Tuesday 16 March 2021
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Commonwealth Day 2021
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered Commonwealth Day 2021.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I want to thank you personally for the work that you have done for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association over many years, as did your father before you. This debate is always an absolute pleasure for me, as it is for colleagues. As I look at the list of speakers today, I see that many have been in touch with the CPA and worked diligently with it and helped it over many years. I am delighted to see so many on this call today.
Some might wonder why this debate is taking place after the formal date of Commonwealth Day. The answer is a very simple and good one: the Commonwealth celebrations clashed with International Women’s Day, and the Commonwealth valiantly supports worldwide women’s issues. It is, after all, led by one of the best and most renowned women in the world, who is totally committed to her job. So we gracefully stood aside for a week, although in my book, and I think in most of my colleagues’ books, Commonwealth Day is every day. The work of the Commonwealth never stops; it goes on.
The Commonwealth brings together the 54 countries of the family—very different nations with enormously different cultures, languages and races of their own. Some 2.5 billion human beings are part of our family. The figurehead of this unique organisation has done what few could ever achieve so well and has led it with distinction over many years. The goal of the Commonwealth has and always will be to unite all of this with three positive aims: prosperity, democracy and, of course, peace. It is a tall order in today’s world, which is less safe than it used to be, but it is worth every ounce of effort. Much of that effort is unsung, unreported and unseen—in my view, that is a great pity—but vital.
A week ago, the media focused on a single American television interview. I barely saw a mention of the new British trade deals agreed with the 27 Commonwealth nations that have already held trade talks with us such as Kenya and Cameroon. Soon Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India and many more are coming on board, which shows that the Commonwealth, which we are a part of, plays a vital role for all of us.
There are critics who will continue to claim that the Commonwealth is just a pale reinvention of the economic model of old empire, but they could not be more wrong and, in a way, arrogant. The whole purpose of the Commonwealth is to stand up to prejudice and promote diversity and prosperity at every level. The Commonwealth is about recognising individual weaknesses and, above all, sharing our incredible strengths. The extraordinary range of study and research delivered by many arms of the Commonwealth organisation has proved to be an immense force for good worldwide—through the Clerk system, Select Committees, our own Hansard, and all the things that we put together in all of our Parliaments to make this work.
The many ways in which parliamentary government is promoted bear mentioning as well. The Commonwealth applauds democracy, and I believe strongly that it helps to make it happen fairly. The Commonwealth is not a single answer to all the world’s ills—of course not: we do not try to be, and we never have. But the role it plays is of very valuable and lasting importance, and sometimes it is too easy to mock. However, its influence and impact are difficult to equal or—I would very strongly suggest—to replace. Next year, the biggest multi-sport event to be held in the UK in 10 years will take place in Birmingham. Thousands of acres of forest will be planted around the city to ensure it meets its target of becoming carbon neutral. I speak, of course, about our very special Commonwealth games, which I first went to as a young boy in Edinburgh.
The practical example behind this spirit of friendly competition is its extraordinary organisation. Such international games have long been favoured by men, as we know, but the organisers and the public are convinced that this time more medals will be won by women. That is because the role of women in sport is now recognised as an overdue, realistic ambition by every nation in the Commonwealth.
The role of women in tackling covid-19 has been a global reality recognised and nurtured by the whole Commonwealth. The great thing is that we in the Commonwealth all believe in equality. We believe in change—the right change; we believe in progress; and above all, we believe in tomorrow. We will continue to play that part. As chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I am more delighted than I can say with my colleagues on the executive committee, which meets tonight, for all the work they put in. However, we do face challenges with the situation of status. The status issue of the Commonwealth has gone on for too long. We all accept that.
At this point, I must pay tribute to the formidable Lord Ahmad, who has been extremely good at helping us to see that we can change the status of the Commonwealth. That does mean that we need parliamentary time and, to that end, I and so many colleagues have been in touch with the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister to see what we can do to foster that change—even if it is through a Private Member’s Bill, started either at this end or the other. We need to make this happen. It is crucial and, quite honestly, as an international organisation we now need to grasp that nettle.
I would like to thank Emilia Lifaka, the chairperson of the CPA. She has done a phenomenal job and is a great friend to all of us. She is a very formidable woman indeed—someone you do not cross. The Commonwealth has been led beautifully the last few years, and I am delighted about that.
I also thank vice-chairperson John Ajaka, who is standing down and leaving Parliament in Australia this year. He has done a remarkable job and, again, we must give our grateful thanks.
Personally, I would like to thank my colleagues on the executive council. It works because we work together, and I am delighted with the vice-chairman, the treasurer, and everyone else—we all know who we are; most of us are on this call—for the work they put in to make sure that we can do what we do.
I am sorry that we have not been able to travel or do everything we would like to do, but today, for instance, we are meeting our Canadian counterparts. The meetings go on and on, and I am grateful to the Clerks of the House, the Select Committee Clerks, Hansard and everyone else who takes part in our Commonwealth meetings for the effort they put in, alongside clerks, reporters, Select Committee Chairs and Members from around the world. We all learn from each other, and we keep on learning.
I would also like to thank the incredible team at the CPA UK branch, led by Jon Davies and Helen Haywood. They have all been remarkable over the past, rather difficult year. They have worked continuously not only to support the executive committee, but to support the Commonwealth generally, and they have done so incredibly efficiently. It has not been easy, and at times it has been intensely frustrating for them, but they have kept their humour and done it with enormous aplomb.
Lastly, I would like to thank Stephen Twigg, our former colleague who took over as the secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. He has done an incredible job, and I am very grateful to Jarvis Matiya for backing him up and stepping in when it was needed to make sure that everything ran smoothly.
From what we have had over the last few weeks and right across the Commonwealth, one can see the amount that is coming out from the secretary-general—all of it challenging, all of it useful and all of it helpful. I can only say that this is a very strong family led by a remarkable woman, running together for the future of the Commonwealth and the future of the people.
I thank Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger for his speech and for his very kind comments at the beginning of the debate. As Mr Liddell-Grainger has not taken up all the time allotted to him, I am able to give each Member five minutes to speak. I call our colleague from Sunderland Central, Julie Elliott.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am very proud to be the treasurer of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch, and I thank the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing the debate. I associate myself with all his warm words, both to colleagues on the executive committee and to the amazing staff who make our work on the CPA UK branch possible. They do a wonderful job.
This is an incredibly timely debate, because the position that the UK holds in the world and its relationships with other countries have changed demonstrably over the last couple of years. Although we are not here to debate that change or our opinion on whether it was the right thing to do, it is undoubtedly important to refer to the incredibly positive work done through our relationship with other Commonwealth countries and through our partnerships—in this case, therefore, the incredible amount of work done through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I evidently declare an interest.
The CPA gives us an opportunity to work with parliamentarians across the Commonwealth, providing a forum through which we can learn from each other and talk openly about the issues we face and how to solve them. It also gives me an opportunity to connect with women parliamentarians across the world.
The representation of women in politics and democracy is an incredibly important subject to me. Through my involvement with the CPA, I have had the chance in this Session to connect with women parliamentarians in Bangladesh, Sierra Leone and Australia, to name a few. It was an incredible opportunity to learn about their relationship with their democracies and representative structures. I believe such conversations are incredibly important: we may be in different countries, but we are more often than not faced with similar barriers to progression and achievement, similar objections and similar obstructions. Through a constant dialogue, we are able to learn how others have dealt with such situations.
The debates that have happened about the place of women in society—the most recent is something of which we are all aware—show how important it is to have women in positions of decision making and supporting other women across the world. Through the Commonwealth, we are able to work with women parliamentarians and show solidarity in an increasingly fractured world, so I return to the original point that I was making about a post-Brexit world. As we reset our relationships with other countries, the Commonwealth provides existing strong bonds with a whole host of other countries. Although the UK is just one equal member among 54 other equals, it has a unique prominence and significance that must be made the most of, for a range of different reasons.
Finally, there are many issues that simply go beyond borders, much like the issues of representation and equality of women, as I have mentioned. Two further examples are climate change and modern slavery, which the CPA has done a lot of work on. These are issues that simply cannot be solved unilaterally. The Commonwealth, with the bonds and relationships that it provides, is an extremely important forum in which we can work with others, learn what works and what does not, and ensure that progress is made for the benefit of all. Even if the debate is taking place a little after it happened, this Commonwealth Day is a chance to celebrate what joins us together and the support that we give each other.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this Commonwealth Day debate. I do so as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to South Africa.
Africa is, of course, home to a number of Commonwealth countries and it is a continent of enormous opportunity. Today, the continent accounts for 17% of the world’s population but only 3% of its gross domestic product. By 2050, more than a quarter of the world’s population will be African, and that population will be overwhelmingly young and middle class. The continent is experiencing the fastest growth of the middle class in the world. Its collective gross domestic product is nearly $7 trillion and is among the fastest growing in the world. Business opportunities are soaring at an unprecedented rate.
All this presents an enormous opportunity for the businesses of the United Kingdom. As we trade and invest in each other’s economies, the United Kingdom looks forward to making our trading partners richer as our own prosperity grows. South Africa is the United Kingdom’s largest trading partner in Africa and we do trade together every year worth £8 billion, which I look forward to seeing increase significantly as we both emerge from the covid pandemic.
The United Kingdom is a major investor in South Africa, with almost £15 billion in investments, and many South African businesses invest here in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is mobilising UK expertise and capital to support President Ramaphosa’s ambitions for infrastructure to act as a flywheel of recovery. That represents a major commercial opportunity for UK businesses, with a pipeline of billions of pounds’ worth of orders.
The United Kingdom is also seeking opportunities for commercial partnership to support South Africa’s transition from coal-based energy generation to renewables. The South African Government will be seeking proposals for 2.6 GW of solar and wind energy under round 5 of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer programme. I am also keen to see what collaboration the United Kingdom can put in place to help South African coal miners and others in fossil fuel industries to transition to high-skilled, highly paid renewable energy jobs.
We already have existing partnerships between the United Kingdom’s further education colleges and South Africa’s technical vocational education and training colleges. I would like to see that collaboration enhanced.
South Africa remains a very attractive proposition for UK businesses. It is the most diversified economy in Africa, drawing heavily on UK legal and financial systems. It uses English as the language of business and it is on a similar time zone. Its role as a gateway to Africa will continue, particularly with a strong investment in the African continental free trade area.
I am, however, disappointed that so many British businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, are unaware of the enormous opportunities in Africa generally and South Africa in particular. I hope that businesses in my constituency and across the United Kingdom will grasp the opportunity to trade with and invest in South Africa as South Africa continues to invest in the United Kingdom, so that we can be trading partners of choice for each other in the future and for many years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to speak in today’s debate. At a time when increased global co-operation is vital in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, it is right that we celebrate our union on this Commonwealth Day, as well as the fantastic work of our Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as we look outwards to our family of nations.
It would be wrong, however, to celebrate the global diversity of our Commonwealth without acknowledging Britain’s legacy and standing in a post-covid and post-Brexit world. Much has been documented on the historic scourges of slavery, colonialism and empire, but I do not believe that the current Government are doing themselves any favours by creating their own scourge: the hostile environment policy towards immigrants, a points-based system, issues with students and tourists, and the recent accommodation of asylum seekers in disused military barracks. That is to say nothing of the Government’s missed opportunities to trade closely with the likes of India, which previously was one of our largest trading partners, because we refuse to make allowances on our immigration legislation. It would also have been appropriate for the Government to stand fully behind Commonwealth nations and others for a waiver to access much-needed vaccines and treatments during the covid crisis. Sadly, that opportunity to combat inequalities in global vaccine distribution was missed, and I fear that it will only harm us all.
I want our celebration of the Commonwealth to be a renewal of our commitment to making things right for everybody across the world. I therefore fear that the Government may at times remain tone deaf to the global needs of the wider world and the Commonwealth. Members may have heard me speak with pride about my Ghanaian heritage, and will continue to do so. Like many people of Ghanaian heritage in the UK, however, I was appalled to see Ghana’s LGBTQ centre in the capital, Accra, close only one month after opening its doors to the community. There is a worrying trend of homophobia and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people by Government, religious institutions and the media across some Commonwealth countries. No law in Ghana states that being LGBTQ+ is illegal, but outdated colonial law validates that unjust treatment, because it is deemed to be “unnatural carnal knowledge” and a misdemeanour offence with a penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment. Since the closure of the centre by national security forces, we have seen members and leaders of the Ghanaian LGBTQ community being persecuted, and fearing for their own lives as a result.
That is why I was proud to join prominent Britons of Ghanaian heritage—including Edward Enninful, the editor of Vogue, Naomi Campbell and Idris Elba—in expressing my dismay at the ongoing situation and calling for the country to create a pathway for allyship, protection and support for this marginalised community. It is important that at this time we praise the work of organisations that continue to go above and beyond in supporting LGBTQ people right across the world, such as UK Black Pride and its formidable leader, Lady Phyll.
The Kaleidoscope Trust is also an LGBTQ+ international human rights charity that continues to work to uphold human rights in the Commonwealth—it actually hosts the Commonwealth equality network as well as being its secretariat. The Kaleidoscope Trust is the only accredited human rights-based organisation focused on these issues. The Government in the UK must continue to do all they can to put pressure on any country that is causing issues with the human rights of LGBTQ people right across the world. It is right that we use our influence and continue to do so with equality. As we celebrate Commonwealth Day, it is important that we are 100% behind all of those who may face any sort of persecution across these countries and right across the world.
I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger) on obtaining this important debate. He is obviously key, given his position. Now that I have started to speak, it is clear that I have an interest: I have dual nationality. I carry a New Zealand passport from one end of the world, and a UK passport from this end.
As everybody has pointed out, and will continue to do so, the Commonwealth is a unique worldwide family. It is international, colourful in every way, and a fantastic mixture of races, religions, languages and creeds. It is based around the United Kingdom and the Queen. In saying that, I cautiously recognise that New Zealand’s near neighbour—that little island called Australia just off the shore of New Zealand—occasionally has a few republican problems. Ask any New Zealander and they will explain that merely being an Australian is a problem in itself.
I should explain that point a little. These two old Commonwealth nations in the south Pacific have had a huge rivalry for probably a century or longer. The insults and jokes between them are phenomenal, but every joke can be turned round and played back the other way. The two have huge battles, particularly in sport and most especially in rugby, yet in normal work and normal life, and especially in times of war, these two old Commonwealth nations work extremely closely, and particularly as part of the British Commonwealth. Along with Canada and South Africa, Australia and New Zealand make up what I call the old Commonwealth. They have a Commonwealth link, reinforced by huge kith and kin links, and a two-way flow of tourism and migration dating back almost two centuries.
The biggest examples of kith and kin links involves times of conflict. In the first world war, there was Gallipoli, which led to Anzac Day, the antipodean equivalent of Remembrance Day. Anzac Day there is very important. The people in these countries remember the soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought for the United Kingdom as part of the Commonwealth. I found it hard to understand as a child. I remember living in my little village, and I do mean a little village in the north of the south island of New Zealand, and we had a war memorial. The war memorial walls were covered with the names of soldiers who had died—hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, just from that little village.
I have visited Monte Cassino, the scene of the battle for Rome in world war two, which took place between 17 January and 18 May 1944. In fact, four battles were fought there. The soldiers involved on our side were called allied troops. With the exception of the Polish forces, who finally went over the top, they all came from Commonwealth countries. A total of 54,000 men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Canada died at Monte Cassino, plus quite a number of Gurkhas. The reality of what happened there came home to me during a visit, and I recommend anybody who is in the area to go and visit, too.
These Commonwealth countries were not particularly happy when the United Kingdom went into the Common Market. However, rather than sitting and moping, they set about making trade deals with many nations, rather than just suffering from the loss of trade with the United Kingdom. Brexit and our eagerness for free trade deals will now enable us to use our Commonwealth ties to obtain trade deals more easily with Commonwealth nations.
Australia and New Zealand are formidable agricultural producers. Fortunately, rather than seeking to dominate the UK market in agriculture, they wish to work with our farmers to fulfil the trade deals that they themselves have with other nations, such as China and those in the EU.
The opportunities that these Commonwealth countries offer for our manufactured goods are also formidable. Neither Australia nor New Zealand have their own home vehicle production, and I believe that the same is true of Canada. They could and should be formidable markets for British-made cars, particularly Jaguar Land Rover cars.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) about immigration. When I first came to this country, immigration was easy, or at least easier, if someone came from a Commonwealth country and had professional training. Now that we are looking after our own immigration, we will be able to return to using the expertise that we can gain from abroad, particularly from the old Commonwealth nations, and the national health service in this country will benefit dramatically.
The possibilities that a partnership between Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK will bring for this country, and the access that it should help to provide to the trans-Pacific partnership, are also of great interest. Being a Commonwealth of nations must grease the wheels just as we desperately need trade—indeed, it is starting to work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is also a pleasure to follow the opening speech in this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who is proving to be an excellent chair of the CPA. I well remember the last time I attended a CPA conference in 2014, with him and other colleagues, in Cameroon. I had come from a visit to Kenya, which, given the health issues in Africa at the time, with the Ebola virus, ended up as a single-handed visit, but I was able to use the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and its offices and get support from the British high commissions in both Kenya and Cameroon to advance the values, objectives and soft engagement—the connections and everything else—that the Commonwealth brings to us. It is an institution of enormous value in that soft sense, but it can also have a slightly harder edge.
We ought to note that the Commonwealth appeared in the conflict, stability and security fund for the period between 2018 and 2020. There was a fairness programme, aimed at Commonwealth nations, that focused on supporting universal access to justice; effective, accountable and inclusive legal institutions; democratic participation and inclusive decision making; transparent Government and trade; fundamental freedoms and non-discriminatory laws and policies; and promoting greater civil engagement among young people and disadvantaged groups.
The advancement of those values, and of institutions on those lines, is hugely important for the future of developing nations, because once they get those things right, international investors can take advantage of the labour price advantage of those countries, if they see it, knowing that their investments will be secure in those nations and that they will not be subject to the terrible economic price that can be paid through corruption in the governmental and political process. The way would be open to enable those countries to move rapidly towards greater economic equality with us. That is a huge security interest to the United Kingdom, and it would begin to address the issues raised by the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) about immigration pressures on the United Kingdom.
Fairness and equality are a central economic interest, and the values and policies to secure that can be advanced by the institutions of the Commonwealth quietly coming together and engaging us, parliamentarian to parliamentarian, civil service to civil service, as well as through the excellent Clerks’ programme about the management of Parliament that the chair of the CPA promoted.
I will now focus on the announcement we will get today from the Prime Minister on the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. To a degree, that is the conflict, stability and security fund writ large as our policy. By bringing together elements of expenditure around goals, values and the promotion of institutions that deliver security as well as the harder edge of security for the United Kingdom, there will be many advantages, and that will hopefully be a significantly better way of managing the security challenge that is inevitably linked to values.
On values, I chair the all-party parliamentary group on global LGBT+ rights, and I am delighted that we have had a really good take-up for our parliamentary liaison scheme, which will use the informal links we have as a nation and as parliamentarians—the hon. Member for Streatham, with her Ghanaian heritage, made that clear—to find individuals to help institutions in those nations representing LGBT groups who have been criminalised and oppressed. It will quietly make links with those parliamentarians to keep an eye on the British high commission and embassies to ensure that we are standing up for the values that we profess as a nation and actually deliver them in practice. The Commonwealth is a fantastic vehicle for doing that. As I said, it is a delight to take part in the debate.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing this important and timely debate, as Commonwealth Day was last week and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2021 is due to be held in Kigali, in Rwanda, this summer.
CHOGM, in my view, is an excellent opportunity for the UK to lead by example in the Commonwealth, including by raising the importance of girls’ education, international conservation and women in trade, all of which should be critical to the Government’s global Britain agenda. I welcome the Prime Minister’s ambition that all girls should receive 12 years of quality education, and I commend the Government for the work they are doing on the SheTrades programme throughout the Commonwealth. I was honoured to have been appointed as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Kenya, and I am particularly pleased that, in this role, I am able to work with such a crucial Commonwealth country, and to connect with its citizens.
Let me start by recognising the devastating impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had, and not just on my constituency of Stafford but throughout the Commonwealth. According to a recent report from the OECD, covid-19 has now pushed the number of people living in extreme poverty in Africa to over 1 billion. The immense scale of the challenges that lie ahead demand collaboration across the Commonwealth, and I am determined to ensure that our countries work hand in hand so that, together, we can build back better, stronger and greener than ever.
At the end of last year, I attended the signing of the UK-Kenya economic partnership agreement, where we were fortunate enough to host Cabinet Secretary Maina, in person, at the Foreign Office. This new trade deal between Kenya and the UK ensures that, as the UK forges a new path outside the European Union, businesses in Kenya— such as those selling tea, coffee, food and flowers—can continue to enjoy duty-free access to the UK market, supporting jobs and livelihoods in both our countries. Trade deals such as this have now been replicated with countries throughout the Commonwealth, and much of this, I believe, is due to the strong existing diplomatic ties that the UK has with our Commonwealth partners.
I was also pleased to attend the Africa investment conference in January, where it was clear to me that the Government remain absolutely committed to the Commonwealth and to delivering a global Britain agenda. At the inaugural UK-Africa investment summit just last year, which was hosted by the Prime Minister, I was pleased to see deals facilitated that totalled more than £6.5 billion and spanned sectors from infrastructure to retail, technology and energy.
In November, I also attended the UK-Kenya economic development forum, which was also attended by the UK’s Africa Minister, who is here with us today. I was pleased that the UK announced so much funding for trade and investment opportunities, which really showed the Government’s commitment to this region.
Last month, I hosted my first virtual visits to Kenya, where I saw at first hand the aim of this year’s Commonwealth Day, which is a theme of delivering a common future. I first met the UK-backed TradeMark East Africa to see the excellent work that it is doing to improve trade infrastructure and improve the goods flow for British businesses. I also held discussions with the Kenyan Insurance Regulatory Authority about how it is increasing financial inclusion, particularly in rural Kenya. I also visited the Durham School, which I commend as the first British school to open in east Africa, to see this international school’s partnership with the UK in transforming education opportunities for children in Nairobi.
Finally, to coincide with International Women’s Day, I held a roundtable with the British Chamber of Commerce on female businesses in Kenya. We had a very interesting discussion about inclusive leadership, supporting SMEs and how to get more women involved in businesses.
