We have heard from the frontline that staff are scared, concerned and confused. I welcome what the Minister has said about monitoring the safety of early years and a commitment to reviewing that. Potentially, that means a commitment to closing down if the early years settings are not safe. I would like to go further and ask for that evidence to be published. That would go a long way towards helping to assuage a lot of the concerns.
I welcome the commitment to the expansion of testing and delivery, which was raised with me most often by my local headteachers and early years practitioners, and to include childminders further down the line. All those staff will need that assurance and knowledge about testing, especially because there is so much asymptomatic coronavirus in the community.
I also welcome the commitment to rolling out the vaccine—definitely to some in the first phase and potentially to some in the second phase—and to having a little more clarity on that. What that means and when it will happen was unclear to us, and will definitely be unclear to others. We would like some early indication of, at least, when the decisions will be made and how, so that people can plan and have some confidence.
I welcome the additional investment in early years next year, but I do not think the Minister will be surprised to hear that I think that might be too late for some. Additional investment, really understanding the census that she mentioned and the funding going to councils for the free entitlement need to be addressed right now. It is not enough to save the sector next year, because of the backward steps in its finances. Early years settings have gone to the extent of their reserves, and then some, in coping with this year and will need more funding next year. Further clarity on the use of the census date is needed. Going back to pre-covid levels is the fairest way to do this, because they all have pre-covid costs and they need pre-covid levels of funding. We need to look again at that date, perhaps when the census has been held and the results have come back, to see whether that is enough funding for nurseries—that would be very welcome.
I thank the Minister for her response and all Members for taking part today. As we all have, I thank again all early years staff, practitioners and childminders across the country for the work that they do day in and day out for our children.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on early years settings.
Squash: The Olympics
[Esther McVey in the Chair.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered squash and the Olympics.
It is always a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McVey. This is the second time that I have secured a debate about squash in the Olympics. The first was in July 2016, when I made the case for squash to be included on the Olympic games programme. The reason I am before the House again is that unfortunately squash did not make the list of sports included in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, or the Paris Olympics scheduled for 2024. Nothing has changed in that respect.
What has changed is that my dear friend the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) is not responding on behalf of the Government, as she did in the July 2016 debate. We share a passion for sport and I am sure that she is watching today, so will Members please join me in sending her our very best wishes? I am sure the Minister will do a great job today, but he has big shoes to fill—no pressure.
My love of sport began when I was a child. I was very shy and did not speak in my primary schools. I got beaten up by some teenage girls when I was walking home on my last day in my junior school, and my mother decided that I needed toughening up, so she sent me to judo classes. I found my voice—indeed, some would say that I have not stopped talking since—and I made many lifelong friends. I got my senior black belt first dan when I was 13 and my fourth dan in 1974. I won many Welsh and national titles. I was a member of the Great Britain youth squad that went to the Munich Olympics, and I retired from judo in 1975. In Cynffig Comprehensive School, I had the opportunity to play other sports and represented Wales schools in hockey, tennis and athletics. Sport gave me a focus and confidence and made me a team player. Some would say that I went to school only to play sport.
My love for squash began when I was supporting myself through university and had a job as a sports coach in the newly built Bridgend Recreation Centre near the village of Kenfig Hill in south Wales, where I was born and brought up. I was teaching sports in the main hall when I heard a thudding noise, so I went to investigate. I climbed some stairs up to a balcony and saw below me two men locked in a room with very strangely shaped rackets, hitting a little ball into submission. It was love at first sight—not the men, but the game—so I hired a racket, scrounged a squash ball and spent every spare minute on the squash court teaching myself to play.
The squash players at Bridgend Recreation Centre adopted me and I made the men’s team. I was invited by Squash Wales, the national governing body for squash in Wales, to the national trials for the Welsh ladies’ squad and got selected after playing squash for only six months. I went on to represent Wales more than 100 times, sometimes at No. 1 for the team. I won some national and international titles, including the Dutch Open, but my forte was losing in the final. I have lost count of how many times I have come second in national competitions.
Squash is a great game. It is dynamic, physically and mentally challenging, strategic, tactical—it is like chess on legs. It is a healthy sport for all ages. Squash shares some similarities with other racket sports, but it is the only racket sport where players share the same space. There are differences, too: for example, in common parlance “nick” means stealing, but in squash it is where the wall meets the floor. If someone hits the ball into the nick, it is irretrievable; it is the perfect shot. “Boast” usually means singing one’s own praises, but in squash it is a shot where someone hits the ball against the side wall on its way to the front wall, and that is a really deceptive shot.
A tin is usually something that holds baked beans, but in squash it is the line on the front wall of the court above which the ball must be hit. Tea is a drink, but in squash the T is a place in the centre of the court that players seek to dominate in order to control the rally. Performing squash movements without the ball is known as “ghosting”—I am doing it now, and with squash courts closed at present, I am doing a lot of ghosting in my living room.
Squash has given me so much: fun, fitness, lifelong friends and a job. When I retired in the early 1990s from international competition and had a squash sabbatical, I took up marathon running. In 2004, I called Squash Wales to try to track down an old friend. The director of coaching and development, Mike Workman, said, “Chris Rees, I haven’t heard from you for ten years. We need more women coaches, and there’s a coaching course tomorrow. I’ll put your name down.” I said to him, “Mike I am not a coach, I’m a player.” But I lost that argument, and every other argument, I think, when I went on to work for Mike at Squash Wales. I worked my way through the qualifications and am now a level 3 coach, tutor and assessor, and have become a Welsh national coach. I was honoured to receive the Sport Wales coach of the year award in 2008—the only racket sports coach to receive that award so far.
One of the best experiences of my life was pulling on the red shirt and playing for Wales, representing my country, but it is wonderful to coach a youngster from beginner to playing for Wales, helping them develop into a confident, skilful, respectful and well-rounded player. As part of the very successful Squash Wales junior development programme I encouraged children to take up squash, taking them through the squad system—if that was what they wanted—or simply helping them enjoy playing the game that I love. I am proud that two players, products of the Squash Wales junior development programme, are now international stars: Tesni Evans from Prestatyn, aged 28, and Joel Makin from Aberdare, aged 26, are both ranked number nine in the January 2021 world rankings. Children as young as age four take up squash, and there is a masters circuit for everyone aged over 35 to over 80. Competitions are held in many countries, and there are also the world and European championships. A few years ago, the Welsh team were the over-70’s world men’s champions. They were all skill, trickery and bandages, but not much movement on court. Sport is hard on the body’s joints, especially judo, marathon running and squash, and I have done all three. That is especially the case when there is a habit of over-training as I had and as I have now, and I thank my orthopaedic consultant Mr Chandratreya for looking after me and for keeping me going.