I was reminded of the connections between the Commonwealth and my constituency when I spoke with the executive director of General Electric in east Africa, as many of my constituents are employed in its Stafford-based facility, and it is of course exporting generators to these less developed countries, creating jobs both at home and abroad. It is very clear to me that increasing trade can lead to business opportunities across the Commonwealth, from Kenya to Stafford, helping both to build back better. The Queen said in her Commonwealth message last week:
“Looking forward, relationships with others across the Commonwealth will remain important as we strive to deliver a common future that is sustainable and more secure”.
For me, that is the key message. Our Commonwealth community is immensely valuable and we must continue to increase trade for the UK, and throughout the Commonwealth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for her speech. I also pay tribute to the chairman of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger). He has done a brilliant job, with the entire team, to unite the UK in terms of our relationship with the Commonwealth. It is of course right to pay tribute to the leader of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty the Queen, and the entire royal family, who do so much good work, across the world, bringing together our disparate nations.
The Prime Minister will set out Britain’s relationships across the world in the integrated review. It is right that we will return to many of our historical links, which we unfortunately turned our back on, in many ways, when we joined the European Union. I am struck by the fact that on visits to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the feeling was generally that the United Kingdom had turned its back on its historical ties. It is vital that we reunite and redevelop those ties.
I want to concentrate on the Indian subcontinent. I have the privilege of representing a constituency with people from every country on the planet and every faith on earth. We have a heavy concentration of people whose families originate from the Indian subcontinent. Later this week we shall debate human rights in Sri Lanka. There is no doubt that in 2016 CHOGM helped in trying to isolate and highlight the problems in Sri Lanka after the bloody civil war. I shall not dwell on that longer.
On 26 March we shall celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh as an independent state. It is a cause for celebration. The United Kingdom was instrumental in assisting Bangladesh to become independent and develop as a nation thereafter, and our strong links must remain. I have had the opportunity, with others, to visit Bangladesh to participate in social action projects to help to improve the life of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens. Parliamentarians are right to do that.
Our relationship with India goes back more than 300 years and it is fascinating that even now India is the third biggest investor in the United Kingdom. We used to be the third biggest investor in India, but I am afraid we have slipped down the leader board. There is much to recover. I look forward to the fact that in addition to visits by the Foreign Secretary and the International Trade Secretary the Prime Minister will, probably in April, visit India to set out our new relationship as we go forward in the world. It will incorporate international trade—and of course we have done new deals around the world—combined with security, defence and other aspects of our relationship. That will enable and entitle citizens from India and across the Commonwealth to come here and study, and our citizens to study in India and other countries around the world. It is vital to allow and encourage young people to build up friendships and relationships across the world, so that we and other countries will be friendly and well disposed towards each other.
That is part and parcel of the work that we have to undertake in the Commonwealth. It is an institution with no parallel anywhere in the history of the world. We are now in reality equal partners—different countries coming together because we have a shared past, but also a shared future.
As we pay tribute to the Commonwealth, let us unite in ensuring that we do so by encouraging diversity, and encouraging different people from different backgrounds to celebrate the fact that we are one Commonwealth. When we look at sport, recreation, education and trade, we realise that this is an unparalleled opportunity, and we must grasp it for the good of not only our citizens, but the citizens of the world.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this great Commonwealth debate, Mr Paisley, which I think was started shortly after I was the inaugural chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Commonwealth, as the Minister, who is in his place, will remember. It is wonderful to hear so many colleagues talking about their positive experiences with, and feelings for, the Commonwealth. We are, in one sense, all children of the Commonwealth—in my case, like one or two others, literally. My first years were spent in Kenya, where I later served as a diplomat and, perhaps even more importantly, was married, so our children, too, are children of the Commonwealth.
Today, I want to focus on one particular link that I think is very important, which is the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the Commonwealth; I speak, obviously, as the chair of the WFD. This is particularly relevant with the Minister in his place, because he will remember vividly how in 2017, when he was chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—a role now ably held by our hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who I congratulate on securing this debate—we forged the Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy, or CP4D, between his organisation at that time, the Westminster Foundation, and two other partners.
At that time, during our period as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth, we did some remarkable work in 15 different Commonwealth countries and 30 legislatures. Above all, we promoted the incredibly important values of inclusion and participation in democracy by those with disabilities, those who are female, young people, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as increasing accountability through effective and transparent parliamentary practices. If, during those two years, we did achieve some valuable things, can I encourage the Minister to consider—even though we are in more strapped times today—the idea of a daughter of CP4D, and not letting go of that precious momentum of inclusive and transparent democracy throughout the Commonwealth?
However, even sadder would be the complete withdrawal of the WFD from our current Commonwealth programme. That is, sadly, a possibility unless the funding is secured by the end of this month for our activities in the remainder of this year and the years ahead. Currently, we run the Commonwealth Equality Project, which is a £1 million project in 15 Commonwealth countries. We work in participation with decision makers and civic society to make meaningful progress on gender equality and LGBT issues, which have been mentioned by several colleagues already this morning, and there is a strong need for that programme, as various Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), have stressed. The UK has led real efforts to address these gaps.
The funding for this programme ends on 31 March, so I must be blunt in saying that unless we have confirmation of funding for the Westminster Foundation within the next few weeks, there is a real danger that this programme will come to an end, and the WFD will not be able to run programmes in the Commonwealth at all. This would be particularly sad for women and girls and marginalised groups, who benefit directly from this programme, as those in the CPA who were fortunate enough to meet some of the beneficiaries who visited here in 2019 will vividly remember.
I will finish by saying that this is a wonderful debate; I am delighted it has been secured, and we should maintain this practice every year. There is masses we can all talk about in terms of the Commonwealth. I would love to have time to mention Malaysia, a great Commonwealth country in the far east, where I had the honour of being the Prime Minister’s trade envoy, and which is still doing great things—there was a very successful visit by the Prince of Wales only a couple of years ago—but today I have one clear plea for the Minister: please make sure that the Westminster Foundation’s funding can continue after the end of March, to maintain these valuable programmes in the Commonwealth.
It is a great pleasure to be called to speak in this very important debate on Commonwealth Day, Mr Paisley. As we know, the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 sovereign states—it is pretty impressive. It covers almost 30 million sq km, with almost 2.5 billion people, and stretches across the entire globe, covering 21% of the world’s land area. Along with Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the Commonwealth will have a larger share of the global population as time passes. Given that the majority of member nations are developing, the Commonwealth share of global GDP will also increase. Combined GDP was £10.4 trillion in 2017, moving to an estimated £13 trillion in 2020. The Commonwealth is a big beast.
Importantly, politically, no one Government within the Commonwealth exercises power over the other members. It is not a political union. The Queen exerts no political or Executive power; she merely occupies a symbolic position. Rather, this is an international organisation made stronger by the social, political and economic diversity of our members, where all are regarded as equals. We operate with common values and goals and we do a lot of work on the promotion of individual liberty, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, good governance, equality before the law, free trade and world peace, so it is very persuasive.
I want to make three points today. First, politically, we have a golden opportunity now with our position as a strong voice within the Commonwealth to forge closer links with the many up-and-coming nations that we share this membership with. In the post-EU world, the UK is the diaspora—we have people from all over the world and the Commonwealth living in the UK—and with this group of countries having a GDP of nearly two thirds of that of the EU, it is a fantastic opportunity to forge closer links. I am really pleased that the Government have made great progress this year and last year in new free trade deals around the world, but so much more can be done. I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to enhance mutual prosperity through trade with our Commonwealth friends.
Secondly, the Commonwealth games, due to be held in Birmingham in 2022, are a fantastic opportunity. We must showcase what we do. It is good for Birmingham, good for the Commonwealth and good for sport. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Government back the games fully. If we need more money, so be it.
Lastly, I have been made aware of significant issues facing Commonwealth soldiers in our armed forces and Commonwealth veterans. It frustrates me deeply that their service to our nation has yet to be fully rewarded with a clear offer of right to remain. As the commanding officer for 27 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps in Aldershot only a few years ago, I was very proud to command the biggest and most diverse regiment in the British Army, with soldiers from more than 40 countries serving in that regiment. My view is quite clear: if you wear the uniform, go on operations, serve the Crown, serve Her Majesty, you are British—fact. These guys are not mercenaries; they are British.
I urge the Minister to help make two things happen. First, I want to see informal resolution for the eight Fijians who recently lost their court case. Notwithstanding the outcome from the court, it is really important that we recognise their service with an offer of indefinite right to remain. Secondly, I urge the Ministry of Defence to consider a much better offer for our foreign and Commonwealth soldiers. How fantastic would it be for these guys who serve our country, who serve our Crown, to be given what they rightfully deserve?
Today, I will not be calling for city status for Southend, because I know that will happen in any case, but I will be celebrating with others Commonwealth Day.
The CPA is a wonderful organisation; the Minister is a former chairman and is my parliamentary neighbour. Over the years, I have been fortunate to visit many Commonwealth countries. Her Majesty the Queen does a brilliant job in leading the organisation.
I will concentrate briefly on two countries: Sri Lanka and the Maldives. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a supporter of British Tamils, especially the Tamil community in Southend. My constituents have raised the issue of how Mrs Ambihai Selvakumar is being treated and her hunger strike. She is protesting at the violations of human rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and I want to raise that today.
I have recently written to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office about the hunger strike and the destruction of Tamil memorials in Sri Lanka. I was pleased to table early-day motion 305 in support of improving water quality in northern Sri Lanka, where the Tamil community is disproportionately affected. As a nation, we should help those individuals in Commonwealth countries, and improve their quality of life and access to freedom. That most certainly includes the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Maldives is a wonderful country; I have been the chair of the all-party British-Maldives parliamentary group for a number of years, and we held the AGM yesterday. Last year, the Maldives was readmitted to the Commonwealth, so one nation leaves and another one joins. That has been a long-term goal for the nation for several years and it is a testament to the high regard in which the Commonwealth is held that membership is so important.
The benefits of membership have included the promotion of mutual understanding and friendship between its member states, giving increased opportunity to strengthen conservation, democracy and human rights. On a lighter note, the Maldives will also participate in the Commonwealth games next year in Birmingham.
When people think of the Maldives, they first think of luxury holidays, with sandy beaches and all the rest of it. However, that does not present an accurate reflection of the way people live in the Maldives. Tourism counts for nearly two thirds of the GDP, and covid-19 has forced the Maldives to close its borders and tourism industry for months. GDP was forecast to contract between 11.5% and 29.7% in 2020. The country is now in debt to the tune of 128% of GDP.
The Maldives’ main industry, after tourism, is fishing. I have had useful meetings with two of my hon. Friends who are the responsible Ministers. The fishing industry employs around 30% of the country’s population and is responsible for virtually all of the country’s exports. Last year, due to the pandemic, the tuna industry was the sole contributor to the Maldives economy.
The vast majority of the fish caught are tuna, all of which are line and rod caught, which is much better than the other method of, frankly, hoovering them up. The Maldives tuna industry has gone five times beyond the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s requirement to reduce overall catch of yellowfin tuna. The way the fish are caught and the scale of fishing make the industry entirely eco-friendly and sustainable. Women have always participated in the fishery sector. Although industry is dominated by men in most of the world, in the Maldives the current fisheries Minister is a woman. Women also make up the majority of employees at the fish-processing plants.
The Maldives is part of the Commonwealth Blue Charter action group on sustainable coastal fisheries, which aims to support ongoing fisheries programmes and the sustainable management of coastal marine resources. That is central to the sustainability of the country’s fishing industry in the face of climate change.
Given the importance of the fishing industry to the Maldives economy and how sustainable and equal it is, one would have thought that the United Kingdom would have a good trading deal with the country. However, the UK currently imposes import tariffs of 20% on tuna. The Maldives is the only comparable Commonwealth country where that happens. Almost all of the 38 small island developing states have a preferential trade agreement with the UK, and the Maldives is the only Commonwealth country that is not accorded preferential trading.
I have yet to hear a good reason for that; it is such a shame. Considering how sustainable the fishing industry is, I hope the Minister will pass that message on to other Ministers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is also a pleasure to contribute to this debate and to follow a number of interesting contributions from various points on the political compass. As my party’s foreign affairs lead at Westminster, I am fond of the idea of the Commonwealth. I am glad to see 54 sovereign states working together, proving that post-independence countries do work together closely to achieve common endeavours, can co-operate, and maintain bonds and the ties of affection that we all want to continue.
Post-independence, which is my party’s proposition, we will seek to join the Commonwealth as an independent state in our own right—making it 55. We want to maintain the bonds that we have and work together, but we want to work together as sovereign equals because my party has a different vision of Scotland’s best future, and that is a lively debate within Scotland parallel to Commonwealth membership.
Joining the Commonwealth is part of our foreign policy stance going forward, but it is part of our foreign policy stance, not the main one, frankly. The cornerstone of Scotland’s foreign policy will be EU membership. The cornerstone of Scotland’s defence policy will be NATO membership. The cornerstone of our trade policy will be EU membership, because it is possible to have the best of both. It is possible—as the UK enjoyed until recently—to be part of the Commonwealth and part of the EU, as has been proven.
We will look at the Commonwealth on its merits, but the EU is our focus. We want to regain the real-world practical advantages of individuals as citizens able to live, work, study and retire across the whole of the European continent, and to maintain the good relationships with the Commonwealth going forward that will also be useful.
We think it is a potentially useful forum, but I must say—striking a slightly more critical note—that it is also an opportunity missed, and some of the praise that we have heard for the Commonwealth today needs to be balanced with some of the reality that we need to see far greater progress. In 2013, the Commonwealth adopted a charter on justice, democracy, human rights, tolerance, the rule of law, the promotion of women’s rights and others—all laudable aims and very much to be supported.
What we have not seen, however, is the progress towards those aims that needs to actually happen to effect real change in the lives of the people of the sovereign countries working together towards those aims. For Commonwealth countries, the reality is that far too many still fall far too short of the standards we need to see on women’s rights, LGBTI equality and the rule of law. The Commonwealth has been far too quiet in that discussion.
I appreciate keenly that the Commonwealth is not about telling one country or another how to run its affairs, but where there are common aims it is incumbent upon the centre to speak with a loud voice when those standards are falling. We have seen the Commonwealth being far too quiet and too little resource being put into the Commonwealth secretariat. We are seeing a UK that is walking away from its official development assistance commitments in terms of the 0.7%, which really is the gold standard of decency internationally. The gap between perception and reality is what we will be focusing upon and upon which the Commonwealth can do much better.
However, I believe in engaging to make things better. I think the Commonwealth is a potentially useful forum, and we wish it well on Commonwealth Day, albeit recently passed. I look forward to an independent Scotland being part of that co-operation where we will be an enthusiastic voice for precisely the things that we all say we want to see happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship today, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing this debate and for his work with the CPA, and the excellent contributions from a number of Members, including my hon. Friends the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy).
The Labour party has long been a supporter of the positive agenda of the Commonwealth going back decades and we remain a strong supporter today. Many of us will have heard Her Majesty the Queen’s powerful words for Commonwealth Day last week reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on the Commonwealth, where she said
“as we celebrate the friendship, spirit of unity and achievements of the Commonwealth, we have an opportunity to reflect on a time like no other… stirring examples of courage, commitment and selfless dedication to duty have been demonstrated in every Commonwealth nation and territory”.
I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments.
I also begin by expressing my personal and family connections and affection for the Commonwealth, having visited members from Canada to Malawi to Cyprus to New Zealand, and the many meetings and events I have also had the pleasure of doing with the CPA. As a 16 year old, I studied in Canada, my brother lives and works there and my father worked with the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council for 40 years, helping link young people from Cardiff and Wales to Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and all over the world. My constituency in the proud dock city of Cardiff has been shaped by Commonwealth influences from south Asia to the south Pacific, from Africa to the Caribbean. We are also proud of our historical links to European Commonwealth members such as Malta and Cyprus and, of course, the strong links between Malaysia and Cardiff City football club.
The CPA has been rightly praised by many Members. I fully support its work, supporting and strengthening parliamentary democracy throughout the Commonwealth and particularly its key themes in relation to women in Parliament, modern slavery, financial oversight, security, and trade. I was pleased to take part recently in an event with Sierra Leonian parliamentarians through the CPA. I am proud of our overseas territories family too. The CPA UK Overseas Territories Project, now in its second phase, is a particularly important programme supporting public financial management across our overseas territories.
We have heard of the breadth of the Commonwealth, the 2.4 billion people, the voluntary nature of the association and, of course, that countries have joined the Commonwealth that are not formerly part of the British empire, including Rwanda and Mozambique. Others are also seeking membership or observer status, including Somaliland, on which I declare my interests, which the Minister knows. Throughout its history and its proudest moments, the Commonwealth and its citizens have united to create more prosperity through trade, challenge those who undermine human rights and democracy, share knowledge and inspire young people, share culture and act as a key player on trade and climate change.
The work of the Commonwealth is as broad as its membership, from the work of the CPA to the Commonwealth Foundation to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to the Commonwealth games to the Commonwealth Development Corporation, to name but a few. There is much that is positive about our continued relationship with the Commonwealth, but there are also examples of where we have failed and continue to fail. Look at the Windrush scandal. Look at the inequitable treatment of Commonwealth armed forces personnel and veterans, as rightly pointed out by the hon. and gallant Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and which I and others raised in the Armed Forces Bill. Look at the proposed cuts in aid to our Commonwealth partners, which were extraordinarily ill-judged when they face such pressures on health and covid-19, education, challenges facing women and girls, climate change and conflict.
It was particularly saddening, in that respect, to hear this weekend that one of the UK’s genuine national treasures, the Voluntary Service Overseas, is under threat because of uncertainty about its FCDO grant. Its work among 9 million people, the majority of it in Commonwealth countries, stretches back to the early days of the Commonwealth in 1958. Without urgent clarity from Ministers, VSO tragically says that it will have to immediately halt its covid-19 response work, close 14 of its country programmes, including across the Commonwealth, and make 200 of its staff redundant. That would be a genuine tragedy and I hope the Minister can provide some reassurances on that matter. This is an organisation that has had cross-party support for decades.
The political power for change that the Commonwealth represents was highlighted at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018 in the UK and it was a stepping stone on crucial issues, such as the future for young people, who make up 30% of the Commonwealth population, the advancement of rights of women and girls, fighting gender-based sexual violence, improving education around sexual and reproductive rights, strengthening democratic institutions, fighting climate change and, of course, increasing trade. It was a successful summit.
My personal reflections on that event, however, include a meeting I had with LBGTQ+ activists from the Commonwealth Equality Network and organisations such as the Kaleidoscope Trust at the Speaker’s House here in Westminster. We heard powerful speeches from the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on that issue earlier in this debate. It is currently tragic that 35 Commonwealth member states criminalise same-sex activity in some way and persecute LGBTQ+ people across the Commonwealth.
That is a toxic legacy of colonial laws and ideas introduced predominantly by this country during the British empire and we have a particular responsibility. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the former Prime Minister, spoke powerfully in 2018 saying she deeply regrets the role the UK played in criminalising homosexuality abroad and stating,
“Those laws were wrong then, and they are wrong now.”
We have seen in recent days and weeks unacceptable attacks on LGBTQ+ organisations in Ghana, a media campaign and attempts by lawmakers to bring in laws to further discriminate and restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens in Ghana. Such things are not in line with the principles of the Commonwealth nor, indeed, with other United Nations human rights institutions. I hope the Minister can explain whether he has raised this issue with the Ghanaian authorities, what representation our high commissioner has made and what work he will do across the Commonwealth to strengthen human rights and rights for the LGBTQ+ community and other groups.
Thank you, Mr Paisley. Turning to more positive matters, we cannot debate the Commonwealth without mentioning the Commonwealth games. I was inspired as a child by people such as the two-time Commonwealth champion, and now one of my constituents, Colin Jackson. With the youth of the Commonwealth being so important, sports are an increasingly important part of the life of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth parasport is also inspiring millions of young viewers around the world. It was a particular delight to hear that the medal event programme for the Birmingham games has been revealed with more parasports to take part in than ever before and more events for women than men—an incredibly important signal to send.
We are all excited about the progress towards in the games in 2022 when, I hope, we will have made enough progress against the pandemic to be able to welcome back athletes from around the world for a time of celebration and inspiration. Will the Minister update us on the latest planning for the Commonwealth games?
While speaking about youth, I should mention the role of the Association of Commonwealth Universities which provides 100 million students with the opportunity to study in universities across the Commonwealth. Will the Minister say what role it will play in the Turing scholarship scheme?
Trade has been mentioned many times and there are many aspects of important trade in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth trade in goods and services was approximately $560 billion in 2016, and projected to reach $700 billion by 2020. The value of UK exports to the Commonwealth has increased in the last few years, and so has the value of imports. That shows us the importance of the trading partnership which the Commonwealth provides.
However, the partnership must also be based on equity and fairness. The UK Government sadly started the year by letting down Commonwealth citizens and producers in Ghana over the tariffs on fair trade bananas, with the price being paid by the workers and producers. I praise the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) in raising this issue. Like him, I am a Co-operative MP and deeply concerned about the issue, as is the Co-operative party.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) made important points about the Maldives and fishing, which have also been recently raised with me. Will the Minister explain how he will work with his colleagues at the Department for International Trade to ensure that development, sustainability and workers’ rights—highlighted to me by many trade union federations from across the Commonwealth in meetings I held a few months ago—will be at the heart of our trade deals going forward?
The climate change programme of the Commonwealth secretariat is an important player in helping member states work towards building resilience, adaptation, and mitigation in response to climate change. The Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub has aided many countries in accessing finance, especially small island developing states such as Tuvalu. In 2018-19, it helped countries receive $24 million to fight climate change. That is particularly important when countries such as Bangladesh, Tuvalu and other small island states across the Commonwealth face inundation from rising sea levels and, of course, storms. We know the terrible legacy of the hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean in 2017 when huge damage was done. In response to that, Commonwealth funds helped, for example, Antigua and Barbuda receive a grant of £20 million from the green climate fund. Will the Minister set out what role the Commonwealth and its members will play at the upcoming Conference of the Parties in Glasgow? The issue is absolutely critical, not least given the unique risks faced by some of the Commonwealth members by nature of their geography.
I have two final points. First, on human rights and democracy, the political influence that the Commonwealth has had over its member states over many decades is showcased by many interventions made towards members who have not held up the core values of the Commonwealth. We think historically of the Commonwealth’s powerful role in relation to South Africa and apartheid and in relation to Zimbabwe, Fiji and other regimes and putting in place systems for ensuring that democracy is respected in member states. There have been observations of over 70 elections since 1990 and programmes promoting judicial and public administration reform and civil society development.
However, there are many unanswered issues currently across the Commonwealth: the repression of the opposition in Uganda; the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Nigeria; the repression of the opposition in Tanzania; the rights of Indian farmers protesting in recent months; Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and forced marriages of girls from religious minorities; and the allegations in Sri Lanka, raised by the hon. Member for Southend West opposite, which I know will be debated later this week?
On the borders of the Commonwealth, we see instability and allegations of human rights abuses and humanitarian catastrophes in places such as Ethiopia which could risk destabilising our Commonwealth partners. Will the Minister explain how he is working through the Commonwealth to tackle threats to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, especially in relation to what we have seen in Uganda in recent days? I hope he will say something specifically about that.
There are shocking reports today from Mozambique—one of most recent members of the Commonwealth—of Islamist militants beheading children, according to Save the Children. Furthermore, nearly 1 million face hunger in that country alone. The Minister revealed to me that across sub-Saharan Africa there are, I think, 95 million people facing food insecurity, with many people already in famine conditions. This is not the time to be cutting our aid and disengaging our support for food, for education, and for healthcare, especially given our particular responsibilities and relationships with our Commonwealth members and partner countries.
In conclusion, Mr Paisley, there is much to be proud of in our Commonwealth membership and Commonwealth relationships and the role that Her Majesty the Queen plays in leading the Commonwealth, and it is crucial to our mutual interests in relation to development, trade, security, climate change and human rights and democracy. It is a shame, as we head into the 2021 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda, that the Government should be breaking its promises on 0.7%, apparently reducing focus on Africa, which we will see later today in the integrated review, and failing to join up strategies on trade deals. Will the Minister commit to maintaining our ODA commitments to our Commonwealth partners? Will we be able to hold our head high as we attend that CHOGM in Rwanda and hand over the chairpersonship? In a post-Brexit world, the Commonwealth should be at the heart of our global Britain strategy, and it is at the heart of the name of the Minister’s Department, but will it be at the heart of the integrated review announced later today?
Thank you, Mr Paisley. As already referenced, thank you for your personal work on Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, although I appreciate that you are here in a different guise chairing this Westminster Hall debate, which confusingly is not in Westminster Hall.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for bringing us this debate. I must say, he is a great improvement on his predecessor, and I can say that with absolute clarity, given that it was me. I was proud to serve the organisation and I took over the baton from him and passed it back when I became Minister for Africa for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Many people pray in aid of their country of birth, but my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) even got married within the Commonwealth. There is a very rich history. We have had a veritable smorgasbord of interventions and speeches covering many of the 54 countries, 30 of which I have visited. Of the 19 African Commonwealth countries, I have had the pleasure of visiting 17, and I very much look forward to visiting Cameroon and the Seychelles at some point in the future.
May I take this opportunity to thank the CPA for all its work, along with other organisations that serve the Commonwealth so ably, such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy? I thank the trade envoys that have contributed across the Commonwealth, but specifically in their country, linking back trade to the United Kingdom and their own constituencies, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke)? We have also heard a lot from chairs of the all-party groups that are involved across the Commonwealth. I am particularly minded of the references to the LGBT community and the problems they face, and I would like to reach out, as I have done in the past, to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and his excellent work on matching parliamentarians with countries, because one size does not fit all in terms of HMG’s best response to these issues. A much more nuanced approach works well, and I have discussed with him a number of times that we want to reach out as Minister and do that within a plethora of countries, but specific issues were raised around Ghana and Uganda.
It is brilliant to be celebrating Commonwealth Day. We are slightly restricted because of covid, but it is good to celebrate the values enshrined within the charter. It is good to be part of an organisation that people want to join and rejoin. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) said, the Commonwealth has many nations and is a convening body across the globe for 2.5 billion people, bringing us together. It has many of the world’s young people, half of the top 20 emerging cities around the world, and a quarter of the nations of this world. The UK is immensely proud to have been the chair over the past three years—a slightly extended period due to covid. We brought all our energies and commitment to deliver a more secure, prosperous, fair and sustainable future for the Commonwealth. In June, we will pass the baton to the chair in Rwanda. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is in Kigali, which is a good opportunity to review what we have done over that extended period and what baton we are passing on.
Many of us watched the wonderful celebrations on television last Sunday, with Her Majesty delivering the traditional Commonwealth message—this time from the magnificent St George’s Hall in Windsor Castle—among the 54 bright flags of the Commonwealth. For the first time in 72 years, sadly there was no service in Westminster Abbey, which I know is a critical moment of celebration in most hon. Members’ diaries each year, but it was reassuring to see the flags flying in Parliament Square as they normally do. It was really good to see that, even during covid times. The Commonwealth flag was flown across Whitehall and in many of our high commissions on the six continents, in celebration of that day.
Nearly 50 Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers came together at CHOGM 2018. I was part of a parliamentary delegation, and many hon. Members who spoke during the debate also attended CHOGM as parliamentarians and in other capacities. We announced £500 million of programmes and projects, and our delivery against these commitments was detailed in the Commonwealth chair-in-office report, which was published last September. That was notified to the House in a written ministerial statement from Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the Commonwealth in the other place, and I recommend reading the report to look at what we did over the period of three years.
Our activity was focused on four key areas: sustainability, fairness, security and prosperity. A sustainable future is the only way forward. We built a Commonwealth partnership to protect the ocean, and we have looked at plastic pollution. A number of hon. Members have mentioned climate, and it is absolutely critical that we look at climate through the G7 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government, but also through COP26 later this year, and we will use the Commonwealth to do that.
The Commonwealth finance access hub in Mauritius was co-founded by the UK and has mobilised much money to support 23 projects in climate-vulnerable countries such as Antigua, Barbuda, Jamaica, Barbados, Fiji and Tonga, focusing particularly on the issues affecting small island states, which have been raised by a number of hon Members. All too often we forget that the Commonwealth is a very diverse organisation, from India and Canada on one end of the scale, to the small island states and countries such as Eswatini, where I used to work. It is a broad and diverse family that was brought together in London and will be brought together again in Kigali.
We worked with our partners to secure a fairer future for all Commonwealth citizens. I will take forward the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell on the armed forces, and I will discuss the issue of the court case, which he raised so eloquently, with the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey). I am certainly happy to do that. It is the right thing to do, and I will certainly go forth and do that.
We cannot have equality without proper security. During our term in office, we focused particularly on cyber-security, which I suspect we will hear more about today in the integrated review. We shared our expertise and trained over 1,000 individuals in the Commonwealth.
I am very proud of the work that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has taken forward, and I am conscious of the issue of status. I am more than happy to discuss that with Emilia Lifaka and Stephen Twigg, formerly of this place, in his new role working with Emilia Lifaka for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on an international basis. As has been mentioned and celebrated, we have also funded standards networks to support the Commonwealth in reducing and bringing down trade barriers, particularly through our trade envoys. I commend in particular the work of SheTrades in Kenya, which has been mentioned.
In the extended 12 months, we were able to address the impacts of covid, and work together with the Commonwealth to build resilience in vulnerable countries, to ensure that no one was left behind. In October, the Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed a very strong statement on racism. That was initiated by the UK, but it was by the whole of the Commonwealth.
Human rights were mentioned by a number of Members. Although this is a bit of a love-in—no one has spoken against the concept of the Commonwealth—the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) is right to challenge us not to rest on our laurels and to see what more we can do as parliamentarians across the diverse range of the Commonwealth. There are opportunities for trade, and for people to travel and work here. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), I am optimistic about bringing very strong people from the Commonwealth, and moving them around the Commonwealth, to share and bring different experiences together. During covid, we have also supported our Commonwealth partners, through COVAX. A number of Commonwealth countries are already vaccinating, which is good to see, as part of the Commonwealth response.
India was mentioned by the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), as well as by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and others. There is a massive opportunity to do more trade in India, and I will reflect on their comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned that he has been to Australia and New Zealand, so perhaps he can liaise with my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley on the ongoing conflict of jokes, puns, innuendo and discussion between those two countries.
I encourage trade envoys to double down on the work that they are doing, not only on the trade side, but as our eyes and ears. The previous trade envoy to Angola, which is outside the Commonwealth, visited that country 10 times. Trade envoys can visit a lot more frequently than Ministers, so they are the eyes and ears, and we encourage them to do more.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) made a number of points. The Turing scholarship scheme will clearly involve the Commonwealth, and, alongside Chevening, will open up Commonwealth scholarships. I have dealt with the issue of climate change. I take seriously the issues in Uganda, and like the hon. Gentleman, I am very concerned about the situation with Bobi Wine. Only yesterday, I was discussing that situation with our high commissioner in that country. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the situation in Cabo Delgado, which the report this morning said is often forgotten, but not by me. I am very engaged on these issues, through the high commissioner there.
I think my hon. Friend Member for Gloucester claims credit for this annual debate, and I look forward to the next one. I suspect that it goes back many moons, but it has occasionally fallen into disrepair. In many ways, he has brought it back front and centre. I remember advocating for it to become an annual debate when I was on the Back Benches and chair of the CPA. I am now perhaps hoist by my own petard in having to respond for the Government, but it is has been a pleasure and, slightly belatedly, I wish all Members of the House a happy Commonwealth day.
Thank you, Minister. I think you covered practically everything that was raised and more, so very well done. Before the curtain falls, we have the opportunity for a swansong from the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset. I call Ian Liddell-Grainger.
Thank you, Mr Paisley, and may I thank you once again for all your help with the CPA? I also thank the Minister. He has been very self-deprecating, but he was an extremely good chairman. I was his deputy, and we worked well together. I have many fond memories of the work that we did, but there is also the work that he is now doing, and I thank him for his reply to this debate. Crucially, a lot of the things that were brought up today need to be actioned, especially with regard to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) made very powerful points about that. It is an incredibly important organisation.
There are also the trade envoys and the APPGs. Everybody works together, and the CPA is always glad to help where it can to ensure that the trade envoys or APPG chairmen and members are able to use our facilities to help get them what they need and want. As the Minister rightly said, quite often trade envoys can visit many more times than a Minister can.
I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) made some very good points. I am afraid a lot of them I do not understand, but they are obviously serious and need to be looked at. Every Member mentioned, one way or another, trade, access, prosperity and human rights. I was very taken by what the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) said. She made very powerful points about her heritage and gave information that, again, surprised me but needs to be addressed. I am delighted that she had the chance to talk in this debate about what is certainly one of our great colleagues and countries—Ghana. I am very pleased that she was here.
I was disturbed to hear what was said about VSO, which has a huge history in this country; it is a phenomenal organisation. I hope that the Minister will take the comments on board, because doing VSO is an important part of being British. I never did VSO, but I know many colleagues and friends who did. They came out of it better people and learned an awful lot about other countries and the aspirations of people in those countries.
I pay tribute again to Lord Ahmad, because the sustainability issue, as my hon. Friend the Minister has said, is incredibly important. It is something that my hon. Friend was addressing when he was chairman, and I will certainly continue to do so. All of us know that change has to come and therefore, working with Lord Ahmad, we will try to achieve that.
I look forward to the year ahead, especially as we will have the Commonwealth games next year—all colleagues are aware of that—and, hopefully, we will be getting trips back up and running, so that we can visit the Commonwealth countries and help to continue to strengthen our family and the family of nations that make up this incredible organisation. I also look forward to being able to talk to as many countries as we all do—so many people on this call and colleagues outside this call have taken part in these discussions—and to reaching out to countries that we normally cannot get to. We have been able to do that through the rather bizarre format of Zoom and whatever the other one is called—Teams—and all the rest of it. It does work, albeit it is not the same as a personal visit; it is very good. There was mention of some of the more remote Pacific islands, which we can talk to now. Instead of having to fly out, which is a bit of a nightmare, we can talk to them. That is crucially important.
I would also like to thank the Labour party for its support and, in particular, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for his work.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Paisley. This has been a great debate, and I thank all my colleagues for their incredible kindness to the CPA. I wish you well, Mr Paisley, and everyone else.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Commonwealth Day 2021.
Release under Investigation: Metropolitan Police
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members participating must wipe down their workstations at the conclusion of their speeches. No one is speaking virtually. I have the pleasure of calling the mover of today’s motion, Sir David Amess.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of Release Under Investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
Since the Policing and Crime Act 2017 was introduced by the Government in April 2017, there has been a substantial use of suspects being released under investigation, more commonly known as RUI, by police forces around the country, with the Metropolitan police the heaviest users of this controversial practice. Moreover, since the introduction of RUI, there has been a substantial decrease in the use of pre-charge bail. Being released under investigation means that someone is suspected of a criminal offence and that the investigation into their alleged criminal activity is ongoing. They may have been arrested, but they have not been charged, nor has their case been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service. However, they are not out of the woods, because the police are still suspicious that they might have committed a criminal offence.
The controversial nature of RUI is that it places those accused of crimes effectively in a state of limbo, not infrequently waiting many months or even years for the police to make a decision on whether to recommend a charge or recommend that no further action is taken against the accused. I cannot stress too much to my hon. Friend the Minister that the time the accused waits for a decision is a time when that individual suffers enormous stress and strain from all points of views and, as I will come on to, can ultimately take a terrible toll.
By way of background, when RUI was created in 2017, the purpose of its introduction was to overhaul the use of police bail. The very good intention was to remove the onus on those involved in lengthy investigations of having to frequently attend a police station to have bail extended. On face value, RUI was well intentioned, but as is often the case it has since fallen foul of the law of unintended consequences, and this power has been badly abused, in some cases by overstretched police.
When suspects or their legal representatives inquire about the progress of their case, they are frequently told by the police that they are pursuing “further lines of inquiry”. When they ask what these are, they are told, “This is confidential”, and when they ask how long the inquiry will take to conclude, they are told, “It’s difficult to say, but you will be updated”. The update often takes the form of a derisory monthly email simply saying that “Our inquiries are ongoing, but you will be updated”, which then results in much the same email being sent the next month, and the month after that, and so it goes on, in many cases for years. Indeed, RUI is often perceived, to the detriment of both alleged suspects and alleged victims, to be a pending tray for more complex cases, allowing overstretched detectives to tackle simpler cases with an easier prospect of conviction, which is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.
It is clear that this system is not an improvement on the previous system of pre-charge bail, which had clearly defined time periods, whereby the suspect was updated on the progress of the investigation. That also helped to focus the minds of the detectives investigating a case.
So, with that in mind, the Law Society has proposed, as a minimum requirement, that the police should be required to explain to suspects who have been under investigation for more than four months why there is a delay in determining their case, and I would be very grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would clarify whether or not he shares the Law Society’s view.
To paint a picture, typically what happens is that someone is interviewed under caution by the police, but there are not sufficient grounds to charge them. However, the police do not want to dismiss that person as a suspect just yet; instead, they want more time to make their inquiries, before deciding whether or not to refer the person’s case to the Crown Prosecution Service. The police therefore choose to release the person under investigation, which allows the person to leave the police station, but the police can still seize their personal property as evidence.
The person will be told about the outcome of the investigation at some point in the future. That creates a great deal of uncertainty, because they do not know if the police will eventually charge them or drop the case against them. To make matters worse, the investigation process has no maximum time limit, which is absolutely ridiculous. It means that the person could be kept waiting for weeks, months or even years before discovering their fate.
For someone to have the threat of prosecution hanging over their head can be very unnerving and may even damage their ability to earn an income. As has been previously stated, people in this position are left in a state of near-paralysis. Unsurprisingly, that can have a severely deleterious effect on a suspect’s mental health.
In preparation for this debate, I contacted an established firm of London solicitors that frequently interacts with the Metropolitan Police and it explained that
“Of three clients, one client who was under RUI and was in his early 50s has developed a brain tumour, which can only be partly removed. The other has begun to experience psychotic episodes and is now registered with local police by the crisis team. The other suffers from severe depression.”
I am not surprised. Tragically, the firm’s explanation continues:
“We know of at least one case in our office where a client took his life, having been accused of an offence in circumstances where he believed that if charged, he would not be able to see his children, only for notice to be sent within days of him taking his own life advising that the police were taking no further action.”
My goodness, how could I live with my own conscience had I been part of this process? I do not know. Taking that horrific example into consideration, does the use of RUI not ride roughshod over the principle of Blackstone’s ratio—that it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffers?
How widespread is the use of RUI? This is a difficult question to answer, as since 2017 no reliable, national police data has been published on the numbers of suspect RUIs. Indeed, a report in December 2020 by the Criminal Justice Inspectorates found that some forces cannot even identify cases involving RUI because their IT systems cannot flag these cases centrally. Simply, that is not an acceptable explanation.
Nevertheless, data obtained by the law firm Hickman & Rose says that in 2018, 236,996 cases, almost a quarter of a million individuals, were at the time released under investigation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is ridiculous. Some 56,555 of those were from the Metropolitan police area alone. Not only is there an issue with the sheer scale of people under RUI, but there is a clear issue with the length of time suspects are subject to RUI. Available data shows that the average time spent before a final decision is made is 139 days. The average length of police bail, by comparison, was 90 days. It is just not acceptable. Some may even have to wait years for justice, in the case of alleged victims, or for vindication of those innocent of the crimes levelled against them, making a mockery of the central tenet of our criminal justice system: the fact that you are innocent until proven guilty.
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association reported recently that when a sample of 109 RUI cases was examined, more than 69 had been ongoing for between 18 months and two years. That is just not acceptable.
In fairness to the Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis, whom I do recognise is in the eye of the storm at the moment, I attended a virtual briefing of the APPG on policing and security just a few months ago. When I raised this issue on the call, the Commissioner did admit that the whole system of RUI was, indeed, not working and needed to be replaced. When the professional head of the Metropolitan Police Service acknowledges that the system has to change, changes should be made. I would have hoped that it might have been in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that we started to debate yesterday, and will further debate today.
Having checked the Metropolitan Police Service’s business plan progress report, I was pleased to see that the Met has implemented a so-called RUI recovery plan, led by commanders in Met Ops and frontline policing. However, much more needs to be done. The continued, unfettered use of RUI is unsustainable. I am therefore pleased to see that the Government have concluded their review into pre-charge bail, and published the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but I must ask the Minister: in light of the Bill, what is to become of RUI? Will it be abolished? Will it be reformed—or, essentially, will it stay the same? Although I am not prejudging the Minister’s reply, I must tell him that I am not going to leave the issue alone. I want a precise answer.
The effects of delayed justice on the individuals involved cannot be stressed enough. My former parliamentary colleague Harvey Proctor, although he was not subject to RUI, spent many years fighting to clear his name after the fiasco of Operation Midland. The cloud over his reputation led to the loss of his job. He lost everything, including his home. The failings of the Metropolitan police have never been satisfactorily investigated, and a public inquiry or independent external investigation by another force is long overdue. It should have happened by now. I shall listen carefully to my hon. Friend the Minister, but if he cannot satisfy me on this subject I, and several colleagues, will consider calling for a full-scale debate in Parliament on Operation Midland and who should be held to account.
In summary, who guards the guards? Since its introduction, despite noble intentions, RUI has been an untimely policy failure. I have no doubt that its excessive use by forces has been exacerbated by previous pressures on police numbers; but that is simply not good enough. The use of RUI has had far-reaching ramifications for both victims and suspects, some of whom have, tragically, taken their own lives with the sword of Damocles still hanging over them. I am therefore pleased to note that the Metropolitan police leadership sees the continued use of RUI as unsustainable and has at least tried to remedy its excessive use. Furthermore, it is my hope that the 2,000 extra police already announced by the Government—and under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, a fellow Essex Member who is doing a wonderful job at the Home Office—will mean that crimes can be resolved more quickly, removing the need to use RUI in the future.
As the age-old legal maxim states, justice delayed is justice denied. I am keen to hear the Minister’s reply, which I hope will be to say that RUI is to be discontinued sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for securing the debate. It is always a pleasure to respond to a fellow Blue Fox, and to have a chance to set out the Government’s latest thinking on RUI.
My right hon. Friend spoke quite a bit about the use of RUI by the Metropolitan Police Service. Yes, it is the highest user, as the largest force. However, the statistics for 2017-18 show a discrepancy in the percentage use following an arrest. For example, in some forces the rate is nearer 20%. For the Metropolitan police it is about 37%. In the force with the highest rate it is nearer to 60%. Clearly, discrepancies in the use of the process are producing such a contrast; and it is not driven by such issues as rural versus urban forces, or metropolitan versus county forces. The Government are committed to ensuring that the police have the powers they need to protect the public and to ensure the welfare of vulnerable victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, but it is clear that something needs to change in this area.
The process overall has been raised as an issue in the debate, and it is something that we are looking to reform and put right. Last week, the Lord Chancellor introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and it will hopefully receive its Second Reading later today. The Government are using this opportunity to reform pre-charge bail and improve wider confidence in the criminal justice system with the Bill’s wider provisions. It might be helpful if I say a bit more about how the Government see the context behind the reforms.
As my hon. Friend identified, the Government made changes to pre-charge bail through the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to address concerns that suspects were being left on pre-charge bail for long periods of time while also being placed under conditions that severely restricted their liberty. In some cases, they went far beyond the concept of having to attend a police station to renew bail; some were on onerous bail conditions for very long period of time. In some cases, those individuals were eventually told they would face no further action, following years of being on those restrictions.
My hon. Friend rightly highlights some similarities and crossover into RUI, where someone does not have clarity on where they are going. To address that, in terms of pre-charge bail, the Government introduced statutory timescales at which the progress of investigations could be reviewed, and further bail periods required authorisation by the appropriate rank in the force concerned. The changes also introduced judicial oversight into the process to ensure that pre-charge bail was being used appropriately and any restrictions were proportionate to the circumstances faced. It has now become clear—my hon. Friend gave some useful information on this—that some of the changes have led to unintended consequences. In some cases, the police have released suspects under investigation rather than on pre-charge bail. There are a couple of sides to that and why we feel reform is important.