The Minister is aware, through his responsibility for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, that squash has been in the Commonwealth games since 1998, as well as the Asian Games since 1998, and the Pan-American Games since 1995. The British Open squash championships have been taking place since 1920, and the Welsh Open began way back in 1938. The International Squash Rackets Federation was formed in 1967 and is now called the World Squash Federation. It is recognised as the international federation for squash by the International Olympic Committee. We now have over 50,000 squash courts in over 185 nations from the Arctic circle to the bottom tips of South America and Australia. Squash is a genuinely global sport played by millions all over the world. Professional senior tour events have been hosted by 47 countries featuring players from 74 nations, and over 750 players from 69 countries compete on the men’s and women’s professional squash tours. The WSF world junior circuit has world, regional and national junior open events. We have world and European rankings for juniors, seniors and masters. Squash has full gender parity, and all major events offer gender-equal prize money. Squash is fully World Anti-Doping Agency compliant. We have highly qualified referees, led by the World Squash Officiating director, my good friend Roy Gingell from Maesteg—no one messes with Roy.
Squash is televised via state-of-the-art all-glass show courts, with glass floors and side door options. Squash is very cool. It is presented very differently on the professional tour from when I used to play. There is music, lighting and MCs. An old friend of mine from Cardiff, Robert Edwards, started the cool commentaries and is known as the voice of squash. We have super slow-mo replays, multi-camera angles, in-play stats, live web transmission and full match videos uploaded on demand. What other sport has had championships played in a stunning site next to the pyramids in Egypt, in New York’s Grand Central station, on the Bund in Shanghai and in many other innovative indoor and outdoor settings?
In 2005, London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic games. The sports for 2012 were announced and squash came top of the shortlisted sports to be included. At that time, James Willstrop and Nick Matthews of England were ranked world No. 1 and 2, so were potential gold and silver Olympic medallists. Jenny Duncalf and Laura Massaro of England were ranked world No. 2 and 3—potential silver and bronze medallists. I must admit that our Welsh players were not quite as highly ranked but, as I said, Tesni and Joel are making great progress up the world rankings.
It was not expected that any places would be available among the then 28 maximum sports to be included in the London Olympics, but baseball and softball were taken out, so we thought that squash, being top of the shortlisted sports, would replace baseball or softball, but that did not happen, and London ran with only 26 sports. When Rio won the host bid in 2009 for the 2016 Olympics, the two vacant spots were filled by rugby sevens and golf. They are great sports, especially rugby—being Welsh, I would say that—but do they really fulfil the International Olympic Committee mantra that the Olympic games should be the paramount event of a sport?
The IOC subsequently decided that one sport would be removed from the 28 sports selected for the 2016 games to make room for a new sport in the 2020 games. Wrestling was removed, but then added back into a shortlist of eight. The list was then reduced to three sports: wrestling, baseball and softball, which were combined into one sport, and squash. In 2013, wrestling—not a new sport—was voted back in, although squash was, in fact, the only new sport on the shortlist.
Tokyo won the hosting rights for 2020 and persuaded the IOC that, as host, it could add two new sports. Originally, they were squash and baseball and softball combined, because they were the two on the shortlist, but Tokyo opened it up to other sports to bid for a place and selected a shortlist of eight from the 25 sports that had applied. In August 2015, each sport gave a presentation to the IOC, and Tokyo selected five sports, not including squash. They were baseball and softball combined, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing.
Paris will be the host city for the 2024 Olympic games. There are many excellent squash court venues in Paris that could be used, where glass show courts could be set up. Hon. Members can appreciate how devastated I was to discover that breakdancing, known as breaking, had been included by the IOC in the Paris games ahead of squash. The jury is still out on whether it is a sport or not, but including it in the Olympics ahead of our genuine sport is heartbreaking—do you get the pun there?
Since 1986, we have campaigned for squash to be in the Olympics and made some truly fantastic presentations, but the presentation for the Paris Olympics was the most ambitious ever. The WSF and the Professional Squash Association combined to launch “Squash Goes Gold”, a web and social media campaign. It was launched just before the 2018-19 PSA world championships, played inside Chicago’s Union Station. It built on the global growth of squash over the past decade and allowed players from all over the world to unite behind one common goal. France’s top-ranked woman player, Camille Serme, who has won the British and the US opens, took part in the bid. France has also had two recent men’s world No. 1 players, Thierry Lincou and current professional Grégory Gaultier. As hon. Members can imagine, the opportunity to compete in the Olympics in their home country and in Camille’s home city, and possibly win a medal, would have been the pinnacle of their careers.
When I watched the campaign film, it gave me goosebumps and reminded me of all the reasons why I am a squashoholic. My old friend Andrew Shelley, chief executive of the WSF from 2010 to 2019, has worked in squash for over 40 years and has been involved in all the Olympic bids. He says that he would not change one moment of his time working in squash, but that our non-selection for the Olympics is his greatest disappointment. Andrew was awarded the MBE for services to squash in the new year’s honours list. He is now creating a world squash library, and one day I hope there will be a special section in his library titled “Squash makes it to the Olympics.”
Jahangir Khan, who is the greatest player of all time—six world titles, 10 British open titles, unbeaten for five and a half years in the early 1980s—as well as the former WSF president and current emeritus WSF president, has said,
“We have been running bids for so many years and these sports”—
breaking, surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding—
“weren’t in the queue and now they are. It’s really hard to understand”.
Malaysian female star Nicol David has said that she would give up her eight world squash titles for one Olympic gold medal, which shows just how much taking part in the Olympics means to squash players. Many politicians play squash: it is a great stress-buster. I do not have time to name them all today, so I will just mention my good friend Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, who is a very enthusiastic and accomplished squash player.
Why is it so important to get squash into the Olympics? There are many practical reasons, including increased funding, but the opportunity to showcase squash on the biggest sporting stage in the world, so that our fantastic players can be seen, is the main reason why we will not give up. I do not have any specific asks of the Minister, because I know he does not have power over the IOC. He may be relieved to hear that, but if he could write to the IOC supporting squash’s bid to be in the next Olympics and increase funding for a sport that has to fight for every penny, I would be grateful. I am not sure what sports the Minister plays, but if he plays squash, I will be his coach. If he does not play squash and wants to take it up, I will teach him how to play. Any support we can have from the Minister to get squash into the Olympics, I would be really grateful for.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I must first congratulate the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on having secured this debate, and on the interesting speech she has made today, making the case for including squash as a future Olympic sport with great passion and conviction, and indeed a bit of humour and humility. I was relieved to hear her say that she would happily be my coach, rather than my competitor, at squash; it has been many years since I played squash, but perhaps that should be my new year’s resolution. I look forward to taking her up on that offer at some point.
One of the great joys of Westminster Hall debates is that they often allow us to find out a little bit more about the background of some of our colleagues, and it has been fascinating to hear about the hon. Lady’s background and to do some reading about her over the past few days. I am now aware of her great interest in squash and of the very valuable contribution that she has personally made to the sport, both as a top-class player and as a coach. I am also astounded that she excelled in other sports, including judo and marathon running.
As the hon. Lady is a previous recipient of Sport Wales’s female coach of the year award, I know how committed she is to sport in general and to squash in particular, and she deserves great praise for those efforts. As she said, squash is an exciting and dynamic sport that has a long and proud heritage in this country, having its origins, of course, in Harrow School. The national performance centre in Manchester is helping to build our world-class strength, with British women leading the way; there are currently three British women in the world’s top 20, which I am sure is also part of her legacy. Previous British world champions—such as Laura Massaro, Nick Matthew and others who she referred to—are indeed great role models, and of course the future inclusion of squash in the Olympics would be an excellent showcasing opportunity to help the sport to grow further.