While the 2017 Act changes were intended to reduce the number of suspects being placed on pre-charge bail for lengthy periods of time, it was also not intended that victims could be left with inadequate protection—the other side of this—in the absence of conditions that could be applied. Similarly, we do not want people waiting for outcomes for lengthy times. Too often, we have heard accounts of suspects who have been arrested on suspicion of very high harm offences, such as domestic abuse, have been released under investigation rather than placed on bail, where sufficient conditions would be in place to protect victims and witnesses. As my hon. Friend may be aware, that was tragically highlighted in the case of Kay Richardson, who was murdered by her estranged husband following his release under investigation even though there was evidence of previous allegations of domestic abuse. That is simply not acceptable. The first priority of a Government is to protect their citizens. That is why we must change the law, and we are seeking to do so with—I hope—my hon. Friend’s support on Second Reading later today.
Aside from release under investigation not providing adequate protection for victims, as he rightly highlighted, it has often left suspects in limbo, given that the process is not subject to any timescales. Much like pre-charge bail before 2017, suspects are being placed under investigation for lengthy periods of time with no real sense of how investigations are progressing. At the same time, as I said, victims are left unprotected, given that conditions cannot be applied to release under investigation. We believe that we need to put that right for all parties involved.
The Government launched a public consultation in 2020 to understand how we could create a more effective pre-charge bail regime that would balance the needs to safeguard the public with the rights of individuals who have been arrested on suspicion of offences. As has been touched on, we obtained views from law enforcement, members of the public, charities, the legal profession and others to enable us to create a system that will protect the most vulnerable but also ensure that individuals are not effectively left in limbo during an investigation, with the obvious consequences that my hon. Friend pointed to. Allegations of some offences—not petty offences—can very much hang over someone and really affect their life. They may not be able to move forward or perhaps change job. As he said, there is an impact on career and employment as well. We are conscious that RUI cannot just be a file that cases are popped in because they are difficult. If it is to be used, that must mean that a case is still being progressed.
As already mentioned, reforms will be brought into effect by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and I very much thank my hon. Friend for the additional thoughts he has provided today to help us take that work forward. Our proposed changes will encourage the police to use pre-charge bail where it is necessary and, crucially, proportionate to do so. They will also require the consideration of key risk factors in the decision-making process, which we are putting into statute because of what the conditions are. Officers will need to consider factors such as the need to safeguard victims of crime and to safeguard the public when determining whether to release an individual on bail. We expect this to lead to a significant decrease in the use of release under investigation.
We also recognise that there is a need to bolster victims’ confidence in the system. That is why we are inserting a new duty that would require the police to inform the victim of the conditions on suspects, and seek the victim’s views on such conditions where it concerns their safeguarding—let me be very clear, it is their safeguarding. This duty will also apply when there is any variation of these conditions during the course of the suspect’s bail. We do believe it is crucial that victims have the opportunity to provide input or information when key decisions are made that could affect their safety.
To put it the other way around, again, to ensure a just system, police investigations should continue to be conducted as quickly and efficiently as possible. We are clear that we will look to issue much more rigorous national statutory guidance via the College of Policing about the use of release under investigation. Again, we are conscious that long periods of limbo are not acceptable in the criminal justice system. RUI is not a position that forces can just put somebody in: they need to be clear about the reason why they have released the person under investigation, rather than deciding to take no further action, or charging and allowing a court to resolve the matter.
We will be more widely amending the timescales on pre-charge bail periods so that they better reflect police investigation lengths, because we recognise that the current 28-day first period of bail has created challenges for the police, and we have engaged with them at every stage to get this right. I know that hon. Members will appreciate the changing landscape of criminality, investigation methods and tools. It has evolved over recent years, particularly examining digital chains of evidence and establishing forensics, which may take slightly more time but can still be vital in securing prosecutions. Again, we are conscious that there is a need to balance those things while making sure that the process is moving forward. We believe that the future guidance will be far more effective at delivering these outcomes than the current position is.
As I say, we will also look to work with the police sector to improve the data available on pre-charge bail and release under investigation so that we can much more effectively monitor its use and the effectiveness of this system, ensuring justice both for victims and, at the same time, for those who have been accused of a crime and have a right to know that the police will deal with it as efficiently and effectively as they can. As my hon. Friend has touched on, there is a presumption of innocence in the system, and people should not have their life left on hold without the investigation progressing.
I very much hope to catch Mr Speaker’s eye in today’s debate. If I am hearing my hon. Friend correctly, the Bill that we are dealing with today will tackle everything surrounding RUIs. Could he also comment on Operation Midland, because I do intend to raise these matters on the Floor of the House later?
The Bill will reform the pre-charge bail process and remove some of the disincentives against it that we now believe are inappropriate, or have created unintended consequences. RUI is a process that is not actually set out in law and statute, so the Bill would not change that; however, we are clear that we want to issue much more rigorous guidance on its use. The figures I gave are the differential between forces’ arrests: some are about 20%, and one is 60%. That tells us that there is a need for much more rigorous guidance on how this process is used, and also what information should be provided to the defence so that they know the progress of the case. I do not think I can do justice to Operation Midland in about 30 seconds, but I am sure that the Minister responding later will be able to do so.
We believe that the changes will allow for further protection of victims, clearer timescales for suspects, and more confidence in the system among the police. I very much thank my hon. Friend for having brought this useful debate to the Chamber today.
Question put and agreed to.
Covid-19: Animal Welfare
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate.
I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they should be visible at all times to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on animal welfare.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey, and to serve under your chairship. I am delighted to have secured the debate on an issue that, if my email inbox is anything to go by, many of our constituents across the country feel very strongly about.
I want to place on the record my gratitude to some of the incredible organisations who work hard all year round to support animal welfare projects across the country. Indeed, many of those organisations—there are far too many to list—have supported me with my preparation for the debate. Locally, I am grateful for the expertise of Hope Rescue, a dog rescue charity working across south Wales who operate from a rescue centre in Llanharan, just across the border in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). Thankfully, Hope Rescue’s work covers the whole of Rhondda Cynon Taf and beyond, and I am extremely grateful for its engagement ahead of the debate. The same sentiments apply to Friends of Animals Wales, which has been working constantly behind the scenes to improve, educate and inform on the importance of robust animal welfare standards for all of us in Wales.
I must finally extend my thanks to the many national organisations whom I have met and engaged with ahead of today. I will try my best to name them all, but an exhaustive list is practically impossible. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, the Kennel Club, Wildlife and Countryside Link and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Cymru all have some incredible research and recommendation reports. I urge colleagues of all political persuasions to reach out and read the information readily available to us all. Finally, I am especially grateful to the House of Commons Library service, whose briefing will, I am sure, be well referred to by colleagues.
The debate feels particularly timely for two reasons. Colleagues will be aware that this is Pet Theft Awareness Week. I have specific concerns relating to the impact that the coronavirus has had on pet owners like me, and I am sure they will be echoed by others. Given that we are all increasingly spending more time out walking in our local areas, I know that, sadly, some places have seen rises in opportunistic pet thefts. I will touch on that worrying trend in my contribution.
In addition, it would seem foolish not to reference the dialogue around the issues relating to violence and abuse towards women and girls that has grown in recent weeks. There is little research connecting domestic violence with animal abuse, but thankfully this is an area of growing academic interest. We now know that pet dogs and cats are at high risk in abusive households as perpetrators direct their anger at them and use them to manipulate and control their human victims.
I am sure colleagues agree that we need to be having those conversations around welfare—whether human or animal-related—regularly in this place. It is vital that regulation and law enforcement are considered key parts of that conversation, too. I specifically look forward to hearing from the Minister about the cross-departmental work and conversations that I sincerely hope are taking place with her colleagues in the Home Office on how to tackle issues specific to crimes against animal welfare.
It is often said with great pride that we are a nation of animal lovers. From old tropes connecting Great Britain with the British bulldog to the jokes made far too often about sheep and Wales—none of which I will reference here today; I am sure colleagues can use their imagination —it cannot be denied that animals big and small are at the very heart of our global identity. That is certainly the case in my constituency of Pontypridd, and I would be hard-pressed to find a Welsh valleys resident who was not at least a lover of cats or dogs.
Obviously, no debate on animal welfare would be complete without reference to my own two gorgeous Jack Russells, Dotty and Dora. I got them when they were just a few weeks old, and in September they will both turn nine. They have truly seen me through thick and thin, the good and the bad. Family aside, they really are my world. If anything, coronavirus has made our bond stronger than ever before, and I know that sentiment is shared by many others in my community.
Since I was elected in December 2019, I have received more emails from constituents concerned in one way or another about animal welfare than I have on any other topic—second only to inquiries about coronavirus. They cover a huge range, dealing with badger culling, puppy smuggling, fur imports and concern about bee-killing pesticides. In applying for the debate, I wanted an opportunity to touch on some of the ways the coronavirus epidemic has had an impact on animal welfare across the country.
For many of us, the pandemic has meant that we could spend more time than ever before with our pets. For Dotty and Dora, that has been a wonderful thing. I am lucky to be surrounded by the gorgeous Welsh valleys and to have plenty of open space to take my two out and about whenever possible. It is one of the only benefits that the coronavirus pandemic has brought us, I think—the opportunity to spend time with family and pets.
Sadly, for other animals the coronavirus pandemic has been anything but a good thing. During the first lockdown, calls to the RSPCA’s national cruelty and advice lines halved from their 2019 level. At face value, that sounds like a good thing, but on looking at the stats in detail we can see a worrying picture developing. There are concerns from the sector that that was simply because lockdown meant people did not see incidents of neglect or cruelty as they usually would. When restrictions began to be lifted, from May to July, the number of calls to the RSPCA rose above 2019 levels, and there are concerns that we have not yet seen the real impact of the pandemic on domestic animals.
Another worrying trend is the fact that there have been significant increases in the demand for animals, as more people than ever before have seen the benefit of having pets, especially when we are all spending so much time at home. Research conducted by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home found that 31% of people who acquired a dog or cat during the first lockdown had not even thought of becoming pet owners before. Its research also found that online searches about buying a dog increased by about 217% between February and April 2020.
We keep springer spaniels and cocker spaniels, because we do hunting and shooting. My son sold a dog last year for £150 and the pups this year are making £2,500. The value is absolutely abnormal and as a result dog thefts have risen dramatically. Does the hon. Lady agree that better co-operation on dog sales is needed between all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to ensure an end to dog thefts, and an end to the dispersal of dogs around the UK—or at least better regulation?
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. There has been a dramatic rise in pet theft throughout lockdown and, sadly, those pets are being transported across all four regions of our United Kingdom, so it is vital to have a joined-up approach to tackling the issue.
I am sure that the majority of the people who have acquired pets during the lockdown will go on to become loving pet owners, but impulse purchases are hugely worrying for rescue centres, which anticipate a surge in the number of animals being brought to them when life returns to normal. It is important to note that a dog is for life, not just for lockdown. The RSPCA has concerns that as the economic consequences of covid-19 continue to take hold, more and more larger animals, including horses, will face neglect and abandonment too.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, the increase in demand for animals has had a huge impact on the incidence of pet theft, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. The Minister will be aware—I am sure she is as concerned as I am—of the response to a recent freedom of information request stating that in five policing areas there was a double-digit increase in the number of dog thefts reported between January and July 2020, compared with the previous year.
I know at first hand how worrying those incidents can be for communities. Community Facebook groups in my area are full of posts from people worrying about dog thefts, vans driving around suspiciously and chalk prints being put on houses where a dog is known to be present. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s comments about conversations with colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the spread of misinformation, and social media companies’ responsibility to regulate fake news, particularly in the context of animal welfare. Pets really are part of our families, so I fully understand why such posts and the threat of pet theft cause such alarm in communities.
Given the heightened demand for animals during the lockdown, there has been a rapid increase in the number of dogs entering the country for commercial reasons. Some of the recent responses to written parliamentary questions have revealed that the number of intra-trade animal health certificates issued for dogs from May to August 2020 was almost 16,000. That is double the figure for the same period in 2019.
Animal welfare groups also, justifiably, have major concerns about puppy smuggling, where animals are illegally transported into the UK in horrendous conditions. Puppies are often bred in terrible conditions and are taken away from their mums at increasingly early ages. They then face a perilous 33-hour-long journey to the UK, often with no food, little water and no exercise. Recent research from Dogs Trust has also found that, increasingly, heavily pregnant dogs are being imported into the UK, often at the late stage of their pregnancies, in order to circumvent the ban on commercial third-party puppy sales, which came into force in England in April last year.
The Government have a responsibility to act to stop these barbaric practices, and I urge the Minister to work with charities that have the expertise in this area to achieve lasting change for our four-legged friends. Although I am pleased to see that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill just about managed to clear Report stage in the Commons on Friday, and I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on his fantastic work campaigning on this issue, without the adequate funding and support, how are the police supposed to enforce such changes to the law? I recognise that policing and enforcement are not a key responsibility of the Minister’s Department, but I am discouraged by responses that I have received from her colleague, Lord Goldsmith, on this particular issue.
We all know and recognise the importance of an inter-agency, Government departmental approach to tackling social issues, and the policing and enforcement of these abhorrent crimes against animals should be no different. Indeed, I remind the Minister that since 2010, the number of police officers in our forces across England and Wales has fallen by more than 14%. Worryingly, we also now find ourselves with one of the lowest ratios of police officers per 100,000 inhabitants compared with our friends in the EU.
Estimates suggest that the current scale of the increase in the backlog of cases before our courts would take 10 years to clear at pre-pandemic rates. That is clearly outrageous, and I shudder to think of the impact that that will have on the victims of crime in this country, who will be forced to wait years for their day in court. What does this really mean for animal cruelty cases? Well, I suspect that, with our courts and police forces stretched beyond breaking point, there simply will not be capacity to deal with the animal cruelty offences.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen that there is one rule for them and another for us. When the Prime Minister’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, drove across the country with symptoms of coronavirus, the rest of us were struggling through lockdown at home—obeying the rules. The same was true with the Government’s absurd exemption to the coronavirus rule of six for hunting in autumn 2020. Not only that, but over Christmas, when so many of us were unable to spend time with our families after a difficult year because of the pandemic, the Tory Government introduced yet another exemption to enable Boxing day hunts to take place. It is no surprise when you find out that the Tories and the Prime Minister have taken more than £1 million from donors linked to hunting. If that does not tell you what this Government think about animal welfare, I do not know what does.
Still, after years of campaigning from animal rights groups, the import of so-called hunting trophies into the UK is legal, as long as the animal is licensed under the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora. However, the trade is exacerbating the decline of threatened species and is causing unnecessary suffering to animals. Even worse, it is often being used as a cover for illegal poaching, as traffickers pass off illegal wildlife products as legal.
I welcome the UK Government’s decision to hold a consultation on options to restrict the import and export of hunting trophies into the UK, but the consultation closed on 25 February 2020. It has been over a year since the consultation closed and still the Government have not responded. I implore the Minister to confirm when her Department will formally respond to the consultation, and I look forward to an update in her remarks later.
I am afraid to say that this is not the only area where the UK Government have been too slow to act. Three years ago, the Government promised, after much pressure from public and animal welfare organisations, to include animal sentience legislation in law after Brexit. Well, the transition period has now ended and still no legislation is forthcoming from the Government. What we need now is action, and I fear we are simply stuck in a climate of consultations. I look forward to hearing in the Minister’s update how the Government plan to bring forward legislation on animal welfare protections beyond the current parliamentary Session.
For the animal welfare sector, who work so hard to ensure that every animal lives in a safe and loving home, the pandemic has, of course, sadly brought its own set of financial challenges. Indeed, research by the brilliant Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, who have partnered with the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes to conduct a survey of over 100 centres in January this year, found that nine out of 10 rescue centres had experienced a drop in income, with a third losing over half of their income. According to the RSPCA, the total predicted financial loss for the sector was over £101 million for 2020. Like so many sectors up and down the country, animal welfare charities need specific support from the UK Government in order to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
I sincerely wish, on behalf of animals in need across England, that the UK Government showed a level of commitment to providing funding for charities in line with the support on offer from the fantastic Welsh Labour Government. In Wales, our Welsh Labour Government have ensured that animal welfare charities have access to emergency funding grants, including local authority rates grants, the third sector resilience fund, the voluntary services recovery fund and sector-specific funds via Business Wales. Sadly, it is not the same for colleagues in England, where funding for charities has largely been given to national funders for distribution, such as the National Lottery, which often excludes animal welfare charities.
I have said it before and I say it again: I urge the Minister, if she is serious about animal welfare, to consider following the approach in Wales and to work with colleagues in Her Majesty’s Treasury to provide access to funding for the charities that need it the most. Indeed, I am aware that the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes has specifically lobbied her Department for sector-specific funding—but that has not been forthcoming, despite zoos and aquariums being awarded such funding.
It is also somewhat ironic that the greyhound racing industry was awarded emergency funding through the sports package. That sends a clear message to me and to others across the country that the Government are willing to engage in animal-related pursuits, but only when there is a gain to be made. Hunting and greyhound racing are two examples of such pursuits that put animals at great risk, yet both appear to have the support of the UK Government.
I conclude by referring to two specific animal welfare concerns that I truly believe the Minister’s Department needs to pay close attention to. First, she may be aware of the alarming rise in the number of ear-cropped dogs in the UK. I am sure she knows that the practice of ear cropping is illegal in the UK—quite rightly. The barbaric practice involves the unnecessary and painful mutilation of ear flaps, and often takes place without anaesthesia or pain relief. I should clarify that it also has absolutely no welfare benefit. However, the RSPCA has reported a 621% increase in reports of ear cropping between 2015 to 2020.
Although it is illegal to crop dogs’ ears in the UK, it is not illegal to sell ear-cropped dogs, to import them from abroad, or to take dogs abroad to be cropped. These loopholes act as a smokescreen for those who are illegally cropping dogs in the UK. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic and the overall increase in demand for dogs and puppies have led to an increase in demand for dogs with cropped ears. These are often Dobermans or American Bullies. Hope Rescue, which I referred to earlier, currently has eight seized puppies from their local area, and six of the eight have cropped ears. This issue really is closer to us than many people may imagine or understand.
Indeed, the Minister may be aware of the petition, which is currently live, to stop this barbaric practice. At the moment, it has more than 67,000 signatures, which just goes to show the widespread feeling about it. I am proud that Hope Rescue is partnering with the “Flop Don’t Crop” campaign, but really things should not be happening this way.
It would also be remiss of me, in a debate on animal welfare, not to mention breed-specific legislation. Too many harmless dogs are being destroyed simply because they are a banned breed—they are destroyed because of what they look like, regardless of their temperament. We must recognise that all dogs can bite and that any animal can be dangerous in the wrong hands, regardless of breed or type, or the fact that they look a certain way. Any action to tackle dog bites and all other instances of canine aggression must be focused on the deed, not the breed.
The RSPCA believes that breed-specific legislation is ineffective in protecting public safety, and results in the unnecessary suffering and even the euthanasia of many dogs. It believes that breed-specific legislation should be repealed and that the issues surrounding human safety should be tackled using education and effective legislative measures that do not unnecessarily compromise dog welfare. Sadly, to comply with the current legislation, the RSPCA has had to euthanise hundreds of dogs, and many other rescue centres have had to do the same. Many of these dogs would have been suitable for rehoming.
I am particularly looking forward to hearing the Minister’s specific comments about what her Department is doing to work with local authorities and law enforcement organisations to review the current legislation and to prevent the barbaric practice of ear cropping.
Taken together, it is clear to me that the issues raised in this debate show the urgent need for a comprehensive animal welfare Bill to be introduced by the Government, yet legislation is only a stepping stone to solving the issues that we see far too often with the regulation of animal welfare practices. Parcelling up individual policy ideas into announcements might work well for the Government’s press office, but it does not truly address the animal welfare problems in this country.
With a Queen’s Speech just around the corner, I urge the Minister to bring forward specific legislation on this issue and, crucially, to ensure that police, courts and local authorities are properly funded to ensure that such legislation is enforced.
Back Benchers will now be called, followed by the Scottish National party spokesperson, the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister. I will look to call the first Front-Bench spokesperson no later than 3.30 pm. We have plenty of time—approximately 10 minutes—for each of the Members to speak.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on securing this important debate. Animal welfare is an issue that unites us; I firmly believe that we should work together and that animal welfare should transcend party politics.
First, I declare a strong interest as a veterinary surgeon, and put on record my thanks to the vets, nurses and staff in practices up and down the country, who have done so much to look after the health and welfare of animals during these challenging times. They are the custodians of animal health and welfare and they have stepped up admirably to administer care in challenging circumstances. I would also like to thank the animal welfare charities that have had a challenging time during this period.
As we heard from the hon. Lady, covid has brought into sharp relief many issues related to animal welfare. We all know the benefits of owning animals and looking after pets; how that can help our own mental and physical health, as well as bring benefits to the animals. That is an important point to remember.
Unfortunately, the covid crisis has brought into sharp relief related negative aspects. As we have heard, there has been a significant increase in demand for pets and animals, leading to huge increases in prices, which fuel the trade in animals and the scope for unscrupulous breeders to come into the market. We have also heard about a significant increase in pet smuggling, leading to puppies being transported in dreadful conditions. There have been horrific cases of heavily pregnant dogs being transported in awful circumstances to give birth, in order to get round loopholes in legislation. There has been a decrease in the number of animals transported through the Pet Travel Scheme but conversely an increase in the commercial movement of animals into the UK, for instance, through the Balai directive.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on which I sit, is conducting an inquiry into the movement of animals across borders and will look at many of these issues. Sadly, there has been a significant increase in reports of theft of both domestic animals, such as pets, and livestock and horses. There have been reports from various police authorities of the increase in domestic abuse throughout the crisis. Sadly, we know the link between domestic abuse and animal abuse in certain households. That has significant animal welfare implications.
There are concerns that we are potentially storing up problems. People who have taken on animals or are looking after them may have been slow to bring their animals for vaccination. There has been a reported reduction in the number of neutering surgeries. Animals that have been taken on, such as puppies, may also have had reduced socialisation, which could lead to future behavioural problems.
As we come through the crisis, animal charities have expressed fears about significant abandonment of animals. People who thought this was a good time to take on a pet might not have thought through the implications or financial cost, with the potential for increased abandonment. As we get society back to normal, people return to the workplace and kids go back to school, stored-up behavioural issues for animals are possible, such as the syndrome known as separation anxiety. We need to be cognisant of that.
Charities and rescue centres have struggled during the crisis. Their funding sources have been reduced alongside their fundraising capability. Some have been able to find support through the generous Government schemes instituted through the crisis, but we need to keep an eye on that, to ensure that targeted support can be made available. This is not just an issue of small animals—cats, dogs and pets. Equine welfare charities estimate that at the start of 2020, approximately 7,000 horses were at risk of imminent need of rescue. That could have escalated to more than 10,000 by the end of the year.