However, it is right that the decision to add any new sport to the Olympic programme is a matter for the International Olympic Committee to consider. The hon. Lady outlined the process very well. It would not be appropriate for me or the British Government, or indeed any national Government, to become involved in that process, or to lobby for any particular sport to be included. But please do not interpret, or misinterpret, that comment as a lack of enthusiasm or interest. It is a statement of fact because, according to the Olympic charter, every national Olympic committee must be free from Government interference. Hence, it would not be appropriate or helpful for me to comment further on the inclusion process. As I say, please do not interpret that as a lack of enthusiasm; should squash be included in the Olympics, I would embrace that decision and be very happy indeed.
Of course, it is open to the relevant national governing body of a sport to make a case for its inclusion, as indeed it has, along with the appropriate world governing body. I understand that squash may be under consideration for Olympic games beyond Paris 2024, so we might see it in Los Angeles. Therefore, the appropriate bodies to lobby would be the British Olympic Association or the World Squash Federation. However, I know that they are in discussions about squash, as the hon. Lady outlined, and have been for many years. Many sports quite rightly aspire to being included in the Olympic programme; there is a strong incentive for them to be included. We are now just six months away from the rescheduled Tokyo games, which I am sure will be a wonderful spectacle for athletes and fans alike as we emerge from the pandemic.
Although competition in Tokyo will undoubtedly be extremely strong, I know that our athletes are ready to give it their all and make our country proud, so I can well understand why globally renowned sports such as squash would wish to be included in this wonderful festival of sport, reaching a global audience of billions and inspiring audiences at home and abroad.
Squash has embraced innovation in recent years, as the hon. Lady outlined in detail, to make it a more televisual sport and also to put it in the lead in terms of gender parity, along with many other racket sports, such as tennis. I am very proud to say that my daughter is a great and avid fan of squash as well.
I know that the forthcoming Commonwealth games in Birmingham in 2022 will provide a fantastic opportunity to showcase squash on the global stage for millions of people, because, of course, squash is included in the Commonwealth games and the Commonwealth games being held in the UK again in 2022 gives us a wonderful chance to promote the sport domestically, while showcasing once again the UK’s ability to host major international sporting events.
Increased participation is vital to the lifeblood of any sport, helping to feed the elite level and to build healthy grassroots. That is why the Government’s strategy, “Sporting Future”, puts increased participation at the heart of the long-term direction of sport in this country. The cross-departmental strategy focuses on using sport to improve and measure the physical and mental wellbeing of people, as well as individual, social, community and economic development. Although UK Sport does not currently fund squash, it supports the sport domestically and in the field of international relations—for example, in bidding for major events such as the world championships.
The home nations’ governing bodies continue to invest substantially in squash at a grassroots level to encourage participation and foster talent. Since the hon. Lady and I were first elected on the same day in 2015, Sport England has invested more than £8 million directly in English squash. I understand that other sporting bodies have as well. That significant funding contributes to a wider financial package that totals about £49 million, in which squash is cited as one of the benefiting activities.
The pandemic presents great challenges for sporting organisations at an elite and grassroots level, but with our vaccination programme ramping up, I am confident that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that sport will be able to return again very soon. There is certainly a strong case to be made for such an innovative and exciting sport as squash, as the hon. Lady outlined incredibly well in her speech. It could grace the world’s biggest sporting stages. As always, a great chance for Britain to win medals is welcome news for any Sports Minister. I am sure that my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), to whom the hon. Lady sent her best wishes, which I repeat, would agree.
Of course, there are right and proper procedures that must be followed to secure a global platform for squash at the Olympics, as we outlined. I encourage the hon. Lady to continue to lobby and highlight that case, as she has done so well today. Squash certainly has a strong case to make to the IOC should it so choose. More widely, I reassure her that the sport remains healthy in this country. I expect that health to continue to improve and to deliver not only world-class performance internationally, but more opportunities in this country to enjoy playing the wonderful sport.
Question put and agreed to.
Waste Incineration and Recycling Rates
I beg to move,
That this House has considered waste incineration and recycling rates.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and to see many familiar faces in today’s debate. This is the third time we have debated incineration in this Chamber since the election and it was a pleasure to attend the two previous debates. It is also great to see the Minister in her place. She has been on the receiving end of my many frustrations when it comes to this topic, both here and in the main Chamber, and in the many conversations that we have had offline. I am grateful to her for being here to respond yet again to a debate on this topic.
The Minister and, indeed, the House will know full well my frustrations with the incinerator in Beddington in my Carshalton and Wallington constituency. Next to the additional £500 million for my local hospital and to build a new local hospital, this is one of the topics that I speak about most in this House. I will not revisit many of the arguments that the Minister and many of my colleagues who are here today will have heard in past debates. However, I want to address some developments with my local incinerator that I have not yet had the chance to raise in the House, before going on to discuss the impact of incineration on recycling rates.
The Minister will know the concerns I have raised with her in the past about emissions breaches in incinerators; the need for independently run air quality monitoring stations near those sites, rather than leaving them to be self-reporting by the operator; the need to focus on the circular economy, reducing the amount of waste we produce in the first place; and the all-important knock-on effect of operating incinerators, such as traffic movements in the surrounding area.
Carshalton and Wallington residents were promised quite a lot when the Liberal Democrats approved the building of an incinerator in Beddington. They were promised the Beddington farmlands, which are now several years overdue. They were promised things such as new wildlife habitats to rebuild rare species, only for the water levels surrounding ground-nesting birds for protection to be allowed to drop and for predators to attack and destroy their nests last year. They were promised robust reporting on carbon, only for there to be, by my calculation, 184 incidences where they exceeded the 150 mg carbon monoxide limits and 733 invalid carbon monoxide reports in 2020 alone. They were promised a stronger local road network to cope with the traffic, only for residents on Beddington Lane to constantly face problems with their traffic and air pollution, and much more besides. It is no surprise that residents feel let down and even angry that the concerns they continue to raise continue to be brushed aside and not acted upon.
There have been new developments at Beddington that have caused alarm. Today, I want to focus on the new south London waste plan. The plan is supposed to bring together the lead members from four councils in south London—Sutton, Kingston, Croydon and Merton—and ultimately decide a strategy on how to deal with their waste. In short, the strategy is to make Sutton and particularly Beddington Lane the dumping ground of south London. Under the plan, Sutton will ambitiously take more than 700,000 tonnes of waste from the four boroughs—more than half of all the waste produced by the four boroughs. Croydon is taking about 19% and Merton is taking about 26%, but the real winner here is Lib Dem-run Kingston Council, which is taking a measly 2.6% of all waste produced across four London boroughs. To add insult to injury, Beddington is increasing its maximum capacity by around 45,000 tonnes, taking it to 347,422 tonnes of waste per year.
Together with the waste plan, the increase in Beddington’s maximum capacity and the approval of a new Suez site in Beddington Lane means around 1 million tonnes of waste a year are projected to be sent there. To put that into perspective as it is quite a large number, that is around 500 heavy goods vehicle movements a day just for waste, let alone all the other industrial sites that require heavy goods vehicles in Beddington. Even the applicants during the planning committee for the Suez plan inferred that this could equate to a vehicle movement every three minutes.
The uplift in the maximum capacity at Beddington was approved by the Environment Agency on 9 December. I urge it to reconsider granting that uplift. It is baffling to me that the South London Waste Partnership, which oversaw the plan, went on to meet more than a week after the decision was taken, on 17 December, and suddenly decided that it was not entirely happy with the increase in Beddington’s capacity. I am slightly confused as to why it did not know that the decision had been taken over a week beforehand, and what the point of the partnership is if the lead councillors from the four boroughs have no control or influence over decisions of this nature. To many residents, this appears nothing more than a convenient distraction to allow the Lib Dems to pursue their implied ambition to make Sutton the dumping ground of south London and give their mates in Kingston a hand, at the expense of roads and air pollution in Sutton.
I had hoped that we might get answers to these questions last night, when the Conservative group on Sutton Council brought a motion to full council stating its opposition to the increase and asking that Sutton gets a fair share. However, during what I can only call a childish debate, the Lib Dems reverted to their usual diktat on the incinerator: “Nothing to see here. Not me, guv. We’re ambitious about our waste plans here, mate.” They then proceeded to vote for an amendment that removed the very line that called for Sutton to get a fair share.
Let that sink in for a bit. The Lib Dems essentially voted against Sutton having a fair deal on waste management. That is disgraceful. The Beddington farmlands have been delayed, wildlife habitats have been attacked, air quality monitoring is negligent, roads are unable to cope, and now we have a projected almost 1 million tonnes of rubbish making its way to Sutton, much of it to be burned. Under any measurement, this is a bad deal for Beddington, for Hackbridge and for Carshalton and Wallington as whole.
I will move on to the wider impact of incineration on recycling rates. We have not had the chance to discuss that issue in previous debates. The proponents of incinerators often point to recycling as a metric of their success and how they are better than landfill. Although the latter is certainly true, as landfill is the worst of all options, the same cannot be said for recycling rates. As landfill sites have begun to close and be phased out, incineration has picked up much of that demand, with incineration rates rising nearly four times, from 12% to 44%, over the past decade. However, recycling rates have barely moved at all in the past decade, from 37% to 43%—just a 6 percentage point increase.
That is not coincidental or unrelated. According to very worrying research by the House of Commons Library, the data from the 123 waste authorities show a general negative relationship between incineration and recycling. In other words, higher incineration means lower recycling and vice versa. I have seen that at first hand in Beddington, where I watched as recyclable material was put into the incinerator to be burned. Even I did not know how bad the situation was until I read research from Zero Waste Europe, which revealed that more than 90% of materials that end up in incineration plants and landfills could be recycled or composted—more than 90%.
Quite apart from the obvious negatives, burning those valuable materials in order to generate electricity can discourage efforts to preserve resources and can create perverse incentives to generate more waste to ensure that the energy from these waste plants remains economical, rather than focusing on prevention and recycling. I have again seen that at first hand in Carshalton and Wallington, with residents asking what the point is in separating their rubbish into four, five or six different bins if they get held in the back of the same lorry and end up getting burned.
I have also attempted to have the calorific value of waste explained to me, and how the waste needs to be burned in order to generate the so-called energy from waste. It is some kind of perverse metaphor for a diet. I will leave aside the problems of energy from waste, which I am aware the Minister knows full well from the discussions we have had about New Mill Quarter in Hackbridge, where the homes are supposed to be heated by this incinerator, yet suffer high bills and regular outages. I appreciate that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has done a consultation on that, and I will continue my discussions with it.
Even when energy is turned into waste, recycling is still the better option, as it can save up to five times the amount of energy produced by energy from waste, which is not a renewable resource, creates toxic pollution and potentially emits more carbon dioxide than some hydrocarbon-powered plants. In other words, incinerators need waste to have an effective business model, whether recyclable or not. That is not recycling.
That prompts the question: what is the solution? I want to draw attention to some of the really good work being done by the Government. I am sure the Minister will have more to say on these topics in her reply. The Government have, in the resources and waste strategy, set out their ambition to move away from incineration in favour of maximising recycling, with the possibility of an incineration tax. The Environment Bill brings in powers to introduce charges on single-use plastics and ban things like plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. The deposit return scheme, which has seen recycling rates rocket in over 40 countries, is due to come to the UK. There is a ban on exports of polluting waste to developing countries, a single-use plastic packaging tax, plastic bag charges, carbon capture and storage funding and the all-important commitment in the resources and waste strategy to move to a more circular economy.
I congratulate the Government on their work, but urge them to move at pace towards a circular economy. We must look further up the waste hierarchy to achieve this, so I have a few asks. The next steps up our waste hierarchy are recycling and reusing waste. We have heard startling figures about how much recyclable material ends up in incineration and this must be stopped. Things such as an all-in deposit return scheme to open up the concept to as many recyclable materials as possible as well as creating new responsibilities when sorting waste to prevent as much recyclable waste from ending up in incinerators as possible will certainly be good steps. Removing recyclable and compostable waste from incineration will greatly reduce the need for incinerators and help the Government achieve their target of moving away from this form of waste management.
However, we all know that the best approach is to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place. It is even better than recycling, because it involves less energy, less extraction of raw materials, and so on. That is why there needs to be a much greater emphasis on reducing production, such as placing responsibilities on producers, incentivising minimal packaging methods, for example, making it easier—indeed the norm—to choose the more environmentally-friendly option, whether that be domestic products such as food packaging, all the way through to heavy industry. The new hospital that is being built in my area has the requirement to be carbon neutral and I look forward to seeing the inventive ways it goes about that and manages to achieve that goal.
However, it is clear that Carshalton and Wallington has been failed on this incinerator by a council that is not willing to act. Incineration may be marginally better than landfill, but it is not the way to boost recycling or create a more circular economy in the long term. We need to look further up that waste hierarchy and do much more to recycle, reuse and ultimately reduce the amount of waste we produce to help make the need for incinerators, such as the one that has caused my constituents so many problems, obsolete.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this debate. I do not think I have spoken in a debate with him before. It was interesting to hear about the local government politics of south-west London. I have to say, Lib Dem councillors in south-west London are no different from those in Leeds, so I have some sympathy for him. It is a shame no Lib Dem Members are here today to answer for themselves—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree with that, although he may not agree with everything I say.
Sustainability is one of the biggest and most important challenges facing our country. On a finite planet, we cannot afford to run a throw-out society indefinitely. In the UK, we consistently miss household recycling targets. Figures showing that more than 70% of UK packaging waste was recycled or recovered in 2017 disguise the fact that recovery includes incineration. The real recycling rate is closer to 45%, compared with 54% in Wales, where Labour is in charge. In fact, Wales is a world leader when it comes to sustainability and recycling, with statutory recycling targets, national recycling campaigns and, most importantly, £1 billion to local authorities since 2000 to help them invest in recycling collection services. Wales essentially operates a circular economy, or very close to one, and has constitutionally enshrined rules that promote sustainable development, such as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
Unfortunately, the picture is quite different in my home city of Leeds. I frequently receive emails from constituents disappointed by Leeds’s lack of kerb-side glass and Tetra Pac recycling. I will tell you, Ms McVey, what I tell them and I am sure the Minister will want to respond. This is not the product of a lack of political or environmental will on the part of Leeds City Council, where I was in charge of this area when I was on the council. It is the result of a lack of funding from central Government and a broken system for recycling waste where the market lords it over the environment. Unfortunately, the amount of money needed to change collection vehicles and routes, to provide bins and boxes and for other associated costs is not available, and recycling facilities are not provided by the private sector as the market price for certain renewables is too low.