We need to think about the take-home messages from this crisis. We need to keep an eye on the charitable sector and ensure that there is targeted support for animal welfare charities to deliver the care that may be needed as we come through the crisis. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on the role that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take in keeping a watching brief on this area for any unintended consequences, and any animal health and welfare issues that may have been stored up through the crisis.
We also need to think about tightening legislation. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd said, we all welcome the fact that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is progressing to the other place. That is fantastic news and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on championing that Bill. With increased sentences for animal cruelty, we also need to work out whether there are better ways of deterring people from pet and animal theft. We need to look at sentencing there.
There is scope to tighten up rules and legislation now that we have left the European Union. I ask the Government to look at this closely, so that we have a real opportunity to improve the health and welfare of animals that are moved around, and of animals in our own country. I suggest that we look at raising the minimum age at which cats and dogs can be brought into the country to six months. We also need to be able to tighten the health requirements of animals as they are moved into the country and reinstate, for instance, the mandatory tick treatment that was abolished a few years ago, which will improve the animal health and welfare status of animals in the United Kingdom.
As we have seen, there have been significant challenges to animal health and welfare during the coronavirus crisis. We need to learn the lessons from that and see if we can put in place measures to improve animal health and welfare. We need to monitor the situation closely and keep a watching brief on the care of the animals that we have a moral duty to look after—these fully sentient beings that we are so privileged to look after.
I thank the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for her sponsorship of this debate and her excellent exposition of the challenges for animal welfare as a result of covid-19.
Although, with covid-19, we face a situation unparalleled in our lifetime, with all its challenges and all it has cost us in the loss of loved ones, job opportunities, and disruption, we know that there is no situation that will diminish the importance of animal welfare in the eyes of our constituents. The UK is indeed four nations of animal lovers. Animal welfare has been a mainstay of my inbox since 2015, whether the subject is the cruel practice of puppy smuggling, the ivory trade, the fur trade, experimentation on animals, the wildlife trade, animal caging, or trophy hunting. Animal cruelty of any type has motivated my constituents to contact me in large numbers to express their concerns. I am sure every Member present would say the same.
Covid-19 has thrown up challenges for animal welfare, as it has in a whole range of areas. For charities such as Dogs Trust, covid-19 has put significant strain on its operations, and its rehoming centres have had to operate at a much reduced capacity. All 20 of its rehoming centres were closed to the public while staff continued to do all they could to safeguard the welfare of the dogs in its care. Rehoming has taken place during covid-19, but it has been very challenging and last year decreased by 88%. The same is true for cats, according to Cats Protection. This is deeply unfortunate when we know that covid led to an increased demand for dogs, with Google searches for “buy a puppy” increasing by 166% after the first lockdown was announced.
It is not surprising that more people want the companionship of a dog or cat when they are forced to spend more time at home. But, as we have heard, there is some concern that, when people return to something like a normal routine, or if people find themselves out of work and on a much tighter budget, they may find that they can no longer accommodate a pet in their lives as they once did. Charities like Dogs Trust, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross or Cats Protection will somehow take on these animals, and offer them whatever home they can. We also expect that the so-called pandemic puppies are likely to be less socialised than they would be if they had been bought in normal times. Animal charities have some concerns about puppies acquired during lockdown, with limited opportunities for socialising, social distancing, a lack of exposure to other people and, indeed, a lack of exposure even to traffic and everyday life. Ultimately, those charities may have to pick up the pieces if those pets are required to be rehomed.
We also know that having a dog and a cat can incur costs that may not have been considered at the outset. The Battersea Dogs and Cats Home estimates that 19% of new pet owners come to regret their decision to acquire a pet, mainly because of costs. Unfortunately, the demand for puppies during covid has also been exploited by those engaged in puppy smuggling. We know that puppy smuggling causes great distress to puppies, and is damaging to them. My view is that the barbaric practice is so lucrative that nothing but the potential threat of a significant custodial sentence for the crime can realistically hope to help mitigate the growing problem.
It is also worth considering the challenges that people faced in accessing and financing veterinary care during the pandemic, as we heard earlier. Lockdown limited access to veterinary care, which means that there is a backlog of neutering, and vaccination courses for pets have been disrupted. Even when those normal services resume, we cannot assume that every dog owner—however well-intentioned—will be able to afford the cost of veterinary care for their pet as they perhaps once could. Delays in accessing treatments for pets, or an inability to afford it, could have real longer-term implications for the overall health of pets. That is an especially significant issue for cats, as it could lead to much higher numbers of unwanted litters.
Charities that work hard to improve animal welfare are under pressure, and they will be dealing with the fall-out for years to come as the consequences are all too real. The Paws Protect service of Cats Protection, which supports survivors of domestic abuse and their cats, found that it simply could not cope with all the referrals to its service during 2020. Yet, as we have heard, the link between domestic abuse and animal abuse is well established. Indeed, pet cats and dogs are at high risk in abusive households, as perpetrators direct their anger at pets and use them to manipulate their victims.
Just as animal welfare charities have found that their services are more in demand than ever, the opportunities for traditional fundraising have all but disappeared, and their income stream has been very seriously curtailed. Charity shops are closed, which meant the loss of £4 million in the first four months of shop closures in 2020 for Cats Protection. That income can never be recovered, as all fundraising adventure challenges were cancelled as well, and there were fewer and fewer opportunities for cat adoption and the fees derived from that.
We are all concerned about the negative impacts on animal welfare as a result of covid-19, so today seems like a good day to highlight to the Minister what can be done about it. For a start, animal welfare charities could be helped: we know they will be under severe strain in the months and years following lockdown as they deal with the animal welfare crisis. The fallout from covid looks all too set to continue, so it is really important that the Government work with animal welfare charities to see how they can better support the work that those charities currently do, as well as all the additional work the sector will face as we return to some kind of normality.
Underpinning all that is the need to ensure that the high standards we all wish to see are a feature of our trade deals. During the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020 and of the Trade Bill, the SNP fought to ensure that imported foods had to match our high animal welfare and safety standards in domestic produce to ensure that our farmers are not undercut by low-quality and low-grade animal welfare regulations. Instead, foreign traders with lower animal welfare standards, and consequently lower costs, may have a competitive advantage now and in the future over our own farmers.
A race to the bottom does not promote the high standards of animal welfare that we all want, including, of course, for the sake of the food that we eat—we surely cannot have forgotten the risk of damage to our foods posed by compromising on animal welfare—and to militate against diseases such as foot and mouth disease and swine flu. It is really important that the Government lobby through international bodies to pressure countries to upgrade their animal welfare regulations, to avoid the potential of disease outbreaks crippling our domestic standards in trade deals.
Since 2015, when I was elected to this place, I have been calling for tougher penalties for animal cruelty. The Scottish Government agreed, and have enshrined tougher penalties for animal cruelty into law, with a maximum five-year sentence and unlimited fines. It really is time for the UK Government to get this on the statute books as well, as soon as possible, because they have fallen behind in that regard. Covid-19 has been hard on all of us, but the consequences for the animal welfare charitable sector have been devastating. We must do more to support the vital work undertaken by animal welfare charities, and I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister as to how she intends to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms McVey, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on securing time to debate this important issue. After 12 months of this health emergency, we are all very conscious that thousands of people have lost loved ones; others are debilitated by long covid and the after-effects of the virus; and, of course, so many people have lost their jobs or had their incomes drastically cut by the emergency. All those people have my sympathy and support after all the difficult experiences they have been through.
However, the sad fact is that this health crisis has also hit defenceless animals, as we have already heard in this debate. Like others, I pay tribute to everyone who has been involved in caring for animals, whether that is people caring for their own pets, vets and their staff, zoo staff, farmers, or the animal welfare charities and rescue centres that do such incredible work. The sad fact is that most charitable fundraising has become almost impossible over the past year, leaving a really significant gap in the income of these very important bodies. As we have already heard, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home reports, for example, that nine out of 10 rescue centres have seen their income fall. Furlough clearly will have helped, as will much of the rest of the Government’s comprehensive covid support scheme, but it still leaves a hole in the income of these charities caring for vulnerable animals.
The Battersea charity also reports a 214% spike in people searching online to buy a dog. Heightened demand has seen prices climb, leading to increased anxiety about pet theft. It will have also increased dependence on pet imports, some of which, as we have heard, involve smuggling and illegal and unacceptable welfare practices. Over £280,000 has been lost to fraudsters from people paying deposits for pets advertised online. The big increase in the number of people buying new pets will, for many, have provided a crucial and much-valued antidote to loneliness and boredom during lockdown, particularly for many children stuck at home week after week, away from their friends. However, the worry is that the covid rush to buy cats, dogs and other pets may ultimately lead to an upsurge in companion animals being relinquished or abandoned when reality bites and we all start to return to the office.
Another grave concern is domestic violence. Being shut up at home in lockdown with an abusive partner can, of course, lead to horrific and frightening consequences for women, and it is very sad that such situations can also lead to horrendous treatment of pets.
In conclusion, I hope the Minister will listen to what has been said today and to the animal welfare charities and campaign groups. It is crucial that the Government find a way for big charity fundraising events to start up again. The cancellation of the London marathon alone will have left a huge dent in charitable fundraising. We have to get these events open again with spectators and mass participants.
I also call on the Government always to emphasise the benefits of people getting a pet from a rescue centre, rather than taking risks with unreliable online sources. We also need to see determined action to crack down on pet theft, reflecting the fact that the loss of an animal is far more heartbreaking, distressing and upsetting than having a phone or TV stolen. Now we have left the European Union, we have an opportunity to crack down on unlawful puppy imports, as we are now allowed to place tougher restrictions on imports that were previously barred by the single market. It is vital that we fulfil our promise to get recognition of animal sentience on the statute book.
Last, but possibly the most important of all, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill must finally be implemented. It has had such a depressing stop-start history. How many times has it started in this House—three or four times? It is time to get this done. It is a great opportunity for us to discuss these issues and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I know this Government are really serious about animal welfare. They have done good work, but there is really vital work still to be done.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on securing such an important debate. Having heard the contributions so far, there is very little to add, as my colleagues have expressed the very real and varied issues of animal welfare that have been exacerbated during the pandemic period in an articulate and passionate way. I am always interested and delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), who uses his expertise on these matters as a true animal welfare champion, and I would always turn to his wise words on many of these issues.
Like other Members, I have consulted many facts and figures about what I wanted to say today, but I am going to go back to something I have spoken about before to the excellent Minister. I have had an opportunity to speak to her on a number of occasions, and she is a champion of animal welfare. Rather than simply regurgitating facts, I have to mention my private Member’s Bill, which is snappily titled the Pets (Microchips) Bill, and urges the Government to consider putting Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law into legislation. For those who are unaware, Tuk’s law—this is the aim of my private Member’s Bill, as well as the aim of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country—would make it a legal requirement for veterinary surgeons to scan for rescue back-up contact details of, for example, a former owner or breeder, and contact those people to inquire whether they would like to take ownership of the pet, and confirm that the person presenting the animal to the veterinary surgeon is registered on the microchip prior to euthanasia of the pet.
When I was first approached about this issue, I was absolutely astonished. I have a pet dog, Bertie, who is, along with many other things, the light of my life. The impact of Bertie, who was bought during the pandemic, especially on my two young children has been a joy to behold. The idea that people could go to a veterinary surgeon with a fit and healthy dog, present themselves as the owner—or not the owner in certain circumstances—and that animal could potentially be euthanised is clearly something that legislation is required to address.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border knows far more about these issues than me, but there has been much consultation on this, and I genuinely believe this is a matter of animal welfare that the Government can support. The protection of innocent dogs is something we all want to see strengthened within legislation, and clearly the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is an absolute prerequisite in terms of statutory provision for animals.
I was a criminal defence solicitor for 16 years before coming to Parliament. The sentences in court for animal welfare offences were ludicrously lenient for many, many years, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for the work he has done in this Parliament on that issue.
Other Members have articulated the case that many pets have been purchased over the period of the pandemic, and many people who bought their pets in good faith are finding it difficult to cope with those animals for a wide variety of reasons. The role of Tuk’s law is to strengthen and protect the interests of every animal—whether a stray animal or animal that has been bought, perhaps mistakenly, during the pandemic, or an animal that the owners cannot cope with—to make sure that there is a requirement that the microchip is scanned, that contact details are sought, and every animal is protected.
I would also like to talk about Gizmo’s law. The first person I met after being elected was a wonderful lady called Helena Abrahams, who spent the last number of years leading a campaign for Gizmo’s law. Gizmo’s law is a very simple, cost-neutral measure to respect pet cats in both life and death. Sadly, many pet cats—and other pets—die on our roads and in various other circumstances. When they are found they are often taken to local authorities, which dispose of those pets without scanning the microchips that they may have, and without trying to establish the ownership of a much-loved pet.
Helena, whom—this is very unparliamentary language —I love to death, is passionate about wanting to make sure that those pets are respected and that animal welfare rights are respected, and that the owners have the opportunity to be reunited with their pets in these difficult circumstances. She has fought a campaign in which she has persuaded a very large pet-food manufacturer to undertake to purchase scanners for every local authority in the country to ensure that this is a cost-neutral measure.
I have taken the opportunity today to support everything that my colleagues have said. We need to face up to the realities of the pandemic and its negative impact on many facets of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will wish to take the opportunity to support my private Member’s Bill, to support the hundreds of thousands of people who want to put Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law into legislation, and feel that it is an animal welfare measure that all of us can support across the political spectrum. I welcome any further opportunity to speak on this matter with the excellent Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for securing this debate, which is about a very serious problem for people across these islands. My constituents in Angus are no different, and have contacted me in significant numbers about this issue.
Since devolution, where Scotland leads, the rest of the UK often follows, and so it is in animal welfare. Scotland was the first part of the UK to ban performances of wild animals in travelling circuses. That important animal welfare policy was widely welcomed, and since been replicated elsewhere in the UK.
As part of the European Union, we were obligated to maintain strict animal welfare policies. In some instances, Scotland exceeded the minimum standards, for example, with bans on fur farms. While there are historic positives, there are also low points, such as the Conservatives’ manifesto position in 2015 and again, in 2017. They stood on a manifesto that would give their MPs a free vote on repealing the fox-hunting ban—a ban against which the Prime Minister himself voted in 2004.
With the effects of covid compounded by the administrative and exporting challenges thrown up by Brexit, along with to the Government’s refusal to uphold animal welfare standards in either the Trade Bill or the Agriculture Act 2020, we see a challenged position. Moreover, that position is inconsistent with “Scotland the Brand”, which has a world-class reputation, thanks in no small part to Scotland’s strong animal welfare policies.
Covid has presented additional challenges, over and above Brexit, on animal welfare and, in particular, on the domestic and international trade in puppies. Alongside my colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which includes the wise counsel of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), I heard harrowing evidence about the malice of puppy smugglers and the contempt with which they treat litters, and especially the mothers of those litters: caesarean sections are carried out inhumanely quickly one after the other, leaving insufficient time to heal. It is an egregious, greedy trade. The Government have an opportunity to address this issue, which is of real concern to ordinary members of the public.
Puppy demand and prices experienced an extraordinary jump following the covid outbreak. That, in turn, led to a 140% increase in commercial import licences for foreign dog breeders. It is important to note that not all foreign dog breeders are breaching animal welfare standards en masse. Likewise, it is important to acknowledge that there are instances of breeders breaching standards on these British Isles. Taken together at home and abroad, this issue is of significant concern to my Angus constituents, as is the horrendous spike in dog thefts, which is terrifying for families with dogs.
As a dog owner myself, I know the importance of dogs to families across the UK, and the place that they hold in the hearts of the British public. The difference that my beautiful old golden retriever, Maggie, has made to my family during lockdown has been invaluable—she ensures that we get exercise and she provides companionship. It is no wonder that people have sought similar comfort and enjoyment from having a pet.
I was delighted to support the excellent work of Dogs Trust, which provided information to hon. Members before the debate. The Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported that a gang of puppy smugglers were arrested following the use of an Airbnb property to sell trafficked puppies. There is a significant element of duplicity in the trade. Half those puppies died, including from parvovirus, because of the squalid conditions in which those poor creatures must have spent their brutish, short lives. That poses a more general risk to dog health in the community.
One SSPCA investigator noted that public demand for puppies
“remains sky high and as long as this continues, bad dealers will find any means to operate.”
Dogs Trust also noted that the effects and impact of the pandemic would be felt for some time to come. That is true for all walks of life, but in this context, it would be sensible for Government to carefully consider the Blue Cross recommendation that Governments undertake work to determine the impact of covid-19 on puppy farming and smuggling, the damage caused to date, and how to reverse that trend.
The demand for puppies fuelled the unsustainable rise in prices, and for families duped into buying a puppy from an unreputable breeder, that causes significant financial loss, as well as heartache. We have seen an apparent increase in impulse purchases: 31% of people who acquired a dog or a cat during the first lockdown stated that they were not considering becoming pet owners beforehand. Although the great majority of recent pet owners will go on to provide safe and loving homes for their pets, that spike in ownership presents a clear risk that, for some, the good intentions will give way to the financial reality—not least the first uninsured visit to the vet for health complaints which, if the animal was poorly bred, may be the first of many visits to the vet.
That will inevitably lead to increased health and behavioural problems. Puppies that were introduced to their families with an abundance of affection and attention during lockdown will need careful management when adults return to work and kids go back to school. It will be a very demanding adjustment for animals and humans alike, which will have consequences, including abandonment and pressure on rehoming services. When the consequences of poorly bred dogs or inappropriate and unsustainable ownership or changes in circumstance post lockdown wash out, it will be animal welfare charities that have to pick up the pieces, at a time when their ability to fundraise is seriously constrained, which we must all bear in mind.
There is significant scope for the UK Government to tighten the licensing regime for foreign dog breeders importing puppies into the UK and for the UK Government to work together with devolved Administrations on better regulation for domestic breeders. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurance in this regard.
It is a pleasure to be able to sum up this debate for the Opposition. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for the way in which she introduced this debate with such passion and care. It is very clear that she is an animal lover, not just of Dotty and Dora, but of many other animals as well. I think she spoke for nearly all of us in the debate when she spoke so eloquently about what has happened during the pandemic to our pets and animals, and why it is so important to take action to ensure that there is no more suffering for animals during this period. She is one of Labour’s rising stars and her remarks show us why.
Britain is indeed a nation of animal lovers and, as we have heard throughout the debate, wherever we are in the United Kingdom, there is a requirement, a need and an urgency to see better protection for animals, better enforcement and better funding for those services that are trying to look after those animals. Successive lockdowns have shown more than ever how important animals are to our wellbeing and how much joy and comfort they can bring to our lives. They really are incredibly special.
Pets are not just a commodity; they are not just an item to be purchased; they are not a DVD player or an iPhone—they are part of the family. When we talk about pets and the impact on animals throughout the pandemic, we should approach it from that point—our pets are a full part of our families, not just property. Sadly, that is not how they are described in law. Many of the challenges presented to the Minister today are about how the law can better reflect the importance of animals and how our relationship with animals has changed over time. They are no longer just work animals in support of our economy, but animals to comfort, nurture and be a full member of our families.
A number of issues have been raised in this debate. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken. They have all raised very important, serious issues that need to be addressed by the Minister—I hope they will be.
There has been a huge rise in demand for dogs and cats—pandemic puppies and covid cats—during this period, and that is clear not only in the price paid for them, but in internet searches for them. That creates an opportunity for unscrupulous dealers and those people who want to exploit, con and make money at all costs, including accepting cruelty to animals. As well as the increased sale of healthy pets, there has been a rise in the number of dogs and cats being imported into the UK from unscrupulous dealers. As the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), not all foreign imports are from unscrupulous dealers, but sadly, far too many of them are. That needs to be addressed.
Many unscrupulous dealers are taking pets away from their mothers at an extremely young age. Those pets have a higher risk of carrying diseases and have not been fully nurtured into the healthy young animals we hope them to be. Many new pet owners have participated in impulse-buying over the pandemic. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home found that 42% of pandemic pup buyers had not seen their puppy’s breeding environment prior to purchase, and 27% paid for their puppy without even seeing it.
This situation underlines the need not only for regulatory action, but for better communication of the laws that already exist. In many cases, campaigners, on a cross-party basis, have changed the law, to require that animals should be seen with their mother and to make sure that animal cruelty in the breeding process is eliminated as much as possible, but if people do not know that those laws exist, they might as well not exist. That is a really important part of the communication effort that I encourage the Minister to look at. As well as arguing for regulation, we need to make sure that people understand what is going on, so they can be better protected.
Now more than ever, when demand for pets is so high, it is vital that the Government increase the legal imported age to six months, as has been discussed. Doing so would make it easier for imported dogs to be checked for rabies and would also ensure that pets are not taken for long journeys at far too young an age. I would also like the Government to stop allowing soft repercussions for those who disregard animal welfare for their own monetary benefits.
We have heard much about the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill—and believe me, the Minister has heard an awful lot from me about it over many years. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), we can have no more false starts on this Bill. She argued for it during her time at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; indeed, successive Secretaries of State have argued for it. There seems to be a blockage in the way that Bills are brought forward to Parliament and a blind spot towards the needs of animals among those doing the parliamentary programming. I know that the Minister shares that concern and will do all that she can to ensure that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is passed through the other place in due course.
Equally, I pay tribute to my fellow west country Member, the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), for his work. In praising him for the way that he has conducted his campaign, I also place on record the work of Anna Turley, the former Member for Redcar, who did so much during her time in this place to learn the lessons from the experience of Baby, the young dog that was cruelly abused in such an awful way. Although increasing the sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years in the most extreme cases is a substantial step, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill does not do two things that in my mind it must do.
The first is to apply equally to wild animals as it does to domestic animals, a step that has been taken elsewhere in the United Kingdom but not in England. Secondly, learning the lesson from Baby’s law, we should consider introducing the aggravating offence of deliberately filming the animal cruelty for the personal enjoyment of those doing it or to boast by sharing it online. That is an extra-special form of cruelty, and the law should better reflect that. We did not have the chance to vote on those amendments, which Labour tabled, to the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. The Minister will know that I am hopeful that she will look to cut and paste those amendments, in the spirit of cross-party co-operation, in any future legislation.