Recycling has been one of the quiet casualties of the austerity programme and an ideology that refuses to fix our broken markets. Local authority cuts and a free market ideology are a huge part of why the national recycling rate has been at a virtual standstill over the last few years. The latest set of cuts to Leeds City Council with £40 million of covid cost pressures and another £60 million of just run-of-the-mill Government austerity means that closure proposals are being ramped up. Ellar Ghyll recycling centre in Otley in my constituency is being proposed for closure only due to covid cost pressures. I hope the Minister can help me in my campaign to save that centre.
Recycling rates, however, have been soaring during the pandemic. The Local Government Association reports that eight in 10 councils have seen an increase in the amount of recycling collected since the start of lockdown. Some councils’ household recycling increased by 100%. That is positive news, but the Government must recognise that that has increased costs for councils and ensure that all the extra cost pressures on waste and recycling services as a result of the pandemic are met; currently, they are not.
I turn specifically to food waste, which we know to be a catastrophic problem not just in the UK but worldwide. A third of food produced globally is wasted. In the UK, households waste 4.5 million tonnes of food every year. Supermarkets and other food-adjacent businesses are the main offenders, wasting 100,000 tonnes of readily available and edible food each year, which is equivalent to 250 million meals going uneaten. Surplus food should be used to feed people first before it is sent for animal feed, incinerated for energy or sent to anaerobic digesters. Many fantastic initiatives ensure just that.
I pay particular tribute to The Real Junk Food Project, which started in Leeds and with which I have been working for nearly 10 years. It has been a pioneering force in the fight against food waste, with a core mission of feeding those in food poverty—another issue that has spiked during covid. We must ensure that large stores stop throwing away or destroying unsold food. Supermarkets should donate food waste to charities or food banks willing to take food. Again, we can look to Labour in Wales, where household food waste has reduced by 12% and is now 9% lower than in the rest of the UK.
The incineration of waste with energy recovery is slightly preferable to waste being incinerated without any energy recovery or sent to landfill, but without carbon capture and storage technology I cannot in good conscience support it. I admit that the Government are investing in CCS, but we have no full-scale working models. Without trying to pre-empt what will be said by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), I am sure he will touch on the campaign started by his predecessor against the proposal for an incinerator there. He has my sympathy and support on that, and I think he knows that—we have discussed it previously on the train.
Waste incineration is usually referred to as energy from waste, but the energy generated by energy-from-waste plants represents just 1.9% of overall UK electricity production. While electricity and reusable waste heat are clearly valuable by-products of incineration, they cannot legitimately be claimed to be the main purpose of incineration, nor can there be an economic or sustainability justification for using it as a disposal method. However, there is still no large-scale Government funding programme to support the development of anaerobic digestion, which is the solution for much organic waste that local authorities collect. Will the Minister comment on what funding she plans to bring forward for anaerobic digestion? I note that she is not wearing her leaf suit today, which is unfortunate for a debate of this nature, but I know how close these issues are to her heart and that she will want to support more anaerobic digestion.
We should also consider the fact that the smelly, loud waste incinerators that regularly breach pollution guidelines are three times more likely to be built in poorer areas than in the UK’s wealthiest areas. Nearly half of the new incinerators on track to be built will be in the UK’s 25 most deprived neighbourhoods, and more than two thirds are planned for the northern half of the country. More than 40% of existing incinerators are sited in areas more diverse than the local authority average.
At COP24, which I attended two years ago in Poland, Sir David Attenborough warned delegates that
“we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
I am fairly sure that the action he had in mind did not consist of building new incinerators up and down the country. We need to come up with more innovative measures, alternative solutions to reducing consumption, boosting recycling and increasing the proportion of recycled material manufacturing. We need a green industrial revolution and a circular economy. That is the way forward, and I look forward to the Minister outlining how the Government will achieve that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs McVey. Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, and so it is right that the Government are taking significant action to combat it. As part of this, I welcome many aspects of their approach to waste and recycling, in particular the commitment to creating greater consistency in recycling collections. An example of where that would be useful is among students coming to any town in the country, who are used to one form of recycling and then discover there is a totally different one where their university is, and everybody has to be re-educated every year.
We have one very good example of an excellent charity in Loughborough that deals with recycling and reuse, called SOFA. It is absolutely superb at keeping a lot of furniture and household goods out of the recycling chain, and selling it on for reuse. However, one aspect of the Government’s approach to waste and recycling needs to be revised, and I certainly support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn). I have made clear in previous debates and correspondence with Ministers my concern regarding the building of new incinerators because of their impact on the environment and the health of local communities around them. I have pressed for more research to be undertaken to better understand their impact on those with higher activity respiratory levels.
That is particularly relevant to my constituency, where an incinerator is being built in close proximity to elite athlete training grounds. As the Minister set out in her response to my recent written question, since 3 December 2019, all incinerator permits have contained lower limits of total particulate matter of 5 mg per cubic metre, and permits issued before that date will be changed to require compliance with the lower limit by 3 December 2023.
Although that is welcome—and it is very welcome—I ask that incinerators that have been issued permits but are currently under construction should also have to comply with the lower limit from the outset. I have also been contacted by a local group who are calling for specific PM 2.5 limits to be introduced, rather than just limits for total particulate matter. Further, following the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation that all 2020 incinerators should have carbon capture and storage, the local group would also like it to be a requirement at the point of construction in any planning conditions, including those currently under construction. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on those points.
We are also actively encouraging individuals and companies to recycle more and produce less waste. Over time, we will become less reliant on incinerators, and there will not be enough waste to keep existing incinerators open. In my constituency, there is already not enough commercial and industrial residual waste locally to keep the new incinerator going, so waste will inevitably be brought in from afar by road, leading to increased vehicle emissions around the M1 and the A512 and creating further pollution in our local area from waste produced elsewhere.
Finally, I would argue that the incinerators could impact on the Government’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 by not encouraging recycling and reuse, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned earlier. If we are to achieve this ambitious target, we must work to reduce emissions from all sources.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate, and for the way he opened it. I know that the Minister, who has—as we all have—spoken on this subject over the months and years, will agree about the circular economy and with much of what we have said to date, and I look forward to her response.
Research done by WRAP Cymru in Wales found that 75% of the ‘ingredients’ for incinerators in Wales could have been recycled. We are missing a trick as we look at the development of incinerators, and I will touch on that in respect of my constituency of Montgomeryshire. Equally, turning to my Celtic cousins in the north, the Zero Waste Scotland review found that the only energy source with a comparable carbon intensity to energy from waste was coal. We know full well what has happened to coal power stations in this country. If incinerators follow them, I hope the Minister will promptly look at the waste-to-energy plans going forward.