I want to turn briefly to pet theft, which my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd and others mentioned. Losing a pet is not about losing property, which is what the law currently suggests, so I think the law on pet theft needs to be updated. It needs to be better understood and communicated; it also needs to be better enforced. Lockdown has created situations that have led to social media panic, certainly in Plymouth and Pontypridd, about the risk of dog theft. Although pet theft has increased during the pandemic, especially for rare and valuable breeds of dogs and cats in particular, the worry for people that someone will steal their animal, or that something could happen if they let it out of sight, has been combined with the extra worry of those walking their dog on their own, especially at night. Many dog owners have correctly taken extra steps to avoid people during the pandemic, following Government advice to stay away from people, but in doing so they potentially put themselves at greater risk, if only of greater worry about what might happen to them. The Minister urgently needs to communicate with her colleagues at the Home Office to ensure that pet theft is adequately addressed in law and also regulation.
We have seen not only risks of cruelty towards pets, but risks of animals not receiving the medical care they need. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) used his expertise very wisely to talk about the implications of not taking a new animal to a vet for support, and I support his words of thanks to those in the veterinary profession for their tireless work to help animals during the pandemic. We need to ensure that we pick up on the lessons from microchipping, which the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) spoke about. Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law are much to be supported, but I would like the Minister to apply the same emphasis elsewhere, because it is not right that steps are taken to microchip animals without then scanning them at certain points. Indeed, I might go one step further and suggest that we extend the current requirement to report on motor incidents involving livestock and dogs to include cats, because as we know, the loss of an animal, especially when they have a microchip, or not knowing what has happened to them is very serious.
I would also like to echo the concerns raised by hon. Members about the funding for animal welfare charities. Each animal welfare charity is really important in stopping cruelty in their community and for campaigning for better standards, and I am very concerned to read of the huge numbers of losses that many animal welfare charities have had during this period. Dogs Trust has seen a loss of income of 15% to 30% in donations and legacy income. RSPCA had a 12% fall in donations and a 9% reduction in legacies, and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has suffered a £4 million loss in fundraising income.
Smaller charities have also suffered. They might not have the public affairs team to send us briefs on it, but smaller animal charities up and down the country are equally facing difficult times. The Association of Dogs and Cats Homes found that 47% of the 142 UK rescue organisations have reported an income drop of more than 50%. With a recession looming, their recovery will be incredibly difficult, and extending support to those organisations is incredibly vital, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Pontypridd. Just as we have seen with the zoo support fund, the Minister has allocated funding for it, but with 97% of the zoo support fund not yet spent, I encourage her to look at the conditions for that and see whether money can be allocated to support those individuals or steps can be taken by the Treasury.
The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border spoke about the need to ensure that it is not just domestic animals that are protected during this period. The case he made around equine health is especially important because of the incredible cost of keeping a horse. I share his concern that horse abandonment will increase during this period. I know these concerns are shared by the animal welfare sector as well, and I think the Minister would be wise to look at this issue. One way that she could address this area and provide a bit of hope would be to look at the Labour animal welfare manifesto from the previous election. There is much to be said for bringing forward a comprehensive animal welfare Bill in the next Queen’s Speech. It is a proposition that I have put to the Minister previously in debates, and I hope that she will take it up in the spirit that it is intended.
There is cross-party support for tougher measures for animal welfare, better support for pet owners and better support for those people working in this sector. In my mind, an animal welfare Bill should include provisions for tightening the rules on pet theft and puppy smuggling. Should the Bill sponsored by the hon. Member for Bury North not pass, an animal welfare Bill should adopt Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law and look at cat microchipping. It should look at cruelty to wild animals and include tougher sentences for filming, as I mentioned in relation to the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill earlier. It should also include provisions for animal sentience and for the “flop not crop” campaign to ensure that dog ear cropping is not part of our national culture.
An animal welfare Bill should also improve accessibility to vets, improve affordability for those on low incomes, and improve tenants’ ability to properly keep pets. It should improve reporting of motor incidents to include animals beyond livestock and dogs, and take action around livestock worrying. Many people have taken their animals into rural areas and that has had consequences for farm animals. I think that can be better supported without necessarily reducing the right to roam along the way. As we have heard from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), action should be taken to ban fur imports and to address trophy hunting. Finally, there should be an animal welfare commissioner to produce an annual report on the state of animal welfare in England in particular.
With a Bill as comprehensive as that, there would be much that would have cross-party support. I would encourage the Minister to look carefully at how that can be included in the Queen’s Speech that we are expecting, so we can avoid so many of these debates where hon. Members on both sides make the same cases. Let us have one single Bill to deal with all these issues and to make sure that we are properly putting into law the fact that every pet and every animal matters, with proper, decent protection and funding to go along with it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I join in thanking the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), inspired by Dotty and Dora, for organising this debate today. It has been thoughtful and full of many ideas, to which I will try to respond. If I do not manage to deal with everything, then please do come and talk to me at any point about animal welfare. It is right that we talk about this a great deal in this place, and it is right that our constituents are concerned about it. While much of the national attention has rightly been focused on the impact on humans of the pandemic, today’s debate is a reminder that we are a nation of animal lovers and we do have compassion and concern for the impact of the pandemic on animal welfare generally.
We have all heard a great deal about the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which I was thrilled to see finish its stages in this House last Friday. It was tense to the end—we have been kept guessing throughout its passage—and if I may say so, it is a testament to cross-party working, for which I will put on the record formally my thanks to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). I heard the points that he made once again today, in particular about the filming of animals. Although I do not think that we will amend the Bill—we want it to go through and the way to achieve that is by not amending it—I have said before and I will say again today that I will make points in the guidelines about filming. I hope that they will remain part of the way that sentences are given under the Bill, which we hope will soon be a piece of legislation.
DEFRA has been monitoring animal welfare very closely since the start of the pandemic and I would like to assure everybody that we will continue to work closely with the sector to understand the long-term impacts, which are not exactly as we imagined they would be this time a year ago. I, too, pay tribute to the hard work of animal welfare charities, the pet industry and the vets who have all been affected by the pandemic but have continued to prioritise animal welfare in the face of financial hardship and, indeed, uncertainty.
I will also take this opportunity to thank farming organisations and charities for all the support that they have given to farmers during this very difficult year. I never forget that most of the captive animals in this country are, of course, on farms. When we talk about animal welfare, we often do not focus on those animals, but DEFRA will very much focus on them in the future, and it is important that we remember that.
We have had really good speeches this afternoon on a number of topics. Another point made by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, was that it is important to remind people of our laws. So I will, if I may, pick up on some of the laws that have been mentioned by others, as a reminder to us all.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) is a vet and he spoke passionately to remind us all of the importance of taking our pets and our farm animals for vaccinations and neutering, for example, even during the pandemic. I have accessed vets several times during the pandemic. The first time, in full lockdown, the animal was handed over in a carrying case. Indeed, the vets also had to attend my smallholding during full lockdown; I remember leaving the animals’ passports outside their doors, so that the vet did not even have to speak to me. It has been possible, though difficult, to treat animals throughout the pandemic and vets have done a really good job of managing that.
My hon. Friend is also a member of the EFRA Committee and he spoke about the report on the movement of animals across borders that is being prepared by that Committee. It is a report that I look forward to very much. This is an area where, following the end of the transition period and our departure from the EU, we will be able to take further action, if we think it is appropriate to do so. Several Members talked about pet smuggling, for example, and this is an issue where there may now be the possibility of taking the action that I believe many people would welcome. So, I look forward to that report and to engaging with him further on this issue.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) spoke about pandemic puppies and how she fears they will be less socialised than other puppies. She spoke, too, about the cats that have not been neutered during the pandemic, who will of course go on to have unwanted litters in the future. I thought that was a point very well made; we need to remember that the effects of the pandemic on animals will continue in future years.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) made an excellent speech in which she reminded us of many of the important issues that we need to tackle in legislation. She also made the really fundamental point that if we want new animals to keep at home, we should get them from a rescue centre. That point cannot be made too often. She also argued forcibly for big charitable fundraising events to take place again soon. On the way to the debate, I spoke to a Minister from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about that very subject. I am glad to say that I also spoke to the Leader of the House once again about how to continue the progress of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. I was worried that I would be late for the debate as a result, but that was important.
I turn to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), the owner of Bertie. He and I have discussed Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law many times. The Government are a great supporter of microchipping for animals in general, and I very much hope that he receives good news on that in the next Session of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), inspired by Maggie the golden retriever, spoke with particular passion about puppy smuggling. I draw attention once again to the Petfished campaign, which has run throughout the pandemic and raises awareness of many of the issues associated with low welfare and the illegal supply of pets. On pet theft generally, raised by a number of hon. Members in this debate and outside it recently, I reassure all those who are worried that DEFRA is working closely with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to gather and analyse data and scope the scale of the issue. We will continue to work very closely with those Departments to ensure that we can come up with the correct solutions to this difficult issue.
In April 2020, the Government commissioned the Animal Welfare Committee to advise on animal welfare impacts relating to the pandemic. It made a preliminary report in June 2020, which included concerns about: the ability of businesses, vets and charities to continue to provide services; the need for contingency planning; and the impact of owners’ physical and mental health on their ability to care for their animals. I was relieved to note that, in the committee’s second report, which was published in December, it concluded that many of the animal welfare risks that had concerned it had not been fully realised. The report recognised that the farming sector remained vulnerable to slaughterhouse closures, for example, which might cause animal numbers to build up on farms, with possible welfare consequences.
There were concerns about the companion animal sector relating to increased ownership, reduced access to vets, potential impacts of personal restrictions on pet care and the ability of animal welfare charities to operate with reduced resources. Some of the initial concerns raised by that committee were realised, but we were pleased to note that most of them were not.
DEFRA has provided updated advice for pet owners and livestock keepers on looking after animals throughout the pandemic. The advice explains how people who are self-isolating or hospitalised can access support to care for their pets. We have worked very closely with the Canine and Feline Sector Group, the National Equine Welfare Council and other organisations to review guidance for pet businesses and animal charities so that operations can continue wherever possible. That has enabled rescue centres to continue core services and pet shops to remain open and supply all the needs that our pets have, including food. It has meant that the services of pet groomers can be accessed for welfare reasons, and those who have been hospitalised have had access to pet boarding, dog walking or dog day care.
There have been positive trends as a result of the pandemic, including a real reduction in the number of stray dogs dealt with by local authorities and increased interest, as we have heard all round, from people wanting to foster or rehome pets, which has helped to alleviate some of the sector’s pressures. However, even though covid-19 appears to have had a reduced impact on animal cruelty, that may well be, as many have said, because of reduced visibility. I take the points about the link between animal cruelty and domestic violence. We are very live to that and are monitoring the situation closely with others in the sector.We are aware that the picture we have is not yet the full one.
For anyone watching this, can the Minister confirm that there are organisations that will support the animal of anyone fleeing domestic violence as well? The power that a perpetrator may have over an animal should not be used to keep a victim of domestic abuse in their home.
That is an extremely good point. One of the more unpleasant aspects of domestic violence is the use of a pet as a psychological, and sometimes physical weapon by the perpetrator. It is right that there are organisations that can specifically provide care in those situations. This issue may not have had the full light of day shone on it in the past, but I want to assure all those listening that we take it very seriously.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd raised various specific points, first about mutilating dogs’ ears, which she rightly said has been banned for 15 years in the UK. I am happy to discuss that further with her. It is illegal and unlawful to mutilate a dog. One of the major concerns at the moment is about dogs coming in from abroad who are already mutilated. It is to be hoped that that will be picked up in the work that the EFRA Committee and then DEFRA are doing, looking at the way that pets cross borders.
On breed-specific legislation, I too have visited Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and have seen delightful-looking animals who fall on the wrong side of the breed divide. There are strong views on both sides of this argument and it is only fair that we recognise that the legislation was brought in because of fears for public safety. However, DEFRA has commissioned Middlesex University to do some research on this issue and it is important that we continue to follow the evidence in this difficult area; it really is.
In summary, I wish to reassure all those present that the Government are committed to safeguarding the welfare of animals, particularly during this challenging pandemic period. I have been encouraged to commit to a large animals Bill next session. Sadly, Madam Chairman, that is above my pay grade, but I want to assure those present that DEFRA has a good track record of conducting legislation over the past year. We have had the Agriculture Act 2020, the Fisheries Act 2020 and 94 or so statutory instruments and counting—there will be many more this year. I was thrilled when the private Member’s Bill, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, passed the House on Friday. If we are unable to persuade the powers that be to give us one big animals Bill, I want to assure those present that there will be a whole series of Bills to deal with as many of the issues raised today as is possible for us. We are committed to continuing engagement with animal welfare organisations, enforcement agencies and groups across the sector to understand the long-term effects of the pandemic on our animals. I want to assure everyone that we will continue to take action where necessary.
Diolch, Madam Chair. It truly has been a pleasure to take part in today’s debate. I am grateful to all colleagues for their contributions and for their excellent pronunciation of the name of my constituency—da iawn. I said at the beginning, and I know, that animal welfare is an issue that cuts across the political divide. Given the incredible cross-party support for some of the issues, I truly believe that.
I recognise that we are living in extraordinary times. People have seen their incomes cut, the job market is increasingly competitive and I know that for many, animal welfare may not be an issue that sits at the top of their priorities. However, we are fortunate to have the opportunity, as elected representatives, to debate important issues and I am grateful to be able to air my concerns, as well as those I have received from constituents in Pontypridd. I welcome the Minister’s comments. She has always been open to discussions with me on animal welfare issues and I thank her for that co-operation. I am glad that she recognises the issues with animal abuse, particularly the comorbidity with other violent and abusive behaviours. I hope that close attention is paid, and that the Minister will take up the issues raised today with colleagues at the Home Office for further discussion.
I welcome the Minister’s comments on pet theft and look forward to hearing more about the discussions she has with the MOJ and the Home Office on that issue. I also welcome the report on puppy smuggling and the movement across borders, and look forward to seeing what help can be given in that area.
Much has been said today about law enforcement. I would like to bring colleagues back to my earlier point about the importance of having laws that both protect and can be readily applied in cases of animal abuse. The Minister’s comments will help us move in the right direction and I am very grateful for that. I look forward to seeing her promises enacted in future legislation from the Government. Diolch.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on animal welfare.
Arrest of Opposition Politicians: Turkey
I remind hon. Members that there have been changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times to each other, and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. They should take the cleaning material with them or put it in the bin. I call Feryal Clark to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered arrest of opposition politicians in Turkey.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank the Minister for her time today.
It is said that to be a true friend and ally, one must point out when friends fall short and always be honest in one’s views. By that marker, it would be a dereliction of our friendship if we did not address our growing concerns about how some of our international partners are acting. We would be setting a dangerous precedent that says a formal allegiance trumps values among our neighbours and friends. Turkey is such a friend.
Turkey is a NATO member and an ally of Britain, and has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1950. Turkey is also a trade partner to Britain, but none of that can prevent us from speaking out when it is right and timely to do so. Turkey’s status as a friend makes it even more important that we speak out, and the actions of the Turkish Government should worry us all. The Turkish Government’s attack on free speech and their complete and utter intolerance of pluralism, in politics and the media and in nearly every walk of life, should set off alarm bells for us all.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I speak about the human rights abuses and I want to bring to her attention that it is not just politicians who suffer; it is also religious minorities. There is evidence that 140 Protestant families have been expelled from their homes and their jobs owing to the Islamic radical policy of the Turkish Government. Does the hon. Lady feel that it is time there was accountability for all those who suffer human rights abuses in Turkey?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. A real intolerance of religious minority groups is building in the country, which I will touch on in my speech.
Many of us here know that the Kurdish question in Turkey is not new. The treatment of more than 20 million of its Kurdish citizens has been a major cause of concern in the west for many years. In 2015, the general election in Turkey saw HDP, a pro-Kurdish party led by a charismatic leader able to form a coalition of progressives, run in the elections. They were successful in breaking through the 10% threshold needed to win seats in the Turkish Parliament and, in doing so, deny the incumbent Government a majority. The response of the Government was to launch an all-out attack against HDP and the democratically elected opposition politicians who represent it. The litany of abuses stretches far and wide.
Selahattin Demirtaş, one of Turkey’s most prominent politicians and the co-leader of HDP, was arrested and has been in prison for over four and a half years. One of the first charges brought against Mr Demirtaş was that of attending an anti-ISIS protest—let us allow that to sink in. President Erdoğan’s purge of opposition politicians that began in August 2019 included MPs, mayors and councillors from both the HDP and the CHP parties. The CHP party is one of the oldest parties in Turkey, and those MPs, mayors and councillors were stripped of immunity and imprisoned.
Where these democratically elected officials have been imprisoned, President Erdoğan’s AKP Government have implemented a queue-like replacement of them. The AKP Government have imposed Ministry-appointed trustees in Kurdish majority eastern and south-eastern provinces, as well as in secularist and republican areas in the west, such as Izmir. These are actions that undermine democracy and representation, and will undermine the long-term stability of any democratic system.
When we look at the devastation that those actions have done to the plurality of Turkish democracy, we can see that 48 of the 65 municipalities won by HDP in the 2019 local elections have been taken over by the Ministry of the Interior. A total of 122 democratically elected municipal councillors have been detained since August 2019 by an incumbent Government for little more than having the nerve to stand against them in an election and win.
The constant harassment of HDP politicians and members is no longer done in disguise, but with boldness and impunity. This shocking number alone should spur action on the part of the UK Government. A fundamental tenet of a free and democratic system is accepting the right of people to elect their representatives in Government. Without this right, there is no democracy; there is just its appearance, in the hope that countries such as ours will continue to turn a blind eye.
The UK Government already know all this. They also know that the European Court of Human Rights has ordered the immediate release of Selahattin Demirtaş from his extended pre-trial detention. Turkey is a member of the ECHR and therefore has an obligation to uphold the European convention on human rights—a convention that the UK was pivotal in drafting, under the leadership of Winston Churchill. We need to see the very same leadership extended from the UK once more.
I will end my contribution with some serious questions for the Minister. What action are the Government taking to encourage Turkey to work towards the full protection of fundamental human rights in areas of minority rights, freedom of religion and freedom of expression? Will the Government call on Turkey for the immediate release of democratically elected politicians? How will the Government work with our NATO, European and global allies to impress on President Erdoğan that he must adhere to the international treaties that he has signed? What message do the UK Government believe taking no action sends to our other international partners, who look to us for leadership on human rights issues? Will the Minister raise with her Turkish counterparts the unacceptable and brutal attack on the Kurdish populations in Turkey?
Turkey is fast becoming a one-party, one-religion, one-ideology state, with no distinction between Parliament and the judiciary. It has created a system that allows one man to have an almost absolute monopoly of power, where the constitution is changed to ensure that that man can never be removed from office. It is of no benefit to anyone to repeat worn-out platitudes about Turkey’s important geo-political and strategic role. We must stand up for the people of Turkey, our true allies, to help recover a democracy in decline.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) for securing this important debate. As she said, the increasingly authoritarian policies of President Erdoğan and his Government have been dragging Turkey into further political polarisation, social turmoil and economic instability.
The main opposition party, the HDP, which is majority Kurdish, has suffered continuous harassment, arrests and imprisonment, including over 700 arrests on 15 February this year. The party’s leaders have all received lengthy prison sentences and elected MPs and local politicians have been arrested and replaced with the Government’s appointed trustees.
This authoritarian regime has had a disproportionate effect on women in the country and their legal rights have been eroded. Women face abuse and violence, often by uniformed authorities, and disappearances by the police are commonplace. Many women politicians and trade union activists have been terrorised for defending basic human rights. Non-governmental organisations, including women’s groups and human rights organisations, have been closed by the authorities in the country. The LGBT+ community has also come under threat from the authoritarian policies of President Erdoğan. The country’s justice system is systematically used to criminalise peaceful activities such as Pride events and art exhibitions. Several students and an academic are currently facing prison sentences for organising a Pride march on campus that was banned by the university.
Trade unionists are also under constant attack by the current regime in Turkey, facing both administrative and judicial harassment for carrying out legitimate trade union activities. This makes it extremely concerning that on 29 December last year, the UK Government signed a trade agreement with the Government of Turkey that contains no enforceable commitments for Turkey to respect labour rights, following the same approach as Turkey’s customs agreement with the EU. This means that it will not be possible to use the UK-Turkey agreement to stop the Government of Turkey abusing the rights of unions and workers and committing widespread human rights abuses, as they have done in an increasingly brutal manner in recent years. The UK Government must follow the new US President, Joe Biden, in taking a much firmer line against Turkey’s continued human rights and workers’ rights violations, both within and outside its own borders.
With all that in mind, will the Minister do all she can to ensure that the UK Government do not become complicit with the Turkish Government in a bid to keep the recent roll-over trade deal with Turkey? If the UK Government fail to hold Turkey to account for its human rights abuses, they will, in effect, become complicit. The UK Government must therefore do all they can to push the Turkish Government to work towards protecting fundamental minority rights in the country, and commit to suspending the UK-Turkey trade deal should the Turkish Government implement their threatened ban on the socially progressive HDP party. Finally, I call on the UK Government and the Minister to require the Government of Turkey to show respect for core International Labour Organisation conventions as a precondition of the UK-Turkey agreement being applied.
I thank my hon. Friends who have just spoken. This is an area of work that the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria has been deliberating on. The connection with Kurds in Syria is important, because many of the demonstrations that the Turkish politicians have been accused of attending, and then arrested for, relate to their fight against ISIS in Syria. Over the past few weeks and months, the APPG has been interviewing politicians from Turkey, including municipal leaders and MPs. Our recommendations will hopefully be out at the end of this month, but I want to sum up a few quick points that seem to be coming out of some of those deliberations.
First of all—I will phrase this as “I”, because the APPG has not signed any of these things off; these are my interpretations of what the APPG has heard so far—I am concerned that politicians from opposition parties are routinely accused of bizarre crimes. We heard that they were accused of committing crimes before they were born, such as attending political demonstrations, or were accused of crimes because their families or relatives had done things, going against the principle of justice that states that a person should be judged for what they do, not for what their predecessors have done. Politicians have also been accused of crimes for speaking out for ethnic groups in the Parliament, so protected speech in the Parliament has disappeared.
There have also been trials of politicians from the leading party, AKP, so let us not pretend that they have all been HDP, but they are vastly, overwhelmingly HDP—something like 90% of its MPs, compared with only two AKP MPs, have been tried in the past 10 years. Traditionally in Turkey, with the ruling party’s MPs, the system was that trials were held in the local area. The recent change to trials being held in the central court in Ankara, therefore making MPs unable to provide witnesses or local representatives to those court trials in order to defend themselves, is a key difficulty in obtaining justice. We know that there have been European Court of Human Rights judgments, but they are clearly not complied with.
The removal of MPs should, in my view, be a rare circumstance. However, 154 MPs have had their immunity removed in Turkey, 54 of whom were HDP MPs, and almost 100 were from other parties. Let us remember that the CHP is not a radical loony left or loony right party, but the founding party of modern Turkey. The fact that its MPs are now being targeted makes me feel that if we do not speak up when minority MPs are targeted, we will see what happens: majority MPs from established parties start to be attacked.
Many Kurdish MPs have said that they do not demand their own state but want to be able to talk about how Kurdish representation happens. When the ambassador wrote to me, he said, “We don’t recognise Kurds in our country. We recognise only Turks.” To me that is a denial of people’s civil and cultural rights, and it is a real problem with representation. I do not want to go on for much longer, because I want to give the Minister time, but I hope that she will respond to those points and commit to reading the APPG’s report in detail when it is completed, and responding to it in writing.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) for securing this important debate. Democracy, security and human rights are rightly of serious interest to all Members of this House, and in the time that I have I shall try to respond to the points that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have raised this afternoon.
President Erdoğan says that 2021 will be a year of reforms for freedoms and the Turkish economy. We welcome those positive intentions and encourage the Turkish Government to deliver action that will improve the human rights situation, not least through reforms to the judiciary. Turkey has made it clear recently that increased prosperity and protecting human rights would be in its own interests. Naturally, we wholeheartedly support that. We therefore welcome the recent publication of Turkey’s human rights action plan and encourage its speedy and comprehensive implementation. We stand ready to assist in any way we can. With nearly 400 actions, the action plan is thorough, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I reiterate that it must be implemented in full.
As a fellow, and long-standing, member of the Council of Europe, we hope that the measures in question will bring Turkey more into line with the high standards that it expects of its members. We fully expect Turkey to implement each of the judgments against it by the European Court of Human Rights. As NATO allies and G20 economies, the UK and Turkey should continue to work closely together. Our shared interests encompass trade, security, defence and climate change. We also share an interest in resolving regional issues such as the continued division of Cyprus, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and migration.
Turkey is strategically important to us as we forge links with a more diverse range of partners in the interests of Britain’s security and prosperity. That said, and although the UK enjoys a productive partnership with Turkey on the issues that I have mentioned, we have concerns about the human rights situation, and we raise them with the Turkish authorities. We share the concerns of our US and European partners on issues to do with media freedom, the treatment of human rights defenders, and the LGBTI community and opposition parties.
We note that a number of HDP—or Peoples’ Democratic party—MPs have been arrested for alleged links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. The UK has also proscribed the PKK as a terrorist group, as have many of our international partners.
I do not want to challenge the proscription of the PKK, but does the Minister recognise that the European Court of Justice has twice now said that the proscription was illegal in the European sense and did not meet the requirements? So has the Belgian court. There are court cases ongoing on the issue, so it is a slightly open question—not what Turkey thinks, but what the international community thinks.
As I have explained, we have proscribed the PPK as a terrorist group, as have many of our international partners. If those links are proved to be accurate, we urge the HDP to distance itself entirely from the PPK and its ongoing terrorist activity.
Like others, I am deeply saddened by the news that Turkish soldiers and civilians lost their lives in Gara at the hands of the PPK. Our ambassador offered his condolences to Turkey at the time, and I reiterate them now. However, we have registered our concern at the OSCE and the Council of Europe about the large number of detentions. Those include the ongoing and lengthy detention without trial of former HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş. We maintain an ongoing dialogue with the HDP to hear its concerns, just as we do with all the main political parties.
We are also concerned by Turkey’s delayed implementation of the European Court of Human Rights judgments on the imprisonment of Demirtaş and Osman Kavala, the human rights activist. We expect Turkey, as a member of the Council of Europe, to implement those Court decisions, in line with the base values that underpin our co-operation. In accordance with that position, we have participated in Council of Europe discussions on both those cases as recently as just last week.
We support the rights of LGBTI groups in Turkey. We have encouraged Turkey to respect the rights of the LGBTI community, to allow Pride marches to go ahead unchallenged, and to discourage disparaging public statements targeting the LGBTI+ community.
The hon. Member for Enfield North and others mentioned the replacement of mayors. We, too, have concerns about the replacement of a large number of HDP mayors by state-appointed trustees in the south-east of Turkey. The Turkish Government took those decisions because they contend that those mayors were allegedly channelling funding and support to the PKK. Again, if that is proved to be the case, we condemn support for terrorism unreservedly. However, Turkey must undertake fairly, transparently and with full respect to the rule of law any legal processes against opposition politicians or legally elected representatives.
Allowing fair representation and the provision of local democracy is essential to the long-term health of Turkish society and to Turkey’s international reputation. As we all know here, a healthy opposition is a sign of functioning and flourishing democracy. Turkey must respect the views of the opposition and allow their politicians to speak freely and without fear of reprisal. We keenly encourage that Government’s renewed calls for reform in this area. We also encourage Turkey to ensure that freedom of religion and belief is upheld, as enshrined in Turkey’s constitution, and that the rights of minorities, such as the Alevi, Jewish and Christian communities, are fully observed.
We will continue the conversation about our human rights concerns with Turkey. The hon. Member for Enfield North asked whether I would raise that issue with my counterparts. I hope to visit Turkey soon—travel restrictions permitting, of course—to raise those issues with my Turkish counterparts. My ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad, who holds the human rights portfolio in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, also plans to visit Turkey in the coming months.
When the Minister visits Turkey, will she please bring up the issue of the 140 protestant families who have been expelled from Turkey—or whose expulsion is pending—primarily because they are protestant Christians? Turkey is taking their houses and their jobs, and asking them to get out.
Obviously, I will have a range of discussions with counterparts when I am in Turkey, and I have had discussions previously. I discussed the human rights situation, and specifically Osman Kavala’s ongoing detention, during the virtual visit that I made to Ankara in December. The FCDO has discussed with the Turkish embassy in London not only our concerns, but the development of the reform proposals.
I have some concluding remarks, but in the time I have left—five minutes, I believe—I will see whether I can cover a few more of the questions raised. Hon. Members raised the issue of LGBTI rights. We support the rights of LGBTI groups in Turkey. We have encouraged Turkey to respect the rights of the LGBTI community and to allow Pride marches to go ahead unchallenged, and to discourage disparaging public statements targeting the LGBTI+ community. We also support minority groups in Turkey, including the Alevi community and Christians, in line with the provisions in the Turkish constitution that protect the rights of religious minorities.
The hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) raised the issue of trade and human rights. The UK has long supported the promotion of our values globally. We are clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights. We do not see a choice between securing growth, investment and trade for the UK and supporting human rights. Despite our varying approach to agreements with partners, we will always have open discussions on a range of issues, including human rights.
Hon. Members also raised the issue of opposition politicians who have been arrested or detained. To reinforce what I said in my remarks, we remain concerned about the four-year detention of Selahattin Demirtaş, who is the former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic party. With our international partners, we call on Turkey to meet its obligations as a founding member of the Council of Europe and to release Demirtaş from his extended pre-trial detention.
To conclude, while we seek to strengthen our positive links with Turkey, we make no secret of our concerns and values. We are a critical friend. I can assure colleagues that stronger UK-Turkey relations will not be at the expense of standing up for human rights, a principle that this Government hold dear. We do share values with Turkey. We are in the family of NATO and at the Council of Europe. Although these issues continue to be a challenge, we talk to Turkey about them as a friend and with encouragement.
We will urge our Turkish counterparts to make swift progress, to deliver the reforms they have promised for this year, and to enact them fully through the human rights action plan. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) referred to a report. I am sure that he will send it to me in due course so that I can read it.
Question put and agreed to.
Union Connectivity Review
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them, and as they leave the room, and take the cleaning materials with them.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Union Connectivity Review.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the Union connectivity review and delighted that so many Members have shown an interest in taking part. I will certainly bear that interest in mind and try to keep my remarks reasonably brief.
Sir Peter Hendy published the Union connectivity review interim report last week, and I want to start by congratulating him and his team on their work so far. What leaps out from the pages of that report is a genuine enthusiasm for transport connectivity and its enormous potential to strengthen our economic performance by improving the opportunities available to the people we all represent. In my discussions with Sir Peter, it has been clear to me that he gets it. I believe we can expect a substantial and potentially transformative piece of work when the final report appears in the summer. The review should be welcomed by everyone who cares about improving connectivity within and across the United Kingdom. It is to be welcomed for practical reasons and for reasons of principle.
Before I talk in more detail about some of those practical benefits, particularly as they apply to my area in the Scottish borders, I want to set out why the review is right in principle. As Sir Peter states unequivocally in his interim report:
“Devolution has been good for transport”.
As he is a former commissioner for transport in the devolved Greater London Authority, it should come as no surprise that he says so—and he is correct. His review is rightly seeking to engage with the devolved Administrations across the United Kingdom, though in the case of the SNP Scottish Government, sadly, that co-operative attitude has not been reciprocated. The decade I spent as a Member of the Scottish Parliament convinced me of the huge potential for more responsive decision making, which is inherent in devolution, even if I did not always think that the nationalist Government were always making the most of that potential. I might return to that point if time permits.
Nothing in the content or intention of the review in any way undermines the ability of the devolved Governments to make transport policies for the nations they serve. Instead, the review does something new, imaginative and, I think, necessary—it looks at our transport connectivity right across the United Kingdom in the round. As Sir Peter points out, devolution, for all its undoubted benefits, has led to a lack of attention to connectivity between the four nations. The review seeks to pay some attention to that important matter.
It is quite right that the United Kingdom Government, as the Government serving the whole UK and accountable to representatives of the whole UK in this Parliament, should have commissioned the review. Everyone who wants devolution within the UK to work should welcome this approach. Of course, if someone’s objective is to show that devolution does not work and that separation is the only answer, no doubt they will object to it. If it is good for the United Kingdom, it is bad for the cause of separation. I fear we might hear some of that dog-in-the-manger negativity from SNP Members later in the debate, but perhaps they will pleasantly surprise me.
There is another reason that this is a timely moment to conduct a review of this sort. As we have left the European Union, we have consequently left the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network, or TEN-T. That common policy seeks to forge greater economic and social cohesion across the EU through the development of transport networks. How successful it has been, or could ever be, in achieving that aim across as vast and diverse a geography as the European continent is debateable.
What is clear is that the UK was not a major beneficiary of TEN-T projects. The UK contributed in the region of €447 million annually to the TEN-T funding vehicle, the Connecting Europe Facility for Transport. However, we achieved only around €48 million in awards. TEN-T was not a great deal for the United Kingdom, and the EU’s transport policy making was inescapably distant and remote from our needs and concerns. We now have the chance to replace that distant and remote policy with a new, bespoke and pan-UK strategic transport network. That is principled, it is timely, and it can deliver tangible practical benefits.
I will set out some of those benefits as they would apply in my own area in the south of Scotland. An obvious focus for the review has been cross-border links, and those are crucial for us in the south of Scotland. For the communities I represent, access northwards into the central belt, particularly the economic and cultural centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow, is of huge importance, but so too are links south into England and west into Dumfries and Galloway. For my constituents in Berwickshire, the local economic centre is over the border, in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Similarly, to the south-west of my constituency, around Hawick and Newcastleton, many residents look to Carlisle as their economic hub. As I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) —if he catches your eye, Ms McVey—will say that residents in Dumfriesshire also look to Carlisle.
Frankly, the south of Scotland has not been well served by successive Scottish Governments, whose focus has always been on the central belt and who have consistently neglected rural areas, particularly in the south and north-east of Scotland.
I am grateful for that. There is an opportunity in the review to accelerate the extension of the borders railway from Tweedbank to Hawick and Newcastleton, and on to Carlisle, which is why I and most of my constituents are baffled as to why the Scottish Government refuse to engage with the review and allow the acceleration of that project to take place.
That is even more surprising because the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) has called for an extension of the borders rail link to Carlisle, and for it
“to become a proper cross-border connection.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 353WH.]
Back in 2018, he asked whether the UK Government would work with the Scottish Government on that line, so I do not understand what has changed. There is an opportunity to get that project moving more quickly, yet his colleagues in the Scottish Government are trying to stop investment in transport in my constituency and other parts of Scotland.
It is hard to get it across to the SNP Government that transport links across the border are important too, and that Scotland’s two Governments should work together to improve them. The UK is a willing partner in that enterprise, as the review testifies, and it is time that the SNP put the politics aside and joined the UK Government in that spirit. My constituents welcome the ideas and intent of the UK connectivity review to boost cross-border infrastructure. The Borderlands initiative, behind which the UK Government have been the driving force, reflects the fact that the south of Scotland and the far north of England are a functioning economic area with strong ties. That is one of the reasons that voters in my area rejected by two to one the suggestion in 2014 that an international border should be erected to separate Scotland from the rest of Britain. We do not want new barriers; we want new connections and stronger links.
I have campaigned for a number of years alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) for improvements to be made to the main A1 trunk road, which links Edinburgh and the borders to Berwick, Newcastle and the rest of England. I am delighted that the A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh is listed as a major priority in the interim report.
Alongside improvements to the A1, my other chief priority for the review is the campaign to extend the borders railway to Hawick and Newcastleton, and on to Carlisle. That extension would bring huge benefits to the local area and has the potential to open up a new cross-border rail corridor. A £10 million feasibility study of an extension was announced last year as part of the UK Government-backed Borderlands growth deal. I pressed the case for borders rail directly with Sir Peter Hendy, and I will continue to make the case for it. The Campaign for Borders Rail is looking forward to meeting the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), in the coming weeks.
The Union connectivity review is taking a new approach to assessing where our transport investment priorities should lie. In line with the Government’s levelling-up agenda, and following the Treasury’s recent review of the Green Book process, the focus is rightly shifting away from a narrow cost-benefit analysis towards a more strategic approach, taking into account wider environmental and social impacts. That is why I say that the connectivity review has the potential to be transformative, because better transport connectivity can transform lives.
Those who live in cities or in well-connected suburbs take connectivity for granted. They know that if they want to change jobs, embark on further study, take up a new hobby or simply go to the shops, the cinema or a concert, there will be transport options to get them there and back, but there is no such certainty in the smaller rural communities that I represent. That limits people’s opportunities, and it drives away younger people who might want to stay in the local area surrounded by family, friends and support networks but just cannot make it work because of the lack of transport connectivity.
The improvements for which we are fighting in the Scottish borders are not about shaving a few minutes off a commute or increasing the chances of getting a seat on a rush-hour train, important as those things are for many people. We are fighting to replace no service, no choice and no opportunity with something new and something better.
I remember speaking to a parent in Newcastleton about the lost opportunities experienced by her family. Her children could not take part in after-school activities at the high school in Hawick, as the school was more than 28 miles away, and there were no public transport options for getting the kids home after the sports and other activities had finished. What impact does that have on our children who live in communities where they simply cannot access what other young people take for granted as part of their educational experience? Doing things the old way has not served many of the communities in the Scottish borders well. The Union connectivity review represents a new, principled, pragmatic and imaginative approach that has the potential to change lives. It has my support, and I urge Governments at all levels across the United Kingdom to give it their support too.
I shall call other Back Benchers, followed by the SNP spokesperson, the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister. We want to get to Front-Bench contributions by 5.30 pm, and a lot of people wish to contribute today, so the time limit will be between four and four and a half minutes so we can get through everyone.
I will not use up four and a half minutes and I will respect those who wish to speak in the debate. That is how it is done: include other people, talk to other people and it is shared around. That is a lesson the UK Government should learn.
As with the levelling-up perspective, published with the latest UK Budget, the UK Government are using the powers they gave themselves through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to bypass the Scottish Parliament and govern in ways that could contradict the devolved priorities of Scotland. Where is the consultation in the Union connectivity review? I heard what was said by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), but there is a difference between consulting and talking down to what is already a devolved area. The UK Government keep saying that they will consult with the devolved powers when the opportunities arise, but they truly do not. What happened to “Lead not leave”? What happened to the most powerful devolved nation in the world? Promises were swept aside with a smirk, or a shrug of the shoulders.
Now comes a new set of promises, exhibiting what I would describe as a superiority complex, going by its political title—one nation conservatism. The UK Government are once again ignoring the plans of the devolved powers and failing to take those plans into consideration. If the UK Government will not consult, we can only presume that they will not seek consent to any projects relating to devolved matters.
We know what the talk of a physical link between Northern Ireland and Scotland is all about. Businesses in Scotland are being burdened with heavily increased and complex paperwork to ship Scottish goods to Northern Ireland and the European Union. That is a direct consequence of the UK Government’s choice to remove Scotland from the single market and customs union. A bridge will not fix that; a tunnel will not fix it. They cannot bury their mistakes.
The UK Government must honour their commitment to UK-wide infrastructure investment, and they should do so by ensuring that adequate new resources are made available through relevant budgets, to allow decisions on infrastructure priorities to be taken by each devolved Government.
It is not clear from the Union connectivity review’s terms of reference that the review comes with additional funding as a mechanism for prioritising existing funding. However, there is now, more than ever, a need for the UK Government to agree increased fiscal flexibilities for the Scottish Government, so that they can take advantage of the historically low cost of borrowing to invest for Scotland’s future. Such large infrastructure programmes should not be used as last-minute attempts to paper over the cracks in the Union, when support for independence is riding high. If the UK Government and institutions of state really cared for the development of the whole UK—and with that, inter-connectivity—Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England would not have been ignored for decades before now.
Finally, this process is not about a Union of equals; it is not about connectivity. This is a political bribe. It is today’s equivalent of baubles and shiny beads for the natives because the Tories can see that Scotland is building its own road—a road to independence—and that scares the life out of them.
Obviously, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) is disappointed and has delivered what we might have expected. It is all about independence; it is not about delivering for the people of Scotland on the issues that are really important to them.
My constituents, watching this back in Dumfries and Galloway, will be absolutely appalled by the ignoring of the issues that really impact on them. One of those issues is that the A75, which is one of the most important strategic routes in the UK and was identified as such in Europe, has received little or no investment from the Scottish National party Scottish Government.
That is something of a surprise, because back in 1997, when Alasdair Morgan, the former MP, was campaigning, the A75 was Scotland’s forgotten road and was to be prioritised. Then, in 2001, I read in my local paper that the A75 was the nationalists’ top priority. It had been identified in an SNP policy paper as an absolute in terms of upgrading Scotland’s transport infrastructure. But still there is no meaningful upgrade to that road.
Back in 2016, ahead of the Scottish parliamentary election, we were promised a transport summit in Dumfries and Galloway within 100 days of that election. Well, guess what? The SNP Government could not even meet their 100-day target, which did not even come with any financial consequences. A meeting was subsequently held in 2016 and—surprise, surprise—what has happened since? Nothing, nothing; no meaningful upgrades to the A75. That is why my constituents and I welcome this report, which identifies the strategic importance of the A75 for traffic coming from Northern Ireland, but it also is important for my constituents who live in the Dumfries area and want to go to work in Carlisle.
Instead of having these snivelling, pathetic constitutional arguments about the administration of the project, I want to see the Scottish Government grasp this opportunity and get the job done. I want to see a dualled A75 between Gretna and Stranraer. I would work with anybody to achieve that. My son, Oliver Mundell, who is the MSP for Dumfriesshire and has campaigned relentlessly to dual that road, is of the same mind. It is not about all these constitutional technicalities and the obsession with independence, it is about getting the A75 dualled. When people come to vote on 7 May in the south of Scotland, I think they will know who are the people who stand up to get something like the A75 done and who are just apologists for the SNP Government in Edinburgh.
I want to use the final minute to make one brief plea to the Minister about a very particular local issue: the upgrading of junction 45 of the M6. Cross-border connectivity is not just about big schemes. Junction 45 of the M6 serves the Gretna area, but is in England and administered by Highways England. There have been long-running efforts to improve that junction, which would prevent heavy traffic having to go through Gretna, which, as the Minister will know, is world renowned for its wedding industry and offerings. The junction needs to be upgraded to stop that. There have been various attempts to do it, but they have not progressed. I hope in her closing remarks she will give me some hope that that will indeed happen.
While we await the final recommendations of the connectivity review, when Sir Peter Hendy publishes his final report this summer, I am pleased that the interim update released last week identifies issues with cross-border rail services between south Wales and Bristol and the Bristol area as an important emerging theme.
As referenced in the interim report, 9.4 million passenger journeys were made between Wales and England in 2018-19. This total includes many of my constituents who commute to work in Bristol and the west of England from Newport, the Severn tunnel and the Severn tunnel junction
The Severn tunnel junction is a gateway station for Wales. It has been one of the fastest growing passenger stations on the Great Western mainline over the last two decades. This is despite having lost a number of services on the Great Western franchise back in 2006 and more recently having one less cross-country service. Over the last 10 years, total passenger growth has been large—three times the UK average.
Unfortunately, there has not been an investment in capacity to meet this growing need for cross-border travel from south-east Wales. I realise that at the moment we are in different times, but, for example, in pre-pandemic times, GWR morning services from the Severn tunnel junction to Bristol Temple Meads and beyond have been plagued by overcrowding and a lack of reliability for years.
The situation is compounded by the fact that the Welsh Government and Transport for Wales were restricted by the Department for Transport from providing any additional cross-border services under the current terms of the Wales and Borders franchise. Extra services would help to alleviate some of pressure. As I have highlighted in numerous Transport questions, it is still not clear why the DFT is blocking this. I hope the final report of the Union connectivity review this summer will have something to say about that.
It is not good enough either for Tory Ministers to continually point the finger at the Welsh Government on transport issues, when they will not do anything about the ones that are within their remit and their gift to remedy. On this theme, a connected issue—which was not explicitly mentioned in last week’s interim report, but is the elephant in the room for Welsh passengers—is the UK’s chronic under-investment in Welsh rail infrastructure. Wales accounts for 11% of the UK rail network but receives only 2% of rail investment enhancement. Welsh Government research suggests that, on current estimates, there will be an under-investment in Welsh rail of between £3 billion and £8 billion by 2029.
This under-investment was specifically identified by Lord Burns in the South East Wales Transport Commission’s recent report as something for the UK Government to fix, with crucial work on the south Wales relief lines and new stations for Magor, Llanwern and Somerton as part of the plan. If the Government are serious about creating an interconnected Union, they cannot keep ignoring their responsibilities here.