In my constituency, there is a development for an incinerator and I pay tribute to Councillor Amanda Jenner, who is part of our Conservative team. I note the comments about the Liberal Democrat administrations and councillors across the country, and I share some of the fears outlined today about some of their actions.
Councillor Jenner is leading a campaign to ensure that there is proper consideration of any major planning applications during this pandemic. I note the concern of the community and the councillors right now that a planning application for such a substantial incinerator is being put forward. It is a difficult time to organise community meetings and get the proper planning representations in.
My chief concerns around incineration are that, while there is a role for it, there is new technology emerging that will deal with things that are non-recyclable at the moment. The landfill of the past was awful, and I speak on behalf of a massive rural constituency when I say that landfill is not something we enjoy. However, now we have taken a lot of organic matter out of landfill, there is a role for looking at the non-recyclables and a way to store them either in warehouses or in some new landfill of the future where that resource could be mined when the technology is available to recycle it. I welcome the Minister’s thoughts on looking at the current non-recyclables and a way of storing them for the short period while we invest in technologies to increase our recycling.
I pay tribute—to lend a non-political angle—to much of the Welsh Government’s work on the recycling targets. As a Welsh Member of Parliament, of course we work across the parties on this. The recycling targets are ambitious and are being met. Our local authority of Powys in Montgomeryshire is doing a terrific job, both for education and the facilitation of recyclables. It is a great shame when the community sees a planning application for a large incinerator in a very rural area that will require huge HGV movements from across the border in England and from a large area of Wales. Montgomeryshire is 840 square miles with 50,000 people. That does not lend itself to a huge industrial incinerator with waste transported on our struggling trunk roads.
The main thrust of my contribution to this excellent debate and what I am looking to the Front Bench for is to see what the Minister’s priorities are, looking forward, for both waste-to-energy and incineration more broadly with the investment in anaerobic digesters. I do push back a bit, because for my constituents in Montgomeryshire, anaerobic digesters are being brought forward by private investors—the agricultural community, especially poultry farmers. Anaerobic digesters are receiving a lot of private funding. The Government do not necessarily need to put a lot of money that way, but they do need to look at the regulatory framework and non-fiscal support. I know the Treasury will welcome anything right now that does not require a cheque book.
Anaerobic digesters are taking a lot of the organic waste out, so then we can look at the non-recyclables. That is not necessarily needing to burn them, but looking in the future to see how we can store and mine them as a resource. I know there is a time limit, so I will wind up but I reinforce my point that while incineration has had a role to date, I look forward to a way that we can wind it out of our circular economy over the decades.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate. I also refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare that my family runs a plastic waste recycling business.
I want to use my limited time today to talk specifically about waste incineration, touching on my concerns about how decisions regarding new incinerator applications and environmental permitting for waste incinerators are made, and the future direction of waste incineration itself.
I am sure we are all aware of the waste hierarchy. It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for reuse, then for recycling, then recovery, and last of all disposal—landfill and waste incineration. I believe all Government policy should be based on this hierarchy.
There is a strong case to argue that if sufficient weight is given to utilising waste incineration as an option for dealing with waste, then a fiscal disincentive, an incineration tax, should be considered as an option, as we have with the landfill tax—I would also favour increasing landfill tax—because otherwise that can become a barrier to developing a greener circular economy, by preventing resources from being reused and depressing recycling rates, and, as a method, incineration gives rise to air pollution concerns.
I want to touch on air pollution. It is quite clear that the process of incineration from waste creates a number of emissions, and there is much concern regarding waste incineration and air quality and human health. This concern relates predominantly to particulate matter, which is predominantly composed of materials such as sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride and black carbon. The Minister will be aware that, back in 2018 and 2019, Public Health England funded a study to examine emissions of particulate matter from incinerators and their impact on human health. The study found that emissions from particulate matter from waste incinerators are low, and make only a small contribution to ambient background levels. However, while levels may be low, this study acknowledged that there is a contribution nevertheless. There will be many factors that influence the impact on air quality and human health that the incinerator can have, such as the stack height of an incinerator, whether the incinerator is located in the bottom of a valley, the resultant impact of temperature or cloud inversions, and its proximity to homes, schools and playing fields.
Rather frustratingly, and despite huge amounts of local opposition—including from an excellent and well-run campaign group in my constituency, the Aire Valley Against Incineration, along with many residents, myself, and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), from my neighbouring constituency—the green light has just been issued for the Aire Valley incinerator to operate. This incinerator is to be built on the periphery of Keighley, in the bottom of a valley in close proximity to schools, playing fields and homes. The scheme was awarded planning consent and given the green light by our local authority, Bradford Council, back in 2016, and earlier this year was awarded an environmental permit by the Environment Agency. All this despite strong local opposition.
Residents are quite rightly concerned about air quality—not just from the incinerator itself, but from the increased traffic flows bringing waste to the site. In questioning the decision making for the environmental permit that has just been issued by the Environment Agency, unbelievably, I was told that the Environment Agency could consider only emissions from the incinerator itself, not the emissions from increased traffic flows, because that was a planning matter, which Bradford Council, in already giving the green light, had considered acceptable in the first place. This raises a much bigger issue: the process of how permits are awarded for incinerators. My concern is that a cohesive, full-picture review is not taken into account when looking at the impact on air quality from the whole incineration process itself, which includes the emissions from traffic flow.
For me, this debate is vital. As a Member who sat on the Environment Bill Committee, I am pretty excited about what the Government are doing going forward. However, I reaffirm my commitment that all Government policy should go back to that first waste hierarchy and look at adopting a review of whether an incineration tax is the right route to go down, as I believe it should be.
The message from Keighley is that we do not want this incinerator. It is unfortunate that it looks as if the green light has been given, but local voices should be heard much more loudly and clearly in any decision-making process for anything that is likely to have an impact on air quality or human health.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McVey, and to speak for the Opposition this afternoon.
I should say at the outset that I am a mere stand-in for my departmental colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), who is the shadow Minister for waste. Because of the travel restrictions, she has to be in Wales and, until we have the motion on Westminster Hall debates later today, there is a requirement for these debates to be held in person. I must say, it is quite extraordinary that we are all being put at risk, including the staff in this place, because—to use the jargon—it was not possible to “flex” the rules sufficiently. I hope it can be fed back how unhappy some of us are about being put in that situation.
More positively, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for calling the debate. I listened with great interest to his account of the difficulties around the Beddington incinerator, approved by the Lib Deb-run London Borough of Sutton and clearly causing a range of problems for him and his constituents.
However, the collective task of tackling waste, improving recycling rates and taking the steps needed to protect our environment and preserve our planet is one that we need to do together. I am afraid it is no secret that the Opposition side of the House have concerns about what we see as a lack of ambition on the Treasury Bench when it comes to these issues. The Minister will recognise this familiar refrain from our many hours spent on the Environment Bill; we tried to make constructive and effective suggestions for improvement but, as these things go, they were sadly voted down.
As we have heard, incinerators emit large quantities of CO2, with roughly 1 tonne released for each tonne of waste incinerated. About half of that is derived from fossil sources such as plastic, meaning that England’s incinerators rely on fossil fuels for feedstock, as most plastics are derived from crude oil or natural gas. I am told that incineration capacity in England is currently around 17.2 million tonnes—some 14.6 million of built capacity and 2.6 million under construction—and the waste industry is proposing a further 20 million tonnes of capacity for England.
As we have also heard, however, existing capacity already exceeds the quantity of genuinely residual combustible waste. Allowing even more incinerators would exacerbate that overcapacity, giving rise to avoidable pollution and expense while harming waste reduction and recycling efforts.
In short, we should now acknowledge that the time for incineration is over and that the age of incinerators should come to an end. Once, one might have said that incineration was an improvement on the previous practice of landfill, but I no longer feel that that is the case. I note that across England, incineration has increased in inverse proportion to the reduction in landfill in recent years.
I say to the Minister that an over-reliance on incineration as a means of tackling waste will, in the end, serve no one. That over-reliance will prevent us from moving up the waste hierarchy in dealing with waste generally and will stop us looking at waste as a resource that can be recycled and reused, its value unlocked rather than buried or contributing to toxic air.
I also know that a number of my hon. Friends around the country have raised concerns about incineration in their communities in recent months. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who wanted to speak in this debate but could not be here today, has asked me to emphasise a point he has made about the urgent need for clarity from the Minister on waste movements around the UK, including between England and Wales. In previous debates, he has made clear his opposition to the incinerator planned by an English company for the east of his constituency, which is currently with the Welsh planning inspectors and which likely plans to burn commercial waste shipped across the border.
I will also mention my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who has a particular interest in the impact of incineration on the health and wellbeing of her constituents in north London, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), who chairs the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and who I remember expressing concerns in this very Chamber about the planning decisions that he feels do not consider the cumulative impact of multiple sites in close proximity. Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) has an incineration facility at Hillthorn Park in her constituency. I know she is watching the debate this afternoon.
My hon. Friends’ passion crosses regional and national borders within the UK. As we grasp the challenge of reducing our reliance on incinerators, our response needs to be an all-nation response. Will the Minister outline what specific discussions she has had with Environment Ministers in the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, and with the Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government on tackling the over-reliance on incineration?
Over the past two decades, the household waste recycling rate in England has increased significantly, from just 11.2% to almost 50%. I am pleased that for half of that time a Labour Government ambitiously pushed for a change of behaviour and real action on the green agenda. However, I must point out that England still falls short of the EU target of recycling a minimum of 50% of household waste by 2020. Our departure from the EU does not mean we should shift gear or slow down. We need to go further and faster.
As of 2018, Wales is the only nation in the UK to reach the target, and in 2017 it recorded a recycling rate of 64%. I pay tribute to the Welsh Labour Government, particularly the First Minister and the Environment Minister, Lesley Griffiths MS. I also endorse the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who not only pointed out those successes in Wales, but made important comments about food waste.
The Minister knows that England is responsible for the overwhelming majority of waste in UK households. It is vital that England and therefore this Government show leadership and act. If we need further evidence of the need for swift action, we need look no further than DEFRA’s own resources and waste strategy monitoring report from August last year. It tells us:
“The large amount of avoidable residual waste and avoidable residual plastic waste generated by household sources each year suggests there remains substantial opportunity for increased recycling.”
The message from that assessment is that a substantial quantity of material appears to be going into the residual waste stream, where it could at least have been recycled or dealt with higher up the waste hierarchy. So there it is. We have to take this seriously now.
The issue is not just about waste here at home, but about the fact that English waste, for want of a better description, has an international impact, too. In a written parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West asked the Secretary of State
“what discussions he has had with his Sri Lankan counterpart on the 21 containers of waste returned to the UK from that country in September 2020.”
The answer she received from the Minister, who is here today, was revealing. She said:
“The Environment Agency…as the competent authority for waste shipments for England, is proactively engaging with the authorities in Sri Lanka on these containers and is leading the response on this matter. The 21 containers arrived back in England on Wednesday 28 October. The containers, which were shipped to Sri Lanka in 2017, were found by Sri Lankan authorities to contain illegal materials described as mattresses and carpets which had been exported for recycling. With the shipment now back on English soil, EA enforcement officers will seek to confirm the types of waste shipped, who exported it and the producer of the waste. Those responsible could face a custodial sentence of up to two years, an unlimited fine, and the recovery of money and assets gained through the course of their criminal activity.”
That answer is telling, because we cannot rely on incineration, nor should we think we can simply ship our worries and our waste overseas. The ship that left Britain in 2017 with our waste came back to bite us in September 2020. We simply need to resolve these issues.
This subject is topical. Did the Minister and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington have the opportunity to read a piece in The Guardian over their porridge? If not, I want to let them know that the UK has been accused of failing to honour its promise to
“curb shipments of plastic waste to developing countries, after it emerged Britain’s new post-Brexit regulations are less stringent than those imposed by the EU.”
The article notes:
“From 1 January, shipments of unsorted plastic waste from the EU to non-OECD countries were banned. But Britain will continue to allow plastic waste to be exported to developing countries”,
despite a Conservative party manifesto commitment to banning the practice. That is important, because we are one of the biggest producers of plastic waste in the world, and we export about two thirds of it. The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), has put it well:
“The government has made big promises to match environmental standards from Europe and to ban plastic waste exports. There can be no dither or delay. The British people expect to see these exports banned, more recycling of materials at home and faster action on the climate crisis. It is up to ministers to deliver on their promises and fast, but this does not look good.”
In conclusion, I urge the Minister to think about the social cost of the issues we are discussing, as well as the environmental costs. It is important to remember the role of local authorities here too. They are on the frontline of waste collection and recycling. I urge the Minister to make the strongest representations to Treasury Ministers to ensure that councils have the resources they need. The Minister will recall that until the end of last year we were covered by the EU waste directive, among other pieces of waste-related legislation. Can she update the House on what she is doing to ensure no lowering of the standards in that directive now that the transition has come to an end? Can she also confirm that the UK will maintain the EU definition of waste?
Labour is committed to increasing recycling rates and improving the processes around doing so. We recognise the importance of taking people with us and argue that if we do not have buy-in from the public, we are unlikely to achieve the sort of change and progress that our planet desperately needs. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington for calling this debate and optimistically encourage him to support our amendments to the Environment Bill when they are debated on Report, because that is how we will seize the opportunity to put incineration behind us and move forward to a new world of ambitious and effective recycling, one that recognises and unlocks the value in what was once seen as waste.
It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs McVey.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate, on what remains a very fiery topic. We have all been here before, and I think it shows how much interest and knowledge there is on this subject. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) in particular for securing the debate. I understand that he has particular concerns for his constituents relating to the energy recovery facility at Beddington, as well as the draft south London waste plan. He pulled no punches on the subject of his Liberal Democrat council; I think he has got that firmly on the record.
Indeed, we had another attack on a Liberal Democrat council from the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), although he seems to have disappeared. He also raised some concerns about his council’s plans. The local authority for Sutton, in which my hon. Friend’s constituency is situated, is achieving a recycling rate of about 49% and is about the fifth highest of the London boroughs. It is therefore making strides in this particular direction, although he raises important issues about whether incineration is the agreed method for achieving much of that.