The interim report published last week said the review will continue to engage with stakeholders over the coming months. I hope that the views of the Welsh Government and the South East Wales Transport Commission can form an important part of that. The report will provide a stimulus for long awaited investment in our rail network. My constituents and I will be watching closely.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing this important debate.
The Government’s levelling-up agenda, in particular the Union connectivity review, represents a welcome step forward for north Wales, where there have been decades of under-investment in infrastructure. Although the UCR focuses on all forms of transport connectivity, in the interests of time I will confine my comments to rail services.
The all-party parliamentary group on Mersey Dee North Wales, which I chair, works closely with a rail taskforce with the same footprint, otherwise known as Growth Track 360, to promote the infrastructure needs of our region. For that area, the connectivity we need is not just efficient long-distance travel but fit-for-purpose regional services that can better support day-to-day life and the success of our cross-border economy.
Mobile phone data from 2019 demonstrate that the number of daily journeys from north Wales to the north-west is more than 20 times higher than the number from north Wales to other parts of Wales. Those journeys take place despite the poor existing infrastructure. At present, a 65-mile journey by train from Prestatyn in my constituency to central Manchester takes at least one hour and 45 minutes. Travelling by car is a quicker option, at just over an hour. A rail journey of the same distance in the south-east takes as little as 40 minutes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, currently only 1% of cross-border commuting in our region is by rail, some 80% less than the national average.
Sir Peter Hendy’s interim report highlights connections from Ynys Môn and the north Wales coast to Merseyside and Manchester for freight and passengers as a key issue arising from the work he has undertaken so far. That recognition is welcome, as is £20 million of funding to explore the development of projects across the country. I hope that forthcoming plans for the north Wales line will be ambitious, seeking provision for eight train paths an hour, greater line speeds, more frequent signalling stanchions as necessary, and the accommodation of express, freight and stopping services.
In the APPG’s submission to the UCR in January, I raised the need for HS2 to work for north Wales. It is pleasing to see the UCR acknowledge that. It will require the correct configuration at Crewe, including both a hub station and a junction to allow trains to reconnect to HS2 northbound. It is also important that the interchange between HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail at Warrington benefits north Wales and west Cheshire.
Ultimately, the electrification of the Crewe to Holyhead line will be necessary, for reasons of both connectivity and decarbonisation, and preferably by the time HS2 first operates. I would appreciate an indication in the Minister’s response of how the initial £20 million UCR fund is to be allocated and prioritised, and of the timescales for the process.
Sir Peter Hendy’s interim report shows that the UCR is heading in the right direction. The review must continue to focus on how infrastructure of national and regional importance, including that which is divided by an administrative border, can be delivered in a more successful and joined-up fashion.
Our Union connects us constitutionally, politically, economically and culturally. There are links of identity and a web of physical and emotional ties that all come together to make this Union great. Today, we focus on a very important aspect of any union: physical linkages, infrastructure connectivity. It is welcome that the Government of the United Kingdom are putting such priority on that end.
For Northern Ireland, we have specific needs that we ask to be addressed as part of the review. Members will know that, as part of our confidence and supply agreement in 2017, we asked that the Government review domestic air passenger duty. We see APD as a regressive tax that disproportionately impacts on the outer regions of the United Kingdom. We urge the Government to seize the opportunities that scrapping APD would bring, such as job creation and boosting GDP. Importantly, it would also assist in better connectivity with more routes developed within the United Kingdom.
Connectivity to the rest of the United Kingdom is vital for Northern Ireland’s economy. As the protocol has shown, Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s largest market and being cut off from that in any way is damaging for business. We are about removing barriers. That is why the protocol must go. We must ensure that ease of travel and trade is restored. We encourage those advocating the opposite to rethink.
I will also address the issue of the proposed physical connection between mainland UK and Northern Ireland. In our 2019 manifesto, we supported a feasibility study of a fixed connection between Northern Ireland and Scotland. We asked the Government to ascertain whether it was feasible, so we welcome this being part of the review and await the consultation on this study. It is regrettable yet not surprising to watch the hysterical, immature dummy spitting of nationalists and others to the very suggestion. To see a devolved infrastructure Minister so frenzied in opposing infrastructure. For those same people, it would seem the harder the border, the better, the more barriers, the better, but dare not anyone suggest better connectivity across our United Kingdom. We want a Government that are bold and ambitious in promoting better connectivity within the United Kingdom.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. The Union is over 300 years old. The Tories have been in power for 66 years since the end of world war one, and yet now suddenly we need a Union connectivity review, with Westminster telling us what we need. Westminster has failed Scotland for years and now we are supposed to embrace a vanity project such as a Union bridge or tunnel to Northern Ireland.
If we look at Scotland’s road systems, it is the SNP that has been making up for a previous lack of ambition. The SNP Scottish Government have delivered the new M74 and the new M80 motorways—we never even had a continuous motorway linking Glasgow and Edinburgh until the SNP made it happen. We have also built the Queensferry bridge and are dualling the A9.
In a similar vein, our island communities benefited from EU funding, not Westminster generosity, for bridges such as Scalpay to Harris, causeways, ports and road upgrades, including the Fort William to Mallaig road to the Isles, which was the last remaining single-lane trunk road in the UK until 2009. It was being in the EU that helped Scotland to access funds, which were not coming from Westminster, and now the Tories have also taken that avenue away from us.
If we look at the A75, which has now suddenly become a modern Tory totem, what about acknowledging the Cairntop to Barlae, the Newton Stewart, Barfil to Bettyknowes, Planting End to Drumflower, and Hardgrove to Kinmount upgrades, as well as the Dunragit bypass? There has been a lot of money spent in the A75 by the SNP.
If we look back at Hansard, it confirms the Tories actually promised the Dunragit bypass, as a scheme that was in progress in 1989, as was the Barlae upgrades. It is the SNP that is making up for decades of failed Westminster promises and failures of Labour at Holyrood as well, yet the Tories still shout “More, more, more!” They do not want the Scottish Government to have additional borrowing powers, they stand by while the Chancellor cuts the capital budget to Scotland to 5% and yet they shout “More!” The SNP has also undertaken several upgrades to the A77 including the Maybole bypass—a project first thought about decades ago and also promised by Lord Douglas-Hamilton in 1989.
Turning to rail, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) actually had the cheek previously to speak out against the Borders rail project because, he said, if it was only going to Galashiels, he would rather have the money spent elsewhere.
I do not have time.
The hon. Member still has not complimented the SNP on delivering what was the longest new railway in Great Britain for over a century, and we do not need a Westminster review to tell us the benefits of extending it to Carlisle. I appreciate he did point out that I have spoken about this in the Chamber before as well.
On rail, I have also highlighted the absurdity whereby the choice of rolling stock for HS2 means that when it comes into operation, trains from Scotland to Crewe will go slower than they do now. What we need is independence and to be able to speak about cross-border transport as a nation of equals, rather than being told what to do.
I thank the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this important debate. I hope that we can all look forward to seeing the benefits, rather than harking back to past complaints and trying to settle old scores. It is part of who I am and part of my party’s core belief that we achieve more by working together with our friends and neighbours than not.
From Portmahomack to Preston, from Edinburgh to Essex, like many people, I have connections to all corners of our country, but I am perhaps not as well connected as I would often like or should be. While I welcome the interim report, which references Scotland 57 times in 61 pages, I believe there is much more that should and could be done. While I would want to focus on how we link up the whole of the United Kingdom, I know that there are people outwith Scotland’s central belt who would welcome a similar approach to connectivity from the SNP Government at Holyrood.
Improving the transport links right across the country is vital. However, we must ensure that we reduce our impact on the environment at the same time. As businesses seek to grow and families reconnect, these improvements will form a key part of rebuilding after the pandemic. Our transport systems are broken and our climate is under threat. This is an opportunity to address both at one time. Sustainability must therefore be central to our connectivity.
At the same time, I was disappointed not to see any mention in the interim report of the importance of the aviation industry, to both our connectivity and economy, because regardless of our commitment to greener transport, we must also support our aviation industry and encourage it to improve its climate-friendly credentials. Our airports and wider aviation industry are facing the largest threat to their existence, so while pursuing the green agenda, we must make sure they have the support they deserve. Both rail and aviation have a vital role to play in the UK’s economic recovery, in covid-19 and in achieving net zero by 2050, yet to do so we need certainty and long-term schemes such as the HS2 eastern leg.
For my city of Edinburgh, I see this connectivity report as an opportunity to create a transport hub for Scotland, to make the capital the best it can be and to give it the best chance to recover as we face another summer of streets devoid of the usual buzz of festival goers. But there is an important wider point. To take part in this review is to buy into the premise that, together, we can improve the lives of people across our four nations. We can be better connected. We can drive economic growth and give the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK more opportunities than they have at the moment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I am also very pleased that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) has brought this issue forward. I am unashamedly an Ulster Scot. I am also unashamedly British, because I want to be and because I feel it. I am very much a Unionist, so I will speak from a very pro-Union point of view. I share the Gaelic connection with my friend to my right-hand side in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and I am very proud of that, by the way. If it came to it, we could probably speak the same language, I suspect.
I believe that the one United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—often my catchphrase in this House, Ms McVey—is always better together. I believe it to be the case, and I believe it in my heart. I want to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) said just a few minutes ago. This is a debate about connectivity, and my constituency is being disconnected by the Northern Ireland protocol. I sit going through what businesses cannot access, and each day I see a different example: pet food, grass seed, plants, machinery parts, cheese, livestock—the list goes on and on. The Minister is undoubtedly aware that this responsibility lies with the Brexit Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord Frost and also the Secretary of State. On numerous occasions, we have begged to be once again connected and considered as part of the United Kingdom, rather than as a protectorate, which is how we feel at present.
The Secretary of State has made some movements in relation to the soil. The soil that was okay on 31 December was not okay on 1 January—same soil, same plants, same trees, everything. I could not quite understand that. There was a palpable anger back home about the Northern Ireland protocol and where we are. So given the concern of the report, I say bend the Northern Ireland protocol and ensure deliveries can be made and received to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland feel connected in the most basic way, as actually being a part of the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I do not have the time to refer to the physical link that others referred to. I just want to say this: Northern Ireland has so much to offer international investors—a highly skilled workforce, high-speed internet connection and low rates. Yet what puts them off is the feeling that there is not enough connectivity. We could address that by reducing the air passenger duty. I understand the Minister has referred to that and I look forward to a response.
We must also allow investment in what we have to offer, securing and harnessing international flights as well. We must do that for Northern Ireland, by investing in the airports and the shipping ports. I welcome a physical connection, but at this time the priority must be investing in connections through the airports—Belfast City, Belfast International and Londonderry—and also through the four ports of Belfast, Larne, Warrenpoint and Londonderry. We have, I understand, a freeport. Perhaps that will bring us some jobs that we need as well.
It has been a lovely day up here—the first proper day of spring, I think—so I am not going to let the contrived drivel that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) spoke at the start, with some others following, ruin my otherwise sunny disposition. In contrast, the speeches delivered by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) were both passionate and had the benefit of being accurate.
Fundamentally, the review is an insular exercise. Scotland’s horizons are much broader than just the rest of these isles. As a European nation, our connections to the continent are important—and I mean connections in every possible sense of the word. Decades of southern-centric planning has resulted in much of our export trade being taken to channel ports rather than exported directly from Scotland. Nowhere in the review is our international trade capacity dealt with. Nowhere in the review are direct air links to Europe from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland even mentioned, because international connectivity was not in the remit. However, our links overseas are crucial.
That is fundamentally a problem with a review that was concocted for purely political reasons. Not only was it announced without any consultation with any devolved Administration; the fact is that the Government already had a connectivity review under way. A review of regional connectivity announced 14 months ago still has not reported, yet the Prime Minister felt the need to announce a Union connectivity review late last year. He must think we are all buttoned up the back.
The Prime Minister also wants to build a bridge or tunnel next to an unknown number of unexploded bombs, 2 tonnes of nuclear waste, with occasional undersea explosions of decaying ordnance, all sitting at a depth of 1,000 feet. The latest wheeze is to use the Isle of Man as a roundabout. For a Prime Minister who has appointed himself Minister of the Union, the fact that the Manx are not actually part of the Union seems to have passed him by.
We should think big and we should be planning for transformational investment that connects our communities, but that investment should be guided by our communities, not determined by diktat from a refurbished and overpriced briefing room in Downing Street. Thinking big does not mean wasting millions on a feasibility study for a bridge that the dogs in the street know is as likely to happen as the Prime Minister’s doomed garden bridge, which cost the public purse an eye-watering £43 million.
The review might mention HS2 in the same sentence as Scotland and Wales, but it is clear that we will not be seeing a single centimetre of real high-speed rail north of Manchester. We will be left yet again in the sidings, while tens of billions are poured into HS2 and its property acquisitioning. With the UK Government’s track record, we really should not be surprised.
To take one small but important example, it took the UK authorities decades to upgrade a six-mile stretch of the M6 leading to Scotland—the Cumberland Gap—leaving the busiest route between Scotland and England with outdated infrastructure. No one should, therefore, have much faith that their priorities will align with those of Scotland. Contrast that with the many infrastructure improvements made in less than 14 years, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. Or a costlier failing: the Regional Eurostar and Nightstar trains promised to Scotland, Wales and the north of England when the channel tunnel was conceived, quietly ditched when no longer needed for political cover. That Union dividend cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds, and as Europe invests in a new generation of long-distance, low carbon international rail, that has been shown to be short-sighted in the extreme. Meanwhile, there are no concrete plans to upgrade the west or east coast main lines to anything approaching high-speed capacity; similarly, there are no plans to improve the west coast main line’s freight capacity, despite recent investment at Grangemouth and Eurocentral, proving demand for Anglo-Scottish rail freight could grow substantially with the right plans.
With that track record, the idea that the UK Government are best placed to decide on what is needed to support Scotland’s connections outside its borders is for the birds. To this litany of failure, add cancelled electrification and privatisation on our railways, their current failure to properly support our aviation industry, and failing to prepare properly for Brexit. If the desire for investment is there, the simple answer is to make sure that Scotland’s fair share is delivered to Scotland, for the transport priorities decided by our democratically elected Parliament, not subject to the whims of No. 10 or pledges to the Democratic Unionist party.
Moreover, this cannot be billed as Westminster’s munificence or spirit of generosity. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk spoke of Scottish Government investment. What he failed to mention was that, while the UK’s overall capital spend is up, his Treasury colleagues have cut Scotland’s capital budget by 5%. Therefore, it is Scots themselves who are ultimately paying for this conceited connectivity con. When they have the capital funds to do so, the SNP Scottish Government have proven time and again that they will deliver on Scotland’s infrastructure priorities. It is time for the small and insular minds hanging their hopes on a political scheme to boost support for the Union to realise that the power to think big will soon be accompanied by the political and economic power to match—a power that only Scottish independence will deliver.
I thank the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for bringing forward this important debate. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken eloquently today about ways in which we can improve connectivity throughout the United Kingdom.
The Union connectivity review was announced and the interim report published during the coronavirus crisis—a pandemic that has had a profound impact on the transport network across the UK, with vastly reduced services and varying support across industries. In the wake of the economic impact of the pandemic, it is clear that we must rebuild across the whole UK, working in partnership with our devolved Governments and mayoral regions, ensuring local leaders and communities are heard, and transport priorities are delivered. Decentralisation of powers and resources is essential in preserving our Union and improving connectivity, to collectively boost the UK economy.
Transport has been one of the industries most impacted by the pandemic, with the latest figures showing the air and rail sector operating at minus 94% and minus 79% respectively of their usual activity for this time of year. Much of what has been called for by those consulted —better connectivity, increased capacity and improved journey times—has the potential to achieve this. More convenient rail services to reduce traffic from our roads, connections to airports to stimulate jobs and the local economy, increased capacity and high-speed services, improving opportunities for passengers, businesses and freight—there is endless potential for transport to be a driver for a green and bold economic recovery to meet our net zero commitment by 2050.
I am pleased to see a range of critical transport issues outlined, including improvements to the east coast main line and A1, extended HS2 connections to Scotland and north Wales, faster and higher capacity connections from Belfast to north-west Northern Ireland and to the Republic of Ireland, relief from congestion along the M4 corridor in south Wales, improved transport capacity and journey times east to west, and better air links to and from Northern Ireland and Scotland, including an appropriate rate of air passenger duty for journeys not realistic by rail.
Transport, of course, can be transformational for communities and the opportunities available to them. As the interim report notes:
“Those lacking the resources and transport options required for mobility become deprived from interacting with the whole extent of opportunities offered by society.”
However, I am somewhat sceptical of the Government’s commitment to these plans for an infrastructure revolution. Sadly, the Prime Minister has form for overpromising and underdelivering. There is a litany of failed transport proposals—the failed London garden bridge, at the cost of £53 million to the taxpayer; the mythical Boris estuary airport; rail electrification plans announced only to be scaled back or cancelled; and the continued mismanagement of the spiralling finances of HS2. I fear there may be more victims of the Government’s mishandling of transport projects currently in the pipeline. Just in the past year, 40% of Transport for the North’s core budget has been slashed. The Government failed to outline the timetable for rebuilding the eastern leg of HS2, attempted to avoid proper consultation with local residents and failed properly to support aviation with a sector-specific support package, leaving northern airports in particular to bear the brunt of the crisis.
While the Government are coming up with plans for a multi-billion-pound tunnel to Northern Ireland, complete with an underground roundabout below the Isle of Man, they have completely abandoned those who run the undersea tunnel that we already have. Eurostar is struggling for survival and begging for support, but the Government are silent. I welcome further transport investment plans to address critical areas for connecting the Union better, but they should be developed alongside, not at the cost of, other essential connectivity projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, the midlands rail hub and a full commitment to HS2.
With the fallout from coronavirus, a fragile economy, a climate crisis and the Union under strain, there has never been a more urgent need to strengthen the connections and bonds across our United Kingdom. The Opposition support Sir Peter and his team as they conduct their work, but I encourage the Government to grasp the scale of the challenges that we currently face. While this Tory Government fumble from pillar to post on almost every issue, the future of our Union and our prosperity is simply too important for them to get wrong.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this vital debate. I thank him for his engagement with Sir Peter Hendy and his team, and for the diligent way in which he has campaigned for the interests of his constituents and highlighted how vital transport connectivity is for their lives.
The debate is a vital one, as many Members have said, about a major piece of work. It is an opportunity for me to set out how we are looking at the opportunities provided to our United Kingdom through the Union connectivity review. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions this afternoon, which were passionate and detailed. Unfortunately I do not have time to address all the individual points that people have made in the debate, but I assure hon. Members that I and my fellow Ministers in the Department, and Sir Peter and his team, have listened to them and heard them.
It has been a great pleasure and honour for me to have learned so much in the past year about the importance of transport connectivity to the people and businesses across our great United Kingdom. Indeed, it was at around this time last year that I began chairing regular meetings with my ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations to work through the transport challenges that we all faced as a result of the pandemic. Ensuring that we could enable people and goods to continue moving with minimum disruption was at the forefront of all our minds during those discussions. Now, in our drive to build back better from the pandemic and further level up the country, we must seize the opportunity to implement a suite of measures with the potential to transform the provision of transport connections across the UK.
I am very sorry, but I do not have time to give way, unfortunately.
The measures in question would seek to support economic growth and our ambitious decarbonisation goals, as many Members have highlighted, as well as contributing to the quality of life of people across the entire UK and providing resilience in the face of similar crises.
Last October the Prime Minister appointed Sir Peter Hendy, a respected and experienced figure in the transport landscape, to lead a review independent of Government to establish how the quality and availability of transport infrastructure across the UK could meet the objectives I have set out, and to recommend how best to improve transport connectivity in the longer term.
As well as considering the needs of transport in providing intra-UK travel, the review will consider a variety of other issues that are integral to the aim of connecting the UK better. It will examine key routes, for instance, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and how they can be strengthened, and look at how travel between England, Scotland and Wales can be improved through, for example, enhancements to rail and road infrastructure. It will also suggest ways in which infrastructure can support the move to more sustainable forms of transport as we look to harness green technology, and differing working patterns as we emerge from the current pandemic.
I wish I could say that all Governments within the UK took the review as it was intended: a way to improve the lives of our citizens and make life easier for businesses. However, it will surprise nobody that the SNP Government were determined to create wedges that need not otherwise exist and refused to engage constructively with the review despite the obvious benefits it has for people and businesses in Scotland. Never let it be said that the SNP wastes an opportunity to put separatist ideology over sensible policy making.
Sir Peter’s interim report, published last Wednesday, contains his early thoughts on forming a UK strategic transport network. Prior to its publication, Sir Peter met more than 100 stakeholders as well as Ministers from the devolved Administrations, and the call for evidence process received nearly 150 submissions from interested parties. Early meetings with stakeholders suggest broad support for a UK strategic network, and Sir Peter will explore the idea further for the final review. He will need to look closely at the transport projects highlighted by stakeholders, and the Prime Minister has asked him to take into account what will be different in the next 20 to 30 years and consider our ambitious environmental agenda.
The UCR interim report notes that devolution has at times
“led to a certain lack of attention to connectivity between the”
nations of the UK
“due to competing priorities and complex funding.”
The review aims to address that, and Sir Peter will look at further transport priorities based on the wider strategic case for investments.
A couple of hon. Members mentioned aviation, about which I have one reference to make. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that we have announced a consultation on air passenger duty to consider its impact on domestic flights in particular, as has been called for by colleagues from Northern Ireland.
We welcome Sir Peter’s interim report and have made £20 million of UK Government funding available to assess options on road and rail schemes that have been identified by the review as crucial for cross-border connectivity. That funding will be used to get such projects off the ground. Once the final UCR recommendations are received ahead of the spending review, we will consider and confirm funding plans for delivering the improved connectivity crucial to our United Kingdom.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for participating in the debate and the Minister for her response and constructive engagement. I think what my constituents in the Scottish borders—and, indeed, Scots across the nation—will remember about the debate is the SNP MPs arguing against more investment in Scotland and investment in Scotland’s transport network. When they go to the polls in a few weeks, I am sure they will remember that Scottish nationalist MPs were arguing against extension to the borders railway, against improvements to the A1 and A75 roads and against many opportunities to improve employability and opportunity for people in Scotland. That is a great shame.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Union Connectivity Review.