As I have said in previous debates, the Government’s intention remains very firmly on “reduce, reuse, recycle”, moving the country towards a circular economy. Every hon. Friend and Member has mentioned this, even the shadow Minister and I agree on this, and it was very eloquently put in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams). Actions that we are taking will minimise the amount of waste that reaches the lower levels of the waste hierarchy. That is very important, as we heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who uses his experience in the industry to draw our attention to that issue. This is the Government’s intention, and everything in the Environment Bill is moving us in that direction.
Evidence of our determination and commitment to limiting the waste that needs to be treated at energy-from-waste facilities, or in landfill for that matter, can be seen quite clearly through the landmark Environment Bill, which we introduced to Parliament in January 2020. Among other things, it contains broad powers to establish deposit return schemes, such as for drinks containers, and extended producer responsibility, and to stipulate a consistent set of materials, including food waste, that must be collected from households and businesses to help to make recycling services more consistent.
The Government are committed to improving the quality and increasing the quantity of materials collected for recycling so that we meet our target of 65% of municipal waste being recycled by 2035. However, to meet that target, recycling will have to be easier for householders. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) raised the issue of students being confused when they go from one area to another, and she is absolutely right. That is why we are making consistent collections law under the Environment Bill.
In those collections, the core set of materials that will need to be collected will be plastic, metal, glass, paper, card, food and garden waste. The hon. Member for Leeds North West raised food waste. It is a shame he is no longer in his place, because I wanted to highlight that food waste is going to be collected; that is absolutely essential. Just over £16 million is in the process of being awarded, or has already been awarded, to ensure that food waste is collected and redistributed by more than 300 organisations. That has been really important during the coronavirus pandemic, and I wanted to highlight that.
Anaerobic digestion is the preferred treatment for food waste. We are seeking views on that in our consultations, and we will be publishing them shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley also raised that. We have to take a balanced approach as we consider all these things. Anaerobic digestion can also produce digestate, and one has to consider what the effect of that will be on the environment, so all these options have to be considered in the round.
The Environment Bill will help us drive towards a minimum 70% recycling rate of packaging waste by 2030, and we will be consulting shortly on those measures, together with further action on waste prevention. That will help us reduce the amount of England’s waste that goes to incineration and landfill.
I hear the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised previously about the fact that having a waste incinerator in the local area can affect recycling rates. Existing permit conditions, together with new measures that we introduced in October 2020, will restrict energy-from-waste plants from accepting material that is suitable for recycling. It is not the intention that it goes to incineration. Reuse, recycle and longer life have to come long before anything gets to incineration. We need to get higher recycling rates across the board, and local authorities will have to take that into account.
Despite our high ambitions, there will always be waste that cannot be recycled or reused, potentially because it is contaminated or because there is no end market. There are choices to make about how we manage that unavoidable residual waste, and in making them we need to consider the environmental impact.
The legacy of our reliance on landfill is responsible for about 75% of carbon emissions from the waste sector, so it is not a simple matter of switching back to landfilling non-recyclable waste. That is why we have been very clear in our resources and waste strategy, which I am glad the shadow Minister has brought to our attention, that we wish to reduce the level of municipal waste sent to landfill to 10% or less by 2035, and it is why we are actively exploring policy options to work towards eliminating all biodegradable waste to landfill by 2030.
Incinerating waste also carries a carbon impact, but the evidence available to us shows that for most mixed-waste streams commonly sent to energy from waste plants, the carbon impact is lower than if it was sent to landfill. One of the main issues is the fossil plastic content in the residual waste stream. Measures that we are putting in place will limit the amount of plastic and other recyclables that end up in energy from waste, and that will help to reduce greenhouse gas impacts. We will continue to consider what else we can do to ensure we remain on our pathway to meet net zero.
Of course, the Government also want to drive greater efficiency from waste plants, including through BEIS initiatives, to encourage the use of the heat that the plants produce, as well as the electricity generated. In addition, other thermal technologies, which we are following closely, can potentially achieve greater efficiency, reduce the environmental impact and deliver outputs beyond electricity generation.
It should also be noted that carbon capture technology could be applied to energy-from-waste facilities, with the potential to reduce emissions from that sector further. Where applicable, pre-combustion capture technologies may be able to produce low-carbon fuels from our waste, which can be used to decarbonise further sectors of the economy.
The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan to transform the green economy includes new measures to become a world leader in carbon capture usage and storage, with an ambition to capture 10 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2030. That is equivalent to all the emissions from, for example, the industrial Humber today. We have announced an extra £200 million of new funding to create two carbon capture clusters by the mid-2020s, with another two set to be created by 2030.
Air quality has been touched on by a number of my hon. Friends. The Government are fully committed to reducing air pollution. The World Health Organisation has praised the UK clean air strategy as
“an example for the rest of the world to follow”.
I have quoted that many times. We are delivering a £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution. Rightly, air quality was raised by a number of Members, but we are getting to grips with tackling it, particularly through the measures in the Environment Bill, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough will agree with me that we are driving in that direction.
The Environment Agency assesses the emissions from new energy-from-waste plants as part of its permitting process, and consults Public Health England on every application that it receives. The Environment Agency will not issue an environmental permit if the proposed plant will have a significant impact on human health and, indeed, the environment. Once they are operational, the plants are closely regulated.
I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington recently called for more air quality monitoring stations to be put in place across his constituency, especially near the Beddington waste incinerator, so that residents can have access to air quality data, but the Environment Agency has said that ambient air monitoring around operating incinerators is not a reliable method of establishing the impact, as it does not identify the source of the emissions. We consider it better to use air dispersion modelling to predict the impact, based on the highest allowed emissions. We have audited the modelling and we are satisfied that it is suitable for assessing the impact from the installation. Hon. Members should note that Public Health England has stated that
“modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington on raising the issue with us yet again. I hope that I have reassured him that the actions we are already taking will lead to higher levels of recycling and shift us towards the circular economy, away from take, make, use and throw, which everyone has lived with for so long. It is essential that we move. Harnessing the energy within residual waste has its place as part of a holistic waste management system delivering value from resource.
I just want to touch on the tax issue. Should wider policies not deliver the Government’s waste ambitions in the long term, the introduction of a tax on incineration of waste will be considered, taking into account how a tax would work alongside landfill tax and the possible impacts on local authorities. Similarly, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge, knows that we have committed to banning sending polluting plastic waste to non-OECD countries. We shall consult all the relevant people about that shortly. I shall wind up there, leaving my hon. Friend to conclude.
I thank the Minister for wrapping up the debate, and am indeed reassured about what the Government are doing. My concern comes from the fact that my local authority is failing the residents of Beddington, in particular, so badly. I thank all the hon. Members who have attended and taken part in the debate, many of whom have attended many such debates before. We raised many salient points, and I do not have time to go through them all, but I want to press again the point about the need to look further up the waste hierarchy in dealing with waste in the United Kingdom, and to get compostable and recyclable waste out of incinerators and therefore reduce the need for them. Through behaviour, and through policy incentives, we can move to a place where incinerators are needed less and less. Let us hope that in future they will not be needed at all. I join my hon. Friend the Minister in welcoming the recycling rates in Sutton. Residents are working hard to do the right thing. It is just a shame that the council does not back them to do it. I thank everyone for attending the debate.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).